SportsProf

(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, January 20, 2017

Trust the Process

Sam Hinkie was right.


And Ben Simmons has not yet played a single minute for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Philadelphia Eagles Fired Their Wide Receivers Coach

I am not an expert in root cause analysis and do not claim to be.  I have heard the term used enough to know that the best way to solve a problem, particularly a persistent, vexing one, is to determine the root cause.  Too frequently, we attack the symptoms and not the cause.  Take healthcare.  Instead of examining people's lifestyles, doctors' prescribe pills.  A lot of healthcare problems can be solved by having people stand more at work, walk more during the day and reduce their fast-food and sugar intake.  My bet is that fewer pills would be needed if people attacked the causes of their problems.


That's my preamble for what the Philadelphia Eagles did last week.  Admittedly, Greg Lewis was a reach for a receivers' coach because he had no experience.  What made the choice more of a reach was that the Eagles' receiving corps was young and inexperienced and lacking a senior mentor to teach them the little things that can differentiate between being successful in the NFL and getting cut.  What the Eagles did was pair a rookie coach with perhaps the worst receiving corps in the NFL. 


The results were predictable.  That's not to say that Don Coryell, the architect behind the famous "Air Coryell" teams with San Diego in the 1970's, could have done much with this bunch.  Greg Lewis didn't have a chance.  This corps either couldn't get open or, if they did, they had trouble catching the ball.  At some point, coaching doesn't matter; talent does.  And that's the root cause of the Eagles' problem.


You could bring in Jerry Rice or Michael Irvin to coach this bunch and it wouldn't matter much.  But you could bring in a real GM and front-office team that more emulates what Jimmy Johnson did with the Cowboys in the early 1990's (finding bargains everywhere) than what Howie Roseman and crew are accomplishing now.  The root cause in the receiving problem?  It's not Greg Lewis.  It's not the head coach.


It's the owner, who seems wed to this GM, and the entire organizational culture.  New England takes Eagles' castoffs Patrick Chung and Eric Rowe and makes them successful starters at defensive backs.  The Eagles?  Well, they seem to misfire in many places.   Greg Lewis did not cause the receivers' problems, not even close. 


But the Eagles showed their fan base, which by the way is not gullible, a firing, as if to say, "we're on it and we're holding people accountable."  The miscue there is that they are holding the wrong person accountable.  Too bad you cannot fire the owner, because until he wakes up and realizes that his front office is undermanned and outgunned, more mistakes will happen and continue to happen.


Fire the receivers coach? 


That's not the root cause.  Not even close.



Mike & Mike to Split Up?

That would be something.


About 15 years ago I had a long commute, and I found a new ESPN radio show on morning drive time.  I had heard of Mike Golic, who was perhaps the most anonymous defensive lineman for Buddy Ryan's great defenses in Philadelphia.  You would have been anonymous too if the other three linemen were named Reggie White, Jerome Brown and Clyde Simmons.  I hadn't heard of Mike Greenberg, but he impressed me immediately.  He was part show host, part fan and part sports nerd, but with the right type of ego.  Not the type of "I am in love with myself ego" that some others on ESPN have, but the type that says "I know my stuff and am determined to be fair and get it right."  Together, Greenberg, trained as a journalist, and Golic, a well-informed, homework-doing former athlete, showed promise. 


I went home and told my wife that I had found a wonderful show, and that these two would be stars. 


I was right.


Back then, as they were in formation, the show was chock full of information as ads were fewer and farther between than they are now, as the show seems to have so many adds as to dilute the message and the content.  But that's business, and that's a measure of their success. 


What made and makes them so appealing is that they provide information and not just opinions, and they avoid the rants and outsized personalities that can populate and at times plague sports talk radio in any city.  I like to spend my free time getting informed, relaxed and at times amused.  Hearing a drive-time talk show host call his callers idiots frequently (as one so-called luminary in Philadelphia did for a while) is not appealing.  That behavior is not amusing; it is unkind. 


This article offers up the possibility that Mike Greenberg will become the centerpiece of a newly formatted morning Sports Center show.  He certainly deserves that, as for years I had thought that, like Robin Roberts, his talents would have translated to a morning news show, such as "Today" or "Good Morning America."  Mike Golic's future is unclear.  He is a talent, but he and Greenberg have a unique chemistry that I am not sure that any replacement host can replicate.  Trey Wingo has been stellar at ESPN for years, but if he were to replace Mike Greenberg, the comparisons would be inevitable, and I think he would be, rightly or wrongly, on the losing side of them. 


I hope that ESPN finds a good slot for Mike Golic, Sr., who is knowledgeable and lovable.  Mike Golic, Jr.'s lack of success making an NFL team has turned out to be a boost for his media career and for ESPN.  The latter has unearthed a solid talent in his very formative journalistic years.  Mike Jr. is smart and reasonably polished for a young show host.  I am less certain whether pairing him with his father is a good idea.  They both have so much in common that I am less certain whether the show will offer significantly varying perspectives.  This is a high-class problem; both are good.


I suppose that many good runs have to come to an end.  Some might argue that they have run their course; others might argue that this is the evolution of the sports media business.  The latter has to be more accurate in this case.  Mike & Mike is an excellent show, and I wish both Mikes nothing but the best.  They have enriched their audiences for a long run.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Year-end observations and musings

1.  Oh to be Jaromir Jagr and still playing the game you love at the age of 44.

2.  Saw parts of the Kentucky-North Carolina game.  There was a player out there who had some Michael Jordan-esque moves.  Problem for the Tar Heels was that he played for Kentucky.  Name:  Malik Monk.

3.  Bucks have a 6'11 point guard whose last name you cannot pronounce or spell, but he's one of the top players in the NBA.  His name:  Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

4.  If the FCS has an eight-team playoff, why shouldn't the FBS have one? 

5.  Joel Embiid has been worth the wait.  Plays like a combination of Olajuwon and Chamberlain.  Problem is that the 76ers' guards play like another Chamberlain -- Neville.

6.  Dak Prescott is having an amazing year.  No one can take that away from him.  I wonder whether Carson Wentz would have had a similar year if he played behind that line with that running back and those receivers. 

7.  Will someone call the Federal Trade Commission and try to prod the NCAA and SEC to break up the Alabama Crimson Tide?

8.  Gender bias is apparent in sports, period.  Otherwise, how can you explain the relative lack of coverage of the UConn women's basketball team (or, for that matter, my listing this eighth).

9.  Does the English Premier Soccer League give us the rock star athletes like the NBA?  Just asking.  Games are fun to watch, and the crowds are excellent.

10.  If Theo Epstein were to pull off a third miracle after Boston and Chicago, what would the world do for him, give him?  Pretty amazing feats, what with all the attention in both cities.

11.  Will the Warriors smoke everyone in the post-season or will the playoffs expose their lack of depth?  Team isn't as deep as last season, and while that does not matter in the regular season, it might in the playoffs.  I would do everything to pry Nerlens Noel from the 76ers as a back-line stopper on defense.  The kid has game.

12.  Westown School in Pennsylvania has two or three future NBA players on its front line, one of whom has the second largest wingspan in all of organized basketball.  Question is how those players make their way to a league that isn't usually known for its sports.  Schools are good, and perhaps for some boys' hoops is an exception.

13.  Thankfully the Carr football family has found some good fortune.  Older brother David had a great college career and tons of talent, only to have the Texans' o-line perform so badly that he turned himself into a tackling dummy and didn't have the career forecast for him.  Younger brother Derek has found a great situation in Oakland and, as Jon Gruden predicted, is off to a great start in his career.

14.  Will this be Andy Reid's year to win a Super Bowl?  The guy is an excellent coach, yet his team's have been marred by the occasional Achilles' heel over the years.  Last week's failure to beat the Titans at home in the frigid weather revealed that Big Red's team cannot always get it done in the clutch.  It's a long season, and New England and Oakland look formidable.

15.  Saw that Jimmy Rollins signed a minor-league deal with the SF Giants.  Methinks that he and his former teammate, Carlos Ruiz, will manage in the Majors some day.  J-Roll could add a veteran presence and clutch bat to Bruce Bochy's bench.  Speaking of former Phillies, someone should sign Chase Utley.  Guy is a flat-out gamer.

16.  What goes around comes around.  During their great years from say 2007-2011, the Phillies were so popular that they sold out several hundred consecutive games at Citizens Bank Park and that the Nationals and Pirates both advertised in Philadelphia for fans to visit their stadiums during that era.  Phillies' fans got so confident that they waved a banner in D.C. that exclaimed "Citizens Bank Park South."  How the mighty have fallen.

17.  Ivy League men's hoops just aren't the same as they were when Penn and Princeton ruled and that rivalry was riveting and everything.  Sorry, Harvard, but you have taken the fun out of things.

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Wake Forest Football Scandal

Alum becomes assistant coach.  Head coach gets fired.  New head coach doesn't want assistant coach on his staff.  Assistant coach becomes a member of the school's broadcast team.  A good job if one wants to a) stay in Winston-Salem, b) work for his alma mater and c) stay in football so that perhaps he can get another coaching job somewhere some day.

All that makes sense.  Alums don't have some divine right to have a permanent job in some capacity at their alma mater, no matter how much they loved their experience as students.  Football coaching is a meritocracy, to wit:  if you coach for a winner therefore you are a winner and therefore you will continue to be a desired member of a staff.  Conversely, if you coach for a losing team, no matter how good of a coach you might be, well, your job security isn't the same and your desirability on the assistant coaching job market will not be what you want it to be.  It's pretty much that simple.  Sure, you might have been in the wrong job in the wrong place at the wrong time and get resurrected quickly at an equivalent position, especially if you have a mentor who has a need, but that doesn't always happen.  Sometimes, you have to take a step sideways or backward to map out a new path forward.

The Tommy Elrod story started that way.  He was a co-offensive coordinator under the prior head coach and the new guy didn't want him on his staff.  There could have been a lot of reasons, but all that matters is that the new coach should be entitled to hire whomever he wants.  And the new coach, Dave Clawson, did just that.  And Elrod ended up in the broadcast booth. 

And that's when a screw seemingly went loose in Elrod.  I don't need to link to the many stories, but the gist is this -- for some reason, Elrod, who had significant access to the Wake program, took it upon himself on multiple occasions, apparently, to pass along plays to Wake's opponents.  Former players speculated on ESPN that he did this for money; Mike Greenberg wondered aloud whether payments were involved.  What's clear is that if this happened, it's a Benedict Arnold-level treasonous offense in the world of football.  You just do not do that.  That clearly crosses the ethical line if not the legal one. 

The scrutiny right now is on Elrod, but what about the teams that might have taken the Wake plays and done something with them?  What is the accountability for that?  The culpability.  What Elrod did clearly was wrong, but I'd submit that if investigations uncover that other programs willingly took and used the plays that Elrod shared with them to their advantage, then everyone involved in the taking of the secrets should be held accountable.  What should they have done?  Simply said, "not interested" and walked away.  Better yet, they might have called Coach Clawson and told him that this was going on.

What should the consequences be for those programs and people involved?  That's not for me to decide.  My guess is that facts and circumstances will decide the punishment, which could involve termination or suspensions and fines.  This seems to be an unusual and rare situation, but it also must be one that must not be tolerated.

The story is sad, pathetic and hard to believe.  I can understand that Elrod might have felt disappointment and frustration.  And it could have been the case that he didn't like the way he was spoken to.  Perhaps he felt ignored, dismissed, condescended to, or avoided or something else.  Even if he wasn't treated the way he wanted to be, his remedy for the situation was extreme. 

And for that he will need to find work far away from his alma mater and outside the game of football.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Aaargh, Arsenal!

A colleague once advised not to take victory laps.  His reasoning:  because every time you take one, there is someone standing in the shadows near the last quarter turn, waiting to take your knees out with a baseball bat. 

The commenters on NBC Sports Channel the other day made a great point about Chelsea in its lackluster 1-0 win on Sunday against West Brom.  The men in blue could not get much started and only had two shots on goal in the entire match, yet came away with the victory because Diego Costa took advantage of a lone West Brom defensive lapse with about ten minutes left in regulation to win the game.  Afterwards, Robbie Mustoe noted that this is the type of win that leads to championships, because Chelsea were/was not at their/its (note the allocation for English versus American usages) best during the match. 

And that's what good teams do -- they win when not playing their best.  And this is a far different team from the one that Arsenal embarrassed 3-0 at the Emirates several months ago.  Better organized and in a formation that works for them.  And that gets us to. . .  Arsenal.

The Gunners smashed West Ham almost all the way to the English Championship League three matches ago, and followed that pounding with a blasting of Basel in their final match in the Group States in the Champions League and then followed that match with a convincing 3-1 win over Stoke just on Sunday. 

And then they traveled to Everton, a team by all accounts (including that of their manager) in poor form.  The good news was that they took a 1-0 league through a fortuitous result on a free kick by Alexis Sanchez.  But then their lack of defensive depth hurt them.  They have been missing captain Per Mertesacker all year and recently lost Shkrodan Mustafi to a pulled hamstring about a week ago.  And that meant they moved Gabriel Paulista back to his natural center back position (he had been filling in at right back after Hector Bellerin was injured, back-up Matthieu Debuchy got injured and further back-up Carl Jenkinson proved ineffective).  Somehow, the chemistry with acting captain Laurent Koscielny was not there, and Everton scored once right before the end of the first half and four minutes before stoppage time began to seal a much-needed victory at Goodison Park. 

To paraphrase Robbie Mustoe's astute comment after the Chelsea-West Brom match, if Arsenal fails to win the league this season, they'll look to the 0-0 match against Middlesbrough at Emirates and this match as evidence that they were not a championship team.  Because a championship team would have found a way to score against recently promoted Middlesbrough and a championship team would have found a way to beat a downtrodden Everton yesterday.

Don't get me wrong -- this looks to be the best Gunners' team in years.  Arsene Wenger has a find in Alexis Sanchez at striker, Mesut Ozil is picking up where he left off from last year and both Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott are vastly improved from the year before.  The offense is high-powered and in gear.  As for the defense, well, they are not as good as Tottenham, and they miss holding mid Santi Cazorla.  Granit Xhaka has played well in spurts, but he is simple one ill-timed challenge away from a red card.  And the back line, which looked to be settled, has gone through some rough times because of injury and a rough time on Tuesday.

Are the Gunners' chances gone?  Slim?  Fading?

Hardly, as it is just too early. 

But they will need to win the games that they are supposed to -- in addition to the ones they are not -- in order to win the title.  One data point does not make a trend, as the Everton game was just a bad game for them. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The 76ers' Problem with Its Ticket Holders

Ben Simmons broke his foot before the season and is out until at least January.

Nerlens Noel had knee surgery and is out indefinitely, has not played all year.

Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid are on a diet of restricted minutes owing to Okafor's pre-season knee surgery and Embiid's well-chronicled foot malady. 

The team worked hard to sell season ticket plans in the off-season.  Really hard.

It's bad enough to have four high first-round picks out.  What's worse, though, is that Embiid is getting needed rest, sometimes at home.  The tickets aren't cheap, especially not for a product as inept as the 76ers' product has been over the past several years.  It has been inept even to those who trust the process.  If it has not been, then they are lying to themselves.  There is some good basketball on certain nights and at certain times, but on other night it is plum awful.  It's a given that Noel (who doesn't excite the fans) and Simmons (who will) are out for a while.  Okafor seems like a dinosaur out there, a throwback to the days where teams pounded the ball into the post.  The fans are indifferent about him.  Embiid, though, is a different story.

He is everything the fans hoped for.  He is THAT tall, at 7'2".  He can put the ball on the floor.  He can shoot the three, and he is a presence in the paint at both ends of the ball.  Atop that, he plays with a zing, an oomph, a zest, a zeal, well, a personality.  Simmons might have one; Okafor does not, and neither does Noel.  Then again, the latter two might re-develop them after being cogs in Duke Hoops, Inc. and Kentucky Basketball Corporation, where the coaches and the brand take precedence over any individual, even if the individuals have transcending talent. 

Yet, the fans who have ponied up some very good money are looking at a D-League to D-League Plus team on any given night.  True, Okafor is hard to guard in the paint and foreign imports Ilyasova and Saric are good; the former can score and the latter can do a lot of things.  Nick Stauskas might have jump-started his career again, but Robert Covington is a shooter who right now cannot shoot and Gerald Henderson is a well-intentioned journeyman at the two guard position.  Point guards Sergio Rodriguez and T.J. McConnell are back-ups, and Jerryd Bayless is a journeyman too.  Put differently, they scare no one.  Healthy, the team is lopsided and has too many promising, potentially very good bigs.  Injured?  It is more balanced but without consistent appearances from good bigs it is not a good basketball team.

As for the fans, yes, they did pay their money, probably because they trust the process and the potential of Simmons and Embiid particularly is tough to argue with.  That said, they deserve far better than not knowing when Embiid will and will not play and in all likelihood some nice gifts from the 76ers because the fans this year did not sign up for a season without Ben Simmons and for a partial season of Joel Embiid. 

These fans might trust the process, but they are running out of trust for management. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

Nick Saban is Just Wrong about Blake Barnett

Fact:  Top program in country recruits elite players. 

Speculation:  To program in country perhaps recruits too many of them.

Fact:  Only one quarterback can play that position at a time.

Speculation:  Top programs recruit many elite quarterbacks, realizing that not all can handle college, the pressure, their system and that not all improve after high school.

Fact:  Quarterbacks transfer.  Blake Barnett, a five-star recruit out of California, just pulled the plug on his stay at Alabama, will transfer to a junior college and then be eligible to play for an FBS program this time next year should he have the grades and credits.  Read more about his story and Saban's reaction here.

Analysis:  Barnett did not quit in the sense that Saban says he did.  Saban gets the analysis partially right -- the kids do get all sorts of ideas in their heads about how good they are and how much they should be playing.  Heck, the top programs help foster a system that creates a star system among recruits and pumps them up with all sorts of ideas as to what they can achieve at a big-name program.  It's a circular system, in that that's how the big-time programs get these kids -- by pumping them up or underscoring the hype.  Atop that, it used to be the case that the programs had all of the power and that a commitment meant an unbreakable bond between school and kid, even if it turned out that the kid will sit for most of his career because, well, he isn't all that good.  But it also was the case that programs tried to and succeeded to run kids off the team, precisely because they weren't all that good.  Today it's the case that programs cannot offer an unlimited amount of scholarships (they are limited to 85) and that scholarships are one-year renewable, which means that if a kid has a bad year, the team can "non-renew" him and cut him loose without any commitment to his education.  So if a program can do that, what's wrong with Blake Barnett's departure?  Perhaps the timing -- he isn't sticking out the year and he has no promise of a smooth path to a starting job elsewhere -- but that's about it. 

So why is Nick Saban wrong?  Because everyone simply doesn't have to do as he says.  Is it frustrating that a coach "never knows" who will stay and go and therefore a coach is frequently on edge about what his depth chart at QB can be?  Maybe.  But the coach can alleviate that pressure through building solid relationships with his QBs and engaging in meaningful conversations.  That's not to say that Saban didn't try that or do that in his mind, but that's not always the case.  It's hard to think of the term "poor Alabama" in this situation.  The Crimson Tide will get over this setback.  I do feel for the QB, because, well, he's a kid, and kids go through a wide range of thoughts and emotions about major decisions.  It may be that he's not as good as advertised, and it may be that Alabama just isn't a great fit or that he fears he'll sit behind the current starter for way too long.  That's his right, and it's his right to leave.  Besides, why would Saban want him in the locker room if he is this unhappy?  Isn't the goal to provide for the kid's happiness first?

Sorry, Nick, but the kids have very little power as it is.  College football and coaches like you have made it so.  Just remember that in the absence of a greater balance of power, you create a situation where kids can feel too pressured and sometimes squeezed.  Change the system and you might not get a precipitous departure.  Maybe.  At the end of the day, you might have gotten it right -- these are elite prospects who have a lot of people whispering into their ears and who have come to a program like Alabama on a wave of hype, whether it's justified or not.  That's the world you chose, so occasionally you have to realize and come to grips with the fact that it will disappoint you.