Friday, April 27, 2012

NHL 2nd Round Picks

Not to brag (but, yeah, to brag) I picked 7 of the 8 first round series right. The one I got wrong was the Kings beating the Canucks, which I regretted about one period into Game 1. Just so no one thinks I am tooting my horn too much, I only picked one of those seven in the correct amount of games (Washington over Boston in 7). That said, add this to my 7-4 ATS work in the NBA playoffs and I am doing quite well so far in picking things in the 2012 year.

Anyway, it was a memorable first round. It featured four Western series where four defense-first, gritty teams led by hot-goalies knocking off the three most dominant Western Conference teams post-lockout (Red Wings, Sharks, Canucks) and the most recent Western Cup Champion (Blackhawks). To drive home how ever-present that trio was, the last time neither the Wings, Sharks nor Canucks were in the 2nd round was in 2005, because there was no season. If you want to go before that, you have to go back to 2001, when the Colorado Avalanche were a dominant force (they beat the Kings, while the Blues beat the Stars). Yeah, since then it was 2002 (Wings, Sharks), 2003 (Canucks), 2004 (Wings, Sharks), 2006 (Sharks), 2007 (all three), 2008 (Wings, Sharks), 2009 (Wings, Canucks), 2010 (all three - and Chicago) and 2011 (all three). Yup, the West has been taken over by Pekka Rinne, Jonathan Quick, Mike Smith and the Halak/Elliot combo. That said, all of these teams are fun. They all play in non-conventional hockey cities (I mean, St. Louis is probably the most natural hockey location left) and have good fun crowds in places that just quite don't get hockey all too well. It should be a lot of fun out West, all though I am sure NBC is crying about now (not as much as they will be if the Devils keep advancing as well).

As for the East, we got three incredibly tight, seven game series and one series that might go down as the most infamous 1st round series in years, when the fraudulent, dirty, whiny bastards from Pittsburgh got shamed. I applaud them for forcing a Game 6 by winning one of the only two close games in the series (that and Game 1), but my God, was that despicable in Game 3. Everything from Crosby's display of arrogance and cheek, to James Neal embodying Dog the Bounty Hunter, to Adams trying to pull Hartnell's hair, to Aaron Asham cross-checking Brayden Schenn's neck. It was all awful, but so sweet because of the holier-than-thou that team, and their owner Mario Liemieux, showed after trying to say they were above this foul play of the commoners in the mid-season. The Flyers were just as good as Pittsburgh, especially with that mook Marc Andre-Fleury in goal. Anyway, the other three series were all 7 games, and all of the Game 7's ended in one-goal games, including two in OT. How sweet was that? I'm just happy for my sanity, and my heart rate and blood pressure, that the Devils didn't blow another late lead in Game 7 and went through to the 2nd round for the first time since 2007. Thank God, and let's go. 2nd round finally starts tonight.


(1) Rangers over (7) Capitals in7

I think the Capitals display of grit and toughness could work against Boston because Boston was attempting to out-tough them by fighting and being weaselly (I'm looking at you, Brad Marchand!!). The Rangers are a lot like this new-Capitals team. Solid goaltending. Solid offense that goes three lines deep. Great defense. The Rangers have the edge with the better goalie (though Braden Holtby was doing a great Cam Ward 2006 impression), the better defense and better low lines, but the Capitals have the better top two lines. I am picking the Rangers mainly because I just love what I have seen from that team all year. I was surprised Ottawa took them to 7 games, but I won't if Washington does. The Rangers just seem to have that special ingredient, getting contributions all over the lineup on offense. The Rangers remind me a lot of the 2003 Devils, which is a great compliment, as that was an awesome team that won a Cup with a deep stable of capable offensive lines and great goal-tending.

(6) Devils over (5) Flyers in 6

Part of this pick is about the fact that the Devils are my team, and despite this pick, I will still call this season for the Devils a success if they lose in this round. The Devils has a great season, despite losing Travis Zajac for much of the year, and not getting much from their blue-line. Anyway, the other part is that just like in the 1st round with the Penguins, EVERYONE is picking the Flyers. Why? I don't know. These two teams split the season series 3-3 (The Devils did win one of their three in a Shootout). The Flyers ended the season with 103 points, while the Devils ended with 102. Yeah, not much difference. The Flyers have great offense, but they won't be facing a sieve in goal this round. Yeah, Marty looked shaky at times in the 1st round, blowing leads of 3-0, 2-0 and 2-0, but that would make it the shakiest round that ever ended with a save percentage of .922 and a GAA of 2.06. Bryzgalov was a mess for much of that 1st round, and while the Devils don't have the fire-power of the Penguins, they do have quality, deep forwards and two great snipers with Kovalchuk and Parise. I'm scared to hell of this series because the Devils blue-line looked awful against Florida. That said, I think that Florida series was a test of the Devils nerves. They looked nervous in that series, with the team having the whole "haven't won a 1st round series in 2007" thing hanging over their back. Brodeur has that monkey off his back, but so does Kovalchuk. Also, there needs to be some revenge for the Flyers winning the 1st round series in 2004 and 2010.


(2) Blues over (8) Kings in 7

This might be one of the lowest-scoring series in NHL history. The Blues remind me of the 1995 Devils. Just a stifling, strangling defensive team that can suck the life out of the neutral zone. They came within one goal of setting a new record for fewest goals allowed in an 82 game season (the Devils from 2003-2004 still hold it). Their offense looked better against San Jose than it had for much of the season, especially the resurrected Andy McDonald (quick trivia: he was on the 1st-line for the 2007 cup-winning Anaheim Ducks, with Teemu Selanne and Chris Kunitz). Their defense is stellar, and Alex Petrangelo had a monster series in the 1st round. That said, the Kings pose problems. They have more natural offensive talent to go with that disciplined defense of theirs. It was a mystery to me (and many in hockey circles) how a team with Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Anze Kopitar did not score more goals. They definitely had some more offensive production in the 1st round, especially from Jarrett Stoll, but I think they will have a little more trouble in this series. I'll take the Blues in 7 but it will be really tight. There could be a lot of 2-1 type games going late into the night.

(4) Predators over (3) Coyotes in 6

I love this Nashville team. They don't remind me of any Devils team (no team left in the playoffs is as good as the 2000 Devils squad, a team that could won games in the Cup Finals of 2-1 and 7-3), but they remind me a lot of the 2007 Ducks, with three good top lines. I heard Mike Babcock say after the series ended that the Preds had 7 top forwards out of 6 (most teams have good forwards in lines 1-2, and checkers in 3-4). And they do. Alexander Radulov should continue to get only better as he continues to get the NHL legs under him. Shea Weber is a monster at the blue-line, and Suter, Josi and Buillon are also steely. Their forwards go deeper than maybe any team left. As for the Coyotes, they now have to face a real goalie that won't let in incredibly soft overtime goals this time (I mean, how bad was Corey Crawford on those two OT goals?), and do it possibly without Keith Yandle and definitely without still suspended Raffi Torres. I just think the Coyotes have fewer nameless, randomly above average players than the Predators do, and they got a bit lucky in the 1st round drawing a less-than-full Blackhawks and needing a string of OT wins to knock them out. The Predators have waited their whole history for this, and I don't see the soon to be Quebec Nordiques knocking them out.

So, my predicted Conference Finals are Rangers-Devils (Holy Shit!! If that happens, get ready to hear a lot of Hockey in the NYC area, especially if the Knicks are inevitably bounced by the Heat by then) and Blues-Predators (a pretty hostile divisional rivalry). Anyway, round two will have a hard time living up to round one, but with matchups that should have some menace and familiarity (which breeds hostility) in the East (the Flyers and Devils are divisional rivals and the Caps knocked the Rangers out of the playoffs in 2009 and 2011) and tough, close games in the West that could go late, late, late into the night. Hell, that is what the NHL Playoffs is all about. The "main attractions" may be mostly gone (Wings, 'Hawks, Penguins, Bruins) but the drama is far from over.

Grading the 2002 NFL Draft

So, we will see a lot of draft grades given out over the weekend, which is absolutely dumb. No one knows how any of these players will turn out. No one knows if Andrew Luck will succeed in the NFL, or if Dontari Poe will be able to show any skills that doesn't require him to bench 225 lbs. The real time to grade drafts is at least five years later, so for the next couple of days, I will grade the drafts from 10 years ago (2002) until five years ago (2007) and see how those teams did. To start with, here is the 2002 1st Round draft grades, given at a time where a lot of these players are know over 30 and closing in on retirement if they haven't got there already. The teams are graded on the player they selected, the players they immediately passed up (as in, if the #3 pick is awful, while the #4 is good, then that is a problem, but if the #3 is awful and the #22 is good, then that is not really that #3 teams fault). They are also graded on what they gave up for the pick if any trade happened. Anyway, let's go to the picks.

2002 NFL Draft

1.) Houston Texans select  David Carr (QB, Fresno St) - Grade: C

In reality I should grade them worse, but I think David Carr was always talented, but a victim of just a mercilessly awful o-line. David Carr's career stats are decent (59.7% cmp, 74.9 rating) for someone playing with an expansion team with, again, no o-line help.

2.) Carolina Panthers select Julius Peppers (DE, UNC) - Grade: A

Great pick for a team that entered that offseason 1-15. They were in a Super Bowl two years later, and partly because of Peppers. Julius was the defensive rookie of the year in 2002 and a 5 time pro-bowler (4 time all-pro) with the Panthers (got some more with the Bears).

3.) Detroit Lions select Joey Harrington (QB, Oregon) - Grade: D

Another player that might have been a little better in another situation, but unlike Carr, I feel like Harrington was a bigger part of the failure in Detroit than Carr was. His career numbers are worse, and he was the more seedy project QB coming out of Oregon.

4.) Buffalo Bills select Mike Williams (T, Texas) - Grade: F

Just an awful pick overall. Tackles that are high picks rarely abjectly fail, but Williams did. He was a total failure at tackle and then a failure at guard. Williams did have a career renaissance (I mean, for him) in Washington starting 10 decent games, but for the Bills, it was a massive strike-out.

5.) San Diego Chargers select Quentin Jammer (CB, Texas) - Grade: B-

Jammer was a decent player, and a long-time starter. He never achieved nearly the success that people all thought he would, but Jammer did give the Chargers a lot of value by being a consistently healthy, productive player for eight years. This would have been a great pick in the mid-teens, but at #5, it is a little underwhelming.

6.) Kansas City Chiefs select Ryan Sims (DT, UNC) - Grade: C*

* - The Chiefs swapped with Dallas (#8) for their 3rd round pick.

He's like Jammer in that he's had a long career that added some value, but he never reached the heights that Jammer reached at his best. Ryan Sims career is now over, but he was far from a true bust, but just an average regular.

7.) Minnesota Vikings select Bryant McKinnies (T, Miami) - Grade: A-

This was a great pick. McKinnie was a valuable starter for the Vikings for many years. He was never one of the best tackles in the NFL (which is why I'm not giving them an 'A' outright) but did start 80 straight games from 2003-2007. That is about all you can expect from the #7 pick.

8.) Dallas Cowboys select Roy Williams (SS, Oklahoma) - Grade: B*

* - See Chiefs (#6)

On paper, this was a good pick, given that Roy Williams made quite a few pro bowls, but he was never all that worthy of being a pro-bowler in the first place. Williams was a total liability in coverage, which didn't help the team all that much in big games.

9.) Jacksonville Jaguars select John Henderson (DT, Tennessee) - Grade: A

This was the best pick of the Top-10 considering where they picked him (Peppers gives him a run, though). Henderson was extremely valuable and durable for a team that for the peak of his career (2004-2007) was a consistent top-half defense, especially against the run. He is still a valuable player now for the Raiders. Good, underrated player.

10.) Cincinnati Bengals select Levi Jones (OT, Arizona State) - Grade: B

Another decent pick for a guy who while not great, was consistent and healthy over time, starting many games throughout the good Palmer/Johnson/Housh years. I never understood why the Bengals got rid of him as soon as they did.

11.) Indianapolis Colts select Dwight Freeney (DE, Syracuse) - Grade: A

The 2nd best pick of the draft right here (the best pick was a real shocker). Freeney is going to be a HOF, and he was picked at #11. The wrap on Freeney was that he was too small and light, but he was the fastest DE maybe ever, and used that blinding speed to make him the great player he was.

12.) Arizona Cardinals select Wendell Bryant (DT, Wisconsin) - Grade: F

The second total bust of the draft, Bryant was out of the NFL in two seasons after being suspended for violating the substance abuse policy for the 3rd time. The Cardinals really had a string of just awful picks in the early part of the decade.

13.) New Orleans Saints select Donte' Stallworth (WR, Tennessee) - Grade: B-

Stallworth was never a huge producer for the Saints, but he was a decent contributor for them for four years, and had a nice career post-New Orleans (outside of that whole running over a person while DUI thing). His career is now basically over, but Stallworth was a league above average receiver, which is league average value from this spot.

14.) New York Giants select Jeremy Shockey (TE, Miami) - Grade: A-*

* - The Giants swapped with Tenenssee (#15) for their 4th round pick.

Hard to really value this. The Giants have had their most team success without Shockey (who got hurt midway through the 2007 season) and wasn't a great clubhouse influence, but his post-NYG career has just reinforced the fact that he is quite a good TE over his career, catching a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIV, and now being a nice target for Cam Newton.

15.) Tennessee Titans select Albert Haynesworth (DT, Tennessee) - Grade: A-*

* - See Giants (#14)

Basically everything that can be written about Shockey can be written about Haynesworth (other than Haynesworth not having a good post-Titans career). Haynesworth at his best was the best defensive player in the league (2007-2008) and the best player on a team that made the playoffs twice almost solely because of that defense. He was a headcase, but a really good and at time unblockable player.

16.) Cleveland Browns select William Green (RB, BC) - Grade: C

William Green's career started out solidly, which is why this isn't a D or worse. His 2002 season was good and he helped the new-Browns make the playoffs (yeah, that happened). He had a DUI in 2003 and then had his fiancee stab him in the back (literally), which kind of derailed everything.

17.) Oakland Raiders select Phillip Buchannon (CB, Miami) - Grade: B-

Phillip Buchannon never lived up to the expectations he had coming out of that factory in Miami (overshadowed, by a guy to come). He was never even as good as McKinnie, or Jammer, or those other guys who had long if not special careers. Buchannon was decent, but that is about it.

18.) Atlanta Falcons select TJ Duckett (RB, MSU) - Grade: B-

I'm not sure what to make of this pick. Duckett is a decent player but his career was inflated by never being the true starter in Atlanta (behind Warrick Dun) and being in an offense that because of Michael Vick always had inflated rushing numbers. That said, he was a constant producer and stayed healthy.

19.) Denver Broncos select Ashley Lelie (WR, Hawaii) - Grade: C+

Lelie had a very good season in 2004, but nothing else. When his Broncos career ended before the 2006 season, Lelie was effectively done being a productive player in any sense. Lelie apparenly made a stink when the Broncos traded for the guy picked right after him (who was a lot better) but both of their careers were basically over around the same time.

20.) Green Bay Packers select Javon Walker (WR, Florida St) - Grade: B

I was originally going to give Javon Walker a higher grade, but the similarities between him and Lelie are staggering. Both had one great year (2004). Both had no real career in their time in Oakland. Walker broke his leg early in 2005 after having a long contract dispute with the Packers. But when he was good, he was one of the best.

21.) New England Patriots select Daniel Graham (TE, Colorado) - Grade: C+

Daniel Graham is evidence that Bill Belichick was not always a good drafter of TEs. The real litmus test of Graham's disappointment was that they picked a TE in the first round two years later. Daniel Graham was on two Super Bowl winners and is still in the league amazingly, but his career numbers are really, really overwhelming.

22.) New York Jets select Bryan Thomas (DE, UAB) - Grade: B+

He is one of just three players in this first round that are still on the team that drafted him. Bryan Thomas has never been a pro-bowl player, but it is hard to ask for too much more from a #22 pick than eleven years of production. Even if that production is league average (which it mostly has) it is valuable.

23.) Oakland Raiders select Napoleon Harris (LB, Northwestern) - Grade: C

It is amazing to me that the Vikings waned him as part of the Randy Moss trade, but Napoleon Harris was average throughout his Raider career, and did nothing else in Minnesota or wherever he went after that.

24.) Baltimore Ravens select Ed Reed (S, Miami) - Grade: A++

One of the best picks of all time. The difference between this type of pick and picking Tom Brady in the 6th round is that Brady is luck. The Ravens obviously saw a lot in Ed Reed, and boy were they right. Ed Reed is one of the best safeties ever and they got him with the 24th pick.

25.) New Orleans Saints select Charles Grant (DE, Georgia) - Grade: B+

Charles Grant had an above average career for eight years with the Saints, leaving that town with a ring in Super Bowl XLIV. Charles Grant was never as good as Will Smith, but the two combined to be one of the better DE tandems in the NFL in their tenure.

26.) Philadelphia Eagles select Lito Sheppard (CB, Florida) - Grade: B+

Lito Sheppard is a lot like Charles Grant in that he had a long, slightly above average career as a starter for a good team that used him as a corner. The Eagles used Sheppard to replace Troy Vincent and it was a good transition.

27.) San Francisco 49ers select Mike Rumph (CB, Miami) - Grade: C

Mike Rumph was out of the league in six years. That is bad. He was never a league average player. That is also bad. There is better evidence of this theory, but players in a unit in college that play alongside a true great are often propped up. Three players from Miami's secondary were picked, and only one was really worth it (Reed) while both Rumph and Buchannon were overpicked.

28.) Seattle Seahawks select Jerramy Stevens (TE, Washington) - Grade: C

He had some memorable moments in the 2005 and 2006 postseasons (including running his mouth and then going off and having a disaster of a Super Bowl), but his overall career is really underwhelming. I was surprised when I realized that his career stats are worse than Daniel Graham, and unlike Graham, he had no value as a blocker.

29.) Chicago Bears select Marc Colombo (OT, BC) - Grade: D

It is hard to grade this pick. Marc Colombo is the first player in this draft that had no impact or value to the team that drafted him, but had a lot of value overall. For the Bears, he started just 7 games over three and a half years, but then started 88 games over the next six years for the Cowboys. I'm grading the teams here though, and that pick was awful for the Bears. Credit Colombo though.

30.) Pittsburgh Steelers select Kendall Simmons (G, Auburn) - Grade: B

Kendall Simmons started 76 games over five years for the Steelers when that team went to the playoffs three times and won Super Bowl XL. That is good production for a guard picked #30 for a team. It isn't great, but it is the definition of a good value pick at this point.

31.) St. Louis Rams select Robert Thomas (LB, UCLA) - Grade: C

Below league average player that was good in spots and stayed in the league for five years. That is a decent pick for a 3rd or 4th rounder. That is a bad pick for a 1st rounder. The beginning of some truly awful picks by the Rams.

32.) Washington Redskins select Patrick Ramsey (QB, Tulane) - Grade: D

Ramsey was Spurrier's great pick and it was a total swing and a miss. Those were talented Redskins teams and the Redskins just floundered on offense under Ramsey, who Spurrier gave up on from time to time. The reason why his grade is worse than Harrington or Carr is that he had more to work with and was, in honesty, worse.

Best pick in later rounds:

2nd.) Denver Broncos select Clinton Portis with the 51st pick.

3rd.) Philadelphia Eagles select Brian Westbrook with the 91st pick.

4th.) Pittsburgh Steelers select Larry Foote with the 128st pick.

5th.) Green Bay Packers select Aaron Kampman with the 156th pick.

6th.) Tennessee Titans select Justin Hartwig with the 187th pick.

7th.) Pittsburgh Steelers select Brett Keisel with the 242nd pick.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

It Rains in Spain

So, I wrote about Barcelona over the weekend, and everything that I wrote that illed them against Real Madrid came up to bite them against Chelsea in the 2nd Leg. But man, I could have never expected both Barcelona and Real Madrid to fail to go through at home against two "lesser" teams. I put that in quotes for a reason that we will get to in a minute. Either way, just three and four days after Barcelona and Real Madrid battled for the right to be the team that had the opportunity to win a double, neither team will have that chance. In six days, Pep Guardiola had three massive games to oversee, and didn't win any of them, with two being at home. What a mystifying week of football.

What happened to Real Madrid was, to me, more revelating to me. I didn't think Barcelona would go through with ease. I knew Chelsea would play the way they did against Barcelona, and there is enough evidence that when a good, structured team plays that way against Barcelona, they almost always have a chance. The way the Real Madrid vs. Bayern Munich game unfolded was more, in a way, surprising. The only part of the Barca loss that surprised me was the final. Everything surprised me about the Bayern win, including the way they, let's be honest, looked just as good as Real Madrid in Madrid. Bayern created more chances, had more shots, and although they didn't score a goal in play, they definitely deserved that scoreline in any sense. No one, even those that undervalue defense and thinks because one team completes more passes they are obviously the more dominant team, could say that Bayern did not deserve their win. Bayern was the better team in the extra time.

Now, I understand why Real Madrid was more cautious in the late 2nd Half and extra time, and that is because had Bayern scored, Madrid would need to score two quickly to win, so they understandably played back. But what was more surprising is that they didn't get those easy breakouts or counters. They really played Bayern to a draw. But when you look at it, Bayern is an extremely talented team. I don't think they play together on offense as well as Barca or Real, but just on talent, Bayern has some extremely talented offensive players. Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery make one of the best attacking mid-field tandems in the world. Philip Lahm is one of the best two-way full-backs in the world. Bastian Schweinsteiger may have peaked, but he's basically a more solid version of Sergio Busquets, or a comparable player to what Andrea Pirlo is at this point in his career. Mario Gomez is a capable striker, as is Thomas Muller off the bench. The talent is there. I think they are the favorite in the Final, and I think they would be in any stadium (maybe not had the final been in Stamford Bridge). Bayern is a good team. I mean, they've made as many CL Finals in the past four years as Barca has.

One quick note about how it ended. I'm not a fan of the away-goals rule. Sure, it helped Chelsea go through, but it seems totally arbitrary. I guess the biggest positive aspect to the away goals rule is that it avoids penalty kicks (the only way is having both legs won by the home or away side by the same score), but it makes late game scenarios really unfair to the home side. As I mentioned, I felt that Real retreated more in extra time not only because they were fatigued (that's what happens when they have to play full-on over the weekend in the biggest game of their season, while the other team basically rested after having already lost out on the league), but also because they had much, much more to lose if they concede a goal at that stage. If I can propose one switch to the rule, I think goals in extra time should not be subjected to the away goals distinction. I mean, Real Madrid didn't choose to play the extra time in their stadium. It was their luck to have the 2nd Leg at home (definitely an advantage), but they shouldn't be penalized when in Extra Time a goal for them in reality doesn't mean as much as a goal for Bayern. To me, if both teams score in Extra Time, the game should still go to penalty kicks. It is just implicitly unfair for, in that scenario, one club to get 120 minutes to score away goals while the other only gets 90.

Anyway, back to the ending. I really felt bad for Jose Mourinho. I think early in the 1st Leg honestly, he realized that Munich was a damn good team. He had his team prepared (again, Bayern's only goal in the 2nd Leg came off of a penalty) but in the end, for the most controlling, hands-on, interactive manager in football had no control over who won in the end. He sent his four best, most trusted shooters up to the spot, and three of them failed him. Also, after the win of his Madrid career over the weekend, within four days  he has to face questions again. I think Mourinho has always seen the Champions League as the goal anywhere he goes, and despite the fact that they will beat the supposed best team in the world in terms of accumulating points over 38 games, the year wasn't complete. When Real Madrid took the field for the 2nd Leg, they were the favorite among the three teams left, and they didn't get it done.

Then again, if you want to talk about not getting it done, all Madrid fans can just turn right and point South to their Catalan enemies in Barca. That is a team that didn't get it done. Forget not scoring. They scored enough goals in that 2nd Leg. They just gave up two goals too many. The staggering thing was BOTH goals were scored when Chelsea had 10 men. Barca, at home, failed to go through against a 6th-place Premier League team, after that team spotted them two goals and had one Central Back red-carded and the other Central Back subbed out with an injury. I mean, how much more did Barca need to go in their favor. The only thing that was "unlucky" was Messi missing a penalty kick but that was in Barca's control. (For all of Leo's brilliance, his penalty conversion is not that great, and has missed high-pressure penalties before). What was more staggering was that Barcelona seemed a lot more threatening when Chelsea was playing 11 men, and more than that, seemed a lot more threatening in the 1st Leg in Stamford Bridge. In that game, they had 8 shots on goal, while Chelsea had 1. In the 2nd Leg, Barca had just 5, with just 2 of those after Chelsea was reduced to 10 men, and Chelsea had 3. Barcelona, for all its possession and passing brilliance, failed, for the 2nd Time in three years, to score a necessary goal against a 10-man squad.

If I'm playing Barcelona in a game where all I need to do is keep Barca from scoring (Chelsea in 2012, Inter in 2010), it almost makes sense to have a guy red-carded. With one guy out of the game, that team has to deploy more guys to playing defense. In 2010, Jose Mourinho utilized Samuel Eto'o as a Left Back to good success. In this game, Didier Drogba, other than his dubious penalty, was a better left back than any of Barca's defenders, who again showed that Barca's defense is full of holes. Sure, Barcelona's offensive attack is a lot better than Chelsea (and in honesty, every team in the world), but their defense is just average, if not worse. They are finally getting exposed more often for having one defender being incapable of really playing defense (Alves), and one defender being a converted midfielder (Mascherano). That's not a recipe for success. Add to it a goalie who is not good at positioning (witness his mess against the corner that resulted in Real's first goal in the Clasico or him totally out of position against Ramires's goal). Barcelona gave up 4 shots on goal in the two legs. Three of those went into the net. Some may call it luck. I call it a team that isn't all good at defense who doesn't give up more goals because the other team has teh ball so infrequently. Hey, it works 90% of the time with ease when Barca is playing the Levante's and Racing Santander's of the La Liga world, but against the premier teams in Europe that are capable of playing great, organized defense, it doesn't. Barcelona knows how to beat Arsenal like a drum, but doesn't know how to beat Chelsea. It just doesn't.

I'm not going to kill Messi, but I think he does realize that Barca needs him to be brilliant a whole lot more than they needed him to be brilliant in 2009. Xavi and Iniesta are not as good as they used to be even a year ago. This new wave of youngsters are all too green. They all fit into the system, but none seem to me as being singularly talented in the way of a Robben or Ribery. They have no plan B because most of the time they don't need one, but I am sure that Pep Guardiola realizes that the better defensive sides in Europe have realized the formula to keeping the game close. It doesn't always result in wins, but it can. Anyway, back to Messi. He's succeeded in the two Champions League Finals he has played, scoring a goal in each win over Manchester United (not a great defensive team), but has honestly, underperformed late in the CL season. Barcelona has reached the CL Semifinal five straight years that align with Messi's rise (of course, he's been scoring more the past three than the first two in that run), so Barcelona has played 20 matches in the QF and SF of those tournaments. Messi has scored just 9 goals in those 20 games. Now, that is a good haul, but considering his almost one goal a game average in his Barca career, it is less-than. Also, consider that those 11 goals have come in just five games. He scored four in a brilliant performance in the 2nd Leg of the 2010 QF against Arsenal, two in the 1st Leg of the 2009 QF against Bayern, one in the 2nd Leg of the 2011 QF against Stuttgart, two in the 1st Leg of the 2011 SF against Real (after Pepe was redcarded) and two more in the 2nd Leg of the 2012 SF against AC Milan. Three of those 11 were penalties. Only two came in a semifinal match. So, fifteen times in 20 career quarter or semifinal legs in his Barca career, Messi has been held scoreless. Now, the attention it takes to slow him down is enough that everyone else benefits, but he hasn't been as good late in seasons. And it is true of his La Liga performance. Messi scores more goals early in seasons than late, and I think much of that has to do with the fact that he barely ever sits out games or even portions of games. He is human he needs time to rest.

Either way, we are set for an interesting final. Both teams deserve to be there. This is why the CL has a playoff system, because anything can happen. Sure, if both Chelsea and Barcelona were playing in the same league, it is almost guaranteed that Barcelona would end up with a higher rank (coincedently, in that same most fair system, Madrid WILL end up with more points than Barcelona, yet a large majority of people will say Barca is still better), but over two Legs, Barca didn't win either game. Madrid deservedly was ousted by a team that just played better and with more force over 210 minutes. It will be a fun final, with a fun Bayern team at home against the most resilient team that I've seen since Inter in 2010, but either way, it will be refreshing that for once, the Clasico can be shoved away for another six months or so. That the great Spanish sides have fallen, that defense beat offense (again), and that that talent Bayern had showed just what it can be if it plays together.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Solving the Riddle

Two large sports moments happened over the weekend on the other side of the pond. One will, deservedly, get a lot more press, but two titans in their respective sport upended their nemesis. Real Madrid, under the guidance of "The Special One" Jose Mourinho finally beat Barcelona in a league game, and basically locked up their first La Liga title since 2008. The other wasn't as important, and in the grand scheme of things is much less meaningful since no annual title was earned, but Rafael Nadal, coincidentally a Real Madrid fan, finally beat Novak Djokovic for the first time since the 2010 Year End Masters Tournament, and for the first time in a Final since the 2010 US Open. Both snapped long streaks. This was Madrid's first league win against Barca since 2008. (Madrid had beaten Barca in the Copa Del Rey last year, but that was less important than Barca's 1-0-1 record in the league and their win in the Champions League Semifinal). Nadal had lost his last 7 matches against Djokovic, including matches at all three surfaces and in three straight Slam Finals. Finally, on consecutive days, both slayed their dragon, and it may just change the landscape of each sport.

I'll start with my take on Nadal beating Djokovic, because chances are this is not a true changing of the guard. Because Djokovic did not play the tournament in Monte Carlo last season, his lead in the rankings for the #1 player actually grew, but mentally, this is a huge step for Nadal. It was obvious that Nadal was getting closer. Nadal actually could have easily won the two meeting last spring in Indian Wells and Miami that started this run (he lost both in 3rd set tiebreakers), but those losses definitely gave Novak a giant burst of confidence that has really carried him since. Entering those matches, the head-to-head was 14-4 Nadal, with Rafa having a commanding 5-0 lead in Finals. Those two wins by Djokovic turned the table, and to his credit, he took off with that confidence and just hammered Nadal. The trend was cemented when Djokovic beat Nadal on clay in straight sets at Rome and Madrid. Both were close matches, but Djokovic just mentally didn't creak when the sets got tight. Nadal did.

Wins at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open followed, but in all matches Nadal took sets, and by the time the Australian Open Final came around, it took 5 hours and 57 minutes for Djokovic to finally beat Nadal, in a match truly either could have won. This made me confident that Nadal was just relaxing against Djokovic, that he was mentally getting better. I've always felt that Djokovic's run over Nadal was very, very different than Nadal's dominance over Federer over his career. Nadal's record over Federer is partially built on the fact that Nadal is an all-time great, but also that Nadal just matches up incredibly well with Roger. Nadal can exploit Roger's greatest weakness (high backhand). There's a reason why Federer rarely beats Nadal. There was no reason why Djokovic was owning Nadal other than the incredibly simple one: Nadal just was playing worse than Djokovic. It wasn't a matchup issue. It was a mental issue, but mostly an issue of one guy just simply playing better. Nadal just needed to play better, and he finally did.

Djokovic was the mentally weak one in this past match (6-3 6-1 win by Nadal), but this time it made sense that he was floating in-and-out of the match. Novak's grandfather passed away during the tournament, and Novak was struggling to keep his concentration during the week. Couple that with the fact that Nadal has lost all of six sets over the past EIGHT YEARS in the Monte Carlo tournament, and it was easy to see that this was the place where Nadal would end the streak. The Djokovic camp probably doesn't see this as a true representation of where the two are at entering the meat of the tennis season, but the Nadal camp can turn this into their catalyst. Many felt that Nadal would be even more depressed after that Aussie Open loss because of how close he came. I felt he would feel better about his game. That was a true toss-up. Nadal needed to play some great tennis to take the US Open match into a 4th set, but now was this close to winning it entirely. I think Djokovic is here to stay, but I think that was more than a blip on Djokovic's run to glory, but a sign that Rafa is going to make this a true rivalry, which it never has been, either when Rafa was dominating, or Nole.

Now, let's get to the real news: Real topping Barca. I'll write more about Barcelona if they lose their CL Semi to Chelsea mid-week., but for now, I think Jose's cracked that code, and I think the Barca reign is much more tenuous overall, and once again, it really just comes down to Messi.

Messi is the best player in the world. He's one of the best of all-time. Personally, I have more affection for Zidane, but defending that stance is becoming harder and harder unless I succumb to using the "Zidane was more magical" defense. But now, for maybe the first time in his Barca history, Messi needs to be the best player in the world. It is my opinion that Lionel Messi hasn't continued to raise his scoring numbers because he's gotten that much better, but because he needs to score more for Barca to have the success they have had. He's now unquestionably the most important part of the Barca machine, of Pep's system. He's the key. If he's off, Barca is just not Barca, and although they'll beat most teams, they won't beat every team. Messi didn't have his best day in the 1st leg of the CL Quarterfinal against AC Milan, and it was a 0-0 draw with Barcelona looking flat and, by their standards, unthreatening. Messi didn't have a great day on Saturday, and Barca looked less threatening then they have ever looked. It is all about Messi now, and I think he knows it. He scowls more, he looks more demonstrative. For one of the first times I can remember, Leo looked frustrated on Saturday. He knows what he's up against.

Back in 2009 and 2010, when Barcelona was unquestionably the best team in the world, I held that Lionel Messi was not the most important part of the Barcelona system. I gave that distinction to Xavi and Iniesta, the two brilliant geniuses, the two best pacers in tight space in the world. Those two were the real engine of the Barcelona scheme. They could win without Leo having a good impact. It was a shady, almost crooked win given the amount of penalties that could have been awarded to Chelsea, but in the 2009 CL Semifinal, Barcelona pulled through without Messi doing much of anything against that Chelsea defense. No, it was Xavi and Iniesta. The two men that were the central figure of the Spain team that won the 2008 Euro and the 2010 World Cup were also the leaders of Barcelona, but that is not the case anymore.

Those two, to me, are not the same player. Xavi is creeping towards his mid-30's and Iniesta also seems a step slower, physically and mentally. Messi needs to pick his game up, because the team minus Messi is much, much worse than the team minus Messi from 2009. That team had individual talent at almost every position that was better than this current iteration that uses Javier Mascherano as a central defender. With Xavi and Iniesta slowly, but surely, depreciating over time, Pep has turned to the next wave of talent to come through the system. The system is king in Barcelona, and I think the system has forced him to play guys that, personally, I think aren't all that good. Pedro, Thiago Alcantara, Alexis Sanchez and Cristian Tello. Those four are of the next wave of Barca academy products, but none of them, to me, are individually great players. The know how to feed off of the system, and capitalize on getting more shots available to them than most players. I don't think any of them are really all that good at finishing, but when you get more opportunites than others, the goals will eventually come. Barca will be fine because still., the talent is more than almost every team and Lionel Messi still is the best player in the world and is in his peak, but if Messi ever gets hurt, I fear what happens. In 2009, I would say not too much; now: probably a lot.

As for Real, I have never seen a team play that evenly against Barcelona. They didn't have much possession (28%), but unlike Chelsea over the week (22%), they didn't allow Barcelona numerous chances. Barca had a ton of the ball, but had the exact same amount of shots as Real Madrid (14) and fewer on goal. They didn't let Barca run around inside the penalty area. They kept everything far. They dared Barca to outrun them, and Barca just cannot. They knew exactly what Dani Alves was going to do, and banked on the fact that Alves wouldn't try to beat Fabio Coentrao to the end line. They knew what Barca was going to do after studying them over time. They finally were able to just play well enough on offense to make it work. In the Pep vs. Mourinho era, there have been 11 "Clasicos" (four in league, two Suppercopa, three Copa Del Rey, two Champions League), and despite this idea that Barcelona has dominated, Barcelona has won only five. Three have been draws and two Madrd wins. Only the first of the 11 was not a close game (a 5-0 Barca win). The others have had the following scorelines: Madrid wins of 1-0 and 2-1; draws of 1-1, 2-2, 2-2, 1-1, and Barca wins of 3-2, 2-1, 2-1 and 2-0. And that 2-0 win was the first leg of the CL Semi, where it was a 0-0 tie after about 70 minutes when Pepe was red-carded, where after Messi scored two quick goals.

Mourinho has changed this rivalry, and, in my opinion, for the better. The games mean more now than ever, and Mourinho has finally seen the fruits of his labor come to harvest. His defensive scheme against Barcelona has really worked over the past two years. His defensive scheme against Barcelona is built off of the success he had against them at Chelsea and Inter. When he was at Chelsea, Guardiola was not the Barca manager, but he beat them in the 2005 CL Round of 16. At Inter, he defeated a, in my mind, more deep and better Barcelona team in the 2010 CL Semifinal. Now he's beaten them in the league. He can play that team. He can neutralize Messi, who has scored just two goals against Mourinho teams, and again, those two were both scored after the man assigned with the task of stopping him got controversially red-carded. Now that he's reached that level at Madrid, there is a chance he takes his schtick back to England as has been floated around, but I think it makes more sense to stay and try to do it again next year.

Friday, April 20, 2012

2011 MLB Predictions: The NL

This took a lot longer to get to than I hoped, but I'm doing the predictions as I called them before the season started. I would write more about the NL, but the league is just sad. Remember, everything I wrote was before the season.

NL East

1.) Philadelphia Philles - 93-69 (2)

The pitching is still there, but I worry about this team. They went all in from 2009-2012 (which is odd, since they won the title in 2008, with by far their worst team of the last four) and will likely get no World Series' Titles out of it. The pitching almost assuredly won't be as good as it was last year, as it is about time for Halladay and Lee to fall off a little bit. The hitting is bad, especially with Howard and Utley being out. Hunter Pence is the best bat, and while he is a solid, underrated player (career 120 OPS+), that probably won't cut it in October.

2.) Atlanta Braves - 85-77

To me, all of these NL East teams are nicer at first glance, but in reality, are all about average. I expect a bounce-back year from Jason Heyward, but the rest of their hitters are all somewhere between mediocre and merely good. Their pitching has depth and youth in Hanson, Jurrjens and Beachy, but their bullpen was really overworked last year, and bullpens are always inconsistent. Plus, Fredi Gonzalez is a really shitty manager.

3.) Washington Nationals - 84-78

Could the overtake the Phillies in 2012? I guess it is possible, but I think they are a year or two away from being in the mix for good. Jayson Werth just has to be better than last year, as he averaged a 130 OPS+ from 2007-2010 before going to 97 last year. Zimmermon, Desmond and Wilson Ramos are nice hitters. Their pitching, though, can be really good. Edwin Jackson is decent, and he's the #4. Gio Gonzalez was probably not worth what they gave up, but he stays healthy, eats innings and can get strikeouts. Jordan Zimmerman and Strasburg can develop into one of the better 1-2 punches out there. This team will be loaded come 2014.

4.) Miami Marlins - 81-81

 I'm not buying into the "new ballpark = results" hype that surrounds this team. I liked two of their moves (Reyes and Buehrle). The biggest issue I see is that they have a lot of players on that team that have been moody and controversial in the past for lack of effort and concentration (Hanley, Reyes, Logan Morrison) and now a manager that doesn't really get on guys for that type of stuff in Ozzie. I hated the Carlos Zambrano signing, as he is just done, and other than the top two, I see little depth in that rotation. It is also hard to trust Josh Johnson to stay healthy anymore.

5.) New York Mets - 79-83

Call me crazy, but I like the New York Madoff's a little bit. Their biggest issue is a lack of depth. If they have injuries, which the Mets always seem to have, their chances are done, but if the Mets can stay healthy, they can compete for the 2nd Wild Card. Their starting line-up is decent, with one hitter who will be better as he's healthy (Wright), and nice young pieces that can all hit and have good batting eyes in Duda, Murphy and Ike. The pitching is also decent, with Santana back. RA Dickey is becoming the new Wakefield, and I still believe that Niese and Pelfrey can be league average. That all said, injuries will come, and the Mets will wallow in mediocrity.

NL Central

1.) St. Louis Cardinals - 91-71 (3)

The good ol' defending champs. I'm really unsure why I think they can get better without Pujols (win one more game than last year), but to me this is the equation. The Cardinals won 90 games last year in Pujols worst season. This year, they are without Pujols, but added Carlos Beltran (who had his best season in years in 2011) and Adam Wainwright back to the mix. To me, that is a wash. Berkman probably won't have close to that good of a year again, but getting a full year from Allen Craig and David Freese helps. Also, they won't have the Ryan Franklin closer experience like they did in early 2011. The Cardinals are still a good, deep team, with two top-shelf pitching prospects at the ready in Miller and Martinez as well.

2.) Milwaukee Brewers - 88-74 (4)

I think there will be a mad rush for the two wild card spots, and the Brewers will nab one of them. Having Braun not miss any games was huge. I think Aramis negates some of the loss from losing Fielder, and the team still has depth on offense. The pitching is still there. Greinke had better peripheral numbers than total last year, and he was on fire in the 2nd half, and I expect him to do even better in Year 2 in the NL, and same with Shaun Marcum. The Brewers were a legitimately very good team in 2011. They might take a step back, but I doubt it will be far enough.

3.) Cincinnati Reds - 87-75 (5)

I think the Reds are getting a little overhyped. They have a solid middle of the order with Philips, Votto and Bruce, but the rest of the hitting is not great. The pitching did improve with the trade to get Latos, but after him and Cueto, the Reds are relying on unproven or aging pitchers such as Leake (who was only league average last year, which I guess is not bad) and Bronson Arroyo. They have Chapman in the bullpen, but since he is not the closer, I'm not sure how much value he has.

4.) Pittsburgh Pirates - 76-86

Sneaky average team, the Pirates are in the right direction, but still not good enough to really compete. Andrew McCutcheon getting locked up long term was a really nice move, as was the signing of AJ Burnett. I'm not kidding. Burnett is a low-risk gamble as the Yankees are paying some of his money, and now in a pitchers park, away from NYC, I wouldn't be surprised to see Burnett do quite well. And by that I mean, a 4.25 ERA, instead of a 5.50 one.

5.) Chicago Cubs - 64-98

Man, Theo Epstein has a tough road ahead of him. He's inheriting a 71-91 team that lost its best player (Aramis Ramirez) and added basically no one. People forget that he inherited a 93-69 team in Boston, and not some team lost in the wilderness like he is here. His track record in Boston of big FA signings was mostly putrid (Schilling was good, but that is about it), and it will be interesting to see if the luster of his brilliance is as bright in Chicago as well. I doubt it.

6.) Houston Astros - 58-104

Man, it will be fun for them to lose 100+ games in their last season in the NL. How in Holy Hell did this team make the playoffs six times in nine years from 1997-2005.

NL West

1.) San Francisco Giants - 94-68 (1)

I'm not sure why I buy them more than the Phillies. Actually, it probably is the division. The NL East is a bit better than the NL West in my book. The Giants still have two great pitchers, and I can see Madison Bumgarner taking another step forward in 2012. They get back Buster Posey for what we can only assume will be the full year. Pablo Sandoval ended 2011 nicely, and I like the Melky pickup with him the NL. Not sure why I think this team can win this many games, but to be honest, the NL is a little disturbing right now. They've won three of the last four WS, but I think the best five teams are all in the AL right now.

2.) Arizona Diamondbacks - 85-77

They overacheived last year. Most noticeably, was the pitching performance of Ian Kennedy, who is good, but not that good. Also, Daniel Hudson probably will regress a bit. They did pick up Trevor Cahill, who I really like, and have a monster pitching prospect in Trevor Bauer, but I think the D-Backs are better set to dominate in 2013 than in 2012. The hitting is still depending on a lot of guys who had career type years, in Miguel Montero and Ryan Roberts. They are set well for the future, but I think 2011 was kind of a Cinderella run.

3.) Los Angeles Dodgers - 80-82

Amid all the McCourt and Bryan Stow nonsense in 2011, it was easy to look over the fact that the Dodgers weren't awful, and had the best pitcher and hitter in the NL. Clayton Kershaw was a deserving Cy Young winner with a monster season at just 23. Matt Kemp should have been the MVP. Both guys are among the 20 best players in baseball, but both should also regress a bit in 2012. The Dodgers pitching staff outside of Kershaw is a little softer this year without Kuroda, who was really dependable for them all of those years.

4.) Colorado Rockies - 76-86

I'm not sure who they have that can pitch. Drew Pomeranz is probably the best going forward, but the fact that Jamie Moyer can even make that team speaks more about the Rockies lack of pitching than it does about Moyer. They can hit, with Tulo and CarGo being great players (I've always like CarGo as a subject. As a prospect, he was traded to Oakland from Arizona in the Haren deal, and then stupidly traded by the A's to the Rockies for Matt Holliday, who lasted a year in Oakland - easily the dumbest move by Billy Beane in his time in Oakland). The Rockies had a breif period where they seemed loaded with young talent, but other than those two, it seems mostly dry now.

5.) San Diego Padres - 62-100

I still can't believe they came so close to a miracle playoff berth in 2010. I still think their offense is a mess, even after getting supposed stud Yonder Alonso in the Latos trade. The pitching is there, but I expect a bit of a falloff from Luebke, and I am not an Edinson Volquez fan at all. Everyone's numbers on that staff may look nicer just from pitching half of their games in PetCo, but that is not a great staff, nor a good team.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

NHL 1st Round Picks

Hockey Playoff Time!!! With the Devils back, and good (seriously, they barely finished worse than the Penguins and Flyers and are so much better than a normal 6th seed) and the Rangers as the #1 seed, and young likable teams littering the West, I'm probably more excited for this playoff season than anyone since maybe the 2007 Playoffs, were I was convinced the #2 seed Devils were headed to a showdown with the top seed Sabres. This one has a lot of extra juice, more because I am old enough to take in and watch the night games. Anyway, let's get down to business. My 1st round picks will be short, but expect longer ones for each round here-after.

Eastern Conference

(1) Rangers over (8) Senators in 6

I like the Senators, and think they are a year away from being really, really good. Erik Karlsson is a future star. I can't believe Jason Spezza is only 28, since he's been a key player since his breakout in teh 2003 Conference Finals. I more so can't believe that Daniel Alfredsson is still playing pretty well. That said, the Rangers are so well put together. They really remind me of old Devils teams, in a good way. The Senators played them well all year, but just aren't close to good enough defensively to beat the Rangers.

(7) Capitals over (2) Bruins in 7

It's the NHL Playoffs. Upsets happen every year. This wouldn't even be that much of a shocker. The fact that Braden Holtby is going to be the starter for the Capitals is a little concerning, but in his limited time his stats were the best of any Caps goalie. A big reason why I like the Caps chances is that for the first time in years (maybe since their initial playoffs splash in the Ovie era in 2008) there is no pressure on them. No one really is buying their chances. Plus, they finally get a healthy Nicklas Backstrom, while the Bruins are still without Horton.

(6) Devils over (3) Panthers in 5

The Panthers just are not very good. Congratulations to them for making it into the playoffs for the first time since the 1999-2000 season (where they were promptly eliminated by the Devils). On the other hand, this might be the best Devils team since the 2007 squad. The Devils did have the #2 seed two seasons ago, but that team still had trouble scoring, was trying to fit in Kovalchuk and faced a Flyers team that would eventually make the Finals. This team has Ilya loaded, and more offensive depth than any Devils team since 2001.

(5) Flyers over (4) Penguins in 7

I think the Penguins, with Crosby healthy, are definitely better on paper. They have the league's two best players (as of right now) and a lot of depth, and the better, more playoff tested goalie. But I can't get over the fact that the Flyers have owned Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh ever since that new building opened up. I also can't get over the fact that everyone is picking Pittsburgh, despite the fact that the teams really were even throughout the season.

Western Conference

(1) Canucks over (8) Kings in 6

It will be really interesting to see if Luongo gets pulled at any time during this series. Corey Schnieder had a good year, and it probably isn't as drastic a drop-off as when Luongo was one of the best goalies (2007-2009). The Canucks offense has dropped off dramatically since last year, but that still makes them miles better offensively than the Kings, who scored fewer than 200 goals. The reason I think this still goes six games is I'm not sure how many games Daniel Sedin plays.

(2) Blues over (7) Sharks in 7

Call it the last stand of the Marleau-Thornton era sharks. To this day, I will never understand the move of getting rid of Heatley and Setoguchi and getting Martin Havlat and Brent Burns in return,. Even if Havlat stayed healthy, he wasn't replacing Heatley. (Interesting note about Heatley, he was traded to Ottawa for Marian Hossa, and was now traded for Martin Havlat, who were teammates on Ottawa, with the same initials). It's sad to see the Sharks fall like they have, but they could have easily pulled the plug on the Marleau-Thornton era two years ago after winning the President's Cup and losing to Anaheim. As for the Blues, I think they get through, but I just don't see where goals consistently come from. They'll ahve trouble going forward.

(3) Coyotes over (6) Blackhawks in 7

I like this series. Two teams with contrasting styles of play, in two totally different environments (desert vs. hockey-mad Chicago). I have no idea who I'm picking Pheonix other than a belief in Mike Smith, who just had a great season, and liking him more than Corey Crawford. Chicago has the guys who can turn it up, but I just don't see the level of play from Kane and Toews this season that tells me they will.

(4) Predators over (5) Red Wings in 6

I don't think the Red Wings have ever been the same since losing that 1st home game in 8,000 games back to Vancouver. The Wings are 7-10-4 since, and in non-shootout games, were 5-10-2. They were, right before that drop happened, leading contenders to win the Western Conference regular season, and they fell all the way to not having home ice in round one. The Predators were one of the most consistent teams all year, and unlike Preds teams of the past, this one can score. I say the Predators get revenge on the Wings, who knocked them out of the playoffs in 2004 and 2008.

Anyway, if this holds, it sets up 2nd Rounds of Vancouver vs. Nashville and St, Louis vs Phoenix out West (my guess is NBC is really hoping my predictions are wrong, and either Detroit or Chicago get through) and New York vs. Washington and Philadelphia vs. New Jersey in the East (two really nice series' on paper).

Enjoy the Puck.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Who's a Bust: Future Hall of Famer's Pt. 2

Continuing my projection of what current NFL player will get into the HOF, and how likely they will get there, here is the defense.

Quick reminder, the Tiers are basically barometers of where they are in their careers in relation to the HOF. The 1st-Tier is for guys that are slam-dunk 1st ballot HOFers. These guys are all the best in their position over a long period of time (think Bruce Smith, Ronnie Lott). The 2nd Tier is for guys who have been in the league long enough that if they retire today (or in the next couple of years with similar production) are likely HOFers, but probably guys that wouldn't be first-ballot (think Chris Doleman, eventually Michael Strahan). The 3rd Tier is for guys that are about 3-7 seasons into their career and have a chance if they continue at their current pace for another 5+ years. The 4th Tier is for players in years 1-3 of their career who started out great and could get there.

4-3 DE/3-4 OLB

1st Tier: Nobody

2nd Tier: Dwight Freeney (Colts), Jared Allen (Chiefs, Vikings), and Julius Peppers (Panthers, Bears)

These have been the best three DEs in the NFL over the past 7 years. It might be a racial thing, but the common idea is Jared Allen has a great motor and never gives up on plays, while Freeney doesn't play the run well and Julius Peppers takes games off. Anyway, none of that is totally true, but I think people expect more from Freeney and Peppers. Peppers was criticized all the time for taking games off, for not being dominant enough. Well, save for one lousy season, Peppers has been money. Freeney is better against the run than most thing. Allen is arguably the best of the three. They all have over 100 sacks and many pro bowls and all-pro's (7/3 for Freeney, 4/4 for Allen and 6/3 for Peppers). Usually, 130 sacks is a minimum, and they should all get there in their careers (105 for Allen, 102.5 for Freeney and 100 for Peppers and their ages are 30, 32 and 32 respectively). Pass rushers age well so they should at least have three to four more productive years. The consistency of all three is astounding, and they should all find their way to Canton.

3rd Tier: Nobody

4th Tier: Jason Pierre-Paul (Giants)

It might be a little of a stretch to project someone after just two seasons, but hell if I've seen a more raw-talented DE as Pierre-Paul. He still doesn't have the technique and experience that he will have as he gets older, and can learn from two good DEs (Justin Tuck and Osi). Pierre-Paul already has a first-team all-pro nod, and a 16.5 sack season. At just 23, he has at least another 10 years (if healthy) of great production to come. Jason Pierre-Paul also has other features apart from just sacks that aren't as important in a statistical sense, but help with the story. He's great at batting down husbands and even blocking field goals. Jason Pierre-Paul has a good team around him, and should continue to stay in the spot-light.

3-4 DL/4-3 DT

1st Tier: Nobody

2nd Tier: Vince Wilfork (Patriots), Richard Seymour (Patriots, Raiders), Kevin Williams (Vikings)


Vince Wilfork is just 31, although it feels like he's been around forever. He's been the centerpiece of the defense of the winningest franchise during his career. What separates him from the other old Patriots defensive stalwarts (Law, Bruschi, Vrabel, McGinest - Law probably is the only one with a chance) is that he's the link between that defense and the current defense. He's been one of the best NT for years now. He's never been a first-team all-pro, but four times been voted to the 2nd team. Seymour was Bill Belichick's first draft pick in 2001, and he was the best defensive player for a defensive-based team that won three Super Bowls. He's continued his success in Oakland, going to two more pro-bowls, including 15 more sacks at DT. Seymour's been the best 3-4 DE in the NFL at one point, and a close to dominant 4-3 DT. The 7 pro-bowls and 3 all-pro selections are more proof of his valued contribution. As for Kevin Williams, he just might be the most underrated defensive lineman over the past 10 years in terms of his historical standing. Kevin Williams has been selected to the all-pro team 5 times. He's missed just 4 games in his career, and got 54.5 career sacks playing all of his snaps inside. He's not Warren Sapp, but he's the best 4-3 DT since Sapp retired. At least one half of the most dominant pairs of DTs of the last decade should be in the Hall of Fame.

3rd Tier: Haloti Ngata (Ravens)

He's the most unblockable force in the NFL right now, the best 3-4 DE over the past five years (taking that mantle from Seymour) and he's possibly getting better. He's been named all-pro each of the last two years (2nd team the two years before that), with at least 5 sacks in each year. He gets double-teamed constantly and still gets pressure up the gut. Ngata is now the most important player of a defensive dynasty in Baltimore, and he's playing it well. Haloti never gets hurt, and is amazingly only just 28 years old. He still has five years of quality production left in him.

4th Tier: Ndamukong Suh (Lions)

It is hard to deny that Ndamukong Suh did not have the same impact as a second year player as he did in his historically good rookie campaign (led the NFL in sacks for a tackle with 10). I think his rookie form is closer to his real production. Ndamukong was still a matchup nightmare. All it was is that he didn't get to the quarterback. Guards have learned his basic move and strength, but as Suh adapts and grows as a talent, he should only get better. The fact that he plays for a team that is going to be good for a long time with Stafford and Johnson, so Suh should get a lot of exposure.

3-4 OLB

1st Tier: Nobody

2nd Tier: DeMarcus Ware (Cowboys)

DeMarcus Ware could produce at a pace half of his current one for the next five years and still make the Hall of Fame. There has not been a more dominant pass-rusher since Ware entered the league. 99.5 sacks in seven seasons (112 games). DeMarcus has never missed a game, and he's only once not recorded double digit sacks, and that was his rookie season. Six pro-bowls and four all-pro nods later (including seasons of 14.0, 20.0, 15.5 and 19.5 sacks) he's undoubtedly the best edge pass-rusher year after year in the NFL. Somehow he's never won Defensive Player of the Year (losing to James Harrison and Terrell Suggs in his 20 and 19.5 sack seasons) but that won't keep him out of the HOF.

3rd Tier: Terrell Suggs (Ravens), LaMarr Woodley (Steelers)

Quick note about the guy that is not on the list. James Harrison has had five great seasons (2007-2011) but his late start will kill his chances of putting up the career numbers necessary to get included. The two other great AFC North pass rushers have better chances. Suggs is closer, since he has had more consistent production, going to four more pro bowls (5 to 1) than Woodley and being just two years older. Suggs will finally be 30 next season, and already has 82.5 sacks and has had his best two seasons over the past two years. He's playing like he is just in his prime. Woodley is 28, so he has more time. This is a more tenuous prediction, but if he stayed healthy in 2011, he would have four straight double-digit sack seasons. The one-pro bowl is little, but I think he might be starting a string of them. There's a reason why the AFC North has such great defenses and these two are a large reason why.

4th Tier: Aldon Smith (49ers), Clay Matthews (Packers)

Now I'm getting ridiculous, predicting a rookie to get into the HOF, but Aldon Smith was special. He has an unending motor and is a player who will only get better on one of the best d-lines in football. 14 sacks as a rookie is a great start. The most special part of Aldon Smith's season was that he got better as the year went on. Clay Matthews had his first average year, with just 6.0 sacks (he did drop into coverage more, with three interceptions along the way) but still got another pro-bowl selection. Those are important in a way. If you can just rack up pro-bowl after pro-bowl, it might outweigh having stats that aren't worthy. Another thing for Clay is that his family ties with HOF Uncle Bruce might get him pushed in.

4-3 LB/3-4 ILB

1st Tier: Ray Lewis (Ravens)

He was the second highest ranking active player on the NFL Networks Top 100 Greatest Players of All Time countdown before the 2010 season, ranking at #18 (the only active player ranked higher was that guy that wears #18). It probably is safe to say that his actual production and his perceived ability are finally meshed. No one really thinks of him as a truly great player currently, but still definitely an effective one. That said, a 13-time pro-bowler and 7-time All-Pro, with two Defensive Player of the Year awards (2000, 2003) probably doesn't need to prove anything anymore.

2nd Tier: Patrick Willis (49ers), Brian Urlacher (Bears), Lance Briggs (Bears)

I'll start with Willis who is the 2nd youngest Tier 2 player in my projections  (a couple months older than Adrian Peterson). Do I honestly think that if he retires today he gets in? No, but I think other than the two people also in this tier, and Ray Lewis, he has the best case. At 27, he's already made four first-team All-Pro teams, and with nods each of the past three years, he's entrenched on that squad. With the 49ers finally getting good again, his exposure will only rise. As for the two Bears, I struggled with putting both on the list because having two teammates at the same position be HOF worthy seems like a stretch, but they really both have cases, especially Urlacher. Brian has the nods (8/4 pro-bowl/all-pro) as well as universal praise of being the best 4-3 MLB since Derrick Brooks. His selection to the All-Decade team makes him almost a shoo-in (as I said in the offense section, those guys almost always get in). He was the centerpiece of the NFC's best defense year-in, year-out of the 2000s. Lance Briggs will probably need many more years on the ballot than Urlacher will. Lance Briggs has a couple of things going for him. He's a pro-bowl player every year and he is known as the best 4-3 LB in pass coverage. He rarely misses games, and Briggs is only 31. Linebackers (especially ones that aren't 3-4 OLBs) have good age curves and can play pretty well into the mid-30's. I think Briggs definitely will be in the discussion come 2020.

3rd Tier: Nobody

4th Tier: Von Miller (Broncos)

It is hard to remember that Von Miller is neither a 4-3 DE or 3-4 OLB even though he was a pass-rush beast at times as a rookie. Until he hurt his wrist late in the year, Von Miller was the favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year. He was picked for the 2nd team all-pro, which is important going forward because he can get into that 1st team club as early as next year. Von Miller will be interesting to watch going forward to see if he still rushes as much as he did last year from a 4-3 OLB position. Those guys aren't always consistent, but I think Von Miller will be special. Pass rushers do well in defenses paired with Manning offenses.


1st Tier: Champ Bailey (Redskins, Broncos)

It is hard to remember just how good Champ Bailey was at times in the mid-2000s. He was for a 5-year stretch the best corner every year. With 11 pro-bowl selections in 13 seasons, Bailey has been among the best in the NFL in both conferences. Champ Bailey's 50 career interceptions, memorable playoff moment (which probably shouldn't matter, but definitely does) with his pick off of Brady. He has the 1st team All-Decade nod. Everything in the checklist is there. The only black mark I can think of is that Bailey was traded straight-up for Clinton Portis.

2nd Tier: Charles Woodson (Raiders, Packesr), Asante Samuel (Patriots, Eagles), Ronde Barber (Buccaneers), Nnamdi Asomugha (Raiders, Eagles)

In an era that is getting increasingly pass-heavy, corners are more important than ever, and I think that increased spotlight will in-turn increase the chances of more corners getting into the HOF. These four are all guys who at some moment were either the best or second best corner in the NFL. Woodson is an interesting case because I think his success in Green Bay has made people completely forget that when he left Oakland, he had an underwhelming career to date. That said, it is hard to point out that he left Oakland in their last semi-decent year (2005 - a lot better than the 2006-2009 Raiders) and then joined Green Bay who's defense immediately took off (there are other factors). He has the ring, the Defensive Player of the Year, three all-pro's, a 2nd team all-decade selection and 54 interceptions and counting. Al Davis can still draft corners. Somehow, Asante Samuel only has one first team all-pro selection, but I think that resume, heavily built on playoff moments, is good enough. Asante Samuel has four career pick-6's in the playoffs, which is the most all time. He has 9 career interceptions in the playoffs (tied with Ed Reed for most active). An underrated aspect of Asante's career is he is arguably better (at least in advanced stats - check out his numbers at Football Outsiders) as an Eagle. Corners also age well, so Asante still has time to get his resume more focused. Ronde Barber's consistency and longevity is absolutely astounding. 15 seasons. He missed 15 games in his rookie season, and missed exactly zero since. Other than 10 picks in 2001, he has between 2-5 in all but one season. That said, a 2nd team all-decade and 3 all-pro selections are good. As is his spot as one of the defensive stalwarts of the best defense in the early-2000s. Also, he has been a good citizen, and it would just be fun to see Ronde get in the HOF, after Tiki's arguable HOF-trending career ended because he retired for a definitely not HOF career as a reporter. As for Nnamdi, he will be a great litmus test to see if reputation can truly counter lack of counting stats. People know Nnamdi, from 2006-2010 was the best corner in the NFL (or at least second). People know no one threw at Nnamdi. However, after QBs learned that after 8 picks in 2006, Nnamdi has just 6 interceptions over the past five seasons. Nnamdi has the accolades with the all-pro nods, but I don't know if his career will just be flashy enough for him to get in.

3rd Tier: Darrelle Revis (Jets)

Darrelle Revis was close, for me, to going into Tier-2 like his 2007 draftmates Peterson and Willis, but I think there has been a slight down-tick in Revis love in 2011. There is no denying that in 2009, Darrelle Revis might have had the best season a corner has ever had, but many corners have one great year (Cortland Finnegan, for instance, was incredible in 2008). Revis does have three-straight first-team all-pro nods, so there is a legacy there, but I don't know where the career is going. If he continues what he has done over the past two seasons even (after the insane 2009) for four or five more years, he is in though.

4th Tier: Patrick Peterson (Cardinals)

I have no idea what my thinking is here. I don't really know if Peterson is any good as a corner. I do know, however, that Peterson is a great return man. For whatever reason, I think Peterson will become the great corner everyone thought he would become coming out of LSU. Peterson has boat-loads of talent. This has a chance to be my most wrong selection, but Tier-4 is the place for those fun picks.


1st Tier: Ed Reed (Ravens)

Ed Reed is the best safety I have ever seen. I have never understood the Ed Reed vs. Troy Polamalu argument because although they are safeties, when the argument really heated up (2008) they didn't play the same position. However, Ed Reed used to play SS. From 2002-2005, Ed Reed was a SS, and he was the best in the league at that position. He switched to FS in 2006, and guess what? Reed was the best in the league at that position too (I always think he should have won Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 over James Harrison - 9 picks, 3 fumble returns, 3 TDs). Ed Reed has 5 all-pros. He's led the league in interceptions three times (2004, 2008, 2010) including in a year he played just 10 games. Reed has 9 playoff interceptions in 11 games. Ed Reed is the best safety I have ever seen. He might be, after Ray Lewis, the biggest lock of any active player to be a 1st-ballot guy.

2nd Tier: Troy Polamalu (Steelers), Brian Dawkins (Eagles, Broncos)

Just like corners, safeties have become more prominent in the 2000s with the pass-heavy offenses in the NFL. Polamalu's only thing on Ed Reed is the rings. He's not Ed Reed. I doubt he's first ballot, but Polamalu is definitely a HOFer. Four 1st-team all-pro nods, as well as a 2010 Defensive Player of the Year. Polamalu's brilliance is probably better represented with anectodes and accolades than stats, but it definitely is worthy. Brian Dawkins tenure in Denver has been surprisingly good, but even without that three-year stint, he will be in. The longevity at that position is astounding. With 4 first-team all-pro nods and a 1st team all-decade. Dawkins ability as an all-around safety is in reality Polamalu-esque, with 37 career interceptions and 36 career forced fumbles as well as 26 sacks. Polamalu will never catch Dawkins in sacks or forced fumbles.

3rd Tier:  Nick Collins (Packers)

Collins is probably a long shot, but he's on a better track than anyone else (not named those three above him, obviously). Collins doesn't have any 1st-team all-pro selections, but three 2nd-teams. If he comes back healthy, he could still have about five good years left, and maybe more if he has a Sharper-type late career. The 21 interceptions aren't a lot, but again, even averaging 5 over the next five years gives him 46 career, which is in line with other HOF safeties. Collins also gets the benefit of playing on a great team which will be competing for years.

4th Tier: Earl Thomas (Seahawks)

For a guy who will just be 23 in 2012, Earl Thomas is a star. Already a pro-bowler in 2011 (and in a conference lacking a lot of competition at safety), Thomas should be a fixture on that team for years. The Seahawks are a team on the rise, so his exposure should improve. He gets interceptions and plays good coverage. Thomas has a chance. Like any Tier-4 person, there is a chance injury plays a factor, but I think Thomas, if healthy, can get there.


1st Tier: Bill Belichick (Patriots)

I don't want to really talk about how great of a coach Bill Belichick is (not that great of a GM, but coach? amazing). I don't think I need to. Unless there is some black-balling because of Spygate, Belichick is about as good of a 1st-ballot candidate as any coach since Bill Walsh or Joe Gibbs.

2nd Tier: Tom Coughlin (Giants), Mike Shanahan (Broncos, Redskins)

It is very interesting to contrast these two. Both have coached multiple teams. Shanahan's run in Washington hasn't been truly long enough to analyze, but a lot of it rests on RG3's success. Anyway, their careers records are close (Coughlin is 142-114 (.556) while Shanahan is 157-119 (.569)). Both have won their only two Super Bowl appearances, including memorable runs (the '98 Broncos were dominant but the '97 team was a wild-card team). Coughlin has had more success with his 'other' team (his 68-60 record with the Jags is great, moreso since they were an expansion team) as he made the AFC Title Game twice with the Jaguars, while Shanahan has yet to make the playoffs outside of Denver, but Shanahan's record with the main team is more impressive. Either way, other than Tom Flores, George Seifert and Jimmy Johnson, every coach with multiple rings is in, and these two will probably go in as well. They have the longevity and consistency that those three exceptions didn't have (though I maintain that Seifert should be in). One last similarity, they both are known for having faces that get really, really red.

3rd Tier: Mike Tomlin (Steelers)

Mike Tomlin has now finished five years as the Steelers coach, and what a five years it was. 55-25 record (three seasons of 12 wins), and two trips to the Super Bowl and one title. If his next five is even slightly worse than the first five (say 50-30 record with one Super Bowl appearance, but winning that one trip) he probably has the resume to get in. Tomlin does coach for an all-time franchise which helps, and one that is run so well it is hard to see Tomlin's Steelers teams ever having a multi-year run of mediocrity. I guess it could happen post-Roethlibserger, but by that time, Tomlin may already have the requisite success to get in.

4th Tier: Jim Harbuagh (49ers)

The list of coaches to have 13-3 records or better in their first season is a list three-names long: George Seifert, Jim Caldwell and Jim Harbaugh. Odd list overall. The other two both inherited great teams with great QBs. Seifert had just absurd success in San Francisco (98-30 in his tenure in San Fran - I do believe if his final season in Carolina was 6-10 instead of 1-15, or if Roger Craig doesn;t fumble that carry late in the 1990 NFC Title Game, Seifert is in the HOF). Caldwell flamed-out epically in Indy. I think Harbaugh has a chance to be the first of the three to get to the HOF. That team is loaded. My only quibble is with the QB, who I don't know will ever get good enough to win a Super Bowl, but Harbaugh had just an amazing year, and unlike Seifert and Caldwell, didn't have a HOF QB running the show. I like him, and I think he will be the second 49er head coach (and 3rd deserving) to get to Canton.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.