Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Rex Ryan has us all fooled ... right?

Rex Ryan is either the smartest, most cunning, most innovative coach in the history of the NFL, or ... he's not.

What to think? Which way to go? There's no middle ground here. It's sort of like cats -- you either love 'em (which I do) or you don't. You're either in or your out, to paraphrase Pat Riley, who actually was pretty smart, cunning and innovative. You either have confidence the plan will work when it counts, or you don't.

The Jets have been pretty terrible throughout the first three games of the preseason: This is not news. The defense doesn't look bad, but the offense is a mess. The line has holes, especially at tackle (Winston Hill is not walking through that door), their receivers are banged-up and old, their top running back is pretty pedestrian and though they profess confidence and trust in their starting quarterback, Mark Sanchez, he's going to have to play with whiplash every week, what with that Tim Tebow guy breathing down his neck.

And through it all, Ryan has remained the steady, stoic captain of this ship that everyone else can see is taking on a lot of water. And instead of grabbing the buckets and bailing, he's calmly forging ahead, telling us not to worry. Trust me, he assures us. I got this.

"I see some encouraging signs that we're headed in the right direction," Ryan told my New York Post colleague, Brian Costello. "It might not be obvious to everybody in the public. Again, I'm confident in our offense. I'm confident in our coaching staff. I'm confident in our players. I believe that we're going to have a very productive offense when it's all said and done."

Uh, OK. Maybe we're wrong. Maybe in all of their shrouded-in-secrecy practices Ryan and new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano have cooked up the most amazing, intricate mind-blowing offensive attack, the likes of which we've never seen before. Maybe Tebow will line up as quarterback, running back, H-back and wideout ... on the same play (Hey, Bugs Bunny did it on the baseball field, so there is precedent). Maybe Antonio Cromartie will catch passes ... from Nick Mangold.

Or maybe not. Maybe behind closed doors and security-encased fields far away from the prying eyes of the media and Bill Belichick's camcorder, they're as frustrated and frantic as their fan base is. Maybe they're just trying to buy as much time as possible to figure something -- anything -- out before the regular season starts, when all the world will finally see whether the Jets are fantastic ... or frauds.

Ryan and the Jets either have all of this under control ... or they don't.

Which is it? We'll soon find out.

Monday, August 27, 2012

NFL preseason = stealing money from fans

As I was sitting at my desk at the New York Post Sunday night, monitoring the Jets-Panthers preseason game to prepare our coverage and headlines, I couldn't help but notice the quality of what I was watching, well, stunk.

Much is being made in New York this morning that the Jets are the only team in the NFL that has not scored a touchdown through three preseason games, and, according to NBC, are the first team to accomplish that forgettable feat since the 1977 Falcons.

But this isn't about trashing the Jets (given what we've seen from them so far, there'll be plenty of opportunities for that later). It's about a system that's clearly broken, and the fact the most powerful, richest and most successful sports league seems to want to do nothing about it.

The NFL preseason has become a foxhole. With the artillery barrage of a four-game schedule (and imagine -- it used to be six), all teams want to do is get through it without anyone getting killed. So they trot out their starters for a series or two, or maybe a half, or not at all. In many instances, stars don't even suit up. Then there's the factor of teams keeping it vanilla, for fear of showing a play, formation or personnel that could come back to haunt them down the road. All of which leads to a bland, boring, tedious exercise.

All of that is fine, given teams have to evaluate draft picks and free agents, and make personnel decisions. And for the players on the bubble, it's perhaps the best chance they have to impress coaches and land a coveted roster spot.

I get all that. The problem is, the NFL charges its fans regular-season admission and parking for the privilege of watching a third-string quarterback you'll never see again try to complete passes behind a fourth-string offensive tackle to a fifth-string receiver.

For a league that talks the talk about integrity and protecting the shield (and while we're at it, bring the real refs back; a subject Believe the Type has already addressed), it's time Roger Goodell's corporation takes a much-needed and necessary step:

Cut the four-game preseason down to two games -- or better yet, ditch the preseason entirely.

A good friend of mine is a Jets season ticket-holder. He has four seats, each worth approximately $125, which he, of course, has to buy in order to purchase his eight regular-season games. That's an extra $1,000 out of his pocket for a third-rate product -- not even including parking (he has a parking pass for which he pays $15 per game as part of the season-ticket package) the time spent driving to and from the stadium, the price of gas and concessions.

For the poor guy who just shows up at MetLife Stadium for a one-shot deal just to watch a game, it's nearly as prohibitive; say he buys two of the cheapest seats way upstairs (about $50) and $50 to park -- to park! -- he's out $150 before he even goes through the turnstiles.

Sure, you can go through a secondary ticket provider like StubHub, but that's not the point. My friend suggests teams could either make preseason tickets free and spread out the price for them throughout the regular season. That would at least show appreciation for the fans showing up, or, in his words, "acknowledgement that you're getting screwed."

Taking it a step further, he suggests teams could take that $1,000 and return it to their season ticket-holders in the form of gift certificates for concessions and souvenirs that could only be used at the stadium -- a pretty good idea, if you ask me.

On the field, the preseason has long outlived its usefulness. The NFL could replace preseason games (at least two of them) with two live scrimmages against opposing teams, held during training camp. Charge fans a nominal fee (say $25) and charge for concessions. Teams will still make money, and fans won't feel as if they're getting fleeced.

Goodell has never been shy about engaging NFL fans when it comes to labor negotiations, player safety or other initiatives. After last season's Super Bowl, he thanked the fans for their unwavering support and said, "Our commitment to improve everything we do is ongoing."

Now it's time to not just say it, but show it.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Who can rescue the Red Sox? Terry Francona ... Yes, Terry Francona

By now, I think we all can agree the Bobby Valentine experiment in Boston has pretty much reached the end of its shelf life. Even from the very start, the fact he wasn't the unanimous choice of the Red Sox braintrust should have been a major red flag, but once the Sox went all in on Valentine, there was no turning back.

Much of what has gone down has been pretty predictable. Bobby V comes in, says what he wants, does what he wants, tweaks veterans, forces trade of popular veteran (Kevin Youkilis), makes spectacle of himself in background of video shoot, rinse, repeat.

All of that probably would have been acceptable if the results were good. One of my favorite lines in these types of situations was once uttered by one of my favorite people in professional sports, Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who liked to say, "When you win, you're a genius. When you lose, you're a moron."

It's that simple, really. The won-loss record is the difference between Bobby Valentine being goofy and eccentric, and just being a train wreck. So here we are.

It would be in the best interest of all involved for Valentine and the Sox to go their separate ways after the season. He already received the kiss of death -- I mean, the vote of confidence -- from management, so he's got that going for him. He's a proud man, firmly entrenched in his methods, who would probably find it very easy to go back and sit in his old chair at ESPN.

Which brings us to who I believe would be the perfect replacement for Valentine ... the guy he replaced, Terry Francona. Yeah, that Terry Francona, who's now sitting in that seat at ESPN, at this moment gushing over the Little League World Series.

I came up with that idea (I'll take credit for it since I haven't heard anyone else say it) this past Friday, in my recurring guest spot on All Around Sports, hosted by John Ingoldsby on voiceamerica.com. Shameless plug alert: Listen to the show on this link, at about the 44-minute mark:


We were talking about the Red Sox and how the Valentine tenure would likely end, and I blurted out, "Don't be surprised if Terry Francona comes back to manage the Red Sox again."

Now, I'm not even sure I totally believed that when I said it, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Sure, last season ended badly. But if there's anyone who has gravitas in the Red Sox clubhouse, it's Francona. It was just a couple of weeks ago when he, as a member of the ESPN crew covering the Sox-Yankees Sunday night game in New York, walked into the visiting clubhouse and held court with a group of his former players -- which shows he still has plenty of allies on that team, and he enjoys their company and didn't feel awkward about letting that be known.

Let's face it, the guy did win two World Series with that team. It's not as if he became an idiot overnight. I don't think Red Sox Nation would have any problem reembracing the man who helped orchestrate the end of The Curse. As long as it means the end of this new one -- with fried chicken and beer off limits, naturally.

And it's not as if there isn't precedent for a move like this. During the Bronx Zoo years in the 1970s and '80s, George Steinbrenner fired and re-hired Billy Martin as manager of the Yankees five times officially (and about 100 times unofficially). That club was probably the most dysfunctional team in the history of pro sports, but it won, and in the end, as we've duly noted, that's all that matters.

Now I have no idea if Francona would be interested in coming back, or if Red Sox management would entertain the idea of him coming back. But he did have a reaction to the mess that has engulfed his old team, and he began by telling USA Today he tries "to be a little careful."

Said Francona: "During my eight years there, we never really had a whole lot of drama outside the clubhouse. That's their business, not my business ... the idea is to keep it in-house. You can deal with it and it goes away. When it goes public, everybody puts their spin on it even when they don't know what they're talking about and it becomes a national story ... The better teams handle it and move on."

The Red Sox clearly need to move on. So make the trade -- Valentine back to ESPN and Francona back to Boston.

Weirder things have happened.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

NFL must end officials lockout -- now

Picture this: A company at the unquestioned top of its field, at the apex of success with its profits only forecast to go higher and higher with no ceiling in sight, decides to endanger everything it has built by waging labor war with a small but crucial department of its operation -- which just happens to be the gatekeeper of the integrity of the entire corporation.

Why would that company even think about messing with such a good thing just to save a couple of bucks? 

Excellent question. And it's one that Mike Arnold, the lead counsel of the NFL Referees Association wants an answer to, with the NFL officials lockout now expected to last into the regular season, which begins Sept. 5 when the Giants host the Cowboys.

"This is one of the perplexing things about why the NFL would lock us out," Arnold told USA Today. "Why would an organization with $9.3 billion in (annual) revenues expected to rise to $12 billion or $14 billlion in the forseeable future jeopardize the health and safety of its players and the integrity of the game by hiring scab officials?"

The amount of money the league and its officials are haggling over -- a $16.5 million gap in negotiations, according to Arnold -- seems like nickels and dimes ... if not pennies in perspective to the entire picture. But there's more:

The NFL wants its officials to become full-time positions -- a break from the current and past, as many officials have had long and successful careers in other fields. The league also wants to hire three additional officiating crews to allow the existing ones to take a week off here and there, with the possibility of rotating new officials into the current crews should the performance of individual referees decline. Not surprisingly, the officials' union is against all of that.

Arnold said the league also wants to blow up the officials' pension program and replace it with "annual contributions" the league would pay to retired officials instead.

But on top of all of that, and most important to fans, is how the games are affected on the field. And while there's only a very small sample size -- one week of the preseason -- it's more than enough to prove the point this nonsense needs to end. Now.

Mistakes and gaffes have been so numerous in just one week, it would be impossible to list them all here. Instances of penalties called on wrong players, not moving down markers and misinterpretation of rules have become tragically comical in short order.

At the conclusion of the Giants-Jaguars game last Friday, the Giants had the ball with time running out, trying to get into field-goal range for a potential game-winning kick. The Giants were called for a penalty, and under that scenario, a 10-second runoff should have been assessed and the game should have been over.

I -- and everyone else on the sports desk at the New York Post that night -- knew the rule. The commentators broadcasting the game knew the rule. But the officials, who huddled for several long minutes, didn't, and gave the Giants one more play. They didn't score, but imagine if they had ... and it had been a regular-season game against, say, the Cowboys ... on national TV.

"I actually heard one of the refs (say) he'd only reffed glorifies high school games, which I don't even know what that means," the Giants' Victor Cruz told my New York Post colleague, Paul Schwartz. "I just want to make sure (the officials) have the best interest of the players at heart and they know what they're doing out there, because there were a few instances where there were some iffy calls made and there were some things that were ... out there.

"Sometimes you could see them being a little flustered at times ... like they called a holding call on the returner when he was returning a punt. That was probably the most mind-boggling one to me. We just want to make sure we get the refs back out there and out there making the right calls."

Don't we all.

Then there is the issue of player safety, obviously a major concern of the league's rank and file.

"Everybody says the preseason is at one speed and once you get up to regular season the speed picks up and it goes to the next level," Bears punter and player rep Adam Podlesh told ESPN. "That is one thing that basically all these refs that are officiating our games haven't experienced ... That's the concern for the players: Are they going to be able to keep up with the speed of the game and are they going to make the right calls that are going to make the players feel safe?"

The regular NFL officials have, and would -- all the reason the league needs to end the insanity ... as soon as possible. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu will get another chance

Being cynical and being a journalist goes hand in hand. You can throw being jaded in there, too, while we're at it. The point is, after a while, there's very little that's shocking or surprising to the trained ear or eye. 

And then there's what happened early Friday afternoon. 

It was already going to be a busy sports weekend; the climax of the Olympics, pennant races heating up, NFL preseason openers and the PGA Championship were all vying for out attention, so the thunderbolt out of Baton Rouge, La., on Friday, when LSU announced Heisman Trophy candidate and star defensive back Tyrann Mathieu -- who you probably know as "Honey Badger" -- had been dismissed from the football team for what the school called "a violation of team and university rules."

It has been widely reported Mathieu's dismissal was due to his failing a drug test for the second time -- he was suspended one game last season, reportedly testing positive for synthetic marijuana.

In New York, college football is a tough sell; we're way too enmeshed with our nine professional sports teams to have much time or engagement left for what in other parts of the nation -- particularly the South -- is akin to religion. The Mathieu story was underplayed in the Metropolitan area as a result.

But this is a huge story, and not just because one of the best players in the country will no longer be playing for one of the best teams in the country. It's also about the marketing and future of a player perhaps recognized more for his persona than his abilities on the field.

If you want a catchy nickname, it helps to have one associated with what can be best described as an offbeat, unorthodox nature video spoof that went viral (google "youtube honey badger" if you somehow have yet to be exposed to it). One line from the video, "Honey badger don't care," then spun off on its own trajectory, and is now splashed on T-shirts, hats and other apparel.

It seemed a given that one day Mathieu would reap the benefits of such exposure -- but  there's nothing to say that still can't happen; critics point to his small stature (5-foot-9, 175 pounds) being a barrier to a future in the NFL, but he was an explosive performer on special teams, and his ability to run back punts could make him, say, the next Devin Hester.

All of that is on hold now. NCAA rules state a player dismissed from an FBS program must sit out a year before transferring and playing for another FBS team. But Mathieu could transfer to an FBC (Division I-AA) school and play immediately, which is why Mathieu has already visited McNeese State, located in Lake Charles, La., about 200 miles from New Orleans.

Such a move would remove Mathieu from the national consciousness and big-program media coverage for the moment, but many all-time NFL greats have come from small schools, including Walter Payton (Jackson State), Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State) Steve McNair (Alcorn State) and Phil Simms (Morehead State). And there are a host of current NFL players that have made the jump from unheralded programs, including Tony Romo (Eastern Illinois), Miles Austin (Monmouth), Jared Allen (Idaho State) and Pierre Garcon (Division III Mount Union).

At least one person thinks Mathieu's odds are still pretty good -- his now former coach at LSU, Les Miles.

"I think Tyrann has a unique strength," Miles told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "I really think this could be a redirect that will benefit him greatly. I think he can accomplish  all the goals he set for himself. It's not going to be easy, but it's going to be doable."

And perhaps playing in a more understated and low-pressure environment would make Mathieu realize he has a second chance, a gift to make this right in the end. And there's nothing cynical or jaded about that.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Why we love the U.S. women's soccer team

Everybody can get into a good story. We voraciously download them on our Kindles and Nooks (or actually crack open a real book) and spend untold hours at the movies watching them unfold before our eyes. We wait anxiously for the next installment of our favorites, eagerly anticipating the twists and turns that elevate or befall our heroes and heroines.

As if on cue, there's a huge drama taking place at the London Olympics, one we've seen before, and one we hope has a slightly different ending than the last installment.

Like an old friend you've lost touch with for a while, the U.S. women's soccer team is banging on our doors again, much the same way they did a year ago, when they became the top sports story in the nation, when they reached the World Cup final against Japan. I remember staking out a stool in a jam-packed sports bar in New York to watch that game, which the "Drama Queens" ultimately lost (I highlighted the event on this very blog last July).

And like a Hollywood sequel, here we are again: Hope, Abby, Alex and the rest of our old pals are back, this time in the Olympic gold-medal game, set for Thursday, against -- wouldn't you know it -- Japan. You can hear the movie preview now:

"In a world where (doesn't every one of them start that way?) redemption leads to a second chance ..."

It might be tough to come up with an ending more dramatic than Monday's semifinal victory over Canada, when Alex (Morgan ... you mean you didn't know?) scored that amazing goal with time running out in the second overtime to secure the victory. That, after Megan (Rapinoe, but you didn't need me to tell you that) tied the game on a controversial indirect kick after the Canadian goalkeeper was called for delay of game, holding the ball too long.

Such territory is familiar for this team. And it's a place we can't wait to go to with them, to be there for the whole ride, making sure we don't miss a moment.

"I'm really happy that Alex Morgan's on my team," Abby (Wambach ... duh!) told NBC. "I think I told her I was in love with her in the dog pile we had.

"Even when they scored their third goal, there was something in me that knew that we had more, that we could give more. I don't know what that means, quite honestly. I don't know if it's just confidence until the end, but this team has a belief in itself, even when the going gets tough."

Beside the obvious drama, what makes this particularly appealing is this hard-working, driven, inspired group of young women aren't constantly in our faces, self-promoting, wondering in public why they can't sell out American stadiums for their pro soccer games -- think the opposite of Geno Auriemma. Instead, they're content to stop by every year or so and spend some quality time with us, giving us something to remember and reminisce about until their next visit, whenever that may be. We're fine with that, and so are they.

Pretty enlightening, during an Olympics that quite frankly has turned off a lot of people with a steady stream of controversies and scandals -- and no, we didn't forget our friend Hope's tweets likening the Olympic Village to a brothel. Still, you can bet these ladies won't be crashing their bikes on purpose, bribing officials or peeing in anyone's pool anytime soon.

"This is what we're about," Abby said. "This is what we've been working for since the day we lost to Japan in the World Cup final. We know it's not going to be easy. We didn't anticipate a game like this but we're willing to deal with whatever's thrown at us. We stuck it out until the end."

Which implores all of us to do the same.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Is Bobby Valentine out of lifelines in Boston?

Bobby Valentine has many claims to fame. He loves wrap sandwiches -- so much so, he says he's the one who invented them. He loves to dress up in disguise, as he once did as manager of the Mets, when he donned a fake mustache and glasses and sat in the dugout after being ejected from a game. And he apparently loves to make cameo appearances in video reports, as he did this week at Fenway Park (above), when the Red Sox manager appeared behind the shoulder of The Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy and shouted, "It's not true, I'm not trying to get fired, folks! It's not true! It's not true!"

Whether he is or he isn't, conventional wisdom seems to be indicating Valentine's tenure in Boston may not last much longer. And if that's the case, it would mark another claim to fame for one of sports' most polarizing figures -- for the first time in his managerial career, he would not last even one season; having managed the Texas Rangers for eight years and the Mets for seven.

This week's video rant has been the latest Valentine incident in a season full of them.

* In April, he got into a public feud with Kevin Youkilis, saying the popular third baseman wasn't "as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past for some reason." Youkilis, who said he was "surprised" and "confused" by Valentine's attack, was soon dealt to the White Sox. Valentine refused to let it go; in July, he told NESN, "The comment I made early, he made a big deal out of, and I don't think he ever wanted to get over it."

* Not long after that, Will Middlebrooks, Youkilis' replacement, had a rough inning in the field and made a couple of errors. Valentine greeted him to the dugout with, "Nice inning, kid." An unnamed person went to management to complain, and the incident probably would not even have been reported if Valentine did not mention it himself during a WEEI radio interview. Valentine went on to say he took Middlebrooks aside afterward and gave him a pep talk, and in a sarcastic tone, used words like "dreadful" and "mortally wounded" to describe the tone of the "unnamed person" who blew the whistle.

* In the wake of that incident, Valentine was taken to task by former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who said on WEEI he would have "taken a swing" had Valentine made a similar remark to him, and added he thinks the Valentine era in Boston will end "like Mount Vesuvius." When introduced at Fenway Park upon being inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame Saturday night, Schilling got a standing ovation.

* Last week, former Red Sox manager Terry Francona showed up in the visitors' clubhouse at Yankee Stadium and held court with at least a half-dozen players. Valentine had no problem with that, but it underscores how Francona is still revered by the Red Sox -- and you can bet their relationship with Valentine came up in that conversation. For his part, Francona apologized to Valentine, who said it was "no big deal."

Schilling says none of this will end well, and actually spoke of Valentine's job in the past tense.

"Bobby is just unique -- he's different," Schilling told WEEI. "And he runs and beats to a different drummer. I just didn't think the matchup of players and this club and him was going to fit, it was going to work, and I don't think he ever got a chance from a lot of the guys ... I can't imagine given the personalities involved on all sides that this thing just kind of wanders away in the evening, especially with the fans here."

And if that's the way it goes down, Valentine will have another claim to fame, and plenty of time to conjure up new sandwiches.