In case you were busy investing heavily in Kyle Field grass futures, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday:
Justin Verlander threw a gem and Miguel Cabrera broke out of his slump with a two-run home run as the Detroit Tigers advanced to the ALCS with a 3-0 win over the Oakland Athletics. Earlier in the day things were not looking good. On a cartoon baseball field on a faraway planet, Mike Trout and a team of misfits made up of one male bunny, one attractive female bunny, a duck, a devil, a skunk, a hunter, a chicken, a pig, a cat, and Dan Aykroyd were down to their last at-bat in a baseball game with the fate of the world at stake. Their alien opponents, led by Pog, who had stolen Miguel Cabrera's essence, had surged to an early 66-run lead in the game. However, the plucky toons had battled back behind Trout's 16-for-16 game with 16 grand slams, along with an Aykroyd solo home run. The score was 66-65 with Trout at the plate, the bases loaded, Pog on the mound, a full count, and two outs. Trout called his shot to Pog, yelling, "I'm swinging for the fences," which caused the fences to briefly have cartoonishly bulging eyes. Pog smiled at Trout and reared back to throw; it was a looping breaking ball, exactly the pitch Trout had been sitting on. Trout winked and swung, but Pog had deviously thrown a spitball and it drooled all over his bat making him miss. "Strike three!" yelled the ump. Trout was crushed, the game was over, and Earth and Cabrera were doomed … Or were they?
Eli Manning's poor season continued as the quarterback threw three more interceptions and his New York Giants fell to 0-6 with a 27-21 loss to the Chicago Bears. "I don't ever lose confidence," Manning said after the game as his cell phone blared out "Rocky Top." "Sorry," he said as he muted it. "Someone's trying to get a hold of me. Asshole. Anyway, as I was saying, I don't ever lose confidence as—" but Manning was interrupted as his cell phone began to ring out "Rocky Top" again. "I'm so sorry guys," Manning said. "Some jerk set a personal ring on this phone, and I don't know how to change it." Manning then turned from the podium and saw a new incoming text message: "should I let the jags win? then you guys can be the best at being bad. pick up ur phone and let me kno brah. ciao, pey2kpounds."
There’s really no way around it — the 2011 Buccaneers were a mess. Tampa Bay finished with a 4-12 record, but the real worrisome part was how it was losing. The Bucs dropped their final 10 games, losing seven games by at least two touchdowns, four by at least three, and giving up at least 30 points in seven of the nine games following their Week 8 bye. The requisite firings took place — head coach Raheem Morris and the rest of his staff lost their jobs, and the Bucs were left to start over with former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano.
General manager Mark Dominik, however, was retained, and he spent the following offseason chasing down some of the bigger free-agent names to be had. Tampa Bay brought in one of the league’s best guards in Carl Nicks and handed wide receiver Vincent Jackson a five-year, $55 million contract in an effort to surround Josh Freeman with the high-grade weaponry needed to properly evaluate a potential Quarterback of the Future. Nicks actually missed a majority of the season with a torn plantar plate in his foot, but even without their true free-agent prize, the Bucs managed to finish 7-9 (with seven of those nine losses coming by just one score). They did so for two major reasons.
The first is a 2012 draft that was nothing short of excellent. Top-10 pick Mark Barron was solid if unspectacular at safety (a notably difficult position at which to make an early impact; also, Tampa’s added talent in the secondary this year should go a long way in his personal improvement), but it took no time for the Bucs’ next two selections to make an immediate impact. Doug Martin, for whom Tampa traded back into the first round, rushed for 1,454 yards as a rookie, and, maybe more impressively, the Muscle Hamster did it no matter who was blocking for him. Lavonte David, a linebacker from Nebraska whom the Bucs took in the second round, had 139 tackles — tied for the eighth-highest total in the league.
Few things betray Roger Goodell’s unquenchable thirst for power like the NFL’s efforts to be a constant fixture in the sports calendar. It’s not enough that football dominates Sundays (and Mondays, and now Thursdays) between September and February. Now it wants March (free agency) and April (a four-day, prime-time broadcast NFL draft), too. For all of the league’s efforts, though, May is still a lull in the churn of NFL news. Post-draft headlines are reserved for rookie contract signings and mandatory minicamps — not exactly Darrelle Revis trade chatter.
Last week, tossed in with talk of outdated NCAA rules and Nick Fairley’s craziness was a seemingly simple news bit about Sean Lee and Dez Bryant being "ready to go" for the Cowboys in 2013. The headline was a reminder (not about Bryant, really, who had his best season as a pro and played in all 16 games) that even though most of the official transactions are done for the offseason, there’s one area left where some teams are set to quietly improve — the back-from-injury, de facto free agent.
With free agency and the draft process revving up, there are plenty of questions for every NFL team. But for most, there's one issue that trumps the rest. This is the latest in a team-by-team look at the offseason tasks that just can't get botched.
The most fitting game of the 2012 Buccaneers season came in Week 2. Tampa Bay was visiting MetLife Stadium, where the Eli-era Giants have been known to give one or two away over the years, and it looked to be happening again. Early in the second half, the Bucs’ lead grew to 14 with a Connor Barth field goal, and the margin stayed that way until the final minute of the third quarter. That’s about when the wheels came off.
Eli Manning put together 21 unanswered points in less than 12 minutes, and when Tampa Bay did manage to tie things back up late, it took him less than 90 seconds to reclaim the lead and seal the win. There were games further down the schedule that better showed the promise for many of the young Bucs (Doug Martin had only 66 yards against New York), but none was a better way to understand their biggest shortcoming. Tampa Bay’s pass defense was a horror show.
In celebration of the NFL's release of the all-22 and end-zone film for the 2012 season, each week we'll be bringing you the best in offensive- and defensive-line play. For the winners of last week's Trenchie's, click here.
The John Hannah Award for General Road Grading
Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive line
Coming into the season, Tampa Bay’s offensive plan was clear. With Vincent Jackson, the Bucs added a new option on the outside for their young quarterback, but each of their other two major personnel decisions seemed like moves toward a more grounded attack. First, Tampa signed All Pro guard Carl Nicks away from New Orleans for $47.5 million — the hope being that the combination of Nicks and Pro Bowler Davin Joseph could replicate the Nicks–Jahri Evans tandem that gave the Saints the best guard combination in football. A month later, the Bucs traded back up into the first round to grab Boise State running back Doug Martin — a needed replacement for the ineffectual LaGarrette Blount. Nine weeks into the season, Tampa Bay has finally developed that devastating running game they envisioned this spring. It just hasn’t come about exactly as planned.
Joseph, lost in the preseason to a knee injury, won’t play a down this year. Nicks joined him on injured reserve last Tuesday following Martin’s breakout game against Minnesota. The thought was that, now missing its top two interior linemen, the Tampa running game would slow — both against Oakland and for the rest of the season. Then Doug Martin went and had one of the best rushing games in NFL history. The rookie’s 251 yards came on just 25 carries, and they came on a mix that seemed one part scheme, one part Doug Martin, and about three parts relentlessness.