Thursday, August 29, 2013

Previewing the 2013 Heisman Race with Mike Kern

                                                                                  Kim Klement
The college football season kicks off tonight as South Carolina plays North Carolina. Like every sport there are preseason predictions that everyone likes to make and perhaps the toughest preseason prediction to make when it comes to college football is the Heisman trophy winner. Mike Kern of the Philadelphia Daily News has a Heisman vote and wrote about the Heisman race in today’s paper and the headline was “Never too early to start Heisman talk.” He’s right, and with the season starting up today I got in touch with Kern and got his thoughts on the competition for the 2013 Heisman trophy.    

                                                               Sam Greenwood
If you’re a college football fan, or even if you aren’t, you probably know who Jadevon Clowney is. He’ll lead his South Carolina Gamecocks tonight in the first game of the 2013 college football season against North Carolina. Clowney’s vicious hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl last season has been all over Sportscenter ever since New Year’s Day this year. While Kern believes Clowney will get a fair share of recognition ultimately it may not be enough. “I think Clowney will get a lot of support because he’s Clowney. But it’s hard to judge what a defensive player does compared to what a quarterback or running back does.” Kern said.

Assuming conventional wisdom prevails and 2013 is another year where a defensive player fails to break through and win the Heisman for the first time, the field is wide open this year ranging from quarterbacks such as Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, Georgia's Aaron Murray, and of course Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel who survived the off season and should play the whole season minus the first half of Texas A&M’s opening game against Rice which was the length of his suspension from the NCAA.

Then there are guys like USC wide receiver Marquise Lee, Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey, and Miami running back Duke Johnson. All three could figure into the race but as Kern pointed out 11 of the last 13 Heisman trophy winners have been quarterbacks.

But over the span of a college football season a lot can change when it comes to forecasting the Heisman winner. “It can start whatever way it wants to start, what happens with the Heisman trophy is in week two someone’s in it and in week four he isn’t.” Kern said using Geno Smith last season as an example of this trend. West Virginia’s offense came out firing on all cylinders after a month of the season last year and Smith was the early favorite and by December he was nowhere to be seen when it came to the Heisman announcement.

                                                             Andy Lyons
Going into more detail about Manziel’s situation, now he’s at the point where he can be as much of a factor as anyone else in this race. Manziel’s coming out party was last year as he led the Aggies into Tuscaloosa and stormed out with a victory as this proved to be the defining moment in his Heisman season.
We now know that on September 14th Johnny Manziel will be on the field as Texas A&M plays Alabama this time on home turf in College Station. “If they beat Alabama in week three Johnny Manziel is the favorite to win the Heisman again.” Kern said, but being the Heisman favorite in week three is almost pointless because things are guaranteed to change week to week.
This is why it’s so hard to gauge where the Heisman race is going. Before last year no one knew who Johnny Manziel was, before Robert Griffin III’s Heisman season no one really knew who he was, and before Cam Newton won his Heisman he was just another college football player. So there’s a chance the winner of this year’s Heisman winds up being a name not even referenced in this piece.

“The Heisman trophy winds up going in a lot of cases to the guy who is the most visible on the highest profile team. It’s hard to define what makes the best player in the country. It almost becomes a popularity contest.” Kern said when providing insight on what he believes ultimately leads up some special player flashing the pose.
                                                                            Jay LaPrete
Kern used this rationale to lean towards Braxton Miller as his early pick for the Heisman trophy sighting Ohio State being in the Big 10 and making the most of their schedule to remain afloat and in the top ten for most of the season.

We’ll see if there’s a Geno Smith of this year, and if there’s yet another breakout performer that takes the college football world by surprise. Whatever happens, don’t be surprised by anything.


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Expectations for the Chip Kelly era in Philadelphia

On January 16, 2013, the Eagles franchise officially turned the page. Jeffery Lurie and company had found the successor to Andy Reid after Reid had been their man for 14 years. That successor was Chip Kelly who bolted from the University of Oregon after a very successful four-year stint to take his up tempo, fast-paced offense to the NFL.

I believe this was the right hire for the Eagles. Now while many wanted former Seahawks defensive coordinator and now Jaguars head man Gus Bradley, after the Eagles had failed to accomplish their ultimate goal of hoisting the Lombardi trophy under a West-coast style offense it was time for a change, time to adapt to the new college-oriented option offense and who better to hire than Kelly.

Conventional wisdom says defense wins championships, and while that may be true, that doesn’t necessarily mean a defensive-minded head coach is who the Eagles needed to one day have that parade down Broad Street. Last year the Ravens won the Super Bowl and coach John Harbaugh was in his fourth season with the team but before being hired by Baltimore Harbaugh was the Eagles special teams coach.

Andy Reid was never a defensive mastermind, but in large part the reason why the Eagles got to five NFC Championships and one Super Bowl under Reid was due to the genius that was Jim Johnson. Since Johnson’s tragic passing, the Eagles have yet to find that defensive coordinator to engineer a top flight defense. Sean McDermott didn’t exactly get the job done, neither did Juan Castillo, and as for Todd Bowles…that didn’t work out either.

Now while current defensive coordinator Bill Davis and his new 3-4 defense might be as much of a flop if not more so than recent defensive coordinators and schemes, it’s important if the Eagles struggle defensively not to blame too much of that on Kelly. After all Jeffery Lurie, Howie Roseman, and the rest of the front office have shown year in and year out since Johnson’s death the inability to bring in another coordinator that could keep them stout defensively.

Getting back to Kelly though, the NFL is a changing league and an innovative head coach is just the guy to have in this situation. With guys like Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, and even Russell Wilson running read option now in the NFL, the popularity of something that was originally only seen on Saturdays is now becoming more and more prevalent on Sundays. Last year quarterback Marcus Mariota and running backs Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas combined for 3,220 rushing yards for Oregon and all three averaged well over six yards a carry.

Chip Kelly has earned a chance to coach in the NFL.
So now the question becomes does Kelly have the personnel on the Eagles roster right now to make a flawless transition and keep his offensive scheme through it all? One of the first moves the Eagles made after Kelly’s hire was to restructure Michael Vick’s contract and bring him back for the 2013 season. So after this move to me it became evident Vick would be team’s starting quarterback in 2013 barring injury, and we all know health has been a problem for Vick in his time in Eagles green. But why bring the veteran back on a one year deal with no intention of starting him for that one year? So the recent questions of who the quarterback will be have been in my mind unwarranted. Yes Vick has had turnover problems the last couple years but it’s not really fair to hold the last couple years against Vick and thus conclude the Eagles are better off with Nick Foles or rookie Matt Barkely this season.

The Eagles had three fatal injuries on the offensive line last season. Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, and Todd Herremans all missed significant time. This subjected Vick to lots of hits and was probably more than anything else the reason he missed time last season with a concussion. In addition, the Eagles are running a completely different offense this year as opposed to the style under Reid. Vick is without question the best suited quarterback for Chip Kelly’s up tempo style as Vick can make lots of plays with his legs in addition to having a strong left arm to air it out with as we saw Friday night on his 48-yard touchdown pass to Desean Jackson in the preseason opener. Couple Vick’s playmaking ability with a now healthy and improved offensive line after the Eagles drafted mobile offensive linemen Lane Johnson from Oklahoma, and to me it’s a no brainer for this year that when healthy Michael Vick needs to be the starting quarterback.

But Chip Kelly got a five-year contract. So if this year doesn’t go as planned, the defense struggles, and Vick goes down it’s important not to abandon ship. While Kelly’s fast-paced offense may or may not work this year, Eagles fans need to be slow in judgment, which may be tough after years of Super Bowl or bust. Since when does a first-year head coach come in, inheriting a 4-12 team and win a Super Bowl? I’m not trying to sound negative; as a matter of fact I’m very excited about the future of the team. We just don’t know what’s going to happen in 2013.

Best case-scenario Michael Vick thrives in the new offense and the Eagles overachieve and contend for a playoff spot this season. But even in a worst case-scenario where Vick goes down and maybe the Eagles have another 4-12 season, that’s not the end of the world. If Vick proves he is not the guy this season, the Eagles will have options at quarterback moving forward. Matt Barkley in the 4th round could wind up being the steal of the 2013 draft, but if the Eagles are high enough in next year’s draft dual-threat quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, and Tahj Boyd could become a reality and have lots of success in a Chip Kelly offense.

The Eagles have a plan moving forward with Chip Kelly at the helm and I’m all in. Kelly was 46-7 in four years at Oregon; he proved he deserved a chance at the next level. Now he has five years in Philadelphia. Don’t jump to any conclusions after one year, this is a project and maybe they have to take a step back before taking two steps forward, or maybe this is an instant success. Time will tell.


Friday, August 2, 2013

The fight goes on for NBA Basketball in Seattle

Growing up just outside of Philadelphia, it’s easy to for me to see what it’s like for a passionate sports city to go through hard times filled with disappointment. In a city that has one championship in the last 30 years, the connection between the teams and the fans has never diminished over time. That said Philadelphia isn’t even close to the bottom when it comes to heartbreak and disappointment.

The final game of an NBA season for a team with one of the worst records in the NBA wouldn’t be a game you would expect to draw a big crowd. But this was exactly what happened for final game for the Seattle Supersonics in the 2007-2008 season. A packed house of 16,272 fans at Key Arena watched their Sonics defeat the Dallas Mavericks 99-95. And that was it.

It’s been more than five years since the Seattle Supersonics left Seattle for Oklahoma City, since Clay Bennett and David Stern ripped the hearts out of the Sonics fans, since cheers of “Save Our Sonics” resonated throughout the city. Fans shouted profanities for the entire final game at Key Arena directed towards the two businessmen. But no one seemed to care enough to do anything about the outrage.

The documentary film Sonicsgate vividly depicts the rise and fall of the Sonics. “We wanted to get the history of the Seattle Supersonics all in one place. But we also wanted to expose all the people who wronged us and provide a place where people could come together about the topic and learn about it” said Jason Reid director and producer of the film.

Most people in Seattle had a bad feeling about the future when the team was sold to Clay Bennett and his Oklahoma City based ownership group. While Bennett lied continually saying he wanted to stay in Seattle, it’s fair to put some of the blame for the Sonics departure on previous owner Howard Schultz for selling the team to Bennett. Schultz had settled down in Seattle as the Chairman, Presdient, and CEO of Starbucks, and Reid said as time has gone by he gets even more angry with Howard Schultz who was working in the area and let the team get away.

When it became evident to Schultz that the team was all but gone, he filed a lawsuit against Bennett for breach of contract as Schultz believed the team was in good hands when he sold the team to Bennett and that they would stay in Seattle despite the need for a Key Arena remodel. This last-ditch effort to prevent the team from leaving was foiled by Stern who quickly intervened, and had been supporting Bennett’s efforts throughout the whole process in getting the team to Oklahoma City. To this day Schultz has remained quiet through it all refusing to accept blame and shying away from questions about allowing the team to be stolen by Clay Bennett.

Reid and the rest of the Sonicsgate crew are all Seattle natives and have continued to support the return of the Sonics since the release of the documentary traveling to NBA games and sitting courtside dressing as zombies, wearing Sonics gear, and holding signs, in an effort to gain attention for their cause.

                  per Reid's twitter acount @reid206
Reid (left) and another Sonicsgate staff member campaign for the Sonics and cheer against the Oklahoma City Thunder at the same time at a 2012 NBA Finals game in Miami.
Reid said while they love Kevin Durant, who played his rookie season in Seattle, they can never root for him while he’s playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder as they refuse to root for the organization that once was the Sonics. “It’s basically been a full time job for the last five years” said Reid when asked how he keeps his hand in advocating the return of the Sonics since the release of Sonicsgate.

Someone who can attest to high-intensity and strong passion for basketball in the city of Seattle is former Sonics star power forward Shawn Kemp. “The fans were so passionate and it’s one of the reasons my career really took off. I had to do a lot of hustle things and kind of get the crowd into it” said Kemp.

Aside from winning the NBA Championship in 1979 one of the better seasons in Sonics history was in 1995-1996 when the team made it all the way to the NBA Finals only to fall to Michael Jordan and the Bulls in six games. Kemp said he never would have imagined playing in that series that in just over a decade the team would no longer play in Seattle. But he remains in touch with point guard Gary Payton and forward Detlef Schrempf, two other key pieces to the run to the finals that year, and they frequently talk about the game today and how it has evolved from when they played together.

Michael Jordan watches as Kemp throws one down in the 1996 NBA Finals.

Though it’s been a long time since relocating, the city of Seattle continues to support the return of the Sonics, which is something Kemp realizes today as he makes his home in Seattle. “One of the reasons I’m still here is because of the close ties with the community” he said. It appears as if the community has transformed Kemp into one of their own and now he continues to fight with the rest of them for the return of basketball in Seattle.

Reid and Kemp both remain optimistic despite unsuccessful efforts from the Seattle based ownership group led by Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer to relocate the Sacramento Kings to Seattle. “The ownership group put up close to 600 million dollars to bring basketball back. That’s how badly we want basketball back, and we put up a heck of a fight” Kemp said. Both believe that league expansion is the best hope for their city moving forward. “You’re dealing with Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer and they don’t want to steal a team from a city like what happened to us. I guarantee you they’re telling the NBA they want expansion because they don’t want to be seen as predators” said Reid.

Given recent efforts, it seems to be only a matter of time as to when it will happen and not a question of if the Sonics will ever return and rightfully so. Lack of fan support was never among the reasons the Sonics left Seattle to begin with as a lot of it was beyond the fans control. If the Hansen-Ballmer group can get the job done, expect fans in Seattle to fill the stands like they never left.