Thursday, April 28, 2016

Grading the 2006 Draft, 10 Years Later

The 2006 draft was a strange one, the first in six years to not have a QB go #1, and there never was really a QB considered. The draft looking back wasn't the best, but there were some interesting selections and interesting 'what ifs?' we can look back on.

1.) Houston Texans select Mario Williams (DE, NC State) - Grade: B

Given the Texans were only really looking into either him or Reggie Bush, they made the right choice. Mario Williams had a good career, and helped elevate the Texans defense to where they were a decent team basically by Year 2 of his career. Mario Williams had 14 sacks in year #2, the first time the Texans reached .500. Mario could have done more in his career, for sure, and his second act in Buffalo ended on bad terms, but he was the centerpiece of a reasonably good defense and the start of a real franchise.

2.) New Orleans Saints select Reggie Bush (RB, USC) - Grade: C+

The Saints also rebuilt a franchise in this draft, and while most of their best picks came in later rounds, Reggie Bush was part of that success. They ultimately got five years of decent production from Bush, but he never really became the player he could have. Injuries certainly hurt his production, but Bush actually had a really great start, with 1300 yards from scrimmage in his rookie season. He never topped 1000 with the Saints until 2010. Also, unless it is Adrian Peterson, drafting a RB this high is never really a good choice.

3.) Tennessee Titans select Vince Young (QB, Texas) - Grade: C-

The opposite end of the spectrum from a RB is a QB, nearly always a decent gamble in terms of potential value. There were warning signs with Vince Young, and while he did have his moments in leading the Titans to some crazy comeback wins in his rookie season - somehow stealing away an Offensive Rookie of the Year award - he 'peaked' for a 10-win Titans team where he put up a lot of 15-29 type games for 170 yards. It ended terribly but even in his worst seasons he provided a handful of nice moments. He probably had a better career than the QB they would pick five years later - Jake Locker.

4.) New York Jets select D'Brickashaw Ferguson (LT, Virginia) - Grade: A

The Jets nailed this pick, getting a stalwart that played LT all but one SNAP for 10 years. We often say that the top LT in any draft can be stuck on the left side and anchor the line for 10 years. Few of them ever actually do that, Brick did, and did it really well. He probably was never one of the best LT in the league, but at his peak, he was Top-5 for 3-4 years, coupling with Nick Mangold to provide two dominant o-lineman. The Jets missed a lot of picks over the years, this was not one of those.

5.) Green Bay Packers select AJ Hawk (LB, Ohio State) - Grade:B-

AJ Hawk peaked as a 'pro-bowler', in the sense that he was voted in because he was reasonably famous and got a lot of tackles. There are a lot of LBs drafted that didn't do either of those things. AJ Hawk was seen as a high floor, low ceiling player. I don't think the Packers realized just how low that ceiling was. He was highly durable, rarely missing games in his 9 year Packers career, and started for some really good defenses. Had he been drafted at #15, this would be a much better pick looking back. Also, interesting to think if the Packers didn't have Rodgers waiting, maybe they go for Leinart or Cutler?

6.) San Francisco 49ers select Vernon Davis (TE, Maryland) - Grade: B

Vernon Davis was a physical freak, about as fast as a TE, about as big as a conventional TE. I am a little sypathetic towards Vernon because he was saddled with some awful QBs over the years. He showed what he could do in a real offense when he was under Norv Turner in 2007, or the Harbaugh years. Vernon should have a better career, one that is now largely over as seen by his total disappearance in Denver, but at times he lived up to the crazy hype he got as a true physical freak.

7.) Oakland Raiders select Michael Huff (DB, Texas) - Grade: C

Michael Huff was not a bad player. He was actually a decent contributor to the decent Raiders teams from 2009-2011, but he was largely ineffective before that. DBs generally take longer to develop than other positions - shown by guys like Nnamdi, but even then Huff was a little slower than normal. Huff never got hurt, but he was also a backup for his first two-plus years. The Raiders made a lot of bad selections, and there were worse ones than this, but the Huff pick was another missed opportunities.

8.) Buffalo Bills select Donte Whitner (S, Ohio State) - Grade: B-

Whitner is basically a slightly better version of Huff. the Bills rotated a lot of DBs in and out over the years, and while Whitner was always a constant presence, he never truly delivered the maximum value for the Bills. His best season came up in 2011 with San Francisco as an in-the-box safety for a great defense. Before that, he was a consistently decent player that would grade out a lot better if he was picked below #20.

9.) Detroit Lions select Ernie Sims (LB, Florida State) - Grade: C+

Sims, much like Huff and Whitner, is a player who played well at times, but largely underwhelmed given that draft positions. Sims only played under his rookie contract in Detroit, and never really matched even that production in his last three stops, but Sims best years did come in Detroit for some putrid teams. It hurts him historically that he was on such awful defenses, but those were largely not the fault of Sims, one of the few decent players on those teams.

10.) Arizona Cardinals select Matt Leinart (QB, USC) - Grade: D

This was, in retrospect, a truly awful pick - even worse than Vince Young, who at least won a few games and started a playoff game. Leinart couldn't do that. His most memorable games were probably a game where the Cardinals blew a 23-0 lead to the Bears in 2006, and just the fact that he lost his job to Kurt Warner. Leinart actually missed his best chance for any period of success when he got hurt right after taking over from Matt Schaub in 2011 - this was the team that was so good outside of QB they won a playoff game with TJ Yates. Leinart was a mess, and hopefully has found a better place as an announcer.

11.) Denver Broncos select Jay Cutler (QB, Vanderbilt) - Grade: B-

Cutler was by far the best QB of the Top-3 picked, even though under his time in Denver they never made the playoffs or finished better than 8-8 when he started more than half the season. Cutler led an efficient offense that made some nice music with Brandon Marshall and Tony Scheffler. The Broncos are really to blame for this grade not being better, when power-hungry McDaniels came in and traded Cutler after a 4,500 yard season that should have ended in the playoffs.

12.) Baltimore Ravens select Haloti Ngata (DT, Oregon) - Grade: A

The Ravens rarely picked high in the draft. The last time they did before this was 2003, when they picked a Mr. Terrell Suggs. This time they picked another defensive stalwart that would anchor the defensive line in Baltimore for 9 years. Ngata tailed off (ever-so) slightly late in his Baltimore tenure, but from 2006 - 2012, he was an absolute monster. I twice rated him among the Top-10 players in the league (following the 2009 & 2010 seasons). His career comparables are all Hall of Famers, and he has that standing among his peers. His chances for enshrinement may be diminished given his late career slide, but he was the final piece to perfectly complement Reed, Lewis and Suggs.

13.) Cleveland Browns select Kamerion Wimbley (DE, Florida State) - Grade: B

Wimbley may seem like a bust, but in reality he had a decent career in the beginning. He started right out of the gate with 11 sacks as a rookie. He had between 5.5 and 9.0 sacks every year through his age 29 season (2012). The last three of those came with the Raiders and Titans, but even if we limit it to just the Browns career, he had a nice four years of production for the team. Wimbley was a classic tweener, and never found his true place, but he played reasonably well in both the 3-4 and 4-3.

14.) Philadelphia Eagles select Broderick Bunkley (DT, Florida State) - Grade: C

It is weird, when I saw his name and Wimbley's name, I expected Bunkley to have done more and done better. Instead, Bunkley really didn't do much for some decent defenses. Bunkley was a constant underachiever for a team that had a very good defense for years under Jim Johnson. Bunkley was a starter, rarely missed games, played a lot of snaps, but really was never the disruptive force he showed in college.

15.) St. Louis Rams select Tye Hill (CB, Clemson) - Grade: C-

The Rams went 3-13, 2-14, 1-15, 7-9, 2-14 from 2007-2011. That is one of the worst five year runs in NFL history. Picks like this one and so many others in the early-to-mid Aughts were the primary contributors. Tye Hill had a decent rookie season, playing in 16 games, started 10, with three picks. He played in 8 in 2007, in four in 2008, and was gone from St. Louis. He moved around a bit after that, and then went away in 2010. The Rams really needed good players, instead Hill was bad and probably not even one of the worst picks they had.

16.) Miami Dolphins select Jason Allen (S, Tennessee) - Grade: C+

The Dolphins made out reasonably good with Allen, who provided five years of production, missing just one game, and being a good strong-nickle contributor. Allen was never a pro-bowl level talent, but those were some dire times in Miami where he didn't get much support. There are certainly worse picks that teams make in the mid-1st round, to the point where he played out his rookie contract. If anything, the 2006 draft had few true busts.

17.) Minnesota Vikings select Chad Greenway (LB, Iowa) - Grade: A-

Really nice pick, as Greenway developed into a really solid three-down linebacker that could cover and play the run with equal effectiveness. For years, Greenway was among the league leaders in a Football Outsiders stat called 'Defeats' which grades how many times a player makes a play that effectively ends a drive, whether it be a tackle or pass defended. Greenway was a monster in this stat. Ten years later he is still chugging along, never one of the Top-5 LBs in football, but in that #6 - #15 range year in and year out.

18.) Dallas Cowboys select Bobby Carpenter (LB, Ohio State) - Grade:D

Again, players like Carpenter, who more or less played out their rookie contracts, and made it into the 2010s of the NFL, are the worst picks in the draft. Carpenter represents one of those players, someone who couldn't ever crack the Dallas starting lineup, a career backup that never embarrassed himself out there. As we will come to see, it is easy for one player to get propped up because of the exploits of his more talented players in his position group - in this case, AJ Hawk.

19.) San Diego Chargers select Antonio Cromartie (CB, Florida State) - Grade: A-

The Chargers took a big risk in picking Antonio, a supremely talented physical freak that missed his senior season and would be a backup in his rookie year when recovering. By his second season, he was made a starter and got 10 interceptions, with two more in the playoffs. Cromartie played his four seasons in San Diego and was a bonafide #1 starter throughout. He then went to New York and continued to perform under Rex. Back in New York, he remains a very smart, if less athletic, player who has missed just one game in ten seasons.

20.) Kansas City Chiefs select Tamba Hali (DE, Penn State) - Grade: A

This draft was much better in retrospect, probably unfairly weighted by the lack of good QBs to come out of it. There were loads of good picks, and Hali is one of the best of them. Through injuries that have nagged him - while not caused him to miss many games - Hali has begun to slow down, but he has been a starter pretty much since day 1 and been a pressure machine the whole time, peaking with a four year run with 46.5 sacks. Hali has been a great player and great return on the #20 pick.

21.) New England Patriots select Laurence Maroney (RB, Minnesota) - Grade: D+

The Patriots had some really lean drafts from 2006-2009, and Maroney may have been one of the worst. The 2006 draft had some really nice running backs in it, guys like DeAngelo Williams, Maurice Jones-Drew, Leon Washington. Maroney was the first one picked and was never a good return. He topped out with 950 yards from scrimmage. He never came close to 1,000 yards, or 10 TDs. Maroney was a disaster of a pick for a team that until this had been money in the draft.

22.) San Francisco 49ers select Manny Lawson (LB, NC State) - Grade: C

Manny Lawson was a career bit player, two-down linebacker who played on some decent 49ers defenses - he left right before the 49ers got good under Harbaugh. Lawson was never close to a pro-bowl level player, but he was good enough to start the majority of his career in San Francisco, playing out his rookie deal. He was replaced by better players, but he was part of some top-half defenses.

23.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers select Davin Joseph (G, Oklahoma) - Grade: B

Davin Joseph was a guard for 9 years in Tampa, pretty much starting from day one and only missing serious time when he was one of the victims of the Staph Infection crisis in Tampa in 2011-12. He finally left the Tampa hell-hole in 2014 and his career may be over now, but let's pour one out for a player who really solidified a very unstable team to some degree. The Buccaneers certainly couldn't have hoped for more from the 23rd pick without being unreasonable.

24.) Cincinnati Bengals select Johnathan Joseph (CB, South Carolina) - Grade: B+

The rare Cincinnati corner that started from day one, Joseph was a really nice pick. He was never a pro-bowl level player in Cincinnati, but was right below there for his entire five year run with the Bengals. He teamed with Leon Hall to create a really nice cornerback duo, but the team really took off after he left and went all veteran with their secondary. Joseph took off with Houston, but he was the first true professional the Bengals picked in the first round, eschewing their normal strategy.

25.) Pittsburgh Steelers select Santonio Holmes (WR, Ohio State) - Grade:A-

Santonio Holmes was the pick that signaled a change in the Steelers philosophy, a sense that they trusted Roethlisberger to be the QB he would become. Holmes will always be remembered for the catch in Super Bowl XLIII, but he had some great seasons from 2007-2009 with the Steelers. He left somewhat acrimoniously, but to me that was the Steelers overreacting to bad press at the time coming off the Roethlisberger bathroom incidents. Holmes wasn't long for the league but he left a lasting impression in Pittsburgh.

26.) Buffalo Bills select John McCargo (DT, NC State) - Grade: F

Shockingly, no player drafted in the 1st round was out of the league before their second contract, so let's say this 'F' is more about being by far the worst pick than a true bust that was gone by year 3. McCargo, though, was awful, picking up just 2.5 sacks in his five year career, starting just one game in that time. He was overdrafted, sharing a d-line with Mario Williams and Manny Lawson. A huge missed opportunity for the Bills.

27.) Carolina Panthers select DeAngelo Williams (RB, Memphis) - Grade: A-

Picking running backs are always dicey, and the Panthers doubled down on this by picking another one two years later and giving both contract extensions. Williams started out slow, with 900 total yards in 2006-07, sharing the backfield with DeShaun Foster. In 2008, he took off and went crazy with 1,000 yards in the last game. DeAngelo put up an 18-TD season in 2008, and backed it up with 1,100 more in 2009. Williams was truly a solid, steady player for years in Carolina, assisting in growing Cam Newton in 2011-13. The Panthers made out well with this pick.

28.) Jacksonville Jaguars select Marcedes Lewis (TE, UCLA) - Grade: B-

I'll credit the Jaguars for picking a guy that could make it 10 years with the team, somehow Marcedes is still there in 2015. He never had more than 700 yards or 60 catches, but did pick up 10 TDs in 2010. The Jaguars never really threw the ball in his early career, though Lewis does pick up some added credit for being a capable blocker for most of his career. Lewis is hanging on and doing a great job of cashing them checks a decade after his pick.

29.) New York Jets select Nick Mangold (C, Ohio State) - Grade: A

Five players from Ohio State was drafted in the 1st round (Hawk, Whitner, Carpenter, Holmes, Mangold). I wonder what the odds you could have gotten that Mangold would end up the best. He may not make the Hall of Fame (would have been an A+ in that case), but Mangold was the best center in the league since he entered it, including fantastic seasons from 2008-2011. Mangold has missed just three games and is still going on strong. He lost his '06 partner in D'Brick, but he'll be a lasting reminder of how the Jets rebuilt a line for a decade in one draft.

30.) Indianapolis Colts select Joseph Addai (RB, LSU) - Grade: B

Addai was a strange pick but for an obvious need following Edge James signing with Arizona. He was never truly the #1 guy, but had a really nice career with teh Colts. He had 1,400 yards from scrimmage in each of his first two seasons, being a really nice two-way threat. He had a great playoffs in the 2006 Super Bowl run, good enough to be the go-to 'should have been MVP' for the Manning haters. He fizzled out quickly, but he was a far better pick than people remember. When people cite the litany of bad picks that marred the end of the Polian era, Addai should not be considered one of them.

31.) Seattle Seahawks select Kelly Jennings (DB, Miami) - Grade: C+

Jennings is squarely in that Manny Lawson, Jason Allen class, a guy that played a lot of years, started a decent amount of games, never really embarrassed himself, and had a nice career. Had this been a late second round pick, it would be seen as a good selection for the Seahawks. Seattle could have done more with this pick, and the next three guys were all better than Kelly Jennings, but they could have done worse also.

32.) New York Giants select Mathias Kiwanuka (DE, Boston College) - Grade: B

This was the height of the Giants going crazy drafting d-lineman, as they picked him just a year after taking Justin Tuck really high. I remember this being a really controversial pick at the time. His nine year career, shifting well between d-line and linebacker positions, was an able representation of how professional he was. Kiwanuka was never given free reign to get after QBs, saddled behind really great talents, but always fit whatever need the Giants had for him, being a stable contributor on two Super Bowl championship teams.

Best Pick in the Other Rounds

2nd Round: #52.) Green Bay Packers select Greg Jennings 

There is a lot of competition, like Maurice Jones-Drew, Marcus McNeill, Andrew Whitworth. Overall, the 2006 draft was a really nice one. I still think Jennings high production through 2011 is more than enough to warrant this spot. The Packers were bereft of receiving talent, and he stabilized that and eased the transition from Favre to Rodgers. Just a really nice career that was sadly marred by his disappearance after leaving Green Bay for Minnesota.

3rd Round: #92.) Dallas Cowboys select Jason Hatcher

Not as much competition here, as the only other player I considered was the Texans' pick of Eric Winston. Hatcher was a solid contributor in Dallas for some really nice defensive fronts in Dallas under Wade Phillips. He really took off from 2010 onwards, and was even a nice player for Washington next year, adding some professionalism to the roster in Washington.

4th Round: #108.) New Orleans Saints select Jahri Evans

I considered Brandon Marshall, or Elvis Dumervil, as this was a loaded 4th round (also had Owen Daniels and Stephen Gostkowski), but Evans is the clear pick. He was part of a ridiculous 2006 offseason for the Saints, and he combined with Carl Nicks to become a Hall of Fame worthy guard duo that drove some incredible offenses. A 4-time All Pro, Evans has an outside shot at a Hall of Fame spot in reality, and his constant presence in New Orleans will probably help him in that effort.

5th Round: #134.) Buffalo Bills select Kyle Williams

No one is close to Kyle Williams in this round. He's still there 10 years later, all ten for Buffalo, all ten with stellar production. He was underrated through much of his career, but peaked in publicity in 2013-14 with back to back all-pro level seasons for fanstatic D-Lines. The Bills got Top-10 production from a 5th round pick. It is ironic they got Williams in the same draft that they wasted a 1st round pick on John McCargo.

6th Round: #207.) Indianapolis Colts select Antoine Bethea

The 2006 draft was actually a really great one for Polian, who got Addai, Kelvin Hayden and Bethea, three different four year starters. Bethea was probably the best of the three, one of the best free safeties in teh NFL in his prime. He put up some really nice seasons in San Francisco these last two years as well, somehow aging better than some of the othere guys on the team. Anytime you can get pro-bowl level talent in the 6th round is just great.

7th Round: #252.) New Orleans Saints select Marques Colston

10 years of production as the #1 receiver in a historically good passing offense. 10 years with totals of 711 catches, 9,759 yards, 86 TDs. He markedly slowed down the last three years, but the first seven were good enough to make him worthy of a 1st round pick. Colston completed a massive haul for the Saints. He actually had some competition for best pick, as the Titans nabbed future all-pro Cortland Finnegan at #215, but the Saints getting that type of production and 10 years of it from the guy picked five spots from the end is outrageous.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Blackhawks Blues Game 7: Also Sports at its Best

Early in April, I wrote about the National Championship Game, Villanova's incredible win over UNC, as a game that encapsulated why I love sports so much, and why I even more love a game when I don't have a true rooting interest between one of the two teams. Well, less than a month later, there was a game that met that criteria, and boy was it great as well. The stakes weren't necessarily as high, but the game was fantastic.


Last night in St. Louis, we saw in one 60-minute game, everything that is both great about playoff hockey, the Chicago Blackhawks dynasty, and the, as always, triumph of victory. The St. Louis Blues, much like the team I wrote about on Saturday, the San Jose Sharks, have long been playoff underachievers, talented teams that fell apart in the playoffs and lost to lesser teams. Well, that was summarily re-written, in the most dramatic, intense way possible.

There is nothing better than a Stanley Cup Playoff game. Truly, there is nothing better than a Game 7, especially in a series that needed a Game 7. That was a great series from the beginning, with two long-time rivals with a shared history, fanbases with a shared passion, two great atmospheres in Chicago and St. Louis. It would have felt wrong if that series ended before Game 7, and thankfully it didn't as we got to see that incredible game last night.

For both that game, and the series overall quality, we needed both teams to bring it. The Blues, healthy, complete, deep, and motivated, brought it from the start. This series needed a tired, injured, shallow Blackhawks team to do once again what they've done so many times: step up in the playoffs. And boy did they. The Blackhawks, a team that is a modern dynasty in a sport truly built to stop this from happening, had no reason to push the Blues this much in this series. They had to rebuild on the fly, again, losing key contributors from past seasons. Their blue-line is still essentially just three deep. There are holes in that team, but they papered them up with their normal brilliance.

The Blackhawks go beyond Kane and Toews, especially with #19 having a truly off series, but the secondary guys stepped up. They got Andrew Ladd back in teh fold who was great. The Russian duo of Panarin and Anisimov were both great. Marian Hossa is an ageless wonder. The Hawks stepped up, never blinking down 3-1 in the series, not 3-1 in Game 6 - scoring five unanswered. They didn't blink down 2-0 in Game 7, in a true madhouse that was the Scottrade Center. Instead, they dominated play for a 15-20 minute span and tied the game back up.

But that's where we have to credit the Blues. The St. Louis Blues have heard for a couple years now just how awful they are in the playoffs. The modern Blues started in the 2011-12 season, coming into the playoffs with a team that gave up a league-low 165 goals, with 109 pts and the #2 seed. That was the only time they would make it out of the 1st round, before they were quickly swept aside by the Kings monster.

Three more years brought three more 100 point seasons and three more first round exits, all in 6 games, all to lower seeds. The worst was last year to an undermanned Wild team that had no business hanging with the Blues, but they did because we all thought hte Blues didn't have what it takes in the playoffs, that they got tight at the wrong times, that they couldn't hang in the Spring when the tournament started. There were a few times when it looked like they could do that. First, when they lost Game 2 after a potentially game-winning goal was wiped off on an offsides review, which made them go to Chicago tied 1-1. Second, when they blew Game 6, disappearing after that 3-1 lead. Finally, when losing the 2-0 lead in Game 7 and being skated off the ice.

The last bit was the real test. That is a game, a series, a moment, where the Blues fold. Instead, they didn't and turned the game into something special. The Blues did what they do best, roll four lines and hit the hell out of the Blackhawks. They ran at all Chicago defensemen, forcing them into the mistakes that ended up costing Chicago. Their lines all worked well, with the unheralded third group - Fabbri, Backes, Brouwer - providing the game winner. They skated well, consistently breaking out the zone well. They even took a page out of the Blackhawks playbook and hit wave after wave of deep breakout passes from their zone right ot the other blueline. It created a whirling dervish of action - one that I never wanted to stop.

The goals were all individual great plays, from snipes from Parayko and Hossa, a well-worked power play goal from Shaw and finally a great bit of passing that led up to Brouwer's winner. It was sensational, end-to-end, hockey. The Blues abandoned their normal slow tempo and play and threw everything against the Blackhawks machine. In the end it worked, to the delight of a cacophonous crowd, one that waited years to celebrate success, made all the more sweeter coming against their biggest rival. The Blues grew up in that game, and I'm just happy I got to see it, all of it.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Sharks Patience Pays Off

The San Jose Sharks have lived a very interesting existence these past 10 years. In the 2005-06 season, the first following the lockout, they started slow but ended up finishing the season on fire after trading for Joe Thornton. Jumbo Joe ended up winning the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP, with 126 points. The Sharks were dynamic, and easily turned aside their first round opponent Nashville Predators in five games. A spate of upsets left them, despite being seeded 5th, as the highest seed remaining out West. Yet, six games later in a loss to the Edmonton Oilers, the Sharks were bounced by a #8 seed, starting off a very interesting 10 years to examine.

There is often a test case given out to all sports fans, would you rather root for a team that makes the playoffs once every decade and wins a title that year, or a team that makes the playoffs each year but never makes the finals. The Sharks are the prototypical example of the latter. They made the playoffs all but one year of the last ten (last season), and only twice even made the Conference Finals, winning one out of nine games against two dominant teams - the 2010 Blackhawks and 2011 Canucks. They countless other times flamed out against worse teams, such as losing in 6 games to 5th seeded Dallas in 2008 in the 2nd round, or losing the next year to the 8th seed Ducks in 6 games after winning the President's Trophy. The wort was the most recent, a stunning collapse against the Kings, losing in seven after taking a 3-0 lead, including losing 3-0 and 5-1 in their two potential clinchers in San Jose.

It was a disaster, it was everything wrong about the Sharks in the playoffs. They showed the dominance they often showed during the regular season in those first three games, but all their issues, whether it was goaltending or their top players disappearing, cropped up in those last four. The Sharks flame out seemed to be signal the death of the Thornton & Marleau era, with the captaincy stripped from Jumbo Joe and given to Joe Pavelski. It would have been the end in reality of either player was willing to waive their no trade clause. Whether it was pride or believe, they didn't, and two years later, they beat the Kings down in 5 games - only trailing for four minutes of hte entire series. They were the faster, stronger, and hungrier team. They didn't back down after blowing a 3-0 lead in the 2nd period of Game 5. They finished strong. They vindicated themselves, but the opportunity to do so vindicated the Sharks plan all along.

San Jose became a team in the mid-90's, one of the first expansion cities that became Gary Bettman's unending drive of his commissionership. He wanted to grow the game, and for him doing so meant expanding outwards in the US, to the 'non-traditional' hockey markets. Few have been as successful as San Jose, and that is a testament to the way they've built and maintained that team. The Sharks have been close to selling out the SAP Center (previously HP Pavillion) for years now. They have built a true following in that market, and can be the NHL version of the Warriors in the richest area of the country west of New York. That is all because they never turned the page.

The other half of the fan equation is a team like Carolina, who have won a Stanley Cup in the past 10 years, but made the playoffs just three other times and have hit the reset on their rebuild a few times now. They are way behind the Sharks in terms of fan interest, and while their fans do have their 2006 Cup as a lasting memory, the Sharks consistently pleasant regular seasons and playoff runs, while ending in loss, are probably more effective in building a regional footprint.

The Sharks could have hit the reset button, and in a way they did. They spent years trying to supplement Thornton and Marleau with veterans who could help them win, like Dany Heatley, Martin Havlat, Brian Campbell, Jeremy Roenick and on and on. Those teams were always a step slow in the playoffs. Finally now, though, they went the opposite route, building with youth, moving the Captain badge from Thornton (who himself inherited it from Marleau - I wonder how many teams have ever had two former captains on the team) to Pavelski. The Sharks won with depth and youth in 2016. It just so happens that they didn't cut the cord with Marleau and Thornton to do it.

There is a lesson to be learned in the Sharks, and beyond them to their comparisons in other sports - like the Colts, or Packers, or Tigers or Mavericks. Teams can be competitive and good and even if they fall short, it is better to keep pushing the good cards in. Sooner or later, the chips will fall correctly, like it did for the Mavs in 2011, or Colts in 2006. The best way to win is to have as many chances as possible. The Sharks maybe just got their best chance.

The Top-20 QBs: #13 - Drew Brees

#13 - Drew Brees

Judging Drew Brees's career will be one of the more interesting challenges 15-20 years from now. He is a statistical marvel who teamed up with a coach and offensive wizard who opened up the NFL. Peyton Manning led the groundwork, and Drew Brees combined that with volume like we have never seen to put up the most voluminous period of Quarterbacking ever. Drew Brees is unlike any QB in history. He made a sprited run at Dan Marino's long-standing record for passing yards in a season in 2008, falling just 14 yards short of tying Marino's mark. No matter, he ended up smashing in three years later, compiling 5,476, and then broke the old Marino mark two more times. If not for a missed game this season, he may have done it a fourth time. It is hard to think of comparable players in other sports, players that have put up absurd numbers that don't really make sense when taken out of context. 

This is clearly the steroid era of passing statistics, though the reasons are far more above board than they were in baseball. Well, if you want to put up a Barry Bonds, it probably is Peyton Manning, a QB who was already brilliant before 2011 – the real ‘Year 0’ of the change – but if anything Brees is a Alex Rodriguez. Skeptics could say he was Sammy Sosa, a player who turned great once the game was made easier, but that is being unfair. Drew Brees has proven himself as more than a function of a system and a league that endorsed opening up the game. He is the one who led that fight to do just that, to challenge convention by throwing, and throwing, and throwing.

The criticisms of Drew Brees are readily available. He is not a ‘winner’, as while his playoff record is decent (6-5), what is more glaring is the amount of times a team QBed by Drew Brees for a meaningful portion of the season (> 12 games) failed to make the playoffs – a startling 7 times. If anything, that is the biggest detraction for Drew Brees, that even as passing statistics and efficiency – which Brees is credited with holding over 600+ attempts – correlate well with regular season success, Brees is the negative outlier. The other criticisms are context driven, such as pinging him for playing in a dome, or only succeeding once paired with Sean Payton; whoever almost all QBs are generally better at home than on the road, and we have no real evidence to say Payton is more important to the Saints passing success than Brees. The final criticism is Brees’s penchant for throwing bad picks. When viewed against the sheer amount of times he throws, it actually isn’t that bad, but Brees does throw some bad ones. He’s not perfect; no one is. But he is far closer to perfect than most.

At their peak, the Saints offense seemed wholly unstoppable. The statistics the entire offense rolled up in 2011, a season when they set the record for total yards (7,474), including an 8-game stretch to end the season, including playoffs, where they rolled up 4,203 yards (525 / game). They were the closest thing the league had seen to the Greatest Show on Turf, wholly unstoppable unless they turned the ball over. Each performance was more ridiculous than the next, as they scored 42-45-45-45 in four straight games. The final one was a Wild Card win over the Lions, where they scored six straight TDs. It was offense at a level, a robotic, peerlessly effective level, that the league had never seen. And Brees was its mastermind.

Looking beyond his exploits as a passer, Brees the Hero of the Common Man may be viewed differently in the future as well. Few QBs have been extolled for their leadership and community impact as Drew, and few deserved it so. While his story of going to New Orleans because his heart called out to him underscores the fact that no one else really seemed to want him after his shoulder injury, what he did in leading that team, in that city, from the first year onwards is remarkable. The Saints were as much a part of that cities recovery as a sports team can be, and Brees pushing that team to immediate success was the primary driver. Yet, for all that leadership plaudits he received, and the credit he got as being to go-to example for the potential of a ‘short’ QB, a couple decades from now people can easily argue Russell Wilson as the prime example of these traits.

Drew Brees is an interesting case to view historically. At best, he is the 3rd or 4th best QB of his generation, definitely behind Messers Manning and Brady, and arguably behind Aaron Rodgers – or at least where Rodgers will end up. He spans a period where his late season career and late-career dip in success for the Saints, will hurt him historically as well as Russell Wilson running around becomes our go to for the short type who fought against the system. Still, let’s never forget just how impeccable Drew Brees was in his absolute prime (2006 – 2013), and how that eight year run, and the great surrounding years as well, will always put him right there statistically, if not so much anectodally.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Warriors - the Problem with Perfection

The Golden State Warriors are the best NBA team I've ever seen. I wasn't old enough to really see the 1995-96 Bulls. I somewhat remember the 2001 Playoff Lakers, the team that went 15-1, with the one loss coming in OT. These Warriors are better. They seem umbeatable. They have the greatest trump card in the NBA, maybe the greatest ever since peak LeBron. They are eight or nine deep with quality players who excel at either offense or defense or both, and most of them are in that 'both' camp. The Warriors seem unbeatable, and even in examining their nine losses, there doesn't seem to be anything we can pull from those games. If anything, it seems the key to beating the Warriors is to be an average team with a high ceiling and having the Warriors take you a little lightly, or be the Spurs that one time. My question, as the playoffs just began and we were treated with blowout after blowout, is that has the Warriors dominance kind of undercut the playoffs?

The best comparison for the Golden State Warriors is the 2007 New England Patriots, regular season edition. The Patriots, like Golden State, utilized a generational talent to craft an unstoppable offense (by the way, that talent is Randy Moss - and I guess Tom Brady). Behind that offense lied a damn good, Top-5 defense as well. Together, they ran roughshod over the league for the most part, aside from a close win against their main rival in their rival's building (Super Bowl 41.5 - their 24-20 win in Indianapolis) and a few mental lapses and close games against middling teams (back to back close wins against Philadelphia and Baltimore). They finally won their last game to finish a historic 16-0 finish against the Giants in a close game, and while for Golden State win #73 was fairly routine, win #72 was anything but, a close win against Memphis. The Patriots were the class of the league, and while that stirred so much interest in the 2007 regular season, their dominance did ruin some of the playoffs.

The 2007 playoffs, even before we get to Super Bowl XLII, was great. There were loads of close games, from the Jaguars / Steelers Wild Card Game, to the Cowboys wins over Dallas and Green Bay, to even the Chargers shock upset over the Colts. That said, hanging over all these great games and stunning results, was a sense that none of it really mattered since in the end it would be New England standing on top. 11 other teams will fight and claw and battle for the right to not be the Patriots. Of course, it ended up playing out a little bit differently, and the Giants win in Super Bowl XLII almost retroactively made the rest of the playoffs that much greater, but the sense of inevitability was there.

I still remember watching the 2007 NFC Championship Game, played out on the literally frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. The Giants and Packers staged a great game, back-and-forth (no one had more than a 6 point lead at any time), incredible mini-battles and singular performances with a surreal setting adding to the drama. Yet, I also remember thinking "Does any of this matter?". The winner of this game showed just by needing to go to such lengths to beat the other that they are no match for New England. Where this ties back to the Warriors is here there is even a larger sense of inevitability.

The Giants ended up ruining the Patriots perfect season, but they needed to do that the one time. All they needed to do was outplay New England for one single 60-minute stretch. They barely did so, but they did. Here, with the Warriors, 9 different teams have outplayed them over a 48 game stretch, but no one did it more than once and the prospect of anyone doing it four times seems ludicrous. It would be an upset of anyone even pushes Golden State to 6, and the idea of a 7-game series, even with the Spurs, an historically great outfit themselves that are the analogue of the pre-Freeney injury 2007 Colts, seems farcical.

Golden State's dominance and brilliance is to be treasured and I have no qualms with anyone putting them on a pedestal. What they've constructed is such a perfect encapsulation of the modern game. Apart from an extremely off-putting owner, they are a very respectable and likable bunch. They deserve the heaps of praise they are getting, and the fact they went 67-15 last year and won the title and somehow got demonstrably better is commendable. Still, their brilliance does have the negative impact of lessening the importance or impact of the 11 series that will not feature them.

I'm sure the NBA will get their ratings anyway, and maybe someone will shock them and play the role of the Giants, and make this whole thing moot, but I just can't see it. It seems far more daunting to beat the Warriors than beating New England did in 2007. Both had or have a true air of invincibility and both place so much pressure on their opponent to essentially play perfectly and know that perfect basketball itself may not be good enough. Discount the random game that Dame Lillard basically became Steph 2.0, the best example of a team beating the Warriors is the Spurs win when they held Golden State under 80. They played a perfect game, and they are a great team, and won by 7. For the Patriots, the Giants played rather perfectly on defense, and still needed a helmet catch and a 3rd & 11 conversion right after. It takes so much to even be in position to win.

And even being in position may not be good enough. The Warriors most famous escape was that incredible win over Oklahoma City. The Patriots best was probably their win in Baltimore. Both times they played a charged-up opponent in primetime in a hostile environment, took the other teams best punch, seemed completely dead, and then just won anyway at the end. The 2007 Patriots were the most daunting challenge I have ever seen given by a sports team. There was nothing they did worse than good, and a whole lot of things they did extremely well to historically great. The Warriors are basically right there. If anything, they have a few more apparent weaknesses (rebounding, turnovers) than New England did - but that is where the Best-of-7 hurts the NBA further.

The NBA, with its high scoring system, as it is has fewer upsets than any other sports playoff system. If even so much as a #3 seed makes the finals it is as an accomplishment. There are no cinderella stories. Take away the lockout 1999 season, and the last non-Top-4 seed to make the finals was the 1995 Houston Rockets, who happened to be the defending Champs. But now with the Warriors we are limiting that even further.

The Golden State Warriors are an incredible team that achieved more than incredible levels of success this year. They were the central focus of the NBA season, from their 24-0 start, to their 41-4 record at the all star break. They created more interest in the NBA regular season than anything since at least the first year of the LeBron Heat. But when you think to yourself as the Raptors and Heat stage an intense 2nd round series 'What is the point of playing this?', the Warriors might just be the ones to blame.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Top-20 QBs: #14 - Troy Aikman

#14 - Troy Aikman

Troy Aikman is an interesting case to review when one cares about statistics. Mainly because his were not that good. Troy Aikman never threw for 3,500 yards in a season, never threw more than 23 TDs, and never had a QB rating above 100. His highest QB rating was 99.0, in a season where he threw 15 TDs in his 14 games that he started. Troy Aikman was a throwback, playing a game that seemed to leave the NFL decades earlier. He was the natural heir to Bart Starr, or even Terry Bradshaw, a player that, from a statistical perspective, was held back by how good his team was. The Cowboys were so ruthlessly efficient behind Emmitt Smith's running and their defense that they didn't need Troy Aikman to throw 40 times or for 300 yards. He just peppered in enough of those to make everyone sure he could if he needed to.

People who disliked Tom Brady liked to call him the next Troy Aikman. Over time, that became an insult to Brady, but the Tom Brady that won his first three Super Bowls probably was not even as good as the Aikman that won his three. Brady was held up by a running game and defense. Aikman was neutured because of it. However, come playoff time, the Cowboys did open it up more, and to great success.

Troy Aikman was quietly a superb playoff QB even when you look behind the glittering rings. His individual performances were great. When your team wins the Super Bowl 52-17, it is easy to obscure how well any single player played, but Aikman's 1992 playoff run should be remembered more than it is - going 61/89 for 795 yards, 8 TDs and no INTs, for a 126.4 passer rating. That is right there with Montana's best, or even Flacco's legendary 2012 run. Troy Aikman put up nice stats in his other two Super Bowl runs. Troy Aikman's playoff brilliance, in a way, retroactively makes his regular seasons more interesting, more impressive, and in a way, more depressing.

Aikman becomes almost a tragic figure because the way he played when the Cowboys opened up their passing game showed a truly remarkable player that should have done more. We can't fault the Cowboys strategy, they were ruthlessly effective in those years running Emmitt Smith 350+ times a year. They didn't need 300-yard passing games. They didn't want them. But when they wanted to really show off, it was Aikman's turn to really star.

Troy Aikman has carved out a great place in the history of the NFL. He is tied to the rebirth of a premier franchise, one that never stopped growing 'bigger' once he took over. He achieved great personal success and is enshrined in the Hall of Fame. His gig with FOX is a spigot pumping out cash that is stuck in the open position. But it really could have been more. Had he been allowed to throw, or been on the Bills or 49ers, teams that embraced the pass and didn't have the one running back that could combine efficiency and volume, Aikman could have been a true legend.

It will be interesting how history remembers Troy Aikman as the decades continue. We are close enough to his career that people have first-hand memory of his playing. We are still in a 'Rings Uber Alles' world where his three championships push him up the lists of great players. We are also in a world more statistically inclined that can push the hardware aside and look at a statistical quandary of a player putting up 1980's efficiency combined with 1960's offensive splits in the 1990's. As we go on, the statistically inclined people will probably push him further back, and the people that care about rings over anything will hopefully be replaced, but neither side quite optimally views the marvel that was Troy Aikman.

In an odd way, Troy Aikman being such a complex statistical study is at odds at what he is. Aikman was a simple, sturdy leader. Who played the role of Star QB about as well as anyone. He was never known for his staid personality, but on a team of Lotharios and Eccentrics, he was laid back and normal - a Staubach-ian like disposition that was very much needed. He was a basic, central cog in an efficient Ford truck. It's just that he had the same engine and same parts to run a flashy Maserati, but then again, Ford's seem to get the job done just as well.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Kobe Does Kobe One Last Time

A great player just retired, doing so after finishing a miserable season for his personal success, battling injuries and plodding through a season where his performance dropped to an almost unrecognizable level. That player did finish it all off in style, in just the way he would have wanted.

Yes, the preceding paragraph is about Kobe Bryant, but in a way it also perfectly describes the final season of Peyton Manning's career. Of course, there are two huge differences. First, Peyton didn't ask for this, he didn't ask for the league-wide, if not global, admiration during an 82-game (or for his sake, 16-game) slog. Second, Peyton's 'success' was winning the one thing he needed to win to complete his brilliant career: a 2nd Super Bowl Ring. For Kobe, it was putting on one last display.

That isn't a round-about way to say Kobe doesn't care about winning, or was too focused on himself. For sure, Kobe Bryant was singularly driven by winning more than most players during the prime of his career. The difference is Kobe wanted to win because Kobe led his team to win. Kobe wanted to be the star, the central figure. He entered a league where a 6'6" shooting guard become a global superstar. He wanted to carry that forward, and he did until the last day.

Both players accomplished memorable feats in their last games, with Peyton winning that ring and Kobe dropping 60, and both games can easily be discredited by their haters. Peyton-haters will point to his bad game, or his overall lack of production and value in this Super Bowl year. For Kobe-haters, they will point to the farcical nature of the refs swallowing whistles on countless moving screens and Kobe throwing up 50 shots - the most since 1980 in any game - to get to 60. Still, both players left with incredible memories for their fans, and that matters even more.

Somewhere between Kobe's achilles tear in 2013 and now, the NBA landscape changed dramatically. The Warriors rose up and become a dominant force playing a new age of basketball so different from the one Kobe dominated. Kobe Bryant's prime came when the league was transforming from isolation-heavy basketball to ball-movement and spacing. His prime was at a point where both were equally effective. Now, there is only one truly effective method and it isn't the one that made Kobe great.

Still, it was fun to see Kobe do that one last time. His prime was at a level that turned his games into spectacles. He hit 50 five striaght times, he had a 60 point game where he sat in the 4th quarter. He had 81 a few weeks later. Kobe was doing things at an individual level that were so outrageous it was hard to not be completely polarized by what was going on.

Kobe himself was always slightly aloof, not caring to be loved to the same degree as a LeBron, but also not so indifferent to public perception as Michael - who ironically was loved anyway. Kobe just wanted to be 'the star.' He loved winning, but he loved winning when personally scoring and leading more. He was driven to match MJ's 6 rings, but driven more to win as many as he could with him being 'the man'. Kobe Bryant was never loved or appreciated as much as he would have liked, but I think he was also treasured more than people will remember.

Had he never came back from the achilles injury, Kobe's career is probably seen to be greater than it is now after suffering three seasons of injury and poor play on an increasingly decrepit Lakers' team. Instead, he did; Kobe never being one to go away without putting up one last fight. Yet seeing him shallow and plodding for a bad team exposed his worst qualities and obstructed his best. His rare 30-point outbursts on a bad team at 35 weren't as fun as when he did hte same thing on an equally bad team at 27. Kobe Bryant, in many ways, just outlasted his usefulness as a star basketball player.

At the end of the day, Kobe in his 60-point performance, managed to upstage the Warriors breaking one of MJ's records. Kobe was able to hold court one last time. Was able to show up and be amazing one last time. Kobe was able to be the center of the NBA world, and for a guy that had won his five rings, won two as the leading star, that seems to be all he wanted. And maybe that isn't the worst thing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs: 1st Round Picks

There's a more celebratory post to come tomorrow, but for now, let's go straight to the overall picks.

But, first, a quick look back at who I predicted to make the playoffs at the start of the season. I normally don't do this, and I have no idea if this will make me look smart or dumb, but let's see:


Atlantic: Tampa Bay, Ottawa, Montreal
Metropolitan: New York Islanders, Washington, New York Rangers
Wild Card: Pittsburgh, Columbus

Eastern Conference Final: Washington over Tampa Bay

Overall, not too bad. My read of the Atlantic was off, but then agian I think I was more on the consensus end. Few saw this Panthers team gelling this quickly, and I guess it is my fault for not instinctively knowing the Red Wings would get one of the spots.


Central: St. Louis, Chicago, Dallas
Pacific: Anaheim, Calgary, Los Angeles
Wild Card: Minnesota, San Jose

Western Conference Final: Anaheim over St. Louis

I actually did a good job, picking five of the six automatic picks, and overall 7 of the 8 playoff teams right, only missing on Nashville.

Now, for the actual playoffs:

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division

(A1) Florida Panthers (103 pts.) vs (W2) New York Islanders (100 pts.)

The Panthers spent years drafting at the top of the draft, netting them Erik Gudbrannson, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander (Sasha) Barkov and Aaron Ekblad. Four young stars, but what really made this team go was the inclusion of Jaromir Jagr, who led the team in points along with providing veteran leadership. The Panthers are a really good team, fending off challenges to their title to pretty calmly win the division. Yet the Islanders basically tanked into playing them instead of playing Pittsburgh. The Islanders had one of the most disappointing seasons to still net 100 points ever. Tavares was close to point-per-game, Okposo not far behind, and yet no one really likes them. The goalie situation is a disaster, and I don't really see how they compensate for that against a young team with a solid goalie in Luongo.

Panthers in 5

(A2) Tampa Bay Lightning (97 pts.) vs (A3) Detroit Red Wings (93 pts.)

The Red Wings lead a charmed life. First, they make the playoffs because the current playoff format still isn't all that fair as they could easily nab that final 3rd place spot in the Atlantic. Now, after getting into the playoffs for the 25th (!) straight year, they draw a team with so many questions related to team health. Basically all we know is the most impactful injury: Steven Stamkos is out for this series at the very least. After that, Tyler Johnson is very questionable with an apparent concussion, and Hedman and Kucherov are expected to play in Game 1, but at what level. If they do play, even without Stamkos, the Lightning are deep enough and good enough to win anyway. The Red Wings are ostensibly not a good team, with a -13 goal differential - by far the worst in the playoff field. The Lighting were middling around .500 at the all start break and are way above now. This pick is assuming Hedman and Kucherov play the entire series, and Johnson comes back sooner rather than later. I hate to see Pavel Datsyuk's genius career in the NHL end, but I do think it will.

Lighting in 6

Metropolitan Division

(M1) Washington Capitals (120 pts.) vs (W2) Philadelphia Flyers (96 pts.)

The Flyers were the league's great surprise of 2016, coming out of nowhere to make the playoffs in a year everyone saw as a clear rebuilding season. They did it with weird contributions, like 32 goals from Wayne Simmonds, or a breakout season from rookie Shane Gostisbehere on the blue line. They got increasingly serviceable to good goaltending. Yet they really aren't in the same league as Washington, who was the best team in the league pretty much from the outset of the season. Their big-3 all head near point-per-game seasons. Their two big acquisitions in Justin Williams and TJ Oshie chipped in 50 points each. Braden Holtby had a great season. The Capitals recent failing is losing to better teams in the playoffs (Rangers). This isn't the Rangers, and this isn't the same Capitals.

Capitals in 5

(M2) Pittsburgh Penguins (104 pts.) vs (M3) New York Rangers (101 pts.)

This is an interesting series. The Penguins were a franchise in decline the last three seasons, and that continued through about the All Star Break, and then Crosby drank from the fountain of youth and the team absolutely took off into a monster the last two months. It is funny to look back at those Halcyon days when the big question was what is wrong with Sidney Crosby... who ended up #4 in points. The two big question marks for them are huge though - Evgeni Malkin's continued absence and Marc-Andre Fleury's concussion. Neither looks a solid bet to play. And for that, I slightly like the Rangers, who know how to play Pittsburgh, who have the better goalie, and have more recent success in the playoffs than Pittsburgh. I'm picking a lot of chalk in the 1st round, so I'll go off the book here.

Rangers in 7

Western Conference

Central Division

(C1) Dallas Stars (109 pts.) vs (W2) Minnesota Wild (87 pts.)

The Dallas Stars should be everyone's favorite position to take. They play fun, fast, offense-focused hockey for a few reasons. First, to hide their average goaltending, and second, because their offensive skill is ridiculous. Obviously, the headliners are Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, but the supplemental scoring has really improved. Jason Spezza randomly turned into a goal scorer, and John Klingberg is the West's answer to Erik Karlsson. The only real weakness is in goal. And the Wild are the wrong team to make the most out of that weakness. None of their top players had good seasons, and Zach Parise is a question mark for the first couple games. The Wild, much like hte Islanders, had a firmly disappointing season. The difference is the Wild really were disappointing, with 87 points. I can't imagine them coming together to beat a team that already overcame a midseason lull to end the season on fire.

Stars in 4

(C2) St. Louis Blues (107 pts.) vs (C3) Chicago Blackhawks (103 pts.)

This was a great series in 2014, of course won by Chicago. The Blues are more or less the same team with a few cosmetic changes. Out have gone TJ Oshie, in has come Paul Stasny, and improvements from guys like Tarasenko. The Blues are a really good tema. They've beaten Chicago recently. The Blackhawks are ripe for the picking, with Duncan Keith suspended for Game 1 and the team overall less deep than in previous season. Still, they are the Blackhawks. They are the team with the best player on the ice with Patrick Kane, who has made such beautiful music with rookie Artemi Panarin this year. The Blackhawks will need secondary scoring beyond the Kane line, but the Blues will need to do what they've never done in the past which is settle on a goaltender and ride him. I wish I could pick the Blues, but I just can't get past the Blackhawks always coming through. If not for a Game 7 collapse against LA two years ago, they could be going for a 4-peat right now.

Blackhawks in 6

Pacific Division

(P1) Anaheim Ducks (103 pts.) vs (W1) Nashville Predators (96 pts.)

The Ducks were so bad early in the season, so offensively impotent early on, that it is truly stunning they are sitting here back in 1st place in the Pacific Division. Despite never really fully clicking on offense, the Ducks have been the best team in just the 2016 portion of the 2015-16 season. The most underrated part of teh Ducks success has been the defense. Led by four young guns on that blue line (Lindholm, Vatanen, Fowler, Manson), the first three really having taken a step forward. The Predators are one of the few teams with a deep enough blue line to match, with Weber, Josi, Ekholm. However, the Preds don't have either the high ceiling firepower the Ducks do (who have been a Top-10 offense the past four months of the season), nor, as weird as it sounds to say when you are talking about Pekka Rinne, the goaltending.

Ducks in 6

(P2) Los Angeles Kings (102 pts.) vs (P3) San Jose Sharks (98 pts.)

And so they meet again for round 4. The Sharks won round 1, back in 2010-11, when they weren't chokers. The Kings won rounds 2-3, both in 7 games series, in the 2013 and 2014 playoffs. The last time they did it coming back from 0-3 down in the series, and after the Sharks missed the playoffs lost year, it seemed to be what broke them. Of course, the Kings missed the playoffs last season as well. The Kings have an ability to turn it on in the playoffs, but this may be the deepest Sharks team in recent years, though. The most interesting matchup here is the goalies, with Jonathan Quick playing against his former back-up in Martin Jones. Something feels different about this Sharks team, a group where Thornton was stripped of his leadership responsibilities which allowed him to free his mind and raise his game. This is not his team, it is Pavelski's and Burns's. I don't know why, but I'm calling upset.

Sharks in 7

Enjoy the greatest playoffs in the world.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

2016 MLB Season Predictions

Quick-hit predictions for the 2016 MLB Season:


AL East

I personally am not going to buy into the Red Sox. I love how everyone lapped them up last year after a 90-loss season, and they responded with another last place finish. I think the Yankees are smart to start thinking about the future, but will be playing out the string. I guess the Orioles pick is the strangest, probably the weirdest pick overall, but I think they sneak in on the power of their offense. Toronto, even without David Price, is still very good. They had a dominant run differential last year, not all of that is just having Price.

AL Central

The Indians are a trendy pick, and I think the battle between them and KC will be great. The White Sox have some sleeper potential if Quintana and Rodon can take a step up and create a dominant front three with Sale. The Twins are a few years away and the Tigers a few years late. The Indians front-end pitching vs. the Royals back-end will be an interesting battle, but I think the Indians sneak it out, potentially needing a 1-game wild card to clinch it.

AL West

Sure, there is some homerism there, but I do think the Astros are both one of the best teams, and in the easiest division to run up a higher win total. Their only real weakness is their starting pitching behind Kuechel, but their bullpen is good enough, and their management smart enough to minimize that weakness, The Rangers were a bit over their head last year, but return Darvish in midseason so they could still steal the division away.


NL East

The Mets still have the best rotation, even with the Nationals hoping Strasburg's numbers match his ability. Their offense is still good returning Cespedes, and I like their acquisitions. The Marlins are just average, and the rest of the division is a mess of teams looking to be the next Astros or Cubs. I can see the Nationals maybe leapfrogging the Mets, but I don't think their depth hitting is strong enough.

NL Central

The Cubs are a monster, and while I think the gap between them and Pittsburgh isn't as big as some may think, I think they'll lap up on the weaklings in the division to be, by record, the best team in the league. Potential weak spots are some of the hitters having struggles or Arietta not having the ridiculous season he did last year. The Pirates are still B to B+ everywhere (save for McCutcheon, who is a true star). I think the Cardinals pitching was somewhat smoke and mirrors, even for their usual success, and fall a bit.

NL West

It is an even year, right? I think the vast expanse of AT&T park will help Cueto and Samardzija, giving them a great Top-3 to go with what could sneakily be the NL's best lineup. If you switch ballparks, maybe the Giants hit as many homers as the Cubs will in Wrigley. The Dodgers injury concerns do scare me a tad to push them down to a Wild Card. The D'Backs are still talented, but losing Pollock for an extended period hurt. The other two are just as plainly bad as they've been throughout the past five years.

Award Picks

Nothing too surprising here. It is easy to pick Trout and Kershaw to win every year, so I'm splitting the difference and saying that Kershaw, who is on a likely playoff team, will win the Cy Young again, and Trout, who likely is not, will lose to Manny Machado, whose Orioles I think will sneak into the last wild card spot. As for teh NL, it is an even year, right? As we continue to get a better understanding of catching framing metrics, Posey's value will only continue to grow. As for the AL Cy Young, Sale's too good to not win it one of these years.

Playoff Picks

It's an even year, after all

Villanova - UNC: Sports at its Best

It is rare I get to watch a sporting event that means so much without really caring who wins. It has happened. Rarely ever in football, where I view every team through slanted eyes of some kind. It rarely happens in basketball or baseball. It probably last happened last year in hockey, when the Blackhawks and Lightning, two likable, talented, great teams met for the Stanley Cup. Before that it is hard to remember a title match where I did not truthfully care one way or the other, they are rare birds, always to be treasured. This just happened to be a beautiful bald eagle of a game.

One game. Two teams. One trophy to win. Not one care in my mind on who I would rather see lift it. And because of that, I can say I enjoyed that incredible, tense, well-played, game that ended with dueling acts of brilliance, with open eyes and an awe-struck expression. What it taught me was both how much nicer it is to not care, and how incredible sports can be when we strip away rooting interests and legacies and view it for what it is: an incredible roller coaster of emotion and athletic exploits.

Sure, the ending grabbed the headlines. The shot by Kris Jenkins will live on in sports montages for decades. The brilliant, athletic feat that was Marcus Paige's game-tying three will be added to the list of great plays sure to be forgotten because their team ultimately lost (ie: Josh Hamilton's Home Run in the 10th inning of Game 6 in the 2011 World Series, or even the Hail Mary by Rodgers to Janis to tie the Divisional Round game this year). But what made that game so much better was how competitive, well-played, and honest it was throughout. That was a great basketball game, with an even better finish. Far too often, college basketball gives us the latter without the former - the iconic moment that memorializes an undeserving preceding 39 minutes of basketball. This was the opposite, where the ending only heightens the intense legacy of the entire game.

It has become fashionable to criticize the poor play in college basketball. It has become, if not always was, equally fashionable to parry that criticism with the retort of 'that's the beauty of collegiate athletics'. And certainly, that defense has some merit, but it is definitely a more enjoyable experience to watch players in any sport that are better, that don't make simple mistakes, that don't mindlessly pass the ball around the perimeter before chucking a forced three. This game didn't have that, or at least minimized the presence of such blatantly inferior play. Not that they were running truly recognizable 'offense', but it at least looked like it was players running around with a purpose and an intensity.

The best college basketball games in the tournament have a certain speed, a certain level of heat, that seems to present itself from the very beginning. One of the best games I remember watching was the National Championship in 2008, between Memphis and Kansas. From the opening tip, these were two polished, experienced, talented teams that could play within themselves. That was an intense affair, that is memorialized with a markedly similar shot to Jenkins's dagger last night, when Mario Chalmers ripped the net to tie the game at 63-63, sending it to an OT that Kansas would ultimately prevail. This game may not have been as well played from an empirical perspective - the 2008 game had more pure talent on the court - but this was well played from an end-to-end entertainment perspective.

Both teams fought hard for 40 minutes. North Carolina shot brilliantly on offense in the first half, and reacted well to Villanova's pressure, whipping the ball around to find open scorers. Villanova themselves were methodical, but effective. The 2nd half was Villanova staying their course, while North Carolina started to struggle against the Wildcats effective defense. Still, it wasn't pure sloppiness, or poor shot selection, but more missing makeable shots and losing to a better executing defense.

But then North Carolina decided to fight back. Down 67-57, the game seemed over, and while missed free throws certainly helped their effort, so did UNC just starting to play free. Marcus Paige hit a three, there were fastbreak and second chance points, two rarities all game long. There was that sequence where after a miss, Marcu Paige emerged from a forest of taller players with the rebound and put-back. And finally, there was the shot.

Invariably, college basketball becomes remembered for what happens in the last minute, easily superseding the previous 39. I note the strange dichotomy between the NBA, where the end-game is often so choppy from endless timeouts and intentional fouls (and the presence of still the most bizarre rule, that a team can advance the ball to half-court), but the quality of a great NBA game comes across all 48 minutes. Last night, Villanova and UNC gave us the best of both worlds.

Being able to enjoy all of this brilliance was nice, having that enjoyment not be at all altered by any emotional attachment to any team made it even better. Sure, had I been a Villanova fan, that ending would have been an elation only sports can give. But in a way, having been able to watch, enjoy and now look back on a sports event not in the lens of 'did we win' or 'did we lose' is as good. I can look back and just remember experiencing that game, the constant pleasure throughout, the pride at watching UNC fight back, the shock at Marcus Paige's three pointer to tie it, and the wonder at Kris Jenkins' shot to win it.

To say I was not rooting for any team is accurate, but I am happy Villanova won. They probably played better on the whole. They were a worthy champion, giving us one of the most captivating blowouts in Final 4 history in the Semifinal against Oklahoma, shutting down the nations best player, and surrounded that with two wins against the best two teams this year in Kansas and North Carolina, both times responding brilliantly to the challenges those two teams faced. Villanova coach Jay Wright had been criticized recently for losing a few times with high-ranked teams, something the man he ousted in the Elite Eight, Bill Self, knows a lot about. Self though, unlike Wright, can point to a banner in Allen Fieldhouse to quiet the doubters and critics. Wright now earned that, no pun intended, right, as well.
In the end, 2016 has started as an incredibly fruitful year for me as a sports fan. My favorite player finished his brilliant career with a second Super Bowl, and now got a watch a classic National Championship Game. Both experiences are examples both sides of the sports fan's life. Few events were ever as emotionally tied to the ultimate result, for good and for bad, than those last two playoff games by the Broncos. I can look back fondly on the games, and remember how great a defensive duel the AFC Championship Game was, but my experience of that game was one of nervousness that begat an expressive, pleasurable finish. This game was just expressly pleasurable from the opening tip.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

My 18 Favorite Peyton Manning Games, Pt. 8: #1

1.) 2006 AFC Championship - Patriots 34 @ Colts 38

There's not much new to say about this game, arguably the most famous and important non-Super Bowl of the last 15 years. The amount of competing storylines, and history, and demons. The NFL couldn't have crafted a better game. The hype was unreal before the game, the game itself exceeded anything that anyone could have imagined. Going into the game, us Colts fans were all hoping for a quick and easy win, the best case scenario would have been a repeat of the Colts 40-21 win in Foxboro in 2005 (or even what the 2013 AFC Championship was). Instead, we got the opposite, and I'm so much more thankful that we did.

The Colts started about as bad as possible. Peyton missed a few deep throws by and inch. The Colts run defense was carved up for 90 yards in the first twenty minutes. The scored TDs on two straight drives, both times converting 4th downs for long gains. The first TD came after a muffed hand-off between Brady and Laurence Maroney, three Colts were around the ball, none of them could grab it and it deflected into the end zone where Dan Koppen picked it up. The Patriots were getting the breaks. They were winning by doing Patriots type things. They drove even further ahead with a pick-6 to go up 21-3, then sacked Manning back-to-back times. Peyton nearly hit Harrison for what would have been a 97-yard TD, but it was just a touch off. The Patriots then were driving, with five minutes left in the 2nd quarter, into Colts territory.

At this specific point in the game, I was a mess. I, of course, was watching the game alone in my basement. I wanted to be anywhere else. If this was happening five years later, I would have just put the game off. At this point in my time as a NFL fan, a Manning fan, I was still a little bit green. I wasn't yet jaded or driven close to insanity by the Brady / Manning rivalry. I also didn't understand the game well enough to realize why exactly the Colts were failing while the Patriots were winning. At this moment, I really did at times think to myself "maybe the Patriots are just better." I really did think to myself "maybe Brady is just a better playoff QB" and "maybe Peyton Manning is a choker." Luckily, I did keep watching, and saw the Greatest Game I've ever seen unfold.

It is telling that 9+ years later, I remember everything about this game. Sure, part of that is me having re-watched the game multiple times. But even beyond just the game play, I remember little moments and specifics. I remember what I was doing, where I was, how I was feeling throughout the game. I remember the feeling on that final 1st half drive to make it 21-6 that maybe, just maybe, they will make this a game. I remember feeling stronger when they tied the game at 21, after, amusingly going for 2 right after Jim Nantz waxed on and on about how bad of an idea it was. I remember the feeling when they went three and out with four minutes to go, seemingly losing their best chance. I remember running upstairs numerous times over the past couple minutes, from Bob Sanders near-interception to force the punt, to Addai's TD, to Marlin Jackson's final interception, puncturing the Patriots playoff perfection, and sending both the RCA Dome, and my house, into a state of frenzy.

I've never feared the Patriots, but I did during various points in that game. When they were beating the Colts four straight times in 2003-04, it was more shock and then acceptance. In this game, when everything was lining up for the Colts, including getting a surprise home game in the AFC Championship. When it started, the Patriots monster showed up and turned it into a nightmare. Then again, nothing is better than overcoming your fears.

The Colts didn't necessarily grow up in that game. They had tons of tests throughout a 2006 season where they beat great teams on the road previously, but they met their biggest fear head on, and not only beat them, but ended up making all the big plays in the key moments. It was the Colts who forced a three-and-out when one first down could have more or less ended the game. It was the Patriots who twice had bug-eyed Reche Caldwell drop two wide open passes. It was the Patriots who, right before that infamous three-and-out, had a 12 men in the huddle penatly, a huge five yards. Finally, it was the Colts who executed three straight well-designed, well-executed runs right into the heart of the Patriots defense to win the game.

There were so many little moments that make this game so eternally memorable. There was the Colts matching the Patriots opening TD by fumble recovery, with Jeff Saturday recovering an Addai fumble in the end zone. There was a ridiculous Patriots TD where Brady drifted wide and threw a pass to Gaffney who was hugging the end line. There was a little sequence in the fourth quarter where Peyton Manning had his hand hit the helmet of Tarik Glenn on his follow-through, jamming his thumb to the point of telling backup Jim Sorgi to 'get ready'. The game had these little plays that turned a great game into an exceptional one.

I often think what would have happened had this game not occurred. The Patriots by all accounts should have probably lost to the Chargers, one of the great escapes in the Belichick era. The Colts probably should have had to make a trip to San Diego. They may have lost that game. But even if they won, would it have felt the same? Would beating the Chargers on the way to winning a Super Bowl have meant as much as beating the Patriots? They needed to go through the Patriots. Much like the Red Sox needed to go through the Yankees to make 2004 as perfect as it could be. In fact, just like how the Red Sox needed to then go down 0-3, be down in the 9th inning of Game 4, the Colts needed to trail 21-3, have the Patriots driving to go up even further, to ultimately squeeze out the most possible satisfaction of that win.

 It is that triumph against the hated rival coupled with winning in the best, if most haunting and nerve-racking, way that really makes this game so meaningful. I ranked my 18 favorite games, and none of them were the win against the Bears in the Super Bowl. That was something of a given (though right after Devin Hester ran back the kick, maybe I thought otherwise). This was not. This was never a given. The Patriots were going for history as well, two wins away from matching the 70's Steelers with 4 rings in 6 years. The Colts wanted history for themselves though. They still hold the record for biggest comeback in Championship Game history (18 points), hopefully a record that will never be broken.

It is hard to go back in time to remember just how joyous the end of that game was. I lived through it, and I would love to go through it again. I was at the perfect age. I had gone through the perfect amount of dismay with that team and player. I was still unsure if they would ever win. I was never unsure again. 

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.