Friday, December 31, 2010

NFL playoff format & the NFC West

With the NFL playoffs less than two weeks away and only a few playoffs spots truly up for grabs in Week 17, it seems that the debate over which teams should get it has reignited, mainly as a result of this week's Sunday Night Football match up featuring two sub-.500 teams with a home playoff game on the line.

The 2010 edition of the NFC West division may not be the home to the year's best football, but it has shaped up to be the most competitive division this season, with three teams all in the hunt for the division crown until the 49ers loss in Week 16. Granted, that doesn't mean any of these teams are playing great football -- or even "winning football" for that matter -- but that's no reason to lobby for playoff restructuring or even division restructuring.

First of all, for those who say the NFC West is watered down and doesn't provide strong competition to the rest of the NFL, even if their junior varsity skill level does translate throughout the four teams in the division, this is clearly an aberration and not the norm. In the NFL over the last ten years, only two divisions have sent three different teams to a Super Bowl. One of them in the NFC South ('02 Buccaneers, '03 Panthers, '09 Saints) and the other is the NFC West ('01 Rams, '05 Seahawks, '08 Cardinals). So not only have three of the teams in the NFC West been to a Super Bowl recently, but the fourth team in that division is once-mighty San Francisco which, despite a rough patch in recent years, is one of the most successful franchises in NFL history. The potential for strong competition exists in that division, so please don't think blowing it up is the right call.

Furthermore, if you win your division, you should get a home playoff game. Period.

If the Falcons end up 13-3 and win the NFC South this season while the Saints finish 12-4, then you know what, the Saints should have beaten Atlanta when they had the chance at home in New Orleans back in September. The Saints and Falcons have 12 common opponents this season plus two head-to-head games. NFL schedules are set up to provide an equal challenge among division teams. Whichever team handles that schedule the best wins the division and should be properly rewarded by hosting a playoff game.

Wasn't it just two years ago we were having this same debate about how good a 9-7 NFC West Champion Arizona Cardinals team really was, and they went all the way to the Super Bowl. If you're good enough to win you're division, you belong in the playoffs. Teams in other divisions might have not had to face as challenging a schedule as teams from another division.

The NFL playoffs are set up just fine. And if a 7-9 Seattle ends up hosting a 12-4 New Orleans Saints, then they better pack warm clothes. If 8-8 St. Louis hosts a team with a better record in the first round, they earned that right. It's not something that can be altered based on one or two fluky seasons.

UNC, Tennessee & the 10-second runoff that wasn't

Thanks to the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl pitting North Carolina against Tennessee, an entire nation of football fans and passers by wake up to something that - for most of them at least - is a new concept: a 10-second runoff. Diehards who know "all the rules" may still be a bit confused by this concept, but that's what this blog is here for.

Admittedly, my own knowledge of when 10-second runoffs are applied was taken to task on Christmas night in the Cowboys-Cardinals game [How the Cards stole Christmas] when Arizona's game-winning drive would have been thwarted by draining the remaining 10 seconds from the clock after an illegal formation penalty. The Cardinals right tackle was uncovered on the line of scrimmage, but instead of a 10-second runoff and thus a Cowboys win, instead the Cardinals were merely penalized five yards and allowed to kick the game-winning field goal. Bah humbug.

As far as penalties go late in the game, it's widely known that "a game cannot end on a defensive penalty" at really any level of football. Offensively, however, it's a little more complicated. In fact, plenty of games end on offensive penalties -- just ask Cowboys backup tackle Alex Barron after his holding penalty cost Dallas a Week 1 win at Washington. I always knew that if the clock is running inside the two-minute warning, and a player gets injured in a tie game (or the players of the injured team is losing, presumably on offense), and that team does not have any more timeouts, 10 seconds are run off the clock (see NFL rule). This is to prevent players from faking injuries to stop the clock and give a team an unfair advantage in driving for the last-second score.

The 10-second runoff due to an injured player on a team lacking timeouts might even be common knowledge, albeit a rare occurrence in the NFL today. However it can also be applied on some offensive procedural penalties. I say some because I used to think it was all until the Christmas night Cowboys/Cardinals game corrected my beliefs. To clarify, an offensive procedural penalty is something like a false start, two men in motion at the same time and not getting set, motion toward the line of scrimmage, too many men or not enough men on the line of scrimmage resulting in illegal formation. So prior to the Cowboys loss in the desert, I would have thought that any of these sort of penalties would result in a 10-second runoff if an offense was without a timeout, tied or trailing under two minutes in a half, to prevent the offensive from stopping the clock and absorbing a 5-yard hiccup of a penalty all to preserve time. It is for that reason exactly why when the Cardinals were able to spike the ball with 10 seconds left in the Christmas night game without being properly set on offense that the Cowboys bench thought they had won. That and, frankly, Jeff Triplett leaves much to be desired when it comes to portraying confidence in the calls he makes (the man looks so beaten down with every call, he makes Toby from "The Office" seem peppier than Oprah giving away cars to her audience).

You know the rest of that game, the Cardinals ended up with 10 seconds left on the clock from the time the ball was spiked, no runoff for not getting their offensive line set on that spike-play, and kicked the game-winning field goal on the next snap.

And that's not the first time this has happened in the NFL either.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

12-team NABL in 2011. Who's missing?

It has certainly been a busy offseason for folks in the Golden Baseball League. The six-year-old independent league's remnants have joined forces with teams from the United League and what's left of the Northern League to form a 12-team indy league that stretches from Alberta to Texas and from Hawaii to Illinois. And, yep, there is even are you freaking kidding me? a team in Tijuana. Skepticism about the latest Tijuana "adventure" aside, it's good to see the new North American League taking shape as the new year looms.

[skip to bottom for official press release]

There is still plenty to do before the first pitch is thrown, but the league's website is already up and running, albeit with limited content to this point. The most telling bit of information is the "Teams" section that lists 12 clubs for the 2011 season. Just as telling are clubs that are omitted.

Eastern Division

Western Division

The Eastern Division comprises three teams from the Northern League (Lake County, Rockford and Schaumburg) and three from the United League (Edinburg, Rio Grande Valley and San Angelo). The Joilet JackHammers from the Northern League were originally speculated to be joining the party but based on the website won't be part of the new North American League. As far as old United League teams, the Laredo Broncos, Alexandria Aces and Amarillo Dillas are MIA instead of NABL.

In the Western Division, everyone still playing baseball from the Golden Baseball League will be a part of this half of the new league. The two remaining teams in Canada - Calgary and Edmonton - are back, along with GBL originals Yuma and Chico. Maui appears set to return for a second season and a new Tijuana franchise is listed as well. Missing participants of the 2010 GBL include the Tucson Toros, which have gone dark while the Padres Triple-A affiliate is in town after moving from Portland, the Victoria Seals, which ceased operations during the fall, and the St. George RoadRunners, which essentially folded midseason last year.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

How the Cards stole Christmas: Dal 26, Arz 27

Twas the night of Christmas out in Glendale,
A game between teams whose records showed fail.
WIth seconds to go, and a win oh so close,
Once again Dallas lost by a nose.

With no shot at the playoff, and McGee under center,
I don't see this team getting much better.
But if this was bad, Cowboys fans may shriek,
When they check the schedule and see Philly next week.

Ugh, what a brutal game. The Cowboys once again had a chance to lock up a win and failed to make the necessary plays. All too typical of a sub-.500 team. It's easy to go "glass half full" in a three-point loss to New Orleans, but when it's the 4-10, now 5-10 Arizona Cardinals, the pessimism oozes. The Dallas Cowboys used a collection of early catastrophes and late blunders to gift-wrap a Christmas win for the Arizona Cardinals, a 27-26 loss at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale on Saturday night.

Before all the oozing pessimism begins, let me just say it was nice to see Stephen McGee play efficiently and - frankly - at "back up quarterback" levels, not at the inept level of the typical third-string quarterback. Kitna has played so well this year as Romo's backup, and he should retain the job for 2011 (if there is a 2011 season, *gulp*), but McGee is certainly an asset. Maybe with a little more development, another team might want to trade for him to be their current backup and QB of the future. At the very least, when the 38-year-old Kitna retires - presumably soon - McGee would seem to be fit to slide into the backup role. Granted, all this is based on half of a football game's performance.

Last nugget of positivity before I get into the kicked-in-the-groin-ness of the game. Coming back from a 14-0 first quarter deficit, not to mention a 21-10 halftime deficit, showed a lot of resolve in this team. Only thing that hurt then was the NFL rule book that states a football game is 60 minutes, not 58 and a half.

Jon Kitna tossed a pair of interceptions for touchdowns in the first quarter, both could arguably be blamed on his receiving targets Miles Austin and Roy Williams. On the first possession, Austin slipped as the ball squirted into the awaiting arms of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie who ran 32 yards for the opening score. Cardinals kick off, Cowboys start to drive, but another interception on a ball behind Williams gets batted up in the air and snagged by Greg Toler. After a 66-yard jog, it's 14-0 Cardinals. I'm not sure if the NFL keeps stats on this sort of thing or not - they probably do (the NFL keeps stats on everything) - but I've got to believe the 2010 Cowboys lead the NFL in tipped-ball interceptions. Jon Kitna might be setting some sort of NFL record by a backup QB for that particular category in the second half of this season. Then again, when you're a 5-10 team like the Cowboys are, you just don't get the gratuitous bounces of the 10-5 teams.

Frankly, the Cowboys dodged a bullet not going down 17-0 when Jay Feely missed on a long field goal attempt. If only that particular trend repeated itself. Unfortunately the Cardinals kicker made a pair of long fourth quarter field goals to win the game for Arizona.

It's a difficult balance, losing these games with the prospects of a higher draft pick hanging the balance doesn't make falling in the final seconds to stinkin Arizona that much more of an attractive option. Give me the win. Every. Single. Time.

Now is not the time to get into whether or not the Cowboys front office would wisely use that pick 4-6 spots higher based on one win like this could have been. But recent history outside of Dez Bryant isn't on their side. And when the head coach is trying to get an interim tag removed, these are games you cannot lose. Dropping a game to New Orleans on Thanksgiving when a big-money wide receiver fumbles away what should have been the game-clinching drive is one thing. That's a playoff-bound opponent and a fluky play. Losing a game to woefully bad Arizona and having a repeat of early-season gaffes like Marion Barber taking his helmet off to celebrate resulting in a 15-yard penalty is unacceptable.

Off with his Head Helmet
I'm more disturbed by Barber's blatant defiance of the rules, slinging his helmet off after a score while still on the field and costing his team 15 yards, than I am with David Buehler missing a crucial extra point with less than two minutes to go. I'll get into the reasons why I think Buehler should keep his job -- even though immediately after the game I was convinced he should be and would be released before Week 17 arrived. But first, Marion Barber.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Revenge, but barely: Dal 33, Was 30

The Dallas Cowboys continue to play encouraging and distressing football. At a point in the season where - as Bill Parcells would say - you are what your record says you are. The Jason Garrett Cowboys had a chance to take on what appeared to be a dysfunctional Washington Redskins team that was coming off the awkward announcement that head coach Mike Shanahan was rolling out Rex Grossman over Donovan McNabb at quarterback. The Redskins started off the season hot thanks in large part to the last time Alex Barron saw the field wins over the Cowboys and Eagles. It looked like the McNabb/Shanahan duo would be a force to be reckoned with within the always grueling NFC East.

Yeah... not so much these days.

Washington fell to 5-9 after the Cowboys edged them out, 33-30, on Sunday at Cowboys Stadium. And sadly for the Cowboys, there is no excuse for the game being that close.

Dallas was in a no-win situation really. Beat down the hapless 'Skins and it's simply an easy victory over a distressed football team. Lose to them and the once-encouraging Garrett-Cowboys are back to the laughing stock that got Wade Phillips fired, and any talk of Garrett as the next head coach comes to a screeching halt. The Cowboys had their blowout in hand, leading by 20 points in the second half, but somehow allowed Rex Grossman -- he of "Rex is our quarterback" fame -- to throw for more than 300 yards and bring Washington back from the brink to tie the game in the fourth quarter. Are. You. Kidding?

Perhaps we're at the point where

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Pony Pride

Immediately following the eyebrow-raising presentation of the Heisman Trophy to Auburn's Cam Newtom -- eyebrow-raising because of his father trying to shop him around to different SEC schools before he eventually settled in at Auburn -- ESPN aired PONY EXCE$$, a two hour film about SMU football's prominence in the early 1980s followed by their ultimate demise through the death penalty.

If you get a chance to watch the 30 for 30 film about Southern Methodist University receiving the harshest punishment in the history of the NCAA, I'd strongly recommend it. Growing up in Dallas, I always knew that SMU once dominated the football landscape and eventually suffered what my father always said was a punishment the NCAA would never dish out again. But I never fully understood the depth of what was happening on Mockingbird until last night's feature.

Some background...

Monday, November 29, 2010

God drops touchdown; public crucifies receiver

One of the wackier sports stories of the weekend came down late Sunday when Buffalo Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson tweeted his frustrations about dropping what would have been the game-winning touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime. It was a ball that hit him in the hands, and he flat dropped it. That wasn't the controversy. Receivers drop balls all the time. They don't however then lash out at God as a result.

And, unlike most of the sports-loving public out there, I don't have any problem with his frustrations or the way he expressed them.

If you haven't seen it yet, here are the comments he posted on his twitter account:

Okay, now before you get all up in arms, let's take a breather. Calm down. Let's look at this objectively as well as somewhat spiritually.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Saintsgiving: NO 30, Dal 27

It looked like the Saints would feast on the Cowboys this Thanksgiving. Dallas had its opportunity to win fall out of the arms of Roy Williams with less than four minutes to go in the game. And while there are no moral victories in the NFL, it is safe to say that the Wade Phillips Dallas Cowboys would have had zero chance to take a lead in that game after trailing 17-0 with just over 10 minutes gone by in the first quarter.

They could have folded. They didn't. At least not until the very end after coming back from a 20-3 deficit right before the half.

The Cowboys had Thanksgiving dinner spoiled by defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans, 30-27. Roy Williams will catch plenty of flack for his role in the loss, and rightfully so, but the Cowboys also caught plenty of breaks from the Saints. It was tough to tell if New Orleans took their foot off the gas in the third quarter or if Dallas simply ramped up their efforts, or perhaps some combination of the two, but after slogging through the first 29 minutes and 17 seconds of the game, the Cowboys finally showed some signs of life.

Interim head coach Jason Garrett missed out on starting his tenure 3-0, and while his first victory can be attributed to the emotional swell of his first week on the job, and his second win can be attributed to playing the Detroit Lions, this game would have been by far the most impressive victory he could have added to his resume in his personal quest to retain the job on a permanent basis next season.

Dallas drops now to 3-8 on the 2010 season and that should stop any hallucinating talk of a massive table run into the playoffs. After the loss, Jason Garrett spoke of how there are no moral wins. Can you imagine what we would have heard from Coach Wade after something like this. Yes, there were some strong efforts to praise, but Dallas also caught a few breaks down the stretch as well.

A few thoughts on a crazy game that appeared to breathe live back into the Cowboys just as quickly as it then fumbled that life away:

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What we're watching with Dirk

It sure seemed like just another ho-hum Tuesday when the night began. Back in Dallas for Thanksgiving, I headed for the American Airlines Center to take in a Mavericks game. The Pistons were in town, not exactly the team that dominated the Eastern Conference the middle of the last decade, but certainly not a slouch either.

Dallas started off hot with an 11-0 run, but an ugly second quarter resulted in Detroit working their way back to take the lead at the half, 42-38. And all the while, there was the main Mavs man, Dirk Nowitzki chipping away, bucket after bucket. Swish. Swish. Swish. His 17 first-half points weren't much to write home about for two reasons: one because mailing a letter all the way to Germany is expensive, and secondly because the Mavs were losing.

The Mavericks weren't able to cut into the deficit in the 3rd quarter either, trailing 63-56 heading into the final period. Hey, there's 82 of these games, and Mavs fans have become accustomed to ramping it up when the playoffs begin, keeping energy levels during regular season games in on the early side of New Year relatively "meh" so to speak. Dallas is trailing. Dirk is playing well. But the team just might not find the win column tonight. Most of the wine-and-cheese crowd at the "Double-A C" on Tuesday weren't going to lose a lot of sleep without a mad fourth quarter rally.

But Dirk continued to make these buckets and make it look effortless. His trademark fallaway-off-one-foot shot from near the elbow continued to fall just as it has for more than a decade in Dallas. The man who cause Dallas fans -- which were small in number and perhaps even smaller in faith -- to scratch their heads on draft day 1998 made them slowly start to believe in yet another comeback win in Big D. And row by row, with each bucket from the Big German, fans rose from their seats, believing that this could be a special night. Help from Caron Butler and Jason Terry certainly made a comeback opportunity possible, but all the while #41 continued to do what makes him so special.

Decibel levels climbed within the AAC, and the Mavericks chipped away at the Pistons lead until Dirk Nowitzki sank a pair of free throws as the Mavericks snuck ahead, 68-67. After a Pistons' 3-pointer, Dirk drew another trip to the line, two more free throws and things were tied up, 70-70. A quick trip down the court later, Jason Kidds slings the ball over to Dirk for the go ahead 3-pointer, and as soon as it left his hand, there was no more doubt in the building.

There were six minutes left on the clock, but by that point, it was essentially over. Detroit tried to keep it close down the stretch, but the Mavericks withstood the best efforts of their opponents. And when the dust finally settled, there was Dirk with 42 points, 12 rebounds and yet another impressive comeback win. Dallas 88, Detroit 84.

It's just another November win. It doesn't make a whole lot of difference in the overall scheme of things for this franchise, let alone for the 2010-11 season. But it's also the mark of what Dirk Nowitzki has been doing for a dozen years in Dallas that has made him the most special player in franchise history in what must be considered the makings of a hall of fame career.

The off-balance shot falling away. The flailing limbs on a take to the hoop. Heck, even the goofy videos on the jumbotron. It's all part of the quirkiness and Dirkiness that has been a staple in Dallas. People may still remember the Mavericks before Dirk. People might remember Don Carter's hat, Triple-J, Rolando Blackman, Derek Harper, and Reunion Arena. There might be some "good old day" feelings toward those early days of the Mavericks, be it fond memories of Moody Madness or the run to the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers in '87 when the Reunion Rowdies were at their finest.

But what this 7-foot phenom has done in Dallas is rewrite the franchise's history books. We don't know where this team will go after Nowitzki takes his final shot with the Mavs, whether or not that ends up being the final shot of his NBA career. Maybe this franchise, 20 years from now, will win a title without him and that will be the greatest Mavericks team ever, featuring players who are currently in kindergarden. But what can't be questioned is that this franchise is now talked about in pre-Dirk and post-Dirk terms.

Pre-Dirk, they were the little Mavericks, a team that at one point won 11 and 13 games in consecutive seasons. Yuck. Yes, they'd been to postseasons, but aside from a seven-game series against the Lakers, there weren't many highlights. Dirk changed all of that. He essentially erased those memories. At the very least he sent them to the back of the memory bank, piling ahead of those old memories countless jump shots, 3-pointers, dunks, drives and yes, even those goofy videos on the jumbotron.

Seriously, think back to what you thought of the Mavericks before Dirk arrived. More importantly, did you even think of the Mavericks? Did you look at them as a novelty, merely a way to witness Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan or Larry Bird or other superstars come through town to play our city's version of the Washington Generals? What did you think of the Mavs?

What do you think of them now?

One player changed the trajectory of this franchise. Obviously coaches, GMs, role players and a owner who appears to be equal parts fan and businessman helped the process. But it can all be traced back to #41.

There will at some point come a time when he no longer suits up for the Mavs. I hope it's not for a while, because as he displayed on Tuesday night against Detroit, he is still very much capable of dominating a game in the NBA. But when his time as a Maverick is done, with a ring or not, he will be looked back at as one of the greatest sports figures the DFW metropplex has ever seen. He'll be up there with Troy Aikman, Roger Staubach, Nolan Ryan. He's one ring away from immortality status as far as the rest of the NBA is concerned, but here in Dallas, let's hope his team's fans know better than that.

He's already achieved it.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Yes we McCann: Dal 35, Det 19

Channelling my inner Lou Brown from Major League, "That's called a winning streak."

The Dallas Cowboys gunned the engines in the second half and stormed away from the Detroit Lions in a battle of 2-7 teams each playing their backup quarterback. The Jason Garrett era continued to impress, and players who had underachieved throughout the first eight games of the season appeared to hustle (what a novel concept!) throughout the game. Heck, Mike Jenkins even made a hard-hitting tackle in the game.

It's hard to get too excited with a 35-19 win over the lowly Lions, but sadly this was a game between two last place teams, two evenly matched teams, and that's where this Cowboys season is. Now, if they can topple the defending champion Saints on Thanksgiving, then by all means, go crazy Dallas. But the now 3-7 Cowboys are at the point where players must simply maintain the mindset of "I'm playing for my job this week" every week throughout the end of the season.

In 2008, the St. Louis Rams fired their head coach a few weeks into the season and Jim Haslett took over. The previously winless Rams under Haslett won his first two games, beating the Redskins on the road and then beating the Cowboys in St. Louis (and it wasn't pretty by any means). The Rams went on to lose their remaining 10 games, finish 2-14, and they brought in a new coach the next year, blowing up what they had in place and slogging through 2009 before getting top pick Sam Bradford out of OU to help them right the ship this season in 2010.

So this is just a cautionary tail that while the Cowboys under Garrett do have two wins, impressive in many aspects but also faulty in others, it is a weekly battle to prepare and execute and cannot be taken lightly the rest of the way. We saw this team take it lightly through the first eight games, resulting in inexcusable losses at Washington, at home to Tennessee and of course that embarrassing loss to the Jaguars. We've seen the team give up in Green Bay, resulting in Wade Phillips getting fired the next day. If they give up at this point, Garrett isn't getting fired before the end of the season, but he at least has to make the players believe that they could be cut loose or demoted if they don't give at least 100% each week.

This team has made too many strides in the last two weeks under Garrett to regress to the Wade-levels they were at. But in watching the recent success, it's only more maddening to think that had they actually played to their abilities throughout the first half of the season, the now 3-7 Cowboys might be at least 5-5 if not better and still in the hunt for a playoff spot instead of solidly filling the role of spoiler the rest of the way. (And, yes, I realize they aren't mathematically eliminated, but winning out means going 9-7, and there are already six teams in the NFC with at least 7 wins, so let's table any playoff talk until Week 15 or so when we can definitely say if it's still likely at that time.)

What Garrett's new style has done is pushing players to get the best out of them. Plain and simple. The prime example is Jon Kitna. Garrett's offense looks revived, ready to attack, and Kitna leading the way has been more than impressive. When he took over, everyone in DFW held their breath fearing Brad Johnson 2.0, which was so bad that fans were calling for (and briefly got) Brooks Bollinger into a blowout loss against the Giants. Kitna is proving he can still play in this league, and he is more than capable to be a solid backup QB behind Romo in 2011 as well.

Defensively, the Cowboys are becoming ballhawk players, creating a pair of turnovers yesterday that helped solidify the win. Rookies Sean Lee and Bryan McCann, two guys who didn't really get a chance under Wade, are starting to make sure Cowboys fans -- and more importantly for them, the Cowboys front office -- know their names. Lee provided a big forced fumble moments after McCann added another long return TD to his resume. Meanwhile Terence Newman accepted the challenge of taking on Calvin Johnson and other than Detroit's first play from scrimmage in which Newman got tripped up, taking down Johnson through incidental contact, was is no real jeopardy of surrendering the big play throughout the game.

It's a short week until the Super Bowl Saints come marching in, and they'll be looking for payback against the team that ended their undefeated run in 2009 at the Superdome. The fact that these Cowboys of 2010 are not the 2009 Division winners that stormed New Orleans (poor choice of words) won in New Orleans is of little consequence to Drew Brees and company. As Garrett likes to say, they'll be ready at 3:15 on Thursday. Only difference is that, under Jason Garrett, I'm convinced the Cowboys can be as well.

A few other thoughts on Sunday's 2-7 showdown:

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Gardenhire, not Washington, AL Manager of the Year

News just hit the wire that Minnesota Twins skipper Ron Gardenhire has been named American League Manager of the Year for 2010. Gardenhire certainly was more than qualified for the honor, helping to lead the Twins to the AL Central Division title, despite being bounced from the playoffs in a three-game sweep by the Yankees.

Granted, postseason play does not factor in to these regular season awards. That being said, it's still disappointing not to see Texas Rangers skipper Ron Washington take home the honor. Maybe it was the preseason news of his positive cocaine test. Maybe it was the fact that Texas is considered to play in a weaker division with fewer teams. But don't think that Washington isn't deserving of this honor.

The Twins finished 94-68, with four more wins than the Texas Rangers (90-72) in 2010. Minnesota finished six games ahead of the second-place White Sox in their division while the Rangers bested second-place Oakland by nine games. Gardenhire's Twins were certainly a strong team, but the Texas Rangers overcame much more and Washington helped mold a group that (outside of Cliff Lee) hadn't ever achieved anything.

The Rangers hadn't won the AL West since 1999, going 11 years between playoff appearances. Texas had guys who had career years, and Washington's fingerprints were all over it, putting them in positions to succeed. The Twins have won their division in six of the last nine seasons (2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2010). Bottom line, this is a group of guys that have been their before. It was known that they should finish atop their division. Meanwhile the Rangers have been nothing more than a dark horse contender, a trendy up-and-coming pick for several years, but never have been a team to take seriously.

Ron Washington changed that. He took a group of guys that had a handful of All-Star appearances along with castoffs (Colby Lewis), aging veterans (Vlad Guerrero), and other parts, throwing together a division winner with some clear staying power. Bringing in a hired gun in Cliff Lee helped push the team to the division crown and through the playoffs, a move that must be credited to Jon Daniels and Nolan Ryan, but when Lee wasn't on the mound, it was Washington's philosophy of how to play the game that fueled the Rangers' success.

Perhaps this is one of those things where Gardenhire's time had finally come. He had finished second a handful of times before finally breaking through and earning the honor this season. For Ron Washington, if his Rangers continue to produce at the level we saw from this season's American League Champions, he deserves to be recognized for his efforts as well.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

North American Baseball League

It looks like enough cats are getting out of bags across the country that independent baseball fans can see the handwriting on the wall of a mega-merger that would weave what's left of the Golden Baseball League, United League and Northern League into one big baseball league. While merger talk had been speculated over the last week, Ballpark Digest brought it all together in a Sunday article that detailed some of the how and why of the new league.

Low and behold, yet another cat escapes from the bag today as Ballpark Digest reports that the name being kicked around is the North American League. Either that or the North American Baseball League, according to a source close to the negotiations. While nothing is finalized and formalized just yet, it seems like things are progressing as all three leagues are not in a position to survive on their own in 2011, but combining the trio would infuse new life into all remaining markets.

While the sale of the (?ex-)Northern League Joliet JackHammers seems to be the big hang-up currently stalling any major announcement, it appears 16 teams are listed as potential cogs in the new league's big machine.

Northern League
Joliet JackHammers
Lake County Fielders
Rockford RiverHawks
Schaumburg Flyers

United League
Coastal Bend Thunder
Edinburg RoadRunners
San Angelo Colts
Rio Grande Valley WhiteWings

Golden League
Calgary Vipers
Chico Outlaws
Edmonton Capitals
Orange County Flyers
Na Koa Ikaika Maui

Three other potential teams include a Tijuana franchise, reportedly nicknamed the Ambassadors or Embajadores, as well as Omaha and Yuma.

It all sounds well and dandy, but this issue of high travel costs will still be an issue for teams in the "Canadian" or "West Coast" divisions. I can't imagine any bus trips going from Chico or Orange County to Illinois, and Texas-area teams will probably have to make their way to Houston or Dallas-Ft. Worth for the best flight options to get to Calgary or Edmonton. Obviously not every team will play each other, especially if there will only be 76 games with 24 of them being played "out of league."

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Garrett gets it done: Dal 33, NYG 20

Let me begin the "Jason Garrett era" with a quick reminder from the last Cowboys era that inspired the type of confidence that I'm feeling tonight:

Put the anointing oil away.

Bill Parcells' words regarding a new starting quarterback named Tony Romo in 2006 are just as fitting for the Dallas Cowboys' new interim head coach midway through 2010. Jason Garrett took over the franchise after an embarrassing 1-7 start to the season and was given less than a week to change the culture of a team that lost all discernible heart and will the previous two weeks and prepare them for "4:15pm [Eastern] Sunday" as he stated all week long. And while it is just one week, one game, 1/16th of the entire season, Jason Garrett got more out of this squad -- his squad -- than we'd seen in quite some time.

Dallas Cowboys 33, New York Giants 20. (recap) (highlights)

Again, I realize this one win doesn't put the now 2-7 Cowboys into the Super Bowl (which, if you hadn't heard, is actually going to be at Cowboys Stadium in February). But seeing the way Dallas played tonight, it's also hard not to be infuriated that they hadn't been playing like this all season; playing like that they could be 7-2. One win doesn't change the first eight games. It does, however, give the Cowboys a spark that they can use to ignite the rest of their season.

Garrett, entire roster have 8 week audition

Today is the day. Offensive coordinator-turned-head-coach Jason Garrett makes his debut for the Dallas Cowboys in the wake of Wade Phillips' firing. Garrett has had what seems to be an "impressive" week -- and that's impressive based on the recently lowered bar that has been set over then last three and a half years. The fiery redhead comes across pointed and stern in his press conferences. Will that translate to wins on the football field? It's no guarantee, but it's certainly refreshing.

People are making a big deal about the Cowboys practicing in full pads on Wednesday for the first time since pre-season, and sadly this is a big deal. Don't get me wrong, I think that at times giving players a chance to practice in just shoulder pads and shorts has its benefits. It's a long season, and players will wear down. As a result, sometimes an easier paced practice can help keep guys fresh. But when a team hasn't played football the last Sundays anyway (and, no, they weren't on the bye either, *sigh*), sometimes you need to run then ragged in practice. If they show up flat on Sunday, I'd rather it be because they are exhausted from a rougher week of practice than because they just lost the heart required to compete.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

GBL: Giant Baseball League?

When the Victoria Seals announced the club was ceasing operations this week, the news -- coupled with Tucson taking a year off and three franchises being absorbed by the league during the 2010 season -- seemed to spell the end of the Golden Baseball League. But a report out of the midwest points the other direction entirely. Could we be looking at the GBL going from the brink of extinction to becoming a super-league?

The Rockford (Illinois) RiverHawks will be joining the GBL for the 2011 season, according to a report from WREX Channel 13, an NBC affiliate. Before we get into the ramifications of what it all means, here is the story from WREX:

RiverHawks join Golden League
Posted: Nov 12, 2010 8:20 PM

By: Mike Morig

ROCKFORD (WREX) - After one season in the Northern League, the Rockford RiverHawks leave for the Golden League.

An official announcement is expected next week, but team owner Dave Ciarrachi told the 13 Sports Authority Friday night that the ‘Hawks are Golden League bound and the league itself will expand.

Ciarrachi said the league's new format will feature four divisions, one on the west coast, one in Canada, one in Texas, and one in the Midwest.

The RiverHawks will play in the Midwest division along with former Northern League teams from Schaumburg, Joliet, and Lake County. A potential fifth member of the division could come from Omaha.

Ciarrachi said the Golden League rules will allow the RiverHawks to keep the players they have, no matter their age.

The league will feature 16 or 17 teams and the name of the league along with the divisions will be discussed at the owners meetings later this month.

Talk about a game-changer. When the Golden Baseball League announced on the league's twitter feed that a major announcement was on the way, my only thought was a merger. What else could it have been? No league drums up attention to announce it's folding. But while I thought there might be a "merger" that would either bring the Calgary and Edmonton franchises back into the fold of the Northern League, the idea of a mega-league didn't quite come into focus.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Goodbye Golden League?

It's a sad day in the sports world whenever a franchise closes its doors. Seattle SuperSonics fans mourned the departure of their franchise moving to Oklahoma City. Cities that hosted Arena Football League teams saw them shut down in 2009 due to the economy (arena football has since been revived). And in the realm of independent baseball, it seems we are witnessing the inevitable demise -- or best case scenario, the incredibly drastic reshuffling -- of the Golden Baseball League.

The GBL, which played its first season in 2005 with eight teams throughout California and Arizona, finished its sixth season this September after expanding to a league-high 10 team format that stretched from Tijuana to Edmonton to Maui. Many thought the league's massive expansion, especially amid difficult economic times with dwindling crowds, would be the final nail in the coffin for the league. Yesterday, someone took a hammer to that last nail and began driving it home.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Packing it in: Dal 7, GB 45

After a third straight butt-kicking, it seems today will finally be the day embarrassed and desperate Dallas Cowboys fans get the bloodshed they have been craving since Alex Barron's holding penalty in Week 1. Jerry Jones and the team has a 4pm press conference today and the general thinking is that head coach Wade Phillips is not expected to survive the announcement.

I don't know what he could have done, being a completely impotent head man under Jones with no true authority of any kind. But it is clear that this team doesn't play hard for him. And if he's not even willing to bench people during games who aren't trying, then there is nothing left to do but to remove the head coach.

Jerry Jones said that people "will suffer" as a result of Sunday night's 45-7 loss in Green Bay. I should hope so.

At this point, the Cowboys need to wipe their personnel slate clean. Not just at the head coaching spot, but everyone on the field needs to realize that they are playing for their position on this club in the future.

Tashard Choice should be the No. 1 running back. Marion Barber is not what he used to be and Felix Jones looks lost. Other than Dez Bryant, is there anyone who isn't a starter that is clearly pushing for playing time? Don't think so.

With as bad as the offensive line is, let's just take them all out and throw the backups in. Let them try to earn their stripes. It's not like they can be any worse. The defense is terrible. Other than Demarcus Ware, not one of the other 10 starters is a lock to have a spot on this club in the future. Anthony Spencer and Mike Jenkins used to look like the future of this defense. This year, they are so bad it's embarrassing. Jenkins isn't even trying. We've seen him make "business decisions" before, but sadly he hasn't learned from that. HIT SOMEONE!

Today Wade Phillips is gone, but that in no way is going to fix the mentality of this team. Thank goodness Romo was already hurt because the last thing this organization needs is the false hope that Romo might provide under center. This season is a loss. It has been since the loss to Tennessee.

So while thing "quick fix" of firing a coach is only the first step, there are too many other steps that still need to be taken for this organization to show any sort of turnaround before the Cowboys wise up and hire a tougher head coach.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010


What an amazing ride, huh?

The Texas Rangers fell short of baseball's ultimate prize, and while there are no moral victories in sports, I still come away from this postseason run, the first postseason "run" in franchise history with an overwhelming sense of team and civic pride. For the years I've lived in Southern California, I have slogged around Angel Stadium in my blue Rangers jersey whenever Texas came through, all the while knowing I sat at the bottom of the division's totem pole, merely a guest at the house of the big bad Angels.

No more.

The Rangers won the American League West. They won the American League Pennant. Hell, they even won a World Series game. And while it might not be the ultimate prize like the Angels took home in 2002, there is no longer the shame of never having tasted success. Now I have. And, at the risk of becoming greedy (as admittedly I am with the Cowboys), I want more.

I don't have time now to break down what this series has meant and why it's meant that much, but to put it briefly and bluntly: on this Tuesday, November 2, 2010, the morning after the Texas Rangers were eliminated from the playoffs in Game 5 of the World Series one thing is clear: I am more than ever before proud to be a Texas Rangers fan.

Thank you, Texas Rangers, for rewarding my loyalty and for whetting my appetite for more postseason baseball.

It might be time to put the Claw and Antlers shirts back in the closest, but I'll leave them in front of the Romo jersey for quick access when the 2011 season opens up.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Back in the swing of things (SF leads TEX, 2-1)

The Texas Rangers offense, designated hitter restored and all, sprung to life in Game 3 of the World Series for a 4-2 win over the San Francisco Giants on Saturday night as Arlington hosted its first Fall Classic contest.

Just a few quick points to consider about a game that breathed new life into the Rangers after dropping the Series first two games by the Bay:

+ Cliff Lee is great and all, but is there any doubt that Colby Lewis has been equally as important for Texas in this post-season. He now has all three home playoff wins in Rangers club history: Games 2 and 6 against the Yankees and now Game 3 against the Giants. Hopefully a couple of other Texas arms can pick up wins at Rangers Ballpark before the weekend is out.

+ Mitch Moreland's homerun with two outs was big for a few different reasons, but one of the more overlooked aspects of his shot was this: he is the No. 9 hitter. Now, it's not a big deal to get that kind of production for a No. 9 hitter. At some point, everyone who is in the lineup in there because they are capable of producing. It's because because if this game is in a National League park, Moreland is batting 8th and the pitching spot is ninth, which means that three-run homerun probably isn't coming.

+ Michael Young helped quiet the catcalls of "Roger Dorn" with a couple of nice stabs at third base. 1,500 regular season games before he finally makes the playoffs, and don't for a second think that he'll let his post-season legacy be defined by balls that fans think he coulda-shoulda-woulda gotten too.

+ Neftali Feliz had to wait until the Game 3 of the World Series for his first save opportunity. If people thought the young closer might falter on baseball's biggest stage, that certainly didn't show. His first pitch was a strong strike one, and he struck out the first and last batter's he faced in a 1-2-3 top of the ninth inning. There was a very long fly ball that Jeff Francour wrangled in at the warning track for Out No. 2, but Feliz went right back to work after the catch was made.

The Giants lead the Series, 2-1, but Texas seemed energized by the home crowd in Saturday night's game. If they can continue to feed off a fan base starved for success, the Rangers should be able to erase a 2-0 series deficit by the end of tonight.

And speaking of starving for success, I'm off to Arlington for today's Dallas Cowboys game...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Walk 'Em, Texas Ranger (SF leads TEX, 2-0)

Holy heck, that was terrible.

My initial reaction to that game is going to be one big blur plus the most embarrassing meltdown in DFW sports playoffs since the Mavs were up by 13 points with 6:28 left in Game 3 of the 2006 NBA Finals. This was worse than the Cowboys going down 21-0 in the first quarter to the San Francisco 49ers in the 1994 NFC Championship Game. The Texas Rangers bullpen looked like they were trying to raise money for cancer or AIDS or some other cause because they sponsored a walk-a-thon in the eighth inning, coercing a 7-run frame from the San Francisco Giants en route to a 9-0 loss in Game 2 of the World Series.

Texas is now down 0-2 in the best-of-seven series, and while this is not over by any means, we are coming to find out that Rangers starting pitching must be counted on to go eight innings and hand the ball directly to Neftali Felix. Don't even let another reliever breathe on the ball at this point.

[Bullpen] It was a strong effort by Darren O'Day in the bottom of the 8th inning to keep things close for Texas. Despite a lengthy at-bat by Andres Torres to lead off the inning, O'Day got him fishing for a slider outside for the first out. Three pitches later, he retired Freddy Sanchez before Buster Posey singled up the middle. Ron Washington went back to the bullpen for Derek Holland to face Pat Burrell. One day after O'Day looked rather ordinary in Game 1, it was nice to see him bounce back in Game 2.

On the flip side of that coin, Holland threw 11 straight pitches outside the strike zone and walked three consecutive batters to push a third run across for the Giants. It seemed the ghost of Rick Ankiel usurped the body of Derek Holland and went to work. Wash replaced a nervousfaced Holland with Mark Lowe, but Ankeil's spirit remained on the mound. Lowe walked Juan Uribe to make it 4-0 Giants, and Edgar Renteria worked the count full for before smashing the Giants into the win column in Game 2 with a two-run single through the left side of the infield. The Rangers could have scored two runs in the top of the ninth. Maybe the 3 or 4 they would have needed. But with Renteria's single making it 6-0, that pretty much iced this one.

And as if their was any doubt Michael Kirkman surrendered a two-run triple to Aaron Rowand as the Giants took an 8-0 lead in the bottom of the 8th. Andres Torres, who led off the inning seemingly a half hour earlier, singled to make it 9-0 before Sanchez struck out to end the embarrassment. FOX's Tim McCarver said it perfectly: "The Giants are winning with pitching again, but not theirs."

The Rangers bats went silent for the second straight night, and while it's not crazy to think they could have put two runs across in the top of the ninth inning with Cruz/Kinsler/Murphy due up (plus Vlad Guerrero available as a pinch hitter), they had no purpose in even stepping in the batters box in the ninth with the game already out of hand.

Even in the World Series, an 0-2 deficit is not insurmountable. Not all is lost. It only seems that way right now.

Had the Rangers not just taken all of us on emotional rollercoaster series against Tampa Bay and New York, perhaps I wouldn't be handling this as well as I am right now. It's not panic time yet, but it's getting close. With each playoff series, the losses hit extremely hard and the wins float the fans onto cloud nine.

But in a city where the prized Dallas Cowboys are 1-5, the Rangers bullpen appeared to be working their hardest to leapfrog them for the honor of Most Embarrassing Sports Entity in DFW.

Second-guessing baseball is such a crapshoot because you can have the exact right strategy that for whatever reason is executed near-perfectly and still lose in this game. But what I cannot understand is why Ron Washington felt compelled to lift Darren O'Day from the game with two outs and a runner on first with backup outfielder Nate Schierholtz due up. O'Day is a righty, Schierholtz is a lefty, so bringing in Derek Holland does ostensibly provide the benefit of a lefty-lefty match up, but if a guy is pitching well, then frankly it just doesn't matter what side of the plate the batter is on.

Some other thoughts on Game 2 of the World Series:

Frantic-Lee? Take is easy (SF leads TEX, 1-0)

Apparently it's Armageddon for Rangers baseball. At least, that's the general sense I get from national sports pundits and any halfwit who started watching baseball in October.

The San Francisco Giants handed Texas Rangers ace Cliff Lee his first career playoff loss, chasing him from the game in the fifth inning in their 11-7 Game 1 win. Lee, who had a two-run lead after two innings, had been lights out throughout the ALDS and ALCS but more than stubbed his toe in the World Series opener on Wednesday.

What amazes me though is how not only did everyone seem to pencil in two wins for the Rangers in this series based on Lee's otherworldly presence alone, but now that he has demonstrated abilities of yet another mortal or muggle, many seem ready to cast off the Rangers chances to bring home baseball's championship.

The Giants are now up 1-0 in the Series, but by no means is this thing over. And even though it was a loss to what others were ready to declare the godly Lee, Texas has been here before. In fact, you could make the case that the Game 1 loss in the ALCS to the New York Yankees was a much worse loss, a much more damaging body blow. In that game, the Rangers led 5-0 before surrendering six unanswered runs to NYY and falling to 0-7 at home all time in the postseason. In the World Series opener, they succumbed to one bad inning that broke things open for the Giants.

Unless the Rangers get swept, Cliff Lee will be making another start in this series. That means he might only *gasp* win one game for Texas in this Series ... just as he did in the ALCS for the Rangers. Yes, Texas desperately needed him to be everything he was and is to get past Tampa Bay. But this organization didn't not need to lean heavily on Lee to get past New York. They received one win from him. And if the Rangers can get just that one win from Lee in the World Series, then their odds to bring a championship to the Metroplex are strong.

Don't write off the Rangers because you think Lee turned back into a pumpkin.

He didn't. And they aren't done. It's a long best-of-seven series, and the Rangers will see the Series shift back to Texas after tonight's contest. If the offense can jump out to a healthy lead against Matt Cain, Texas is right back in the thick of things.

A few other thoughts on the first game in Texas Rangers World Series history:

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Shouldering the blame: NYG 41, Dal 35

Before I get into the smoldering rubble that is the Dallas Cowboys 2010 season, let me just point out that a win against the Giants yesterday would not constitute officially "saving the season" but merely the necessary first step in what would have needed to be at least three straight wins to get back within striking distance. So lets put the hallucinations of Dallas climbing out of the grave with this win to bed because it would have taken much, much more than a Monday Night win against New York to bring this club back from it's ugly 1-4 start.

When NYG linebacker busted through the offensive line untouched and drove Tony Romo to the ground, breaking his clavicle, that effectively ended the Cowboys season. As we learned in 2008, this is not a team with a strong backup quarterback since, what?, Bernie Kosar in 1993. There have been teams who have rallied behind a backup QB, but those typically aren't the teams that commit 10 penalties per game and drop to 1-5 despite having a 20-7 lead and forcing a bushel of takeaways.

Game over. Giants 41, Cowboys 35.

For the first time since 2005, the Cowboys won't be going down to the wire to determine their playoff positioning. Instead the 2010 campaign will focus on draft positioning more than anything. And just one year after winning a playoff game for the first time in over a decade, they officially will not have a chance to build on that accomplishment.

What is even more disappointing is that the Cowboys seemed to realize the trajectory of their season well before the clock hit zero. The "give up" was palpable and thus the season was over before the end of the game not because of Romo going down but also because of how the Cowboys responded to that challenge. If adversity is supposed to reveal the truth and character of a team, then the metroplex just got a rude awakening about America's Team.

With an opportunity to rally the troops, make a stand and fight off the division-leading Giants, instead the Cowboys defense crinkled, crumpled and crashed on five straight New York possessions, allowing four touchdowns and a field goal as the game -- and the season -- slipped away forever. It's not that the defense had to keep up their video-game pace of three takeaways on the Giants first four drives, but they allowed TD drives of 80, 56, 55 and 70 yards. The one time the defense effectively "held" was to turn a NYG short-field possession into only a field goal, but even by that point the handwriting was on the wall.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Must Win III: for reals this time

Monday night the Dallas Cowboys host the New York Giants at the Death Star in what will be the third straight MUST WIN game for the trendy North Texas pre-season Super Bowl pick. The 1-4 Cowboys get their second crack at a division opponent of the year, and while it seems no one is quite ready to pronounce the season over for this squad, a loss to the G-men should represent the end of 2010.

Dallas has been close in each defeat, losing by 6, 7, 7, and 3 points in their four losses. But they are officially out of life lines.

People talk about waking up on the wrong side of the bed, and that's exactly how 2010 began with Alex Barron's holding penalty that negated the last-second game-winning touchdown in Washington in Week 1. It seems like life has spiraled out of control since that flag hit the turf at FedEx Field.

The Cowboys went on to get picked apart by Jay Cutler -- the same guy who thew four interceptions today -- in a Week 2 loss to Chicago. And any spark from the Week 3 win at Houston was extinguished during the ensuing bye week, kicking off a string of every game is a must win game for Dallas. And they are responding to that pressure about as well as Terrell Owens responds to not getting the ball. Then came a string of "must win" malfunctions...

Friday, October 22, 2010

Who is the real ALCS MVP?

Much has been made of a number of Rangers' players. While Cliff Lee is the Rangers' unquestioned ace, a single (albeit exceptional) win in game 3 in no way qualifies him for ALCS MVP. Perhaps one looks to traditional big guns: Josh Hamilton, Vladimir Guerrero, or Nelson Cruz?

Not a chance. Cruz hit some big claws this series and Vladdy had some bit hits as well, including the bust-it-open shot in the bottom of the fifth. He had 3 RBIs today. Josh Hamilton (who was just named the actual series MVP) had 4 HRs this series, tying a record, but the Yankees basically put a stop to anything else he could do to them by intentionally walking him a record 5 times throughout the series.

Switching gears again, if you want to choose the best Pitcher this series: Colby Lewis. Just no doubt. Two huge wins. The first and the last. He allowed only 3 runs in those two games. Unfortunately, even Colby doesn't make the cut.

The Rangers won this series plain and simple behind Elvis Andrus. No doubt. No question. And here's why:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Within a claw's reach (TEX leads NYY, 3-1)

Is this happening? With each blast of a Rangers boom-stick, the thought of being a game away from a pennant became a clearer and clearer picture. Yes, the Texas Rangers.

The Rangers bullpen answered its critics and atoned for what has been the only solid inning by the Yankees of the entire series. Derek Holland tossed 3 and 2/3 innings of relief to earn the win as Texas pulled away for a 10-3 victory in Game 4, pushing the New York Yankees to the brink of elimination. And while I'm sure the entire borough of the Bronx, not to mention all the Manhattanites as well, are buzzing about why the Yankees didn't pitch CC Sabathia on short rest instead of throwing AJ Burnett into the fire.

But until Bengie Molina's three-run homerun that leapfrogged Texas ahead of New York, Burnett had been pitching very effectively for the Yankees. He kept the Rangers off balance early, however all the fears of Yankees fans were realized not five seconds after TBS finished showing a montage of Molina's three homeruns from the 2005 ALDS against New York. Montage over. Bengie crushes one. Burnett goes bye bye.

Texas never looked back.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Triumphant-Lee (TEX leads NYY, 2-1)

Broadcasters, pundits, bloggers, and the rest of the sports-loving world can talk for a week leading up to a game about what to expect from a pitcher or a given player. And since Cliff Lee dominated the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 5 of the ALDS to send the Rangers to their first playoff series win in franchise history, it seemed that everyone was ready to declare the Rangers victors of Lee's planned start in Game 3. I hate that. It always seems that when something is a "lock" to happen, especially around North Texas sports, it doesn't.

Except Cliff Lee.

Are you freakin' kidding me?

Lee shut out the Yankees through eight innings and could have worked the ninth had the Rangers not erupted for a 6-run 9th inning. His 13 strikeouts gave him a MLB record of at least 10 strikeouts in three straight games in a single post-season. But what blows my mind is that after hearing about what he's capable of and what he would do for a week, he still went out and did exactly that.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Same old stupidity: Dal 21, Min 24

The Dallas Cowboys are consistent. They can move the ball offensively to the delight of many a fantasy football owner, but they also make the aggravating, kick-to-the-groin mistakes that has rendered this franchise helpless at 1-4 on the season.

This team isn't finding new ways to lose. They are losing the same way each and every time: bogged down in penalties and missing out on a win by just one possession. This week, the Cowboys fell 24-21 in Minnesota, the site of last year's playoff exit and this season's essential elimination from any meaningful contention.

Dallas is now 2.5 games behind third-place Washington (3-3) with both New York and Philadelphia leading the NFC East at 4-2. It's no longer a case of Dallas fading fast. They have pretty much faded out, and barring one of the most meteoric rises in a second half of an NFL season, Dallas can look ahead to 2011 (if in fact there will be a 2011 NFL season).

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Getting Even (ALCS tied, 1-1)

One day after the Texas Rangers couldn't hold onto a 5-0 lead against the New York Yankees, they again found themselves leading 5-0 in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. Show of hands, who was nervous?

Kinda hard not to be nervous. The Yankees are a juggernaut of an offense capable of teeing off on anyone at any time. The Rangers bullpen is young (well, except for Darren Oliver) and new to the playoffs. But for 3 and 1/3 innings, they preserved a healthy lead over New York to take Game 2 of the ALCS, 7-2, for the franchise's first home playoff win.

Manager Ron Washington seems to be egging on the home crowd and the fans' antler craze, orchestrating a double-steal in the first inning which cashed Elvis Andrus from third base to put Texas ahead, 1-0. David Murphy demonstrated why he should be in the lineup, despite the broadcasters saying otherwise seconds before he took out his boomboom stick and went deep to right field. Three RBI-doubles later, Texas had more than enough runs, but against the Yankees, it never seems like enough.

Starting pitcher Colby Lewis finally got the run support that seems to evade him during the regular season, tossing 5 and 2/3 innings as Rangers starting pitching again stifled the Yankees. Washington went to the pen, giving the ball back to three of the five relievers involved in the Game 1 meltdown the day before. Clay Rapada, Alexi Ogando, Darren Oliver and Darren O'Day kept New York off the board until the ninth inning when Neftali Feliz took the ball.

While Feliz struggled with a pair of walks, he ultimately was able to record the final out, inducing a fly out to deep left field that Nellie Cruz tracked down to send this series to the Bronx, tied 1-1.

Since Game 5 of the ALDS against Tampa Bay, everyone and anyone around baseball has been chirping about Cliff Lee. Cliff Lee. Cliff Lee. Now is when the Rangers need him most, for him to be at his best to steal Game 3 at Yankee Stadium and put Texas ahead in the series. Lee is undefeated in the playoffs in his career and had great success against the Yankees last year in the World Series, pitching the Phillies to their only two series wins before eventually losing in six games.

For so long, the Rangers have given the metroplex a reason to doubt, a reason to worry. Game 1 of this series is a classic example. But could it be that Cliff Lee is the complete opposite, providing a reason for legitimate hope that Texas could in fact return to Rangers Ballpark for Games 6 and 7 and potentially take the American League pennant in 2010? The concept itself seems absurd to this longtime Rangers fan, but that is what Lee and this squad are doing.

They are running hard. They are aggressive both on the base paths as well as from the mound attacking the strike zone. They have the power at the plate. This is, in fact, a team that can compete for a World Series just three wins away.

This is the Texas Rangers? Believe it or not.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Yanked around in Game 1

No one said it would be easy. For either team.

When the Texas Rangers jumped on top of New York Yankees ace CC Sabathia early, perhaps the DFW metroplex was again lulled into a false sense of security, an eerily similar feeling to being up 2-0 over Tampa Bay in the Division Series. But just as the Rays put a serious scare into Texas by winning the next to games in Arlington, the Yankees beat up the Rangers' bullpen for six unanswered runs to steal Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, 6-5, at Rangers Ballpark.

Josh Hamilton, who struggled in the previous postseason series, blasted a three-run homerun off Sabathia in the first inning, and Michael Young added a two-RBI hit in the fourth, Sabathia's last inning of work. Texas held a 5-0 lead and had vanquished the Yankees aces, something that isn't likely to happen again in the series.

Blowing the lead -- thanks to the shaky relief pitching of Darren Oliver, Darren O'Day, Clay Rapada and Derek Holland -- is not only big because it cost the Rangers a playoff game, putting the Yankees a quarter of the way toward the World Series. But it also creates major concerns about pretty much any Rangers relief options from this point forward. And short of using starting pitchers on their 3rd day of rest to work a relief inning, Texas is stuck in the position of having to dance with who brung 'em.

Take a look at how the Rangers pitchers did last night:

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Holy Claw! The Rangers are going to the ALCS!

After 50 years of waiting, the Texas Rangers let the rest of Major League Baseball know that they were no longer available for league-wide doormat services. The last franchise to have never won a playoff game shed their ignominious descriptor and stifled the Tampa Bay Rays to advance to the first American League Championship Series in franchise history.

Perhaps the Rangers should give the entire $3 billion of the new TV contract to Cliff Lee... just throwing it out there.

The left-hander totaled a pair of wins and 21 strikeouts against no walks between games 1 and 5 of the best-of-five series, including a complete game in Tuesday night's 5-1 Rangers win at the Trop.

The first time the road team won every game of a MLB playoff series is so much more significant to the North Texas region than for it's anecdotal details. This is history for the Rangers. And with a guy like Cliff Lee, it's hard to completely dismiss their chances against the Yankees in the ALCS.

Tonight the Rangers ran with the urgency of a team on the brink and the reckless abandon of a franchise that had to simply "figure it out" by any means necessary. Each of the first three runs Texas scored were manufactured -- in every sense of the word -- by aggressive if not jaw-dropping base running.

Fast Felix jumps the Barbarian

I have a hard time believing today's report that Wade Phillips is keeping Marion Barber as the starting running back for the Dallas Cowboys over back up Felix Jones. It's not a matter of is this the right call or not -- on the surface it's not -- but rather the true issue is does this really matter?

The answer: No.

Marion Barber can be the "starting" running back in 2010, that's fine, just as long has he is the "starter" the same way that Julius Jones was the Cowboys "starting" running back in 2007. He can be on the first on the first play of the game. Good for him. But at the end of the day, it isn't a question who will receive the bulk of the carries.

In 2007...

Monday, October 11, 2010

Needing a win, now more than ever

Maybe I got caught up in the hype. I wanted to believe it could be so easy after too many crash-and-burn playoff performances from the Dallas-area teams. But there were the Texas Rangers, leading the Tampa Bay Rays 2-0 in the best-of-five series on the brink of winning the first playoff series in franchise history.

The Rangers needed to win just one game at home in two tries to secure a berth in the American League Championships Series against the New York Yankees.

Instead the Rays - five outs away from going home despite the AL's best record in 2010 - came from behind to win Game 3 and beat up on the Rangers in Game 4 to force the deciding fifth game back in St. Petersburg.

Texas is now 0-6 all time at home in the playoffs with two losses in 1996, and one in both 1998 and 1999, all against the New York Yankees. However the Rangers are going into a place for the deciding fifth game where they have already won twice and, despite dropping the last two games, will have their ace Cliff Lee on the hill.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Plethora of Penalties: Ten 34, Dal 27

No, the Cowboys season isn't over, but the trendy pre-season Super Bowl pick took a catastrophic step backward in a penalty-filled and defensively-lacking game at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Dallas committed 12 penalties for 133 yards as the Tennessee Titans took advantage of continuous Cowboy miscues, dropping the Cowboys 34-27.

Dallas (1-3) had its chances to win, but much like their neighbors at the Ballpark in Arlington, they came up short and extremely disappointing. Perhaps the most glaring of what became a comedy of errors was Mike Jenkins nearly allowing a quick-strike touchdown after a Tony Romo interception in the end zone. Romo's pass off Martellus Bennett's fingertips finding its way into Michael Griffin's hands was fluky, but Jenkins failing to make sure he touched down Kenny Britt was a microcosm for the entire game.

Vince Young completed what appeared to be an 80-yard touchdown pass to Britt before the Cowboys successfully challenged that he was down by contact, with Jenkins placing a gentle hand into his back before clutching at Britt's jersey as he went to the ground. Jenkins then meandered on without any regard for Britt, who got up and sprinted to the end zone. Maybe Jenkins *just knew* that he had him down, but the fact that he stopped playing because he thought the play was over is basically what the Cowboys did all game, and frankly all season, long.

Dallas isn't playing it out, playing until the whistle, and now they are going to be playing from behind in the NFC East as they try to secure what will most likely be a wild card berth at best into the 2010 playoffs. Several Cowboys defenders bounced away on tackling attempts and failed to wrap up on too many occasions leading to plenty of extra yards for the Titans.

Tennessee intercepted Tony Romo three times, the final pick coming with less than a minute left after the Dallas defense made a late stop to give the offense one last-gasp breath to try to tie the game. The defense failed to take the ball away at all for the third time in four games this season, and at the times when Dallas came up with big stops to halt Tennessee drives, the Cowboys offense came up short going the other way.

Dallas is quickly going from Super Bowl favorite to playoff outsider before the season's midway point. They could potentially turn it around, but the spark required to start that fire doesn't appear to currently be a part of the organization in any way. There are no easy fixes; only hard work and added hustle can fix what the Cowboys are ailing from. Finish plays, maintain focus, and cut down on penalties, and maybe just maybe this team can play a few extra games in January. If not, Dallas can watch the playoffs pass them by as the Super Bowl makes it way to Arlington without them.

A few other thoughts on a game that increased the sales of Rogaine in the DFW area:

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Rangers Raise the Bar

For much of their history, the Texas Rangers have been a fun to watch also-ran. Sure, they hit the ball hard, they hit the ball far. But for years the team that provided plenty of excitement offensively never had the pitching to go along with it -- not to mention how once-mighty bats would become sheepish during the three stints the Rangers did wander into the post-season.

This season, the Rangers battled. Pitching. Defense. They could hit. They could run. This team did it all. It came to fruition on September 25 when they clinched the American League West and advanced to the postseason for the fourth time in franchise history. It gave the metroplex a chance to celebrate the Rangers, to recognize the Rangers. A tip of the cap and moving on.

Not. So. Fast.

The Rangers going into the playoffs was almost a novelty in North Texas. Three short series against the Yankees in 1996, '98 and '99 molded that perception. But with the Rangers now leading the Tampa Bay Rays 2-0 as the best-of-five ALDS shifts to Arlington, this is no longer a novelty act.

This is a team that has a shot.

And with a 6-0 shutout of Tampa Bay this afternoon, the lowly Rangers shed themselves of a losers light and put themselves in position to no longer be referred to as the only team in the Major Leagues never to have won a post-season series. Now, for the first time ever, this team has a realistic expectation of success.

Simply making the playoffs is no longer enough.

It wasn't something we could declare after the Game 1 win. Cliff Lee could have been just a hired gun, someone to win one game before the Rangers bowed out as they had in 1996 after taking the first game from New York. But C.J. Wilson's pitching performance let the baseball world know that this series would in fact be the Rangers official coming out party. They have arrived on baseball's October stage, and they aren't going to be taken lightly again.

In a region where football is king and everything else is fodder, the Rangers are rising up and demanding the attention of their market. The Claw. The Antlers. And now, a 2-0 lead in the American League Division Series. A win on Saturday completes a sweep and sets up Lee to pitch Game 1 of the ALCS. It also makes permanent the legitimacy the Rangers are forging this October.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Rangers ruffle Rays

What a big win today for the spring-in-their-step Texas Rangers. The American League West Champs rode Cliff Lee's arm for seven innings and 10 strikeouts in a 5-1 who over Tampa Bay in Game 1 of the ALDS.

1-0, Rangers.

The only member of this Rangers squad that would be able to recognize post-season success other than Lee would be the man behind the plate today to catch him. So isn't it fitting that while the majority of this roster is toe-dipping into the playoffs for the first time, Lee and catcher Benji Molina cannonballed into the deep end of the pool. Molina paced Texas with three hits including an early RBI single and a solo home run.

It's a great start to the ALDS for a couple reasons. Obviously it's a Game 1 win which means even more in this short best-of-5 series. But more importantly the guys without playoff skins on the wall had a chance to get a taste of the playoffs without being counted on in the clutch just yet. How much more comforting is it now that Neftali Feliz has worked in inning and bounced back after putting two men no. The answer: LOTS.

Hang on to your antlers, because the Rangers have the series lead.

-- Sent from Gmail for mobile |

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Houston, you have a problem: Dal 27, Hou 13

The Dallas Cowboys were courteous enough to allow their neighbors in Arlington a moment in the sun yesterday as baseball's Texas Rangers clinched their first AL West crown in 11 seasons. But after allowing the metroplex less than 24 hours to celebrate the return of post-season baseball, the Cowboys returned the area's focus to football yet again.

Dallas reduced the Houston Texans to stepchild status in the battle for the Lone Star State with a 27-13 win, giving Dallas its first victory of the season while Houston suffered its first loss. Tony Romo connected with Roy Williams for two TDs, first-year placekicker David Buehler quieted his critics with a pair of long field goals, and the defense snatched its first three takeaways of 2010.

It's more than just the first win of the season. It's the all-around good game the Cowboys needed if they want to fulfill the dream of playing a Super Bowl in their home stadium. Let's be clear, however. Realizing that dream is still a long way away, and with 13 regular season games to go, Dallas is merely a fraction of the way there. Still, returning to the top of the division is a lot easier when you avoid falling to 0-3 to start the season.

It might be easy to get caught up in the return of what was an offseason full of Super Bowl hype surrounding the Cowboys. There will certainly be plenty of talking heads proclaiming the Cowboys to be officially back on track, but it takes more than a Week 3 win to earn a playoff berth. Dallas needs to put the blinders on and ignore that hype, ignore that talk which might be tough considering it will build for two weeks through the bye until the next game on October 10.

The Cowboys have three of their next four games at home and can realistically win all four games to find themselves at 5-2 at the end of October. They could also flounder in those games with only a home date with Jacksonville on Oct. 31 as what you could call a "sure thing" win. (Then again, didn't we think that about the Rams game a few years ago?)

There's a lot of potential for the Cowboys on the road ahead. Today they were fortunate to realize some of that potential while erasing the sour taste left by a pair of losses to Washington and Chicago.

A few thoughts and notes from a must-win game in which the Cowboys came through:

+ Roy Williams has needed a game like this since the trade that brought him to Dallas from Detroit in 2008. The former Longhorn caught five balls for 117 yards -- a personal best since joining the Cowboys -- and a pair of touchdowns, including a 63-yard breakaway that helped put Houston away with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Williams has endured plenty of criticism since joining Dallas and signing a big contract extension with little results. A game like this will hush the talk of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant being the No. 1 and No. 2 receivers for Dallas.

+ While Miles Austin had a quiet afternoon (2 catches for 20 yards), the rookie Dez Bryant continued to cause match up problems for smaller defensive backs. Bryant caught four balls for 50 yards, bringing him to 14 catches and 158 yards through three games. Glass half full, he nearly had a pair of TD catches against Houston except he was called for illegal touching when he was forced out of bounds and came back in on a 37-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. Bryant came down with another deep ball from Romo but was out of bounds on the front pylon of the end zone when he made the catch. It's two plays where as Bryant become more aware in the NFL, he will be sure not to allow defensive backs to use the sideline as an extra defender. For now, it's still progress for #88.

+ After losing the turnover battle the first two weeks of the season (-1 in Washington, and -3 against Chicago), it looked like Dallas may have to endure another season where the defense can limit its opponents on the scoreboard but can't provide the offense with a short field. The Cowboys took the ball away from the Texans three times to be +3 in turnovers, picking off Matt Schaub twice and forcing a fumble from the NFL's leading rusher Arian Foster. Mike Jenkins made the first INT which helped wipe away the memory of his illegal contact penalty that gave the Texans a fresh set of downs around midfield. It was on an overthrown ball from Schaub, but Jenkins was able to stay with it to ensure the Cowboys kept Houston off the board on that drive.

+ The Cowboys were able to generate 101 yards on the ground this week after running for only 36 against the Bears in Week 2. It's still not enough of a ground game to truly make opponents bite on play fakes. Instead the Cowboys were able to victimize a younger secondary through the air more despite what the ground game was doing rather than as a result of it. For now, that's fine, but perhaps Jason Garrett should pick one running back and let him get some moment as a feature back instead of going with this tricycle.

Dallas Rushing
M. Barber17553.2112
F. Jones7436.1015
T. Choice242.003
T. Romo1-1-1.000

Felix Jones provided a healthy yards per carry average, and maybe he can be what Julius Jones was not in 2007 when the Cowboys used Julius to start and Marion Barber as primarily at the end of each half to wear down an opponent. If we're not going to see Felix more prominently in the backfield, it'd be nice to see him back on the kick return team as he has already proven he is capable of taking a kick off to the house.

+ Just a funny moment from the referee asking the fans to "excuse me for a minute" when he needed to confirm the numbers of penalized players on the kickoff following Houston's fourth quarter field goal. I've never seen a ref more tempted to say, "Ah, $#@& it," instead of announcing the actual penalties.

+ Speaking of penalties, the Cowboys earned a win despite plenty of ugly penalties. Dallas was fortunate in holding Houston to a fourth quarter field goal which kept the Cowboys out in front by 11 after a Keith Brooking pass interference penalty was offset by a Texans holding penalty. Here is a look at the Cowboys penalties and penalty yards through the first three games:

Week 1@Washington1281
Week 2CHICAGO650
Week 3@Houston849

+ Kicker David Buehler, in his first year as placekicker, made a 49-yard field goal to close the first half and tacked on a 40-yard kick in the fourth quarter. After starting the year 2-for-4 with a pair of misses that changed how the Cowboys approached the end of each of the first two games, Buehler first-half ender was a nice appetizer for later this season when he will be called upon for more important kicks. It was good to see him get this opportunity after the Cowboys passed on long field goal attempts on their opening drive, opting to go for it on fourth down twice.

The Cowboys are 1-2 on the year, and with three of their next four games at home -- and the one road trip at what doesn't look like the intimidating return to the Metrodome in Minnesota that we might have been expecting before the season -- Dallas has a legitimate chance for a 5-2 record. Here's a look at what lies ahead for the Cowboys after next week's bye:

DateOpponentTime (CT)
Oct. 3BYE--
Oct. 10TENNESSEE3:15 pm
Oct. 17@Minnesota3:15 pm
Oct. 25
Nov. 7@Green Bay8:20 pm

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