The NFL has a real problem on its hands

In less than a week, the Giants and Cowboys will kick-off the 2012-2013 NFL season.  It’s going to be a great night where the Giants will get to celebrate last year’s Super Bowl victory and begin their quest for another.

With so much to look forward about Wednesday night’s kick-off, it is clouded by one huge problem.  The league announced yesterday that the season will begin with replacement officials and the longer this dispute with the real officials goes on, the bigger this problem becomes.

Anyone who has watched a preseason game has seen the struggles of the replacements and unfortunately there have been more screw-ups than correct calls.  I feel bad for replacement officials.  They’re doing the best they can and there are under a microscope. Any mistake is exacerbated by the fact that they are replacements and not the normal referees.

Unfortunately, there has been a lot of mistakes and when the games start counting, there’s simply no room for these errors.  Aside from the obvious fact that the replacements are less familiar with the rules and will make more mistakes than the regular refs, the pace of play is drastically different.

During one sequence in the Giants/Pats preseason finale on Wednesday, the game came to a screeching halt while the replacement officials were straightening out a Giants punt that was called back on a penalty.  Coaches, players and fans all became restless during the delay and while I admire the officials for wanting to get the call correct, the pace of the game is equally as important.  The NFL must not let the games become a mockery where the refs lose control of the game and players and coaches don’t respect the officials.

The integrity of the most popular and profitable sport in the country is being compromised.  Over 100 million people watch the Super Bowl.  With that much on the line, how is the league okay with letting replacement officials work in regular season games?

Every game in the NFL matters.  A game in September is just as important as a game in January.  10-6 and 9-7 is the difference between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs.  The league owes it to itself and its fans to employ the best referees possible, even if that means giving them more than they originally allocated.

I don’t think money can be described as a major issue for the NFL.  Don’t forget, we are talking about a league that has networks paying up to $3 billion dollars a year to broadcast games.

During last year’s lockout, I just always assumed that the issue would be resolved before real games got under way.  The NFL is too profitable and too popular to not have it’s season played out as perfectly as possible.  Even as it got close and ran into the start of training camps, I always knew the lockout would get resolved before any real games were missed.

I used to feel the same way about this officials dispute, but now it looks as if we are going to open the season with the replacements.  I just hope they don’t cost a team a win that alters the rest of the season.

2012 Fantasy Football: The Top 5

“I’ve got the best sleeper,” said every fantasy footballer at some point in the past 2 weeks. Every August, a skimming of a fantasy football article suddenly inflates everyone’s NFL-IQ to Mensa-levels.  This inevitably leads to a spike in intra-league shit talk (some of it funny and some wayyyy over the line). It’s fantastic because it all means one thing – the NFL is back.

You don’t realize how much you miss football until you find yourself cursing out a replacement ref for missing a holding call on a 4th string right tackle with three minutes left in a Bengals/Ravens preseason game (no rooting interest).  February to August is too long to go without the NFL. By the time camp starts, it feels like I found an ice cold Poland Spring bottle buried in the sand after a 100-mile trek through the Sahara. Over-indulgence is an understatement. So, with 10 days until the new season kicks off, who are the top-five fantasy players for 2012?

1. Aaron Rodgers (QB), Packers – Few players have the ability to single-handedly propel your team to the playoffs. Rodgers is one of them. In the last 2 seasons, Rodgers threw 73 TD and 17 INT (about a 4:1 ratio) and accumulated 8,565 yards. His completion percentage was over 68% last season and I don’t foresee any reason for him to slow down off that pace. If anything, his disappointing playoff loss to the Giants could ignite a fire and focus that yields an even better season. His undeniable talent and consistency make him option 1A for anyone trying to win a fantasy league this season.

2. LeSean McCoy (RB), Eagles – After back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, he’s entering his prime and will be the centerpiece of the offense. He had just 1 fumble last season and when the Eagles unleash him, they win plain and simple. In his career, McCoy has had at least 20 carries in just 8 games (5 last season) and Philly is 7-1 in those games. He’s also had at least 1 reception in every game of the last 2 seasons. It won’t take long for Andy Reid and company to realize that 25+ touches a game for McCoy correlates to wins, which means more fantasy points for you. (That in turn, of course leads to bragging rights over friends, hot girls, extreme wealth and general happiness).

3. Ray Rice (RB), Ravens – I love the way Ray Rice runs. He can barrel over defenders just as fast as he can juke around them. 1200+ yards for 3 straight seasons and a career-high 704 receiving yards to go along with 12 TD last season. In a league that is seeing more and more teams split carries between 2 backs, the Ravens give all of their carries to Rice – and they would be foolish not to.

4. Drew Brees (QB), Saints – Coming off a record setting season, Brees is a fantasy machine (5,476 yards and 46 TD last season). He has too many weapons and we all know how much they love to throw in that offense. Bounty-gate and being without Sean Payton hurts his stock a little but it has also created an “us against the world” mentality, giving Brees an extra motivation. The players on the offensive side are unchanged so I expect Brees’ numbers to continue to please
those that own him.

5. Calvin Johnson (WR), Lions – If you earn the nickname of a transformer and you play a contact sport, you’re probably a good candidate for a fantasy squad. 96 catches and 16 TD last season, 17.5 yards per catch and over 100 yards per game. The numbers speak for themselves but when you watch this physical specimen play, you know he is something special. Stafford has another year under his belt and they will continue to air it out in Detroit, meaning more catches, yards and touchdowns for Megatron.

Sleeper: Nick Toon (WR), Saints – No, I’m not talking about Doug, Rocko’s Modern Life or any other Nicktoons. This Nick Toon will appear on your television on Sunday afternoons and his ratings will be very high among fantasy owners. He’s a big, fast rookie with the ball skills to make a difference right away. It also doesn’t hurt that Drew Brees will be throwing him the ball. If a sleeper is someone who gives you 1st or 2nd round value but is drafted later, Toon is your uncle on the couch on Thanksgiving, about half hour after eating dinner.

The 2012 Mindset List is out

Every year Beloit College, a private liberal arts in Wisconsin,  releases The Mindset List.  The goal is for the list to remind instructors that the kids they are teaching (incoming class of 2016) see the world very differently than they do.  In a rapidly changing world, it is fun to take a step back and point out some of the major changes from year-to-year and generation to generation.

The intro to the list states: “For this generation of entering college students, born in 1994, Kurt Cobain, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Richard Nixon and John Wayne Gacy have always been dead.”  Kind of a downer to get started so here are some of my favorite entries from The Mindset List for the Class of 2016…

7.  Robert De Niro is thought of as Greg Focker’s long-suffering father-in-law, not as Vito Corleone or Jimmy Conway.

13.  They can’t picture people actually carrying luggage through airports rather than rolling it.

14.  There has always been football in Jacksonville but never in Los Angeles.

22.  The Real World has always stopped being polite and started getting real on MTV.

25.  They have lived in an era of instant stardom and self-proclaimed celebrities, famous for being famous.

35.  Probably the most tribal generation in history, they despise being separated from contact with their similar-aged friends.

41.  Good music programmers are rock stars to the women of this generation, just as guitar players were for their mothers.

68.  They watch television everywhere but on a television.

73.  Lou Gehrig’s record for most consecutive baseball games played has never stood in their lifetimes.

It doesn’t feel like things have changed that much but when you put specific things into a list, it really gives you some perspective and you begin to recognize the differences.  Suitcases without wheels does seem pretty preposterous and this generation wanting to maintain contact with its peers is a direct result of Facebook and other social media.  The music industry has seen a myriad of changes and the sports world continues to evolve.  I give credit to Beloit College and their thought-provoking exercise.  This annual list will continue to be more and more interesting as I get older and have specific memories of the today’s popular products/records/trends that will inevitably be outdated.

The King is Perfect

The first season in MLB history to see 3 perfect games is 2012.  You never know what you’re going to see when you attend a baseball game.  On August 15th in Seattle, Felix Hernandez treated the fans to perfection.  What an incredible performance.  Dominant doesn’t even begin to describe his performance on Wednesday.  He had all 5 of his pitches working to perfection, literally.

On the 27th batter, after retiring the first 26, Felix fell behind 2-0.  Instead of piping a fastball down the middle (like most pitchers do in that situation), he tossed a slider on the outside corner of the plate – swing and a miss, strike 1.  He followed that up with another breaking ball that catches the black on the outside corner – strike 2.  Now with the count at 2-2, he hurls a circle change-up on the inside corner – strike 3 looking – Perfect Game.  That history-making strikeout was a microcosm of his entire outing and it epitomized how perfect he was that day.  He could have put the ball wherever he wanted and he did just that on that final pitch.  Just like the game, that pitch was perfect.  Watch the final at bat below.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  There is a certain level excitement that builds around a perfect game/no-hitter that is unlike anything else in sports.  It starts around the 5th inning and everyone in the park begins to anticipate the history.  By the 9th inning, everyone is on their feet and there is an energy that you simply can’t find during a regular season game of any other sport.  People have argued that the perfect game/no-hitter is a “lightning in a bottle” type of accomplishment and is more luck than skill.  Anyone who holds this opinion should watch Felix’s performance and then try to tell me that it was a lucky accomplishment.

This has been a historic year for pitching.  3 perfect games and 3 no-hitters and I have thoroughly enjoyed each one.  If given the choice, I would watch a dominant pitching performance over an amazing hitting display every time.  While I appreciated Josh Hamilton’s 4 HR game earlier this season, there is something about a pitcher carving up an order that is a lot more entertaining to me.

Felix’s perfect game was the 23rd in MLB history and there have now been 6 perfect games since 2009.  He is the youngest pitcher to throw a perfect game since Mike Witt in 1984.  The Rays have now been no-hit 4 times since 2009.  For some perspective, no other team has been no-hit more than once during that span.

I’m grateful I got to witness Felix’s gem.  This has been a tremendous baseball season with some memorable moments and I know there will be more to come.  The 2nd wild card will provide do-or-die moments before the division series’ even get under way.  If there’s one thing that yesterday reiterated – it’s that baseball never disappoints.

For more on Felix’s perfecto, Jonah Keri wrote a fantastic article on Grantland that is worth a read.

Reflecting on the 2012 Mets and Looking ahead to 2013

This year didn’t quite reach the potential I thought it had back in June and early July.  Since the All-Star break the Mets have lost 22 of 31 games and fallen way out of playoff race, even with the addition of the 2nd wild card.

We over-achieved for the 1st half, which brought excitement to the fan base and proved how good of a manager we have in Terry Collins.  The starting pitching and 2-out clutch hitting were surprising strengths but injuries and the bullpen helped the team revert back to the mean.  Coming into this season, the storylines were dominated by the team’s financial problems and lack of recent success.  A fast start with a resurgent Wright, a healthy Johan and an upstart group that was never out of a game had me believing that this was the team that was going to prove everyone wrong and have a season to remember.  It didn’t turn out quite like that but this season was far from a failure.

Johan Santana gave Mets fans a night that they will never forget by throwing the franchise’s first no-hitter.  R.A Dickey is in the race for the NL Cy Young and has become one of the best sports stories of the year in the process.  Ike Davis struggled early but has come on strong of late and proved he is the power-hitting first-basemen the team thought they signed.  Tejada, Murphy, and a handful of young outfielders showed encouraging signs of life and they will only get better with age.  As we play out the rest of the 2012 season, Sandy and Terry are focused on getting a look at our young pitchers (Harvey, Wheeler and Familia) and building for 2013.

The pieces are there and the Mets have a good young nucleus of position players to build around.  But the team needs to ensure that both David Wright and R.A. Dickey sign  long-term deals if they are serious about being contenders for the next 5 years.  Wright is the face of the franchise and his comeback season has raised his value to a level the Mets might have a hard time paying for.  Wright will likely use Nationals 3B Ryan Zimmerman’s recent 7-year, $100M extension as a model but he could be worth even more.  No matter what Wright demands, the Mets need to pay him and ensure that he stays in New York.  It will be tough negotiating because David knows what he is worth on the open market, but he also has said he wants to remain a Met for the remainder of his career.  If the franchise lets it’s franchise player leave, I don’t know if the fan base will forgive them.

Dickey is an amazing story and his dominance in the middle of June (4 straight starts without allowing a run and 3 complete games) has not been seen in Queens since Doc Gooden.  His story and success gained national attention and more importantly, it seems as he has really come close to perfecting the knuckle ball, meaning he can be effective for another 5-7 years.  He became the ace of the staff this season and just as I can’t see the fan base letting ownership lose Wright, I can’t see them taking too kindly to losing Dickey either.

Both Wright and Dickey will be under contract in 2013 (the final year of both of their deals).  Wright has already been in talks about an extension but it looks like if anything is going to get done, it will happen in the offseason.  Sandy seems to be leading this team down the right path and I hope he continues that progress by making sure Wright and Dickey have long-term deals to remain in the Big Apple.

Final Thoughts on the London 2012 Games

The Olympics concluded on Sunday night with a futuristic, eye-catching and overall good-feeling closing ceremony.  It celebrated British music (including a Spice Girls reunion), used a clever stage that displayed the British flag from an aerial view and included a one-of-a kind pyrotechnics display.  Overall, the closing ceremonies solidified the opinion that London was a great host for the 2012 summer games.

I really enjoyed these Olympics and will remember specific moments.  I enjoyed learning about the individual athletes’ stories from Gabby Douglas’s journey to Iowa to Missy Franklin foregoing all sponsor opportunities to swim at college.  I also gained an appreciation for the infrequency of the event.  I felt I had to tune in because 4 years is a long time before this happens again – and the games delivered.  Finally, I appreciate how this is a truly global event.  It was a treat to learn about athletes from other countries along with the Americans.  The United States wins a lot of medals every year, but so many other countries do not and it’s especially thrilling to see the reactions when those countries get theirs.

In my opinion, NBC did a great job, despite the harsh criticism it faced.  It was not perfect but there’s so much to cover in such a short period of time and there’s only so many pre-produced packages you can prepare.  During those 17 days, things happen so fast and they were just trying to cover it all to the best of your ability.  I bet there are some things they want to do over – like the interview with a distraught Jordan Wieber.  But all things considered, I thought they did just about as good as you can do.

Frank Bruni, an op-ed contributer to the New York Times, summarized here exactly how I felt about the Olympics and what made them so enjoyable.  It’s worth a read and he’s a lot more eloquent than I could ever be on the subject.

There’s plenty of sports to keep my occupied until 2016, but I’m already looking forward to watching gymnastics, beach volleyball and swimming, and seeing new dreams achieved in Rio.

I’m Ready for some Football

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Tonight is the Giants preseason opener and I can’t wait for the football season to get underway.  We are the defending Super Bowl champs but so much has happened in the league this off-season that it feels like everyone forgot about the Giants thrilling win in February.  I certainly haven’t forgotten though and I’m ready to begin what is hopefully another championship season.  The season after our ’07 Super Bowl victory was superb until Plaxico shot himself in the leg (literally).    I’m hoping for bigger and better during this quest for a repeat.

Aside from the Giants, there are too many other compelling story lines around the league entering this season.  Everything from rookies replacing legends, legends changing teams, QB controversies, new head coaches, and polarizing wideouts in new places.  The Jets stole a lot of the off season headlines, which is completely fine by me.  I always preferred making headlines on the field.

Tonight is our first real look at the 2012 team, which has some notable changes from last year’s championship team.  The mainstays are unchanged though, including Eli, Bradshaw, Nicks (recovering from injury), Cruz, JPP, Osi and Coughlin.  We’re still 4 weeks away from the season opener against Dallas and this is just the beginning of the preseason, but I’m more than ready for some football!