The Achilles Heel of Chip Kelly

If you’ve watched Oregon Ducks Football at any point in the last six seasons, you’ve seen a spread offense that is almost unstoppable and one of the biggest reasons why the program has been so successful in the last decade. The architect? Chip Kelly, the new Head Coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

From the time Chip Kelly arrived in Eugene back in 2007 as an offensive coordinator until his departure at the end of last season, the program’s overall record was 65-14 (win percentage of .823). His record as head coach of Oregon? 46-7 (win percentage of .868). During those six years, the Ducks were Pac-10/Pac-12 Champions on three occasions and won four bowl games, two of which were major BCS Games (The Rose Bowl in 2012 and the Fiesta Bowl in 2013). In 2009, they made their first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1994. In 2011, Oregon won its first Rose Bowl since 1917. To top it off, in 2010, the Ducks went 12-0 in the regular season before losing a very close BCS National Championship Game against Auburn. He built Oregon into a college football powerhouse and it is something that, as a fan of the game, I cannot help but admire.

Why do I mention this man’s success? As a disclaimer. To look at this resume and say that Chip Kelly is a bad Head Coach would be moronic and would be an insult to his record and the game of football. That being said, there is a bit of a problem that this man is going to encounter in the NFL that will hinder his success at the beginning, and it’s something he already has encountered. It is the Achilles’ Heel of Chip Kelly as a head coach.

Now, that being said, what is the Achilles’ Heel of Chip Kelly? Close games.

During his tenure at Oregon as Head Coach, his teams had a tendency to beat almost any opponent it faced into submission. It was a trademark of the Oregon program after the 2009 season. But it wasn’t always that way, because in 2009, Chip Kelly’s first year as Head Coach, Oregon won four games by seven points or less. Those wins were against Purdue (38-36), Utah (31-24), Arizona (44-41, 2OT), and Civil War Rival Oregon State (37-33). From 2010 to 2011, however, the Ducks only won two games by seven points or less: Cal in 2010 (15-13) and Wisconsin in the 2012 Rose Bowl (45-38).

During the 2012 season, Oregon did not win a single game by seven points or less. In fact, the only game they played that was decided by seven points or less was against Stanford, which they lost 17-14 in OT (their only loss of the season).

This is the glaring stat: Chip Kelly’s record in games decided by seven points or less from 2010-2012? 2-3.

Flash forward to this past Sunday, in the 4th quarter, as the Eagles faced the Chargers in Philadelphia’s home opener. The previous Monday Night, they slapped around the Washington Redskins on National TV, running more plays in the first half than Washington had total yards. This was a different game, however. The Eagles were trailing San Diego 30-27 with 3:11 left to go in the 4th and the ball at their own 29 yard line. Chip Kelly would make two fatal mistakes with regards to time management here that would end up costing him dearly.

Philly went to the no huddle and, in a matter of five plays, drove down to the San Diego 14 with practically no clock having run off. On the first play Philly ran from the 14, Michael Vick had to go off injured. There was now 2 minutes left on the clock, and Philly was trailing by three. Instead of running the ball and getting the clock down with a tie game already possible, Chip decided to pass the ball and go for the win, with two passes falling incomplete and Philly having to settle for a field goal with 1:51 remaining.

San Diego would get the ball back and start driving, reaching field goal range at the Philly 31 with 21 seconds remaining. From there, San Diego began running the ball to try to get the clock down. Chip Kelly began calling timeouts after the first running play, which only enabled San Diego to run it again and get closer, which Chip then matched with another timeout. These timeouts only enabled San Diego to move the ball closer for Nick Novak, who ended up making the 46-yarder that enabled San Diego to win the game 33-30.

Those two mistakes by Chip are honest mistakes that he owned up to, but it’s something that a coach who has been in close games before would’ve managed better. This isn’t the first time Chip is gonna have his team play in a close game this season. The NFL’s opening weekend has had 22 of the 32 games played in the first two weeks decided by seven points or less. Parity is always going to exist in the NFL, and it’s something that is more prevalent than what you get in college football.

Another point where he made a glaring mistake was in last night’s game against the Chiefs. After his team stumbled out of the gates trailing 10-0, the Eagles drove down the field (thanks largely to a 61 yard run by Michael Vick) and scored a TD, cutting the lead to 10-6. However, instead of just kicking the extra point, Philly lined up in a swinging gate formation in an attempt to get a two point conversion. The Kansas City defense wasn’t fooled, however, and prevented the conversion. This is a cardinal sin in football: do not attempt a two-point conversion too early in the game, because you will end up chasing it all game. In the 4th, the score was 23-16 Philadelphia after LeSean McCoy scored on a 41 yard TD run. Should Philly have gone for an extra point earlier in the game, and had they been able to stop Kansas City on that 15 play, 75 yard drive that milked 7 minutes off the clock, they would’ve gotten the ball back with a chance to take the lead rather than just force Overtime.

I like Chip Kelly as a Head Coach. He’s exciting, and if he was coaching any other team but Philadelphia, I would want him to succeed. That being said, his lack of experience in close games during his time at Oregon the last three seasons is something that will cost him dearly during his first NFL season and until he learns from his mistakes. Time management is an important part of every NFL game because the outcomes are almost always so close.

Despite all of this, I believe (and fear) he will learn from the mistakes he makes and will be a very successful Head Coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. Why? Because he’s too good and intelligent a coach to fail.

Follow Greg Visone on twitter at @njny

Looking Inside the JLBSports Crystal Ball: 2013 NFL Predictions Sure To Go Wrong

The NFL seems to just roll along, completely undaunted by the winds of change. Last week they agreed to shell out $765 million over 20 years as part of a class action concussion lawsuit. Compared to the $9.5 billion in revenue the “non-profit” NFL took up Madison Avenue in 2012, and the original $2 billion that the players originally wanted, that figure is a drop in the bucket to make the concussion headache quiet down for now. In an attempt to leave no survivors behind, the NFL even pressured ESPN to pull out of an upcoming PBS Frontline piece on concussions. Given that ESPN CEO John Skipper lives off of Roger Goodell’s tit, it’s no surprise that ESPN threw their journalistic responsibility to the wall for the sake of business.

Last year, I wrote about how the morality of football should be called into question. I stand by that, but it’s unreasonable to think that the NFL will ever change their ways. They’ll continue to throw money at the problem just for the sake of saving face and keeping the media pressure to a low simmer, because they can afford to do so. What’s $10 million to donate to concussion and head injury research to them? Nothing! Now nobody can charge them of totally ignoring the issue like they did for 30 years—they’re paying for “answers.” And if Congress and the insurance companies muster up enough public guilt to somehow force the NFL to change the rules of the game or risk being shut down? Something tells me that the right people will have their palms greased. The biggest obstacle to progressive change in this country is conservative money, and the NFL has plenty of that. The NFL is a behemoth which is about to host a Super Bowl in New York City—the thing about these massive forces of business is, when they get rolling and the money is seemingly unlimited, they won’t stop for anyone. Not for Junior Seau’s family, not for a PBS piece, and not even for Congress. The money is just too good.

With that, let’s jump into what we’re projecting for this NFL season. But first, you have to give credit where credit is due. While a Packer victory over the Texans was the popular Super Bowl pick around here last fall, Greg bucked the trend and correctly predicted a Ravens-49ers Super Bowl. Not only that, but he picked the Ravens too. I sure hope he threw some money on that forecast bet.

*denotes wild card team










SUPER BOWL PICK: Seahawks over Broncos (21-17)

Looking around the AFC, this might be the weakest the division has been in years. Everything is relative to their NFC neighbors, and for the first time in recent memory, I’m not all to impressed by what the AFC’s elite are stacking this season. Yes, the Ravens just won the Super Bowl, but I’m expecting them to regress this season. The Patriots’ defense and wide receivers are a concern, but that has rarely ever slowed down Tom Brady. I just don’t think, given how random the NFL playoffs can breakdown in some years, that the Belichick-Brady reign has another Super Bowl title left in them. The Broncos are a much stronger team, and with Peyton Manning at the helm, they’re in more than capable hands. In the NFC, it’s a dogfight between the 49ers and Seahawks right now. The Packers, Giants, and Falcons will always hang around given their previous winning seasons and quarterback play, but nobody in the NFL is touching the talent and physicality out west. If Percy Harvin can find the field by the end of the season, the Seahawks are my surefire Super Bowl pick.


NFC East:

NFC North:

NFC South:

NFC West:

AFC East

AFC North

AFC South

AFC West

SUPER BOWL PICK: Giants over Broncos, 38-35

Yes, I excluded the Ravens from the Playoff Picture. While I believe their defense is more talented than what it was last year, there have been too many changes in personnel since Super Bowl XLVII for me to include them. Still, thanks for making me look like a genius last year, Baltimore. Anyway, expect parity this season. A lot of these teams are evenly matched, and in this league, anyone truly can beat anyone. This year, look for trends from last year to be reversed: The Redskins have the toughest schedule in the league and will miss the playoffs, as will the Cowboys, with Jason Garrett being fired at season’s end. The Chiefs, on the other hand, have an easy schedule, a competent QB and Head Coach Fat Andy, who will lead them to a wild card spot. The Colts last year were 7-1 in games decided by 7 points or less; I expect that record not to be matched this season. The Panthers, on the other hand, finished 1-7 in the exact same games; expect that mark to improve as they snatch a wild card berth.

In the AFC Championship Game, Houston will travel to Denver, where they will lose late on a Matt Prater 55 yard field goal. The Giants are gonna win the NFC East, win their home playoff game against the Panthers, somehow silence the Saints in New Orleans and set up a rematch of the 2007 NFC Championship Game, which will have the exact same outcome of a Giants victory. The Giants will play in their road whites in MetLife in a Manning Bowl Super Bowl in New York, which will probably cause ESPN to die from autoerotique asphyxiation. With the home crowd backing them, the Giants will win Super Bowl XLVIII at home, equaling the Dallas Cowboys and becoming the first team to win a home Super bowl in the process, which will result in Eli locking up a spot in the Hall of Fame as well as Jerry Jones committing suicide.

The Impact of First Impressions in Sports

One night last week, I was in the car with my Dad and we had the radio on, listening to some guys call-in show on the New York ESPN radio affiliate. The first couple of hours we had to listen to this guy talk about his New York Jets, and I was performing my usual routine of making snide comments between his points to make my Dad laugh. Eventually, for the last thirty minutes, he got to talking about the New York Giants, who, as you probably know, my family has had season tickets with for 50 years (that’s not even an exaggeration: my Grandfather’s first year as a season ticket holder was in 1963, back when the Giants played in Yankee Stadium). The host stated his belief that the main obstacle standing between the Giants and a playoff appearance was the running backs, and asked his callers a simple question: “Do you think that Andre Brown and David Wilson would be good enough to carry the load for the Giants for an entire season?”

Just so we’re clear, my answer to that question is a resounding YES, but I have doubts about the offensive line. But that’s not the reason why I bring this up. The callers all started calling in and talking about how they thought Wilson was an explosive running back, but the main concern is his fumbling problem. The host, after hearing around five callers bring up David Wilson’s “fumbling problem,” asked one of the callers how many fumbles he thought David Wilson had last season. I immediately yelled out “ONE” while listening in the car, fully aware of his stats from the previous season. The caller thought about it for five seconds, and then said “seven to ten.” The answer? One.

That begged me to ask myself the question: Why do Giants fans believe that David Wilson has a fumbling problem? After thinking about it for a minute, the answer is really simple: the only fumble that he’s lost all season took place on his debut against the Dallas Cowboys, and it left a lasting impression on the minds of Giants fans. The fumble turned the tide of the game (which the Giants lost), and has not been forgotten since. He got 70 carries last season, averaged 5 yards per carry, scored 7 TDs and returned kickoffs better than any Giant I’ve ever seen (except maybe Ron Dixon), but has been unable to shake off that label that he can’t hold on to the ball.

Flash forward to last weekend, as I’m up early watching Liverpool-Stoke City in the opening English Premier League match of the season. Liverpool are 1-0 up in the closing minutes of the game, when Daniel Agger conceded a very stupid penalty, putting his arm up in the box when he had no need to and making contact with the ball. Jonathan Walters stepped up to take the penalty for Stoke City, facing the newly-bought Belgian keeper Simon Mignolet, who was making his competitive debut for Liverpool. Walters shot it to the Mignolet’s right hand side… and Simon saved it! The ball was loose, Kenwyne Jones ran up and fired another shot at the net, which Mignolet also saved, as it scrambled out for a corner, with the Anfield faithful going absolutely ballistic. The players all jumped on Mignolet to congratulate/thank him, before he pushed them off and made them get in position as Stoke were trying to take the corner quickly. Liverpool held on for a 1-0 win, and Mignolet made a really tremendous first impression on the Liverpool fans watching, not only in the ground, but on TV sets all over the world.

Online afterward, I noticed that many, many fans were praising Mignolet for his penalty save, and seemingly were willing to forget all of the rage they felt after the club loaned out Pepe Reina (remember him?!) in order for Mignolet to start. I remembered how David Wilson’s fumble in his first game forever imprinted negative thoughts on the minds of Giants fans, and really do wonder how Mignolet’s crucial penalty save on his debut will be felt by fans in the long term. This also made me ask myself a deeper question: how much stock do we, as sports fans, put on a first impression we get from a player? In addition, how much should we get out of our first impressions of a player?

I’ve been watching sports for as long as I can remember. I’ve honestly lost count on the number of games I’ve attended, and to remember every debut I’ve seen both in person and on TV would be rather ridiculous. But there are some first impressions I’ve gotten from watching games that do stand out in my mind.

I remember watching Hideki Matsui’s Yankee Stadium debut back on Opening Day in 2003, when he hit a Grand Slam against Minnesota into right field. He ended up being a mainstay in the Yankee lineup for around seven years. On the contrary, I remember Kazuo Matsui’s MLB debut (not related to the aforementioned Hideki), where he hit the first pitch he’d ever seen out of the park in Atlanta. Kazuo ended up hitting .256 as a Met over the next two years before he was traded to Colorado, never truly living up to the hype the Mets had set for him, and that he had set for himself with that first pitch homer.

And with that, we find one of the factors that goes into a first impression: the hype beforehand. In American sports, when a player is selected as a first round pick, there is a certain amount of hype that goes with that player. He’s tabbed as a future starter, an impact player, someone who can improve the team in the short term and be the answer to a problem for the long term. David Wilson was a first round pick, and that’s another reason why his first impression was so damning. The Giants felt confident enough to select him in the opening round as a replacement for Brandon Jacobs, the franchise’s all-time leader in rushing TDs.

In the modern age, YouTube has helped fans come up with first impressions without even seeing a player come on the pitch for their side yet. The problem with YouTube, however, is that the video creators can really edit any film enough to make you think that someone is a star if they have enough footage. Milan Jovanovic looked like a star on YouTube, as did Christian Poulsen—neither one lasted more than a season at Liverpool. College football fans remember all too well about Sam McGuffie’s YouTube video, which was 10 minutes of him running around and jumping over high school players like he was in a video game on cheat mode, only to discover that his athleticism didn’t transfer to the college level when he played at Michigan under Rich Rodriguez (McGuffie is currently in training camp with the Oakland Raiders, but I highly doubt he’ll make the team after the preseason is over).

While I remembered Luis Suarez making a splash onto the scene in South Africa in 2010 with his handball against Ghana, I’d honestly forgotten about him until Liverpool started chasing him six months later during the January 2011 window. I remembered watching his YouTube compilations, in addition to his not-so-endearing highlights, such as the handball in South Africa and his celebrating after Asamoah Gyan missed, his diving, and his biting of PSV player Otman Bakkal on the shoulder. I put all of the negative stuff to the side and focused on the fact that he was a good striker who could answer a problem that Liverpool needed to address, and really didn’t think too much about the fact that he was clearly a troubled player.

From this, we do find the answer to the first question: “What do we get out of a first impression as sports fans?” The answer? Whatever we’re willing to get out of it. Honestly, if you don’t try to get much out of watching something, you won’t, and if you are trying to get something out of it, you will. It’s a ridiculously simple answer, but it is true. The only real exception is when something so extraordinary happens that you can’t help but ignore it, such as when Suarez cheats on Global TV in a World Cup Quarterfinal. If you were a cynic, you’d say he was a cheat, but you could also view it as somebody willing to do whatever it takes to win. As sports fans, we’re willing and able to take any sporting moment, view it in a vacuum, and assign it to whatever agenda we’re pushing, even if it’s just a call-in to ESPN radio.

Follow Greg Visone on Twitter @njny

The Jets and Geno Smith: How a Trainwreck Led to This

As an avid fan of the NFL and comedy, I’ve always kept my eye on the New York Jets. It’s not that I hate the Jets—if anything, as a New York Sports fan, I want them to win because I have many friends who are Jets fans. But I also find it equally enjoyable to watch them constantly fuck up, and boy, when the Jets fuck up, they do it in GRAND fashion.

I could probably do a three-hour stand-up routine based solely around the New York Jets. From their horrible draft picks to their lunatic fringe fanbase and even their consistently horrid play on the field, I could probably make a living off of the failure of the Jets if I put the time or effort into it. For the time being, however, this column is the best I can do.

Over the last 18 months, the Jets have made a series of fuck-ups that are right up there with any series of fuck-ups in the franchise’s long, storied history of fucking up. Where did it all begin? Well, after the Jets finished the 2011 season at 8-8, failing to make the playoffs off the back of two successive AFC Championship Game appearances, in conjunction with the cross-town New York Giants winning their fourth Super Bowl, Head Coach Rex Ryan and General Manager Mike Tannenbaum evaluated the squad at the time to find out what went wrong. Obvious problems? Franchise quarterback Mark Sanchez had regressed in his third season in the league, completing 57% of passes in an offensive system that revolved far too much around him throwing the football.

Upon sticking their nose in the stats and the tape, the Jets looked at other possible options they could pursue at QB instead of Sanchez, eventually coming to the conclusion that, unless they signed free agent Peyton Manning (which was unlikely), that keeping Mark Sanchez would probably be the best option for 2012. So the Jets hierarchy went to Mark Sanchez and said something along the lines of, “We believe in you, you’re our starting QB next year, and there’s no need to worry about losing your job.” After saying that, they continued to pursue Manning in free agency.

That would turn out to be a massive mistake by the Jets front office that would come back to bite them in the ass, because Mark soon found out that the Jets were pursuing Manning and that they had held meetings with him after they had assured him that he would be the Jets starter next season. As such, when Manning went to the Broncos, the Jets had not only lost out on Peyton, but they had also demoralized their current starting QB. So, what did the Jets do to show that they had confidence in Mark? They made their second mistake: they gave him the contract extension. 3 years, $19.5 million guaranteed. At the time, he was higher paid than Aaron Rodgers.

If you don’t get how stupid this move was, here’s the analogy: Imagine this being a marriage between a wealthy husband (The Jets) and his wife (Mark Sanchez). The Jets, by telling Mark Sanchez that they believed in him and that he would be their starter next season, basically renewed their vows to Mark Sanchez, specifically including the words “I will not cheat on you” in those vows. Meanwhile, at the same time, said husband discovered that a supermodel he had ties with (Peyton Manning) had just recently divorced and was now on the market. Despite renewing his vows, the husband chased after the supermodel. They texted. Pictures were exchanged. Tubesocks were ruined. Dinners happened. The husband was spotted running by someone that his wife knew, and word subsequently got back that her husband tried to cheat on her. As such, when the husband was confronted by his wife after being unsuccessful in cheating on her, clearly hurting her feelings, his response was to go on a second honeymoon despite clearly not loving her.

With Sanchez getting this contract in mid-March, this should’ve been the end of it all. But it wasn’t, because on March 22nd, the Jets made their third mistake, and this would undo any showing of confidence that they gave Mark Sanchez with that new contract: they traded for Tim Tebow.

Trading for Tim Tebow was, bar none, the stupidest mistake they could possibly make. Tim Tebow had just come off a season where he had taken the NFL by storm and developed an even greater cult following than what he had in college. He was one of the most recognizable names in all of football, and he would now be the backup behind a QB with an already fractured confidence.

Sim through the 2012 season. Mark Sanchez had no confidence, played abysmally after Week one, ran into Brandon Moore’s ass on National TV against the Patriots in the Thanksgiving Night Game, got replaced in the middle of the game by Greg McElroy the following week, and the Jets ended up finishing the season at 6-10, their first losing season since 2007 (the year before they traded for Brett Favre). Sanchez played in 15 games, starting them all, throwing 13 TDs and 18 interceptions, regressing dramatically from the year before.

General Manager Mike Tannenbaum got fired after the season was over and was replaced by John Idzik. Rex Ryan, much to the chagrin of some Jets fans, is still in his job despite failing to make the postseason two years in a row. Looking to start fresh and improve a lackluster defense, the Jets used their two first round picks on defensive players in the 2013 draft. And then, early in the second round, the Jets selected West Virginia QB Geno Smith, projected by many to be a Top 5 pick, but instead fell to the second round because he was perceived by many to be a standout of a poor QB class.

With the selection of Geno Smith, the Jets have made it clear that the leash on Mark Sanchez is going to be very tight for the 2013 season. If I were a betting man, I would guess that Mark Sanchez would start the first two games of the regular season, home against Tampa Bay followed by the Patriots at Foxborough four days later on that Thursday night, and then, barring a 2-0 start to the season, he will be replaced by Geno Smith, who would start week 3 at home against the Buffalo Bills, having ten days to prepare with the first team and get acquainted to his role as the starter.

Despite that, I honestly believe that the Jets have made a mistake in drafting Geno Smith, and think that he will suffer after he plays one or two games. The problem with Geno Smith in college was that he didn’t have a running game to help him at West Virginia. He also didn’t have a defense. He started off the season 5-0, winning those shootouts against Texas (48-45) and Baylor (70-63) and appearing to be a sure-fire Heisman Trophy winner. He beat those five teams by simply outscoring them. And then, out of nowhere, the Mountaineers went to Texas Tech and got hammered 49-14. How did it happen? Simple: Texas Tech played 8 in the backfield specifically to take away Geno Smith’s passing lanes. They didn’t blitz the whole game, nor did they deviate from their 8-man zone. This could’ve easily been countered by West Virginia if they had a decent running game, but alas, they did not. This game exposed Geno and West Virginia. The result? A five game losing streak as coach after coach realized that stopping Geno Smith was an easy task. To be honest, Geno Smith’s stats were probably inflated by the Big 12 defenses that he faced. If that West Virginia team had played in the SEC, they’d have probably finished 3-9 and Geno Smith would’ve gone un-drafted.

Why do I bring that up when talking about the Jets? Because the Jets are worse off than West Virginia. They don’t have a running game. They have some receivers for him to throw to, but they’re not gonna be able to protect him all that well. The only saving grace that Geno might have is that the Jets defense will be able to keep him in games, but that won’t matter if he’s gonna be given the keys to yet another one-dimensional offense. It’s worth asking: if John Idzik was so desperate to draft a new QB, why didn’t he wait a year for Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez to fail again, be able to fire Rex and get a Head Coach in that he liked and that he could work with in the next NFL draft, which will have a much better class of QBs to choose from? They failed to properly hit the reset button on an expensive, aging, and inefficient roster accompanied by a lame duck coach. They entire team is a sunk-cost at this point.

The fact of the matter is this: the Jets have made some horrible decisions in the past 18 months when it has come to the QB position. Selecting Geno Smith, in my opinion, is just the latest installment of that long sequence of fuck-ups the Jets have made. But hey, who am I to crucify them? I get to watch another year or two of that garbage! Hell, if anything, this is a victory for us all. So let’s just sit back, relax, and enjoy the greatest comedy on American TV: The New York Jets.

Follow Greg Visone on Twitter @njny

Greg’s Gambling Lines: College Football Futures Bets

With August only a couple days away and football season around the corner, I thought it’d be a good idea to go through a few futures bet markets. For the few of you who don’t know what futures bets are, I’ll explain it to you in the most basic terms possible: you are betting NOW on the outcome of something that can only be determined in the FUTURE; this is the gambling equivalent of a long-term investment. By betting in the futures markets, you can get decent value, have a greater ability to hedge and make money during the season, and also have something to root for in the long-term.

In this piece, we’ll be evaluating college football futures, focusing on team win over/unders and division/conference winners markets for the upcoming season. Do note that because I like the value, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m predicting the bet to be successful, but that the value of the odds is significant enough for me to bet it.

College Football (all odds courtesy of 5dimes)

Team Win Over/Under Market

Arkansas Razorbacks OVER 5.5 wins (5/7 odds)
The 6 win threshold seems very low to me here, and I like Arkansas’ chances to get to that mark. Bielema is a massive upgrade over John L. Smith at Head Coach, and he has a schedule that is rather favorable in the first few weeks. Louisiana-Lafayette, Samford, Southern Miss and Rutgers should give Arkansas a 4-0 start to the season. From there, they’ll only need two wins in their last eight, and I’ve got a sneaky feeling that one of those will come against Texas A&M at home on September 28. Should they lose their next four, they will still have two very winnable home games against Auburn and Mississippi State that should get them to six wins.

Michigan State Spartans OVER 8.5 wins (5/6 odds)
Michigan State has a very weak schedule and is coming off of a down year, finishing 7-6 (with a 3-5 conference record) that immediately follows a couple of seasons with double digit wins. This team reminds me a lot of Ohio State prior to last season: mediocre record, down year, great defense, bad offense and A LOT of close losses. Seriously, look at their Big Ten losses from last season: lost to Ohio State 17-16, lost to Iowa 19-16 in Double-OT, lost to Michigan 12-10 in Ann Arbor (Michigan kicked the game-winning field goal with 5 seconds left), lost 28-24 to Nebraska on a late TD, and lost to Northwestern 23-20. They were top ten in the country in terms of points against last season, and they return seven starters on that defense. In addition, the offense will return eight starters and will be battle tested. I like the Spartans to rebound this season, and I will back them heavily to get at least nine wins this season.

Nebraska Cornhuskers OVER 9.5 wins (even odds)
This mark is just a bit low. This team is probably gonna start off the season at 8-0, with its last game against Iowa at home. That’s nine wins right there, with only one win against the likes of Michigan (away), Michigan State (home) and Penn State (away) necessary to achieve ten wins. The value is there and I’d pounce on it.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights OVER 6.5 wins (11/10 odds)
I know that it is REALLY easy to hate Rutgers right now, but the value here is too good. The team is in a weak conference, plays against Norfolk State and East Michigan at the start of the season and then will only need 5 wins in its last 8 games to break the 6.5 win threshold, which is really low for a team that has made a bowl game in seven of the last eight seasons.

Tennessee Volunteers UNDER 5.5 wins (8/5 odds)
Tennessee has three easy wins in its non-conference schedule, which should be a solid case for them to finish with over 5 wins this season. Here’s the problem: the rest of their schedule is the equivalent of a murderous slaughter—they face Oregon, Florida and Alabama away, in addition to Georgia and South Carolina at home. That’s five potential losses right there, giving them four games to get another three wins. That’s gonna be rather difficult for a team that only won one SEC game last season, and that was against Kentucky at home in the final week. They will play Kentucky again (albeit on the road), but they’ll also play against Missouri, Auburn, and Vanderbilt. I find it difficult for them to get six wins.

Texas Longhorns OVER 9.5 wins (2/3 odds)
It’s not so much the value that I like here, but I think this is a sure thing and I would bet it HEAVILY. I’ll explain my thoughts on this bet a little more in a bit.

Texas A&M Aggies UNDER 9.5 wins (7/5 odds)
The belief in college football right now is that there’s the SEC and then there’s the rest of college football. So how exactly did Texas A&M fare in their first season in the toughest conference in college football? I mean, you can’t say it was all that bad, especially when you consider the 11-2 record, Cotton Bowl victory and the Heisman Trophy for Freshman QB Johnny Manziel. Oh, and they beat National Champion Alabama in their own house. Look, nobody is denying that A&M is a very good team, or that Manziel is a very good QB, but they’ve got a target on their back right now. The SEC will have more film on them and will take them more seriously headed into this season. I expect them to lose three or four games, with two of those coming against Alabama at home on September 14th and LSU away on November 23rd. I also expect them to lose one of their two road games against Arkansas and Ole Miss.

Tulsa UNDER 8.5 wins (29/20 odds)
Tulsa went 11-3 last year, but they won a lot of close games and return only ten starters. They also have a relatively tough schedule this season, with games away to Bowling Green, Oklahoma and East Carolina along with home games against Marshall and Iowa State. They’ll probably win two or three of those games, but that does make the margin rather slim with an over/under mark of 8.5 wins. Bet a small amount here and with a bit of luck it’ll cash.

USC Trojans OVER 10.5 wins (33/20 odds)
Notre Dame away and Stanford at home aside, the Trojans have a very easy schedule this season, especially when you consider the fact that they avoid Oregon for the first time since 2004. I know that it’s very easy to just bet against Lane Kiffen on historical and moral grounds, but the value here is actually rather good, and that is why I would put a small amount of money on this future.

Virginia Tech Hokies OVER 9.5 wins (7/5 odds)
This will be explained in the next bet.

Conference & Division Winners Market

Virginia Tech Hokies to win the ACC Coastal Division (81/20 odds) and ACC Championship Game (39/4 odds)
The Hokies are coming off of a 7-6 season after 8 straight seasons with 10+ wins. A big reason for that was an inexperienced offensive line, the loss of David Wilson to the NFL, and a young defense that struggled against the run the first half of the season. Logan Thomas was projected to be a Top 5 pick in last year’s draft before the season, but plans for the NFL were put on hold as a result of Virginia Tech’s down year. This season, however, the Hokies return nine starters on a defense that saw big time improvement at the latter end of last season. Another huge plus is that they will avoid playing Clemson and Florida State during the regular season, while also getting Miami and North Carolina at home. Their futures odds across the board are available at great value right now, and I’d put some money on them to win over 9.5 games, the ACC Coastal and ACC Championship Game because of that.

Michigan State Spartans (71/10 odds), Nebraska Cornhuskers (25/4 odds) or Michigan Wolverines (24/5 odds) to win Big Ten Championship Game
Even as a Buckeye, I’m placing money on one of these three to beat Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. It isn’t that I’m not confident in Braxton Miller and Urban Meyer, it’s just that the value on these three is too good for me to turn down, especially when it comes to Michigan and Michigan State.

In the event of a Michigan-Ohio State Big Ten Championship Game ONE WEEK after a showdown in Ann Arbor, you get the feeling that something weird is gonna happen; there’s a distinct possibility of this showdown taking place, and if I’m getting almost 5/1 odds on a team to win a rivalry game, I’m taking it.

In the case of Michigan State, their conference schedule is REALLY weak with their only major challenges coming against Michigan and Nebraska during November; they have a very good chance of winning the Big Ten Legends Division (13/4 odds) because of that. If they make The Big Ten Championship Game, I like their chances against Ohio State, because Dantonio is a former Ohio State assistant who studies his alma mater intently to prepare for them.

As far as Nebraska is concerned, you put a bit of money on them just to do it. They’re a solid team that will contend for their division. Should they get through the division, you’re essentially getting over 6/1 odds on them to win a game against the Buckeyes. I like that value.

South Carolina Gamecocks (17/4 odds), Georgia Bulldogs (19/4 odds) or Florida Gators (12/1 odds) to win SEC Championship Game
As with the previous paragraph, I like the value a team could get in a one-game playoff against a National Championship contender. In this case, it’s South Carolina, Georgia or Florida against Alabama. All three have a very real chance of winning the SEC East, and as such each deserve a small amount backing them in the SEC Championship Game.

Texas Longhorns (3/1 odds) to win Big 12 Conference
They’re second-favorites behind Oklahoma State, but I like this Texas team to finish 11-1 and win the Big 12 Conference. The Longhorns return 10 starters on offense and nine on defense after finishing last season with a 9-4 record. If it weren’t for injuries last season, Texas would’ve had a much better defense and could’ve finished with at least 10 wins. I would also put a small amount on Texas to win the National Championship (20/1 odds).

Fresno State to win Mountain West Championship Game (51/20 odds)
Fresno State has always had a solid program, and this year they have a chance to be a legitimate BCS-Buster. Even if they don’t make a BCS Game, they’re a very good team that should be able to cruise through the MWC West Division into the MWC Championship Game. There, they will probably play against Conference favorite Boise State, who is also being touted as a BCS-Buster. With a one-game playoff being rather realistic and a team getting slightly over 5/2 odds to win the conference, the value here is rather good.

BCS National Championship Value Bets
Look, I could just cop out and give you Alabama or Ohio State to win it, but that’s just gutless. If you want a Championship pick with a bit of juice in it, here’s a list of four possible champions to choose from (small wager amounts, of course):

1) Texas Longhorns (33/1 odds)

2) South Carolina Gamecocks (25/1 odds)

3) Michigan State Spartans (100/1 odds)

4) Nebraska Cornhuskers (50/1 odds)

Follow Greg Visone on Twitter @njny

**Disclaimer: All odds and analysis provided is for entertainment and informational purposes only. Any use of this information in violation of federal, state, provincial or local laws is strictly prohibited.

Pepe Reina and The Liverpool Dilemma

Yesterday afternoon, as I was driving on the Garden State Parkway on my way to a Mets-Phillies game, I got stuck in horrible traffic. Like the kind of traffic that makes you want to get out of the car and go for a walk—which I would’ve done, except for the heat. I later found out that the 95-degree heat caused cars to set on fire spontaneously while on the road, causing this specific delay. As I was incredibly bored, I decided to pull out my phone and check Twitter for news headlines and updates, as well as checking up on my favorite sports teams. Rumors flashed across my timeline that Liverpool keeper Pepe Reina is about to go on loan to Napoli, who currently employ former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez and goalkeeper coach Xavi Valero.

As with all stories regarding LFC, fans on my timeline decided to use this headline as a stick with which to beat Fenway Sports Group (FSG) and Brendan Rodgers, or on the other hand, praise Rodgers without question. Keep in mind that many fans said throughout last season that Reina was past his best and should be sold this summer. When rumors in May surfaced that Barcelona were interested, these same fans were happy to offload him, where he was the starting keeper as a teenager and where the long-tenured reign of Victor Valdes is expected to end when his contract expires next year. But now, fans want to keep him because he’s not going to Barcelona—there’s seemingly no excuse for sending out a three-time gold glove winning keeper on loan to another club in Europe, let alone one with two men in charge who were successful at Liverpool. Napoli isn’t Barcelona, which makes the sale inexcusable—a rather condescending thought. At the core of the divide are two sides to the LFC fan base, both of which will interpret any story to fall in line with either their pro-FSG/pro-Rodgers or anti-FSG/anti-Rodgers view.

In my mind, the loan move makes perfect sense for all parties involved. Pepe’s save percentage the last few years has dwindled, he’s currently being paid £110K a week, and we just signed Simon Mignolet from Sunderland, who’s younger and at a similar, if not higher level than Pepe Reina. If you want a reason why Sunderland didn’t go down last season, it’s not Paolo Di Canio—it’s Simon Mignolet. Sunderland were 3rd lowest in the Premier League in goals scored last season with 41—just over a solitary goal per match. They conceded 54 goals in the Premier League last season, and Mignolet had 11 clean sheets. He was the main reason that Sunderland stayed up, because his saves allowed them to stay competitive in matches and salvage points. In the first nine games of last season, Sunderland’s only goal-scorer was Steven Fletcher. They scored six goals in the first nine games, five by Fletcher with one Demba Ba own goal, but they only conceded nine goals in that same span, coming away with six draws and a win. That’s what Sunderland had to put up with throughout the season, and Simon Mignolet enabled them to stay in the top flight.

Compare that with Reina, who had a better team around him last season than Mignolet. His form has declined since Xavi Valero left LFC in 2010. Yes, he kept us in games from time to time last season and made some rather important saves, but he did have his moments that cost us last season. Remember that goal he conceded against Arsenal that resulted from a point-blank shot right at him that he was unable to hold on to? What about the goal he conceded against Norwich away, which came from a rebound off of a soft shot that he really should’ve held on to? His howler against Hearts in the Europa League Play-off qualifier, a shot right at him that he was, once again, unable to hold on to? And, to top it off, what about that ridiculous goal he conceded against City that he conceded by being so badly out of position? He must’ve had more blunders last season than he had in the previous three, and these individual errors cost LFC greatly.


Reina deserves a load of credit for sticking with Liverpool through such a difficult period and for openly criticizing Hicks and Gillett during the summer of turmoil that was the 2010 offseason. But quite frankly, Reina isn’t the keeper he used to be. If Rodgers prefers Mignolet over Reina, then I trust his decision as Liverpool’s manager. That being said, if this proves to be true, I’d rather not have a keeper making £110K a week sitting on the bench, and believe that it would be in the best interest of both Reina (with the World Cup in 2014, he’s going to need plenty of matches to make the Spanish squad) and the club if he played somewhere else in this upcoming season. Since Liverpool consider Mignolet to be the starting keeper at the moment, a loan move makes the most sense.

The move also makes sense for Napoli, as Rafa and Valero have worked with Reina before, and got the best out of him at Liverpool, with his quality having declined significantly since they left. With Reina in goal, Napoli will have a reliable keeper in net with a wealth of experience who can act as a leader both on and off of the pitch. It also gives time for their new 23 year-old Brazilian keeper Rafael, recently purchased for €5m by Napoli after 114 appearances for Santos, to settle in to life in Italy before becoming the new Napoli #1 in 2014-2015.

Despite the clear line of logic leading to a Reina departure, Liverpool fans are still angry. They see Reina as the player he once was rather than the player that he is now. They see the move as one that simply saves wages rather than one that enables Reina to play elsewhere and allows us to move on and upgrade at the position. They see it as another version of us replacing Javier Mascherano with Christian Poulsen rather than it potentially being a modern day parallel of a young Bruce Grobbelaar replacing an aging Ray Clemence. It’s not that club isn’t grateful for what he’s done and doesn’t respect him as a servant. It’s that the club wants to try and upgrade from a player that was once great, but isn’t what he used to be despite the fans still loving him. Arsene Wenger has been doing that for a decade now, and last time I checked, they were a Champions League side.

The problem with football is that no matter how much the fans love a player because of what he’s done for them in the past, the job of the manager is to get the best out of the players at his disposal and do whatever it takes to win. At times, one needs to be ruthless and throw romanticism to the side in order to accomplish that. The sacking of Kenny, while incredibly unfortunate, is a great example of that, and also epitomizes what I call “The Liverpool Dilemma.”

Liverpool Football Club has a great history that it’s very proud of. The club also has extremely passionate fans who want to return to their days of glory. When people talk about LFC, they bring up the names of great players and managers who did fantastic things and built the club into one of the biggest in the world. Names like Dalglish, Keegan, Thompson, Clemence, Shankly, Paisley, Fagan, Benitez, Rush, Fowler, Gerrard, Heighway, Hughes, Fairclough, and Hunt—that list of famous names synonymous with the club is almost endless. They bring up all of those famous European Nights, fantastic away days, successful trips to Wembley, and the trophies they’ve won. The fans are proud of their history and they embrace it, which they have every right to do.

The club’s extremely successful history, however, makes it tough for the current squad and coaching staff to work under realistic expectations. LFC fans want to see the club back in the Champions League, back in the title race, and back in every Cup final. The fans today think of being patient with a new manager as three months without scrutiny. They think that we shouldn’t have to lower our expectations because of the simple fact that this is Liverpool Football Club, and to expect anything less than the best is to be accepting of mediocrity, rather than being realistic and willing to adjust standards to fit unfortunate circumstances. LFC fans, much like the fans of every other club, embrace players that are successful for them and perform very well for them. That also makes it very tough for them to let go of players when they are past their prime. They view selling a fan favorite past his prime as the club not having respect for players who were successful rather than the club trying to upgrade. Liverpool fans view their icons in a light that makes them demi-gods rather than human beings with flaws.

Kenny Dalglish being sacked caused an incredible uproar from fans, and an even bigger uproar occurred when he was replaced with Brendan Rodgers, a manager who had only been the Premier League for one season. You also can compound that with the fact that Rafa Benitez was out of work, wanted the job, and was passed over. They view these acts as a disrespect for their history and icons. Dalglish’s tenure featured two Cup finals, three trips to Wembley and a trophy, but also a horrifying league form and the PR disaster that was the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra racism row. Yet overall, the fans were happy because Dalglish was in charge and the club was making cup runs like they had in the old days. At the same time, they were unable to say that LFC was progressing because they simply weren’t. A 7th place league finish doesn’t lie. All LFC fans had a decision to make: choosing between having their favorite personality ever in charge again or the club making a clean break with the past for the sake of progression. It’s like having a man be told by his wife to choose between her and his dog: regardless of which option you choose, you’re not gonna be completely satisfied with the decision you make.

With The Liverpool Dilemma, it’s tough for fans to view moves like Reina’s loan in a logical manner. But their passion isn’t a bad thing, and neither are their opinions or high standards. Sometimes, however, fans should try to be more reasonable about the current status of the club and be more supportive. The majority of fans won’t be reasonable any time soon, but that doesn’t mean those of us in the minority should stop crusading for logic. It’s not a hopeless fight. It just seems like it.

Follow Greg Visone on Twitter @njny

Defining But Not Really But Just For Now But Not At All LeBron’s Legacy

My knowledge of NBA history only extends as far as what I’ve randomly come across on Wikipedia, and everything I learned in Bill Simmons’ 10,000 page manifesto on why the Celtics are the best. Despite my admittedly limited knowledge, I don’t think I’m out of my league to say this: No player in NBA history has faced THREE Legacy-Or-Bust games in two seasons and successfully eviscerated most doubts to win those games.

Collectively, we’ve been on the verge of damning LeBron to a lifetime of Wilt Chamberlain tags on three separate occasions. This means two things: Led by ESPN, sports media and sports fans may be the most knee-jerk portion of human society, never giving appropriate time or patience to assess anything. The other thing, of course, is that LeBron is fucking great. Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals: 45 points against the Celtics on the road down 3-2. Game 6 of the 2013 Finals down 3-2 and coming off of an uneven 8-22 night shooting: a 32-10-11 line. Last night: 37 points and a step-back mid-range dagger at the end with the Heat only up 2—a shot that the Spurs were more than happy to give him.

Although LeBron hasn’t mitigated the circumstances that eventually led to these cluster-fuck do-or-maybe-literally-die situations well—he was averaging 16 ppg the first three games of this year’s Finals—he’s answered the call every time he’s been expected to. Problem is, ever since that Game 6 in Boston, we’ve expected him to not continually drive himself into these uncomfortable situations. He’ll always be cursed by his unlimited potential, but I thought he was over whatever mental block he suffers from that causes him to simply go missing in important games. It goes beyond not getting shots he normally makes to fall—it’s that he doesn’t assert himself to get those shots.

That’s the kind of player we’re dealing with. He’s a supremely talented individual with a supremely uneven mind, but one that can turn it on when all seems lost. Unlike last year, at least we know that switch exists, and can re-adjust our expectations accordingly. (Or not. Probably not.) Before Game 6 in Boston last year, we didn’t know he could turn it on; during the first half of the Finals we knew he could most definitely turn it off, but only to be flipped back up for the most critical moments. So we’ll bash him for the week he comes up short on the court, only to dress him up in hyperbolic superlatives after he, once again, proves everyone wrong. But because of who he is, and the tumultuous past he’s had, there will always be factions of fandom and media who will keep betting against LeBron.

LeBron doesn’t have the pathological killer instinct of Jordan or Kobe, and he doesn’t have the rational to the point where it seems irrational confidence of Magic. He doesn’t have the ice of Kevin Durant, and he certainly isn’t as steady and stoic as Tim Duncan. It’s time to stop comparing him to other greats, because LeBron, like life itself, isn’t a series of black-and-white events. You can’t assign him to just one role or character. You can count on him for everything and nothing while expecting the most. LeBron is a mercurial person blessed with a Mozart-like combination of intelligence, body, and talent that we’ve never seen before in a basketball player. And that’s okay. He’ll probably have many more Game 7’s than four-game sweeps, and we’ll have the same conversations about his mental fortitude and his legacy until we look back in 2020 and realize he’s got more rings than Jordan.

And right now, that’s what I’m rooting for. I went from being a totally idiotic LeBron hater, to not hating him as much, to wanting to see the him win as much as he can. I won’t be overt about it—I’m not going to tweet “GO HEAT,” or post pictures of LeBron on my Instagram, or even cheer for him in public. This will do:

After all, I am a Knicks fan. I hate the Heat, and other than James Dolan, LeBron James’ Heat are the biggest threat to my team. Yet I can’t bring myself to outwardly and viciously root against the guy (unless of course the Knicks are playing him), especially since the Knicks are doomed to second-round playoff exits for about the next 3-5 years. For me, it’ll all be a very sage-like, semi-passive approach—or balance—between wanting to see my Knicks win, and wanting to see LeBron collect titles. (And if he ditches Chris Bosh’s Pterodactyl qualities and Dwayne Wade’s knees after 2014 for LA or Kyrie Irving’s Cavs, maybe he’ll run off 6 straight championships individually. Your move, Pat Riley.)

I didn’t live through Jordan. I was too young. The way 70s and 80s babies snobbishly look down upon LeBron and today’s game through Jordan’s GOAT glasses, I want to be able to look down upon the next generation. I want to say that I lived through the Greatest, and my best shot at that selfish glory is LeBron James. Culturally, LeBron will never match what Jordan did and is still doing, but provided LeBron continues his statistical dominance and his championship pedigree, we’ll be able to one day say that he outdid MJ on the court.

And that’s LeBron’s unwritten legacy as written by someone in 2013. Let’s check back in 2023.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

An Interview With Ryan Babel

For those who have been following me for a few years now, you could say that this interview has been a long time coming. For those who may be perplexed by my access to former Liverpool starlet and current Ajax Amsterdam player Ryan Babel, a primer: Back when I started following the English Premier League in 2008, Ryan Babel was one of the reasons why I chose to start supporting Liverpool. Out of my mixed ethnicities, Dutch is one of the more prominent makeups. As a promising young Dutchman with loads of pace and skill, Babel and his team at the time, Liverpool, caught my attention. I’ve been a passionate, but highly critical fan of both ever since.

After I started following him, Ryan would endure two more difficult seasons at Liverpool before being sold in January 2011, but through Twitter and YouTube, I remained an ardent supporter of his. I’ve always believed that Ryan was never properly handled at Liverpool—he signed at age 20, was thrown into the first-team, yet never played more than four games in a row for the club. And as he’ll attest to in the interview, he never got the same kind of attention and coaching he did at Ajax. How can a young player develop when their only playing time is 20 minutes as a substitute every other match, and they’re basically on their own development-wise?

Fed up with his lack of first-team minutes in a squad that featured bloody David Ngog at striker during all of Fernando Torres’ injuries, I threw this video out on YouTube demanding for Ryan to play. The success and feedback from that video is what actually propelled my channel to move towards European football and then exclusively Liverpool content. Ryan also appreciated the words of support.

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That was over three years ago, when my hair was much longer and misshapen, and Ryan was still getting in trouble over a few humorous tweets. We’ve kept in contact here and there, and while I was traveling in Amsterdam one weekend, Ryan made himself available for an interview. We sat down for over an hour, reflecting on the good and bad of his Liverpool experience, the regretful transfer he made to a dysfunctional German club with Manchester City-like ambitions, and how at 26 years old, his career is starting to come full circle with a championship-winning season at his boyhood club Ajax.

Thanks to Ryan for accommodating my interview request, and for his honesty and humility about his past. Watch our chat below!

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

What Is Fair Criticism Of An Ownership Group?

I’ve studied LFC fans on Twitter after matches a lot the last year or two. I’m not sure why, but my guess is that I’m just fascinated with how the fanbase reacts to bad results and other things that happen around the Premiership. Seriously, with all of the shit that fans spout after matches, I could write one really big fucking book on the subject (and I probably will).

Now, I always try to remain unbiased in how I approach my opinion on a subject regarding LFC. I follow a lot of different fans and journalists in order to get as many viewpoints as possible. It’s nice when we can focus on matters that happen on the pitch, such as our use of the 4-3-3, potential transfer targets, sales, you name it. But one of the main things that always seems to come up is criticism of Brendan Rodgers and, particularly, Fenway Sports Group.

When it comes to Brendan Rodgers, all I can say is this: we’re playing better football aesthetically, have a higher points total and goal differential in the league than we did last season under Kenny, and are improving as a squad in his first season. I believe that comparisons to Hodgson are unfair, and that he does deserve more time in charge of LFC. One year is not enough to judge a manager on, and to say otherwise is absolutely foolish.

As far as the FSG criticism is concerned, it never really sat right with me. As an American Liverpool fan who’s supportive of FSG, I’ve received a lot of unfair criticism because fans are still upset about how previous American owners Hicks and Gillett ran the club, don’t like how FSG are doing things because they apparently don’t spend enough money on the club, and believe that FSG will skin LFC and run for the money like Hicks and Gillett did. But is that really fair? I don’t think so.

Look at the club’s net spend the last two seasons. Almost £80m has been spent by FSG in transfer fees alone. That’s not to mention the massive wages given to players and the pay-offs given to the likes of Milan Jovanovic, Philip Degen, Joe Cole, and Christian Poulsen. Also, FSG have made progress on renovating Anfield, thus keeping the cherished history and lifeblood of Liverpool FC intact. The new sponsorship deals have made LFC one of the most marketable clubs in the Premiership, something that Hicks and Gillett always talked about but were never truly able to accomplish. Yes, the last few seasons have had results that were less than admirable, but this was always going to be a rebuilding process.

While I cannot vouch personally for whether or not John Henry watches football as much as Ian Ayre says he does, the simple fact is this: there’s no way the investment made by FSG is truly profitable if a new stadium isn’t built or renovated, and until that happens, it’s in FSG’s best interest to stay at the club and continue investing. Aside from Champions League clubs, nobody in the Premiership comes close to the investment made in the playing squad when compared to what FSG has done the last two seasons. Blame who you want, but they’ve ponied up the cash, and they’re trying their best. As owners of the Boston Red Sox, they won two World Series titles last decade, and turned the club into the only team capable of battling the New York Yankees’ payroll in the American League. FSG knows how to succeed in the face of giants, which LFC currently face in the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea. They’re smart business people, and smart sporting men. They’re alright.

But having reviewed the last two and a half years under FSG, I can honestly say that there are some fair criticisms of the ownership group’s tenure at LFC. They’ve made a number of mistakes, which we will analyze now:

Being American
This isn’t their fault, but it does factor in to why LFC fans are very vindictive of them. I honestly believe that if FSG was any other nationality, LFC fans would not be as judgmental and vindictive of them as they currently are. Hicks and Gillett didn’t help their cause, and back when the ownership was being sold, if LFC fans had a choice between Singapore’s Peter Lim and FSG, they probably would’ve taken Peter Lim. Is that fair? Absolutely not. Is it understandable? Absolutely. LFC fans have already been bitten by an American ownership group and they have every right to have reservations about the current ownership group because of that fact. What I hate is when anger about the perceived failings of the current ownership group pours over into anti-American bigotry against myself and other American LFC fans.

Some fans who are critical of FSG have some decent arguments. Others do not. Here are some examples of LFC fans tweeting abuse to John W. Henry after he tweets about a CHARITABLE ACTION in the aftermath of the Newtown, CT school shooting:



The “Being: Liverpool” Television Series
I’m sorry, but this was total garbage. There were obviously staged scenes in this, there’s no true appeal to it, and all that it basically does is glorify preseason friendly matches and a trip to Belarus while making other things seem more dramatic than they truly are. I only watched the first two episodes, and quite honestly, I wish I could have those two hours of my life back. I really wish I had never seen those awkward scenes in Rodgers’ home, or when Liverpool players met Red Sox players. That’s completely neglecting the envelopes and everything else in that series that made me cringe. Honestly, there is no defending how awful that was, and I highly doubt that it was worth whatever money the club made from it. A poor job done all around that made a mockery of the club more than anything else.

Giving Kenny Dalglish the Permanent Manager Tag
Before you all start calling for me to be chopped off, hear me out. Look, I love Kenny Dalglish. I didn’t want him to be sacked, and I’m extremely grateful for everything he’s done for the club. However, his success at the latter end of 2010/11 was probably one of the worst things to happen for Liverpool FC in the long-term. He was brought in to replace Roy Hodgson as a caretaker, and the main goal of the appointment was to appease the fans and unify the fanbase. It was the right move to bring him in as a caretaker. That being said, we overachieved during his time in charge, and that created unrealistic expectations. We almost qualified for Europe because of our form during the second half of the season alone. Despite all of that, Kenny Dalglish was not FSG’s man for the long-term future of LFC. By giving Kenny the three-year contract and holding off on hiring a manager for the long-term, FSG set the club back a bit. They gave King Kenny and Damien Comolli £100m to spend (approximately £35m net) and let them sign who they wanted. The result? Overpaying for Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing, plus bringing in Charlie Adam and Jose Enrique. Everyone at LFC expected a quick return to prominence under Dalglish, when it was never going to be that simple, easy, or fast.

FSG released a statement at the close of the 2011 summer window saying that they expected a Top Four finish. Nothing about cup success or anything else, but only a Top Four finish. The squad played well the first half of the season, but then Lucas went down, Suarez was suspended for nine games, and Kenny was up shit’s creek without a paddle. He had no Plan B. Yes, we won the League Cup and went to the Final of The FA Cup, but we finished 8th with 52 points after spending £100m. I’m sorry, but that is just not good enough. Cup competitions are a crapshoot—hell, Wigan could win the FA Cup this year and still get relegated. It’s best to judge overall team performance on whatever competition yields the strongest XIs, the best teams, and the largest sample size. LFC’s 8th place finish in the league happens to be just that. If FSG were only going to give him one season, then it must be asked: why did they keep him on as permanent manager at all? His spending and lost 8th place season only set the club back another year when it could ill afford to do so.

The Luis Suarez Racism Affair
What else needs to be said that hasn’t already been said? Look, Suarez used racist words. By The FA’s guidelines, he broke the rules. Now, while I have a lot of problems with the written reasons, the evidence, the burden of proof, and a lot of other things regarding that case, the one thing that I am certain of is that LFC had a PR nightmare with this and handled it absolutely incorrectly. The club released statements that were very emotional at the time and not thought through, which made a very bad situation even worse. Liverpool was the only party that used the term “racist” in the aftermath of the verdict. The FA said that he wasn’t a racist and Patrice Evra said he wasn’t a racist. Liverpool tried to argue that the linguistics of the language made use of the word acceptable, which is completely besides the point. The club completely botched the situation, the media jumped all over us, and the club has really been unable to bounce back since this episode took place. When a situation of this magnitude gets fucked up, the blame falls upon everyone at the club, especially the owners.

The Insistence on a Director of Football and their Managerial Search
After the sacking of Kenny Dalglish, FSG insisted that whatever manager they hired would have to work with a Director of Football. This makes sense to Americans like myself, who are used to seeing this system used in American professional sports, as teams have a “General Manager” who makes the personnel decisions, and a Manager who fills out the lineups and works with the team on the field. This is a huge mistake that FSG made, as it cut into the pool of potential suitors for the position. FSG interviewed the likes of Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto Martinez, both of whom told FSG that they would not work with a Director of Football. Many believe that Steve Clarke was also interviewed by FSG, which would’ve been an understandable appointment given his background. By that point, they accepted defeat on the issue, realizing how divisive it was, and decided to appoint Brendan Rodgers without a Director of Football. Rodgers replacing The King was not taken well by the majority of fans, with this arguably being one of the two watershed moments for FSG (the other we’ll get to later).

It also did not help that FSG, in the eyes of the fans, was not looking at premier candidates. The big name on everyone’s lips after Kenny’s sacking: Rafa Benitez. Still a hero to many on Merseyside, Rafa was unemployed at the time of Kenny’s sacking, residing in his Wirral home, claiming that he was waiting for a phone call from the LFC Board. Despite being a very controversial figure amongst the LFC fanbase, his supporters were very vocal about wanting him to return. When Ian Ayre was at Aintree, fans at the racetrack chanted Rafa’s name like it was March 2009. The message from those fans was clear: bring back Rafa. Other big name managerial candidates were being brought up as well. Fabio Capello, five-time Serie A winner, two-time La Liga winner and one-time Champions League winner as a manager was unemployed at the time, and had experience in England as the National Team’s most recent managerial failure. Dutch Legend Johan Cruyff claims to have called Liverpool with a plan to get the club back to the top, with FSG not returning his phone call. Ex-Barcelona manager Frank Rijkaard was another name floated around. Yet FSG decided to choose Swansea Manager Brendan Rodgers over all of them after a two-week search. LFC fans didn’t like this, and understandably so. That being said, I think that they handled the managerial search relatively well. Could it have been done better? Yes. But they made a appointment who deserves another season to prove himself, as his long-term vision and undeniable progress made seem to be worthwhile.

Deadline Day of the 2012 Summer Window: Andy Carroll, Ian Ayre, Clint Dempsey, and Daniel Sturridge
Even to this day, I’m baffled by what happened in the last 48 hours of the 2012 Summer Transfer Window. I’m not entirely sure who to blame for it either. Everyone knew going into the window that we were targeting strikers. Everyone also knew that Andy Carroll wasn’t favored by Brendan Rodgers, meaning we’d have to sign at least two strikers by the end of the summer. In the last 48 hours of the window, it all went to hell in a hand-basket. Andy Carroll was loaned to West Ham, giving the club 24 hours to sign a replacement. We needed a goal-scorer, and everyone thought Dempsey would be locked up by then. We’d all heard the rumors, and knew that the club was interested after the NESN slip-up in July. Fulham, however, were pissed, and accused the club of tapping him up. When we tried to close the deal, offering Jordan Henderson plus £4m amongst other offers, it became clear that Fulham were not gonna give us a fair deal compared to Tottenham or Aston Villa, and Ian Ayre, fed up, refused to close the deal. We were also going after Daniel Sturridge, but Chelsea wanted £20m for him and we balked. Not having any other targets lined up for some reason, LFC’s window ended with only two first team strikers on the books in Fabio Borini and Luis Suarez, infuriating fans, many of whom saw this as LFC waving the white flag for this season. We eventually got Sturridge for £12m in the winter, but by then it was far too late for us to make a serious push for anything, and the season was effectively over before it even began.

Many still are furious with Ian Ayre over this, claiming that he shouldn’t be involved in transfer dealings at all. I cannot help but agree with this, to some extent. But that £8m we saved by not getting Sturridge in the summer and waiting until the winter could easily be viewed as what enabled us to get Philippe Coutinho. You could easily see that as justification of what happened and there being a method to the madness. But what seemed to be a one-off case of fiscal prudence and poor negotiation from FSG ended up sabotaging the 2012/13 season.

You could argue that FSG have made some mistakes. But they have also financed this club much more than Hicks and Gillett ever did. I do believe that they are trying to make Liverpool competitive for the long-term, and that they are learning from the mistakes they’ve made in the past. I know that isn’t much consolation to those out there who want to win trophies now, but I believe that we will be competitive again soon. Patience is a virtue, and both FSG and Brendan Rodgers should be given time to prove themselves. They’ve done more good than harm thus far (although many fans only see an exaggerated picture of harm), and should continue to bring Liverpool back to the top.

Follow Greg Visone on Twitter @njny

Fans Singing the National Anthem In Wake of Boston

The last five days have been very difficult for myself and many of you. Monday started with me watching, via my computer, the Memorial Service at Anfield for the 24th Anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster in the morning. Only a few hours later, as you all know, bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. On Wednesday night, the fertilizer plant in Waco, Texas exploded. Last night, I listened to a Boston Police scanner describing a manhunt for the two suspects in the Boston Marathon Bombing, discovering that they had shot and killed a Campus Policeman at MIT. The manhunt for one of the suspects, was completed only hours ago. Exhale. I could continue and cite other events that have taken place this week, but I feel as though I would just be repeating what you already know and reopening the wound.

Before I start going into a tirade, I’d like to reiterate that my sincere thoughts and prayers go out to those affected by the terrible tragedies in the last week; not just those that I have mentioned, but everywhere in the world.

These events in the last week have enabled Americans like myself to see both the best and worst of human behavior. While we can clearly see that there are people who are hell-bent on disrupting our lives and ruining all that we hold dear, we also see that there are people who can stare mass hysteria, chaos and terrorism right in the eyes and say “you cannot break our spirit.” The first responders in Waco and Boston, as well as all those who acted in the aftermath of the tragedies, have reminded us that human nature is inherently good.

The last week has put things in perspective for myself, and I’m really upset about it. I feel extremely immature for needing events like this to put my life into perspective. For years, my life has revolved around sports. As a fan of numerous sports and leagues, my schedule has revolved around when my favorite teams are playing and what time the big game is on TV, followed by my schoolwork. I’ve always had political beliefs and a strong grip on the following of the news cycle, but I’ve never really put events outside of the pro sports world above the news cycle. I feel as though I need to live in my own little bubble from time to time. It makes life a lot easier for me. I don’t understand why these events have shaken me so much, but I’m hopeful that I can become a better person because of them.

One of the few things that has brought a smile to my face in the last week is when I watched the Sabres-Bruins game on Wednesday night, before the Waco Explosion happened. I needed to see it because I felt as though watching it would encourage me to embrace normalcy and return to my usual life cycle. Being able to see Boston get back to normalcy should’ve done the trick. Watching Rene Rancourt let the Boston fans sing the National Anthem brought tears to my eyes. It was one of the most beautiful things, and it reminded me of a game I attended as a child 12 years ago.

When I was 8, my Dad took me to a Devils game when they were playing Washington. The date was December 8, 2001 (do not ask me how I remember this), less than 3 months after 9/11, and we were in the upper deck at Continental Airlines Arena on a Saturday afternoon with the building half-full. We stood for the National Anthem. Continental used to play this recording of the National Anthem for its sporting events, and, with the building in the midst of a gradual decline, the recording on that day blasted out the first two seconds and then stopped, completely broken. A few fans in the building were singing it from the beginning, and didn’t stop after the recording crapped out. Slowly but surely, the whole building started singing it, and it got louder and louder until, eventually, the fans were screaming it. It was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever experienced at a sporting event, and it is something I will never forget.

As I watched those fans in Boston sing the National Anthem, I cried and smiled. It reminded me, for a split second, of the joy I got from singing the Anthem on that day. It makes me feel as though we need to let the fans sing the anthem more often at sporting events in this country. It’s not because of the national pride you get from it or how it makes us feel a sense of unity, but because it’s the right thing to do.

One of the many things I’ve been saying for years is that the National Anthem is being disrespected in this country and has been disrespected for far too long. I was at the Final Four last weekend. One of the things that I remember from the Championship Game was that fans were pulling their phones out during the National Anthem, talking to the people beside them and simply not caring. Since when did this become acceptable?

What’s worse is that the anthem is being disrespected by those who are given the “honor” to sing it; I was at a Washington Wizards game a few years ago where the woman singing it took four or five minutes to get through the whole thing. I got upset because it wasn’t the first time I’ve seen it happen like that, and it has happened far too often. If any other country had their national anthem treated the way that we treat ours, the people disrespecting it would be arrested and executed.

Fan groups at games don’t give proper respect to the Anthem either. I was at the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season in Columbus. I specifically remember NC State fans shouting “Wolfpack!” over “brave” in the last line of the song. Red Bulls fans love shouting “RED” when the word comes up during the line “and the rockets red glare.” Baltimore fans, for some reason, love to shout “OH” for the first word of the line “Oh say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave…” Anybody singing the song from the beginning wouldn’t do that because it wouldn’t fit and it would be blatantly disrespectful.

If fans sang the National Anthem more often, I believe we would treat it better than how it is currently treated in this country. We would sing it with pride and reverence, the way that it is intended to be sung. Just look at how a Vancouver Canucks Crowd sings “Oh Canada,” or just watch one game involving the United States Men’s National Team. When the anthem comes on before a USMNT match, the fans and players sing it with respect. There’s no designated singer. They just play the song and the country’s players, coaches and fans sing it as loud as they possibly can. Astonishingly, they’re able to sing it in harmony without any problems, and the song is shown the proper respect that it deserves.

If there’s one thing that being a fan of football has taught me, it’s that singing is one of the few things humans can and do use to express their emotions accurately and effectively. If fans in this country were to sing our National Anthem more often, I guarantee you that it would be sung with more passion, emotion and respect than any Hollywood singer you could possibly roll out onto the field or ice with a microphone. It’s not gonna solve all our problems, nor will it make us better people, but it’ll make us feel better. I highly doubt that this will happen in the future, but I hope it does.

Follow Greg Visone on Twitter @njny

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