I Dreamed A Dream of Football at UMBC

Walking in the Commons between the Bookstore and the Flag Court, I looked up at a large poster and my eyes became fixated on this sight:

My heart raced and my imagination exploded with visions of Saturdays spent at UMBC Stadium, cheering on the Fighting Retrievers football team. Without stopping for even a moment to consider family commitments or mortgages, I envisioned spending countless hours and untold treasure on what would surely become the focal points of my future autumns. In my mind’s eye, I could easily see the enraptured alumni, gathering in the parking lots to tailgate and celebrate the arrival of football at UMBC. It had happened at Stevenson, and now it was happening here!

And then, as quickly as the dream could be dreamed, it was just as certainly shattered as I read the rest of the banner:

It was all a promotion for open positions at the Office of Residential Life. There would be no football team, no Saturdays spent on campus in mad delirium, no suddenly galvanized alumni flooding the campus each Fall at Homecoming.

Yes, one day I dreamed a dream of football, but it was only that – a dream. But even if I only lived it for a moment, the dream was sweet indeed. And as I walk our campus now, I still can hear the roar of the crowd echoing in my ears, as if calling to me from beyond the hills across the Loop, tantalizing me with what might have been. And what might still someday be.

Ravens Traditions: The Flag Flies Again!

My Ravens Playoff Flag

Because I’m a bit OCD, I tend to accumulate a lot of what I call “traditions.” These are things that must be done at certain times, in certain ways, every time. My holiday routine is a prime example. Another example are my Ravens routines.

We have one of those decorative seasonal banner posts in front of our house, on which we rotate appropriate displays. During the summer months, from it hangs a rustic American flag-type banner. At the start of each Ravens season, I hang the Ravens banner, which will remain until the team takes its first loss, after which time it will be replaced by our generic autumn banner. This banner returns in January should the Ravens make the playoffs, and stays until they are eliminated.

Similarly, the 3′ x 5′ Ravens flag is hoisted on the day the Ravens qualify for the postseason, and remains until they get knocked out, when it is immediately removed. When I come and go from my house, seeing that the big Ravens flag still flies can be a misty moment.

Inside the house there are traditions, too. As a part of my Christmas decorations, I use intertwined purple and gold garland around the living rooms windows to reflect my allegiance not just to the Ravens, but also to my secondary team, the Minnesota Vikings. (I became a Vikings fan at age 7, back when Fran Tarkenton and the Purple People Eaters ruled the NFC. They were a good backup to the Colts during some lean years, and then, when the Colts left, the Vikings filled in quite nicely until the Ravens arrived.) This garland will be in place until neither the Ravens nor the Vikings are alive in the playoffs.

Some items exist without regulation, such as the inexpensive vinyl tablecloth, which is in use for much of the football season, but is removed occasionally for cleaning:

And then there are other items that get added haphazardly, and, because they are small, end up in place year-round. Falling into this category is a beaded necklace with a paper message that was given to us sometime last year, and now permanently resides on a curio cabinet in the living room.

Of course, there are apparel traditions to uphold as well. While the Ravens still play, I observe Purple Fridays at work, sometimes adding my gold UMBC necktie. My wife, who works in the medical field, wears Ravens scrubs to work on the Monday following a game. On game days in warm weather, I wear my Ray Lewis jersey, switching over to one particular long-sleeve jersey/sweater once the weather shifts. My wife usually wears her Joe Flacco jersey, but she’s not neurotic about it like I am.

So, now that the Ravens are in the playoffs, the flag flies once more. Let’s just hope it has a chance to get a bit weathered before I’m forced to haul it down again.

Ravens Post Mortum: Silver Linings and Prioritizing Offseason Needs

Now that we can safely put the lid on any legitimate hopes of the Ravens appearing in the postseason, it’s time to look for silver linings, and to begin thinking about what the Ravens need to address first in the off seson.

This season will be remembered as a time of transition for the team. For the past ten seasons, the Ravens were all about defense. The main job of the offensive unit was to not get in the way while the angry, opportunistic defense annhilated opponents. No more.

Now, in what seems like a “back to the future” turn of events (“back” being the Vinny Testeverde-era Ravens and “future” being the Joe Flacco-era Ravens), the offense needs to score 30+ points if the team is going to win.  The defense can no longer be counted on for key stops, especially when faced with a quality quarterback. This season has been instructive in that it has mercilessly exposed the Ravens’ weaknesses, and has given the front office solid evidence of what needs to be done. I’ll address those needs shortly. But first, there are some silver linings in what is quickly becoming a very disappointing fall:

1. The NFL is a quarterback league. If an organization is to have long term success, it almost always builds its team around a franchise quarterback. For the only time in its short history, the Ravens have that in Joe Flacco.

2. The Ravens have usually done well playing a third or fourth place schedule, coming off of a bad year. Next season should be better.

3. With every loss, the Ravens draft position improves.

4. As expectations fall, the agony of losing winnable games lessens, mainly because we begin to subconsciously redefine what “winnable” is for this team.

5. As it becomes clear that future home games will have no bearing on the playoffs, the chances of buying a reasonably-priced Ravens ticket from a disappointed season ticket holder improves. (This is really the only way I’ve ever been able to see a game since the new stadium opened.)

Now, on to the needs assessment.

1. A quality pass rushing down lineman. It’s no secret that the Ravens secondary can’t cover quality receivers, and they’re not just one player away, either. The fastest, easiest way to paper over a weak secondary is with an effective pass rush, which the Ravens haven’t had in years. They’ve tried to compensate with equally ineffective blitzes, which, when picked up, just results in one-on-one coverage and big plays. With just one monster pass rusher, much of the poor secondary play would fade away.

2. If that monster pass rusher can’t be had, the Ravens must act to upgrade the secondary, because this unit is absolutely killing the Ravens. They don’t cover, tackle or create turnovers very well. Ed Reed, limited by chronic neck and shoulder pain, is so busy trying to compensate for his mates that he’s forever out of position, which just exacerbates the problems. Samari Rolle’s career is over, Domonique Foxworth has proven to be no better than a nickle back and neither Fabian Washington, Frank Walker nor Chris Carr would start anywhere else in the NFL. LaDarius Webb seems promising, but it’s too early in his rookie season to tell. This group needs a major overhaul.

3. A playmaking wide receiver. Now that the Ravens have a franchise quarterback, they need a receiver that can consistently win deep battles to take advantage of his talent. Right now, Mark Clayton is the closet thing the Ravens have to a “burner,” and that by itself is a statement. Derrick Mason will likely retire at the end of the season, which makes this need even more pressing.

4. A dependable placekicker. Oh, Father Time, why did you have to take Matt Stover? For over a decade, this was one position that the Ravens never had to think about. But last year, it became apparent that if the Ravens needed a 44-yard field goal outdoors, Matt Stover couldn’t get it done. Steve Hauschka seemed like the answer, but now it seems as though he develops an ugly case of the “yips” when under pressure. The Ravens need a new answer in a position that delivers points every week. (What are the “yips?” Click here.)

5. A dominating inside linebacker. This is another position the Ravens haven’t had to think about since, well… ever. But Ray Lewis can’t go on forever, and even now he’s showing signs of advancing age. It was hoped that Jameel McClain or Tavares Gooden would step up this season, but that hasn’t happened. Within the next year or two, the lack of an enforcer in the middle of the defense is going to become glaringly obvious to opposing offensive coordinators. The Ravens need to be proactive to make sure that day never comes.

6. A quality kick returner. Chris Carr has been a major disappointment, and LaDarius Webb seems destined for full time duty in the secondary. The Ravens have tried to use Ed Reed occasionally to provide a spark, but this is a dangerous tactic, considering Reed’s questionable health, his importance to the defense and how thin the secondary is on talent.

What do you think?

This year’s playoffs are a symptom of all that’s wrong with baseball, and a warning to the NFL

First, let me say this: Don’t blame the Yankees. They didn’t create this monstrosity, they’re just taking advantage of it, the way any well-run organization would. Yes, their payroll is almost twice as much as any other team, and is larger than the Nationals, Pirates, Padres and Marlins combined, but they’re only doing what the system rewards them for doing: buying talent. If the Yankees close out the series tomorrow night as expected, it will not be a victory achieved between the baselines, it will be a triumph of the checkbook. And that’s what’s wrong with baseball.

In sports, what we cherish are the values that are reinforced through competition. We revel in the success of the team that overachieves and becomes greater than the mere sum of its parts. We cheer for the athletes who overcome obstacles and reach heights previously thought to be out of their reach.  We expect hard work, perseverance and discipline to be rewarded. We root for the underdog, all the while knowing that he will usually fail.

Major League Baseball, as it exists today, reflects not the value structure of athletic competition, but the value structure of the corporate boardroom. Organizations vie with each other to increase their cash flow through lucrative television deals, palatial stadiums and mass merchandising. Teams with large population bases from which to draw have an inherent advantage in these calculations.  As a result, there is no level playing field in major league baseball; an upcoming season’s results can be quite comfortably predicted by analyzing payroll statistics. (Of this year’s eight playoff teams, six had team salaries in excess of $100 million. The two teams that did not, St. Louis and Minnesota, were both swept from the postseason without having won a single game.)

In years past, we could debate which players would be the difference makers for a team; now that debate must include owners and front office personnel, because that’s where games are won and lost, often before a single pitch is thrown. Today, the game’s true heroes are those who know how to acquire talent well, while the goats are those that squander large sums of money on players who underperform (yes, I’m looking at you Mets and Cubs).  Major League Baseball, as it is now constructed, reflects the crass values of free-market capitalism, disguised as sport. It rewards those who can afford to spend enormous sums of money, and punishes those who cannot.  Even those teams that work hard to develop young talent are denied the fruits of their labor, as often they are unable to keep pace with the exorbitant salary demands of rising stars.

And now, to make matters worse, the Valhalla of modern sports leagues, the NFL, teeters on the edge of experimenting with the same disastrous system. Jerry Jones, the wealthy owner of the wealthy Cowboys, has made little attempt to hide his glee at the prospect of unrestrained spending. Dan Snyder of the Redskins could actually buy his way out of the perennial train-wreck that is his team.  In places like Minnesota, New Orleans and Pittsburgh, however, the outlook is far grimmer. For franchises like this, it will quickly become impossible to keep their star players, and they will soon become the Pirates, Royals and Nationals of the NFL. Always poor, always losing. To be fair, one or perhaps two of these teams won’t stay poor long. Remember, the second largest metropolitan area in the nation, Los Angeles, is just waiting for its chance to get back in the game. While the nicknames Vikings or Saints would have no local connection, oddly enough, with a slight change in spelling, the Los Angeles Stealers would actually be a nice fit.

So, if you want to look into the crystal ball and see what the future of competition in the NFL is like, just replace the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Angels with Cowboys, Redskins, Giants and Jets. If you’re a fan of some other NFL team, this would be the time to change allegiances, before you’re forced to experience the heartbreak of seeing your guys reduced to the role of generic schedule-fillers for teams that matter.

Of course, for those lucky fans of big-market teams, there’s always next year. But for fans from places like Kansas City, Pittsburgh or San Diego, next year promises just more of the same. Their seasons were over before they began. Thanks, Major League Baseball. And welcome aboard, NFL.