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Providing information to unwitting victims on a "don't-need-to-know" basis since 1974.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Next Chapter

Well, I'm free to go back to finding the usual ways to waste my time, rather than having my time monopolized by bar review books and practice essay tests.

Not to discuss Danish cartoons and their aftershocks, Dick Cheney being the first VP (we know of) to shoot a man while in office, the latest goings on in my newly adopted hometown, the GW Colonials continuing their improbable run all the way up to #6 in the polls, and how I'm simultaneously looking forward to and dreading the upcoming 2006 baseball season.

But for now, I'm off for the weekend.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Super Bowl 40

I'm sorry but Super Bowl XL sounds silly, like I'm afraid that the Large size of the Super Bowl is going to shrink too much in the laundry.

Yes, today is the last day of the highest level of professional football for several months. (The Pro Bowl doesn't count, and neither does Arena Football, and the XFL no longer even exists, so you wiseacres can sit down.) I've been studiously avoiding the surrounding hype for the last two weeks because :
* Super Bowl media hype doesn't even interest me when my favorite team is involved in the game;
* I have no particular stake (emotional or financial) in either of these teams and am largely indifferent to who wins;
* I have a bar exam to study for.

These look to my eyes like fairly evenly matched teams; this has the potential to be as good a Super Bowl as any we've had in recent years. (Incidentally, football fans have been spoiled on that score recently as I can only recall two especially boring ones played in the last decade; most of the ones I recall from my childhood were over almost before they started.)

However, it's obvious to me that the sentimental money is on Pittsburgh.

* The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the most storied frachises in NFL history. This is the 7th Super Bowl (more than any team not named the 49ers or Cowboys) and would, if they won, be their 5th title (again, third behind the Cowpokes and Niners.) There are probably some casual football fans who were, prior to last week, only vaguely aware of the existence of a franchise called the Seattle Seahawks. Though they have been performing better in recent seasons, the franchise has a remarkable history of mediocrity, usually being neither good enough to acheieve fame nor bad enough to achieve infamy.

* The game is being played in Detroit. Jerome Bettis is from Detroit. QED. (Also note that Detroit and Pittsburgh are sort of near each other on a road atlas, and the Seattle and Detroit are not near each other.)

* Steeler coach Bill Cowher, now the dean of NFL head coaches by a fairly significant margin, has never won a Super Bowl; this would be his second try at one. Seahawks coach MIke Holmgren already won one with Green Bay ten seasons ago.

* Pittsburgh is a traditionally working-class city with a rich football tradition; Seattle has a strongly white-collar rep and is mostly known for Starbucks and Microsoft, two of the most ridiculed entities on snarky blogs like this one, in addition to giving the world grunge rock, a mixed bag as far as cultural history is concerned. This list of Seattle sports legends is about as long as...ah, heck, make your own joke here.

* Pittsburgh is a great sports town, full of sports lore about the Steelers, the Pirates, and even the Penguins. When it comes to hard luck sports cities, people used to talk about Boston (not these days) or Chicago (Michael Jordan notwithstanding) and now they mention Philadelphia and Cleveland and Buffalo, but I've never heard Seattle brought up in such conversations. The Mariners have never won a pennant and were terrible for most of their history. the Seahawks are the poster boys for parity, and the Super Sonics, while they did win a title in the 1970s, aren't exactly among the best-known among NBA teams.

* There is a general sense that the AFC is better, borne out by the teams interleague records. The Steelers ran a gauntlet of road games in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Denver to get to Detroit. They kept Peyton Manning out of yet another Super Bowl and then beat the Broncos on their home field. They've played one of the toughest schedules in the league this year, so that 10-6 regular season record, among the worst ever notched by a Super Bowl team, came against unusually tough competition. I wonder how the Seahawks would have done if they had Pittsburgh's schedule.

* Seattle did go 14-2, but with one of the easiest schedules in football; six of those games were against their rivals in the NFC West, three of the absolute worst teams the NFL has to offer. The best team of the three played with a revolving cast of quarterback, outgained only a half dozen teams in rush yards, and surrendered more points than any team other than Houston and more yardage than everyone but the Texans and 49ers on their way to a 6-10 finish. The other two teams were even worse. They beat Indianapolis but the Colts, robbed of immortality one week before and with home field in hand, treated that game like it was pre-season. Even their two playoff wins, both at home, didn't convey all that much about the 'Hawks either; the Redskins showed they didn't really belong in the playoffs, and the Panthers did the 'Skins one better with their letter-perfect imitation of a first-year expansion club.

* Pittsburgh is a defense-first club of the sort that fits perfectly the profile of the kind of team that wins the Super Bowl. Hardly anyone runs against these guys with any kind of success. And yet unlike some such clubs, they can rack up the points on ocassion. Ben Rothliesburger can throw, and he's got some great targets in Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller. He's got Willie Parker to hand off to, and Jerome Bettis on the goal line. All these guys are more famous, with one obvious exception, than their counterparts in Seattle.

My gambling friends tell me, though, when you see all the sentiment and all the conventional wisdom going in one direction...look the other way. And when I do, I see a lot to like:

* Shawn Alexander. The reason I won one fantasy football league and almost won another one. If anyone can run on the Steelers, it's this guy, assuming he's healthy. I don't think I need to say any more about him so I'll move on.

* Though just how good they are is hard to discern, there's no doubt that the Seahawks are solid. They have Mosi Tatupu's son Lofa, the kind of guy who, just like Troy Polomalu on the other side, can make big, momentum shifting-type moves on defense. They've got a good secondary (they've given up an average number of passing yards but most opponents have been playing from behind) and aren't bad against the run either. They led the league in sacks too. Hasselbeck's become a pretty good quarterback, and, in addition to the aforementioned Alexander, they've got Bobby Engram and Darrell Jackson and Jerramy Stevens in the offense.

* Seattle's been winning, taking care of business, over and over again. Week in, week out, constant as the Northern star. They haven't stumbled since losing to the Redskins back when I still lived in Virginia. Given their schedule, that doesn't sound like much, but plenty of very good teams have stumbled plenty of places they shouldn't have this season...and Seattle hasn't. Period. Quite reminiscent of Bill Belichek's recent championship New England teams. Not especially flashy to be sure, but always good enough to win, even against teams that might be a shade more talented than they are.

Now there are a lot of things that the Seattle Seahawks don't have. They don't have long lists of Hall of Famers to invoke. (In fact, they only have one I know of.) There aren't miles and miles of archived reel-to-reel of John Facenda singing their praises. Mike Holmgren isn't as colorful as Bill Cowher. Big Ben is a cooler nickname than anything that's ever been applied to Matt Hasselbeck. They don't have anyone who can talk trash like Joey Porter. They don't have a shiny accomplishment on their resume like beating the Colts and Broncos on the road, when it counted. They don't have a human interest story like Jerome Bettis playing in his hometown in his final career game for all the marbles.

But none of those things are prerequsites to win a Super Bowl. By the only criteria that matter, the Seahawks are more than good enough. With that in mind, Answer Guy's call:

Seattle 24, Pittsburgh 21

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Ten

For the first time since 1956, the GW Colonials are in the Top 10 in the polls, taking advtantage of a weekend where a lot of teams that were ahead of them stumbled. I got to see them in action on Saturday at the Smith Center against the Rams of Rhode Island, and I have got to say that I do think a number 10 ranking seems a little high for these guys. (For instance, I'm not sure they'd be favored in a rematch with #17 North Carolina State, who now trails them in the polls and beat GW convincingly, albeit in Raleigh.)

A real test of the legitimacy of that ranking comes tonight as the Colonials go to Cincinnati to face the Musketeers of Xavier, who've had GW's number more often than not lately. And it will be televised on ESPN, with Dick Vitale presiding, no less. Lots of people who are scratching their heads at the #10 ranking of a team with an RPI still in the 40s, below such luminaries as George Mason (#35), Utah State (#41), and Missouri State (#37). Well, here's their chance; Xavier is the best team and the toughest challenge (ahead of St. Joe's, and well ahead of anyone else) left on the schedule. Xavier has a win against crosstown rival Cincinnati under its belt and a history of beating GW; a win here would serves some serious notice to all observers.

Why am I scratching my head at #10? The Colonials are solid in the sense that focusing on one player and shutting him down isn't going to be a productive approach, and that they can survive one of their better players having an off-day. In the case of Saturday's tilt with the Rams, neither Mike Hall, generally the heart and soul of the squad, nor Omar Williams contributed much to their win, in no small part because both players were in foul trouble from very early on. J.R. Pinnock and Pops Mensah-Bonsu really stepped it up. Even without a great perimeter game, they can score points quickly because they are adept at forcing turnovers and grabbing quick fast break points and transition baskets. Of the regular rotation, there doesn't seem to be anyone (other than maybe Mensah-Bonsu) who flat out can't handle the ball, so the trap isn't really a good strategy for opposing teams. Gambling defenses are going to find themselves burned as often as not.

ESPN should have been televising these guys more, since their uptempo game is a lot of fun to watch. They produce more than their share of highlight-reel worthy dunks, flashy fast breaks, and dramatic runs that change the fundamental nature of the game. They really know how to get a crowd - especially a Smith Center crowd - into a game.

However, not everything about them would cause Dickie V to shout "awesome, baby!" The passing can be a little haphazard at times as they try to rev up the game's tempo. For a team that's going to be looking to the low post rather than the perimeter (Carl Elliott notwithstanding), the free throw shooting is weak enough to creative an incentive for opponents to foul to stop high-percentage baskets. In particular, hacking Pops didn't work all that well for Rhode Island on Saturday, but it's easy to imagine a game where it works perfectly, provided you have enough people to spread the fouls around like the Rams did. An agressively physical offense might cause them some problems, as any foul trouble for Williams, Pops, or Hall hurts the team quite a bit. And while they most definitely spread the points, assists, boards, and steals around, they're still not that deep a team. URI went on a big run when Hall and Williams were taken out with 2 personals each, especially when Pops had to sit as well. The backup big men are adequate at best, and the only real impact player off the bench is swingman Maureece Rice. (That said, Rice is a two-way sensation when he plays; great defense, solid ball-handling, and sometimes a nice shot touch.)

Most importantly, this is not a team that's all that sound when it comes to a bread-and-butter halfcourt offense. Any halfway competent team that is careful and deliberative enough - especially on defense - to keep the tempo down and force the Colonials to play it straight is going to beat them; see N.C. State, the one team to take GW down thusfar. They are not built to hit from outside, so any team that gets position on Pops or whoever else is trying to post up is going to have a significant advantage in the paint and on the boards. They will take risks in trying to force a breakdown of the defense, and a disciplined and skilled defense will be able to turn those risks into transition points and sometimes offensive fouls as well.

It would be just like GW has been the last few years to fall flat on their face against Xavier. The Cintas Center has a track record of being a graveyard for the Colonials in recent years. There's no David West or Romain Sato anymore, but there is a physical presence in Brian Thornton and a deadly shooter in Stanley Burrell. They hold opponents to 60 per game, and they're going to try to slow the Colonials down.

But this GW team is a year older than they were last year, with more experience and the chance to really make a splash on national TV tonight. The X-Men have fallen to St. Louis at home and Temple on the road, and GW has proven a better team than either. Let's do this one guys; after this, no computer is going to be able to call George Mason a better team without people laughing derisively.

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