Monday, January 30, 2012

Concept of "All Star" Games Needs Review

As a child raised on baseball, there was nothing quite like watching the All Star game. I vividly remember Fred Lynn's grand slam at Comiskey Park helping the American League beat the National League in 1983, and being a Cubs fan at the time, was crushed because my league lost the game.

30 years later, I am wondering if we still need All Star games in any of the major sports.

Don't get me wrong, I think the players enjoy the recognition, but do we really need the games? In all honesty, I have played in Thanksgiving Day football games with my family that had more defense in them than Sunday's Pro Bowl, or NHL All Star game for that matter. The players on the field, or even the ice, are doing all they can to avoid injury, which is the right thing for them to do. Calling the product on the field "football", or even "hockey"? Well, that's just not right.

I'm not dogging the players at all. They earned their trips to these games, and represented themselves and their teams. What got me, however, was the booing I heard at the Pro Bowl. The ticket buying fan HAS to know that what they are about to witness in Hawaii, is nothing more than a padded practice, ruin at 3/4 speed at best. You HAVE to know that going in. If you are expecting to see full speed, play-with-your-heart-on-your-sleeve football, you need to save the airfare to Hawaii, and track down Super Bowl tickets. I want to be sympathetic to the fans, but I can't in this case. You have to know what you are getting into. Worst case, you are in Hawaii, so there is that.

Didn't realize this on Sunday, but this was the last Pro Bowl contracted for Hawaii. The league gave Hawaii a 2-year deal after their experiment to move the game to the host city of the Super Bowl, an experiment that failed miserably. The 2013 game location is up in the air (as of this morning), which brings me to this: End the Pro Bowl now.

The NFL can still hand out Pro Bowl roster bonuses to players who earned them, heck they can even send them all to Hawaii for a week long trip. If you ditch the game itself, you don't incur the wrath of unhappy fans who dropped big dollars to watch the NFL's best players, except for those that are playing in the Super Bowl the following week, and other players who skip the game due to injury. Or any other reason.

The players want to go to Hawaii, but they don't want to get hurt in the game. Hence, the Matador-like defense that gets played. I don't blame them one bit. Football is not a game that is played at half speed, and yet, that's what they were doing, they were going half speed. We all know why. Question is, why even bother then?

Of course, Hawaii stands to lose far more in this. It comes down to economy, and if the game moves, or doesn't get played at all, the revenue generated by the tourists for the game I am not rooting for that, but perhaps the time has come to make the game more interesting, while not endangering the players in a meaningless exhibition. Problem with that, though, is that there isn't a way to make it more interesting without endangering the players.

As for the NHL All Star game, it's about showcasing the offensive skills of the players, and there are many great ones on the ice. There were no boos coming from the stands in Ottawa, and the same was said about Raleigh the year before. Those fans knew they were in for 60 minutes of soft defense, perhaps some dazzling goaltending, but most of all, they were going to see pretty passes that led to easy goals. Worst job to have at the NHL All Star game? Goaltender.

As for the NBA and MLB All Star games, only baseball seems to have a game that is somewhat competitive, but there is no doubt the pitchers have the advantage, since rarely does a pitcher have to throw more than one inning. The NBA game has the same defensive problems as the NHL does.

Basically, we as fans simply have to accept that these showcase games aren't designed to be competitive, but simply as entertainment.

That being said, Cam Newton's performance is not a big deal. 186 yards, 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions means nothing, and has no bearing on the upcoming season. Because exhibition anything is meaningless.

Mike Solarte

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

People, please. Get a grip.

I won't sit here and tell anyone to avoid social media. I have a Twitter account of my own, and contribute to the Sports Night account as well. There is a lesson to be learned in social media, and it comes to us from Sunday's NFC Championship game.

New York beat San Francisco in overtime to earn a spot in Super Bowl XLVI, thanks to a Lawrence Tynes fields goal. The Giants capitalized on a 49ers turnover from Kyle Williams on a punt return.

Williams, for some background, is a 2nd year pro, and the son of Chicago White Sox General Manager Kenny Williams. He's been around professional sports for a long time, and knows the ins and outs of being the hero or the goat.

The overtime fumble was his second turnover in the game, having seen another punt bounce off of his knee, and the Giants recover the loose ball. It should also be pointed out that Ted Ginn, Jr., the normal punt returner for the 49ers was out with an injury, putting Williams in the lineup.

The question I have for you, the reader is this. Is a fumbled punt in an overtime of a football game justification for rushing to your computer or mobile device and start typing a death wish to the player?

If you answered yes to that question, please close this browser, and seek help. I'll wait for you to get back.

If you answered no, thanks.

Think back to ESPN's pre-NFL Draft coverage last year. Herman Edwards, NFL analyst and former Head Coach, gave his "talk" to the incoming class of rookies, and he touched on social media. I'm paraphrasing here, but it boiled down to "once you press send, it's out there for the world to see." That kind of advice was sorely needed by the alleged "fan" that wrote to Williams and wished that he, his wife, and family would die because they deserved it.

We have to remember that while we are passionate about the games and teams we love, they are just games. In the big scheme of things, the box scores don't cure illness, fix the economy, provide jobs, end wars or starvation. They are games played on fields, or inside stadiums and arenas.

Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas chose to not attend the White House ceremony honoring the 2011 Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. Thomas went to his Facebook page, and posted his reasons for not attending, boiling it down to his disagreement with the Obama administration and its policies. His choice not to attend for his own reasons. The American-born goalie has that right.

The social media tie-in here again is clear-once you press send, it's out there. It's up to the athletes to stand by their statements, and for fans to respect their views, while still always remembering, it's just a game.

Mike Solarte

Monday, January 16, 2012

And then there were three?

Why yes, there are just three meaningful football games left on the schedule in the NFL. Think back to the "Offseason of Discontent," and given that there was so much angst about a season possibly being missed, the 2011 season produced plenty of highs and lows to go around. Personally, I am sad there are just 3 games worth watching left. Let's look at them, shall we?

NFC - NY Giants at San Francisco

This should be a dynamite game. The Giants are rolling, and loaded with confidence after going into Lambeau and taking the Packers out. Green Bay was not sharp, perhaps the byproduct of the first round bye, but that is supposed to help teams, not hurt them. The Giants were unaffected by the surroundings, the elements, and most of all, the Packers defense.

Waiting for the G-Men in California, a 49ers team that has gone through a ridiculous turnaround. A year ago, they couldn't get out of their own way. In fact, they were one of Carolina's two victims in 2010. Enter Jim Harbaugh and a new attitude, and the 49ers were a scary team. Lots of detractors felt the 49ers were a paper division champion given the NFC West's lack of strength, but they certainly answered the bell against New Orleans, knocking the Saints out of the playoffs with their 36-32 win. That game, incidentally, has to qualify as one of the most incredible games in NFL playoff history.

Given the improved play of Alex Smith, and a defense that has been better than average all year long, what you have is a confident team that feels they can beat anyone. I am not sure, however, the Giants will comply.

This NFC title game will be a battle, but give me the Giants by a field goal late. if you like offense, this might not be the game for you. This should be a great game, with New York winning it 17-14.

AFC - Baltimore at New England

Give Baltimore credit for a wonderful effort against a Houston Texans team that would not quit. Houston never blinked, and only Baltimore's defense kept the Texans from advancing to this round. TJ Yates did not have his best game, but he is to be applauded for a darn good year. Entering the season as the #3 QB on their depth chart, he responded when injuries cost the Texans Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart. A couple bad throws coupled with an opportunistic Ravens defense just proved to be a little much.

Meanwhile, New England was dialed in, and treated Denver about as rudely as you possibly can in a playoff game. Tom Brady threw for 6 TD's, and the Patriot defense never allowed Tim Tebow to breath, let alone get comfortable in the pocket. Not much more needs to be said about the Patriots win. It was complete. It was convincing.

Baltimore has to go on the road and face the Patriots for the AFC crown, and I have to lean with the home team in this one. Baltimore says nothing is wrong with safety Ed Reed's ankle, or foot (injured at the end of their win over Houston), and they better be right. The Ravens need all hands on deck to knock off the Pats, but I'm not sure they have enough hands. Give me the Pats 30-17.

One last thing. While I disagreed with UNC Head Coach Roy Williams pulling his team from the bench area with 14 seconds to play against Florida State, I understand why he did. Granted, had Carolina won that game, security would not be an issue. A couple things are in play here. First, why does the visiting coach have to fear for the safety of his team? Second, why are arenas set up to have the teams crossing one another? These are simple questions, but questions that should be addressed. It doesn't happen often, but often enough that a ranked team gets beaten on the road, causing students to rush the court. Security measures should be in place to protect the visitors. In no way would I suggest students shouldn't rush the floor--it's part of the college experience (provided they do so to celebrate, and not pick fights with the players which is uber-stupid).

In the end, Williams did the right thing in regard to safety, and that is most important. Handshakes can take place afterwards near the dressing room areas. Keeping players from getting injured by fans that get carried away is the most important thing.

Mike Solarte

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers...or...

Rob Chudzinski is, as of Thursday morning, the Offensive Coordinator for the Carolina Panthers. Panthers fans are hoping it stays that way through the off-season and into the 2012 campaign.

Thing about Chud is that he is a desirable coach to lead a team, as he has been an assistant in the NFL for 7 seasons, and the work he put in with the Panthers and their rookie QB Cam Newton is being viewed as magical. It might be, when the lack of off-season workouts and mini-camps gets entered into the discussion.

While Panthers fans are wringing their hands at the possibility of Chud leaving, keep this in mind. The Panthers would be hard pressed to pay to keep Chud away from a Head Coaching post. The money isn't there, and if that is the guy's dream, he'll chase it. Chud was interviewing in St. Louis on Thursday, and here's a bit of interesting info.

He's not the only candidate there. And by that I mean, there is someone else interviewing there TODAY. Chud was to interview in the morning, and Denver Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen in the afternoon.

Could mean the Rams are doing their due diligence in leaving no stone unturned. Could mean Chud is a front-runner for the job. Until someone talks, we won't know for sure. My questions: Why the Rams? Why is the Broncos DC interviewing the week of an NFL playoff game that his team will be playing in? And what is going on with Jeff Fisher?

First, why the Rams. The Rams would be attractive to Chud for a couple reasons. Sam Bradford, the #2 pick in the April draft, and lots of cap room. The Rams would be unattractive with that 2-14 record they posted in 2011. Chud reclaimed a stagnant offense in Carolina after a 2-14 campaign, so would he want to go through that again?

As for Allen interviewing on the Thursday of a AFC playoff matchup with New England, I am stunned. How John Fox signed off on this is beyond me. Maybe he had no choice because it would be a promotion for Allen if he gets it, but during a playoff week? Might have been a foregone conclusion, but give me the Pats big this week. Like 24 points big over Denver. Call it "distracted defense."

Jeff Fisher is throwing the whole thing out of balance because he's stringing along bot the Rams and Miami Dolphins, the two teams he's reportedly interested in. There are some stories out there saying he is heading to the Dolphins, others say he is truly torn between the two, and more still that had him in St. Louis all but locked up. Fans are the impatient ones when it comes to Fisher, as they just want to know how the other dominoes will fall. Fisher is the key to making them move when it comes to Chudzinski and others. In reality, there is no real rush.

For me, I would think Chud stays with Carolina. Even if Fisher goes to the Dolphins, the Rams job isn't all that its cracked up to be. Yes there are positives as identified above, but is that the place he wants to go? I admit, I don't know Chud as well as I would like to get a read on his personality, but if he is the kind of guy that likes to finish what he starts, Carolina is the place to be at least for one more season. Better Head Coaching posts will open next season, and a trip to the playoffs with Carolina would look good on his resume, especially since his body of work in Carolina is somewhat incomplete. If he was that good on a short time frame, what can this offense get done in normal circumstances?

Mike Solarte

Monday, January 9, 2012

Around the Horn...

After the opening weekend of the NFL playoffs, I'll try not to get all ga-ga over Tim Tebow, but there are some things to talk about here in the blog on a Monday.

The New Orleans Saints played a ridiculous 2nd half against Detroit, and with the win, earned a trip to San Francisco to meet the 49ers. The Saints are a great team when indoors, on artificial turf. Can they amp that up outside, on natural grass in Frisco? One wonders. The 49ers had the week off, and should be ready. This is Jim Harbaugh's first playoff test, and he certainly didn't draw an easy assignment.

This just in: Tim Tebow isn't bad. He's not at the QB Assassin level (see Brees, Brady, Rodgers for examples of that), but the kid isn't bad. Denver Head Coach John Fox doesn't dislike Tebow. Fox dislikes the notion of playing inexperienced guys. That's what we saw in his time in Carolina. Tebow was inexperienced, and hence, that's why there was the Kyle Orton show to start the year. Switching to Tebow obviously salvaged their season, and has now given the Broncos another playoff game, after topping Pittsburgh in OT on Sunday. Denver gets New England next, and if they win THAT one...well, I don't want to think about it.

The ACC went through a miserable bowl season, going 2-6 in their 8 games. Congrats to NC State and Florida State for picking up those victories. Virginia Tech also won their game, even though the score doesn't reflect it. You have to have conclusive evidence to overturn calls on instant replay, and I still haven't seen that conclusive evidence to take away that diving TD catch.

Regardless of that, there has been a load of outcry following Clemson's horrifying defeat to West Virginia, that the ACC should lose its automatic spot in the BCS, after getting run over 70-33 by the Mountaineers. Really? The ACC is singled out in this? To me, that's not fair. What happens to the SEC if Alabama runs it up on LSU in the national championship game? It's not likely to happen, but still, what if? You don't have to throw one league out of the automatic BCS spots at all.

You throw them ALL out.

The BCS is a bonafide joke in the fact that this money grab doesn't give fans what they want. Fans want a playoff. You can not tell me a playoff wouldn't work, because I will not listen. When I hear it won't wortk, I point to the playoffs that go on right now in the FCS. Works for them. It can work for the top level of college football. And you can still have your bowl season as well. Bowls get played Monday thru Friday during their normal dates. The playoff games happen on the Saturdays. Take 16 teams, seed them, and let them play it off for 3 weeks. You get down to 2 teams, and they play the National Championship sponsored by (insert the highest bidder here), and they play the Saturday before the Super Bowl. That would give the final two teams about a month off (the same as they have for the bowl season basically).

My plan, based on this season's calendar:
Conference title games were played Dec. 3. Start the playoffs on Dec 17. Give the teams a week to heal, and plan their schedule based on the brackets placed in front of them. They play 3 weeks (and I know that they would have been up against the NFL on Dec.24, but this is hypothetical), and on New Year's Eve, we have 2 teams left standing. They are off until Feb. 4th when they play for all the marbles.

What about the rest of the teams that don't make the playoffs? Hello bowls (as mentioned above). I am not suggesting doing away with the bowl games at all. Not every team is a title contender. There are teams, however, that do deserve a bowl game based on an 8 or 9 win season. So break out the suitcase, and hit the road. Bowl games serve a purpose in each community they are played, and they help the football programs build for the future with additional practices, and the like.

The plan can work, and don't tell me there is no money in a playoff. The day the NCAA announces they are moving to a playoff system in the FBS (which would go through another name change), all of the networks would come running to them with signed blank checks. The bowl system brings in big dollars for the schools, but imagine the revenue stream from a playoff AND the bowls.

That's my rant for the day. I am not implying that Alabama or LSU is not worthy of the title game, but there are folks out there that have a problem with Bama being in the game based on the fact they didn't even win their own DIVISION in their league. Then again, the year Secretariat won the Triple Crown, a horse named Sham was runner up to him twice. In any other year, Sham might have been the best horse, but that year, he was running 2nd to Secretariat. Bama running 2nd to LSU (for the season) isn't exactly a bad thing.

ACC basketball season is underway, the Bobcats continue their elevator play, and the pucks are skimming around the rinks. It's fun right now.

And the Daytona 500 is just 48 days away.

Mike Solarte

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Carolina Panthers review

They won 4 more games than they did a year ago, bringing their total to 6. Not good enough for a playoff spot, but an improvement. Considering the way 2010 played out, 2011 felt like an undefeated campaign.

The one thing that was noticeable all the way back in the preseason was the sense of hope this team brought to the fan base. Fans believed the offense would move the ball, and score. After all, 2010 was about as dismal a year for the Panther offense as could be imagined. Cam Newton brought the belief that anything could get done when Carolina had the ball.

Of course, Newton was only as good as the plan, and players around him, and there were several outstanding seasons had by guys like Steve Smith, Jordan Gross, Ryan Kalil, Brandon LaFell (late), and others. Concocting all the schemes, Rob Chudzinski. A guy I envision in a white lab coat scheming, and planning, and inventing new ways to move the football down the field.

It's nervous time for the Panthers and their fans, with Chud being considered for the Jacksonville Head Coaching post. IF Chud stays, and I think there is a real chance he could leave if the offer is right, Carolina has to find a guy similar to Chud to advance the offense down the road it is on.

The Panthers biggest problem in 2011 was staying healthy. 18 players hit the injured reserve list, a franchise record, among them 5 players that started on defense (which did not include Ron Edwards who was hurt in training camp). I don't care how deep a team thinks they are, that kind of pressure will cause even the best rosters to weaken significantly.

Comparing the 2010 team to 2011 isn't entirely fair, considering the void created by an offense that was worst in the league in many areas. No question this year's team was significantly better, and provided they can stay healthy (the caveat for all NFL teams), they can be a contender next season. In fact, Steve Smith has already proclaimed the Panthers will be a playoff team next season, and there is nothing to suggest he is wrong.

Mike Solarte