Archive for January, 2017

Sorry Kansas City, You Gotta Have The Quarterback

January 21, 2017

Andy Reid, wildly successful in the regular season, continues to come up short in the playoffs

by John Furgele

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  That sums it up for the Kansas City Chiefs with yet another frustrating ouster in the NFL playoffs.  Is Andy Reid the second coming of Marty Schottenheimer?  You know, the guy wins 10 to 13 games per year in the regular season, but can’t get over in the playoffs?  In fairness to Reid, he did coach the Philadelphia Eagles to five NFC Championship Game appearances as well as one Super Bowl appearance, but time and time again, his troops come up short in big games in much the same way as Schottenheimer’s teams did in Cleveland, Kansas City and San Diego.

The Chiefs are not only frustrating, they are agonizingly frustrating.  The dink and dunk their way and in the end, can never score enough points to win the big games.  Last year, they hung tough at New England, but settled for too many field goals and lost.  This year, even though they scored two touchdowns to Pittsburgh’s zero, quarterback Alex Smith threw 34 times to get 172 yards, a paltry 5.08 yards per attempt.  Pittsburgh kicked six field goals and still managed to win the game 18-16 to advance to the 2016 AFC Championship Game at New England while the Chiefs will be left scratching their heads for yet another off-season.

Why is it like this in professional sports?  Why do some teams do the same thing year after and time after time?  The Cleveland Browns were so close in 1986.  They had a seven point lead and had the Denver Broncos pinned at their own two-yard line.  The Broncos drove 98 yards to tie it and won the game in overtime.  The next year, they had taken over the AFC Championship Game at Denver.  Down 38-31, they were driving for the tying touchdown only to have Ernest Byner fumble at the Denver two.  The franchise hasn’t recovered.  Their coach:  Marty Schottenheimer.

The Kansas City Chiefs just can’t get over the hump.  Like the New York Jets, they won one of the first Super Bowls when they beat the Minnesota Vikings 23-7 in Super Bowl 4, but since then, they haven’t done much.  They reached the 1993 AFC Championship Game and were buried by the Buffalo Bills; most of the time, they bow out in the AFC Divisional Playoffs.

Marty Schottenheimer took over the Chiefs in 1989.  In 10 seasons, he guided them to the playoffs seven times, but only once (1993) did they reach the AFC Championship Game.  The 1995 team was loaded at 13-3 but played conservatively in a 10-7 home divisional round loss to Indianapolis. The 1997 team was also 13-3, but lost in the divisional round at home to the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.

Andy Reid usually wins games the way he lost on Sunday.  He tries to minimize mistakes, likes to settle for and kick field goals and wins white knuckler affairs.  On Sunday, he was out done by six field goals by his opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers.  In four seasons Reid has won plenty of football games.  His Chiefs have made the playoffs three times and his record is a sparkling 43-21.  You don’t fire guys with records like that, but do guys like Reid win Super Bowls?

Reid uses the dink and dunk approach on offense.  In the regular season, that works fine, but in the playoffs, not so much.  It’s the opposite of baseball.  In that sport, the teams that slug home runs all regular season usually get beaten in the playoffs by teams that “dink and dunk and play small ball.” And, we know that great pitching beats great hitting.  Is Reid too conservative, ala Schottenheimer, or were both men plagued by not having the great quarterback?

Alex Smith is also one of those enigma guys.  He wins games; he plays smart, minimizes mistakes, and is labeled as a good game manager.  The problem with game managers is that in the playoffs, you sometimes need your quarterback to go out and win the game for you.  Smith doesn’t have that in him.  He’s not going to do what Aaron Rodgers did at Dallas.  He can’t do what Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger do and that’s throw two picks but still get you over the top.  People forget that in Super Bowl 49, Brady threw two picks and still guided the Pats to victory.

Today’s NFL requires the great quarterback.  Since 2006, all the Super Bowls have been won by Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson and Joe Flacco.  The first five are Hall of Fame locks and Wilson and Flacco still have time to get there.  There are no aberrations on that list.  Back in the day, you could win a Super Bowl with Jim Plunkett, Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson, Jim McMahon and Doug Williams, but no more.  This year’s final four proves that with Brady and Roethlisberger in the AFC and Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers in the NFC.  Many teams think they are close and think they can sneak their way to a title with an Alex Smith or a Brock Osweiler but we all know better.  Peyton Manning won one on guile, but that was all-time great guile.   You can surround your team with great runners, receivers and defensive players, but as the Chiefs found out, you have to win the games with your offense and for three plus quarters, the Chiefs had 10 points and were losing to a team that was doing nothing more than kicking field goals.  Smith is a solid quarterback; you’re not going to find anybody better quickly, but you’re not going to win the Super Bowl with him.  You’ll make the playoffs three of every four years, but you will torture your fans in the process.  It is football purgatory.

If you’re the Philadelphia Eagles and the Oakland Raiders, you pray that you’ve found your man.  If you’re the Indianapolis Colts, you think you have your quarterback, but you know that the window is closing unless you fortify him with a better supporting cast.  The same goes for the Baltimore Ravens.  You have a Super Bowl winning QB in Joe Flacco, yet you think he is better than he really is.  He isn’t Aaron Rodgers, so get a running back to help him.  That worked for John Elway at the end of his career.  He didn’t have to win the games; he could let his offensive line and Terrell Davis help him.

If you’re the Bills, you know you can’t win with Tyrod Taylor, but you also know that the next quarterback won’t be as good.  The Jets, the Browns, the Cardinals can all relate.  The Bengals and Redskins have decent quarterbacks, but are they good enough?  Both have made playoff appearances, but neither has won a playoff game.  They’re both good enough to keep their jobs, but not good enough to win the Lombardi trophy.

Since 1986, the Chiefs had made the playoffs 14 times; 14 times in 30 seasons, roughly every other year.  To me, a great season is ensured if the franchise reaches a conference championship game and in those 14 appearances, the Chiefs have made one.  And, their quarterback?  Joe Montana; an aging Montana, but Montana nonetheless at the ripe old age of 37.

That was 23 years ago.

All In All, A Good Run For Chris Berman

January 13, 2017

by John Furgele (Your 228)

ESPN announced last week that Chris Berman will no longer be their main NFL guy.  Berman (along with Bob Ley) is an ESPN original; he has been with the network since its inception in 1979.  In summation, Berman—love him or hate him—will be missed.

Berman was quick to point out that he is not retiring; he will still work for ESPN and will not be riding off into the sunset.  Berman’s longevity represents a lot when it comes to broadcasting.  The more one stays in the business, the more polarizing they become.  His supporters loved the shtick, the nicknames, the exasperated, running-out-of-breath end to sentences along with his natural enthusiasm.  His detractors, which seemed to grow with each passing year, will point to his notice me style, his calling himself The Swami and his constant need to be noticed and validated.

When ESPN began, it needed to be different.  Most thought there was no way that a 24-hour sports network could make it.  What would they show?  Where would they get their highlights from?  How many sports could they show?  In the 1970s, sports were confined to the weekends.  If you liked baseball, you had the Saturday Game of the Week on NBC and Monday Night Baseball on ABC.  If you were lucky to live near a major league team, there was a chance that a game might be shown on a Wednesday night, but other than that, you watched what you were given.

I grew up in the Buffalo/Niagara Falls area.  In the 1970s, we had the above mentioned baseball games to watch.  We also got see Montreal Expos games broadcasted on the CBC, and in 1977, the Toronto Blue Jays aired on CBC and then the CTV network.  The NHLs Buffalo Sabres aired on Channel 2, the local NBC affiliate and back in the day, Channel 2 would show anywhere from 30 to 40 games.  We also had the NBA Buffalo Braves that aired on Channel 4, the local CBS affiliate.  The rest of the time, you had your radio and believe it or not, life was pretty good if you were a sports fan.  On the weekends, you could catch college football, college basketball, bowling, skiing and even some hockey and ABCs Wide World of Sports was a must watch.

Cable TV began making noise in the mid-1970s, and by 1979, ESPN debuted.  They didn’t have access or the rights to the “Big Four,” sports, so we got to see a lot of Canadian football, Australian Rules football and other bizarre events.  College basketball is what put ESPN on the map with help from the then bespectacled Dick Vitale.  ESPN helped grow college basketball to the point where filling out one’s bracket has become a staple in just about every office in America.

Berman was the charismatic one.  His nicknames for baseball players were funny and legendary.  Butch “Oil and Wynegar, Jerry “Rolls” Reuss, Steve “Alto” Sax and Jim “Two Silhouettes on” Deshaises pop into mind.  My favorite remains Ernest “I can see for riles and” Riles.  Critics pointed out that Berman was more clown and less “serious journalist,” so eventually, the nicknames faded away.  For me, it was an example of taking sports too seriously, but part of sports being taken as such is because of ESPN.  Now, you can’t just watch the game, you have to dissect it to the point of nausea.

Berman and Tom Jackson were Sunday night staples.  They showed highlights of every single game and it was something that many fans looked forward to.  It isn’t easy watching football from 1 pm to 7:30 pm each Sunday, but finding those 60 minutes to see Boomer and Jackson—from Louisville—was easy and a fun thing to do.  In 2006, the NFL forbade ESPN to show highlights and for the last ten years, Berman—and ESPN—have become less relevant.  The NFL Network has contributed to this as has Sunday Night Football on NBC.  They have the rights and because of this, ESPN’s role—and Berman’s—has diminished.  But, the highlight shows have not matched the quality that they were when ESPN carried them.

ESPN is struggling as more and more people continue to cut cable.  ESPN receives about $7.25 of everybody’s cable or satellite bill, by far the most of any network.  The second most expensive network gets about $1.65.  If you love sports, ESPN is a bargain, but if you don’t it can help justify ditching cable for a cheaper alternative.  Because of this, ESPN decided that it might be the right time to cut some expensive talent.  In addition to reducing Berman’s role—and salary—they have seen Colin Cowherd and Skip Bayless leave for Fox and have cut tons of staff in recent months.  The day is going to come where the right fees bubble will burst.  ESPN pays $2 billion per year to show Monday Night Football; $2 billion!   They pay Jon Gruden $6.5 million per year to broadcast one game per week, so there is no wonder why Gruden won’t take another coaching job is there?  Armageddon is not yet here as ESPN recently extended the Monday Night Football deal through 2021 for $15.2 billion.  But, when ESPN takes $10 or $11 from your bill, what will happen?  The diehards will pay $144 per year for sports, but will the spouses? The non-sports fan?  The young people living on their own for the first time?  And, as more people cut cable, what will ESPN do to re-invent itself?

They are trying to improve streaming in the hopes that they can hook and more importantly retain young people, but you can’t watch Monday Night Football on your phone as ESPN won’t allow it.  Even though they produce all the sports that air on ABC, they won’t put the major bowl games there as they try to force one’s hand into a cable subscription.  The Rose Bowl, the 5 pm New Year’s Day staple that aired for decades on NBC and then ABC  is now exclusively on ESPN, along with the College Football Playoff semifinals and championship game.

Berman will still be a presence going forward at ESPN.  The one bad move announced is that Berman will call a MLB Division Series for ESPN Radio.  Berman has lots of qualities, but play-by-play is not one of them.  Once a staple on baseball, he really does nothing with the sport all year and then jet-sets in for the playoffs.  And, saying he is terrible is being kind.  Why ESPN allowed this to be in his next contract is beyond puzzling.

Berman is one of the last giants in broadcasting.  The days of Howard Cosell are over, the bombastic “notice-me,” personalities are just about done.  Today’s network voices are much more subdued with Jim Nantz (CBS), Joe Buck (Fox), Al Michaels and Bob Costas (NBC).  Berman no longer fit the modern day profile and it was that and his age that is doing him in.  Could Berman have promised to tone things down for a three-year contract?  Perhaps, but it would not have been the same and we would have been sad to see a tamer Chris Berman.  He has aged before our eyes, his hair thinner, his waistline bigger, but his on-air personality has remained; for some that’s good, others bad.  For me, a good thing.

John Skipper heads ESPN and he has made it clear that it is his goal to cut costs and offer a great product.  The network has taken on many political issues and some accuse it of leaning too much to the left.  The sports fan hates this, he/she watches sports to escape real life, but the fact remains that there aren’t enough sports fans to drive huge ratings.  When Skipper let Mike Tirico leave for NBC, his motives were clear.  Replacing Berman was on Skipper’s agenda before he accepted the position.

There is no need to feel sad or bad for Berman.  In an era of job switching, Berman lasted at one company for 38 years—and he is not done yet—and that is commendable.

 

 

 

 

Bills Should Change Name Until They Make The Playoffs

January 1, 2017

by John Furgele (The 228, Accept No Imitations)

The Buffalo Bills have not made the playoffs for 17 seasons.  For those who struggle with math, the last playoff appearance occurred in 1999 in a game that was played in January, 2000.  To further depress Bills fans that game ended with the “Home Run Throwback or as others call it, “The Music City Miracle,” when the Tennessee Titans’ Lorenzo Neal fielded the kickoff, pitched to Frank Wychek who then threw a lateral across the field to Kevin Dyson who ran down the left sideline unscathed for the winning score.

Imagine that.  That’s a fan’s last playoff memory.  I hate to do this, but that was also the year that Doug Flutie started 15 games, went 10-5 and then sat out the meaningless finale.  In the finale, backup Rob Johnson shredded the Indianapolis Colts so impressively, that owner Ralph Wilson told head coach Wade Phillips to start Johnson in the playoff game.  Johnson didn’t play well in the AFC Wild Card Game, but he had the Bills up 16-15 before the Bills’ special teams broke down and that miraculous play occurred.

This offseason will be a tumultuous one for the team I call the Buffaloes (the Fighting Buffaloes after a win).  From 2000-2016, the Bills have never been 2-14 pitiful, but they have been 7-9, 8-8 and 9-7 mediocre.  In the NFL, this is called spinning your wheels; never bad enough to tear it down, never good enough to get over the hump to 10 or 11 wins that, in the NFL, will get you into the playoffs.

The fans have been loyal and for the most part, patient.  Teams that are 8-8 give fans false hope each and every year.  You know the fan’s mantra.  “If we can find a way to win that Raiders game and that Ravens game, we’re 10-6 and we’re in.”  Others might say, “If we can keep Sammy Watkins on the field for 16 games, that’s the two to three wins we need to get in.”

The Bills have tinkered and tinkered for 16 seasons.  Different coaches, different GMs, different QBs.  Marv Levy retired, came back to help, and then retired again.  At age 91, I think it is safe to say that he will stay retired.  Owner Ralph Wilson retired permanently when he left to meet his maker.  Doug Marrone coached the Bills to a 9-7 record in 2014, but because he couldn’t play nice with GM Doug Whaley exercised an opt-out clause in his contract and took an assistant coaches job at Jacksonville.  Think about that head scratcher.  He demoted himself!

Jim Kelly retired in 1996 and the Bills have been searching for his true successor ever since.  Again, for those with math deficiencies, that’s 20 seasons.  The Bills have been in the AFL and NFL since 1960 and its list of franchise quarterbacks is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.  How many “good” quarterbacks have they had?  Personally, I would label it at three.  There was Jack Kemp and statistically he was average at best, but he was a leader of men (as we saw later when he ran for Vice President) and led the Bills to back-to-back AFL championships in 1964 and 1965 under legendary coach Lou Saban.

There was Joe Ferguson from 1973-1984.  Fergy was tough as nails and was adored by most Bills fans.  In the early days, his main job was to hand the ball off to O.J. Simpson and that worked well.  The Bills went 9-5 in 1973 and 1974.  They made the playoffs in ’74, losing 32-14 to a team that was preparing to start its dynasty, the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The 1975 team went 8-6 and after two bad seasons in 1977 and 1978 and a 7-9 record (they were 7-6 after 13 games) in 1979, the team made back-to-back playoff appearances in 1980 and 1981. Fergy gets credit for longevity (12 seasons) and of course toughness.  He played the 1980 AFC Divisional Playoff Game with a broken ankle (a 20-14 loss).

Kelly (1986-1996) would be the third franchise QB as he led the Bills through the glory years, an era that saw Buffalo play in five AFC Championship Games (don’t forget 1988 and then 1990-1993), four Super Bowls and eight playoff appearances in those 11 seasons.  Many of us thought that the good times would be here for years to come as the Bills had become an organization that just re-tooled and reloaded rather than rebuilt every year.

After missing the playoffs in 1997, the Bills came back for two appearances in 1998 and 1999 with Doug Flutie working his magic.  Some may want to call Flutie the fourth franchise quarterback, but I will refrain for two reasons.  One, it was too small of a sample size; two, the Bills did everything in their wake to discredit him and not play him, always wanting someone else to be the guy.  But, if you want to count him, that’s fine. The main point, three or four in 57 seasons of play is not very good.

The Bills have tons of decisions to make this winter.  They have to pick a coach, decide if Tyrod Taylor is worth $90 million as well as determine the hierarchy in the front office.  Do they tear it down and start from scratch and suffer a 4-12 season or two? Or do they subtly tinker hoping that they can get that 10-win season and start making some playoff appearances?

Here’s what they should do?  Change their name for the 2017 season in the hopes that this record of futility ends.  The name:  Rochester Jeffersons.  Rochester is part of Bills Nation.  A good percentage of Bills fans come from the Rochester area.  The Rochester media covers the team full-time.  The Bills are as much as Rochester’s team as they are Buffalo’s, so changing the team name would be fine.  The Buffalo area fans might be hurt by this, but it would only be temporary, a year, maybe two; or until they make the playoffs.  And, the Bills hold their training camp at Saint John Fisher College, right outside the Flower City (Rochester).

Changing the name to Rochester Jeffersons would also evoke history.  The Jeffersons played in the NFL from 1922-1925.  In those four seasons, they never won a game, going 0-21-2, but in fairness they played most of their games on the road.  So, things can only go up when they go back in time and become the Rochester Jeffersons.

The only fly in the ointment would be if the Jeffersons enjoy immediate success.  What if they go 11-5 and win the Super Bowl because of the name change?  The tides would be turned, so if they go back to the Buffalo Bills, things could revert to this current period of futility. Would those in Greater Buffalo want their name back and run the risk of returning to their current mediocre ways?

The sooner this change is made, the better.  Let the success run rampant!