Thursday, March 22, 2007

Cinderella, Where Art Thou?

If memory serves, I earned a solid B in Psychology 101 my freshman year of college. PSY101 was one of those mandatory classes that just about every undergraduate student needed to take, regardless of whether you were studying graphic design or intelligent design. The lecture hall seated you and your 800 closest friends and inevitably started before 10:00AM, which in college hours is roughly equivalent to the crack of dawn.

Why do I bother reliving those gray-sky Syracuse mornings with you? It is because through the early morning flurries, and thanks to numerous large French vanilla coffees from Dunkin Donuts, I managed to pick up a few basic principles on the subject that allow me to understand what causes such Madness each and every March (and what the NFL could do to ensure a Jubilant, or maybe just Jovial January).

The answer? Three words: The Underdog Effect.
Proof? Three more words: Dewey Defeats Truman.

What am I talking about? The concept that in any competition, whether it be for a spot in the Sweet 16 or a seat in the Oval Office, there is a tendency for people to shift their support in favor of the perceived loser. It’s why we remember Jim Valvano and Valparaiso. It’s why Wally Szerbiak was drafted in the first round and why you claimed to live in the same general area of George Mason last spring. Historians will also tell you its why Truman won re-election in 1948 as Democrats across the country, assuming Dewey was winning big (the Chicago Tribune famously agreed), came out in droves in the final hours of voting to return him to office.

As the Truman example shows, America will inevitably pull for the underdog. The fabric of our country is built on the notion of overcoming the odds to be successful. Which is why we root for the 13-seeds come March and why the first four days of the Tournament are so special – because of the chance that a 13-seed will still be playing the following week. And that hope, that chance, that possibility is what the NFL might need one day.

The so-called parity in the league has rid the sport of dynasty teams, and in effect, teams of destiny. If a team earning a bye has a record equal, or perhaps worse than a team who is designated a Wild Card, when the two teams meet in the playoffs, is it really an upset if the visiting team wins? Would there be a true favorite? (i.e. more than the 3 points odds makers typically assign to a home team)

The 2000 Baltimore Ravens were technically underdogs heading into Oakland for the AFC Championship Game, but when they emerged victorious, was it such a surprise? The 2006 Ravens were favored against the visiting Indianapolis Colts in the second round of the Playoffs, but given the fact that Indy now owns a Lombardi Trophy, was it considered an upset to see the highest rated quarterback in the league lead his team to victory?

Ironically, the NFL’s last true ‘Goliath’ and the most recent ‘David’ were probably both from New England. The 2001 Patriots, led by an unproven backup QB named Tom, did serve as a true underdog; while the 2004 Patriots, led by a two-time Super Bowl MVP named Brady, managed to play the role of Super Power in beating T.O. and the Eagles (hardly a ‘David’).

So how do you ensure more fairy-tale magic, the likes of which we see in March, to make more appearances in January? Play-in games? Playoff expansion? Let Boise State play the Super Bowl Champion? Did you know they’re making a documentary on “The Game”. No matter what the method, I think it could only enhance the most popular sport in the country and allow the NFL to remain atop its pedestal. The sport will always produce Champions, but sometimes, sports fans are also looking for a Cinderella. Time to strap on those glass slippers. Click-Clack.

Monday, March 12, 2007

What Willis Means to Me(dia)

There are plenty of off-season signings that don’t make their way out of the transactions listing in the back of the sports pages. Of course most of those involve offensive lineman, punters, and the scout team. Rarely do these players provide highlight reel material worthy of the lead in the Monday Sports section. But when a so called ‘skill position’ player is added to the roster, one that is already a household name in NFL circles, the wheels inside the minds of sports writers, their editors, and the blogosphere start churning. Enter Willis McGahee – a game-breaking back that will most certainly make an impact on the field and the front page.

After years of finding words that rhyme with Jamal, or even just start with the letter “J”, it’s now time to focus on the future and consider what might be seen in big bold letters in the months and years to come. A few predictions:

  • Whatcha Talkin’ ‘Bout Willis (a gimme)
  • That’s What I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout (can only use once a year)
  • Battle of Wills (for the Sunday headlines when we play the Steelers)
  • Faster Willie (for the Monday headlines when we play the Steelers)
  • Oh Willie You’re So Fine (I know, his name is not Willie…)
  • Willie or Won’t He (...but I loved this one)
  • Will-Us to Victory
  • Mac Attack (could apply to McNair, McGahee, or possibly a rare public sighting of Mark McGwire)
  • McGame-Time (opening weekend?)
  • McGame-Breaker
  • McGlory (probably more appropriate for a future crabacake sandwich at McDonalds)

As you can see, the new running back in town has brought quite a few catch phrases with him from Upstate New York. (Speaking of which, how did Syracuse get left out of the NCAA tournament? We (I mean they) beat Georgetown!) Hopefully the local media keeps the repetition to a minimum to avoid overexposure a la “Astro-Nut” (in reference to the women who worked for NASA and drove cross-country to confront another woman dating the same man she was having an affair with) or “Britney Shears” (no explanation necessary).

The Fourth Estate in ‘The Charm City’ has been calling for a new running back ‘to carry the load’ in Baltimore for the last few years. Now that Willis will be handling ‘the rock’ we can expect to see a slew of stories about his potential in the pre-season, his performance during the year, and most importantly, his play during the playoffs. So with more than four months until training camp, a seventeen week season, and hopefully a post-season run to ‘The Big Game’, the local scribes better start thinking about headlines now in order to avoid the collection of clich├ęs listed above, after all, this one back is expected to take the Ravens ‘two steps forward’.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Back to Reality

Ozzie had a conversation with Marv. Jamal had a conversation with Phil. Ed had a conversation with Ozzie. And just like that, Willis McGahee became a member of the Baltimore Ravens. At least as far as I can tell.

You see, just when I thought it was safe to leave the state; the Ravens went ahead and made one of the biggest trades in franchise history while I was on my way out of town for a long weekend in the Rockies. The first seven days of free agency started with a series of big-name departures from Owings Mills, but as my flight taxied from the gate at BWI, a new arrival was on his way in to Baltimore. And hopefully he booked a one-way ticket because McGahee is now penciled in as a Raven until 2013.

So what happened? Could it really be that simple? A casual conversation at the Sky Bar between two GM’s and all of a sudden one of the premier tail backs in the league is looking for shoes that go with purple.

Of course a few dots had to be connected in between. Jamal Lewis signed with the Cleveland Browns. Ozzie Newsome and his staff talked to Ed Reed, who spent two seasons on the field with Willis at ‘The U’, about the potential and work ethic of Mr. McGahee. But that seems like the meat of it. My only question is why no one called me.

I have so much insight to offer. Willis McGahee has played running back for me the last three seasons. I drafted him in the late rounds of my 2004 fantasy draft only to see his value soar during the second half of a spectacular sophomore season. Obviously, I kept him through 2005 (in which he was named as a Pro Bowl alternate) and then again in 2006. Thanks to the former #21, Canton FC (I came up with the team name while watching the World Cup) finished in third place 2 out of 3 years and won one regular season title in the Retired Orangemen Fantasy Football League.

I’ve lived through his ups and downs. I’ve kept my eyes glued to the LED’s underneath the SmartVision boards at M&T Bank Stadium, anxiously awaiting an up-tick in the number next to BUF. I was following along when he scored four touchdowns against the Seahawks. I scoffed at the emergence of Lee Evans who seemed to catch 77-yard touchdown passes every time the Bills scored, barely allowing Willis to get a carry, let alone a quick six. But now I will be watching in person. I will bare witness to each and every cutback, out pattern, screen pass, and scoring drive that McGahee manages to take part in. Due to official league rules (ROFFL not NFL) I can no longer keep Willis on my roster after three years on one team. Fitting, considering I would have to split my allegiances between a Ravens win and an extra reception for one of my starting running backs. (I’m not too upset, I have Laurence Maroney coming back in ’07 and thanks to the departure of Corey Dillon, he is looking like a first round pick in most leagues).

So now I shift my focus away from the big boards and back to the action on the field. Back to the importance of a lead block. Back to rooting for a defensive score. Back to the little things that contribute to a win in the real world. Back to reality.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Free Agency Eve

Twas the night before Free Agency, when all through the league
Every GM was still stirring, oh the intrigue!
The stats were reviewed by the coaches with care,
In hopes that a left tackle soon would be theirs.

Okay, enough rhyming. And enough waiting. At 12:01 AM Eastern Standard Time the 2007 NFL Free Agency period begins with players and agents all around the country waiting to see what’s under the sports-turf tree. And they’re not looking for the Nintendo Wii or a PlayStation3 (well maybe some are). No, the most desirable presents this year are guaranteed contracts with stockings full of performances incentives.

Of course with the NFL Network’s coverage of the Combine, Draft, and everything in between – you might expect live web-cams in the offices and even the bedrooms of the league’s 32 General Managers. It makes sense, the combine coverage last weekend bordered on the edge of Real World Indianapolis with the most disturbing scene being the bench-press exhibition in which a room full of reporters watched guys grunt and groan while benching 225 lbs 30 to 40 times! So the green-glow of night vision in Ozzie’s home office seems reasonable, right? Maybe someday soon, but for now, all a fan has to rely on is good old-fashioned news reporting. Well maybe not so old, considering the sports blogosphere will most likely provide the timeliest updates. (Sports Business Journal even included ESPN Page2 Columnist, Bill Simmons, and Deadspin.com editor, Will Leitch, as two of the 20 most influential people in the online sports world.

The free agent class of 2007 unfortunately includes a few members of the 2006 Ravens, but former foes of the men in purple have also been admitted into the program including Pittsburgh’s Joey Porter and a few familiar faces from Indianapolis – Cato June, Nick Harper and Dominic Rhodes. Cap room may be the most important factor in forecasting where they will end up, but determining the dollars available is not a calculation you’d find on Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader. Have you seen this show yet? I don’t know how you’re supposed to feel afterwards. If you get the questions right – nice work, you are smarter than a fifth grader. If you don’t – well a fifth grader could figure that out. For those of you who actually want to know how to crunch the numbers in order for you to be able to implement a similar scheme in your fantasy football league, check this out: Ask the Commish. Speaking of which, how is the Tatum Bell trade to Detroit going to affect the fantasy value of Mike Bell and Kevin Jones?

Well the most important thing right now is that Dick and Ozzie know how to work the math and stay under the $109 Million mark for the 2007 season. Luckily for all of Ravens Nation, these guys are pretty handy with a calculator – or do they use Excel for everything like the rest of us. In any case, one only has to look to 2006 to see their success stories in action with Bart Scott earning a Pro Bowl spot and Trevor Pryce deserving one. Pryce was also named among the Top Ten Free Agent signings of last year on NFL Total Access, just one spot behind TO.

As is the case all around the league today, there are many decisions still to be made this morning and the madness of March could play a role in the playoffs next year. But unlike Lost and even Heroes, which all of a sudden decided to incorporate flashbacks into the show (providing the most exhilarating episode yet), the future cannot be foretold and the past cannot be revisited. All we can see, on this Free Agency Eve, is the ‘present’, under the tree.

Sorry, I said I would stop the rhyming and while I’m at it, no more puns either. Stay glued to your local blog for updates throughout the day.