Archive for December, 2017

The Curious Career of Eli Manning

December 29, 2017

by John Furgele (The Concussed 228)

Eli Manning is a two-time Super Bowl champion.  He has played in two Super Bowls and was the MVP both times.  In 2007, the 10-6 Giants went on an incredible run by beating Tampa Bay, Dallas and Green Bay on the road before vanquishing the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl 42 in an epic game for the ages.

In 2011, the Giants finished 9-7 and again, went on a similiar run.  No Super Bowl winner had a worse regular season record than these Giants.  In the playoffs, they defeated Atlanta at home and then went on the road to beat Green Bay and San Francisco.  Like they did in 2007, they won the NFC Championship Game in overtime.

Manning, in 2007, was sublime in the playoffs.  In the NFC title game, whenever he needed to complete a pass, he found Plaxico Burress and in the Super Bowl, when he needed to, he found Burress again as well as Steve Smith and of course, David Tyree.  In 2011, he found Mario Manningham and within four seasons, Peyton’s younger brother was a two-time Super Bowl champion.

Manning’s Giants have kept Tom Brady’s Patriots from being 7-0 in Super Bowls.  Sure, the Patriots have played and won many close games in the Super Bowls, but their two losses to the Giants were agonizing.  Because Manning has those two Super Bowl rings, most consider him a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  But is he?  Does winning two Super Bowls ensure enshrinement/football immortality?

If you look at Manning’s numbers, they’re very good.  In 14 total seasons, he has passed for over 51,000 yards, has 338 touchdown passes, 227 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 83.6.  The numbers are good, but not gaudy in this passer-friendly era.

His teams have won, then lost. After 2007, the Giants didn’t make the playoffs in 2008, 2009, or 2010 and after 2011; they failed to qualify from 2012-2016, droughts of seven years in total.  His won-lost record is 110-103, 51.6 percent.  Jim Kelly played 11 seasons for Buffalo and his record was 101-59 (63.1 percent). And, Kelly’s Bills made the playoffs in 8 of those 11 seasons.

Is it possible to play one’s way out of the Hall of Fame?  Now, this is the dumbest game of all to play, but what if Manning had no Super Bowl titles?  Or one?  Would he still be a lock for Canton?  The great quarterbacks are supposed to put teams on their back and carry them to the playoffs.  We have seen Aaron Rodgers do this with Green Bay and we have seen Tom Brady do this with New England and when healthy, Andrew Luck with Indianapolis.  His brother Peyton played on some very average teams in Indianapolis and every year, they won at least 10 games and made the playoffs.  He was knocked for losing playoff games, but when he sat out 2011, the Colts went 2-14.

In 13 full seasons, Manning and his Giants have made the playoffs just six times.  He has played on teams that finished .500 or worse six times in that span.  Joe Namath played 12 seasons for the NY Jets and made the playoffs just twice, but because he and Manning have those Super Bowl titles and MVPs, they do not get that negative scrutiny that guys like Moon and Fran Tarkenton have.

Namath played in a different era, but if you look at stats and stats alone, you might wonder why he is in the Hall of Fame.  He threw 173 touchdowns, 220 interceptions and completed just 50.1 percent of his passes.  But, he was the gunslinger, the swashbuckler and in 1969, he put the old American Football League on the map. If a player can make the Hall of Fame on one game, Namath was that guy.

Jim Plunkett won two Super Bowls with the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders and despite that is never going to the Hall of Fame.  So, for those who argue it’s all about rings, it really isn’t.  If it were, why are Dan Marino and Warren Moon in and Plunkett out?

Manning’s career is a strange one.  In two postseasons, he played beyond himself—he outkicked his coverage.  He has been a very good quarterback, but if you watch he and his Giants, he has frustrated.  He has never been a dink-and-dunker in this, the dink-and-dunk age and that has resulted in some sloppy play and many an interception.  He has led the NFL in interceptions three times, with a high-water mark of 27 in 2013, a 7-9 season.

I dislike the dink-and-dunk era; it’s one of the many reasons why Andy Reid and his Eagles/Chiefs have never won a Super Bowl.  I have always admired Manning and his coaches for not succumbing to that style.  But, I wonder if Manning could play that way? I don’t think he can and that is just another one of his shortcomings.

2018 will be an interesting one for Manning.  It will be tough for the Giants to let him leave, even though it’s probably the best thing for the organization.  Most think Manning could join a ready-made team and make a deep run in the playoffs.  Some say he would be a great fit in Jacksonville, where he would be reunited with his old coach and mentor, Tom Coughlin, who is in the Jags’ front office.

I’m not sure Manning would be a great fit there, or anywhere, for that matter.  He can still play, but can he play in certain systems?  It never ends well for most quarterbacks.  Peyton Manning won a Super Bowl in his final season, but Denver had to carry him across the finish line.  John Elway was the Super Bowl MVP in his final game, but he was struggling at the end, too.  Thankfully, he had Terrell Davis and a great defense to help him out.

When his career is over, Eli Manning will have a bust in Canton, Ohio.  He will never buy dinner in New York again for those two Super Bowls, and he outplayed and beat the best all-time quarterback Tom Brady twice on the biggest stage in North American sports—the Super Bowl.

Manning has had his ups and downs, more than most Hall of Famers.  It won’t prevent him from enshrinement, but it does keep him off the list of all-time greats.  Was he better than Brett Favre?  Ken Stabler?  Terry Bradshaw?  Troy Aikman?  Kurt Warner?  That’s the beauty of sports.  All of those quarterbacks are in the Hall of Fame.  Manning will be too and once they’re there, there are no levels in the Hall—they’re all just in.  Fans can do the rankings.  They can rank him low but because he’s a Hall of Famer, they have to rank him; something that one doesn’t do with players like Phil Simms and Boomer Esiason, two very good players who are not, nor will be Hall of Famers.

I would stop short of calling Manning an enigma, but he has been puzzling for sure.  Puzzling, yes, but still, a Hall of Fame quarterback.


Woodbine Hosts Boxing Day Harness Racing For The Last Time

December 27, 2017

In 2018, it will be Mohawk for harness racing; Woodbine for horse racing

by John Furgele (The Sentimental 228)

Boxing Day in Canada means a lot of things and one of them is afternoon harness racing at Woodbine.  This Boxing Day took a different degree of importance as it marked the last time that Woodbine will host harness racing on December 26.  As you probably know, the Woodbine Entertainment Group owns Woodbine and Mohawk racetracks and beginning in April, all harness racing will take place at the rebranded Woodbine at Mohawk Park, with all thoroughbred racing taking place in Etobicoke at Woodbine.

There were two Boxing Day features at old Woodbine; one for three-year old fillies and mares and one for three-year old colts and geldings.  In the $34,400 Niagara for the ladies, a field of ten paced a mile over the 7/8 mile track.  In the first four races, the track catered to those who got to the lead, but the Niagara saw that end.  They all charged to get to the lead—into the wind—with Party Beach leading them through a swift opening quarter of 27.4.  It was a three horse affair in those early stages with Teachers Vet, Cloud Diva and the aforementioned Party Beach.  They sped through the half in 56.4 and three-quarters in 1:24.3.  It was there when Jazzy Image came from off the pace to get to the lead and look Cloud Diva in the eye.  The stirring stretch drive saw Jazzy Image prevail in 1:54.4 with Cloud Diva second and late running Nasty Rumor capturing third.

Like the Niagara, it was a field of 10 in the Valedictory.  Penzance Hanover took the early lead and got the field through the quarter in 27.1 before duking it out with Brave World who was able to wrest the lead through the half in a quick 55.4.  The backstretch was kind as the horses had a tailwind, but coming home, the headwind was back in their faces.  Brave World held through the three-quarters in 1:24.3, but began to fade, giving way to both Windsun Gotham and Homey Joe, who engaged in a memorable stretch drive.  Better B Rolling was able to duck to the inside and it looked for a moment that he might get there, but Windsun Gotham hung on to win in 1:54.1, ahead of Homey Joe with Better B Rolling third.

These were nice stakes races—designed for non-winners of $60,000.  For Jazzy Image, it was win number five in 2017; for Windsun Gotham, number six.  The Boxing Day matinee closed the lid on the 2017 Woodbine harness season.  The track takes a 10 day break now, with racing resuming on Saturday, January 6.

I’ve always been a sentimental guy that longs for the good old days.  Part of that is age of course, and part of that really believes that things were better back in the day.  You know, the days before instant replay ruined pro football, basketball and baseball.  I wasn’t at Woodbine for today’s racing, but I wonder what the mood was.  Were people sad that this was the last Boxing Day card at the track or could they care less?  Will they just saunter over to Mohawk next year and be done with things?

The harness racing product at Woodbine and Mohawk has always been a good one, and there is no doubt that it will continue with a streamlined operation.  The Thoroughbreds will have Woodbine all to themselves and the Standardbreds can monopolize what will be called Woodbine at Mohawk Park.  For the Standardbred owners, no more shuttling between the two tracks.  They can now drop anchor 12 months per year in Campbellville, the home of Mohawk Park.

Woodbine will be missed.  It was one of the last remaining tracks that could host both horse and harness racing. In the United States, Hawthorne hosts both, but never at the same time.  Woodbine provided great Standardbred racing for decades and that will be missed.

Boxing Day 2017 at Woodbine—the end of an era, and perhaps, the dawn of a new one.



The Glory Days Are Gone

December 8, 2017

The Game Day experience at New Era just ain’t what it used to be 

by John Furgele (The Reasonable 228)

ORCHARD PARK, NY—The Buffalo Bills have been in the NFL since the 1970 season.  This is their 48th season of NFL play and for the most part, they have been a sub-par operation.

In the 1970s, they made the playoffs, once, in 1974 when they had O.J. Simpson and finished 9-5.  They lost to eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh 32-14 in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, but all in all, a good year.

They were 9-5 in 1973; that season was highlighted by Simpson rushing for 2,000 yards.  In 1975, they were 8-6.  The rest of the decade—woeful.

In the 1980s, they made the playoffs four times—1980, 81, 88 and 89.  All four of their teams were good ones—the first two quarterbacked by Joe Ferguson, the last two by Jim Kelly.  Combined, those teams went 2-4 in the playoffs.  The ’88 team lost in the AFC Championship to Cincinnati.

The 1990s were the salad days for the Fighting Buffaloes.  Most fans know what happened.  They made the playoffs from 1990-1993; 1995-1996; and 1998-1999.  They won numerous division titles and four AFC championships, but alas, never won that big game at the end of the season.

In 30 years of NFL play (I am leaving the AFL days out), the Bills have made the playoffs 13 times and participated—and lost—four Super Bowls.

Since 1999, they have not sniffed playoff action and when this season concludes, it will mark the 18th consecutive season without a playoff appearance.

I bring this up because I grew up in the Buffalo suburbs and lived in the Rochester area through 1999.  I went to my first Bills’ game in 1975 and saw Buffalo beat New England 45-31.  I went to games in the 1980s and many games during the halcyon days of the 1990s.  Obviously, those were fantastic times to be a Buffalo Bills fan.  They won and moreover, you expected them to win.  These were also the days before massive new stadiums were built, so ticket prices were affordable and there was a good mix or people in the stands.

On Sunday, I was in the stands as the Bills bowed to the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots 23-3.  The game was close for a while with New England holding just a 9-3 halftime lead before it got ugly.

I was amazed by what I saw at the stadium.  Now, it must be noted that since 1998, I have only attended three games—1998 when Doug Flutie quarterbacked the Bills against Vinny Testaverde and the Jets, 2013 when the Bills hosted the Chiefs and Sunday. To expect things to be the same would be silly.

Ticket prices are higher, so there were not many families at the game. I was there with my 14-year old daughter, but father-child was a rare sight.  What you see now is young 20 somethings with disposable incomes and 45-year old men with disposable incomes.  The 20 years olds don’t worry about mortgage payments; they spend all their dollars on booze, food and entertainment.  The 45-year old is there with his wife/girlfriend or friend and not with his three kids.  In addition to the higher prices, the vulgarity that exists at a football game remains at a high level.  The f word is prevalent as is crotch grabbing, gay references and much more.  Of course, that has always been part of the football experience.  Gates open at 9 am for a game that starts at 1 pm, so there is plenty of time to get drunk before kickoff.  In fact, many people sitting next to me were glazed over before that 1 pm kickoff.  They came for the game, but they really came to partake in the pregame ritual that is called tailgating.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the fans felt that they were part of the game.  Many felt that they could influence the outcome by being loud, screaming, jiggling their car keys, and chanting during the games.

Sadly, this isn’t the case anymore.  The game today reminded me of the 1977 and 1978 Bills, teams that went a combined 8-22.  The fans go to the game, they tailgate (and drink too much) and then the come inside, sit on their hands and after the third quarter head to the exits to beat the traffic.  They want the Bills to win, but they don’t will the Bills to win. In the 1990s, the fans came and expected a win.  They knew there would be moments of anguish, but in the end, they knew that they could rock the house and propel the Bills to another win.  The team was that good and the fans were cock and confident.

The Patriots of today remind of those 1990s Bills’ teams.  Even when it was just 6-3, a Patriots fan never expected Buffalo to take over the game.  Some call that cockiness, I call it cold-blooded confidence.  All one had to do was watch last year’s Super Bowl to know that the New England Patriots are never out of a football game.

The young people at the game don’t know greatness as their beloved Bills have not reached the playoffs since 1999.  The older people—those that remember the 1990s—cling to the season tickets, but might be tiring of the experience.  When you’re 22, it’s about getting up early, drinking, eating and tailgating.  If you imbibe too much, just call in sick on Monday, or if you’re lucky, it’s your day off

When you’re 52, it’s tougher to “get up,” for the excitement.  The tailgating is fun, but not as fun and at this age, you want to see the team do better.  In fact, you would trade the tailgate for a cold sub and victory.  The young person doesn’t really care and because the team has been so bad, doesn’t know anybody. At the same time, you’re afraid to give up your seasons because—what if they get good again?

The Bills are also in danger of never getting the young WNYer to come on board.  Young people like winning teams.  If you’re nine and living in Lancaster, why not be a Patriots fan? A Steelers fan?  Why support the Bills when they keep losing time after time. If the Bills could make the playoffs, that nine-year old never gets a chance to jump ship and pick that out-of-town team.

I drove by the stadium on Monday as I prepared to head east and back to Albany.  It looked desolate, drab and devoid of life.  A day ago, there were 68,000 plus there, full of hope thinking the Bills would win and place themselves squarely in the playoff picture.  That didn’t happen, and if they can’t beat the lowly 3-9 Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, the drought will extend to 18 years.

For me, three games over 17 years.  I can close my eyes and remember that Bills-Jets game when Testaverde and the Jets outdueled Flutie and the Bills.  That was a big game; it gave the Jets the inside track in the AFC East.  They would win the division that year and advance to the AFC Championship, where they would fall in Denver to Elway and the Broncos.  The Bills finished 10-6, grabbed the Wild Card where they would lose at Miami to the Dolphins by a 24-17 score.

The 2013 game versus the Chiefs is nothing but a blur. The Bills were forced to start to Jeff Tuel at QB and they made too many mistakes and lost to Kansas City.  The game was dull and so, too was the crowd.

On Sunday, the Pats did to the Bills what they always do to the Bills—they blasted them.  As sad as it was, the loss didn’t linger because it was expected.  That may be sad, but that’s where the Buffalo Bills are today.

I was glad I was there, but it might be a while before I’m back again.

Getting CFP Right Not an Exact Science

December 6, 2017

When you have five conferences and Notre Dame vying for four spots, it gets tricky

by John Furgele (The Studious 228)

In the end, I think the CFP committee got it right.  They picked Alabama over Ohio State, but had they picked Ohio State over Alabama, I would have also said that the committee got it right.  Each year, there are at least five candidates for four sports and each year, one fan base will be happy and the other, not so much.  That said, we are placing way too much emphasis on the CFP and it is hurting college football.  No longer is 9-3 or even 10-2 an accepted record.  If you keep missing the CFP, eventually, the coach gets run of town.  Is that healthy for the sport?  This was one of the reasons the college presidents were reluctant to change the old bowl system.  They were okay with the writers and coaches voting for champions because it was subjective and really didn’t mean that much.  If I was 11-1 and you were 11-1 but we didn’t play each other, who really was better?

For the second straight year, we learned that winning a conference championship game doesn’t mean anything.  Last year, Penn State won the Big Ten title game; this year Ohio State did the same, but both teams were left out.  Alabama lost its final regular season contest, sat home on championship Saturday and made the playoff.  Ohio State can’t bellyache because they did the same thing Alabama did last year.

In fairness, the committee’s job is to pick what they think are the four best teams.  They have never made playing and winning the conference championship game a requirement.  Wisconsin was undefeated all year yet was never ranked first in any poll.  The writers, coaches and the CFP committee never felt that Wisconsin was the best team.  Had they finished 13-0, they would have made the CFP, but still wouldn’t have captured the number one seed/ranking.

When the CFP is announced, most call for an expansion of the tournament.  Some want 6, others 8, some 12 and others 16, but the truth of the matter is that this hasn’t been discussed at all by the college presidents and athletic directors.  Expansion is not coming any time soon, and because that’s the case, the best thing to do is tweak the current system so everybody knows what they need to do.  Right now, the CFP is turning into the cartel that the BCS was—the same teams are making it each and every year.  We have seen Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State, and Alabama in this thing each and every year.  The tournament needs to be more inclusive or risk a serious ratings decline.  The world will eventually get sick of Alabama; especially if they think the committee is “putting them in,” to get TV ratings and the like.

What should be done, and how should it be done?  Here are my suggestions.

-Games are against FCS teams should not be allowed.  Alabama went 11-1; in their nonconference they played Florida State, Fresno State, Colorado State and FCS Mercer.  Ohio State played Oklahoma, Army and UNLV.  If Alabama played say, Central Florida, would they be 11-1 or 10-2?  Let Bowling Green play Mercer and let Alabama play Bowling Green.

-All conferences should play the same number of conference games.  Look at the above scenario—Ohio State played nine Big Ten games and three nonconference games while Alabama played eight (SEC games) and four (nonconference games).  The SEC wants 8 so teams can play at least 7 if not 8 home games; the Big Ten knows that in some years, Ohio State will have to play 5 conference road games.  Some conferences simply do not want that.

-Teams should have to play at least two Power 5 schools in their nonconference slate.  I think 8 conference games is probably the best avenue, so this would make teams play two Power 5 and two Group 5 schools each year.  Ohio State could schedule Bowling Green, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Oklahoma State, while Alabama could play Clemson, Michigan State, Boise State and UAB.  That would be cool, wouldn’t it?

-Eliminate divisions in conferences.  They’re artificial and don’t assure that the two best teams will play in the conference title game.  There are no divisions in college basketball; why should they have them in college football.  The Big 12 got this one right.  They played the conference games and took the two best teams.  Last year, Penn State would have played Ohio State for the Big Ten title and if Penn State had won, they would have made the tournament.

-Eliminating the conference championship games would be the best thing to do, but the SEC would never do that because their game is cherished by the fans and makes the conference millions and millions of dollars.  If all Power 5 schools schedule fairer, these conference championship games will truly serve as playoff games.  Winning the title game can help get you in; losing should eliminate you.  There was a possibility that 12-0 Alabama could have lost to 11-1 Georgia in Atlanta and both teams could have received berths in the CFP.  That’s the situation that needs to be avoided.  You could have the 9-3 team beat the 11-1 team in a conference title game, but that doesn’t mean the now 10-3 team is getting in, but the 11-2 would be out.  What happens is the 10-2 team beats the 12-0 team?

There will always be problems.  A few years ago, the Big Ten said no more games against FCS schools.  But, they reversed course and now say that in years when you have five conference road games, you can schedule an FCS school.  As soon as that announcement was made, Purdue went ahead and scheduled game against Indiana State of the FCS.

Let’s assume there were no conference championship games—-here is what things would have looked like.  These are the records of the teams with two losses or less before they played the conference title games were played.

Wisconsin           12-0

Georgia               11-1

Oklahoma           11-1

Clemson              11-1

USC                     10-2

Alabama              11-1

Ohio State           10-2

Auburn                10-2

Miami                  10-1 (game canceled because of Irma).

UCF                     11-0 (game canceled because of Irma).

Penn State           10-2

Memphis             10-1

Under this scenario, I would think that Wisconsin, Clemson, Oklahoma and Georgia would have been given berths in the CFP.  The Big Ten conference title game hurt the conference because the two-loss team beat the undefeated team and that resulted in the Big Ten getting shut out come CFP time.  But, the conferences got greedy; they want the game and the revenue that goes with it, but there is a risk-reward scenario.  Ask Kansas State and Oklahoma, two teams that lost potential berths in the old BCS title game when they lost to teams with multiple losses in the Big 12 title game.

College football is funny; USC lost at 9-3 Notre Dame 49-19, while Ohio State was blitzed in Iowa City by 7-5 Iowa 55-24, yet USC was never considered for a CFP bid while Ohio State was the first one out.  Ohio State also lost at home 31-16 to Oklahoma while USC’s second loss was on the road to 9-3 Washington State, 30-27.  It is fitting that these two teams will square up against one another in the Cotton Bowl.  But, it’s curious why Ohio State was given much more CFP consideration that the Trojans.

There may never be a “correct” way to figure out a perfect system.  The four that they selected are the four that I would have selected, but cases can be made for USC, Ohio State and yes, UCF.  In the end, the cartel will call the shots and for now, the number will remain at four.  Even if all FBS teams played two Power 5 schools and two Group 5 schools, we all know playing Vanderbilt is not the same as playing TCU, so the bellyaching will never go away.

The conference championship games are likely staying, so let’s do what we can do.  Drop games against the FCS and have the Ohio States replace UNLV with Pittsburgh.  Sure, they can play UNLV, but they have to play Pittsburgh and one other Power 5 school, too.  Let’s also have all Power 5 schools agree on eight or nine conference games.  This levels the field—each P5 school plays at least two games against fellow P5 schools and then two versus G5 schools.

This won’t solve anything because there are six conferences (Notre Dame counts as the Notre Dame Conference) vying for four slots.  If the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12 and Notre Dame all finished at say, 11-1, two deserving schools will not make the cut.  They will get to play in a great bowl game like Ohio State and USC are doing this year, but in today’s age, that is considered disappointing.  That’s a shame, of course, and something that college officials didn’t want to create, but when they took the CFP money, they sold out.  Nothing wrong with trying to make money, but there are always some drawbacks to chasing it.