And they’re (almost) off!

AFC East

Still the man, but for how much longer?

Still the man, but for how much longer?

1. New England Patriots (11-5) Brady’s arm, strong running game and elite coaching enables Pats to feast on shallow division once more.

2. Miami Dolphins (8-8) Improving, but porous O-line could derail season. Liked this team a lot more in July.

3. Buffalo Bills (5-11) You want to believe, but where’s the evidence?

4. New York Jets (4-12) The circus is already underway. Dig in, Jets fans. 

AFC North

Absolute beast, and only getting better.

Absolute beast, and only getting better.

1. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5) Most talented roster in AFC must take the next step: playoff success. I’m confident they will.

2. Baltimore Ravens (9-7) Proud champions will not go as quietly as some think.

3. Cleveland Browns (7-9) Ascending, but not fast enough. Still, the Brownies could catch a few quality teams napping.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-10) Descending, but proud. The logo stands for something, always has. Will it be enough to avoid the basement?

AFC South

Year 2 of the "Luck Era."

Year 2 of the “Luck Era.”

1. Houston Texans (11-5) Plenty of divisional wins in forecast, but how far can you truly ride Schaub? Not sold.

2. Indianapolis Colts (9-7) Luck’s efficiency improves, while the overall W/L record takes a baby step back.

3. Tennessee Titans (7-9) The absolute definition of irrelevant: good enough to avoid # 1 overall pick talk, nowhere near good enough to further the conversation toward anything pertinent.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14) Yikes. Hello, blackouts. Again.

AFC West

Plenty of regular season wins, but plenty of January blemishes for Peyton.

Plenty of regular season wins and plenty of January blemishes for Peyton.

1. Denver Broncos (11-5) I like Denver, but not nearly as much as others. Good team, but far from dominant. Could be bumpy at points, particularly the first 5-6 weeks.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (9-7) Andy Reid slowly cleans up the stench from last season as Alex Smith dinks and dunks KC to a winning record. Barely.

3. San Diego Chargers (7-9) Crossroads for Rivers, which way will he turn? Very tough team to gauge. Show me.

4. Oakland Raiders (2-14) Pryor adds intrigue, but the trenches are pitiful. Overall dearth of talent leads to another coaching change in Oakland. This team is B-A-D.

NFC East

No greater unknown in the NFL. Is he ready?

No greater unknown in the NFL. Is he truly ready?

1. Dallas Cowboys (10-6) I’ve played this game before and been burned. But really, working in definitive terms, who’s better?

2. Washington Redskins (9-7) It’s going to be interesting, that’s for sure.

3. New York Giants (8-8) Poor LB’er play and decaying pass rush will force Eli to win shootouts every week. He’s good, but he’s not that good. Let’s be honest: he was spotty last year.

4. Philadelphia Eagles (5-11) I believe in Chip Kelly, just not immediately.

NFC North

Will the leader of the Pack once again lead his team to a divisional crown?

Will the leader of the Pack once again lead his team to a divisional crown?

1. Green Bay Packers (10-6) Defense was sliced up at the ‘Stick last January. Good team, but not a lock for divisional supremacy. 

2. Chicago Bears (9-7) If Cutler clicks with his new HC, this division goes thru the Windy City.

3. Detroit Lions (8-8) Bush helps, but there’s something about this team…not sold.

4. Minnesota Vikings (6-10) Playoffs last season, this season, not so much.

NFC South

Truly elite?

Truly elite? I believe so. Matty “Ice” has arrived.

1. Atlanta Falcons (11-5) Class of an interesting division. Championship balance?

2.  New Orleans Saints (10-6) Welcome back, Sean Payton. Welcome back, playoffs.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8) How will Freeman respond? Is Revis 100% healthy? Is Schiano the right man for this job? Lots of questions, are there enough answers? Could go either way.

4. Carolina Panthers (7-9) Exciting, but flawed.

NFC West

Flip a coin for divisional supremacy.

Flip a coin.

1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4) Super Bowl talent, athleticism and depth. Best team in the NFC.

2. San Francisco 49ers (10-6) Second best team in football’s best division. Love Kaepernick, but he’ll miss Crabtree. Secondary issues, too.

3. St. Louis Rams (8-8) They’re coming, but in all probability, remain a year away. Still, buckle that chin strap when Fisher’s team rolls in.

4. Arizona Cardinals (6-10) With a little luck, the Cards might hang around into December. Can Patrick Peterson make an impact at WR? Bruce Arians inherits decent talent in the desert.

Coinage!

The race for the "Big Apple" should yield plenty of twists and turns. Buckle in!

The race for the “Big Apple” should yield plenty of twists and turns. Buckle in!

ARIZONA CARDINALS: (5-11) 2013 O/U: 5.5 Will a brutal division offset a new head coach, new philosophy and new QB? Close call. I watched Carson Palmer up close with the Raiders, and the former #1 pick can still spin it. Larry Fitzgerald, enjoy your respite from your recent tortured past. Good enough to win more than 5.5 games? Yes. Good enough to matter from late November on? No. Verdict: OVER.

ATLANTA FALCONS: (13-3) 2013 O/U: 10 Previous playoff failures aside, Matt Ryan is entering a stretch in his career that will produce gaudy stats and plenty of wins. Enjoy the ride, Atlanta. This team is loaded, and SHOULD have been in New Orleans playing Baltimore last February for the Lombardi Trophy. Verdict: OVER.

BALTIMORE RAVENS: (10-6) 2013 O/U: 8.5 Speaking of Baltimore, congrats to a great organization and terrific fan base on an amazing run towards glory. Now, hold on to that feeling when things go awry this season, because they will. Too many injuries and other defections to overcome. Verdict: UNDER

BUFFALO BILLS: (6-10) 2013 O/U: 6.5 The Bills last winning season came in 2004. The perpetual rebuild continues: new HC, new QB’s, etc. I’m rolling Missouri-style when it comes to this team: SHOW ME. They’re intriguing, but until they actually crack thru, I’m not buying anything Bills related. Verdict: UNDER, but close and by all accounts, they’re slowly emerging from the abyss. SHOW ME. 

CAROLINA PANTHERS: (7-9) 2013 O/U: 7 I’m a Cam Newton fan, period. Verdict: Over, 8-8.

CHICAGO BEARS: (10-6) 2013 O/U 8.5 Jay Cutler, meet Marc Trestman. You’re going to like this guy, trust me. Verdict: OVER

CINCINNATI BENGALS: (10-6) 2013 O/U 8.5 On paper, Cincy has as much balance as anyone in the league. Vertical weapons at TE should make life easier for Andy Dalton and A.J. Green to connect on some quick strikes. Tough early schedule gives me pause, but this team is still ascending, and they were pretty good last season. Verdict: OVER.

CLEVELAND BROWNS:  (5-11) 2013 O/U 6 See, Buffalo Bills. Verdict: UNDER, but improving.

DALLAS COWBOYS:  (8-8) 2013 O/U: 8.5 New contract, new play-caller…same old Tony Romo? Tough division, and given RG III’s injury and questions for Big Blue on defense, I’m expecting a revival in Big D. Verdict: OVER, but tread lightly.

DENVER BRONCOS: (13-3) 2013 O/U: 11.5 Peyton Manning + Wes Welker + Oakland + San Diego = wins. Verdict: OVER.

DETROIT LIONS: (4-12) 2013 O/U 8 Better balance for Matthew Stafford with Reggie Bush on the scene, allowing more methodical drives, which in theory, should keep the defense off the field more than last season. Last year was a disaster, but clearly, this team has the talent to win double figures. Verdict: OVER, barely. 9-7, 10-6 feels right for this squad. 

Leader of the Pack.

Leader of the Pack.

GREEN BAY PACKERS: (11-5) 2013 O/U: 10.5 Are they getting better or are they beginning to level out? Tough call. This is one I’d probably stay away from given the conflict between my brain and my eyes. The last time I watched this team play, they couldn’t tackle a QB. Granted a very, very fast QB, but a QB nonetheless. They were shredded at the ‘Stick, yet my brain says Aaron Rodgers will once again dominate the regular season. Verdict: Over, with sincere hesitation. Translation: stay away.

HOUSTON TEXANS: (12-4) 2013 O/U: 10.5 Plenty of horses, but last season’s swoon should be reason for slight concern as the Texans dropped 3/4 to close out the regular season. Are you truly a Matt Schaub believer? I’m not. Verdict: UNDER, but close. 

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: (11-5) 2013 O/U: 8.5 Seamless transition for Andrew Luck, who never stopped winning after leaving beautiful Palo Alto. However, there were more than a few charitable bounces that Indy cashed in. What happens if they bounce the other way this season? Are they good enough to close the gap. If it’s my money, I’m leaning towards no. Verdict: UNDER.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: (2-14) 2013 O/U: 5 Would you risk a penny on any team with real, legitimate QB concerns? Of course not. Verdict: UNDER, as the Blaine Gabbert “era” officially ends.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: (2-14) 2013 O/U: 7.5 Plenty of talent for Andy Reid, and Alex Smith should stabilize the circus that emerged under center last season. How bad was Matt Cassel? Wow. As long as they don’t ask Smith to shoulder too much, the Chiefs should be much improved. I watched Smith mature with my own eyes in the Bay Area, and while I recognize some obvious physical limitations, he’s smart and tough. Exactly what this franchise needs right now. Verdict: OVER, Wild-Card threat in AFC.

MIAMI DOLPHINS: (7-9) 2013 O/U 8 Very, very tough call. All summer I’ve positioned Miami as a Wild-Card threat in the AFC, but O-line issues might be too big to overcome. One thing working for Miami (aside from a fair amount of talent) is the dearth of talent in their own division. They should bag enough wins to push the number past 8. I’m sticking with my instincts here. Verdict: OVER

MINNESOTA VIKINGS: (10-6) 2013 O/U: 7.5 I could be wrong, but the 2012 Vikes felt and looked like a team that somehow stumbled upon 10 wins. While that might be unfair and a 2.5 drop in wins represents a radical twist, I think they are “capable” enough to do just that. Verdict: UNDER, not sold at all. 

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: (12-4) 2013 O/U: 11 I’ll just save everyone the trouble: it’s over. The league has changed quite a bit since ’05, the last time the Pats hoisted the big one. Respect Brady immensely, and they should once again win the division, but the erosion is obvious. Why is everyone so afraid to say it? Prediction: UNDER, 10-6.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: (7-9) 2013 O/U: 9 They won 7 games without Sean Payton, which means they’ll win at least 2 more with Sean Payton. Love the fact that it’s an even 9. I like this play quite a bit. Prediction: OVER.

NEW YORK GIANTS: (9-7) 2013 O/U: 9 I like the fact that the 9 stands alone here as .5 would probably force me to go the other way. Terrific coaching, team pride and QB play should push the number north of 9. If not, a push looks more likely than a loss here. This team always bounces back under Coughlin. Right? Verdict: OVER. I think.

NEW YORK JETS: (6-10) 2013 O/U: 6.5 I like the Jets defense quite a bit and if Chris Ivory stays healthy, along with Bilal Powell they should be able to run the ball with enough efficiency to surprise a few teams. The sooner Mark Sanchez disappears, the better. Is Geno Smith the real deal? Regardless, an overall dearth of talent at the skill positions makes this offense pedestrian, at best. Verdict: OVER, BARELY (or complete implosion)

OAKLAND RAIDERS: (4-12) 2013 O/U: 5.5 GM Reggie McKenzie is gutting the roster, and understandably so. Things are real bad in Oakland. By deleting bloated contracts and underachieving, lazy veterans the cupboards will slowly fill with hungry, viable NFL talent. The question is, will Dennis Allen be around to enjoy the fruits of his GM’s purge? My gut says no. This team is terrible.  Al Davis was lost for a decade, and it shows. Verdict: UNDER

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: (4-12) 2013 O/U: 7.5 By early October, Chip Kelly will be reaching into his own pocket, hoping to book Bowling Green for a layup win. Tough camp for Philly as injuries and Riley Cooper’s stupidity have dominated the NovaCare Complex. Who’s playing QB, by the way? Verdict: UNDER

PITTSBURGH STEELERS: (8-8) 2013 O/U: 9 I want to respect the logo, they’ve earned it. The Raven’s stumble could open the door for a revival in Pittsburgh, and at the very least, inspires enough to lay a little wood on the Steel Dawgs. Verdict: OVER, barely.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS: (7-9) 2013 O/U: 7.5 What the heck happened to Phillip Rivers’ career? He should rebound, but not enough to invest any real coin in the Bolts. Tough call. Verdict: UNDER

Less posing minus Crabtree?

Less posing minus Crabtree?

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: (11-4-1) 2013 O/U: 11 They’ll miss Crabtree and Dashon Goldson, but Jim Harbaugh is a brilliant head coach, and he has a great locker room. This team loves football, and has strong interior play on both sides of the ball. Love Kaepernick, but Boldin’s odometer is running high and the division is getting better. They desperately need a young WR to emerge. Verdict: UNDER, but a playoff lock and viable threat for the title. 10-6 sounds right.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: (11-5) 2013 O/U: 10.5 Last time Seattle played the 49ers, they beat them to a bloody pulp. It’s the kind of loss that empowers one franchise and possibly raises question for another. Another playoff lock, I think they edge out SF for the division by a game. Verdict: OVER, legit.

ST. LOUIS RAMS: (7-8-1) 2013 O/U: 7.5 Ignore the sub-500 mark from 2012 for a moment, as it doesn’t tell the entire story. This team improved as the year progressed, and oh yeah, by the way, also had the best divisional record: 4-1-1. Sam Bradford remains the key, but Fisher will have this team ready to roll after laying the foundation last season. Ascending. Verdict: OVER.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: (7-9) 2013 O/U: 7.5 Interesting offseason for Tampa, as Greg Schiano and ownership drew a line in the sand for Josh Freeman: it’s time. I like Freeman, always have, and think he responds nicely. Improved field position courtesy of a revamped secondary will help. I’m buying the Bucs. Verdict: OVER, and playoffs.

TENNESSEE TITANS: (6-10)  2013 O/U: 6.5 Aggressive play by Tennessee in FA tilts the needle in the right direction, and given the small bump in wins, I’m inclined to roll the dice and push the number to 7, possibly 8. They’re not as bad as most people position them to be. Verdict: OVER, barely.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS: (10-6) 2013: 8.5 RG III is great for football, and like everyone else, I’m rooting for a quick and full recovery for the second year star from Baylor. That knee, however, has been problematic for quite some time. When it comes to green, I’m rolling with my head over emotion and sentiment and I’m simply not convinced he’ll hold up for the  duration of the season. Plenty of holes on the roster. Verdict: UNDER

*Team record from 2012 in ( ), followed by updated Vegas Over/Under projected win totals in ’13.

***If you take this too seriously, you’re insane.

A Crack in the Shield

It’s pretty hard to compromise perfection. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, the NFL appears focused on doing just that, tinkering with the secret sauce that long ago propelled the shield to the top of the sporting landscape.

Baseball? Too slow. Steroids and other PED’s coupled with a massive discrepancy in payrolls and an inept Commissioner, and an entire generation of fans have been irreparably alienated.

Hoops? It’s regressed into one-on-one showmanship, with little regard for team concept. Sure, the playoffs are great, but for the most part, just 2-4 teams have legitimate championship aspirations. Flip on the last few minutes of most games, and you’ll pick up on the story lines. Think a few hard-working people were turned off by Lebron’s moronic soap opera?

Hockey? A) it’s not even our sport and B) it translates poorly to TV.

Golf? It’s for the affluent, and it lacks personality. There are no distinct swings anymore and coupled with Tiger’s demise and Phil’s empty season, the fringe fan has already checked out.

Then there’s football, a riveting combination of sheer strength and grace, agility and bone-rattling hits. Impact plays covering 60 plus yards long ago replaced three yards and a cloud of dust. The league is no longer about passing out of necessity, it’s about passing to survive.

Economically, salary caps and TV contracts support an even playing field. The Bills and the Jaguars, in theory, can compete with the Giants and the Cowboys. It’s worked for years, and we inhale everything about the sport.

Team gear, sports bars dedicated to specific teams and fan bases, tailgating, NFL Sunday Ticket, Red Zone, Fantasy Football, offshore accounts and daily highlight shows long ago sucked us in.

However, beyond the ineptitude of the current crop of replacement refs, the NFL is slowly losing its edge, and unless the league acknowledges and eventually corrects the spider crack on the windshield, one of the best products, ever, is in danger of losing everything it worked so hard to protect.

It starts here:

FREQUENCY: The NFL has always had a built-in advantage over other sports, as we were always thirsting for more. However,  in the quest to dominate the sports landscape even further, the suits may have missed the boat by actually watering down their golden goose. The beauty of football has always been the palpable emotion that each snap brings, something no other sport can remotely replicate. The ability to dial-up the emotion once a week before decompressing and ultimately dialing the meter back up the following week was tactically brilliant. However, 12 hours of football on Sunday, followed by 4 more on Monday, followed by 4 more on Thursday has created football overload. Suddenly, Sundays feel a little less…special. And over time, that can’t possibly be a good thing.

PACE:  Part of the fuel behind the NFL’s engine is the way the pace  of the game seemed to organically shift with the changing pace of society. It’s been a tremendous asset. Why stand in line at my bank when I can simply deposit a check at an ATM? Heck, I’ll just snap a picture of my check on my smart phone and download it right into my account from  my couch. Immediate gratification. Contrast that to the methodical (yet still beautiful) pace of baseball. Pitcher stares in for a sign, shakes off his catcher several times, pauses and runs thru the signs again. Subsequently, the batter requests time from the ump; the batter then steps out of the box, scans the field, plays with his batting glove, adjusts his cup, tugs on his helmet, all while the pitcher circles the mound, wipes the sweat from him brow, climbs back on top of the hill, toes the rubber, and runs thru the signs. Again. I just stared at a screen for 47 seconds, yet nothing of significance occurred, at least nothing that actually impacts the game. As a viewer, what is my reward for investing my time in that product? In my case, I’m the sucker, as I’m genuinely a baseball fan, so I’m in. But what about the rest of the world? They’ve moved on. Yet, with replay and so many touch backs on kickoffs, the NFL has foolishly managed to slow down a locomotive. Every year, the games get longer, while our collective attention spans decrease. Never a good combination.

FEROCITY: I’ll be totally honest: as long as a player wasn’t motionless on the ground and God forbid, possibly paralyzed, I never gave much thought to injuries.  Clearly, if it affected my team, yes, I was emotionally invested, but for the most part, the bigger the car crash, the better. I ruptured my Achilles a few years ago and had Tommy John surgery in college, so I’ve always been aware of the physics and kinesiology of sport. But it’s jumped to an entirely new level the past few years now that the brain has become such a central part of the game and the coverage. It humanizes athletes who for so many decades, seemed beyond physical reproach. I actually am turning away from some of the brutal hits, which ironically, was a magnet to initially tune in so many years ago. Aren’t we supposed to escape reality for a few hours when tuning into a sporting event? I’m sorry, but seeing players removed from the field and carted off has no appeal for me.

GAMBLING: Sure, there were millions of dollars lost last night due to the egregious mistake by the referees on the last play. Still, I’m not sure how many people truly realize just how much was impacted by that one mistake. Some bet the Packers straight up, on the money line: loss. Others laid a few points: loss. But what about all of those casinos, websites and street hustlers who took parlays and reverses and round robins and teasers with the Packers as one of the elements needed for a win? It’s tough enough sweating out a 3 teamer under normal circumstances, imagine being 2 for 2 and then losing like that? If people no longer believe their dollar will be rewarded, at the very least, with integrity and accuracy from the officials, why bet? What if you had the Packers Defense/Special teams last night? It seems small, but let’s face it: gambling has been the NFL’s best friend for decades.

Personally, I’m not sure how you reverse this. Yes, I have a few ideas, but I’ll leave that one up to the NFL. They were intelligent enough to transform the shield into the beast of all logos. Now it’s time to hit the lab and make sure they keep it there.

Right now, for myriad reasons, it’s leaking fuel.

Fast.

“Elite vs. Ideal”

A true draft anomaly: from bust to hero

I can’t necessarily pinpoint when, but somewhere along the way, we simply lost our way.

We lost our edge as sports fans. We compromised our principles and cashed out, succumbing to a barrage of mindless, useless and mostly scripted and contrived banter focused around two words: “elite” and “legacy.”

We lost our poise and focus and creativity.

In essence, we were brainwashed.

Well, some of us anyway.

Truthfully speaking, baseball’s steroids scandal forced us to evaluate, long-term, how some of the luminaries of the game would be remembered. Bonds and Clemens opened up the legacy dialogue, and that was more than acceptable. It fit. How would two titans of the game, both cheaters, be remembered? Legacy. Fair game.

The word was also quite popular during Phil Mickelson’s erratic yet riveting quest for his first major. How would a player with such undeniable skill and creativity around the green be viewed without a major on his mantle? I get it. I didn’t follow golf during Greg Norman’s reign, but I imagine the word was used in an effort to provide clarity and help quantify his peaks and valleys, especially at Augusta.

Same with Lebron for a few years, and to a lesser extent, before that, Kobe without Shaq.

In terms of the sweet science, before Mike Tyson completely lost his mind, enthusiasts of the ring established their own criteria developed over decades of watching championship tilts and hot prospects.

Long before sports radio cemented itself as a viable outlet, society has always turned other venues into their own, personal afternoon drive slot: bars, locker rooms and tailgates all fit the bill. It’s what men do. We did it as kids in the street and we do it at family BBQ’s as adults.

But what the hell is so hard about the word “elite?” Really, there is nothing nebulous about the term or what it represents.

e·lite or é·lite  (-lt-lt)

n. pl. elite or e·lites

1.

a. A group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class, enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status: “In addition to notions of social equality there was much emphasis on the role of elites and of heroes within them” (Times Literary Supplement).

b. The best or most skilled members of a group: the football team’s elite.

Does that describe Alex Smith? Of course not.

When referencing the elites of any sport, their greatness should be undeniable; their talents rare and tantalizing; their production and accomplishments beyond question. To me, that is what the word “elite” has always represented.

But in this watered-down world of “every-kid-gets-a-trophy,” that list has been distorted. Scrubs gets paid like stars and stars are treated like Babe Ruth and Jim Brown. The actual superstars? The deserving ones are dissected like lab rats by Skip Bayless, their true greatness eventually diminished.

Which brings me to Alex Smith, and his remarkable journey from the QB grave yard: saved by Jim Harbaugh, and currently, one of the leaders on the NFL’s best team, the San Francisco 49ers.

Excluding the 2008 season, Alex Smith has led the 49ers to records of 2-5, 7-9, 2-5, 5-5, and 3-7 before last season’s 13-3 resurrection. I’m constantly reminded (now) by 49er fans that a QB should be judged ultimately by the scoreboard, not stats. After glancing at his career win totals, are you sure that’s how you want to begin your defense of Alex Smith?

I didn’t think so.

In 2005, the same year Smith was drafted # 1 overall our of Utah, Apple introduced the first IPod Shuffle. The IPod Shuffle! That’s a while ago, and while fans hate the fact the first 6 years of the Alex Smith Era were painful ones, it doesn’t change the fact that they actually occurred!

2005 NFL Draft

1. Alex Smith, 49ers

2. Ronnie Brown, Dolphins

3. Braylon Edwards, Browns

4. Cedric Benson, Bears

5. Cadillac Williams, Buccaneers

6. Pacman Jones, Titans

7. Troy Williamson, Vikings

8. Antrel Rolle, Cardinals

9. Carlos Rogers, Redskins

10. Mike Williams, Lions

Almost every name on that list is a bust, criminal, or retread, with the exception of Rolle and Rogers, and now Smith. Their careers have already been defined. In the very literal sense of the word, failures, at least on Sundays. And while Alex continues to rehabilitate his image, some numbers are undeniable. Last season, the 49ers ranked 31st in 3rd down conversions. A closer look at the breakdown paints an interesting picture:

1. Saints (56.7%)

2. Chargers

3. Packers

4. Steelers

5. Patriots

===========================================================

28. Bills

29. Cardinals

30. Broncos

31. 49ers (29.4%)

32. Rams

I don’t know about you, but if given the choice, I kind of like the Brees-Rivers-Rodgers-Roethliesberger-Brady aisle a whole lot better than the Fitzpatrick-Skelton/Kolb-Tebow-Smith-Bradford bin.

Last season, despite having an above average ground presence, the 49ers ranked 30th in red zone scoring percentage (TD’s only). Only one team in the NFL threw the ball less the entire season, and again, just looking at the numbers, Smith ranked 19th in total passing yards with 3,144. Pedestrian numbers, at best.

This season, Alex is off to a superb start, leading his team to a pair of high-profile wins (Packers, Lions) while completing 70.4% of his passes. He’s currently on pace for 32 TD’s, and has yet to throw a pick, which he hasn’t done, seemingly, in years. He has additional weapons at his disposal, and the offense is far more diverse and dangerous than it was a season ago. Barring injuries, the 49ers appear destined to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Who’s better? The Giants? Philly? Dallas? Saints? Please.

The point of this, really, is not to knock Alex Smith, but rather, to more accurately identify what he is at this stage of his career. And after watching him in person all of last season and the first two weeks this year, here’s my scouting report:

Tough, mobile, cerebral and his accuracy in the short to intermediate routes is good. His arm strength is average to slightly above average. He senses pressure well in the pocket, and has silenced, for the most part, his once happy feet. He’s learned to take control at the line of scrimmage, and his teammates love him.

But does Alex Smith make his teammates better, or has he finally been insulated by a great coaching staff and placed in a system where the defense sets the tone and offense is asked, merely, to be competent?

You see, in a lot of ways, we’ve been debating the wrong thing. It’s not about whether or not Alex Smith is elite. Who cares. For the record, in my opinion, he’s not, and he never will be. Too much has transpired in what was, until last year, a disappointing career. But right now, in 2012, he’s good.

And right now, he’s the absolutely perfect QB for what just might be, a perfect team.

After all these years, Alex Smith finally fits.

But after years of watching Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and Tom Brady carve up the AFC East, my definition of elite appears to be very, very different than some out here in the Bay.

And I’m perfectly fine with that.

The race is on!

EAST

1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5) Like a rough Saturday night, I’ll probably regret this pick in the morning, but it’s impossible to ignore their talent. I’m not a big Michael Vick fan, but with immense pressure on Andy Reid to win, I’ll give the edge to a man who’s battled adversity his entire life, and more times than not, found a way to survive the flames of fandom in Philly. They can beat you on the ground, in the air, and after last season, should be starving for redemption.   Add it all up, and they’re the top dog in the East when the smoke clears.

2. Dallas Cowboys (9-7) Pretty fitting that “America’s Team” mirrors America itself, given it’s volatile and underachieving ways the past few seasons. The one area they needed to shore up was CB, and they did, signing FA Brandon Carr away from the Chiefs and drafting LSU stud Morris Claiborne. I think they drop the opener to the Giants, but should bounce back with wins in Weeks 2-3 against Seattle and Tampa. It’s always an adventure in Big D, but this year, the road finds the playoffs.

3. New York Giants (9-7) Yes, Eli Manning is officially entrenched as one of the best QB’s in football, and while Cruz and Nicks remain great targets, quietly, the Giants will miss Mario Manningham, who had a TD reception in all 3 playoff games leading up to the SB. Their pass rush is fierce and they are very well-c0ached, but the talent base is a bit overrated. They clawed their way into the playoffs after losing 7 regular season games. I can’t completely ignore that.

4. Washington Redskins (7-9) Looking forward to watching RG III transition to the NFL, and for the most part, I expect a pretty smooth ride for the former Baylor star. While the secondary remains suspect (not a good thing in this division), Washington’s front 7 is stout. They remain a year or two away, but you better tie your laces before kickoff against this team, otherwise, they’ll pick off a few decent teams.

NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (13-3) Think they learned their lesson by sitting Aaron Rodgers in the regular season finale? They were stale and flat against the Giants, and it destroyed their season. Not sure if 15 wins is realistic again, but the Packers are the team to beat in the NFC, even though the Lombardi Trophy rests comfortably in New Jersey. Can Rodgers blow past 50 TD’s this season?

2. Chicago Bears (11-5) Absolutely love the way this team looks on paper headed into the season. Michael Bush was a nice addition behind RB Matt Forte and Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler have undeniable chemistry. This team is legit, and if healthy are a lock to win double digit games and make life miserable for someone come playoff time. DANGEROUS.

3. Detroit Lions (9-7) Personally, I’m not sold. They’ll flip the scoreboard with Stafford to Mega Tron, but the Lions are a little too one-dimensional to reside in the upper-tier of a monster division. They ranked 22nd against the pass last year and 23rd stopping the run. Mix in some immaturity and off-field chaos, and I’ll pass on the boys from Motown this season. Elite? Hardly.

4. Minnesota Vikings (4-12) Here’s a great idea: even though we pretty much suck, let’s rush Adrian Peterson back! I’m sorry, but sometimes an organization needs to protect a player from himself, and the Vikings are failing to do that with AP. To be fair, I was initially lukewarm on Christian Ponder, but am slowly becoming a fan. Bottom-line: this is no division to rebuild in.

SOUTH

1. Atlanta Falcons (11-5) Simply put, it’s time for Matt Ryan to erase the donut in the column entitled “playoff wins.” This team has terrific balance, combining vertical explosion with the ability to stop the run (6th overall last season) How they react to two new coordinators very well should determine whether Atlanta is merely good, or legitimately in the mix come mid/late January. I’m leaning towards the latter.

2. New Orleans Saints (9-7) Yes, Drew Brees is great, and yes, Drew Brees runs the huddle like a coach, but there is a fine line between having coaching characteristics and actually being a coach. Mix in suspensions and free agent defections and the Bayou will lack the energy of the last few football seasons. The window has shut, my friends.

3. Carolina Panthers (8-8) Raise your hand if you ever encountered an athlete like Cam Newton in the schoolyard growing up? Didn’t think so. Good God, what laboratory was this prodigy created in? Yes, he’s really that good. Here’s something else that’s pretty good in Carolina: the LB’ers. Still a year or two away, but you just know that eventually, Newton and Carolina will be hosting a few NFC Title games.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-10) On one hand, I really like the addition of Vincent Jackson. Smart move getting Josh Freeman a sorely needed weapon. However, given Greg Schiano’s penchant for running the ball, I’m not sure how much they’ll actually utilize him. Seems like a strange fit, no? As for Freeman, the kid can play, and in my opinion, last season’s step back is a temporary trip, not a foreshadow of his career arch. Rebuilding.

WEST

1. San Francisco 49ers (10-6) The Niners were pretty damn good last year, and the additions of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham should create better balance on offense. Defensively, this is the best unit in football, and special teams remains one of the elite units in football. There are very few holes, but for this team to take the next step, they’ll need better QB play and personally, I’m not sprinting to the window in Vegas to lay money on Alex Smith. The red zone and 3rd stats need to improve significantly. The real pressure begins now for # 11. The Niners could win the SB or regress significantly from 13 wins. I reside somewhere in the middle. 10 wins and capable of beating any team in football.

2. Seattle Seahawks (9-7) Personally, I thought Pete Carroll did a fantastic job last season, turning over a roster and improving greatly as the season progressed. The team that showed up at the ‘Stick for Week 1 was a shell of the inspired unit that finished the season. In December, Seattle knocked off Philly, St. Louis and Chicago in succession, lost by 2 points vs SF and lost in OT at Arizona. No one knows what to expect under center the first month of the season, but Seattle is definitely on the way up. Russell Wilson, please report to the front desk…

3. St. Louis Rams (8-8) Remember when the Rams were the trendy pick for many entering last season? Injuries quickly destroyed any chance for a semblance of a season, which lead to a change at the top: enter, Jeff Fisher. Absolutely love the hire. The Rams were actually picking CB’s up off the street last season, that’s how far down they were forced to reach on the depth chart. Impossible to compete that way. Still, Sam Bradford needs to reestablish himself as one of the premier young QB’s in the league. If he does, the arrow for this team is pointing north. They’ll be much, much better.

4. Arizona Cardinals (4-12) When your best player is a WR, yet, you begin the summer with an uninspiring and at times perplexing QB battle, you know things are rough. They remain athletic on defense, but this team is going nowhere, even in a division looking to define itself.

Draft Day: The Roster

Draft Day.

We have this one penciled on the calendar for months, and rightfully so. It’s a chance to connect with old friends, toss out the rules for a few hours, and bond, like the old days. It’s also an investment. We’re all in, and as the day nears, we prep with fury. Last second cheat sheets, tips, anything to fuel our competitive thirst. The monetary gain is nice, but it’s really about being back with the guys. Zingers flying left and right, and despite what our wives think, a chance to brag. Brag about them, new additions to the family, work opportunities, stock tips…

And once those :30 expire, it’s GAME ON!

Let’s meet the room.

1. “Decade Behind Guy” I have no idea what the heck happened to this poor soul. At one point, “DBG” was a beacon of hope for the drafting community, seamlessly transitioning from newspapers to the internet, this guy had all the tools. In the 90’s, he was a pioneer of sorts, the early glue to the beginning stages of Fantasy Football, rallying the troops and keeping stats. Yet, his rapid ascension has been met with a powerful and depressing fall from grace. He doesn’t own a lap top, and instead shows up on DD with a single sheet of paper. He thinks Shaun Alexander is still playing and Todd Heap is still a terrific option at TE. Boy, what could have been.

2. “Suffocated Married Guy” I love marriage, and I am happily married, but the reason I love marriage and remain happily married is because my wife understands there are certain things that were grandfathered into our vows, and this is one of them. “SMG’s” wife, sadly never got that memo, and he in turn, is absolutely miserable, a shell of his once virile self. He’s constantly checking his phone, stepping away from the table to chat. This dude may as well quit the league now. No one, and I mean no one, likes this guy. We pity him, yes. But like? Not on draft day we don’t. Absolute buzz-kill. Oh yeah, he’s probably late too, finishing up a few chapters of errands before finally receiving the green light from the Mrs. If I ever become this guy, shoot me.

3. “Trend-Setter Guy” This guy is flat-out baffling, yet, his stupidity forces everyone to react and deviate from their initial drafting goals. Why? Because “TSG” decides this is the year he must select a K in the second round, or begin an early trend on Defense/Special Teams. By so desperately wanting to be ahead of the curve, he instead distorts any semblance of balance., forcing everyone to recover. In a weird way, “TSG” challenges your draft-day acumen. The good ones usually respond, while he scrapes the bottom of the pool all season long. Basically, he gets in his own head, and those guys never do well. Admittedly, and sadly, I have been this guy.

4. “Jobless Guy” Utterly depressing, and sadly, the last few years, “JG’s” visibility has increased exponentially. It’s rough out there, no question. But the point of Fantasy Football and Draft Day itself is to escape the day-to-day grind, to kick back, chill and catch up with the boys. If he’s not complaining about the mortgage, chances are, he’s hinting strongly that this year’s entry fee is a little to steep for his blood. Still, he’s committed, locked in once the drafting begins, a great sports fan and hopefully for his sake, a few bucks richer come January. We’re always rooting for “JG.” I think we’ve all been this guy.

5. “Frat House Guy” This guy rocks. He’s basically like the rest of us, only a few years behind on the evolution scale, which is perfectly fine given the occasion. Overall, he gets it. Gainfully employed, in a relationship, yet one night a year, this guy manages to turn back time and command the room, like the old days. Backwards hat, jersey, ripped jeans. This guy is down for anything and because he was a former athlete, he knows the score, and almost always walks away with a solid, balanced team. Proudly, I relate to this guy.

6. “Divorced Guy” Quite frankly, it depends which one shows up, because there are two types, and they are both very, very different. “DG” can kill the vibe, if he’s not on his game. If he’s divorced because he finally figured out what we all knew back on his wedding day, well, good for him. He forges ahead, undeterred. If he’s divorced because his wife, well you know, this guy is in shambles. If it’s the latter, comfort him before the draft during breaks and after the draft, but sit far away from him during the action. He will suck you in and your team will suffer. There’s a fine line between being a great friend and being a great GM, and it’s up to you to strike the proper balance. It’s not easy.

7. “What’s Next on the Agenda Guy” Truth of the matter is, you love this guy, and on so many levels, you used to be this guy, but tonight, he is a direct threat to your patience. In Round 2, he’s ordering pizza, in Round 4 he’s looking to jump out for a beer run, in Round 6, he’s already shuffling the cards and by 8, he’s already on the phone with strippers. Again, you like this guy. Actually, you love this guy. But you have a job to do before the party breaks out, and all these years later, he still doesn’t get the message. Not surprisingly, his team nickname may as well be “doormat.” Never a threat to win. In essence, “WNAG” is there to do everything BUT draft. It’s tough, but I usually manage to strike a nice balance with this guy.

8. “I Rarely see this Guy, Guy” Close your eyes and scan the room. You can visualize the seating arrangement and the room itself. You know who’s getting fidgety waiting on the first smoke break in the garage. Generally, you converse with everyone, yet, every year, without fail, there is one guy, who for some reason, you need to ask yourself: who is this dude? That’s right, it’s so and so’s friend from college or Billy’s cousin or Matt’s brother. Good guy, harmless guy, passionate drafter…but nearly a decade later, you still hope you remember his name. Ironically, he’s usually a factor come December, and yup, you guessed: you won’t see him again until next draft day.

9. “Good pick Guy” There’s a fine line between this guy being an asset and a complete annoyance. When the picking becomes tight, and you’re in the late rounds, trying to beat the clock and decide between a few middle round rookies or other obscure (possible) breakout players, this guy is good for the ego: “Solid pick, nice job right there” or “damn, you got my guy.” That’s cool. Subtle, yet rewarding to all receiving GM’s. When you start hearing that 3-4 picks in, he’s a good bet to rub a few people the wrong way. Tread carefully, “GPG.” After a few beers, we all turn into this guy at one point.

10. “Pseudo GM Guy” Let’s face it, we’re all pseudo GM’s, that’s the whole point of Fantasy Football. But this guy is different. He is methodical and effective, cunning and dangerous. He is good. He’s always a step ahead with the latest stat, latest techno-gadget and chances are, he is a very astute college football fan, which helps in the later rounds. He was probably the ball boy in HS, and this is his chance to flex, and flex he does.

Oh yeah, good luck! (Unless you’re in my league.)

We’re not done yet…

Destination: The Lone Star State

Is there a franchise more maddening in the history of this great city than our beloved New York Jets?

At least the Islanders had the guts to make a sharp turn onto “Insignificant Boulevard” years ago. They don’t hide their lack of sizzle, as evidenced by the Disco-inspired dump they still call home. They have a small, albeit loyal and raucous fan base, sure, but for the most part, seem comfortable playing in the shadow of the grand metropolis.

For years, the New York Jets lagged painfully behind the Yankees, Knicks and Giants in two important categories: marketability and street-cred, in no specific order. Many of their off-season acquisitions failed to measure up, and for the most part, the coaching tree is lined with a bunch of uninspiring, unsuccessful names. They tried.

They simply failed.

Year after year after year.

The Jets were a national punch line, and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it as fans.

Until recently.

The Jets are clearly marketable, as shown by the summer-long love affair with “Hard Knocks” on HBO, and the prime-time games that peppered their regular season schedule. They were also the marquee matchup on Wild-Card Saturday, playing prime-time against Peyton Manning and the Colts.

Personally, I think the organization increased it’s Q rating for good with the signing of Brett Favre, and while many fans are selective in what they recall from that season, it represents a turn in the organization’s philosophy. No longer were the Jets trying to replicate the Patriots mundane (but highly effective approach). Instead, the Jets showed guts, and by rolling the dice, finally occupied a space on the national landscape–something they rarely enjoyed.

The Jets finally figured out that fans crave ownership of a team, and the way to do that is to put people who relate to us, front and center. It’s OK to make mistakes, just get up, laugh it off, and continue the journey.

Charts and data and “due-dilligence” yes, it’s an integral part of the game, but we respond to emotion, not graphs and buzz words.

Laugh at Favre all you want, but his mere presence forced people to view the team differently. Suddenly, they were a focal point of SportsCenter, and were no longer the tri-state’s “other team.” They were 8 and 3, and firmly entrenched in the Super Bowl discussion after beating the Titans and Pats in back-to-back games.

They had momentum, and they had cache.

I also believe dealing with the Favre circus conditioned Mike Tannenbaum to take more chances. Chance # 1: Braylon Edwards. Chance # 2: Santonio Holmes. Chance # 3: Antonio Cromartie.

Tannenbaum learned to work with increased scrutiny and exposure, which I also believe allowed him to take a chance on Rex Ryan, which quite frankly, has changed the Jets forever.

Rather than hide, the Jets went all out with daily shows on SNY and increased radio exposure on 1050. And it’s worked.

Aside from Joe Namath, the Jets have had a handful of shooting stars, players who momentarily lit up the NFL skies before eventually flaming out for various reasons: Klecko and Gastineau, Toon and Keyshawn. Vinny and Chrebet had legions of fans, but aside from # 12, the Jets have never raced out of the tunnel prior to kickoff with all eyes on one specific player.

Never.

As consistent and productive as Curtis Martin was, did he ever resonate nationwide like say, Marshall Faulk, or Terrell Davis? Marcus Allen? Eric Dickerson?

If you close your eyes, and try to capture one lasting NFL image this season, player or coach or team, it’s probably Rex Ryan. He’s colorful, sure, bombastic, you bet. But he’s smart.

Damn smart.

The way he handles the psychology of the sport is amazing, deflecting criticism and inspiring simultaneously. Lots of coaches push buttons, but Rex has the guts and instincts to push them while the rest of the world is watching, and he does so without a net.

What do you think the Giants are thinking, now that several players have gone on record saying they wish their head coach was “more like Rex?”

Deep down, many of you are terrified, terrified that the Jets will fall painfully short, and stomp your football soul. Again. They will manipulate your mind and emotions like other Jets teams have in the past:

Miami, 1982.

Denver, 1998.

Indianapolis, 2009.

Not this season. Not with this coach.

It's time.

I urge you to embrace the stage, embrace this opportunity. Forget the ’83 draft and the “fake spike” and Blair Thomas and Rich Kotite and “HC of the NYJ.”

For once, think like a winner.

Rather than lament the past, and expect the worst, enjoy this ride and adopt the mindset of your head coach.

Dallas better tighten the screws for the storm that’s about to hit in a few weeks.

The New York Jets.

Yes, the New York Jets.

What exactly are we celebrating?

Watching a few thousand people explode with joy as the news of the Super Bowl landing in NY/New Jersey in 2014 spread, two things immediately came to mind:

1) The response was predictable and 2) it was utterly misleading.

Predictable in the sense–and this is nothing new–a camera crew and a few reporters always means one thing:

“Yooooooooooo! What up Brooklyn…I’m representin’, go Yanks, yeah yeah, what up!!” 

People act very weird when the red light is on, always have, always will.

Hell, I remember basically doing a “Michael Jackson-moonwalk”/”Hulk Hogan-flex” hybrid when my goofy 9-year old mug flashed on the real time camera outside of Space Mountain in 1983.  “Whoa, there I am, Mom, check it out, this is cooooool!”

It happens.

Misleading? Yes.

Why, exactly, were people cheering? Because there’s no chance they’ll actually be inside the stadium, watching the game.

None.

But you better believe they will be re-routed on their commute home and shoved off trains and buses all week.

This too, is pretty predictable.

(Cue the soothing, reassuring voice)

“Ladies and gentleman, please be advised, there’s another train right behind this one…”

(Cue the annoying noise doors make when everyone ignores the announcement and instead, jams together like a rugby scrum, forcing the doors to open and close an additional five times)

This one’s inevitable, as it’s now time to cue the vigilante conductor, summoning his inner-most New York ‘tude…

“People! This train ain’t movin’ until you either step off, or get on! I’m runnin’ the show, now Let’s GO!!”

When you enter your mid-30’s, something changes inside. Not your morals or your values or your true beliefs, but when it comes to work, two questions set the pace:

A) How much do I stand to make and B) How much will I be inconvenienced if I agree to Task A

I don’t know about you, but I’m not making a dime off the Super Bowl. Sure, I’ll get invited to a few parties, and I’ll get to hang at some hot spots, but as soon as I leave, the inconvenience begins.

Getting a taxi will be next to impossible, and if one of the parties runs late, and I want to crash at a hotel, I’ll be completely shut out; unless of course, I get a reservation 18 months in advance.

Quick transition: Growing up in Brooklyn forces you to walk with a certain pace and converse with a certain edge. It’s fast and it’s direct., and I loved it. Attending High School in lower Manhattan exposed me to a different grit, a different side of our city and finally, living on the Upper West Side for six years exposed me to the culture and heart of our metropolis–Central Park.

I’ve also seen the city grow more and more crowded, where every developer’s answer to another building is well, vertical.

“Let’s keep building toward the sky, and stuff ’em in like sardines!”

Cha-ching.

“And while we’re at it,” chimes in the landlord, “we’ll nail ’em for  $3000 a month for 672 sq feet of space.”

Together: “Suckers!”

Cha-ching.

You know what? We are suckers, I admit it. We fail to capitalize on the beautiful country we all have at our finger-tips, and instead, settle into the greatest/most crowded/dirtiest/most expensive city in the United States–minus the great climate.

And we do that for a multitude of reasons, each one unique.

This city is tough, it always has been and it always will be. Why make it tougher?

Ask yourself, will YOU really benefit from the Super Bowl in 2014? Even when the Jets and Giants squeeze $500 million dollars out of a company for naming rights, will you get reimbursed for the PSL check you recently wrote?

Sure, the city will benefit economically, but once again, it feels like another situation where the rich get richer, and we get shoved aside.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never really enjoyed being shoved aside.

See you at the game! 

I mean…bar.

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