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Jimmy Butler’s Steep Improvement a Pleasant Surprise for Marquette

Not much was known about head coach Buzz Williams’ first recruiting class as head coach of the Marquette Golden Eagles.  Recruited by Tom Crean, freshman Chris Otule and sophomore Joe Fulce were nice additions but not expected to take over as an overpowering recruiting class.  Williams wound up making his first splash in the recruiting process when he filled Scott Christopherson’s spot with sophomore Jimmy Butler, who was Fulce’s teammate at Tyler Community College.

The 6’5″ wing from Tomball, Texas signed in April and was supposed to be a versatile player who could guard three positions and, at the very least, balance out the recruiting class.  Almost two years later, Butler has gone from late add-on to the Golden Eagles’ most important player.

Butler chose to take the junior college route out of high school after fully qualifying but failing to receive a scholarship from his top choice Missisippi State.  Rather than taking a low Division I offer or enrolling in prep school, Butler found himself at Tyler Community College.

In his first year at TCC, Butler burst onto the scene, averaging 18.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game for the Apaches, who finished the season ranked 10th in the country.  After receiving offers from Kentucky, Clemson, Missisippi State and Iowa State, Butler chose to hop on board with his JUCO teammate Fulce and Marquette.

With seniors Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews, and Dominic James and junior Lazar Hayward averaging more than 30 minutes per game in the starting lineup, Butler struggled to find minutes during the early portion of his freshman year.  He averaged just over 16 minutes per game in non-conference play, primarily as Marquette’s second man off the bench behind sophomore Pat Hazel.

He looked lost on offense and got rid of the ball faster than most announcers could acknowledge he even had the ball, and on defense he was slow on the perimeter and committed silly fouls that questioned his basketball IQ.

But as Big East play rolled in, and games went from three point contests against Houston Baptist to grind it out, physical boxing matches against Villanova, Butler proved the early struggles were growing pains and not trends.

Pegged as a guard out of junior college, pre-season injuries to Fulce and Otule meant more time down low for the 6’5″ Butler.  But he constantly battled inside with the best in the Big East, and became one of Marquette’s hardest working and most talented interior defenders.  The size wasn’t there, but the heart sure was.

Jimmy Butler has gone from bench player to right hand man for senior Lazar Hayward. (AP Photo/Thomas Cain)

Butler capped off the 2008-2009 season with great efficiency on offense and shut down defense, including a season-high 19-point performance in Marquette’s Big East Tournament loss to Villanova.

With his rookie season under his belt and three of Marquette’s all-time greats off the roster, Butler knew that his role would have to increase both on the court and off it in 2009.  The buzz all summer was that Butler had taken on a leadership role, improved his outside game, and become Hayward’s right-hand man.

With the high expectations floating all around campus, fans expected improvement during Butler’s junior season.  What they didn’t expect was a completely different player that has truly been the glue to Marquette’s roller coaster season.

Looking back, you wouldn’t recognize the sophomore Jimmy Butler, getting beat off the dribble by smaller guards and being outworked in the paint.  Rather, Butler has taken on the daunting task of matching up with the opposing team’s best player on most nights.  He has earned praise from Buzz as Marquette’s best on the ball defender, leads the team in blocks, and is second in rebounds to Hayward.

On offense, Butler’s efficiency is once again through the roof as the Pomeroy Rankings have Butler listed as the third most efficient player offensively in the country.  He averages a ridiculous 1.90 points per shot (second on the team is Maurice Acker at 1.40, Hayward’s is 1.17), he has made 32 more free throws than any other Marquette player has attempted, ranks fifth in the Big East shooting 58 percent from the floor, and his 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio is third on the team behind Maurice Acker and David Cubillan.

Taking nothing away from Hayward or the fantastic senior season he is putting together, but there are more trends that suggest Marquette goes as Butler goes.  Hayward actually averages more points in the team’s losses (18.5) than in their wins (16.4).  On the other hand, Butler has averaged 12.4 points per game in Marquette’s eight losses, while posting 16.7 points per game in their 13 wins.

There’s no question who Marquette’s best player is: Lazar Hayward.  Whenever the game is on the line, Hayward is the one expected to carry the rest of the team on his back and make or break a game.  Even Butler admitted, in a pre-season interview with me, that seeing Hayward make the tournament in his senior year is “all I live for right now.”

But as it goes with Marquette’s style of play, the most important player on the court is the one forced to play out of position and grind the whole game without many of the headlines.  Think about it: how many times have you seen Butler’s box score and thought to yourself, “wow, I didn’t realize he had 16 points”?

He might get the headlines after a game-winning bucket to beat UConn in Hartford, but for the most part Butler has flown under the radar while Hayward does a little bit of everything and Darius Johnson-Odom shoots the lights out from deep.

The comparison is much like Hayward was last season behind James, McNeal, and Matthews.  While Hayward averaged 16.8 points and 8.3 points, Marquette’s up-tempo offense meant the boys down low would be all but forgotten.

Butler will have his time to shine next season when he enjoys his senior season with his old teammate in Fulce, along with fellow-JUCO transfer Dwight Buycks. Butler’s improvement from last season to this has him as the leading candidate for most improved Player in the Big East and, even more importantly, has earned him the respect of teammates, coaches, and fans alike.

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January 30, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Kurt Warner Is a Hall of “Greater”, not “Famer”

The Hall of Fame is a spot for the best of the best.  The players who have stood their ground in their generation and competed consistently on such a high level that their success is undeniable.  Despite being America’s typical “you can do anything you can set your mind to”, Kurt Warner does not fit that description and does not deserve to be a Hall of Famer.

Warner announced Friday morning that he was retiring from the NFL after 12 seasons.  In one of the most peculiar roller coaster rides the NFL has ever seen, Warner went from practice squad quarterback to grocery bagger to Arena League star to NFL Europe star to Super Bowl quarterback to no-name aging veteran to NFC champion.  Somewhere in between his rise to stardom, fall from grace, and climb back to the top, Warner put together fantastic numbers that put him in the conversation for one of the best quarterbacks of his generation.

But that does not make him a Hall of Famer.

To describe a Hall of Famer, especially a quarterback, it makes sense to look at every aspect of that player’s resume.  Sure, a player like Terry Bradshaw got into Canton primarily because of his four Super Bowl victories and Dan Marino received his ugly yellow jacket because he had managed to crush every major passing record by the time he hung his cleats up.

But for the rest of the bunch, we must take everything into account when determining their Hall of Fame credentials.

Check one for Warner: he is a Super Bowl winner.  After a dominating performance in Super Bowl 34, Warner joined the club of now 27 quarterbacks that have started and won a Super Bowl.  It’s not a necessity for a quarterback to win a Super Bowl to get in the Hall, but it sure helps.  Warner also made it to two other Super Bowls and has won 13 career playoff games.  In his three Super Bowl appearances, Warner recorded the highest mark for passing yards in all three.

Statistically, Warner ranks 26th all-time in passing yards, touchdowns, and pass completions.  While those numbers don’t scream Hall of Fame, they aren’t too shabby either.  Considering the circumstances Warner was put against, playing with three different teams and featuring low-points in his 12-year career, the numbers are impressive.

But wait just a minute, what was that about the low-point Warner went through? Since when do Hall of Famers disappear for five years in the middle of their career?  They don’t.

Kurt Warner's football career has been great, but not Hall of Fame-worthy. (AP Photo/Matt York)

From the years of 2002-2006, Warner did absolutely nothing to warrant even a starting gig, let alone the highest honor a football player can receive.  It began in St. Louis after Warner led the Rams to Super Bowl XXXVI, when he began the 2002 season with seven interceptions and just one touchdown as the Rams began the year 0-3.

Warner then broke his finger in the team’s next game and would only appear in two more games for the Rams, both of which Warner lost.  In 2003, Warner was replaced by Marc Bulger one game into the year after fumbling six times in the opener against the Giants.  He would play just two games that season before being released in the off-season.  Sound like a Hall of Famer to you?

Things got worse.

Two days after being released by St. Louis, the Giants signed Warner to a two-year deal to start over No. 1 overall pick Eli Manning.  Going 5-4 under Warner, New York switched to Manning and wound up winning just one more game the rest of the season.  That’s tally number two for quarterbacks Warner has been replaced with.  Hall of Fame-worthy?

The next stop would ultimately be his last, when Arizona signed him to a one-year, $4 million contract.    After three games, Warner injured his groin and was replaced by Josh McCown.  Head coach Dennis Green named Warner the starter for the rest of the season, but would then go back on his statement when McCown flopped.

Warner’s season again ended early, when he partially tore his MCL in a Week 15 game.  He finished that season with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions.  The 11 touchdowns would be the most Warner would throw in this five season downfall.

In 2006, Warner started the year off nicely but was replaced once again, this time by Matt Leinart in Week 4.  Warner would not play again until Week 16, when Leinart went down with an injury.

In that five year span, Warner was replaced by four quarterbacks and threw for a combined 27 touchdowns and 30 interceptions.  In no way should those five years define Warner, and ultimately no one will remember those years for Warner.  They will remember “the greatest show on turf” and Warner’s comeback to take the Cardinals back to the top.

In 12 years, Warner put together an outstanding career and was a feel-good story, going from grocery bagger to NFL Super Bowl MVP.  Outside of the five forgettable years, Warner’s other seven years were some of the best in NFL history.  But remember, the Hall of Fame looks at the whole resume.

It’s not called the Hall of Great, or even the Hall of Very Great.  Warner was Hall of Fame-worthy for seven years of his career, but not the other five.  Because of that, Warner’s bust should not be next to the greats in Canton.

January 29, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Allen Iverson Is Right To Keep His All Star Starting Spot

When the Eastern Conference All-Star Game starters were announced, there were the usual no-brainers that even casual NBA fans could have guessed had they looked at a ballot. Dwyane Wade. LeBron James. Allen Iverson. Dwight Howa—wait, who?

That’s right; all 32 minutes, 14 points, and four assists per game Allen Iverson will be on the court when the All-Star Game tips off later this month. For the 11th straight season, Iverson was voted into the ASG and this year he will make his third straight start while representing his third team in that span.

Fans across the nation were extremely upset at the decision, citing the fact that Iverson has played in just 19 games for two different teams as reason why others like Joe Johnson or Rajan Rondo should have got the nod as All Star starters. When asked what he would do regarding the All-Star Game, he said playing in it was a “no-brainer” and that he would be disrespecting the people who voted for him if he dropped out.

Allen Iverson might not be having an All Star season, but he is who the fans wanted to see. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

As much as fans want to be upset over the voting that took place and allowed Iverson to start, it’s equally ridiculous for fans to say that Iverson should give up his starting spot in the All-Star Game this February.

Based on the argument that the 10 most deserving players should be starters in the All- Star game, Iverson has no place being in the starting lineup with the likes of Wade, LeBron, Kobe, Carmelo, and other stars.

Once considered one of the greatest guards of all-time, Iverson now finds himself in a role position where he is more of an on-the-court tutor to Lou Williams and Jrue Holiday than anything. His 14.4 points and four assists per game are not terrible, but they hardly match up with the likes of a Joe Johnson (21 and five) or a Rajan Rondo (14 and 9.6).

However, the voting system used to select the starters does not follow the argument above. Because of this, Iverson deserves to be a starter in the game.

There is absolutely no question that the NBA All-Star Game voting process is flawed in the sense that rarely do the 10 most deserving players get to start in the game. However, the game is a complete exhibition, meaning nothing for home field advantage like in the MLB, and is voted on by the fans who ultimately watch the game or pay for tickets to attend the game.

The NBA All-Star Game is famously (or infamously) known for having less defense than a Nuggets-Suns game. If the game is close, it’s only because someone from the West hit as many 40-foot bombs as someone on the East, and LeBron James matched Carmelo Anthony dunk for dunk during the exhibition.

Because there are fewer players in the league than the NFL or the MLB, players in the NBA seem closer to each other and better friends with other players, especially the high-profile superstars. There is never any bad blood in the game and, more times than not, defenders get out of the way so they can get a better look at the dunk or three- pointer taking place.

So that’s reason No. 1 why Iverson should keep his spot. The game means absolutely nothing to everyone playing in it, as well as the coaches and general managers who watch it. Once the game is over, it will be stored away in the record books as a 150-140 shootout. Whoever tries the hardest and attempts the most shots will win the meaningless MVP award and the second half of the season will get underway.

The other reason Iverson deserves to start in the All Star Game is because the whole weekend is for the fans. Not only is it for the fans, but is even more so for the fans who actually care about the All-Star Game. It’s just my guess, but I believe the majority of basketball fans just want the All-Star Break to be over and for the games to get going again. At most, we want to see the dunk contest and Nate Robinson be in it for the 19th time in a row.

I personally don’t vote for the game because I don’t really care for it. I might watch the highlights to check out something LeBron did that made my jaw hit the floor in amazement (it’s becoming a weekly occurrence. Take note, Kobe). But for the most part, the game itself means nothing to me. If someone asks who I voted for, I’d rather tell them who I think should be the first team All-NBA.

Should Carmelo Anthony, who has been slightly outplayed by Kevin Durant, give up his starting spot? (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

So for the people who actually voted for the starters, the majority are going to get to see the man they voted for: Allen Iverson. This is the classic argument of “if you don’t like something, do something to change it.” I don’t believe we are hearing anything from the over 1.2 million people who voted Iverson to be a starter.

And what if Iverson did decide to give up his starting spot? Should Vince Carter, the next guard in line with 1 million+ votes get the starting nod? Carter is averaging a career low in minutes, shooting a career low 38 percent from the field (not a typo, actually 38 percent), and is averaging career lows in just about every other category.

The stats don’t matchup for Iverson to be starting and the trickle effect means that someone will be left off the roster in this year’s game. But then again, few arguments can be made for the who got snubbed as the 14th best player in the Eastern Conference.

Let the voting process be a popularity contest because as long as this continues, the fans get to watch who they want in a meaningless exhibition. Sure, players take it personally when they get to say they started or appeared in an All-Star Game, but the importance of the game is the same as a theatre performance with no script.

The fans wanted to see Allen Iverson in this year’s All Star Game. It’s not like this is Steve Blake or Earl Boykins who got voted in. This is one of the better players of our generation, who can easily turn it on at any point and play to a superstar level, who we will get to see maybe for the last time in the game.  Play on, AI.

January 23, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Green Bay Packers Biggest Draft Needs: Offensive Line

In part one of our Packers’ offseason special, we’ll take a look at the team’s draft needs. The number one need for the Packers in 2010 is far and away the offensive line. In 2009, the position was a bit of a question mark due to age concerns on both ends of the spectrum. At left tackle, Chad Clifton was entering his 10th season fresh off a year of lingering injuries, while Allen Barbre was preparing to make his first start ever at right tackle.

Clifton would wind up missing four games and Barbre was ousted by free agent pick-up Mark Tauscher seven weeks into the season. Left tackle replacements Daryn Colledge and T.J. Lang had trouble adjusting to the position when Clifton sat with an ankle injury and do not seem like long-term replacements; the verdict is still out on Barbre.

The aforementioned Tauscher came in as an important stopgap, starting nine of the team’s last ten games and improving the right side of the line considerably. Just like Clifton, Tauscher’s age and health are concerns. Neither can be considered starters longer than next year, at the latest.

Inside, the guard position was expected to be one of the stronger positions on the line, but left guard Daryn Colledge regressed in 2009, putting his future with the Packers in jeopardy. He started all 16 games but allowed eight sacks and provided little in the run game. Once projected to take over for Clifton at left tackle, Colledge’s future is at risk if he can not prove last year was just a fluke.

Keeping the offensive line afloat in 2009 was right guard Josh Sitton, who put together a Pro Bowl-caliber season while starting all 16 games for the Packers. Sitton allowed just three sacks, less than Pro Bowler Steve Hutchinson, and was the go-to-guy on the majority of run plays. With the way he played last season, it’s safe to say the right guard position in Green Bay is locked up for years to come.

The Packers' offensive line saw a major improvement when Mark Tauscher was signed. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)

Jason Spitz was expected to make a splash on the line, but a back injury in November cut his season short. Scott Wells took over, putting together an average season in 2009. He didn’t make the Packers worse, but he certainly didn’t make them any better either. Wells will again fight for his starting role with Spitz, assuming Spitz is brought back.

Spitz and Colledge are both restricted free agents, so both are expected to be back. However, the presence of T.J. Lang could make things interesting and shake up the rest of the line. Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher are also free agents, which is where the offseason will come into play.

If the Packers feel Lang is ready to start at guard or right tackle next season, it is possible Tauscher, Spitz, or Colledge could get the ax. However, the most likely outcome from the offseason is that Tauscher will be brought back to start at right tackle, and Spitz will be back to compete at center. Colledge was Green Bay’s best offensive lineman in 2008 and still has room for improvement.

Ted Thompson has a lot of players he wants to secure, and he more than likely will not overpay for a left tackle. Combine that with his love for mid-round offensive linemen and there is no reason to believe he will do much during free agency.

The Packers might be able to survive 2010 with their current offensive line, but beyond that there are major question marks. The Packers have the 23rd pick in the first round of the draft next year; at this position there should be a left tackle available if everything goes according to plan.

Oklahoma State’s Russell Okung and Maryland’s Bruce Campbell are at the top of the draft board, while Rutgers’ Anthony Davis is also expected to be off the board when the Packers pick. After those three, Iowa’s Bryan Bulaga, Southern Cal’s Charles Brown, and Oklahoma’s Trent Williams are all options.

Two things will determine whether or not the Packers go with a left tackle in the first round next year: Clifton’s health and ability to play another season, and the mid-round prospects that interest Thompson. Since 2000, Thompson has never used his first selection on an offensive lineman.

Thompson has had little success through free agency when it comes to offensive linemen, and with five of his current players in need of contracts, he probably won’t dip into free agency. It is still too early to predict who Thompson will pick, because there are sure to be risers and fallers after the Senior Bowl and Combine, but offensive line is one of his favorite positions to go for later in the draft.

The Packers will surely take at least one offensive lineman in the draft, and it would be no surprise to see one or two more holding up Packers’ jerseys come April.

January 23, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Marquette Guards Soar In Win Over Providence

This article was first posted on MarquetteHoops.com.  Check it out for all the latest Marquette Basketball news!

MILWAUKEE – After four-straight games against top-15 opponents to open the Big East season, Marquette was happy to finally play someone outside the top 25.

No one was happier than Darius Johnson-Odom and Maurice Acker, who both finished with career highs in points, as the Marquette Golden Eagles defeated the Providence Friars, 93-63, Sunday afternoon.

Johnson-Odom put on a clinic in the first half, surpassing his career high of 18 by halftime, with 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting, and helping Marquette to a 45-29 lead at intermission.

“I think it was my energy,” Johnson-Odom said of his performance.  “With not playing for a week and our last game being a loss, you want to come out with a lot of energy.  We had a lot of passion and emotion in this game,”

Acker was on fire throughout the game, connecting on eight-of-nine field goal attempts and nailing all six of his three-point baskets.  Shooting under 40 percent in his collegiate career, Acker was spot-on the whole game, with his only miss coming on a lay-up in the second half with the game easily out of reach.

“I think that over the last six to eight days, [Acker] kind of got the senioritis bug, in a positive way,” MU head coach Buzz Williams said.  “Similar to what [Hayward] and [David Cubillan] have had since finals ended.  They realize that their careers are about to come to a close, and they’re not doing anything out of selfish ambition.”

Marquette shot a blistering 59 percent from the field in the first half, including 8-of-13 from beyond the arc, thanks to Johnson-Odom’s 4-of-6 effort.

“I don’t know that we took a bad shot today,” Williams said. “And I think that’s very hard to do within the multiple changing defenses in the full court and in the half court, the way Providence plays.”

Maurice Acker connected on eight of his nine shots, including all six of his three-pointers.

Late in the first half, Joe Fulce and Bilal Dixon got caught up in a scuffle coming down the court and Fulce was called for a technical foul.  After a long delay, the referees determined Providence’s Jamine Peterson had thrown an elbow at Fulce, and he was ejected from the game.  The Friars leading scorer and rebounder finished the game with nine points in just 18 minutes.

Providence never recovered after losing Peterson, and was outscored 50-36 after the ejection and outrebounded by 11 for the game.

In the second half, it was the seniors’ turn to steal the show as Maurice Acker scored 15 points and Lazar Hayward added 17 of his own.  Hayward finished the game with 22.

Marquette burst out of the gates with an 11-2 run to open the half, capped off by an Acker three-pointer to give Marquette a 57-31 advantage.  After that, the Golden Eagles used an array of three pointers, slam dunks, and stingy defense to add to the rout.

After a week between games, Marquette showed no signs of rust and topped season-highs in multiple categories for the game, including field goal percentage (61.4 percent), three-pointers (13), three-point percentage (62 percent), and points in a Big East contest.

“Basically, all we can do it keep doing what we’re doing, and that’s working every day.”  Acker said. “We want to be one of the top teams in the conference and surprise a lot of people, and in order to do that, we’re going to need to work.”

Providence was held to just 38 percent from the field and a season-low 63 points, despite a career high 24 from freshman Vincent Council.  The loss moves the Friars to 3-3 in conference play.

Marquette improves to 2-3 in conference play and will take on the Depaul Blue Demons Wednesday night in Chicago.

NOTES: Maurice Acker’s six three-pointers made was a career high… David Cubillan dished out a career-high seven assists… freshman Junior Cadougan has been cleared to play and was available off the bench if needed.

January 18, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Green Bay Packers Biggest Draft Needs

In a six-part series to kick off the the 2010 off-season for the Packers, we jump into the needs for the Packers.  In part one, we will go over the biggest needs for the Packers and then break them all down over the next few weeks.

It was a solid season for the Packers, finishing 11-5 and losing a heartbreaker to the Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs.  While the youngest team in the league is set at some positions, they need help at others.  Here are the top five positions Ted Thompson will need to address in 2010.

1. Offensive Line

The Packers’ offensive line played much better the second half of the season, but that doesn’t mean they are ready to succeed in 2010.  Age is an issue at both tackle positions as left tackle Chad Clifton (will be 34 next season) and Mark Tauscher (will be 33 next season) can not be expected to hold up much longer.  There is a chance both will remain starters next season, but the Packers will need to look for a replacement on day one.  T.J. Lang showed some promise on the outside but doesn’t seem to be the long-term answer at tackle as much as he does at guard.

2. Cornerback

It had been a valiant from the Packers’ secondary to survive as long as they had without veteran Al Harris, but it was clear he was sorely missed in the playoff loss to the Cardinals.  Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson and up-and-comer Tramon Williams would make one think the Packers do not need help here, but depth is a huge issue.  Harris should be back next season but Jarrett Bush is a special teamer at best, Pat Lee can not stay healthy, and Branden Underwood is still finding his way.

Clay Matthews was fantastic for the Packers at outside linebacker, but they could still use some depth. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

3. Outside Linebacker

Ted Thompson struck gold in last season’s draft as he found two eventual starters in Clay Matthews and Brad Jones, but depth remains a question.  Matthews seems like a long-term starter but the verdict is still out on Jones.  Past the two of them, Aaron Kampman’s future in Green Bay is up in the air and Brady Poppinga has not fit in to the 3-4 defense as well as expected.  Also, Jeremy Thompson’s neck injuries could cost him his NFL career, making an outside linebacker a need.

4. Strong Safety

Atari Bigby had an average season before bursting out for three interceptions in the last two weeks, but they came at the expense of Matt Hasselback and Matt Leinart.  He missed three games due to injury and back-up Matt Giordano is…well, Matt Giordano.  Finding a back-up that can also play special teams would be a good pick, and finding a starter would be even better.

5. Running Back

Ryan Grant is the most underrated running back in the NFL and should have been a Pro Bowler this season, but after him there are a lot of question marks.  Brandon Jackson had a breakout game against the Seahawks but is nothing more than a good pass-blocker and average third down back.  Ahman Green was solid but he is slowing fast and can not be expected to give much more than another year.  The Packers could desperately use a speed back and someone that could potentially return punts and kicks.

Others on the list:

Punter: The Packers recently signed Tim Masthay to compete (or take over) with Jeremy Kapinos, who struggled mightily all season.  Since John Ryan left for Seattle, the Packers have struggled in the punting department and made things harder on the defense.

Defensive Line: The question mark that is Justin Harrell makes defensive line a potential issue heading into 2010 and a 3-4 defense can never have too many good defensive linemen to rotate.  Ryan Pickett should be back next season, but if he is not the Packers will need to look for another nose tackle.

January 15, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Lane Kiffin The Right Choice For the USC Trojans

When Pete Carroll took the Seattle Seahawks head coaching job, a spot that “came out of nowhere,” the USC Trojans knew a viable replacement would need to come fast. An up-and-down 2009 season saw the Trojans gut out a victory against No. 8 Ohio State before losing to unranked Washington and ultimately losing their Pac-10 Championship hopes with a loss to Oregon.

The disappointing year was capped off with an ugly loss to Toby Gerhart and Stanford and a lackluster win over Boston College in the Emerald Bowl.

Carroll then bolted for the Seahawks job despite holding on to one of the best jobs in the nation, a top incoming recruiting class, and an up-and-coming sophomore quarterback in Matt Barkley. Carroll, always looking for a challenge, took the job and left the Trojans without their head coach and offensive coordinator, taking Jeremy Bates with him as well.

Little did Carroll know that his job change would only be the second biggest surprise of the coaching carousel week. It was announced Monday that former USC coordinator Lane Kiffin had agreed to become USC’s new head coach. The former head of the Tennessee Volunteers lasted just 14 months in Knoxville before bolting for the top spot at the school he once ran the offense for.

With names like Jack Del Rio and Kirk Ferentz being linked to the Trojans, Kiffin comes as somewhat of a shock. However, despite the uncertainty of Kiffin and his controversial comments while at Tennessee, he is the right man to take over the USC Trojans and lead them back to the promised land, a national championship.

Despite being the head coach of the Trojans for less than 24 hours, Kiffin is already assembling one of the better coaching staffs in the nation. His father and defensive genius, Monte Kiffin, will follow his son and run the same Tampa-two defense that became so powerful in Tampa Bay and Tennessee. Known for their defensive prowess over the course of Carroll’s term, the elder Kiffin will keep the Trojans at the top.

Lane Kiffin should be a perfect fit at USC. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)

The other big story of Kiffin’s short term is the potential signing of Norm Chow as offensive coordinator. Chow led the Trojans’ offense from 2001-2004, including the 2003 AP National Championship and the 2004 BCS Championship. His stint with the Titans was successful, and if Chow leaves rival UCLA for the Trojans it is sure to stoke the Los Angeles rivalry even more, something Kiffin is sure to be happy about.

Ed Orgeron returns to the Trojans as associate head coach, recruiting coordinator, and defensive line coach. Orgeron was named the National Recruiter of the Year in 2004 and has a storied past as a fantastic talent evaluator. He is sure to add a great mind to Kiffin’s staff.

Speaking of recruiting, Kiffin has plenty of it and comes in at a perfect time, with National Signing Day just three weeks away. In his first year of recruiting with the Volunteers, Kiffin brought in a top-10 class and had one of the top classes again in 2010 before leaving.

The question regarding Carroll’s departure was whether or not some of his own top-10 recruiting class would look elsewhere. With the addition of the energetic and fun-to-play-for Kiffin, those recruits now seem safe. In fact, the real question is regarding Tennesse’s former commitments and whether or not they will look elsewhere to play their collegiate ball.

Kiffin overachieved in his first year with the Volunteers, leading them to a 7-6 record and an invitation to the Chick-fil-A Bowl. While his coaching resume isn’t the greatest and somewhat of a question mark, the staff around Kiffin and the change of scenery is something the Trojans have to look forward to.

The new scene Kiffin is arriving at is not all fun and games, however, as the Trojans are currently under an NCAA investigation with alleged violations during the Reggie Bush years, when Kiffin was an assistant on staff. Making the situation at USC even shakier is Kiffin’s history during his short tenure at Tennessee.

In the year he was with Tennessee, the school reported six minor NCAA violations, including the mentioning of recruit’s names on the radio, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. Three of Kiffin’s players were also charged in an attempted robbery on campus, including the infamous Nu’Keese Richardson.

The standout wide receiver was the center of attention when Kiffin claimed Florida’s Urban Meyer was calling Richarson on his official visit to Tennessee. Never shy to speak his mind, Kiffin will have to make sure he stays the course at USC, where he is sure to be under the spotlight.

Even though Kiffin has had controversy in the media and is somewhat of an unknown on the field, he adds a brand new dimension to the Trojans football team. His youth, energy, and knowledge is something both current players and recruits can relate to, and it should result in a healthy relationship at The University of Southern California.

January 13, 2010 Posted by | College Football, Football, USC Trojans | , , , , | Leave a comment

NFL First Round Mock Draft, Picks 11-20

NFL First Round Mock Draft, Picks 1-10

11. Jacksonville Jaguars: Tim Tebow, QB, Florida

In case you haven’t seen Jacksonville’s attendance numbers, they rival the Raiders and Lions for the worst in the league, and this is coming from a team that almost made the playoffs this year.  Tebow is the ultimate gamer and, regardless of how he performs on the field, is a great person to have in the locker room and be part of your franchise.  He needs work for sure, but could wind up being a solid quarterback in the pros.  He sure has the work ethic.

12. Miami Dolphins: Dez Bryant, WR, Oklahoma State

It would go against Bill Parcells’ nature to take a wide receiver in the first round, but Bryant has the skills to help the Dolphins at the next level.  Their defense played well this year and I believe they have their future quarterback in Chad Henne.  With the Wildcat still dominating, all that’s left is a true No. 1 receiver, which Bryant can be.

13. San Francisco 49er’s: Joe Haden, CB, Florida

The 49er’s are very likely to target a left tackle in the first round (they also have the 17th pick), but Haden is way too good of value to pass up here.  It would be no surprise to see the lock-down Gator go higher than 13th, but he would be an instant upgrade to the secondary of the Niners, which ranked 21st in the league last season.

14. Seattle Seahawks: Jevan Snead, QB, Ole Miss

Admittedly, I do not know what Seattle’s cap numbers are like, but if they are able to pay a top-6 tackle and a quarterback, this could be a new beginning for the Seattle.  Snead declared after my top 10 was complete (he might go ahead of Bradford), but Seattle can have Hasselback teach Snead over the next few years before throwing him into the fire, much like Hasselback himself was brought up beneath Brett Favre.

15. New York Giants: Brian Price, DT, UCLA

Price just declared for the draft and for good reason, too.  He finished the year with seven sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss.  The Giants struggled on defense last year, in part because of Kenny Phillips, and there are a couple ways they could go.  Price gives them a run stuffer but will need to improve his conditioning.

16. Tennessee Titans: Carlos Dunlap, DE, Florida

One of my favorite prospects in this draft, Dunlap fills a need for the Titans and gives them a 6’6″, 290-pound, relentless pass rusher.  After losing Albert Haynesworth, the Titans

17. San Francisco 49er’s: Bryan Baluga, LT, Iowa

I have a good amount of left tackles going in the early portion of round one, and if that happens then the Niners will need to reach on Baluga.  While a first round prospect, the Iowa left tackle is a step below the top-tier tackles in the draft.  Left tackle is a huge need for the Niners and, going with Haden earlier in round one means they must go offensive line with this pick.  Baluga is that player.

18. Pittsburgh Steelers: Earl Thomas, FS, Texas

Taylor Mays would be a better pick in this situation and is probably the better player, but with Troy Polomalu manning the strong safety spot and Ryan Clark and Tyrone Carter potentially bolting for free agency, they go with Thomas.  As the best free safety and ballhawk in this year’s draft, Thomas is an upgrade and could tag-team with Polomalu as one of the best safety duos in the league.

19. Atlanta Falcons: Taylor Mays, S, Southern California

The Falcons ranked 28th in pass defense last season and need a huge upgrade in the secondary.  Southern Cal’s lackluster season has Mays dropping, but I fully expect him to be back in the top 10-15 by the time the draft rolls around.  For now, the Falcons take the best remaining safety, and a darn good one at that.

20. Houston Texans: Dan Williams, DT, Tennessee

The Texans might lose Kevin Walter to free agency after this year, but if he comes back then defensive tackle is the next biggest need.  Williams led one of the best defensive units in the nation last season alongside Eric Berry and would upgrade Houston’s line immediately.

January 12, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Packers Strengths Become Thier Weaknesses in Loss to Cardinals

Throughout the regular season, the Green Bay Packers excelled in two key areas that led them to an 11-5 record and a Wildcard berth in the playoffs.  Those areas, turnover margin and pass defense, were staples of the team and categories the Packers found themselves near the top of the league in the majority of the year.

However, in Sunday’s 51-45 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, the Packers were careless with the ball and allowed quarterback Kurt Warner to pass for some of the best stats in his storied playoff career.  Turnovers and pass defense, the two areas the Packers thrived in during the year, killed the Packers’ chances and were ultimately the reason the Packers packed for home instead of New Orleans.

In the 2009 regular season, the Packers finished with a +22 turnover margin, meaning they took the ball away 22 more times on defense than they gave it away on offense.  The number was the highest since San Diego’s +24 mark in 2007, and the third highest in the NFL since 2002.  The second closest team was Philadelphia, who had a +15 turnover margin.

The Packers had a league-low 15 giveaways in the form of just seven interceptions and eight fumbles and were second to just the Saints in takeaways with 37.  The combination of Aaron Rodgers taking chances only when necessary, combined with the playmaking abilities of Charles Woodson made a perfect recipe for turnover margin.

Sunday, the Packers failed to take care of the ball and offense and, outside of a couple forced fumbles, never put the Cardinals in situations where they would have turned the ball over.  Nothing should be taken away from Aaron Rodgers, who performed admirably and grew from inexperienced passer to professional quarterback in the span of three and a half hours, but his interception to start the game turned the momentum completely.

Hopefully it will be a trivia question one day when Rodgers is in Canton, but for now the careless interception, his first career attempt in the playoffs, marks a swing in a game that came down to who had the ball last.  The weirdest part about the interception was that it was so anti-Rodgers, on the run forcing a throw into traffic instead of living to fight another day.  After throwing just seven interceptions on 541 pass attempts, it was confusing to see that play.

Then came Donald Driver on the team’s next possession, who caught a pass from Rodgers but was stripped by Karlos Dansby (who tipped the ball on Rodgers’ interception).  Driver started off the year on a tear but dropped passes and fumbles (he lost two on the year) cost the Packers, especially against the Cardinals who wound up getting seven more points out of the fumble.

The last turnover of the game for the Packers was clearly the most costly, as Rodgers was hit and sacked by cornerback Michael Adams, before (guess who?) Karlos Dansby ran the returned the fumble 27 yards for the game-ending touchdown.

While it wasn’t Rodgers fault for the stellar defensive play, it marked the Packers’ third turnover compared to the Cardinals’ one, a fumble by Larry Fitzgerald on an outstanding play by Charles Woodson that was returned by Clay Matthews.  The rookie from Southern California also stripped Kurt Warner on a botched flea-flicker, but the ball was recovered by Arizona.

A pitiful effort was not the way the Packers' defense wanted to end the season. (AP Photo/Matt York)

While the Packers failed to intercept Warner in the game, it was their inability to stop him in any sense that left the Green Bay faithful scratching their heads wondering if they were watching the same defense.  The old saying in football is that in order to win in January, you have to run the ball.  Well, in Sunny Glendale with a roof over your head, Warner and the Cards found out passing the ball is what wins games.

Don’t forget the Cardinals were able to reel off 156 rushing yards in the game, but the real story was the Packers failing to stop Warner through the air.  By the end of the game, Warner had more touchdowns (5) than incompletions (4).  He passed for 379 yards and a ridiculous 11.5 yards per attempt, and it would have been higher had Beanie Wells not had his way on the ground.

When playing against a defense like the Packers, having a quarterback who is both poised and accurate makes for a perfect combination.  When pressure came to Warner, he knew exactly where to find his checkdowns and hit them right in stride.  Knowing for jumping routes, the Packers’ secondary could not do so against Warner’s precise passes that beat them up for four quarters.

For the last six weeks of the regular season, the Packers seemingly forgot about Al Harris because of how well the defense was playing.  But against a Hall of Fame quarterback at home in the playoffs, the likes of Jarrett Bush, Brandon Underwood, and even starter Tramon Williams were no match, regardless of how much pressure was brought at the Arizona signal-caller.  Atari Bigby leaving with a hamstring injury only made things worse for the pass defense, as Matt Giordano, a special teamer, was asked to stop Warner’s hot hand at strong safety.

Two aspects that made the Packers one of the most efficient teams in the league were the same things that led to their demise in the playoffs.  One has to consider the playoff game a hiccup rather than the whole season a fluke because of the consistent numbers put up by the defense, but it’s still a shame to see a once confident defense end the season with their tail between their legs.

January 11, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Saturday’s NFL Matchups: Eagles, Bengals Will Come Out on Top

New York Jets vs. Cincinnati Bengals

The main story of this game is whether or not last Sunday’s game was a fluke or not.  The Jets played outstanding against the Bengals, who were resting their starters, and won 37-0 as Giants Stadium was closed for good.  While the Bengals did not show much, the huge victory could be seen as a momentum shifter.

The Jets sport, in my opinion, the league’s best defense with one of the best defenders in Darrelle Revis, meaning the Bengals surprise season could be in doubt.  Carson Palmer remembers his last playoff experience, but for all the wrong reasons.

Early in a 2005 matchup against the Steelers, Palmer suffered a knee injury that doctors said was potentially career-ending.  Back in the playoffs, a rejuvenated Bengals team looks to win their first playoff game since 1991.

If they want to win, running back Cedric Benson will have to step up and continue to carry the load.  The Jets allowed just 154 yards per game through the air, and teams threw for just eight touchdowns against them all season.  Teams did not fare much better on the ground, as the Jets ranked eighth in that department.

With Revis expected to blanket Chad Ochocinco all game, Benson will have to soften up the defense and make New York put eight men in the box.  If they can do this, they will have success.

The Jet's defense has been tops in the league all year, and Darrelle Revis is the reason why. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Another reason the Bengals might have success is the fact that they go up against a rookie quarterback in Mark Sanchez.  At times this season Sanchez struggled mightily, but overall he has been a solid game manager for the league’s best ground game.

Cincinnati is no slouch on the defensive end, ranking seventh against the rush and fourth overall.  With snow expected to be on the ground in Cincinnati, both teams will need to establish the run early.  If Sanchez is able to limit mistakes and Revis leads the defense like he has all year, an upset could be in store.

Palmer needs to shake off his late-season woes and step up in a huge game for the Bengals.  I believe a veteran Bengals team will come out and manage the ball better, leading to a close win in a defensive battle.  Bengals 17, Jets 14

Philadelphia Eagles vs. Dallas Cowboys

In a rematch from last Sunday’s Week 17 blowout, the Eagles look for revenge and head coach Andy Reid looks to improve to 8-0 in opening playoff games.  On the other end, Wade Phillips attempts to win his first playoff game (0-4) and the Cowboys try to win their first playoff game since 1996.  Something’s got to give in this NFC East battle, so let’s check out each team’s keys to victory on Saturday.

The Cowboys defeated the Eagles twice in the regular season, and history shows that teams who do that usually win the third time in the playoffs (11-for-17).  In those two victories, a common theme has been the quiet games of speedster Desean Jackson.  The Eagles’ wide receiver has been held to two catches for 29 yards and three catches for 47 yards in the two meetings, and the Eagles have been held to a combined 16 points in the two games.

Dallas ranks 20th in pass defense but has given up just 19 touchdowns through the air, ranking in the top ten.  Jackson’s ability to get free deep could be the key in this game for the Eagles’ offense, while shutting down the run will be equally important against the Cowboys.

Dallas ranks seventh in the league in rushing offense, headed by Marion Barber III and Felix Jones (not to mention Rashard Choice), all with a red-hot Tony Romo passing the ball.  The struggling Roy Williams has been bailed out by the emergence of Miles Austin, who has become Romo’s No. 1 wideout.

Romo passed for 300 yards in both contests against the Eagles but the Cowboys also rushed for 191 yards and a 5.6 average in Dallas Stadium this season, so if the Eagles expect to win it will come in the form of a shootout.  That might be possible as the Eagles have put up 30 or more points in seven different games this season.

The Eagles have scored just 70 points total in their five losses, an average of 14 points, while averaging over 32 points in their wins.  The answer is simple: if the Eagles score, they win.  I expect them to do that today as they win a true shootout in the South, 35-31 over the Cowboys.

January 9, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

RotoWorld.com Headlines, Edition I

Welcome to the first (of hopefully many) edition of RotoWorld.com headlines.  RotoWorld.com is a website that compiles just about every newspaper in America’s sports updates and gives a fantasy outlook on each.  They talk about all sports and I consider it one of the best websites around to get up-to-date opinions on fantasy sports, as well as sports in general.

What I am doing is taking the 12 headlines they post on their front page and giving my own opinion on eight of the headlines.  The headlines are pretty much what ESPN.com has but engulfs all sports.  So here we go.  Edition I of Rotoworld.com headlines.  Feel free to comment and give your own opinions and let me know what you think of this idea.

1. Boldin expected to be game-time decision

Arizona Cardinals’ wide receiver Anquan Boldin is battling a high sprained ankle as well as a sprained MCL, making him questionable at best for his first round matchup against the Packers.  If the Playoffs were not coming up, Boldin would surely sit out.  Even if he is able to play, he will not be at 100 percent and might be more of a hindrance than anything.

2. Report: Jags’ Del Rio not out of woods yet

After dropping their last four games, Jaguars’ head coach Jack Del Rio is suddenly on the hot seat.  He will meet with owner Wayne Weaver next week and interview for his job, and to me this makes sense.  Despite a promising start and a solid core of young players, expectations have not been met.  Del Rio’s time might be up in Jacksonville and there are some pretty big name coaches on the market right now.  If they go a different direction, this might be the year to do it.

3. Mariners acquire Kotchman from Sawx

Seattle traded Bill Hall and a PTBNL for Kasey Kotchman Thursday, marking a nice move for the Mariners.  With Chone Figgins in the picture, Hall was not the right fit in Seattle anymore and Kotchman, at just 27 years of age, could give the aging Mariners a solid defender and average bat.  For the Red Sox, the dumping of Kotchman is the end of a failed experiment.  He never fit in Boston and Hall has good utility potential.

Gilbert Arenas has played his last basketball game for quite a while after reports of him pulling a gun on teammate Javaris Crittendon. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

4. Browns decide to stay the course with Mangini

Mike Holmgren and the Browns have decided to stay with Eric Mangini next season.  The Browns won their last four contests and showed some promise in December, led by Jerome Harrison and Josh Cribbs (though he probably won’t be there).  A defensive mind, Mangini will need to improve the offense and keep the 3-4 defense alive.  A Mike Holmgren-run draft could do the trick next season and Brady Quinn will turn into a decent starting QB.  I like the move.

5. Colts pick Stover over Vinatieri for playoffs

The names might surprise people because of Vinatieri’s past Super Bowl field goals, but his injured knee combined with Stover’s excellent kicking (9-11) means the Colts are making the right move here.  It’s tough to see Vinatieri not kicking in the playoffs, even though he will remain on the roster, but Stover has had a great year and is comfortable kicking in a dome.

6. Details of Crittendon, Arenas standoff emerge

The new details include Arenas bringing guns to the locker room to “make it easy for [Crittendon] to shoot Arenas over a gambling argument”, but then Crittendon pulled out a loaded gun of his own, clearly not needing Arenas’s.  Crittendon’s gun was not found but WOW, if any of this is true, both these guys will be done for a long time.  It’s really a shame to see Arenas go down the toilet (to put it nicely), but bad judgment is going to cost him.  Looks like Arenas will be doing major blogging for a while instead of shooting a basketball.

7. Agent: Josh Cribbs to formally request trade

Josh Cribbs cleaned out his locker yesterday and believes he has played his last game as a Cleveland Brown.  It’s tough to argue against the game’s best return man here, as the Browns offered Cribbs just $1.4 million a year.  A lot of false promises were made to Cribbs by the front office and he has clearly had enough.  The list of suitors will be almost endless for Cribbs, who can return and is also a stud in the Wildcat offense.

8. Weis agrees to coordinate KC offense

Charlie Weis will be named the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator in the next couple of days, meaning a huge boost for the Chiefs’ 25th ranked offense.  Weis has had a ton of success on offense his whole coaching career and has a history of developing quarterbacks, meaning good things for Matt Cassell.  Notre Dame did not work out but Weis’s philosophy matches Todd Haley’s, so it will be interesting to see what happens next season.

January 8, 2010 Posted by | RotoWorld.com Headlines | Leave a comment

Packers-Cardinals: Q+A With Examiner Scott Jones

To gain some insight for the Packers’ upcoming game against the Cardinals in round one of the NFL Playoffs, I caught up with Cardinals Examiner Scott Jones.  I asked him five questions regarding his team, and these were his responses:

Mark Strotman: The injury bug has hit the Cardinals hard as of late. If Anquan Boldin, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Calais Campbell can not go, who fills in and how much of a dropoff is it at each spot?

Scott Jones: Boldin’s injury is generating the most attention, but the Cardinals have fared very well in games when he has not played. In fact, since 2008, the Cardinals are 5-1 without him in the lineup (that includes one playoff game last season). Of course with Larry Fitzgerald in the lineup, Kurt Warner does have other options. In those six games since 2008 when Boldin didn’t play, Fitzgerald has totaled 651 yards and nine TDs on 37 receptions. He has recorded 100+ receiving yards in each of the last four games he has played without Boldin.

Pro Bowler Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie did not practice Wednesday and his status is uncertain. The second-year cornerback is a major force in the Cardinals defense and in his potential absence, Michael Adams will be asked to step up. Adams has one interception this season compared to six from Rodgers-Cromartie. My sense is that if there’s any way DRC (as the team has nicknamed him) will go, he’ll be out there.

MS: The Packers have trouble with mobile quarterbacks but have feasted on pocket passers. How much faith do you have in your offensive line and Kurt Warner to fend off Clay Matthews and the Packers’ rush?

SJ: Kurt Warner isn’t exactly the most mobile quarterback in the league for sure. However, he’s a savvy veteran who can read defenses quickly and get the ball to the open receivers despite a heavy pass rush. The Cardinals have only given up 26 sacks the entire season (the Packers gave up 51 by comparison), so barring injury to an offensive lineman, Warner should have time to throw.

The emergence of the Cardinals ground game in the second half of the season will take some of the pressure off Warner – but not completely. I’d watch for swing passes out of the backfield to both Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells.

MS: Who would the Packers be wise to key on in the backfield this Sunday, Beanie Wells on the ground or Tim Hightower in the backfield?

The health of Anquan Boldin will be key for the Cards passing attack, but not as important as you might think. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

SJ: As I just mentioned, a growing wrinkle in the Cardinals offense is the delayed screen and toss to either Hightower or Wells coming out of the backfield. A little known Arizona stat is that Hightower was the team’s leading receiver through the first two weeks of the season. Wells runs with an attitude and can literally run over defenders. The Cardinals typically mix both backs into the game depending on the situation. The team’s long-range plans obviously center around Wells, who led the team with 793 yards rushing and scored seven touchdowns. Hightower, who burst onto the scene last season, actually led the team with eight rushing touchdowns.

The key to the Cardinals rushing attack is that they hold onto the ball. Both Hightower and Wells have had their trouble keeping a handle on the football. The Cardinals have long sought a sustained ground game to match the high-voltage passing attack. Should Arizona get a lead, watch for a steady dose of both Wells and Hightower.

MS: Defensively, the Cardinals played as vanilla as they could. Will they come after Aaron Rodgers on Sunday against an average offensive line or drop 7 or 8 men into coverage to try and stop the passing attack?

SJ: The Cardinals have developed a strong pass rush, logging 42 sacks as a team. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Darnell Dockett tied for the team lead with seven sacks (with Calais Campbell) and Bertrand Berry had six. The key to this game will be how much pressure they put on Aaron Rodgers. If they give him too much time to throw, he knows how to find the open receivers.

Defensive coordinator Bill Davis does like to gamble and bring safety Adrian Wilson up the middle. Wilson has two sacks, picked off five passes and recovered a pair of fumbles this season. If Rodgers-Cromartie is able to play, it frees Wilson (who will be playing in his second straight Pro Bowl later this month) to wreck havoc on the Packers offensive line.

MS: Ken Whisenhunt was clearly upset by the Packers supposedly “running up the score” on the Cardinals. He also took some offense to the Packers game-planning in the pre-season. Knowing Whisenhunt, was he actually upset about this or just looking for a rallying cry for his team to build off of?

SJ: Some would say that he deserved what he got by not playing his starters longer. But, since there was no advantage to playing everyone AND after watching Rodgers-Cromartie carted off the field on the third play of the game, most Cardinal watchers are enjoying watching Whisenhunt’s “chess game” with Packers’ Coach Mike McCarthy.

Whisenhunt knows his team. They typically respond very well following losses, especially blow-outs. They certainly learned some things about the Packers last weekend and likely will come out very prepared not to be embarrassed at home for a second straight week.

MS: Prediction of the game?

SJ: Recent history has shown the Cardinals to be a hard team to predict. You expect them to pass and they run. When they should run, they pass. This game will come down to two key questions:

1) Do the Cardinals get a decent pass rush on Aaron Rodgers? If they don’t, he’ll pick the depleted Arizona secondary apart and a repeat of last Sunday is likely.
2) Can the Cardinals generate and hold a lead? Boldin’s potential absence could have a modest effect on third downs, but if Beanie Wells steps up and helps the Cardinals control the clock, they could surprise some people.

January 7, 2010 Posted by | Football, NFL | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ken Whisenhunt: Packers Understand “You Play to Win the Game”

When the Green Bay Packers defeated the Arizona Cardinals 33-7 last Sunday, most spectators knew the score was more indicative of Packers head coach Mike McCarthy having a different philosophy than Ken Whisenhunt.  By kickoff, both teams had wrapped up their spots in the playoffs and, regardless of the Eagles/Cowboys game, the two teams were going to meet in the first round of the playoffs.

McCarthy chose to play the game as usual and keep his team in rhythm by playing his starters the majority of the game, while Whisenhunt chose to rest his starters and keep them fresh for the upcoming playoff matchup.  First, let’s break down both philosophies to try and understand why both coaches decided to do.

For Whisenhunt, a 38-year-old quarterback going up against one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFC from the blind side in Clay Matthews did not seem like the best fit, so Kurt Warner ended up playing just two series.  Outside of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, the Cardinals used back-ups for the majority of the game.

With such a veteran team, there was little to gain while playing at home against a team they were going to play the next week.  They had won three of their last five games, with the last two coming against the worst teams in the league in the Lions and Rams, so it’s not as if another week of rest was going to kill them.  Coming into the playoffs healthy is important after all, and Whisenhunt seemed to think resting his players was the right thing to do.

In McCarthy’s case, he was dealing with one of the hottest streaks in the NFL and one of the youngest teams at the same time.  Winners of six of seven heading into the game, McCarthy thought it wise to keep his team rolling by playing them the majority of the game to get them ready for the playoffs.

“We wanted to come out here to win the game, keep our razor sharp and gain some momentum going into the playoffs,” McCarthy said. “It didn’t matter who we were playing. I understand Arizona had a different agenda. … We like the way we played the last eight weeks and it was very important for us to maximize this opportunity.”

Both strategies have their pros and cons, but in no way is there a right way to deal with Week 17 when your team has clinched a playoff spot and can not move up or down.  Apparently everyone understands this except Ken Whisenhunt, who chastised McCarthy and the Packers for running up the score and focusing on stats instead of preparing the team for the playoff game.

“They had their plan,” Whisenhunt said. “I guess they felt good about what they were doing.”

Yes, Coach Whisenhunt.  The Packers sure did feel good about what they were doing in keeping the offense clicking, the defense fresh, and giving the special teams unit repetitions that they have needed the whole year.

In the NFL, there are two reasons for teams to play for victories: 1) to move up in the standings and better your chances of making the post-season and, 2) to gain momentum and have a better overall feeling of where your team stands.

Mike McCarthy's decision to play his starters should not be seen as running up the score. (AP Photo/Jim Prisching)

For 16 weeks, the Packers and Cardinals used both as reasons they played to win.  The first is  obvious as every team’s goal is to win as many games as they can and making the playoffs by season’s end.  The second is not so clear cut because teams usually do not think about the momentum they have as the season goes along.  But when it comes to the playoffs, having the feeling of winning in your blood as the second season rolls around is never a bad thing.

Whisenhunt also called out McCarthy for keeping his franchise quarterback in the game too long, in what he called “a meaningless game.”

“It’s something you would feel sick about had (Fitzgerald) gotten injured at the end, but I have no doubt in my mind that’s what Green Bay was trying to do with Aaron Rodgers (on Sunday) as far as the passing statistics, trying to get those things,” Whisenhunt said. “That’s part of it.”

So let me get this straight, coach.  Aaron Rodgers playing three quarters in a game the Packers needed to claim the No. 5 seed was all about stats, but your All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald catching a touchdown with just under three minutes left in a 33-point game was something else?

Please.

In fact, your other Pro Bowl wide receiver Anquan Boldin seemed to be playing just about every snap into the third quarter before he left with an ankle injury.  With a knee injury to go along with the ankle, Boldin’s status is now in doubt for the playoff game.  So is Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who injured his left knee tackling Jermichael Finley.

Ryan Pickett, Brandon Chillar, and special teams ace Derrick Martin were all inactive for the game Sunday, despite probably being able to play had it been a playoff game.  If McCarthy was looking to run up the score, wouldn’t he have played his best run-stopper, his “X-factor” on defense, and best special teamer?

Anyone who believes the Packers were trying to run up the score against the Cardinals is just foolish.  Whisenhunt also complained about McCarthy game-planning for the teams’ match-up in Week 3 of the Pre-season.  The Packers led that game 38-10 at half in what is known around the league as the most important exhibition game for starters.  Don’t forget about the youth of the Packers and McCarthy trying to get his young (and talented) players more reps before the actual season began.

A win is a win and Mike McCarthy understands that.  Instead of rolling into the playoffs having not played a game in two weeks, he kept his team focused and on the same schedule that won them seven of the last eight games.  Forget about McCarthy showing his hand and tendencies by playing his starters.  If Whisenhunt and the Cardinals don’t have enough film on the Packers already that they had to get it all last week, they didn’t stand a chance in the first place.

Let the Cardinals use McCarthy’s gameplan to use his starters  fuel them as bulletin board material as next week’s match-up rolls around.  After Whisenhunt’s comments, the Packers just got theirs.

January 6, 2010 Posted by | Football, Green Bay Packers, NFL, Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

NFL First Round Mock Draft, Picks 1-10

1. St. Louis Rams: Jimmy Clausen, QB, Notre Dame

After a completely dismal season under first year coach Steve Spagnuolo ended, the Rams were “awarded” with the first overall pick.  The question of whether the Rams should take Ndamukong Suh or Clausen will linger all year until the Rams actually make their pick, but with Marc Bulger’s contract off the books next season the Rams can not pass on a potential franchise quarterback.  Clausen has played in an NFL offense his entire career at Notre Dame and is as accurate as they come.

2. Detroit Lions: Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska

I was able to watch Suh play in the Big XII Championship against Texas and came away thoroughly impressed.  As it is most years with the Lions, they have multiple issues they can address with this pick.  Suh is the best player in the draft this year and will instantly make the Lions’ defense better, which ranked dead last in defense last season.  Suh gives Detroit as close to a non-bust pick as there is in this draft.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Gerald McCoy, DT, Oklahoma

The Buccaneers have multiple issues on their aging defense, and defensive line is at the top of the list. Their defense ranks 30th in rush defense and while McCoy is no Suh, he upgrades the defense and makes them younger on the line.  McCoy’s best attribute is his athleticism and ability to play against the run.  He has the potential to put up Warren Sapp-type numbers for the Bucs.

4. Washington Redskins: Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma

Back-to-back Sooners are taken in the first round as the Redskins try to do this whole franchise quarterback thing again.  With Mike Shanahan taking over for Jim Zorn next season, it makes sense for Washington to fully start the rebuilding process.  Bradford’s shoulder surgery should not scare off the Redskins because he has had ample time to recover and could go as high as first overall.

5. Kansas City Chiefs: Russell Okung, LT, Oklahoma State

Jimmy Clausen has all the tools to be the next best quarterback in the NFL. (AP Photo/Bahram Mark Sobhani, File)

The Chiefs drafted Branden Albert in the first round in 2007 to play left tackle, but that has not panned out as of now.  Okung is the premier left tackle in the draft this year and would start right away while moving Albert to the right side.  As the anchor of the Cowboys’ offensive line, Okung’s size (6’5″, 302 lbs.) makes him a great prospect.

6. Seattle Seahawks: Anthony Davis, LT, Rutgers

The Seahawks would likely take a look at either Clausen or Bradford and might move up in the draft if they feel either players are worthy of the picks, but for now they go with the best remaining left tackle.  Davis moved to left tackle in 2008 and saw his draft stock rise based on his excellent pass blocking skills.  Walter Jones is no longer what he once was, and Davis will be a huge upgrade.

7. Cleveland Browns: Eric Berry, S, Tennessee

Some may consider Berry the best defensive player in the draft based on pro potential, and it would not be a shocker to see Berry taken as high as the second overall pick.  Dubbed as the next Ed Reed and my favorite prospect in the draft, Berry does a little bit of everything and does it all very well.  Don’t be surprised to see Berry go third overall to the Bucs, who ran the “Tampa 2” in Tennessee.

8. Oakland Raiders: Derrick Morgan, DE, Georgia Tech

The Raiders have needs on offense that extend to just about every position, but Morgan is way too good of value to pass up here.  Outside of Richard Seymour, the Raiders have no pass rush on the outside, and that is exactly what Morgan specializes in.  While he might be a better fit for the 3-4, he is good enough to play in a three-point stance and be a versatile player for the Raiders.

9. Buffalo Bills: Trent Williams, LT, Oklahoma

When Jason Peters was traded to the Eagles, the Bills failed to replace him and the results showed.  Williams is currently the best left tackle left on the board and the Bills need to go with him.  A new coaching staff could sure use a franchise left tackle and, while a quarterback would be a good fit here, there are none worthy of a top ten pick outside of Clausen and Bradford.

10. Denver Broncos: Rolondo McClain, LB, Alabama

One of the main reasons Alabama will be playing in the National Championship in two days is because of McClain’s stellar defensive prowess.  He will excel inside in the Broncos’ 3-4 scheme with excellent tackling and even better instincts.  Elvis Dumervil has the stats to do it, but McClain will be the team leader on defense.

January 5, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Packers Nearing Perfection as Playoffs Arrive

All Green Bay Packers’ fans remember where they were on November 8th at about 3:20 CST.  Their favorite team had just been embarrassed by not only the ugliest team in the league, but the ugliest team wearing the ugliest jerseys in the league as the Buccaneers defeated the Packers 38-28.  Rookie Josh Freeman managed the game well in his first start as a pro, Aaron Rodgers wound up throwing for nearly half of his total interceptions in the game (three), and the defense allowed an 11-point 4th quarter lead slip away.

The loss put the Packers at 4-4 and seriously put into question head coach Mike McCarthy’s future with the team.  A stagnant and predictable offense, a vanilla defense that brought back shades of 2008, and a special teams unit that could not have stopped Ted Thompson if he was returning kicks all needed to be blamed on someone, and McCarthy looked like the guy.

The next week against the Cowboys, the offense was clicking, the defense was bringing pressure from every which way, and the special teams unit played as well as they had all season. Seven weeks later, the Packers sit at 11-5, winners of 7 of 8 (with a last second touchdown counting for the only loss) and primed for a deep playoff run in the suddenly wide open NFC.

Every team destined for greatness seems to have a turning point in their season, and there’s no question the loss against Tampa Bay was it for the Packers.  Whether it was being able to forget about the stress of competing for the NFC North as the Vikings went to 7-1, or just gaining a sense of urgency with a playoff spot in doubt, the Packers have been the NFC’s hottest team since the Tampa Bay game and are playing near perfect football as the second season begins.

Good teams have star players who make plays to keep their teams in ballgames and are responsible for the team winning one or two games every year.  Aaron Rodgers and Charles Woodson qualify as the Packers’ “star players” and games the Chicago home opener and the win against Dallas can be chalked up as games the Packers would not have won without Rodgers and Woodson.

However, teams that close in on perfection toward the end of the season do the little things correctly and have players that fly under the radar while performing at a high level.  Offensively, Jermichael Finley has moved from back-up tight end to a threat that can stretch the field and change games, Brandon Jackson has finally become a spell back with Ahman Green to make the running attack legitimate, and the offensive line has fought its way back to average, a place they were far from in Tampa Bay.

On special teams, newcomer Derrick Martin and Spencer “duct tape” Havner have made excellent contributions to a team that desperately needed them.  Mason Crosby has made his last three kicks, including a 52-yarder against Seattle, and coverage has been much better as of late.

Jermichael Finley's coming out party has meant huge things for the Packers' offense. (AP Photo/Jim Prisching)

The biggest story for the Packers doing the “little things” has been on defense, where injuries and lack of depth have meant players like Brad Jones and Tramon Williams have needed to step up, and they have.  When Al Harris and Aaron Kampman went down, it could have spelled doom for a defense that had players griping, coaches being criticized, and the aforementioned injuries.

Instead, Jones and Williams took on starting roles and have molded to the 3-4 defense.  In return, Jarrett Bush has moved to the nickel spot and, despite letting up a few big plays, has played fairly well.  Rookie Clay Matthews has blown up and is a front-runner for Defensive Rookie of the Year, while B.J. Raji has been versatile on the line and given the Packers everything they have needed.

Filling holes on both sides of the ball have the Packers hitting their stride at the perfect time, putting their offense and defense in positions to succeed.  Despite being known for their passing game, the Packers finished fifth in the NFC in rushing yards on the sixth most carries, tying them for fourth best in the conference in yards per carry.

The passing attack has been one of the best in NFC the whole year, and Rodgers has more weapons than any other team in the NFC, Eagles included.  With four wideouts capable of playing at a high level, one of the up-and-coming tight ends in the league, and a run game that has been more than serviceable, the offense is at a spot where they can compete in a shootout with the deep ball threat, or a defensive struggle with runs and short, quick passes.

The run defense finished first in the NFL in yards allowed, which is a great combo considering Charles Woodson is in the backfield taking care of passes.  There are no real glaring holes that the Packers have outside of a nickel position, where Jarrett Bush has been improving.  If they can continue to get pressure on the quarterback and stuff the run, the pass defense will not take a huge hit.

It doesn’t matter that the Cardinals only played their starters two series or that the Packers played theirs into the third quarter.  In football, momentum is everything and the Packers have plenty of it heading into their re-match next week.  It seems as though the Packers have fixed everything they needed to fix entering next week’s game.  The same can not be said for every NFC Playoff team, which bodes very well for the Green and Gold.

January 4, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment