Friday, January 23, 2015

First Look at the Draft

By Travis Stahl

You know what's fun?  Science.  I was never great in science class but as a teacher when I had to cover the subject I always tried to incorporate as many experiments and hands on projects as possible.  Some science is predictable.  Some fills your classroom with mud.  Science can be inexact, we've all heard that one before.  That's why the NFL draft is such a difficult proposition for most teams.  Teams have to find the right guy for the right system to play for the right coach in the right city.  It might work, it might not.  Here is a quick look at how the top 10 of this year's NFL draft could play out.

1. Tampa Bay Bucanneers - Jameis Winston, Quarterback, Florida State - Winston is a pure pocket passer and you can't pass that up with the first pick if you have the chance.
2. Tennessee Titans - Leonard Williams, Defensive Tackle, USC - Leonard rates out as the highest defensive tackle since Ndomakong Suh and look how that has worked out.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars - Amari Cooper, Wide Receiver, Alabama - You gotta have somebody for quarterback Blake Bortles to throw the ball to and Cooper will be a star in the NFL.
4. Oakland Raiders - Andrus Peat, Offensive Tackle, Stanford - Oakland finally realizes to win in the NFL you have to build along the lines.
5. Washington Redskins - Randy Gregory, Defensive End, Nebraska - This isn't exactly a position of need for the Redskins but it's hard to pass up the skills of Gregory when it's on the board.
6. New York Jets - Dante Fowler, Defensive End, Florida - Fowler and Gregory are the same guy.  The Jets have been trying for years to rejuvenate their pass rush.
7. Chicago Bears - Vic Beasley, Outside Linebacker, Clemson - Speed, speed and more speed.  John Fox gets a good one to start rebuilding the Bears defense.
8. Atlanta Falcons - Shane Ray, Defensive End, Missouri - Atlanta continues its search for pass rushing help.  The eventually have to get it right don't they?
9. New York Giants - Brandon Sherff, Guard, Iowa - The Giants line was a mess last year and if the team wants to get back to running the ball they need some help.
10. St. Louis Rams - DeVante Parker, Wide Receiver, Louisville - Parker is big, fast and strong and the St. Louis offense still needs help getting the ball down the field.

As we get closer to the draft the needs of teams will be more clear after free agents get signed.  One player noticeably missing from the top-10 is Oregon quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.  If Mariota doesn't go to Tennessee at No. 2, and I don't think he will, then I think he falls down the first round.  I think he ends up at Kansas City at pick No. 18 unless another team trades up to draft him.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Super Bowl Preview

By Travis Stahl

Can we talk about football now?  Not the amount of air required to be in a football but the actual game itself.  You know there is still another football game that needs to be played that seems to be forgotten.  New England and Seattle will face each other in the Super Bowl and nobody is talking about it at all.  How about if we do that now and but all that other stuff to rest.  These are two very evenly matched teams and finding an advantage one team or the other has is difficult.  Here is a breakdown of how the two teams stack up.

Offense - Offensively these teams are more similar than most people realize.  Both the Seahawks and the Patriots have the ability to line up and demoralize you with a power running game.  Both teams rely on a smart passing game maximizing mismatches thanks in large part to the two most intelligent quarterbacks in the game.  Neither Tom Brady or Russell Wilson is going to be flustered in this game so nerves shouldn't be a problem.  I think the Seahawks run the ball slightly better than New England but I think tight-end Rob Gronkowski gives the Patriots an edge in the passing game.  Forced to choose I would say New England has an offensive advantage but not by much.

Defense - All anyone wants to talk about is how good the Seattle defense is.  New England's defense is pretty good too and often is overlooked.  The Patriots secondary is every bit as good as Seattle.  The Seahawks have better linebackers than New England as Bobby Wagner is one of the top middle linebackers in the game.  Up front though these two teams are pretty even and both do a great job of stopping the run.  Neither offense is going to find easy yardage in this game.  I don't see a lot of footballs being thrown at Richard Sherman or Derrell Revis.  The Seattle defense gets the vote here but as before it's not by much.

Special teams - If there is one place New England has an out-and-out advantage it is in special teams play.  Stephen Gostkowski is an above average kicker and weather won't be an issue inside at the Super Bowl.  Plus the Patriots have a great punt return game with Julian Edelman.  Both teams cover kicks and punts well so it would surprise me to see a return for a touchdown but I could see Edelman changing field position once or twice with a 15 to 20 yard-punt return.  These teams again are so close in this department but the Patriots have a slight edge.

Coaching - Spygate, Delate Gate or whatever else you want to throw at Patriots coach Bill Belichick doesn't change his ability to plan for a game.  There is nobody in the world of coaching better at preparing a game plan for the opposition than Belichick.  Pete Carroll is a different kind of coach.  Carroll isn't as good at the X's and O's but he is a master motivator and he knows exactly how to push the buttons for every member on the Seattle team to get them up for a big game.  Can you really say either guy has an advantage when they've both won Super Bowls?  I think these two are about as even as opposing coaches can be.

We know one of these teams adds a pretty significant piece to their legacy with another Super Bowl title.  Seattle would be a back-to-back champion which is a rare accomplishment and New England would be adding its fourth Super Bowl title of the Belichick era.  I like games like this, Las Vegas does not.  The Seahawks opened as 1.5 point favorites but that has wavered and in most places now the game is a pick'em.  I think this will be a very close, low scoring game.  I can't see either team blowing the other out.  I will take the Patriots over Seattle 25-23.  And, I'll go one step further and say the MVP will be Patriots running back Shane Vereen.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I Think I'm OK With the Patriots

By Travis Stahl

So ... what do you guys want to talk about today?  I know, let's talk about how the falling value of the yen is affecting European markets.  No?  Well, I guess we'll talk about the New England Patriots and what I prefer to call "Shrinkage Gate."  The NFL announced earlier today that 11 of the 12 footballs the Patriots used in Sunday's AFC title game were under the regulation weight of 12.5 psi.  Now there is upheaval once again about head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots being cheaters.  Here's what I think ... so what.

Before you hate my guts let me explain how this is going to work.  First of all, we are not connecting any dots here.  Does it look like Belichick ordered the balls deflated?  Yes, but we don't know that for sure, that would be speculation.  We are only going to talk about what we know.  Second, I am going to break this article down based on the several key factors in play here.  This will be done mostly so I can keep my thoughts organized otherwise  I might get way off topic.  Sound fair?  Good.

Just the Facts:  NFL rules stipulate that all footballs in the game must be between 12.5 psi and 13.5 psi.  In the Patriots win over the Colts Sunday 11 of the 12 New England footballs weighted in at 11.5 psi at halftime.  Thus, in the second half all of the footballs used by the Patriots were regulation weight.  What we don't know is why the footballs were under weight.  Did somebody order that to be done so the ball would be easier to grip?  Keep in mind, air pressure changes based on temperature.  If you have sensors in your tires check your pressure when you first start your car.  Then go out and drive for about 30 minutes and check it again.  The psi in your tires will increase as the air warms up.  I'm not suggesting temperature was at play here, just saying there could be factors we aren't aware of.  My biggest question is this ... why 11 of the 12?  Why not all 12?  Why not six?  Seems very odd.

Brady likes a soft ball:  The rumors are that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady likes a football with less air in it so it is easier to throw.  People are taking that rumor and assuming the Patriots doctored the ball to make it easier for Brady to throw.  The golden boy of the NFL, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers said today that during a game he had the Packers footballs inflated to 14.5 psi because he likes a ball with more air in it.  The officials noticed the footballs had too much air in them and ordered the balls fixed.  Has Rodgers done this before?  Why is nobody calling for Rodgers to be banned/suspended along with Packers head coach Mike McCarthy for being cheaters?  They broke the rules.  No other players or coaches in the league are commenting on this Patriots situation because it isn't a big deal.  Teams do this all the time.  Sometimes they get caught and sometimes they don't.

The integrity of the league:  Some people are claiming this latest sidestep of the rules by the Patriots is an attack on the integrity of the NFL.  Maybe.  Should be put an asterisks by all Patriots wins past and present?  Former Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson said today he had all the footballs prior to the Buccaneers Super Bowl victory over the Raiders deflated.  Should the NFL go back and vacate that title for Tampa Bay to uphold the integrity of the league?  For that matter, remember former New York Giants defensive lineman Jim Burt?  Burt used to spray stickem on his shoulder pads so his jersey was essentially glued to himself.  This prevented offensive linemen from grabbing him.  He cheated.  Do we need to go back and vacate the two Giants Super Bowl wins?  Every team in the NFL tries to get as close as possible to the line and will occasionally cross the line if it gives them an advantage.  EVERY team!

Belichick's legacy:  Whatever the league finds in all of this it certainly is embarrassing for the Patriots especially since the team already has the reputation as cheaters.  Is Belichick dirty?  Maybe.  He's also the best coach in the NFL and 31 other teams would sell their sister to have him as their coach.  Don't kid yourself if you think your favorite team is better than that.  People don't like Belichick because he's smarter than everyone else and he's kind of smug in letting us all know it.  Do we consider Jon Gruden or Bill Parcells to be dirty coaches based on the examples above with Johnson and Burt?  Nobody thinks John Maddon was dirty because he allowed Jack Tatum to paint sitckem all over himself.  Belichick will do anything he can to get an advantage.

Punishments:  Belichick is going to get suspended probably.  The thought is he could miss the first four to eight games of next season.  The team will also be fined and probably lose a draft pick.  You know who else needs to be suspended and fined?  Every official that worked in that game Sunday.  I've been around football along time and I can tell you it is very easy to tell the difference between 12.5 psi and 11.5 psi.  If Colts linebacker D'Qwell Jackson could tell the difference then so could every referee who was on the field and touched one of those footballs.  Either those guys knew something was up and chose not to say anything or they're stupid.

The Outcome of the game:  Did the altered footballs have any impact in the game?  No, and you are a moron if you think it did.  After every football of the Patriots was inflated to it's proper psi New England scored 28 unanswered points.  A deflated football didn't allow running back LeGarrette Blount to run for 148 yards and three touchdowns.  A deflated football didn't account for the Patriots defense putting the clamps on the Indy offense.  That is why this is such a non-issue.  The low air pressure had literally nothing to do with the outcome of the game.  Nothing.  From start to finish New England was a better team and nothing was going to change that.

You can not like the Patriots and call them cheaters all you want.  If you're a Colts fan I understand the bitterness.  It doesn't change anything.  Your team was cheated out of a victory.  Just like with "Spygate" I'm willing to bet that there is wide spread changes in the air pressure of game balls all across the NFL but we don't hear about it.  As I said earlier, if the Oakland Raiders were caught doing this in a loss to the Chiefs nobody would care one bit.  We're only talking about this because it the "dirty" Patriots.  To me, this is no big deal and it certainly doesn't change the way I feel about them.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Giving Crean Some Credit

By Travis Stahl

I screwed up.  I'm willing to be the first one to admit that.  Those are the three hardest words for any person to say, "I was wrong."   On Facebook the other day I made a snooty comment to an Indiana basketball fan following the Hoosiers win at Illinois.  I let my disdain for head coach Tom Crean leak into my thoughts before properly looking at the big picture.  The truth is, Crean is actually doing a decent job with the Hoosiers this year.

Following the win at Illinois IU is now ranked No. 23 in the country.  Seems weird, I know.  But Illinois isn't as bad as they have been and the win in Champagne for the Hoosiers is the kind of win the NCAA selection committee could look at and view as very impressive later in the season.  Especially as the Hoosiers have a win over Ohio State and Butler on the resume also.  Perhaps it is with guarded optimism that Hoosier fans everywhere are starting to see that making it into the NCAA tournament this year might actually be a reality.

I, like others, have been quick to point out Crean's faults.  I'm not ready to dismiss the coaches downfalls.  Honestly though, I never saw Crean coaching this team up enough to post this kind of respectable 14-4 record and a third-place standing in the Big Ten.  Not in a million years would I have thought this as a possibility.  The Hoosiers get another opportunity to shock us all Thursday when they host Maryland.  What happens then if IU wins?  We will be bordering on legitimate respectability for the first time in what seems like ages.

Because Crean has shown his hand too many times we are always going to have that "what have you done for me lately" attitude.  That may be incorrect and unfair of us as fans.  The comment I made the other day to somebody on Facebook who was excited about the win in Illinois was to calm down.  My thinking was that if IU was the kind of team we want them to be then beating an average Illini team on the road is something that is supposed to happen, not something shocking.  Maybe that is what the Hoosiers are working towards and wins like the one this weekend are stepping stones along the way.

We get so caught up in our crazed Hoosier Hysteria we miss the big picture.  I did.  I'm as guilty as anyone of seeing the blowout loss to Michigan State as who the Hoosiers truly are than the team that won at home against the Buckeyes.  It may be skepticism or it may be years of average basketball that have beaten me down.  I'm willing to allow myself to think it's not the second of those options.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Patriots Are Just Better

By Travis Stahl

So Trent Sutton called me this morning on the phone cussing and complaining.  The gist of Trent's question was "why in the world can the Colts not beat the Patriots?"  I told Trent the explanation to that question could either be a short answer or a long answer.  The short answer; Indianapolis is not beating New England while Bill Belichick is the head coach of the Patriots.  The long answer, New England is smarter and an all-around better team.

The short answer is pretty easy to understand.  New England beat the Colts again in the playoffs yesterday 45-7.  It was Belichick's ninth AFC title game with quarterback Tom Brady and the win puts New England into the Super Bowl for the sixth time.  Six times!  It's all Belichick.  Yes, having Brady helps but the guy on the other sidelines for Indy is a pretty good quarterback too.  Belichick builds teams and Brady is a part of that process.  Andrew Luck is the only thing the Colts have going for them.  That leads into the long answer.

At no point were the Colts in that football game yesterday.  The Patriots had Indy outsmarted from the opening coin toss.  New England beat the Colts with formations, a touchdown pass to an offensive lineman, a jet sweep, subbing in ineligible skill players and by pounding the ball right at Indy.  The game yesterday was an exact replica of the Patriots win in Indianapolis earlier this season.  The Colts could not and did not do anything to show they were intellectually on the same level of New England.

There were two key points that made a big difference in the game yesterday which highlighted how prepared the Patriots were.  The Colts failed to adjust to either one.  That is what makes Belichick a master and everyone else just trying to keep up.

First, New England is a horrible rushing team.  Boom Herron ran the ball semi effectively the first drive but after that ... nothing.  The Colts posed such a small threat rushing the ball New England was defending the run with just five guys.  The Patriots routinely had only linebackers Jamie Collins and Dante Hightower in with the three defensive linemen which meant New England could defend the pass with six buys the majority of the time.

The second example of Belichick out coaching Chuck Pagano came in the passing game.  The Colts were constantly lining up wide receiver TY Hilton up on the right side of the formation.  That's where Hilton is most comfortable.  That allowed the Patriots to keep corner Derrell Revis on Hilton the while time.  Indy never tried to move Hilton around in the formation to get him on the bigger, slower Brandon Browner.  That didn't help out Luck at all to have his top receiver taken completely out of the game.

When Belichick decides to retire then the Colts will have a chance to advance past New England.  Until that happens don't hold your breath Colts fans.  From top to bottom Belichick builds a team that can win in any weather, rushing or throwing the ball to win with a stout defense to boot.  Belichick is the best talent evaluator in the game, the best game planner and the best at making in-game adjustments.  Seattle better start getting ready.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Planning Peyton's Retirement Party

By Travis Stahl

I remember one of the times when Brett Favre was retiring he had a great story.  The quarterback explained to everyone that he still loved the game of football and would miss playing on Sundays.  Favre added though he would not miss the daily grind required to be a high-level quarterback in the NFL.  His body would not allow him to take pleasure in preparing for the game any longer.  Has Peyton Manning reached that point?  We are at the point where we have to start to legitimately question how much Manning has left in the tank.

The Peyton Manning that finished the season in Denver was not the guy we are used to seeing play quarterback in this league.  Apparently Manning had injuries to both legs.  As a guy who uses his legs in his throwing motion a lot, that would make a huge difference.  But at 38 years old how quickly Manning can recover from those injuries is in question.  And even when he is fully healthy again Manning has to look forward to starting the grind of preparing for an NFL season all over again.  In the past, that has been Peyton's favorite part of the game.

Manning will tell you football is all about his teammates.  More than any other player the guy loves being in the locker room, being around his teammates and being out there on the practice field.  He lives for it.  Even Peyton has to realize that the end is coming soon.  At best he has one more run in him in Denver and that is providing the Broncos hire a new head coach that Manning wants to work with.  There is a real possibility the team even tells Manning they are ready to move on to another player at quarterback.  We may have just watched the last game we will ever see Manning play.

That would be a sad ending as a fan.  But I would rather see Peyton go out now than hold on for too long.  There is nothing worse than watching a guy play well past his prime and leave us watching a player who is a shell of their former selves.  Nobody wants to see Manning out there with no arm strength and little mobility getting lit up by defenders the way Steve Young and Troy Aikman were at the end of their playing days.  Obviously if Manning is 100% ready to play and Denver gets the coaching hire right it would be nice to see him take one more shot at it.  At this point I will be surprised if that happens.

I heard somebody describe Manning perfectly the other day.  They said Peyton is the greatest regular-season quarterback of all-time.  That is stating it just right.  Nobody was every better within those 16 games than Manning was.  The playoffs?  Well that's another story for another day.  Anybody who truly appreciates the game understands what Manning has meant to the NFL.  It will be the most difficult decision Manning will ever have to make and there's nobody who can tell him what is right or wrong, only he will know that.  But it sure looks like that time to walk away is now.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

I Don't Like These Coaching Hires

By Travis Stahl

Remember what the definition of the word "insane" is right?  It means trying the same thing over and over expecting a different result.  I bring it up again because we get to see once again just how insane some NFL teams are.  Several NFL head coaches were fired once the season ended.  The teams then looking for a new guy to stand on the sidelines showed us just how dumb they are when it comes to hiring.  So far the coaching carousel has been insane.

Just to update you quickly, the Buffalo Bills have found their man as they hired recently fired New York Jets coach Rex Ryan.  The Raiders recycled former Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio who was recently the defensive coordinator at Denver.  Speaking of Denver, former Broncos and Panthers head coach John Fox is going to be hired as the new guy in Chicago to coach the Bears just days after "mutually parting ways" in Denver.

Two teams have showed some common sense and tried something different.  The Jets hired Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and for some reason the San Francisco 49ers promoted their defensive line coach Jim Tomsula to be head coach.  I don't like the idea of Tomsula but at least the 49ers and Jets tried something different.  Good for them.  Maybe Bowles and Tomsula will be great coaches and they are being given the chance.  Everyone else that has already been hired is a retread and no fan should get excited about that.

I know, Bill Belichick wasn't successful in his first stint as head coach.  Neither was Pete Carroll.  I get it.  But at this point we know exactly what Ryan, Del Rio and Fox are; they are average coaches at best.  Fox had to leave Denver because the players no longer were responding to him.  Del Rio did OK with the Jaguars and that's about all you can say.  Ryan was a bag full of wind with the Jets and he's already spouting out the same lines to Bills fans.  Stop it already.

You know how to find a truly great coach?  Take a chance.  Go after a buy like Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase or wait on Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quin.  That way you give your franchise a legitimate chance to be energized.  Trust me, nobody in Oakland is jumping up and down that Del Rio is coming to town.  There's nothing exciting about that.  You think Bills fans are thrilled their team will have a great defense and go 8-8 every year?  Go out on a limb and bring in a guy who might do something in the NFL that's never been done before.

I understand the NFL is a copycat league.  That doesn't mean you have to copy the other guys averageness.  If you want to be successful you have to get a step ahead of the competition and the only way to do that is do go off the grid.  Be innovative.  Don't do something insane like hire a recently fired coach that couldn't motivate his players.  Be bold and give your fans reason for optimism.