Monday, December 29, 2008

The year's worst

Well, it’s that time of year, the time when all the sports pundits sit around and endlessly analyze what went right and what went wrong with football teams around the US. Who am I to be the exception? Nobody, that’s who. I’m going to divide this up into two parts, what went wrong, and what went right. Today’s column is a salute to the wrong side of the NFL.

What do these things have in common?

the New York Jets, and
Notre Dame.

All have had high expectations from coaching changes. None of those expectations have been met. All the coaches came out of New England’s system under Bill “the cheatin’ hoodie” Belichick.
Not so easy to run up a winning record when you don’t have tape of the opposition’s signals, is it Charlie? Brett Favre couldn’t bail you out, Mangini? And Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo? You’re a nice guy, but you’re a lousy coach, dude. So far, the Beliclones are not doing so well. Getting that tradition of skullduggery started in a new city must be tough. My only wish is that someone would pay me the kind of money those guys are getting for doing a piss-poor job. I would rest comfortably on my laurels, and you wouldn’t hear from me any more. Retirement, here I come! Charlie Weis in particular should be ashamed of the money he's taking away from the Catholic Church. They could be doing a lot of good with that seven million, restoring a fresco or two, buying the pope a new hat, or funding some orphanages. Touchdown Jesus is weeping somewhere.

A few more things that have some common ground.

Detroit, and

What do they have in common? Bad ownership, that’s what.

In Oakland, Al Davis is just a scary, scary man. Nothing will truly change there until he’s either died or metamorphosed. Your guess is as good as mine as to which will happen.

Detroit is just inept. They’re like the opposite of King Midas; everything they touch turns to shit. I think they need to do like the Arena League and take a year off to regroup. And draft something other than a damn wide receiver for a change.

Then there’s Dallas. Ah, Dallas. Despite being shoved down our throats every year as “America's team”, they aren’t and never will be. This group is pitiful. The players are so busy throwing each other and the coaching staff under the bus, it’s a wonder they have time to get endorsement contracts. Underachievement is their constant watchword. And in Wade Phillips, son of O.A (Old Asshole) “Bud” Phillips, Jerry Jones has the perfect head coach. Someone who will never, ever interfere in what Jerry Jones wants. A billion dollar stadium. All the plastic surgery money can buy.
A team made of drama queens to keep Jerry in the spotlight. What more could an egomaniac want? A super bowl trophy? Don’t be silly. This team doesn’t need a dumb Lombardi to prove what they are. All they need is a statue of TO, because he exemplifies everything they’re about. Let the Dallas press clamor all they want for Phillips’ head, it will never happen so long as he lets Jerry Jones run the real show.

Jacksonville, and

Three teams that could have gone either way this year, the biggest disappointment has to be Jacksonville. They were poised to make a good run deep into the playoffs, and they just… imploded. I can’t explain it. I didn’t see enough of their games to know for sure but I think they relied too much on the big quarterback being a tough guy and had a lack of offensive balance. It’s a disappointment, but it doesn’t change the fact that whether he’s 11-5 like last year or 5-11 like this year, Jack DelRio is still the best-dressed coach in football.
Seattle’s year reminded me of a less competent Steelers team in Bill Cowher’s final year as coach but with more apathy and less skill. And Buffalo just makes me sad. I am sure they’d be delighted to see a Super Bowl loss, or any sort of playoff hope, but this year went the way of so many before, into mediocrity and an early end to their season.

Kansas City, St. Louis, and Cincinnati? Just a simple case of more of the same. It’s a good thing those cities have baseball teams, it gives them something to look forward to. Football is certainly not going to improve there any time soon. St. Louis probably has the most talented team of the three and has the best chance at a rebound in the next several years, and they have a real star in Steven Jackson, if they can keep him. Kansas City continues a new tradition of football ineptitude. I remember not so long ago we used to worry about getting them in the playoffs. No longer. And Cinci is now nothing but a punch line in a long series of jokes, most of them starting with either Chad Ocho Cinco or an arrest.

Until next time, when I’ll have happier times in the NFL with some big turnarounds, playoff hopes, and for real predictions.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

New favorite thing

Penguins visit Children's Hospital, bring presents.

Shout-out to the PittsburghPens community on Livejournal for this. Bring your kleenex. It looks like they really took a lot of time and spent time playing games, visiting, etc. What a great group of guys.

Monday, December 15, 2008

These are a few of my favorite things

Video of last week's game-winning interception.

My favorite thing is Mike Tomlin's sweet flying chest bump with Big Ben at 0:37. I'm pretty sure that's Tomlin going WOO! WOO! WOO! in the background too. I love that guy. Seriously.

Yinz Love Da Stillers.

Consistent brilliance. The NFL decided he wasn't allowed to use video clips under fair use and made him pull some of his previous videos, so he started using plastic figurines to represent the plays. WIN. He also does a Yinz Love Da Pens series worth checking out.

Sidney Crosby's hat trick-the first goal is a thing of amazing beauty and skill, and the third is a hell of a lot of fun.

Bob Errey. Oh Bob. That's an oldie but a goodie.

This week's Errey-Otica includes
"The god of thunder has stricken!" Steigy on Eric Goddard's goal, and "People are aroused by that!", Errey referring to the exciting fast play in the Pens/Devils game.

Gene Collier, the PG's best sports writer, has a good column about Sunday's victory against the Ravens and Ben's drive.

Bob and I are speculating on how far the phrase "double chinstrap football" can get into the running for the 2008 Trite Trophy. The talking threads on ESPN used that phrase at least 20 times in the run-up to the game on Sunday and it got old, fast.

The Penguins are having a mini-slump, but it'll pass. Once the defensive injuries are healed up, hopefully things will improve on the power play and also the penalty kill. We got killed by the Flyers' power play on Saturday, mostly because our defense is barely out of Wilkes-Barre, but also because it was our third game in three and a half days. I'm not worried, I keep telling myself. It's early.

It's interesting to speculate on what a different sport hockey would be if there were only 16 games played a year, like football. I like that we play practically 16 games a month, it's more entertainment and less melodrama.

Speaking of melodrama, how about that T.O.?

Oh, and this just in... Terrell Owens is a 12 year old.

Another good piece of speculation-T.O. and Plaxico Burress both end up in Oakland, under the kindly tutelage of Al Davis. AAAAAHHHHH!

Until next time, Sports Fans.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The impact of one play

If Deshea Townsend starred in It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence would show him the Dallas Cowboys winning Super Bowl XLIII, the Pittsburgh Steelers not making the playoffs, and a Halliburton CEO winning $1 million from ESPN.

As the NFL regular season winds down to the playoffs, it’s clear that one play by Townsend will affect the destinies of several teams—and it’s changed the life of one UPS worker in Miami.

Steelers fans know what happened—Townsend picked off a pass by Tony Romo with 1:40 left to give the Steelers a 20-13 comeback win over the Dallas Cowboys—but the ramifications of that play have been felt far beyond the top row of Heinz Field.

That play kept the Steelers in line for a first-round bye in the playoffs and hurt the Cowboys’ chances of making the playoffs at all. It has also kicked off a meltdown in Dallas.

The pass was intended for Jason Witten, which has led Terrell Owens to make public statements that Romo favors Witten over him. As he did at San Francisco and Philadelphia, T.O. is being a destructive influence in the locker room—which is just fine for fans of any team other than the much-hated Cowboys.

As yet another soap opera unfolds in Dallas (Who shot down T.O.?), several other teams suddenly have a better chance at the NFC wild card spot to which the Cowboys are clinging by their spurs as I write this. Just judging from the remaining schedules, don’t count out Philly.

The win also kept the Steelers one game in front of the even more-hated (at least in Pittsburgh and Cleveland) Baltimore Ravens and brought them even closer to clinching a playoff spot.

As the NFL millionaires fight over the chance to make even more money, Townsend’s play has made Samuel Louis-Charles a millionaire, too. Louis-Charles, or Bigsam1122 as he’s known at, predicted the winners of 25 straight sports events correctly to win $1 million in ESPN’s “Streak for the Cash” game. Louis-Charles, who had stopped watching the game and gone to work when the Steelers were behind 13-3, has said he will send gifts to Townsend and Romo. I’m sure Romo will be just thrilled to get his.

Other Steelers have had more impact on the season, and there are more likely Pro Bowl candidates.

But when the 2008 season goes in the books, it will be hard to think of a play that’s had the impact of Townsend’s interception.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

How I fell in and out of love with a sport

Change has been the theme of this election year. We all know about the change that happened in the White House and the change that didn’t happen in California.

There was also a referendum that gained little publicity outside the state where it was held, but it could eventually have repercussions in sports, or at least in the gaming industry, nationwide.

Last month, the voters of Massachusetts decided to ban dog racing. The state’s two greyhound tracks, Wonderland and Raynham-Taunton Park, will have to cease operations by Jan. 1, 2010, barring any last-minute legal challenges.

This may seem minor to anyone unfamiliar with dog racing, but it’s a major blow to the sport. Of the 16 states where dog racing is legal, only in Florida has it been entrenched more firmly. When Sports Illustrated ran an article on dog racing in the early ‘90s, Wonderland, one of the most popular dog tracks in the U.S., was featured because it regularly outdrew the Boston area’s Thoroughbred race track, Suffolk Downs. SI used this example to infer that dog racing was a major threat to horse racing. (Which is sort of like comparing Ohio State football to the Cincinnati Bengals and inferring that college football is superior to the NFL.)

That threat never materialized, mainly due to increased competition from casinos and other forms of gaming, but also because many people became aware of dog racing’s dirty secrets.

They were enough to turn me off the sport in a hurry.

It wasn’t always that way. I became a dog racing fan in the mid-1990s when I covered Delta Downs, a Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse track in Vinton, La., for Daily Racing Form. When I found out there was a dog track, Gulf Greyhound Park, just two and a half hours to the west near Houston, I had to check it out.

I immediately became fascinated by the constant action (a race goes off every nine or 10 minutes, compared to 18 to 20 minutes for horses), the program statistics, the ease of handicapping (two words: early speed), the letter-grade system of ranking dogs that assured a competitive race—and, of course, the dogs themselves.

The greyhound is the opposite of most people’s idea of a pretty dog—so thin, with a coat that appears matted (but is thicker than it looks) and bulging, cartoonish eyes, it appears from the front as if half of it is missing, but it possesses a unique, regal beauty. I must have looked like the biggest idiot at the track when I would watch the post parade from the rail and gush over the field. “Aww…look at them little guys…aww, big babies, they’re looking so sad…aww, that one’s got racing stripes!” As Bob Seger once said, I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.

I even gave the breed a nickname. I once covered high school sports for a team called the Greyhounds, who had a mascot named Scuffy. Scuffy inspired me to dub greyhounds in general “scuppy dogs.”

Soon, I was going to Gulf whenever I got the chance. I would stay in a motel overnight on long weekends to catch racing action for two straight days. I even developed a good-luck ritual when I approached the place on I-45—I would always sing the theme from “Scooby-Doo.” (Yeah, I know, Scooby’s a Great Dane. Sue me.) If time permitted, I would either come or leave via a back way in order to take the Galveston Ferry, get out of my car and enjoy the Gulf breeze. It was pure degenerate gambling bliss.

At the time, I wondered why dog racing existed in gaming’s ghetto. It seemed like a secret world, an acquired taste. Even non-racing fans can name several champion Thoroughbreds, but the only racing dog most people can name is Santa’s Little Helper.

I would not learn the reason until a few years later.

I started reading online about the cruelty of the sport. I read about overbreeding and how the puppies that don’t make the cut are killed. I read about the practice of training dogs with “live lure”—teaching them to hunt using live rabbits, cats and other animals. I read about how, despite the industry’s burgeoning adoption program, many dogs are killed when their racing days are through—and the canine “killing fields” that have been discovered to prove it. The dog racing industry has done little to refute this evidence, aside from making increasingly desperate pleas to adopt a retired racer.

I haven’t set foot in a dog track since I learned the truth about the sport, but I always kept a tiny glimmer of hope that the industry might somehow find a way to clean up its act.

I know in my heart that the voters of Massachusetts have done the right thing—but why does the vote leave me feeling a little bit sad?


For information on Going Home Greyhounds, an organization that places retired racing greyhounds in homes in the Pittsburgh area, go to