Archive for December, 2007

Reasons To Love The Patriots
December 30, 2007

I don’t know if it’s because head coach Bill Belichick is widely perceived as a jerk, or if it’s because men are jealous of Tom Brady (why wouldn’t he date supermodels? Wouldn’t you if you were him?), or if it’s because of lingering hatred for Randy Moss, or if it’s because there are a lot of closet Mercury Morris fans out there, but I couldn’t find too many people who wanted New England to beat the Giants on Saturday night to become the first team in NFL history to go 16-0.

I wanted them to win. I’m glad they did. I’m even happier that both the Patriots and the Giants played an intense, highly competitive, and highly entertaining game when neither team needed the victory.

Well, you get the sense that Belichick would play Brady and Moss for four quarters if the Patriots were playing in a charity game against the ladies of The View. But give credit to Giants coach Tom Coughlin for giving it everything his team had to stop the Patriots from making history.

Everything the Giants had wasn’t enough of course. Nor is everything any other team has, which is why this NFL postseason is shaping up to be one of the least compelling in recent memory. Everyone knows the routine: The Pats and Colts will play in the AFC Championship Game, which everyone will refer to as “the real Super Bowl.” Then the Pats will whip the Cowboys in one of the most lopsided Super Bowls since the 49ers schooled the Broncos in Super Bowl 24 to the tune of 55-10. (Yeah, I know, you’re saying, “what about the Packers?” Well, I’m not picking them to beat the Cowboys again after what happened last month.)

But getting back to why I wanted the Pats to win Saturday: No one else had gone 16-0 before. It’s that simple. (Yeah, I know, the ’72 Dolphins went undefeated too. This is different. This is four more regular season games in a parity era. Besides, I was only a year old when Csonka and Griese went unbeaten. Suffice it to say that it didn’t make much of an impact on me.)

Isn’t that one of the things we look for in sports? Something has hasn’t happened yet? For the same reason that I cursed Brian Billick for his moronic play calls that denied the Dolphins the opportunity to become the first team to go 0-16 in a NFL season, I applauded every Brady to Moss bomb and every Brady to Welker slant. Because I wanted to witness something that not only hadn’t ever happened, but something that likely won’t ever happen again. Hey, it’s tough enough to get to 10 wins in the NFL (just ask Jon Kitna), but 16-0? Amazing.

So, even as I recognize that they have more work to do — 16-0 won’t mean so much if it doesn’t end in 19-0, which it will — I want to congratulate the Patriots on their tremendous run.

Need some convincing to get over to the Patriots camp? How about this: Bill Belichick is a big Bon Jovi fan. Don’t tell me you don’t have “Bad Medicine” on your iPod. Or this: Linebacker Roosevelt Colvin attended the same high school as David Letterman (no, not at the same time: linebackers don’t play into their sixties). Wait, this will make it easy: Every time Randy Moss catches a pass (and he catches a lot of them), Minnesota Viking fans everywhere pop blood vessels in their eyes in anger over the fact that their team let him leave town. That’s gotta be a good enough reason to appreciate the Patriots, isn’t it?

Five Reasons Why Badgers Will Beat Volunteers
December 28, 2007

If you’re a stat lover, you probably agree with the current Vegas odds that have pegged the Tennessee Volunteers the favorite over the Wisconsin Badgers in this year’s Outback Bowl.

The Volunteers had by far the tougher road to the Outback Bowl, playing what was statistically the nation’s 14th toughest schedule while in the Southeastern Conference — statistically the nation’s single toughest conference. Conversely, the Badgers had a veritable waltz to the January 1st bowl game, taking on the nation’s 54th toughest schedule while mired in the Big Ten, only the nation’s sixth toughest conference (blame those lousy Gophers for diluting the Big Ten gene pool).

The Volunteers’ apparent road to victory becomes even smoother when looking at the offensive numbers put up by the two teams: Tennessee ranked 30th in points scored per game (33.4), while the Badgers ranked 47th (30.5). Tennessee’s passing attack was 43rd in the nation with 258 yards a game, while Wisconsin’s came in at 68th in the nation with 229.8 yards per game. Erik Ainge, the Volunteers’ senior quarterback, had a completion percentage five points higher than Wisconsin’s Tyler Donovan while throwing for over 700 yards more and scoring 13 more touchdowns than Donovan. Even Wisconsin’s dominance over Tennessee in the running game — 201.5 yards per game to 144.6 yards per game — could arguably be thrown out if Wisconsin’s sophomore sensation P.J. Hill is unable to play due to a nagging leg injury he suffered against Indiana back on October 27.

But I say leave the numbers for those crazy crime-fightin’ mathematicians that inhabit CBS Friday nights. The Wisconsin Badgers will beat the Tennessee Volunteers to win their third straight bowl game.

Why will Bret Bielema go 1-0 on New Year’s Day 2008? Let us count the ways:

1. Tennessee Letdown. The Volunteers were ten minutes away from beating LSU in the SEC Championship game and earning a BCS bid when Tennessee’s Erik Ainge decided to start throwing picks. The most crucial of his two late interceptions was obviously the first, which was returned by LSU cornerback Jonathan Zenon for the go-ahead score. So LSU punches its ticket to the BCS Championship game, and Tennessee gets tagged for the comparatively minor Outback Bowl. Now the Volunteers will have had a month to get over getting so close to the BCS, but undoubtedly the disappointment will linger as players ponder what could have been a much higher profile end to their season. On the other side, the Badgers started out the 2007 season with higher aspirations than the Outback Bowl, but after the team’s 38-7 spanking by Penn State on October 13, the team will be excited about playing on New Year’s Day.

2. Tennessee Downgraded. Heathcliff Huxtable would not approve of the poor grades some of the Tennessee Volunteers are bringing home. And neither does the NCAA, ruling six of the team’s players academically ineligible for the Outback Bowl. Among the players sitting this one out: Leading Tennessee receiver Lucas Taylor (73 catches for 1,000 yards) and linebacker Rico McCoy, who is second on the team with 106 tackles. Unless Taylor and McCoy can take a cue from Theo Huxtable and have themselves diagnosed with learning disabilities, their absences will surely be felt on both sides of the ball for the Volunteers.

3. Tennessee Abandoned. This month Volunteers offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe accepted the head football coaching job at Duke University, and uncertainty is swirling among Volunteers coaches and players as speculation mounts over whom on the Tennessee staff Cutcliffe plans to take with him. Cutcliffe is well-known for mentoring both Peyton Manning while previously with Tennessee and then his brother Eli while the head coach at Ole Miss (well, one out of two ain’t bad), and his departure is bound to have repercussions for the Volunteers. At the very least a distraction for Tennessee heading into the Outback Bowl.

4. Tennessee Bowled Over. Despite Tennessee’s regular season success under head coach Phillip Fulmer (146-45 since 1992), the Volunteers have been only a mediocre 7-7 in bowl games, including last year’s upset at the hands of an unranked Penn State team. In contrast, the Badgers have been largely impressive in their bowl appearances, going 9-3 under Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema since 1994, including two straight victories over favored SEC opponents in the Capital One Bowl. Unfortunately, two of the three recent Badger bowl defeats have come in the Outback Bowl (2005 and 1998).

5. Tennessee Passover / Tennessee Runover. Even if P.J. Hill is unable to play due to injury, the Badgers should have little trouble putting up points against a surprisingly porous Tennessee defense that ranks at or near the bottom of the SEC in pretty much every category. Look for Tyler Donovan, Travis Beckum, and, if Hill can’t go, Zach Brown and Lance Smith to have big games. Of course, the Badgers defense have had their own struggles this year; the good news is the Badgers have shown that they can win the wild ones (Michigan State, Minnesota), so go ahead and throw out any notion that Wisconsin has to play a grind-it-out, time-of-possession style game to win. That idea is as antiquated as my old Atari 800 computer that my parents insist on keeping (but if you don’t mind waiting 45 minutes for it to load on a cassette player, a game of Jumpman makes an excellent diversion around the holidays).

So there you have it. Five good reasons why the Wisconsin Badgers will ring in 2008 with another bowl victory. And should the Badgers lose, the good news is the game will be over in plenty of time (set the alarm — kickoff is at 10 a.m. local time) to catch most of the New Year’s Day Beverly Hillbillies marathon on TV Land. Nothing says “Auld Lang Syne” like Buddy Ebsen.

Happy New Year!

The Mitchell Report. Ho-Hum.
December 16, 2007

In one of Seinfeld‘s final season episodes, Elaine learned that her on-again, off-again boyfriend David Puddy wears a fur coat. Even though in an earlier episode, the character of Elaine had angrily confronted a woman who wore fur, by the ninth season, her reaction had diluted to “eh, anti-fur. I mean, who has the energy anymore.”

Substitute “steroids” for “anti-fur” and you have my reaction to the Mitchell Report.

Senator George Mitchell spent two years and $20 million compiling the 409-page report. What the money and time was spent on I have no idea, as Sen. Mitchell could only secure interviews with two active players, proving that Sen. Mitchell could never get a job as a talent booker on Live with Regis and Kelly. In fact, it appears that most of Sen. Mitchell’s findings were courtesy of an interview with former New York Mets clubhouse employee Kirk Radomski. Couldn’t Sen. Mitchell have just taken Radomski out to lunch and saved about $19,999,975 dollars, even more if Radomski, like the aforementioned David Puddy, was a fan of Arby’s?

Once past the titillation of seeing Roger Clemens, Miguel Tejada, Andy Pettitte, and new Milwaukee Brewer Eric Gagne named as players alleged to have been doping up, what does the Mitchell Report leave us with? The findings that the use of steroids and HGH have been an ongoing reality in baseball, that the use of such performing enhancing substances is “wrong,” and that “the entire baseball community” has ignored the problem for a long time. Again, it took two years and $20 million to find this out? What mysteries of the world would Sen. Mitchell have uncovered if given another $20 million to spend? That eating fast food on a regular basis can make you overweight? That drinking excessively can make you act like a moron? That Hall was really the driving creative force behind Hall and Oates?

I’m not saying this is a good thing, but anyone over the age of four knows that performing enhancing drugs are a fact of life in virtually all professional sports and certainly not just baseball. And to a large extent we don’t care. The proliferation of sports talk shows, growing attendance figures, and solid TV ratings proves that. Major League Baseball and the National Football League, the two sports most dogged by reports of ongoing steroid and HGH use, are stronger than ever. In many ways, our indifference makes us all somewhat culpable for the rampant cheating “uncovered” by Sen. Mitchell.

So why don’t we care? Well, I think it boils down to two issues. One is the simple matter of when compared with crimes perpetrated by other athletes, the severity of doing steroids is lessened. Would you rather have your daughter date Andy Pettitte, who claims to have used HGH twice (before it was even banned by baseball) to help recover from an elbow injury, or Michael Vick, who admitted to putting dogs to death as part of a dogfighting operation that he bankrolled? Do reports of steroid use really make you as upset as reports of professional athletes involved in shoot-ups at strip clubs?

The second issue is that we’ve long since blurred the line between sports and entertainment. People by and large don’t really see much difference anymore between an athlete who juices and a musician or actor who relies on substances — legal or illegal — to perform. We giggle when a TV or movie star is arrested for being caught with the wrong thing at the wrong time, but would that alone stop most of us from going to a movie or watching a TV show that that person was involved in? No. So why should baseball fans be expected to respond to the Mitchell Report by not attending games or watching them on TV? They shouldn’t be, and they won’t. Any boos or heckling that Eric Gagne might face when he first takes the mound for the Milwaukee Brewers will quickly fade if he regains his 2002-2004 form. And those cheering for him will likely not let any lingering questions of whether he’s “clean” or not dampen their enthusiasm.

If the Mitchell Report helps to clean up baseball — and let’s not kid ourselves, no professional sport will ever be completely clean any more than any Kevin Trudeau book will ever be completely credible — then it will have at least been worth some of its gross expense. I certainly would prefer my favorite athletes to be more Lyle Overbay and less Lyle Alzado. But for now the Mitchell Report seems like the biggest waste of paper since Chuck Norris’s autobiography. And about half as significant.

Other Stuff Besides Football
December 5, 2007

Well, with nearly a week gone by since the debacle in Dallas/disaster in Dallas/devastation in Dallas/tragedy in Texas and still several days until the Packers thump the Oakland Raiders — on WISC-TV, no less — it’s time to look at other sports besides football. I know that this time of year I get to be a little myopic in my sports view, so I’ll try to correct that with at least a cursory glance of sports not played with a spherical ball.

But first I need to address something I saw this morning. And I need to precede this with the reminder that my opinions here in this blog are not reflective of the opinions of WISC-TV management, its media partners, sponsors, cable or satellite carriers, or viewers. Now then: One of the fine television stations in Madison is broadcasting a promotion — what we in the business call a “proof of performance” — congratulating itself on its coverage of the snow we had on Saturday, December 1. The spot includes the requisite shots of reporters standing out in the snow, meteorologists standing in front of graphics that read “snow,” etc. What’s most interesting is the spot’s snide boast that during all of this, “the other stations had football,” implying that the station running this spot was the only station in town aware that the snow was newsworthy.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. All it really means is the station running the spot happens to be affiliated with a network that has let its sports division become a laughing stock that prides itself on coverage of fringe sports like poker and something called Championship Off-Road Racing (or “racer-tainment” as its Web site claims). As such, the station, unlike the other two major network affiliates in town, had no network sports obligations in the 5 PM time period and — shocker of shocks — filled its regularly scheduled 5 PM newscast with — wait for it — news! Wow, no wonder the pride is showing. Anyway, the station in question is basically criticizing the other stations in town for fulfilling their network obligations by airing college football games of major BCS importance when in reality if it was affiliated with a network with a real sports division it would have been only too happy to do the same thing. So I’d hold off awarding them a Edward R. Murrow Award for now.

OK, enough of that. Let’s talk baseball. Lots of comings and goings for the Milwaukee Brewers in the past few weeks, some good and some bad. Obviously bad was the departure of Francisco Cordero, who with 44 saves and only six blown ones, was about as dependable a performer as the Brewers had. Worse was the fact that Cordero went to divisional foe Cincinnati; although Cincinnati seems far from a championship team, in a division as tight as the NL Central, sometimes it takes just one or two key players to make a big difference. Along with the less-devastating loss of Scott Linebrink, the Brewers now have a very questionable bullpen. Granted, the acquisition of David Riske will help — Riske actually posted a lower ERA than either Cordero or Linebrink in 2007 — but with Derrick Turnbow still struggling with control issues, what was a strength of the Brewers is now more of a question mark.

A change in the catcher position, however, has much more potential for success. Whereas the departed Johnny Estrada backed up his mediocre play with an attitude that alienated him from his teammates and his manager, newly-signed Jason Kendall is sounding like a guy thankful for the fresh start the Brewers are giving him. Whereas his 2007 campaign was disappointing, there is no reason to believe the three-time All Star isn’t poised for a bounceback year. Plus, he has postseason experience (which we all hope continues this year) and his overall experience should be a real plus for a young team that lost veteran leadership when Geoff Jenkins’s contract was not renewed.

Well, I’m running out of time here. Let’s see: Bucks, after posting impressive wins against the Lakers, Mavericks, and Cavaliers, are already coming back down to earth. Men’s basketball, looks poised for another tournament run. Women’s basketball, not quite living up to preseason expectations but Janese Banks is playing well. And, oh yeah, Carl Renezeder has won every single Championship Off-Road Racing Event ever held. But you knew that.