Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Year End Top 20

I hate to state the obvious, but it's been an interesting year. As are most years, I suppose, but still.

This blog came into existence on March 22, born of my desire to write about something, and knowing full well that "something" probably should not be music, for my own sanity's sake. (You spend your time practicing and playing shows and writing songs and honing your craft, the last thing you want to do is write about it too.) So I went for the other obvious avenue, and zeroed in on sports. There are probably about 18,436,978 sports blogs out there on the internet; encompassing the full spectrum of excellence and mediocrity, and carrying readerships measured in single digits or in vast orders of magnitude. (There is not necessarily a direct correlation between the quality of excellence and the orders of magnitude, mind you.)

My opening forays here were almost laughable attempts at mimicry, with precious little vector or focus. A paragraph of poorly-imitated David Halberstam here, a sentence of failed Joe Posnanski humor there. Simmons, MacMullen, Schiller, Ryan, Magary, Baker, Levy, Wilbon, Carmichael, Shoals, Harper, Roth ... I had a lot of reverential influences. Unfortunately, I kept veering into their varied stylistic bents at random intervals, with no definite rudder or sense of voice. Everything on the page kept coming up as an inauthentic, disjointed train wreck. There were also periods in which I was, for a variety of reasons, not as diligent in creating content in this space as I ought to have been. But you fumble in the dark long enough, you're going to stub your toe on a lamp eventually. Or at least your eyes should adjust enough to make out some dim, purposeful shadows.

I think I'm getting there.

Thanks to all who have read (and hopefully will keep reading) while I figure this whole thing out.

Anyway, to close out my inaugural (calender) year in this whole sports blogging deal, I'm going to leave all six or so of my loyal readers with one final entry before the champagne and revelry of the 31st.

Ladies and Gents, the Top 20 Sports Moments of 2011. (Note: these are highly subjective, in no particular order, and not all choices are "Top" in the superlative meaning of the word. Some choices made the cut because they resonated personally with me, others because they resonated, for better or worse, with everyone. And some are just plain funny.)

1. Penn State. I don't want to dwell on the horrors of the accusations, the disgusting, absurd reactions of some of the students, or even the awful fact that big-time college athletics can be, in the wrong hands and with VERY wrong priorities, fertile ground for something far more shameful than a few kids milking some extra folding money out of a broken system. Suffice it to say that this was the most shocking thing that has ever happened in sports or my or, I believe, any lifetime.

For sheer revulsion, O.J. in 1994 is the only thing to ever come close. It was, perhaps, more alarming in the immediate moment, watching the car chase as garbled bits of increasingly nauseating information reached us in real time. But it was nothing on this scale in terms of deliberation and scope over years and a repeated wilfulness by those in power to ignore what was wrong.

Sadly, it would be foolish to think this is the last terrible thing we will witness in a field that is supposed to be a trivial, joyous distraction from the "real world." (Look how closely the Syracuse scandal followed it.) But we can hope. May we be more vigilant, less ignorant, and better-equipped in the future. May we never allow our love of something so unimportant to cloud our eyes from the momentous and terrible. If this can't be the end of awful moral failing and tragedy in sports, perhaps we can ensure that its limits of horror will never be approached again.

2. Brandon Roy's Last Stand. I'll spare you a recounting of the details, just click on the link. I know a performance in a first-round playoff series in which his team was ultimately eliminated doesn't necessarily jump out as "Top 20" material. But consider: Roy just announced his retirement after a career that was grossly, unfairly abridged due to his knees acting like those of a 65-year-old man. This was his last full-stop display of the transcendent abilities that made him such a joy to watch during that brief window. We will never have the opportunity to watch him on the court again, unless it's on ESPN Classic when they re-air this game. (Which they should and will.)

3. Drew Brees breaks Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record. Never mind that it came at the expense of completely humiliating my beloved Falcons on national television, watching history being made is always worthwhile. Also, Drew Brees is ridiculously good.

4. Game(s) 162 of the Major League Baseball Season. Honestly, sometimes you just gotta say "What the &#%^?" Tampa Bay's absurd comeback, the Sawx somehow collapsing against a lowly Baltimore team with nothing to play for, the Braves self-combusting against Philly, the Cards' insane surge ... traumatic as it was for those of us whose teams were thrashed in the process, there has never been a better, more improbable, more drama-filled night of regular season action in any sport. These are the moments when the actual theater outclasses anything we could possibly concoct or manufacture in our wildest, most unhinged flights of fancy. Something we'll never forget.

5. Eric LeGrand leading his Rutgers teammates out of the tunnel in a motorized wheelchair. If you didn't cry when you watched this, you may well be dead inside and I feel bad for you. After a horrific injury on the field paralyzed him, LeGrand became the voice of inspiration and optimism for the year. Not a voice, THE voice. In a sport which has seen so much go so horribly wrong this year, this was a moment that said everything about the better angels of our nature. As a matter of fact, it might have left even the angels slack-jawed with admiration and reverence. Here's a young man deprived of not only the game he loves, of speed and strength as release, but of normal, simple actions as a human being. Yet he has remained unwaveringly dedicated to the idea of surmounting his problems, and of smiling and laughing and savoring the things he can in life while he's at it. He's willing himself to constantly create joy out of awfulness, and to beat the steepest of odds getting back to a standing position. LeGrand's tweet after exiting that tunnel:

"So I left tire tracks in the snow yesterday as I led my team out next time will be footprints"

New Year's resolution we should all make: be more like Eric LeGrand.

6. Al Davis passes away. Has there ever been a death that produced a more high-profile and conflicting crop of press clippings? Davis was eulogized and derided; his innovations were praised and his faults were loudly, scornfully proclaimed. The ultimate take away was probably somewhere in the middle. This was a complex man who, for better and for worse, was tremendously important to the NFL, and without whom the landscape of football will never quite be the same.

7. UGA managed to do this. Keep your eye on the down-and-distance numbers in the bottom right, then watch the yellow line on the punt. THE EFFING PUNT doesn't even make it to the first down marker!!!!!! Hilarious.

8. The Bruins snapped a 40-year drought to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup. Which, you know, was cool.

9. On the NFL's opening Sunday, Cam Newton proves every doubter wrong. After a season's worth of dazzling highlights and otherworldly rookie numbers have essentially made him a lock for Offensive ROY, it's easy to forget how loudly many of us, myself included, were laughing when Newton went #1 overall in the NFL draft this year. Personally, I thought he was going to be a novelty/Wildcat guy; Tebow 2.0. But then, nothing we saw of his lone season at Auburn or during the abbreviated preseason screamed "super-clean, super-calm pocket passer." I was on the couch with a bunch of buddies watching Red Zone when they flashed Newton's final numbers (24/37, 422 yds, 2 TD, 1 INT) and a few highlights across the lower half of the screen. No one spoke for a full minute before someone finally said what were were all thinking: "Holy &^%#!" And all this was (relatively) devoid of the overt displays of athletic freakishness he unleashed as the season continued, but it was the precursor, the warning bell: this cat is for real.

10. Pat Summit's announcement of her early-onset dementia. Forget the easy delineations of men's/women's or college/pro, this is one of the five greatest basketball coaches of all time. During her announcement, and all the press conferences and interviews that followed, never once did she bemoan her fate, ask for sympathy, or behave for an instant in a manner that did not exude dignity, class, and the competitor's will to compete in the face of all odds. It would have been only human to exhibit grief and rage at the situation; only human to tread the road of the maligned, broken, and bitter. And since she chose not to exhibit those things or walk that road, we must conclude that Pat Summit is, in that respect, superhuman. And salute her for it.

11. Vin Mazzaro's May 16 stat line. Here we have a true encapsulation of the ridiculous and the awful. Here's the cringe-worthy portion of the box score:

Vin Mazzaro, LHP, Kansas City Royals. 2 1/3 IP, 11 H, 14 ER, 3 BB, 2K, 77 Pitches. Oof.

12. Novak Djokovic, who did not so much have a defining moment in 2011 as make all of 2011 his defining moment. 10 tournament wins, 3 Grand Slam victories, a record-breaking 5 ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles, more money than anyone has ever made in a tour season, and utter dominance over pretty much everyone and everything in his path. The man finished his year 70-6. 70-6!!!!!!!!! That's inconceivable. (You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.) Everyone from Sampras to Becker to Nadal declared Djokovic's 2011 the highest sustained level of tennis they've ever witnessed. Which means it was probably the greatest season of tennis that any of us have ever witnessed.

13. Peyton Manning's Neck. Has there ever been a single injury that altered the dynamics of an NFL conference so drastically? In the blink of an eye (and the repair of some vertebrae), the Colts went from Super Bowl contenders to almost surely picking first in the 2012 draft. Meanwhile, the Texans, Pats, Steelers, Ravens, and Bengals reap the benefits, while the Colts probably get to reload with Andrew Luck next season. Sheesh.

14. Kemba Walker doing this. And this. And this. I cannot wait to watch this kid in the NBA.

15. Sunday, October 23. Tim Tebow gets his first start of 2011 on the road against the Miami Dolphins. Thus begins Tebowmania, an extended period of time during which all other sports storylines become secondary to an overtly religious, very humble young man winning a few football games. With awful mechanics. And awful-er stats. And largely thanks to a fantastic Broncos defense and a clutch kicker. The degree to which it subsumed everything else was ludicrous, but at some point you just have to ride the wave out. I was as guilty as anyone of buying into the hype, because it was fun and polarizing and interesting. And I suppose I'm still buying in by puttin gthis on the list, but it was a big honking deal before the Pats and Bills deflated the budding myth, and we were all along for the ride.

(15a: The X > Tebow ESPN Invasion. Because holy crap was that funny.)

16. The NBA Finals. After all the hype surrounding talents being taken to South Beach and the incessant, high-pitched media drone around the Miami Heat all season, we finally reached a moment of unanimous public relief/catharsis. Dallas played such beautiful basketball, and so completely destroyed the team that everyone wanted to see get destroyed ... it was a breathtaking culmination to a phenomenal season. We reveled in the grand pageantry of Dwayne Wade playing like a freaking boss (and LeBon not doing so), of Dirk's transcendent(al?) rain of fall-away J's, of Jason Kidd still having that much in the tank. And also the little things, like Tyson Chandler's unbelievable defense, Shawn Marion giving LeBron all he could handle, and of course, J.J. Barea being the most compact form of pure ballin' since Spud and Mugsy. For the Mavs, it was sweet victory and revenge for 2006. For everyone else, it felt like a signifier that perhaps not everything in sports was morally bankrupt, that karma counts for something, and that the good guys still win every once in a while. Which is patently absurd, of course. But that's how it felt.

17. David Freese's staggering Game 6 in the World Series. I'd like to thank whoever put that slo-mo montage with the fantastically cheesy music out into the world. Because it's fantastic. Hometown kid saves the season and then crushes the game-winning walkoff 2 innings later? Are you kidding?!?!?! And Joe Buck managed to not be Joe Buck-ish and instead turn the simplest, most wonderful phrase possible in the moment, a replication of his father's call 20 years ago after Kirby Puckett hit a World Series, Game 6, extra-inning walkoff. Perfect. I defy you to watch highlights of this game and not get chills. Possibly my favorite moment of the year.

18. Any time a concussion or sub-concussive impact was sustained by an athlete. Actually, scratch that: any time anything at all happened that looked like it might have rattled someone's brain even a little bit. I've read enough on the causes and effects of CTE to be sufficiently terrified of it, and what it might do to many of the people we watch performing feats of athletic wonderment on our televisions or tablets or however we consume sports these days. If I have kids, I swear they are never playing football or hockey or dodgeball or riding bikes or going skiing or doing anything that might translate into repeated impacts to the cranium. Ever.

19. Women's World Cup: USA vs. Brazil. God bless Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd and Hope Solo. And especially the dervish/spark plug/dynamo that is Megan Rapinoe. This was such a wonderfully fun team to watch. They had style and swagger in abundance and a sheer joy on the pitch that was infectious. USA! USA! USA!

20. Bama/LSU. "Remember, remember the fifth of November ..." In retrospect, there's a certain poetic symmetry to this game having occurred on Guy Fawkes day. A whole bunch of gunpowder did not, in fact, blow up, and precisely nothing was proved by its non-detonation. At least where the BCS polls were concerned. Nonetheless, the defensive battle, and particularly the play in the trenches, was undeniably fascinating and beautiful in its own right. When people talk about the SEC being bigger and faster and stronger than everyone else, games like this are what they're referring to. Which is why we're going to get Round 2 in the BCS Championship Game. And why I can't wait to watch it.

Honorable mentions:

Albert Pujols signs with the Angels. Not really a "moment", but any time the greatest player of his generation leaves his longtime franchise and inks the biggest, most absurd contract anyone has ever seen, it's certainly important. 10 years, $250,000,000 for a (supposedly) 32-year-old 1B? I know he's "The Machine" and all, but I have a hunch they're going to regret that deal in about five years.

David Stern blocks the Chris Paul-to-the-Lakers trade, then allows a trade sending him to the Clippers to go through. I may have to retroactively bump something out and put this on the list retroactively if the Lakers manage to fall apart and the Clips wind up being legitimate contenders this season.

The Tiger Woods Hotdog Incident
. Just because.

Happy 2012, folks!!!! Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Star Wars

Before we get into nuts and bolts, I'd like to start out by saying that I am profoundly grateful as a professional basketball fan. For at least the next two seasons, we will have the privilege, nay, the unadulterated, rapturous pleasure of watching Chris Paul and Blake Griffin on the same team. The best pure point in the game is going to be running pick and rolls and hucking oops to a guy who's well on his way to being the preeminent power forward in the league. That's not to mention the fun CP3 is going to have with DeAndre Jordan. Oh, they have Blake double-trapped in the corner? Ho hum. Hey, DeAndre, cut to that empty space there ... here ya go. ... Perfect!!!

I am a reeling, giddy mess just contemplating the insanity that is about to unfold. SportsCenter is essentially going to have to rechristen its Top 10 as "The CP3 and Blake Show" from Christmas through the playoffs.

And yet ...

I'm wondering if the Clippers are going to be contenders. No doubt they will contend, in the sense of existence as an upper-echelon team in the Western Conference. They will likely win a playoff berth this year, and they will be a formidable challenge for any and all opponents with that absolutely devastating high-low action. But "contenders" in the serious, capitalized context of a threat to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy this year? I just don't see it.

The NBA accomplished its stated goal of attaining sufficient compensation for New Orleans in this deal (i.e. "basketball reasons"), however shady their purported motives may have been. In doing so, they provided the Hornets a wonderful structural base from which to rebuild, and hopefully made the franchise attractive to prospective new owners. The Hornets are going to be worse for the next few years than they would have been with the initial Lakers trade, but they have younger talent, more cap flexibility, and what will be a high pick in a loaded 2012 draft class to work with now. The NBA made the right decision for, in my opinion, the wrong reasons, but in the end no one got hurt.

The primary side effect of this is: the Clippers just completely transmogrified themselves as a basketball organization. Forget the obvious observations that they're no longer a joke/laughing stock, and that having Chris Paul and Blake Griffin instantly legitimizes them as a marquee franchise. I'm not interested in the star power/recognition aspect of this trade for L.A. I'm talking about the mechanics of what it represents for the Clippers in terms of basketball philosophy.

Before this trade, L.A. was going about its business in a certain manner, and now they will have to continue in an entirely different one. They didn't merely switch gears, they took the exit ramp to a completely different road. We can identify those two roads as follows ...

Clippers pre-trade: The Oklahoma City Thunder model. (Or: What the Hornets could/will become if a smart new ownership does in fact acquire the franchise.) A youthful assemblage of talent centered around one transcendent player growing up in the league together, forging cohesive bonds and making steady but inexorable strides towards greatness, with some necessary and expected stumbling blocks along the way.

This is what the Clips were before this deal. They had a stellar young core with Griffin, Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jordan, and Eric Bledsoe. Their acquisition of Chauncey Billups before the CP3 trade transpired meant that they had a veteran in place to operate an offense full of burgeoning talent, provide a good, steadying personality/influence in the locker room, and tutor Bledsoe in how best to run a system. (I suspect that Mo Williams was either getting reduced minutes or shipped out for parts. Poor guy.)

That nucleus, coupled with some smart moves over the next few seasons (admittedly a stretch given the Clippers' track record) would have allowed them to continue to grow as exciting up-and-comers and potentially dominate the Western conference along with OKC and Memphis for the next 5-10 years. They weren't going to walk away with the hardware this season, but they had the opportunity to realize their collective potential while almost every key player was still shy of qualifying for breaks on their car insurance rates. As the Lakers and Spurs faded/aged out of relevance and Denver and Utah remained burdened by incoherence and rebuilding, the opening was there for L.A.'s "other" team to assert themselves. Now, their paradigm for success has been significantly altered, and I 'm not sure it's for the better.

Clippers post-trade: The Miami Heat model. Clearly, this team was not manufactured in the same manner as Emperor Wade luring Darth LeBron and Jar Jar Bosh to South Beach, but they face a similar set of problems. Acquiring CP3 cost them depth and versatility, and as Miami just demonstrated, it's awfully difficult to win without it. Even if Paul stays healthy (iffy) and elects to stick around after 2013 (iffier), what do the Clippers really have?

Sure, the starting front court is going to be one of the best in the game. Griffin and Jordan are going to be more than a handful for any defense, especially with Paul orchestrating things. But what happens when they need a rest? The trade cost L.A. their only other semi-decent big in Chris Kaman. They better pray D-League veteran Marcus Hubbard can at least hold down the fort when he's asked to spell Jordan. Same goes for Trey Thompkins. As things stand, the rookie from UGA is going to be the go-to guy when Griffin needs a rest, and he may be called upon to fill some time at the 5 is well, either through small-lineup offensive design or necessity. That's not exactly a comforting thought for Clips fans.

I'm not crazy about the Caron Butler/Ryan Gomes/Renaldo Major rotation at small forward, but it's serviceable, and shouldn't actively cost them too many games. (Al-Farouq Aminu was their easiest and smartest give in the trade, in my opinion.)

Now, the real question, and it's a doozy: exactly who's going to be spacing the floor and providing perimeter shooting for this team? They lost a great young 2-guard in Eric Gordon which leaves them with ... uh ... a Randy Foye/Willie Warren combo at the 2? Rookie Travis Leslie? Mo Williams or Chauncey Billups playing out of position? The problem is that right now L.A. has a surffeit of point guards (five total) and no true 2's on their roster.

My personal bet for a solution: Chauncey at the "two." Mr. Big Shot may not be Ray Allen, but he's not exactly a slouch. I can see him running a tight pick-and-pop game with Paul, and a killer give'n'go as well. Paul should always be the primary handler, but if he's swarmed by the opposing D, Billups' PG acumen renders capable of either knocking down shots or finding one the the Clips' interior players as the situation dictates. Both Billups and Paul are good, savvy defenders, which should compensate at least somewhat for their relative lack of size.

This leaves them with Williams, Warren, Foye, and PG Blake Ahearn either coming off the bench or traded off for another asset. An additional big would be nice (and frankly it's a quasi-necessity), but what the Clippers absolutely need is a bench perimeter scoring threat, either a Jamal Crawford type or a J.J. Redick-style sniper. Until they get that guy, they're just not going to be able to sustain offensive momentum while the starters get their rest.

To recap, we're looking at a starting five of Paul/Billups/Butler/Griffin/Jordan. That's more than a pretty damned good lineup, it's downright frightening. The problem is that a key bench rotation of Foye, Williams, and Thompkins ain't going to get it done. If the Clippers can't figure out a way to acquire some better assets, the CP3 trade isn't going to matter.

Right now, it's possible that the Clippers are the best basketball team in Los Angeles. However: the team they (possibly) deposed to (maybe) earn that (hypothetical) title got creamed in the playoffs last season. So even if the Clippers are better, are they good enough?

The answer is an emphatic "not yet they aren't." But they're a move or two away. For fans of this perennially haggard franchise, that knowledge ought to be sufficient to be getting on with. That knowledge, and the promise of oh so many jaw-dropping highlight reels waiting to happen.

The Los Angeles Clippers, folks! Come for the entertainment, stay for the bright, bright future!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Dance Like Everyone Is Looking: An Excessive Celebration Of Excessive Celebration.

There was one hell of a grumpy-pants rant up on Grantland this morning. Normally, I enjoy Jenny Johnson's writing; she's clever and snarky and an entertaining read. But her tirade about endzone dances came off like the old guy in a bathrobe yelling "get off my lawn!" It was cranky and obstinate and a representation of exactly what people mean when they (qausi) jokingly refer to the NFL as the No Fun League.

You can click the link above if you want to read it in full, but if you're disinclined or busy or what have you, here's her essential point: scoring points and making good plays in sports is a job. A job that athletes are paid very handsomely to do. They should not engage in obnoxious, self-aggrandizing celebrations purely because they did that job well.

Here's the part that really yanked my chain, because it is condescending moralizing of the most irksome variety:

"But then there's those players who emerge from the locker room wearing a red crushed velvet suit (I actually saw this), talking loudly and trying to get anyone within an earshot's attention. They want to be noticed, they are desperate for it. But why? Why can't people quietly do their jobs? Why make a spectacle of yourself?"

Well, Jenny, allow me to answer that question for you. Athletes dance in endzones and wear outrageous outfits and legally change their names to goofy things and everything else that bugs you for a few simple reasons.

First, because reputation equals money. The bigger a "name" someone can make for themselves, the more recognition they gain among fans. Since front offices are more likely to shell out truckloads of cash to players with high name-recognition who will put more butts in the seats or in front of the TV, it is in the players' best interest to be as recognized as possible. Obviously, this doesn't hold true for crimes, morally questionable behavior, and the like, but actions that generate considerable attention while being essentially harmless are great ways to get a few extra bucks on that next contract.

If you say that's ridiculous and they don't need any more money than they make already, I suppose that's sort of a valid point, but we live in a capitalist society and it is their right to pursue every available financial gain. Also, I believe that given how much the owners make off these athletes, especially in the NFL, that many of them are considerably underpaid for their services.

The second reason is that it is human nature to seek attention and praise when we do something well. Furthermore, we want to share our pride and happiness in those accomplishments; we want to celebrate. If you ask out someone you're heavily attracted to and they say yes, don't tell me you don't skip down the sidewalk and air-high-five the whole beautiful world when that happens. Don't tell me you don't strut a little when you write a great article or produce a great segment. It's partly wanting recognition for the job, but partly just the thrill and pleasure of having done it well, right? We all do it, because as human beings, we're just plain wired that way. If you claim that's not the case, Jenny Johnson, then you're a lying liar who lies. My point is this: sure, celebrations in sports have an exhibitionist tilt to them, but they're also pure distillations of joy when something cool happens.

And here's the third and most important point I want to get to. You say that a great play is just doing the job, and there's no need to so crassly and brazenly call attention to it. You know what I say to that? I say calling attention to it is a critical part of the job.

Because the job, in reality, is to entertain us. That's what athletes do. Speed and skill and dexterity and grace, playing the game smartly and well, those are some of the mechanisms by which players provide that entertainment. Some of the others include entertaining press conferences and sound bytes, loud and/or hilarious outfits, and of course, swagger-licious celebrations.

The endzone dance, the prance after draining a huge trey, the signature ritual when crossing the plate after a homer, these things don't defile some kind of unwritten code of stoicism and dignity. They make the games more fun. Period.

Put it this way: Jimi Hendrix's job was to play guitar. (Well, some of his job. Hendrix was also a pioneering recording studio wizard and a tremendously underrated songwriter and singer, but that's for another day.) Anyway, sticking with the guitar thing, we can safely say that Jimi did his job better than anyone else on the planet did anything. Maybe ever. But the joy of experiencing his transcendent musicianship was amplified by all the other crazy things he did when he performed. The larger-than-life, campy/sensual gesticulating, playing behind his head or with his teeth, smashing his guitar, lighting his guitar on effing fire!!! None of that stuff was necessary to successfully performing his music, but it made the whole show bigger and cooler and infinitely more memorable.

Personally, and I cannot say this emphatically enough, I really, really f&%$ hate the excessive celebration penalty, and any fines that are doled out to players in a misguided attempt to regulate the "integrity of the game" or whatever the hell Roger Goodell thinks he's trying to do.

You know the Terrel Owens "getcha popcorn ready" photo at the top of this post? I love that photo. That was one of my favorite moments of the 2008 season. Same goes for the midfield--Dallas-star move, the sign-the-ball move, and everything else T.O. ever did in an endzone, because his cockiness and ingenuity in the realm of celebrations were unparalleled. Likewise for everyone else Jenny Johnson mentions as having offended her sensibilities.

Here's the paragraph:

"There are some athletes, past and present, who were/are particularly annoying to watch on/off the field, Chad Johnson (I'm writing "Johnson" instead of "Ochocinco" because I can't bring myself to call him a word that doesn't even mean 85 in Spanish), Terrell Owens, Jim McMahon, Deion Sanders, Joe Namath (remember his fur coats? WTF?) Keyshawn Johnson, Jeremy Shockey fall into this particular category."

The rebuttal, if I may. I was a little young to catch McMahon's prime years, but I'd like to exonerate the rest of that list. Every "Prime Time" dance, spike, and ham-it-up act was fantastic viewing. I loved that stuff. Same goes for Key, and their dynamic, memorable on-field personae likely have a lot to do with them being great on-air mainstays today. Chad Ocho-Johnson rode a bull earlier this year, for crying out loud. He holds up signs and proposes to cheerleaders. You can't possibly tell me that guy isn't entertaining. I think Shockey is great, and as far as Broadway Joe ... I've only got grainy photos to go on, but his coats were outstanding.

Speaking of Broadway, I wish the NFL had elaborate, musical-style choreographed celebrations for big games or rally scores. Or at least grander displays like UGA's team-wide penalty against Florida in 2007. (They still do this in the NBA, as evidenced by the Cavs' "snapshot" routine in the LeBron days.) Unfortunately, instead of limitless possibilities for entertainment, it's a minimum 15-yard penalty and possibly a fine just for doing something cool.

Are endzone celebrations egotistical? You bet. Obnoxious? Of course! But they're also an awful lot of fun. The plays themselves, the events that transpire while the game clock is running provide the drama and context and displays of jaw-dropping athleticism. They are the ebb and flow and larger pulse of the event. The celebrations, when they were aloud without repercussions, were the flip side, the over-the-top theater and spectacle and comic relief. They lent a dynamic that is sorely missed in this more staid (and less enjoyable) iteration of the league. They were exuberant declaration and non-verbal smack talk. They fired up home crowds and agitated fans on the road. I mourn their passing.

I mean all of this within the bounds of reason, obviously. I'm not blanket-condoning any and all potential celebrations. If someone makes a truly lewd or offensive gesture, then there should be consequences. The NFL is a product viewed by many youngsters who, lord knows, don't need any more awfulness or crudity in their lives than the internet and the maudlin, depressing thing known as the modern news cycle already inflict upon them.

(Stevie Johnson's faux pas is an interesting case here. Yes, it was a display of poor taste, but it was also an inspired bit of punking. He probably deserved the fine, I suppose. That said, the crashing-jet pratfall was hilarious.)

Ultimately, I believe that the league was more enjoyable when its players were allowed to ham it up. Celebrating great plays with verve and sass and creativity ought to be encouraged, or at least not condemned. Penalizing a great source of entertainment is idiotic, and it needs to stop.

And if Terrel Owens ever catches a touchdown pass in the NFL again, and I happen to be in the stadium when he does, he's more than welcome to my popcorn.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Condensed and Biased Saturday Recap.

What a day it's been. Long, long day at work today. That's what happens when you clock a no-break 8 hours on a Saturday this close to Christmas at a retail establishment. Chaos, people.

But all is well. I spent the rather protracted drive home listening to the Georgia High School Football Playoffs on the radio. If you've read/seen Friday Night Lights or Varsity Blues, just understand that everything you think you know about high school football in Texas is essentially correct. And that your knowledge is applicable to the rest of the south. HS football in GA is a high-stakes, high-tenor deal, and it is admittedly both hilarious and compelling to listen to play-by-play announcers getting as emotionally amplified and invested as they are in these games. There are worse ways to spend your time when you're stuck in traffic.

I got home in time to catch the last quarter of Army/Navy. It's not a huge matchup or anything to do with the BCS Championship or even a bowl game, but it does carry a certain, uniquely beautiful intensity. More than any other sport, football is often referred to in terms of warfare. These young men may actually be called upon to practice it someday, and watching them face off yields two important outcomes:

Firstly, it puts sports in their proper context. Sports are entertaining, complex, emotional, wonderful ... and ultimately irrelevant. Army/Navy is pure. Whenever a service academy team takes the field, they are there for the joy of the game, and the thrill of the contest. I would not presume to know their minds and hearts, but I imagine they are relishing a conflict that carries little to none of the import and danger of those they may face in the future. I'd wager they are not thinking of their stats or their positions on Mel Kiper's Big Board. This game is a rivalry without animosity, and a battle waged from which, mercifully and barring major on-field injuries, no casualties or "collateral damage" will ensue. It reminds us that for all the money and theatrics and greatness that are embroiled in these games we love, they are indeed games.

And second, on a much lighter note, Army/Navy is almost always a great viewing experience for football history/system/scheme nerds. Denied the elite athletes and skill players of other major collegiate programs, the service academies often run anachronistic, option-based offenses and idiosyncratic defenses. It's just a joy to watch, really. Today was no exception.

After the last non-bowl college game of the year, and before the Heisman presentation, I flipped over to catch Indiana/Kentucky. Honestly, I'm still reeling. This game was palpable through the television screen, full of that rare verve and energy that only comes around every once in a great while. I'm not sure a more compelling game of college hoops will be played all season, even in the Big Dance. This had it all: two storied programs, roller-coaster dynamics, a second-half comeback, decibel levels that undoubtedly damaged the hearing of everyone in attendance, and a last-second buzzer-beating trey to notch a win for the home team over the #1-ranked team in the country. And the pandemonium that followed that shot.

A little while ago, I opened a piece about college football's Rivalry Weekend with an account of the Georgia Tech/Clemson football game from earlier this year. That game ended in a jubilant field-storming celebration when Tech finished clobbering the Top-10 ranked Tigers. I was there to witness that event live, and it was a sensory onslaught. What transpired in Assembly Hall tonight resonated at a higher pitch, even through a satellite signal beamed from a few thousand miles away. In the last camera shot of the arena before they cut back to the studio, you couldn't see anything other than a mass of red in the throes of undiluted ecstasy. If not for the two backboards protruding from the ruckus, you wouldn't even have known that a basketball game had just been played. You'd have thought is was an especially exuberant political rally, or a well-lit rave, or some other mass convergence of people hellbent on joy.

Chill-inducing, it was indeed.

And then the Heisman folks got it right. Or rather, they got it right within the context that they created. RG3 was the best player on that stage tonight; the most important and critical to his team, and the man who did everything just a shade more impressively than his fellow candidates. I still maintain that it's a travesty Kellen Moore wasn't in the running for the award, but of the people that were selected as finalists, the correct name was called to hoist the trophy.

And now, I'm enjoying a stellar ESPN "30 For 30" doc on Todd Marinovich. And a simultaneous NFL Network program on touchdown dances celebrates the Dirty Bird.


Rough start, great ending. Happy Saturday!!!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Tainted Love

I love the NBA. Unabashedly, wholeheartedly, and unconditionally. But you may have noticed that not a peep has been uttered here at Arena Apothecary about its upcoming resumption. When news came down the pipeline that we were going to have an NBA season after all, two words stopped me from an exuberant hallelujah rant in this space: "in principle." As in, "the NBA Players Association and the owners have agreed to the new CBA in principle."

I wasn't going to put anything up until every last detail had been hashed out and ratified, and the ink from the signatures of all parties concerned was nice and dry. I was paranoid that some seemingly mundane or insignificant bargaining point was going to derail the whole thing, and I didn't want to spike the ball on the 2-yard line instead of in the endzone, so to speak.

Yesterday, with the finalized agreement due to be signed, I started planning out a massive "woohoo lookit the basketball!" column. I was all cued up and ready to roll out a joyful posting celebrating the madcap time-compressed free agency period, the positively delightful slate of opening games on Christmas day, some predictions about the upcoming season, some grousing about my beloved Hawks signing Tracy friggin' McGrady ... and a few paragraphs about that eminent blockbuster three-team trade that was sending Chris Paul to the Lakers. Now, my first NBA post of the new season is one fueled by outrage and disgust. Because, of course, that trade did not happen. It was agreed upon in principle, but it got shot to hell because some of the owners who collectively control the New Orleans Hornets as well as their own franchises pitched a fit over the deal.

To a degree, I understand those owners' sentiments. They just spent the past five months slugging things out with the players partly because the recent rash of player-engineered "superteam" amalgamations has dealt a fairly severe blow to the NBA's already tenuous grasp on parity. The new CBA was supposed to alleviate at least some of the problems for the small market teams, and here, mere minutes after its ratification, was yet another star player abandoning a smaller, weaker franchise to go play with Kobe Bryant on one of the richest teams in the league.

It makes perfect sense that this would generate some frustration. Frustration that was expressed with scathing vehemence by (surprise!) Dan Gilbert. Captain Comic Sans dumped a boatload of vitriol into the email in boxes of the other owners, who then opened fire on David Stern. Since the league owns the Hornets, it is technically within the rules for them to veto the trade, but the implications are disturbing at best and nefarious at worst.

The list of who got hosed here:

A. Dell Demps. The Hornets' GM spent a great deal of time and effort getting the machinations of this trade sussed out, the goal being to maximize the returns of dealing CP3 instead of losing him for nothing in free agency next year. Now, he has to wonder if he has any authority to actually run his team at all.

B. The Hornets and Rockets. As I just noted, NOLA is going to lose Chris Paul one way or another, and no later than free agency this summer. At least this way they were getting some very quality pieces in return. Now? They have to hope they can manufacture another trade that's somewhere close to beneficial. Houston painstakingly set themselves up for this situation, and would have gotten a premier asset in Pau Gasol while also clearing a good chunk of cap space to play with. Now all that careful planning is meaningless and they have to mollify the guys they were discarding.

C. The Lakers (ish). Lamar Odom is distraught and Pau Gasol probably will have to be appeased in some way, so they likely lost some locker room cohesiveness, but I'm not sure they were going to be improved by this deal. They would have lost their frontcourt depth and placed the immediate future of the franchise on Kobe, Paul, and Andrew Bynum. That's three stars with four or five bad wheels between them. Asking those limbs to all remain healthy during the brutally compressed 2012 season would be a gamble, and if it had gone south it would have been a disaster. Then again, if it had worked, that would have been a phenomenal team to watch.

D. Chris Paul, whom the league has chosen to make an example of, apparently. "You can't force your way to a big market and create another superteam! How dare you! Don't you understand why you were locked out? We will not stand for this!"

E. The owners. At least, the owners who complained about the trade. They hosed themselves with this, and they're too myopic to even realize it. They think they "won" in this scenario because they bitched enough that Stern stepped in. They think they made some sort of grand point. The backlash is coming. It's coming from the players. It's coming from the owners who would like to conduct their business without interference, thank you. And above everything else, it's coming from the fans.

If the danger of the lockout was losing the goodwill and buzz the league built with casual/new fans last season, the danger here is how the diehards are going to react. You think the Donaghy scandal was bad? That was one isolated guy (so far as we know). This was the league itself manipulating things in a misguided attempt to "protect" something it never really had. Speaking for myself and most NBA junkies I know, my forbearance with the owners was worn paper thin during the lockout. This despicable stunt eroded what was left. It's time for the pitchforks and torches.

What the small market owners don't seem to grasp is that they can only exist in the light of their big brothers. The NBA runs on the historical gravitas of the Lakers, Celtics, and Knicks, and on the condensed star power of Miami. Without the juggernauts, things become far less compelling, less people are in the stands, less people are watching on TV, and everyone is worse off. Parity, in a pure form, would be horrible for professional basketball.

And speaking of people who hosed themselves ...

F. The Commish. For years, David Stern could do no wrong. Under his watch, the league has generally flourished. He was ahead of the curve on the internet/social media revolution, innovative in growing basketball's global brand, and by all accounts ran a tight and well-steered ship. Even when the Donaghy scandal exploded in his lap, Stern handled the situation with swift and unerring authority. No one dared to cross or defy him. Even if seventy percent of the stories about his legendarily fearsome tirades were apocryphal, and there's no reason to think that they are, the remaining thirty percent would be sufficient evidence of how forcefully he ruled the league. Until recently.

One of the underlying themes that the lockout brought into stark relief was the revelation that Stern's iron fist is rusted through. The owners want more, more, more, and if Stern can't give it to them, they're not going to listen to him anymore. Three years ago, if owners had carped about a trade like they did Thursday night, Stern would have told them to cowboy up and deal with it. Now he's bending pathetically to their will and mumbling hollow platitudes about "basketball reasons" to the media.

Which exactly zero sane people believe to be even partly truthful. The Hornets were going to make out like bandits in this deal, to the extent that you can while losing a superstar player. For the league to claim that they squelched the trade to protect New Orleans' best interests is an outright travesty.

We know what happened, David. After you preached the gospel of fairness and parity throughout the lockout, a situation materialized that, at least in the eyes of certain owners, invalidated everything you said. The bill of goods you sold them was bunk, they broke out the extra-strength venom, and you caved. Pretending otherwise is insulting to our intelligence, offensive to our sensibilities, and toxic to your legacy.

This whole thing is an unmitigated disaster. We just got the game we love back, and its ostensible caretaker has defiled it in one of the most fundamental ways imaginable. Shame on David Stern. Shame on the owners who railroaded him. Shame on anybody who isn't outraged by the situation. When Bryant Gumble made his now semi-infamous plantation analogy, I thought he was crazy. You can't possibly compare that horrible time in American history with a lucrative professional sport, right? It's in poor taste at best and truly awful at worst. And yet, the man had a point.

If the league doesn't rescind the veto and allow that trade to go through, we may as well re-lock the NBA out. The last five months were about ensuring that the new CBA was a tenable paradigm for everyone involved. If the new "business as usual" means owners can arbitrarily stand in the way of, well, usual business, what the hell was the point?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Lving on Sesame Street Or In A Little Pond?

Every once in a while, baseball's winter meetings feature a scenario that subsumes and vastly outstrips the usual banter and speculation about who's ending up where and for how much. In these instances, the proverbial "hot stove" runs on napalm instead of kerosene, so to speak. We've got one such situation on our hands right now, and no mistake: Where is Albert Pujols going to be playing ball next season? For how long, and for what financial compensation?

So far, we have three known contenders for the greatest and (arguably) most important current player in the game. Of that triptych, I choose to disregard the Cubs because, by all accounts at this juncture, they are following their usual modus operandi. That is to say, they are theoretically in contention for a phenomenal prize, but are not to be taken seriously in that pursuit.

Which leaves the Cardinals and Marlins.

(The title of this post is the most horrid pun I could possibly have written, but it had to be done. Next year, Albert Pujols will either be a Big Bird or a Big Fish! Get it? ... Moving on.)

The former team is looking to retain their franchise player and, to some extent, their identity. The latter is hoping to incorporate Pujols as part of an amalgam designed to rejuvenate a fanbase that's currently on life support. And win some games too, I suppose.

Keeping in mind that Miami has set the bar with a 10-year offer, let's go over the risk/reward factors for both clubs.

In the Marlins' case, it's far more critical to acquire Pujols than it is for the Cardinals to retain him. The organization has bet its future on a rebranding experiment, and the odds of that gamble's success would be considerably increased with The Machine on board. The new stadium, the "Miami" rechristening, the Ozzie Guillen move, the Jose Reyes and Heath Bell signings; everything about their recent machinations speaks to a concerted effort to redefine this franchise as serious (read: marketable) contenders.

It's been speculated that the Guillen and Reyes moves, coupled with the club's current star in Hanley Ramirez, have been made not just for the sake of on-field improvement, but to generate badly needed interest among Miami's significant Latino population. Pujols would certainly be the crowned jewel on both counts.

There are a few problems facing the Marlins' gambit. First; the fact that Pujols rejected a lavish offer from the Cardinals before the 2011 season means that any team hoping to acquire his services needs to outbid that offer. Miami's 0rganization has shown its willingness to do so with the proposal yesterday of a 10-year deal* for an undisclosed but likely astronomical dollar amount. The issue: they don't actually have that money at present; the offer is based around speculated earnings from the new stadium and players and their projected ability to bring in fans. It remains to be seen whether Pujols (or agent Dan Lozano) will be amenable to signing a contract "on credit."

Things are further complicated by Miami's team policy against the inclusion of a no-trade clause in any player negotiations, a clause Pujols adamantly desires. Per ESPN's Jayson Stark, the Marlins "have added provisions that would position Pujols as a figurehead of their franchise after his playing career is finished" in lieu of a no-trade agreement, and have asked him to make his decision as quickly as possible so that they can address other aspects of their future.

*A brief note of personal opinion. Albert Pujols is 32 years old, which means a ten-year deal puts him over 40 at its expiration. I realize that the man is a one-in-a-generation talent, but when his inevitable decline comes, the back half of that contract is going to be a least as onerous as what the Yankees are currently suffering through with A-Rod and Jeter. You really shouldn't offer 10-year deals to anyone, but especially not to a player on the wrong side of 30 whose admittedly considerable gifts may already be slipping a notch. Unless they have insider info from a pharmaceutical or biotech company about a major breakthrough coming down the pipeline that will significantly diminish the effects of aging on athletes, the Marlins front office are insane.

The other party engaged in the bidding war for number 5 is, of course, the Saint Louis Cardinals. Given the somewhat acrimonious failure to resolve this situation before 2011 season, the Cards may have expended any good will or "hometown discount" capital already. If they want to retain Pujols, they're going to shell out the dough and years. (How Matt Forte ended up with the "Pay That Man" moniker instead of Pujols is baffling. I suppose when you already have a nickname as sweet as "The Machine", you don't need another to declare your worth to a team, but still.) The fact is that this should have been taken care of ages ago. You don't allow your cornerstone player to walk. Not when he's a dead lock for first-ballot admittance to Cooperstown, not when he's been instrumental in bringing you two World Series trophies, not when he's an All-Time Top 20(ish) talent. Not when he's Albert Pujols, in other words. You don't let that kind of player slip through your hands.

But they might.

I wrote at the top of this piece that it's more important for the Marlins to sign Pujols than it is for the Cards. The reason that's true is that St. Louis has a long, proud history as a baseball town and their fans will be there rain or shine, win or lose. Losing Pujols will cause plenty of anguish, but it won't crush the franchise. The Cards have Lance Berkman available to play at first, they're going to get ace Adam Wainwright back from Tommy John surgery next year, and the emergence (epiphany? revelation? holy %$#^ coming-out party?) of hometown kid David Freese last year means they already have a successor in the wings for the "most beloved athlete in town" title.

By contrast, the Marlins have been concocting ever more innovative ways to be lousy since their last World Series title in 2003. Even at the acme of their success, Miami's fans were less than devoted. Pujols would make the team instantly relevant, both on the field and in terms of attendance figures and jersey sales. If the Marlins are batting Ramirez, Reyes, and Pujols 2-3-4 or 3-4-5 in 2012, that's automatically the scariest trio of hitters in the NL, and maybe baseball period. Combine that with the baseball-savvy media goldmine that is Ozzie Guillen and a few moves regarding their starting rotation, and Miami is not only in the mix for the NL East again, but guaranteed to have people in the seats at that shiny new ballpark of theirs.

Wherever Pujols digs his feet into a batter's box for 81 games next year, he's gong to be doing it for a long time and a lot of green.** Then? We'll spend a decade finding out whether it was worth it for the team in question.

**From a personal standpoint, I'd prefer to see Pujols stay in Saint Louis. Partly because I want the Braves' pitchers facing him as little as possible, but mostly because I can't fathom the image of him in another uniform. The man has been inextricably linked to The Gateway for over a decade now, and my inner grumpy ol' traditionalist wants to see him finish his career there.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Dig The Link, Link The Diggity. (No Doubt).

My dear friend Jurz runs a blog centered around his rather remarkable ability to be circumspect and philosophically tangential about damn near any subject. Kid can muse on things like nobody's business. Anyway, we have a number of hippy-type friends who are inclined, shall we say, to view sports as establishment-y and fit for consumption only by the narrow-minded and unprogressive. Today, Jurz posted a rather thorough dissection of the many ways in which NFL football can be enjoyed even by those who are prejudiced against its perceived, uh, neanderthal-ity. It's a good read. Look for more pf his desultory thoughts on the sports world to be linked here in the future. Enjoy.

Heeeeeeere Ya Go.

(If you write about sports and think I'd enjoy your work/want me to link to it, feel free to get in touch. travis.lund@gmail.com)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Back Again, But Where We Should Be.

Sports Radio Broadcast Disorientation Syndrome. That's how I started the non-work portion of my Saturday.

I clocked out at the shop, hopped in the car, and flipped the dial to the SEC Championship Game. Unfortunately, Georgia was in the middle of a completely mundane drive, the leading cause of SRBDS nation wide. Radio is, well, a decidedly auditory experience. No visual representation of the game means no handy little score/clock/timeout box of information. What you get instead is play-by-play without any context whatsoever. You're aware of down and distance, you're receiving enough description to accurately visualize what's occurring on the field ... and getting exactly zero pertinent info regarding the two most fundamental questions: when in the game are we and what is the bloody score?

You're stuck in limbo and praying for a score or a change of possession so the announcers will give you the obligatory score/time update heading into the commercial break. It's infuriating.

I spent what felt like an eternity (actually closer to four minutes or so) listening to the game without knowing what was happening. And of course, just as I'm merging onto a busy highway with the sun in my eyes, there's finally a timeout called, and I discover that the Dawgs are up 10-0 midway through the 2nd quarter and that they've held LSU to something like 8 total yards and no first downs. Jaw, meet the floor. Floor, jaw.

I damn near crashed the car.

I got home, poured a drink, and settled in. At the half, it was 10-7 UGA, and LSU had 12 total yards and still hadn't converted a first down. The Tigers looked imminently beatable in a manner that they previously had not this season. Foolishly, I hoped it was a portent, an omen. How many crazy upsets could we cram into championship day? How many nail biters would we experience? Was the supposedly-etched-in-stone BCS Championship Game about to get its cage severely rattled?

Well, you know the rest. Precisely nothing that remotely qualified as interesting happened for the remainder of the day. LSU came out and eviscerated Georgia in the second half. Oregon destroyed UCLA. Boise State hammered New Mexico. Baylor leveled Texas.

Even the unexpected occurrences last night were pretty far south of captivating. Clemson's whupping of Virginia Tech and Houston's meltdown against Southern Miss both lacked any sort of elan, and it's safe to safe nobody other than their respective fanbases cared about WVU/USF or K-State/ISU.

The only watchable contest from start to finish was the (mostly) fantastic, back-and-forth shootout between Wisconsin and Michigan State. It was a riveting, hard-fought affair, but I refuse to call it a "good game" when the key play hinged upon a kicker's ability to execute a FIFA-esque flop.

And then there was Bedlam. Smart money said this was going to be a hell of a game. Two very good teams playing for pride and an outsider's shot at the Title Game for OSU. Shoulda been a firestorm barn burner, right? Nope. Landslide for the Pokes. They made as emphatic an argument as they could on the field for inclusion in the BCS Title Game. And it still didn't matter.

The only thing we got out of this weekend was more film and fuel for the various Heisman candidacies, and the determination of which not-as-great teams will be throwing down in which irrelevant Bowls. Otherwise, we're exactly where we were when the Game Of The Century (*cough*) was played in Tuscaloosa.

And so the complaining has begun all over again. Not quite so loud as it might be, but still prevalent enough to annoy me. Let's tackle this one point at a time.

To the SEC detractors complaining about bias and preferential treatment, who roll your eyes whenever the superiority of our defense is brought up, who are positively sickened by the 'Bama/LSU Championship rematch, I issue this simple rebuttal: if you don't like it, start beating SEC teams. If you want National Championship games that don't feature this conference, then do something about it. Wisconsin, Boise State, Clemson, Oregon, Stanford, Houston , all could have been there in place of Alabama, but they blew it. (Well, maybe not Houston)

As for Mike Gundy's whining about how Alabama had their chance already ... Alabama lost to LSU, who were then and are now the best team in the country. The Cowboys had their chance already, too. It was left for dead on the field after that pathetic choke job against Iowa State.

Gundy's argument holds a particularly miniscule amount of water not just because it reeks of sour grapes, but because it's just plain silly if you think about it. Nobody thought the Giants "didn't deserve" to take on New England in the Super Bowl just because the Pats crushed them in the regular season. Rematches happen in sports. Deal with it.

And speaking of the rematch naysayers, to all those carping about how "boring" that first Tigers/Tide game was, feel free to not watch the Championship Game. I completely understand that offensive football makes for a more enjoyable viewing experience for most people. I get that you're intrigued by the concept of the Cowboys' firepower tangling with a defense that's sending over half of its current starters to the NFL at some point. Admittedly, I'd like to see that too. The problem is that the Pokes are not the second-best team in the country.

This broken, flawed mess of a system is all we've got, but in this instance, it did its job. It's not pretty, and from certain viewpoints, it might not seem fair or just, but this season it is, at least correct. The two best teams in the country will play for the crystal football.

Until we get a playoff system, that's all we can ask for.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Rivalry Weekend: Pure, Old-Fashioned Hatred.

A few weeks ago, we took my dad to the Georgia Tech/Clemson game as a birthday gift. One might wonder how a guy from Cumberland, WI came to be a Yellow Jackets fan, but as dad tells it, they were the hometown team when he moved to Atlanta, and that was that. Anyway, it was Homecoming Weekend against a Top-10-ranked conference rival; a heavy game for 'Tech.

"Big Honkin' Deal" certified, if you will.

If we'd been doing things right, we would have hit The Varsity beforehand for some artery-clogging eats. Unfortunately, we left a little late, traffic was bad, and we ended up pulling into the parking deck without a ton of time to spare. (On the way in we passed a drunken, older guy wearing a Clemson hat and a New England Patriots hoodie. Explain that combination. We should have run him over.) We forked over the $20 fee, parked, and headed out into a brisk Southern autumn evening.

The route from the parking deck to the stadium took us across an overpass that was staked out as prime tailgating real estate. Scalpers snaked their way through the crowd: "Got One!" "Need 2!" "Four tickets! Who needs tickets? Y'all need tickets?!?! Got four!!!" Under team-logo-bearing canopies that had probably been there since well before dawn, people yammered excitedly at each other over the hiss of grills and the clanking of beer bottles in a steady hum of drawled joviality. Portable radios blared the local pregame show on AM 680: "The Fan" and generators powering TVs and digital receivers puttered merrily away. The collective aroma was a complex, delicate blend of cheap beer, good bourbon, charred meat, and intoxicated humanity.

And that was just the prelude.

We left the tailgaters behind and hung a left on Techwood Drive, Georgia Tech's Fraternity Row. Pandemonium. Alcohol-fueled students, alumni, and fans were everywhere, forming a loose migration towards the stadium lights. Those not attending the game, young men wearing blazers and ties in Yellow Jackets colors and women in dresses too short and thin for the October air, were milling around on frat house porches and lawns, tall boys, cocktails, and fifths of Jack or Jim fused to their hands. Lynyrd Skynyrd's cover of J.J. Cale's "They Call Me The Breeze" blasted from one open window. Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down To Georgia", (just "Devil Went Down" in GA shorthand), piped furiously from across the street. Here and there, clusters of orange and purple indicated the presence of The Opposition. The parade floats, retired from their earlier duties, had become makeshift dances floors/jungle gyms. The frat house lawns were already trashed, and it was still a half-hour until kickoff.

Georgia Tech's Homecoming Weekend may not rival schools like Alabama or Ohio State for sheer volume, both in the sense of population and of decibel levels, but the rowdiness-per-capita quotient must be pretty damned close.

Through that press of lunacy, we made our way to Gate 3, and into the granite majesty of Bobby Dodd Stadium At Historic Grant Field.

Our seats, it must be said, were pretty choice. Row 5, upper deck, right corner of the home end zone. The place was humming with the sort of disorganized electricity you always find in a stadium 20 minutes before kickoff; excitement and anticipation mingled with the confusion of last-second concessions stand and bathroom runs, people checking their tickets and navigating towards their seats, yelling into cellphones trying to locate their friends. After some trial-and-error, we found our numerically designated spots on one of the aluminum benches that line the upper deck. Mom went for a hotdog and popcorn. Dad and I took in the scene.

The view from that end of Bobby Dodd at a night game is something to behold. Atlanta's skyline juts up from behind the jumbotron at the far end of the field, creating the kind of backdrop that makes you wish you really knew how to wield a camera. You get the sense that the city has grown up around the stadium, which is exactly what happened. (Whenever we drove downtown when I was a kid, Dad would point out the old, blue-domed Hyatt Regency hotel that was the tallest thing in Atlanta when he moved here in 1967. That blue dome has since been dwarfed by the IBM Building, the Peachtree Plaza, and any number of other structures that, out of necessity, have had to grow upwards rather than outwards.)

In a stadium packed with rabid fans, I should make special mention of the 'Tech student seated a few rows behind us. She was obviously being fueled by some amalgamation of booze and possibly chemically-induced hyperactivity, and she had a nonstop, profane motormouth like ... like a drunken sailor amplified through a 500-watt amp. Now, there's nothing in the world wrong with a little drunken heckling. Heck, it wouldn't be a good game without it. But this was on another level. She did not stop screaming things at the players on the field ever. All night. I was honestly equal parts annoyed and impressed. Lungs of iron and a voice box of burnished steel, man.

You already know what happened on the field. The Yellow Jackets crushed Clemson 31-17, totally derailing the Tigers' BCS Title hopes and temporarily keeping Tech's own shot at the ACC Championship Game alive.

As the clock wound down, the PA announcer pleaded for orderly behavior. Stadium security positioned themselves around the periphery of the field, presumably to deter or prevent the ecstatic throngs from rushing onto it.

They never stood a chance.

It was the first time I'd ever witnessed a full-bore field storming live up close, complete with goal-post decimation and the whole bit. I don't know if they use inferior camera angles on TV or what, but the view from the in-person upper deck closely resembles an eschatological microcosm. The 100 yards of verdant turf which seemed to allow endless space for the deployment and maneuver of 22 men only moments before is swallowed nearly instantaneously. It is trampled by jubilant feet as they rush to be as near to the players as possible, and woe betide anything in their way. Pity the grounds crew.

Our walk back to the car was essentially an amplified replay of our experience coming in. Drunken optimism had been replaced by drunken swagger, and the party on Techwood had either devolved or elevated, depending upon your point of view, into something far more dynamically unhinged. Amidst the chaos, two guys slumped in rocking chairs in front of one frat house, raising their glasses and yelling happy, drunken nonsense to all passers by. Literal ramblin' wrecks, if you will. The game was through, but the night was young, and the revelers were getting their second (or possibly fifth) wind.

That's how it is when you come into a home game as significant underdogs against the number 5 team in the country and thrash them on Homecoming Weekend.

The buildup is intense. The aftermath is insanity.

And everything I just described is a mere distillation, a parlor trick, compared to what happened in College Station on Thanksgiving, and what's going down today in Atlanta and Auburn and Gainesville.

Rivalry weekend is the gift that gives every year, reliable as the mail and death and taxes. These games matter regardless of who's sitting where in the BCS rankings or the conference standings or any other external factors, really. The old syaing about winning the battle but losing the war is irrelavent if this is the battle you win. And Texas/Texas A&M, Georgia/Georgia Tech, 'Bama/Auburn, and Florida/FSU are unquestionably the biggest, baddest, noisiest, craziest rivalry games played every year. Those are the big four. Or big three, now that the Longhorns and Aggies are on a (hopefully) temporary break due to realignment bitterness. Oh, I know LSU's trouncing of Arkansas yesterday technically held the most import vis-a-vis the BCS, but the Golden Boot game never seemed to pack the concentrated wallop of the true in-state rivalries, historically speaking. (The only non-state-rivalry matchup that delivers this consistently is Georgia/Florida. It's not billed as "the world's largest outdoor cocktail party" for nothing.)

No offense meant to Ohio State/Michigan, UCLA/USC, etc., but they simply don't grow up with a bone-deep football jones. (I'm not saying it's 100% healthy. Southerners have a pathological relationship to the sport that can, if manifested too strongly, vault from eccentric obsession to total lunacy. See: the oaks at Toomer's Corner.) Point is, football is different in the south. It just is. And today is different even from our normal level of fanaticism, because today is the one-day-a-year rapture that will fuel conversations, debates, and smack talk for the other 364.

Happy rivalry day, y'all!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Vote Dale In 2011!!!!

The Major League Baseball Hall Of Fame ballot has looked awfully crowded of late. It's not actually brimming with more important or memorable players than in the past, of course, but it seems that way to me. My perception is being colored because within the past few years names have started cropping up on that ballot that I can remember watching live and in the moment. There's a huge difference between a player whose achievements you know purely from an anecdotal or statistical standpoint, and one whose most transcendent moments you can reflect on because you witnessed them as they happened.

Now that I'm seeing the same people vying for Cooperstown votes that I was excited to pull out of a fresh pack of Tops when I was a kid, I note that there's a tremendous fondness that accompanies the guys who are inextricably linked with your formative years of fandom. You get the urge to endorse their Hall Of Fame candidacies; even the guys you loathed during their playing days because they were involved in the demoralization of your team. (I forgive you, Jack Morris and John Olerud.)

And, of course, your bias inevitably swings hardest towards players who were special to your hometown team. If I were a member of the BBWAA and had a vote to cast, I would do my absolute best to suppress those feelings in the name of integrity, but since I'm not, let me take a moment to exhort those who determine Cooperstown's membership: vote Dale Murphy in.

Murphy's first ballot was 1999, making this his 13th year of eligibility. If a player has not been elected after 15 ballots, he is no longer a candidate for the vote, (though he can still be elected by the Veteran's Committee, but that could take many more years), which means the clock is ticking for ol' Dale. Allow me to make his case in three parts.

A. Achievements and stats on the diamond: While his career numbers may not seem Grade-A phenomenal in hindsight (the most glaring problem: a .265 BA), Dale Murphy in his prime was a force. He had a lifetime .815 OPS, six seasons of 30+ homers, and a 7th in which he hit 29, retiring just shy of 400 total dingers (398). Murphy earned back-to-back NL MVP awards in 1982 and '83, making him only the fourth outfielder in Major League history to accomplish that feat. The only other multiple-MVP not currently in Cooperstown: Roger Marris, who ought to be there too. As for Murphy, The rest of his litany of on-field honors reads a s follows: 7 All-Star appearances, 5 Gold Gloves, 4 Silver Sluggers, and a partridge in a pear tree.

True, Murphy's career retrospective suffers from a lack of longevity. In Rob Neyer's words, he "got a late start and suffered an early end." And yes, I know his totals pale in comparison to the gaudy numbers of many who came after him. I know his last six seasons are a statistical Scarlet Letter to HOF voters. Rarely have anyone's production and durability fallen off a cliff quite so spectacularly as Murphy's after he turned 32. We're talking Wile E. Coyote, here. Given those years of sudden and inexplicable decline, I can absolutely understand why the bleak final impression they left might negatively color the BBWAA's minds, but during his sublime apex from 1982-1987, Dale Murphy was as good a ballplayer as anyone else in the league. That level of greatness, however briefly extant, merits a plaque in Cooperstown, or at least better consideration than Murphy has been granted thus far.

B. Beyond the dugout: There have been very few men in the history of sport who have exemplified class, dignity, and basic goodness quite like Dale Murphy. A devout Mormon, a man who walked the walk of humility and service in the face of stardom, Murphy was the antithesis of everything we seem to lament about modern celebrities. There were charities, of course. The Make-A-Wish Foundatioin, The March Of Dimes, The American Heart Association, and a host of others. What set Dale apart were the extras. One of the most beloved athletes in Atlanta history, Murphy had a column for years in the Atlanta Constitution in which he responded to fan mail, always with warmth and humor. He was soft-spoken and cordial, kind and welcoming, to everyone he encountered. He always had time for the fans, for the city, for whoever needed him.

To baseball's credit, this did not go unnoticed. Murphy received MLB's Lou Gehrig Award, given to "the player who best exemplifies the spirit and character of Brother Lou Gehrig, both on and off the field ... to acknowledge an individual player’s outstanding commitment to both his community and philanthropy," in 1985. In 1987, he was one of Sports Illustrated's Sportsmen and Sportswomen of the Year, and in 1988 he received the Roberto Clemente Award, awarded to the player who "best exemplifies sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team." When people use the phrase "ambassador of the game," they mean guys like Dale Murphy.

Obviously, it's open to interpretation and debate as to how much (if at all) one's off-field behaviors and personality should influence Hall Of Fame consideration. I can only say that if anyone's candidacy were to be granted a "good-guy" bump that might make up for a not-quite-as-great-or-sustained career, Dale's the guy.

C. Resonance. Atlanta sports were, for the most part, beyond terrible in the 1980s. Our supposedly "professional" football team was so awful that it's not dignified to even discuss. I'm fairly certain the Georgia Bulldogs, or even the Yellow Jackets, could have beaten the Falcons 8-out-of-every-10 times. (Sadly, that's only half a joke.) We didn't have a hockey team anymore since the Flames had moved to Calgary. The Hawks were equal parts fantasy and frustration. We were in the heyday of 'Nique and Spud Webb and Doc Rivers, but it was fairly evident that they weren't making the NBA Finals as long as Larry Bird was alive and playing basketball. The punishment The Hick From French Lick and co. dealt us every season was miserable and humiliating. Our only respite was in the joy of watching 'Nique's pyrotechnic dunks on a nightly basis. Which, admittedly, was pretty awesome.

And then there were the Braves. There is no adjective sufficient to describe the pitiful state of our baseball team in those years. You'd go to a game and here things like: "tonight's attendance: 5,138." People were ... unenthused, to put it politely. But just as we could take a little solace and a lot of pride in 'Nique's jaw-dropping talents in The Omni Arena, we had Dale down at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. People cared because of Dale. He was all we had to cling to; this incredible player whose every at-bat or play in the field was galvanizing. Fans have a history of revering two kinds of players: superstars and "hustle guys." When your most exemplary "hustle guy" also happens to be one the the best players in the game, when he refuses to phone in a single inning in even when it's late August and the team is 27 games out of first, when he suffers every loss with quiet dignity and comes back tomorrow and hits another moonshot or makes another incredible catch at the wall, that's when you have something special. That's what Dale Murphy was. Something truly special.

It still makes me sad to think that we traded Dale to the Phillies right in the middle of the 1990 season, the year before everything turned around and the Braves began their unprecedented run of dominance. I know that the trade facilitated us putting together some of that worst-to-first '91 squad, but it still seems terribly unfair that he gave his all for us time and again, and didn't get to enjoy any of the gravy years. And then, in an extra cruel twist, Dale was traded away to the Rockies traded him right before the Phillies made their own run in 1993. Dale Murphy never got to play in a World Series.

Which is why, if there's any karma or justice out there to be had, for everything he was and everything he did on and off the field, Dale Murphy ought to be in the Hall Of Fame. It's not a rational argument, but I still think it's the right one to make, and the right ballot to cast.

Vote Dale in 2011.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Tim Tebow: A Parable Of Confusion.

"Players win and winners play. Have a lucky day."

Let me get this out of the way up front: I'm pretty much neutral on the topic of Tim Tebow. I'm not invested in his success or failure as an NFL player. I find his overtly religious displays a little grating, sure, but it's his right as a citizen of this country to practice freedom of speech and expression, and I'll take Tebow's brand of publicity over Chad Ochocinco's any day. This is not a referendum on his beliefs or his character.

Now that I've covered every conceivable disclaimer angle, let's get down to it!

Back in September, when the Broncos had Kyle Orton under center and Tebow was still riding pine behind Brady Quinn, I wrote a lengthy rant imploring Denver to either play him in a system that utilized his skill set or trade him to a team willing to do so, because I wanted to see exactly what Tebow could or would be in the NFL. After starting five games this season, only three of which have been played with a modified option system that plays to Tebow's strengths, I ... I still have no idea. As far as I can see, the haters, detractors, praisers, and deifiers are all pretty much simultaneously correct, incorrect, and every little shade of grey in between.

Thursday's game against the Jets did nothing to demystify the convoluted perplexity that is Tim Tebow. In fact, it perpetuated the confusion with gusto. My brain hurt just trying to put it all together.

Let's recap what we've learned thus far about everyone's favorite hot-button, lightning-rod QB.

Point: Tim Tebow wins football games. Denver is 5-5 and a half-game out of 1st in the AFC West. With Kyle Orton under center, they were 1-4. With Tebow? 4-1, including two phenomenal 4th-quarter comebacks. Scoreboard, baby.

Counterpoint: Those four wins? Miami (needed OT to beat the second-worst team in football), Oakland (respectable, especially since the final score was 38-24), KC (meh), and the miraculously self-imploding J-E-S-T, J-E-S-T, JEST, JEST, JEST!!! (I'm not dyslexic; the Jets are just a joke ... get it?) Also, my high school's JV team could win the AFC West.

Point: Tim Tebow's teammates believe in his grit and determination!!! They know he's awesome in the clutch!!! Did you hear those post-game interviews?!?! Seriously, though, it was interesting listening to all the soundbites. Von Miller: "No matter how many interceptions he throws, no matter how many touchdowns he scores, that's Tim Tebow and I'm going to ride with him to the end. I hope he shut up a whole bunch of critics today." Champ Bailey: "[The media] don't see what he has on the inside. Yeah, he might not be the greatest passer. But give him a chance at the end? I've never seen anything like it." Eric Decker: "He gets better as the game goes on. He really does." The locker room has apparently had a collective "Come to Jesus Moment." Pun fully intended.

Counterpoint: They wouldn't need to stage these admittedly awesome-to-behold comebacks if Tebow played at a level above sub-mediocre for three quarters (and change) every game. And they wouldn't have had last night's opportunity if Mark Sanchez wasn't a doofus and the Broncos' defense hadn't made him pay for it. In addition, the outcome looks totally different if Tebow's awful, ill-advised screen pass to Eddie Royal goes for the safety it should have instead of the 8-yard gain it became. In further addition, while his teammates may, by their own admission, be playing their butts off for the guy, John(s) Fox and Elway are certainly not enthused by the prospect of continuing to deal with him. Fox is being as diplomatic as he can in interviews, but he'd clearly rather be working with someone else. And did you see Elway's reaction after Tebow's touchdown run last night? There has not been less enthusiastic applause anywhere. Ever.

Point: Tebow presents an interesting thought: can you win in the NFL in 2011 without a "legitimate" quarterback? Based on results, the answer is apparently yes. While conventional wisdom states that NFL defenses will eventually catch up to the option game and shut Tebow down, I'm not 100% sold on that point of view. Imagine a scenario in which a team truly commits to building a system around him. (It won't be Denver, but let's say someone does at some point.) If they called in Urban Meyer as a consultant and installed the Tebow-era Gators' offensive playbook, who's to say they couldn't be successful? Or give Paul Johnson a call. Georgia Tech destroyed a superior Clemson team this season based on solid defense and their unconventional, tightly-run triple option. Learn that, drill it in preseason, refine the nuts and bolts of that style to an intuitive level. Be sure to surround him with athletic hybrid backs and a solid defense and ... see where it takes you. Why can't that work at the next level? (Hell, the 49ers are 8-1 with Alex Effing Smith under center. Who says you need an elite QB to succeed in the NFL?)

Counterpoint: You, uh, need an elite QB to succeed in the NFL. So far, Denver has kept things close enough for Tebow to do his "miracle victory" routine. Given how terrible he's played through three quarters in most games, guess what happens when they run into elite offenses who hang up vast quantities of points no matter how good the opposing D is? Bad things, that's what. Eventually, you're going to need to throw the ball effectively to win in the playoffs, and he basically can't. Tebow's 2011 passing stats: 44.8% on Completions, 5.67 YDS per Pass, 78.4 Passer Rating. Those numbers would be fine if he were quarterbacking a team in 1936. Nowadays? Preeeeeeeeeetty crappy. Heart and guts and blah blah blah aside, you are absolutely screwed if you get into a shootout with an offensive powerhouse. John Fox even said as much. (Almost literally, in fact. Fox: "If we were trying to run a traditional offense, we'd be screwed.") Denver is winning now. They could win the AFC West and earn a playoff birth without too much difficulty, in fact. Beyond that? You'd be insane to trust a guy who can't really throw a football to win in January or beyond.

To sum up, I got nothing. Is he good? No. At least not in the modern sense of what a quarterback "ought to be." Does he win? Yes. At least under the current circumstances against non-elite opponents. Tebow is a walking, talking, possibly-miracle-working enigma. At this point, that's almost all we know.

Almost. We do know this: nobody in sports is more compelling or mandatory viewing right now. Commanding that kind of attention is rare in this day and age. Doing it without being either an elite superstar or a scandalized public figure? That might take an act of God.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Fixin' Up The Shack.

You may have noticed that for the first time since I started including them, my usual top-of-the-post photo has nothing whatsoever to do with sports. That would be because this particular entry concerns the BCS, and a literal train wreck is the most apropos of accompanying images.

Yep, it's that time of year again, folks. Leaves are turning, temperatures are dropping, and we're staring at another infuriatingly cruddy set of hypothetical scenarios for the National Championship Game. Which of course is a misnomer for this farce of a "culmination" in which at least at least one team is guaranteed to be shafted by the capriciousness of moronic voters and an even more idiotic computer. Perception will become a very unfair reality. Somebody will be penalized for being and/or playing "the little sisters of the poor." Cries of outrage will be raised. And ignored.

None of which would be an issue if college football had, you know, playoffs.

Jim Mora's hilarious incredulity aside, how many more years are we going to keep griping about this before we fix it? Under the current rules, if Arkansas beats LSU next week, they're still not eligible for the SEC Championship Game by virtue of a ranking-centered tie-breaker. They could beat the #1 team in the nation, who also happens to be in their own division, but they still can't play in their conference championship? Sheesh.

How about this: barring a disaster, UGA will win the SEC East. What if the Dawgs beat the Tigers in Atlanta? Are they denied a shot at the crystal football because they had two early-season losses? What if LSU loses to Arkansas and Georgia both? Are they still granted consideration ahead of Boise State, Stanford, etc.?

What if Oklahoma State and Houston are the only two undefeated programs at season's end? For the sake of argument: Yes, their competition is relatively flabby. But they're destroying that competition, being that they're the two highest-scoring teams in the country and all. Is "strength of schedule", that old abhorrent phrase, really grounds to denigrate a flawless record and gaudy offensive production? (I say yes, but they'll kinda-sorta have a point if they're kept out of the Title game while one-loss-ers play. At least a little bit ... right?)

The names and mascots change, but we have these same stupid arguments every stupid season. The nebulous subjectivity of the whole process is maddening. Unlike a logical equation, we can't ever say, definitively, that X is greater than Y. We can only think it, and who's X and who's Y might vary from person to person, which is just ridiculous. Why don't we settle all of these questions like we do in every other sport, civilized or uncivilized, in every hemisphere on the planet? It's time.

Now before the clamor goes up about all the lost revenues from not playing bowl games, hold on a second. Howsabout we have bowl games that are playoff games.

I know that sounds insane, but just bear with me. Courtesy of USA Today, here's a listing of every scheduled bowl game for the 2011-2012 season:

(all ET)
Bowl Site Matchup
Sat., Dec. 17
2 p.m.
New Mexico Albuquerque Mountain West vs. Pac-12
Sat., Dec. 17
5:30 p.m.
Humanitarian Boise, Idaho MAC vs. WAC
Sat., Dec. 17
9 p.m.
New Orleans New Orleans Sun Belt vs. Conference USA
Tue., Dec. 20
8 p.m.
Beef 'O'Brady's St. Petersburg, Fla. Big East vs. Conference USA
Wed., Dec. 21
8 p.m.
Poinsettia San Diego Mountain West vs. WAC
Thu., Dec. 22
8 p.m.
MAACO Las Vegas Las Vegas Mountain West vs. Pac-12
Sat., Dec. 24
8 p.m.
Hawaii Honolulu Conference USA vs. WAC
Mon., Dec. 26
5 p.m.
Independence Shreveport, La. ACC vs. Mountain West
Tue., Dec. 27
4:30 p.m.
Little Caesars Detroit Big Ten vs. MAC
Tue., Dec. 27
8 p.m.
Belk Charlotte ACC vs. Big East
Wed., Dec. 28
4:30 p.m.
Military Washington, D.C. ACC vs. Navy
Wed., Dec. 28
8 p.m.
Holiday San Diego Big 12 vs. Pac-12
Thu., Dec. 29
5:30 p.m.
Champs Sports Orlando ACC vs. Big East
Thu., Dec. 29
9 p.m.
Alamo San Antonio Big 12 vs. Pac-12
Fri., Dec. 30
Armed Forces Dallas BYU vs. Conference USA
Fri., Dec. 30
3:20 p.m.
Pinstripe Bronx, N.Y. Big 12 vs. Big East
Fri., Dec. 30
6:40 p.m.
Music City Nashville, Tenn. ACC vs. SEC
Fri., Dec. 30
10 p.m.
Insight Tempe, Ariz. Big Ten vs. Big 12
Sat., Dec. 31
Meineke Car Care Houston Big Ten vs. Big 12
Sat., Dec. 31
2 p.m.
Sun El Paso, Texas ACC vs. Pac-12
Sat., Dec. 31
3:30 p.m.
Liberty Memphis Conference USA vs. SEC
Sat., Dec. 31
3:30 p.m.
Kraft Fight Hunger San Francisco Army vs. Pac-12
Sat., Dec. 31
7:30 p.m.
Chick-fil-A Atlanta ACC vs. SEC
Mon., Jan. 2
TicketCity Dallas Big Ten vs. Conference USA
Mon., Jan. 2
1 p.m.
Outback Tampa Big Ten vs. SEC
Mon., Jan. 2
1 p.m.
Capital One Orlando Big Ten vs. SEC
Mon., Jan. 2
1 p.m.
Gator Jacksonville, Fla. Big Ten vs. SEC
Mon., Jan. 2
5 p.m.
Rose Pasadena, Calif. BCS vs. BCS
Mon., Jan. 2
8:30 p.m.
Fiesta Glendale, Ariz. BCS vs. BCS
Tue., Jan. 3
8:30 p.m.
Sugar New Orleans BCS vs. BCS
Wed., Jan. 4
8:30 p.m.
Orange Miami BCS vs. BCS
Fri., Jan. 6
8 p.m.
Cotton Arlington, Texas Big 12 vs. SEC
Sat., Jan. 7
1 p.m.
BBVA Compass Birmingham, Ala. Big East vs. SEC
Sun., Jan. 8
9 p.m.
Go Daddy Mobile, Ala. MAC vs. Sun Belt
Mon., Jan. 9
8:30 p.m.
BCS title game New Orleans BCS No. 1 vs. BCS No. 2

I count 35 games up there, stretching from mid-December through mid-January. If we theoretically stretch the title game out to January 15 or so, it gives us five weeks to work with. So here's how we create a viable playoff system while still ensuring all that wonderful bowl-related revenue rolls in:

1. The AP Top 25 would become the AP Top 35, with 32 total teams making the playoffs. If we're letting 32 teams in, it ensures that every team from a "weaker" conference who goes undefeated won't have to watch a one-loss SEC or Pac 12 team in the title game and fume over it. Now, they could plead their case on the field. Hopefully, the ranking, voting, punditry and such around 35 teams would be sufficient meat for the writers to chew, even if they weren't determining the Championship matchup anymore. Besides, we need those people to whittle it down to 32. There are simply too many teams in college football to effectively handle a best-records-are-in system for the playoffs, so the subjective analysis of the polls has to remain as an element. When we're creating the bracket, we need some way to delineate decent 8-and-4-ish teams from crappy ones, right? And if your 8-4 team winds up # 33 in the rankings while somebody else goes to the playoffs, you should've won by more and lost by less, shouldn't you? The point is, the polls would still function, they'd just give us 32 playoff qualifiers instead of dictating every bowl matchup.

Besides being the playoff-determining engine, this system carries some ancillary benefits. Ten more teams now get to hold slots in the published rankings, granting visibility to ten more programs and providing better recruiting opportunities to previously obscure colleges. Not to mention that more rankings allows the TV networks and BCS schedulers to create more "ranked-opponent" matchups. Also, we would gain inherently added theatrics on the bottom end of the polls. Numbers 33 through 35 would be scrapping for a playoff bid, and numbers 32- through 29-ish would have to continue at a high level of play or risk dropping out of contention.

2. 32 playoff teams means 31 playoff games in the bracket. (16 round one + 8 round two + 4 round three + 2 round four + 1 National Title Game.) These would occur over the aforementioned five-week span, spread over Thursday and Friday nights and Saturdays until the brackets shrink enough to go squeeze every game into Saturday in Round Three. If the whole football-football-football-New-Year's-Eve-and-New-Year's-Day tradition proves sacred to too many people, we can obviously adjust the schedule to accommodate that.*

*Though I note that New Year's day falls on a Sunday this year. Did you see any bowl games scheduled for January 1st in that list up there? Nope. Even big-time NCAA bowl games aren't crazy enough to compete with the NFL, so I don't want to hear about the sanctity of college ball on New Year's. It's about cash and ratings, not "tradition."

3. Now, here's how we retain all the bowl revenue: Have every company who wants to sponsor a game bid on them, the same way corporations bid on naming rights for arenas. For example, instead of the BBVA Compass Bowl being between two at-large teams from the Big East and SEC, it would now be whatever playoff game BBVA Compass elected to shell out the cash to sponsor. If they can't or don't choose to spend a ton, maybe they get the round one matchup between the 14 and 19 seeds. Whatever game they get, they get their name and ads plastered all over it. Heck, we can even keep calling these games the "whatever bowls." They'll be just like bowl games from a sponsorship/revenue standpoint, only part of the larger playoff bracket as well. Same principles apply for every game on the docket: highest bidder gets the best matchup to associate with their brand. (ESPN could broadcast the BCS Playoff Bowl Auction every year. Don't you want to see the representatives from Meineke Car Care and Beef'O'Brady's furiously try to outbid one another for the rights to a "Sweet 16" game?)

Calm down, I'm getting to your concerns about logistics, tradition and such ...

4. Just like March Madness, nobody gets a home-field advantage. Whenever people argue about the rankings in college football, they always bring up that tired, overused, annoying phrase "on a neutral field." As in: "I think the Sooners would win that game on a neutral field," or, "We could beat the crap outta Auburn on a neutral field!!!" Oh, you could? Good. Then prove it. So that's where we do this, then. We'd even get some continuity with the current system, as the locations of the various games would not move from their current dots on the map. In other words, the Outback Bowl is always played in Tampa Bay, so whichever game becomes the Outback Bowl through the bidding process gets played in Tampa Bay. The Chick-Fil-A Bowl would still be in Atlanta, etc. You get the idea.

5. Since these games would now be determined by seeding, we're obviously doing away with things like "the Big 12 always plays the Pac 12 in the Holiday Bowl." Ask me if I care. The conferences as we know them now aren't going to exist in five or ten years anyway. Half of them are already misnomers via geography or the inability to count, for Pete's sake. Are we really going to be hung up on this? I hope not.

6. If Army, Navy, or Air Force don't make the playoffs, we use the 33-35 teams of the hypothetical AP Top 35 to provide them opponents for automatic bowl games. Because they're the service academies and we owe them that for the men and women they train to protect our country. (Dear BYU: you no longer get an automatic ride to the Armed Forces Bowl. Sorry, you are neither "armed" nor a "force." As a matter of fact, the Armed Forces Bowl will now be Army vs. Team # 33.) Anyway, this brings our total count of games up to 34. The 31 for the playoffs plus 3 potential service academy games. We're now only one game away from preserving every last one of the 35 currently-extant bowls.

So ...

7. The bowls that have long, prestigious histories (and that had names before every damn thing had a sponsor) retain those names and are granted places of honor in the playoff hierarchy. My thought: The Sun, Gator, Cotton, and Fiesta Bowls host the "Elite 8" matchups, and the Sugar and Rose Bowls host the "Final 4." The Championship Game remains as it is now, officially untitled as a "Bowl" and untethered to a specific city, but massively sponsored. The second-highest bidder in the land gets to host a runner-up game for third place. (Outback Bowl? Capital One Bowl? Who knows. It'll change from year to year.) Aaaaaaaannnnnnnnnnndddd ... with the "Runner-up X Bowl", we're up to the 35-bowl total we have now. So there.

To sum up my hypothetical future: We now have a five-week stretch of killer games culminating in a legitimate, indisputable national champion. We preserve field neutrality, bowl revenue, the service academy games, and the traditional import of the big-name bowls. Most importantly, we never have to listen to Boise State fans whine. Ever again.

Tell me why this can't work. I defy you to out-argue me. I'd destroy you on a neutral field.