Tag Archives: football

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

JUSTIN’S PICKS:

NFC EAST
Giants

NFC NORTH
Packers

NFC SOUTH
Falcons
Buccaneers*

NFC WEST
Seahawks
49ers*

AFC EAST
Patriots
Miami*

AFC NORTH
Cincinnati

AFC SOUTH
Texans

AFC WEST
Broncos
Chiefs*

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.

GREG’S PICKS

NFC East:
Giants

NFC North:
Packers

NFC South:
Saints
Panthers*

NFC West:
Seahawks
49ers*

AFC East
Patriots

AFC North
Bengals
Steelers*

AFC South
Texans

AFC West
Broncos
Chiefs*

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.

Inside Barcelona FC: The Camp Nou Experience

Over my spring break (WHOOOOO, SPRING BREAK FOREVER) I visited Barcelona for a few days. La Sagrada Familia and all of the Gaudi-ness was cool and all, but the highlight of the city for me was Camp Nou. I paid my 23 euro and did a stadium tour, which the club named “THE CAMP NOU EXPERIENCE.” The over/under on how many times I saw “THE CAMP NEW EXPERIENCE” in print around the stadium must’ve been 537. I swear.

Enjoy the tour around Barcelona FC’s legendary ground and current home to the best team/player ever.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

I also might’ve been the first person ever to buy a Barcelona Basketball Club jersey from the team store.

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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

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

For me, this has been the quickest NFL offseason ever. At this point last year, my Green Bay Packers were the reigning champs, and I squeezed every second I could out of that. Hell, last season my team was undefeated up until mid-December—I held my balls in the face of every other fan for almost ten whole months. It’s been different this year though. After the Packers laid an egg against the Giants, Linsanity bridged the gap between the Super Bowl and the NBA playoffs, and before I knew it, the Olympics rolled around to preoccupy every second of my sporting fandom. A family vacation even helped to bridge the small gap between the Olympics and the start of the English Premier League. There’s been no sporting lull at all! Sure the Little League World series ate up the last few weeks of August, but that’s what Chopped on the Food Network is for. If I’m going to watch a competition, damn right it’s going to involve food and not 12 year olds.

Alas, the kids are back at school, and stores aren’t selling bermuda shorts anymore—it’s officially football season America. With the start of the NFL season tonight, the JLBSports staff put together our official predictions that are sure to go 110% wrong. The Cardinals have a better shot at a wild card spot than us getting these totally right. But hey, that’s the fun of it all. When things go wrong, it usually makes for good television. How do you think reality TV works? Here are our staff predictions for the best reality show in the world: the NFL.

–Justin

*denotes wild card team

JUSTIN’S PICKS:

NFC EAST
Giants

NFC NORTH
Packers
Bears*

NFC SOUTH
Saints
Falcons*

NFC WEST
49ers

AFC EAST
Patriots

AFC NORTH
Ravens
Steelers*

AFC SOUTH
Texans

AFC WEST
Chargers
Broncos*

SUPER BOWL PICK: Packers over Texans (35-28)

The world seems to assume that the New England Patriots will run away with the AFC, and they should. During the greatest passing expansion in NFL history, the Patriots have the NFL’s 1A quarterback in Tom Brady. You can’t win a Super Bowl anymore without a top-tier passing attack. I think Eli Mannning and New York Giants proved last year that good quarterbacks are possible of making that elite leap in the postseason (Aaron Rodgers did the year before), and you need to be able to play a little defense when it matters most. The Patriots had one of the worst defenses in football last year, but it can only get better with 1st round pick Chandler Jones providing some much needed pass rush. That being said, the Houston Texans are entering their second year under Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense, and outside of the Steelers and Ravens mauling everyone in the AFC North, they had the best defense in the AFC last year. Week 14 in New England could decide the top seed in the AFC, and it’ll give everyone a sample of how the Texans can handle a great team in cold weather. I think good crunch time defense and a healthy Matt Shaub will be the difference come January. Expect Shaub to make that elite leap in the playoffs this year.

(I have to get this off my chest too: If Ryan Tannehill doesn’t end up being the worst quarterback in the NFL, the Miami Dolphins will overtake the New York Jets in that division, leaving Gang Green in last. ESPN and the New York media will sensationalize the shit out of Tim Tebow to get him to be the starter by week eight. Things aren’t looking good when Darrelle Revis is already saying this about their quarterback situation: “You’ve got to do what’s best for the team, and I don’t know if we’ve been wise in that department.” You can’t make this stuff up folks.)

GREG’S PICKS:

NFC EAST
Giants
Eagles*

NFC NORTH
Packers
Bears*

NFC SOUTH
Falcons

NFC WEST
49ers

AFC EAST
Patriots

AFC NORTH
Steelers
Ravens*

AFC SOUTH
Texans

AFC WEST
Broncos
Chargers*

SUPER BOWL PICK: Ravens over 49ers (13-10)

I had a tough time choosing the NFC East winner. I really hate looking like a homer, but I’ve had a change of heart about the Philadelphia Eagles’ chances the last couple days. I think Vick will be healthy towards the end of the season and enable Philadelphia to go on a run before losing to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. In the AFC, I really didn’t wanna choose the Denver Broncos to win the division because I’d appear to be on the Peyton bandwagon, but their defense is so good that I expect them to do very well. That being said, I think the Baltimore Ravens will finally get their revenge on the New England Patriots for last year’s traumatizing end to the AFC Championship Game, setting up the all-Harbaugh Super Bowl that the media wanted last year. The big game in New Orleans will showcase two of the finest defenses in the league, but Joe Flacco and the Ravens will come out on top, with all his doubters finally quieted until the end of time.

MICHAEL’S PICKS:

NFC EAST
Eagles
Cowboys*

NFC NORTH
Packers

NFC SOUTH
Panthers
Saints*

NFC WEST
49ers

AFC EAST
Patriots

AFC NORTH
Steelers
Ravens*

AFC SOUTH
Texans

AFC WEST
Chargers
Broncos*

SUPER BOWL PICK: Packers over Texans (26-17)

The NFC South and West are by far going to be the most fun to watch this season. As long as the Carolina Panthers can give more support to Cam Newton in the passing game, they have the most explosive offensive package in the division and arguably in the NFC. The Seattle Seahawks are on the right track, but it seems to be coming together faster for the San Francisco 49ers, so I gave it to them. The Green Bay Packers win the NFC North for reasons that don’t need explaining if you’ve been watching football. Though my Detroit Lions will contend, I don’t think they have the running game that they need to make a Super Bowl run. They’ve an elite passing attack, but last season was Matthew Stafford’s first healthy year in the league, and that team is in big trouble if his injury-bug returns.

Follow the entire team on Twitter @JLBSportsTV

The Lonely World of the Football “ITK”

I’ve been following European soccer/football/association football/the-British-invented-the-term-soccer-so-whatever since 2008, and last weekend marked my 5th season of English Premier League fandom. Through JLBSportsTV’s videos on football, specifically Liverpool FC, I’ve been engaging in the peripheral world of the sport for five years now. I’ve been actively using Twitter since 2009, and it’s become my one-stop shop for every piece of news I could possibly care about. It allows me to pick and choose what news I want to know. I don’t care about what Rush Limbaugh said yesterday, so I won’t follow a smörgåsbord of political journalists and media outlets. I do, however, care about what company makes Michael Vick’s rib plates, so I’ll follow ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell. Although I’ve been engaged in footy news via Twitter, I’ve never taken the interest that far. I like to keep my timeline clean, and my following count at or around 350.

When I opened up shop with this website, I also opened up a Twitter account for it, @JLBSportsTV49. I’ve used it to spread news, plug the website, and engage in friendly banter with other football fans. To help get the account going, I decided to follow back it’s first 200 followers for their early support. Because this site is built off the strength of the JLBSportsTV YouTube channel, which is almost exclusively viewed by football fans in the UK, most of the early followers were just that. With them on my timeline, I was introduced to an entire world of sports “media” I was previously unaware to: agents and front office personnel who share their “inside” knowledge with clubs about transfers. These ITKs (stands for “in the know) are giving us the scoop on the most surprising transfers of the summer market—a period that’s full of hysteria, anger, and the occasional triumph from fans, all of whom become more concerned with the check books of millionaires and billionaires than their own outstanding credit card bills. Why worry about keeping the lights on when Matt Jarvis is worth £11 million and Nuri Sahin thinks he’s Dwight Howard?

But the Jarvis transfer and the Sahin saga are all facts—stories that have been thoroughly covered by the BBC, The Times, and other reputable news agencies. The Twitter accounts of ITKs, insiders, and agents produce news like this, which is totally baseless, salacious, and fear-mongering to a hyper-sensitive fan.

(A day later, this same “agent” would backtrack on his Evra report, stating that the deal will be done in January. By then, everyone will have forgotten about this false news, and the person behind this Twitter account can continue to rack up followers.)

Every day, it at least one ITK or fake agent gets retweeted onto my timeline, and I block and report them as spam. “Kill them all and keep moving.” The problem is, people genuinely put their faith in them, because it feels good to get wrapped up in transfer talk. Evra to LFC? Time to start a Twitter rant about how that’s a crazy move for LFC. Did Suarez approve it? I should tweet my buddy and get his thoughts. It’s all part of a ploy to make you more social, and when you feel social, you feel good. You’ll probably remember who told you that Evra was going to LFC, and since that news made you feel good, you’ll give a follow to that Twitter account.

It’s clear, however, that these accounts are run by people who aren’t on any club payroll, and are certainly not agents. They spread false rumors, or just report on rumors that the mornings tabloids run, but with an inside twist, an inside ethos based on nothing. So why do people open up Twitter accounts to blatantly lie about transfers? Well to gain Twitter followers of course. But why does a person who hides behind the veil of a name like “agent_153” and an avatar of a pair of hands shaking want to gain followers? Nobody will recognize them in person, and what good does 30,000 followers do you if there’s no sense of personal acknowledgement in the real world? And since there’s no money to be made off Twitter, where’s the personal gain?

These people are undoubtedly lonely, and all they have are their Twitter followers and hundreds of mentions a day to keep them cozy. Last night, @agent_153 and @FootballDave01 said they had received news about Edinson Cavani’s transfer and a striker Arsenal is after, but would only reveal the news if their tweet was retweeted—an obvious and pathetic attempt to gain mentions and followers to fulfill a late-night social desire.

The real-life image of a football ITK is this in my mind: a male in his 30s who is divorced, hates his middle-class job, and needs something to do. People to interact with. A sense of place and accomplishment in a single world. A few statistics back up my image. The average Twitter user is 39 years old, and 57% of all users are between ages 30-44. According to the Office for National Statistics in England, people who are 40-44 years old get divorced the most, and three of the four most divorced age brackets are from people ages 30-44 years old. Additionally, the largest cluster of English Premier League fans are 35-44 years old (or 1 in 3), are overwhelmingly male, and are non-season ticket holders who earn £31,000 a year. That unhappy divorced male 30-something who doesn’t make a ton of money seems to fit the bill.

The profile of people likely masquerading as ITKs, insiders, and agents is clear, and kind of sad. These people have had to create a character of important stature who spreads fake rumors to drum up a following built on lies (kind of like Rick Ross, but way less rich). It can’t get much lower than that in the football world, unless you’re an Arsenal fan this transfer window. And even then, at least you have your fellow fan to lean on—all @agent_153 has to keep him up are 43,000 followers and a timeline full of inventive fiction.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

The Passion Of The Lucas

It’s been five years since Lucas Leiva signed for Liverpool from Brazilian club Grêmio. He’s lasted longer at Anfield than most of Liverpool’s current squad, three managers, and an entire ownership group. Brendan Rodgers will be Lucas’s fourth manager in as many years, but through all four of them, he’s been a first-choice option through and through. From Rafa to Rodgers, he’s been one of Liverpool’s most frequent members of the starting XI. He’s won the hearts of Liverpool’s endearing supporters (fans voted him as the Player of the Year in 2011), the trust of management, and the recognition of his country. Lucas is arguably Liverpool’s most important player, if not their most consistent.

It hasn’t always been this way though. Only three years ago, if you asked most of the Liverpool fan base whether the words “Lucas” and “Player of the Year” would ever combine in a sentence, they’d laugh you across the English Channel. Before his breakout 2010 season, Lucas was vilified. In a 2009-2010 season which saw Liverpool—a side that had nearly edged out Manchester United for the Premier League title the year before—crash out of the Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup, Carling Cup, and out of the Top 4, Lucas was consistently blamed for the team’s poor performances. Rafa got the boot at the end of that season, and there would’ve been cheers across Merseyside if Lucas had too.

I participated in the public bashing of Lucas. On my YouTube channel, I blamed Lucas for everything that had gone wrong tactically. 2009 was the year Xabi Alonso departed for Real Madrid, leaving a gapping hole in midfield. Lucas was inserted to pair with defensive destroyer Javier Mascherano, and Liverpool struggled to score goals. In Rafa’s 4-2-3-1, Lucas and Mascherano were charged with holding down the fort defensively, allowing Steven Gerrard to link up with Fernando Torres up front. I only saw Lucas’s faults. Gerrard was leaving Torres isolated, seemingly to make up for Lucas’s inabilities in midfield. Any time Lucas received the ball, the pass was always either side-to-side, or back to the center back. He seemed nervous on the ball—an unsure dribbler. Or at least that’s all I remember of him—memories that are probably flawed. The Lucas-Mascherano axis proved to lack any eye in the attack, but instead of questioning the tactics of the partnership, I, along with many Liverpool fans, lay the blame at Lucas’s boots. It didn’t matter that he was in the starting XI every match as a 22 year old—fans had already passed judgement on a player before his time.

Alonso was gone, Lucas was in his place, and Lucas wasn’t Alonso. Fans joked that he was the “only Brazilian who couldn’t pass the ball.” Lucas had been signed in 2007 as an attacking, box-to-box midfielder. When the words “attacking,” “midfielder,” and “Brazilian” come to mind, people instantly think of Kaka—the best Brazilian midfielder the past decade. Lucas was no Kaka, no Alonso, and offered nothing going forward. So what was he?

It took Mascherano’s sale the next summer for Lucas to blossom. Although he featured in midfield with a rotating cast of either Raul Meireles, Jay Spearing, Christian Poulsen, or Steven Gerrard—whoever didn’t happen to be injured or ineffective at the time—Lucas was a beacon of light during Hodgson’s pitiful reign, and a straight-up superstar during Dalglish’s return. Lucas certainly got better from the previous season, but he wasn’t playing much differently. Lucas took Mascherano’s role in defensive midfield and made it a position of strength in his departure. Without Mascherano flying all over the park to foil the opposing offense, Lucas filled in, and did the same job with less recklessness and less yellow cards. He lacked Mascherano’s insane desire to fire at least one shot from 30 yards every game, while also possessing an intelligence in the passing game. He would single-handedly steal the ball, hold it, and spray it accurately to a more creative player all on his own. Last November, against an unbeaten Manchester City side, Lucas man-marked David Silva (the league’s most unstoppable creative threat) better than anyone had that season in a 1-1 draw that should’ve gone Liverpool’s way.

In 2009, people didn’t realize that Liverpool was playing with two defensive midfielders, neither of which had the passing ability to make up for Alonso’s loss. Instead of allowing Lucas to play his game, he was bemoaned for not playing Alonso’s. Our need for a scapegoat in a very trying season was filled by Lucas, who was unfairly casted as something he wasn’t. The blame cannot be placed on Rafa, who was simply making due with what he had given Liverpool’s dire financial times, and it cannot be placed on Lucas. Blame for that season can be placed upon Hicks and Gillett for running the club into the ground economically, but blame for the nasty, unwarranted scathing of Lucas lays at my feet, and the feet of many other fans. We unfairly judged Lucas, and all he’s done is go out and become a world-class player and a popular choice for the captain’s armband whenever Gerrard is injured. The mettle and drive of Lucas to prove fans wrong is admirable to say the least, and he’s been rewarded with love.

Fans would do well to learn from Lucas. Liverpool players like Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson have received the bulk of the criticism after their expensive fees netted an 8th place finish last season. Downing didn’t have the gaudy goal or assist numbers one expects of a £20 million player (he finished with an ugly zero in both categories), but he did finish top 5 among all Premiership wingers in “clear cut chances created” and top 3 at Liverpool (among remaining players) in “chances created.” As a team, Liverpool had a very poor chance conversion rate and finished with less goals than Norwich, Blackburn, Fulham, and Everton. Scoring was a team-wide problem, not just a Downing problem. Henderson was shunned out to the right side of midfield where he struggled for most of the season, eventually coming on strong once Lucas and Gerrard got injured, taking a spot centrally—his strongest area. There, he thrived in his role as a poised pivot player and a fine recycler into the attack, never really having the creative freedom he had at Sunderland.

In the case of Downing and Henderson, both have been scapegoated because fans weren’t satisfied on the surface. Eyes can be deceiving. They saw Downing’s lack of goals, assists, and man-beating pace as a “lack of confidence.” The same was said about Henderson’s lack of creativity in midfield, even though he was never tipped tactically to get forward. A “confidence” issue for a young player. (How “young” can Henderson be? He has the most starts of any 22 year old in the Premiership.)

Liverpool fans should learn from their mistakes in the handling of Lucas, and support Downing, Henderson, and the rest of the squad. It just takes a little bit of perspective to turn a “Lucas” into a “Leiva“—into “there’s only one Lucas.” To turn a scapegoat into a GOAT. From jeers to cheers. It’s easy to misjudge players when they’re misplayed, but it’s the Liverpool Way to dig deeper and encourage greatness in whoever wears the Red shirt. The same can be applied to any fan in any sport.

They hate what they don’t understand.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

January Madness???!! Taking the College Football Playoff System Further

Let’s go back to September 1st, 2007, to the great state of Michigan (Whoo!). The fifth ranked Divsion (1-A) Michigan Wolverines are pitted against Division (1-AA) Appalachian State Mountaineers. The Wolverines are heavily favored by 27 points. After a hard fought game, the Mountaineers stunned the Wolverines 34-32, capping off what many deem to be the biggest upset in college football history. Never had a Division 1-AA school ever beaten an AP ranked team since the NCAA split itself into two divisions in 1978. To this day, even mentioning Appalachian State to a Wolverine fan brings up feelings of hatred and regret (being a Michigan State Spartan, I do it every chance I get!). Now imagine if this had been a championship game instead of the first game of the season. Imagine if this was the crowning achievement of a Mountaineer team that had fought with all it’s might all the way to the top and was finally crowned National Champions. Cinderella is in the building. The new four team playoff system that is being implemented in college football got me asking myself: Why can’t we just bring “March Madness” to college football?

The details that are coming through about the playoff system that is to be implemented in 2014 got me wondering what was to become of my beloved college football now that things are changing. The BCS is bullshit, it always was. The results of the polling and computer analysis always pissed off more people that it made happy. It wasn’t like the NFL, where the reason a team made the playoffs was obvious and easy to follow. In the BCS, teams were chosen based on a multitude of different reasons and factors which led to a large amount of confused fans, players and coaches. It was never as simple as a win-loss record.

The NCAA has finally heard everyone’s cry and has officially adopted a playoff. While I’m all for this, the playoff they intend to adopt falls short of the mark. A four team playoff is not enough to help ensure that a team from every conference has a fighting chance to make it to the National Title game. Essentially, conferences with historically less competitive schools still have no chance of making it to the Title game due to the perceived lack of competitiveness of their conferences. There are six automatically qualifying conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC, Big East, PAC-12) that get BCS bowl games bids because these are considered BCS conferences. The  remaining conferences (Conference USA, Mountain West Sun Belt West Atlantic Conference) are not considered BCS conferences, and basically have to go undefeated for a shot—just a shot—at a BCS bowl. Even an 8 or 12 team playoff would still leave a large field of teams that played really well, but were deemed not good enough to compete for the national championship. An easy way to remedy this would be to simply adopt the NCAA basketball playoff system, or the “March Madness” system. Seeds would be taken from every conference and an ensuing playoff structure would emerge and whittle down the field until a champion is crowned.

The system in which teams are selected would be essentially a clone of the current college basketball system. Separate schools into regions and mix and match teams based on quality, which would help equalize the skill level of each region. Then develop a 64 team bracket (68 if you include the first four) with 31 of those teams being chosen automatically by winning their conference championships (there are 32 separate conferences in college basketball. The football teams of each school can organize using the same conferences, with the extra one conference being used for the independent schools such as Notre Dame. The easiest table of all the conferences can be found on Wikipedia. The remaining 37 teams would be chosen by a selection committee. The selection committee would be fair because every team had the opportunity to win their conference and be guaranteed a position in the tournament. Any concern about biased and unfair treatment would be history. Of course, there’d be snubs like there is every year in college basketball, but compared to the outrage that the BCS causes every year, no tears would be shed.

The number of games played would increase drastically. This would greatly increase the amount of money flowing into college football programs. It’s estimated that with the four team playoff there would be an increase of roughly $500 million profit each year on television rights alone. Going by the 12-year contract, that could be $6 billion dollars in profit. Now imagine if we used the 64 team tournament which would end up being 64 more playoff games instead of just four (64 teams playing 32 games and on down the line until the national championship game=64.)

The NCAA has a contract with CBS worth $10.8 billion over 14 years for the March Madness television rights. That contract makes up 95% of the NCAA’s revenue. The BCS games averaged a 8.9 television rating last year, while March Madness averaged a 5.3. College football, and football in general, is much more popular than basketball. It’s unfathomable how much a network would pay for the rights to broadcast a “January Madness” for college football, but it’s a safe bet that it would be over the $10.8 billion CBS deal.

Overall, this four team playoff is a giant leap in the right direction. Unfortunately, the four team playoff will never stand. It will have to be expanded. Any change to the BCS is good, but after a few years teams and conferences will begin to question the fairness just as they did with the BCS system that is currently in place. Eventually it will need to be expanded to accommodate all the teams and give everyone that has the ability to earn a spot a fighting chance.

Some will argue that the tournament would add too many postseason games and make the season drag on too late, but in actuality, most teams wouldn’t play more than they already do as half the teams wouldn’t even make it into the tournament. College football currently has 35 bowl games following the regular season and they begin in the first week of December. By forgoing the break in between the end of the season and the first week of december, you’ll have ample amount of time to complete a complete tournament bracket in roughly the same amount of time it currently takes the entire football season to end. If you play a 64-team tournament and play one round each week starting the first week of December, you’d be down to 32 teams by the second week, 16 teams by the third week and eight by the fourth week. The following week would be the quarterfinals, followed by the semifinals and then the national title game, so the season would wrap up by the second or third week of January. Problem solved.

This system would ensure that every team has a fair shot and making a run at the National Championship. The Championship would become more fluid and exciting like March Madness is, and it would be done in a completely fair manner. College football needs a dramatic make over if we as fans are legitimately concerned about the fairness of the game. Coaches polls and computers shouldn’t decide who get to compete—wins should determine who get to play for the Championship. This system would ensure that the team who wins when they must get the recognition they deserve. Couple the added fairness and competitive nature of the tournament with the astronomical level of financial benefit and it would be foolish not to implement this new playoff system.

Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelPakkala

Why Joe Cole and Alberto Aquilani Must Leave Liverpool This Summer

The reasons are pretty clear. I’m not rooting against them if they do stay at LFC—I hope they can make a strong impact in the starting XI rotation. I’m just saying that it’s improbable given their history, so I want them out because their wages are too high. Fully explained in the video.

EDITORS NOTE: I say that Aquilani didn’t play much for AC Milan last season due to injury. I was incorrect. He didn’t play because a clause in his contract limited his appearances. Regardless, my point about him being injury-prone still holds true.

I actually advocated for Aquilani’s departure last summer using the same reasons. Has he done anything on the field to counteract my argument? NO! Video from the summer of 2011:

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

The Curious Case of Brendan Rodgers

Brendan Rodgers is in a peculiar position at Liverpool FC. Aside from the fact that he’s replacing the Liverpudlian Jesus, has to evaluate a strange mix of players bought by three different managers over the past five years, and represents the final buck between LFC fading into mid-table obscurity till the end of time, he has to accomplish another monumental task that 95% of incoming managers either don’t have or simply don’t take on. He has to instill his very specific footballing philosophy at the club with no time to lose.

Rodgers’ philosophy is so specific, so systematic, that he’s now faced with the challenge of forcing it upon his players. Whereas most new managers—while coming in with their own plans on how their side will play—will usually take the players at hand and adapt to them, Rodgers is handcuffed to a degree. The men who’ve run Chelsea the past decade are the best examples of managers altering their tactics to the players at hand. Because of their willing flexibility (and Abramovich’s pockets), Chelsea has been competitive, finishing either first or second in the League seven times since 2004. Only when a manager has come in and tried to overhaul the team from top to bottom and control players has Chelsea finished poorly, as Andre Villas-Boas and Frank Lampard can attest. But failing to make an imprint has led to Chelsea managers being sacked on an almost yearly basis.

Every manager has their own overarching philosophy on how the game should be played, and plenty of tactics to use game-to-game (in Rafa’s case, a notebook of tactics). Mourinho likes to keep the game tight defensively and then strike on the counter. Wenger employs a neat possession side that generates the easiest of chances down the middle of the penalty box. Guardiola unleashed the most perfect form of Tiki-Taka and with the best false 9 ever put on this planet in Lionel Messi. Much has been made of Brendan Rodgers’ own version of Tiki-Taka (This article and this article from EPLIndex.com explains how he’ll operate at LFC).

There are a million different ways to play counter-attacking football—there’s only one Tiki-Taka, altered here and there to mesh the strengths of the players together. Rodgers will still have to rewire his players brains to conform to his passing patterns and movements. Liverpool’s players have never played in a system like this before, and they’re all essentially starting from ground zero. Like AVB, Rodgers will stamp his brand onto the club immediately. Doing anything else would be selling himself short. It takes time for a side to come together under any manager, but Rodgers is a man who will need more time if he’s to seize total control over the club.

Aside from the keeper, the back four, two midfield slots (Gerrard and Lucas), and one attacker (Suarez), nobody knows how the team will look come opening day. That leaves three crucial spots either in midfield or in attack that have to be decided upon and employed to a wide range of players (Henderson, Carroll, Adam, Downing, Shelvey, possibly Maxi, Cole, or Aquilani, and maybe even Sterling). In that mixture, there’s a true #9 (Carroll), an English-style winger (Downing), a modern winger (Sterling), a fake Xabi Alonso (Adam), two idealistic #10s (Cole and Aquilani), a midfielder of some trade (Henderson), and a Maxi. How those players will fit into Rodgers’ system is only known to Rodgers himself. He’s handcuffed with the squad he has—a squad that doesn’t look much like a Tiki-Taka one at present state.

If Rodgers is afforded enough patience by LFC (there will be lots of growing pains), the club will resemble Barcelona in style and execution one day at every level. Check out this video of the Barcelona U-11s:

While they don’t have a transcendent player like Messi to break down defenses down the middle (these kids are 11 years old, mind you), they play exactly how a Barcelona side would. Lots of passing triangles, intelligent off the ball movement, and a total stranglehold on the game. These kids could beat the best American high school sides. It takes years and years for an organization to be that well drilled from the 1st team all the way down to the U-11s. Give Rodgers that time, even through the darkest of results, and he will achieve that. Patience is the name of the game for Rodgers’ sides, and it’ll be the hot-button word for LFC fans the world over this year. Patience.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49