The road from Oakland to Vegas

DSC_0198560 miles is a relatively short distance in a country that spans over 3,000 miles but the prospect of a 16 hour road trip to watch the NFL team you’ve called your own since 1995 (and for some the 21 years preceding their move to LA in 1982) is going to leave a bitter taste in the mouth. To appease embittered Oakland fans the Raiders have attempted to bring back the good old days by signing Super Bowl winning Jon Gruden to a frankly whopping $100 million deal which runs until 2028 (with the Raiders proposed move due to take place in 2020) but just like blue passports and the fallacy that anyone can make anything “great again” Mark Davis’ attempt to return to a past glory is nothing more than misguided nostalgia.

Gruden is a rarity as an active Super Bowl winning Head Coach, there are just 7 winners still coaching and his last spell in Oakland was his most successful tenure with a 59% win rate (compared to his 54% overall win rate) but he had just 4 seasons with 10 or more wins in his 11 years as a Head Coach. His playoff record is not too impressive either with only 5 wins from 9 games and that was when he was at the peak of his coaching power, Gruden hasn’t won a game in the post season since he won the Super Bowl in 2002 and he hasn’t coached a football team since 2008!

While he hasn’t been totally out of football, he’s been working for ESPN as an analyst on Monday Night Football and he actually said one of the reasons he wanted to become a Head Coach again was “I got tired of sitting in a dark room, watching tape by myself” so he’s hardly coming in cold but as illustrated by the Raiders decision to trade draft picks for current players show that he might not be entirely au fait with the world of College football as other Head Coaches.

Those trades (Martavis Bryant for their 3rd round pick and Right Tackle Brandon Parker with the 3rd round pick they recieved from the Ravens) along with slot receiver Ryan Switzer who they traded for from the Cowboys plus the addition of Free Agent Doug Martin has retooled the Offence to give Derek Carr some help. However Gruden’s reputation for hammering his Quarterbacks (Christian Hackenberg only lasted about 4 weeks in Oakland after the Raiders traded for him in May) and Derek Carr’s erratic performances (just 1 winning season and a 45% winning record) seem like a volatile combination to some outsiders and let’s not forget that while Bryant is potentially a league leading receiver he had a particularly strained relationship with Big Ben in Pittsburgh after his 13 month suspension for violating the substance abuse policy. How new Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson balances the run game with the pass game and manages to share the workload between Martin and Lynch (and possibly Richard and Washington, if they retain 4 Running Backs into the regular season) will be key, last season the Raiders threw on 60% of their Offensive snaps and they only recorded 23 touchdowns alongside 14 interceptions so it would appear that they didn’t allow Carr to use his strengths as much as they could have.

I think the important part of Gruden’s deal is the 10 years of the contract and as much as his appointment is to placate the fans who feel betrayed by the ownership who have decided to move Mark Davis is also trying to make the transition to a new State as smooth as possible. However if the start of Gruden’s tenure is a rocky one the Black Hole faithful may lose interest and the $100 million price of the deal may become more of an albatross around the Raiders neck than a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

AFC Championship Game Pittsburgh Steelers @ New England Patriots

If the NFC Championship game is clear of drama then its AFC counterpart has enough hoopla surrounding it to keep most soap operas in storyline’s for about a year!  Pittsburgh and Boston fan are 2 of the most fervent fan bases in sports, so when their respective football teams meet in such an important game then a little tension is to be expected and the line between friendly rivalry and bad sportsmanship can become a little blurred.  To attest to that fact a 25 year old Bostonian was arrested at about 3 am on Sunday for setting off the fire alarm in the Steelers hotel, correspondingly Gillette Stadium was evacuated when the fire alarm went off there at about 7 hours later (so it’s going well so far).  Even before the latest shenanigans there was plenty of drama swirling around this game, 15 Steelers have been suffering from stomach flu leading up to the game, the Patriots have injury concerns over 3 of their 6 active Wide Receivers and Martellus Bennett will reportedly play with bone fragments in his heel!  And all that without even mentioning Roger Goodell’s absence from New England following the “Deflate-gate” brouhaha (if he feels the NFL was correct then why should he avoid any potential ill feeling, even if he’s likely to suffer a hostile reception from some locals?) or the reports that surfaced in December that Pittsburgh may have used deflated ball’s too, the NFL vehemently refuted the claims.  And then there’s Antonio Brown’s own personal social media snafu last week (he broadcast Head Coach Mike Tomlin post game speech from the changing room where he railed against the Patriots and how they have benefitted from extra rest due to the way the schedule has fallen, although the Patriots were the number 1 seed in the AFC) live on Facebook which wasn’t met with universal approval from his teammates.

So on to the actual football that may be played (if the fire alarm ever stops going off) and remembering that both of these teams combined are responsible for winning 20% of all the Super Bowls ever played this game could be one for the ages.  Both teams scrapped to wins last week with the Patriots coming up against a Jadaveon Clowney inspired Texans Defence and the Steelers having to battle some arctic conditions in Kansas City along with a worrying inability to get the ball into the end zone despite 7 trips to the redzone.  For the Steelers the return of smash-mouth football seems to be the key to their success, for all the talk of Antonio Brown being one of the top 2 receivers in the NFL Running Back La’Veon Bell has been responsible for 1,431 yards and 8 Steelers touchdowns in their 9 game unbeaten run compared to Brown’s 685 and 7 touchdowns.  The Patriots Defence however has been particularly stingy against the run, they only allowed 6 rushing touchdowns during the regular season (the fewest in the league) and on average they only conceded 3.9 yards per carry while they forced 11 fumbles (the second most in the league).  So the Steelers may lean more on Brown in this game than Bell and with his controversy in the locker room last week he certainly has appoint to prove, he was fined $10,000 by the team but if Tomlin is feeling particularly disciplinarian (and like a decent gambler) then he may well chose to hold Brown out of the early exchanges.  This could have a twofold effect, Brown is looking at signing a big contract in the near future and if the Steelers can perform in his absence then his next big pay day may come outside Pittsburgh and if the Steelers Offence can occupy the Patriots Defence adequately in the first 30 minutes of the game then a fresh Brown may well provide the finishing touches and close the game out for the away team.

The Patriots early struggles against the Texans will have disappointed Bellichick and the coaches but I think they will have been quietly satisfied that they showed the character to come through against one of the toughest Defences in the NFL, they turned over the ball 3 times and I’m sure the players have been hearing about that all week long.  It’s always important to learn from mistakes so if the Patriots had sailed through last week’s game without making any it would have been harder to coach them this week, Brady threw as many interceptions last week as he did in the preceding 12 games of the season so he won’t have been a happy bunny and will be desperate to show exactly how good he can be this weekend against an opponent he’s seem plenty of during his career.  In 6 games against Mike Tomlin’s Steelers Brady has lost just once and he’s thrown 19 touchdowns without throwing a single interception!  This is why I feel the Patriots are going to yet another Super Bowl, along with the absolute distain they feel towards Goodell after the 4 game ban Brady was subjected for his part in the “Deflate-gate” furore (although it was such a protracted legal process that nobody really remembers if Brady was proven to have done anything wrong at the beginning of it).  The Steelers Defensive line and Linebackers may well have a reasonable amount of success against a Patriots Offensive line who couldn’t handle Merciless and Clowney for large parts last week but former Steeler LeGarrette Blount will be pretty desperate to run all over them and take some of the steam out of any Defender unfortunate enough to get in his way (he weighs in just 18 stone and he can really move if he’s 100% healthy).

The bookmakers have got the Patriots as favourites and while the fitness of the Steelers flu sufferers and the Patriots Receivers will ultimately determine how comfortable the victory is I wouldn’t be surprised to see a faultless Brady showing and frankly I’m imagining the Patriots will be terrified to turn over the ball after last week’s profligacy!

NFC Divisional round Playoffs – Green Bay Packers @ Dallas Cowboys

Aaron Rodgers is what scientists would call an “uncontrolled variable” and as he showed last week he can do absolutely anything during the course of a football game.  In the arctic temperatures at Lambeau Rodgers completed 25 passes, threw for 362 yards and 4 touchdowns, all of this despite being sacked 5 times and losing 31 yards in the process.  So this week inside “Jerryworld” in Texas he should have no problem picking apart a Cowboys defence who gave up 25 touchdowns through the air during the regular season and that could be true, the Giants showed that if you try to cover all the Packers receivers and just rush 4 Rodgers has the pass protection and patience to light up a defensive backfield.

The phrase “the Cowboys don’t blitz often, but when they do they get there” has been uttered more than a few times by Troy Aikman in the Fox commentary booth so far this season and if they don’t blitz Rodgers often then they might come a cropper, Benson Mayowa and Maliek Collins have been the Cowboys most successful pass rushers this season, (Mayowa with 4 in his last 5 games and Collins with 3 in his last 2) but David Irving has been the key to the Cowboys rush over recent weeks.  The 6 feet 7 inch, 19 stone Defensive End emerged as a real star in week 15 and in his last 3 games he’s recorded 3 sacks and made 7 total tackles, he’s also deflected 5 passes and forced 4 fumbles this season so he’ll have be a vital cog in the Cowboys defensive machine.

The most effective way to stop Aaron Rodgers displaying his many, well honed skills will be for the Cowboys to keep possession of the ball for the majority of the game and with Ezekiel Elliot and a mobile Quarterback in Dak Prescott they have players who can do that (they also have Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris who would start for most other NFL franchises but it’s unclear how willing they will be to spell Elliot who has been the league’s dominant Back this season).  In all 10 different players have run the football for the Cowboys this season and 4 of them have scored touchdowns so I would expect them to stray from their usual balanced attack (49% pass plays) to more run heavy game plan with the occasional deep pass in Dez Bryant’s direction to keep the defence honest.  The Packers Defence is seriously thin when it comes to defensive backs but if the Cowboys go after their defensive backfield there’s a solid chance that they will just end being drawn into a shoot out and there’s no better gunslinger than Rodgers particularly with Randall Cobb fit again, Cobb only caught 5 passes last week but he accounted for 126 yards and 3 of his 5 receptions were for touchdowns!

The Cowboys have only lost one game at home this season, which was to the Giants who the Packers successfully vanquished last week and since the Cowboys did beat Packers in Lambeau back in October they are the bookmakers favourites to win, they certainly have the personnel to grind out a win and in their previous meeting Elliot ran for 156 yards on 28 attempts!  However Rodgers and the Packers haven’t lost a game since the 20th of November and during that run he’s thrown 19 touchdowns and 0 interceptions (he’s actually thrown 22 touchdowns & run for 1 since his last interception).  He’s completed a career high 401 passes this season and I’m not sure the Cowboys can stop him.  So this game will really come down to whether or not the Dallas Offence can show up when the pressure is really on, over their last 7 games they have averaged 23 points per game which is very good, but the Packers have averaged 30 points per game so it looks like they’ll win a close game (although say that with very little conviction at all)!

The most interesting 2016 NFL offseason moves (part 3)

DSC_0198Danny Trevathan is the Super Bowl winner you’ve probably never heard of and while he operated in the considerable shadows cast by Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware in Denver he was an integral part of the Broncos Super Bowl 50 victory.  He’s an all action Middle Linebacker in the Luke Kuelchy mould (obviously he’s not as quick as Kuelchy but then nobody could even claim to be).  In the 2015 regular season he defended 6 passes and took 2 interceptions, 1 of which he returned for a touchdown.  Those may not seem numbers worth getting excited about but when you consider that in Kuelchy’s remarkable regular season he defended 6 passes and made 4 interceptions (and also returned 1 to the house) Trevathan’s numbers look more than adequate.  Whilst ball hawking Linebackers are pretty exciting and can provide a much needed safety-net for shaky Secondary’s Middle Linebackers earn their corn with the number of tackles they make and Trevathan notched up 73 solo efforts last season and assisted on 36 other occasions, Kuelchy had 76 solo tackles and 42 assists and that’s not where the comparison ends.  In the Super Bowl only 2 players made more than 7 tackles, Kuelchy (10) and Trevathan (8).  Trevathan also recovered a vital fumble in the second half that could have lead to momentum swinging in the Panthers favour.  With 5 minutes and 44 seconds left in the 3rd quarter a Cam Newton pass intended for Ted Ginn Jr. was tipped and T.J Ward made the interception, an interception which involved Ward losing 3 yards and then fumbling the ball when he was hit by Mike Tolbert.  Trevathan’s speed of mind and fleet of foot beat Ginn (who isn’t slow) to the loose ball and prevented the Panthers from closing the gap on the scoreboard to just 6 points.

So Trevathan’s addition can only be a bonus for a Bears team who struggled to just 6 wins last season, other good news within their division is Lions receiver Calvin Johnson retired aged just 30.  However neither the Bears or Lions made the playoffs from the NFC North last season and with a resurgent Vikings team moving into the absolutely stunning U.S Bank Stadium allied to the fact the Packers and Lambeau have become complete mysteries to the Bears lately with just 4 wins in their last 17 meetings (2 in 8 in Wisconsin) the Bears’ playoff chances look slim this year too.  For their part the Bears have done as much as they possibly could have done (short of making some silly trades to rise up the draft order, they were 9th anyway and ended up with the 2nd best draft according to some).  They’ve almost completely rebuilt their defence, with some experts projecting a starting line-up including just 2 of last season’s starters.  The front 7 (including Trevathan) feature a nose tackle promoted from last season’s 2nd string and 2 outside Linebackers who look to have swapped sides from last season although their first draft pick Leonard Floyd could become a starter and while he is a largely unknown quantity some Bears fans hope that Vic Fangio could use Floyd’s athleticism to make him into an Aldon Smith type pass rusher.  In the backfield Trevathan’s Broncos teammate from his rookie season (2012) Tracy Porter who is the only player to have made more than 10 career interceptions and Trevathan himself has more career interceptions than both starting Safeties, 5 compared to 1 between Adrian Amos and Henry Jones-Quartey.

One has to imagine the Bears will have a better season than they did in John Fox’s first attempt at the NFC North although the perennial questions around Jay Cutler are bound to surface at some stage and as Cutler approaches his 34th birthday his ability to stay healthy will become even more scrutinised.  An improvement of defence will relieve some of the pressure Cutler faces, the 24.8 points per game they conceded last term was the 20th best in the league last season and was more than 23 Offences were able to score last season, not just the Bears.  The Bears biggest problems will be outside of their control, last season’s NFC North champions the Vikings look to have improved their pass rush and they managed to sack Russell Wilson 4 times in just 1 half of football last week!  Although the Vikings are not without their own issues, Teddy Bridgewater has not been healthy enough to play in preseason yet so they could struggle to defence their division crown.  The Packers were seriously disrupted by injuries last season and while Aaron Rodgers almost singlehandedly took them to the NFC Championship game with an inspired display in Arizona they will be favourites to regain the title of NFC North Champions provided they can keep number 12 in one piece particularly since a recent article reported how the Packers backup QB’s are ranked 22nd in the league.

AL East 2016

I’ve always thought it’s totally impossible to even attempt to predict what will happen over the course of a season that lasts about 7 months and includes 162 games (before the playoffs even start) but since I recently realised that I’ve been a Blue Jays fan for 25 years I thought I could try to make some sense of what could happen in their division.

There’s 2 causes for concern for Blue Jays followers this season, the biggest being that David Price (who won 9 regular season games and lost just 1 last season) signed for the Red Sox during the offseason (so they could potentially have to face him 4 times this season), the second is that GM Alex Anthopoulos upped sticks and moved to LA to become the Dodgers Vice-President of baseball operations.  His decision may well have been motivated by money, the Dodgers were valued at $2.4 billion in 2015 (the Blue Jays are valued at a comparatively small $900 million), or maybe he’s discovered a new found passion for surfing at the ripe old age of 38, but the more likely explanation is that he foresaw a tricky period ahead for the Blue Jays after he moved heaven and earth to sign Price and Ben Revere last season and both left as free agents in the offseason.  Acquiring those 2 players meant losing 5 pitching prospects, he also traded 2 young pitchers to the Rockies as part of the deal to bring Troy Tulowitzki to the Rogers Centre all of which now means that the pitching rotation will be lead by a 24 year old with just 24 career starts to his name and will include a 41 year old knuckleballer with a 100-93 career record, a 23 year old who has made just 11 career starts and a 33 year old who has allowed 985 hits in 196 games.  They also lost Liam Hendriks who put in some stellar performances from the bullpen last season and LaTroy Hawkins who was the stabilising influence at the of end of the regular season has retired so relief pitching could prove to be a stumbling block.

Everyone will preface the Blue Jays with phrase “loaded batting line up” but even with megastars like Donaldson, Encarnacion and Bautista hitting and defence from Tulowitzki alongside the underrated Pillar and Goins repeating last season’s success within the division could be just out of reach.  Personally I think the loss of Ben Revere will be tricky to cover and with his slated replacement Michael Saunders coming off a season where a lingering knee injury reduced him to just 9 starts it’s possible that leftfield may become a bit of a carousel. 23 year Dalton Pompey was expected to compete with Saunders for the role but he’s been shipped to Buffalo, former Phillies outfielder All-Star Dominic Brown signed a minor league contract in February but he also struggled for fitness last year and played just 63 games.  Winning the division isn’t totally out of the question for the Blue Jays but they’ll need more than a slice of good fortune, I think a mid-table finish is more likely with the transition going on within the pitching staff and 3rd place would signify a reasonable season.

 

The Yankees outperformed pretty much everyone’s expectations last season off the back of a resurgent Alex Rodriguez and the power of Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann who hit 90 homeruns between them.  The infield for the Yankees doesn’t look anywhere near as dynamic as the Blue Jays does even with their offseason signing of short stop/ 2nd baseman Starlin Castro.  Ironically Castro has consistently struggled achieve a level of consistency during his 6 year career but he’s always flashed brilliance and if he can manage to settle in New York and perform near his best on a regular basis he could form a good pairing with Dutch short stop Didi Gregorius who finished his first season as a Yankee looking more assured than he began it.  The potentially lacklustre Yankees infield is more than compensated by the stability their pitching rotation provides, lead by Mashahiro Tanaka who even though he may have lost some of his initial pop due to a troublesome elbow injury is still a class act.  He struggled with a partial tear to his ulna collateral ligament in his right elbow back in 2014 and last October he had a bone spur removed from the same elbow, despite these issues he still managed to win 25 of his 44 starts in the last 2 years.  Even though he’s the Yankees Ace only 1 of their rotation has fewer wins than him in MLB, 23 year old Luis Severino who has 5 but he’s only started 11 games in his young career.  With CC Sabathia expected to return following his stay at an alcohol rehab centre in October (he checked himself in a week before their Wildcard game) the Yankees figure to have a veteran presence with 214 career wins to bolster a talented rotation with an average age of just 25.  Signing Reds closer Aroldis Chapman whilst he was embroiled in an alleged domestic violence controversy might have seemed like a strange decision at the time but he threw at over 100 mph and struck out 3 of the 5 batters he faced in a recent spring training game so he’ll definitely benefit the team on the field once his 30 game suspension ends in May.  Even without Chapman the Yankees have 2 pitchers who recorded 46 saves between them last season, the imposing 6 feet 7 inch Andrew Miller and the absolutely monstrous 6 feet 8 inch and 265 lb Dellin Betances. With such a strong pitching rotation I expect the Yankees to make a return to the playoffs this season and if their veterans like Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran and of course A- Rod can produce the goods they should win the division.

 

The Orioles, Rays and Red Sox all finished within 3 games of each other last season with the Red Sox 78-84 record being the division’s worst (although it would have seen them finish 3rd in the NL East) and this season they all fit into the same category, the “could win the division but then again could finish bottom” category and that’s why this division is so interesting and exciting.

 

The Red Sox certainly have a lot of talent at their disposal, probably more than any other team and if their players match their potential then they will not only be difficult to stop within the division they could easily be back in the World Series for the first time since they won it 2013.  They suffered from a real lack of power last season with their best 3 hitters (David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez and Mookie Betts) mustering just 74 homeruns between them (27 fewer than the Blue Jays top 3), the plus side for the Red Sox is that they have a particularly young team with 4 of their 8 starting hitters all being 25 or under.  Last season they experimented with Hanley Ramirez playing left field where he ended the season with the lowest defensive ranking at that position in the league, so this year they have resolved to move him to a different position (1st base where he’s never played before and therefore another gamble).  If it pays off and Ramirez can improve on the 18 homeruns he scored in an injury effect last season and veterans Pablo Sandoval and Dustin Pedroia can remain healthy the Red Sox see an increase in the number of homeruns they score.  The arrival of David Price as an Ace pitcher and Craig Kimbrel as a tried and tested closer have definitely improved the Red Sox but with 2 pitchers in the starting rotation who have career ERA’s above 4 and a relief pitcher with an ERA above 5 they will give opponents opportunities to score runs.  It would be a surprise if a 29 year old Sandoval struggled as much this season as he did last and if Hanley Ramirez can resettle in Beantown (10 years after they traded him to the Marlins) as their youngsters begin to feel increasingly comfortable in the big league I can see the Red Sox finishing second in the division and even making a Wild Card spot.

 

The Orioles were tipped to win the division last season and they excelled at hitting homeruns, only the Blue Jays scored more than their 217 with 1st baseman Chris Davis hitting a league leading 47.  They did however seem to lack a certain amount of speed and aggression in running the bases, they only stole 44 bases last season, half the number the Blue Jays managed and 18 fewer than their opponents stole.  The Orioles have an interesting mix of youth and experience in their batting line-up with 23 year old homerun machine Manny Machado and 24 year old Jonathan Schoop who is tipped to have a breakout year added to the veterans like Matt Wieters and Adam Jones.  The signings of the powerful Pedro Alvarez and the 28 year old Korean Hyun Soo Kim (after his 9 year career playing in his home country) make them a team who could do big things this season but the arrival of Alvarez will likely see Mark Trumbo who is used to playing 1st base or as a DH move to right field which could weaken their defence.  The pitching rotation for the Orioles has not been particularly economical recently and last year they had a collective ERA of 4.05, they lost last season’s Ace Wei-Yin Chen to the Marlins and for the final and for the final 4 months of last season Miguel Gonzalez had an ERA of 6.06!  Just like the Blue Jays losing Price the Orioles will struggle unless they can get some help for that pitching rotation (and they do have plenty of prospects who could blossom or be involved in a trade) I think they’ll be locked in a battle for 4th place in the division with the Rays but they have got the power hitters to keep them off the bottom of the table.

 

The Rays pitching was the best in the division last season with the lowest ERA at just 3.74 and the most shut outs, 12. They were also 3rd in the league (and lead the division) when it came to opponents batting average with opposition hitters recording an average of .240.  They weren’t quite as good when it came to defence and the 95 errors they committed left them 21st in the league with only the transitioning Red Sox team below them in the AL East.  Their fielding percentage was .984, just .004 below the highest in the league but still the worst in the AL East and 21st overall in the league.  They were however 2nd in the AL East with 4,360 putouts, only the Yankees recorded more with 4,373.  Their Ace pitcher Chris Archer was recently voted 8th best right handed pitcher in the league and centre fielder Kevin Kiermayer was voted the 9th best in his position so they are not without serious talent.  They had the opposite problem to the Orioles last season, while they stole 87 bases they were only able to hit 167 homeruns with nobody in their line-up able to hit more than 21, to compound this problem Asdrubal Cabrera who hit 15 of them whilst knocking in 58 runs last season has joined the Mets.  With such a good pitching rotation the Rays shouldn’t have to score many runs to win games but if they’re going to try to squeeze their opponents and succeed in low scoring affairs they’ll need to tighten up their fielding.  In James Loney, Corey Dickerson and Evan Longoria they do have players who hit a long ball but whether they have the depth to challenge the big guns in the division remains questionable.  I think the lack of power will be the Rays undoing again this season and they might not be able to finish as high as they did last season.

The most exciting thing about the AL East is that all the teams have some very special players who can drag their teammates along with them and with a very long season ahead anything really could happen.  Whoever progresses to the playoffs will have some unbelievably impressive teams to compete with, they’ll likely have to meet the Royals in the ALCS but the Rangers and the Astros and possibly even the Tigers could well have something to say about that.  And that’s just in the American League!