Greg’s Gambling Lines: NFL and NCAA Picks (September 29 and 30)

This has been a crazy week for me in terms of gambling. Despite going 5-5 in my inaugural Gambling Lines column last week, I lost quite a bit of my earnings from the early games betting on the Michigan-Notre Dame over/under. Despite that, I made back a small amount of cash on Sunday’s NFL games.

I had two bets on Monday Night Football, my bigger one getting decided on the final play. One of those bets was a seven-point teaser: Seahawks +10.5 and Under 53 (-130). That bet was over by halftime, but the other bet, Seahawks +3.5 was a much larger bet, and one that I profited on because of much-maligned refereeing incompetence. Honestly, I’m glad I profited, but I’m much happier that the regular referees are coming back. I’m furious with the owners for allowing this to drag on as long as it did. Anybody with half a brain knew that it would come down to someone getting cost a game (I knew it in preseason). For this to have dragged on as long as it did screams malpractice and incompetence of the highest order, and I found Jim Irsay’s tweets on Wednesday to be incredibly insulting to my intelligence.

Anyway, let’s get on to some selections. We’re going to introduce some NFL picks into the mix this week in addition to the NCAA picks. I think I’ve got some good ones this week, but nothing’s a sure thing when it comes to Vegas.

Note: Unless otherwise noted, all picks will be against the spread, and all odds are -110 (or 10/11). That means you need to bet $110 to win $100, and the ratio stays the same for however much you bet.

Thursday Night Special:

NFL + NCAA Parlay: Baltimore (-12) v Cleveland and Stanford (-7) at Washington (odds: +$273)

Stanford has had Washington’s number over the years, and in spite of Washington starting off well at home this season and having a primetime game on national television against the #8 team in the country, Stanford should be able to pull this out. As far as the NFL game is concerned, 0-3 Cleveland is traveling on short rest to face a Baltimore team riding high after sneaking away with a win on Sunday Night Football against New England. Cleveland may have a trend of playing well in primetime games, but don’t over think this one. Lay the points for both favorites tonight.

NCAA Saturday:

#25 Baylor at #9 West Virginia Under 81.5

This one was too big to turn down. Yes, both teams are very good offensively, with Baylor averaging 51.3 PPG and West Virginia 47.3. But look at the teams they’ve faced: West Virginia played Marshall, James Madison and Maryland, while Baylor played SMU, Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe. Best team of those six is Maryland, and West Virginia was held to 31 points in that game last week. Yes, this one is bound to be a shoot-out, but 82 points is a bit too high for my liking.

UConn (-16) v Buffalo

Okay, I know Connecticut is coming off a loss against Western Michigan, and yes, they’re two wins against Maryland and UMass are nothing to write home about, but come on. Buffalo lost to Kent State 23-7 at home last week, with their only TD coming courtesy of a Hail Mary at the end of the half with a catch that the receiver couldn’t make again if he got another 50 chances at it. To only be favored by 16 is a blessing in my eyes. Lay the points.

Saturday’s Big Money picks:

**Seven-point teaser #1**: #14 Ohio State (+9.5) at #20 Michigan State under 49 (-130)

This game could go either way. That being said, Michigan State’s offense has struggled in three of their first four games, and they’ve given up an average of 11.8 points per game. On the other side of the ball, Ohio State has been able to score points this year, but they haven’t really had a big test yet. Having watched Ohio State in all four games this season, I’ll say this: the offense is not as good as Urban Meyer would like it to be, and Braxton Miller is not a legitimate Heisman Candidate this year. Last year, Ohio State lost 10-7 at home to Michigan State and struggled to move the ball. Six of their seven losses last year were by a TD or less. They brought in Urban Meyer because he is one of the best coaches in the country, but the biggest thing that he’s been able to do wherever he’s gone is win games. Sounds pretty simple, no? If they’re going to be in close games this year, they will be able to win them. I think they’ll be able to leave East Lansing with a win, but just to be safe, do a teaser and give yourself a bit of a handicap.

**Seven-point teaser #2**: #22 Nebraska (-4.5) v Wisconsin under 58.5 (-130)

Nebraska’s first ever Big Ten game last year was away to Wisconsin, where the Badgers welcomed them with a 48-17 ass-whooping at Camp Randall. This year, Nebraska’s got revenge on their mind, and this would be the perfect scenario for them to get one over the Badgers. While Wisconsin’s loss to Oregon State doesn’t look as bad as it did a few weeks ago, they haven’t really impressed in their first few games. Their most impressive win was last week when they won by 11 against UTEP. If Utah State makes a field goal at the end of the game in Week 3, we’re talking about a 2-2 Wisconsin team here that was supposed to coast into the Big Ten Championship Game. While they’re probably going to represent the Leaders Division in Indianapolis, it’s clear that something isn’t quite right in Madison, and they’re going to suffer for it against Nebraska.

NFL:

San Francisco 49ers -3.5 at New York Jets

The line here is lower than it should be with the 49ers are coming off a loss in Minnesota, while the Jets are coming off an OT win in Miami. When you factor in that the Jets have lost Revis for the season, and that their offense is a disaster going up against a defense that made a habit last season out of trying to kill QBs, it’s fair to say that the bookies made it easy for bettors here. [Editor’s note: the house always wins in the long-run, Greg!]

Miami Dolphins at Arizona Cardinals Under 40

The Cardinals, much to everyone’s surprise, are 3-0 going into this game against Miami. While the offense has been consistent, putting up an average of 22.33 PPG, their defense has been the driving point, and they made a huge statement against the Eagles on Sunday. As a huge Giants fan, it’s given me a massive amount of joy to get the opportunity to see Michael Vick get popped repeatedly on television in two of the first three weeks of the season, and the Cardinals were being more vicious than a dog who just managed to survive getting electrocuted to death. They forced a number of turnovers and have been able to contain both Tom Brady and Vick the last two weeks. Miami, on the other hand, has been very efficient at stopping the run so far this season, and while they’ve given up quite a few points in the first three weeks, they should be able to do well against Arizona’s offense.

Denver Broncos -6 v Oakland Raiders

Despite getting beaten handily the first two weeks, Oakland is coming off a big win against Pittsburgh, while the Broncos have (not so surprisingly) lost two straight with Peyton at the helm. It’s fair to say that the Raiders were facing an injury-depleted Steelers lineup last week, while the Broncos have had a rather difficult start to the schedule going up against three playoff teams from last year. Even with this being a divisional game, the Broncos haven’t looked bad by any means in their first three games. I expect them to cover here against Oakland.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers -3 v Washington Redskins

As much as I hate to say it, Tampa Bay looks like a legitimate team right now. Schiano is coaching this team very well and has them fighting until the end against the teams they’ve played these first three weeks. While Washington has looked like a very good team as well in these last few weeks, I can’t help but feel as though this is one of those games where we’ll get to see a team have all of the pieces come together. I think the Bucs will pull it out here.

St. Louis Rams +3 v Seattle Seahawks

The NFC West has had a trend over the years of divisional games typically being won by the home team. This one should be no different. In spite of how horrible St. Louis looked last week, they should be able to do much better this week against Seattle. Yes, the Seahawks were impressive in their win on Monday night (even if they were handed the game by the refs at the end), but Seattle is a different team when they play at home. Seattle also loves playing on Monday night (they have the highest winning percentage in the history of MNF). However, they have not been as good on the road. I’ll take the points and expect St. Louis to win outright.

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Alright, there’s my picks for the 29th and 30th of September. Enjoy, and remember: if you’re dumb enough to bet your house on one of these recommendations, then you deserve what happens to you.

Follow Greg on Twitter @njny

Overreaction Mondays: The Replacement Refs Era Comes To An End (Hopefully)

“I think it’s getting to a point where it’s pretty horrendous, and it’s an embarrassment.”—Drew Brees

1) 1972 Gold Medal Men’s Basketball game.
2) Armando Galarraga blown perfect game.
3) The Monday Night Football Replacement Ref game.

What do all of these games have in common? They make up the top three biggest travesties in American professional sports. The first cost the United States a Gold medal against the Soviet Union the height of the Cold War, the second was a downer for everyone in baseball, and the third will go down as the moment Roger Goodell was finally caught with his pants down. Between the NFL’s concussion cover-up, Bounty Gate (which is looking more and more like Goodell’s Bounty Hunt), and the Replacement Refs Era, Goodell may be on the worst streak of any American sports commissioner ever.

Going into the season, I honestly didn’t think much of the Replacement Refs. Peyton Manning, the non-Quarterback controversy with the Jets, and Chad Johnson’s wife were the only big training camp story lines, so I chalked up any qualms about the Replacement Refs to a slow news cycle in the NFL. Just good ol’ sensationalizing by the TMZ faction of the sports media. [Editor’s note: Greg warned all of us of this impending doom during Week 1.]

The old refs were pretty bad, so how bad could their picket-fence crossing counterparts be? After all, we spend hours upon hours every weekend lamenting their calls, and claiming that we can do better. This is a job that apparently any fan can do better, right? The Replacement Refs, however, are so bad that it actually somehow puts the old ones on a pedestal. This is the only instance in sports history (to my knowledge) that the regular officials of a sport, who are generally despised and blamed viciously (and often unfairly), are actually being revered, held to a higher standard, and genuinely missed. After the infamous Ed Hochuli call in 2008, I didn’t think that NFL officiating could get any worse, but it did.

It took three weeks, but the Replacement Refs finally blew a game. It’s not like there were a few bad calls that may or may not have actually influenced the outcome of the game. Wins and losses are created throughout the course of the game—it’s usually impossible to seriously chalk it up to one play and say the game was won or lost there. Coaches never ever point to one particular play as the reason why a game was decided. But in Roger Goodell’s NFL, we can finally point to one play.

On the last play of the Packers-Seahawks game on Monday Night Football, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw a hail mary into the end zone. A touchdown would win them the game, and anything else would end it in favor of the Packers. Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate shoved Packers cornerback Sam Shields to the ground (no offensive pass interference was called), and Packers safety M.D Jennings caught Wilson’s pass for an interception (he should’ve swatted it down though). Tate fought with Shields for the ball, but it looked more like Jennings caught the ball and Tate caught Jennings. It was a clear incompletion on the field, and even clearer in replays. That was Jennings’ ball.

And then this happened:

One official signaled for an incompletion, and the other signaled for a touchdown. The next time the old refs head to the bargaining table with the NFL, all they have to do is slip Roger Goodell this photo in a manila envelope, and he’ll cave. That one snapshot is the defining moment of the Replacement Ref Era in the NFL—the moment two officials called the game the opposite way, and ultimately got the call wrong, even after reviewing the touchdown. Not only did they look foolish making the call on the field, but they even got the call wrong after having a chance to correct it. This is exactly why they NFL added automatic reviews for every touchdown scored. A safety-net was put in place by the Rules Committee to prevent this, but the Replacement Refs somehow managed to slice that net into pieces. Refs get calls wrong on the field all the time—Replacement or not, they mess up. The missed call on the review was more inexcusable than the call on the field, because they had every chance to fix their error.

But never mind all of the horrible calls on both sides of the fence throughout the course of the game. Russell Wilson’s interception was overturned on a soft roughing the passer call, Greg Jennings got blindsided running his route, Jermichael Finley got mugged all night, and Charles Woodson got away with everything against the Seahawks wide receivers. A total of 24 penalties were called tonight, and every drive seemed to go like this:

Play, play, flag, play, punt.

For 3.99999 quarters, the game was dry, uneven, and frankly boring. Every Packers drive featured Aaron Rodgers getting killed, and every Seahawks drive was a Marshawn Lynch three and out show, all aided by flags thrown left and right. (I hope this game doesn’t overshadow what was a bad performance by the Packers on offense and a worse play-calling job by Mike McCarthy. We’re still waiting for this offense to look like 1/4 of what it was last year.) The “play, play, flag, play, punt” drive formula wasn’t exclusive to this game either—NFL games are 10 minutes longer this year thanks to increased penalty calls and general confusion from the Replacement Refs. Games not only feel slower, but they actually are slower.

Goodell better not even THINK about fining Packers lineman T.J Lang for this.

Tonight was a watershed moment in NFL history. It was the night that the NFL’s Stalin got egged by his Replacements Refs, and finally had his ego popped. The NFL will be better for what happened tonight (the only way to go is up once rock bottom is hit, right?), but for it to come at the cost of my Packers doesn’t make any Packer fan feel any better. The Packers are now martyrs, but their loss will not be in vain.

The Seahawks were celebrating their “12th man” tonight to honor the great home crowd and community they have in Seattle, but who knew that their 12th man was wearing zebra stripes instead of a lime-green Nike jersey? The players now know, and they’re not fucking around anymore. Your move, Roger.

He’s mad.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

EPL Recap Week 5: Moronic Liverpool-Manchester United Fans and John Terry Soil It All

Last weekend saw some phenomenal action in the English Premier League, with two marquee match-ups grabbing the spotlight in England: Liverpool vs. Manchester United and Manchester City vs. Arsenal. It was meant to be a great weekend of football that would be capped off by two matches would be watched by millions around the world, and as far as action was concerned, both lived up to the hype. However, I need to deviate from the usual format of “title-contender,” “mid-table,” and “relegation” in recapping the matches to point out some troublesome off-the-pitch action.

At Anfield, it was supposed to be an emotional day, as Liverpool were playing at home for the first time since the Independent Hillsborough Panel issued their report and completely exonerated the club’s fans for what had happened on 15 April 1989. Manchester United came to Anfield, with Sir Alex Ferguson and the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust pleading for the traveling Manchester United fans (who were given a near-full away allocation for the first time in quite a while) to end all offensive anti-Liverpool songs and show respect to the opposing fans. Just this once, in respect of the 96.

Man United wore jumpers before the match with “96” on the back, and Luis Suarez shook Patrice Evra’s hand, thus putting that issue to bed once and for all. After a beautiful tribute on the pitch, with balloons being released into the air, flowers were presented to Ian Rush by Sir Bobby Charlton, and a three-sided crowd mosaic was put on display during the opening minute of play, the focus went back to matters on the pitch, but the hostility off it was as ripe as ever.

In the 12th minute, a select amount of traveling Man United fans could be heard clearly over the television singing “Where’s your famous Munich song” towards the rest of the ground, a reference to the chant sung by a minority of Liverpool fans about the 1958 Munich Air Disaster. Eyewitness accounts claim that this was in response to two fans at the Anfield Road end of the stadium doing the “Munich Aeroplane Pose” towards them a minute earlier. After the match, while being held in the ground by stewards as the rest of fans left, a number of fans could be heard yet again singing the aforementioned song, in addition to chants of “Always the victims, It’s never your fault” and “Mur-der-ers”, which are references to both the Hillsborough and Heysel Disasters of 1989 and 1985 (link to the video here).

Things were rather eventful on the pitch as well, with Jonjo Shelvey getting sent off for a two-footed challenge on Jonny Evans, who got nothing despite going in two-footed as well. While heading towards the tunnel, the 20 year-old Shelvey had some words with Sir Alex. After the match, which was a 2-1 Man United win, Jonjo took to twitter to apologize to the fans for getting sent off. However, he also added one other tweet, which read:

“I have also apologised to Sir Alex, just where I come from people don’t grass people up to get someone sent off.”

That has since been deleted, but it’s clear that he’ll probably see some reprimand from the FA for that remark.

Yesterday was supposed to be a chance for Liverpool and Manchester United to move on and show that there is some common decency in football in spite of what is a very heated rivalry. Alas, the lunatic/idiotic minorities in each fan-base have overshadowed the silent majorities. Just when it seemed as though society had taken another positive step, we’ve been reminded of how far we still have to go. There’s never true unity when tribalism is still in play.

After all matches had taken place on Sunday, a stunning development took place in the form of Chelsea Captain, (twice) former England National Team Captain, and overall undeserving media darling John Terry releasing a statement. The reason? He was retiring from the England National Team effective immediately. The announcement came less than 24 hours before his FA hearing in regards to the incident that had taken place last season involving Anton Ferdinand. The statement from John Terry read as follows:

“I am making this statement today in advance of the hearing of the FA disciplinary charge because I feel the FA, in pursuing charges against me where I have already been cleared in a court of law, have made my position with the national team untenable.”

Now, I’ve already explained this in a prior post on this website, but just for the sake of clarity, let me explain how fucking ridiculous this quote is. First of all, John: You are not being charged for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand. You are being charged with misconduct and violating Rule E3, which deals with “bringing the game into disrepute.” Rule E3 specifically says that a player on the pitch cannot use “threatening, abusive, indecent or insulting words or behaviour.” It doesn’t matter what context you used them in, because The FA rules state that your intent doesn’t matter as you still used incredibly offensive language.

In addition, John, you used one, if not two “aggravating factors” as defined in the first subheading of rule E3. The aggravating factors are defined as “a reference to any one or more of a person’s ethnic origin, colour, race, nationality, faith, gender, sexual orientation or disability,” which you have admitted to doing in a court of law.

Also, the process for this charge is different than what you faced in a criminal court. The FA are not undermining the English Justice System, as they are operating under a lower burden of proof than a criminal court. You were found not guilty, because there was a reasonable doubt as to your intent. Here, you have to face the same burden of proof as Luis Suarez, known as “balance of probability,” in regards to whether or not you used the words “Fucking Black Cunt,” something that, as I have already pointed out, you have admitted to in a court of law.

John, you have no leg to stand on here. The FA has done what it believes is the right course of action and it is not untenable by any means. Why? Because they are operating by fair and consistent standards. Just because you’re an English media darling and a national hero doesn’t mean you deserve special treatment from your own governing body.

Your retirement from the English National Team is the equivalent of a spoiled little kid running to their Mom because they’ve been grounded by Dad for saying “fuck you” in response to being asked to clean their room. Your excuse? “Mom lets me say that all the time cause she knows that I don’t mean it.” Well you know what? Fuck off John.

Next week we’ll see a normal weekend EPL review, but yesterday was just too insane to focus on what happened on the pitch.

Follow Greg on Twitter @njny

Greg’s Gambling Lines: College Football Week 4

Okay, I’ve never had my own column for picking winners before. Alas, with my only column these days being the EPL wrap-up column every week, we had to figure something out to get me writing articles on a more regular basis [Editor’s Note: You can pitch and write on your own ideas too!]. So here’s my first ever gambling column going into tomorrow’s College Football games. If I do well, then we’ll continue it for the rest of the season. If it doesn’t go over well, then we gave it a shot. Still, it’s about time my gambling addiction came in handy.

I’ll have three “Big Money” picks this week, in addition to one specialty parlay.

Note: All picks will be against the spread, and all odds, unless otherwise noted, are -110 (or 10/11). That means you need to bet $110 to win $100, and the ratio stays the same for however much you bet.

Alright, here are my picks for this Saturday’s College Football action:

Kansas (+9) at Northern Illinois

Kansas is getting its leading rusher from last season James Sims back from suspension going into this game, but Tony Pierson and Taylor Cox have filled in for him rather well despite his absence the first three games. They’ve started off 1-2, but I think they’ve got enough here to beat the spread at Northern Illinois.

Miami (Ohio) (-24.5) v UMass

High-octane passing game at home against a team that’s coming off three consecutive spankings against BCS Conference opponents? I’ll take that. I’m weary about spotting 24 points, but willing to take the risk here.

Louisville (-13.5) at Florida International

Not exactly thrilled to be going with this pick, but Florida International beat Louisville 24-17 in their meeting at Louisville last season. Louisville’s starting off the season well, however, and should have that humiliation from last year fresh in its mind going into this one.

Washington State (-20) v Colorado

I’m going to sum this up for you rather sweetly: Colorado is fucking horrible. They’ve not only lost to Colorado State and Sacramento State in close games, but they’re also coming off a humiliating blowout to Fresno State. Lay the 20 points and expect the Buffs’ miserable season to continue in their first Pac-12 game of the season.

Arkansas (-9) v Rutgers

I know Arkansas’s got injury problems and has lost to UL-Monroe & Alabama at home, but they should be strong enough to bounce back here. Yes, Rutgers is 3-0 and coming off a big Thursday Night win at South Florida, but John L. Smith needs this game to somewhat salvage the season (and his locker room).

Under 59.5 UAB at Ohio State

The Ohio State offense has been out there for a little while, and chinks in the armor are starting to show in spite of their 3-0 start. While UAB might not get much going with the ball, they should be able to give Braxton and Co. a tough time as the Buckeyes play their last tune-up before the Big Ten schedule starts.

Three “Big Money” picks

Notre Dame (-5.5) v. Michigan

As much as I hate to say it: Notre Dame looks legit right now. The defense is playing very well, while the offense is carrying the load and doing its job so far. Michigan, however, hasn’t really had a conventional opponent since Alabama. Air Force is an option offense that Big Ten teams don’t usually run, and UMass is, well, UMass. So take Notre Dame here against the spread. Still, I’d love it if both of these teams could lose. Seriously, could we please try to make that happen?

Florida State (-14) v Clemson

Okay, before you all get started: Yes, Florida State hasn’t played anybody yet. But they’re kicking the shit out of whoever the hell they do play. I mean, you gotta be doing something right to win 69-3, 55-0 and 52-0 your first three games. Yes, Clemson is much tougher than Murray State, Savannah State and Wake Forest, but that defense is still suspect. Remember the Orange Bowl against West Virginia? I mean, that was only 9 months ago…

Auburn (+20.5) v Louisiana State University

This one is based on history more than anything. This is a massive rivalry game, with Auburn and LSU always playing tough (and close) games against each other in Auburn. Yes, Auburn has struggled in their early season games so far, but I have my doubts that this will be a blowout by LSU. Take the points and look for Auburn to give LSU a bit of a scare here.

*7-Point Teaser*:

South Carolina (-3 / under 55.5) v. Missouri (line: -130)

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Alright, there’s my picks. Enjoy, and remember: if you’re dumb enough to bet your house on one of these recommendations, then you deserve what happens to you.

Follow Greg on Twitter @njny

EPL Recap Week 4: A Rare Moment of Solidarity

This weekend’s English Premier League action has been very exciting, but the action seemed to take a back seat for the most part, because of revelations that took over 23 years to finally come to light.

The findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel were revealed on Wednesday September 12th. Thousands of documents from the disaster were being made public for the first time, and the findings confirmed that what the families of the victims, and Liverpool fans in general, had been saying about that day for over 23 years were the truth.

To sum it up in a paragraph would be incredibly disrespectful, as there’s so much more to the story that can be expressed in words. Alas, this is a football piece, and I have to try my best to do so: On 15 April 1989, 96 Liverpool fans who went to Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium for the FA Cup Semi-final against Nottingham Forest were killed by a crush that was the result of a lack of police control. The Independent Panel found that South Yorkshire Police changed or deleted 116 of 164 statements by officers to shift blame on to the fans in an orchestrated cover-up. To top it all off, it was found that ambulance services being allowed access into the ground could have saved 41 lives. They were lined up outside the stadium ready to go in but were denied access by South Yorkshire Police. Nobody to date has ever been held accountable for this disaster. After 23 years of fighting, the families have finally gotten the truth from their government, and can now begin the fight for justice and having those responsible finally be held accountable.

In the aftermath of this news coming to light, almost all grounds in England hosting a match this weekend held a tribute of some sort for the Hillsborough victims and the families of those who died. Reading played “You’ll Never Walk Alone” over the loudspeaker before their match against Tottenham. Everton held a particularly moving tribute prior to their match on Monday night against Newcastle, with Margaret Aspinall and and Trevor Hicks, heads of the Hillsborough Families Support Group and Hillsborough Justice Campaign, both of whom lost children on 15 April, in attendance. Sunderland showed a message on the screen showing their support for the families prior to their match at home against Liverpool. All of these acts are indicative of a rare moment of solidarity in English football, and it reminds us all of the fact that there is more to life than football, as we have all been reminded of the fact that 96 Liverpool fans went to a match 23 years ago and never came home.

With that solidarity being highlighted, it’s time for us to review the highlights of this weekend’s Premiership action:

TITLE CONTENDING: Man United’s 4-0 smashing of Wigan at home

I’m not gonna mention the shenanigans that took place at this match, as its already been beaten to death in the press. As far as what happened on the pitch, Man United took their chances at home and made it clear that they are back and hungry to reclaim the league title this season. After a scoreless first half, Paul Scholes got things started with a goal in the 50th minute, marking his 700th appearance for Man United with a goal at Old Trafford. Another usual suspect put the game to bed 12 minutes later, as Javier Hernandez scored to put United up 2-0. Then Alexander Büttner, making his debut for United, opened his account with a goal that resulted from a terrific run on his part, followed by a finish from a tight angle off the keeper and in. Late in the match, 17 year-old Nick Powell came off the bench for United to make his debut in front of the Old Trafford faithful, and capped it off with a debut goal of his own.

MID-TABLE: Everton 2-2 Newcastle

This was a phenomenal match. Everton started off much brighter and got the opening goal in the 16th minute on a truly great finish by Leighton Baines. Newcastle started to get something going at the end of the first half, and was able to get the equalizer early in the 2nd, courtesy of Demba Ba. The match became much more open as a result of that goal, and, in the 88th minute, Everton appeared to have snatched a late winner with a goal from Victor Anichebe. Alas, this was not to be as Demba Ba scored yet another equalizer two minutes later to seal a point for a very injury-depleted Newcastle United.

RELEGATION: Southampton loses 6-1 to Arsenal at The Emirates

This might be a bit cruel to put Southampton’s 6-1 loss as the worst performance of the week, seeing as it was against Arsenal. But having already played Manchester United and Manchester City tough but losing 3-2 in each match, in addition to a 2-0 home loss to Wigan, this one hurt for Saints fans. They conceded two own goals in this match, in addition to one from Podolski, two from Gervinho, and one from Walcott in a 6-1 drubbing. They’ve lost four straight matches in the Premier League since being promoted, with this one being the worst of the bunch. It’s fair to say that this is worthy of being distinguished as a team in relegation form.

Follow Greg on Twitter @njny

Who Knew That Sports Fans Could Take It This Far?

Sports fandom has been revolutionized. We’ve come a long way from just watching the games, scanning the box scores, and arguing who should be hitting clean-up over a water cooler. I’d estimate that 98% of our fandom is now expressed online—the actual act of being a fan (supporting, following, watching, buying merchandise, discussion) is done through forums, Twitter, Facebook, and whatever other means of social networking fans use to get it off our chests.

With a massive change in how we digest information and express our sporting loyalties, there’s also been revolution in the type of information we have access to. Fans can dig beneath the surface of the games themselves to see analytics behind how efficient Wayne Rooney is with his shots; sabermetrics can tell you what Justin Verlander’s real ERA is (that simple “ERA” stat you see on his ESPN.com Player Card isn’t the whole truth); I even know that Jeremy Lin is a better pick-and-roll shooter than Raymond Felton. Thanks to Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball,” and the underground statistical community that it exposed within sport, fan-driven thirst for relevant knowledge has developed. Don’t tell me what Derek Jeter’s RBI numbers are—what’s his WAR?

Besides the bevy of advanced metrics that has made anyone with a keyboard and internet access a make-shift blogger, there are sites that are totally dedicated to keeping track of player contracts, salaries, and wages. ESPN employs sports lawyers and accountants full-time to give concise and easy to understand industry insight on every labor union dispute, contract signed, and NFL player arrest. We’ve been given enough information to make any sensible person well-spoken on just about every sports story. Bill Simmons touched on this in his column on the Red Sox payroll dump last month: “You could click on the 25th-best NBA blog and probably read an educated, smartly considered take on the Knicks’ decision to allow Jeremy Lin to leave.” Simmons is correct: JLBSports.tv is probably the 100,000,000th most popular sports website, but my breakdown of the Lin situation could probably match whatever ESPN.com’s columnists filed. I’m not touting myself up, but professional sports writers and I had the same information—it just depends on whether readers preferred my writing style and framing to Ian Begley’s.

Modern fans are smart enough that some of them really belong on a team’s payroll. Why a soccer club hasn’t hired away my friend Zach Slaton to run numbers for them yet is beyond me (although I’m sure he’s comfortable with his gig at Forbes.com for now). Fans turned industry professionals are commonplace now. Bill James and Voros McCraken were once simple fans of baseball—the former is now in the Red Sox’s front office, with the latter having worked in the same front office from 2003-2005. Bloggers with serious analytics on economics, statistics, and accounting are being hired away by organizations, because they’ve got the models and algorithms that can translate into wins. These independent bloggers and writers have the tools to peel back the curtain, and show fans what’s really going on.

More and more often, however, the best bloggers are being hired away, leaving serious gaps in analysis that fans can access. There aren’t any killer basketball or soccer sabermetrics like baseball has, but teams like the Houston Rockets and Manchester City are fully immersed in them—it’s just that the Rockets keep that information to themselves to stave off competition, and City isn’t telling us which numbers translate into wins (they have, however, opened up their data to independent interpretation).

With Darren Rovell tweeting every bit of irrelevant sports business information, and Baseball Prospectus pumping out their annual Holy Bible, there’s an illusion that fans truly know everything that’s to be known, and they don’t. We’re at a weird point in sports fandom where fans know so much about the statistics and finances—crucial “insider” knowledge—of their teams, and that knowledge causes them to over-analyze and assume way too much. More often than not, we simply don’t know better. Just because you have an ESPN.com Insider account, it doesn’t mean you’re actually keeping up with the inside.

It’s weird for a sports blogger to plead ignorance (as I am right now—aren’t we supposed to be know-it-alls?), but when we don’t, it muddles debate and hurts the teams. For the past month, the biggest story in baseball has been Stephen Strasburg, and whether he should or should not be shut down after reaching his innings limit, which was predetermined last winter. His Washington Nationals boast the best record in baseball, and going into October without their ace will undoubtedly hurt their World Series hopes. The Nationals shut him down anyway, wanting to protect his arm (equipped with a newly reconstructed elbow from Tommy John surgery in 2010) from future harm.

Every baseball fan with a pulse has an opinion on the matter, and many disagreed with the Nationals’ decision. Tommy John, for one, totally second-guessed the Nationals: “I would hope the general manager has a degree in orthopedic surgery, or at least kinesiology or physiology, and I don’t think [Nationals General Manager] Mike Rizzo has any of that… But you know what? The golden ring only comes around on the merry go round maybe one time.” I’m sure Rizzo doesn’t have any medical degrees, but I can guarantee that he’s hired a crack-team of people who do. We don’t know what the Nationals doctors know, and even what their stat nerds know about pitcher’s innings limits, age, and injuries. It wasn’t until this week that Rany Jazayerli wrote about why the Nationals made a mistake, but he used over twenty years of statistical research to compile his argument, and even then, I’m sure the Nationals have their own metrics to counter Jazayerli’s research.

Fans thinking they know more than they actually do doesn’t only apply to statistics, but also to their team’s finances. I watched the English Premier League’s transfer Deadline Day unfold, and with every passing hour, everyone on my Twitter timeline suddenly became accountants. Liverpool fans questioned why their team didn’t step up their £3.5 million offer for Fulham striker Clint Dempsey to meet Fulham’s £6 million asking price. To them, a £2.5 million difference was negligible for a rich team that badly needed a striker. That difference would just be made up in shirt sales. He’s vital to cracking the American market. Once again, Liverpool fans should assume ignorance over facts in the matter. I’m sure that internally, Liverpool could prove that paying an extra £2.5 million for a 29 year old striker with an abysmal chance conversion rate was simply not worth it in terms of pound to performance value. We make think that Liverpool and the public share the same information—Demspey’s 17 league goals last season, a $100 jersey price, and a serious need for a new striker seem to equate to an easy, logical buy for the club. If it was that simple, however, Liverpool would’ve pulled the trigger. It wasn’t though, and for reasons that will never be made public, no transfer was completed.

As much as we would like to think otherwise, we’re not as smart as the teams we support. There are some genuine head-scratchers, like the Knicks and Jeremy Lin (really just James Dolan across the board), the Magic’s package for Dwight Howard, the entire Cleveland Browns franchise, and Albert Pujols’ contract, but by-in-large, teams are making the right choices based on an even deeper well of knowledge than fans have access to. It’s not just fans who got smarter—teams did too.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

Inside Sport Management At NYU: Nike Plots Basketball Dominance

When I explain to people what I’m studying at college, it’s never an easy answer. Telling them that I go New York University is the obvious first step, but when I tell that to someone, their first thought is almost always the image of a dirty hipster, prowling the depths of the LES, Williamsburg, or some obscure place that’s not cool yet but will be in a few months, rather than an institution of higher learning. I’m not a film major at the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, and I’m not a future millionaire at the internationally renowned Stern Business School. No, I study Sport Management at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Within that school exists my program: The Robert Preston Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, Sport Management, and Horseback Riding. I call it the “fake Tisch” or just SCPS. Curious looks always follow-up my ramble.

After explaining what school I’m in at NYU, which takes three more sentences than it should, I’ll always immediately jump out and explain what a “Sport Management” major is—I’m not going to school to be a baseball coach or an equipment jockey. On the first day of class freshman year, my “Introduction to Sport Management” instructor laid it out pretty well. I’m in a program that’s rooted in the same business principles and practices that a Stern business student would learn, but taught with an angle slighted towards the sports industry. I learn accounting, marketing, consumer behavior, business development, law—the whole nine yards—except every example given to teach me these subjects has to do with sports. It’s much easier to learn accounting when the finances of the Yankees or MSG are on the table. Last semester, I actually had fun writing a 12 page paper on organizational structures, because it was on how Liverpool FC stacks up.

From the first minute of class, we’re instantly taught to stop thinking like a fan, and to think like a savvy industry insider. Yet what really makes the material to much fun to absorb is that little fan switch in the back of my mind—it’s never fully in the off position. At heart, I’m a fan of the sports, leagues, teams, and companies discussed in class. Would you rather study the accounting statement of Fortune 500 Company X, or the team you just spent three hours yelling at through your television last Sunday? The skills I’m picking up in my major is allowing me to analyze my favorite teams at a higher level. I’m actually becoming a better fan—there’s no inverse relationship between my business knowledge and my personal fandom of the sports industry.

At SCPS, I’ve been blessed with a truly outstanding faculty. Most, if not all of my Sport Management professors have other gigs outside of the classroom. They’re still working jobs within the industry, mostly in some sort of counseling or writing capacity. Occasionally, examples brought up in class will directly follow a sporting trend that’s worth noting. I’ll be using this column to explain them as best as my notes dictate, and with added analysis from my own perspective.

The first grand idea comes from Professor David Hollander’s Marketing of Sports and Events class. He was giving a lecture on the pillars of marketing, and how businesses should think about themselves. He brought up the railroad industry as a prime example of how businesses fail to evaluate themselves properly. Back in the late 20th and early 21st century, if railroad companies thought about themselves as being in the travel business, and not the railroad business, they would’ve had a chance to adapt to the airplane and car, the two dominant forms of transportation today. When companies ask themselves “What business am I in?” the answer should always be based on the wants and needs of the consumer, and not one specific product.

A more modern example would be book companies. Book publishers don’t think of themselves as being in the book (you know, that physical stack of paper bound together) business, but in the literature business. People want to read, and it’s the job of every publisher to get people to read their products—whether it’s an e-book, audiobook, or a physical book—publishers should be taking the steps to make their products as widely available to consumers as possible.

Since this is a Sport Management class, an example relating to the industry was brought up. Nike has just signed on with FIBA as a presenting sponsor of FIBA’s new international three-on-three basketball tournament. FIBA is trying to get three-on-three basketball into the Olympics as soon as 2016. This leaves the NBA in a predicament. The NBA and FIBA are both in the basketball business, with the NBA promoting organized five-on-five basketball, and FIBA pushing everything that’s basketball in the world. Basketball is already the second most commercially popular sport in the world, and three-on-three basketball is rapidly on the rise in Europe and China. FIBA has had three-on-three world championships before, and FIBA General Secretary Patrick Baumann claims that three-on-three tournaments happen nearly every week in China—a claim that my roommate, a Chinese graduate student who’s in the United States for the first time, backs up. (He owns six Kobe Bryant jerseys and is an avid three-on-three player back home.) The NBA has no competing international product, other than the reach of their own league.

If David Stern and the NBA truly think of themselves as a global purveyor of basketball, they’d be falling behind the eight-ball if they let FIBA, and the new American Basketball League, start dictating the direction of the sport. The newly formed ABL is launching this January, and they plan to use FIBA rules, which means a different ball, shorter 3-point line, and an overall more offense game than what the NBA allows (basically what you saw in the 2012 Olympics). The ABL’s plan is to serve as a feeder league for European leagues, so American players who aren’t NBA quality can hone the international style to seek professional employment in Europe.

Between FIBA’s reach in the ABL, their plans for three-on-three, the NBA’s idea to have an age limit on Olympic players and to potentially create a “World Cup of Basketball,” something’s got to give. If the NBA doesn’t put it’s biggest stars on display in the Olympics, does it cost itself international expansion opportunities? Without a doubt. They’d be harming the five-on-five product internationally, which could help promote an Olympic three-on-three tournament by default. If three-on-three catches on, and NBA quality players compete in a more exciting three-on-three tournament in the Olympics, the NBA will be under threat.

FIBA and the NBA are at war for the future of global basketball. FIBA now offers Olympic basketball, an American league, and three-on-three. There are more NBA fans in China than people in the United States, but if those fans are playing three-on-three more and more, it would only take one three-on-three star to have the sport explode. If the NBA thinks of themselves as being in the business of organized basketball, no matter how many players are on the court, they should be able to deal with FIBA’s threats. Perhaps an NBA sanctioned three-on-three league in Europe or China should be in the cards? If they fail to get a foothold on the burgeoning three-on-three market, they will lose significant amounts of basketball market share oversees.

On the flip side of this war are the apparel companies. Adidas is currently signed on as the NBA’s official sponsor. Since Nike is locked out of that market, they’ve decided to sponsor three-on-three basketball, as well as Spain’s professional league. Nike already has Jordan, LeBron, Kobe, and Durant under their marionette strings. By running to get their products in the hands of international players first, they’re ahead of the curve. Nike is eating on two fronts: they’ve got the five most popular players in the world in their shoes, and they’ve got thousands of international athletes in their uniforms. Adidas may have NBA players outfitted in their uniforms, but Nike seems determined to get the other billion basketball players around the world into their shirts, sweats, and shoes. As usual, Nike is holding the keys to the future. It would horrify David Stern into retirement if Chinese kids started wearing the Nike jersey of some Spanish three-on-three star instead of LeBron’s Adidas sponsored Miami Heat jersey.

Five-on-five basketball is deeply rooted within American sporting culture—there will never be an American three-on-three league as big as the NBA. But whoever said basketball was just an American sport? Nike and FIBA are banking on the rest of the world’s players carrying a different brand of basketball. It’s vital that the NBA thinks more like HarperCollins, and not like Union Pacific Railroad.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

Overreaction Mondays: It’s Only Week 1

Even though I spent 1400+ words lamenting the sport of football, I was pleased to see it back yesterday. I don’t go to church, so NFL Sunday afternoons are the sermons I observe. Being stuck in the NYC market, I have to watch whatever Giants or Jets game is on, meaning I’m stuck with either A) Seeing how many packages Tim Tebow can get involved in while $20 million worth of Mark Sanchez wrestles with a defensive back on the outside, and B) Watching the Giants play horribly until Week 16.

Thankfully, my Packers were on national television against the 49ers, which was by far the toughest matchup for any Week 1 team. The Packers defense got ran off the field physically and mentally, but still made enough stops to make this a game the Packers should’ve won at home. Their defense was good enough for them to finish 15-1 last year because they led the league in interceptions, but against a 49er team that doesn’t turn the ball over on offense, they were never going to win that side of the ball. Unfortunately, 1 yard runs from Cedric Benson (Aaron Rodgers ended the game as the Packer’s leading rusher), and an extremely prepared 49er defense took away the Packer’s big play-action strikes. Rodgers averaged 6.9 yards per completion yesterday, well-below his 8.2 YPC average, and way lower than the 9.25 mark he threw up during his 2011 MVP campaign. I’m chocking this one up to a bad matchup. I’d rather have the Packers play this way Week 1 rather than see them play this same game Week 14.

The Year of the Quarterback continued on too—with every week, it seems like this’ll become the Decade of the Quarterback. 9 quarterbacks threw for over 300 yards, Michael Vick had 56 attempts, Robert Griffin III averaged 12 YPC, and Matthew Stafford is now on pace to throw for 5,500 yards. Looks like the Roger Goodell NFL to me.

Every division except for the NFC West has stellar quarterback play in some regard, but the AFC East may have the most interesting story lines. Even though every sports media outlet is determined to talk Tim Tebow into the Jets starting job, I’m not so sure it’ll happen. If 2011 Mark Sanchez goes out there week-to-week, Tebow will be starting by Week 8, but I think Sanchez is now in “Fuck You” mode this season. Beyond the 3 touchdowns and 70% completion percentage against an expensively assembled Bills defense, Sanchez is definitely playing with a major chip on his shoulder. After the Jets flirted with Peyton Manning, they handed Sanchez a contract extension because his feelings were hurt. Even after that, they still had the nerve to trade for Tim Tebow. Contract extension aside, Sanchez was probably the most disrespected incumbent starter this offseason. Shouldn’t that hurt his pride? Doesn’t he not want to be second-guessed, and not want to be reduced to Tebow’s helmet-boy? Not only as a quarterback, but as a competitor, that should light a fire under his ass. That Bills performance wasn’t just a win to relieve a media-fabricated quarterback controversy, but a genuine personal statement game, even if it didn’t feel like it. Ryan Fitzpatrick and Ryan Tannehill seem eager to anoint Sanchez as the best AFC East quarterback not named Tom Brady, but I think Sanchez will earn that spot, and not gain it by default.

Here’s to Tom Brady’s bloody nose and the subsequent 3-minute segment on SportsCenter (why did Adam Schefter have to come in and play plastic surgeon with Chris McKendry?), and here’s to Sanchez vanquishing his Tebow demons.

Or maybe this is just an overreaction. But hey, it’s only Week 1.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

The Morality of Football: Why It’s Wrong

In my early teenage years, I played a ton of pickup football. My friends and I all love the sport, but we were all either too small for organized teams or preferred getting clunked with baseballs instead of bludgeoned with pads and helmets.

One Sunday afternoon, we played with a mixture of kids—at 15, I was the oldest and biggest, and I was out there tackling kids as young as 11. During that game, I played quarterback to make my height advantage in receiving nonexistent, and I played safety on defense to prevent me from tackling the smaller kids as often. Playing quarterback was great—chucking 20 yard passes to pre-teen kids with wheels was fun. Playing safety, however, ended up being dangerous.

On one pass over the middle, I dove from my safety position to tip the ball and break up the completion. Mid-air, I collided head to head with the intended receiver, an 11 year old who weighed 90-nothing pounds and wasn’t even five feet tall. His entire right eyebrow had ballooned and turned an ugly black and blue, and his forehead had a 4 inch gash. He looked like he had been beaten senselessly in a bar fight, or been mauled by a pitbull. I was unscathed. A bag of ice and an advil was all I needed—he needed a visit to the ER.

The collision had fractured whatever bone is right above the eye, and he needed a dozen stitches. But for him, that wasn’t the worst part. It was August, and Pop Warner football was beginning. Doctors said he’d never be able to play football again, as the eye fracture was too severe.

I felt horrible. In an absolutely meaningless game of backyard football, my reckless dive had cost this kid his football career. It’d be naive to think that he had a chance of being a professional football player, or even a decent high school player, but that accident took away his ability to ever enjoy the game ever again.

It’s been nearly four years since then, and my attitude towards the sport of football has changed significantly. Four years ago, I was riddled with guilt that this kid wouldn’t be able to play. Today, I wonder if maybe I’m more of a hero than a villain. Is it possible that I actually saved a few years of this kid’s life by injuring him enough to take away organized football?

In 2009, Malcolm Gladwell equated football to dogfighting in The New Yorker. It was the first time I heard about “tau,” and it was the first time concussions and head injuries were put to the forefront of football discussion. Gladwell shed light on a deadly issue that’s been slowly infecting the game for decades—a problem that’s now steamrolling to court. Over 3,000 former NFL players are currently suing the NFL and helmet maker Riddell, claiming negligence and the withholding of information linking head trauma and brain injuries to football.

In the past two years, there’s been a disturbing amount of former NFL players committing suicide. People—even athletes committing suicide is nothing new, but the unique situations of these suicides makes them different. Former NFL players Dave Duerson, Junior Seau, and Ray Easterling all shot themselves, with the former two shooting themselves in the chest, and the latter killing himself after suffering from years of dementia. Duerson and Seau both shot themselves in the chest so their brains could be studied by Dr. Ann McKee, the neurologist who was the focus of Gladwell’s 2009 piece and a more recent feature on Grantland.

Dr. McKee studies the brains of ex-athletes and veterans to help understand the health problems that repeated blows to the head can cause. She’s focusing on how chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) occurs in the brains she dissects, and the deeper she digs, the stronger evidence she’s finding between football and brain damage. It’s not one decisive hit to the head or concussion that’s leading former NFL players to develop CTE—it’s the thousands of smaller hits that build up over years of play. Players aren’t getting knocked into vegetable status immediately, but instead have tau proteins accumulating in their brains. Tau is formed in the brain through these thousands of hits and concussions, and it kills brain cells, causing victims to have dementia, memory loss, aggression, or depression—all symptoms of CTE.

CTE isn’t an automatic death-wish for all—not every player is going to end up like Seau or Easterling. Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw has admitted that he doesn’t use stats when analyzing the NFL for CBS, because he suffers from short-term memory loss, likely due to his years of quarterbacking. Retired tight end Ben Utecht, who now enjoys a second career as a singer, doesn’t remember entire sets he’s performed. Whether these former players will develop dementia or Alzheimers later on in life is unknown, but for players in their early 30s like Utecht, the lingering impact of their playing days is swift and troubling.

Football is coming to a head this decade. Dr. McKee’s research continues to grow in scope and influence—the NFL just gave her center $1 million in funds with no strings attached. Earlier this week, they gave the National Institute of Health a $30 million donation—the largest in league history—to fund brain injury research. Roger Goodell has been accused of downplaying, or even hiding the facts of the matter, but he’s finally wising up (it’s about damn time though). The NFL just wants answers. The players want answers. We want answers.

As the dangers of the sport become more known, I, along with many other Americans, will not stand for it. And if fans won’t accept it, then Congress will eventually follow suit too. Congress waged war on performance-enhancing drugs in sports last decade—brain-injuries will surely be the next crusade. Just last month, the insurance company Travelers sued the NFL to avoid paying for defense from the aforementioned player suit. We’re coming close to a day when insurance companies won’t take the risk with any level of organized football, because there are too many long-term health problems associated with the sport. The idea that the sport may become uninsurable is a greater threat to its existence than Congress, the Players Association, scientists and health professionals, or critics.


Dr. McKee testified before Congress in 2009.

Today, the NFL is the richest and most popular professional sports league in the world. NFL games are always the highest rated television programs every year, and its players are international icons. The most woeful franchise in the NFL, the Cleveland Browns, was just sold for a remarkable $1 billion. All 32 franchises are in the Top 50 of Forbes richest sports teams. The league and the sport itself is peaking right now. Every peak, however, has a valley, and head-injuries will be that valley for the sport. The game will have to change, but when it’s inherently violent, no good solution is on the horizon. (Let’s not get into any potential rule changes.)

Every year, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to watch football. I love football, but the morality of it is simply too much to bear. It’s ethically irresponsible of me to root, cheer, and pay for football players to do their job when I know that they’re literally killing themselves on the field. It’s just not right. It’s easy to not think about this now when the sport is so popular, and no players I’ve grown up loving are babbling madmen in wheelchairs, or in a room somewhere pondering what to do with a loaded gun. It’s not pleasant to think that my favorite player, Aaron Rodgers, might kill himself in 20 years after falling into a CTE induced depression, but it’s a legitimate concern I have now. I don’t want my boyhood idols to have a lesser quality of health than me just because I wanted to see them make the next play. It’s become cliche to call football players “gladiators,” but that comparison has never been more accurate. In grand, circular stadiums, men are killing each other for our own entertainment, and their personal status.

Junior Seau was the first player I saw play who killed himself. He was only 43. Although he might have had other problems that lead to his decision to take his own life, it’s not a coincidence he preserved his brain in his suicide for science. For people of my generation, Seau’s death will be the turning point, because he was still playing as early as 2009. Memory of his heroic play in the modern NFL for the Patriots dynasty is still fresh—it causes his death to linger more. When Seau’s mother is crying in front of the media, yelling to God to “take me, take me, leave my son,” I can no longer ignore what football is doing to people on a humanistic and a medical level.


This hurts to watch every time.

The sport of football is wrong. If that makes me a liberal extremist who is overreacting, then I dare you to watch that video Seau’s mother again. I will still lovingly watch my Packers this year, and maybe even attend a few games, but the same joys I once had from the sport are dead. To me, it’s no longer an innocent, good-natured activity. It’s no longer wholesome entertainment. It’s endorsed barbarism in the 21st century. If my continued fandom makes me a hypocrite, then fine—it’s not up to me to enact change. It’s up to the powers that be to put player health over wealth, and for parents to prevent their kids from playing. I stopped one kid from playing thanks to a head-injury—hopefully he won’t be the last to value his well-being over sport.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

First Round Football Farce

The NFL season has finally arrived, and every team has their own set of expectations. Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck lead the pack of the newest draft picks meant to bring their respective teams, as well as themselves, into football glory. As the first two picks in last April’s NFL draft, both have the weight of their cities on their shoulders. Given the history of the draft and how these high draft picks generally faired, it’s confusing as to why there is so much emphasis put on how well a player did in college and how he was drafted. It’s common knowledge that dominant college football performance by far doesn’t mean dominant professional performance. So why do we even care?

Ryan Leaf was destined for greatness. After a strong showing in high school, he enrolled at Washington State University, not a particularly strong football school, and proceeded to an amazing three season with the Cougars. He played in 32 games for the Cougars, starting 24 of them. His junior year, he averaged 330.6 yards passing per game and threw for a then Pac-10 conference record 33 touchdowns. He also helped the Cougars defeat the Washington Huskies 41-35 for the first time in Husky Stadium since 1985. Leaf ended the school’s 67-year Rose Bowl drought and helped bring the Cougars their first Pac-10 championship in school history. The Cougars would go on to lose the Rose bowl to Michigan, the eventual National Champions.

After this amazing performance, Ryan Leaf stated that he intended to forgo his senior season at Washington State and enter the NFL draft. Ryan Leaf and Peyton Manning were slotted to be the number one and two top draft picks in 1998. You couldn’t go wrong with either one. Initially wanted by Indianapolis, Ryan Leaf failed to appear for an interview with the team, and thus the colts drafted Peyton Manning with their first pick, while with the second pick the San Diego Chargers picked Leaf. Both were scouted as essentially worry free picks, so both teams felt they had won in the draft. Leaf was stated after he was drafted “I’m looking forward to a 15-year career, a couple of trips to the Super Bowl and a parade through downtown San Diego.” This would statement would mark the beginning of one of the worst careers by a top 5 draft pick in NFL history, if not the worst. In four seasons, Leaf appeared in 25 games, making 21 starts. He completed 317 of 655 passes for 3,666 yards, with 14 touchdowns and 36 interceptions. He ended his career with a quarterback rating of 50. While not nearly as bad as this career, there have been numerous first round picks that have had a similar fate: JaMarcus Russell, Courtney Brown, Akili Smith, Tim Couch, Roy Williams, Charles Rodgers, Mark Sanchez, David Carr and possibly Sam Bradford. The list could go on.

My question is, why is there so much emphasis put on where in the draft a person is placed, given the history of draft busts? There have been great players that have come out later in the draft—Tom Brady is the prime, but not normal, example of arguably one of the best players to play the game being drafted late in the draft (he was drafted 6th round, 199th pick). He was thought to be a fringe professional that might be a decent backup. The Patriots literally found a diamond in the rough. Jay Ratliff, Troy Brown (another Patriot), Matt Hasselbeck (drafted same year as Leaf), Marques Colston, Donald Driver, Terrell Davis and Shannon Sharpe are just the top few of the many late round draft picks that rose to prominence. Kurt Warner could be placed in the same category because he wasn’t even drafted! All these players went on to  have amazing careers when everyone felt they weren’t worth a first round pick.

I understand that it’s nearly impossible to determine how a player is going to fair once they go pro—their performance in college is the only the only thing to go by. You go by their potential to transition from college football to professional football. I get that. But, there has been research done that gives an idea of when it’s best to pick certain positions as well as an idea of the chances that a position will be a benefit or a bust. According to a Grantland article by Bill Barnwell, there is a little over a 50% chance that the QB you draft will deliver good value and have a respectable career in the NFL by his fifth year in the league—the lowest chance of any position in the NFL. The research is 60% in favor of a running back being successful within his first five seasons in the league. The tight end position provided the most stable chance of getting a good career out of a draft pick, with around an 87% success rate in the first five years. The research is essentially stating that as the importance level of the player goes down, his chances at success go up. As for when to pick positions, the QB and RB positions are again the worse positions to fill by far. Outside of the first round, both positions lose their overall potential value drastically after each round. The WR position holds up pretty well until after the second round, when proceeds to bomb in value as well. Again, as the overall importance level drops, the overall bang for your buck seems to go up, with TE’s holding their value the longest over the course of the draft. Hardly a pleasing set of numbers for a general manager with important holes to fill. It’s just interesting to see how much importance is still put on draft placement. There is absolutely no guarantee that a player will be worth anything once they go pro, especially at QB and RB. So why all these ridiculous bonuses and guaranteed money for a player that can’t guarantee anything about their performance?

A perfect example of how I feel about high draft picks that haven’t played is when Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora said that RG3 is simply “Bob Griffin” until he proves himself in the NFL. That is exactly how these picks should be treated. You haven’t proven shit, so your not shit until you do. Instead, Andrew Luck is Peyton Manning’s replacement (which he’ll never be, Peyton Manning is the best quarterback the NFL has seen since Joe Montana and I’ll debate that with who ever wants to lose) and Robert Griffin III is going to take the Redskins out of the doldrums of the NFL (which we’ve all heard before). Why can’t we just be realistic about these players? Yes, they were good/great/amazing in college, but that doesn’t mean shit anywhere else?! As a Lions fan, I know how great it is to have a high number one draft pick. Joey Harrington, Charles Rogers, and Mike Williams all haunt me to this day. While Calvin Johnson is absolutely amazing, it took more than just a great receiver to get the Lions winning again. So while having a great new draft pick is great and could help put a positive outlook on a team, it doesn’t mean anything until they prove something. As Cam Newton and Panthers will tell you, even having a number one draft pick instantly work out doesn’t mean that you team will be great.

I know that being drafted in the first round means that you have the most potential to succeed in the NFL, and that’s why it’s so important. At the same time though, it’s only potential! So why can we just treat as just that, potential? These aren’t the conquering heroes that every analyst and remote control general manager make them out to be. They are potentially a key piece of a puzzle that has to come together to make a great team. And as for Reggie Bush’s career (or insert any number of other great picks that haven’t lived up to the hype) can attest to, potential can only get you so far.

Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelPakkala