Tuesday, January 30, 2007

"The Woods & Federer show"

Let's all do this together. Every morning when we first climb grudgingly out of bed, we need to kneel down and thank two men for being the best they can possibly be at what they do for a living.

And for constantly amazing us, now, year after year.

We are all blessed to be witnessing the Woods & Federer Show.

Chew on this: We are quite possibly watching the peak performances of the greatest golfer and greatest tennis player... ever. At the same time! This past Sunday I was lucky enough to watch Federer win the Australian Open at 5 in the morning and then - after a soothing nap - wake up for Woods' inevitable comeback at the Buick Invitational.

Getting to watch two sports legends in one day? With church in between? We really are blessed, ain't we?

There's no use in comparing Federer and Woods. They are both that good.

Numbers don't even do them justice, but I'll throw some at you anyhow. Woods has now won the last seven PGA Tour tournaments he's competed in. That's just sick. We're talking about tournaments in which 150 talented golfers compete - all trying to take down Woods - and, yet, no one can break him. He's defeated 899 golfers in the seven tournaments. In the acute game of golf, all it would take on a Sunday afternoon would be a couple bad shots, maybe a loose 6-iron into the water, but Woods is unflappable. Only one other golfer, Byron Nelson, has won seven in a row – he actually took 11 straight tournaments in 1945 - and as good as Nelson was, the competition wasn't nearly as fierce 60 years ago.

Woods, however, makes the competition look tame. If not for Woods, the PGA Tour would have as much parity as the NFL.

It's only a matter of time before Woods, who has 12 majors, eclipses Jack Nicklaus' record of 18. Give him a few years and he'll be there. In the meantime, enjoy the ride.

Federer's numbers aren't bad either. He's now won 10 grand slam events, four shy of Pete Sampras' record. While I give Woods a 90 percent chance of winning each tournament he competes in, I give Federer a 98 percent chance. That's how dominant he is. Since the beginning of 2006, Federer is 99-5, winning 13 tournaments. He's now won three consecutive grand slams twice in his career, the only player in the Open era to accomplish this.

I'm not sure Federer even broke a sweat at the Australian Open. He didn't lose one set the entire tournament. That's 1, 2, 3... 21 consecutive sets. Impressive? Uh, yeah, dude.

The only obstacle Federer has yet to eclipse is winning the French Open, something Sampras never did. Since 2004, Federer has won nine of 13 grand slams, with three of those non-wins coming in Paris. Once he conquers the clay - and there is no doubt he will - he will be as indomitable as they come. A robot, almost.

And he's only 25, six years younger than Woods.

The numbers don't do this nearly impeccable pair justice, however. All you need to do is watch Woods one Sunday afternoon or Federer in one grand slam final to realize what makes them special.

They never flinch. They never show one sign that the pressure of constantly being the best and constantly being expected to be the best negatively affects them. Sure, Woods hits his poor shots. But they come on Thursday or Friday, when he can still overcome them. If Woods leads going into Sunday, the rest of the field would be better off hopping onto their private jets and flying to the next PGA Tour stop, with hopes that Woods will take the next week off. He is that deadly on Sundays.

What makes it all the more impressive is that Woods can't control his opponents. He can't wiggle Ernie's ear when he hits it, or bump Phil's back when he putts, or yell at Vijay when he chips. No, instead he shoots rounds that he knows will be good enough to salt away victories. And he beats the other top players in the world every week.

Federer is just as clutch. Early in a match he might let a couple points get away (he even had his serve broke in the first set of the Aussie Open championship match on Sunday by Fernando Gonazalez), but he always comes through when the points matter most. Later in the set he fended off two set points before breaking Gonzalez and eventually winning the set in a tiebreak.

When it matters most, there are five guys you can count on. Superman, Batman, Spiderman… and Woods & Federer.

And they do it time and time again. Consistency in sports is far from an easy task. Just look at all the golfers who won a major title never to be heard from again. All it takes is one fantastic four days. Well, Woods has FFD’s just about every time he takes the golf course. Although his driving accuracy has not always been great, there are other parts of his game you can ink in:
- He'll hit the ball very far
- He'll make incredible shots over forests, grandstands, etc...
- He'll make ridiculously difficult putts when they matter most

With Federer, there are even more consistencies in his game:
- His killer backhand
- His good (but not great) forehand
- His good (but not great) serve
- His ability to charge the net

Golf and tennis are two of the most difficult sports to maintain consistency in, day in and day out. A basketball player can shoot 1,000 shots a day, and chances are he's going to get better and his shot is going to look similar every time he releases the ball. But hitting a tiny white ball is as tough as it gets, even if you practice it every day. Woods makes it look easy. The same can be said for hitting a one-handed backhand to the far corner of the court. Federer does it countless times in each match.

I actually am surprised when Federer misses wide with a backhand. He’s trained me to expect perfect placement on each shot. But that doesn’t mean the shots he pulls of are less challenging or impressive.

Don't take Woods & Federer for granted because of how easy they make their sports look. Rather, enjoy the ride, because for all we know, we may be watching the two greatest athletes in their respective sports... ever.

Monday, January 29, 2007

"Monday morning (late) wake-up call"

Only a caveman (or someone like that) would not be impressed with the Phoenix Suns right now.

After Sunday's relatively easy road win over LeBron (and the Cavs), Phoenix is now 36-8. It has won 17 consecutive games, the NBA's longest streak in seven years, and the 1972 Lakers' 33-game winning streak doesn't seem that far off in the distance.

While the Suns are extremely fun to watch right now, I must spoil the party. All of these wins... they mean nothing. Come mid April, Phoenix will begin the playoffs along with 15 other teams, all hungry to play for a full two months and come away with the Larry O'Brian trophy. No one will care in May that Phoenix won 18 straight, or 24 straight, or whatever its streak ends up being.

The playoffs are a new season, and Phoenix - like every other team - will start out at square one.

Last season the Pistons had an even better start than the Suns. They began the season 37-5, bringing up conversation about them challenging the '96 Bulls' record of 72-10, the best ever regular season by an NBA team. But, alas, the Pistons starters got so worn out by the end of the season, they didn't have anything left in the playoffs. They were able to sneak by LeBron n' crew in the second round, but didn't stand a chance against a fresh Heat team in the conference finals.

Their season was over and it was considered by every pundit who covers basketball a disappointing season. The league-leading 64 regular-season wins were forgotten. Ditto the 37-5 start. None of that mattered

The Heat went on to win the championship.

Speaking of the Heat, they're nowhere close to Phoenix right now. If the playoffs started today, Miami wouldn't even make the playoffs in the morbid East. Toronto would make the Second Season ahead of it. But would anyone say Miami's not going to be there in April, and May, and possibly June, battling for a repeat?

I didn't think so.

Shaq is just coming back now. By April, I'd assume, Pat Riley will be back pacing the coach's box. And the team will finally be hungry again to win.

As silly as it sounds now, come April I will give Miami - assuming it makes the postseason - just as good of a chance of repeating as I'll give Phoenix of winning its first NBA championship.

Even if that winning streak has reached 55 games.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

"Sunday morning wake-up call"

The Michigan and Michigan State men's basketball teams really aren't that different. They have similar talent and similar records.

Yet one of them will end up in the NCAA tournament and the other will be left out for the ninth consecutive year. Here's why.

The point guard position. Drew Neitzel showed last night why he's arguably the best point guard in the Big Ten. With Michigan State trailing by 20 points at halftime at No. 5 Ohio State, Neitzel almost single-handedly brought the Spartans back, as they came within four missed jumpers in the last two minutes of sneaking out of Columbus with a win. Neitzel played all 40 minutes, scoring 29 points and dishing out three assists.

While Neitzel needed to score last night to keep his team in the game, that doesn't mean he's not a true point guard. He's very efficient at running Tom Izzo's offense, making sure the floor is spaced and everyone is in position to run whatever play has been called. Without Neitzel, there's no way MSU would even be worth of NCAA tournament consideration.

Michigan, on the other hand, lacks a true point guard. Sometimes I feel bad for Dion Harris because he's playing out of position. He's a shooting guard. He's a great pure shooter, especially when he's catching and shooting, but when he's playing the point, he's always dribbling, and he's not as good of a shooter off the dribble. Yesterday, sans backup point guard Jerret Smith, Harris struggled, shooting just 3-for-9 for 12 points.

Smith isn't much better at running the point. He's extremely inconsistent, averaging just three assists per game to 1.9 turnovers, and he shoots just 36 percent from the field, so defenses don't have to worry much about leaving him open. Smith also struggles to get into the lane, where he could create for his teammates. Instead he's relegated to the perimeter.

Michigan State's offensive sets appear much more fluent and better executed than Michigan's. The point guards are a big reason for this.

The other main reason is the coaching of each team.

I don't know what Michigan coach Tommy Amaker tells his players in practice, but one thing he definitely needs to preach loudly is SPACING. The Wolverines always appear bunched up on one side of the court on offense, making things that much easier for the defense guarding them. This rests on Amaker and his point guard. He needs to let his players know how important spacing is to being successful offensively.

The Spartans usually have perfect spacing on offense, which is a direct result of Izzo's system. In the finals minutes against Ohio State last night, the Spartans could get almost any open outside shot they wanted (they just didn't make them). By spacing the floor and setting solid screens, Michigan State's offense didn't need a superstar to split two defenders and make an acrobatic shot. The average players - besides Neitzel - that Izzo had on the floor were good enough to beat a much more talented Ohio State team.

A lot of that had to do with coaching.

Finally, Izzo's Spartans expect to win every game while Amaker's Wolverines try not to lose, but appear relegated to the fact that when they play a good team on the road, they're going to fall. The Spartans could have easily called it a night at halftime Saturday, but Izzo most likely sent a message to his team at halftime that motivated them to almost pull off the improbable in the second half.

In the final minutes, with the Buckeyes' lead getting smaller and smaller, Izzo was far from satisfied. He yanked at his tie and yelled at the refs until the final whistle. I can guarantee you there was no talk of a moral victory after the game.

Meanwhile, Amaker was about as stoic as a statue as he watched his team battle back from a 20-point deficit to get within eight points in the Wolverines' 76-61 loss to Indiana. I know it's just his persona, but when Brent Petway rejected a Mike White layup attempt with just over 3 minutes left and no jump ball was called, allowing White to pick up the ball, lay it in and get fouled by Courtney Sims (his fifth foul of the game), Amaker should have been irate. It was an awful no-call. There comes a time when a coach has to let the officials know that he's not going to let them get away with miserable calls or no-calls like that.

I didn't see any reaction from Amaker. Even though that play, which gave Indiana an 11-point lead instead of Michigan getting the ball on the alternating possession down just eight, basically decided the game.

I know Amaker cared about the game, but it didn't seem like he was working as hard as Izzo to make his players believe they could win.

Which is too bad, because this may be the first year since the late 1990s that Michigan has at least as much talent as Michigan State, if not more. Too bad the results won't prove it.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

"She's back... already"

After Saturday, Maria Sharapova might want to take to heart her words of a couple weeks ago and retire to have a family.

Because she got whooped.

Serena Williams is back. And the rest of the women's tennis world better brace themselves, because she's not going anywhere this time.

"It's always like, tell me no and I'll show you that I can do it," Williams said in an Associated Press article. "I get the greatest satisfaction just holding up the Grand Slam trophy and proving everyone wrong."

I am one of the people Williams proved wrong. I thought it would take her a couple months to get back into playing shape. After all, it was no secret throughout the past two weeks that Williams was not in the kind of shape she's been in during the past.

Williams proved, however, that physical condition can be overcome by heart. She knew how many people were doubting her. She knew what people were saying about her body. So she refused to lose.

Williams, who was unseeded, battled her way to the final, beating five seeded players before absolutely shellacking Maria Sharapova in a mere 63 minutes. She made Sharapova appear like a high school player with her sheer power. By the time it was 4-0 in the first set, there was no doubt Williams was the better player. There was no way there'd be a comeback on this warm Aussie afternoon.

The only comeback being completed was Williams' back to the top of the women's tennis world. She is projected to leap from No. 81 to No. 14 in the Women's Tennis Association rankings next week. But, honestly, will anyone say that Sharapova, who is expected to be No. 1 in the rankings, is better than Williams?

No. As improbable as it seems, Williams, in just one tournament, became the queen of women's tennis once again. Williams' victory was her first since she won the same tournament two years earlier and also her first championship match appearance since then. She became just the second player ever - with Chris O'Neil in 1978 - to win a grand slam as an unseeded player. She now has eight grand slams, tying her for 10th all time.

Williams might not be as quick as, say, Sharapova, but she is by far the strongest, most powerful player in the WTA. Her 64 aces at the Australian Open were the most of any player. If a player doesn't make Williams move laterally, she will dominate – and completely pummel - them with both forehands and backhands.

Is she as good as she was back in her prime, when she won four consecutive grand slams? No, definitely not. But she's older, now 25, more mature and these last two weeks, I think, she realized that her ability to play tennis is not something she should take for granted.

When she puts her mind to the game, and doesn't let other ventures distract her, she can be the best. Like she was the last two weeks.

Now we get to see how she follows this up. Is another streak of grand slam victories in the cards?

It should be fun to watch, if not fun for the other players in the WTA.

"Saturday morning wake-up call"

If you could start a team with Wilt Chamberlin or Bill Russell, who would you take?

I've been reading a lot about these two guys, and it is very difficult for me to determine who was the better player.

Russell won way more championships (11) than Chamberlin (2), but he also had a better supporting cast for his entire career. Bob Cousey directed the Celtics through 1963, Bill Sharman was a pinpoint shooter as was Tommy Heinsohn, Sam Jones was Mr. Clutch, K.C. Jones was a solid player and so were Satch Sanders, Jim Lustocuff and Frank Ramsey.

Yeah, Russell had plenty of help.

Chamberlin, on the other hand, never had such a complete team around him until he joined the Lakers in the later 1960s, which featured Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. He did have guys such as Guy Rodgers, but never a rotation as solid as Boston's.

Still, there are some questions as to how dedicated Chamberlin was to winning. In his first few years in the league, he seemed to only care about his individual statistics. Alex Hannum changed this when he took over the Philadelphia Warriors in the early '60s, and they came very close to beating the Celtics in the '62 Eastern Conference Finals.

But Russell simply refused to lose. He did whatever it took to win. Unlike Chamberlin, there were never any questions about Russell's intentions when he took the court. Just win, baby.

Russell refused to stand down to anybody, unlike Chamberlin - especially in Wilt's early years - who often wouldn't retaliate when being pushed around by opponents' physical centers.

Despite this, the statistics clearly favor Chamberlin. He led the league in scoring from 1960-1966, averaging a record 50.4 points in 1962. Russell never averaged more than 18.9 points per game. Chamberlin also had the edge in rebounding - believed to be Russell's biggest strength - averaging the most boards in the league 11 times compared to four times for Russell. And Chamberlin is No. 1 in all-time rebounds ahead of Russell.

But when it comes to MVP awards, Russell has a slight advantage of five to four. That right there makes my very, very tough decision. Russell was a tiny bit better than Chamberlin.

So if I had the privlege today of starting a team with either of these greats from the past while they were in their prime, I'd take Russell.


Friday, January 26, 2007

"Friday morning wake-up call"

The Chicago Bulls.

About a month ago I thought they were awful. Despite the signing of Ben Wallace during the off-season, this team couldn't score. And its defense wasn't even that good. It seemed locked into mediocrity, maybe heading for a first-round playoff exit in the anemic Eastern Conference at best.

I have changed my mind.

On Thursday night the Bulls defeated the Dallas Mavericks 96-85 to snap the Mavs' eight-game winning streak. Chicago improved to 25-19 and is just one game behind Detroit in the Central Division.

The Bulls have found their identity on the defensive end. They're giving up just 93.9 points per game, third in the East behind the Pistons and Orlando. Whenever a team plays defense that well, they're going to be in games, and that's when Chicago's streaky shooters such as Kirk Hinrich and Andres Nocioni can be deadly - in close, defensive games.

Another huge reason for the Bulls' turnaround has been the play of Luol Deng. The forward is averaging a career-high 18 points per game (second on the team to Ben Gordon's 21.3 ppg) and he's shooting a blistering 52.8 percent from the field. On a team that in recent years has settled for way too many outsider jumpers, Deng is beginning to show off that ability to not only get to the basket, but post up as well, which will create open shots from the outside.

He'll be very key in any run the Bulls make in the playoffs.

Just the fact that I'm talking about the Bulls and the playoffs is remarkable right now. A month ago they were nothing more than a middle-of-the-pack bunch of jump-shooters in a terrible conference.

New feature

Hey guys,
Thanks again for reading the blog and commenting on my writing. I really appreciate it. To try to serve you better, I am adding another daily feature to the blog. In addition to full-length columns appearing every couple days and my 100-word blog appearing every day in the right-hand column (yes, I will start getting that up every day), I am adding a "wake-up call" column, which is a mini column I'll post in the main window whenever I wake up each day. The column will be about the first sports-related thing that pops into my head when I wake up, so it should be interesting.


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"That ain't right"

Enter my hypothetical world for a few moments.

It's June 2007 and the two-month-long NBA playoffs are finally nearing their conclusion. In a matter of days, the NBA Finals will get under way. It's a rematch of last year: Dallas vs. Miami.

Except that Miami will be without one of its key players. Udonis Haslem was arrested a month ago - during the second round of the playoffs - when police found three handguns, three rifles and ammunition in his house. This was the third time in 18 months Haslem was arrested.

Haslem was relegated to home confinement and was not permitted to play the rest of playoffs with the Heat. Commissioner David Stern, acting in order to prevent public outcry, immediately suspended Haslem for his conduct.

Skipping forward a week or so, Dallas wins its first NBA title. The Heat, with Shaq not close to 100 percent, is lacking in big men and gets dominated down low. Haslem's absence kills it.

All right. Snap back to the real world. Yesterday, Tank Johnson, a defensive tackle for the Chicago Bears, was granted permission to play in the Feb. 4 Super Bowl against the Indianapolis Colts by Cook County (Ill.) Judge John Moran. Johnson was arrested for exactly what I placed on poor Udonis Haslem, who is a good person (sorry, Udonis, I had to use somebody as an example).

Personally, I don't have a huge problem with Johnson playing in the Super Bowl. I believe in second chances (although he has been arrested three times). I think the guy should get the opportunity to right himself. But I am shocked at the lack of public displeasure about this decision. It's as if, since Johnson is a key contributor for the Bears, of course he should play.

Let the past be the past.

This decision highlights a significant difference between how malcontents in the NFL are viewed and treated and malcontents in the NBA and MLB are treated. Players in the NFL are able to get away with a lot more off-the-field issues than professional basketball or baseball players. Players will be on trial for a crime and cheered by their fans at the same time (example - Chris Henry, wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals).

When an NBA player is arrested, he is not easily forgiven by the fans and he is constantly portrayed by the media as a thug. Even Kobe Bryant, one of the league's biggest names, was booed for a full season after accused of sexual assault. I hate to say it, but there are NFL players on active rosters who have been accused of similar crimes - and they're not booed.

A big reason for this is familiarity. Basketball players are the most visible team sports figures. There are only 10 of them on a court at a time and it's easy for a casual observer to memorize the faces they see playing. The same can just about be said of baseball players. But football players? Not so fast, my friend.

Football players' faces are hidden behind facemasks. Some players, such as LaDanian Tomlinson, even wear tinted visors that completely shield their faces from everybody. Additionally, because there are 22 players on the field at a time, there aren't nearly as many close-up camera views of football players as there are of basketball or baseball players.

If a baseball fan saw a head shot of the Yankees' Bernie Williams, they would immediately recognize him. If a football fan saw a head shot of Rams' offensive tackle Orlando Pace, I'm guessing they'd struggle to identify him. While most football fans recognize quarterbacks and running backs - high-profile players - when it comes to recognizing, say, Tank Johnson, they struggle.

And how can one possibly rant negatively about a person when they are not familiar with that person's appearance?

It's not easy.

It's easy to hate Barry Bonds. Every average Joe in America who follows sports at all knows who Bonds is, has seen pictures of Bonds - has seen that HUGE head - and many of these fans (another hypothesis) would protest if Bonds was honored for breaking Hank Aaron's home run record.

It's easy to dislike Ron Artest. Anyone in America with a television likely saw the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills more than two years ago. They saw how Artest maliciously rushed into the stands to confront a Pistons' fan. There weren't too many non-Indiana Pacers fans who didn't support Stern for suspending Artest for the rest of the season.

But Tank Johnson can have loaded guns in his house - accessible to his two infant children, no less - and he gets to go to Miami to play football.

Where’s all the criticism? Where are all the Tank Haters?

Something’s ain’t right here.

It also ain’t right that Shawne Merriman of the San Diego Chargers will be playing in the Pro Bowl on Feb. 11 despite the fact that he violated the league's steroids policy earlier this season, resulting in a four-game suspension. No one cares about that anymore though. To them, Merriman is just one heckuva linebacker.

Mark McGwire, on the other hand, will likely never make the Hall-of-Fame because he took a substance that was legal at the time and he hit 70 home runs because of it. Not talking about the past in front of Congress didn't help McGwire, either.

Still... that ain't right.

No one will argue that football is more physically demanding than basketball or baseball. To be a good football player, you've got to have that mean streak in you. You have to be aggressive all the time. Finesse doesn't work.

Some players, apparently, can't leave their violent style on the field. For this, I pity them. But this should not - by any means - give them a free pass from crimes they allegedly commit. Or make them any less guilty in the court of public opinion.

All athletes should be treated the same way. Whether their faces are visible on our televisions or not.

Monday, January 22, 2007

"Peyton's saviors"

Peyton Manning sat on the sideline, head in his hands, praying. He did not look like a quarterback who had just engineered a perfect 80-yard drive in 1 minute, 17 seconds.

He looked scared. Can't-watch scared. He knew who was standing on the opposite sideline, preparing to take the field.

Tom Brady. Manning's nemesis. The quarterback whom everyone referred to as the best clutch player at his position in the NFL (and arguably, in history). Not Manning. But Brady.

And after the kickoff return, Brady had 54 seconds and two timeouts, with the Patriots trailing 38-34, to lead them down the field. For any other quarterback, this would seem very unlikely. For Brady, I was thinking there was about a 40-60 chance.

If Brady led his team to victory, Manning, despite playing a nearly perfect second half - leading the Colts to 32 points to bring them back from an 18-point deficit - would be devastated. The press would eat the "Manning can't win the big games" apple, despite his performance. The Patriots would go to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in six years. The Colts would stay home, maybe never to make the big game during Manning's career.

Brady looked good to start the drive. After an incompletion, he completed two straight passes to get the Patriots to the Colts 45-yard line with 24 seconds to play and a timeout. He was a big play from getting his team into that range where he could start taking shots into the end zone.

Manning buried his head deeper between his knees, praying for what had eluded him twice: a playoff win over the Patriots.

And then he quickly looked up and smiled. He stood up, took a long sigh of relief and walked toward the field. The offense was going back on the field. He had to take one more snap, and all he would need to do was kneel down.

The Colts had won. The defense had held.

How 'bout that defense?

During the regular season, the Colts defense looked about as special as a piece of cotton candy at a carnival. It couldn't stop the run. Teams scored against it late in close games. It was anything but clutch.

On Sunday, the Colts defense did just as much as Manning and his offense to win the game. On the surface, giving up 34 points seems like anything but an admirable performance. But if you look beneath the number, you will notice these things:

- One of the Patriots touchdowns came on an interception return by Asante Samuel in the second quarter, which made the score 21-3 New England.
- The Patriots' lone touchdown in the second half came after an 80-yard kickoff return. Furthermore, the touchdown, a completion to Jabar Gaffney, was very questionable. It was ruled that Gaffney was pushed out of bounds, but I don't think he would have gotten both feet in had he come straight down.
- Twice, in the fourth quarter, the Colts held the Patriots to field goals.

When Brady and his offense got the ball with 3:22 remaining - and the Colts in possession of just two time outs - I thought it would be over within a matter of plays. Brady and the Patriots would pick up two first downs and run out the clock, leaving Manning & Crew helpless.

But the Colts defense came up big. On 3rd-and-4, a run-pass option down, Brady dropped back to throw, had time, released the ball... and it was nearly intercepted by Bob Sanders. The safety, who had missed the previous two playoff games due to injury, had moved up from his position, read Brady's eyes, and gotten in front of Troy Brown and a potential game-ending completion.

After that, it didn’t take long for Manning to drive the Colts down the field for that game-winning touchdown.

Not much time for Sanders & Crew to rest. But again, with Manning, the rest of the offense, the coaches, an entire stadium full of rabid fans, an entire state watching from their homes, and an entire nation of "Patriots haters" counting on it, the defense stepped up.

Marlin Jackson, who, it should be noted, is a University of Michigan man - just like Brady - stepped in front of Brady’s pass, took a few steps forward, then fell flat on his back on purpose. There was no need to run. It was over. The Colts were headed to the Super Bowl. Manning's defense had come through for him.

Why was this so surprising? After all, that defense has saved Manning and his offense this entire postseason. The defense played inspired football against the Chiefs and Ravens while Manning, basically, stunk up the joint. It shut down Larry Johnson, Jamal Lewis, and, on Sunday, perhaps the best two-man combo in the league of Corey Dillon (powerful, experienced) and Laurence Maroney (more speed, more moves). At the end of the night, the Patriots finished with just 93 yards, well below the 150-plus yards Indianapolis gave up per game during the regular season.

And it slowed down Tom Brady. A controversial touchdown and two field goals in the second half. That's all Brady could muster.

During the next two weeks, Manning will likely get more attention than the Colts defense. He will be favorably compared to mercurial Bears QB Rex Grossman. He will be talked about, finally, as a quarterback who can win the big game. Analysts will mention how if he leads the Colts to victory on Feb. 4, he will already be a Hall-of-Famer, up there with Montana, Elway and company.

And he deserves all of this.

But just remember - if not for his defense answering his prayers, Manning would be at his home the next two weeks, trying to digest another playoff defeat to the Patriots, banging his head against a wall over and over again.

Thanks, guys.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

"Road woes"

Last Saturday I watched on TV as the University of Michigan men’s basketball team got bullied by Purdue, 67-53. This afternoon I sat in dank Crisler Arena and watched another team called “Michigan” dominate Purdue, 71-55.

After the game, I was confused. Very confused.

Isn’t there only one University of Michigan? I thought. Why would this “Michigan” team play in Crisler, which I know is the home of U-M?

I was getting very frustrated - so frustrated that I was prepared to make a hot dog stand raid - until my friend cleared things up for me. He told me that the two teams that had played Purdue twice within a week were, in actuality, the same team, the Michigan Wolverines.

Shock would best describe my reaction.

I tried to comprehend my friend’s words. So... the team that turned the ball over 10 times in the first half a week ago was the same team that turned it over a total of just 14 times on Saturday?? So... the team that allowed David Teague to make four 3-pointers - most of them open looks - a week ago played uptight defense on him Saturday, holding him to 1-for-6 shooting from downtown?? So... the team that was physically dominated in the paint a week ago, allowing Carl Landry to score 22 points without breaking a sweat, owned the paint on Saturday, blocking nine shots and outrebounding the Boilermakers??

All right. Enough. The questions circling through my head were only confusing me more.

The only conclusion I could come to is that home-court advantage is very, very, very important in college basketball. At least in the Big Ten. Purdue has now dropped an astounding 29 straight games on the road. And I though Michigan was a bad road team.

Well, it is. Just not Purdue bad. Michigan is 2-3 on the road this season, registering wins over mediocre Miami (Ohio) and Northwestern, losing to a crippled N.C. State team, getting absolutely embarrassed by UCLA and, of course, losing handily to Purdue a week ago.

If only the Wolverines could play all their games at Crisler Arena. They are 14-1 at home, with the only loss coming to Georgetown. The Wolverines haven’t beaten a quality team this season, but here’s a truth: While they have virtually no chance of winning at Ohio State or Michigan State, when those teams come to Ann Arbor in March, at least there will be hope.

It’s hard to figure out how a team can be so different away from home. Especially a team laden with upperclassmen. I get the sense that Michigan’s players simply don’t believe in themselves away from home. They’re like kids left home alone at night for the first time. If they hear one suspicious noise, they panic.

People can say all they want about how great Michigan played on Saturday. They can mention Michigan’s 4-1 Big Ten record, tied for second in the Big Ten. They can talk about the Wolverines making a push for the NCAA tournament.

None of that will matter if the Wolverines I saw on Saturday don’t show up for Michigan’s six remaining Big Ten road games. Michigan will need at least one or two more road wins this season to make the Big Dance for the first time since 1998 (and that’s assuming it continues to win at home). Lester Abram or Dion Harris will have to step up as a vocal leader on the road and say, “I will not stand for a lower standard of basketball just because we’re playing in a hostile environment.”

Midway through the second half Saturday the Wolverines were having fun. After Jerret Smith pulled up for a long jumper on a fastbreak to give Michigan a commanding lead, he was greeted in the backcourt by a smiling Harris. They were having fun. Just playing.

I haven’t seen one smile by a Wolverine during a road game this season. Instead they appear tight, nervous and devoid of any passion. They play like a high school team with freshmen starters.

The next two games - at Wisconsin and at Indiana - will tell us what this “Michigan” team is really about. Will they become that team again, reinvigorating “Fire Amaker” talk all around Washtenaw County? Or - and this is definitely the underdog pick- will they decide that having two identities really isn’t as cool as it sounds?

So confusing it hurts.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

"A missed opportunity"

I remember the day like it was yesterday.

April 5, 1993.

I remember the drive home from Crisler Arena, where I had watched the game with my father and 13,000-plus other basketball fans. The night's tranquility was pierced by the blaring of sirens - undoubtedly policemen responding to poor behavior on the part of depressed Michigan fans.

The Michigan men's basketball team had just lost its second consecutive national championship game to North Carolina. Chris Webber's infamous timeout call when the Wolverines lacked one had doomed Michigan in the final seconds. I remember thinking that life probably couldn't get much worse.

Obviously, at the age of 9, I lacked perspective. The Michigan basketball program would be absolutely delirious to finish No. 2 in the country now. Heck, No. 64 would even work. The program hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 1998.

Thinking back on that night, I can't help but assume that the sirens were a harbinger of things to come.

The program made a few NCAA tournament appearances in the years following The Timeout, only to bow out in the early rounds. Then the Big Dance became the Small Dance, as Michigan fell into obscurity and a yearly tradition of participating in the NIT tournament. Along with that came the Ed Martin scandal, as it was revealed that the U-M booster had indeed paid Webber, Maurice Taylor, Robert Traylor and Louis Bullock to attend Michigan.

Then came the sanctions.

The taking down of the banners. The erasing of statistics. And, most importantly, probation and banishment from the Big Dance for a year.

The program still hasn't recovered. Who knows if it ever will?

Which, I know, is why many Michigan fans are angry that Webber is back in Michigan, playing for the hometown Pistons. While Webber should only be partially blamed for the ditch the U-M men's basketball program fell into and is still trying to climb out of, he had the chance on Tuesday to address the issue possibly once and for all.

Instead, he said it would be a "waste of my time" to talk about what happened.

Webber shouldn't necessarily feel remorse for taking Martin's money. After all, while at Michigan thousands of fans purchased his No. 4 jersey while he often couldn't afford meals. It's needless to say that large universities rip off their high-profile athletes by reaping the benefits created by the athletes and not paying them zilch.

But doesn't Webber feel at all bad about all the players who have suffered through mediocre year after mediocre year while the program attempts to recover from the bomb that hit it?

Take LaVell Blanchard, for example. The local kid. Blanchard led Pioneer High School to a Class A state title. He was being suited by both Michigan State and Michigan. He chose his hometown team despite MSU clearly being the state's superior team at the time.

Blanchard fought through a 15-14 freshman season then two losing seasons. Then, finally, during his senior season he led the team to a 17-13 record and the Wolverines tied for third in the Big Ten. They had NCAA tournament aspirations.

Except they didn't. Because that was the year in which they were banned from the Big Dance. Sorry, LaVell, shoulda gone to State.

I thought Webber might throw out an apology at the press conference. Just something along the lines of: "I made some mistakes when I was younger and I apologize to those whom my miscues affected negatively."

But, instead, nothing.

He comes off as egotistical and selfish.

Yes, of course almost everyone in Michigan would rather watch Webber help lead the Pistons to the NBA title this season and just forget about the whole thing. It's been nearly 14 years since that night.

But it's not that simple. Not when Webber refuses to say anything about what happened. Not when he won't display any remorse.

Webber has had several chances to compost this rotten egg. He's missed the bin every time.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Hey guys,
Sorry I haven't posted in a couple days. I've beeen extremely busy with trying to buy a car and start up again at my old job. Anyway, I should have a column up tomorrow about the Chris Webber signing with Detroit, and pretty soon I'll be back to my schedule of posting a column a day.

Thanks for your interest,

Sunday, January 14, 2007

"In unfamiliar territory"

Four years ago from this very week, Serena Williams was at the top of the women's tennis world. She was in Melbourne, Australia, about to win the Australian Open, her fourth consecutive grand slam title.

She was unstoppable. Not only was she the most powerful player on the WTA - by far - but she could also move deceivingly quick from one side of the court to the other to chase down what opponents considered winners. Watching her four years ago, I thought she was becoming the Tiger Woods of tennis. I thought she would motivate thousands of inner city kids to take up tennis and try to become the next Serena.

While I didn't think she'd win every grand slam, I thought she'd consistently win at least one or two every year and be the best women's tennis player for years to come.

Oh, how things have changed.

Four years later, Williams is back in Melbourne, ready for another run at the year's first grand slam. But she is far from the No. 1 player on tour. She is ranked 81st on the tour. She played in just five tournaments last year, not winning one of them. She has won just one grand slam event since Wimbledon in 2003 - the 2005 Australian Open.

Williams has fallen off the map.

She has only herself to blame.

If Williams wanted to be the best women's tennis player of all time, I wouldn't bet against her. She was that good. The thing is, the fame got to her. Once she became the United States' most popular female athlete, she started soaking in her celebrity. There were endless parties to attend, business opportunities outside of tennis to pursue.

She lost her focus. She didn't train as much, didn't put in as much time. As a result, her fitness level deteriorated. And the last three seasons injuries have taken her under. I'm not one to say what caused the injuries, but it's well known within the sports world that it's easier to sustain injuries at the highest level of competition when an athlete isn't in top-notch shape.

Of course this doesn't take away from what Williams has accomplished, both on and off the court. She still has seven grand slam singles titles to her name, and when she won four consecutive grand slams in 2002 and 2003 it was just the sixth time it's been done. If her career ended today, she'd still be considered one of the top players of all time.

But, still, I feel she has underachieved.

She fell as low as 139th in the world last season. It takes some serious falling to go from No. 1 to No. 139.

Martina Hingis, who has never made her distaste for the Williams sisters – Serena and her older sister, Venus - private, hit it on the nail when talking about Williams' current situation.

"With the sisters, it's always been either they are or they're not. It's always if they really want it and they're hungry," Hingis said in an Associated Press article.

Williams admitted, in a New York Times article, that she hasn't always put her heart and full effort into tennis: "It's all my fault, I guess. I should have been a little more serious. But it won't happen again, at least as long as I'm playing."

Williams says she is hungry now. She's ready to get back on the tennis court and attempt to regain her spot as one of the game's elite players. But this time her ascent to the top will be far from easy. Even Williams' playing partner, Baris Ergun, is not sure whether Williams will be able to get back her magic.

"I have my doubts," Ergun said in the same NYT article.

So do I. Williams is out of shape, and it will take several tournaments before she gets back into the kind of shape she was in four years ago (and even then, will she be able to regain her form?). She still has that power, but she will struggle against players who make her move laterally.

I'm not giving up on her, though. If she puts aside all that other stuff - the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue photo shoots and the acting gigs - and completely focuses on tennis, Williams, 25, has a chance to get back to the top.

Right now there isn't a dominating player in the game. Justine Henin-Hardenne has shown glimpses of brilliance, but she is far from overpowering. Amelie Mauresmo won two majors a year ago, but then struggled the second half of the season. Perhaps Maria Sharapova is poised to become the next Serena Williams. At 19, Sharapova won her second major at the U.S. Open last September. But she still has to prove she can consistently play like she did in Flushing, N.Y.

The top spot is up for grabs.

It's not even in Williams' sight right now. She'll have to start from the bottom and work her way up.

Something that would have seemed improbable four years ago.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

"The Colts play defense?"

The Indianapolis Colts became the Baltimore Ravens for three hours Saturday. Now they're moving on and the Ravens are emptying their lockers.

Call it identity theft. Notify the authorities. It doesn't matter. All we know is that in the biggest game of the season, the Colts defense played like the Baltimore Ravens defense usually plays. The Baltimore defense was pretty darn good, too.

In fact, the game was very, very even.

Peyton Manning had his second consecutive poor playoff performance, throwing zero touchdowns and two interceptions. If it wasn't for an incredible diving catch by Dallas Clark on Indy's final possession, the Colts' vaunted offense would have given the ball back to Baltimore for one final chance to win the game with a touchdown.

But there would be no miracle for Steve McNair's team on this afternoon. Instead, he got a steady dose of pressure, which is defined in Webster's as: "the burden of physical or mental distress." Dwight Freeney and the rest of the Colts' defense partied in Baltimore's backfield all day, harassing McNair into two interceptions, including a very key pick by Nick Harper in Colts' territory in the final quarter.

Indianapolis' first interception was almost just as important. Baltimore's best drive of the game ended at the 1-yard line in the second quarter when Antoine Bethea got his hands on McNair's pass.

The Colts forced four Baltimore turnovers, which resulted in six points – the difference in the score until Indy’s final field goal with 23 seconds remaining iced the contest.

All season long the Colts tricked teams into thinking they had a bad run defense by giving up huge chunks of yards on the ground. I think it was a setup. Kansas City's Larry Johnson had no luck against the Colts' defense last weekend. Ditto Jamal Lewis on Saturday. He ran for a measly 53 yards on 13 carries.

It's still hard to believe, so repeat after me: "Peyton Manning had two bad games and the Indianapolis Colts won both of them by nine points or more."

Wow. Amazing stuff.

Will the Colts win next week if Manning completes the bad performance hat trick? No. Not going to happen.

But with the way this defense is playing, plus the impeccable kicking of Adam Vinateri (5-for-5 on field goals Saturday, including ones from 42, 48 and 51 yards), Manning won't have to be indomitable next Sunday.

Just good. Just turnover-free.

Wow! Never thought I'd be saying that about a Peyton Manning-led Colts team. Trent Dilfer maybe, but Peyton Manning?

He is supposed to carry this team. He is supposed to play flawlessly each week for the Colts to have a chance at tasting victory against the league’s best teams. The Colts of a year ago wouldn’t have even played Baltimore on Saturday. It would have been the Chiefs, after defeating Indianapolis in the Wild Card round.

A year ago the Colts defense showed glimpses of having potential during the regular season, only to fold in the playoffs (along with Manning and a jobless kicker named Vanderjagt).

Not this time around. The Colts have proved what last year’s Pittsburgh team made clear: once a team – any team – gets to the playoffs, everything that happened during the regular season is out the window. There’s a reason the regular season ends in one year and the playoffs commence in the next.

They are two completely different seasons.

Just ask the Indianapolis Colts defense.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

"Is this the ACC?"

Quick. Answer this for me: What's the only men's college basketball team in the ACC (and the nation) undefeated?

"Um… North Carolina?"


"Oh, gotta be Duke"


"Well, then, must be Maryland."


The correct answer would be - drum roll, please - Clemson. Yes, those feisty Tigers, who haven't made the NCAA tournament since 1997, are 17-0, including 3-0 in the perennially tough ACC.

Except - and this is the first time I've ever caught myself saying this - how good, really, is the ACC this season?

Yes, North Carolina is No. 1 in the land. The Tar Heels could win their second national title in three years. But besides them, and the surprise Tigers, the league is definitely down.

I have never seen Duke struggle so much to score. For the first time in ages, the Blue Devils are averaging less than 70 points a game. For the first time since the pre-Elton Brand days, they lack a score-at-will player. For the first time since 1996, Duke has lost its first two ACC games - against Virginia Tech at home and Georgia Tech on the road.


Yeah, I'm surprised as the next guy. And what's even crazier is that Georgia Tech beat Duke Wednesday night despite turning the ball over a heart-attack-inducing 28 times. Are you kidding me? Any normal Duke team would turn those miscues into easy layups on the other end.

Except this team. Coach K has done a remarkable job to go 13-3 with the team he has, preaching great defense, because clearly these Blue Devils have the makeup of a Creighton team, not a Duke team.

The talent isn't exactly spewing forth from Tobacco Road's other hotbeds, either (minus Chapel Hill). NC State, under first-year coach (and famous alumnus), Sydney Lowe, got beat at home by those Tigers the other night. They're 10-6 overall and dead last in the ACC at 0-3. Wake Forest is still reeling from the loss of Chris Paul two years ago. The Demon Deacons are just 9-6 overall and 1-2 in the conference.

There are only four ranked teams in the ACC. And one of them - Maryland - is just No. 25 in the country, and will likely fall out of the rankings after a dismal home loss Wednesday to 9-8 Miami.

What is going on here?

When was the last time you could name two conferences that are better than the ACC? Well, this year I'd say it's safe to anoint the Pac 10 and SEC as more competitive. And the Big East and Big 12 aren't too far behind.

Usually the ACC is far and away the best conference in basketball. Not this time around. To put it simply, the talent is lacking.

North Carolina is very, very talented. Georgia Tech has a slew of very talented freshmen, who also turn the ball over A LOT. Besides these teams, it's hard to think of big names in the ACC. Most of the nation's top players - Joakim Noah, Kevin Durant, Aaron Afflalo, Alando Tucker, Greg Oden, to name a handful - play in the other major conferences. That right there is why the ACC is down this year.

I could see only four or five teams from the ACC making the NCAA tournament this year. And I only see the Tar Heels competing for the national title. That is very rare. Usually, when filling out my brackets, there are three or four ACC teams I view as capable of cutting down the nets.

But this is that year. That year of oddities.

Obviously, things could change during the remainder of the conference season and the ACC tournament, but for now the forecast is this: North Carolina should win the conference crown rather easily; Clemson will falter, but still make its first NCAA tournament appearance in 10 years; and the other teams, including the Dukies, will have to scrap their way to secure a Big Dance birth.

Just like the Tigers have been unsuccessfully attempting to do for the past decade.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

"Wisconsin, Ohio State? Take your pick"

The Wisconsin men's basketball team spent 39 minutes and 15 seconds Tuesday night proving it was the best basketball team in the Big Ten.

In the final 45 seconds, Ohio State nearly stole that moniker.

The Badgers built a lead as big as 16 and led by 14 after two Kammron Taylor free throws with 54 seconds remaining. The 3-point shooting Buckeyes, however, mounted a furious comeback that saw them come within a missed Jamar Butler triple at the buzzer of sending the contest to overtime.

Final score: Wisconsin 72, Ohio State 69.

Best team in the Big Ten: Wisconsin... for now.

Wisconsin took the lead for good at 7-6 and seemed in control of the contest the entire second half. The more experienced Badgers were clearly more mature than the Buckeyes. They had much better patience on offense, moving the ball around to find the good shot. OSU, on the other hand, was often content to chuck contested 3-pointers from NBA range.

Granted, the Buckeyes have some great long-range shooters, but it's not easy to beat a top-notch opponent without an inside presence.

Which is not something the Buckeyes lack. Ever heard of Greg Oden? If you haven't, you don't follow basketball.

Despite not being able to shoot with his injured right hand, Oden is still one of the conference's top inside players. Besides acting as a prolific shot-blocker, Oden can finish with his left hand down low and even shoots left-handed free throws at a somewhat decent clip (57 percent).

But on Tuesday Oden didn't make his first field goal until the 7:21 mark of the second half, with the Buckeyes trailing by double digits (he added two dunks in that final minute to finish with 10 points, seven rebounds and six blocks).

Not a bad night for an injured freshman. Not to mention an injured freshman who played the final seven minutes with four fouls. But Oden - and this is not entirely his fault; he needs to get the ball more often - could do so much more for this team.

Which is why Ohio State can only get better. Scary thought for the Badgers.

Wisconsin doesn't have the talent Ohio State possesses. Alando Tucker is a candidate to win the Naismith award, but he's surrounded by good (but not great) players. However, the Badgers could indeed go on to win the conference and get a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament because of their chemistry on the floor.

It starts at the guard position. While Tucker didn't shoot the ball great on Tuesday (8-for-17) and was atrocious from the free throw line (1-for-6), two of his boys had his back. Taylor shot 5-for-8 from the field and made 12 of 16 free throws to finish with a game-high 25 points and Michael Flowers shot 5-for-9 for 10 points and also ignited several fastbreaks with four steals.

If you look at past Big Ten champions, they haven't always had the best frontcourt, but their backcourt has always been rock solid. The same can be said of this year's Badgers.

Anyone who thinks Wisconsin will run away with this title is crazy. It's a two-man race (no other conference team is close to the caliber of these two squads) and it will come down to the end, most likely to the next time they meet in Columbus on Feb. 25.

It will be the second-to-last regular season game, and there'll be plenty at stake.

By then, considering how good of a coach OSU's Thad Matta is, the Buckeyes will be much better at getting the ball to Oden down low - instead of settling for 3's - and Oden, in turn, will be much better because he should be completely healthy and used to the rugged Big Ten style of play.

Wisconsin should be better too. Tucker will be making his final pitch for the Naismith Award and the Badgers' frontcourt players should be improved.

Tuesday night was just the beginning. This horse race is just rounding turn one.

"SEC dominance"

If there was one play that epitomized Florida’s unexpected 41-14 thrashing of Ohio State Monday night in the BCS national championship game, it came late in the first quarter when the Gators’ Derrick Harvey sacked OSU quarterback Troy Smith.

It might not have been the most important play of the game. It didn’t cause a turnover. No, nothing like that. But the play exposed the main reason why Florida was able to run circles around the Buckeyes all night.

The Gators were way faster than the Buckeyes.

Florida’s defensive ends chased down Smith all night, something no lineman in the Big Ten has ever done. Whenever Smith attempted to scramble, they were right on top of him, not allowing him even a second to look upfield.

And even if he had gotten that look, the sight wouldn’t have been pretty. Florida’s quick secondary was all over the Buckeyes’ wide receivers.

Ohio State definitely missed Ted Ginn Jr., its speedster. Ginn Jr. was probably Ohio State’s lone offensive player who could outrun some of the Gator defenders, as he showed by returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown. When he injured his ankle on Ohio State’s first offensive possession, the Buckeyes were in trouble. They would mount just one scoring drive the rest of the night.

Florida’s speed was evident on the other side of the ball as well. The Gators ran several quick screens to freshman Percy Harvin, who darted between defenders for positive gain after positive gain. Harvin finished with nine receptions for 60 yards and five rushes for 22 yards.

And the Buckeyes’ defense was unable to get their hands on Florida QB Chris Leak all night. He’d either get rid of the ball right away or sidestep the rush before finding an open man downfield. Ohio State’s five tackles behind the line of scrimmage cost Florida a mere 13 yards.

What had to be blatantly frustrating to the Buckeyes and fans of the Big Ten by the middle of the third quarter was that not only were the Gators faster, they were just as strong and physical as Ohio State as well.

The Buckeyes tried to play hard-nosed football, running it up the middle. While this was more successful than throwing it, they still didn’t run for 100 yards. Antonio Pittman finished with 62. Florida, on the other hand, pounded the Buckeyes, rushing for 156 yards on 43 carries. Whenever backup quarterback Tim Tebow checked into the game, you knew what was coming: a bullying blast up the middle. Yet that didn’t stop the freshman from gaining 39 yards on 10 carries and rushing for a touchdown.

Florida’s whipping of OSU was a statement game for the SEC. It proved that right now at least the SEC’s best is much better than the Big Ten’s best. It showed just how important speed is in today’s game. Florida did a great job of spreading out the OSU defense and making use of its speedsters.

OSU couldn’t keep up.

Lack of speed is a fundamental concern the Big Ten’s top schools should start addressing in recruiting. It was just as evident in Michigan’s 32-18 loss to USC a week ago. The Trojans were quicker than the Wolverines on both sides of the ball, burning their defensive backs for long touchdowns and eating up quarterback Chad Henne to the tune of six sacks.

Maybe Bo Schembechler’s death in November was an omen: Run-first offenses are not just no longer in vogue; they also can’t win the big games. If teams want to compete for a national title, they need speed on both sides of the ball. They need to use a variety of spread formations on offense to utilize their speed and keep the defense off guard. And they need to find quick, slippery defensive linemen who can not only get to the quarterback, but also corral him once they’ve arrived.

That was Florida’s formula. And it worked flawlessly.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

"Romo's other mistake"

Tony Romo sat on the field, head in hands, probably near tears. It took a minute for him to finally get to his feet and return to the sideline, only to find a solitary spot on the bench to continue his mourning.

The game was over.

Or was it?

As heartbreaking as Romo's botched snap on what could have been the game-winning field goal must have been, when he was tackled just shy of the 1-yard line - giving Seattle the ball with a 21-20 lead in the NFC wild card matchup - there was still hope for Dallas.

Problem was, the Cowboys - especially Romo - didn't seem to see it that way. No one will argue that Romo's mishandle on the 19-yard field goal attempt was the key play in Seattle's 21-20 win. If he had gotten the snap down and Martin Gramatica made the rudimentary kick, the Cowboys would have had a very good chance of playing again next weekend. But what nobody - and I mean not a player, coach, or media member - mentioned during the postgame swarm was this:

After the play, Seattle had the ball just outside its 1-yard line.

There was still 1:14 left on the clock.

And, most importantly, Dallas had all three of its timeouts remaining.

Three stops, three TO's, and the Cowboys could have had the ball back - with great field position and at least 50 seconds. Romo could have retook the field and gone from goat to hero.

In a matter of minutes.

But it didn't come to that. Shaun Alexander reeled off a 20-yard run on the first play. After Dallas burned its timeouts, Seattle was able to run the clock down to eight seconds before punting. The kick sailed out of bounds near midfield, giving Romo one last chance, a Hail Mary attempt.

Thing is, neither Romo nor his teammates seemed adequately prepared for even a last-gasp heave at victory. One would think, with their season on the line, the offensive players would have been on the sideline putting together a play for their last chance. Maybe, once they realized they'd likely have just one play, they could have figured out a tip play, where one receiver jumps above the swarming cornerbacks to tap it back to another wideout. I know, sounds crazy. But as a Michigan fan, I did have to suffer through Kordell Stewart's 64-yard Hail Mary to Michael Westbrook in 1994 that helped Colorado beat Michigan.

Anything is possible.

But most of Dallas' offensive weapons had their heads between their knees during the final minute, wallowing in their sorrows, when, actually, their book of tribulations hadn't quite been finished. NBC's cameras showed the listless face of Julius Jones and the buried helmet of Romo. It was as if the game was complete.

A teammate had to alert Romo that there was still a pass to be thrown. He finally placed his helmet on and trotted onto the field for one last breath. When his desperation throw hit the end zone's turf, it was over - really, this time - and he could do all the sulking he wanted.

It should be mentioned that this is fairly common in sports - especially football, and especially with young players. Romo is not alone. Players let one play decide the outcome of a game. Yes, one play can be very crucial in deciding the victor, but often there remains football to be played. I have no idea what it's like to be inside that helmet - with the crowd buzzing, and a cacophony of noise around the player, and a million things going through his head - but so many players could raise their level of play from good to great by becoming better game managers.

There are few players like Tom Brady, who orchestrates perfect two-minute drives, always knows the situation, and never seems to give up hope or hang his head. He is a proven winner and makes sure a loss isn't a loss until there is nothing he or his teammates can do about it. Brady is a rarity, and someone whom players such as Romo could definitely learn from.

Would Brady have won the game with a Hail Mary on the final play? Almost certainly not. But would he have spent the entire 1:12 Seattle had the ball (plus the three Dallas timeouts) gathering his offense and sketching out a last-ditch plan to snare a victory from the jaws of defeat? Most certainly yes.

Romo is young. He's got a lot to learn. He'll only improve if given the chance as Dallas' starter next season. But he'll still make mistakes - maybe even some as monumental as the botched snap on Saturday.

Which is why one of the biggest lessons he - as well as his offensive teammates - needs to take from Saturday's loss is to always keep fighting until the end.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

"Trust no one"

These days, in the world of sports, a promise is worth about as much as a dead squirrel.

If someone promises you something, you should assume the opposite. If someone says you can "trust" then, don't. Yes, it has come to this.

Yesterday, Nick Saban "shocked the sports world" (except that it really wasn't surprising at all) when he accepted a ludicrous eight-year, $32 million contract to coach the University of Alabama football team. Saban left behind the Miami Dolphins, who he had promised he would continue to coach.

Apparently the Dolphins believed Saban (poor guys), because in the post-"shocking decision" press conference, their owner, Wayne Huizenga, stepped into uncharted territory when he asked the media brass present for any suggestions on how to run the team. Yeah, he's desperate.

Saban, meanwhile, was long gone, having caught the first available private flight to Tuscaloosa. And it's safe to say he won't be taking any vacations in Miami anytime soon unless he's there to coach in the Orange Bowl.

Saban is just the most recent liar in the sports community. It's become a yearly tradition for coaches to declare their allegiance to a team, only to leave weeks or months later for a better-paying job.

In fact, Alabama, I'm sure, doesn't feel an ounce of remorse over stealing Saban from the Dolphins because it has been on the dark side of a coach's disloyalty. In 2002 Dennis Franchione led the Crimson Tide to a 10-3 record and insinuated to his players - and recruits - that he would return for another season. Yet when Texas A&M coach, R.C. Slocum, was fired after the season, Franchione wasted no time in not only leaving for College Station, Tex., but also taking his entire coaching staff with him.

This was especially hard on the Crimson Tide because they were suffering through NCAA sanctions and a probation period for violations committed by the football team. Throughout the season Franchione had emphasized loyalty and trust to everyone associated with the program, but in the end he was the one who didn't stick by his words, leaving the program in shreds. The Crimson Tide have had just one winning season the past four years.

When it comes to lying, players are just as guilty as coaches. Players take back their word about as often as it has snowed in Denver this winter. When a junior in college says he's coming back for his senior season, it usually means there's about a 50-50 chance he'll stay. Just two years ago UNC's Sean May said he'd return for his senior season after winning the national title. That was, of course, before (and I'm hypothesizing here) 13 agents and 20 coeds told him how great he was, and just days later he declared himself eligible for the NBA draft. Teammates Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Marvin Williams followed suit, leaving the Tar Heels with no key contributors left from their championship team.

At the professional level, athletes love to announce their desire to stay with their team, only to be baited in free agency by another squad just months later. Detroit Pistons fans never thought Ben Wallace would leave the Motor City. He did, after all, epitomize what the city was all about with his blue-collar work ethic. But Chicago offered him a better deal last June, and he was gone. Also, it didn’t help that Wallace and head coach Flip Saunders weren’t exactly the best of friends.

Let's face it. Money is all that matters to most professional athletes. Wave more dollars at a guy, and he'll likely leave his first team even if they treated him royally for 12 years. Players like Reggie Miller and Alan Trammell, who played their entire careers for one team, are like kids who play stickball these days - aka, very rare.

The sports world is swarming with unfaithfulness. Whether it's lying coaches or cash-seeking athletes, one thing is certain: No one can be trusted - especially if they tell you otherwise.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

"Are you kidding me?"

As a Michigan football fan, I was frustrated several times yesterday as I watched USC trounce the Wolverines 32-18 in the Rose Bowl.

I yelled at the TV every time Michigan predictably ran the ball on first down. I threw Cheetos in the air on every third down USC converted because the Wolverines refused to blitz. I almost choked on a pretzel when Steve Breaston slipped on a crucial fourth down late in the game.

But nothing - not a single thing - drew my ire more than when head coach Lloyd Carr sent out his punt team with just over five minutes remaining and his team trailing by 21 points. He quit on his team, plain and simple. By taking his offense off the field, Carr was telling them, "You're done, I don't believe in you."

Sure, the chance of Michigan coming back was one-in-a-million, but what in the world did the Wolverines have to lose? Who cares if USC takes over at the Michigan 30-yard line and scores another TD? What is the difference between a 14-point loss and 21-point loss?

There was no way Carr should have punted in that situation (4th-and-10 at the Michigan 31). Go for it. Tell your kids there's still a chance. Crazier things have happened and will happen. Just a week ago Texas Tech pulled off the biggest comeback in a bowl, recovering from a 38-7 second-half deficit to Minnesota. Granted, Minnesota and USC aren't comparable opponents, but coaches certainly know that a game's never over.

Carr raised the white flag. But he wasn't done.

After USC recovered Michigan's onside kick with just under a minute remaining, Carr could have used the Wolverines' three timeouts to try to get the ball back and maybe score again. Instead, he was ready for the showers. Maybe he had a dinner date.

Or maybe - and hopefully, because this is a little better excuse - he wanted to get in front of a TV and watch the Boise State-Oklahoma matchup in the Fiesta Bowl, because he sure could have learned a lot from the Broncos, who were huge underdogs but won thanks to gutsy, unpredictable play-calling.

Carr giving up on his players was just a part of possibly the worst three hours of coaching in his otherwise illustrious coaching career. Games are won by the players on the field. You won't find many people who disagree with that. But coaches certainly can increase or decrease their team's chance of success.

On Monday the Michigan coaching staff killed the Wolverines.

To start with, their game plan was as predictable as the daily forecast in Seattle for rain. Michigan's plays consisted of running Mike Hart to the weak side of the field (which didn't make much sense, since the sideline limited him) or having Chad Henne drop back five or seven steps to throw either an out or a crossing pattern. There were no tosses to Hart to the strong side. There was no misdirection (which definitely could have worked, considering how USC was overpursuing). And there was no trickeration.

Again, hopefully Carr watched Boise State's offense, because the hook-and-ladder the Broncos ran and the two-point conversion to win the game 43-42 in overtime (a fake pass to the right and then a draw to the left) were incredible play calls. Risky, yes. But superb when executed flawlessly.

Men on sports talk radio today were mentioning how their non-football-fan wives could predict Michigan's plays. Not a good sign there, Lloyd.

So the original offensive game plan stunk. But there must have been adjustments made, right? Well, not really. In the third quarter, as USC began to pile up the points, the Wolverines stuck to their run-to-open-up-the-pass strategy with a stubbornness that only ill-minded politicians are supposed to possess.

It wasn't until the fourth quarter, with Michigan facing a double-digit deficit, that it finally abandoned the run (for the most part). The Wolverines then scored to cut their deficit to 19-11. And despite a USC score, Michigan was marching again, before Breaston slipped, USC scored again…

And Carr decided to call it a day.

USC coach Pete Carroll is the antithesis of Lloyd Carr. While you need to threaten Carr to make him change his game plan, Carroll simply reacts to what is happening, making the necessary adjustments to give his team the best chance to win. USC couldn't run the ball in the first half (which ended in a 3-3 tie) so Carroll ditched it in the second half. USC threw the ball on 27 of its first 29 plays, and the two runs were QB sneaks to pick up first downs. Carroll and company noticed that Morgan Trent couldn't guard Dwayne Jarrett in man coverage, so they had John David Booty - whom Michigan made look spectacular - throw to Jarrett all day to the tune of 11 receptions for 205 yards and two touchdowns. Carroll was still passing late into the fourth quarter, when only nitwits like me thought a comeback was remotely possible.

He was doing what worked. Can't blame him.

While there was no clear offensive strategy that worked for Michigan on Monday, it certainly wasn't running Hart or having Henne sit in the pocket. Hart rushed 17 times for 47 yards (a paltry 2.8 yards per carry). Henne was sacked six times (brining back ill memories of the 2004 Rose Bowl, against these same Trojans, when John Navarre was sacked nine times). Michigan should have realized that giving the ball to Hart in running situations was not working. It should have instead used quick passes on early downs to set up the run.

Never really happened.

And what about that vaunted Michigan defense? If UCLA, which finished the season 7-6, held USC to nine points, surely Michigan could provide a similar effort. Instead, the second half became the Booty-to-Jarrett show. While that combo was great, the Michigan D has to take some of the credit for making them look like Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison. The defense was as predictable as the offense. There were hardly any second-half blitzes, and even when they did blitz, they were too late. Delayed blitzes are not going to work when the quarterback is getting rid of the ball very quickly.

While Trent got exposed, he can't be blamed that much for getting manhandled by USC's receivers. He was often left on an island, and even when the safeties did come to help, they were usually too late (like on Jarrett's back-breaking 62-yard touchdown catch that made the score 25-11).

Booty finished the game with a clean jersey. Obviously this wasn't the same Michigan defense that injured two Penn State quarterbacks in one game.

But it could have been much better with better schemes. Pressure Booty. Knock him down. Get hands in his face. None of this happened, especially in the second half.

So now Michigan has not only lost three straight to Ohio State, but four straight bowl games. The "great" season Michigan had going has been spoiled by back-to-back losses. The leftovers are only "good." The "Fire Lloyd Carr" websites will definitely resurface, and I can't blame those who take that route.

Those, including myself, who spit on the BCS and the coaches poll after Florida jumped Michigan to No. 2 in early December now have nothing to say. Michigan didn't look like a top five team on Monday.

Something has to change. Carr won't be fired. He'll likely be in Ann Arbor, like Joe Paterno at Penn State, until he chooses to step down. So he needs to make changes. Michigan's current system is good enough to beat the Wisconsins and Penn States of the Big Ten. It's good enough to challenge Ohio State (but not beat it), and it's not close to good enough to win a bowl game against an elite opponent, who is much better prepared to take the field.

I know Michigan is very resistant to change. It will always be a run-to-set-up-the-pass team. And that's fine, if 11-2 seasons are what Carr & Co. are after. But judging by Carr's very, very disappointed reaction after the game, 11-2 is not acceptable at Michigan.

Carr's hands are the dirtiest. He deserves the most blame for the 0-2 finish to the season.

And if Michigan is going to contend for the national title next year - which it is expected to do - it will start with Carr always believing in his players and never giving up on them in a game until the clock reads 0:00.

In other words, doing whatever it takes to win.