December 20, 2008

NFC East Exposed Again

For the first few weeks of each season it seems we are fed the same line about how dominant the NFC East is. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the fact that Philadelphia, New York, and Washington are three of the largest football TV markets, and Dallas has a huge national following. This season was worse than usual, with all four teams deemed to be playoff contenders.

Now we're at the end of the season, and the same mediocre turdpile has emerged. The Redskins, Cowboys and Eagles are all average teams at best, inflated by the good fortune of drawing the NFC West on this year's schedule. Without Brandon Jacobs and Plaxico Burress, the Giants are on the same level. Early on, the AFC North was supposed to be fodder for a quartet of 10-win teams, but those killing fields have put up a much tougher fight than expected. Here is the breakdown:

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3)
@ PHI, L 15-6
v. NYG, L L 21-14
@ WAS, W 23-6
v. DAL, W 20-13

Baltimore Ravens (10-5)
@ NYG, L 30-10
v. PHI, W 36-7
v. WAS, W 24-10
@ DAL, W 33-24

Cleveland Browns (4-10)
v. DAL, L 28-10
v. NYG, W 35-14
@ WAS, L 14-11
@ PHI, L 30-10

Cincinnati Bengals (2-11-1)
@NYG, L 26-23
@ DAL, L 31-22
v. PHI, T 13-13
v. WAS, W 20-13

Overall AFC North Record v. NFC East - 7-8-1
Point Differential for AFC North - +15
AFC North overall record - 27-29-1
NFC East overall record - 35-21-1

So what explains the NFC East's significantly better record? The Giants are 4-0 against the NFC West (combined record: 18-38), the Cowboys are 2-2 (0-2 against Arizona and St. Louis without Romo), the Eagles are 4-0, and the Redskins are 2-1 (close season @San Francisco).

The other factor involves the two NFC teams from the South and North each East team draws based on last year's records. The Redskins were lucky to match records with the Saints and Lions (2-0), drawing the Saints at home and the Lions on the "road", both of whom are significantly worse than last year's record. The Giants still have both theirs (Car, @Min). Dallas went a legitimate 2-0 (@GB, TB). Philly lost at Chicago and beat Atlanta at home. Against their NFC counterparts, the NFC East is presently 5-1, with those opponents sporting a combined 38-46 record.

So once again we approach Week 17, and the NFC East is not looking particularly scary. The Giants are the only legitimate contender in the division, when healthy, and they're not. The NFC East is not even guaranteed a wild card right now, with Tampa Bay and Atlanta poised to take the spots.
This is J-Red reminding you that the numbers never lie, even if your girlfriend does. I'm looking at you Tony Romo.

College Football Picks - Bowls

After a rather successful regular season, it's time to choose the best betting options from the bowl season. With 34 bowls to choose from, there are certainly plenty of choices.

BYU (+3) over ARIZONA - People aren't giving the Mountain West enough credit, and I'm not that impressed with Arizona. Remember BYU was ranked in the top 15 most of the year.

TCU (-2) over BOISE ST - While Boise certainly has the experience factor and no one can forget the last time they were undefeated and went to a bowl, this time the WAC is having a down year. I've been very impressed with TCU all year, and I just don't think Boise's really been tested. They won at Oregon, but the Ducks weren't great early in the year. This should be one of the best bowl games, pitting two of the best teams from second-tier conferences.

FLORIDA STATE (-5) over WISCONSIN - FSU has the defensive strength to stop Hill, and the Badgers almost lost to Cal Poly. This could, and probably will, get ugly.

MISSOURI (-12) over NORTHWESTERN - Another massacre at the Alamo. Even if N'Western can score, the Tigers will put up so many points it will be ridiculous.

NEVADA (-1) over MARYLAND - The Terps have played exactly 1 good half on the road this year, and that was because Clemson fell apart. Other road games include UVA, VT, BC, and MTSU, none of which went well. Playing on the blue field of death, we now face the pistol offense and the WAC offensive player of the year. This isn't going to be pretty. Also, Nevada's not ranked, so we probably won't show up.

KANSAS (-9) over MINNESOTA - No respect for the Big 10, and plenty of respect for the Jayhawks, who beat Missouri to finish and had a pretty tough schedule. They're better than their record. This team won the Orange Bowl last year.

GEORGIA TECH (-3) over LSU - A home game for Tech in Atlanta, the Wreck has one of the best rushing offenses in the country. Meanwhile, the Tigers have given up 50 points to a couple teams, and have no QB. They needed a huge comeback to beat Troy, but the GT defense is not that weak. Plus, I don't think LSU will show up to play one year after winning the national championship. This is not that team.

Boston College (-4) over VANDERBILT - I know the Eagles will probably be pissed about being in this bowl, but they should manhandle a Commodore team that's 1-5 in its last 6 games, including losses to Duke and Wake.

USC (-9) over PENN ST - Both of these teams were close to being in the national championship, but the talent of USC playing at home will overwhelm PSU in the same way that it did Ohio St.

CINCINNATI (-2) over VT - The Bearcats are better than most people are giving them credit for, and while the Tech defense is solid, I think the ACC loses yet another BCS bowl. All the parity in the ACC meant that there wasn't a single really good team, except maybe GT who peaked a little too late.

ALABAMA (-9) over UTAH - The Utes will not enjoy the power and physical nature of the Crimson Tide. This won't be as bad as Hawaii last year, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Utes are shut out.

TEXAS (-7) over OHIO ST - The Longhorns will use this game to make a statement about their team and their QB having been snubbed. OSU will get pounded again, because the Big 10 underbelly could not be weaker.

FLORIDA (-3) over OKLAHOMA - Tim Tebow might be the best player in the nation, and I think Florida is the more complete team. The Sooners have stunk it up in their last 4 or 5 BCS games, with bad losses to West Virginia, Boise St., USC, LSU, and FSU. So I give the coaching edge to Urban, and the QB edge to Tebow. The loss of Murray for OU, and the likely return of Harvin, swings the running back edge to Florida as well. Florida will probably also win special teams since OU has given up a bunch of kickoff returns for TDs this year. I think the defenses are comparable. Overall, significant edge to Florida.

Regular Season: 50-36-2

December 19, 2008

Mark Teixeira - Somebody's Lying

In the last hour news has broken that Red Sox owner John Henry is dropping their pursuit of the biggest fish left in the pond, free agent first baseman Mark Teixeira.

Frankly, somebody has to be lying. The known players in this deal are the Los Angeles Angels, Baltimore Orioles, Washington Nationals, Red Sox and agent Scott Boras. Here is what we "know".

Baltimore Orioles

Reported Offer - Seven years, $140M ($20M/year average, though some estimates say the O's upped it to $150 for a $21.4M/year average)

The Orioles are counting on Teixeira's willingness to take a "home town discount", as Teix is from nearby Anne Arundel County, though they have indicated that they may up the offer. Normally, this would be possible. Baltimore's baseball heroes own the town, and he would have a leg up on being the favorite son immediately. If GM Andy MacPhail can really steer the Orioles into competitive waters again, Teix would achieve legendary status. On the other hand, Teix retained Scott Boras who is known as a $$$ first agent. The Orioles may be helped by the fact that Teixeira would be the endorsement king immediately.

The Orioles are often perceived as being a team that cannot be trusted, but that mostly stems from the former paralysis at the top prior to MacPhail's arrival. MacPhail now has full autonomy to make signings, and owner Peter Angelos supposedly does not have final approval over every tiny move.

Boston Red Sox

Reported Offer - Eight years, $184M (23M/year average)

Until John Henry publicly put the kibosh on it, the Red Sox were assumed to be the frontrunners to land Teix. They are already competitive, and can offer the kind of money Boras is known to extract. So are they really out of the running, or are they calling Scott Boras' bluff? Given that Henry personally felt burned by Manny's way of whining himself out of town, I think he is being forthcoming.
Let's also not forget that Boras held the Red Sox hostage after they paid $51M just for the rights to TALK to Dice-K. He also teased the Sox with A-Rod before he landed in pinstripes. He also represented Johnny Damon, who the Red Sox let go essentially because they thought Boras was bluffing about the Yankees' offer. Basically they're like the guy at the poker table who only seems to call the bullshitter's bluff when he's really lucked into a good hand. There *might* be some bitterness there.

Los Angeles Angels

Reported Offer - 8 years, estimated at $160M ($20M/year average)

Official news reports from December 13 have the Angels making an eight-year offer to Teixeira, but the dollar amount of $160M is only found in blogs. That makes the Angels the big wild card in this bidding. Since the dollar figure has not been disclosed, they very well may have the best deal on the table. Orioles fans will recall that they felt Vladimir Guerrero was locked up right until the moment that the Angels announced the signing. When they really were in the running for Guerrero, they were mostly silent. Here, again, they have been the only team to really be able to hold their offer under wraps.

That brings us to the the man who owes the Angels everything right now:

Scott Boras

Yes, the man behind A-Rod's 10-year $250M disaster and Dice-K's post negotiation fee ransom is at it again. He is known for being all about the bottom line, and also for being willing to play a little fast and loose with the truth. Boras would be in a dangerous situation if it weren't for the Angels' unwillingness to disclose their offer. In effect, this gives Boras free reign to tell the other bidders that they've been outbid, whether they have been or not.

So why would any team listen to Boras these days? The only people less trusted than agents in the baseball business are the other GMs. Even if the GMs know that Boras is probably lying to them, they would rather be shown up by him (where they can smile it off and say "worth every penny", etc.) than by another GM. Boras knows this, and the secret to his success is playing off of that distrust.

Washington Nationals

Reported Offer - 8 years, $160M ($20M/year average)

The Nationals are out of their league here in two senses. First, they were the first to put their offer on the table, which is like showing your cards in poker when you don't have to. Second, they can only be used as a pawn to inflate other offers as Teixeira would have to be crazy to go to a city where he will have NO exposure and NO endorsement potential. They're telling the truth because they don't know any better.


Who is lying? Boras would have us believe that the Angels, or some unknown suitor (Atlanta would be logical, but this isn't their m.o.), has offered around $200M over eight years. That's the only type of offer that would cause the Red Sox to publicly say "we're out of the running". It would be illogical for the Orioles or Nationals to open at $20M/year and then jump to $25M/year. Likewise, what does Henry gain by claiming to be out of it if he really does intend to go higher?

So either the Angels have blown the market away with their bid, or Boras is lying. I think we'll know which it is by Monday. If the Red Sox were shown the Angels bid and they really have no intention of matching it, Teix should be a long-term Angel by Monday. Boras simply has to double check with Washington and Baltimore and then leak out a "close to signing with the Angels" story. If nothing is biting, he signs Monday.
Then again, the other possibility is that EVERYONE is lying. Perhaps Andy MacPhail leaked that the Orioles would be willing to up their offer just to lend credence to Boras when he tells teams that there is a megabid floating out there. In effect, he gets the benefit of making Orioles fans think he's really down in the mud and the obvious benefit of making the Red Sox overpay (though in the long run this sets the bar higher for all free agents).

If Boras is lying though, he has to float a different story by Monday. I would look for the "Mark really wants to be on the East Coast" angle.

December 18, 2008

Week 16 NFL Picks

Brien (39-34-2)
After a brutal 0-4-1 week, I need to catch back up to Jeremy.

TAMPA BAY (-3) over San Diego - The Bucs haven't looked so great lately, but I still like them over the Chargers on the East Coast.

NY Jets (-5) over SEATTLE - I hate to take the Jets on the West Coast, but the Seahawks are really awful.

DENVER (-7) over Buffalo - After a 5-1 start, the Bills have dropped 7 of their last 8.

Houston (-7.5) over OAKLAND - The Texans are starting to look pretty good.

CHICAGO (-4.5) over Green Bay - The Packers have lost 6 of their last 7 and have failed to cover in their last four outings.

J-Red (35-36-4)
Cowboys fan and I will always get along. We share a mutual hatred of all things burgundy and gold.

JACKSONVILLE (+6.5) over Indy - Jacksonville is in the weird range where they seem to have set a new goal to get back to .500 after a disappointing season.

DALLAS (-4.5) over Baltimore - I have a bad feeling about this one.

Philadelphia (-5) over WASHINGTON - FedEx Field is the Linc this Sunday, albeit with a crappier color scheme.

DETROIT (+7) over New Orleans - I can't comprehend 0-16, so I'll keep picking them.

Cincinnati (+3) over CLEVELAND - A lot of Bengals are playing for their careers in the NFL. The Browns are younger and can lose games without dropping out of the league.

Jeremy (41-32-2)
Listen, here's the scoop... I'm only down five on Brien in our fantasy semi last week heading into the Sunday night game. I have Eli Manning and T.O. He has John Carney. How the hell can I lose that game? Well, T.O. only catches three balls for 38 yards, Eli throws for about 150 with a pickle, and John Carney hits two field goals to account for all of the Giants offense. At least I pawned you in picks. Hardly worth the $160 I lost by not making it to the final.

Pittsburgh (-1) over TENNESSEE - I'm truly a believer in the Steelers defense right now. It won't take many points to beat the Titans.

TAMPA BAY (-3) over San Diego - San Diego hasn't fared well on their long trips East and they are going to be facing a motivated Tampa squad.

Philadelphia (-5) over WASHINGTON - Our season is over.

NEW ENGLAND (-8) over Arizona - Foxboro forecast for Sunday courtesy of Windy, periods of snow. Highs in the mid 30s.

DETROIT (+7) over New Orleans - Jim Rome's dream may end on Sunday.

Magic 8 Ball (36-37-2)

Pittsburgh (-1) over TENNESSEE - "My answer is no." (Titans won't beat the spread)

TAMPA BAY (-3) over San Diego - "My sources say yes." (Bucs will beat the spread)

WASHINGTON (+5) over Phiadelphia - "Yes." (Redskins will beat the spread)

NEW ENGLAND (-8) over Arizona - "Yes." (Pats will beat the spread)

New Orleans (-7) over DETROIT - "My answer is no." (Lions won't beat the spread)

Russell (33-40-2)

Russell is traveling this week (evading the authorities), so here are his abbreviated picks. Note that the line has changed since Russell submitted these:

Indianapolis (-6.5) over JACKSONVILLE

Pittsburgh (-1.5) over TENNESSEE

Philadelphia (-4.5) over WASHINGTON

San Francisco (-5.5) over ST LOUIS

DENVER (-7) over Buffalo


Jeremy: DET, NE, PHI, PIT, TB
Russell: DEN, IND, PHI, PIT, SF

1) Jeremy
Brien (39-34-2)
3) Jason (35-36-4)
Magic 8 Ball (36-37-2)
Russell (33-40-2)

December 16, 2008

Deconstructing Al Pacino

When you think of famous sports movie "locker room speech" scenes, many scenes come to mind. James Van Der Beek urging his teammates to be heroes in Varsity Blues. The guy who plays Coach Dan Devine telling Notre Dame's football squad that nobody comes into their house and beats them in Rudy. Keanu Reaves talking about chicks digging scars in The Replacements. But certainly one of the most recognized, one of the most well known, is Al Pacino's "Peace with Inches" speech from Any Given Sunday. Hell, I'll admit, this was even on my iPod during law school and I used to listen to it before exams. But let's take a brief look at his speech to see if it makes any sense...

I don’t know what to say, really. Three minutes till the biggest battle of our professional lives all comes down to today. Now either we heal as a team or we’re gonna crumble, inch by inch, play by play, 'til we’re finished.

We’re in hell right now, gentlemen, believe me. And, we can stay here -- get the shit kicked out of us -- or we can fight our way back into the light. We can climb outta hell one inch at a time.

Now, I can’t do it for you. I’m too old. I look around. I see these young faces, and I think -- I mean -- I made every wrong choice a middle-aged man can make. I, uh, I pissed away all my money, believe it or not. I chased off anyone who’s ever loved me. And lately, I can’t even stand the face I see in the mirror.

You know, when you get old in life things get taken from you. I mean that's...part of life. But, you only learn that when you start losing stuff. You find out life’s this game of inches. So is football. Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small -- I mean one-half a step too late, or too early, and you don’t quite make it. One-half second too slow, too fast, you don’t quite catch it.

The inches we need are everywhere around us.

They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second.

On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch, because we know when we add up all those inches that’s gonna make the fuckin' difference between winning and losing! Between livin' and dyin'!

I’ll tell you this: In any fight, it’s the guy who’s willing to die who’s gonna win that inch. And I know if I’m gonna have any life anymore, it’s because I’m still willin' to fight and die for that inch. Because that’s what livin' is! The six inches in front of your face!!

Now I can’t make you do it. You got to look at the guy next to you. Look into his eyes! Now I think you’re gonna see a guy who will go that inch with you. You're gonna see a guy who will sacrifice himself for this team because he knows, when it comes down to it, you’re gonna do the same for him!

That’s a team, gentleman!

And, either we heal, now, as a team, or we will die as individuals.

That’s football guys.

That's all it is.

Now, what are you gonna do?

Alright, now I ask you... does this speech, when you read the text of it, seem as non-sensical to you as it does to me? First off, let's start with a storyline problem... we are to believe that a first-round playoff game is the "biggest battle" of these players' "professional lives?" Really? Interesting. Because I think there were quite a few grizzled vets on this team who had been around long enough to advance past the first round of the playoffs.

Now, I get the whole part about football being a game of inches. Just ask any Ravens fan right now. I get the whole part about a team that is full of in-fighting and disarray being "in hell." Just ask anybody around Redskins Park right now (although Coach Zorn is way too full of divinity to use the "h-e-double hockey stick" word)

But now we begin to stray into murky waters where the screenwriters and Oliver Stone tried to get a little to cute and creative. Really... how is life the "six inches in front of your face?" What does that mean??? How does it relate to football??? Upon further review, based upon indisputable video evidence, I just don't get it. The Al Pacino Heat-type delivery is clearly the only thing that is driving this part of the speech to make any sense. We're too focused on nearly insane Al Pacino to give pause and think about what he's saying.

Now I will give the screenwriters/Oliver Stone credit... the last portion of the speech, where Pacino urges members of this broken team to look at each other and pledge that they'll fight alongside them for those inches, is a good ending. And it allows us to forget that a large portion of the middle of the speech makes little to no sense and has, at best, a tangential connection to football.

Still, if you're a football player, and you can choose between the type of coach who gives you "Hip Hip Hooray" and the type of coach who gives you this fiery delivery... "now, what are you going to do?"

December 15, 2008

Total Confusion Over a Touchdown

Since the other three ECB contributors are busy crying into their Cheerios this morning over heartbreaking losses (the Skins going down to the Bengals for Russell and Jeremy, the Ravens blowing a late lead at home to the Steelers for J-Red), it falls to me to get a post up this morning.

The climax of the Steelers' game-winning drive was shrouded in controversy as Santonio Holmes caught a pass while standing in the endzone, but was tackled with the ball near the 1-yard line. On the field, the officials ruled the ball down inside the 1 (making it 4th down). Watching the replays on TV, it looked like the ball may have been over the goal line as Holmes gained posession, but it was very, very close. After review, referee Walt Coleman reversed the call saying:

"After reviewing the play, the receiver had 2 feet down in the end zone, with possession of the ball. We have a touchdown."
Of course, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms were totally confused at that explanation (along with much of the viewing audience).  Coleman made it sound like having two feet in the endzone meant Holmes scored a touchdown even if the ball didn't cross the plane of the goal.  

Referring back to J-Red's indispensable post on the plane of the goal line, we find this, direct from the NFL rule book:
"A player with the ball in his possession scores a touchdown when the ball is on, above, or over the goal line."
That makes it clear that the crucial point of whether or not a play results in a touchdown is the location of the ball.  Having two feet down in bounds only establishes posession, not the spot of the ball.

Coleman clarifies (or changes?) his reasoning on
"He had two feet down and completed the catch with control of the ball breaking the plane of the goal line."
To me, this sounds very different from what he said on the field, and leaves open the question of whether he misinterpreted the rule while he was under the review hood, only to realize his mistake later.  

As I said, the play looked really close, but Coleman's changing explanations of the rule led to much more confusion than was necessary.

As an added bonus, check out J-Red's goal line post for an explanation of another play from the Steelers-Ravens game.  He mentions that the goalpost is in bounds for extra points and field goal trys, but out of bounds for other plays.  In Sunday's game, Flacco threw a pass that bounced off the crossbar and landed in a defender's hands.  It was correctly ruled an incompletion.

December 14, 2008

Terps' Josh Portis - A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma

The Background:
Josh Portis (yes, related to Clinton) came to Maryland after transferring from Florida where he got stuck behind some guy named "Tebow" on the depth charts. At the time, Terps fans were still recovering from the Joel Statham era, were waiting to see if this Jordan Steffy kid woudl ever pan out, and were ecstatic that Portis would choose Maryland. After all, this had been one of the most sought after high school QB recruits in the country. He put up ridiculous passing numbers at his southern California high school and obviously, the Gators don't just recruit anybody to play QB. There were some rumblings that he (and his mother) were slightly... ehh... eccentric to say the least, but Friedgen was assured that he could keep this under control and that Portis would turn into a huge contributor to the Terps should Jordan Steffy falter.

At Maryland:
Josh sat out the 2006 season due to the oNCAA transfer rules. He became eligible to play in the 2007 season. It seemed obvious that Josh would start as the backup to Jordan Steffy but given how erratic Steffy seemed, Terp fans were in essence counting down the days until Portis would be under center. Then, he cheated. He cheated on what has been reported as a pop quiz. And he was suspended for the 2007 season. And, inevitably, in a game at Rutgers during that 2007 season, Jordan Steffy went down with an injury. The job would have gone to Portis. Instead, it went to some curly-haired Napoleon Dynamite-looking kid who had almost transferred out of the school and gone back home to California. Chris Turner took the reins for the rest of the season and led the Terps to a semi-respectable bowl game.

2008 season comes along with an open QB competition. Under Armour invests hundreds of thousands of dollars in manufacturing Josh Portis jerseys, as he was one of the three featured Terp players for whom Under Armour manufactured and sold replica jerseys. Now, finally, Terp fans can see the promise of Josh Portis. Well, spring ball comes, and at the end, no QB has separated himself. Summer practice comes, and at the end, the depth chart is released. Jordan Steffy, #1. Chris Turner, #2. Josh Portis, distant #3. The heralded transfer to save the program couldn't beat out even one of his competitors and advance up the depth chart.

During the 2008 season, Steffy injures himself again and Chris Turner again takes over, never to cede the position, aside from a few snaps here and there where the offensive coaches, due to some devotion to Portis, and due to his obvious athletic gifts, brought him in an option package. Portis. Portis' final numbers for 2008... 1 completion for 4 yards on 3 passing attempts, 31 rushes for 186 yards and a touchdown.

Josh Portis has been on the field for 34 snaps of the ball during his time at Maryland. He received more snaps of the ball during his freshman season at Florida (40 snaps) in 2005 than he did in 2008.

Should he transfer?
There has been some gossip on the Internets that Portis is thinking of transferring. Most people assume it is to a 1-AA (FCS) school, so that he does not have to waste another year sitting out as per NCAA regulations. However, it's time that the question is asked - does Josh Portis have the tools to be a successful NCAA QB at either the BCS or FCS level? He can wing the ball a long ways down the field. However, as most Terp fans have seen, he does this with little to no accuracy. He's an athletic specimen... strong, tall for a QB (6'4"), and speedy. However, mobile QBs still need to be able to throw the ball when necessary. Most troublesome appears to be his decision making. I'll say it here - Josh Portis may not be smart enough to play QB at any level aside from high school. By "smart," I mean he may not have the capabilities to make the decisions at the speed that they need to be made when you've got a college-type defense closing in on you. That said...

Should he change positions?
Many unsuccessful college QBs have either become WRs, or, more frequently, have gone into the defensive secondary. This is definitely an option for Portis should he choose to stay at Maryland, where our secondary is going to be absolutely WEAK next year without Kevin Barnes. I see Portis with the athletic skills necessary to play cornerback - certainly not safety. However, he'd only have one year of eligibility left to learn the position, prove himself, and make enough of an impact so he can make it to the next level. Most QBs make this switch earlier in thier collegiate careers.

Should the Maryland coaches be blamed?
As much as I'd like to blame the coaches for other things that have gone to hell with this Terps team, the answer is a resounding "NO." If Portis hadn't cheated, and he'd been able to play with the team in 2007, maybe he would've developed. And you can't teach the ability to a QB to muster a basic mastery of an offense. They tried to involve Portis this year in those option packages early in the season, and it was just a distraction that all too often resulted in loss of yardage.

What is Portis' next step?
I don't know. Do you?