Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gunners are done firing blanks

Jumping to conclusions far too soon, based on one game, or one moment, is just one of the proud traditions of the sports writer. David Beckham was solely responsible for England’s exit from the 1998 World Cup and wasn’t fit to wear the jersey, the Miami Heat would waltz into the finals after signing Lebron and Bosh, then they were totally unsuited to each other and would only win if they traded one of their superstars, you can’t win anything with kids…

So after watching Arsenal beat Chelsea handily on Monday, there was no doubt that the pundits would be quick to declare Chelsea in crisis and Arsenal as genuine title contenders. And as much as I would love to be the voice of reason, urging composure with a knowing smile, I have no choice but to agree. Chelsea’s poor form is more than just a blip; the Gunners have come of age and are a genuine threat to claim silverware for the first time since the demise of the Invincibles.

The match itself was unsurprisingly one sided. The surprise was that it was Arsenal who were that side. This fixture has run like clockwork for the last couple of seasons. Chelsea dominate, Drogba scores, Arsenal folds like a house of cards and we all talk about Arsene Wenger’s delusions that this group of Arsenal players will ever be for real.

This will have been such a satisfying victory for Wenger and the perfect response to his critics. The manner of the Arsenal victory is what was so impressive regardless of the score-line. Each game has its own unique character and leaves the viewer with a certain impression of what has just happened. Every match has a ‘feel’ to it. There are games where one team comes flying out of the traps. Before you know it, they’re up a goal or two and the whole complexion of the game is tilted in their favour. Think of some of Liverpool’s performances against Manchester United, a superior team, in recent times. There’s the smash-and-grab, where one side somehow pulls a result out of nowhere, despite being second best for much of the game; the kind of win that shows character and fortitude, if not quality.

What I saw on Monday was a third kind of win, the most satisfying kind for a supporter and I’m sure a coach and player as well. That’s the game where one side steadily and methodically puts its collective foot on the throat of the opposition and pushes down until it’s over. There was no luck, no element of surprise. Arsenal was just better. They took advantage of their opportunities and no one could argue that justice wasn’t done.

That Arsenal won a game like that against Chelsea, even a Chelsea in turmoil, is so impressive and an indication that this team of very talented boys has become a team of very talented men. The difference is noticeable and its importance cannot be overstated. There’s a snap in the Arsenal challenges that used to be absent. The pretty passing patterns that were always there for the Gunners have real cut and thrust to them, real danger, real pressure for the opposition. There are still some questions with the centre of defence and the goalkeeper, but the Arsenal midfield and attack is top class, Samir Nasri has become a top-5 player in the Premier League. This Arsenal side has finally come of age and the rest of the Premiership has been put on notice.

As good as Arsenal was, Chelsea were equally poor. They never really created anything of note, only scoring from a set-piece already down 3-0. The can’t have been lacking in motivation, playing a London rival after having not won a Premier League game since November 10, a run which saw them slide to 5th. Needing no extra motivation, the question becomes: Are this Chelsea side lacking in ability? I think when you take a good look at the squad it becomes apparent that they are.

We have gotten used to Chelsea buying top class talent at every opportunity, stacking the bench with internationals; this is no longer the case. A couple of quieter summers has left Chelsea’s cupboard relatively bare. They are now just one or two key injuries away from becoming quite ordinary and that is exactly what has happened. Frank Lampard’s injury has coincided with Chelsea’s poor run. With Lampard out there is no attacking element in the midfield. Michael Essien is a fantastic player, but he has never been the focal point of a Chelsea midfield. In years past Lampard would have been replaced with a Ballack and the Blue machine would rumble on. This season they can only turn to Ramires, who has yet to settle into the Premier League.

With the January sales more clearance sale than quality product, Chelsea are looking at more than just their first trophy-less season since 2008. In that year they finished runners-up in the Premiership and lost the Champions League after a John Terry penalty miss to win it. If this set of players can’t find something extra, Chelsea will be facing their first truly unsuccessful season since the pre-Mourinho era. This was not a flash in the pan. A glance at the Chelsea results shows that they have only one win against a truly good side. Before the loss to Arsenal they had beaten West Brom, Wigan, Stoke, West Ham, Blackpool, Wolves, Blackburn and Fulham; a who’s who…of bottom half clubs. Their best result? A 2-0 home win against, yes, Arsenal.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

December Football

If you're a football fan, you're coming up on the best part of the year. College bowl season is upon us and for once there's little argument about who should be in the national title game. In Auburn and Oregon we have two undefeated teams from legit conferences, two explosive offenses and the prospect of a classic. Of course, you can't talk about bowl season without bringing up the possibility of a college playoff.

Mark Cuban to the rescue. Cuban recently revealed that he is interested in venturing into the business of college football. It's interesting that he's putting college playoffs into a business context first and foremost. I think it helps his cause. At the end of the day, the NCAA is a very very profitable business. They make pro money, but don't pay it, what a racket.

Playoffs would go a long way to giving college football more credibility and attention outside of its core audience. When you look at the difference between NCAA basketball and football, March Madness really gives basketball an added sheen of legitimacy that football just doesn't have. Yes the National Championship, Sugar Bowl, Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl and a few others feel like the real deal. Those big bowls get a little tarnished, though, when you put them alongside the Meineke Car Care Bowl, the Bowl, the Chik-fil-A Bowl, and the other 2-hour commercials. Anytime you're playing in a bowl that has a .com in its name, you can't feel too good about where you're at.

It seems like most of the country is behind a playoff system and I think there are two main hurdles that Cuban has to overcome to make this happen. The first is this: you don't want to lose the tradition and history that comes with some of those bowls. There's something about the names and the histories of those big-time bowl games which make them special occasions on the calender no matter who's playing. If you're about to see, say, North Carolina vs. Notre Dame in the Tostitos Bowl, I'm changing the channel. Put those same teams in the Rose Bowl and I'm excited to see what those programs can in the Rose Bowl, the occasion has that significance in and of itself.

To keep that history you could take the four quarterfinals and two semifinals and just have those games take on the mantle of whatever six bowls you want and that way it's still a big game and you can do all the pageantry that America does best.

The second hurdle is the formidable one and the one that, I think, ultimately keeps this from happening; the NCAA is a business and the 35 bowl games scheduled in the next month or so will bring in millions of dollars in advertising, TV rights and the rest. If the NCAA changes to a 12 or 16 team playoff, that's 15 separate games at most. I'm not sure the NCAA will be all that receptive to cutting its opportunity for revenue in half, but I'm not the genius businessman; it's up to you Mark Cuban...Godspeed.

Speaking of bowls vs. playoffs, as much as I hate the bowl system in college, I wouldn't mind seeing them give it a try in the NFL. You could get some nice match-ups, I think. The Bengals vs. the Cowboys in the Enron Bowl of Broken Dreams, the In-n-Out LA Sweepstakes Bowl featuring the Jaguars vs. Vikings, the possibilities are endless.

For now NFL fans are stuck with playoffs and for fans in some cities, they've basically started already. There are must win games across the country, starting on Thursday night (right now) with the Chargers and 49ers. Yes it's already 7-0 for the Chargers, but I picked them in this game before that, I swear. I think the Chargers do squeak into the playoffs. They just have more experience winning games at this time of the season than Kansas City does, and when in doubt, bet on the better quarterback and there aren't many better than Philip Rivers. Rivers has his favorite target from last season, Vincent Jackson, back in uniform. Jackson just caught a touchdown pass a couple of minutes ago against San Fran...good omen.

The Chargers have to win out and they couldn't ask for a better schedule to end the season: 49ers, @Bengals, @Broncos. That's as good as it gets, especially now that the Broncos don't have a head coach to get them riled up to finish on a good note. They'll still be fired up for a home division game and they'll want to finish on a high, but I think not having a consistent voice from the coaching staff could take away some of the edge they might have.

That firing, McDaniels in Denver, really came as a surprise, especially the timing of it. Your team's season is essentially over already, why fire the coach now? This was not like the situations in Minnesota and Dallas, where the firings probably came too late. Both those teams have the talent to be in the playoffs, and they also both kinda stopped playing for a little bit in the middle there. The Cowboys and Vikings could have maybe maybe salvaged their seasons if they'd pulled the trigger earlier and it was pretty clear in both cases that the men in charge couldn't go on, but I don't see what the Broncos gained from firing McDaniel's. They were never going to the playoffs and I think he actually had them going in some kind of a direction with what he had to work with. McDaniels is an offensive guy and that offense was not playing all that badly. Moreno's starting to show why he was drafted so highly and Orton was having a really good year until recently. Maybe his record wasn't good enough, but he was taking over a team that hasn't made the playoffs since 2005 and hasn't won a playoff game since they won the Super Bowl in '99. If you're going to hire a young, first-time coach onto a rebuilding team you have to give him more than two seasons.

I think the Spygate II thing probably played a big part in the early switch. It does stink a little bit and that's not the kind of thing you want your franchise involved in. The fact that McDaniel's was there in New England when it happened is kind of a red flag against him, but if I was an owner in need of a coach, he'd be pretty near the top of the list. He's young, he won't break the bank and he clearly has some talent. He was the offensive co-ordinator when Tom Brady and the Patriots offense was out-of-control-crazy-good and he's done well with Kyle Orton in Denver. If I'm the Panthers, who will probably move on from John Fox after this season, I'm thinking about either drafting Andrew Luck out of Stanford, or moving on with Clausen. Either way, Mcdaniels would be the perfect guy to develop a young quarterback and mold a lost organization into his image.

McDaniels has also taken a lot of heat for some of his personnel moves in Denver, but in hindsight they're not as terrible as some would have you think. The one that stands out as being really bad is the Peyton Hillis trade and you can't really defend it so I won't try to. I think with Moreno being a high pick and the money and expectation that goes along with, it's indefensible...But anyway, Brandon Marshall was a constant headache in Denver and he's not exactly tearing it up in Miami, while Jay Cutler is a good player and he's still getting better, but is he going to be an all-world franchise quarterback? I'm not so sure. Obviously I don't know him, but every time I see him interviewed he comes across as really arrogant and not at all in a good way, but in the blind-to-the-truth-and-not-gracious-at-all way that has him talking stuff about DeAngelo Hall after throwing four picks to him. It didn't come off as funny or confident, just bitter and immature.He could have taken responsibility for the turnovers and moved on, but he chose to take the chance to try and belittle Hall. Not a good look Jay. Either way, the Broncos got good compensation for Cutler.

There could just be something in the water in Denver...McDaniels wasted no time in challenging and ultimately alienating his two biggest name players. Sound familiar? Mike Shanahan, fresh out of Denver, wasted no time at all in, well, challenging and ultimately alienating his two biggest name players.

Quarterbacks I would take for a must-win game tomorrow ahead of Jay Cutler: Mike Vick, Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Josh Freeman, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, David Garrard, Peyton Manning, Matt Schaub and Vince Young...almost half the league. I'm not hatin', I'm just sayin'.