THE WEEKEND EDITION
It’s the best weekend of the year in the NFL playoffs, with the last eight teams all on display in wall-to-wall action, so the Notebook is wall-to-wall NFL. The featured articles are…
And it wouldn’t be the Notebook if we didn’t try to put some historical perspective in it, there is also a select divisional playoff memory surrounding each team.
The Notebook’s museum focuses on the cities which had the best year in sports. We’re featuring three of those articles this weekend, with stories involving the Redskins of the early 1980s, the 1989 San Francisco 49ers and the 1990 New York Giants. There’s plenty more where that came from in the museum so take a look around.
Everybody enjoy the games!
Friday, January 13
The trailer ads for the new Mark Wahlberg movie Contraband are starting to break me down. Every scoreboard page you go to on ESPN.com blasts it in your face. And I admit the movie does look interesting, so maybe I’ll have to go check it out. The Wahlberg movie I’m really waiting for is Rat Bastard, the memoir of Boston mobster John Shea. Wahlberg bought the movie rights, but we haven’t seen it in the theatres yet. Shea was in Whitey Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang and went to prison before ratting out any of his fellow wise guys. It was a good book and could be a great movie, and I’m mystified why it hasn’t come out yet. So for now any violence I see in Boston will have to be restricted to what Shawn Thornton can provide on the ice.
The constant blasting of the movie promo is mildly annoying, but a comment in the ESPN studio during their doubleheader of Wisconsin-Purdue and Virginia-Duke last night was enough to send me over the edge. I didn’t pick up the name of the analyst, but he said we need to take seriously the idea that Syracuse can go undefeated. What?!?!? I have serious doubts this team is even the best in the country, with the inside game almost entirely dependent on Kris Joseph. I know the Big East isn’t as good as it was last year, but can we at least get to mid-February before even talking about this?
Duke’s win over Virginia was the key game of yesterday, as the Blue Devils try to hold off an improved Cavalier team for second place in the conference. There’s a lot of improvement we have to see from Duke before thinking they can challenge North Carolina. Looking ahead to tonight, it’s an NBA focus. The Celtics, sitting on the playoff bubble and coming off a home loss to Dallas, have to play Chicago in an 8 PM ET tip on ESPN.
Thursday, January 12
If you haven’t started watching NBA games yet, you aren’t missing anything. I watched the Dallas-Boston game from the Garden last night and one play summed it up. There was a breakaway layup, and the only two players who bothered to run down the court were the man with the ball and the defender. Everyone else stood back and watched.
The reason cited for this is the lack of conditioning after the lockout, and if you watch an NBA broadcast you can’t go five minutes without hearing someone make excuses for the lack of hustle by pointing out the regular back-to-backs. You know I can understand to a certain degree that players will lose their legs a little earlier in a game at the end of a back-to-back and that will hurt perimeter shooting. But for everyone to completely shut down and not play is absurd.
It made me think of Larry Bird during the 1987 playoffs. Injuries had depleted the Celtics’ depth and Bird was forced into playing almost the entire game. His reply to a reporter who asked him about it was something to the effect of “What’s the big deal about playing basketball for 48 minutes? I played all day when I was a kid. I like to do this.”
I’m not an NBA-basher, as evidenced by the fact I was watching the game last night, and I’ll watch the Celtics-Bulls on Friday night, but if players aren’t going to be in enough shape to do something as basic as run down the court on a fast break, then cut ticket prices in half until fans are going to be able to see actual basketball. And yes, I’m also bitter because the Celts lost on tough drive by Dirk Nowitzki to the hoop for a game-winning shot and foul.
NOTEBOOK’S THURSDAY FEATURES
Don’t look now, but the NHL has hit its midway point. Today the Notebook will look at six teams who are within two points of the playoffs and see how they stack up. The top teams might be on cruise control to April, but for these six, meaningful hockey is being played right now. And the run to the NFL’s second-round weekend continues. After taking the last two days to evaluate offenses and defenses, we’ll take today and see which coaches need this win the most. Both articles will be up later this morning.
Wednesday, January 11
There was a lot of movement on the NFL coaching front yesterday, with Jacksonville hiring Mike Mularkey, who’s been offensive coordinator at Atlanta after a stint as head coach in Buffalo. In a surprise move, Oakland’s new general manager Reggie McKenzie fired coach Hue Jackson. And Rex Ryan shook up his staff, as offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is out.
I was surprised at Jackson’s firing, as I thought Oakland made pretty good progress this year and were poised to move to the top of the AFC West next year. Jackson had to switch quarterbacks mid-stream, going from Jason Campbell to Carson Palmer, he lost Darren McFadden for the entire stretch drive and the talent in the defensive secondary was lacking to begin with. You can make the argument that McKenzie deserved to start with “his guy”, and I suppose Jackson’s performance wasn’t so breathtaking that it overrides that basic GM-coach relationship. But I think he turned in a nice performance and deserves an opportunity somewhere else.
One of those places could’ve been Jacksonville, who went through the NFL’s tired routine of recycling coaches who haven’t been successful elsewhere. Maybe Mularkey got the job because Norv Turner wasn’t available. And the Schottenheimer move could be the least interesting of those involving his family—his father Marty is said to be a candidate for the Tampa Bay job, which can take care of Brian’s current employment problems. Mike Sherman is also under consideration with the Bucs, who are said to want a veteran coach and disciplinarian. Sherman would be a great hire, but if I had the millions necessary to buy an NFL team, the first person I’d be calling about my coaching job would be Marty Schottenheimer.
NOTEBOOKS’S TUESDAY FEATURES
In college basketball there’s an overview of the Atlantic 10, which has a couple key games tonight in Duquesne-Xavier and Temple-St. Louis. And still coming up later this morning, The Notebook evaluates the defenses of the remaining eight NFL playoff teams, following up on yesterday’s review of the offenses.
One of those college basketball games going tonight is LSU-Alabama. The entire nation breaths a sigh of relief they don’t have to watch it.
Tuesday, January 10
If you were an Alabama fan it was a great night. For the rest of us, a text I got from a friend of mine summed it up—“Before tonight’s game they should have had the disclaimer that the original episode aired on 11-5-2011 just like Saturday Night Live does when it airs a repeat.”
Alabama-LSU was a lousy game from start to finish, and this is from someone who generally appreciates defensive football and enjoyed the first game. But when two teams take almost eight quarters to get one touchdown that’s not all defense. Some of that has to be offensive ineptitude. Why Les Miles went with Jordan Jefferson for the entire game at quarterback is beyond me. As bad as the game went, I don’t know that Jarrett Lee would’ve made a difference, but from start to finish this season Lee has been the better quarterback. Meanwhile, give Alabama sophomore A.J. McCarron his due—23/34 for 234 yards and zero interceptions against the nation’s best secondary (Speaking of that LSU secondary, Brent Musberger appears to be fascinated by Tyrann Mathieu’s nickname “Honeybadger”, referring to him by the moniker repeatedly. Brent also made Trent Richardson’s NFL decision for him after the lone ‘Bama touchdown).
Overall, the ending to the season is an unsatisfying one. If I had a vote in the AP poll I’d give it to Oklahoma State, the best of the teams that won both a conference championship and a major bowl. During the season the Cowboys blew out Oklahoma, Baylor, Kansas State, Texas, Texas A&M, Missouri. Their “easy” non-conference schedule included bowl teams in UL-Lafayette and Tulsa. And they capped it off by winning the Fiesta Bowl over Stanford, beating the most-hyped NFL prospect of a generation.
For the record, the AP vote is in and it went to Alabama in a landslide. The USA Today coaches’ poll is contractually committed to taking the winner of last night’s game, so this will go into the books as an undisputed championship. It was also one that left anyone outside the state of Alabama with a bad taste in their mouth.
The better news yesterday came from the Baseball Hall of Fame where former Cincinnati Reds shortstop and current ESPN analyst Barry Larkin was elected to the Hall. Larkin won the 1995 NL MVP and was a key part of a World Series winner in 1990. There are critics who believe Larkin’s numbers weren’t up to snuff. I’ll leave that debate for another time, because for me this is a vote I was ecstatic with. I generally don’t have favorite players in sports, but Larkin was one of three who held that status (not counting from fifth-grade flirtation with Astros’ rightfielder Terry Puhl). The other two were Pete Rose and Roger Clemens, so just by not ending up under indictment had already set Larkin apart. Now he’s headed for immortality and I’m hoping for a July trip to upstate New York.
NOTEBOOK’S TUESDAY FEATURES
The NFL playoffs get prime focus and there will be a breakdown of the offenses for all eight remaining teams. In college basketball, Ohio State is going to be on ESPN tonight (9 PM ET) against Illinois, so the Notebook will delve deeper into the Buckeyes and see how their living up to preseason expectations and what the prospects are going forward.
Monday, January 9
Am I the only one who finds it ironic that the game in which Tim Tebow won converts in his quarterbacking skills sees him get a final passing yardage total of 316 (as in John 3:16)? I won’t contribute to the flood of Tebow coverage that you can find everywhere else, to the expense of the three other NFL playoff games that went down this weekend, but that was an odd coincidence. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe the The Man Upstairs really does want Denver to win.
The weekend didn’t go well for the AFC North, as Cincinnati joined Pittsburgh in going to the sidelines, losing 31-10. It will be a “what-if” game for Bengals fans, because they did move the ball through the air, as Andy Dalton threw for 224 yards. But it couldn’t have come as a surprise that Houston intercepted the rookie quarterback three times, nor could Arian Foster’s 153 rush yards be seen as a break from form. I stand by my belief that Houston is the best team in the AFC with a first-string quarterback and the fact T.J. Yates is the man is the only thing keeping them from a Super Bowl.
So is the world ready for Yates and Tebow to be the quarterbacks in the AFC Championship Game or will New England and Baltimore restore order at home? The Notebook will be delving into the Broncos-Patriots and Texans-Ravens games later in the week.
The fan base in Atlanta has to be grateful for Tebow’s heroics, because had the Pittsburgh-Denver game been the expected beatdown, the coverage today would have been about the absolutely hideous showing the Falcons put on in New York. Losing a game 24-2 is about as bad as it gets—frankly, they’d have been better off without the safety. Having a “2” sit up on the scoreboard looks even worse than getting shutout. A Giant running game that had been non-existent all year woke up the echoes of 2007 with 92 yards from Brandon Jacobs and Eli Manning was sharp going 23/32 for 277 yards and no interceptions.
Atlanta is now 0-3 in the playoffs the last four years. I usually protest these stats because I think they’re often misleading—for example, a team that gets a bye and loses in the second round (as Atlanta did a year ago) shouldn’t be treated the same as a team that loses in the first round. But this much is indisputable—the three games that have eliminated the Falcons (2008 in Arizona, 2010 to Green Bay and now this year) have gotten progressively worse. Fox analyst Troy Aikman was right to say that it’s going to be a long offseason for this organization and no matter what they do from September to December of 2012, everyone’s going to wait for the other shoe to drop in January.
Now we come to the city of New Orleans where we’ll segueway out of the weekend and into Monday. Say what you will about Drew Brees—and when you go 33/43 for 466 yards and don’t throw a single pick, there’s a lot to say—but the Saints separated themselves from the Lions because they had a running game and the Lions didn’t. The balance of New Orleans made them unstoppable and sends them San Francisco next Saturday. We’ll look at this game, along with Sunday’s NY Giants-Green Bay game later in the week.
The Superdome saw plenty of offense Saturday night and they expect to see plenty of defense tonight where LSU-Alabama’s battle for the BCS National Championship (8:30 PM ET, ESPN) highlights the Monday action. For those who don’t like college football, you can catch New York-area teams on the tube in basketball. It’s UConn hosting West Virginia (7 PM ET, ESPN2) in college and Charlotte-New York (7:30 PM ET, NBA-TV) in the pros. If it weren’t for the football game, the UConn-WVA game would be worth a little more hype, with the Huskies having lost two straight and playing to keep from getting buried in the Big East race, going against a team that knocked off Georgetown. And out west in the NHL there’s a Washington-Los Angeles game (10:30 PM ET, NHL) where the Caps and Kings are both right on the fringes of the playoff race.
THE NOTEBOOK’S MONDAY FEATURES
It’s all about college football today with the Notebook’s preview of tonight’s game, along with a retro look at the national championship seasons Alabama and LSU enjoyed in 1978 and 2003 respectively, both of which have some historical relationship to this season’s showdown. And the weekly newsletter, taking a look at the entire week in sports, will be sent out by 11 AM ET. Sign up on the right hand side of the home page.
And lastly, don’t forget to get a copy of my book The Last New Year’s, which covers the high points of college football’s race for the national title from 1976-93. Get it delivered to your Kindle today for $9.99 or get a “real” book for twelve dollars and change.