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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Latest Greatest Super Bowl Theory 

Word in Florida, where they are playing Super Bowl XLI, from the Floridians who claim to be in the know, is take the Bears.

Here’s the skinny on why...

As we all know the University of Florida Gators are the NCAA National Champions in Basketball. Led by a young man blessed with the mad hair of his pops, a young man who lists New York City, NY as his hometown, Joakim Noah, Florida Basketball is still ranked number one in all the land.

Check the hair.

Reaffirm the hair.

Beyond the hair, you will also note that in addition to their basketball championship, these same Univeristy of Florida Gators won the NCAA Men’s football championship earlier this month.

Perhaps, however you didn’t know or hadn’t noted, however, that baseball's World Series Champions, St. Louis Cardinals were led by World Series MVP and Florida Gator, David Eckstein.

Ahhh, but dear reader the story goes a might further yet. Perhaps you recall, the NBA Champion Miami Heat. These same Miami Heat sported two Florida Gators in their starting line-up, Udonis Haslem and Jason Williams.

So do Gators rule the sports world?

It would certainly appear so right now, and this paper is no natural born Florida sympathizer.

So how does this play out or play into the Super Bowl?

Well as it turns out, the Indianapolis Colts do not have a single University of Florida Gator on their roster. Not a one. Whereas the monsters of the midway, that team that will always be known as 'da Bears, the NFC representative, the Chicago Bears have a roster littered with Gators, including their starting quarterback Rex Grossman and one of their defensive stalwarts, pass rushing end Alex Brown.


Gators, eh?

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

NFL: one week to the Big Game 

Super Bowl thoughts and NFL Conference Championship games follow-up...

The Clarion could have hardly been more wrong last week with the Patriots and the Saints.

In the Saints-Bears game, we tried to run with the better quarterback theory one more time. (Watch out for this again.) Instead of thinking dome team on the road, in a game where weather conditions may matter. Plus, minimal playoff experience, rookie head coach, rookie’s contributing at several skill positions on offense. Bears didn’t even play an “A” game, Saints got a sniff in the second quarter, didn’t do anything with it, and wham it was over.

The Patriots-Colts was just the opposite. The Clarion thought the Patriots were going to win the whole way. 98.9% of the country did at 21-3. Sure 21-6 and down only two scores made us nervous, but it was Manning and Dungy vs. Brady and Belichek. The Clarion had faith, confidence, little fear, all the way, right up to the final interception. Even then, there was a minute or two of shock where, it had to be digested, it wasn’t going to be the Patriots. The Colts had beaten their nemesis. Remove one monkey each from the backs of Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy.

Now it wouldn’t be a great idea for either of their reputations to lay a huge egg in the Super Bowl. A close loss, well the pundits will say what they will, but it wouldn’t do to get killed.

Clearly, on better quarterback theory you’d taken Peyton and the Colts. Rex Grossman gives no one confidence. Will he turn the ball over? How many times? However, the Colts run defense sucks. Don’t be fooled by the last couple of weeks. Bob Sanders is good, but one man on an undersized unit. The Bears are a running team with two good backs. The Bears defense is pretty stought, though this week they will miss injured safety and playmaker Mike Brown. But Peyton Manning...The Bears have the special teams edge. Devin Hester, from the U, could own this game, in Miami. Remember, the Colts coverage teams are no better than average.

The Patriots were the preseason AFC pick. The preseason NFC pick, the Panthers, are long gone. For the first time in a long time, it is a Super Bowl where the Clarion will be happy for the winner either way. Manning is a great player, he could win one. Both coaches seem like genuinely nice men. Happy to see further success for either of them. The state of Indiana has never had a major sports championship, aside from the Pacers winning the 2nd best league of the time, the ABA. Chicago, a great sports town, enjoyed the Sox, but 'da Bears have been without for 20 long years

At the start of the playoffs, the Clarion told you the proposition we liked best was the generic AFC winner minus six over the generic NFC winner. Why not stick with that?

As a follow-up on some of our commentary on the NFL coaching hires of the past couple of weeks, check out this Len Pasquarelli article on the trend toward younger coaches in the NFL. Super Bowl coaches Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy are 48 and 51 respectively. The two young guys most responsible for firing up the latest trend are Eric Mangini of the Jets and Sean Payton of the Saints.

Also check out a fascinating site featured in the New York Times, invest in your team's future at Ticketreserve.com

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Indiana Hoosiers Men’s Basketball 

The Clarion got through one follow-up college basketball note yesterday, time for another one today. Traditionally, we don’t pay attention to college basketball here at the Clarion until after January 1st, when the NFL season has gotten far enough along that we can tear ourselves away from Mel Kiper Jr., John Clayton, Len Pasquerelli et al. for a few moments.

The most fascinating thing about college basketball is how, even though we get a year older it seems like every six months or so, the kids playing college basketball remain the same age. It is remarkable to see 18, 19, 20 and 21 year olds go out on the court in these huge arenas, in front of national television audiences and execute at the level they do. Remember being 18? A nice consistent form on a keg stand in front of about 50 cheering people was the limits of what most of us could accomplish. These kids continue to amaze. The older we get here around the office, the more obvious the old injunction, these are kids not robots out there. Having said that first year, Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson is duing a remarkable job.

As you may recall in last year's post the Clarion agitated for a successor in the highest tradition of Bob Knight, an ethical standout. Coach Sampson who had been squeaky clean at the time of his selection looked like a good choice. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter it was revealed that his assistant coaches at Oklahoma had been up to certain shennanigans that included making extra, illicit phone calls to perspective recruits. Despite not being personally tainted, this was a blow to Sampson and therefore to Indiana and its long held reputation for tip-top integrity.

Sampson has accepted his punishment, assured the university and the alumni that he will move forward with the highest of standards, and has thus far appeared to do so. Surely, it has helped to placate the fan base that the team has had tremendous on court success, including big wins over UConn and Michigan State. While his predcessor, Mike Davis and UAB have struggled to an 11-9 mark in the very soft Conference USA, Sampson has the Hoosiers at 15-5 and #24 in the country, coming off yesterday’s win over Michigan.

Ah, Michigan which is known throughout the land as the antithesis of Indiana basketball. The University of Michigan where booster, Ed Martin, allegedly paid Chris Webber, Robert Traylor, Maurice Taylor, Louis Bullock, among others over $600 GRAND in cash to play for pay. Poor Duke alum Tommy Ammaker still hasn’t been able to sweep away the stench left by nearly two decades of Bill Frieder and Steve Fisher.

***The official Michigan Men’s College Basketball history site reads in part...Due to NCAA sanctions, the University of Michigan has vacated the records from the 1992 Final Four, the 1992/93, 95/96, 96/97, 97/98 and 98/99 seasons. 170 total games. It also reflects vacating the 1992 Final Four appearance; the 1997 NIT Championship; 1993, 1996 and 1998 NCAA tournament appearances; and the 1998 Big Ten Tournament championship.

Indiana on the other as noted by the Associated Press yesterday has a rather glorious recent history against Michigan. This history includes eleven straight wins over the Wolverines. As satisifying as that is, my how times have changed in Bloomington. Yesterday, at Assembly Hall, Michigan made more free throws than Indiana attempted. Just the opposite used to be the hallmark of Coach Knight’s teams. Instead, yesterday, Coach Sampson's team won with three point shot, not a Knight fave. Indiana’s fans will adapt so long as the Hoosiers continue to win and Sampson runs a clean program.

Knight on the 3 pointer after Texas Tech’s win Wednesday over then #6 Texas A&M... “That doesn't make me feel any better about 3-point shots," Knight said. "I don't like it, didn't like it, not going to like it. It was good tonight, though." (courtesy of the AP)

Yesterday, was the Hoosier’s 13th consecutive win at home. This is their longest home winning streak since 1991-95 when they won an extraordinary fifty-six in a row at home. Of course, you know who was coaching then. Unfortunately, the villianous Myles Brand was already sharpening his knife for Coach’s back. Brand a power hungry, networker moved from defiling Indiana University as it’s 16th president to a much dirtier organization, when he became president of the money laundering operation known as the NCAA.

The Clarion promises an expose of Brand and the NCAA in a future column.

While the jury is still out on Kelvin Sampson, the Clarion was satisified with his hiring and is comfortable with his tenure thus far. Already a remarkable difference in the team’s discipline and execution can be observed on the floor game to game.

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Army Women’s Basketball follow-up 

Long time readers will remember the tragic story of the all too sudden passing of Army Women’s basketball coach Maggie Dixon last year. It was heart rendering. It was all the more so because of Dixon’s youth, her bond with her players, and the leadership she demonstrated, not too mention, their tremendous on court success. Where they, together, earned Army’s 1st NCAA Tournament bid.

Assistant Coach Dave Magarity who had been considering leaving for a job in NBA scouting took over and has done a tremendous job guiding the defending Patriot League champions who return four starters. The Black Knights are 18-4 and trail only Bucknell in conference play.

Bucknell returns five starters, but likely none of their graduating seniors this will be heading to a posting in a combat zone. Not necessarily so for the four Black Knights who are graduating. They have made a greater committment than many can imagine. The joy they take in playing college basketball is palpable. The stakes may seem much lower than what they will face going forward, but as the tragic passing of their coach taught them last year in the hardest way possible: life is short, play hard.

Her brother is trying to create a memorial tournament in Maggie Dixon's honor

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Tennis and Golf: Federer and Tiger 

How much more compelling is the Australian Open’s women’s final with two larger than life personalities, Serena Williams versus Maria Sharapova, than the men’s final with Roger Federer and insert name of anonymous victim here?

There was half a breath where it seemed like Rafael Nadal might emerge to give Federer are rival, but it hasn’t happened. Federer isn’t quite overrated in the Clarion’s lexicon, but he’s no Tiger Woods. Federer has yet to complete his sport’s career Grand Slam. Something the recently retired Andre Agassi
was on the other hand able to accomplish. And of course, something Tiger has been able to accomplish in his sport.

Though golf and tennis have both been significantly changed by technological enhancement of the equipment, the Clarion's instinct is to believe that it would be more dificult for Federer to compete in other eras than Tiger. Of course, this game is always speculative. The older our editorial staff gets, the more we suspect that it is all but impossible to compare different eras in any sports. It is inarguable, however, that in men tennis during the last thirty years there has been a significant drop in the number of shots per point one. Serves are ever more dominant and rallies ever shorter. This is such a substantial difference in the nature of the game. Could Federer have won with a wood racquet? Would have been able to play any kind of finesse game?

Golf has an inherent advantage insofar as the course is not standardized in size the way a tennis court is. Tiger and this generation can bomb these drivers 350 yards, well golf courses have a response that is unavailble in tennis. They can lengthen the course. Tennis courts, while surfaces change, can’t be lengthened. The fact that Federer can’t win the French Open, the tournament with the greatest difference in surface, where in today’s game, finesse and touch are most important, calls into question his greatness. Not that he isn’t great, but he is not the greatest tennis player ever, not this side of Rod Laver for us. He's not quite even in the debatable conversation yet. Whereas Tiger Woods, who has a lot more career left than Federer, gets a little closer to Jack for greatest golfer ever, every year. Tiger has won in all kinds of conditions, and every kind of track in his sport, from the gorse of the British Isles to the linoleum tabletop greens of the best American courses.

The Clarion wonders how many folks are going to tune in to watch Federer at the Australian Open this weekend.

Though we won’t watch TV coverage, the Clarion has an ear out for the Buick Invitational where hot off the Nationwide tour Brandt Snedeker has a three stroke lead on the field and seven stroke lead on Tiger Woods,who is in a tie for twelth. Recall Tiger has won his last six PGA Tour starts seeking to make a run at the immortal Byron Nelson’s DiMaggio quality streak of 11 wins in 12 starts.

A little bit about Brandt Snedeker

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Conference Championship games 

While it is the Clarion’s intention to expound on these picks at further length in the next couple of hours, other things are being banged out of our collective typewriters at the moment...

let the record show, against all logic, this paper likes the Saints and the Patriots.

Interesting analysis of the Manning, Dungy, Colts angle in the LA Times sports section

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Bobby Knight breaks coaching record again 

As old Coach Knight so wryly noted, he and Texas Tech broke the all time record for coaching wins again tonight, as they will with each of their wins this season. Today was a big one, they defeated #5 Kansas. 16-3 this season under coach Bill Self. These are the kind of wins needed to get a program a good NCAA tournament seed this Spring.

From the AP Wire story...

"It was the second time Tech has beaten the Jayhawks when they came to Lubbock as a Top 10 team. Dora was also the difference the last time. In February 2005, Dora hit a 3-pointer with 3.6 seconds remaining in the second overtime to beat then-No. 2 Kansas 80-79...As they did two years ago, the fans stormed the court and chanted "Bob-by! Bob-by!" after Knight left the court.

"I couldn't believe all those fans coming on the floor until I realized we broke the record again," Knight deadpanned about getting win No. 883 against the Jayhawks. He made the remark as he strolled through the media room after finishing his postgame comments..."

the whole A.P. story

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Dolphins make another bad coaching call 

Though this space was not up and running at the time, the Clarion was never enamoured with Nick Saban. He always impressed us as a rah-rah college guy. But then again, what do we know...told many a friend over beers at the sports bar da jour that Steve Superior was going to be a huge success in Washington. The likes of his offensive sets had never been seen in the NFL. He was going to make them reinvent defense. He came from the hallowed SEC, off of a national title, as did Saban.

So one wrong, one right, take this advice where you will. Knowing full well, the Falcons ignored our column last week about what to do with their coaching hire. A quick take on that hire: Bobby Petrino has us non-plussed. He has had a lot of success, but never stayed long enough anywhere to truly test his metal. Further, his offense does not seem to be the most conducive to Michael Vick.

About whom by the by, the rumor mill is now grinding hard, particulate hidden in a secret compartment in a water bottle airport smugglin’, wow, Michael, the Clarion had thought these antics were a Marcus thang, not you, too. Now we are hearing all the questionable associates buzz. Questions are being asked like, where does one get this kind of water bottle and what makes you think you could get it through airport security? Michael, Michael, Michael, who you hanging with? Are the Falcons considering swapping Vick for multiple draft picks and playing Matt Schaub? If Ricky Williams is worth a team's entire draft, isn’t Michael Vick?

Or is he? Anyway we’ll see if the Falcons are even willing to go there.

Further reading on this topic.

Michael Vick thoughts from Sports Fan Magazine

Sharp knives for Michael Vick

As for the Miami Dolphins, Cam Cameron has done nothing to convince the Clarion that he has anything in him to be a winning head coach. (Though he might have been an interesting choice as the Falcons offensive coordinator.) As a head man, again, we have personal experience with and observation of Cam, some on the staff have seen him run our alma mater, Indiana. When we tell you he was an overwhelmed mess at Indiana, have no doubt. He had an all-timer in four year starter Antwaan Randle El. The man owns the all-time Big Ten total yardage record. He was unbelievable, unstoppable, so fast with the ball in his hands, Tommie Frazier at Nebraska fast. Except that Cameron couldn’t find talent to put around him. They were closer to Kansas than Nebraska. Indiana is a basketball school, you say. Can’t blame Cameron for that, can’t blame him that he can’t change that. The Clarion will say maybe, maybe not, on the program turn around possibilities of Indiana football. Indiana football sucks and has sucked and Cam Cameron did nothing to change it. Not even close, 18 up and 37 down overall before getting canned. Others failed too, but there are examples of people doing more miraculous turnarounds over the years: 15 years ago it was Bill Snyder at K-State and much more recently Greg Schiano’s Rutgers miracle. (Near and dear to the staff’s hearts.)

Okay, so you say, Cameron didn’t turn around Indiana, but he was great as the offensive coordinator in San Diego. The Clarion ain’t buyin’ it yo. No. Cameron has been blessed with superlative talents and still he has never gotten over the top. LaDamlian Tomlinson is an all time great. Tight end Antonio Gates is an all pro. Phillip Rivers is a all pro, coach’s son, and Clarion fave. Even last year Drew Brees was terrific player. Witness his success in New Orleans. He still playing while Cameron is done for the year. Cam Cameron hasn’t created all this talent, he has been handed it. The guy who deserves credit in San Diego is General Manager A.J. Smith. (Who incidentally had previously worked wonders in Buffalo.) Unfortunately, for Smith, Chargers owner Alex Spanos won’t take the last bit of good advice Smith needs to press on him to get the team over the top. Fire Marty Schottenheimer.

Anyway, time will tell, but it says here that Cam Cameron is overrated. Worse, the Dolphins talent base is poor, too, a recipie for disaster. Their defense is aging, their QB’s has beens and never was-es, their cupboard is threadbare...except for the outside possibility of Ricky Williams coming back from Toronto...A musical shout out to Ricky Williams

Cam Cameron bio

A.J. Smith bio

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Why fans seem to care more 

Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo on New York City’s best sports talk radio station 66WFAN often says that fans care more than players. A team’s players are able to recover from seemingly tragic endings to seasons faster. Fans crushed hopes hangovers last longer.

Here is an example of how this phenomen works from Chicago Tribune reporter John Mullin. Followed by a terrific explanation of part of the why from Chicago Bears defensive end Alex Brown...

{excerpted from the Chicago Tribune}

”Bears players have admitted frustration at times over the doubters and questioners of their play and results this season. The problem is in part that few of them are intimately familiar with the history of disappointment that has beset Chicago fans, making them slow to trust or believe even in the teams they desperately want to do well.

But the psychic fan damage done by losses in NFC Championship games like 1988 or flops in divisional playoffs the previous two times Bears teams got there are difficult for some to understand.

"I guess I just don't think like that," defensive end Alex Brown said. "I don't think last year is going to affect this year or what happened 20 years ago is going to affect this year. I don't think that because the last time the Bears were in the NFC championship this [loss] happened, that it's going to happen this time. I don't think like that. We're completely different people even from last year. We have a lot of the same people but it's a completely different mindset."

Who says University Florida football educa-mah-cations don’t yield results?

See this link for the whole article Chicago Tribune on Bears football

See this link Congress focusing on only the most important issues

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

NFL Playoffs Round 2, Sunday 

Briefly on today’s playoff games, as we told you yesterday, we see the Bears-Seahawks as the snoozer of the weekend. It seems unlikely that either of these teams could find any way to beat the Saints. Then, again, if you read yesterday's column, the Clarion liked the Eagles.

Today we’ll take the Seahwks, though we’d like’em a lot better with the eight points Vegas as offering to go with’em. The Bears have struggled down the stretch. Rex Grossman is just the latest in a series of lousy Florida quarterbacks, who looked good only in Steve Superior’s system. Does the name Danny Wuerffel ring any bells, people? Bears coach Lovie Smith should have gone to Brian Griese four weeks ago. When he goes to him in the second half today, it will be too late.

The Seahawks are bearing the jinx of the Super Bowl loser, which means they aren’t going far, in fact, even having gone this far is impressive. But surely, their season has seemed jinxed, Hasselback, is clearly a better quarterback than Grossman, but he looks like he is still playing injured. Shawn Alexander doesn’t look 100% either. If both of these guys were healthy, the Clarion would take Seattle in a walkover. Seattle secondary has also been decimated by injury. If the Bears had a quarterback, this might be a concern.

On the other side, the Bears defense is missing stud defensive tackle Tommy Harris, the best player on their D, despite the deserved run the media gives to Brian Urlacher and Mike Brown. The other defensive tackle “Machine Gun” Tank Johnson is distracted by his legal problems. A tank was about the only weapon the 5-0 didn't find when they raided his house. The Seahawks we be able to score just enough to squeak this one out on the road today, before running into fate and destiny in N’Orlins next weekend.

As for the AFC, this is the game of the week and possibly the Super Bowl, period. Before the season the Clarion liked the Patriots, until yesterday we were waffling on between them and the Ravens. With the Ravens summarily dismissed, it is time to hop back on the Pats bandwagon and pretend we never got off. (Though there is a certain fear that Vinateri may show us it was NOT just a Brady-Belichek twosome that won those Super Bowls, but rather a triumvirate of three which is no missing one leg.)

As for today in San Diego, you know the Clarion says bet the better quarterback and the better coach. Note Marty Schottenheimer 5-12 in the playoffs, Belichek and Brady when together are 11-1. Wow!! Marty’s style is so close vest and so unsuccessful, it got its own derisive moniker, “Marty ball.” He plays it too scared and too tight. Today with a young QB, who has never played a down in the playoffs, Marty is going to play it as cautious as ever.

Now we like, Phillip Rivers, a heady player, a coach’s son with all the tools, and we think he is the kind of guy who could eventually win the Super Bowl, this isn’t likely the year. The Chargers do have the best running back in the game. LaDamaian Tomlinson could take over, but this is where the coaching advantage comes into play. Belichek is a defensive mastermind who will design a game plan that stops Tomlinson. He will stack up against the run and force Phillip Rivers to beat the Pats. Not happening today. Not with Tom Brady on the other side of the ball, even without wideouts. The Patriots are getting just enough out of Jabbar Gaffney and the cast of a thousand tight-ends. This will be the hardest hitting and best game of the weekend. Sorry San Diego-ens (Residents of San Diego are called...) at least you have the weather to console you.

San Diego forecast

Non-Californians please note this is considered a miserably brutal forecast by San Diego winter standards.

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Playoffs Round 2 

Couple of quick thoughts on today’s playoff games.

The Clarion could hardly be more excited for a slate of football.

We like the Ravens and the Eagles. The Ravens have the look of a Super Bowl team, the Eagles are on a roll, playing a team and a coach with very little playoff experience.

The Clarion lover the Simmons’ playoff football theory of pick the team with the better QB. Unfortunately, today’s match-ups are not the best of exemplars of why to go that way. The Colts Payton Manning is almost a push for Steve McNair. In fact, at this point in their careers on a regular season Sunday in September, Manning is clearly the superior quarterback. Manning is well on his way to chasing down Dan Marino and John Elway as the best regular season quarterbacks of all time. McNair is a guy who took a very good Tennessee Titans team to within a yard of a Super Bowl victory. (Assessing blame about whether the route was run too short or the pass thrown too soon, or what not is specious. It was good an almost as you can get.)

Simmons next line of reasoning is turn to the coaches. Who has the better coach? Certainly, Brian Billick has one a Super Bowl already and Tony Dungy has the reputation fair or unfair of a perennial playoff loser. Perhaps, only his QB has it worse for that moniker in the entire NFL. (Depending on how it goes for Marty-ball tomorrow. More on that later.)

Those things aside, the Clarion firmly believes this game comes down to two other big Ravens advantages, home field and their defense The Ravens defense is big and fast. Ed Reed challenges Shawn Merriman for the title of best defensive player in the playoffs. Ray Lewis is still annihilating people, if a half a step more slowly. Their hybrid defensive lineman are crushers. Joseph Addai learns the real meaning of playoff football today. Manning, Harrison and Wayne are never as a effective on a grass track. And finally, lest you young guys forget, the Colts and Irsay’s abandoned one of the most loyal fan bases in the NFL on Mayflower trucks in the middle of the night. The Baltimore fans scorned like that are madder than a hornets nest hit by a lawnmower. They are going to everything in their power to unnerve Manning and the Colts. Playoff nerves were never Manning and Dungy’s strong point, anyway. ‘Nuff said.

The other game is a much tougher call. The Eagles are on a terrific roll. The QBs are once again a push. Drew Brees is terrific, coming of a great season, know for making great decisions, utilizing all of his weapons. He is a winner. The Clarion expects great things in the future and would even concede, it is possible that future could arrive today. On the other side of the line, Jeff Garcia is a mighty, mighty warrior we have always admired. Exiled to the CFL by the NFL GMs who thought he was too short. He did five years in the cold dark north before staging a comeback. He put up with T.O. in San Fran. Stared down and beat Brett Favre in playoffs one year. He is a tough guy, who has suffered more than his share of personal familial tragedy. Garcia knows at his age and with Donovan McNabb waiting in the wings to take back over the wheel next year, the time is now.

As for the coaches, much the same could be said. Excellent, young, up and comer (Payton of the Saints) against seasoned, old-hand, a winner who has never gotten all the way to the pinnacle. (Andy Reid, leader of the winner’s of the NFC East five out of the last six years.) Payton’s strength is the game day play calling. Reid strength is managing a roster and a season. If T.O. isn’t blowing up his season, Reid can wade through just about anything else. This is Payton’s first experience as a head coach in the playoff. Reid after getting demonstrable out-coached in the playoffs, earlier in his career, most notably by Tampa Bay, has improved.

Home field goes to the Saints and the entire city of New Orleans, will surely be behind them. But somehow, the Clarion feels like things have peaked for the Saints and their dream season. Surely, they will be back. But in this era of much bigger tragedy in New Orleans, the feel good, young Saints have done what they can for this year. They have lots of young weapons, Bush, Colston, Terrence Copper. Deuce McAllister is also an excellent every down back, but it says here that the Eagles defense, led by future Hall of Famer, safety Brian Dawkins, will have just enough. Jeremiah Trotter and D’Hani Jones are excellent and experienced playoff linebackers. There has been much ado made about Eagles’ corner Lito Shepard’s dislocated elbow. He is a Pro Bowl corner and he will be missed. But this is just the kind of thing Reid and the Eagles excel at building and preparing for, they are deep. Roderick Hood is a capable back-up. Says here, the Saints will miss Joe Horn more than the Eagles miss Shepard. Rookie wideouts like Colston and Cooper are always in danger of getting the drops in the first playoff action. Now there is no doubt, as good as Brian Westbrook is, the one X-Factor that could turn this whole game on a dime is Reggie Bush. Faster and more elusive than Michael Vick? How will Payton and the Saints utilize him? It is almost a guarantee that he breaks one play of greater than 50 yards. He’s just that good. (Sorry Texans fans.) The question is will he break two, plus 50 yard plays. If he does the Eagles are in trouble. Philadelphians do specialize in getting their hearts broken, but the Clarion thinks that for today the dramatic tension continues to build, now is not yet the Saints time, nor have the Eagles reached enough of a pinnacle from which to leap from to truly crush their faithful.

Back tomorrow to discuss the Patriots-Chargers and the yawner of the weekend Bears-Seahawks.

A rebuttal to King George Bush the II’s Iraq policy to follow soon…

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

NFL Playoff Preview 

A quick reminder first, preseason the Clarion picked New England v. Carolina in the Super Bowl. In the AFC, we didn’t have San Diego, Kansas City, Baltimore or the Jets even making the playoffs, preferring instead, Denver, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville. These kind of results may make you want to put away your checkbook when reading the playoff preview.

In the NFC, though we went with the homer pick and took the Panthers to win the NFC South and represent the conference in the Super Bowl, it wasn’t quite as ugly. The Clarion had the Bears and the Seahawks winning their respective divisions. Chalk, you say. Big whoop. Well, we did pick three NFC East teams to go the playoffs; the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles. Of course, the staff picked the Cowboys to win the division, and if you’d told us McNabb was going to get hurt mid-season, we’d capped the E-A-G-L-E-S out at seven wins, tops.

Let’s start there, in Philly, with one of the most remarkable stories of the season, Jeff Garcia, pulling the Eagles together. It just goes to show how much play calling and philosophy matter in the NFL. The Eagles didn’t change any personnel to speak of, other than QBs, between the McNabb led team that was struggling mid-season and the Garcia led team that got on an amazing roll down the stretch to pull out a 5th NFC East title in six years. Garcia stats are not significantly superior to McNabb’s. Nor would anybody in their right mind, tell you that Garcia is a better quarterback than McNabb, either in pure physical combine skills or on game day. The big change under Jeff Garcia, though Garcia was a three time Pro-bowler, was not so much him, as the way going to Garcia affected Andy Reid’s play calling and philosophy. All of sudden Michael Westbrook was getting all of the touches he could handle. The run was a bigger percentage of the Eagles play calling that it had been at any time during the entire Andy Reid era. This change in the play calling mix had the knock-on benefit of changing the time of possession numbers radically in the Eagles favor. Keeping the defense off the field more, revitalized Jim Johnson’s guys. They took off, even without the freak, Jevon Kearse. Led instead by future Hall of Famer, Brian Dawkins, the Eagles defense has been kicking ass and taking names, allowing just under 18 points a game in the final five games of the season.

The Giants on the other hand were done. The Clarion had left them for dead after the Saints blew them out in the Meadowlands the second to last week of the season. We had thought them fried as they limped down the stretch. With Ernie Accorsi leaving we were(and are) ready to argue that they should seriously reconfigure the roster. But, somehow, lo and behold, when everyone else continued to play crappy, as bad as they had or worse, Manning, the defense, Plastico...future talk show host, Tiki Barber saved them. Threw them on his back, as much as one player can possibly do in a football game and carried them to the playoffs on a Saturday night in Washington, DC. Not even a great quarterback could not have done what Tiki did, they still need somebody to catch the ball. Tiki took the rock under his arm, and had two 50+ yard runs to paydirt and another touchdown. He was unstoppable, and defense still nearly let Jason Campbell, starting for only the seventh time in his career come back on them.

For the Giants to win, they will need that kind of career best game from Tiki, again. Even if they get it, they might lose. Coughlin is a coaching mistake waiting to happen, and the Eagles are a lot better than the Skins, offensively and defensively.

This one almost seems too simple, where could the Giants possibly have an edge?? The Clarion likes the Eagles QB, coach, and defense better than the Giants, at best pass catchers are a push (esp. with Shockey limping on a bad ankle.) Even at the position the Giants are the strongest, running back, the Eagles answer Barber and Jacobs with Westbrook and Buckhalter.

The Giants will be lucky to keep it respectable, and they’ll have to, or it will be Tom Coughlin’s last game.

The other NFC game is less clear cut. The Cowboys are struggling. Romo hasn’t looked as good, down the stretch. T.O. is completely mental at this point, looking like Mike Tyson about two fights before he stared up from the canvas at Buster Douglas in Tokyo. When the guy the coach used to call “she”, Terry Glenn, is your most stable wideout, Cowboy fans gotta be grateful for tight end Jason Witten.

The Seahawks have been banged up all year. The Clarion has long been a believer in the jinx of the Super Bowl loser, too. Hasselback hasn’t looked himself once since the injury. Alexander has also been up and down since getting hurt. And it always seems like Seattle’s wideouts should be better, the list of names on the roster always looks terrific, Branch, Engram, Hackett, Jackson, but, will they drop the ball? Of course, Seattle’s punk tight end can be counted on to come up small, unless it is a yapping contest. Who comes up big for the Seahawks? Carries’em when it gets late? This paper can’t find an answer to that query and we have never been big Holmgren fans in the past.

So somehow, despite their recent struggles, despite Seattle’s twelfth man advantage, the Clarion likes the Cowboys to advance here. There may be a sliver of a sentimental vote for Parcells associated with that feeling.

Over in the AFC, we’re going counterintuitive on you again. Despite the fact that we here have bagged on the Colts all year. Despite how atrocious the Colts run defense has been and is. Despite the fact that we still believe that Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy will continue to be playoff chokers. Despite the fact that they are playing the League’s second leading rusher in Larry Johnson. The Clarion likes the Colts, this week ONLY. Possibly big, the Kansas City passing defense is vulnerable, ranking in the lower half of the league, allowing 208 passing yards per game, and having yielded more touchdown passes than they have made interceptions. How much does Larry Johnson have left in his legs after an all-time record 415 carries this season? Aren’t the Colts 8-0 at home this year? Can the Chiefs keep up in a shootout on turf? Every time the Clarion remembers what Trent Green look liked in college, we are amazed that he ever made it. Even if the Chiefs can keep it close, much as the Clarion likes Herm Edwards--the person, Herm Edwards--the clock manager, is not who you want on your sidelines in a tight playoff game.

In the other AFC game, it is even simpler. Jets coach Eric Mangini has done an incredible job. He should be at least co-coach of the year with Sean Payton of New Orleans, but this is the week the Jets miracle run ends. Do we even have to go through the list of reasons why? It starts and ends with Brady, as good a game manager as Chad Pennington is, Brady is Brady. (much as Pete Gillen once said about Duke.) The Patriots running backs are also far superior. The Patriots defense is better. The Patriots have the confidence of having been there and done that in the playoffs. The Patriots have home field. As good as the Jets up and coming coach staffing has done, as much as Belichek misses former assistants Crennel, Weis, Mangini, et al. Who is the master and who is the apprentice? Luke didn’t beat Darth Vader the first time they fought. (Yes, the Jets have better receivers, don’t kid yourself into thinking that will have a material effect on the outcome.)

A few further thoughts as we look ahead to next weekend…

New England was the preseason pick, how can the Clarion abandon them now? Who in their right mind picks against Tom Brady in the playoffs?

But, but, but, boy the Ravens look tough, a superb defense, playmakers we love, veterans with Super Bowl experience. In Steve McNair, a great leader who wants a ring badly. (How can you not root for a guy who came up a yard short after a great drive on the biggest stage of them all?)

Somebody from the NFC will make the Super Bowl. They will have a chance to win. A very small chance.

Best bets this week:

One---Get in on the early bet on the Super Bowl. If made right now, Vegas has posted a line that has the AFC representative giving six to whomever comes out of the NFC . Jump on that.

Two---The Colts giving six and a half to Kansas City.

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Monday, January 01, 2007

Bobby Knight breaks the all time record for coaching wins 

Bobby Knight broke Dean Smith's all time record for coaching wins in college basketball on January 1st, 2007.

Erik Kuselias said it well on ESPN Radio’s the Dan Patrick show. Bobby Knight promises his universities (full disclosure: the writer’s alma mater among them) three things. First, the players will be student-athletes and graduate at a rate the university can be proud of, second, the program absolutely will not bribe, steal, cheat when recruiting, and third, the program will win. To this list the Clarion would add a fourth, Coach Knight will raise lots of money for the university’s academic facilities.

That is a pretty good list; Coach Knight makes no promises about his methods, other than their integrity, no promises about his temper, his cursing, his violence. As the Clarion has long held, like boot camp, it is not a methodology that is successful for everybody, nor that everyone should or would want to send their children through, however, for some, it will be the best training in life’s skills they can ever go through. It will teach and inspire them to levels they never would have otherwise attained. During the Texas Tech-UNLV game last week, one of Coach Knight’s former Army players was interviewed, a retired Lieutenant Colonel. The Colonel reminded interviewer Andy Katz that when Coach Knight lead the Army basketball program, most, if not all, of his graduating senior athletes were going directly to Vietnam. The Colonel said Coach Knight imparted lessons in thorough, proper preparation that undoubtedly eventually saved lives in the field. In the same telecast Dick Vitale shared memories of a letter from a soldier in the Nam that said essentially the same thing. Bob Knight would tell you that those lessons, and the countless other lessons he imparted to so many other young people were far more important than any of his 880 wins. That ethic says it all.

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The Atlanta Falcons next coach 

The Atlanta Falcons end another disappointing season

Jim Mora Jr. absolutely deserved to get fired as the Falcons coach. With three number one drafts picks at wideout, Pro-Bowler, but still underrated Warrick Dunn and rookie sensation Jerrious Norwood in the backfield, not to mention, the incomparable Mike Vick, how could the Falcons fail to make the playoffs in the crummy NFC? Not to mention Mora’s pinhead moves on the radio. Say what coach?!?

Mora Jr. had The Mike Vick, people, remember him?

Mike Vick has reached the point in his career where fates are diverging. Is he going to be the Pistol Pete Maravich of NFL quarterbacks? Vick set the NFL QB rushing record this year. Beat Bobby Douglass’s thirty-four year old mark. However, like old Pistol Pete, Vick despite the ability to do things on the playing surface, that quite literally, nobody else in the game can, and quite possibly nobody has ever even dreamed of trying, has yet to win much of anything and lacks success in performing some of the basic skills normally required for his position. For Michael Vick it is passing consistency and accuracy, evidenced by his completion percentage, lack of passing yards and over-reliance on his terrific tight end, Algee Crumpler. For Maravich it was an inability to play on the ball defense or make his game work within the team concept. One of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of All Time, Maravich might have been a better off as a Globetrotter.

The other road Michael Vick and his extraordinary game could parallel is Magic Johnson. Like Vick and Maravich, Magic was an incomparable player in his sport. Young players cannot pattern their game on Magic Johnson any more than they can pattern their game on Gale Sayers or Barry Sanders. One either is one of these people or is not. It is why all those insisting that LaDamian Tomlinson is the first LaDamian Tomlinson, and not, the next Jim Brown(or pick your all-timer comparison) are entirely correct. Note, this is why the Clarion chose analogize Mike Vick to basketball players, because no matter what else happens, Vick will always be the first any only QB to play the position like Mike Vick did.

So Magic: how can Vicks’s career arc like Magic’s? While it is too late for the rookie year, lead the team a championship trick, Vick like Magic, still has attributes never before seen at his position. He doesn’t quite have Magic’s supporting cast (Hall of Famers, Kareem, Worthy, Perkins, All-Stars Byron Scott and Michael Cooper.) but Vick isn’t exactly lacking supporting cast as detailed earlier. The critical difference is the Coach with the vision to understand and exploit the all-timer’s unique talents. A coach who can put that player in the position to use his talents to win. Magic had Riley, Mike Vick has had perennial playoff loser Dan Reeves and the inheritor of the inglorious Mora legacy.

Well now, Jim Mora Jr. is gone and Arthur Blank Blank bio link and his front office team have the opportunity to take Michael Vick’s career down one or the other of these roads. Pistol Pete Maravich Maravich’s stats & bio or Magic Johnson Magic’s stats

The Clarion has a suggestion for Home Depot co-founder, Mr. Blank, on his head coaching hire. Remember the theme is someone who has the vision to use the advantage Michael Vick’s unique skill set presents. Believe it or not, it is our contention that the Falcons have actually not been committed enough to the running game. The running game when they have used it has been awesome, all but unstoppable. Witness Vick’s 8.4 yards per carry. Dunn’s 4.0 yards per carry. Norwood’s 6.4 yards per carry and the team’s overall 5.5 yards per carry, which ranked first in the league by more than half a yard! Why aren’t they using this advantage more aggressively? The Falcons just watched the Carolina Panthers do it to them in the second to last game of the season. The Panthers took it so far as to remove their QB from the game for 15 or so offensive plays and run the venerable single wing. This is the kind of commitment the Falcons need to make to the running game. They have an tremendous advantage in the running game and they need to commit to exploiting it. They need to commit to the run like they are Nebraska and it’s 1983. Not that they need to run that simplistic of an offense, but the Falcons need to run almost that mix of run to pass plays, 75%-25% or thereabouts. Can’t be done in today’s NFL you say? We’ll see. What the Falcons need is the right innovator, a coach who marries that creative skill with a tremendous drive to win. (Needless to say the Clarion tries never to promote candidates who have less than excellent personal integrity.)

The man for that Atlanta Falcons job in our view is one Paul Johnson. We know some of you will say he is just coaching a college team. He isn’t ready for the step up to the big time of the NFL world. You will be wrong. Coach Johnson at the Naval Academy is leading a unit with thirty-five graduating seniors. Ten of whom have elected to fufill their service committments in Marine Corps ground duty, including linebacker Tyler Tidwell, which means, six months of training, then Iraq. see here for an in-depth look Coach Johnson is already dealing with the world at large and young men making choices far greater and far more serious than face most NFLers.

Coach Johnson’s background gives him the highest of baselines for integrity, drive and respect. What will make the biggest difference for Mike Vick however is Johnson’s offensive innovation. Johnson took a Navy program that had been 1 up and 20 down in the previous two seasons, that many thought unrevivable, and has led them to .700 winning percentage in the last three years, while having the highest graduation rates in Division I-A football. See also Johnson’s successes Georgia Southern, where he had an .800+ winning percentage and won Division I-AA Coach of the Year four consecutive seasons. He is a great, great play caller, all the way back to his days as offensive coordinator at the University of Hawaii. And though Coach Johnson is a running game genius, he doesn’t abandon the pass, which the Falcons, can’t and the Clarion would not advocate. The pass still has to be judicially used, even on 1st down. But the Falcons running plays, especially with a superb fullback like Justin Griffin available, too, need to be much more creative.

Finally, the Falcons need to trade back-up quarterback for Matt Schaub for defense or draft picks. Then they need to get a back-up quarterback that is as close to Michael Vick’s strengths and weaknesses as they can. Ala Joey Hamilton, Michael Bishop…if there was ever anyway they could pry Antwann Randle-El away from the Redskins and let him play wideout and back-up QB…

all right, enough, ennough when we’re daydreaming about who the back-up QBs might be...

Arthur Blank get on the horn, aplogize to the Naval Academy and get Coach Paul Johnson down to Atlanta, stat.

further links

Vick’s stats

Falcons team stats

Paul Johnson bio

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