UGGLA & CRAWFORD TURN IT AROUND
Atlanta’s Dan Uggla and Boston’s Carl Crawford were both supposed to make significant impacts on their new teams. Crawford’s seven-year deal for $142 million was the second-biggest deal of the offseason after the Cliff Lee Sweepstakes. Uggla signing with Atlanta didn’t get the same kind of publicity, but it looked a perfect acquisition for a Brave team ready to make a World Series push and needing offensive help to do it. Then the story for both players went awry.
Uggla and Crawford each got off to starts that can only be described as horrid if we are willing to show exceeding kindness to our subjects. Crawford was as a reliable a groundout to first base as there was in the league. Uggla hit below .200 much of the year. Even today their season-long numbers show the toll of the first half. In spite of a 31-game hitting streak, Uggla is still only hitting .220. His one saving grace is that the few hits he did get early on tended to be home runs, so his season total of 24 still looks very good. Crawford’s overall stats show a .293 on-base percentage and .396 slugging, something the Red Sox could’ve gotten from Darnell McDonald for a fraction of the cost. Then the story turned back around.
The hitting streak for Uggla is gaining national attention with each passing day, as he closes on the 39-game string Paul Molitor had for Milwaukee back in 1987 with Pete Rose’s 44-game streak of 1979 just beyond that. Uggla is doing a lot more than hitting home runs these days, with a .371 on-base percentage in August and a .714 slugging percentage. And he’s still hitting the long ball, with nine home runs since the All-Star break.
Crawford has finally shown why Boston dropped all that money on him. He got on a 9-for-10 tear during this past weekend’s series with the Yankees. In the month of August his on-base percentage is .405 and he’s slugging .629. It may be that the hamstring injury that put him on the disabled list might have been just what he needed to hit the reset button on his season, in much the same way that Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter has rebounded since his return from a similar injury.
So as you evaluate teams coming down the stretch, don’t judge Crawford and Uggla—and by extension Boston and Atlanta—by their overall season numbers. For both players it looks like the travails of the first half are past them and they’re ready to start performing like their new teams always knew they could.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS PREVIEW
Washington has gotten more news this August for who’s not there than they have for who’s actually suiting up. Donovan McNabb was dealt to Minnesota. Albert Haynesworth is Shipping Up To Boston, to borrow a phrase from a song by the Dropkick Murphys. Clinton Portis has called it a career. Now head coach Mike Shanahan has to pick up the pieces and get this franchise turned back around.
Shanahan and his son Kyle, the offensive coordinator, liked Rex Grossman and he got to play down the stretch last year. Grossman wasn’t bad, although the prospect of him starting undoubtedly elicits howls of laughter in Chicago, where Grossman played so poorly on a Super Bowl team that he didn’t even get the usual unjustified credit a quarterback often gets when a defense carries a team to glory. Grossman appears to have a second chance here, although he’ll be given a run for the job by John Beck. Past problems and the uncertainty of his current job status hasn’t stopped Grossman from predicting an NFC East title for the ‘Skins. I’m a card-carrying Redskins fan since I was six years old and I thought I was the only person around who could talk myself into believing such things before the season started.
In most training camps the quarterback discussion gets all the attention, but the Redskins are another case where the big problems really lie up front. Washington has only one quality offensive lineman, tackle Trent Williams who still has to work on his consistency in his second year in the league. And they have no quality defensive lineman, though the fact it’s a 3-4 scheme with a lot of blitzing called by defensive coordinator Jim Haslett can at least help cover that up. Overall though, this is a team with a desperate need for some toughness at the line of scrimmage—on both sides of the ball.
Washington’s strength is its linebacking corps, with Brian Orakpo being a playmaker on the outside and London Fletcher and Rocky McIntosh ably manning the interior. First-round draft pick Ryan Kerrigan played defensive end at Purdue, but will be a pass-rushing linebacker here, to play opposite Orakpo. If that doesn’t work out, McIntosh can play well on the outside. Haslett has the people to run his blitz packages, and that includes strong safety LaRon Landry, a good physical hitter. He was miscast as a free safety where his aggressiveness worked against him. Now centerfield is manned by Oshiomogho Atogwe who isn’t spectacular, but he plays smart and stays at home, something that will be a welcome breath of fresh air in a unit that’s had more than its share of freelancing.
Where the ‘Skins can be interesting is how they’ll handle the skill positions. Santana Moss at slot receiver and Chris Cooley at tight end are as reliable as ever, but the team needs someone who can stretch the field and they need to settle on a primary running back. For the latter job, Ryan Torain is the logical choice, although Tim Hightower has been brought in, and Shanahan drafted promising rookies in Roy Helu (Nebraska) and Evan Royster (Penn State). The opportunities for new draft choices to play at receiver are more abundant, where only Anthony Armstrong is on hand to take pressure off Moss. Playing time could go to Leonard Hankerson (Miami) or Aldrick Robinson (SMU), each of whom excelled in pro-style offenses in college.
There’s a lot of uncertainty in Washington right now. The surest way to cover for that uncertainty is to control the line of scrimmage. But the days of Joe Gibbs’ Hogs are long gone, and it’s easy to see this season turning ugly in the nation’s capital.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL IS BACK
With the lockouts going on in the NFL and NBA, the fact college football had a crazy offseason of its own could go overlooked. Well, overlooked outside of Columbus, OH anyway. We’ve seen the Ohio State program shaken to its very core, North Carolina depose its head coach and an ongoing investigation at Oregon that could dismantle what’s been one of the nation’s great stories—a championship-caliber team built without a huge tradition, or a boatload of high school talent right at its doorstep. And in the midst of these shenanigans going on in the power conferences, Boise State got slapped on the wrist for a comparatively mild offense. Just as was the case in the NFL, it’s nice to finally have actual football to talk about again.
It’s going to be a big transitional year for college football. The newly expanded Big Ten, along with the newly expanded and re-named Pac-12 will join the parade of teams playing conference championship games on the first Saturday of December, a day that has now become the focal point of this sport, in a way New Year’s Day used to be. The Big 12 takes a temporary step back, with only 10 teams and no title game, along with an internal war going on over the potential power of Texas’ own TV network. They’ll settle their disagreements, add two teams and have a championship game again or be raided again and go into extinction.
But that’s the future. Starting tomorrow it’s time to look at college football’s present. The Notebook will focus on different storylines within each conference as we build toward final preseason predictions and major bowl projections done in time for the September 1 opener.
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