Archive for April, 2009

NFL Draft: The Packers, The North, The Badgers
April 26, 2009

I’m a much better father than I am a husband. Although I believe that on many levels the roles are intertwined, my kids are the major benefactors of whatever generosity and kindness I can manage to scrounge together.

So when the timing hit for my wife to be invited to a party on Saturday afternoon on the same weekendthat my parents would be in town to watch our kids, there was really no way out for me. I had to put on my husband pants and accompany my wife to the party. Only it wasn’t really a party. It was a co-ed baby shower, the social equivalent for most males to getting their scrotum caught in a paper shredder. Right in the middle of the opening day of the NFL Draft, which is, after MLB’s opening day, the best sports day of the spring.

But I reasoned that I wouldn’t be the only male at the party more interested in following the NFL draft than in playing “name the baby animal.” I figured that the host of the party, whom I admittedly didn’t know well, would greet all men at the door with an “I’m sorry, this was the only day that we could do this” pat on the back, a barley pop, and directions to a widescreen HDTV tuned to ESPN.

I was wrong. I didn’t hear the draft mentioned once. There was no TV tuned to ESPN or NFL Network or anything else. (I found out towards the end of the party that the hosts don’t have cable or satellite and the only television I saw was one that most self-respecting TV lovers like myself would confine to a bathroom, garage, or shed.) There was no barley pops; only a lukewarm 2-liter of Coke. I quickly accepted my fate and resisted the urge to get draft updates via the iPhone that my wife kept in her front jeans pocket so as to avoid an argument later. (That strategy didn’t work — I still had the argument, for reasons too convoluted to get into here.) 

So I missed live coverage of the 2009 NFL Draft. But if I were superstitious, I would make it a point to miss it every year. Because the Green Bay Packers avoided the head-scratching moves of the last two drafts and actually had a stellar opening day. GM Ted Thompson successfully fought his tendency to draft the so-called “best player available” and went with Boston College nose tackle B.J. Raji instead of Texas Tech standout wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who was then immediately snapped up by the San Francisco 49ers with the very next pick. While Crabtree should fulfill 49ers head coach Mike Singletary’s oft-repeated cry for “winners,” Raji, at 6′ 11″ and 323 pounds, should fulfill the Packers’ need for run stoppers (105 tackles at BC) in Dom Capers’s new 3-4 scheme. Raji has also provento be an effective pass rusher, with 12.5 sacks in his college career, eight of those coming in 2008 alone.

Thompson then did something even more out-of-character: he traded up to get USC linebacker Clay Matthews in the second round with the 26th overall pick. It was the first time since 1993 the Packers had two first-round picks and the first time in five years that Thompson has not traded down to get more picks. While there are some concerns that Matthews lacks experience — he started only 10 games in his USC career — Matthews was a key piece in the nation’s best scoring defense (9.0 points per game) in 2008. And Matthews, the son of former NFL linebacker Clay Matthews Jr. and nephew of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, has football in his blood. Like Raji, Matthews could see significant playing time in his rookie season.

So who is this “Ted Thompson impersonator,” as Wisconsin State Journal columnist Tom Oates so accurately labeled him after Saturday’s sensible need-based picks? Well, it’s pretty simple — he’s a man who, perhaps for the first time, realizes that he is in charge of a team that has real problems, and not a team that can sleepwalk its way to the top of the improving NFC North. When told that his Saturday picks were not met with boos by fans attending the draft party at Lambeau Field, Thompson joked that Packer Nation was getting “soft.” No, Ted, you’re getting smart. You’ve taken a lot of blame lately for questionable decisions. Feel free to take credit for what appears to be two very sound draft picks.

Whereas the Packers had the most solid first day of any NFC North team, they clearly did not make the biggest splash in the division.  The Bears, by virtue of the Jay Cutler trade, and the Lions, by virtue of having the first overall pick, made sure of that. But it is a much surer bet that — assuming they sign — the Packers will get their money’s worth from Raji and Matthews than the Bears or particularly the Lions will get their money’s worth from their new very expensive franchise quarterbacks.

The Vikings raised many eyebrows by drafting Florida wide receiver Percy Harvin with the 22nd overall pick. While I join others in questioning Harvin’s maturity level (testing positive for drugs at the NFL combine is beyond stupidity, since players know in advance they will be tested), my main issue withthe Vikings’ first-round pick relates to their quarterback situation. Harvin could well be the finest receiver of this year’s draft class, but if a team doesn’t have a dependable quarterback — and the Vikings don’t — then using a first-round pick on a receiver seems as sound an investment as a high school kid buying a gross of condoms when he has no girlfriend and no prospects. As long as the Vikings have Tavaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels as their quarterbacks, they will never see Harvin reach his potential.

It will be interesting to see which if any of the four Badgers drafted will be able to reach their potential in the NFL. While offensive lineman Kriag Urbik is clearly going to the best team — Pittsburgh — I look for Travis Beckum, if he can stay healthy — to fit in very well with the Giants. Poor Matt Shaughnessy (Raiders) and DeAndre Levy (Lions), though: Hopefully they can ride out their time with the NFL bottom-feeders and get traded along the line to better teams. Ain’t nobody in the NFL reaching their potential in Oakland and Detroit.

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As I Write . . .
April 19, 2009

As I write, Jeff Suppan has just finished an incredibly not-too-awful outing for the Milwaukee Brewers. Yes, he gave up eight hits over six innings against the New York Mets, but he only allowed one run and more impressively, only walked one batter. In doing so, he sliced his ERA from 12.91 to 7.90. I guess that one extra day of rest really did work. Now if the Brewers could start scoring some runs . . .

As I write, I’m wondering if the strategy employed by the Brewers to try to help Jeff Suppan would work at all for struggling Yankees starter Chien-Ming Wang. Wang was tagged for a whopping eight runs on Saturday in only 1-1/3 innings as Cleveland bombed the Bronx Bombers 22-4 at New York’s swanky new Yankee Stadium. But apparently Yankee manager Joe Girardi isn’t concerned about Wang or his 34.50 ERA, saying of Saturday’s shelling that ” I thought he threw more good sinkerballs today.” Hey, Girardi, the only people that thought anything Wang threw was good were the Indians batters. If I was managing a team that had just moved into a $1.5 billion ballpark and it had been outscored 37-12 in its first three games there, I would be a tad more upset. Like Christian Bale-Ozzie Guillen-Casey Kasem upset. Because I would know my job was suddenly in danger.

As I write, I’m still struggling to come to terms with how I feel about John Madden’s surprise retirement. On the one hand, I love to hear Madden do a game: I find him extremely knowledgeable, free of crap, and immensely entertaining. On the other hand, I take a great deal of satisfaction in knowing that insufferable “comedian” Frank Caliendo’s stock has dropped even further — Caliendo’s two biggest draws were his impressions of Bush andMadden, and they are now both out of work.

But I think the reason I am largely indifferent to John Madden’s retirement is because I don’t pay that much attention to sports announcers anymore — I’ve often got kids running around while I’m watching a broadcast, ensuring that I see much more than I hear. And an announcer will never matter so much that I would ever choose to watch or not to watch a game based on who is calling the plays or doing the color commentary. It’s like the revolving schedule on Nick at Nite: I’ll miss you, Designing Women, but hey, Family Matters is a fine replacement. Similarly, Madden will be missed, but Cris Collinsworth will be a very acceptable substitute.

As I write, the Packers are just a few days away from one of their most important drafts in recent memory. Coming off a lousy 6-10 season in which their defense tanked (20th overall, 22nd in points allowed), the Packers have a lot of holes. Fortunately, the holes are concentrated in the defensive front seven and fortunately, the Packers have a lot of picks — nine overall, including four in the first 83 selections — in which to address these needs.

But I’m still nervous. Ted Thompson’s last two drafts have been questionable at best — Justin Harrell’s been an out-and-out bust, the team needed Jordy Nelson like it needed Don Majkowski to come out of retirement, and second-round QB pick Brian Brohm was quickly outplayed by seventh-round QB pick Matt Flynn. Not that the Packers needed either untested quarterback when beginning the season with a (mostly) untested starting quarterback. (Who admittedly was the Packers’ uncontested MVP last season.)

Two things you can be sure of Ted Thompson doing — trading down to accumulate draft picks and drafting not by need, but by best player available. If he trades down, as he has done in each of the past four years, he may miss out on defensive talent such as Boston College DT BJ Raji, Texas DE Brian Orakpo, LSU DE Tyson Jackson, or Penn State DE Aaron Maybin, all of whom seem primed to pay immediate dividends in Dom Capers’s 3-4 scheme. If he picks the best player available, he might be tempted to grab Texas Tech WR Michael Crabtree, who, despite being one of the most talented players in the draft, may fall to the Packers at ninth pick due to questions about his work ethic. Adding another receiver, especially that high in the draft, would be akin to Today adding a fifth hour to its already-bloated four-hour show: Ridiculous overkill. 

The good news is that in 2006, the last time the Packers had a pick in the draft’s top 10, Thompson kept it and drafted Ohio State LB A.J. Hawk, which has turned out to be one of Thompson’s wisest selections. So there is hope that Thompson will snag another quality player with his first pick on Saturday.

As I write, the Brewers have completed a 4-2 victory over the New York Mets, giving beleagured pitcher Jeff Suppan his first win of the season. The best news of the weekend.

This We Know
April 15, 2009

This We Know: The 2009 baseball season, though ridiculously young, has been plaguedby an alarmingly steady stream of bad news: Surely the deaths of 22-year-old Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart, legendary Phillies announcer Harry Kalas, and 1976 AL Rookie of the Year Mark Fidyrch loom the largest, but we’ve also been subjected to Sunday’s ugly bench-clearing brawl between the Dodgers and Angels, the scary line drive that San Francisco rookie pitcher Joe Martinez took off his head, the injury-related absences of stars Alex Rodriguez, Joe Mauer, and Daisuke Matsuzaka, and an opening-day fight at Angel Stadium that resulted in the death of a fan.  

You can add the continued bad play of the Milwaukee Brewers to that list.

I took some flak last week because my annual baseball predictions blog failed to mention the Brewers. A fair complaint to lodge at a Wisconsin-centric sports blog. However, I tried to make it plain that the column was dedicated to teams that I expected to compete for postseason play. I didn’t expect Milwaukee to compete before the season started, and nothing I’ve seen in the Brewers’ first eight games has convinced me otherwise.

Most preseason concerns regarding the Brewers centered on their starting pitching. Unfortunately, those concerns have now been replaced by panic as the Brewers’ pitching staff is proving to be the biggest trainwreck since Billy Bob Thornton’s music career. Jeff Suppan has been so nightmarish that the fact that he has given up 11 earned runs in just 7-2/3 innings of work is overshadowed by his fourth-inning performance on April 12 when he issued no fewer than three bases-loaded walks to the Chicago Cubs. The Brewers’ response to Suppan’s disasterous performance has been to push his next start from this Saturday to Sunday, which is akin to NBC moving the series Kings from Sunday to Saturday: Bad is bad on any day of the week.

But saying the Brewers’ pitching problems begin and end with Suppan is like saying NBC’s problems begin and end with Ian McShane: Carlos Villaneuva has made fans long for Eric Gagne and Guillermo Mota as the interim closer’s ERA has ballooned to 11.25 after two terrible outings. Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra haven’t been much better, but at least each has given the Brewers one quality start, even if Parra’s outing Tuesday (6 innings pitched, 3 earned runs) resulted in a loss.

The bright spots in the Brewers’ pitching have been Braden Looper, who surrendered only one run in his first start, and Todd Coffey, who has allowed only two hits and no runs in 4+ innings of relief work. But for the Brewers to contend, the pitching staff — which is currently 25th in the league in team ERA (6.30) and first in the league in walks allowed with 42 — will have to pull off a transformation the likes of which even President Obama is not asking of the U.S. automakers. It’s simply not going to happen.

What’s perhaps even more troubling is the inconsistency the Brewers’ supposedly potent lineup is showing at the plate.  J.J. Hardy was hitting a jaw-dropping .087 before two home runs in the last two games raised his average to a still-lousy .156. Jason Kendall started the season o-for-15 before getting two hits on Monday. His batting average has now “improved”  to .095. The best thing that can be said of Ryan Braun (.200) and Prince Fielder (.179) is that they’re getting on base, but they’re not doing it with their bats, a big reason why Milwaukee currently ranks 24th in the majors in both runs scored (32) and runs batted in (31).

Thankfully, Corey Hart, Mike Cameron, and Bill Hall are all showing some early-season life at the plate, but all three players have proven themselves capable of going on long offensive droughts. And this pitching-deprived team can simply not withstand long offensive droughts.

Yes, it’s early and worrying about a team’s overall prospects after a mere eight games might seem foolish. But already there are early warning signs that should alarm Brewers fans: Milwaukee has lost their first two home series for the first time since 2003, a year in which they lost 94 games and finished last in their division. According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, teams that begin their seasons 2-5 have a less than 7 percent chance of making the postseason. This We Know: The Brewers are now 2-6 and do not look like a team equipped to beat those odds.

This We Know: The NFL has screwed all Wisconsin CBS affiliates. Let me explain: Despite boasting an overall more attractive slate of games, CBS affiliates in Wisconsin still envy FOX affiliates when it comes to their football broadcasts. The reason being is that CBS, which carries AFC games, only receives the rights to two Packers games a year while FOX, which carries NFC games, receives many more — this year no fewer than a dozen.  

But for 2009, the NFL and ESPN have rudely taken one of the two potential CBS Packers games — the week 13 home game against Baltimore — for the once-proud Monday Night Footballfranchise. That leaves Wisconsin CBS affiliates like Madison’s WISC-DT with only the Bengals at Packers noon game on September 20, which comes as a blow at a time when local television stations don’t need any more bad news.

If I was more optimistic, I would say that WISC-DT will get two Packers games after all this year: The Bengals game and the Super Bowl. But despite a ridiculously easy schedule — only the Vikings and Bears have it easier in 2009, which goes to show you what playing the hapless Lions twice a year does to a team’s strength of schedule — I can’t with a straight face say that the Packers will be playing in February 2010.

This We Know: The NBA playoffs start Saturday. As intriguing as many of the storylines are, it just seems a given that the Lakers will represent the West in the Finals, which are played I believe about six months from now. Things are a little less certain in the East, but with or without Kevin Garnett — but certainly with — I like the Celtics’ depth and experience better than the one-man show that is the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Bold Baseball Predictions And More
April 5, 2009

Two things before I get into my highly-anticipated, highly-respected, and highly-debated baseball predictions for 2009:

1. The Jay Cutler trade. It will be impossible to tell for a while who “won” this trade, but the short-term answer is the Chicago Bears. Chicago picks up a player the likes of which are almost never available: A skilled young quarterback heading into what should be the prime of his career. It could be the football version of what might have happened if  Seinfeld had taken his show to another network right before “The Contest” episode. The Denver Broncos, meanwhile, are forced to issue a letter to their fans explaining, but in essence apologizing, for losing their franchise quarterback. Hey, even the Packers didn’t screw up the Favre situation so bad that they thought they needed to apologize for it. Not that the egomaniacal Ted Thompson would ever admit to being wrong about anything anyway.

The Bears had to make this deal. They’ve been mired in quarterback mediocrity for so long that it was a no-brainer for them. Jay Cutler has a much better chance of being successful in Chicago than Jay Leno has of being successful at 10 PM (9 PM central). Cutler has been solid for Denver, and could have taken them to the playoffs had they had a consistent running game and any shadow of a defense.

But did the Bears give up too much? After all, they’ve lost their first round picks for the next two drafts, their third-round pick this year, and improving if unspectacular quarterback Kyle Orton. And now that he’s proven himself to be as tough-skinned and manly as a Lifetime movie of the week, will the blue-collar fans of Chicago embarce Cutler?

If he wins, you bet. And with a better running game led by Matt Forte and a better (if surprisingly soft against the pass) defense, Cutler should be able to do just that.

It’s interesting from a Wisconsin perspective that most national pundits have placed the Cutler deal in a “have the Bears now overtaken the Vikings as the favorites to win the NFC North?” framework. Not a lot of respect for the Packers. I guess a 6-10 season will do that. It’s hard to believe the green and gold are just one season away from playing the NFC Championship game at home.

So, the four major questions for the NFC North have now become:

1. Bears: Can Cutler end Chicago’s long-standing weakness at the QB position?

2. Vikings: Is Sage Rosenfels really the answer or will the Vikings regret not going after Cutler?

3. Packers: Does new defensive coordinator Dom Capers know more about defense than he knows about hairpieces?

4. Lions: Can the worst team in professional sports win a game?  

2. The NCAA men’s basketball championship game. I loved something that Jim Nantz said in the waning moments of the Spartans’ victory over Connecticut on Saturday. He said that since Big Ten champ Michigan State had to beat Big East powerhouses Louisville and Connecticut to get to Monday’s championship game, that MSU should be considered both the Big Ten conference champ and the Big East conference champ.

Although I don’t deny that the Big East had a stunningly strong conference this season, it is sweet that — despite seemingly every commentator bending over backwards to extol the virtues of the Big East while tearing down the Big Ten — the best of the Big Ten has outlasted, outplayed, and outwitted the best of the Big East. Even though I picked North Carolina to win it all in the office pool, I will be cheering loudly for Tom Izzo’s club come Monday night. (I’m too far down the rankings to win anyway.) Hey, and wasn’t Izzo supposed to shave his head at some point?

OK, so we’ve come to my bold baseball predictions. I say “bold” because that sounds more impressive than saying “soon to be proven incorrect.” But despite errors in my past prognosticating, I will forge ahead. For each division I will give a winner, a team that could surprise, and a team that is as dead as every prime-time cooking reality show that has ever aired on broadcast television. Let’s get started:

National League Central:

Division winner: Chicago Cubs. Don’t get too excited, Cubs fans. We know you don’t really care about winning another division. It’s the playoffs that matter, and you will likely blow it again. But you’ve got too much offense and too much pitching not to win the NL Central for a third year straight. Just know a disappointing end to your season is inevitable.

May surprise: St. Louis Cardinals. They’ve still got Albert Pujols and a fine pitching staff. If Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter can stay healthy, they can make a run.

Dead: Pittsburgh Pirates. If the Detroit Lions are the worst team in professional sports, then the Pirates are certainly not far behind.

National League East:

Division winner: Philadelphia Phillies. Sure, the Mets have superstars Johan Santana, Carlos Delgado, and newly acquired closer Francisco Rodriguez. But the Phillies have the championship and nearly everyone back from last year. The Mets may be better on paper, but they could only get more dysfunctional if you put the Octo-Mom at shortstop.

May surprise: Florida Marlins. They win the World Series every six years. They’re due in 2009.

Dead: Washington Nationals. The addition of Adam Dunn will help. But it will be like if the great Alec Baldwin was added to the cast of Gary Unmarried: At the end of the day, the improvement still won’t matter.

National League West:

Division winner: Los Angeles Dodgers. This division stinks. Put Manny Ramirez on any of the five teams and it would probably be the favorite. So the Dodgers, despite a questionable pitching staff, are likely to repeat as NL West division winners.

May surprise: Arizona Diamondbacks. Brandon Webb and Dan Haren are the best 1-2 pitchers in the division and maybe the league.

Dead: San Diego Padres. If your phone rings this week, answer it with caution. It’s probably the Padres wondering if you can be their third starter.

American League Central:

Division winner: Cleveland Indians. I’d like to pick the Twins here, but I see Cleveland picking up its torrid pace of late last year to just barely win a good division. It won’t be as close if Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez, and Kerry Wood play to their potential.

May surprise: Detroit Tigers. They’ve got so much talent, it’s tough to see them as bad as they were last year.

Dead: Kansas City Royals. Can they finish out of the AL Central basement for two straight seasons? Doubt it.

American League East:

Division winner: Boston Red Sox. Could be the best team in baseball in the toughest division in baseball. I just can’t see Tampa Bay repeating last year’s success.

May surprise: Tampa Bay Rays. Or could they? With the addition of Pat Burrell and studs like Evan Longoria and Scott Kazmir, this team could be good enough to withstand something foreign to them: preseason expectations.

Dead: Baltimore Orioles. Remember how NBC always had one lousy show (Union Square, The Single Guy, Suddenly Susan, Veronica’s Closet) on Thursday nights while the rest of the night’s lineup boasted powerhouses like Cheers, Seinfeld, Family Ties, Friends, ER, and The Cosby Show? The Orioles are the AL East’s Veronica’s Closet.

American League West:

Division winner: LA Angels of Anaheim. They seem to have enough left (Vladimir Guerrero, John Lackey, Torii Hunter) to overcome what’s not left (Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira).

May surprise: Oakland Athletics. An interesting array of acquisitions (Jason Giambi, Matt Holliday, Orlando Cabrera) may be enough to make some noise. But as familiar as many of the faces on their offense is, their pitching rotation is as recognizable as the cast members from Saturday Night Live‘s 1980-1981 season.

Dead: Seattle Mariners. They probably won’t be as bad as last year’s team that lost 101 games. But they’ll be bad enough to keep Seattle (Sonics gone, Seahawks stink) one of the worst sports cities in the country. Actually, Seattle’s gone downhill ever since they lost Frasier Crane.

Wild card winners: St. Louis and Tampa Bay.

World series: Boston over Philadelphia. Sam Malone beats the Fresh Prince.

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