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

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