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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

College Football Expects... and Doesn't Expect

       If last night's College Football Playoff National Championship Game (man that's a mouthful) told us anything, it told us to never doubt Urban Meyer... ever. That much was already implied well before last night, and long may it continue. But what it has told us about the playoff itself, the Big 10, Oregon, etc. is still unclear, even though the playoff has been roundly applauded by almost everyone, which in sports (or life) never happens. So what has this season of newness and change taught us? 

      Expect there to be grousing. Not just about who is in and who is out, but about the relative strength of conferences, matchups and decisions, biases and worth... if there's an opening, someone will probably exploit it. "The Big 10 is dead, long live the B1G!" after Ohio State and Michigan State lost in September to Virginia Tech and Oregon, because the season is decided in September. "TCU should have been in", "Baylor should have been in", "How could TCU fall from 3 to 6 when they won?", etc, etc. Expect questions to be asked, blood to be boiled, talking heads to spout, because what else are we going to do after Florida State houses Weber State or some other minnow that took their $750,000 payoff and went home? 

    Expect there to be opinions on conferences that mean next to nothing. This year the Big 12 felt as if they were robbed, next year it may be the Pac 12, or the SEC, or even the Mountain West, but there will be a conference that feels hard done by because a team of theirs just missed the cut. There will also be a conference in the firing line for being "too weak". Maybe it's the ACC as Florida State reloads, or the SEC because maybe buying into that hype wasn't such a good idea after all. Someone is going to be left out because even in a 68 team tournament someone is going to be left out. 

    Expect many to trumpet an 8 team playoff because of the success of this year's... or the TV ratings bonanza that the New Year's Day 2 brought about this year (even though the playoff games are on December 31 this upcoming year and next), and that probably won't cease. It's fun water cooler talk especially when everyone seemingly watched the playoff and enjoyed it.

   Expect someone to say, almost verbatim: "(Low seeded Team X) wouldn't have won the National Title if we still had the BCS" no matter what. You could also change that to, "(Low seeded Team X) wouldn't have won the National Title if we still had the Bowl Alliance, or the Bowl Coalition, or took the AP poll to post, or pulled a team out of a hat, or asked an octopus to pick one of two beach balls, etc, etc. It's always better to decide the title on the field than in the press box, or in the memory banks of an IBM supercomputer, and it only took us until 2014 to figure that out. 

  But most of all, just expect something unexpected. Many would have thought Ohio State-Oregon was a reasonable National Title game to project before the season started, but how we got here no one would have even considered. And that's really the glory of the playoff... the glory of this new system beyond the fact that a computer doesn't tell us who is worthy for the National Title. It's that the unexpected isn't only possible, it's inevitable, and that uncertainty makes for some incredibly viewing. Maybe this year was an outlier because of the newness of the system, but 2014's scenarios may never come around again, or maybe they will with different teams with different schedules. That's why this college football season was so fun.

  No one expected Ohio State to win the National Title with a 3rd string QB. Of course not.

  Expect something wild and wacky to happen. Expect it again in 2015. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

MLS... Foiled Again

      2015 is a critical year for MLS in its evolution towards becoming a major player on the world scene. The Frank Lampard news is not helping them get off to a good start. Lampard was introduced already by NYCFC as a critical part of not only their opening day squad but their marketing for their first season as well. Now, he’s going to stay with Manchester City until the end of the Premier League season and it doesn’t show well for the league and the intentions with the club. The league tried to tell the fans that NYCFC would not be a feeder club for Manchester City, but it doesn’t appear to be that way.
     It appeared that Lampard had signed with NYCFC and was loaned to Manchester City, except that too wasn’t the case. He signed a short term deal with City that was later extended to finish out the Premier League season. This is not the first time the league has misled people because of their lack of transparency, so this is not new, however with a club that means so much to league like NYCFC does, it comes off as lying and insulting to an entirely new and critical fan base. This is not on Manchester City, because they are a major club looking out for their own interests and Lampard has played even better than most higher ups at the club could have even dreamed of. But MLS needs to be more forthright with the fans of NYCFC and the league about the situation when misleading has only caused more anger.
      MLS doesn’t want to go down the path of Chivas USA mark 2, but the start of NYCFC has been poorly managed. They’re stuck in a less than ideal stadium situation with no way out at present, one of their key players is being hawked by the parent club, and there is little discernable difference between Manchester City and NYCFC at the moment. With Chivas USA, at the start it did look like the clubs were two separate entities with separate identities until Jorge Vergara took over. NYCFC’s immediate identity has been stripped away before their roster is even filled out, and even with David Villa and another DP on the way, the centerpiece of the expansion franchise has been stripped away. Orlando City has done a better job with their DP’s, but the franchise in the grander scheme doesn’t mean the same as NYCFC does. And when Lampard does come to New York City, Lampard will have played football consistently for over a year, which doesn’t bode well for a 37 year old midfielder playing on a baseball field.
   There were always skeptics when Lampard was “loaned” to City, and they have been proven right once again. Even if NYCFC is truly an affiliate club, they need to be given something for their trouble, and loaned youth players from City and technical assistance is not good enough. Their entire brand identity was supposed to separate themselves from Manchester City but that has not only been blown up, it’s been blown up in the most MLS way possible. And it doesn’t show well for the team, the intentions of Manchester City or the league as a whole. To make things even worse, there’s not much they can do now to fix it.
   2015 is such a critical year for MLS and NYCFC is a cornerstone of their growth and evolution to MLS 3.0. Having Lampard stay in England and essentially lying to NYCFC’s burgeoning fanbase as well as all US Soccer fans is not the way to get off to a good start. It’s such a shame too.

   But in all honesty, we should have seen it coming. And MLS has only themselves to blame. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

What to do about the Winter Classic?

This morning I was having a little back and forth on Twitter with my friend Brendan Darr about yesterday's Winter Classic in Washington. He suggested that the game be moved off New Year's Day because of better college football competition despite a very good game and 2 "brand" teams. I suggested that this was little more than a one-off considering the general lack of buzz about the matchup and the game outside of Washington. The discussion ended with us agreeing to disagree, but it's time to ponder what the Winter Classic really means at this point for the NHL and the teams involved. As the circumstances have changed surrounding the game, so has the game itself.

Consider that the Winter Classic was created in part because NBC lost a bit-part bowl game after 2006. They had rights to show the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day until 2006, when they then lost the rights to CBS. NBC needed something to fill their New Year's Day afternoon slots to go up against the Bowl Games on CBS, ABC and FOX and gave NHL COO John Collins a call. Together, NBC and Collins came up with the idea of a New Year's Day outdoor hockey game, and so it became on NYD 2008 in Buffalo. The game was a smashing success, and so games at Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Heinz Field, Citizens Bank Park and Michigan Stadium then followed. The Classic at the Big House was a special event that transcended hockey, and the Stadium Series furthered the outdoor game tradition. But this Winter Classic lacked buzz and juice outside of Washington, mainly because the circumstances about the games have changed from HBO to EPIX to a new park without history and teams with no rivalry. The future of the Winter Classic looks interesting too, as rumors suggest the next game is Montreal vs. Boston at Gillette Stadium. So, what are we to make of this?

The outdoor game started off as a one-off, and became a tradition for the NHL like no other. It became a signature event above the All-Star Game, and adding HBO's 24/7 to the mix only spiced up the game even more. But, has the well run dry with classic matchups in classic stadiums? It looks like it. Now that the Caps have hosted a game, every major NHL city except New York in the US has hosted the game, and NYC is never likely to host a Winter Classic game. 2015's edition had no alumni game, the lack of buzz from the EPIX series, and the added competition of a spicier New Year's Day slate for college football. And while the ratings were the lowest ever, they were by .1 ratings point, and were only .6 below the highest rated Classic ever. The Classic may have lost some of the shine in terms of crossover buzz, but all hockey fans were still watching and still excited, especially those of a Capitals bend. Certainly the Stadium Series didn't help the "signature" outdoor game, but it still made a ton of money  and had those touches that spoke "Winter Classic".

The NHL can't lie down and give up New Year's Day to college football. The game was never going to draw amazing ratings even against the lesser bowl games of the day (the next 2 years the playoff games are on New Year's Day), but the NHL has to do something to goose up the buzz, because this game did have a distinct lack of it. Better marketing outside of the host city is probably a good start, but adding Stadium Series games will lessen the value of the Winter Classic for sure, but the Winter Classic does still have that special feeling even with a lesser matchup and being played in a lesser stadium.

Just because college football got its act together and found New Year's Day again doesn't mean that the Winter Classic should move or fold because of it. The NHL has carved out its own slice of January 1, and they'll always have that little slice for themselves.

2014-15 NFL Playoff Predictions

Seeing how my preseason predictions were, you must think that my playoff predictions are going to be equally as bad. Let's be finding out shall we?

AFC:

Wild Card Round: 3) PIT over 6) BAL
                               4) IND over 5) CIN

Divisional Round: 1) NE over 4) IND
                               3) PIT over 2) DEN

AFC Championship Game: 1) NE over 3) PIT

NFC:

Wild Card Round: 3) DAL over 6) DET
                               4) CAR over 5) ARZ

Divisional Round: 1) SEA over 5) CAR (Closer than the experts think though)
                               3) DAL over 2) GB

NFC Championship Game: 1) SEA over 3) DAL

Super Bowl XLIX: New England over Seattle

Sorry to the Patriots and Seahawks in advance, your check is in the mail,

2014 NFL Season Predictions in Review

Happy 2015! It seems fitting that the first piece of the new year is the ritual de-pantsing I give myself when I look back at my preseason NFL season predictions. Usually this is pretty embarrassing for me and this year is probably going to be no different. Let's dive into the carnage...

Division Winners I got right: New England, Indianapolis, Denver, Green Bay. 4 out of 8 is unusually bad.

Teams I massively overrated: New Orleans (12-4 finished 7-9, had them in the Super Bowl (!!!!!!!)), San Francisco (12-4 finished 8-8), Chicago (10-6 finished 5-11), New York Jets (9-7 finished 4-12), Atlanta (9-7 finished 6-10).

Teams I massively underrated: Buffalo (5-11 finished 9-7), Pittsburgh (8-8 finished 11-5), Houston (5-11 finished 9-7), Dallas (6-10 finished 12-4).

Playoff teams I got right: NE, IND, BAL, CIN, DEN, GB, SEA. 5 in the AFC and 2 in the NFC. Proves how predictable the AFC was and how unpredictable and even the NFC turned out to be.

Awards Predictions:

MVP: Andrews Luck (Yeah this isn't going to happen at all)
DPOY: Clay Matthews (Hello Mr. Watt, the NFL on line 1)
OROY: Brandin Cooks (Odell Beckham would like a word)
DROY: Ryan Shazier (Wasn't bad but there will be other, better choices)
Coach: Chuck Pagano (Doubtful since his team won the AFC South quite comfortably and it's still bad)

So my 2014 preseason predictions were pretty woeful. Oddly enough I still have one Super Bowl Team still alive in the New England Patriots.  Maybe next year I'll do better. But I doubt it.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Did You See That: The 2014 Year-End Awards

As 2014 comes to a close and 2015 is ushered in, it's time to look back at the 365 days gone by. For the last 3 years, I've sent the year off with awards to honor the accomplishments of the year past... this is what I would say if I wasn't as cynical as I am. So, this means the year end awards have returned with a bang, and hopefully a rise in prestige (I asked for it last year and didn't get it, but a guy can dream, right?) They didn't try to win them, they're not getting dressed up to receive them: I present the 2014 year-end awards.

The "Wait, he's not actually dead"Award: Brazil's XI against Germany

The scene could not be more perfect. Brazil against Germany in Belo Horizonte for the right to go to the World Cup Final. But one key member of the Seleccao was missing: Neymar.  To honor their fallen comrade, during the national anthem the Brazilian players held up Neymar's jersey to honor his tragic loss... wait, he's still alive, right? *Checks twitter*... Yeah, he's still alive, he's in the stands watching. So if the Brazilian team thinks he's basically dead... then that means they're toast right? 90 minutes later, Brazil loses 7-1 to Germany at home in what was possibly the most stunning sports result of the 21st century to date. So next time your best player gets injured and misses an incredibly important game, hold up his jersey during the national anthem. I dare you.

The "Lemon Meringue Tastes Better" Award: Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo's Puck Daddy Blog

Here's a lesson for the world to take heed of: Never bet a mascot with a pie in the face as a punishment. Sure it might have worked for Nickelodeon in a 1992 game show, but in 2014 it can only end in shame, disappointment, and a bloody nose. Unfortunately, my good friend Wysh didn't remember that (and episodes of "What Would You Do?" it turns out) and bet Bailey, the LA Kings mascot, that the Sharks would win their playoff series against the Kings with the punishment being the loser gets some pies in the face. The Sharks of course blew a 3-0 series lead to the Kings as they went on to win the Cup. And so it ended up, with Wysh being pied in the face by not only Bailey, but Bob Miller, the voice of the Kings, and Wil Wheaton of X-Files fame. I guess that's better than being pied by Marc Summers, right? It'll be a helluva story to tell during a game of canasta at the retirement home though.

The "All of your eggs don't belong in one basket" Award: The Big XII

The college football playoff was a new experience for everyone, especially the Big XII, who had two teams in the hunt all season. Baylor and TCU were class articles all season, and one of them seemed destined to make the 4 team dance. But Bob Bowlsby thought, "Hey, we could get both of 'em in right now!" And so he tried to make it happen, but it became apparent that unless absolute chaos happened in front of his beloved Bears and Horned Frogs, getting 1 in was going to be hard enough. So he sold Baylor down the river and tried his hardest to push for TCU to get in, seeing as they had a better shot (seemingly), but then Ohio State's 3rd string QB pasted Wisconsin into a wall in the B1G Championship Game. Then, he was left with no one to cling to when the Big XII was left out of the new Big Dance, and currently his conference is 0-3 in bowl games. Now, he's trying to get a conference championship for his 10 team league, or a 13th game in the feeble attempt to cover his own blood up. Next time, just keep it quiet, maybe the committee will take your teams on their merits alone and not stumping. That means you too, Art Briles.

The "I was one card away" Award: Jerry Jones

The story is almost ubiquitous now. Jerry Jones had the card in his hand that would have blown the world up: Johnny Manziel to the Cowboys. His son, however told him to trash that card and hand in the one he eventually did, that had Zack Martin on it. Martin went on to receive OROY votes and become one of the best young O-Lineman in the league, and Johnny Football hasn't yet realized that partying the night before meetings and travel to a game is probably a bad idea. The Browns are just as big of a mess as ever, and the Cowboys have just had their best season in 5 years. That one card man...

The "At Least I didn't bite his Ear" Award: Luis Suarez

As of this moment, he hasn't chomped on any La Liga player while at Barcelona, which is progress, possibly? He had his taste of both Serbian and Italian cuisine in the past 2 years, and both surprisingly didn't taste all that amazing. Gordon Ramsey would have probably said the food he ate was raw, twice over. These cooking metaphors are not going very well, so let's simply say this for Suarez: at least he didn't bite someone's ear off (honorable mention to Claude Giroux who hasn't yet learned that sweaty hockey sweater tastes like sweaty hockey sweater).

The "Why did we blow that up again?" Award: The Oakland Athletics

Just when you think the A's have found a core of players that could finally get them past the ALDS for the first time in... it feels like forever now, the team gets blown up and scattered across the majors in a fire-sale that makes Jeffrey Loria envious. Billy Beane has always done some strange things as A's GM, but this offseason has been a particularly strange one, especially after he traded for big name pitching in the regular season seeing as this may be his last roll of the dice. Maybe after 2015 the A's will do the same thing again, or there will just be seeping regret... like the sewage at the Coliseum that never stays where it should.

The "What's Tanking" Award: the Philadelphia 76ers, Buffalo Sabres, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The 76ers and Sabres have made no bones about professing their love for the art of tanking completely and totally. The 76ers are trying to be their best at it in order to build their team slowly and methodically, but there might not be a pot of gold at the end of that rainbow in the 2015 NBA Draft. The Buffalo Sabres went as far as to schedule games featuring Connor McDavid's Erie Otters and Jack Eichel's BU Terriers at the First Niagara Center, just in case you weren't sure what Tim Murray's plans were. But now, the Sabres are actually playing decent hockey and winning games! Maybe the price for Tyler Myers will be lower now. But a late entrant into this award, making it a 3 way tie: The Tampa Bay Bucs! They were winning handsomely over the New Orleans Saints, until Lovie Smith conspicuously pulled his starters as the Saints made a nice comeback. Was it a threatening phone call from GM Jason Licht, or a subconscious devil on Lovie Smith's shoulder that told him "tanking is good, tanking saves souls"? Maybe we'll find it out in Chicago in April when Marcus Mariota is holding up a Bucs jersey.

And finally...

The "Wagging Finger of Shame" Award: Twitter

I love twitter. It's a necessary evil in our current time. But damn it had a horrible year in 2014. From jumping the gun on stories, to fake stories, to elements of stories that weren't true and yet thousands of people believed, to creepy men trying hit on women on twitter but only end up being abusive pieces of garbage, from people just flat saying horrible things to each other on twitter because it's twitter, to an obsession with disappearing planes, discussions on politics that only end up in crap flinging matches... and there's probably more that I missed but good God this year was awful in 140 characters. Twitter... you need to get better in 2015. Or at least take who I block and report for spam seriously. Although props to Michelle Beadle for directly calling out one of her abuses as a registered sex offender. Bravo.

I'll make sure to have the $10 trophies in the mail and on your respective doorsteps by January 2nd.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

2014 Week 17 Fantasy Advice

Merry Christmas to all those who will be celebrating, and for those who aren't, the perfect way to spend your day when everything is shut is to read fantasy football advice for a week you might well not be playing fantasy in, right? At least that's what I do...

Who to Start:

QB Cam Newton (CAR) vs. ATL: If you start him or Matt Ryan, you'll probably be in good shape for what is likely to be a shootout for the NFC South. Newton looked like his normal self against a better Cleveland defense, so going up against the worst unit in football is a favorable matchup for him in this decisive game.

RB Arian Foster (HOU) vs. JAX: You're probably starting him anyway, but his performance a few weeks ago against Jacksonville was very good, and with so much at stake for the Texans, it's likely we'll see the same determination from their best offensive player.

WR Odell Beckham (NYG) vs. PHI: It's not surprising that I say to start him anymore, is it? He's been absolutely dominant recently, and seeing how the Eagles secondary dealt with Washington's pass attack should make his owners mouths water.

WR Mike Evans (TB) vs. NO: Even though he may have well hit a wall in his last few games, the Saints defense is an appetizing one to find some form against, and this is his last chance to impress for rookie of the year votes too.

TE Delanie Walker (TEN) vs. IND: He's fourth among tight ends in receiving yards this season, which you probably don't know about because the Titans are garbage. The Colts defense can be had, especially against tight ends, so Walker could have a big day.

DEF Baltimore vs. CLE: Connor Shaw or Brian Hoyer? Not like it'll really matter for the Ravens, who have everything to play for against a Cleveland offense that has looked totally inept in their last 2 games.

Who to Sit:

QB Philip Rivers (SD) vs. KC: He's going to play despite his bulging disk, but his numbers are never that spectacular, even when he's healthy, so when he's not 100% and his offense isn't either, starting him is a risky play.

RB Joique Bell (DET) vs. GB: He's never had any real successes against the Packers when he's played them in his career, and the Pack are a much better team defensively at home than they are away from Lambeau.

WR Eric Decker (NYJ) vs. MIA: He was a risky pick-up before the season, and he's a risky play now for all of the same reasons from August until now.

WR Larry Fitzgerald (ARZ) vs. SF: Arizona's offense is a disaster zone right now, which doesn't bode well for Fitz who has gone almost completely quiet since Arizona's QB situation hit the skids. He's never done well against the 49ers in his career, either.

TE Travis Kelce (KC) vs. SD: He didn't have much success against KC in his first start against them this season, and even though the Chargers defense has been banged up, they always defend the Tight End well despite that.

DEF Cincinnati vs. PIT: Even though that defense was awesome on Monday night, it's not likely to be the same this week against the Steelers who torched the very same unit a couple of weeks ago.

3 Super Sleepers:

QB Teddy Bridgewater (MIN) vs. CHI: Has he been the best of the rookie QB's this season? You could make a very convincing argument that he has been. If you're in desperate need of a better QB, you'd be hard pressed to find a better option.

RB Dan Herron (IND) vs. TEN: If the Jaguars can find success running against the Titans, then anyone can. Boom Herron had a tough week last week in Dallas as most Colts did, but I think he's going to be just fine on Sunday.

WR Golden Tate (DET) vs. GB: If Matt Stafford cuts down on the mistakes, Tate could have a huge day against a susceptible Packers secondary who has been found out at home this season.

Buyer Beware:

WR Wes Welker (DEN) vs. OAK: The Raiders defense has been underrated this season, so keep that in mind for any Denver offensive player this week, especially after the disaster of a performance on Monday night in Cincy.

So that ends the sixth year of this fantasy column, which has morphed into a staple of anywhere I've written. It has been another good season, even though my fantasy team can't say that. Thanks to everyone who has read my little ramblings this season or any season since '09, and this column will return in September when the regular season does. In any event, enjoy Christmas, Week 17, and the New Year, and something will be concocted for the playoffs.