Live from Philadelphia

While I apologize for the recent three-week layoff, I assure you that it came in the service of a worthy cause--namely, my relocation to the city of Philadelphia. After days and days of resume-sending and apartment-hunting, I've finally found time to write a bit about a few recent goings-on in the world of sport. Here it is--a hodgepodge of current thoughts:

AFC Championship Game: While the Patriots' loss angered me in light of the fact that they were my preseason picks to win it all, I must admit that I am extremely happy to see Peyton Manning reach a Super Bowl. I tend to dislike grandiose, overgeneralizing statements--but I feel comfortable in asserting that anyone who is a fan of the NFL should give a tip of the hat to Peyton Manning. Who could possibly deny that a Manning Super Bowl win would represent the epitome of a feel-good sports story? The guy is a first-rate gentleman, a statistical juggernaut who is creating his own record book--and he's doing it with grace, humility, and controversy-free style.

Andy Roddick: Were it not for the existence of Roger Federer, Andy Roddick may well have won five or six Grand Slams at this point in his career. Unfortunately, he'll never one-up the Swiss machine, and his career may eventually be defined by his inability to overcome the Federer Effect. Think of all those highly talented Western Conference NBA teams, e.g. the Suns, Sonics, and Jazz, who had the misfortune of being great at the same time that Michael Jordan was in the league. I'd go so far as to say that some of those teams were better than others who won the NBA Finals before and since. Still, athletes and teams are rightfully judged in relation to their contemporaries; as Ric Flair so famously said, "To be The Man, you gotta beat The Man. Woooo!"

Tom Coughlin: A one-year extension? Gimme a break.

NBA: Would it be possible to petition David Stern to amend the Association's rules so that the Suns and Mavericks could meet in the most entertaining, highest-scoring Finals series ever?

Tiger Woods: Kudos to Tiger for insisting that he'll skip the British Open if his first child's birth coincides with the tournament. Hard to imagine... especially if he's already won the Masters and U.S. Open...

Super Bowl Prediction: Colts 24, Bears 14


Frequent 5er

Frequent 5er
Song: Ryan Adams, "Dear Chicago"
Word: pertinent
Random/Obscure Sports Reference: Remember when Roger Clemens tossed part of a bat at Mike Piazza? That was lame.
Random/Obscure Non-Sports Reference: The fact that Gerald Ford served as both VP and President without being elected to either post is equal parts creepy and cool.
Quote/Quip: The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you're still a rat. [Lily Tomlin]


Boise No More

As of yesterday evening, I had seriously considered extending my holiday hiatus for another few days. However, last night's Fiesta Bowl proved to be so entertaining and significant that I feel I must talk about it--now.

Aside from (perhaps) last season's epic Texas-USC showdown, the Boise-OU game may well have been the best college football game--or sporting event, period--that I have ever seen. It is not often that we are given a contest that carries pre-game biases, back-and-forth on-field action, entertaining "trick" plays, and monumental future implications. To be sure, last night's game had all of these.

I've written before about the biases that surround non-BCS-conference teams in the college football world (see: "Boise Among Men?," 11.21.2006). People everywhere disparage the achievements reached by successful no-name teams, a la this year's Boise St. Broncos, or Urban Meyer's undefeated Utah squad. What's more, this skeptical, dismissive attitude often extends beyond the mere question of whether or not such teams belong in the BCS Championship Game. Fans, commentators, and especially other players, tended to view this year's Broncos as "little brothers," as lightweights who did not belong on the same stage as the hallowed Sooners. These Idaho amateurs had no shot--why even play the game?

Fortunately for everyone (save, perhaps, OU fans), the Fiesta Bowl proved to be a classic. From Boise's quick start, to Oklahoma's comeback, to Marcus Walker's seemingly game-ending tiptoe interception return with 1:00 to go, this game had everything. There were three touchdowns scored in the final minute-and-a-half. There were two-point conversions. There was a hook-and-ladder. A hook-and-ladder!

Boise's unconventional play selections no doubt added to the thrilling nature of the game. First, there was the unbelievable 50-yard touchdown that came with less than ten seconds left on the clock. On fourth and eighteen, Jared Zabransky threw a mid-range pass to Drisan James, who then pitched it to Jerard Rabb, who proceeded to "take it to the house." Fans went nuts. Announcers went nuts. I went nuts.

As if this were not enough, Boise State saved the best for last. After Adrian Peterson scored a relatively effortless touchdown to put OU up by 7 in overtime, the Broncos answered with an option-style pass play on which Vinny Perretta threw a touchdown to to Derek Schouman. With nothing to lose, and everything to gain, coach Chris Petersen opted to try a two-point conversion--and who can blame him? Neither defense was playing particularly well at the time; why not, if you're BSU, try to end it quickly rather than go round-for-round with the bigger Sooner squad? Indeed, Petersen and his Broncos went for broke, and they did so in spectacular fashion. With three receivers lined up to the right side, Zabransky took the snap and appeared poised to throw in that direction. Instead, he handed the ball with his left hand--and behind his back--to running back Ian Johnson, who trotted effortlessly into the endzone and sealed victory. Everyone on the Sooner defense bit on the fake. Bob Stoops looked stunned, as did the rest of us. The Little Man killed the Giant, and he did it with cunning.

Before addressing the larger implications of this game, I'd like to ensure that no one views BSU's use of trick plays as meaning that this game was some sort of "fluke." On the contrary, the Broncos outplayed the Sooners for much of the night, and Oklahoma was fortunate to get back into it later. Boise State proved that they deserved a spot on the big stage--and that perhaps they should have been given the right to play on an even bigger one.

Hopefully, this victory will carry the implications that it ought to. With Utah and Boise State, we've seen that mid-level teams are fully capable of playing with--and beating--the big boys. I expect teams like Boise State to start beefing up their non-conference schedules in order to expand their growng credibility--that is, assuming that any legitimate powerhouse programs will be willing to play such a scary early-season game. Teams like Texas, USC, and Ohio State might certainly be scared to travel to Boise, lest they lose and squander any chance at a national title.

Nonetheless, the Broncos' noble mission was greatly enhanced by the dramatic nature in which they won last night's game. Most people watching must have surely thought that the game was over once Zabransky threw the costly interception--or when OU scored rather easily on their first overtime possession. On both occasions, however, Boise responded. They then capped things off by showing the kind of moxie that most top-tier programs likely would have avoided. I'm not sure that Mack Brown, Pete Carroll, or Lloyd Carr would have gone for two. Chris Petersen did, and it paid off.

If Boise State happens to go undefeated again in the coming years, voters should remember New Years' Day, 2007. It was the day on which Cinderella went to the ball, wined and dined with the elite, and proved that she is fully capable of dancing with a prince.


Re: Knicks-Nuggets brawl


Isaiah Thomas
Head Coach, New York Knicks

Dear Mr. Thomas:

You, sir, are a complete idiot.


Russell Lee
Sports Fan


Weekend Forecast (NFL... Awards)

Judging by last week's performance, I need to take a short break from the NFL pick-'em game. Thus, instead of predicting game winners this week, I'm going to nominate winners and runners-up for various NFL awards.

3. Peyton Manning: Despite the Colts' recent struggles, we needn't push the "Peyton Panic" button just yet. Indy still stands at 10-3, and Manning's stats, while not as great as we've come to expect, are still pretty darned good: 3,628 yards, 63.5% comp., 22 TDs, and 9 INTs. The Colts remain among the NFL's highest-scoring teams, and Peyton still does more--is asked to do more--than any other QB in the game. Without him, the Colts would be non-factors in the AFC. When it's all said and done, the elder Manning (especially if he wins a Super Bowl) may go down as one of the two or three best--perhaps the best--QB in the history of the NFL.

2. Drew Brees: Brees has already surpassed 4,000 yards, and is on pace to near the mythical 5,000-yard mark; his QB rating... over 100. Steering the ship for the heartwarmingly resurgent New Orleans Saints, he has played a key role in one of the year's foremost win-win/feel-good situations. Brees left San Diego under a cloud of confusion, as many fans and pundits questioned the Chargers' decision to let their star QB go and thus to hand the reigns over to an untested youngster. Fortunately, both San Diego and New Orleans have excelled as a result of the move. In addition to the Rivers-Brees lovefest, there's the overarching New Orleans Story. Considering what happened after Hurricane Katrina--and considering the low expectations surrounding this year's Saints team--it's both touching and pleasantly shocking to see Brees and company blazing a path that may well lead all the way to the Super Bowl.

1. LaDainian Tomlinson: 1,400+ rushing yards; nearly 500 receiving yards; 29--yes, 29!--touchdowns through 13 games. L.T. anchors the offense of the league's best team, the 11-2 Chargers, who have lost only two games, both being on the road and by margins of three points. Unless Marty decides to rest Tomlinson, this year's MVP may end the season with 1,800 yards and 35 touchdowns. Impressive indeed.

3. Reggie Bush: With five overall TDs in his last two games, Reggie Bush is finally finding his niche. His best shot at NFL stardom no doubt lies in his being used in various ways, i.e. as a running back/wide receiver/returner. Bush isn't likely to make his name as a 25-carry between-the-tackles back. Nonetheless, if the Saints continue to utilize his considerable skills in the right ways, he could well become one of the NFL's most unique talents--maybe even as catalysing on offense as Prime Time was on the defensive side.

2. Devin Hester: One word describes Devin Hester: impact. Having returned five kicks (three punts, two kickoffs) for touchdowns this season, Hester unarguably makes use of his time on the field more effectively than anyone in football. A player with his dynamic speed can change the tenor of an entire game; so long as teams continue to kick him, the Bears are never "out of it." And here we see one of the most intriguing aspects of the Hester story: Teams keep sending kickoffs and punts his way! Explain that one.

1. Vince Young: Forget the rating. Forget the TD/interception ratio. Forget the funky delivery. The guy won consecutive games against the Eagles, Giants, and Colts. Even after seeing him on highlight reels for the past year, no one can stop the I'm-going-to-run-20-yards-and-score-untouched play. It won the Rose Bowl for Texas; now, it's winning games for the Titans. Quarterbacks are judged primarily by wins and losses, and only secondarily by individual stats. Vince is certainly delivering the W's. Hey, Houston, how's that Mario Williams pick workin' out?

3. Jeff Fisher: Arguably as good a coach as there is in the NFL; the guy has a should-have-gone-3-and-13 team on the brink of a .500 season.

2. Brian Billick: Had the moxie to fire his good friend Jim Fassel and start calling the play himself; it worked.

1. Sean Payton: The clear-cut choice; who's not pulling for these guys to win it all?


Questioning "The Answer"

Let's consider the great teams who have played in the NBA Finals over the past 10-15 years:

The Heat... have Shaq and D-Wade.
The Lakers... had Shaq and Kobe.
The Spurs... had Robinson and Duncan.
The Bulls... had MJ and Pippen.
The Jazz... had Stockton and Malone.
The Sonics... had Glove and Reign.

Notice anything similar about all these champions? Here's a hint: each boasted two outstanding players--Hall-of-Famers, in many cases--on its roster.

Considering the list above, it's difficult to deny that success requires talent; and not just a single dominant player--we're talking multiple All Stars. From Worthy-Magic-Kareem and Chief-Larry Legend-McHale, to Jordan-Pippen and Shaq-Kobe, championship teams historically field loads of talent.

This long-winded introductory point brings me to the ultimate topic of this piece: Allen Iverson. In recent days the A.I. saga has reached near theatrical proportions, with the Sixers having "banished" their franchise player while "shopping him around." It appears, rather clearly, that the often tumultuous relationship between The Answer and his Philly team has run its course; as strange as it seems, Allen Iverson will soon wear a new uniform, and the Philadelphia 76ers will thereafter take the court without their diminutive talisman.

Not surprisingly, this most recent wave of Iverson drama has drawn both admirers and critics from their fenceposts. Longstanding A.I.-haters can now bellow that the Sixers have finally reached their senses and decided to trade the selfish, uncoachable ball hog. Conversely, Iverson admirers, who have long clamoured that the guy has never had a proper supporting cast, will now be able to test their theory, as it's assumed that Iverson will end up on a team like Minnesota or Sacramento. We will, no doubt, soon be able to answer The Questions: How will the Sixers fair without Iverson? What would Iverson be like if he played on a team with other decent players?

In light of my introductory emphasis on talent, it's no surprise that I reside in the pro-A.I. camp. I honestly consider Allen Iverson to be as talented as anyone who has played the game in the past 15 years--Jordan, Kobe, Shaq, Duncan, Wade, and Lebron included. At a (generous) 6'1, A.I. has found a way to succeed, scratch that... STAR, in a big man's league. In 2001, he singlehandedly--yes, singlehandedly--led the 76ers to the NBA Finals. The second-leading scorer on that team: Aaron McKie. The center: Dikembe Mutombo. No one can feasibly argue that this was a highly talented bunch. I'd even argue that, minus Iverson, the '01 Sixers may not have made the playoffs, much less won the Eastern Conference. Indeed, Iverson took the city of Philly upon his shoulders, put together an MVP season, and led his "team" to the brink of a championship. Unfortunately for the Sixers, they ran up against the Shaq-Kobe Lakers, one of the aforementioned talent-heavy teams of recent note.

Since 2001, the 76ers have made "efforts" to surround Iverson with talent. These moves, though, have been anything but impressive. Billy King's most notable play was the acquisition of a hobbling, long-overvalued Chris Webber, who looked nearly geriatric upon arriving in Philly. If this is the best that Iverson's naysayers can do--to point to the fact that he has played alongside talent, in the form of a playoff-tested former All Star who is now a shell of his former self--then their argument holds no water.

Until Iverson is surrounded with legitimate support--K.G., Ron Artest, Carmelo Anthony--we cannot say what his ultimate "legacy" will be. Nonetheless, at this point I personally view A.I. as a world-class, once-in-a-lifetime player who can hold his own against anyone. His baggage, while unattractive, comes nowhere close to overshadowing his abilities and contributions. Dennis "Crotch Kicker" Rodman was one of the most disreputable players in NBA history, but the Bulls could not have won rings without him; Ron "Fan Puncher/Crazy Man" Artest is a powder keg, but fans and writers will continue to cheer and honor him with Defensive Player of the Year awards; Kobe "Golden Boy" Bryant involved himself in a Colorado situation that far outweighs Iverson's transgressions in terms of character, yet we still anoint him The Next Jordan. Moreover, when Kobe shoots all the time because he has to (see: last season), we call him an MVP candidate; when Iverson does it, we crucify him.

One day, Allen Iverson will be in the Hall of Fame. He will perhaps be remembered as one of the most easy-to-root-for, unique players ever to wear an NBA uniform. I can only hope that, as a result of his impending change of location, he will be able to add "NBA Champion" and "Silencer of Ignorant Critics" to his resume.


Rodriguez Already Rich

When Rich Rodriguez recently withdrew his name from consideration for the University of Alabama's vacant head-coaching position, legions of football people across of America likely scratched their heads. After all, 'Bama is one of the nation's most storied football schools, and leading the Tide is considered to be one of the premiere coaching opportunities in all of collegiate athletics. Why is it, then, that an on-the-rise coach in his early forties would turn down this high-profile SEC job in favor of remaining with his Big East-stigmatized (albeit successful) West Virginia team?

First and foremost, Rodriguez seems to recognize that he has developed something special in Morgantown. The Mountaineers just completed their fifth consecutive winning season (10-2), and will go on to play Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl. Quite conceivably, this could have been an even more prestigious year for West Virginia. Their first loss came in a 44-34 barnburner at Louisville (a game that may have well swung the other way had it been played in Morgantown), while their second defeat occurred in a rare look-ahead slip-up against South Florida. For what its worth, Rodriguez led his team to a huge win in the very game to which they were looking ahead--a 41-39 season-ending thriller against Rutgers. Not only did this victory give the Mountaineers an impressive 10th win, but it also denied Rutgers what would have been a shocking Big East crown. Instead, the title went to Louisville, meaning that West Virginia does not have to feel so bad about losing a close game on the road... against the BCS-bound Cardinals. When you add this year's 10-win effort to last season's Big East title/Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia/final #5 AP ranking combo, it's hard to question the growing impressiveness of the West Virginia program.

Even though the majority of onlookers may duly respect this rise to legitimacy, others will no doubt question Rodriguez's decision on the grounds that Alabama is, well, Alabama. Residing in the same pantheon as Notre Dame, Michigan, Oklahoma, and the like, Alabama carries a near holy sense of mystique about it. Bear Bryant, who won a staggering six national titles and went 232-46-9 during his 25-year tenure with the program, is perhaps the most famous figure in Alabama history. Considering his 24 consecutive bowl appearances and the reputation that he created, it's no wonder that all subsequent Tide coaches are expected to carry on a tradition of first-class greatness.

Despite this historical allure, Alabama's program has slipped over the past 10-15 years. Since upsetting Miami to win the 1992 national championship, the Crimson Tide have experienced up-and-down stretches. In 1999 they won the SEC championship; in 2000, they went 3-8. In 2005, they jumped out to an impressive 9-0 start and finished the season at 10-2; in 2006, Mike Shula was fired after a 6-6 season. There was Franchione; there were sanctions; there was Mike Price. Mike Price. Oye.

Indeed, the once revered Alabama football program has fallen upon hard times. It's really no surprise that Rich Rodriguez would choose to stay with his booming West Virginia team. At this point in time, the prospects for strong recruiting, conference titles (a.k.a. BCS berths), and national championship contention are, to be honest, stronger in Morgantown than they are in Tuscaloosa. Only an old-school, out-of-touch SEC apologist would argue otherwise.

In the end, Rich Rodriguez's decision to stay on at West Virginia represents both a commendable (and rare) show of loyalty and a demonstration of sound sense. Why would he leave a now-perennial contender and go to a struggling program where one medicore season could cost him his job? Why not stay at West Virginia and try to create the kind of hallowed mystique there that continues (perhaps undeservedly) to surround the University of Alabama? Indeed, by the time Rich Rodriguez leaves Morgantown, the WV job may very well occupy the same pedestal upon which storied programs such as 'Bama currently sit.