Sunday, December 30, 2018

Happy New Year

The college bowl season is always a mystery for prognosticators.  Some schools are just thrilled to be in any bowl game just tell us when and where.  Schools whose big dreams were dashed late in the season can end up in second tier bowls with little at stake but honor and a watch.  The week of bowl frivolity with the sponsors and bowl officials is not a big motivator for top performance.  The Michigan Wolverines were within a beat down in Columbus of being in the CFP Final Four.  The Buckeyes obliterated the Jim Harbaugh redemption tour.  Michigan went from a potential Orange Bowl to the Peach Bowl.  The Peach Bowl team showed up and Florida drubbed them as 7 point underdogs.  Wazu almost had the same fate battling a feisty Iowa team in the Alamo bowl after losing the Rose Bowl bid to rival UW.  Washington State had not been back to the Rose Bowl since the Ryan Leaf era.  Playing in the Alamo Dome on December 28, is not like playing in the Grand Daddy of them all at the historic Rose Bowl.  The Huskies shut down the two-point play for the win over the Cyclones.  The ISU fan base did put a hurt on the beer concession for a second consecutive bowl game after bankrupting the Busch Light concession at last year’s Liberty Bowl.  

With all of the upsets, surprises and story lines, Yard staff felt that the Boise State Boston College bowl game was the biggest story line.  It was the biggest game story because there was no game.  Boston College had taken a 7-0 lead but game officials pulled the plug as biblical weather rolled into the Dallas metro area.  The decision was made for the right reasons and the welfare of fans and players at the venerable Cotton Bowl stadium.  It was not The Cotton Bowl that was played at Jerry World Saturday night that was canceled. It was the First Responders Bowl at the original historic venue that was cancelled.  With all of the cost, fan travel, and lost revenue, it takes an Act of God to cancel a bowl game.  It would seem that it would at least take an act of Congress to cancel the First Responders bowl!  The First Responders rush into the calamity not away from it. The Cheez-IT Bowl, yes there is one of those, could have been cancelled with hardly a couch potato protest. First responders everywhere were shocked by the cancellation of their bowl because of inclement conditions.

Another story line throughout the bowl season is the number of players who opt out of their team’s bowl game to save themselves for the NFL draft.  In 2003, Miami Hurricane star Willis McGahee was a consensus top five pick in the draft.  Legions of Hurricanes were populating NFL rosters from those teams. The Hurricanes of 2000-2003 were one of the top programs in the country winning the national championship in 2002 at the Rose Bowl over Eric Crouch and Nebraska.  Marching into Phoenix for the 2003 Fiesta Bowl national championship game, riding a 34 game winning streak, Miami and McGahee seemed unstoppable.  They both were stopped that night by the Ohio State Buckeyes and a freshman named Maurice Clarett.  McGahee suffered a late game injury that would jeopardize his NFL career.  He was able to recover two years later and play for nearly a decade in the NFL but never got the first round payout.  It gave every future star player pause on the risk of an injury in a bowl game before getting that first NFL contract.  The 2003 Fiesta Bowl game was for the national championship.  WV Mountaineer Will Grier opted not to play in the 2019 Camping World Bowl and WV got pasted by Syracuse.  WV had higher aspirations when the season began and when they waned, it became about Grier’s aspirations. Syracuse was just happy to be there and romped.

Notre Dame had another fine season under Brian Kelly.  Notre Dame has had and will continue to have fine football seasons with Kelly as their head coach.  Going undefeated, is extremely difficult in any regular college football season. ND alumni has to get real about their expectations about pursuing another football championship.  Undefeated University of Central Florida would probably have given a better showing in the Cotton Bowl than the Irish did against Clemson.  Clemson had to suspend their best defensive lineman and the second stringer was better than any of ND’s starter O line.  Yard staff does not see many of the players on Clemson, Alabama or Oklahoma who even considered Notre Dame.  The Irish get their fair share of talent from the Midwest and the parochial schools but the SEC and ACC get most of the talent they pursue.  They are not concerned with splitting atoms at Clemson or Alabama, they are worrying about splitting the corner and the free safety on a fade route.  Notre Dame might not be splitting atoms either but they are a premier academic institution and have been since 1842.

College football did not arrive in South Bend until 1887. Their historic football pedigree was burnished during the Knute Rockne era that began in 1918.  These were the teams with the legends of George Gipp and the Four Horseman.  Rockne’s teams would win ND’s first three national championships and start the first national rivalry with USC.  Rockne was followed by Frank Leahy and after some down years Ara Parseghian.  Leahy won an astonishing 86% of the games over an 11- year career.  He had four national titles and six undefeated seasons.  Ten lost years after Leahy retired, the feisty Ara Parseghian arrived in 1964.  Ara restored order and added two more national championships and let Rudy dress for games.  There was the surprise Dan Devine era 1977 title when a hero evolved from a scrawny kid from New Eagle, PA named Joe Montana. Devine also let Rudy play in a game. There was the 1988 saliva filled championship from granny Lou Holtz.  It has now been over 30 years since the Irish have been even gotten close to a title.  Their fans have endured beat downs by Ohio State, LSU and even Oregon State.  That was before their two CFP appearances where they have been outscored 72-17.  Saturday’s performance was probably the worst.  They were a good team with a bad finish.  Post graduate fan recalibration needs be a course offered through the extension program for Alums and other ND fanatics.

Post Script: Much has been made of it but Clemson freshman QB Trevor Lawrence was spectacular in the Notre Dame game.  He was raining big play strikes all over the field against the Irish much heralded secondary.  Besides channeling Ronnie “Sunshine” Bass from Remember the Titans, he has been playing like Sunshine in leading this team.  He was the number one rated QB in the country last year coming out of HS.  He looks the part.  Alabama is much better than ND but Oklahoma rolled up 481 yards and 34 points on the vaunted ‘Bama defense.  Clemson has as explosive an offense as the Sooners and a much better defense.  Go Tigers!

The Rest of the Story: Miami senior Willis McGahee was a consensus top five NFL pick during the 2002 season.  Maurice Clarett was an upcoming Buckeye freshman.  Their paths crossed in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl as previously mentioned.  McGahee suffered a nearly career threatening injury that took him years to recover.  Clarett scored two touchdowns including the game winner in that Fiesta Bowl.  He was the toast of Columbus following the Buckeye’s upset.  Clarett declared himself for the NFL draft after the season even though the rules then and the rules now did not allow football players of his age to declare.  He fought the NFL and lost.  It has been known to happen. By 2004, Clarett was out of football and finally arrested in 2006 with four loaded guns in his SUV with Kevlar on.  McGahee would rush for almost 9,000 yards in the NFL.  Clarett would never rush for one.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Merry Christmas from the Yard

Each holiday season for nearly two decades, a group of aged, former gym mates, meet for a holiday dinner in the Pasadena area.  The gym is long gone but the spirit still flies.  I have written about it in the past but this year unfortunately, I was unable to attend because of my various business ventures.  The group is very USC centric which does not silence the Yard but if you have been watching college football rivalries, the USC-UCLA has been decidedly Trojan during the aforementioned decades.  This year the Bruins trounced the Trojans and flipped the game board.  UCLA coach Chip Kelly and the Bruins are on the rise with a young exciting team.  USC keeps mining their past with their coach and AD.  They have been doing that since Peter bolted to Seattle.  USC deserved to win by all measures.  It has been a tough 18 months at the original U and the only U for many.  The football team was incidental to the other University improprieties.  The football team could have helped diffuse the situation with another Rose Bowl run.  And it was right there until it was 5-7.  Thankfully for all Bruin fans, USC AD Lynn Swann is sticking with his man, Clay. I wish I could have been there to lend support to my boys from Troy during their troubling times. And damn, it really would have been a super fun dinner.  See you all next year!

Sports has always been a Yard tenant.  It is not just the passion for any event but the binary nature.  There is a result that defines the winner from the loser.  If you or your champion, it is rose petals and Clicquot.  If you are the lost, it is self-loathing and alcohol.  The Yard has been involved with several boozy, self-loathing moments over the years with our chosen teams. There is most likely alcohol on the champion side as well but loathing lite.  Championship events cannot end in a tie.  The tie-breaking events are called shootouts and sudden death.  It all resonates as impactful as it sounds when the winner has to be determined in overtime. With all due respect to these vigorous athletics, chess has the best OT strategy of any sport.  For purposes of this discussion, chess is a sport.  It is definitely not a hobby.  Defending World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen (Norway) and the challenger Fabiano Caruana (USA) battled through a 12 set tied match in the World Championships this past month.  Carlsen eventually won but all the buzz was if there would be the ultimate chess tie-breaker, Armageddon. That is the absolute coolest tiebreaker moniker ever.  I am not sure what happens but it sounds like it would involve Liam Neeson, in flowing robes, shouting, “Release the Cracken” and the competitors would have to battle primordial chess beasts to the finish to declare a champion.  It did not come to that but the Yard can only hope for it in the future.

NBA basketball is back on the rise in LA.  The Clippers have been successfully disappointing these past several years.  Since they ran off Donald Sterling and made a run to the conference finals, the Clippers have slowly sunk into irrelevance.  It was their time to seize the city with the Lakers mining the lottery draft. But they stumbled and bumbled while Blake Griffin was cold cocking the towel boy.  Chris Paul bolted for Houston.  DeAndre finally made it to Dallas and the rest of the Clipper abyss drifted from our conscience.  In 2018, the Clipper lineup does not boast a recognizable name.  The most known names are the coach and the owner.  But somehow, this team of castoffs and journeymen is among the conference elite at this time.  It should be noted that the Rockets are awful and the Warriors were lost for a bit but the Clips look like they have some staying power.  They need to act fast because the Lake show is coming on like Lebron James on a fast break.  The purple and gold probably does not have enough Cowboys to take out the Warriors this year but look out next year.  And Steph Curry, I am pretty sure Neil and Buzz made it to the moon and planted a flag but you have coffee with Kyrie Irving so he can share the world is flat discussion.  Better you lads focus on basketball rather than pontificate on hillbilly conspiracies.  Steph, another year at Davidson and they would have covered the Moon Landing.

Yard youth was a huge Ram fan.  Timmy Lawlor and I watched the Rams go down in defeat to the Minnesota Vikings about 12 times it seemed.  It was always a frozen day in MN and the Ram players looked like they wanted to be anywhere else but there.  The Vikings always won and then lost in the Super Bowl.  Roman Gabriel, Jack Snow, the Fearsome Foursome, we worshipped them all but they could never deliver.  The slow erosion of faith from the move to Anaheim before the eventual re-location to St. Louis helped erase the heart ache of being a Ram fan.  It was already painful enough being a Bruin fan.  The Lakers and Dodgers were only champions back in the day.  But slowly upon their return, the horned helmet legion has started to pull us back into the fray.  Yard staff wants to stave off the unquestioned loyalty vote until the Raiders get to LV and we see what up with dat.  After watching what the Chicago Bears did to the Rams on a cold night in Chicago, it was clear the vote did need to get pushed.  We are sending a scout team to the first Ram playoff game to vet this game changing staff vote.

In 2015, there was no Pro Football in LA.  And in 2016 when the Rams and Chargers both moved back to LA, some would say Pro Football still had not come back to LA with the Chargers storming to a 5-11 season and the Rams a stellar 4-12.  Both teams were playing in ill-suited stadiums by NFL standards but when you are not playing up to standards, who cares.  In 2018, both teams are among the elite in the NFL.  The Rams have been a team on the rise for two years now.  The Chargers have not been in the playoffs since 2013.  Phillip Rivers has always been among the elite but his team could just not seem to get over the top.  This year Rivers has lead this team to the top of the AFC.  With Thursday night’s miracle win in Kansas City, the Chargers clinched a playoff spot.  We hope they go far and for more reasons than the 6:1 bet we made on them winning the AFC.

We love Rivers fiery personality on the field.  He is a different person off the field as would be a devout Catholic father of eight with the 9th due in March.  Rivers can be affable in interviews and off the field.  Once he comes out of the tunnel he is a seething, competitive ball of fire.  He barks at his teammates, the referees and opposing fans throughout the game.  He was taunting KC fans after their home favorite went down in the last second.  Some may not like it, but at the Yard, we love it.  You all can have Aaron Rodgers and his stoicism.  Rodgers may have more fans but Rivers has the Yard!  What else does someone need other than Yard karma!  Unfortunately, quite a bit but we love this feisty pro-creator!

The dumpster fire in Arizona has already been lit.  The D’backs were going to conquer the NL west with their sharp young lineup while snatching Zack Greinke from the Dodgers with a ridiculous contract just a few years back.  Much has been written about this in the Yard and it still stings.  If Zack had stayed, the Dodgers might have won a title possibly during these past two campaigns.  Playoff pitching for the Dodgers is the problem, not regular season pitching.  Grei    `nke is an Asperger’s genius on the mound whether it is the playoffs or the regular season.  He would be brilliant in October but he will never find out because he took the dough not the chance for a ring.  The first match was lit when the Snakes traded their heart to St. Louis in Adam Goldschmidt.  He was the most feared and consistent bat in the batting order.  Now Zack and company can fight the Giants and Padres for the race to the bottom.  Padres have the inside track but the Giants have some compelling resolution these past few 90 loss seasons.  And just like with the Trojans head coach, we can only hope the Giants keep Bruce Bochy around to help retreat the charge.  He has been excellent in that regard.

Extra Innings: The holidays are upon us and as usual we missed all of the Black days and most of the other days left to shop.  Jo at the Yard has become our elf to make magic happen with unique thoughts and American Express.  The craziest gift idea we have heard is the 23 and me. DNA testing for your friends and relatives for Christmas sounds down right creepy.  We are told these ads do not run in Arkansas and Appalachia. We really cannot think of a gift that is more invasive.  We all think the government is tracking our every move anyways but millions of us are giving it up and paying for it!  Does it sound like a great idea to give everyone DNA tests for Christmas and then wait for the fun discussing the results next year? 

The Ginger Fuhrer

It was rough mid-term election for many, Yard included.  The Ginger Fuhrer was predicted in the polls and by most millennials of getting his national rebuke after his two-year Twitter presidency.  He did manage to take an incomprehensible victory lap on Wednesday before aides recalibrated his interpretation of the results.  Trump had been busting his rump loading up Air Force One and selected reporters to get out to his fans and swing the vote.  He was omnipresent like no other Happy Meal consumer in US history.  The Dems got out the vote and changed the landscape including the Yard’s World HQ in Nevada.  We thought we had gotten away from Diane Feinstein but her younger self emoji Jackie Rosen got voted into the senate for the silver state.  Forget about the Russians, California meddled in the Nevada election.  They did not use Facebook, they went old school with Benjamins and television. Rosen ran ads 3 to 1 against Dean Heller.  It was exhausting. And that is pretty big war chest for a one term congress woman unless Nancy Pelosi is on your speed dial.  The money poured in from CA to win our pivotal Nevada race.  No rules against it but it was more obvious than Putin’s geeks.

One of the few Nevada Republican winners last week was the Trump from Pahrump Dennis “The Hof” Hof.  The brothel magnate ran an aggressive campaign enlisting his crack team of Heidi Fleiss, Ron Jeremy and Miss Lilly to get out the vote.  He thumbed his nose and other appendages at both parties and was eventually elected to the Nevada Assembly.  Hof was found dead at his Love Ranch brothel three weeks before the election. Apparently, Hof went a bit crazy with the aforementioned campaign staff and other recreational activities for his birthday celebration October 12-14. Hof passed in his sleep at the conclusion of the festivities on October 16.  The Yard does not condone his business model but he definitely went out with a bang. At the polling booths, large signs were placed that notified all voters that Hof was deceased and if they voted for him someone else would be appointed to replace him.  Hof still got 63% of the vote beating a very much alive Lesia Romanov.
Baseball came to a merciless end of an improbable Dodger season.  A malaise spread across the team and the fan base before being scratched off in early August.  The trade for Manny Machado ignited the team, more sparkler than Roman candle but a spark.  Ten games out in May and still one game out with two games left in the season.  The crew of blue grinded through the Rockies, Braves and Brewers in the playoffs before being ground up by the Red Sox in the fall classic.  The team teased all season with fallow expectations mostly just good enough as needed. 

The Dodgers did not make any big splashes in the 2017 off season and went into the season with the same roster that had lost to the Astros in seven games.  They needed another starting pitcher and another reliable right handed bat before Justin Turner broke his wrist and Corey Seager was lost for the season in April. Ryu was out until August while Kershaw and Jansen wobbled like weebles. The NL west stumbled along with the Dodgers until they eventually found their footing in September. Walker Buehler emerged and exposed who he will become. David Freese became a more important trade than Machado. For this team to make the World Series for a second consecutive season was unexpected.  Unfortunately, they lost for the second consecutive season.  Getting to the WS three years in a row is not unprecedented but unlikely.  This looks more like 1978-79 when the Dodgers lost two in a row to the Yankees before finally winning in 1981. We all hope it is sooner rather than never.

The Dodgers should continue to win the National League West for the foreseeable future.  The team that Andrew Friedman has been building upon since his arrival is 2014 has a lot of runway and favorable financials.  Friedman has much to be thankful for the foundation that Ned Colletti had cobbled together during the McCourt regime.  The farm system became a priority and Colletti never let any deals that included Joc Pederson, Corey Seager or Julio Urias get made.  Those three all will play significant roles in 2019 and for many years to come.  In 2019, they will make $3.5 million between the three of them.  The rest of the NL west will be playing catch up for the next few years before the Dodgers get into the expensive decisions tied to developing talent.  The Rockies have a good young team but are going to have pay Nolan Arenado or trade him.  He is already making $20 million but the contracts Manny Machado and Bryce Harper get this off season will change that expectation.  Colorado has usually traded talent rather than sign big market money deals.  The Diamondbacks went all in with Zack Greinke.  He has churned out on average 15 victories and 200 innings a season for that $31 million a season.  He was great playing Robin with Kershaw but he is not really a super hero anymore.  The contract does not leave the Snakes much slither room and they may need to get rid of Goldschmidt to find some. The Padres well they are the Padres albeit with a great farm system. The Giants deserve their own two paragraphs.

The Giants made their first big off season move by hiring Farhan Zaidi away from the Dodgers to run their baseball operations.  Zaidi is a talented baseball executive and he will be missed by the Dodgers and especially Friedman.  Zaidi and Friedman deserve all of the credit and some of the blame for the last two disappointing finals.  The cupboard was not bare for these two when they arrived.  Ned Colletti had stocked the farm system and made the moves that brought in Andre Ethier, Ryu, Turner and Puig.  Seager, Bellinger and Taylor were waiting their chance in AAA.  Friedman found Walker Buehler throwing heat at Vanderbilt but most of the current National League championship lineup was there before the current management took over.
The current Giant situation is far direr than at any time in recent Giant history.  The payroll in 2018 was the second highest in baseball for a team that won 73 games.  They finished at least 19 games or more from the playoffs for the second consecutive year.  The Giant challenge is how to keep carrying around the decaying carcass of their historic three titles in five years run while trying to find another one.   Many of those players who were young and hungry back in 2012 are now injury prone and over paid in 2018.  The Giants have kept their core group together including manager Bochy to try to keep the flame alive.  Their recent moves remind me of the 2003-2004 Lakers who hoped to win a 4th straight by bringing in Gary Payton and Karl Malone.  Those Lakers and these Giants chose to patch around their aging heroes rather than face the uncertainty of rebuilding.  The Giants got old gradually and then surprisingly older with Cueto, Smardj, Longoria, etc.  The Lakers would not win in 2004 or another title until 2009.  The Giants TBD.  The cavalry is not coming like Buster and company were in 2010. The Giants potential starting lineup’s salary for 2019 would be $90 million with an average age of 31.  The Dodgers starting lineup will be paid $30 million with an average age of 28.  The Yard is no expert on sabermetrics but without anyone coming up to replace pieces within their system, the SF narrative will continue southbound.  Good luck Farhan, you will be missed but you are now dead to us as has been your new franchise since before you were born.

Drew Brees broke the all-time NFL record for career passing yards a few weeks back.  It was Monday Night game and it was exciting.  He had his whole family on the field for a touching ceremony.  It was obvious Drew wanted it to end so he could get back to business.  In 2001, we were covering Purdue’s second Rose Bowl and most recent in school history. Brees was the starting quarterback for the Boilermaker’s that season.  After you wrap your head around Purdue in the Rose Bowl, the next words are Drew Brees battling.  Purdue almost won before the Washington Huskies rallied with two TD’s in the 4th. Brees was drafted in the 2nd round by the Chargers and was their starter in 2004.  Eli Manning was expected to be the 1st QB taken that year and he let the Chargers know he had no intention of signing with this woebegone San Diego team if drafted.  There was some gnashing of teeth between the Manning’s and the Chargers. The Chargers ultimately flipped their pick to the NY Giants who drafted Manning.  The Chargers picked up Philip Rivers as part of the transaction.  Rivers was Brees understudy for two seasons. Brees got injured and Rivers rose to the throne.  Drew was always held accountable for being undersized in stature but never in leadership, passion or heart.  Rivers was thought to be the future and has been. Drew went to NOLA and made history.

Eli was the biggest name in all of that news in 2004.  He did win two Super Bowls as a starter. How about today? Saints are rolling towards another Super Bowl for Brees.  Rivers has the Chargers in the mix for the big game as well.  Eli and the Giants?  They are caught in the same game the SF Giants are playing without the aging heroes just the aging.

Overtime: The University of San Diego Toreros restarted football in 2004.  They brought in Jim Harbaugh to coach the inaugural season.  He coached the teams to two titles in three years.  This past weekend the Toreros gave up 738 yards rushing to the Davidson Wildcats in San Diego. One would assume it was an ugly defeat but surprisingly USD prevailed 56-52.  Davidson had four rushers with over 150 yards each.  USD QB Anthony Lawrence tossed seven TD’s and 556 yards.  Lots of fond memories of trips to USD.  They did not have a football team back then but there was a tailgate every weekend in the canyon where football is now. Go Toreros!