Friday, January 29, 2016

The Deal: A Sportsman's Television Guide to the Weekend

On a Weekend featuring stars, Serena Williams may be the brightest (Mandatory Credit: Vincent Thian Associated Press)

This Saturday represents a unique opportunity to show you how much of a sports geek I am.  I plan my weekends around sporting events, and weekends so chalk full of good sporting events like  this come around seldomly.  There are always a lot of options to watch this time of year; playoff football, NBA regular season, college basketball ramping up…but this sports stew is peppered with both a boxing title fight and the performances of one of the greatest athletes of this generation. Without further adieu…let me show you The Deal.


3AM ET ESPN (1) Serena Williams vs (3) Angelique Kerber

Serena Williams is going for her 22nd Grand Slam title; that would equal Steffi Graf’s singles record.  Williams has had a career that has spanned nearly 20 years.  Williams is 34, and that would be on the older side for a man in tennis—women’s careers are usually even shorter.  So the fact that she is not only competing, but still dominating is fascinating.  It is akin to Michael Jordan in his Wizards years-- if Jordan were still winning chips in the Nation’s capital.

Ok, so it’s 3am. I know that doesn’t bode well for high viewership. But it’s Saturday at 3AM, what better way to keep the party going than to see an historic performance from an all-time great? Plus, it’s a Saturday, the only thing you need to be up for is The Sports Shop at 9 am for ta couple of hours.

5PM ET ESPN (1) Oklahoma University vs Louisiana State University

After Serena’s performance and the morning show, you’ll need a nap. No problem, you’ve got time to rest and recuperate before the night’s festivities.  This shouldn’t be much of a game, but Buddy Hield (averaging nearly 26 points per game while shooting better than 50% from the floor and the three)  vs freshman sensation Ben Simmons (top 5 in the SEC in points, rebounds, and assists per game) features a matchup of two of the country’s best basketball players in college.  Both will hear their respective name announced this June in New York, so I expect something extra in the gas tank for both elite players. After their 3OT thriller vs Kansas, it’d be nice to see OU involved in another classic.
College Basketball Showdown Mandatory Credit USATSI

8:30 PM ET San Antonio Spurs vs Cleveland Cavaliers

There are about five teams in the NBA with a legitimate shot to be in the NBA Finals, and here is a matchup of two of them (Warriors, OKC, and Chicago being the others).This is the second week of the Saturday Night NBA Primetime game.  I love it; a big NBA game on Saturday nights is going to ruin any semblance of a social life I have great.

The Cavs are coming off the firing of David Blatt.  His replacement, Tyronn Lue, has vowed to speed up the offensive urgency, and to turn up the defensive intensity.  One of the main issues has been the play of Kevin Love, who has seen his numbers dip upon Kyrie Irving’s return from injury.  Their best three players (Love, Irving, and LeBron James) all just went for 20+ points for the first time this season. Is the change in coaching philosophies already having an impact? If you’re any type of sports fan, you’ve got to catch a potential NBA Finals preview. Let’s hope Gregg Popovich doesn’t get the hankering to sit one of his star players for this big game.

A rematch of a physical contest and FOY candidate? Sign me up. Mandatory Credit Mike Greenhill

9:45 PM ET Jean Pascal vs Sergey Kovalev Light heavyweight Championship Fight HBO

So the night's fighting festivities start at 9:45, but there is an undercard.  By the time the first fight is over, the Spurs vs Cavs game should be ending—and you’ll want to see every second of Kovalev and Pascal fighting.  This is the second fight for the two boxers.  The first saw Pascal give champion Kovalev the best fight Sergey has had in recent memory.  Pascal’s athleticism flummoxed the champion until Kovalev displayed his improved boxing skill that complements his insane power.  The fight was one of the best of the year, and resulted in Pascal getting knocked out in the 8th round.  Look for more fireworks out of these two as they provide a delightful end to a day full of contests.


5pm ET NHL All-Star Game NBCSN

I normally don’t watch hockey until the playoffs (my sports plate is usually too full with college and pro basketball to add another regular season sports-watching venture), but the change to a 3-on-3 tournament has made the exhibition game intriguing.  The NHL changed to the 3-on-3 format for its overtime games in the regular season; and by all accounts, the change has been a success. With the wide open ice and up-and-down pace, this All-Star game should be wildly entertaining even for those of us that aren’t ardent hockey fans.

7pm ET Pro Bowl ESPN

What’s better than one exhibition game? TWO! Ok, the Pro Bowl is kind of always a disappointment.  The League made the (correct) decision to shoehorn the Pro Bowl into the week between the Super Bowl and the Conference Championships.  No way you’ll watch all of this game, but it can whet your appetite for the best the League has to offer in a week.

Honorable Mentions:

(20) UK vs (4) KU 7pm ET ESPN

While UK is a bit down this year, this is still a top 25 matchup. Besides, when these two storied programs get together, it’s always noteworthy. There will likely be a handful of future NBA players for this game too.  If you think you can handle three straight games, I’d recommend keeping your eye out for another big Allen Fieldhouse matchup.

3AM ET Novak Djokovic vs Andy Murray ESPN Men’s Australian Open Final ESPN   

There has been a golden age of men’s tennic lately.  Whether it was the gracefulness of Roger Federer, the unparalleled athleticism of Rafael Nadal, or the well-rounded game of Djokovic, men’s tennis has been in good hands for a long time.  The three am start time is what makes the idea of watching even a game of this match untenable for me (I’m willing to wait up for Serena, I’m not for Jokovic), but there should be some high level tennis in the final match of the Melbourne tournament.  Djokovic is building his own resume as one of the best players we have ever seen. He has won 4 of the last 5 Australian Open’s, there’s little reason to think he won’t continue to dominate—especially after his drubbing of Federer in the semis.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Muhammad Ali: Protecting our heroes

Remember when Michael Jordan won every game of the 90s? Or when Babe Ruth hit .400 while pitching a perfect game in all of his starts that one season? Of course not, but that is usually the extent of sports revisionist history—a fond remembrance of a few foregone performances.  Such longing doesn’t usually hurt anything other than your sports knowledge credibility. But when people begin to conflate a caricaturization of an athlete with the activism of a man; that is when real life danger abounds.

Muhammad Ali's birthday was yesterday and the outpouring of love was heart-warming, and also a bit confounding. Muhammad Ali recently graced the cover of Sports Illustrated; he has done so over 30 times.  It has been over 40 years since he won the “Thrilla In Manilla”, an iconic fight that capped a hellacious trilogy of battles against Joe Frazier.  SI is commemorated Ali’s legacy with naming an award after him.  The award was dubbed, “the Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award”, given to “celebrate individuals whose dedication to the ideals of sportsmanship has spanned decades and whose career in athletics has directly or indirectly impacted the world.”

If you want to make a 70 year old black man laugh, tell him that Muhammad Ali just got a sportsmanship award named in his honor from a major American publication. The loquacious boxer that broke the stereotype of “the strong, silent type” and told the world after he had held the heavyweight boxing title for nearly 5 minutes that he was the greatest the sport had ever seen, is now the prototype for how athletes should conduct themselves.

But this piece isn’t about sportsmanship hypocrisy.  It isn’t about that concept being branded as a docile and, in fact, joyous loser who displays little-to-no emotion regardless of what athletic feats have been accomplished. No, this piece is about something far more insidious—the proliferation of revisionist history.  Muhammad Ali was one of the most dangerous thinkers of his time. He openly rebelled against the government; he was put in jail for refusing to be inducted into the armed forces (famously quipping, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those VietCong”). As a result, he lost his title—at the time when the Heavyweight Title in boxing was the greatest sports prize a man could hold. He openly and controversially discussed the mistreatment of blacks by white America at a time when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Huey Newton et al. were being assassinated because of their views on the subject.  His commentary on Joe Frazier as an “Uncle Tom” while they were engaged in battle was painful and important commentary at a time when sides were being drawn in the black community on how to proceed with revolution. Muhammad Ali was a rebel.

The Sports illustrated piece makes reference to Thomas Hauser (who wrote a 1991 biography on the former champion) saying, “There has been a concerted effort by many people in recent years to grind down the rough edges of Ali’s legacy, but there is also an aura of love and pure goodwill about Ali” but an attempt to do so defangs the sharpness of the words of a man that was never at a loss for them. Sure, Ali (obviously stricken with the Parkinson ’s disease that has simultaneously ravaged his body and made him a more palatable figure) lit the Olympic Torch in 1996 in Atlanta; but he also, allegedly, threw his 1960 gold medal into the Ohio River because of the mistreatment he received upon his return after representing his country.

Let's defend and honor our heroes by really getting to know their message (AP Photo)
This rebranding has happened before.  Dr. King has become a cuddly bedtime story of the revolutionary that he was.  A man who was once so dangerous as to require monitoring by the Federal Bureau of investigation, has become a symbol for keeping peace at the expense of all else and respectability politics above dignity; not the man that wrote (in his “letter from a Birmingham Jail): “…I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate.” And despite the attempt by would be ventriloquists to turn King into a puppet, never forget how divisive the great orator was about race and American capitalism.  Indeed, dig at all into some of the personal proclivities of the minister Dr. King and the search will reveal the flaws that rest inside many men.

Telling the truth doesn’t besmirch the legacy of a man; if anything it inspires those that are left to dwell in the world that those men helped to create.  Our heroes were men with missteps and controversies, in addition to their greatness and courage.  To tell any other story is a disservice to them and those that come behind them.  If it is love that one wants to inspire (as is prevalent throughout the Sports Illustrated piece), tell the truth of the man so that reactionary byproduct is as pure as the work that may be inspired from it.

Friday, January 15, 2016

AFC Divisional Playoff Preview: Steelers vs Broncos

No Antonio Brown means the depth of the Steelers' receiving corps will be tested Mandatory Credit Jason Bridge USA Today Sports

Pittsburgh Overview

The Steelers are coming of one of the most dramatic games in postseason history.  While there is plenty to unpack in regards to that game, the beauty of surviving and advancing is that there is no time to dwell.  The Steelers will, however, have to deal with the aftermath of the contest; namely, the injury status of Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown.  Pittsburgh spent four games without their lead signal-caller, and while it is thought that Big Ben will start, no one has any idea how effective he will be. By the end of the playoff game against the Bengals, he admitted that he couldn’t throw the ball down the field.  Additionally, with Brown in the concussion protocol and officially out for this week's contest, the passing game may look far different from the unit that put up the third most yards in the League this season.

Denver Overview

Perhaps the only playoff team with more questions at quarterback than the Steelers, is the Denver Broncos. Peyton Manning started the first ten games of the season before getting pulled due to injury and poor play. Seven weeks later, he had regained his starting spot from Brock Osweiler and led Denver to a victory and the AFC West title.  While the melodrama played out at the Quarterback position, the defense was the real star of the show; they were first in yards allowed, 1st in sacks, 1st in pass yards allowed, 3rd in Pass TDs allowed…just rest assured they were beasts.  Can they carry Peyton into glory and a second title?

Will Manning get his storybook ending? Mandatory Credit USA Today Sports


*Of note, these teams played in week 15 with the Steelers winning 34-27, but due to injuries and personnel changes, I decided against including game analysis from that contest in this breakdown

Steelers Offense vs Broncos Defense

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the fact that Vontaze Burfict knocked out Roethlisberger, Brown, and LeVeon Bell.  With either backups or an injured version of the player suiting up Sunday, there is virtually no telling how effective they will be.  The team still has Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton (and expect more snaps for Darrius Heyward-Bey as they go to their three WR lineup), but the injury to Brown is obviously a game changer.  Brown amassed over 1800 yards and 136 receptions, with Roethlisberger ailing and his favorite target gone, how will the Steelers score?

The Broncos defense is lights out, they have pass rushers  Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware among others, and guys in the secondary like Aqib Talib and Chris Harris capable of taking advantage of mistakes.  Even their run defense is stout, ranking 1st in rush yards allowed per attempt.  Good Luck to a depleted Steelers offense, theyre going to need a couple of big plays against the team that gives up the least amount of yards per drive in the league.

Broncos Offense vs Steelers Defense

The Broncos offense under Peyton Manning was amongst the least effective in the League.  Sure, they started the season with seven straight wins, but they ranked last in yards per rush and were in the bottom third in yards per pass attempt.  The running game looked better than earlier in the season when Manning took over in the last game of the season, but was that a result of opponent (San Diego) or something more?  There had been some friction between Manning and Kubiak in regards to system (namely whether Manning would be in the shotgun, pistol, or under center), but if they are to win, they need to be on one accord.

In a strange twist, the much-maligned defense may need to carry the load with so many question marks on the other side of the ball for the Steelers.  They were pretty porous in the secondary, giving up the third most passing yards per game.  Perhaps that was due to the team’s aggressive style; according to Pro Football Focus they blitzed at the 5th highest percentage in the League.  The boom or bust style allowed opponents to gain yards, but helped to garner the 6th most interceptions in the NFL.  Such gambles against a guy with a weak arm and a supercomputer brain seem like it would be foolhardy; but can the Steelers really change who they are as a defense this late in the season?

Outcome: The only elite unit in this game is the Broncos defense.  I have no idea what we will get out of these two quarterbacks (who would’ve thought we’d say that about a Big Ben and Peyton “showdown”?), and I can’t see the Steelers putting up many points against Denver; 20-10 Denver.
Line: Even
Over/Under: 45

**All stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted

Thursday, January 14, 2016

NFC Divisional Playoff Preview: Green Bay vs Arizona

Dwight Freeney has bolstered an already talented defense Mandatory Credit USA Today Sports

Green Bay Packers Overview

They limped into the playoffs on a two game losing streak (including an 8-38 demolishing by these Arizona Cardinals).  Certainly they’d lose to a Washington team that was riding the wave of a four game winning streak. Then the playoffs started, and Aaron Rodgers looked like Aaron Rodgers again. He led the Packers to the most points they’ve scored since September, and the offense finally looked like something resembling a Mike McCarthy-coached squad.  Have the Packers found themselves at the exact right moment, or did they just beat up on a team that sucked a little less in the NFC East?

Arizona Cardinals Overview

The Cardinals were as good and impressive as anyone in the League this season. According to, Arizona allowed the 7th fewest points in the NFL while scoring the second most.  They have a litany of stars at their offensive skill positions; Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and John Brown are all viable threats at the wide receiver position.  After a productive Chris Johnson went down with a fractured tibia, RB David Johnson took his place and has been even more dynamic. As for the quarterback position, if it weren’t for Cam Newton, Carson Palmer would have a serious chance at the MVP; and if not for DB Tyrann Mathieu going down late in the season with a torn ACL, their defense would be just as star-studded. With Cincinnati exiting the playoffs, the Cardinals have the most talent of any team left standing.


Green Bay Offense vs Arizona Defense

Green Bay was able to protect Rodgers more than it had in previous games, keeping him upright for all but one possession. What’s more, Eddie Lacy, James Starks, and (surprise!) wide receiver-turned-running back Randall Cobb combined for 140 yards on 29 carries.  The balanced attack was too much for Washington, which had only given up 35+ points once all season.  It certainly looked like the offense was back to pre Jordy Nelson injury days.

Arizona’s defense is scary good.  Their secondary, which took a hit when Honey Badger went down, still has Patrick Peterson to cover; they finished fourth in interceptions. Their glaring weakness, the pass rush, was bolstered by the midseason acquisition of Dwight Freeney. Freeney finished the season with eight sacks. Between Freeney and Pro Bowler Calais Campbell, Rodgers will face a much scarier pass rush than he saw in Washington.

Fitzgerald eclipsed 1000 yards again, this time primarily from the slot. Mandatory credit Getty Images

Green Bay Defense vs Arizona Offense

Green Bay’s defense was largely in the middle of the pack in terms of points and yards allowed per game.  For years, the defense has only needed to be solid while the offense carried them to glory.  This season, they’ve moved Clay Matthews around to try and capitalize off of their lone defensive star.  Arizona is so talented on offense that it’s hard to believe that the Packers could slow them down.

Perhaps one might think the Packers will blitz in an effort to force Palmer to make errant throws and turn the ball over, except Palmer has been great against the blitz all season.  With playmakers all over the field, the decided advantage goes to the Cardinals. They hung 38 points on the Packers last game; I can’t see a reason why they wouldn’t duplicate that dominance.
Outcome: The Packers had a resurgent game against Washington, they should hold onto that memory Saturday because it’s going to get ugly in Arizona. 27-10 Cardinals.

Line: Arizona -7

Over/Under: 50

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

AFC Divisional Playoff Prediction

Patriots Overview

It seems like a long time ago since the Patriots were one of the last two undefeated teams in the league.  As great as the Pats looked as they went 10-0, they’ve looked that suspect as they petered out with two wins in the last six weeks. Injuries have ravaged the team; losing Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, and a slew of running backs and offensive lineman for significant stretches have led them to beating just one team with a winning record over the past two months. Sure the team still has Tom Brady and Bill Belichick (although Brady hurt his ankle in the final regular season game against the Dolphins), but how many times can the Patriots re-invent themselves and beat their opponent?

Kansas City Overview

How much can I really take from their drubbing of the Houston Texans? You could have locked Houston in Reliant stadium and they would have imploded just the same.  After Brian Hoyer did his best Jake Delhomme impression, the Chiefs picked up the pieces and accepted the gift of the playoff game.  I could give you the statistics from the contest, but the five turnovers Houston committed would make any conclusions drawn from it as useless as their possession turned out to be. One thing is for certain, after all the hype the Texans defense and Watt received, the Chiefs defense was the true the star of the show Saturday.


The last time these two teams met was last season, and the game ended up being a 41-14 beatdown of the Patriots.  New England left Kansas City 2-2 and to hear the media tell it, the sky was falling in Foxboro. Obviously, things improved for the eventual Super Bowl champions, but the blueprint for this game will be similar; pressure Tom Brady into turnovers (he had three in their meeting), limit their own (zero), and control the clock (KC won the time of possession by nearly 13 minutes).

Gronk will have some competition at the Tight End position with Kelce on the field

New England Offense vs Kansas City Defense

This is by far the most intriguing matchup of the game, and the winner of this battle will likely win the game.  Even with all of the injuries and the game of musical chairs they’ve played at the offensive line positions, (according to  New England’s offense ranked 3rd in points per game.  Even without either of their starting running backs (Dion Lewis and LaGarrette Blount were lost for the year earlier in the season), the addition of Edelman should at least help the passing game resemble earlier this season—the 253 yards of passing put up against the Titans is the highest in their last four games. The recent acquisition of running back Steven Jackson (primarily to help in pass protection and short yardage) notwithstanding, this unit’s production rests on Brady’s shoulders.

If it weren’t for the revolving door at the running back position and the players playing out of position on the offensive line, perhaps the Chiefs would be susceptible to the Pats’ run game.  While Kansas City is top ten in yards allowed per game on the ground, they are closer to the middle of the pack in yards per rush allowed.  The Chiefs pass coverage, however, is anything but mediocre; they are second in interceptions, fourth in sacks, and fourth in net yards allowed per pass attempt.  In summation, they are beasts when the ball is in the air.  Between safety Eric berry and corner Shaun Smith, the Chiefs are talented enough in the back end to make throwing the ball extremely difficult for the future Hall-of-famer Brady.

KC offense vs New England defense

As dominant as the KC defense can be, the offense is based on the premise of limiting mistakes (2nd fewest in the League), and using their League-best starting position to score just enough points to win games.  Alex Smith has been more aggressive in his throwing, averaging more pass yards per attempt than at any other time in his Chiefs’ tenure. Unfortunately, his deep threat, Jeremy Maclin, is listed as “questionable”  with an ankle injury. Their running back duo of Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West has helped to amass 144 yards per game since October 25 when they took over the duties for injured running back Jamaal Charles. If the Chiefs are missing their top wide receiver, expect the duo’s run game to be supplemented by sneaky athletic Alex Smith designed runs and scrambles.

New England’s defense last season was stacked with stars at every level.  This season, the front seven, bolstered by players returning from injury and the draft, carried the heavy load for the unit. Despite giving up nearly the identical number of points per game, the three of the top four defensive backs left in free agency and the pass defense suffered.  With Maclin’s injury, their most glaring weakness may be covered; if they can keep KC’s talented tight end Travis Kelce from making big plays down the field, they should be able to hold the Chiefs’ offense in check.


Due to injuries, both defenses are well-suited to stop the opposing offense.  I expect a low scoring affair, Pats 20-13.
Line:  NE -5

Over/Under: 42

Saturday, January 9, 2016

AFC Wildcard Preview Kansas City vs Houston

The Chiefs started 1-5 and looked even more hopeless when it was announced that their star running back, Jamaal Charles, was done for the season with a knee injury. Then they magically got better.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t magic. Maybe it was their All Pro Safety, Eric Berry, rounding into shape as he bounced back from cancer; or maybe another it was Sean Smith, getting back to his ball-hawking ways that helped the secondary sure-up behind their vicious pass-rushing. Or maybe it was newly-acquired Jeremy Maclin getting on to the same page with the QB, Alex Smith. Regardless of what it was, Kansas City proceeded to run off 10 straight wins and enters into the postseason as the hottest team in the NFL. Not a bad way to be going into the playoffs, huh?

Kudos to Bill O’Brien for being able to coach a team to the playoffs that started four different QBs this season (ask the Cowboys how difficult a feat that is). Like their counterpart, the beginning of this season was fraught with peril, as well.  The Texans won two games through seven and looked to be headed towards missing the playoffs yet again.
Simply put, J. J. Watt and the rest of the Texans defense wasn’t having it.  Through the last ten weeks of the season, the defense was the highest scoring defensive unit in football. Everyone knows how great Watt is, but Whitney Mercilus, Vince Wilfork,  Brian Cushing, and the oft-injured Jadaveon Clowney help to form a menacing front seven that kept the Texans in games all season.   The fact that this unit essentially fireman’s carried this team to the playoffs despite the multiple signal-callers at the helm is the best case for why Watt deserves Defensive Player of the Year.

Houston’s offense vs KC’s defense

The Texans will have original starter, Brian Hoyer,  at the quarterback position.  He came back for their final game against Jacksonville that wrapped up their AFC South title. The offense has been middling, finishing 21st in points scored per game, but with the game of musical chairs at quarterback (Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, TJ Yates, and BJ Daniels have all seen time under Center), that number may be a bit misleading…as their recent back to back 30+ point performances that came against Jacksonville and Tennessee may be. The truth, as with most things, probably lies in the middle.  Speaking of the truth, their 2nd team All Pro wide receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, has been a much needed shot in the arm for a team that lost Arian Foster earlier in the year.  Their injuries at the running back position hasn’t stopped them from topping the century mark on the ground in six of the past seven games played.  They’ll need a great performance from their starter Fitzgerald Touissant in order to stay in this game and keep the pressure off Hoyer.
Hoyer’s pressure will come in the form of Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and a unit that ranked 4th in sacks this season.  Make no doubt, while the Texans’ defense scored more frequently than the their counterpart, the Chiefs are a more complete unit.  Berry and Smith help form a ball-hawking defense that was second in the league in interceptions.  Combine that with that fearsome front, and the Texans will be in for a long day.

KC’s offense vs Houston’s Defense

Kansas City’s offense was much maligned headed into the year.  Last season, Alex Smith somehow went 16 games without throwing a TD to a wide receiver, a dubious record if there ever was one.  Enter Maclin and the offense has 11 TDs attributed to WRs.  Studying Smith’s numbers reveals that over the ten game winning streak, his INT% is down and his yards per pass attempt is up over his career average.  While Charles is obviously a great running back, because of his injury Smith has had to be more aggressive with his throws; Alex “Check down” Smith may be dead forever.
Smith has had only one test against a defense like Houston; his game against the rival Broncos was the second lowest passer rating he had during the Chief’s winning streak (and that was without Aqib Talib or DeMarcus Ware).  It will be imperative that Houston keep the scoring low so that their weaker offense has a chance to make a big play with Hopkins and company.  If they can generate turnovers, points, or a series of short fields, perhaps this team has a chance.

Outcome:  Kansas City is getting three points on the road, I expect a low scoring affair. Take the points, but I think the Chiefs win a close one in Houston, 21-20. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Coaching Conundrum: What Exactly Do You Know?

Tom Coughlin in happier times. Mandatory Credit: Julio Cortez 
With the regular season now over, and with a week to go before the Wildcard weekend, the dominant national story coming out of the NFL concerns the head coaching vacancies popping up around the league.  At this point, it’s an annual tradition to race to twitter following the final Sunday of the regular season to figure out what head coaches (and likely their staffs) will be changing jobs. 

This year’s drama has an assortment of narratives and characters; but what may be lost in some of the conversations being had about head coaches is that fans don’t really know what makes for a good coach.  Certainly we see the product on the field, which is ultimately how they are judged, but wins and losses are generally the entire litmus test for what determines who fans will be clamoring for come hiring and firing time. Perhaps that makes sense, but what does one do with Bill Belichick’s head coaching record of (41-55) through his first six seasons in the NFL?

There’s another reason regular fans can’t truly understand all what separates good and bad coaches—in order to truly get it, one must follow a coach and watch his  actions throughout the week and how he manipulates games with his decision-making.  No regular fan has the type of access or time to follow each coach closely enough to make an informed decision regarding a head coach’s relative talent.  

Moreover, with a plethora of “former” (as you’ll see from the list later on in the piece, many coaches get recycled) coaches serving as analysts, the desire to avoid offending a member of the coaching fraternity means the most critical assessments of coaches largely go unspoken.

Even with all the confusion surrounding what constitutes a “good head coach” the commodity most being traded in at the start of the offseason for most teams is hope.  Maybe that hot new coordinator can make the leap to being a great head coach and pull a miserable fan base out of the muck. Or maybe that veteran coach who just can’t seem to get over the hump will finally find the fit and correct personnel to stick in a spot longer than a few seasons.

Definite Coaching Changes:

Tom Coughlin: The two-time Super Bowl-winning coach won’t be back for his 13th season with the NY Giants.  If you were wondering how much equity you can buy with two championships, Coughlin certainly found out for you.  After only winning six games this season, it has been three years since his last winning season.  He also was at the helm of an expansion team in Jacksonville and led them to the AFC championship game. There have been lots of highs and lows for the coach that, even at the age of 69, may still have suitors for his services.

Photo Credit: Andy Lyons

Chip Kelly: The Philadelphia Eagles didn’t even let Kelly finish his third season, opting to fire him in the penultimate week of the regular season. Whether it was the allegations of racism or not being allowed to finish the season, it seems that Kelly was having trouble relating to others—an important skill for an NFL head coach.

Jim Tomsula: After only one season as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Tomsula was relieved of his coaching duties.  If we’re being honest, it kind of always felt like Tomsula would’ve had to have a miraculous season to keep his job.  Tomsula (formerly the team’s offensive line coach) was given the job after Jim Harbaugh and the front office seemed unable to get along.  In essence, Tomsula ‘s tenure was always meant to be a stopgap until the team could figure out where to go long term.  Not surprisingly, the team has already been linked to Chip Kelly and Mike Shanahan.

Mike Pettine: Pettine lost his job after only two seasons with the Cleveland Browns.  As a head coach, he was 10-22 but perhaps more troubling for Browns fans is the list of coaches and execs they’ve had since their return to the NFL (MMQB's Jenny Vrentas details the extent of the inconsistency within the franchise). Hard to believe that franchise will experience any continued success with so much upheaval in their front offices, regardless of who calls the plays on Sundays.

Final Notes:

There are some other positions that are still in limbo; Sean Payton may be leaving the Saints for the right compensation.  Dan Campbell was given interim head coaching status in Miami after Joe Philbin was fired in-season.  According to ESPN, Campbell will have an opportunity to interview for the permanent position during their search. A similar situation has played out in Tennessee, as Ken Wisenhunt was fired in November and Mike Mularkey finished the season—he will also be allowed to interview for that job during their search.