Saturday, January 02, 2010

Sports Talkers

I give credit to sports reporters and commentators. Sure, they're cliche-ridden. In addition to the usual nomenclature, this year's flavor of the tongue in football includes "makes plays" as in this player/offense/defense not only does this and that, but most importantly, they "make plays." Another favorite concerns players who are good "in space." They don't mean outer space, but in what used to be called the "open field." Or sometimes, just when not in direct contact with other bodies. And therefore the cliche of the year has to do with players capable of "making plays in space." That's good, you see.

So plenty of cliches old and new, but at the end of the day---hah, an old favorite--I give credit to sports talkers (particularly on ESPN) who still know, understand and employ the distinction between "fewer" and "less." So they describe a team as having "fewer points," or a defense that is making "fewer interceptions" this year, etc. And I also note that Keith Olbermann, sportscaster as well as political talker, observes the classical definition of "presently," meaning "soon," not "currently."

It's not just a case of proper use of English, but of having something interesting to say. (Though they often go together.) Certain commentators, like Merle Hodge, are especially knowledgeable and informative. And I've watched Sunday Night Football on NBC even when I didn't care much about the teams playing, just for the coverage by Al Michaels and Cris Collingsworth.

Of course, there are plenty of sports talkers who talk blather, and do so incoherently. I heard one guy trying to fill time in a dull game today praise a coach for transforming a college program "singlehandedly, with a lot of help from other people." I turned him off.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

NFL Preview

The final weekend of the season will determine the Wild Card teams in the AFC. The Steelers are technically still in contention, if they win their game with Miami (in Miami) and several combinations of other teams lose. It's not something I'd bet on happening.

Regardless of whether the Steelers win, if Baltimore and the New York Jets win, they take the Wild Card spots in the playoffs. It's very likely both these teams will win. Baltimore is unlikely to have two bad games in a row, and the Jets are playing the Bengals, who not only are likely to rest their starters for the playoffs (they've won the division) but very probably don't want the Steelers in the playoffs enough to do as little as possible to win their game. (That's if the Steelers win over Miami earlier in the day.)

Contrary to the oddsmakers and the Steelers' LaMarr Woodley , I don't think New England cares that much about the Steelers to take a dive, and I expect them to win their game. I think they have a particular incentive to be sharp going into the playoffs, since they have been out of synch for much of the season.

All of this is academic if the Steelers don't win, and they might not. They're pretty banged up, Troy P. is unlikely to play, they haven't done well on the road this year. Yet it is important for the team--and for many of the players individually--that they play well.

Even if they do, there are changes coming, perhaps within weeks. I still expect their revered defensive coordinator to retire, and there might be players on the defense who make that choice as well. The offensive coordinator may have saved his job with the last two wins. But all of this depends on the internal assessment of what went wrong this season, and there's evidence suggesting coaches as well as players. Whether the Steelers can do much with trades, free agents or in the draft is an open question, and will be for awhile. But in any case, I expect "next year" to start for them Monday.

If it doesn't? It looks as if Troy P. could play in the playoffs. He could make the difference for the defense. And with Big Ben, anything is possible on offense, although it would help if they were healthier. That's really been the one common element their last two Super Bowls: everyone was healthy. That's not going to be the case this year--they're still missing starters on defense. The Steelers are good enough and experienced enough to play at a high level, but past the first round, they'd have to hope that their opponent comes out flat, and makes lots of mistakes. Yes, anything can happen. And that's the beauty of this week, preceding the last game of the regular season.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Like I Said

So why aren't I getting the big bucks for sports prognostication, or at least scads of readers hanging on my every wise word? Don't know, but I do know that the Steelers-Ravens game went pretty much as I felt it would. As this report as well as this one confirm, the Steelers won when Baltimore had a bad game--lots of penalties in ridiculously crucial situations, turnovers and a spectacular muff of a pass in the end zone.

Plus, as I suggested, the Steeler defense confounded expectations by shutting down the Ravens in the fourth quarter. Not that they dominated--they lost a 10 point lead in the third quarter, and allowed a big rushing game--first back over a hundred yards in a couple of years--but they came up big on the Ravens' last drive especially.

So now the Steelers and a half dozen other teams are 8-7. The Eagles helped their playoff chances by beating Denver, the Titans lost Thursday, but the Jets unexpectedly ended Indy's undefeated season (and the decision to bench the Indy starters in the 3rd quarter to save them for the playoffs was discussed endlessly on TV), which gets them back in the wild card race. It will all be decided next weekend, the final weekend of the regular season. The Steelers have to win in Miami and hope that several other contending teams (the right ones, like the Ravens) lose.

And now that Indy and New Orleans have joined the teams that look vulnerable, a playoff spot might even be worth having. Still, San Diego and New England are finishing strong, and they're the favorites. I still don't think Indy is as good as its record. In the NFC, Philly is for real, Dallas is not. It should be interesting to see if Minneapolis can play a strong game Monday night against Chicago--not just win, but dominate. Green Bay bounced back well from the loss to the Steelers. Which, by the way, I expect Baltimore to do.

We'll have to see how banged up the Steelers are, going into the Miami game. It's going to be tough--tougher than Miami was today in losing to Houston--but if Troy comes back, that's a big boost. One other good thing about the Steelers game today was the emergence of two young players--an impressive 4th quarter for Ziggy Hood on defense, and a heady start for the recently signed wide receiver, Tyler Grisham, who caught his first NFL pass in a crucial situation. The Steelers have their problems that will have to be addressed after the season, but one good sign of a strong organization is when new players and seldom used players can step into crucial situations and not only do well but make a difference.

The Steelers-Ravens game is just hours from starting. I won't see it--it's not broadcast here, as usual. But I've got a feeling about it. At this time of year, it seems teams are having inexplicable bad games. The question is whether Baltimore is due for one. For it seems to me that it will take an extraordinarily good game by Pittsburgh or a bad game, a flat game at least, by Baltimore, for the Steelers to win. And it seems more likely that Baltimore will have a flat or a bad game. It's hard to see the Steelers playing with the same intensity they did against Green Bay. Of course, if they do, then they may deserve to get a playoff game--which is still pretty unlikely, even if they win this one.

The conventional wisdom among Pittsburgh sportswriters seems to be that to have a chance, the Steelers will have to score a lot of points, because their defense can't stop anybody anymore. That seems to be the emphasis the Steelers coaches are making, at least in public. Given how well conventional wisdom has done this year, maybe we should expect a low scoring game that the Steeler defense wins.

But if both teams play their "normal" game, it's even, with a slight edge to Baltimore. If Troy P. were playing, it might be a different story. But he's not. The Steelers can win this, but as far as I'm concerned, they are the underdog, even playing at home.

A few weeks ago, when the Steelers were getting beat in very close games, the Pitt Panthers also lost two very close games. Saturday, Pitt won their bowl game by a couple of points. Omen?

The game that will be broadcast here is Oakland-Cleveland. Funny thing about that game is that both teams, bad teams most of the year, are playing above their record. Cleveland has the edge since they're at home, but this could be an interesting game, which is pretty odd.

The other NFL stories this week are whether New Orleans and Minnesota can go back to winning, playing weaker opponents, and whether Indy is going to expend much effort trying to remain undefeated.