Monday, 24 September 2012

NFL owners must end their lockout of their referees

After another weekend of bizarre situations and questionable calls by replacement refs, we saw two debacles to end it off, with Bill Belichik running and grabbing after an official on the Sunday night game, trying to get an explanation on the game-ending field goal and, more probably, their entire oeuvre that evening, and now a farcical performance by the crew working the Monday Night Football game.

The replacement refs have been having an underlying effect on the games since they started working them.  At first, they weren't calling pass interference penalties as stringently as they should have, and we saw a lot of low-scoring games and upsets as a result in the first couple of weeks.  We saw them lose control of games, some of them dragging on so long that I missed out on some game endings and had to adjust my PVR settings accordingly.

One effect that hasn't been mentioned is the amount of jawing and woofing that goes on now, constantly.  This blight on the game had been effectively curtailed during the previous seasons, when jabbing your facemask into someone else's to taunt or dis them was grounds for an unsportsmanlike conduct 15-yard penalty.  This season, I have yet to see a flag for such behaviour, which is now endemic, and the source for a lot of the scrums and shenanigans we see after most whistles seemingly.

This weekend, we saw an avalanche of yellow flags, as the NFL circled the wagons and probably instructed the ersatz zebras to tighten the calls on defensive backs.  And we now understand why they weren't calling more penalties.  It was not as a misguided attempt to 'let them play', it's simply that they can't make the right calls, the speed of the game is evidently too high for them.  It seems as if every call or non-call is a toss-up, whether they're nailing it or shanking it.  I can do just as well at home with my trusty flipping quarter.

We have probably reached the Rubicon, and NFL management has to decide whether they'll cross it, or back down and come to terms with their real referees, the actual pros of the game, who while imperfect, are now shown to be effective in the overwhelming majority of cases, and to be decisive and fully, functionally knowledgeable of the rules of the game.

The sad part out of all of this is that the NFL are having a principled disagreement with their staff.  This isn't about dollars and cents so much as it is about NFL owners trying to wrest more money from the refs to pile on to the staggering fortunes they already make from their teams.  The NFL isn't on the brink of financial insolvency, this isn't necessary for the survival or even the profitability of the league.

The refs are not holding out for more money, an unreasonable raise, or anything crazy.  The refs aren't on strike.  They're being locked out by the owners.  The reason they're being locked out by the owners is that they're being asked to give up the pension they currently earn and accept a vastly inferior version, one with a 'defined contribution' instead of a 'defined benefit'.  So now instead of a pension that will pay out a set amount upon retirement, an amount that they can plan their life around, they are now asked to take a glorified mutual fund account that will be subject to the vagaries of the stock market and the piratical penchants of Wall Street.

The NFL's reason for the change?  As weak as their moral fibre.  They say that since they already beat down their other employees and wrestled away their pensions, they now need to beat down the referees as well.  It wouldn't be "fair" to their other employees not to.  I'm not making this up.  This is their reasoning.

I'm sure if you asked any client of the NFL, anyone who buys tickets or jerseys or the Sunday Ticket package or a case of Budweiser, none of them would begrudge the officials a tiny slice of that purchase so that they can have a reasonable pension that allowed them to retire in dignity and security.  None of them would vote that that money should rather go into Paul Allen's pocket.  Anyone who did would do so out of bitterness that they themselves are deprived of such a pension by the climate that reigns currently in Corporate America and North American society as well.

Roger Goodell has been a bit of a crusader since becoming Commissioner, to various degrees of effectiveness.  He has often punished players for off-field transgressions that he claimed tarnished the image of the league.  He now has to wear this fiasco of a lockout.  It's on him.  And he has to fix it.  He has to bring his vaunted conciliatory and persuasive powers to bear on the owners and convince them that they must drop their demands of the officials to get a deal done, for the good of the game.

Better yet, the vaunted 'conscience' of the game, the long-time owners like the Rooneys and the Maras, Bob Kraft who cried arm-in-arm with Jeff Saturday last summer, need to intervene and to put a stop to this.  They need to bring everyone to their senses and protect their own legacy, their very business.  Everyone in the owners circle must understand that their principled stance, repugnant no matter how they try to spin it, must end.  They are damaging their product and image for a trifling amount in the grand scheme of things.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

NFL Week 2: Chargers 38, Titans 10

Okay, let's get the elephant in the room discussed and out of the way: those white uniforms on the Chargers today were jarring (I first wrote shocking, but didn't want to be accused of committing a pun).  They were awful.

I haven't been on board with the white helmets to begin with, ever since they were introduced, and all the footage we've seen in the last few months of Junior rampaging on the field reminds me how much better the electric blue helmets were.  The  players looked more intimidating with these on.  I wonder if the 'finesse' team reputation the Chargers have derives in part from the white helmets our team has been sporting lately.

Today, the team went all white, and asked the fans to wear white as well to replicate the Winnipeg Jets' whiteout tradition. Was it a transparent attempt to sell white jerseys to fans who normally rely on their electric blue or powder blue jerseys?  Another reason given was to keep the players from overheating while San Diego is embroiled in a heat wave, it was thought the white uniforms would keep our team cooler.  I'll allow the point, although I wonder if the yellow pants would have been materially warmer.  They certainly would have been less transparent.  Yikes.  It's a purely academic point however, since the only allowable colours this year are white and blue for pants, and white, blue and powder blue for the jerseys.

In any case, the Chargers have some of the best, most iconic uniforms in the NFL.  We don't need to reinvent the wheel.  We're not the Oregon Ducks or the Seattle Seahawks.  Let's bring back the yellow pants, and use the powder blue more.  Just 'cause.

Today's game was refreshing for Chargers fans, in that it confirmed some positives we suspected, and countered some negative assumptions we have, at least for one week.  The offensive line was effective, in that Kamerion Wimbley didn't maul Mike Harris, and didn't hospitalize Philip Rivers as he nearly did last season.  While Mr. Harris isn't an ideal solution at left tackle, when we well remember Marcus McNeill's excellence at that position, his play offered some encouraging signs.  He got flagged on at least one occasion, but he never gave up, tried hard, and seemed to get better as the game progressed, especially when the Chargers were running the ball right at the Titans to close out the game.  In fact the whole offensive line seemed to enjoy pounding on the Titans defence at that point, and they in turn didn't seem to want to play anymore.  It wasn't quite like the old days with Marcus and Kris Dielman blowing holes open for LT, but it was good to see an effective run game to wind down the clock.

The running backs played well.  The intent at training camp was to have a panoply of RB's with complementary skills.  Sure, Ryan Mathews would get the lion's share of the carries, but we'd have ways to use Ronnie Brown, Le'Ron McClain and even Jackie Battle in certain situations, we thought.  Today, they showed they can contribute, and are not useless as we were beginning to fear after four pre-season games and last week's dud at Oakland.  Curtis Brinkley showed a little more than Ronnie Brown did last week, and may have wrapped up the unofficial #2 spot behind Ryan, and we can only hope he continues to improve.

We also had hopes that the four tight ends would all contribute to the offence as well as on special teams.  They could be deployed in two TE formations and cause headaches for defences.  We saw today that Dante Rosario can chip in quite well, that Randy McMichael is trustworthy as ever in the run and passing game, and Ladarius Green's first NFL reception, with an impressive bit of running after the catch.  As such, this made the absence of Antonio Gates seem academic.  We can hope that he will be recovered fully by next week, and that his presence on the roster doesn't preclude the other guys being effective.

The defence also solidified our early impression that they'd be more athletic and effective than the last couple of seasons.  The front seven limited Chris Johnson, a guy who has killed us in the past, to pedestrian numbers.  Shaun Phillips seems re-energized after a difficult season last year.  Donald Butler is an early-season revelation, after a rookie season on IR and a promising sophomore season all things considered.  He's not just a solid run-stuffer, he shows athleticism and runs sideline to sideline.  Eric Weddle came up with another interception.

While the Titans may turn out to be one of the weakest teams in the league this year, it was good that the Chargers didn't play down to their level, and executed in all three phases of the game.  We saw the coaching staff reacting to game situations, with play calls capitalizing on the Titans failure to cover Dante Rosario, and inserting Jackie Battle to see what he could do and keeping the big back rolling when he showed effectiveness.  They kept at the running game and got some positive results.  Even Norv got into the act, working the refs and trying to gain an edge for his team.

Finally, for this viewer, the most hopeful sign was the steady play of Philip Rivers.  He didn't force any balls, he didn't have happy feet, he didn't melt down when there was pressure.  He was the steady reliable QB we've come to know in the past few seasons, at least before the blip of last season and the worrisome training camp this August.  His one interception came on a third-and-10 longshot attempt to Malcom Floyd, and served as a shortish punt if anything, it certainly wasn't a disaster.

So a good win to put into the bank, in a game that was a 'should-win' home game.  It's the first time the Chargers have been 2-0 since 2006, and it's great to have put away weak sisters before we hit a stretch of four games against tough NFC South teams and Divisional opponents.

Review: "Playing with Fire" by Theoren Fleury

"Playing with Fire" is the autobiography of Theoren Fleury, co-written with Kirsten McLellan Day.  In it, Mr. Fleury tells how he grew up in a difficult circumstance with an alcoholic father and emotionally withdrawn mother.  He explains how hockey becomes his escape, how it allows him to come in contact with coaches and families who are more stable and supportive, and nurture his talents.  This reliance on external authority figures while salutary at first turns disastrous when he comes into the sphere of influence of hockey coach and convicted pedophile Graham James.

This section of the book is difficult to read, but also fascinating and somewhat incomprehensible.  The reader who hasn't had the same background and thus doesn't suffer from the same vulnerability is aghast that the author doesn't speak out or talk to the police or have some other like reaction to his situation.  Without making light of the circumstances, this reviewer found himself comparing the decision-making and turns of events to the protagonists in a horror movie, and asking himself: "Why doesn't he do such and such, instead of that."  In this way, the book is enlightening and serves to make the reader understand what the assault victim is subjected to and how she/he responds differently than 'common sense' would seem to indicate they should.

While the book is illuminating on this subject, it is not very insightful, and once again I have to lay the blame on the co-author.  Ms. McLellan Day also worked with Bob Probert on his autobiography "Tough Guy", and my suspicions at the time I read it that she's at most a transcriber of words spoken into a voice recorder seem more founded after reading another book by her on hockey.  She allows the subjects to recount their life and experiences with very little introspection or any questions to probe further or challenge them.  As such, the books she co-writes are much less than they can be.  The reader is left to wish that a capable author with knowledge of her subject matter, whether it be hockey or the pathology of sexual abuse, had been trusted with this project.

Mr. Fleury eventually escapes the clutches of Graham James and plays in the AHL and NHL, but by this point the material in the book becomes less gripping, and repetitive.  This may be because his career peaks very early, and then declines somewhat as he is stuck on mediocre teams.  The seasons pass, and the anecdotes all sound similar, and most are unhappy ones.

He is forthright about his alcohol and drug abuse, but also somewhat dismissive of their effects on his career and his team.  He often describes a 'party' he participates in, which are invariably not so much festive as an opportunity to ingest great quantities of intoxicants, and then how well he performed the next day in a game, which is his 'Get Out of Jail Free' card of preference.  He seldom delves into the effect his behaviour has on his team and teammates, and how much better he might have performed without the deleterious effects it has on his health and conditioning.  Of course, the reader is aware that a lot of the passion and intensity in Mr. Fleury's play derives from his background and his battle with his demons; with players such as he you can't really tease apart the good from the bad.  Mr. Fleury is a person that needs to be taken as a whole, to selectively amputate certain aspects of his existence would yield a different person entirely, not merely a healthy and productive Theo.

Graham James re-enters Mr. Fleury's life later on in his career, incomprehensibly, but by this time the reader doesn't need to be reminded that he hasn't 'walked a mile in his shoes', and can't really understand the inner workings of his mind.

The end of the book is unfortunate in that it follows Mr. Fleury's career arc.  Again, the reader is left to wish that things had turned out differently, although all is not lost.  While Mr. Fleury isn't as financially stable as he could have been, he has patched up a few relationships along the way and is struggling to find inner peace, and seems to have his substance abuse under control.

This reviewer is not sure he can recommend this book to readers unless they are fans of Mr. Fleury or the Calgary Flames.  Certainly, Canadiens fans will find it difficult to relive the loss in the 1989 Stanley Cup finals as seen from the other side.  If anything, this book makes one wish that a talented biographer had taken on this project, and had had access to Mr. Fleury and his family and loved ones and teammates and opponents.  There is no question that we would have had a much richer, fuller portrait of the man.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Owner greed no valid reason for a 50-50 split

It's started already.  Fans are blaming the players for the current NHL lockout.  A lockout imposed by the owners.  Maybe they need to review the definition of a lockout.


Definition of LOCKOUT: the withholding of employment by an employer and the whole or partial closing of the business establishment in order to gain concessions from or resist demands of employees

It astounds me that anyone even thinks of siding with the owners, and their facile 50-50 split. The players are who we pay to see, not the owners. I don’t care about Jeremy Jacobs and Charles Wang, they’re all crooks and monopolists and fraudsters. Why they get half the money they declare, plus all that they embezzle is inexplicable.

The 50-50 split sounds reasonable to simpletons, since it harkens back to kindergarden, when we were taught to share and share alike. It does not apply to this situation however. The owners recklessly cancelled a season, locking out the players and depriving fans of the game they love, in order to obtain ‘cost certainty’, which was a hard salary cap. The players’ share of revenue was rolled back from more than 60% down to 55% at that point, accomplished by the players taking a 24% pay cut. Eight years later the owners come back and ask for more cuts? To support hockey in moribund locales like Phoenix and Uniondale? So that more of the inflated ticket prices and jersey sales end up in their pockets? How exactly will you benefit personally from another lockout to prop up those franchises? Wouldn’t you be better off with fewer hockey teams, with less diluted talent, with more franchises in Canada, where they will draw fans?
Give your head a serious shake. The only reason there won’t be hockey in the fall is because of owner greed. They’re the ones who opted out of the current CBA, and they’re the ones who will lock out the players. The players would gladly continue to play under the current conditions, but Gary Bettman won’t, so that Phoenix doesn’t have to meet a salary floor that he agreed to less than a decade ago.

If there is no hockey, it’s not the players’ fault. They are not going on strike. The owners are the ones who opted out of the current CBA, the one during which revenues grew and they signed the biggest broadcast deal ever with NBC. The owners are preparing to lock out the players. So the owners are the ones who will deprive you of the game you love, in the name of greed. They got everything they wanted last time they tried to kill hockey, a salary cap and 24% wage rollback, but they’re coming back to strangle it a little more.

And for those of you who say that players come and go, but that doesn't matter, since you're only really a fan of the team, think again. You had no attachment to Jean Béliveau, Guy Lafleur, Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, Saku Koivu? These guys were just interchangeable cogs? Their personality had nothing to do with your love of the Canadiens?
The game is what it is because of the players. They’re paid very well to play a game they love, but that’s not an excuse to rob them of some of the ticket revenue to give it to Francesco Aquilini and Ed Snyder.
Also, if the owners operated as pure businessmen, I’d give them credit for what they do, but they rely on exemption from anti-trust legislation and taxpayer subsidies for their operations. If Pierre Karl Péladeau built the Colisée, then the beatification of owners would make sense. Rather, he’s going to let the citizens of Québec assume all the costs and risks, and then turn around and gouge them as much as he can with ticket prices and cable bills. So give me a break with the owners being responsible for the league’s existence.
Read “Net Worth”, you’ll see what the NHL owners did for the league, they almost killed it, only used it to fill dates in their arenas between wrestling and boxing matches. They defrauded generations of players. The owners are never the heroes.
We'd actually be way better off if we didn't have owners and instead ran NHL teams as public trusts or utilities.  Do you really think that if the NHL was a league with 12 or 20 community-owned teams like the Green Bay Packers, with revenue sharing to even out the bumps in the road, and salaries reflective of the consummate skill of the players but not necessarily inflated by the current monopoly which charges you $100 for a ticket and $200 for a jersey, that you’d enjoy the games less? What value does Boots Del Baggio bring to the equation?
Owners didn’t create the NHL, they didn’t invent hockey, they almost killed it. And they’re killing it to this day, by focusing on ways to raise the price of beer to $10 instead of trying to improve the product on the ice.  Now they're shutting it down on the fans who paid for these teams ten times over.

We love hockey.  The players love hockey.  The owners love the money they wring out of hockey.

Is a five-year contract limit good for the NHL?

I see a few fans who see the NHL owners demands for a five year limit on contracts as a positive.

So to a fan, long-term contracts are not preferable.  And it will help the owners to have an imposed five-year limit on contract length.

In a way that's true, it will allow GM's to say to players "Jeez, I wish I could give you a ten-year deal, I really do, but my hands are tied by the CBA..."

I'm not sure it will help competitive balance though.

Thought experiment: Seth Jones has just reached free agency after playing All-Star quality defence for the Calgary Flames for ten years.  He signed two five-year contracts, an entry-level deal as prescribed by the CBA, and then a generous but sub-maximal second contract, also as prescribed by the CBA.  He's now unfettered and evaluating his options.

The Flames have offered him the maximum dollar amount five-year deal they are allowed to given the strictures of the CBA and the salary cap.  So have twenty other teams.  The only reason the other nine teams didn't is because they're at the cap limit and can't clear the room, otherwise they would have offered the Norris Trophy candidate the same deal.

So now Seth thinks.  "Calgary is kind of a nice town, I love how they made me the Parade Marshall the past couple of years.  I have lots of friends here.  Cowboys was fun while I was still single.  But I can make the same money and not be so much in the public eye if I go home to the States.  It would be neat to go home to Dallas.  I could go to New York or L.A. or Anaheim and rake in endorsement cash.  I could go to a Florida team and golf whenever I want, the wife really hates the snow."

Calgary would have a tough time retaining him.  They can't 'renegotiate' his contract, only extend a current deal in the last year of the contract.  It would have to appeal to his 'loyalty' after he'd played there nine years, but how loyal does the kid need to be to a team when the league has depressed his earning capacity to a level far below market value?  He didn't ask to be drafted by the Flames, they just happened to suck the season that he reached his draft year.

Remember how Erik Cole was about to re-sign with Carolina last July, since the offer he got from them was about the same as that offered by the Canadiens, and maybe a couple of other teams if I remember correctly.  Pierre Gauthier then raised his offer, tacking on an extra year and a No Trade Clause, and that won the auction.  The Canadiens only got Erik Cole because they were 'allowed' to make him a better offer.

In this same situation, where a lot of teams were trying to entice a free agent to their team, but can't separate from the pack because they're all offering the max for a single player and a five-year term, the Cinderella teams will never find Prince Charming.  If there's an(other) artificial brake or ceiling on salaries, a lot of players might just say "Screw it, for the same money I'm going to be a King and meet starlets."  The Rangers and Kings will be the big winners.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Gary Bettman is an awful partner

My first real job growing up was working on tobacco farms.  It was strenuous, dirty work, but I was a kid and didn't know any better.  I was probably working harder at home on chores, so it was almost like a vacation when I was at work.  Plus I got paid what was fat cash for a teenager in the mid-seventies.

Harvest time could go a number of ways based on your crew.  You were all seated on the same harvester that crawled up and down the field, you were responsible for picking tobacco leaves on the plants in your row.  If you had coworkers who'd done a few seasons, you could go at a pretty good clip, maybe even second or third gear with a mid-throttle.  Some seasons though some newbie would join and be overwhelmed and we'd need to putter along in first gear on idle to accommodate him.  Either way, you got paid a day rate, you were done your day when you'd filled a kiln.

So we were happy summers when we had a fast team and could knock off around 1400 hr or so, we'd sometimes skip lunch and finish even earlier.  The crew back at the farm who hung the leaves in the kiln were happy with short days too.  When we dragged up and down at a snail's pace and barely got home for dinner, nobody was.  And on those slow days, we'd start yapping and moaning, since that's all we could do to pass the time, pick tobacco at a mind-numbingly slow pace and talk with each other, while the newbie had a stress aneurysm trying to keep up.

One day we were talking about wages.  We spoke covetously of some farms that seemed like Shangri-La, with spic and span barns and kilns and kickass gleaming equipment, where they apparently paid as much as $35 or $38 a day.  We were only making $26, a raise over the $24 we'd received the previous season.  One wag piped up that Monsieur Laporte, our employer, used to pay his guys $32, but dropped the rate the year we joined or the one before.  We understood that we got paid lower rates, his farm was smaller, and so were his kilns, so that our harvester was a six seater instead of an eight-seater at those bigger operations, and for him a day's harvest wasn't as lucrative as at those big places.  But still, we thought...

Well, Monsieur Laporte got wind of this, and midway through the next day, he drives to the field we were at in his truck and hops out, with a stack of ledgers under his arm.  He calls us over and opens his meticulous books to us, who are at this point embarrassed and crestfallen that this nice man feels he has to explain himself to us young punks.  But he insists and he lays it all out on the table, he shows us the entries for wages for this season and the years we worked for him before, and the years before we joined, and he put to rest the rumours we'd floated.  It's all there in the clearly marked ledgers, one for each season, and he points out the figures with his beaten thumb.

We felt yea big.  Monsieur Laporte wasn't mad at us, he seemed just as embarrassed as we did, but he felt it necessary to clear the air, and for us to understand that he was paying us fairly, according to what he brought in, what he could afford, and what he always paid for his pickers.  When he left and we got back to work, we talked about how he was a good guy and always treated us fairly, how he always threw a big party at the end of the season, how when the first frost approached and we slept at his farm's bunkhouse he'd wake us up every two hours or so and we'd run out to the field and change the irrigation sprinklers from one field to another in the hopes that the warm water would prevent the tobacco from freezing, and he was so appreciative of us for our work.  On the really cold and rainy days when you're getting slapped in the face with wet tobacco leaves and you're soaking wet no matter how good your rain gear is, he'd show up with his bottle of rum and pour us all a shot, and laugh along with everybody as each downed his shot and grimaced.  "That'll warm up your fingers," he'd intone.

I thought of Monsieur Laporte while I watched Sneerin' Gary Bettman condescend to the reporters in his Thursday press conference.  He let out some whoppers.  One that made me sit up and laugh and rewind my PVR to ensure I'd heard him correctly, was when he said that in 2005 they come to an agreement that was fair to both parties, but in hindsight it had been "too fair."  Exclamation point!

Another good one was when he kept saying that costs were rising, his only justification for wanting to claw back 10% of the players' take.  He mentioned that things such as jet fuel had increased, a necessary item for the charter planes the teams use.  He explained that expenses for the benefit of the players, such as bigger medical teams, training staff, and coaching staffs had also risen.

Now, these last costs seem to me costs that a winning organization would bear to be competitive, since owners usually want to win Stanley Cups and championships, and it has never historically been the role of the players to bear these costs.  In any event, this is where Gary Bettman is the anti-Monsieur Laporte.  If he had, as he told us he would after the last lost season, treated the players as partners he would work with to grow the game for everyone's benefit, he'd now be able to take out his ledger and show the players like Monsieur Laporte did with us.  "Look boys, we agreed on 45-55 last time around, with you guys getting 56 and 57% if revenues grew, but lookie here, our expenses have risen at double the rate of revenues.  Jet fuel is such and such, equipment costs are 300% higher, most teams have doubled their training staff to help prevent injuries and recover quicker, we've had to add doctors to deal with the concussion problem and make your workplace safer, ...."  If he valued the players, and if they trusted him, they could enter a discussion where there'd be a collaborative tone, not an adversarial one.

Instead, he flatly states that they're paying the players too much, apparently based on a value judgment, on the owners' druthers.  He refers to the recent NFL and NBA settlements as examples to justify that 57% for the players is too high, but this was something he was deadset against in 2005, brusquely stating that hockey was its own sport and had its own conditions that didn't lend itself to comparisons.

At the end of the year parties, Monsieur Laporte would give you your last paycheque, one that usually had a small bonus if the harvest looked promising, and he'd ask you what your plans were.  We were all going back to school, most of us had already missed a week or so of classes to help bring in the harvest.  He assured you that you had a job guaranteed the next summer if you wanted one, but that he'd understand if you got another job somewhere and needed to save up more money for university.  He clearly seemed interested in our future and our success, and as a result so were we, we worked hard for him, not just as we normally would at any job, but because he was a nice man and we wanted nothing but the best for him.

If Gary Bettman wasn't the twerp that he is, the little guy with the Napoleon complex who has to browbeat everyone and show that he's the smartest guy in the room, he could have counseled the owners differently and have approached these negotiations with a different tack.  There would have been a chance that some common ground could have been found.  Instead, the players see a sneaky little liar who is trying to worm his hands into their pockets, and the reporters who cover the game see it as much the same.  It's no surprise that this will be the third lockout on his watch.  It's indicative of who he is, and his leadership and management style.  It also reflects very clearly what he values most: money over hockey.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

NFL Week 1: Chargers 22, Raiders 14

The Chargers start off on the right foot by getting one in the win column, and we're happy with that.  We just have to keep things in perspective, and keep the unconvincing win in context.

The Raiders organization and their fans are a joke.  They put on their pathetic costumes and makeup and wear jerseys as black as their heart and as dark as their souls and have scary skulls and spikes and get all revved up and psycho at the start of the game, and then wilt under the crushing idiocy and buffoonery of their team.  By the third quarter they're usually booing their heroes.  As they did during this game.

The Raiders have been led by a demented old woman for decades now, and the NFL deification machine  has obfuscated that fact, instead spinning it into a case of a headstrong and idiosyncratic owner.  His bizarre personnel decisions, involving both players and coaches, have been glossed over.  He has been allowed by the courts to highjack the Raiders from Oakland to L.A. and back again for his personal enrichment.  Even the manner in which he became the owner of the Raiders is under question, with various former partners claiming to have been defrauded and pushed out of the ownership team.

So when I see them gift another team with a win as they did in this game, by the simple fact of having lost their long snapper and not having a competent backup on the roster, I see only a team that has itself to blame.  I see a team that is wrapped up in its own mystique of being a bunch of renegades and outlaws that sinks under the weight of its own indiscipline.  I see a team that claims to prize the vertical passing game but has a succession of inept quarterbacks leading it, and drafts players based on their 40-yard dash times and ends up with massively flawed reaches like Darrius Heyward-Bey and Taiwan Jones on its roster, instead of football players.

For all his failures, Norv Turner and his coaching staff do their actual job and have on their roster players capable of subbing in for their long-snapper.  The Raiders, led by the never-amount-to-anything son of the deceased owner, and by rookie head coach Dennis Allen, evidently don't get around to those kinds of details.

So we're not going to get excited about this win.  It's nice that for once a crazy event resulted in a fortuitous win rather than a seemingly undeserved loss, as we've suffered in recent years.  But our offence sputtered.  Our lines on both sides of the ball got caved in on the first couple of series, before the Raiders lost their initial slavering homicidal energy and deflated their own balloons with their penalties.  Our quarterback and his favourite target Antonio Gates seemed out of sync, with the latter allowing a couple of passes to slip through his mitts, one of which would have been a touchdown.

Sure, our defence looked good at the end, when the Raiders had lost hope, and came up with cheap sacks, but they seemed like they had all they could handle at the start.

About the only bright spot seemed to be the return to form of Nate Kaeding, who it must be repeated seems to have an even stronger boot than before he blew out his ACL, if that's possible.

So we'll keep this win, but we're not going to get carried away.  We're going to wait and see how the Charger fare against an actual NFL team, one with a leadership and an organizational plan and a roster filled by professional players who are coached to win games rather than to satisfy the adolescent urges of its moronic fan base.  If the Chargers can stop Chris Johnson and the Titans, we'll pay closer attention then.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Prediction: San Diego Chargers go 7-9 in 2012

While I'm eagerly anticipating the San Diego Chargers' season, it's more as a result of my fan status and the attachment I have to the players, the team and its history and identity, and the city, a positive jewel.  It's not because I expect the team to be strong and competitive and to go deep into the playoffs.

As a matter of fact, to go on the record here, I believe the Chargers will go below .500 in 2012 and end up a mediocre 7-9 also-ran in a difficult transition season.  Note that I didn't go down the calendar and allot probable wins and losses, a mug's game since teams are evaluated in this pre-season rundown according to their previous season's performance, and NFL teams are known to swing wildly in quality from one year to the next.  No, my prediction rests on the feeling I have that this team is no longer the supremely talented but underperforming unit of the last few seasons.  It is a team that is showing the strain of too many misses on its first and second-round draft picks, and of too often bundling picks to trade up for players that end up laying an egg.  The resultant lack of depth is apparent on the offensive line and defensive lines, notably.

The reason I say this is a transition year is that while the face of the team is still there in Philip Rivers, and the All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates is due for a big rebound season after two marred by injury, many of the mainstays on the team have moved on.  On offence, in a matter of two seasons, the team has dropped Pro Bowlers Kris Dielman, Marcus McNeill, Darren Sproles, and Vincent Jackson, all players who were dominant or game-changers at their position and were replaced by lesser ones.  In all this churning, there is only one player who seems to have a chance to be a star in his own right, but he's on defence, not offence.

The offence is feeling the effects of players like Buster Davis, uh, being busts, and players like Ryan Mathews not living up to their high draft billing and the assets surrendered to obtain them.  'Fullback' Jacob Hester never became the go-to do-everything heart and soul leader the team gave up a 2nd and a fifth round pick to obtain.  Journeymen at best replace Mssrs. McNeill and Dielman on the left side of the line.

We saw how Philip Rivers' decision-making and accuracy suffered last season with his line in a state of upheaval, and I fear he'll have the same problems this season.  He often aired it out to Vincent Jackson, a physical beast who would go up and get his passes against overmatched corners.  He doesn't have the same kind of connection and rhythm, and certainly doesn't have the same physical mismatch with Robert Meachem.  Passes he would wing out to VJ that ended up completed for touchdowns will more often be intercepted if the pre-season is any indication.

Ryan Mathews is a very talented back who has had conditioning issues and fumbling problems, still has some maturing to do, and struggles to go through a season without having to sit out games due to injuries.  He's started the season on the sidelines and should be back soon, but must be productive and consistent for the season to not be a disaster.  Even healthy, he'll struggle to find holes without road grader Kris Dielman up front.

On defence, we'll also see a team trying to find a new identity.  Jacques Césaire and Luis Castillo were let go before the season, but they were at best steady and experienced but unspectacular.  They are replaced by younger, more athletic players with promise, and we can expect them to make mistakes, but also make some plays due to their sheer athleticism.

The linebackers is one area we can be optimistic, even excited about.  The addition of first-rounder Melvin Ingram can inject a healthy dose of energy, he showed a high motor and skill in the pre-season getting after the quarterback, a deficiency for the Chargers last season.  Shaun Phillips saw a lot of double-teams as the only pass-rushing threat early on, until he got help from Ravens castoff Antwan Barnes.  Both are back, along with a seemingly healthy Larry English who seems ready to deliver on the first round pick the Chargers spent to acquire him.  Add in veteran Takeo Spikes and third-year player Donald Butler, who played solidly at middle LB last season, and you have the makings of a strong crew, especially when accounting for free agent acquisitions Jarret Johnson and Demorrio Williams.

The secondary is a cause for concern.  Quentin Jammer isn't getting any younger or speedier.  Antoine Cason seemed to take a step back last season, yet he is counted on to contribute as a former first-rounder and starting cornerback.  Eric Weddle is a point of strength, but finding him a partner at Safety has been a a headache for the Chargers for years now.  Last year's roll of the dice on oft-injured Bob Sanders came up snake eyes.  This year, the plan is to go with hard-hitting but mistake-prone Atari Bigby, and ease in 2012 third-rounder Brandon Taylor.  Overall, this is a thin group that can be adequate if things go mostly right for the Chargers, but also has the potential to go very wrong.

Special Teams seem to have solidified under coach Rich Bisaccia, who quelled the Football Follies fodder that were the special teams in 2010, what with blocked punts and fumbles and touchdown returns allowed.  Nate Kaeding has returned seemingly stronger than before after tearing his ACL on the opening play of last season.  Mike Scifres is one of the best punters in the business.  The return game was hurt by the loss of Darren Sproles, and we'll have to see if the options provided by Richard Goodman, Micheal Spurlock and Eddie Royal improve last season's results.

So overall, you have a team with a few bright spots but more questions than answers.  Multiply that with the pedestrian coaching and leadership of Norv Turner, and we have a recipe for a muddling team if not for disaster.  While Norv may be a nice guy, and has overcome much to attain the success he has, as demonstrated in a profile by Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune, he is not a leader and motivator, he waffles and gabbles and goofs during games.  His much-vaunted talent as an offensive genius and play-caller can be questioned by fans who find some of his calls either predictable or mind-boggling.

The case of Darren Sproles is illuminating.  He was often called upon to provide a change of pace in the Chargers' offence, but Norv would try to 'disguise and surprise' by sending him all too often for a run between the tackles, famously during a game-ending play against the Ravens in which he was stuffed by unconvicted murderer Ray Lewis.  Norv's 'surprise' play was attempted so often that it was fully expected by teams, who awaited Darren with relish and exposed him to injury.  Last season, he defected to the Saints and promptly had the best season of his career, an NFL first in that he was the first to go over 1000 yards on offence and in the return game in the same year.  This while in a new system without the benefit of OTA's and a pre-season, and on a team that has a surfeit of options for Drew Brees to choose from.  Why couldn't offensive genius Norv Turner wring that kind of production out of him?

Norv's greater failings are his lack of leadership.  His teams routinely commit bone-headed mistakes.  The players fumble and bumble and take dumb penalties and are never called to account.  He is the anti-Belichick, a coach who takes unheralded players and coaches them up and molds them into a winning team.  For the Patriots, the team is greater than the sum of its parts.  For the Chargers, unfailingly, the team is a shiny bauble that breaks early after moderate use.  We all remember Rex Ryan's quip that he would have won a few Super Bowls if he'd been the head coach of a collection of talent like the Chargers.  It's probably fair to say that most coaches believe they'd do better than Norv too.

Norv also is awful at clock management and coaches' challenges.  His sideline presence leaves a lot to be desired.  Observers think that he spends too much time play-calling during games and loses sight of the overall picture.  While he has hired an assistant in Steve Fairchild to help with game management, he has historically been a negative on game days in terms of putting his team in the best position to win.

Overall, one can't help to think that the team has regressed from last season.  I'm being optimistic and hoping for a small step back this year, and a return to form next season with most of the big pieces intact, an influx of productive draftees, and an improvement from the young players on the defence.  And, as manna from heaven, a long-overdue coaching change.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

ESPN doesn't think very highly of your Montréal Canadiens

ESPN ranked the Montréal Canadiens jersey as the best in pro sports in North America.  We swelled with pride.  It now ranks the franchises themselves, according to various criteria, and the Toronto Maple Leafs come out as the absolute worst franchise in sports, in their opinion.  Before we chortle though, we notice that the Canadiens are ranked 111th out of 122.


 After years of unstable ownership and some clown GM's in Irving Grundman and Réjean Houle, and some seemingly talented and experienced hockey men who ran aground in Bob Gainey and Pierre Gauthier, we can't really expect our team to do well in this analysis.  Geoff Molson seems to have the right philosophy to both rejuvenate our team and return it to its former glory.  With all the advantages conferred on the Montréal Canadiens, nothing else than excellence can be expected or tolerated.

Review: "Wherever I Wind Up" by R.A. Dickey

The autobiography of R.A. Dickey "Wherever I Wind Up" is not your average sports biography, but then again neither is the author your average ball player.  He's one of the few knuckleball pitchers in the Big Leagues.  He's only recently started having success after being a borderline AAA-Major Leaguer his entire career, and exploded this season with a 17-4 W-L record with a 2.63 Earned Run Average as of this writing.  He majored in English Literature in college and quotes lines from his favourite books.  As such, he has started receiving a lot of attention from the media, and not just the usual sports content providers.

While R.A. Dickey uses a co-author, it's easy to see that he has a distinctive voice which carries through the book.  His account is more than the old-school biography in which a player would quote: "My second year I did such and such and went to the All-Star Game and we made the playoffs, blah blah blah.."  It is well written, and revealing.  It also follows a recent trend in sports biographies in that it is searingly honest about his upbringing and experiences outside the sport.  Mr. Dickey overcame a difficult family situation and personal suffering and abuse, which he exposes and discusses openly.

His interesting athletic journey takes him from a gym rat childhood to a great collegiate career and eventual membership on the Atlanta Olympics US Baseball squad.  He is a first-round draft pick of the Rangers, but hits a major speed bump to his career right after being drafted.  He perseveres through the ups and downs of life as a journeyman pitcher until a fateful meeting with his team's management when they convince him to retrain as a knuckleball pitcher, which entails more time in the minors and tribulations.

While he is a thoughtful and reasonable guy, there are some surprising moments in the book which make the reader shake his head, none more so than his decision one day to attempt swimming across the Missouri River while in Omaha.  He had looked out upon the mighty river from the team's hotel for years and thought that, as a strong swimmer, it would be a difficult but achievable challenge for him.  His very cursory research should have led him to reconsider, but bizarrely, he went ahead and attempted the stunt which went very wrong.  This passage was all the more shocking to this reader when the amount of pollution in the river is considered, and for the fact that he is currently reading Stephen Ambrose's account of the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Nowhere in the latter book does it occur to a reader that attempting to swim across such a broad and swiftly-flowing river is anything but a suicidal project.

Another worthwhile aspect of this biography is how the author repairs some of his relationships that have been damaged, sometimes by his own actions.  He is a man of strong faith, and often takes the high road when faced with difficult moments in his life, instead of burning bridges, which serves him well later on.

While no longer a baseball fan, the reviewer enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in sports and stories of triumph over adversity.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Are the NHL labour negotiation 'informal talks' worth holding?

Informal talks are very important in a bargaining session.  A common principle of bargaining is that when you put something on the table, it's kind of hard to take it off again.  That's why parties are careful to take small steps towards a goal.

An illustration was the Players' Association strong attempt to break the impasse last time around and avert a salary cap by offering the owners the alternative of a 24% wage rollback.  In the end, they ended up with the cap, and the precise 24% cut they'd proposed as an alternative.  Ouch.

So often, both sides know where a deal lies, what the figures and tradeoffs are going to be, but neither side wants to blurt it out at the table and weaken their position.  If the two parties, usually the lead negotiators, can hold a sidebar or hallway meeting and test each other out, they can go back to their rooms and take the temperature, see if the direction they're headed in will work.  While these sidebars kind of tip your hand a little bit, they're not as likely to be set in stone as if they're floated at the table with everyone taking notes.

All negotiations I've been in, the deadlocks broke during sidebar meetings late in the game, our rep would come back and say: "This is what we can get now, and I'm pretty sure we can win on these things if we give up on those, and this is the figure(s) we can probably get without going on strike.  If we strike, we might push it to such and such, but..."

So be encouraged that the sides are meeting.  Gary Bettman has a lot of room to move and still obtain a great deal for the owners.  Don Fehr came in with a reasonable first offer and thus won the PR war, every reasonable observer has concluded that the players actually want a deal that will work for both sides, as opposed to the owners who are salivating at the thought of another great heist.  But now Mr. Fehr doesn't really have any room to move, he can only take tiny steps.

Mr. Bettman has to swallow his pride and meet the players more than halfway if he wants a deal to prevent a lockout, and is more likely to do that in an informal meeting than at the table with a media session immediately afterwards.  In an informal meeting, Mr. Bettman can move more freely and at the end when the deal is signed confess that the players showed imagination and flexibility in their willingness to work with him, that they won him over to their vision, and that they will enter a new, stronger partnership.

Again, there is a low probability that this will happen, but it is a greater one if informal talks are held rather than formal talks with a big group, or certainly greater than if no talks at all are held.

Guy Lafleur's retirement, Take 2

On the 67th birthday of Jacques Lemaire, the old trope that he 'forced' Guy Lafleur to retire is trotted out again.  This chestnut has been canon in the Démon Blond hagiography, propagated at times by the subject himself.

Guy Lafleur was magnificent in many areas.  One of these is his ability to deflect self-responsibility.

I always say this: if Guy Lafleur had still been the player he was in the late seventies, wouldn't Serge Savard as GM, Ronald Corey as President, and Jacques Lemaire as coach have been only too happy to keep coddling him and looking the other way at the off-ice excursions of their star player?  Guy wasn't quite Pierre Larouche or Derek Sanderson, he kept it together enough to be the dominant player of the last half of the seventies, but when his skills began to erode he didn't adapt, start paying more attention to his health or conditioning.  He certainly wasn't ready to accept a less prominent role with the team.

An anecdote is telling in his case.  When he made his comeback with the Rangers and the huge news of his intentions broke, I read all the Montréal papers that day.  The most jarring detail was his defiant attitude that he had a lot of hockey left, and that he wanted to come back to prove that and leave on his own terms.  He swore that he was going to undertake a 'boxer's training regimen' to get back into shape for training camp, and that he was "going to quit smoking (wait for it....) tomorrow."

Exclamation point!  Not today.  Not last week, or last month when he started thinking of the comeback.  Tomorrow?  This was a couple of weeks from training camp!

If Guy Lafleur has to make out others as the culprits for his 'forced' retirement, he can delude himself all he wants, but we don't have to swallow that lie.  Jacques Lemaire has shown to be a good and effective coach, he knows how to win.  He needed Guy Lafleur to play within his system, and Guy was incapable or unwilling to do so.  That the situation came to an impasse and Guy impulsively decided to retire, and that Ronald Corey accepted his resignation, says more about Guy at that point in time than it does about Messrs. Lemaire, Savard and Corey.

The Northern Menace is again a potent threat

For the fifth year in a row, the Northern Menace has gathered to scarify U.S. fantasy teams.  This season they'll wreak havoc in the San Diego Charger Raider Haters league on  The GM was handed the #1 draft spot for the snake-style draft, which is great if you have a wayback machine and can go back 5 years to when LaDainian Tomlinson ruled all and was money in the bank, as dominant a #1 pick as had been seen since Wayne Gretzky required hockey poolers to split up his goals and assists as two separate draft picks.  These days, with Arian Foster perennially tender in the hamstring region, and Adrian Peterson recovering from an ACL reconstruction, there is no slam dunk #1.

The astute GM therefore didn't overthink things, he went with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers as the first pick in the draft, seeing as he leads an explosive offence and will not likely regress from his performance the last couple of years.  He is also durable, aside from the pesky concussion issues that have dogged him.  We hope that he will not try to run for twenty yards every time the play breaks down, but will instead chuck the ball out of bounds and stay active the whole season by doing so.

Now we had to wait while 22 players flew off the board until we picked twice at #24 and #25.  The advantage of picking back-to-back is that you have a lot of time between picks to prepare, and can then pick players in bunches.  The drawback is that a lot can happen while you wait 22 picks, you may think you're prepared, but then find the players you were targeting being stolen right before you speak, and  have to scramble to decide on two other players to choose as the clock races against you.

There wasn't a problem with the 2nd and 3rd pick though.  We targeted two top-flight wide receivers and they were there when called upon.  Andre Johnson was a decent pickup at #24, despite the whispers that he may be getting old and injury prone.  He's still a beast, runs in an explosive offence, and has a healthy Matt Schaub to fling him the ball again.  He should be a fine choice.  At #25, we had waffled a bit as our picks came up, lusting after after Brandon Marshall now that he's teamed up with Jay Cutler again, those two had such great chemistry in Denver, but decided to draft Greg Jennings instead.  The Rodgers to Jennings combo was too tempting, getting a touchdown at both ends of a completion feels tremendous.  It will potentially ring up some pinball-game-worthy scores for the Menace.  Another reason we picked up Greg Jennings is that he has had some stellar seasons in the past for the Northern Menace, especially when he was an unknown quantity.  One season we had the aforementioned Brandon Marshall, Greg Jennings and Vincent Jackson of San Diego as our three wideouts, all three picked up on waivers when injuries struck our allotment of Santana Mosses and T.J. Houshmandzadehs and we had to scramble.  Ah, cheap WR's, those were the days...  Anyway, Brandon Marshall has well-known medical and behavioural issues, we felt that Mr. Jennings was the safer bet here.

Rounds 4 and 5 also went roughly to plan, and we wasted no time in picking up Stevan Ridley as our first running back chosen.  We have a hunch on this kid, in that he seems to have no competition in the Patriots' backfield.  For once, there may be a bellcow back in that potent offence, who'll punch in a touchdown or two every week, and kill the clock at the end of the game, it seems too good to pass up, despite Bill Belichick being an early proponent of the RB-by-committee approach.  We feel that taking him at the end of the fourth round is good value, and that he was the best of the remaining RB's on the board.

As the first choice in the fifth, we snapped up Mike Wallace, the Steeler speedster who had just ended his holdout.  Now, players who miss a lot of training camp worry us, normally, but this guy is the real deal, he would have been picked in the second round if not for having sat out.  We think that a WR can better deal with being absent from the team during OTA's and camp, their regimen and the game they play is different than for a running back.

One player we also targeted here and decided to hold off on was Jermichael Finley, the Packer tight end. Again, the opportunity for a combo was enticing, but we felt leery of taking the kid this high.  He's all potential, has crazy ability, but hasn't delivered on it yet, being subject to dings and nagging injuries that prevent him from dominating, as well as having some maturity and competitiveness issues.  If he puts it together he can be scary, but we thought we might be able to snap him up at the end of the sixth round, at a more affordable rank for a second-tier TE.

Unfortunately it was not to be, Mr. Finley was grabbed a few spots ahead of our pick at #72, so we went RB-WR again, with Rashad Jennings as our second RB picked.  The kid is big, fast, fully recovered from a knee injury he suffered early last season (he was ready to play in October but had already been placed on IR), and drew rave reviews from camp watchers who all saw in him a starting NFL RB this August.  The fact that he plays behind Maurice Jones-Drew is a definite drawback, but the latter's holdout cracked open the door of opportunity for Mr. Jennings, in that it may precipitate a trade.  Also, RB's who hold out are notorious for performing poorly/getting injured, which would benefit our draftee.  Besides, this was our plan, once we'd decided to go with a QB, then two WR's in the first three rounds, we knew we'd be bargain-bin diving for RB's in the later rounds, not picking surefire studs.  We feel reasonable confident that Rashad Jennings will be a shrewd pickup.

Now we had our starting WR's, and two RB's who'll see some action but will be spelled based on matchups week-to-week.  The instinct might have been to stock up on another RB now, get some bench strength, but the other RB's we'd identified as targets weren't slated to be picked soon, they'd be available later, so we put them on the backburner and took Reggie Wayne with the first pick of the seventh round.  Reggie is now a crafty veteran, not quite the speedster he once was, but as the #1 WR on the Colts and the target of rookie Andrew Luck's first passes in the NFL, he seemed like a good value at this point.  If he can retain some of the magic he had in the past and gets us 6-8 touchdowns and anywhere near 1000 yards we'll be happy.

Our picks in Rounds 8 and 9 also went according to plan.  This was getting too easy.  As the 96th pick we grabbed Houston Texan QB Matt Schaub.  While we already have him as our backup in another league, and wanted to stay away from doubling up on the same players, and while we have Aaron Rodgers as our #1 who will likely start every game he plays, we felt the value for the QB of the high-octane Texan offence was too good to pass up.  He'll be injury insurance or a valuable trading chip if he performs as he usually does.  His value this year was deflated by an injury he suffered last season that depressed his stats, but the guy is a high second-tier QB in our estimation, about even with Matt Stafford below the Tom Brady-Drew Brees-Aaron Rodgers stratosphere.

The player we got next was Baltimore Ravens WR Anquan Boldin.  While this goes against our policy of never drafting Raiders or Ravens, Anquan is a warrior and a great value at this spot.  He didn't have great stats last season, but he may be due for a rebound, especially if Joe Flacco can get past the journeyman level  and finally develops as a star QB.  Anyway, not a big risk with a 9th round choice, and a good chance for some upside.

We hesitated before pulling the trigger on these two players, since they would be backups on our roster, and we still needed a starting Tight End.  We'd planned to grab Jermichael Finley in the middle rounds, or failing that, getting either Owen Daniels of the Texans or Greg Olsen of the Panthers late.  Both these players were available in round 9, but we rolled the dice and hoped they'd still be there at the end of the tenth.

Sure enough, both were still there when our turn came up again, and we almost dislocated our shoulder patting ourselves on the back.  We could have gone with Mr. Daniels, he's a quality TE who wrecked his knee two seasons ago and probably wasn't quite ready to go last season.  He plays in the aforementioned Texans freewheeling offence, and if he returns to form he'll put up points.  Instead though, we went with the TE who doesn't have a knee injury to recover from in Greg Olsen.  This player showed great promise when he came into the league but either had to share catches in Chicago with other TE's, or was saddled with a system designed by Mike Martz that didn't showcase TE's historically.  Last season he went to the Panthers and had another mediocre season, due partly to the fact that he shared snaps with Jeremy Shockey, who is now gone.  So we played the hunch that Mr. Olsen will put it all together this season in the Cam Newton offence, with lots of snaps and a system that should feature him.  If not, we'll see what's available on the trade market or the waiver wire.  And we'll forever shun Greg Olsen, we'll have had it waiting for this guy to explode, and getting teased by the too infrequent flashes he shows.

The next player we picked up, with the first pick of the 11th round is Houston Texan super-sub RB Ben Tate.  The kid has all the tools to be a starting RB, and has shown it in games, with explosive speed and the toughness to plow in for touchdowns.  Trouble is, he's behind Arian Foster on the depth chart.  Good thing though, he gets a lot of snaps regardless and makes the most of them.  Last season, he started 2 games, played in 15 and almost rushed for 1000 yards.  Another good thing is that Arian Foster, as we mentioned before, can be fragile, and if he misses games, then starting Ben Tate is a no-brainer.  Again, not a slam dunk of a RB, but a quality player with huge upside, and we got him cheap.

With the draft now winding down, we picked last in the 12th round and chose, in honour of the Seattle Seahawks' '12th Man', their Defence and Special Teams squad.  I never get excited about picking DST's, they're unpredictable from week to week and season to season, but since we have to get one it might as well be the fast and aggressive squad that Pete Carroll is putting together.  They will play the putrid Cardinals and Rams twice each, so those should be easy pickings, and they also have a Week 11 Bye.  I never carry a spare DST to start the season, and I hate having to make room for one on an early bye.  When the bye week is late, you can hope to have some flexibility, in that you may be creating room on your roster by dropping injured players by then.  You can also by then scoop up another DST that a team in need of room on their roster had to drop, one which is past its bye and which you can ride all the way to the end of the season.  Anyway, that's the best reasoning I can put forward for now.  A DST is a DST.  If it pans out great, if not we go to the waiver wire.

Our next pick was our last RB.  We always like to have two WR subs, two RB subs, and a QB sub, at least to start the season, before injuries and reality conspire against our plans.  So for our fourth RB we grabbed David Wilson, the Giants backup tailback.  Again, we took a clear #2 back on a high-powered offence, and again the incumbent is somewhat fragile.  If Ahmad Bradshaw gets dinged up again this season, we may be in line for some good performances from this kid.

Or so we thought, until we heard about him fumbling during the Wednesday night tilt against the Cowboys, and him crying warm tears afterwards on the sidelines.  We may drop the kid as a result.  What does it say about the kid's makeup if he can't handle adversity like this?  Plus, we may not have done the best job of scouting, we now hear that he had a fumbling problem at Virginia Tech, which is why he lasted so long in the April NFL draft despite his physical gifts and potential.  We'll see about him on Tuesday, based on what's available and how the weekend games go.

Our last player we drafted was Rams Kicker Greg Zuerlein.  No reason, apparently he has a strong leg, that's why the Rams drafted him.  We weren't married to him though, knew we'd go looking for a better option, since the Rams won't score much.  Soon enough, a team dropped one of its two (!) kickers in Denver Bronco Matt Prater, so we scooped him up.  We don't mind having a Bronco player, plus Peyton Manning should get that offence rolling, and thereby give their kicker lots of shots at the goalposts.  Prater's got a strong leg, he'll be good for a couple of 50 yarders.

So there you have it, this year's edition of the Northern Menace, with a roster move already performed before the first week began.  May there be little need to make more, be it through injury or poor performance.

QB                          Rodgers, Aaron
RB                           Ridley, Stevan
RB                           Tate, Ben
WR                         Jennings, Greg
WR                         Johnson, Andre
WR                         Wallace, Mike
TE                           Olsen, Greg
DST                        Seahawks
K                             Prater, Matt
Bench (QB)                         Schaub, Matt
Bench (RB)                          Jennings, Rashad
Bench (RB)                          Wilson, David
Bench (WR)                        Boldin, Anquan
Bench (WR)                        Wayne, Reggie

Friday, 7 September 2012

Is Gary Bettman to blame for the NHL's probable lockout?

I don't really hold it against Gary Bettman that he didn't foresee everything and that he didn't negotiate a new CBA that would be airtight for the owners in perpetuity.  The 2005 deal was a first try at one that would include a salary cap.  Lots of modeling and forecasting was probably done, and it looked like the deal would be a big win for the owners.

Such variables like the growth of the Canadian dollar were hard to predict, and allow for.  If both sides had seen this coming, they would have been ready for the explosion revenues, and the way it would have dragged up the salary floor.

Big technological changes such as the explosion of social media, along with the advent of the PVR and ability to download regular TV programs are all factors that made sports programming the only 'must see' content on TV, and precipitated a growth in interest and the amount leagues could charge.

So Gary Bettman might have been been a visionary who saw these conditions changing in the near-future and allowed for it, and would have received kudos if he did, but instead, he tends to look backward.  He chases a NFL-type national TV contract, problematic for a sport that has a strong hold in the northeast but tenuous grasp of fans in the NASCAR belt.  He claims to want to grow the game and capture new fans, but has isolated the League by hitching his wagon to the fledgling NBC Sports Network with an exclusive contract, instead of negotiating and delivering some type of an agreement that included ESPN and would ensure an NHL presence on SportsCentre and talk shows like PTI among others.  By doing so he was penny-wise and pound-foolish, cloistering the NHL in a TV ghetto instead of being in the most popular neighbourhood, the channel watched by most fans.  He chose to be the only league that isn't on ESPN.  He chose to sign the exclusive deal with the network that is owned by the owner of the Flyers and open himself up to accusations of conflict of interest.

If we allow him a mulligan and agree he can't be faulted for not having a crystal ball, he still can be dinged for is his inconsistency, his lack of probity and his dealings with the fans and the media.

He fails in the area of saying one thing and doing the other.  He called the players his partners and promised to work with them to grown the game for the benefit of all when he signed the last CBA.  In fact he has continued to be a divisive force in player relations, in his waffling efforts on player safety, for example, and his obstinacy in keeping inept, corrupt buffoons such as Colin Campbell on his payroll.  Any competent President/CEO would have relieved him of his duties long ago.  He treats the players with contempt, acting like a tyrant and bully in this negotiation process.  He has to wear that.  He doesn't skate free by virtue of his being a tough negotiator.

By being the face of the owners, their representative to the fans, and treating the latter in a cavalier fashion, subjecting them to a probable second lockout in seven years and third during his tenure, and by high-handedly dismissing the players' suggestion that they continue play under the strictures of the current CBA, he loses any hope of appearing to be a statesman and a force for the greater good.  He fully deserves the opprobrium leveled in his direction by the fans and the media who cover hockey and who can easily through his charades and shell-game.  To excuse his intellectual dishonesty and his treatment of his fans, the 'stakeholders' who ultimately own hockey and his league, so poorly, is to act as agents of appeasement while we are in fact witnessing a great injustice and being the victims of another great heist.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Gary Bettman's threats are ineffective

I wonder if Gary Bettman overplayed his hand by being so intransigeant and huffing about a lockout so early in the negotiations.  I feel that the players, and even the fans, have come to accept the lockout, since it's inevitable.  They're prepared for it psychologically, and while they'd rather be playing and earning, they're expecting to go a month or two at least without pay.  The PA told them to hold off on big purchases and bank their salaries from last year, they're getting their escrow amounts soon, so the September 15 date might feel more and more like a bureaucratic technicality.  So as much sabre-rattling as Mr. Bettman does, it's not scaring anyone, they know what they're in for anyway, the threat has no effect when it's combined with no option to alleviate or eliminate the threat.

"I'm going to punch you in the nose if you don't give me a dollar."

"We both know you're going to punch me in the nose no matter what, and that I won't give you a dollar, so why don't we just get it over with."

As such, now the real deadline might be the January 1 Winter Classic, and the pressure will slowly shift to the owners' side to become more reasonable as the lockout endures into October and November.  While they were united behind Mr. Bettman in 2004, I think in this case Geoff Molson and the new Leafs owners, among others, will grow disenchanted at having to pay interest on loans with no revenue coming in.  They'll start to think that a 1st round knockout isn't necessary, a decision would suit them fine.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Jared Gaither kind of minds all the scrutiny

Nice work from Michael Gehlken and Kevin Acee on covering the Jared Gaither injury.  I know they have to be polite and diplomatic, since they can't jeopardize their access and relationship with the team, but they still must be professionals and ask the tough questions, which they are doing.  Props.

Mr. Gaither may not like answering these questions, he may feel they are intrusive and unnecessary, but it's only normal that a professional athlete who recently signed a substantial free agent contract with a new team be available to the media.  It is also normal that his injury history and reputation be kept in perspective when these questions are asked, since that is all we have to go on to try to figure this thing out.  If Mr. Gaither feels that Michael Gehlken is impertinent, he needs to understand that he is only being asked questions that every Charger fan would ask, in much stronger language probably.  That huge signing bonus doesn't come out of thin air, it is provided by spectators who buy tickets and Sunday Ticket packages and jerseys.  In effect, Messrs. Gehlken and Acee are proxies for Mr. Gaither's bosses, and he needs to suck it up and play along.

I suggest he looks at how Ryan Mathews is answering queries about his playing status.  Ryan is eager to discuss his injury and rehab, how well he's progressing, and when he projects to practice with contact and play in a game.  He is rehabbing with gusto and wants to return as soon as the doctors and coaches give him the go-ahead, and communicates that to the fans.

Of course, Ryan's injury is easy to diagnose, it shows up on an X-Ray.  His collarbone was repaired by orthopedic surgeons.  It is tangible.  So maybe Mr. Gaither is a little bit embarrassed in comparison.

And all of this considered makes him, in sum, the author of his own misery.

Negotiations, Gary Bettman style

Gary Bettman says there's no point in meeting with the NHLPA until someone is ready to offer something new, and points to his offer as a significant gesture and concession on his side.

Jack Todd in the Gazette yesterday:

Bettman’s most recent stunt was so cute, it could have been a Kodak Moment. First, he hit the players with an “offer” that was more like a rollback to 1994. Then, when he softened that “offer” ever so slightly, he made like he had offered an enormous concession.

Bettman is like a bully neighbour who knocks on your door and says he’s going to be taking your house, your wife, your kids, your cars and your dog. You mutter something about places where the sun don’t shine and he leaves.

Two weeks later, the neighbour is back. Just to prove what a nice guy he is, he says, he’s willing to make concessions. He’s still going to take the house, the wife, the kids and the cars — but this time, he’s willing to let you keep the dog and live in the basement."
This isn't even a contest.  Anybody who thinks the owners are on solid ground on this is alone on an island, against every reasonable hockey commentor and analyst who have clearly articulated that the Players' Association position is logical, reasonable and constructive compared to their opposition.  To be 'on the owners' side' means to be aligned with mendacious fraudsters such as climate-change deniers or creation scientists.  Or Mitt Romney.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Peter King finds the courage to shill for the NFL. Again.

And again Mr. King finds the courage in his "Monday Morning Quarterback" column to shill for the NFL as it grinds down a group of long-serving employees.

He writes:
"If the officials would drop their pension demand -- that the current officials be grandfathered in to the more advantageous pension plan, while newly hired officials would have 401k pensions -- this dispute would probably end quickly."
As I explained last week, this is not a demand by the officials.  The side that demands something is the one which is asking for a change in the collective bargaining agreement, not the one that wants to stay with the status quo.

The officials aren't demanding anything, they want to retain what they already have, and in this environment where the league is flush with revenue, I don't see why they shouldn't.  

No Mr. King, the League is demanding something, it's demanding that the refs give up an actual pension.  A real pension, like people used to have in return for working long and hard for a successful company.  It's a demand by the League, not by the refs.

But it's a nice way of putting the onus on the refs, not the League.  It's big of you.

Evaluating the Canadiens' defence corps

I see the boys at Eyes on the Prize being eminently strategic and reasonable when evaluating our defence corps, playing the hand they're dealt, but I won't be that guy.  I'm going to lapse back into shoulda-woulda-coulda territory, 'cause I enjoy a good wallow.

1)  Our big problem is we don't have enough good defencemen.  It's a pretty obvious observation, but I'm afraid we can't see the forest from the trees, and I have to point out that the Emperor has no clothes.   We're taking for granted that Josh Gorges is a #1-2 defenceman, because he played great last season, relatively, was one of our two best D, and also because of his ballyhooed grit and determination and leadership, but I'm afraid we're acting like Leafs fans here, and hyping a mediocre player who got star billing due to circumstance.  Josh should be a #4 defenceman who sees a lot of PK duty and is a great complement to a defence squad, not THE guy you rely on.  But we'll have to rely on him for another season at least.

Of course, wouldn't be in this boat if we hadn't traded away Ryan McDonaugh, we could slot him in on our top pair next season and everyone would assume a lower, more proper rank.

Told you I'd wallow.

2)  We're acting as if Yannick Weber, Raphaël Diaz and Alexei Emelin are rookies who can't be depended on and will need to be shielded, babied for a whole season, and we're not far off the mark.  The reason we're in this boat is because instead of developing last season, they got half-rations of minutes, minutes which were misallocated to Jaroslav Spacek, Tomas Kaberle and Chris Campoli.  We shoulda played the kids and let them grow up, instead of sinking precious icetime into players who weren't going to play a part in our future.  We coulda been a lot further along than we are now.  We hope that Alexei Emelin will continue as a feared hitter and continue to show some offensive instinct, but improve his positioning, and not chase the puck behind the net.  We think Raphaël Diaz can play a role as a headsy skating first-pass type, but we wish we could have seen more.  We mope that Yannick Weber somehow stagnated last season.  We just wish we coulda seen more from all three.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Review: "Tough Guy" by Bob Probert

"Tough Guy: My Life on the Edge" is the autobiography of Bob Probert, a fast and eye-opening read, but possibly a disappointing one.  Mr. Probert and his co-author, Kirstie McLellan Day, delve pretty thoroughly into his life, his career and his struggles with his addictions, and the material is brutally honest, and certainly not a puff piece or hagiography.  The man knew he wasn't a hero and had no false impressions about his character or reputation or role in hockey, and doesn't try to gloss over his many failings.  As hockey players tend to do, he's also relatively modest about his accomplishments, often affecting a Gretzky-like 'aw shucks' demeanor when he is in a position to brag.

The circumstances surrounding the book are tragic, and may provide insight into its great failings.  While it was mostly complete, in that Mr. Probert had provided the material to recount his entire life story, he passed away before it was ready to be turned over to the publisher.  To this reader, this may explain why while the material is exhaustive, it tends to be shallow, uncritical or reflective, and devoid of insight.  The impression we get is that the author had finished tape recording his story, either spontaneously or during interviews with the co-author, but never had to opportunity to review the material.  More importantly, the co-author never has a chance to delve deeper into some areas.  Her subject has a frustrating tendency to rely on truisms and meaningless turns of phrase such as "It is what it is" and other such uninformative patter.  We get the sense that some tough questions needed to be asked in some sections, to probe further and break through the superficial, and that Mr. Probert would have been forthright and informative.  That this didn't happen is a loss for the reader.

I was also tempted to blame the co-author for this, thinking that she may have been out of her element, that she might have been awed by the subject, or that she was more of a typist than anything, just getting Mr. Probert to regurgitate the dates and events of his life and limiting her role to lining up his words into a rough first draft that was never put through a re-write or strenuous editing.  I do know that she has worked on other books with Theoren Fleury and Ron MacLean, so I'll reserve judgment until I pick up one of these.

Nevertheless, the book is entertaining, and helps the hockey fan who watched Mr. Probert's career to relive those days and flesh out some tenuous memories.  It is easy to forget how important his presence on a team could be, in that when healthy, he was probably the toughest, most feared pugilist in the game, yet was talented enough to play a regular shift on the Wings' second line.  He was easily capable of scoring 20 goals, hitting a high of 29 in 87-88, and racking up seasons of 20 and 19 on other occasions.  Again, if injuries and suspensions hadn't regularly interrupted his career, he might have tallied many more such seasons.

The most enjoyable parts for this reader were his descriptions of his relationships with teammates and management, as well as league officials.  Especially interesting are his opinions on coach Jacques Demers, owner Mike Illitch, team captain Steve Yzerman and teammate and close friend Sheldon Kennedy, himself a troubled player who fought addiction and great trauma in his life.  The juiciest parts are his descriptions of how he bamboozled hapless Colin Campbell, the Wings team official who was in charge of ensuring that he didn't partake of any drugs or alcohol and relapse and fall prey to league suspension again.  How easily Mr. Campbell was fooled again and again provides great insight into this very flawed man who somehow held a position of Senior Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations with the NHL, and continues as Director of Hockey Ops to this day.

So while this book is not highly recommended, the average hockey fan will enjoy blasting through it on a rainy weekend.  It is well worth your while obtaining it at your public library.