Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Programming Note: On ESPN 970 This Week & Next

I will be filling in for Stan Savran on his show from 10:00-noon this Wednesday (Feb 22) through Friday and again on Monday while he takes a much deserved vacation.

I'll have some great guests including EJ Hradek of NHL Network, Jim Callis of Baseball America, Charlie Wilmoth of Bucs Dugout, Dave Bryan of Steelers Depot and more.

You can listen on 970 ESPN in Pittsburgh or on the iHeartRadio app.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

NBA: All Jeremy Lin All The Time, With A Dash Of Kobe

Yesterday I gave you a little Jeremy Lin. Today he's getting equal billing with Eli Manning and Tiger Woods, who's making his season debut at Pebble this week. I'm not sure what people find more interesting, the fact that the guy went to Harvard or that he's the first Asian-American to play in the NBA. Stir fry together and you have a media frenzy. Here's a taste:
You get the idea, but trust me I only scratched the surface. Okay one more. How about a little Taiwanese animation. They love playing the discrimination card. Sweet and Sour Pork!

Let's enjoy the ride. Next up for the Knicks? The Wizards, 7:00. Hope you have NBA League Pass.

One more link. A look at Kobe and the Lakers in crunch time. Not pretty.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Under The Radar: Three Stories You Missed Due To SBXLVI

Yea, SB XLVI. I'm guessing you heard about it. Here are some things you probably didn't hear about because of it. You are officially on the clock. Identify the athletes before you read the stories.

A) Kyle Stanley

B) Jeremy Lin

C) Alberto Contador


A) You might have heard about Kyle Stanley last week. He's the PGA golfer who had a seven-shot lead during the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines but couldn't close the deal for his first professional win. 

Stanley struggled throughout that final round, but still managed to get to 18 holding a three-stroke lead. Sponsors were so sure he was going to win they even cut him one of those massive oversized checks. Then he went all Jean van de Velde, cue youtube video of the 1999 British Open, and put up a snowman on the par 5, missing a three-footer to fall back into a playoff. Predictably he lost, costing himself $400K and an automatic spot in the Masters. It's the type of loss that can have a long-term impact on a career.

In this case long-term was one week. Sunday Spencer Levin played the role of Jean Valjean van de Velde/Kyle Stanley (nice headline by Golf Digest) and Stanley was on the receiving end of a second epic collapse. Levin had a six-stroke lead going into the round and a seven-stroke lead after one hole. But Stanley, eight strokes back at one point, got hot, shooting 65 to end up winning by a stroke. Get out the cardboard check for $1.098M and that Masters invitation. He now tops the PGA money list after four weeks with $1,793,575 in earnings. Not a bad start to 2012 and a nice rebound from last week's disaster. Now we'll see if we ever hear from Spencer Levin again.

Just for amusement here is the money list from this year's PGA Tour thru four weeks. How many of the top ten have you ever heard from before? I thought so.

B) Harvard basketball has been getting a lot of attention lately. The team is 20-2 on the season and currently ranked 21st in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll ahead of the likes of Indiana, Louisville and Michigan. They won the Battle for Atlantis tournament over Thanksgiving beating No. 17 Florida St. and Central Florida, which had earlier beaten UConn. They are undefeated in the Ivy League and are almost certain to get their first NCAA tournament bid.

The past couple days, however, the college team is taking a back seat to an alum who is taking New York by storm--and not on Wall St. Jeremy Lin was a three-time All-Ivy player who graduated from Harvard in '10. He was signed as a free agent by Golden St. that July and last year played in 29 games, averaging 9.8 minutes and 2.6 points/game. Lin made the Warriors roster again this season but was waived early on. Shortly thereafter he was signed by the Houston Rockets, but two weeks later he was waived again. Just after Christmas he was claimed by the New York Knicks.

The Knicks are one of the strike-shortened season's early disappointments. Terrible guard play, a poorly-conceived roster and unclear roles have gotten the team off to a terrible start. Add injuries and you have a squad languishing near the bottom of a very bottom-heavy Eastern Conference.

Lin joined the back end of the Knicks bench. NBA teams are allowed to have 15 players on their roster, but the last few spots are considered flotsam. Rarely do guys on the fringes ever crack the rotation. They generally bounce back and forth to the D-League or Europe, looking for a paycheck and an opportunity. That seemed to be Jeremy Lin's path.

Maybe not. After being signed, predictably, Lin sat. He saw playing time in nine games, but garbage time, only playing more than seven minutes in one of those contests going into Saturday night's home game with the New Jersey Nets. Then the proverbial opportunity knocked. In 35 minutes of action Lin put up 25 points, 5 rebounds and 7 assists and helped lead the Knicks past the Nets. Coach Mike D'Antonio announced afterward that Lin would get his first career start on Monday.

And he did. With Giants football players in the seats firing up the fans, all hell broke loose in the Garden. Jeremy Lin had the night of his young career. By the end of the game Knicks fans were chanting M-V-P, M-V-P. Playing without all-stars Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony (injured in the first quarter), Lin lead the Knicks to a 99-88 victory over the Utah Jazz. He put up 28 points and 8 assists becoming the first player to do that in his first start since Isiah Thomas 30 years ago. He got the cover photo on the ESPN NBA page and he damn near stole the headlines from the Super Bowl Champion Giants. Throw in the fact that the kid is Asian-American and you have a story that is sweeping the NBA. Now that the Association gets to step front and center with the football season behind us, we'll see if The Jeremy Lin Show continues. At least now you know who he is.

C) Alberto Contador won the Tour de France in 2007, '09 and '10. Yesterday he was stripped of his 2010 title for doping. As Jim Caple writes, can anyone ever take this sport seriously again? In 14 of the last 16 years the winner has been suspected or caught doping. And, yes, I think Armstrong doped. The only good thing that can be said for cycling these days is they go after guys suspected of cheating and they go after them hard. Many sports are afraid to do that because it kills the image and reputation of the sport. Unfortunately that's true and cycling is suffering big time as a result.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Super Bowl Notebook: Some Thoughts and Links to This Week's Best

Is there anything in the world that is more hyped than the Super Bowl?*. I don't think there's an original word left to be written. Here are my thoughts and some of the better articles I've came across over the past two weeks. Hopefully this keeps you busy until kickoff.

*Boxing matches have titles-Rumble in the Jungle, Thrilla in Manilla--Super Bowls only go by their Roman numerals. That needs to change. For this game I like The Rematch.

What to watch for:

--Gronk's injury is the most important issue coming into the game. The Giants should have a defender over him every snap and make it as hard as possible for him to get off the line.

--Expect the Patriots to run a lot of no-huddle, but not necessarily hurry-up. The objective is to keep the Giants base defense on the field. Playing fast is secondary to that. I actually think the Pats will look to generally slow the game down rather than speed it up.

--The Pats only have two active tight ends on the roster so look for a lot of six and seven OL personnel packages. Nate Solder, the massive rookie tackle out of Colorado, will most-likely line up as the TE. He originally went to college as a tight end, so maybe he turns into Mike Vrabel today and catches a touchdown. Just a thought.

--The two most talked about issues coming into the game are 1.) The Pats ability to slow down the Giants pass rush 2.) The Past ability to cover the Giants receivers, particularly Victor Cruz operating out of the slot. With two weeks to plan I can't imagine Belichick hasn't schemed a way to manage both of these issues, so it will just come down to execution.

--Ahmad Bradshaw and Wes Welker seem to be flying under the radar this week. Other than the QBs look for them to be pivotal figures toady.

--Defensive MVPs don't happen very often in Super Bowls, but Vince Wilfork and the Giants edge rushers could well be in the mix for that honor today.


One game, anything can happen, but if I were a Giants fan I'd be worried. The whole world seems to think the Giants win this game and I've have yet to find anyone who thinks the Pats will win by more than a touchdown. Most people expect it to be close, but if it's a blowout they think it goes the Giants way. History suggests if everybody expects something to happen, it rarely turns out that way.

Here are the best articles I came across this week:

First, you have to feel bad for this guy. But I'm sure it's quite a day for Alex Silvestro.

Vegas says the Pats are the favorites, but who should be the favorite? The Professor takes a look.

(I have to agree here and say that I was surprised this game didn't come on the board at pick or the Giants as a one point favorite. You would also think with all the New York money Vegas would lean that way. Do they know something must of us don't? Usually.)

Must ReadBill Barnwell breaks it down.

Must Read: How about the Giants offense against the Pats defense? The Shutdown Corner is all over it.

Must Read: Chris Brown with a playbook breakdown of New England's hybrid D for Grantland.

Must Read: As you probably know by now, if Joe Poz is writing, I'm reading and probably linking. Here you go.

How important is Rob Gronkowski to the Patriots offense? This article takes a statistical look at his impact.

A short video looking at the Giants pass rush and it's success against two tight end sets. Will it matter?

Love him or hate him Bill Belichick has been incredibly successful, but I'm pretty sure this is the first time he's been called impish. Deadspin with a good look at the Pats head coach.

Having 18 undrafted free agents on the roster makes the Pats success pretty remarkable. I don't have the numbers, but I'm guessing there aren't too many other teams even in double figures.

SI's piece on Bob Kraft. Even if you hate the Pats, it's hard not to respect Robert Kraft.

Final Score: I don't have a rooting interest today, but I'm gonna guess Pats 27 Giants 21.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Will One Of The Coaches Blow The Super Bowl, Too?

After the AFC Championship Game I can't take it any longer.

The NFL is a multi-billion dollar business that not only dominates the sporting/entertainment landscape in the US, but has also managed to weave itself into the very cultural fabric of American life. The lockout this past offseason damn near took on the air of a national crisis as the possibility of games being cancelled became real toward summer's end.

The League's 32 teams are run by head coaches who have reached the pinnacle of their profession. They are men who inevitably once played the sport and have now worked their way up the coaching ranks from assistant to coordinator to head coach. Qualifications for the position include leadership, talent evaluation, organizational skill and charisma. In today's 24/7 sports-crazed society NFL coaches are as famous as movie and rock stars.

The charge of an NFL coach, very simply, is to win games. In the course of playing those games the coach is expected to make a host of important, time-sensitive decisions that will further the organization's goals of wins, lead to championships and add revenue to the bottom line. This job description is not unlike a senior manager's role in any organization. The difference is an NFL coach makes his decisions on the most-public of stages, in front of millions watching on television ready to critique and second-guess his every move.

And every week we learn anew that most of these coaches aren't capable of consistently making good decisions.

Calling timeouts, managing the clock and effectively using challenges seems beyond the skill set of most head coaches. Today, even though virtually every head coach has ceded offensive and defensive play-calling to his coordinators and his major responsibility is to manage the game, few consistently do it well.

What other industry would allow senior managers to repeatedly fail when making decisions that could impact the bottom line by millions of dollars and do nothing about it? Welcome to today's NFL.

Coaches aren't trained through simulation, they don't have the proper support staff and they have too many time sensitive decisions to make at once. How much in Super Bowl revenue, merchandise sales, potential ticket price increases and general cache do you think the AFC Championship game loss cost the Baltimore Ravens? If they went on to win the Super Bowl this week, what would that be worth to the franchise? $50 million, $100 million, $200 million? It isn't going to happen and their head coach's decision-making is probably as singularly responsible as anything else.

Let's take a sequential look back at the critical decisions that were botched in the AFC title game between the Ravens and the Patriots. We'll eschew the play-calling mistakes which Bill Barnwell does an excellent job of reviewing, and focus primarily on game/clock management.

#1 Situation: New England ball 3-and-10 on Baltimore 17, 3:11 left 2nd Quarter. Score tied at 10.

Bill Belichick doesn't make many mistakes. It makes the ones he does make all the more surprising. He certainly isn't going to win any points for charisma or media relations, but his record speaks for itself. (Here is an insightful read discussing some of BB's tactical moves in the Pats-Denver divisional playoff game and here is a good take on what his mindset might be like when making decisions.) But the Hoodie missed one in a crucial moment at the end of the first half of the Championship Game.

With the scenario set above, Tom Brady threw a pass to the left sideline to Rob Gronkowski. Gronk caught the ball past the first down marker, inside the 10, but the officials ruled that he didn't get both feet down. The initial replay seemed to confirm that view, but a second replay showed the ball actually made contact with Gronk's hands while one foot was on the ground. He then clearly got his next foot down inbounds. At this point, how the refs might have ruled on a challenge is unclear. What the Pats should have done is not. Belichick had all three timeouts remaining, and that is the key.

Because the initial replay was inconclusive the Pats weren't sure whether to challenge. The play clock was ticking and Belichick quickly sent out the field goal team. They had to make a decision. Or did they? If there was any chance that play could have resulted in an overturned reception and first down, the Pats needed to challenge.

What should they have done?

Called timeout.

This would have allowed them to take a couple of minutes to get a better look at the replay and decided whether to challenge. Having two versus three timeouts remaining at that point wasn't nearly as important as figuring out whether they had a first down inside the ten which could mean four more points on the board. And calling timeout means a challenge is less likely to be wasted because it would have allowed a better assessment of the replay. In the first half, this was clearly the move to make.

Needless to say the Pats didn't call the timeout and took the three points. Opportunity missed.

#2 Situation: New England ball 1-and-10 on New England 11, 0:58 left 2nd Quarter. NE 13 Balt 10.

And from here on in it was the John Harbaugh show.

In this situation both teams had two timeouts left in the first half as New England had a first down deep in its own territory with under a minute to go. In a bit of a surprise the Patriots came out in the victory formation and took a knee on first down, knowing they would get the ball to start the second half.

I can make a pretty convincing argument that Harbaugh should have used a timeout right there with about 0:53 seconds left on the clock, thus forcing NE to make a play-calling decision. It was 2-and-11 on their own ten. I don't think there was any chance NE would throw the ball, so they probably kneel again. But really it didn't matter because Baltimore didn't have three timeouts, one play was going to get fully run off the clock. The Ravens decided to do nothing, Brady ran the play clock down to 0:01, snapped the ball and knelt again with about 0:14 left on the game clock.

And then the Ravens coaching staff went brain dead. There was 0:14 left in the first half. New England had the ball on its own 9 yard line facing a 3-and-11 and the Ravens had two timeouts left. How is it possible John Harbaugh didn't call a timeout?

The Patriots obviously weren't going to throw the ball and risk a sack or turnover in that situation. They either call a running play or more likely kneel a third time leaving at least 0:10 remaining on the clock after the Ravens use their final timeout. This forces the Patriots to punt from their own endzone. What can happen next? The opportunity for an all-out punt block, with a roughing the kicker penalty having zero consequence with the Patriots so deep in their own territory and so little time? A punt return setting up a field goal? A fair catch and hail mary? Just the week before we saw Eli Manning throw a hail mary into the end zone against the Packers with 0:06 left in the first half for a touchdown.

Harbaugh did nothing and the half ended. There is no rational explanation for the Ravens to go into the locker room with two timeouts in their pocket. None.

Of course if Baltimore does everything I suggested most likely nothing changes. But they left an opportunity on the table and who can know how much of a difference a possible 2, 3 or 7 points would have made.

Situation #3: Baltimore ball 3-and-1 on New England 14, 0:22 seconds left 4th Quarter. NE 23 Balt 20.

From here until the end of the game you can question a lot of the Ravens decisions. I'll abbreviate the recap because it's been discussed ad naseum, but again I will argue that their failure was due to the fact the coaching staff was not adequately stress-tested to deal with what was being thrown at them with the time constraints and pressure they faced.

Facing the scenario laid out above and having one timeout remaining I think Baltimore had to run the ball in hopes of getting a first down. If they succeed, they can use their final timeout and have about 0:16 seconds left to try to win the game (making the assumption manage the clock correctly, which this whole piece is arguing might not happen.) If they don't get the first down, they run the clock down to 0:03, call timeout, have plenty of time to set-up and kick the field goal to get to OT.

As you know, they threw the ball, didn't get the first down, had some confusion on the sideline, rushed in to kick the field goal, missed and went home with a timeout in their pocket.


Being an NFL head coach is obviously not an easy job. But while often great leaders of men, we see time and again that these coaches are not capable of making good in-game, time sensitive decisions.

Covering the Steelers I watched Mike Tomlin, widely viewed as one of the best head coaches in the game, coach 17 games this season--34 halves of football. I would submit that I watched him mismanage the last few minutes in at least 5-7 of those halves. If you consider the fact that no decisions needed to be made in about 15 of those halves, that means Tomlin mismanaged the end of half situation about 33% of the time he had to make decisions this season.

The Steelers won 12 games, but had to play a wildcard playoff game on the road and didn't get a first round bye. One more win and rather than being the 5th seed, they would have been the 1st seed in the AFC. This would have given them a bye week to get healty, the potential (and revenue) of playing two home playoff games and a better chance of reaching the Super Bowl. Maybe if Tomlin manages the clock perfectly every game everything ends up exactly the same. But maybe not. I'm sure all the teams that missed the playoffs by a game can look back and point to a situation that the coaching staff could have handle better in one of those losses.

The NFL is a big business worth billions of dollars. It's amazing how poorly this particular aspect of this business is managed. Two experienced, tremendously successful coaches will be leading their teams in the Super Bowl on Sunday. Let's see how their game management impacts the final outcome. Millions of dollars are on the line.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Nails from the Toobox: A Potpourri of Sporting Thoughts & Links


Pittsburgh 5 Toronto 4 (SO)

Last night's Penguins-Maple Leafs game in Pittsburgh was one of the more entertaining games you'll probably miss all year. (highlights from NHL.com) The Leafs had a 2-1 after two and scored two quick goals early in the third to go up 4-1. They hadn't lost a game when leading after two all season and a three goal lead suggested the Penguins win streak was going to crap out on seven.

Secondary scoring has been a problem for the home team all season and with the Malkin-Neal-Kunitz scoring troika giving them up rather than notching them the Pens chances looked slim even after Steve Sullivan ripped one past the Monster to make it 4-2. But when Joe Vitale snuck one in with five to go the CEC was buzzing and the fans were rewarded when, with the extra attacker on, the Evgeni Malkin had a slapper deflect off his shoulder into the net with 6.6 seconds left.

Overtime brought tons of excitement but no finisher as both goalies made fantastic saves. On to the shootout which has become just a formality for the Penguins these days. Malkin converted his fifth in a row (remember when he couldn't make one to save his life?) and Marc-Andre Fleury stoned the visitors to give the Pens their eighth straight win and their third SO win in their last four games.

Rarely is the goaltender the story on a night when he gives up four, but Fleury was unquestionably the best player on the ice and was deservedly rewarded the #1 star. He has cemented his status as an elite netminder and is playing, arguably, the best hockey of his career.

These two teams are back at it tonight. Toronto is a much-improved team with great speed in transition. They should have put this one away and I'm sure they'll be revved up and flying again tonight in front of their home fans. Find a television at 7:30 if you can.

Sidney Crosby Update

Yesterday Sidney Crosby and Pens GM Ray Shero sat down with the media and gave an update on Crosby's condition. Suffice it to say this story gets stranger by the day. Pens beat writer Rob Rossi has a good wrap up with quotes from the press conference.

It doesn't appear that their is a rift between Sid and the organization or with Sid and his teammates, both of which have been reported in the media. Most importantly it doesn't appear that Crosby suffered a fracture of his C-1 and C-2 vertebrae at any time. I would think the recently-disclosed soft-tissue neck injury, which may lead to concussion-like symptoms, is better than another actual concussion, but clearly the diagnosis is still a moving target and we'll have to wait and see where we go from here.

And if you think this is just a Pittsburgh story, don't be fooled. At this point it may now even be bigger in Canada. Today's cover of the Toronto Star.

Here is a timeline from Sid's initial concussion to the start of the season. Katie now has plenty of crazy stuff to update it from there.


Pitt & the Tourney

Pitt won it's third game in a row beating West Virginia in Morgantown on Monday night to raise its record to 14-9 and 3-7 in the Big East. After the Panthers lost to DePaul on the road on Jan. 5 I wrote them off. They then proceeded to get punked by Rutgers at home and lose their next three before going on their current three game win streak. Odds are still long that they make the NCAAs, but there is one big asset in Pitt's corner at the moment--Tray Woodall and his injury.

On the court the redshirt junior point guard has proven to be indispensable to the Panthers success as evidenced by the fact that Woodall missed six of the eight games during the Panthers losing streak and in the two games he did play he didn't score a point. With Woodall back and healthy, the Panthers are a different team and Woodall's injury may be the key to them securing a tournament berth.

The NCAA Committee is known to look at how teams perform down the stretch and will also take into consideration injuries when determining bubble teams. The fact that Pitt's long losing streak essentially came with Woodall on the bench will be a big positive if they can keep winning. Their next five look winnable and then they finish their Big East schedule with games at Louisville and Connecticut among their last three contests. If Pitt can go 7-1 and finish 21-10 and 10-8 in the Big East they will have a real shot heading to the Big East tournament in Madison Square Garden. UConn's run to the title with a similar record last season will also work in the team's favor.


While Woodall has been a revelation, Big East preseason player of the year Ashton Gibbs has been a huge disappointment to many. Not me. Here is what I wrote in this blog entry in April:

If Pitt junior Ashton Gibbs stays in the NBA draft it will be the dumbest decision in a long time. He can't create his own shot. He isn't quick enough and doesn't have a good enough handle to play the one. He isn't big enough to play the two. If he stays in, I hope he enjoys his time in Europe.
If Gibbs is the third best player on a college team, that's a damn good team. If he is the go-to guy...well, I think this season has answered it for everyone.


The Sports Guy has had a long and incredibly successful run. A run that those blogging in our underwear in our parents' basements can only dream of. But, when you are around that long it is hard to keep the schtick fresh for a national audience. But he is at his best when writing about the NBA. This NBA season is a lot of things and he nails it in this three-part look at the first 1/3 of the season.

And if you somehow missed what many now consider one of the two or three best dunks ever, here is Blake on Perk.


Penn St.

It's Letter of Intent Day for high school seniors. That is a sporting "event" that isn't on my radar, but it's a national holiday for many college football fans. I don't think this headline is fair, but man, Penn St. doesn't need publicity like this. I think preparing for the Super Bowl and getting back to the job on Monday is a reasonable excuse. I'd like my head coach to have that going for him.

Super Bowl

I'll try to get some more thoughts up later in the week, but one quick thought on Pats TE Rob Gronkowski and his high ankle sprain. Center Maurkice Pouncey of the Steelers had a similar injury leading into last year's Super Bowl. He insisted right up to the day before the game that he would play, but it has come out that he and the Steelers knew all along he had no chance of being ready.

Gronkowski's situation is obviously not exactly similar. But, he is certainly not going to be 100% if he is able to go and the Giants should make sure that every time he is on the field they have a defensive player lined up over top of him and they make it difficult for him to get off the line of scrimmage. This injury is the most important storyline leading into the game.


Pirates Rotation

About three weeks until pitchers and catchers report for spring training. I'll have a lot to say about the Pirates off-season in the weeks to come, but this caught my eye yesterday. Jason Martinez of @mlbdepthcharts tweeted his updated Houston Astros starting rotation after the signing of 800-year old Livan Hernandez. I felt compelled to ask whether fans thought that rotation was better than the Pirates projected rotation for 2012. Not a good sign.