Sunday, December 30, 2007

Brady's bomb to Moss epitomizes Patriots


Trailing the New York Football Giants 28-23 with just over 11 minutes to play in the fourth quarter Saturday night, Tom Brady attempted to do what he had done so many times this perfect season.

He launched an airtight spiral toward wide-open Randy Moss, his favorite target who had broken away from his inferior opponents in the Giants secondary. But as God-like as Brady is, his arm is human, and the pass came up short.

Moss nearly made a shoestring catch — he has, after all, caught balls thrown between two defenders and directly at defenders this season — but couldn't hold on. The ball fell to the ground.

What happened next is why New England is a summit above the rest of the NFL. With the Patriots facing 3rd-and-10 from their own 35-yard line, Moss ran the same 9 route to the same spot. After catching his breath, there he was racing by himself down the right sideline. And after refueling his right arm, there was Brady releasing another low-arcing spiral in Moss' direction.

And this time, No. 81 didn't have to break stride. The ball hit him in the chest, and he was gone.

The Patriots regained the lead. You know the story from there. A 16-0 unblemished record. A rather loquacious Bill Belichick at the postgame podium.

But back to the juiciest minute of the night. Actually, the touchdown wasn't even designed for Moss. Brady's main option was diminutive receiver Wes Welker, who was running a short route. But when the defenders bit on Welker's cut, there was Moss, running untouched down the sideline. And Brady had no qualms about finding his tallest target one more time, about throwing one more 65-yard pass.

And Moss didn't complain about running approximately 200 yards in the course of a minute or two. (Yes, he could be a track star if he wasn't so good at catching footballs.)

Seriously, how many teams will run their premier receiver 65 yards down the sideline on consecutive plays? How many teams will trust their quarterback to throw back-to-back deep balls, especially after the first one came up well short?

That's one of many reasons New England stands alone as the lone NFL team to go 16-0. Yes, it helps having the career leaders for touchdown passes and TD catches in a season. But that doesn't take away from the genius behind having Moss run an identical route.

The thing about the Patriots, is they've always made the right calls. It's never mattered if they throw the ball on 27 consecutive plays or run it 10 straight times. They do what Belichick, Brady and Co. think will work at the time.

So forget running a draw to mix up the defense. Or looking for the tight end over the middle. If Moss could beat the secondary once, he could do it again, right?

"I wish I could have made a better throw," Brady said about the first pass, which was designed for Moss.

But, I'm sure, Brady's not fretting over the bad throw a day later.

Because these Patriots, although not perfect every play, are rather quick to correct their mistakes — even in the course of a New York Minute.

And that's just another reason they stand an impeccable 16-0, just three wins away from the ultimate zenith of football success.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Kentucky hits rock bottom


Maybe several years from now, Billy Gillespie will sit back, take a long gulp of his drink, let out a smile and — finally — a long chuckle when thinking about his first season as Kentucky men's basketball coach.

Maybe. But that's in the future.

For now, Gillespie couldn't force a smile if he tried.

His Wildcats hit rock bottom Saturday afternoon. Playing in front of their hometown fans, they fell to sub-.500 San Diego of the West Coast Conference 81-72. The loss dropped Kentucky to 5-6, with two of their L's coming against Gardner-Webb and San Diego.

Yes, the nation's most storied college basketball program is a mess. For now.

Consider some of the happenings late in Saturday's game.

There was senior leader Joe Crawford committing two asinine fouls 20-plus feet from the basket, which put San Diego at the free-throw line. And the Toreros made 32 of 36 from the line.

Crawford also killed the Wildcats by traveling in the final minutes.

Somehow the Wildcats allowed San Diego's Devin Ginty, a walk-on freshman, to score 18 points. Ginty had taken a total of eight shots in the previous 14 games.

With about two minutes remaining, Kentucky's Perry Stevenson made the cardinal sin for a player, saving the ball from under the Toreros' basket right into the hands of San Diego's diminutive point guard Brandon Johnson, who subsequently laid the ball in for a commanding 10-point lead.

Even Kentucky's sensational freshman, big man Patrick Patterson, made a bonehead play, throwing the ball right back to the Toreros after they turned it over in the final minute.

And that was it. The blue-clad fans raced toward the exits.

It should be noted that Saturday's loss by Kentucky wasn't just a result of poor play by the Wildcats. San Diego played out of its mind. Johnson took full advantage of the opportunity to play on national TV by showing off his stellar ballhandling and penetration skills, scoring a game-high 27 points and grabbing eight rebounds. And San Diego made nine of 16 3-pointers.

But a good, or even decent, Kentucky team wouldn't have allowed this to happen. Several of the Wildcats' previous five losses could be attributed, in part, to the absence of a pair of key cogs in Jodie Meeks and Derrick Jasper, but both played double-digit minutes on Saturday (although neither appeared at full-strength).

(Kentucky wasn't helped when confused freshman Alex Legion recently transferred to Illinois.)

Common sense says that Gillespie will get this nasty boar back in its cage by next season or the next. After all, if he could build Texas A&M — and its lack of basketball tradition — into a Sweet 16 team, he must have the tools to do likewise in Lexington, right?

But that doesn't mean Ashley Judd and the rest of Wildcat Nation shouldn't worry. Consider the immense parity that has taken over college basketball. Just a state away from Rupp Arenas, Bruce Pearl has transformed Tennessee into an annual national title contender. And now, three and a half hours away in Nashville, SEC foe Vanderbilt is undefeated and gaining confidence.

So there no longer are guarantees for Kentucky. Recruits have plenty of options to think about. Gillespie can't simply drop the Kentucky moniker and expect blue-chip high-schoolers to migrate to him and his lavish practice facility.

Oh, he'll get some players. How can a guy who purportedly manages just three hours of sleep a night not land players with similar work ethics?

But the competition, both in Kentucky's region and conference, is as good as ever. And if the Wildcats continue playing like they did Saturday, it will be a difficult journey back to the peak of college hoops supremacy.

Regardless of Gillespie's insomniac habits.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Lakers overcome distraction, become contender


It was a Christmas Day Miracle, really.

There were the mighty, high-flying, running-and-gunning Phoenix Suns, the lock this season to win the Western Conference's Pacific Division and roll into the playoffs as one of the top few seeds.

But they weren't the miracle. The miracle workers were the guys in yellow jerseys.

There was Kobe Bryant, the subject of trade speculation for the past eight months. In May, he said he wanted to be traded — for sure — then recanted ... then said he wanted out again.

Leading up to the season, all the talk in Laker Land revolved around No. 24 leaving. Chicago? New York? He was bound for the East Coast.

The discussion continued into the regular season, but somehow the Lakers played through it. While the Chicago Bulls couldn't overcome the Kobe Talk to play half-decent basketball, the Lakers managed to play .500 ball.

And Bryant showed why he's the NBA's best talent, hearing all the whispers in one ear and coach Phil Jackson in the other. On opening night, there he was — almost leading the Lakers back from a 12-point hole in the final minute, 36 seconds.

Say what you want about Bryant's arrogance, his selfishness at times, but you can't say he ever gives up in a game. He didn't on that night, and he hasn't since then.

And while a month and a half ago, I thought the Lakers with Kobe needed another marquee player — such as Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal — to make a serious run in the mighty West, I don't think so anymore. This team, with its current makeup, is capable of challenging the Suns, the Mavericks, the Jazz ... and maybe even the Spurs (OK, probably not the Spurs, but neither can the aforementioned squads).

The main reason: the play of Andrew Bynum, the 20-year-old kid who has grown thick skin and ignored all the clamors by L.A. fans — and the media — that he needs to be traded for a big-name, proven veteran.

On Christmas, the 7-footer was at his best, skying for a slew of easy alley-oops, causing the Suns to play a bigger, slower lineup than usual — and then out-muscling those guys, including Amare Stoudemire, for 12 rebounds. He finished with a career-high 28 points, the dozen boards, four assists and two blocked shots.

And after the Lakers' 122-115 win, don't look now, but ... but ... but a certain team in gold uniforms sits just a game back of the mighty Suns.

And maybe — just maybe — the trade talk has died down for now.

With Bynum averaging 12.5 points, 10.1 boards and 2.1 blocks a game. With Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar anchoring the point guard position, a veteran leading a youngster who will eventually steal all his minutes. With Lamar Odom and Bynum holding strong in the post. With high-flyer Trevor Ariza and Luke Walton — when he returns from injury — providing a variety of skills at the small-forward position. ... these Lakers, at 18-10 and on a three-game winning streak, look like contenders.

Wait — I forgot to mention one player: um, Kobe Bryant?

That's right. When one can talk about the Lakers without mentioning the longest-tenured player in the NBA, you know there's a little talent around him.

In the fourth quarter Tuesday, it was Kobe Time. Bryant knocked down an array of fall-away jumpers from all over the court to score 12 of his game-high 38. He was the center of the show. The player whom kids are trying to emulate on playgrounds all over L.A. today.

But he's no longer the only show in town, folks. Bynum, Odom, Ariza, Fisher...

Learn the names, kids. Because if this keeps up, they'll be making just as much noise as their celebrated teammate well into the spring.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Home-field advantage could hurt Patriots


Late Sunday afternoon, with the sun setting above Gillette Stadium, all was bliss for the New England Patriots.

On a clean field, in good conditions, Tom Brady and Randy Moss continued their attack on the NFL's record books, hooking up twice in the Patriots' easy 28-7 win over hapless Miami.

New England is now 15-0, just one win away from a perfect regular season. It has home-field advantage locked up throughout the AFC playoffs. It has nothing to play for but perfection.

Only a Herculean effort will take down these Patriots. Only a close-to-perfect game. But it's possible, and the way the playoffs are shaping up, a visiting team might benefit from a trip to Foxboro.

(Note: Please wait to call me nonsensical until the end of this column.)

With Willie Parker done for the season, I don't consider Pittsburgh a threat to upend New England. No way, no how. And whoever gets that final wild card spot — the Titans or the Browns — probably won't make it past the first weekend, and even if they do, the Patriots will dispose of them.

So that leaves three teams, three challengers to the Patriots.

Let's start with the team that has the best chance of getting by New England, the Colts. Sure, Peyton Manning's great, but running back Joseph Addai makes that offense click. If the wind is swirling and there is rain or snow in Foxboro, expect Addai to get several carries.

And while New England's Laurence Maroney has been great the past couple weeks, I still give the edge to Addai. With Brady unable to throw accurate deep balls to Moss — unlike the bomb that jump-started New England's comeback win in Indy during the regular season — the Colts could pull the upset on the road.

The same can be said of the Chargers. Yes, Philip Rivers can't hold Brady's Q-tip, but — again — if the conditions are poor and the running game becomes crucial, I like the combination of LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner and Darren Sproles to expose the weaknesses in New England's front seven. A mistake-free game by the Chargers could result in a win.

Finally, not to be forgotten, are the Jaguars, who are playing some of the league's best football right now. Running back Fred Taylor seems rejuvenated by reaching the 10,000-yard mark and subsequently being snubbed — yet again — by the Pro Bowl (how has he never made the "nobody cares" game?). Combines his cutback running with the power-forward motor of Maurice Jones-Drew, and the Jags have the rushing attack to eat up a lot of clock with Brady, Moss & Co. on the sideline.

So call me stupid, call me dumb, but forget all you because it's my birthday: If the New England weather cooperates and turns Gillette Field into a giant snow tub or Hurricane Shula, one of the aforementioned teams will knock off the mighty Patriots, sending Brady weeping back to Giselle, making Bill Belichick lash out at the refs, and causing the rest of the United States to breath a sigh of relief that Boston doesn't win everything.

Sure, it's as far-fetched as Belichick talking during a press conference, but nothing makes much sense these days.

Such as the Patriots winning too much for their own good.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Michigan shows life against UCLA


If college basketball games were 30 minutes, I'd be breaking down the Michigan men's basketball team's biggest win in probably 10 years.

Unfortunately for the Wolverines — as we all know — games last 40 minutes, and the eighth-ranked Bruins (11-1) wore down Michigan to win 69-54.

The game was much closer than the final score indicated. From the start, John Beilein had his players energized while the Bruins — who absolutely massacred the Wolverines a year ago — simply went through the motions.

Despite throwing up some of the nastiest bricks in the first 10 minutes, Michigan recovered from an 8-0 hole by switching between Beilein's patented 1-3-1 zone — which forced UCLA to throw several ineffective lob passes — and man-to-man defense. UCLA didn't respond well to either of Michigan's looks, turning the ball over 11 times in the half.

Additionally, despite Michigan's smaller lineup acting as the David to UCLA's Goliath frontcourt anchored by freshman beast Kevin Love, the Wolverines held their own on the boards and came up with every single loose ball.

And 3-pointers by DeShawn Sims and C.J. Lee to close out the half gave Michigan a 27-24 lead heading into the locker room.

But while Michigan's youth aided it in playing loose and energetic in the first half, it came back to bite it after the Wolverines shot out to a 36-28 second-half lead.

All of a sudden, there was a change in body language. I could tell — watching my HD TV — that the Wolverines had started to think about the finish line, about the possibility of upsetting a national title contender.

Michigan tightened up, and the turnovers destroyed them. A UCLA 3-pointer followed by four points off Michigan miscues, and the Bruins were within a point. The Wolverines hung around for a few more minutes, but once UCLA finally regained the lead 45-43 with 8:40 to play, the outcome wasn't really in doubt.

For the final 8 minutes, UCLA played like, well, UCLA. Crisp passing, deadly shooting — particularly by Josh Shipp (19 points, three 3s) — and hands-in-the-passing-lanes defense. When the Bruins are playing well, you know why. There was nothing esoteric about them dominating the boards down the stretch and making their free throws. There are many reasons why they've been to consecutive Final Fours.

The Wolverines, however, continue to search for their identity, for their catharsis for when things begin to go downhill. On Saturday, they didn't have a response to UCLA's final push. They didn't have a guy they could give the ball to and tell to create. They didn't have a big man like Love they could get the ball to.

It's just the state of the current team.

Michigan is now 4-8 heading into Big Ten play. Last year, it was 12-3 — and there was talk about making the NCAA tournament. But last year's team also go beat by that absurd 37 points in Westwood, Calif.

So is this year's squad, under a new coach, better?

When it plays like it did for three quarters of Saturday's game, the answer is a resounding "yes."

Progress this season can't be judged by wins and losses. If you're foolish enough to judge the Wolverines that way, you'll be greatly disappointed.

Rather, are the Wolverines learning Beilein's 3-point shooting system? Are they tightening up that 1-3-1 zone? Are they coming together as a group, gaining confidence in each other?

Those are the measuring sticks by which to judge these Wolverines.

And if they play with the same verve with which they did for an hour-plus Saturday, they'll pull a couple surprises in the Big Ten as well.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Finally, Duke looks vulnerable


Late in the first half Thursday night, the Duke Blue Devils were cruising again.

Freshman Taylor King swished one of his patented 3s, and Duke found itself up a seemingly insurmountable 16 points on No. 11 Pittsburgh.

But the thing was, Duke hadn't looked that impressive in building its 34-18 advantage. It hadn't gotten out in transition and scored in bunches. It hadn't shot the 3 that well, making just three triples. More than Duke being effective, Pitt had been ineffective.

In the final minute of the first half and the second half and overtime, the Panthers woke up. Duke still showed its grit, tying the game late in regulation on a 3 by freshman Kyle Singler, but in the end Pitt guard Levance Fields threw the final punch, stepping back to drain the game-winning 3 with six seconds remaining.

And No. 6 Duke (10-1) suffered its first loss, 65-64.

It happened because Duke's lack of size upfront finally hurt it. After both teams pulled down 19 first-half rebounds, the Panthers — led by haughty, 6-7 DeJuan Blair, who had 15 points and 20 rebounds — dominated the boards in the final 25 minutes, outrebounding the Devils 49-31 in the game.

Additionally, the Panthers continued to deny Duke any fast-break opportunities, making the Devils actually run their halfcourt offense. And Duke actually forced shots — something that never happened in its first 10 games.

After the game, former Dukie — and ESPN announcer — Jay Bilas, said it bluntly:

"This game was about toughness, and Pitt was the tougher team in the Garden."

No doubt about it.

The loss could be a blessing for the Devils, who don't play again until Jan. 6 against Cornell. It brings them down to earth, and Mike Krzyzewski will have a fun time working them hard — more than likely with physically-demanding drills — once they return from a short Christmas break.

But Pitt's dramatic win was a blueprint for how to slow down Duke:

Hit the boards hard, not allowing any second-chance opportunities — Duke had just seven offensive rebounds.

Don't leave 3-point shooters open — Duke made 4-of-19 from behind the arc.

And don't let the Devils run — I can't recall any fast-break points by Duke in the second half. Of course, Pitt's 16 second-chance points in the half helped to slow down the Devils.

Let's not forget, however, we wouldn't even be talking about a Duke loss if not for Fields' big shot.

Yes, Duke now has a loss. But it's difficult to render whether the "L" will hurt or help the Devils more as they head into ACC play.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Pistons remain the beasts of the East


In the early stages of Wednesday's Eastern Conference showdown between 20-2 Boston and 17-7 Detroit, the young point guard was playing better.

He was getting to the basket at will. He was spotting up for mid-range jumpers. He was playing turnover-free basketball, while the veteran — with his new five-year contract — carelessly lost the ball on the other end.

Yes, Boston's Rajon Rondo was the star of the first quarter, helping the Celtics establish a lead they would hold for most of the night.

But the Pistons rarely get blown out, especially in highly-hyped, national-televised games. And such was the case Wednesday.

First, there was 37-year-old point guard Lindsey Hunter harassing Eddie House all the way down the court, creating two turnovers and knocking down a guarded 3 to help Detroit take the lead.

And, finally, there was that veteran PG, the man called "Mr. Big Shot" — a moniker that fit very nicely on this night. After Boston tied the game with two 3-pointers in the final minute, there was Billups, with just a second to get off his shot, giving a most convincing head fake...

And poor Tony Allen. He had no chance. Caught in the air, he fouled Billups at the worst time: with 0.1 left on the clock. Billups is a 91 percent free-throw shooter.

I don't usually pencil in games — especially ones that are tied. But when Billups stepped to the line, I said to my dad — who was on the phone watching from Michigan — "That's the ballgame."

And two free throws later, the Pistons (18-7) remained the Beasts of the East.

Not that any game in December really matters. We all know nothing is proved until May and June. That's why Phoenix could sweep San Antonio during the regular season and I'd still bet my two sofas on the Spurs come the playoffs.

But with both teams playing close to full strength — the Pistons were without rookie guard Rodney Stuckey, who has missed the entire season so far — a lot can be gleaned from the Pistons' 87-85 win.

— These teams, easily the East's best two squads, will be very competitive the rest of the year and into the playoffs. There are too many big-time players on both teams.

— The Pistons should have posted Billups on Rondo more early and often. Likely because of this advantage, Boston coach Doc Rivers pulled Rondo in the final two minutes for House, who also has 3-point range, unlike Rondo, and hit a big one as part of Boston's comeback.

— Detroit was saved by the 3-point shot, making 9-of-20 from downtown. Boston was the more physical team, outrebounding Detroit 37-34 and getting to the basket more often. The Pistons won't always shoot that well from 3-point range.

— The Pistons were able to slow down Kevin Garnett when they put the physical, bulky Jason Maxiell on him. Although Garnett scored a team-high 26 points, he had just five in the fourth, all of which he had to earn from the free-throw line.

— Another reason Detroit was able to hold the Celtics to just 33 second-half points was Tayshaun Prince's defense of Paul Pierce. While Prince was awful offensively (1-of-10, 2 points), he held Boston's leading scorer to 11 points on 5-for-16 shooting. With Prince on Pierce, Maxiell coming in to bang with Garnett, and Richard Hamilton draped over Ray Allen, Detroit can at least contain the Big Three — although Allen was near unstoppable, hitting 9-of-13 contested shots for 24 points.

— Rondo (14 points, 7 assists, 2 turnovers) was very efficient, but as seen by Rivers' late substitution, the coach still doesn't have complete confidence in the second-year player's ability to make the right decisions at the end of a game. But overall, Rondo was impressive.

So there you have it. Before the game, the Celtics admitted that Detroit is still the team to beat in the East, and Wednesday's result doesn't change that.

When the Pistons are on their game and aren't letting their yapping at the referees — they complain about every stinkin' call — get in the way of their execution, they are hard to beat. They're a great road team that isn't flustered by noisy crowds and fourth-quarter deficits.

And, most importantly, they have Mr. Big Shot. Boston doesn't.

In the course of a game, the Big Three might be more effective than Billups. But if he and his teammates can stay in a game until the end, it is worth betting on Billups hitting the winning shot or drawing the crucial foul in the final seconds.

Wednesday's game was unpredictable for the first 47:59. What occurred in the final second, however, wasn't surprising at all. Mr. Big Shot to the rescue.

What a mess


Does anyone even care anymore?

Do modern-day records even have any legitimacy anymore?

Yes, it's gotten to this point.

If it weren't for the Red Sox winning its first World Series in 96 years and the White Sox its first in 98 years, wiping out the past 10 years of baseball wouldn't be a bad idea.


Here's how bad things have gotten for MLB commissioner Bud Selig: Arguably the game's best hitter of all time, Barry Bonds, is generally assumed to have taken steroids and was recently indicted for obstruction of justice and perjury.

And arguably the game's best pitcher, Roger Clemens, looks just as dirty. According to last week's Mitchell report, Clemens had his trainer inject him with Winstrol.

While I'm not jumping to any conclusions, Clemens has done nothing in the week since the report came out to make himself appear innocent. Tuesday, he issued a statement through his lawyer believable as Bonds' countless "I am innocent" statements.

If Clemens were innocent, he would have immediately called a press conference after learning of his name's inclusion in the report. He would have stood up in front of dozens of cameras and told the truth. But, no, instead he said in his heartfelt statement that he will speak at the "appropriate time."

When will that be? Once, of course, Clemens' legal team figures out what can happen to him because of the report's findings.


No matter what scheme Clemens' team puts together, I'm not believing him. He had a chance last week to refute the report. Statements through lawyers don't count. Call me Mike Nifong, but Clemens is guilty.

Which makes him no better than Bonds.

So following that thinking, here we stand in 2007 — with two of the game's greats under a nebulous anvil, not to mention several other high-profile players, such as Andy Pettite who admitted to using HGH twice.

Once, twice, 18 times, it ain't right, Andy. Even if you're supposedly using it to heal from an injury. Yet Pettite's apology, if you can call it that, read (AP), "If what I did was an error in judgment on my part, I apologize. I accept responsibility for those two days."

"If," Andy? C'mon. Illegally obtaining HGH from a trainer isn't exactly a good deed. Who are you trying to kid?

Not only are the guilty players unwilling to stand up for their actions and admit they were 100 percent wrong, Selig thinks he tried everything to keep this from happening.

You serious, Bud?

Let's see. Despite that home-run jacking Summer of '98, when Big Mac launched 70 and Slammin' Sammy added 66 — after hitting 36 the previous season. Despite Bonds' jump from 49 dingers in 2000 to 73 to '01. Despite increased long balls from Miami to Seattle, Selig refused to implement a steroids policy until September of 2002.

And despite revisions before the '05 and '06 seasons, it's still as weak my non-existent triceps (see my previous column, "Baseball needs to follow IOC's lead").

Yet Selig, like Bonds and Clemens, refuses to apologize for what the nation's former pastime became.

In an AP story, Selig said: "I'm proud of where we are. We have the toughest testing program in American sports. We banned amphetamines, which were a problem in our sport for seven or eight decades."

Selig went on to say that minor league drug testing has been in place for eight years now

Yay! Good to know we've been catching the guys who we don't care about anyway. It's not the younger players — the minor league players — who have done the most juicing, Bud. It's the older guys who need that boost to make it through the long season.

And as far as baseball having the "toughest testing program in American sports," who cares?

I hate when people defend themselves through comparative means. Sure, baseball has a stricter policy than the NBA. But I'm sure if David Stern smelled a rising HGH addiction among his players, he'd institute harsh penalties. Heck, Stern regularly suspends players for flagrant fouls even when they appear to be going for the ball.

But back to that other sport.

This isn't going away. Not this year. Not in five years. Maybe not in 10 years. The debate will be heated when Bonds and Clemens become eligible for the Hall of Fame. And when, and if, A-Rod approaches Bonds' home-run record.

I've already suggested a lifelong ban for MLB players who are caught taking steroids or HGH. It won't happen. Players, unfortunately, won't be scared to use the next undetectable product on the market. They won't be afraid of getting caught.

At first I thought the Mitchell report was a good thing, which helped to shed light on baseball's Big Problem and submit suggestions for the future.

Now, I don't know. Now, I don't care.

Being naive is no longer an option. The truth is too transparent.

Baseball, its players, its records and it holy shrine in Cooperstown are all tainted.

And will likely continue to be tainted.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Westbrook's smart move


Brian Westbrook is now — officially — my favorite NFL player.

I’ve never pretended that my 6-foot, 161-pound frame could last a second in the NFL. But I’ve always believed that I could assist a team as a game manager. There are so many situations where I look at the TV and wonder, What was he thinking?

Coaches not using their timeouts. Players running out of bounds when they need to keep the clock running. Players staying in bounds when they need to stop the clock. You get the point.

I’ve seen it all, and although I don’t pretend that — in the heat of battle — I would make the right decision, coaches and players sometimes appear, no offense, so dumb. (And, no, it’s not because many players didn’t graduate from college; it’s common-sense dumb.)

But not Westbrook, the Eagles’ durable running back. He made possibly the smartest play I’ve ever seen on a football field in Philadelphia’s 10-6 upset of Dallas Sunday afternoon. A win that keeps the Eagles, at 6-8, on the fringe of the NFC playoff picture.

Leading 10-6 with just over two minutes remaining, Westbrook broke through the Dallas defense and was in the clear. He was racing toward the end zone. He could have pranced into pay dirt, maybe done a little prancing, maybe taunted the Dallas crowd. You know, the usual for NFL players celebrating touchdowns.

And the Eagles would have been up 17-6 with just 2 minutes remaining. They would have been in great shape to finish off the road victory. But it wouldn’t have been over. Not with Dallas’ offense back on the field.

So what did Westbrook do? The unthinkable. He angered fantasy owners across the country by abruptly falling at the 1-yard line. The voluble Cowboys fans in the bar I was in were incredulous. They called Westbrook all kinds of vulgar names.

But they knew. Everyone knew that Dallas, devoid of timeouts, was officially done when Westbrook hit the Texas Stadium turf. After the 2-minute warning, all it took were three kneel-downs by Donovan McNabb, and the clock hit 0:00.

The chance of Tony Romo, even with a bum thumb, leading Dallas to two scores in 2 minutes is much greater than the chance of McNabb fumbling one of three snaps. I feel very, very safe saying this.

Which is why Westbrook’s decision was so brilliant. It, ultimately, ended the game. Kept T.O. — and his popcorn — on the sideline.

I’m not a big “favorites” guy. Too many guys make silly, sometimes game-costing errors at a point during a 16-game season. Placing the “favorite” tag is downright dangerous.

But I feel comfortable calling Westbrook my favorite NFL player. All it took was one acute, selfless play at the end of a long afternoon in Big D.

More than likely, nobody will talk about Westbrook’s decision after the next day or two. That’s fine.

But the Eagles should be comforted that they have a heady player in their backfield.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Baseball needs to follow IOC's lead


While the "Mitchell Report" received several consecutive hours of coverage on ESPN — and many other networks, both sports and news — throughout Thursday afternoon and well into the evening, the saddest story of this depressing last week in sports (think: Michael Vick, Bobby Petrino, etc.) garnered close to no national attention.

Marion Jones
, one-time superstar, one-time role model for female athletes, one-time holder of five medals, was forced to return those three gold and two bronze medals and was banned from even attending the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and possibly future Summer Games.

Jones' results from the 2000 Sydney Olympics — and from any event since then — have been scrapped by the International Olympic Committee as a result of her admitting in October that she began using steroids before the Games. Basically, a young girl in 50 years who examines Olympic records and medalists won't even know Marion Jones existed.

That's the way to punish a drug user.


Major league baseball commissioner Bud Selig would be wise to follow the IOC's example. Not that that's ever going to happen.

The fallout from the Mitchell Report will be minimal. Selig said he might attempt to punish players on a case-by-case basis. He'd be wise to simply let what's happened go and, instead, refocus on creating a much stronger policy for both anabolic steroids and Human Growth Hormone (and any new performance-enhancing drug that hits the market).

The current initial punishment for a player who tests positive is 15 to 25 games. A second violation is 25 to 50 games. A fourth — yes, fourth! — positive test is at least a year's suspension.

Are you kidding me? So a major leaguer could test positive for, let's say, the cream not, once, not twice but three times ... and be suspended for 50 to 75 games.

No wonder some 85-plus players were named in Mitchell's 409-page report. If I wasn't against cheating and I was in the majors and needed a boost to get that next contract, uh, it's a no-brainer. Have a trainer stick a needle in my backside every now and then, and watch my numbers soar.

In one sentence, baseball's "crackdown" on performance-enhancing drugs to this point has been a joke.

While it was nice to clarify that bullies such as Roger Clemens were on 'roids, all the report does is tell us what we already know and make baseball purists cringe even more than they have during this Steroid Era. As ESPN's "legal analysts" made painfully clear about 409 times Thursday, there are no cases against the players. Donald Fehr, the executive president of the Major League Baseball Players Association, won't let any of his players go down — for even a measly 15 games — without a few Mayweather right and left jabs.

Plus, several of the named players are already retired — good time, I guess — and others, specifically Clemens and Barry Bonds, are likely done now as well.

The only major effect the report will have on the players mentioned is when their names come up in the Hall-of-Fame conversation. And won't that be fun?

If Selig, or anyone in baseball, wants to make a real impact here, he needs to implement a lifetime ban from baseball for any first-time offender of the league's policy. As crazy as this sounds, ask Marion Jones. I'm sure she'd agree.

Players need to fear for their careers when they make the choice to do 'roids. Players need to question themselves when they inject HGH, even though there still isn't a reliable test for it (although Selig is in favor of implementing a rather new blood test starting in 2008).

Ultimately, players need to be sent a stern message that if they get caught taking any amount of any banned substance, that's it. They're done. Regardless of their names. Regardless of their accomplishments on the field.

Is this realistic? Of course not. Fehr will not comply. The players will rage against it, which, I reckon, says so much — sadly — about the priorities of today's players.

Selig promised Thursday to unilaterally implement all of Mitchell's suggestions for the future that he could, and work with Fehr on the rest. Here's another suggestion for you, Bud: Rid of your weak, 15-game suspensions.

Unless you closely follow the IOC's lead on punishment, the rest of the changes you make won't be very effective.

Monday, December 10, 2007

In typical Lions fashion


After I stayed out very late Saturday night, I slept in until 2:48 p.m. Sunday afternoon. Before cursing myself for wasting half the day or trudging to the bathroom to wash my face, I grabbed the bedside remote to check on the Week 14 NFL scores.

The first score I noticed? Detroit 20, Dallas 14 — in the third quarter.

Since I made the Michigan-to-North Carolina jump the first week of October, I hadn't seen one Lions game. Of course, usually that's a good thing, but not when the alternative is watching the dull Panthers. And something told me, after my long hibernation, that this was one Lions game I didn't want to miss.

So instead of reading the Sunday paper or cooking myself some eggs, I bolted out the door and drove the 8.3 miles to Buffalo Wild Wings — the dream spot for NFL fans. When I entered, every early game had its own TV. The Cowboys-Lions battle had gained access to one of the big screens (mostly because of the number of 'Boys fans in attendance).

There was one other Lions fan in the joint, and as I took the only available seat and introduced myself to a grizzly, likes-to-swear Giants fan, the other Lions rooter pounded fists with me. Could the 6-6 Lions knock off the NFC's elite, the 11-1 Cowboys? Could thy get that win that might just sneak them in the playoffs?

We wanted to be witnesses. It's not every year a Lions game during the Holiday Season actually matters. Usually by the time my family mounts the tree, the Lions have 11 losses in their back pocket.

So this Sunday was special. Until, that is, the game ended.

In typical Lions fashion.

First there was the missed field goal. Jason "Automatic" Hanson — the MVP of the team for the past 10-plus years — pushed a gimme 35-yard attempt to the right that would have given Detroit a two-possession lead, 30-21.

Then there was the booted fumble. On Dallas' game-winning drive in the waning moments, quarterback Tony Romo was stripped of the ball, which bounced directly toward Lion Paris Lenon. All he had to do was fall on the ball, and the timeout-less 'Boys would be done, sauteed, boiled. But, instead, Lenon tried to scoop up the pigskin and kicked it directly to a Dallas lineman. Who knew what to do.

From there, the rest of the Lions' demise was all too predictable. As I sat watching, there was no rally cap, no superstitious move I could make to change the ending. Dallas converted a fourth down. Romo guided them down to the Detroit 16-yard line.

And, finally, he completed the inevitable with a touchdown pass down the middle to super tight end Jason Witten, who caught a team-record 15 balls on the day but somehow raced untouched to pay dirt on the game's most important play.

A terrible kickoff return, two incompletions and a sack later, the comeback was complete. Dallas had outscored Detroit 14-0 in the fourth quarter — in Detroit — to win 28-27. This one had to hurt the most of the hundreds of losses the Lions have sustained in recent memory.

In my 2007 NFL Preview, I predicted six wins for the Lions. I didn't, however, expect them to arrive at that number in this fashion. Five weeks ago, after Detroit drilled Denver 44-7, my friend texted me, saying the Lions would make the playoffs. I wanted to agree with him, really did, but I knew this franchise too well.

Now, the Lions are toast. With games at San Diego next week and at Green Bay the season's final week — sandwiched around a home game against the awful Chiefs — there's no way Detroit wins its remaining three games, which is almost certainly what it needs to do to play into January.

It still might surpass my expectation of six wins. And, I must admit, this team has been better on several levels than I expected. Except for a few duds, the offense has been as explosive as advertised. The defense has shown up on occasion. And no "Fire Millen" marches have occurred outside Ford Field.

But there are no moral victories in the NFL. The bottom line is how many games you win. And for the eighth consecutive season, it appears the Lions are headed for familiar territory — a seat in front of the TV during the playoffs.

As I left "B-dubs" late Sunday afternoon, with the North Carolina sun beginning to set, I could only shake my head and smile. Why, I wondered, did I squander the first two hours of my day to watch the same old story?

Not to mention have to listen to the cigarette-wielding, voluble Giants fan spout off about Plaxico Burress until I had to turn my chair.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Successful farm system has paid off for Tigers


Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch deserves a new Porsche for his willingness to continually increase the Tigers' payroll the last few years in a valiant effort to push his team to its first World Series title since 1984.

With the addition of All-Stars Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis from the Marlins Tuesday, Detroit's payroll — once the new additions are secured through long-term contracts — will likely exceed $115 million. In 2003, when the Tigers hit rock bottom with 119 losses, their payroll was $49,168,000.

Yes, Ilitch must have won the lottery between then and now — or just become a much more willing spender. Of course, the greatly increased attendance (and, now, raised ticket prices) helps. But his open wallet has been a big key in Detroit becoming one of the American League's elite teams.

However, money doesn't make trades happen. It only attracts dollar-seeking free agents. And if you look at the Tigers' now-explosive lineup, several of the big hitters have been acquired through trades.

How have the Tigers made these trades? By giving up prospect after prospect from a highly successful farm system that continues to develop sought-after players.

Here's the projected lineup for 2008 (not necessarily in the right order): CF Curtis Granderson, 2B Placido Polanco, 3B Miguel Cabrera, RF Magglio Ordonez, DH Gary Sheffield, 1B Carlos Guillen, SS Edgar Renteria, LF Jacque Jones, C Ivan Rodriguez.

Granderson is the lone player in that lineup who came up from the Tigers farm system. Ordonez (2005) and Rodriguez ('04) are the two players Ilitch snagged in free agency by offering big money.

The remaining six players, five of whom have been All-Stars at some point during their careers, all came to Detroit via trades. And for the most part, the teams that dealt them weren't ripped off. They received several promising players in return.

In 2004, the Tigers received Guillen from Seattle for Ramon Santiago and minor league shortstop Juan Gonzalez. At the time, Guillen was an average shortstop. Since then, obviously, he's become an All-Star.

In one of just two moves that didn't involve minor leaguers, in 2005 Detroit acquired Polanco from Philadelphia for closer Ugueth Urbina and infielder Ramon Martinez. That deal has turned out to be completely one-sided as Polanco might be the league's best second baseman while neither player acquired by the Phillies still plays for them.

After the magical 2006 season, Detroit didn't relax, trading three highly touted minor league pitchers — Humberto Sanchez, Kevin Whelan and Anthony Claggett — to the Yankees for Sheffield. While Sheffield had a difficult time playing hurt down the stretch last season, when he's healthy, his bat is as dangerous as anybody's.

Then immediately after missing the playoffs in 2007, the Tigers went to work on filling their holes. With Guillen moving to first, they needed a top-notch shortstop, so they parted with very promising young pitcher Jair Jurrjens and highly touted minor league outfielder Gorkys Hernandez to land Renteria from Atlanta.

Then, less than two weeks later, Detroit traded utility player Omar Infante to the Cubs for Jones.

And finally, there was Tuesday's mega deal. There hadn't been any talk whatsoever of the Tigers going after Cabrera, but in swooped general manager Dave Dombrowski, sending six players to the Marlins for the All-Star third baseman and Willis, a 20-game winner in 2005.

The deal was huge for the Tigers because it erased their one tangible weak spot in the lineup. Brandon Inge was a great defensive third baseman, but he struggled mightily at the plate for the Tigers. Cabrera, just 24, is a huge upgrade at the position.

Willis, 25, who has had two down years since that dominant 2005 campaign, will feel the burden of being a No. 1 lifted from his shoulders as he'll be placed in the middle or even at the back of a Tigers rotation that — barring injury (always a big concern) — could have a huge season.

So how did Detroit get this deal done in a matter of nanoseconds? All it had to do was offer its prized prospects to the always-rebuilding Marlins. Detroit parted with lauded outfielder Cameron Maybin as well as ultra-talented pitcher Andrew Miller. Gone also are backup catcher Mike Rabelo and three lesser-known minor league pitchers.

Some are questioning whether the Tigers gave up too much in the deal. And I hear their concerns. I felt the same way a year ago after the Sheffield trade. But the bottom line is that Detroit continues to grow potential All-Stars in the minors, whom it is able to trade for proven All-Stars.

And it's not as if the well's now completely dry. Let's not forget about last year's draft choice Rick Porcello, a very talented pitcher whom other teams weren't willing to fork over the big bucks to like the Tigers did immediately after making the selection (a record $7.3 million over four years).

Now it's up to the players to get the job done. Ownership and management have done everything a manager could ask for to build this team into a championship-caliber club. The lineup is stacked. The starting pitching is stacked. The closer, Todd Jones, has been re-signed (probably for too much money, but it had to be done considering the injury to Joel Zumaya).

The pieces are in place for a memorable 2008.

Jim Leyland and his players can address their Christmas cards to Ilitch, Dombrowski and the coaches in the minor leagues who helped the growth of all the trade bait used to bring this All-Star cast to the Motor City.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

What a wild, juicy ending


Caution: The following sentence contains several colorful adjectives, one made up.

This has been the most crazy, nutty, delirious, exciting, stupefying, unpredictable, exceptional, incredulous, rollercoaster-riding college football season.

Ever. Period. I feel confidant saying this, despite the fact that I wasn't on this earth for the first, oh, 100 years of college football.

This year tops them all. I guarantee it.

And now the politicking begins. After No. 1 Missouri and No. 2 West Virginia became the final top teams to have their hearts broken Saturday, we are left with the following.

Barring an uprising by voters, No. 3 Ohio State will be in the national title game for the second consecutive year. People said the Buckeyes didn't have a chance after losing to Illinois three Saturdays ago. I just laughed. There remained plenty of football to be played. The best thing happened to OSU the following week after its win over Michigan. Its season ended.

The longer teams played, the more pitfalls they faced. Last season, the Big Ten's Michigan paid for finishing its season early, as Florida continued to impress for two additional weeks and leaped the Wolverines. This year, the Wolverines' hated rival got a pinch of BCS revenge for the Big Ten.

After Ohio State, the volcano explodes. I can make a legitimate case for — let me check — six teams. OK, here goes:

No. 4 Georgia (10-2) — The biggest knock against the Bulldogs is they didn't play in the SEC title game. They were an overthrown pass by Kentucky's Andre' Woodson against Tennessee last week from playing LSU this week in that title game. But, alas, that's how this season's progressed. Georgia can point to six wins to close the season — isn't that the way things work? Whoever is playing best at the end of the year gets the benefit of the voters? — including impressive victories over Florida, Auburn and Kentucky.

No. 5 Kansas (11-1) — Here's what you say if you're a Jayhawks fan: "We played a Big 12 schedule, and we lost only one game. You think our non-conference schedule (Central Michigan, Southeast Louisiana, Toledo, Florida International) is weak? Well, compare it to Ohio State's (Youngstown State, Akron, Washington, Kent State). At least Central Michigan won its conference — the MAC — and is headed to a bowl. None of the Buckeyes' non-conference opponents are going bowling, and only one has a winning record, and that's Football Championship Subdivision YSU." I doubt anyone outside of Kansas believe the Jayhawks are better than the Buckeyes — or LSU, for that matter — but they have just one loss. OSU and Hawaii are the only other teams with less than two L's.

No. 6 Virginia Tech (11-2) — Hey, why not us? The Hokies entered Saturday No. 6 in the BCS, and they beat No. 11 Boston College. Shouldn't that mean anything? Shouldn't three wins over ranked opponents mean something? Plus, after the tragedy that happened last April, how appropriate would it be for the Hokies to play in the national title game, showing the nation what they're made of?

No. 7 LSU (11-2) — The Tigers have the best case to face the Buckeyes. Their two losses both occurred in triple overtime — about as close as you can come to winning ... without winning. Also, they finished the season with a win — not to mention, a win over a ranked team (No. 14 Tennessee). They played in the toughest conference and played six ranked teams, including drubbing Virginia Tech way back in September — when the college football season was still on its axis. Everyone has said since Stanford stunned USC in October that LSU is the best team in the country. So why not now?

No. 8 USC (10-2) — So what if the Trojans beat just two teams that currently have winning records? So what if they lost to 4-8 Stanford ... at home? These are the mighty Trojans, and they come in on roll, having won three straight games — two against ranked teams. Plus, in a season like this, isn't it appropriate that the team which began the season No. 1, end the season No. 1?

No. 9 Oklahoma (11-2) — The Sooners have the second strongest case. They won their conference championship game in dominant fashion, smoking No. 1 Missouri Saturday night — their second win over the Tigers. They also beat Texas when the Longhorns were No. 19. Their losses were a 27-24 meltdown at Colorado and a 34-27 defeat at Texas Tech minus — for most of thee game — their stud freshman quarterback, Sam Bradford. Above everything else, the Sooners were the most impressive team on the final Saturday of the season. Isn't that what's supposed to determine the national champion (see: Florida, last season)?

Stream of consciousness: Um, oh, I think I'm forgetting a team. That's right! The team playing right now. The lone undefeated team — as of this moment — in Division I. The Hawaii Rainbow. They're currently down at halftime to Washington, but if they can come back to finish 12-0, they're hard to ignore. They beat a good — and ranked — Boise State team. They defeated 8-4 Fresno State, which lost by just two points to the Big 12's Texas A&M, which beat Texas...

And so the debates go on late into the night. As for the coaches of the above teams, I'm sure they're preparing their speeches to make for their teams in the hours leading up to Sunday night's announcement. Last season, Florida's Urban Meyer showed off his political side after his Gators won the SEC title game. The voters listened, pushing Florida ahead of Michigan.

So with the presidential election still 11 months away, the candidates' parties may want to listen to the coaches' pitches in the hours to come. Some of them could be positive additions to a candidate's campaign.

No, folks, the BCS system is very flawed. Something needs to be done, that can't be denied. But that shouldn't have kept you from enjoying this college football season. From witnessing Appalachian State's stunner in the Big House first hand, to sprinting back and forth between the kitchen and the TV at the hotel I work at to witness Pittsburgh's stunner of West Virginia, this has been an unforgettable autumn of college football.

A wild 14-week playoff, if you will.