Why the Pro Bowl Will Never Catch On

Like most Americans, I completely ignored the NFL’s Pro Bowl yesterday. This, despite the fact that I’m an NFL fan and a Ravens’ fan (four Ravens played in the game).

The NFL changed both the venue and the timing of this year’s Pro Bowl, hoping to somehow change the overwhelming odor of irrelevancy that hovers around the game. The truth is, no matter when or where the game is played, the game lacks any compelling drama, and the fault lies within the nature of football itself.

The reason that the baseball all-star game (more so when I was a kid than now, however) and the NBA all-star game are entertaining is that they work in harmony with their respective sports. Baseball and basketball are very much games played by individuals, where one-on-one match-ups often determine the outcomes, and always create topics for debate.

Baseball is little more than a series of individual contests, strung together so that everyone has a turn in the limelight. Batter vs. pitcher, runner vs. pitcher, runner vs. catcher, runner vs. fielder, etc. Almost half of a game’s put-outs are registered by an individual acting alone. It’s very much the type of sport that benefits from an all-star atmosphere, where the game’s titans battle each other one at a time, allowing the spectator to savor the glory of the triumphant and the agony of the vanquished. The faces of the combatants are uncovered, allowing us a look into the emotion of the sport, pitch by pitch.

Basketball benefits similarly, as the giants of the NBA sprint, leap and fly past each other, all the while laughing and taunting each other. The field of play is small, and the participants are in close proximity to each other. More important, however, are the individual competitions within the game that can be focused on by the announcers.

What these individual contests do is to give a weightless game a small bit of mass. You can almost hear the announcers: “Yes, the game doesn’t count in the standings, but it’s matter of pride between these players; no one wants to be shown up by another.” The personal nature of the individual match-ups creates tension where they should be none, and thus a meaningless game becomes watchable (once the egos get involved).

But football, unlike baseball and basketball, is a team sport. This Sunday, we’ll be looking at how Drew Brees and the Saints will perform against the Colts’ defense, not Gary Brackens. And while Drew Brees might be at the top of his game, if his left tackle, or center, or running back misses his assignment on a given play, that play’s chances of succeeding are greatly diminished.

The drama of eleven players, pushed and tested over a period of months together, with each depending on each other on every down, is almost impossible to replicate in an all-star game. As a result, the Pro Bowl, with its collection of week-old teammates, seems like a farcical, synthetic reproduction of what football really is – the ultimate team sport. And that’s why no one watches it.

The truth is that there’s nothing the NFL can do to fix the Pro Bowl because the character of the game condemns it to perpetual insignificance. Its existence is an anomaly in the NFL, an embarrassing failure in the midst of unparalleled successes – a professional sports version of Coca-Cola with Lime. We are only left to wonder for how many more years the league will persist in foisting this monstrosity on the public.

I put the over/under at 4.

There’s Still The Who

The Who circa 1975

For me, the NFL season ended yesterday, when my other team, the Minnesota Vikings, fumbled away the NFC Championship Game.

Adrian Peterson Puts Another One On The Ground

Not that they deserved to win. If a team has five turnovers in a championship game, they should be prohibited, by rule, from winning the game. It’s sort of life having a certain number of “lives” in a video game. When Brett Favre threw that last interception in the waning moments of regulation, the words “GAME OVER” should have immediately flashed on the screen.

It is probably just as well, because I’m not sure if I could have taken the sight of Payton Manning rolling up 40 plus points on the Vikings in the Super Bowl. If there’s one thing I learned this weekend, it’s that Indianapolis is much better than the other playoff teams. I know, “on any given Sunday…”, but let’s face it: the only way the Saints win this game is if the Colts have a meltdown, and considering the experience on that roster, that’s very unlikely. I would make Indy a 7-point favorite.

That means that Jim Caldwell will probably get a Super Bowl in his rookie coaching season, though I suspect he’ll not get all of the glory. It’s reminiscent of the Super Bowl George Seifert won with the 49ers in 1989; that team was considered to be Bill Walsh’s team that Seifert was just fortunate to have inherited. For Caldwell, this team is still considered to be Tony Dungy’s team, plus there’ll be a lot of “Who couldn’t win with Payton Manning?” talk, as if Manning had ten rings.

With Manning and Drew Brees on the field, I expect it’ll be an exciting game, but what I’ll be really looking forward to is the halftime show, featuring rock’s second-greatest band ever, The Who. (For the record, my top three goes like this: Beatles, Who, Rolling Stones.) The Who also authored what I believe to the best album of the rock era, Who’s Next (and remember, I’m a Beatles fan, first and foremost).

While I realize that it’s really only half of the Who now, with Keith Moon and John Entwistle being dead, but honestly, it was always Pete and Roger’s band, wasn’t it? The Who has always been a great concert band, and it crosses my mind that this may the last time I ever see them play a live show (albeit on television), so I’m really jazzed.

My son Ryan, who will be 21 in a month, is a Who fan too, and we’ve been discussing with what song they should open the show. I can’t imagine anything other than Baba O’Riley, but he wants it to be Pinball Wizard. So, I’ll put it to you, faithful readers. What song should open the Who’s set?

Terry Bradshaw Doesn’t Think Much Of The Ravens This Week

FoxSports asked Terry Bradshaw to “write” a column about this week’s playoff matchups. From what I can discern, it seems that Terry doesn’t like the Ravens’ chances against the Colts:

“Ravins at Coltz: Its the same darn thin fer them ther Ravins as wit them ther Jetz. Them Ravins peepel our luv to run that ther Football. Boy Howdy butt they du! Wir seein that ther guy Joe Flacko ther du a littel bit, butt hes mostlee handin off to that ther guy Ray Rice guy an that Willie MaGahee guy. To hav any kinda chans, them Ravins got to run fer at leest 180 yard, boy howdy! Now, if them ther Ravins can cuntrol that ther clock with that ther run, Baltimoor can limt limmit limit stop the numbr of oportoonities fer Paytin Manin. Butt them ther Ravins hav to scor, to. Them ther Ravins jus cant keep it fer eight nine minits an git three poynts. Butt I don see how them ther Ravins beet them ther Coltz, who our so splosive on awffense.

I been feelin bettur abawt Indee beetin them ther Ravins thin aneebode neckz weekn. Ifn I had to bet on anee of these ther games an I had 100 fer to sav my life ther, Im mor cumfertible betin on Paytin Manin agin them ther Ravins ther. No disspectin now to them, butt, boy howdy I do thin them ther Jetz will cum closir to beetin them ther Charjirs thin them ther Ravins will ginst Indee.

What doed I thin of Paytin winin his foorth NVP? Im not sur it ment as much to him as much it wuld hav ment to that ther Droo Breez as much, who has nevr gotin it, I don thin. I lik to spred this ward round, boy howdy. I meen, you culd giv to Paytin evry yeer, butt how culd you not giv it to that ther Breez guy? What duz he hav to do to git it? What duz Kris Jonsun down ther in Teneseee got to do to git it? I aways ask myselfs who steped up an had credible year. It wuld hav bin grat fer the MFL, becuz Droo is evry bit as gud a guy and a playr as Paytin is.

An I shud know sumthin bout them ther quarbacks, boy howdy!”

Well said, Terry. Well said.

(The FoxSports link to Terry’s column after his editors had polished it for publication.)

The Ravens Road-Field Advantage

Here’s the Ravens’ playoff history (road games in bold):

Jan. 10, 2010 AFC Wild Card Baltimore 33, New England 14
Jan. 18, 2009 AFC Championship Pittsburgh 23, Baltimore 14
Jan. 10, 2009 AFC Divisional Baltimore 13, Tennessee 10
Jan. 4, 2009 AFC Wild Card Baltimore 27, Miami 9
Jan. 13, 2007 AFC Divisional Indianapolis 15, Baltimore 6
Jan. 3, 2004 AFC Wild Card Tennessee 20, Baltimore 17
Jan. 20, 2002 AFC Divisional Pittsburgh 27, Baltimore 10
Jan. 13, 2002 AFC Wild Card Baltimore 20, Miami 3
Jan. 28, 2001 Super Bowl XXXV Baltimore 34, N.Y. Giants 7 (neutral site)
Jan. 14, 2001 AFC Championship Baltimore 16, Oakland 3
Jan. 7, 2001 AFC Divisional Baltimore 24, Tennessee 10
Dec. 31, 2000 AFC Wild Card Baltimore 21, Denver 3

When you look at the record, you see that the Ravens are only 1-2 in home playoff games, and haven’t won a home playoff game since Bill Clinton was president. Yet the Ravens are 6-2 (.750) all-time on the road in the playoffs. Taking it a little farther, the Ravens are undefeated in road playoff games that don’t involve going to Pittsburgh (IMPORTANT: the Steelers aren’t in the playoffs this year).

Playing at home is supposed to be a huge advantage in the NFL. Isn’t that what all of the talk is about in November and December, securing home-field advantage? For some teams, however, there’s another factor that may be even more important, and that’s playing with emotion (as was so clearly demonstrated yesterday). I think for the Ravens, playing with a chip on their shoulders in a hostile environment, knowing that in order to win they must out-physical their opponent and take the fans out of the game, is a key component to victory. Also, don’t discount the ability to more easily get focused on the road, where there are fewer distractions.

Remember Brian Billick’s fiery speech about going into the lion’s den? That speech doesn’t work if your team is the favorite. When you’re at home in the playoffs, you’re probably expected to win. It’s hard to “kick the door in and shout ‘Where is the Son-of-a-Bitch?” when it’s your door and you are the “Son-of-a Bitch.” Let’s admit it, some teams don’t need to play with emotion (Colts, Patriots). The Ravens do.

So, in the future, let’s not root for the Ravens to get home playoff games; we know the winning formula now. But here and now, I suddenly feel really good about our chances, because the road to Miami doesn’t go through Baltimore.

Irsay’s Shame Lives On As Sports Icon

In just the past week, it’s become clear that Bob Irsay’s humiliating decision to slink out of Baltimore on March 28, 1984 has evolved from a historical footnote to an iconic moment. I’ve noticed it coming up more and more often in the national press, sometimes in ways completely unrelated even to the Colts. In short, Irsay’s despicable decision is now a metaphor for something greater than even the theft of a football team. Here’s a sample from just the last few days (if you know of any others, feel free to add them by comment):

Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks:

“Maybe the other leagues, when it comes to supporting them, will pull a Jim Irsay and disappear in the middle of the night,” Cuban said, referring to the Colts’ move from Baltimore to Indianapolis that was actually orchestrated by Jim Irsay’s father Bob in 1984.

William C. Rhoden in the New York Times:

Finally in March 1984, Indianapolis got its team when the owner Robert Irsay sneaked the Colts out of Baltimore in the middle of the night. Indianapolis happily received stolen goods.


Bill Michaels of WTMJ Radio in Milwaukee:

So, that said, you did see many of the starters for the entire game, you just didn’t get the outcome YOU wanted and thus, you Boo. Maybe Bill Polian will load the trucks in the middle of the night and waltz his team to a new destination. Then you’ll have something to boo about, until then, support your team and try to regain some of the class that you lost this past weekend.


Bud Poliquin of the Syracuse Post-Standard:

The management of the Colts saw fit to “throw” the game to the New York Jets by choosing to not field the team that would have given the Colts the best chance to win. I probably should have expected this from a franchise that a few years earlier had seen fit to back up its trucks in the middle of the night and sleaze out of Baltimore.

I get the feeling that my grandchildren will be throwing around a phrase something like “back the trucks up in the middle of the night” without having any idea of its origins – until I sit them down and tell them all about The Grinch Who Stole Football, of course.

The Ravens Don’t Lack Discipline

This morning there’s a lot of talk about how undisciplined the Ravens are, and how John Harbaugh’s coaching should be scrutinized for having allowed this state of affairs to go uncorrected. To all of this, I say:

Be careful what you wish for – you just may get it.

The Ravens’ love affair with aggression goes all the way back to 2000 – our beloved Super Bowl season. The team was encouraged to be nasty, to be angry, to be mouthy. The Ravens were the team that would kick down your door and shout “Where is the son of a bitch?” The organization wanted its players to be intimidators; the result was spectacular and we loved it. But, there was a price to be paid, because the NFL was paying attention, too. Soon, it became clear that the crews officiating the Ravens games were looking at the team a little more closely than its opponents. No matter, as long as the Ravens were winning games, the penalties could be tolerated.

This mindset has been passed on genetically ever since, and the result has been a team that we have grown to love for its intensity and its passion; we have also learned to expect them to take penalties that seem unnecessary and at times, ridiculous. And yes, every now and then, they have a collective meltdown (21 penalties against Detroit in October, 2005, 13 penalties for 100 yards against New England in December 2007). Still, winning solves everything.

(The Oakland Raiders were the most penalized team of the 1970s, and no one criticized them for being undisciplined. Instead they were hated and feared. Being a consistently winning organization will do that for you.)

Harbaugh accepted this position knowing the culture – a culture that has been cultivated for a decade; to expect him to eradicate that in a year or two is unreasonable and more to the point, not a good idea. Most of these same “undisciplined” players took this team to the AFC Championship game last year, and no one called them to task for over-aggression. (Remember? The big complaint last year was that the offense was one dimensional.) What’s different this year? New faces in prominent places are committing the penalties now; not because they’re undisciplined, but because they’re not as good as the individuals they’ve replaced.

The ugly fact is that offensive linemen hold when they get beat; so do defensive backs. Would you rather that the offensive lineman let young Joe Flacco get hit rather than risk a holding penalty? (For the answer to this question, ask David Carr.) Would you rather the burned defensive back just give up the big play, rather than risk an illegal contact penalty? If you want to eliminate penalties in the offensive line and defensive secondary, don’t preach discipline – get better players.

One big problem with the whole “coaching discipline” idea is that you don’t want players on the field thinking – you want them reacting. When Terrell Suggs got flagged for a block in the back on Domonique Foxworth’s interception yesterday, he was doing what he should have been doing – trying to block downfield for his teammate. The problem isn’t that Sugg is undisciplined, it’s that he isn’t a very good blocker. How much time do you want Suggs spending in practice learning how to avoid blocking-in-the-back penalties?

Yes, the Ravens are a heavily penalized team, but they’re in good company. In fact, 5 of the top 6 most-penalized teams in 2009 would make the playoffs if the season ended today. On the other hand, the Browns have committed over 30 fewer penalties than the Ravens. Do you still want the Ravens to make “discipline” a focal point of its team philosophy?

Be careful what you wish for – you just may get it.

After What I Saw Last Night, Monday Night in Green Bay is Now Critical

Yes, it was ugly, and it was far closer than it should have been, considering who didn’t play. Yes, at times the Ravens looked like a team that has no business having playoff aspirations. And yet, there the Ravens sit at 6-5, in the thick of the Wild Card chase.

But after what I saw last night, just don’t expect them to do it again on December 27th at Heinz Field.

Still, with five games to play, there is at least a reasonable chance that the Ravens will qualify for the postseason, and isn’t that why we play the games? And remember, every year a team sneaks into the playoffs and makes a surprising run. Why not the Ravens?

So, even though we’ve had to endure (fill in the blank with: Mark Clayton’s drop, Ray Lewis’ penalty, Steve Hauschka’s miss,  Joe Flacco’s interception), the dream lives on.

Here’s how the dream breaks out now:

The NY Jets, Miami, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Jacksonville, Houston, Tennessee and Denver are all still mathematically alive. The Titans, Jets, Dolphins and Texans already have six losses and thus must finish 5-0 to have a chance of making the playoffs. I don’t see any of those teams having a 5-0 finish in them, and so can be safely dismissed.

That leaves Jacksonville at 6-5 and facing games against Houston, Miami, Indianapolis and New England. I think there’s at least one loss in there somewhere, probably two. Look for them to finish no better than 10-6, but more likely 9-7.

Denver, at 7-4, still must travel to Kansas City, Indianapolis and Philadelphia. They also will probably finish no better than 10-6 and the Ravens, having beaten them, will have the first tiebreaker.

The 6-5 Steelers, locker room dissension notwithstanding, are still in the best position of all, with few real difficult games ahead. The only challenges for Pittsburgh are at home to Green Bay and Baltimore and at Miami. Expect the Steelers to finish at least 10-6, maybe 11-5. (All of this presumes Ben Roethlisberger returns to the lineup Sunday and finishes the year.)

The Ravens, another 6-5 team, should be able to win against Chicago, Detroit and Oakland. If they can steal one at 7-4 Green Bay on Monday night, 10-6 becomes very possible. If they lose, the game at Pittsburgh becomes a must-win, which, after watching Dennis Dixon move the ball effectively last night, seems like a bridge too far. If the Ravens lose both games, they’ll need lots of help to make the playoffs, and are likely left on the outside looking in.

But again, if they beat the Packers Monday Night, the Ravens can lose to Pittsburgh on the 27th and probably still make the playoffs. While taking one from Green Bay at Lambeau on national television seems, at first glance, to be an impossible task, it’s not. Aaron Rodgers is inconsistent, and the Packers have really only beaten one quality team this season (Dallas at home); the rest of their schedule has been filled up with the likes of Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and St. Louis. In any event, this challenge seems to me to be far simpler than being in a must-win situation in Pittsburgh. Bring on the Packers, baby.

(This is going to be a long, long week.)