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Levy Final Could Be One For The Ages

April 20, 2018

All eight are good; all eight can win

by John Furgele (The Excited 228)

The Levy Memorial is not just another race and this year’s $532,000 final could be epic.  There are eight horses entered and truth be told, you can make a case for all eight of them winning.  We all know that the eight post (Rockin Ron) is almost impossible and he may be the only horse to throw out, but the others….all have a chance.

Jordan Stratton has already said that the seven post for Bit of a Legend, “sucks,” but if any horse can win from there, it’s The Legend.  If there is such a thing as a stone-cold closer in harness racing, Legend comes the closet.  We have seen him rally from the back in the Levy legs and finish second to score the needed points.  The question is, can he overcome the seven post and win the race? I think he can and if the pace is fast, he is the one that can idle and surge at the end.  He did that in last summer’s Gerrity at Saratoga.  The field dashed and darted through blistering fractions and Legend stayed third or fourth and then surged home to win in 1:50.3 on the Spa’s half-mile track.  From the seven post, he will likely have to tuck in and move wide down the backstretch of lap two and then try to win from the outside, something he can do.

The mercurial one is Somewhere in LA.  He has a decent five post, but if you’ve seen LA run, he usually is engaged or disinterested.  When engaged, he is good as anybody, but it seems that for every good race, there’s a flat one.  Had he gotten the seven or eight post, odds are he would have finished last, so coming from the five, he should be interested and that could spell trouble for the rest of the competitors.

Western Fame drew the rail and that took him from having a good chance to having a really good chance.  Most expect him to set the pace and he is more than capable of wiring the field, but he can also idle and sit in the box and win that way, too.  And, with no passing lane, he won’t have to worry if he has the rail and the lead in the homestretch.  He keeps maturing, too; he was better at four than three and it looks like he’s better at five than four and this could be his time to shine.

Keystone Velocity is the defending champ and will be formidable coming from the three post.  All of these horses have performed in the clutch and the defending champion should and likely will have something to say on Saturday.  He hasn’t been great thus far, but he could be sitting on one.

Dr. J Hanover has looked the best in the prelims.  He has dominated and last week rested in preparation for the final.  He has the two post and is one that could get the lead and never give it up.  Last year, he paced 1:46.4 at Mohawk then regressed, but he looks like he has his top form again.

Two weeks ago, Evenin of Pleasure was dismissed at odds of 99-1.  All he did that day was run a game second to secure his spot in the final.  I don’t think he can win it, but he has a chance to get into the money.  Remember; fifth place nets $26,600.  His best chance is to get to the lead and try and hang on.  He almost did that in his last start where he finished second and come Saturday, there would be no shame in a runner-up finish.

Mach it So is much respected with morning line odds of 4-1, but I just don’t get any vibe from him, which means he’ll probably win.  I will be intrigued to see what the bettors do as post time nears.  I can’t see him being that low on Saturday; I expect his odds to be closer to 20-1 than 4-1, but at Yonkers stranger things have happened.

I’m not much on handicapping, but since I know all these horses and know them well, I’m going with this scenario:

Bit of a Legend

Western Fame

Somewhere in LA

I think Legend is the ultimate gamer and will rise to the challenge like he did at the Gerrity and the Molson Cup at Western Fair in 2017.  I love the rail for Western Fame and that should only help an already super horse and I think Somewhere in LA will be engaged enough to be secure a top-three finish, but if they finished sixth through eighth, it would shock no one; the field is that good.

The Levy is race 10 on a spectacular card with $1.3 million in purses.  In addition to the Levy, the $373,000 Matchmaker will be run as well as consolations for both the Matchmaker and Levy.  There is also a $30,000 Preferred Handicap pace, a $40,000 Open Handicap pace, as well as a $30,000 Open trot and a $40,000 Blue Chip free-for-all for mare pacers.

It should be a good night for Yonkers; which has seen a dramatic increase in handle this year.  Despite the excellent card, they will be up against the Mighty Meadowlands which continues to handle $2 and sometimes $3 million on weekends.  That said the best races of the night are at Old Hilltop in Westchester County.

 

 

 

 

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March Madness Times Two

March 14, 2018

There should be an NCAA and an ACAA for college basketball and college sports.

by John Furgele (The Divide and Conquer 228)

There used to a time when the NCAA embraced the mid-majors.  Remember when George Mason made the Final Four?  They were one of two teams from that conference (the CAA) to get into the tournament.  The Missouri Valley Conference used to send more than one team and so, too, did the Mid American Conference.  Even the MAAC (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) got two teams in 1995 when both St. Peter’s and Manhattan made the field. And, to enhance that reward, Manhattan upset Oklahoma in the first round.

Things have changed and there are two reasons why.  Once the NCAA got the $11 billion TV deal, the event changed.  Now, they had to market the big names and big schools.  Directional schools and schools named after people like George Mason, James Madison and William and Mary were no longer going to get a shot.  Why take Davidson and St. Bonaventure when most don’t know what state these schools are in?   Remember the undefeated St. Joseph’s team?  They got a number one seed and Billy Packer screamed about it for days.  In 1979, Indiana State was a one seed.  Today, Loyola went 28-5 and got an 11 seed.  Same conference.  Different times.

Even the NIT is bad.  LSU gets in and a very good Toledo team, with 23 wins is done for the year. It looks better to have LSU and TCU as your NIT champion than it is to have Duquesne or George Washington.

The second factor is football.  Once football took over college sports, the football schools want football teams to be in the basketball tournament.  Are we surprised Alabama is in this year with a terrible 19-15 record?  It’s easy to sell Alabama, not so easy to sell Saint Mary’s.  Why take Middle Tennessee when you can take eight schools from the SEC and nine more from the ACC.  The basketball tournament has become an extension of the football season. In sum, the NCAA basketball tournament is really a football tournament.

Even the mid-majors who do make it, get seeded low or get other teams seeded in the way to make for a difficult path.  When Wichita State went undefeated in 2014, they were seeded first, but the committee seeded Kentucky eighth, knowing that the Wildcats were more than capable of pulling off the “upset.”  And, when Kentucky did just that, those that run the NCAA were happy because it is better to have the brand advancing than the state school named after a city.

I am not sure what can be done.  I throw up my hands every time I hear a panelist say that this mid-major needs to schedule tougher and that the Ionas has to schedule and beat great teams.  But, Duke is never going to play at Marshall and Syracuse is never going to play at St. Bonaventure.  The Big 12—every game is a tough one—but if that conference is so tough then why does Kansas have an Atlanta Brave like stranglehold on it?  A good conference sees different team win it once in a while, but in the Big 12, Kansas wins it every year; yet 7 of the 10 schools make the field.  Once the mid-majors begin conference play, their strength of schedule goes down, the exact opposite of those that play in a Power 5 conference.

Even when St. Bonaventure, Wichita State, St. Joseph’s, Dayton, and Gonzagas of the world make the tournament, they are always given lower seeds because they are not Power 5 schools and they don’t play football.

I am not sure what can be done.  I have been a firm believer that there should be a split in Division I athletics—the Power 5 should form their own alliance—call it the ACAA (American Collegiate Athletic Association) and the rest of the schools should stay in the NCAA.  It would work well for football because it already exists and the NCAA division could be made up of existing Group 5 and FCS schools. In football, East Carolina, Marshall, Central Florida and even Boise State can never win, or even make the College Football Playoff.  Last fall, UCF went 13-0 and at season’s end, was ranked eighth. So, is a break really that far-fetched?  In many ways, it already exists.

In basketball, you could expand the ACAA to include the Big East since that conference gets too many bids as well.  You would then have 75 teams in the ACAA. Both the NCAA and ACAA could have 32-team fields.  CBS and Turner can broadcast the ACAA, while ESPN or Fox can handle the NCAA.

We all know that the chance of this happening is dead on arrival, but should it be?  The problem will be money.  The reason the old 16-team Big East broke up was due to dough.  Because it was a conference, the football schools had to share monies with the basketball-only schools.  That meant Seton Hall got money when Connecticut played in the Fiesta Bowl. The football schools didn’t like that, and the basketball schools felt like what was once a basketball-first league lost sight of its mission.  Thus, the breakup—the American Athletic Conference for the football schools and the Big East for the basketball schools.

America would never embrace two basketball tournaments.  There has been talk of the Group 5 football schools staging its own championship playoffs, but there is reluctance because as popular as college football is, would America support two football tournaments?  If the leaders are hedging on football, then of course, they are hedging on basketball

Once the tournament begins nobody really cares and despite all the complaining, we are usually debating three to five teams each and every year.  Some thought Oklahoma State should have made it over Oklahoma; others thought Notre Dame was more deserving than Syracuse, while a third crew was left wondering how the ninth place team in the Pac 12, Arizona State, made the field over the second place team, USC.  That’s the problem.  There was little talk of Saint Mary’s, Middle Tennessee, and even Old Dominion, a team that went 25-7 in Conference USA and missed out on the NCAA and the NIT.

At the end of the day, football runs the show.  We all know that, even Jim Boeheim knows that and he coaches at a basketball-first school.  As good as SU hoops are, SU football brings in more money.  Branding is important so we get why Alabama, Syracuse and Oklahoma are going to get the benefit of the doubt and the nod over St. Bonaventure, Saint Mary’s and Middle Tennessee, but it could be fairer.  Does the SEC need 8 teams?  Does the ACC need 9?  Does the Big 12 need 7?  The answer is no; if these conferences got 6, 7, and 5, that would leave room for six little guys to make the field, something that for many years, happened.

Is that asking too much?  Apparently, it is.

 

 

 

A Shootout for the Gold Medal? Really?

February 23, 2018

by John Furgele (The Shootout Hating 228)

This is a tale of two teams; for one, a tale of triumph, for the other, a tale of woe.  In these the 2018 Winter Olympics hockey is the ultimate team game.  The US women, as expected, played Canada for the Gold medal and won the game in a shootout.  The US men, a team that was cobbled together by USA Hockey once the NHL decided not to come over, lost in the quarterfinals to the Czech Republic in a shootout.

One team will be celebrated; lauded for its grit, guile and determination.  The other team will be criticized, as will USA Hockey, Gary Bettman, the NHL and others. It will be written that the US men lacked grit, guile and determination, the three things that women’s team had.

But guess what?  What was the one common theme between the US men and women?  Both teams saw their Olympics end in a shootout.  Had the American men found a way to score twice in the dreaded “breakaway thing,” they would be in the medal round playing the Russians—um, the Olympic Athletes from Russia.  Had the US women lost its shootout to Canada, we would be saying that it is a lousy way to decide the Gold medal.

The simple fact is that deciding a championship game via a shootout is dreadful, just dreadful.  Would the NBA decide Game 7 of its finals with a free-throw shooting contest?  How about the NFL using a field-goal kicking contest to decide the winner of the Super Bowl?

We all know soccer will use penalty kicks to decide some of their games, but soccer is a different animal.  They play 90 minutes and then 30 minutes of overtime.  There are only three substitutions allowed per team per game.  Once a player leaves the game, they’re done.  Even soccer doesn’t love this, but eventually, they have to find a way determine a winner before they, as Bobby Boucher said, “Died of the dehydration.”

Hockey is different.  Everybody who dresses plays. Shifts are short, between 30 and 45 seconds.  There are whistles, timeouts, and plenty of stoppages.  If the game is tied after one overtime, there is an intermission where the ice is cleaned and strategy discussed in the locker room.

In the playoffs, the NHL plays it straight.  Teams have five skaters and 20:00 is put on the clock.  If the game is tied after the fourth period, they move on to the fifth and if needed, the sixth and seventh.

The Olympics saw a 10-minute overtime and after no one scored, they went right to the shootout.    Why?  Why stop the regular game after just 70 minutes?  For Team USA, it’s a win, but is it a true win or is it just a tad bit hollow?  The rules were fair; they may not be the right rules, but they were fair because everybody knew them before the tournament started.  In that sense, Team USA earned its victory and the Gold medal.

Hockey used to have tie games and for decades they were fine with them.  In the old days, NHL teams would sport records such as 40-30-12.  That’s 40 wins, 30 losses and 12 ties; good for 92 points.  Easy to follow, easy to understand, easy to decipher. If a game was tied after three periods and 60 minutes, that was it.  Each team got one point and boarded a plane for its next city.

Now, figuring out team records is much tougher.  If you win a game, you get two points.  If you lose in overtime or a shootout, you get one point; a point for losing.  Now a team can be 38-35-9, good for 85 points.  But in reality, their real record is 35 wins and 47 losses, but because 9 of those losses were in overtime, they get points for losing games.  On the surface, the team looks like it finished two games over .500, when, in reality, they were 12 games under.

In the Olympics, teams received three points for winning in regulation; two points for winning in overtime/shootout and one point for losing in said overtime/shootout.  I can barely understand this.  Can you?

There was no excuse for the USA-Canada Gold medal game to end the way it did.  We can be glad that Team USA won and not be sad that Team Canada lost, but to me, it just isn’t an appropriate way to end a championship game.  And, if you think the IOC and IIHF will change the rules, please don’t hold your breath.  The one thing that these organizations have going for it is total arrogance.  They take bribes and even after the person to their right gets caught, they keep taking them.  They will never listen to common sense, let alone the common man or woman.

It was a great Gold medal game, won by Team USA in dramatic fashion.  That said, it could have been greater.

 

 

The NHL Players Are Not at the Olympics: So What!

February 16, 2018

by John Furgele (The Irritated 228)

It sure didn’t take long, did it?  Just two days into the Olympic hockey tournament, the wise souls that make up the media have dubbed the hockey insufferable.  They are already calling for the IOC to beg the NHL to send its players to the 2022 games that are to take place in China.  In fact, some probably think they should send them now to bail out this year’s tournament.

What about Slovenia’s 3-2 upset over the United States?  What about Slovakia beating the favorite Russia by the same 3-2 score?  Even Korea, not known for being a hockey-playing nation, held up well in a 2-1 loss to Czech Republic.

The media just can’t let anything breathe.  They have to go into instant react mode.  Everybody wants to be first; they want to be the first to praise, and in the case, the first to rip.  It is more important to be first than it is to be thoughtful these days and that’s sad. Thoughtful journalism has gone the way of the typewriter and dial-up internet.

We all knew that the level of play was not going to be what it was from 1998-2014.  The 2010 Gold medal game that pitted the USA and Canada might never be duplicated.  A loaded Team Canada and an equally loaded Team USA in an overtime thriller in Vancouver; the high point of the professional Olympic experiment.

What about the Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid in 1980?  That was a tournament for the ages and  believe it or not, the quality of play was not as good as it is now.  And, if you are old enough to remember, there were no NHLers at Lake Placid; Team USA was made up of college players and other amateurs. Yes, Team USSR was comprised of professionals, but so be it.  That made the Team USA win even more special.  The Olympics stayed with the amateurs in the 1984 and 1988 games before making the shift to allowing professionals to suit up.  It was happening with basketball, so why not hockey?

The 1992 tournament was the first one where each team was cobbled together.  Team USA was made up of many guys who were playing in the AHL, the old IHL, European leagues and a few from college. They went 4-0-1 in the preliminary round. Their goalie was none other than Ray LeBlanc, he of the Indianapolis Ice of the then International Hockey League.  Was the hockey as good as it would be in 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014?  Of course not, but this rag-tag team of quasi-professionals were playing well and America was paying attention. Team USA beat France in the quarters, but in the medal round they came back to earth, losing to the Unified Team and then Czechoslovakia in the Bronze medal game.

By the time 1994 rolled around, everybody knew that the NHLers were coming in 1998.  Still, the ’94 Gold medal game was riveting.  How good was it?  When Peter Forsberg scored a one-handed goal against Canadian goalie Cory Hirsch in a shootout, he ended up on a postage stamp in Sweden, a hero for the ages.  If that doesn’t say anything, then nothing can or will.

I understand why many are crying.  From 1998-2014, we were spoiled.  We saw the best of the best play for their respective countries.  We saw Dominick Hasek single-handily backstop the Czech Republic to the Gold medal in 1998; we had Herb Brooks coaching Team USA in 2002 at Salt Lake City.  They played the Russians on February 22 with the winner advancing to the Gold medal game.  Exactly 22 years earlier it was Herb Brooks and Team USA beating the Soviets/Russians at Lake Placid.  Like 1980, Team USA would win, only to lose to Canada two days later and thus, a Silver medal.

2006 was a surprise with Sweden besting Finland for the Gold Medal and in 2010 and 2014, the Canadians flexed their hockey superiority by winning back-to-back Golds.

The 2018 tournament has barely started and the media are already bemoaning it.  Each team has played just one game and the critics are out in force.  We all know that the quality of play will not be as good as it was in the previous five Olympiads.  It will be more of an AHL feel than a NHL feel, but why is that bad?  Is watching AHL hockey worse than cleaning latrines?  Why can’t the media settle in and look for stories?  Well, that takes time, research and work.  It is much easier to go the rink, sit in the press box and mope about slow skaters, unskilled players than it is to hustle and look for angles.  There has to be some.  The Canadian team has several players on its roster past the age of 33.  Why not round them up and ask them what drives them; why they’re still toiling in the KHL, the Swiss league or the AHL and what does it mean to them to be representing Canada in the Olympics?

Team USA captain Brian Gionta played 15 seasons in the NHL.  He scored 289 goals, and assisted on 299 over 1,006 games.  Oh, and he won a Stanley Cup with the 2002-2003 New Jersey Devils.  In the summer of 2017, he signed a minor league contract with the AHL Rochester Americans—a practice only contract, so he could stay in shape and finish his hockey career in the Olympics.

So, tell me, what’s a better story; Gionta, the old Canadians, the attempt by former NHL player Jim Paek (born in South Korea) to make Korea a legitimate hockey country?  Or, is the better story to sit back and lament the “poor” play after six games of the tournament?  One story requires work; the other requires typing and donut eating from the press box.

I know I’m not the brightest, but I know that the Olympics are as much about storytelling as they are about the games.  Criticizing and scolding the NHL for staying home is not a story of these, the Olympic Winter Games.  The time to do that was over the fall and in December.  That time is over.  There is no need to write this narrative, save it for 2021 when the Beijing games draw near.

In ten days, the Olympic hockey tournament may not go down as the greatest of all-time, but it could be 1994 all over again if the scribes and broadcasters watching it would give it some time to breathe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Football Too Hard To Digest?

February 4, 2018

by John Furgele (The 228)

The Super Bowl is the biggest sport event of the year, but is there an expiration date?  This year, there were 281 concussions in the NFL, yet the games go on, with packed stands, crazed fans and despite a recent downturn, high television ratings.

When the game ends, those at the various networks will break it down.  On Monday, all the big radio hosts—Jim Rome, Colin Cowherd, Dan Patrick, et al—will offer their insights and analysis as to why the Pats or Eagles won or lost.

Many of us love football.  Unlike the other sports, football is special.  There are fewer games for one, so each game means more than an NBA game, which is 1 of 82.  There is a ritual for each as well.  Most of the games are played on Sundays, a day where the majority of America is not working.  Even the most ardent Boston Celtic or New York Yankee fan has to struggle to watch games on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  They have stuff to do.

When I was younger, I would often close my eyes and imagine being a professional athlete.  When I swing (and yes, I still do) my Wiffle Ball bat in the living room, I pretend I’m connecting and driving a ball over the wall or into the gap.  When I run my three miles and kick hard in the last 300 meters, I am visualizing that gold medal that waits at the end.

Football is the one sport that I don’t ever pretend or visualize myself doing.  Why?  Because the sport is too violent and the hits are just too hard.  Going deep to beat the Yankees with my Wiffle Ball bat—yes—but catching a pass over the middle?  No.

When you think about football, it scares most of us.  On every play, there is hitting.  When you see a running back run up the middle, he gets hit by 6, 7, 8 or even 9 guys each time.  The rules protect the quarterback as much as they can; yet, he still gets pummeled, crushed and concussed during games.

Is anybody feeling guilt about watching football games at all?  A lot?  A little?  A smidge?  Or, do we overlook it because it is so entertaining and exciting even when it’s not?

When Junior Seau killed himself and the autopsy showed stages of CTE, did we question our love of the sport?  Or, do we see an 82 year-old Jerry Kramer speak with clarity and say, “see, he played football for 11 years and he’s fine?”

Where do you stand?  Do you love football as much as you used to, or are you concerned about the game?  It’s like smoking; people know it’s bad for you, but many still do it.  The same for drinking and the same for eating steak every day.  Is football like smoking for some, so bad that you are quitting it, or are you the person that despite its warnings will still indulge?

There are a lot of positive aspects to football.  It really is the ultimate team game; it takes 53 players to win a Super Bowl, but many who watch, would not let their sons play this game.  That is the conundrum of conundrums—you love the games, but you don’t want your kid to play this game.

We saw Rob Gronkowski get his bell rung in the AFC Championship Game.  If we see something similar in the Super Bowl, will that appall some so much that they will quit watching?  Will the ratings keep going down?

On a day where there is a lot of food, here is some food for thought.

 

Could the XFL Work This Time?

January 26, 2018

If done humbly, the answer might be yes

by John Furgele (The Alternative 228)

The XFL is back…in 2020.  Vince McMahon made that announcement today, stating that an 8-team league with 40 players per club will debut in late January or February, 2020.  McMahon’s new LLC, Alpha Entertainment will own the eight teams and as of now, no cities have been mentioned as potential candidates.

We all know about the first XFL, but the simple fact was that the league promised more than it could deliver and by the fourth week, the fans deserted.  The league screamed for attention and got it, but when the quality of play suffered, the attention—and the audience–went away.

The irony is by the end of the season, the play had improved, but it was too late; all the animals had left the barn.  McMahon promises that the second edition will be about football and solely football.

McMahon wants to succeed; this is guy who has never failed.  He took the then WWF (now WWE) to unprecedented heights.  Even today, cable ratings for the WWE remain solid and events across the country sell plenty—if not all—of tickets.  When the XFL failed, McMahon took it as a personal failure.  And, unlike most of us, he has the money to try it again.

He believes he can get it right this time and this time, the timing may be right.  I was one of the few that actually liked the original XFL and had the league been more humble, I personally think it could have succeeded.  But, that’s water under the bridge and here’s hoping that a smart plan of action can lure some fans to the fledging soon-to-be league.

The biggest problem that this “new” league faces is that American sports fans are programmed and these alternative leagues are not part of our programming.  Think about the fans’ sports cycle and we’ll use September as the starting point.  In that month, the kids are back in school and fans are thinking football and the end of the baseball season.  In October, it’s baseball and football; in November it’s football with a little bit of basketball and hockey.  At Christmas time, it is football with more attention paid to basketball.  In January, it’s NFL playoff time and once the Super Bowl ends in February, fans need a break; they need to de-program.  There’s a reason why February is the worst sporting month of the year.

In March, it’s March Madness and office brackets and when the national champion is crowned, the baseball season has begun.  In May, it’s the NBA and NHL playoffs along with Triple Crown horse racing and so on and so forth.

What’s the point here?  The point is that even though Americans love to watch both college and pro football, they are programmed to take a break and do other things from February to September.  This is why the USFL failed and this is why Americans have never taken to the CFL.  The CFL is certainly exciting with its wider field, three downs, 12 players on a side and multiple guys in motion.  But, because it is not part of the American program, it gets neglected by the sports fan.

The USFL was a good league with a good product.  Reggie White, Sam Mills, Jim Kelly, Kent Hull, Steve Young, Doug Flutie, Doug Williams, Herschel Walker and Bobby Hebert played in the league and these are guys off the top of my head.  Jim Mora and Marv Levy were coaches in the league, so too, was Steve Spurrier.

We know that the USFL was not as good as the NFL, but its top teams were of NFL caliber and despite that, the fans deserted it.  Before that, there was the WFL (World Football League) that tried and failed and we all know about the World Hockey Association and American Basketball Association.  It’s tough for a fan to think XFL football when they are programmed to watching NCAA basketball in March.  It’s like going to the beach on a sunny day in March; we are just not programmed to do it.

The only alternative league that really succeeded was the old American Football League, but that was 1960 when the league could find big markets that wanted professional sports teams.  New York, Buffalo, Oakland, Miami, Houston, Boston, Kansas City, San Diego, Denver and Cincinnati were all big enough and big-league enough to get involved.  That league did well; well enough to force a merger with the NFL.

Where does the new XFL go?  They will start with eight and logic says that they will go to towns where NFL football does not exist.  Orlando has already expressed an interest and with a refurbished Citrus Bowl (now called Camping World Stadium) and a smaller, more attractive MLS stadium, it seems like an ideal candidate.

Columbus also has a MLS stadium that seats 22,000 which would be much better than trying to secure the 100,000 seat Horseshoe that sits on the campus of Ohio State University.  The Alamo Dome hosted the relocated New Orleans Saints in 2005 when that team needed a home after Hurricane Katrina and has always longed to house a full-time tenant.  San Diego, Oakland and St. Louis have or will have lost NFL teams, so naturally they would be included on McMahon’s wish list, but because of Oakland’s stadium situation, the other city by the bay is likely out.

It is easy to see two four-team divisions—one in the east, another in the west and speculation has already begun.  Portland, OR, San Diego, St. Louis and San Antonio in the west with Memphis, Columbus, Orlando and maybe Philadelphia (nearby Chester has a MLS team) in the east for the inaugural season.  Hartford, CT could play games where UConn plays them, so why wouldn’t they be a candidate?  The New York Red Bulls have a nice soccer stadium in New Jersey that could be a nice fit as well.  Louisville and Raleigh also come to mind.

McMahon says 10 games in 2020; I’d like to see 12, but that could come in time if the league succeeds.  If McMahon is true to his word and keeps the focus on football, then I believe that the XFL has a chance to make it.  The one thing I didn’t like was all the attention given to those who kneel during the national anthem.  On a day where McMahon was announcing his new endeavor, politics had to come into play.  I certainly don’t want to ignore the issue that this has become, but to bring it up all the time is tiring and really not necessary anymore.  McMahon said the rulebook will state that the players need to stand for the anthem and this already got people angered on social media saying that it is unfair for a league to take away freedom of expression.  These are the same people that claim that they don’t watch the NFL because of kneeling—I kid you not!

These alternative leagues fail because their creators go in thinking they’re going to take down the mighty established league, believing that they can win over players and fans.  We all know Triple A baseball is not as good as Major League Baseball, but Triple A baseball survives because they market it differently.  The USFL thought they were going to take down the NFL and they went bankrupt.  If the new XFL can market itself correctly and take advantage of the country’s love for football, why can’t it succeed?

Vince McMahon is no dummy.  He knows how to market and he knows how to tell a story.  He tried telling us a story in 2001 and we didn’t like it.  My hunch says that he will tell a different one in 2018 and 2019 and by 2020, we will buy in.

 

 

 

 

 

Why Leave the Couch?

January 16, 2018

Divisional Playoffs had something for everybody

by John Furgele (The Couched 228)

That’s the why the games are played and that’s why they are watched. Many call the Divisional Playoffs the most exciting football weekend of the year—two games on Saturday and two more on Sunday.  The four winners get to play in the AFC and NFC Championship Games and that is no small accomplishment. If one game is bad, you have the next one to look forward to.

That said, watching four games over two days is very hard for many to do. Even if you’re single and live in an apartment, there has to be something to do between the hours of 4 pm and 11 pm on Saturday and 1 pm and 8 pm on Sunday. That’s said, if you watched the games—and accepted the time commitment that went with it—you realize why sports consumes many.

The Eagles were not given much of a chance. They were playing their backup quarterback, the master of the dink-and dunk, Nick Foles.   The Falcons were the defending NFC champs and after beating the Rams last Saturday, were everybody’s trendy pick to go back to the Super Bowl and exact revenge for choking away a 28-3 lead in last year’s Big Game.  All things pointed to a Falcon victory and a trip to the NFC Championship Game.

The Eagles won.

Later that day, the Patriots did what the Patriots do in divisional round play; they cruised, beating a flawed Tennessee Titans team 35-14. Tom Brady threw 53 times; this week, the Pats may run 53 times, but the result surprised no one and when the game ended, everybody was looking forward to a Steelers-Pats AFC Championship Game rematch.

Jacksonville was dead on arrival. Even though the Jags buried the Steelers 30-7 earlier in the season, they barely beat Buffalo in the wild card game last weekend. Blake Bortles ran for 89 yards and passed for just 83 in that game, a 10-3 win over a very, very flawed Bills team.  This time, the Jags would get boat-raced in the Steel City.

The Jags are known for defense, so naturally, they gave up 42 points in this game—and still won!   If these games were predictable and followed the script, nobody would watch. The Jags ran for 164 yards and the much-maligned Bortles was beyond solid and had his receivers not dropped five passes, his performance would have been even better.

They saved the best game for last. The Saints and the Vikings met at the new domed stadium in Minneapolis and treated all to a donnybrook of a game. The Vikes jumped out 17-0 and some of those apartment dwellers were thinking that it might be time to do some laundry and go to the grocery store. But, because of procrastination, they probably decided to give the game another 15 minutes, then 30, then 45. Before long, it was 17-14 and it looked like the Saints might come all the way back.  And, for those watching at home it was back to the couch.

The Saints then took the 24-23 lead and all they had to do was what Minnesota had to do in the 1975 NFC Divisional Playoffs—defend one more pass. Old-time Viking fans know what I’m referring to. In that ’75 playoff game, Roger Staubach threw the 50 –yard “Hail Mary,” and depending on whom you talk to, Pearson either pushed cornerback Nate Wright down or Wright slipped. But, in the days (thankfully) before replay, it was a touchdown and the Cowboys won, 17-14; a win that would help catapult them to Super Bowl 10.

Like the ’75 game, the Saints couldn’t break up the pass and when Stefon Diggs found himself with the ball and subsequent daylight, the Vikings had pulled off a miraculous win by a score of 29-24.

I watch a lot of sports and am not alone. Sometimes I feel like I’m wasting precious years of my life in doing so. There are so many other things one can do, but the games can suck you in and if you watch the regular season, you can’t bail on the playoffs can you? Even if the Patriots are expected to win it all again?

The final play in the Saints-Vikings will be talked about for generations. It will take its place alongside the “Sea of Hands,” the “Home Run Throwback,” the “Ghost to the Post,” “Wide Right,” and of course “The Immaculate Reception.”

This week we will hear that the Patriots can’t lose at home to the Jaguars and that the Eagles will not be able to overcome the loss of Carson Wentz for a second straight week. You will hear it early and often all week long.  So, get ready for a Jags-Eagles Super Bowl.

Next week, there are only two games on what they call “Championship Sunday.”  The good news is that leaves the apartment dweller and everybody else all day Saturday to get everything in order.  Heck, we can even get up early Sunday and be productive, too, but come 3 pm, we will be locked in until 11 pm.  Some of us will feel guilty for not leaving the couch–again–but if we get what we got this weekend, we’ll get over it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Cute in a Tough-Guy Game

January 9, 2018

by John Furgele (The Puzzled 228)

When I started watching football in 1975, I thought the game was easy. Line up, run or pass and try to score touchdowns. As I aged, I was told that football is a complex game, too complex for common fans to understand. There were formations, disguises and many other intricacies that the common fan could never comprehend.

Forty-two years have passed and I have realized that football is not that complicated after all.   The coaches make it to be for sure, and there are some parts of the game that aren’t easy to understand, but deep, deep down, the game is fairly simple.

The game may be simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to play, and we all know that the quarterback position has to be the toughest to play in all of professional sports. A great quarterback can put a coach in the Hall of Fame while a bad one gets the coach fired.

Be that as it may, coaches like to make the game harder than it is. We saw that in Super Bowl 49 when Pete Carroll tried to trick the Patriots by throwing a pass from the 1-yard line. Coaches spend 15 hours a day in their offices, devising plans for a game that is played by gladiators, and often, they try to win these games by being sneaky and at times deceitful.

Yesterday’s Buffalo-Jacksonville game was far from a thing of beauty. Unless you were a Bills or Jags fan, you might have struggled to stay with it. The game in Buffalo drew a 51.1 rating and 77 share. Those numbers are obscene, but sadly, those who watched saw the coaching staff out-clever itself when they needed to just keep it simple.

The game was scoreless late in the second quarter and the Bills were preparing to kick a field goal when they received a gift. The Jags jumped offsides and Buffalo now had a 1st and goal at the 1.

Football is a game for only the tough. It is a brutal sport and when you see the collisions in slow motion, there can be a small amount of guilt in watching—and liking—a game that is so violent.

This is the puzzling part for me. Why, in such a tough guy sport, do teams get cute? The Bills have a great running back in Shady McCoy, who was playing on a very bad ankle, yet they threw the ball on first down from the one. The result—a 10-yard penalty to make it 1st and goal from the 11.   If you’re a Bills fan, you knew right there that a field goal was going to be kicked. The kick was made and the Bills took a 3-0 lead, but many fans knew that in a game where scoring would be low, its outcome might have been decided right there and then.

Buffalo had four chances (assuming they go on 4th down) to make one yard and never let McCoy touch the ball. Bills fans are blaming offensive coordinator Rick Dennison for this, but the blame starts and ends with one person and that’s head coach Sean McDermott.

McDermott has to be the guy there. In fact, he should be the guy for all 60 minutes of the game. Let Dennison design the plays, and make sure they are executed properly in practice, but on game day, McDermott has to call run or pass. All coaches should do this, because the last I checked, they don’t assign win-loss records to assistant coaches.

All McDermott had to do was walk down to Dennison and say, “run.” Pete Carroll should have done that in Super Bowl 49 because if he had, his Seahawks might have won back-to-back Super Bowls.

McCoy had 19 carries for 75 yards and caught six passes for 44 more. He was underutilized. The head coach has to call run or pass based on how the game is going. The Bills threw 40 passes in the game—40. And, remember they ranked 31st of 32 teams in passing, but there they were passing on first down and getting themselves in long yardage situations.

This is what football coaches do; they get cute in a tough-guy game. If McCoy runs for 15 yards, I’d run him again and again until I had to pass. Instead, they call for a pass on the next play. I’d pick up the tempo and put the defense on their heels and when I have 1st and goal at the one, I run it three times, maybe four. If the defense stops me, I seek them out afterwards and pat them on the back with congratulations.

Jacksonville ran three times from the Buffalo one and Buffalo was up to the task. They passed for it on fourth down and were successful, scoring the game’s only touchdown. Even though the call worked, I was against it. I would have run again because the League of National Football is a tough-guy game. If I can’t make one or two yards, then frankly, I don’t deserve to win the game–or any game.

But, some teams just aren’t tough enough.

For Bills Fans, It’s Been a Fun Week But Now, the Fun is Over

January 6, 2018

by John Furgele (The Excited 228)

It is time for the Buffalo Bills and their fans to put Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals in the rear-view mirror.  For Buffalo fans it has been a great week, one flooded with emotions and memories.  If you’re old enough to remember the Bills “salad days” of the 1990s, gearing up for a playoff game was not that big of a deal.  In the 1980s, the Bills had some good years.  They won the AFC East in 1980 with an 11-5 record, losing a heartbreaker in the AFC Divisional Playoffs to the then San Diego Chargers.  In 1981, they secured the Wild Card before bowing at Cincinnati 28-21 in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, a hard fought loss to a team that ended up losing in the Super Bowl to Joe Montana and the 49ers.

The run of runs began in 1988.  Again, if you’re old enough, you recall when the Bills beat the Jets to secure the AFC East.  You recall public address announcer and morning radio host Stan Roberts imploring fans not to tear down the goal posts, saying, “We’re going to need those for playoff action.”  That team made the AFC Championship Game, losing 21-10 to the Cincinnati Bengals, but Bills fans were not deterred as the team was full of young stars.

The 1989 team became known as the “Bickering Bills,” but by season’s end had discovered themselves.  In the AFC Divisional Playoffs, they lost 34-30 to the Cleveland Browns, but in doing so discovered what would carry them to four straight AFC titles and subsequent Super Bowl appearances—the no-huddle, K-Gun offense.

For Bills fans, going to the playoffs and home playoff games became automatic, a rite of passage.  In the 1990s, the Bills qualified in 1990-1993, 1995, 1996, 1998 and 1999, an amazing eight times in a decade.

We all know about the drought.  We all know about the miracle which saw Cincinnati hit paydirt on a 4th and 12 to beat Baltimore.  Since that game, the nation has been kind to Buffalo and its Bills.  Why wouldn’t they?  This is a feel-good story about a team, a time and its city.  It’s funny to have America back on our side.  By 1994, America was tired of the Bills.  They had lost three straight Super Bowls and the point deferential was increasing each time. After losing the one-point heartbreaker to the New York Giants in Super Bowl 25, they were routed by Washington, humiliated by Dallas and were about to be thrashed by Dallas again.

This is how the American sports fan works.  In 2001, most were rooting for the underdog Patriots when they played the Rams, a team that had won a Super Bowl two years earlier.  That Patriots were quarterbacked by an unheralded Tom Brady and a coach who was trying to prove himself in Bill Belichick.  Now, most of America despises the Patriots.

The Bills have made it and it will be interesting to see what happens in their Wild Card game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.  The Jags are favored, expected to win and are at home.  But, this Jags team is far from a juggernaut.  It would not be a shock if Buffalo wins, nor would it be if they lost by a couple of touchdowns.  This is not a vintage Bills team, but at that same time, not a bad one either.

The fans have already prepped themselves.  Most have adopted the “I don’t care if they lose, I’m just glad they finally made it attitude.”  In sports vernacular that’s called playing with house money.  The fan rationalizes; admitting that perhaps its team was lucky to make it and rather than stress, they will enjoy the ride and playoff football for the first time since January, 2000.

Bills nation has further endeared itself to America by thanking Andy Dalton and his Bengals by donating to his charity.  At last count, Bills fans have donated over $300,000 to a fund that helps sick children.  When wide receiver Tyler Boyd—he the recipient of the Dalton throw—mentioned his charity, Bills fans started donating to his as well.  Now, sick children and youth football players in Western Pennsylvania have been the benefactors of a grateful Buffalo Bills Nation. What human wouldn’t like this story?

All this has been great, but now, it’s time to get nasty; to get the game face on.  No matter what Bills fans have been thinking and saying all week, once that game begins, everybody is all in and locked in.  If Tyrod Taylor overthrows a wide open Charles Clay, nobody in Western New York is going to say, “I’m just glad we made the playoffs.”  Instead, they will say, “How could he miss that throw?”

When Sean McDermott opts for a field goal on 4th and 1 from the Jacksonville 5, no Bills fan will say, “I’m just glad they scored some points in a playoff game.”  Instead, they will say, “What is doing, he should be aggressive and go for it.”

The Bills fan is excited and rightly so as it has been a long time between drinks for them.  If and when they lose, Bills fans will get over it and upon reflection will realize that magic that got them into the playoffs.  That said, if they lose a heartbreaker, the fans will huff and puff and show that anger because…..that’s what fans do.

The fans have enjoyed the week and they will do their best to enjoy and appreciate a playoff game for the first time since January 8, 2000.  But, once that game starts, everything changes.

And that’s the way it should be.

 

 

On College Football: Let The Cartel Do Their Thing And The Others Do Theirs.

January 4, 2018

by John Furgele (The Visionary 228)

Danny White has made his declaration that the Central Florida Knights are college football champions for 2017.  Notice I omitted the word national from his statement because I still don’t believe that college football truly crowns a national champion.  Until 1998, the writers (Associated Press) and coaches (UPI, USA Today, ESPN, et al) voted for the champions of college football.  It has never been an exact science, but it has made for good theater.

Who can forget 1977 when Notre Dame went into the bowls ranked fifth, but beat the number one ranked Texas Longhorns and then saw number 2 lose, number three beat a weak team with number 4 losing as well.  This resulted in the Irish being voted number one by the AP and UPI.

Miami did the same thing in 1983, vaulting from fifth to first by beating the unbeatable Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Orange Bowl.  The next year (1984) BYU went 13-0, beat Michigan in the lower-tiered Holiday Bowl and then had to sweat it out.  In the end, they were voted college football champions.

In 1998, the BCS tried to pit the best two teams in the BCS Championship Game.  Most of the time, this worked, but in the 2004 season, Oklahoma, USC and Auburn finished their seasons 12-0, but you can’t fit three into two and Auburn was left out.  USC crushed Oklahoma 55-19 in the Orange Bowl to win the BCS title.  Auburn decided to claim a championship as well and who we were to stop them?

What’s the point?  White says that UCF beat Auburn, the same Auburn that beat both Alabama and Georgia.  White says he will get a championship banner for Spectrum Stadium and will give his coaches bonuses for winning a championship.  That’s how serious he is.

He makes a valid point.  As I have said before, the College Football Playoff is a playoff of exclusion run by the” Power 5 Cartel”, or if you want to get specific, the “SEC Cartel.”  SEC and Power 5 schools have to play their way out of the CFP, while Group 5 schools and non-blueblood schools have to try to play their way in.  Most of the time, they get shafted.  Last year, Washington had to practically apologize for going 12-1 because they played a relatively weak nonconference schedule.  Alabama, the blueblood of bluebloods was not knocked one iota for battling FCS Chattanooga in late November.

This year, Wisconsin won its first 12 games, but it wasn’t until they won that 12th game that they cracked the top four in the CFP standings.  If you’re not a blueblood, you really have an uphill fight to make the CFP.  And, if you’re a Group 5 school—-forget it.  UCF went undefeated and was 12th coming into the bowls.

Who are the bluebloods; the teams that will get every opportunity to make the CFP.  There’s USC from the Pac 12; Ohio State and Michigan from the Big Ten; Clemson and Florida State from the ACC; Oklahoma and Texas from the Big 12 and Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU and Florida from the SEC and of course, Notre Dame from the Notre Dame conference.  Can other Power 5 schools make it?  Yes, but you better be 13-0 to make sure you get the number four seed.

Temple could beat Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame and let’s say, Bowling Green in their nonconference slate, but once they begin American Athletic Conference play, they will be penalized.  They will actually earn demerits for beating Connecticut, East Carolina, Tulane and Navy. When the first CFP poll comes out they will be ranked 8th or 9th and the committee chair will say that their conference schedule is just not strong enough.

I never understood the conference schedule thing.  Teams have no choice; they have to play the teams that are in their conference.  It is not Temple’s fault that they’re not in a better conference. The Big Ten, ACC, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC don’t want them, so they joined the American.  This shouldn’t hurt college football teams, but it does.

If Temple finishes 13-0 with the American title, they will still have to sweat it out because the CFP is really a glorified beauty pageant.  If Texas, Michigan, Alabama and USC are all 12-1, they will get the nod over the number 5 ranked Temple Owls.  The committee will say things like, “Temple was so close and so deserving, but we felt that they were just a wee bit short.”

What can we do?  Well, expanding to eight teams is not the answer because all that does is allow “The Cartel,” to make more money.  If you think “The Cartel,” is going to give the G 5 an automatic bid, you might as well make that down payment on an oceanfront condo in Kansas.

The best thing to do is a breakaway.  Let the Power 5 schools form the CFA—the College Football Alliance—and let them continue on with their four-team blueblood playoffs.  That’s what they’re doing now, so let them continue.

The Group 5 schools and FCS schools should join together and keep the NCAA moniker.  Now, you’ll have two levels of college football—the CFA and the NCAA.  Currently, there are three levels.  It’s disguised, but it really is three levels—1-A for the Power 5; 1-AA for the Group 5 and 1-AAA for the FCS schools.  By combining 1-AA and 1-AAA you actually streamline and improve the product.

As mentioned, the CFA would have a four-team playoff while the NCAA could have an eight-team playoff.  With 12 teams in the playoffs, you could keep the bowl games intact.  And, in these bowl games, CFA and NCAA teams could play one another, just like they would during the regular season.  Temple can open at Bowling Green, travel to Indiana State and then go to the “Big House,” to face the Michigan Wolverines.  If Temple finishes 8-4, they can play 8-4 Missouri in the Independence Bowl.  Now, Chattanooga can play at Alabama with no judgement.

With two levels of playoffs, there would be two champions, the CFA champs and the NCAA champs and you could have 30 bowl games.  That’s 72 teams playing extra games, so everything is preserved.  The CFA winner will print a banner that says, “Alabama Crimson Tide: CFA National Champions,” and the NCAA winner will make a banner that says, “Central Florida Knights:  NCAA National Champions.”

I would suggest removing the word national and I will never refer to these winners as national champions, not because I’m a snob, but because I have never done that.

God bless Danny White and full kudos to him.  White has always been an outside-the-box thinker and this is just another example.  We need guys like White; not to make declarations like he did, but to institute change in college football.  He needs to push for this separation and creation of the CFA and NCAA.

This Saturday, an FCS champion will be crowned when North Dakota State faces James Madison in the FCS Championship Game.  On Monday night, the CFP champion will be crowned when SEC rivals Alabama and Georgia face off in that title game.  Which schools are getting left out?  The Group 5 schools like—-Central Florida.  That’s why White did what he did.  He had to advocate for the G5.

Now, he needs to go the extra step and get college football to crown two football champions.