What do smart NFL teams do in and around draft day that naive, stupid teams don't do? They draft better players, of course, but it's not that simple. They don't "want it more" and will themselves into picking better players. The dregs of the league don't just forget what winning football teams look like and come away from the draft with three punters and a kicking tee. Matt Millen drafted Calvin Johnson. The Browns took Joe Thomas at the top of the first round. Dumb teams do brilliant things sometimes. And likewise, the teams we perceive to be among the league's smartest make plenty of mistakes on draft day. The Ravens traded up to grab Kyle Boller. The 49ers took Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers. Bill Belichick has drafted dozens of useless defensive backs over the past few years. This stuff happens.
Because they occasionally screw up, we know that it's not that the league's wise teams are privy to some super-secret scouting technique that the dumb ones can't pick up on. They don't see some tiny hitch on tape or have some perfect interview question that reveals everything about a player's future. And players don't come fully developed out of the college womb, either; they continue the growth and maturation process at the professional level, and it would be naive to pretend that the organization they end up in doesn't have a huge say in that. It's no accident that linebackers for the Steelers and defensive linemen on the Giants seem to develop more reliably than if those same players lined up for the Chargers or the Jaguars.
In case you just saw the trailer for Upside Down and found yourself suddenly back to square-one on your big screenplay idea, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
Wide receiver Wes Welker has left the New England Patriots, signing a two-year contract with the Denver Broncos. "I always hated Welker," said Northeastern sophomore and Patriots superfan Aaron Sullivan. "Just like I always hated Clemens, Vinatieri, Damon, Beckett, Ray Ray, Manny B, and Tom Brady." When asked why he hated Tom Brady, who never has left a Boston-based team to play for a rival, Sullivan responded, "Oh, guy thinks he's so great because he never left the Pats. Real Pats leave. Period."
The Miami Heat won their 20th consecutive game, beating the Philadelphia 76ers, 98-94, on the road. "Twenty in a row, that's a perfect game in Magic: The Gathering, am I right?" asked Heat forward Shane Battier after the game. "If only someone on this team would play with me. I have a sweet black/blue deck I want to try out. I tried to teach Chris Andersen how to play, but he kept folding up the cards and throwing them at me while yelling, 'Cacaw!' It was disappointing."
Kobe Bryant suffered an ankle injury while landing awkwardly on a late field goal attempt defended by Dahntay Jones, as the Los Angeles Lakers fell to the Hawks in Atlanta, 96-92. Bryant has been ruled out indefinitely with the injury, saying after the game, "Revenge isn't the sort of thing that has a timetable. Except for a 30-minute head start." When told of Bryant's statement half an hour later, Jones asked, "Wait, when did he say that?" before slipping on a loose piece of linoleum and bruising his knee.
With the rest of this off week between the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl, I'll be taking a look back at the playoffs (today) and the season at large (Thursday and Friday) before diving back into Super Bowl coverage next Monday. Today, I want to take a step back and look at how the reputation and perception of playoff participants have changed over the course of these past three weeks. That's right: It's time for a Playoff Stock Watch. Let's start with the players who have seen their stock skyrocket during January and work our way down to the players who've crashed and burned.
Ray Lewis has described many things as “awesome.” He dieted and exercised before this season and showed up to camp at his lightest weight in some 15 years: “It’s awesome,” he said, “I feel great.” Earlier this season he described Joe Flacco and the Ravens' much-improved offense as “awesome.” Last week, as he took a victory lap around the Ravens’ stadium one last time, he described it as “the most awesome thing you could ever ask for in any professional career.” After Baltimore’s twist-filled victory over Denver on Saturday, Lewis began doing that postgame proselytizing thing that’s common in such contexts. Maybe it’s the awareness that Lewis is nearing the end or maybe it was the delirium of the game, but there was something wildly moving and strange about his incantations. He said some cold-blooded shit about “weapons,” just as the tool that had been forged for his demise, Peyton Manning, walked up to hug him. Then his eyes got gone and serene as he admired his team’s mile-high handiwork: “Man … it’s just awesome,” he said, all blissful and blessed, clouds of mist surrounding his face, as though the Creator had taken a highlighter to him. There’ve been few players over the past decade as intense and absorbing as Lewis. For those of us who remember when “Ray Lewis weapons” turned up a different kind of search-engine result, there hasn’t been another athlete whose path to righteousness has felt so visceral and extreme.
In case you were busy trying to concoct a homemade flu vaccine out of common household spices, here's what you missed in sports last weekend.
The San Francisco 49ers, led by second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick beat the Green Bay Packers, 45-31, in San Francisco to advance to the NFC Championship game. Kaepernick and running back Frank Gore combined for 300 yards rushing against an overwhelmed Packers defense. When told this stat after the game, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said, "That's what it was! Run defense! I knew I was forgetting something. It was on my to-do list. I swear." McCarthy then pulled out a Palm Pilot, poked at it with a stylus for a couple of minutes, and then showed it to the gathered reporters. "Look, right here: 'Go over run defense.' It's always one thing you forget to do, am I right?"
The Seattle Seahawks rallied from 20 points down in the fourth quarter to dramatically cover the spread against the Atlanta Falcons, 28-30. Russell Wilson threw for 385 yards and ran for 60 more, accounting for three touchdowns in the cover. After the game, when asked about his team's success, Wilson fought back tears, saying, "We fought so hard; we left it all there. I'm just so proud of my whole team. It's hard to put into words what happened tonight. But I still aim to come out even stronger next time we play." The Seahawks will again go for the cover next September against an opponent yet to be determined.
Gabe’s still in Vegas and I’m here at the back of the World Famous Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard. Adam Eget is hovering around me, his tremulous right hand running through hair four days unshowered, his left hand steadying itself on my shoulder, his rheumy eyes looking somewhere at my shirt. There’s a guy up onstage and I think he’s saying some pretty important things because people are clapping a lot while exchanging sad and knowing nods.
“Why don’t you do a set?” Adam asks.
“Do a set. People will get a kick out of it. It’s a good crowd tonight.”
“Nobody wants to see me do a set.”
“Sure they do. Everybody loves you. You’re a legend here at the Comedy Store.”
“Tell your waitress. Maybe she’ll stop charging me four and a quarter for a Coca-Cola.”
“You’re still thinking about Vegas, aren’t you?”
“The hell I am!”
I stagger up from the table while thinking about slugging Eget one. Right in his big squidbilly head. A few years ago I woulda too, back when I was young. But now the world is young and I’m a fat old man. So instead, I shamble up to the stage and do my surefire bit about my answering machine. Nobody gets a kick out of it. The whole time I’m thinking about last Friday, when I was happy in the middle of the night, somewhere in the desert.
In part 1 of 2, Cousin Sal and Chad Millman join Bill to review the Week 17 action and look forward to the matchups on wild-card weekend. In part 2, Mike Lombardi offers his analysis of the NFL playoff matchups, and Joe House celebrates the Redskins' big win over the Cowboys.
To listen to this podcast, you can download it on iTunes here or go to the ESPN.com PodCenter for part 1 and part 2.
The modern NFL is a game of matchups. Since the salary cap and the spread of strategic concepts throughout the league prevent a team from dominating the way that the 1980s Niners or the early-'90s Cowboys did, just about every team in football has one or two weaknesses that can be exploited by a well-timed opponent. That doesn't necessarily mean that the team in question will lose to that otherwise-inferior opposition because the matchup is poor, just as a team with a weakness being exploited by the opponent can still win by pressing its advantage in other areas. But a team that's a bad fit for a specific superior opposition can have a higher chance of causing an upset if they find some weakness ready to be manipulated and attacked.
That is precisely where it pays to look at this year's upcoming playoffs. With three teams assured of at least one home playoff game in the AFC, and three teams guaranteed a playoff berth (with two guaranteed a likely home playoff game) in the NFC, it's useful to look ahead and identify the possible bad matchups for those teams. Obviously, a great team is always going to be the toughest matchup for another dominant squad, but I'm thinking more about the still-competing playoff contenders and whether there's a team that each member of the league's royalty would prefer were sitting out this January.
It's good to check in with the league's most relevant team statistics about once every four weeks. Four weeks isn't enough to dramatically shift things, but it's enough to see some change from (season) quarter to quarter and actually get a macro-level view into how teams and players are performing and changing. Of course, I haven't gone back and done this since Week 8, so today's look at the numbers is actually going to be with six weeks of gametime in the books. Are the Broncos still treating loose footballs like they're banana peels in Mario Kart? And have the Dolphins continued to press opposing field goal kickers into missed opportunities? Let's see what the numbers say. (Much of the data in this piece comes courtesy of ESPN Stats and Information.)
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports over the weekend.
A last-minute drive came up short when no. 3 Georgia opted not to spike the football inside the 10 and instead mistakenly completed a pass to the 5-yard line, allowing the clock to run out and giving no. 2 Alabama a 32-28 win in the SEC championship game and a spot in the BCS title game opposite Notre Dame. Georgia coach Mark Richt insisted that he kept trying to yell at his team to spike the ball, but that his vocal cords felt painfully constricted, while video footage of the Alabama sideline shows Nick Saban reaching across the field with one hand at that exact moment.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports over the weekend.
No. 13 Stanford stymied no. 2 Oregon's vaunted offense and all but ended the Ducks' national title hopes with a 17-14 overtime upset. In what can only be called a copycat crime, an enraged Oregon fan used pesticide in an attempt to poison the famous Stanford tree, and was undeterred when the tree kept yelling "I'm a person! I'm a mascot!"