Sunday, February 24, 2008

Overrated and Underrated in Canada

I watch a lot of hockey, mostly because here in Canada we can’t get enough of it and there’s just a lot on. Most of the coverage- expectedly but perhaps unfortunately- is skewed towards the National Hockey League’s six Canadian franchises, so the inherent biases that occur during that coverage should surprise no one. Given the bias, I thought one day I’d come up with one player out of each Canadian franchise that gets a lot more air time and buzz than he should simply because he’s playing for a Canadian team and six players who get considerably less air time and buzz just because they have the unfortunate situation of playing south of the 49th parallel. So without further adieu, here’s the list.

THE OVERRATED CLASS

MATTHEW LOMBARDI, CALGARY FLAMES

Still a relative youngster at age 26, Matthew Lombardi is generally- and generously- grouped by Flames fans among the team’s Top Six forwards, heaping mounds of praise on a player who frankly hasn’t done a lot to deserve it. Lombardi possesses a lot of speed, but that’s it- he’s not the best of shooters or passers, and during games he often imitates Houdini because his on-ice vision is considerably poor. This kind of act was understandable when he was 22, 23 or 24, but this is supposed to be the time of Lombardi’s career where he blossoms and he hasn’t exactly done that (at least not to expectations). He seems to be rounding into a form like the Ottawa Senators’ Dean McAmmond- a speedster useful on the penalty kill and on defence who can chip in with the odd goal, because his offence has never been that great (only one 20-goal season, and that’s when he hit 20 last season). The only caveat is that Lombardi’s defence is poor (-7 this season), so unless he improves in that area (at least), Lombardi’s career will be shorter than it could be.

JARRET STOLL, EDMONTON OILERS

There were several players I could have picked from the Edmonton Oilers, but none jumped out at me more than the 25-year-old Jarret Stoll did. Part of the group of young, boisterous forwards that played well over their heads in the Oilers’ surprise 2006 playoff run (which owed more of its success to energy and smart coaching than an actual abundance of talent), Stoll is still among the few in that group who are still celebrated- for example, The Score’s 2007-08 Forecaster called Stoll “(Edmonton’s) most effective player last season” and said he was “(rounding) into one of the most complete centres in the league”. The truth is anything but: in a year where Stoll’s potential is supposed to pan out, he has went out and posted an ugly –17 rating (so much for the defensive side) and a paltry 10 goals in 61 games. His production suggests a third-line centre at best, but his defensive game is atrocious. Not only that, but like his counterpart Lombardi down Highway 2, Stoll has a troubling tendency to disappear from the play, especially on the power play, but that has more to do with a lack of awareness instead of a lack of focus. It may be true that Stoll’s real talent lies in the immeasurable category of “work ethic”, but like the saying goes, “you can’t just work hard, you’ve got to work smart”- and Stoll never seems to “work smart”. He has to if he’s ever going to have the career many have said he should be having.

GUILLAME LATENDRESSE, MONTREAL CANADIENS

Perhaps it’s too early to rag on Guillame Latendresse- he is, after all, 20 and still very much in his development phase- but the Canadiens and their fans are high on this guy and I just have to wonder why (unless they’re just high…which explains a lot if you know Canadiens fans). He’s a big boy, but like his comparable chump Alexei Ponikarovsky in Toronto, that’s it- in the two years Latendresse has been in the league, he doesn’t do anything on the ice except occasionally, going through long stretches where you need the Hubble telescope to discover that he’s actually playing. Last season he posted 29 points and 16 goals (to top off a miserable –20), and this season he projects to 20 goals, 30 points and a –10 rating- on a much better Canadiens team than last year. Sure, there’s a small statistical improvement there, but Latendresse’s skills and sense haven’t improved at all in his second year in the league, and that’s troubling. Really, he’s just more of a big guy on skates than an actual hockey player and unless he seriously works on his game, Latendresse will round into nothing more than a player better suited to playing Quebec’s thuggish semi-professional league than the real thing.

MARTIN GERBER/RAY EMERY, OTTAWA SENATORS

Okay, so I lied- I didn’t pick one Ottawa Senator, I picked two; but the reality is that the goaltending tandem of Martin Gerber and Ray Emery has been so interconnected (and the players so comparable) that it’s impossible just to focus on one player. Emery won plaudits for being the goaltender that finally led the Senators to the Stanley Cup Final a year after being undressed by the Buffalo Sabres’ Jason Pominville in overtime of Game 5 that sealed the Senators’ Conference Semi-Final loss (including beating those very Sabres in the Conference Final), while Gerber won recognition after a solid start to the 2007-08 season in relief of the injured Emery after a miserable opening campaign as a Senator. Both of those spurts have led to both being classified as elite-level goaltenders, but the truth is that neither can be considered as anything better than “dependable”: rebound control is an issue for both, Gerber isn’t very nimble in the crease and Emery- despite all his athleticism (there’s an overused word)- has a tendency to frequently let pucks through him. Not only that, but when was the last time Gerber or Emery ever *stole* a game for the Senators? I can’t remember one. Now, it’s not like Ottawa wins in spite of its goaltending, but no one should kid themselves- neither Gerber or Emery are as close to Martin Brodeur or Roberto Luongo as people think they are, and neither seem destined to get that far. One great stretch- which is all these two have had- isn’t enough.

DARCY TUCKER, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Toronto Maple Leaf fans are prone to overrate *everyone* (talk to a Leaf fan long enough and you’d be convinced they should not just win the Stanley Cup, but the World Series, UEFA Champions’ League, the America’s Cup, the Daytona 500, the Super Bowl and the Inter-County League as well), but Darcy Tucker takes the cake. For years, I joined the parade raving about Tucker’s energy and aggressiveness that allowed him to play well above his physical frame (he’s just 5’10”, 178 lbs.) and chip in with some timely goals, but lately- upon re-examination- I’ve found that Tucker’s usefulness really isn’t that high. Every time I see him on the ice he either gets belted (and for no actual benefit for the team) or just disappears, popping up occasionally to score a goal. This year, those occasions have become even fewer than they did in seasons’ past: a year after potting 24 goals in 56 games, Tucker has scored just 12 times in 55 contests this season, coupled with 21 points and an abysmal –5. A lot has been made about Tucker’s “heart” and “emotion” (attributes that, like Stoll’s “work ethic” are immeasurable) because Tucker so obviously wears it on his sleeve, but those mean nothing if he doesn’t produce results- something which Tucker so demonstrably does *not* do. I agree that he’s a “pest”, but only in comparison to an annoying gnat, since all Tucker does is fly around aimlessly annoying people but accomplishing nothing. With the Leafs’ recent woes, I have to wonder how long it’ll take before Toronto takes off their Wendel Clark-coloured glasses and finally see the reality, because Tucker is becoming increasingly more of a liability than an asset.

KEVIN BIEKSA, VANCOUVER CANUCKS

Another one of those “heart-and-soul” type players who scores heaps of praise by a hockey media that overvalues the immeasurable while ignoring the measurable- things like shooting, passing, checking, defending, etc.- expecting the rest of us to take what they say at face value. Me? I’d rather see results, and Kevin Bieksa doesn’t provide much. After a 12-goal, 30-assist regular season in 2006-07, Bieksa disappeared in the playoffs, registering nothing in nine playoff games except 20 penalty minutes and this year he lit the lamp once and added three assists (with an abysmal –5) in 12 games after an early-season injury (adding nothing in the two games he played in after coming back). I certainly believe he’s a dependable player, but there’s nothing about Bieksa that makes him as irreplaceable as Canuck fans would like to think. He’s behind on the depth chart to guys like Willie Mitchell (one of the game’s better defensive defencemen), Alexander Edler (a much better two-way defender than Bieksa is), Mattias Öhlund (the Canucks’ best offensive defenceman and passer) and Sami Salo (one of the league’s best shooters) and while he’s an important member of that cast, you could just as easily find fifty or so other defenders (Calgary’s Rhett Warrener, Boston’s Andrew Alberts, Chicago’s Brent Seabrook and Minnesota’s Keith Carney are comparable off the top of my head) that could play the same kind of role that Bieksa does in Vancouver. Solid? Yes. Irreplaceable? No.

THE UNDERRATED CLASS

Now that you know who the Canadian media overhypes, it’s time to expose those who are underhyped- the players who, had they been playing in Canada you’d be hearing a lot more of. Since I have six overrated guys, I decided I’ll even it up with six underrated guys (I would profile one from each of the 24 American teams but some of the American teams- such as the Detroit Red Wings- are well followed north of the border, or- in the case of the 2007 Stanley Cup-winning Anaheim Ducks- are well known north of the border). Not all of my picks play in “non-traditional hockey markets” (you know, the places that have the tag “we shouldn’t have hockey there”, a clear indication of just how bad National Hockey League marketing is in respect to its individual franchises because they haven’t given any of us a reason to care for those teams when there should be), because even teams in “hockey markets” (such as Buffalo and Minneapolis) haven’t done a lot in recent years to warrant a huge profile in Canada; although even those players are better noticed than those in Phoenix, Nashville or Raleigh, where hockey coverage isn’t very dependable (owing, yet again, to poor marketing in those areas and by the league itself). One thing is still certain though: had any of those players been playing in Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver they’d have a much higher profile than they do now, which is why I shall raise them here with this post.

OLLI JOKINEN, FLORIDA PANTHERS

“Okay, okay, what do you mean he’s underrated? I already knew this guy was good!” Yes, but I ask- “just how good?” Olli Jokinen has made an entire career for himself playing for some very bad teams- he was drafted by the rebuilding Los Angeles Kings in 1997, traded two years later to the New York Islanders in their woeful years before being dealt to the Florida Panthers in 2000 (along with Roberto Luongo for Oleg Kvasha and Mark Parrish, one of the many deals that sent then Islander General Manager Mike Milbury to a less than stellar career as a broadcaster), which is why the most anyone has ever known about Jokinen is that he’s good without actually realizing just how good. Once you see him play, you see that Jokinen is more than just your “average” impact player- he is, without a doubt, one of the best players in the National Hockey League, the complete package who’s the epitome of “captaincy” in the NHL. He does literally *everything* for the Panthers, being not just the kind of player who makes plays out of nothing, he never takes a shift off, always making himself visible on the ice whether or not he’s wiring a shot home from an impossible angle or creating a turnover to douse an enemy rush and create one for the Panthers. It is unfortunate that he’s never had the benefit of playing with better players (or that he’s never seen playoff action), but the league doesn’t see a more well-rounded competitor than Olli Jokinen.

SHEA WEBER, NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Shea Weber is another in a line of “yeah he’s good but people don’t realize just ‘how’ good”. He plays his game just like- maybe even a little better than- Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf, being a physical defenceman not afraid to legendarily lay people out in reading the game (and attacks) exceptionally well, but on top of being a great defender, Weber is also great on the offensive end. As Greg Millen once said during the Leafs-Predators game earlier this season, “if he played in Canada he’d be a household name”. Truer words could not be said.

MIKE CAMMALLERI, LOS ANGELES KINGS

Perhaps lost in the shadow of dynamic forwards Alexander Frolov and Anze Kopitar (or the stench of just how awful the Los Angeles Kings really are), the Kings’ Mike Cammalleri may be the most anonymous offensive weapon in the entire NHL. Small but shifty, Cammalleri is capable of making a sweet dish or wiring the perfect shot, and he never gives up on the play. Not only that, but the diminutive Cammalleri is showing to be pretty durable- this year’s 17-game absence after a mid-season rib injury was his first significant injury since suffering a head injury in 2002-03. He’s still on the rise at age 25, and, with the likes of Frolov, Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Patrick O’Sullivan maturing at the same time, it won’t be long before Cammalleri’s offensive exploits get the credit they deserve.

CHRIS CAMPOLI, NEW YORK ISLANDERS

One of the steadiest blueliners in the NHL at just 23, the New York Islanders’ Chris Campoli is a power-play quarterback in the making. He is a quick, agile skater with great passing ability and a decent shot, plus his on-ice awareness is improving. His point totals aren’t gaudy (14 goals (including four power-play markers) and 66 points in 177 games), but Campoli has been derailed by injuries the past two seasons and thus hasn’t had a “proper” opportunity to build on his remarkable 34-point rookie season in 2005-06. That said, his point totals are consistent (his figures for the past two seasons) would round to 30+ points over a full season) and his defensive game is improving, since his plus/minus numbers have improved each year (–16 in ’05-’06, –3 last year and –1 this year). Given his youth, it’s only a matter of time before Campoli becomes more of an impact player than he is now- a scary prospect indeed.

JOCHEN HECHT, BUFFALO SABRES

When the Buffalo Sabres were the impressive scoring machines of ’05-’06 and ’06-’07, Jochen Hecht always felt out of place. He never was a super-scorer, being the kind of player who’d hang back instead of join in on the offence, despite having a good skill set. However, with Daniel Briérè and Chris Drury gone and the Sabres’ scoring punch down as a result, Hecht’s usefulness has grown considerably this season, as Hecht’s defensive play allows him to generate turnovers that lead to timely offence. He is also heading for a career year, with 17 goals in 61 games thus far this season- meaning, barring injury (not a certainty with Hecht), he should hit 20 goals for the first time in his career. Not bad for a player whose skills and awareness are among the most under-appreciated (and unheralded) for most of his career.

PASCAL LECLAIRE, COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Last but not least is the Columbus Blue Jackets’ wunderkind Pascal Leclaire, who has been one of the league’s biggest surprises this season. What puts him here is just how much of a surprise he is, since all you get out of Canadian media is that he’s good, one of the biggest understatements of the year. Leclaire is third in the NHL in goals-against-average, second in save percentage and tops in shutouts, and, if the Jackets ever learned how to score (outside of Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev), he would be up there in wins as well. His performance is no fluke- Leclaire never gives up on a shot, always being square to the shooter and having remarkable acrobatic ability to snuff out what would be otherwise sure goals. He does seem to lose concentration at times, but he does have the ability to bounce back after a poor start- after the Toronto Maple Leafs went up 3-1 in the first period earlier this week, Leclaire shut the door for the rest of the game. He’ll only get better at that with age- at just 26, Leclaire is well on his way to joining the NHL’s elite, hopefully taking the Blue Jackets to the playoffs with him.

-DG

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Friday, February 08, 2008

DG's Quick Hits- February 8, 2008

  • So after Super Bowl XLII, the New England Patriots finally got to experience what every other team in the NFL got to experience- a loss. This one is going to sting more than the average loss, and the Patriots know it. Not only were they denied the biggest prize in football (if not all of sports sans the World Cup and the Stanley Cup), they were denied a place in history (as the second NFL team to go perfect throughout the regular season and playoffs, and be the first to do it over a 19-game stretch) and they let go to waste one of the greatest seasons of all-time, especially offensively. History will be cruel to them, but deservedly so- like the saying goes, “history is written by the winners”, and the 2007 Patriots ultimately weren’t.
  • The greatest irony about the Patriots’ Super Bowl loss is that they were the ultimate game-management team during the season yet it was game-management that became their ultimate undoing. Had Bill Belichick not decided to go for it- inexplicably- on 4th and 13 late in the third quarter with his team up 7-3, Plaxico Buress’ game-winning TD would only become a game-tying TD and the teams would be squaring off in the first Super Bowl overtime. Then there was all the desperation heaves Tom Brady threw on his last drive, despite the fact he only needed 40 yards (for a game-tying field goal) and had a full compliment of timeouts. The whole time, Belichick looked like he was playing “Madden 08” and not the Super Bowl (not an inappropriate analogy given the “video-game stats” ESPN’s Ron Jaworski so accurately described Brady’s performance), because those are plays you make in the revved-up world of video gaming (where such plays are easier to make) than in the real world of the Super Bowl (which requires one to *always* pick the safest play to run). If Belichick wanted to force a play to “spark” the offence, he should have done it in the regular season, not in the Super Bowl- the stakes are just too high, something he, a former winner, should (presumably) know.
  • Of course, it’s easy to look at the Patriots’ loss and not give the New York Giants any credit, because when an upset this massive occurs one always wonders what went wrong for the supposedly unbeatable team. Don’t get me wrong, New England did *a lot* wrong at Super Bowl XLII, but the Giants deserve full credit because their defence kept Tom Brady & Co. off balance the entire day, and their running attack dramatically exposed the Patriots’ defence’s collective age in wearing them down so thoroughly and quickly. That, and Eli Manning and the Giants just seemed to “want” it more- the Patriots expected to just walk onto the field and belt out a win, and they were shown the folly of their ways. Not to say that New England didn’t try themselves- New York just flustered them, and as the game wore on the Patriots’ frustration level rose with their mounting mistakes.
  • Onto the hardcourt: is there a better game to watch than the Duke-North Carolina game? The February 6 game had a playoff atmosphere to it, producing one of the most intense and electric basketball games I’ve seen in a long time. I do wish the game itself- ending 89-78 for the Duke Blue Devils- was a little closer, but the North Carolina Tar Heels were done in by the defences at both ends of the floor: the Tar Heels kept running around playing high-pressure defence when the Blue Devils’ passes were just quicker, and the Blue Devils’ stout zone defence just prevented any real penetration. Still, it was a joy to watch, and I’m already looking forward to the rematch- and, hopefully, the teams’ first-ever meeting during the NCAA tournament.
  • That game also gave me a first glimpse at Tyler Hansbrough, the stud centre for the Tar Heels and I can’t say I’m as head-over-heels (take that however you like) as many sportscasters are about him. He’s very tenacious, a great rebounder and has a knack for drawing fouls going to the basket, but he isn’t a great shooter and one has to wonder how well his sinewy frame can hold up against the stronger, quicker NBA players (who are, not to mention, better at *not* being drawn for fouls). I take the position of Tony Kornheiser of “Pardon The Interruption” on this one- he’ll be a dependable, solid NBA player, but not a star and certainly not a legend. That said, he is just 22 and still developing so who knows how good he’ll actually be, but for now I just don’t see a future NBA star.
  • Staying on the court we have the suddenly-“slumping” Boston Celtics, who have gone 7-6 since starting the season 29-3. The main culprit is the injury bug that’s hit both Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett during the season, two of the Celtics’ key additions during the off-season. Right now, Garnett’s absence is what’s hurting Boston the most, since he gives the team a rebounding and defensive presence whose absence is what cost them the victory against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday. It’s not enough for me to declare it’s “panic time” but clearly the Celtics just don’t seem deep enough to be a Championship team- at least this year. Next year, when Rajon Rondo is a year older, things may be different, but this stretch shows me that this year isn’t as much a slam-dunk as it seemed earlier in the year.
  • To the soccer pitch where Italy’s Serie A was mired in even more controversy: Inter Milan’s 1-0 victory over Empoli contained numerous refereeing blunders on both sides of the ball, most notably the dubious decision to award a spot kick (that Inter’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic belted home) and a yellow card to Ighli Vannuchi for handball when replays clearly showed the ball went off of Vannuchi’s head. I can see why the referee made the decision that he did, since Vannuchi did raise his left arm to his head (probably for balance in leaping to head away the ball) and the ball’s ricochet did seem to be “angled” with his arm, but it’s still a strange decision. At the other end there was Inter’s Patrick Vieira given a yellow card for crashing into an attacker outside of the area, which seemed harsh- a foul yes, but a yellow card no (since Vieira wasn’t the last defender back). Now, Vieira should have not argued his case to the referee (costing him another deserved booking and thus a sending-off) but he did have a case. *Not* dubious was the penalty decision late in the game against Inter’s Marco Materazzi against Empoli’s Luca Saudati, since Materazzi clearly kicked Saudati’s leg after Saudati had already gotten to the ball. Saudati missed, perhaps producing a result that maybe should not have been, but for people looking for pro-Inter bias from the referees won’t find it here, since the referee here was clearly out of his element on both sides of the ball, not just one.
  • As for legitimate handball offences (lots of penalties being awarded in Italy lately for some reason): Cristian Zaccardo’s “elbow” against Livorno, where Zaccardo reacted by lifting his arm to protect his face from an incoming shot. Now, as much as Zaccardo probably didn’t “know” about his action (being a simple reaction), the fact of the matter is he *did* handle the ball and *did* go against what defenders are taught- to always leap with your hands behind your back or to put your hands to your side and your back to the ball. Fortunately for him, Livorno’s Francesco Tavano missed and his Palermo team picked up a much-needed win on summer signing Fabrizio Miccoli’s 76th-minute goal, but Zaccardo’s penalty here *was* deserved.
  • Perhaps after the NFL staged a regular season game in London (and that two NFL owners- the Cleveland Browns’ Ed Lerner (Aston Villa) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Malcolm Glazer (Manchester United)- already own English Premier League clubs), the EPL has opened the possibility of adding a game to the league schedule and staging it “internationally”, with one of the possibilities being a game in the United States. I personally like the idea, because the EPL already has a worldwide following and this move recognizes that- plus, you can be guaranteed a good game considering these are actual games for points, not pointless exhibitions that routinely feature second-stringers. I’m just a bit worried about the schedule- the proposal would bring the EPL schedule to 39 games, an already arduous number given all the other competitions EPL teams have to fit in (like the FA and Carling Cups, the UEFA Cup and the Champions’ League), but if the EPL is serious about expanding its image globally, this is the logical next step. The NFL is also considering an idea like this (tacking on a 17th game in an “international” arena), and that too is only a good idea- the NFL can only grow the game if it markets it worldwide, and staging real games worldwide is a great way of doing that.
  • Staying with the 17th game topic, maybe the 17th game can be the Buffalo Bills’ annual visit to Toronto? That way the Bills don’t lose a Buffalo home date and Toronto still gets its game. I still don’t think it’s the next step towards a Bills move to Toronto- it’s more “market recognition”, like how the Green Bay Packers staged an annual game in Milwaukee. Besides, I doubt the NFL (and its Western New York commissioner Roger Goddell) will allow the well-supported Bills to move, especially after moving in when Cleveland momentarily lost its well-supported Browns- plus, if the NFL really wants to move to Canada, it ought to put a team in Ottawa. The league has such a great track record in small markets, plus the Canadian Football League failed in Ottawa and any concern that Ottawa isn’t big enough of a city will be met by the fact any Ottawa team will become the first-choice NFL team for an entire country. Besides, it’s close enough to Toronto to make the games manageable- if Torontonians can make the three-hour trek to Buffalo for a Bills game and the four-hour trek to Ottawa for Senators games, they can certainly make that same trek for the NFL in Ottawa.
  • The Montreal Canadiens squandered a chance to move within a point of the Ottawa Senators for first place in the Eastern Conference after failing to match the intensity level of the Toronto Maple Leafs in a 4-2 loss on Thursday night. However, more dangerous than that was the fact the Canadiens were exposed as a one-trick pony, an aggressive counter-punching team that defends so well but has so few weapons to strike back with. Both of Montreal’s goals were scored by members of the same line- Tomas Plekanec and Alexei Kovalev- underscoring the fact that if the Canadiens are serious about becoming a contender they need secondary scoring. Saku Koivu needs to get going for one, but another offensive threat is essential. It’s time for Bob Gainey and the Canadiens to take the next step and be active on the trade deadline- anything less will be a colossal failure.
  • As for the Maple Leafs, many have speculated that if Toronto actually trades its assets- Mats Sundin and Tomas Kaberle- it should also insist that a team take up its pylons in Hal Gill and Pavel Kubina. I have a team willing enough to do that- the Anaheim Ducks, who, as a big team, could actually use the sizeable Gill and Kubina. Cap space might be an issue, but perhaps a deal seeing Sundin, Gill and/or Kubina going to Anaheim for the Edmonton Oilers’ first-round draft pick (previously acquired by the Ducks), Corey Perry (who will need a big raise come summertime) and a prospect (maybe Bobby Ryan) would work? I like the idea.
  • After a Sky Italia report counted that Democrat presidential hopeful Barack Obama used the word “change” 39 times in a speech, I’ve decided to nickname him “Mr. Change”. I like him the best out of all the candidates though, because he always comes across as the brightest and most passionate of the bunch, as well as the most visionary. My only problem? His campaign does seem to border on an air of “idealism” and one has to wonder if he becomes U.S. President if he’ll be in way over his head, because the reality of the job makes it a lot tougher than it looks. Still, it’s refreshing to actually have a visionary on the trail- too many politicians are simple robots and the U.S. (and the world) deserves so much better.
  • Last, but not least, is a quote in a Reuters edition of a story chronicling a triple-murder suicide by a female nursing student of three of her classmates (also women) that stated that “gun crimes are not as rare in the U.S. because gun control laws are not as strict as in other countries”. Now, I do agree gun control in the U.S. is lax, but a country of 330 million people is bound to have at least a few gun-related murders. The incidents over the past few weeks- this story comes a week after a man herded five women in clothing store just outside of Chicago into a room where he killed them- are disturbing but proportionally don’t suggest something that is certainly a crisis. It still is a strong statement for better gun control laws, though, because there’s no reason why handguns (which have no other purpose than being offensive weapons) should be in the hands of “just anybody”.

-DG

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Greatest Game Ever Played, Part III

18-1. Usually it’s the mark of a great season, but for the New England Patriots, it was only the mark of failure.

Coming into the game at 18-0, the Patriots had a chance to become the first National Football League team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to complete an entire season- encompassing the regular season and playoffs- without a single loss or tie. Instead, the Patriots join the only other two teams to complete the regular season perfect- the 1934 and 1942 Chicago Bears- who also lost in the NFL title game, although those Bears teams came before the Super Bowl era began in 1967. However, not even that tells the whole story about the gravity of the Patriots’ loss (17-14 to the New York Giants)- for two weeks before the game, many figured New England would romp all over New York, considering the Patriots had the best offence in NFL history, they looked unbeatable all season long (even coming up with wins when all seemed lost) the game would be played in warm weather (and thus would allow the Patriots’ vaunted passing attack to shine) and the fact New England had already defeated New York in the regular season, albeit 38-35 in the final game when the Giants had a chance to end the Patriots’ charge to perfection in both teams’ final regular season game.

Once the game began, it seemed to go according to plan. After the Giants’ rushing attack (led by Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw) chewed up almost ten minutes from the start of the first quarter to set up a Lawrence Tynes field goal, the Patriots stormed back with Tom Brady continuing to use dump-off passes to Wes Welker and running back Laurence Maroney (as he had in his previous post-season wins), the latter whose one-yard touchdown run in the first two seconds of the second quarter put the Patriots up 7-3. The drive was textbook Patriots: no matter how many times their opponents took the lead, New England always seemed to storm right back into the game and set the score the “right” way.

From then, one might have expected New England to pile on the points on the hapless Giants, since the score should have settled some nerves and all year once New England got their feet on the accelerator they kept it there. Instead, what transpired was a defensive game that kept the score at 7-3 until the fourth quarter, although it wouldn’t come without controversy- late in the third quarter, the Patriots faced 4th down and 13 from the Giants’ 32, but instead of sending out Stephen Gostkowski to kick a field goal, the Patriots ran a play that misfired badly. The Giants took over on downs, and although they didn’t capitalize on their ensuing drive, the fact that they created a near red-zone turnover served to buoy the team in the fourth quarter.

Then the fireworks came: in the Giants’ first play of the quarter, quarterback Eli Manning- who had been effective all game long in leading decent drives derailed by the Patriots’ defence- found tight end Kevin Boss (All-Pro Jeremy Shockey’s injury replacement) for a 45-yard gain to the New England 35. After two Bradshaw runs Manning found Steve Smith for 17 yards, and a seven-yard Bradshaw dash set up a five-yard touchdown pass to David Tyree to give New York an unthinkable 10-7 lead.

Still, the Patriots had ten minutes to conjure up the tying field goal or, better yet, the winning touchdown, and New England did come back several times to win games in 2007 (including a twelve-point hole against those very Giants). The teams traded punts before Brady finally engineered what appeared to be New England’s game-winning drive. Passing primarily to Welker (who would wind up setting a Super Bowl record with eleven catches) and Randy Moss (a non-factor all day up to that point), the Patriots chewed the clock down to 2:45 for a six-yard TD pass to Moss to go up 14-10. Although the Giants still had all their timeouts, with the Patriots’ experienced defence and Manning’s tendencies to fold under pressure, very few would have figured that with 2:45 to go that New York had much of a chance.

Indeed, the Giants’ next drive appeared to be headed that way when one of the most unbelievable plays in Super Bowl history occurred. Facing third and five, Manning was flushed out of the pocket by the Patriots’ pass rush and appeared to be headed for a sack. Instead, on the run he fired a 32-yard pass to Tyree who caught the ball by holding the ball against his helmet and bringing it down just as Rodney Harrison was about to corral him. Another third down completion to Smith gave the Giants a first down at the New England 13 with 45 seconds to go in the game. The next play would confound everyone: Plaxico Burress, who predicted before the game that the Giants would win 23-17, slipped by the usually reliable Ellis Hobbs to make an unchallenged catch in the end zone to put the Giants up 17-14 with 39 seconds left in the game.

The Giants’ score was the latest anyone had forced the Patriots into a game-winning drive, with the previous high being in Week 13 when the Baltimore Ravens clung to a 24-20 lead with 3:30 remaining. Still, with Brady at the helm and three timeouts left, one would have figured New England to at least force overtime, especially considering that in previous Super Bowl appearances the Patriots needed late field goals. Instead, Brady and the Patriots heaved desperation lobs up field for four straight plays (including a fingertip drop by Moss when he would have cleared the Giants’ secondary and a ten-yard sack just as Brady was stepping into a long throw), forcing a turnover on downs (at 4th and 20, no less) sending the Patriots to an improbable loss. After Brady’s last throw both benches cleared to meet in the post-game handshakes, but referee Mike Carey decreed there was still one second left and a play had to be run. Manning- later to be named the deserved MVP (a year after his brother Peyton did the same thing)- would kneel to seal the win and the handshakes resumed, although notably absent was New England coach Bill Belichick, who completed his handshakes in the first go around and fled to the comfort of the dressing room, trying to figure out where it had all gone wrong.

When he looks at the tapes, it won’t be hard to figure out. Hindsight, as the saying goes, is 20-20, and no bigger mistake was made than to not kick a field goal late in the third quarter facing fourth down on the Giants’ 32. New England had a chance to go up 10-3 at the time, perhaps eventually forcing overtime given how the game itself actually transpired, but Belichick’s pride got the better of him. Like the video gamer (not an inappropriate analogy given how great the Patriots’ offence was) who saw a previously potent offence get derailed dead in its tracks, Belichick refused to abide by common sense and take the points, thinking that all his offence needed to get kick-started was one more play. However, this wasn’t “Madden 08” but Super XLII, and no matter how good New England was, winning would have to come with decisions grounded in reality. The decision was uncharacteristic for the Patriots, who would continue to make more blunders as the game progressed, most notably on their final drive when Brady insisted on completing one last bomb instead of completing first downs on out routes considering he had 30 seconds and a full compliment of timeouts (not to mention only needing a field goal to force overtime). The moves wreaked of a team used to completing “the big play” trying to force it to happen instead of keeping it simple, forgetting that the big plays work themselves out of the simple ones. That is ultimately why they lost, and credit for that goes to the Giants who took away New England’s big play capabilities and forced the Patriots into the simple plays they were just unwilling to do (but New York was). It should be no surprise that it was the Giants winning the day and spoiling what would have been New England’s greatest achievement- instead, with an aging team (especially on defence) and a snail’s chance this pinnacle can ever be breached again- it will amount to New England’s greatest loss.

-DG

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