Thursday, March 30, 2006

NCAA Final Four Pick

There's an aura around this year's Men's NCAA basketball championship; a sea change that busted everyone's bracket. It's the year of the underdog. George Mason University, a Virginia school of mostly commuter students, fields a team of Washington-Baltimore area athletes good enough to be looked at, then passed over by major conference teams. George Mason put a major "whup ass" on every power team they faced. They weren't the only team to surprise, Bradley, Witchita State, West Virginia, Northwestern State all prevailed over better known programs. George Mason wasn't even ranked when they were selected for the playoffs. My hat's off to them for how well they've done. Something is fundamentally different in men's basketball.

In this climate, the safest, smartest thing to do is to just pick the underdog. So, I'm picking George Mason over Florida and LSU over UCLA this weekend. By this logic, George Mason will beat LSU in the finals. Every underdog has its day.

With the sorry state of US education, I suspect that few Americans have any idea that the original George Mason was the greatest Virginia Founding Father not to be elected president.
For more about this man, look here. His home, Gunston Hall, is located on the Potomac River a few miles south of Mount Vernon.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Free Agency: The Dust Settles

Most of the big free agency moves have occurred in the NFL (I'm waiting to hear where Lavar Arrington lands). There is a consensus among observers that the Cleveland Browns helped themselves most with their free agency moves. For some examples, look here and here and here. From a fantasy football perspective, Michael Fabiano at lists early pre-season ranking of footballers by position. Much as I respect Mr. Fabiano, these rankings are just fun little mind games to occupy you before the real season starts. They are not be taken seriously. The free agents haven't picked up a playbook, or run a play, or blocked, caught, run, tackled, or meshed with their new team. One thing that fifteen years of fantasy football has taught me is the folly of projecting next season's performance from last season's record, especially for players on new teams.

Master4caster's detailed pre-season assessment of NFC East teams will come after the draft. Here is a preliminary ranking of the East's best players by position.


  1. Donovan McNabb, Eagles - His return to health means return to form for this dynamic quarterback. His evolution to a pocket passer is a good thing despite the gripes of the local NAACP. But, where is his head? And why did so many of his teammates dis him in favor of Terrible Owens? Something's funny there!
  2. Drew Bledsoe, Cowboys - I had Mark Brunell penciled in this spot until the Cowboys signed Terrell Owens. TO changes everything for the Dallas offense. Only, Owens can both help this team and hurt them at the same time and in a big way.


  1. Tiki Barber, Giants - Eli Manning gets more press, but Barber is the sparkplug of the Giant offense.
  2. Clinton Portis, Redskins - Portis had a breakout year in the Redskins system in 2005 because the Skins finally committed to the run. Portis runs, blocks, catches passes and throws touchdown passes. If the new receivers force defensive safeties and linebackers into coverage and out of the box, Clinton can run for 1,600+ yards.


  1. Terrell Owens, Cowboys - He's a force of nature. He says he's learned from the past. We've heard that before.
  2. Santana Moss, Redskins - Santana is the NFL's best receiver named Moss. The Redskins presented an opportunity to break out and he grabbed it! The addition of Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle-El and the return of David Patten should provide more opportunity for Moss even as his numbers go down from 2005.


  1. Jeremy Shockey, Giants - Rough, tough, mean and a good target for Eli Manning
  2. TIE: Jason Witten, Cowboys & Chris Cooley, Redskins - Witten is the better blocker, as he should be. Cooley is an H-back who may line up in the backfield, in the slot or on the line. He is primarily a receiving threat whose numbers will be impacted by the presence of Randle-El and Lloyd.


  1. Mike Vanderjagt, Cowboys - Deadly accurate, except for his notable choke in the playoffs.
  2. Jay Feely, Giants


  1. TIE: John Runyan, Eagles, Jon Jansen, Redskins, Flozell Adams, Cowboys

Monday, March 20, 2006

Big Ten, Big Disappointment

Going into the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship, all the buzz was about the RPI and how that opened the door for an unusual number of mid-major schools to be selected for one of the sixty-four slots. Schools like Witchita State, George Mason and Air Force were selected while more "worthy" major league schools were denied. Results from this weekend points an accusing finger at the Big Ten as less worthy. Six Big Ten teams were selected for the tournament. None survived the first weekend.

In truth, 2005-06 was not a vintage year for men's basketball. Illinois was only ranked ninth in national polls going into the tournament. Big Ten Tournament champ Iowa was ranked twentieth. My beloved Spartans lost six of their last ten games prior to the NCAA tournament. But, no one predicted a complete wipeout for the conference that saw two if its members in last year's Final Four. I supposed that one of those teams, Illinois, would make it as far as a regional championship game. Nope.

MSU lost to George Mason in the first game and looked bad doing so. GMU out-shot, out-rebounded, out-muscled and out-hustled the Spartans, who did outperform the the Patriots in fouls committed and foul shots made.

Physical toughness, defensive dominance, rebounding and second shots are hallmarks of Tom Izzo teams. None were in evidence in the contest with George Mason in spite of Maurice Ager's 27 points. “We’re going to get back in the weight room to work on toughness and character,” Izzo said. “I promise we’ll be tougher and I promise we’ll get this program back to where we all want it.” Well, I hope so.

Round One:
Michigan State (22-12) lost to George Mason 75-65
Wisconsin (19-12) lost to Arizona 94-75
Iowa (25-9) lost to Northwestern State 64-63

Round Two:
Illinois (25-7) lost to Washington 67-64
Indiana (18-12) lost to Gonzaga 90-80
Ohio State (25-6) lost to Georgetown 70-52

The women may save the Big Ten's reputation. Five of its schools: Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue, Minnesota and Iowa, made the Women's NCAA Basketball Tournament. The Buckeyes are top seed in its region. The Spartans and Boilermakers are number four seed in their regions.

So, who takes the men's championship? I think one of the three worthy Big East teams, UConn, Georgetown, or Villanova, takes it all. Unless one of those pesky mid-major upstarts, Memphis, George Mason, Witchita State, upsets the apple cart.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Free Agency: The First Move Advantage

You can tell a lot about a team's priorities by their first few free agent moves and by their first three draft selections. The Redskins clearly saw wide receiver as their biggest hole and moved aggressively to fill it. The Cowboys plugged holes in their offensive line. The Giants gained and lost on the defensive front while the Eagles dithered.

Brandon Lloyd - The first move was to trade for a young, gifted Brandon Lloyd, the best receiver on a poor 49ers team. Since we are talking 49ers, I don't know how good Lloyd really is because the Niners are soooo bad. They are a perplexing team. Terrell Owens expressed frustration to the point of animosity with them. Lloyd was to be the next Owens, but then the 49ers sabotaged the effort by dumping Tim Rattay in favor of Alex Smith. Dumb move. Quarterbacks need seasoning. It's always a mistake to throw a rookie into a starting position in his first year. Rattay was yanked and traded before the midpoint of the season, making way for Smith who promptly showed how green he was. San Francisco's passing game suffered all season.

Joe Gibbs surprised us last season when he traded for Santana Moss. He and his coaches thought about the attributes they wanted in a receiver for his offense and watched a lot of tape to rank players who fit the bill. One must assume he followed that process with this pick-up of Lloyd.

David Patton expected to compete for the number one receiver last season, but struggled at number two. He did not get separation in coverage very often and only caught 22 passes before his injury. Still, he was enough of a threat to draw double coverage, which no receiver other than Moss could accomplish. Chris Cooley stepped up in the last five games, but that's not a role for the H-back. Although he played for a pitiful team, Lloyd is enough of a threat to draw double coverage and take pressure off Santana Moss. How effective he will be as a weapon depends on how well he picks up the Redskins playbook. I'm optimistic.

By trading for Lloyd, the Skins moved preemptively to take this talent off the market at the cost of a third round (2006) and fourth round (2007) draft choice. New York, Philadelphia and maybe Dallas all look to upgrade at wide receiver.

Antwaan Randle-El - The call must have gone out at 12:01:01 AM on the first day of free agency. The Skins signed Randel-El quick. The do anything receiver also visited the Bears, but turned down their $18 million offer. With Brandon Lloyd and Santana Moss, Randle-El gives the Skins small, swift receivers. It appears the offense scheme is to go for quick separation in coverage for darts from Mark Brunell. I don't see the Skins going for more than the occasional long ball. Possession and ball control on the ground and in the air is a Gibbs' hallmark. Lloyd and Randle-El appear to fit that mold.

Until this move, fans speculated on which receiver - singular - the Skins would grab. The Skins come up with two. I like it. I would not be surprised to see Taylor Jacobs go. I hope the Redskins find a way to keep James Thrash. He's a solid football player, but expendable with Randle-El who also excels on special teams. Moving preemptively on Randle-El and Lloyd keeps these players off the roster of other NFC East teams.

Lavar Arrington - Once upon a time, Lavar Arrington and Champ Bailey were the brightest stars of the recent Redskins. Now they shine elsewhere. Bailey is thriving with Denver. Arrington in on the hunt for a new team after a soured relationship with his position coach and a $6.5 million contract run-in with his former buddy, Daniel Snyder. The contract matter appears to be one of those misunderstandings where both sides felt they were in the right on principle. It got out of hand, but was settled prior to arbitration. Both sides are mum on the details, however, it seems Arrington did not get more than the original contract. Perhaps payments were accelerated to placcate him. (Meanwhile Arrington's agent was suspended two years by the NFL Players Association for mishandling the whole affair.)

Meanwhile, Arrington ran smack into the middle of a change in coaching philosophy. While offense gets the spotlight, the defense is the heart and soul of the Redskins. Only, in this defense, the system and its schemes, not the players, are paramount. Lavar made great plays and caused turnovers during his first three years. He missed most of 2004 with an injury that was more serious than anyone realized. In 2005 he regained neither his form nor his starting position, in part because of run ins with linebacker coach Dale Lindsey.

Like Patrick Ramsey, another short-timer, Arrington suffered with turnover in the coaching ranks during his six years here. Ever since the NFL went to free agency, change happens often. Flexibility and adaptability are as useful as athleticism. Lavar had a hard time adapting. He didn't quite grasp that, with this group of coaches, players are interchangeable parts. Where the philosophy is "everyone's a starter," there are no stars but the coaches. Now, his salary exceeds his value to the Redskins. He will be revalued downward during his free agency job search, handicapped by questions about his health and by the reputed aggression of his agents, the Poston brothers. I wish him well -- unless he signs with an NFC East team.

Other Moves - The Skins moved quickly to sign Christian Fauria to replace departed Robert Royal who signed with the Buffalo Bills. The Skins are rumored to be wooing Rams free agent safety Adam Archuleta, perhaps to fill a hole left by free agent Matt Bowen and Ryan Clark and the potential crator left by the outcome of Sean Taylor's trial this summer. They are also looking at San Francisco defensive end Andre Carter.

The Cowboys signed free agent guard Kyle Kosier and resigned center Andre Gurode, addressing their biggest offensive concern. Flozell Adams should return from his injury. The 'Boys were a better scoring team than the Skins last year, but were inconsistent after Adams was hurt. Like Mark Brunell, Dallas QB Drew Bledsoe is a classic pocket passer. He's savvy and deadly accurate when given time. He's also slow of foot, where Brunell is mobile in the pocket. So blocking is a real premium for this team. Kozier as starter is part of the answer, but Dallas also needs depth.

The Cowboys need a reliable kicker and may bid for Adam Vinitieri or Mitch Vanderjadt. Vanderjadt may be glad to leave the Colts after choking in the playoffs.

The Cowboys are said to be fueding with Keyshaun Johnson. He had a good year as their most reliable possession receiver. His departure would leave a hole with slim pickin's at free agent wide receivers.

The Giants are focusing on defense, especially in shoring up a sometimes porous secondary. They signed former Dolphins cornerback Sam Madison to a multiyear deal. The Giants lost defensive lineman Kendrick Clancy, who they expected to resign, to the Buffalo Bills. That'll ruin your day. Don't feel sorry for Giants' GM, Ernie Acorsi. He's one of the better football men and will adapt. Former Redskins, now Giants linebacker, Antonio Pierce is lobbying the team to pick up Lavar Arrington.

I think the Giants need a wide receiver to replace Amani Toomer who's on the downside of his great career. The Redskins locked up the two best available free agents, so I look for New York to spend an early draft choice on a receiver.

The Iggles hoped to sign center LeCharles Bentley, but Cleveland snatched that prospect right from under them. John Runyan, an Iggle stalwart on the o-line, is an unrestricted free agent. Reading between the lines, it is seems the Iggles are resigned to losing him.

The Iggles are being the Iggles, conservative bargain hunters. I admire their ability to build winning programs without blowing the top off the salary cap, but aggression is called for after last season's disaster. I expected Philadelphia to make a stronger push to replace Terrell Owens through free agency. I've heard NO rumors of an Iggles bid for Randle-El, or Reggie Wayne or any wide receiver. Are they really content to let second year man Reggie Brown be their deep threat? Are they going to get a running back who can, you know, run out of the backfield?

In an "oh yeah" move, the Iggles signed free agent linebacker Shawn Barber to a contract.

Speaking of TO, in a January piece, I predicted that Owens would remain with the Eagles in 2006. Two recent developments upset that forecast: Ricky Williams' failed drug test and the weakened disciplinary procedures in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

It was the Williams model that triggered my thoughts about Owens and the Iggles. Owens did nothing as damaging to Philadelphia as Williams did to the Dolphins in 2004. Yet, Miami found reasons to bring him back in 2005. Williams rehabilitated his reputation, left tape of his recent performance and resurrected his trade value for the Dolphins. His relapse shows the risk of signing a risky player. Bill Parcells famously said "you are what your record says you are." Owens' record includes personal behavior indicative of a narcissistic prima donna who will pout to the point of distraction. At some point in every season, for every team and every player, things won't go their way. What happens when that happens on Owens next team?

Which gets to the second development. The NFL Players Association gained through collective bargaining what they lost in Owens' arbitration hearing. Teams are now prohibited from deactivating a player for discipline for a season. Since the Eagles did that to Owens and made it stick, one suspected that would make Owens more "coachable," especially if he to returned to the Eagles -- say in return for a deal to trade him at the end of 2006. Now, that lever is gone. A team, especially the Iggles, should think twice about what they are taking on with Owens. For both these reasons, it's too risky now for Philadelphia to keep Owens. Poetic justice that TO could be negatively affected by the very contract provision intended to protect players in his situation.

Philadelphia must pay or release Owens by Wednesday, March 15. That will tell the tale.

the new CBA is a win-win-win for owners, players and fans, but the players won a bit more. They pushed to broaden the pool of revenue from which players are paid and pushed to get 60% of the enlarged pot. The owners resisted both moves, then fell to squabbling over revenue sharing. The final deal includes a larger revenue pot, more revenue sharing between large & small market clubs with 59.5% of the pot going to the players. That's six hundred million big ones that will go to the players in '06 and '07 instead of the teams. Even wealthy owners will gag on that.

The teams lost discipline leverage by negotiating away the right to deactivate a player, apparently without much of a fuss. That issue came to a head in the Terrell Owens scandal, with fans universally supporting Owens' dismissal. After winning the precedent through arbitration, it's gone, gone, gone. Some team, somewhere, sometime soon is going to be sorry.

Finally, either the league or the players association can terminate the agreement two years early upon written notice. What!!! Possibly, we are looking at a replay of the labor negotiations in 2008 and a strike in 2009. Remote possibilities to be sure, but real.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Good Bye, Kirby Puckett, and Thank You

Minnesota is a wonderful place to live, and it was my priviledge to live there eighteen years. Clean, family oriented, church going, honest, real salt of the earth type people. Onto this landscape strode a little sparkplug of a man who cast a giant shadow on the Minnesota sports world. Kirby Puckett, born in Chicago, was Minnesota's perfect hero.

Called to the Twins in 1984, Puckett gave Minnesota something the cheer for when there was little else. The Minnesota Vikings and University of Minnesota Golden Gophers were going nowhere. The Twins hadn't made noise since they won the Pennant in 1961 (and I hated that. To have the baseball team stolen from Washington and win a championship in their first year of their new city). Always optimistic, always with a beaming smile to go with his cannon of an arm, Puckett could and did field a ball in center field and throw someone out at home plate. With that went his ability to uncoil a long home run at the right time. His natural ability, unadorned by steroids, was only exceeded by his colossal enthusiasm.

Kirby Puckett was not just the best player on the Minnesota Twins. Puckett was the Minnesota Twins. He led the Twins to World Series championships in 1987 and 1991. It was my priviledge to see him play. I still have my Homer Hanky among my sports memorabilia. More than that, I have the impression of Puckett lifting his team past a storied rivalry with the Oakland As to get to the playoffs and lifting the spirits of Minnesota along the way. The Metrodome, the noise (89 decibels rivaling anything I heard at old RFK), the wins, the Twins. "At bat, KIRRRRR-BEEEEEEEE PUCKETT." Greatness was his mantle and championships were his thrones. The Twins World Series games were perfect excuses to socialize with customers. My customer declined most of my invitations. It got to the point where I stopped asking. But they did not turn down tickets to see the Twins in '87.

Puckett's career ended prematurely due to glaucoma, of all things. His private live was in turmoil, most of it not reported until after I left the area. He sought refuge in Phoenix, Arizona, for his health and for a new start. He was struck down by a stroke on Monday, March 6, 2006. Now, no one remembers the messy divorce, the girl friend, the questionable charge of assault (for which he was acquitted). They only remember the smile.

Thank you, Kirby.