How Athletes are Labeled

Black vs White sports juxtposition Hansborough and Sheed Lambeer and Artest Lane and Raheem Namath and Deion Peyton and Dez Reggies and Johny Riggins and Ocho CInco Romanowski and Merriman Wisniewski and Suh

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Joey Crawford calls them like he sees them.

Joey Crawford calls them like he sees them.

In his spare time, Joey offered his skills to the NFL during the NFL Officials lockout.

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Losing Objectivity

The following is an actual conversation that occurred during the Sunday Night football game.

Who is knee?”


Which team is knee?”

“What are you talking about?”

Which team is knee.  En, Ee?”

“You mean New England?”

I guess.  And who is ball?”

“You mean Baltimore?  They are the purple team.”

Oh, ok, well who is Brady on?”

As you can tell, she is not a very big football fan.  But, why would she?  She didn’t grow up in a country that has football, let alone a household that embraced it.   She was never brain washed. So, it is a constant challenge of mine to justify to her why I regard it as my favorite form of entertainment.  As we sit watching a game, she comes up with these absurd questions and remarks.  Sometimes they are legitimate observations.  But many times, I think she is just trying to annoy me to get back at me for not taking her out to brunch.

“Hey, lets freak out the Europeans by having this huddle. Matt, how’s the wife and kids.”

They just stand around the whole time in a big circle.”

Ah, the huddle.  A most perplexing spectacle to the foreign eye.

Why can’t the running back get sacked?”

Nothing like questioning the terminology of a game to try to make it seem more confusing than it is.

Why do they have to wear those helmets?  Rugby players must be tougher than them.”

Very true.  In fact, the ferocity of rugby players is in high demand in the NFL.  That’s why the NFL makes them punters.

If it is so entertaining, why is football only in America?”

I don’t know.  Why do the English chase a block of cheese down a hill?

I have to answer questions like this the entire time we watch a game together.   And worse, I have to explain to her why I find Gymnastics and figure skating (sports that she enjoys) so terrible.

And the argument always comes down to the subjectivity of the outcome.

“No one judges you in football!” I tell her, “It comes down to how many points you have scored against your opponent.  There isn’t some judge with repressed memories from a childhood vacation in Holland that will make her score anyone that’s Dutch a point lower than the rest of the skaters. Football is objective.”

So,” she’ll ask, “Why do you say the Giants got lucky in the two Superbowls against the Patriots?  What you’re saying is that in football, the better team always wins.”

“You’re right, “ I’ll say, “But at least the outcome was decided by the players, and not some judging committee hiding out in some dark room in the back of the stadium, that said the Giants looked like the better football players.”

Baseball has umps that make bad calls.  Tennis has line judges that can’t track a ball.  Basketball has refs that take bribes.  But in football, a team loses because of a player’s shortcomings, or the coach’s poor decision making.

So as I watched the game winning field goal sail over the top of the right field goal post, I knew the game was going to come down to the subjective decision of a bunch of overwhelmed officials who had made several questionable calls over the course of the game.  And my argument that the beauty of football lay in its unquestionable objectivity was going to crumble like an Oreo dunked in milk for too long.

During the Sunday night half time show, former safety Rodney Harrison was asked how the inconsistent officiating would effect him as a player.

Harrison:  You just block it out.  You don’t worry about it because its something you can’t control.

Sorry Rodney, you are mistaken.  The players have the most power in controlling who gets to be an official in an NFL game.  I don’t care whether they take the immature route of starting fights that the refs can’t control, or if they take the high road by threatening to sit out the first quarter of a game on behalf of their own safety.  Either way, the players have all the power in the world to make sure this year’s champion doesn’t get stuck with an asterisk*.

*Super Bowl played with replacement officials.

But the players will instead choose to put the onus on the league, and the fans that continue to watch.  In truth, all sports are subjective, but until this year, pro football had me convinced that it was the one sport that was more equal than others.

I guess on the bright side, I have always enjoyed mimosas and French toast.

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The Boogieman Comes to Tallahassee

Every year, Florida State’s football team plays Miami, and the University of Florida.  Those two teams are often just as talented, if not more so than the Seminoles.  An outsider would think that these would be the games that keep the Seminole Nation awake on Friday nights, nightmares of McGahee and Tebow causing Noles fans to toss and turn in their sleep.  But ask any Noles fan who the boogieman really is, and the answer would be Clemson.

You see, losing to a team that is more talented is upsetting, but not disturbing.  It can be frustrating to see Percy Harvin break free on a reverse, and it can be maddening to witness Andre Johnson repeatedly make your secondary look like the special needs kids getting stiff armed by Matt Dillon in “Something About Mary.” It is never fun to watch your championship hopes go down the drain as Najeh Davenport and Clinton Portis drown you in a flood of NFL caliber talent. You never want to see a guy like Maurkice Pouncey control your defensive line, let alone see his twin brother Mike simultaneously duplicating his dominance. But you take a little solace in knowing these guys will be embarrassing defenders in the NFL next year.  We Florida State fans loved Geno Hayes and Tommy Polly, but if you asked us whether they were better players than Jonathan Vilma or Brandon Spikes and hooked us up to a lie detector, the needle would be skipping like the Dark Side of the Moon record you bought at a garage sale for 50 cents.

It is hard to be too disappointed when you knew the odds were stacked against you from the beginning.  It is much more difficult to deal with the notion that you lost to an inferior opponent. When you lose to a team that started the season unranked, and fields two guys that are worthy of playing at the next level, calamity ensues.

The Noles have had their fair share of blown opportunities.  The Philip Rivers Wolfpack comes to mind.  I can still remember screaming at my T.V. as some unknown miniscule receiver from Louisville named Deion Branch tore us up on a rain drenched field in Kentucky on a Thursday night.  But those losses could be written off as flukes, one hit wonders on the Billboard Upset Charts. But when it happens over and over, you begin to think curses are real, and that the Devil himself created the Clemson Tigers, just to keep FSU out of the National championship race.

What started as a cute, media driven rivalry known as the Bowden Bowl, pitting Father versus Son in 1998, transformed into a full-fledged game of consequence in FSU’s decade of darkness.  Since 2003, Clemson has beaten Florida State six times.  FSU has won three times in that same span.

This passed weekend, USC was upended again by Stanford.  When I saw the score on Sports Center, the first thing that came to mind was my alma mater’s similar inability to beat Clemson.  I got a queasy feeling in my stomach, knowing that once again, FSU is in position to get back to the BCS championship game, and once again, the Clemson Tigers are standing in the way.

Once again, the boogieman comes to Tallahassee.

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Waiting on A Rival

In 2002, the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl.  The team had all the characters you could ask for.  Derrick Brooks and Warrick Dunn were the definition of hometown boys done good.  Warren Sapp and Keyshawn Johnson were the arrogant sound bite machines that backed up their brash words with their dominant play.   John Lynch was the prototypical punisher in the defensive backfield, and battering ram Mike Alstott was his counterpart on offense.   This was the sort of team that owners depend on to build fan bases for the long haul.  And yet, as I mentioned in yesterday’s column, just a decade later, the Glazer family can’t even get enough people in the stands to broadcast the game to the local market.

Watching football in Tampa has always been a little weird.  Even before the blackouts began in 2010 when the fair weather fans started to abandon Raymond James Stadium, Bucs football has always lacked something most franchise take for granted.  The Bucs have never had a true rival.

I can hear Bucs fans disputing that fact as I type this.

“You’re wrong.  We’ve always had a strong rivalry with Atlanta…”

Look, just naming teams in your division and does not mean you have actual rivalries with those teams.   Ask a Redskins fan who they want to beat the most, and 9 times out of 10, the answer will be the Cowboys, and the other time will almost certainly be the Giants or the Eagles.  They might not even remember that the Cardinals were ever in their division.  In 1993, Marcus Allen went to Kansas City out of sheer spite, just because he knew it would piss off Al Davis more than had he gone to any other team.  That’s a rivalry.  When Warrick Dunn relocated to Atlanta, Bucs fans just wished him well and were glad they’d get to cheer for him once a year.

“Well, when Dungy was here, we started a pretty good rivalry with the Eagles.”

Just as randomly naming teams in your division does not create a rivalry, neither does naming the team that used to own you in the playoffs.  The legitimacy of some mythical rivalry with the Eagles can be summed up in a short anecdote.  When I was visiting my brother at Villanova in 2008, I struck up a conversation with a middle aged guy wearing a Flyers hat.   We got talking about football, so I took the opportunity to ask him what he thought of the Bucs.  He got this confused look on his face.  His bushy eyebrows furrowed, and he wiped the foam away from his beer stained beard.

“I don’t know.  I don’t watch much baseball. Why? Are the pirates doing good this year?”

It is hard to claim a team as a rival when their fan base does not even acknowledge your existence.

And that’s the biggest hurdle facing the Bucs ownership as they try to get fans to pony up for $50 tickets for a middle-of-the-road team. Some people blame it on the fact we have great weather, and people would rather spend their Sundays in their pool, or at the beach. Some blame it on the severe impact of the real estate collapse in the Tampa economy.  And some people are honest enough to claim that the team just isn’t worth watching.

I’m not buying it.  You see, even the Browns can count on a sellout when the Steelers come to town.

Look, its not as if Florida isn’t a football crazed state.  Take a gander at your NFL team’s roster, and chances are a good third of the players listed grew up in the Sunshine State.  So, it is not a lack of interest that fails the Bucs.  I blame it on poor timing.

The NFL decided to give Tampa a franchise in 1976.  By late 1977, the Bucs were 0-26.  Though they eventually managed to win a game, things did not improve by much for the next 20 years.  The Buccaneers were the perennial doormats of the NFC Central.  Growing up in Chicago, I took relief in the fact that no matter how bad the Bears got, at least we got to play Tampa twice a year.  The Bucs were so far from even competing, that it was impossible to consider them a rival.

Tony Dungy took over in 1996.  Soon thereafter, the team climbed into the ranks of respectability.  The creamsicle colored gay pirate was replaced by a pewter imitation of a Raiders helmet.  By 2001, the Bucs had finally become a force to be reckoned with.

Then came the realignment, and the formation of the NFC South.

Here, they had waited a quarter of a century to claim vengeance on the Vikings, Bears, Packers, and even the Lions, who had taken turns body slamming Tampa to the bottom of the NFC Central, and now they had to take out their pent up aggression on… the Saints? The division was a hodgepodge of middling franchises.  The Panthers were an expansion team whose shininess had just worn off.  The Saints had yet to endear themselves to America.  And the dirty bird Falcons had fallen so far that they held the number one pick in the draft. (I know, they traded it up for it, but still, they only moved up from number 5).

When the Bucs won the Super Bowl that year, there was no doubt they had won the respect of the league.  This was a team that the rest of the NFL was going to have to fear for the near future.

But league wide dominance is fleeting.  There can only be one champion each year.  It’s the intensity of rivalry games that serve as oasis of life in the deserts of mediocrity. Even when the Bills are struggling, everyone shows up to Ralph Wilson Stadium to root against Miami.   Buffalo fans come out in part to watch their Bills win, but mostly to watch the Dolphins lose.  And that is the secret lifeblood of any NFL franchise.  The Yin and Yang of fanship.

But who is Tampa’s “Miami”?  Which team is the Yin to their Yang?

The Bucs will never fill the empty half of their stadium, until they find the other half of themselves.

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Something Missing

This weekend, my brother and I met up at a local dive bar to witness the unveiling of Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall.  I got to the bar at about 12:45, fifteen minutes before game time.

As usual, the Bills fans were tucked away in a back corner already finishing up their sixth basket of wings.   The Jets fans behind them were taking bets on which quarter Tebow would take over at QB.  The Eagles fans were acting as if they had already won the Super Bowl, and complementing one another on how cool their Randall Cunningham throwback jerseys were.  The Browns fans sitting next to them were doing their best impressions of sommeliers, deciding what beer goes well with losing.  The lone Saints fan sat amidst a sea of Burgundy and Gold, as the Redskins fans tried to convince anyone within earshot that RGIII should have gone number one in the draft, but they were glad he fell to them.  A guy in a Cam Newton jersey agreed, and pulled up a bar stool next to them, championing the necessity of a mobile quarterback in today’s game.  A couple of Vikings fans had a T.V. to themselves, and had evidently spent the offseason becoming experts on knee surgery, as they discussed the possibility of Adrian Peterson returning to form in just nine months.  A guy in a Tony Boselli jersey was using his iPhone to find out who was behind Blaine Gabbert on the depth chart.  There were two guys in Michigan hats with iPads, bragging about how they got Stafford and Calvin Johnson in their fantasy leagues.  The girl sitting next to them in a Kurt Warner Rams jersey was not impressed.   An obnoxious guy wearing a Cortland Finnegan jersey was trying to determine which guy on the Titans was the biggest trash talker, so he could correctly select the next Tennessee jersey he would order from the store.  The “cute girls in Tom Brady jerseys” quota was fulfilled, albeit not until the middle of the second quarter, when they marked their arrival by asking, “How much are we winning by?”  A Chiefs fan wandered around aimlessly, looking for a friend that was almost certainly at another bar.  An Atlanta fan followed him around, believing that the Derrick Thomas jersey would eventually lead him to the T.V. showing the Falcons game.  A Colts fan sitting near us was still trying to talk himself into believing that giving up Manning to develop Andrew Luck was a good decision for the long term.

While all the hues of the NFL rainbow seemed to be represented, one particular set of colors was conspicuously absent, and as a result, the bar felt a bit empty.  There was not one person wearing pewter and red.  Not one person in a Bucs jersey.  How could this be?

Oh yeah, that’s right.  My brother and I live in Tampa.  Around here, you can’t watch the Bucs game on T.V.


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2012 NFL Preview

Our heroes have arrived to rescue us from baseball.

The recliners have been oiled.  The batteries in the remote have been replaced. The fridge has been stocked with beer.  Its September.  Which means thankfully, Baseball Season has ended.

And Football Season is here.

It is the time when Christians have to share the sacredness of Sundays with even the atheists.  And it is a time when even those that don’t believe in God can understand faith, and give in to fate.  Everybody’s football soul is undefeated.  But alas, in this cruel world, the majority of devout followers will end their seasons with the agony of being cast into the fire and brimstone.  Only a select few will  make it to the promised land.

For every Patriots fan looking forward to another Super Bowl run, there is a Browns fan preparing for another 5-11 finish.  For every Colts fan that can balance the growing pains of rebuilding with the satisfaction of knowing their future is bright with Andrew Luck at the helm, there is a Jets fan waiting for the bottom to fall out as Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow collectively slam shut the window that their defense has held open for so long.   For each Houston fan savoring the expectation of division dominance, there is a Chargers fan to warn them of the dangers of overconfidence.

It is nearly impossible to predict what will happen in any given season.  But here goes anyway.  (In Order of Predicted Final Record)

The La whoo, Za-Her Division.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars.  With Maurice Jones Drew’s holdout, [note: MD finally signed, but this does not change the fact that the Jaguars stink]the Jaguars best offensive player heading into this season is a rookie wide receiver from Oklahoma State.  Normally, receiver is one the most difficult positions to learn at an NFL level.  Well, at least Justin Blackmon will be making the transition with college caliber teammates.

Predicted finish: 2-14 (after going through their schedule, I actually had the Jags at 1-15, but since they play in the erratic AFC South, I’m willing to give them 1 charity victory)

31.  St. Louis Rams.  Two years ago, the Rams improved by six wins behind the surprisingly mature play of number one pick Sam Bradford.  Then last year, they took a

“Now I know why Barry retired.”

giant step backwards to finish 2-14 as Bradford’s fragility was exposed, and his confidence shaken.  The left tackle they assumed would protect Bradford’s backside, Jason Smith, instead did his best impression of a matador, and is now a backup for the Jets.  The same people that got accustomed to watching Kurt Warner throw 4o Touchdowns a year had to witness what could best be described as a clusterfuck. Aside from the fans that used to cheer the Greatest Show on Turf, the real victim of the worst show on any surface is the valiant Steven Jackson.  Soon, Jackson will retire and spend his weekends watching games with Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, Gerald Riggs,  and every other back who’s individual brilliance was squandered by the ineptitude of their respective franchise.

Predicted finish: 2-14

30.  Cleveland Browns.

11 on 11 football. The only thing standing between the Browns and a championship.

The Browns were tired of struggling with a weak armed,  23 year old, second year quarterback from a Big 12 champion team.  So they have replaced him with a weak armed, 28 year old rookie quarterback from a Big 12 champion team.  This seems to be a step in the wrong direction.  Trent Richardson is good, but he’s not enough to overcome playing in a division that sent three teams to the playoffs last year.  Perhaps Brandon Weeden will develop into a competent quarterback.  But he will be throwing the ball to players less talented than he played with last year at Oklahoma State.  On the bright side, the defense features D’Qwell Jackson, one of the leagues’ best linebackers, and Joe Haden, one of the leagues most promising defensive backs.  If there were 2 on 2 football games, the Browns might be a surprisingly good team.  Its just that the NFL insists on 11 on 11, and that really hinders Cleveland’s ability to win games.

Predicted Finish: 2-14 (Hmmm three 2-14 teams?  Maybe I should go back and make the Jags 1-15 afterall.)

29.  Arizona Cardinals.  The winningest coach in franchise history is Don Coryell. With 42.  They have six playoff appearences since 1949.  Basically, the Arizona Cardinals are the definition of a dismal franchise.  And yet, it was not so long ago that the Cardinals were a ridiculous Santonio Holmes catch away from winning the Superbowl.  It is amazing how quickly contenders can dissolve into mediocrity when a Hall of Fame QB retires.  Larry Fitzgerald is one of the most talented receivers the game has ever seen.  And the front office in Arizona is getting the most out of him by filling their roster with quarterbacks like John Skelton and Kevin Kolb.  After a 1-6 start last season, the Cardinals managed to salvage the season with a 7-2 finish.  Usually, that sort of improvement would bode well for the fortunes of the following season.  Unfortunately for Arizona, four of those wins came in overtime, and the cumulative record for the teams they faced in the second half of the season was 53-91. So, moral victory, maybe. But sign of resurgence, I think not.

Predicted finish: 3-13 (Luckily, they get to play the Rams twice)

28.  Minnesota Vikings.  Did you know the Mall of America doesn’t have any heaters?   There is twice as much steel in the Mall of America as there is in the Eiffel Tower.  258 Statues of Liberty could fit inside the Mall.  The Mall of America has more annual visitors than the combined population’s of North and South Dakota, Iowa… and Canada.  And it has collapsed exactly one time less than the Metrodome.  I wanted to share some interesting things about Minnesota,  and since Adrian Peterson’s knee exploded, there are very few interesting things about the Vikings.

Predicted finish: 4-12 (Percy Harvin should be a Fantasy Football stud though, so there’s that)

The We-Have-Andrew Luck and RGIII-so-we-could-really-give-a-shit-whether-we-make-the-playoffs-this-year Division.

“Yo Drew, How long you think we got till they care if we win?”

27. Indianapolis Colts.  I am very rarely sold on any player before they have ever played a down in the NFL.  But like the rest of the football world, I am sold on Andrew Luck.  The Colts went 2-14 last year with Curtis Painter.  Even as a rookie, Luck should be worth at least twice as many wins.

Predicted Finish: 4-12

26.  Washington Redskins.  In any other year, Robert Griffin III would be the most talked about rookie.  He is essentially Michael Vick with height.  Mike Shanahan has not had a player of his caliber since John Elway was in the league.  The last time Shanahan had a QB of any significance was when Jake Plummer was still known as a football player, and not a handball player.  But when Shanahan does have a good quarterback, he gets results.  This year, unfortunately, the results will be a last place finish in the division.  But, like the Colts, the Redskins have attained the hardest thing to acquire in the NFL, a franchise quarterback.  The losses will be easier to swallow when Skins fans can wash them down with the excitement they have been thirsting for since Darrel Green and Dexter Manley patrolled RFK.

Predicted Finish: 5-11

The Economic Crisis Division (aka The Things are going to Get Worse, before they Get Better Division)

25.  Kansas City Chiefs.  The Chiefs are a hard team to figure out.  They remind me of a used sports car.  It looks good and in the craigslist ad, there are problems listed that you think you can fix.  But after you’ve replaced the battery, you find out that the battery was dead because the alternator was bad.  Then after you fix the alternator, you realize it was shot because of a half assed wiring job.  By the time you finally get the electrical system worked out, the transmission starts to skip gears.  You keep working on it, solving one problem as you discover another, just for the day it all starts working, and you can drive the sports car you envisioned yourself  finding undiscovered country roads in. But a lot of times you sell it because its just too much trouble.  And then you bitterly hope the guy you sold it to isn’t one final cheap fix from making it all work correctly. The Chiefs have some talented though injury prone players on offense at key positions.  There isn’t a GM in the league that wouldn’t take Jamal Charles, Dwayne Bowe, and Tony Moeaki as their top RB,WR, and TE combination if they were healthy. They have slightly above average line play. And with Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson, Eric Berry, and Brandon Flowers, they have a good share of standouts on defense.  But, like that old sports car, the pieces just never seem to be working all at once.  This could be the year everything comes together, but I have a feeling this is the year everything finally falls apart.

Predicted Finish 5-11

24.  Miami Dolphins.

Dolphins New Management

It appears Rachel Phelps finally got a team in Miami.  Phelps, some of you may remember, is the fictitious owner of the Cleveland Indians in the movie, Major League.  In Major League, she tries to sabotage the Indians in an attempt to relocate the team to Miami.  This is the only possible explanation I can think of for the Dolphins decision making process this offseason.  First, they draft Ryan Tannehill, a QB who stuggled to win a starting job in college, with the 8th overall pick.  Evidently, it was easier to win a job in the NFL, as he has replaced Matt Moore, who was actually a better quarterback than Jay Cutler and Matt Schaub last year according to metrics genius Bill Barnwell.  Then they signed up for the T.V show Hard Knocks, which never helped  a team. Then, they signed Chad Johnson, who was cut shortly after being arrested for headbutting his wife.  To make the Dolphins situation even more fishy, they traded their best defensive back, Vontae Davis for a second round pick.  A team that appeared to be moving forward seems to be making every attempt to get worse. Not that I mind all that much.  I’ve always disliked the Dolphins.

Predicted Finish: 5-11 (I had them at 7-9 before the Tannehill/Davis debacle)

23.  Atlanta Falcons.  A lot of people think New Orleans is going to take a step back following the bounty scandal, and that the Falcons will be the benefactors.  I am not one of those people.  I think Matt Ryan is over rated. I also think this is the end of the line for Michael Turner.  The thinking is the Falcons are going to open up their offense and make use of their dynamic duo Roddy White and Julio Jones on the outside.  But the truth is, Ryan’s best attributes as a quarterback show themselves while working off play action.  And when Turner falters this year (and he will) Ryan will be forced to win games by passing down field with an arm that better suited to slants and hooks.  And the turnovers will come.  And with them the losses.

Predicted finish 6-10

The Baby Rhino Division (as in, aw cute, a baby rhino, but when it grows up it can kill you and it isn’t afraid of fire)

Adorable… for now.

22.  Carolina Panthers.  The strength of this team is its offensive line.  They are solid unit with a good mix of young talent and veteran know how.  They have two running backs that would be starters for most of the teams in the league.  They have a good linebacking corps with John Beason and James Anderson. Oh, and they have this quarterback named Cam Newton.  All he did was break Peyton Manning’s rookie passing records.  And set the league record for rushing touchdowns by a QB.  So, yeah, he’s good.  This team could be contending as early as next year.

Predicted Finish: 6-10

21. Tampa Bay Buccaneers.   (48-3), (37-9), (41-14), (31-15), (48-16), (45-24).  Those are final scores of 6 different Bucs games last year.  There is a lot of talent in the NFL.  At a few spots, the Bucs are abundantly talented.  But at the very least, they field a roster of NFL players.  Look at those scores again.  If there is a talent gap, it is the difference between Alabama and a MAC team.  I’m just not willing to believe such a gap exists between the Bucs and the Patriots and Giants, let alone the Bucs and the Jags (That was the 41-14 loss).  The breakdowns were of such a catastrophic nature, that one can’t even place blame on a poor system or weak structure, because any semblance of either would have indicated there was actual discourse occurring between coaches and players that would detail such a structure or mention such a system. In short, I think the Bucs coaches did not put their players in the best position to succeed.  These same Bucs have tasted victory in the past, but the bitter aftertaste of losing is still lingering on their palates.  It was apparent that the players were eager for new leadership by the end of last year.  Or at least a system change.  Or at least a system.  So if the new coach is willing to offer anything like that up, the Bucs could be a sneaky good team by the end of the year.  But it will happen too late to get them to the post season.

Predicted Finish: 6-10

20. Cincinnati Bengals.  I can’t remember the last time the Bengals had a confident young QB and a standout young receiver.  Oh yeah, Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson.   I think Kimo Von Oelhoffen is retired, so Dalton and Green should stay healthy. Last year, I didn’t feel like the Bengals were one of the best six teams in the AFC, and yet, they made the playoffs.   I feel like the Bengals could be the new Dolphins in the AFC.  You know the drill… Annoyingly beating a couple teams they shouldn’t beat, clinging to 9-7 and 10-6 records every other year, and acting as a post season warm up for Superbowl contenders in the divisional round.  But, like I said, they will only get to the playoffs every other year, and since they made the playoffs last year…

Predicted Finish: 7-9

The Blurry Division.

19.  Dallas Cowboys.  I’m not sure if anybody could see passed the shiny silver helmets and the big blue stars and the bikini clad cheerleaders, but the Cowboys sucked last year.  They won eight games, but a week two win over a 49ers team was their only victory over a team with a winning record.   People tend to perceive the Cowboys as a talented roster that folds at the worst possible moments.  I’m beginning to think their players just aren’t very good.

How to distract fans from the fact their team sucks.

Don’t get me wrong, Dez Bryant is  a very talented wide receiver, but their O Line is terrible, Miles Austin has reached his ceiling, and Demarco Murray is an overachiever.  Romo is a poor mans Brett Favre.  But the thing is, the Cowboys have had two quarterbacks superior to Brett Favre.  The fans expect Super Bowls because there’s a star on the side of the helmet.  But I’m sorry, you win the Super Bowl with great players.  And Dez Bryant ain’t no Michael Irvin.  Tony Romo ain’t no Roger Staubach or Troy Aikman.   Demarco Murray ain’t no Tony Dorsett or Emmit Smith.  The Cowboys fans have always had expectations that Dallas will have the best players, but when you don’t have the best players, what do you expect?

Predicted finish 7-9

18.   Oakland Raiders.   For a team that has been universally demolished for its personnel decisions over the passed few years, the Raiders sure have ended up with some talented players.  They have killer speed at the outside.  They’ve got a QB that throws the deep ball.   I think it’s a little sad that Al Davis isn’t here to see this perfect Raider team of castoffs, and rejects who were prematurely labeled busts.  I mean, this is the perfect Raider team.   Carson Palmer is like Jim Plunkett.  Down to his last chance, trying to rekindle his days as the prodigal son.  Richard Seymour is like Matuszak, refusing to believe his best days have passed.   I don’t think the Raiders have a chance at winning the Super Bowl, but I think this Raiders team shares a trait with all the best Raiders teams.  Like the Bo teams of the early 90’s, they have the chance to be fun to watch.

Predicted Finish: 8-8

17.  New York Jets.

“Well, at least we made the cover of Rolling Stone.”

When Core came out in 1992, Nirvana was at the top of the Rock and Roll Mountain, with Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins reaching their own pinnacles of success.  The Stone Temple Pilots were the outsiders.  While Kurt Cobain and David Grohl cemented their stature as the stalwarts of angst, and Eddie Vedder became the sweaty guy that your girlfriend wanted to sleep with, and Billy Corgan crowned himself the next genius of the music world, Scott Weiland and company lurked a tier below, as fans wondered whether their next album would push them into the upper echelon of musical fame.  But it never happened.  And that’s the Jets. They should have turned the corner.  They would have been a good team to root for, but it fell apart before it really began.  The next few years will just be a tease for fans that won’t stop believing in their former potential, until even those fans are too embarrassed to admit they ever believed at all.

Predicted Finish:  A most mediocre 8-8

The Wildcards Division

16.  Tennessee Titans.  This might seem a little optimistic.  The Titans are starting an unproven commodity at quarterback.  Their star running back is coming off his worst season.  I can’t honestly name one player on their defense (Does Cortland Finnegan still play there? No?  Ok, mark me down for zero on guys that I know on their defense).   They arrived at a 9-7 mark last year but only beat two winning teams (and one of those was the TJ Yates Texans).  All this points towards a sub 500 record.  But looking at their schedule, it seems only two away games seem unwinnable (week 4 at the Texans and week 16 at the Packers). Which means they could finish with five wins on the road.   Considering they get to play the Jags, the Jets, and the Colts at home, they could win three at home too.  Which leaves them at 8-8.  Like I said, this could be a little optimistic.

Predicted Finish: 9-7

15.  Seattle Seahawks.  In 2010, I sat down on the couch with a queasy stomach as I prepared to watch my Seminoles take the field against NC State. The Wolfpack, a team that had previously functioned as stepping-stone to BCS Title Games, had become a thorn in the Noles’ side during FSU’s Oughts of Darkness.  When the game ended, I sat there with a mixture of awe and disappointed.  But not because FSU had lost, but because the NC State had truly beaten us.  There was no freak play.  We didn’t suffer any injuries. They were just better, and in particular, the clutch play of their quarterback was the deciding factor.  The following year, when his interest in baseball led to a transfer to Wisconsin, Russell Wilson turned the Badgers into a team to be feared.  The Seahawks have been a quarterback away from playoff contention, ever since the departure of Matt Hasselbeck.  They went out and tried to repeat the magic of nabbing a Packer backup, and they spent good money on Matt Flynn.  Then in the draft, Wilson fell right to them, and has since been outperforming his big money free agent competition on every level.   I know he’s a rookie, but he’s always played with the composure of a more experienced player.  He’s not Andrew Luck or RGIII, but at the same time, Andrew Luck and RGIII are no Russell Wilson.   With a good defense and a motivated Marshawn Lynch, I expect the Seahawks to be in the hunt for a playoff spot.

Predicted Finish: 9-7

The Consistently Inconsistent Division

14.   Detroit Lions.

“Calvin, you mind if I just keep feeding you the ball?” “I don’t know, Matt, I’m starting to feel bad for the defense.”

“You gotta be fucking kidding me. They called that pass interference? Dan, you coulda thrown for 7000 yards with this bullshit.”

Remember the 80’s Dolphins? High scoring attack with no ground game to speak of, and defense that would inevitably let them down in the playoffs.  I hear a lot of people talk about how that Dolphins team would be well suited to today’s game.  I guess we’ll get to see how successful a team like that can be in the modern era.

Predicted Finish: 9-7

13.  New York Giants.  I know, I know, they are the defending Super Bowl champs.  Yes, Eli is proving that he was indeed worth the first overall pick in the 2004 draft.  I get it, Jason Pierre Paul was a wrecking machine last year and he might be even better this year.  There is no reason to doubt this team can win it all again.  That being said, they just never put two quality years together back to back.  Even when Parcells was there, Super Bowl Victory parties were separated by seasons of disinterest.  Maybe New York City just doesn’t allow people to go to sleep once the party has begun.  By the time the champagne glasses have been washed and the Dom restocked,  its four years later and people are finally ready to get serious again.  I’m not even confident the Giants will make the playoffs.  But, I suppose it could be worse.  After all, at least they win the big one every once in a while.  It’s better than rooting for the Eagles.

Predicted finish: 9-7

12. Denver Broncos.  This was not a playoff team last year.  This was the luckiest team ever last year.  Maybe luck occurs when preparation meets opportunity.  Maybe luck occurs when your quarterback has an intimate relationship with Jesus.  Whatever the reasons that make luck occur, the Broncos figured out the formula last year.   I can actually feel my blood pressure rise when I think of Marion Barber running out of bounds.  My neck clenches up when I imagine the Jets making no attempts to tackle Tim Tebow.  I shake my head when I hear Skip Bayless refer to the injury ridden Steelers as “the top defense in the league last year!” when he discusses Tim Tebow’s lone moment of competency as an NFL quarterback.  But, if this team could figure out how to manufacture luck and hope with Tim Tebow at the helm, how will they respond to a leader that actually knows what he’s doing?  If Peyton Manning’s battered remains are physically incapable of throwing the ball, the Broncos are already farther ahead than they were with Tim Tebow when he was forced to throw the ball.   Unless Willis McGahee just refuses to accept handoffs from anyone not named Tim, my internal football quality gauge refuses to believe they will be worse with Manning.

Predicted Finish: 10-6

11.  San Diego Chargers.

Chargers record by year since arrival of Philip Rivers

2004 12-4, Lost in Wild card round

2005 9-7, Did not qualify

2006 14-2 Lost in Divisional Round

2007 11-5 Lost Conference Championship

2008 8-8 Lost in Divisional Round

2009 13-3 Lost in Divisional Round

2010 9-7, did not qualfy

2011, 8-8 , did not qualify

So, this is a team that wins at least 8 games a year because they play in the dismal AFC West.  In really good years, they win over 12.  This year, I say they split the difference.   I think they are due for their first ten win season and an early round exit.

Predicted Finish: 10-6

The Things Have to Get Better Division

10.  Buffalo Bills.

Don’t stop Billieving!

The Steelers and Packers claim to have the broadest fan bases.  The Bears claim to have the most gregarious crowd.  The Eagles are proud to be the most vicious.  The Raiders are the scariest.  The Seahawks are the loudest.  But Bills fans are… the Billsiest.  Something happens to a fanbase when they endure a second place finish four years in a row, then get transported into a parallel universe where the previous division doormat Patriots turn into a dynasty.  The last time the Bills made the playoffs, I was playing Madden on Sega Genesis.  And yet, the Bills fans are not cynical like Bengals fans, or despondent like Browns fans.  Two of my best friends are from Buffalo. Boisterous family gatherings go silent when an outsider makes a joke about the team moving to Toronto, and mentioning Scott Norwood will ensure your removal from the premises.  But they are sensitive because they truly believe in the power of a clean slate, a fresh season.  Last year was the most difficult type of season for such fans to endure.  Heading into week 7, my friends had changed their fantasy team’s names to “Bills Alone atop AFC East” and “My Quarterback went to Harvard.” By week 16, they were trying to hunt down a Man in Black to erase the memories of another lost season.  This year, the schedule is pretty favorable… and Ryan Fitzpatrick looked pretty good before he went down last year… and C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson look like they’ll work well together… and Mario Williams will improve the pass rush… and I think I hang out with too many Bills fans. How else could I convince myself that this team will be in the post season?

Predicted Finish: 10-6

The Upside Division

9.  San Francisco 49ers.  This team is essentially the opposite of the Bucs.  They may not seem to have the most talented players, but I’ll be damned if that Harbaugh doesn’t put them in the best position to succeed.   He reminds me of Scott Skiles.  He will get maximum effort and total commitment from his players, because they respect the work he puts into his own job.  I’m not sure how long players can listen to a coach like that before a lack of rings make them tune him out.  But if Harbaugh can get them to buy in for a few more seasons, we will have no doubts about the talent of his team.  If Alex Smith really is growing up, and Frank Gore really does have tread left on the tires, the 49ers are a team no one would want to face in the playoffs.  But if Gore breaks down and Smith gets exposed as a fraud, even Harbaugh’s brilliance as a coach will not be enough to lock up the underwhelming NFC West.

Predicted Finish: 10-6

Does anyone else think this might be a poor decision?

8.  Chicago Bears.  The Bears offense has been getting a lot of attention this offseason.  But make no mistake, this team is still built on defense.  Though the addition of Brandon Marshall is clearly a positive for the offense, I can’t help but worry that his arrival might hurt the team as a whole.  If the Bears were a car, the defense would be the frame and suspension.  For nearly a decade, the strength of that frame gave the Bears a fighting chance.  When Jay Cutler came to town, Bears fans thought the V-8 they had always coveted had finally been fastened to the motor mounts.  Unfortunately, the engine came without a warrantee, and Mike Martz’s balls to the wall driving approach constantly overheated the engine.  Well, there’s a new more conservative driver, but the acquisition of Marshall is like throwing in a turbo charger.  If the Bears would have added Cutler and Marshall five years ago, you’d have a winning race car.  But after years of having to take shortcuts through country roads to mask the lack of offensive horsepower, the suspension has gotten pretty banged up.  And there aren’t a lot of spare parts left for it in the garage.  Though big plays to Marshall will light up the scoreboard, big plays also mean shorter rests for the Bears aging defense.  If Tice can reign in Cutler, and commit to Forte and Bush, saving wear on the defense, the Bears should be right in the mix come January.  But if the offense gets seduced by the homerun, Cutler will spend another season on his ass, and the defense will break down before the finish line.

Predicted Finish:10-6

7.  Philadelphia Eagles.  The Eagles are the ultimate Madden Team.  Speedy running back that can catch?  Check.  Blazing receivers with above average catch ratings?  Check.  Shutdown corners that you don’t have to worry about controlling?  Check.  Defensive ends that can pressure opposing QBs?  Check.  Quality Middle linebacker with good range? Check. And who doesn’t immediately trade for Mike Vick in Franchise Mode?  The thing is, in video game world, you can turn injuries off, egos don’t exist, and you can rely on yourself for play calling and clock management.  In real life, people that pull for the Eagles have to on depend on Andy Reid to make the right call.  In real life, Eagles fans hold their breath when Vick takes off running.  And in real life, there is a chance that DeSean and LeSean will yap like Bichons if they don’t get the ball enough.

Predicted finish: 11-5

6.  Baltimore Ravens.  Has there ever been a team involved in more close losses in big games than the Ravens?  In 2006, they were 15 handoffs to Jamal Lewis away from defeating the eventual Champion Colts.  In 2008, they committed five turnovers in losing to the eventual Champion Steelers.  In 2011, the Ravens squandered a 21-7 halftime lead and lost once again to the Super Bowl bound Steelers.  Then last year, after New England’s Sterling Moore broke up two consecutive game winning touchdown passes in the end zone, Billy Cundiff missed a 32 yard field goal that would have sent the AFC championship into overtime.  I’m not exactly sure how this season will end for the Ravens, but there is no doubt in my mind it will be painful and gut wrenching for Baltimore fans.

Predicted Finish: 11-5 (they could have been a 13-3 team, but that Terrell Suggs Injury really hurt.)

The Division Winner Division

5.  Green Bay Packers.

Predicted Finish: 11-5 (I was taught that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.  And if you are going to say anything like this, just link to it.)

4.  Houston Texans.  Last year, the Texans were on their way to a 13-3 record and home field advantage through the divisional playoffs.  But starting quarterback Matt Schaub was injured in week 11 and the reigns of the offense were handed over to 5th round pick T.J Yates.  Despite swapping a pro bowler for a rookie at the quarterback position, the Texans nearly knocked off a very good Ravens team in Baltimore.  The schedule gets tougher this year, but the team has gotten healthier.  They have a legitimate Big 3 with Schaub, Arian Foster, and Andre Johnson.  Their offensive line is as good as any in the league, and the defense is awash with young hungry talent.  They are the closest thing the NFL has to the Oklahoma City Thunder, which bodes well for the future.

Predicted Finish 12-4

3.  Pittsburgh Steelers.

I hope there’s still a Pro Bowl in two years.

Do you know who Jason Worilds is?  No?  He is a 6’2”, 262 pound linebacker for the Steelers.  He’s a backup in his third year.  Last year he recorded only 38 tackles.   But, since he is developing his linebacker skills in Pittsburgh, this means in two years he will either A.  Become a Pro Bowl Starter for the Steelers or B.  Become a Pro Bowl Starter for a team other than the Steelers.  Most teams start to show their age on defense, then rebuild over time.  The Steelers are like an adder.  They just shed skin and continue on being lethal.  Like the Spurs in the NBA, there is no time for ego, and total commitment to winning. The bulk of the attention might shift from the David Robinson and Tim Duncan to Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, but they end up with 55 wins and home court.   The Steelers have successfully made the transition from the i-formation model of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s to the pass oriented spread formations and fast pace of today.  The styles may change, but the level of success stays the same.

Predicted Finish:  12-4

2. New Orleans Saints.

Pride still counts for something.

Breaking News: An NFL team paid players to hit people as hard as possible.  Look, I know that the bounty scandal is a big deal.  Nothing tarnishes sportsmanship more than wishing harm on another player.  I severely disliked Brett Favre for most of my life.  But I wouldn’t have slipped Brian Urlacher a fiver to put him on a stretcher.  So, I can understand why Goodell went to the lengths he did to make an example out of the Saints.  Losing one of the best coaches in the league is monumental setback to overcome, but if there is a team that can pull it off, it is this team.  Their offense is in good hands with Drew Brees, and their defense will be motivated like the 2007 Patriots offense was after Spygate.  The Saints players have embraced their rolls as members of a community that will share a tragic bond forever.   They have already won for New Orleans.  This year, they will win for each other.

Predicted Finish: 12-4

1. New England Patriots.  The Helmet catchManningham’s sideline grab.  Those  two ridiculous plays are the only thing that keep Patriot fans from being the most smug fans on Earth.  Without those two unbelievably unlikely plays, Brady and Belicek surpass Knoll and Bradshaw for most Super Bowl victories by Head Coach and Quarterback.  Without those two insanely implausible completions, Eli is still Peyton’s little brother, and Justin Tuck never gets to be on a Subway commercial.  The Patriots were thiiiiis close to snagging half the Lombardi Trophies awarded in a ten year period.  And it appears they’ve gotten better.  Again.

Predicted Finish:  13-3

Playoff Teams


  1. Patriots
  2. Steelers
  3. Texans
  4. Chargers
  5. Ravens
  6. Bills


  1. Saints
  2. Packers
  3. Eagles
  4. 49ers
  5. Bears
  6. Lions

AFC Wild Card

Texans over Bills

Chargers over Ravens

NFC Wild Card

Lions over Eagles

Bears over 49ers

AFC Divisional

Patriots over Chargers

Steelers over Texans

NFC Divisional

Bears over Saints

Lions over Packers

Conference Championships

Patriots over Steelers

Bears over Lions


Patriots over Bears

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