Friday, October 24, 2014

Why the PAC 12 May Be Shut Out of The Playoff









Brace yourself, PAC 12 followers, for an unpleasant reality. There may not be a team from your conference in the post-season playoff. The big problem is the PAC 12's national image. It's covered with mud.

These days, experts predicting which teams will make the playoffs mention the PAC 12 only in passing. Oregon, the big PAC 12 hope, is lumped in with tarnished candidates like Oklahoma and Texas A&M. One-loss Michigan State, whipped soundly by Oregon early in the season, its getting more love as a potential final-four team.

What a bummer.

And this following all the preseason hype about this being the best PAC 12 season in years and that the conference is, top-to-bottom, one of the nation's best and, most significantly, that the PAC 12 is as good or better than the SEC. Turns out none of this is true.

Those PAC 12 teams that were supposed to be final-four challengers, like UCLA and Stanford, were exposed as fatally flawed. Stanford has a marvelous defense but is saddled with a lame offense. UCLA's defense is burdened with a lame leader, Jeff Ulbrich. After an impressive opening win over Fresno State, USC has been wildly inconsistent. Three one-loss teams--Arizona State, Arizona and Utah--aren't mentioned in playoff conversations. For good reason. All will lose at least one more game. Even if one magically slips by with just one loss, neither of these teams has a strong enough national reputation to get into the playoff. A two-loss SEC team has a better shot at making the final four.

Once again, Oregon, at 6-1, has the weight of the PAC 12 on its shoulders. It's the lone conference team with a shot at making the playoff and the only one that can hang with a top SEC team. The Ducks, however, are tarnished. Not too long ago, this team was reeling. A few weeks ago, if Oregon was in the SEC, they would have been eaten alive by the top half of that conference. A three-TD favorite to trash Arizona in Eugene on Oct.2, the Ducks, shockingly, lost 31-24. The Ducks weren't all that collapsed. The PAC 12's positive national image crashed too. It still hasn't recovered.

The Ducks are back, but their image needs a makeover. Oregon is the only PAC 12 team in the AP Top 10 but, at No.6, it's still shut out of the Top 5. All that Oregon needed to snap out of that slump was the return of left tackle Jake Fisher, the team's MVP. He was out for a few games and the offensive line became a disaster area. QB Marcus Mariota didn't look like a Heisman candidate because he was constantly running for his life. The offense sputtered dramatically. When Fisher came back, so did the offense, which looked like its old powerhouse self against UCLA and Washington.

But that brief Oregon slump left an impression, mainly outside the conference, that Oregon is weak and, by default, so is the conference. Oregon can't lose again. Even if it runs the table and beats California, Stanford, Utah, Colorado and Oregon State, that may not be enough to impress the final-four committee. Other one-loss teams, no doubt some from the SEC, may be more attractive.

Oregon isn't out of the woods yet. Even with its offensive line back in shape, Oregon could still lose a game, particularly to Stanford or to hated rival, Oregon State. A two-loss PAC 12 team simply wouldn't get into the playoff.

If the Ducks get shot down again, the PAC 12's hopes of making the playoff go down too.  





  

Friday, October 17, 2014

UCLA Defensive Coordinator Ulbrich On Hot Seat







UCLA's defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich is on the hot seat. His job is on the line because he got way out of line in the second quarter of the Oregon game last Saturday. He embarrassed himself and made his boss, head coach Jim Mora, look bad, like he wasn't in control of his staff.

Ulbrich got into an ugly sideline quarrel with Mora that played out on national TV and has received extensive media coverage. Oregon cruised down the field for an easy 21-yard screen-pass TD that put the Ducks up 15-3. They scored after a timeout when the Bruins were blitzing--the wrong call in that situation. Mora then complained to Ulbrich, who exploded. Then Oregon exploded for several TDs and ran away with the game.

Ulbrich's meltdown was totally unprofessional. It killed the Bruins. Unsettled by the coaches' public fight, the players' heads were taken out of the game. The Ducks went on a TD tear that put the game out of reach. This loss is largely on Ulbrich. His outburst murdered morale. Keeping up with a high-octane team like Oregon is impossible when your players aren't focusing on the game.

Mora was right. Ulbrich's call on that particular play was wrong. So were his calls on many other plays in the Oregon loss. Go back to the previous game, the loss to Utah, and you'll see Bruin defenders constantly in the wrong place. They blew the game in the fourth quarter partly because of Ulbrich's goofs. Those Utah blunders were probably fresh in Mora's mind when he watched the defense flounder in the second quarter of the Oregon game.

The problem is that Ulbrich, who was a 49ers' linebacker when Mora was running the San Francisco defense, is a lousy coordinator. He has little coaching experience, having been in charge of the Bruin linebackers for two years before taking over as defensive coordinator this season, his first time ever doing that job. It shows. His adjustments during games are usually inept. The Bruins are giving up nearly 29 points a game, about five more than last year. Their pass rush total in this pass-happy conference, just seven in six games, is pathetic. So is the run defense, which has been pounded for an average of 250 yards a game in the last two--against high-level PAC 12 competition. The talent is there, but the leadership isn't.
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According to sources close to several Bruin players, that sideline fight at the Rose Bowl is still reverberating in the Bruin locker room. There's tension between the coaches, which is felt by the players. The coaches, say the sources, have been sugar-coating it, trying to show the media that all is well and that there's no hangover from that verbal battle, but the players know different.

That public blow-up was brewing for a while, report the sources, since Mora and Ulbrich have been having disagreements over Ulbrich's coaching for a while. Mora, who's been defensive coordinator for the 49ers, knows good coaching calls when he sees them. He doesn't see them very often in Bruin games these days.

This Mora-Ulbrich problem has been a hot topic in the PAC 12 gossip-network, which is extensive. Come recruiting time, opposing teams are going to use the Mora-Ulbrich fight against UCLA, arguing to high-school stars that Westwood is a bad place for quality defensive players, that they won't get good coaching. It'll be hard for UCLA recruiters to counter that argument.

It's possible that the UCLA defense can improve and put up some solid stats, though that's unlikely with the tough part of the schedule---Stanford, Arizona, USC and Washington--is still ahead. The Cal game this Saturday won't be easy since the Bears have a potent pass offense that will be a chore to corral. Even if the Bruin defense does get better, the consensus will be that Mora took charge of it, so he'll get the credit. If the defense continues down the drain, Ulbrich will get the blame..

Ulbrich has become a liability. He has one foot out the door. When the season is over, most likely his tenure as Bruin assistant will be over too.







Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The PAC 12 Mess








What's the best football team in the PAC 12?

Most years, answering this question would be a cinch. You'd just pick a team from a small group that generally includes USC, UCLA, Oregon and Stanford. But this year the answer to that question is just as simple. It's--who the hell knows? Right now the PAC 12 is a mess, virtually unrecognizable, with the heavyweights turning into lightweights and vice versa. Ask ten people to pick the best PAC 12 team and you'd might get ten different answers.

Some would single out Arizona. At 5-0, it's the lone undefeated team in the conference, having leapfrogged from nowhere to No.10 in the AP poll, a record-shattering jump. That lofty ranking is mainly based on the Wildcats beating Oregon, then No. 2 in the polls, in Eugene. In addition, there was a bloodbath in the Top Ten, with many high-ranking teams tumbling, triggering a wholesale reshuffling, opening the door for a hot newcomer like Arizona. But, these days, beating Oregon is no big deal. Their offensive line, normally a strength, is a shambles and QB Marcus Mariota is banged up, more than he's letting on  Still, some would call Oregon the PAC 12's best. This, however, is a wobbly team that barely escaped a Washington State upset.

The other significant Wildcat victory is beating Cal, 49-45, via Hail Mary. That's Cal's lone loss. If Cal didn't lose that game on that fluke play, the Bears might be the PAC 12's undefeated darling and somewhere in the Top 25. But the fact that Cal is among the league leaders is further proof that the PAC 12 is one giant mess. Cal is a one-dimensional team, sporting an offense that's a scoring machine but saddled with a defense that, as usual, is among the worst in college football. In nipping WSU in Pullman Saturday night, the Cal defense was pounded for over 800 yards. Cal is a good team? Don't think so.

Is pre-season favorite Stanford, which has the best defense in the PAC 12, the league's top team? Not really. With close losses to SC and Notre Dame, Stanford has plummeted down the polls. Its problem is an offense that's allergic to the end zone. Stanford was wildly overrated. So was USC. After a blistering start, trashing Fresno State, the Trojans have faltered, first getting throttled by Boston College, a so-so ACC team. Then, last Saturday, the Trojans were blindsided by an Arizona State Hail Mary, pushing them out of the Top 25.

Speaking of overrated, what about UCLA, another pre-season favorite? Many were ready to crown them PAC 12 champs. That was before the roof fell in Saturday night, with a shocking home loss to heavy underdog Utah. Horrible coaching--both in calling plays and defensive sets--and miserable pass protection, buried the Bruins, whose nimble QB Brett Hundley was brutalized via ten sacks. Is this the best team in the PAC 12? No way.

Actually, the PAC 12 has no best team. Parity reigns. With the exception of awful Colorado, any PAC 12 team can beat any other team on any given Saturday. Suddenly second-tier teams are dangerous and perennial powerhouses are powder puffs. Nobody has a clue who's going to beat who.

This Saturday, visiting, unranked, shaky USC is favored to beat No.10 Arizona. That makes no sense. And check this out. Cal, projected to win no more than two games, has already won four and is favored to win a fifth, this Saturday, over Washington in Berkeley. Not only that, Cal tops the PAC 12 North division. Remember this is the Cal team with the unbelievably bad defense.

None of this makes any sense. But, these days, that's the PAC 12.








Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Defending 49ers' Coach Jim Harbaugh







Lately there's been a lot of damning accusations, from TV analysts like Deion Sanders and Trent Dilfer, that San Francisco 49ers' head coach Jim Harbaugh has lost the team and that the players don't want to play for him.

What a load of crap.

Critics claim there's a toxic atmosphere in the Niners' locker room. Not true. What's there is what's been there all along--a genuine dislike for Harbaugh. The players don't like him. They've never liked him. Sources close to three 49er players spell it out. Harbaugh, they insist, is a jerk, a real ass. The sources say he's insensitive and mule-like stubborn, abrasive, gruff, doesn't listen and is hard to talk to. And that's just for starters.

There's something about him that's more important. Harbaugh is a damn good coach, one of the top two or three in the NFL.

The players know that and respect him for his remarkable coaching skills. Sure, they bitch about him behind his back and wish he was a pleasant, affable, approachable guy rather than a surly brow-beater. But they haven't given up on him and continue to work hard, though grumbling and complaining all the while.

What's going on in the locker room is the negative effect of  Harbaugh's war with his bosses, general manager Trent Baalke and CEO Jed York. That conflict is eating away at Harbaugh, which is making him even more unpleasant. Those foul moods of his, which are pretty awful, have been even worse lately. There's more gloom than usual in the locker room. But people who don't know the Niners confuse that for a player revolt. That, however, is not what it is.

All this came about because the Niners' started 1-2. They trampled Dallas in the opener, but gave away games to inferior teams, Chicago and Arizona, causing some to speculate they were crumbling and that Harbaugh was losing control. But the Niners are struggling for four simple reasons:

First, QB Colin Kaepernick went on a turnover tear in the Bears' game and gift-wrapped them that win. Second, receiver Vernon Davis hasn't been healthy and his speed, which stretches defenses and adds a critical dimension to the offense, has been sorely missed. Third, the defense has been missing two fearsome players, pass rusher Aldon Smith and LB NaVarro Bowman, who aren't due back until later in the season. The lack of a consistent pass rush was a crucial factor in the Chicago and Arizona losses. Fourth, the offensive line, due to injuries, personnel shifts and Alex Boone's long holdout, has been underachieving. None of these problems are Harbaugh's fault.

With so many things wrong, the Niners still managed to beat the undefeated, offensive-minded Eagles Sunday, 26-21, improving their record to 2-2. Two special teams breakdowns and one idiotic Kaepernick INT gave the Eagles three easy TDs. Otherwise, the game would have been a Niner rout. The 49ers' defense thoroughly dominated the game. The Eagles never crossed into Niner territory until late in the game. It was one of the best defensive efforts by any team this season.When a defense is playing like that--focused, smart, with tip-top tackling--how can anyone contend the team is revolting against its head coach?

What's happening in the Niner locker room is what happens with a Harbaugh team after a few years. Players tire of him and do a lot of grumbling. When he left Stanford, where he coached before coming to San Francisco, those players, according to reports, were weary of him. Most Niner players are sick of him now, but that doesn't mean they don't want to play for him.

Players don't have to like coaches for those teams to be winners. Some of the best coaches have been unpleasant jerks with zero people-skills, guys like Vince Lombardi, Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Nick Saban and Bear Bryant. Like this elite crew, Harbaugh knows how to select personnel and use these players properly, how to set up offenses and defenses, how to make key decisions--like when to give up on QB Alex Smith and turn to Kaepernick.

If Harbaugh left the Niners' tomorrow, some mid-level or lowly NFL team would sign him instantly and improve dramatically in a season or two. Put Harbaugh in charge of lousy Jacksonville and they'd be a winner in two or three years. That's how good a coach he is.

The biggest threat to the Niners this season is the negative spillover from the caustic battle between Harbaugh and the front office, which is about money and personalities. If the team stumbles it won't be because the players quit on Harbaugh.








Sunday, September 21, 2014

Cal Fans Ripped By Arizona Dagger








Know the feeling of a dagger piercing your heart? You don't? Then, fortunately, you're not a die-hard Cal fan. We're used to that agony. Unfortunately, we re-acquainted ourselves with it Saturday night when Arizona, in Tuscon, shocked Cal, 49-45, on a 47-yard Hail Mary on the last play of the  game.

This wasn't just a plain old one-jab dagger. This was one of those twisting, thrusting jobs, meant to leave lingering pain. And man, does it hurt.

This wasn't just a loss. Cal fans are used to that. This one was a bonafide calamity.  This one ran the gamut, from extreme high to the depths of despair--all in one game. At the end of  the first half, Cal was leading 28-6, on the road yet, after piling up nearly 400 yards of total offense. Cal fans were humming "Happy Days Are Here Again." Maybe those two wins over crappy teams, Northwestern and Sacramento State,  meant something. Maybe the 2-0 record indicated this was actually a decent team. Maybe Sonny Dykes, who began his Cal head-coaching career last season with one measly win over a bad team, wasn't a bum after all. Maybe he'd turned the corner.

But in the second half, things went sour. Not right away though. In the third quarter, Cal scored only a field goal while Arizona countered with just one touchdown. That 31-13 Cal lead seemed safe. Panic wasn't in the picture.

But then, in the fourth quarter, the sky fell on Cal.  The Cal defense, which had smothered Arizona's AK-47-like passing game sprang leaks--big ones. The linebackers slowed down. The defensive line seemed mired in mud. The secondary players, who always seemed to be in the right place earlier, were constantly out of position. The Cal defense was locked into one scheme--chaos.

That crumbling defense gave up 36 points in the final quarter--five touchdowns and a field goal. How is that possible, you say? The answer, of course, is that it's Cal, and bungling, historically,  is what the Bears do best. Every time Arizona got the ball you knew they'd score. Cal couldn't keep up, scoring only two TDs in that last quarter. After that first half explosion, Arizona coaches figured out how to slow down the Cal offense, which totaled 573 yards, most in the first half. In the last quarter, the Cal defense, which gave up a total of 627 yards, was helpless.

But, when that final play began, as bad as the quarter had been, you figured the 45-43 Cal margin was safe. Even Cal couldn't blow that. Arizona was on the Cal 47 and only a successful Hail Mary could bring down the Bears. Defensing a Hail Mary is actually easy. The defense knows where the ball is going, so defenders just crowd around the goal line, avoid bumping any receivers and bat down the ball.

Want a crash course on how not to defend a Hail Mary? Just watch how Cal defenders botched that 47-yard pass from QB Anu Solomon to Austin Hill. I watched it again and again and still don't believe it.

So we're back to square one with the Bears. Dykes is a limited, offense-minded coach whose defenses are abysmal. Apparently that will be Cal's identity--score a lot but ultimately be outscored. The team fattened up on two out-of-conference patsies, but when the PAC 12 schedule started--with Arizona--Cal showed that, once again, it can't hang with the big boys.

Last season ended with the chant from angry Cal fans--fire Sonny Dykes. Let's hear it again. DOWN WITH DYKES. As long as he's in charge, the defense will sputter and Cal with stagger through the PAC 12.

Well, Cal fans, take my advice. Prepare yourselves for more of those damned daggers.








Friday, September 12, 2014

Why Roger Goodell Won't Be Fired






Making money vs. stamping out domestic abuse.

Which do you think is more important to the NFL? That's easy. The NFL is a money-making machine. It's all about the dollar. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is a master at money-making. He's helped turn the NFL into the nation's most successful sport. He's a hero to the 32 owners of league franchises. So all this talk about Goodell being canned on the heels of the domestic abuse scandal is just talk. Chances of Goodell being ousted are very slim. That, of course, doesn't mean he doesn't deserve to be fired.

When it comes to domestic abuse, the NFL has its head in the sand--and it's partly Goodell's fault.. The Ray Rice scandal wouldn't be a scandal if the NFL had been on top of things and recognized many months ago that domestic abuse is a hot-button issue. When Rice, a Baltimore Ravens RB, punched out his fiance, Janay Palmer (who's now his wife), in that elevator in an Atlantic City hotel last February, he should have immediately been suspended for at least six games. In addition, Goodell should have been all over the media right away, preaching against the horrors of domestic abuse and assuring us all that, in the NFL, there was zero tolerance for it.

Instead, the matter was handled with the kind of vision, delicacy, insight and dignity you'd expect from Curly of the Three Stooges. After the NFL dragged its feet for months, Goodell gave Rice a slap on the wrist, a mere two-game suspension. That sent a disturbing message. Based on a much more severe penalty handed out for minor drug abuse to Cleveland's Josh Gordon, it was clear that, to the NFL, smoking pot was worse than punching out a woman.

Then, early this week, TMZ released an ugly, graphic video--one few had seen--showing Rice knocking his fiance unconscious in that Atlantic City elevator. Outrage, once a rumble, mushroomed into a deafening roar this week. Goodell claimed he nor any NFL employees had ever seen the crucial video, but police officials say otherwise. Had he seen that video, Goodell protests, Rice would have been punished much more harshly. Rice, however, now swears he personally told Goodell he punched out his wife, meaning that the commissioner didn't really need to see the video to hand out a tougher penalty.

You can bet, in NFL management circles, there's a massive cover-up underway, designed to protect Goodell. That's just how big business does business when under fire. The league just launched an investigation, headed by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, to sort out this mess. But, according to insiders, he has ties to the league and certain owners, and is unlikely to report anything too damning. Heads, of course, will roll, but heads belonging to lesser people than the commissioner. Again, that's just how big business operates.

Frankly, Goodell is just too well-connected and too good at the NFL's number one priority--making money--to get the boot. Before this scandal dies down there's likely to be more revelations, some pretty nasty, that might make Goodell squirm.

He's walking a tightrope now, inching nervously along. Most likely though, he'll eventually tip-toe to safety








Thursday, September 4, 2014

PAC 12: Oregon and Stanford Will Win







Is USC really that good? Not really. Is Oregon really that good? Oh, yes. We'll find out more about both this weekend.

Prediction: SC should lose and Oregon should win.

No.14 USC will be tested Saturday in Palo Alto by No.13 Stanford. The Trojans aren't going to treat Stanford like they did Fresno State last week, winning easily, piling up over 700 yards of offense, buoyed by the flashy stats of QB Cody Kessler. You expect a high level of competition from FS. Well, not last Saturday. They were wretched. This was not the tough, relentless Fresno State we're used to. Their quarterback play was awful. Their big QB last season, Derek Carr, is now in the NFL, starting for the Raiders. Their defensive line was trampled by an SC offensive line anchored by freshmen. SC, under new coach Steve Sarkisian, has installed a warp-speed offense that you have to keep off the field, which FS couldn't do. They kept handing the ball back to SC and got overwhelmed.

Suddenly, in the LA area anyway, SC is the new Oregon, a team that's going to blow away any opposition. Wait a minute. They just won one game, beating a team that's relatively weak. Like SC, Stanford whipped a cream puff, UC Davis, 45-0 last week. So what? That means as much as the SC rout. The Trojans beat Fresno State because they have better players. Matched against Stanford, SC has no such advantage.

Favored by three at home, the Cardinal has the defense, bolstered by its usual strong core of linebackers, the experience, the team speed, the savvy QB play--from Kevin Hogan--to hang with SC. Stanford is used to high-speed offenses, having whipped those race-horse Oregon teams a few times with a grind-it-out style. Stanford QB Hogan isn't spectacular but he can efficiently manage a clock-eating offense that can slowly pile up first downs and keep that SC offense on the bench. Also, something else is working against SC. Both QB Kessler and super defensive lineman Leonard Williams are banged up. They'll play but won't be 100%.

SC has a lot to prove. But so does Michigan State, which has the weight of an entire conference, the Big Ten, on its shoulders. The Big Ten is regarded by some as soft and not worthy of a slot in the four-team championship playoff. Its best team, Ohio State, is much less formidable since losing its best player, QB Braxton Miller, for the season. Another of its elite, Wisconsin, was shot down by LSU last week. If Michigan State, the league's other top team, is wiped out by a powerhouse from another conference, like Oregon, the Big Ten might not recover.

So Michigan State, ranked No.7, has to go into Eugene and beat the No.3 team. Not likely. State has some first-rate players but it's not overflowing with them, like Oregon is. The odds makers don't think MS has much of a chance, making them 11.5-point underdogs. Both teams rolled to easy victories over patsies last week, so those games are no indication of anything. However Michigan State's junior QB Connor Cook is a bit shaky after a leg injury last week. But even when totally healthy he's no match for Oregon's Marcus Mariota, the best QB in the country. When Oregon's spread offense, executed by a horde of quality athletes, is working, it's unstoppable. What can slow it down is strong linebacker play. But the Spartans LBs are inexperienced and not especially high-caliber. Weak LB play could doom State. Looking at that unit on film, you can bet Mariota was licking his chops.

Look for the game to be closer than the odds-makers expect. But Oregon, feeling frisky at home, is likely to jump on the Spartans early and take control of the game by halftime.

After this game, fans throughout the Big Ten will be humming mournful versions of  the wait-til-next-year blues.







Friday, August 22, 2014

Why Johnny Manziel Is An NFL Bust So Far







Cleveland Browns' rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel, the team's heralded No. 1 pick, is a self-absorbed jerk. At least that's what some of his teammates are quietly saying.

None of them are going to publicly trash him. Teammates don't do that. But in the locker room some of them are griping to each other and, at times, to him about his silly, frat-boy behavior. Early this week, he gave the finger to the Redskins' bench--on national TV yet. Could  you see Peyton Manning or Tom Brady or Drew Brees doing something that idiotic?

Sources close to three Browns' players report that many guys on the team are livid with Manziel, don't support him, regard him as a lame leader, are embarrassed by his immature antics and hate that he's the face of the franchise. Can you blame them?

The Browns, among the NFL's have-nots forever, are dying to upgrade their image. They're eager to be known as a tough, dedicated, hard-working team. But now, thanks to Manziel, they're known as the playmates of an out-of-control playboy who'd rather be hanging out in Las Vegas than working on improving his game.

It's not his incessant partying that his teammates hate. Some players can romp in the club scene until early morning and still do their job efficiently on the field. In the old days, for example, quarterbacks like Joe Namath, Dan Pastorini and, in the real old days, Bobby Layne, managed to be playboys and good players at the same time.

Manziel, however, can't do both--not on the pro level anyway. At Texas A& M, as a party animal, he had no peer. In those days, put Manziel up against the most degenerate, slacking frat boys, and he'd win, hands down. Nicknamed Johnny Football, he was legendary. Some of his favorite bars in College Station, home of the A&M campus, boast plaques in his honor.
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But he could get away with that nonsense in college, even in the rugged SEC. At A&M he had a mountain of an offensive line, was familiar with his receivers and was working in a system he knew in his sleep. Also, he played against a lot of  linebackers and secondaries that couldn't keep up with him. He could get through a practice or even a game with a hangover. He could get by with a lazy effort. In college, he was that good. Remember, he won the Heisman as a freshman. But the NFL is a different ballgame. The game and the players are faster and he's learning a new system, so he's going to be, at times, indecisive. If Manziel were a mature guy, he'd put partying on hold and dedicate himself to fitting into this new system. But that's not what he's doing.

The Browns really need him. The players are desperate for a leader, for a QB to lead them out of the NFL darkness. Manziel has the skill set to do that. He could be the Browns' savior--if he put his mind to it. That's why his teammates are so angry at him. Right now, he's too much of a slacker and a lazy leader to be awarded the reins of the Cleveland offense.

First-year coach Mike Pettine is furious with Manziel too. These sources report the coach has been putting on a good front, appearing calm and level-headed when talking about Manziel's competition with Brian Hoyer for the first-string job. That's his media face. In the locker room, though, he's genuinely angry and extremely disappointed at Manziel. Pettine knows that if the rookie would dedicate himself to being a good pro QB, he'd be starting.

But Coach just named Hoyer, who's coming off a serious knee injury, to start in the opening game on Sept.7 against Pittsburgh. Face it--Hoyer is terrible. His mechanics suck, he's a mediocre passer, he's lousy at reading defenses, etc. He's looked horrible in the games so far. But he knows the system and the players have confidence in him.

As bad as Hoyer is, he's still, at this point anyway, a notch above Manziel, who's looked lost at times in practice and games because he's still learning. Manziel's pre-season numbers haven't been great. He was spotty (7 of 11 for 63 yards) in the Detroit loss and unimpressive ( 7 of 16 for 65 yards) when Cleveland dropped a close one to Washington. Still, he has shown flashes of brilliance as a runner and a passer. Occasionally he'll make a play that Hoyer could never make, that makes you see why he was nicknamed Johnny Football. Clearly, when Manziel figures out what he's supposed to do and gets comfortable in that system, he could be an effective starter.

Prediction: Manziel will take over as the starter after a few games because Hoyer will be so awful that even an unsure, unfocused, often ragged rookie like Manziel will look good.






Friday, August 8, 2014

Michael Sam's Rocky Road With The Rams






What's really going on in the St. Louis Rams' locker room re: rookie Michael Sam, the University of Missouri defensive end and 7th round draftee, who's the first openly gay player in the NFL?

The league would like you to believe that everything is warm and fuzzy and friendly in that locker room and that the players are getting along well with Sam.

Hah!

Scratch the surface and, according to two sources close to two Rams, many players are uncomfortable around Sam, are sniping about him privately, liberally using the f-word, and hoping he doesn't make the team. First of all, there are the homophobes, the hard-core anti-gays who flat out don't like being in the same locker room with gays. Guys like this will always be around and will make life miserable for guys like Sam. As you can imagine, the homophobes really hated seeing Sam kiss his boyfriend on TV and are appalled at his affinity for public affection. This anti-gay bunch, report the sources, is generating an undercurrent of tension in the locker room. They're not going to broadcast it, for fear of angering league officials, but many Rams wish Sam would go away..

Some of Sam's competitors--the other late-round draftees and marginal players--also aren't crazy about him. These are the guys desperate to make the team, desperate for a job. But all they have going for them is their skills. Sam, however, has more than that. A player drafted near the end of the final round should be hanging by a thread. But Sam isn't the typical seventh-rounder. And he's not hanging by a thread. He's a media darling, the face of the NFL gays. He's in a preferred position, but not because of his playing skills. When it's time for roster cuts, Sam will definitely have an edge. There's no denying that. If he was up against a player of equal skills for one roster spot, who do you think would get the spot?  To his competitors, he's playing the "gay" card and winning the pot. They think he has an unfair edge and resent him for that. That situation is creating a lot of locker-room tension.

Let's face it. The NFL doesn't want Sam to fail. It's bad public relations. If the league is perceived as a place that's not gay-friendly, that will be, among the general population, a black mark. Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL bigwigs don't want that to happen--and they'll make sure it doesn't. Sam will make the Rams or some other team. Goodell will make sure of that.

Of course, the commissioner says he stays out of such decisions. Don't believe that for a second. Remember that Sam, the SEC defensive player of  the year, wasn't even drafted. One problem is that this award is tainted. If you look closely, it was based on him running wild against bad teams. For the most part, the good SEC teams held him in check. He wasn't even the best DE on his own team--Kony Ealy was. Sam's big drawback is that he's a "tweener," too slow to be a demon pass-rusher and not fast enough for linebacker. He's not really a potential starter and teams didn't want to put up with all the media distractions for a so-so talent. That's why he fell to the bottom of the draft.

But do you really think Goodell was going to let Sam, perceived by most as a courageous good guy, go undrafted? That wouldn't have looked good for the NFL's image. The word around the league is that the commissioner's reps were working the phones in the seventh and final round to make sure Sam was drafted. Once again, Goodell's people will deny they had any part in that. But these are the same people who'll make sure that Sam is on some team when the season starts.

By the way, according to several league sources, there's another NFL group--the league's closeted gays-- that is uneasy and unhappy about all the media attention Sam is getting. These guys--some estimates say there are twenty or thirty of them--like being under the radar and prefer keeping their private lives private. Because of Sam, though, there's a spotlight on the NFL's gays now and the glare just might spread to these closeted gays. More tension.

Of course, there's a way Sam can make the tension go away and wipe out notions he's getting special assistance to stay in the league. The solution is for him to morph into a good, solid, dependable, humble NFL player. Hell, that way he might even win over a boneheaded homophobe or two.








Sunday, July 20, 2014

Why The Lakers Shouldn't Hire Byron Scott







Already in deep decline due to some stupid moves, the LA Lakers are about to make another monumental blunder--hiring Byron Scott as head coach.

After several interviews, Scott is the leading candidate, boasting  the support of two iconic, influential Lakers--Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant. Johnson played with Scott during the Showtime era, while Bryant has fond memories of Scott as a mentor during his rookie season.

But there are plenty of reasons the Lakers should look elsewhere for a head coach.

First of all, check Scott's record. After nearly 1000 games as head coach, he has a crappy 44% win percentage. In eleven seasons, he guided teams to the playoffs only four times. And what about the fact that he was unemployed all last season and no one hired him? If he's such a good coach, why didn't other teams come after him? Could it be that he's not such a great coach?

Scott has had three head coaching jobs--New Jersey Nets (2000-2004), the Charlotte Hornets (2004-2009) and the Cleveland Cavaliers (2010-2013). All ended badly. The Nets and Hornets didn't even wait until the end of the season to dump him. Charlotte, where he had been named Coach of the Year in 2008, kicked him out just nine games into the 2009 season. The Nets and Hornets players were fed up with Scott, leaving management no choice but to get rid of him.

Things were even worse in Cleveland. All three of his seasons were disasters. Stumbling along with awful defenses, with teams that were barely NBA caliber, he never won more than 24 games. Though he didn't have top-notch talent to work with, he could have gotten more production out of those players.

NBA players aren't crazy about Scott. According to several sources, when you talk to players around the league, off the record, they'll give you the lowdown on Scott. And it's not pretty. Most brand him as an egomaniac who lets his ego get in the way of decisions. Some players also damn him as notoriously stubborn, which has hurt his teams and turned players against him. Also, they don't like his coaching style. He's an abrasive, surly type whose harsh handling of players wears thin after a few years. As a result of those mental beat-downs, players stop listening and tune him out. In New Jersey, a player uprising, led by Jason Kidd, ran Scott out of town.

As a tactician, Scott is questionable. Though his New Jersey teams were strong defensively his status as a defensive strategist was severely tarnished by his miserable years in Cleveland. As an offensive coach he's always been considered sub par. Ask around the league about Scott in this capacity and you hear the same criticisms over and over--his schemes are ridiculously predictable and are totally lacking in imagination and creativity. His deficiencies in this area got him booted out of Charlotte. The Hornet players hated his offense and deplored his abilities to map game-plans and make in-game adjustments. Sources report that those players griped that Scott made the wrong decisions about who to play and when to play them. In short, they had little confidence in his coaching skills.

And another thing. The shining star on his resume--coaching the Nets to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003--is tainted. The Eastern Conference was truly awful then, as bad as it is now, so topping that division wasn't a big deal. In both Finals, the Nets, clearly inferior, were trashed by the Western team.

After that fiasco in Cleveland, many wondered if Scott would ever get another coaching job. There's surprise in NBA circles that he's being considered for a plum job like the Lakers' head-coaching gig since he's not considered a top coach. The Lakers need a smart leader to guide their rebuilding years. That ain't Scott. Laker management may be looking at the turnarounds in New Jersey and Charlotte, for which Scott gets credit. But in both cases, great point guards--Kidd in New Jersey and Chris Paul in Charlotte--were as important as Scott.

At best Scott is a passable coach. The Lakers, one of the top franchises in all of sports, deserve better. They took a few steps down in hiring Mike D'Antoni. They finally came to their senses and sent him packing. And now they're going to hire Scott? Can't they see that is nothing but another step down?

One question. If Phil Jackson were, as he should be, guiding Laker management decisions or at least having a say in them, do you think Scott would be anywhere near the head coaching job? Of course not.

Don't you get the uncomfortable feeling that the inmates are running the asylum?