Monday, June 27, 2016

History Repeats Itself

I wrote an article at the beginning of the NBA playoffs if the tournament was going to be disappointing, a letdown as much as an inevitable crowning of the dynastic champion. Obviously, through both some injuries and drop in play from Golden State and some inspired performances from both the Thunder and finally Cavaliers, this was not the case. Golden State went down, and went down hard. After becoming just the third team to overcome a 1-3 series deficit in the Conference Finals, they became the first team (out of 33) to lose when up 3-1 in the Finals.

In that article, I compared the Warriors to the 2007 Patriots, probably the most recent Superteam that entered a playoffs as such a heavy favorite. And in the end, while that article featured a lot of hypotheticals and analyses that turned out to not be true, the comparison did. The Warriors joined the Patriots in infamy, blowing a clear shot to be the best team in the history of their sport. The comparison actually runs really deep.

The Incredible Start

The Warriors and Patriots both entered their season as the favorite. The Warriors were the defending Champions, and the Patriots were 12-4 the previous season and added Randy Moss and Wes Welker (and Dante Stallworth and Adalius Thomas), seemed loaded to break out. And boy did they both do just that.

The Warriors started the season 24-0, and it really seemed for most of that run they would seriously challenge the Lakers 33-game win streak record. They were unleashing a new type of offense, or at least doing so in more volume and with more speed, than anyone had previously. Raining threes, moving the ball and moving players just as much. Their offense was a whirring streak of beauty, equal parts an incredible system and singular talents. They got basically halfway through the season at 37-4, outscoring opponents by 13 points per game.

The Patriots were basically the same. Obviously, they started the season 16-0, but the real peak Patriots started the season 8-0. In those 8 games they played football about as good as it could be played. Their offense was something completely new. Unabashedly passing the ball, both short to Welker, middle to Stallworth and Watson, and deep to Moss, with equal efficiency. They had outscored their 8 opponents a dominant 331-127, both the league's best offense (one that was putting up a ridiculous level of efficiency through that point) and one of their best defenses. No one really came close. Their closest game to that point was a 34-17 win over Cleveland - a team that would finish 10-6 - a game that they lead in 34-10 before a garbage time TD. The Patriots were unparalleled.

Beyond just their respective brilliance, both teams showed some strength and added determination competing under a dark shadow. For the Patriots, obviously it was Spygate, arguably the best in-season motivation a team was ever given as they played out to prove that stealing signals had no part of how good they had been or would be. For the Warriors, it was the leave of absence by coach Steve Kerr through the first 43 games. Neither issue stopped the team at all.

The Brilliant but Mentally Tough finish

Both teams would continue on their way to historic seasons and do so in similar fashion. Both were still historically great in the 2nd halves of their seasons, the Warriors going 36-5, and the Patriots, obviously, repeating the 8-0 mark, but this time outscoring their opponents by 'only' 258-147. Both teams were 'best of all time' good through the first half, and merely historically good in the second, but that added to 'best of all time' good through the regular seasons.

The small drop from best ever to one of the best did open up a few areas that, in retrospect, were warning signs. For the Warriors, it was a slight drop in play, such as more times they needed to overcome slow starts or make 4th-quarter comebacks. Their overall offense became more and more dependent on Steph Curry as the play of the deep bench slowed. Teams changed strategies. It barely made a dent in their overall record, but odd losses to Portland, Los Angeles, and shock defeats to Boston and Minnesota at home definitely showed the team was beatable.

For the Patriots, of course no one actually managed to beat them, but there were signs. Just like the Warriors, they started to get challenged more. Game #9 was a 10-point 4th Quarter Comeback against the Colts. Games #11-12 were back-to-back three point wins against the Eagles and Ravens, two teams starting backup QBs (AJ Feeley and Kyle Boller). Even Game #14 was a soft win, a 20-10 result over the Jets - the team that 'outed' them in Spygate. The Patriots were definitely not playing a different sport anymore.

The Primary Rival that Got Beat

Both teams had one key rival that was there all season long - and they were the perfect rivals. For the Patriots, it was their always perfect rival, Manning and the Colts. Indy entered the season as defending champions, and started the campaign 7-0, outscoring their opponents 224-102. They were the best defense in teh league to that point, an interesting change for a team that made their bones with a brilliant offense. The Colts lost their next two games, and were never really threatening for the #1 seed, but their presence as a dominant 13-3 team themselves set the footballing world in deep anticipation for an eventual AFC Championship Game. Their regular season game was the most hyped (and most watched) regular season game in the past decade, dubbed Super Bowl 41.5. Of course, there never was that AFC Championship Game.

We can draw a direct comparison from the 2007 Colts to the 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs. They too were natural rivals, longtime pole-bearers for the NBA. They too, had been known as the top offense in the league, or at least one of, in recent years, but their success this past season was due to the best defense in the league. The Spurs started 33-8 halfway through, and kept right there with the Warriors all season long. Maybe even more so than the Colts vs. Patriots AFC Title Game felt like an inevitability, a Warriors vs. Spurs Western Conference Finals was a lock. And what a series it would be, best offense vs. best defense. New-age Warriors vs. Old-School Spurs. Yet it didn't happen either.

The Playoff Warning Signs

Both teams ended their regular seasons squarely in 'best team of all-time' status. The Patriots were seen as something of a lock for that title, the first 16-0 team, and far more impressive in their 16 wins than the 1972 Dolphins were in their 14. The Warriors had detractors pushing for some of the other teams, but their record was fairly impeachable. Both also entered the playoffs as clear favorites, and even more than their relative lack of tough contests, those that gave them trouble weren't really the top teams. The Patriots played scores of good teams, and other than Super Bowl 41.5 and their Week 17 win over the Giants, none of those games were close. The Warriors, apart from one loss to the Spurs, were undefeated against the other Top-4 seeds.

Fast-forward to their respective Championship Rounds, the arguments that maybe these weren't the best teams of all time were a lot stronger. For the Warriors, it was their inability to shake off the Blazers (partially due to Curry's absence in Games 1-2) in five competitive games. The Blazers really were not even in their class so in the end they posed no real threat. For the Patriots, it was taking a full half to shake off the Jacksonville Jaguars, who drew them at 14-14 through the first 30 minutes.

For each, the scarier moment was their respective Conference Final. The Patriots didn't have to play the Colts, but struggled to put away a gimpy, injured, but extremely talented, Chargers team. The score read 21-12, but the fact that THIS Patriots team beat THAT Chargers team by only 9 spoke volumes, as did Randy Moss's 1 catch and Tom Brady's three interceptions. They did lead for nearly all the game, and closed it out in brilliant fashion on a drive that ran off the last nine minutes, but it was not pretty.

The Warriors win was pretty in the end, but it took seven games where at no point other than Game 2 did they actually look like the better team. Maybe they were relieved that it wasn't the Spurs against them, but the Warriors sleep-walked through the end of Game 1 and allowed OKC to steal it. They then got ran off the court in Games 3-4 in embarrassing fashion. They won the last three with an unnervingly close win in Game 5, stealing the 6th game in OKC, and then overcoming a half-time deficit in Game 7.

Both teams escaped to the last round alive, but the playoffs showed some failings, and injury concerns (hard to remember, but Brady was in a walking boot early in the two-week break), but they were there. But the mystique of the "Greatest Team of All Time" had somewhat worn off. It was hard to make the case for either, as playoff performance should matter. The Greatest Team of All Time shouldn't be down 1-3 in any series, or shouldn't struggle to put away two 11-5 teams.

The Final Collapse

The similarities somewhat break down in the last stage. The similarity is they both lost close - the Warriors losing a tremendously well played Game 7 at home, and the Patriots losing a similarly well-played Super Bowl to the Giants. Both teams lost in low-scoring, defensive affairs that, for most of the game, featured the underrated parts of their teams (defense). They both lost making crucial mistakes by key players, like Steph Curry throwing a behind-the-back pass out of bounds, or not being able to take Kevin Love 1-v-1, or Asante Samuel dropping a pick, or Rodney Harrison not able to knock that ball off of David Tyree's helmet.

That said, the Warriors choke shouldn't be underestimated. Theirs was a true choke, losing despite taking a 2-0 lead (the most dominant first two games in NBA Finals history), despite taking a 3-1 lead, and despite having two of the last three at home. They were blown out twice in Cleveland (making it 4 times they lost by 15+ in the last two rounds). They had a top player suspended for a potential close-out game. The Patriots, to be fair, lost because they played a team uniquely built to beat them when they played well. They were lost against the Giants pass rush and an off-Brady didn't help. They actually were lucky to be leading at halftime, and when they had a chance to take the lead late they did - only to see it slip away.

Both teams entered their seasons with high hopes and ran through them, overcame a few challenges, only to see a season long dream fall apart at the very end.

The Ultimate Loser

In the end, which loss was worse is an interesting question. There are arguments to be made on both sides. The Patriots were probably 'better', as they were so incredibly good during the regular season. They hadn't actually 'lost' a game heading into that Super Bowl, and they weren't playing a team that had the best player in the series / game like the Warriors were.

Of course, the Patriots only had to play one game game. The Warriors had to play four; they had to play three in a row after taking a 3-1 lead. They had to lose Game 7 at home, when home teams were 15-2 in the history of the Finals in Game 7. It is harder to lose a series than a single game, and we have seen brilliant NFL teams lose the Super Bowl before but no team this good lost an NBA Finals (other than when losing to another great team).

In the end, I think the actual loss of the Finals is worse for the Warriors. They choked away the Finals in a manner that had literally never been done before - dropping three straight including the finale at home. They were so overconfident through the first two games, to see it all come crashing down was hard to watch.

However, in the context of the whole season, I can't see anything topping the Patriots loss. Both had a chance to make history and a claim for 'Best Team of All Time', but the Patriots had a chance to set a mark of 19-0 that would be impossible to beat unless the league went to a longer schedule. They were also so incredibly good in the start of the season, it seemed more unfathomable through midseason.

In the end, the two most attractive, enticing, brilliant and menacing regular season teams of my lifetime shared similar heights, similar (relative) lows, similar playoff scares and similar playoff triumphs, only to see their seasons end in similar infamy.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Appreciating LeBron

Maybe it has something to do with growing older. Maybe it has something to do with seeing the generation of players I grew up with are starting to retire. Maybe it is slightly growing tired of hating players. I have no idea why, but in my life as a sports fan, I've come around on greatness. For years, it was fun watching the little guy win, watching the beauty of competition. It takes a while to realize every now and then it is fun to watch greatness, in awe of these people who can perform spectacular acts. It happened for me with Roger Federer and Tiger Woods. It happened with Sidney Crosby. And now, for me, it is LeBron James.

What LeBron James has done in these last two games shouldn't mean that much. He's already a four-time MVP (should have been at least five - the Derrick Rose MVP is going to stick out awfully in 20 years), with two titles, and an array of statistical accomplishments across both offense and defense, scoring and passing and rebounding, that leaves him nearly unparalleled in the history of the NBA. Still, watching him do what he did has been absolutely beautiful.

Maybe it was the tangle with Draymond Green, and getting upset at this crazed lunatic that wears number 23 swiping at him and calling him a 'bitch' (or worse), but whatever it was it triggered something in LeBron. It was as if he just said 'Enough, I've had it with this team.' He's had with them, with people saying Steph is better, with people saying he is past his prime, with people saying he isn't clutch, that his impending 2-5 NBA Finals record is worse than going 2-0. Like Samuel Jackson's infamous line at the end of Snakes on a Plane, LeBron had had it with these mf-ing Warriors - and he unleashed Holy Hell.

LeBron was incredible in Game 5, dropping a 41-16-7 line. People still weren't too happy, noting he did it without Draymond in the lineup against him. So he dropped 41 again in Game 6, with another 11 assists - some perfectly timed touch passes to Tristan Thompson and JR Smith. LeBron seemed to want to show the viewing public not only wasn't he the best scorer in the league - he may be the best passer as well. There were no excuses or 'buts' you could attach to Game 6. Draymond played. The Warriors were whole. He was facing elimination. And he did that.

The only reason anyone has ever criticized LeBron James is because he is so good, so physically gifted, so ethereally talented, that we all expect him to play like he did in Game 5 or Game 6 every game. Expectations have never been higher, partially because no one has hit those highs as much as LeBron has since Jordan retired. It is telling that you can have an open discussion on what the best LeBron playoff performance has been and people can argue legitimatiely for 2-3 other games over the past two.

LeBron James is 31, and despite him seeing a perfectly inhuman ageless cobra, there are signs he is on the decline. His shot had dropped off this year. His effort on defense has been declining for years. He had picked up a few injuries - including missing 10 games last year to 'rest up.' He is conserving his energy to really explode in these perfect moments that need his brilliance the most.

The Warriors are favored for Game 7 and they should be, but it is just one game now. LeBron, if he does what he did in Game 5 and Game 6, can lead the Cavs to a title - it will be the crowning achievement for King James. Even if he doens't, the series will serve as a lasting reminder of who owned the NBA from 2005 until whenever he stops wanting to be The King.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Top-20 QBs: #10 - Fran Tarkenton

#10 - Fran Tarkenton

We like to put QBs in groups. Manning the neo-Marino. Brady the neo-Montana. This makes sense - it is always best to try to explain greatness by comparing it to other greatness. There are many great QBs today who run around throw the ball and 'play the game like a kid out there.' All of those players, whether Favre, or Roethlisberger, or even Tony Romo, are the neo-Tarkenton.

Fran Tarkenton was the bridge, in a way. The last QB to be famous purely for running around and throwing off-balance bombs. Football fans can see that mental image, that grainy black-and-white highlight of some Otto Graham or Norm Van Brocklin highlight of the player rolling around, evading lithe 200-lb 'defensive lineman', running backwards 30-yards to throw it 40-yards - netting just 10 yards, but taking 15 seconds and creating a memorable moment that could be scored to some nice orchestra NFL Films music. Fran Tarkenton was the last of these players. But he was also one of the first to throw more than he handed off, to run a dynamic, vertical offense that was the key to his teams offense. Tarkenton represents the NFL's stylistic turning point.

Tarkenton was also surrounded by a startling lack of offensive talent, both in New York and then in Minnesota - where he also had to compete with outdoor weather and frigid winters. There were real reasons his stats were slightly supressed. But talent wins out - talent that allowed Tarkenton to retire with the records for career yards and TDs.

Tarkenton famously never won a Super Bowl, probably the first player to really have that criticism and label attached to him, weighing his legacy down. Years later, we can see the lack of talent that surrounded him, the three Super Bowls his Vikings did play in (losing each time to All-Time great teams in the 70's Dolphins, Steelers and Raiders). We see the unfortunate loss in 1975 to the Cowboys off of the 'Hail Mary'. We see him wasting his prime (by age) in New York. We understand now why Tarkenton did not win a playoff game - the only person hurt by this delay in Fran himself.

If you see an interview with Tarkenton, he comes across bitter, somewhat jaded, almost unloved - not that you can blame him as he was a player often criticized for what he wasn't rather than what he did. He had the unfortunate luck of being so much better than an Archie Manning he could drag dreadful talent around him to creating a good offense - but not a great one that could win a title. That land in the middle might be worse than being Archie Manning. It is, in a way, easier to mythologize the guy who ran backwards before throwing it when his team goes 5-11 ("What could have been?") than when they go 10-6 ("What should have been?"). Luckily for Tarkenton, enough people opened their eyes to see his extraordinary career - just I wish it was sooner for his sake.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Kid Gets His Cup

I don't know at what point I stopped disliking Sidney Crosby. I certainly never hated him. Despite playing for a divisional rival of my Devils, we never played the Crosby Pens in the playoffs - and actually generally had good success against them in the regular season. I didn't like Crosby for the reasons lots of hockey fans didn't like him: he was a little too entitled, a little too whiny, and a lot too good.

Over time, though, I grew to realize just how spectacularly talented he was, and also how that coupled with his teams failings in the playoffs (save for, you know, winning the Cup in 2009) made him quite similar to my favorite athlete ever: one Peyton Manning.

Yes, I know I try to shoehorn Peyton into every discussion (I will make no such apology when I shamelessly do this during the upcoming Peyton-less NFL season), but the comparison is apt. Crosby like Peyton was the most talented player of his era. Crosby, like Peyton, combined that talent with a peerless work ethic and general sacrifice and example setting that all sports fans should embrace. Crosby never got that embrace - and somehow despite winning a Stanley Cup early in his career (his 4th season) over the years become the face of the Penguins continued playoff failures.

We shouldn't feel bad for Sidney, a well compensated player who could always deflect the highest of criticisms because he did have that ring on his finger - but Peyton can easily show you just how much deflection a ring can bring: not as much as you would think. The Penguins had some spectacular flame-outs over the years, like their 2012 meltdown against Philadelphia (a series highlighted by an 8-3 game three loss where his teammates ran around headhunting), or in 2013 when they were swept aside by Boston - a series highlighted with the two captains getting into an argument that was capped with the great visual of Zdeno Chara literally bending down to meet Crosby face-to-face. The next year, the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead to the Rangers. At this point, Crosby had no real leeway left.

Much like Peyton, it was never really Crosby's fault. His brilliance carried lesser line-mates to great regular season success, but when teams could gameplan, and defenses got better, and referees started swallowing whistles, the lack of depth the Penguins routinely brought into series was exposed. It was never really Crosby's fault. It was never Manning's fault. In the end, they both got that second ring when no one expected.

Sidney Crosby is the best player of this generation, someone whom great expectations were placed on from the time he was a kid in Juniors. The NHL draft lottery was created literally because of Crosby's brilliance - his draft year was following the lockout, so the NHL instituted a draft that the Penguins 'won'. He was a franchise savior - and he truly was. By his second season, Crosby was the league's MVP, scoring 120 points in 79 games. The only thing keeping him away from adding more MVPs early in his career was injuries. In the 2010-11 season (66 points in 41 games), 2011-12 season (37 points in 22 games), Crosby was by far the league's best player but concussions kept him from playing 60% of those seasons. He finally got healthy, and his team got good again, and the rest is history.

Sidney Crosby's brilliance is, in a way, as inexplicable as Manning's from a physical standpoint. He is far from the best skater, or hardest shooter, but he is the best passer and sees the ice like no player since prime Jaromir Jagr. Crosby was a dominant force in these playoffs, and while it translated to less points than most would have expected, his ability to control the puck and lay waste to the opposing top lines he was routinely pitted against was a key factor to the Penguins defensive success.

A study of the Penguins 2016 Stanley Cup Title would lend itself to a lot of subjects that played large roles aside from Crosby. The famed HBK line picked up the scoring slack when Crosby's line struggled against Washington. Rookie goaltender Matt Murray was great, undefeated after losses. The defense somehow kept strong despite losing Trevor Daley in the Conference Finals. The team committed staggeringly few penalties - neutering the Sharks key advantage. Coach Mike Sullivan pushed all the right buttons, and much mocked GM Jim Rutherford pulled the strings to supplement his stars with, for once, depth and young talent. It all blended together to create a scarily efficient team.

Much like with Manning, it took getting a great team around him to bring him back to glory, but that is present in hockey as much as it is in any sport. Even the 'goalie who stands on his head' rarely actually wins the Cup (see JS Giguere in 2003 losing to the Devils - a far deeper, better roster). One great player can only do so much, but that shouldn't take away from how much Crosby has done, did do and, hopefuly, will continue to do. Two days after the NHL lost one of its greatest players, this era's greatest got the one thing he needed most to be rightly compared to the legends of hockey: that second Cup.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Goodbye Mr. Hockey

Hockey has a way of being overshadowed. Obviously, the sport itself is overshadowed, the fourth largest game in what is becoming a three-sport country. But even its big moments are often swept aside. The great story this year is the San Jose Sharks, a team that inspires a range of emotions and thoughts from NHL fans, finally having their day in the sun... only to have their next-door neighbor in the Bay Area continue their historic rise as an NBA dynasty.

And now, on the day a true legend of the game, the man who connects the modern NHL (his last year was Gretzky's third) to its rough, isolated upbringing, dies it is the day of Muhammad Ali's funeral. There is no argument Ali was a more significant sporting icon, largely because his success, importance and influence extended so far beyond sports, but Gordie Howe deserved slightly more than his death being completely overshadowed - but when you look back at the career and the man himself, maybe that is what he would have wanted.

I am obviously too young to have watched Gordie Howe play, and the footage I have seen shows a great player but someone playing a very foreign game. Other than baseball, all sports seem so different when you watch old clips, but hockey it seems turned that corner from completely strange to what we have now far later than the rest. The NFL and NBA of the 70's resembles today's game, hockey doesnt'. But you can still watch and be amazed at the skills this giant but graceful man possessed. Gordie Howe, also, was the first true start of the sport to play in the US. Four of the Original Six teams were based South of the Border, but no player had made a true impact until Gordie came along.

When I think of Gordie Howe, my mind immediately connects him to Jean Beliveau, the Montreal Canadiens legend who passed away in early 2015, who's career mirrored Howe's (until Howe decided to play till 52, so it went another 10 years). Beliveau and Howe were similar players, larger, faster and more skilled than those around them. Beliveau continued a long line of masters in Montreal, but his true legacy was not the 7 Cups he won as captain, but the humanitarian and community hero he was in Montreal. Howe was the same, both in the hometown of Saskatoon, and in the Detroit area where he left a lasting legacy.

Gordie Howe's career accomplishments are easy enough, the 6 Hart Trophies as MVP, the 4 Stanley Cups, retiring with all the records. One by one, Gretzky took those records away, but Wayne himself will tell you he sees Gordie Howe as the greatest player in hockey history. Howe is the type of guy who would get mad at Wayne and say the reverse. Few players have ever been so effusive of praising the next generation and supporting the guy chasing their records as Howe was - being there for all of Wayne's record breaking moments.

The tributes from all media outlets, both American and Canadian have been glowing. Hockey media itself will work themselves into a frenzy with trying to best encapsulate a man who defined the sport. The fact that this is coming right in the middle of teh Stanley Cup Finals is poetic.

Few athletes from Howe's era remain in any sport, and it is always tough when one of the titans of our games passes away. For Howe, he died after living a long life full of incredible memories but incredible achievements. He was a person we all should emulate and bring ourselves to live like. Hockey has a lot of those types of players (all sports do). Jean Beliveau was the same way. Wayne Gretzky was the same way - and I hope when he passes (hopefully a long, long, long time from now) people remember that as much as the alien nature of his statistical accomplishments. Gordie Howe was everything, he truly was Mr. Hockey.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

8 Years of Soccer

I watched the opening game of The Copa America Centenario yesterday in a New York bar, packed to the brim with USMNT fans - the bar a delightful mix of reds, whites and blues. The game itself was something of a disaster, a desultory 0-2 loss, with few real chances. But forget about the game. I'm here to talk about the atmosphere. Here we are, in the throes of the NBA Finals, and the MLB season, and it being a Friday Night - the first one post-Memorial Day - and the bar was packed.

The bar was enlivened with song after song, chant after chant, over the two hours. The chants were not complex, a tad crude, but it was an amazing sight. Here we are in America, and we are add huddled shoulder-to-shoulder, singing and chanting our lungs out. The whole crowd was aged 18-30, all people that grew up in a country increasingly embracing the USMNT, embracing the sport.

Next weekend, UEFA Euro 2016 is starting in France. Other than the World Cup, this is the biggest tournament in international football, a celebration of soccer that is more consolidated with talent than even the World Cup - there are no minnows in this tournament. While the exposure of Euro 2016 may not be as large in the US this time around due to the parallel Copa America, but we can draw a line directly back to the experience that was Euro 2008 - a tournament that grew my interest as much as the outcome drew our countries interest. A lot has changed in eight years.

Eight years ago, the thought of me watching the USMNT play in a bar packed with screaming, delirious home-grown fans would have been absurd - and only partially because I was just 17 at the time. I was something of a soccer fan but Euro 2008 was my awakening. A mix of coincidences left me alone at home for most of that tournament, with few things else to do than watch the two games a day. Euro 2008 was also the awakening for Spain, for tiki-taka.

Spain was the best team from the start, and they won the tournament with ease, finally setting aside all the labels of chokers and talented wastes that had been such a part of their history. They played with a style of possession, short intricate passing, and brilliant finishing. They called it tiki-taka. That fall, Pep Guardiola would take over in Barcelona, with a lot of the same players that just won for Spain, adding in a 21-year old Lionel Messi, and they would take over the world.

Both Spain and Barcelona's simultaneous dynasties became old and tired by 2012-13 or so, but in that period, they combined to help lift the sports profile in the US. The fresh, intricate, exciting brand of play captivated the US like nothing else in soccer before. Liking the Blaugrana became trendy, became new. As much as anything the USMNT did themselves, the dual rise of tiki-taka at the international and club level helped rise the interest level in the US.

;We can see this in the way the sport was covered. In the 2006 World Cup in Germany, most of the ESPN coverage was hosted from the US - moving to Germany for only the semifinals and final. Same with Euro 2008 in Poland. By 2010, in the World Cup in South Africa, ESPN's coverage had moved right to Johannesburg. Interest raised so quickly, so sharply, after that water-shed tournament.

It is hard to remember now a world before soccer was this big in the US. During the 2014 World Cup, there were crowd shots of viewing parties lining the streets of places like Kansas City and Columbus and Denver. The sports rise through the various channels culminated in that tournament, where the US lost in the Round of 16 - but for the first time we looked at that as a disappointment.

It is hard to say if interest has peaked, or if it will just continue to rise. Certainly, the interest in the USMNT is still on an upward path, and the viewing numbers for the large tournaments will remain strong, but there is still a feeling that the MLS, or even larger club soccer is more a niche interest. As someone who liked to think I liked soccer before most, I'm fine with this, but then again it is really fun to see through an entire bar wrapped up in the ecstasy of international soccer, to be chanting and hollering and shouting. If that's where peak interest will be, I'll certainly take it.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Undecima

I was in Cairo airport, on a layover during my journey back from South Africa (regrettably, on Egyptair, though I escaped any adverse situations myself). I was half asleep when, in Arabic, their version of SkySports played the highlights of Real Madrid's second league game of 2016, the first they played under new coach Zinedine Zidane. The Maestro's appoitnment was seen by some as Perez taking the 'Galactico' theme one step too far going now to the man on the touchline. Others saw the Real Madrid legend finally get his shot at the top. Whatever the criticisms or optimisms felt at the time, the immediate result was positive. They won 5-0.

Five months later, Zinedine Zidane and his team stand on top of the futbol world, crowned champions of Europe for the 'Undecima' (11th) time. The five months in-between were a strange journey, that, much like the team did in the final, added up to greater than the sum of each part. Real Madrid were rarely thought of during this stretch as serious contenders, for either the league (Zidane inherited a team in reality 8 points back of Barcelona) or the Champions League. Despite injuries to, at various times, all three of their top attackers, and no real respect given from the footballing comnunity, Real Madrid ended the season just one point behind Barcelona, on a 12-game La Liga winning streak, and winning Europe's top club-team prize.

Zidane's side followed up that initial 5-0 win with a 5-1 win, both at the Bernabeu, both against bottom-half sides. Their first real test was an away match at Real Betis, which Real Madrid drew 1-1. At that point, most everyone thought that Zidane, in the end, wasn't going to provide any real change to the club. He stayed confident, the team stayed confident, and while they stayed unbeaten, the real meat of Zidane's meal at Madrid started when the Champions League kicked off again.

The Champions League has always been Madrid's ultimate goal. They won the first five times the competition was held, back when it was seen partly as an event for a feuding Europe to beat up on each other - games held with strange Government shadows that crept over everything.

They won their ninth title in Zinedine Zidane's first season at Real Madrid, a year that started with him coming over from Juventus for a then-record 75 Million Euros, and ending with a goal worth every cent of that transfer fee, a stunning left-footed volley off a high cross that curved perfectly in the top corner. It was a goal worth of a Champions League title, a goal worthy of a legend of the game, a goal worthy of Zidane. It took 12 years to get #10. It took just two more years to get #11.

Before they got there, however, the team and their manager had to survive a loss at home to Atletico Madrid, injuries at various times to Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo, turning around a 0-2 first leg loss to Wolfsburg in the Quarterfinals, and a slow, boring two-legged win over Man City. The real jewel of Zidane's run, despite how successful it was to that point, was Real Madrid's 2-1 win in the Camp Nou against Barcelona. A great game, to be sure, one that belied the inteligence of Madrid's manager.

In that game, Madrid smartly played back for the first 60-70 minutes, letting Barcelona dominate possession but get no real good chances. Then, in that last 20-30 minutes, Real Madrid opened up and attacked in wave after wave. They ran Barcelona off the pitch that last half hour. It was a reminder of how good they could be. It was also a reminder of how hard they could play for a manager they liked.

While Real's performance was qualitatively inconsistent (it was quantitatively, the best in Europe over the past 5 months) what was not was the way the players spoke about their beloved manager. Zinedine Zidane played recently enough to have shared the Real Madrid locker room with their captain Sergio Ramos, and shared a World Cup Semifinal pitch with Ronaldo. He also played long enough ago that when many of the current squad were growing up dreaming of taking the pitch in big games, he was busy winning them. He inspired his team perfectly, getting his ballyhooed expensive front-line stars to start tracking back on defense. He got his team to commit to being healthier, faster, stronger and more dependable. He brought a squad that was on the brink back together.

The Champions League Final itself was a strange game. The common refrain after it ended was that Atletico Madrid outplayed Real Madrid. For Real, though, the game went the way I expected. Real started out on the front foot, scored the first goal, and then sit back and let Atletico play a very unnartural role as the team with the ball. Atletico Madrid doesn't want to dominate possession. Real Madrid let them. Sure, they ended up giving up a tying goal, but the plan made sense - a less than great front three didn't see it through but it was understandable what Zidane was doing.

In the end, Real Madrid did to Atletico and their pugnacious manager Diego Simeone what Atletico do to others - stay behind the ball, play great defense, snap up a goal, and fight your way to a victory. It says a lot about the way Zidane got his team of talented attacking stars to play that they could win a street-fight with the team thought to have perfected that style.

Zidane, for all his attacking brilliance as a player, seems to have a more stable, defensive approach to managing. He certainly does so in his personal way of managing. Zidane was an incredibly open, calming, introspective influence from the time he took over. He often spoke about the process over the results, on the work rather than the glory. He was ready to go to work with his team, mold them into a harder working group. Mission accomplished there.

It remains to be seen where they go for here. Zidane seems entrenched in his role as manager, not only with the Undecima on his resume, but he may be the one person who could conceivably win a power struggle with Florentino Perez. Real Madrid has a transfer ban looming, but has this summer to retool the team to what Zidane actually wants to do. In his first year, he showed some tactical ability, but more than that he showed more as a manager of people. His players universally love him, shouting their support louder than the critics during the rough time when the litany of wins somehow wasn't good enough. Nothing showed this more than their restrained approach to their title.

The 2015-16 Real Madrid squad won't be remembered as one of all-time greats. The Real Madrid team that won two years likely was better - and definitely played better in their Champions League campaign. But for a man that twice got to the final as a player with Juventus and lost, he may know that the value of winning is more than playing great football. Zinedine Zidane got Ronaldo and Gareth Bale to track back, got the entitled James Rodriguez stuck to the bench, and got the most out of a team that was about to fall apart. Real Madrid won a most un-Real Madrid like title, but for a club that hails their place in Europe most of all, all that matters is the Undecima.

The Top-20 QBs: #11 - Bart Starr

#11 - Bart Starr


The reason Green Bay is still a franchise is because Brett Favre resurrected the team along with Mike Holmgren in the early-90's. He rescued the franchise from 20 years of nothingness. The reason the Packers deserved being rescued was because of Bart Starr building that team, along with Vince Lombardi. Bart Starr, the starting QB for the first two Super Bowl champions, the player with the pristine 9-1 record in the playoffs, the man who helped build Green Bay as America's greatest footballing outpost, was easily one of the best QBs in the history of the game even when you strip away legend, mystique and that Lambeau aura.

Bart Starr's career didn't start off with many indications of the legend he would become. It is easy to delineate Starr's career between his struggling pre-Lombardi days (1956-1958), with the post, but while Vince Lombardi's placement in Green Bay led the dynasty, let's not overstate how good Starr was.

Bart Starr's statistical record is stunning for a 1960's QB. Starr's real peak was from 1961-970, a period in which 83-35-4, with a 58.6% completion percentage, an 8.1 y/a, and a passer rating of 86.3 for that 10-year stretch. Add to that his individual great seasons during the period, with passer ratings of 97.1 in 1964, 105.0 in 1966, and 104.3 in 1968. These are numbers completely out of what with what else was going on in the league that that time. He didn't luck into these numbers, throwing a decent amount of passes for QBs of that time - and again playing the winter heaven of Green Bay. Bart Starr was a statistical marvel - one that extended upwards in the postseason.

We often fall on two disparate sides of the road when qualifying the value a playoff win-loss record brings. One side prays daily to that altar, holding up parables like Brady's 22-9 record, or Manning's 9 one-and-done's. The other looks beyond those simple stats and tries to uncover what led to those results, what drove the ultimate score - and yes those people (me included), come to the conclusion that despite the win-loss record Brady and Manning played fairly similarly in the playoffs. Where those two sides can come to a similar conclusion is in the case of Bart Starr, a calming player that can bridge both sides of that battle.

Bart Starr famously went 9-1 in the playoffs, losing his first game - a game he oddly played reasonably well in. And then he never lost a playoff game again, winning his last nine, picking up the last three NFL Championships and then the first two Super Bowls, giving him a nice ring for each finger. Moving past the hilarious coincidence that he played far better in that loss than his first two wins, Bart Starr ended his career with a 104.8 passer rating in the playoffs. In those 10 games, he completed 61.0% of his passes, with an 8.2 y/a, and 15 TDs to 3 INTs. Bart Starr was magic in the playoffs by all measures, whether you want to stop at the Wins and Losses or actually look deeper into how he actually played.

Bart Starr does often get forgotten, lost between the supernova that was Vince Lombardi's legacy on the game (the Super Bowl trophy is, after all, named for him), and contemporaries whose legacies shine slightly brighter (Unitas). Bart Starr played a large part in creating a footballing factory and legacy in Green Bay, a man whose brilliance created a 20-year crater in Wisconsin only filled by a man named Brett. Before we discuss Rodgers taking over Favre's role as the best QB to play in Green Bay, we must first realize he has still some ways to go to pass Starr for the 2nd position.

Along with Unitas and Tarkenton (who are both ahead of him on my list), Bart Starr created a type of QB-ing as well that bridged the gap between the archaic era of the 50's and the modern NFL. For some reason, things went slightly backwards in the 70's, but we can draw the throughline between Otto Graham and Sammy Baugh to Dan Marino and Joe Montana with Unitas and Starr the point in the middle. The fact he happened to also bridge the gap between the regional, small NFL era where the winning team won the simply titled NFL Championship, to the Super Bowl era where the league would grow into the outsized magnet it is now, places Starr at the crux of the league's development. Luckily for us all, he was good enough to merit that spot.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

In Amazement of the Thunder

At various points this season, the most interesting subjects surrounding the Oklahoma City Thunder was their somehow not getting better despite canning Scott Brooks, and whether or not Kevin Durant would come back after this season. Their current campaign lost in the glow of Warriors and Spurs and the glaring, crashing light that was Durant's impending Free Agency. Somewhere along this path, they realized how to play basketball again (may be an oversimplification). Everyone in the basketball community loved the Thunder, but were simultaneously disappointed. They should have been better. They should win 60+ games. They should do this and that. Then we get a game like last night, when you realize why people get disappointed, because peak Thunder is scarier than anything I've ever seen on a basketball court.

The best basketball I've seen a team play was the San Antonio Spurs in the last three games of the 2014 Finals. After two close games in San Antonio started the series at 1-1, the Spurs went to Miami, demolished LeBron in his last two home games there, then wrapped it up by blowing out the Heat a 3rd straight time, this time going on a 59-22 run in mid-game. The second best I've seen a team play was the late season 2012 Spurs, who won their last ten games (going from 40-16 to 50-16 - keeping their 50+ win seasons streak alive even in a shortened season), then won their first ten of the playoffs. Then the Thunder beat them four straight.

That was the beginning of peak Thunder. The 2012 Spurs were a better offensive version of the team that would rule the NBA two years later. The Thunder ran them off the court. Of course, that team had James Harden. This team doesn't. This team is just ale to potentially run the best team ever on the court. The Thunder at their best are an enthralling force of pure basketball skill (Kevin Durant's shooting) with marvelous physical talent (everything Westbrook does), and when it is harnessed, when it is cured perfectly, it is the most explosive scene I have ever witnessed.

That performance in Game 3 was a true shock to the system. The Thunder started strong, but the Warriors caught up and tied the game at 40. The Thunder then went on a 67-26 run. The Warriors could do nothing about it, losing player after player in transition, getting mauled on the boards. They fell victim to the Thunder playing at their best, combined with some good luck elements like Roberson hitting his shots. Still, even if Roberson misses his threes, it would have been a 58-26 run, that's pretty brutal also.

That was a performance that happens when Westbrook and Durant say 'We run this show' and team up to just constrict the life out of another team. Both players had signature moments in that first half that should be engraved in statues outside that Thunder arena. First was Westbrook muscling a Warriors big man for a 1-handed offensive rebound. The other was truly breathtaking, when Durant clean blocked Draymond and a dunk attempt, sprinted down the court, and swished a three in transition. That gave the Thunder a 59-44 lead. It was basically over at that moment.

The Thunder may lose the series, because the largest failing of this group is Westbrook and Durant not saying 'We run this show' enough, or Westrook doing too much and hurting his team, but even if they don't we should cherish these moments. Win or lose, the Thunder may be getting split apart. Durant's free agency has become less of a headline now that people have to focus on the fact the Thunder might actually win this series, but that still is a dark cloud in the future. And if that is the case, let these games be reminders of how special it was.

Given their running the Spurs off the court in 2012, it became a punchline that it was the Spurs who made the next two finals (and came a 1-in-a-100 sequence at the end of a certain Game 6 from going back to back) and not the Thunder, but games like last night's make you believe their stance that the Spurs in 2013-14 and the Warriors last year got lucky with the Thunder injured. Last year it was Durant. In 2013, it was Westbrook tearing his meniscus in the 1st round. In 2013, it was Ibaka injured and while he came back against the Spurs, he was not 100%. The Thunder are healthy, and they may never have a better chance.

In a league so dominated by the exploits of the Warriors and Spurs this year, the Thunder finally waking up and the light getting switched on could be the lasting takeaway from this season. It probably started with that embarrassing loss in Game 1 aginst the Spurs. Following that game, they won 4 of 5 against a team that was 67-15. Now, they've won 2 of 3 against a team that was 73-9. They faced two of the Top-10 best regular season teams ever, and have won 6 of 8. This is not normal. They outplayed and executed the Spurs, and now they've outplayed the Warriors famed death lineup. It just goes to show, when Durant and Westbrook decide to be on, that is the ultimate death lineup.

Sure, this may be hyperblic. and the Warriors are more than capable of winning the next three and making this whole piece irrelevant, but that is kind of the point. Instead of complaining of lost chances in past years, and inadequate coaching, and Westbrook's flaws, let's just revel in what the Thunder could be and were on a few select occassions, because I don't know if anyone was ever better on a court.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Top-20 QBs: #12 - Aaron Rodgers

#12 - Aaron Rodgers

Aaron Rodgers embodies everything a modern QB should be. He has an incredibly live arm, able to throw 40-yard passes on a straight line with no wiggle and a tight spiral. He is mobile enough to scramble for 1st downs and avoid the rush, while being able to launch those perfect throws from every angle running right or left. By all accounts, Aaron Rodgers is among the most, if not the most, gifted QBs to every play football. He has also had the best statistical start to his career of any QB, with all-time highs for career passer rating (104.1) and TD-INT ratio (257-65) and interception percentage (1.6%). Before this season that saw him have career lows in some of those stats, he also had the NFL all-time record for TD% and was 3rd all-time in completion percentage. Stack all this up, add in two MVP awards and a brilliant Super Bowl run, and the real question should be why isn't Aaron Rodgers higher.

The 2015 season took a little sheen of Rodgers' glittering resume, with a truly off season. Despite playing all 16 games, Rodgers didn't reach 4,000 yards (he got 3,821), barely completed 60% of his passes, and had a passer rating of 92.7, nearly 15 points off his prior career average. Rodgers had the excuse of injuries to his receiving core, an average o-line and running game, but he put a bit of that off performance on himself. The reason Rodgers has had the statistical brilliance he's accomplished is the same that hurt him last year: he is a modern NFL QB.

In today's game, we value efficiency a lot more than we used to. The simple tenant to this is passing is better than running, a fact at this point all teams have more or less accepted. To this, a short pass is better than a handoff, and a sack taken is better than an interception. No QB, with the exception of late-career Brady, has been so reticent to throw interceptions as Aaron Rodgers. Passer rating as a stat overvalues not throwing interceptions (in the stat, a TD is worth less than an interception - which is definitely wrong). It is also a statistic that doesn't factor in sacks at all, which again helps Rodgers look even better by this stat. But this shouldn't turn into a focused examination of passer rating, but it points out how Rodgers used his prodigious skills combined with modern passing theory to master the elements that make him so statistically incredible.

Even if you strip away all the elements of the modern NFL, Rodgers can be hailed as an all-timer based on the more ethereal (the pessimist would say 'subjective') ways of judging QB play. Aaron Rodgers is an incredibly gifted player, who harnesses so much ability in that right arm. His ability to throw on the run will etch him in NFL films clips and haunt dreams of Bears, Vikings and Lions fans for decades to come.

His story is also one of pure America. Consistently undervalued, he was not offered a D-1 scholarship coming out of high school, playing a year at Butte Community College. He was passed up in the draft by numerous teams that needed a QB only to go to a team that had the same starting QB for 13 years. He was wedged into a civic mess with Favre and Ted Thompson politicking their way through the 2008 offseason. Through all this, he worked diligently on his ability, refining his throwing montion, making him this multi-faceted hydra that would dominate the league. He got his shot, ran with it, and created a stable foundation in Green Bay only matched by those in New England and whatever team Peyton Manning was QB-ing.

Aaron Rodgers is, at his peak, probably the best physically gifted QB in the history of the NFL. He probably also has the highest floor of any QB in the history of the NFL. His only real weakness is he takes too many sacks (again, something that has no impact on his pristine passer rating - but in advanced statistics that factor it in make him something of a Top-10 all time player). So much of where Rodgers ends up in that Top-10 will depend on how his prodigous skills age. If 2015 was any indication, there may be a universe where Rodgers is not an efficient hydra, but if that was just a product of personnel losses, the NFL can return to being Aaron Rodgers' world.

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.