Sunday, December 18, 2011

'Boys Buc up: Dal 31, TB 15

Dallas built up a monster first half lead that -- despite the doubts of the Twitter community -- even the Cowboys (8-6) wouldn't blow. Tony Romo tossed three touchdowns and ran for another in a 31-15 win at Tampa Bay much needed victory for morale (if not for the playoff picture) after a pair of narrow losses centered around missed field goals and poor time management.

Before dismissing this win as "a game the Cowboys should have won handily" which it was, that doesn't make it easy to do. How else do you explain the Rams rising up to beat the Saints this year. Or anything Denver has done the last six weeks? The Cowboys knew they had an inferior opponent on the road, and they handled their business. The last time Dallas was in that situation, facing a weaker team on the road that they "should have" beaten, the Arizona loss happened. So while the 4-10 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going nowhere quickly just a year removed from going 10-6 and missing the playoffs (allowing the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers to sneak in), nothing is guaranteed.

Romo led all four Cowboys TD drives in the first half, and Dallas led 28-0 at intermission. But the gaudy and primarily-first-half numbers Romo was able to tally (23/30, 249 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT) was more the result of an offensive line that was able to keep Romo upright, even when he was running into them on his own. The Cowboys offensive line has had serious issues this season, but they were able to overcome against a hapless Buccaneers team. In fact, at one point, Romo used what has to be the funniest snap count I've ever heard, "Come on, Phil!" beckoning for center Phil Costa to snap the ball.

On his first TD pass to Miles Austin, Romo had 7.5 seconds to bounce around the pocket, more than twice as long as a quarterback should hold the ball. The Bucs on 3rd down and goal only rushed three, dropping eight into coverage. On his second TD pass, a completion to the facemask of Dez Bryant, Romo rolled away from pressure and got rid of the ball within four seconds. When Romo passed to Laurent Robinson for the third Cowboys TD, he had five seconds to work with before rolling right and getting out to the numbers before finding his TD target.

Without running back DeMarco Murray, the Cowboys leaned heavily on Felix Jones, matching a career-high 22 caries for 108 yards, the first time in his career Jones has strung together consecutive 100-yard games. In fact, the running back we've seen the last two weeks has not looked like the No. 28 of the last couple years. That guy wasn't here during the first 12 games of 2011 -- had he been and had he remained healthy, Murray never would have exploded onto the scene. Perhaps Jones' injury, making way for Murray, gave Jones an up-close look of running tougher. The "Fast Felix" we saw during his rookie year still exists, as we saw during last night's 38-yard run to help set up Romo's TD pass to Laurent Robinson.

Romo spread the ball pretty equally to his receiving targets, as six Cowboys finished with at least three catches and no one with more than five. All three wide receivers -- Austin, Bryant and Robinson -- hauled in scoring catches, while tight end Jason Witten led the Cowboys with 77 receiving yards.

Defensively, Rob Ryan said before the game that he would fix the problems his unit showed in previous weeks. The Dallas defense looked less like "Doomsday" for opponents than for the Cowboys, unable to prevent long scoring drives against Arizona in overtime and New York in the 4th quarter over the last two games. The first impression from last night's game had the Cowboys defense on its heals as Bucs QB Josh Freeman scrambled 25 yards on 3rd and 5 on the game's first series of downs, but Anthony Spencer (who couldn't wrap up a sandwich last week vs. New York) chased down Spencer as he began to scramble on the very next play, stripping him after seven yards. Bradie James recovered the fumble, and the Cowboys took over with a short field. Seven plays later: 7-0, Cowboys.

With how well the defense played, this game can be looked upon like the DeMarco Murray conundrum after he ran roughshod over the St. Louis Rams. Murray's breakout game came against an awful run defense, but if you're not going to succeed against the bottom-feeders of the league, there's no way you will against the cream of the crop. Until his injury last week, Murray had been a solid back, proving his effort against the Rams was no fluke. Hopefully for the Cowboys defense, this game will be a similar launching point as pivotal December games continue.

How good was the Cowboys defense? And just how bad is the Tampa Bay offense?

The Buccaneers first drive, they gained one first down on the long Freeman run one play before Spencer's forced fumbe. After that, they didn't pick up another first down until the clock was inside of 6:00 in the 3rd quarter. After forcing a turnover, Dallas forced four 3-and-outs in the first half.

The Cowboys offense gave up just as many scores as the defense. Romo was strip-sacked on the first drive of the second half, and the Bucs defense returned the ball walking distance into the end zone.

When the Bucs offense finally touched the ball in the second half, they used 6:15 off the clock to put together a strong 12-play touchdown drive with a successful two-point conversion to pull within two scores, 31-15, with one quarter still to play. Tampa Bay turned the ball over on downs on both of their 4th quarter drives, and the Cowboys short-handed running game managed to churn down the clock as if Marion Barber was still in that three-year window called his "prime." In the 4th quarter, Felix Jones carried three times for 21 yards, and the just-signed-off-his-couch Sammy Morris proved serviceable with seven carries for 17 yards (he finished with 12 caries for 53 yards).

It does seem baffling that Dallas would need to give Morris 12 carries considering he admitted to reporters that he'd all but retired until his phone rang after DeMarco Murray's season ended last week. Dallas could have brought back Philip Tanner, who has been with the Cowboys since training camp and runs very similar to Murray, but despite Tanner saying he felt he could have been back this week, Dallas put him on IR last week to save a roster spot for John Kitna who then went on IR himself with a back injury. It's not that Morris wasn't good enough on the 12 caries he had -- he was -- but it's easy to get away with a journeyman running back against the sluggish Tampa Bay defense. Make no mistake, the days of Monte Kiffin's defense are long gone. If Morris can be as productive against the Eagles and Giants to finish the season, Dallas can win the NFC East. But in the event he transforms back into a pumpkin in Week 16, Dallas could be in big trouble when Felix Jones needs a breather. And if Jones gets hurt, forget any farce of a running game.

This team will go as far as Tony Romo and the defense will take them.

Dallas now prepares for a rematch of the only one-sided loss they've suffered in the Jason Garrett era. The Cowboys lost to the Eagles by 27 points on October 30. The teams other five losses this season are by a combined 20 points. In fact, under Garrett, the Cowboys have gone 13-9. Adding in the three losses last season under Garrett (3-point losses to the Saints and Eagles, and a 1-point loss at Arizona), the Cowboys have lost eight games under Garrett by the same point total as the single loss to Philadelphia earlier this year. Point being, it was an aberration for this team. And come next week, the Cowboys can set themselves up with a rematch against New York for the division crown. They must beat the Eagles for that to happen. Dallas is no longer in the position where it can rely on other teams to help them back-door into the postseason. Win and get in, starting with the Eagles at Cowboys Stadium.

Friday, December 16, 2011

In defense of Tony Romo

A couple friends over at the Stubborn OXen sports blog asked for my two cents today on Tony Romo: franchise quarterback or franchise disappointment. Here is how the dialog started followed by my response:

Austen: The more I watch Tony Romo, the more I am confused by what he actually has to offer the Cowboys. I have long been a defender of him, despite hating the Cowboys and the entire state of Texas. However, this season is making me reconsider what I think about this guy. I feel like he has lost more games for the Boys this season than he has won.

Is Romo a top 10 quarterback? Does he have what it takes to get this team to a Super Bowl? Is he simply a good quarterback who just falters under pressure? What do you make of Romo?

Romo. Franchise quarterback or franchise disappointer?

Stally: Before we get going with this question, let me introduce Josh Feldman. Josh writes one of the few blogs we follow, No Joshin'. He's a sports broadcaster and a lifelong Cowboys fan, so he should be able to provide some good perspective on what's going on in Dallas. Now, to my answer...

Tony Romo's a franchise quarterback in my mind. I'm glad he's not running my team, but I have Tom Brady. Thank goodness I'm not, but if I were a Jets fan and given the option of Romo or Mark Sanchez, I'd take Romo without putting much thought into it.

Romo's a playmaker that finds a way to distribute the ball to all the different weapons he has. Sure, he's got some solid targets out there in Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, but where would guys like Miles Austin and Laurent Robinson be with a league average QB (like Sanchez)? Probably muddling around as slot receivers like Brandon Stokley after he left the Colts (kinda like the Jets' Jeremy Kerley).

The biggest issue is that Romo lacks confidence late in games. This is a mental issue, and something that's capable of being overcome. It's not a question of talent and it's not something that affects his whole game (like being soft, in Blaine Gabbert's case, for instance). He (and the Cowboys) remind me of my pre-2004 Red Sox. They'd always give me hope that they'd win the big games, but, deep down, I always feared they'd lose it and those fears were usually realized in heartbreaking fashion. But, as the Red Sox have proven, that didn't mean they weren't capable of one day figuring it out.

Tony Romo is basically the anti-Tim Tebow. He plays well for 55 minutes and then has some sort of mental block late that usually results in a stupid decision. The difference between the two is that Romo is legitimately a very talented quarterback and he shows plenty of intelligence and poise for much of the game. If Romo overcomes whatever mental issue he has that hinders him late in games, there's no reason why he and the Cowboys can't be one of the best teams in the league and contend for a Super Bowl. Not only this year, but in the next several.

Austen: Ever since I started watching Romo, I have compared him to Brett Favre because of his gunslinger mentality, and I think that still holds true today. He tends to throw balls into tight coverage often and makes throws while he is being hit or falling down, trusting in his athletic ability maybe a little too much. Like Favre, he is desperate to make a play, yet they do this for very different reasons.

Favre always wanted to make a play because he wanted to be a hero. It was his ego that drove him to try to attempt the impossible because the payoff for him was the glory of making a spectacular play. In Romo's case, it seems to be having to do with his own confidence problems, which leads him to try to make a play in order to prove himself to the media and the Cowboys' fans. Romo just needs to settle into his role as a starting quarterback and find some sort of confidence from all the talent he has.

His main issue as a quarterback is his leadership skills. His inferiority complex clearly effects his ability to lead others and that is why the Cowboys as a team seem to always fall short. Obviously a lot of that falls on the quarterback, but this is a team problem and not a Romo problem.

Had Dan Bailey made that field goal against the Giants, which was set up by Romo driving right down the field with 30 seconds left on the clock, Romo would have looked like a hero. Instead, everyone gets to nitpick possibly his only bad pass of the game when he overthrew a wide open Miles Austin on third down. Considering Austin has missed the majority of this season, is still not playing at 100%, and now claims that he lost the ball in the lights causing him to slow down, I'll give Romo a pass for a game in which he threw four touchdowns and had to overcome the loss of their star rookie running back.

The Cowboys defense has been awful this year and has put a ton of pressure on Romo. The Cowboys simply cannot win games when they give up so many big plays on broken coverage, which allowed the Giants to score two touchdowns in about three minutes.

If Romo just finds a way to be confident in his skills and to steps up into a leadership role on this team, the Cowboys could be scary good once they sort out their defensive backfield.

Oh my, where to begin...

First, let's start with what I believe is the question at hand -- is Romo a top 10 quarterback/franchise quarterback? -- before refuting and clarifying some of the beliefs, misinformation and fallacies about Tony Romo.

Is Tony Romo a top 10 quarterback? The easiest way to answer this is by simply going through the Cowboys schedule one week at a time and with each match up determining which quarterback you'd like on your team. It's an easy proposition for teams with Aaron Rogers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees (Super Bowl winning quarterbacks), but with a controversial QB like Tony Romo whose dynamic comebacks and clutch performances are only surpassed by the glorification of his failures.

The other quarterbacks on the Cowboys include Mark Sanchez, Alex Smith, John Beck, Matt Stafford, Tom Brady, Sam Bradford, Michael Vick, Tavaris Jackson, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Moore, John Skelton (Kevin Kolb was injured), Eli Manning, and Josh Freeman. Only Tom Brady and Eli Manning are legitimate quarterbacks to argue having over Romo. In fact, other than teams with the obvious franchise quarterback, someone who already has hardware in the trophy case, tell me another quarterback you'd want instead of Dallas' #9?

Those fringe franchise quarterbacks include Philips Rivers (who appears to be on a mission to get Norv Turner fired based on his play), Jay Cutler (who was nearly run out of Chicago after last year's NFC Championship game), and Michael Vick (who is about as healthy as one of his dogs). Tony Romo has shown more consistency over the last five seasons than all of those quarterbacks. By a long shot.

There are other quarterbacks like Tim Tebow, Joe Flacco, Alex Smith, Mark Sanchez. Their teams win, but arguably in spite of their quarterbacks, not because of them.

How importantly is a quarterback? Just ask the winless Colts.

Is Tony Romo a franchise quarterback? Absolutely. If he played for a franchise like the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions or Arizona Cardinals -- teams that really haven't had a franchise quarterback in the last 50 years or ever -- Romo would be the greatest QB any of those teams could ever hope for. But Romo is cursed with the same thing Troy Aikman had to deal with: following a legend in Dallas. Never mind that Aikman didn't come to Dallas until '89 and Roger Staubach retired almost a decade earlier. There was a six-year gap between Aikman and Romo too, but in Dallas, it's all about the Super Bowl winning QB, and until you bring home the thing, you'll forever play in the shadows of those who did, fairly or not. That is what Tony Romo is up against.

Is he a franchise quarterback? Yes. Has he lived up to the ridiculously high Dallas Cowboys fans' definition of a franchise quarterback? No, and no one will until the Lombardi Trophy returns to Dallas.

If anything, Romo gets better as the game goes on. There have certainly been exceptions this season, but take a look at those "exceptions" more closely, and you'll find that over his career and even in 2011, Romo has been plenty good in the 4th quarter.

If you had to name the top five 4th quarter quarterbacks in the NFL so far this season, who you put Tony Romo in that group?

If not, you'd be wrong. Tony Romo has posted a 103.9 rating in the 4th quarter this season, and based on the stats compiled by the Washington Post, only trailing Eli Manning, Aaron Rogers, Tim Tebow and the (always throwing because they're behind before he was hurt) Jason Campbell. See for yourself...

Frankly, this notion that Romo has a confidence issue -- a notion that y'all continue to perpetuate without basis -- sounds more like something out of a Cialis commercial than an NFL locker room. Where does this even come from? Austen, you made the point you feel like Romo "has lost more games" than he has won. Stally, you claim Romo is the anti-Tebow, turning back into a pumpkin during the final five minutes of the game. Both assertions need to be addressed.

Romo In The Clutch: This issue has been so overblown, I feel we need to start much farther back than this year (I promise, we won't go snap by snap, but you almost have to in order to make people see the light on this guy. Why he's such a lightning rod, I guess that has to do with the star on his helmet and the position he plays, but look at where he came from and what he accomplished.

An undrafted rookie free agent, Romo only made the Cowboys roster in 2004 after starting QB Quincy Carter was released after a positive drug test, severing the franchise's ties with the man who the team invested a second round draft pick in and who led them to the playoffs the previous year before losing to eventual NFC champion Carolina. Romo watched Vinny Testaverde, Drew Henson and Drew Bledsoe lead the Cowboys pretty much nowhere before taking the reigns six games into the 2006 season and leading Dallas to a wild card berth. If not for the botched hold by Romo, he would have led the Cowboys in an upset over the defending Super Bowl champions on the road. Keep in mind, the only reason it had been such a chip shot field goal is because Romo had led Dallas down the field to put them in position to win. As I wrote in 2006:

This year, Romo proved that he has what it takes to be the quarterback in Dallas. Without him, the 'Boys may not have even made the playoffs. Making the Pro Bowl was no fluke; the final five games of the season were.

The Bobble will not be as catastrophic as "The Catch," which not only launched a dynasty but crumbled another at once. Instead, it will most likely be looked back at as Romo's humble beginnings after a career of success.

A gaffe like that could have buried the undrafted rookie free agent now at the helm of America's Team. How was he supposed to come back from that? Parcells left following the season, and Romo managed to "pick up the pieces" en route to a 13-3 season in 2007. The record alone is impressive for a season-year starter (technically, his first full season, but really, it was Year #2 for Romo).

The fingerprints for Romo's comeback abilities trace to this season on a Monday night in Buffalo. Dallas trailed the Bills by 24-22 after a failed 2-point conversion with :20 to play in the 4th quarter. Keep in mind, Romo had already led Dallas on what could have been a game-tying drive in the 2-minute drill that would have forced overtime had T.O. not dropped the 2-point try. The Cowboys recovered an onside kick, and Romo completed two quick passes to set up a 53-yard field goal by Nick Folk. In fact, the only loss Dallas suffered that season prior to December came at the hands of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. (By the way, Stally, beating the Giants in the playoffs that year -- and Dallas would fail to do -- was not as easy as it seemed, would you agree?)

Romo had another great comeback in 2008 in Arizona, only no one remembers the game for anything other than the blocked punt that ended it. The Cowboys trailed the Cardinals by 10 points with two minutes left in the game before Romo led a pair of scoring drives to tie the game and force overtime. On the first play from scrimmage in overtime, Romo was hit awkwardly and broke his finger. Three plays later, the game was over. To any Romo detractors, I ask you this: how did Dallas fair without Romo that season? It wasn't pretty. There was a loss to the St. Louis Rams mixed in there -- and they were worse then than they are now!

There are other examples of Romo's clutch performances leading up to this season (leading a game-winning drive at Washington in 2008, Miles Austin's breakout game at Kansas City in 2009 (someone was throwing the ball), comebacks against Philadelphia and Washington in 2009, plus ruining the Saints perfect season that same year). In an injury-shortened 2010 season, Romo had Dallas on the brink of another comeback win if not for Alex Barron's holding penalty on the final play of the season opener in Washington. Obviously, there are games during the last five years where Romo has faltered, but the point is he does have a healthy pattern of success as well.

Romo This Season: In the season-opening loss to the Jets, Romo did throw a poor interception, but his other 4th quarter turnover -- a fumble while diving for the goal line is exactly the type of play that demonstrates why a Cowboys quarterback is playing against a stacked deck when it comes to the judgment he'll receive. If he'd slid feet first inside the five yard line, everyone would challenge his heart for not pushing toward the end zone. His criticism in this game was results-based. The interception was bad, absolutely, but the fumble would be like criticizing John Elway had he fumbled on his helicopter run during Super Bowl XXXII.

The very next week in San Francisco -- keep in mind this wrapped up a grueling four-week travel schedule that included games in Miami, Minnesota, New York and now San Francisco (in other words, all edges of the country) -- Romo overcame some terrible play-calling (the Miles Austin run) and led the Cowboys on a game tying drive before connecting with Jesse Holley in overtime for a long pass play to set up the game-winning field goal.

He did throw three second half picks against Detroit. How Bobby Carpenter returned one for a touchdown, it must have been Romo's present to a member of his wedding party. In that game, however, the Cowboys had not yet stumbled upon what they had in DeMarco Murray. It's easy to look back and say "they should have run the ball" but until that point, Murray hadn't had his breakout game against the Rams, and Felix Jones was running timid.

In fact, Romo has led potential game-winning or game-tying drives in each of the Cowboys last four games, seeing his efforts come to fruition against Washington and Miami with successful Dan Bailey field goals and watching the Cowboys crumble after Jason Garrett's timeout and Jason Pierre-Paul's block against the Cardinals and Giants. To say he hasn't gotten it done in the fourth quarter is to only look at the final score, not at how the Cowboys arrived there.

His leadership skills aren't a problem. This "confidence" question is unfounded.

Austen, your point about the Cowboys problems being team problems is spot on. Check the defense and special teams in some of the Cowboys losses. Dallas has lost six games, and the first two (New York Jets and Detroit) can be put squarely on Romo's shoulders. However the losses in New England, Arizona and at home to New York could have all resulted in wins with better 4th quarter play from the defense and special teams (the loss to Philadelphia was a blowout, so a lot would have had to work out differently).

Tony Romo offers the Cowboys a chance to win more often than "any given Sunday." Romo is the reason the Cowboys are a favorite most weekends. And unless you have a team with a quarterback who already has hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, you don't have a quarterback better than him.

Ice Ice, Bailey & can we believe in Garrett?

Another missed field goal following a time out, and another crushing Cowboys loss to begin December 0-2. Is this really going to happen again?

The Dallas Cowboys' attempt to force overtime against division rival New York came down to Dan Bailey's right foot, but Jason Pierre-Paul blocked the 47-yard field goal to pull the Giants even with Dallas at 7-6, temporarily giving New York the tiebreaker in the NFC East. For Dallas, it's been another week of pondering two issues: 1. Did Jason Garrett learn to manage the clock by watching Andy Reid? And 2. Can Bailey make the clutch kick after a timeout is called?

Breaking down the Chris Paul trade aftermath

Two days after the most recent blockbuster trade that shipped Chris Paul from the league-owned New Orleans Hornets to the Los Angeles Clippers, the dust is still settling and some fans and franchises are left unsettled by how this happened. The end result, Chris Paul is now a Clipper, and the NBA office is about as credible as a politician. This deal was absolutely going to get done without a doubt, no matter what. It had to. If not, then David Stern would transform from pariah to parasite.

“Let’s not talk too much about how the sausage was made,” Stern said late Wednesday after the trade sending Paul to the Clippers had been completed.

Of course he doesn't want to focus on that. This is the same butcher who didn't wash he hands before grabbing fistfuls of meat.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Clippers/Hornets trade fiasco is why Stern must go

For the second time in less than a week, a trade that would send point guard Chris Paul from the NBA-owned New Orleans Hornets to Los Angeles has fallen through, and once again, commissioner David Stern is the reason.

Just days after Stern blocked a deal to send CP3 to the Lakers (who were willing to give up Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol in a three-team deal with Houston), the Hornets were once again back at it trying to wheel and deal the soon-to-be free agent, once again finding an interested buyer in the Southland. The Los Angeles Clippers stepped to the plate, working to create a package that would team up Paul with human highlight reel Blake Griffin. Instead, Stern upped the asking price to a point where the Clippers back out, and here we are.

You know something was amiss when the Clippers looked like they might become a contender. David Stern, however, was forced to raise the asking price at the 11th hour from the league-owned Hornets. Part of the controversy over killing the Lakers deal involved the fact that if the Hornets don't trade Paul, he leaves as a free agent after the 2011-12 season with New Orleans receiving zero compensation for his services.

When Stern, at the behest of other NBA owners, vetoed Hornets-Lakers-Rockets trade, he said the deal was nixed for "basketball reasons." As a result, the Commish painted himself and the Hornets into a corner. Stern must now as for a kings ransom and then some for Paul after turning down what was a more than reasonable offer from the Lakers. As a result, the initial offer made by the Clippers was deemed unacceptable, and Stern (yes, a league commissioner now negotiating a trade on behind of the Hornets), upped the anti. In fact, in this story from about the Hornets-Clippers trade, the name of the New Orleans GM isn't even mentioned. Why? Here's why...

At the NBA's direction, sources said, New Orleans was insisting upon the inclusion of both shooting guard Eric Gordon and Minnesota's unprotected 2012 first-round draft choice in addition to former All-Star center Chris Kaman and prospects Al-Farouq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe.

The Clippers found the demands "too steep," according to one source close to the process, even after Paul told the Clippers he would invoke the 2012-13 option in his contract as part of the trade, ensuring that L.A. would have him next to Blake Griffin for at least two seasons.

Just re-read the first four words of that paragraph again:

At the NBA's direction...

This is an atrocity. Fans of both the Lakers and Clippers should be outraged in Los Angeles. Hornets fans must worry whether or not they'll get anything for the lone bright spot since the franchise moved from Charlotte. And the rest of the NBA should be terrified of even attempting a trade now the league is making the "fairness" of trades its business. Teams win and teams lose in trades. It's not the leagues place to attempt to make it "fair" for everyone. And the fact that the NBA must now ask for a new starting five for Chris Paul just to save face after blocking the Lakers trade is a farce.

David Stern should be forced out, not by the 29 league owners he works for, but by the fans. Stern has a responsibility to act in the best interest of the game itself, not the 29 owners who have a loophole into the management of a team with a superstar on the verge of free agency. The commissioner is no longer acting to serve the game or the fans. He has abused the trust of both, and for that, his time at the top of the NBA must come to an end.

Giant collapse: Dal 34, NYG 37

How does this keep happening?!?

The most disturbing statistic that emerged from the wreckage of last night's Cowboys loss: the team has blown five leads of 12 points or more in franchise history. The first two occurred between 1960-2010, and three have come this season.

Dallas managed to capitalize on a pair of touchdown drives to open the fourth quarter, taking a 34-22 lead before the New York Giants scored 15 points over the final four minutes in New York's 37-34 victory that kicked every Cowboys fan between the legs and crippled even the strongest allegiance of backers of the blue star.

The Cowboys now trail the Giants for the NFC East lead, but with both teams tied at 7-6 and one game between them left on the schedule, each team still controls its own destiny. For Cowboys fans, don't worry about it though. That game, this season, should tell you all you need to know. Dallas had every opportunity to shut the door on the Giants and the rest of the division with a win. Sunday's game had many remarkable moments, and they will all be forgotten like Josh Hamilton's 10th inning home run in Game 6 of the World Series (yeah, remember how the Rangers had a lead in extra innings). Dallas entered this season projected to be around 8-8. If not for heartbreaking losses at the New York Jets and at home against the Detroit Lions leading to a 2-2 start, the team could be in contention for a first-round playoff bye. Instead the team may be saying bye to the playoffs before the first round arrives.

In the fourth quarter, Tony Romo connected with Laurent Robinson on a 74-yard pass to set up a six-yard TD pass to Miles Austin, giving the Cowboys a 27-22 lead with just under 13 minutes left in the game. On the Giants ensuing drive, the Cowboys defense did nothing to inspire confidence in an imminent Dallas victory. The Giants ran 10 plays starting from their own 20 yard line, including converting on 4th & 3 from the Dallas 37 on a 15-yard pass from Eli Manning to Mario Manningham. But on the 11th play of the drive with New York facing 3rd & 9 on the Dallas 21, Victor Butler tipped Eli Manning's pass and it somehow landed in the hands of Sean Lee. The second-year linebacker returned the pick to midfield, and two plays later the Cowboys were in the end zone when Dez Bryant defined wide open with a 50-yard TD reception.

34-22, Dallas. 5:41 left in the fourth quarter.

And yet, it's as if people pretend Eli didn't already lead a comeback drive in the Super Bowl against an undefeated New England Patriots squad that was destined to be known as the "Greatest Team Ever." Not to mention the fact that Manning did this just last week against the undefeated Packers only to leave too much time on the clock for Aaron Rogers to eek out a win.

Everyone knows the prevent defense "only prevents you from winning" but why do people keep going to it?

The Cowboys should be embarrassed by these losses. The loss to the Jets in New York was asinine, blowing the first 14 point fourth quarter lead in franchise history, but ultimately it had been pencilled in as a loss to begin the year. The collapse against the Detroit Lions seemed to be the result of something in Romo's brain "going rogue" in the second half. But this loss to the Giants, this reason for defenestration (yes, the English language has a word meaning "to throw yourself out of a window", from the french for window: fenetre), is the most disappointing of them all.

With a chance to all but close out the division (the magic number would have been 1 -- either one more Cowboys win or one more Giants loss) with three weeks left in the season, Dallas couldn't get it done. And everyone is responsible.

The Dallas offense put up great numbers. The team converted when it needed to on 3rd down. Romo & Co. was even able to get into field goal range with :46 seconds on the clock to set up a game-tying field goal (more on that later), but the offense had a chance to ice the game needing just two first downs when leading by five points with 3:41 on the clock. Instead, Dallas went three-and-out and gave the ball right back to Big Blue. Third down and five, Dallas opted to throw, which is fine despite the fact that an incompletion stops the clock. The risk-reward of that situation is :20 extra seconds for the Giants or a dagger in the heart of New York's playoff hopes. But when Dallas really, truly needed its offense to carry the load (because the defense clearly hasn't been able to do so), Romo lofted a ball over the outstretched arms of Miles Austin. It's being called a ball that was lost in the lights, but it sure looked like a blatant overthrow to me. Either way, it's unacceptable and it could have won the Cowboys the game.

Speaking of potential game-winning plays, Terence Newman dropped what could have been a tone-setting interception with nothing but open field in front of him. I understand the old saying of "if he had better hands, he'd be a receiver, not a cornerback, but there comes a point where you have to catch the ball and make the play. Rob Ryan's defense has certainly generated more turnovers than during the Wade Phillips era, but that's one pick the Cowboys had to have.

So many other Cowboys thoughts still to get to, but I need to let this simmer for a bit. More later.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Stern is full of it

With more details pouring out about the NBA's blockage of a trade that would send Chris Paul from the league-owned New Orleans Hornets to the mighty mighty Los Angeles Lakers, it's clear David Stern has either lost control or lost his mind. Both explanations are still clearly on the table.

Earlier today, you read about how a blockbuster trade was undone at the league office level. Now NBA Commissioner David Stern has said that this decision is based not upon the fact that the majority of the other 29 NBA owners (aka: the NBA, aka: the owners of the Hornets) didn't want the trade to go through. In fact, now Stern says it's because this deal was not in the best interest of the league-owned franchise. From the NBA:

"It's not true that the owners killed the deal," NBA spokesman Mike Bass said. "The deal was never discussed at the Board of Governors meeting and the league office declined to make the trade for basketball reasons."

Basketball reasons? Oh, please.

NBA blocking trade leaves no winners in its wake

"Somewhere, Chairman Mao is proud of David Stern."
- Brad Williams, comedian & Lakers fan

It's hard to disagree with these sentiments that have engulfed Los Angeles and the NBA realm in a conflagration of disgust and distrust. Less than a few hours after reports of a 3-team trade that would send New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers for Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol, an insurgency of NBA owners forced the hand of league commissioner David Stern to block the trade.

First, a few ground rules:

Understand that David Stern works for the owners, not anyone else. So when he makes a move to block this, it's because he must. His bosses, the other 29 owners, wanted this to happen -- at least a majority of them.

Secondly, this is the biggest problem with a league allowing itself, and thus by proxy it's other owners, to own a team. The New Orleans Hornets are a financial mess and have thus been returned to the custody of the league rather than an owner who can't pay his bills. As a result, feel free to think of the Hornets as owned by Mark Cuban, Jerry Buss, Michael Jordan, Paul Allen, Mickey Arison, and the rest of the NBA owners, each with 1/29th of a piece of the Hornets pie. Now the people in charge of the purse-strings of the organization have direct conflicts of interest as owners of competing teams.

So when David Stern axed the Chris Paul trade, they not only made a bold statement about the truth reign of terror power the league has when it owns one of its teams, but they inevitably hurt the three franchises involved, the Lakers, Hornets and the Houston Rockets.

The letter written by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert sums up exactly where the NBA owners, each owners of the New Orleans Hornets for the time being, are coming from in their rational to block the trade. Some don't want the Lakers to gain a competitive advantage. For others, it's all about the benjamins, baby:


It would be a travesty to allow the Lakers to acquire Chris Paul in the apparent trade being discussed.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

See ya, CJ

It's official. Texas Rangers ace C.J. Wilson is going home to Southern California, signing with AL West Division rival Anaheim -- oops, I mean the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim -- this morning. The Rangers home-grown ace inked a five year, $77.5 million deal to stay in the AL West after leading Texas to consecutive World Series.

Rangers fans need to realize a few different things on this note:

First and foremost, this is a significant loss. Don't talk about how "he choked in the postseason" or mention the hit batter with the bases loaded against the Cardinals. It's simply not relevant. The Rangers wouldn't have been in the World Series, let alone the post season without CJ Wilson's contributions. In 2011, he went 16-7 in 34 starts with a 2.94 ERA in the American League. He made 34 starts. Seriously, 34. Wilson worked 223.1 innings. Forget the fact that his numbers were outstanding, but who is going to eat up those innings for Texas in 2012? Martin Perez will likely debut out of the bullpen. Neftali Feliz needs to be stretched out from his role as a closer. Scott Feldman needs to stay healthy, and the Amish Assassin and 2010 Opening Day starter could move back into the rotation. But for now, nothing is certain except that Wilson won't be back.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

We (still) run LA: USC 50, ucla 0

What's the difference between a Pac-12 South Champion and merely a division representative playing in the conference championship game?

Answer: 50 points.

USC has spent the last two years with an arm, a leg and 30 scholarships tied behind its back. Still the Trojans made sure that anyone under the illusion of a closer gap between the two Los Angeles schools was abruptly slammed back to reality. By the end of the night, I couldn't tell if the chants of "One more year!" were for Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley or for UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel. Either way, it would be good news for USC.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Frisco Kilgore Highlights

Listen in to some of the audio highlights of the Frisco Fighting Raccoons and Kilgore Bulldogs 4A Div II playoff game from this weekend in Forney, Texas.

Frisco Kilgore 2011 Playoff Highlights (mp3)

Martin Trinity 2011 Highlights

Hear some of the highlights of today's Texas 5A Division I High School football playoff as Arlington Martin beat Euless Trinity, 19-7, to advance to the Regional Finals next week.

Trinity Martin 2011 Highlights (mp3)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thankful for a kicker: Dal 20, Mia 19

It didn't have the ease of the wins over Buffalo or St. Louis. It wasn't as meaningful as another season-sweep of the Redskins. But tonight's Thanksgiving Day victory over the Miami Dolphins is the best possible springboard for a franchise that desperately needs to avoid another disappointing December.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Vick-timized: Phi 34, Dal 7

My, that was unpleasant.

As if the Metroplex sports fan hadn't had a rough enough time seeing the Texas Rangers come perilously close to a World Series championship, the Dallas Cowboys -- almost on cue -- played their worst game since last season's clunker in Green Bay that resulted in the team firing head coach Wade Phillips.

First year head coach Jason Garrett hadn't been on the wrong side of a blowout until Sunday night's 34-7 drubbing at the Linc, but in a game where Dallas could have buried Philadelphia for the season, instead the Cowboys found themselves six feet under before the second quarter arrived.

The Eagles took the opening drive 79 yards for an early 7-0 edge. Dallas found its foot stuck in a bucket on 1st and 20 on the Cowboys first possession. After a punt to the Eagles 10 yard line, Philly drove 90 yards for a 14-0 lead. Three plays later, Tony Romo's pass to Martellus Bennett was bobbled and batted into the air where Nnamdi Asomugha gladly opened his arms to receive an early Halloween treat.

Game over.

The Eagles marched down the field yet again, this time a 61-yard drive to make it 21-0.

This loss was so ugly, I almost would have rather watched the David Freese walk-off home run from Game 6 of the World Series on a continuous loop instead of suffering through the second half of a game that had been decided long before intermission.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the loss is not that the Cowboys laid an egg under Jason Garrett. It was bound to happen. In fact, up until last week's blowout of the Rams, every single game under Garrett had been close (for better or worse). Every team throws up a clunker. Heck, the New Orleans Saints somehow lost to those same Rams just one week later. But the fact that it was this team that Dallas allowed to clobber them.

And the excuses only make it worse.

Philly was at home. Philly was desperate. A loss would virtually end the Eagles post-season hopes, a dagger to the heart of the dream team. They needed it more, and came out swinging. For lack of a better metaphor and with no pun intended regarding Michael Vick, if you corner a rabid dog, expect it to attack. And the Eagles did just that. That's what makes it so frustrating.

The Cowboys were in this spot a year ago. On the verge of being buried alive in a season that everyone hoped would end with a Super Bowl at the home stadium. Instead, the Cowboys suffered through an injury to the franchise quarterback and terrible loss after terrible loss, watching that dream turn into a nightmare. Dallas could have enacted that same nightmare on Philadelphia, the team that has virtually owned the division since Andy Reid took over. It didn't happen. Dallas came out flat, and now it's the Cowboys at 3-4 who have little chance to leapfrog both Philly and New York without getting on a strong hot streak in November.

Fortunately for Dallas, plenty more rams (and teams like the Rams) are available on the Cowboys' schedule for slaughter. If ever Dallas needed to take out its frustrations on a hapless organization just looking to get beaten, they've got Seattle coming to town this weekend.

And yet, it's hard not to think, just for a little bit, if any hangover from the defeat in Philly combined with a potential fast start from the Seahawks could result in another layer of dirt being tossed upon the Cowboys' 2011 season. Dallas cannot afford a loss to Seattle. Frankly, they couldn't afford a loss to the Eagles after letting games against the Jets and Lions slip away.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan referred to the Eagles as the "All-Hype" team before the season, and the Eagles lived up to it against the Cowboys. It wasn't the offense that hung Dallas out to dry. But when an opponent scores on each of their first seven possessions, there's no offense this side of "The Greatest Show on Turf" that can keep up. Maybe if Martellus Bennett makes that catch in the first quarter, the bleeding can stop if Dallas finds the end zone. A 14-7 score is still anyone's ball game. So is 21-7. But the Cowboys couldn't keep up with Philadelphia. Ryan's defense was impotent trying to stop Michael Vick (21-28, 279, 2 TD) and running back LeSean McCoy (30-185, 2 TD).

The Cowboys need to unleash hell on Seattle this week to get back to .500 at the season's midway point. A win is a win, but a squeaker against Seattle should signify the end of another fruitless Cowboys season.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Game 7: Still a hell of a run

The Texas Rangers fired every bullet in their chamber last night and fell short in Game 6 of the World Series, missing on a pair of opportunities to claim the franchise's first title when St. Louis found itself down to its final strike. Tonight, the Cardinals closed the series out in St. Louis, 6-2 in Game 7 for their 11th World Series championship. The fact that this team came so close -- again, one strike away twice in Game 6 -- makes it so much more painful, but maybe the most healthy thing Rangers fans can do is take a step back, or ten, and look at just how far this organization has come.

The Rangers made it to Game 7 of the World Series.

The Texas Rangers!

Last year's ride that ended against a super San Francisco pitching staff in five games was magical just to experience the Fall Classic for the first time. This season, yes, expectations were raised. Those expectations skyrocketed when Texas took a 3-2 lead going back to St. Louis. Those same high expectations came one strike away from reality -- twice -- before eventually succumbing to the Cardinals.

Part of me wants to go on a witch hunt for scape goats. My brother's graphic regarding Game 7 home plate umpire Jerry Layne's strike zone is a humorous beginning as we light our torches.

But the witch hunt doesn't need to start and stop at the Game 7 crew chief. Texas had its chances. This isn't the Dallas Mavericks in 2006 against the Miami Heat -- although it certainly crossed my mind more than once on Twitter, especially in the fifth inning when Scott Feldman allegedly walked Yadier Molina. When it comes down to it, however, the Rangers were in control of their own destiny and their carriage turned back into a pumpkin three nights before Halloween.

The bullpen that was so strong throughout the entire 2011 season, ALDS, and ALCS. That same bullpen disintegrated against the Cardinals in the Fall Classic. The pitching staff in general fell victim to walks that didn't come back to bite them in the earlier rounds of the postseason. Texas set a new record for walks in a World Series with 41 over this seven-game set, and too many of them came around to score.

In Game 7, the Rangers walked six batters (one intentionally) with three of them coming around to score. Scott Feldman walked in a run, and CJ Wilson hit a batter with the bases loaded to score another. Overall in the postseason, Texas played with too much fire (77 walks in 17 games) to not get burned. Here's a look at the walks, intentional walks, and subsequent runs during this playoff run:

RoundGameWalks (IBB)Scored
ALDS1 vs. TB2 (0)1
ALDS2 vs. TB4 (0)1
ALDS3 at TB5 (0)0
ALDS4 at TB3 (0)2

RoundGameWalks (IBB)Scored
ALCS1 vs. DET6 (1)0
ALCS2 vs. DET6 (1)0
ALCS3 at DET2 (0)0
ALCS4 at DET5 (1)0
ALCS5 at DET3 (0)0
ALCS6 vs. DET0 (0)0

RoundGameWalks (IBB)Scored
WS1 at STL6 (2)0
WS2 at STL4 (0)0
WS3 vs. STL6 (1)5
WS4 vs. STL3 (0)0
WS5 vs. STL9 (4)2
WS6 at STL7 (1)1
WS7 at STL6 (1)3
WSTOTAL41 (9)11

The Rangers walks were certainly part of the problem, but the bullpen's collapse -- a bullpen that looked like it would be the reason Texas would win the series -- became the team's fatal flaw over this seven game series. This team's starting rotation was never heralded as a great rotation like the 2010 Giants staff we ran into that featured Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgardener.

Somehow starters CJ Wilson, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison as well as regular season starter Alexi Ogando forged one of the most consistent starting rotations in the big leagues in 2011. In the post season, however, things got a little dicey. After starters earned decisions in all four games against Tampa Bay, the bullpen earned all four wins in the ALCS and two of the three victories in the World Series.

We didn't see the same bullpen against St. Louis. Alexi Ogando was un-hittable against Detroit in the ALCS and somehow looked liked a 2010 version of Derek Holland when he reached the World Series. Neftali Feliz had never blown a postseason save until Game 6 on Thursday night. Scott Feldman worked 8.2 scoreless postseason innings before allowing three earned runs over 4.1 innings in the Fall Classic.

Offensively, Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli were amazing. Adrian Beltre's bat -- the same bat that launched three home runs in Game 4 of the ALDS -- was perhaps out-shined by his glove-work at third base. But Josh Hamilton's power faded, save for the two-run home run in the 10th inning of Game 6 which might have gone down as the Kirk Gibson moment of the franchise if not for the Cardinals' amazing comeback. Hamilton and Mike Young seemed out of their element in the World Series. Not that the moment was too big for them, because I don't think it was, but they had opportunities that went unfulfilled.

Manager Ron Washington made some critical errors in Game 1 and Game 6, both costly losses on National League turf. But for anyone who is ready to get rid of the skipper, pull on the reins because Texas wouldn't be where they are if not for "Wash." He was not Boston's Grady Little leaving in Pedro Martinez too long in the 2003 ALCS. Washington was out-managed in a National League park by Tony LaRussa -- and I don't think anyone anticipated something different. Washington twice sent Esteban German to the plate in the World Series. He kept going back to Ogando out of the bullpen. And he opted for Darren Oliver in the 10th inning of Game 6 instead of giving Feliz another shot at a save (a move that I did agree with at the time).

The World Series is over. The season is over. But hopefully for Rangers fans, the fun is simply just starting. For anyone who wants to compare this franchise, now twice losers of the World Series, to either the Atlanta Braves or NFL's Buffalo Bills, go ahead. Considering where the Rangers have been for a majority of the franchise's history, to have a run of success like the Braves (five pennants and a World Championship while winning 14 straight division crowns) would be a much welcomed new era.

The future is bright in Texas, despite how dark it may seem tonight.

Loved the call, hated the moment

When St. Louis Cardinals hero David Freese belted a solo home run to dead center field to lead off the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, the Rangers fan in me cringed and tried to sink deeper into the couch. But as a broadcaster, I couldn't help but appreciate FOX's Joe Buck tipping his cap to his late father Jack.

"We'll see you tomorrow night!"

The same words that Jack Buck used to punctuate the dramatic finish of Game 6 of the 1991 World Series when Kirby Puckett launched a bomb over the left-center field wall.

Now those words are part of St. Louis Cardinals lore, the same team that featured Jack Buck as lead broadcaster for decades.

And while this tribute to his father is certainly significant -- not just for the World Series Game 6 parallels but also the fact that it was a Cardinals victory -- it's not the first time Joe Buck attempted a tribute to his father. In Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, the Boston Red Sox staved off elimination on a David Ortiz walkoff home run after midnight on the East Coast. Joe Buck capitalized on the moment:

"We'll see you later tonight."

Whether you love Joe Buck or hate him, anyone who has an appreciation for broadcasting knows exactly what was going on in that booth. All broadcasters have their vocal heroes they have either worked to emulate, blatantly or subconsciously. Ernie Harwell, Vin Scully, Jack Buck -- these are legendary voices, and in this era of broadcasters, hearing Joe Buck pay tribute to a man he no doubt admired as a broadcaster but also as his father was special.

Broadcasters of the world, I don't believe what I just saw! heard!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Game 6: Full for now-forgotten moments of Rangers greatness

I don't even know where to begin. I'm sick to my stomach. And while the Texas Rangers, my Texas Rangers, were on the receiving end of the ultimate kick to the nuts, the most crushing part of it might be the fact that I don't know how I'll be able to muster hope for tomorrow -- actually, for later tonight.

In a 4 hour, 33 minute, back-and-forth, eyelash-away-from-a-championship game -- TWICE -- the St. Louis Cardinals forced Game 7 of the 2011 World Series by defeating Texas, 10-9 in 11 innings in Game 6 to tie the series, 3-3. But while the number of games each team has won might be tied, the Cardinals have such a big lead at this point, I don't know how Texas is supposed to recover.

The Rangers twice had the Cardinals down to their final strike, not their final out, but their final strike, and couldn't get the job done. Texas led 7-5 in the bottom of the ninth inning before Neftali Feliz blew his first career postseason save in eight chances. One inning later, the Rangers lost a 9-7 lead after Josh Hamilton hit was could have been a legend-cementing home run. Instead, Hamilton's go-ahead home run in the top of the 10th inning, his first of the playoffs and first since September 25, will be forgotten like Jake Delhome's TD pass to Ricky Proehl with just under two minutes left in Super Bowl XXXVIII to put the Panthers ahead of the Patriots. But no one remembers that because of what happened next.

In the case of the 2003 Panthers, Tom Brady drove New England to a Super Bowl title. In the case of Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, Hamilton's blast was erased by Lance Berkman's game-tying single in the bottom of the 10th and David Freese's walkoff home run in the bottom of the 11th.

Hamilton's home run, for all intents and purposes, never happened.

Neither did the three St. Louis errors that led to a pair of unearned runs for the Rangers.

The back-to-back home runs by Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz? Vanished into a footnote.

Those same solo shots to begin the top of the 7th to put Texas ahead immediately after Michael Young's defense went to hell, Alexi Ogando reverted to a 2010-version of Derek Holland, and the Cardinals tied the game 4-4 in the bottom of the 6th... those two home runs are now almost as memorable as Mike Napoli's throw to third base in the bottom of the 6th to pick off Matt Holliday and prevent any more damage.

And speaking of Napoli, his Wolverine-like healing power after snapping his ankle sliding into second base early in the game? Now an afterthought.

So many Texas Rangers chances in this game. So many opportunities.

So many great moments that could have be just a part of the magic of the franchise's first World Championship. Instead, those are merely some of the hurdles that fans in St. Louis can reminisce about for generations to come unless Texas has a shorter memory than a housemate on Jersey Shore.

(Translation: I'm not optimistic.)

(Bluntly: How is this team not entirely F'd right now?)

Skipper Ron Washington was out-managed by Tony LaRussa, which isn't shocking, but Washington was not ready to work lineup card magic in a National League ballpark. He kept Colby Lewis in the game in the top of the 5th to hit with the bases loaded and two outs. He brought in Alexi Ogando who melted down yet again in the Fall Classic before yanking him off the mound in favor of the Dutch Oven. Wash left Holland out there to allow a solo homer to Allen Craig in the 8th to pull St. Louis within two runs instead of immediately going to right-handed set up man in Mike Adams. And in extra innings, Washington and the Rangers seemed out of sorts deciding whether to keep Feldman in the game and on the mound or pinch hit for him with two outs in the top of the 11th.

By the end of the night, Mike Napoli was playing on one ankle, Nelson Cruz strained a groin, and the Texas Rangers' fans hearted suffered the ultimate bruise.

Somehow the Rangers -- a team that hasn't lost consecutive games in more than 40 days -- must continue that streak to claim the franchise's first championship.

Two strikes away. Twice.

And tomorrow, if the Rangers do win, this misery goes away almost as quickly as the legend of the Hamilton's home run in tonight's 10th inning. But if St. Louis completes the comeback, it's a game that will haunt these players, these coaches, these fans, and this Metroplex until Dirk and boys redeem themselves five years later against Wade and Heat, until...


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Rangers now one win away

The year was 2007. A North Texas franchise long-starved for a championship had just hired a new man to lead players on a team clearly on the uptick to a title. The team was stocked with talent and people thought the new coach's laid-back personality was exactly what the team needed in order to succeed. He would be replacing a man very highly thought of in the sport -- perhaps bigger shoes than he was ready to fill.

But while Wade Phillips never again came close to that 13-3 record in his first year with the Dallas Cowboys after replacing Bill Parcells, the new manager of the Texas Rangers began working with a rag-tag team in financial stress with no foreseeable trophies in the team's future. Who the heck is Ron Washington, and is this guy really going to manage the Rangers to victory when Buck Showalter couldn't? Clearly the new baby-faced GM who has already traded away every usable part the Rangers appeared to have is trying to see if he can make the fan base miss John Hart.

But Jon Daniels, Ron Washington and eventually Nolan Ryan began building something that not even the most die-hard Rangers fan could think would one day be able to play one game for a chance to be World Series Championship. And here we are in late-October of 2011 (forever to be known as the Year of the Napoli), and the Texas Rangers have that opportunity in front of them.

Texas defeated St. Louis on Monday 4-2 in Game 5 of the World Series at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, put the Rangers up 3-2 over the Cardinals with the series returning to Missouri.

Leading the charge for Texas was an offseason pickup whose "dirtbag" style of play might personify exactly what the Rangers are about. Mike Napoli came to Texas for Frank Francisco and a couple bucks back in January, almost to a half-hearted shrug of the fan base. This is someone we'd seen for year with the Angels. He was good, but only because the Rangers weren't. Nevertheless, catcher needed addressing in the offseason with both Benji Molina and Matt Treanor going on their ways, so sure, plug in Napoli with Vorvit Torrealba, and that could work. The Rangers made the World Series last year with what could be considered afterthought backstops. Maybe we can do it again.

The fact of the matter is Texas wouldn't have been anywhere near the Fall Classic, perhaps the postseason, without Mike Napoli. He hit .320 with 30 home runs and 75 RBI and an on-base percentage of .414 over 113 games during the 2011 regular season, and as if he hadn't already "careered" during the 162-haul, he's on his way to making sure thie fairy-tale season ends "Napoli ever after."

With the World Series tied, 2-2, Napoli had as impressive a game as any position player in recent postseason memory. He twice threw out Allen Craig attempting to steal second base with the dangerous Albert Pujols at the plate. Throwing out two baserunners would be impressive enough, but in doing so the first time, he gave his manager the strategic ability to take the bat out of the Pujols' hands and intentionally walk him to the now-open first base. The second time Napoli gunned down Craig, it was to complete the most important double-play in Texas Rangers history, a strike-'em-out-throw-'em-out twin killing that not only bailed out Neftali Felix for plunking the leadoff batter but leaving the Cardinals down to their final out.

That alone would have been enough for a great game by the catcher that Angels manager Mike Scioscia didn't care for. But there's no doubt Napoli's bat is arguably the most important physical ability he brings to the table. With the game tied 2-2 and one out in the bottom of the 8th inning, lefty Mark Rzepczynski allowed a David Murphy single to deflect off his glove to load the bases for Napoli. Due what we have since learned where telephone problems that seemingly could have been solved by the "Can you hear me now?" guy, the Cardinals didn't have the right-handed arm they wanted ready for Napoli. As a result, Rzepczynski faced Napoli, and the Rangers backstop atoned for his near-homerun-turned-fly-out two innings prior. Napoli hammered a 1-1 pitch the right-centerfield gap to score two runs and provide the Rangers margin of victory, leading St. Louis only three outs to work with for any comeback attempt.

Tampa Bay manger Joe Maddon deemed this the "Year of the Napoli" and the echoing chants of NAP-OH-LEE, NAP-OH-LEE at Rangers Ballpark are a reminder for anyone who hasn't recently taken a look at their Chinese food menu.

Naptober is in full swing, and if Texas can close out the series in St. Louis, he is the frontrunner for World Series MVP.

And I'm still not sure how we're talking about the Texas Rangers having a World Series MVP, because that would mean the Rangers are in the World Series. I grew up rooting for the Rangers, and I never thought they'd win a pennant, let alone two in a row and one day be in position to play one game for baseball's ultimate prize.

Here are a few other thoughts on Game 5 that I have to get down on paper (or on Internet):

+ If this was CJ Wilson's last appearance as a Texas Rangers pitcher, then despite all the manufactured animosity that has grown with each postseason loss, realize that he has been a constant for this team over the last two years. Wilson has had a rough postseason -- he hasn't made himself any additional money for his looming free agency -- but he has won 31 games for Texas over the last two seasons since moving into the starting rotation compared to 15 losses. This season, his 2.94 ERA is the lowest by a Rangers pitcher since Nolan Ryan in 1991. If he ends up commanding the type of deal that Cliff Lee was being offered by Texas and New York last offseason, then he might not be worth it, but Texas has never had a consistent home-grown arm like CJ Wilson.

Wilson now has a 1-5 career postseason record with a 4.94 ERA over nine playoff starts. He didn't have the best start by a Rangers pitcher in the World Series -- and unless Colby Lewis tosses a complete game in Game 6, no one will nop Derek Holland's 8 and 1/3 scoreless innings of Game 4 -- but he gave Texas a chance to win, limiting the Cardinals to two runs over 5 and 2/3 innings.

+ Mitch Moreland took his sweet time to get going in the 2011 postseason, but his solo home run off Chris Carpenter to put Texas on the board looked like something Josh Hamilton hit during the 2008 Home Run Derby. The ball was devastated to right field, landing halfway up the porch, 424 feet away. Ron Washington inserted him into the lineup for Game 4 after Mike Napoli's throwing error at first base aided a 5-run inning by St. Louis in Game 3. If not for his home run and subsequent Rangers win, Moreland made a fielding error that could have left Rangers fans kicking themselves for years. It could have cost Texas the series. And while it was not recorded as an error in the official score, don't let that fool you.

While the FOX broadcast team was busy interviewing Derek Holland during the top of the 2nd inning, CJ Wilson was struggling on the mound, walking two batters to begin the inning. With one out and runners on first and second, Yadier Molina singled in a run to left field, and David Murphy misplayed the ball, leading to an extra base for Lance Berkman. At that time, it was 1-0 St. Louis. Skip Schumaker followed by grounding a 2-2 pitch up the first base line to Moreland, who had time to go home with the ball for a run-saving second out. Instead, Moreland couldn't cleanly field the grounder and had to resign himself to stepping on first base to retire Molina who doubled the Cardinals' lead with his RBI-out. While I doubt the play would have ended up in an inning-ending 3-2-3 double play (keep in mind, there was no force at home plate, so Napoli would have had to wait to tag Berkman before throwing back to first), it could have saved a run.

+ Neftali Feliz must get some sort of bonus for suspense with each save he records. As if it's not enough to walk the first batter he faces in too many different big games this year, the fireballer hit the leadoff batter in the top of the 9th inning after getting ahead of him 1-2 in the count. After the strike-'em-out-throw-'em-out double play to retire Albert Pujols, Feliz walked Matt Holiday on nine pitches before finally striking out Berkman to end the game.

This postseason, Feliz has thrown 10 and 1/3 innings, allowing one run on three hits with stress-inducing seven walks and 10 strikeouts. He has saved six games in the 2011 postseason, including all three wins of the ALDS and two games of the World Series. I suppose that end result is what's most important, but the walks (and hit batter) are certainly concerning, if not for the Rangers for my blood pressure.

+ The in-game interview with Derek Holland during the 2nd inning made me cringe at the time. After a win, this concern melts away, but having Joe Buck and Tim McCarver egging on the young lefty while the Rangers fumbled away fielding plays was infuriating at the time. It was as if Holland fiddled while Rome burned to the ground, and if Texas had gone on to lose that game, never overcoming the two runs St. Louis scored in the 2nd inning, that's exactly how it would be perceived this morning. Holland is a goofy, kid, a 25-year-old with undoubtable talent and a need to mature, but I suppose when you darn-near single-handedly win a World Series game like Holland did -- just as Napoli did in Game 5 -- you earn a little leeway. I still think the mustache needs to go.

All right, folks. Texas is one win away. Let's please, please, please get this done. Make this happen, Rangers. There may never be another opportunity like the one in front of this franchise. The team has two games in St. Louis -- albeit under National League rules -- to win one game. And to quote the marketing campaign that worked so well for their Metroplex basketball counterpart, The Time Is Now.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Murray's Flurry: Dal 34, StL 7

It's a line I've used plenty of times regarding the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys over the last five years, but after Sunday's 34-7 win over the hapless St. Louis Rams, let's temper the enthusiasm regarding the new franchise single game rushing record-holder:

Put the anointing oil away.

DeMarco Murray gashed the NFL's worst rushing defense for 253 yards on 25 carries and a touchdown -- including a 91-yard score that is second only the Tony Dorsett's historic 99-yard run -- in the second-greatest game by a rookie running back in NFL history. It was fun to watch, and it was a win that Dallas needed to return its record to 3-3 through seven weeks of the season.

With this performance, Murray has certainly leapfrogged Tashard Choice on the depth chart and must be given strong consideration about his number of touches compared to the injured Felix Jones when he returns. The Oklahoma product busted out several long runs against St. Louis, something the Cowboys running game hadn't shown signs of since Jones' rookie season when he displayed an explosiveness that only the likes of Wade Phillips could deny putting him in the starting lineup. In a franchise that ostensibly found its "Next Troy Aikman" in Tony Romo, DeMarcos Murray showed signs of being the closest thing to the "Next Emmitt Smith."

Again, allow me to put the anointing oil away.

The great thing about Emmitt, about any of the good-to-great running backs in the NFL is consistency. They don't have just one big game. They bring it every single week. And despite the fact that Murray will continue to run behind an offensive line that consists of two rookies and another player who Dallas thought enough of to cut in training camp before an injury to Bill Nagy for them to re-sign him, the threat of the Cowboys passing game should help open some running lanes.

Murray has said all the right things in the aftermath of his great performance -- and don't get me wrong, it was a great performance -- still referring to Felix as the starter and crediting his offensive line.

But the St. Louis defense proved so porous that even fourth string running back Phillip Tanner, who you may remember from a helmet-less TD that was called back during the preseason, was able to keep the pace and finish the drive in the first action of his pro career. In total, Dallas rushed for 294 yards on 34 attempts.

The Rams are junk, and it's not their fault they can't plug a toilet, let alone a running lane. And while it will inevitably detract from his single-game performance on this day -- much in the way that sports fans who remember Baltimore's Jamal Lewis running for nearly 300 yards in a game also remember that he did it against the Browns -- if he does go on to accomplish great things (or even just stabilize the Dallas backfield for more than five years), this will be the genesis of it all.

Just a few other points:
+ Nice touch by the Cowboys having a member of each World Series team on hand to participate in the coin toss. Frankly, after country music star Ronnie Dunn performed the National Anthem at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday (one day after doing so before Game 3 of the World Series), I was wondering if Jerry Jones would have Dirk Nowitzki flip the coin too. St. Louis Cardinals fans and Texas Rangers fans alike enjoyed seeing Lance Berkman and Josh Hamilton join the coin toss ceremony. I don't know how often teams playing in the World Series (or any other championship) have the same cities represented in a different major professional sporting event in the same town on the same date, but it's gotta be a short list.

+ Quarterback Tony Romo didn't need to do much as the ground game rolled over the Rams, but let's not discount what was a solid performance. Romo has lost two games for Dallas this year with untimely mistakes, coughing up a 14-point 4th quarter lead in New York in Week 1 and tossing three second-half interceptions against Detroit in Week 4. Those were two games that Dallas had in control and gave away. Is it sad I'm borderline praising him for not imploding like Texas Stadium?

Two TD passes, no interceptions, no rushed throws that sailed into double coverage that left fans grasping for air. None of that. Good. It wasn't a great game. It didn't have to be. Moving on...,

+ Rob Ryan's defense held St. Louis to seven points. An analysis of this game will show the Rams did not have starting quarterback Sam Bradford -- not that it's made a difference in any of their previous five games this year. This is now an 0-6 team, a team that Dallas (which could easily be 5-1 if not 6-0) should and did dominate for four quarters. While I don't think it's necessary to drop to our knees and bow before our homeless-looking defensive coordinator, there is one noticeable difference between this year's defense and even the good units that Wade Phillips commanded here in Dallas: the creation of turnovers. Specifically: multiple turnovers.

Dallas took the ball away twice on Sunday, the team's fourth game with multiple turnovers in six games this season (although this is the first win of 2011 in which Dallas has won the turnover battle). The Cowboys have now taken the ball away 12 times through six games. Both takeaways on Sunday led to scores with Abe Elam's fumble recovery leading to Romo's TD pass to Jason Witten and Mike Jenkins' interception set up a 30-yard field goal for Dan Bailey.

Last year's Cowboys team was horrible through six games, so let's compare how Rob Ryan's defense compares to the Wade Phillips team that ended up going to the playoffs in 2009 (interpret: 2010 was such a lost season, let's just ignore it). In 2009, the Cowboys forced seven turnovers over the first six weeks but didn't take the ball away once in three of those games. This year, the Dallas defense has taken the ball away at least once in every game.

+ Speaking of turnovers, Dallas is still -1 on the season when it comes to turnover +/-. Here's a look at each game so far in 2011 and how the Cowboys have done when it comes to turnovers.

OpponentTake AwaysGiveaways
New York Jets
San Francisco 49ers
Washington Redskins
Detroit Lions
New England Patriots
St. Louis Rams

Don't let the four take aways in the New England game make your mind melt. Yes, if Dallas capitalizes on those opportunities they could have not only been the first team to beat Tom Brady in Foxboro since 2006, but that along with the mistakes in the Jets and Lions games explains why this is still a .500 team through seven weeks of play. But damn it, it's maddening!

+ Last point. At yesterday's Cowboys game, my dad turned to me before kickoff and noted, "Why is the roof closed? It's a beautiful day outside." I don't think it would have been a big enough deal to mention except for the true "idiocracy" of what was noticed during the World Series game next door later in the evening. FOX returned from a commercial break to show Rangers Ballpark's neighbor on Randoll Mill Road, Cowboys Stadium, and there was the $1.2 billion facility with the roof open for National TV's audience to see. Has Jerry Jones lost his mind? Or with Al Davis now dead, is he just trying to make sure no one leapfrogs him as the new "Craziest NFL Owner" (although Davis' legacy lives on as the team traded a pair of No. 1 picks for Carson Palmer last week).

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Hello, World Series!

For a franchise that seemed to personify mediocrity at its best, the Texas Rangers are leaving past perceptions far, far behind them. For the second year in a row, the Rangers won the American League Pennant and a berth in the Fall Classic. After 38 years in Texas without winning so much as a playoff series, the Rangers have once again captured the Cowboys-crazy Metroplex well into football season.

Unlike the 2010 run to the World Series that featured a hired gun in ace pitcher Cliff Lee, the Rangers played what can only be described as "classic" Rangers baseball in this year's Pennant-clinching win, slugging a gaggle of runs to topple the Tigers, 15-5, in Game 6 of the ALCS. Overwhelming offense.

And no, the honeymoon period for this team's success is nowhere near over. The NBA's Dallas Mavericks strung together 10 years of unfruitful playoff trips before reaching the mountain top this past season, and prior to Dirk and boys raising the Larry O'Brien trophy, the fan base grew skeptical and tired of each post-season trip that didn't result in a title. So before everyone rushes to say the Rangers now "have to" win the World Series this season, let's temper that just a little. After so many years of futility, it's exciting to see the team playing deep October, regardless of the outcome.

The Rangers aren't the Yankees -- don't confuse them as a "Championship or Bust" franchise. Frankly, it's been a just a "Championship or Bust" franchise for the majority of its existence. But of course, having said that, if you're going to make it this far, then damn it, go win it.

That's the way baseball go
I wonder if fans realize just how good the Rangers have it with Ron Washington and just how close the franchise came to parting ways with him. Think about it. Until last year when he navigated this organization to the World Series, did you ever think of Ron Washington as a great manager, a good manager or even a Major League caliber manager? A career third base coach from Oakland that Texas hired because, well, what options did the club have back in 2007. When he came to Texas, we were told he was a baseball lifer, the "Old School Brother," who was capable of getting the most out of his players. But don't they always talk up the new coach/new manager right after the hire.

After his first two seasons, Texas had gone a combined 154-170 with a last-place finish in 2007 and ending the season in second place in a watered down AL West in 2008. Sure, Texas had some solid pieces in place -- Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton and David Murphy being the main holdovers from that 2008 season (keep in mind Chris Davis was the primary first baseman, Ramon Vasquez manned the hot corner, and Milton Bradley spent 126 games as the DH) -- but it was by no means a Championship squad.

That's when John Daniels got to work. He brought in new pieces to fill spots in the lineup. Young kids who seemed like throw-ins from big trades began to arrive at the big league level. Elvis Andrus was the opening day starting shortstop in 2009, displacing Michael Young to third base, prompting the first of his trade demands. Thank goodness management didn't oblige.

Can you imagine this team making a run to the World Series without Michael Young? If his three-run home run against Tampa Bay in the 2010 ALDS wasn't enough, his play as a super-utility man in 2011 put this team on his back when teammates missed time with injury.

Through two different off-season's featuring Young demanding to be traded, staging the sequel before the 2011 season after Texas signed Adrian Beltre to strengthen the club defensively at third base. The team was coming off a World Series berth and the face of the franchise looked like he was being forced out by management despite all he'd done to help get the team to this level. And yet there was manager Ron Washington to assure Michael Young that as long as it was his lineup card to fill up, Young would be an integral part of the equation.

With Washington at the helm, Young led the Rangers with 159 games played (if you're a subtraction aficionado, you know he only missed three games) making 40 starts at third, 36 at first, 14 at second, and one game at shortstop. The rest of the time, he left the glove in the dugout and worked as the primary DH. He led by example and damn near won a batting title. How was Michael Young going to succeed, let along thrive (a .338 average seems like thriving to me), after all the conflict between a star player and the front office? Ron Washington was a calming buffer between the two sides. Nothing more than his soothing presence to let Young know that he was still an integral part of the lineup, of the organization, quelled the shaky waters before Texas set sail on 2011. And almost poetically, Young got a chance to play a quarter of the season at third base while Adrian Beltre was injured.

Ron Washington supported Michael Young by putting him on the lineup card in 159 of 162 games in 2011. And it was Michael Young who stood up in support of Ron Washington before the 2010 season after news of a cocaine-fueled scandal led Washington to offer his resignation to Nolan Ryan and John Daniels. Once again, thank goodness management didn't oblige.

Texas is going back to the World Series because of strong leadership at the top of the organization, great managerial moves, and tremendous talent between the lines. How else can you describe was Nelson Cruz did in the ALCS?

Cruz Control
Any time you're breaking records that involve Lou Gehrig, you're doing something right. In his first 25 postseason games, Nelson Cruz hit 11 home runs. Gehrig has nine in his first 25 playoff games. Cruz went on to smash six home runs and 13 RBI, both Major League records in a single series. All of this coming after the Boomstick was M.I.A. against Tampa Bay in the ALDS. How scarce was Cruz against the Rays? The 1-for-10 Mitch Moreland thought Cruz was slumping. The Rangers right fielder went 1-for-15 in four games against Tampa Bay with no walks and five strikeouts. *Woof*

He followed that performance by batting .364 (8-for-22) against Detroit in the ALCS. Keep in mind, that's six home runs in eight hits. Those other two hits: doubles.

Side note: In baseball, Slugging Percentage is calculated by adding up the total number of bases divided by at-bats. The formula looks like this:

1(1B) + 2(2B) + 3(3B) + 4(HR)

Apply that to Nelson Cruz's numbers:

1(0) + 2(2) + 3(0) + 4(6) = 1.273

Cruz's slugging percentage of 1.273 may be a small sample size of only six games, but to put it in perspective, it's more than three times greater than the American League average in slugging percentage, a .408 clip in 2011. Nelson Cruz may have been "Boomstick or Bust" in the LCS, but it a much greater dose of the former than the latter. Will he stay that hot in the World Series? I'm not sure, but it's safe to say he's the greatest seven-hole hitter in the 165 years since Henry Chadwick codified the rules of baseball in 1846, or since the James K. Polk administration (our 11th president, if you're keeping score at home). I'd be shocked if he kept that kind of pace in the Fall Classic, but even half of that production would be spectacular.

Something Special
What we're witnessing in Texas this year is again something special. I'm not sure how to compare it to the first time Texas put on its big boy pants and ventured past the first round of the playoffs for the first time ever and pushed past the hated Yankees in the LCS to reach the World Series in 2010. I'm not sure how Texas will match up with either St. Louis or Milwaukee, but neither have the pitching prowess of the 2010 San Francisco Giants that featured not only Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgardener but also an offence that got hot at the best possible time. Perhaps that's the lesson of last year, that even a team like San Francisco can get hot at the plate and propel a team to a World Championship. And the opposite can manifest itself as well.

A player's ability can betray them at the worst possible time. It's a defeating feeling, and I feel the essence of that type of disgust was captured with this shot during the Rangers' 9-run 3rd inning in Game 6 against Detroit when Tigers reliever Daniel Schlereth mouthed "F my ass" when skipper Jim Leyland emerged from the dugout to remove him from the game.

Cards on the table: I really just wanted to find a way to work that video clip into this blog.

The Rangers are sitting pretty right now. They are off until Wednesday with the luxury of sitting back and watching the Brewers and Cardinals decide where in the Midwest the Texas charter will fly. For fans, it's an opportunity to once again drink in the magic of playoff baseball. Even if you were around for three AL West Championships in the late 1990s and despite how fresh 2010's Pennant is engraved in your sports brain, this season is still a special feeling.

The honeymoon feeling may be far from over. As fans, we should enjoy the next fews days of relaxing and waiting. Don't let the anxiety of a looming World Series weigh you down. Last season, this franchise playing so deep into October was a classic case of an organization running on house money. There was nothing to lose. And if you can honestly say that isn't the case this year, then maybe you don't remember watching Rangers baseball during the team's the first 38 years in Arlington.

Without that pressure, and with the experience of having been there before, it's time for the Texas Rangers -- yes, the Texas Rangers -- to win four more games. When you think about the run that the Atlanta Braves had under Bobby Cox that won 14 consecutive Division Championships and five pennants from 1991-2005, they came away with what some would call "only one World Championship." If that's the type of trajectory the Rangers are on right now, and based on the new ownership's ability and willingness to spend, combined with a young and talented core and supported by a great management team and coaching staff, you've got to like how Texas is positioned not only for the next four-to-seven games but the next four-to-seven years too.

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