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What’s next for Manchester United and Jose Mourinho?
Manchester United have to find an immediate caretaker and a long term solution with Jose Mourinho no longer at the helm. History suggests they won’t get it right. Yesterday, Jose Mourinho was manager of Manchester United. Today, he is not. And now that football’s latest high-profile divorce is almost a day old, it’s probably time to take stock of just where everybody involved goes from here. Who next for Manchester United? Manchester United are the biggest club in the world, at least according to Manchester United, and so where other clubs look for one manager, they look for two. The first is a caretaker to, err, take care of the team for the rest of the season. Michael Carrick doesn’t fancy it, apparently. This caretaker must, apparently, be somebody that is a part of United’s history, somebody who gets it, somebody who can bring back a bit of ambition, good feeling, and on-field elan. The problem is, none of the ex-United managers knocking around have particularly persuasive records. The favourite is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who was excellent in his first spell at Molde, but flopped entirely in his brief time with Cardiff City. He — along with a couple of wiser, older heads — could even be in place before the end of the week, unless the UK press pack have completely lost the run of their sources. He’s probably the best of the options, given the criteria. Among those who are out of work, there are the likes of Jaap Stam, Roy Keane, Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes, and Mike Phelan ... none of which are names that really scream out for appointment. Carlos Queiroz is about to lead Iran to the Asian Cup. And then there’s Laurent Blanc, who has been hanging around looking for another gig for some time now. It’d be a surprise if he fancies being a stopgap. While Solskjaer (or whoever) gets the next six months, the club will be scurrying around in the background trying to find somebody for the next six years. Within the Premier League, the obvious candidate is Mauricio Pochettino, who satisfies every single criteria for becoming United manager. He plays attractive, ambitious, attacking football, he makes young players better, he wins ... well, okay, he hasn’t actually won anything yet. That’s a sticking point. Another sticking point: Would he want to leave Spurs for United? His current club sit 13 points above United, and while Spurs may not have anywhere near as much money, they certainly spend it a hell of a lot better. He’d be jumping from one of the best-run clubs in the country to one of the strangest. And he’d miss out on a shiny new stadium, too. Spurs, already far better than when they arrived, might just about be in position to afford him a real crack at things. Would he want to miss that? And even if he does decide to leave Spurs, would he choose United? We can assume he’d be highly popular, and Florentino Perez is usually looking for a future ex-manager of Real Madrid. In any case, whether United conceive of their next manager in terms of attributes (Pochettino the favourite here) or look for trophies (Zinedine Zidane, maybe? Antonio Conte?), whether they look to a relative veteran (Max Allegri?) or an up-and-comer (Leonardo Jardim?), there is the broader state of the club to consider. Great managers are rare. Great managers that can succeed without a well-organised club behind them might not exist at all. Alex Ferguson used to advise his players, on their move into management, to choose a club on the basis of its chairperson. Nowadays, managers might take a broader view, but the principle is the same: make sure the structure is sound. Is there a director of football? What does the scouting department look like? Who is signing off on signings? And so on and so forth. There is much that is still attractive about the United job — the name, the history, the whopping wage packet — but they don’t look like a well-run club, and they haven’t for a while. According to Sky Sports News, United are moving towards appointing a technical director for the first time, which means that anybody who comes in won’t be entirely dependent on the whims and wishes of Ed Woodward. That ought to help, but the job is still a risk for whoever takes it. What next for Jose Mourinho? The last time Jose Mourinho was sacked midway through a season, by Chelsea, he was wildly underperforming with a strong squad that he had almost totally alienated, and he looked, frankly, knackered to the point of irrelevance. All very familiar. But then just a few months later, he was offered the Manchester United job. Something similar seems unlikely this time, and not just because almost every other big club in the world is run by more sensible people than United. Indeed, we can probably say that Mourinho is done as an elite manager in the Premier League: his style has been found out, and his substance has almost entirely gone. Elsewhere, he perhaps commands more clout. There were stories earlier in the season linking him to a return to Real Madrid, on the basis that Florentino Perez felt Real Madrid’s current squad could do with a little of Mourinho’s tough love. That came to little, but at least one of the UK papers is reporting that the interest remains. Perhaps there’s a new kind of managerial consultancy role for him. Something that plays to Mourinho’s strengths, with a pitch like: Have your expensively assembled squad of pampered prima donnas been slacking off? Have they forced you to sack a decent manager? Why not give them a few months of The Mourinho Treatment — wide-ranging misery guaranteed! Wages are not refundable. You may be liable for severance pay. The performance of your team may go down as well as up. Trophies not guaranteed. Working on the principle that he probably quite fancies proving the universe wrong, I’d predict another tilt at club management somewhere. Presumably, Mourinho still has friends at Internazionale, and Mourinho vs. Juventus sounds like a fun adventure for all the family in an Alien vs. Predator kind of way. Alternatively, there’s international football. Rather neatly, the international game solves many of the problems that Late Mourinho has run into. No fights over transfers, no constant agitation on the training ground. A slower, more meditative role. And then the chance to win the World Cup. That truly would show everybody. But whatever he does, we can all hope that he takes his time, and that he takes a long holiday before any of it. Over the last season and a half, it’s been exhausting to even look at Mourinho. There never has been a man so obviously in need of a break.
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Can Drew Brees and the Saints offense get back on track for the playoffs?
New Orleans is going to the playoffs, but will they be taking the high-scoring offense we got used to seeing earlier in the year with them? Drew Brees was rewriting the record books, the Saints looked like the hottest team in football, and Brees was storming towards his first ever MVP award. But he and the Saints offense might’ve put that award in danger with a mediocre three game stretch. Over the last three weeks, Brees is averaging 5.7 yards per attempt and just 177 yards per game — that’s far away from the 285 yards per game and 8.8 yards per attempt he averaged in the 11 games prior. Brees has also thrown an interception in four straight games after through one interception in the first 10 games of the season. He had a passer rating of 127.3 after Thanksgiving, which would’ve broken Aaron Rodgers’ season record of 122.5, but now it sits at 116.8. His passer rating over the last three weeks is 77.0. The Saints are only scoring 14.3 points per game over their last three games compared to 37.2 points up to that point. Interestingly enough, the Saints’ offensive output hasn’t really hurt them as far as playoff seeding goes. They’ve gone 2-1 through the three games that Brees and the offense have been in a slump, only losing to the Cowboys 13-10 on the road. They’re still in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 spot in the NFC. It’s tough to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong with the Saints’ offense. Their offensive line has only given up five sacks during this rut. Brees is still completing 69.2 percent of his passes. There doesn’t seem to be a singular culprit, but a few things have gone wrong for them during their offensive funk. Michael Thomas is good, but the rest of the Saints receivers are just OK Saints receivers, outside of Michael Thomas, don’t really scare anyone. Thomas is having an All-Pro caliber season, but the rest of the receiving options after him have struggled recently. New Orleans’ game against the Panthers was a perfect showcase for the problem with the passing game. Thomas caught seven of his nine targets for 49 yards — the Panthers sent a lot of attention his way in coverage. Here’s an example of safety Eric Reid undercutting Thomas’ route while cornerback James Bradberry plays over the top. The rest of the Saints receivers caught 16 passes for just 154 yards. It wasn’t like the Panthers were locking down the receiving options; New Orleans just wasn’t making plays on the ball. Dan Arnold failed to make a reception on the ball and it led to an interception by Bradberry. And Ben Watson dropped a dime up the seam from Drew Brees. Saints head coach Sean Payton also yelled at Tre’Quan Smith at one point during the game. #SundaySean has shown up on Monday night. Payton just gave Tre’Quan Smith an earful after he dropped that last play.— Jeff Duncan (@JeffDuncan_) December 18, 2018 New Orleans has struggled through a host of injuries at wide receiver and tight end. They have 11 players on injured reserve and five of those players are either a wide receiver or a tight end — including Ted Ginn who had who 787 yards and four touchdowns with the team last season. A lot of guys that they have catching passes from Brees aren’t exactly big names. Michael Thomas has been a star since he stepped on the field as a rookie in 2016, but the rest of the receiving options are rookies, undrafted free agents, or older players like Ben Watson. Even Alvin Kamara’s receiving production has gone down the last three games. He’s averaging just 5.4 yards per reception over the past three games and hasn’t scored a touchdown. Worse, when the Saints have been able to get their hands on the ball, they haven’t made much with their completions. New Orleans is only averaging 8.2 yards per completion over the last three games — the Vikings’ offense is currently in last place in the NFL averaging 10.2 yards per completion. The passing offense has lost its juice. The Saints are turning the ball over at a higher rate than normal Turning the ball over is going to make any offense look bad, even one that’s as explosive as the Saints. The Saints have turned the ball over five times in the last three games. They only turned the ball over nine times in the 11 games prior to that. Not all of that is on Brees. His aforementioned interception against the Panthers wasn’t his fault. The interception he threw against Atlanta probably should have been called back due to a missed pass interference penalty. New Orleans had two more fluky turnovers during the three-game skid. Tommylee Lewis fumbled the ball out of bounds into the end zone for a touchback against the Panthers, and the Buccaneers intercepted a screen pass in Week 14. Brees also had a pick-2, which isn’t quite a turnover, but still an uncharacteristically sloppy play for New Orleans. Donte Jackson, y’all. What a play by the former #LSU DB. pic.twitter.com/noZhf6DWFk— Billy Embody (@BillyEmbody) December 18, 2018 Four of their five turnovers in the past three games have come on unlucky plays. That might not be something to worry about too much moving forward — just have to wait and see if the bad luck continues. The Saints’ overall offensive performance is down The Saints’ bogged down passing game has affected the rest of their offense. Over the past three games the Saints are averaging just 4.6 yards per play — that’s on par with what the Buffalo Bills have done this entire season. The Saints offense is averaging 6 yards per play now on the season — they averaged 6.4 on the season before this three game streak. Their third down performance has fallen off a cliff too. In their first 11 games, they converted 47 percent of their third down plays. That’s dropped to 36 percent in this little slump. New Orleans has also struggled without stud left tackle Terron Armstead in the lineup. He’s missed the last five games. The Saints have only given up six sacks over those five games, but they’ve given up a lot of pressure without him. Look at the amount of ground that Jermon Bushrod gives up off the left side. The guy he was blocking might not have made the strip sack, but he was definitely in position to do it. Plays like this, where Brees’ blindside isn’t secure, have become common with Armstead out of the lineup. Even through all this, it’s not time to completely hit the panic button on the 2018 Saints. Will they rebound in the nick of time? Drew Brees has thrown 25 touchdowns in nine home games this year, that bodes well for them if they can get a win next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers and lock up home field advantage for the playoffs. Brees has only thrown six touchdowns in five outdoor games this season, but they likely won’t play outside again this year unless the Rams snatch the top seed from their grasp. The Saints offense has been too good to completely throw away faith in them. They ranked third in open play success rate heading into Monday night’s game against the Panthers. The defense has stepped up as well — especially the defensive line. The Saints have 28 sacks since Week 10. It’s been a big support as the team battles through its offensive slide. Win Probability Added rankingsSaints O Wk1-10: 3rdSaints D Wk1-10: 28thSaints O Wk11-15: 23rdSaints D Wk11-15: 2nd— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) December 18, 2018 The defense was a big reason the Saints were able to pull out a win over the Panthers this week to stay a step ahead of the Rams in the NFC race. The 12 points that the offense scored was the fewest amount of points they’ve put up in a win since 1998. The Saints' win over the Panthers is their first victory while scoring 12 or fewer points since 1998.Since Week 10, New Orleans is allowing 12.3 PPG, the fewest in the NFL over that span. pic.twitter.com/xwgtfYSJs9— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 18, 2018 The Saints offense hasn’t played up to it’s normal standard over the past three weeks, but it’s impossible to completely count them out. They’ll lock up the top spot in the NFC playoffs with a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers and don’t have to go on the road again over their final two games ... and maybe not until the Super Bowl. New Orleans is in a bit of a hole right now, but their postseason hopes aren’t sunk yet.
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Eric Reid sure does get ‘randomly’ drug tested a lot
The odds of any one player being “randomly” tested six times in 11 weeks are incredibly low, much the one active player who has been most critical of the NFL. Eric Reid was given a notice that he had been randomly selected for a drug test on Monday. That should be innocuous news except that, for some reason, Reid seems to be randomly selected a lot. Number 7... ”Random” pic.twitter.com/6HkxXCZhQP— Eric Reid (@E_Reid35) December 18, 2018 That’s Reid’s seventh purportedly random drug test since signing with the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 27. One of those drug tests was a perfunctory part of signing a contract, but still, that’s a lot of drug tests for a player who has been on a roster for 11 weeks. Yahoo Sports worked out the math: There are 72 drug test-eligible players on the Panthers’ roster and NFL policy dictates that 10 will be drug tested every week. For Reid to have been randomly selected six times works out to a 0.17 percent or 1-in-588 chance. Statistical anomalies happen, but it’s notable when they happen to a player that the NFL might like to see fail. Reid filed a collusion grievance against the NFL in May after going through much of the offseason without any offers to play, alleging that the league and NFL team owners had been influenced to keep him in free agency by president Donald Trump’s comments against NFL players last year. He was the first player to kneel alongside Colin Kaepernick during the national anthem when both players were on the 49ers, and he has continued to kneel in protest against racial injustice. Kaepernick remains unsigned and continues to fight his own collusion case against the league. Also note: The NFL Players Association had already been investigating the actual randomness of Reid’s drug test notices after he received his fifth one at the end of November. Reid has received two more in three games since then. Reid, meanwhile, isn’t keeping quiet. He directly drew the link himself between his collusion case and the drug tests himself, telling ESPN’s David Newton: “I have a collusion case against the NFL. This is something that doesn’t surprise me from them. It’s supposed to be random. It’s obviously not.” He also continues to outwardly show his support for his former quarterback. On Monday night, he wore cleats celebrating the history of protest that depicted a kneeling Kaepernick: My cleats for tonight. Much thanks and appreciation to the artist @2cent_bmike. Here’s his take on the inspiration behind his design, “It’s a tribute to the history of protest , centered around the quote “if not us , who? If not now, when? “ meaning we all benefit and stand on... pic.twitter.com/x9PNkmwTK0— Eric Reid (@E_Reid35) December 17, 2018 Technically speaking, there should be no way for the NFL to influence drug testing. An independent laboratory supposedly handles the job, away from the NFL or NFLPA’s influence. However, suspiciously timed drug tests are not uncommon. Former NFL punter Pat McAfee noted that “random” drug test notices often showed up after he had just done something that might warrant it — like lay a big hit, boom a huge punt, or make a not-subtle-enough 4/20 joke. Last year, a pair of Steelers players noted that they were selected for drug testing after working out with James Harrison, a man with comically large muscles who also seemed to be singled out particularly often by the drug testing system. Odell Beckham Jr. has also complained about being a target for random tests. Even those cases don’t quite stack up to Reid’s, however — both in terms of how frequently he’s being tested, and the motive the league might have to target him. If the NFL hasn’t been colluding against him, it sure is unfortunate for them that it’s Reid, of all people — arguably the thorniest player for the NFL actively playing — receiving these notices week after week, and not one of hundreds of others.
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The Astros are perfectly placed in baseball’s success cycle
Signing Michael Brantley is something that baseball teams do when the porridge is just right. The Houston Astros agreed to sign outfielder Michael Brantley to a two-year, $32 million contract on Monday, giving them yet another potent bat in an already stacked lineup. Brantley hits for average, runs well, controls the strike zone, and can be an absolute doubles machine. He unquestionably makes his new team better, which is why he’ll be making $16 million a year, a salary that seems like an old-market wage. This is what the talented veterans used to get, by gum. Maybe there won’t be a strike after all. It shouldn’t be surprising that it’s the Astros handing out a spendy win-now contract like this. They shouldn’t be worried about their window closing just yet, but every team that’s good now should definitely have some urgency. The future of baseball is pain. It’s always pain. Winning now is always a great idea, because you never know when you’ll be unable to win later. This is why everyone hates the Yankees so much; they don’t follow the rules. What the Astros are, then, is a team that is firmly in the third stage of baseball utopia. We talked about how everyone wants to be the Atlanta Braves, but I’m not sure if they’re entirely in the third stage. They’re transitioning to the third stage now that they’re spending money on win-now players like Josh Donaldson, surely, but they’re still new to this whole contending thing. They still have one foot firmly planted in their young-team incarnation, in which they’re almost still more focused on good they can be, not how good they actually are. The Astros know this is probably as good as they’ll get for a while. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that this could be the best team they’ll see for a century. The White Sox have been around for 118 seasons, for example, and they’ve never won more than 100 games. It’s more likely that the Astros, like every team, will have cyclical periods of success and failure, but the Church of Joaquín Andújar has but one lesson, verily: You never know. Looking at you, Indians. The stages of baseball team-building go something like this: Stage one is where the team is absolutely abominable ... but abominable and cheap. The 2013 Astros lost 111 games, and their highest-paid player was Carlos Peña, who made $2.9 million. The next-highest were Erik Bedard and Ronny Cedeño, who tied with $1.15 million. After that, Philip Humber made $800,000, and Jose Altuve was fifth on the team with a $505,700 salary. Again, Altuve was the fifth-highest paid player on the 2013 Astros, even though he made just $15,700 more than the major-league minimum. But while this is going on, the team is sucking and saving, sucking and saving, weathering the dreadful attendance and miserable television ratings so that they can accumulate high draft picks and stash money under their mattress for a sunny day. Stage two is where the team says, “Saaaaay, we might have something here.” The high draft picks and accumulated prospects start to take the form of something resembling a contending team. There’s usually a breakthrough season that catches pundits off guard, just like what the Astros did in 2015. This is the stage where the team is suddenly trading some of their prospect cache for veterans at the deadline, a concept that some teams will always struggle with. For what is the point of baseball, if not to hoard the stockpile prospects forever and ever? They might form the basis of a good team one day, you know, which means it’s silly to trade them to supplement a good team now. Most teams, though, go ahead and move ahead with their plan to make their team relevant again. In the offseason, a stage-two team will spend some money and make some waves. They’re the nouveau riche trying to fit in at the country club, rubbing elbows with the people who fascinated them from a distance just a short while ago. Stage three is the current state of the Astros, and it’s probably the best possible place for a franchise to be. Characteristics include: An established pattern of success, such as a championship, pennant, or several years of postseason appearances Young players who aren’t all that cheap anymore A willingness to trade for big contracts A willingness to spend more than in the past But the biggest sign of a stage-three team is a signing like Brantley. This is the move that a team makes when they’re absolutely uninterested in screwing around and looking for angles. This is not a transaction cooked up in the comments of a particularly creative blog post. This is not, “If you look at the second-half exit velocity of Darmon Schenectady with the Grizzlies, you’ll see a progression that hints at immediate major-league success. If I’m the Astros, I’m rolling the dice.” This is obvious and brainless. This is the Astros mashing the Good Player Now button, over and over again, because they can. Stage three is all about mashing the Good Player Now button. Sure, there might be a creative way to approximate Brantley’s production if you’re clever and maybe a little lucky, using two underappreciated players to form a platoon and reallocating the savings to improve the bullpen, say. Or you could mash that button repeatedly with sweaty hands. Go on, baby, give it a whirl. You’ve earned it. Stage four is overpaying familiar veterans and billionaire owners deciding that they need to stop mashing that button so much. Stage five is the Giants, and you shouldn’t watch it while eating. But the cycle of life takes it right back to stage one, eventually. Though for the rich teams, there’s never really a super-pure stage one. It’s more of a stage twone, with the occasional veteran or fan favorite kept around, but that’s not the point. The point is that the Astros are where every team wants to be, even more so than a super-young team like the Braves. However, like the Braves, we run into the numbers game where not every team is going to get to the top of this pyramid scheme. Some of them will fall right into stage one, over and over again, alienating their fans and turning a seemingly sound strategy into a brutal decade of irrelevance. It could have happened to the Astros, but it didn’t. Now they’re, yet again, on the very short list of the best team in baseball, and they should stay there for a while. If there’s any consolation, just be glad that they aren’t the ‘00s Yankees mashing the Great Player Now button.
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What the hell happened to Jared Goff and the Rams?
Jared Goff has one touchdown and seven interceptions in the last three weeks, and it’s dragging down the Rams. For the first time in Sean McVay’s career as the coach of the Los Angeles Rams, he has to snap a losing streak. The Rams’ back-to-back losses to the Bears and Eagles don’t threaten to knock the team out of the playoffs — the NFC West is already clinched — but it does have the Rams on the verge of losing a first-round bye. More importantly, Los Angeles no longer looks like the juggernaut that bulldozed through its schedule to an 11-1 start to the year. At the center of the Rams’ recent downfall is quarterback Jared Goff. When the Rams reached the bye week in Week 12, Goff had 26 touchdowns and six interceptions. His 113.5 passer rating was among the best in the NFL, and there was still a chance he could challenge for the NFL MVP award. In his last three games, Goff has one touchdown and seven interceptions. His 51.3 passer rating is the worst in the NFL among players who started Weeks 13, 14, and 15. Even the Cardinals’ Josh Rosen — who hasn’t thrown a touchdown since November and was benched in Week 15 — has a 59.2 rating in the last three weeks. Goff is in a tailspin and the Rams have quickly turned from a Super Bowl favorite into a team that looks like it’s in danger of getting bounced in the Wild Card round for the second consecutive season. Sean McVay doesn’t take all the blame for the loss and the performance of his players as he did the last two weeks. He needed to hold players accountable after that lackluster effort. pic.twitter.com/Vllqu5D2c0— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) December 17, 2018 “We’ve got to be able to figure this out and figure it out fast,” McVay said “These last few weeks we’ve been doing things that are totally uncharacteristic of what good football teams do, of what we’ve done through the first handful of games this season. The only thing we know how to do is go back to work, look at ourselves. Everybody’s got a hand in this and we’ve got to get it figured out fast.” Getting things back on track begins with Goff turning back into the player who started the season with elite numbers. So how do they get him there again? It starts up front with the Rams offensive line The Los Angeles offensive line didn’t have a perfect start to the year — it still allowed five sacks each against the Broncos and Packers — but there’s been a noticeable uptick in pressures since the middle of November: The Rams offensive line has played a big part in the offense's recent struggles:First 10 weeks:78 pressures allowed (6th fewest)Pass blocking efficiency: 83.7 (t-4th best)Last 4 weeks (just 3 games):51 pressures allowed (4th most)Pass blocking efficiency: 71.4 (3rd worst)— Zoltán Buday (@PFF_Zoltan) December 10, 2018 Those problems continued in Week 15 when Goff was pressured 17 times by the Eagles, even if he was only sacked once. Injuries haven’t been the issue, the Rams are one of the only teams fortunate enough to have had the same five offensive linemen start all 14 games this season. But Goff also deserves some of the blame for the recent difficulties with pressure. In the first 10 weeks, Goff had an average of 2.69 seconds per pass attempt and 3.69 seconds until he was sacked. Since Week 11, he’s had an average of 2.76 seconds per pass attempt and he’s getting sacked in an average of 3.54 seconds. Yes, the offensive line is allowing pressure to come a tick faster, but Goff is getting the ball out a tiny bit slower too. The combination is creating havoc in the backfield. Shot 2 - Off the run game, the #Rams are the best play-action team in the NFL. Goff drops back off play-action as much as anyone & it results in a lot of deep shots. Those plays take time to develop, however, and the #Bears did a great job of attacking and impacting Goff off PA pic.twitter.com/HlZbuDwUe7— Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 13, 2018 It hasn’t helped that Goff has completely lost his mind at times when things got chaotic: Jared Goff showing everyone how not to quarterback pic.twitter.com/aVmodEtpkS— Cameron DaSilva (@camdasilva) December 17, 2018 Todd Gurley’s numbers have tailed off too, which is both a consequence of, and a reason for the dropoff in Goff’s play and the offensive line. Through the first 10 games, Gurley had 98.8 yards per game and averaged 4.99 yards per carry. In his last four, he has 65.8 yards per game and is averaging 4.53 yards per carry. Those small statistical differences are manifesting in big ways in Goff’s play. Defenses are throwing new looks at Goff After the Week 15 loss to the Eagles, Goff gave reporters one reason for his recent struggles. “Teams are doing different things to us,” Goff said. “Teams are trying out different things, and we just need to find a way to respond.” USA Today’s Doug Farrar detailed some of the ways teams are scheming Goff into getting frustrated. But what teams are doing most is taking away the deep passing from the Rams. In his last three games, Goff has attempted 13 passes at least 20 yards downfield. Only two were completed and three were intercepted. In the first 11 weeks, he attempted 45 passes downfield and completed 24 with seven touchdowns and only two interceptions. Pressure up front is part of the reason for the struggles with deep passing, but teams are also forcing Goff to settle underneath. When he does take shots down field they’re well covered. #Eagles-#Rams: Deep Quarters technique. LB matches to Gurley with the FS pushing to No.3 vertical vs. a 3x1 set. Force Goff to throw underneath — and tackle. @NFLMatchup pic.twitter.com/pawFC5Ko1C— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) December 17, 2018 The loss of Cooper Kupp — one of the NFL’s best receivers on deep balls — to an ACL tear is part of the problem. But the combination of Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods should still be yielding more than two deep receptions over a three-week span. Can Goff get back on track? Those are a lot of red flags for the Rams to overcome, but the season isn’t lost. The team is still 11-3 and even in the loss to the Eagles, the Rams still had 413 yards of offense and a chance to score a game-tying touchdown as time expired. It’s not Goff’s fault that Jojo Natson fumbled completely untouched on a punt return, and it’s not Goff’s fault that neither Gerald Everett nor Todd Gurley thought it would be smart to get out of bounds and save some clock in the final minute. The Rams have been one of the best teams in the NFL at situational football since the arrival of McVay, but those brainfarts cost Goff a couple chances to save the day. And if he had, the Rams would be 12-2 and there would probably be much less hand-wringing about his recent difficulties. But here we are. The Rams desperately need both a win and for Goff to look more like the player who ripped teams to shreds in the first two months of the season. The good news is that LA finishes the season with the Cardinals and 49ers — teams that lost to the Rams, 34-0 and 39-10, respectively, earlier in the year. They’re the perfect pair of opponents for Goff to get things straightened out, because if he doesn’t — the Rams are toast.
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The Eagles have replaced last season’s dog mask with the ski mask
And now, it’s a T-shirt for Philly fans to pick up for the late-season run. On the road to the Super Bowl last season, the Eagles embraced its underdog status with the now-famous dog mask. As as the first No. 1 seed to be a home betting underdog in its first home playoff game, the Eagles rode the dog mask persona all the way to the Super Bowl. So with two weeks left in the regular season and a shot to win the NFC East still within reach, Philly has has once again embraced an alter ego, but with a slight twist this time. This year, the Eagles are turning to ski masks The ski mask is Philly’s 2018 motivation symbol, which according to the Philly Voice, was first caught on TV when safety Malcolm Jenkins was wearing the mask against the Dallas Cowboys two weeks ago. But after the Eagles lost Carson Wentz to injury again and were forced to throw Nick Foles back into the starting lineup, then came up with a huge 30-23 win over the Los Angeles Rams, the ski mask has officially become a thing in Philly. When asked about wearing the ski mask, Eagles safety Rodney McLeod said it best: “It’s robbing season. It’s thievery. Hopefully the fans come out next week and wear the masks with us in the stands.” So with “robbing season” in full force, here’s a new T-shirt for Eagles fans to jump on the #RobbinSZN. BreakingT Philadelphia Ski Mask T-shirt for $26 According to FiveThirtyEight, the Eagles’ playoff odds rose to 39 percent with their win over the Rams. With a win against the Houston Texans in Week 16, those odds will rise to 53 percent. And if Philly wins out and takes care of business against Washington in Week 17, its chances at earning a playoff spot will go up to 74 percent. If you don’t already have a ski mask and need one for the Eagles’ stretch run Going all out with the rest of Philly? We can help you out with this ski mask. Amazon Full Face Cover Thermal Ski Mask for $7.99 Need some more Eagles gear to stay warm during December? An on-field Balaclava will do the trick, especially if you’ll be attending any winter tailgates. eBay Philadelphia Eagles New Era On-Field Balaclava for $28 And here’s a few more ways to stay warm. Tis’ the season! Looking for more product reviews, shopping guides, and good deals on sports merchandise and apparel? Check out our new Buy Stuff section.
4 h
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The Rose Bowl will be a window into the future of football
Ohio State’s offense forces defenses to prioritize athleticism in different ways. Washington’s defense is built to deal with just that approach. In a spread era, the Rose Bowl could be a roadmap. In New Year’s Day’s Rose Bowl between Ohio State and Washington, there’s a lot going on. It’s Urban Meyer’s last game leading the Buckeyes, and it might be Dwayne Haskins’ last one at quarterback, too. The Huskies are sending off senior QB Jake Browning and RB Myles Gaskin, four-year starters who have defined the Chris Petersen era. Apart from those sendoffs and the spectacle of the Rose Bowl is the crucial matchup of this game: the one between Ohio State’s increasingly pass-oriented offense under head coach-to-be Ryan Day and the Washington defense that’s carried the Huskies to two of the last three Pac-12 championships while building a case as the new DBU. The last year has shown that more pass-heavy attacking is the wave of the future at the biggest programs. The seven-on-seven era that’s come to define recruiting has now taken hold in the rest of college football. Ohio State’s gone hard in that direction, as have Alabama and Oklahoma. USC’s about to do the same. Washington’s success in the Pac-12 has largely been the result of limiting spread passing attacks with a great secondary. Both Ohio State’s O and Washington’s D put their faith in their athletes being better than the other team’s athletes. Michigan was exposed in its rivalry game against Ohio State for its inability to match up on the outside with the Buckeyes’ corps of burners. The top four targets for Ohio State all follow a similar profile. They’re not big, all coming in around 6-foot flat. They were all SPARQ superstars as recruits. Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin each ran 4.41-second 40-yard dashes. K.J. Hill and Johnnie Dixon were just under 4.6 while also showing explosive numbers in the shuttle and vertical tests. What has made Ohio State so lethal is Haskins utilizing his accuracy and arm strength to lead these WRs as they run by defenders on deep routes or crossers: There’s a lot speed on the field, and opponents can’t stay with everyone. Washington has a similar philosophy guiding its defense. An opposing team’s top three receivers — everyone on the field when Ohio State wants to play with a TE — are going to be the particular focus of cornerbacks Byron Murphy and Jordan Miller and nickel Myles Bryant. The Huskies predominantly play single-high safety coverages like matchup cover 3. They accept that receivers will get one-one-one looks outside the hashes against those three DBs: Murphy is the left cornerback and the star of the show for the Huskies and had four INTs and 13 pass break-ups this season. Bryant added another four break-ups along with 3.5 sacks occasionally coming off the edge. Miller picked off two and broke up five, sometimes avoiding much attention as the right cornerback. As much as Ohio State leans on being able to torch teams that try to match up outside on its speed, Washington leans on winning that exact matchup, so something has to give here. One of the things that sets these units apart is how they move this same speed contest inside the hashmarks. Ohio State doesn’t want to let opponents cover Campbell with cornerbacks. Where’s the fun and easy yardage in that? Instead the Buckeyes like to move him around inside and let him run circles around linebackers and safeties: There, Michigan is playing a single-high coverage comparable to what Washington likes. The Wolverines have a safety over Campbell, but he trades him off inside in zone and then their “viper” (a safety/OLB hybrid) gets matched up on the tight end. That leaves Campbell running a crosser, unencumbered and at high speed, against middle linebacker Devin Bush. Bush is good, but he’s not a space player and certainly not as fast as Campbell. The Huskies’ solution for teams that want to spread them out and attack the box defenders is to use smaller, faster box defenders. Their leading tackler is middle linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, a 6’0, 221-pound senior who’s created all kinds of chaos, from fumbles to break-ups to picks. Burr-Kirven (No. 25) is ultra-quick and tends to patrol between the tackles. They line Burr-Kirven up to the wide side of the field, freeing up Tevis Bartlett (No. 17) to play in the less spacey confines of the shorter side. While their single-high coverages often drop a safety down to help bracket tricky assignments (like a Campbell in the middle of the field), they don’t use that as an excuse to play a bigger, more blitz-oriented middle linebacker. That’s a calculation more defenses will have to make: you can’t hold up against spread attacks like Ohio State’s with traditional inside linebackers who can’t run like safeties. You need at least one who can play in space and cover, in addition to diagnosing the run and filling interior gaps. That ability in space is becoming more important than the jobs middle backers used to do. Teams still tried to target the middle of the field against Washington this season, ignoring UW’s recognition of spread offensive tricks and ability to counter with more modern personnel — hence Burr-Kirven’s absurd 165 tackles. When Ohio State sees that Washington will hold a safety (like the 200-pound Taylor Rapp) near the box to prevent easy numbers in the run game, the Buckeyes will spread the field. Then they’ll push the ball deep on those three Washington corners, or they’ll make the safeties and middle linebacker trade and cover crossers over the middle. If the Huskies can hold up defensively, the big-picture outcome won’t just be who wins or loses. It’ll be that the Huskies gave a blueprint for dealing with highly skilled and speed-based spread passing attacks from blue-blood programs.
4 h
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Giannis Antetokounmpo is the NBA’s Dunk Lord
Nobody has ever dunked as frequently in NBA history. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the NBA’s most unconscionable superstar. A quick, ball-handling 6’11 guard/forward with legs that stretch the length of the court in three dribbles, Giannis was coined “The Greek Freak” for good reason. Every superstar in the league has that something that stands out. Anthony Davis is a lethal diver in the pick-and-roll. LeBron James can muscle through anyone to the rim. Kyrie Irving has unpredictable shiftiness off the dribble; James Harden can step back (and back) and launch from anywhere. Steph Curry doesn’t even have to step back to do that. But Giannis has the greatest singular superstar skill of all. Among starting ball-handlers, Antetokounmpo scores the third-most points per shot behind Curry and Harden, at 1.28. (Harden’s a fraction better, and Curry is comfortably ahead at 1.37.) When factoring in that Antetokounmpo shoots 12 percent from three-point range — you read that right, he’s in the 0th percentile among bigs, per Cleaning the Glass — and 70 percent from the free throw line, that sounds impossible. How does he do it? He has one skill that carries him to the top tier of the world’s greatest scorers. Giannis is the Dunk Lord A layup or a dunk is the best shot in basketball. ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry proved this using points per shot numbers from each region of the floor. It’s really hard to miss when you’re large enough to simply put the ball in the hoop. But that’s also why it’s the most difficult shot in the game to get. Teams employ giant monsters to stand in the path to the rim and long-armed, athletic wings to stop dribbles in that direction. But nobody can stop Giannis. Antetokounmpo leads the league in dunks at 123, per Basketball Reference. That’s 4.6 per game so far. Rudy Gobert, the next-most prolific dunker, has 114 in 31 games (3.7 per.) Clint Capela is next at 110 (3.9 per.), and then there’s a 34-dunk gap before we get to JaVale McGee. Giannis is on pace to shatter the dunk record since that stat has been tracked, as the Wall Street Journal noted. Dwight Howard had the all-time most at 266, but Giannis, if he plays the rest of the schedule (80 games in total), is on pace to finish with 364. It isn’t simply the quantity of dunks that’s so impressive, either. There’s something very different about the way Giannis is dunking compared to the rest of the field: he’s doing it on his own. Eighty percent of Gobert’s dunks are assisted, and the same rings true for 91 percent of Capela’s. By contrast, just 55 percent of Anteteokounmpo’s dunks come off lobs or passes. On the list of the league’s most frequent dunkers, it takes until No. 12 (Joel Embiid, at 62 percent), to find another player even in the vicinity of that 55-percent mark. Antetokounmpo takes flight at an unreal rate, and he’s able to do so without anyone actively helping. Some of that has to do with the Bucks’ excellent spacing, but most of the credit goes on Antetokounmpo’s own shoulders for being able to take defenders off the bounce and shake the next lines of defense. This is a wildly valuable skill, and why he could still win MVP with a heinously broken jumper. It’s all the more improbable in the modern NBA, which values deep-range and highly accurate shooters, that someone with Giannis’ signature skill thrives. But the Bucks star doesn’t need finesse or a shooter’s roll. He can dribble through traffic and power the ball home. It’s his superpower.
5 h
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You may not know John Collins’ name now, but you will soon
Trae Young gets most of the attention when talking about the rebuilding Hawks, but don’t forget their 21-year-old double-double machine. The Atlanta Hawks are not a good basketball team. This is by design. They are one of the youngest teams in the league, and their young players have a position of prominence. This is the difference between tanking and rebuilding, and the Hawks are very much in the early stages of the latter. The results have not been pretty, although, again, that’s expected. The Hawks began the week with the worst record in the Eastern Conference, which is good because a high lottery pick would be the ideal outcome this spring. That’s a tough way to get through 82 games, so first-year coach Lloyd Pierce is focusing on the small steps. “It’s about discovery, it’s about growth, and then it’s about development,” Pierce says before a game against the Celtics. “All of those words that we have to keep throwing out there with those guys.” As a high lottery pick, rookie point guard Trae Young has received most of the attention and scrutiny, but the Hawks’ roster is full of 20-somethings trying to find their way in the league. From rookie Kevin Huerter to third-year wing DeAndre’ Bembry, there’s opportunity for players to make a name for themselves. The best of that bunch, though, is second-year forward John Collins. Who is John Collins? He’s a double-double machine quietly tearing up the league. After missing the first 15 games with an ankle injury, Collins is averaging better than 18 points and nine rebounds this season. That makes him one of only a dozen players putting up those kind of numbers. That’s heady company. But Collins has been even better in his last seven games, averaging 23 points and 12 boards on 60 percent shooting from the floor. Even at the warpspeed pace the Hawks play, those numbers get your attention. “You just see him becoming more comfortable as a lead scorer and he’s doing it in a variety of ways,” Pierce says. “Everyone knows he can score in the pick-and-roll. To see him on the glass, to see him put it on the floor, and then to see him stretch the floor, you’re just seeing his growth all at once right now.” .@jcollins20_ had himself another night, going for 29 points and 8 rebounds last night against the @BrooklynNets #TrueToAtlanta pic.twitter.com/Zrjn8R3Gyk— Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) December 17, 2018 It’s not like Collins came out of nowhere. He was an All-ACC performer at Wake Forest as a sophomore and he averaged 10.4 points and 7.3 rebounds last season while earning rotation minutes as a rookie. That was good enough to be a second-team All-Rookie selection. Still, guys who get drafted in the latter part of the first round (Collins went 19th) don’t tend to be this good, this fast. For comparison sake, he was drafted after Justin Patton, D.J. Wilson, and T.J. Leaf, and one spot ahead of Harry Giles. Patton and Giles have battled injuries, Wilson is struggling to stay in the league, and Leaf is barely a rotation player. Getting Collins at 19 was quite a coup by general manager Travis Schlenk in his first draft with the club. What’s remarkable is that Collins is the only 20-point scorer in the league without a signature move. Or any moves, really. Collins gets most of his points off dunks, lobs, offensive boards, and other manner of fast-twitch explosions. Seventy-five percent of his field goals come via assists, per Cleaning the Glass. His is not a game of shot creation. It’s a game of activity. “If he’s able to jump in the air with no one underneath him, and I throw it anywhere in the vicinity, I know he’s going to be able to go get it,” Young says. “He scores a lot off plays we don’t even run for him. He can create for himself off energy.” Welcome back, @jcollins20_@ATLHawks pic.twitter.com/QX4szcUrYm— #RingerNBA (@ringernba) November 18, 2018 There have been many players who experienced initial NBA success on little more than energy and athleticism. What makes Collins unique are his exceptional hands and timing. He’s a huge soccer fan and he credits his experiences growing up as a goalie for sharpening his awareness. “It helps my reaction times,” he says. “I’ve always had good hands, but my reaction time is something goaltending helped me with, being able to track the ball at such a fast speed.” His teammates know that they can zip passes to him that other big men might fumble, or bounce passes off the break that don’t break his stride. Anything near the rim is automatic. “You can throw it anywhere,” Pierce says. “You can throw it low, you can throw it high, you can throw him lobs, and he can do whatever he wants with them.” That’s good because the Hawks don’t run any plays for Collins. As Pierce put it: “I don’t call shit for John.” “He’s like, ‘Oh right, I forgot we called a play. What is it again?’ And then he just goes BAM.” -Lloyd Pierce “He doesn’t remember any plays, that’s our running joke, and it’s not a knock on him,” Pierce says. “He’s an energy, bouncy guy. He’s already running something and he’s like, ‘Oh right, I forgot we called a play. What is it again?’ And then he just goes BAM.” Collins goes BAM quite a bit. Get him in a pick and roll heading downhill with a smaller player on him and he’ll punish them. Get him on the run in the fast break and he’ll finish with a dunk. But set plays, no. “For all our guys, to call a play means to slow down,” Pierce said. “That’s not his strength. Movement is his strength, activity is his strength. Side to side is where John’s hard to guard.” Collins, who turned 21 in September, is getting a little tired of hearing that the Hawks don’t call any plays for him. At the same time, Collins is a mature 21 and he understands his role. “When (Pierce) says that he means offensively there’s no set play where you go, ‘Hey John, here’s the ball and you go ISO,’” Collins said. “There’s none of that in the offense. I’m an option. I play my role at an elite level within the offense and the guys do a good job of finding me.” In its way, this is a massive compliment. That Collins can be this effective without the benefit of specific offensive attention, makes him unique. “He’s not a static player,” Pierce continued. “You don’t just give him the ball and say go make a play. That’s not a benefit for us. You just have to let him play and that’s why we don’t call plays for him.” Can I pour you a John Collins? pic.twitter.com/Mlg56uksNL— FOX Sports: Hawks (@HawksOnFSSE) December 9, 2018 Pierce, by the way, is still trying to figure out how Collins could have spent two years in college and just turn 21 before his second season in the pros. “I’m trying to do the math of two years in college, and then in the NBA,” Pierce said, laughing. “It still doesn’t make sense.” On this team, Collins is practically a seasoned vet. The Hawks have started three rookies — Young, Huerter, and Omari Spellman — while seven of the top 10 rotation players are under the age of 25. Collins hasn’t been through much, but he’s been through some things. “I put in a lot of work over the summer, “ he said. “It’s that work over the summer and from learning the game in my second year, being able to slow down. I’m comfortable being around the NBA lifestyle, the travel, the hotels, the pregame, everything. I’ve seen it, so it’s easier to get me into my zone.” There are is one more obvious step for Collins to make. He has to learn how to shoot within the flow of the game. Collins can shoot. He made a respectable 34 percent of his 3-point shots as a rookie in limited attempts, which was a good sign. This year, he’s shooting more from behind the arc, but making only 23 percent. Everyone is convinced that it’s going to come around in time. “The next layer for him is to consistently be able to stretch where you can call a pick and pop play for him,” Pierce says. “He can shoot it, but he’s learning how to shoot it. He’s learning when to say, ‘Oh if you’re going to play me way down here, I’m not rolling down the floor.’” Pierce takes a step back in the hallway outside the locker room to demonstrate his point. “Now you’re going to come up here,” he continues, taking a step forward. “I can attack you and I can also shoot. That’s the next wave where his game will completely take off.” For the Hawks, these are the steps that matter this season. Collins is already making a name for himself. Just imagine how good he’ll be when it all falls into place.
5 h
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The 6 funniest things about James Harden’s double-step-back travel that wasn’t called
Harden stepped back and then uhh did it again. That’s not allowed. Two things can be true about James Harden: He’s one of the best offensive players in NBA history, AND he gets away with a disproportionate amount of egregious travels. Maybe it’s his left-handedness that catches referees off guard, or maybe the moves happen so quick in real time that it’s tough to blow the whistle. Either way, look at this hot garbage double-step-back three: What should we call this James Harden move? @ESPNNBApic.twitter.com/C5cog9IhVB— SB Nation (@SBNation) December 18, 2018 This ... is a travel. Instead, Ricky Rubio was called for a foul in what was then a three-point game with less than a minute to go. (The Jazz lost by 5.) I don’t even know what else to say. He took so many steps back he looked like someone trying to impersonate James Harden. And it almost looked fluent? Like, Harden maybe practices the step-step back-back knowing he won’t get called for a walk. For those who need it broken down Here’s step-back 1: And here’s step-back 2: Yep. That’s a travel. A real bad one. And a lotta people had stuff to say about it. A few of the best moments from this: Candace Parker singing the “Running Man” song throughout the entirety of Harden’s step-backs. If you listen back to the original video, Parker starts singing on the second playback. THIS IS NOT NEW! CP3 has called out the running man Harden move before. "James Harden be doing the Running Man, and that's not a travel?" - @Candace_Parker #KGArea21 pic.twitter.com/ZgozL6am6s— KG's Area 21 (@KGArea21) April 25, 2018 2. James Harden refusing to snitch on himself James Harden: “What do you want me to say? Tell on myself?” https://t.co/XSdE77kijh— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) December 18, 2018 The Stepback King has no reason to tell the teacher he forgot to assign homework. 3. Ricky Rubio giving the no-answer, answer Ricky Rubio on the Harden stepback++: Rubio: "You watch the play?"Me: "Yeah."Rubio: "What do you think?"Me: "I personally thought it was a travel."Rubio: "I'm not going to answer, but I think 100 percent of the people know the answer."— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) December 18, 2018 The poor guy never learned how to defend that move. 4. Rudy Gobert in awe of the new move he learned Rudy Gobert on the Harden step-back-into-the-step-back 3: "I didn't see it live, I saw the video. That's a new move."— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) December 18, 2018 Nobody wanted to eat a fine after this one, huh. 5. Isaiah Thomas discovering how he can make his comeback Come on cuz lol... There letting that happen now? Lol I’m really bout to be unguardable https://t.co/hMM7tYJaKT— Isaiah Thomas (@isaiahthomas) December 18, 2018 This is going to become the left-handed point guard move, isn’t it? 6. Andre Iguodala alerting the authorities on Twitter @OfficialNBARefs— Danielson... (@andre) December 18, 2018 Hahaha the Warriors are absolutely done with this guy. Did you enjoy this blog? See you here again, same time next travel.
6 h
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UGA could’ve handled Fields better, but 5-star QBs transfer all the time
Fields will make it 11 of the last 19 five-star QBs to transfer if he ends up leaving Georgia. Georgia freshman QB Justin Fields is reportedly exploring transfer options after just one season with the Bulldogs. They seldom used the former five-star recruit, having him throw just 39 passes despite winning 10 games by three scores or more. Their most famous usage of him was on a fake punt that helped them lose the SEC Championship. Field’s possible transfer has sparked a ton of chatter on social media and throughout the college football industry about how five-star quarterbacks are transferring at an alarming rate. Based on a cursory look, some of that chatter is absolutely warranted. In the 2010-15 classes, there were 11 quarterbacks rated five stars on the 247Sports Composite. The 2015 class is the most recent to have finished its eligibility, for the most part. Immediately, a sample size caveat is warranted. Eleven quarterbacks is simply not enough of a sample to draw meaningful judgements or conclusions. But this is not an academic paper or scientific study, so we can make some observations. And the key observation here is that seven of the 11 five-star QBs transferred before their eligibility was up. The four quarterbacks in the group who did not transfer are Braxton Miller (Ohio State), Jameis Winston (Florida State), Christian Hackenberg (Penn State), and Josh Rosen (UCLA). All four were good to great college quarterbacks and combined to win two national championship rings (though Miller was hurt for Ohio State’s title). There are no real trends for why the seven QBs transferred, however. Phillip Sims left Alabama for a variety of reasons. Jeff Driskel left a Florida program that had failed to develop him at all to play a final year at Louisiana Tech. Gunner Kiel left multiple programs, including LSU and Notre Dame, and coaches questioned his mental toughness and desire to play the game. Max Browne left USC after failing to win the starting job and started some of one year at Pitt. Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray left Texas A&M for a variety of reasons, but many felt the Aggies’ coaching staff badly mismanaged the situation of having two five-star QBs, and the egos associated with that. Allen had a decent year at Houston in 2017, while Murray had an amazing year at Oklahoma in 2018, winning the Heisman Trophy. Blake Barnett never gained traction at Alabama and also failed to win the job at Arizona State before transferring yet again, where he became the starter for USF in 2018. Transfers in the most recent classes have not slowed down. Both of the 2016 five-star QBs have transferred already: Jacob Eason (Georgia to Washington) and Shea Patterson (Ole Miss to Michigan). Hunter Johnson, one of three 2017 five-stars, transferred from Clemson to Northwestern. And for 2018, the Fields news. Assuming that 2018’s Trevor Lawrence and JT Daniels and 2017’s Davis Mills and Tua Tagovailoa do not end up transferring, that is still four of eight five-star QBs from 2016-18 transferring. And that’d mean 11 of the 19 five-star QBs since 2010 electing to transfer. Being a five-star QB is not a guarantee of starting at the program you sign with. But if a program wants to hold on to its five-star signee, it would probably help to let the player throw more than 39 passes in a season in which the team wins often in blowout fashion.
6 h
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It’s time to talk about the NFL’s dumb fumble touchback rule ... again
Tommylee Lewis’s fumble didn’t cost the Saints, but it did ruin the Raiders one year ago. The worst rule in the NFL nearly broke the Saints’ road to home field advantage through the playoffs in Week 15. Protecting a 12-9 lead in a rock fight on Monday Night Football, New Orleans wideout Tommylee Lewis took a handoff at the Panthers’ 5-yard line to the right sideline and dove toward the end zone for game-clinching touchdown. One extra yard with his dive would have given the Saints a first down and enough latitude to kneel their way to a three-point win. Two would have made the score 18-9 with 1:45 to play. But he didn’t make it. And when he extended the ball toward the pylon, cornerback James Bradberry punched it loose, causing it to go flying out of the end zone and out of bounds. The Saints fumble into the end zone!@Panthers will take over at the 20 : #NOvsCAR on ESPN pic.twitter.com/bUyXcG6Dsb— NFL (@NFL) December 18, 2018 The unlikely turnover robbed the Saints of their chance to grind out the clock against a divisional foe — and showcased the dumbest statute in the rule book once again. Unlike an offensive fumble out of bounds anywhere else on the field, the ball wasn’t returned to the spot of the foul, where officials would have then assessed a 10-yard holding penalty on receiver Michael Thomas. Instead, possession was ceded to Carolina, who got the ball at its own 20-yard line after the touchback. It’s a flawed ruling that throws an excessive and unfair punishment at offensive players extending the ball at the goal line. And while it didn’t play a factor in Monday night’s outcome — the Panthers used this extra opportunity to go 19 yards in seven plays with the game on the line (and their nine points came courtesy of a Christian McCaffrey trick play and a pick-two on a Saints two-point conversion, which is a story for another time) — it did last season. The fumble touchback rule struck, coincidentally enough, exactly one year ago in a game between the Raiders and Cowboys. Quarterback Derek Carr’s Oakland team trailed 20-17 when he scrambled to his right from the Dallas 7, picked up enough yardage to set up a first-and-goal situation with fewer than 40 seconds to play, and extended the ball toward the pylon as he dove for the goal line. And like Lewis, his decision to score a touchdown — the whole point of the game — was rewarded with a harsh ruling. The Cowboys took over at their own 20 and kneeled out the clock, officially ending the Raiders’ playoff hopes. Oakland lost its final two games after this to finish 6-10, and Dallas used the momentum of its hard-fought victory to lose to the Seahawks and crush its own postseason hopes the very next week. That happened in a high(ish) profile Sunday Night Football game, but the NFL didn’t address the fumble touchback last winter at its rules meetings after Carr’s game-changing mistake. Lewis’s fumble makes it two straight years there’s been a crucial fumble touchback in prime time for the league, and the hand wringing that’s followed could be the impetus for a change. How do we fix this rule? Retired offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz proposed three reasonable fixes to the rule last year after Carr’s turnover. 1. The ball comes back to the original line of scrimmage, but with a loss of down. If it’s on fourth down, then it’s a turnover at the spot of the original play. A fumble is still not a good play, and therefore there needs to be some punishment for the offense, hence the loss of a down. This scenario rewards the offense too much. If the defense does force the fumble, they don’t get rewarded for it at all. 2. The offense keeps the ball at the spot of the fumble. This is how it’s handled in the field. However, the rules around the end zone are different because of the significance of that area on the field. If you decide this is the best rule, it could backfire on the defense. What if an offensive player fumbles near the goal line, when he’s not reaching out and the ball bounces out of the end zone? I think everyone agrees this should be a touchback. So if this rule were to be enforced, it would have to be specific to a play when a player is reaching for the pylon or goal line. This would leave too much room for interpretation and lead to disaster. 3. The defense gets the ball at the spot of the fumble. This is my favorite option. It penalizes the offense, but doesn’t reward the defense as much. Seems to be the simple solution. Those all seem ... pretty reasonable! There’s no good justification for why a fumble out of bounds in the end zone is treated so differently than a fumble out of bounds anywhere else on the field. And while it’s logical that a fumble should punish the offense that created it, the fumble touchback remains one of the league’s harshest rules; a mistake that allows the rulebook to completely shift the momentum of the game. We’ve seen it happen in back-to-back years now, both in primetime games, and both, strangely, on December 17th. It’s time for the rules committee to consider what happens one week before Christmas Eve and change the NFL’s dumbest rule.
7 h
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Mike Tomlin is the king of the postgame press conference
The Steelers’ head coach will say anything. Whether or not he’s saying something when he speaks is another thing entirely. Press conferences in most major sports are boring. Coaches don’t say what they really think, and when they do speak, it doesn’t make sense most of the time. Mike Tomlin is a master of this, though he is more entertaining than the rest. After the Steelers’ Week 15 win over the Patriots, Tomlin got the internet buzzing over a pair of quotes. The first had to do with cutting your eyelids off. Yep: Tomlin: "Sometimes you've got to cut your eyelids off when you want to blink, when it gets thick."Ohhhkayyy ...— Will Graves (@WillGravesAP) December 17, 2018 That is definitely the first time any of us had ever heard such a thing. But he also doesn’t like the concept of blinking, and that’s nothing new. He complimented his team on Christmas in 2016 after clinching the AFC North by saying, “It was just great to see the no-blink mentality, the competitive spirit,” because football is apparently just one big ol’ staring contest. Then, there was this gem: Mike Tomlin: "We like to believe that we are the common denominator in all stories involving us."— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) December 17, 2018 That’s like saying Harry Potter is the common denominator in Harry Potter stories. The real talent in here is that Tomlin makes all these things sound normal when they come out of his mouth. They don’t really strike you as “wow, that’s really a thing he said and was serious about” until you see it in tweet form. The common denominator thing would totally pass you by if you were just casually listening to a press conference you weren’t fully engaged in. We’re all guilty of missing these things at one point or another. And it’s not a new thing for Tomlin. He’s got some classics like “the standard is the standard.” The phrase is something that Tomlin has preached for some years now, and it’s even on display in the team’s font at Heinz Field: And the origin of “the standard is the standard?” Well... Asked Mike Tomlin where "the standard is the standard" comes from. Frankly said: "I don't know."— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) October 27, 2015 Gotta love the honesty. And to Tomlin’s credit, it’s clearly stuck with the team enough if it’s plastered on a wall at their stadium. I guess if the team gets something out of it, it doesn’t really matter if it makes sense to anybody else or not. Tomlin’s also made the NFL kind of like high school, by saying that his players haven’t played “varsity enough.” His tight ends have previously played at either a JV or freshman level, but he’s never clarified: Tomlin says the TEs hadn't been consistently varsity enough to this point for #Steelers— Dale Lolley (@dlolley_pgh) August 29, 2017 At least, one has to assume that they played at a JV or freshman level, right? If they aren’t playing “varsity enough” there’s no other option. He also believes in living in hopes, instead of fears. Which definitely *sounds* nice. After successfully executing a fake punt in 2007, Tomlin said the following: “We don’t live in our fears, we live in our hopes,” coach Mike Tomlin said of the fake punt. “We saw the look and, in a week of preparation, we got in the situation that could produce the look that we would call it, and they did.” I’m not going to pretend like I don’t know what he was trying to say there. He just meant that the Steelers play out of confidence, and not fear. But it’s still funny because that makes no sense as it is. A lot of coaches say a whole lot of nothing at press conferences and other media appearances, but Tomlin does it better than anybody else. And it’s one of the best ways to wrap up an NFL Sunday.
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The Early Signing Period’s biggest news, updated all throughout
Commits, flips, and more, updated throughout December’s precursor to February’s National Signing Day. College football’s Early Signing Period runs from Dec. 19 through 21, with almost all of the action likely on Wednesday. Expect most Division I recruits to sign by Friday night, leaving only choice drama for National Signing Day in February. This post will be updated frequently as the biggest stories play out. 1. The national story lines to know Will anything change about the Early Signing Period, now that coaches and players have one year of observations to build on? The first time around, around 70 percent of Division I signees and 68 of the top 100 were inked in December. This year, four top-10 players aren’t even scheduled to commit until after the ESP (see below). Last year, there was only one. So we should have a bit more lingering drama than before, even if the national trend doesn’t change much. Alabama’s likely reclaiming the No. 1 spot after Georgia ended The Streak last cycle. The Tide could even end up No. 1 on this list of the highest rated classes in the history of recruiting rankings. A boot stamping on a human face forever. That means the biggest rankings battle is for No. 2, where Georgia and a whole bunch of other teams are in the running. Expect all the usual shenanigans like these legends of Signing Days gone by, with jostling in the rankings throughout. A few teams who could make major maneuvers: Oklahoma, Penn State, Florida, and USC. 2. Updates on just your team Since I don’t know who your team is (it’s a great one, though), head here for free coverage. If you’re on Twitter, I’d also recommend this list. 3. The status of the top 100 recruits Not all of these players are signing in December, and not all of these committed players will sign with the schools listed. This will be updated early Wednesday with notes on who’s expected to sign when. Per the 247Sports Composite ratings, with predictions by Bud Elliott for the top players who are expected to sign in December: IMG DE Nolan Smith: Georgia commit CA DE Kayvon Thibodeaux: Oregon commit LA CB Derek Stingley: LSU commit OH DE Zach Harrison, predicted to Ohio State over Michigan IMG RB Trey Sanders, predicted to Alabama over Florida GA WR Jadon Haselwood CA ATH Bru McCoy, predicted to USC over Texas OK S Daxton Hill: Alabama commit LA DT Ishmael Sopsher WV OT Darnell Wright TX OT Kenyon Green: Texas A&M commit LA RB John Emery Jr.: LSU commit GA OT Wanya Morris: Tennessee commit MS LB Nakobe Dean, predicted to Alabama over Georgia GA LB Owen Pappoe: Auburn commit TX WR Garrett Wilson: Ohio State commit MI OT Logan Brown: Wisconsin commit SC DE Zacch Pickens: South Carolina commit GA CB Andrew Booth: Clemson commit IMG OT Evan Neal, predicted to Alabama (again) TX WR Theo Wease: Oklahoma commit AL C Clay Webb: Georgia commit AZ QB Spencer Rattler: Oklahoma commit GA DT Travon Walker: Georgia commit VA LB Brandon Smith: Penn State commit MI G Devontae Dobbs: Michigan State commit FL WR Frank Ladson: Clemson commit NJ DE Antonio Alfano: Alabama commit CA WR Kyle Ford TX DT DeMarvin Leal: Texas A&M commit GA C Harry Miller: Ohio State commit LA G Kardell Thomas: LSU commit FL CB Akeem Dent: Florida State commit GA WR Dominick Blaylock: Georgia commit AL OT Pierce Quick: Alabama commit AL WR George Pickens: Auburn commit TX OT Tyler Johnson: Texas commit FL CB Tyrique Stevenson NC ATH Quavaris Crouch CA CB Chris Steele CA LB Henry To’oto’o CA RB Zach Charbonnet: Michigan commit CA CB Mykael Wright: Oregon commit TX LB Marcel Brooks: LSU commit MS RB Jerrion Ealy: Ole Miss commit HI DT Faatui Tuitele: Washington commit AL QB Bo Nix: Auburn commit IN DE George Karlaftis: Purdue commit GA DT Chris Hinton: Michigan commit CA LB Mase Funa: Oregon commit CA WR Joe Ngata: Clemson commit AL OT Amari Kight: Alabama commit TX WR Jordan Whittington: Texas commit CA QB Ryan Hilinski: South Carolina commit TX S Brian Williams: Texas A&M commit CA OT Sean Rhyan: UCLA commit FL DE Khris Bogle TX TE Baylor Cupp: Texas A&M commit TX WR Trejan Bridges: Oklahoma commit AR TE Hudson Henry: Arkansas commit FL CB Kaiir Elam MI CB Julian Barnett: Michigan State commit TN CB Maurice Hampton: LSU commit CA LB De’Gabriel Floyd: Texas commit MS DT Nathan Pickering: Mississippi State commit TX S Lewis Cine: Georgia commit TX S Demani Richardson: Texas A&M commit OH DT Jowon Briggs: Virginia commit FL WR Jeremiah Payton: Miami commit MD LB Shane Lee: Alabama commit NJ G Caedan Wallace: Penn State commit TX TE Austin Stogner: Oklahoma commit CA DT Jacob Bandes: Washington commit CA OT Jonah Tauanu’u: Oregon commit GA DE Justin Eboigbe: Alabama commit MD S Nick Cross: Florida State commit FL S Jordan Battle: Ohio State commit FL G William Putnam NY DE Adisa Isaac: Penn State commit VA RB Devyn Ford: Penn State commit AZ WR Jake Smith: Texas commit CA QB Jayden Daniels: Arizona State commit FL ATH Mark-Antony Richards TX ATH Marquez Beason: Illinois commit CA WR Mycah Pittman: Oregon commit TX CB Erick Young: Texas A&M commit NC QB Sam Howell: Florida State commit MS DE Byron Young: Alabama commit TX WR Dylan Wright: Texas A&M commit FL LB Rian Davis: Georgia commit TX CB Jeffery Carter: Alabama commit WV G Doug Nester: Ohio State commit NC DE Savion Jackson: NC State commit MD S DeMarcco Hellams: Alabama commit MS OT Charles Cross: Mississippi State commit MS DE Jaren Handy: Auburn commit TX WR Elijah Higgins CA RB Austin Jones: Stanford commit MS CB Brandon Turnage: Alabama commit AR WR Treylon Burks: Arkansas commit 4. The updated rankings If this 247Sports embed isn’t working for you, click over here: 5. Does all this really matter? Yes. There’s little doubt that recruiting rankings are worthwhile at the big-picture level, despite those (wonderful!) success stories that spring to mind about two-stars overcoming the odds and getting drafted in the first round. They matter at the player level. Blue chips are almost 1,000 percent more likely to be drafted in the first round. You can see the star ratings drop throughout the NFL draft. And five-stars are about 33 times as likely to be All-Americans as two-stars are. They matter at the team level. If you break the country into five tiers of recruiting might, you find the higher-recruiting schools consistently beat their lessers, virtually across the board. They matter at the championship level. Every national champion of the ratings era has passed a specific recruiting benchmark, as Bud Elliott’s Blue-Chip Ratio annually demonstrates. 2018 will be no exception. There are major exceptions, duh, like CMU’s Eric Fisher, who went from being a 240-pound two-star to a 306-pound No. 1 pick. Hard to criticize national rankings for failing to predict a player will gain 66 quality pounds in college. Bill Connelly, who’s way smarter than me, still finds the rankings highly valuable, despite obvious flaws. Perfection shouldn’t be the standard, though. Especially since the four big services get better during the course of a year and more accurate from year to year. Just Rate The Bama Croots Highly has been a winning strategy, for one. At the anecdotal level, let’s take a look at how all of college football would’ve changed if one recruit, five-star Tim Tebow, had chosen differently. See how much one commit mattered?
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The Rockets and Jazz are simply not good enough to be threats in the West
Two of the favorites to challenge the Warriors have regressed, and it’s hard to see a way they can catch up. The Rockets and Jazz played a game on Monday night, and it was disappointing considering the season both teams had last year. Houston looks like a shell of the team that took Golden State to Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. As for Utah? They look like a one-hit wonder: a team that figured it out last season, but looks lost this time around. Houston jumped out a a double-digit lead, then watched as Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz reduced that lead to two in the fourth quarter. James Harden, though, was unstoppable. He recorded his sixth 40-plus-point game of the season and hit a step-back three that buried the Jazz late in the game. The game was entertaining, as are most games that come down to the wire in the fourth quarter, but it’s been disappointing to see both teams struggle so far into the season. If the playoffs started today, Houston would be on the outside looking in and Utah would be second-worst in the Western Conference. Only three games separate seeds No. 6 and 14 out West, so both should still be in the playoff hunt. But these two teams need to pick it up, and soon. Houston misses Trevor Ariza so much But Trevor Ariza ain’t walking through that door. The Rockets should have just paid him. Instead they bet on offense, let him walk to Phoenix (and subsequently be traded to Washington), then replaced him and Luc Mbah a Moute with Carmelo Anthony and James Ennis on minimum contracts. Now, Houston looks awful defensively. After ranking seventh last season with Ariza soaking up minutes on the wing, they’re tied for 26th this year, next to the lowly Atlanta Hawks. In a Western Conference where most teams have improved, the Rockets have not. They need to find an answer. There may not be one out there for them, though, given their finances. The Rockets need another three-and-D guy Houston needs somebody like Ariza, or Mbah a Moute, or at least another P.J. Tucker. These players can defend multiple positions, knock down the wide open three, and preferably put the ball on the ground and make a play for a teammate. The problem is that those guys are the most valuable in today’s NBA. That kind of player is a max guy in today’s NBA, a league where versatility is king, and the Rockets lack it at the worst possible time. Houston also doesn’t have many tradeable players. The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported they would trade Brandon Knight and include a draft pick or two if the right player became available. But other teams won’t want Year 2 of Knight’s contract, paying a $15.6 million salary next season, not with the looming 2019 NBA free agency class. That’s one a reason why Brooklyn almost certainly wouldn’t entertain that deal if Houston called about DeMarre Carroll. What else is out there? The Pelicans could use some backcourt help, especially with the injuries they’ve endured. A Brandon Knight-Solomon Hill swap might help both teams. One more option is a deal with the New York Knicks for forward Lance Thomas. The Rockets, though, would need to do some cap gymnastics and include a third team in this trade, because the Knicks are not taking back any 2019-20 cap space when they’re pursuing a max free agent next summer. How many positions can Iman Shumpert defend? Would Houston attach a protected or conditional first-round pick to Knight’s contract in a deal with Sacramento for Shumpert’s production on the wing? Will Sacramento trade Shumpert given its surprising position in the playoff chase? You have to think the Rockets will get it together enough to at least make the playoffs, but that’s not their goal. How long until it’s too late to fix what ails them? The Jazz ain’t it, chief To build a torrid second half and a second-round playoff appearance, Utah drafted Grayson Allen over the summer. That’s it. They made no other significant roster moves until they traded Alec Burks to Cleveland for Kyle Korver. Another wing playmaker is the glaring hole on this Jazz roster. It’s not enough, and they know it. Donovan Mitchell is a special talent, but he’s not a secret or a surprise anymore to the league. Teams are game-planning for him as the only playmaker on this Jazz team, and his production has suffered. Utah needs another playmaker The Jazz need someone else on the wing who get a bucket and force the defense to help. It’s almost as if they need a guy who left them for Boston two summers ago. The roster is begging for a shot creator. There are a few out there, though they might not be the sexiest options: The Jazz could trade for Carmelo Anthony. They have a defensive system in place that should help when he gets beat by his man. Melo didn’t look particularly good in Houston, but he wasn’t the reason the Rockets have played poorly to start the season They could go out on a limb and trade for Jabari Parker, and The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor reported there may be interest there. Parker has a two-year, $40 million contract, but it’s only guaranteed for $2 million next season. He’s also been removed from Chicago’s regular rotation, likely because he is a turnstile on defense. No, literally. He said he doesn’t get paid to play that end of the ball. Utah, though, may be stuck in limbo this season. Derrick Favors, whose contract is non-guaranteed next season, may be their only trade chip. If Utah doesn’t make the playoffs, they can draft a player in the lottery who can grow at Donovan Mitchell’s pace. The Jazz could also free up max salary-cap space next summer depending on what they do with the non-guaranteed contracts of Favors and Korver. Rudy Gobert also becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2021. It’s time for Utah to start prioritizing the future over the present. This looks like a transition year.
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UCF’s scheduling plan ignores history, but maybe it’s right idea?
The Knights want to be treated like a sudden power, but college football’s never worked like that. Yet. The Playoff committee should’ve ranked UCF higher in the last two years, but it didn’t. It would be nice if top Power 5 teams wanted to give the Knights chances to prove themselves, but they don’t. Throughout history, it would’ve been great if every unbeaten team had gotten a shot, but heaping piles didn’t. Following the committee’s poor decision to not pair UCF and Florida in the Peach Bowl, Knights AD Danny White sent an email to Florida’s Scott Stricklin, surely with knowledge that their exchange would be public record. White wanted UCF games against Florida — with a stipulation. White fairly wanted an even exchange of home games, rather than a deal like the one USF just took: two UF home games for one return game. “UF isn’t in the market for home-and-home or a neutral site games against non-Autonomy 5 opponents,” Stricklin wrote, also fairly. “Requiring non-autonomy 5 schools to have to settle for inequitable scheduling seems like an unfair business practice and something we should all address at a high level,” White responded. It’s true that we are now in the era of a Playoff that only gives half of FBS teams a realistic path. So White’s political theater is justified. But unless there’s a secondary motive here (scroll down), to expect blue bloods to suddenly treat certain mid-majors as equals would be to ignore how those in power act until usurpers spend years and years — as in, more than two or three — hammering down walls. 1. Notre Dame’s first move toward becoming Notre Dame was a long road trip with no return visit in sight. Before 1913, the Irish beat up Kirksville Osteopath, the Illinois Cycling Club, Chicago Dental Infirmary, and various high schools. This was normal for the era. But as Notre Dame tells it: The first item on [new head coach and AD Jesse Harper’s] docket was upgrading the football schedule -- provided it came with sound business practice to complement it. Because it was getting blackballed by the other Midwest powers, the Notre Dame football schedules become extremely unattractive and, hence, unprofitable. One of Harper’s first moves was to write to the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY., for a game. Army originally offered Notre Dame $600 for travel expenses, but Harper was able to haggle for $1,000. With penny-pinching practices such as taking 14 cleats for the 18-man Notre Dame team on the railroad trip, plus packing their own meals from the student-dining hall, the trip ended up costing $917 -- an $83 profit. It might be peanuts in 2013, or at least the cost of a Notre Dame home game ticket, but it was striking gold in 1913. In a span of 27 days in November, Notre Dame pulled watershed road upsets against Army (35-13), Penn State (14-7), Christian Brothers in St. Louis (20-7) and Texas in Austin (on Thanksgiving Day) for a remarkable 7-0-debut campaign. As a coach, Harper proved to be an innovator with a passing attack at Army that awed the eastern media and aided Notre Dame’s place on the football map. The primary coup: swooping in to replace Yale on Army’s schedule, long among the toughest in football. The Irish won after a 24-hour railroad trip. Notre Dame-Army was played at West Point until 1923, when it finally moved ... about 50 miles from Army’s campus. The Cadets wouldn’t travel to South Bend until the 34th meeting. By that time the Irish had claimed five titles and — full circle — become the team the up-and-comers dreamed of scheduling. 2. Florida State, even after proving itself: “anybody, any time, anywhere.” That’s a cliche about how Bobby Bowden built a young program into a national champ. But there’s plenty of truth to it. If you look only at games played between 1980 — the year after the Noles established themselves as truly legit by going 11-1 — and 1988 — when they began as preseason No. 1 — you see a team willing to constantly hit the road in order to beat big names. In that span, the Noles: Played Tom Osborne’s Nebraska in four regular season games, all in Lincoln. The Huskers have never visited Tallahassee. Visited Baton Rouge in four straight seasons. The Noles would also visit LSU right before and after ‘80-’88. LSU wouldn’t go to Tallahassee until 1990. Made two straight trips to Ohio State, with no return visits. Made a one-shot trip to South Bend (see above) in 1981. The two would meet a few more times, but not in FSU’s stadium for another 21 years. Took a one-game deal with Michigan in 1986, then another in 1991. The Wolverines have never been to Tallahassee. Before this, you also had series like FSU’s with Auburn, with seven Seminole trips in eight meetings. The Noles took three trips to Alabama to play the Tide, with no return yet. Only two of FSU’s first 16 games against Miami were in Tallahassee. Its first six against Florida were in Gainesville. The Noles wouldn’t welcome Georgia Tech until their ninth meeting, when they were both in the ACC, by which point nobody wanted to play the Noles anywhere. 3. One of UCF’s most recent predecessors was on the road for years, despite having long established itself. The debate about non-powers has revolved around UCF for a couple years now, but the BCS era often had multiple snubbed non-powers at once, with road warrior Boise State often in that group. Since 2000, when the Broncos had their first FBS 10-win season, they’ve played 19 regular season games away from home against power conference teams. At home against power conference opponents in that span: eight, mostly unimpressive Oregon State or Washington State teams. Even Boise’s neutral site games weren’t neutral, like the time they beat Georgia in the Georgia Dome or Virginia Tech in Basically Virginia. Going forward, they’ll host Oregon again, part of a two-for-one deal like the one UCF’s turned down. They’ve landed a home-and-home with Michigan State after a trip to East Lansing in 2012. But they’ll also get a straight up return visit from Oklahoma State. And Boise State will host Florida State in 2020 after going to Jacksonville, a big risk for the Anybody Anywhere team of the ‘80s against the Anybody Anywhere team of the ‘00s. So 17 years after the Broncos’ first of many one-loss seasons, they’re finally thought of as an established peer by some top powers (for comparison, UCF’s first one-loss season was only six years ago — with a winless season since then). 4. UCF is in the same predicament, but with a twist, because it’s quite possible the Playoff starts including mid-majors at some point soon. I think the Knights should do what their predecessors have done: take Florida’s deal. It’s true UCF already gets home-and-homes from middling ACC teams and other teams that just want to recruit the Sunshine State, but this would be a step up in profile and three chances to beat very talented SEC teams. But maybe White is right. “If this type of scheduling is what is required for teams like UCF to make the final 4 of the CFP, we must consider expansion of the playoff to include non-autonomy 5 schools,” he also wrote to Stricklin. Maybe insisting on a narrative, a “Power 6” brand, and intentionally public appeals to the kindness of elites will continue to contribute to the debate on expanding the Playoff. If that eventually includes an automatic Group of 5 bid, UCF can then play whoever it wants, wherever it wants. Why didn’t 1913 Kirksville Osteopath just think of that?
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5 dudes’ quest to see 18 bowls in 24 days, explained by the guy organizing it
Some previously disappointed USC fans are trying to make bowl attendance history, and they’re making up lots of it as they go. It’s the afternoon on Dec. 16, a Sunday, one day after bowl season started. Scott Ostlund has to delay our phone call, because he isn’t sure what time zone he’s in. He tells me he’ll call at “12:30.” That’s 1:30 p.m. where I am and where he was 24 hours prior. It’s 10:30 a.m. where he was 48 hours prior. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re attempting what he’s attempting: to go to 18 bowl games in 24 days. Ostlund is part of a group of Southern California businessmen calling themselves The Latitudes who have come together to go on this college football postseason expedition. They aim to set a Guinness world record for bowl game attendance, and they’re in contact with Guinness’ people about what that will take. Along their journey, they’ll watch football in six states (sometimes a couple in a day) and two countries. The journey is called “Bowlmageddon.” It all started because USC had a bad season. It’s a big group of guys — as many as 20, with smaller, closer groups within. They plan plenty of ambitious trips. Ostlund and many others are Trojans fans. The group jumped on a plane and headed to Snake River Gorge to catch an eclipse recently. A few months ago, Ostlund tried to rally the group to Mount Kilimanjaro. If USC had gone bowling, like it had done every year since NCAA sanctions kept the Trojans out in 2011, some in the group would have followed the team to that game. But at 5-7, USC missed out. “Man, I’m depressed we’re not going anywhere this year for the first time since 2011,” Ostlund tells SB Nation, describing his frame of mind after the regular season. Another group member, Mike Arnold, offered an idea: “Let’s go to another bowl game.” Ostlund offered another: “Well, let’s go to ‘em all?” They won’t go to all 40 FBS bowls, but they’re attempting to hit nearly half. Five hardcores have the motivation and the time to shoot for all 18. Those five are Ostlund, Arnold, Brian Richardson, Mike Fyhrie, and Jared Murayama. Ostlund says about 13 guys will fly in and out for different parts of the trip, and 12 or 13 of the group will be joining for a stretch of four games in three days in what they’re calling the Texas Loop. The full bowl list, as it’s sketched out now: the FCS Celebration, the Camellia, the New Orleans, the Boca Raton, the Frisco, the Gasparilla, the Bahamas, the Birmingham, the Dollar General, the First Responder, the Independence, the Texas, the Alamo, the Peach, the Orange, the Holiday, the Rose, and the Playoff National Championship. When Ostlund told Richardson about the plan, his response was simple. “I looked at him and I said, ‘Scott, you’re totally insane. Count me in.’” Courtesy: Scott Ostlund “Bowlmageddon’s” core group at the Celebration Bowl The obvious question: how much money is this gonna cost? Richardson said in a radio interview the whole thing would be less than $500,000 collectively. Ostlund told me he’s not sure what the number will be. “I don’t mean to sound wasteful, but I don’t think a group can do this if we’re having to track it exactly amongst everybody,” he says. “You have to have a little elasticity between each other when it comes to money. We joke that we’ll have fines for anyone that talks about the business on the trip or calls home to their wife too often. One of the kinda rules is we try not to keep tabs on each other. Everyone’s pretty good about throwing in as we go.” Part of the reason is that the travel plan is evolving, and it’s not even finished. For instance, their original posted schedule had them hitting the Celebration Bowl in Atlanta, then the Cure Bowl (Orlando), and then the New Orleans Bowl, all on Dec. 15. Instead they went from the Celebration to the Camellia (Montgomery, Ala.) to the New Orleans. Right after Christmas, the original schedule had the Cheez-It Bowl (Phoenix), then the Music City (Nashville), and finally the Alamo (San Antonio), all by Dec. 28. Instead, as of publication, they’ll go to the First Responder Bowl (Dallas) on the 26th, then to the Independence Bowl (Shreveport, La.) and Texas Bowl (Houston) on the 27th, and end up in San Antonio on the 28th. (That’s the Texas Loop.) They’ll barnstorm the Lone Star State in an RV, which Ostlund is going to get lined up as soon as he hangs up with me. It might wind up being more than 18 games. They aren’t contracting a travel agency or anything like that. ESPN featured them during them during the New Orleans Bowl, and they were angling for 20-something at that point, the network’s Olivia Dekker reported. View this post on Instagram Bowlmageddon on ESPN A post shared by @ bowlmageddon on Dec 16, 2018 at 7:06am PST Weather could always create unforseen delays, but snow is unlikely to get in the way on a trip that goes between Southern California and the South. “It’s a pretty resourceful group,” Ostlund told me. Ostlund’s involved with a real-estate company that has rental houses all over. One’s in New Orleans and another’s in Florida. “By coincidence, some of these things are lining up for us to stay in some of those properties,” he says. Going with the flow was already a defining theme the day after the first bowls. “It’s by plane, by car, by Segway — however you have to get there. Surprisingly, this year it lines up really, really well. You don’t really have three bowl games where you can drive to each one. So it was natural to start in Atlanta and to drive to Montgomery and drive to New Orleans. Now we have this day break, so we’re gonna rest and eat a bunch of crawfish. Go on a swamp tour. Then tomorrow, we’re gonna fly to the Boca Raton Bowl.” These guys are somewhat winging it, but I still wanted to ballpark a cost, so I pretended I was making this 18-in-24 trip myself. I calculated it to about $10,000 for one person to go solo, conservatively. I started with some assumptions: that my home base was Southern California (like theirs) and that I could call in some favors and use some connections along the way. The logistics are a little fun to figure out. It’s like a puzzle. For instance: it’s possible to swing the Bahamas Bowl on Dec. 21 without spending a night on the islands. It’d be tight, but after taking in the Gasparilla Bowl on the night of the 20th, I could hop on an early-morning flight out of Tampa and be in Nassau two hours before kickoff. Then I could enjoy the game for a couple hours and hop on a 5:19 p.m. flight out of Nassau, connecting through Miami and arriving in Birmingham, Ala. around 11 p.m. — well ahead of the Birmingham Bowl the next day at noon. After taking in the game in Birmingham, I’d rent a car and drive to Mobile for the Dollar General Bowl later that night. The SoCal group isn’t exactly following this plan, but here’s an extremely general outline of how you could travel to and from the 18 bowls on their list. I factored in food and drinks at $75 per day. I considered things like rental car costs ($60 per day as needed, $35 for gas fill-ups as needed) and ridesharing in places where a rental’s not needed. I also factored in money for souvenirs and some for incidentals. For ticket costs, the rough get-in for most of the minor bowls is about $30 on the resale market. I’m not as resourceful as the “Bowlmageddon” group — which has ticket hookups for the Rose Bowl and National Championship — but I’m a Florida alum, so I’m fairly sure I can find a free or cheap seat at the Peach Bowl. I’d have couches to sleep on in Atlanta and some of the Texas sites. And like The Latitudes, I’m not above scalping. “Heck, the first game, I bought on StubHub when I was in line,” Ostlund says. “All of these guys don’t come from a lot of money. I think they’re all entrepreneurial kinda guys that learned to go to things at a young age and would scalp tickets to get into a sporting event ... There’s always a way to get a ticket and get into a game if you’re resourceful.” Ostlund’s chief concern about the group isn’t the monetary cost, but the human one. This is a stressful deal. On the 15th, they somehow found a way to hit see all three halftime shows for the Celebration, Camellia, and New Orleans Bowls. They left after the first halftime and made it to Montgomery for kickoff. They stayed through halftime of that one, hanging out with former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville and the bowl committee’s chairman. Then they made it to New Orleans right as the second quarter ended. After that, they faced some tire-related adversity ... @KirkHerbstreit @SBNationCFB @espn @RedditCFB @BocaBowl @SportsbyBrooks @CBSMiami @dweber3440 @scottmay9 Gonna take more than a blowout to keep Bowl Force One down #fightOn pic.twitter.com/5do7AqyXnR— bowlmaggedon@gmail.com (@bowlmaggedon) December 17, 2018 ... but still got to South Florida in plenty of time for the Boca Raton Bowl on Dec. 18: @bowlmaggedon is lovin South Beach and fixin to rest up for @BocaBowl @outbackbowl then to @Birmingham_Bowl and @dg_bowl @KirkHerbstreit @espn @CBSMiami @SportsbyBrooks @SBNationCFB @RedditCFB #worldrecordforbowlgamesattended. #FightOn pic.twitter.com/PbJt5H5joP— bowlmaggedon@gmail.com (@bowlmaggedon) December 17, 2018 “I don’t want to act like we’re too unsafe, but I had that gas pedal pushed down pretty far [on the 15th] to get us to that New Orleans game,” Ostlund says. “So that was really tough physically and logistically. I think what will be hard is these guys not wearing on each other as we get deeper into this. There’s not as many, but you know there’s things that we’re all needed for at home, as well, that are tugging on us.” Beyond their business responsibilities, there’s a little holiday right in the middle of the bowl calendar. In the way things sometimes just find a way to work out, Christmas Day falls on a Tuesday, which means the 23rd is a Sunday and Christmas Eve is a Monday. Bowls don’t like to compete with the NFL. The Hawaii Bowl’s not even on Christmas Eve this year, for the third time ever. That means that the group gets a Christmas break. That break might be why the group’s described it as a 22-day trip, though it’s 24 on the calendar from start to end. Ostlund will fly to see his family and then rejoin the group on the Texas Loop. “Thank God,” he says. “We’d all be divorced.” So, if you’re at a bowl game, look out for a bunch of guys in “Bowlmageddon” shirts. “We didn’t even know that people would really take an interest in this, Ostlund says. “We were just gonna do it for the fun of doing it. Now there’s a little bit of pressure with everybody knowing.” USC not going bowling doesn’t mean this group was content to sit around. If they make it through this stretch, they’ll be in Santa Clara on Jan. 7, maybe getting some record recognition of their own before college football crowns its champion. And even if not, Ostlund sees a bigger benefit: “We’re having the time of our lives.”
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Firing Jose Mourinho won’t fix Manchester United, but it’s a good start
Firing Jose Mourinho gives Manchester United a chance to chase its lofty ambitions again, but there’s A LOT of work left to do. As with everything that happens at Manchester United these days, we must first check in on the contract that the club gave David Moyes way back in the dim, distant past of 2013/14. Six years, right? That would still be running until … yes, until the end of this season. Brilliant. So if United’s plans had worked, they’d be going into their sixth season under their first replacement for Ferguson. Instead, now that Jose Mourinho has been sacked, they’re about to begin the hunt for their fourth. Indeed, while it’s perhaps not as interesting as the stuff that happens on the field, a lot of the story of United in this moment can be told through the contracts that the club spits out. Six years for Moyes, in the apparent belief that managerial dynasties can be written into being. An extension for Mourinho the moment the words “Paris,” “Saint,” and “Germain” appeared in the papers; one that has made his dismissal exponentially more expensive. Players, too. All that money for Alexis Sanchez, none of the associated due diligence. And of course, most recently, a four-year extension for Chris Smalling, apparently on the basis of his aggressively middling performances. David de Gea and Anthony Martial, meanwhile, have yet to sign. In conclusion, the richest club in the world has no idea what the hell to do with its money. We need to bear all of that in mind when it comes to thinking about Mourinho’s time at United. Managers have a difficult time functioning in dysfunctional circumstances. Not least because they, by virtue of those circumstances, might be the wrong appointment altogether. But equally, it’s hard to argue that Mourinho, here in this moment, deserved more time. The raw numbers of United’s current league position are notable for their inadequacy: 19 points behind leaders Liverpool, and a goal difference of precisely zero. Add to that the eye test, and you have a team that is not just bad by the standards the club sets for itself, but boring; not just bad, but messy; not just bad but chronically disorganised. Bad results can be forgiven, for a time at least, if there’s a promise that something good is round the corner: a plan in the making, a direction to things. A point, even in the absence of a few points. But United, for almost all of this season and the majority of the last, have seemed almost entirely reactionary, bouncing from one moment to the next. Something would work for a bit, then fail, then get abandoned for something else. United have been cycling through formations, midfield configurations, attacking shapes, and other experiments for a while now, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the problem was deeper than Mourinho not knowing his best team. He didn’t even seem to know what he might want his best team to do. And that’s without considering whether his players would even buy in to his ideas. According to the Mirror’s sources, “90 percent” of the squad had turned against him by the end. Presumably they all had their individual reasons, but the overriding image of his tenure has been yesterday’s man shouting at the footballers of today and tomorrow, then shouting again because they didn’t respond properly to the first round of shouting, then dropping everybody who had a bad game, or didn’t want to play through injury, or looked at him a bit funny. You’d imagine plenty of United’s squad, particularly the younger players, are feeling exceptionally relieved at the moment. The jobs of managers and coaches are written into their titles: manage the team, coach the players. Make it function, make them better. If Mourinho had any useful ideas about how to do either of those things, they weren’t making it onto the pitch, and so he had to go. Firing him doesn’t solve any of the problems that weren’t his fault, and it won’t make Ed Woodward into anybody else, but it will at least buy United half a season to get the next appointment right. It will also give them half a season to try and persuade those members of the squad that are good enough that there is reason for them to stay at Old Trafford and to have a bit of fun on the pitch. And, perhaps most importantly, to begin the process of finally turning this club into the modern, elite club it is pretending to be. For nothing at United really works the way it should, with the exception of the sponsorship department. That may, for the Glazers, be a feature rather than a bug. But nevertheless, United need to start making gestures in the direction of competence, or else even the sponsors will start to look elsewhere. Mourinho’s dismissal is one of those gestures, done with a proactivity that has surprised some. It cannot be the last gesture. Ultimately, by the time the final five months of Moyes’ projected tenure slip away, the club will need to be well on the path to a transformation into a club that doesn’t simply lurch desperately from each hero manager to the next. A club that would have looked at Jose Mourinho, and all that comes with him, and then looked elsewhere. A club that would never have handed out those cursed six years in the first place. That’ll be the plan, anyway. No idea if this lot are going to be able to manage it.
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History shows every Playoff expansion plan will still anger everyone
We’ll probably add more games and rounds soon, but college football will always find ways to infuriate people. This is the 21st year FBS football’s had a formal championship structure with at least two teams, and for all 21 of those seasons, we as college football fans have worked ourselves into a frenzy about how unfair or broken or ridiculous that structure is. It’s not like this in other sports, at least not to this extent. You might argue the first round of the NBA playoffs should go back to best of five or the NFL should add more wild card spots, but no one’s furious enough to rally against certain teams being left out. College football fans just want a playoff that rewards the most deserving teams and won’t leave us constantly fighting about who deserved a spot! How hard can that be? Well, I’m here with bad news: it’s impossible. Here are 11 different playoff models and real-life examples of how they will inevitably lead us back to complaining that they’re not working. TWO TEAMS (the BCS model) The structure: The two best teams play each other for the national title. The scenario that breaks it: 2018, when you’d have to leave out either undefeated Alabama, Clemson, or Notre Dame and be doomed to endless debates about strength of schedule and conference championships and Two Of You Got To Play Pitt. FOUR TEAMS (the current Playoff) The structure: The four best teams play semifinal games, and the winners advance to play for the national title. The scenario that breaks it: Let’s take 2013, the last year of the BCS. Florida State gets in as an undefeated Power 5 conference champ. Auburn and Michigan State join as one-loss champions of the SEC and Big Ten. Your fourth spot can now go to: One-loss Baylor, winner of the Big 12 (but didn’t play a conference title game) One-loss Alabama (lost to Auburn and missed the SEC title game) One-loss Ohio State (undefeated until falling to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship) Two-loss Stanford, Pac-12 Championship winner (with both losses close and on the road) Have fun! SIX TEAMS, CHAMPIONS GUARANTEED SPOTS The structure: Every Power 5 conference champ automatically gets in, and one at-large bid completes the pool. The bottom four teams play each other in the first round, and the winners advance to play the No. 1 and 2 teams. The scenario that breaks it: Travel all the way back to 2017. Our guaranteed participants are Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Georgia, and USC. You already know Alabama’s getting the sixth spot, even with one loss and even without making the SEC title game. So now undefeated Group of 5 darling UCF is looking at a bigger playoff that has teams with TWO losses making it in ahead of them. Very cool and fun. SIX TEAMS, CHAMPIONS NOT GUARANTEED SPOTS The structure: Take the current four-team structure, add two more teams to it, and otherwise play it in the Six Teams format. The scenario that breaks it: This job starts pretty easily in 2012. You can take five teams (Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida, Oregon, and Kansas State) and account for every Power 5 team that has one or zero losses. But then you gotta pick a sixth participant, and there are NINE teams from BCS leagues that finish with two losses. Four of those are from the SEC, including a Georgia that beat Florida and gave Bama a tough test in the conference title game and the Texas A&M that gave Bama its only loss all year. Don’t want a third SEC team? Well, now you have to choose between Oklahoma (lost to Notre Dame and Kansas State), FSU (the ACC champion), Stanford (the Pac-12 champion), Clemson (OK, yeah, you’re probably not picking them), or the Big East’s Louisville (same). There is no outcome here that will not leave large segments of college football fans insisting that the system is biased and broken and must change immediately. EIGHT TEAMS, CHAMPIONS GUARANTEED SPOTS The structure: Every Power 5 winner gets a spot, as does the top Group of 5 champ, and two at-large bids round things out. This format would add a whole round of games before the semifinal/final setup we have now. The scenario that breaks it: In 2014, our automatic bids are going to Alabama, Oregon, FSU, Ohio State, and either Baylor or TCU (whichever doesn’t get the Big 12’s champion slot, we’ll assign one of the at-large bids). Our “top” Group of 5 champ is an 11-2 Boise State that lost by 22 to Ole Miss, if we go by something like the real committee’s rankings. Our final spot is probably going to 10-2 Mississippi State (lost to Bama and Ole Miss). That means 10-2 Michigan State (lost to Oregon and Ohio State) is out while a non-power that lost the same number of games is in. Also out: the Ole Miss who beat three of those playoff teams and a 12-1 Marshall that the committee hated all year. BONUS CHAOS SCENARIO: College football was pretty different in 2008 because the Big East got a BCS autobid, but let’s have some fun anyway. In this year, Boise State, despite being undefeated and beating Oregon on the road, is not getting the non-AQ bid, because that’s going to also undefeated Utah. The Broncos would have to convince our playoff selectors to put them in over either 12-1 Alabama or 12-1 Texas, which, no. Oh, they’re also going to watch 9-4 Virginia Tech take part in the playoff as the ACC champ after the Hokies lost to East Carolina to open the year. 12 TEAMS, CHAMPIONS GUARANTEED SPOTS The structure: Let’s take the eight-team plan, tack four more at-large spots on, give the top four teams a first-round bye, and run this sucker a lot like the NFL does. The scenario that breaks it: The 2016 automatic bids go to Clemson, Oklahoma, Penn State, Washington, Alabama, and Western Michigan. We can give two of the remaining six bids to 11-1 Ohio State and 10-2 Michigan. And now we have to give the remaining four bids to some combination of the following teams, all of which are 10-3 or 9-3. Wisconsin USC Colorado FSU Oklahoma State Louisville Stanford Oh, one more thing. Add West Virginia at 10-2. The Mountaineers are ranked just below most of these teams for some reason. Here is my approximation of what everyone else will yell at you if you pick these teams: Wisconsin: YOU ALREADY HAVE THREE BIG TEN TEAMS IN THE PLAYOFF USC: THEY LOST TO STANFORD AND DIDN’T WIN THE PAC-12 Colorado: THEY LOST TO USC AND GOT CRUSHED IN THE PAC-12 CHAMPIONSHIP FSU: LOUISVILLE BEAT THEM BY 43 Oklahoma State: THEY LOST TO A MAC TEAM THAT BARELY MADE A BOWL AND I’M IGNORING HOW THAT HAPPENED Louisville: THEY LOST THEIR LAST TWO GAMES, TO A GROUP OF 5 TEAM AND KENTUCKY Stanford: THEY LOST TO COLORADO AND DIDN’T BEAT ANY RANKED TEAMS West Virginia: THEY LOST TO OKLAHOMA STATE AND WE’RE NOT PUTTING THREE BIG 12 TEAMS IN 16 TEAMS The structure: Take 10 automatic bids for the conference champions (Power 5 and Group of 5), take six at-larges, seed them, and play a four-round tournament. The scenario that breaks it: Let’s use the 2018 season for simplicity. Our conference champs are mostly unobjectionable, with 8-5 Northern Illinois the only team that doesn’t have at least 10 wins. Now we have to pick five teams that didn’t win a conference, because we’re definitely taking 12-0 Notre Dame. To make it really easy on you, I’ll go ahead and put the three Power 5 teams with two losses (Georgia, Washington State, and Michigan) in. That’s only two teams left for you to pick from the following groups: Group of 5 teams with two losses: Utah State, Army, Cincinnati Power 5 teams with three losses: LSU, Kentucky, Florida, Penn State, West Virginia, NC State, Syracuse Power 5 teams with four losses, but the last one came in the conference championship: Texas, Utah Again, you only get to pick two of these teams, which means you will be pissing off seven or so conferences, 10 or so states, and a federal service academy. 24 TEAMS That’s the FCS model, and people already get mad about that every year. 32 TEAMS The structure: The same as above, but with 16 more at-large spots. The scenario that breaks it: Let’s stick with 2018. Good news: those 12 teams we had to choose from above are all in the playoff! Bad news: now you have six spots to assign between these groups. Group of 5 teams with three losses: Troy, Georgia Southern, Boise State, Buffalo, North Texas Power 5 teams with four losses: Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Missouri, Oregon, Stanford, Iowa, Iowa State By expanding the playoff to eight times its current size, you have not eliminated discord. You’ve only shifted it to a much weirder place, where we’re going to fight over whether Missouri’s loss to South Carolina was worse than Iowa State’s loss to TCU. 64 TEAMS The structure: Just watch March Madness or listen to a Mike Leach press conference. The scenario that breaks it: Why not stay with 2018? Then we can have an exciting debate about whether 6-6 Virginia Tech deserved a spot instead of 7-5 Toledo. We’ve again moved the debate to an even darker place, with eight Power 5 teams and BYU at 6-6 and five Group of 5 teams at 7-5, all right on the bubble. Also, don’t think people would get mad about who ranks 65th? Again, just watch March Madness. EVERY FBS TEAM The structure: Well, I guess we’ll do a First Four-type setup so we can go from 130 teams to a clean 128, and then do a tournament like the NCAA does for basketball, but with an extra round. The scenario that breaks it: None. We fixed it!* *Assuming “it” is the worry that deserving teams will get left out of a playoff. We have not fixed seeding, the logistics involved with this mega-playoff, or the fact that we’ve either made the season significantly longer or drastically reduced the number of non-playoff games, maybe including conference championship games, which are cash cows schools and leagues won’t want to give up. But other than that, we fixed it! ZERO-TEAM PLAYOFF The structure: We just play the regular season and the conference championships as usual, and then we do whatever we feel like when it comes to the bowl games. Maybe No. 1 plays No. 2, or No. 1 maybe an unranked team. But we’re not designing the system to do any of these things in particular. The scenario that breaks it: Almost every year between 1869’s split championship and 1997’s split championship. Take your pick.
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If we call James Dolan a genius, will he go away?
We have that and more in Tuesday’s NBA newsletter. ESPN’s Ian O’Connor wrote an essential, long piece after a 2-hour, 3-minute conversation with Knicks jefe James “Jimmy” “J.D.” Dolan. Tastes differ in journalism. Some might bristle at the long leash Dolan is given to make excuses for his worst moments. Personally, I find that allowing Dolan to hog tie himself with that long leash is useful. Better to give a man a shovel and let him dig than to do it for him. Among the greatest (worst) hits from the nooks and crannies of Dolan’s mind: He thinks the Garden never had a chance against Anucha Browne’s sexual harrassment lawsuit because a) he didn’t run the defense (no, he’s not a lawyer) and b) it’s hard for corporations to beat minority women in court (seriously?). That’s probably the most egregious line in there. For more of an ick factor, turn to Dolan’s triumphant claim he cut off Harvey Weinstein as a friend well before the #MeToo movement put Weinstein in headlines. Did Dolan end their friendship because of Weinstein’s treatment of women? Well, no. He had just felt that Harvey changed, that’s all. (Dolan wrote him a letter about it!) Aren’t you proud of J.D. for cutting out Weinstein before the rest of the world did, for reasons unrelated to anything relevant? Dolan sure thinks you should be. Dolan also takes credit for the ballooning value of the New York Knicks, which is absolutely hilarious, because all NBA teams have seen skyrocketing values. The Nets sold at a valuation of $2.35 billion last year! Congratulations, J.D. -- you didn’t get Sterlinged out of the league. (Yet.) There’s also stuff about Dolan’s charitable giving and work to end pancreatic cancer. Good on him. I’m glad the billionaire is donating money to good causes. But as we all know, good deeds don’t make a man impervious to critique. And there is plenty to critique. This is the bottom line with Dolan: he wants credit for everything good that happens in his vicinity, and he has excuses for everything bad that happens in his vicinity. Maybe if we buy him a cake and a “Mission Accomplished” banner and get some hero to cut a $5 billion check we can get him to go away? Scores Bucks 107, Pistons 104Suns 128, Knicks 110Jazz 97, Rockets 102Kings 105, Timberwolves 132Bulls 96, Thunder 121Sixers 96, Spurs 123Grizzlies 93, Warriors 110Blazers 131, Clippers 127 Schedule Cavaliers at Pacers, 7 p.m. ET, League PassWizards at Hawks, 7:30 p.m. ET, League PassLakers at Nets, 7:30 p.m. ET, NBA TVMavericks at Nuggets, 9 p.m. ET, League Pass Links The Indiana Pacers have hired Indiana Fever exec Kelly Krauskopf as an assistant general manager. She joins Tamika Catchings in the Pacers’ front office. I work about how critiques of the Spurs’ reliance on mid-range jumpers miss the point about why San Antonio is middling. We had a scuffle during Bulls-Thunder involving Kris Dunn and Russell Westbrook. The league’s a bit frisky this season. Giannis Antetokounmpo works well as Milwaukee’s small ball center. Can Ben Simmons do that for the Sixers? Back up back up cuz it’s on Dan Devine on Nikola Jokic’s different brand of stardom. Some people seem to be confused. When I declared that the Kings were good, I was not announcing I had backslid into Kings fandom. There is no chance of that happening. Trust me. Also, the Kings lost by 27. My read of Dave Joerger’s mercifully brief firestorm over his Luka Doncic compliment is that it was totally innocuous and not meant as a shot at the Kings’ front office. That said, the fact that it became a brief firestorm to compliment the presumptive Rookie of the Year says everything about the raw nerves about passing on a superstar like Luka that will exist in Sacramento so long as the people responsible for passing on him are around. How Zia Cooke became the most famous girls’ high school basketball player overnight. (Poor No. 14!) Kevin O’Connor’s trade season primer. How Vince and Dirk prepare for games at age 40. Matt Ellentuck talked to Derek Fisher about his new job coaching the Sparks and his role in that, uh, alternative lender targeting athletes he’s working with. How the changing face of NBA centers is affecting large high school players. The wonderful absurdity of Klay Thompson’s interviews and existence. Be excellent to each other.
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Jets road betting favorites at Kings on Tuesday NHL odds
The Winnipeg Jets will be looking to stay hot this Tuesday night on the road against the Los Angeles Kings as clear betting chalk at the sportsbooks. The Winnipeg Jets are 9-1 over their last 10 games including three straight overtime wins. The Jets will try to keep things rolling on the road against the Los Angeles Kings this Tuesday night. Winnipeg is a -165 road betting favorite in Los Angeles at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. The Kings hope to pull off an upset as +145 home underdogs. Winnipeg Jets at Los Angeles Kings When: Tuesday, December 18, 10:30 p.m. ET Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, California Betting Line / Total: Winnipeg -165 / 6 Goals Jets at Kings OddsShark Matchup Report Winnipeg Jets The Jets were one of the best teams in the NHL last season finishing second in the league in points with 114 and advancing to the Western Conference final. Winnipeg has picked up where it left off this season, climbing to the top of the West with a record of 22-9-2 with an offense that ranks fourth in the league in goals with 3.64 goals per game and sixth in goals against allowing 2.82 goals per game. Patrik Laine has already racked up 23 goals through the team’s first 33 games of the season. In their last nine games against the Kings, the Jets are 6-2-1 per the OddsShark NHL Database. Los Angeles Kings Los Angeles was swept out of the postseason in the first round last season, and that series served as a sign of things to come for the Kings. The 2018-19 season finds the Kings ranked dead last in the standings at 11-20-3 and dead last in goals scored with a measly 2.18 goals per game. Firing former head coach John Stevens has not done anything to spark the Kings, who return home coming off an 0-4 road trip. Tuesday night’s total is set at six goals. The OVER is 12-2-1 in Winnipeg’s last 15 games. These two teams are going in completely different directions. Winnipeg is one of the most exciting teams in hockey and is led by a young core that should keep the Jets competitive for years to come. The Kings, who were one of the most feared teams in the NHL five years ago, are now too old and too slow to keep up with today’s fast-paced action. The Jets have needed overtime to put their last three opponents away, but all signs point to extra time probably not being necessary in this one. For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.
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NFL odds 2018, Week 16: Betting trends and analysis for the top games
Baltimore and Pittsburgh face tough road tests as they look for a path into the postseason, with both teams set as underdogs on the NFL Week 16 betting lines. The Baltimore Ravens are 4-1 straight up and 3-2 against the spread over their last five games. The Ravens will try to keep control of their own destiny this Saturday when they visit the Los Angeles Chargers. Baltimore is a 4.5-point road underdog on Saturday at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. Currently sitting half a game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers for the top spot in the AFC North and tied in the standings with the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts for the final AFC wild card spot, the Ravens could easily find themselves as division champions or out of a playoff spot entirely in two weeks. To hold on to control of its destiny, Baltimore will need a win over the Chargers who are 4-0 SU and 3-1 ATS over their last four games. Pittsburgh also has a brutal road test this Sunday on the road against the New Orleans Saints. New Orleans (-6) is 13-1 SU over its last 14 home games and 4-0 ATS over its last four. The Steelers’ upset win over the New England Patriots last week broke the team out of an 0-3 SU and ATS slump. While Baltimore and Pittsburgh are in tough spots on the road, Tennessee and Indianapolis have golden opportunities to improve their wild card odds as big favorites at home. Tennessee is a 10-point betting favorite hosting Washington on Saturday and Indianapolis is a 9-point favorite hosting the New York Giants on Sunday. Indianapolis is 7-1 SU and 5-2-1 ATS over its last eight games per the OddsShark NFL Database. After opening the season 0-3 SU, the 10-4 SU Houston Texans now control their own destiny for a first-round bye. The Texans are 1-point road underdogs this Sunday facing the Philadelphia Eagles. Philadelphia is 15-4 SU in its last 19 games at home. And in prime time this week, the Seattle Seahawks host the Kansas City Chiefs (-2.5) on Sunday night and the Denver Broncos (-2.5) visit the Oakland Raiders on Monday night. Seattle had a 4-0 SU and 3-0-1 ATS streak snapped last Sunday when it lost to the San Francisco 49ers in overtime as 4-point road favorites. NFL Week 16 Betting Lines Washington at Tennessee (-10) New York Giants at Indianapolis (-9) Pittsburgh at New Orleans (-6) Baltimore at Los Angeles Chargers (-4.5) Kansas City (-2.5) at Seattle Denver (-2.5) at Oakland Houston at Philadelphia (-1) See the complete list at OddsShark For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.
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NFL power rankings, Week 16: Where do we get tickets for a Chargers vs. Saints Super Bowl?
The starting quarterbacks alone would have more children than points scored in that game ... and they’d score a lot of points! Also, it’d be a good game. 1. Los Angeles Chargers: Imagine being an NFL executive contemplating the playoffs with the very real possibility that the Chargers, a team that can’t fill a tiny soccer stadium for its “home” games, could be playing deep into January. That’s got to be at least a little unnerving for the ratings watchers on Park Ave. The NFL’s best team and nobody loves them. It’s like Kirk Van Houten turned “Can I Borrow a Feeling?” into a No. 1 single, but was still, you know, Kirk Van Houten. Further proving the complete lack of cosmic justice and absence of reason in the NFL this season, the Chargers are currently the FIFTH seed in the AFC. They beat the Chiefs and are tied for the best record in the conference, but the tiebreaker currently goes to Kansas City. That could change. MVP-candidate Philip Rivers and Co. face the Ravens this week and wrap up the season against the Broncos. The Chiefs, meanwhile, are in Seattle before a December preseason game against the Raiders at home. 2. New Orleans Saints: They’re back on top in the NFC this after grinding out a win against the failing Panthers on Monday night. Will they stay there? They have to play the Panthers one more time and next week, the Steelers, both home games. The Steelers game looks tough, but I expect them to have the offense firing on all cylinders again and thoroughly debunk the notion that the Steelers are a Super Bowl contender. New Orleans should be playing home games through the conference championship. 3. Kansas City Chiefs: That was a tough loss to the Chargers last week, so I can’t ding them too much. Patrick Mahomes is a lock for the MVP. Hell, I’m kind of starting to think that maybe you can count on these Chiefs not to suffer the usual humiliating January loss. 4. Chicago Bears: It’s Week 16, and we have the Bears — the Bears!?! — swatting away the Packers like gnats and gunning for a first-round bye. This is just and fair for a franchise that suffered though five years of self-inflicted Marc Trestman and John Fox football. 5. Los Angeles Rams: I would maybe be worried about the Rams a little bit. These last two losses weren’t just the usual “hey, you lost a tough game on a couple of bad bounces” kind of thing. As Geoff Schwartz pointed out this week, they’re turning the ball over (7/4 ratio in their last two), defenses are challenging their offensive line and winning, and they don’t seem to use the middle of the field much anymore. McVay and his well-attended facial hair can fix this, right? 6. Houston Texans: It’s hard to get too excited about beating the New York Jets in a close game, but if you are what your record is, then the Texans are a 10-4 football team. That’s pretty good! Right now, they’re the No. 2 seed in the AFC. That probably won’t change, and I think they can make some noise in the playoffs. 7. Pittsburgh Steelers: They FINALLY beat the Patriots, and they did it in December. Of course, they did manage to beat the worst version of the Patriots we’ve seen since the Matt Cassel year. But, hey, a win is a win. They’ll probably win the AFC North too, probably going 1-1 over the last two weeks, against the Saints and Bengals. The only reason for that is because the Ravens have to play the Chargers this week and finish the season against a Browns team that actually has real hope for the future. 8. New England Patriots: I just don’t know. The avocado juice doesn’t seem to be working for Tom Brady anymore. And whatever fad diet Brady’s guru has the defense on right now, is giving them a real case of diarrhea on the field. How else can you explain the just how leaky they are? The most troubling sign of all is that a team coached by Bill Belichick is on a two-game skid because he shot himself in the foot against the Dolphins. That’s very un-Belichickian. 9. Baltimore Ravens: Offenses just aren’t supposed to play this way anymore. Hell, defenses aren’t supposed to matter this much anymore either, but the Ravens have concocted some weird hybrid of 1980s football and Michael Vick. And it’s working. Can it work deep into the postseason? It just might. 10. Indianapolis Colts: They didn’t really need much from Andrew Luck this week. Instead the defense and the running game did all the work. Being able to win like that and still have Luck when you need to pull off a fourth-quarter drive could wreck a lot of dreams next month (looking at you, Kansas City). 11. Minnesota Vikings: It’s really hard to get excited about those last three seeds in the NFC. The Cowboys and Seahawks each lost a head-scratcher this week. The Vikings, meanwhile, looked a lot more like we all thought they would when we were going through the useless exercise of making preseason predictions. Will that hold, though? They get the Lions this week, so another practice game like that would at least be a good chance to roll up some reps before January. 12. Seattle Seahawks: Someday, maybe there will be no shame in losing to future MVP Nick Mullens. But right now, it’s just a sneak peak at an early playoff exit, IF they make it that far. 13. Dallas Cowboys: They got blanked by the Colts who used the very same recipe that Dallas had ridden for a five-game winning streak. Who knows with this team. They should have the NFC East wrapped up now, but that egg they laid has given the Eagles some hope and kept the Josh Johnson-led Washington NFL team alive too. 14. Tennessee Titans: The bottom part of the AFC is swarming with these kind of teams that don’t look all that great on paper, but somehow find ways to win. The best part about the Titans is that they could snuff out Washington’s playoff hopes this week. 15. Philadephia Eagles: Nick Foles is back, so I guess they’re going to the Super Bowl. 16. Cleveland Browns: No, they’re not going to make the playoffs, but they probably are going to finish with seven, maybe eight wins. AND, they’re doing it with real swagger. It’s going to be fun to watch this team next season. The only thing that can dampen their hopes for 2019 is keeping Gregg Williams around. As for the other 16 NFL teams, we have a very nice mock draft for you.
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Jose Mourinho fired by Manchester United
Sunday’s embarrassing derby defeat to Liverpool was the final straw. Celebrations should ring out across the red half of Manchester following the news that Jose Mourinho has been sacked by Manchester United. The Red Devils consistently underachieved under Mourinho during his two-and-a-half seasons with the team, but they’ve been especially poor to start this season. The end of the Mourinho era was punctuated by an embarrassing 3-1 loss to Liverpool on Sunday. Manchester United announced Mourinho’s departure on Tuesday morning. Manchester United has announced that Jose Mourinho has left the Club. We would like to thank him for his work during his time at Manchester United and wish him success in the future. #MUFC— Manchester United (@ManUtd) December 18, 2018 The club has yet to say who will take over the manager’s chair on an interim basis. United’s next match is on Saturday, away to Cardiff City. What happened when Manchester United played Liverpool on Sunday? Liverpool might have won 3-1, but that score seriously flatters Manchester United. Jürgen Klopp’s side rattled off 36 shots, the most in the Premier League this season. United had just six attempts on goal, two shots on target, and their goal came as the result of an error by Liverpool goalkeeper Allison Becker. That result left United sixth in the Premier League, but a hefty 11 points off the top four. They’ve conceded more goals in this season’s 17 Premier League games than they did in all 38 last campaign. United has an even goal differential, which is level with Wolves, West Ham, and Leicester, as well as two goals behind Everton. A fluke 2-1 win over Juventus in Champions League is probably the only thing that kept Mourinho around this long. United weren’t great in Europe besides that result — they lost the return fixture to Juve, and only took one point off Valencia. Third season syndrome strikes Jose Mourinho again For the fourth time in his career, Jose Mourinho has seen his team and job security fall apart in the third season of his reign. He never got the chance at Inter Milan — Real Madrid poached him away before it could happen — but it’s now happened in four of his last five jobs. During his first reign at Chelsea, Mourinho’s relationship with owner Roman Abramovich soured over the Blues boss handing more power over transfer policy to director of football Frank Arnesen and chief scout Piet De Visser. If you want to read more about how things fell apart during Mourinho’s time at Madrid and his second Chelsea stint, Sid Lowe and Dominic Fifield have a great piece on just that. It’s almost unfair to lump this Mourinho sacking in with the other three, though. At Madrid and during both Chelsea stints, Mourinho achieved great things before eventually losing the dressing room, his owner, or both. At United, Jose never really got going at all. He leaves without having won the Premier League, Champions League or FA Cup. Mourinho’s reign defined by feud with Paul Pogba Last season, United’s record signing and World Cup champion Paul Pogba was dropped on several occasions, curiously for youth product Scott McTominay, who has yet to show he’s good enough to play for United. Pogba hinted before the season started that he was unhappy with Mourinho, and he sounded very open to the possibility of a transfer. In September, Sky Sports filmed a training argument between Pogba and Mourinho. In the same week, Pogba was stripped of the vice-captaincy and told that he would never wear the armband again while Mourinho was United manager. Not long afterwards, Pogba publicly criticized Mourinho’s tactics, then was banned from speaking to journalists. Pogba was dropped once again on Sunday for the Liverpool match, with Mourinho saying that United are better off the ball without him in the team. Man United, notably, did absolutely nothing off the ball without Pogba in the team. Jose’s a big problem, but Ed Woodward is a bigger one While there’s no doubt Jose Mourinho should have gotten more out of the players he had at his disposal, he’s been done no favors by a poor transfer policy, overseen by a man who does not have much experience in the game. Manchester United CEO Ed Woodward achieved that position by growing the Red Devils’ commercial business, but his background is in accounting. He’s never worked as a scout, data analyst or coach. Despite this, he’s opted to handle transfer business himself, without hiring a director of football. Sir Alex Ferguson once run every aspect of United’s football-side operations, and United hasn’t figured out their transfer policy since his retirement. Every summer has been incompetently handled for a decade at Old Trafford, but this summer was perhaps the worst of all. Woodward was reportedly willing to spend money on a world class defender, but he couldn’t make a deal for any of the half-dozen players on Mourinho’s list. That failure is what opened up a massive rift between Mourinho and Woodward that appeared irreparable from the start of the season. The one big signing that Woodward brought in — Brazilian midfielder Fred, from Shakhtar Donetsk — looked out of his depth in early appearances and has not started since November 3. There hasn’t been much in the way of “MOURINHO OUT” banners flying from planes circling Old Trafford this season, but there have been plenty of anti-Woodward ones. Mourinho used up all of the goodwill he had left with his poor tactics this season, but most fans still lay the blame for United’s problems at the feet of their CEO. Who will be the next Manchester United manager? Well, the next manager looks likely to be an external caretaker, who will take the reins for half a season. For maximum hilarity, it would be wonderful to see Arsene Wenger get the job. Guus Hiddink, Laurent Blanc and Leonardo Jardim are among the unemployed managers that are more likely to be interested in that gig. After that? It’s not obvious. The bookies’ favorite is former Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane, who won three Champions League titles with the club he starred for as a player. Zidane has only managed one team, though, and would probably prefer for his next job to be at a club with a proper scouting and director of football setup. Former Juventus and Chelsea boss Antonio Conte should get some consideration, and like Zidane, he’s available now. But reports that United will look to a caretaker before looking to hire their next permanent manager in the summer suggest that Zidane and Conte are not on the top of Woodward’s list. United is probably targeting someone that already has a job. Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino is the most likely candidate, but it wouldn’t be surprising if United gave serious consideration to Juventus boss Max Allegri and Atlético Madrid manager Diego Simeone. Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe is also a popular pick from those keen to see English managers get a chance at bigger jobs. But all of those managers will have reservations about joining United as it stands, no matter how good the money is. The club has been consistently incompetent since Ferguson’s retirement, and there’s no indication that they’ve learned from their mistakes. Woodward has some other problems to solve before he starts pitching someone like Pochettino or Simeone on the gig.
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Bulls-Thunder fight: Kris Dunn shoved Russell Westbrook, then all hell broke loose
It’s the WWE on a basketball court. They say it’s the NBA, where amazing happens. Maybe it’s more like the NBA, where hands get thrown. That was the case when the Bulls and Thunder threw down on Monday night. First Kris Dunn shoved Russell Westbrook. Then Jerami Grant came to Westbrook’s aid and got in Dunn’s face, so Dunn elbow shoved Grant in retaliation. Then came Robin Lopez, who walked Grant down into the first row of the sidelines and had to be restrained. It was something you’d see in the WWE, except it was on a basketball court, in the middle of a game. Kris Dunn pushed Russ, Jerami Grant intervened and Robin Lopez was *heated* pic.twitter.com/NhJlQmHDVT— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 18, 2018 Somehow, some way, Bulls head coach Jim Boylen got involved. He ended up separating a Thunder player from the scuffle — by the shoulder-neck area. Jim Boylen in here pic.twitter.com/w4ObZnEgSG— James Wobden (@WorldWideWob) December 18, 2018 But from this angle, it looks like Boylen is trying to save Grant from a Lopez whooping: Chaos ensues in OKC after Kris Dunn pushes Russ . pic.twitter.com/mO2bSQdPXQ— MyNBAUpdate (@MyNBAUpdate) December 18, 2018 There was also Steven Adams, who neutralized Lopez by calmly grabbing and holding onto his forearm. “What did I get myself into now?” Paul George made an appearance: There’s no real bad blood between these two teams, so it’s unclear how things escalated to this point. The Bulls are bad, and players get emotional when they lose. Chicago needs to turn things around soon. They lost this one by 25.
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How Dave Joerger’s compliment of Luka Doncic almost ruined the Kings
Joerger’s comments about Doncic almost popped a few blood vessels. It all started with a compliment. Sacramento Kings coach Dave Joerger merely complimented Dallas Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic before the two teams faced off on Sunday night. It was a candid moment for Joerger, who admitted something the rest of the world had already come to grips with: There may not be a ceiling on Doncic’s game. “You know, he’s got a lot of different skills, and I think he’s gonna become a heck of a shooter, and when that happens it’s gonna make him quicker. He’s got good ball-handling sets and he knows how to play.” And then — deep breath — Joerger said this: “I think perhaps there was an idea that there was a ceiling on him? I don’t see it, unfortunately for us. But he’s great for them, and he’s great for our league.” As you can imagine, basketball fans took that and ran with it. After all, the Kings — and the Suns, and the Hawks — each passed on a chance at Doncic, who is far and away the best rookie prospect in his class so far. He’s averaging about 18 points, seven rebounds, and four assists per game. Doncic is hitting stepback threes, dunking through traffic, and playing with a poise you rarely see from first-year pros. That’s because he’s not a first-year pro; he’s been playing in the Euroleague since he was 16. Sacramento selected Marvin Bagley III at pick No. 2. The Suns took DeAndre Ayton No. 1 overall, and the Hawks — bless their souls — traded the No. 3 pick to Dallas for pick No. 5, where they selected Trae Young, and the Mavs’ top-5 protected 2019 first-rounder. The trade paid off for Dallas. They’ve gotten the darling of the draft, and it’s not even close. Some media outlets turned his quote into a graphic. Dave Joerger might have a couple regrets about passing on Luka Doncic in the 2018 NBA draft. pic.twitter.com/rJx8yvlVds— theScore (@theScore) December 17, 2018 There had also been rumors of tension between Joerger and Kings assistant GM Brandon Williams. Joerger once asked Williams to leave a team practice, and the coach has been more concerned with winning, while the front office has reportedly wanted him to focus more on developing Bagley as a player. Joerger’s comments made it seem as if someone in the organization had a preconceived notion about Doncic. That’s why Joerger had to walk his comments back some And he didn’t necessarily walk back his praise of Dallas’ rookie. That kid can ball. Everyone knows that. Joerger more so clarified that he wasn’t taking shots at anybody. That his words — “perhaps there was an idea that there was a ceiling on him? I don’t see it, unfortunately for us.” — weren’t directed at any of the Kings’ brass in particular. Coach Joerger clarifies his comments about Luka Doncic and praises Marvin Bagley III. pic.twitter.com/zY1QzTesvz— NBCSAuthentic (@NBCSAuthentic) December 17, 2018 “In this case, all we’re trying to do is say something positive about another team’s player,” Joerger said. “You know, there’s no veiled shots at anybody. [De’Aaron Fox] gushed about him, and [Bogdan Bogdanovic] gushed about him and his ability. Wishing him the best and it’s unfortunate that we had to play him and so does the rest of the league because the guy’s playing really well right now. “So it was just out of love and positivity, and people tried to turn it into something between Vlade and I. Like Vlade and I are like this. Three years now we’ve been working together and we love it, I love it.” Joerger also doubled down on De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III as a duo, calling them Sacramento’s Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. "When we drafted Marvin at 2, we were high-fiving like crazy. We got the right guy for us. This isn't going to be a story in 3 days and it'll be definitely buried 5 yrs from now when we have the next Durant-Westbrook. That's how good they're gonna be."— Jon Krawczynski (@JonKrawczynski) December 17, 2018 Joerger may have only meant this in a complimentary way, but it’s clear there’s a good number of folks who feel Sacramento should have gone after Doncic instead of Bagley. Only time will tell if Fox and Bagley turn into Russ and KD. For now, just watch your words, coach!
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Justin Fields leaving Georgia would have every team in CFB lining up
Many analysts thought Fields was the best recruit in the class of 2018. He might be available again shortly. Georgia freshman QB Justin Fields, the No. 2 overall recruit in the class of 2018 and one of the most touted dual-threat QB prospects ever, may have played his last down in Athens. He notified the Dawgs he intends to transfer, USA Today reported Monday. Fields is a rare talent. A baseball player who wowed just about everyone who ever watched him on the football recruiting circuit, he figured to be Georgia’s QB for three or four years when he signed in December 2017. He’d previously been committed to Penn State, but when he reopened his recruitment, most every blue-blood wanted him. If he leaves, he’ll be the second five-star Georgia QB in a year to do so. Jacob Eason transferred to Washington after the 2017 season. The demand for Fields would be huge. PSU would go after him, certainly, as would Mississippi State under former PSU offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. Florida State appeared close-ish to getting his commitment at one time, and so many others would throw their hats into the ring, too. For now, a bit more context: 1. Justin Fields was at Georgia practice this afternoon.2. No confirmation on Georgia's end yet.3. There have been Fields transferring rumors for a few days now.4. Dan Wolken and USA Today would not just throw that out there.More soon, hopefully.— Seth Emerson (@SethWEmerson) December 18, 2018 QBs transferring when they’re down on the depth chart is the way of the college football world now, so Fields doing it wouldn’t be surprising. It wouldn’t be surprising for the same reason Eason’s move wasn’t surprising: Georgia QB Jake Fromm, a four-star one class ahead of Fields, seized the starting job when Eason got hurt at the start of 2017 and has not given it up. Lots of us (me included) thought Fields was so talented that he’d overtake the solid but less elite recruit Fromm — not unlike how Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa (a five-star a year ahead of Fields) eventually surpassed Jalen Hurts. A player could transfer for any number of reasons, but Fromm’s continual occupation of the QB1 perch has obviously limited Fields’ involvement. The Dawgs barely used him as a passer in important games, instead bringing him on as an occasional running option against the best teams on their schedule. In an SEC Championship loss to Bama, they used him as the up man on a fake punt, and it didn’t work at all. Fields was 27-of-39 passing as a freshman for 328 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions. Not counting sacks, he 38 times for a 7.7-yard average. Given how often Georgia won blowouts, his lack of usage was perplexing: Imagine only letting one of the highest-rated recruits of the decade throw just 39 passes in a year in which you won games by 45, 28, 42, 14, 26, 28, 19, 17, 17, 39, and 24.— SB Nation Recruiting (@SBNRecruiting) December 18, 2018 Fields’ departure wouldn’t doomthe Dawgs but there’s a solid chance he develops into a star they wish they had. Fromm’s good, but he’s struggled to win games with his arm against great teams. Fields clearly has development left to do, but he’s a far better runner than Fromm and — if his time as a recruit was an indication — has tremendous passing upside. When he was a recruit, SB Nation’s Bud Elliott compared him to another baseball-playing QB, Russell Wilson. The potential for either QB to declare for the draft after three years in college complicates this picture somewhat, but Fields would’ve been in line to eventually follow Fromm as the starter. And it’s not that hard to imagine he’d surpass him sometime in 2019. If Fields goes, he’ll be back in a position he’s become familiar with. That’s the one where everyone wants him.
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Why did the Saints troll the Panthers with brooms?
The Saints and the Panthers will meet for the first time since Cam Jordan sent Cam Newton some wine. There is no love lost between the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints. On Monday night, the two NFC South foes will meet for the first time since the Saints beat the Panthers 31-26 in the Wild Card Round of last year’s playoffs. It’s also the first of two games they’ll play in the last three weeks of the season. The 11-2 Saints already have the NFC South locked up, but there’s still a lot at stake. They remain in the hunt for the top seed in the NFC, while the 6-7 Panthers are trying to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Panthers are also playing for their pride. The Saints went 3-0 against the Panthers in 2017, including that Wild Card win. New Orleans then had a little bit of fun at the Panthers’ expense after the third win. The Saints celebrated their 3-0 sweep with brooms New Orleans immediately celebrated advancing to the Divisional Round of the playoffs, and its third victory over Carolina, in the locker room. The Saints and head coach Sean Payton danced around and even brought out a broom to commemorate the sweep. Later, Saints defensive end Cam Jordan sent Panthers quarterback Cam Newton a bottle of wine and a broom to cap off the sweep. Cam Jordan is actually sending Cam Newton a bottle of Jordan wine (via IG) pic.twitter.com/MiWvVV8Dwi— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) January 8, 2018 Newton said the “gift” of the broom from Jordan was “disrespectful”. But he’s kept them both in his locker — unopened — as a reminder. “I am going to return to sender if everything gets taken care of,” Newton told reporters earlier in the week. Newton is more than motivated to face the Saints again. Via Josh Katzenstein of NOLA.com: “At the end of the day, the Saints of this past year and this year, like, we all know what the Saints used to be, right? So, let’s not forget their real history,” Newton said. “So, I mean, they got the juice, but at the end of the day, we’re coming Monday with a cup for our own, too.” The Panthers desperately need their juice to get them to a level where they can beat the Saints. They’re currently on a five-game losing streak, but can pump life back into their playoff chances with a win against the Saints.
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Here’s how Derek Fisher is preparing to lead the Sparks
The longtime Lakers guard is working against a short resume and a long history of former NBA players underachieving as coaches in the women’s league. Few on the outside saw change coming to the Los Angeles Sparks coaching staff. The team went from back-to-back WNBA Finals appearances to a second-round knockout in 2018, but a 19-15 season was far from disastrous. That’s why it was surprising when Brian Agler, who’d never fallen short of making the playoffs in his four-year stint in L.A., suddenly resigned from a team with two former MVPs in Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, and a third All-Star in Chelsea Gray. In a press conference after the news, Sparks GM Penny Toler said, “When somebody wants to resign, it’s not my job to talk them out of it.” She also said she didn’t know why Agler chose to leave. (On Monday, the AP’s Doug Feinberg reported that Agler secured a head coaching position with the Dallas Wings.) Toler then promptly announced the hiring of her one and only replacement candidate: Former Lakers point guard and Knicks coach Derek Fisher. Fisher has a lot to sort out. He has fewer than two years of experience coaching in the NBA, having been fired as head coach of the Knicks in 2016 with a 40-96 overall record, and has never coached in the WNBA. Compared to the league’s recent coaching hires, his resume is noticeably slim. The Atlanta Dream’s new head coach, Nicki Collen, who was hired before the 2018 season, had been a college or professional assistant coach for 10 years before she landed her role. New Chicago Sky hire James Wade was Cheryl Reeve’s assistant coach with the champion Minnesota Lynx for two seasons, and spent three seasons as an assistant coach overseas and another as an advanced scout. And as ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel points out, former NBA players-turned-head coaches haven’t faired well in the ‘W.’ Out of 16 former NBA players who’ve served as head coach in the league’s 22-year history, just four have lasted longer than three seasons. Reeve reinforced that notion on Twitter. SB Nation spoke with Fisher about how he landed his new role, what his plans are for the team, and what role he’ll play as former NBA Players Association president to current WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike. He also responded to criticisms about his new role at a financial lending services company criticized by Baron Davis and Jared Dudley. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. SB Nation: When did the Sparks’ position pop up for you? Had you been seeking a head coaching job, or how did it fall into place? Derek Fisher: It officially popped on the radar once I was made aware that Brian Agler was planning to resign. Over the years, [Sparks general manager] Penny Toler and I have maintained a really respectful and open relationship in terms of talking basketball, with me being a fan of the team. Every now and then in the Staples Center we’d have a conversation, or a couple times I’ve gone in the locker room to say hello to the team real quick. Many years ago I stopped by practice one day to talk to the team. There’s always been touch points. But it didn’t really officially become a, ‘Hey if you want to really do this, there’s going to be an opportunity to do it.’ That’s when things really picked up and went from conceptual to something that could be a reality. SB: Have you been around the WNBA before? What relationships had you had with Candace Parker or Nneka Ogwumike before you became head coach? DF: Candace Parker and I have known each other off and on for a long time. Her brother, Anthony, was in the NBA at different points. ...My mom and her mom have a good relationship, and her ex-husband Shelden Williams played in the league, so there were a lot of areas where we crossed paths. Everyone else on the team, Nneka etc., I’ve just had respect and been an admirable fan from the distance, in just appreciating who they are and how they go about their business. SB: Your past coaching experience is in the NBA with the Knicks, but how have you been studying the women’s game since then? DF: Since becoming more involved in these conversations prior to accepting the job, I spent a lot of time in conversation with different folks and watching every game that I could. Sparks games, Seattle Storm, who won the championship this past year. And then, also some of my own experiences and visuals from being at a lot of games over the years. “The quickest thing that I need to become more proficient in is an understanding of the individual personnel so that I can really help our staff as we build that out.” As I’ve watched it and studied it, and continued to get more familiar with different personnel on each team, I’m continuing now to try and learn the different coaches in terms of their style of play, what they like to do and things they’re looking to try and take advantage of. There’s a lot of similarities [with the NBA] in terms of the things you’re trying to identify as key areas to success. The quickest thing that I need to become more proficient in is an understanding of the individual personnel so that I can really help our staff as we build that out. We’re putting together scouting reports and preparing to play opponents, and have a really good feel for what this young lady likes to do, what she’s capable of. Is she a great shooter, or is she not? Not just relying on what it says on paper, but that I’ve officially seen enough of her to feel confident in what our gameplay can be. SB: You guys have a bunch of free agents. What kind of players are you hoping to surround Parker, Ogwumike, and restricted free agent Chelsea Gray (if she comes back) with? DF: Penny has a hard job trying to balance the numbers and the cap. Chelsea is a priority in trying to make sure she gets re-signed. We have Essence Carson as a restricted free agent. Alana Beard is out there. Odyssey Sims I think is a restricted free agent. The roster we had this past season is a great one. I’d love to be able to work with a lot of the players we currently have on our roster. It might not always stay that way, but I think surrounding those core three players, we need to continue to make sure we have the right floor spacing offensively. That is going to be huge. Candace is such a phenomenal player, her versatility, Nneka has versatility at her size, Chelsea Gray is a guard with size. Players that can shoot, stretch the floor, but also athletically in terms of speed, being able to challenge people defensively, those are areas of focus as well with our roster being around those three players. A number of the women that I’ve mentioned who’ve been on the roster this past year fit that skillset, but we might not be able to bring them all back. That’ll be Penny’s job. She’s shown the ability to put together a roster that has a chance to compete for a title just about every season. The Sparks haven’t won it every year, but in terms of playoff appearances and being a team everyone expects to at least have a chance. Penny’s done an amazing job to make sure that happens every year. So whatever ends up happening I know our roster will have a chance to compete. SB: Last year ended the Lynx/Sparks reign. The Storm took over the league and spaced out the floor and became a crazy three-point shooting team. Is there an aspect of the Sparks’ game you hope to improve that will put them back in title contention? DF: A couple of things jump out. I think you’re right about Seattle, Dan Hughes in his first year [there] did an amazing job. Being able to put his team in position to really play well together, they were connected more so in their style of play. Watching and studying them, I think last offseason, Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, and [Noelle] Quinn spent a lot of time together. A month or so before the season started, the three of them connected on how they wanted to lead their team. I thought everything flowed from there. The first step for us is to be connected. Once we get our roster set, it’s finding a way to connect in terms of what our vision is going to be, how we envision playing basketball together. Then specifically, technically, tactically, we have to figure out how to play with a little more pace so that we can take advantage of things earlier in the offense. But more importantly, when the spacing on the floor is better, everyone’s trying to play faster because defenses are not set. So that’s one area we have to improve in. “Everyone can rebound and push and go. I think that’s a feature we have to take more advantage of.” The past couple years, the Sparks have been basically second in the league in defensive rating, but rebounding has been low. I think we can be really dangerous if we can finish more defensive possession with rebounds. Imagine Candace Parker rebounding and pushing it herself, Nneka rebounding and pushing herself. You’re talking about five players, whether Chelsea rebounds, if Essence is back, Alana Beard, Odyssey Sims, whoever. Everyone can rebound and push and go. I think that’s a feature we have to take more advantage of. But it starts with being in the right position defensively, and I think offensively, playing with more pace, but also better spacing will be our focus. SB: You have previous experience as president of the NBA Players Association during a labor dispute. Now you’re coaching Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the WNBPA. Have you spoken to her about anything CBA-related, because that’s going to be such a big topic in this upcoming year. DF: I haven’t. I’m sure it will come up for us as we get the opportunity to spend more time together. With my experience, there are things I can help her with, in just allowing her to spitball and share her thoughts and ideas. When I can help her, I will, but I have to walk that fine line of being a team employee and that’s not my battle to fight anymore in representing the players union and players association. But I for sure am proud of the work she has done, I think she’s an amazing leader in terms of representing the PA in that regard. SB: What has your job been like so far? You have a while before free agency starts, and you’re jumping into everything brand new. What’s your day-to-day life been, and what are your plans until free agency? DF: It’s been a whirlwind of continuing watching and consuming as much video and games and really watching players, watching teams. Watching women’s college basketball. We have the No. 7 pick, the No. 19 pick, and the No. 31 pick. Watching the young ladies coming up who we’ll have an opportunity to draft and work with in the future. It’s been all about consuming the women’s game at a more intense level than I did before being a head coach, that’s been one of the top priorities. I’ve also been getting more familiar and establishing communication patterns with Penny and our assistant general manager Michael Fischer. Meeting with them and creating our priority list in terms of building out a staff. What kind of staff we need to get the most out of our players. Then, starting to identify those key dates coming up with free agency, and also we’ll get to the draft and the Final Four and maybe a scouting trip or two. And just preparing. I’m so excited about this opportunity to have more space to prepare for the things we have to be on top of compared to when I accepted the job with the Knicks. Within two weeks, I went to plan with coaching and everything that comes with that. Our first year was basically installation and implementation and then in our second year we started to make major progress. This year, I feel like stepping into the Sparks job, that experience, although not long in terms of coaching experience, will pay major dividends as far as how comfortable and confident I feel going into this season. SB: Your new role at Luxury Asset Capital caused backlash on Twitter. What is your workload for that, and do you have any response to what Baron Davis and Jared Dudley tweeted before? Derek Fisher sold us out in the CBA now he selling us out again. Athletes going broke .. let’s make money off of that. #Slapyourself #buster #sellout #BANsyndrome https://t.co/twVJDGBoN7— Baron Davis (@BaronDavis) December 13, 2018 Man!!!! Hell Naw!!!! Stay away from this!!!! https://t.co/PzvK7oED2n— Jared Dudley (@JaredDudley619) December 12, 2018 DF: Luxury Asset Capital is an alternative finance business that I was working and partnering with this group long before the Sparks conversation started. My workload is fairly minimal. My job is to help establish relationships and build a network of people that we can work together with in partnership to help players out. Whether that’s their agent, their attorney, their financial advisor etc., everything is above board. It’s a great business, these are great people, credible people. I got involved to help players and clients, not hurt them. There’s no practice of predatory lending. We focus on clients of high net worth, and that have substantial assets. We just want to be an option in terms of financing and or lending, that sometimes a traditional banking system doesn’t fit.
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Saints vs. Panthers 2018 live stream: Time, TV schedule, and how to watch online
The Saints have clinched a playoff spot, but there is still the division and playoff seeding to worry about down the stretch. The Panthers have yet to be eliminated from contention. The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers will meet in Monday Night Football matchup for Week 15, a game that carries serious playoff implications. For the Saints, it’s another opportunity to build toward a potential first-round bye, while the Panthers, at 6-7 on the season, desperately need to win to remain competitive in the wild card race. The game is set for 8:15 p.m. ET on ESPN (live streaming via WatchESPN). Carolina has lost five consecutive games, and even if they win out, they need some help to have a shot at making the playoffs. But there’s still a shot, and that’s what they’ll be playing for on Monday when they host the Saints. New Orleans could have secured a first-round bye in Week 15, but they needed a win over the Panthers as well as a Bears loss or tie to the Packers on Sunday. Instead, Chicago won that game so New Orleans’ hope of a bye (for this week, at least) were put on hold. Below is all you need to know to watch on Sunday. Time, TV, and streaming info Time: 8:15 p.m. ET Location: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C. TV: ESPN Streaming: WatchESPN Odds: The Saints opened as 6.5-point favorites for Monday’s matchup, according to OddsShark. Saints vs. Panthers news New Orleans is fairly healthy heading into Monday’s game, with only offensive tackle Terron Armstead ruled out on the final injury report. For Carolina, they’ll be missing Graham Gano, while Kawann Short is listed as questionable on the final injury report. The Saints are still on the right path when it comes to home-field advantage in the playoffs. One issue for New Orleans has been the fact that they’ve relied heavily on later-down conversions — the play-calling on first- and second-down hasn’t been up to par in recent weeks. That said, if the Saints get into plenty of third-down situations, they should be comforted by the fact that the Panthers are pretty awful at defending third-and-long plays. Over at Canal Street Chronicles, they have plenty of preview content: bold predictions, matchups between the Saints offense and Panthers defense, and a Q&A with the folks at Cat Scratch Reader. The Panthers cannot be eliminated from playoff contention on Monday, but a loss sure would make it seem like an inevitability. The folks at Cat Scratch Reader took a look at the Panthers’ defense and how it matches up against the Saints, and that is also the focus of another piece here. They also ran a Q&A with the folks at Canal Street Chronicles. Offensively, the Panthers will need to be able to run the ball on the Saints. Saints vs. Panthers prediction In the SB Nation Week 15 expert NFL picks, all seven picking think the Saints will win it. They’re joined by the OddsShark computer, while the coin flip landed on the Panthers.
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Celebrate the Bears’ first NFC North title in 8 years with the “Club Dub” T-shirt
A playoff game is coming to Soldier Field, so obviously you’ll wanna suit up with the proper apparel and new merch that’s dropping. Here’s something we haven’t said in awhile: the Chicago Bears are the NFC North champions. With a 24-17 win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, the Bears clinched their first division title and playoff birth since 2010, a feat that is in no small part due to the offseason addition of sack master Khalil Mack. Case in point: On Sunday, Mack brought down Aaron Rodgers with his... butt. Khalil Mack out here boxing out Aaron Rodgers for a sack. pic.twitter.com/3SXIhKpidt— Field Yates (@FieldYates) December 16, 2018 After Sunday’s win, Bears fans are in a position they haven’t sat in for many years. For the first time in eight years, their team actually has a shot to chase a Super Bowl title. With the NFL North title in hand, there’s a bunch of new merch for Bears fans to celebrate the moment and prep for a home playoff game in January. Yep, you heard that right. So if you’re already thinking about playoff football at Soldier Field, here’s the stuff you’ll want once playoff football hits Chicago. If you were all about the Bears’ Club Dub celebration You’ll wanna pick up this T-shirt for the playoff run. BreakingT Club Dub T-shirt for $25 But here’s a few more NFC North title T-shirts to check out, too Want the shirt Bears players were rocking in the locker room right after the game? Check them out here. It’ll be freezing, so you’ll want your Bears sweatshirt on you January in Chicago is definitely not warm, so make sure you have an extra layer protecti. And your Bears hat will be essential, too They don’t call it the Windy City for nothing! If it’s going to be hella cold, at least you can get some new headgear to stay warm while the Bears go on a playoff run. With the playoffs looming, we’ll keep you updated on all the new NFL merch and apparel that drops over the next few weeks. Looking for more product reviews, shopping guides, and good deals on sports merchandise and apparel? Check out our new Buy Stuff section.
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The Cowboys should fire OC Scott Linehan before it’s too late
Scott Linehan should’ve been fired a long time ago. Now he’s probably going to cost them a chance at the Super Bowl. The Dallas Cowboys were shut out Sunday for the first time since 2003. The 23-0 loss to the Indianapolis Colts took the wind out of the sails of a team that entered Week 15 on a five-game winning streak and comfortably ahead in the NFC East. It’s not panic time, though. The Cowboys are still ahead of Washington and Philadelphia, and finish the year with winnable games against the 5-9 Buccaneers and 5-9 Giants. Winning just one of those games would be enough to lock up the division crown. But some urgency to fix a clear problem is warranted — especially if the Cowboys hope to win in January. It’s time for the Cowboys to fire Scott Linehan. Or rather, it’s long overdue. Linehan has been the offensive coordinator in Dallas since 2015, and he’s been on the hot seat for a while now. He’s not popular among Cowboys fans, Dez Bryant openly criticized him, and the team has already considered firing him twice — once before the season and again during their Week 8 bye — according to Ian Rapoport. From @gmfb Weekend: The #Cowboys seriously weighed moving on from OC Scott Linehan during the bye week and have an affinity for #OU coach Lincoln Riley if they move on from Jason Garrett... who @MikeGarafolo says may take back play-calling. pic.twitter.com/8HRHaSKAHw— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) November 11, 2018 Even if Dallas is only a win away from clinching the NFC East and just a few weeks away from playing in the postseason, it’s not too late to do what’s best for the team. We just saw it happen with another NFC contender. Mike Zimmer gave a great reason for firing Joe DeFilippo as offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings following a 21-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 14. “[I] don’t want the season wasted,” Zimmer said, via Pro Football Talk. “Maybe it will [be], maybe it won’t. But these three games are very, very critical and we need to play good.” His bold decision was rewarded when the Vikings had their best offensive output of the year in a 41-17 blowout of the Dolphins. Dallas should take a page out of the Vikings’ book and fire Linehan while there’s still time to save the offense and the season. Dallas can’t adjust on offense when things go wrong The Cowboys has been winning games in 2018 by playing excellent defense and controlling time of possession. It’s a good formula for success, but the Cowboys are ill-equipped to deviate from that plan if they fall in an early hole. In no game was that more obvious than the loss to the Colts. The Cowboys started the Week 15 matchup with a balanced offense. They put together a couple lengthy drives early in the game that mixed the run and pass to success. The second drive of the game for Dallas almost ended with points, but Dak Prescott and Jamize Olawale couldn’t connect on what should’ve been an easy touchdown. That drive ended with Ezekiel Elliott being stuffed on fourth down. It wouldn’t be fair to blame Linehan for the Cowboys not scoring in the first half — which also saw a 48-yard field goal attempt from Brett Maher get blocked. The problem is that once the Cowboys are behind, things snowball in a hurry. Elliott ran the ball just five times in the second half after getting 13 carries in the first two quarters. Prescott finished with 39 passing attempts and the pass-heavy Cowboys attack didn’t do much of anything against the Colts. Linehan’s decision-making in the second half only exacerbated the problems. Facing a fourth-and-1 situation in Colts territory, Linehan opted against giving the ball to Elliott and instead called a pass play that was knocked down across the middle of the field. There are 16 times Elliott has been given the ball on fourth-and-1 in his Cowboys career, and the Colts’ first-half stuff is one of just three times it didn’t end with a first down. Even worse than that, Linehan dialed up a screen pass to Allen Hurns in the fourth quarter that went for 9 yards when the Cowboys were facing a fourth-and-14. It’s one thing to keep an offense on track when everything is going according to plan. But Linehan has shown that when the Cowboys aren’t able to follow the script, his inability to adjust has been a liability. The Cowboys offense has been mediocre all year Firing Linehan may seem drastic with the playoffs right around the corner, but what could it hurt, really? The Cowboys are No. 26 in the NFL in points scored and No. 21 in total offense. The arrival of Amari Cooper gave Dallas a significant boost, and his explosive plays sank the Eagles in Week 14, but the Cowboys are still have one of the most ineffective offenses. It’s not exactly surprising that the Cowboys’ early drive into the red zone against the Colts ended without points, considering Dallas has been one of the NFL’s worst inside the 20-yard line. The Cowboys don’t need their offense to magically turn into one that mirrors the high-flying Chiefs, Rams, or Saints. The defense can pick up enough of the slack to let the offense worry about winning the time of possession. But Dallas can’t afford its offense to be one that asks the defense to replicate its dominant performance in a 13-10 win against New Orleans. That leaves a tiny margin for error and gives the Cowboys no chance if the offense turns the ball over. Dallas needs more than 19.7 points per game out of its offense, and it doesn’t look like it’ll get there with Linehan. Jerry Jones hasn’t shied away from taking big swings this year When the Cowboys started the season 3-4, owner Jerry Jones wasn’t satisfied. Despite blowing out the Jaguars, 40-7, in Week 6, the team fired offensive line coach Paul Alexander at the end of October and traded away a first-round pick for Cooper. Those bold moves paid off and Dallas won five of its next six games. If the Cowboys already considered firing Linehan twice in 2018 and didn’t, they’re probably not going to do it now with the playoffs just a few weeks away. But they should. The 23-0 loss to the Colts wasn’t Linehan’s worst performance. But the last straw for the coach could’ve been any of the team’s lackluster offensive showings over the last two years. If they do get rid of Linehan, it’d probably be Jason Garrett who takes over playcalling — something he hasn’t done for Dallas since 2012. Maybe that wouldn’t make much of a difference, but Dallas needs to roll the dice. It has a chance to lean on its stellar defense and powerful ground attack to be a real contender in the playoffs. It looks like Linehan is destined to cost the Cowboys that opportunity.
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How did the Panthers turn into this mess?
The Panthers have lost five straight. Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz takes a look at what’s gone wrong for Cam Newton and Co. The Carolina Panthers have been in the NFL since 1995. They’ve been to two Super Bowls, losing both. They’ve additionally been to another NFC Championship game. They’ve won six division titles, one in the NFC West and five in the NFC South. They’ve been to the playoffs a total of eight times. The one thing they haven’t done in their franchise history is have back-to-back winning seasons. It’s one of my favorite, and most unbelievable, stats in the NFL. The Panthers were on track to break that streak this season when they started 6-2, but now they sit at 6-7 with five straight losses — and next up is a Monday Night Football game against the New Orleans Saints, their first of two matchups against the NFC South champs. Needlessly to say, things aren’t going well right now. Let’s explore their first eight games. Five of their wins came at home, while they went 1-2 on the road. Their best victory was a home win against the Ravens. They dominated that game from start to finish. But the Panthers needed a 63-yard field goal to beat the Giants. They were also down 17-0 in the fourth quarter to the Eagles and came back to win the game. The Panthers’ new-look offense under Norv Turner was making defenses look silly at times and Cam Newton was playing efficiently. I had stated this was the best Cam Newton had looked in his career. It was. Their offense was averaging 27.5 points per game and limiting turnovers. They only had seven in the first eight games. Their offensive line, missing both tackles, only allowed 12 sacks, just a tad more than one a game. On the flip side, their defense had forced 15 turnovers and 21 quarterback sacks. The Panthers were doing enough to win games and playing complementary football — mostly at home. Most of the Panthers’ woes during their five-game losing streak have happened on the road They’ve lost four out of their last five away from home, which turned their road record to 1-6. Nothing has seemed to go well during the losing streak and I can point to all the issues. First and foremost, they aren’t doing what helped them win in the first eight games. They have only forced three turnovers while giving the ball up nine times during this five-game span. They have allowed 13 sacks and only gotten to the quarterback nine times. Their red zone efficiency has been less than ideal. Their opponents are converting 70 percent of the time while their offense is sitting at just over 50 percent. That’s not going to win you many games. So what is forcing these issues? It starts with the Cam Newton’s shoulder His shoulder hasn’t been the same since the loss in Pittsburgh, the first in this five-game losing streak. Newton has had issues pushing the down the field, something he had previously excelled at during his career. We can see these issues clearly with his yards per completion. This season, Newton is sitting at 10.7, down almost two yards from his career average. His on-target percent for passes attempted at 10+ yards has dropped 5 percent over this time, but where we see the biggest difference is pass attempts over 15+ yards. In the first eight games, he was on target for 65 percent of those passes. The past five weeks, it’s only been 50 percent. That’s a big drop off. When you can’t push the ball down the field, you can’t convert on third downs often or hit big chunk plays. The Panthers are only converting on 38 percent of their third-down attempts during this losing streak. So why don’t the Panthers just run the football? Well, they are trying, but teams know they can load the box because Newton isn’t throwing the ball well. Also, being behind has limited their run-first offense. In their first eight games, they rushed more than 30 times in five of those games. In the five-game losing streak, they’ve only come close to 30 once, when they ran 27 times. The Panthers offensive line, which lost both tackles in the preseason and had filled those roles admirably since then, have come back to earth just a bit. And that “just a bit” has been felt by Newton. Their run game hasn’t suffered as much but when you’re passing more often, that will stress the OL. The Carolina defense hasn’t done its job We know football is a team game and the Panthers have a defensive-minded head coach in Ron Rivera. We’d assume their defense would lead the way, as it has many years in a row. Not this season. The defense hasn’t been up to par. The Panthers’ pass defense enters Week 15 just 29th in passing defense DVOA. A poor secondary can be overcome by a pass rush, but the Panthers’ has gone dead during the five-game skid. Overall, they are 22nd in adjusted sack rate. This has led to a big increase in completion percentage against the Panthers, going from 65 to 71 percent. In turn, the Panthers’ third-down conversion defense has been just awful. The first eight games they only allowed their opponents to convert on 36 percent of their attempts. In the last five, it’s 47.5 percent. Yikes. Lastly, their defense is 26th in points per drive. One positive: Their rushing defense has improved over the last five weeks, dropping their yards per attempt by almost half a yard. So what’s the solution for this mess? There’s no simple solution for the offense. Their offense already runs a variety of screens, reverses, and zone reads. I’m not a fan of having Cam Newton run the ball more often, but it might be time to let his legs do some work and not his shoulder. You have to put the game on the offensive line and run the football more often. Even if you’re behind, running the football has been successful this season. It also limits the amount of time the opposing offenses can have the ball. On defense, they need to bring pressure more often to get into the quarterback’s face. Bringing pressure is generally not what the Panthers have done often under Rivera, but it’s time to make a slight change to their approach. If they continue to just rush the passer with their front four, they aren’t getting home, especially against the Saints offensive line. Clearly they need to force turnovers and try to disguise coverages. Pressure also leads to mistakes by the quarterback. Monday night is a must-win for the Panthers. They’re still alive in the playoff race, even though they’re on the outside looking in. A win would put them just a half-game back of the final wild card spot in the NFC. They have played well at home this season and even in most of their losses, the games have been close. I think we see a renewed Panthers team and the game is closer than most expect against the Saints.
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The 10 greatest HBCU dynasties, now including North Carolina A&T
Let’s not try to figure out which teams would’ve beaten each other across eras. Instead, let’s try to compare accomplishments. The Celebration Bowl has been kicking off bowl season and crowning the semi-official HBCU national champion since 2015. It is indeed a celebration, a meeting of the MEAC and SWAC champions, and it’s helped spread awareness and applications around the historically black college universe. At least, it was before NC A&T started winning the damn thing every year. On Saturday, the Aggies took their third title, jumping out to an early lead on Alcorn State and holding on, 24-22. It was noteworthy not only because it was their third championship in four years, but also because it meant the winning ways continued following the retirement of legendary head coach Rod Broadway. Successor Sam Washington’s A&T beat East Carolina and FCS powerhouse Jacksonville State in September, then won once more in Atlanta in December. Part of the rationale for the creation of an HBCU national title game was that ... well ... this is college football. There are nearly twice as many claimed HBCU titles as there are actual seasons of play — 177 across various divisions in 99 seasons, to be exact. And the Celebration Bowl’s existence hasn’t dampened the claims. Division II and NAIA rankings still crown HBCU champs of their own. Still, even with liberal rules on who can claim a title, not many have claimed three in such a short span. And including A&T’s wins over FBS opponents — Kent State in 2016, Charlotte in 2017, ECU in 2018 — you could say the Aggies have put together one of the most impressive runs in the history of HBCU football. That history is a tough thing to judge. NFL teams didn’t really begin looking toward HBCUs to stock two-deeps until the 1960s (but those who did quickly found immense competitive advantages), and teams from black colleges didn’t really get chances to play non-HBCU teams until the 1970s, after de-segregation had begun and Southern schools had begun admitting black athletes. The further we go back in history, the harder it is to gauge the quality of these teams — the pro talent lets us know they were probably awesome, but the lack of head-to-head results against outside teams makes it tricky. Instead of trying to judge the quality of given teams, however, we can judge the relative quality of their dynasties. Below is a list of the top 10 HBCU dynasties since World War II. The early days gave us quite a few dynamite runs — Tuskegee won six titles in seven years in the 1920s, for instance, and Kentucky State won three straight in the 1930s — but to make an impossible task slightly less impossible, we’ll look only at what you might call college football’s semi-modern era. And yeah, some of these title claims will overlap a bit. Honorable mentions: the schools that came closest to the top 10. Florida A&M (1949-54). Four titles in six years and a 46-8-2 record overall. But you’ll hear plenty from the Rattlers on the list. Tennessee State (1953-56). Three titles in four years and a 35-3-1 record overall. Outscored opponents, 394-64, in 1956 and beat a dynamite FAMU, 41-39, in the Orange Blossom Classic. Had a strong claim to a spot in the top 10. Southern (1993-98). Four titles in six years, including two in a row, and a 55-16 record overall. In the dying days of Eddie Robinson’s Grambling era, Pete Richardson began dominating the Bayou Classic and the SWAC. Grambling (2000-05). Four titles in six years, including three in a row. A 57-15 record, including a win over a solid Portland State in 2001. Former Robinson quarterback Doug Williams got things rolling, and Melvin Spears kept it going. Hampton (2004-06). Three titles in a row and a 31-5 record. The Pirates went 0-3 in the FCS playoffs, but that included tight losses to No. 3 William & Mary in 2004 and New Hampshire in 2006. Tuskegee (2007-09). The Golden Tigers claimed three titles in a row and a 32-3 record at the Division II level, and that was after losing a run of pro talent (DBs Roosevelt Williams, Drayton Florence, and Frank Walker, among others). Bethune-Cookman (2010-13). The Wildcats peaked just before the Celebration Bowl era, claiming three HBCU titles in four years and going 37-11. They walloped FBS’ FIU by 21 points in 2013. Winston-Salem State (2011-13). Another D2 entry, the alma mater of former NFL stars Timmy Newsome, Yancey Thigpen, and many more. Claimed three titles in a row, won 37 of 41 games, and reached the D2 finals in 2012, losing to Valdosta State. Now to the top 10. Wins over current FBS teams are in bold. 10. South Carolina State (1976-82) Four claimed titles in seven years 64-14-2 record 2-2 I-AA (FCS) playoff record Beat Furman (17-0) in 1982 Notable pros: OL Edwin Bailey (11 years in NFL), DB Barney Bussey (10 years), DB Rufus Bess (9 years), DB William Judson (8 years), WR Charlie Brown (6 years), DL Emanuel Weaver (second-round pick) The 1970s were boom times. De-segregation was in effect, but legendary coaches like Robinson, Tennessee State’s John Merritt, and SC State’s Willie Jeffries continued to reel in talent. Despite Grambling peaking with Doug Williams and company, and despite Florida A&M winning the inaugural FCS title in 1978, SC State still managed to stand out, claiming the 1976 and 1977 black college titles. And after Jeffries left for Wichita State (he would return to Spartanburg in 1989), they won the 1981 and 1982 titles under Bill Davis. Maybe the most impressive thing? The Bulldogs got better after losing pros like linebacker Harry Carson (a future NFL Hall of Famer), defensive back Donnie Shell, and defensive lineman Barney Chavous. These two-deeps were loaded. 9. Florida A&M (1977-79) Two HBCU titles in three years, plus the first ever FCS title 30-5 record 2-0 FCS playoff record Beat UMass (35-28) in the 1978 FCS title game and Miami (16-13) in 1979 We’re making an exception here. Yes, the Rattlers won only two HBCU titles in this span, while all the other teams here won at least three. But we’ll count the inaugural FCS championship, sealed with wins over Jackson State and UMass, as well. I also just really wanted this team on the list so I could point out FAMU beat Howard Schnellenberger’s first Miami team in 1979. ”It’s a big relief,” said FAMU fullback Mike Solomon. “We heard up here during the week that the Miami players had made fun of us while watching our films. Some of them said we looked like high school players. I think today we proved that we’re the better team.” [...] Rattler coach Rudy Hubbard had the look of a man who wanted to say “I told you so.” ”I don’t think I want to say that,” Hubbard said as fans mobbed him during a 50-yard line press conference that was delayed nearly an hour by his strange absence from the stadium immediately after the completion of the game. ”I don’t think saying something like that is important,” he said, tongue-in-cheek. “That could damage morale at the other schools ... but ... you saw it for yourself.” 8. Tennessee State (1982-84) Getty Images Richard Dent, John Merritt’s last Hall of Fame recruit Three titles in a row 29-3-2 record 1-1 FCS playoff record Beat Chattanooga (27-21) and Eastern Illinois (20-19) in 1982 and Louisville (24-15) in 1984 Notable pros: DE Richard Dent (NFL Hall of Famer), RB Larry Kinnebrew (7 years in NFL), WR Mike Jones (6 years), OL Steve Moore (5 years) Among the highlights in Samuel J. Freedman’s Breaking the Line, the story of Florida A&M’s and Grambling’s legendary 1967 (which culminated in a 28-25 Grambling win over FAMU in the Orange Blossom Classic) is Robinson’s fight to get NFL attention for his quarterback, James “Shack” Harris. But maybe the most enjoyable parts are when Freedman gets going about how much Robinson disliked Tennessee State’s Big John Merritt. If Robinson was a teacher first, Merritt was a politician. In college football terms, that means he was one hell of a recruiter, even into the 1980s as attracting talent to HBCUs grew more difficult. The Tigers reached the FCS quarterfinals (losing to SC State) in 1981 and the semis in 1982, and Merritt retired after a 8-2-1 1983 (he would pass away just a couple of weeks later). TSU honored him by going 11-0 under William A. Thomas in 1984. 7. Morgan State (1943-49) Four titles in seven years 41-8-1 record Notable pros: DL Len Ford (NFL Hall of Famer after also playing at Michigan) Morgan State has only one conference title since the 1970s, but the Bears were once the brightest HBCU light. They dominated the 1940s, claiming the 1943, 1944, 1946, and 1949 titles under Edward P. Hurt. The best was probably the last team, which outscored opponents by a 226-32 margin, allowing more than seven points just once. The Bears also got to claim one of the first HBCU products to truly thrive in the pros: Ford, who graduated from MSU, enlisted in the Navy and played for Michigan after the war. The pride of Washington, DC, ended up on Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns, won three NFL titles, and was named to the NFL’s all-decade team. 6. North Carolina A&T (2015-18 and counting) Getty Images Tarik Cohen Three titles in four years 41-7 record 0-1 FCS playoff record beat Kent State (39-36) in 2016, Charlotte (35-31) in 2017, ECU (28-23), and Jacksonville State (20-17) in 2018 Notable pros: RB Tarik Cohen (fourth-round pick in 2017), OL Brandon Parker (third-round pick in 2018) A&T’s run of FBS wins has really brought to focus the Aggies’ upside. Broadway, who also got to claim shares of HBCU titles with NC Central (2005 and 2006) and Grambling (2007), is one of the sport’s most underrated coaches, and he left Washington with a bounty, particularly in the trenches — defensive lineman Darryl Johnson, Jr., and offensive lineman Micah Shaw were FCS All-Americans in 2018. If the Aggies win in 2019, after losing not only Shaw but also quarterback Lamar Raynard and running back Marquell Cartwright, then they might be Atlanta mainstays for years to come. 5. Tennessee State (1970-73) Getty Images Ed “Too Tall” Jones Three titles in four years 41-2 record Beat UL Lafayette (26-25) in 1970, McNeese State (26-23) in 1971, Drake (29-7) in 1972, and Middle Tennessee (23-0) in 1973 Notable pros: DE “Too Tall” Jones (15 years in NFL), OL Vern Holland (10 years), OL Robert Woods (8 years) Merritt had already claimed three titles in the 1960s — at Jackson State in 1962 and at TSU in 1965-66 — but probably peaked in the early-1970s. From 1969-73, his Tigers went 48-3-1, winning the small-school showcase Grantland Rice Bowl in 1970 (over what would become UL Lafayette) and 1971 (over McNeese). Robinson probably really hated Merritt in these years. From 1971-74, 19 Tennessee State players were selected in the NFL draft, including eight in the first two rounds. Primarily because of Merritt, TSU has produced 117 pros, more than current Power 5 programs like Iowa State and Vanderbilt. 4. Southern (1948-50) Three titles in a row 32-0-2 record Average score in this span: 32-4 (allowed 26 points in 11 games in 1950) While Robinson and Jake Gaither were still young, an old hand was ruling the roost from Baton Rouge. Ace Mumford had won the HBCU title at Texas College in 1935. He’d coached Southern to a HBCU basketball title in 1941, then got rolling on the gridiron in the late-1940s. In this run, Southern demolished opponents; they allowed a total of 26 points in 11 games in 1950. These days of HBCU football were particularly defined by line play and the “three yards and a cloud of dust” mantra, and Southern didn’t even allow clouds of dust. Southern’s stadium is named after him, but that almost goes without saying. If you want to know how respected Mumford was, look at the list of pall bearers at his funeral in 1962: Robinson, Gaither, Merritt, and pretty much every other HBCU coach of the era. 3. Central State (1983-92) FAMU Athletics Billy Joe in his Florida A&M years, with Jim Tressel Seven titles in 10 years (including five in a row from 1986-90) 103-17-2 record 3-4 Division II playoff record, 11-4 NAIA playoff record (including national titles in 1990 and 1992) Beat Liberty (66-16) and Texas State (24-16) in 1983, Towson (31-0) in 1986, Central Arkansas (30-23) and Gardner-Webb (19-16) in 1992 Notable pros: OL Erik Williams (11 years in NFL), DL Hugh Douglas (first-round pick, 10 years), DB Vince Buck (second-round pick, 6 years) If Broadway is one of the most underrated coaches of the 2000s and 2010s, Billy Joe takes that honor from the 1980s and 1990s. Before he nearly built Florida A&M into an FBS-caliber program at the turn of the century, he created a powerhouse out of almost nothing in Ohio. At Central State, the Villanova grad and former AFL fullback went 103-17-2 from 1983-92, making some noise in the D2 playoffs, then winning two NAIA national titles. Joe was an innovator on offense, airing out in a way that few could (he was the originator of the Gulf Coast Offense), but his teams were dominant in the trenches. It was a downright unfair combination. (Honestly, it’s unfair to think of All-Pros Williams and Douglas taking on NAIA opposition.) Despite lower-level stature, the Marauders earned their HBCU titles, including wins against Division I teams. They beat Morgan State and Tennessee State by a combined 98-27 in 1990, Alabama A&M and Howard by 80-29 in 1991, Alabama State and Morgan State by 85-42 in 1992, etc. 2. Grambling (1972-77) Getty Images Eddie Robinson Four titles in six years 60-13 record 1-1 Division II playoff record Beat Hawaii (46-7) and Nevada (37-3) in 1972, Long Beach State (29-16) and Delaware (17-8) in 1973, Hawaii (20-6) and Oregon State (19-12) in 1975, Hawaii (34-23) in 1976, and Temple (35-32) in 1977 Notable pros: QB Doug Williams (first-round pick, Super Bowl champion), DL Gary Johnson (11 years in NFL), WR Sammy White (10 years), WR Charlie Smith (8 years), WR Dwight Scales (8 years), DB James Hunter (first-round pick, 7 years), DE Mike St. Clair (7 years) Robinson coached at Grambling for more than 50 years and claimed titles in five different decades. This might have been his best run; it was definitely his most important. Because of segregation, HBCU programs had minimal scheduling opportunities before the 1970s, which meant that probably the most talented HBCU teams ever — those under Robinson, Gaither, Merritt, etc., in the 1960s and early-1970s — didn’t get to compare themselves to the rest of college football until their members reached the pros. Tennessee State fared pretty well in a series of Grantland Rice Bowls during that period, but Grambling was the most aggressive at taking shots against what would become FBS-level competition. The Tigers went a combined 5-0 against Hawaii and Oregon State in the 1970s and 1980s, split a couple of games with Temple, and nearly beat a peaking SMU in 1983. They also dominated at the HBCU level, claiming national titles in 1972, 1974, 1975, and 1977. 1980, too. And with alumni like receiver Charlie Joiner already in the Pro Bowl, Robinson produced constant future pros, with 13 Grambling products selected in the first three rounds between 1971-78. 1. Florida A&M (1957-62) Wikimedia Commons Jake Gaither Four titles in six years 54-4 record Named AP small college national champion in 1962, the rough equivalent of being named FCS champion Notable pros: RB Hewritt Dixon (8 years in AFL/NFL), WR Al Denson (8 years in AFL/NFL) Though Gaither’s and Robinson’s peaks came a mere decade apart, Gaither’s came in almost a completely different era. At the turn of the 1960s, Florida A&M was playing only games against fellow HBCU competition. But they get the No. 1 spot on this list because of sheer dominance. I mean, dominance. In 1957, the Rattlers beat Southern and NC A&T by a combined 74-12 on their way to a 9-0 record. In 1959, only Southern stayed within three touchdowns. They outscored 10 opponents by a combined 506-33 in 1961. They got more dominant with each title run. From 1957-62, FAMU beat rival Bethune-Cookman four times by a combined 367-18. That includes a 97-0 pasting in 1960. And after a rare loss, they always got their revenge. They lost to Southern and Prairie View A&M in 1958 and beat them by a combined 49-21 in 1959. They lost again to Southern in 1960 and won 46-0 in 1961. They lost the last game of 1962 to Jackson State and had to wait 16 years for revenge. They got it in the 1978 FCS semifinals. We understand now that the talent in the HBCU ranks was increasing in this period. And FAMU was still utterly untouchable. Gaither couldn’t top Robinson in longevity — he retired in 1969 after only 25 years in charge — but not even Robinson had a stretch of quite this level either.
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NCAA basketball rankings: No change in the top 3 as Kansas stays in control
Tennessee remains one of the hottest teams in the country and North Carolina is back in the top 10. There wasn’t much shake up in the rankings as schools are still working their way through the exam periods, but we were treated to a fun weekend that saw then-No. 12 North Carolina pick up a big win over then-No. 4 Gonzaga and a handful of top teams avoid upsets. Kansas stayed in the No. 1 spot after narrowly defeating Villanova, followed by Duke at No. 2 and the red-hot Tennessee Volunteers at No. 3. Michigan and Virginia each moved up one spot to No. 4 and No. 5, respectively, with Gonzaga’s loss dropping them to No. 8. Nevada and Auburn follow the Cavaliers, while North Carolina jumps back into the top-10 at No. 9, and Michigan State comes in at No. 10. Villanova fell out of the rankings for the second time this season thanks to back-to-back losses (Penn and the aforementioned Kansas). Syracuse, which lost to Old Dominion at home, also dropped out of the poll this week. Nebraska jumped into the rankings this week giving the Big Ten control of the poll again with seven teams ranked. The ACC comes in second with five teams, while Arizona State remains the lone Pac-12 representative. Of the nine remaining undefeated teams, only St. John’s remains unranked with Marquette being the only Big East team ranked this week. Check out the full poll here:
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I can’t stop looking at Sean McVay’s beard
Sean McVay’s beard is a nearly perfect system in need of just a little more balance. The Los Angeles Rams have lost two in a row after starting the season 11-1. The first loss was a low-scoring struggle with the Chicago Bears where the Rams’ offense seemed to be exposed by a filthy Bears defense. The second loss: A loss to the Eagles where the Rams’ defense allowed a struggling Philadelphia attack to finally get on track. These are troubling trends for the Rams. I don’t care about either of them. I would, however, like to talk about Rams head coach Sean McVay’s beard. Before we go to the film and pick it apart: It is definitely a beard with strong fundamentals. I can’t deny that. Give McVay three weeks without shaving and he’d look like an extra from Game of Thrones. You can see that beard being incinerated by dragon’s fire, but not before noting how solid a beard it was, right? It’s good from the roots, solid and full. Unfortunately for McVay, it’s also a beard that grows right up to his eyeballs. In football terms, it’s got range — almost too much range, really. Like a safety who can cover a little too much ground, that beard can be trouble if given too much room to roam. It could easily be the Ed Reed of beards — ironic because Ed Reed’s current beard, much like Ed Reed the player, is a study in controlled chaos. (Look at that chin growth. It’d get out of hand fast.) Anyone coaching this beard is going to have to rein it in a little for the benefit of the whole system. And McVay, being a coach, definitely has a system going here. Note the hair, plastered in place with enough pomade to keep a headset from falling off his head. A mighty fortress is Sean’s hair: His product, never failing. That beard line, though: It’s mesmerizing. It is a video game character’s beard, laid over his face like it was cut from a stencil. That is a magical golden ratio type shape he’s got going on there. That beard isn’t shaved. It’s enforced. no doubt pic.twitter.com/T568F7pxVD— nick (@nick_pants) December 17, 2018 Scouting-wise, it could probably use some length to distract from the overmanagement. A beard is not a topiary, Sean. It needs some length to look more natural and less like a decal. Not too much, Sean: Like any game plan, balance is important. If growth is the run game and shaving the pass, then right now this beard is running the Air Raid, and the safeties are playing twenty yards off the ball in Cover 2. Some free advice from someone who has had every possible variation of beard, Sean: Run the ball a little. Establish some balance, and let that ginger face take some small gains by letting it grow out for a week. Then, go over the top for a truly magnificent score with the next trim. Bonus points: taking three or four minutes less grooming? More time to watch film, coach. It’s not negligence to let it grow out a little. It’s “enhancing beard recovery in the name of overall system efficiency.” See? Everything can benefit from a little coaching, especially if you don’t want to end up with A.J. Styles’ beard.
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Bill Belichick really likes Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster
“I mean, these two receivers are elite – elite elite.“ Things Bill Belichick likes: great punting Larry Fitzgerald questions about the deeper themes of his playcalling Lawrence Taylor and now, after Sunday’s 17-10 loss to the Steelers, you can add Pittsburgh wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster to the list. Crazy to have Coach Belichick, a legendary coach I’ve watched my whole life, come up to me after the game and tell me he respects my game and how I play!!! — JuJu Smith-Schuster (@TeamJuJu) December 17, 2018 The notoriously brusque head coach sought out the second-year player after Week 15 to praise the player who looks like the next link in the Steelers’ chain of standout receivers. That’s high praise for an arch rival, especially coming from a man Tom Brady suggests can only be brought to a smile by four different things — one of which, somehow, is Jon Bon Jovi. Smith-Schuster only had four catches for 40 yards in a defensive battle against the Patriots, serving as the target of rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson’s finest game as a pro. Despite Sunday’s disappointing performance, his ability to draw defenders from Antonio Brown’s All-Pro shoulders and give Ben Roethlisberger another dynamic target has been a major part of Pittsburgh’s success in an up-and-down season. He’s already set career highs with 95 receptions and 1,274 receiving yards this fall, though his club is only 2-3 in games where he finds the end zone. Sunday wasn’t the first time Smith-Schuster earned Belichick’s public respect Belichick’s praise wasn’t limited to Smith-Schuster when it came to the Steelers’ aerial attack. He was effusive when describing the Pittsburgh receiving corps during his mid-week press conference in the leadup to Week 15. “Yeah, you’re not going to get anybody better than these two guys, plus the quarterback,” said Belichick. “They’ve got a lot of other guys, too, but I mean, these two receivers are elite – elite elite.“ It’s easy to understand why he’d feel that way. Last season, Smith-Schuster torched the Pats for six catches and 114 yards, including a 69-yard catch that set up the goal line stand that nearly ended in an unlikely Pittsburgh comeback victory at Heinz Field. Smith-Schuster took a smaller role Sunday, but his team left the field with a victory over New England for the first time since 2011. And the second-year receiver walked off knowing he earned the respect of one of the greatest coaches in NFL history. Not a bad Sunday for JuJu Smith-Schuster.
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How Zia Cooke became the most famous high school girls basketball player alive
Chance the Rapper and Dwyane Wade helped make Cooke a viral sensation. Zia Cooke was already one of the most accomplished high school players in women’s basketball well before she became an overnight sensation. Cooke, a 5’9 guard out of Toledo, is ranked as the No. 7 prospect and No. 2 guard in the country. She won a gold medal with USA Basketball this summer. She committed to Dawn Staley’s powerhouse South Carolina program a month ago. Cooke led Rogers High School to a state championship as a junior. Now in the middle of her senior season, Cooke put up 43 points in a game on Friday against previously undefeated East Kentwood out of Michigan. You need to watch these highlights right now. Scoring 43 points is impressive, but that’s not the reason everyone was talking about Cooke this weekend. It’s about how she did it: nasty crossovers, step-back jumpers, no-look passes, and .... an in-game jelly??? South Carolina commit Zia Cooke is different different #SCtop10 (via @EricGetsBuckets) pic.twitter.com/iDOZkP9afJ— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 17, 2018 Best of all, Cooke just looked like she was having so much fun doing it. From dancing on the bench to the exuberance she showed after her best moves, this entire performance was one big flex. People took notice. A lot of them. Some of them very famous. Chance the Rapper tweeted about Cooke. YEESH https://t.co/yyoJNrZ56Y— Chance The Rapper (@chancetherapper) December 16, 2018 A Twitter video by user Ment Nelson is the one that has gone viral, now with 3.7 million views and 32K retweets. Chance the Rapper is to thank for that. Chance, with his nearly eight million followers, tweeted about the video on Saturday morning, and that’s when it started to blow up. Dwyane Wade, C.J. McCollum, Jason Terry and others followed Perhaps inspired by the social media love from his fellow Chicagoan Chance, Miami Heat star and future Hall of Fame inductee Dwyane Wade also tweeted about Cooke. Oh she’s cold https://t.co/8huOptKVlK— DWade (@DwyaneWade) December 16, 2018 Portland Trail Blazers star C.J. McCollumn, who also hails from Ohio, gave Cooke some love as well: She nice nice https://t.co/RO92crwOBD— CJ McCollum (@CJMcCollum) December 16, 2018 Retired NBA player Jason Terry, who runs a girls basketball program on Nike’s EYBL grassroots circuit, added to the chorus: Swaaaaaaag https://t.co/IAZZMk01nn— Jason Terry (@jasonterry31) December 16, 2018 Add in a bunch of other prominent social media users talking about Cooke, and now you have the makings of a viral sensation. She couldn’t miss out on it herself. She created a Twitter account because she was getting so much attention Finally made a Twitter I need some followers ‍♀️..— Zia Cooke (@zia_cooke) December 16, 2018 CHANCE THE RAPPER https://t.co/3Bv2bB6TQ3— Zia Cooke (@zia_cooke) December 16, 2018 All the fame is great but I’ll never change who i am, I’m going to remain the same and keep being humble. I appreciate the love tho fr — Zia Cooke (@zia_cooke) December 17, 2018 Oh yeah, Cooke also won MVP of the tournament File this one under “no duh.” Zia Cooke dropped 43 tonight & was named tournament MVP at the Best of Michigan. Rogers beat previously unbeaten East Kentwood 80-73. pic.twitter.com/fBTY9JfaCQ— Jordan Strack (@JordanStrack) December 16, 2018 Who is Zia Cooke? This interview with USA Basketball provides some great background. She has one older brother, who played football at the junior college level. Her favorite class is math and she’s on her school’s honor roll. Her favorite player is Russell Westbrook. She has an Instagram account you can follow, too. She asked for more followers, and she got them The future of South Carolina women’s basketball looks bright In addition to Cooke, Staley’s class at South Carolina also includes Brea Beal, who ranks No. 13 in the class, and Laeticia Amihere, who ranks No. 10 in her class. Cooke is already a budding star. We can’t wait to follow her career from here.
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Predicting where 8 top uncommitted 2019 football recruits will sign
Where will the big Early Signing Period decisions land? We’ve reached the point where the majority of the country’s top 2019 prospects are already verbally committed to some school or another. Most of those commitments will stick, though not all will. This post is a rundown of the ninehighest-rated prospects who don’t have a current verbal commitment to any school. Predictions by SB Nation recruiting analyst Bud Elliott. For purposes of this piece, I’ll only be predicting those expected to sign during the Early Signing Period until that is over, before adding those who will sign on the traditional date in February. Trey Sanders, five-star RB, IMG Academy (Fla.) Sanders is a 6’0, 215-pound running back with impressive burst. But he can also run over defenders. Sanders would fit in just about any offense. The primary two schools in this race are Alabama and Florida. Florida took Sanders’ brother, Ulmstead, as a walk-on linebacker out of junior college in 2018. Prediction: While Florida has made a connection, I think this has been Alabama’s battle to lose for some time now. Nakobe Dean, five-star LB, Horn Lake (Miss.) In a spread era in which it is tough to find great linebacker, Dean really stands out. He can run sideline-to-sideline, but he is also a major hitter. Every major SEC school has offered, and this will be a battle between Alabama, Georgia, and Texas A&M. Prediction: Many think that Georgia is in the driver’s seat here, but I think the Tide will pull it out. I am not stepping in front of the Alabama train with how the Tide are recruiting. Zach Harrison, five-star DE, Lewis Center (OH) Harrison is an absolute freak of a defensive end, with perhaps the highest upside of any player in the class. He is 6’5, 240 with plenty of room to grow, and hit athleticism is off the charts. Prediction: Ordinarily, a player from Ohio this close to Columbus would be considered a lock for the Buckeyes. But Michigan has made this very interesting, and OSU just went through a coaching change. Still, I’ll go with Ohio State in a pick that I wouldn’t bet on. Bru McCoy, five-star ATH, Santa Ana (Calif.) McCoy is one of the most special athletes in the nation. With the ball in his hands, he is a threat to score no matter the down or distance. He’s a strong competitor who wins contested balls. And he could also be a stud on defense. Prediction: This is shaping up as a USC v. Texas battle. I think that USC’s hire of Kliff Kingsbury could help USC, along with the obvious distance factor in its favor. Evan Neal, five-star OL, IMG Academy (Fla.) Evan Neal is an elite 6’7, 350-pound offensive tackle who destroys opponents in front of him. And he shows greater lateral quickness in pass protection than you’d expect out of such a large player. Alabama and Miami are the top two true contenders. Prediction: While Neal has extensive ties to Miami, he was once an Alabama commit, and I predict he will be again. Neal has never seemed to care about early playing time, and if that’s truly not important to him, then Alabama seemingly has the advantage in almost every other area over its competitors. Marcus Stripling, four-star DL, Houston Mayde Creek Marcus Stripling has an excellent size, athleticism, and frame combination. His recruitment is a throwback Big 12 battle between Oklahoma and former conference member Texas A&M. Prediction: I think Oklahoma has this one thanks to his relationship with the staff and opportunity to potentially play early. Noah Cain, four-star RB, IMG Academy (Fla.) Cain is a running back with excellent balance and vision. He’s a smart, winning football player. Cain has ties to LSU and Texas, and also considered Penn State during the process, among others. Prediction: I’ve thought Cain was going to Texas since the summer of 2017, and expect he’ll be a Longhorn. Will Putnam, four-star OL, Tampa (Fla.) Plant Putnam is an excellent interior line prospect and a champion wrestler. He plays with great balance, leverage, and toughness. And he’s from a powerhouse program. Auburn, Clemson, and Florida State are the three schools in the running. Prediction: I truly do not know where to pick. Putnam isn’t from Florida, so he didn’t grow up with a loyalty to the in-state schools. I have solid contacts at all three finalists, and can say with confidence that all three are hopeful, but none believe they have him locked up. Previously Kayvon Thibodeaux, five-star DE, Thousand Oaks (Calif.) Christian Kayvon Thibodeaux is one of the best defensive end prospects in the nation. He is 6’4, 240, and has elite burst off of the edge. He has strongly considered Alabama, Florida State, and Oregon throughout the process, and has also visited Florida and USC. Prediction: Oregon seemed to have all the momentum following its upset win over Washington with Thibodeaux visiting. But there has been some recent slight optimism out of the Alabama and Florida State camps. With low confidence, I’ll say he sticks on the West Coast and signs with the Ducks. (Correct) Trevor Keegan, four-star OL, Crystal Lake (Ill.) South Keegan is a 6’6, 310-pound mauler of an offensive tackle. Michigan people have been confident in him signing with the Wolverines for more than a year now. He also took official visits to Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia, and Penn State. Prediction: I’m not expecting any drama here, and think Michigan is the obvious pick. (Correct) Jayden Daniels, four-star QB, San Bernadino (Calif.) Cajon Daniels is a talented passer from Southern California. He has a strong arm, a whip-like release, and is plenty athletic as well. Most of the Pac-12 powers have offered. Prediction: I’ve been unsure of where Daniels would go for a while. With USC not taking a QB this cycle, and UCLA taking Chase Griffin out of Texas, it’s clear Daniels will leave the state. Arizona State seems to have the momentum here, so I’ll take the Sun Devils. (Correct)
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The Champions League knockout stage will be brilliant fun for everyone!
The Champions League draws are in! Everyone is happy about it and no one will be disappointed.* (*Manchester United excepted). Hello, and welcome back to Tactically Naive, SB Nation’s weekly column about soccer, fun, and fun soccer. Everybody likes all of those things, right? Right. These are the best teams Right then. It’s not 2019 quite yet, but the draw for the last 16 of the Champions League has happened — all the details here — and Tactically Naive is, to speak frankly, extremely hyped. Group stages? Well, they’re fine. Except they’re not: They’re for cowards and they’re for television companies. Knockout football is the truth, the way, and the light. For success to mean anything, failure has to mean failure, right there in the moment. The salt of the tears brings out the sweetness of the Gazprom. Doubtless you’ll have your own preferred tie. For TN’s part, we’re most excited about Tottenham’s double-header against Borussia Dortmund, and not just because white-and-blue against yellow-and-black brings back pleasant memories of Futuron vs. Blacktron. No, this is a chance to delve yet further into the mystery of Moussa Sissoko. If you watched Spurs against Barcelona, you’ll have seen yet another installment of this most fascinating of mysteries. How does a single footballer contain such range? Such brilliance and incompetence, one after the other? Sometimes even at the same time! Here, shanking a simple pass yards beyond its intended target; there, sticking out a casual leg to dispossess Lionel Messi. Here, drifting past two challenges; there, taking a foul throw. And he can baffle from anywhere on the pitch, too — he ended up at emergency right-back in the Camp Nou, and he was still getting involved. Our current working theory is this: Moussa Sissoko is everybody’s dad. All at once. And he’s playing football with all of his children, which means that a lot of the time, he has to let them past him. Oh! You dribbled past me! Oh no! I lost the ball! Still, he’s a quite competitive dad, so every now and then he gets frustrated and decides to just let rip. Off he goes, up the field, sliding past three challenges, bouncing a couple of feeble youngsters onto the ground. Have that. And that. And ... no, no, this isn’t really fair. It’s almost bullying. Oh no! I’ve fallen over! More investigation is needed, of course, but if we’re right, then there’s a great comfort at the heart of this all. Clearly, Papa Sissoko loves all his children equally. Because when he plays, everybody gets to have fun. Manchester United, however, are not the best team But you know that already. Everybody knows that. And yet, over the course of their eventual defeat to Liverpool, we were treated to a lesson in the terrible power of the human mind, and also the stickiness of the idea of “Manchester United,” as opposed to the reality. Here, roughly, is how the game went down. For the first half hour or so, Liverpool, buoyed by their happy-Kloppy manager and their bouncing fans, kicked United into a tiny cringing ball. They scored one; they could have scored half a dozen. It was one-sided, and then it was embarrassing, and then it went beyond that into a kind of limbo space where nothing really seemed to matter any more. How can one shame that which does not exist? Then United scored. They didn’t mean to, but the football gods weren’t really enjoying all that Alisson Becker: Bestest Best Ever chat. He palmed a straightforward cross into his own treacherous knee, which sent it bouncing out to Jesse Lingard, who returned it into the net. And then things went a bit odd. Liverpool remained the better team, of course, because they are the better team. But a kind of nagging idea started to take hold across the pitch, and through the suddenly-quiet stands, and out into the nation. This is Manchester United. On the pitch, that used to mean great performances. But it also used to mean fortunate late goals and kind refereeing decisions. The rub of all the greens going. Or at least, for most of the rest of the league, it felt that way. That’s what the imagination works with: not just how things are now, but how things felt then. Then it boils all of that up with a good dose of pessimism and — ta da! — suddenly the introduction of Marouane Fellaini ahead of Paul Pogba makes perfect and terrifying sense. Is the Belgian as good a player? No. Is he much more likely to end up accidentally backheeling the winning goal into Liverpool’s net via his own face? Oh yes. You can see this strangeness at work throughout much of Jose Mourinho’s time at United, particularly in the bigger games. Deserved hiding after deserved hiding dodged because, well, Manchester United. It’s probably not a coincidence that United’s best result of the season so far, that smash and grab at Juventus, came thanks in part to Wojciech Szczęsny, lately of Arsenal, who spent far too much time in the Premier League to have escaped. Yet this time it wasn’t to be, and United got what they deserved. Liverpool overcame their neuroses thanks to patience, hard work, and patent superiority. But also thanks to Xherdan Shaqiri, the right man for the right situation. He may not be the greatest player in the world, but he’s exactly the kind of man to walk up to an emperor and congratulate him on the bold decision to leave his trousers at home. This is the best (young) player Finally, a word for Ajax’s Matthijs “Afternoon” De Ligt, who became the first defender to win the Golden Boy award for Europe’s best player under 21. There’s a reason defenders don’t often win awards like this, and that reason is: defenders are hollow, joyless monsters and agents of destruction, whose only mission on this earth is to consume the pleasure of others. However, in De Ligt’s case we’re willing to overlook the evil written into his bones because he plays for Ajax. And it’s been ages since Ajax were properly good. More of this, please, in the four months we have before Barcelona spend a squillion euros to ruin everything again. Non-league football of the week ... is this goalmouth scramble, courtesy of Dulwich Hamlet, defending in their lovely pink number. If ever anyone deserved a Monday off, it's @DulwichHamletFC's number 2!Give that man a rise! pic.twitter.com/BTTDtPk2Ym #MondayMotivation— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) December 17, 2018 The majesty of this passage of play will hopefully distract everybody from the fact that Dulwich — the greatest team in the world — didn’t actually play very well for the other 89 minutes and 30 seconds of the game, and eventually lost 2-0.
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The hunt for a job in baseball at the winter meetings
If you want to hunt for a low-paying job in baseball, the competition will be fierce. The overwhelming share of the attention at baseball’s winter meetings goes to the major league side, and rightfully so. Trade rumors galore, and all the wheeling and dealing with every organization in one place at one time lends itself to action, and interest. “The fact that all 30 teams are focused at the exact same time really helps,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said last week in Las Vegas. But while there is tremendous focus on the fates of billion-dollar organizations and millionaire players, another side of the winter meetings sees aspiring thousandaires trying to climb the baseball ladder. “I didn’t know anything about other than on the major league side that’s where a lot of deals and signings took place,” said Alex Freedman, play-by-play announcer for the Triple-A Oklahoma City Dodgers. “I didn’t know there was this job fair or anything like that.” Freedman first experienced the PBEO Job Fair in 2005, as a senior at Northwestern. He estimated there were 200 or so job applicants at those winter meetings in Dallas. That number has essentially tripled in a little over a decade, with PBEO pegging the number at around 600 in 2018. These applicants are looking for a way into baseball, and the vast majority of jobs are entry level. Much like the players, these job-seekers get a chance at the minor leagues first, with a chance to work their way up to the major leagues. There is a barrier of entry to this job fair, with folks paying $175 just to attend (or $225, including membership to the PBEO). But even though all 30 organizations are represented at most levels at the winter meetings, it doesn’t necessarily mean one might get to interview for a job on site. “It’s a very old, archaic type of job fair. I was under the impression that there would be booths set up, and you would meet and greet, shake hands, things like that,” said Max Gun, now the play-by-play announcer for the Class-A Lynchburg Hillcats. “But it is literally just a huge room full of bulletin boards. They have everything from account executives to mascot to groundskeeper, and for us radio guys. “In the top right corner of these postings, there is a three-digit number. If you’re interested in that job you take your resume or envelope, whatever you’ve brought with you, and write that three-digit number, submit it into a big box, then hope and pray somebody lays their eyes on it. I was unaware of that, but then I quickly realize you have to spend as little time as possible in that job room. You want to be out in the lobby networking, shaking hands.” So you want to work in Minor League Baseball? #wintermeetings @PBEOJobFair is in full swing. pic.twitter.com/PpSdGMwNya— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) December 10, 2018 “It was exciting for me, and intense. Sometimes there are new jobs that get posted as the day goes on,” said Chris Vosters, a former minor league announcer who now calls games for NBC Sports and Big Ten Network. “Whenever a new posting goes up a queue will build up and develop, as people are craning their necks to see what it is, trying to determine how desirable it might be.” It’s a delicate balance, trying to keep up to date with new postings in the job room while also keeping tabs on either the hallway of the convention center or the lobby at the hotel, which in some cases is a 10-minute walk away, trying to get face time with folks wearing a polo with a team logo who may or may not have some sway in the hiring process. It is rare to get actually offered a job at the winter meetings, but applicants can cast a wide net with as many submissions as possible. Some teams conduct interviews at the winter meetings — “If they’re at the winter meetings, I want to talk to them in person,” said Kevin Collins, director of public relations of the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes — while others prefer to gather all the applications and set up interviews at a later time. Much like the Major League Baseball offseason, the winter meetings for job seekers isn’t a deadline in itself. There is plenty of time to get things done after Las Vegas when it comes to preparing for the 2019 season. “In terms of minor league jobs, the winter meetings and where that falls in the offseason is really the midway point,” Vosters said. “A lot of things open up after the winter meetings, it’s not like you have to put all of your eggs in one basket.” One thing is clear, especially as the job fair grows in popularity. It’s getting harder and harder to stand out among the hundreds of job seekers. “A lot of them you can discard right away, but there are some where this person seems interesting, I want to talk to them,” Collins said. “They may not be a perfect fit, but their cover letter was good or just something stood out. If they were this creative or unique, I definitely want to at least talk to them.” Las Vegas marked the ninth winter meetings for Ben Gellman-Chomsky, who announced games for Class-A Salem in 2017 and 2018. His first meetings were in 2009 in Indianapolis, and he quickly realized he needed to find a niche. “The running gag about the winter meetings in terms of job seekers is that it’s 80% white males between the ages of 22 and 26 in blue or gray suits with white shirts and blue ties,” said Gellman-Chomsky. “You have to do something to stand out a little bit.” Photo: Ben Gellman-Chomsky Ben Gellman-Chomsky’s business card is fashioned in the style of the 1960 Topps baseball card set. He found his muse in the guise of old baseball cards, fashioning his business cards in the style of old Topps sets. He first drew on the 1989 Topps set for his business card in 2012, then used 1986 Topps in 2014. After using just the front of the design in those first two attempts, Gellman-Chomsky took it a step further in 2016, making a complete business card, front and back, using the 1957 Topps design. “That got a very positive reaction from everyone I showed it to. I had a couple people at those winter meetings tell me that was part of what landed me the interview, having this creative business card. It’s something that I take a lot of pride in when I put it together.” This year, Gellman-Chomskey channeled 1960 Topps, trying to stand out again. When it comes down to it, that’s really the key of the winter meetings for folks looking for a job. It’s getting to know as many people as you can, and making yourself memorable to them. That’s how to get a foot in the door, and how to stay inside that door once you find your way in. “You just never know who you’re going to meet there,” Freedman said. “Will it necessarily help me right then and there? No, but you just never know when a connection is going to help you.”
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The Rams are broken. Can they be fixed?
Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz explains what the Rams need to fix, why the Cowboys offense is fake news, and tries to guess who wins the AFC. The Rams are broken. There’s no other way to describe them after losing at home to the Eagles, who might need me to come play corner for them. The Rams started the season on fire, just like last season, but since their big win against the Chiefs on Monday Night Football the team has been totally different. The Rams came off their bye and went to Detroit and won 30-16, but it was much closer than the final score. The following week they went back on the road to another NFC North opponent, the Chicago Bears, and got whooped. The offense especially was concerning, only mustering 6 points. Sunday night might have been worse. The Eagles dominated the Rams, handing Sean McVay’s Rams their first back-to-back regular season losses under his watch. This game was ugly from start to finish as the Eagles won 30-23 with Nick Foles at quarterback. The Rams offense looks nothing like itself lately and there are many reasons for it First and foremost, the turnovers must be addressed. The Rams have committed 11 turnovers in their last four games: Two apiece against the Chiefs and Lions, three against the Eagles, and four against the Bears. Yikes. Adding to their turnover woes is the general lack of efficient play by Jared Goff and the offense in general. McVay didn’t forget how to coach, but it seems as though defenses have figured them out. The Rams stay in one personnel grouping the entire game. That’s 11 personnel: one back, three wide receivers and one tight end. The Rams line up with Goff under center and use fly/jet motion/sweeps to pull apart the defense and run zone behind those movements. They rely on play action pass to generate most of their run game. Without Cooper Kupp, they’ve lost their No. 1 threat but that doesn’t mean the offense should just shut down. Defenses have started to punch the Rams’ usually excellent offensive line in the mouth and have wrecked havoc up the middle in the run and pass game. They’ve started to hammer the tight ends and to force runs to hit in different areas. It seems like teams aren’t allowing the Rams WRs to run in the middle of the field as freely. Jared Goff, for all these reasons, isn’t crisp. His balls don’t seem to have the same zip and they aren’t being thrown with the same anticipation as we’ve come to expect. The Rams have won the NFC West. There’s no need to panic. They will have a home playoff game and most likely a bye as well. But they need to spend these next couple of weeks figuring out what how to fix this offense. It seems easy enough but they need to be more diverse on with their formations and give new looks for the defense. The Cowboys offense has been exposed The Cowboys got thumped by the Colts in Indy 23-0. Finally, the masses can jump off the Cowboys bandwagon and see the Cowboys, and mostly their offense, for what they are: fake. I’ve been saying for weeks now this offense isn’t as good as people want them to be. The old “Amari Cooper catches a simple pass and runs to the house” offense isn’t a sustainable offense. Dak Prescott, or the play calling, or a combination of both, doesn’t consistently move the ball down the field without home run plays. Prescott also continues to hold the ball too long and fumble too much. He’s got to be better at both. Add in three starting offensive linemen out with injury, and you get a bad offense at times. Even though the Cowboys will most likely win the NFC East, I’m not sold on their offense, or their prospects in the Wild Card Round — even with their outstanding defense. The Bears are for real, but the Super Bowl might not be in cards Club Dub was lit, as the young kids say, in the locker room at Soldier Field after the Bears beat the Packers to win the NFC North for the first time since 2010. I’ve been skeptical of the Bears as legitimate playoff contenders because of their quarterback, but there’s no denying their defense is good enough to make things interesting. If the standings hold up as is, going to Chicago for the Wild Card Round will be difficult for anyone. The teams that could be on deck — the Vikings, Eagles and Panthers (??) — would struggle against this defense. The Bears would then travel to Los Angeles to play a Rams team they’ve already beaten. The Rams, if they fix their offense, could be a different team than the one the Bears beat, but the Bears might be the favorite. The Bears heading into New Orleans for the NFC Championship would be a beast I don’t think they could overcome, though. The Saints are my favorite to win the NFC still. Who wins the AFC? Who knows after the Patriots lost 17-10 to the Steelers. The current standings, from top to bottom, are Chiefs, Texans, Patriots, Steelers, Chargers, and Ravens. The Colts are lurking as well. Do any of these teams strike you as a favorite? They all have flaws. I think the Chargers are the most complete team but they are the Chargers. Can they be trusted?
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7 lessons from the first Early Signing Period, in time for the second
With one ESP down, we have a better idea of how the new recruiting Super Bowl will work going forward. This is only the college football Early Signing Period’s second year (it starts at 7 a.m. local on Dec. 19 and ends Dec. 21), and there’s plenty about its future to learn. But we know a lot more this time around than we did in December 2018, when the entire Division I football world was feeling it out as it went along. 1. Not every player will sign in December, but the majority will. In year one, 68 of the top 101 recruits signed in the inaugural Early Signing Period, while the rest waited until the traditional National Signing Day in February. When the ESP is finished, around 70 percent of all eventual signees will have signed. That was 65 percent in 2017, per 247’s count. Some teams were closer to 50 percent, and some were in the 90s. There will still be a lot of talent on the board after the period ends, but February’s Signing Day won’t be quite the big spectacle it was in the past. 2. So the final class rankings will be close to set after Dec. 21. Most likely, Alabama will have all but formally locked in the No. 1 class by then. But with several dozen four- and five-stars probably still out there, there will still be jockeying in the spots immediately below the Tide, along with a top-10 recruit or two who choose to wait for the ESPNU spotlight in February. 3. The ESP’s action will be almost entirely on Wednesday, the first day. When the sport did this for the first time, some of us expected a steady flow of signings, but little of interest happened the last two days. There will probably only be a few stray commitments on Thursday and Friday. Given that coaching staffs aren’t on the recruiting trail during the ESP itself, it makes sense that not much would change for a prospect who’s already decided to sign in December. It’s a good idea to follow your team’s site and have ESPNU on a side screen on Wednesday. After that, just check your usual college football news sources every so often. You’ll probably have a sense of which remaining targets for your team are likely to wait until February. 4. Teams that just made coaching changes will do worse ... for now. The Early Signing Period benefits coaches, generally. They’re the ones who pushed for it, seeking more stability earlier in the recruiting year. The old system forced them to wait until February to know for sure which players they’d get. Coaches never like volatility, and their American Football Coaches Association asked the NCAA and its conferences to institute the ESP. But they’ve also given themselves a new challenge. Most new hires happen around the beginning of December. In the past, that left new staffs two months to line up their first classes. Even before the ESP, coaches were doing a lot better in their second classes (their first full recruiting cycles) than with the ones they’d signed after two months. New coaches now have two or three weeks to get most of those classes set. The results in 2017 were as expected. Teams that had just made new hires signed small crops during the ESP, leaving lots of work for February. For instance, Herm Edwards’ Arizona State had 11 December signees and the country’s No. 71 class immediately after the three-day spell. One potential benefit, though: having plenty of room on Signing Day. The Sun Devils added 10 more players in February and finished 37th, or where they’d been the two prior years under Todd Graham. 5. The Early Signing Period is a mixed thing for the people who are supposed to matter most in all of this: the recruits. Most head coaching moves are done by the time the ESP begins. But assistant coaches will still be moving around for a few more weeks, and there’s often a January head coaching surprise somewhere. There will be players who sign in December, thinking they’ll play for specific coaches, but who wind up not. It happened frequently in the class of 2018, when the introduction of a 10th FBS assistant coach greased the carousel. That’s the inevitable consequence of a system that restricts player movement but not coach movement. Despite that uncertainty for players, college coaches told SB Nation entering the inaugural ESP that they wouldn’t consider players actually committed if they had offers and didn’t sign. In 2017, 80 percent of committed players signed during the ESP, per 247Sports. Anyone who’s verbally committed and chooses not to put pen to paper during these three days goes on decommitment watch, though there are unique cases as well as good reasons for some recruits to hold off until February. The ESP is also a negative for late bloomers who might have attracted little college interest over the first few years of their high school careers. The high school season’s over by the time the ESP starts, but moving up the entire signing timeline means less time for college coaches to evaluate those players. It can be a good thing for one type of recruit in particular: the one who’s near the bottom of his team’s class and might get dropped late for another player. Stories pop up a few times each winter about recruits who had their offers yanked right before they could sign. The ESP doesn’t eliminate that, but just as coaches get earlier guarantees with the ESP, so can signees who might be on the fringes. 6. Also, this is rough timing for teams that have mid-December bowls. FCS has only one game left, and it’s in January. But 2018 has nine FBS bowl games during the week of the Early Signing Period. The Frisco, Gasparilla, Bahamas, and Potato are during the actual ESP days themselves. It’s not like staffers are going to miss incoming signatures because coaches are bowling, but that’s a lot of attention to pay at once. 7. The ESP has changed how the public follows recruiting, though it hasn’t necessarily made things better or worse. It means two long days (Dec. 19 and Feb. 6) of hat ceremonies on ESPNU. There are still enough uncommitted players in February that the traditional Signing Day has a big-event feel, and the net EXCITEMENT FACTOR of recruiting season goes up a little bit. More significantly, it allows fans, media, players, and teams themselves to hone in more on just a few key stories once February comes around. Signing Day becomes more about finishing strong than about building everything all at once.
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Some football recruits should not sign during the Early Signing Period
The Early Signing Period is a great option, but not one that every player necessarily should take. The inaugural Early Signing Period was good for recruits in many ways, including expanding their ability to choose. That’s something recruits sign away when they ink their national letters of intent. But the Early Signing Period lets players shut the recruiting process down if they want to a few days before Christmas. It was a huge hit in its first year. But while it is good to have options, it’s fair to ask whether actually taking that early option is really the right one? Teams want players to sign early. A ton of players signed during the Early Signing Period last year. Approximately 2,800 players sign letters of intent with college football programs each year. Roughly 2,000 of this recruiting cycle’s prospects signed between Dec. 20 and 22, the first-ever early signing period for college football under a rule change that NCAA leadership approved last summer. Out of ESPN’s top 300 recruits, only 79 remained unsigned at the end of the December period. It takes a lot of the drama out of February National Signing Day for pretty much everyone involved. Coaches will tell you this is good for them. It makes their life easier because the January recruiting period is now more targeted heading into February. Hypothetically, let’s say you’re looking at a board of 100 players (just to use a round number). If 75 of them come off of that board, then you now not only know more acutely what you need, you know who specifically to target. It makes for a more focused sprint to the finish. And it helps players to continue to weed out which offers are real. But it might be in the best interests of some players to hold out until February. If you’re enrolling early, the Early Signing Period is tailor-made for you. That type of player is ready to roll onto campus about two weeks after the Early Signing Period, so it makes sense. But if you aren’t, then it may behoove you to see where the chips fall during the Early Signing Period, to make a more informed decision during February Signing Day. There are plenty of players who have had their minds made up for quite a while or ones that are understandably pretty fed up with the recruiting process they’ve been apart of for two or three years, but there are some reasons why taking the month of January to survey the landscape, if possible, isn’t the worst thing in the world. Players who wait will see how coaching changes play out. For players considering teams with new leadership, or transitioning leadership, holding out might also make sense to see where coaching dominoes fall. Urban Meyer hinted that at least part of the reason why he chose to announce his retirement before the Rose Bowl had to do with the Early Signing Period. The thing that really started to make things, when recruits started asking me, will you be here for four or five years. Recruits I’m very close with. And this early signing date has put pressure all over this world -- the college football world. And the signing date’s coming up and that’s over 92 percent of the kids sign on that date. [Meyer was referring to OSU’s class specifically here] Also, if you sign a scholarship and the coach decides to leave after that they’re free to go. So this was -- and people will say, why would you let recruiting get in the way. That’s a silly question. That’s the blood -- you want to have a good team you recruit. And you recruit very hard. So that put a little push on it. And to be honest, I didn’t want to mislead recruits. Gene and I both felt -- not felt, we knew -- and that’s what made it now, the decision now. The tradition of coaches leaving after Signing Day now happens earlier because of the Early Signing Period. The old bait-and-switch included coaches leaving in February after getting classes signed. Now, much of those musical chairs happen right after players sign early. And many have been in the works for weeks. That’s the time players should take to evaluate where chips are falling if they’re not early enrollees, because while you may think players commit to the school and not the coach, it’s often the other way around. Coaches who leave jobs certainly aren’t telling the players they’re recruiting what’s going on before it actually happens. Just last year, 130 new FBS assistant coaching jobs opened up when every school was allowed to add a 10th assistant. That’s just more likelihood for professional churn while “amateurs” get and blindsided. It puts players in a crappy position when the guy with whom they’ve formed a relationship bounces. A position coach is oftentimes the first conduit for a player and the broader coaching staff, and it’s the person you’re in the room most with on a day-to-day basis. An option for players who sign in December to designate an assistant, and if he leaves the binding Letter Of Intent is voided. That was considered, but not adopted. And it’s not even about your coach leaving. If you’re a receiver, and the team you’re going to adds a second receivers coach, you should probably take a second to vet the guy. Small moves like that can have huge ramifications on a player’s life in college and career prospects. There’s value in hearing the last ditch effort of a team. There’s value in taking some extra time to really get to know a new assistant during January to figure out if that’s really still where you want to go. There’s value in not making the decisions that the school going after you very much wants you to make just because it makes life easier. It’s great to have choices, but for some, the prudent choice is to wait.
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The Spurs’ fall has nothing to do with all those mid-range jumpers
It has everything to do with the other end of the floor. The Spurs are .500 and a few games outside of the playoff bracket in the West. Having traded disgruntled Kawhi Leonard in the summer for DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio in a way doubled-down on an offense focused on mid-range jump shooters. The Spurs already had LaMarcus Aldridge, the rare modern big man who just simply never stretched his range beyond the three-point line. DeRozan famously prefers to drive the lane or pull up from 20 instead of firing up threes. The style extends to the team’s No. 3 option, Rudy Gay, as well: he’s become more willing to take triples, but only marginally. As you might expect, the Spurs are dead last in the league in the percentage of field goal attempts that come from long-range, at 27 percent. (This is a better measure that three-point attempts per game because it accounts for pace and overtime differences.) You’ll also be unsurprised to learn that almost no one gets a bigger share of its points from the mid-range: the Spurs rank No. 2 at 19.1 percent, a sliver behind the Warriors’ 19.2 percent. So in an era of ever bigger appetites for threes, and given the supreme math advantage exploited by teams like the Rockets and Warriors in recent years, it’d be understandable if you’d looked at the Spurs’ disappointing record and their reliance on long two-pointers and think they are related. They are not. The Spurs’ offense, despite snubbing the efficient three more than any other team and relying more on the inefficient mid-range jumper than almost any other team, is pretty good, ranking No. 9 in offense at 110 points per 100 possessions. The Spurs are on track to have their best or second-best offensive season in franchise history. The offense has improved about three points per 100 possessions over last season’s version despite becoming more reliant on the mid-range and less interested in threes. The Spurs’ problem — shock of all shocks — is defense. San Antonio sits at No. 24 in defense, giving up more than 110 points per 100 possessions, about a full point worse than league average. This is new phenomenon for the Spurs, who under Gregg Popovich have regularly ranked in the top five in the league in defense, whether they were in the championship conversation or a slight down cycle. The defense has been a constant, yet it’s not there this season. That’s worth exploring. Why suddenly is the Spurs’ defense unreliable? San Antonio ranked No. 4 in defense last season, about four points better than league average. Of course, Kawhi Leonard is one of the most talented defenders of his generation, but he played just nine games last season. But there was another player the Spurs traded to Toronto who matters a lot for this conversation: Danny Green. Green made second team All-Defense two seasons ago, and has a good reputation on that end. He played a lot of minutes for the Spurs; he featured in San Antonio’s top three most used lineups, two of which had incredible defensive numbers and the third of which was a few points better than league average on that end. But it’s not just Green. There are two more names you find in those strong defensive, high usage Spurs lineups from last season: Dejounte Murray and Kyle Anderson. Murray tore his ACL in the preseason, taking a top defensive point guard out of the lineup and putting San Antonio is a real rotational bind. The Spurs let Anderson go in restricted free agency in the summer, declining to match a 4-year, $37 million deal offered by the Grizzlies. The combined effect of losing Murray to injury, Anderson to free agency, and Green in a trade has badly hurt the Spurs’ defense. Their minutes in those most-used lineups have been replaced by those from DeRozan (an OK defender, though not to the level of Green), Bryn Forbes, and Dante Cunningham. Derrick White is getting more minutes with those top lineups than Patty Mills, who is more often running the offense on reserve-laden lineups. If those players can’t find a way to adjust and defend more effectively, there aren’t many solutions on the roster. Jakob Poeltl, who also came over in the Kawhi trade, has strong on-off defensive numbers, but Popovich isn’t playing him much. You wonder if Popovich can find a way to get even more Mills minutes with the starters without killing bench production. This is all completely foreign to San Antonio. Whether he has legendary defenders like Tim Duncan and Kawhi, or whether he has scrap heap stars like Bruce Bowen and Dewayne Dedmon, Pop always puts together a solid defense. He can’t find the right magic this season. But if he does and the Spurs’ defense turns around with the offense holding, San Antonio should be able to make the playoffs and maybe even cause a little heartburn for opponents once there. After all, with the whole league embracing the three-pointer, teams will have to adjust mightily to guard the Spurs’ mid-range attack in a playoff series. There’s always an advantage to being the team that zags.
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Winners and losers from Week 15 of the 2018 NFL season
We have two more playoff teams, and a tightening race for NFL MVP. Week 15 is just about a wrap, and that brings a Monday Night Football matchup featuring NFC home field advantage and wild card implications. The Carolina Panthers host the New Orleans Saints in a game the Panthers badly need to stay in the wild card race. Meanwhile, New Orleans can set up a Week 16 clinching scenario for best record in the NFC. Every week will bring its share of wild games, unexpected results, and plenty of money changing hands. Sports gambling is not new, but the Supreme Court’s decision allowing states to legalize it opens the door for a huge expansion. And so, it’s time to keep an eye on the important news, the gut-wrenching news, the quirky news, and how we can best help you make a few bucks each week. Welcome to The Vig! Afternoon/evening of the dog The morning schedule featured some modest upsets, but we mostly saw chalk winning. The biggest upset saw Washington beat the favored Jaguars late in an otherwise hideous football game. The afternoon and prime time brought all outright upsets, however. The 49ers beat the Seahawks as a four-point underdog, the Steelers beat the Patriots as a 2.5-point favorite, and the Eagles stunned the Rams, who were favored by 13.5 points! Will mediocrity reign in the NFC? Entering Week 15, Bovada offered a wager on whether or not an 8-win NFC team would get into the playoffs. “Yes” was favored at -180, with “No” installed at +140. The “Yes” got a boost this weekend with Seattle losing and Minnesota, Philadelphia, and Washington all winning. The Seahawks have the first wild card berth with an 8-6 record, while the Vikings are second with a 7-6-1 record. The Vikings are likely the key to this. They travel to Detroit and then host Chicago to close out the season. A split is a very real possibility, thus locking them in at 8-7-1. Carolina is circling the drain The Panthers have five straight games, dropping from 6-2 to 6-7 heading into their Monday Night Football showdown with the New Orleans Saints. Entering the game, you can bet on Carolina losing their final three games. Three straight losses to close the season is currently listed at 3/1, while getting at least one win the final three weeks is a heavy 1/5 favorite. The Panthers host the Saints and Falcons the next two weeks, and then close out on the road against the Saints. Someone took away Joe Philbin’s red flag In his Week 14 debut as Packers interim head coach, Joe Philbin blew through his two challenges in less than 90 seconds into the game. A week later, either Philbin learned his lesson or someone just made sure to steal his red challenge flag ahead of time. Philbin did not use a single challenge in the Packers 24-17 loss to the Bears. Prior to the game, Philbin not winning a challenge was a -140 favorite, while the under of 0.5 challengesissued was installed as a -230 favorite. A new MVP sleeper? Entering Week 15, Patrick Mahomes was a 5/7 favorite to win the 2018 MVP award, followed by Drew Brees at 1/1. Third on the list and well back was Philip Rivers at 16/1. The Chargers stunned the Chiefs on Thursday Night Football to clinch a playoff berth and keep alive the Chargers hope for the AFC West. The Chiefs travel to Seattle and host Oakland to finish out the season, while LA hosts Baltimore and travels to Denver. If the Chiefs implode these final two games, Brees could jump past Mahomes to win MVP. But could Rivers make a late run? It’s unlikely, but that win over Kansas City has made this at least a little more interesting. Hot seat update Each week, sportsbooks update odds on the next head coach to be fired. One problem with this for betting is that reports trickle in that a coach will be fired once the season ends. Black Monday will feature numerous firings, but if a coach is fired before then, those reports don’t matter. Here were odds for next coach to be fired heading into Week 15, courtesy of Betonline.ag. Steve Wilks: 2/1 Todd Bowles: 3/1 Marvin Lewis: 3/1 Dirk Koetter: 4/1 Ron Rivera: 5/1 Vance Joseph: 10/1 Adam Gase: 20/1 Over the weekend, CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora reported sources are telling him Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter will not be back in 2019. It likely will not happen until after the season ends, which means Koetter backers are left waiting in the meantime. Meanwhile, you can’t even get odds on Doug Marrone, which is surprising to nobody. However, Bovada is offering odds for Tom Coughlin to be the Jaguars head coach when Week 1 2019 rolls around. “No” is installed as a sizable -300 favorite, while yes is a +200 underdog. Win Totals Week 15 brought in three more win total bets cashing in. The Browns beat the Broncos to improve to 6-7-1. The Cardinals and Lions locked in their unders. Of note to this author, Washington improved to 7-7, which puts them right on their win total of seven. Given how badly this season has gone from an injury perspective, I’m plenty happy just to get a push. Overs to date: Chiefs, Bears, Saints, Texans, Rams, Colts, Chargers, Dolphins Unders to date: 49ers, Raiders, Packers, Jaguars, Falcons, Eagles, Steelers, Vikings Monday Night Football pick New Orleans Saints @ Carolina Panthers (+6): The Saints are playing for the No. 1 seed while the Panthers are just looking to hang around the wild card race. Money is on the Saints, but I’m rarely one to turn away a home dog in primetime. The Saints very well could still win this game, but look for Carolina to keep it close in an ugly back-and-forth affair. Looking ahead to Week 16 The first lines for Week 16 have arrived by way of OddsShark, and there are some lines of note. The biggest line of the week has the Patriots as a 13-point favorite at home against the Bills. The closest line at this early juncture has both primetime games (Chiefs-Seahawks, Broncos-Raiders) set at 2.5 points. The biggest early move is in Bears-49ers, where the line opened at Bears -5, but has quickly moved down to Bears -3.5. Washington @ Tennessee Titans (-10)Baltimore Ravens @ Los Angeles Chargers (-4.5)Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Dallas Cowboys (-7)New York Giants @ Indianapolis Colts (-9.5)Houston Texans @ Philadelphia Eagles (+3.5)Jacksonville Jaguars @ Miami Dolphins (-5)Green Bay Packers @ New York Jets (+3)Cincinnati Bengals @ Cleveland Browns (-6.5)Minnesota Vikings @ Detroit Lions (+4.5)Buffalo Bills @ New England Patriots (-13)Atlanta Falcons @ Carolina Panthers (-3.5)Chicago Bears @ San Francisco 49ers (+3.5)Los Angeles Rams @ Arizona Cardinals (+13.5)Pittsburgh Steelers @ New Orleans Saints (-6.5)Kansas City Chiefs @ Seattle Seahawks (+2.5)Denver Broncos @ Oakland Raiders (+2.5)
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Champions League knockout stage matchups, ranked
We’ve been blessed with a spectacular draw. The UEFA Champions League is the world’s premier soccer competition, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, it rarely gets really, truly good until the quarterfinals. This season looks likely to be an exception, with the gods of the draw treating us to just about the best Round of 16 we could have possibly hoped for. Manchester City, one of the favorites, has been drawn against the competition’s worst remaining team. The remaining hipster favorites/dark horses have drawn each other. That leaves us with a bunch of GLAMOUR TIES, the likes of which are usually reserved for later stages. We’re so lucky. In an ideal world, we’d watch all of these matches. None of them are bad. But unfortunately, we live in a world where two games are always on simultaneously, and at a time when lots of people are at work or school, so sneak-watching just one game is already a tough task. With that in mind, here’s how we suggest you prioritize your viewing. 8. Manchester City vs. Schalke 04 When: Wednesday, February 20 and Tuesday, March 12 Hey, good for Schalke! They managed to sneak through their group in a season following the losses of Leon Goretzka and Max Meyer, who they’re finding extremely difficult to replace. They get to retain their reputation and make a bit of money. And now they’ll lose very comfortably to Manchester City, who will probably get to play a rotated side in the second leg and rest some players for a close domestic title race. 7. AS Roma vs. FC Porto When: Tuesday, February 12 and Wednesday, March 6 Neither of these teams will be winning the Champions League this season, but watching Roma’s Cengiz Under and Justin Kluivert in Europe is always worth your time. If you don’t know those guys now, you’ll be familiar with them very soon. 6. Olympique Lyonnais vs. FC Barcelona When: Tuesday, February 19 and Wednesday, March 13 And here’s where we get to the good stuff. Lyon will be big underdogs against Barcelona, but they took four points off Manchester City and they have the most exciting young core of any team in the world. Memphis Depay, Nabil Fekir and Moussa Dembélé are well-known around the world, but midfielder Tanguy Ndombele could be headed for the biggest future of the group. This matchup against Barcelona might even amount to a job interview. Unfortunately for Lyon, Lionel Messi is in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career. He has more goals and assists than anyone else in Europe’s top five leagues. He’s still dribbling by defenders more often than anyone else in the world despite allegedly slowing down. He’ll have fun teaching these kids a lesson. 5. Manchester United vs. Paris Saint-Germain When: Tuesday, February 12 and Wednesday, March 6 In normal years, this would be No. 2 or 1. It certainly has the marquee names. But Manchester United is an objectively bad team right now. The 36 shots they allowed to Liverpool on Sunday is the most any team in the Premier League has allowed this season. They’ve conceded more goals this season than all of last season. Their Premier League goal differential sits at an even 0. It will not just be deflating, but truly embarrassing, if PSG’s forward trio of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani doesn’t run circles around the Red Devils. 4. Atlético Madrid vs. Juventus When: Wednesday, February 20 and Tuesday, March 12 On paper, this one is full of thrilling narrative. Atlético Madrid, embarrassed by Cristiano Ronaldo in Champions League on several occasions, has a chance to finally get one over on their nemesis. And conversely, Ronaldo has to go through his old rivals if he’s going to guide Juventus to a Champions League title, which is what they’re paying him tens of millions of Euros to do. On the pitch, it’s likely to be a complete slog. Both managers will be focused on defense and hoping the other team makes a mistake. Neither team makes many mistakes. A pair of 0-0 draws or 1-0 home wins that leads into extra time — with minimal scoring chances — would not surprise anyone. This is one for the tactics nerds and not a match to show your casual soccer fan friends who you’re trying to get into the game. 3. Real Madrid vs. Ajax When: Wednesday, February 13 and Tuesday, March 5 The three-time defending European Champions should, generally, not have much trouble defeating anyone from the Eredivisie. But Real Madrid are struggling in their post-Ronaldo existence, and this is the best Ajax team in 20 years. Two Ajax stars in particular — Matthias De Ligt and Frenkie De Jong — will be getting their first of many chances to shine in the global spotlight. De Ligt is the first defender to ever win the European Golden Boy, while De Jong is one of the most unique and versatile players on the planet. It seems inevitable that both will move on to huge clubs (perhaps Madrid or Barcelona) this summer. There’s little question that they’re superstars of the future, but this matchup gives them a chance to show that they’re superstars right now. 2. Tottenham Hotspur vs. Borussia Dortmund When: Wednesday, February 13 and Tuesday, March 5 Maybe it’s wrong to rank this tie ahead of ones involving teams that have a good chance to actually win the competition. There’s not much reason to predict either of these teams can make the final. But of all the Round of 16 matchups, this is the one most likely to feature pure entertainment. Both teams are going to press aggressively and play to score goals, so both teams’ athletic attackers are going to have space to play in. It’s going to be a blast. But it’s also the store brand version of... 1. Liverpool vs. Bayern Munich When: Tuesday, February 19 and Wednesday, March 13 Holy crap! This should be the semifinal or final, not a Round of 16 matchup. But thanks to Liverpool’s slip-ups against PSG and Red Star Belgrade, we get it a couple of rounds early. Between their run to last year’s final and their undefeated start to the Premier League season, Liverpool will be slight favorites in this one. Bayern Munich has been far from dominant this season, and is in the process of figuring out who will lead them in a post-Robbery world. But Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery haven’t retired yet, and they still take over games on occasion. It’s tough to envision an aging Bayern Munich keeping pace with Liverpool, but they gave Real Madrid a better run for their money last season than anyone expected. And hey, if Red Star can pull it off, there’s no reason to count out Bayern.
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6 NFL teams that could be dangerous IF they make the playoffs
If they’re still playing in January, watch out. There are two full weeks left in the regular season, and only five teams have secured a playoff spot. Three teams — the Rams, Saints, and Bears — have won their division. No teams have clinched a first-round bye. That means there’s still a lot of shuffling left to be done over the final weeks of December. Not every team still alive will get to postseason. The 14 remaining ones that have yet to clinch or be eliminated are fighting for seven spots. Some of them, like the Texans, Patriots, and Seahawks, are virtually guaranteed to make it barring a total collapse. That leaves everyone else battling for just a couple spots. Of those teams, there are a handful of dangerous ones that could mess around and win a game in January if they’re lucky enough to slip into the postseason. Here are six of them: In the AFC The case for the: Indianapolis Colts Despite their 8-6 record, the Colts have been one of the more impressive teams in the league this year. Andrew Luck is back and playing like a top quarterback again, and they have a much-improved offensive line. Plus, there’s the demon in the middle of their defense: rookie linebacker Darius Leonard, who is solidifying his case for the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. After starting off 1-5, the Colts have won seven of their last eight games. They’re one of the hottest teams in the NFL and have the components in place to win in January — if they can get there. While their offense has taken a ton of credit for turning the season around, their defense has been solid too. Coming into Week 15, they ranked 17th in opposing adjusted net yards per attempt, 12th in sack percentage, and seventh in turnover percentage. And that was before they shut out the Cowboys 23-0. They held Dallas to 180 net passing yards, got three sacks, and forced two turnovers. The Colts are rounding into form at just the right time. Now they need to handle business with a little bit of luck (no pun intended) to get into the playoffs. The case for the: Baltimore Ravens Baltimore’s offense has gotten a bit of a spark since Lamar Jackson took over at starting quarterback for the then-injured Joe Flacco. Jackson’s passing is inconsistent, but he’s turned the Ravens’ running game into a forced to be reckoned with. The Ravens averaged 92.7 rushing yards per game in the nine games that Joe Flacco started, but they’ve averaged 230.4 rushing yards per game in the five games Jackson has started. The Ravens are still led by their stifling defense, but the added diversity of their newfound run game makes them an intriguing team. Baltimore very much controls its own destiny. The Ravens are currently in the sixth seed in the AFC, but they have to travel to the Chargers before finishing off the season at home against the Browns. If they can lock down those two wins, the Ravens and Jackson will be must-see TV come playoff time. The case for the: Tennessee Titans It’s tough to figure out which Titans team is going to show up any given week — a proud tradition that extends through the entirety of Marcus Mariota’s three-plus years in Nashville. Tennessee is capable of great things, like when it routed the Patriots or beat the Cowboys by 14. The club is also capable of vomiting all over itself, like it did when it lost to the Bills or got absolutely annihilated by the Colts. Those four uneven performances all happened within a seven-week span, but Tennessee appears to be leveling out behind a power running game and a resplendent Derrick Henry. Henry’s been the foundation from which the Titans’ offense has built the past two weeks, running for 408 yards and six touchdowns in a 2-0 stretch. That’s taken the pressure from Mariota’s oft-injured shoulders — and occasionally allowed him to spread his wings as a devastating downfield blocker, somehow. That’s probably not what the Titans want to see from a quarterback who hasn’t played a full 16-game season in his career and has already missed two games this fall, but Mariota’s effort is contagious. After allowing 38 and 34 points in losses to the Colts and Texans, respectively, the Tennessee defense has come together to give up only 31 in its last three. Granted, those performances came against the Jaguars, Jets, and Giants, but that’s what good teams do. That defense will be paramount to the team’s road to the postseason. The Titans have been one of the league’s most efficient defenses, even if high-priced offseason addition Malcolm Butler hasn’t worked out. Tennessee boasts above-average performance across the defensive lineup in pretty much every important metric but forcing turnovers. A game against Washington and fourth-string quarterback Josh Johnson stands between the Titans and a potential playoff-deciding showdown with the Colts in Week 17. Only a catastrophe is going to keep them from nine wins. The case for the: Miami Dolphins Miami shocked both the Bears and Patriots with comeback wins, and also held off the Titans in a frantic Week 1 finish. The rest of the Dolphins’ seven wins — against the Jets (twice), Raiders, and Bills — aren’t as encouraging, but there’s enough evidence on the books to believe if the football gods are rooting for anyone’s broken path to wind to the playoffs, it’s Miami’s. Ryan Tannehill, until Sunday, was having potentially the least impressive great statistical season of all time. He came into Week 15’s game against the Vikings with a 67 percent completion rate, an 8.1 percent touchdown rate, and an absurd (for Ryan Tannehill) 105.7 passer rating. That came crashing back to earth in a 11-for-24, 108-yard performance in Minnesota, but he’s still capable of being the steady, quiet wind that fills the sails of his team’s offense. If we’re going to worry about anything the Dolphins are bringing to the table, it’s a substandard defense that’s allowed 27+ points nine times this season. Everything we praised the Titans for before is the opposite in Miami. The Dolphins may be the toughest fringe playoff team to believe in now that the Broncos have officially burnt up re-entering the atmosphere of contendership. But their final two games — against the Jaguars and Bills — offer an easy path to 9-7. In the NFC The case for the: Philadelphia Eagles Hmm ... Nick Foles takes over with three weeks left in the season and leads a rag-tag group of underdogs to wins? If the story sounds familiar, it’s because you’re capable of remembering all the way back to last year. There are some big differences, though. In 2017, Foles took over when the Eagles were 11-2 and had already clinched the NFC East. This time, he took the reins of a 6-7 team fresh off a 29-23 overtime loss to the Cowboys. But the Eagles didn’t finish the 2017 season with a win anywhere near as impressive as the one Foles just led against the Rams. In the 30-23 victory, Foles completed 24 of 31 passes for 270 yards. He threw an interception and didn’t have a touchdown pass, but his efficient performance set up three short rushing touchdowns for Philadelphia. A year ago, the Eagles limped into the postseason after back-to-back poor offensive showings against the Raiders and Cowboys. Then Foles caught fire and he ended his miraculous postseason run as the Super Bowl MVP. By the looks of it, he caught fire earlier this time around. When Philadelphia is firing on all cylinders it has a defensive line that can control the line of scrimmage. That hasn’t been seen much in 2018, but the Eagles looked the part again Sunday when they consistently harassed Jared Goff, forced two interceptions, and shut down Todd Gurley for most of the night. The Eagles barely held off the surging Rams in the final minutes, but the win got them right back in the hunt for the NFC Wild Card. The Cowboys’ NFC East lead shrunk to one game, though the division title’s more far-fetched after Philadelphia was swept by Dallas in two matchups earlier in the year. All the Eagles can control are how they play in the last two games of the year against Houston and Washington. It remains to be seen if Carson Wentz will return before the season ends, but Sunday showed they’re in good hands with Foles — and they’re still capable of knocking off top teams. The case for the: Minnesota Vikings The Vikings were supposed to be a Super Bowl contender all year long. After losing the NFC Championship last season, Minnesota returned almost all of its star-studded defense and made the splash addition of Kirk Cousins in free agency. But through the first 15 weeks of the season, the Vikings have only managed to beat bad or mediocre teams. So why should we believe they’re dangerous now? Because the post-John DeFilippo era looks awfully promising. In the first week after firing the offensive coordinator and replacing him with Kevin Stefanski, the Vikings committed to a rushing attack against the Dolphins and blew them out of the water. Dalvin Cook ran for 136 yards and two touchdowns, and Latavius Murray ran for 68 yards and one touchdown. The 41-17 win was the first time the Vikings had over 200 rushing yards in a game since 2015. And it’s what Mike Zimmer has been asking to see since the season began. Mike Zimmer said Kevin Stefanski "knew what I wanted" on offense this week. He mentioned a couple times where Stefanski told him, "I'm going to run the ball here."— Ben Goessling (@GoesslingStrib) December 16, 2018 If the Vikings get on track offensively, the defense is still tough to beat. They’re No. 4 in yards allowed per game and held the Dolphins to just 193 yards. For all their struggles in 2018, the Vikings are still in line for a spot in the playoffs and — after firing DeFilippo — they finally look scary again.
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