Wednesday, January 21, 2009

How To Pay For Going Out On A Limb

"Old man look at my life
24 and there's so much more."

Well, I think I may have picked the wrong time to take a chance on a road team in the AFC Championship on Sunday. Okay, I will say that to my credit, Baltimore did have the Steelers in a very precarious spot. Down 16-14, the Ravens had a shot to take the lead, but had to start on their own 17 instead of the 43 due to an unnecessary roughness call on a certain Raven that will remain nameless (ummm...actually, screw that: HIS NAME IS DAREN STONE! You lost the season! How you living??!! Not too good!). While Stone basically deep-sixed any chance the Ravens had, Joe Flacco certainly didn't do his team any favors. That guy came unglued I say. Wow. Here's the thing: I saw Pittsburgh dominating, but I figured something totally screwy would happen that would propel the Ravens to the win. They didn't play all that well against Tennessee, but Chris Johnson got hurt, and the infamous no-call on the delay of game penalty (which people have freaked out about, but it wasn't incredulous to the point where it could be counted as more than a second) helped Baltimore out. Then, as soon as Hines Ward went down, I'm basically sitting there going "and so it begins," basically waiting for the next crazy thing to happen that would go in the Ravens' favor. However, Flacco was terrible, which is understandable because of the Steelers' defense...but he was making "rookie" mistakes. I realize that he is a rookie, but he hasn't necessarily played like a rookie, especially in the postseason. So, while I was aware of the pitfalls of picking a rookie QB to win three straight games on the road, I simply thought it was fate, especially after everything that happened against the Titans. However, they got that stupid, stupid...STUPID penalty on Stone, and once that momentum was killed, all that was left was for Flacco to let Polamalu make yet another huge play to win the game. That was destiny in itself there. Polamalu was questionable all week to play, and had one of his better games of his career. Same with Terrell Suggs, who was talking to reporters while wearing a sling the Friday before the game. He plays, and he gets two sacks playing with a shoulder injury that did not allow him to raise his arm over his ear. This is why they call it the playoffs though right?

Random Side Note: Pittsburgh was on the cover of SI, marking the second straight week that a team reversed the SI cover jinx and won a game. Why am I thinking that Larry Fitzgerald will be on the next cover, and why am I thinking that I might lean towards 'Zona because of it?

The aforementioned Cardinals were winning big, then they were losing, then they executed a drive that surprisingly did not end with Fitzgerald in the end zone, and just like that, they're in their first ever Super Bowl. Fitzgerald is just some kind of wonderful though. I mean you just can't cover the guy with one can't even cover him with two! He is just a physical specimen. That one route where he ran over the middle was tearing the Eagles' D up. Something that may be underrated was the fact that Eagles' D-coordinator Jim Johnson was relegated to the press box and could not be on the field. I'm not going to say that was the reason the Cards jumped out to such a quick start, but think about it for a second. Their defense was terrible in the first half, then Johnson was able to talk face-to-face with his defense at halftime...suddenly when the third quarter starts, the Eagles are all over Warner, and 'Zona can't get anything going. Not trying to conjure up any conspiracy theories (wait, actually I am), but there is something to be said about a guy who is used to being on the sidelines and getting to interact with his players personally rather than having to sit upstairs and have everything relayed to his players through some middle man.

So, after road teams went an astonishing 5-3 to start up the playoffs, they were 0-2 on Championship Weekend. Again, once you think you know the NFL, you know less than what you started with. Here's something that I have a problem with: There has been a lot of talk about how the Super Bowl will basically be a home game in Tampa for Pittsburgh and that no one will show from Arizona. Okay...why? Arizona has never been to a Super Bowl! Plus, after many suggested that due to the rapid sellout of the Cards/Eagles game, people would be selling their tickets to Philly fans, and there would be a 50/50 breakdown in the stands. Well, unless the Eagles have some alternate red jersey that I am unaware of, that couldn't have been further from the reality of what happened Sunday. Sure, when the Cowboys and the Giants play in Glendale, they get a huge following, but since when have the Cardinals been even close to not only making the Super Bowl, but winning the Super Bowl? Before this year, the Cards hadn't hosted a playoff game since they played in Chicago, so of course there was a lack of interest from the fans there. Still, to suggest, like some have, that there will be an 80/20 split in the stands in Tampa for the game is ridiculous. If there is anything close to the amount of exuberance the 'Zona fans showed on Sunday, I wouldn't make a generalization that Tampa will be "Heinz Field South" for a day. Pittsburgh will get a great draw, but there will be a large contingent of fans in red and white as well.

Coming back to the Patriots and their upcoming offseason, there are simply loads of questions that the new regime has to answer. With Scott Pioli gone to Kansas City, Nick Caserio will take over Pioli's role as vice president of player personnel. He's just 33 years old, but as were finding out more and more, there is a steady youth movement amongst the NFL in terms of front office personnel. There were a lot of question surrounding a certain 28 year old Yale graduate when he took over as the Red Sox' GM, and look how that turned out. Also, anyone who has funneled through the Pats in the last decade or so has turned out quite well when they were asked to step up to the plate for the Pats or another team (especially Thomas Dimitroff this year), so if you are in the system, and know the system, there is a very good chance that you can succeed with that system. Of course that's just the tip of the iceberg. Also departed are Josh McDaniels, who will be taking over in Denver this year (Jay Cutler will throw for like 5,000 yards next year...keep that in mind for those fantasy drafts), Dom Capers going to Green Bay as their defensive coordinator, and Brad Seely moving on to Cleveland, there are three big holes that the Pats are going to need to fill quickly. While the names that the Pats have interest in have not really surfaced yet, this is definitely a top priority right now. What can be said is that when the Pats promote in-house with their staff, it seems to work out, so don't expect too many big names to be mentioned for these openings.

Next is what the Pats will do on the field. While the Pats hold three of the first 55 picks in next year's draft, they have not done a very efficient job in drafting the last few years. Let's look at the '06 and '07 drafts. In '06, the Pats drafted Laurence Maroney, who had a high upside, but can't stay healthy, traded up and got Chad Jackson, who also has had major problems staying healthy, and seven other guys who are either barely on the team or have been released. Only Stephen Gostkowski has made a major impact on the team. Then, in '07, the Pats made three picks in the first five rounds, with Brandon Meriweather being the "highlight," and he has not shown any sign that he will be ready to be a full-time starter in the wake of the inevitable retirement of Rodney Harrison. While it is too soon to judge '08's version, the results are not looking good so far outside of Jerod Mayo. So, they have the picks, but recently, they have been unable to find pro-ready players who are ready to step into the numerous holes surrounding this team.

There are two big (literal and figurative) questions staring the Pats in the face on the defensive line. Vince Wilfork and Richard Seymour will both be free agents next year, and if you are expecting any kind of hometown discount from either, you are sorely mistaken. Wilfork has been one of the most dominant nose tackles since his rookie year. In arguably the most important position of a 3-4 defense, Wilfork has been an effective run-stopper, and is surprisingly quick for his size. Needless to say, a guy with his abilities will be in high demand. Seymour has been to five Pro Bowls, and is one of the most highly-regarded ends in football. However, this will be his second contract, and going into the 2010 season, he will have had nine years of service under his belt. If you are going to sign one of these guys long-term (assuming you can't sign both), Wilfork has to be the clear favorite because he is younger, and nose tackles like him simply do not come along very often. Seymour may receive the franchise tag, but I will be shocked if the Pats will offer him a long-term deal.

Next is what the Pats could do in the free agent market. The Pats will be right around $20 million under the cap, and there will be an increase to the cap ceiling this year, but despite that, Matt Cassel's franchise tag will run them roughly $14 million this year, so if Tom Brady can't come back to full strength, there won't be a whole lot going on in terms of big names making their way to Foxboro. When you look back recently at what the Pats spend their money on, they have not focused on the defensive secondary, which was, surprise, awful this year. The blue-chipper in the DB ranks for free agents this year is Nnamdi Asomugha from Oakland. This guy fits the mold of one of the favorite phrases thrown around in present-day football: "shut-down corner." He is the real deal, and literally shut down every single big-time receiver that he has faced. However, I don't think there is a chance the Pats will get him purely based on their track record and their endless pursuit of trying to find the next bargain-basement discount guy like they got with Rodney Harrison. Some other names that could potentially be on the radar include Dunta Robinson (I have been looking into this, and I still cannot find a guy who went to USC that played on the Pats in the last 15 years, so this would kill two birds with one stone), Justin Miller (great on returns, but an okay corner, and also went to that other SC school with the purple and orange), and Jabari Greer from the Bills. They will also be needing a safety. Jermanine Phillips from the Bucs (which would mean two starting safeties from the U), Oshiomogho Atogwe from St. Louis, and my personal favorite, Darren Sharper from Minnesota. Still, there is very little the Pats can do until they figure out the Brady/Cassel situation, which probably won't take shape until after the draft.

Is there a possibility that Jonathan Papelbon may not be the closer for the Sox for the rest of his career? It certainly appears that way. While Papelbon signed a one-year, $6.25 million deal yesterday (most ever for a first-time arbitration-eligible pitcher), and while I know I'm not the first to be reporting on this, it seems like Papelbon will be looking for a massive payday when he hits the free agent market in three years. Here's what it comes down to: If the Sox cannot sign Papelbon to a long-term deal like the ones they struck with Pedroia and Youk, and if Pap stays healthy (a big "if," but it definitely could happen) once that time hits, he could command anywhere between $15-16 million a year for five to six years. If the Sox plan on keeping Papelbon as their main man, they need to strike a deal sometime in the not-so-distant future. They have already discussed figures, and Papelbon is on record saying that the two sides were "way off" and that he wants to set the "standard" in terms of compensation for closers. Well, K-Rod signed a three-year, $37 million contract earlier this year, so it stands to reason that he is looking for something in that least. The Sox got a total steal with the Pedroia signing, and made out okay with Youkilis...this is obviously not going to be a case of them being able to get Papelbon to sign for anything lower than what he, or perhaps his agent, has in mind right now.

Of course, there will be more about the Super Bowl and whatever else happens to pop up in the world of sports. Hope you are doing well out there. Peace.


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