Thursday, September 25, 2014

What To Watch For: Fins - Raiders In London

When square shouldered American footballers storm into London’s Wembley Stadium this weekend, 80,000 odd sports fans will hope for a spectacle. They’ll anticipate heroic quarterbacking, rampaging rushes and pulverising tackling. But just as it is for fans of an English club treading the waters of relegation, hope isn’t always nearly enough.

In a historical context, they don’t come much mightier than the Raiders and Dolphins, who have five championship titles and rooms full of legends between them. Unfortunately, most of that success occurred in the 1970s, when roughhousing was as lauded as route running. The two clubs actually played in one of the NFL’s greatest ever games, a playoff in 1974 that saw six lead changes and an impossible last minute Raider victory.

That, however, was back when Gerald Ford was the American President and Elton John got around shirtless. The current Raiders offense looks predictably futile, and Miami’s once promising outlook is sinking like a bloated alligator into the swampy Everglades. While good fortune in English football seems to follow, well, the fortunes of very wealthy club owners, the American game is more dependent on the cohesion of its elaborate 53-man rosters. Given the locker room bullying fiasco Miami’s front office faced last year, it’s easy to see how teammates can drift apart.

Now understand that I say this not with a columnist’s disdain for sporting mediocrity, but rather with a face paint coloured tear bleeding down my cheek, because these are, in fact, my two favourite NFL clubs. Perhaps like many of you, I grew up tuning into the glittery gladiatorial battles of this sport from a world completely foreign to airborne theatrics, forward passing and referees who spend more time on microphones than Japanese stockbrokers in karaoke bars. 

In Australia, at least, American football had long been scoffed at because its players wore so much protective equipment and there were countless stoppages to the game. However, with recent concerns about concussions, and the fact that spectators are just as likely to break from the action to check their phones as another timeout occurring, such criticisms seem antiquated. We’ve changed, but the football remains thrilling.

I was always taken by the Dolphins because of the masterful quarterback Dan Marino. His stellar, albeit Super Bowl ring-less career, was underscored by his fireball throws and equally fiery temper. He desperately wanted to win and as long as he was on the pitch, the Dolphins always had a chance of fulfilling that desire. Miami fans haven’t felt this way since Marino retired in 1999.

With the Raiders, it was two things in the early eighties: back then they played in glitzy Los Angeles and their fans were nutters who dressed as pirates, ghouls and gorillas, among many other disturbing creatures. You can see how this might appeal to a seven year old.

Anyway, here we all are many years later, with both squads seemingly much less than the sum of their historic past. Still, don’t toss your ticket aside just yet because there are a few storylines worth following for this London fixture. 

Here are four of them, one for each quarter, perhaps:

Keys to Carr: Since taking over the starting gig from the ailing Matt Schaub, the Raiders rookie QB Derek Carr looks like the franchise signal-caller the club has waited an eternity for. It’s been a revolving door for the team at its most important position, but now Carr brings athleticism, smarts, a good arm and above all else, the type of poise this mad pirate ship needs.

Dolphins D: Miami hasn’t had much to celebrate of late but nobody can question the effort of its defensive unit. These guys charge into the backfield as if the opposing quarterback stole a tub of Gatorade.

Jumpin' James Jones: The veteran receiver has had his share of miscues but also has the ability to make great catches. If he gets an inch in the end zone, he’ll typically out leap his man to secure the ball for a score.

Trouble for Tannehill: Miami’s QB Ryan Tannehill has had a lukewarm start to the season and so as you’d expect, his seat is now hotter than a south beach tan. He’ll need to post about 300 yards worth of passing and bag a couple of touchdowns to keep his starting job.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

To Run Or Gun? The QB Quandry

The modern era of football has seen two opposing ideas worked into playbooks as if it were imperative they co-exist. I’m talking about attacking the defense with either a running quarterback or a passing one, which to outsiders might seem as trivial as casting a blonde or brunette Bond girl. Let’s just agree that both work.

Of course, there’s no reason why a quarterback can’t be both, that is, an excellent runner who's also able to fire a 30-yard bullet between defenders arms, bobbing helmets and spittle. Seattle’s Russell Wilson might just be the best example of such a player, though Washington’s Robert Griffin III seemed destined for greatness before his various injuries. 

Griffin is really the ideal case study for offensive football aficionados because while his running has at times been electrifying, not since Shane Falco fell for Brooke Langton's character in The Replacements has a QB also looked so vulnerable. In short, the more mobile RG3 has been, the more likely it seemed he’d be immobilized.

So what’s the end game then?

Sliders and surfers

Many NFL coaches appear enamored with the read option, in which, the QB observes defensive movements and reacts with a run or pass accordingly. It can be tougher for some defenses to follow this than a Belichick press conference, which is why the approach finally and vehemently took hold in the pro game. But still, the question remains: is it necessary to over expose a team's most important player in the open field in this way?

Some QBs have a knack for avoiding trouble and that’s the trick, isn’t it? As a head coach, you’re less likely to feel your heart leap into your throat on a third down scramble if your play-caller gets down, slides, scoots out of bounds, or somehow manages to transport himself through time like the Silver Surfer. If only he were eligible to play.

Wilson is not only good at avoiding sacks in the Fran Tarkenton mould, but he’s clever enough to know when to step up in the pocket, when to roll out, or when to toss the ball up to the fans. This ability to read the strength of the rush seems imperative to the strategy, and yet too many young QBs are determined to counter-attack before the defense actually reaches them. I’d put RG3 in this category, along with rookie Johnny Manziel, one-year wonder Tim Tebow, and Colin Kaepernick might just be the captain of the group.

Kaepernick’s match-up against the more traditional pocket passer Jay Cutler on Sunday was truly gripping for those gripped by such differing styles, because both men are quite cool under pressure. And yet, each handle respective defensive surges in unique ways. On Sunday, at least, Kaepernick was hasty, eager to escape the pocket whenever he could to gallivant into space as he’s prone to do. Sometimes it’s devastating, other times he takes a hit, or worse, carelessly loses the ball. This, at least from the coach’s perch is devastating, and avoidable.

Cut and dry

By contrast, Cutler tends to unleash wild rockets into mosh pits of players, where you’d be more likely to see Eddie Vedder climbing out than a triumphant wide receiver with the ball in hand. But he persists with this mode because his arm strength gives him the confidence to do so. I’m sure his very cool hair gave him the pluck to ask out Kristin Cavallari too. Such is the orbit of Planet Cutler. 

All kidding aside, Cutler mostly sticks to the pocket and finds open men – often incredibly large Madison Avenue size men, in the case of the current Chicago unit. He runs, only as needed, and he did so splendidly against the 49ers. It was his patience on offense, you could argue, that helped the Bears make their comeback. Conversely, it was Kaepernick’s lack of it, that contributed to his team’s undoing.

The Elway

Of course, running quarterbacks are not new, nor are those who can both run and throw. I think of John Elway during these types of discussions because, while there may never have been a better ball thrown than the one delivered by Denver’s great No.7, there may also have never been a signal-caller at his size, who proved more exciting when rumbling into the secondary (maybe Ben Roethlisberger, though he's slightly bigger). Elway wasn’t fast and at times looked rather cumbersome, but he ran opportunistically and cleverly, and used his bulk to get down field. It was also never for show, but rather was about results and this is an important distinction.

Not that the likes of Kaepernick, or even the Jets’ Geno Smith is seeking more than positive yardage, though there is an air of showmanship about some of the modern day QBs which perhaps fuels their ambition to leave the the pocket. At least a player like Aaron Rodgers has perfected his passing from back in the turret, which helps to make his rushes more of a threat.

After all, the threat of the run can be just as lethal because it makes the defense uneasy. RG3 basically patented this threat two years ago, and such was his prowess on the read, that even his former coach seemed uneasy. But that’s pure conjecture of course: Mike Shanahan always looks like a guy who’s conducted some business in the men's room only to find there’s no toilet paper left.

Forever Young

In or out of the pocket, the aim should be finding an advantage. From the warmth of the couch, some running plays look grossly premeditated, or even forced in some instances, and with a few players working the option, that’s surely not beneficial to an offense. 

I’m sure that even the Candlestick rambler, Steve Young, weighed up his options on each play. He talks about reading through progressions all the time as an ESPN analyst, which makes me think that even when it looked like Young was eager to burn rubber, he always kicked the tires on the possibility of stretching the defense with a well place throw. On his most famous run he shaped to throw, it wasn't there, so he ducked, glanced up and took off.

Young ran for more than 500 yards and threw for 3,500 more in 1992, according to numbers. By no means does every QB have this capability, as it requires a combo of athleticism and awareness. However, the best quick steppers are usually also the calmest thinkers too, and that's not always a quality marked in draft board margins. But maybe it needs to be.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Mega Man vs Donkey Kong

Fictional characters from opposing worlds are often pitted against one another. Predator and Alien come immediately to mind, the two creatures mercilessly tossed into a Hollywood studio to duke it out more than once. Batman meets Superman under hostile conditions some time in 2016, and if we're not mistaken, Super Mario has already faced-off with Sonic the Hedgehog to see who has the biggest two-dimensional leap.

This week football fans contemplate the aftershocks of a mighty collision between the Lions' defender Ndamukong Suh and the Panthers' quarterback Cam Newton, after Newton repeatedly called his opponent "Donkey Kong Suh" in a press conference prior to the game. 

Not known for his bashfulness, Mega Cam seemed convinced that was the player's actual name, and given that it was delivered with the deadpan style of a Weekend Update bit on Saturday Night Live, the media took the bait. They oddly wrestled with it in fact, so unsure of its meaning or usage, they quickly determined to use it to incite Suh into some sort of barrel hurling rage. 

But when confronted by a media pack, Detroit's defensive tackle was apparently disinterested, and those appalled weren't afforded the chance to remedy the horrible mockery made of their press room. Will the social outrage ever let up? We think former Steelers QB looks like Mario, but please don't call the D.A.'s Office.

Well, Mega-Cam needed to be quick with his step and accurate with his aim on Sunday, in order to avoid the wrath of Donkey Kong, who, with a heavy thump of the earth, or a thunderous charge, could have evaporated the quarterback just like the original blue Nintendo sprite. 

As it turned out, Newton tapped his initials in for the 'game high' as his squad belted Detroit 24-7. He zinged balls over the middle, zapped them down the sideline, and then, when the throw wasn't there, zoomed past the opposition, seemingly without any power-ups. He threw 22 of 34 passes for 281 yards, but more importantly, his energy was all too much for Detroit to contain. That went for Suh too, who couldn't even stop the Panthers Player 1 by falling on him. 

Game Over.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Cooler: What's On Ice In Week 2 Of The NFL?

Week one of the NFL typically turned perceived realities upside down, and jiggled out the contents of our pockets to reveal actual truths. Dirty tissues, half a pack of Big Red and some loose change tumbled to the floor, but so too did an unpunched Super Bowl ticket. For all 32 teams, confidence remains high, until losses become consecutive. There's still a chance, albeit slim in some instances, of being on that ticket.

It's a beautiful time of year to say the least.

Wake up call for Pats

It's quite possible that Tom Brady exerted all of his energy celebrating that first touchdown pass to Gronk. Hey Tom, maybe drive on past Starbucks next Sunday. He must have had Cameron Wake on his mind all night and needed some extra pep, but it'll take more to stop the quickest man off the edge and with the league's fastest haircut. In week two, Brady faces the fastest truck out of a back lot, Adrian Peterson. It doesn't get any easier.

Scary good defense? 

Is Derek Carr the Raiders next franchise quarterback? He threw for 151 yards and two touchdowns in week one but more than that, Carr just looked the part. His miscues notwithstanding, Carr was confident, smart and got rid of the ball in a hurry. If Oakland can generate some runs from the backfield, Raider Nation might have something to celebrate even before Halloween. But not this week, not with the Texans defense riding into town.

Speaking of defense, how about that Jets line? Rex Ryan is about as tactful as Del Griffith in a motel room, but maybe when it comes to defense that's a good thing. The Jets unsettle signal-callers into a new pair of shorts, and while it's tough to take them on the road at Lambeau, we're not betting against the upset.

Wax on, wax off

The Steelers were sublime in the first half against the Browns. Roethlisberger looked like Plastic Man, extending plays with his stretchy limbs, while Antonio Brown mastered Ralph Macchio's crane kick, and Le'Veon Bell's charges had the Brownies begging for mercy. The defense let down later on, but it's hard to look past that steely attacking display. PS. Hoyer was good for Cleveland, while Manziel held the clipboard admirably.

Real whoppers

It's funny how some QBs get a free pass while others are worked through a grinder. Tony Romo is a hamburger pattie this week. Sure, he missed some very costly throws, but it's not like he was protected all that well early on, nor was he greatly assisted by his backs. But of course, the talking heads have been laying it on thick. Meanwhile, the likes of Joe Flacco, Geno Smith and the forever untouchable Aaron Rodgers waltz into week two like cheerleaders - never out of favor.

And on that note, isn't it about time the St Louis Rams get on the horn to Tim Tebow? In other quarterback news, Derek Anderson is back! But after his strong showing in Tampa, he surely needs to walk away on a high like George Costanza from a Kruger meeting.

"That's it, I'm out!"

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Football's Trendiest Picks For 2014

Just before the NFL season starts, a few people lose their minds. It's as if the pent up energy sends them into a Pacino-like rage and before you know it they're snarling at friends and colleagues about the Chargers chances of going to the Super Bowl, and how YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT THEY KNOW!

Many of these people work in the field of NFL speculation and report this to us online, where they routinely share such fun facts as Alex Smith will never be more than a game manager and that the Jags are on an almighty ascension. Oh, and the 49ers will be lucky to make the playoffs.

Huh? I suppose E should've stopped pursuing Sloan too?

As always there are other tasty morsels being tossed our way as the pro football table is set, and among those are the following:

Keys to Carr

Derek Carr is the starting QB in Oakland and this was the right move for a floundering organisation, we're told. Schaub is done, apparently, his arm now as heavy as the same slab of meat used in his infamous sandwich. We can debate the pros and cons of this decision all night but one thing's clear, and that is the Raiders may have had their eye patches on the wrong side all this time.

Then there's the Giants, who despite winning everything in the preseason will supposedly be abysmal offensively. Eli, it's no surprise, is the Mr Hyde to Peyton's Doctor Jekyll. It'll always be this way because Eli is an easy targetand he plays in a media market which excels at target practice. At least Dunkin' Donuts believes in him.

Monsters and BBQ

How about the Bears? Do enough people have them pencilled in for the Super Bowl yet? Listen, Cutler's arm is its own monster of the Midway, but the defense couldn't rouse a sleep-deprived Godzilla. 

More than a few experts who were bullish on the Bills last season and not so on the Jets, now see New York trending up and Buffalo sinking. What's changed? Well, I guess Smith was slightly better than Manuel last year, and neither of them came close to matching Tannehill in Miami. So logically, most pundits have the Fish finishing behind them both. 

Perhaps the most stunning withdrawal of faith is in Kansas City, a squad that did everything right last season until their points party with the Colts in the playoffs. That gutting loss will apparently be too much for the Chiefs to overcome this year, many say, despite them boasting the league's third best rusher, one of the game's most efficient passers, a potential terrifying pass rush, and the country's top bbq joints. Andy Reid is no slouch either, but maybe his tropical shirts suggest otherwise.

Throw a Dog a Bone

Hey I almost forgot, Philly will get to the big one, we're told. Yes, that's the Nick Foles led Eagles. Well, it's possible, I guess. Everyone thought Ivan Drago was impossible to overcome, didn't they? But why has the mob suddenly soured on RGIII and Washington?One minute you're the poster child for scintillation, the next your knee is less trusted than a slick new candidate on the hill. Where's Jaws when you need him?

Lastly, no hype reel would be complete without the Cleveland Manziels. You can understand why fans want Johnny Football on the field because behind the team's athletic o-line, he may just weave some magic not seen since the Kosar era. Then again, he might get crushed under a pile of slobbery dog bones.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Florida Football And Its Leading Offenses

Life by the beach inspires an array of styles, not least of which is the irrepressible Hawaiian shirt. It’s an item that not only conjures the islands, but also California surfing, Miami boardwalks, and Andy Reid at the post-game podium.

For every elaborate floral print—and apologetic head coach—however, there’s a slick suit, and in a subtropical climate like Florida, there’s something both wildly insane and wonderfully cool about that. Of course, the man that made the suit-loose-tie combo iconic in the Sunshine State was Frank Sinatra, and to this day, the Chairman is the benchmark for making impossibly stylish sartorial moves.

Speaking of which, pro football’s three Floridian teams have also been daring to dream of greatness, if not on the sporting field then en route to it. For these clubs, 2014 might be highlighted by colorful runs from the locker room more so than actual footballing prowess. Still, in some circles, like club marketing meetings and around pro shop water-coolers, this might be a thrilling season. Indeed fashion, like football, is all about your perspective.

Which brings me to the latest ensembles of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars, teams known for sun splashed decals. In the case of the Bucs, it’s not that their new unis are lacking pizazz, but more so that the team's brand and heritage has been put to the sword. Since the NFL banned the club from wearing its vintage creamsicle collection (due to nonsensical concerns over ill-fitted helmet switches), we don’t see it anymore. Instead, we’re faced with the bold red and beautiful pewter combination—now accompanied by an enlarged helmet logo—which is in its own way striking, and certainly useful to people short of sight.

Then there's the Dolphins, who have gone from their famed aqua to a distinctly brighter blue, and more notably, from a cartoon dolphin wearing a helmet to a sleeker elongated version completely void of protective head wear. What would Ol' Blue Eyes say? This proved a difficult adjustment for many among the Miami faithful, because the club's most iconic images are those awash with its venerable branding, that of Strock, Griese, Csonka, the Killer Bs, Duper, Mercury and Marino. You simply can't erase a winning formula. Well, you can, you just need a 40 year buffer since the last major success.

Finally, Jacksonville's new two-tone helmet is really quite astonishing. Did they run out of gold sharpies or something? I'm just not sure what to make of the whole amalgam, which seems more confused than Senator Keely in South Beach. When they called it the bold new city of the south, they weren't messing around, huh?

Now none of these designs are offensive as such, it's just that they defy tradition. And if we start neglecting NFL traditions, then what do we have? That's right, an even grizzlier version of Coach Ditka. And nobody wants that. So the only way to subdue the poked bear is to get Errol Flynn back on the side of Tampa's hat, demand that Flipper straps up, and have the Jags revert to their all black dome. Anything less than these moves would be akin to Colin Farrell trying to be Don Johnson, the ultimate of Floridian vices.

The Panthers' Sir Purr confronts Robby Anderson

Sir Purr watches ... and waits. Halfway down a dark hall in the bowels of Bank Of America Stadium, Charlotte, Panthers wide receiver Robby A...