Sunday, October 19, 2014

5 Things: Bills 17 Minnesota 16

This is probably the biggest win for the Buffalo Bills franchise in years. That they were expected to win this game doesn't matter, the way they won is what counts: a last second TD pass to Sammy Watkins in a drive that included completing a fourth and twenty. I watched most of the fourth quarter with the sound off. (It's easier to see what's happening without the noise. Not exactly like watching coaches' tapes, but it's better) Okay, let's go to five things.

1. Turnovers are the most predicative stat in football. The Bills turned it over four times (the Vikings had two), two of them in the red zone. That the Bills were able to overcome those two turnovers speaks to the quality of their competition. (Look what happened against New England) If they don't clean that up, this season will be over in short order. They have to do a better job taking care of the football.

2. The Bills lost CJ Spiller (broken collarbone) and Fred Jackson (MRI coming) which meant a lot of time for Anthony Dixon. The issue isn't Spiller, who aside from that 51 yard run today before he got hurt, hasn't been effective this year. Some of that blame has to go to the coaching staff, which hasn't been terribly creative in getting him the ball, but that's not where the problem lies. (More on this in point 3) Fred Jackson is the more valuable player, the one who will be hard to replace. He's their leading receiver out of the backfield, and terrific at picking up blitzes on third down. Mr. Steady always picks up positive yardage, and knows how to run between two terrible guards. They do have Bryce Brown, who they picked up for a fourth round pick from the Eagles at the draft and who ran well in pre-season. Worried about losing Jackson, but that isn't the biggest concern going forward. No. 3 is.

3. The Bills probably have the worst set of guards in the league. Cyril Richardson was responsible for 3 sacks today (maybe even 4) and Erik Pears on the other side is just as bad. Richardson replaced Kraig Urbik, who shouldn't be playing in the NFL. Glenn is fine at left tackle, and Wood is a very good center, but playing with those two guards is like playing short-handed on every play. They're awful. To my earlier point about Spiller, he isn't a natural, between the tackles runner. He needs bigger holes than a huge back like Dixon or a slitherer like Jackson. Those holes, the push, hasn't been there this year. Just watch the Cowboys. Look at the holes Murray gets from that great offensive line. (Use your PVR and freeze it on replay. What do you think Spiller would do with holes like that?) I don't know how they fix this during the season, but it's tough to get the ball down the field to Watkins or run between the tackles when your two guards are getting blown out on every other play. The worrying part is that other teams will start blitzing the A-gap (the spot between the center and the guards) like Minnesota did in the second half. Especially without a great blocking back like Jackson.

4. Sammy Watkins. Two first round picks for one player is a lot, but wow, he looks like he might be worth it. He gets open consistently. Has great hands. Runs excellent routes. And doesn't seem at all wowed by either the moment or himself. If he stays healthy, the Bills have a generational talent. Spectacular game today, and when they needed him the most, there was no way they were going to anyone else. A rookie, but seven games in, already the most dynamic player on that offense and the one the other teams (sans Revis island) have to stop.

5. I understand that Bills fans are testy. I get it. I've been a fan for thirty years, and the last fifteen have been brutal. But we have to stop ripping the team when they win. It's hard to win in the NFL. When the Bills won against Detroit a coupe weeks ago, I heard numerous fans suggesting it was the Lions' kicker, who missed three field goals, and not the great play of the Bills' defense, that won them the game. Hey, kicking is an important part of the game. And today it's been fans suggesting that a close win like this over a bad opponent at home means they're not a playoff team. Um, not winning enough makes you a non-playoff team. They won. Relax. Enjoy it. Next week marks the halfway point of the season and the Bills are still in it. My point, stop ripping the team when they win. They've done it little enough over the past fifteen years that you should be enjoying the result.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

5 Things: Patriots 37 Bills 22

1. There was a big question early in the season after the Patriots started 0 - 2 if this was the year Tom Brady was finally finished, that his decline as one of the greatest to ever play was eminent. Yeah, about that. Facing a very good Bills defense in the second half, and without top rusher Stephen Ridley and nothing but a bunch of question marks for receivers, Brady put up 24 points, including a couple of pinpoint throws down the field. Oh, and did I mention that he lost one of his starting offensive linemen (Dan Connolly) from a line already filled with question marks? Brady is still great. Which means the Patriots will probably win the division. Again.

2. I became a Bills fan in 1988, when the Dallas Cowboys fired legendary coach Tom Landry. I've been one ever since. These 14 years and counting of the Bills not even making the post-season, after such startling success in the nineties, has been failure on something approaching spectacular levels. In a league like the NFL, 14 years without making the playoffs is like 40 in Major League baseball. It's just mind boggling. So today's game, with a chance to grab the division lead, and the gap in talent much closer than it's been in years, the Bills laid an absolute egg in the second half. Brady is now 23 - 2 all-time against the Bills. I doubt that's going to change very soon.

3. It isn't that the Bills do not have talent. They do. The problem is that the places that lack talent means they employ players who are SO below replacement level they bring down the team. Duke Williams, for example, is a tremendous special teams player. But he's a terrible safety. His two penalties today were of the "what the hell was that" variety.

On the offensive line, Erik Pears has been awful at guard for them. He was today, as well. Most casual fans do not understand guard play, the offensive linemen who line up on each side of the center. Here's a quick tip to help you understand if you're getting good guard play. Your ability to rush the ball, and your ability to protect the quarterback up the middle. Well, the Bills haven't been able to garner a consistent rushing attack all year, and that's with a duo (trio?) of talented backs. Eric Wood is a solid center. Pears gets thrown around and beaten so often, plays are wrecked before they even begin.

In the back end, McKelvin should not be playing. As a nickel back in certain situations? Maybe. But he got exposed today, as did Graham back at safety. The one touchdown was a direct result of his being out of position.

When one player on a unit is horrific, the talent level around them almost doesn't matter. All about the weakest chain.

4. Lack of offensive creativity. At some point, they have to figure out how to get CJ Spiller going. The line isn't good enough to open holes for him (like Dallas does for DeMarco Murray) but he's too good a playmaker not to get him involved. Put him in a Percy Harvin role. Get him the ball in space. Otherwise, you'll be starting drives 2 and 11 or 2 and 13 like they did today.

5. Speaking of the offensive line, watching Dallas beat Seattle today should be a lesson. The Cowboys have three top picks on their offensive line. Zach Martin, their 16th overall pick this year, played four years at Notre Dame. (I might have missed two of them.) He's a guard, the least glamorous position in football, and he's changed everything for them. They run the ball with authority, and they protect the quarterback. The Bills haven't had consistent guard play since they let Andy Levitre go to the Titans a few years ago. Now that they have a new owner, maybe they need to start paying more for a position that is vital to winning but gets no publicity. It's great to have Sammy Watkins on the outside. But if you can't run the ball, and your quarterback doesn't have time to throw it down the field, then it doesn't matter how good your skill guys are.

Friday, October 10, 2014

5 Things: Raptors vs. Celtics (Pre-season)

I started doing "5 Things" last year after Raptor games, and this year we're going to try and make it a regular feature, time willing. It's great to have basketball back, even if it's only pre-season.

After winning 48 games last year and pushing Brooklyn to seven games in the opening round, the Raps are looking to grow from last season's unexpected success. They re-signed Lowry, Patterson and Vasquez, and are hoping their young players like Ross and JV continue to improve.

Now, this is the pre-season, so you always want to be careful with your evaluation. Coaches aren't trying to win so much as trying to find the right combinations, allow the new players (like Lou Williams and James Johnson) get comfortable. So any analysis needs to keep that in mind. With that all said, here are my Five Things from tonight's game.

1) Demar is ready

Demar Derozan was a first time all-star last year. He made Team USA over the summer, as a surprise pick. He's clearly ready for the regular season. He looked decisive and confident tonight, and even showed flashes on the defensive end. If DD becomes even an avergae defensive player (and his 3 stroke looked very good tonight) he'll take yet another step towards stardom. He's already an all-star. Tonight, the Raptors looked decidely different with him on the floor.

2) Second Unit still finding its way

They added Lou Williams, a scorer, and James Johnson, as good a lockdown 3-4 defender in the NBA for their second unit, but it may take a while for those guys to figure out how to play together. The second unit got ripped tonight. There were clear communication issues, and when Williams isn't scoring, and JJ believes he is a scorer, there are problems. They did carry the first unit's unselfishness with them, which is a good sign, but they were something of a mess on the defensive end.

3) Defensive issues

Coach Dwane Casey said before the game the offense was ahead of the defense. No kidding. Awful transition defense, slow rotations (particularly JV), and a general lack of intensity brought to mind their late season struggles on that end. This is a concern going forward. People have lauded a backup duo of Williams and Vasquez, but neither of those guys play defense, and if they aren't scoring, JJ cannot cover for them completely. They'll give away leads like they did tonight with regularity.

4) More Defensive Issues

I don't want to hammer on this, but the Raptors ability to play good team defense (They finished in the top ten in the NBA last year) is this season's most concerning, and most important, issue. Boston shot over 50% tonight. The Raptors don't seem to recognize individual players on the floor. Jumping out at Evan Turner on the 3 point line, for example, so he can make the extra pass to a better shooter. Or not identifying that Avery Bradley has a jump shot and not guarding him until he scored 20 points in the first half. Everything about their defense screams desperation. I won't hammer on the whistle in the pre-season, but the fact that the Raptors got 2 technicals in a freaking pre-season game should indicate some frustration towards that part of the game. I blame this on frustration and some guys consistently not being where they were supposed to be. Give someone an open shot in the NBA, they're going to make it.

5) Kyle Lowry

Only fitting that this post start and end with the Raptors two best players. Lowry makes such a huge difference because even in a pre-season game, he gives a shit. He's the only truly good defender among the Raptor guards, and when he's out there, this is a completely different team. there are concerns going forward, mostly on the defensive end, but so long as Derozan and Lowry stay healthy, they'll compete and win their fair share of games. And that's all you can ask from your favourite team.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

TWIS: Processing Hate... and Excuses

Sorry about the lack of posts lately. With work back in full swing (I work full-time with special needs kids in an elementary school), along with my personal training gig and writing full-time (3rd edit of The Last Angel), it's been a bit chaotic. I kept telling myself I didn't have time to post a coherent blog until I realized I was spending more time dropping five hundred word comments on Facebook threads. Not particularly productive. So instead of commenting there, I figured I'd post them here and give more people a chance to throw eggs at me. (Or nod sagely in agreement)

This Week in Sports (T.W.I.S.)

News is always bad news, but this week has been particularly tough. First, the Ray Rice video broke the NFL and finally shattered that thin glass separating our conscience from the horrific and violent stories consistently brushed over by the league. 87 arrests by 80 players in fourteen years, and yet suddenly the climate has changed. Hell, even after the first video of Rice pulling his unconscious girlfriend, Janay Palmer, out of the elevator, the outrage was on its death knell until the second video of him punching her in the face and knocking her unconscious was released. We had to see it to process it.

Maybe we didn't believe that someone, someone we watched play our favourite game on Sundays, could actually commit such a hateful act. Maybe we'd learned to disconnect our conscience from reality when we read the other stories. Maybe we came up with other reasons (she started it) for him to be pulling her unconscious form from the elevator. Either way, it was the tipping point. We saw it. We were forced to deal with it. And now, everything is different. Will it last? Who knows. I hope so.

But the gut punch has been listening to people like Panthers coach Ron Rivera. Listening to him talk about the "changing climate" regarding his own player, Greg Hardy, who has already been convicted of beating up his girlfriend and threatening to kill her, as if it were somehow the media's fault, or the fault of the "changing climate" to inexcusably play Hardy in Week Two.

These coaches, and in extension, the talk show hosts and fans who keep insisting that these players should be forgiven and given their jobs back and what right does the NFL have to prevent their employment, echo like the sound of a cat being tortured in the back alley. Have they so completely lost their sense of right, of kindness, of freaking life, that they can no longer find their way out of the maze of psychological dependency on a team or a sport as some kind of last frontier where everything goes. And oh yeah, fuck women and fuck morals, it's football! No pussies here! It's hatred run wild, and processing it has been increasingly difficult.

Adrian Peterson, who stuffed leaves into the mouth of his naked son and beat him with a switch until the boy had lacerations on his legs, his buttocks, his scrotum and yes, his hands, where he held them up, trying to prevent a 210lb NFL athlete from hitting him, has somehow become a discussion on spanking. This sparked one of the most idiotic comments from Charles Barkley in his terrific broadcasting career when he suggested that "every Southern black person would be in jail" if they were charged the way Peterson had been.

To be clear, spanking is favoured in uneducated areas for a reason. Studies have shown how damaging it is, how unnecessary it is, and yet, even though Peterson's son had welts on his freaking scrotum, some people are insisting this is a spanking issue.

Yeah, I got spanked. I was never abused. If people can't figure out the difference, then maybe we're all stupid.

All in all, its felt like a week of processing hate and excuses. I'm glad the sponsors are speaking up. I'm glad Hardy won't be playing this week. I'm glad Peterson won't play again this year. But that window is shattered now, and I'll be watching closely. I shouldn't have to swallow my conscience to watch sports. And if it continues to be a problem, maybe I'll stop worrying about processing hate, and just change the channel.


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