Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cinderella Cards

Hollywood couldn’t have written it any better.
Had the folks at Warner Bros or Twentieth Century Fox gotten a hold of this script, they would’ve thrown it into the garbage right away. After all, no one likes watching a movie where the plot is so unrealistic and unlikely that only a wide eyed young dreamer could’ve possibly thought it up.
Well, it looks like the dreamers finally got their way. After sneaking into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season, the Cardinals fought off elimination not once, but twice in game 6 of the World Series.
On two separate occasions, the Cardinals found themselves with their backs against the wall, two strikes and two outs in their final inning, with their fans at Busch Stadium holding their collective breath. Both times however, the Cardinals hitters delivered, and those held breaths turned into wild cheers.
Whether it was David Freese hitting a game tying, two run triple off the right field wall in the bottom of the ninth inning or Lance Berkman smacking a two out single to tie the game one inning later, the Cardinals showed no quit.
After Freese’s game saving triple, the Texas came right back in the next inning, as Josh Hamilton hit a monster two run home run to give the Rangers the lead once again. As the bottom of the tenth inning began, Texas was once again ready to pop the champagne (or ginger ale, for the sake of Hamilton, a recovering alcoholic). The Rangers seemed poised to take home their first championship in their 40 year history, but alas, that wasn’t the case. The Cardinals weren’t done writing their Cinderella story just yet.
St Louis got a few runners on base to start off the next inning, and before anyone knew it, we were in the same position as the previous inning. Two outs, two strikes, and the Cardinals’ season hanging in the balance. It couldn’t happen again, could it?
It could. Lance Berkman, the 35 year old, supposedly washed up baseball outcast, laced a two strike single up the middle, and the Cardinals were tied yet again. They had done the unthinkable; twice.
In the next inning, the Rangers laid a big ol’ goose egg on the scoreboard, and once that happened, everyone watching the game, whether in attendance or at home in front of their televisions, knew it was over.
David Freese strolled up to the plate yet again, this time in the bottom of the 11th inning of what would become one of the all time greatest baseball games in the history of the sport, and it happened. With the count full, Rangers pitcher Mark Lowe threw a fastball right up the middle of the plate, and Freese connected. Right off the bat, everybody knew; the ball went sailing into the St Louis sky, landed beyond the fence in centerfield, and the stadium exploded. Game over, Cardinals win.
This was only game 6 though; the Cardinals still had to win the seventh game of the series to win the title. But, after a comeback win like that and the collapse of the Rangers in game 6, the result of game 7 was inevitable. The Cardinals won easily, 6-2, and became the World Series champions.
Roll credits, cue the curtains, the movie has a happy ending.
Oh, by the way, there’s something you should know about David Freese. For those who have already forgotten, he is the man who hit the season saving 9th inning triple and the game winning 11th inning homerun for the Cardinals. He was born and raised in St Louis, a diehard Cardinals fan as a kid. Now how’s that for an unbelievable story, and a true one at that.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why Coaching Matters

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
The New York Giants, with a WR corps so decimated that Brandon Stokley had to be called in (yes, the white guy who used to catch passes from Peyton Manning) and a group of CBs that barely grazed the bottom of the depth chart at the end of last year, somehow beat the vaunted Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.
While the Eagles should never have been called a Dream Team, they do still have a lot of talent. With the Giants injured, playing on a short week (they played Monday night) and coming off two unimpressive showings against the Redskins and Rams, the G-men should have been easy pickings for the Eagles. Except they weren’t.
The Giants beat the Eagles at their own game, making timely stops, rushing the passer with ferocity, and most surprisingly, out-Eagling the Eagles with several big plays. How did the Giants do it, you may ask?
On Sunday, the Giants, and more specifically Tom Coughlin Kevin Gilbride and Perry Fewell (offensive and defensive coordinators) flat outcoached Andy Reid and his staff on the Eagles sideline. 
The easiest way to see this is by looking at the rosters. On paper, this should have been a whitewash, and not in New York’s favor. With Michael Vick throwing to Desean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant, the Eagles should have had the edge in the passing game. The Eagles have Asante Samuel and Nmandi Asomugha, as well as a strong front four, so the defensive advantage should have been theirs too. According to Darryl Johnston and Kenny Albert, Philly also had the best running back in the NFL, Lesean McCoy.
(Side rant: The fact that Johnston and Albert continuously refered to Lesean McCoy as the best back in the NFL and were never called out on it is preposterous. Actual quote: “The back I can most compare him to is Barry Sanders”. Give me a break. Yes, the kid's great; he’s got quick feet and is extremely dangerous on cutbacks and in the open field. But Barry Sanders? Please.)
On paper, the Eagles had every advantage, on both sides of the ball. Being able to use all of this talent properly, however, is another story.
Time and time again, Philadelphia didn’t capitalize on their opportunities. With 1st and goal at the 2 yard line on two separate occasions, the Eagles settled for field goals both times. They were stuffed on boring running plays, and when they did try to take it to the air, they got way too cute. They tried a play action inside screen to Lesean McCoy, and with the clutter of bodies that come with a goal line stand, the play made no sense, and the Eagles were stopped once again. 
Philly was also shut down on a key late game 4th and 1 gamble, with another unimaginative, poorly thought out running play. McCoy, in all his Barry Sanders-esque glory (sarcasm intended), was slowed down by one Giant, then promptly wrapped up for a loss by Michael Boley (who, by the way, played a hell of a game). The Eagles were either too creative or not creative enough with their play calling on this day, and it ended up costing them. The Giants' play calling, on the other hand, was exactly the opposite.
Kevin Gilbride, New York’s longtime offensive coordinator, had one of his best games in recent memory. Giants fans often lament at the sometimes predictable play calling of the old coach. On this day though, not a peep could be heard, not even from the brash, no holds barred New York faithful.
That’s because not even a fan base as surly as the Giants can be disappointed with 29 points, three +25 yard TD passes, a 70 % completion percentage and tons of important plays when it mattered most.
As a diehard Giants fan, one of the plays that stood out to me wasn’t even one that netted any points. In the second quarter, with the Giants clinging to an 11 point lead and facing 3rd and 5 at their own 25, Eli Manning lined up in shotgun. You could hear the groan of Giants fans everywhere from my house in Montreal. Here comes another predictable short 3rd down pass.
But Kevin surprised us all. Gilbride completely fooled the Eagles by running a draw, and 40 yards and one punishing stiff arm later, the Giants had a first down and then some. This is the kind of play calling that was seen from the Giants throughout the game. Smart, unpredictable, and playing off the Eagles weaknesses.
Gilbride and the Giants continued to use Philadelphia’s aggressiveness against them throughout the game, and especially on the game clinching TD late in the fourth quarter.
With the Giants ahead 22-16, and with memories of Desean Jackson waltzing into the end zone still residing, New York wasn’t taking any chances. A field goal was essential, and a touchdown would all but end it. Facing a 3rd and 11 at the Eagle 18, Kevin Gilbride guessed pressure, and he guessed right. The Eagles brought the heat, hoping for a sack and to perhaps jar the ball loose, but the Giants offensive coordinator cooked up the perfect play: a screen.
When Ahmad Bradshaw caught the ball, the shifty back, who had a stellar game once again, saw nothing but green and blue in front of him. Not the green of the Eagles though; the green of freshly cut grass. Bradshaw went untouched into the end zone, and New Yorkers breathed a sigh of relief.
There was also some great coaching done on the defensive side of the ball, as evidenced by the constant pressure that eventually knocked All-Pro QB Mike Vick out of the game (I could’ve gone with so many prison and felon related names on this one, but decided to go with All Pro. Who says I’m biased? Ok maybe I still am). The Giants attacked Vick all game, and came up with huge red zone stops when they needed them.
Gilbride also started the game off with perhaps his best call, a play action wheel route to Brandon Jacobs that was designed to get the back one on one with a linebacker. The unfortunate linebacker was Casey “Don’t Call Me Clay’s Brother” Matthews, and by the time he realized Jacobs was going deep, the ball was already landing in his overly large hands, and Jacobs was walking into the end zone.
For all the talent the Eagles possessed, they were no match for the Giants’ coaching staff in this one. Tom Coughlin got his team ready to play, and Kevin Gilbride and Perry Fewell called the right plays for the right players. Sounds like a winning combination to me.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Survival Football: Not for the Faint of Heart

Well I’m back ladies and gentleman. It’s been almost three months since I last posted, and that’s not acceptable. I did miss the three months during baseball season though, so did you guys really want to read posts about OPS and the Homerun Derby and Brett Lawrie? Probably not. Come to think of it though, I probably should write something about Brett Lawrie. Maybe soon.
Anyways, I’m back, and it’s time to give you faithful readers (all four of you) what you came to see. Here comes another year of interesting, funny and sometimes controversial sports talk, coming straight from yours truly. Hope you enjoy.
I had my first “Survival Football” experience today, and with it, my first “Survival Football” disappointment. I’m now going to explain what “Survival Football” is, so I won’t feel obligated to keep using these annoying brackets.
Survival Football is a form of fantasy football where the goal is to pick one team to win a game each week. You can never pick the same team twice in a season, and you must survive all 17 weeks without picking a loser. Sounds pretty easy, right? I thought so too.
I joined a league this year with three other people, and we decided to put in enough money for two separate teams. We would not pick the same teams each week, and if either of our two teams would end up winning it all, we would split the prize money between the four of us. With two teams and four savvy football minds (if I do say so myself), we were bound to win, or at least stay alive until we could sell one team and win some money back. It seemed like a perfect plan.
Then again, the Titanic seemed like a perfect ship.
Week 1 rolled around, and it was selection time. The four of us talked and talked and analyzed and discussed. We didn’t want to pick a road team, didn’t want to pick anyone with key players injured, and wanted to make sure to pick the surest bet on the board.
It turns out that picking a sure thing is a lot harder than it sounds. We didn’t want to pick the Texans, because they never beat Indy, and we didn’t want to pick the Eagles, because they were on the road. The rest we deemed too close to call. As a Giants fan, I was actually fine with not picking the Eagles, because trying to bear the thought of cheering for Philadelphia makes me physically ill. I actually just had to take a break to lie down.
Anyways, the Eagles throttled the Rams 31-13, the Texans manhandled the Colts 34-7, and so began the chorus of friends asking me, “why didn’t you pick the Eagles or Texans?”
 That’s the thing about Survival Football. Hindsight, especially from those not playing, is the biggest enemy. Of course it’s easy to know who you should’ve picked after the games are over. Picking it beforehand, where a million different factors dance around in your head, is much tougher. After watching the Bills dominate the Chiefs in the most un-Bills way imaginable, it seems like Buffalo should have been everyone’s first choice. Too bad it was the Chiefs who were actually favored, and were even one of the most picked teams to win on almost every Survival Football site I checked.
This just goes to show how hard Survival football really is, and it leads me back to my own story. The two games we picked were Browns over Bengals, and Chargers over Vikings, both at home. The Chargers survived an early scare and escaped with a 24-17 win, but the Browns were a different story.
In order to keep this paragraph free of expletives, I’m going to use a lot of stars and symbols. That’s how angry I am at the Browns. Excluding the Eagles and maybe the Cowboys, there is no team I hate right now more than the f***ing Browns. I know you’re thinking, “Well why did you pick them then, they're not exactly a pillar of success in the NFL,” but let me explain. The Browns were playing at home, against the Bengals, and this pick was much more about the Bengals then it was about the Browns. Maybe that was our mistake, picking a game based on the atrociousness of one team instead of picking on the other team’s talent. But c’mon, it’s the freaking Bengals.
The Bengals were supposed to be (and still might be) catastrophically bad this year. Not just bad, but 0-16 Lions bad, Spiderman 3 bad, maybe even Horacio Caine in CSI Miami bad. The Bengals went 4-12 last year, and lost some of their better players. They were starting a rookie at QB, lost their leading receiver, and didn’t really add anyone in free agency. Analysts everywhere were picking them for two and three win seasons. We figured you really couldn’t go wrong picking against the Bengals, even if it was with the Browns.
You know the rest of the story; The Browns played an awful game, complete with a Bengals-esque fuckup that left A.J green waltzing into the end zone to give Cincinnati the lead while the Browns had barely gotten out of their huddle ( I actually thought the Bengals were pretty much as bad as advertised; it’s just that the Browns ended up being worse.
Just like that, one of our Survival teams was finished, and 100 bucks went down the drain. I guess it serves us right for picking a team that last won a playoff game in 1994.
It wasn’t all for not though. It was the first and last time I’ll ever willingly watch a Bengals-Browns game, so at least I can scratch that off my to-do list.