Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Here it Comes

Can you believe we're just over a month away from football?

The 2008 NFL season kicks off Sept. 4, when the Washington Redskins take on the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants. The preseason begins this coming Sunday (Aug. 3), when those same Redskins take on the Indianapolis Colts (sans Peyton Manning) in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.

Naturally, with the beginning of any football season and the start of training camps, the issue of quarterback competitions and controversies creeps up (even if we're not talking about a certain living legend trying to bust back into Lambeau). As ga-ga as the media and fans get over these manufactured dramas, their emotions hanging on every preseason pass, looking to dissect even the slightest movement in a 7-on-7 no-contact drill, we never stop long enough to see just how much of a farce this "preseason quarterback competition" thing really is.

Thankfully, we have SI.com's Ross Tucker to thank for that. Read his most recent column on the site, which can be found here. He makes a lot of valid points about how training camp and preseason games aren't true barometers for deciding which quarterback gives you the best chance to win.

Let's face it; if preseason play was a true indicator of a quarterback's prowess, Brady Quinn would've been the guy to possibly lead the Cleveland Browns to the playoffs last season, not Derek Anderson. But Anderson proved himself on the field in the regular season, which means the starting job is his coming into this season, unless and until he gives it up, either through poor play or injury.

I'm all for giving the guy who had the best preseason first crack at the starting job, but don't insult our intelligence by telling us his performance in training camp is going to propel him into NFL stardom and the team to the playoffs. Just tell us you think the guy you chose can give you the best chance to win, and leave it at that. If he proves himself, great. If not, you either put in the other guy or lose your job -- maybe both.

That's just how the NFL rolls.

Quality NFL quarterbacks are hard to come by (right, Chicago?), so I can sort of understand everyone's impatience when it comes to finding the guy to run your offense. Like it or not, quarterback is the most important position in football. A team with a good quarterback can go far (New England, Indy, etc.), while a lackluster or unproven quarterback can keep an otherwise solid team from greatness (Ex: 2007 Minnesota Vikings). But are passing drills and preseason snaps against third-team defensive units really the way to properly evaluate your signal-callers?

Then again, if your team's in a position to have to choose a quarterback in the preseason, then your organization's already in trouble. As the old saying goes: if you have two quarterbacks, you really have none.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Dreams Dashed?

Caleb Campbell thought he was going to be reporting to Detroit Lions training camp Thursday morning. Instead, the seventh-round draft pick out of West Point will have to give the Army two years of active service, which may include serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.

West Point officials reviewed the policy that allowed Campbell to serve as a recruiter and a reserve for his two years if he made the Lions' roster, eventually deciding it needed to reflect the Department of Defense's policy stating all military academy graduates had to give their two years.

This was a touchy issue even on the weekend of the NFL Draft, one in which I understood and actually agreed with both sides of the argument. I didn't feel comfortable denying Campbell his dream to play in the NFL, but at the same time felt that by enrolling and graduating from West Point, he understood what was expected of him.

Guys don't go to West Point to become professional football players; they go to serve in the Army.

Considering this country's fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan right now, Campbell's service is probably even more vital. So I don't have an issue with the Army telling him he has to give his two years before trying to suit up in the NFL. My opinion might be different if we were in a time of peace, but as it stands, we need all the soldiers we can get.

My beef is the timing of it. Campbell was drafted in April, after Army officials told him he was free to try out -- and that he could put in his two years as a recruiter if he made the team. Here we are, four months later, on the eve of Lions training camp, and suddenly the Army changes its mind.

At best, this is a case of really bad timing. At worst, it's hypocritical.

Why did it take the Army so long to realize how flawed its policy was -- particularly when compared to that of the DoD? The Air Force and Naval Academies didn't have this issue, so what made West Point so different? Why not examine the policy before the NFL Draft and make a decision then, so Campbell and all 32 NFL teams know where they stand?

Oh, wait ... that would make sense.

All the credit in the world to Campbell for handling this the way he has. He is a testament to the kind of person places like West Point produce, and I feel good knowing people like him are out there defending our country. And, in spite of their ineptitude, I can't help but feel for the Lions -- at least Campbell was their seventh-round pick and not their first.

The Lions will hold Campbell's NFL rights until April 2009, and another team can then draft him. If that doesn't happen -- which I tend to think, since Campbell was a borderline seventh-rounder the first time around -- he'll become a free agent if he decides to try the NFL again after his two years of active service.

I hope all 32 teams offer Campbell a tryout once he's done his two years.

Again, I'm not saying the policy is bad or that Campbell should 100 percent without a doubt be in Lions camp -- I just don't like the timing of the Army's decision to change its required services policy.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Turning Back the Clock

Even though the 137th Open Championship -- they just hate it when we Americans call it the British Open -- was last weekend, Greg Norman's performance still resonates.

The more short-sighted among us will point to his turning a one-shot lead into a six-shot defeat and call Norman a choker -- again. They'll invoke memories of Augusta in 1996, when Norman turned a six-shot advantage to a five-shot loss to Nick Faldo in The Masters.

But anyone who really knows golf, someone who studies and follows the game with or without a certain guy named after a cat, understands this isn't the Great Augusta Gag. No, Norman's British Open loss, while disappointing, was merely age finally catching up with The Shark.

Don't forget: Norman is 53. He only played in the Open Championship to prepare for this week's Senior British Open at Royal Troon. For The Shark, Royal Birkdale was nothing more than a tune-up, a chance for a part-time golfer to work out the kinks before teeing it up with the seniors.

Only Norman was in contention after the first round. And he hung around after Friday. After Saturday, he was actually in the lead. For all the talk coming in of how the major would hold up without Tiger Woods, Norman made sure the interest was still there. Could he make history and become the oldest player to win a major? Could Norman become the first golfer since Jack Nicklaus to win the same major three times in three different decades?

Alas, no. And it wasn't so much that Norman shot a 77 in the final round, spraying his driver left and right while his putter suddenly lost its magic. It actually had more to do with two-time champion Padraig Harrington shooting a 32 on the back nine. This wasn't a major Norman lost; it was a major Harrington won.

Let's not forget, Harrington bogeyed holes 7 through 9 on Sunday -- much like Norman opened with bogies on 1, 2 and 3. But Harrington kept himself calm, and after a birdie on 15 and an astounding eagle on 17, he held the Claret Jug for the second time in two years -- five days after telling reporters he wasn't sure if he could finish the tournament because of a bum wrist.

Norman was a great story this past weekend, and I hope he decides to play in next month's PGA Championship. Norman's also eligible for The Masters in 2009 by virtue of his tie for third at Royal Birkdale, and I'd love to see him there as well.

Well played, Shark. Well played.

Another golf note

Anyone notice how being completely healthy this season does nothing for you in the majors?

Think about it: Trevor Immelman won The Masters just four months after having a tumor removed from his abdomen. Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open with a disintegrated ACL and two stress fractures in his leg. And Padraig Harrington defended his Claret Jug with a bad wrist.

Whoever's ailing heading into the PGA next month, go ahead and make them the favorite. That just seems to be the kind of year this is.


In light of news last week that the Green Bay Packers filed tampering charges against the Minnesota Vikings as part of the never-ending Brett Favre saga, I just have to wonder: what's the big deal with tampering?

I get that it's against league rules, but what makes the situation between the Packers and Vikings so different from any other in the league? Whenever a free agent signs with a new team almost the moment the free agency period starts, who in their right mind thinks this sort of thing doesn't happen all that often?

Is it really such a crime for front office personnel for other teams contacting a player to see if he would like to go elsewhere, be it a trade or free agent deal? And say somehow the Vikings are proven to have tampered with Favre (which looks more likely, now that phone records have surfaced showing Favre used a Packers-issued phone to contact Vikings head coach Brad Childress) -- what then?

To me, tampering is a lot like Spygate: sure, the Patriots got caught, but are we seriously gonna sit here and say they're the only team doing it? No ... the reason no one from any other team in the NFL has come forward and publicly admonished Bill Belichek and his staff is because everyone else is doing it; the Patriots were just dumb enough to get caught.

Tampering's the same way. Everyone in the league does it; the Vikings just might be the ones to get caught. Same way last year when the 49ers tried to land Lance Briggs from the Chicago Bears. San Francisco might've been busted for tampering, but I guarantee you they were neither the first nor the last to do it.

But if we insist on cracking down on tampering, why not get the L.A. Clippers? Signing Elton Brand to a contract not even 24 hours after he opted out of his deal with Golden State -- do we really think they weren't talking behind the scenes before league rules allowed them to?

I'd like to think we're not that naive.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Chris Berman: Why God Invented the Mute Button


While I feel somewhat sorry for Justin Morneau -- the guy who actually won the Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium Monday night -- there's no denying how fantastic a story the event's runner-up, Josh Hamilton, was.

Morneau had by all rights a solid night -- 17 home runs in the first two rounds before belting five in the final. It was a night normally reserved for exclusive celebration, the night where baseball can applaud a guy who normally doesn't get much praise (which, sadly, is how it goes when one plays in Minnesota). And considering the game's biggest names passed up the chance to participate, whether it be because of injuries or selfish reasons, Morneau on most Home Run Derby nights would be king.

But Hamilton belted 28 dingers -- in the first round. That in and of itself is remarkable (and yes, a record), but what makes Hamilton's feat -- a feat that had 50,000 Yankee faithful standing and chanting his name -- so remarkable is the journey the player had to take to get to the All-Star Game.

Hamilton's journey has been well-documented, but it deserves to be repeated: the No. 1 overall pick by Tampa Bay in 1999, Hamilton was the second coming, the guy who was supposed to turn the then-Devil Rays around. But a $4 million signing bonus -- and plenty of free time due to injuries -- led Hamilton down a destructive path, one that included alcohol, cocaine and heroin.

Three years without baseball, and Hamilton returned last year to have a nice half-season with Cincinnati. But it wasn't until the Reds traded him to the Texas Rangers in the offseason that Hamilton's career really took off. A league-best 95 RBI at the break to go along with 21 homers; Hamilton is one of the reasons the Rangers are four games over .500 right now, and even though Texas has virtually no shot at the postseason, the story more than makes up for it.

What matters isn't that Hamilton drank so predigiously. Nor does it matter that he shot up on heroin and nearly destroyed his entire life, let alone his baseball career. The tattoos on his arms don't mean nearly as much as what they represent today. They're a reminder, both of where Hamilton has been and how far he's come since hitting rock-bottom.

We love the redemptive tale. The hero who makes mistakes, owns up to them and gets back on the path to righteousness. While guys like Roger Clemens duck and lie about their own drug use, Hamilton freely discussed his. And I'm sure in doing so, he gave a recovering addict or an addict's loved one the strength to keep fighting.

And that means more than any 500-foot bomb ever will.

Farve From Over

I've tried my best to avoid the Brett Favre situation -- mostly because I couldn't really figure out where I stood on it -- but after hearing his comments Monday night during his interview with Fox News' Greta Van Susteren, I can't help myself.

"OK, you guys have a different path, fine," Favre said in the interview. "What does that mean for me? So that means either you give me my helmet, welcome (me) back, or release me, or attempt to trade me. We all know that's a possibility, but way-out-there possibility. And he says, 'Well, playing here is not an option, but we can't envision you playing with another team, you know, either.' And I thought, so basically, I'm not playing for anyone if I choose to come back."

If what Favre says is true -- and really, what's out there to convince us he's not? -- then this has become an even bigger mess than anyone anticipated. I suppose on some level I don't blame the Packers for not wanting to release Favre, only to see him sign with a Minnesota or a Chicago and come back to bite them.

But bring Favre back as a backup? Seriously?

So GM Ted Thompson is okay with Favre on the sideline, holding a clipboard while Aaron Rodgers steps onto the Frozen Tundra for the first time? Thompson is okay with the fans booing and chanting Favre's name the first time Rodgers throws a pick? Because you know that's what would happen on the off-chance Favre would accept being a backup.

I'm all for moving on as a franchise; when Favre retired, the Packers had virtually no other choice. But you have to, if you're the Packers, drop everything you're doing and give that starting job back the moment Favre says he wants back in. There is no way to tell the most beloved quarterback in Green Bay history no.

At the very least, grant the man his release. To say you won't release him because you want to protect his legacy is so beyond rediculous. Did playing those two years in Kansas City taint Joe Montana's legacy? Hardly, so why would suiting up for Baltimore or Minnesota do the same to Favre?

I realize Thompson wanted to get Rodgers on the field, see what his first draft pick with the Packers can do, and that's fine. But to outright shun the almighty Brett Favre (just a hint of sarcasm here), to run him out of town like he never did anything for the organization, just months after he was within one game of the Super Bowl?

Ted Thompson must've gone to the Peter Angelos School of Sports Management, that's the only thing I can figure.

Monday, July 14, 2008

About Time

In a move that was probably a couple years too late, CBS announced on Monday that college hoops analyst Billy Packer would leave the network, ending his streak of covering 34 consecutive Final Fours.

Studio analyst Craig Kellogg will take over as the lead game analyst, pairing with jim Nantz during the 2008-09 regular season and NCAA tournament.

Regardless of one's opinion of Packer (and I was certainly not a fan), this change was likely necessary. Packer was starting to lose his edge, evidenced most recently when he declared the Kansas-North carolina Final four contest "over" in the first half back in April. While Kansas did go on to win the game, that contest wasn't nearly the laugher Packer so assuredly pronounced it to be.

Packer was also infamous for his staunch opinions that mid-major schools did not deserve at-large bids. Anyone remember his famous rant in 2006 when he said George Mason didn't deserve an at-large, and that by looking at the five years previous, tournament history showed major conference teams fared better than mid-majors?

Never mind the selection committee was only supposed to look at the season in question, but a lot of people (myself included) took great joy in watching mason make its run. And while Nantz had the intelligence to eat crow on the air, Packer never indulged us.

If nothing else, Kellogg will be a fresh voice on what is CBS' marquee sporting event, next to The Masters. I like his energy, and I appreciate the knowledge he brings to the game. While Packer's basketball credentials can never be questioned, I think it was time for a change, and Kellogg's just the guy to do it.

Besides, anyone who can make Nantz less snooze-worthy gets an A-plus in my book.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Division Winner By Default

Mid-Season Report

Even though the All-Star Break isn’t until next week, Major League Baseball reached its statistical midway point last week. There have been a fair many surprises this season, more than I probably have the space to delve into here, but I’ll get to what I can.

-The Tampa Bay Rays are a no-brainer surprise; while many experts came into the season thinking the young Rays would be improved – possibly even a .500 club – who honestly thought Tampa Bay would be sitting with the best record in the bigs on July 9? The Rays are one of just eight teams in the majors with at least 50 wins and hold a three-game lead over the Boston Red Sox in the American League East. And all this without a starter on the All-Star Team. I’m not sure if Tampa Bay can turn this into a division title or playoff berth, but it’s fun to watch, isn’t it?

-I wrote before the start of the season how I hoped the Baltimore Orioles wouldn’t lose 100 games this season. The team’s rebuilding process is in full swing, with the team dumping both Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada in the offseason. Couple that with a roster that I couldn’t pinpoint for the most part, and things weren’t looking good in Charm City. But as of July 9, the Orioles sit at .500, 44-44. Sure, the O’s are in 4th place in the AL East, but the fact that Baltimore has been competitive for this long in the season is a positive sign. Luke Scott, who came over in the Tejada deal with Houston, has produced, as have Adam Jones and closer George Sherrill, who came over in the Bedard trade. Sherrill even made the All-Star Team this year. Baltimore is still a good two or three years away from competing for a playoff spot – particularly in that division – but things aren’t nearly as gloomy in Baltimore as I thought they were.

-I’m not sure which is more surprising: the fact that the Detroit Tigers struggled the way they have in the first half, or the fact that the White Sox are in first place. Everyone was ready to give the Tigers the World Series title after they picked up Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera in the offseason, while the only question surrounding Chicago was when Ozzie Guillen would get fired. But with the Tigers struggling offensively and Willis stuck in A-ball, the White Sox (and the Twins, who are in second) have taken advantage. Perhaps the real surprise of the division, though, is how bad Cleveland’s been – the Indians are worse than the Royals at this point in the season.

-The trade deadline is still a few weeks away, but that didn’t stop Milwaukee and the Chicago Cubs from making moves. The Brewers picked up reigning American League Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia for four prospects, two days before the Cubs responded by picking up Rich Harden from the Oakland A’s. Some might call the Cubs’ move nothing more than a response to the Brewers, but indications are the Harden deal had been in the works for weeks. Trades don’t normally go down this soon before the deadline, and I can’t honestly provide any reason for it. I guess this is the true meaning of the phrase "It is what it is."

-If the Yankees don’t make the playoffs this year, will Joe Torre laugh his butt off? Probably not publicly, but I bet behind the scenes he’d give a little chuckle. Granted, Torre’s Dodgers are below .500 (though only one game out of the division lead at 44-46), but considering Torre took the Yankees to the postseason all 12 seasons he was there, how poetic would it be for New York to miss the playoffs in its first year sans Torre? He might not laugh, but I will.

-For all the blustering about how the Mets are junk and not worth anything – before and after the haphazard firing of Willie Randolph – the team is still in the thick of it, one game behind Philadelphia in the NL East. The Mets have won four in a row, while the Phillies have lost four in a row – and I’m willing to bet New York will make the playoffs, at least as the wild card. Let’s face it, the National League just isn’t that good (need proof? The NL West-leading Diamondbacks needed a 2-0 win over the Nationals on Tuesday to get back to .500). They’ll have to deal with the Cardinals and the Brewers in the NL Central, but I’m not ready to write off the Mets yet.

There’s No Place Like … Philly?

Oh, to be the Los Angeles Clippers right now.

Last week, the Clippers signed Baron Davis to a free-agent contract, hoping to pair him with Elton Brand and make a run at the Western Conference. Brand had opted out of his deal, but said repeatedly he hoped to stay with the Clippers – and play with Davis, who opted out of the final year of his deal with Golden State.

Rather than take the $18.7 million owed to him at Golden State, Davis decided to return to his native L.A. and play with Brand. Only Brand didn’t keep his word, taking a free-agent deal with the Philadelphia 76ers.

On top of that, the Clippers lost Corey Maggette to the Warriors, as if Golden State had been looking for a Clipper to take as retribution for Davis.

Ignore for now the public hit Brand will take for allegedly backing out on his word. Every indication was he wanted to stay and play with Davis – at least, that was what all the NBA insiders reported he’d been saying. So for Brand to turn around and take $52 million from an Eastern Conference team that’s almost a playoff team by default – it’s a bit odd.

And if I’m Davis, I’m more than a little ticked. All indications were that Davis signed with Los Angeles with the express purpose of playing with Brand (and possibly Maggette, though it looked as if the Clippers were going to lose him regardless). Davis will have Chris Kaman to give the ball to, but considering he thought he’d also be teaming up with Brand?

Maybe you really can’t go back home after all.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

For the Grandparents

So Los Angeles Clippers forward Chris Kaman has been given permission to suit up for the Germany national team as it tries to qualify for this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing. Despite being born in Michigan, Kaman will compete for another country should Germany qualify.

What I want to know is: where's the scorn? Everyone got their panties in a bunch when Becky Hammon announced she would be playing for Russia, so why aren't those same people throwing stones Kaman's way?

Does it have something to do with the fact that Kaman has German heritage, with his grandparents being native Germans? Are we really hanging our hat on that technicality?

I've already made my opinion regarding Hammon clear (read a little further down on this page), and I feel the same way about Kaman: if someone wants to compete in the Olympics and can't play for their native country, who am I to tell them they can't compete at all?

Hammon is no less patriotic for playing for Russia, and neither is Kaman for suting up for Germany.

Last I checked, being American meant you had freedoms and opportunities not available to natives of some other nations. So certain American athletes won't be donning the red, white and blue in Beijing; by following their dreams, aren't they still living the American dream?

Is there anything more American than living out one's dreams?

Hammon is still an American, and a proud one at that; how convenient everyone forgets Team USA didn't want her. Same goes for Kaman.

But if the ignorant flag-wavers insist on calling Hammon a traitor and unpatriotic, then at least give Kaman the same level of disrespect. Or better yet, just shut up altogether.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Mariotti = FAIL

Less Money, Less Problem?

Will the combination of Baron Davis and Elton Brand lead to an NBA championship for the Los Angeles Clippers? Doubtful, considering the tough Western Conference -- not to mention it's the Clippers -- but the fact that Davis was willing to go to L.A. for less than a max deal says something we don't hear too often in sports:

That it really isn't about the money. Davis, who left $18.7 million on the table when he opted out of his contract with Golden State on Monday, will reportedly make $65 million over five years with the Clippers, and he'll team up with Brand. The combination of Brand and Davis, if they stay healthy, could catapult the Clippers from the 23-win team they were this past season to a team that could contend for a playoff spot.

Apparently, guys saw what the Celtics did this season after adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. So rather than follow the money -- which NBA stars always did in free agency in years past -- some veterans might instead choose to follow wins and potential championships.

And I gotta say, I like the move.

The Only Thing

New Orleans signing point guard Chris Paul to a long-term contract isn't just the right thing to do: it's the only thing to do. Considering Paul took a team that was struggling to even find a home and led the Hornets to within a game of the NBA Western Conference Finals speaks volumes to his talent and worth, and New Orleans is smart to lock him up.

If nothing else, the move potentially assures this season wasn't just a flash in the pan for the Hornets, as they'll have their catalyst a few years longer. There are those (myself included) who felt Paul deserved the MVP Award this past season, and there's nothing telling me he won't one day hoist that trophy -- not to mention the NBA title.

But for a city still struggling to find its way following Hurricane Katrina, Paul's signing has to give New Orleans something to cheer about. The fans embraced the Hornets much the same way they embraced the Saints two seasons ago when they made a run at the Super Bowl, so why not reward them by keeping the stars?

Chris Paul staying in New Orleans: a win-win scenario for everyone.