September 23, 2010

NFL Week 2 - Three Open Questions

Not surprisingly, it's extremely hard to figure out who's good and who's bad in the NFL after week 2.  For most teams, there just isn't enough evidence to prove whether they are a contender or pretender.  Three of the most burning unanswered questions are in New York, Philadelphia and Houston.

1.  Are the Giants an 11-5 or 5-11 team?

Of all the 1-1 teams in the league, the Giants have had the most inconsistent performance thus far, beating up on an awful Panthers team in the home opener and getting blown out by an A+ effort from Peyton Manning, Dwight Freeney and the Colts on the road.  On paper, you'd expect New York to be .500 after these two matchups, so the record isn't the problem.  What's perplexing is the gargantuan disparity in the quality of play from game to game.  Are they the team that looked like they're back to Super Bowl form in battering Matt Moore into turnover after turnover or the team that looked old on the offensive line, weak in the defensive front seven and painfully slow to adjust the game plan (never helping the tackles block Freeney and Mathis) against the Colts?  It's impossible to say right now, which is personally worrisome to me as a lifelong Giants fan.  Fortunately, we'll get our answer by the end of week 5 after tough but winnable matchups with playoff contenders Tennessee, Chicago and Houston.

September 22, 2010

NFL Week 2 - Three Things We Know

Sixteen games may not seem like much, but the NFL season is long, full of twists and turns.  With so much football to come, it's generally a bad idea to read too much into the first two weeks.  That said, there are still a few certain conclusions we can draw from the small sample provided so far.

1. Mark Sanchez needs to be better than Trent Dilfer.
No team had more hype coming into 2010 than the Jets, thanks largely to their own bravado.  The formula seemed simple, mimic the 2000 Ravens and play dominant defense, run the ball and don't make mistakes in the passing game.  The thing is, these Jets aren't those Ravens.  Baltimore didn't just have a dominant defense, they had a historically dominant one.  On top of that, they had a top 5 running game anchored by a hall of fame left tackle in Jonathan Ogden, exceptional special teams and a surprisingly respectable 3,100 yards in passing.

September 10, 2010

2010 NFL Preview - AFC Secret Weapons

AFC East

Buffalo Bills - Leodis McKelvin, CB
After missing most of 2009 with a broken leg, McKelvin will reinforce a quality secondary that picked off 28 passes last year, tops in the AFC.  A solid preseason has returned McKelvin to the starting lineup, where he will need to build on his promise as a former early-first round draft pick by matching up with some of the division's home run hitters like Randy Moss, Brandon Marshall and Braylon Edwards.

Miami Dolphins - Anthony Fasano, TE
Fasano spent the first two years of his career as a backup in Dallas, then the next two on a middling offense in Miami.  Things are looking up for the Dolphins in 2010, with a massive upgrade at wide receiver in Brandon Marshall and improvement expected from young Chad Henne, Brian Hartline and Davone Bess.  That should open up the field for Fasano, especially in the red zone where he's proven his worth before with a 7 TD season in 2008.

New England Patriots - Rookie Tight Ends
Patriots tight ends have averaged a modest 43 receptions per season over the past 3 years.  That figures to change in a big way with the addition of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.  Although behind Alge Crumpler on the depth chart at the moment, both rookies should get plenty of opportunities to make an impact in the passing game, considering Tom Brady is a full two years removed from knee surgery and has a contract extension to earn, plus Randy Moss and Wes Welker both merit double coverage.

New York Jets - Vernon Gholston, DE
Yep, that Vernon Gholston.  Since being overdrafted with the 6th pick in 2008, Gholston has been a complete nonfactor for the Jets and finds his NFL career teetering on the edge.  However, he's been moved from outside linebacker, where he was completely lost, to one dimensional edge rusher in Rex Ryan's high pressure defense.  With just one job to do, lots of more dangerous blitzers surrounding him, and with his spot in the league on the line, Gholston has an excellent chance to surprise this season.

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens - Ben Grubbs, OG
It seems a bit disingenuous to call a Pro Bowl alternate a secret, and even more facetious to call an offensive guard a weapon, but that's exactly what Grubbs is.  A big, quick road grater, Grubbs is a critical foundational element of what should be a well-rounded, Super Bowl caliber offense.

Cincinnati Bengals - Jermaine Gresham, TE
Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco will get all the attention, from the media and defensive secondaries, but rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham figures to get a lot of third down and goal line looks.  50-plus catches for the young pass catcher, with many of them coming in critical situations, isn't out of the question.

Cleveland Browns - James Davis, RB
Coming into 2009, Davis was an under the radar candidate to share carries in the Cleveland backfield, but a torn labrum suffered in practice ended his rookie season before it really began.  As 2010 opened, it appeared that Davis was an afterthought, behind Montario Hardesty and Jerome Harrison on the depth chart.  However, an injury to Hardesty has created an opportunity for Davis to have the season he was expected to last season.

Pittsburgh Steelers - Ryan Clark, SS
When you share a defensive backfield with Troy Polamalu, it's tough to get noticed.  However, Ryan Clark deserves to share some of the spotlight.  After 4 nondescript seasons with the Giants and Redskins, Clark found a home in Pittsburgh, developing into a reliable, hard hitting compliment to his more famous freelancing teammate.

AFC South

Houston Texans - Offensive Tackles
The David Carr era was defined by an annual quarterback massacre, thanks to a porous offensive line.  It's gone under the radar though, that the Texans have given up 2 sacks or less per game over the last 3 years.  An enormous part of the credit for that, and an offense that's blossomed with the pass rush under control, goes to recent draftees Eric Winston and Duane Brown, who are both just entering their prime.

Indianapolis Colts - Anthony Gonzalez, WR
Gonzalez spent the first two years of his career mildly underperforming his status as a fantasy sleeper, before missing all of 2009 with an injury.  With the ascension of Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie, Gonzalez has gone from sleeper to secret, a mistake considering his skills and how much Peyton Manning likes to spread the ball around.

Jacksonville Jaguars - Rashad Jennings, RB
It's difficult to make an impact backing up a true workhorse like Maurice Jones-Drew.  In limited opportunities last season, Jennings showed flashes of potential, averaging 5.2 yards per carry.  MJD has been out of practice for much of training camp with a rumored knee injury, so it is likely that Jennings will be called upon to show more than flashes and become a true complement to the superstar starter.

Tennessee Titans - Stephen Tulloch, MLB
Although Keith Bulluck had been the anchor of the Tennessee defense for much of the last decade, it was Tulloch that led the team in tackles during 2009.  Now Bulluck is gone and Tulloch will be charged with leading the defense.  If he succeeds, the Titans have the look of a playoff team.

AFC West

Denver Broncos - Andre Brown, RB
Perhaps the most secret of weapons on this list, Brown was cut by the Giants at the end of training camp after missing all of 2009 due to injury.  The talented back has landed in the perfect situation, backing up two players that are dealing with injuries (Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter) on a team that will need to rely on the run.  At worst, Brown should provide an explosive change of pace to the veterans and at best he takes on a significant role on a team in flux.

Kansas City Chiefs - Tamba Hali, OLB
In his first 3 years in the league, Elvis Dumervil amassed a good-not-great 25.5 sacks as an end in Denver's 4-3 defense before exploding for 17 last year as the rush linebacker in a 3-4.  Fellow 2006 draftee Tamba Hali has the same opportunity with KC's defensive scheme change.  Hali's been okay (27 sacks in 4 seasons), but has the chance to be a breakout star.

Oakland Raiders - Kamerion Wembley, OLB
After three middling seasons with the Browns from 2007 to 2009, it's easy to forget Wembley's brilliant 11 sack debut in 2006.  Acquired via trade in the offseason, Wembley will be called upon to refind his rookie form and be a playmaker in an improving defense.

San Diego Chargers - Luis Castillo, DE
Linebackers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips get most of the press for San Diego's defense, but it's Luis Castillo's quiet but effective play up front that eats up blockers and frees up his teammates to make plays.  If Merriman and Phillips go on to record double digit sacks this year, it'd be in large part because Castillo put together a Pro Bowl caliber year.

September 2, 2010

The Curse of Juan Samuel

In 1985, the New York Mets called Lenny Dykstra up from the minors to fill in for an injured Mookie Wilson.  Immediately, he became a fan favorite and an offensive sparkplug for a 98-win team that just missed making the playoffs in an all-time classic pennant race with the Cardinals.  The next season, Dykstra took over as the everyday leadoff hitter and helped propel the franchise to its second World Series title, highlighted by a stunning walk-off home run in Game 3 of the NLCS that still stands as one of the greatest moments in the team's history.

Dykstra's' Finest Moment
However, Dykstra's tenure with the Mets wouldn't last for very long.  In June of 1989, Dykstra was traded to the Phillies for the fading slugger Juan Samuel, in a transaction motivated primarily by Dykstra's well-earned reputation for off-the-field lunacy.  I was 11 years old at the time and remember being devastated but defended Samuel throughout his lone half-season with the Mets, clinging to hope that their new acquisition would prove worthwhile.  My faith was rewarded by a staggeringly bad 3 homer, .228 batting average, .599 OPS performance. Dykstra, however, went on to star for the Phillies, making 3 all-star teams and finishing second for the NL MVP in 1993 during his 7+ seasons with the team.

The Dykstra-Samuel trade marked the beginning of the end for the dynamic Mets squads of the 80s, as longtime stalwarts like Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry would soon follow Lenny out the door.  It also managed to anger the baseball gods.  As penance for their folly, the Mets have failed to develop a single minor league outfield prospect that has lived up to expectations in the 21 years since Dykstra was moved.

August 30, 2010

James Toney and the Impossible Dream

Randy Couture's dismantling of James Toney at UFC 118 should come as no surprise to anyone with even a passing interest in mixed martial arts.  Competing at an elite level in MMA requires a mastery of a wide range of skills, including wrestling, kickboxing, jiu-jitsu, takedown and submission defense, that are foreign to even the most experienced boxer.  Exceptional striking is really the final piece of the puzzle.  Throw in the fact that Couture is, conservatively, one of the ten best mixed martial artists ever and Toney seemed to be in this more for the big payday than the victory, and the utter obliteration that occurred Saturday night was inevitable.

The thing is, I don't think Toney's loss is going to do anything to stem the tide of professional athletes from other sports dipping their toes in MMA waters.  Despite his defeat, and the middling performances of Kimbo Slice, Herschel Walker and Bobby Lashley, boxers, football players, pro wrestlers and more will keep trying their hand at mixed martial arts for one reason - Brock Lesnar is UFC's heavyweight champion.

August 28, 2010

Madden Hidden Tricks - Defensive Position Switches

It's common knowledge that the overall ratings for players change if you play them out of position.  Within the defensive front seven especially, a player's rating can improve drastically by moving them from linebacker to defensive end or from end to defensive tackle.  This flexibility can be an obvious benefit to your team if all you do is adjust your depth chart, especially if you run a 4-3 base defense.  That said, there are two situations where you can truly maximize the advantage of position switches, using defensive substitutions with a 3-4 playbook and when drafting a team in online franchise mode.

August 27, 2010

Win Your Fantasy Football Draft in 5 Easy Steps

I don't purport to be a fantasy football guru.  That said, I've got a running streak of 4 consecutive playoff appearances including a championship, so I think it's fair to say that I know a thing or two about fantasy football management.  Since I just finished up my first draft of the season and came away elated with my team (the kiss of death, I know), I thought I'd share some of the strategies I put to use in building my squad.

Some background, this was a snake draft in a 12-team league, 6 points per TD, yardage bonuses and rosters that include 1 QB, 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE, 2 RB/WR/TE flex, K, team defense and an individual defender.  I had the 6th pick.

1. When in Doubt Start a Run on a Position
The first round of my league's draft started off with a run on running backs (Johnson, Peterson, MJD, Turner and Rice), so I was immediately faced with a choice; reach for a running back or take my top pick at another position.  I wanted a sure thing in round 1, so I passed on injury risks like Steven Jackson and Frank Gore and took my #1 QB, Drew Brees, over my #1 receiver Andre Johnson.  Part of this decision was based on my belief that Brees is simply better given my league's format.  However, a bigger factor was my hope that, in taking Brees, I could kick off a QB run and push some of the runners and receivers that I liked further down the board into round 2 and 3.