North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

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From the Vault: Michael Sam Is A Big Deal (2014)

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Editor’s Note: With today’s news that Michael Sam has signed with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes, it seemed like a good time to run this previously unpublished column I wrote for The Good Point back in 2014! It never ran, maybe my take was too hot? I can’t remember why it was rejected. 

On Sunday, the Brooklyn Nets signed Jason Collins to a ten-day contract. This is the time of year for those: the post-trade deadline, as teams make a push to get into the playoffs. On that level, Collins’ signing isn’t any bigger than, say, Glen Davis signing with the Clippers.

 

But, for reasons I’m sure you already know, Collins’ signing is much bigger news.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M.

May 22, 2015 at 11:32 am

Why the Argos win on Sunday matters

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It’s November and everything feels all strange and flipped up. When I listen to the Fan, they’re talking Jays. When I put on TSN, they’re showing basketball. And when I think back to last weekend, I remember the Argonauts defeating the Montreal Alouettes in a road playoff game.

And the biggest news out of Leaf-land? Some guy with far too much money in Barrie paid over $5,300 for something the Leafs took a crap in. You’d think they’d throw in a copy of Game Seven of the 1993 Conference Finals too, if that’s what he was after. Sometimes no real news is the best news.

Remember when Grantland called Toronto the worst sports city in the greater Milky Way Galaxy? How quickly things have changed. On the back of their huge trade, the Jays have positioned themselves as contenders in the crowded AL East. With the play of DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson, the Raptors have shown there’s maybe a future to this crop of youngsters. Without the Leafs playing, Toronto’s other hockey team has been showing up on TV and they’re tearing it up: on Saturday, they beat up on the Hamilton Bulldogs. And Nazem Kadri’s picked up eight points in his past four games. I don’t think the Marlies will ever threaten the Leafs TV ratings, but playing so well on a TV broadcast will certainly help spread the word that there’s good hockey to be seen at the Ricoh at a fraction of the price of a Leafs game. More parking there, too.

But the biggest news of the weekend is about the Argos, that team which keeps getting written off, even by yours truly. When they went into the playoffs, I suggested they had backed into a spot thanks to even worse play by Hamilton and Winnipeg. I noted how they allowed more than they scored through the season’s end. But they beat Edmonton in a fun game, mostly thanks to a crazy second quarter where they scored 31 points and managed to intercept a shovel pass from Edmonton QB Kerry Joseph.

Still, I was a little skeptical after the win: Edmonton wasn’t a great team. They finished in the bottom of the Western Conference and only made the playoffs thanks to lacklustre seasons from Hamilton and Winnipeg. The Montreal Alouettes were a much better team and they’ve done the Argos in during the playoffs before. One of my first posts here was a dispatch from an Argos/Alouettes playoff game in 2005: the Argos blew a first half lead and lost while people in the upper deck went insane. I remember a crazed Montreal fan screaming and trying to pick fights while people threw plastic horns at him before security stepped in.

There’s been other times. In 2007, Toronto dropped conference final game at home to a surging Winnipeg team. And in 2010, they were blown out by Montreal, 48-17 (I don’t think I wrote about this game). There’s not many good omens to a Toronto/Montreal playoff game. And when Montreal got off to a good start, leading 17-7 near halftime I figured it was over. After all, the Argos scoring to that point looked like this: field goal, rouge, safety and another rouge. They blew a first-and-goal from Montreal’s one-yard line, getting stuffed on three consecutive runs. Not an inspiring first half.

So what happened? How did the Argos turn things on in the second? Their offence started coming together and their defence held Montreal steady: after scoring a touchdown in the second, Montreal was held to one field goal, despite getting into Argo territory multiple times. They got as close as Toronto’s eight yard line, but settled for a field goal. In the fourth quarter alone, they turned the ball over three times. They got really damn close, dropping what would’ve been a game-clinching TD late in the fourth, but just couldn’t do it. The Argos somehow held on, despite the odds and recent history.

It sets up what should be a dream senario for the Argos and their fans. They’re playing Calgary for the Grey Cup on home turf. It’s the 100th Grey Cup, which means there’s going to be pomp and excess on a level only Toronto could really handle without looking crazy. Noted football fiend and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford will probably be at the game in some loud, media-unfriendly capacity. I hope to hell he goes full-Nixon and tries to draw up a play for the Argos.

Toronto’s long been chided for not caring enough about it’s CFL team. There’s probably some truth in that, but one could argue that every Toronto team not named Maple Leafs doesn’t get its proper share of attention. Here’s a chance to change that. Not many teams get to play for the CFL’s title on their home turf. And Toronto hasn’t had a champion in any sport in eight years. Even if you’re not a CFL fan, this weekend is a special one in Toronto sports.

Written by M.

November 20, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Raw post: Notes from a wild wild-card weekend

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Texans / Bengals

  • I spent most of this game working my day job, so only some sporadic notes:
  • Dalton picked off and it’s returned for a score by JJ Watt. Everybody on twitter makes stupid puns like WATT A CATCH and WATT IS POWERED UP and I open a bottle of Russian Standard, prepared to drink myself into oblivion.
  • Tom Hammond is doing the play by play for this game, I keep wishing his brother Daryl was in the booth too
  • The game starts pretty cool, both sides trading blows. The Bengals actually look good and are moving around on the Texans, but miss a couple field goals. As the second quarter winds down, the Bengals look like crap; by game’s end, they’re smelling like it too.
  • Dalton is a young QB, he plays like a rookie. He makes occasional nice plays but for the most part, he looks lost. Also he’s a ginger, but isn’t inspiring a bunch of lame jokes on twitter, for which I’m eternally thankful.
  • Houston, though, looks really good, especially on defence. I find this surprising, since I always think of the Texans as a team that scores a shitload of points and allows almost as many. They made good stops, though, and kicked into high gear in the second half.
  • Game theme:


Detroit / New Orleans

  • Detroit takes it in early in the first, looks good.
  • Brees first play is a huge pass for like 35 yards. They move upfield but fumble. It’d be really cool if the Saints fall apart in another opening-round game
  • Cris Collinsworth is impressed by Stafford’s game calling, overlooks the presence of an offensive coordinator
  • Deep into the second quarter, New Orleans still hasn’t punted.
  • Good call, after review at end of second. Colston made a good try, but it wasn’t a catch. But it wasn’t a penalty either; a pretty weak call. Detroit makes a good stop and holds the Saints to a field goal after a first and goal at the six-yard-line
  • Pierre Thomas has had a couple of solid runs. Brees comes out throwing deep on Detroit; Meachem drops a sure TD, then Henderson catches and runs one in from 41 yards out. The Saints came out firing.
  • The Lions are playing a cool kind of defence where they don’t tackle
  • Brees to Colston, for 40 yards. Another huge catch, yet another deep pass on the Lions defence, and a play later it’s a 10-point lead
  • Stafford chucking it, too. Throws a high, arcing pass to Calvin Johnson, who has to slow down to catch it; a 42-yard gain, sticks ‘em right by the goal line. On third and goal, Stafford makes a risky move: fake handoff (complete with a jumping RB) as he rolls out and runs to end zone, diving and sticking the ball out ahead of him. Refs call it a TD, gets reviewed and held up.
  • “today this lions team means so much to detroit” cris collinsworth, a modern day heraclitus
  • People are going to mention Brees passing for mega-yards, but Pierre Thomas having a great game on the ground, too. He’s busting tackles all over.
  • Another huge pass, this time to Meachem for a 56 yard, walk-in score. Detroit’s defence is non-existent.
  • Detroit’s down huge, midway thru 4th, and its looking bad. Stafford could – will? – throw for 400 yards and still lose this game; detroit’s going to allow like 600. Still, Calvin Johnson catches his 12th pass, this time for a score, and it’s 28-38 Saints.
  • This is the better game of the two, but it’s not been a tremendous game, either.
  • Brees just chucks it downfield again to Meachem. Feels like a routine, or a game of techmo bowl where you just constantly use a play with a fly route. Also Dadboner’s twitter is going crazy which is nice
  • The Saints just blowing away the Lions in the second half. What did they find out at halftime? That Detroit’s secondary doesn’t know how to tackle? They’ve scored 35 points in the second half. Their defence makes a token play, picking off Stafford with about three minutes left, and it’s basically over
  • “Unable to match points with Drew Brees tonight,” says Cris
  • New Orleans doesn’t punt all game; every second half possession ends in a TD – except the last one, when they ran out the clock deep in Detroit’s end; if they wanted to score, I bet they could have.


Atlanta /  New York Giants

  • Joe Buck and Troy calling this game; does that make it America’s Game of the Week of the Century??
  • Just noticed that Eli’s captain patch is all lit up, like he’s caught 100 rings and in Super Saijin Mode or w/e
  • A few minutes into the first and both sides have punted more than New Orleans did last night. Each side with two straight three-and-out. I guess you could call this a defensive struggle, but my gut’s telling me it’s because both teams aren’t any damn good
  • Eli to Ballard on the first play of the Giants third possession results in the first first down of this game. We’re only seven minutes into the game before the offense shows up. they punt. the falcons pick up their first on their next possession, too
  • I was kind of hoping this would be the exciting match this weekend: yesterday’s games were blowouts and the later game tonight pits two great defences against each other, which will probably translate to a 7-3 final. Kind of surprised at the lack of offence here.
  • Falcons putting together a nice drive, not testing the Giants defence really, but picking their spots. They go for it on 4th and inches, which I think you should always do, and are just short, maybe by like an inch? (fun note: only possession of the first half where they don’t punt it away! except a hail mary at the end of the 2nd, which shouldn’t count)
  • And just like that, the Falcons get their first points: a falling Eli chucks one away from inside the end zone; it’s intentional grounding and is ruled a safety. Falcons are heating up!
  • Jacobs puts his head down and rushes for eight (about 8 left in 2nd). First run of his today that stands out to me; he tries it again on second down and it doesn’t work. Still, the Giants are putting a nice drive together, for once. A few plays later, he busts out a HUGE run. On the replay they cut together different angles for the run, which is kind of neat. The Giants have a 4th and inches and they go for it: handoff to Jacobs, who spins and picks up a couple. 46 with a nice block, too. Next play, Eli throws to Nicks, who makes a off-balance, spinning grab for the first TD of the day. 7-2 Giants.
  • At one point, near the two-minute warning, this is the sequence: play, commercial, play, commercial, play, punt, commercial. GOTTA GET THOSE ADS IN.
  • Halftime score: 7-2, New York. Both offenses are struggling, although they have put together a few nice drives. Eli’s had some nice plays, but a couple of boneheaded ones, too. Jacobs have looked really good. On the Falcons? Well, they’re not awful, I guess. Matt Ryan is 13 of 19 for 98 yards, no scores and a 80.6 QB rating; Manning is 10 of 14 for 60, one score and 103.3 (and a safety). Jacobs has more yards on the ground (48) than Atlanta does (37).
  • a few giants get hurt when they collide. One, Ross, goes to the lockers.
  • first big play of the second half: bradshaw explodes to his right, is hauled down around the five after picking up 30 yards! Giants running game is on today, they’re just pounding it. It’ll be neat to see the time of possession. This run leads to a field goal, 10-2 NY. As Fox goes to commercial, their replay shows Coughlin throwing his hands in the air, flippant
  • Atlanta goes for it on another 4th down and turns it over on downs a second time. Cue an endless string of coaches saying “never go for it”
  • This leads to a Manning pass to Nicks, who finds a seam, busts past like three guys and runs in a score. It was a shortish pass up the middle and Nicks was wide open + had an angle where nobody was really able to catch him. 72 yards pass + run!
  • The Falcons are not doing it in short yardage. On third and short, they get stuff, so they punt it away. Turner not having a good game on the ground.
  • Giants game coming together. Eli gets tons of time to throw a deep one to Manningham in the end zone, for a 27-yard score. We’re entering blowout territory, 24-2 Giants. Eli is now 19 of 28, for three scores, 241 yards and a QB rating of 130.2(!). The Giants offence is just blowing away the Falcons right now; Atlanta’s offence is sputtering, especially in short yardage
  • I spent most of the fourth looking at used cars. Atlanta had a cool three-and-out that lasted less than a minute, the Giants marched all over and missed a chip shot FG and then the Falcons put together a drive for the 2-minute warning.
  • Final thoughts: another case where one team just dominated. More than that, Atlanta’s offence just didn’t have it today. they couldn’t get anything done. on drives they failed on short yardage situations and their running game was non-existant. as a passer, ryan wasn’t awful – certainly not as bad as some tebow games – but he’s still only a midlevel qb, still not as great as he looked as a rookie. the big question coming into next week is going to be if the giants are for real (maybe) and if so, are they a legit super bowl contender? they get this benefit from 2007, when they ripped through the playoffs, sneaking past green bay in ot to make the super bowl. this is not that team, they’re not as good. I think they’ll give green bay a good test, especially on the ground, but won’t pull it out.


Pittsburgh / Denver

  • Kind of weird feeling that Pittsburgh, the better team on paper, is away here to a Broncos team that fell backwards into the playoffs.
  • Feeling weird about this one: Ben’s hurt, which limits Pit’s offence. And Denver’s defence wins them games. Other side of ball: Tebow, who’s looked bad in wins and worse in losses, facing one of the league’s best defences. It’s going to be a rough game, but maybe the first close one of the weekend.
  • “should be a most exciting game,” says Nantz. Well, by law of averages, maybe…
  • I like this side-by-side video they show of a pre-and post-ankle injury Roethlisburger throwing and how his motion has changed. kind of odd to use so early in game, but nice they went to the effort
  • Miller making some great catches early on, including one for 33 yards. Opening drive stalls around the denver 40, will kick a long FG, makes it.
  • Through the first, 6-0 Pittsburgh. Denver with two three and out, plus one drive that runs through the quarter.
  • Harrison comes in low for a hit, probably destroys Decker’s knee. I don’t think it’s a really dirty hit, but with Harrison’s rep, he’s going to get fined like a million dollars.
  • Tebow tests the Pitt secondary, throws a deep pass to Thomas, with Ike Taylor right on top of him. Good toss, especially for tebow, even better catch. He again throws deep, to Eddie Royal, for a 30-yard score. Denver leads, 7-6
  • Next poessession, Roethlisburger throws deep for Wallace, a 52 yard catch – but denver challenges and gets it overturned. I wonder if it’s a gamechanger? Crowd loves that ruling. Three drops by Pitts receivers, notes Simms. Drive sputters, Pittsburgh punts.
  • Injuries mounting for Steelers. Not good, especially with the team already banged up.
  • Tebow lets out out, a 57-yard throw to Thomas, who beats Taylor (again). He’s found something he likes, wonder if Pittsburgh will mix up secondary for second half. Tebow rushes it in himself; Tebow time knows no bounds.
  • Next, Tebow takes some savage hits, he’s getting pounded. He throws a pick, is hit hard again. Denver takes over inside the 20, Tebow throws to end zone, Troy nearly picks it off… and Pittsburgh gets a roughing the passer and this could be over, folks. Denver kicks a FG, 17-6.
  • New series: Ben picked, but a flag – offside on defence – so it doesn’t stand. Still, though. He’s hurt, can’t do anything. Pull him, put in Batch. they won’t and they’ll die by the sword. They punt away.
  • Another big pass by Tebow, 40 yards to Fells. Tebow’s looking great – albeit against an injured, sinking team. It’s 20-6, now, with all 20 in the second quarter. Steelers falling apart: Ben fumbles a snap, recovers but loses 23 yards. Pittsburgh melting, like something inside a steel mill. Cower asks if resting Ben at season’s end would have been better. I’m inclined to agree.
  • Halftime thoughts: Pittsburgh beat up, wonder what changes they’ll make. Ben’s hurt, too hurt I think to warrant staying in. And Denver’s taking advantage of Pittsburgh’s battered defence, exploiting how they play Tebow. You can’t let him run amok, but he’s also making good throws. Give credit to his receivers, too: Thomas with over 100 yards.
  • Tebow: 5 of 11 for 185 yards, 1 TD pass, one TD rush, 122.3 QB rating ; Ben’s 11 of 23 for 134 yards, no scores, one pick and a QB rating of 48.1
  • Second half for the Steelers offence opens with some weird plays, include a backwards pass that was almost a fumble. Simms explains that a forward pass has to go forward and causes a minor twitter avalanche. Then, the Steelers start moving: a pass for 18, then another… #33 – Redman – rushes down to the end zone, is dragged down, fumbles, but was maybe across the goal line? Going upstairs for a review. On the TV replay, Redman looks like he was down before the goal line, which makes it neither a fumble or a TD. After review, it’s called a first and goal from the one-half yard line. Wallace makes a run to his right, from around the line, into the end zone. 13-20, Denver.
  • Heath Miller with some nice blocks on this drive, too. They’re down a weapon w/him blocking, but he’s helping curb a tough defence rush.
  • Next Denver possession: Tebow escapes a sack, rushes away for a gain. Then he uncorks a deep one thats way off. Then rushes for another first. Ike Taylor is called out again by Simms. As third ends, they’re moving, right down into Pittsburgh’s red zone. Denver kicks a FG, 23-13.
  • As fourth opens, Pittsburgh is looking better on offence. That’s a positive. They’re not as good on defence, allowing a drive of 63 yards. That’s bad. The Broncos are chewing up time on offense. Might not be enough time for a two-score comeback.
  • Redman making some good runs. Just tears off one for 28. Next play, Ben rolls out to his right, super slowly. Somehow he isn’t sacked (throw is incomplete). Pittsburgh kicks a FG, cuts it to 23-16.
  • Tebow getting rushed, shakes off a tackle, moves to his left and fucks up a lob pass + misses an open reciever. Next pass, tho, complete to Thomas (over Taylor!) for a first down and 15 yards. But next play, Willis McGahee fumbles and turns it over! Denver challeges (why wouldn’t they?)
  • McGahee to this point had an okay game. 50 yards on 16 carries. But fumble costs not only possessions, but a timeout and their last challenge. Hope it was worth it.
  • Ben makes a quick pass, Sanders spins around a defender, makes it 3rd and one. Redman pounds it across, first down. Under six to play. Ben rushes and moves like he’s the tin man. Redman: another first down. He’s pounding it up. Ben throws a deep one, to a double-teamed Wallace. It’s just about picked off by Bailey – “shoulda had it,” says Simms – but isn’t. Steelers timeout.
  • Ben to pass, has all kinds of time, rushes out of pocket. Throws deep to end zone, complete! to Cotchery! Tie game with 3:43 left!
  • Open the twitter gates: “Tebow time” say all. He makes a big pass, for 17 yards, to Fells. They run it down to two-minute warning.
  • Never let this be understated: today, Tebow’s been impossible to sack. He just ran away from like three tackles, out of the pocket and got ball off. He just saved 10 yards. But on 3rd and 8, his pass is short.
  • Ben takes over deep in his own end. He has time, tries to move and is sacked. clock running, again with time, throws up middle to Brown, clock running, 33 seconds left. He throws outside to Sanders, picks up 18 and they stop the clock. 29 seconds left, Suisham is warming up on sideline. His career long is 52 yards. The catch to Sanders is amazing, a falling forward grab, an eight on the difficulty scale.
  • Ben is rushed again, fumbles and they’re lucky to still have it. But it’s second and 21, no timeouts left. On own 44. Ben’s deep toss to Ward is batted away, over the head of Wallace too. Flag on 3rd down, delay of game. A short toss to Redman, who goes out of bounds at about the 50. Suisham not going to kick, Ben to pass and he’s sacked. We go to overtime!
  • Ben’s blitzed by five guys, hit down by 91.
  • This is the first playoff OT under the new rules, the college style one. First play is a huge pass, ran in for a score. The camera catches Tebow kneeing, in prayer. Of course. it’s an 80 yard play. There was nobody from the steelers in the middle, and it was a footrace. Ike Taylor was stiff-armed and nobody came close. Thomas was a total beast today, Tebow had a hell of a game. The most yards against the Steelers defence this year.
  • Basically, what a game! It was about as exciting as you could have asked for. A hell of a finish, a great second half.
  • Final thoughts: Steelers defence looked bad, really bad. Ike Taylor was called out so many times it’s unreal, but he’s not alone. Tebow’s not a phenomenal passer, but he looked like one today, maybe playing the best game of his career. Certainly played the most exciting one.
  • And what about Ben, the other hyped QB? He was okay, I suppose, although he looked a tad slow. In the second half he put it together, as the Steelers came back to tie the game. But look at Redman, who rushed for 121 yards, a career high. Look at Heath Milller, who picked up 60 yards receiving and did a hell of a lot of blocking, too. I wouldn’t call it a flukely loss, but it’s one where Tebow’s abilities at QB meshed well with Pittsburgh’s flaws. It’s not every game where he’ll throw this many yards and expose the secondary.
  • Final Score: 29-23, Denver

Written by M.

January 9, 2012 at 9:44 pm

Posted in football, raw dump

Not buying the Bills in Toronto

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Sunday’s Buffalo/Washington game was awful, horrible and boring beyond words. It was such a dull game it should count as an act of international aggression. It was Must Not See TV. It was brutal.

 

With any luck, it’ll be one of the last Bills games in Toronto.

 

When the series started a few years ago, in 2007, the inclination was somewhat towards optimism. The series was conceived by a group that included heavy hitters like Larry Tanenbaum of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and Ted Rogers. It came at a time when the Argonauts were doing poorly (they’d finish 2007 with a 4-14 record) and Rogers was upping their financial commitments to the Blue Jays: they had recently added AJ Burnett, BJ Ryan and Frank Thomas to the team.

 

Enter the Bills. They’re a team with a sizable chunk of fans in Ontario and, it appeared, an uncertain future. Owner Ralph Wilson was just shy of 90 when negotiations started; once he left the Bills, it was far from a given that the team would stay in Buffalo. After all, Buffalo’s one of the NFL’s smallest markets and it’s shrinking, too. Between 2000 and 2010, Buffalo’s population dropped by over 10 per cent. Ralph Wilson Stadium is old, too: it first hosted games in 1973, nearly 40 years ago. Earlier this year, the National Football Post ranked it 20th among all NFL stadiums, saying, “When it comes to architecture and amenities, RWS is going to rank at the bottom of the list.”

 

It was a great match: a team with a bad stadium, a group that wanted to bring pro football to theirs and was willing to throw money around. It was such a good match that the NFL issued a statement saying the Bills were not going to permanently move to Hogtown.

 

But nobody was really suggesting that was an option. While the Rogers Centre is an okay place for an exhibition game, it’s capacity of 54,000, is too small to regularly hold NFL games. A new stadium would solve that problem, but who’s going to build it? Toronto’s government is slashing budgets all around – the gravy train, as their mayor put it – so don’t expect a hand there. Why build one? For just eight NFL dates a year? The Argonauts are locked into a lease at the Centre and the TC have their own stadium.

 

The games have always been a way to make money. Tickets at a Toronto Bills game are more expensive than a game in Buffalo (at one point, costing three times as much: $180 Canadian to $51 US). A Rochester newspaper was blunt, calling the games cash cows. Indeed, the Bills made $78 million from the five-year deal. How much is that? A 2011 Forbes valuation put their yearly operating income at $40.9 million.

 

It’s been successful on that front. It’s less successful on the field. Sunday’s win was the first time the Bills won in Toronto. It came only a few days after Buffalo’s George Wilson suggested that it’s not really a home game, because the fans don’t care who wins.

 

And Wilson’s right. Toronto is not a Bills town. It’s not even a football town. It’s also not a Raptors, Argonaut or Blue Jay town. It’s a Leaf town. Hockey will always come first here. Yes, NFL fans will show up for the game, but that doesn’t suppose they’re Buffalo fans. Just take the moment when Scott Chandler jumped into the stands and was greeted by indifference (I distinctly remember one guy filming it on his smartphone).

 

At best – and one could argue with the Bills 5-2 record, this is their best – the games feel like a neutral field novelty. Despite how good Buffalo’s been this year, Sunday’s win featured a less-than-packed house.

 

Next year is the final year of the agreement. A lot has changed from when it was first signed. Ted Rogers is dead, the Canadian dollar has strengthened and the Bills are suddenly good. A new agreement would likely cost Rogers more than $78 million – and that’s even if the Bills want to keep giving up home games.

 

Simply put, the whole series feels like a tease. It’s a taste of NFL action, but without any of the payoff. It costs more than a game in Buffalo, but has little of the atmosphere: tailgating, packed stands, cold weather. It’s a sanitized, suit-wearing, straight-laced version of pro football, the equivalent of Mitt Romney. Yes, the Bills finally won a game in the cavernous Rogers Centre. But they couldn’t even make that interesting.

 

The Toronto experiment isn’t working: why pay more for games that feel like they mean less? That the players don’t even like? Next year’s series should be the last.

Written by M.

November 1, 2011 at 11:40 pm

There’ll never be another like Al Davis

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The Raiders press release called Al Davis a maverick. If there ever was an understatement, this was it. Davis was a maverick of the old school, from when the word wasn’t a political cliché or a fighter pilot. He was unpredictable, cunning and a hell of a lot of fun to have around.

Al Davis was a lot of things, including a progressive. He hired the first black coach in the modern era, the first Hispanic coach and quarterback and hired the NFL’s first woman CEO. He gave many of his players a chance to play pro football when nobody else would – just think of how many people he picked up off the scrap heap.

He was a champion of the rights of owners, challenging the NFL’s monopoly and asserting the right to move his team as he saw fit. He was the person whom so many clichés originally described: a maverick that did things his own way and just won, baby.

There are less fun details. He shuttled his team up and down the California coast, twice leaving behind a vibrant community of fans. He gave off the sense of a paranoiac, especially in dealings with coaches and the media. And he was a constant thorn in the side of former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle; one biography of Rozelle all but blames Davis for the commissioner’s health problems and early retirement.

Everybody sees the Raiders are Davis’ team. But his contributions to pro football far outweigh just one team. As commissioner of the AFL, Davis led a drive to sign away NFL talent, a move that all but pushed the competing leagues together and ushered in the modern era of pro football.

But by 1970, when the two leagues merged, Davis had long since returned to the Raiders as part owner and head of football operations. The teams he built in that decade are some of the NFL’s most infamous and talented, with players like John Matuszak, Kenny Stabler and Fred Biletnikoff. In the golden years of the Raiders, they were good on the field and wild off of it.

When Stabler’s biography details on training camp with the Raiders, it reads like a Hunter Thompson story: all-day practices and all-night parties, fuelled by pills and booze (Matuszak was partial to Crown Royal and Quaaludes). Indeed, Hunter Thompson once described the Raiders as the flakiest team in pro football and compared Davis to Sonny Barger.

In his seminal book on football, Paul Zimmerman was more blunt: he called Davis a “master spy, master trader wheeler-dealer and rogue.” He detailed the tricks Davis used to pull: changing visiting team’s practice spots at the last minute, have his grounds crew unroll tarps while the visiting team is still practicing and the time he snuck workers into Shea Stadium on the eve of an AFL championship game to build an illegal heating tent on the Raiders bench. Davis cultivated an aura of pushing things to their breaking point, doing everything he could to give his team the advantage.

Every obituary on Davis makes one point crystal clear: Davis personified the Raiders like no other owner, coach or manager ever has or will. The Raiders were his baby, right from the get-go. Everything, from team colours to management went through Davis. As the recent years have shown, he was a control freak. He’d fire coaches with little warning and even less pretext, once burning through three in five years. When the move to Los Angeles gave the Raiders ownership of luxury suites, the Raiders started charging rent to the stadium’s other users.

And culturally, it’s hard to think of another football team that mattered more than the Raiders. When asked why NWA wore Raiders colours, Ice Cube said “it’s a thing where you looked right, it felt right.”

One is tempted to define him on the above, with a glance to his long-term successes: the Raiders once went from 1968 through 1978 without a losing season. They won three Super Bowls with Davis around and went to another in the 2002 season. Doing this misses the point.

I didn’t know Davis, but it’s pretty easy to say he was complex man. A story that paints him as a colorful rogue (“His clothes seemed to matter more than half the players he ever drafted”) looks past how he helped former players. Another that suggests maybe he overdid it (he “often pushed the boundaries of what some people thought was acceptable”), never mentions how often he won when challenging the NFL.

It’s foolish to think about Davis and the Raiders without addressing everything the man did for pro football. What he did with the team almost never happens in culture, especially in so short a time. The Raiders almost exist outside of pro football. Their black and silver are iconic, representing not just a team, but also an attitude.

It cannot be said enough: no owner will ever mean as much and make the same impact on professional sports as Davis did with the Raiders. And that’s a shame.

Written by M.

October 9, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Wild Card Weekend Thoughts

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Seattle over New Orleans

I said: New Orleans

What happened here was a huge upset, yes, and a fun case in some kind of weird football losing. The Saints were good, but only just made the postseason (I’m pretty sure New Orleans was actually the sixth-seeded team) and the Seahawks were awful yet managed to luck their way into a division title. And even though a division winning team beat a wild card team, it’s apparently one of the biggest upsets ever. After all, Seattle was historically awful, right? Just never mind that although Football Outsiders noted they were the third-worst playoff team ever, the two teams worse than them had each won their first playoff game. Or that New Orleans has never won a road playoff game.

The lasting image of this game is going to be Marshawn Lynch running over and into and through everything, like a car through a cardboard set of a city, into the end zone, as it should be. Holy shit what a run. But this entire game was cool: Matt Hasselbeck playing better than he ever has (even during his Super Bowl run a few years ago) and chucking the ball everythere. The Saints doing the same is fun, especially since their running game consisted of the most overrated college running back of all time and a guy who I forgot was still in pro football, which meant Brees was also going to chuck the ball all over.

I think I’ve said this before, but unless Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu are playing (hopefully against each other) I don’t really care about defence. I want to see teams score 30, 40 points. I got to see this on Saturday. Discount Lynch’s 67-yard rush and no runner finished with more than 65 yards rushing; this was a passing-oriented game. Brees finished with over 400 yards, Hasselbeck with four scores. Hell yeah!

If there was a downside to this game, it was the announcing crew which spent most of the game annoying me by saying things like “a screen pass is just as good as a handoff” over and over, forcing me to drink like one of the Pickwicks. I got it the first time, buddy. You don’t need to repeat it for 180 minutes.

What is there to make of the Seahawks, though? They can be a dangerous team, I suppose, but I’m wary to give them a ton of credit. After all, they play at home in a stadium which was actually designed to make the crowd loud enough to give them an advantage. They lit up the Saints for over 270 yards passing – but he threw for 366 yards in an earlier loss to the Saints. Seattle played their best game of the season and they’re probably going to get bounced in the next round. Which is fair, since this win was all they needed to vindicate getting into the playoffs with a crappy record.

NY Jets over Indianapolis Colts

I said: Indianapolis

Watching Peyton Manning make a pouty, sad face from the sideline is a playoff tradition my father and I somehow end up seeing almost every year and it’s one I never tire of. And the weird thing is that it’s nothing personal. I just like seeing Peyton Manning lose. Let me try and explain.

In a vacuum, Manning should be regarded as the finest quarterback of his generation. He’s put up numbers which seem all but untouchable, he’s got perhaps the best arm of anybody in the NFL. He’s been named player of the decade by Fox Sports, been named MVP four times, a first-team All-Pro six times and etc, etc, ad nauseum.  He’s been funny in commercials and managed the rarest of athletic feats: he hosted SNL and actually did a decent job.

In the regular season, Manning has put up some of the most insane numbers I can remember ever seeing. I remember the season where he threw for 49 touchdowns, obliterating the previous record. I remember another where his team went 14-2 and started with 13 straight wins.

But still, he collapses in the postseason, year after year after year. Sometimes it’s to Tom Brady – probably the closest thing to a rival Manning has – and sometimes it’s to lesser teams (like the Jets) and even win he wins, he still loses: yes, he won a Super Bowl, but it was against the Bears, a team quarterbacked by Rex Grossman. Loudmouthed sportscasters and Bleacher Report hacks will always be a chorus of voices reminding him of that fact.

Peyton Manning watches from the sideline after the Jets kick a game-winning field goal, thanks in part to a Jim Caldwell timeout

I don’t particularly think losing is part of what defines Manning, but it’s what people associate him with. He’s the regular season hero, the guy who puts up all the numbers and his defence lets him down. Or he loses because his offence is hurt. Or something. In that way, he’s kind of like Dan Marino (who never won a Super Bowl yet set all the records for Manning to break) because you always know in the back of your mind something is going to happen to him and it’s going to be brutal and Manning will make a face like he cannot understand why this keeps happening to him and when it does, you’re still surprised even though it’s more formulaic then an O Henry story because it happens in a way Bill Simmons would write a 14,000 word column on if it happened to his Patriots.

Case in point: 2006 divisional playoffs, Steelers at Colts. Jerome Bettis fumbles right near the goal line and only a tackle from future-bar creep Ben Roethlisburger prevents it being returned for a touchdown. Still, the Colts move the ball downfield and get it in position to kick a field goal to win the game as time expires. I am not watching this game, I am working at a supermarket with a girl named Katy who’s a diehard Colts fan. I can’t remember if we mocked each other throughout the day, but I do remember asking customers if they knew the score of the game. Oddly enough, more than a few did and we got a nice little rundown of what was happening. I’m pretty Katy laughed when told Bettis fumbled. And I’m pretty sure I laughed with notorious drunk Mike Vanderjact kicked his way out of organized labour.

That’s only one example. From a pick-six in last year’s Super Bowl to an onslaught of New England defensive players on a snowy Foxboro field, things never end well for Manning. Where his rival Brady seems to exist only in a sphere of winning, Manning exists in losing. Brady wins in spite of things – I still remember one Super Bowl he won after Carolina kicked a kickoff out of bounds and another where something like five seconds ticked off inexplicably after a late field goal. They’re the ying and yang of, well, something; isn’t it odd that in successive years, Manning won and Brady lost in the Super Bowl for the only time?

Back to Saturday evening. The Colts called a bizarre late-game timeout which gave the Jets more time to move downfield. Manning threw his arms up in the air. The Jets make a chip shot of a kick to win as time expires. Manning loses again, memorably, and makes another pouty face. Fun times to be a Colts fan.

 

Baltimore Ravens over Kansas City Chiefs

I said: Baltimore

The one game I got correct this weekend.

To me, the most interesting part of this game was San Diego’s special teams unit. How did Kansas City get here? By winning the division. How did they win the division? By winning more than the Chargers did – and what cost the Chargers at least one (and probably closer to two) wins? Their special teams unit.

All season I’ve been waiting for the other show to drop on Kansas City. Yes, they’re a decent team, but not overwhelming. I’ve had doubts about them since they lost in Week eight. And I’m not going to say the loss makes me feel vindicated or anything, but it shouldn’t be a total surprise. The Chiefs were decent, but they’re not the class of the AFC – and they certainly didn’t match up against a team which has been getting Super Bowl buzz all season. It’s kind of a shame the team had to collapse on national television, but it seemed bound to happen.

Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis sacks Chiefs QB Matt Cassel in the second half of Sunday's AFC Wild Card game

No, what should surprise was how poorly Matt Cassel played. Yes, Baltimore’s defence played well and forced turnovers. Yes, he was pressured – at times. But for him to have something close to eight seconds in the pocket – all day in football and certainly more than I remember Michael Vick getting – to find an open receiver and throw the cleanest looking interception I saw all weekend was amazing. It seemed everything which could go wrong for the Chiefs did go wrong in the third, and as things fell apart, the team lost itself and what was happening on the field started looking like a Hieronymus Bosch painting, a demonic vision of birds attacking some poor soul.

What does the win mean for the Ravens? They certainly look like a team to be reckoned with – even though their defence did bend here and there (hard to remember now but KC did lead 7-3 for a while) and their offence did take a while to really get into gear. Still, when they’re rolling, they’re a bundle of something: they kept pressure on the Chiefs offence, they forced turnovers and they took advantage of turnovers. They beat up upon a lesser team and they’re going to play the Steelers next week in a game which promises to brutal and low scoring. Maybe if it snows enough, somebody will crack a Stalingrad joke.

Green Bay Packers over Philadelphia Eagles

I said: Philadelphia

The last game of the weekend was probably not the most compelling or exciting but it was one of the more ferocious games of the weekend. The lasting memory of the game is probably that hit on Brent Celek in the fourth quarter – the one where he was reaching up for the ball and missed it and was slammed into, then knocked into the ground, by a Green Bay defender, causing a bunch of people on Twitter to lose their shit and start calling for pass interference – which didn’t happen. And fair enough, since it wasn’t a hit to the head.

It was representative of the game. Both sides came out swinging – the first play of the game was a sack of Michael Vick. The Packers looked like a team ready to take it to whomever is in their way – and better than the other three NFC teams this weekend.

But the thing to really take away isn’t how good Green Bay is, it’s how messed up the Eagles are. They’re a confusing team, able to work as a cohesive whole one snap and in disarray the next. Michael Vick was equal parts stunning and frustrating, missing open throws, making smart passes and forcing things to happen. On the overturned two-point conversion, his pass was right on the money to Celek (who made a good catch, too) but it was for naught. And on the second attempt, Vick was under enough pressure he just got rid of the ball.

Taken as a whole, Vick is a fascinating figure and not just because of his dissonance among the public. He’s  been an electrifying figure, in that he’s always liable to dash off for a bunch of yards, but he runs counter to the ideal of a quarterback – seeing him sit in the pocket and toss one somehow doesn’t feel right. However, this season saw Vick try to fit that role too – he completed more passes than he ever has and his QB rating jumped about 20 points from its previous high.  Is this a conscious effort to appease people? Is he leaving the brashness, the punkiness of being a run-first QB behind in hopes for wider acceptance? I can’t say I’d blame him if he was, even unknowingly.

Sunday, more than ever, he looked like a pocket QB. He finished with just eight rushes and on some of them – ones which may not have counted for rushes, but as sacks – he looked almost lost. Maybe it was Green Bay’s defence. Maybe he doesn’t have the confidence in his running game. Maybe he’s hurt – he was seen limping after that failed two-point convert. Or maybe he’s just out of shape (this is his first full season as a QB since 2006!). I don’t know. I can only speculate. But I’m sure he was frustrated at times. Again, I would have been too: between kicks missing the uprights to the Packers defence laying pressure on him, Vick had a tough day.

And I guess it led naturally to the finale, a deep pass picked off in the end zone by Tramon Williams. It was a high risk, high reward play. If I’m remembering right, it was only single coverage – and if the pass was a bit higher, could have been a catch. He makes that completion, he’s a hero with a NFL Films clip that lives on for a while. He didn’t and it was picked off. People are going to ask what he was thinking on that pass. Was it arrogance? Frustration? I’d wager he wasn’t thinking in terms like that, or even that if was complete he wins. Single coverage in the end zone. Somebody more accurate probably makes it. But, truth be told, Vick was not exceptionally accurate. I can think of one case where he had Celek open, right in front of him and he plunked it in the dirt.

I picked the Eagles in spite of a bunch of stats that favored the Packers: a better SRS, point differential and DVOA. I didn’t really make a clear case in choosing the Eagles (I said they’re just better than Green Bay but not like I was convinced) and so much of that faith was in Vick. I’m not going to say I should have known better… but I can’t say I’m surprised to be wrong, either.

Vick, America and image – NFL Notebook, week three

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It doesn’t matter what happens to him the rest of the season: Michael Vick has come back, rehabilitated himself and his image.

True, it is unlikely his incarceration will escape the biographer’s scope. People will remember that, remember the mental image of a dog getting killed, remember Vick heading off to jail.

But anybody who likes football, even casually, will look at what Vick is doing and will likely change his or her mind. What he is doing is not only by itself significant, but it’s context puts it into a whole another stratosphere.

Vick has stepped into Kevin Kolb’s shoes, led the Eagles to a win over a hapless Jacksonville team and put up great statistical numbers: in three games, Vick has thrown for 750 yards, six touchdowns, zero interceptions and has a QB rating of 110.2 (he’s also rushed for another 170 yards and a touchdown). He’s thrown for more yards then Mark Sanchez or Brett Farve, more touchdowns then Drew Brees or Aaron Rogers and his QB rating is second to Peyton Manning.

He is putting up these numbers only one season removed from being in jail. He’s doing it after being thrust into a starting role. He’s doing it for a coach who signing him, stuck him on the bench – first behind Donovan McNabb and then Kolb. He only came in after Kolb was concussed in week one against the Green Bay Packers.

And he’s doing it as one of the most scrutinized players in any sport right now: few, if any, athletes took the same kind of hit Vick did upon his arrest and conviction.

It’s easy to write it off as hysteria, but people hated Vick. He was a national punchline, somebody mocked on TV screens and on radio and blogs and print and almost every forum there is in which to mock him. Fantasy teams with names like Bad Newz Kennels. A joke on Family Guy. He was loathed, and as such, he was reduced to mockery.

America hates crime, really, but it really hates crime it can’t quantify. As idols of celebrity, athletes get a long enough leash for them to act badly. Baltimore receiver Donte Stallworth pled guilty to manslaughter after hitting and killing a pedestrian in 2009, for instance. He was suspended for all of last season and returned to play this year.

Vick sat out two full seasons, lost endorsement deals and declared bankruptcy. The owner of his team called him a liar and told the media he wasn’t wanted in Atlanta anymore.

And while Vick probably deserved all of that (he did after all run a dogfighting ring), it’s not hard to wonder why he got hit so hard while other players are not: Braylon Edwards was recently arrested for drunk driving and was benched for a quarter. Stallworth missed just a season after ending a person’s life. But … that is old hat.

He was hated, now he is feted. A Philadelphia newspaper used the headline Top Dog when he was named starter. His Eagles are 2-1 and are on top of their division. Even his opponents this coming Sunday claim they are rooting for him.

What has prompted this? Surely winning has helped more then a little bit. But the biggest part is his attitude. Where Vick was once rebellious, confrontational and brash – his hair, his talk and his attitude all oozed rebellion – he is acting more in the calm, somber role. This is not the same Vick who flipped off fans, for better or worse.

Vick’s comeback is a great story. It’s also very much one I’ve come to expect from the NFL, and by extension, the States. They may hate puppy killers, but they love it when people finally come around and fit in. It’s a melting pot mentality – we’ll accept you when you want to be like us.

And that’s what makes his such a popular comeback: Vick isn’t just winning football games, he’s doing so while appearing grateful for the opportunity. He hasn’t just come back; he’s turned a new leaf and become a better person in the eyes of people prone to judgment – somebody more like them.

Is that right? Does it really mean anything if Vick is quoted saying things like “I’m just trying to rise like the phoenix,” in papers across North America? Does it really make his comeback all the more impressive when he says a few words?

I’m not sure I think so. For once, I’m willing to let the stats tell the story.

**

I’m surprised when people are surprised by the Pittsburgh Steelers this season. Yes, it’s true they don’t have a true starting quarterback yet and won’t for another game (at least, anyway). And their offence leaves much to be desired.

O, but their defence! Their shutdown defence, holding teams to a NFL-low 11 points per game! That has 10 sacks! That held Tennessee to 11 points while forcing seven turnovers. The Steelers, at this point in the season, have the best defence in the league.

Just look at the highlights: Troy Polamalu flying through the air; Brett Keisel picking off Josh Freeman’s quick, nearly lateral, pass to Sammie Stroughter (who is then completely removed from relevency with a brutal James Harrison hit) and taking it in for a touchdown.

I’m not sure it will really make a gigantic difference when Big Ben returns to the team. The Steelers are winning games not with their offence, but with their D. They’re keeping teams from even getting into the game, let alone taking a lead (they’ve only been down twice this season, each time by a field goal).

Of course, it will be nice when he is back. Their offence, which actually looks pretty decent, will look better with him. Since a lot of their game, especially on Sunday against the Bucs, comes from big passing plays, they’ll benefit from Ben’s presence and size in the pocket.

But will it make a world of difference? No. It may not even a tipping point for the Steelers. Make no mistake: this is a team that is winning on the virtues of Polamalu, Harrison, et al.

**

Are the Chiefs for real? I don’t really know. They’re 3-0 and they did beat the Chargers, the likeliest team to contend with them for a playoff spot. Their defence is holding teams to the second-fewest points in the NFL this season. And it certainly helps that they have an easy schedule (they have upcoming games against Jacksonville, Buffalo, Oakland, Arizona, St. Louis).

Are they 3-0 good? Better then the Chargers good?

Well, last season the Broncos looked really good too and started 6-0, including wins over New England and San Diego. They finished the season 8-8 and out of the playoffs. Since this Chiefs team came basically out of nowhere, they’re an easy comparison.

But that Broncos team wasn’t as good defensively (by this point in the season, they had given up over 600 yards – nearly twice what the Chiefs have). I don’t think the two teams really compare.

If anything, I’m looking forward to see how they look against a team with a much better offence then Cleveland or the Niners: Indianapolis or Houston. Once they get past both of those teams, it’ll be a lot easier to judge them.

Written by M.

September 29, 2010 at 2:12 am