(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Friday, March 30, 2018

Maurice Cheeks and the Hall of Fame

He was ice.  He could penetrate when he had to, hit the jumper when left open, find the open man -- always.  And he had some greats to pass the ball to -- Malone, Toney, and, of course, Dr. J.

And now he is going to basketball's Hall of Fame.  Very much deservedly so.

But what makes Maurice Cheeks so extra special was what he did as a coach.  Oh, he won't be remembered for a whole lot about his coaching, especially when compared to his playing, but on the night when he was coaching his first playoff game, he did something magical.

He did not draw up a great play, give an inspired pre-game speech, even suit up to help his team.  No, he did this.  That's right, in the midst of getting lost in his thoughts about how his first playoff game as a coach would go, a young teenaged girl forgot the words to the Star Spangled Banner.  She knew that she was in trouble with the song, clutched herself, looked sideways, well, to see perhaps if there was divine intervention.  Most of us would have wanted to drop through the floor, cover ourselves and not come out. 

But this young woman was lucky enough to have Maurice Cheeks.  Cheeks walked over to her, looked at her reassuringly, coached her on the words and guided this young person with a very nice voice to complete the national anthem.  It was a Hall of Fame moment, one that will bring tears to your eyes.

Why?  Because in a moment when he had every right to be selfish, to get lost in his own thoughts, to figure out about how he would work match-ups and substitutions and timeouts, Maurice Cheeks thought of someone else -- a young person in dire need.  And he walked over to her and in a most calming and avuncular fashion, guided her through an awful time.

That's what captains of the ship do.  That's what leaders do.  That's what people of great character do.

And that's what Hall of Famers do!

Congratulations, Maurice Cheeks -- we are honored to have you in our lives.

Matt Davidson -- 3 HRs on Opening Day for the White Sox; and Dan LeBatard and His Reaction to Ian Happ's home run

I was in this wonderful fantasy baseball league years ago.  Great group of guys, and normally we drafted before the season began.  That particular year, though, we drafted a few days after opening day (and yes, previous stats would count).  One of the hottest commodities that year was a Cubs' outfielder named Karl "Tuffy" Rhodes.  The reason was that Rhodes homered three times on opening day, guaranteeing to throw his price in our auction out of proportion because owners draft on hope and potential.  He even hit one off Doc Gooden. 

He also ended up with only 269 at-bats for the season, hit only eight home runs, hit .224 for his career and ended up in Japan.  Every year, though, during our draft, his name would come up, more or less in "buyer beware."

That is not to say that Matt Davidson is not a good player, will not be a good player, and will not have a good season.  It's just to say that after one game, it is hard to draw any conclusions at all, unless, of course, you are Dan LeBatard, the ESPN personality and Miami-area sports talk show host.  LeBatard's reaction to Ian Happ's season-opening home run off the Marlins -- on the very first pitch of the MLB season -- is priceless.

The odds are that the Marlins will not be as awful at LeBatard suggests (they could be close, though) or that Davidson will hit 486 home runs (to Giancarlo Stanton's 324). 

There remains a lot of baseball to be played.

We All are Scott Foster

The NHL has a bedeviling problem -- goaltenders who wear down and get hurt before and during games.  So much so that the league requires teams to have pools of goaltenders in tow with one "back-up" in the arena in case something happens to the other two.  The rule derives from an old hockey custom that if the goalie got hurt a team could grab someone out of the stands and have him play goalie.  Fast forward until today, and teams have people who played goalie at some level -- preferably college or junior or in the minors -- and who do something else now, ready for just this purpose.

Typically, these goalies don't see action.  A few have gotten to suit up and sit on the bench when one of a team's two goalies is unable for the game.  One even got to play for the final 7.6 seconds of a game this year. 

Last night, though, something different happened.  The Blackhawks were down to one "regular" goalie and had a thirty-six year old accountant, Scott Foster, who played some goalie in college, on the bench.  With about 15 minutes to go or so, the starting goalie started cramping, and the Blackhawks turned to Foster to finish a 6-2 victory over a play-off bound team.  Foster played flawlessly, drawing the admiration from a grateful Hawks' team, the fans, the league and frankly sports fans everywhere.

Great job, Scott Foster.  You did what everyone dreams of -- getting called upon, suiting up and helping your team win.  Great story!

Monday, March 05, 2018

The Joys of Spring Training

The chalk base lines.

The crack of a bat.

The pop of a ball into a mitt.

The high numbers of the prospects who are trying to make a name for themselves.

The alumni, gathered near a field, swapping stories of the old days.

The optimism of each team, even if the deepest, most thorough analytics tell a different story.

The discussion of the building of legacies.  Can Scherzer win a fourth Cy Young Award?  How will Judge and Stanton fare in the same lineup.  Will Crawford, Kingery and Hoskins be this decade's version of Rollins, Utley and Howard for the Phillies?  Is Mike Trout the best outfielder ever?  Who is a lock for the Hall besides Ichiro and Adrian Beltre? 

The hot stove yields to the warm weather of Florida and Arizona.  Rosters for the most part are in place, usually with only a few spots open.  The union and the owners still joust about an issue or too, this year that the game is too slow in the weather that climate change brings.  The younger fans, to the extent they remain interested, get bored quickly.  Can they speed up the game the way they do in the minors?  Joust they have done, and joust they will continue to do.  They probably fight about the Oxford comma in contract negotiations, such is the history.

Families go to spring training to get closer to the players, who are more wont to sign autographs before the games count. 

It's a wonderful thing, this spring training.  A way to slow down time, reminisce about the good times and speculate about the future. 

Have a hot dog, smell the popcorn, eat peanuts and toss the shells wherever you like. 

Just like they used to do it decades ago.

Friday, March 02, 2018

College Basketball Payola

Anyone and everyone in law enforcement will tell you that just because everyone does it does not make it right.  Which means, of course, that the payoff scandal that has enveloped college basketball will have consequences for schools and coaches with both the NCAA and Federal law enforcement officials.

Major college football and basketball programs are a far cry from what they were even thirty years ago.  There is a lot of money involved, period.  Sure, most DI football programs lose money; those that don't can make a lot of it.  College basketball has so exploded in popularity that networks pay billions to televise March Madness. 

So, there should be plenty of money to go around.  Right?

Wrong.  Dead wrong.

The reason that there is not plenty of money to go around is that seemingly everyone gets to wet his beak save the people ultimately responsible for the product -- the players.  Yes, they receive scholarships, but they are mostly one-year renewable deals, and in many programs they are shuttled into courses and majors that enable them to stay eligible so that they can play.  In certain cases, those courses are not all that rigorous and don't provide meaningful preparation for a life after the sport.  And players need that preparation, for only a very small number go on to play for money (legal money as it currently stands) after college. 

Colleges make money in many ways off these players, some of whom are poor.  Sure, they get the scholarship and a miniscule monthly stipend, but that's it.  And if they should get hurt, well, they're gone.  All of the caring that was shown to parents and grandparents during the recruiting process vanishes in one of the ultimate "what have you done for me lately" scenarios.  This is ugly underbelly to that pageantry that exists before, during and after each game.

Some will argue that the NCAA is paternalistic at best and racist at worst.  The reason -- baseball and hockey players -- most of whom are white -- are allowed to have agents while in college and can turn pro right after high school.  Somehow, the basketball and football worlds don't like that; college has become a monopoly, a requirement, regardless of the fact whether some of these great players want to go to college or belong in college.  The racism/paternalism that exists denies them the right to play for money right after high school and compels them to attend a college program for a year.  The silliness of it all is that the colleges have had to go along with it, turning some programs into a peculiarity because, for example, Kentucky this year has no seniors on its team.  It gets so many good prospects that to stay for four years would be a failure.  But why do many of those kids have to go to college in the first place? 

So what's the answer?  One the one hand, you have those who argue that the players should get paid.  It is hard to determine how much they should get paid and who should get paid?  Everyone on the team?  Every college football player, or only those at FCS schools?  Should there be a union (unadvisable, as the NFL's union has not been all that successful) or should each player be a free agent?  Should there be salary caps?  The list of issues is long, and colleges also then would need to worry about their tax-exempt status.  Would just those sports be taxes, or the entire operation?  Some will argue -- eliminate the one-and-done rule and pay the players, and problems will be solved in college basketball. 

But why should the colleges have to bear this burden?  Then again, why should the colleges be in the for-profit business of sports anyway?  Why must players go to college?  Why shouldn't they be able to go pro the way they can in hockey, baseball, tennis and soccer?  And why can't NFL and NBA teams have academies the way international soccer clubs do?  Players sign at an early age, move to near where the club is, get paid, get tutoring so that they can get their education through high school and then focus on honing their craft and just playing?  It seems to work in international soccer, so why not for basketball and football? 

Sure, many in the paternalistic world of college sports won't like it, as it could be the case that many of the top 50-200 players might opt for an academy instead of going to college.  They can focus on their sport and get money for their families, which some desperately need.  This also could mean that the SEC football schools and ACC hoops schools, among many others, might not get the top prospects.  But this also could mean that the sports could return to being interesting and fun extracurricular activities and then some more than big businesses.  I still think that without five-star recruits Nick Saban would be inventive enough to win a national title.  The question would be whether the players who do not go into academies should get scholarships and salaries or just scholarships.  The formation of academies in the pro leagues does not solve the problem over whether college athletes should get paid.

This is a complicated topic with no easy answer.  The current system clearly does not work.  And if you have a system where people feel they need to cheat in order to keep up or tread water, you need to reexamine the system to determine how to change it so that no one has to break the rules.  It's one think to punish the violators; it's another to change rules and the culture that surrounds the sports.  The powers that be need to focus on the problem they are trying to solve -- whether it's to clean up the current mess and keep the rules in place or to clean up the current mess and change the system or the rules so that the integrity of the games, which is on shaky ground -- can be improved and the coach and players inserted into a system that does not provide much temptation to cheat. 

The vote here is to end the paternalism, let all kids go pro out of high school, take a lot of the developmental work away from the colleges, have the NBA and NFL teams form academies, leave college for the ones who truly want to be there, share more revenue with those who go to college, and put in harsh penalties for those who violate the new rules. 

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Thank You, Birds!

The buildup to the Super Bowl was excruciating.  Time moved so slowly in the Philadelphia for the two weeks leading up to the big game.  There were stories atop stories about each player's pathway to the game, the Philadelphia-area connections of Patriots' players, the Pats' mystique, whether Tom Brady would lead yet another comeback, the underdog status of the home team, the pundits' selections (75% of them picked New England).  Would Eagles' back-up QB continue with his hot hand or wilt under the pressure of the Super Bowl?  Could the Pats' offensive line protect Brady?  Questions upon questions, theories upon theories.

I think that most Philadelphia fans went into the contest with the belief that the Eagles could win the game.  I am not sure that most subscribe to any "team of destiny" theory, but the facts were that the team had suffered some staggering losses to its roster and healed them.  Losing  starting CB Ronald Darby on the first series of downs in the first game for more than half the season began a cascade of increasingly devastating losses.  Okay, so you might not thinking losing your kicker (Caleb Sturgis) or special teams captain (Chris Maragos) was a big deal, but then in the same game the Birds lost future Hall of Fame left tackle Jason Peters and starting middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, another star contributor.  And then, of course, the team lost starting QB Carson Wentz, who was on his way to an MVP season.  All of those losses aggregated; losing Wentz suggested that perhaps the Eagles' had run their course for the season, that despite some great play all of the injuries would be too much to overcome.

Coaches will tell you that if you give a team an excuse to lose, they'll take it.  Part of the brilliance of head coach Doug Pederson and the teams leaders (among them Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long) was a refusal to offer or take excuses.  Pederson led a culture that was all about accountability and continuous improvement, topped off with a relentless ability and desire to adapt to changing circumstances.  This Eagles team did this time and time again.  They generated a vibe that said that they could run and hit with anybody, but that their true measure was not what they did when things were going well, but what they did when things were not.  And when things were not going well, they dusted themselves off, picked themselves off the canvas, and turned the disappointment into opportunity.

Naturally, all Eagles' fans were hoping for a win.  Desperately.  Deep down, all fans have their doubts.  Sometimes, teams just don't play well on a given day, or they do, only to lose their focus, take their foot off the gas pedal and lose a big lead.  Very much, all Eagles' fans were hoping for a valiant showing from their team, that if they were going to lose, it would be not because of falling asleep at the wheel, but with guns a-blazing.  The reasons for this have to do with much more than football.

The country treats Philadelphia like a poor, developmentally challenged stepchild at times.  Condescending, patronizing, scolding, demeaning, use whatever verb you want.  New Yorkers disdain Philadelphia because, well, it isn't New York, it isn't open 24-7 and it doesn't have all that New York has to offer.  Philadelphia once was home to the government and the financial world, but that was so far back in the day that the legislators used to have summer homes in what is now the Grays' Ferry part of the city, about a 15-minute ride from Independence Mall.  A series of maneuvers and compromises took the financial center to Manhattan and the government to swamp land south of Maryland that became the District of Columbia.  The city has been the butt of jokes, starting with the comedian W.C. Fields, who wanted emblazoned on his tombstone "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia." 

The city didn't do itself any favors, either.  Fans did boo Santa Claus (that the version of Santa in question was drunk and slovenly and an embarrassment to the trade gets no mention), throw snowballs at the Dallas Cowboys (led by a future mayor of the city, no less) and get put in a makeshift jail at the old Veterans Stadium (the showboat judge who established the court later got elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, only to later resign in disgrace because of a scandal involving the sharing of pornographic e-mails).  We had a tough-guy mayor show up to a riot with a night stick in the cumberbund of his tuxedo, and another mayor who infamously permitted the police department to drop a bomb on a row house to roust a violent disobedient movement from the confines, only to end up torching several blocks of the city.  Industry moved away, first down south and then overseas.  Take a train into Philadelphia from outside the city or from the suburbs and you might think that you are passing a former war zone, the empty, scavenged, dilapidated and graffiti-laden buildings testimony to a time when the city made a lot of things.  A famous writer, it might have been Veblen, once wrote, "Philadelphia, corrupt and contented." 

Put differently, I've never felt that the city and its residents felt as good about itself as they should.  Instead, they sometimes act like they don't belong or that someone else is judging them and that, as a result, they don't measure up.  It also didn't help that the records of the sports teams pale in comparison to the Yankees to the north and to all Boston teams and even to the Baltimore Orioles in comparison to the hometown Phillies.  And there have been some famous blown leads, notably by the Phillies in the 1977 National League Championship Series and the 76ers from the late 1960's through the late 1970's.  And then there were the Eagles, 1-5 in NFC championship games under Andy Reid and 0-2 in Super Bowls. 

Losers, chokers, poor drafters, soulless stadium (the Vet), hockey team with an antiquated way of doing things, basketball team that holds the NBA record for the worst record in a season, baseball team that was the first franchise to lose 10,000 games (we didn't know anyone was counting).  How many times have we heard it?  How many times have we had our faces rubbed in it? 

This game meant a lot more than just a Super Bowl.  It had to do with the overall identity of our home town.  Now, many of us aren't extreme idolators and realize what a good thing we have -- good houses and schools and communities without the taxes and prices of New England, New York and New Jersey.  We get that.  It's not that we don't think that we have a good thing -- locally.  But it's the national image that irks us.  Sure, we can fight with each other and have internal rivalries.  But pick on us, and we'll get our backs up and defend each other hard.  And fight back with you.  Even with that, though, there was this thing -- that we haven't always done our best on the national stage, and people look down on us -- and our city -- because of it.

The Eagles' victory over the Patriots changed all that.  The Birds played aggressively throughout, charged hard at the defending champs, the dynasty with the best QB ever and the best head coach over and outplayed them.  They even ran a trick play that people will be talking about forever, one that they ran on fourth down and one at the opponents' goal line right before the first half ended that increased the team's lead.  And they kept on coming and coming.  They did so without their starting QB, without their future HOF left tackle, without their starting middle linebacker.  They did so not because one person stepped up above all others, but because they all stepped up, did their jobs, helped each other and took the game away from the Patriots. 

They made a statement.  To be the best you have to beat the best, and they did. 

And, in so doing, they hit the re-set button for an entire region.  Yeah, you can pick on us and make fun of us and talk about how our area stinks.  Most of you who do that have never been here and don't understand what makes the place special in so many ways.  We have heard it all; there's not much more you can say that we haven't already heard, and what there is will not hurt us.  Why?  Because we've been slammed with it for years, and each and every time we shake it off, carry on, move on and stand up strong.  But what the Eagles' did -- overcoming the adversity that they did, staying together and holding true to a common belief that they could achieve what no Eagles' team had done in the prior 52 years -- makes a statement that blankets and elevates an entire region and entire group of people.

We can win the big one in the biggest sport on the biggest stage. 

We are winners.

We always thought we could do anything we set our minds to.

But now we have shown everyone we can.

And made believers out of them.

Thank you, Eagles, for this most special of victories. 

In flying proudly, you have elevated all of us to fly with you. 

And it feels really good.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Questions that the Michigan State Affair (and Others) Raise

Penn State.


Michigan State.

The Sandusky affair, the blatant disregard for sexual assault and the blatant disregard for sexual molestation and assault are stunning, troubling and horrifying.  Imagine, also, if your kids were the victims.  How would you feel?  And, if they're not, how do you feel?  Why should this type of behavior be enabled, tolerated and covered up at these schools?

But there are two other compelling questions that must be raised.  Are we na├»ve enough to believe that these are the only institution with these problems?  Are we now cynical enough to believe that every institution has this type of problem and that there are two types of colleges -- those that have been caught and those who have not?  Which school is next?  And what will the Michigan State do to amateur athletics, college athletics, high school athletics and college administrations in general?  Is the Michigan State affair just the tip of a huge iceberg that is about to surface and ram itself into each and every college?

The second question, equally compelling, is why these patterns of behavior seem to go on an not get hit head on with a sledgehammer and stopped?  Why don't people want to stand up and take on the odd behavior of a Jerry Sandusky, the sexual assault culture at Baylor, the molestation/assault culture at Michigan State?  People saw the behavior, they saw the signs, they knw things were going on and yet, they did nothing.  Or not enough.


I have given this some thought and posit that it takes a lot of courage to stand up because of a few factors.  First, you don't know if you will be believed.  Second, you don't know if you will be retaliated against (look into what happened to Mike McQueary at Penn State) or whether you will be committing career suicide, because who wants to hire a whistleblower?  Third, you don't want to risk losing all the trappings of your job -- the 401(k) or 403(b) match for your retirement funds, the defined contribution that a university makes to your retirement account, the tuition support for your kids' tuition, your tenure and rank at the institution.  Or you think that taking a stand is above your pay grade -- it is for someone else to do.  Or you think that others must know and are looking into it.  Finally, most people hate conflict, like going home to their comfortable chair, big-screen television and ice cream at night.  They like being comfortable, and raising an issue this serious is very uncomfortable.  And for some, there is no safety net, no safe landing space. 

All of these factors are plausible.  Many institutions try to build in mechanisms for people to raise complaints.  Hotlines can be very useful if people feel uncomfortable to raise questions in real time and in person.  But hotlines have some baggage -- the reporter at times only wants to go so far and many times does not want to meet with the investigators.  As a result, incidents reported on hotlines can be unsubstantiated, especially if they occur in isolation.  That said, were Michigan State to have gotten numerous reports about Larry Nassar, the odds would have increased dramatically that Michigan State had a Larry Nassar problem and that Larry Nassar had big problems.  Have one person make a claim that investigators cannot substantiate, and, well, it's an unsubstantiated claim.  Have ten people make claims in a concentrated period of time, and most likely there are enough dots to connect and dominos to fall that the likes of Nassar get outed, fired and prosecuted.

There are many great minds in higher education and law enforcement, and they need to partner to figure out solutions so that these affairs do not happen again.  There will be occasional bad incidents -- it is hard to avoid them -- but the goal would be to knock out patterns of behavior before they come patterns and tsunamis of crime to occur before they even become a two-incident trend.  Cultures must change; the money must not corrupt an institution and institutions need to realize that they need to hit incidents head on to protect their reputations as opposed to avoiding them because no one wants to deal with a scandal.  Deal with an incident head on and dispatch with it, and you'll get a reputation for an accountable institution that does things the right way.  Let things go because you don't want to do the right thing or bring embarrassment to the university, well, look at Michigan State right now.  Their brand is damaged, their proverbial ship is listing mightily.  And why?  Because despite many opportunities, no one in authority did anything.  And no one -- not Tom Izzo, not Mark Dantonio, not Larry Nassar -- should be bigger than the institution.  And in this case, MSU let Nassar and his "global" reputation become bigger than the institution to the point where no one would believe that such a legendary figure could be such a predator.  Everyone is accountable; the bigger the name, the higher the standards they should be held to and hold themselves to.  Why?  It's called leadership.  It's called accountability.

So how much of this remains out there?  The examples are not limited to pedophilia and sexual harassment, either.  For example, before privacy laws came into effect in the U.S. regarding healthcare, employers had free rein to examine which employees were biggest users of their healthcare plans, who had AIDS, and who suffered from mental health issues.  My guess is that the landscape is littered with busted careers because those who ran companies -- through their human resources departments -- scanned these records.  After all, who wanted someone making $40,000 a year in a clerical job using up $200,000 a year in AIDS medicine or who wanted a nut case working for them because the company knew that the rising star went to see a psychiatrist and might have gotten a prescription for a sedative?  I wrote the previous lines pejoratively, because, needless to say, that type of managerial behavior was deplorable.  Lord knows the billions in damages people suffered -- not to mention the damage to their reputations -- because of the speculation that must have swirled about them because of the peek into the healthcare records.  The privacy laws ended those "look ins" but the damage was done.    The AIDS patient was not evil, and neither was the person who was aware enough to get some help for his mental health issues.  Oddly, the evil was in the acts of the management, who wanted to sanitize anything and not give one rat's rear end about others' lives or a sense of community.  Compassion?  That obviously was for someone else. 

My guess is that Penn State, Michigan State and Baylor cannot be the only ones.  North Carolina and Louisville had scandals regarding phony classes and strippers/payments to players, respectively.  The laws that require the reporting of sexual assaults on campus can make any parent worry; it stands to reason that more reports of systematic neglect and aggressiveness against victims will surface, big-name coaches will be involved, and whole administrations might continue to fall.  Put different, the odds are that similar scandals are brewing at between 15-20% of the schools in the Power 5 conferences.  Which means, then, that there might be half a dozen more schools that have serious issues. 

I used to comment on these pages that I didn't want my kids to go to a college where any coach makes more than the university president.  My reason for saying this is that I want the schools to have their priorities in order -- not the bread and circus that can mollify the masses of students that go to the big places -- but an emphasis on learning, community and skills needed to graduate with confidence and become a productive member of society.  While I like sports, I could care less whether the schools' teams win the majority of their games or whether the school has to expel a star because despite what he means to the team he committed an act of violence.  Yes, as the Duke lacrosse debacle taught us, everyone is entitled to a defense, and I don't want to paint athletic administrations, coaches and players with a broad brush, but schools need to deal with acts of aggression or molestation -- against any student, not just an athlete -- with compassion and dispatch.  The accused must be afforded their rights too -- we cannot go overboard with trials by media or angry student groups because an incident happened the night before and tensions are running high.

Lastly, the NCAA is not the organization to deal with this issue.  Oh, it will jump in the way it did against Penn State because there was a huge public hue and cry and because the powers that be -- including the now-questioned Mark Emmert -- figured that they had to do something.  I am not sure that the NCAA has jurisdiction or that it should step in.  Law enforcement seems to be all over the case, as it should be.  That said, I think that the powers that be in the State of Michigan should realize the huge culture problem they have in East Lansing and take decisive measure to change the culture and make sure that they have their priorities in order. 

Something went really, terribly, horribly wrong.  My heart aches for all the victims and their families.  This is a huge crisis, and Michigan State must turn it into an opportunity, so that no person who walks on the campus walks in fear or walks concerned that if she has any concerns about her well being, that she will not be able to raise them and get a good, fast response.  That should not be too much to ask, but, apparently, on many college campuses, it is right now.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Philadelphia Eagles

Team trades for shutdown corner and loses him for 9 games after first series in first game.

Team loses very versatile, veteran, savvy do-it-all running back/return man early in the season, along with its kicker.

Team loses top special teams player not that long thereafter.

Team loses future Hall of Famer/left tackle and very good starting middle linebacker in the ninth game.

Not long after that, phenom QB, en route to an MVP season, tears ligaments in his knee, done for the season.

Team finishes 13-3 and is going to the Super Bowl.

Got all that?

Many pundits predicted that the Philadelphia Eagles would go 8-8, perhaps 9-7 at best with this year's team.  Among the question marks going into the season were depth at running back, the ability of a new receiving corps to out-produce last year's group, whether center Jason Kelce could recover from a bad season, and whether the oft-criticized defensive backfield could at least become average.  Atop that, there were worries about the age of starting left tackle Jason Peters (35) and the natural concerns -- nothing elevated, of course -- that Carson Wentz would continue to progress because despite all of the hype, the last half of the 2016 season didn't go all that well for the ream.  The concerns were marked going into the season and became magnified with the personnel losses that occurred during it.

What no fan could have predicted was the quality of work done in the front office (where once-maligned head of football operations Howie Roseman made few mistakes and should be everyone's executive of the year and head coach Doug Pederson, who, quite frankly, few were excited about when Roseman hired him, adjusted well with the personnel he has and coached the team most ably, weathering the losses).  What resulted by the season's end were the following -- a very much "plus" receiving corps, a vastly improved back-up TE in Trey Burton, a defensive backfield that became a big asset with depth, a starting QB who looks like the next great one, a back-up who looks like he might be in demand for a trade and several good running backs.

Teams need a lot of things to go right to get to the Super Bowl.  First and foremost, it goes without saying that they need to play well.  But more than that, they need to adjust their plans for the personnel they have and need to have sufficient depth, because it's a given that key players will get hurt for periods of time.  The Eagles have played well, and they have adjusted for changes to their roster.  The last result underscored the strength of the depth and the team's ability to insert new players and new schemes and take care of the opposition.  It has been impressive to say the least.

The City of Philadelphia remains giddy after the team's convincing win over the Vikings.  That same giddy group probably was in despair after the Vikings scored the game's first touchdown, but now they are starting to focus on the fact that the Eagles have never won the Super Bowl and must defeat a dynasty to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. 

This is a very solid team, replete with good leadership, an esprit de corps that screams "attack" when you see them walk into a stadium, lines that are good at pushing the opposition off the ball and a variety of skill players who can find the end zone.  The Patriots, deservedly so, are the favorites.   Until someone takes the crown from them, they have the right to wear it.  They can continue to burnish the reputation of an already-established dynasty and add luster to their far-reaching shine. 

And the Eagles can finally get to the top of the hill. 

Were they to do so, the City of Philadelphia will party perhaps like no championship has ever partied before.  Yes, the Phillies drew great crowds in 2008.  Fun time.  But if the Eagles were to win the Super Bowl, the parade and parties that will ensue will make the Phillies' celebration look like a toddler's birthday party at Chuck 'E Cheese's. 

As a lifelong fan, it would be fun to watch that explosion.

Fly, Eagles, fly!

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Jalen Hurts: A Lesson in Character

It has been said that sports don't develop character -- they reveal it. 

Last night, Alabama trailed Georgia at the half.  While the entire team didn't execute well, the focal point of that execution became the Crimson Tide's quarterback, Jalen Hurts.  It just wasn't Hurts who wasn't playing well on offense for the Tide -- his blockers had their mistakes and his receivers had trouble gaining separation.  But Hurts didn't do as well as he normally did, and the Georgia defense did a good job of frustrating Alabama and its running game. 

So, if your running game isn't working, you have to pass the ball.  Well, Hurts isn't known as the best passer in the world, and the Alabama coaches had a decision to make -- stay with the guy who is a team leader and had gotten you this far, or call a huge audible and replace him with a freshman who hadn't played a down of consequence in his career.  That freshman, though, is better at throwing the ball, and the Alabama coaches thought that the change was justified.  We all know what happened afterwards -- the change further cements Nick Saban as a coaching legend, and the freshman substitute had a fairy-tale like game that climaxed with a flawless TD pass on fourth and long at the end of the second overtime to give Alabama its sixth national championship in nine years.  All of that has been written about a lot and many stories will continue to focus on this exciting game and the coaching of Nick Saban.

But suppose you're the quarterback who won 25 games in two years, including a national title as a freshman, played in the national title game last season and then gets benched.  Ironically, his name is Hurts, and there is nothing more than can hurt the psyche of a young man then to be yanked from a game -- the national championship game -- before a live audience of millions of people and with family and friends in attendance.  Yes, that has to hurt.  Young men could get angry, feel frustrated, humiliated, disappointed, upset that they were not getting a chance to redeem themselves, could question themselves, their coach's loyalty to them, the fairness of it all and whatever other emotions could boil over at such a critical juncture in their lives.

Jalen Hurts didn't.  He remained engaged on the sideline.  He remained supportive of this team and very much encouraged his back-up and gave pointers about different coverages.  Jalen Hurts did not play the role of the wounded turtle and retreat to his shell.  He stood tall, summoned the strength and emotional fortitude to know that he is part of a team and something bigger than himself, that a starting position is not an entitlement, and a whole bunch of other thoughts and emotions that went into the algorithm in his head that instructed him, "you are a leader, you have been a leader on this team, your team needs you to continue to lead, especially when the team is behind.  Stand tall, be supportive and continue to lead.  You might not be the quarterback on the field right now, but you are still a leader."

Alabama could have wilted after the half or after it found itself down 20-7 with six minutes and change left to go in the third quarter.  But the Crimson Tide had one more high tide left in them and kept finding the energy and determination to overcome disappointments within the game (an interception tossed by the back-up, a missed field goal at the end of regulation that would have won the game for them) to win the game. 

Jalen Hurts, the quarterback, was not on the field for almost all of that time, save one play where he ran the ball to set up the field goal attempt at the end of regulation.  Jalen Hurts, the leader, was all over that field in spirit, helping his team win in any way he could.  Sure, Jalen Hurts did not throw the game-winning touchdown pass, but he emerged a winner in multiple ways last night -- as a person of tremendous character, and with his second national championship ring.  Okay, so he didn't play at his best level last night, but it would be hard to imagine that he ever has led any better or revealed aspects of his character any better than he did last night.

Alabama wins for a reason.  Sure, the Tide can recruit with the best of them.  Other schools recruit well too.  But it's the culture of maturity and accountability that distinguishes the Crimson Tide from any other program out there.  The Tide have about eight players who will leave early and get selected in the early rounds of the NFL draft.  Jalen Hurts will not be one of them, and it's unclear right now what his future in football will be -- as a quarterback at Alabama, as a quarterback somewhere else or playing another position at Alabama.  And most people will not remember how he took his disappointment on Monday night; they will remember how his back-up -- a freshman from Hawaii -- took over in the second half and helped lead the team to victory.  But deep down, the person to whom Jalen Hurts has to answer -- himself -- should know that how he acted last night was extraordinary.

It's fun to watch exciting games with theatrics, lead changes and dramatic endings.  It's even more rewarding to watch them when you see young men dig deep and reveal a part of themselves that is truly amazing.  Jalen Hurts did that last night, and the Alabama nation should be thankful for it.