Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Tragic Triumvirate

If you follow the NFL, you probably know which teams comprise the league’s Tragic Triumvirate.

Or maybe you don’t.

You see, there are three hopeless football teams that aren’t fully recognized as such until either the season gets going or the vindication of the postseason sets in. They’re three teams you should probably stop watching, unless you’re into antics like repeatedly slapping your forehead with your palm or flailing your arms in the air. The three teams? The Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys and San Diego Chargers.

The Eagles are easy to spot out as a member of this trio, but that wasn’t the case when they were a 3-1 football team with wins over the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens. Due to that start, Philadelphia has since been favored against both the Detroit Lions and undefeated Atlanta Falcons. Obviously, that start has manifested as an aberration considering Phili’s current 3-4 record, but proof lies in the proverbial pudding that the Eagles have been an aberration all along.

The Eagles’ first two drives of the 2012 season resulted in turnovers (a LeSean McCoy fumble and Michael Vick interception), followed by four straight punts. This was versus the Cleveland Browns, who are a (although frisky) 2-6 football team right now. Somehow, Eagles eventually squeaked out a 17-16 week one victory in the second ugliest game of the season.

In week two against the Ravens, the Eagles started off drive number one with (you guessed it!) a turnover. And it wasn’t just a turnover; it was a red zone interception by Vick. At the time we weren’t completely used to these quarterbacking antics, and it went somewhat ignored because the Eagles ended up winning the game. However, if you watched that game closely, the Eagles had no business winning. The Ravens had multiple opportunities to seal the game in the second quarter, but multiple Joe Flacco blunders and play calling woes led to the self-prevention Baltimore is so used to exhibiting. The Ravens are doing all they can to turn the “Tragic Triumvirate” into the “Unfortunate Foursome.” Let’s give them a year or two.

Philadelphia’s first five drives against the Arizona Cardinals in week three: PUNT, PUNT, FUMBLE, PUNT, PUNT. Four of the first five drives allotted a total of six yards, and the lone 45-yard drive culminated in a (you guessed it!!) Michael Vick fumble. Chalk up a terrible loss. Here we go.

The Eagles beat the Giants in week four in predictable fashion. The Giants were in clear cruise control to start the season and really had no incentive to play hard. Philadelphia’s defense was pretty good at this point in the year too. Ugly game, ugly win. The subsequent week, the Pittsburgh Steelers prevailed over the Eagles in a slugfest. If you were keeping track, the Eagles were getting beat by its own offense and its own playmakers (as well as play caller) and not its defense or special teams.

So, the Eagles decided to play the blame game after relinquishing a 10-point lead with five minutes to play against the Lions in week six. Nope, they didn’t blame the quarterback or the offense or the coach. They blamed defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and fired him. Placing Castillo in the defensive coordinator position was a head-scratching love last season considering his former role as the offensive line coach, and just when he started coming around as a coordinator, he was fired. The former secondary coach is now the defensive coordinator – the head man of same secondary that's ruined Nnamdi Asomugha’s career. Consequently, the defense got ripped to shreds and had trouble keeping the Falcons in opposing territory last week, which resulted in Andy Reid’s first loss after a bye week in his head coaching career (formerly 13-0). Don’t call it a coincidence.

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It’s no surprise that the Cowboys are a part of this group. Without delving too much into their atrocities, week six versus the Ravens explicitly personified the tragedies surrounding America’s team.

Just as in week one, the Cowboys were clicking in every aspect from the run game to defense against the Ravens. With under a minute left in the game, Dez Bryant played hero with an incredible touchdown catch to put the Cowboys within two.

What followed: A plain drop by Dez Bryant and a failed two-point conversion (the hero and the goat); a successful onside kick recovery; an inexplicable pass interference call that placed the Cowboys at Baltimore’s 46-yard line; an incomprehensible one-yard pass to Dez Bryant -- who was running a measly curl route -- with under 15 seconds remaining and one timeout; Tony Romo sauntering nonchalantly followed by confused looks towards the sidelines and his teammates; head coach Jason Garret nonchalantly gazing out at the field and then the ground like there’s three minutes remaining; a timeout with six seconds left; a missed 51-yard field goal and Cowboys loss.

The Cowboys in a nutshell, ladies and gentlemen. Same old song and dance. To top it off, they’re a 3-4 football team with an offense that can’t handle superior defenses one bit (the Seahawks, Bears and Giants each ate them alive), and an incompetent quarterback. We’ll get to that later. Just save yourself by not watching this team, and do like I did and trade away any Cowboys player you have in fantasy.

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Last but not least, we have the San Diego Chargers. San Diego’s lone wins came against the Raiders (thanks to a long snapper injury), Titans and lowly Chiefs. They lost to an awful Saints team and completely melted down on a Monday night in Denver against the Broncos. For those of you who don’t know, that game consisted of a 24-0 Chargers halftime lead, a 35-0 second half run by the Broncos, and four interceptions and a fumble by Philip Rivers in the final two minutes and twenty two seconds. To top it all off, the Chargers lost to the Browns last week in the single ugliest game of the year, encapsulated by a wide open drop by Robert Meachem down the seam just six days after the NFL began investigating the team for using a banned sticky substance. There are bad seasons, there are terrible seasons, and then there are embarrassing seasons. The Chargers are finally delving into the latter and have joined the Eagles and Cowboys. It’s official.

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Although each of these instances contribute to the bigger picture within the Tragic Triumvirate, the bigger picture itself cannot be ignored. Let’s start with the quarterbacks. Their stats so far in 2012:

Michael Vick: 9 TDs, 8 INTs, 9 fumbles in 7 games

Tony Romo: 9 TDs, 13 INTs, 4 fumbles in 7 games

Philip Rivers: 10 TDs, 9 INTs, 5 fumbles in 7 games

At one point in each of these quarterback’s careers, one was considered elite. Seems insane to think of now, right? They combine for six career playoff wins and zero Super Bowl appearances. Vick has lost his “valiant and respected leader” qualifications and utterly kills his own team with countless forced decisions. Rivers still yells at his teammates and remains the perceived asshole as his once-brilliant stats deteriorate. Romo’s biggest knock has always been late game management despite his precision, and now the caveat has vanished in the worst way possible – it’s no longer needed.

Their coaches (Andy Reid, Norv Turner and Jason Garrett) attain a combined 14-13 playoff record and one Super Bowl appearance. All three coaches have been at the helm for much too long (yes, Garrett, too), and are continually at the center of dissonance within sports talk after every inevitable catastrophe. Jason Garrett continues to make indefensible late game decisions alongside Romo (who in the world ices their own kicker???), Andy Reid continues to get bashed for his play calling yet fires his defensive coordinator, and Norv Turner hasn’t been in control of his team for two and a half years.

But it doesn’t end there. We can go even further back. Remember those Donovan McNabb-led teams that turned out to be complete teases? Remember the last time the Cowboys advanced in or even made the playoffs? Me neither. Remember when the Chargers were supposed to be in the Super Bowl every year from 2004 to 2006 and never were? Remember when Romo fumbled that snap? Sorry, I had to.

The truth is, these teams trap us year after year after year, yet should never be trusted. Not by fans, not by bettors, not by casuals looking for a nice Sunday viewing. Call it a curse, call it hopelessness, call it incompetence; call it what you will, but the Chargers play tonight, the Cowboys play on Sunday night, and the Eagles play on Monday night. Good luck avoiding tragedy -- not just this season, but for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

LeBron's Time Is Now

Never mind the prophetic assertion that as long as Kobe Bryant is in a Lakers uniform, the Lakers’ status as the Kings of LA is firmly planted. Prophetic assertions are, well, prophetic. Should it be a surprise that Bryant slew my Warriors twice in one week (top-7 protected pick!!!), sunk go-ahead threes to seal wins over New Orleans and New Jersey, then subsequently vanquished the Clippers last night with his 31 points? Nope, not if you glance over this site or the other from time to time. Not if you know the psychology of Kobe Bryant. You should by now.

It’s time to mind the psychology of another player – a psychology that’s more ambiguous than Bryant’s killer instinct.

You’d think the topic of LeBron James’ mindset would be worn out by now. In fact, you’d think the topic of LeBron
in general would be worn out already. But it isn’t because the only thing to talk about this year is how fucking good he is. We don’t want to admit it, but we’d rather exploit LeBron than rejoice over him. But after his 34-point, 10-assist, 7-rebound, 4-steal, 11-13-free-throw, 3-7-three-point output Wednesday night in a Miami Heat win over the high-octane, Western Conference-dominating Oklahoma City Thunder, it’s apparent that this year is the year we either start rejoicing over LeBron, or commence condemnation eternally.

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Outside of James, the Heat have struggled this season. Dwayne Wade has been off-and-on injured and hasn’t quite found himself; a lingering Chris Bosh injury is a legitimate speculation; Mike Miller and Joel Anthony have been injured all year; Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier have been close to awful; rookie Norris Cole started the season hot and cooled since, and Ronny Turiaf is a shell of himself. When you truly dissect this team, it isn’t an unstoppable juggernaut by any means.

LeBron James is. He’s having the best season of his career in this weird, compacted, back-to-back-riddled NBA season. It hasn’t fazed him once. And 24 hours after his season-high 41 points against the Philadelphia 76ers, he gave us Wednesday night’s aforementioned performance.

And when the scene of that game shifted after Russell Westbrook’s flagrant foul on James’ would-be breakaway dunk, LeBron embraced the atmosphere. Westbrook was charged, running wild and bobbing his head with the “Westbrook sucks!” chants, Kevin Durant was still a force although his turnovers were up, and players were flying around as they joined the decorative crowd in a genuine playoff ambiance. When LeBron exhibited the trademark, swagger-filled hop in his step and quick shot release, it was on. When he, as Hubie Brown said, “shot out of a cannon” with his steal and dunk with just over two minutes remaining in the first half, there was something noticeably different about him. As a vehement NBA fan and former LeBron enthusiast, I’ve never seen that speed and explosiveness out of him. He’s exuded overconfidence in meaningless regular season games before, but nothing like that. To cap it off, he hit a deep jumper at the buzzer to end the half. All he could do after that was stare down the opponent with fierce eyes.

Perceive the game how you want (meaningless regular season game doubling as a Finals preview, meaningless game between two powerhouses, meaningful game between two powerhouses, meaningless altogether), this game was actually important to LeBron James. After the game, he answered a question with, “It’s playoff basketball.” When he was reminded it’s the regular season, he responded: “It’s playoff basketball.”

We can look at the game from every angle, including the ones previously touched on, James’ magnificent defense late in the game, and the fact that the majority of the offense ran through him. We can look at stats. We can look at how LeBron willed his team to its first noteworthy victory on national television since who-knows-when.

But none of those things come close to the importance of timing. The playoffs start in three weeks. The Heat needed a trademark win to get themselves in the postseason groove. LeBron was cognizant of that and took charge. He truly showed that the Miami Heat are his team and he’s been showing it all season. And, as we all know, Miami’s success in the playoffs hinges on LeBron. This game was either the launching pad for a championship, or the aberration that made us actually think LeBron James had it in him.

The time is here and now for LeBron. He already vanquished the Celtics. The Bulls don’t deserve to be in the same league as the Heat in a seven-game series format. The Lakers and Spurs can’t keep up. The Clippers are nowhere near ready. Dallas is still celebrating the title. The Thunder lack experience. The window is wide open, and the title is there for the taking.

We will inevitably denounce every mind-blowing thing he does on the basketball court forever if he, yet again, disappoints. If he can’t succeed this year, with the stars neatly aligned, he never will. But will we rejoice if he succeeds? Will we marvel over something that was imminent all along, or, more than that, supposed to have happened already? It’s tough to say, but in the end, We Are All Witnesses.