Monday, January 30, 2006

FROM MY SEAT: Super Bowl Top 40 (Part II)

Posted By on Mon, Jan 30, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Resuming where we left off last week, here’s a primer for your Super Bowl party this Sunday. The top 20 stars in the game’s history.

20. Jack Lambert (Pittsburgh) -- Gap-toothed, Hall of Fame face of four-time-champion Steel Curtain defense. Edges out Joe Greene, Jack Ham, and Mel Blount.

19. Lawrence Taylor (Giants) -- With Butkus, one of two greatest linebackers in NFL history. Backbone of championship teams in XXI and XXV.

18. Larry Csonka (Miami) -- MVP in VIII. His 297 yards rushing (in three games) are second most in game’s history.

17. Kurt Warner (St. Louis Rams) -- Former stockboy came out of the arena league to lead the Rams and their “Greatest Show on Turf” to a pair of Super Bowls, beating Tennessee in XXXIV when he passed for a game-record 414 yards and was named MVP.

16. Marcus Allen (Raiders) -- MVP in XVIII when he ran through Washington for 191 yards. 74-yard touchdown jaunt is longest run in game’s history.

15. Richard Dent (Chicago) -- MVP of XX, Dent was the player honored among the finest defense in Super Bowl history. Mike Singletary, Dan Hampton, Gary Fencik, Wilber Marshall . . . and the Fridge.

14. Jim Plunkett (Raiders) -- Representing Oakland in XV and Los Angeles in XVIII, Plunkett led the Raiders to a pair of championships after two franchises had given up on his career.

13. Doug Williams (Washington) -- The first (and still only) black quarterback to win the Super Bowl, Williams led the Redskins in the most dominant offensive half in the game’s history, tearing up Denver before halftime in XXII.

12. Roger Staubach (Dallas) -- Led the Cowboys to victory over Miami in VI and Denver in XII. Lost a pair of close ones to Pittsburgh.

11. Bart Starr (Green Bay) -- Winning quarterback and MVP of the first two games. The face of Vince Lombardi’s dynasty.

10. Lynn Swann (Pittsburgh) -- NFL Films has made a fortune on Swann, slow-motion replays of his acrobatic catches in X and XIII being highlights among Super Bowl retrospectives. Only one receiver has compiled more yardage than Swann’s 364 (in four games).

9. Troy Aikman (Dallas) -- One of only four quarterbacks to win three Super Bowls. MVP of XXVII.

8. Emmitt Smith (Dallas) -- Star among stars for three championship teams in the Nineties. MVP of XXVIII, Smith rushed for 289 yards and 5 touchdowns in his three appearances.

7. John Elway (Denver) -- No other quarterback has started five Super Bowls. The Broncos’ Hall of Famer gained redemption for his losses in XXI, XXII, and XXIV by beating the favored Packers in XXXII and the Falcons in XXXIII.

6. Tom Brady (New England) -- One of only four quarterbacks to win three Super Bowls. MVP of XXXVI and XXXVIII.

5. Franco Harris (Pittsburgh) -- A record 354 yards rushing in four victories. MVP in IX.

4. Jerry Rice (San Francisco, Oakland) -- He’s to NFL receiving records as Wayne Gretzky is to NHL scoring records. And that includes his 33 receptions and 589 yards in four Super Bowls. MVP of XXIII (though let’s remember John Taylor caught the game-winning touchdown pass).

3. Terry Bradshaw (Pittsburgh) -- Four Super Bowls, four victories, twice the MVP. So he had a Hall of Fame tailback and two Hall of Fame receivers to catch his passes. Bradshaw showed the Cowboys’ Thomas Henderson he could do far more than spell “cat.”

2. Joe Montana (San Francisco) -- Leading that brilliant game-winning drive against Cincinnati in XXIII gives Montana a slight edge over Bradshaw. And he was just as good as a third-year pro in XVI (also beating the Bengals), whipping the Dolphins in XIX, and  lighting up the Broncos in XXIV. A three-time MVP.

1. Joe Namath (Jets) -- From the fur coats to the Fu Manchu, from the panty hose(!) to the playmates, he was and remains the definitive Joe Cool. With that ridiculous guarantee of victory for his AFL New York Jets over the mighty NFL’s Baltimore Colts in 1969, Namath -- once and forever -- put the SUPER in Super Bowl. Jets 16, Colts 7.


Monday, January 23, 2006

FROM MY SEAT: Super Bowl Top 40

Posted By on Mon, Jan 23, 2006 at 4:00 AM

With Super Bowl XL approaching -- and with a nod to Casey Kasem -- we’re devoting the next two weeks to a countdown of the top 40 stars in Super Bowl history.

40. Max McGee (Green Bay) -- Should have been MVP of the first NFL-AFL championship (not yet called the Super Bowl) in 1967, if only because he caught 7 passes for 138 yards and 2 touchdowns while nursing a killer hangover. Not expecting to play much, he spent Saturday night enjoying the bright lights of Los Angeles.

39. Phil Simms (Giants) -- Perhaps the most efficient quarterbacking performance in the game’s history. Simms completed 22 of 25 passes for 268 yards and 3 touchdowns to beat Denver in XXI.

38. Timmy Smith (Washington) -- Only running back to gain more than 200 yards in a game, with 204 in XXII. Never heard from him again.

37. Isaac Bruce (St. Louis Rams) -- Darn right we’re getting a Memphis Tiger on this list. Bruce caught six passes for 162 yards, including a 73-yard score in XXXIV.

36. Dwight Smith (Tampa Bay) -- Safety intercepted two passes and returned one 50 yards to paydirt to help beat Oakland in XXXVII.

35. Steve Young (San Francisco) -- Former backup to someone else on this list, the Hall of Famer threw six touchdown passes in XXIX.

34. Walter Payton (Chicago) -- He may have only gained 61 yards in XX, but he was Walter Payton, and this is my list.

33. John Riggins (Washington) -- Ran for 166 yards behind the Hogs to help Redskins win their first Super Bowl (XVII).

32. Andre Reed (Buffalo) -- His poor Bills lost all four games he played in, but Reed’s 323 receiving yards are third in Super Bowl history.

31. Randy White (Dallas) -- Hall of Fame defensive tackle started in three Super Bowls and shared MVP honors with Harvey Martin in XII.

30. Desmond Howard (Green Bay) -- 99-yard kickoff return in XXXI remains longest play in Super Bowl history.

29. Nick Buoniconti (Miami) -- Hall of Fame linebacker for the Dolphins’ “No-Name Defense” that went to three straight Super Bowls, winning VII and VIII. His 1972 squad remains the only team to finish an NFL season undefeated.

28. Rod Martin (Raiders) -- Had three interceptions for Oakland in XV. Still tied for most career interceptions in Super Bowl history.

27. Terrell Davis (Denver) -- MVP of XXXII. One of four players to score three touchdowns in a game.

26. Adam Vinatieri (New England) -- What’s a kicker doing on this list? Vinatieri booted game-winning field goals in XXXVI and XXXVIII.

25. Reggie White (Green Bay) -- Greatest pass rusher in NFL history. Three sacks vs. New England in XXXI. Will be elected posthumously to Hall of Fame the day before Super Bowl XL.

24. Ray Lewis (Ravens) -- What a difference a year makes. Lewis was named MVP of XXXV after having been arrested on allegations of involvement in a homicide the night of Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta. If you can forget Lewis’s silly pre-game dance, this was a fearsome performance against the overmatched Giants.

23. Deion Branch (New England) -- MVP of XXXIX. His 11 catches against Philly tied a Super Bowl record.

22. Roger Craig (San Francisco) -- Supporting role for dominant 49er teams. His 410 combined yards (rushing and receiving) in three games is third most in game’s history.

21. Willie Brown (Oakland) -- Hall of Famer’s 75-yard interception return in XI is longest in game’s history.

Check back next week for the top 20.

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Monday, January 16, 2006

FROM MY SEAT: The Real Super Sunday

Posted By on Mon, Jan 16, 2006 at 4:00 AM

My favorite football day of the year isn’t New Year’s Day or Super Bowl Sunday (not even Tennessee-Alabama Saturday in October). No, it’s conference-championship Sunday. I doubt there are two games played all year with the desperation this weekends combatants will bring to the field as they fight for NFC and AFC supremacy, and a dance-card at Super Bowl XL. John Madden himself has said it for years: no loss hurts more than the one that leaves you a game shy of the Super Bowl. With that edge in mind, here’s a forecast for what to expect this Sunday.

AFC: Pittsburgh (13-5) at Denver (14-3)

It was oddly pleasing -- in a mean-spirited sense -- to see Superman’s cape not just tugged, but stomped on a bit by the Denver Broncos last Saturday. In the canonization of New England quarterback Tom Brady, the national media has chosen to ignore that his 10-game playoff winning streak was interrupted by his Patriots not even qualifying for the 2002 postseason. A brilliant quarterback, Brady is without question. And New England’s three championships in four seasons are deserving of mini-dynasty status. Nonetheless, they proved as beatable in the rarefied air of Denver as the rest of the NFL mortals who have been chasing the New England rabbit the last half-decade.

The victorious Broncos, alas, are still defined more by what they lack than by what you’ll see on the field this Sunday. Saturday’s win was the franchise’s first since its own signal-calling saint -- John Elway -- retired after leading the team to a win in Super Bowl XXXIII (January 1999). One of Elway’s favorite targets, Rod Smith, remains a threat, and Denver’s famously non-famous offensive line continues to protect Elway’s latest successor, Jake Plummer. An opportunistic defense -- witness Champ Bailey’s 99-yard interception return as New England threatened to take the lead last weekend -- makes the Broncos the most formidable, if generally ignored, team left in the field.

As for Denver’s opponent Sunday, the Steelers are making their sixth trip to the AFC championship in 14 years under head coach Bill Cowher. Since they beat, yes, Indianapolis after the 1995 season, Pittsburgh has lost this game thrice (after the ‘97, ‘01, and ‘04 seasons). What’s different this year? Willie Parker makes the running attack -- for so long the Jerome Bettis Show -- more versatile. The Steelers’ secondary, led by All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu (and yes, that was an interception against the Colts), may be the NFL’s best. And sophomore quarterback Ben Roethlisberger seems to be gaining some Brady-esque intangibles that come with winning, and often. When the most accurate kicker in NFL history (statistically), misses a chance to tie your playoff game in the closing minute -- in a domed stadium, no less -- a fan gets the impression the karma gods may be wearing black this month. THE PICK: Pittsburgh 24, Denver 17

NFC: Carolina (13-5) at Seattle (14-3)

Where have you gone, 49ers, Cowboys, and Packers? The NFC matchup features a pair of teams who, as recently as 1994, weren’t even in the NFC. Carolina returns for the third time since their 1995 expansion season, quarterback Jake Delhomme and wideout Steve Smith representing the scariest passing tandem still alive. Having already won twice on the road, the Panthers are attempting -- like the Steelers -- the all-too-rare feat of winning three games away from home to reach the Super Bowl. (The 1985 Patriots are the only team to accomplish this, and check what happened to them in Super Bowl XX.)

Waiting for the Panthers at sure-to-be-wet Qwest Field Sunday will be the Seattle Seahawks. Members of the AFC from their expansion season of 1976 through 2001, the Seahawks have gotten this close to the ultimate game only once before, losing to the Raiders after the 1983 season. If tailback Shaun Alexander -- the league’s MVP -- is fully recovered from the concussion he suffered Saturday against Washington, this game will tilt the home team’s way.

I was in Seattle for an October game against Dallas, before the team’s strengths became evident league-wide, and the most obvious quality to the Seahawks’ success is a defensive pursuit -- of both ball and quarterback -- that never slows. This quality allowed them to beat the league’s hottest team (the Redskins had won five straight) with their best player sniffing smelling salts. And it’s the quality that will lead to an influx of Starbucks-drinking, title-starved football fans come February 5th in Detroit. THE PICK: Seattle 27, Carolina 13.

Monday, January 9, 2006

FROM MY SEAT: The Second Season

Posted By on Mon, Jan 9, 2006 at 4:00 AM

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Your typical college basketball season has an easily recognizable pattern. A team opens with soft competition in mid-November (maybe a made-for-TV showdown thrown into the mix), then builds steadily toward the opening of conference play after New Year’s Day, during which a team’s mettle is established (or lack thereof). In looking at the 2005-06 campaign for the University of Memphis, though, there is nothing typical about this season.

Having already played three teams that opened the season in the nation’s top 10 (Duke, Gonzaga, and Texas) as well as major-conference headliners like Alabama, Cincinnati, and Providence, the Tigers -- featuring four freshmen playing heavy minutes -- have cut their fangs before conference play starts and, with a watered-down Conference USA lineup between Wednesday night (when they open at East Carolina) and March Madness, the U of M now aims to fine-tune, sharpen, and build a team worthy of its lofty ranking to date.

Yes, even at 13-2 (through Sunday’s victory over Winthrop) and ranked among the country’s top ten, the Tigers have some areas to improve during their 14-game conference season (interrupted January 18th with a home tilt against Tennessee). Here’s a cheat sheet for John Calipari and his staff.

De-emphasize the three-point shot. A valuable weapon for a team with shooters like Rodney Carney, Darius Washington, and Shawne Williams, the trey is just too easy an out for Tiger opponents. With the considerable skills near the basket of the aforementioned three, along with Chris Douglas-Roberts and the jump-hook of Kareem Cooper, Memphis must force its opponents to work on defense, to sweat for their next possession. A team’s instinct when it falls behind by 10 or 12 points is to shoot the trey to quicken the comeback. But an easy fix doesn’t often come with the heaving. (Remarkably, the Tigers managed to erase a 14-point lead against Texas January 2nd despite shooting 6 for 32 from behind the arc for the game. Alas, the one-dimensional attack fizzled and Memphis lost by 11.) The fact is, the U of M is too versatile offensively to allow the lure of three points to dampen its gunpowder. Penetration by Washington, slashing by Williams, gritty work from CDR . . . these make up the offensive foundation that will open spots on the floor for, yes, the three-point shot. Horse, then cart.

Develop the Dorsey/Cooper combination. It would be hard to argue against Carney in selecting the Tigers’ first-half MVP, but a few votes for Joey Dorsey are at least worth the conversation they’d provoke. His shot-blocking ability and size on defense are now established character traits for this team, and it’s critical he avoid silly fouls as the season unfolds. Dorsey has become a much-improved outlet passer, which only intensifies the pressure Memphis can put on its opponent in transition. As for Cooper, his lefty jump-hook is already a scoring option Calipari utilizes. Health is the issue with this “fifth freshman.” A stress fracture in Cooper’s back and a little more weight than he needs to carry are all that’s holding him back.

TLC for D-Wash. Washington’s thigh bruise has come to play far too prominent a role in this team’s scouting reports. Calipari will have to decide over the next two months just how much to baby his star point guard. The trick will be keeping Washington in game shape for when he’s most needed, while at the same time finding the necessary rest that is the only true cure for his ailment. Andre Allen has proven to be a capable backup, largely because he recognizes his role as a peripheral scorer (though he had 11 points off the bench Sunday), in contrast to Washington’s integral shooting and driving talents. If Allen can hold the fort as Washington strives toward full health, the mutual benefits at the point guard position come March will be invaluable.

Keep an eye on the carrot. From rec leagues to the NBA, the primary role of a head coach remains that of a motivator. Calipari’s biggest challenge will be keeping his troops sharp when the spotlight dims this winter. How does he get his young squad fired up on a Wednesday night in Tulsa? A Saturday afternoon in Huntington, West Virginia? The Tigers will likely be tripped once or twice in conference play, but they must “trend upward” as the pundits like to say. Fourteen games from a C-USA championship. But it’s what this team does after conference play concludes that will cement its place in Tiger basketball history.


Monday, January 2, 2006

FROM MY SEAT: Cheers (and Jeers) for New Year’s

Things this sports junkie has gotta (and is gonna) do in 2006.

Posted By on Mon, Jan 2, 2006 at 4:00 AM

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Ten works of Shakespeare and 11,315 push-ups. These were my New Year’s resolutions for 2005. I chose to alternate my leisure reading between books (loved Conrad Black’s biography of Franklin Roosevelt) and plays by the Bard (enjoyed “Titus Andronicus,” still trying to figure out “Love’s Labor’s Lost”). As for the push-ups, 31 a day, every day, all year (happens to be my number, that’s all). But what about 2006? Following are eight sports-related resolutions I’ve got on the docket.

I resolve to watch a Nextel Cup Race, start to finish. Who knows if I’ll pull this off with next month’s Daytona 500, but I’m going to try. I can do without sports fads, but the craze over NASCAR is one I’m honestly intrigued by, one I wouldn’t mind sharing (at least to an extent my already sports-addled wife will tolerate). The only race I’ve ever witnessed in its entirety was the 2003 Sam’s Town 250 at Memphis Motorsports Park (won by Bobby Hamilton Jr.). I’m overdue for an afternoon with Tony, Jeff, Jimmie, and Dale Jr. trading paint at 150 mph.

I resolve to find a silver lining in DeAngelo Williams no longer suiting up for the Memphis Tigers. Less downfield blocking necessary from receivers? No more dog-earing the rushing records in the media guide? Third-and-long can be good for developing quarterbacks? Help me here.

I resolve not to bad-mouth the Regions Morgan Keegan tennis championships at The Racquet Club (at least not in February). The Memphis stop on the ATP Tour used to be one of the year’s sports highlights. Long before NBA basketball or Triple-A baseball arrived, local sports fans enjoyed the winter delight of seeing stars like Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, and Pete Sampras duke it out in that magical, reflective light of the Racquet Club’s stadium court. But with the decline of pro tennis in general-- and the American men’s version in particular -- so our tennis tourney has suffered. Since Andy Roddick won in 2002, Memphis has crowned champion Taylor Dent, Joachim Johansson, and Kenneth Carlsen. And nary a one of them led the highlights on SportsCenter. Until Roger Federer makes his Memphis debut, we have a second-tier event. Great venue, great fans, but a second-tier event. I’ll keep this to myself next month.

I resolve to mute my television every time a sideline reporter “interviews” a football coach leaving the field for halftime. These are the most vacuous, predictable conversations in any media. Here’s a sampler for every such chat, past, present, and future. If the coach is winning: “We did some things right, but there’s a lot of football left. That’s a tough team over there. We’ve got to cut down on mistakes.” And if the coach is losing: “We’ve got to cut down on mistakes. We knew we were in for a dogfight; that’s a tough team over there. There’s a lot of football left.”

I resolve to take at least two people to AutoZone Park who have never been. I should make this number 20, but they’d get suspicious in the press box.

I resolve to be at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, if Troy Aikman is inducted this August. I was 16 years old, without a car and anything that might resemble a bank account when my football hero of heroes, Roger Staubach, was inducted in 1985. With a few more variables in my favor, I’ll be there for the latter-day Staubach . . . if the Hall selection committee does the right thing next month.

I resolve to take a family tennis outing. Forget whatever problems the local pro tournament may have. Is this not the best game to share between parents and children? Tennis is one of those sports that will condition your body while you’re actually enjoying the workout. A game that can be played at the pace of your choosing. And a game that retirees can enjoy as much as the kiddies. Gotta remind my wife how to hit a backhand, and we’ll be on our way.

I resolve to make at least one trip -- with family -- to the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis (Opening Day is April 10th). And with a rose for my Dad.



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