Friday, September 30, 2011

The Francona Manifesto

I'd be remiss if I allowed this to pass. The ousting of eight-season Red Sox manager, Terry Francona, makes you all come to a stand still. It is the termination of the manager who went from being most recognized for his time spent as skipper of the most infamous minor league baseball season of all-time, that of the 1994 Birmingham Barons and their outfielder with three NBA championship rings, to the manager responsible for not one, but two historic Red Sox World Series crowns. The announcement while rumoured for more than twenty-four hours, was as epic as his 7-20 month of September and followed collective collapse on the field. With that, the Tito Francona-era in Boston is over.

Let the rose petals fall upon this gladiator of a manager first. Since his arrival in 2004, the Red Sox have the second highest winning percentage (.574) in all of baseball, they've reached the postseason in five of his eight seasons, eleven games over .500 in postseason play, and most importantly, two shiny trophies embossed with the words, World Series Champions. Is that not what you asked for? What you dreamt for? What you prayed for? The ability to manage the 'larger than life' clubhouse personalities of Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, and Curt Schilling. To deflect the criticism from fans and media alike on the play of such stars as Edgar Renteria, Daisuke Matsuzaka, J.D. Drew, John Lackey, and most recently Carl Crawford. A maestro of sorts bringing along the young talent of Kevin Youkilis, Jonathan Papelbon, Jacoby Ellsbury, and most notably, our 2008 American League M.V.P., Dustin Pedroia. Francona has managed to set the precedent in Boston for all managers who come after him. You don't have to be the player's manager who stands behind David Ortiz in the worst of slumps, who runs out veteran catcher Jason Varitek out of respect despite his inabilities at the plate, or even the manager who stood by Tim Wakefield during his brutal quest for win number 200 at age 45, but you have to win and win while managing everything that comes with what baseball is in boston today. Francona has done just that, and in the end he might have just become burnt out quicker than we had hoped for and expected.

Now, it's just different. The Red Sox haven't won a postseason game since 2008. Management has flooded the clubhouse with a laundry list of very well payed superstars from a $12 million dollar-a-year designated hitter to a $17 million dollar-a-year frontline ace who couldn't get it done in September. A clubhouse with entitled players with no hunger for another World Series. Things have changed in Boston, possibly for the better, but they've definately changed. When Francona came on board it was about bringing together players who wanted to bring this city and its fans what they'd longed for. It was about a veteran staff ace who had become a demigod in this city every five nights and wanted the validation of putting 'The Great Bambino' to rest. It was about bringing in a brash and sometimes arrogant clubhouse leader with a World Series ring on his resume to show a team how to win in the fall. It was about castoff players like Kevin Millar and Dave Roberts wanting nothing more than to win.

In 2007, when Francona would lead the Red Sox to yet another World Series, it was changing but very similar. It was about a 5-8 second baseman who was one way or another making a name for himself. It was about a closer with a personality and a hunger to win bigger than his ego. Today, it's far from any of that. The organization has begun awarding players like John Lackey and Carl Crawford for what they've done rather than what they will do. They've held on too long to players like Jason Varitek and I'll say it, David Ortiz. The days of brash moves like moving Nomar Garciaparra, refusing to pay Pedro Martinez, and parting ways with Manny Ramirez are gone. For Terry Francona, it may have just been all too much to handle, for too long.

First it was the awful start out of the gate, and it wrapped with the worst September since the Eisenhower administration. I'll refrain from everything in the middle and the rumours of clubhouse activities, it isn't necessary to rehash at this point. At the end, Francona didn't disappoint anyone despite what he may say, he fell on the sword for a franchise which believed in him eight seasons ago and which came to him on Thursday to ask him to take the fall for what they've become.

For that Tito, I applaud you my friend.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Decades of Futility; Be Gone

It's the easy story in the NFL this week, no? The Bills broke a 15-game losing streak against division rival New England, all the while improving to 3-0 on the season. The Lions beating Minnesota in The Metrodome for the first time since '97 and doing it in epic fashion none the less. Two franchises mired in inconsistency while down-and-out for years. Now, on Monday morning, things were finally looking up after an exciting Sunday afternoon for each.

The Detroit Lions have in every way possible come back from as far back as you can imagine. Forget the "we're so terrible, I'm retiring" move pulled-off by possibly the games greatest rusher ever, Barry Sanders (Lions RB '89-'98), and try to forget the seven plus seasons under the front office direction of Matt Millen, this team was 0-16 just three seasons ago in 2008?!?! Now, with budding superstar quarterback Matthew Stafford (drafted '09) finally healthy for the first time since his rookie season the Lions don't just look better, they look scary.

No one circles the . . . I'm not Berman, we're not doing this. The Buffalo Bills might just be doing it with the proverbial smoke 'n mirrors, but I'll take it and so will head coach Chan Gailey. The Bills have put up back-to-back weeks of monster second half comebacks to find themselves in unfamiliar undefeated territory. When every team around them was selecting a young quarterback ready to embark on their NFL career in this years NFL Draft, it was Gailey and the Bills who stuck with their twenty-eight year old signal caller, journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick. After their 34-31 victory over the Patriots and their swiss cheese secondary, it's paid off.

Now lets ask the real question here. Are we buying both the Lions and Bills? At 3-0, both teams have handled their business through three weeks and despite big deficits have come back to pull out thrilling victories.

The Lions found themselves in a 0-20 hole heading into halftime on Sunday afternoon, not a place where a young team looking to jump out of the gate looking really well would want to be. Then they flat out stormed back on Minnesota, like good teams do. Stafford went out and completed 32 passes, connecting with his future superstar tight end Brandon Pettigrew and arguably the best receiver in the NFL Calvin Johnson, eighteen times for two-hundred twenty yards and a pair of touchdowns for Johnson. Their nightmare of a defensive line led by Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch sacked Vikings quarterback Donovan McNabb four times and ate up a Minnesota offense that scored just three points the rest of the way. Their 26-23 comeback overtime victory against Minnesota was just the latest. The Lions have scored over 100 points in the first three weeks of the season, while allowing just 46 points per game. Here is the bottom line on the Lions; They've hit homeruns in three particular recent drafts with their first selections, that's a fact. The selection of wide receiver Calvin Johnson in 2007, a beast on the offensive side of the ball that is virtually impossible to cover. Matthew Stafford in 2009, a quarterback with a huge arm that is tough as nails. Ndamukong Suh in 2010, the most dominant young defensive player in the game today. This team is tough on defense and can execute on offense. Before their bye week on November 6th, you could be looking at a Lions team that has just one or two losses at most, they get the REAL tag.

I could hear it from Orchard Park, NY all the way to Worcester, MA on Sunday afternoon. Their victory against the Patriots had exercised a very many demons for Bills fans. Things were going there way at every possible moment. The tipped Brady passes for interceptions which were then returned for touchdowns. The pass interference call to put the ball virtually in the endzone. On the toe of veteran Bills kicker of eight seasons Rian Lindell, the Bills turned a three touchdown deficit into a 3-point victory and watched their fans celebrate the night away. The blowout against Kansas City was impressive in week one, the back-to-back final minute wins at home was awesome for Bills fans, but lets pump the brakes and I know you don't want to hear that. Kansas City obviously has real problems, in their first two games of the season they got outscored 89-10. Buffalo was fortunate to get Oakland coming off their Monday night opener in Denver and then having to fly across country to play the early game just five days later and were lucky to pull it out after going down 3-21 real quick. As for the Patriots, they've allowed a league high 1,131 yards after three weeks, they're the worst passing defense in the NFL. I really like what Fred Jackson (331 yards and three touchdowns) does on the ground and the leadership from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick who has proven to be very capable, but give it time. After Cincy this week, the Bills walk into a five week hornets nest, Eagles, Giants, 'Skins, Jets, and Cowboys. I've got them at 4-5 after nine weeks. You don't get the REAL tag, sorry.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sooners Stand Up

They even had head football coach at Oklahoma, Bob Stoops (extended through 2018), on board with a Big XII exit:

"No one wants to hear that, but life changes. If it changes, you have to change with it, to whatever degree."

Now they're playing their hand in Norman, Oklahoma and things are getting very serious. Over the last seventy-two hours the Sooners have decided to act and act with authority.

Monday; Both David Boren, University President at Oklahoma and Bill Powers, President of the University of Texas, cleared the way to make whatever move necessary for either a strengthening of the Big XII Conference or a dissolution of the same conference.

Tuesday; Bob Stoops was locked up through 2018 to the tune of $34.5 million dollars. After his Sooners went to Tallahassee and came out with a 23-13 victory over the Seminoles of Florida State and amongst the rumours of a major college football shake-up, the Oklahoma University Board of Regents made it clear that Stoops is their man long term.

Tuesday evening into Wednesday morning; The University of Oklahoma announced it's will seriously consider leaving the Big XII Conference unless drastic measures are taken by the conference to secure it's stability long term. Amidst the announcement of the PAC-12 determining further expansion is not in their immediate plans, the Sooners have decided to go strong in their demands which include but are not limited to:

(1) The termination of current Big XII commissioner Dan Beebe, a commissioner who has seen not only Colorado and Nebraska leave a year ago but also is responsible for the disaster that became the exit of Texas A&M just weeks ago.

(2) Reform of The Longhorn Network, the University of Texas' television deal with sports media giant ESPN that has caused many in the Big XII to cry unfair monetary gains between programs in the conference.

You wanted someone to save the conference? While the Sooners could quite possibly have a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback in Landry Jones and frontrunners to win the 2011 National Championship, their biggest victory might be saving the Big XII conference as it looked to crumble just days ago.

Boomer . . .Sooner.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

While you were sleeping . .

As reported from theACC.Com on Sunday morning - The Atlantic Coast Conference Council of Presidents has unanimously voted to accept the University of Pittsburgh and Syracuse University as new members.

The first reports of a rumoured Atlantic Coast Conference expansion came sometime early Saturday morning. Making their play for 'super conference' stature, the ACC university presidents moved quickly and efficiently and got it done in what seemed like twenty-four hours.

The writing-on-the-wall was made as the lot of university presidents agreed previously (Tuesday) to increase the conference buy-out for schools looking to defect from $12-$14 million dollars to a bottom line number of $20 million. By making it very expensive for an Atlantic Coast Conference school to defect, the ACC protected themselves from what Texas A & M and the Big XII Conference are experiencing right now. To take it one step further, they ensured that their twelve school conference would remain intact while they surveyed the landscape of college athletics.

As it pertains to the Orange and Panthers, a very inexpensive buy-out from the Big East of $5-million dollars made them perfect targets for a conference looking to expand north. Syracuse puts the ACC in New York and Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania making the conference's northern push somewhat complete with footprints in Maryland, Massachusetts, and now New York and Pennsylvania. Both schools represent both strong commitments to academics and athletics, especially in basketball as Pittsburgh and Syracuse are traditional powerhouses.

As the landscape of college athletics and college football specifically, evolves into unprecedented waters it seems as though the ACC will be in front for the time being. The (13) thirteenth & (14) fourteenth members to the Atlantic Coast Conference makes it the largest football conference unofficially. However, they aren't done yet. ACC Commissioner John Swofford has stated that the conference is extremely satisfied with their 14-team conference as he was with their 12-team conference, yet as the landscape changes the ACC will re-evaluate membership, leaving the door open for adding at the very least two more schools and making them a virtual 16 team 'super-conference.'

If anyone remains in the camp of leaving things as they are in college football, you should take Sunday morning's news as a sign that it just can't happen. With the SEC moving to 13-teams with the addition of Texas A & M earlier this month, and the PAC-12 consistently looking to expand and being mentioned in expansion rumours, everything is about to change. If it means the death of The Backyard Brawl, and the The Red River Rivalry, then so be it.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

From Bad to Good to Amazing

It was an exciting week one. A packed weekend with rookie sensation storming the NFL in Glendale, an amazing star-studded Sunday night on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in New York City, and capped off with a Monday night to remember from the games greatest, I'd say we have something to discuss.

The Bad

The way the 2011 Dallas Cowboys season kicked-off. After going 6-10 a season ago, the new-look Cowboys really needed to jump out of the gate well, and with minutes to go in their Sunday night season opener, it looked like they would do just that. A goal line fumble, blocked punt turned Jets touchdown, and a very untimely Romo interception later, the Cowboys were 0-1. No amount of Tony Romo support from owner Jerry Jones, second-year wideout Dez Bryant, or veteran linebacker Keith Brooking could give a Cowboy fan confidence on Monday morning. All due respect to Rob Ryan and the new look yet injury riddled Cowboy defense, it seems like same ole' Cowboys to me.

Whatever Kansas City tossed out on the field in the opener. Maybe the Buffalo Bills got better in the offseason, maybe Kansas City just wasn't ready yet, but whatever the case may be, there is no excuse for a 41-7 blowout loss in front of your home fans to open. Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel averaging a mere 3.3 yards per completion is awful. Running back Jamaal Charles following up his career year in 2010 with an opener that saw him rip twenty-two yards on one carry and then just 34-yards the remainder of the way is atrocious. Have I mentioned a secondary that made Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick look like the second coming of Fran Tarkenton? That all happened in Kansas City on Sunday and I'm guessing Arrowhead wasn't the nicest place to be once things started going down hill, after the national anthem.

A seven turnover performance from the Steelers. After an offseason wedding, I'm sure most people in Pittsburgh were relieved that Big Ben was no longer single. However, after fumbling the ball twice and throwing interceptions three other times, I'm sure single Ben would be welcomed back. Embarrassed on the road in Baltimore, against a division rival no less, Pittsburgh has got to be a wreck after that putrid 35-7 loss at the hands of the Ravens. Steeler fans I urge not to panic however, with Seattle, a Manning-less Colts, and Jacksonville all looming on the horizon, I'm sure you'll have plenty of time to work out the kinks.

The Good

The Aaron Rodgers v. Drew Brees show on Thursday night. Two Super Bowl winners, two likable teams, and two of the games most dynamic quarterbacks on center stage was exactly what the NFL called for and exactly what they got. Between Rodgers and Brees you got over seven-hundred yards passing and six touchdowns, how's that for fireworks on opening night? Both completed passes to at least six different receivers, neither threw an interception, and at different points in the game both quarterbacks elevated their teams to another level. Of course this game had to come down to the wire with the defending Super Bowl champion Packers coming out on top, but don't be surprised if we don't see this matchup come January. For Drew Brees and the Saints, you better hope it isn't on the frozen tundra.

How do you like Cam Newton now? I understand it was against a lackluster Cardinal secondary, I understand the Panthers didn't actually win, but when I told you back in April that he'd put people in the seats, well this is what I was talking about. In his first game as a professional, big-time Cam Newton put up monster numbers. Newton threw for 422 yards on thirty-seven completions. Cam threw through windows, he put the ball in the endzone, and excited the entire east coast. If you don't think Charlotte will be jam-packed with the defending champs coming in and Cam Newton coming off that start, you're crazy. Oh, and that was with just five weeks to prepare.

The Amazing

In other news, Patriot quarterback Tom Brady sh*ts pure gold. If you don't think Tom Brady saw what Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and Jay Cutler did this weekend and used that on Monday night, you're fooling yourself. It was laughable at one point. Brady torched a banged-up Dolphins secondary to the tune of four touchdown passes and 517-yards passing yards. Brady toyed with the Dolphin defense finding eight-different targets throughout Monday nights 38-24 passing clinic. He found open receivers when he wanted and where he wanted. He and second year tight-end Aaron Hernandez looked as though they'd been playing together for ten-years. Old favorites Wes Welker and Deion Branch caught a combined 15 passes for well over two-hundred yards including an end zone to end zone strike late in the game to put the nail in the proverbial coffin. I hope that served as notice to their division rival Jets and cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Darrelle Revis, who were both tormented at times against the Cowboys, Brady is not playing around this season, not with the Jets, not with the Colts, not with anyone.

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Big-Time Debuts

One of the best opening weekends I can remember, from the Horned Frogs and Bears to open the season to Maryland and Miami on Labor Day, the weekend did not dissappoint.

Let's get after it!

Send a card to Baylor & TCU, really. All due respect to the rest of a very exciting week one of college football, but Baylor set the bar very high. Combining for close to 100-points, Baylor's upset win 50-48 over last seasons Rose Bowl Champion Horned Frogs was the most electric game of the weekend. Up 47-23 headed into the fourth quarter, Baylor watched as TCU ran up 25 unanswered points and pulled ahead with just moments remaining before Baylor kicked the game winning field goal. Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin threw for five touchdown passes, close to 400 yards, and completed all but six of his passes. Having won twenty-five straight games, TCU had done so by stiffling defense and fantastic dominance. In four quarters against Baylor, TCU was not that team. Giving up 50 points, four shy of their total points given up on the road last season, TCU was stunned by a tough, hard nosed Baylor team. It's the type of game that was an instant classic and something you have to take the time to go watch!

Way to open Irish, way to open. I'll admit, I cheer against all things Brian Kelly and Notre Dame, but they've made it easy. The Irish most recent debacle in South Bend, a 20-23 loss to South Florida to open the 2011 season. This week, the Irish have already named a new starter for their upcoming trip to Ann Arbor, from Dayne Crist to Tommy Rees, but does it matter?!? Their scheduling is to blame front and center. Forget that they just don't recruit speed, forget that they're allowing Brian Kelly's game-day antics to be a story this week, they're behind the proverbial eight ball from jump. South Florida, a well-coached, up and coming program with every recruit whose first two choices were Florida and Florida State. At Michigan, the first game under the lights in The Big House in front of an amped up more than 100,000 Wolverine fans. Then against Michigan State, a team that traditionally plays them awfully tough. On the road to Pittsburgh to complete a very difficult first month of the season. Hey, Notre Dame, wake up please!?!? Who did Michigan warm up with? Western Michigan. Who did Alabama schedule week one? Kent State. How about Florida?!? Florida Atlantic. See where I'm going with this? If you want to be alive in January, do yourself a scheduling favor.

Controversy be damned, the LSU Tigers are for real. Beating up Oregon to open the season, 40-27 was exactly what head coach Les Miles had in mind. They capitalized on turnovers, displayed their raw speed, and jumped all over the Ducks tandom running attack of LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner allowing them to just a combined sixty-one yards. As it turned out, LSU didn't need embattled signal caller Jordan Jefferson, backup quarterback Jarrett Lee was conservative completing 10 of 22 with a touchdown and no interceptions. The LSU offense leaned on running backs Michael Ford and Spencer Ware when they needed to and let their opportunistic defense make plays. Next test for LSU is when they travel to Starkville and Mississippi State on Thursday night next week as they begin their SEC schedule.

Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank and the University of Maryland made a statement. The Terps were the only thing we were talking about after a long Labor Day weekend. In head coach Randy Edsall's debut, his Terrapins were all the rave Tuesday morning. A 32-24 victory over conference rival Miami was just the tip of the iceberg on Monday for Maryland. Sophomore quarterback Danny O'Brien lit up College Park throwing for 348 yards. Their defense forced Al Golden and Miami into four turnovers. Then there was Kevin Plank's jerseys which were all the buzz on Tuesday. The Maryland alum turned CEO of Under Armour displayed the wildest uniforms since the 70's Houston Astros, adorned with the Maryland State flag, the Terps rocked college football's weekend. Whether we liked 'em or not, they were the only thing on the slate yesterday, exactly what Plank and Maryland had hoped for. If the Terps can get their red zone play under control, not only will the Randy Edsall era continue its great start, but the Terps could make a play for the ACC. Has Maryland football arrived? Or are they still a basketball school with a football issue?!?

Three quarterbacks could take the season to battle it out for The Heisman. Yes, I know it's only one week. However, Boise State's Kellen Moore, Stanford's Andrew Luck, and Oklahoma's Landry Jones stood very, very tall this weekend. Jones completed 35 of 47 passes while shredding the Tulsa defense for nearly 400 yards passing. With two weeks in between the Sooners trip to Tallahassee and Florida State, expect Landry Jones to be plenty tuned up for the 'Noles. On the west coast, Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck flexed in his senior campaign opener by completing 65% of his passes, throwing for two touchdowns and rushing for another. But the front runner after this first weekend has to be Moore. In Boise's 35-21 win over Georgia it was Moore who led the way. His third year in a row with a season opening win over a BCS Conference opponent, Moore dissected the Dawgs defense completing all but six of his thirty-four passes. With these three contenders the Heisman race is going to be an arms race.

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