Tales of Bittersweet Loyalty

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Perfecting the Round Table: The NFL is Back

In Florida, Football, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Loyalty, New York, Perfecting the Round Table, Philadelphia, Washington DC on August 5, 2011 at 1:30 PM

As a companion to our Perfecting the Big Question series, we bring you Perfecting the Round Table where our contributors discuss various topics back and forth.

Rahat Ahmed (): Now that this NFL season is more or less a reality, we’ve seen an unusual amount of big-name players changing teams.  The first thing that’s struck me involve two teams who, if I had to choose at this very moment, would be my Super Bowl picks: The New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles.  The former’s coup of both Haynesworth and Ochocinco is a massive blow to the Jets, Steelers and other competitors in the AFC.  The latter somehow straggling away Asomugha from the Jets and then picking up Young in “free agency” (which is a completely underrated and potentially quite deadly move) puts them in a spot to fend off the constantly underachieving NFC East.  Some would argue that the Falcons are better equipped than the Eagles (and honestly, considering what they gave up for Julio Jones, you pretty much have to assume they think they’re going all the way), but does Vick simply have that redemption factor backing him all the way to Indianapolis?

Andrew Feingold (): I think the whole Nnamdi talks to the Jets was a smokescreen he apparently wanted to play for the Eagles all along. It was a wise decision not to sign him giving them the cap to go after Plax and re-sign Cromartie and Eric Smith. Restructuring the cap for players like LT, Sanchez, etc. gave them some more flexibility. Next up is to re-sign Harris to a long-term deal. Of course, Rex Ryan said today it’s the best roster he has seen while with the Jets.
I think the Rams and Jags did some under the radar moves which should help them out for the upcoming season. I’m sure SI will predict a Pats-Eagles SB but one thing we know is that the best team on paper does not always make it to the big game.

Marcus Bui (): I agree with Rahat’s forethought into the NFL seasons so far, that on paper, the Patriots and the Eagles are the best teams—that’s on paper though. However, with the NFL’s incredible parity, I’d like to draw the attention to two teams that I think have a legitimate chance of surprising everyone with a deep post season showing: The Texans and the Lions.

Let me be the first to say that I am a Houston fan, and as such, you have to be a realist and not an optimist if you are going to root for a Houston team or be prepared to blow your brains out. As such, this is the first time that I am excited enough about the Texans that I don’t have to start any relevant sentence with “if [insert optimistic event here] happens, we’ll make the post season for sure.” Having a top 5 offense (with arguably the #1 WR and RB), multiple D-line Pro-Bowlers with a good defensive coordinator in Wade Phillips and having the only “major” loss in free agency so far be Vonta Leach—the Texans did what teams need to do during free agency in fulfilling needs with reasonable contracts. Johnathan Joseph was considered by most to be the second best DB available after Asomugha and they picked up Danieal Manning as well. This doesn’t provide the Texans with a top 5 defensive secondary but they no longer possess the type of secondary that literally loses them 5 games a year. Pair this with a weakening AFC South, where Peyton Mannings’s shoulders has to carry not only an aging Colts team but also his recently surgically repaired neck and a below average Titans (sorry, Rahat) and Jaguars, if the Texans go anything less than 10-6, then perhaps Houston really is just a cursed city.

The other team I’d like to draw attention to is the Detroit Lions. It’s crazy that it was only a short time ago that the Lions were 0-16. It’s not crazy though that being bad makes you good—with draftees like Stafford and Suh—I would say that the Lions are my pick for this year’s NFL dark horse. The Lions have a plethora of talent throughout their team. The Lions defensive is scary good—Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Stephen Tulloch (sorry again, Rahat), etc. I also feel that their offensive side is definitely something to watch as well. Dynamic RBs in Jahvid Best and rookie Mikel Leshourne, the league’s most athletically talented wide receiver in Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, an underrated O-Line (#6 in fewest sacks allowed) and finally, Matthew Stafford—who I personally think is better than fellow young QB’s Mark Sanchez and Joe Flacco (both whom also lead playoff anticipating teams). Consider that the only real threat in their division are the Packers (sorry, Vikings and the Bears fans) but being bad in the prior year is so rewarding to NFL teams that not only do they get high draft picks, but they also get an easier NFL schedule the following year. I think saying that the Lions going 8-8 wouldn’t be too hard for anyone to swallow, but if they can steal a couple games, they’ll be in the heart of the postseason battle as well.

And with that, remember that you read it here first at Perfecting the Upset—“The Marquee matchup of Super Bowl XLVI is Texans and Lions.”

Rahat Ahmed (): As much as I like the Lions (mostly because of the Jim Schwartz-connection and his siphoning off of former Titans), they’re still a year too early.  Most importantly, as C.D. pointed out in his article, I don’t trust Stafford’s health.  And Stanton, while sufficient for running a middle-of-the-pack offense, is not the guy who can manage a game for a Super Bowl contender.  And if we’re talking about the NFC, I can see both wild card spots going to the Bucs, Falcons or Saints—whichever NFC South team doesn’t win the division.  That is a brutal division that, sadly for the Panthers even with the reassuring moves they’ve made, has 3 legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

C.D. Hale (): My thought on big-ticket free agents is this: More often than not, you’re paying big bucks for what a guy has done, not what he’s going to do. For instance, Asomugha isn’t going to improve as a cornerback, nor are other big-ticket free agents. The key is to find young, cheap guys through the draft and free agency that serve as building blocks for a championship contender. Let’s be honest, for all the high-profile pickups of the Jets and Patriots, it’s teams like Green Bay and Pittsburgh—those who build their franchises in-house—who experienced the most success last year.

As for everyone’s Patriots vs. Eagles Super Bowl prediction, it’s a simple one; it’s also the wrong one. Michael Vick can’t stay healthy, and let’s not forget that his short-armed pass into the end zone last year cost the Eagles a playoff victory against the eventual champion Packers. Meanwhile, the Patriots have become uber-reliant on aging vets the last few years. Meanwhile, they haven’t won a Super Bowl since 2004. This is not a coincidence.

Nick Britton (): I can safely predict that the Miami Dolphins will not be in the playoffs this year. I can’t tell you how annoying it is to watch the Jets and Patriots get better by the day while Miami re-signs 74-year old Jason Taylor. I don’t know that Kyle Orton is the answer but I’d prefer him to any other QB on the roster now. Unfortunately, I don’t think it matters at this point: Matt Moore of Panthers fame was signed the other day. Still Henne’s team, though. I think we’ve seen the best Henne has to offer.

The big news for the Dolphins was Reggie Bush. A lot of people were down on Ronnie Brown, but I always liked him. And I really liked Ricky Williams, as ineffective as he was. If Brown goes to the Patriots [Ed: Brown has since signed with the Eagles.], I can assure you he’ll have an excellent season. The Wes Welker Effect. I wouldn’t mind seeing Williams back. I think he might return but I doubt Brown does. My guess is Miami starts the season with Bush as the feature back and rookie Daniel Thomas out of K-State backing him up. I say just keep handing it off to Lousaka Polite. And I don’t want to make light of a serious illness, but Brandon Marshall being not right in the head was a given, no? In all seriousness, I think it’s good he’s addressed it publicly and he’s getting treated for it. Let’s just hope he can get treatment for the QB problem.

Anyway, I think you can pretty much bank on either the Pats or the Jets winning the AFC East and getting a wildcard.

The Florida team to watch this year is easily Tampa Bay. Josh Freeman is a stud and I think he’ll be a top 5 QB this year. I think they need another WR, though, to line up opposite (the other) Mike Williams. I thought Steve Breaston would be a good fit but he’s on the Chiefs now. And Maurice Stovall went to the Lions. But I think Freeman and Boise State fan LeGarrette Blount make Tampa Bay the favorite in the NFC South. Blount was a monster last year in just half a season.  I do agree with Rahat that this division is brutal.

I don’t think Michael Vick is what the Eagles need. Regardless of what I think about him as a person, I don’t think highly of him as a QB. I’ll say that last year was flukey and he comes back down to earth this year. I like the Vince Young signing though, and I like the Asomugha signing. Even with a down-to-earth Vick, there’s no way anyone in the NFC East competes with the Eagles this year.

I agree on the Patriots. I still think they win the division or a wildcard, but the balance of power in the East has shifted. They’re too old.

Bradley Freedman (): I find it hard to argue that both the Patriots and the Eagles aren’t going to be even better this year than they were last year. They are both real threats to win a Super Bowl, even though neither of them are my pick. (For the same reasons given by some of my colleagues: Vick’s unreliability and the Patriots’ age.) For what it’s worth, my Super Bowl pick is the Packers. There’s that old football cliche that when a good player comes back from an injury, it’s like adding a new signing. Considering that they were able to win a championship in spite of numerous injuries last year, I see a healthy Packers team repeating by virtue of adding the players who were supposed to be there last year.

Whether or not any of the big free agents lead their team to a Super Bowl, the nature of these signings is fascinating. I don’t remember a time when so many teams have doubled-up with superstars at key defensive positions. Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth on one team? Who ever heard of a team being deep at nose tackle? Based on the early reports from Patriots training camp, Belichick may be switching to a 4-3 with Wilfork and Haynesworth in the middle. This would no doubt make Haynesworth happy, and Haynesworth is frightening when he’s happy. If Belichick is moving to a 4-3, then, along with the Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairly pairing up in the middle for the Lions, I’m looking forward to watching these two 4-3 schemes more than any team’s 3-4 in 2011. Hell, I’m looking forward more to those defensive fronts than I am most teams’ offenses.

Like many fans I was also looking forward to the sheer audacity of a Revis-Asomugha project in New York. But the trio of Asomugha, Rodgers-Cromartie, and Samuels in the secondary for Philadelphia is almost as ridiculous. Of course, this is assuming the Eagles keep all three players and keep them all at corner. If that’s the case, at any given time the Eagles are going to have a Pro-Bowl corner standing on the sidelines. It will probably be Samuels.

Defense seems to be where much of the top-level talent is in this free agent class. And defense seems to be where much of the creativity is going to be this year. Yes, it’s a heavy-handed creativity, based on the premise that two stars are better than one. But I’m looking forward to it, especially since it is not going to be the sort of thing that every team can copy. Any team can decide to incorporate multiple eligible passers with the wild cat or go to a running back tandem. But not every team will be able to stack multiple Pro Bowlers in the same position.

Andrew Feingold (): Despite the age of the Pats at certain positions, they have young pieces in line at the RB, O-line and defensive positions. They are also the favorites to win the AFC East, which means home field advantage once again. For the Jets to take the next step, they need a home playoff game and for Sanchez to develop further. While the Packers are a popular pick to make it back to the SB, I want to see if the Falcons can breakthrough.

C.D. Hale (): See, I’m not so sure being the favorite in the East is a path to home-field advantage. The Jets are tough, and the Dolphins (despite their mediocrity) tend to play the Pats hard. Meanwhile, teams like the Chargers and Colts can feast on weak divisions and perhaps carve out their own path to home-field. Plus, I’m just not sure where the Pats’ game-breakers are. Ocho and Welker are both solid No. 2 receivers, but they lack a go-to threat. The running game is good but not great. And Brady, for all his other worldliness, hasn’t exactly set the playoffs on fire the last few years. If you get to him, the Pats are extremely beatable, as evidenced by the Divisional Playoff round last season.

Call me crazy, but I think the Colts or Chargers have one more run left in them. Maybe San Diego needed to be humbled last year, to show that you can’t start the season halfway through and still make the playoffs. Plus, again, awful division.

Andrew Feingold (): The Texans are on the cusp of winning that division even though they have a tough schedule this year. Peyton just lost his left tackle, and this is the first time I can remember he’s had a major health concern coming into the season. The Chargers have an easy path but Ryan Mathews is already banged up and the defense lost Brandon Siler and Kevin Burnett. While they should win the division, the Chiefs are still a solid team and when was the last time Norv Turner won a big game?

By the way, the Pats beat the Dolphins 41-14 and 38-7 last season, and this year they will have the quarterback carousel. Clearly the Steelers and Ravens have to be in the discussion as well.

C.D. Hale (): All good points, and while I picked the Texans to make the playoffs, that division still belongs to the Colts, Manning injury or no. Manning is a machine. Yeah, he’ll miss the preseason, but he’ll be there in Week 1 steering the ship, throwing to a (finally!) healthy receiving corps. As for the Chargers, yeah, Mathews is banged up, but Tolbert is solid enough, and let’s be honest, that offense goes through Rivers anyway. The NFL is a league now won with passing and pass rushing (e.g., the Packers last year), and I’m not sure the Pats have enough of the latter to go all the way. And while Brady is a stud, Welker hasn’t been the same player since he blew out his knee and Moss left town, and Ochocinco is a Pro Bowler in name only at this point. I’d argue their best receiver is up-and-coming tight end Aaron Hernandez.

As for Baltimore and Pittsburgh, they might be the two best teams in the AFC for all we know. However, I don’t trust Flacco or those receivers, and Pittsburgh is quietly getting older on defense.

As for the NFC, it’s a toss-up. My best guess is Green Bay, as they won the Super Bowl with some of their best players on the shelf, but damn, that’s almost too easy a pick. Atlanta could get it done, but there’s something about Matt Ryan I just don’t trust. Maybe it’s that crappy nickname. Philly? Super teams rarely work in the NFL. Dallas? Wishful thinking. Tampa? Not ready. Same for Detroit. I’d say New Orleans, but they seem like a team that caught lightning in a bottle and rolled to a title. I don’t see them doing that again.

Here’s a question to turn this on its head a little bit. Who will be the worst team in football? I vote Carolina. Tough division, no QB. Hell, aside from the fact that Ric Flair is their most famous fan, they have no personality of which to speak. Plus, Jimmy Clausen seems like a punk.

Sean Koo (): I know my timing is off, but going back first I would say that there is no team that did not want Nnamdi. Regardless of his age or injury history, he is worth the risk and the Eagles got him at a bargain. Second, while both the Patriots and the Eagles made the biggest splash, neither of them will be in the Super Bowl. I think you guys have thoroughly picked apart the Patriots, so I’ll just throw in a note about the Eagles. Not even considering a Michael Vick injury, the Eagles need the most help on defense, and everyone has forgotten about how they have a new defensive coordinator who was the former O-line coach. Aside from him being completely new to coaching that side of the ball, he has never put a defensive system in place and no one can expect him to do wonders in his first year. If it was as easy as plugging any coach in, Sean McDermott would still be there.

My vote is that the Packer or Saints will come back out of the NFC. The NFC South will be brutal, but I expect the Falcons to come back to earth—by the end of the season teams were figuring them out. As much as I would love the Bucs to win the division, they’re still a season away from really contending. They need to find stability with another winning season and getting into the playoffs will be a more likely goal before making a real push the following year.

My dark horse for the NFC is the Vikings. Yes, McNabb is old, but with Percy Harvin and AD, McNabb will get them as far as Favre did, and the defense should still be solid, even with Edwards leaving.

I’d say it’ll be the Steelers again out of the AFC, but there’s just too many good teams to really tell. Colts, Pats, Steelers and Chargers as division winners—as usual aside from the 1 or 2 off years, but that’s the AFC.  Good teams stay good and the bad teams stay bad.

Worst team is going to be the Bengals. They don’t have a QB, their head coach has been through the wringer, they’re in a division with two superior teams and a promising team in the Browns. Somehow they are signing defensive free agents, but they still seem to be standing still. The Bengals challenge the Raiders for worse franchise but they even have less talent than the Raiders (who would be the best Vegas bet on possibly doing something out of no where like win the division).

Marcus Bui (): I’d agree with you Clint with the Panthers as the worst team in football. I do think they will have a 4 win season though—which might net them second or third to last though. For them to not be in last place, they need to play at their biggest strength: Their running game. Last year, they hardly ran the ball, I know, I had both Deangelo and Stewart on my fantasy team. Since their QB, WR, TE is mediocre (I think I’m being pretty lenient there), that too should promote running the ball more. The panthers are solid enough on the O-line and defense that I could feel hopeful for them. You never know, maybe they’ll surprise us. “Worst” case scenario would be they just had to wait a year for Andrew Luck.

Sreesha Vaman (): I’d nominate the Redskins as worst team in football. They might look better than they really are because they are in a tough division, but they’d be equally miserable in worse divisions. At the moment, their only QB options are John Beck, a marginal backup, and Rex Grossman. Don’t get me wrong, there is talent there.  The defense isn’t all terrible—I even started them once last year and did well that week—and they definitely took a step in the right direction by getting younger this off-season, but that means growing pains before results.

Nick Britton (): If John Beck is even on your roster, hell, even your practice squad, you’re really up shit creek. The Bengals are looking at the Redskins and saying, “Well, at least we don’t have Beck, right?”

I’ll nominate the Raiders by default. The Raiders win the title automatically until they make the playoffs or Al Davis dies.

Shaughn Balezentes (): I’m surprised no one has nominated the Seahawks as the worst team in football. They had Matt Hasselbeck for years and brought in Charlie Whitehurst last year to be his eventual replacement. Obviously they didn’t see enough in Charlie after a year with the team to think he could be an adequate replacement, so they’re solution is to go out and sign Tavaris Jackson. Granted they signed Sidney Rice as well, but who is going to get him the ball? their offensive line was a mess last year, and they think they’ve got those problems solved through the draft and the signing of Robert Gallery, except all the draft analysts say they reached for all of the linemen they drafted and Gallery has been injury prone the last few seasons. Maybe hiring Tom Cable as the O-line coach will help, but in the NFL talent wins and the Seahawks don’t have much.

Masahito Ogasawara (): As much as I’d like to feel optimistic about this season, and there certainly have been good moves made by the Texans, this culture of failure that has existed since the franchise’s inception still makes me a pessimist when it comes to this team. It seems like every year, the so-called experts on TV declare Houston as the “sleeper” or “dark horse” in the preseason, and for the past few years, they predicted that this team will finally get over the hump and make the playoffs. We all know that didn’t happen, and I’m starting to feel that those analysts jinx us every year. So regardless of all the great moves we’ve made this off-season (I have to admit, bringing in Wade Phillips alone gave me false hope for a few days that our defense got better already) until I see it, I won’t believe that this team will make the playoffs.

First, it doesn’t matter how great our offense is, it’s proven to be a moot point in the last 3 seasons when we finished in top 5. This league is about defense, as it is in any other major sports league, and until we prove on that side of the ball, we will never make the playoffs. Talking about Wade Phillips and the improvements he can bring as well as his track record of success is all fine and good, but one thing this team still lacks is the ability to pass rush. Mario Williams moving to OLB is a huge risk and still a big unknown. As great as he is, he’s still 6’7, 285 lbs. DeMeco Ryans is coming off of an Achilles’ tendon rupture and history doesn’t bode well for him as far as type of injury is concerned. I’m not optimistic how Cushing will transition to the 3-4, and he hit a major sophomore wall last year. One glaring need that our GM has ignored is the NT position.  We’re not gonna survive with Earl Mitchell/Shaun Cody at NT all season, unless you are playing Madden. Signing Jonathan Joseph and Danieal Manning was huge and will definitely help our secondary, but Wade Phillips 3-4 defense is all about the front 7 generating pass rush, and until we improve in that area, the improvements in the secondary won’t be as beneficial. And speaking of which, we still have Kareem Jackson and Jason Allen at our other CB spot, and they are very good at “escorting” opposing WRs into the end zone on a regular basis.

Finally, I think the loss of Vonta Leach will hurt our running game a lot more than people think. He did make Foster look good last year, and our running game will suffer this year in my opinion. And no, the Colts are not going to suck, and I think Peyton’s neck will be just fine. If anything, he will have more weapons available this year (hello, Dallas Clark) and he still had the Colts winning the division last year despite all the injuries that offense had. Once again, it’s their division to lose, and they are still the clear favorite to win the AFC South.

Rahat Ahmed (): The team with the worst record in the NFL this year will not be the worst team.  The Panthers will get mauled in their divisional games and are slated to play the Colts, Texans, Packers and some other very competitive teams.  They’ll once again have the worst record, but in terms of actual gameplay, I may have to pick the Buffalo Bills.  Fitzpatrick is not a solution, though I do like him.  And losing Posluszny is going to hurt them a lot in a division packed with offensive threats (yes, the Dolphins make this list because of Marshall and Bush).

The major power that I don’t see making the playoffs this year is the Colts.  The Texans breaking out has become a broken record, but things have to click sometime.  Regardless of the final standings, the team has progressed quite a bit over the past three years, and this is the year they take the division.  The Jaguars and Titans are wild cards, but Manning can only do so much for a team that should have gone no better than 7-9 last year with the talent present.  In fact, if he does take this team to an 11+ win season and a trip deep into the postseason, we may have to once and for all anoint him the greatest quarterback ever—though that’s a different discussion altogether.

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NFL 2011: Who Will Rise?

In Football, Houston on August 1, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Let’s get this out of the way—I don’t like the Houston Texans.

To me, they are saccharine, the master-planned suburban community of the NFL. Sure, it looks nice, has that glean to it, all the amenities you could ask for, and yet, you’ve completely forgotten it the moment you drive away. It’s all there, and yet, something’s missing.

In the Texans’ case, that certain something is personality.

From bland superstars like Andre Johnson and Arian Foster to their cookie-cutter stadium to the fact that Texans gameday feels exactly as you think it would (right down to the crowd chanting predictabilities in unison), there are no surprises with the Texans, no “wow” factor. That includes the annual inevitability that is the Texans’ disappointing record.

That changes this year. In 2011, talent finally prevails, and the Texans have plenty of it. Mark it down—the Houston Texans, after years of not quite getting there, are finally going to reach the postseason.

History dictates as much. Think of the Cincinnati Bengals of two years ago, the Chicago Bears of last year, the near-Super Bowl champion Arizona Cardinals of 2008. Every year, someone rises from a gang of also-rans to reach the postseason. This year, in the post-lockout world where stability will be of extra importance, the Texans—with vets like Matt Schaub, Johnson, DeMeco Ryans and Mario Williams—are primed for a playoff berth.

Let’s dissect how this conclusion was made.

For starters, go ahead and eliminate all of the last year’s playoff teams, as you can’t exactly rise from the ashes when the house was never on fire. That eliminates the New York Jets, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, New England, New Orleans, Seattle, Green Bay, Philadelphia, Chicago and Atlanta.

Secondly, let’s go ahead and remove teams that underwhelmed in 2010, but are expected to rebound and contend for a playoff spot in 2011. That takes care of Arizona, Dallas, San Diego and the New York Giants.

Next, let’s discard all the teams that are in rebuidling mode in 2011, throwing out young, unproven quarterbacks or washed-up vets (to play in front of those unproven youngsters) in the hopes of playing playoff spoiler to division rivals while potentially building for a more prosperous future. Include Carolina, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Denver,  Cleveland, Minnesota and Tennessee on that list.

Moving on, throw out the teams who came out of nowhere last year to contend, and while falling short of the playoffs, are primed for numerous playoff runs. These teams are no longer unknowns. That’d be Tampa Bay and St. Louis.

From there, let’s just go ahead and toss the franchise train wrecks out, since these organizations—as currently constructed—will never be anything beyond mediocre. We’re looking at you, Oakland and Washington.

That leaves five teams vying for status of “uprisers,” including the aforementioned Texans. Here is why the other four won’t get there in 2011.

Detroit: Because the Lions, like the Texans too many times before, are this year’s hot playoff pick. The problem is this, Matthew Stafford can’t stay healthy, and Detroit is housed in a division with Chicago and the defending Super Bowl champs. Maybe in 2012, but not now.

Jacksonville/Miami: I’m lumping these two together, as they’re pretty much the same team. Both based in Florida, both average and forgettable in every way, not awful, but not exactly awe-inspiring either. Wouldn’t be surprised if both finished 8-8; it would only be fitting for both to land right in the middle of the NFL pack.

San Francisco: Alex Smith. Need I say more?

That leaves Houston, who thanks to stable vets, an upgraded defense (both on the field and in the coaching box), and a weak division (even Indy isn’t a sure thing anymore), will finally reach the playoffs in 2011. 10-6. See you in the postseason Houston. Yes, I’m just as surprised as you.

Perfecting the Big Question: The First Game

In Baseball, Basketball, Football, Hockey, Houston, Loyalty, New York, Perfecting the Big Question, Seattle, Wrestling on July 29, 2011 at 12:03 PM

With a varied list of contributors to Perfecting the Upset, we decided it made sense to start a series of articles where we’d throw out a question to the crew and see how they stand.  This week, we ask:

What was the first game you ever attended?

(Don’t forget to check out our Allegiances table to know our loyalties.)

Rahat Ahmed
The first professional game I attended soon became part of one of my first memorable heartbreaks: Game 6 of the 1992-93 Western Conference finals between the Houston Rockets and the Seattle SuperSonics.  My uncle surprised me with tickets, which led to me frantically printing out “banners” on our old dot matrix to cheer on Olajuwon and crew. (They were terrible, but an eleven year old has to make do with the technology he has access to.)  The first five games of the series had been decided by an average of 14.4 points, all won by the team at home.  Game 5, in fact, ended in a 25 slaughter by the Shawn Kemp-led Sonics.

The game was tight through half-time until Kenny “The Jet” Smith took it upon himself and ripped the Sonics 36-15 in the third quarter with his 13-for-16 shooting.  We won 103-90.  But the real memory of that series remains in two parts: The first was Game 7, which ended in a 3 point loss at Seattle in overtime.  It was the only game in the series that went down to the wire, where The Jet had a chance to clinch it at the end of regulation but failed.  We lost 103-100 because we simply couldn’t stop Sam Perkins.  Brutal.

But what I’ve never forgotten was outside the series, and why I’ve come to hate David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs so much: Game 82 of the regular season was against them. We won the game outright during regulation, but Hugh Evans decided to count a tip-in at the buzzer that was clearly too late.  It was enough to send the game to overtime and help the Spurs eek out a 119-117 victory.  Most importantly?  It gave Seattle home court advantage against us, even though we both ended the season with the same record.  And considering we were 2-6 against them over the past two seasons due to our inability to contain Kemp, Payton and Perkins, we could have used that.  (Perkins, especially, was one of the few players in the league who gave Olajuwon problems due to his range and height.)

We know that one decision in the regular season doesn’t lead to your final seeding, but I’ve never been able to forget about it.  My first experience at The Summit remains blood-stained by Robinson and Evan and kept us from having a go at Jordan.

Nick Britton
I assume that the first sporting event I went to was a minor league baseball game but I don’t remember anything about it. And when I was a young’un I saw the Washington Bullets a couple of times and the Washington Capitals once. That’s all I remember.

The first game for which I remember any details was a Seattle Mariners/Baltimore Orioles game on June 6, 1993 at Camden Yards in Baltimore. The stadium was only about a year old then. I remember this game for a couple of reasons: One, my dad had procured access to the Tyson Chicken corporate luxury box, so I got to watch the game in style; and two, there was a giant brawl in the middle of the game.

The fight I remember well but the people involved faded from my memory over the past 18 years until a friend of mine found the box score for me. I knew Harold Reyonlds, Mike Mussina and Norm Charlton were involved and that Lou Piniella got thrown out for a temper tantrum. It was an epic fight by baseball standards, and it started as baseball fights usually do: Team A’s pitcher throws at or hits Team B’s batter and then Team B’s pitcher retaliates shortly thereafter. In this case, Chris Bosio of the M’s went headhunting and Mike Mussina of the O’s nailed some dude I’ve never heard of. Fight!

What I remember most was how the fight never seemed to end. Usually, these things end quickly and everyone’s standing around. The guys from the bullpen run in just to get some cardio in. But this fight just kept going on and on. The pile kept moving around the infield like those cups in that cup game they always throw up on the video board. Fights were breaking out all over the place. McNulty and Bunk tried to break things up until the umpires stopped them (the police did try to intervene). Apparently, Ripken was at the bottom of that mess. Everyone in the stadium was standing up just in awe of a real, honest-to-god fight on the baseball diamond. I was pretty sure it was the greatest thing I’d seen in my 14 years of life so far.

The end result: Chris Bosio broke his collarbone for the second time that season. Two guys on the O’s got all bloodied up. Norm Charlton threw some punches. Eight players were ejected, including Piniella (shocker).

I only knew who won thanks to the box score. But two teams brawling out all over the diamond, that’s the kind of thing that sticks with you. The only equivalent would be Pedro Martinez throwing Don Zimmer to the ground like a bag of flour. But I wasn’t there for that.

Oh, and Cal Ripken? Ripken lived to see another day (or so).

Andrew Feingold
Technically, the first game I ever went to was Rockets vs. Knicks at Madison Square Garden on December 3, 1983, when my mom was pregnant with me. When I was old enough to hear this story, I instantly became a Knicks fan. During the 1983-84 season, the Knicks finished 47-35 and lost in the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Celtics. As a Knicks fan, this was just the beginning of losing series to playoff rivals. Hubie Brown was the coach of the team at the time, and to this day he remains one of my favorite announcers to hear on the radio.

C.D. Hale
Survivor Series ’94. San Antonio. Freeman Coliseum. I was 12, and our poor asses smuggled food in from the outside, a pseudo-white trash family of four taking in the ‘rasslin for the night. Couldn’t have enjoyed it more, particularly when Undertaker extracted revenge by defeating Yokozuna in a casket match. The special enforcer for that main event match? A Mr. Chuck Norris, the man who doesn’t read books, but rather, stares them down until he gets the information he wants.

Sean Koo
In September ’94, my dad took my brother and me to our first Buccaneers game. It was at the Old Sombrero against the New Orleans Saints, and little did I know that this would be the start of my hatred of the ‘Aints. In the midst of the Bucs’ thirteen year run of losing seasons, Sam Wyche was trying to put a consistent winner out on the field, but even his Super Bowl resume couldn’t get it done in Tampa. In a game that you could call a “defensive showdown” or an “offensive letdown,” the Bucs lost to the Saints 9-7. It would be a couple of more games until I saw my first win, and years until my first winning season, but being in the stadium for the first time and taking in the experience in all of its smash-mouth-football glory had me hooked. Buccaneer football at the Old or New Sombrero was the only way to go.

Sreesha Vaman
My first sporting event was a Capitals regular season game against the Minnesota North Stars in 1987, but it wasn’t the first one I was supposed to go to.

On November 1, 1985, my Capitals hosted an early-season home game against the New York Islanders—those New York Islanders, who had won four straight Stanley Cups and came one win away from a fifth.  Bossy.  Trottier.  Smith.  Potvin.  Gillies.  LaFontaine.  Two Sutters.  Tonelli.  A stacked line-up, one of the greatest teams ever assembled in the NHL.

So needless to say I was excited for weeks when my friend told me that his dad got four tickets to the game from work, and I was getting the fourth ticket.

The day before the game, I stayed out playing night roller hockey with my friends in the cold Indian summer air wearing a t-shirt and shorts… and got sick.  I could barely move the next morning.  I skipped school, slept as much as I could, but couldn’t convince my mom I was healthy enough to go to the game.

The 4pm vomiting didn’t help my cause.

At 5pm I succumbed, and another friend went to the game.  I watched the Caps beat the Isles, 5-3, on television.  My friend’s dad brought me a Capitals team calendar, which was the promotion that night.

Missing that game was a source of inspiration from then on, though: I watched every minute of every Capitals game on TV (unless I went to the game in person) from that year until I went to college outside of the DC area 12 years later.

In my junior and senior year, there was some home tape-delaying involved since I was working, playing club hockey, and, for a little bit, entertaining a girlfriend who wasn’t a sports fan; go figure—but I made it happen.

Still, I wondered how great it would have been to see my Caps perfect the upset (pun intended!) against the vaunted 1980s Islanders.

I still am jealous to this day.

The Tin Man Always Had A Heart

In Basketball, Houston on July 5, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Tracy Lamar McGrady, Jr. was drafted 9th overall by the Toronto Raptors in the 1997 NBA Draft.  He came straight out of high school and mainly played a reserve role in his first two seasons.  A year after T-Mac’s arrival, the Raptors drafted his cousin Vince Carter with the 5th pick: The high flying duo instantly built expectations for the Canadian franchise.  They finally led the Raptors to a playoff berth in 2000 only to get swept by the Knicks in the first round.  Then, in order to escape the shadow of his older cousin, he forced the hand of the Raptors into a sign-and-trade that sent him to the Orlando Magic.

During the four years he spent in sunny Florida, he was consistently considered one of the top 5 players in the league.

In the summer of 2004, after McGrady successfully defended his scoring crown, the Magic agreed to send him and a slew of mostly forgettable players to the Houston Rockets for local favorite Steve Francis and another slew of forgettable players.  There, McGrady continued his statistical onslaught, averaging 24 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists in four relatively healthy seasons including a memorable comeback against the Spurs that may be his only Lone Star highlight.  But his body started to give out; amidst controversy, he was traded to the Knicks in what felt like a mercy transaction.  He finished the season, unwanted, and was signed by the Detroit Pistons last summer for a veteran’s minimum.  This past season, he had his first injury-free year in three years.  We even saw hints of the old T-Mac, though they were few and far between.  Now, with his eventual retirement looming, T-Mac will never again be in the discussion for the best player in the NBA.

For T-Mac, statistical success has not translated to critical praise: Players like Karl Malone and Charles Barkley all receive knocks as players because they never won a championship; T-Mac’s legacy is even more tarnished as he has never even advanced beyond the first round. Despite averaging 29.5 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.3 steals in the playoffs as the main star of his teams, his doughnut trips to the second round has led basketball experts and historians to scratch him off the all-time greats list.  He’ll always be remembered as one of those players who never lived up to their physical talents.

But that isn’t exactly fair…

First and foremost, McGrady was never given the personnel to go far into the postseason.  Even the greatest of players need a team that’s better than dead weight: Every championship team has been full of all-stars and above average role players.  Just compare the past 3 championship teams:

2011 Mavericks: Dirk Nowtizki, Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry
2010/2009 Lakers: Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum and Ron Artest
2008 Celtics: Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins

In fact, I could list every single championship team and a plethora of names would jump out to even the most casual of basketball fans.  T-Mac has only been paired with one recognizable player in Yao Ming, and the rest of his teams never truly fit the bill of a genuine contender.  Here’s a basic list of his key contributors: an over-the-hill (OTH) Darrell Armstrong, OTH Horace Grant, OTH (and fat) Shawn Kemp, Rafer Alston, Tyronn Lue, OTH Bob Sura, OTH Juwan Howard, OTH David Wesley, OTH Clarence Weatherspoon, Derek Anderson, Luther Head, etc.  When I write OTH, I mean on the wrong side of 30.  Besides Yao Ming, none of T-Mac’s teammates could have pulled off being on the starting rotation of a true contender.  Great players are recognized by non-fans.  My fiancée knows who LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard are, but she couldn’t name more than five teams in the league.  Most argue that T-Mac’s so-called greatness should’ve at least carried him past the first round, but instead his lack of discipline and heart failed to get his teams over the hump.

In a recent interview, Jon Barry, NBA journeyman and a member of the Rockets during T-Mac’s stay, was asked about his biggest regret as a player: “I couldn’t help Tracy McGrady get past the first round. The whole team saw the talent, heart and dedication of T-Mac, but we just weren’t good enough to help him get over that hump.”  This comes from a former teammate, acknowledging that the Rockets, who had a better cast than the Magic, failed to surround him with the talent necessary for postseason success.  LeBron showed us in recent years that a subpar cast isn’t enough even when you’re the heir-apparent to Michael Jordan.  Even Karl Malone, paired with the all-time assists and steals leader in John Stockton, never won a championship.   In the same vein that Malone, Charles Barkley and crew had to compete in the Age of Jordan, T-Mac had to play in an era when the Western Conference was unusually stacked.

But T-Mac had Yao: That should mean something, right?  But those Rockets fans who’ve obsessed over our pitfalls know better.  There’s no need to discuss Yao’s fragility as that’s deserving of its own article.  Yao was (and still is) the Rockets’ cash cow, whether the organization admits it or not.  Retaining Yao, even into next year regardless of how much of a liability his injuries have become, is important if only because Yao is a significant financial asset.  But Yao’s body and game were never meant to be paired with someone like T-Mac. In his prime, T-Mac represented an ideal NBA body: 6’9″ with a 7’3″ wingspan, 42-inch vertical jump, 235 pounds with only 8% body fat and ran the 40-yard dash in less than 4.5 seconds.  He represented the perfect combination of height, weight, speed and strength to be successful in the league—a build like LeBron but with T-Mac’s quickness making up for his lack of similar upper body strength.  This quickness suited him a fast-paced system, not one that has to have a half-court set with Yao.  In addition, Yao’s game has always been easily neutralized: Too uncoordinated to catch quick passes, too tall to have true success with his back facing the basket, too slow and un-athletic to defend against players that would front him.  The list goes on.  I’m a fan of Yao only because the man always says and does the right thing and has a lot of heart.  But heart only gets you so far.  I’ve never met anyone who agreed that the two superstars’ games complemented each other, but everyone agreed that they were indeed “superstars” and would bring in the “kwan” and “show the Rockets the money.”  (Jerry Maguire quotes seem quite fitting when discussing money and heart together.)  The Rockets would’ve had more success if they had traded Yao for versatile and mobile big men, or if they had traded T-Mac for knock down shooters and defenders (something that Mark Cuban would have done without hesitation)—but the Rockets held onto their “superstars” as money in the pocket instead of building a better ball club to advance to the second round and beyond.  The failures of Team USA basketball in the early 2000s have taught us that you can’t just stick a bunch of good players together and expect to win.  They have to gel and complement each other.  Let’s put this into a statistical perspective: Until the end of the 2007 season, the Rockets won 59% of games with Yao on the floor and 70% without.

McGrady has been called the “Tin Man,” referencing The Wizard of Oz character who lacked a heart.  I spoke of a former teammate’s defense of T-Mac, but there are a couple of statistical arguments against this as well.  McGrady was always one of the most efficient players in the NBA (even leading the league in 2002-03 ahead of another monster season by Shaquille O’Neal).  But we often overlook this feat.  The more minutes you play, the more susceptible you are to reducing the quality of your play, and T-Mac averaged around 40 minutes per game from age 21 to 26.  As such, T-Mac’s efficiency always rose in the playoffs.  He literally averaged more of everything in every statistical category when the postseason arrived, and doing more of everything should show the effort and heart—except that you can only do so much sometimes.  McGrady also came back from multiple injuries.  If he truly lacked the heart and desire to win, wouldn’t he have called it quits and gone to Disneyland with his $100 million?  The long hours, the constant media ridicule and having to play with teammates that he simply couldn’t depend on—when you combine all this, “lack of heart and desire” is the easy, lazy criticism because there’s no way to really disprove it.  In football, Carson Palmer can only nod his head in agreement.  He was a top 5 quarterback in the league in his prime, had multiple injuries, never a great supporting cast to surround him—and now he’d rather face retirement rather than once again carry the weight of a mediocre franchise on his shoulders.

I’ve always found myself to be a staunch defender of T-Mac’s legacy.  While I’ve felt he was in the wrong sometimes, I’ve never doubted his ability, heart and desire.  If we replaced Kobe Bryant with T-Mac, would the Lakers have still won those championships?  I believe so.  Just look at the seasons where Kobe was going solo and failed to make it past the first round despite leading the league in scoring titles in back to back years (sound familiar?).  In fact, he didn’t become the Kobe that we will remember until Chris Wallace gift-wrapped Pau Gasol to the Lakers in February of 2008.  If T-Mac had been blessed with the same luck, I’m quite sure that all these knocks against him would’ve never existed.  Because when you win, history shows us that people let you get away with even rape.

Cheering for a False Idol

In Baseball, Houston on June 30, 2011 at 10:00 AM

My heroes always carried a glove, not a cape.  Somewhere in my closet, I had a nice collection of comic books, but they were just a collection.  My pride and joy were my baseball cards.  I spent countless hours memorizing stats, sorting them and creating trades in my head (an early precursor to fantasy baseball).  These weren’t just guys playing baseball.  They represented everything I wanted to be.  Simply put, the Houston Astros were my life.  To a large degree, they still are, but it’s not and will never be the same again.  As a kid, I was fortunate enough to have had many encounters with these superheroes, but in the end, those experiences have become a touch too bittersweet.

Ken Caminiti was the greatest 3rd baseman I’d ever seen.  Maybe he wasn’t, but when you’re nine, you have a distorted frame of reference.  All I knew was that he could stop a bullet down the line and fire off a fastball to first that would have made Nolan Ryan blush.  Yeah, and he swung a mean stick.  But more than that, he was a good guy, and he played for my team.  Bagwell, Biggio, Gonzalez, they all were.  How could they not be?  I cheered for them, I wore a smile for weeks after I got one of them to sign a ball for me, and I religiously watched them at night.  Even after Caminiti was traded to San Diego, he was still a Houston Astro for me.  Being one was more than a jersey; he just happened to play elsewhere.  I had no perspective at that age about the “business” end of sports.  It was so much more than just that.

In 1996, Ken Caminiti reached the top with the Padres.  He was named the 1996 National League MVP and won his second consecutive Golden Glove.  A couple of years later, he made it to the Series.  And like many athletes, he had a rough end to his career.  Suddenly, he could no longer make the plays or manage his way through the pain.  Ultimately, he flamed out at first base for the Braves.  All in all, though, it was still a great career.

And then it happened.  Eight years and many confessions later, Caminiti was dead.  I had lost a part of me.  I had lost my innocence.  Superheroes weren’t supposed to die.  Or have a cocaine habit.  Or cheat.  Watching his fall was painful.  I poured over his Sports Illustrated story and tales of steroid abuse.  All those stats I had memorized now had a nice, big asterisk.

But this is not about steroids or other drugs.  It’s about last piece of the puzzle that Caminiti’s demise helped me figure out about baseball, sports and, well, everything.  What I saw so clearly as a kid became an impossibility as an adult.

Realizing that so many of my idols were false idols makes it hard for me to be a baseball fan nowadays, or at least one that’s not cynical.  Baseball is a proud and stubborn sport, to say the least.  It’s basked in tradition and numbers.  And for a good part of my youth, many of those playing at the highest level blatantly disregarded this history.  I’d like to believe baseball has cleaned itself up over the last few years.  And while the cynic in me is ready to forgive the sport, I refuse to forget.  After all, I still find myself comparing every third basemen today to Caminiti.

But cynicism has its limits: As an adult, I realize athletes aren’t mythological.  They’re just people like you and me.  Like many, Caminiti had his flaws and made his share of mistakes.  Unfortunately, his mistakes (and those of other athletes) were put in the spotlight for everyone to see.  But I still believe he was a good guy.  He had to be.

Learning to Love the Hated

In Basketball, Houston, Loyalty on June 27, 2011 at 10:00 AM

There are people in Kentucky who will threaten bloody murder upon hearing the words “Christian” and “Laettner” one after another.  Because his shot was the kind of moment that creates hatred in the heart.  It’s the kind of moment that spontaneously imbues everlasting enmity towards not just players, but whole franchises.  And tragically, every fan has one of these moments.  For me, it was John Stockton’s three-pointer against my Rockets in Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference Finals.

Little did I know that it was just the beginning: The Jazz went on to knock us out of the playoffs three more times over the next decade (1998, 2007, 2008).  On their first go-around, the Jazz were hated for being ruthless: On top of Stockton, you had the hard-to-love, nearly mechanical mailman in Karl Malone and James Bond-villain rejectee Greg Ostertag.  (Face it: If they remade The Spy Who Loved Me, Richard Kiel would have had some serious competition for the role of Jaws.)  As if that wasn’t enough of a trio to despise, Jerry Sloan came off as a brutally exacting coach.  He kept the Jazz competitive every year without actually winning.  They were the NBA-counterpart of the 90s Braves (though Bobby Cox did get his World Series win).  It’s frustrating seeing a team fail so often, especially when they do so at your expense.  Then came the crew of Boozer, AK47, D-Will and Ashton Kutcher.  While lacking the same sort of instant revulsion the old school crew brought us, Sloan’s basic presence still allowed them to embody the sort of cold swagger that reminded us of the Stockton-Malone era.  The first round exits in 2007 and 2008 were effectively the only real shot we ever had for the McGrady-Yao combo to bring home a trophy.  And the Jazz killed it.  They dashed our hopes, slashed our tires, left us on a ditch with our necks spewing blood on broken glass.  The team was broken, spirits dismantled.  Fans were on the verge of complete resignation.  The only thoughts that ran through our minds: “Fucking Stockton.”  It always went back to him.  To that one shot.

On February 9 of this year, Jerry Sloan coached his last game as the coach of the Utah Jazz.  On February 23, Deron Williams was traded to the New Jersey Nets.  Boozer left the summer before in free agency, as did Korver.  It’s inevitable that Kirilenko will bolt this summer (possibly to the Russian-soiled Nyets or literally to Russian soil).  And now the Jazz are no longer the team that I hated.  Been a huge fan of Al Jefferson for years, watching him toil away in the Minnesota cold.  Like Devin Harris and am looking for good things from Derrick Favors.  And when on draft night Enes Kanter found himself in Salt Lake City, I started feeling guilty.

I kind of want to support these guys.

Does that make me disloyal?  Am I suddenly a treacherous fool unworthy of cheering for the Rocket Red?  The Jazz and the Rockets don’t have a geographical rivalry: It’s been a purely incidental product of chance playoff seedings.  We’re not even in the same division anymore.  And the bad blood is mostly within a 15 year time frame.  Or wait: Am I just making excuses?

At what point are we allowed to stop hating certain teams?  If the Red Sox move to Montreal and change their name to the Expos, will Yankee fans still be mandated to wish ill on their pitchers and hock long-distance loogies at batters on-deck?   The Seattle SuperSonics were the bane of my existence as an early 90s Rockets fan.  But they’re the Thunder now.  In Oklahoma City.  With a crop of young talent headlined by a Longhorn.  I support them without guilt.  Is there a flaw in our logic of who we can and cannot hate?  The Jazz aren’t moving, but their pieces are drastically different from before.  The only real vestige of the old guard is Okur, and even he may be gone after next year.  Is change of culture enough of a justification?

Between love and hate, the memories we try to forget (or grudgingly hold onto because it feeds us the fire we sometimes need), there has to be a way to learn to love the hated.  Blind hate does a disservice to the beauty of a game.  It does disservice to players who are trying to make something of themselves.  All indications point to Kanter being the kind of guy you want on your team.  Shall we force upon him an unnecessary, inherited hatred?  We support teams because we like the sport.  The sport is the priority.  When we let blind hatred ruin the appreciation of a game, are we even worthy of being a fan?