Sunday, January 31, 2010

Pro Bowl 2010

The NFL's All-Star game is today, between the Conference Championship games and the upcoming Super Bowl between the Colts and Saints. The game is in the Super Bowl host city of Miami, and the coaches for the AFC and NFC are from teams that advanced only to the Divisional Round of the playoffs this season, not the runners-up of the respective conferences.

As I noted nearly two months ago, this game was a looming pimple that at some point was going to have to be popped. Now the NFL has almost alienated the few fans who actually enjoy watching the Pro Bowl -- myself being one of them. This game does not do anything to truly help the continuity of the NFL's season. Worst of all, because so many soon-to-be Super Bowl participants and recent playoff participants have dropped out of the game, this Pro Bowl is being marred by a surplus of undeserving backups.

Yes, there are usually a few replacements from the initial roster, but this year there will be no players from the Colts and Saints, participants of Super Bowl XLIV, as well as so many other players who haven't had a chance to enjoy some down time or who don't see Miami as the lure that Honolulu is, and thus they bail.

Heck, NFC offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie was booted from the Pro Bowl squad for missing practice. You can make the argument that players don't care about this game, but it seems they care even less this season. Just take a look at the Pro Bowl Rosters for this year's All-Star event, and you'll see seemingly more replacements than original selections that will actually be on the field Sunday. Check the numbers...

Sunday, January 24, 2010

SB XLIV: Saints Colts

Initial thoughts on the match up for Super Bowl XLIV, this is going to be a great game to watch providing the Saints are able to get over celebrating their Conference Championship. If they can show up and play like the Saints we saw against the Vikings, they will provide a much tougher test than the Bears gave Peyton Manning and the Colts a few years ago.

It could be a potentially ugly match-up in Miami, however, if the Saints treat this victory as their Super Bowl, a la LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007, who wilted in the finals against the Spurs after winning the NBA's Eastern Conference. Just getting to the Super Bowl is so meaningful for the franchise and the city of New Orleans to represent the city's true resurgence. If anything, the Saints making the Super Bowl should shed some light on how parts of the city of New Orleans have not and will not ever come back. In all seriousness, it's a story worth telling and worth reminding people of.

The Vikings dominated the ebb and flow of the NFC Championship, out-gaining the Saints in total yards (475 to 257), total plays (82 to 55), time of possession (36:49 to 27:56). Offensively, the stats said it was all Minnesota. But it's hard to argue against the important of the turnover ratio. Five times a Vikings drive ended with a turnover, including a Brett Favre interception in the waning moments of regulation that cost the Vikes a chance to attempt a game-winning field goal.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Divisional Disaster: Dal 3, Min 34

The Cowboys had the momentum for four straight wins while the Vikings limped through December while managing to hang on to a first-round bye. It almost seemed too good for Dallas, with analysts and experts aplenty picking the Cowboys to upset the Vikings in Minnesota. Heck, some wouldn't have even considered it an upset. The Cowboys had momentum and a fierce defense while the Vikings had a 40-year-old signal caller and a shaky secondary.

But as the dust settles after Sunday's Division-Round Disaster for Dallas, the NFC Championship game will feature the two teams that looked to be on a collision course for a Super Bowl berth since the first half of the season. Minnesota defeated the Cowboys, 34-3, to advance to the NFC Championship against the New Orleans Saints with next week's winner representing the conference in Super Bowl XLIV. For Dallas, the season ends two games longer than the previous year.

It's easy to declare this season a success compared to the rest of the Tony Romo era. The Cowboys came on strong to win the NFC East and a playoff game, ending a 13-year drought of postseason struggles. But one week after getting the monkey off the back of head coach Wade Phillips (now 1-5 in playoffs), that mangy ape hopped right back on. A successful season? It doesn't feel like it.

With one game left (NYJ at SD) in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, each of the home teams who enjoyed a first-round bye has faced little if any competition from the Wild Card Round winners. Dallas became the latest victim as the rested Vikings abruptly ended the Cowboys season, a season which looked more and more like something that could result in a Super Bowl berth. Had the Cowboys beaten Minnesota, it would have been a rematch against the Saints, which was proven possible a month ago. Not so fast, Dallas.

Cowboys-Vikings halftime report

The Cowboys just completed their worst half of football in over a month, trailing the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome, 17-3, after two quarters. Dallas has encountered more problems in one half than they have in every game since the last loss on December 13 against the Chargers.

Tony Romo has fumbled three times already, losing two of them. His last fumble was half a season ago (9 games). He's been pressured plenty, already being sacked four times.

Left tackle Flozell Adams was going to have a hard time facing pass rusher Jared Allen. Now the Cowboys are in even bigger trouble with Adam out with a strained calf. While his return is questionable/doubtful, it's prognosis negative for the Cowboys protection schemes. Doug Free got plenty of playing time in place of Marc Columbo for half the season, but that was on the other side of the line. And if the Cowboys continue to use Jason Witten to help on Jared Allen -- which by the way didn't work when Allen strip-sacked Romo -- then Dallas loses a solid target in the passing game.

The miscommunication on the offense is apparent. The Cowboys were lucky on a tipped ball where Witten and Miles Austin were in the same area.

Only once in franchise history have the Cowboys come back from a 14-point deficit in franchise history, according to the Fox halftime show. That's a hard stat to believe, considering the long history of the franchise dating back to 1960, but for a Cowboys team that hasn't dwelled on the success/failures of past Cowboys teams, don't expect that stat to bog them down.

Speaking of stats, here's a breakdown of this game through the first half:

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lane Kiffin returning to USC

The reports have just hit the airwaves that former USC offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will return to the Trojans as the successor to Pete Carroll as the program's next head coach. Kiffin is walking away from the University of Tennessee after one year as head coach in the SEC (with a 7-6 record). My initial reaction as Trojans fan and alum: I like it.

Consider the lack of options out there for the next coach of the program. Frankly my first choice would be Pete Carroll, followed by Pete Carroll, and then my emergency plan would be to hire Pete Carroll. Unfortunately that is not an option as he was introduced this morning as the next coach of the Seattle Seahawks. The Trojans made a play for Oregon State's Mike Riley. Then Jacksonville Jaguar head coach Jack Del Rio.

But with the announcement that Lane Kiffin will be named the next Trojans head coach, the USC faithful should be just as enthusiastic about the entourage that Kiffin brings with him from Tennessee. Former Tampa Bay Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is just as much a defensive guru as Carroll, and former Trojans recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron is coming back as well. Those three men have the ability to take the existing talent pool and run with it. More importantly, they can continue the recruiting life-blood of this program as Kiffin and Orgeron know the Southern California recruiting trails.

UPDATE 6:51pm: Norm Chow to return as offensive coordinator. This is the football equivalent of getting the band back together. Kiffin himself may not have a ton of experience, but with the staff of coaches he is building, the Trojans are going to be a force again atop the Pac-10 in 2010.

UPDATE #2 1/13/10: The latest reports say that USC AD Mike Garrett wants to pursue Norm Chow, but an agent for Chow told ESPN that there has not been any contact between the school and the current UCLA offensive coordinator.

Kiffin's tenure as offensive coordinator was a bright one at USC with the exception of not having Reggie Bush on the field on 4th and 2 against Texas in the 2006 Rose Bowl.

To put into perspective what some of the current Trojans are thinking, he's a quote from Brice Butler, Trojans receiver, from an article about the news on ESPN's website:

Tailback Allen Bradford and Barkley were among the leaders who called a team meeting before the offseason conditioning program began Tuesday, while receiver Brice Butler and Barkley planned to call all of USC's prospective recruits to urge them to stick with the Trojans.

"I would just tell them what my dad told me: 'Don't commit because of a coach, because that can change,'" said Butler, who came to USC from Georgia. "You've got to commit because of a program, and this is USC."

Butler is right. This is USC, and this a program that is historically capable and destined to be elite. It has been in the past. Carroll resurrected it after a lull, and now Kiffin has been tabbed to carry the torch.

Despite lingering potential NCAA sanctions and violations allegations, Kiffin is ready to bring back his hot-shot offense to the Coliseum and give Traveler plenty of reason to run. For Trojans fans, they have plenty of reason for optimism. Kiffin can get the job done at USC, and we're about to see it happen.

Here's the official announcement from USC's website:

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Wild Card Win: Dal 34, Phi 14

Stop counting.

The 4760-day streak between playoff wins is over.

The Cowboys blitzkrieged the Eagles for the second straight week to win the franchise's first playoff game in 13 years, 34-14. Dallas dominated early by controlling the clock and scoring consistently with five consecutive scoring drives in the second quarter. Dallas opened up a 27-7 lead at the half and led in time of possession, 22:53 to 7:07.

And while the Cowboys offense didn't do much in the second half, they didn't really need to. Wade Phillips' defense suffocated the Eagles for the third time this season. Dallas outscored Philly 78-30 in three meetings this season. All talk of how difficult it is to beat the same team three times only applies when one team doesn't flat out own the other. And this season, as Al Michaels said during last night's broadcast: "In the NFC East this year, the Cowboys have owned the Eagles this season. The Eagles owned the Giants, and the Giants owned the Cowboys. And everybody owned the Redskins."

Yes, it's true. The Giants may have owned the Cowboys in 2009, but they aren't in the tournament. Dallas faced Philadelphia again, and the results were the same.

And after decisive wins against the Saints and the division clincher last week against the Eagles, this playoff win now takes the place as the biggest win of Phillips' and quarterback Tony Romo's careers. For now.

Off the top of my head, I can't think of the last time the Cowboys scored on five straight drives like they did in the second quarter on Saturday night. Just as devastating to Philly is that while the Cowboys were scoring, the Dallas defense, dubbed by the Morning News as Doomsday II, held Philly to just nine second quarter plays after the Michael Vick touchdown throw. Meanwhile, the Cowboys had 28 plays in the same span.

Statistically, it was a blowout. However there are plenty of teachable moments for Wade Phillips' defense. Mike Jenkins has been a top cornerback in the division this season. His emergence solidified a secondary that desperately needed balance opposite Terence Newman. He nabbed an interception late in the game but fumbled the ball back to the Eagles on an ill-advised lateral attempt. Tony Romo finished the game without an interception on the stat sheet, but thats more because of a good challenge by Wade Phillips instead of Romo's flawless decision-making.

The Cowboys did make mistakes. They just did a better job of masking them.

Dallas ended it's playoff drought by not only being a better team but playing like a better team. They are now on a four-game winning streak and are heading to the Vikings to take on a quarterback that moves around more in the offseason than in the pocket. If the secondary can limit the number of open targets, Brett Favre will face the heat from the Cowboys pass rush. And while he will take chances to force some throws, that's when the closing speed of Newman, Jenkins and Gerald Sensabaugh comes into play. Against Philly, each had a leaping breakup of a Donovan McNabb pass.

And while it's not as simple to extrapolate run defense data from the Eagles game to the Vikings game -- last night, Chris Collinsworth did say at one point, "for Eagles fans who don't know, that was a run" -- the Cowboys should be able to contain Adrian Peterson on the ground while sticking with Favre's strong options in the passing game. For the Cowboys to keep winning, it will be because of their defense.

Now for a few more thoughts on the first Cowboys playoff win since ... my Bar Mitzvah (geez, this has been too long!)...

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Carroll heading to "Starbucks Nation"

It seems the days of Pete Carroll running the USC Trojans football program are done. For years, Carroll has been courted by a half-dozen NFL teams in the past, but he hadn't ever been seriously offered a chance to run a franchise.

The Seattle Seahawks are reportedly giving him that chance. Five years, $35 million.

And while the last nine seasons of USC football have been some of the most prosperous - including seven straight Pac-10 titles and BCS bowl berths, three Heisman Trophy winners, two National Championships - it's hard to argue with Carroll's departure. It would have been great to have him become a Joe Paterno or Bobby Bowden for USC, guiding this program for the next 20+ years with a strong national presence. But the right situation has evolved in Seattle, and Carroll has been looking for that situation since his last NFL head coaching stint in the 90s.

His enthusiasm revitalized a college football powerhouse starved for success. He energized the Cardinal and Gold, winning the AP National Championship in just his third year, and the BCS Championship in his fourth. The Carroll era at USC was by any definition a dynasty.

After Thursday's BCS Championship game, college football experts were ranking the preseason Top 5 teams, and USC was No. 4 or No. 5 on most every expert's list. People around college football know what Carroll is capable of, and they know the kind of talent he has stockpiled in Los Angeles. Returning this program to the top after an otherwise forgettable year under Carroll's standards wouldn't be too difficult a task. As long as the Trojans had Carroll, they'd be fine. And now, they don't have that.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Cuban right to be upset; trust me

With Mark Cuban coming out against the NFL scheduling the Dallas Cowboys playoff game on Saturday night, I have to side with the Mavericks owner. The Mavs are hosting the Utah Jazz on Saturday night, and while the Cowboys/Eagles playoff game may very well be the "biggest" of the first-round playoff games (and NBC's night games are usually the "biggest" games of the week, supplanting the once higher-profile Monday Night Football games of ABC fame), Cuban is right to be upset.

As a native to Dallas and someone who has attended countless Cowboys and Mavericks games in my lifetime, I wouldn't even consider going to the Mavericks game on Saturday night if I was given free tickets. I realize the Mavs are having a great year so far, and Utah is a tough opponent. No doubt this could be a playoff preview. However the Cowboys are in the playoffs now. And Cuban is sadly not far off the mark in calling the Mavs and the NBA pissants compared the Cowboys and NFL in the region.

If I had to choose one to win a championship, it's the Cowboys without hesitation.

And I love the Mavs. I don't want the Dirk years to end. I remember the suffering of 11-71 and 13-69 seasons in the early 90s, however the Dave Campo era Cowboys were even worse to deal with. At least when the Mavs were terrible, the Cowboys were winning Super Bowls.

If you had reservations at Chili's but were invited to dinner at Del Frisco's steakhouse, you're blowing off Chili's. Sure, an Old Timer Burger is great, but one piece of meat is clearly a cut above the other. And come Saturday night, I'll check my phone for the Mavericks score. At halftime, I might even change the channel to see how it's going. But don't think for a second that priority #1 is anything but the Cowboys quest to advance in the playoffs for the first time since two years before Dirk was drafted.

Monday, January 04, 2010

NFC East Champs: Dal 24, Phi 0

The Cowboys have exorcised their December Demons. Now they much conquer their January Jitters.

Wade Phillips' defense posted a second consecutive shutout as the Cowboys rolled to a 24-0 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles to clinch the NFC East and a home playoff game next week, setting up a rematch between Dallas and Philly. The franchise's first-ever posting of back-to-back shutouts gave the Cowboys their third-straight win -- most among all playoff bound teams in the NFC -- and cost the Eagles a chance to clinch a first-round bye.

For all skeptics who say the Eagles held back and figured they'd just regroup to get after the Cowboys next week, I say hooey! No team capable of playing for a first-round bye lollygags through their final game to not only miss out on a week off but also forfeits any chance of a home playoff game. Oh sure, perhaps once the fourth quarter rolls around and Philly was down 24-0 they let up a little, but it's not like they pulled starters.

Dallas had everything to play for and came through to avenge last season's crushing 44-6 loss at the Linc to end the year and cost the Cowboys a shot at the postseason. Now the Cowboys are NFC East Division champs for the second time in Wade Phillips' three seasons as head coach.

The only real glitch of the day seemed to come late in the fourth quarter when the massive video board went out.

The Dallas defense worked efficiently to keep the Eagles off the field and the offense held the ball for more than 40 minutes. The Cowboys dominated every facet of the game to bullrush the Eagles, and while this game may not "count" as much as next week, that does not mean the contest was meaningless. Quite the contrary. The Cowboys now advance to the playoffs with something they haven't had in a decade: momentum.

More thoughts on the Division-winning day:

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Turn out the lights!

With just over two minutes left in the Cowboys-Eagles game on Sunday, you could turn out the lights on Philly's chances of winning the NFC East and clinching a first-round bye. In fact, someone at Cowboys Stadium must have taken that literally -- or tripped over a cord somewhere -- as the Godzillavision screen and the display ribbons around the stadium all went dark.

It took about a minute for it all to come back on. Here is video of the ordeal:

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