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...

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