Monday, October 17, 2016

NFC Title Fight: The Minnesota Vikings

One of the keys to the NFL post season is securing one of the top two seeds in your conference. The high seeds guarantee a bye into the divisional round and at least one home game. These are both huge advantages and it is no coincidence high seeds often end up in the Super Bowl. Recently the Seahawks earned themselves a key tie breaker for the NFC's top seed by defeating the Atlanta Falcons 26-24. The Falcons high flying offense makes them one of the best teams in the NFC. The Falcons also play in a weak division and are sure to rack up wins against the Panthers, Saints, and Buccaneers. So, having that tie breaker is huge for Seattle.

The two other teams that most threaten the Seahawks chances at the NFC's top playoff seed are the Minnesota Vikings and the Dallas Cowboys. Both teams are a bit of a surprise. Both of the two team's starting quarterbacks were not slated to start before the season kicked off. In both cases injury to the starter during the preseason, Teddy Bridgewater in Minnesota and Tony Romo in Dallas, forced someone else to take over the quarterback job. This can be a major blow to an NFL team, so many expected these two teams to struggle. However, both have defied expectations and started out strong. Both are going to challenge the Seahawks for NFC dominance. So, let's take a look at the Minnesota Vikings.

Monday, October 10, 2016

There is Something About UW Football

The University of Washington's Football team just obliterated the University of Oregon Ducks (quick side note, the Ducks uniforms had "webfoots" written on the front center. I am not one to make fun of Oregon's constantly changing garb, but that nickname is stupid.) in Eugene at Oregon's home stadium. The final score was 70-21. It was like the UW was playing  a Division 1AA team. This win for the Huskies followed a blowout win the previous week against the nationally ranked Stanford Cardinal. The score was 44-6 in this one. After these two wins the Huskies have catapulted themselves into the College Football Playoff talk. Nationally sports writers and commentators are talking about the UW and their chances at playing for a national title.

Despite these impressive wins and national attention heaping praise of the Dawgs I struggle to view them as a legitimate contender for the National Championship Title. The team has a great defense, probably the best in the Pac-12, and possibly the best in the country. Huskies Quarterback Jake Browning and Runningback Miles Gaskin are both young and super talented, which lets the offense score with ease. There just doesn't seem to be an obvious weak spot on the team. Yet, I still struggle to see them as a national power.

I thought a little more about this and I realized it is because the Huskies wear purple as their primary color. Personally I have nothing against the color purple. My favorite color is blue, but purples are just fine. The thing is purple isn't a color that screams college football power. When you think about the traditional powers in the sport red is the dominate color.   The next closet is blue, but there aren't even half as many historically powerful teams in blue as there are red. Take a look at the color wheel in figure 1. Of all the primary and secondary colors red stands out by far as the most common.

Figure 1: Color Wheel of College Football Power
By wearing the color purple the Huskies are joining by only two other perennially great teams, LSU and TCU. Despite their years of success nobody expects to see TCU playing for a National Title anytime soon, so really there is just one team up there beside the Dawgs, the Louisiana State University Tigers, who aren't a bad team to be compared to. LSU has a couple of National Titles of their credit and they routine sit in the AP Top 25 teams. But that is it. There are no other purple college football powers.

This lack of familiarity with the color pallet the University of Washington has chosen to don has made it hard for me to envision them playing on the biggest stage. My minds I just can't place them lined up against Ohio State or Alabama. Teams wearing purple aren't on Sports Center. They don't get big time praise. It just isn't a thing that is seen.

All that being said I hope the UW continues to roll. An undefeated season, or even one loss, and a Pac-12 Championship would be a great way to demand entrance into the College Football Playoff. We a defense as good as Washington's they would stand a chance against anyone. Fans should get caught up in the hype. They should dream about them playing for their second National Title. Just make sure the Huskies are wearing the blackout uniforms in your dreams.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Freaking Rams

I hate the Rams. I have since the mid 2000's when the Rams and Seahawks were the power in the NFC West. This was right around when I started seriously following the NFL. The Rams were at the end of their Greatest Show on Turf era and the Seahawks great Hasselbeck and Alexander teams were just coming into their own. The team to beat in the NFC West was the Rams.

The 2004 season was the one that cemented my hatred of the Rams. Prior to this season I would root for them because I remembered how fun the Kurt Warner led Super Bowl team were. The Rams had a high octane offense and I, like most fans, liked scoring. However, in 2004 the Seahawks were a good team with an exciting offense of their own. Yet somehow the stupid freaking Rams beat the Seahawks both regular season matchups that year and then just to make it hurt a little worse the Rams beat the Seahawks in a game at Qwest Field during the Wild Card playoff match. The Seahawks went 0-3 against the Rams in 2004 and kicked them out of the playoffs. It stung.

The rivalry had a long stretch of ups after the low of 2004. The Seahawks beat the Rams 10 straight times between 2005-2010. Throughout the span I didn't stopped relishing every Seahawks win over the Rams, but because of this dominance many fans forgot about the Rams rivalry. They wrote them off as jokes, not worthy of Seattle fandom's attentions. But I never forgot. Every win was a great thing, a chance to stick it to a dangerous rival and remind them who the true boss of the NFC West is. But all great things come to an end and so did this amazing run of dominance.

In During Pete Carroll's time with the Seahawks the team has been really good. They have made the playoffs all but one year (2011) and made two Super Bowls winning one (2013) and losing the other (2014). The team added stars all over the roster. One of the biggest stars is Quarterback Russell Wilson, who claim into the NFL with mild to no fanfare and yet has dominate almost the whole league. Wilson is a legitimate top five QB.

During the Pete Carroll era most fans have focused on the 49er rivalry. The Whiners were a dominate team for a few years during the same time frame. They had a similar playing style and an easily hated coach in Jim Harbaugh. For other fans the main focus of their rivalry ire has been the Carolina Panthers. Like the 49ers the Panthers playing style is very similar to the Seahawks, they are a defense first team, with a run oriented offense. Also like the 49ers the Panthers have a figure head that is easy to hate, but instead of the head coach it is the Panther's QB, Cam Newton.

But it isn't the Panthers or the 49ers that have given the Seahawks the most trouble during the Carroll era. It is the freaking Rams. They have been a thorn in the Seahawks side, frustrating us year after year. The Rams are the one glaring exception to Wilson's brilliance and Carroll's sterling record. After Sunday's loss to the now Los Angeles Rams, the Seahawks have gone 7-6 against them since 2010, when Pete Carroll joined the team. With Russell Wilson starting at QB the Seahawks are 4-5 against the Rams (see Table 1 for a look at the Seahawks and Rams series since 2004). The freaking Rams got the Seattle Seahawks number and refuse to give it up.

Some of the success the Rams keep having against the Seahawks can be explained by simply looking at the matchup between the two teams strengths and weaknesses. The Seahawks are best at pass defense, and running offense. Their weakest unit on the field is their offensive line. The o-line has a penchant for giving up QB pressures and sacks. On the flip side the Rams best unit is their defensive front seven, whose ability to pressure quarterbacks is unmatched in the NFL. The Rams weakness is their offense, specifically their passing game. These perfectly aligned strengths and weaknesses usually result in low scoring slugfests.

Couple the perfect opposed strengths and weaknesses with the Seahawks strong tendency to hurt themselves with stupid penalties and the Rams stay in the games it appears they should lose. In low scoring tightly contested games  the outcome is often determined by special teams, turnovers, and trick play. Unfortunately for the Seattle Seahawks the Rams head coach specializes in exactly this sort of nonsense.

During his time as the Titans Head Coach Jeff Fisher built a reputation as a football risk taker. His team faked kicks, ran weird sweeps, and went for it on fourth down. When Fisher arrived in St. Louis in 2012 he brought this same gamblers mentality with him. The Rams Head Coach isn't afraid to call for an onside kick at a random time, or go for it on fourth and long. These exact type of plays haven't beaten the Seahawks at least a couple times over the last few years. The frustration caused by losing a game because of a fake punt is huge. When it is the freaking Rams that beat you with a fake punt that frustration is multiplied several times over.

Losing to the freaking Rams is never fun. It stings even more because the Rams have been and are a much worse all around team than the Seahawks. The Rams have been mediocre to bad, yet those same Rams keep beating the Seahawks. The rivalry between the Rams and the Seahawks is one of the most annoying because the Seahawks should own the freaking Rams, but they don’t anymore. I hate the freaking Rams.


Table 1: Seahawks vs Rams Results Since 2004

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Shootyhoops Basketmakers: A Complete History of Ball Basketing

For those of you that loved the Shootyhoops posts on this blog I have great news. All those post, plus several that aren't available on the blog, are now available in book form. You can carry around the paperback version of your favorite basketball history reference text for a mere $10!

If you dont like basketball or laughing, why do you read this blog? Seriously we talk about basketball a fair amount and frequently try to make the reader laugh. Anyways, for those basketball haters out there I have more good news. You can still buy a book written by one of this blog's top four authors! It is a Sci-fi adventure called Venerable Marcus and it is also for sale.

Seattle Seahawks Season Preview 2016: The Offensive Line Increases the Risk of Failure.

The outcome of the Seattle Seahawks upcoming 2016 season boils down to one position group, the offensive line. There are other changes with the team, but none of them pose as big of a risk to derailing the season as the big boys up front. If the offensive line fails the team won't find success in 2016. If they jell and raise their collective play above their individual talent this team should be looking for their fourth straight NFC Championship game and probably their third Super Bowl appearance in four years.

The line was one of the team's biggest weaknesses in 2015 and the group didn't improve much during the offseason, certainly not enough to inspire confidence. Starters Russell Okung and J.R. Sweezey were allowed to leave in free agency. The team replaced them with a rookie in Germain Ifedi and a career backup from Arizona named Bradley Sowell. Both of these guys could turn into quality players. Like most rookies Ifedi is an unknown quantity. He might make the adjustment to the NFL with ease and turn into a 10 year starter or he might be the next Seattle offensive linemen draft pick bust in what is turning into a long line of them in Seattle. With Sowell, there is a chance that given the opportunity to start he could take advantage of it and shine. Reports from training camp and the preseason seem to indicate he is trending up.  However, it might also turn out there was a good reason why the Cardinals let him leave.

Returning for another year with the Seahawks are Gary Gilliam, Justin Britt and Mark Glowinksi who will be playing beside Ifedi and Sowell. Gary Gilliam still sucks. He is probably only going to earn a starting spot because his competition is hurt. The guy was bad in 2015 and he is probably still going to be bad. That is what happens when you try to convert TE into NFL linemen. Justin Britt is on his third line position in as many years. He has just been unable to stick anywhere. He hasn't been that good of a blocker. Many media sources are claiming he is doing well in his conversion to center. They say it is his best position yet, but that isn't saying much. Britt really only has improvement to make, he can't get worse and stay on an NFL roster. As a rookie Mark Glowinski had some good games last year. He is the offensive lineman I am most optimistic about, but he only has one NFL start so there could be growing pains. Hopefully these three guys play better in 2016 than they did in 2015.

All the questions and potential terrible play from the offensive line puts a lot of risk into the Seahawks season. Quarterback Russell Wilson is an amazing talent and he has an unbelievable ability to avoid rushers. He regularly makes defensive ends look silly in their pursuit of him. However, even with all his skill poor blocking makes it hard to get the most out of your team and it greatly increases the risk of injury to the quarterback. He might be able to avoid most hits, but sometimes defenders still land crushing blows. Every one of these hits is a chance at injury and allowing them to keep landing is playing with fire. If Wilson misses more than two games with an injury the Seahawks season is very probably sunk. Rookie QB Trevone Boykin doesn't have what it takes to carry a team into the playoffs.

Even if they Seahawks avoid the terrible fate of a QB injury, poor line play could still sink the team. Constant pressure makes a QB gun shy. We saw that at the beginning of the season last year. Wilson was unwilling to stay in the pocket and wait for routes to develop. He tucked the ball and ran at the slightest sign of trouble. His stats and the teams results suffered. When the offensive line finally started to play acceptably mediocre at the end of the season Wilson exploded with quality. He was the most dominate QB in the league during the last several regular season games. Commanding play by Wilson is a force that very few NFL teams can withstand. Protecting Wilson and letting him dominate will bring the Seahawks to a lot of wins.

The 2016 season could be another magical run for the Seattle Seahawks. It isn't unreasonable to think about the team making it to the Super Bowl again. However, all of that success is dependent of the lowest paid offensive line in the NFL. If Ifedi, Gilliam, Glowinski, Britt, and Sowell can lay half way decent the team should be fine. If those guys struggle, which is a very likely outcome, it could be a long and disappointing season.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Three Thoughts about Three Wins in a Row

Things have sure changed of late for the Seattle Sounders. They went from looking moribund and inept to knocking on the door of the playoffs. They only had 20 points in the first 20 matches and now they have had 10 in the last 4. If they can beat The seasons apparent turn around deserves comment. So, here are three thoughts on the current team, one for each goal they scored against the Portland Timbers at Century Link Field in Seattle on 8/21/16.

1. Nico Lodeiro is amazing.
Seriously, this guys is really good at soccer. His skill is apparent to anyone watching the game, regardless of their soccer knowledge or fandom. He is constantly involved in the game, making passes and taking shots that are legitimate scoring threats. The teams resurgence has coincided exactly with Lodeiro's arrival and it is not a coincidence. The other teams have to respect skill and mark him or else he will make them pay. By drawing the attention of the others teams defense he is also creating better chances for his Sounders teammates. Dempsey recent surge in goals can be attributed to having such a talented play maker setting him up. Lodeiro's passes and runs allow Dempsey room to work. It is so great to see a transfer window signing make such a big and obviously good splash in Seattle.

2. Jordan Morris can't finish.If you just look at his stats sheet, the rookie, Jordan Morris, is having a great year. He has already scored eight goals, and is tied with Clint Dempsey for the team lead. For a 22 year old in his first professional season this is pretty good, but having watched Morris play this year it is frustrating that he doesn't have more goals. The young forward has failed to connect on plenty of golden scoring opportunities. He is doing great and getting himself into the position and situation to score goals but struggling to finish them off in the net. He should probably have 12 or 13 goals at this point. The good news is Morris is a young player who should continue to improve as he gets more and more playing time. If he can take the next step in his development he could be scary good for the Sounders next season.

3. Christian Roldan is on the rise.Sounders midfielder Christian Roldan was not as highly a touted prospect as forward Jordan Morris, but he was still considered an important and talent signing last year. During his rookie season, 2015, Roldan failed to produce on the stat sheet. He had some good games on the pitch defensively and avoided mistakes on offense, but he never really stood out. Roldan began the 2016 season has a starter and started out similarly, solid defense and general adequate offense. Though as this year's season has progressed Roldan has continued to improve and add to the team. Instead of being just another guy out there Roldan is now a contributor. He has tallied his first three professional goals. He has ripped quality shots and drawn big penalties. Christian Roldan is definitely a player on an upward trajectory.

4. Bonus thought!!!Brad Evans is still bad at center back. The Sounders need to stop playing him there, the sooner the better.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The USMNT's Reliance on Foreign Players

The Copa America Centenario was a blast to watch. I loved rooting for the USA to beat the other countries and prove to the world that the Yanks belong with the elite of the world's soccer teams.  Rooting for a national team is a generally harmless form of patriotism that fans all over the world can enjoy. Additionally, pulling for the Red, White, and Blue to bring home athletic glory is great fun. I was glad to see that the US Men's National (Soccer) Team (USMNT) focused more on supporting he development of young native players like Christian Pulisic.  I think the coaches should continue with this focus on native American talent when deciding who it recruits and allows to play for the team.

(I know it sounds like I am some sort of a nationalist or a xenophobe, but I don’t intend it to be that way. I use the term native American to mean citizens who live and/or work in the United States. I do not mean native born or white. Seeing players that have never lived in the States suit up for the USMNT frustrates me, but it is hard to make an argument about it without seeming like some sort of nativist, nationalist bigot.)

The FIFA rules require a player to have nationality of the country they represent. However, they do not define nationality and let the countries define it. The US requires citizenship, which is fairly rigorous by international standards. They also let the players decide on which country they want to represent, assuming they have eligibility. This has led to many very talented athletes playing for countries that they barely represent in the eyes of the fans. Players who were born in one country but moved shortly after birth often play for the birth country when they aren't good enough to qualify for the home countries team. Players whose grandparents are from another country than their home are join up with their ancestral squads. Usually this is because they aren't good enough to play for their "real" team and want a chance to play internationally.

Obviously some players should and do have legitimate claims to dual nationality. A player born and raised in Canada until age 11, who then moves to Uruguay for his formative years of junior high and high school, should be able to pick whichever country he/she most identifies with. They are clearly someone that could be considered either nationality and the current rules allow for this.

My complaint isn't with these dual national players or even the current FIFA set of rules for defining nationality. They seem fine and well thought out. A players should be able to play for whatever team they want to and have eligibility to play for. In fact I would argue the rules on changing teams should be loosened so that a player like Messi can switch team to Spain from Argentina, if he wants to.

My gripe is the way the current USMNT coaching staff has about searching for international players with American citizenship to add to the roster, instead of focusing on home grown talent. Head coach Jurgen Klinsman has made it a priority to search out foreign players with ties to the US, usually threw the military, and recruit them to the US side. Rather than give spots to US born and raised players he focuses on dual citizens.

Three of the USMNT best and most visible players were born and raised in Germany. Jermaine Jones was raised in Frankfurt to a German mother. Fabian Johnson grew up and lived in Munich. Defender David Brooks is a Berliner through and through. All three players are very talented and they have helped the US win games. I don’t begrudge foreign players for playing for the US. I just wish the head coach hadn't focusing so much on recruiting players like this instead of players with stronger ties to the United States.

I don't have statistical proof to show that the coaches should be focusing on native Americans. Instead I have more philosophical arguments. A primarily foreign/German team suppresses interest in the team and hurts development of the game in the United States. These two things feed on each other.

First let's talk about the development of American players from the United States. Playing for a national team is a huge honor, but it is also a great way to get better as a player. On a nation team a young player is surrounded by the best coaches and staff. This gives them world class instruction. They also get to play with and hang out other amazing world class athletes. They will be able to glean tips and tricks from some of the best. The experience is invaluable.

Bringing young native Americans, such as DeAndre Yedlin, to play for the team helps them grow as a player. It will keep the talent pipeline growing and prepare the team better in the future. It will also add incentive for native American players in the high school and college ranks to continue to fight for a spot on the USMNT roster. Rewarding foreign players with a coveted and rare roster spot sends a message to the native players that they aren't valued or needed. It will hurt the development ranks. I will also push native Americans with dual country eligibility onto the rosters of other countries that offer, which is bad because in international soccer you can't easily switch national teams. Once you  pick a team you are essentially stuck there.

A great way to get native players with multiple national eligibility to pick the USMNT is to build up a fan base and passion for the team. Players will want to play for the team they root for. They will want to play for the team their friends root for. They will want to play for the team featured on TV. To make the team that players want to play for the USMNT it is important to build interest in the team.

Sports fans gravitate towards local heroes and players in their community. Having a national team full of foreigners with no or very loose ties to the States eliminates that personal connection and potential rooting interest. People that aren't soccer fans are more likely to tune in if their neighbor or friend is on the team. Kids are more likely to decide to try soccer over other sports if they have a hero to emulate. A local hero is an even stronger connection. Having a team of mostly native Americans will help interest in the USMNT grow. It will help the native American pool of talent grow, which will improve the team's performance on the pitch.

The current USMNT coaching staff has a history of focusing on foreign players with eligibility to play for the US. While I don’t have proof of the correlation between native and foreign Americans on the roster, I argued that a few foreign players may help the team win in the short term, an overreliance of foreigners to fill the USMNT roster will hurt the team in the long run. American fans will lose out on the connection created by having a local player make good at the international level. Those kids that do decide to play soccer will be prevented from growing their skills from being exposed to the international game.