Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Shanahan Deserved Better as Broncos Head Coach

The NFL Network is reporting that Mike Shanahan has been fired as head coach of the Denver Broncos. I know that I usually save non-Maryland related sports news for a Free Kicks, but I think this deserves a post of its own. In this world of fast results and quick firings, where a coach can be the toast of the town on Saturday and be out of a job by Monday, Mike Shanahan has been the epitome of consistency. Since his arrival in Denver in 1995, he has quietly won 60% of his games. We as fans have taken it for granted that the Broncos will be competitive every year, that you will be smashed in the mouth with a punishing and versatile running attack at the very least. Mike Shanahan always has gotten it done.

Yes, he has had losing seasons- 2 out of his 14 seasons with the Broncos. He has won 10 or more games 7 times, and been to the playoffs every one of those times. He not only won back to back Superbowl titles in 1997-1998, but took home a division title as recently as 2005. However, in this business it only takes one bad season to do you in. Over the last 3 seasons Shanahan’s squad has played .500 ball, and hasn’t been to the playoffs. In the NFL, you need immediate results, and when your last championship was 10 years ago, they don’t mean anything to ownership or misinformed fans who want a coach to burn in effigy.

It would be easy to label Shanahan as a coach who might have been losing his touch, failing to deliver competitive teams or just falling apart down the stretch. However, let’s compare his record to a few coaches we aren’t exactly railing against right now. The man in demand, Bill Cowher, won 62% of his games in 15 seasons with the Steelers. Mike Holmgren won 59% of his games and only 54% with the Seahawks. Jeff Fisher, a man consistently considered one of the most innovative and resilient coaches in the game, only has a .557 winning percentage and has been to the playoffs 5 times in his 15 seasons at the helm of the Titans. Is anyone calling for his resignation? In fact, many still consider him one of the best coaches in the league. Doesn’t Mike Shanahan still deserve this distinction?

None of these men were able to master a part of their game more consistently than Mike Shanahan did his running game. He made Tatum Bell, Reuben Droughns, Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson into 1000 yard rushers. He puts undrafted free agents into his system and they average 4 yards a carry. Mike Shanahan utilized his zone read blocking scheme to a T, with his “one cut and go” philosophy that trained his backs early on not to dawdle too long behind the line trying to make moves before getting yardage. Every year Denver did more with less than many other teams in the NFL- after the days of John Elway and Terrell Davis, the Broncos cycled through quarterbacks and running backs but still only had 2 losing seasons in that stretch. He never had a great big play receiver to complement Rod Smith as he got older, but still had solid offensive production no matter who was on the field because the running game was always churning out yardage.

This season was ugly- losses to the Chiefs, Raiders, and Bills, including losing your last 3 games to choke away the division is never pretty. The embarrassing performance his team put together against the Chargers with the division on the line was not at all like a Mike Shanahan-coached team, and it was likely what spelled the end for this long-tenured championship coach. And that’s exactly the point- this season was not at all like a Mike Shanahan team. This coach has done enough to deserve the benefit of the doubt. Coach Shanahan couldn’t stop 15 players from going on injured reserve as well as 17 other players showing up on the injury report for the hapless season finale, or stop All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey from missing 7 games in the middle of the season. He might have been able to do more to shore up this defense that allowed an AFC worst 28 points per game (though they just allowed defensive coordinator Bob Slowick to start calling the defensive plays this season).

At 56 years old, Mike Shanahan has a lot of coaching left in him if he chooses to do so. He will get offers, and I hope his as successful at his next stop as he was at Denver. However, in this age of 3 or even 2 year coaching stints, there is something inspiring when a successful coach can stay with a team for most (if not all) of his career. I understand the need for change, but Mike Shanahan deserves better than this. He is a great coach, and Denver won’t be able to find anyone better this season.

Postgame Report Card: Maryland 42, Nevada 35

The word of the game is... resilient. Well, at least that's the positive spin on it. This was a back-and-forth game in which Maryland kept letting Nevada back into the game, but still rebounded each time Nevada tied or took the lead. This was a classic game in which Maryland could have phoned it in or folded early, but they did not. There were serious flaws with this team that could not be hidden (the secondary, the quarterback), but the strengths of this team shone through to victory. One thing in particular worth noting was the success of interim defensive coordinator Al Seamonson, and the newfound aggressiveness of the defense. Though the Wolfpack used the blitzing to take advantage of the weak Maryland secondary, it was able to help turn the Nevada offense into a one-dimensional passing game. If Kaepernick were able to get going early with his legs (he was bottled up well even before the injury), I would not be writing about a victory.

Offense - Overall Grade: B
Quarterback: C
Yes, Chris Turner made a couple of big throws. However, he still showed himself to be the same inconsistent and unreliable quarterback he has been all year. In the first half Maryland was in a dogfight, and Turner put up an excellent performance. In the third quarter Maryland was up by fourteen points while dominating Nevada on defense, and Turner coughs it up three times. Here's to hoping for an improved Turner next season; you won't always come away with wins when your quarterback can switch irreversibly from a strength to a liability.
Running Back: A
Brilliant. The performance of the running backs, particularly Da'Rel Scott, was just phenomenal. Davin Meggett and Morgan Green held their own in the first half, with Green popping off a 53-yard touchdown run. However, when Da'Rel returned in the third quarter (missed the 1st half due to a suspension for missing curfew) he reasserted why he is the Terps' top running back and an All-ACC performer. Without his 174-yard, 2 touchdown second half performance there is no way the Terps could have pulled out this game.
Wide Receivers: A
When the balls were there, they were caught. Better yet, the catches were distributed well amongst the different wideouts: Adrian Cannon, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Ronnie Tyler, Torrey Smith, and Emani Lee-Odai all caught passes. Ronnie Tyler and Torrey Smith have particularly impressed down the stretch and it will be interesting to see where they fit in the corps down the line with the influx of new receiver talent coming next season.
Tight Ends: C+
Gronkowski and Watson were nonfactors in the passing game, and Gronkowski's drop in the first half on a third down throw was absolutely inexcusable. However, the blocking was more than sound throughout the game and particularly down the stretch.
Offensive Line: B+
All in all a very strong effort both in run blocking and pass protection. The run blocking late in the third quarter and through the fourth was superb, and for once the Terps asserted themselves over lesser athletes. Nevada's undersized front was controlled all game, and the tackles did decently to keep Turner clean against the multitude of blitzes Nevada threw.

Defense - Overall Grade: B-
Defensive Line: A
The defensive line controlled the front throughout the football game. Yes, Nevada was able to get over 100 yards on the ground, but in some ways the stats lied in regards to the defensive line's success. Unlike most other games this season the Terps were able to generate decent pressure with their line in collapsing the pocket. Equally as important the line played with discipline, not allowing Kaepernick easy running lanes.
Linebackers: B+
The pass rush this game was far and away better than most defensive efforts this season for the Terrapins. Adrian Moten was a force, and Wujciak was his normal steady self. Like the defensive line, the discipline of this unit was superb, and even before the Nevada quarterback was injured, the front seven had him well contained.
Defensive Backs: C-
Nevada runs a very open and aggressive attack, and so it's very hard for a secondary to look good against this group. That being said, they wouldn't look good against just about any offensive unit with the way they played today. Maryland sent in the blitz, exposing the cornerbacks to man-on-man coverage, and they were burned thusly. Keep in mind that while Nevada put up big passing numbers against this unit, there were several missed throws that could have resulted in a far worse day. The Terps need this group to improve next season.

Special Teams - Overall Grade: B+
Kicker: D-
Missed an extra point. Really? It's hard to blame Egekeze for that botched kickoff, but at the end of the day when he sees the ball fall off the tee all he has to do is pull up and not kick it so it can be reset. Not a good way for Obi to go out.
Punter: A-
Travis Baltz didn't have a brilliant game but he put the ball where he had to put it. He came close to having a ball downed at the 1, but it barely crossed the plane of the goal line on a rebound.
Returner: A+
Torrey Smith was bound for a breakout return, and he showed it with a 99-yard kickoff return touchdown. Punt returns were also adequate, but at the end of the day if you set an ACC record for return yards in a season you deserve an A+.
Coverage: A
Nevada's return game was nonexistent, and Smith had excellent blocking downfield. No complaints here.

Coaching - Overall Grade: A
Offensive: B+
James Franklin put up a steady gameplan, and consistently had the Terps in a position to succeed. Chris Turner was given the opportunity to make some plays but never asked to do anything superhuman. The run-pass balance in play calling was good, and I won't fault him for the late reverse call to Heyward-Bey that could have resulted in a turnover. The only bone I have to pick with Franklin is his failure to get Heyward-Bey involved in the offense.
Defensive: A-
I'll put it this way: I am very very happy to see the Terps utilize multiple defensive looks. Sending four, five, even six. Throwing in a zone blitz here and there. Mixing zone and man. Did it work perfectly? No. But against a spread offense like Nevada's, there is no way a Chris Cosh defense could have contained Kaepernick nearly as effectively.

And for my MVP/LVP...
MVP (Most Valuable Player) - Da'Rel Scott - 174 yards and two touchdowns down the stretch speaks for itself. Da'Rel was brilliant in his return, and with the passing game having gone cold, the Terps were going to have to win or lose on his legs. He showed the mixture of vision, power, and breakaway speed that made him a top running back for most of this season.
LVP (Least Valuable Player) - Chris Turner - If you're looking for a Chris Turner apologist, it's best to look to some other blogger. Chris started the game brilliantly, throwing a perfect strike to Adrian Cannon for a 59-yard touchdown. However, he began to stumble early in the third quarter, and in typical fashion he could not compose himself in the slightest and nearly gave the game away. He is a very big part of the Terps' success, but just as much a part of their failure.

(Photo Credit:AP)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bowling Style Pregame: Maryland vs. Nevada, the Roady's Humanitarian Bowl

The final game for Maryland is today on the blue turf in Boise, Idaho. After some fun with visiting a medical center, playing in the snow, and actual bowling against their competition (losing 213-196), now it is time to go to the field for the Roady's Humanitarian Bowl. After a 7-5 season, the Maryland Terrapins will line up against another 7-5 squad, the Nevada Wolfpack from the WAC. Gametime is set for 4:30 ET on Boise State's blue field.

It will be the last time an ACC team plays in the Humanitarian Bowl for a while, as the conference announced that they will withdraw from it after this season. It is easy to see why, ticket sales from the ACC team are very low due to its distance from the east coast and current economy. A couple weeks ago, it was reported that ticket sales from both combined teams were 24 total. No doubt many Boise residents will be at the game, but it is doubtful that there will be a ton of fans.

Even though this bowl has very little glamour around it, it still is important that Maryland win this game. It does not matter that there is no recruiting base in Boise or that it is a WAC opponent, the fact is a loss would embarrass the program and the team. Ralph Friedgen wants to be sure this season ends on a good note. Maryland has lost three of their last four games, has only won games in double digits twice, and is 1-4 away from College Park.

Scouting the Competition: Nevada Wolfpack

The Wolfpack nearly spared the BCS committee some pain when they took Boise State to the brink in late November, nearly coming back in their game from 21 down, ending the game with a loss by 7. They ended their season 7-5, including wins against Fresno State and Louisiana Tech, both bowl-bound teams. They have won three of their last four games including their only game in the state that Boise is in, a 49-14 win over University of Idaho. They run the "pistol offense" according to Eric Prisbell of the Washington Post, which has a shotgun formation and relies on a running back starting his run from behind the quarterback, which the defense does not know the direction.

On offense, they are led by WAC Offensive Player of the Year Colin Kaepernick. He is a big sophomore quarterback at 6'6'' and a dangerous scrambler, running the ball 152 times at an average 7.3 yards a rush. He is accurate with his arm, completing just under 55% of his passes with 19 passing touchdowns with just five interceptions, plus 16 rushing touchdowns. His biggest target is Marko Mitchell (pictured), a 6'4'' receiver expected to be taken in the middle of the upcoming NFL Draft, with 18.1 yards a catch and 9 scores off 56 catches. Vai Taua is the tailback, rushing the ball 213 times with 6.7 yards a carry.

On the defensive side, Kevin Basped and Dontay Moch have combined for 19.5 sacks from the defensive line. Joshua Mauga, their middle linebacker, is a powerful one that will play on the next level, leading a rushing defense that is third best in the nation at yards allowed.

Things to Look Out For:
--Chris Cosh is gone after accepting a position at Kansas State, and will not coach in the bowl game. Maryland's defensive coordinator position is currently not filled, but Al Seamonson is the interim right now.
--It is reported that Jordan Steffy will be the backup to Chris Turner for this game. If he is healthy, it would not be a surprise if he played a series.
--Maryland lost their last bowl game in the western part of the country, losing in last year's Emerald Bowl to Oregon State 21-14.
--The weather report has the temperature in the mid-40s and a cloudy day. It has been snowing in previous days in Boise, but the field should be clear of participation.

Maryland has been known to play to their competition's level, and this game has trap written all over it. It is a very similar situation to Middle Tennessee State. However, in their last game, I believe Maryland will put enough together for the win on the blue field. Turner will have a big day in the air, completing his last touchdown to Darrius Hayward-Bey in a Maryland uniform.

Maryland 24, Nevada 20

(Photo credit: Maryland athletics (Terps players), AP (Mitchell))

Monday, December 29, 2008

50th Anniversary of "The Greatest Game Ever Played"

Yesterday marked the 50th Anniversary of what is called "The Greatest Game Ever Played," the 1958 NFL Championship where the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants 23-17 in the first ever overtime game.

This game featured 17 Hall of Famers. Among them include: For the Baltimore Colts, quarterback Johnny Unitas, running back Lenny Moore, receiver Raymond Berry, and defensive linemen Art Donovan and Gino Marchetti. For the New York football Giants, running back Frank Gifford, offensive lineman Rosey Brown, defensive end Andy Robustelli, linebacker Sam Huff, and defesnive back Emlen Tunnell. The coordinators for the Giants were Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, both future Hall of Fame head coaches.

The Colts had a 14-3 lead, but missed a touchdown opportunity in the third quarter that would have put the game away. The Giants rallied back to score two touchdowns and lead 17-14. Johnny Unitas led a famous drive in the final two minutes which led to a Steve Myhra field goal to put the game in overtime, where Alan Ameche scored the famous winning touchdown.

This game put the NFL on the map. Before this, the NFL was not a popular sport. Baseball and boxing were still king, and college football was much more popular than its professional counterpart. NBC televised this game to the non-New York audience and the sport's popularity exploded.

ESPN did a wonderful documentary on the game, where they put the video footage in color and interviewed many of the former and current Colts and Giants. Happy 50th Anniversary to the game and its players.

(Photo credit: AP (Game), NFL (Unitas))

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Postgame Report Card: Ravens 27, Jaguars 7

The word of the game is.....congratulations. With their win over Jacksonville, the 11-5 Ravens get the last wild card spot to enter the playoffs. The Ravens knew they had to win to be in, and they looked like a team that needed a victory. The coaching staff from top to bottom had the Ravens ready, and the players put their heart into it as well. Normally, the Ravens do not do well with expectations, but they did today. Nothing is perfect, but this game was excellent.

The AFC playoff picture proved to be a nightmare. The 11-5 Patriots are not here. The Ravens were not expected to have a good year at all with a new head coach, new quarterback, and a bad year last season. It did not help when Baltimore started 2-3, capped by a 31-3 drubbing by Peyton Manning and the Colts. But the Ravens put a good streak of wins together against mid-level teams, and won games they need to win to get to this point. Everyone from coaching to management to the players deserve credit.

Offense - Overall Grade: A-
Quarterbacks: A
Joe Flacco had one of the best days we have ever seen from a Ravens quarterback. 17 for 23 for 297 yards, showing very good accuracy in throwing. Five passes of at least 25 yards, four coming in the first half, and no turnovers; you can't ask anything more of him. Troy Smith did not do bad on his time, but this day was about Flacco. A rookie quarterback had to led the team to victory to reach the playoffs, and Joe Flacco did just that.
Running Backs: B-
The ground game was not as effective as they normally are. LeRon McClain only averaged 2.8 yards a carry and McGahee only carried the ball four times. But they finished well, scoring three touchdowns combined. They assisted the air attack with good blocking, especially Lorenzo Neal.
Wide Receivers: A+
Mark Clayton was a huge deep threat, torching the secondary for 128 yards on just four catches. Derrick Mason despite missing practice all this week and being hurt caught six passes. With all of the issues and injuries in the receiver corps, Clayton and Mason stepped up big despite that they knew they were the only deep threat targets.
Tight Ends: B+
Todd Heap caught three passes and did a good job blocking. He was key on Baltimore's final first half drive, catching two passes while in the hurry-up offense.
Offensive Line: B
Flacco was only sacked twice and the penalties were to a minimum all games. The run blocking was suspect, not giving McClain enough holes, but the red zone blocking and the pass defense was well executed all game.

Defense - Overall Grade: A-
Defensive Line: B+
Though Maurice Jones-Drew had a few big runs, the defensive line was solid through out the night. Haloti Ngata was being used as a tackle and an end, maybe a sign of the future? The pressure on David Garrard was good, though they need to finish tackles a little better in the future, especially on running quarterbacks.
Linebackers: A-
Ray Lewis recovered two fumbles, almost had a third and was everywhere on defense tonight. Terrell Suggs was good as well, though his roughing the quarterback was obvious and unnecessary. But the whole gang was a force. Let's hope this is not Ray Lewis's last game at M&T Bank Stadium as a Raven.
Secondary: A
With all of the injuries, to Dawan Landry, Chris McAllister on IR plus Ed Reed, Samari Rolle, and Fabian Washington, David Garrard could not do anything against the secondary tonight. With the exception of the blown coverage on the Alvin Pearman touchdown early in the first quarter, Ed Reed snagged two interceptions inside Baltimore territory. Even Corey Ivy got in the game and sacked Garrard; the only sack of the game.

Special Teams - Overall Grade: A-
Kicker: A-
Matt Stover converted two short field goals and three extra points, missed a 48-yard field goal attempt. Steven Hauschka had a kickoff that was held like a field goal attempt that was destroyed, nearly going between the uprights. I hope he stays a Raven next year, Hauschka has a monster leg and could be a fine kicker.
Punter: A-
Had a short 32-net yarder in the first half, but landed one on the 5-yard line plus had two touchbacks, ending any chance of a Jacksonville comeback in the fourth quarter.
Coverage: A
Brian Witherspoon was going nowhere fast, even being tackled on the 8-yard line on a kickoff.
Returning: B-
Tom Zbikowski was not good on returning kickoffs, though he was not given a chance after two returns due to Jacksonville's non-existent offense plus he did not turn the ball over. Jim Leonhard never had a chance to return a punt. The kickoff returner will be a big question in the playoffs, as no one has emerged as a hand-down starting returner.

Coaching - Overall Grade: A
Offensive: A-
The air attack reigned supreme, as Flacco was given good plays to heave the ball downfield. It is difficult to run an offense with just two dependable receivers and a running game that was not working, but Cam Cameron found a way to do it. Only thing I question is putting Derrick Mason in difficult spots when he is hurt.
Defensive: A
Only seven points when the Ravens need a win, no more than 13 points allowed in any home game. No more needs to be said.
Head Coach: A+
I wanted to add this in for this game. The Ravens have played every week since the unexpected bye week in week 2, and John Harbaugh came out early in the week and said the Ravens were not tired. This rookie head coach has exceeded all expectations and has looked like a seasoned veteran coach out there, trusting his coordinators and keeping a calm head in the locker room. It is clear the players respect him and will go the distance for him, no matter what the circumstance.

MVP- Joe Flacco
As stated earlier, he needed a good game, and gave a great game when the Ravens needed to win to reach the playoffs. 17 for 23 for 297 yards with just two reliable wide receivers.
LVP- Tom Zbikowski
It is difficult to give an LVP is such a great game. Zbikowski was not effective on his two kickoffs, both times just running into blockers without much manuevering.

The Ravens as the 6-seed will take on the 3-seed AFC East champion Dolphins in Miami in the wild card round of the playoffs. Back in October, the Ravens had a 14-point victory over the Dolphins. Cam Cameron could get his second victory as Ravens offensive coordinator in Dolphin Stadium despite that he only had one as the Miami head coach last season.

(Photo credit: AP, Getty Images)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Ravens-Jaguars Preview: Win and They're In

The Jacksonville Jaguars are one of those teams that has you scratching your head, begging for a reason why this 12-4 running juggernaut was reduced to a 5-10 turnover-laden whimper of a football team. At the beginning of every season, Windsor and I make two sets of predictions- who will appear in the Superbowl, and which team that finished in the cellar of their division will win it this year (it often, though not always happens somewhere). Without boring you with all the predictions, I called the Jags to be the AFC winner. They had two great running backs that combined for 150 yards per game last season, a quarterback who did not turn the ball over and could make a first down with his legs, and a defense that was suffocating against the running game. Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. But whenever one faces a team who had recent success, there is a chance that that old spirit and talent will show up, as it did for 3 quarters last week against the Colts. If that same team shows up in Baltimore tomorrow, the Ravens might not be celebrating a trip to the playoffs.

What I’m Wondering:

Will Flacco keep his eyes on this week?
Win and you’re in. Luckily, being in 1-AA (I will not acquiesce to the new acronym they have for it) he has some experience with playoffs, but he will have to make sure to keep his focus on this week. Scoreboard watching will not do him much help, particularly with the Ravens game coming after the pivotal Bills-Patriots game. Additionally, Flacco will have the responsibility of making sure the Jacksonville doesn’t stay in this game late into the second half. Joe has been impressive this season, but in recent games he has sat in the pocket far too long looking for the big completion- and has risked either the big interception or the big fumble that gives new life to the opposing offense. Jacksonville is in their last game of a losing and disappointing season; deep down inside they do want to go home. They will be up for this game because it is their chance to have an impact on the playoff race and knock the Ravens out. Any turnover or change in momentum will keep the Jags hungry, and it will be up to the rookie to keep them from getting those opportunities.

How good is Fabian Washington?

I know I usually use this section to ask a question, but this time I am giving an answer. I think Washington has the potential to take over one of the 1 or 2 cornerback spots once Rolle and/or McAlister stop being effective at the position due to their age. No, I was not happy at all with his performance last week, but he has really come on strong, showing flashes the way many rookies do entering the NFL for the first time. In a way, he is. Being drafted by the Raiders in the 1st round tends to have that effect on players. Once they have a change in scenery, it is like they are starting all over again, and the combination of winning and competent coaching starts to turn them around. Personally I loved the trade of a 4th round pick for Washington this offseason. I will always take a still-young 1st round talent for a 4th round pick even if that player is considered a bust. There is always a reason a player is taken in the 1st round, and often the only thing they need is a motivating force or the right staff around them to be successful. I think Washington should be treated like a rookie with a lot more to learn, but I think he has a great future. Taking over against the depleted and pedestrian receiving corps would go a long way towards that future as a starter on this team.

Can Marcus Smith make a contribution in the passing game?
Marcus Smith? Who? Marcus Smith is currently the third wide receiver on the Ravens’ depth chart, and has seen increasing playing time over the past few weeks. He has yet to catch a pass, but with Derrick Mason’s injury the pressure is on him to start making a tangible impact. Derrick Mason will play to some extent on Sunday; I don’t believe that’s in doubt. However, even when he does play there will surely be a number of plays he has to take off due to the shoulder injury, leaving Marcus Smith as the second wideout. Smith is a rookie out of New Mexico, taken in the fourth round of this past years’ draft and has a good amount of potential although he is unpolished. Polished or not he has to be ready to step into Mason’s shoes and do a serviceable job. The receiving corps is thin already, and Flacco can’t afford to have only one viable threat at the wide receiver position when Derrick Mason is out. Marcus Smith stepping up this week would go a long way to the Ravens winning not only on Sunday but moving forward into a possible playoff run.

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

The Jaguars are allowing a full 3 points more per game than last season, which may not seem like much until you consider that it moves them from the top 10 in the league last season to the bottom half of the league this season. Additionally, 6 of their 10 losses have come by 7 points or less- one less score allowed here or there and this team could be in playoff contention. The primary reason for their defensive collapse is largely connected to their inability to stop the run as effectively as past seasons. After losing Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcus Stroud in a trade with the Bills, the Jags lost two more tackles to injured reserve, the results have been glaring- almost 20 yards more allowed on the ground last season than this season, and 11 fewer sacks issued than last year. The Jacksonville pass rush was in need of improvement before last season, and it did not get any better with a lack of push up front. While the run defense is still somewhat strong, the weakness of the Jaguars up front plays right into the hands of the Ravens rushing style.

With La’Ron McClain firmly established (whether the coaching staff will admit it or not) as the starting running back, the Ravens will be pound the ball right up the gut, “between the guards” even more than between the tackles. This will put immense pressure on the Jaguars to rotate their tackles inside to keep them fresh. With their lack of depth at that position, the 4th quarter could be a good one for Baltimore. By then Jacksonville will be worn down and be pushed back at the snap, opening up significant holes up the middle. Last week, Jacksonville stayed with, and even beat up on Indianapolis for much of the game, needing Peyton’s arm and some timely mistakes to ensure a Colts win. However, Indy lacked a strong inside running game, with Joseph Addai more of a shifty, off-tackle back. And no, Dominic Rhodes does not count as a power back.

What worries me about the Ravens offense is the faith that Cam Cameron has had in Joe Flacco. Wait, let me correct that- excessive faith. In recent games, Flacco has not been given the easy, short routes that a rookie, or any quarterback operating with a suspect offensive line, must have to be successful. Short outs, curl routes, a quick slant here and there have been absent in the 1st halves of recent games. As a result, Flacco is forced to stay in the pocket and wait for long-developing routes. Cam should be taking some of the kid gloves off in dealing with Flacco, but he is not a full-fledged passer yet. The result unfortunately has been decreased productivity and increased interceptions in the latter half of the season, and those deep attempts that were sprinkled in throughout the game and incredibly effective have now become a regular staple of the gameplan that has reduced its effectiveness tremendously. If Cameron does not give Flacco enough safety valves or short routes to work with, don’t be surprised if an early turnover keeps the momentum on Jacksonville’s side.

David Garrard was given much more control over the Jags offense this season, and it has shown with 30 more passing yards per game and about 100 attempts more than last season. However, much of that has been due to a running game that has faltered significantly this season. Regardless, Garrard’s passing has not registered more touchdowns, but instead more mistakes. After waiting until Week 11 to throw his first interception last season, Garrard took all of… 1 game to throw his first this season. Rather than being the controlled, disciplined passer who limited his mistakes, the increased pressure on him to throw has resulted in 7 interceptions over his last 8 games, while throwing 4 fewer touchdowns this season than he did in only 12 games last season. Look for the Ravens to focus on stopping the run and forcing Garrard to throw- he has shown that when he has to take the offense on his back, he is not a top-tier quarterback. Players like David Garrard are excellent caretakers of the offense, and will make the occasional play to keep a drive alive- but don’t ask him to do it himself.

He has had to do it himself however, due to the failure of the running game to get established, which happened long before Fred Taylor was placed on IR. After rushing for 150 yards per game last season, that number has dropped by 40, placing the Jags in the bottom half of the league. The Jags have attempted to alleviate the pressure from Garrard and the inside run by utilizing Maurice Jones-Drew in the passing game, highlighted by a performance against Minnesota in which Jones-Drew ran only 3 times while catching 9 passes for 113 yards. Unfortunately for Jacksonville, they too lack the power running back with the loss of Fred Taylor, and have not seen much action out of backups Chauncey Washington or Montell Owens. The Jaguars have thrived over the last few seasons by rotating their top 2 backs in and out of the game to give opponents a different look. Look for Maurice Jones-Drew to be exceptionally tired by the end of the game if he is placed in a situation as the sole back that he hasn’t had since college at UCLA.

The Ravens will attempt to deliver the knock-out punch early on in this football game, get up by a couple scores and let the lockdown defense take over. Though I feel like I am saying this for the 16th time this season (and I might be), look for the Ravens defense to force Garrard to throw, even if it takes putting extra players in the box. Garrard has become mistake-prone this season and it shouldn’t take much to get that out of him with a cacophonous home crowd and an early deficit. The Ravens won’t try anything fancy on offense if they don’t have to- they don’t want to use up all of their tricks they could break out for the playoffs, and it might be wisest to punish the Jaguars inside and let Flacco complete a deep pass or two against their secondary that ranks in the bottom half in the league in yards allowed, interceptions, and completion percentage allowed. However, they will have to be careful not to let Flacco go too wild or a timely mistake could turn momentum and make the Jaguars forget their 5-10 record long enough to pull the upset.

The Rundown

By the time the game kicks off Baltimore will know whether they are already in the playoffs, but I wouldn’t expect it to affect their approach. They still have a great deal to gain from giving Flacco experience against a team that is better than their record, and while you could see injured players like Mason being taken out early if the Ravens are in, the players who are in will still be playing strong. The Ravens are favored by 12 ½ points, and this is far too optimistic. Jacksonville is a score here or there away from their own playoff berth. The Jaguars will not pack this one in- this is their playoff game, their chance to knock the Ravens out of the playoffs. But if the Ravens can get up early they could take the energy out of this Jacksonville squad and be on their way to the AFC East Winner.

The nod goes to the Ravens, 24-20

Friday, December 26, 2008

Free Kicks- Post Christmas Edition

Well, despite my best efforts, we closed up the shop here on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, though we will do our best down the road to keep our doors open through the new year. I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday with family, a nice meal and some NBA (if you cared to watch any). There wasn’t much in the way of sports on Christmas Day, but that might be because everything is building up to Week 17. The Ravens will be looking for a playoff spot against the Jags, the Jets, Pats, and Dolphins are all fighting for the AFC East, the Chargers and Broncos will go head to head for the AFC West, and the Bears will be looking to spoil the Vikings’ first division title since 1998. How great is that? In the meantime, let’s line up for the kick…

Much-Delayed Response to Teixeira Fallout
A couple weeks ago I wrote about the A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia signings by the Yankees as examples of how it had taken the team all of about 6 months to throw out the idea of building from within and avoiding the temptation to try to buy a ring. Well, that was before the Yankees took control of the top 4 most expensive contracts in all of baseball and make their earlier signings look like a pittance. This team got one taste of what the other 29 teams have to put up with every season and threw their hands up and walked away. They could not handle the growing pains of young talent, the long-term scouting and evaluation process, the complex scheme of building up the farm system and working young players through the system. This is a team- no, an organization, that is so utterly unprepared for baseball as it is becoming that they are forced to fall back on the familiar formula after it has shown to be ineffective. They do not have the patience or fortitude to endure anything less than excellence, and will spend however they can to have it every single year. Let them do it. I am terrified of that rotation and that lineup, and I think they have just vastly improved themselves and will be a major factor in the AL East (I know, I am really going out on a limb there). In the long run however, this organization is weak-minded and slow to recognize the changing landscape of Major League Baseball, and will suffer for it as they hammer away at the same tired (and ineffective) formula.

As for Tex, I don’t care much about losing him. If he doesn’t want to play here, then that is perfectly understandable- he wants a ring. I wouldn’t expect him to suffer through 5 years of agony in the hopes of maybe making the playoffs- it doesn’t make sense for a player entering his prime. Oh well, take that cash and spend it elsewhere… Nick Markakis perhaps?

Nationals Looking like O’s of Old
So, the Nationals just signed Daniel Cabrera, and Corey Patterson among others to try to rebuild their team on the run as they look to try to fill their new stadium in their 4th year since becoming the Washington Expos Nationals from Montreal. This is starting to get rather silly for me, to be honest. They ought to be taking a lesson from their neighbors in Baltimore and realize that a set of free agent also-rans from other organizations isn’t going to save the franchise, especially in the NL East. Like the AL East, their division is stacked with quality competition- the World Champion Phillies, the Mets, the Marlins, and even the Braves are superior teams, and no number of Cabreras or Pattersons will change that. I mean, if Patterson couldn’t earn a spot in Cincinnati’s outfield and Daniel Cabrera couldn’t cut it in the god-awful Orioles rotation, they aren’t players who will help you compete. Rather than desperately throwing cash at Mark Teixeira, perhaps Washington should focus on building up their empty farm system before trying to make a half hearted move in the division. They shouldn’t have to look far to figure out how.

I am Getting Tired of Brett Favre

For those of you who were reading back in the summer, you will remember my adamant defense of Brett Favre and the abysmal treatment he was receiving from Packer’s management. I still believe he was mistreated, abused, and shoved out the door like yesterday’s garbage when he attempted to come back. He should have been allowed to come back, the Pack owed that much to him (unless they planned to give him back the division titles, NFC crowns, and the Superbowl win he gave them). However, I am now finding myself on the other side of the fence. Favre has no business talking retirement right now. I am not nostalgic this time around, and this is not a time to be discussing it. There is a game to be played that might- MIGHT get the Jets in the playoffs, not to mention any playoff games after that. I know he was pushed into a question about his future, but that was all to easy to dodge. He could have easily said that he was going to wait until the season end, or give some cliché answer about how he is “only thinking about next week.” That would have been fine. Instead, he goes down the road about his arm injury, how he is tired, etc. We have heard it before, and if he drags it out a second time I won’t be by his side. The Pack owed him… the Jets don’t.

A Trip Around the Harbor

Welcome back to reality everyone, I hope everyone had a tremendous Christmas holiday. And now that the gifts have all been unwrapped and the ham is continuing to digest, I'd like to take a walk around some of the goings-on around the Charm City. So let's begin...

Orioles - Ah, angst. Teixeira has officially signed with the Yankees, as we are all well aware, and yet again O's fans have to be hit with the cold slap of reality. Next year will most likely be worse than this year for the Birds. Who knows what is going to happen for sure, but the AL East has only gotten better, and the Orioles will only be marginally better at best. Certainly this signing for the Yankees doesn't necessarily get them into the postseason (with the Sox and Rays still favorites to win the division and wild card in my opinion) but it does reassert universal baseball hate to the fat cats in New York. I can't blame them for trying to win, but that doesn't mean I can't be angry. The Orioles offseason hasn't finished yet, however; there is still a veteran catcher that needs to be acquired, and most likely at least one starter will be added. Again, regardless of the move it will most likely be very very ugly next year.

Terps Football - The Terps went 7-5 and are going to a bowl game. It certainly doesn't feel like this year has been that good, does it? The Humanitarian Bowl, where Maryland plays Nevada on December 30th, reeks of an upset. I have serious doubts as to whether or not Maryland shows up; the Terps did not want to go to this bowl game, there will be little to no fan attendance in Boise, and Nevada is not an opponent who they're going to easily get up for to play. Regardless the Terps should want to show up for this game; with the disappointments that have littered this season and embarassments on national television, games like this are crucial for recruiting. Terps need a win to get this bad taste out of their mouths, I'm just not sure they're going to do it.

Terps Basketball - They could be pretty good. Then again they could be terrible. If nothing else, they're a classic Gary Williams team (minus the frontcourt). The Terps are marching through the cupcakes on their schedule, and thankfully avoiding any upsets along the way. Now, the avoidance of upsets does bode very well for the Terps; consider the fact that last season the Terrapins lost to both Ohio and American in this stretch of their schedule, dropping below 100 in RPI but still nearly made the tournament. In that light this season could not have started much better. They lost badly to both Georgetown and Gonzaga but acquired two very quality wins against Michigan and Michigan State. Thus, they're in good position but they're still reliant on the ACC stretch to get their marquee wins. That's very dangerous. The Terps don't have a frontcourt that can compete in the ACC, although Dino Gregory has shown flashes of being a decent post player, and that will make it awfully hard to survive an always-murderous ACC schedule. The pressure will not only be on the development of those young frontcourt players, but on the backcourt to carry this team through.

Ravens - I don't know how many Ravens fans share this sentiment with me, but I feel awfully tense about this game on Sunday. The Jaguars, after looking disinterested and sloppy on Monday night a few weeks ago, have come on awfully strong down the stretch. No, it doesn't reflect in their wins-losses, but the Jags have been competitive, particularly in their near-upset over Indiannapolis last week. The important thing to remember, however, is that the Ravens have not slipped up against an inferior team yet this year, going undefeated against teams with a losing record. I have no doubt that the Ravens will show up and play with emotion, but the key will be whether or not that emotion is controlled. Passion is generally a good thing, but it can also get people out of position and cause sloppy mental mistakes. I have no doubt that the Ravens coaches will be aware of this and try their best to keep the team disciplined and focused amidst all of the playoff fervor.

Baltimore and the Lacrosse Final Four

Two weeks ago, Baltimore became a finalist for hosting the 2010, 2011, and 2012 NCAA lacrosse Final Fours along with Boston, Denver, and the Meadowlands in New Jersey. M&T Bank Stadium has hosted three lacrosse Final Fours, the most recent being in 2007.

Baltimore is considered by many to be capital of lacrosse, so it makes sense that they would be a finalist. A number of schools can assist hosting-wise, M&T Bank Stadium has proven to be a good stadium to host the possible 50,000 fans due to its location, and a number of lacrosse events are played there currently, including the Konica Minolta Classic and the upcoming Day of Rivals.

Rumor is that the last time Baltimore hosted the Final Four, problems arose with the hosts. Since this is in a neutral field, the job of hosting the event falls on a number of schools, including Johns Hopkins, Loyola, and Maryland among others. Due to the increasing popoularity of this Final Four and the millions that go through it, the NCAA will want to be sure the host city will be a good one free of too much controversy.

All the choices have their advantages. Boston is the current host, setting a new attendance record in 2008. The Kraft family and Bill Belichick have long been supporters of the game of lacrosse, and they would certainly like to keep the event in Gillette Stadium. The NCAA may not want to give them so many Final Fours in a row, but Boston has proven to be a good host. The Meadowlands in New Jersey is near another lacrosse hotbed, that being Long Island, and they have a new stadium coming in August 2010. If the NCAA wants to have all three years go to one place, then the Meadowlands would not be ready by the 2010 Final Four. Then there is Denver, where there has been an explosion of lacrosse fever, with the Denver Outlaws leading in attendance in the MLL and recently hosting the MLL All-Star Game. The fact they are not on the east coast might hurt them since a majority of lacrosse schools and support are, and the average fan may not go to Denver for the games.

John Weaver of E-Lacrosse and the Baltimore Sun has a good analysis of the four possible cities. The decision of the 2010 Final Four will be made in February.

(Photo credit: E-Lacrosse)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Teixeira Goes to the Yankees, Baltimore Shouldn't be Surprised

Let's face it, none of us expected Mark Teixeira to sign with the Orioles. Andy MacPhail made it clear he would need to take a hometown discount to play here, and knowing Scott Boras, "hometown discount" is not in the Boras negotiation dictionary. Though we may be surprised Tex will be with the Evil Empire, the fact is 8-years, $180 million is too good to pass up. We can't blame Tex for going, the Yankees for offering, or the Orioles for not offering. In baseball, you play to win, and the Yankees are willing to spend a ton of money. But for the Orioles, signing Teixeira was not going to mean a playoff appearance or even a chance at one. There is too much to do and too many positions to improve. The Orioles still have serious work to do, and now that this is over, MacPhail and company can focus back on rebuilding.

According to Peter Schmuck of the Baltimore Sun, the Orioles are still going after free agents, some of whom include Braden Looper, a decent starter of the last two years for St. Louis, and former Nats starter Tim Redding. Neither are considered future pieces, both are in their early 30s. After letting Daniel Cabrera go, they need a new starter to eat up innings, since they want to keep their future starters in the farm system until they are ready. I hope they go after a bullpen pitcher and a temporary position player, whether it be left field or first base.

The fact is there will not be a star or very well known player signed by the Orioles this offseason, but that is probably a good thing. The Orioles do not want to waste money right now especially in these times. Not getting Mark Teixeira may hurt in the short term, but the Orioles knew they probably were not going to get him, and perhaps it is better this way.

(Photo credit: MLB)

Will Yeatman Tranferring to Maryland?

Inside Lacrosse's John Jiloty is reporting from a source "close to the situation" that Will Yeatman, a Notre Dame football tight end and All-American lacrosse attack, will likely transfer to Maryland.

The California native was suspended during the 2008 lacrosse season after being arrested and later in the year got suspended from the football team after being the high-profile case of the police raid in South Bend that saw many lacrosse players, including Will Yeatman being arrested. He has since asked for a transfer, and since Notre Dame would not allow a transfer release to someone on their schedule this season, this limited his options. Maryland had been on Yeatman's list of schools before choosing Notre Dame.

If Yeatman transfers to Maryland, the following scenario would happen. Since he did not play lacrosse in 2008, he would be able to play in 2009 with his first of three years of eligibility. He played in three football games for the Irish, so transfer rules would require him to sit out in 2009, so he'll suit up in 2010 for his only year of eligibility remaining.

From a football standpoint, Yeatman probably would not be much of a factor catching the ball. Maryland often brings in strong tight ends, and Yeatman would be competing with many of them. Before he got suspended, Yeatman had just two catches for six yards in his three games. Notre Dame describes him as a blocking tight end, and at 6'6'' and 265 pounds, it is not hard to see why. The last Notre Dame transfer Maryland received played very well, Isaiah Gardner, started two years for the Terps as the second cornerback from 2005-2006.

On the lacrosse side, Yeatman was an honorable mention All-American in 2007 after leading his team in assists with 25, plus getting 21 goals. Maryland started three freshmen at attack last season, Grant Catalino, Ryan Young, and Travis Reed. All three would end with more than 27 points and lead Maryland in scoring. This said, it is hard to see where Yeatman will play. It is possible either Young or Reed could move to midfield, where Maryland could use some help, since Yeatman and Catalino are more fit for attack due to their size. Maryland would like the depth at attack, especially since Young and Reed have both were arrested for DUI in 2008. The fact is, as long as Yeatman plays, adding an All-American to an already strong offensive team will be very helpful to the season. Dave Cottle's attack core would be set for the next three years with Yeatman, Catalino, Young, and Reed.

This move will undoubtedly bring controversy. Maryland was criticized for only suspending Reed and Young for two games, which was 10% of the season, and now they are taking in Yeatman. However, Yeatman is a solid player, and one that will be another good player in a solid offense. This is not official yet, but John Jiloty says that if he does transfer to College Park, Yeatman and Catalino would be the best attack duo in the country. Not to mention a useful tight end for Ralph Friedgen.

(Photo credit: Notre Dame athletics (Yeatman lacrosse), Lacrosse Magazine (Yeatman football))

Monday, December 22, 2008

Teixeira's Offer From Angels Removed, Orioles Back in Play?

The Angels have reported removed their 8-year offer to Mark Teixeira and will not pursue him further. With the Red Sox most likely out of the running voluntarily, this means the Orioles might yet have a shot with him. Although it had been reported earlier the Orioles might not be in the running anymore, with the Angels and Red Sox out, this has changed.

The consensus is that Teixeira will go to one of three teams now, the Nationals, the O's, or the Yankees. Supposedly the offers are as follows:
--Nats: 8 years, $160 million (Dave Sheinin, Washington Post)
--O's: 7 years, $140-150 million (Jeff Zrebiec, Baltimore Sun)
--Yankees: no official offer yet (Michael S. Schmidt, New York Times)

Supposedly Scott Boras, Tex's agent, has contacted the Yankees, no doubt trying to get a big offer. Had the Yankees really wanted him, they could have easily outbid the O's and Nats, so it is possible they played into the bidding to disrupt the Red Sox. The Nats and O's have put offers on the table, and the Orioles might up the offer slightly if it could push the edge.

I'm not sure why the Angels and Red Sox felt the need to withdraw their offers, but everytime Scott Boras seems to negotiate, something goes wrong. He still has not gotten a deal for Manny Ramirez and a number of his cilents, including Jeremy Guthrie just a week ago, have fired him as a result. He is a good agent that gets great money, but I'm not sure if he is getting to greedy, especially in this economy.

But with the Orioles, now is the time to make a move if you have one. Boras and Tex want a deal by Christmas. If Tex follows the money, he will either take the Nats offer or wait for the Yankees. If he does not care about ten million extra, he will sign with his boyhood team. It is now at the point where, can the Orioles afford not to sign him, and let him go to the Nats? We all hope not.

UPDATE 12/23/08: MASN's Roch Kubatko reports the Nationals have upped their offer to 8 years, $178-184 million.

(Photo credit: Christian Petersen, Getty Images)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Postgame Report Card: Ravens 33, Cowboys 24

The word of the game is... gutsy. This is a cliché word, I know, but what else can you say? The Ravens came into a very hostile Dallas stadium on a historic night for the home team, and beat a team with, quite honestly, superior talent. This was not the perfect night for offense; the Ravens sputtered through nearly the entire game, failing to get into the endzone in the first half despite numerous opportunities. This wasn’t the perfect game for defense; there were significant coverage breakdowns that the Cowboys didn’t exploit and the defensive line was pushed around most of the game.

So what was so great about this game, and how did the Ravens win? The Ravens won with guts. They played hard, they played for each other, and they played disciplined. It sounds awful melodramatic to say that, but anyone watching that game could see the difference between the two teams playing. Both were sloppy in execution, but the Ravens had every man on the field playing hard each snap. Those intangibles trumped talent yesterday.

Offense - Overall Grade: B-
Quarterbacks: B+

Joe Flacco didn’t light the world on fire, but he certainly was poised. Flacco was battered heavily in the first half, as his offensive line allowed him to get mauled to the tune of five sacks. Occasionally Joe held onto the ball a little bit too long, and some of his passes sailed on him that could have been big plays. Still, Joe answered the critics claiming that he had hit the ‘rookie wall’.
Running Backs: B-
Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain had the highlights of the game with their 77 and 82 yard touchdown runs, respectively. Those two runs sealed the game for the Ravens, both responding to Dallas scores late. However, it’s important not to forget that this group got next to nothing done prior to those runs. Le’Ron McClain had a few good runs, but neither was reading the lanes particularly well. Hopefully McGahee’s excellent few runs down the stretch will propel him forward.
Wide Receivers: B
Derrick Mason. What can you say. The man played with one arm, played in pain, and ultimately made the key plays in the game. He recovered the Le’Ron McClain fumble, caught Joe Flacco’s touchdown pass, and converted several other first downs. His performance was a microcosm of the attitude the Ravens showed in this football game.
Tight Ends: B+
Todd Heap was excellent as a pass receiver, getting open several times down the field. Flacco wasn’t able to make a couple of key connections with him, most notably on a sure-fire touchdown to Todd Heap in the first half, but the point is that he got himself open and in a position to make plays. Heap got beaten very badly as a blocker; the assignments were tough but he has to make them for the offense to run. As I’ve said many times before, Quinn Sypniewski has been missed.
Offensive Line: C-
After the first half, make no mistake, this grade was a flat-out F, no doubt about it. They hung Joe Flacco out to dry, missed a key block on what would have been a touchdown throw to Mark Clayton, and opened up no lanes in the running game. However, this group was somewhat redeemed in the second half; they didn’t let Flacco get sacked and the late-game run blocking was brilliant.

Defense - Overall Grade: B-
Defensive Line: B-

The Ravens’ defensive front was uncharacteristically bullied around by the opposing offensive line. For much of the game even stalwarts like Haloti Ngata were getting pushed off the ball by the Dallas line. There was very little penetration in the running and passing game.
Linebackers: B
Again, an uncharacteristically poor performance, as there were several missed tackles by usually sound tacklers in Bart Scott and Ray Lewis. The coverage on flare patterns to the running backs in the flat was excellent, and the blitz execution was sound.
Defensive Backs: C+
They got lucky. Tony Romo missed an awful lot of deep throws that could have won this game for the Cowboys. Credit Rex Ryan for putting Tony off balance, but those lapses could have been devastating. Ed Reed, however, had a couple of interceptions and his big return on the latter turned into an unlikely late field goal in the first half.

Special Teams - Overall Grade: A
Kicker: A

Until the late runs, Stover was the offensive MVP of this football team. He made four field goals, accounting for twelve of the Ravens’ 16 points heading into the fourth period. The kickoffs were hurt somewhat by the deactivation of Hauschka for the game.
Punter: A+
Sam Koch was absolutely brilliant this night. He averaged a net punt of 46.6 yards (with a long of 61) and converted a fourth-and-8 with a 9 yard run out of a fake field goal. Sam Koch is the most underrated punter in football.
Returners: A-
Jim Leonhard was outstanding. Yamon Figurs was not. Just when it seems that Yamon might be back on track, he has this game in which he not only failed to produce field position on kickoffs, he almost gave the game away late with an inexcusable fumble. Jim Leonhard is getting better and better on punt returns; he doesn’t have blazing speed, but boy can he stop and start on a dime.
Coverage: B
Miles Austin got some good chunks on kickoff returns, and Adam Jones broke loose late for a significant return. Other than that the coverage was OK, particularly on punts. The blocking was decent on punt returns but certainly on kickoffs Yamon could have used more help; then again, he could have just missed the lanes so it’s hard to say.

Coaching - Overall Grade: A
Offensive: B+

This wasn’t a particularly good offensive showing, but Cam Cameron did what he could to move the ball against Dallas. The most important thing that Cameron did was to tweak how to attack the Dallas defense as the game went along. The reappearance of Troy Smith in the offense was a welcome sight, along with the use of the tight end screen and a couple option looks with Flacco. Against great pass rushes, Cam needs to start going to the short passing game earlier instead of letting his quarterback get beat up waiting for deeper routes down the field.
Defensive: A
Rex Ryan and his defense shut down the explosive Cowboys offense for three and a half quarters yesterday, and that was an immense accomplishment. Tony Romo was harried and confused for nearly the entire game yesterday. An excellent adjustment by Rex was to shut down the draw game that the Cowboys were running so effectively early in the game.

And for my MVP/LVP...
MVP (Most Valuable Player) –Derrick Mason–
Not only was it his six catches and a touchdown, but his attitude. Derrick Mason was a warrior and embodied what the Ravens did last night. Undermanned, hurt; didn’t matter.
LVP (Least Valuable Player) –Corey Ivy– Yet again, he was the major weak link in the secondary and let some big plays be made over top of him. Late in the game, in the red zone, why do you let Jason Witten get behind you?

Ravens win a wild one in Dallas


So that happened. I'll give my full report card tomorrow, but I would like to make a quick note here first. I was amazed and inspired by the performance given by the Ravens in this game. Was it pretty? No. Was it convincing? Not really. Did they get a few pieces of good fortune? Certainly yes.

But this game represented unselfish, disciplined, team football. While the Cowboys continually looked frenetic on offense and defense, the Ravens kept a cool head on all sides of the football. Through the failed drives and missed blocks the offense kept its composure and never blinked. When you do that, when you don't commit stupid penalties, and when you play as a unit great things happen.

I don't know if you can characterize this as a great team. But you can certainly call it a team, in the truest sense of the word. That's quite honestly something of a first around here.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ravens- Cowboys Preview: Make or Break Time for Playoffs

This is the game that will go a long way towards deciding the wild card races in the AFC and NFC. A win by either team puts them in incredible position to take these spots, and a loss puts their fortunes in jeopardy. This also happens to be the Cowboys’ last game at historic Texas Stadium as they make way for their new “state of the art” facility to open next year. The Ravens offense has sputtered in recent weeks, while dissent between Jason Witten, Tony Romo, and Terrell Owens has made the headlines of ESPN but hasn’t exactly hurt their ability to take care of business, taking down the Giants last week 20-8. These last two games are must wins for the Ravens, but the Cowboys will be looking to capitalize on their recent struggles and keep Joe Flacco on the ground. This game will be about whether the Ravens offense can rebound and keep the crowd out of the game to control the tempo and let the defense force Romo into mistakes late in the game.

What I'm Wondering:

How will Joe Flacco respond to consecutive poor showings?
Last week the Ravens rookie was all over the place- except in his receiver’s hands. Even when he had time to throw he sailed it on them, losing key 1st downs and even scoring chances (see Derrick Mason wide open in the endzone and overthrown), only completing bullet passes over the middle of the field. He seemed to be struggling just to keep the ball low, and could only seem to complete a pass when he forced it into a hole. I don’t know whether he is feeling more pressure mentally or is worn down by the length of the season, but he will have to turn things around in the last 2 weeks for the Ravens to make the playoffs. His passer rating of 64.4 and 22.2 will not cut it against the Cowboys or any other team in the league for that matter. He will have to respond and in a big way for the Ravens offense to get a jumpstart. I will credit him with taking the team on his shoulders to spur this offense on this season, but I will also look to him when the team looks classically inept.

How will the Ravens contain the Dallas pass rush?
This seems to come up every week as a major concern, and as soon as the Ravens stop playing teams with a dangerous ability to get to the quarterback we will be able to stop talking about it. Last week I wrote that Pittsburgh led the league in sacks. This week, I would be wrong. The Cowboys have 53 sacks on the season, and sport the league leader in sacks with 19 in DeMarcus Ware. Yes, 19 sacks in 14 games. While the rest of this team went up and down all season, this Cowboys front 7 was oblivious to all that, crushing opposing offensive lines and consistently harrying the quarterback- never more apparent than last week against Eli Manning when he looked like a deer in headlights while he was being protected by what is supposed to be the best line in football. The Ravens offensive linemen are not nearly as good as the Giants’, and this could be a long night if they aren’t prepared. The bright side is that they only allowed 2 sacks against the Steelers- but it is fair to say that Joe Flacco wasn’t exactly sitting pretty in the pocket. Will the Ravens be able to contain Ware and the Cowboys on that fast surface at Texas Stadium, or will Joe Flacco get an extended introduction to the turf?

What impact will Adam “Pacman” Jones’ return have on this game?
Adam Jones gets a lot of credit for his off-field criminal and generally unwise conduct, but on the field he has been known as a dangerous return man, an increasingly competent cornerback, and an amazing athletic talent. However, in his 7 games this season, he has been none of that. He has no interceptions despite playing significant time in a starting role, he has averaged only 4.6 yards per punt return and has only actually gotten the chance to return a kickoff 3 times, with mediocre results. The national media has made a lot of his return to the lineup, but I don’t. There is a chance that if he gets his hands on the ball it could go to the house, but he has to get a pick or get a return to do so. So far the Cowboys have not given him any opportunities for that and he hasn’t gotten that precious interception yet this season. Look, Jones will give this team depth at a position they desperately need it, but right now he will not make or break this game. There are a lot bigger worries against this Dallas D than an extra cornerback on the roster. Will he find his old form from 2006 or will he play as he has so far in 2008?

My Mildly Informed Analysis

Ravens Offense vs. Cowboys Defense
The Ravens offense has been surprisingly good this season, but let’s be honest- things are sputtering right now. Against the Redskins an incredible defensive performance and a late touchdown drive by the offense hit a generally moribund effort that day. There were many more possible excuses against the Steelers, but more than anything else the offense did not move the ball because Joe Flacco delivered the ball too high for his receivers on a consistent basis, unable to complete even the simplest pass. I would argue that last week was not all about the Steeler’s defense, but about Joe Flacco finally underachieving relative to what we have seen this season. We are used to being surprised by his weekly improvement and confidence, and perhaps last week the coaching staff put a little too much faith in him. I didn’t see those safe throws, those easy attempts to get him in a rhythm, but instead he was being put in situations where he had to try to big completion rather than the safe one. This won’t work against the Cowboys, either. Joe needs to be able to have some shorter routes at his disposal, particularly in the 1st quarter so he can build confidence and get a feel for this team. While pass protection is critical, we have seen Flacco perform well while under pressure. More important is the need to establish that passing threat early to create lanes for McClain and others.

Speaking of which, Ravens fans should be hoping that Ray Rice plays this week, because I see him becoming a big part of this offense against Dallas. Yes, Dallas has the most sacks in the NFL, but it is not because they are patient to find the ball carrier. They will be keying in on Flacco from the first whistle, and pushing Anderson and Gaither up the field to try to get to the Ravens QB. This will be a perfect opportunity to use Rice in draw plays out of the shotgun to force the Cowboys to back off their rush and play the run more seriously. The difficulty the Giants had against the Cowboys (besides Eli Manning being made to look like a lost puppy) was their lack of a power back to complement the speed they had in Ward and Bradshaw. The Ravens will not have that problem this week. They will look to wear down the Cowboys front by running right at them, likely through the unbalanced line, to keep the front 7 on their heels. This week I think the unbalanced line is both necessary and will be effective given how it will take up defenders and physically punish the Cowboys. It might not be effective in getting big gains, but it will slow down the defense give Flacco time and confidence to throw.

Even with Adam Jones back in the lineup, the Cowboys do not sport nearly as strong a secondary. While they are in the top 10 in yardage allowed, they have only 8 interceptions on the season, 28th in the NFL. This latter stat is crucial to the Ravens’ success through the air. Joe cannot afford to make the big mistake, and even if he only throws for 180 yards in the air, if he doesn’t have an interception the Ravens could hold onto a lead. Besides, with the emphasis on the power running game it is likely that the linebacker pretending to be a safety Roy Williams will sneak up into the box to help, opening up the deep throw down the field. If there is one thing Joe Flacco can do it is throw deep, and it could be one big completion that starts things rolling for the Ravens tonight.

Cowboys Offense vs. Ravens Defense
Regardless of whatever infighting is going on behind the scenes in the Cowboys’ locker room, it is fair to say that it isn’t affecting their play on the field just yet. Through 11 games this season, Tony Romo has only been sacked 15 times, a far cry from what the Ravens faced last week. In those games he is also on track for one of his best seasons ever, with a 98.1 passer rating to go with 24 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. While he struggled against the Steelers (prompting questions about his ability to finish games), he is still a stellar quarterback and has the weapons to back him up. Among these is his favorite target (though don’t tell Terrell Owens) is Jason Witten, who has been an even bigger part of the offense over the last 3 games with 20 receptions over that span. He is their primary first down man, and will have to be bracketed just as a wide receiver is. Witten is capable of getting deep in the same way Todd Heap does, and will bulldoze a defender at the 14 if he has to get to the 17 for the first down. The Ravens D cannot afford to allow the Cowboys to keep long drives alive, and they will be going first to Witten in passing situations.

However, I cannot write a preview without mentioning the second best receiver on this team. I wanted to say Roy Williams or even Patrick Crayton, but T.O. is the one showing results this year. Williams has been unable to develop a rhythm, catching only 14 balls in his 8 games with the ‘Boys this season. Crayton, for his part, is an excellent returner and slot receiver and could surprise the Ravens defenders, but the game will not be about him. As we know, Owens will be looking for the ball and has a big problem with the Ravens defense. Ever since he scoffed at the notion of playing for the hapless Ravens offense in 2004 and then followed it up by imitating Ray Lewis’ dance after a touchdown with the Eagles, Ravens fans have not been too fond of him either. The Ravens cornerbacks have had a huge problem in tackling this season, and it was their inability to take down receivers immediately after the catch that allowed the Steelers to drive the ball down the field last week. Baltimore will have to wrap up on Owens or he will break away for a big gainer. The Cowboys sport two very tough receivers in Williams and Owens; the Ravens will have to make sure to be the aggressors instead.

If Marion Barber is back for Dallas (he is currently listed as a game-time decision), it could spell more trouble. Barber is one of the most underrated backs in the league- while he is known as a bruiser, the reason that the Cowboys felt safe in releasing Julius Jones in the offseason was because Barber was also proving himself to be more shifty and elusive than Jones. His average is down to 3.7 yards per carry from 4.8 a year ago, but that is partially due to him having to take the full load for the first time in his career (including college, where he split carries with Lawrence Maroney at Minnesota). Hopefully wear and tear is getting to him. Otherwise, Tashard Choice is no slouch for a backup either, and has performed relatively well in his absence.

The Rundown

The Ravens, oddly enough, need this game slightly more than the Cowboys, though the Cowboys will get extra energy from playing their last game at Texas Stadium. Dallas is 6-1 at home this season and haven’t lost there since September. Baltimore is 4-3 on the road this season, despite Flacco’s apparent success there. I don’t see the Ravens offense overcoming its recent slump against a defense that sacked Eli Manning 8 times last week, and while Dallas might make more mistakes on offense, they will also make more big plays. I wish I could see the Ravens winning tonight, but I don’t think it’s in the cards.

The nod goes to the Cowboys, 21-10

Photo Credit: (Baltimore Sun: Doug Kapustin)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Free Kicks

Sorry for the lack of posting yesterday- I am still getting settled, Windsor is in an undisclosed location (my bet is a secret underground bunker) working, and Falco is laid up sick and recovering. Things are harried over at ATH, but the show must go on. So, the Colts sealed up the #5 seed in the playoffs, and things just got a bit tighter for the Ravens. I was pulling for the Jags just to give another team a shot to take the heat off of Baltimore, but this doesn’t change a whole lot. The formula is still pretty simple. They have to win their last two, that’s it. Meanwhile, let’s line up for the kick…

What to Make of the Latest Mark Teixeira News
I am actually starting to hope that Mark Teixeira signs with Red Sox just so that he signs already. My god, this negotiation is starting to have shades of the Brett Favre drama in the mass of coverage and how fast the story changes. Last night he was going to sign with the Red Sox. Now, Red Sox owner John Henry has stated that his team is out of the running after looking at the other offers that Boras has received. At first glance this seems hopeful for the other teams in the race, but let’s hold that for a moment. This is clear posturing on the part of the Red Sox. Boras likely had them down to Texas to try to get them to up their offer, saying that it would take X increase to sign Teixeira. The Sox are trying to call his bluff, hoping that Boras will come off of his demands and return to the table. No team with a competitive offer (and we must assume that the Sox have one) just walks away- not even the Orioles are doing that. The Sox are just making a show that they might not be an option anymore just as a PR stunt to get Scott Boras to stop raising the price for his star client. It is good business, and it does not take Boston out of the running at all. In fact, I still think he will sign there.

Lions’ Winless Season would be About More than Football
I read an interesting piece by Elizabeth Merrill on ESPN about how the Lions season is being received in the city of Detroit. As someone who has close ties to the area, the utter failure of the Lions to win a game this season is just a microcosm of the way the city- and the entire state- has gone this year. Yes, the Red Wings are still incredible, the Pistons are perennial contenders and the Tigers are, well, at least the season’s over. The Lions are, as usual, terrible. But the difference this year was hope. This was a team that went 4-0 in the preseason as even while I was one of those who said that it meant nothing for the season, I did think it showed signs of improvement. There was hope in the city for a playoff bid in a mediocre division; this was the moment for Detroit to make a move. Yet as so often happens, that hope was dashed early and has only deepened since. From a football standpoint, it doesn’t really matter how the Lions do after this point. No matter what this franchise will get an overhaul, though count me among the people who believe that only an 0-16 season will get the Ford’s to do what it takes to tear down and build up this franchise.

This city is a lot like this team- beaten down on a weekly basis without good news sprinkled in to give it hope. This city also has a lot of great people, great attractions, and an impressive spirit to it, like this team does. There is talent on that roster (though not much), and there is talent in that city. The Big 3 have mismanaged their workforce (though the UAW hasn’t helped), and the Ford family has driven the team into the ground (oddly enough, in both cases the Fords are partly to blame). Root for the Lions to succeed next year or the year after, Michiganders have enough to be depressed about already.

BCS isn’t the Only (or even the best) Games of the Bowl Season
Bowl Season is upon us! While everyone will be watching Navy-Wake Forest in the Eaglebank Bowl and Maryland-Nevada in the Humanitarian Bowl (along with the 24 or so people who have bought tickets- yes, only about a couple dozen-DOZEN tickets have been sold), there are plenty of other great matchups that don’t have the acronym BCS in them. Personally I have trouble stomaching even watching the spawn of the BCS system, so these games are great distractions. The Poinsettia Bowl pits undefeated Boise State against 10-2 TCU, whose only loses have been to Oklahoma and by a hair to Utah late in the season. These are the two most tested non-BCS conference teams over time, the ones with the pedigree and experience of succeeding year in and year out even when they take on the major conferences. I am incredibly excited to see them face off on December 23rd. Christmas might come a day early if Hawaii manages to beat Notre Dame in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve. Charlie Weis has wasted so much talent and it is a crime that he has a job right now- not because I don’t enjoy watching the Irish suffer, but because no coach who has failed so unequivocally against cupcake schedules with top-5 recruiting classes should be staying on for a 5th season. Hawaii has a lot to prove after being waxed by Georgia last year in the Sugar Bowl, and ND has to avoid a second straight losing season. This should be a great one to watch. After this week I will let you know of some others to keep your eyes out for, there is still plenty of football left!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Orioles Rundown- More to this Team Than Teixeira Rumors

It is very difficult to write a post right now without talking about it, so I will. The Teixeira negotiations are still ongoing, with Karl Ravech saying yesterday that the free agent first baseman was leaning towards the Orioles only to hear today that Baltimore has been almost eliminated from contention. Now of course we are hearing out of the Warehouse that they could increase their offer after all. *Sigh* I am glad I am not a beat writer, and I am glad that this blog doesn’t try to post all of that. Look, this is how these negotiations are done- Scott Boras is just playing the market as he always does, sending mixed signals to keep every team on its heels and work the respective fan bases into a frenzy. He is an expert, and that is why he is the superagent right now. I would advise any Orioles fan to take these reports with a grain of salt. As tempting as it is to try to figure out where he will land, these things are meant to deceive you. Once in a while some piece of information will break and you will get it right ahead of time, but this is too rare to be relied upon. There are about a million “sources close to the negotiations” that you shouldn’t rely on any of them. Luckily for us, there are some much more concrete (and positive) things to report.

As you likely know by now, the Orioles have a shortstop! After a year of mediocrity at best and futility at worst, Baltimore has acquired a mid-level shortstop in Cesar Izturis, known for lockdown defense and a mid-200’s batting average in 8 seasons in the majors with the Blue Jays, Angels, Dodgers, Cubs, Pirates, and Cardinals. He may be a journeyman, but the 28 year old could be valuable in locking up the position for 3 or even 4 years while the Orioles wait for a top level shortstop to work his way through the system. In fact, the 2004 Gold Glove winner will likely be more than just a stopgap. Despite his numerous moves, Izturis has shown consistency in each one of his stops. He also adds to the Orioles team speed, with 24 steals in 135 games last season. With Freel, and (probably) Roberts on the roster, Baltimore could become an even greater running threat. This is not a player who will let losing drag down his average or be a cancer in the clubhouse when the season goes south. No, he won’t cause Orioles fans to completely forget the shortstop issue, but he won’t make it a point of deficiency on this roster.

Too often fans think that a team has to answer a need with a star player or a future All Star. Have a need at 1st base? Get Mark Teixeira. Need a closer? Call up Francisco Rodriguez’s agent. That isn’t always true. Most often, it is smarter to answer a need with a solid mid-level player to fill the need, there is no sense making a blockbuster move when a subtle one will do. I liked this move a lot. MacPhail realized that he didn’t need Rafael Furcal here- he only needed a shortstop. He got him in Cesar Izturis. He isn’t a household name, but he is just what the Orioles need right now.

A final word on Daniel Cabrera: I have heard whispers that as Daniel Cabrera has attracted interest from numerous different teams, that perhaps the O’s should have held onto him. Cabrera might be successful somewhere else, but not here. This is a player who, once again, led the league in walks, hit batsmen, and wild pitches. I know Baltimore needs pitchers, and this will further add to the glaring need for starters in this rotation. However, regardless of the circumstances, this move had to happen. There were too many chances for Daniel, and he just never turned it around.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas Comes Early for Maryland Sports Figures

Even though the economy is down (understatement, I know, but bear with me), we here at ATH have a wealth of generosity in our hearts, and an overabundance of the giving spirit this time of year. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa (please comment if you celebrate Kwanzaa, I have yet to meet someone who does), you must agree that our Maryland sports figures are in need of gifts as much as anyone else. Here are some gifts we had in mind for our favorite (or least favorite) athletes, coaches, and executives…

Michael Phelps: Acting lessons for a year. Trust me Michael, or have you not seen that episode of Saturday Night Live yet?

Joe Flacco: Eyebrow trimmer/tweezers. Those things are out of control, and with his success this season he has to look good for those offseason interviews.

Ralph Friegen: A blindfold. That way, he won’t know whether the Terps are playing a good or a bad team that week. I know it isn’t on him, but I couldn’t very well give them to the players!

Nick Markakis: A contract extension. No joke here, get this man his extension before his price tag goes through the roof- the cost of this great player is only going up with time.

Cal Ripken Jr.: $398 million. That is the value of the Baltimore Orioles according to Forbes. Yes, Peter Angelos has given up some of his power to Andy MacPhail, but the man is still in charge and still has the final say over what this team does. Am I the only one who sees a time bomb ready to blow up this rebuilding project? Buy it, Cal.

Andy MacPhail: 2 starting pitchers. It is the least we can give him, though it might be tough just to get one.

Rex Ryan: A head coaching job. I want him to stay as badly as anyone, but if you need a motivator and a leader, this is your guy.

John Harbaugh: A candy cane. I know the offense seems to be reverting, but someone please tell coach it’s okay to smile sometimes, even to Ray. Maybe that’ll help him cheer up some.

Gary Williams: A big man. Braxton Dupree can’t seem to play his size, and in a wide open competition, no one else was able to set up. He needs a big man who can play up to his size and occasionally score.

Mark Teixeira: A Nationals uniform. Look, I don’t want him elsewhere in the division, and I am not sure that the money on him couldn’t be spent better elsewhere. Let him lose 90 games a year for 3 years, then opt out, then maybe sign with the O’s when they are good again.

Ed Reed: Defensive Player of the Year Award. Just give it to him already. Right now.

Dave Trembley: Position prospects in the minors. It won’t do him much good right now, but he’ll thank me later.

Daniel Cabrera: Nothing. I think Baltimore already gave him everything they could, including way too many chances to be successful.

Good luck shopping everyone!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Maryland Soccer Wins the National Championship!

For the second time in four years, Maryland men's soccer wins the national championship after a 1-nil victory over North Carolina in Frisco, Texas.

This was not a typical game for Maryland during the tournament, with most of the play pretty even. The Tar Heels had decent opportunities throughout, more than any other opponent the Terps had in the NCAA. After a scoreless first half, both teams were very chippy with both goalkeepers going down at least twice. In the middle of the second half, Graham Zusi took a ball off of a rebound from Jeremy Hall and fired it into the left side of the net, putting Maryland up 1-nil. Zac MacMath continued to be a wall with a great kick save towards the middle as he earned his 19th straight victory. Maryland would hold on and win the game, securing Maryland's third ever national championship.

Sasho Cirovski and the Terps cap off one of the greatest years of Maryland men's soccer, finishing at 23-3-0 including five victories in the NCAAs with a combined score of 7-1. Graham Zusi scored both winning goals in the College Cup, ending his senior career with the Offensive MVP of the tournament, while Omar Gonzalez's return home to Texas netted him the Defensive MVP.

Maryland is likely to lose some key people come next year. Seniors Graham Zusi and A.J. Delagraza will go to the MLS combine and leave along with seniors Rich Costanzo, Michael Marchiano, and Aaron Chinn. Rumor is juniors Jeremy Hall and Omar Gonzalez might also be invited to the combine and leave early, as did many other players in Maryland's past. But for now, Maryland is the national champion. Congratulations to Coach Cirovski and the Terps for their great victory.

(Photo credit: AP)