Saturday, August 30, 2014

32 Teams, 32 Haiku: My 2014 NFL Preview

I'm still in summer mode, but for a lot of people football season can't come soon enough. With four days until opening kickoff, I present my annual NFL predictions 17 morae at a time.

(NOTE: the asterisks are for wild card picks)

AFC North
1. Bengals. (10-6) Good, but good enough/in humdrum group, ginger snaps/will be sufficient.
2. Ravens*. (9-7) Without Rice cooking/the rush attack starves; Flacco/better earn his pay.
3. Steelers. (6-10) Aluminum in/the Steel Curtain; Big Ben will/get his clocks cleaned, still.
4. Browns. (4-12) Wow, what a train wreck/Johnny Football = Johnny Bench/until he grows up.

AFC East
1. Patriots. (10-6) Northeast no-brainer/aging Brady has enough/for one last great year.
2. Bills. (8-8) QB confusion/if E.J. falters, Orton/is their only hope.
3. Jets. (6-10) Uh, CJ2K?/Fading star is Band-aid on/weak, battered offense.
4. Dolphins. (6-10) Their O-line woes are/no longer Incognito/I doubt improvement.

AFC South
1. Colts. (11-5) With Nicks in the mix/there's no short supply of Luck/for Hoosier faithful.
2. Titans. (8-8) Big game Hunter is/budding star, but tonight's show/is the hurt Locker.
3. Texans. (7-9) Murphy's law, defined/after '13 debacle/with Fitz, hope for best.
4. Jaguars. (5-11) Coach Gus rubs the lamp/expects genies in Bortles/but he'll keep wishing.

AFC West
1. Broncos. (12-4) Denver doubled down/but after playoff woes, can/they get over hump?
2. Chiefs*. (10-6) Cinderella tale/no more; after career years/expect modest goals.
3. Chargers. (9-7) If health and D can/sing the body electic/they might shock again.
4. Raiders. (5-11) Prowlers of the sea/moving rumors will distract/from nondescript play.

NFC North
1. Packers. (10-6) Losing Raji hurts/Aaron will keep carrying/this good, flawed squad.
2. Bears. (9-7) Offense renaissance/fails to hide a flimsy D/games won't be boring.
3. Lions. (7-9) Where's the chemistry?/So much talent, underwhelms/because they don't gel.
4. Vikings. (5-11) New QB Teddy/Bridge (over troubled) water/don't expect wins yet.

NFC East
1. Eagles. (10-6) "Are you friends or Foles?"/spry Iggles ruffle feathers/but who's their safety?
2. Redskins. (8-8) Memo to Chucky:/even with RGIII, wins/are not child's play.
3. Giants. (6-10) Big Blue is fading/aging team, shaky Eli/hey, how 'bout them Jets?
4. Cowboys. (4-12) "Romophobia"/an irrational fear, since/he's not the problem.

NFC South
1. Saints. (11-5) Something unholy/in Crescent City; "Who Dat"/flies into the Brees.
2. Falcons*. (9-7) Unpredictable/dominant one year, crap next/they're still erratic.
3. Panthers. (7-9) Newton needs targets/after '13 title, can/Cam just run the ball?
4. Buccaneers. (5-11) Mr. Smith, new head coach/will ex-Bear presence get Bucs/all Lovie-dovey?

NFC West
1. Seahawks. (13-3) Still unbeatable/Sherman is a motormouth/Wilson lobs and serves.
2. 49ers*. (12-4) A great connection/Kaepernick to Crabtree makes/for dangerous threat.
3. Cardinals. (8-8) Honey Badger runs/everyone loves a dark horse/not unlike this team.
4. Rams. (4-12) Why oh why, last place?/this deep division, no mas/without a QB.

NFL MVP: Drew Brees, Saints
Offensive ROY: Sammy Watkins, Bills
Defensive ROY: Aaron Donald, Rams
First Head Coach Fired: Jason Garrett, Cowboys
Super Bowl XLIX: Seahawks 25, Broncos 20

Omaha! Omaha! I mean, I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

One Last Sports Blog Before My 30th Birthday

This will likely be my last blog post before my 30th birthday, which will be on August 18th. One of my internet guilty pleasures are semi-pointless lists where things are ranked for the sole purpose of starting debates. At first, I decided to rank the ten best (and worst) sports teams I've had the pleasure --or obviously, displeasure-- of watching in my three decades on this big blue marble. (You know that I overthink things.) I have a pretty clear of what teams I wanted on my list, but I also struggled to say something interesting, unique, and insightful about all of them. I'm too young to remember the '85 Chicago Bears or the champion Kansas City Royals team from the same year, but I vividly remember my Blackhawks romping to the Stanley Cup 18 short months ago. On the flip side of that, I remember when the Royals lost 107 games in 2005, the Bears during the Wannstadt years, and Da Hawks in the decade immediately preceding Bill Wirtz's death. For every 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, you have any Bulls squad coached by Tim Floyd or Jim Boylan. I'm scrambling to think of a Northwestern squad (save for women's lacrosse) that can balance out decades of football and basketball mediocrity, give or take the '95 Rose Bowl run.

Any capable sportswriter must learn to write with a neutral perspective, if not necessarily a neutral voice, no matter how tempting it is to be a homer and take sides. I'll never win the Cerulli Award, but I watched enough baseball, football, basketball, and hockey over the years to know what seperates a truly dominant team from a ghastly one. Without putting my favorite teams in consideration, I settled on two smaller lists, written in a perspective that has no other concern for that program or organization, in chronological order from 1984 to now:


  • The 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers. College sports were barely in my peripheral in grade school, but overall '95 was one of the best years ever for college pigskin. Northwestern's unexpected rise of prominence following upsets of Notre Dame, Michigan, and Penn State was remarkable, but the Huskers were the undisputed #1 team all season. The Green-Phillips backfield was impossible to stop, the defense was a brick wall, and Nebraska averaged 51 points a game en route to a Fiesta Bowl decimation of Florida.
  • The 1998 New York Yankees. Maybe the last "pure" Yankees championship squad: few if any overpriced free agents, no known juicers, and a roster that was mostly homegrown. The year that Mariano Rivera broke out and Derek Jeter cemented his superstar status. They averaged more than two runs per game, and outside of early April they never lost more than two games in a row. They won games with their hitting, their rotation, their bullpen, and their bench. Top to bottom dominant.
  • The 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings. As a Chicagoan, I am just as obligated to hate the Wings as any true Bears fan spews vitriol at the Packers. Sweet holy crap, however this team was stacked. This was an alignment of All-Stars and Hockey Hall of Famers that could only last one year, a true fantasy hockey roster if there ever was one. Besides familar faces like Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan, the roster read like a who's who of '90s NHL superstars: Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Chris Chelios, with Dominik Hasek in goal. A near-constant offense threat on every line more than made up for the advancing age of the Wings' ringers. Outside of a first-round scare by Vancouver, there was little doubting who would win the West and hoist the Stanley Cup.
  • The 2007 New England Patriots. Maybe the greatest sports team to not win a championship. You can blame their underwhelming performance in Super Bowl XLII on both exhaustion and a strong effort by the New York Giants' defense. The fact of the matter is, they went 16-0 in a season where the AFC East was still competitive and their ease of schedule was somewhere in the middle. No one except Big Blue gave them much of a challenge.
  • The 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs. Too soon, you say? Granted, the Spurs were the best team in a stacked Western Conference, and in the '14 Finals they disposed a much flashier Miami Heat squad in five games simply by playing the game right. They demonstrated how Gregg Popovich and company put fundamentals first; their formula was a blend of young and seasoned players, a mix of solid shooting with crisp defensive play. Tim Duncan are Manu Ginobili are two of the most low-key future Hall of Famers in the game, with Tiago Splitter --arguably the greatest 30th overall pick ever-- having a coming out party with his solid two-way play against Lebron et al.


  • The 2002 Tampa Bay Devil Rays. A textbook example of a youth movement, and the exact moment people realized the Rays' original management didn't know what they were doing. All the aging, overpriced free agents from their inaugural squad four years earlier had either moved on or retired. This left the Rays with a roster of cheaper, still aging free agents (hi, Greg Vaughn!) thrown together with maybe the most disorganized farm system in recent memory. Top prospect Greg "Toe" Nash never made it to Tropicana Field, a disappearing act that was nearly as fast as his unlikely arrival. Former first round pick Josh Hamilton was still in his cocaine and painkillers phase. Carl Crawford was probably called up to The Show too soon, but his .259 average showed promise. This was the only full major league season of Jared Sandburg, the nephew of the Cubs' Hall of Fame second baseman. It was obvious that Jared wasn't major league material, but the Rays' farm system didn't have any other third basemen, so Sandburg's so-so glove and .220 average made do.
  • The 2003, 2004, and 2005 College of DuPage Chapparals (football). If you're from the west suburbs of Chicago and your family couldn't afford to send you to a four-year university, chances are you earned your basic credits at COD before transferring. I was no exception; I earned an Associates in Arts before spending two years at Illinois State. During my 2 1/2 years in Glen Ellyn, JNCO sports were always in my peripheral, and COD's atrocious football program symbolized school spirit or lack thereof. The '03 and '04 Chaps both went 0-11, and the '05 squad won their first game before dropping the next ten. The star running back on the 2003 team shot and killed a guy, than almost got off the hook because of Illinois' "defense of dwelling" statute. (He spent two months in jail for not having an owner's ID.) The intent of JNCO is to assemble a competitive team out of the prep players the major schools overlooked. The COD Chaps were misfits and castoffs, and played with a massive chip on their shoulders.
  • The 2007 and 2008 Indiana State Sycamores (also football). Even for a mid-major, the Trees were pitiful. From 2006 to 2009 ISU dropped 32 games in a row, and their winless seasons in '07 and '08 were bookended by 1-10 campaigns. Other schools in the Gateway Conference were clammering to host Indiana State for their homecoming game (including my Illinois State Redbirds) if only because their incompetence guaranteed a home blowout win in front of a sellout crowd. The Sycamores' football program has since upgraded from awful to merely mediocre, but those rough years in the late 2000s still linger.
  • The 2012 Charlotte Bobcats. I won't deny the brilliance of Michael Jordan as a basketball player; he's the G.O.A.T. for a reason. As an executive and scout, however it's been a lengthy learning experience to say the least. After dropping 23 straight games to finish the season, Jordan was booed on his home court for the first time ever because of this hot mess, a 7-59 squad in a lockout-shortened season. At least the Bobcats' two lottery picks that season (Bismack Biyombo and Kemba Walker) weren't the busts that many had feared.

This is not a complete list by any means. Maybe it's fatigue from decades of watching NU hoops, but I don't really care about college basketball until bracket time. The 1992 U.S. Olympic "Dream Team" was ridiculously dominant, but everyone and their mother expected them to crush everything in their path. I'm not that concerned with non-team sports, so no NASCAR or PGA. Either way, it's my birthday and I'm feeling super self-indulgent.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Death of a Clown

(Ed. note: this is cut and pasted from a Facebook status update that I posted on the evening of Monday, August 11th.)

My father and I are comedy geeks of sorts, but our taste in comedians varies significantly. I like Letterman, he preferred Leno. I watch Fallon now, he prefers Kimmel. Only in the last year or so has he come around to "Seinfeld." Yet we both agreed on Robin Williams. What made Williams so unique was his ability to be a self-contained, almost defiant artist and an everyman at the same time. There are very few comedians in this world that can be conceptual and tangential, yet simultaneously so populist. Even if Williams turned into a caricature of himself in later years, he was phenomenal to watch. His rapid-fire riffing was its own kind of improv.

The Robin quote that has popped up most frequently these past few hours has been "You're only given a little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it." What a lot of people don't realize about comedians is that we're all a little mad, whether we're just peculiar or full-blown insane, and that comedy is our outlet, our catharsis, our confessional. Robin Williams was not the first comedic talent to battle depression or drug abuse, nor will he be the last. Some of us turn those demons into art, while others are consumed by it; either we let our faults inspire us or consume us. Unfortunately, Robin rose with the former and fell with the latter. I just hope that his death today is a reminder that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and something that can be prevented. Remember the nearly four decades of laughs, not his ignoble end.


Monday, August 4, 2014

My Inevitable Gaza Blog Entry

A few days ago, a tiny independent film called "Guardians in the Galaxy" was released in theaters. Toward the end of the film, a CGI-animated talking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper says something incredibly sage and insightful: "Everyone has dead people. That doesn't mean everyone else in the galaxy needs to die because of it."

In spite of its source, this quote applies quite well to major international story of the past few weeks, the umpteenth skirmish between Israeli and Palestinian forces in the Gaza Strip. It's the same childlike "he hit me first," avenging-my-ancestors mentality that has dogged the region since the late 1940s. Unlike past conflicts in the Holy Land, this latest round of attacks and never-ending crusades for revenge has spilled out to social media, where everyone and their mother has been posting and tweeting their opinions for nearly a month now. I've been largely a spectator, but the near-constant arguing has left me exhausted. A fair number of friends and acquaintances are either pretending to be experts or sharing links to op-eds that support their opinions.

I am fully aware that this conflict is complex and convoluted, a fight along religious lines that spans centuries, if not millennia. What I don't think people realize is that if any side in this fight was unilaterally right or wrong, the "war" would have ended decades ago. I suppose the reason why I haven't said anything consequential about this controversy until now is because I'm somewhere between apathetic and burned out. Lately, the mere thought makes me feel lethargic. For that alone, I don't plan on commenting until it all dies down... or whenever Israel and Palestine inevitably start throwing rocks at each other again, I don't know.

NOTE: Thanks to Matthew Kovich for inspiring this post.