Friday, January 20, 2006

Championship Picks

Here’s the deal: I have to get both of the AFC Championship games and the Super Bowl right in order to finish the playoffs with a winning record. That’s what I get for sucking in the first two rounds. I’m taking a different approach this week, though. Instead of slapping something together on Thursday night and editing it on Friday, I’m starting this one on Wednesday and sticking to it. The only way I’ll change is if there’s a late injury report.

So here we go, just two games this week, which means two chances for me to blow it.

Pittsburgh (+3.5) over DENVER
The Broncos knocked off New England last week, which really foiled my plans. But it’s not like the Broncos played an impeccable game against a flawless Patriots team. Five turnovers and conservative play aided the Broncos. That isn’t to say they played badly; not by any stretch of the imagination. I just want to make it clear that I don’t think Jake Plummer has all the sudden turned into a money quarterback.

Everyone saw how Peyton Manning reacted to the Pittsburgh defensive schemes in the first half; I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many balls hit the turf after leaving his hand. If the blitz schemes rattled Manning for half a game, imagine what they’re going to do to Jake Plummer. He plays well within the Shanahan system, but force him to make decisions on his own and he’s going to be tossing picks all day. Right now, I’m predicting at least two. We’ve all seen Plummer work under pressure, and we’ve all seen the outcome. How is this time going to be different?

The only snag in Pittsburgh’s plan is the offensive side of the ball. They’re not exactly stellar in that department, and the Broncos D is quite formidable. Willie Parker may have had hints of success against the Colts, but it will be a different story when he’s being chased by Al Wilson, D.J. Williams, and Ian Gold.

Then there’s the issue of Gerard Warren, who believes that football and bloodsport go hand in hand. From

When defensive tackle Gerard Warren was a member of the Cleveland Browns in 2004, he got himself in a little hot water before a contest with the Steelers due to his comments regarding then-rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Warren said he would "go across the head" of Big Ben, explaining that if you "[k]ill the head [then] the body's dead."

Well, he’s back up to the same hijinks this year, basically repeating the statement. Thanks, Gerard, for giving the Steelers O-line some bulletin board material.

I would expect this to be a low-scoring affair, given the nature of the defenses. I also expect the Steelers to force more turnovers, which will be the difference in the game.

Carolina (+4) over SEATTLE
After picking against Carolina the past two weeks (both times they were the logical pick), I vowed to go with them should they appear in the NFC Championship. Here they are, and they’re my pick.

Seattle passed quite a test last weekend by knocking off Washington sans Shaun Alexander. They’ll have him back this week, but that may not be enough to stop a hot Carolina team. In Round One they held Tiki Barber to a mere 41 yards (none by any other Giants rusher), and last week held Thomas Jones to a humble 80 yards (the Bears had 97 total rushing yards, but that includes a 5-yard Red Grossman scramble).

That could mean a bit more action from the arm of Matt Hasselbeck, which isn’t a bad thing (Three years ago, I’d be insane to be making such a statement. In fact, I was laughed at for taking him in Round 4 of a 2003 fantasy football draft. And then I did the laughing when he was one of the top QBs in the league that year). But in the last two weeks, Carolina has held opposing QBs in relative check: Eli Manning completed just 55 percent of his passes (72 percent if you count the three interceptions), and Rex Grossman to a pathetic 41 percent. Yes, both of those guys might have had the first-time playoff jitters. But it’s not like Hasselbeck has a glut of postseason experience.

The most looming problem facing Carolina is the run game. Nick “When the Goings Get Tough, The Tough Get” Goings is being forced into the feature back slot, and it’s not a given that he’ll be able to establish the kind of ground attack the Panthers will need to win this one.

But then there’s Steve Smith, the bona fide X factor of the 2005 playoffs. He had 22 catches for 302 yards and three TDs thus far, and it doesn’t look like anyone’s going to be shutting him down, especially in Seattle’s secondary. It’s not that they’re bad, it’s that stopping Smith has turned into the Conundrum of 2005.

I’m not worried about the Julius Peppers thing, either. They’re a better team with him, but they can win without him.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Bashing Isaiah

It’s been a while since I’ve traveled into Knickdom. Could that be because they were on the brink of the worst record in the NBA a few weeks back? Quite possibly. I’m not the most invested NBA fan, so it’s easy to lose some interest when a team is looking that bleak. I also didn’t get too excited over the recent six-game win streak – which has been followed by three straight losses. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2005-2006 New York Knickerbockers.

December 15 was the first day a team could trade players they acquired over the off-season, and Larry Brown promised moves would be made. As of January 19, they’re yet to be seen. Maybe Isaiah is finally growing more cautious of bad trades and isn’t as willing as in years past to swap an expiring contract (i.e. Penny Hardaway) for some mid-level talent (i.e. Jalen Rose).

Unless they can unload Eddy Curry, I think the Knicks would be wise to stand as-is this season. There are no available players that could truly help the team now or in the future, except maybe for Ron Artest, who will surely fetch a larger price tag than the Knicks can/should offer. As far as I’ve read, they’re not even in the picture, so it’s a moot point anyway.

Part of the problem is that the Knicks probably aren’t going to rise above their current level with Curry and Channing Frye at the big man positions. They’re both offensive threats in different molds, but neither is aggressive enough on the boards. Starting David Lee at the small forward position is a good start, since he can ‘bound and he’s more athletic than advertised. But the rookie can’t do everything himself.

Following their overtime loss to the Bulls last night, the Knicks stand at 13-24, just two losses ahead of the Raptors, the cellar dwellers in the Atlantic Division. Not even six straight wins can pull the Knicks out of this rut they’re calling a season.

(And yes, Antonio Davis went into the stands during overtime. No, there was no confrontation. Actually, everything was conducted rather calmly. But if you want to read about it, you can do so here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

There’s no further point in dwelling on the past, so the question is: what now? What can Isaiah and Larry possibly do to get this team to a .425 win percentage by season’s end (I picked a half-realistic number). Isaiah’s first act should be to take a blood oath to not trade Penny Hardaway for Jalen Rose. True, Penny’s expiring contract means little for a team drowned in the cap, and Rose’s contract does expire after next sesaon. But that sends the same message to Knicks fans that Isaiah has been emitting since becoming the GM: “I’m going to trade for random parts of a team just because I’ve heard of this certain player.”

The Knicks do not need Jalen Rose in any way. Instead of taking on larger contracts for longer periods of time, why don’t the Knicks look into dishing some that they’ve got? Oh yeah, that’s because Isaiah has accumulated an unprecedented number of untradeable contracts, leaving the Knicks in quite a quandary.

There is but one upside to acquiring Rose or a Rose-esque player. Maybe, in our dreams upon dreams, the Dolans will finally put their foot down and fire Isaiah. With any other franchise, he would have been dismissed after last year. But for some reason, Jim Dolan thinks that because Isaiah was a stand out player, that he’ll also be a stand out executive. Sorry, buddy, but the two don’t correlate too well.

Bill Simmons put the Isaiah situation into such a perfect perspective that I’m not even going to attempt mincing my own words on the subject. From his January 17 column:

Right now, you have a roster that costs something like $120 million. You completely overhauled the Knicks' roster in 14 months, and now you're trying to overhaul it again. There's no rhyme or reason to anything you're doing. Your team doesn't have a first-round pick next summer, and in the summer of 2007 -- widely considered to be the deepest draft in 20-plus years -- the Bulls have the right to exchange first-round picks with you (most of your fans don't even know this). You also have to give another first-round pick to Phoenix before 2010. And you have at least eight or nine players on your roster who are completely, utterly, totally untradable, including someone with a possible heart defect and someone whose back is in such bad shape nobody would insure his contract. Your team also has one of the worst records in the league. And your fans are downright traumatized at this point, to the degree that you went into hiding until your recent winning streak. Now you're available to talk to the press again, of course.

So why shouldn't you be criticized for any of this? Why should you be immune?

This is why I can’t consistently write about the Knicks. They have no future. I’m going to have to wait until I’m married for the Knicks make the playoffs again, which will be some time in the 31st century.

At least they have a solid core of rookies in Nate Dogg Robinson, Channing Charlie Frye, and David Ang Lee. Let’s just hope Isaiah doesn’t think it appropriate to trade all three to L.A. for Chris Mihm.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Bizarro News: Jets Make Smart Move

An introduction isn’t necessary for those who read a newspaper yesterday or today. In an uncharacteristically intelligent move, the Jets have hired former Patriots defensive coordinator and Bill Belichick protégé Eric Mangini to coach the team in 2006 and beyond.

Obviously, I’m happy with the signing. I know I have expressed conflicting thoughts over the departure of Herman Edwards, but having a week to ponder the situation, I’m rather satisfied with the outcome. The Jets have been a rather talented team for the past few years, but have consistently underachieved under Edwards. A change of the guard may be just what the franchise needs heading into a rebuilding/retooling year.

The case against Mangini is simple to make. He preceded his one season of coordinator experience with years as a position coach, not exactly an impressive cirriculum vitale. In a league where experience is at a premium (hey, it even got Norv Turner a job), many may view Mangini as a gamble or high risk signing. Will the players respect a guy barely their senior with no NFL playing or head coaching experience?

Simple as the case may be, these are legitimate concerns. How much respect is he going to get from players just barely his junior? Will the older vets show reverence for a 35-year-old who never played the game at the highest level?

The saving grace here is that there are exactly 12 players on the current Jets roster who will be 30 or older by the beginning of training camp. That’s even further reduced when cap casualties are figured into the equation. Ty Law, Jay Fiedler, Vinny Testaverde, and Scott Gragg will surely be released in the near future, reducing the number to eight. Speculation is roaming that Curtis Martin may not be in the cards for 2006; same with fullback Jerald Sowell. Six. Add to that the probability of Jason Fabini playing elsewhere next year (getting older, injury prone, noticeably declining skills), and the Jets should have a total of five players over the age of 30.

This bodes well for the young Mangini, as he’ll be coaching a young group of players who won’t resent his authority like a group of veterans could. And save for John Abraham and maybe Kevin Mawae (with honorable mention to Jonathan Vilma), there aren’t any bona fide superstars on the roster, sparing Mangini the headache of dealing with a super-ego.

He is a defensive specialist taking over a predominantly defensive team, which is also favorable. My feeling is that to be successful, you must accent your attributes and cover up your weaknesses as completely as possible. The Jets strength is obviously their defense, while they must use a masking agent on the lackluster offensive personnel.

The first order of business with the defense is re-signing John Abraham, preferably long-term. I know the Jets are in a sad, sad state of salary cap affairs, but they need to find a way to get this done. Abraham is certainly a Top-Five defensive end, and only gets better when paired with fellow All-Pro Shaun Ellis. A true nose tackle would then shore up the D-line.

If Mangini made the Pats depleted secondary work, he should be able to finally solve that same problem for the Jets. There is plenty of young talent in the defensive backfield, even after Ty Law signs with the Redskins. This is the one area that the Jets might not have to worry about next year.

That just leaves the linebackers on defense. Vilma and Victor Hobson should be fine for next year, but it’s tough to find anything nice to say about Eric Barton. Once again, I don’t know the intricacies of the salary cap, but if it is feasible to let Barton walk, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Second year pro Mark Brown did an adequate job at handling the position, and I’d go as far as to say he’s not much of a downgrade at all from Barton.

On the other side of the ball, the Jets are going to need more cover-up than a chick who just sprung two pimples on a clubbing night. The most obvious blemish is at the quarterback position, where the oft-injured Chad Pennington will likely still be the frontrunner heading into the season. With his inflated deal in place, the Jets are in no position to sign another starter-level quarterback. Jay Fiedler will likely be exiled, and a guy like Kerry Collins or Tim Rattay may be brought in on the cheap to “compete with Chad” for the starting gig – which translates into a rotator cuff insurance plan.

The best plan of action with Pennington is to devise an offensive scheme that highlights his attributes (notice a theme here?). We know he can’t throw the deep ball, but before these rotator cuff complications, Pennington was a rather accurate QB. Bringing in Mike Heimerdinger, who was used to an offense based around the arm of Steve McNair, did not help Pennington’s case any.

This would mean a greater accent on the halfback position, which is going to be difficult for a team that doesn’t boast a viable 1,200 yard rusher any longer. Even if Curtis Martin is around next year, the team can’t expect him to come close to his career numbers. Derrick Blaylock and Cedric Houston aren’t starters, but the Jets could use a first day pick on a back like Memphis’s DeAngelo Williams or UCLA’s Maurice Drew.

This isn’t to say the Jets will do anything that I suggested. It’s merely laying out the scenario for an off-season in which we should see significant change. I trust that Mangini will think outside the box, but I also realize he might not be fully involved in personnel decisions. That will still be the job of Terry Bradway, and we all know how I feel about him. He had plenty of blunders that make me wonder if he’s capable of building a quality team, despite the enlightened decision to sign Mangini.

And on a parting note, if Mangini ends up a bust, at least we have a ready and able nickname for him: Man-gina.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Are We Done Yet?

It’s been a while since I’ve written a column exclusively about the Yankees. Sure, there were bits and pieces here and there, as well as some minor league analysis. But I haven’t really done anything with the team since the Johnny Damon signing.

The reason is simple: there’s nothing to talk about. For all intents and purposes, the team is going to head into Spring Training as is, with a few minor tweaks here and there. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be roster issues come mid-March.

Depth is the main issue facing the 2006 Yankees, a problem they’ve been all too familiar with in the recent past. The starting lineup is among the best, if not the best in the league. The pitching staff, while a bit brittle, looks at least above average, possibly dominant, and the back up the bullpen looks solid as ever. The bench and front of the bullpen, however, seem to still be in a state of arrears. That’s not to say it isn’t improved over last year’s abomination, but there are still noticeable holes.

Miguel Cairo is an upgrade over the Rey Sanchez/Felix Escalona/Mark Bellhorn reserve unit, but only if his numbers are closer to 2004 than 2005. In 327 at bats for the Mets last year, Cairo posted averages of .251/.296/.324. I know the term “anemic” is tossed about in sports writing with abundance, but when compared with his 2004 averages of .292/.346/.417 (in 33 more at bats), 2005 was truly anemic for Miggy.

The saving grace here is that Yankees backup infielders typically don’t get much playing time. Last year’s utility men combined for 74 at bats (92 if you count Russ Johnson), which helps cover up the bench blemishes. But Jeter and A-Rod could benefit from a few more days off, so Cairo may get a few more chances than his predecessors to earn a few wins.

What is scarier than the infield (lack of) depth is the situation out on the grass. As with the guys on the dirt, the starters are solid if not stellar, with Matsui, Sheff, and weenie-arm Damon eating up most of the playing time. But they’re also not ripe young bucks anymore, and will require the occasional sit day. Bubba Crosby looks to be the guy spelling Matsui and Damon, though with Torre at the helm I’d be surprised if Bernie didn’t make his share of starts in center field.

This is an obvious problem, since we’ve all witnessed Bernie’s complete lack of range in the past few years. I don’t know how bad it will get this year, but I can tell you one thing for certain: it ain’t getting any better. If Joe insists on starting him in the outfield, we had all better pray it’s when Wang is on the hill, or another pitcher who tends to give up ground balls. The last thing any fan wants to see is Bernie sprinting down a fly in the left center field gap.

A hole still exists in right field, and that gap may be more pressing. It has been long speculated that Gary Sheffield is going to be playing DH more this year, as he should be. He doesn’t have the worst outfield range in the league, but I don’t trust him shagging flies in deep right center. Add that factor to his age, and it’s an easy formula for DH. The problem is that the Yankees have exactly no one who has an arm adequate enough to man right field.

There are only two current free agents who could handle such a task: Bobby Higginson and Richard Hidalgo. Personally, I would scratch Hidalgo’s name right off the list. He had a season for the ages back in 2000 (.314/.391/.636) when he was 25, but regressed into mediocrity until showing signs of life again in 2003 (.309/.385/.572) before once again regressing. The case could be made that, judging by his cycles (a great year followed by two mediocre or bad ones) that he’s due in 2006, but that’s quite a flimsy argument. Maybe Barry Zuckerkorn would get by on that one, but few others could buy into it.

Hidalgo has proven himself as a worthless turd during his short tenure with the Mets and last season with the Rangers, so taking a flier on him would be an unworthy risk. Higginson, on the other hand, could be a low-risk high-reward kind of player. He’s mulling retirement at the age of 35, and as such could probably be had for a minor-league contract, a la Al Leiter. With the glut of young outfielders currently roaming the grass in Detroit, they no longer have a use for him.

The case for Higginson is easy to make. He’s an experienced vet who has been widely heralded as “playing the game the right way,” which translates into a guy who works hard, and normally means a good clubhouse guy. He won’t be seeing oodles of time in the outfield, so even if his numbers are Womack-esque, he won’t be doing too much harm (and I would find it hard to believe he’d want to play anymore if he couldn’t out-perform Tony Freakin’ Womack).

His most redeeming attribute is that he won’t go out and kill you. His strikeout totals are usually low to go along with a formidable strikeout to walk ratio. And even in his decline years, he’s been able to keep his OPS+ near 100 (which is the league average). Factor in his year off, and he could be well rested enough for one last hurrah.

Unfortunately, it looks like Cashman is done with the team as it is. I make the plea right here, though, that he get a bit busier and look into Higginson or other similar players to import. The Yankees past problems have stemmed from a lack of depth, and the way everything stands right now, they could be facing the same dilemmas in 2006.

Monday, January 16, 2006

What A Weekend

“Anyone with a modicum of NFL knowledge should be able to pull off a .500 gambling record.”
-Me on Friday

Yes, today I’m going to sulk about these picks, mainly because there’s not much to talk about. In fact, if I didn’t require myself to update this site daily, I’d probably just take the day off. So here’s what went wrong in the Divisional Round.

Seattle laying nine to Washington
I thought it was a solid bet. Everything indicated it was a solid bet. And then they played the game. Of course, it might not have been such a gambling nail biter had Shaun Alexander not taken a knock to the skull, but dems the breaks in football.

Thankfully, the cards stopped toppling for Seattle after that. They got a lucky break on a coin-flip pass interference call at the end of the first half, and put together two quality scoring drives (12 plays, 74 yards and 10 plays, 81 yards).

It was heartbreaking for Redskins fans, really, to see Mark Brunell throw for 242 yards, a TD and no picks in a losing effort. Against any other team…

New England taking three from Denver
The logic: don’t bet against a streak. The reality: it’s going to end some time. And because of this, I’m not too miffed at dropping this game.

Let’s be realistic here. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick vs. Mike Shanahan and Jake Plummer. Seriously, I couldn’t fathom wagering any other way. Only with Marty McFly’s Sports Almanac would I have put money or any other form of investment on the Broncos.

When was the last time New England turned the ball over five times in a game? I’m sure one of the astute broadcasters mentioned this nifty stat some time during the program, but I’ve all but tuned out playoff voices at this point. Has any team won a game in the playoffs where they turned the ball over five times? I can’t imagine so. Then again, maybe it happened ONCE. Maybe I should pay more attention to the broadcasters.

Then again, on second thought…

Colts laying nine to Pittsburgh
Note to self: when a fan of a team thinks his team is going to get destroyed, don’t blindly buy into his logic. Sure, that’s not the ONLY reason I picked Indianapolis with the spread, but it helped smooth out my reasoning.

Remember when you were preparing for the SATs? Remember the advice given to you by every teacher: if in doubt, go with your first instinct. Well, let’s take a page from that book:

I wrote four paragraphs of narrative on this game, and just deleted them all. Why? Because I had originally picked Pittsburgh.
-Me on Friday

I figured that Pittsburgh had a defensive scheme that would throw off Manning and Co. for at least half the game, and by the time they made an adjustment, it would have been too late to run up the score. Ultimately, I was right to an extent, but I thought about it too much. I weighed X and Y and Z, and even chimed in with this gem:

here is only one Troy Polamalu in the Steelers secondary. If there were two or three guys like him, Manning might have found himself in quite a pickle. But Troy can’t blitz, step up into a robber, and cover the deep ball all in the same play.

No, Joe, you idiot! You only need ONE Troy Polamalu, and das it. I will never again make the mistake of underestimating the power of a single explosive player.

Note to Mike Vanderjagdt: every single player out there wants to throw his helmet down after a botched play, but they have traits like self control, respect, and some level of maturity. If I was running things out in Indy, Vandy would be cut immediately. Seeing his eyes all red and on the verge of tears actually made me happy.

The lesson: never bet on a Manning in the playoffs.

Chicago laying three to Carolina
Looks like I’m picking Carolina over Seattle next week, as I stated in my picks. I might think about reneging on that deal, since DeShaun Foster will be inactive, leaving all the touches to Nick “When the Goings Get Tough, The Tough Get” Goings.

Is there a more inaccurate passer in the NFL than Rex Grossman? And I don’t want to hear excuses about his “rust,” because if it was that much of an issue, he should have left the job to “Uh Oh” Orton, who held da Bears together for most of the season. Seriously folks, 17 for 41 is just Goddamn ridiculous. Take note, Chicago: there are a few QBs this draft that might be of interest like Reggie McNeal of Texas A&M and Omar Jacobs of Bowling Green. Just a suggestion.