Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Zizou Way: Instituting Sense and Plans at the Bernabeu



Zinedine Zidane was one of the greatest players of All Time. He was 3-time Player of the Year. Won basically every trophy. Scored goals in World Cup Finals and Champions League Finals. He was signed by Real Madrid during the height of their Galactico era, and scored the club's biggest goal of hte 2000s, his scintillating volley (from his off-foot - though with Zizou, there was no real off foot) to give Madrid a 2-1 lead against Bayer Leverkusen. He did all of that, but his lasting legacy at the Club may actually end up more important as a manager.

Zinedine Zidane accomplished a lot in his now eight months managing the club, from steadying a sinking ship to the point they came whisker-close to catching Barcelona for the La Liga title, to navigating injuries and pressure to win the Champions League - the prize Real Madrid cares about more than any. He was hailed for his ability to manage that locker room full of stars who's interests have often seemed to veer away from what is best for the club. Of course, there were detractors, marking Madrid for taking advantage of an easy path to the Champions League title, or noticing Zidane did little in terms of his formations and team selections that actually changed.

But no matter his tactical abilities, which should only improve over time, he has definitely done the biggest thing that anyone at Madrid can do, and the one thing the Hall of Fame level managers that preceded him (specifically, Carlo Ancelotti and Jose Mourinho) were unable to do: He took on Florentino Perez's way of running the team, and seemingly won. Zidane is the one driving Real Madrid now, and even if the results don't match Perez's continually-too-high expectations, the process is right and the process can set Madrid back on course for the long term.

Now, this may not last. A run of a few bad weeks, or a trophy-less season, will likely still end with Florentino Perez sacking Zidane and going with another manager who will likely be more subservient to Perez's will. But until that happens, Zidane has really done more to claw away power from Perez than any previous manager. Zidane got his wish to stop Real Madrid's lavish, often unneeded spending in the offseason. The stunning lack of signings by Madrid was almost seen as Zidane pushing way too far the other way, but Zidane's response was simple "I believe I have the players I need. Anyone we sign would be extra and would not have a place." That is not to say Madrid did nothing. They signed Alvaro Morata back from Juventus for good, and signed back Ascensio as well, a young 20-year old ex-Madrid academy player. That's basically it.

He came into a picture of a team with way too many attacking players and way too many midfielders, and precious few players who would track back and work hard. Why is this? Because previous regimes that were controlled by Perez and his affinity to sign big names, traded away these types of players (Xabi Alonso, most notably) for the other (Toni Kroos). Of course, nothing was worse than James, a player who had a nice few years at a small club, an admittedly great 2014 World Cup Performance, and then just had to be signed by Perez. Since then, he gained weight, developed a "night-life" problem, and became something of a team pariah. In the biggest sign of Zidane's power, he took James and planted him on the bench from Day 1.

Zidane has proved to be incredibly deft with the notoriously sharp and awful Madrid media. He has consistently said that James fits into his plans, and James has a future in Madrid - while also saying James has to earn that future. And by Zidane openly not playing James, even when the team is injured and normal Starting spots are open, Zidane is not only sending a message to James, but sending it indirectly to everyone. Real Madrid is a meritocracy (apart from, probably Cristiano), and the best players and the ones that buy in will play. It is a warning shot to Benzema, that Morata is here to play and steal your time if you aren't dedicated. Think I'm bluffing, look at James over ther! James actually might be more valuable to Zidane as a sign of his power and a sign of his honesty than as an actual player.

More than just James, it is the reliance on Casemiro (and if Zidane could, that is the type of player he would sign to get depth in the defensive midfield), and Lucas Vazquez, Martin Kovecic and now Ascensio over players like James and Isco. Not that these are great players, but they are young, they are moldable, they play defense, and they are products of Madrid's academy. They are everything Zidane wants in a player, and everything Perez-era Madrid does not. And Zidane is winning by playing them.

Madrid has never really looked at the long game in recent years, but you can see Zidane almost plan right now for life after Cristiano, First is his close tie with Gareth Bale, a player he pushed hard to be signed when he was Sporting Director (a fairly meaningless, honorary title at Real Madrid), and created a close connection with when he took over. Then his collection of hard working wing players who could slot into Ronaldo's role - obviously offering a very different (and admittedly not as good) skillset, but positional fit nonetheless. Ronaldo can play by his own rules because he is one of the best of all time as well, but his days in Madrid may be numbered, and Zidane is setting this team up to be young, deep, variable and ready to take over even if Ronaldo were to exit.

Zidane obviously has qualities apart from his political skills (incredible valuable at Madrid) and tactical knowledge (which is still being proven) that make him a great manager, but none has been better than his temperament and ability to connect to his players. His temperament has been so calm, so steadying (in hilarious contrast to his playing days, where his short temper was his biggest failing). He never swayed from his mantra of the process favoring the results, from his team getting better each week, from his team always having to work. It was that mindset that nearly corralled Barca and won the Champions League despite having to overcome a 0-2 1st Leg hole in the Quarters. But the real key is that ability to connect.

In-game management by coaches is overrated. Even tactical brilliance is overrated - there is no clear sign one way of playing is any better than the other. What matters is knowing your players and knowing how to deploy them and motivate them. Zidane has been amazing at this. His players have adored him from Day 1. So often we see All Time Greats try coaching to little success, and a large reason has always seemed to be the distance between them and the peons they are coaching - whether it be Diego Maradona, or Wayne Gretzky. Zidane may be helped by the fact he coaches a team of superstars that knows what it is like to have that prodigious talent (Ronaldo clearly respects him to a level he may not have previous coaches in Madrid), but Zidane also has been able to connect to them as an ex-player.

It remains to be seen how this will all work. Madrid still has weakness in the back, and as much as he might have them try to cover them up by having his best players track back more, those are still issues. The team still is not deep in those areas, and injuries to his back line (or God help him if Casemiro goes down for a long period) can be the death of the team. But he has already shown an ability to adapt to changes in personnel.

A few years from now, if Zidane succeeds at Madrid it will be because he does have a certain style of play he favors, and maybe he is waiting to get his players to play that style. Yet even there, his ability to fit his current roster to a certain way of playing is a sign of a great manager. He didn't need to make whole-sale changes, he could be flexible enough to play with the resources he had. Zidane is putting in place a methodology, a sense of calm and security and direction, that Madrid has sorely lacked. If he can show himself as a tactician, or hire assistants to do this for him, he really would check every box as a manager. The future has never been brighter at Madrid, and all it took was for Madrid's first true Galactico to come back and end the Galactico modus operandi that Florentino Perez controlled for good.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

2016 Summer Olympics: Random Olympic Musings

= To me, the star of the Olympics (aside from the Phelps / Biles / Ledecky / Bolt types) has been volleyball. Apparently, Brazil takes to volleyball the way they take to soccer, even to the point where their stadium is called the Maracanazinho. The crowds at both the indoor volleyball events, and the Copacabana Beach Volleyball set-up have been so good, leading to a ridiculously riotous atmosphere. I'll talk about the play in a second, but arguably the best part of the whole thing has been the great music played between points, to the hilarious 'Monster Block' chant after a block, to the high use of 'This Girl' by Kungs vs. Cookin' For Three. They said Brazil and Rio would be one big party, and for every single volleyball event, especially if the Brazilans are playing, has been just that

= As for the actual play, after watching a lot of volleyball the past ten days, easily more than the rest of my life combined, you do start to get an appreciation for just how good of athletes these players are, and the timing, skill and strategy it takes to win. Set aside beach volleyball, where the idea these players could move like that on sand is just ridiculous. As for the indoor game, the passing and play design is all so imaginative and great. I obviously have a very limited understanding, but I find it a far more fascinating game than I could have imagined, especially when I think back to the time of me playing it in gym. Also, I am more shocked than I should be that all the best players are basically the height of NBA players.

= The normal 'favorite random sports' haven't done it for me as much this time, like the non-tennis racket sports (table tennis, badminton), or the traditionally loved odd team sports (handball, water polo). Both handball and water polo, to me, suffer because they are a little too slow. Both have very little end to end action, with teams generally keeping the ball until they miss or score. Water Polo is basically a slower version of handball. I much preferred my friends and my version of water polo which was basically just tackle football played in the pool, where we jumped and tackled each other for hours and probably burned thousands and thousands of calories.

= These shooting events are just crazy. How these people can shot air rifles and trap shoot over 50 meters to a centimeter wide target. Or the archers getting 10 ("TENNNN!!!" sreams the announcer) points from 150 feet away. That is just nuts. These shooting sports are almost more incredible and impossible to comprehend than the more 'athletic' sports. The best part of these Olympics often times are watching things that you would never watch, or more likely, can't even attempt to watch, during the 47 other months the Olympics are going on, and nothing fits that better than shooting, which gets a very, very different coverage the other months.

= Diving is pretty fantastic, huh? All forms, whether it is the synchronized version in Week 1, or the platform, or the 10 meter dives. I used to be scared jumping off the diving board, and now I watch these people do gymnastics-level flips and twists while knowing they are going to be hitting water hard.

= NBC's coverage has to be talked about, but i'll take the contrarian opinion in that they do a pretty good job all things considered. Let's take the largest issue with them, which is their propensity to tape delay big events that take place during the day to hold for primetime. In practice, it makes perfect sense. There are still a lot of people who can't watch during teh day, and they need to watch in primetime. What makes it worse is finding out the results are so much easier today than it was 8 years ago when Michael Phelps was chasing 8 golds in Beijing. My complaint on the complainers is the further issue to them that they hold off showing tape-delayed Gymnastics until live swimming was over - but that makes complete sense than tape delay LIVE SWIMMING

= Also, let's just remember that online, anyone can see any event live for EVERY SINGLE EVENT. That's every single event. You can watch dressage, synchronized swimming, archery, cycling, and yes, gymnastics, live on the computer with live feeds. And big events like gymnastics even give you commentators that are probably better than the NBC trio that does gymnastics. This will become much more important four years from now when the games are in Tokyo and a whole lot of things ill be taped delay, but streaming should be even more well presented by 2020.

= Finally, I just love how NBC is able to find these people to commentate on all these events that are all so knowledgeable, excited and dedicated. Whether it is the volleyball announcers, the archery and shooting announcers, the field hockey announcer, the diving announcers. They are all so knowledgeable. My bigger question is not how NBC can find these people to announce and give color commentary for all these different events, but what are these people actually doing the rest of the time when the Olympics is not going on? Can being a water polo color commentator actually have much traction when the Olympics are not on? Like what do these people do all the other 47 months? I really want to know this.

Monday, August 15, 2016

2016 Summer Olympics: Murray, Delpo, Rafa and Tennis's Festival in Rio



Tennis is not a natural fit for the Olympics. It is hard to care too much when the winners of Gold medals get faded into the background, when there are four other events each year that are all more important (even in an Olympic year). And even putting aside the Olympics, the Big 4 relentless dominance has done so much for men's tennis. But still, let's just remember what they've done for Olympic tennis as well.

It may have started when Rafael Nadal won the 2008 Gold Medal in Beijing, beating Novak Djokovic in the Semifinals, but tennis has embraced the Olympics in a big way - especially the Men's side. Even more than Nadal's triumph in 2008, was Murray's in 2012. About six weeks after losing his first Wimbledon Final to Roger Federer, Murray, on that very same court, beat Djokovic and Federer back-to-back to win his first big title. At this point he hadn't won a major (he would win the US Open played a month later). He was 0-fer in big finals. He swept away Federer 6-2 6-1 6-4 (after beating Novak in straights 7-5 7-5), fell to the ground crying, got up and draped a British flag over his body and stood proud when 'God Save the Queen' played. That moment cemented the Olympics as a major event in tennis.

Of course, try telling the ATP this. Since 2012, they decided to stop awarding tour points for the Olympics, making it truly a 'play for the love of the game' affair with the players having nothing tangible to gain and everything (a tough 1-week slog in the middle of the busiest part of the season) to lose. Sadly for the ATP, and thankfully for all of us, the players do seem to love the game. The Men's Singles event may have lost a bit of luster when Federer had to pull out, but the other 3 members of the Big 4 came to play, and brought an old friend who rose like a Phoenix with them.

I'll get to the more memorable story in a minute, but first let's pour one out for Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. Rafael Nadal has seen his once brilliant career fade oddly the past two years. Injuries have always been present, and the guy who was the clear #3 in the 'Big-4' has basically caught him career-wise at this point, but he was actually having a really nice season until he hurt his wrist in the French Open. He wanted to play the Olympics badly. Despite two major tournaments coming up, he wanted to play for Spain. He wanted to be the flag bearer during the Opening Ceremony - a title he cruelly had to give up when he was too hurt to play in 2012.

He came, and he did not go quietly into the night. The schedule became too tough to fit in mixed doubles, but he managed to win a Gold Medal in doubles with Marc Lopez (Rafa is actually a highly accomplished doubles player on tour, but for obvious reasons scarcely plays any), and then make a run to the Semifinals in singles. He was not perfect, definitely rusty at times, but the Rafa we saw this week was stronger both mentally and physically than he has looked in a long time. He was hitting deep and dominating rallies with both strokes. He was serving well, and moving well. If not for a player who decided to turn the clock back even further, he would walk away with another medal. For Rafa, this bodes well heading into the US Open, a tournament he, apart from last year, has always done rather well in.



He also showed the incredible passion that we love. With Federer not in Rio, he was the elder statesman, the crowd favorite. He lapped it up, and the Rio crowd helped him. The atmosphere inside almost all arena's in Rio has been incredible, but the tennis center was just crazy for all players. It definitely helped Murray.

For Andy, what more is there to say at this point. He is never going to be the equals of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer when it comes to singular accomplishments, but he should be remembered as a player far more than a guy who won three Slams. Now he has two Gold Medals (first player ever to do that). He has another signature win and moment. He is adding to a legacy that shouldn't need more hardware but does. For years, we felt sorry for Novak for having to play in the same era as Roger and Rafa. For Djokovic, he has taken full advantage of Roger's age and Rafa's injuries catching up to them these past three years. Now we can turn our sympathies towards Andy Murray, who has squeaked out enough hardware when those three weren't looking to have a Top-15 career himself - 'only' three slams be damned.



But let's be truthful, the medal may be silver, but the real winner of the tournament was Juan Martin del Potro. Let's take a quick trip back memory lane, shall we, to September 2009.

I hadn't started this blog at that time (I started a month later). Had I done so, I would have written 10,000 words over Juan Maritn del Potro's stunning 2009 US Open win. He was the first person not named Nadal, Federer or Djokovic to win a slam since the 2005 Australian Open. He had just turned 21 years old, and won the title after smoking Nadal in the Semifinals (6-2 6-2 6-2) and beating Federer in a memorable match to stop Federer from winning his 6th straight US Open. He took Federer down with one of the greatest displays of forehand hitting the sport had ever seen. Highlights of the match on Youtube from the BBC Feed are accompanied by the commentators just laughing at the sheer audacity of his strokes. He was the next big thing in the sport.



He doubled down by winning the World Tour Finals in December, and then making a run to the QFs of the 2010 Australian Open, and then it all went to Hell. He hurt his wrist and it required surgery. This would become, sadly, a horrifyingly common event. He missed the rest of the 2010 season, and came back in 2011 to very mixed results. It took him the full year to really get going, and in 2012, two years removed from the first injury, he was slightly 'back.' He made three QFs at slams, won the Bronze Medal in 2012 by beating Novak Djokvic in the Bronze-Medal match. He then took Djokovic to 5 amazing sets in the 2013 Wimbledon Semifinals, and then it went to an even worse level of Hell.

Juan Martin del Potro's 2014 and 2015 seasons basically amounted to nothing. Four different wrist surgeries - on both wrist. He was as close to retiring as possible. His outsized talent, and effacing personality, had set him up to be the next star. Instead, he was just the biggest 'what-if?' of the last 10 years of tennis, the heir apparent to Marat Safin. Though unlike Safin, it wasn't complacency that killed him, but his own body.

And then we got the past week. Juan Martin del Potro could retire tomorrow, and we will always have that week. He could easily break his wrist in the US Open and we may never see him again, but he had that week. Whether it was playing for his country (and there were a lot of people willing to support the Argentinean in Rio), whether it was playing in the same tournament that had his greatest accomplishment since the US Open win. Whatever it was, del Potro made this his time.

His 7-6 7-6 win over Novak Djokovic was enough by itself to make this memorable. Played in an insane atmosphere at night only matched by night matches at the Australian and US Opens, del Potro hammered Djokovic. He didn't allow the best returner ever to see a single break point. His forehand became the first stroke in years to actually completely outgun the world's best player. The best part, though, was the reaction by both men after the match ended. Their long hug at center court, del Potro breaking down in Novak's arms after exchanging words, likely Novak telling him how good it was to have the Gentle Giant of Tandil back in action. Then Novak himself breaking down in a way he rarely has after losing. Novak too is a man who adores playing for his country, and knowing this was likely his last chance at the elusive Gold Medal.



Somehow, though, del Potro was able to combine with Nadal to do it all over again. Since that 2009 match, their careers have both been marred by injuries, and rarely ever had their times when they were fit and ready actually matched, as Nadal had his, at the time, worst injury concerns in 2012-13, the brief period of del Potro's first renaissance. Together, finally, they produced magic. That match was as well played, hard fought, intense and when you combine the crowd, meaningful as a Grand Slam semifinal. The fact that it was two players who have had so much of their careers lost to injuries, making their respective comebacks in a tournament with nothing to gain besides pride and honor, and both players throwing everything at each other for three hours? That was tennis at its best.

The fact that del Potro won, and broke down moreso than I've ever seen from a player in a non-Grand Slam match, showed just how important this is still to him. He's still only 28, in a sport where the peak age has stretched moreso than ever, with little actual mileage on his body. His wrists may be ticking time bombs, but he must know that we are all hoping the same thing: that this is the beginning of an unlucky, but so incredible, third act.



The fact all of this happened at the Olympics, at a tournament with no prize money, with no ranking points (a change from previous Olympics), is all the more memorable. To be fair, had this exact tournament played out in this exact same way at the US Open next month, it would be incredible and I would write a lot about it. The fact that it was at the Olympics makes it all the better.

In reality, this is more a credit to this group of Men's players than anything else. For taking this tournament seriously. For taking the honor of representing their country seriously (Murray too carried the flag for the UK at the Opening Ceremony). For taking this all as an opportunity to play in front of crazy fans in a part of the world they rarely come to. For doing it all with such class, and emotion. I don't think anyone expected this from the 2016 Olympics, and when we look back at this tournament years from now, this will easily be lost behind headlines and snippets of Phelps, Biles, Bolt and Ledecky, but two of the Greatest Men's Tennis Players ever, and a recharged and readied former Prodigy combined to give us something amazing.

Friday, August 12, 2016

2016 Summer Olympics: The US Olympic Machine, For Good and Bad





"The Triumph of Victory, The Agony of Defeat." ABC brought us that binary way of viewing sports with their historic Wild World of Sports program back in the 70's. While not connected to the Olympics, it is easy to view it in that way also. Well, for the US team in 2016, in their biggest events so far performed by their biggest stars, there has been no agony or defeat. The US has, with a machine-like precision, dominated the two highlight sports of Week 1, Women's Gymnastics and Swimming, to make you both appreciate their dominance, and look elsewhere to get that real sporting suspense and drama.

There is a certain nationalistic pride that comes when one of your contrymen / countrywomen dominates the world the way Simone Biles did in the All-Around final yesterday, or the entire US team did in the Women's Team Final on Tuesday, or whatever it is that Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps that makes them so great (more about Phelps in a bit), but pre-ordained sports is never as interesting as it should be. Sports fans love greatness. It has been shown time and time again, from team sports with the Patriots in teh 2000s, or 49ers in the 80s, or the Bulls in the 90s, to individual sports with Tiger Woods adn Roger Federer at various times, that true greatness can drive a sports popularity and ratings. But still, we prefer it when those guys are pushed, when they have rivals. These top US folks just simply do not.

The gymnastics events were foregone conclusions heading into the Rio Olympics, and basically through one turn of the qualifying round, when the US dominated qualifying as a team, and had the top-3 scores for the Individual All-Around qualifying (knocking Gabby Douglas out because only two per country could qualify), I was both in awe of the precision and flawless way they dominated, and somewhat dismayed that no one was challenging them. The US Women's Gymnastic Machine just threw down on the world on Tuesday, getting the top score on each of the four parts, and winning by 8 points. While it was fun because it was America, it was slightly boring to watch peerless perfection.



Simone Biles of course managed to match all expectations she had of performing like someone who, at 19, is already being called the best gymnast of all time. There is a machine-like quality to why that is, given that she has been literally known to jump higher than any other previous gymnast. Her performance has been absolutely flawless, and it gives a nice bonus to the US to not only have won the Individual All-Around four straight times now, but two in a row by African American women. Also, let's always remember the only person that could even come close was the other American Aly Raisman, who at least seemed human in her performance, but like a seasoned veteran in every other way. She's the oldest, she's the team captain, and it showed during the team event, always the first to congratulate the other girls after their performances, leading the chant of being the 'Final 5'. Then, she actually, honestly, seemed more elated to share the medal stand with Simone than having the Silver herself.

Raisman can leave the Olympics knowing that she was a key cog in the two most dominant gymnastics teams maybe ever. Their total score of 184.897 had them a full 8 points up on China. But let's not forget that in 2012, they were 99% as good, scoring 183.596, winning by five points. The US got slightly better, which seems amazing remembering how ruthlessly efficient they were four years ago, but the rest of the world got worse to. It is sad that the rest of the world is almost ceding defeat. I'm sure this is cyclical, and there will be a day when a Simone Biles type rises in another country, and we can't win forever, but the gap seems to be widening.



Moving to the pool, it is more of the same. The US has lapped up on the events everyone expected. Sure, it says something about the brilliance of Katie Ledecky that she entered into Rio with tons of expectations, and has met each and every one of them. In swimming, when there is visual proof of how each person is relative to the other, it was almost laughable watching the gap just widen between her and the competitors in teh 400m freestyle. But if swimmings equally laughable number of total events staged and medals handed out gives us anything, it is the more potential for drama to catch up.



First of all, while no other country can match the US's depth, size and overall quality, individual performers are more than capable. There were many races where the US was a decided underdog. Hungary's Kitinka Hosszu has been every bit the dominant force that Ledecky has (and with her we see evidence of the worst part of nationalism, with vieled references to the potential she is doping when she wins by so much, but never when it is an American doing the same). Sweden's Sarah Sjostrom and Canada's Penny Oleksiak (who is 16 and is on track to own Tokyo 2020), and even China's Sum Yan, have all equalled any non-Phelps or Ledecky person this time around.

But more than that, we have actually had drama in the pool. We had that incredible race where Simone Manuel, a C-level star for US swimming, came out of nowhere to win the 100m freestyle yesterday (tying for the win), with her genuine reaction of shock, instead of the normal reaction of our swimming stars (Phelps mostly), one of 'I knew it' coupled with steely determination and confidence. Or when Ryan Held broke up in tears during the National Anthem in the 4x100m relay win for the US, surrounded by his more accomplished teammates who were there to console (and laugh at) him. There is more genuine drama in swimming.



There is also more depth, again a function of more medals. The US's dominance in swimming is not just being the place where Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky (and a quick shout-out to Ryan Murphy, who is the other swimmer with multiple individual race golds) were born, but also its unparalleled depth. Swimmers like Nathan Adrian, Connor Dwyer, Maya Dirado, Josh Prenot, Kathleen Baker. The US depth is ridiculous. It truly is a machine aimed at getting the most medals with the most diverse set of people. It really seems like the US solved a complex linear optimization issue, with so many events run concurrently, and needing to have enough people to do it all, and came up golden. It is just amazing when in some random race, even when the US is not seriously competing for a Gold, we generally have someone good enough to get us close to a medal and add to that ridiculous tally (right now 24 total medals, Australia is in 2nd with 8).

Of course, no one is still coming up more Golden than Michael Phelps. I don't know why we should have expected any less. Phelps has often stated how disappointed he was with his performance during the 2012 games in London, and how much better prepared he was this time around. Well, when the disappointing result is 4 gold medals, 6 medals overall, then it makes sense that the dominant result would be all the Gold Medals.

Few things were as ridiculous as last night. He had already taken part of two successful relay teams, and won the 200m butterfly, avenging probably his most painful non-Gold in 2012 (it should be noted htere was drama there - while he tossed away 'rival' Chad LeClos, he barely beat Masato Sakai), nothing showed his dominance, both now and always, like his performance yesterday. First came one of his specialties, the 200m IM, which he won in 2004, 2008 and 2012. Well, he not only made in 4 for 4, he did so by two seconds, which is absurd in such a short, complex race. What was more crazy was halfway through he was in second. He took over first in what is supposed to be his weakest stroke (breakstroke), and then flew away from the pack, taking a .4 second lead to a 2 second lead by the end.

And then he decided to show how good he still is. NBC had made so much of the short turnaround he had from that 200m IM final and the 100m Fly semifinal - and for good reason. The 30 minutes in between the two is absurdly short in a truly intense sport in the worst way. It is hard to expend that much energy in a short period, have the body cool off well, and gear right up to do it again. Making it worse was what the 100m Fly meant for Phelps also. This is the other race where he has a chance to win four Olympic Golds in a row. The Butterfly is his best stroke, and this is the signature race of it. He qualified well for the semifinal, but it seemed outlandish to expect him to do well in that one, and one length down the pool, when he was in 7th, that made sense.

And of course, he ended up .01 seconds behind the semifinal winner. His last 50 meters, going from 7th to nearly winning, was just incredible. It is another reminder that he is not normal, he is not playing the same game as anyone else. He is about to have a legendary Olympics. He has a good potential to win 6 Gold Medals in his 6 events. The hilarious part is he is doing this both at 31 years of age, which is supposedly old in the world of swimming, and that this will still be most definitely not his best Olympics. Phelps has taken a slightly more arrogant pose in the pool (his celebrations are those of someone who just knows they are better than anyone ever), but more affable and introspective tone outside it, combining to make him an even more interesting figure now.

The US will try to continue to their machine-like domination of the primary Olympic sports next week on the track, but there they enter territory where they don't have the headline star (Usain Bolt), and they don't have this incredibly history to live up to and continue. I don't know if the world has seen anything in recent decades quite like the last two US Olympic Women's Gymnastics teams, and this incredible collection of swimmers, headlined by the best Olympian Ever. Drama has at times been sucked out of the competition, but legacy, importance and brilliance has not and will not be.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Top-20 QBs: #8 - John Elway



#8 - John Elway


Sometimes, you have to just believe when you can't see. John Elway's last game was essentially the first football game I remember watching, his walk-off Super Bowl MVP performance in Super Bowl  XXXIII. I never saw prime John Elway, thing is no one really did.

What is prime anyway? Is it by age, when Elway was between 25-30, from 1985-1990? Or was it when you were actually at your best, at the end of your career in a controlled offense that put up career high numbers? There was no prime for Elway, and maybe that is a problem, but if you believe the reasons, the explanations of why there is no answer, Elway's greatness becomes pretty obvious.

The refrain the Elway backers will chant in unison is the fact that he was surrounded by pure garbage during what should have been his prime. That in that period where he was 25-30, he had no one of note to throw to, even fewer god options to hand off too, and an average line protecting him. It is very easy to be skeptical of this reasoning, but when so many say it so loudly, and the chanting extends beyond the Mile High City, it makes sense to at least start believing it.

To say it plainly, by statistical performance, John Elway is not a Top-10 QB of All Time. He played at a time when Dan Marino and Joe Montana were putting up statistics that consistently beat out Elway's own. Of course, Marino played in Florida and threw to the Marks Brothers. Montana played in a windfarm in Candlestick, but also got to throw to the greatest WR of All Time for a good period. Elway had none of these things. Elway did have legend on his side.



As someone who believes in statistical analysis, it should be no surprise I would be so leery of mythbuilding, especially when at times it seems quite random which player gets built up or put down for similar accomplishments. Elway saw his teams absolutely destroyed in three Super Bowls in a four year span. While the Broncos defenses were busy giving up 42 and 55 points in Super Bowl XXII and XXIV, his offense only put up 10 in both games as well. Most QBs would get rightfully pilloried for that performance. Elway was the lucky one who actually got the deserved excuse of carrying a sad husk of a team to the Super Bowl in the first place.

Mythology is also built off of great moments. Elway, of course, led 'The Drive.' He also had the helicopter play. Of course, these moments were 10 years apart, showing off his underrated longevity. The Drive, a 98-yard slog through the Cleveland defense in Cleveland was rightfully hailed as the stuff of legend. I would hate to limit my opinion of a great to one drive, but it is these mythmaking moments, so hailed by people whose opinions I trust and value that cements his place in my mind.

The final piece of Elway's legacy of course was built out of his final act, his back-to-back Super Bowl titles. Of course, in classic John Elway mythology, his first title is remembered for the Helicopter play, and not the fact that his stats in that game very closely matched Peyton Manning's "winning performance" in Super Bowl 50. OF course, that all was washed away by his admittedly great performance in the final game, his Super Bowl MVP title against Atlanta.

John Elway went out on top, retroactively proving to all those that saw just the stats he put up in his prime years, showing what was possible had he had talent around him his whole career. We can all be leery, but also understanding of that argument, of the evidence he gave us all late in his career, and the large swaths of Football Loving America that believe it already.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

On A-Rod and Ichiro

Alex Rodriguez just decided / was coaxed into / may have been held and gunpoint and forced to retire from baseball this upcoming Friday. On that very same day, Ichiro Suzuki got his 3,000th hit. These are two very different players, who both lived in and highlighted very different parts of baseball's last 20 years. It is too easy to say that A-Rod represents all that is bad and Ichiro all that is good. In fact, at various points in their histories it was the opposite that rang true. At the end, as they both reached career milestones on the same day, their presence, while never truly connected, should always be remembered as being catalysts for so much baseball debate.

The only link you can draw between the two comes from the monumental event that changed the way we viewed A-Rod: him signing with Texas for $252 MM over 10 years and leaving Seattle ahead of teh 2001 season. This was the third straight offseason that the Mariners saw a Hall of Fame level player depart town. If you accept A-Rod's accomplishments at face value, the Mariners, in successive offseasons, lost three of the 50 best players in the history of the game (Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez), and of course as has been told many times, responded by winning 118 games. And of course, the best player on that record breaking, 118-win team: Ichiro Suzuki.

That was his first year in the US, a year that he would hit .350, collect 240 hits, and win both AL Rookie of the Year and MVP. Ichiro was the first position player from Japan to play in the MLB, and not only did he maintain his ridiculous performance level that he showed in the Japanese Nippon League, he upped it. He probably wasn't the best player in the AL - though most of the alternatives were probably on steroids - but the narrative wrote itself. The legend of Ichiro started in 2001, and hasn't stopped since, but there have been twists and turns.

Ichiro was often heralded as a throwback player. He exelled at the things old-school baseball men started to really care about in the early-2000's when baseball was being transformed into a homer-happy, OPS-loving world. He hit for average, and hit ground ball singles. A lot of them. He just hit; he didn't draw walks, or try to hit home runs. He just got on base slapping singles into every conceivable area. Of course, this made the stat-heads often consider him a wholly overrated player in the early to mid 00's. The offensive value of a player who could hit .330 every year, but only get on base at a .360 clip and slug below .500 was not all that high.

Of course, the stat heads then grew up, they learned how to correctly assess defense and baserunning and these other areas that Ichiro was great at, and realized, retrospectively, he was one of the 5 to 10 best players in the AL year in and year out throughout his 'peak' years. Of course, by the time they realized this the current Ichiro had regressed to a player who could not hit .300 and was not all that good anymore.

In the end, we all learned to respect and love the facets of Ichiro's game that he was brilliant in, but also the guy himself. He was quirky, introspective, logical, brilliant. Despite knowing English well (and also knowing enough Spanish to taunt and play with Latin players on the bases), Ichiro maintained a translator in his interviews. Not because he was shy of speaking English, but because he could answer questions better, and with more thought and meaning, in Japanese. His answers to questions on American baseball and culture are illuminating of a true genius. Ichiro, more than anyone, would have loved Alex Rodriguez, a man who loved baseball a little too much.

Alex Rodriguez was, in some ways, the opposite of Ichiro. Statheads loved him from the start, for being a transcendentally great player from the time he was 19, to playing great shortstop, to hitting better than any shortstop ever had. Alex Rodriguez was a top-5 player in baseball for a good 15 years straight. Other than playing baseball, and I guess escaping failing drug test, Alex Rodriguez couldn't really do anything else.

He was a bit narcassistic, but even worse was nowhere near charming enough to get away with it (see: Bryant, Kobe, for somehow who often was). He was awkward and robotic at times, very much a US version of Cristiano Ronaldo. And, worst of all, he had the gall to accept a ridiculous amount of money from Texas in 2001. Alex Rodriguez's contract was astounding. So much so it is still the 3rd largest contract ever given out in US sports, beaten only by his own next contract ($275 MM), and Giancarlo Stanton's contract ($325 MM) which comes with a massive out clause and likely won't approach that in total compensation. Sportswriters and old-school baseball guys lost their minds over this.

In retrospect, not only was it ridiculous to be upset at someone at taking a lot of money, this was probably the best giant contract baseball ever handed out. A-Rod was just entering his Year 25 season, and played under that contract for 7 years (before opting out and signing the next 10-year deal after the 2007 season). In that time, he averaged a .304/.400/.541 slash line, with 329 HRs and 908 RBIs, winning three MVP awards, three gold gloves, and generally being awesome. He racked up 56.3 WAR in that time as well. This was basically as good a return as you can get on a mega-contract.

Of course, all of this leaves out the elephant in the room of his steroid use. A-Rod admitted it happened. The world knows it happened. The world also knows a lot of people were on steroids and didn't come close to matching A-Rod's accomplishments, and also that no one has been punished more for it. Despite never failing a test, and despite MLB having set guidelines for steroid suspensions, the MLB gave him a 200-game suspension, kicking him out for some of 2013 and the entire 2014 season. This was a ruthless justice system punishing a guy more than really what was necessary. If anyone paid their price, it was A-Rod.

Alex Rodriguez's strange snap retirement is a sad coda for one of the generations best players, especially when it somewhat overshadowed another of this era's best players signature achievement. The fact that Ichiro reached 3,000 hits in the US is insane, since when he turned 27, he had a grand total of zero. Ichiro basically had to average 200 hits a year for 15 seasons, and he did it. A-Rod also reached 3,000 hits (he was the most recent player to do so), but that will be the tenth or twentieth item on A-Rod's career resume.

These two players defined the extremes of the last 15-20 years. Baseball is great because two players could be so different, and attack their job in such different ways, yet still be about as valuable as each other and succeed to similar degrees (admittedly, A-Rod was a far better player). Ichiro represented one of my favorite aspects of baseball, the fact that the playoffs doesn't matter when it comes into debating who was great as Ichiro of course never played in a playoff game after hsi rookie season. Of course, A-Rod shows that it still did for one guy as his notable playoff failures probably had more to do with his negative approval rating in New York than his steroid conviction. Ichiro represented the increasing influence of the Japanese game. A-Rod the lasting immersion of the latin game. Both players are true greats, even if they did it in such different ways.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Top-20 QBs: #9 - Brett Favre



#9 - Brett Favre


What is there to say about the most written about QB this side of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. New-age young fans who care more about statistics and efficiency and taking care of the ball push Favre down their lists. Those who are older and are used to mythologizing players who ran around and threw off-balanced passes in general directions of receivers who would often be fully covered, looked past those issues in Favre's career and hailed him as a top QB of all time. In reality, he is both, he is everything. Brett Favre, when he was on, had as high a peak as any QB in history. He also had the lowest floor of any of those players who had the high peak. The conundrum of Favre should rest somewhere in between as one of the best QBs of all time, with a penchant that grew increasingly more obvious as his career went on.

Favre's career is a myth in itself. A small-town, small-school boy from Kiln, Mississippi gets plucked out of career obscurity of being a backup in Atlanta to go play in our most nothernly outpost. Lake all great tales, there were ups (three straight MVPs, a Super Bowl title), and downs (public exposure of his painkiller addiction, his pick-happy late Green Bay years with Mike Sherman), but in sum, Favre's Green Bay years were statistically, ethereally and metaphorically the stuff of legend.

After a couple years of growing pains as a starter in a new offense and a new structure, Favre put together one of the best 5-year stretches the league had seen. From 1994-1998 (Mike Holmgren's last year in Green Bay), Favre went 57-23, threw for 20,273 yards with a 61.5 completion percentage, with 176 TDs and 79 INTs. This was still the mid-90's, where apart from the hyper efficiency of Steve Young, no one was putting up numbers like this. Favre truly combined volume and efficiency at a consistent level unlike anything the league had seen before. Marino had it for many years, but rarely such a sustained stretch.

This period combined with some excellent Green Bay teams with loaded talent on both sides of the ball, but Favre was that offense. He lost his best receiver due to freak injury in Sterling Sharpe, and continued to be great throwing to Andre Rison and Mark Chmura and a cast of random characters. The Packers loaded up with stars on defense (Reggie White most notably), but on offense it was a reliance on Holmgren and Favre to make magic together, and they did just that.



In this period of time, peak Favre was basically the 90's version of peak-Rodgers or peak-Manning or any other QB who's statistical exploits in a far more passing-heavy league make people think Favre wasn't their equal. Favre was. Starting mid-way through his 1995 season, where he won his first MVP, through his 1996 season where he won his second, Favre went 20-4, throwing for 5,945 yards, with 60 TDs and just 15 INTs, for a 104.1 rating. Favre, at his best, was a monster on the field, mastering the West Coast Offense to a way that would make Young or Montana proud.

Favre late career did expose Favre's limitations somewhat as a 'gunslinger' type who would throw careless interceptions and try to make crazy plays instead of safe ones. This was at its worst in the Mike Sherman days, when Favre's position in Green Bay became unchecked and his power limitless. There were few players who ran their teams like Favre in those years. What was shown when Mike McCarthy took over is a reigned in, programmed, smart Favre still existed and still could be brilliant.

The ultimate late career Favre also showed his true personality, his true humanity. His multiple tear-filled press conferences announcing his retirement, and his multiple un-retirements did grow tiresome, but they also showed just how much he truly loved playing the game. His consecutive start streak did become a bellweather at some points, but it becomes more amazing that he did it for the last 9 years or so without the help of painkillers. That also lends itself well to why he was so mentally demoralized after seasons, and after a few months of R&R he wanted back in.

The real Favre was also driven to get respect. Whether it was the respect of being a starting QB, or a Champion, the ultimate show of respect for Favre was being able to pick and choose when he retired. Green Bay didn't give him that, and in the most incredible show of drive for respect, if not revenge, he wanted to get back at them in the worst way. We always thought Favre needed a compass, needed a guide like Mike Holmgren. Favre's incredible 2009 performance, including two masterful games against Green Bay, showed he could be as self-driven as any other great QB.

Brett Favre will be entering the Hall of Fame in 2016. Reports from the Hall of Fame deliberation session that occurred before Super Bowl 50 said that the 'debate' on Favre was the quickest ever. While that is not too surprising given both the fact that Favre was a deserved Hall of Famer, and the way the media types who select the Hall of Fame generally loved Favre more than any player past or present. There is probably a cadre of stat-heads that saw his checkered history of high interception totals and would argue against him being such a slam dunk Hall of Famer, but when we peel back the stats, we see a glittering collection of incredible seasons and performances that nothing would befit Favre more than being a first ballot Hall of Famer.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Year After Affect in Houston

I've avoided talking about the Houston Astros much of this year. I avoided it after their 17-28 start, after their 35-14 run thereafter to corrall the Texas Rangers to a 2.5 game lead. And since as they've struggled after that and dropped back 3 games in teh loss column. My lack of writing about the team does not mean there has been a lack of interest - if anything, it has been to disappointment coming from too much interest.

The Astros were probably supposed to be right here in 2016, battling for a playoff spot but not an outright favorite to make the playoffs. However, an unexpected breakout in 2015 changed all of that. It changed the way I viewed the team, and more than anything, it changed the way the Astros brass viewed the team. Competing for the first time in a decade in many ways contributed to some trades that were quite iffy. At the time, dealing three average at best prospects for Mike Fiers and Carlos Gomez made sense - and I can't argue they lost that trade. But offseason moves for Ken Giles are different. They wanted it. I wanted it. Sadly, though, the Astros are experiencing the normal year-after effect.

I've seen this routine many times in football. I've seen the team breakout from 4-12 to 10-6 or 11-5, doing so a year ahead of schedule. And many times that is followed up with a dip back to 7-9 or 8-8. Then after the initial hurdle, normal growth comes back and they go back to being a 10-6 type team and stay there for a long time. This happens all the time. The Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2001 and then missed the playoffs in 2002. The Colts under Manning went 13-3 and 10-6 in back-to- back seasons, then fell to 6-10 before getting Dungy and exploding for eight years. The Ravens and Falcons both jumped to 11-5 in 2008 with rookie QBs, then fell back slightly to 9-7 in 2009, before becoming playoff teams three straight years in 2010-2012. This is normal, but accepting it is hard.

The MLB season is about 60% done at this point, and the Astros are lingering, but it seems fairly obvious it is not their year. Dallas Keuchel started out miserably, and even recent semi-success will not help to play down his 2015 Cy Young season being a massive fluke. The rest of the pitching staff has been average at best. Jose Altuve is putting up an MVP season, but Carlos Correa and George Springer are just the 'B' versions of themselves. The rest of the lineup has the same holes as always. The team has shortcomings, and I have to keep reminding myself that the future is incredibly bright, despite this small dip in the road.

Last week, the Astros called up Alex Bregman, their top pick in the 2015 draft, #2 overall, who was recently crowned as the best prospect in baseball. In his first game, he just missed hitting what could have been a game-winning Grand Slam. A week later, he is 1-26. Sure, this probably means nothing. Rarely is someone so good at all levels of the minors and just plain bad. Mike Trout himself had an awful cup of coffee in Los Angeles in 2011 before becoming Mickey Mantle incarnate in 2012. Bregam should be fine, but his slow start is another reminder of how tough getting there can be.

Carlos Correa was the AL Rookie of the Year. His statistical profile both as a rookie and a minor-league player aged 17-20 profiled him as a superstar. Despite his 'struggles', he still profiles by the industry-leading statistical projection system (ZIPS) to be a Top-5 player in baseball over the next five years. He still has all the makings of a superstar. He is still just 21. Yet seeing him hit 'just' .260, while walking way more (.360 OBP), showing good power and all the other tools just seems disappointing.

At the end, the future is still really bright. The Astros are well positioned heading into 2017, and I would rather have them accept the normal year-after affect and give away 2016 than trading more guys for stop-gaps. Jeff Luhnow has done a brilliant job of drafting, but his trading record is a little more spotty. I know in my heart things will be fine - and if they can get some reliable long-term starting pitching options behind Lance McCullers they most certainly will be, but the wait is tough. After 10 years in the desert, the 2015 oasis was such a welcome surprise. Walking along it, we hoped it would lead us to the Ocean of never-ending success. It still may, but it may take a while to go down the river to get there.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The 10 Trips I Want to Take

10.) Brazil
My interest and desire to go to Brazil has waned slightly over time. I used to be really interested to take a river-boat down the Amazon, and probably still am, but the more I read about the dangers and ills of Brazil’s primary two ports (Rio and Sao Paulo), the less I want to go there. I still would love a trip to Brazil, to experience that fun culture, to eat their nice food, to take that river-boat trip down the Amazon and come across some exotic animals. These are all things I would still do, but when you combine the present dangers and economic crises, and the weather that I am not too much a fan of, there are a few more that have jumped where Brazil would have been had a done this a few years back.

9.) Safari Trip (Kenya/Tanzania/Botswana, etc.)
There is no specific place that I have pinpointed so I just threw three countries that I have heard good things about up there. If price were not an issue, this is probably #1, but now that I understand how much it costs to go on a good safari trip (thinking like 5-7 days), I have to be somewhat reasonable. The allure of roaming around in a jeep and tent among Elephants, Rhinos, Hippos, Giraffes and your odd Predator is obviously alluring – probably nothing would be better on this list, but knowing it cost a months salary (guessing) is less so. I do want to make a point that I know you can go for safaris that are cheaper due to being shorter or in places like South Africa / Zimbabwe – but those places are cheaper for a reason. If I’m doing a safari, I’m doing the real thing. And if I’m doing the real thing, it’ll probably have to wait a while.



8.) The Baltics
The Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are next up, and I’m not sure why I want to go there totally, but everything I’ve read about the area seems great. The countries are still coming out of breaking off with the Soviet Union 25 years ago, and are making great strides to modernize themselves. I should probably make the trip rather soon because in the next 10 years or so I’m guessing the Baltic nations may start getting a bit more expensive as they continue to open up their borders to free trade and business. From what I know, they have fascinating histories both good and bad, and great food and more than that beer. It is also a very interesting area of Europe that shares some similarities with the Nordics without being as cold (or expensive).


7.) The Balkans
The Balkans are basically the South Europe version of the Baltics, so slightly warmer, slightly more Mediterranean, and slightly more compelling a trip. These are countries like Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Macedonia and on and on. The food scene is great. The culture is even better. Like the Baltics, these areas are also ex-Soviet (or in many cases, ex-Yugoslavian) and for now a bit cheap, especially compared to the rest of Europe. The Balkans, and this matters now a days, seems a bit far afield of the crises that are infiltrating Western Europe which helps as well. The Balkans are also a way to very quickly add 4-6 countries to my list, which is a nice added bonus as well as I work my way slowly up to the high double digits.


6.) Peru
Quick note: I am actually going to Peru in October/November, but for now this is still a dream. I have never been to South America. I have been to all other inhabited continents other than the one that is, ironically, the closest to North America. Peru has been a place that I would love to visit because of what I have heard of the place. The life among the high plateaus in Lima and Cusco, the brilliance that is Macchu Picchu and the rest of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, all of Peru seems great. The food is also a plus, as whatever experience I’ve had with Peruvian food has been excellent. I’m very much looking forward to popping my South American cherry with Peru later in 2016.


5.) Argentina
Along with Peru, Argentina is at the top of my list for South America. To me, Argentina is a supersized Peru, with more Andes-related stuff to do, more food to eat (Steaks!), more wine to drink (assuming I get around to liking wine by the time I visit Argentina), and more recent history to delve myself into. My parents went to Argentina in 2005 (the first time they took a trip without my Sister and me), and when NYU-Stern divided all Juniors up into three groups during our International Business class, I was put in the Singapore group instead of Buenos Aires (Barcelona was the other option). So I’ve had two close brushes with going there, but it still awaits. The culture of Argentina is really drawing, as is the chance to roam the plains and visit Iguazu Falls and the rest.



4.) China

And of course, China has to be on this list. The problem with countries like China are that their massive size would necessitate 2-3 trips to see it all, but even a chance to see Beijing, Shanghai, the Yellow River, maybe some of the secondary cities is quite the itenirary. Of course we add to that the Great Wall, the Terracotta soldiers, the highlands and everything else. China of course has the other aspects like the cuisine. I have so often heard how real Chinese food from China is so different than what we get in the US, and I'm sure that is true and ready to experience what the real Chinese food is like. It is a fascinating, growing culture that gets more impressive each year, and I really can't wait to experience it sometime.


3.) Egypt
I had a near miss in going to Egypt, as when I first planned my around the world trip in 2013, my initial first destination was Egypt. About three weeks before leaving, I switched it to South Africa after being a little concerned of the danger at the time. The danger has increased since – though Egypt has been pretty calm in recent years. I would still love to go there as few places, apart from the one to come next, can match Egypt in terms of history. I want few things more than to cruise down the Nile, to go to the ruins in Alexandria, to visit the Pyramids in Giza and the Sphinx and the Valley of the Kings and everything else. Add to that a good cuisine and a great culture beyond its history and few places see so alluring as Egpyt to travel to. Technically I did fly through Egypt, and ideally when I get around to going there I wouldn’t take Egyptair again, but I still want to leave the confines of Cairo airport and see what treasures of the Ancient Egyptians still exist.
2.) Israel

Being a Catholic, probably no place has more historical draw to it than Israel, what with it being the birthplace of the religion and housing the site of basically every major event in the history of the religion as well. Beyond the historical significance and sites, there is a lot to see with the other two religions who see this place as a living memorial and even things like the Dead Sea. I honestly have no idea what the food scene is like in Israel, nor do I know a lot about the culture outside of the history and sightseeing, but there is no place I would rather go to sightsee than Israel.


1.) Russia
 
I almost went to Russia on an High School Orchestra trip in 2007, and while it would have been memorable, I am kind of glad I can go for the first time as an adult. Russia is a fascinating place for me. The people, the history, the beauty of the country is forever understood, hidden behind the rough exterior presence that clouds the country. My parents have been to Russia and raved about it, from the incredible museums and artifacts and culture. Of course, the drinking aspect seems nice as well. Russia also represents a chance to go to a World Cup in 2018 - which given I want go within 2,000 miles of Qatar in 2022 and by 2026 who knows if I'll have kids or, you know, real responsibilities. Anyway, Russia is a place that draws me way more than I could have imagined given all we Americans hear about this country.

 

Friday, July 22, 2016

NFL 2016: Summer Power Rankings & The Rest

We are officially 50 days out from the start of the 2016 NFL Season. It has come that quickly. The offseason threw us a retirement party for an all-time great. A bong video taking over the draft. And the final end (for all intents and purposes) to Deflategate, a nice 544-days after it started. Yet for all that madness, all the twists and turns and never-ending sense of ‘I don’t care’, we all get a chance to now realize that indeed we do care. The NFL is almost back. Training camps will start this weekend. The Hall of Fame Game will be played in 16 days. This is happening, all over again. And for that, it is time to take stock of all that happened and where I think the 32 teams lie as we begin this journey for the 51st time.


Tier I – The Clear Worst

32.) Cleveland Browns

I don’t think there is really any other choice for 32nd place. The Browns hired a coach I like, and the strength of their coaching staff may pull them into a handful of wins, but the talent is so minimal. They lost key pieces in the offseason, from Geoff Schwartz to recently Desmond Bryant to injury. They are going back to the Josh McCown well. Hopefully they do like the team that used to employ Hue Jackson (Cincinnati) and give the new coach some time, because it will take a while to build up to something good. Hue could probably get them there, but they need the patience to make it happen.


Tier II – Low-Floor Bottom-Feeders

31.) Tennessee Titans

If Marcus Mariota turns into a star, this is going to look silly, because a good QB can cure a lot of things. That said, the Titans match a lack of talent with seemingly absurd coaching decisions / tactics. The Titans seem to be a team lost in time, including benching top WRs, claiming to want to run out of 2-RB sets all the time. Playing a defense that has no real structure apart from ‘being physical.’ Mike Mularkey made his bones coordinating the Steelers when they had Kordell Stewart. He was also there when they had Tommy Maddox and decided to throw the ball all over the place. Sadly, he seems to remember or think of the Stewart days as a lot more successful than the actual.


30.) San Francisco 49ers

I am openly not a huge Chip Kelly fan, but this is less about Chip Kelly and more about to team. It is hard to think so highly of a team that has lost just so many starters over the past two years. The 49ers truly are a shell of themselves, and while seeing Kelly play around with Colin Kaepernick may have a high ceiling, the fact that he has not clearly beat out Blaine Gabbert is a really bad indicator of how he’s doing adapting to the Kelly offense. The defense is not built the way Kelly likes it, and needs an incredibly overhaul. Apart from Navorro Bowman, every other member of their Super Bowl front-7 is gone. Stunning.


29.) Philadelphia Eagles

The team Kelly left is not far behind. I’ll give the Eagles credit for this: they proactively cleaned house of ridding themselves of Kelly. They took steps to remove every piece of Kelly’s personnel mismanagement – of course apart from the QB. Their hydra-monster of QBs in Sam Bradford, Chase Daniel and rookie Carson Wentz is such a peculiar way to manage that part of the roster. It is hard to grasp what even the best case scenario is there. The roster has to depend on some major 2nd year pushes to have anything resembling a passable offense, and their defense, while good, is also really thin and injuries could really ruin them quickly. Brighter days are ahead – of course fewer than one would have hoped given how much draft capital they had to give up to trade up to get Wentz.


28.) Detroit Lions

This may be too low, but we are in the part of the NFL calendar where taking the optimistic approach to all teams is so much easier than the pessimistic approach. And because of that, major negative changes to personnel, such as losing Hall of Fame quality players that are still heavy contributors, really stand out. Calvin Johnson’s surprise retirement will hopefully not set the Lions off into a death spiral like the last time they lost a superstar to a sudden retirement. And I don’t think it will because the nucleus of the team is much stronger than it was in 1999-2000. Still, replacing Calvin is nearly impossible, and the Lions don’t really have the pieces to just pick up his 100 catches and 1,200 yards.



Tier III(a) – The Soft Underbelly of the AFC

27.) Miami Dolphins

Speaking of negative indicators, I guess we’re just going to keep on thinking Ryan Tannehill is good, huh? Adam Gase is a very high pedigree QB guru, but we have to see if that translates as well when he’s a head coach and not an Offensive Coordinator as he was for Manning and Cutler. The defense is still talented, and they buffeted that side of the ball with the additions of Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell, overpriced to be sure, but also still effective when healthy. Still, the offense is just so uninspiring, and in perfect Dolphins fashion they seem intent on getting as many 2010 NFL Pro-Bowlers as possible (Arian Foster), instead of actually trying to build around Tannehill for the future.


26.) San Diego Chargers

On the one hand, they have Philip Rivers, who is finally gaining the acceptance from the general NFL viewing public as a scientist of the position years after his play warranted such respect. On the other hand, the roster is finally so bad that even a good, healthy Philip Rivers may lose 10+ games – just like what happened last year. The Chargers offense will still rely on a mix of aging veterans and mercurial young guys (and good ol’ Antonio Gates). The defense is still entirely undermanned outside of Jason Verrett. The team may get better in their win-loss record because it is hard to do worse than 4-12, and because the division is slightly worse this year, but I can’t see the team really doing more than approaching .500 if everything goes right.


25.) Jacksonville Jaguars

One of these years, the Jaguars will break out. You can’t keep drafting at the top of the draft every year and have that not happen. The offense seems set with a  young Bortles and two great receivers, but behind Bortles’ nice stats lies a lot of bad tape against average to good teams. The defense has a bunch of young talent, but for the second straight year their Top-5 defensive pick got injured in the offseason. This time not for the season hopefully, but Jalen Ramsey’s injury is going to hurt in the short term. The team will break out, but I don’t think it is this year, and I don’t know if it will be with Gus Bradley attached.


Tier III(a) – The Soft Underbelly of the NFC

24.) Chicago Bears

There is a sense of optimism around the Bears this year but with losing Adam Gase, should there be? It is hard to have it both ways. The direction and calmness he gave to that Bears offense is now going to Miami. Cutler himself has some interesting weapons to throw too, but I think that team is still a few pieces away on both ends from seriously competing. Long term, they are in a dangerous spot with Cutler’s window being now and going for another 2-3 years in all likelihood. The team as a whole is probably in a further away window.


23.) New Orleans Saints

The NFC South has four teams that you can probably make some sort of case for finishing in all three spots. The Saints, to me, are now the team with the worst chance to end up in 1st place – though probably not the highest chance to end up in last. Drew Brees can get you so far, even if he did see some signs of regression last year even if his overall numbers stayed about where they always are. The defense is still an absolute mess, and now the schedule gets slightly harder as well. Also, I have to wonder if they have just peaked or lost interest with Sean Payton at this point. He himself seemed a bit detached and ready to leave at the end of last season anyway. Overall, it is hard to trust a team with a 38-year old QB and coming off back-to-back 7-9 seasons in a bad division.


22.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Conversely we have the Buccaneers, and while I question the firing of Lovie Smith which seemed really rushed, there is a lot of optimism abound. Jameis Winston really settled down in the second half and his the pieces around him to make it all work. I am not a huge fan of the Dirk Koetter hire, but he did a good job with a young Matt Ryan (then again, so did Mike Mularkey). He has receivers to throw to and a decent o-line. The defense is more of a worry. They were building towards something with Lovie Smith, and while they’ve retained some of his principles, it does seem likely that there may be a stunted growth on that side of the ball. The talent is there, but slightly aging, which is bad given the youth on the offense. Honestly, when writing this I’m reconsidering putting them this high.


21.) Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons had a very quiet offseason, where they basically did nothing to address their biggest weakness (pass rush), other than get a few rotational guys. They re-addressed the secondary, which wasn’t a huge issue, in the draft. I’m not really sure what their improvement path is, but they were already a .500 team. Out of the mess that is Spots #2-4 in the NFC South, the Falcons to me are the team with the lowest ceiling, but probably the lowest floor as well.


20.) Washington Redskins

There is a good reason why the Redskins have avoided signing Kirk Cousins long term, a very good one: he isn’t that good. Or at least there is no clear evidence that he is that good. 7 great games does not make a great QB – Washington has recent evidence of this as well given what happened with RGIII. I like the approach they took, and the quiet offseason they had. I am a little skeptical of Josh Norman outside of Carolina, but it fills a need. My largest issue with not trusting Washington more is I don’t think Cousins was nearly as good as he showed late last season, and the Redskins roster with an average cousins is an average team.


Tier V – High Ceiling Potential Threats

19.) St. Louis Rams

Had the Rams been in any other division, they would have had a clear path to the playoffs. It isn’t an easy path, but it is a clear one. They run the ball with Todd Gurley, sprinkle in some Tavon Austin plays, and hope their young defense takes another step forward and dominates to an even greater degree. If they can mix Jared Goff in there and have him not screw up, a really bright future would emerge. There are a few issues with this logic, of course. First, is this is a bit archaic way of playing football. Second, they still have Jeff Fisher as head coach, a man who knows how easy it is to keep on being employed at 7-9 or 8-8. And third, and most important, they have two of the league’s best teams in their division. None of that helps.


18.) New York Giants

I just know come opening day I’m going to trick myself into picking the Giants to win the NFC East like I always do. There is a chance it happens, because the NFC East will likely not have a 12-4 Champion, but I’m not buying the Giants because I’m not buying the defense even after the upgrades with guys like Jenkins, Harrison and Vernon. Call me a disbeliever in adding three good but not great players to an awful defense and thinking that will result in something more than an average defense. Eli Manning has found a comfort level in that offense, and of course Odell Beckham is still a monster, but I don’t know if they’ll win enough 30-27 games to make a serious push. They could… I’ll convince myself they will… but they likely won’t.


17.) Baltimore Ravens

I think I picked them to go 12-4 and go to the Super Bowl last year. Well, I have been wrong before. I don’t know if I have ever been that wrong. But I have been wrong. The Ravens were rarely blown out last year, and were often actually quite competitive, but they never really blew anyone out in their 5 wins either. Other than their guys getting healthy again, I don’t see much reason for optimism beyond just natural progression towards their true talent level. I like the Mike Wallace signing, but continuing belief in him seems as pointless as my belief in the Giants. The o-line used to be the strength of the team, and through retirement and attrition that even looks like a weakness. I can’t picture the Ravens ever having a sustained period of mediocrity with Harbaugh, but we may be close to that point.


16.) Houston Texans

This ranking was made before I learned of JJ Watt’s injury that could keep him out of the first few weeks of the regular season. An injury like that really changes the perspective outlook of the team. Anyway, this is a selection based on the idea that Brock Osweiler could be good, but he most likely is not that good – his 7-game show in Denver was really iffy looking back at things. The rest of the team has a few holes, like secondary receivers, a competent o-line, and a defense with a suspect back-seven. The Texans took advantage of the opportunity that presented itself after Luck was injured and sat for the year, and while there is an opportunity for them to reclaim their title, things will be slightly tougher this year.


Tier VI – Half the Ball is All That Matters, Right?

15.) New York Jets

This goes up if they sign Ryan Fitzpatrick (I still plan on doing actual predictions at some point before September 7th), but at this point it seems the stalemate is real. While I like a lot of parts of this team, I definitely do not like Geno Smith having anything to do with the 2016 offense (I like the idea of Christian Hackenburg or Bryce Petty even less). Still, I think on offense the 2015 Jets was a high-watermark. It is unlikely that Fitz even if he is back matches that level, and I have to think Brandon Marshall begins to decline at some point. The defense is still really good, however, and makes the Jets a contender to nab a Wild Card spot, or even steal the division if the Jimmy G era goes poorly.


14.) Buffalo Bills

I think with a year’s worth of tape on Tyrod Taylor his effectiveness will be slightly stunted in 2016. Of course, with a year of play under his belt maybe it goes the other way, but to me there is a reason why he was a backup for 4-5 years before getting this shot. I do, however, think the defense improves. There is no evidence of Rex Ryan being a bad defensive coordinator. He took over a Top-5 defense and made them a #15 type unit. I have to think that was an aberration, both with the personnel learning his scheme and the now-axed Mario Williams not trying. I think the defense returns to form and compensates for any potential slippage in Tyrod Taylor’s play.


13.) Indianapolis Colts

Here’s the thing I don’t understand about all the people that hated on Colts management, on Ryan Grigson, on Chuck Pagano, and on their players. Despite not having Andrew Luck for 9 games, and going just 2-5 when he played injured, the team finished 8-8. If any other team went 8-8 with their backup QB (and bad play from their normal QB when he was healthy), they would likely be commended. If anything, it showed that there are some bright spots to the Colts roster, and that team plays really hard for Chuck Pagano. They still have serious talent deficiencies at crucial spots (Get a damn pass rusher already), but having a healthy Andrew Luck can paper over those a lot. People forget how good Luck was in 2014 – and I think he matches that this year which makes them still the clear favorite in the AFC South.


12.) Dallas Cowboys

This has very little to do with Ezekiel Elliott, who may indeed have a monster rookie season and is probably the safest bet for Offensive Rookie of the Year. No, this is more to do with Tony Romo returning from injury. The primary difference between a 12-4 season in 2014 and a 4-12 season in 2015 was Romo (and to a lesser extent, Dez). That’s about it. The Cowboys still have a ton of talent on offense, an O-Line that should protect him, and coaches on defense that can make that unit somewhat passable. Somewhat passable is likely all they’ll need to be a better version of the Giants (offense-heavy), and win the NFC East again.


The VII – The New Guard

11.) Oakland Raiders

Yes, this is somewhat a homer pick. It’s actually a fully homer pick. I am actually quite terrified of how many people are trying to make the case for the Raiders being a team on the rise. The pieces are there, from a QB who played really well for ~12 games last year before failing down the stretch to better teams, to a WR who if he cures his drops could be a Top-5 WR given his brilliant route running, to a OLB in Khalil Mack who is already shaping up to be the next Von Miller. The team nicely augmented to this with the money that they contractually had to spend, and have built competence around the roster, and Jack Del Rio, for his ills, is a purely competent head coach. They can win a division with Manning out of the picture. Will they though? The next team may have something to say about that.


10.) Kansas City Chiefs

The team that ended the season on a 10-game win streak is probably the most primed to jump on the AFC West with Manning out of the way (of course, Manning didn’t really have anything to do with the Broncos 12-4 season last year). The Chiefs will be getting Jamaal Charles back – though you have to wonder about the effectiveness of an older RB who has gone through multiple serious injuries. The Chiefs will be without Justin Houston as well for some portion of the season. They have drafted and developed nicely to fill his (and Tamba Hali’s) shoes, but I don’t know if they wanted to test that out so quickly. The Chiefs are a really talented team, but the ceiling of any team with Alex Smith is probably limited. I can see them pulling a 2011 49ers and going like 12-4, but I can also see this slipping back to 9-7 for a 2nd time in three years.


9.) Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings went 11-5 last year. They started 7-2. They won the division in Week 17 by going into Green Bay and winning 20-13 (it should be known it was hard to tell if either team wanted to win that game, as hosting Seattle was probably worse than going to Washington). The Vikings were already good. Now they get a year more of seasoning for Bridgewater, they give him a few more weapons to deploy, and give that defense another year to fortify further. My only issue with them is the move indoors could hamper that defense slightly, as they seemed to love playing in the outdoor cold of Minnesota. We’ll see how that goes (it’s not like there haven’t been dominant indoor / warm-weather defenses before). The Vikings are still on the upswing and are already good. That’s pretty good.


Tier VIII – The Old Guard

8.) Green Bay Packers

That said, I still think the team they beat for the division is better. With Jordy Nelson back, and a full 12-months removed from the injury, the offense should return to the machine it was, rather than whatever the hell that imitation was the last half of last season. The defense is still good, and the Packers smartly locked up Mike Daniels who is a rising star. The Packers with a healthy Nelson and Rodgers are still the best team in that division, even if strange cracks showed up in that foundation last year when Jordy went down.


7.) Pittsburgh Steelers

I still don’t trust that defense to be anything better than a #10-#12 type unit that will struggle against good teams with good passing attacks. I do, however, trust that offense to be a #1-#3 type unit that will not struggle against anyone (apart from the odd 4-5 times a year some lesser team gets pressure on Ben and gives them fits). Even without Martavis Bryant, the Steelers still have more than enough weapons, including a seemingly healthy Le’Veon Bell returning to the lineup. They went 10-6 with one of the best offenses in the league last year starting Michael Vick / Landry Jones for 5 games. They can do better with Ben for hopefully more than 11 this time around.


6.) New England Patriots

I didn’t drop them too much with Brady out for 4 games, as I think they go at worst 1-3, and more likely 2-2 in that stretch. Honestly, they probably go 3-1 with Brady, so 1 loss is not going to kill them. What matters a whole lot more is their ability to get the #1 seed, as the Patriots have shown a clear inability to win road playoff games – although maybe it is just an inability to win playoff games in Denver (0-3 there). The offense will still be great, but they didn’t do much to upgrade the O-Line apart from getting their guys healthy. The defense traded away their best pass rusher, and while the linebackers are great, they alone won’t make this a Top-5 defense. Of course, it doesn’t need to be Top-5, just Top-15 good, which it definitely is.


5.) Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks have in the last four years won 11, 13, 12, and 10 games, but have consistently been great each year – topping the league in Football Outsiders DVOA each time. Their best team won the Super Bowl. Their two hottest teams entering the playoffs won the least amount of games, and lost in the Divisional Round after falling way behind early to an NFC South team. This year’s iteration has the same strengths and weaknesses of every other Seahawks team – bad o-line, great defense, Russell Wilson. The only change is really the loss of Marshawn Lynch who was already being phased out. They’ll be really good again, and it will, much like New England, come down to if they can nab the #1 seed and make sure they don’t have to play any 1PM EST Playoff Games.


Tier IX – The New Normal

4.) Cincinnati Bengals

For a few years there, everyone said the Bengals had the best roster in the league outside of the QB position. Suddenly, last year, they had the QB too. Andy Dalton was a Top-3 QB last year by any measure before that freak thumb injury that careened the Bengals season away from glory. The Bengals, had Dalton stayed healthy, probably get the #1 seed (they lost it due to an OT loss in Denver when AJ McCarron could not outplay Osweiler). The Bengals lost some of that talent this year, including their latest coordinator to leave for a Head Coach gig, but if Dalton’s 2015 level was not a mirage, they can more than compensate for that. The defense is really good, the offense has a monster in AJ Green, a great in Tyler Eifert, and a top o-line. There are no real weaknesses now that the QB has matched his team’s level of play.


3.) Carolina Panthers

The Panthers outlook comes down to two things: how good were they actually last year given that 15-1 was probably better than their real talent level, and is it a net positive or negative to lose Josh Norman but get back Kelvin Benjamin. Personally, I think they were very good last year. They were an uninspiring 8-0 team, but they were a dominant force 9-1 team that finished the season off, winning most of those 9 games by 20+ points, including playing three of the most dominant halves in recent playoff history (1st half vs Seattle and the whole NFC Championship Game). I have seen them cycle through secondary players and remain a very good to great defense and have full faith in Gettleman / Rivera / McDermott to do the same to make up for the loss of Norman. Benjamin coming back really should help that offense. The Panthers have built something special, and there is no clear end in sight right now.


2.) Arizona Cardinals

Yes, I have the team that lost to Carolina 15-49 one spot ahead, for a few reasons. It was clear that Carson Palmer’s finger really effected him in those playoffs. It was also clear how badly they missed Tyrann Mathieu, and it was clear what their biggest weakness as a team was: their pass rush. They had to blitz more than most teams – and while they did it very effectively on the whole, it got exposed in the Carolina game when the o-line held up really well. The Cardinals addressed that weakness by drafting Robert Nkemdiche, trading for Chandler Jones, and hopefully coaching up Markus Golden even more. If they get a pass rush, this is pretty close to a perfect team here. I expect Carson Palmer to remain really good, Larry Fitzgerald to remain dynamic in the slot, and David Johnson to be better in Year #2. The Cardinals are a great roster, with a great coach, and those two inputs usually return a really great team as an output.


Tier X – Well, The Champs are the Champs

1.) Denver Broncos

Of course, in my rules, the Defending Champs are #1 until they lose – which I suspect could be as early as Week #1. They are probably in that range right with Oakland / Kansas City / Minnesota, but for now they get the spoils of wearing the belt. The Broncos will live and die by their defense carrying a Mark Sanchez offense – but we have seen evidence of that formula resulting in trips (plural) to the AFC Championship Game. The defense will have to compensate for the loss of Malik Jackson and Danny Trevethan, and while the linebacker can be replaced, there is no natural replacement for Jackson’s supreme talent. Still, that is a Top-5 defense, and if Sanchez can replicate Osweiler’s performance from last year they can challenge for the division quite easily.



About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.