Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Gronk Ankle Angle.

Ah, Super Bowl Media Day. That wonderful time of year when coaches and players are asked maddeningly predictable questions and give maddeningly predictable answers in return. I've been watching a lot of the early coverage, and remain totally unsurprised by the false humility and barrage of platitudes. Hoodie relapsed from his brief display of an actually sense of humor into his usual taciturn self. Brady and Eli were aloof, saying all the right things while saying precisely nothing of consequence. Blah. Blah. Blah.

As usual, precious little actual football talk has transpired. Where will Eli fall in the pantheon of all-time QBs? I'll care about that when he retires. What about the Brady/Hoodie dynasty? Meh. REMATCH! Only, not so much if you look at the rosters past a few marquee names. Endless replay loop of the Tyree catch. Woo. Freaking. Hoo.

The one legitimate question that's actually pertinent to what will go down on the field on February 5th is, of course, exactly what condition Rob Gronkowski's left ankle is in. And it's been so thoroughly exhausted that they've actually exhumed the dead horse to beat it again. Yes, he's a critical player in this game, and his status could factor heavily into the outcome, but enough. You're not getting anything other than cryptic, useless updates out of the Pats anyway. Here's the thing: I'm not sure it's really that much of an issue. He looks like he's walking fine, with nary a grimace or limp in evidence. He's been held out of practice, true, but that's just caution being the better part of valor.

Consider Hoodie's history of injury reports. Everyone with a slight booboo on their roster is always "questionable." I'd bet money (if I had any to spare) that this is just the latest example of the Pats spinning things as much to their advantage as possible. I don't deny that he's hurt, because I watched that play and it wasn't pretty, but barring a complication, he's going to go.

Tom Coughlin is not an idiot, and he'll have a game plan for healthy-Gronk, limited-Gronk, and non-Gronk scenarios. Same goes for Hoodie. Really, though, I'm not sure that ankle is really going to affect Gronk's playmaking ability all that much.

Of the Patriots' tight ends, it's Aaron Hernandez who would have serious cause for concern with such and injury. Hernandez is the shifty, hard-cut guy; he breaks ankles like an Allen Iverson crossover. Gronk? For the most part, he's a vertical, one-move-and-go type of player. His sheer size is his greatest weapon, and he's not going to shrink four inches because of an ankle injury. A 75% Gronkowski would still be a dangerous proposition for the Giants' defense to contend with.

Even if he's not the force of nature we're accustomed to seeing, his impact is going to be felt. New York will want to test his limitations early and often. As such, they'll likely assign someone to get a jam on Gronk on every play from scrimmage, which will be one less body to handle Hernandez and Welker in the slot.

Long story kinda short, I think Gronkowski will play, and I think he'll be effective. Now can we please talk about something else?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Never Trust The Hawks ... But Maybe Sometimes?

If you appreciate Zach Harper's work or you're a regular on the Daily Dime Live chats he moderates during NBA games, then you already know one of Harper's primary basketball axioms: "Never Trust The Hawks." There are no conditions or subsections to that rule, folks. Never means never. Doesn't matter how good they look on a given night; the other shoe is always a few possessions away from falling. Maybe it's a totally unnecessary reliance on the not-so-vaunted Iso-Joe offesne, or a sudden spate of ill-advised J Smoove jumpers, but something always wrenches up the gears eventually for this team. Like a rickety stage backdrop in a middle school play, it doesn't take much to bring the entire edifice down in a cloud of dust and disappointment.

As a Hawks fan, the frustrating thing about Harper's theory is that there is no empirical data to suggest that we shouldn't transition it from hypothesis into scientific basketball law. Fatalism isn't pretty on anybody (except maybe Cubs fans), but at some point you have to concede that yet again this team is not constructed and/or coached well enough to be taken seriously. That it's time for yet another rebuilding effort that is very nearly doomed from the outset because of the ludicrous financial albatross that is Joe Johnson's contract, and because the front office has not shown itself capable of rebuilding in an intelligent, calculated manner.

And yet ... I just can't write 'em off. After watching the Hawks give New Orleans the business last night, despite it being the second-to-last game of a grueling road trip, I have to think that maybe, just maybe, I can trust my team a little bit this season. Yeah, yeah, the Hornets are a terrible excuse for a professional basketball team right now, and anybody worth their salt ought to crush them, so it wasn't exactly a touchstone victory. I'll admit that ... however:

What I watched last night was a team capable of winning even when many things aren't going right. Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, arguably our two most potent offensive weapons, combined for a paltry 15 points. In the past, such a poor showing from critical players would have been disastrous, even against a lowly team like the Hornets, but it was just a speed bump that the Hawks flew over "Dukes Of Hazard" style last night. When their shots weren't falling, Smith and Johnson didn't disengage, they focused on helping the team in other ways, and notched a combined 17 boards, 4 blocks, and 4 assists. Filling the offensive void, Jeff Teague went off for 24 points, Marvin Williams chipped in for 14, and Willie Green put up 16 in just 18 minutes.

Atlanta also got significant help from Ivan Johnson, Tracy McGrady, and Zaza Pachulia, who all submitted workmanlike efforts to round out the winning performance. A game that at times had the hallmarks of another typical Hawks implosion ended instead with a 94-72 victory. There's just something different about the team this season; a sort of cool, collected hustle that harnesses their best talents and minimizes their deficiencies. They're playing gas-pedal defense and making the extra pass more often. They look like, if not contenders exactly, at least a real, dignified basketball team. Which is kind of a big step up.

Have you checked the standings today, by the way? Atlanta has the fourth-best record in the league. Not in the Eastern Conference, mind, but in all of basketball. Now, I hate the "if the playoffs started today ..." trope as much a s anyone, but fourth in the league?!?!? That's a signifier of at least a smidge of legit ballin', right? Which brings me to another sports meme that might counter "Never Trust The Hawks." That's right, I'm talking about Bill Simmons' famous Ewing Theory.

For the uninitiated, the Ewing Theory postulates that there are instances in which a team can lose its best player and actually improve as a result. The Hawks, of course, have lost their best player for the remainder of the regular season in Al Horford.

I can feel your incredulity from here. "Al Horford?" you're saying. "Sure, he's really good, but was he actually their best player?" Yes. Yes he was.

Before Horford went down this year, he was doing what he always has done for the Hawks. To wit: whatever was needed. Flagging offensive production? Al had us covered by pouring in buckets around the rim. Need help on the glass? He's pulling down rebounds with gusto. And always, always; solid defense, either as a primary or help defender. On a team prone to gunning and spurts of ineffectual play, Horford was our bedrock of consistent excellence. And now he's gone.

Yet this team keeps rattling off wins. In their linchpin's absence, everyone else is filling the gaps. The Hawks are playing like an honest-to-god team, not the ill-fitting collection of parts they have so often appeared to be in the recent past. I know the schedule has been kind to us, and things are going to get significantly tougher from here on out. I know it's maybe unreasonable to expect a team to continue operating at a high level without a dominant presence in the paint. I also know that the Hawks look awfully good right now. I know we've split our battles thusfar with Miami and Chicago. I know the team is playing with a cohesion and verve heretofore lacking in its other recent iterations. T-Mac still has something left in the tank. Ivan Johnson is an unhinged round of ammunition who will, hopefully, detonate in the face of the opposition rather than his own team. Willie Green is having himself a career year. And Joe, Josh, and Jeff can hold it together until Al gets back right around playoff time.

And when Al Horford returns, keep in mind: his legs will be fresher and his hops more hoppy than everyone who has endured the full brunt of the regular season. That might be all Atlanta needs. I'm not stupid enough to think we can seriously challenge the Bulls or Heat in the East. Or even Indy or Philly, for that matter. But if you don't have hope, your sports outlook gets pretty bleak pretty fast. It's true this team ain't built to beat the best under normal conditions, but this season is anything but normal. With so much unpredictability running roughshod over the NBA, it's possible we could rattle some cages at the least. And that's enough to be getting on with for now. Trust the Hawks. After all, what have you got to lose?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Strange Day.

When the Patriots got deus ex Cundiff'ed yesterday afternoon, it took a while to process what I'd just witnessed. Look at this box score again. New England got their butts summarily kicked up and down the turf in every subcategory of every phase of the game. The better team (on the field) lost, simple as that. It rocks you back on your heels to fully arrive at the following realization: Tom Brady carried the Pats all season and basically dragged them to this game. He then threw for 239 yards, 2 picks, 0 TDs, and ended the day with an abysmal 57.5 passer rating. And New England still won the game.

Then that zany Niners/Giants affair came along and out-weirded the preceding four hours. After wading through every stat, every turning-point play, and every small-but-in-retrospect-kinda-huge detail, I can safely say the following: there is no logical reason, whether buried or in plain sight, why the Pats and Giants are booking hotel rooms in Indy while Baltimore and San Francisco book time on their couches to watch the Super Bowl from afar.

Because yesterday's Chamionship games were completely bizarro wars of attrition, in every possible football connotation of that phrase. Field position, injuries, turnovers, shamelessly baffling play calls, you name it. Near as I could tell, the Ravens, Pats, Niners, and Giants were trying to exhaust each other in the futility and stupidity departments, and succeeding heartily in that objective. Some scattered thoughts on a strange day:

A. Due to the amplified nature of the postseason, it's the time of year when heretofore unknown quantities become vividly, if briefly, prominent in our consciousness. Really, it seems like myths, goats, and/or unsung heroes are manufactured by circumstance once or twice per playoffs. It's to the point that the emergence of such moments or storylines has a clockwork-like nature. Even granting that premise, though, yesterday pushed the bounds of no-names having dramatic effects on a game. In hindsight, Kyle Williams (who?) and Sterling Moore (seriously, WHO???) may well have been the two most significant people playing professional football yesterday. ... Huh?

B. Two calls that were not reviewed and could not be challenged yesterday: The Lee Evans TD catch/drop, the Ahmad Bradshaw fumble/forward progress stop. I think replay has done plenty of good for the game, and I fully acknowledge that overusing it would further disrupt a viewing experience that has already suffered mightily at the hands of (see if you can hear the venom dripping from my vocal cords here) TV timeouts. Nonetheless, you absolutely must get those calls right. I'm not saying the wrong conclusions were reached because in both instances I believe the correct call was made, but the NFL needs to amend its definition of when booth-mandated replay is appropriate. As has been done with overtime situations, I like the concept of expanded replay as a playoffs-only device, but the following needs to happen: Expand endzone replay to include plays that were not initially ruled scores, and review all turnovers, regardless of a thrown challenge flag. We can even reduce the number of allotted challenges if we make these reviews mandatory, but it needs to happen.

C. Speaking of overtime, that's twice that the shiny new overtime rules have been rendered moot by sudden-death style endings happening anyway. We have yet to see the college-style possession system in effect. Won't someone please just play a game where this happens so we can figure out if we even need this rule?

D. Still speaking of overtime, Ed Hochuli was, uh, still speaking of overtime. For like twelve minutes. It was a thoroughly entertaining display of awkward verbosity concerning the new playoff rules for OT; "thoroughly" being the operative word. Apparently ol' Ed was determined to make sure every conceivable scenario was explained to the players and everyone watching at home in painstaking, mind-numbing detail. Mission accomplished, Ed. Well done.

E. Steven Tyler. Ugh. I realize it's de facto interwebs protocol to link an article or Youtube clip when you reference something, but I'm not going to do that in this case. If you didn't see or hear that particular rendition of the National Anthem, you're better off. Trust me. Steven can continue being an addled, incoherent source of comic relief on American Idol for the rest of eternity, but can we agree that his singing career needs to be Old Yeller'ed behind the rock'n'roll barn? It's time, right?

F. It's quite possibly that Hoodie has lost his coaching fastball. That doesn't mean he can't or won't throw a great game in two weeks and for the next however many years, but methinks the old guy is slipping just a touch from his pedestal of unrivaled sideline machinations.

G. Of the possible permutations of Super Bowl opponents, this is going to be the most entertaining. The Pats want revenge, the Giants are at the peak of their playoff swagger, and the rest of us get to watch, if not exactly Ali/Frazier II, one of the more loaded rematches of the past 20 years in any sport. I won't beat you over the head with all the obvious subplots and angles that are going to be run into the ground over the next two weeks, but suffice it to say there quite a few intriguing story arcs in play.

(Note: I'm not beating you over the head now so that I'll have some material to draw on between now and then. Shrewd.)

Anyway, as we hurtle inexorably towards February 6, whence we commence another desolate, football-less stretch, we'll have plenty to keep us occupied. There's hoops and hockey afoot, and pitchers and catchers report to spring training in mere weeks. One nice thing about sports: never a dull moment. Unless you're watching Ed Hochuli explain something, of course.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Defending Atlanta In The Face Of New York Sports Snobbery.

Rembert Browne is a better man than me. That statement is in no way based upon firsthand experience; I have never spent one scintilla of time with the guy, and I have no idea what he's like as a person. Other than the fact that we're both from Atlanta and like sports, I'm fairly certain we have nothing in common. So I say he's better in a purely speculative context, but I suspect it's true nonetheless. Why, you ask? Well ...

A week ago on ESPN New York, Rob Parker wrote a piece entitled "City of Atlanta Doesn't Deserve Win." The thrust of the article was that Atlanta's sports fans are not committed and rabid enough to merit the good fortune of a playoff win, that our (perceived) inferior brand of fandom was undeserving of sweet victory.

In Rembert's thoughtful response to that article, he takes the high road, and opts to explain why Atlanta fans are the way they are rather than rail against Parker's assessment. Which is why I can state with 99% certainty that he's a better man than I. See, I bleed Falcons, Hawks, and Braves colors. I love them unconditionally even when they're terrible, which has been most of my lifetime. I live and die with my teams, so any article telling me that my fandom is not strong enough to be deemed "worthy" of the fruits of success is going to get my hackles up. I've been ruminating on Parker's words for a while now, and after careful consideration, I'm not taking any high road here.

Look, Rob Parker is a tremendous journalist who has been around the sportswriting business almost longer than I've been alive and has had an unimpeachably brilliant career. I want to get up front how much I respect and admire his body of work before I do what Rembert declined, with dignity, to do in responding to Mr. Parker:

*faces generally northwards, clears throat* ...

Eff you, you supercilious Yankee jackass. How dare you levy judgement on my hometown from your cushy perch in the Big Apple?

Let me tell you something, pal; being a New York sports fan is easy. Easy to root. Easy to care. You get born into that gig, it's a lifetime pass on the gravy train. And it doesn't even matter if you're winning or losing.

Which is not to say that winning or losing doesn't matter to New York fans, but that winning or losing has zero bearing on the spirit and perpetuation of New York's various fandoms.

Since you, Mr. Parker, seem to think the Yankees are, and I quote, "the standard for excellence in baseball," let's start with that. I'd go with "the standard for petulant, spoiled entitlement," but hey, "tomato, tomato," right? Wow, that aphorism utterly fails in print. Anyway ...

Consider the process of becoming a Yankee fan. (A true Yankee fan. We'll dismiss bandwagoners and frontrunners because I think we can all agree that no matter what teams we root for, those people are jerks.) Say you grow up in New York, the product of a diehard Yankees family. Your ancestors going back for generations were Yankee fans. From the time you can form semi-cogent thoughts and make meaningful emotional connections, you're inundated, inculcated, and inducted in the vast cultural jetwash that is the New York Yankees. The iconography of the pinstripes and NY caps, the mythology of Gehrig and Mantle and Joltin' Joe and The Babe and Reggie and a million others, and the sheer historical grandeur of the franchise looming over everything. That's your birthright. That's what you grow up knowing.

For much of the time, because the Yankees have an impossibly outsized payroll and every kid grows up wanting to play in Yankee Stadium (or did before they built that new monstrosity), you're riding a sustained wave of success. Championships came in your parents' and grandparents' lifetimes. Lots of them. And they're surely coming in yours too. Wait around for a decade, 15 years tops, and you'll experience the rapturous joy of a World Series victory. But, and here's where you really have it made: even when you're losing, your fandom is wonderfully, completely impregnable.

When times are tough, and you've been subjected to the agony of more than a few seasons without hoisting the trophy, you always have your heritage. You can hang your hat, so to speak, on the past. You are secure because even if it's not true just this instant, your team has been the biggest and baddest on the block many, many times. When you make a hypothetical all-time greatest Yankee batting order or pitching rotation, you legitimately feel conflicted about leaving Players X, Y, and Z off the list, so overflowing with greatness are the annals of your history. The enormity of the past lends credence and dignity to your present, and you share that common passion and lore with millions of other Yankee diehards. In short, being a Yankee fan means never having to doubt or question that loyalty. Ever. You are protected and reassured by what you know came before you.

Obviously, the Yankees are the extreme case, but every other New York team has a similar reverential aura, if not quite as lustrous as the Bronx Bombers. So do the teams from Boston, Philly, Chicago, and L.A. There's a sort of presence that revolves around the stadiums and arenas, the histories and myths. A near-palpable sense of gravity. It may be diaphanous and sepia-toned, but it is most definitely there.

Now contemplate growing up a sports fan in Atlanta, where almost nothing is our own, and nothing at all has been our own for very long. See, while Boston and New York and Chicago have had ample time to establish and grow their economies, personalities, and sports franchises, Atlanta did not have that luxury. We were still recovering from Sherman's March and the aftermath of Reconstruction. Note: While I'm proud to be a Southerner, I am not some sort of apologist for Dixie and the Civil War or one of those half-cocked idiots who think "The South will riiiiise agin!" The atrocities of slavery needed to be brought to an end and the South was and is better off as part of the United States than as a separate entity, but that bastard burned the whole damned city down, and then the government and the carpetbaggers screwed up the rebuilding process to an absurd extent. As large a city as Atlanta is, it didn't really start catching up developmentally to the rest of the big American metropolises until the latter half of the 20th century. The point being, we have had a comparatively short period of history in which we were economically capable of supporting multiple professional sports franchises.

Now, getting back to the question of our fandom: since we've used the Yankees as our jump point, let's start explaining sports fans in the ATL with the team the Yanks humiliated in the '96 and '99 World Series, my beloved Braves.

We inherited the Braves in 1966, a hand-me-down organization whose history was entrenched in Milwaukee and, before that, Boston. Ownership moved the team in search of a bigger television market, and fast-growing Atlanta lured them south by the expedient of building a shiny new stadium for them to play in. The team then proceeded to be varying degrees of mediocre and terrible for the next 25 years. In other words, that first generation of Braves fans had very little to cheer about.

Don't get me wrong, there were obviously some wonderful players that donned the Braves uniform during that stretch, and one All-Time iconic moment in Hammerin' Hank's 715th dinger at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. On balance, though, the Braves were regarded as a complete joke by the rest of the league for a very long time. If, midway through your life, your town suddenly inherited a team that consistently failed to play anything resembling competent baseball, why, with no history or sense of tradition whatsoever to bind you, would you embrace that team as a rooting interest? More importantly, why would you raise your kids to root for them? The answers, for most people, are that you wouldn't and you wouldn't. And thus were the first two generations of Braves fans (mostly) as tepid and unconvincing as winter sunshine. Only now, as people my age who were there to experience some of the lean years but still young enough to be awed by and phenomenally invested in that miracle of a 1991 season and the ensuing run of dominance are having children, is a generation of Braves fans being born and raised who have a sense of team history and greatness that will sustain them during periods of prolonged failure.

Atlanta's two other franchises share eerily similar histories to what I just described above. The Falcons arrived as an NFL expansion team the same year as the Braves, while the Hawks relocated from Saint Louis in 1968. Both teams have had a few great, memorable players in the past (Deion Sanders, Jamal Anderson, and Mike Vick for the Falcons; 'Nique, Spud Webb, and Pistol Pete for the Hawks.) However, despite a few scattered eras of playoff contention, neither team has ever achieved any substantial level of victory. (The loan trip to a sporting finals by an Atlanta team not named the Braves? When the Falcons somehow skittered and bumbled their way into Super Bowl XXXIII, only to be clobbered 34-19 by the Denver Broncos.)

The most recent incarnations of those teams are the closest we've come to sustained competitiveness, and as we know, close don't pay the emotional-fandom rent. (It just keeps you from getting decent picks in the draft.)

All of which doesn't even address the profound and protracted streaks of coaching, front-office, and ownership incompetence that have plagued the Falcons and Hawks, and that caused the Flames and Thrashers to be deported.

Are you starting to see why New York fans have it easy, and why Atlantans find devout fandom so difficult? Out teams were losers when they got here and, aside from those 90s Braves teams, have been losers ever since. Hell, even that stretch of Braves dominance was sort of a slap in the face. We had the best pitching rotation in baseball for a decade and only won one World Series. As joyful as 1995 was, the rest of that era was phenomenally frustrating. As for the Falcons, they still don't have a playoff victory under what was supposed to be a promising new regime (though maybe we'll get one now that we're getting an entirely new coaching staff besides Mike Smith.) The Hawks? They've been so maddeningly inconsistent, so good-not-great for the past five seasons (and might not even hit that level this season now we've lost Al Horford) that "Never Trust The Hawks" is a standing meme (or a running, not-very-funny joke) on Daily Dime Live.

So yes, Mr. Parker, our city's fans may lack a measure of the devotion and elan exhibited by those in New York. Feel free to crow about it. (Then again, no one is going to call our city's fans a bunch of entitled, obnoxious assholes either, so maybe we win in this exchange after all.)

Either way, given our sports history as compared to privileged one enjoyed by New Yorkers, I think it's absurdly unfair to criticize Atlanta for our dearth of rabid fans. As Rembert so eloquently pointed out, "Down at the bottom of the map, we live by a different creed when it comes to sports. We don't know a lot about winning, but we're pretty fantastic at being good-spirited, slightly delusional losers."

I just happen to have the perfect anecdote to illustrate that point, a story that encapsulates Atlanta fandom and that would never, in a million years, happen in New York, where winning is expected and losers are "bums." Sit back and listen, Mr. Parker ...

As you probably know, the Braves finished with the worst record in baseball in 1990, then went to the World Series in 1991. We lost that series in truly heartbreaking fashion, over seven unbelievable games, to the Minnesota Twins. What you probably are not aware of, unless you lived in Atlanta at the time, is what happened after they returned home. What happened was this: we through them a big ol' parade. Yes, you read that correctly. Our team lost the World Series and we feted them in the streets of downtown Atlanta, with convertibles and floats and confetti and everything. Kids (including me and a bunch of my friends) skipped school and almost everyone else skipped work to attend. We screamed ourselves hoarse and tomahawk-chopped until our arms damned near fell off as those cars rolled by with our boys smiling and waving. We did this because we were so grateful for what they had given us; something we as a sports town had never had before. They gave us the joy of feeling like we mattered to the rest of the country, even if only in the world of baseball. They gave us the thrill of winning, even if we didn't quite win it all. They gave us the ride. They gave us hope.

So you see, whether or not you think we deserve to win is irrelevant. Our past, or meaningful lack thereof, has conditioned us to be the fans we are. So long as we have the ride, and the hope, the winning will be joyfully appreciated, but never expected. And maybe we'll be happier that way.

Two final notes on something you wrote in that article, Mr. Parker: "In fact, at some point, they might ask a friend -- filled with sweet tea -- at a pork-saturated barbeque, 'Are the Falcons playing today?'"

1. That's a horribly stereotyped literary cheap shot. It's easy, it's stupid, and it's lazy writing, and you're better than that. Don't do it again.

2. Sweet tea and barbeque are freaking delicious. If you lived here, that's one other thing you might understand about us, and one less thing you'd mock us for without any basis of understanding or empathy. I'm just saying.

But hey, no hard feelings, right? "Good-spirited and slightly delusional losers ..." you know what? Rembert Browne is probably a better writer than me, too.