Saturday, January 30

Six Points: Cavs 94, Pacers 73

Was this a game or a scrimmage? The Cavs stomped the Pacers in Indianapolis last night, and it often felt more like a varsity/junior varsity game than an NBA contest.

LeBron James had 13 assists and scored 22 points in spite of a bad shooting night, and Shaq poured in 22 points in less than 25 minutes as the Pacers had no answer for the big man down low. As opposed to Wednesday night's game against the Timberwolves, which was close for over a quarter, the Cavs came out guns blazing and doubled up the Pacers 36-18 in the first quarter.

From that point on, the game was never in doubt. That first quarter beat down clearly broke the Pacers' will, and not to question their professionalism, but they didn't appear to be giving 100% effort for the rest of the game. In that type of game against a clearly superior opponent, a team like the Pacers can try to fight back, which would probably prompt another onslaught by the opposition's starters, or they can go through the motions for the last 36 minutes and hit the showers. Teams that are 16-30 tend to fold when you hit them with a first quarter haymaker, and the Pacers helped illustrate that last night.

1. Cruise control.
After several tough games that came down to the final minutes, it's nice for the Cavs to have a handful of games that they can win comfortably. That was the case against Minnesota and Indiana, and four of the Cavs' next five include home dates against the LA Clippers, Memphis, New York, and New Jersey. Those could all be easy wins if the Cavs don't play sloppy first halves.

The Cavs don't go back on the road until after the All-Star break. Other than the four games I just mentioned, the Cavs also face off against the Heat and the Magic at The Q. If they can take care of business against the four weaker opponents and split against the two Florida squads, they should be pleased with where they stand at the break. And even if they only go 4-2 during this stretch, that wouldn't be the worst thing in the world considering their injuries at guard.

2. Speaking of injuries...
Losing Mo Williams and Delonte West definitely hurt, but as long as nobody else goes down the Cavs should be able to play through it for awhile. This is one of the softest stretches in their schedule, plus they'll have the All-Star break to let these guys heal up some more.

We know that Mo Williams' shoulder injury is going to sideline him until early or mid-March, but less is known about Delonte West's fractured left ring finger. Delonte is still listed as day-to-day, and while my gut tells me that he'd be in there if this were the playoffs, I wonder if it doesn't make more sense to just shut him down until after the All-Star break. With their soft upcoming schedule, a 3-3 split looks like a worst case scenario, while 4-2 or 5-1 are both very realistic. With the Cavs up a comfortable 5.5 games in the East, I'd be conservative and let Delonte come back whenever he's truly 100%.

As is often the case in the NBA, one of the Cavs' biggest enemies heading into the playoffs is going to be their collective health. You want to see everybody peaking in mid-April, but that's usually easier said than done. Shaq's playing his best basketball of the season, and ideally you'd like to throw him on ice a la Walt Disney until May, but that's not an option because cryogenic freezing is very expensive and you usually pay by the pound.

Hopefully Mo Williams and Delonte West are getting the injury bugs out of their respective systems and will be ready to roll come April. We saw injuries derail a tough Celtics team last season, and Mike Brown should control his starters' minutes (especially Shaq's) in hope of avoiding a similar fate.

3. An All-Star for at least one night.
You could make very legitimate arguments for either Shaq O'Neal or Anderson Varejao to make the All-Star team as reserves over Atlanta's Al Horford, largely based on the Cavaliers' success as a team. Then again, New York's David Lee and New Jersey's Brook Lopez have even better arguments. Don't sweat the All-Star Game - it's not the Pro Bowl, but it's still a pretty big waste of time.

In Indiana, Shaq played like an All-Star for at least one night, filling it up with 22 points, 8 boards, and 2 blocks in under 25 minutes of play. The Pacers simply had no answer for the Big Diesel underneath. Shaq went to the line 12 times, and that number easily could have been 20.

They are very different players, but Shaq's dominance in Indianapolis reminded me of how Jermaine O'Neal used to torch the Cavs whenever they squared off against the Pacers. When Jermaine was in his prime he owned Zydrunas Ilgauskas in the post, and for a few years the Cavs had a ton of trouble with the Pacers. The shoe's on the other foot now. Just think - there was a time when the Cavs couldn't figure out how to win in Conseco Fieldhouse. You've come a long way, baby.

4. Mediocrity breeds mediocrity.
It isn't some huge secret that in the NBA, you want to be either really good, or really bad. The concept is that you want to be competing for a title or you want to be losing enough games to get lots of ping pong balls for the lottery and be a position to draft the next MJ, Kobe, LeBron, etc. Cavs fans can testify to the fact that one guy can turn a franchise around in the NBA, so if you're going to lose, you want to go down like the Titanic.

Unfortunately for Pacers fans, the team doesn't seem to get the message. The Pacers won 36 games the last two seasons, 35 games in '06-'07, and 41 in '05-'06. They're usually good enough to either sneak into the playoffs or be eliminated late in the season, which makes it tough to draft an impact player.

Consider the Pacers' three first round picks over the last two years: Tyler Hansbrough (#13 - 2009), Roy Hibbert (#17 - 2008), and Brandon Rush (via trade for Jerryd Bayless, who was #11 in 2008). Those are three quality guys who I'd like to stash away on the Cavs' roster. But all of those guys (except Hansbrough, who is worse) are just marginal starters on a bad team, and would be the 7th or 8th guy on a good team.

When you continually draft in the teens, there simply aren't many franchise players available, and you're chances of getting the few that slide down there are minimal. It's a tough pill to swallow, but the Pacers probably have to take their medicine for a season or two so that they can draft a quality counterpart to the excellent Danny Granger.

5. Daniel Gibson: pseudo point guard.
I like that Mike Brown seems to have learned his lesson with Daniel Gibson - the guy simply isn't a point guard. Gibson is an undersized two who can come in and make threes. A player like that has value to the Cavs, and I was worried that with Mo and Delonte on the shelf, Brown would once again try to stuff a square peg into a round hole.

That hasn't been the case so far. Gibson can handle the ball well enough if a situation calls for that, but the Cavs seem content to run a point guard by committee and also let LeBron handle the ball more in the absence of the starters. Daniel Gibson finally seems to be re-establishing a role in the rotation, and you don't want to screw that up by restarting a failed experiment. Hopefully Delonte West can return soon to take some pressure off of Gibson and LeBron.

6. LeBron: DPOY?
There's been talk this week about LeBron James and Anderson Varejao as candidates for Defensive Player of the Year. Without getting off on a tangent about the meaningless of these awards, it's going to be difficult for Varejao to win because he's not a "starter." Varejao plays more minutes than JJ Hickson, but the fact that he starts the game on the bench may bias some voters against him. The fact that he's still viewed by many as a "flopper" in spite of the incredible development of his defensive game won't help, either.

LeBron is a different story. He has enough of a defensive highlight reel that you could definitely make a good case for him as DPOY, but Brian Windhorst pointed out that voters will likely be biased against him because he seems like a slam dunk to win his second consecutive MVP award.

Plus, I don't buy LeBron as the best defender in the league. That's an award that should go to a low post defender who guards the rim, and the best in the league right now is probably Dwight Howard. We saw firsthand how you have to game plan around Howard in last year's Eastern Finals, and he will probably earn his second DPOY award as he's leading the league in blocks and swats.

Now, LeBron as the best help defender in the league? That's a position I could champion. Nobody comes out of thin air more often to pin a ball to the backboard, and nobody will come close to matching LBJ in chase down blocks this season. LeBron has finally put his freakish athleticism to work on the defensive end during the last two seasons, and it's been a joy to watch.

LeBron gave us one of those moments last night in the fourth quarter when Brandon Rush was driving the lane for what seemed like an easy layup. LeBron moved towards the hoop, faked a jump for a block, and drew enough of Rush's attention that he missed an easy layup. My guess is that won't be the first time LeBron has that effect on an opponent.

Up next: 1/31, Los Angeles Clippers, 6:00

(Photo Ron Hoskins/Getty Images)

Tuesday, January 26


A couple of quick notes from the Cavs' win over the Heat in Miami last night:

- That's five straight for Los Caballeros now, including the last three without starting point guard and 2nd-leading scorer Mo Williams and two without backup PG/SG Delonte West. Their only blemish in the past eight games was that heartbreaker in Utah. Bonus points if you can name that fellow who hit the game-winner for the Jazz.

- You do realize our starting backcourt is Daniel Gibson and Anthony Parker, right? That speaks volumes about the production we're getting from our frontline players.

- In particular: LeBron James. The MVP debate for this season isn't even open anymore: it's the King. Look at the last two games, particularly the endgame scenarios (ignoring, if you will, the 69 points he poured in for a shorthanded Cav squad against two plus-.500 clubs). Against OKC, all he did was drive and kick for the game-winning shot then block Kevin Durant's retaliation attempt. Against Miami, all he did was make a steal, take it all the way to the other end, hit two FT's for a one-point lead, then force Dwyane Wade into a shot that missed to give the Cavs the win.

Nobody is playing better than this guy at both ends of the floor. I can't see a legitimate argument for anyone else as tops in the league.

- Heat fans nevertheless seem to think it's their guy Wade, evidenced by the M-V-P chants that went up in the first half after he made a shot and was fouled in the process. I noticed that these chants ceased after he bricked the FT, and never resurfaced in a second half in which he went 1-8 shooting and scored just two points.

- This despite the fact that Wade gets a preposterous number of calls. I felt like I was rewatching the '06 Finals last night. Cleveland players couldn't even look at D-Wade funny last night, lest they get whistled. That might have been the worst-officiated Cavalier contest of the season.

- The most concerning call: not getting Wade for goaltending at the end as he grabbed onto the rim after decking LeBron while LeBron's shot was in the air. How do you miss that call? LeBron kept saying to the officials, "he grabbed the rim, man!" with apparently no explanation from the zebras. Ridiculous. I would have been furious had they lost.

But they didn't. Because they have the real MVP.

Leadership, Cavalier-style

Can I interest you in a look at the NBA's league leaders in various statistical categories? What if I told you there were lots of Cavaliers there - how about then? I thought so. We never get to do this during Browns season, because Browns players have long been regarded as Fantasy Football poison, and we usually have an Indian leading the league in ERA who gets summarily traded, so that's no fun. But, focus: NBA leaders! Cavs!

It's 'Melo and LeBron in a dead heat at the top at 29.7 ppg. The King shoots a higher percentage (.510 to .469), though Anthony hits more foul shots (.861 to .781). I've never been a big Carmelo fan, but I think it's time I appreciated his game a little more. As for LeBron's scoring - I love that he can put the ball in the basket, but I think the Cavs are at their best when he's putting up 20/10/10 numbers instead of having to hit for 30+ every night. As I write this, LeBron just made two ridiculous threes at the end of the half to put the Cavs up 13 on the Thunder.

A few surprises at the top: Monta Ellis in 6th, Gilbert Arenas 10th (I'm too lazy to make a "shooting" joke), hopefully-future-Cav Antawn Jamison in 11th, and Tyreke Evans leading all rookies in 14th at 20.9 ppg. Other than LeBron, no Clevelander cracks the top 40, with Mo Williams 42nd at 16.9. Speaking of Mo, I sprained my shoulder once, and man did that ever hurt. I couldn't sleep on it for six months. I hope Mo didn't do it as badly as I did.

Dwight Howard leading here, whatever. But who saw this great season from Crazy Zach Randolph (11.5 rpg) coming? For what it's worth, I love the nickname Z-Bo for him. A neat NBA story this year is Charlotte's Gerald Wallace suddenly grabbing four more boards a game to crack the top 5 at 11.3 rpg. He's only 6'7"!

The Cavs are an interesting study here. They're a tough rebounding club though they're just 14th overall in total rebounds. More importantly, their excellent +4.4 rebounding differential trails only Memphis. (Golden State is far, far and away worst at a preposterous -8.9. How do you expect to win any games like that?). Yet the Cavs owe their rebounding prowess to solid teamwork, fundamentals, and the limited shots they allow opponents rather than a single dominant rebounding force; Anderson Varejao leads the club at 8.1, just 29th in the Association. Below that you have LeBron (7.1, 34th) and Shaq (6.7, 41st).

You already know the Cavalier offense isn't one driven by a great point guard like Chris Paul (11.3, 1st) or Steve Nash (11.2, 2nd). But we do have this guy who's pretty good at passing named LeBron James, whose 7.8 per game places him 7th in the NBA. You may be interested to learn that everyone else in the top 30 is a guard (Hedo Turkoglu at 4.5 is the next-highest big man). LeBron James is talented.

Kendrick Perkins leads the league at an astounding .638 clip. Wow. He would certainly be a scoring option on the NBA's all-ugly team (along with Turkoglu, Rajon Rondo, Chris Kaman, and Joakim Noah). Second place is Gasol at .608. That would be Marc Gasol of the Grizzlies - brother Pau is 14th at .540. Shaq leads the Cavs at .529 (19th), followed by, yep, LeBron, at a highly efficient .510 (25th). Dunking all the time will do that for a fellow's numbers. Varejao is at .519 but apparently doesn't qualify.

Mo Williams' 89.7% paces the Cleveland club and is good for 5th in the NBA. Steve Nash is hitting a preposterous 94.3% of his foul shots. Color me impressed. Of course, Toronto's Jose Calderon set the league mark last year at 98.1% (!!!), but I think fell short of enough attempts to qualify. He's at a pedestrian 81.8% this season.

No other Cav makes the league's top 50. Did I mention we're not a guard-driven team?

3-point %
Or maybe we are! Cavalier guards Daniel Gibson (.483) and Anthony Parker (.477) are 1-2 in the league, with Williams in 8th at .429. That's Mo, not Jawad Williams. Jawad's is roughly half of that. Of course, he doesn't have too many attempts, so the Cavs as a team still lead the league in 3-point percentage.

LeBron, 16th at 1.57, Mo 35th at 1.21. Does this have any bearing on team success?

Howard leads the league, but should have an asterisk for how many of his end up in the stands rather than the hands of teammates. Shaq (1.08), LeBron (1.01), and Varejao (1.00) clock in at 33rd, 38th, and 39th for Cleveland.

If Shaq (3.1) and Z (2.9) were one big man, they would foul out every game. Thought you might want to know that.

Chasedown blocks
I assume LeBron is tops in this. Can someone get Elias on the horn?

Repeat previous comment with Varejao.

Uh-oh, LeBron has a little bit of a chink in his armor, turning the ball over 3.6 times a game, 5th in the league. I suppose when you play 1-on-5 as much as the King does, you'll lose the ball here and there.

Hammer Throwing-Downs
I don't need to tell you who's #1 here.

Sunday, January 24

The Man in the Mirror

If you had told me two years ago that Braylon Edwards would soon ascend the Mount Rushmore of Cleveland sports villains, I would not have believed you. In fact, I probably would've used some choice words to accuse you of blasphemy.

But after two years of questionable effort, mind-numbing drops, and constantly running his yap, Edwards "punched" his ticket to New York. Now, bad puns and all, Braylon Edwards just won't go away.

Earlier this week, Edwards thanked Eric Mangini for trading him to the Jets, a not-so-thinly-veiled jab at Mangini. In the wee hours of Saturday morning, Tony Grossi posted excerpts from a phone interview with Edwards' father, former NFL player Stanley Edwards, which once again made Browns fans shake their heads.

The elder Edwards said plenty of things, but the general thesis of his interview with Grossi was that Browns fans hate Braylon Edwards because he went to Michigan. We've seen Braylon bang this drum before, but it's good to know that it's not just him - the rest of his family is certifiable, too.

Let's settle this once and for all. There were various reasons why Browns fans learned to hate Braylon Edwards, and the fact that he attended that school up north had absolutely nothing to do with it. Contrary to Braylon and Stanley Edwards' distorted beliefs, not all Cleveland Browns fans are Ohio State honks.

As far as D-1 football in concerned, many Browns fans support the Buckeyes. Beyond them, there are large contingents that pull for Notre Dame, and plenty who support - gasp - Michigan. Some aren't interested in college football. But none of that matters, because we all have one common team that we want to succeed, and that team is the Cleveland Browns.

Of course there are a handful of fans on the fringe that would probably like to see 53 Ohio State alumni suit up for the Browns every week, but those fans are are in the micro-minority. Those fans also aren't very bright, because a team of 53 Buckeyes wouldn't fare very well on Sundays.

I'm an Ohio State fan (as well as a Penn State fan, which positions me solidly as a college sports polygamist), but when it comes to the Browns, college football allegiances have precisely zero effect on what I think is best for the team.

When the Browns picked Brian Robiskie in the second round of last year's draft, I was furious because it was the wrong pick. When the Browns drafted Braylon Edwards, I was pleased. I knew that Edwards was a really talented guy, and I always want to see talented players wearing orange and brown, whether they played college ball for (the) Ohio State University, the University of Michigan, or the University of Iraq.

I can't speak for everyone, but some of the reasons why I hate Braylon Edwards include his poor performance given his draft position, his endless drops, his constant chatter (which was never backed up on the field), his bloated contract (nearly $8 million per), and the fact that he wasn't exactly Pete Rose in the hustle department. If you're a great player, fans are willing to forgive quite a few warts, but Edwards wasn't a good player within the contexts of his draft position and fat rookie contract. Thus, Browns fans didn't like him.

Stanley Edwards' comments not only show us that Braylon's dad is a few cards short of a full deck, but they also give us a little glimpse into what made Braylon into the spoiled brat he is today.

At the risk of turning this column into a transcript of Dr. Phil, I don't think it's too presumptuous to say that Braylon Edwards' misbehavior was constantly enabled by his father. It's probably a safe bet that in the Edwards household, nothing was ever Braylon's fault. It wasn't Braylon's fault that he flunked the test; the teacher just didn't do a good job. It wasn't Braylon's fault that he wrecked the car; the road was poorly marked. And it wasn't Braylon's fault that he failed in Cleveland; the mean Browns fans just didn't like him.

As a matter of fact, some of Braylon's problems on the field might be linked to this phenomenon. We all know people who don't take ownership for their mistakes and shortcomings, and failure to do so comes with consequences. Braylon Edwards is one such person.

If someone never takes ownership for his mistakes, he's unlikely to say "I'm not very good at something, so I'm going to work really hard to improve." People like that lack mental fortitude. Would it make sense for a guy like that to show poor work ethic on the football field? If a guy like that started to drop the football, could you see him becoming a head case who suddenly can't catch anything? Does this sound painfully familiar?

Leroy Hoard and Aaron Shea went to Michigan. I liked those guys. Then again, neither of them were arrogant jerks who dropped passes or punched people.

Braylon Edwards is a loser who blames his problems on everyone but himself. Edwards is mentally soft and no matter how deeply he buries that fact, he knows it. He overcompensates with arrogance and false bravado. In spite of being dragged to the AFC Championship by a Jets team that plays great defense and runs the football effectively, Edwards will never be a core player on a championship team.

Browns fans don't like Braylon Edwards. At this point, nothing short of a miracle will change that. But it's not because of where he went to college, his haircut, or what type of cereal he ate for breakfast. If Braylon wants to know why we don't like him - and odds are that he doesn't really want to know - he can take a page out of Michael Jackson's book, and start with the man in mirror.

Saturday, January 23

Put your money where your blog is

As far as I'm concerned, this $60 is already in my pocket.

Friday, January 22

NFL Picks: Conference Championships

Seriously, somebody shoot me. This week, I added some injury to the insult I post here on FCF by losing $55 betting among the games in Vegas. Thank goodness the Saints came through for me.

An update on my turnover theory, looking at last week's winners:

Jets (+1)
Colts (+3)
Vikings (+3)
Saints (+2)

For those of you scoring at home, the winners of the eight playoff games thus far are a combined +18 on turnovers, better than two per game. My theory has very good grounding - I just haven't correctly picked the identity of the club who would protect the ball better. In retrospect, I guess I should have anticipated Darrelle Revis catching that ridiculous pick off of the Charger WR's leg, Ed Reed making two interceptions in the span of six plays without the Ravens actually gaining possession, and Tony Romo eating a bucket of KFC pre-game. You'll be happy to learn that my remarkable luck in the desert extended to blackjack and roulette as well.

While I'm rehashing last week, I'd like to point out that, in a fair world, my check for $50 from Wade Phillips would be arriving in my Cleveland mailbox any day now. I know they got routed, but everything goes back to Phillips' decision to kick a field goal from the Minnesota 31 on 4th and 1. Why not just tell your team: I don't think you're good enough. I don't think you can win. Aside from the fact that it was strategically stupid (the 'Boys had been rushing very well and their kicker was a midseason add), it was an early sign to the Vikings that the Cowboys were afraid, and they played the whole rest of the game like it. Right before kickoff, I saw a shot of Wade Phillips' face, and immediately lamented having wagered on him. Never again. Update: the Cowboys renewed his contract? Did they not see that game? Wow.

Last week
Andy: 1-3
Figgs: 1-3
Nick: 3-1
Bucko: 2-2
Gopo: 1-3
Nick's Money Picks ($): 3-1

Playoffs so far
Andy: 1-7 (!)
Figgs: 2-6
Nick: 5-3
Bucko: 3-5
Gopo: 2-6
Nick's Money Picks ($): 5-2

AFC Championship

Sunday 3 pm
COLTS (-7) vs Jets
Andy: Or as it's more popularly known, The Battle of Teams That Cost Me $30 Each Last Weekend. At least Indy had the decency to knock out an archnemesis for me. I now see the ability of this Jet team (10th in Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings), but I dislike them personally, especially the villainous Braylon Edwards. What a jerk. And when you're 1-7 picking the playoffs through two rounds, you can freely pick the teams you want to win, regardless of whether you think they will. Colts. (And I think they will win the turnover battle and the game.)
Figgs: The Jets really surprised me last week, and should have convinced me that they are a quality team, but for some reason I'm still just not sold. Colts.
Nick: This line opened at 7.5 pretty much everywhere except The Mirage, and that half point is troublesome. But only giving 7, I like the Colts here. Everything has gone the Jets' way so far, from matchups, to turnovers, to Sanchez playing like a mediocre quarterback. I've waffled on the Jets' games the last two weeks and elected to go with them both times, but I'm hoping to time my departure from the bandwagon perfectly. Colts, possibly in a blowout. ($ -9)
Bucko: I'd really like to see the Colts in the Super Bowl again, but I actually think the Jets will at least keep it within 7. Peyton is the man, but they have no running game. I believe the Jets will once again run the ball well, and Revis will control Wayne. I'll be cheering for the Colts, but I think the Jets will take it.
Gopo: colts. i am 100% convinced that the jets are not a quality football team - they've gotten really lucky with some solid matchups against teams that go at their strength. they can't pass the ball at all, and they play defense by blitzing the hell out of the qb. that's not going to work against manning.

Sunday 6:40 pm
SAINTS (-4) vs Vikings
Andy: The Saints have been the most exciting team in the NFL this season - a delight to watch, a great home atmosphere, won me $54 last weekend, and featuring my favorite player in the league in Drew Brees. How can you not root for them in this game? I told Nick after they crushed Arizona that I was taking them in the NFC title game regardless of the line, and I'm sticking with that. Nick called me stupid, by the way, but I went to Carnegie Mellon, so that certainly can't be the case! Saints, all the way. And guess what, Nick? I'm taking them in the Super Bowl too.
Figgs: I really wish the Saints and Colts wouldn't have tanked it at the end of the season, cause a battle of the undefeateds would be so great. I still think the game will happen, just not with the perfect records. Nawlins.
Nick: I like the Saints here, too. The Vikings were 8-0 at home this season, and just 4-4 on the road. That should be enough to take the Saints in and of itself, but the Saints also throw effectively against big blitzes, and their secondary should be good enough to slow down the Vikes' passing attack. Also, it's going to be alot tougher for Favre to make calls at the line this week. Old dome=huge advantage. Saints. ($ -3.5)
Bucko: Guess what? I'm going with Brett Favre, Brett Favre, and Brett Favre.
Gopo: saints for sure. i've been waiting all season for favre to pull off one of his 3 int games, and i think this is it. i hope his arm falls off during one of the throws.

We have no Cavaliers coverage on Forest City Fanatics

Or so you thought! I'm here to help with my semi-periodic update on the city's highest-flying sporting organization. Well, until either the Cleveland Gladiators or my company's Corporate Challenge teams get rolling again.

I wrote about two months ago that fan excitement surrounding the Cavaliers was fairly low, surprising for a club of their merits. I chalked it up to Browns drama and the fact that the Cavalier season, quite frankly, doesn't start until April.

There was also much criticism of their play - problems with Shaq fitting in, losing focus in games against inferior opponents, inconsistency, and so on.

It's entirely possible much of that was overstated.

The Cavaliers are 32-11. They are on pace to win 61 games. They lead the Eastern Conference by three games over Boston, four on Atlanta, and five over some nonsense team from Central Florida. They have already finished both of their long Western swings, and will cross the Mississippi only once more this year, during a two-game road trip through New Orleans and San Antonio. They have 23 home games remaining versus just 16 roadies. Their remaining opponent win % is .483. They've been crushing good teams like the Lakers and Magic. They can play any style - fast, slow, big, small. They lead the league in opponent FG%. They've had almost no injury concerns this year - Jamario Moon's return next week brings them to full strength and Leon Powe's February return could bolster the roster further. Not to mention that they approach the trade deadline from a position of strength, flush with cash as clubs look to dump salary in the form of Troy Murphy, David West, and Antawn Jamison.

What's not to like? Go Cavs.

Sunday, January 17

Club Trillion

Move over Evan Turner, Mark Titus is my new favorite college basketball player. Titus is a walk-on senior for Ohio St, and averages less than one minute per game. While he might not be on the All-American team, he does have the best blog in all of sports. "Club Trillion" makes fun of things ranging from opposing teams and fans, to himself for being a benchwarmer, but also offers a rare perspective on the team from someone who sees it all from the bench. If you don't want to read his posts, I at least recommend checking out the "Mr. Rainmaker" video. You can see that he really is a great shooter, and the random "sportsmanship" and "hustle" parts are hilarious.

Friday, January 15

NFL Picks: Divisional Round

Not a good Wild-Card weekend for the FCF team. We all missed on the Ravens' disgusting win and the Cardinals' shootout victory, and only Nick hit on Dallas' pummeling of Philly. I also managed to miss the Jets for a clean 0-4 weekend, making me 1-7 the past two years on the NFL's opening round.

I was struck last weekend by the extent to which turnovers decide NFL Playoff games. I know it's not groundbreaking analysis to suggest that turnovers are important in football, but the extent to which they matter cannot be overstated. Look at last week's winners and their turnover differentials for the game:

Jets (+2)
Dallas (+3)
Baltimore (+2)
Arizona (+2)

I mean, that's absolutely staggering. This week, I'm going to try to simply pick the team who will turn the ball over the fewest times, as that is apparently the only thing that affects NFL outcomes.

In related news, three of us will be in Las Vegas for the weekend - I know I'll be laying some dollars on each these games to make things a little more exciting while I'm out west. I may even add the amount I'm wagering on each game if I get a chance. I'm also planning to put a few dollars on the Cavs' upcoming NBA Title. Hey, you only live once.

Last week
Andy: 0-4
Figgs: 1-3
Nick: 2-2
Bucko: 1-3
Gopo: 1-3
Nick's Money Picks ($): 2-1

AFC Division Playoffs

Saturday 8:15 pm
COLTS (-7) vs Ravens
Andy: The Ravens just sicken me. What a gross organization. But that's why this is such an appealing bet for me. If I take Baltimore, I get 7 points, making three scenarios possible:
1) Ravens get blown out. I lose some loot, but hey, Ravens get blown out!
2) Ravens lose a close game. Not only is this a quite likely scenario, as Gopo describes, but it's best-case for me, as their stupid purple asses get knocked out and I collect at the window. Drinks on me!
3) Ravens win. At least I'll have my precious money to make things better.
So, I'm taking Baltimore.
Figgs: I like (the pick of) the Ravens a lot here. I think they could win it outright, but probably lose by a few. Either way, I don't see it as a touchdown game. I just want to make sure to clarify that I do not, never have, or will ever like the Baltimore Ravens, I just like the pick here. One more time, Ravens = suck.
Nick: Colts. I should mention up front that I've had the opposite in every game this week, but I've really gotten down on Joe Flacco as the week progressed. If Indy can get ahead early, they'll run away with it. The key to this game? Stop Baltimore's running game. If Indy does that, they'll win handily. You can throw on the Ravens, by the way. Also, they suck.
Bucko: I feel like this might be a closer game than people think. I'm still hoping Indy wins, but I'm going to take the Ravens in this one.
Gopo: i'm really trying to be objective and set aside my hate for the ratbirds. but man, i really hate them. hmmm. this is really going to mess with my rooting loyalties, but i'll go with the ravens. they played them close the first time around and i don't think it'll be different this time.

Sunday 4:40 pm
CHARGERS (-8) vs Jets
Andy: I haven't bought the Jets all year, and I still don't. The Chargers have won 11 straight games, are rested, are at home, and are just a better football team than New York. Remember my turnover-differential discussion in the open to this article? San Diago is +10 for the year while the Jets are -2, thanks to Mark Sanchez' 20 picks, most in the AFC. More than Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn combined! Yeah, the Jets can run the ball, but that doesn't win playoff games in warm weather. Bolts.
Figgs: While watching that Jets/Bengals game last week, I continued to think, "Wow, whoever wins this will get killed by Indy or SD." I just think that the Bolts are a far superior team. San-Di-ego, super Charrrgers.
Nick: Jets. I've flip-flopped on this one like three times, but I'm back to my original pick. Without looking past the surface, I'd totally go Bolts here. Rivers vs. Sanchez should be enough to pick San Diego, right? Here's the thing - the Chargers' weaknesses play right into the Jets' strengths. The Jets can run the ball well, and the Chargers can't stop it. The Chargers are an incredible passing team, and the Jets are incredible against the pass, featuring the best corner in the league. I don't know if the Jets can win this outright, so I'm going to take the points, unlike last week. But 7.5 is too many here, and I think the Jets can keep it within the margin. ($ +7.5)
Bucko: I actually think the Jets are a better team than most analysts think they are. This is just one point too high for me. I take the J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets!
Gopo: that line is high. i think the chargers will win, but not sure its by more than a td. i'll go with the jets for now.

NFC Wild-Card Playoffs

Sunday 4:30 pm
SAINTS (-7) vs Cards
Andy: Whoa, it's getting crowded there on the Cardinals' bandwagon! I'll be sticking with the Saints. Rested, home in front of an insane crowd, with a defense that forces turnovers and an offense that can score in bunches. Everyone forgot about them because they lost a tough one to Dallas and a couple of unimportant season-enders, but this is still an excellent team. And check out the TO margin: Saints (+14), Cardinals (-5). The top team in the playoffs vs the bottom. Huge. [Granted, this was also the case with +25 Green Bay a week ago, but I can't let one game override my percentages.] I'll buck the national feeling and lay those points to back the 'Aints.
Figgs: The NFC games are much tougher to pick in my mind. This is gonna be a shootout, which means a late score may be meaningless but flip the spread. I'm going with the Cards, just because I wouldn't be surprised if they made a run like last year.
Nick: Saints. This feels like a huge "fade the public" game, and Kurt Warner can't play like Dan Marino two weeks in a row. The Saints also feel like they're playing for the still-wounded city of New Orleans, and they have one of the few remaining home-field advantages in the SuperDome. This game is kind of a crap shoot, but I'm betting that the Cards have trouble slowing down the Saints, and the Cards can't move the ball as well as they did last week. Plus, I really want to root for the Saints balls-out in this one. This is my dumbest bet of the weekend.
Bucko: I'm so pissed that Green Bay is out. The face mask should have been called. I'm going with the Cards here. I actually think they'll make it to the NFC Championship.
Gopo: i think the saints get shocked by the cards. they haven't been playing very well down the stretch and arizona is coming off a great game.

Sunday 1 pm
VIKINGS (-3) vs Cowboys
Andy: I've been wanting to bet against Minny for a month, and now I get a Cowboy team that's rolling and getting three points with which to do so. Not a huge TO differential (Dal +1, Min +4), but Tony Romo's ball security (ha!) has been excellent - just 5 picks in his past 13 outings. I've been lukewarm on Dallas all season, but it's time for me to recognize that they're good. As long as Tony Romo remembers where Jared Allen is and Brett Favre remembers how much he enjoys throwing the ball to the other team, Dallas can pull this off. Cowboys.
Figgs: I have no idea here. Will Tony Romo 'Tony Romo' it or will Bret Favre 'Bret Favre' it. My bet is that Homo makes the more costly mistake. Vikes.
Nick: Boys. I'm terrified that I've now piggy-backed all of Bill Simmons' picks, but hey, he can't go 0-4 again next week, right? This is my favorite game on the board. The Cowboys look tough, and the Vikings have some key injuries that hurt their defense. The Dallas defense is so fast, and turf will only make them faster. They will pressure Favre without blitzing against a suspect Minnesota line. Plus, I feel for Tony Romo. Dude gets a bad rap. Romo's a good quarterback, and seems like a new enough fella. I don't hate the Cowboys like some people, as I'm indebted to them for beating the Steelers in the Super Bowl back in the '90s. Plus, I like the Cowboys' running game. (Dallas - straight up)
Bucko: Like Frank Caliendo as Madden all I can say is Brett Favre, Brett Favre, Brett Favre! He'll find a way to pull it out in a close game. I'll say it first here. I wouldn't be suprised if Favre is a Brown next year.
Gopo: cowboys. i actually think the cowboys win this one outright - they are just rolling at the right time.

Thursday, January 14

Checks and Balances

Mike Holmgren's decision to retain Eric Mangini seems to have surprised just about everyone in the Cleveland Browns fraternity to some degree. We've certainly seen NFL coaches get sacked who had accomplished more than Mangini and who weren't lightning rods for controversy.

One of the most interesting things about Mangini is how the opinions of fans and media members see-sawed on him throughout the season. When the Browns sat at 1-11, you couldn't pay a Browns fan to back the beleaguered coach. Winning tends to cure most ills, and when Mangini's Browns reeled off four straight wins to close out the season, the landscape definitely changed.

When Mike Holmgren held his first press conference a few days before he announced the Mangini verdict, fan opinion seemed nearly split on whether Mangini should stay or go. At least in the last decade, we haven't seen the Cleveland fan base so polarized by one of the three teams' coaches. But what might be most interesting is not that Mangini is polarizing, but that the majority of his supporters and detractors tend to be fairly moderate. As opposed to say, Romeo Crennel, who had little or not support before he was fired, most folks who had their fingers on the pulse of the Cleveland Browns seemed to recognize Mangini's clear strengths and weaknesses, and simply believed that the bad outweighs the good, or vice-versa.

As for me, I was in the "fire Mangini" camp. While I believed (and still believe) that Mangini was a competent coach, I thought it would be too difficult for him to coexist with Mike Holmgren over the long haul. The two come from drastically different coaching backgrounds and as such, they have developed very different philosophies. Add in some of Mangini's questionable interactions with colleagues and the fact that Holmgren's arrival stripped him of total authority, and it seemed like the two would be on a collision course down the road. From Holmgren's perspective, it looked much safer to start from scratch.

But Holmgren saw things differently. After several lengthy meetings discussing philosophy and teamwork, Holmgren elected to keep Mangini. Apparently coaching schemes aren't as important to Holmgren as some of us believed, and he's more concerned with adding good people around him, regardless of X's and O's.

As I've mentioned before, I think Eric Mangini is a good coach. He's not Paul Brown, but he's a solid coach who got a raw deal last season in New York. (After more than a decade of Palmer/Davis/Crennel, "solid" would be a major upgrade.)

Mangini's Jets went 9-7 last season just like Rex Ryan's club this season, and they did so with inferior personnel and without the luxury of being gifted two wins to end the season. But a down year in the AFC allowed Ryan's Jets to sneak into the playoffs. Combine that with Rex Ryan's goofy "walking sound byte" demeanor, which runs in stark contrast to Mangini's reserved personality, and Rex Ryan has become a media darling while Mangini has been (sometimes fairly, and sometimes unfairly) vilified.

But back to Holmgren, there certainly were some external factors that played into his decision to keep Mangini. The lack of available alternatives, such as former Holmgren assistant Jon Gruden, was probably a factor. And even though Randy Lerner is playing with Monopoly money, I'm sure he wasn't wild about the possibility of paying three head coaches (Romeo Crennel's contract runs through 2011) for the next two seasons, especially with the specter of a lockout looming in 2011.

We've seen new management teams come in and tear organizations down to the bare bones. With Holmgren, who has stated that what made the Cleveland job so appealing was the total control he was granted and the fact that "no layers" existed between himself and Randy Lerner, it looked like a slam dunk that he would push the self-destruct button and build every facet of the organization in his image. But one enormous thing that retaining Eric Mangini indicates is that Holmgren is not only comfortable working with people who aren't necessarily "his guys," but he welcomes it.

One of the most difficult things to do in any sort of leadership position is to seek out dissenting opinions. We all like to believe that our way is the right way, and nobody relishes being told otherwise. But if you don't actively seek out different perspectives, you risk boxing yourself in creatively, and groupthink becomes a very real danger. With that in mind, it's encouraging that Mike Holmgren's first real decision as team president, retaining Mangini, will bring a very different voice and perspective to all major team decisions. Holmgren might not always take Mangini's advice, but it's important that debate will take place, and all of Holmgren's decisions won't simply be rubber stamped.

Let's shift the focus to Mangini, who certainly had his shortcomings in his first year with the Browns. In a process that made less sense than the last Matrix sequel, Eric Mangini essentially hired his own boss, former Browns general manager George Kokinis. It was clear from the beginning that Mangini had the power both on the field and in the front office. As a result, Mangini bears responsibility for some -- if not all -- of the personnel moves the Browns made in 2009.

Mangini's personnel record was truly a debacle. He received acceptable, but hardly great value for Kellen Winslow, he definitely sold low on Braylon Edwards, and his apparent aversion to star players was very unsettling. To run a winning football team, sometimes you have to tolerate a handful of eccentric personalities in order to build the most talented roster possible, and Mangini didn't seem to understand that.

Mangini had four draft picks in the first two rounds last year, and two of them (Robiskie, Veikune) didn't even dress for most games. Ray Charles was better at darts than Mangini was at drafting. The only saving grace of Mangini's draft was Alex Mack, who developed into a solid center by the end of the season.

Enter Mike Holmgren, who also didn't have a stellar draft record when he served as coach/GM of the Seahawks. In a strange twist of fate, the Browns hired a president who probably is sympathetic to the difficulty Eric Mangini faced in both constructing and coaching the Browns last season. Holmgren, who is a surefire Hall of Fame coach, probably understands better than anybody that even great coaches can't handle the enormous responsibility that comes with that dual role (with the one exception currently residing in the Boston area). With that in mind, Holmgren's experience almost certainly worked in Mangini's favor.

Once Mangini made it clear to Holmgren that he was comfortable staying in Cleveland even without control of personnel, Holmgren probably became pretty comfortable with Mangini. Holmgren knew that he's not a total authority on personnel either, especially on the defensive side of the ball, so he hired new general manager Tom Heckert to fill that role.

By adding Heckert to build the team, Holmgren has neutralized Eric Mangini's biggest weakness. Not only that, but by stripping Mangini of his personnel responsibilities Holmgren gave Mangini more time to focus on coaching the team, which puts him in a position to improve what was already his strength.

Since October, I've wanted to see Eric Mangini canned. I thought his weaknesses outweighed his strengths. But this new management structure will create clearly defined roles, and Eric Mangini's role will be that of the coach, not the general manager. There's a new sheriff in town, and it's the walrus, not the penguin. Mike Holmgren has made it clear that any kind of power play from Mangini will not be tolerated, and you can't sweet talk Holmgren like you can a certain phantom owner. If Mangini doesn't toe the line and stick to his specialty then he'll be terminated, and he's aware of that.

I'm still not sold on Mangini but I'm glad he's still the Browns' coach, which wasn't the case two weeks ago. While Mangini certainly has his faults, the checks and balances of this new managerial hierarchy should help him focus on what he does best: coaching (and only coaching).

It remains to be seen whether or not this new management team can help the Browns ascend out of the AFC North cellar, but the Browns' decision-makers are now credible football guys with proven track records, which is definitely a first for the post-1999 Browns. It has been 11 long, agonizing years, but the Browns might finally be back on track.

Wednesday, January 13

Turner Returns, Buckeyes Struggle, Then Topple #6 Purude

Last time I talked about Ohio St hoops, the Buckeyes were looking good at 7-1 and ranked in the top 15, but Evan Turner had just injured his back and was expected to be out eight weeks. A lot has happened since then. Needless to say, the Bucks had their troubles without him. They dropped their next contest in a close one against Butler. With an already thin bench, Turner's injury forced Jon Diebler and William Buford both to play the full 40 minutes, and David Lighty was in for 38. Buford led all scorers in the losing effort with 20.

Three mid-majors were up next on the schedule, and allowed OSU to keep winning without Turner. Buford, not Diebler or Lighty, seemed to be the go-to guy in Turner's absence. So even without their star, the Buckeyes were still looking good standing at 10-2 going into conference play. This is where things went south. They started Big Ten play with four out of their first five games on the road.

It began in Madison, Wisconsin, where nobody wins, so the loss wasn't very surprising or disappointing, but the fact that they lost by 22 and only scored 43 points was. Next up was a trip to Ann Arbor, where the Bucks gave up a late lead and lost to those inbreds for only the second time in the last nine contests. Ohio St just couldn't find an answer for DeShawn Simms or Manny Harris, two Big Ten POY candidates.

After only four weeks on the shelf, Evan Turner returned in the next game as the Buckeyes enjoyed coming back to Value City Arena and pounded Indiana for their first conference win. Diebler's 21 led the way for OSU, but perhaps the emotional uplift from Turner's 20 minutes on the court was the big difference. Back on the road, Ohio St traveled to Minnesota, where Turner seemed to be back in full swing, playing 38 minutes and leading OSU in scoring with 19. Unfortunately, the Buckeyes were outscored by 12 in the second half, and fell to 1-3 in the Big Ten.

Last night was a thriller in West Lafayette, when Ohio St played 6th ranked Purdue. Things didn't look good in the first half, when Boilermaker forward Robbie Hummel scored 26 points, hitting 8 of 10 from beyond the arc. Eight 3's in the first half! Trailing by 8-12 throughout most of the game, Turner decided to turn things around with 4 minutes left in the game, when he went on a 10-0 run himself to tie the game. Purdue just couldn't seemed to get past Ohio St's press, and committed turnover after turnover. Ohio St went on to win 70-66, with ET playing all 40 minutes and pouring in a career high 32 points. This, from a guy who is supposed to be sidelined another three weeks.

Things aren't going to get any easier for the Buckeyes in this tough conference, as #16 Wisconsin and a surprising 12-3 Northwestern club are up next on the schedule. Thankfully, these two are back in the friendly confines of Value City, before a tough non-conference road game against #9 West Virginia. But with Turner back and playing at this level, teams need to start looking out for the Buckeyes again.


Friday, January 8

NFL Picks: Wild-Card Round

Another season of guessing NFL lines is complete, at least the regular portion of it, and all of our prognosticators finished above .500. Andy edged Nick and Figgs to take the full-season title at 52.8%, while Dasharath and Bucko made their short-season debuts to the tune of 54.1% and 53.8%, respectively. Nick hit on 55.0% of his Money Picks, making the 2009 season a profitable one as well. Let's look at the Week 17 results and the final standings:

Last week
Andy: 10-6
Figgs: 9-7
Nick: 9-7
Bucko: 9-7
Gopo: 10-6
Nick's Money Picks ($): 3-1

Final regular-season results
Andy: 133-119-4
Figgs: 128-124-4
Nick: 129-123-4
Bucko: 42-36-2
Gopo: 33-28-3
Nick's Money Picks ($): 33-27

But we're certainly not done for the year - it's playoff time! Everyone loves the NFL's postseason, and we at FCF are no exception. We may even have a special feature for next week's division round.

The Wild-Card round is peculiar this year because we have THREE rematches of games played just last week! What are the odds of that? Well, considering that each team has 31 prospective opponents, the chances of any one team facing their Week 17 foe in a first-round playoff matchup should be 1/31. Not so fast - teams play more intraconference games (12) than interconference tilts (4), so it's actually 1/20 (3/4 intraconference games)*(1/15 other conference clubs) . Intradivision games are even more frequent, but not all Wild-Card matchups are necessarily intradivision, so we can't factor that in. But still! That makes the odds of having three such games in one Wild-Card weekend (1/20)*(1/20)*(1/17) = 1/6933, or roughly 0.014%. The 1/17 accounts for the fact that, in the conference with two rematches, two teams are taken out of the randomness. I'm sure I made a mistake in this calculation, but it's at least a good approximation and should give you some idea how odd this is.

Anyway, onto the games:

AFC Wild-Card Playoffs

Saturday 4:30 pm
BENGALS (-2.5) vs Jets
Andy: Wow, did the Jets ever destroy Cincinnati last weekend. Granted, Cincy wasn't at full strength, but still. I feel like people are lining up to get behind the AFC's New Jersey team, but I've liked this Bengal team all year and I still think they're tough. I'm bucking the national feeling (PTI asked: are the Jets a Super Bowl favorite?) and going with my Ohio mates. Bengals.
Figgs: I've been back and forth with both of these teams all year, so I'm pretty torn in this one. I don't have any confidence in Sanchez at all, but I do have a lot of confidence in their running game. Jets.
Nick: I really like the Jets here. Revis will take Ocho away, and I don't think Cincy has enough left in the passing game to make an impact. What the hell happened to Carson Palmer? He looked like the heir apparent to Manning a few years ago. These teams are kind of mirror images in that they both do the same things well - play defense and run the ball. The thing is, the Jets are doing both of those things better right now. Sanchez on the road in cold weather spooks me, but I think the Jets scheme around him and win the right to get destroyed in Indianapolis next week. ($ - straight up)
Bucko: I'm going with the J-E-T-S in this one. I completely agree with Nick's comments. I also feel the week off for Benson is going to hurt him.
Gopo: i too have gone back and forth on this several times. i'm going with my gut and picking the jets - also because the bengals haven't been playing very well recently. plus, it's always dangerous when your team is saying "we'll just step it up this time" after getting blown out the week before.

Sunday 1 pm
PATRIOTS (-3) vs Ravens
Andy: I don't have a really strong feeling on this one either way, except for two factors: 1) New England is really, really good at playoff games and 2) I really, really hate the Baltimore Ravens. Pats.
Figgs: Just like everyone else said. Brady, Belichick, Gillette, and the playoffs all put together? Even without Welker you gotta like the Pats in this one.
Nick: If I were forced to bet this, I'd go Pats because they're really tough at Gillette and it's usually pretty safe to pick Brady/Belichick in the playoffs. That said, the Welker thing throws a huge wrench into this, and I came to the conclusion that the only reason I was betting this game was to increase my interest - and that's not good when you're trying to win your bets. Hating the Ravens gives me plenty of interest, because with Pittsburgh on the outside looking in, Baltimore is now my number one enemy that needs to be destroyed. Pats.
Bucko: The Pats are without Welker, but I believe Baltimore is down a DB as well. I just don't think Rice can carry Baltimore in this one. Plus the Pats are at home.
Gopo: the only team i might hate more than the pats is the ravens. i wish them zero success. pats for one week only.

NFC Wild-Card Playoffs

Saturday 8 pm
COWBOYS (-4) vs Eagles
Andy: A few weeks ago, I would have laughed at this line, but Dallas completely dominated a Philly team with lots at stake last weekend to earn home-field in this one. The Cowboys are peaking, and Philly hasn't looked too strong these past couple of weeks. But I'm still taking the Eagles, who had a 6-game winning streak before their Dallas debacle. Andy Reid is good at two things: 1) wearing that one awesome hat he had in like 2002 and 2) advancing his team to the NFC title game. Eagles.
Figgs: I was planning on going with Philly for weeks, but now I don't know after last week's game. I guess I'm still gonna lead towards the Eagles, but I'm not comfortable with this one.
Nick: Dallas is getting hot at the right time, and they'll be at home with 110,000 packed into Dallas Stadium. You're telling me that the Boys are only a point better than the Iggles at a neutral site? I'm not buying it. Philly might have called off some of their blitz packages in the second half, but the Cowboys were running the ball at 6 YPG in addition to throwing it around. Philly's center is out for the remainder of the season, which is enormous this late in the year. The only way Philly has a shot is if Donovan can hook up with DeSean Jackson for two or three big plays. I think Dallas contains him. Pokes. ($)
Bucko: I know the Eagles got pounded last week, but for some reason I think they will bounce back here. I think they will do a better job of containing the Cowboy's running game. McNabb plays very well and Wade is still winless in the playoffs.
Gopo: eagles have been a team to be hot and cold all year. if they had won last week, i would have picked the cowboys. since they lost, i'm picking the eagles. makes perfect sense, right?

Sunday 4:40 pm
CARDS (-1) vs Packers
Andy: In taking the Bengals and Eagles, I've assumed a certain degree of revenge/pride motivation on the part of teams with rematches against opposing clubs who embarrassed them just a week earlier. For some reason, I view the Cards as too quirky and soft to draw such inspiration. Plus, I don't think they can stop Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense. Packers.
Figgs: I like the Pack here too. Rodgers might just take this team to the Super Bowl.
Nick: I'm calling for a complete repeat Sunday. The Packers could easily be riding an eight-game winning streak if not for the debauchery in Pittsburgh, and you could argue that they're playing the best football in the NFC. Green Bay's going to score enough to win, it's just a matter of whether or not their defense can contain Fitz and force Kurt Warner to move laterally. You pressure Warner and limit Fitz's big plays, and you win. Maybe even comfortably. Pack. ($)
Bucko: Packers all the way in this one. Rodgers has already had a great year, and he is getting a little better protection from his line. This guy should be in the MVP discussion. 4th in yards, 4th in QB rating, 4th in TD's, only 7 int's (least among starters), 64.7 completion %. Boldin still appears to be hurt. Woodson is playing awesome this year, and will be all over Larry Fitz. I'm predicting a GB vs. Indy Super Bowl. Both teams are possibilities for Bucko's future favorite team. Go Pack.
Gopo: packers. the only game i feel good about picking out of these four, which probably means that i'm getting it wrong. i don't think the cards d has a chance in hell of stopping the packers, and i think the packers will stop the cards enough to take this one.

Quick Browns hits

- Nothing not to like so far about the way Mike Holmgren has conducted himself as Cleveland Browns President thus far.

- Kinda surprised to see Mangini stay, but I think a little continuity is good. If he keeps showing progress and the players buy into the system, AND if he can coexist as third banana behind Holmgren and the new GM, this just might work.

- Josh Cribbs really, really should settle down. It's the third day of Holmgren's tenure and you're already crying about your contract? Maybe wait until a General Manager is hired? Nope, he and his douchebag agent are going on and on about how insulted they were by the Browns offer (in their defense, $1.4 million was comically low) and how Cribbs is never going to play as a Brown again.

Shut up. You're going to get $3 million next year and play in Cleveland, so chill out on the rhetoric and posturing. It's embarrassing, and you're wasting a lot of the popular capital you've earned over the past few years.

Plus: you can't just not play and demand a trade. If you don't play here under your contract, you don't play anywhere and don't get paid at all. That's how contracts work. I doubt the royalties from Josh's Cribbs are going to pay the bills. We all know you deserve a new deal, but empty threats aren't helpful. Relax, dude.

- Finally, I've been seeing far less steeler crap around town the past few weeks, and I love it.

Thursday, January 7

Buckeyes Feeling Rosey

Terrelle Pryor finally had his breakout game on a big stage, as Ohio St and the Big Ten in general finally got the proverbial monkey off their back as they won their first BCS bowl game in four tries since 2005. Pryor had career highs in attempts, completions, and yards en route to leading the Buckeyes past Oregon in the Rose Bowl, 26-17.

Before this game, I agreed with most commentators that yes, Ohio St hasn't seen an offense quite like Oregon's, but what people failed to see is that Oregon hasn't seen a defense even close to as good as this Buckeye unit. The OSU defense did a phenomenal job, and Pryor and the offense executed the game plan to perfection, completely controlling the ball. Ohio St had a Rose Bowl record 41:47 time of possession. I'll save you that mental math, that's compared to only 18:23 by the Ducks. Let's talk more about how great this game was.

Game Recap

Ohio St got the ball first and surprised everyone by coming out throwing, and throwing effectively. In the 10-play, 74-yard drive, coach Jim Tressel called 9 pass plays, one of which Pryor took off running. The drive ended when TP connected with Brandon Saine for 13 yards and the score, putting the Buckeyes up early. I didn't want to get too excited, because as we all know Ohio St has been known to score quick in big games, then just fall apart after that. However, that was not the case in this one.

The Buckeyes got the explosive Oregon offense off of the field quickly, but had to punt themselves after moving the ball pretty well. A holding penalty on the return pinned the Ducks inside their own 10, and after a three-and-out the Bucks got the ball back with great field position near midfield. On the first play of the drive, Pryor hit Saine again, this time for 46 yards down inside the 5. The drive stalled after Pryor fumbled but recovered himself and got stuffed twice, and OSU had to settle for a Devin Barclay field goal, putting them up 10-0.

Oregon moved the ball to begin the second quarter, but likewise was held to three, cutting Ohio St's lead to seven. After an OSU three-and-out, Jeremiah Masoli took the Ducks right down the field to set up a LeGarrette Blount short TD run to tie the game at 10. No punches were thrown in the celebration.

On their next possession, the Buckeyes continued to put the ball in the air, but they were short, safe passes, as they took 8 minutes off of the clock. Unfortunately, they were unable to put it in the end zone, and again were forced to attempt a field goal. Barclay was good from 30 yards out and the Buckeyes were back on top. Ross Homan picked off Masoli with 25 seconds left in the half, and Pryor hit Dane Sanzenbacher to set up a long field attempt as time expired. Back from a leg injury that sidelined him the second half of the season, big-legged kicker Aaron Pettrey came on and nailed the 45-yarder to end the half with Ohio St on top, 16-10.

We saw vintage "zone read" offense by Oregon on the first drive of the half, and they marched right down the field, taking their first lead of the game when Masoli ran it in himself. Ohio St got the lead right back when a DeVier Posey 38 yard catch set up another field goal. This time OSU went back to Barclay, and he was true from 38 yards. Minutes later, Oregon appeared to be lined up to get back on top, but Blount fumbled at the goal line and Ohio St recovered for a touchback. Both defenses tightened up, and we headed to the 4th quarter with Ohio St leading, 19-17.

The Buckeyes got the ball with 13 minutes to go in the game, and we all may have witnessed Terrelle Pryor mature in front of our eyes. Pryor led the Fighting Brutus' on a 13 play, 81 yard drive, eating up over six minutes of the clock. The key play of the drive, and in my opinion the play of the game, saw TE Jake Ballard made an incredible catch for 24 yards on a 3rd and 13 to keep the drive going. Posey capped it off by making a very difficult catch himself in the corner of the end zone, and Ohio St had a nine-point lead with under seven minutes to go. Things were looking good, but with Oregon's quick-strike offense, this game wasn't over yet.

A big return for the Ducks gave them the ball on the OSU 35, but they were unable to move the ball from there, and attempted a 45 yard field goal to bring the game within one possession. Morgan Flint missed the kick, and the Bucks got the ball back with 5 minutes left to play and a chance to run out the clock. That is precisely what Pryor and Ohio St did, picking up four first downs and never giving Oregon a chance to get the ball back. Final score, 26-17. The Buckeyes are Rose Bowl champs for the first time since 1997!

Game Notes

Game Ball
Terrelle Pryor was the Rose Bowl MVP, but more importantly, recipient of his season-leading third irrelevant Jason Figurski game ball. As I mentioned before, Pryor's 37 attempts, 23 completions, and 266 yards were all career highs. He also was the team's leading rusher with 20 carries 72 yards. Sanzenbacher was his main target, grabbing 9 balls for 64 yards, but the two often appeared to be out of sync. Posey was the big playmaker in this one, catching 8 passes for 101 yards and a score. Let's hope he can carry this momentum into next season.
Game Balls to date: Pryor (3), Defense (2), Saine, Coleman, Posey, Heyward, O-Line, Tressel

Dominating Defense
As great as Pryor was, Ohio St's defense carried this team yet again. All you heard about going into this game was how great Masoli, LaMichael James, Blount, and this Duck offense was. Let's just say that the defenses in the Pac 10 aren't quite up to par with this Buckeye unit. Let's take a look at Oregon's regular season averages compared to their Rose Bowl stats (regular season listed first).

PPG - 37.7 (17); YPG - 424.7 (260); T.O.P. - 28:12 (18:23)

What's this again about Big Ten defenses not being able to hang with Pac 10 and SEC offenses?

Go Big Ten!
With michigan being one of the four Big Ten teams that didn't make a bowl (hahahaha) I was free to root all out for the conference (although I still had a hard time even mouthing the words "Go Wisconsin/Iowa"). The Big Ten finished with a good but not spectacular 4-3 record, but if you look deeper into these games, you have to be impressed. The only disappointment was Minnesota losing to Iowa St, as they were the conference's only favorite. The other six teams were all underdogs, and many people were expecting several double-digit losses and another embarrassing post season. The Big Ten had other ideas.

The conference's four best teams all faced very tough opponents, but all came out on top. I was very happy to see Penn St beat LSU, because I hate how everyone is always on their knees for the SEC. Wisconsin dicked all over Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl, Iowa surprised me controlling the entire game and beating Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, and of course Ohio St's Rose Bowl victory. The other two teams, Michigan St and Northwestern, were not given a chance to win, but Texas Tech needed a late rally to beat MSU and it took overtime for Auburn to get past Northwestern in one of the most exciting Bowl games of the season. Hopefully this will shut up some Big Ten haters, at least for the time being.

Senior Class
At the end of each season, I like to give a shout out to all the seniors that will be moving on who played a significant role for the Buckeyes. Fortunately, there are not many this year. The biggest loss will certainly be captain and team MVP Kurt Coleman. He has been a force the past three seasons, and will surely be missed. Departing along with him will be seven other starters, but LB Austin Spitler and DT Doug Worthington are the only ones who had a big impact on this team. The others are SS Anderson Russell, RT Jim Cordle, TE Jake Ballard, K Aaron Pettrey, and P Jon Thoma. Russell made some big plays at times, but was benched on more than one occasion this season for his inconsistency. Cordle and Pettrey were pretty good, but were injured much of this season and we didn't seem to miss them all that much. Ballard was solid but certainly replaceable, and Thoma was fucking terrible.

Other than Coleman, the biggest loss for the team will be DE Thaddeus Gibson, who announced he will be turning pro. I don't know where he's projected to go, but it would have been nice to see him come back. On a good note, fellow defensive lineman Cameron Heyward said he was coming back. Either way, congrats to these guys on very successful careers, and hopefully we'll see a few of them playing on Sundays.

2010 Outlook
I assume Ohio St will end up in the top 5 along with Texas, Alabama, Florida, and Boise St when the final polls come out. Put that top 5 finish along with 9 returning starters on offense (including all skill position players), 7 on defense, a great coaching staff, and the expectations of a seemingly maturing Terrelle Pryor, and you have to expect Ohio St to be one of the favorites for the National Title yet again. Thankfully, USC is off the schedule, but replaced with another tough challenge in Heisman candidate Jacory Harris and Miami. But that game will be in Columbus, the other non-conference games are gimmies, and both Penn St and michigan come to The Shoe, so the schedule certainly sets up for a title run. The key, just as it was the past two seasons, will be the development of Terrelle Pryor.


Tuesday, January 5

Reaping the whirlwind

What a difference a month makes. A month ago the Browns were in the middle of a seven-game losing streak with no end in sight, Mike Holmgren appeared disinterested in Cleveland, and Eric Mangini seemed as good as gone. A month later, the Browns have closed the season with a four-game winning streak (only the Chargers have a longer active streak) that included a signature win over the Steelers, Mike Holmgren is in town to guide the organization as an all-powerful president, and Eric Mangini will at least have an opportunity to plead his case to the newly crowned king of Cleveland football.

The most shocking thing about the last month has been drastic reversal of fan morale, particularly as it pertains to Mangini. A month ago, it would’ve been tough to find a Browns fan with a pulse that supported the beleaguered coach. Anyone who claimed to support Mangini had little reasoning beyond “you can’t fire a coach after just one season.” Now it looks like the majority of the fan base is behind Mangini, although some are certainly more passionate in their support than others.

Eric Mangini will carry that momentum into his meeting with Mike Holmgren, which will take place sometime Tuesday. Holmgren is in a tough situation, as either firing or retaining Mangini leaves him open to legitimate criticisms. His hiring was incredibly popular and he has political capital to burn, but Holmgren is facing a bit of a catch-22.

A great deal of emphasis is being placed on this meeting, but other than determining whether the two men can coexist in the same room for several hours, it’s tough to see what it can really accomplish. Eric Mangini and Mike Holmgren hail from drastically different football backgrounds; Holmgren is a West Coast offensive coach, while Mangini is a somewhat conservative defensive coach, who would probably love to play Tresselball if he had the appropriate personnel. No meeting is going to alter those foundations.

Eric Mangini will probably be willing to make numerous concessions in order to keep his job. He might not be thrilled about it, but there are only 32 NFL head coaching jobs, and Mangini can’t be sure that he’ll ever get another shot. I’m guessing that Mangini will be receptive to changing the offense to a true West Coast scheme, but may put up more of a fight to maintain the 3-4 defense. The offensive system will be a definite deal breaker for Holmgren. However, Holmgren, who prefers a 4-3 defense, might be more flexible with the defensive scheme.

The problem probably won’t be schematic discussions, as Mangini will likely be willing to accept almost any condition that Holmgren lays out, including working under a new team president (Holmgren) and general manager (TBA). The problem is whether or not Holmgren can believe anything coming out of Mangini’s mouth. Let’s face it –, just about anything Mangini says will be said in the interest of self-preservation, and he will save any organizational battles for down the road. That’s where the problem lies for Mangini, who in league circles simply lacks credibility and to some degree, integrity.

I’ve weighed Mangini’s fate over the last few weeks, and the team’s recent success has moved the incumbent coach’s destiny solidly into the grey area. In spite of Mangini’s schematic and on-the-field strengths and weaknesses, a dead horse which I won’t continue to beat, I keep coming back to his teamwork issues, namely one George Kokinis.

In one of the most bizarre hiring processes I can recall, Eric Mangini chose his own “boss,” former general manager George Kokinis. In the interest of full disclosure, I liked the Mangini hiring. He was a young coach who had won before, had head coaching experience, and seemed to get a raw deal in New York. Honestly, what coach gets fired after finishing 9-7 and almost making the playoffs? Mangini was coaching the New York Jets, not the Florida Marlins! Hiring Mangini before creating a management structure was suspect, but I rationalized it by looking at the Belichick-Pioli relationship. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in doing so, because as fans, it’s not very much fun to treat a new regime as doomed from day one. We often hope for the best even when we fear the worst.

But back to Kokinis – how can we expect Mangini to answer to not one, but two superiors, when he couldn’t even handle one “superior” (make no mistake – Mangini was wearing the pants in that relationship) whom he hand-picked? Not only did that marriage end in divorce, it only lasted eight games. Mangini might be able to say the right things and try to convince Holmgren that he can tolerate authority, but given Mangini’s history with Kokinis, the odds would be overwhelmingly stacked against smooth sailing.

This isn’t an isolated incident, either. One of the most disconcerting things about Mangini is not only his desire for complete control, but the way he deals with those close to him. Kokinis was a good friend and Mangini couldn’t share power with him, but consider Mangini’s departure from the Patriots, also.

When the Jets wanted to interview Mangini for their vacant head coaching position in 2006, Bill Belichick asked Mangini to wait one more year. Belichick knew that Mangini eventually getting a head coaching gig was a slam dunk, and he also knew that their friendship probably couldn’t survive if Mangini left to coach a division rival. Belichick was Mangini’s mentor and friend, and Mangini owed much of his career success to Belichick. Instead of being patient, Mangini went to New York anyway. On top of that, he blew the whistle on Belichick in the now infamous “Spygate” incident, which was probably the final nail in the coffin containing their friendship. (And for the record, everyone steals defensive signals. They might not tape them, but they do steal them, and the Patriots probably weren’t the only team to tape them.)

After losing to the Detroit Lions earlier this season, Mangini accused the Lions of faking injuries to slow down the Browns’ no-huddle offense. Who coaches the Detroit Lions? Jim Schwartz, another former Belichick assistant with whom Mangini is familiar.

On their own, these incidents can be explained away and rationalized, but together they form a pattern. Eric Mangini has no loyalty to his colleagues with whom he’s worked closely and befriended, or even to Belichick, the man most responsible for his rise through the coaching ranks. As much as Mangini preaches teamwork on the field, he doesn’t seem to practice his own philosophy off the field or in the front office.

We’ve all met people like this. The most gifted student I met in business school had trouble functioning on a team. She constantly went over everyone else’s head and complained to the professor about any group decision with which she didn’t totally agree. She was a crazy-smart, industrious accounting student who nailed every test, but when it came to working as part of a team in a strategy class, she couldn’t do it. I see parallels with Mangini, who is obviously an intelligent fellow and works very diligently, but for whatever reason is unable to play nice.

There are multiple reports that Mangini is going to be fired. Nothing has been confirmed by a major newspaper or sports media outlet, and some are also reporting that there’s a 50-50 chance that Mangini will be back. There’s a good chance that by the time you’re reading this, Mangini’s fate has been sealed, one way or another. But if Mangini is fired, it will not only be for philosophical differences with Holmgren, but also because his reputation and inability to maintain professional relationships has finally caught up with him.

If he’s fired, Mangini will catch on as an assistant somewhere. That’s a given. But it’s not a given that he will get another shot at a top job. If that is indeed the case, Mangini may find himself looking back and wondering whether or not he should have treated people differently throughout his career. It’s tough to be successful personally or professionally when all you do is burn bridge after bridge.
Maybe Mangini can learn something from his mistakes. Maybe we can, too.

The Buckeyes through the 2000's

The 2000's were, quite simply, a great time to be a fan of Ohio State Buckeyes football. Jim Tressel took the helm in 2001, and since the dawn of the new millennium, the Buckeyes have claimed six Big Ten championships, earned bids to seven BCS bowls, went 8-2 against the school up north (six straight and counting), and ran the table at 14-0 to earn the 2002 National Championship.

There's a lot of good stuff - let's rank these 10 memorable squads:

10) 2000
Record: 8-4
4th Place, Big Ten
michigan result: L 38-26
Bowl Result: Outback vs South Carolina, L 24-7
Team MVP: RB Derek Combs

This was the last of the John Cooper era, which explains the inevitable loss to michigan. You can tell that it wasn't a very successful year when Derek Combs was the MVP and I have no recollection of anyone by that name playing for Ohio St. The QB tandem was Steve Bellisari and Stanley Jackson, neither of them being very good. Reggie Germany and Ken-Yon Rambo were the receiving duo, and the only thing good about them was how awesome Rambo's name is. There were a few standouts from the 90's that carried over to this team like C LeCharles Bentley and CB Nate Clements, so it wasn't all bad. It was also the sophomore campaigns of safeties Mike Doss and Donnie Nickey, who would come to play much larger roles as time went on.

The Bowl game was a beat down at the hands of none other than Lou Holtz himself in the Outback. Not a very good ending to Cooper's career or a start to the decade, but as we all know, things got much better after that.

9) 2001
Record: 7-5
3rd Place, Big Ten
Michigan result: W 26-20
Bowl Result: Outback vs South Carolina, L 31-28
Team MVP: RB Jonathan Wells

Well, not too much better, as the '01 team wasn't much of an improvement from the previous year. It did, however, provide some optimism, as Jim Tressel took the reins and really got fans and players alike to buy into his philosophy, especially when in his first public appearance as head coach at an OSU basketball game he talked about wanting to beat michigan. Remember, this was right after we had to suffer through the Cooper years against michigan, when he once called it "just another game." Bellisari and Jackson were both back and continued splitting time behind center, but the RB position got an upgrade with Jonathan Wells. Other than those guys, the rest of the team was basically just a young and inexperienced version of the 2002 team that won the national championship. Michael Jenkins, Will Smith, Matt Wilhelm, Doss and Nickey all saw significant playing time but weren't quite ready to become stars yet.

The Bowl game was a thriller, as the Buckeyes traveled to the Outback to face Holtz and South Carolina for the second straight year. It looked like it was going to be another laugher, as Carolina had a 28-7 lead going into the 4th quarter. OSU scored the next 21 points to tie the game, only to watch the Gamecocks kick a last second field goal to prevail. Trust me this time, things definitely got better from here.

8) 2004
Record: 8-4
5th Place (tied), Big Ten
Michigan result: W 37-31
Bowl Result: Alamo vs Oklahoma St, W 33-7
Team MVP: K Mike Nugent

Going into the '04 season, expectations were pretty high in Columbus even though most of the starters from the previous season were gone. The reason for this optimism was the coming of freshman "sensation" quarterback Justin Zwick. After having an unbelievable high school career and being named Mr. Ohio, Zwick was expected to dominate at the collegiate level as well. Not so fast, my friend. Zwick had an awful first few games, and was eventually benched in favor of a fellow freshman that was not nearly as heavily recruited and much less publicized, Troy Smith. I wonder how things would have changed if Zwick had just been average for four seasons. Would we have even seen Smith?

DB's Chris Gamble and Dustin Fox were about the only stars that were back from the '02 title team, along with Mike Nugent. That explains the poor record, but it did provide an opportunity for younger players to step up, and many of them did. Sophomore WR Santonio Holmes and freshman RB Antonio Pittman both made their mark, as did freshman WR Ted Ginn, who had his breakout game in the Alamo Bowl. I'll never forget that play when he reversed his field and should have been tackled 10 times before breaking off a long run.

The season provided some exciting moments, like the triple overtime victory over Philip Rivers, Jerricho Cotchery and N.C. St. It also began the winning streak over michigan, which now stands at six games. The Bowl game was an interesting story. Troy Smith had a great season after taking over the QB spot, but he got suspended for the game (for a D.U.I. I believe, but not positive) and the Buckeyes had to go back to Zwick. He responded by having a great game, as OSU pounded Oklahoma St 33-7.

7) 2003
Record: 11-2
2nd Place (tied), Big Ten
Michigan result: L 35-21
Bowl Result: Fiesta vs Kansas St, W 35-28
Team MVP: WR Michael Jenkins

I originally had this team ranked #5, but Andy talked me into moving the two most recent seasons ahead of it. Going by overall talent, this group should be higher, but it was a disappointing season, and the fact that they lost to michigan was the final decision maker in moving them down. They basically had the same group of guys that won it all in 2002, including Craig Krenzel, Mike Doss, and Chris Gamble, so expectations were super-high going into the season. Those expectations were crushed in mid-October when the Buckeyes took their 19-game winning streak into Madison, Wisconsin. With the game tied at 10 in the 4th quarter, OSU linebacker Robert Reynolds choked out Badger QB Jim Sorgi, literally. While on the bottom of the pile, you could actually see Reynolds' hands around Sorgi's neck. Sorgi had to be taken out of the game, because he physically couldn't talk loud enough to call the plays. Enter Matt Schabert, who ultimately throws the game-winning 80-yard touchdown pass to Lee Evans in the game's final minutes. Damn you, Reynolds.

Ohio St won their next few games up until the loss to that school up north, but ended the season on a high note by beating Kansas St in the Fiesta Bowl. The Buckeye defense did an excellent job containing Wildcat superstar running back Darren Sproles, freshman WR Santonio Holmes had his break out game, and the best senior class of the decade ended their incredible careers with a W.

6) 2009
Record: 10-2
1st Place, Big Ten
Michigan result: W 21-10
Bowl Result: Rose vs Oregon, W 26-17
Team MVP: S Kurt Coleman

This was a very up and down season, as Terrelle Pryor's inconsistency led us through a roller-coaster year filled with entertaining highs and devastating lows. We'll begin with the lows, as OSU's hopes for an undefeated season and National Championship were again put to a halt early on at the hands of USC. Unlike the previous season, Ohio St actually outplayed SC in this one, but Matt Barkley's last-minute drive buried the Buckeyes. By far the worst game of the season for Pryor and the Bucks came in West Lafayette with an eight-point loss to a bad Purdue team, where Pryor turned the ball over four times himself.

That being said, there were far more good moments of the season, headed by last week's Rose Bowl win over Oregon. Hopefully this shuts up some Big Ten bashers and people who insist Tressel "can't win the big one." There was also the dominating victory over Penn St in Happy Valley, and of course our annual stomping of the wolverines.

Senior captain Kurt Coleman led a devastating defense that was supposed to be on a down season for a group that lost some big playmakers. Ends Thaddeus Gibson and Cameron Heyward were spectacular, as were linebackers Brian Rolle and Ross Homan.

5) 2008
Record: 10-3
1st Place (tied), Big Ten
Michigan result: W 42-7
Bowl Result: Fiesta vs Texas, L 24-21
Team MVP: RB Beanie Wells

After they won the Rose Bowl, I considered swapping the '09 squad with this one, but decided to stay put due to the fact that this team had some things that the '09 one didn't, namely Beanie Wells, Malcolm Jenkins, and James Laurinaitis. All three of these guys were on my All-Decade team, so I had to put their team in the top half.
True freshman Terrelle Pryor was very inconsistent in this season as well, so the passing game never really took off. WR's Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline were coming off very productive junior seasons, but both had disappointing years. So OSU rode their horse, and Wells responded by having an unbelievable season, comparable to those of Buckeye legends Eddie George and Archie Griffin. The defense was top-notch as always, led by the aforementioned Jenkins and Laurinaitis, as well as LB Marcus Freeman, S Kurt Coleman, and DE Thaddeus Gibson.

The season started off very poorly, when the Buckeyes got manhandled in the Coliseum by USC. Later on, OSU dropped a nail-biter to Penn St but still got a share of the Big Ten title after a 35-point drubbing of michigan. The Fiesta Bowl was a thriller, but Colt McCoy's last minute TD pass to Quan Cosby ended the Buckeyes' season in defeat.

4) 2005
Record: 9-2
1st Place (tied), Big Ten
Michigan result: W 25-21
Bowl Result: Fiesta vs Notre Dame, W 34-20
Team MVP: LB A. J. Hawk

This might have been the decade's most complete team when you consider how balanced they were on offense, defense, and special teams. The offense was led by QB Troy Smith, who had an amazing season. RB Antonio Pittman was also very good, and Santonio Holmes, Ted Ginn, and Anthony Gonzalez made up the decade's best receiving corps, not just at Ohio St, but possibly the nation. This is starting to sound like a broken record, but the defense was amazing again, led by team MVP and Butkus award-winner A.J. Hawk.

In what would become a trend later in the decade, the Buckeyes lost an early contest against a highly rated non-conference opponent. I attended this one, when Vince Young threw a touchdown pass to Limas Sweed in the game's final seconds to lead Texas to victory. They also lost a close one to Penn St, but ended the year on a seven game winning streak, including pounding Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. The 650+ yards that the Irish gave up was the most ever in the storied program's history.

3) 2007
Record: 11-2
1st Place, Big Ten
Michigan result: W 14-3
Bowl Result: National Championship vs LSU, L 38-24
Team MVP: RB Beanie Wells

Todd Boeckman stepped in at the quarterback position, attempting to fill the shoes of departed signal-caller and Heisman trophy-winner Troy Smith. He did an admiral job, being named to the All-Conference team and bringing his team to the National Title game. Beanie Wells was the feature of the offense, and was named team MVP for the first of what would be two consecutive years. Brians Robiskie and Hartline had big seasons before becoming afterthoughts as seniors. The defense was devastating, with DE Vernon Gholston breaking Mike Vrabel's single-season sack record, and linebackers James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman and corner Malcolm Jenkins becoming household names.

OSU won the first 10 games of the season, but suffered what appeared to be a season-ruining defeat at home against Illinois. After disposing of michigan (again), the college football gods were wearing scarlet and gray, as every team ahead of the Bucks lost in the final weeks of the season and the one-loss Buckeyes found themselves in the National Championship. This turned out to be a bad thing, as they were stomped by LSU.

2) 2006
Record: 12-1
1st Place, Big Ten
Michigan result: W 42-39
Bowl Result: National Championship vs Florida, L 41-14
Team MVP: QB Troy Smith

This was the most talented team of the 2000's, but are only ranked #2 due to the end result. Troy Smith won the Heisman trophy, Ted Ginn was, well, Ted Ginn, Anthony Gonzalez was as good of a #2 receiver as you will ever see, RB Antonio Pittman had a stellar season sharing carries with freshman Chris Wells, Quinn Pitcock was an All-American defensive tackle, and sophomores Vernon Gholston, Malcolm Jenkins, James Laurinaitis, and Marcus Freeman burst onto the defensive scene.
Ohio St ran the table in the regular season, going 12-0. The highlights came in Austin, Texas as the Bucks avenged the previous year's loss against the Longhorns by routing them 24-7, and in The Shoe when Ohio St edged michigan in what was being called "The Game of the Century." OSU and scUM entered the game as the top two ranked teams in the nation, and Ohio St's late interception sealed a 42-39 Ohio St victory.

Much controversy surrounded who the Buckeyes' opponent would be in the title game, as OSU was the only unbeaten team in the power conferences. Should we be forced to beat michigan again? Give undefeated, untested Boise St a shot? The BCS decided that Florida was the most deserving, and Ohio St went in as heavy favorites. The Buckeyes started the game the best way possible, as the human-highlight reel Ted Ginn took back the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Everything went downhill from there, hard and fast. Ginn was injured during the touchdown's celebration, and spent the conclusion of his college career on crutches. Florida went on a 41-7 run, embarrassing Ohio St and the Big Ten, and marking the beginning of my unbelievable hatred for Tim Tebow, which has grown every single day since.

1) 2002
Record: 14-0
1st Place (tied), Big Ten
Michigan result: W 14-9
Bowl Result: National Championship vs Miami, W 31-24 2OT
Team MVP: QB Craig Krenzel, WR/CB/Ret Chris Gamble

If a team wins one championship in the decade, is there really any question on who should be #1? This team will always hold a special place in my heart, as they were the first (and currently only, c'mon Cavs!) of my favorite teams to win a title. Craig Krenzel didn't have the strongest arm or quickest feet, but his accuracy, decision-making, and leadership led this team to a perfect season. Freshman sensation RB Maurice Clarett did most of the offensive work, and WR Michael Jenkins provided many big plays. C Alex Stepanovich and T Shane Olivea anchored the decade's best offensive line. This was a very good unit, but the strength of this team was definitely on the defensive side. The top secondary of the decade was made up of Chris Gamble, Dustin Fox, Will Allen, Donnie Nickey, and Mike Doss. Other standouts included DE Will Smith, DT Kenny Peterson, and LBs Matt Wilhelm and Cie Grant. They also had the nation's best kicker in the 2000's, fan favorite Mike Nugent.

Ohio St had probably the most exciting season that I will ever witness, in any sport. It started with a shoot out win over Texas Tech, then blowouts over Kent St and Washington St. The first of many nail-biters came against Cincinnati, when Will Allen intercepted a pass in the endzone with 30 seconds left to complete a four-point win. Chris Gamble was used on defense for the first time in this game, and had an interception which made Tressel think that maybe this could be a good idea. After crushing Indiana to start conference play, OSU had another surprisingly close victory against a 2-3 Northwestern team.

Trailing Wisconsin in the 4th quarter, the Buckeyes needed a 50 yard pass to Jenkins and a late INT in the end zone by Gamble to win this one, 19-14. In Happy Valley, Gamble started on both offense and defense for the first time, and had a pick-six to help the Bucks beat PSU, 13-7. Ohio St finally had an easy one the following week when they pounded Minnesota 34-3.

Up next was a trip to Purdue in the infamous "Holy Buckeye" game. Trailing 6-3 with two minutes to go, Tressel made a rare bold call when he went for it on 4th and 1 instead of letting Nugent attempt a 50+ yard field goal. In an even more bold move, Krenzel went deep to Jenkins and completed a 40 yard touchdown pass to win it, a play which prompted Brent Musburger to exclaim, "Holy Buckeye!" Chris Gamble ended another comeback attempt by intercepting Kyle Orton in the final minute.

It took overtime for OSU to beat Illinois the following week, with Maurice Hall, filling in for an injured Clarett, scoring the winning touchdown. In the final week of the regular season, Ohio St defeated michigan, 14-9. Will Allen picked off John Navarre at the goal line in the game's final play to clinch an undefeated regular season.

Ohio St came into the National Championship game as big-time underdogs, facing a Miami team that was riding an absurd 34-game winning streak. The Buckeyes came out inspired and focused, and surprised everyone by leading 14-7 at halftime. In the third quarter, Ohio St had the ball inside the 10 yard line, when Krenzel was picked off by Sean Taylor. In the play of the game, Maurice Clarett stripped Taylor on his return to keep the ball in OSU's possession. Later in the same quarter, Will Allen put on hit on Willis McGahee, appearing to rip his leg in half, and Willis was done for the day. Miami kicked a late field goal to tie the game and send it to over time.

Trailing by seven, Ohio St seemingly missed a 4th down, and the celebration began for the Hurricanes. On what would become known as "The Call," a late flag came in and Miami was called for pass interference. With new life, the Buckeyes brought the game into double OT, where they won it with a Mo Clarett touchdown and a goal line stand on the two yard line. The game will forever go down as one of the greatest upsets in college football history, and my favorite game of all time. I still watch it at least once a year.

All-Decade Team

This was a lot easier to pick than I had expected. There was a few guys that I had to leave off that I would have liked to have put on there, but I didn't have too much trouble for the most part. Obviously there are a lot of guys from the '02 team that I ranked as the #1 squad.

QB Troy Smith ('04-'06)
RB Beanie Wells ('06-'08), Antonio Pittman ('05-'06)
WR Michael Jenkins ('00-'04)), Ted Ginn ('04-'06)
TE Ben Hartsock ('01-'03)
C LeCharles Bentley ('98-'01)
OG Alex Stepanovch ('01-'03), Nick Mangold ('04-'06)
OT Alex Boone ('05-'07), Shane Olivea ('00-'03)
DE Will Smith ('00-'03) Vernon Gholston ('05-'07)
DT Kenny Peterson ('99-'02), Quinn Pitcock ('02-'06)
LB Matt Wilhelm ('00-'04), A.J. Hawk ('02-'06), James Laurinaitis ('05-'08)
CB Chris Gamble ('02-'06), Malcolm Jenkins ('04-'08)
S Donnie Nickey ('00-'03), Mike Doss ('00-'03)
K Mike Nugent ('02-'06)
P A.J. Trapasso ('04-'08)

Honorable Mention: QB Craig Krenzel ('00-'03), RB Maurice Clarett ('02), Santonio Holmes ('02-'05), Anthony Gonzalez ('03-'06), OT Kirk Barton('04-'07), DE Thaddeus Gibson ('07-Pres.), DT Cameron Heyward ('07-Pres.), LB Marcus Freeman ('05-'08), CB Dustin Fox ('02-'05), S Donte Whitner ('03-'06), S Kurt Coleman ('06-Pres.)

I will love Krenzel until the day I die, and I still haven't forgiven Smith for his BCS performance, but the QB position was still a no-brainer. Smith was the only Heisman winner in the decade, and simply an incredible player. Beanie was an obvious choice for RB1. I thought about Clarett for the second one, but he only played one year and was just such a mess. Pittman was a really good back for a couple of years. WR was the toughest because I had the most trouble leaving Holmes and Gonzalez off, but I don't think you could go away from Jenkins and Ginn. Ohio St has just been loaded with stud receivers, dating back to Cris Carter in the '80s then on to Terry Glenn, David Boston, and Joey Galloway in the '90s to these guys in the 2000s. The tight end position has mainly served as an extra lineman for the Buckeyes, as they spend the majority of their time blocking with a few catches sprinkled in. That being said, Hartsock definitely did the most damage catching passes out of any other TE in this decade, plus he has a ring. I had to do some tinkering with the o-line, because the three best guys (Bentley, Stepanovich, Mangold) all played the majority of their time at center. So Stepanovich and Mangold went to the guard spots, where they both played occasionally throughout their careers. Although Barton was pretty good, Olivea and Boone were obvious choices at the tackles.

On the defensive side of the ball, I found it to be just as easy. Gibson and Heyward have been good, but are hurt by the fact that their senior seasons won't be a part of this decade, so the line had the easy selections of Smith and Peterson from the championship team to go along with Pitcock and single season sack record holder Gholston. The linebackers were the easiest choices on the team. When I was doing some research for this article, I found several sources that had Hawk and Laurinaitis on their All-Decade team for the nation, so clearly they're deserving of spots on the OSU squad. Wilhelm wasn't nearly as good as those two, but still a great player and leader on the championship defense. The secondary was a lot tougher, with standouts like Coleman and Whitner not making the cut. Doss and Jenkins were easy picks, but going with Nickey and Gamble was a more difficult decision. The deciding factor was that they each won a championship and the other guys didn't. Kicker was the most obvious choice on the board, as Nugent was everyone's choice for kicker of the decade throughout the entire nation. I debated between Trapasso and Andy Groom at punter, but ultimately decided to go with Trap.

We should all consider ourselves to be incredibly lucky to be fans during this time period. The talent level of players and teams that we have witnessed over the last ten years will be very difficult to match. Here's to hoping we can have another stretch like this over the next decade.