Thursday, April 30, 2009

This is Awesome

[HT: Larry Brown Sports.]

When gone are Skip and Larry, the last of the the play-by-play Jedi will Steve Holman be.

For the record, I didn't think that Wade's foul on Mo Evans was terrible, but coming after a sequence in which he got all frisky with Solomon Jones, a flagrant fould call was inevitable.

For the record, Eric Spoelstra is the NBA version of Lane Kiffin.

For the record, I am hearting Zaza right now something fierce. The last time I felt this way, the year was 1991, I was still a huge Pittsburgh Penguins fan (we lived in Pittsburgh when I was a kid and Atlanta didn't have an NHL team), and the player I was hearting was Ulf Samuelsson. Every team needs a guy who annoys the crap out of the opponent. (I so want to make a Dwyane Wade/Cam Neely reference here, but I'm not that kind of girl.) A good playoff series needs some morbo and Hawks-Heat now has it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Are you Jose Mourinho in Disguise?

Four years ago, newly wealthy Chelsea came to the Camp Nou for the first leg of a Champions League knock-out tie and parked the bus in front of goal. Chelsea were aided by a Barca own goal totally against the run of play before losing 2-1. After the game, the Catalan press were incensed that Chelsea could spend hundreds of millions of pounds and then play as if they were Sheffield United when they went on the road. If a team is full of elite talent, then it ought to play like it.

The song remains the same. Chelsea's manager is different and many of their players are different, but the result is the same. The Blues came to Barcelona and deployed the most expensive ten-man defensive wall since...Manchester United did the same thing last year. I expected more from Guus Hiddink. If Chelsea took a risk tonight, I must have missed it. Instead, they deployed Frank Lampard and Michael Essien, two of the best midfielders in the world, as auxiliary defenders. Their ostensible second forward Florent Malouda was charged with retreating to help defend against Leo Messi and Dani Alves. Didier Drogba was completely isolated up front. The only chance that he had in the match was handed to him on a silver platter by Rafa Marquez.

Although I am happy to heap plenty of scorn on Chelsea for playing gutless football, Barca deserve some blame for the 0-0 scoreline. The Blaugrana looked a little tentative, almost like they were spooked by the occasion. Leo Messi was certainly off of his normal form. Chelsea were able to clog the normal passing lanes through the middle, so Barca were forced to shoot from outside or face a sea of yellow jerseys in the box. Earlier in the season, the Blaugrana were able to thwart such tactics by being more effective at scoring from corners and Dani Alves' crosses. Today, Chelsea snuffed out Barca's corners completely and Bojan missed the one great chance to score off of an Alves cross, heading over from four yards out. True to his reputation as an attacker who cannot score, Alexandr Hleb then followed Bojan's miss with one of his own when he was one-on-one with Petr Cech.

The worst aspect of the game tonight is that Chelsea now stand a great chance of being rewarded for anti-football. They made no effort to play, but now they take a draw back to London and know that Barca will have no idea who to play a center back with Puyol suspended and Marquez injured. The next man in line is Martin Caceres, but he is hardly ready for prime time. Also, Chelsea will likely get the breaks from the ref that Barca didn't get tonight when Wolfgang Stark refused to hand out yellow cards for cynical challenges and then didn't award a penalty for an obvious pull on Thierry Henry's shoulder in a scoring position.

I'm very frustrated right now, if you can't tell. All of the negative feelings about Chelsea that have ebbed away after Mourinho took his dog and pony show to Milan have come rushing back. If you're going to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on a team, then you might consider playing football as opposed to recreating the Great Wall of China.

This Worked Three Years Ago

Monday, April 27, 2009


Five Thoughts on the Hawks Equalizing with the Heat:

1. Did anyone else feel a little skeptical that Dwyane Wade was struggling though a bad game, then his coach magically asserted that his back was bothering him, at which point Wade went off in the fourth quarter? Then, with 90 seconds to go and the Hawks having beaten back the Heat's rally, Wade initiates a little contact with Joe Johnson and all of a sudden his back is hurting again? So, just so we're clear, Wade's back hurts when he's playing poorly and then when the game is over, but it's fine when he's hitting shots left and right to lead a rally.

2. Someone should put the fourth quarter into a time capsule so future generations will know the Platonic ideal of a Josh Smith performance. One minute, he's hoisting up a 22-footer with 18 seconds left on the shot clock when the Heat had narrowed the deficit to nine points. The next minute, he's flying after an offensive rebound and then hitting a cutting Flip Murray as Smith is falling out of bounds. The former play is easily correctable and obviously dumb, yet Smith keeps making it. The latter play involved athleticism, hustle, and terrific basketball smarts to know exactly where his teammate was. They were made by the same player.

3. The most ominous development this series: Jermaine O'Neal is playing well. I'd normally feel good about a best-of-three with two of the three games at Philips, but O'Neal giving Miami a post threat and a jump shooter to go with Wade is a problem.

4. Tonight's game was the 86th of the season. Back when this march began in November, it was assumed that the Hawks' bench would be the team's weakness. Tonight, in a must-win game in late April, the Hawks' crunch time lineup included two members of the allegedly soft bench: Flip Murray and Zaza Pachulia. Those two were instrumental in the win, combining for 23 points and 23 rebounds. Meanwhile, Miami's bench contributed a whopping two points.

5. I dislike everything about Miami. I don't like the people who live there, a collection of schmucks who have all of the obnoxiousness of New Yorkers without any of the taste. I wouldn't put the '72 Dolphins in the top five NFL teams of the Super Bowl era and yet they're on my TV every fall. I resent the travesty that was the 2006 Finals. And now, I'll add to my disdain the way the Heat play basketball. I'm not sure what James Naismith had in mind when he invented the game, but I'm pretty sure that it wasn't every fourth quarter offensive possession consisting of an isolation up top for one player. I've said it before and I'll say it again: this is a series between a player and team. For the sake of basketball and humanity, the team should the Hawks rather than the Heat can have the honor of losing in five to the Cavs.

Drafty Stuff

1. I completely agree with this statement from Andrew Perloff regarding the NFL's current character obsession:

In Moneyball terms, it seems that “character issues” are another opportunity for the wise teams to get more value out of a pick. The Patriots are better at choosing personnel than anyone, and they seem to add a character risk every year now (Corey Dillon, Randy Moss, Brandon Meriweather, etc.). This year they chose North Carolina WR Brandon Tate, who reportedly failed a marijuana test at the combine, in the third round. If a team has strong enough leadership, adding character issue players is clearly not a problem.

This thought occurred to me as I was doing a grocery run on Saturday afternoon and was subjected to John Kincaid ranting about the Bengals making a terrible decision taking Andre Smith. Kincaid is an extreme example of the sports radio tendency towards moral judgments in place of actual sports analysis. It's not easy to evaluate Andre Smith as a left tackle. It's easy to get up on the soap box and attack him for showing up to the Combine fat.

There are two possibilities here. One is that certain NFL teams (but not the Patriots, who are one of the three best-run franchises in football) have become obsessed with the moral judgments that are normally the province of media personalities who are seeking to push emotional buttons for ratings or clicks. The other is that NFL teams have not gone in that direction, but any time they say something remotely related to the character issue, the media picks it up and runs with it. I'm going with the latter explanation.

The whole "he's got bad character!" thing drove me especially crazy with two players this year: Andre Smith and Percy Harvin. Both were huge recruits when they came to college. Both started from day one, the latter at a program full of talent. Both performed at an extremely high level in the best conference in the country for three years. Both were subject to criticism on grounds that had nothing to do with their resumes as three-year starters at major programs. In the end, both went higher than most mock drafts had them going, which is evidence that the "he smoked weed! He's not in great shape!" hyperventilation is more media creation than actual factor in decision-making. It's almost like NFL teams remember that Warren Sapp and Randy Moss both plummeted out of the top ten for character issues and are both going to end up in the Hall of Fame.

2. I'm not enamored with this statement from Perloff:

Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Baltimore's Joe Flacco were able to transcend expectations as rookie quarterbacks because they had strong running games and defenses around them. The three first-round QBs in this year's draft (Stafford, Sanchez and Josh Freeman) don't have that luxury. Sanchez is the only one with even a slim chance of playing for a playoff team.

At this time last year, no one thought that Matt Ryan was going to be in a good situation in Atlanta. The offensive line was a disaster and the receivers were underwhelming. Is there any reason why the Jets or Bucs won't be similarly surprising on offense? And Perloff is overstating the case a little bit when he says that the Falcons put a strong defense around Ryan last year.

3. NFL teams are catching onto the fact that Big Ten running backs are not a great investment. You would have thought from the in-season hype last year that Beanie Wells and Javon Ringer were the best running backs in college. In the end, Wells barely made the first round and Ringer went with the last pick of the fifth round. If I were to pick a diamond in the rough among the running back picks, I'd go with James Davis, a good athlete and big recruit who suffered at Clemson because of a bad offensive design, a suspect offensive line, and a carry-splitting situation.

4. I like the Falcons' Peria Jerry pick. I was not wild about William Moore over Rashad Johnson, mainly because the rap on Moore seems to be that he's a safety who makes bad decisions and that's a little like a surgeon with the shakes.

5. Based on my current theory that NFL teams should be very careful spending high picks on quarterbacks from elite college programs because those quarterbacks never have to learn how to throw to covered receivers under intense pressure, I'm not overly enthusiastic about the Stafford or Sanchez picks. I don't think that either guy will be terrible, but they won't be top shelf in the NFL. Then again, I thought that the Falcons were making a colossal mistake taking Matt Ryan last year, so what do I know?

6. The NFL Network's coverage of the Draft was WAY better than that of ESPN.

Friday, April 24, 2009

BurritoBlogging with Love

Edinson Volquez just walked Javier Vasquez with the based loaded and two outs. Can Jayson Stark tell us when a team last scored three straight runs over two games from based-loaded walks?

I dig the fact that Yunel is a hothead. This team needs a little of that. I hope that the rumors that he rubs his teammates the wrong way are not true. I like to imagine that the Braves all get along, even if I have a hard time imagining Dave Ross and Rafael Soriano having dinner at Chili's.

Since we're on the topic of Bond movies, there's a "McCann as Largo from Thunderball" analogy coming if he keeps hitting .190.

Brandon Phillips just stole third and Chipper didn't bother to cover the base. For a Braves icon, I don't love Larry Wayne. He doesn't make me feel all warm and fuzzy like the Big Three did.

If I were a major league ballplayer, I'd go with stirups up to the bottom of my knee. That look is phenomenal.

Have statheads ever thought about dropping strikeouts of opposing pitchers out of overall strikeouts in the same way that they drop intentional walks out of overall walks?

I try to avoid cheesecake on this site and I certainly avoid NSFW pictures. That said, if Barca win this weekend at the Mestalla and Real lose at the Sanchez Pizjuan, then the Blaugrana can clinch La Liga on the homefield of the arch rival next week. If that happens, expect a YouPorn clip of a man climaxing on this site. There's no way to avoid it.

The Comcast guy is supposed to come by between 11 and 2 tomorrow. Odds of that actually happening? One in four?

Has anyone else noticed that Saturday Night Live's best skits are all towards the end of the episodes over the past several months? I have a theory on this. Like a general fighting the last war, Lorne Michaels was affected by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler resuscitating the show, so he is trying to turn Kristen Wiig into the next female star. Cute though she may be, she's just not that funny. As a result, her mediocre skits are up front and then the funny skits with the actual strenght of the cast - Hader, Sudeikis, etc. - are later. Michaels and company have a decent cast now, but they don't know what their strengths are. The other problems with the early skits are that they don't have a good Obama impersonator and their political skits pale in comparison to what the Daily Show offers.

Time to eat.


I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I was probably the only person in the Metro area (other that my brother Dan) who heard yesterday that the Falcons had acquired Tony Gonzalez and thought to myself: "Excellent! Now we have a star tight end who shares a name with the assassin who killed the Havelocks at the start of For Your Eyes Only before getting an arrow in the back from their vengeful daughter." For the same reasons, I'll miss Mark Sanchez at USC because he reminded me of Robert Davi every time he dropped back to pass and then I would think of Talisa Soto.

Hopefully, Gonzalez will arrive without the proverbial arrow sticking out of his back. I'm usually skeptical of the local teams acquiring big name players on the tail ends of their careers. When a team does that, it's usually acquiring the name and the salary, but not necessarily the talent. That said, Gonzalez's numbers last year were very good. Football Outsiders' numbers ranked him as the best tight end in the NFL on an aggregate basis. He wasn't quite as good on a per play basis, but one would expect that that is a result of Gonzalez having to catch passes from Tyler Thigpen and therefore having to make more difficult grabs than Martellus Bennett, who finished #1 on a per play basis after a year of catching passes from Tony Romo and benefiting from coverages drawn to Terrell Owens and Jason Witten.

The best aspect of this move is that it allows the Falcons to concentrate 100% on the defense with their early round picks. There are a host of holes to be filled on that side of the ball. Come to think of it, there isn't a single position where you could say that the Falcons are set. Maybe middle linebacker with Curtis Lofton? That said, if Rey Maualuga fell to the Falcons, they'd be foolish not to take him. I'd be happy with any of the USC linebackers, especially Brian Cushing because that would set me up for a fall of horrendous Grand Moff Tarkin jokes. You may stuff the runner when're far too trusting, Drew Brees...Lofton, release him! I'm tingling right now.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

180 Degrees

Some random thoughts on the Catalan Football Collective as they storm towards the denouement of an epic season:

1. Various writers have tried to grapple with the difference between this year's Barcelona, a side in position to win everything before them, and last year's side, a stumbling shadow of their former selves. There are three new players in the rotation and a new coach, but the strength of the team - the front five of Iniesta, Xavi, Henry, Eto'o, and Messi - is basically unchanged. One instance from last night's destruction of third-place Sevilla is a great example of what's different:

At the very start of the clip, you see a Barca player dashing back in the midfield to knock the ball off of a Sevilla defender and directly to Andres Iniesta. The player who did that is left forward Thierry Henry. In 2007-08, Henry could not be bothered to track back. I got annoyed with him repeatedly for losing the ball and then simply giving up on a play. Last night, Barca took the lead after 150 seconds because Henry worked his tail off to retrieve the ball after Barca lost it and knocked it to Iniesta, who then did the rest.

2. I recommend this article by Simon Kuper (certified expert on all things Dutch and, therefore, Barcelona) on Xavi's role as Barca's fulcrum. (HT: FCB News.) Kuper makes the point that Barcelona have a defined way of playing and Xavi fills the role of a #4 - the central midfielder who initiates the attack and sprays the ball around - perfectly, just like his coach Guardiola did before him. Here's the money graf:

Xavi did not seem to want to become a Catalan hero like Guardiola. He did not do the things that get footballers headlines, like squabbling or being transferred or scoring lots of goals. He never spoke much. At 5ft 7in tall, he was no superhero. All he did was hit passes, left to right, up and down, like someone filling in a crossword puzzle at top speed. Just as the legendary Chelsea defender Ron “Chopper” Harris incarnated the foul, Xavi incarnates the pass.

The article describes Xavi in the same way that adoring Manchester United fans describe Paul Scholes: an unassuming guy who just wants to play midfield properly and then go home at the end of the day. Everything that Deco was off the pitch, Xavi is not. He's Chelsea's problem now. Speaking of United...

3. I'm not assuming that Barca are going to beat Chelsea. Of the three remaining EPL sides, Chelsea are the most challenging match-up for two reasons. First, Michael Essien presents a serious challenge in terms of his ability to disrupt Xavi's role as the fulcrum. To me, the talk of Essien filling in at leftback is ludicrous. If Chelsea omit him from the midfield, then Barca will run roughshod around Ballack and Mikel. Last night's game illustrates that Barca can score plenty of goals without Messi, so Chelsea with Essien at left back would find themselves in a position where their efforts to negate Messi would leave them exposed everywhere else. Second, Guus Hiddink is the best knock-out manager remaining in the Champions League. I worry about his ability to tactically address what Barca do, although I'm a little comforted that a Dutchman won't try the ten behind the ball approach that Mourinho or Benitez would in this situation. The fact that Barca have the second leg on the road three days after a trip to the Bernabeu doesn't help.

That said, if Barca do get past Chelsea and into the Final, I'd rather play Manchester United there. This isn't because I think that Barca match up better with United. Arsenal would be a good match-up for Barca because of the injuries to their backline and because they try to play Barca's style, only with slightly inferior players. United have a solid defense and the sort of offensive players who can win a match against the run of play.

That said, Barca are coming close to completing one of the great seasons in recent memory. The Blaugrana are in the Final of the Copa Del Rey. They are six points clear in La Liga, having dropped only 15 points out of a possible 96 and having scored 19 more and conceded nine fewer than any other side in the Primera. They are in the semifinals of the Champions League, having won the first two knock-out rounds by a combined score of 11-4. If Barca finish the season with a treble, they'll go down as one of the best teams in recent history. They're not just playing for titles; they're playing for history. With those stakes, the perfect conclusion to the season would be to beat the defending European champions and two-time defending champions of the form league in Europe. The risks are greater if United is the opponent in Rome, but the rewards are greater. And after having listened to Arsene Wenger piss and moan after the final in Paris, I'd love to hear Sir Alex Ferguson, a guy who is so noted for being magnanimous in defeat, do the same.

And if it doesn't happen, this has been a helluva run.

Cutting Edge Analysis

In game one, the Heat couldn't throw the ball into the ocean from outside. Dwyane Wade had a good first half (7/14 for 16 points, if I recall correctly), but the Heat were down 20 because they got nothing from the supporting cast. Last night, the Heat got six threes from Daequan Cook and 19 points on nine shots from the artist formerly known as Jermaine O'Neal.

We all like to imagine that our teams control their own fates. When our teams win, it's because they played well and when they lose, it's because they played poorly or, more likely, because the coach is an idiot. That's not always the case and the first two games are good examples. If the Heat are going to shoot 15 for 26 from behind the arc, then the Hawks aren't going to beat them. If Jermaine O'Neal is going to be a significant presence in the post, then the Hawks aren't going to beat them. Dwyane Wade is the best player on the floor, so if the Hawks don't whip the Heat with their 2-8 players, then they aren't going to win. I wish that I had something novel to say about the first two games or the series, but it isn't any more complicated than that.

Oh, and I suppose that I should also mention that the good Josh Smith has shown up for the first two games and we have to hope that he also shows up in Miami. I definitely like him being chippy with the other team. It's better that he's squabbling with Jamaal Magloire as oppsed to Mike Woodson.

Friday, April 17, 2009


I am in a great mood tonight. The weather is perfect, I have a slight buzz, my eldest boy did a great job polishing off a blue popsicle, and "Cowgirl in the Sand" hit me just right in the car. Speaking of Neil, I listened to "Too Far Gone" in the car on the way home from work and decided that it is top ten for me in terms of remembering the romantic angst of high school. And in my world, it was all angst.

With Chipper out, the Braves get nothing from any of the four corner spots. They're a bizarro lineup: strong at the hardest spots to fill and weak at the easiest.

There is an Ohio State fan sitting next to me at the bar and two older dudes are prosecuting him about the Southeastern Conference being all over the Big Ten. I keep waiting for the Buckeye to say something to ignite me. No luck yet. On second thought, what could I possibly say when the Vest owns me? My neighbor does use silverware, so there's something new.

I am feeling Jair Jurrjens right now. He just pitched out of runner on third and one out. I am still befuddled as to how bases loaded and no outs earlier yielded no runs. I'm feeling a 1991 game seven flashback. For the record, I have always defended Lonnie Smith for falling for the Knoblauch fake. We don't know that he would have scored and it's not his fault that third and second and no outs produced no runs. On the other hand, how is Jack Morris's rep different if Smith scores on Pendleton's hit and the Braves win 1-0? Kinda like how Zidane's reputation is a little different if Buffon doesn't make the amazing save on his header in the 2006 World Cup Final and he never rhino-charges Materazzi.

I read Bill Simmons' pissing and moaning about KG's injury last night and had one thought: this is a Boston fan in his natural habitat. Screw all the championships; he is most familiar with the terrain of "woe is me!". It's such an unforeseeable shock and injustice that a team with three stars over 30 would finally have a major injury. Boo f'in hoo. And I say this with the caveat that I've been enjoying Simmons' podcast recently.

Johnny Cash has a.great song called "I Never Picked Cotton." It's about how he was always his own man and marched to the beat of his own drummer. I think of it every time my boss makes me apostrophe and an "s" after a word ending in "s" even when I'm sure that it doesn't belong based on the sound of the word. I pick cotton. Or, as Dylan says, we all gotta serve somebody.

Tony Barnhart did something annoying this morning. In his ppst about questions for this weekend, he referred to Russell Shepherd as the top quarterback recruit in the country. I don't know of a single service that had anyone but Matt Barkley as the top high school quarterback, but Barnhart has to play the regional card. Would it have killed him to refer to Shepherd as a top quarterback as opposed "the" top quarterback?

As of April 17 and without having scoured Phil Steele, my conference sleeper is Arkansas. I was right about Ole Miss last year, so pay attention, 007.

My favorite players on the local pro sports teams:
Braves - Kelly Johnson
Falcons - Jerious Norwood
Hawks - Al Horford
Thrashers - no one thanks to Don Waddell

Starting this weekend, Barca have five big La Liga matches including contests against the rest of the top of the league, two matches against Chelsea, and the Copa del Rey final. For those of you who like the blog and don't like footie, I apologize in advance. Incidentally, I'm a little inclined to root for United against the Arse because Barca have a chance of being an all-time great team and the best way to achieve that would be to beat the defending European champs and two-time defending EPL champs in Rome. Might even make the Blaugrana the team of the decade, right Klinsi?

Adam Rittenberg: Labeling the Rational Choice as "Desperate" since Yesterday

With Stewart Mandel off in Shangri-La and Terence Moore having given up the notion that Juan Pierre is the solution to the Braves' perpetual left field woes, I've been looking for new material. Adam Rittenberg, come on down!

Michigan offers Paulus chance to compete at QB

Wow, that's a big story! I'm very interested to know if you're going to have quotes from Michigan's coaches to back up the notion that a guy who hasn't played football in four years is going to step in front of two four-star recruits, one of whom has already gone through a spring practice as the starter and went 11-14 in the spring game.

As amazing as it sounds, former Duke basketball player Greg Paulus has an offer from Michigan to compete for the starting quarterback job this fall.


Paulus visited the Wolverines' final practice of the spring on Tuesday and met with head coach Rich Rodriguez and his assistants. He's receiving interest from other college teams, including his hometown Syracuse Orange, but right now Michigan is the only real possibility.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this wild story is the fact that Paulus didn't even throw or work out for Rodriguez or his assistants on Tuesday but still has a chance to join the team.

"It was a visit," Paulus said Thursday morning. "There was no throwing the ball around or anything like that. There was no workouts. There was nothing like that."

OK, so our news flash so far is that Greg Paulus visited Michigan and didn't throw the ball. Fascinating.

This is a guy who hasn't played football in four years. Sure, he was a great high school quarterback, but to expect him to grasp the spread offense in one summer and win a starting job seems pretty far-fetched. Reeks of desperation, don't you think?

File this under the heading of "no s***, Sherlock." Michigan's current depth chart at quarterback consists of the aforementioned true freshmen - Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson - and a walk-on - Nick Sheridan - who was atrocious last year. Forcier looked promising in spring practice, but he isn't the biggest guy in the world. Robinson is a great athlete, but he might be a little raw as a quarterback. He had offers from a number of major SEC powers, but probably not to play under center. (Insert wishful Pat White analogy here.) Faced with this situation, what coach in his right mind would not look to bring in additional options? So naturally, because Rittenberg wants to stir the drink and get suckers like me to link his article, the rational choice becomes desperation.

Paulus reiterated that holding a clipboard and wearing a backwards hat aren't what he's planning to do next fall.

"The chance to compete for a starting job is important," he said. "With me only having an opportunity to play for one year, the chance and the opportunity to compete at a high level is important. There is an opportunity to do that at Michigan."

The lead on this story strongly implied that Michigan has promised Paulus a shot as a starter. A casual reader would also infer that Michigan is not happy with the performance of its quarterbacks in the spring. When you get to the actual meat of the article, you get Paulus saying that there is an opportunity to start at Michigan. Tellingly, he doesn't say that he was told this by anyone at Michigan. I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that Paulus bases that statement on the fact that he has eyes and has seen Michigan's depth chart at quarterback. He's drawing his own conclusion as to the possibilities if he spends a year in Ann Arbor.

That's what makes the title of the article and the opening paragraph so f***ing misleading. You would think that Michigan is begging Paulus to come to school to be the immediate starter. Instead, there is absolutely no evidence to support the implication. I hate using this term because it makes me sound like Bernie Goldberg, but that's wildly irresponsible journalism. Did Rittenberg even bother to talk to Michigan's coaches about what they said to Paulus? Did Dick Vitale write this article?

Michigan has given Paulus no firm deadline to make the decision, but the former Duke point guard knows the sooner he finalizes his plans, the better off his chances are of grasping a new offense.

As for that pesky eligibility issue, Paulus is on pace to graduate from Duke in May. Since he never redshirted in basketball and will complete his degree in four years, he can go elsewhere, enroll in graduate school and play immediately. Paulus said a strong graduate program means a lot to him, and Michigan would certainly qualify.

Rittenberg might want to mention that the NCAA rule permitting athletes to transfer for a fifth year without sitting out if they have graduated in four years is a very new phenomenon. Urban Meyer made use of the rule in 2006 to bring in Ryan Smith in an effort to shore up a leaky defensive backfield. Smith was all-SEC in 2006 and Florida won the national title on the back of a terrific defense. Was Urban "desperate" when he brought Smith in? Or was he just being logical and using every available legal avenue to shore up depth chart issues?

I've gone back and forth on the Paulus situation.

This might be a low-risk, high-reward move for Michigan, which can move forward with Tate Forcier, Denard Robinson or Nick Sheridan if Paulus doesn't pan out. But it also sends a curious message to Forcier and Robinson as well as a fan base that seemed to be finally warming to Rodriguez. Couldn't see this happening at Michigan under the old guard.

It's not that this "might be" a low-risk, high-reward move; it is a low-risk, high-reward move. Michigan will have fewer than 85 scholarship players in 2009. There is literally no downside to bringing Paulus in as he is filling an unused scholarship for one year. I suppose you can claim that bringing Paulus in will unsettle Forcier and Robinson, but that is true any time a team brings in a new recruit. Did Michigan unsettle Forcier and Robinson when it got a verbal from rising high school senior Devin Gardner, who will likely be rated ahead of Forcier and Robinson by Rivals when the season is over? Is the lesson that a team should never bring in new quarterbacks once it has two freshmen ready to play the position? This is what Rittenberg finds "curious."

And what Michigan fan with an IQ over 70 finds this move curious? Again, the current starter is a 185-pound true freshman. Oddly enough, football players will occasionally sustain "injuries" that prevent them from playing. If one of these "injuries" should befall Forcier, then the options will be another true freshman whom most SEC programs saw as a great receiver or corner and Nick Sheridan. Michigan fans have seen Sheridan play. That's why they can't possibly find it curious that Rodriguez would bring in a quarterback who would make the prospect of Sheridan seeing the field less likely. This move is not an indictment of Forcier and Robinson. It's impossible to indict two quarterbacks who have 15 practices under their collective belts. Instead, it's an acknowledgment that Michigan needs more depth at quarterback other than Sheridan. Paulus may be rusty, but he was good enough four years ago to be a blue chip prospect. This means that he has (or once had) a strong, reasonably accurate arm and sufficient size. Nick Sheridan has none of these things. I'm sure he's a great guy and good to his mother, but any strategy that makes him taking a meaningful snap a less likely proposition is a good strategy.

And that last backhanded shot about the old regime not doing something like signing Paulus is total crap. First of all, the rule only existed at the very tail end of Lloyd Carr's tenure. Second, Lloyd recruited Russell Shaw from a junior college when Michigan's depth chart at receiver looked bad. He recruited Austin Panter from a junior college when Michigan's depth chart at linebacker looked bad. he recruited the academically dubious Marques Slocum when the depth chart at defensive tackle looked bad. If Lloyd were faced with two true freshmen and a quarterback whom MGoBlog subtly nicknamed "Death," he would also be scouring the waiver wires for options.

And what about me?!? Shouldn't I get the benefit of an entire year of Stalingrad references? If Michigan is going to get bad quarterback play, shouldn't I at least have the pleasure of imitating Hitler's rant when von Paulus surrendered to the Red Army rather than commiting suicide? (Note to self: I think the whole rant is in Alan Clark's Barbarossa. Make sure you read that section before we play Notre Dame.)

Got to run to Ohio State now, but I'll have more on this as it develops.

I can't wait.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Five Thoughts on the Champions League Semifinals

1. This has been the best Champions League in recent memory in terms of exciting knock-out games. Pair this tournament with a proper football-playing Spain winning the Euros and I think that soccer is in a great patch right now in terms of risk-taking and excitement in big games. I'd like to think that Spain winning the Euros caused club managers to come out from their shells, but I don't really believe that. I will say that I can see a phenomenon where managers copy what other managers are doing. There is some sort of collective effect occurring where manager A sees that manager B isn't playing nine behind the ball and decides that he can push players forward, as well.

2. If not for the ridiculous Babel penalty at Anfield last year, the four teams in the 2008 and 2009 semifinals would be identical. This is probably something that concerns Michel Platini, although he ought to start by pointing his finger at the management of clubs like Milan and Real Madrid who have wasted resources and put out mediocre teams full of past-their-prime players for the last several years. The problem that he is probably grappling with right now is that the Big Four in England have asserted total control over the most lucrative league in the world. The question is whether Milan, Madrid, Juve, Bayern, etc. can compete with the Big Four if they get their s*** together. Barca can compete, but are they an aberration or a realistic possibility for the rest of the Continental elite.

3. Prior to yesterday, Ronaldo had taken the most shots of any player in the Champions League, but he had only scored once. I guess that goal made up for that stat. United fans, do you still want him to piss off to Madrid?

4. I cannot wait for Xavi/Iniesta/Toure vs. Lampard/Essien/Ballack in the midfield. For my money, those are the two best central midfields in the world. Gerrard/Alonso/Mascherano come very close. While plenty of attention has been paid to Bayern's inept back-line against Barca, their inability to stop Barca's central midfield from doing whatever it wanted to do was a major issue in their first half capitulation. Chelsea will do much better. That said, they have several match-up issues with the Blaugrana:
  • Ashley Cole is suspended for the first leg, so who plays left back against Messi and Alves?
  • Barca's biggest weakness is defending their flanks, especially the right flank because Alves gets forward so much. The problem for Chelsea is that their wide offensive players - Anelka, Malouda, and Kalou - are nothing special. Weakness against weakness?
  • Gerard Pique can be vulnerable against quick forwards, but he can hold his own against bigger guys like, say, Didier Drogba.

On the other hand, Chelsea are excellent on set pieces and Barca do not defend them especially well, so there is some potential there for Chelsea to get goals. Chelsea also get the benefit of Barca having to go to the Bernabeu in between the first leg and second leg.

5. I'm not alleging any sort of conspiracy here, but didn't Howard Webb have a little bit of a conflict of interest when he was the referee for Barca-Bayern when the winner was going to play an EPL side. Funny that he gave Barca's best player a yellow card for having the temerity to be obviously fouled in the box by Christian Lell.

Right now, I'm picking a rematch of the 2006 Final (Barcelona vs. Arsenal), but no pairing of the four remaining teams would be especially surprising.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Week One of 26: Outfielders who Can Hit!

I have this ambitious idea of writing a blurb about the Braves every week of the season. I have serious doubts that I'll continue the project when football starts to dominate my mind in August (or, who am I kidding, June), but one week into the season and with the local baseball collective at 5-1, it seems like a good idea.

(One note: all the nice things I'm about to say need to be prefaced by the fact that 50% of the Braves' games to date have been against the woeful Nationals.)

1. The Braves' starting rotation is six for six in terms of keeping the team in the game. The starting pitching was better in Philly than it was in Atlanta, which is odd because in Philly, the pitchers were going against a good lineup in a hitters park, whereas in Atlanta, the pitchers were going against a mediocre lineup in a neutral park. Two starts into his Braves career, Derek Lowe looks outstanding. I've always wanted a sinkerballer like Kevin Brown or Brandon Webb and now we have a version of that beast. It helps that the infield defense is excellent.

2. Speaking of defense, because this is the year that defense became mainstream, I'll be keeping tabs on the Braves' performance in that area. Going into play today, the team was seventh in park-adjusted defensive efficiency. My lying eyes tell me that Jeff Francoeur's defensive regression last year has bled into 2009, as he missed catchable fly balls on Sunday and Friday nights.

2a. The Braves' pitchers have allowed exactly two home runs through six games. That's an excellent start. Now, about the 27 walks...

3. What the hell is wrong with the Washington Nationals? This franchise moved from Montreal because they apparently could not compete because of limited local revenue, but they have regressed each year in Washington. You would have thought that a franchise noted for producing and then exporting top talent would thrive in a new, large market that generates the sort of cash that can allow the team to keep talent. Is the explanation any more complicated than "Jim Bowden is an idiot?" Is Peter Angelos nefariously killing this team? The Nats are an example that economics are not destiny, as they have gotten worse in a better market.

4. The outfield accounted for four homers this week, leaving them a mere 23 from equalling last year's paltry totals. Other than the fact that he's striking out about 30% of the time, Jordan Schafer has been excellent. Garret Anderson is off to a slow start, as one might expect for a player in a new league, but his platoon partner Matt Diaz is back to his old ways of destroying left-handed pitching. Francouer remains an out-machine.

5. Kudos to Bobby for not leaving any of the starters in very long in the first week of the season. We're all a little antsy about the bullpen, but the response should not be to leave the starters in for 120 pitches in April.

6. A sign that we shouldn't take the first week of the season too seriously: your current division leaders are Toronto, Detroit, Seattle, Florida/Atlanta, St. Louis, and San Diego.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Team of the Decade?

The poll question on this morning is an interesting one: which college team has been the most dominating in its sport this decade: UConn women's basketball, USC football, Florida football, or UNC basketball? Being a sucker for polls, I gave it some thought. I first ruled out UConn because I don't care about women's basketball. I know that the Huskies have been dominant, but it is easy to be dominant in a sport with lower interest and a more limited talent pool, just like it's easier for Rangers and Celtic to dominate in Scotland as compared to the bigger leagues. Plus, I'm sure that there are some minor sports where one school has been more dominant than UConn has been in women's hoops. (Colorado in skiing, perhaps?)

I ruled out Florida football because they were coached by Ron Zook for three years this decade. While their current peak may be a little higher than USC's peak in the middle of the aughts, they took about four years off: the three Zook years and Urban's first season when they were re-tooling. For the same reason, I ruled out UNC because of Matt Doherty. That left me with USC football, which has been consistently excellent since 2002.

The poll question does raise an interesting dynamic for this season in that Florida and USC could be playing for the title of team of the decade. It's too bad that Mark Sanchez didn't come back to school, because a season in which Florida and USC were #1 and #2 in August and then went on a collision course all year could be very interesting, not unlike 2005 when USC and Texas hurtled towards one another for four months before putting on an epic title game. LSU should also be in the discussion, since a national title and SEC title for the Tigers in 2009 would give them three national titles, four SEC titles, and five BCS bowl wins in the decade. (One caveat to that last number: all four of LSU's BCS wins have come in virtual home games in the Superdome.)

Here are the rankings for winning percentage as we enter the last year of the decade:

  1. Boise State - 0.85217
  2. Texas - 0.84348
  3. Oklahoma - 0.84298
  4. Southern Cal - 0.80870
  5. Ohio State - 0.79825
  6. Georgia - 0.77586
  7. Louisiana State - 0.76923
  8. Virginia Tech - 0.75424
  9. Florida - 0.75000
  10. Texas Christian - 0.74775

It looks like team of the decade isn't going to be an especially clear-cut question. Going into the 1999 season, the choice was fairly clear:

  1. Florida State - 0.87838
  2. Nebraska - 0.86161
  3. Florida - 0.83482
  4. Tennessee - 0.81982
  5. Penn State - 0.79091
  6. Texas A&M - 0.78571
  7. Miami-Florida - 0.78302
  8. Ohio State - 0.77928
  9. Michigan - 0.76818
  10. Notre Dame - 0.73394

Florida State had a national title and had finished in the top four every season. Nebraska had won three national titles and had put together one of the most dominating five-year stretches in modern college football history. The team that had the better season would likely end up winning the decade. I suppose that Florida was also in the discussion, as a conference and national title in 1999 would have given the Gators two national titles and six SEC titles (seven if you include 1990). In the end, Florida State went unbeaten and won the national title to claim the team of the decade title. As much as the sight of watching a young Michael Vick duel Florida State was epic, it would have been cool to see Florida State play Nebraska with history on the line.

Although USC and Florida were the two contenders at first glance for team of the aughts, that might have been a little bit of recency coloring my judgment (or maybe I shouldn't rely on ESPN to decide who is NOW!!!). LSU certainly deserves consideration. If Texas, Oklahoma, or Ohio State were to win the title this year, then those programs would have a pair of national titles to match LSU, Florida, and USC and they would also likely have an advantage in winning percentage. That said, Texas has only won one conference title in the decade and Oklahoma and Ohio State have had well-publicized struggles in BCS games, so these three appear to be pretenders to the crown. I'd also bet that they would be dragged down a little if we looked at computer rankings because their strength of schedule would not be on par with the SEC teams.

It's also interesting to me that LSU and Florida are on my short list for team of the decade because of their multiple national titles, but Georgia ranks ahead of both of them in terms of winning percentage. How different would our discussion be if Georgia had found its way into the national title game in 2002 and then won it? Moreover, if we accept the maxim that winning a national title requires a significant amount of luck, isn't Georgia just unlucky? After all, Georgia went 12-1 in 2002 and didn't get to play for the national title because two major conference teams went unbeaten, but LSU and Florida got to play for the title in 2003, 2006, 2007, and 2008 with one loss (and in one case, two losses). And that's before we get to the point that Georgia could have been a one-loss team in 2005 absent the D.J. Shockley injury, but they still would have been frozen out of the title game because they would have again had the misfortune of being a one-loss SEC champion in a year in which two major programs went unbeaten.

Finally, it bears noting that only two of the top ten from 1990-98 are also on the 2000-2008 list: Florida and Ohio State. If you expand the analysis to the top twenty from the two decades, then the holdover list expands to six: Florida, Ohio State, Virginia Tech, Florida State, Tennessee, and Michigan. The latter three hold spots 18-20 this decade and all three stand a decent chance of not finishing in the top 20 for 2000-09, as none of them are projected to be especially strong in 2009.

The point is that college football is a little more fluid than I give it credit for being. While a program can be excellent from season to season, it's hard to be strong from decade to decade. While it's possible in spring 2009 to look at the recruiting bases for Florida, USC, and LSU and assume that they will always be good, these are the same programs that employed Ron Zook, Paul Hackett, and Curley Hallman. Nothing is certain.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Belated Preseason Thoughts on the Local Baseball Collective

1. Although the writers at SI do not appear interested in the Braves, the statheads at the Baseball Prospectus are quite sanguine on the team's prospects. Joe Sheehan tabs the Braves as the 5th best team in baseball($), while the site's PECOTA forecasting system predicts 86 wins and in a Wild Card dog fight with the Phillies and D-Backs($). The strength of the team is projected to be the pitching and defense, which would be a major change from years past. Sheehan projects the Braves to allow the second-fewest runs in the NL; PECOTA projects the Braves to finish fifth in that department. The stat world seems very happy with the Braves' changes to the pitching rotation in the offseason and the defense projects out well, especially with Jordan Schafer playing a full year in centerfield. I'd also be willing to be that PECOTA would give the Braves the extra 2-3 wins they need to get into the playoffs if it gave 20 starts to Tommy Hanson instead of Tom Glavine. (And yes, I say that knowing that Hanson did not look great on Saturday.) The plan with Hanson is probably to let him cool his jets in AAA for two months and then bring him up mid-season so he doesn't accumulate too many innings this season. Between Hanson coming onto the scene in the second half of the year and a possible return of Tim Hudson in August, the Braves could upgrade the roster in the second half without making a single trade or signing. But that shouldn't stop us from speculating wildly...

Assuming that the Braves find themselves in contention in June and July, what are the odds that they get involved in the inevitable Miguel Cabrera sweepstakes? On the one hand, the experience of trading away significant talent for a year of Mark Teixeira indicates that the team shouldn't pay the midseason ransom prices for another big-time hitter. Cabrera is very expensive, which means that attendance would have to be very good to justify that acquisition. The Andruw Jones experience also should concern the Braves about taking on a 26-year old who is in the second year of an eight-year deal and who doesn't exactly have a legendary commitment to fitness. On the other hand, if the pitching and defense plays out as we suspect and the Braves are getting substandard performance in left field, Cabrera would be the difference between not making the playoffs and potentially making the World Series. Come to think of it, I just remembered that Garret Anderson is keeping the spot warm for Jason Heyward, so forget that I ever mentioned the possibility of bringing Cabrera to Atlanta. Miggy seems ticketed for the Yankees, Mets, or Red Sox, assuming that those teams have the prospects to make the deal worthwhile. Speaking of which, Sheehan claims that parity has arrived in baseball:

We've entered an era not of NFL-style randomness, but of significant parity within the game in which the structure of the league allows everyone an opportunity to build successfully and sustain that success, reaping the benefits both on and off the field. It's not a perfect league, but it is a strong one.

and then Sheehan picks the Red Sox, Yankees, Mets, and Dodgers as the four best teams in baseball. I'm very suspicious of the claim that everyone has an opportunity to sustain success. We'll see if the Rays hold onto the talent they've assembled or if the bigger market teams pick off their players, one by one.

2. This has been the preseason of defense. Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine both devoted feature-length articles to the importance of defense, making two significant points: (1) the Rays went from worst to first by improving their defense significantly, thus making their young pitchers better; and (2) the statistical revolution has figured out how to measure defense. Those of us who remember the '91 Braves recall the young pitching staff suddenly flowering with the additions of Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream, Rafael Belliard, Otis Nixon, and Deion Sanders. That said, the Braves succeeded because they were able to add quality defensive players to an outstanding young nucleus of Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, John Smoltz, Ron Gant, and David Justice. Likewise, the Rays amassed young talent and then added a couple defensive pieces to make the whole thing work. Defensive upgrades seem to be the last piece of the puzzle of building a winner; they are not the foundation. I see a team like the Tigers assembling a left side of Brandon Inge (career OPS+ of 84) and Adam Everett (career OPS+ of 69) and I see a bad imitation.

As for the Braves' defense, the team is above-average at every position save for third base and left field. Third base I can live with because the resident there can hit the daylights out of the ball. Left field is going to be a trouble spot all year. I'm intrigued by the idea of putting Gregor Blanco in left because of his defensive abilities and his better OBP.

3. In 2008, the Braves got 27 homers out of the outfield. Two innings into the 2009 season, they already had two. And all I have to say about the bomb that Jordan Schafer hit is this: holy crap!

4. Here is Brett Myers on his performance last night:

I made three mistakes and they didn't miss them. Sometimes they pop those up. Not in this case. Give them credit.

The three mistakes that Myers is referencing are presumably the three homers that he allowed to McCann, Francoeur, and Schafer. Presumably, this means that the fastball down the middle that Yunel Escobar drove 400 feet off the wall in center was not a mistake. Ah, the power of self-delusion.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Arms Race Continues

Tony Barnhart points out this morning that Kentucky's showering of lucre on John Calipari is yet another instance of SEC schools using the revenue derived from lucrative television contracts to pull in top coaching talent.

Again, the SEC is the English Premier League of college football. It's playing in a different league than other conferences, which can lead to two results:

1. SEC teams will be better coached and therefore more successful than teams from other conferences; or

2. The competition in the SEC will become excessively fierce and the teams will kill one another.

There is a major difference between the SEC and the EPL that makes the second possibility more likely for the SEC. In England, the big four - Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United - take the four qualification spots for the UEFA Champions League every year. Playing in the Champions League is extremely lucrative, especially for teams that progress late into the knock-out rounds as the English sides do routinely. Thus, they have a self-perpetuating revenue advantage over everyone else in the league. The Big Four can then turn that revenue advantage into better players.

The same is not true in the SEC. The 12 teams in the SEC share massive TV contracts, just like the 20 teams in the EPL do, and there is no added revenue source to separate a smaller elite from the rest of the conference. I suppose that success on the field can create revenue opportunities in the form of increased donations, higher prices for tickets and luxury boxes, merchandising, and the like, but that advantage for successful SEC teams isn't the same as the massive infusion of cash that the Big Four get from the Champions League. Thus, with less to separate Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and LSU (the current elite of the SEC) from the rest of the conference, a bloodbath is more likely.

One other thought: Barnhart points out the extreme pressure that coaches like Nick Saban and John Calipari face because of their rich contracts. Are SEC programs more likely than EPL teams to make rash coaching decisions after one bad year? My initial thought is that this is indeed the case. With the exception of Chelsea, the Big Four have had significant coaching stability in recent years. Even clubs in the next tier down like Everton and Aston Villa have had stability. These clubs are all run by smart, successful businessmen who have a certain degree of autonomy in making decisions. In contrast, SEC athletic directors have to answer to a collection of boosters who can often be described as having more money than sense. It's much easier to imagine Auburn making a rash decision because of Bobby Lowder than Manchester United making a rash decision because of Malcolm Glazer.

When I Went to School in Olympia...

Sports Illustrated has 13 regular baseball writers. Those writers have made their picks for the dvision winners and wild cards in the AL and NL. Every writer save one picked the Mets and Phillies to both make the playoffs. There's apparently a total consensus that these two teams are better than any other potential runner-up in baseball. This raises a few possibilities that are not mutually exclusive of one another:

1. Sports Illustrated writers are all conformists.

2. Sports Illustrated writers are all a product of their location and assume that the teams in the Northeast are better than they are.

3. The line about baseball having achieved parity is wrong because major market teams are still overwhelming favorites in five of the six divisions. (The corollary is that the only factor creating parity in baseball is the post-season lottery that seemingly penalizes the teams with the best records.)

4. The Garret Anderson-Jordan Schafer-Jeff Francoeur outfield isn't strking fear into the hearts of people who watch baseball for a living.