Monday, August 22, 2011

Why Football is the Best Sport

TriggPack West team scouting the Raiders for week 14.
I attended my first NFL game in-person this week.  Granted it was a pre-season game.  Granted it was the 49ers against the Raiders in one of the most decrepit venues in the NFL, Candlestick Park.  But, after a long and uncertain off-season, I was psyched to see a game -- particularly when it was free seats in the first row on the 50-yard line, courtesy of my buddy Mark.

As I soaked in the ambiance of an NFL game, I found myself marveling at how fully awesome football is. Like a Minnesotan tucking into a deep-fried Twinkie, I just can't get enough.  I've been lapping up pre-season games with an intensity usually reserved for the playoffs. You'd think after the whole lock-out thing there might be some lingering bitterness. A slight diminishing of enthusiasm coming into the season. Instead I, like most NFL fans, am greeting the start of football like a rabid hyena clawing for zebra scraps.

It all begs the question: why exactly is football so awesome? Well, there are lots of factors, but I've boiled it down to 3 fundamental reasons.  The 3 "S's":

One thing that's not scarce: deep-friend Twinkies at Mall of America
1) Scarcity.  The fact there are only 16 games in the regular season distinguishes it from every other team sport.  No question one of the most critical factors in the NFL's success is it's scarcity.  Every single game matters, and matters greatly.  A 16-game stretch in the NBA or MLB is like a long road trip. Teams like the Mariners go on 16-game losing streaks.  The Astros are 34 games out of first place in their division.  34 games!  That's more than two full seasons of football.  Even for die-hard baseball and basketball fans, it's hard to get very worked up until the games mean something in the playoffs.  Even then, they have 7-game series -- that's half the season in football.  Soccer is worst of all.  Nobody knows when a season is even happening, and just when you think a game actually matters, it turns out to just be a friendly with all the star players off with their national teams.  A 16-game season, though my addiction wishes there were more, is perfect -- keeping us glued to every game and every play.

2) Strategy.  There is so much planning and preparation that goes into each NFL game.  Sure, other sports have "plays" too -- like when a basketball guard holds up a number 1 finger as he comes down court.  It must be hard for players to remember which of the two play options they are supposed to run.  Football teams have hundreds of plays.  For every play, eleven players on each side of the ball need to know where to go in 40 seconds.  Each play requires meticulous preparation, studying playbooks and practicing it on the field.  And each play has hundreds of hours of analysis behind it -- with dozens of coaches, scouts, and assistants combing through tape of their competition to determine the exact time to call the exact right play.  The results of all that strategic planning, and the players' ability to execute the strategy, directly determines the outcome of the game.  Unlike basketball, you can't just give the ball to LeBron James every play.

Civil War picnickers before the advent of NFL Sunday Ticket.
3) Savagery.  It's often stated that football is a violent game.  But "violence" isn't quite the right word.  "Savagery" isn't either but it starts with "S" so I'm going to use it -- plus, I think it more accurately captures what I see as the appeal of football's "physicality."  Violence to me means bloodshed and broken bones.  There are plenty of more violent sports, like UFA or pitbull fighting, that hold no widespread appeal.  No -- it's not the violence.  It's the scale of the violence.  (Maybe "Scale" would have been a better third "S.")  Nothing else offers eleven individual simultaneous hand-to-hand battles.  A one-on-one fist fight will draw a crowd, but when it's 11-on-11, or more like 45-on-45, there is some shit goin' down!  That's more akin to a bar fight.  Or a riot.  Like an army of gladiators charging at each other, you just don't turn away from football.  The scale of human conflict you are about to witness is just too fascinating.  It's like picnickers at the outbreak of the Civil War.  They were compelled to watch -- though many of them probably realized later it might have been preferable to catch that one on DirecTV.  You don't turn the channel on football.

There you have it: the three basic reasons that you'll be glued to your TV every Sunday through February.  It doesn't matter how much they strike.  It doesn't matter how much money they make.  It doesn't matter how much they mis-behave off the field.  You may be disgusted at times, but you watch.  You have to watch.  It's just too compelling.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Cobb Impresses in Packers' Pre-Season Debut

The fun thing about pre-season games is evaluating individual players. Determining which new additions to the roster might make the cut, and, more importantly, make an impact. Rookie Randall Cobb showed encouraging signs of being one of those impact players the Packers hoped he was when they drafted him.

The Kentucky product could give a real boost to our return game, which was fairly anemic last year through a rotating door of return men. Cobb had two nice kick returns out nearly to the 30 both times, and showed elusiveness and sure hands, though no yards, in his one punt return. Cobb also lead Packer receivers with 3 receptions for 60 yards, including a beautiful quick cut up the field on a 5-yard crossing pattern that netted 28 yards and nearly a TD.

Cobb could be a perfect addition to an already potent receiving corps. His speed, cutting ability and good hands will present match-up nightmares for opposing defenses. They will need to cover him with a corner, and particularly in a 4-receiver set, that corner isn't likely to be very good. Cobb will either be open or he will open up something for another receiver. And his impact on the return game could be dramatic. Even if he averages just a few more yards per return, it will make a big difference in field position. And if he breaks one or two this season for scores, those are the kind of plays that decide games.

Another player I was watching closely was Derek Sherrod. He and T.J. Lang are in a dead heat to replace Colledge at the left guard position. Sherrod looked good and sounds very comfortable at the guard position, despite playing only tackle at Mississippi State. Sherrod and Lang actually were both in the game with the second team, rotating between the left guard and tackle positions. And, with the exception of a blown blitz pick-up which resulted in a sack, fumble and return for a touchdown, they both played well. One will start and the other looks start-able should the other guy or Clifton get injured.

Other players who stood out Saturday against the Browns included James Starks -- who only had 2 carries but looked to be back into his beastly form, blowing guys backwards for gains of 5 and 9 yards. Starks is just one of those guys who seems to stride 2-3 yards with every step, breaks multiple tackles, and finishes every run falling forward for several additional yards. He and Grant will give us one of the most high-impact running back tandems in the league.

Matt Flynn also had a nice night. He finished 11/18 for 126 yards and a TD with no interceptions. He clearly has a full command of the offense, calling audibles at the line several times based on his reads. He has the arm strength and accuracy to make tough throws. And he has great poise for a young player -- efficiently leading the Packers on a 9-play, 89-yard touchdown drive with less than two minutes left before halftime. As Flynn showed last year against the Patriots, he can effectively lead the Packers in the event Rodgers goes down -- which in the era of concussion sensitivity (which I support, by the way) will be increasingly likely.

Overall, it was great to see the Packers back on the field. Although they didn't win, the only mild concern was watching the first-team defense give up a touchdown (granted, it was 3rd stringer Pat Lee who gave up the TD catch). It all whets the appetite for the regular season opener against the Saints on September 8. Can't wait!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Jones and Kuhn Staying Home

Free agency continues to be fast and furious.  Yesterday brought some good news with the re-signing of receiver James Jones and fullback John Kuhn.  Jones' return is particularly welcome news.  I thought he was all but gone, but he's back in what is shaping up to be a nasty receiving corps.  The return of all 5 WRs, plus the addition of rookie Randall Cobb, who was apparently lighting it up in practice, and the return of Jermichael Finley, should make the Packers passing game a juggernaut.

Cobb feels to me like he could have a similar impact as the Vikings' Percy Harvin, hopefully without the migraines.  Harvin had speed, quickness, and hands that enabled him to make an immediate impact and create mis-matches as DBs lined up against their bigger receivers.  I'm hoping Cobb may also be able to finally add some punch to our return game.

So far, the Packers have lost five players to free agency, including DE Cullen Jenkins (Philadelphia), guards Daryn Colledge (Arizona) and Jason Spitz (Jacksonville), RB Brandon Jackson (Cleveland) and FB Korey Hall (New Orleans).  Jenkins and Colledge are the two most concerning losses.  Replacing Jenkins worries me less.  He's 30 and has been getting injured more and more often the last few years.  Plus, with some potentially promising young DEs, including Mike Neal, C.J. Wilson and Jarius Wynn, they had some backfill.

Colledge, though un-spectacular has been steady.  And with Spitz leaving as well, their depth at offensive guard is shallow.  First-round draft pick Derek Sherrod has been practicing with the first team offense at Colledge's left guard position, and is the presumptive opening day starter -- even though he played exclusively at the left tackle position in college.  But the Packers lack many other options, besides T.J. Lang and Nick McDonald, and Sherrod sounds confident he can pick up the new role.

Not surprisingly, given Thompson's philosophy, the Packers haven't made any splashy free agency moves.  But a major difference for the Packers is the number of players they will have returning from IR.  Ryan Grant, Jermichael Finley, Brad Jones and Morgan Burnett are all impact players who should be back in the starting line-up week 1.  If these were all new players we'd signed via free agency, we'd all be pretty psyched.  So I don't necessarily expect or covet any big free agent signings in the next few weeks.  Instead, I look forward to seeing which young players will emerge as this year's B.J. Raji or Clay Matthews.