Monday, October 31, 2011

NFL -- Second Quarter Update

Although we're technically not quite through the halfway point for many of the teams in the NFL due to bye weeks, I figure we are close enough for me to get my thoughts about the state of the league down "on paper" here now. Of course a lot has gone on as usual in the No Fun League, but here are some of my thoughts that maybe go just beyond the normal stuff you'll hear about and read about at all the usual sites.

Lions wideout Calvin Johnson has the same pompous streak in him as the Eagles' DeSean Jackson. This is pomp and circumstance drives these guys to be among the best performers and the greatest deliverers of big plays at their positions. But it is also the same pomp and circumstance that leads Calvin Johnson to repeatedly "pull a DeSean" and taunt the opposing team on many of his big touchdown plays. Calvin, if you keep stopping at the 1-yard line and waiting for your opponents to nearly tag you before taking it into the paint, you're eventually going to blow a big score in a huge spot. Just ask DeSean how that feels, and how his coach reacts when it happens.

Tim Tebow sucks. This was already obvious, but I just don't understand what his supporters are looking at after this most recent effort in Week 8. You can give the guy credit for last week's sick comeback win over the hapless Dolphins, but to do so you have to flat ignore the fact that Tebow was 4 for 14 for 40 total yards passing through 56 minutes of that game, and the needed an unbelievable fumble by Dolphins qb Matt Moore to even have a chance to come back like they did. Against the single worst team in the NFL. You may love God, you may love the Florida Gators, but you can't do shiat to change the fact that Tim Tebow is an abject waste of space behind center. After Week 8's 18-for-39 performance for 172 yards, one touchdown, one pick-6, and a fumble leading to a score as well, plus 7 sacks, we're now looking at a guy whose accuracy (47% thus far this year) is among the worst you'll ever see of any player allowed to start in this league. I know it looked a couple of weeks ago like John Fox had no choice but to give Tebow the rest of the 2011 regular season to prove himself one way or the other, but this guy is so foul at the quarterback position that I just don't see how Fox can feel secure in his own job if he keeps putting Tebow out there much longer.

And speaking of dicksuckitty quarterbacks, how the hell is nobody even talking about how awful Kevin Kolb has been so far this year for the Cardinals? After being traded to the Cardinals by the Eagles in the 2010-2011 offseason in exchange for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie plus a 2nd-round pick in 2012, and heading to a team with former NFL best wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald perennially highly productive tight end Todd Heap among his targets, Kolb has put up a paltry 57% completion percentage so far in 2011, to go along with 7 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, and five fumbles to boot. So far Kolb has done more to justify a benching than he has to explain why he was worth even a single late-round draft pick, let alone a 2nd-rounder plus an established NFL player. And pretty soon people aren't going to be able to ignore it any longer -- and I don't care how white Kolb's skin is.

Jacksonville Jaguars rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert is also probably worth mentioning while we're on the topic of hapless hurlers in the NFL. I know he is a rookie so I don't want to write his ass off after just six games, but in addition to perhaps the league's worst mullet, Gabbert has posted a 69-for-143 throw record for a putrid completion percentage of 48% -- including two games this month with an under 40% figure -- with just four touchdowns and two picks for a qb rating of 69.4. And believe me, if you've actually sat and watched him play over his six real chances so far this year, Gabbert hasn't even been close to that good. This league is full of quarterbacks who were flat-out hideous in their rookie seasons but who ended up being great NFL stars, but even most of those qbs were more productive than this right from the getgo, so there might be some cause for concern here.

The Cincinnati Bungles might actually be not-horrible this year! After this weekend's blowout of the shitty Seahawks, the Bungles are 3-1 on the road, and the GM made the best move in the past decade-plus for this franchise by duping the crap out of the Raiders into getting a 1st- and a 2nd-round draft pick in exchange for interception machine Carson Palmer earlier this month. The Bungles certainly do not hold a candle to the class teams in the AFC this year, but at 5-2 as we near the halfway point of the season, it may be time to stop discussing this team like we have every other year of the past, what? 15? 20?

The San Francisco 49ers are 6-1, despite ranking in 31st place out of 32 teams in passing, and despite giving up passing yards to opposing quarterbacks more readily or worse than three-quarters of the teams in the league today. What's the 49ers' secret? Fabulous coaching from rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh, playing in without a doubt the worst division of my entire lifetime, and, most of all, controlling the run on both sides of the ball. Rejuvenated back Frank Gore headlines the NFL's 6th-best rushing attack through seven games here in 2011, and meanwhile the team is allowing the 2nd-fewest rush yards per game at just under 75 yards on the ground. Like the Bungles in the AFC, the Niners have no prayer whatsoever of holding up against the truly great teams in the NFC -- in particular with a guy like Alex Smith taking the snaps -- but Harbaugh has done in half a season what many (myself included) expected former coach Mike Singletary to do but could not even approach doing in a couple of seasons at the helm in San Fran.

The Washington Redskins are absolute shit. You had to know this even after the team started the season 2-0, but my god, is there honestly any worse franchise in all of football today? I mean, this team has only made the playoffs three times since 1993. Holy shit, just think about that. In contrast, the division rival Eagles have appeared in the postseason 9 out of the last 11 seasons, the Cowboys have been there in 11 of the past 20 seasons, and the Giants have been in the postseason in 8 of the last 16 years. In the Redskins' last three games, runningback Ryan Torain has led the team in rushing with an unbelievable 22 yards in Week 6, and now 14 yards in the team's Week 8 crushing at the hands of the Buffalo Bills. 14 yards as your leading rusher, and it's not even an outlier? Is that stat even serious? Meanwhile, current starting quarterback John Beck is just the latest in an amazingly long line of consecutively shitty qbs, following up on Rex Grossman, a worthlessly old Donovan McNabb, Jason Campbell, Todd Collins, Mark Brunell, Patrick Ramsey, Tim Hasselbeck, Shane Matthews, Danny Wuerffel, Tony Banks and Jeff George, which is every hurler to start a game for the Skins since the 2001 season. This team is going nowhere fast and at this point has once again assumed their rightful position at the bottom of the NFC East, a place Daniel Snyder must be getting very used to since taking over the team in 1999 as his team has recorded only two finishes better than 3rd place in the division since 2000.

Staying in the NFC East for a moment, Eli Manning is quietly having a pretty solid season for the Giants, following up on his worst season as a starter in 2010 for the Giants with an efficient and productive effort consisting of a very respectable 63% completion percentage and 1778 yards over 7 games so far this year. Very importantly, Manning has cut down on his 25 interceptions from 2010, tossing up only 5 INTs thus far through 7 games in 2011 to go along with 11 touchdowns. Although the Giants are sitting pretty right now at 5-2 with a full 2-game lead in the NFC East, we're about to learn just how much Manning has cleaned up his act since 2010 as the team's schedule is about to get a lot tougher, with its next six games featuring matchups at 6-2 New England, at 6-1 San Francisco, vs. an upstart Eagles team, at 6-2 New Orleans, vs. the 8-0 Packers, and then at the currently 3-4 but always tough divisional rival Cowboys. Given that the Giants have not played consistently well so far in 2011, it's a safe bet that the NFC East will look a lot different a month and a half from now than it does today nearing the midway point.

Watching Tony Romo lead the Cowboys on two long drives only once the game had become 34-0 with 11 minutes to go on Sunday night against the Eagles reminded me just how much this guy loves to pad his stats with worthless yards and touchdowns late in games. For a guy with lifetime 4th-quarter stats as "good" as Romo's, he has got to be one of the least clutch players in the NFL today, very possibly the literal worst, and this is a trend that looks to me only to be getting worse here in 2011. And my god, will somebody please find someone for the Cowboys to stick at center who knows how to snap a ball to the quarterback, at least a little bit? I can say with confidence that I've never seen during my lifetime anyone consistently make shitty snaps for such a simple play, and retain his job week in and week out.

Which brings me to my beloved Eagles. The Eagles took a big step towards pushing for the NFL East crown this year after their horrid 1-4 start to the 2011 regular season, with Sunday night's absolute blowout defeat of the hated Dallas Cowboys at home in every single aspect of the game lifting the Eagles to 3-4 and a tie for second place in the East through nearly half of the 2011 regular season. With the Packers, Niners and Saints looking like near-locks to win their respective divisions, and with the Bears, Lions, Buccaneers and Falcons all ahead of the Eagles (plus the Cowboys still tied) through Week 8 of the year, the Eagles are likely going to need to win the East to have any real shot of playing in the postseason this year, but this week's win over the Cowboys combined with the Redskins' loss at Buffalo this week positions the Eagles at 3-4 within striking distance of the Giants, with a bunch of winnable games coming up in the second half of the schedule, including games at home against the Bears, Cardinals and Redskins, and road matchups with the Giants, Seattle and Miami, in a division where 9 wins might just be able to take it in a tiebreaker. Star runningback LeSean McCoy just better learn how to hold the ball, though, as he is bound to lose some game-crushing fumbles in the near future if he doesn't stop cupping the ball loosely against his right wrist while nearly fully extending his arm while running for 100+ yards in almost every game.

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Friday, October 28, 2011

Unbearably Bad Baseball

Best World Series game ever? Are you freaking serious?

I have heard that term used at least five separate times already to describe Game 6 of the 2011 World Series from Thursday night, when the Cardinals snatched victory from the jaws of defeat repeatedly in winning the game and forcing a deciding Game 7 with a walkoff home run in the bottom of the 11th inning. And my first thought when I heard that description was "What are these people, four years old?"

Come on guys. Best World Series game ever? A game in which:

The home team gives up a run in the top of the first inning, in a game in which they have to win, or go home.

The road team then follows up by immediately giving up two runs in their defensive half of the first inning, in a game where they had already grabbed a lead that, if it held, would bring them their first world championship in franchise history?

A game with five errors, including multiple crucial missteps by the Rangers in the late innings to blow not one, not two, but three separate leads after the 7th inning?

Not one, not two, but three blown saves by the Rangers? All in one game?

28 hits allowed by the two teams in 11 innings? 19 runs?

Come on, guys. This might have been an exciting game, but please don't fall into the clueless monkey's trap of just calling whatever the most recent game is, the "best game of all time". My lord. I can think of at least five better World Series games than this, just in the past decade or so. Anybody remember John Smoltz vs. Jack Morris in 1991, still the best World Series of my lifetime? Anybody remember the infamous Dodgers - Oakland game featuring Kirk Gibson and "I don't believe what I just saw!" in 1988? I mean, it's not like I'm going back 80 years or something. The list just goes on and on and on of far better ball games than last night's straight-out massacre of the game of baseball itself.

Game 6 of the 2011 World Series was a freaking embarrassment is what it was. And, sadly, it's a microcosm for what this entire World Series has been. In addition to being the least-watched World Series in modern television history, these two teams have butchered what are generally considered the tenets of great post-season baseball over and over again, night after night, like two blind kids with sticks just bumping into each other and swinging blindly game after game. Believe me, as a lifelong baseball fan and especially as a Phillies fan, it has been absolutely painful to watch.

As bad as the Rangers have been about giving up 1st and 2nd inning runs to the Cardinals in this Series and then having to play the rest of the game from behind, you've had the Cardinals' starting pitchers not make it through the 4th inning three times already in six games. I mean, just think about how bad that is! And they've actually won three of these games anyways! It's like these teams are just putting children out there on the mound, lobbing 'em in, and letting the other team just whack away, batting-practice style. They might as well just set up a tee on home plate and play a good old-fashioned 1st grade little league game. As a longtime baseball fan who is used to pretty much always seeing good pitching in the Series, this matchup has truly been an abomination to behold.

You've had the Rangers now with 8 errors in 6 games, including two critical errors in Game 6 to go along with 3 errors from the Cardinals in the same game (the "best game of all time", ha!), with the Cardinals chipping in with five errors of their own over the 6 games so far in the Series. As a general statement, the fielding in this Series has been nothing short of atrocious, with even the big stars on both teams repeatedly costing their teams games by failing to execute the very basics of the game on defense, blowing leads and ruining big chances for either team to grab absolutely crucial wins.

The managing by Ron Washington and Tony LaRussa has been highly questionable to say the least -- enough to make even Phillies' idiot manager Charlie Manuel look smart -- with in particular LaRussa making gaffe after gaffe in an uncharacteristically sloppy show from a guy who is thought to be one of the better managers in the game today. The guy couldn't even figure out how to call for the right pitcher to come in in Game 5, for crying out loud! Is this even real? You would never have believed that bullpen story if you didn't see it with your own eyes. LaRussa has also muffed at least one if not two critical at-bats from Albert Pujols with ill-timed and poorly thought-out steals or hit-and-run calls in very key spots. And meanwhile, Ron Washington is so coked up that he isn't even starting his ace Derek Holland, he of the 16-5 regular season record and the absolute shutdown of the Cardinals in Game 4, on full fucking rest, in Game 7 tonight, in favor of Matt Harrison, who took 73 pitches to get not even through the 4th inning in a Game 4 blowout by the Cardinals, while LaRussa is at least smart enough to take advantage of the extra day off due to the Game 6 rainout and start his ace Chris Carpenter in the deciding game of the Series. Honestly, if you told me to purposefully go out there and manage like an asshole, I'm not sure I would have come up with some of these moves. If Matt Harrison gets shelled again tonight and the Cardinals win the Series, so help me god Ron Washington better get his ass fired, or that franchise will never win a World Series during the lifetime of anyone reading this post right now. They'll be calling it "The Curse of the Cokehead" by the time your great-grandchildren are into baseball, you heard it here first.

So the pitching has been utterly abysmal in this World Series, and the fielding has been almost just as bad. The managers are out there embarrassing themselves and the game of baseball night in and night out. Basically, everything but the offenses have been utterly and completely putrid between both of these teams, now over six games and counting. The baseball audience has been itching for some actual good baseball so badly that in a game with featuring five errors and three blown saves, not just idiot fans but shitheads on ESPN and in baseball are actually trying to claim it's the best World Series game of all time? Oh. My. God. Again, as a fan of easily the best team in the sport during 2011, and one with the greatest pitching anyone has seen in generations, the best I can hope for at this point is that the Cardinals -- who have got to be massive favorites to win the Series tonight -- and the Rangers at least stop insulting the game long enough to play nine relatively clean innings of ball, and that we can declare a winner that, although obviously not really able to say they played "well" in the Series, can at least be able to know that they played better than their opponents by the time all is said and done. But please don't be one of those fools calling Game 6 the best game of all time. "The game where neither team wanted to win badly enough to string together a couple of clean innings of baseball" is about as far as you can reasonably go.

The Cardinals earned every inch of their appearance here in the 2011 World Series, and I'm not even beginning to take anything away from them and you've never heard me say that they don't belong here where they are right now. But my god, the Phillies would have swept this series so badly against the hapless Rangers, they probably would have called it on the "mercy rule" after three games. I hope the Phillies players are out there watching this series and suffering like I am, night after night. Because the play of these two teams just plain sucks.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Unbearably Bad Poker

So I've been watching a little bit of ESPN's WSOP Main Event coverage from time to time this year, moreso here as we wind down towards the November Nine, and I find myself struck by frankly the same thought that I've had in each and every one of the WSOP Main Events I have ever watched over the past decade or so:

These people absolutely suck shit at poker.

Yeah that's right, I said it. It's true. These people play like absolute anusshit. And that, I think, is being kind.

I mean, this is the biggest tournament of their lives by definition. Each and every one of these guys, once we're down to the final 27 players or so, is for sure playing poker for the most money they have ever played in their lives. There is not just the immediate cash payouts on the line, but the sponsorship opportunities involved with making it to the November Nine final table and with potentially winning the tournament. There is a literal lifetime of playing poker and never having to have a real job again within their grasp. All this and more is at stake here for every single player left as the ESPN coverage worked its way down this week to the final table and a half remaining in the WSOP Main Event.

And what are these players doing with this tremendous opportunity?

They're reraising an early-position raiser preflop from middle position with 42o.

They're calling large bets on the flop for a quarter of their stack with just an overcard and an inside straight draw.

They're reraising allin preflop with A7s.

They're calling allin preflop for 50% of their stack with AQs.

And, my personal favorite, a super aggro guy who's been raising all day raises again preflop, this time with pocket Aces. The guy on the other side of the table reraises with JTs. The guy with AA re-reraises again, a fairly small amount, which itself was a truly bad play because (1) it makes it very, very obvious that he has precisely pocket Aces, and (2) the small raise gives the first player now better than 5-to-1 to call the re-reraise with his JTs, well known as the literal best hand to crack what he now knows his opponent has in pocket Aces.

And then the shithead insta-folds his JTs, getting better than 5 to 1 to call the re-reraise!!!

You could not make this stuff up, and you certainly can't defend these plays from a poker perspective. I've watched the Main Event coverage on ESPN for years, albeit some years more than others. But every single year, my reaction to the quality of play I've seen throughout has been more or less exactly the same.

The Main Event is an absolute donkfest. Sure, good skill will work much better for you than no skill, and a player who has played on the big stage before and knows how to extract chips will always have a better chance of surviving than one who doesn't know shit and is quaking in his boots because of the amount of money on the line. But that increased chance of success is still utterly minuscule, given the field and what it takes to survive the kind of indefensible, thoughtless donkery you will be facing right from the first deal on Day 1A, and clearly lasting all the way up to the final table itself. Last year it was that unthinkable idiot Chino Rheem freaking six-betting allin preflop with Ace-rag with just a few players remaining and directly costing himself probably about $15 million in tournament winnings and sponsorships as a result -- if you don't know you're not only beat but crushed after your opponent re-re-re-re-reraises you preflop and you are holding Ace-rag, then you are absolutely, utterly hopeless as a poker player on the big stage -- and this year the play to make the final table is enough to make just about anyone with half a poker brain scratch their head in amazement.

Somewhere, I imagine Phil Ivey is out there watching this week's coverage with that same absolutely classic look on his face as when Jen Tilly didn't bet her boat on the river against Patrick Antonius and then proclaimed that she thought he had pocket Kings, at 2:03 of the clip below:

All I know is this: the raging clowns playing for the biggest money of their lives at this year's WSOP Main Event are doing nothing to help anyone out there who loves to argue that poker is a game of skill and not luck. Sure, there is more than a little skill involved, but for these players to have lasted this long, and to be playing for this amount of money after surviving some 6600 other entrants, while playing as unmitigatedly horrible poker as they are here even at the end, it's certainly not helping the luck vs. skill debate.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Chip Off the Old Block

Donovan McNabb's statistics for the five years preceding his trade from the Eagles to the Redskins in 2010:

2009 14 games 60.3% completions 3,553 yards 22 tds 10 INTs 92.9 qb rating

2008 16 games 60.4% completions 3,916 yards 23 tds 11 INTs 86.4 qb rating

2007 14 games 61.5% completions 3,324 yards 19 tds 7 INTs 89.9 qb rating

2006 10 games 57.0% completions 2,647 yards 18 tds 6 INTs 95.5 qb rating

2005   9 games 59.1% completions 2,507 yards 16 tds   9 INTs 85.0 qb rating

Carson Palmer's statistics for the five years preceding his trade from the Bengals to the Raiders in 2011:

2010 16 games 61.8% completions 3,970 yards 26 tds 20 INTs 82.4 qb rating

2009 16 games 60.5% completions 3,094 yards 21 tds 13 INTs 83.6 qb rating

2008 4  games 58.1% completions   731 yards  3 tds  4 INTs 69.0 qb rating

2007 16 games 64.9% completions 4,131 yards 26 tds 20 INTs 86.7 qb rating

2006 16 games 62.3% completions 4,035 yards 28 tds 13 INTs 93.9 qb rating

McNabb's average numbers over the five years immediately preceding his trade:

12.6 games 59.6% completions 3189 yards 19.6 tds 8.6 INTs 89.9 qb rating

Palmer's average numbers over the five years immediately preceding his trade:

13.6 games 61.5% completions 3192 yards 20.8 tds 14 INTs 83.1 qb rating

Adjusting for Carson Palmer's devastating leg injury three years ago, here are McNabb's average numbers over the two years immediately preceding his trade:

15 games 61.4% completions 3735 yards 22.5 tds 11 INTs 89.7 qb rating

Palmer's average numbers over the two years immediately preceding his trade:

16 games 61.2% completions 3532 yards 23.5 tds 16.5 INTs 83.0 qb rating

Donovan McNabb was traded to the Washington Redskins in between the 2009 and 2010 football seasons for a 5th round draft pick.

Carson Palmer just got traded to the Oakland Raiders for a first round draft pick, and a second round draft pick, that itself becomes another first round draft pick if the Raiders appear in the AFC Championship game in either of the next two seasons.

Mark Davis, somewhere your father Al is smiling in his grave that you have decided to so proudly continue his tradition of pure, unadulterated idiocy. Only, your father was old and senile for years...what's your excuse?

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Nice Try

Big Papi. Dustin Pedroia. Terry Francona. Theo Epstein. And now John Lester. The list just goes on and on of current and former Red Sox players and management being publicly quoted in the press as complaining that nobody mentioned the unbelievable stories of the team's players getting drunk and mentally and physically out of shape, back a couple of months ago when the team "had the best record in baseball."

Nice try.

The Phillies had the best record in baseball for just about the entire baseball season this year. The Phillies were MLB's first team to 30 wins, the first to 40 wins, to 50 wins, and then again to 70 wins, 80 wins, 90 wins, and the only team to win 100 games in the 2011 regular season.

Now don't get me wrong, none of this means diock anymore with the Cardinals set to represent the NL in the World Series once again. But I just can't sit quietly by while people associated with the Red Sox claim that their team was better than it was earlier in the season, in an unbelievably pathetic attempt to somehow claim that there is no story behind the total breakdown in control over the team that undoubtedly led directly to its downfall at the end of the season this year.

Phillies = best team in baseball, almost all season, including at this very moment.
Cardinals = NL pennant winner, without a doubt the franchise that historically makes the most out of its opportunities in the postseason, this year among the best examples of all.
Rangers = best team in the AL this year.
Red Sox = best record in baseball 20 games in to the season, and best record in the AL until around 120 games. Second best record in the AL through Game 161. Third best record in the AL come season's end. Ugh.

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Monday, October 10, 2011

Despair -- Part I

OK. After a few days of serious inner mourning, I think I am ready to go public.

As a Philadelphia sports fan right now, I am in a deep despair.

And I know I'm not even close to alone in this feeling. Like most of Philadelphia's sports fans, I am still kind of in shock about the Phillies embarrassing elimination at the hands of an inferior St. Louis Cardinals team. And with the way it all happened, in a lot of ways there's not much to say, really. I mean, we lost a Game 5 at home by the score of 1-0, so that's just not the kind of game that someone who understands the game can really attack all that much, at least not from most perspectives. But then, if you take a little bit of a step back, the Phils signed Roy Halladay a couple of years ago and paid him roughly 20 million dollars a year, and then this past season they signed Cliff Lee and paid him another 20 mil a year or so, and the whole idea was supposed to be that the team was building more or less the greatest short-series baseball team that ever lived. I mean, who is going to beat Halladay, Lee, Hamels and Oswalt in a 7-game series, especially when Philly has home-field advantage throughout the entire post-season, right?

Answer: The Cardinals. The Phillies lost 2 out of 3 games at home in the NLDS, and in those two losses the Phillies' starters were Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay. It's that simple, really. The Phillies lost 2 out of 3 games at home with their two near-unhittable aces on the mound. Now, for what it's worth, I think it's hard to say much about Roy Halladay overall in this series, who gave up just four earned runs over two full starts and looked pretty well dominating other than a couple of shaky first innings. But Cliff Lee had one of his bad outings in Game 2, giving up 5 earned in only about half a game, and the Phils couldn't muster enough runs to come back from that early deficit in eventually losing the game 5-3. And in a short series, those two losses were too much to be outweighed even by Phillies' #3 pitcher Cole Hamels' gutsy six inning shutout performance in what seemed at the time like a huge victory in Game 3 in St. Louis.

And let's not just focus on the pitching, as it was really more the Phillies' offense that completely weighted the team down and out of the playoffs for the second straight season. After an 11-run outburst in Game 1, Phillies fans were shocked and frustrated beyond belief in watching the team score just 10 runs in the final four games of the series. And putting even this great pitching staff in the position of having to give up two runs or fewer per game over four of the five games in the series, simply did not work. That strategy does not work in professional baseball ever, period. Carlos Ruiz and Placido Polanco, great contributors during the regular season and/or past post-season runs, couldn't touch the ball throughout this series. Ryan Howard, despite winning Game 1 single-handedly with his bat, totally disappeared in the rest of the series, culminating in Game 3 when Tony LaRussa actually pitched around someone to put him on base and face Ryan Howard -- the league's greatest RBI man over the past five seasons -- with another runner on base. Howard promptly struck out in one of the many horrible-looking at-bats he had in the series, but the fact that an opposing manager would ever even consider walking someone on purpose to pitch to Howard speaks volumes about how far Howard has fallen in the esteem of some opposing coaches (although it should be mentioned that LaRussa made an unbelievable ass out of himself in that same game by intentionally walking Carlos Ruiz and then promptly giving up a 3-run home run to a pinch hitting Ben Francisco to take the loss). But the guy sure had Ryan Howard's number after the first game, there's no debating that point. Some of the other Phillies hitters had decent series at the plate, but nobody was really able to step up and come up with that one huge hit the team desperately needed to stay alive in this series. And when you combine the team scoring 2.5 runs per game through most of the series, with Roy Halladay giving up 3 runs in the first inning of Game 1, Cliff Lee ceding five earned runs in five innings in Game 2, and Roy Oswalt allowing five more runs in 5 innings in Game 4, that is simply not a winning combination, no matter how much better on paper one team is than another.

I think a lot of the reason for the despair right now, at least with me if not anyone else, is that there is just this sinking feeling about the nucleus of this team being past its prime, that there just may not be other chances as good as this season again. I mean, look at this objectively. The Phillies won the World Series in 2008, on a team on which Cole Hamels was the only great pitcher and which saw him win the MVP of every series as he utterly dominated all comers on the way to the franchise's second world championship in 50,000 years of existence. And although mostly everyone fought me on it at the time when I declared this the day after that historical championship victory in 2008, it seems painfully obvious to everyone now I am sure that the 2008 Phillies were, in fact, the best team in the major leagues that year, hands down. So the Phillies won the World Series as the best baseball team in the world in 2008, and then in 2009 they made it back to the Series but lost this time to the Yankees. Then in 2010 with the best record in baseball for the first time in 35 years, the Phillies lost in the NLCS to the San Francisco Giants who also completely shut down the Phillies' lineup, and now in 2011 -- again with far and away this time the league's best record -- the team has lost in the NLDS to a totally run-of-the-mill below average playoff team in the Cardinals. So it's been four straight years of WS - WS loss - NLCS loss - NLDS loss for the Phillies. Anybody else seeing a trend here? And even more disurbing is that the payroll has climbed every year since 2008, and the team has signed major free agents in each of those years as the "star power" on the team has skyrocketed. To think that that 2008 team outperformed this 2011 Phillies squad is mind-boggingling if you just look at the rosters, and especially at the starting rotations. I mean, it's just not close.

But you know what has changed on this team since 2008? The hunger. I wrote about this three years ago, not even knowing until last year's Giants series and now especially this year's with the Cardinals just how right I was, but this team lost the eye of the tiger. That win in 2008 was just so amazing, so special, and so cathartic for those players, the manager, the fans and the entire city of Philadelphia, the team just let up a little. There's just no doubting this fact anymore. They've lost that hunger, that insistence that they win. Whereas in 2008 it was Cole Hamels on the mound instead of Roy Halladay in a big spot like this Game 5, he could have pitched the identical great game that Halladay did the other day, but that scrappy never-lose 2008 team would have found a way to score a couple of runs late in the game and to move on to the pennant. If you knew that 2008 Phillies team like I did, then you know what I am saying is right. Back then, this city, and that Phillies squad, were desperate for a win, they would have done anything for a win, and they did repeatedly, using late-game heroics throughout each series to nab wins from the jaws of defeat and never disappointing the fans at home in the playoffs. Over the past two seasons, however, far superior Phillies teams in terms of raw talent -- I mean, squads that aren't even close if you look at the numbers on paper -- went and lost each of the past two seasons in a one-run elimination game at home in which they never even really put up a significant threat to score and come back to make a game out of it. It's hard to believe, really, but the Philadelphia Phillies won their world title in 2008, and since then they just haven't been trying nearly hard enough, haven't been wanting it nearly bad enough. And they're all guilty of it -- everyone except Hamels anyways, who has been more or less fucking awesome every time he's gone out there in the postseason since and including 2008 -- but everyone else is to blame for this. Rollins, who is a shell of the player he was in 2008. Utley, same thing. Howard, same thing. Ruiz, same. Victorino didn't do much in this series either. Guys like Halladay, Lee and Oswalt, who weren't even on that team in 2008 and never really lived through the lean century the Phillies have just recently emerged from. The list just goes on and on. Like Sylvester Stallone at the beginning of Rocky III, the Phillies have just lost the eye of the tiger, and unless they find some way to get it back under country bumpkin Charlie Manuel, there won't be any more baseball titles in this town anytime soon. And, I should mention, this is why I celebrated that 2008 championship so fucking hard when it happened. Because as a lifelong sports fan, I know how hard it is, how rare it is, for a team to be able to duplicate success like the Phillies had in 2008. Especially in Philadelphia, I don't think that town has ever been ready to deal with having a dynasty yet, which is exactly what the Phillies would have officially become if they had won it all this year. I mean, WS - losing WS - losing NLCS - WS reads a heck of a lot better than WS - losing WS - losing NLCS - losing NLDS, don't it? But thanks to a lack of true desire, effort, and desperation to win, the fans of Philadelphia won't have to worry about this again anytime soon.

And the fans are also depressed here because, after posting the best record in baseball in 2010 with 97 wins, the team shut down on offense and lost in 6 games to the Giants in the NLCS last year. And now this year they posted the best record in the National League in years with 102 wins, head and shoulders above the rest of the league for pretty much the final 80% of the regular season this year, and now the Phils didn't even make it past one round against a team that had all but given up at Citi Field just a month ago. All of this leaves us Phillies fans with this feeling that the regular season just doesn't mean anything anymore. Best team in baseball two years running, and we've haven't even sniffed the World Series? Huh? If you think anyone in Philadelphia is looking forward to next season right now, you don't have a clue how those people feel. Right now, the feeling about the 2012 baseball season in Philadelphia is somewhere between dread and apathy. Many people will just dread being let down like this again next year, and those who don't dread it like myself are certainly at least sharing my feeling that who gives a fuck what the Phils do during the regular season next year. It means nothing. We can't beat worse teams in critical games at home with our ace on the mound anymore when it counts, so why get excited, right? That's how it feels to me anyways, and I'm sure about ten million of my closest friends in and around the Philadelphia area these days.

You ever hear that adage that great pitching always beats great hitting in the playoffs?

Not always.

--Part II of "The Despair" is coming later this week. You can guess what other Philadelphia sports team that has to do with.

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Thursday, October 06, 2011

NFL First-Quarter Report

So, with a quarter of the 2011 NFL regular season already behind us, I usually like to take some time to take stock of what we have with some of the teams who have surprised the most thus far in the young season. Although as I've written about previously over the years it seems to be later and later in the season these days before you can really assign a meaningful assessment of many teams' true positions in the league -- in many cases nowadays taking until the third quarter if not the beginning of the final quarter of the regular season in some cases before you really know (see last year's Packers as a perfect example of what I mean there) -- I find that after a quarter of the season is the first meaningful spot to sit down and evaluate just how good these teams are. And with that in mind, here are my random thoughts on the first quarter of the 2011 NFL season, grouped by divisions.

For starters, my first prediction that you cannot find many people to agree with is that I'm still picking the Eagles to win the NFC East. What can I say -- nobody else in that division is as good as them, period. Tony Romo, what a joke, we've seen again in the first four games this year why the Cowboys will never go deep with Romo anywhere, ever. The Giants have generally been more lucky than good so far, and by luck I am including not only Mike Vick getting tackled into one of his own players and giving them the opportunity to come back on the Eagles in the fourth quarter, but also having the referees hand the Giants a game on a silver platter last week when the Cardinals beat them fair and square until the refs made an indefensible call designed purely to keep the NY market happy with a Giants win. And the Redskins, I'm just going to have to see some more of that before I really believe in them. The Eagles on the other hand, beat the Rams handily in Week 1, had a 10-point lead at Atlanta when Vick went out at the beginning of the fourth quarter in Week 2, and they had a 1-point lead vs. the Giants in Week 3 before Vick again went out in the 4th quarter, both of those last two games ending in late defeats. And then the Eagles blew their way to a 23-3 lead vs the 49ers in probably the best game of Mike Vick's career as an NFL player in Week 4, and then gave it all up thanks to not one but two missed field goals and an unbelievably boneheaded fumble on the 49ers' 39 yard line with 2 minutes to go and down one point. So here even two full games behind the Giants and the Redskins, I'm still picking the Eagles to find a way to take down an uncharacteristically weak NFC East.

In the NFC North, the Packers are as good as advertised (with a pretty dubious defense, just like last year), and the Lions are also, officially, For Real. Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson is quickly becoming one of the most potent qb-wr tandems in the league, and Suh is an absolute beast. It's unclear at this point just how good any of the other teams in this division are, but the Pack and the Lions should both be on their way to post-season berths in 2011.

The Saints are once again delivering and look sure to end up in the 2011 post-season, but things are wide open otherwise in the topsy-turvy NFC South. My pick of the Falcons to miss the 2011 playoffs is still looking very doable as this team has been a very inconsistent 2-2 through the first quarter, and as it is that includes an utter gift of a win when Mike Vick went down with injury in the fourth quarter of what was at the time a sheer blowout of Atlanta at home by the Eagles. And don't look now, but yep, that's Rahim Morris and the Buccaneers, who once again are making an early push at 3-1 and could be the ones to nab the Falcons' spot in this year's post-season.

And it turns out the NFC West is not going to be worth any more discussion in 2011 than it was in 2010. Seattle is as bad as expected, and St. Louis and Arizona have both really disappointed so far. And let's not forget the 49ers, who at 3-1 might be among the two or three worst teams in the entire league. Does this sound just like what we said all last year about this embarrassment of ineptitude in the west? Just like last year, it's just sad that we're going to have to watch one of these shitbag teams in the playoffs no matter what in a few months from now.

Moving to the AFC, the East is looking strong as ever, with Tom Brady and the Cheatriots as usual heading the group, but right now it's the Bills who look far more likely to me to make an appearance in the 2011 post-season than the two-time AFC Championship NY Jets. You heard it here first -- after last week's 11 for 35 performance with a pick-6 and two fumbles returned for touchdowns out of young quarterback Mark Sanchez, I'm calling it: the Jets and their unbelievably poor offense for this point in Sanchez's career will not be in the 2011 playoffs. It'll be up to the Bills to see if they can keep up the momentum and make a run of their own to fill the Jets' void.

In the AFC North, I told you in the preseason that the Steelers were getting old, and somehow they got even older this offseason than I had realized and are in my eyes lucky to be even the 2-2 that they currently are. Although I'm not sure their problems are all cleared up yet, unlike with the Jets I still think Ben Roth is more than capable of bringing this team back from the edge of the precipice here, but either way the Ravens look like this is finally the year when they flex their muscles and take firm hold of the division. And although Cincinnati and Cleveland are each tied with Pittsburgh at 2-2 through the first quarter, I'm just not buying any of either of Andy Dalton or Colt McCoy at quarterback.

Times are a-changin in the AFC South as well, where the Colts are just as bad as I predicted they would be without Peyton Manning -- really, truly horrible -- and the Houston Texans are currently tied for first at 3-1 through the first quarter of 2011, who again definitely are For Real this year. But it is the Tennessee Titans and new quarterback Matt Hasselbeck who are making all the noise and looking very much for real as well with the rejuvenated leader on offense. With this past weekend's injury to Texans' star wideout Andre Johnson, this should increase the likelihood that the Titans and Texans battle it out for divisional supremacy for at least another quarter if not more of the 2011 regular season.

Finally, the AFC West has its own share of interest and intrigue, as Kansas City's slump to the rear is definitely for real amidst a team chock full of trouble spots on both offense and defense and a league-worst -77 in net points scored and allowed through four games of the 2011 season, and Denver is once again looking hopeless even now that they are free of Josh McDaniel at the head coaching position. But it's the race between the upstart Raiders and the Norv Turner-led Chargers that seems to be heating up, as the Chargers have the early one-game lead through four games, but the Raiders' running game and defense look to have them positioned for a run at another undefeated season vs. the AFC West on the year.

It should be a great second quarter here in 2011, starting with a few awesome games in Week 5 coming up in a few days, including Tennessee at Pittsburgh, Oakland at Houston, Philadelphia at Buffalo, and then perhaps the three best games of the weekend -- the Jets at New England, Sunday night's Green Bay at Atlanta, and Monday night's Detroit at Chicago.

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