Sunday, September 27, 2009

Michigan not great, but learning how to win


Watching the Michigan football team Saturday, it was clear that they're not a great team, not a national-title contender, probably not a team that will win the Big Ten title.

There were missed tackles, poor communication on offense, and, overall, just mediocre play against an an Indiana team they should have beaten by three touchdowns at home.

The Wolverines, I'd say, are just about appropriately ranked in the low 20s of the national rankings.

But the one thing that stands out about this year's group, and could even make them achieve more than their talent might dictate, is that they know how to win. That can't be undervalued.

Especially during conference play, there are going to be ugly games, there are going to be turnover-infested affairs, the going will rarely be smooth regardless of whether Ohio State or Northwestern is on the opposite sideline.

That's why knowing how to win tight games and having an unyielding belief in one another is so key.

The Wolverines, in September of 2009, have developed that confidence.

And it all starts with their freshman quarterback Tate Forcier. Sure, coach Rich Rodriguez has done a good job of galvanizing his players and getting them to mesh well together.

But confidence is gained between the sidelines, and Forcier has led the charge. Saturday's 36-33, come-from-behind-several-times victory over the lowly Hoosiers was a prime example.

Due to extenuating circumstances, I didn't catch the first 20 minutes of the game, during which each team scored two touchdowns to set the stage for a wild day. But according to accounts from my Dad and my man Tick, both avid Wolverines fans, Forcer "played like a freshman" (Dad) and didn't look like he belonged on the field, to paraphrase what Tick said.

That's why, apparently after a terrible Forcier interception, the first two series I watched featured the speedy, flashy Denard Robinson playing QB. Now I love Robinson, but he still is very shaky as a passer. And Michigan wasn't about to win, even against the Hoosiers, just by running the ball.

The Wolverines would have to throw it, and Forcier is the man for that.

So back he came in the second half, and in the fourth quarter he showed, just like he had two weeks earlier against Notre Dame, why he's such a winner — he makes the plays when they're needed most.

Overall, it might have been his worst game as a Wolverine. But two times in the final period, he took Michigan on scoring drives (of 70 and 52 yards) to regain the advantage.

On the first drive, he made an Elway-type play, fearlessly diving over a couple defenders into the green, plush end zone for the score on third down. Not only that, but he followed it up by running the two-point conversion in on a QB draw after a penalty pushed the Wolverines 5 yards back.

(It can be argued that Forcier also risked the Wolverines' season by subjecting his body to such a beating. He'll have to be smarter about taking such hits as the Big Ten season heats up.)

And on Michigan's final scoring drive, Forcier fought off pain from a bruised shoulder to lead the Wolverines down into Indiana territory before throwing a perfect, lofted (possibly painful?) pass right into the bread basket of Martavious Odoms for the winning score.

The defense finished the job.

So Michigan is 4-0. Meanwhile, Ohio State and Penn State — both national-title contenders at the season's beginning — have losses. Does that mean Michigan's better than the conference's favorites?

Um, no.

But what we've learned — and it's very educational, sports fans — is that unlike a year ago, or even a couple years ago under Lloyd Carr, Michigan has a team that absolutely knows how to finish the job no matter how ugly the process may have been.

In the coming weeks, we'll learn just how good, and tough, these Wolverines are. We'll finally get to see them play road games the next two weeks at hurting rival Michigan State and Iowa, fresh off an upset win at Penn State.

The young Wolverines will really have to show their mettle, and cohesiveness, in those two tough environments.

And the results of those games? Who knows. Could be two W's, could be two L's.

Michigan didn't hurt its chances, however, during the first month of the season by learning, within the confines of the Big House, what winning is all about.

Led by their precocious, forgets-about-past-mistakes quarterback.

Who will need to stay healthy and on the field for the W's to continue piling up.

Friday, September 18, 2009

For Grizzlies, winning has a different meaning


Forgive me for making assumptions, but the Memphis Grizzlies are not going to win the NBA championship in the next year, or two years, or three years or four.

Sorry, Memphis fans.

In fact, they won't even make the playoffs.

In fact fact, they probably won't win 40 games in any of the next few years.

What they will do, at least for a while, is actually garner respectable crowds at the FedExForum.

They can thank Allen Iverson for that.

Because that's what the 34-year-old, journeyman guard does: He dazzles, he razzles, he does a little bit of this and a little bit of that -- and some fans like that.

(Me personally? I'd rather hit up YouTube for such pyrotechnics and save my ticket money for an enjoyable night at the local pub.)

But here's what Iverson won't do for the Grizzlies -- help them win more games. Which, to me, makes this signing so damn confounding.

Take a look at Memphis' roster. The Grizzlies actually have a couple players to build around in small forward Rudy Gay and shooting guard O.J. Mayo. And they're hoping point guard Mike Conley proves this season that he can be a starting PG in the Association.

The smart play would be to build around the three young play-makers with savvy veterans who know how to win and can share that knowledge with the talented but losses-burdened kids.

(Oh, and I forgot to mention center Mark Gasol, who still has a lot of developing to do, but is only 24 and has plenty of potential.)

Bring in a P.J. Brown, a Cuttino Mobley, don't pay him much, and tell him to teach the team's future how to win.

That makes a lot of sense to me.

So, of course, being the management group that traded Pau Gasol to the Lakers for, um, nothing, Memphis dedicated its summer to recruiting a player who has never, really, been called a winner.

Sure, Iverson took the 76ers to the 2001 Finals, but if you listen to his former teammates -- who all sacrificed a lot to stand in the background while he took center stage -- they could have won a lot more if he wasn't such a selfish, ball-hogging player.

Since then, only one of his teams -- out of eight seasons spent between Philadelphia, Denver and Detroit -- has made it past the first round of the playoffs, and he's been on some supposedly good squads.

In Denver, he and Carmelo Anthony led the league in scoring for long stretches of two seasons -- and they looked listless in back-to-back first-round defeats.

And in Detroit, he almost single-handily ruined a cast that had made six consecutive Eastern Conference finals, relegating the Pistons to first-round trash for the Cavaliers to dispose of with little to no worries.

So tell me, does this player sound like someone who will magically appear in Memphis for training camp -- just barely on time, it's expected by the way, after a commitment in Europe -- and turn a team that hasn't won more than 24 games the past three seasons into a winner?

Forget about it.

Iverson will score plenty of points, he'll draws "wows" from fans after some of his moves, and he'll help the front office sell thousands of tickets.


He'll also take bad shots, keep the Grizzlies from developing offensive rhythm, be nothing special on defense, and probably bicker, at least internally, if he's brought off the bench and plays minimal minutes (which, at this point, would be the smart thing to do).

Add selfish malcontent Zach Randolph, who averaged 17.4 shots per games last season in just 50 nights on the hardwood, to the mix, and this franchise will be stuck in neutral for at least this season.

When the focus should be on developing the young players, including No. 2 draft pick Hasheem Thabeet -- who has a lot of work to do to become a serviceable NBA player -- it'll instead be on a guy who has already written his legacy.

I'm all for feel-good, late-career success stories, but one won't be happening for Allen Iverson in Memphis -- or anywhere else, for that matter.

There's a reason the top-tier teams didn't even show a vague interest in signing the 2001 MVP.

Memphis would be smart to take a look at the types of players San Antonio, Boston and L.A. sign.

Then maybe the Grizzlies could improve in a category other than ticket sales.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

2009 NFL Preview

**Editor's Note: Due to time constraints, I had to finish this after the opening-night game. But believe me (or don't). That didn't change my picks.


Heading into this long-awaited NFL season -- seriously, it seems like the buildup has lasted for, like, 67 days -- the odds are stacked against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Forget the fact that the defending champions return, basically, their entire team and coaching staff. Recent history dictates that they'll become complacent and struggle, even, to make the playoffs.

Since the Patriots won back-to-back Super Bowls to conclude the 2003 and '04 seasons, champions have flopped the seasons following their titles.

So the Steelers will do the same, right? We don't know in what fashion, but things won't go close to as planned in the Steel City, correct? Most national pundits seem to be buying this idea, going with the masses.

I ain't hopping aboard the bandwagon.

The Steelers will repeat as champions.

Simple as that.

Obviously, it won't be easy. But when is it ever?

On paper, however, they have the most talent. And a coaching staff that won't let hype get to any player.

That's the recipe for continued success.

So how will the season transpire? Here's my last-minute preview. I'm pretty sure, of course, that everything I say will happen is true.

So lay down your bets (and, by the way, don't listen to a word I say):


North Division
1. Green Bay Packers (11-5): The transition to the 3-4 defense will be smoother than most think, and the offense will be as explosive as ever. Who needs No. 4?

*2. Minnesota Vikings (10-6): The Packers made a good choice, and so did the Vikings. Favre won't play every game, but he, and Tarvaris Jackson, will do enough to complement A.P. and sneak into the postseason.

3. Chicago Bears (9-7): Jay Cutler is definitely an upgrade at QB, and he'll help balance the offense, but a lack of big-play WRs will keep the Bears from being as explosive as the rival Packers.

4. Detroit Lions (3-13): There will be improvement -- but only a little. Lions fans can only hope that Matthew Stafford improves throughout the season and has as sunny of an outlook come dreary January in Michigan.

East Division

1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5): Not everything will be perfect -- think McNabb-Vick tension -- but there's way too much talent and good coaching to not hold on to the division.

*2. New York Giants (10-6): The lack of a big-play downfield guy will hinder the G-Men and allow opponents to put eight in the box, but Brandon Jacobs will still plow his way to his best-ever season and the defense will win some games by itself.

3. Dallas Cowboys (8-8): For the first time in a few years, Dallas won't be one of the organizations that gets a lot of the league's attention (and time on ESPN). In fact, the new stadium's scoreboard will earn as much of the pub as the team. That's not necessarily a good thing.

4. Washington Redskins (6-10): Not every team in this super-competitive division can have a winning record. The Redskins might be a playoff team in the West, but with a shaky passing game and not as good of a defense, they'll lose several close games.

South Division
1. Atlanta Falcons (10-6): Just about everyone's back and Tony Gonzalez is added. What's not to like? The key pieces are all young and gaining confidence. And the expectations are raised. This is a playoff team for sure.

2. Carolina Panthers (9-7): The running game will, once again, be solid, but Jake Delhomme's not getting any better. And the defense is starting to age.

3. New Orleans Saints (9-7): It's a shame that a Drew Brees-led team can't do better, but the defense still isn't very impressive. And Pierre Thomas' injury isn't encouraging.

4. Tampa Bay Bucannears (6-10): This team will still be very competitive, but members of the new-look offense will take half the season to gel. And most of the six wins will come in November and December.

West Division
1. Seattle Seahawks (9-7): In the ugly West, the Seahawks will win ugly -- but win. Tim Hasselbeck will stay healthy and benefit from an improved and, yes, healthy corps of WRs. That'll be just enough to make the postseason.

2. Arizona Cardinals (8-8): The Super Bowl jinx will definitely hit this team, which is primed for a letdown. Kurt Warner won't make it through the season alive, and Matt Leinart won't be prepared to step in and perform. The defense will give up a ton of points.

3. San Francisco 49ers (6-10: They'll ride their running game to a handful of victories against mediocre teams -- many of them within the division -- but struggle against non-division opponents.

4. St. Louis Rams (5-1l): Steven Jackson will actually have some holes to run through, but that doesn't mean the Rams will leap into playoff contention. There is still a dearth of talent at most positions.


East Division
1. New England Patriots (11-5): Tom Brady is back, and that's about six wins right there. Sure, the defense is getting old and has some holes, but we'll be hearing Brady-to-Moss every week.

2. New York Jets (7-9): Look for the Jets to improve throughout the season as people -- from the coaches to the players -- get on the same page and gain confidence in each other. The building process will make strides under Rex Ryan.

3. Miami Dolphins (6-10): Tony Soprano's first-year magic will lose some luster with a subpar nucleus of running backs and big-play skill guys. Some of those close wins from a year ago will become L's.

4. Buffalo Bills (5-11): This could get ugly -- on the sidelines. T.O. will not be happy with Trent Edwards, and that'll create unpleasant discourse. It'll also cost Dick Jauron his job.

North Division
1. Pittsburgh (13-3): Everyone's back and Big Ben is one of the NFL's top three quarterbacks. What's not to like? This team has already put last season behind it and is hungry for another championship.

*2. Baltimore (10-6): The Ravens are for real, and they'll feast on the division's bottom-feeders along with the Steelers. Expect a strong running game to be complemented by an even more confident Joe Flacco who will open it up a bit more in his second season.

3. Cincinnati Bengals (6-10: Carson Palmer's return will give the offense a bit of life, but this team, as a whole, is a mess that can't be fixed by one, or two, players.

4. Cleveland Browns (4-12): The Bengals might be bad, but the Browns will be worse. Points will be hard to come by, especially with such a late decision on who the starting quarterback will be. The defense is nothing special, either.

South Division
1. Indianapolis Colts (11-5): The Colts are under the radar entering the season, and I'm sure they're happy with that. In addition, I'm positive Peyton Manning will be as ready as ever to lead this team back into the conversation. He's still got plenty of weapons to use toward achieving that.

*2. Tennessee Titans (10-6): The Titans will suffer from some close losses against teams that are simply more efficient in end-game scenarios, but they remain rock-solid on defense and Kerry Collins will do enough to lead them back to the playoffs.

3. Houston Texans (9-7): This team has a bunch of talented skill players on both sides of the ball, and you know no franchise is itching more to make the playoffs. But they're still a bit soft, and they're in a division chock-full of teams that know how to slug out ugly games.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (7-9): David Garrard is one of the league's most underrated QBs, but he simply lacks the skill players to get it done every week. The defense, which fell apart last year, will be improved but not dominant.

West Division
1. San Diego Chargers (12-4): If the Chargers don't roll to this division title, they're hopeless. There is no way they shouldn't win it by a few games. L.T. is healthy, Philip Rivers is in his prime, the defense is stacked. Enough said.

2. Denver Broncos (6-10): I know this team has all kinds of issues, but I still like it more than the Chiefs and Raiders. If Brandon Marshall behaves himself, Kyle Orton will have a nice pair of wideouts to sling it to.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (5-11): Matt Cassel's first year in K.C. won't be smooth. For one, there's a lack of targets to throw to (no Randy Moss or even Tony Gonzalez). Secondly, he's got a malcontent, L.J., in his backfield. I guess that's why they're paying him the big bucks.

4. Oakland Raiders (3-13): Give me one reason why the Raiders will win more than three games? Seriously. They have a very raw, struggling quarterback. Their running back of the future can't hold onto the ball. And their owner's senile. Yeah, No. 1 pick coming right up.


Wild Card round

(3) Minnesota def. (6) Atlanta
(5) N.Y. Giants def. (4) Seattle

(3) New England def. (6) Tennessee
(4) Indianapolis def. (5) Baltimore

Divisional round
(1) Philadelphia def. (5) N.Y. Giants
(2) Green Bay def. (3) Minnesota

(1) Pittsburgh def. (4) Indianapolis
(3) New England def. (2) San Diego

NFC Championship
Philadelphia 27, Green Bay 18: The Eagles will get enough big plays from their passing game and "trickeration" and win the turnover battle to get to the game they should have made a year ago.

AFC Championship
Pittsburgh 20, New England 16: Brady and Co. will be able to move the ball, but the Steelers' tough-stuff defense will stiffen in the red zone, holding the Pats to field goals. And when the fourth quarter rolls around, Big Ben will be the Q.B. taking his team on the game-winning drive.

Pittsburgh 26, Philadelphia 17: In the Battle for Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh will win a year's worth of free cheese steaks for bringing home a second consecutive championship. Big Ben deservedly will take home MVP honors for another heroic performance in place of a dismal running game. The Eagles will have chances, but squander them with turnovers and remain a franchise without a single title to boast.

The Steelers will fly back west, relatively speaking, with No. 7.

Monday, September 7, 2009

For Michigan and Rodriguez, winning cures everything


Throughout Michigan's 31-7 shellacking of Western Michigan Saturday, the ABC cameras panned the Big House and settled on several "In Rod We Trust" signs.

There was an outpouring of support for the coach, who was coming off a disastrous 3-9 season, several legal issues and, most recently, allegations that he and his staff broke NCAA rules about hours allowed to work players.

Rodriguez has had his doubters, and, I'm sure, still has some. But there was nothing but love in the air for the embattled coach Saturday.

I wonder why...

Um, maybe because his players were kicking butt?

If you noticed, ABC didn't show many shots of the supportive signs until, 5 minutes into the rout, the Wolverines scored their first touchdown. From there, Michigan fans had no worries. After a quick second score, the outcome was never in doubt.

Would the sign holders have used their arm muscles to show them off if the Wolverines were losing? Or struggling?

Probably not.

Which brings me to the obvious thesis statement of this column: Winning cures everything.

Even at Michigan.

Anyone who thinks the Wolverines' program is more pure than the Ohio States and Floridas and Miamis of the college-football world is either joking around or nice and naive.

The Wolverines fully adopted the win-at-almost-any-cost philosophy when they put down the large down payment to snag Rodriguez from West Virginia and then paid a large chunk of his buyout from his old school.

So far, each of his four victories has been worth about, oh, $700,000.

His success, and job security, at Michigan will be judged solely on how much that cash-per-victory number decreases.

Yes, there is an ongoing investigation into the claims former and current players made about the amount of time spent practicing during the season and offseason. Maybe something will be discovered, maybe Rodriguez will have to explain himself (in other words, tell the truth).

But if Michigan's winning, if the Wolverines are in the Top 25, if they're back to competing for Big Ten titles, it won't matter. Athletic director Bill Martin is a businessman, and he knows what brings in the big bucks from boosters.


He, like the rest of us, knows that Rodriguez can coach. Let me add to that: can coach really well. He's also a zealous recruiter.

So once the W's start rolling in week after week, and once his spread offense resembles what it did at West Virginia, that'll be all we'll hear about from anyone associated with the university.

It'll be all that really matters.

I mean, consider the reactions in and around Ann Arbor after beating a MAC team. If the Wolverines can take down Notre Dame, all this other stuff will be nothing more than flotsam.

All in the past.

And if Michigan beats Ohio State...

Rodriguez is no saint and is, undoubtedly in my mind, guilty of many things. But he's capable of coaching Michigan to large handfuls of victories.

And in today's college-football world, that's all that really matters.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

How far will UM let Rodriguez go?


So Rich Rodriguez proved he can get emotional Monday.

The Michigan coach cried heartfelt tears. He made it clear that he cares about his players. It wasn't Rich-Rod like you normally see him.

But don't let the coach's emotional moment fool you. Since he stepped foot in Ann Arbor, he's been about one thing — winning. If that means isolating some players, so be it. If it means breaking a few of the NCAA's rules, ones that aren't exactly followed strictly by many BCS programs, so be it.

Rodriguez has never been a players' coach, has never been a coach determined to graduate his players.

And, really, he can't be blamed for this. In today's top level of college football, only one thing provides job security, and it has nothing to do with keeping second-string players happy.

Maybe Bill Martin and company were ignorant, but they had to have a decent idea of what they were getting into when they hired Rodriguez, who immediately became embroiled in a buyout dispute with West Virginia upon leaving the Mountaineers program.

No more Lloyd Carrs were coming to town, no more coaches who, seemingly, were able to live a balanced life while still running a nationally competitive Division I program.

The Michigan administration then watched as Rodriguez was in charge of the Wolverines' worst season — ever. And they rightly supported him, and his coaching staff, through the misery of the three months.

After all, no coach — who is running a program correctly and within bounds — deserves to be given up on after a year. Or even two years. At least three seasons are needed to implement a style, get new players and reach expectations.

But all that is thrown out the window when violations occur. And now that Rodriguez, and his coaches, face allegations about overtaxing players' practice hours — by a lot — his job can't be considered safe.

To simplify, if Michigan's investigation verifies what current and former players said about the Wolverines being forced to spend way more than the allotted 20 hours a week during the season and eight hours during the offseason on football, then Rodriguez has to be fired.

Allowing him to stay after such violations would speak terribly about what college football's winningest program has become.

Just another school willing to do anything, within bounds or not, to win.

Actually, Martin and company aren't in the worst position. Especially if this season's team isn't great — and nobody expects that — he could use performance on the field as part of the reason for Rodriguez's dismissal (even if it's really all about the violations).

Michigan could escape this short era, call the hiring a poor decision, and move on to a safer choice that would, undoubtedly, yield better results off the field and, most likely, on them — unless the Wolverines come out of the woodwork to put together a great record this fall.

Crisis could be averted.

But that's far down the road. For now, it's pretty evident, if the allegations are true — and why wouldn't they be? The athletes have no reasons to lie — that Rodriguez is as dirty a coach as there is in the country.

He does whatever it takes, and pushes his players beyond their limits — ultimately resulting in some of them transferring — to win as many games as possible.

Last season, obviously, that didn't work. If it had, this probably wouldn't be as big of a story (though, still, notable).

If Rodriguez knew best, he would have realized from the 3-9 record that sometimes overworking players — in essence, turning them into full-time college-football players — isn't always the best recipe for success.

He could have learned a lesson from his predecessor, Carr, whom former players vouched for, never broke a single NCAA rule.

Winning lots of games, Rodriguez should know, can be done within the rules.