Tuesday, January 25, 2011

#5: America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation by Michael MacCambridge

This text is much more about two commissioners, Bert Bell and Pete Rozelle, than it is about the game itself. The current commish, Roger Godell, gets small mention in the text largely because it was written before his term started. The small mention, though, is telling: "He uses words like 'monetize' and 'commoditize' one owner said with distaste" (pg 427). Rozelle (and his successor, Paul Tagliabue) would never use those words. Rozelle emerges as a brilliant organizer, marketer and all around decent man. MacCambridge's text never explicitly states that the NFL as we know it would not exist without the influence of Rozelle. He doesn't have too.

The NFL started in 1920 and struggled through the 1930s, built around men like George Halas, Wellington Mara, George Preston Marshall and Art Rooney. What is so striking about this text is its illustration that the NFL was, until the advent of the AFL in the 1960s, a club of families. After the great overtime playoff between the Giants and the Colts in 1958, Bert Bell was making the schedules up on his kitchen table. When asked where the league files were, he would point to his balding head and say "Right Here." Bell died of a heart attack...at a pro football game...in his hometown of Philadelphia. After several days of votes, Rozelle, then the General Manager of the Los Angeles Rams, was put forward as a compromise candidate. The league never looked back. His marketing experience and media savvy turned the NFL into a money machine.

While focusing on the off-field game, MacCambridge sheds light on several factors that are overlooked. Namely, the great work of the Sabol family on NFL Films. MacCambridge rightfully points out that the highlight packages, produced for another Rozelle supported show, Monday Night Football, rivalled MNF itself in popularity. One could argue that the advent of ESPN and the like would not have been possible without NFL films. The very idea of the "highlight" was at that point limited to Wide World of Sports. Steve Sabol turned the mundane into the poetic by use of quick cuts, miking players and coaches on the sideline and emphasizing the personalities in the game.

What is being forgotten about the NFL is that it was built on personality, not a bland corporate identity. People like Art Rooney with his cigars, Dick Butkus bleeding on the sidelines, Jack Lambert with no teeth, and John Facenda describing it all in overwrought prose...that was the NFL of my and many other's childhoods. This is what makes people like Chad Ochcinco cool, if annoying as hell. Dear God, what the hell would that jerk off Godell do with Billy "White Shoes" Johnson and his end zone dance?

The genius of Pete Rozelle is encapsulated by MacCambridge through the statement "Rozelle never lost sight of the fact that the product the NFL was selling was the game itself." I think in many ways that Godell has forgotten that, and so have many of the fans and writers.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Might I just say, Go Steelers!!!!!!!!

And F*** all you haters. Especially that Douchebag from the NY Post that said Sanchez was "catching up to Big Ben." Oh, really? It is a pity that Sanchez can't block. Oh, neither could most of the Jets offensive lineman. I hate the Jets, as well as the Mets and Yankees. NY sports can blow my fat cock. Livin' in the past. Last NY Jets Super Bowl win??? 1968. That's 42 years ago, kids.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Should an NFL Team Ever Draft a Kicker?

Everyone in the Bay Area can still hear the moans, cries, gasps and gnashing of teeth that accompanied the drafting of Sebastian Janikowski in the 1st round of the 2000 NFL draft. 211 kickers have been drafted since the beginning of the NFL Draft in 1936. 106 of them (51%) either never appeared in an NFL game or played less than 10 games in their career. So, I would say "no" to the question,

Only three have ever been drafted in the first round: Janikowski, Charlie Gogolak (1966) and Steve Little (1978). Pete's brother and no-relation-to-Rich combined for 402 points in 96 games, with Little throwing in some skills as a punter. Janikwoski has now scored 1142 points in 173 games and is one of the more accurate long-range kickers in NFL history, hitting on 61% of his FG of more than 40 yards. So, compared to other first round kickers, Janikowski is hands down the best ever selected. But, why take a kicker in the first round?

When they drafted Janikowski, the Raiders were coming off an 8-8 season, Their quarterback was 34 year old Rich Gannon who made the Pro Bowl. The selection after Janikowski was Marshall quarterback Chad Pennington, so it makes sense that the Raiders would not take him. What is more interesting is the selection made by the Seahawks two picks after Janikowski: Shaun Alexander. The Raiders running backs in 1999? Napoleon Kauffman and Tyrone Wheatley. Ouch.

It should be pointed out that when Washington drafted Charlie Gogolak in 1966, the draft was not that deep. There were productive players available (USC running back and future Chief Pro Bowler Mike Garrett, for example) but the Redskins had future hall of famer Charley Taylor at halfback and he was only 24 years old. Goglak did help the team in 1966, scoring 105 points, good for 3rd in the league.

Steve Little was drafted by the Cardinals in 1978, then in St. Louis. Their kicker, two time pro-bowler Jim Bakken, had retired. The Cards had an electric offense in 1977, featuring Pro Bowlers at QB (Jim Hart), RB (Terry Metcalf) and WR (Mel Gray). The offensive line had three pro bowl players on its own (Dan Dierdorf, Conrad Dobler and Tom Banks). The defense was shaky down the stretch. The Cards lost their last 4 games by a combined score of 125-48, with two of their opponents rushing for more than 200 yards against them. There were fair defensive players available in the draft (LB Gary Spani, DE AL Baker who made a couple of pro bowls in the 1980s) left at pick 17. The Cards did take defensive players with their next three picks, but only one of them (strong safety Ken Greene) turned out to be a starter.

The person they "should" have picked? Tight End and future Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome, selected 27th by the Browns. Why didn't the Cards take him? In 1974 they spent the 7th pick of the draft on tight end J.V. Cain, who caught 25 passes in 1977 and doubled as a wide receiver. Cain was a young, quality tight end, so the Cardinals did not need Newsome. Tragically, Cain died of congenital heart failure in training camp in 1979, a disaster no one saw coming.

The top scoring kickers in NFL history are Morten Andersen and Gary Anderson, both drafted in 1982, Morten in the 4th round, Gary in the 7th round. Mark Mosely, who made a pro bowl and once held the NFL record for most consecutive field goals made, was drafted in the 14th round in 1970. What is interesting is that most of the kickers drafted in the 1950s and early 1960s were also punters (Sam Baker, Tommy Davis). The last of this breed was Frank Corral, taken by the Rams in the third round in 1978.

Of the top 20 all time in field goals made, 9 were signed as free agents. Of the top 20 all time in percentage of field goals made, 12 were signed as free agents. Unless you don't need anything else, don't draft a kicker.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Who will win this weekend?

Hell, I don't know. But I've got a theory!

Since 1980 only 7 conference champion teams have been less than #20 in the league in rushing yards allowed. Only one of them (the 2006 Indianapolis Colts) won the Super Bowl. True to form, 3 of the last four teams standing are 1-2-3 in this stat (Steelers, Bears, Jets).

I ranked all the conference championship teams from 1980 to last year and found the average league rank in the following categories: Scoring Offense, Scoring Defense, Passing Yards and Rushing yards, and Passing Yards and Rushing Yards allowed. The average conference champion was:
1. 5th in the NFL in Points scored per game
2. 7th in the NFL in Points Allowed
3. 10th in the NFL in both Rushing Yards and Passing Yards
4. 13th in the NFL in Passing Yards Allowed
5. 9th in the NFL in Rushing Yards Allowed

Here are the four teams left in this years playoffs, ranked by their proximity to the averages:
1. NY Jets
2. Pittsburgh
3.Green Bay

The Bears offense is far worse than the average, but is well positioned to exploit the Packers where they are weakest: against the run. However, the Bears put up only 77 yards on the ground in the first meeting; this was before Mike Martz scaled back the playbook. Since then, the Bears are 7-2, with a blowout loss to the Patriots and a 10-3 loss to the Packers.

The Packers rank 18th in the league in Rushing Yards Allowed. Only 7 Super Bowl champs since 1980 have been ranked below #10...but the Packers match up with them all in Points Allowed. Only 2 (the 2009 Saints and 2006 Colts) ranked less than sixth in the NFL in points allowed. The Packers rank 2nd this year. Red Zone defense? Check. I'm taking the Packers, but will be rooting for the Bears.

Steelers vs. Jets
Very evenly matched teams. Yes, yes, the Jets beat the Steelers a month ago 22-17. That was the Steelers defense without Polamalu and Aaron Smith. Smith is most likely not going to play, and if he does, he will be limited. The Jets put up 106 yards on the ground in that contest a month ago; they are not likely to do it again. The Steelers are vulnerable to the passing game and quick throws. The real question is can Mark Sanchez play like he did last week? If he can, the Jets can win. The reliance on the passing game, however, relies heavily on Ladanian Tomlinson in the running game and limits Shonn Greene, which may benefit the Steelers.

The Jets have an excellent, fast defense. Can the Steelers offensive line stand up to Ellis and the rest? I don't think so. Look for lots of dinking and dunking from both teams. Draws and misdirection plays will be the rule of the day. One thing to consider, however: the data for the Steelers is skewed. In the first four games of the season, the Steelers averaged only 269 total yards a game. In the final 12, they averaged 370. The difference? Ben Roethlisberger.

Again, can the offensive line keep him clean? I don't think so. Will it make a difference? I don't think so. I'll say 16-7 Steelers. Maybe Mark Sanchez will make a believer out of me, but I hope not this week. Whoever wins the AFC Championship will win the Super Bowl in any case. I may think Rex Ryan is a tubby blowhard, but he is an excellent coach. Plus, he may dislike the Patriots more than I do, which I did not think was possible.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

#4: The Real Animal House: A Mostly Lucid Memoir by Chris Miller (Foreward by Harold Ramis)

Why is Animal House my favorite film? The following three exchanges:

Jennings: I took this job until I finish my novel
Boone: How long ya been working on it?
Jennings: Three years
Pinto: It must be very good
Jennings: It's a piece of shit

Katy: Boone, I think I'm in love with a retard.
Boone: Is he bigger than me?

Pinto: They won't even let us enter a float in the homecoming parade.
Boone: Watch a bunch of zombies ride a pile of Kleenex down the street? Rah rah.

Well, I saw this book (written by the real life Pinto, named so because of the multi-varied hues of his member) and instantly grabbed it (book, not member). There is a sort of theme to the text, but it is mostly wrapped up with the following things: alcohol, dicks, boobs and trying to have all three appear at the same time. I have never read so many words for breasts: boobs, teats, milkbags, bazooms, gazongas, gabongas, wazoos...the list goes on and on. The characters of the house are all there, complete with debauchery and one guy who takes a jack-o-lantern, strips naked, and wraps the pumpkin around his crotch with his dick through the nose hole. Of course he goes trick or treating.
There are not many good female characters (most are hidden behind their funbags), but I suppose I expected this. Women are things in this text, things with yabos. Chased by men with tools, dicks, flagpoles; men who can projectile vomit onto a poster of Harriet Nelson. Men who hang out in a place which has a basement with a gutter along two of the walls. That's right, a gutter. At the end of parties they hose down the floor and the puke (boot in the parlance of the book), pee and god knows what else gets washed into a drain in the corner. Women tend to be ornaments to this chaos, added appendages that get in the way of the beer.

It took me a while to figure out what the book was missing when compared to the movie. It is the gleeful finger in the eye of the authority figures of the campus. The end "where are they now" segment, one of my favorite parts of the book, is quite poignant and sets off this dichotomy nicely. Many of the drunken louts who listened to Little Richard and Ruth Brown instead of Pat Boone became what Dartmouth grads in the 1960s became: lawyers, bankers, doctors. People who retired to Napa and Marin to complain about social inequality while ensconced in $1.8 million dollar houses, those 40-50 year olds that brought you the 1980s "Me" Generation, voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and thought "fiscal conservatism and social liberalism" was one A-Duke Idea for the Democratic party.

While they can act out and be "rebellious", they almost never did so much as to get thrown out. And if they did get thrown out, the buddy system of the frats and the administration would keep them afloat and back in class. Money in this book talks while bullshit walks. The main character complains about his more "beatnik" friends, and finds them shallow compared to his housemates. You see, his housemates sometimes hang out with black guys. But, they are gone after the concert is over. He bitches about a Joanie Baez concert infringing on important grab-the-boobies time. We can check out the tits on the local chick at the grocery store, but we certainly don't want her around in the morning. In other words, we can act like drunk townies (called Emmets, and never more than that) but we don't mix with them.

These are the guys that are fun at parties, telling you stories of that crazy frat house they were in where the one guy did the thing in a gorilla suit with four midgets, a fire extinguisher and a can of cheese whiz. It's funny, and we all laugh, and we all go on to the next one. But, they are the guys who are always looking back to become again what they were. Many of them have chalked up 3-4 marriages, several of them are dead due to various causes related to alcohol and drugs. I'm no prude, and I don't give a shit how many times someone has tied the knot (my grandmother was married no less than 6 times). What I don't like is living in the past, and this book is soaking in it.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

#3: The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron by Howard Bryant

Many people age 25 or younger simply know Henry Aaron as the guy who held the home run record before Bonds. He was the avuncular fellow that appeared on the jumbotron in San Francisco when Barry hit #756 and congratulated him.

Aaron's statistics are legendary. He is in the top five in baseball history in home runs, runs scored, RBI, games played, at bats, total bases and hits. What is more impressive is his consistency: Aaron hit at least 20 home runs every year for 20 years. Or, if you prefer, every year of the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon Administrations combined. This book is about much more than baseball, however, and presents the achievements of Aaron in historical context. Much is made of the fact that the man who broke Babe Ruth's record was the last active major leaguer who had played in the Negro Leagues. Howard Bryant does a wonderful job in fleshing out exactly what this trivial detail means.

Aaron himself said "Hate mail and home runs, that's all people want to know about." Not that Aaron is the first African American owner of a BMW dealership in the U.S. Not that Aaron was called "instrumental" by President Clinton after his win in the Georgia Democratic primary in 1992. Not that Aaron integrated a neighborhood of Milwaukee for the simple reason he was "the" Henry Aaron. He also was one of the first handful of black players in the South Atlantic (or Sally) League. In the early 1950s, playing in front of segregated crowds at the age of 18 and 19 in places known for intense racism at that time (Macon GA, Jacksonville, FL), Aaron produced despite abuse.

One story in the book drives this home. After an extra inning victory in which Aaron and Puerto Rican teammate Felix Mantilla scored four runs and banged out 7 hits, a man chased after them in the parking lot. When the smiling ballplayers turned around, the man said "Tell you what. You niggers played one hell of a game." Compliment, yes. But this was the hidden burden for Aaron and African Americans in the south, and this is where the biography really shines. It highlights the day to day, matter-of-fact racism that is far too often overlooked. When the Braves left Milwaukee and moved to Atlanta, the large questions for Aaron, Dusty Baker and other black players was will seating be segregated at the stadium? Would they be allowed to buy houses in the suburbs, something they could do in Milwaukee (well, within reason.) Aaron's wife was unhappy about the move. Aaron is never thought of as a "civil rights" leader, but in his consistently excellent way, he was. Much like Hank Greenberg in the 1930s (a Jew hitting home runs against Hitler) Aaron was hitting them against the remnants of Jim Crow. When he spoke out, he was labeled (as Jackie Robinson was back in the 1950s) "angry".

Yes, Aaron received hate mail in the months leading up to his record setting home run. Yes, he received death threats. I had heard Milo Hamilton's call of HR #715 many times, but I have never heard Dodger's announcer Vin Scully's call,which is a centerpiece of the text. After waiting some 15 seconds for the crowd noise to subside, Scully said in part "It's over...What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol."

Of course that all-time baseball idol was white, playing in a segregated league.As Dusty Baker put it, the reason for all those death threats was that "Henry was taking away a record from them and giving it to us." I could not agree more. This text, while filled with excellent baseball, is an exemplary piece of cultural and baseball history. With any biography, a reader should walk away with a new respect or understanding for the subject. With Bryant's text, I have come away with both for Henry Aaron.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

#2: The Case Against Homework by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish

Homework is hurting children?!!???! Ahh, bullshit. Kids whining because they have homework over winter break? Homework over summer? Well, in my day, we had to walk three miles to school in the snow both ways, doing Algebra I problems for that evil troll Dr. Cook who never gave us any fucking help on anything...

Wait one damn minute. Homework over Summer Vacation???? One poor bastard (a seventh grader) from Boston said he had to read "12 books over the summer and write a report on each of them." Granted, these were probably along the lines of the "Lightning Thief" and required the brain power of a dead toad, but 12 books? Even I, who teaches three AP courses, only assign one. One thing is for certain, however, and that is I never read one God Damn book over summer that I did not want to read. By God, that was Reagan' America.

The main point of the authors (and one I agree with) is that homework routinely becomes drudgery. You remember those mind-numbing worksheets, maps, vocab quizzes....and that was your 5th period history class with that jack ass who kept passing notes to you about that cute chick that sat in the front row and didn't know either of you existed. Well, multiply that by five and you have today's high school student. This point is well taken. Why do busy work? You get enough of that in college and graduate school. The authors take their starting point from a Stanford University study suggesting that there is no correlation between homework load and student achievement. Well, duh.

As Bennett and Kalish ask, "What is the point of that graphic plotting exercise that reveals the head of Abraham Lincoln?" There is no point besides petty tyranny of the teacher. That, and the ever present reliance upon testing to reveal who among us is worthy of ass kissing. In many ways, the authors miss a crucial point: the over reliance on testing in schools has led to a reliance on "homework" that teaches to the test. In other words, busy work intended to reinforce information and not produce independent thought. The litany of complaints over testing and No Child Left Behind is FAR too long to get into here; suffice it to say that the homework phenomenon of 2-3 hours per night for 8th graders is being fed by the standardized test beast. As the authors point out (and I can attest to this with experience) parents tend to do most of the work.

Our school is no different, and I have fielded complaints from parents that I do not assign enough homework. Perhaps I do not want to grade papers for 4 hours a night for $32,971. This is another problem, that most teachers do simply not have the time to grade all of these assignments. Let's say you have four sections of US History, each with 35 students. Will you:

A. Assign an essay asking the students to discern the differences in domestic policy between Carter and Reagan

B. Assign a test that reads
Jimmy Carter
A. is a toothy Flake
B. is a peanut Farmer who was elected President
C.  is married to Linda, better known as Wonder Woman
D. is a much better ex-president than a president
E. lost to Ronald "I Don't Recall" Reagan in UFC 66

You'll give the multiple choice test for laughs and to keep from reading 140 essays. That is our problem, and why most homework is mindless drudgery. Teachers do not have time. And, time is really the question. For a student who is out of school at 2:30 and has one of those things called, let me see, a "job" until 7:00 PM, the prospect of mentally masturbating over problems 2-32 even in the math text sucks. Forget eating with the family (the authors are guilty of a pollyanna-ish view of family life) or having quality time with friends. Homework rules.

The best part of this text is the end, which provide sound strategies for negotiating with teachers and schools to provide balance. It was gratifying to read "Don't go straight to the principal, go to the teacher." For those readers who have school age kids (all one of them) this advice is worth the cost of the book. Teachers work best with a positive, constructive relationship with parents. Kids work best in an atmosphere in which they feel safe to be themselves. School should be about exploration, not about how many grades one can cram into a semester. Bennett and Kalish provide several concrete examples of districts who have worked with parents to address the explosion of time spent on homework, and address how teachers can work with parents to find a happy medium. As a teacher, this book is excellent. I would think that as a parent, it would be indispensable.

Hall of Fame

Finally, Bert Blyleven is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The man who won 287 games, who spent the first six years of his career with a .500 ballclub, who threw what was perhaps the best curveball of the 1970s, the man who went 2-1 in four career world series starts.  In 1973, Blyleven posted a record of 20-17 despite an ERA 58% below the league average that year. His team won 81 games and he won nearly 1/4 of them. Most Mortal Pitcher's arms would implode after throwing 750,000 curveballs. Blyleven just kept winning games until he was 40 years old.

Plus, he was a major part of the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates. Another part of that team, Dave Parker, dropped off the ballot with only 15% of the voters giving some love to the Cobra. Nahhh, he doesn't deserve to be in the hall. 1977 MVP of the NL, 7 time All Star, back to back batting titles in 1977 and 1978. No, he shouldn't be there. Led the NL in doubles and RBI in 1985 at age 34, was a key part of two world series champs. No, he isn't a hall of fame player. Perhaps it was because the Cobra was surly and loved his cocaine. Once, Willie Stargell was told by a reporter that "Cobra says that you are his favorite player." Stargell responded "Well, that's big considering his favorite player used to be himself." His manager said he was a hall of fame player. Just sayin'.

Roberto Alomar also got in, with good reason. Alomar was magic at second, the fastest turn on the double play since Bill Mazeroski. He could hit just a little, also. I was expecting Tim Raines to get more votes, but he is struggling with the same B.S. that Andre Dawson did....he played in Montreal. Montreal? They speak French there. Indeed! Now their team is in Washington, and no one cares that Raines was the best leadoff hitter in the NL in the 1980s, and one of the best players in baseball for over a decade. So what? He played in Montreal. Congrats, Bert and Roberto! Hopefully we will see Raines get there next year.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

#1: Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

All right, so welcome to the blog. This is my simple attempt to review every book I read for a year. This will, I hope, keep me from doing two things:
1. Soak up all the beer in town
2. Play World of Warcraft while doing #1

All reviews will be numbered in order.

If you have not watched the Showtime show Dexter, there is something wrong with you. Perhaps you do not have cable or Netflix. Perhaps stories about serial killers are not your thing. There was something wrong with me, sorry to say: of the books he show is based on, I had read none. Zero. So, when the wife brought home the first book from the library, I promptly stole it and addressed my ignorance.

Dexter is a subtle character. Charming, bright, witty. At one point in the text, describing a murder scene, he says "This sort of envy is not good for the soul. But since I have never had a soul..." No, this is no freak show vampire/werewolf/supernatural creature. This guy happens to be a blood spatter specialist for the Miami PD who just happens to murder people in his spare time. And when I say murder, this isn't some cheap .22 to the back of the head. This is a full on ritual dismembering of his victims. Did I mention they are wrapped in plastic?

Dexter, his sister and their fellow cops have to solve a string of murders going on in Miami, while the politics of the police force are bandied about for all to see. Only one cop thinks Dexter is not what he appears. All in all, a (insert regular adjectives here) thriller.

What is most important is the dual character of Dexter. Dexter has to hide what he calls the "Dark Passenger". While part of Dexter, it is most certainly an "other" in the strictest term. It is that part of ourselves that we want NO ONE to know about, especially family members and friends. On one level this book is about appearances and what we think people want from us. Will they hate us because we enjoy midget porn? Will they hate us because we really want to punch homeless folks when they ask us for money? Will they hate us because we want to steal that overpriced CD instead of buying it? We worry constantly about tipping our hands to people and coming up not being what we seem. Well, I do, anyway. So, we tell small lies, exaggerate stories and generally try to act a little more edgy than we are and are besieged by the constant small voice that calls bullshit on that co-worker who is just to chipper. There MUST be something wrong with that person! They are way to nice; they are so fake.

Dexter is good at many things that not many "normal" people are without being too chipper or too happy. His best skill is making small talk, which in turn convinces people he is a good guy or their friend. Echoes of the "he was always nice" or "well, he seemed like a good guy" syndrome that appears in the neighbors of serial killers when the cops start to take the bodies out of the crawlspace. I highly recommend this book.