North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Posts Tagged ‘NFL

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news that Michael Sam has signed with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes, it seemed like a good time to run this previously unpublished column I wrote for The Good Point back in 2014!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

The Bills were never coming to Toronto anyway

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I try to run a positive blog here; there’s a lot of negativity around Toronto sports sometimes. But it’s not always feasible. This is one of those times.

Last Friday, the Buffalo Bills reached an agreement with the state of New York and Erie County to remain at Ralph Wilson Stadium until 2020. A lot of money changes hands in this deal. Some $130 million is earmarked for Ralph Wilson. It’ll be nice to renovate the stadium, long considered one of the NFL’s worst. And it gives an idea of stability for the Bills, whose post-Ralph Wilson future looks sometimes shaky; once he’s gone, what happens to the team?

But it’s a slap in the face to Toronto, where a group has long coveted the team coming across the border and is just winding down a five-year agreement where the Bills played a game at the Rogers Centre. It’s hard not to get the feeling Toronto was used to leverage a better deal from the state and county governments. After all, it showed the NFL would allow games on the other side of the border. Honestly, it’s hard not to be a little miffed at the way this all went down.

After their final appearance in Toronto, Bills center Eric Woods called the game a joke. First thought: he was describing his team’s defence, which was blown up by Seattle in a 50-17 loss. Second thought: way to kick Toronto on the way out, knowing you’ll probably never have to face those people again. Third thought: he’s right. The Toronto Series was a joke. The crowds were never there, the stadium was dull and lifeless and the team stank every season. As I recall, they won exactly one game in Toronto. And it cost more to see one of these games than it would to see the Bills at Ralph Wilson, too: tickets this year started at $48; they’re 500-level seats, natch. Tickets can be had for this Sunday’s game for $30. Lower bowl seats, too.

Maybe the comparative failure of this series is why his comments haven’t dominated sports media in this town. A quick scan of the Fan’s headlines from the past week shows his comments coming up exactly once. I don’t remember it ever coming up once when I listened. Maybe that’s part of the reason why Toronto doesn’t seem exactly torn up over the Bills extension.

I’ve long held the opinion that the NFL is never coming full-time to Toronto. There’s a bunch of reasons why: Toronto ratings don’t mean jack to American networks and by extension would damage national TV deals; the Rogers Centre is too small by the NFL’s standards (and it a bad football stadium, to boot); the impact it’d have on the CFL, more than occasionally useful for developing NFL prospects; the logistical problems of building a new, NFL-sized stadium in the GTA (Where’s it going to go? Who’s going to pay for it? Who is going to use it the rest of the time?). An extension to the Toronto series is possibly forthcoming – a recent Toronto Star story says it could come “early next year” – but with Rogers heavy focus on the Blue Jays, I can’t say I’d be surprised if this one languishes away.

So what then to make of the Bills decision to double down on Buffalo? It makes sense from a practical standpoint – Ralph Wilson, for all it’s flaws is probably a better football stadium than the Rogers Centre – and it makes sense from the TV deal side, too: I’m sure CBS would rather have a team playing home games in a city where they have a station. But I can’t shake the “Toronto was used” feeling. The games here weren’t a success and I can’t help but feel they weren’t supposed to be. Did the Bills ever want to leave Buffalo? To Toronto, where there’s no ready stadium, no ready ownership group and a fanbase that never filled the Rogers Centre?

I said it before, I’ll say it again. I don’t buy the Bills in Toronto. They were never going to come here. The difference is, it’s now in writing.

Written by M.

December 25, 2012 at 11:20 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.

NFL Conference Picks

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Whatever happens on Sunday, at least one thing will be sure: the Super Bowl will be a good game.

Some matchups are obviously more desirable then others, but even the worst matchup (New York v. Minnesota) is still a great game. On paper, anyway. And on all the talk shows that kick into high gear this season.

After all, this is the time of year where not much else happens in football. Nothing usually happens, although this year the Super Bowl has been wisely scheduled to follow the Pro Bowl – no more bye week that means absolutely nothing.

That, I suppose, is the best thing of all to look forward to. Breakdowns and picks after the jump, home team in CAPS. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M.

January 24, 2010 at 2:59 am

These NFL WIld Card Weekend Picks are Superbad

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I had a discussion the other day with a friend on the best movies of the decade. We threw around a lot of titles but didn’t really come to any conclusions: was it No Country for Old Men? Almost Famous? Inglorious Basterds?

Anyway, a couple nights later, I caught Superbad on Showcase. I hadn’t seen that movie since it came out a few years ago and frankly didn’t want to; I got really tired of people making McLovin jokes.

But as I watched it, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Two years later, it still felt fresh. It felt fresh the next day when I watched it again. And it felt fresh yesterday when I shelled out five bucks for a used copy.

Is it the best movie of the decade? Maybe. But without a doubt, it’s the most quotable. And with a nod to Bill Simmons, it inspired me and my buddy Bernard to hand out quotes for my NFL Playoff picks.

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NFL Week 14 Picks

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Ugh.

I’m not impressed with my showing last week. Or with the Steelers showing, either. It was a weird week with more then a couple upsets and some odd finishes.

Who would have thought the Raiders would have three touchdowns against Pittsburgh – in the fourth quarter? That officials in Washington would overturn a call – after a timeout was called to give the replay booth a chance to review said call – in overtime with sketchy (at best) evidence? Or that Indianapolis could get held to three points in the second half – and still win by double-digits?

Let’s put it this way. It was a weird week last week. I went an ugly 7 and 8. Not impressed.

Still, it could be worse. I could be Army’s offense, which seemed to have two or three plays today against Navy, all of them involving a lob pass to a Alejandro Villanueva, regardless of the triple coverage that surrounded him at all times. Like them, I’m plunging ahead with my week 14 picks, with no remorse. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M.

December 12, 2009 at 9:24 pm