Tuesday, July 29, 2014

College Football: A diminished Big Twen beats it's chest.

"One True Champion"

That's the motto being bandied around as the Big Twelve Eleven Ten Twen tries it's level best to regain some legitimacy in the world of big-time college football.

Big Twelve defends round-robin system for deciding Champion. Tim Griffin, SA Express-News via HoustonChronicle.com ($)

(Reporting from another Hearst publication behind the pay-wall, that's unique.)

Because they don't have twelve teams, and therefore cannot break out into divisions and hold a money-making championship game, the noticeably weakened Big Twelve is trying desperately to promote something that doesn't always exist.

Looking back on the history of Big XII football you always see a "true" champion emerging when a Conference Championship Game is played.  However after the championship game was discontinued, due to the defection of four teams and the addition of only two which brought the count to 10, one out of three seasons (2012) brought us co-champions.  The article goes on to suggest that, in recent years, the Big XII would have been shut-out of the College Football Playoff more often than it was included.

Depending on which side you fall, the pre-season favorites for the Big Twen title is either Baylor or Oklahoma.  Given that both of these teams have huge questions coming into the season it's highly doubtful that they will be undefeated and even more likely that they could be excluded from the playoff as a conference.

Looking at the Teams in the Conference I'd rate them as follows:

1(a) - Oklahoma
1(b) - Baylor
3 - Oklahoma State
4 - Texas Tech
5 - Kansas State
6 - Texas
7 - West Virginia
8 - TCU
9 - Iowa State
10 - Kansas

I think Oklahoma has the best overall team on paper, but there are serious questions regarding which Trevor Knight shows up game-in, game-out to play.  Baylor has better QB play, but they have holes on both sides of the ball.  Oklahoma State doesn't play defense, Texas Tech is limited by the athletes they recruit, Kansas State has Bill Snyder, Texas (admittedly) is somewhat of an unknown but I still think they are suffering from a talent deficit in the wake of Mack Brown, West Virginia cannot play defense, TCU is fading fast, Iowa State has passionate fans and little else, and Kansas is just wondering when in the hell basketball season is going to start.

I don't see any of these teams going undefeated, and I don't see the strength of schedule (given that the bottom half of the league is going to be very weak) being enough to lift a one-loss team into a championship game.  Further more, if I had to guess, this year I think we're going to see co-champions again.

Overall the Big XII is fading.  As a matter of fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see the conference dissolved in the next five-to-ten years.  One true champion or not, this is a conference that's diminishing rather than gaining in strength. I just don't see a path back to prominence.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Houston Texans: Rick Smith under fire.

Coming off a 2-14 season it's very rare for most people making football decisions to keep their jobs in the NFL. Amazingly, that's exactly what Rick Smith, GM of the Houston Texans has managed to do despite their being very real indications that the roster he created is not as talented, or deep, as many in the media have led us to believe.

At some point, there has to be a breaking point, and HoustonChronicle.com columnist Jerome Solomon seems to have reached it:

Texans being pretty petty with Johnson. Jerome Solomon, HoustonChronicle.com ($)

If you can read the article (It's behind the Chron's pay-wall) then you'll find a pretty scathing take-down of Mr. Smith's CV. Beyond mediocre to bad draft picks there seems to be an air of arrogance within the Texans organization that is out of line with their results on the field.

One wonders if, at some level, the Rah! Rah! cheerleading Three Stooges (John "Moe" McClain, Randy "Larry" Harvey and Jerome "Curly" Solomon) have decided they look enough the fools for running cover for a man who's seeming inability to evaluate talent consistently has led to a roster with more questions than answers?

This is not to say that Smith hasn't gotten some things right. JJ Watt obviously, but a review of the Texans draft history from 2008-forward reveals just how bleak things have been otherwise. (I, and many others, don't place the blame for the 2007 draft on Smith's shoulders. He had just arrived and it was pretty clear that Kubiak ran that draft from the get-go)

Let's look at the numbers.

2008 - 1 Pro Bowler (Duane Brown) Brown is also the only player from this draft still on the team.

2009 - 1 Pro Bowler (Brian Cushing) Cushing is also the only player from this draft still on the team.

2010 - 0 Pro Bowlers Garrett Graham (TE) Is the only player from this draft still on the team.

2011 - 1 Pro Bowler (JJ Watt) 5 of the 8 players drafted are still on the team. Most are starters but Derik Newton, Shiloh Keo and Brandon Harris are considered emblematic of the talent problem the Texans are facing. Brooks Reed is a question mark, and JJ Watt is a Top 10 NFL talent.

2012 - 0 Pro Bowlers The jury is still out on this draft class. Crick and Mercilus are flawed but might receive big starting time this year, Brooks and Jones are back-ups and might start before the year is over, Keyshawn Martin is looking like a bust in every sense of the word and it's very clear that the Texans erred in selecting Randy Bullock so highly in the draft. Only 7th round pick Mondak is not with the team.

2013 - 0 Pro Bowlers- I'm afraid the jury is IN on this draft class, even after one year. While it appears that DeAndre Hopkins and DJ Swearinger might be starters for a while, the fact remains that, two years after the draft, over half the draft class is already no longer with the team.  Of all the people who are gone only Quessenberry is excusable. You can never plan for anyone to come down with cancer. His was an unfortunate story for which there is no blame and we wish him well in his recovery.

As for 2014 who knows? On paper it looks pretty good but there are some question marks with Louis Nix, Tom Savage, Alfred Blue and Jay Prosch.  The selection of a fullback in sixth round is especially peculiar because this is a dormant position in the NFL right now. Clowney, if healthy, could potentially team up with Watt for a vicious pass-rush but there are motor concerns.

One thing for certain, this is an awful track record brought on by both dodgy drafting AND horrible salary cap management which forced the release of several players.  Even if you come up with excuses for Smith's drafting (which is hard to do) then you still have a high-mountain to climb in claiming that he has the full tool-kit required to successfully manage an NFL team.

Unfortunately, many of Smith's supporters are playing the race card, suggesting that opposition to Smith is solely based on the fact that he happens to be a black GM.  Given the numbers above that argument is ridiculous on it's face.  Being dissatisfied with Ozzie Newsome could be considered as having racist roots, being satisfied with Rick Smith given the 2-14 season and looking at the dismal numbers surrounding his draft classes and salary cap issues not so much.  Numbers are not racist, last time I checked.

At this point I don't think it's wise to let Smith go.  I heard Lance Zierlein say this morning on radio that he would have clean swept the team after last year.  I agree with this sentiment. However, since the Texans decided to keep Smith then it has to be assumed that, despite his public statements to the contrary, the ownership decided to place the blame for the 2008-2013 draft classes squarely on the shoulders of Gary Kubiak and Wade Phillips. Right or wrong then the final examination of Rick Smith GM starts with 2014.  This was clearly his draft.  O'Brien is clearly his coach, so the examination period has begun.

Unfortunately, for Smith, the early results aren't promising. Heading into training camp the Texans are a team with one of the worst QB situations in the league, a RB depth chart that has a starter coming off back surgery and a bunch of unproven talent, WR's that, without a productive Andre Johnson, appear to be a collection of WR2 and WR3's trying to find a role and a defense that's sitting around wondering if Cushing can come back healthy and if a lot of new players at new positions can have any positive impact at all. None of this even takes into account a questionable O-line and a general lack of quality depth across the board.

In summary: Given the dodgy state of the roster, the many holes and potential holes and the fact that the Texans, under Smith's guidance, seemingly have a permanent reservation in salary cap Purgatory it's fair to question Smith's future as a GM.  When you add in the Andre Johnson situation and how it was handled it seems very plausible that the GM for a 2-14 team is experiencing a little bit of a God complex.  That's worrisome.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Houston Rockets: Dreams of Hope and Glory come crashing down.

As the Rockets emerge from their horrible, no-good, disaster of a start to the free agent season it's tempting to say while the team has regressed there are still some options for the team to improve but doing so requires taking the secretarial path and ignoring the fact that Morey has taken the team down this road before.

In fact, it's probable that what we're seeing now are the inevitable results of having a General Manager who cannot quit tinkering with the team despite himself. There was a school of thought that suggested the Rockets could move Lin and Asik, wait on the Parsons decision and spend the off-season shoring up the point and the bench. This would have been the prudent pathway, and would have improved the team, but it wouldn't go very far in the way of scratching Morey's seemingly unreachable itch for big FA signings.

So, for now, the Rockets are re-visiting a previous mistake (Ariza), admitting they made a mistake on two previous "big splash" FA signings (Lin, Asik) and are left scratching their heads as Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks pulled a Daryl Morey on Daryl Morey.  Hardly something befitting Morey's media-generated reputation as the "smartest guy in the room".

In their current iteration, the Rockets appear to have regressed. Where last year they finished the season as a four-seed (who flamed out in the first round of the playoffs) this season, with this roster, they appear to be headed toward a sixth-or-seventh (or even eighth) seed and another first round playoff dismissal. At least, for now, the East seems to have benefitted the most from the movement of off-season talent while the West figures to have stayed mostly pat.

One thing that has not received a lot of run among the so-called "smart-set" in the Houston media is whether or not Houston is setting itself up for return of the Dwight-mare.  Given that Lin, Parsons and Dwight were tight and that Morey has destroyed that core by first dissing Lin and then letting Parsons walk raises the real potential that Howard could once again decide that he's not happy in his current situation and move to get out.

It doesn't seem, a this point, that Howard is all that thrilled to be sharing the court with James "Sixth Man" Harden and I can't see him being happy with an off-season that's currently the equivalent of trading Asik, Lin, Parsons and a 2nd round pick for Ariza.  Even if the Rockets can trade for Rondo, is he really all that much of an upgrade over Patrick Beverley given this team, and this line-up? As an individual talent yes, but in McHale's scheme I don't think Rondo move the needle all that much, possibly lifting the Rockets to a potential fifth or sixth seed at best.

More concerning is the fact that the laundry list of Morey failures is getting long. From Lin to Asik to Bosh (twice) to Anthony to (amazingly) LeBron to Parsons to Ariza (again?) to Royce White to a host of draft picks and free agents that seem overvalued by Morey and undervalued by everyone else the Rockets appear to be a ship that's listing along minus the engine of discipline.

There's no doubt that Morey is a smart man and that he can, at times, come out the best in a deal against another General Manager. However, there is significant doubt as to whether or not this same man has the discipline and long-term planning that's required to build a championship team.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The NBA Rumor Mill: The only certainty is that nobody knows.

And so it has started, breathless reports that LeBron James could be taking his talents back to Cleveland have started the annual NBA silly-season with a bang. Of course, King James hasn't met with the Heat yet nor has their been any word as to what the man himself is thinking so take all of this with a grain of salt.

Also comes word that the Rockets, having lost out on Kyle Lowry, seemingly out of the LeBron sweepstakes and having nothing the Timberwolves want in return for Kevin Love are recreating the embarrassing courtship of Chris Bosh that is eerily similar to their spectacle of 4 years prior. This after rolling out the red carpet for Carmelo Anthony and..... by all accounts getting soundly rebuffed.

Despite some well deserved praise of Rocket's General Manager Daryl Morey, the fact remains he's too much a gambler and tends to chase the brass ring despite the fact it's firmly on someone else's finder.

That's the point of the NBA free-agency season however. Despite all of the rumors and projections of players leaving for greener pastures, the NBA rules are made to ensure player stability.  Both the Bird rule and the increased max offers that current teams are allowed to write usually ensure that movement is minimal.

So as we approach July 10th, the date when signings are allowed to happen, let's remember one thing: Most of the rumors you are hearing are false.  If anything, the media has developed a system that's designed primarily to fill air.

In reality, there is NO movement on any of these stories, no rumors or change of teams that mean anything.  We won't know where the players are headed until the day they can sign a contract.

I would suggest tuning out until then.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

USMNT: Just like that, it's over.

There are a lot of people on Twitter, on message boards, and on talk radio this morning trying desperately to sort out some semblance of meaning behind the US Men's National Team's 2-1 loss to a far superior Belgium side yesterday with varying degrees of success.

While it's true that the USA 23 showed heart what they didn't show was a competitive level of talent, athleticism and skill. Of the 10 best players on the pitch yesterday only 1 (Goalkeeper Tim Howard) was on the USMNT roster.  Players like Kompany, De Bruyne, Lukaku, Mirellas, Origi, Hazard and Mertens were just too big, too strong and too fast for the United States side to control. And while players like Julian Green and Yedlin had outstanding moments of joy, these were entwined too deeply with moments of heartache (Yedlin not getting back on Lukaku's goal for instance) as to make them too high a hill to over come.

What still remains for the US side is their long-term bugaboo: No reliable offensive attack, and an inability to gain and maintain possession from top-tier teams. The USMNT is one that relies on brilliant goal play first, good defense second and then a set-piece, hit 'em and hope style of offense. As ESPN commentator Ian Darke put it "the US is looking for a searchlight robbery here".

Such has been the case with all USMNT's dating back to the start of the so-called "soccer turn-around" of 1994. The US hosted World Cup saw a fundamental changing of the laws of the game to make the sport more "US Friendly".  This was the beginning of the "no kick-back" rule that prevented the goalie from handing a ball played back to him by his own teammate unless it was struck by the head. Even the ball during that WC was redesigned to be more aerodynamic in a hope that it would lead to more scoring.

This World Cup also led to the formation of Major League Soccer which was a condition of the US getting the games, and was designed with the mindset of creating a future generation of US players who could compete at the highest levels of the world stage.

So we find ourselves, 20 years on, looking at pretty much the same level of talent comparatively that we saw in 1994. Back then the names were Meola and Lalas and Jones. Today the names are Howard, Beasley and Dempsey. Through the years the US has trundled along with a cast of characters including Donovan, Keller, Caligiri, Onyewu, Johnson and Wynalda. All of these players and still, very little in the name of advancement.

Part of the reason is the MLS itself. Instead of modeling a league such as the Jupiler in Belgium, the club has decided to make use of glorified club level players interspersed with some name US and aging European stars.  The game is slow, plodding, and there's little encouragement for the team owners to improve their lots due to the absence of a system of promotion and relegation as one finds in almost every serious football league around the world.

The biggest mistake that MLS bigwigs made was choosing to copy the NFL league model and not, as they should have, the International football model that fans have grown to love.  Make no mistake about it, the Barclay's Premier League, Serie A, and La Liga are bigger TV draws in the USA right now than is MLS.  And there's rising interest in smaller leagues such as the NASL and the USL Pro.

This is not to say that Pro/Rel is the be all-end all for an American football ascendency. There has to be a total revamping of how the game is handled from the youth leagues on up. Player development at EVERY level is lacking in the US, as youth teams teach too much structure and strategy and don't focus on the important bits like scoring and creativity.

There's a reason some of the worst players on the USMNT this World Cup, Bradley (who had a horrible Cup) and Brad Davis (Who might as well have been invisible) were MLS players. They struggled because they've not faced the best players in the world on a consistent basis.

Don't get me wrong. Both of these players are very good, top-flight players at the MLS level but, when you ask them to play above, they are out of depth.  This is not their fault as much as it is the fault of the league and it's shoddy development system.

So, the USMNT is out, American soccer is stagnant, and a majority of the Country has just tuned out of the game for another four years.  The good news is this means the rebuilding and infighting will occur outside of the public eye. The bad news is no one will really understand what it all means.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Thoughts/Prediction: USA vs. Belgium

For most Americans, Belgium is that place with Brussels which they think might be a name for a vegetable they hated as a kid or they might have heard something on the news about how it's the Capitol of the EU. (It's not, because the EU HAS no official capitol but it's as close as the Euros are going to get.)  For most Euros, Belgium is the traditional place where France and Germany hash out their differences. Mostly though the Belgians are famous for one thing. Inventing what is now known as the French Fry. Of course, in Belgium, they put mayonnaise on theirs (which is actually preferable to ketchup I promise).

In football, most Americans, even the so-called "hard core" soccer fans don't pay much attention to the Jupiler League or even realize it exists. But exist it does and while it's glory days seem firmly in the rear view mirror there's still a ton of talent developed there which is usually swept up in fairly quick fashion by the more wealthy leagues in England, France, Italy and Spain.

Unfortunately, Belgium enters this game in front of a backdrop of political turmoil on the home front and without the services of top mid-fielder Steven DeFour.  The latter is especially good for the USMNT because they tend to struggle against teams that have brilliant control and possession throughout the midfield. (Think Germany Light)

With all things USMNT today's game is going to be determined by two things: 

1. Can they control the ball AT ALL in the mid-field?
2. Can they score enough?

With DeFour out and Kompany possibly having health issues I think it's fairly safe to say that the US has a much better chance at winning this game than the game w/Germany.  That said, I think the Belgians are just that much better and their superior play in the midfield will carry the day and lead them to a 1-0 win.

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