Thursday, August 25, 2016

A Time for Rankings

It’s no secret that we are muddling through a boring sports month. The anticipation of football season continues to grow, but it’s not here yet. Playoff baseball and the beginning of the NHL and NBA seasons are still more than a month away. The only time of year that’s worse on the sports calendar is the six weeks in between the Super Bowl and Selection Sunday. But now, unlike in the dog days of winter, there’s the growing excitement over aimless lists of rankings. In August, sports fans across America scour through the boatloads of fantasy football cheat sheets. In August, preseason college football polls come out and everyone gives their predictions of the four-team playoff. In August, NFL power rankings are released and overreactions to preseason games are commonplace.

Just look at last August. Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman was nothing more than a handcuff after the team drafted Tevin Coleman from Indiana in the second round. Coleman was clearly the Falcons running back everyone thought you wanted in fantasy football. Ohio State was first ever unanimous number one in the Associated Press preseason poll. Additionally, many polls had TCU and Baylor in the top five as both Big 12 teams seemed motivated after being snubbed from the playoff the year before in favor of Ohio State.  The Carolina Panthers were coming off of a weird season in which they finished below .500, yet won the NFC South and a playoff game. Nobody in their right mind would have ranked them higher than NFC top dogs like Seattle, Arizona and Green Bay, especially after Carolina lost its top receiver for the year when Kelvin Benjamin went down with a torn ACL in camp.

Did anyone see Freeman developing into an elite fantasy running back? Raise your hand if you had Ohio State missing the playoff. Oklahoma was the Big 12 team that was playing on New Year’s Eve. It wasn’t TCU or Baylor.  The Panthers went 15-1 and beat Seattle and Arizona soundly on their way to the Super Bowl.


The point here isn’t to make fun of how wrong writers and radio hosts were. But rather to understand that rankings are only around right now to fill our sports appetites, especially when it comes to football. The minute Matthew Berry drops his annual love/hate, or Kirk Herbstreit gives his playoff picks, all the social media sites are promoting the hottest takes from the biggest pundits in fantasy football and college football. But nobody cares once the season starts. We get to watch games instead of read cheat sheets. You tell me what’s more enjoyable. Rankings are only here now to get us through August much like Joe Lunardi’s new weekly brackets get us through the winter after the Super Bowl. So if you’re a sports fan and ever get bored, there’s always something that needs to be ranked.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Lane Johnson’s suspension and what it means

                                               Martin Griff/The Times of Trenton
The Eagles were hit with some devastating news yesterday after word broke that tackle Lane Johnson is facing a 10-game suspension for a PED violation. Johnson is appealing, although appeals of PED-related suspensions usually don’t go in favor of the player. Here are some of the more important ramifications Johnson’s suspension would have on the Birds.


Offensive Line Depth: Gone. Not that it ever really existed, but last season the Eagles had tons of problems at both guard positions and center Jason Kelce struggled. They remedied the situation by signing guard Brandon Brooks and versatile interior lineman Stefen Wisniewski while also spending a third-round pick on Oregon State guard Isaac Seumalo. They were betting on Kelce to bounce back with better guards next to him and left tackle Jason Peters to stay healthy and prove he’s got a couple good years left in the tank. This would relegate career backups Dennis Kelly, Matt Tobin, and Allen Barbre back to the reserve roles they belong in after all three were forced to play lots of snaps last year. But, Johnson was penciled in at right tackle and while there were reasons to be skeptical about other players on the line, Johnson was not one of them. The 2013 fourth overall pick signed a five-year contract extension in the offseason with the expectation being he would eventually slide over to left tackle once Peters retired. Now, Johnson could lose all of the guaranteed money in that extension if the suspension stands, and with Peters already hurt the Eagles are looking at rolling out backups again on the offensive line except at tackle this year instead of guard. Opposing pass rushers are licking their chops.

Offensive Production: There were already lots of question marks surrounding the Eagles on offense. How will the quarterback situation play out? Will starting running back Ryan Mathews make it through the entire season healthy? Can second-year wide receiver Nelson Agholor prove he was worth the first-round pick the team used on him in 2015? Will Zach Ertz become one of the NFL’s elite tight ends after receiving a big contract extension and with Doug Pederson’s offense involving him more? What kinds of contributions will newcomers Rueben Randle and Chris Givens provide? This is an offense that wasn’t expected to score many points and now could be without its best offensive lineman for 10 games only adding another question to the batch.

Carson Wentz timeline: This is one’s pretty interesting. The thought process behind the de facto redshirt year for Wentz was that the Eagles could compete in a weak division with incumbent Sam Bradford holding things over and backup Chase Daniel having a good feel for Doug Pederson’s offense. It was iffy at best especially considering Bradford has proved next to nothing since being selected number one overall in 2010, and Daniel has started two games in his career and is being massively overpaid to be a backup. It’s one thing to have Aaron Rodgers learn while watching Brett Favre. But Wentz being deactivated and watching a team that likely wouldn’t compete as it expected and trudge along to another sub-500 season didn’t seem to add up. If the Eagles struggle out of the gate, and the quarterback play is lackluster, both of which are more likely with Johnson out 10 games, will that leave the coaching staff with no choice but to turn to Wentz? It would certainly make 2016 more exciting. The Eagles traded lots of draft capital to obtain Wentz and not seeing him all year wouldn’t give fans much to enjoy. That outside interest factor is going to loom over the franchise all season and how they handle it will be what everyone is watching. But, from a football standpoint, the argument could be made that throwing Wentz into a situation with patchwork tackles protecting him in the middle of a season that’s going nowhere wouldn’t be the best thing for his development. This is what’s really worth monitoring this season.


Johnson’s future: This would be the second PED-related offense for Johnson, who was suspended for the first four games of 2014. A third offense would result in a two-year ban. For a player the Eagles have a lot riding on for their long-term future, they better hope this is the last of Johnson’s PED violations.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

PGA Championship hot topics


Golf’s final major begins earlier than usual this year thanks to the Olympics. The PGA Championship gets underway tomorrow in Springfield, New Jersey at Baltusrol Golf Club. Here are some things I’m keeping an eye on.

·      Streak of first-time major winners: The last four major champions have all gotten over the hump and claimed one of golf’s prestigious honors. In the case of Jason Day and Dustin Johnson, it was a breakthrough that many saw coming. But Danny Willett and Henrik Stenson’s major championships came as surprises. Players like Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Matt Kuchar are the among the best on the list nobody wants to be on.

·      Top Guns: Dustin Johnson won his first major at Oakmont, Jason Day won The Players Championship for the first time, and Rory McIlroy has five top-five finishes since March. So while it hasn’t been a bad year at all for some of golf’s biggest names, it was certainly uncharacteristic to see Jordan Spieth let the Masters slip away and McIlroy miss the cut in the US Open. Adam Scott has made the cut in every event he’s played this season but has not finished in the top 10 in a major this year. It will be interesting to see how some of the favorites perform this weekend.

                                                                                       Reuters
Mickelson poses with the trophy in 2005 at
Baltusrol after winning the PGA Championship.
·      Phil Mickelson: How quickly we forget about such a fan favorite. Lefty was struggling heading into Royal Troon two weeks ago. What a difference four days can make. Mickelson played one of the best majors of his career at The Open Championship, but was bested by Henrik Stenson. Mickelson won the PGA Championship the last time it was at Baltusrol in 2005 and will certainly be on everyone’s radar once again this weekend.


·      Scoring: After Mickelson and Stenson played a de facto match play final round in The Open, golf fans will be expecting more low numbers. Mickelson and Stenson both had rounds of 63 at Royal Troon to add to the list of 29 rounds of 63 at a major. But no player has shot 62 in a major championship. Thirteen of the previous 29 major rounds of 63 have been carded at the PGA Championship. However, Mickelson’s score of -4 was good enough to win in Springfield, New Jersey 11 years ago.


·      Strength of Field: The Official World Golf Ranking began recording strength of field in 1986. Kyle Porter of CBS Sports points out that this year’s PGA Championship has a strength of field of 923 which is the highest since the statistic began being tracked. So if the streak of first-time major winners continues, this is quite the major to do it at. If there are players going low and making birdie after birdie, there’s a reason for that.