Archive for February, 2009

Odds Of Probability
February 22, 2009

Well, it’s been 10 days since my last post. 10 days is not a lot of time to take off between haircuts or oil changes, but a 10-day break can be considered an eternity in the blogosphere.  

I haven’t been vacationing or rehabilitating from an injury, I’ve been busily fulfilling my duties as part of WISC-TV “DTV Phone Bank,” which was set up early this week to help answer questions from WISC-TV viewers confused or otherwise irritated with the long-in-coming sign-off of WISC-TV’s analog signal. I feared that my days this week would be filled with endless streams of people shouting obscenities at me, which to be honest I get enough of at home.

I was partially right: The calls came at a steady pace, keeping me from other duties (such as this blog), but with one single exception, everyone I spoke to was extremely polite and friendly, despite the fact that many of them had lost their ability to see Oprah, Dr. Phil, and David Letterman. Part of this I credit to my excellent people skills (hey, to know me is to love me) and part of this I credit to the times we’re living in. I think that when people are constantly bombarded with depressing news about layoffs, home foreclosures, and Ponzi schemes, they might feel a little silly about complaining about needing to spend $50 to upgrade their antenna so they can watch the latest season of Survivor. In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed my “Phone Bank” experience and will be forever grateful that I didn’t have to talk to this guy:  http://www.ksdk.com/news/local/story.aspx?storyid=167900.

Now back to sports. In these economically turbulent times, community plays a greater role: As life becomes less predictable, people strive for the comfort of others. They relish in joining together to celebrate heroes (the flight crew of US Airways 1549), to tear down enemies (the octuplet mom, Alex Rodriguez), and to strive for common goals. Wisconsin sports fans have a few goals in mind this month. Let’s look at them and look at how obtainable they are:

1. Getting the Badgers back to the NCAA tournament for the eleventh straight season.About a month ago, I bet a work colleague (a small amount, as Daniel Negreanu I am not) that the Badgers would miss the big dance. I am happy to report that I will lose that bet.  Even if the Badgers lose Sunday at Michigan State (likely, but far from a sure thing) and March 4 at Minnesota (but I like the Badgers to beat the fading Gophers), the Badgers will be one of the six Big Ten teams in the tournament. Bo Ryan putting Jon Leuer in the starting line-up over Keaton Nankivil has been key, but most of the credit has to go to the inspired play of Joe Krabbenhoft, Trevon Hughes, and Marcus Landry. All three have been terrific in the current winning streak, particularly Krabbenhoft, who has just been a bruiser down low, grabbing 31 rebounds and knocking in 60 points in the last five games. Hughes has recovered from a tough patch to play smart and punishing defense (the buzz on Jordan Taylor has likewise cooled), and Landry has been the Badgers’ best consistent scorer (Jason Bohannon is perhaps a more exciting offensive player, but that doesn’t always translate into more points).

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has no fewer than eight — eight! — Big Ten teams in his bracket posted on February 20 (http://sports.espn.go.com/ncb/bracketology) and while I wouldn’t personally argue that all of those eight teams are worthy, I think that’s simply too many for a historically maligned conference, even one that is having a terrifically competitive and thrilling season. I would leave Michigan (who could easily lose their last three games) and Minnesota (who have lost  four of their last five) out. Lunardi has Wisconsin as a Number Nine seed, which sounds about right. I might as well pony up that $10 right now. Odds of probability: 90%

2. The Badger men’s hockey team bringing home the McNaughton Cup.What a roller-coaster year it’s been for the hockey Badgers. A winless October, followed by a one-loss combined November and December, the team has only gone 6-6 in 2009, with all of those losses — all of them — coming at the Kohl Center. Coming into this past weekend’s series with Denver, Mike Eaves’s team had a chance to control their own destiny. Now after being swept, including Saturday’s spirit-crushing 5-0 rout, the 13th-ranked Badgers need to establish more realistic goals: Having home-ice advantage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs and making the NCAA tournament. Odds of probability: 5%

3. Ending the Lisa Stone era.OK, it’s a little cruel to suggest that someone losing their job should be anyone’s goal — unless that person is Octo-mon’s  fertility doctor — but clearly Badger Nation would love to see Stone rolling on. The Badgers have finished on average seventh in the Big Ten since Stone’s arrival, and this year could be Stone’s worst: Coming into Sunday’s home finale against Michigan State, the team has lost 10 of 13 games, their defense is allowing about 62 points a game over the last eight contests, and the Badgers are struggling to shoot anywhere near 40 percent from the field. Oh, and attendance at home games is about as strong as Pink Panther 2‘s chances of sweeping next year’s Oscars. Odds of probability: 75%.

4. Getting the Brewers back to the playoffs in 2009. It may seem a little early to be looking ahead to October, but it’s not too early to spectulate on the Brewers’ chances of repeating their 2008 success. After all, they start spring training play on Wednesday.

A friend of mine wondered out loud why the buzz was off the Brewers; after all, he argued, last year they were picked by many to make the playoffs and they are going into the season with basically the same roster. Well, “basically” is the sticking point. The Brewers should be fine offensively, but they wouldn’t have made the playoffs last year without the mid-season addition of C.C. Sabathia and they might not have been in the position to acquire Sabathia without the work of Ben Sheets, who went 10-2 in the first part of the season. (Not to mention they needed the Mets to take their second-straight nosedive.) Now both Sheets and Sabathia are gone, and the pressure is on the Brewers starting rotation. Gallardo coming back is huge, but he and newly-acquired Braden Looper can hardly be expected to adequately replace CC and Sheets. The Brewers will continue to draw the fans, but they won’t go home as happy. Odds of probability: 40%.

So Long, Brett
February 11, 2009

By informing the New York Jets of his plan to retire on Wednesday, Brett Favre is making the right decision for himself.

But is it his final decision?

In recent years Brett Favre has been as definitive about playing football or not as Oprah Winfrey has been definitive about being thin or not. Throughout last year’s ridiculous soap opera, Favre’s state of mind seemed about as stable as Circuit City stock.

But as much as I was convinced last year that Favre was leaving the game too early, I am just as convinced now that Favre is leaving the game at the right time. His numbers last year weren’t horrible, although his play declined sharply in December due in no small part to a torn biceps tendon, an injury that he apparently will not get surgery to repair.

But it was clear from the beginning that Favre and New York were as stellar a pairing as Dan Rather and Connie Chung (do you like my timely references?). He clearly did not get along with his coach or his teammates, a fact that became very public immediately after the Jets 1-4 finish (a stretch that saw Favre throw nine interceptions and only two touchdowns) saw terminally average running back Thomas Jones saying that Favre should have been benched and another anonymous player saying that Favre was distant from the rest of the team. Hey, with “teammates” like Jones, can you blame Favre for distancing himself?

So unlike last year, when he was coming off a solid comeback year and found himself thisclose to playing in the Super Bowl, it’s now time for Favre to go. And thankfully it looks like Favre has decided to deprive us all from another retirement news conference; his overwhelming display of emotion last March at what turned out to be a fraudulent gathering is still – like the Casey Kasem American Top 40 “dead dog” rant – played to heavy ridicule on radio programs nationwide.

What is unfortunate for Packer fans is that Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy deprived us of experiencing Brett Favre’s final season here in Wisconsin. I know he waited years to get his chance, but was Aaron Rodgers’s first season – 6-10 with 5 losses in the final six games – so memorable that it couldn’t have waited one more year? Haven’t you wondered about the likelihood that Favre could have bailed out the Packers’ lousy defense by providing the team with two or three game-winning drives in those close losses, something that Rodgers didn’t have the game experience to do?

Brett, the Packers and their fans missed you in 2008, and all of football will miss you in 2009 and beyond. It’s been an incredible ride.

Just don’t come back again, OK?

February. Why This Year Is Different. Maybe.
February 9, 2009

Most Februaries, I’m depressed. Since February is the worst month of the sports calendar, there’s not a lot — outside of the new editions of Survivor and The Amazing Race — to look forward to. (And last year, we didn’t even get a new TAR, but we did get a new Big Brother, which as always was simultaneously horrifying and marvelous.)

But February 2009 looks like it’ll be different. I’m not saying that sports-wise it’s going to compete with this year’s March or October, but there are definitely some intriguing things going on. Here’s what’s what:

1. Badger men’s basketball. I’ll admit that on January 31, when the Badgers lost their sixth straight to Northwestern, I had pretty much given up hope. But their back-to-back impressive wins against Illinois and Penn State have given Badger fans a little glimmer of hope.

The Illinois win was  impressive because the Badgers offense finally came to life (well, except for TrevonHughes, and even he was great defensively in that game), avoiding those long droughts that plagued them for the month of January. The Penn State game was if anything more impressive because of their defense, as they held a high-scoring team to only 37 percent field goal shooting — heck, Joe Krabbenhoft scored as many points as Talor Battle, the Big Ten’s leading scorer.

If the Big Ten keeps eating each other alive — and there is no indication that it won’t, as Illinois beat Purdue Sunday, and Iowa and Ohio State beat higher-ranked opponents Northwestern and Minnesota Saturday — there is no reason why the Badgers, with at least five very winnable games in its final seven, can’t sneak in to the field of 64. Especially if Marcus Landy, Jason Bohannon, and Jon Leuer can continue their dominance on the boards and keep making a high percentage of their shots. (All three shot 50 percent or better the last two games.)

And that’s what on some level makes this February more interesting: Can the Badgers, whose participation in March Madness most of us had started to take for granted, make a run at their 11th straight tourney bid now that they are suddenly one of the underdogs of the conference? Stay tuned, starting Wednesday night at home against Iowa.

2. Badger hockey. Going into its bye week, the men’s team is tied for the WCHA lead with 28 points. And this after getting off to a 0-4-1 start. Next on the Badgers’ schedule? Co-WCHA leader Denver at home with the conference lead on the line. So the Kohl Center should be rocking come February 20 (a game you can see live on My Madison TV! Got to get the plugs in!).  And don’t forget about the women’s team, which is only one point out of first place with two seemingly easy series left to play. Could another championship be looming?

3. The Michael Phelps saga. While it’s true that Phelps is only 23 and maybe should be cut some slack being caught indulging in the sort of behavior that many 23-year-olds indulge in, it’s also true that he long ago traded in his right to live as a “normal” kid or young man. That’s what you lose for that $5 million (a conservative estimate) in annual endorsement money.

But people get upset about Michael Phelps because of his supposed standing as a “role model.” Well, who’s a bigger role model to most kids, Michael Phelps or Lil Wayne? My guess would be that most kids would rather live the life of a Grammy Award-winning music superstar over a Olympic-champion swimmer, and the music superstar is allowed to pontificate on his love of marijuana on a CBS primetime network special without seemingly anyone coming down too hard on him.

The photographic evidence that Michael Phelps enjoys weed (at least on one occasion) is hardly going to rock American youth to its core. (Now if it was revealed that the feud between T.I. and Lil’ Flip was all staged, then you’d have rioting in the streets.)

4. The A-Rod saga. The most memorable thing for me in all of this will likely turn out to be that great New York Post headline (“A-Hole”). If that headline doesn’t single-handedly save the struggling newspaper industry, then what will? But really, another day, another baseball superstar admits to steroid use. Ho hum. The real criminals in all of this are the leaders of Major League Baseball, who did nothing about the steroid problem until they were forced to. You can’t wipe away the records from the “steroid era,” but there’s not much that’s been accomplished over the last several years that’s not in question. I personally don’t think less of A-Rod today than I did last week. And the fact that there was no reported evidence of him using anything last week says all you need to know about how much I trust any baseball player of the modern era.

More Super Bowl Chatter
February 2, 2009

Did you know that if you write a sports blog in the United States of America, it’s a federal offense NOT to do a Super Bowl wrap-up column? Apparently the same laws apply to celebrity journalists who don’t cover a star’s sudden weight gain and to VH1 programmers who don’t exploit a fallen celebrity’s drug addiction.

Anyway, I don’t want to go to the pokey. Not again. So here’s my list of Super Bowl observations.

1. After Pittsburgh completely dominated the opening quarter, I feared a rout was on. It looked as if Arizona’s defense had reverted to its regular-season mode and that the Cardinals potent offense was no match for the Steelers’ potent defense. The only thing that stopped me from paying even more attention to my son’s attempts to conquer Super Mario on his DS was Arizona’s impressive goal line stand that ended with Roethlisberger’s touchdown being reversed.

2.  How did someone not catch James Harrison on that 100-yard runback? I think most of the Cardinals on the field were certain that he was just going to collapse somewhere around the Cardinals’ 20-yard-line and just didn’t bother trying to tackle him. Kind of like how I’ve stopped chasing after my dog when he gets loose. He’s old. I just wait for him to get tired and then go over and get him.  Gives me time to put my pants on.

3. For a game that many are rightly calling one of the best in Super Bowl history, it had two quarters — the first and the third — that were pretty dull.  The lone highlight of the third quarter was the Cardinals’ Adrian Wilson boneheaded tackling of holder Mitch Berger on that field goal. I hope Berger didn’t crush his Snickers bar on the tackle. (When punting for the Vikings, announcers used to always comment on how Berger always kept a Snickers candy bar in his shoe. It was the one factoid broadcasters had on him and they used it to death. Like how announcers always had to remind us how Badgers forward Mark Vershaw was the only married player in the Big Ten.)

4. That final Santonio Holmes touchdown was eerily reminiscent of the Cardinal touchdown that Nate Poole scored to beat the Minnesota Vikings in the final game of the 2003 season that sent the Packers to the playoffs, where Green Bay beat the Seahawks in the infamous “we’ll take the ball and we’re going to score” game. It would work a lot better as an example of karma if the Cardinals had knocked the Steelers out of the playoffs instead of the Vikings, but I just thought I’d throw that sparkling moment of Viking futility out there for the enjoyment of all Packers fans. I aim to please.

5. Yes, I know that Super Bowl MVPs basically never — never — come from the losing teams and that Santonio Holmes was incredible on that last drive. But to me, Holmes wasn’t as overall impressive as either Larry Fitzgerald or Kurt Warner. And probably not as impressive as his quarterback either.

6. The Steelers allowed the Cardinals to gain 407 offensive yards with an average of 7.1 yards per play. That’s almost enough to throw out that old “defense wins championships” axiom, until you remember, that, oh yeah, that James Harrison play that resulted in a 14-point swing was the difference in the game. So defense remains sort of important.

7. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was the defensive coordinator under Vikings head coach Brad Childress. Sort of like Martin Scorsese being the editor of a movie directed by Jim Belushi.

8. Maybe I just paid more attention this year, or maybe the tough economic times inspired ad agencies to be more creative, but the ads seemed better to me. I laughed everytime the boss yelled “hey, dummy” to his subordinate in the careerbuilder.com ad. You can’t beat relatable humor. And I don’t care what the context, Ed McMahon, MC Hammer, and Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” are always funny.

9. A free Grand Slam at Denny’s? Sounds good until you remember that “free” doesn’t always equal “good.” (Hey, Denny’s isn’t a sponsor of Channel 3000, are they? If so, it’s just for the bit. I love Denny’s as my wife can attest. The grand slam with the hamburger AND the hot dog is my favorite.)

10. Springsteen was good, but my guess is that if you were against him doing the Super Bowl in the first place, you didn’t like it. It was all very upbeat and show-bizzy, with more shtick and eye candy (a referee, a gospel choir, and more pyrotechnics than a Rhythm and Booms show) than you’d ever see at a regular Springsteen show, especially one of his solo shows where audience members are threatened to be thrown out if they should feel the need to clear their throat or sneeze during somber tunes like “Matamoras Banks.”

11. Al Michaels and John Madden are the best. NBC/Universal was pretty shrewd to get them from ABC just for the rights to that 1920s rabbit cartoon. Whoever negotiated that deal for NBC should be given a raise; whoever concocted that moronic “Feelin’ Alright” promo should be demoted to contestant booker for Telemundo’s dating game show 12 Corazones.