Sunday, September 30, 2012

Replacement Ref: Venting and Vodka


Sitting  at a small table in a nearly empty, upscale Los Angeles bar one afternoon, a tall, middle-aged man put a raised finger to his lips in a gesture of silence. "Don't use my real name. Just refer to me as a replacement ref."

Mum's the word. Nobody will know your name, just that you're one of those infamous, hated replacement refs, one who's venting, fueled by shot after shot of vodka. Next to him his buddy, a professional gambler, sat very quietly and just listened.

"The whole experience, working all those games when the real refs were locked out, just tore me apart," said the ref, tackling his fourth vodka, or was it his fifth?

What did he hate most about the replacement experience?

"The way the players looked at us," he replied. "They thought we were clowns. They didn't respect us. We didn't control those games they way we should have. They knew that. Most of the time we didn't know what the hell we were doing.. Some of the guys were good but some were real bad. Some were in way over their heads. I admit. Sometimes I was overwhelmed.

"After a game, I'd look at a DVR of the game and I'd see I did this wrong and I did that wrong, that I missed this and I missed that. Here's what it was like. It's like the players were these fancy sports cars zooming around and the refs were in horse and buggies, trying to keep up. And we couldn't. We were always a step behind. I was stressed out, really stressed out. I was drinking more and  more. Ever try to referee a game with a hangover? It's brutal."

Time to slip in a most uncomfortable question, one that always lurked in the background during the replacement ref days. Where any of the games officiated by the replacements fixed?

"Don't go there," said the ref nervously. "I heard things....things. Don't go there. Don't go there."

Were those few months entirely awful?

"Are you kidding? I hated the experience but I loved it. It was a dream come true. I wasn't really equipped for it but it was the greatest experience of my life. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Waving his empty glass in the direction of the waitress, he said: "Another please." She looked quizzically at him. His buddy finally spoke: "Don't worry, I'm driving."

More venting. Then another question. What did he think of the Seattle-Green Bay game?

"When I saw that last play, how they screwed it up, I threw a plate at my TV screen. Broke the damn screen. At that moment, I knew it was over. I knew they'd end the lockout and get the real refs back ASAP. I knew my days as a replacement were over. It was a sad moment for me."

Suddenly angry at himself, he said: "I shouldn't be saying all this stuff. I shouldn't be ripping the guys I worked with. They're all saying nice things about the experience. They don't want any controversy.. Sometimes I talk too much. When I drink too much I talk too much."

But he kept on venting. Once in a while, though, he'd stop and ask, "What's my name?" Then he'd answer his own question, putting that raised finger to his lips.


Monday, September 24, 2012

NFL Games Fixed? Seattle Win Raises Questions

This Seattle win stinks, really stinks.

It's unnerving. Is the fix on in the NFL? Dig down and you may see something ugly--or smell something really foul.

On Monday night Seattle beat Green Bay on the last play of the game, in the Seahawks' stadium, turning what would have been a 12-7 Green Bay win into a 14-12 Seattle win.  This robbery, this bogus victory is a black-eye on the NFL, a questionable outcome that calls the integrity of the game into question.

Here's what happened. With eight seconds left in the game, the Seahawks were in desperation mode, trailing 12-7 on the Green Bay 24. All that was left was a Hail Mary pass which, of course, almost never works. Seattle rookie QB Russell Wilson threw up a prayer, which looked, with several  players jumping for the ball, like it was intercepted by Green Bay defender M.D. Jennings. But Seattle receiver Golden Tate had a hand on it. Replays showed that Jennings had the ball clutched to his chest, with Tate's hand in there somewhere. If you had to assign percentages, it was 85% Jennings' ball and 15% Tate's. Not only that, before getting involved in the catch, Tate had flagrantly pushed a Green Bay defender to get into position for the catch, a foul that wasn't called. One official even motioned that the pass was intercepted, but he was overruled. Tate was credited with a 24-yard TD pass. Game over. Seattle wins.

The officials had a chance to right the wrong. But after a replay review, they didn't overturn the TD call. Though the Green Bay team had left the field, they begrudgingly sent some defenders back so that Seattle could attempt an extra point and make the game official. In the TV booth, veteran NFL official Gerry Austin was livid, angrily charging that the refs had stolen the game from Green Bay.

There was a sense this tight, penalty-filled game was edging in Seattle's direction when, with 6:14  left in the fourth quarter, and Seattle, behind, facing an impossible situation, 1st and long  in their own territory. But they were bailed out by a 32-yard pass interference call against Green Bay's Sam Shields. Actually it should have been a penalty against Seattle's Sidney Rice, for mugging Shields. It was such an obvious horrible call, in Seattle's favor, that the announcers, who generally try to be neutral, boldly cried foul. Seattle, which might have had to punt, changing the tone of the game, was gift-wrapped a first-down in Green Bay territory.

Blame the ineptness of replacement officials? Maybe. But this reeks of  more than that.

In the shadowy world of sports gambling, you hear rumblings, among those in these circles, about attempts  being made to fix NFL games, to get officials to make calls to influence scores--mainly to effect the point spread, not wins or losses. Earlier this afternoon there was buzzing, in these circles, about how underdog Seattle would not only beat the three-point spread but win outright. Certain insiders were tipped to bet on Seattle.

What's different now is that replacement officials are vulnerable to the fix. The gamblers know that. corrupting veteran officials is tough. These guys have survived fix-attempts before and are inclined to stay clean. But these replacement officials are more likely to be lured by the quick buck.

Lurking behind this officials-lockout was always the fear that the replacement officials might succumb to corruption.There have been suspicions that some may already have turned down that dark street. Check out the evidence. Ridiculous calls in these first few weeks have tilted the spread of some games. But this Green Bay-Seattle game is the first to be openly and clearly decided by officiating.

Most will caution that the NFL game is still fix-free and the replacement officials are just incompetent. But the Seattle game smells. It's over the line. Even insiders are leery. Some high-rollers who were on the wrong side of this Green Bay-Seattle score are steaming. They were counting their victory dollars one moment,
and then preparing to pay back losses the next.

The team owners had better come to their senses and get rid of these replacements jerks. Something is rotten in the NFL and it's not just the replacement officials.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

How Cal Can Beat USC This Saturday

Can Cal, a whopping 16-point underdog, beat USC at the LA Coliseum this Saturday, a team it hasn't beaten since that famous triple-overtime win in Berkeley in 2003? Most certainly. A Bear victory is not the impossible dream it appeared to be before last Saturday.

Both teams lost by seven last Saturday on the road, but Cal's loss to Ohio State was uplifting, with the Bears dominating in the second half in Columbus and QB Zach Maynard playing the game of his career. USC, though, crumbled in a game it was supposed to win, exposing weaknesses a smart team can exploit.

What's the recipe for an improbable Cal win?

First of all, the Bears need to develop some swagger. Losers of eight in a row to USC, Cal is usually intimidated by the Trojans, playing scared and collapsing like wimps. Last week, in one of the toughest stadiums in the country for a visiting team, Cal outplayed a very good Ohio State team, especially in the second half. With some decent field-goal kicking, the Bears might have won. That moral victory could give the Bears a shot of confidence they need heading into a USC battle. Without swagger Cal is dead. This time, thanks to the Ohio State game, they just might have developed some swagger. They'll need it to counter  their tendency to play badly on the road.

Second, to beat USC, Cal needs a super, mistake-free game from QB Zach Maynard. In Columbus, he showed what he can do when playing at the top of his game--26 out of 37,  for 280 yards, one TD and one pick--on the final drive. Third, center Khaled Holmes must be on the bench, or playing hurt. USC's best O-lineman and arguably its best player, Holmes didn't play against Stanford. His replacement, freshman Cyrus Hobbi, was a doormat, providing little resistance to the bruising Stanford linemen. The pressure on QB Barkley, due to O-line failure, triggered the Stanford win.

Fourth, the Cal defense has to play the game of its life. Compared to Cal, Stanford has a better front-seven, particularly its line-backing corps, which is among the nation's finest. But Cal's D-line, playing smart, aggressive, fearless football, taking advantage of that weakness at center, can do damage to the Trojan offense, throwing Barkley off his game. If Holmes plays he'll be less than 100%. If Hobbi plays, Cal can whip him. Either way, Cal can use the center position as a gateway to slowing down Barkley.

Obstacles to a Cal victory: There are several. First of all, USC will be highly motivated and angry and desperate not to lose back-to-back conference games. Second, Maynard is inconsistent, rarely putting together back-to-back primo games. So after the excellence in Columbus, history says he's due for a stinker. Third, at Columbus, a huge factor in the Cal offense was its home-run threat, RB Brandon Bigelow. He caught the Buckeyes by surprise. SC, though, will be ready for him. Fourth, Cal is headed by an inferior coach, Jeff Tedford, who usually makes the wrong move in crucial situations. Fifth, USC has superior material.

Of course the best team doesn't always win. And rarely do 16-point underdogs win. But if the Bears turn ferocious and follow this recipe for victory, who knows?

Monday, September 17, 2012

USC Locker Room Mess

When USC tight end Randall Telfair admitted after the Stanford loss that the Trojans weren't prepared, he wasn't kidding. He made public something that had apparently been concerning insiders all week.

Two sources close to the team confide that many of the players have been inflicted with the swelled-head syndrome that comes from wallowing in gushing press hype. Apparently last week's practices weren't that intense, with players assuming that Stanford, without the great QB Andrew Luck, wasn't good enough to beat mighty USC and that the Trojan passing game would decimate that Cardinal secondary, which has three new starters.

The Holmes factor, say the sources, was a big factor in the loss. USC knew that center Khaled Holmes wasn't going to play and that his replacement was an inexperienced freshman. According to the sources, all the hype about QB Matt Barkley and WRs Marquise Lee and Robert Woods overshadows that fact that Holmes is clearly the team's MVP. He doesn't play, USC doesn't win. With him healthy, say the sources, the Trojans beat the Cardinal. It's partly mental. The confidence of Barkley and the rest of the O-line dips when Holmes doesn't play. Some of the players underestimated Luck-less Stanford and figured the Cardinal was a dead duck, even without Holmes.

The Trojans, say the sources, were lulled by the San Jose State game, which Stanford barely won, 20-17. Stanford QB Josh Nunes blundered badly in that game. But the Nunes who played against USC was different--many, many times better, his learning curve up sharply. The Cardinal wasn't ready for that Nunes.

One of the sources singled out the USC wide receivers as the most unfocused lot. Their heads, he noted, weren't totally into the practices. You could tell that in the game, particularly with Woods, who looked, at times, like he was in a daze, running poor routes. Lee wasn't much better.

Apparently there was much tension in the locker room all last week. Some veterans were trying to pump some sense into the unfocused players, but were not successful. So, after a lazy week of half-hearted practice and nasty intra-player tension, USC simply wasn't ready for the Cardindal, particularly for those tough, beefy linemen who gobbled up the Trojans. Freshman center Cyrus Hobbi, say the sources, was destroyed by the Stanford line, both mentally and physically.

Since the game, the sources report, the USC locker-room tension is even worse, with some players angry at the ones who were practicing last week at half speed.

The team is in a deep funk. The sources say Barkley, whose Heisman hopes have dimmed to a flicker, is furious with his teammates who, he feels, let him down. That attitude, of course, adds to the tension. The question is: can the Trojans spiral out of this darkness in time to prepare properly for the Cal game on Saturday?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Pac12 Football Preview--Four Games

No.2 USC (2-0) at No. 21 Stanford (2-0):  The Trojans have a big problem that's not getting much attention because of the way the team hides its injuries. Its best offensive lineman, center Khaled Holmes is banged up, nursing a bad ankle. If he plays he won't be 100%. If he doesn't play, that critical position will be manned by freshman Cyrus Hobbi. Either way, the O-line is weakened. That may hamper QB Matt Barkley, who heads a passing game that some NFL teams who love to have.

Stanford has a problem too. All-American QB Andrew Luck is in the NFL and his replacement, Josh Nunes, is green. No doubt USC's game plan will be to gang up on RB Stefan Taylor and ratchet up the pressure on Nunes to move the ball through the air.  If the O-line can protect Barkley, the Stanford secondary, burdened with three new starters, will be blistered by super WRs Marquise Lee and Robert Woods. There's another factor. After losing four of the last five to Stanford, USC is salivating for a win over the Cardinal. Stanford, which has two blah wins, should lose this one, mainly because, overall, the Trojans are better. But if USC has to play the freshman at center, bettors might pick home underdog Stanford to beat the 9-point spread.

Cal (1-1) at No.12 Ohio State (2-0): With a loss and and a shaky win over inferior teams at home, Cal is in deep trouble on the road--in Columbus of all places--with a defense that's riddled with problems. The Bears couldn't stop Nevada and gutsy, out-manned Southern Utah just ran out of gas in the fourth quarter. Ohio State has a weapon, exceptional dual-threat QB Braxton Miller, that makes the Bears shudder. He's the kind of QB, like those running the pistol at Nevada, that the Bears simply can't handle.

The only bright spot for Cal is that Ohio State, so far, hasn't had much of a pass rush. So QB Zach Maynard may have room to maneuver and get the ball to speedy WR Keenan Allen. But Cal will have trouble running against the Buckeyes' rugged front seven. Don't expect much from the Bears, a traditionally lousy road team. A win for Cal, a 17-point underdog, in Columbus, a black hole for any road team, is a long shot. So is beating that hefty spread.

Houston (0-2) at No.22 UCLA (2-0):  Here's the key point. Houston has a horrible defense which has crumbled against two bad teams and won't come close to stopping UCLA's high-powered offense, run by QB Brett Hundley and featuring RB Jonathan Franklin and TE Joseph Fauria. The Houston D is on a par with Rice's, which was savaged by the Bruins. But the UCLA defense is no rock either. Houston's offense will do some damage. In last week's 56-49 loss to La Tech, Houston's QB David Piland threw 77 passes, racking up 580 yards without a pick. He'll pile up passing yards against the Bruins too, but not enough for a victory. Expect a shoot-out, with UCLA topping 50 points. The favored Bruins should cover the 17-point spread.

Arizona State (2-0) at Missouri (1-1):  This may be the most interesting Pac12 game of the week. Arizona State, with new coach Todd Graham, is off to a great start, with routs of Northern Arizona and Illinois under its belt. But playing Missouri, which just jumped to the SEC, on the road is a different story. This is the Missouri team that, last week at home, played Georgia even for three quarters before losing.

Hot Sun Devils' QB Taylor Kelly, who's completed 77% of his passes without a turnover, may have trouble passing against a front seven that's much better than any they've faced so far. And corralling Missouri's marvelous dual-threat QB James Franklin will be a chore for the Arizona State defense. However, Missouri may be in a funk over last week's loss. Also, losing LT Elvis Fisher, maybe the team's best player, is bound to hurt. But just how good are the Sun Devils, who finished in a tailspin last season, anyway? Another point. Arizona State has never beaten an SEC team. The odds-makers say they're not as good as Missouri, a 6..5-point favorite. Smart bettors are staying away from this one. Too many unknowns.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Pac12 Football---Not So Bad After All

Based on preseason predictions, the Pac12 was supposed to be Oregon and USC up there on the Mountain Top, looking down on the ten inferior teams in the rest of the conference. .

But things have changed. One of the Mountain Top Two is a bit shaky. Also, the rest of the conference may not be so bad.

Up on that Mountain Top, Oregon still looks as strong as ever. With that super-speed offense, they can outscore anybody. But USC has a problem. Its defense, ragged and sloppy at times against two mediocre, non-conference teams, may, in a conference game or two, put the team in a hole that its superlative passing game can't dig them out of. USC is definitely vulnerable.

Pundits downgraded the rest of the conference as wimpy, charging that only Stanford and Utah were half decent. Those two, everyone thought, would fight it out for the No. 3 spot.


Stanford is 2-0, but an ugly 2-0, barely beating cream-puff San Jose State 20-17, and scoring 50 on Duke, which is like bullying a kitten. This early in the season, Utah is already in trouble. They lost to unimpressive, Mountain West arch-rival Utah State and also lost QB Jordan Wynn, who re-injured his bad left shoulder and decided to quit football. Without Wynn, the Utes have to rely on inexperienced senior Jon Hays. So the Utes aren't going anywhere.

The battle for the No. 3 spot in the Pac12  may be a four-way tussle, but between four surprise teams--UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State and Oregon State.

The third best team in the conference just might be UCLA, which has two victories, one a shocker over mighty Nebraska. It turns out that UCLA's offensive explosion against poor Rice was no fluke. What's propelling the Bruins is a revamped, pro-style offense, headed by RB Jonathan Franklin, who boasts a pair of 200-yard games, and freshman Brett Hundley, the team's best QB since Cade McNown back in the late 1990s.

Coach Jim Mora has transformed UCLA. Spread-offense guru Rich Rodriguez has done the same thing for Arizona, something, by the way, he couldn't do in his short stay at Michigan. Arizona is 2-0, including a 59-36 spanking of tough, Top 20 Oklahoma State, spurred by RB Ka'Deem Carey's 4TDs and QB
Matt Scott's 320 passing yards.

There was another notable Pac12 coaching debut. Under new head man Todd Graham, Arizona State, which opened with a 63-6 thrashing of Northern Arizona, topped that by destroying Illinois 45-14. The Sun Devils have found a suitable replacement for QB Brock Osweiler. Taylor Kelly completed 18 out of 24 for 249 yards.

Oregon State may be the biggest surprise, with a 10-7 win over Big Ten kingpin Wisconsin, which features Heisman trophy candidate Montee Ball. This is the same Beaver outfit that was ticketed for the conference cellar.

The rest of the Pac12 is not at all menacing. The Cal Bears, under the misdirection of coach Jeff Tedford, don't have much growl in them. After falling to a so-so Nevada team, they needed a fourth quarter rally to escape an embarrassing loss to lowly Southern Utah. With Ohio State and USC looming, Cal, guided by erratic QB Zach Maynard, is headed for a 1-4 hole.

The jury is still out on Washington, which was ground up by LSU. The verdict is in, though, on Washington State and Colorado. Both are just plain lousy.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Pac 12 Preview--UCLA vs. Nebraska

Easy, UCLA  fans, easy.

Remember who you beat 49-24, whose pitiful defense surrendered 643 yards. It was Rice. Last year they had arguably the worst defense in major college football. This year, as you'll see by season's end, it's pretty much the same, lame, matador outfit.

Yes it's a promising start, but it's simply too early to tell if the Bruins have flushed the Neuheisel out of their system. The biggest worry of the early Mora era is the O line, which trampled the Rice D line. That was the story of the game. The UCLA backfield was in heaven. With those monster holes and that airtight pass protection, the UCLA second string could have racked up ridiculous offense numbers. But Nebraska is a different story. It's not blessed with a killer, SEC-style defense, particularly since LB Lavonte David has graduated. But the Huskers aren't lightweights. QB Taylor Martinez is coming off a career-best, 5-TD pass, no-pick game, a 49-20 rout of  Southern Miss, a quality Conference USA team.

The Rice game was no more than a scrimmage, nothing to use as a guide to what's going to happen this season. The offense looked strong and so did the defense, in the second-half anyway. The D, which has pass-rush issues, even recorded six sacks. Nebraska is the real test. Aside from the Trojans (the Bruins luckily don't face Oregon) this may be the best team UCLA plays this season.  

Good news for UCLA. Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead is banged up, which should hurt their running game. Also, QB Martinez, who's been inconsistent, tends to follow good games with stinkers.

Heads out of the clouds, Bruin fans. Reality check. Nebraska should win. This is a young Bruin team, still learning a pro-style offense, with a questionable O line, headed by a redshirt freshman, Brett Hundley. Having them whip a perennial power which has a talented, dual-threat QB running the offense is a bit much to ask. A UCLA win possible but very unlikely. But if the Bruins can keep it close and not be stampeded, there's hope for at least a .500 season in the weak Pac12


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Cal Coach Jeff Tedford Must Go

It's time.Cal coach Jeff Tedford must go.

It was pretty clear last season that Tedford, with a blizzard of blunders--particularly in the loss to Texas in the Holiday Bowl, had lost it. But last Saturday it was never more obvious that Tedford had worn out his welcome. Cal lost 31-24 to a Nevada team that had no business beating the Bears in Berkeley on the day when the school was debuting its fancy, expensively remodeled stadium. Cal has more talent. Cal is a better team. So what happened? Why couldn't Cal win a game it should have won by 2-3 TDs? The answer is simple. Jeff Tedford is the problem.

After examining a disc of the game thoroughly, and rerunning many plays, what I saw, much to my disgust, was a badly coached team--a lot of talent wasted. Players looked listless and out of position. The defense was consistently fooled by Nevada's tricky pistol offense, something Cal should have working to decipher since spring practice. When Nevada was driving for the winning TD late in the fourth quarter, the Bears looked befuddled. It was like the old days, back in the 1990s, in the era of inept coach Tom Holmoe. Back then, when a team was driving against the Bears for a winning TD late in a game, you knew the Bears couldn't--and wouldn't--stop the attack. Against Nevada it was deja vu, that sick feeling, all over again.

Tedford's ace-in-the hole, at one time, was his skill at developing quarterbacks, his resume teeming with No.1 NFL picks like Trent Dilfer, David Carr, Joey Harrington and Kyle Bohler. But since Aaron Rodgers, his best student, left after the 2004 season, Tedford has come up with dud after dud at QB. Joe Ayoob? You gotta be kidding. A Division II talent that didn't belong in the Pac 10.  Nate Longshore? Kevin Riley? These were promising QBs but they were wildly inconsistent and never blossomed past the average level. Quality coaching would have helped. But they didn't get it.

The latest disaster at QB is Zach Maynard, who keeps making boneheaded decision after boneheaded decision. Excitable and error-prone, he's just modestly talented, a little guy with a pop-gun arm. Most of the QBs in the Pac12 are superior. Why couldn't the Bears come up with a better prospect? Why isn't Maynard playing at a higher level? Again, blame Tedford.

Though he, surprisingly, hasn't been able to come up with top-notch QB prospects, he has been a good recruiter at all the other positions. Cal has sent many players to the NFL, almost as many as USC. But has Tedford translated that talent into many 9-and-10-win seasons? Absolutely not.

This season is already shaping up as a lost cause. An ugly 1-4 start is looming. Assuming Cal can beat Saturday's Podunk U foe (Southern Utah), they have to face Ohio State and USC. If they can't beat Nevada in Berkeley what chance do they have against two traditional powers on the road? Looking like a lower-level Pac12 team, Cal is going to struggle to reach .500 and get to a bowl. 

Early last decade, when the Cal program was in the graveyard, coming off a 1-10 season in 2001, Tedford was the savior. In the middle of that decade, the program was still promising. But, since Cal missed out on climbing a notch to No. 1 in the polls in 2007, when a goof by novice QB Kevin Riley blew the Oregon State game, Cal has been on the decline. The Tedford of those early years has been MIA.

But AD Sandy Barbour is unlikely to do the right thing, which is to dump Tedford and bring in someone who can infuse some life into the program. Even if Cal finished under .500 this season, which is possible, Barbour probably wouldn't fire him.

So us Cal fans are probably stuck with this lousy coach for another season or two.