Friday, January 20, 2006

NFL Playoffs - Conference Championships

Due to time contraints, this is going to be short and sweet.

Last week: 3-1
Playoffs: 6-2

The playoffs are down to just three games left. That makes me sad, as we'll be out of football in practically no time now. What's even worse is that I practically ignored the first six weeks of the NFL season, so it doesn't feel like it should be this late in the season right now. Again, we'll go in order of confidence in the picks I am making, from least to most.

-->Pittsburgh at Denver, 2pm, CBS
There are a few things I like about Denver. They have a ball-hawking defense (at least, it was on Saturday against New England). They have a great running game. And their QB is minimizing his own mistakes. In this game, it comes down to whose QB makes the fewest mistakes. Pittsburgh's starter, Ben Roethlisberger, has been stellar so far in two road wins, but was awful in last year's conference title game loss to New England. Denver's guy, Jake "Grizzly" Plummer, was only okay against the Patriots last week, as the defense, running game, and officials did the Patriots in.

I guess that I trust Big Ben a little bit more right now. He's been playing very well, and he's done a great job getting guys not named "Hines Ward" involved in the offense. Indianapolis seemed disinterested at times in covering Antwaan Randle El, so Big Ben threw that way. He found his tight ends, and he used play-action very effectively. The coaches and skill players look to be on the same page, and the game plans so far in the playoffs have been exemplary.

I don't trust Denver. I don't trust Champ Bailey. I don't trust Grizzly Plummer, especially after what I saw last week. And I don't think Denver's getting five more turnovers on Sunday. As a result, I don't think Denver's going to Detroit.

The pick: Pittsburgh

--> Carolina at Seattle, 5:30pm, FOX
The Panthers have Delhomme to Steve Smith, which has become the 2006 equivalent of Montana to Rice. Smith is at an unbelieveable level right now, and he's almost impossible to stop.

So I'm about to do something really stupid. I'm about to make an analogy to a basketball story I heard once.

Former NBAer Tim Legler was on Mike and Mike on ESPN Radio a few months ago. He relayed a story of how his team, then the Washington Bullets Wizards, beat the Orlando Magic, who had Shaq back then. Legler said they decided to put Gheroghe Muresan one-on-one on Shaq while the rest of the team focused on shutting the rest of the Magic players down. Legler said they'd throw the ball in to Shaq, and all you'd hear was "dribble, dribble, BOOM, dunk", and Muresan would occasionally cry for help. Shaq scored 50, but the Bullets Wizards won the game because no one else on the Magic could get loose.

Anyway, here's my idea for Seattle's defensive coaching staff on Sunday.

Cover Steve Smith one-on-one, with nothing more than occasional safety help over the top. I know it's a different game than basketball, and the NFC Championship Game is a bit more valuable than a meaningless regular-season NBA game, but how much can Steve Smith hurt you if no one else can do anything?

Instead of bracketing Smith with an extra linebacker to go along with a corner and safety, use that linebacker or safety to get after Delhomme. If you get in Delhomme's face, as the Cowboys proved in Week 16, Smith won't get free often enough to save his team.

Don't let Carolina run the ball. Don't let Delhomme get comfortable.

And on offense, don't forget to get the ball to Shaun Alexander. Often.

The pick: Seattle

WCHA preview

UMD at St. Cloud State
This is weird. UMD has played better on the road than they have at home (0-6 last 6 home league games, 3-2-1 last 6 road league games). I don't get it, and it doesn't sound like the coaches and players can get a real grasp on it, either. For that matter, UMD is not the only WCHA team trying to figure out their own home ice. Five of the league's ten teams are better on the road than they are at home. One other one (Denver) has the same records both home and away.

I'm too lazy to look it up, but I think we had the same trend going for a time last year. And last year ended with all five home teams winning their playoff series to advance to the WCHA Final Five.

Now back on topic...

I'm not sure I'm alone in thinking that this UMD team is going to play well this weekend. They are coming off two tough home losses to an opponent they felt they should have beaten soundly. They need to get some pucks on goal this weekend, as St. Cloud is strong defensively, and they have a very good goalie in Bobby Goepfert. Goepfert has very good numbers (save percentage well over .900), but he doesn't see a ton of shots normally, as SCSU only allows 28 shots on goal per game.

So far this season, though, UMD has done well against highly-touted goaltenders in the WCHA. They scored seven in two games on North Dakota's Jordan Parise (who was, by the way, very good in that series as UND swept). They scored six in two games against CC's Matt Zaba, and they also scored six in two games on Minnesota State freshman Dan Tormey, who had a run of six starts before the UMD series where his save percentage was over .930.

It should be a good goaltending duel this weekend, with Goepfert facing UMD's Issac Reichmuth. Reichmuth has played well in limited duty in St. Cloud, and Goepfert has been very good this year for SCSU after transferring from Providence. Look for UMD's power play to break their slump, and for the Bulldogs to get no worse than a split on the road.

UMD wins 3-1. St. Cloud wins 3-2.

Colorado College at Minnesota
CC got whipped last Saturday at Wisconsin. What else can be said about a 9-1 home loss? Bucky was very impressive and got a huge weekend sweep. The Tigers, meanwhile, are left to try to rebound against a very good Minnesota team at Mariucci Arena.

The Gophers are a thin team. They've suffered through some injuries and a player departure, and I'm not completely sold on their goaltending. They have great talent up front, and they showed their potential in that 6-1 beatdown of North Dakota last Friday. But they're just not consistent. And with CC on a mission for redemption this weekend, I expect them to play well enough to earn a split.

CC wins 4-2. Minnesota wins 5-2.

Denver at Wisconsin
Ouch. Bucky lost goaltender Brian Elliott, a Hobey Baker frontrunner, for 3-4 weeks after he injured his left leg in practice on Wednesday. Shane Connolly, a capable backup, steps in to start as Wisconsin continues a key stretch of games that represent the best hopes of anyone catching them for the WCHA lead.

Meanwhile, a game disqualification on Saturday night cost Denver the services of leading scorer Ryan Dingle in Friday's game. That's a tough blow to a team already hurting up front.

The Pioneers are scuffling a bit right now, but they've only lost once all-time at the Kohl Center. While a Badger sweep may have looked pretty clear-cut a few days ago, the Elliott injury clouds the picture somewhat. I think the Badgers will play well enough to win once, but not twice, this weekend.

Denver wins 4-3. Wisconsin wins 4-1.

Minnesota State at North Dakota
The Sioux, like the Bulldogs and Gophers, are somewhat young and inexperienced. As a result, they've been an up-and-down team so far this year. As we've pointed out before, it's tough to win consistently in this league with a really young team, and that is evidenced by some of the results we've seen so far from the young, but very talented, Sioux.

UND has salvaged weekend splits three straight series now after losing the first game. In their last series before Christmas, North Dakota struggled Friday night against Bemidji State, but rallied to win.

It's that kind of inconsistency that makes it hard to predict series sweeps. What makes things more difficult this weekend is the opponent. Minnesota State has impressed at times this year, but has looked rather average at others. Tormey, their young goaltender, is good enough to keep them in practically every game, and the Mavericks are starting to score with more consistency. MSU will make it hard on North Dakota this weekend, but the Sioux will come away with three points.

UND wins 5-3 and ties 3-3.

Alaska-Anchorage at Michigan Tech
Tech fans: GREAT showing in Duluth last weekend. It was fun to watch you guys go bonkers like that. Now keep it up at home.

Michigan Tech hasn't won four games in a row since 1997. I know because I just double-checked their media guide to verify it. They had a 6-3 run after Christmas last year, but never won as many as four straight.

With UAA having struggled mightily last weekend in Mankato, and with UAA having spent the week living out of their suitcases in the Twin Cities, I'm going with Michigan Tech this weekend.

Tech wins 6-3 and 4-3.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Randomization: 1/18/06

Just say "No" to the establishment. This is the year for the newbie coaches in the NFL. Of the coaching vacancies that have been filled to this point, just one has gone to an experienced NFL head coach (Herman Edwards in Kansas City). Retreads like Mike Martz, Mike Sherman, Jim Haslett, Dick Jauron, and Mike Tice have been talked about, and I believe all four of these gentlemen have been given interviews, but none of them can secure jobs. There could be a few reasons for this.

--> They take their experience too seriously. The former head coaches may think that the fact that they are experienced head coaches (and in the case of Martz, Sherman, and Haslett, they've also won playoff games) will carry more weight than it does. While there are still openings in the league, it's not expected that a former head coach will get a sniff of any job, except perhaps the Buffalo job.

--> Salary demands are too high. Teams may be deciding that a coach like Martz or Sherman, guys who have won a lot of games in recent years, may have too many potential flaws or weaknesses to be worth salaries in the $3-5 million range, which is likely the kind of money they'd be asking for.

--> The younger assistant coaches are better prepared for interviews. It's all about the interviews these days, and there are head coaches in the league (Andy Reid in Philly comes to mind immediately) who have worked hard preparing their assistant coaches for potential head coaching interviews. Reid worked a ton with Brad Childress, who eventually got the head job in Minnesota, to make sure Childress knew how to impress management in an interview situation. And it was Reid's interview preparation that got him the job in Philadelphia to begin with.

--> There's less risk hiring a new coach. That sounds crazy, doesn't it? But I'm not just talking about risk in terms of how the coach will perform. Front office guys may be wary of hiring ex-head coaches like Martz (ego) or Sherman (former GM/coach) because of the idea that there may eventually be a power struggle at the top. And if there's a power struggle, the coach will win it nine times out of ten (exception: Jimmy Johnson in Dallas). The fans want the well-known names, but teams are usually better off hiring inexperienced coaches and hoping to hit the lottery with their pick.

There aren't a lot of openings left. New Orleans is reportedly set to hire Sean Payton, a Dallas offensive assistant. Houston has to wait until the Broncos are done to announce offensive coordinator and Houston native Gary Kubiak as their new coach. St. Louis is apparently down to three candidates, with offensive coordinators Scott Linehan (Miami) and Cam Cameron (San Diego) set to interview along with Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. That would leave Buffalo, Detroit, and Oakland with vacancies, and none of those teams appear likely to hire a former NFL head coach for their position (Buffalo might be the lone exception).

It's an interesting situation. There was a time where ex-head coaches like Martz and Sherman (especially these two because of their solid win/loss records) would be cinches for open jobs. Now, both men are struggling even getting the chance to interview for openings.

Strange dream. I was calling a UMD game that was very poorly-officiated. I kept complaining about the officials, and at some point, I felt someone slapping me in the head. I turned around and saw Greg Shepherd (WCHA supervisor of officials). I remember asking him where on Earth he got these God-awful officials from, and he answered "The Sun Belt Conference". That's all I can remember.

Bates out in Green Bay. Certainly, any Packer fan with a brain would have wanted Jim Bates to return as the Pack's defensive coordinator. However, it's not the end of the world. More than anything else, the defense needs an infusion of talent right now. Bates coached them very well in 2005, but their turnover numbers were pathetic, and the pass rush was nonexistent most of the time. The only way the Packers will improve is if GM Ted Thompson brings in the right players. Not only that, but as long as Brett Favre returns, is there any chance at all that the offense will be as bad as they were in 2005? So the defense might not get much better as the guys learn a new system, but the offense is bound to be vastly improved. Couple that with better luck and more consistency, and the Packers are already on the way to starting another run of 8-8 or better seasons.

No fine? Listen, I understand why Joey Porter snapped. Even though his team won the game, he was steamed about the bad call on the Polamalu "interception". He's frustrated, and it sure looked like the referee was trying to figure out a way to keep Indianapolis in the game until the bitter end. But you can't let a guy question the integrity and motives of your game officials. Seriously, NFL. I hope the reports this morning that Porter won't be fined are wrong. Just because the call was incorrect doesn't mean the players should be given the priviledge of calling the officials' integrity into question without a fine of some sort. I don't think anyone is asking that Porter be suspended for the AFC Championship Game. But rewarding his ridiculously out-of-line commentary like this sends a bad message: If you are right in what you are complaining about, you can say whatever you want without punishment. We will only punish those players who rip the officials when the officials make the correct call(s).

Steve Smith just caught another pass. Has an allegedly great defense ever been totally and thoroughly abused by one freaking guy in a playoff game the way the Bears were by Steve Smith on Sunday? Smith almost outgained the Bears by himself, and he was again the key player in Carolina's victory. For all the talk about how teams need to defend Steve Smith (we have to stop him and let someone else beat us), the answer seems to be the opposite in my view. You need to single-cover Smith and blanket everyone else while pressuring Jake Delhomme into bad throws. Don't waste multiple defenders on Smith when they can't cover him anyway. Let him get off for his 15 catches, but make Delhomme pay for every throw and make the other Panther players into non-factors. But that's just an idea that popped into my head. It sounds too crazy to 1) work, and 2) be attempted by any normal NFL coach.

Bucky at it again tonight. Big game for the Wisconsin men's basketball team. The 14-2 Badgers, who are 4-0 in the Big Ten, head to Columbus to take on THE Ohio State University. tOSU started hot, but is only 2-2 in Big Ten play. However, they've been practically unbeatable at home this season, and the Badgers have yet to beat a quality opponent on the road (sorry, Minnesota, but you don't count right now). It's really early to look at such things, but the overall numbers seem to indicate that Wisconsin has at least a puncher's chance of being a #1 regional seed in the NCAA Tournament, but that will only happen if they can keep playing well. 7-1 or 8-0 in Big Ten games at home, coupled with a solid 5-3 road run in conference games (they're 3-0 at home and 1-0 on the road right now) would give them no worse than a 12-4 conference record, which would make them 22-6 overall heading into the Big Ten Tournament. So even with their strength of schedule and other numbers looking good, Wisconsin will probably need to win the Big Ten Tournament to get that #1 seed.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Randomization: 1/17/06

Ugh. UMD swept by Michigan Tech. Ugh. Let's move on.

Holy power play, Batman! While UMD has not scored a power-play goal since December 10, Wisconsin showed part of why they're the nation's best college hockey team right about now, as Bucky scored four power-play goals on one penalty against Colorado College. I'm sure they're grateful to CC Tiger D Brian Salcido for taking a five-minute major so they could accomplish the feat. The four-goal power play outburst led Wisconsin on their way to a six-goal first and a 9-1 stomping of Colorado College in Colorado Springs on Saturday night. Bucky swept the weekend and they now lead the WCHA by a gaping eight points over Denver and Minnesota. In other words, neither Denver nor Minnesota have any hope of catching the Badgers unless they sweep them at the Kohl Center (they are in for back-to-back weekends, starting with Denver on Friday night). While Wisconsin is one of a number of WCHA teams to currently be playing better on the road than at home, I don't think either team is sweeping them in Madison.

I've been less accurate than this before. My football picks went well (3-1 for the second straight weekend), and my hockey picks were pretty solid, despite UMD's Massive Egg-Laying That I'm Trying To Pretend Didn't Happen. I went 7-3 on ten WCHA games (I nailed the score of North Dakota's win over Minnesota, and was on the money in predicting the results of three league series out of five). The only things I missed were the UMD-MTU games and Wisconsin's slaughter of CC on Saturday. I'll take that for a first weekend, and it's almost solid enough to trick me into doing it again for this weekend. Maybe I'll pick UMD to get swept and hope for the opposite result again. the St. Scholastica hockey team, ranked in the latest poll for what I believe is the first time ever. Mark Wick, Randy Barker, and former UMD goaltending legend Brant Nicklin are doing an outstanding job with this team. The Saints have 13 freshmen on the roster (yeah, yeah, I know..."they're not freshmen anymore"), and all they've done is start 11-5 and vault themselves right into the thick of a tight race for the NCHA title and a potential NCAA Division III playoff berth. Meanwhile, UWS continues to struggle, as they lost twice at home on the weekend, and now find themselves fighting off the dreaded .500 mark one year after starting with 20 straight games without a loss. Since that streak ended, losing has become more of a habit than it's been at UWS in a long time, which is still not saying much given the program's successes over the past 12 years.

What is wrong with the officiating? Actually, nothing new is. People are just starting to notice now that NFL officiating sucks. Pete Morelli's made-up reversal of Troy Polamalu's interception in the fourth quarter Sunday is just the latest in a long line of inconceivable calls made by highly overpaid part-time officials. When you consider that some of these guys make as much money in a month on a part-time job than I do in a year, you start to wonder how any mistakes could possibly be tolerated. It's incredible, actually, that it's taken this long for most people to recognize that there is indeed a problem. Between the maddening inconsistency and the failure of officials to follow even the newest rules (horse collars, anyone?), I don't know how the issue has been swept under the carpet, except that the NFL doesn't want anyone to talk about it. But that's just a theory. Hopefully, there won't be any made-up rules or made-up pass interference calls (or no-calls) this weekend. However, I'm guessing that's too much to ask.

Later this week: More on the NFL playoff games from this past weekend, some early baseball talk, and previews of both the weekend in WCHA hockey and Conference Championship Sunday in the NFL. As always, you can hit the comment button to post your thoughts, or send e-mail to

Blog recommendation. They're not posting as much during the offseason, but if you're looking for some free entertainment at the expense of the media idiots types that fill the TV screen and radio dial, check out and read some of the archives. Especially notable are May and October of 2005. The FJM people are absolute geniuses.

Friday, January 13, 2006

NFL Playoffs - Divisional Round

Last week: 3-1

Stupid Giants. Or, as Tiki Barber would say, Stupid Coughlin.

Tiki's a veteran. He should know better than to do that. The coaches couldn't have adjusted with success if they had wanted to. The line wasn't blocking, the QB looked mystified, and the Panthers basically had a field day for three hours because of it.

Meanwhile, the Redskins won a game despite only having 120 yards of offense and losing their best defensive player in the third quarter because he decided it would be a good idea to spit in an opponent's face. The champs won easily thanks to OMG TOM BRADY (oh, and Willie McGinest was good, too). And Pittsburgh overcame a 17-7 second-quarter deficit to show the Bengals exactly why Carson Palmer is the starter and Jon Kitna isn't.

On to the divisional playoffs, where upsets are common, and we get at least one more week of Irrational Brady Love, which is on the verge of replacing Irrational Favre Love as the most annoying on television in the fall and winter. Catch the fever.

Because I got lucky it worked so well last week, we'll list the games in order of my confidence in the picks on these games, starting with the least confident.

--> Carolina at Chicago, 3:30pm Sunday, FOX
The Bears have a great defense. Harris. Brown. Urlacher. Briggs. Brown. Vasher. Some unbelieveable talent back there. Great ballhawks and some solid grinder types that make sure the running game doesn't get off the ground. They're well-coached, too, with Lovie Smith letting coordinator Ron Rivera do the grunt work. The Bears will come after DeShaun Foster and Jake Delhomme all afternoon, making it exceptionally difficult for Carolina to sustain any offense, something that wasn't a problem for the Panthers last week.

--Let Carolina push them around
--Fail to protect their young QB who will be making his first playoff start
--Let Carolina hold the ball for FORTY-THREE FREAKING MINUTES!!
--Single-cover Steve Smith with the small/old/slow/worthless Terrell Buckley
--Fail to do anything to spread out the Carolina defense

Now, Carolina can pull this upset. The Bears sacked Delhomme eight times, notable because Carolina only allowed 28 sacks the whole season. I don't think it will happen again to that extent, because I think Carolina will be better prepared. There's no way they let the Bears front four slaughter them like that again. If anything, look at what happened when the Bears played the Packers a second time (Christmas Day). Even the injury-riddled, incompetently-coached Packers were able to slow that rush down in the second meeting, which came after the Bears almost killed Favre at Soldier Field. You can't even use the "They didn't have anything to play for" argument, because a Bears loss would have opened the door for Minnesota to potentially win that division.

I'm not sold on Rex Grossman. Maybe I will be after this game, but I'm not right now. I don't think he's been that impressive, and I think it was a huge mistake to not play him in the Minnesota game. I don't see the Bears moving the ball consistently against the Panthers, and I don't see the Panthers doing it to the Bears, either. The Bears have been ballhawks all season, but the Panthers took it away five times last week in a road playoff win.

I am not very confident, but I'm taking the road team.

The pick: Carolina

--> New England at Denver, 7pm Saturday, CBS
Tom Brady. Tom Brady. Tom Brady. Tom Brady. Tom Brady. Tom Brady.

You gotta love Brady, declared "underrated" this week by the legendary John Madden. Now we get to see Brady and his disrespected Patriots in their first road playoff game since the 2001 season. And this time, they don't have Kordell Stewart to lean on.

My respect for New England makes this a tough pick. The Patriots have been great at responding when people questioned them. They have rallied when they need to rally, getting great defensive performances when they needed them, ran the ball when they needed to run it, and had Brady playing great when nothing else worked. And if these things happen again on Saturday night, the Patriots will move on.

However, if Denver can run the ball, stop the run, avoid mistakes, or slow Brady down, they're going to end the Pats' run and, for now, the ridiculously premature dynasty talk.

I think it will happen. Note use of the word "think".

Denver hit a lot of big plays in their earlier win over New England. Grizzly Plummer threw two long TD passes, and Tatum Bell broke a 68-yard TD run. With Tedy Bruschi expected back, this probably won't happen again.

Plummer has been great for Denver this year. He's cut down on his mistakes, been much more efficient, and has been a better decision-maker. Unlike the 2001 Steelers, where Kordell was mainly an aberration during the season (and proved it every now and then), Plummer has been pretty consistent, especially at home.

The Patriots haven't gotten much out of Corey Dillon this year, but they'll need it to stay in this thing tomorrow night. If everything falls on Brady's shoulders, the season will be over. But I have yet to see anything from Dillon that would convince me that he can be relied on.

The story on Saturday will be Denver's ability to run the ball, coupled with New England's inability to run the ball. The Colts won't get their rematch.

The pick: Denver

--> Washington at Seattle, 3:30pm Saturday, FOX
120 yards. That's all. And they won! Incredible.

Great work by the Washington defense, which has flown under the radar this season thanks to the Bears' defense. The Redskins will need it again this week, as they fly west to take on a Seattle team that hasn't lost a real game since September (let's not count the last game in Green Bay, where the Seahawks weren't really trying).

The difference in this game is the ability Seattle has to attack you all over the field. Hasselbeck is a very good passer, and they have a top-three RB in Shaun Alexander, who is still amazingly playing for a 2006 contract. They have a coach in Mike Holmgren who is determined to prove he can win in January without Brett Favre at QB.

And, by the way, Seattle's defense, which got valuable rest time thanks to their ability to clinch home-field advantage a week early, is pretty good. They'll slow down Clinton Portis until Mark Brunell proves he can throw the ball to win. Oh, and I'm guessing they'll take adequate care of Santana Moss. The Redskins are just too thin and too reliant on their defense, which was all over the place last week. Now they have to travel cross-country to play a rested team that's determined to prove they belong where they are.

The pick: Seattle

--> Pittsburgh at Indianapolis, 12pm Sunday, CBS
It was nice to see the Steelers prove last week that they didn't need a strong running game to win in the postseason. For just the second time in Bill Cowher's reign, they won a road playoff game, and they did it behind their second-year QB's throwing ability.

Ben Roethlisberger might have a terrible beard, but he played well in Cincy. He was efficient, and he may have proven that last year's playoff struggles were nothing more than a learning experience.

However, Indy's defense is better than Cincinnati's. By a lot. The Colts have Dwight Freeney and friends up front, and they'll slow down anything Pittsburgh tries to do on the ground, along with providing more than just some token pressure on Big Ben. They have playmakers all over the field on defense, and they're well-rested. Pittsburgh will have trouble scoring points.

The Indy offense is ready, too. Keep in mind that Cincinnati moved the ball at will until Jon Kitna turned into Jon Kitna in the second half. The Bengals had 17 points at the break, and they looked unstoppable at times offensively. The Steelers defense, to their credit, buckled down and made some huge plays in the second half, but I don't think the formula will work for them this week. They'll slow the Colts' attack down a little bit, but it won't be enough to keep the season from ending.

It will be close for a time, but look for Indianapolis to run the ball effectively in the fourth quarter, and they'll get just enough from Peyton Manning to advance.

The pick: Indianapolis

College hockey this weekend

I'm not guaranteeing one of these every week, but I'm guaranteeing one of these this week. For now, that should do for you.


-->Michigan Tech at UMD
I'm scared of this. Really. I'm not going to sit here and try to sell you that Michigan Tech is an underrated team or being a great team. They've struggled this year. There's no way to deny that without losing credibility. Teams that aren't struggling generally don't get off to 4-17-1 starts, nor do they usually allow twice as many goals as they score.

So, yes, Michigan Tech has issues. But this still scares me.

The Huskies were in a similar position last year until they came in here and swept UMD. Granted, their goaltender stood on his head while UMD's goaltending struggled all weekend. But two wins are two wins, and UMD needs these four points. They should get them, too, if their effort is anywhere near what it has been for the last three games. There were some lulls against the US Under 18 Team last week, but it was mainly a solid effort with good, hard-working goals. The games in Florida were even better (especially the Maine game, where the Black Bears couldn't come close to matching UMD's spunk and grit).

UMD has done well this season in "games they should win". They have played eight games against teams either below them in the WCHA standings or teams outside the WCHA who are perceived as being not as good (two each against Michigan Tech, Alaska-Anchorage, Yale, and Minnesota State). They are 5-1-2 in those games, with a 2-0 loss to UAA being the only defeat. In WCHA play, the 'Dogs are 3-1-2 for eight out of a possible 12 points against "beatable" opponents. If they can get eight or nine points out of the next three weekends (Tech, St. Cloud, and MSU), we should all be ecstatic.

On the ice, UMD gets freshman D Josh Meyers back. While it's never good to lose a promising talent, any fears of Meyers "hitting the wall" in the second half of the season are now unfounded, as he hasn't played in a game since November 12. Then again, with strength and conditioning coach Justin May on board, I'm not really worried about UMD players "hitting the wall". UMD does need to figure out how to win at home. No one associated with UMD wants to hear about this, but the Bulldogs have been swept in three of their five home series this season (Bemidji State, North Dakota, and Denver all swept, while the Bulldogs swept Yale and took three points from Minnesota). UMD is just 3-6-1 at home in 2005-2006, but they're over .500 away from the DECC.

As for Tech, Michael-Lee Teslak had 57 saves in their GLI game against Michigan State. State won the game, but the performance was notable because it showed MTU fans that they may have some reason to hope the second half will be noticeably better than the first half was. We'll start to find out this weekend if Teslak, a freshman, is the real deal.

I am not going to try to sell that I've figured these guys out. This team has grown up a great deal recently, but they're still largely a young and inexperienced outfit. That said, I think UMD fans will like what they see this weekend, as the Bulldogs get the second half started on the right foot.

UMD sweeps, 4-1 and 4-2.

--> North Dakota at Minnesota
No Chris Harrington on Friday for Minnesota, (Soapbox) as he was ridiculously DQed towards the end of Saturday's blowout win over Niagara. In defense of the official responsible, Niagara's Jason Williamson was also ridiculously DQed and must sit one game. I fully agree with Gopher coach Don Lucia's post-DQ thoughts:

"Where there's an obvious mistake, you should have some recourse to have the ability to appeal a disqualification like that. There has to be an avenue because we have a situation here where there wasn't a punch thrown and gloves never came off and they wrestled a little bit. But boy, that's a big leap from wrestling to a disqualification because that's such a costly penalty."

(Source: Todd Milewski's weekly USCHO column.)

The coach is right. If we're going to investigate whether goals are scored or not during games (thus beschmirching a bit of the referee's authority to make those calls himself for the sake of getting the calls right), we need to do the same thing with things as vitally important as game DQs. Granted, most game DQs that get handed out are richly deserved by the offending player, but when they are not, as they clearly weren't last weekend, there needs to be an avenue of appeal for the coaches.


The Gophers will miss Harrington on Friday, and North Dakota is due to play better than they have been. The Harvard loss was an aberration, but the Sioux didn't exactly fly into their break, and they haven't exactly flown out of it, needing a third period rally just to avoid being blown out at UAA last Friday. They need to get the freshmen back in the scoring column, and they need to get Jordan Parise back in goal. The Gophers are thin, so with Harrington out, Friday is UND's best chance to pounce and get some confidence back.

UND wins Friday, 4-2; Minnesota wins Saturday, 6-3.

Wisconsin at Colorado College
How I wish I could split myself in half somehow. That way, I don't miss a UMD weekend, and I still get to see these games, which should be highly competitive and entertaining. There might not be a better "big sheet" team in the WCHA than CC, who uses their Olympic-size home ice to the fullest advantage when they're not playing Denver. When they're moving their feet and using the full rink, they're tough to stop.

Wisconsin is a great defensive team with a great goaltender (Brian Elliott for HOBEY!), but can they contain the CC attack on a wider rink? Can they score enough to keep up?

From personal experience, I watched as UMD had to hang on by less than a thread to beat CC December 10 after being blown out of the building in the third period the night before. UMD isn't quite as deep as Bucky, but UW will have similar issues with Colorado College if they aren't careful.

CC's power play is sickeningly good. They're good because their guys move so well without the puck, and their skill guys are such great passers. There were at least a couple instances in the UMD series where CC scored power play goals on plays that UMD probably couldn't have stopped if they were told exactly what was coming beforehand.

Also looming is the hit by UW's Adam Burish at the end of the teams' Saturday night game in Madison in November that ended the season of CC forward Scott Thauwald. As long as these games are close, the paying customers will be the only ones making a big deal out of it, though.

Wisconsin should be able to bottle CC up a bit, but the Tigers will find a way to earn two points on the weekend.

Wisconsin wins 3-1; CC wins 5-2 - you pick the order.

--> St. Cloud State at Denver
Congrats to SCSU coach Bob Motzko, who had the "interim" tag removed from his job title this week. Motzko has done a good job so far, having the Huskies over .500 entering the second half of their league schedule. It's been done with a lot of credit to be given to goalie Bobby Goepfert. The Providence transfer has been rock-solid this season, leading the Huskies to quality wins over Minnesota, North Dakota, and Colgate so far.

For Denver, it's time to get back off the mat. Princeton and Ferris State upset the Pioneers in the Denver Cup before the New Year, leaving DU with a rather pedestrian 11-9-2 overall record heading into this weekend. Denver needs points, as they are currently tied for third place with Minnesota in the WCHA, and just one point back of second-place CC.

But something isn't quite right for Denver right now. That doesn't mean that they should be dismissed as a title contender (I don't know about you, but I won't be doing this until they've been eliminated from the NCAAs). It does mean that Goepfert and the Huskies will find a way to split the series.

St. Cloud wins 2-1; Denver wins 4-1.

--> Alaska-Anchorage at Minnesota State
The Seawolves shocked North Dakota last Friday, but their reputation as a "Saturday night team" took a hit with a 5-0 loss to UND the next night. On the bright side for UAA, their five goals last Friday were a season-high. It had to be good for Dave Shyiak to see his boys finally pounce on some scoring chances. UAA heads to the mainland this weekend, and the mainland has not been kind, yielding only one win and eight goals in six tries so far. With eight of the next ten on the road for UAA, they'd better get used to living out of their suitcases.

Minnesota State played some lesser competition over the holidays, tying Yale and beating Alabama-Huntsville, then beating Nebraska-Omaha. They've scored 11 goals in their last two games, but the tie against Yale doesn't look too impressive to me. For MSU's sake, here's hoping the UAH and UNO games were a sign that the Mavericks are finding their scoring touch. They're going to need it down the stretch.

MSU sweeps, 3-0 and 4-2.

Miami at Notre Dame (2)
Alaska-Fairbanks at Michigan State (2)
Merrimack vs Boston College (home and home starting at BC)
Cornell at Quinnipiac/Princeton
Maine at Boston University (2)
Northeastern at Vermont (2)

St. John's/Augsburg at St. Scholastica
(Side note: Hats off to CSS coach Mark Wick. He has his team off to a 10-5 start, with tonight's game against SJU a great opportunity for his young team to prove that they have made serious progress.)
Augsburg/St. John's at UWS

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Randomization: 1/12/06

It's Mike McCarthy. While much of Packer Nation screams out a collective "Who?" at the hiring of McCarthy to be the team's new head coach, others are simply left to wonder if the right move was made. Much like with Minnesota's hiring of Brad Childress, only time will tell. McCarthy has a good offensive background, and he is one of a select few who were successful in getting through to Aaron Brooks (an average of 24.5 TD passes in the four years the two worked together in New Orleans). However, McCarthy's pedigree isn't nearly as impressive as either Jon Gruden or Andy Reid, two current head coaches who were virtually unknown as assistants before they got their respective breaks. McCarthy has never coached in a Super Bowl. He did, however, impress Packers GM Ted Thompson with his plan for the organization. He has some history with Brett Favre, though it's not believed that was a major consideration in Thompson's hiring decision. While there is a lot of uncertainty, I do like the fact that Thompson went around and conducted a large number of interviews before making his decision, and I like the fact that McCarthy is a strong-minded, no-nonsense kind of coach. I don't think the Packers need a Parcells-esque disciplinarian, but they also don't need a softie. Sounds like McCarthy does well in the "rapport with players" department. As long as he isn't trying to be everyone's friend, he has a chance to do well in Green Bay.

The Olympics are coming!! The Games begin one month from today, on February 11, in Italy. I'm getting stoked. Yesterday, NBC announced their extensive coverage schedule, which includes over 400 hours of programming on a number of different channels. NBC will use cable networks CNBC, MSNBC, and USA to televise events live during the day, while NBC will carry extensive tape-delay coverage in primetime. I think my favorite days of NBC coverage will be February 12, 15, 18, and 25, for those days aren't scheduled to feature any figure skating. NBC says all 54 men's and women's hockey games will air live somewhere, which is awesome, though it seems to me that it will cause a direct hit in my productivity, especially if the US entries play well.

Just go, Reggie. I'm sure the taste of last week's Rose Bowl loss to Vince Young U Texas still lingers. I'm sure you'd love to go out on top as a national champion, just as Young has decided to do. But learn from your teammate. If Matt Leinart had come out last year, he would have been the number one pick. There wouldn't have even been a debate. Instead, he'll be lucky to go in the top three. Bush's stock can't be any higher than it is right now, and another season of getting banged around the college fields won't help him one bit. The NFL awaits. Make the move and be the top pick in the draft.

Wisconsin is winning again. I'm sure he'll get some accolades at some point, but it's amazing to me how Bo Ryan has done what he has done at Wisconsin without really getting any national media publicity. He's not even in the top tier of coaches in the Big Ten when you look at how they're thought of around the country. Despite losing a number of key contributors from last year's Elite Eight run, Bucky is off to a 13-2 start (3-0 in the Big Ten) after holding off Minnesota 64-62 Tuesday night in Minneapolis. The Badgers gave North Carolina a major scare in their regional final in Syracuse last year, but were written off by most after losing Mike Wilkinson and Clayton Hansen, among others. Once again, though, the Badgers have successfully retooled. With Alando Tucker and Brian Butch inside, along with Kammron Taylor outside, the Badgers are scoring more effectively than they did a year ago, and the defense hasn't wavered one bit. With Ohio State next week and more tough Big Ten games looming, now isn't the time to proclaim the Badgers as a serious candidate for a number one regional seed when the NCAA Tournament comes calling in March. That time, though, could be coming in the next month. With how they are scoring (76.4 PPG), this might be the most dangerous Wisconsin team Bo Ryan has coached.

Speaking of the Big Ten...The Gophers are behind the eight ball after the Bucky loss. Minnesota is 0-2 in the Big Ten. Realistically, the Gophers are going to need to pull an upset or two if they want to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Minnesota, again, has zero non-conference wins to lean on. They need to make their case now. They need to win the rest of their league home games (Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, Purdue, Indiana, Illinois), and steal at least three road games. That would get them to eight conference wins and 17 overall wins. That might be good enough to get them in the Dance as long as they win at least once in the Big Ten Tournament. For Minnesota, the magic number is nine. They need a total of at least nine conference wins (including in the league tournament) to give themselves a real shot at making the Field of 65.

Coming later this week...College hockey weekend preview, plus a look at the NFL Divisional Playoff games. Do I have the guts to pick Carolina over Chicago? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Note for the future proprietor of ""

One of my daily gigs is to record the Madden Minute, which is fed to us daily by Westwood One and aired on our sports radio station. It takes about five minutes, so it's not like the job is overly difficult or something like that.

However, the job can be quite painful when you have to hear Madden say things like this about Tom Brady:

He's really, uh, underrated.

How is someone who garners the attention Brady garners possibly considered "underrated"? Does anyone even know what the word "underrated" means anymore?

Brady has two rings, has been compared to JOE FREAKING MONTANA, and has been on the cover of every magazine this side of, as Michael Wilbon brilliantly pointed out on "PTI" yesterday, "Ebony".

Seriously - how is he underrated?

The more crap like this I hear, the more I hope that Grizzly Plummer and the Broncos take it to New England on Saturday night.

The Hall Call

Does it come today for Bert Blyleven? Probably not, and you could make an argument that it shouldn't come for anyone. Despite having the same cast of voters (for the most part) as last year, the Baseball Writers Association of America will almost certainly elect someone to the Hall this year that didn't make the cut a year ago. Or the year before that. Or the year before that. You get it.

Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage were close, but not close enough last year.

Blyleven is amazingly far away from induction.

Andre Dawson and Jim Rice got support, but it didn't get them anywhere near the required 75 percent of the vote.

At least one of the players listed above will go in this year.

The catch: None of them has played in a game since last year. So what makes them Hall-worthy now? Are the writers dead-set on putting at least one player in every year? Can they not see that their voting process is completely illogical?

I talked this morning on the radio about how at least one well-known BBWAA voter,'s Jayson Stark, has changed his mind and voted for Blyleven this year. Stark opined here about Blyleven, and he made an interesting point about the voting.

Because we don't get overwhelmed by new candidates in years like this, we have a chance to reconsider old ones. And in the case of this particular voter, that wound up leading me to cast a vote for a player I've resisted for eight agonizing years -- Blyleven.
I don't think that makes me a flip-flopper, or a guy just looking for someone to shove up onto the podium next July. It simply reinforced my conviction that my favorite part of being a Hall of Fame voter is that it teaches me so much about players I didn't cover or players I saw just a little in their primes.

Stark makes a point I hadn't thought of. While it doesn't explain to me how it's even possible that a guy like Blyleven could now be getting serious consideration after almost a decade of not getting any love, it does explain why an individual voter might alter his thinking from year to year.

I just hope that all voters think and deliberate as seriously about their ballots as Stark apparently does. Unfortunately, that is probably not the case.
Stark makes another great point about Blyleven's candidacy, a candidacy that I personally did not support until Rob Neyer finally clubbed me over the head enough times.

I admit I was swayed by a fabulous piece by Bill James in the new, indispensable "Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2006."
James couldn't figure out why a guy with Blyleven's stats won "only" 287 games, or ended up "only" 37 games over .500. So he walked through Blyleven's career, start by start, and then compared it to the careers of the best Hall of Fame candidates of that era.He found Blyleven had the worst run support of any pitcher in the group except Don Sutton and accumulated the most "tough losses," a stat James invented personally to measure losses in which pitchers deserved better. There is zero doubt Blyleven already would be a Hall of Famer if he'd won 300 games. And that research helped explain the mystery of why he didn't.

I'm not as much of a "stat geek" as others in my generation of baseball fans, but I do look at the numbers. When you watch a player, your eyes don't always tell you the whole story. You get caught up in things like hustle that don't mean as much as Harold Reynolds wants you think.

When you dive into the stats, you find out that Blyleven, according to Lee Sinins' new Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia CD-ROM thing that I have to go buy, allowed 344 runs fewer than the average pitcher of his day.

Sadly, most of the BBWAA have trouble checking their e-mail every day. Making them use tools like a encyclopedic CD would probably cause heads to explode.

If you care, this is how I would vote. I began supporting Blyleven two years ago, thanks to the aforementioned Neyer, and I continue to support Blyleven's struggling candidacy. We'll include only the ten or so candidates that may get enough votes to be worthy of discussion.

Albert Belle--> OUT. No way he gets in, especially given all the steroid flap this past year. But Belle should get enough support to stay on the ballot for a second year.

Bert Blyleven--> IN. He "only" won 287 games, but in an era where fans are beginning to better understand the overrated nature of the "win" statistic, it would be nice to see a guy like Blyleven recognized despite the fact that he fell short of the magical 300 wins.

Andre Dawson--> OUT. His knees sucked. But that's not a reason to vote for someone. That's a baseball injury. Baseball injuries happen. Dawson did a great job battling through them, but as long as Dale Murphy is on the outside looking in, then so is Dawson.

Rich "Goose" Gossage--> IN. The original great closer. Like Bruce Sutter, Gossage has taken forever, for some strange reason, to garner serious Hall support.

Jack Morris--> OUT. I've had trouble with this one, supporting Morris for a time. I know he threw a gem in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. One of the truly legendary pitching performances of all time. But he had a 3.90 career ERA, and he got great run support on his way to a great won-loss record. The Morris debate is great, because there are legitimate arguments on both sides, but I think the naysayers have the advantage here.

Dale Murphy--> IN. Until Murphy, who was a better player than Dawson, gets in, I can't support the real Hawk. Murphy had it all, including incredible character that would make the BBWAA proud to elect him. But they're not. In fact, Murphy's support has inexplicably dwindled over the years, to just 54 votes a year ago.

Jim Rice--> OUT. Borderline candidate who was clearly hurt by his reputation with the media. But he doesn't get in if he's likeable. The numbers just don't support it.

Bruce Sutter--> IN. Pioneer, though not inventor, of the split-fingered fastball. Pioneer of the relief pitcher role. 300 saves. He was the short reliever and the closer put together, much like Gossage was. And he was unhittable.

Alan Trammell--> IN. Not much of a manager, but that's not what we're talking about. Very good hitter and great defensive shortstop. Defensive abilities lost in the fact that he played at teh same time as Ozzie Smith, but there was no question who the better hitter was. I guess Trammell just didn't do enough cartwheels and/or backflips.

Randomization: 1/10/06

The cost of spitting in another player's face. Can anyone make sense of this? What kind of bizarro world are we living in where a sports league can fine one player $20,000 for wearing the wrong socks, while they fine another player on the same team $17,000 for spitting in the face of an opposing player? And the NFL gets away with it, amazingly, because it seems that no one wants to take the time to call the league out. This is ridiculous. Not only could you fairly and sanely argue that Sean Taylor deserves a one-game suspension for what he did (especially with a history of finable offenses and transgressions already dotting his record), but you certainly have to think the league has the authority to fine someone more than $17,000 for spitting in a man's face. The obvious answer here is that the league has no authority to dock a player for more than one game check without a suspension being included. However, if this is the case, the NFL needs to take a long look at that provision of their CBA. I'm not going to argue for a suspension of Taylor in this case, because I just don't think the crime is worthy of a one-game suspension in the playoffs. But a $17,000 fine is absolutely ludicrous and sends no message to the offending player.

Vince Young fever. I don't have it. Don't get me wrong - I absolutely am in awe of what Young did in the last two Rose Bowls, and he was the epitome of class before, during, and after the Rose Bowl this year. He was humble when he should have been pointing at various college football writers and reporters and asking them about their all-time great USC team and the all-time OMG BEST RUNNING BACK EVER Reggie Bush, who was apparently too busy curing cancer to be on the field on USC's critical fourth down play late in the fourth quarter. And I fully believe Young made the right decision entering the NFL Draft one year early. After these last two Rose Bowls and the season he just had, was there anything left for Young to do in college besides either 1) get hurt, or 2) get in trouble somehow? Furthermore, I think Young is going to be a pretty good pro. But let's not drug ourselves into thinking that Young is a better pro prospect than Matt Leinart.

I don't buy into the logic that running QBs can't win in the NFL, but even I have to admit that it's somewhat telling that the only QBs left in the playoffs are mainly pocket passers, with the possible exception of Grizzly Plummer in Denver, who still throws a lot more than he runs. The league caters to "pocket passers" because it's hard enough for a "pocket passer" to avoid injury. Running QBs take more hits, and thus are more prone to injury. And over the course of a season, a running QB is going to slow down a bit from all the hard contact. When that starts to happen, it becomes harder for that QB to elude the rush, and he needs to rely on his passing ability.

Young is a great athlete, but I'll cede to the scouts with ESPN Insider, who have already written about Young's passing skills:

Shows decent but not good arm strength. His mechanics need a lot of improving. Shows a low release point and, for the most part, shot-puts the ball as a passer. A better runner than passer at this point. Does not show a good comprehension of reading defenses and making progression reads. Is extremely raw as pocket passer and will need a lot of developmental tutelage in that area in the NFL. Still lacks ideal decision-making skills. Tries to force things when they are not available. Must learn to better protect the football. Takes too many chances when protection is breaking down and throws too many passes up for grabs. Is impatient in the pocket. Frequently takes off too early and does not allow his receivers enough time to separate.
This isn't to say that Young doesn't have upside, or that Young can't be great in the NFL. And it's not to say that he's foolish for leaving early. If you're going to be a top five pick, you're better off getting paid to learn the game.

I just think it's foolish to compare Young to Michael Vick, whom he's bigger and stronger than but doesn't have the passing skill of, or to Matt Leinart, whom he's faster and a better athlete than but doesn't have the passing skill or poise of. Young is probably a top five pick because of his upside, but many of the comparisons I've been reading lately are completely ridiculous. Let Young be Young.

Then again, these same guys can't let Tom Brady be Tom Brady, so I guess I understand where it's all coming from.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Randomization: 1/9/06

The Giants showed up...just not on time. Word we got was that the Giants reported to the stadium and commenced pregame warmups at around 4pm ET Sunday. The team was then informed that the game was played at 1pm and that Carolina had won and advanced. Coach Tom Coughlin said he thought something was up when he saw a dry-erase board propped up on one of the lower-deck seats with the words "BIG BLEW IT" scribbled on it. Coughlin said his team was told of a later start time by someone he believed to be an operative working on behalf of the jealous New York Jets.

Don't make me change my mind on Carolina. Yesterday was a shining example of why I wrote about not being able to trust this football team. They looked like a Super Bowl team, and I mean that. Delhomme was sharp, Smith made plays, and Foster ran very well. The question: Can they do it again? I don't doubt that they "can" do it again, but I need a few days to figure out if I'm going to have the guts to call the upset.

Not a good weekend to be a home team. Not only was New England the only home team to win this weekend, but they were the only home team to look like a decent team. Kinda throws this whole 16-game season thing out the window, doesn't it? Teams like the Buccaneers, Giants, and Bengals earned their division titles and earned their home games in the opening round. But none of them looked like playoff teams this weekend. The Bucs couldn't move or hold onto the ball, the Giants did very little right all afternoon, and the Bengals crumbled in the second half as Pittsburgh began to apply the pressure. I have a sneaking suspicion that the home teams will fare better this weekend.

Tom Brady is God. Since Reggie Bush and USC flopped in the Rose Bowl, ESPN has apparently decided that it's time to ride Brady's coattails right into the ground in Denver to the Super Bowl. I'll freely admit that Brady was very good on Saturday, but was his performance (at home and against a clearly inferior team) really that much better than Ben Roethlisberger's road game on Sunday in Cincinnati? Seriously, could Bill Cowher have drawn up a better game for Big Ben? He was accurate, efficient, smart, and he made some big plays with his arm, along with a key first down on Pittsburgh's first TD drive where he took off on third down and got some tough yards. But, no, Tom Brady carving up Jacksonville's defense was more impressive. Of course. I just wonder what the suits are going to say when Brady throws four picks and gets outplayed by Grizzly Plummer on Saturday night.

How? How do you total 120 yards and win? How does your QB hit 7 of 19 for 41 yards with a pick and get the win? I mean, good for Washington, but that was crazy. It shows what a dominant defense can do for you in the playoffs. However, if I were a Redskin fan, I wouldn't be counting on the same type of performance in Seattle. I will say this: I think there will be a ton of pressure on Matt Hasselbeck in this game. The Redskins will do what they did to Cadillac Williams and Chris Simms (they'll make Hasselbeck beat them because Shaun Alexander won't be allowed to get loose). The question everyone will have is whether Hasselbeck will fare well enough to get his team past Washington. I think he will, but it won't be easy. The Redskins' offense won't be held to 120 yards again, and Mark Brunell won't be held to 41 passing yards again. Seattle's going to have to score some points, and they're going to have to do it with some rather pedestrian receivers going against a very talented Washington secondary.

While we're at it...How can you not be ready for a trick play from the Pittsburgh Steelers? Shame on you, Cincinnati. And shame on Chad Johnson for not admitting that his team got pounded yesterday. I don't know that Carson Palmer would have helped much, though it certainly would have been more interesting in the fourth quarter if Palmer had not gotten hurt. Jon Kitna turned into a turnover machine in the second half, and he was a big reason why his team lost. My one complaint about the Bengals is that I don't think they get Rudi Johnson the ball enough. And they panic offensively when they fall behind. They become very predictable, even at times where they don't have to be predictable.

And one more thing...Kimo von Oelhoffen might be fined for the hit on Palmer that put him out, but he shouldn't be. Both his immediate reaction to the hit and his postgame mea culpa make it very clear that von Oelhoffen didn't intend to injure Palmer. In a league, however, that overprotects its QBs, it might not be enough to avoid the letter from the league asking for money. The true crime would be if the league decided to institute tighter rules on low hits on QBs. The last thing this league needs right now is another rule to protect QBs, especially when other rules that are supposed to protect players (horse collars, anyone?) go almost completely unenforced.

Friday, January 06, 2006

NFL Playoffs - Wild Card Weekend

The playoffs are here. Please refrain from the stupid Jim Mora joke. No, I mean it. Everyone's sick of it, and it's not funny anymore.

Normally, there are a couple "easy" games in the wild card round. You know...those games where the home team is a prohibitive favorite, or where the home team has Anthony Wright under center and virtually no chance of winning. They're going to happen.

Not this year.

All four games are tough, and all four games should be highly entertaining. We'll rank them and talk about them in my order of confidence with my pick, starting with the lowest (all times Central, by the way, because that's where I live).

--> Pittsburgh at Cincinnati, 3:30pm Sunday, CBS

I've gone back and forth a few times on this. I even tried to read Bill Simmons' old Playoff Gambling Manifesto on I'm just not sure what to think, so I'll follow my gut, which has been whispering "Pittsburgh" all week.

(That's a figure of speech. If my gut were really whispering "Pittsburgh", I would have sought professional help by now.)

I know the Steelers didn't look that good against the Bengals in Pittsburgh. They looked awfully average, as a matter of fact. And the Bengals still needed four turnovers to win the game. The Bengals turned into ballhawks this year, forcing 44 turnovers. But they can't rely on the turnover in this game.

I know I probably shouldn't, but I go back to their meeting in Cincinnati. You know what I'm talking about...the day that Jerome Bettis took over. He's got another one of those in him, and the Steelers have redemption on their minds after getting pushed around at home against these guys a few weeks ago.

The Steelers have a bit more savvy in situations like this. Not only that, but they have a better defense. Carson Palmer, TJ Houshmandzadeh, and Chad Johnson will have their day. This won't be it.

The pick: Pittsburgh

--> Washington at Tampa Bay, 3:30pm Saturday, ABC

This is another one I've had some trouble with. I actually told my father-in-law that I thought Tampa would win.

I don't.

Washington is hot. They've won five straight. They won three pressure-packed divisional games among the five. And had they not won all five, they wouldn't be here. Tampa, meanwhile, has stumbled a couple times, including a 28-0 loss in New England in a game they thought they needed to have. The Redskins have a solid veteran QB who won't cost his team a road playoff game. The Buccaneers have Chris Simms, the antithesis of what I just talked about.

The 'Skins have also discovered the vertical game with Santana Moss, and Clinton Portis is running well enough to make us all forget about those stupid disguises he wears for media sessions during the week.

Say what you want about Joe Gibbs, but he has his team peaking at the right time, and while they might not go all the way, I'm betting that the Seahawks are rooting hard for Tampa in this game, because they want no part of Washington next week.

The pick: Washington

--> Carolina at N.Y. Giants, 12pm Sunday, FOX

I don't know that I can say it any differently than this: I love the Giants in this game. Carolina has been too inconsistent to like much, with three terrible home losses (New Orleans??), along with awful road performances in Miami and Chicago. The Panthers have some talent, and Steve Smith scares the dickens out of anyone, but they're just not good enough to win a road playoff game.

Tiki Barber, meanwhile, is good enough. If he didn't have enough of a chip on his shoulder, now he has to watch while an undeserving player celebrates winning the NFL MVP award. Being that he plays in New York (kinda), what more does Barber have to do? He practically carried this team while Eli Manning was routinely forgetting what color jersey his receivers were wearing. How does Barber finish third in the MVP voting?

Anyway, Barber runs for 175, Manning takes care of the ball, Delhomme gets picked twice, and the Giants win.

The pick: New York

--> Jacksonville at New England, 7pm Saturday, ABC

What's with the love for Jacksonville in this game? Leftwich and Taylor are both nicked, and the last nine teams the Jaguars beat this year combined for 38 wins all season. The Jags are going on the road to Foxborough, where playoff dreams go to die, and they have to play the two-time defending champs. The only thing that can save Jacksonville is New England looking ahead to Indy next week, and I don't like the chances of something like that happening as long as Belichick is in charge. Especially when they won't be going to Indy next weekend (though they won't find that out until Sunday when Pittsburgh beats the Bengals).

Gee - I'm not sure why I'm so confident in New England.

The pick: New England

This sets up the following matchups next weekend:

Washington at Seattle
N.Y. Giants at Chicago
Pittsburgh at Indianapolis
New England at Denver

Randomization: 1/6/06

College football is over. That is never a good thing. The NFL playoffs are fun, but I hope the league realizes that they would never be able to hold a candle to a college football tournament. Too bad that the suits that are running college football are too set in their own (misguided) beliefs to understand that themselves. Someday, we'll have the playoff in I-A college football, but it's going to take Notre Dame, Michigan, USC, or Florida/Florida State/Miami being royally screwed over by the current system to make it happen. I like Auburn and all, but no one outside of Alabama gave a crap about them being screwed last year.

The BCS title game was one of the best college football games of the last decade. Many "experts" will continue to point to the USC-Notre Dame game from October as the best of the season. Why? USC-Texas had it all, including the occasional shot of great defense. And, fittingly, the game ended on a Vince Young TD run. Young was incredible, saving his team time and time again after the Longhorns' defense faltered in the second half. His last act was his best, as he sold the pass on fourth and five before sprinting untouched to the corner of the end zone for the winning six. Meanwhile, there was enough of the other stuff (player mistakes, officiating controversy, questionable coaching) to keep people talking about this game for a long time. It's a rare game, in that you could watch it over and over again and still be highly entertained by the great athleticism on display by both teams on both sides of the ball.

Young would be a fool to return to college. I agree with most NFL scouts who have opined on the subject of Young's pro prospects. The kid has great leadership skills, is extremely competitive, and possesses superb athleticism. However, Young has a lot of work to go in developing his throwing skills. Because of his strange throwing motion and the questions it will bring up, it's hard to say that Young is ready to be an NFL starter today. However, that doesn't change the idea that Young should come out now. He's not going to get his stock to rise any higher than it did with his performance on Wednesday night. He probably vaulted himself into the top 3-5 players taken, and there's a solid case he may be the first QB taken, ahead of USC's Matt Leinart. Under those circumstances, why stay in school? Let the team that drafts you pay you to develop in their system for a year before you become a starter. Leinart stayed in school a year ago, and while it was a nice warm-and-fuzzy story for college athletics that someone would pass up being the #1 pick in the draft to stay in school, Leinart only hurt himself, as there is virtually no chance he'll be the first player taken this year.

How fitting. In a year wrought with officiating controversies, especially in the bowl games, the college football season ends with a game wrought with officiating controversy. Was Reggie Bush's lateral actually a forward pass? Was Vince Young down when he pitched to Selvin Young for Texas' first TD? Was the Texas Defender Whose Name I Forgot down with possession of the ball on a potential interception before it popped out? Was the Texas Receiver Whose Name I Forgot in possession of the ball before he dropped it in the fourth quarter? The Texas TD play is especially rotten, because it could have and should have been reviewed. The apparent claim is that there was a technical problem in the replay booth, which makes me wonder why the game wasn't stopped so the problem could be repaired and the play reviewed.

And on one more USC-Texas note...where was Reggie Bush during USC's last drive? No, not the two-play drive that ended when the clock ran out. The drive that ended with the failed fourth-down run by LenDale White. How, when the game and the national title are on the line, do you have the Heisman Trophy winner standing on the sideline while someone else tries to run for the first down? Did Pete Carroll magically revert back to the form we saw him in when he coached in the NFL?

The Vikings have picked a head coach. Not surprisingly, it's Philly offensive coordinator Brad Childress. Childress, 49, has a good track record of offensive coaching, even though he's never called the plays in the NFL. Serving as Andy Reid's offensive coordinator and QB coach, Childress has gotten accolades for his work in developing Donovan McNabb into one of the league's top signal-callers, and he was thought to be practically a shoo-in to be a head coach this year, as at least four teams were interested. The Vikings got him in the fold before he could go to interviews in Green Bay and Houston, and reports are that Childress has agreed to a five-year contract. Viking fans will have mixed feelings about this. He's not the big name some of them probably wanted, but it's hard to deny the idea that it's a good hire for Minnesota. Childress has Upper Midwest ties (served as offensive coordinator at Wisconsin from 1992-1998), and his West Coast offense should be a good fit for a Minnesota team that has good possession-style receivers, but lacks the deep threat they had when they had Randy Moss. One can assume Childress will take the reins of the offense and call the plays, but fans shouldn't worry about something trivial like that. Reid is one of the best play-callers in the NFL, and he didn't start doing it until he became a head coach in Philly.

The Packers' search continues. And a name I didn't mention earlier in the week may have taken himself to the top of the list in Green Bay. Dallas assistant Sean Payton interviewed yesterday, and word is that Payton may be the favorite to take the job vacated this week when Mike Sherman was fired. Payton has an extensive offensive background, having worked with John Gruden in Philadelphia, Jim Fassel in New York, and Bill Parcells in Dallas. Payton's experience with quarterbacks is an asset, as he had a hand in big seasons from Kerry Collins with the Giants and Quincy Carter, who threw for over 3,000 yards as a starter in Dallas, along with Drew Bledsoe's good 2005 season. Reports are that Payton impressed Packers' GM Ted Thompson, but only time will tell if he returns for a second interview. Thompson has a full plate of interviews in the coming days, with San Diego defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, Chicago defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, San Francisco offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy, Cleveland offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon, and current Packer defensive coordinator Jim Bates among those expected to interview. Thompson needs to move quickly. One candidate (Childress) already blew off an interview because he decided to take another job. Thompson can't afford to lose another viable candidate.

The wrong guy won MVP. I really don't care much, but Shaun Alexander should not have won the NFL's Most Valuable Player award. Tiki Barber was the most valuable running back in the league, as he practically carried the Giants' offense during the frequent times where Eli Manning was struggling to throw the ball accurately to actual teammates. Not only that, but one can make the case that neither was as valuable to his team as Tom Brady was to the Patriots. I am not a Brady fan, nor am I fan of the attention he garners, but it's impossible to deny the idea that the Patriots would be absolutely sunk without Brady. He held everything together when defensive players were dropping left and right, and when the running game featured some Heath Evans guy.

No medal for Team USA. The World Juniors ended with Canada waxing Russia for the gold, and Finland beat the Americans 4-2 in the bronze medal game. See the post from Wednesday for more on Team USA's failures at the World Junior championships. Some tried to pin last year's disappointment on the coaching staff. With three different hand-picked guys running things this year, it's going to be a hard argument to make stick. And if it is the fault of the coaches, then the people who pick the coaches need to be held accountable for their apparently poor choices.

Will Ron Artest play again this season? Certainly not for Indiana. The Pacers are dead-set on trading him, but they are struggling in finding a suitable trade partner. The Timberwolves appear out of the running, as they don't want to give up Wally Sczcerbiak, who serves now as the only player on the team not named "Kevin Garnett" that can consistently score. Golden State coach Mike Montgomery has denied rumors that his team is at the front of the short line, and the Pacers aren't talking. For the time being, Artest isn't playing. He's been inactive for 13 games now, and will almost certainly never again suit up for the Pacers. It's too bad, really. It's one of a few mistakes Larry Bird has made since he started running the team. He should have traded Artest during the offseason when his reputation was poor, instead of waiting until it was obvious that he would have to move Artest.

And finally, congratulations to Duluth East boys' basketball star Cory Johnson. The senior, who is bound for Iowa State next year, broke Rick Rickert's all-time career scoring record at the school Tuesday night. He's a great kid and a fun player to watch, and I hope he continues to add to his record. He's currently 11th all-time in Minnesota boys' basketball in scoring, and he's certain to pass Sam Jacobson very soon.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Team USA falters again

Clearly out of gas and unable to match their opponents' skill or physicality, Team USA was again bounced from gold-medal contention at the World Junior Championships by Team Russia. The Russians ran roughshod in a four-goal third period to key a 5-1 win on Tuesday night, and they knocked off the Americans in the semifinals for a second straight year.

In the process, the Americans were made to look sluggish and, to a certain extent, soft. The Russians, I thought, really pushed Team USA around during the game, with the Americans only playing well in small spurts. The telling point to me was an early second-period power play where Team USA failed to even get set up in the Russians' zone, as Russia was able to beat the Americans to almost every loose puck, and the dump-and-chase game was missing a key element for the Americans: Chase. Team USA would dump the puck and charge after it, only to be beaten badly to the loose puck by a Russian player, who would clear the zone or, worse, make a pass to start a scoring chance. The Russian team had more, and better, scoring chances than the Americans did. On a Team USA power play.

Even though it was only 1-0 at the time, you got a sick feeling about the game. And when the Americans ran out of gas in the third, the sick feeling grew and grew. They'll have to play for bronze Thursday against Finland, while Russia and Canada battle for the gold.

Last year, EJ Hradek of ESPN Magazine posted a piece on about the problems Team USA had at the World Junior Championships in Grand Forks, ND. He made some legitimate points, but was widely ripped by those who follow USA Hockey for being too harsh on the program just one year after a gold-medal performance in Finland.

Until USA Hockey changes the way it prepares for the World Junior Championship, Team USA will not be a consistent contender. And with the number of good, well-meaning, passionate hockey people and talented young players in the United States, that is simply a shame.

The point of the article was to show a lack of organization at the top of USA Hockey. It's something that really hasn't changed in the past year. No one doubts that the people at the top mean well and want the US teams to do well, but it seems like there is a lot of head-butting and polticking going on at the top, and it doesn't have to be that way.

Please note that the point of this is not to lay blame at the feet of Walt Kyle or Scott Sandelin. Kyle (Northern Michigan) and Sandelin (UMD) are accomplished college coaches who were awarded the difficult assignment of coaching Team USA's entries in the last two WJCs. Sandelin got the job late in the game, as he was originally supposed to be an assistant to Dean Blais, who took himself out of the gig after he got a job in the NHL.

I still think we need a full-time coach at the World Juniors, and I still think, as I pointed out last year in agreeing with many of Hradek's sentiments, that we need to look at how we pick the players who end up on the team. Not only that, but was it wise to continue to run a kid like Jack Johnson into the ground by playing him insane numbers of minutes when it was clear (at least to me) that his play was starting to tail off after the Canada game? He said he fed off the venomous boos from the Norwegian Finland Swiss Czech Russian Canadian fans, but it really looked like he was gassed the last two games. There had to be a better option than the Johnson boys for 30 minutes a night.

(Though the other Johnson, Erik, may have played himself into #1 pick territory. I wasn't all that impressed with one-time consensus #1 pick Phil Kessel in this year's tournament, but Erik Johnson was incredible. The draft could be very interesting this summer.)

Good luck to the Americans in the bronze medal game. I hope they can use their day of rest well and rally back with a good effort on Thursday. A medal would be nice, though it wouldn't make many of us feel great about the tournament, as it was a tournament that many of us felt the Americans had a great chance to win.

As for the gold medal game, the treatment our kids got from the "fans" in Vancouver gives me no choice but to hope that Russia wipes the ice with Team Canada tomorrow night. I have nothing against the Canadian players, who play with great class and dignity and are a lot of fun to watch compete. It's the fans in the stands who could use a reality check. Booing our national anthem and cheering when our players are bleeding is not the way to operate. I'm confident that no American fan outside of Philadelphia would pull such crap.

Then again, maybe Vancouver is Canada's answer to Philadelphia. Look how they've treated Bertuzzi since his comeback, and imagine how they would treat Steve Moore if he ever played in the NHL again.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Be careful what you wish for

...because you just might get it.

It's an old saying, but it applies. No one is ever happy to see someone lose their job. Even if they had called for such an action to take place. Well, except for Donald Rumsfeld...whenever that happens.

The Packers fired Mike Sherman today. You probably heard about that. And it's the right move. I think I made that clear on December 20.

But it doesn't make me happy. I hate when good men lose their jobs, and I believe Mike Sherman is a good man. And I hate when my team has to fire their coach. The Packers fired Ray Rhodes in 1999, and I was livid. I didn't believe one (mediocre) year was good enough to judge a head coach over.

But then the stories came out. Guys running afoul of team rules, and nothing being done. Rhodes failing to rein in Brett Favre, who had his worst year since 1993. Poor on-field discipline, and the feeling that the team quit on the season during a late December game on national TV.

Sound familiar?

The mistakes Rhodes made were the same mistakes Sherman made, with the failure to instill solid on-field discipline and the failure to keep Favre under control being the most egregious crimes.

Now that Mike is gone, what to do?

Steve Mariucci? I would think that Thompson has to take a look at a guy like Mariucci, a West Coast offense guy who could come in and provide some stability for Favre (assuming that, as he approaches 37 next fall, Favre is looking for stability) and the offense. The question: Would Mariucci, who is due something like $10 million from the Lions after they fired him, want to coach again so soon? He'd be a good fit for a team that has a good number of veterans that wouldn't need any serious babysitting.

Jim Fassel? While he might want to change the offense a tad, it's hard to ignore his record with quarterbacks. After all, he got a team led by Kerry Collins into a Super Bowl before Collins finally reverted to previous form. Fassel could be a solid candidate for a number of openings, and Thompson may not think Fassel is worth the investment, which is likely to be pricey.

Jim Bates? Yes, he's nearing 60 years of age. But he doesn't look like it. Bates is a classic example of an old-school football coach. He runs around practice and probably gets more exercise than some of the players do. He's always teaching, and he's always trying to get his guys to play better. It's hard to argue against the idea that the defense got better as the season wore on, despite a number of injuries at linebacker and the presence of Mark Roman. I don't know if Bates would be a good fit as a head coach, but it's not the worst direction Thompson could go in. One worry I have is the message you get out of an organization that fires the head coach and hires from within, and that's that the organization is afraid of 1) change or 2) spending money.

Mike Tice? I just typed that. Yup. He'll get a second chance in this league, and one has to wonder how Tice could be such a terrible coach when he was able to rally his team on multiple occasions to get great play out of them while other teams would have quit under similar circumstances.

--> After a 3-10 start in his first year, Tice rallied the troops and got last-second wins over playoff contenders New Orleans and Miami in back-to-back weeks to key a 6-10 finish.

--> After Randy Moss walked off the field in Washington last year and the team backed into the playoffs, they were written off for dead heading into Green Bay for the Wild Card round. Tice got them to play hard, and they were rewarded with a resounding thumping of the division champion Packers.

--> Following a 2-5 start this season and a QB change due to injury, and all the turmoil surrounding this team, the Vikings finished 7-2 and nearly made the playoffs.

Someone did that. I don't know that it just happened. I think Tice can coach a little bit, but he was beaten down in Minnesota by disciplinary problems and a low budget (lowest-paid staff in the NFL thanks to Grampa Red the Car Dealer). Good assistant coaches, if you could find them on this budget, never would stay more than a year. And you don't win in this league without a great coaching staff...not just a great head coach. They understand that in Miami, where two or three assistants under Nick Saban cost more than Minnesota's entire staff of assistant coaches did for 2005. You can't be consistently competitive in a bare-bones operation.

With all that in mind, I think Tice is an assistant coach in 2006. The disciplinary problems in Minnesota could have been, in part, the result of the bare-bones staff (both coaching and front office). But they happened, and to a certain extent, those issues will follow Tice because he was the head coach.

Kirk Ferentz? With his son ready to graduate from Iowa, Ferentz might be ready to move on to the NFL. There's no question in my mind that he can coach, but can he put an NFL-caliber staff together? That's the question.

Brad Childress? Philly's offensive coordinator appears ready to move up. I don't know much about his work with the Eagles, as Andy Reid usually serves as primary play-caller. But that's not all that the coordinator does.

I don't know what Thompson will do. I also don't know what Favre will do. But I know that one shouldn't impact the other. If Favre wants to come back, he should come back. It's not like someone is going to look at Favre and want to change everything about the offense, especially when you consider how well Favre played, at times, despite all the skill players he lost during the season. And Thompson shouldn't let Favre dictate who coaches this team. If Favre wants to retire, wish him well, throw him a parade, and move on. The fans will follow you because that's what they do...even if they talk tough for a little while first.

A quick note on the Tice firing. I really don't have a problem with Zygi Wilf's decision. Or the timing. But I have a problem with the execution of his decision. No one's son should ever have to find out that Dad got fired through a press release handed to him by someone else. Before that press release was distributed, Tice needed to have time to gather his players and make them aware of this move, and Wilf needed to take the time to explain to the players the reasons for the move. The timing was such that Tice had to frantically call his wife on her cell phone so she wouldn't find out from the media first. That's not right - no matter what you think of the man or the job he did.

For Wilf's sake, I hope it's not a reflection on the kind of organization he will be running in Minnesota. Because if it is, they won't go far, no matter how much money Wilf spends on players, coaches, front office staff, or on repairs for the wooden boat outside team headquarters.

In the end, the right move was probably made, and Wilf now can hire a GM and pick the right coach for the job. Then it's time to spend some of that $25 million in cap space the Vikings enjoy and make sure the draft runs smoothly. Good luck.