Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Eagles Mini The Cooper

Move Along Now
Today, the Eagles did one of the more obvious moves of any NFL team's off-season in releasing WR Riley Cooper. The move saves them several million dollars on the salary cap, and more importantly, lets them not have Riley Cooper on the freaking team any more.

How bad was this guy? Well, to be fair, not the worst WR on the 2015 team; that was Miles Austin. But in terms of starting WRs in the NFL, Cooper was one of the worst. Intermittent hands, not able to get open against press coverage, in there ostensibly for his blocking -- as if that's any reason to start a freaking WR -- and at age 28 and a fifth round pick's pedigree, seriously unlikely to get any better. I suppose he might catch on somewhere in the NFL, because being someone's WR5 after being someone else's WR2 doesn't seem that hard, but if he never plays another down in the NFL, no one will notice.

Cooper's real meaning in the NFL, of course, was the fact that he was still in it after a terrible social media moment... and the fact that ex-coach/GM/disaster Chip "Nero" Kelly kept him around, but couldn't pay Jeremy Maclin or abide DeSean Jackson, pretty much put all of the fuel that anyone ever needed to every conspiracy theory about Kelly's racism. For the record, I don't think Kelly was racist. Arrogant, idiotic, and utterly incapable of dealing with anyone who wasn't a yes man, sure. That just happened to run into more black players than white players, but Evan Mathis getting cut for no good reason, then becoming a Super Bowl winner in Denver while the Eagles started turnstiles at guard, kills off the racism angle, really.

But that overstates the point. What Cooper was, more than anything, was a hot month, perfectly timed, with the general organizational philosophy of trying to lock down emerging talent at below-market rates. If Cooper had been a capable WR2 in the fashion of his sole decent year, the club would have been fine with him being an asshat. But he wasn't that, and Kelly's insistence on continuing to give him snaps, even with college binkie Josh Huff on the bench behind him, and first rounder Nelson Agholor having a whiff of a rookie year, was his stubbornness writ large.

It would have been incredibly easy for the team, and ex-coach, to get rid of Cooper for a very long time. That they didn't, until the minimum number of days after Kelly was excised, is all kinds of telling. It means that they were gutless while Nero was here, and more than happy to hand him yard after yard of rope to hang himself. While still selling tickets at full price, of course. There's a reason why owner Jeffrey Lurie, while generally lauded locally for kicking Kelly to the curb, isn't exactly trusted or beloved.

So what's next? Well, rumor has it that the club is really trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube by getting back wayward QB Nick Foles from the Rams. Maybe this is just gamesmanship with QB Sam Bradford to try to save a few million bucks on his next contract, especially because of Bradford's frankly terrifying injury history... and maybe it's all rumor mill nonsense. But the fact that it can't be just laughed out of the room, tells you just how beyond the pale this front office is.

Giving Kelly the keys was a mistake. So will be trying to undo everything he did, as if time treats football players like normal human beings.

But getting rid of Riley Freaking Cooper?

That's never been a bad idea.

Just a very overdue one.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Top 20 Super Bowl Takeaways

More Interesting Than Game
20) If we learned nothing else from this game, it should be that it wasn't held anywhere close to San Francisco, or interesting

19) Von Miller is a free agent this off-season, and about to install a Scrooge McDuck vault in his basement

18) Ron Rivera punted while down 14 with 2:08 left, because he really wanted to make sure his team was healthy for September

17) Phil Simms buried Cam Newtown for not diving for a fumble late in the game, in ways that only felt unseemly because Phil Simms never buries white QBs for, well, anything

16) Mike Carey blew his only chance to comment on the officiating, which is to say, the sun rose in the east

15) The last time the Super Bowl was this dull, Tony Siragusa got a sideline job for ten years and counting

14) Carolina finished the game 17-2, and without a single WR that you can imagine they'd like to start 2016 with

13) If this game was held in August, you'd have been amazed at how sloppy it was

12) Just think how good Denver's defense would have been if Aqib Talib hadn't had a million penalty yards

11) We all knew Carolina was doomed as soon as Jonathan Stewart scored and didn't give the ball to a kid

10) The MVP relay run with the trophy in the post-game gained more yards than the Denver passing game

9) Vernon Davis can now retire as a World Champion, or more likely, get cut as one

8) Evan Mathis couldn't play for Chip Kelly, but he can slip on a Super Bowl ring

7) Shockingly, the team that won the Super Bowl turns out to have the best fans in the NFL

6) The most athletic moment in the game might have been when Beyonce recovered from a backwards fall in heels to stay upright

5) Finally, Trent Dilfer has a Super Bowl winning QB performance he can look down on

4) Temple University's own Brandon McManus felt cheated when his 10 points didn't take down the MVP, or make everyone forget about where Bill Cosby went to school

3) Jerry Jones couldn't pay DeMarcus Ware, preferring to have Greg Hardy, which meant that Ware got a ring

2) Peyton Manning showed more footspeed in ducking retirement questions than he did the Panther pass rush

1) This game should serve as proof, not that anyone needed it, that the NFL should not allow CBS to televise games

Win Number 8, Or Why I Enjoy My Sixers Fandom

Strong Oak
Tonight in South Philadelphia, the Sixers took out the Nets, 103-98, for their eighth win of the year, against 43 losses. Brooklyn is a clearly horrible team, and one of the worst franchises in the league, so this wasn't one of the more surprising results in the Association. But it was still an entertaining game, and it made me realize a few things about why, despite the absurd amounts of losing that we've gone through in the past few years, I haven't really minded much of the tanking Process. Let me get into the guts of why on that, and maybe explain this beyond just a level of masochism.

There's all kinds of seasons that a franchise can have. They can have the championship one, which is, of course, extremely rare if you follow just one team, and weren't fortunate enough to pick the right one as a child. There's the contending year, which has its charms, but always ends in some level of disappointment (see Eagles, early Andy Reid era). There's the pointless year, where you never get a sense of up or down, just that there's no real hope, and no real reason to continue watching outside of habit (see Eagles, late Chip Kelly era). There's the down year, where you are on the other side of the peak and nothing seems satisfying, but at least you have your memories and a sense of past gratitude (see Phillies, last 2-3 years). And then there's the rising year, where the team isn't good enough yet, but you feel like it's all leading to something good later.

That's been the Sixers for nearly three years now.

And sure, they keep hitting the reset button and re-tanking, but the plain and simple is that every year, this team gets better in mid-season. When other teams fall off because the grind of the season gets to be too much for them, that's when head coach Brett Brown figures out what he's got from the long collection of not quite ready talent. Motivation is never a problem, because none of these guys take their paycheck for granted. Even the high picks grind, because they know on some level that they have to, lest the blowouts come. The fan base has always been into it, because the locals respect effort more than talent, and the process more than the result. Finally, January and February is when you really *need* the NBA team to be watchable, because there's nothing else, really, to fill your sports hole.

More about the fan base. Philadelphians understand basketball, and the moments of artistry and athleticism, more than any other fan base around. The team has won enough to know what winning looks like, but there's more to hoop than wins. That's why Allen Iverson was our spirit animal. He didn't care about practice, and neither do we. He didn't conserve his energies and skip out on the back end of a back to back; neither do we. He played every game as if it were his last, and a true Philadelphia fan will cheer and boo every game the same way. We don't bring more intensity to a playoff game on a per capita basis. There's just more of us there, and more reason to mark out. Go all in, and we will as well.

So, back to this game. The team was without PG1 Ish Smith, the single biggest reason why they've been a near .500 team with downright danger since Christmas, after the terrible start. Which meant that rookie T.J. McConnell had to take the reins, and execrable back up Kendall Marshall had to get minutes that mattered. Luckily for McConnell, Brooklyn's worst position is point guard, which meant he just had to contend with Donald Sloan and Shane Larkin, and the Sixers owned that matchup. 24-12 after the first, with McConnell doing his best Smith impersonation in getting Nerlens Noel off early. Also helping; Noel was guarded by Brook Lopez, a classic empty calories big man who can make anyone with lateral quickness look offensively capable. Nerlens has got that in spades.

So the team played with the lead most of the night, despite pivotal wing man Robert Covington not being able to do much, and center Jahlil Okafor also not hitting shots. Here's where the game was revelatory. Earlier this season, Okafor's value was entirely on offense, and if his shot wasn't falling, there would be little value to what he did. He also didn't mesh at all with Noel. But tonight, he grinded away on defense, got on the boards, and set the basis for a good all-around night. McConnell deserves some of the credit for that, as he didn't play favorites with his penetration and passing, and the Nets are a team you can torch on the boards; the Sixers won that battle by six, with Okafor's 17 leading the way. But for vast stretches of this game, the two bigs actually worked well together, especially on defense. Oakafor's 10 defensive boards meant that Noel could gamble for his 4 steals and 3 blocks, and that set the tone for 19 Nets turnovers, and a 5-15 night from the arc. There's the core of a very good defensive team here, especially if Oakafor can become a plus on the boards. He also had three blocks tonight, which is more a matter of the Nets being clueless, but still, progress.

What else to like? How they won despite issues. Nic Stauskas, Covington and Isaac Canaan went a combined 5 for 23, and they normally need much better three-point shooting to stay in games, let alone win. They won despite a 17 to 14 assist to turnover ratio, with Marshall's 5 giveaways in twenty minutes showing, yet again, why Smith is so valuable to this club. They won despite the Nets going 23 for 26 from the line. Mostly, they won because they played great defense... and when Brooklyn took the lead late and appeared to be on their way to stealing a game they didn't deserve, they forced turnovers, made shots, and rudely showed the visitors to the door.

Like it was what was supposed to happen, rather than some kind of happy accident or fluke.

Can Noel and Okafor really co-exist? I have no idea, and that's being optimistic, considering that they hadn't for nearly 50 games before this one. Brooklyn's far from a good standard, and the Clippers come to town on Monday. That team has treated the Sixers like the Washington Generals for years now, and even without Blake Griffin, it'll be a strong test, especially if Chris Paul is full power and Smith isn't. After that, the Kings are in town, with revenge for the earlier shocking loss in Sactown, and Boogie Cousins among the best players in the league since the turn of the new year. That's it before the break; all the hoop you get for a good long while, and all of the story that will be revealed to date.

But there's this. Fifty games, in the span of a 19 year old Okafor, is nothing. McConnell looks limited as hell, but he's a rookie, too; there may be more ceiling than expected. There's no rotation player  on this team, honestly, that you can say is on the downside of his career. It's an open question whether some of them (Marshall, JaKarr Sampson) will actually have a career, but that's another matter.

The biggest thing is that this team is more and more looking like they are giving us a rising year. And unlike past years, they aren't likely to pull the chutes on cohesiveness and trade rotation pieces for second round picks, or cash in draft assets for chips later.

They are what they are, for the next 30 games. An increasingly entertaining team that is going to be better and vastly more watchable than they were earlier in the year. Who won't leave us ignoring the games until the Draft. And who might trade in the rising year for the contending year, as soon as next October.

Not too many teams can promise you more, really. Especially in this town....

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Super Bowl Pick: Exit, Stage Beatdown

Say Omaha Again, I Dare You
Walking off into the sunset a winner. It’s the dream of every athlete, but the number of times it actually happens is, well, almost never. Part of this is the very nature of athletics, where getting old gracefully rarely happens, and star players in particular have trouble managing the decline.

But the bigger part of the issue is that just being a winner is damned deadly difficult. Only one of 32 NFL teams hoist a trophy every ear, which means that just by the numbers, you start with about a 3% chance of being on the right team.

Then there's the added difficulty of being healthy enough to make that walk, which takes out a few dozen more candidates for the forever stroll. So if you want to go out on top, the only way to be sure... is to just go out whenever you win one. Sure, you might leave a decade of monster billing on the table, and become known as football's biggest non-Detroit enigma, but what's more important, really -- leaving on your own weirdly non-lucrative terms, or making a sports writer happy by writing his Not Game lede?

Which brings us to Peyton Manning. He can do something historic in what everyone is presuming to be his final NFL game. Any number of people are ready for this, as he's the second favorite to win the Super Bowl MVP. He can also decide, after six months of not getting hurt and his arm feeling fine, that another $20 million would go down like a few dozen commercials. Especially with no more than a dozen NFL teams that feel really, really good about their QB1 situation, and the rules getting to the point where being an old and slow white QB has never been safer.

Now, for the record? It seems really obvious that Manning is going to leave after this. That's what the rumors have all been saying, but what they aren't saying is that one of the bigger reasons for him to leave is that the Panthers are going to beat him silly. Kind of like how the Seahawks did two years ago, because the NFC is (shh!) wildly better than the AFC now, and the Panthers did most of the heavy lifting for winning this game by not choking away their lead in their first playoff game against Seattle. (Speaking of Seattle, jeez, Russell Wilson, why didn't you retire after your SB win? Leave on your own teams, man.)

So enjoy your walk, Peyton. It just might look more like this. 

 And with that... on to the very, very obvious pick!

* * * * * 

CAROLINA (-5.5) at Denver 

 The case for Carolina: 17-1 in the superior conference. Have the clear MVP in QB Cam Newton, who is fully healthy and playing at the highest level of his career. RB Jonathan Stewart has been top notch since returning from injury. TE Gregg Olsen is among the best in the game, and routinely gets open despite being the clear top choice of his QB. WR TBD Brown and Ted Ginn Jr. aren't great, but they have speed to burn and get past the defense enough for Newton to do serious damage, especially on plays where the QB extends time with his mobility. Defensive front seven is the best in football this year by a wide margin, and the pass rush has been ferocious in the post-season. No real issues on special teams or coaching to slow them down, either.

The case against: Secondary is vulnerable outside of world-class CB Josh Norman. LB Thomas Davis broke his arm in the conference championship and is trying to play anyway; if he is not able to go or play well, that is a major problem, especially since Denver’s passing game is so much about short crossing routes and YAC. No one on the roster has been on this kind of stage before. They've done bad things with a lead in a bunch of games this year, and could easily give up the back door cover or more, especially if the pass rush loses steam late. The pass rush has lost steam late.

The case for Denver: Defensive secondary is the best in football this year by a wide margin. Patient play calling that doesn't turn the ball over. QB Peyton Manning is one of the smartest QBs who has ever played the game, and routinely makes a defense jump offsides, or audibles to the right play based on a pre-snap read. WR Emmanual Sanders and DeMaryius Thomas have the physical gifts to change games, and the deeper reserve WRs made a ton of plays in the win against NE. TE Owen Daniels is a reliable target for Manning, and can gash a defense. Run game has looked better in recent weeks, and the special teams have been very good, especially K Brandon McManus. Manning actually ran around a little in his last game, and might be as healthy as can be hoped at this stage of the year, and in his career.

The case against: Offense has to play at a near perfect level now to succeed. Offensive line is just not that good, and Manning’s speed to release to camouflage that, and ability to make all of the throws, is long gone. RB Ronnie Hillman isn't big enough, RB CJ Anderson isn't fast enough, and both tend to put the ball on the ground at the worst possible time. Thomas is either playing with an injury, or is secretly a decade older than his birth certificate. Defense was utterly brilliant against New England, and still needed questionable game management, home field advantage and the skin of their teeth to get to this game. Won't have a decimated offensive line and a stationary QB to go after in this game, either.

The pick: Can Denver win this game? Sure. NFL games are decided on turnovers, and Newton hasn't always been great on that score. Manning with rest and the knowledge that it's all over after this game might be truly dangerous, especially if Thomas can somehow shake off what he's been doing for the past four months. The Denver DBs have the potential to throw a shutout at the Carolina WRs, and the game could easily turn on a single possession or special teams play. If we played this game 100 times on a perfect computer simulation, Denver wins a lot of games.

But what's possible is not what's probable, and every Super Bowl doesn't have to be close or compelling. I'm not sure I've seen a QB play better than Newton in this season, and I’ve watched football since the 1970s. Especially when you consider what he's working with at wideout. Unlike New England, Carolina will bring a realistic running game threat to the game, and string together enough drives to bring that defense to exhaustion. I don't see the same thing being true for the Broncos... and historically, teams that fall behind in this game don't come back, and it gets ugly.

Kind of like what happened to Manning when he was in much better shape, with a much better offense, on this stage two years ago.

The score: Panthers 34, Broncos 20. 

 As a bonus, here is how I would go on six different prop bets.

Over/under -- Over, 45.5

More sacks -- Carolina, 6/5

MVP, Chalk bet: Cam Newton, 8/11

MVP Longshot: Luke Kuchley, 18/1

Over/under, "Omaha" calls -- Over, 7.5

Cam Newton total TDs -- Over, 2.5

* * * * * 

Last week: 2-0 

Season: 141-117-4 

Past SBs: 4-5 

Career: 759-749-49

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Great Lakers Mystery

My bench seat is this wide
Tonight in Los Angeles, the Lakers took the floor against the Hornets. Entering the game, the home team had a record of 9-40, the second worst in the Association. Here are the starters:

G Lou Williams
G Jordan Clarkson
C Roy Hibbert
F Julius Randle
F Kobe Bryant

Let's consider each in turn.

Williams is a 10-year-pro. He's 6'-1", a tolerable bench scorer who can't defend, and not really a point guard. If he's used properly, the way he was last year in Toronto, he can be an asset. Giving him starter minutes has never made any sense, and it has especially does not make sense on a team that is 9-40.

Clarkson might be on the next Laker team that isn't a laugh out loud embarrassment. He's in his second year, the only good thing to come out of last year's dumpster fire, and in the 15/4/3 range of Not Really A PG or a SG. I don't love his game, because he's terrible on defense and seems more athletic than intelligent, but you could do worse than giving him 35 minutes a night and seeing what happens.

Hibbert, man alive, he's just brutal. I have no idea what happened to make him so old so fast, but right now, he's just a 7/7 slug who seems to just be out there to show the world that lumbering 7-footers no longer have a place in the Association. Maybe he could help a team as their de facto goon, along the lines of a taller Kendrick Perkins, but his spiraling career in Indy showed that he doesn't really have the heart for that. Every minute he's on the court is a minute that Laker Fan should hate.

Randle might be the most depressing part of this year for the team, as last year's first round pick has delivered more empty calories than any young guy in recent memory. He gives you 11/10/2 now, but the limitations to his game -- can't pass, can't go right, can't elevate, can't shoot from distance, can't defend -- are seemingly set in stone. You give him minutes because he's young and might get better, and you deal him to any GM that asks about him, because he's just a reason to lose.

And then there's the sad remains of Kobe Bryant, all 16/4/4 of him, a 35% (!) shooter who is proving that sad memorial tours don't have to just be for Derek Jeter. Bryant's sole remaining goal for his last 30-odd games in the Association should be to avoid injury and get a half dozen more moments on SportsCenter, because he might be the worst player in the Association. No, seriously.

So what we have here is two out of five starters that you might actually feel good about, kind of. You have to give Bryant 25 minutes a game for the gawker crowds, but not a second more. Which makes the way the Lakers delegate their remaining minutes all the more perplexing, because the bench is where you will find D'Angelo Russell, the 2nd overall pick in the draft last year, and outside of Clarkson and maybe Randle, the only assets on the team that might be here after the purge. (I'm going to ignore Larry Nance Jr., who looks OK only when you compare him to Randle, and has no more ceiling to his middling game. Trust me, he's nothing.)

Now, Russell has *not* been good. So far, he's 12/3/1 on 41% shooting as he adjusts to life as an NBA point, with way too many turnovers and poor body language. At age 19, he's not helping anyone win games... but FFS, this is a 9-win team with no one who would start for a .500 club. Winning games is not an option. What they should be doing is not playing the guys who can play -- you don't have those -- but the guys who might figure it out later.

So, why are the Lakers doling out minutes to their younger players as if they were fighting for the 8th seed? Well, three reasons.

1) They have to stay high in the NBA draft -- as in top 3 -- or they lose their first rounder to Philadelphia next year. If you think the Sixers have been tankers, wait until you see what the Lakers do once they get Win #10, so they can avoid the 1973 Sixers Infamy Record. I think they might bring back Lamar Odom and start him. In his current medical condition. Hey, he'd have as much left in the tank as Bryant, and some other check collectors on the Laker bench...

2) They really are this stupid. Also littering the Laker bench? Metta World Peace -- no, seriously -- who wasn't good five years ago, prior to traveling the world and discovering that real Chinese food is wildly fattening. Nick Young, more proof that exposure to reality TV is wildly destructive to your health and basketball utility. Robert Sacre and Tariq Black, who somehow make Hibbert look mobile. Brandon Bass and Ryan Kelly and Anthony Brown and dear Lord in heaven, if you are going to have guys that can't play, at least give them names that are different from guys that we all knew could not play five years ago.

3) Coach Byron Scott thinks that the way to develop young players is Tough Love. So when Russell turns it over -- as if he's alone with that problem on this roster -- it's time to sit that teenager's ass down and show him the error of his ways. The fact that no one on this team runs simple cuts and gets open, preferring to go iso as if they were all channeling mid 1980s Michael Jordan? It's all the teenage point guard's fault.

This will all continue for another 10 weeks, which is how much longer the NBA regular season will run. The Lakers will clean house in the off-season, with Scott getting run out on a rail with any number of distressed assets. NBA writers will talk extensively about how the Lake Show is going to attract big name talent with all of their available cap space, high picks, prime location. And none of that will actually come to pass, because you don't have to go anywhere near the bright lights and big city to make real money anymore. Damian Lillard, in Portland, appears on State Farm ads. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook cash checks in OKC, where the money probably spends 2X as well as it does in Cali. LeBron James went from Miami to Cleveland and didn't lose a dime. The Association plays to the world, and the world does not really care what your jersey says, so long as your team wins games and is fun to watch.

Is there a way out for them? Only one, and it's so obvious that even Scott might stumble into it. Give Russell the keys to the car, play him with Clarkson and Randle and the two least regrettable other guys regardless of position, tell them to run at every opportunity and don't pull the kid until his tongue is on the floor. Maybe you force feed him into a 20/10 volume guy, and give everyone in town a moment of hope, or pump up his trade stock, the way the Sixers did with Michael Carter-Williams. If he flops, he flops; you're losing these games either way.

And as to why they aren't doing this?

I have no earthly idea.

And no one else who has been watching this franchise does, either.

Ads In This Size Rule