Valuing Contributions: Defining the MVP Award and Who Should Win it for 2016/17

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The front-runners for the 2016/17 MVP award. Credit: USA Today

The NFL has made a concerted effort to be relevant throughout the year, despite being, at its very longest, a 6-month proposition competitively. This has led to some genuinely fascinating parts of the NFL calendar like the start of free agency and the draft, but has also led to the somewhat burlesque elevation of events like the combine. The NFL awards are certainly a worthwhile and interesting part of this calendar coming as it does at the crux of the post-season, the night before the Superbowl. Sometimes these awards are near foregone conclusions, but this year, there is wide debate about an unusually broad field of contenders for the MVP award. Just as the NFL is building itself a cottage industry though, so are the many analysts and TV personalities who are paid to debate the game. What has become clear – partly by the variety of contenders for the MVP award – is that the understanding of what constitutes the MVP is unclear, and possibly even undefined.

MVP, to patronise for a second, stands for ‘Most Valuable Player’, and the problem seems to stem from people’s definitions of ‘Value’ in the game. Is it simply the best player, or is it something else? The confusion is obvious when you go through the popular runners and riders, and so I will go through them, argue who I think should win the award, and consequently, what the MVP is. These can be split in to three broad groups:

The Greatest

Tom Brady

Chicago Bears v New England Patriots

Credit: cheatsheet.com

I count myself as one of the many, shall we say, Patriots-skeptic fans of the game, but to me, it is near clear that he is the greatest QB of all time (just as Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of all time). This year is no different – his skills seem evergreen coming out of one of the greatest regular seasons of his career, topped by an all-time record 28-2 TD to INT ratio. He continues to be probably the best player in the league, but his detractors (in terms of winning the MVP) point to the fact that he missed 4 games as a reason for him not to be eligible for the award, but the issue is really what happened in his absence. Having missed the first 4 games through suspension, the Patriots went 3-1 with backup Jimmy Garrapolo winning the three games he played before Jacoby Brissett started behind centre in a losing effort. Without Brady, the Patriots and his backup rolled over opponents, pointing to the fact that the success of the team wasn’t reliant on him, regardless of his talent. Had the Patriots won not won a game or won only one or maybe two games, there would be absolutely no question about the rightful winner of the MVP.

Aaron Rodgers

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Credit: USA Today

As I write this, Aaron Rodgers is in red-hot form, leading a six-game winning streak for the Packers which he publicly called after Green Bay fell to 4-6 amid a collection of underwhelming performances with Rodgers himself looking limp at QB. Rodgers took the team on his back, finishing with 40 TDs and 7 INTs (none of which came during the 6-game winning streak), and a 104 passer rating. It is an incredible streak of performances which has made the Packers offense near unstoppable, and Green Bay one of the favourites to make the Superbowl. Rodgers seems to be playing on a level above everyone else at the position, making heart-breaking clutch plays after seemingly impossibly escaping pass-rushers, and the level of play during this hot streak has made Rodgers a popular candidate for MVP. As true, and as great as that is, the fact remains that through those first 10 games which necessitated the hot streak to make the post-season, Rodgers was part of a significant problem in Green Bay, and while the sheer quality of his play in the latter half of the season can’t be ignored or devalued, it is my view that the MVP must both be valuable throughout the season, but also mustn’t ever be a problem for the team as I believe Rodgers was. He lit a fire under himself and started an incredible run which may end with a Superbowl ring, but the MVP is based on the regular season, and his first 10 games of mediocre play undermines his case for the award.

Consistent Production

Dak Prescott

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Credit: USA Today

Rookie QBs picked in the 4th round don’t do what Dak has done this year. Barely anyone does. When Tony Romo went down with another back injury, most assumed that the Cowboys faced another losing year helmed by backup, sub-standard QBs; what the Cowboys got though was an exemplary season with a historic offense which had Dak as it’s central figure. Dak was no mere figurehead though – gaining incredible chemistry with the likes of Cole Beasley and Jason Witten while playing very clean ball having scored 23 touchdowns to 4 interceptions and matching Rodgers’ 104 passer rating. His other passing stats are someway behind contemporaries Rodgers and Ryan, but he shared a great deal of his touches with Ezekiel Elliott in a way those QBs didn’t with their running backs. Dak never single-handedly blew opponents away, but playing so well and leading arguably the most untouchable team in the league under such pressure, and with such a large shadow as Tony Romo being cast over him as a rookie, is an incredible feat.

The question with Dak, though, is how much he really elevated the Cowboy’s play. There’s no question he played very well and very clean, but how different would the Cowboys have been with a healthy Tony Romo? You can’t base anything on Romo’s one successful drive in week 17 against Philadelphia, but based on Romo’s past, it seems fair to assume that, at the very least, Romo wouldn’t be much less productive than Dak. Depending on the offensive style Dallas would employ with Romo under centre, there may have been more turnovers, but there may also have been more production. As good as Dak was, he scored 0 or 1 touchdown in over half of the regular season games he principally played in. While I would never claim that Dak was a placeholder, I think it is fair to question whether he added so much production to the offense as to merit an MVP award.

Matt Ryan

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Credit: Panic Button

‘Matty Ice’ is the first candidate on this list who I think demands serious consideration for the MVP award, and now that he has been named to the All Pro team, he may be the fovourite to win. It feels somewhat unfair to pair Ryan in the same category of consistency as Dak Prescott, simply because Ryan’s consistent production is much more searingly productive than Dak, or indeed, most quarterbacks in the league this year. Rodgers pipped him to the post in terms of touchdowns, but he was far ahead of the other candidates in terms of yards, led the league in terms of passer rating with a 117 mark, while recording the highest ever yards per attempt over the season for QBs with over 400 passes. The statistics are impressive, but more impressive is how relentless Atlanta have been this year with Ryan under centre. In previous years, they have burned hot for stretches, but fallen off under significant challenge; this is something that never happened in the current regular season, with the Falcons finishing the year a demolition of the Saints.

There are lies, damn lies, and statistics, and while I don’t think Ryan’s incredible numbers are deceiving, it is interesting to consider them in the context both of previous seasons and with the rest of the Falcons offense. While this is definitely Ryan’s best season, his production has always been very impressive to the point that him being even more impressive perhaps packs less of a punch. More importantly perhaps, the Falcons had a stellar and somewhat forgotten backfield  of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman who supplied a third of Atlanta touchdowns and around a quarter of Atlanta offense. This doesn’t denigrate Ryan’s fantastic season, but it does help explain why he may have been able to take his performances to the next level. Without their production, Matt Ryan and the Falcons may not have been able to be quite so dangerous. As suggested though, Ryan would be a worthy MVP, just not my choice in this competitive season.

‘Jenga Pieces’

I don’t have much time for Dave Dameshek and his irritating brand of dad comedy, but his podcast – when you eat around all that – does contain some insightful and interesting discussions and analysis, and one talking point he raises frequently is that of ‘jenga pieces’, i.e., players who are so crucial to their team’s success that them being removed causes the whole operation to crumble. It is this property that I have always understood MVP to measure – the inherent value a player has to their team’s overall success. It’s with this in mind that I have made my pick for MVP.

Derek Carr

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Credit: Oakland -247sports

Derek Carr isn’t quite my choice for MVP, but given my definition of the award, I think that Derek Carr’s heart-breaking injury in week 16 may have – strangely enough – made his case about as strongly as possible. Before his injury, Carr was settling the league alight at the helm of the red-hot Oakland Raiders. Ultimately, he didn’t match up to the other candidates in terms of dominance, and between their rushing attack and pass rush it was clear that Carr wasn’t the only powerful cog in Oakland, but Oakland’s fate after losing Carr has been very telling. Where Brady’s replacement, for example, picked up where Tom Terrific left off, Oakland seem to have collapsed, turning a team in control of the #2 seed and a viable threat to the Patriots in to a #5 seed who aren’t favoured to win more than one post-season game. In short, when Carr went down, the Raiders appear to have followed, and it is in that fact that Carr’s inherent value – be it in terms of skill, or even in terms of leadership and motivation – is very powerful.

Ezekiel Elliott

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Credit: ESPN.com

My choice, considering all of these great candidates, is a difficult one for me to concede as a Giants fan, but the Cowboys have picked up a possible all time talent in Elliott, and more than that, a piece that has been central not only to their success, but to their style of success.

There are some very immediate arguments against Elliott being especially singularly valuable, but I think they become weaker in the context of how the Cowboys offense has succeeded this year. The first is that his impact has been essentially shared with another candidate mentioned, Dak Prescott. Returning briefly to my argument against Dak though, as well and as clean as he played, the talent he replaced (when he last played a full season) was comparable in terms of many stats, and in most, compared unfavourably. It is only his security with the ball where Dak has the edge. That’s not insignificant, but it’s also something that points more to a game manager than a game winner. That’s not a knock – Dak has led the team incredibly well under a hell of a microscope in Dallas, but it just doesn’t make him MVP.

So if the improvement isn’t at QB, it has to be somewhere else, and judging by yards and points scored, it’s at running back. Last year, Darren McFadden had a nice season, running for 1,089 yards and three TDs. This year, Elliott blew that – and all other RBs – out of the water on his way to the rushing title, rushing for 1,631 and 15 TDs. Elliott was seriously endangering Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record before being rested in the final game and was able to prove himself as an adept receiver and pass-blocker which is also crucial to any pass offense. The comparison with McFadden also helps to combat the second fair complaint with Elliott winning – the all-decade offensive line blocking for him. Of course Zeke playing behind this line helps him, but any argument that his success is simply because of the line is fraudulent. What Darren McFadden proved, perhaps, was that any decent RB could run for 1,000 yards behind this line, but Ezekiel has done that and way more.

This is where I come to my point about the Dallas offensive system. In the past, their running game was important, but ultimately, their success was down to Tony Romo being explosive. This year, Dallas have been using Zeke to shorten the game, control the game, grind down opposition defences, and protect their own defense as much as possible from opposition offenses. The Cowboys were successful at this, having the second longest time of possession for the year. The Cowboys were used to going on long, crushing drives, with Zeke as the hammer driving them forward most of the time. Even in 3rd and long situations, Zeke was frequently capable of backbreaking long runs to keep moving the chains. That, mixed with his goal line production which saw the Dallas ground game contribute a much higher proportion of touchdowns this year. Zeke’s exceptional play supported the rest of the offense and the rest of the team to many of their wins this year, and without him, there would have been much more required from Dak which would have required him to push the boundaries a bit more and risk his reputation as a safe pair of hands. The Cowboys have blown out a few teams, but have also won a lot of close games over the course of the year, and the recipe for those wins is usually that of controlling the game, and that is what Zeke was central to this year and what has made him so valuable. The most valuable. Just about.

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A final point: if we agree that ‘value’ in the MVP race has this ‘jenga piece’ definition, is it worth creating a new, less vaguely-defined award for the Player of the Year? Personally, I think so as it would also clear up the definition of MVP and help celebrate more players and more contributions. If that were a category, I would give the award to another player I have to through gritted teeth – Tom Brady.

How I Would Ruin The Olympics for a Lot of People

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It’s hard to pick a cover picture for this sort of topic, but this picture illustrates at least some of what the Olympic Games to be. Credit: femalecoachingnetwork.com

This article is meant as a more informal opinion piece about the Olympic Games and the sorts of sports that are played and showcased there. It will be full of spurious and potentially demeaning opinions of certain sports and their relative merit. It is based on my view of what an ‘Olympic’ sport should be and is therefore not meant to completely demean the value of the sports discussed, but rather simply trying to restore a higher level of prestige – even if it’s just in my eyes – to an Olympic medal.

With that in mind, I have gone through the whole Olympic catalogue and decided whether I think each competition should be involved, stating which should remain, which should be removed, and why. It would be helpful then to know what I think the problem is. When I think of an ‘Olympic’ sport, I think of the ultimate in physical achievement, partly due to their ancient association with Zeus and Mount Olympus, and partly because of the nature of most of the original events which were contests of the most basic human measurables – speed, power, strength, endurance. Now my parameters have a degree of flexibility based on things like tradition within the modern era, but these are the sort of things I had in mind when deciding what made the cut. To earn an Olympic medal should always be a remarkable athletic achievement above most others to be remembered forever, but seeing some of the people who win medals these days, no matter how talented they genuinely are, really bothers me. Spoiler alert: BMX didn’t make the cut.

First of all, I will go through those sports which did make the cut. This should be quite quick as most of them should fit the broad characteristics I have set aside.

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Weightlifting is one of my favourite sports – brute strength, technique, danger, satisfaction. Credit: bangkok.coconuts.co

So without further ado, here are the sports which I believe deserve their Olympic status:

Unless stated, the sports listed are open to both male and female athletes. That will come in to play later in the article.

Freestyle Swimming – 50m, 100m, 400m, 800m (women), 1500m (men).
Swimming (Backstroke) – 100m, 200m
Swimming (Breastroke) – 100m, 200m
Swimming (Butterfly) – 100m, 200m
Swimming 400m Individual Medley
Swimming 4×100 Medley Relay
Swimming 4×200 Freestyle Relay
Swimming 10km Marathon

Running – 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 10000m
Running – 4×100 Relay, 4×400 Relay
Marathon
Hurdles – 11om (men), 100m (women), 400m, Steeplechase
High Jump
Pole Vault
Long Jump
Triple Jump
Shot Put
Discus
Hammer Throw
Javelin
Triathalon
Decathlon (men), Heptathlon (women)

Cycling Road Race
Cycling Team Sprint
Cycling Omnium
Mountain Biking Cross Country

Boxing Men – Flyweight, Bantamweight, Lieghtweight, Welterweight. Middleweight, Heavyweight, Super Heavyweight
Boxing Women – Flyweight, Lieghtweight, Middleweight
Judo Men – 66kg, 81kg, 100kg, +100kg
Judo Women – 52kg, 63kg, 78kg, +78kg
Taekwondo Men – 58kg, 80kg, +80kg
Taekwondo Women – 49kg, 67kg, +67kg
Freestyle Wrestling (Men) – 57kg, 74kg, 97kg, 125kg
Freestyle Wrestling (Women) – 48kg, 53kg, 58kg
Greco-Roman Wrestling (Men) – 59kg, 75kg, 98kg, 130kg
Greco-Roman Wrestling (Women) – 63kg, 69kg, 75kg
Fencing (Foil)
Fencing (Team Foil) (Men)

Weightlifting (Men) – 56kg, 69kg, 85kg, 105kg, +105kg
Weightlifting (Women) – 48kg, 58kg, 69kg, 75kg, +75kg

Canoeing (Men) – C1 1000m Sprint, C2 Slalom, K1 200m Sprint, K2 1000m Sprint, K4 1000m Sprint, K1 Slalom
Canoeing (Women) – K1 200m Sprint, K2 500m Sprint, K4 500m Sprint, K1 Slalom
Rowing – Single Skulls, Double Skulls, Quadruple Skulls
Sailing (Men) – RS:X, Laser, 49er
Sailing (Women) – RS:X, Laser Radial, 49erFX
Sailing – Nacra 17

Simone Biles

Possibly the hardest sport to eliminate because of how impressive it is, but if victory is based on an opinion and not straight-up objectively beating someone, it’s out. Simone Biles deserves all the plaudits she receives though. Credit: npr.org

Ok, now for the meat of the exercise, what sports should be removed from the Olympic games and why:

There are quite a few sports at the Olympics which are extremely impressive and athletic, but that are problematic because of how they are won. To cut a long story short, the following sports should be removed because victory is based on the artistic interpretation of judger as opposed to one athlete objectively defeating an opponent – aesthetics come before the sheer physical prowess, and so they don’t belong at my version of the Olympics. They are:

All Diving, Synchronised Swimming, and Gymnastics

The bulk of the cuts come for the least interesting philosophical reason, but an important one nonetheless. This is really trimming the fat. As suggested earlier, part of this exercise is to champion the prestige of an Olympic medal, and especially a Gold Olympic medal. The more disciplines that earn a medal, the less prestige there is; and there are many sports, regardless of their merit, that offer dozens of medals across different categories based on things like weight-classes. Consequently, if a nation is particularly good at a single sport that offers a lot of medals, it inflates their position in the medals table – foe example with Great Britain and cycling. With that in mind, having gone through the different disciplines, I cut some that I thought were superfluous and possibly ‘half-way houses’ between more major disciplines which made the cut. The events that fit in to this category were:

Swimming – 200m Freestyle, 4x100m Freestyle Relay
Running – 1500m, 5000m
Cycling Time Trials

Boxing (Men) – Light Flyweight, Light Welterweight, Light Heavyweight
Judo (Men) – 60kg, 73kg, 90kg
Judo (Women) – 48kg, 57kg, 70kg
Taekwondo – 68kg Men, 57kg Woman
Freestyle Wrestling (Men) – 65kg, 86kg
Fencing – Épée, Team Épée, Sabre, Team Sabre

Weightlifting (Men) – 62kg, 77kg, 94kg
Weightlifting (Women) – 53kg, 63kg

Sailing – Finn, 470
Rowing – Coxless Pair, Leightweight Double Skulls, Leightweight Coxless Four
Canoeing – C1 Slalom, C1 200m, C2 1000m

With the canoeing, some of the classes were cut not just because of the padding of medals, but because there were some classes exclusively for one gender, so they – the K1 500m for women and K1 200m and K1 1000m for men – were first against the wall.

There are some sports which have such mainstream appeal and high standards of competitions that the Olympics are almost a bonus. The Olympic games, again as part of their prestige, should be the undisputed pinnacle of every Olympic sport, but for many, they are not, and so we see a more casual and lower standard of competition than would be seen elsewhere in the sport. No more was this more obvious than with Golf, where most pro golfers avoided it in droves while footballers, with a few notable exceptions, got on with the start of their seasons while football medals were being competed for in Rio. It is also the case that teams of more than 4 players at the very most share the duty of playing so much that it really dilutes the idea of individuals winning medals. With up to four people in a team, no one can hide, but squads like in football or basketball, for instance, it is very possible that someone will ‘earn’ a Gold medal after being carried by more talented team mates, and that makes a mockery of the prestige of a gold medal. The sports for which the Olympics aren’t their pinnacle and for which there are large squads often overlap, and those disqualified for that reason are:

Basketball
Football
Golf
Rugby Sevens
Tennis
Hockey
Rowing Eights

This is no judgement of these sports, and objectively, they are great to watch, but they just undermine the prestige of the Olympics or don’t quite fit. It was particularly hard to eliminate hockey and, surprisingly, tennis. Hockey is a very traditional Olympic sport, but the team problem remains. As for tennis, it’s an individual, physically demanding sport which is valued by most tennis players, but it still pales in comparison to the majors, so it’s out.

Rio Horse

The horse does the bulk of the work, the rider gets a gold medal. If you’re dressed like that, you’re probably not the one exerting yourself. Credit: rio2016.com

If most of those sports were eliminated because of the sharing of the efforts, another category of sport to be eliminated are some where the effort is shared with some equipment or facilitator. Those sports are:

Equestrian
Shooting
Archery

Archery was another sport on the bubble – it takes a lot of skill, no doubt and is an ancient discipline, which works in it’s favour. The problem with archery though, as with shooting, is that as talented as the shooters are, they are essentially operating equipment, which is something anyone can do. They will be infinitely more accurate, but while it’s impossible for a lehman to outrun Usain Bolt, it is imaginable that even as a fluke, I could hit the same target as an Olympian as long as I could use the gun or the bow. Far more ridiculous though is equestrian. I’m sure the riders train hard and have a lot of skills, but the physical effort and achievement is really the horses and while they get no recognition, the riders get OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALS for hanging on.

Now I won’t lie, I will take a bit of joy in this next section. Some of the following sports also fit in to other categories, but I am saving them for here because they deserve it. In short, these sports, among other things, are just kinda crappy sports. I mean no disrespect to the participants – live and let live, and i’m not claiming I could beat the ‘Olympians’ – but I don’t have a problem disrespecting the sports. These are:

Badmington
Table Tennis
Cycling Team Pursuit
Cycling Individual Sprints
Cycling Keirin
Volleyball and Beach Volleyball
Walking
Handball
Water Polo

Walking is certainly requires a huge physical effort, but what’s the point of walking when there are running events? The cycling team pursuits are quite exciting, but are instantly eliminated because the whole team doesn’t even have to finish. In a team sport, if a member can’t finish, YOU LOSE – but not at the Olympics. In individual sprints, the riders spend half the time not sprinting. That’s not a sprint and while i’m sure it’s super tactical, it’s anti-Olympic in my view. Similarly, the keirin suffers from being a bridge too far in extending the idea of riding a bike – cyclists sprint for the line after following a motorised bike they can’t overtake for half the race, so why are they even cycling that bit. I’m yet to see any sort of decent explanation. Out. At least these sports, for their faults, involve great physical effort; badmington, table tennis, and volleyball can be played by anyone without any great effort and as good as i’m sure the players are, if you’re handing out Olympic Medals, it shouldn’t be for sports which people don’t think twice about playing in their back yard or conservatory. That leads us to two sports which I legitimately found offensive, namely handball and water polo. Imagine the ONE-dimensionality of basketball, but without nearly all of the skill and effort. Players throw the ball in the net, which seems more cheap than anything else and while watching a game, I saw a goalkeeper make 1 or at most 2 saves the whole game, so easy is it to score. It’s unbalanced, boring, and comes across like a game someone made up at a party. Imagine that, but with players slowed down by water and it being somehow easier to score, and you have water polo. Have at it if you must, but you’re not getting a gold medal for it.

Finally, there is a miscellaneous category for sports that don’t seem to fit well as an Olympic sport for various reasons that don’t quite fit elsewhere. They are:

Swimming 200m Individual medley
BMX
Modern Pentathlon

God they really do give out probably a literal tonne of cycling medals eh? For BMX,, there’s probably some personal bias involved – the event looks demanding enough, but it’s just so … lame, like a millennial, cleansed version of mountain biking. Now I love multi-sport events, they are among the most challenging and physically draining of all, but in the case of modern pentathlon, it involves shooting and horse riding, and as they’ve been cut, this whole event has to be too. Finally, and most banal, the 200m individual swimming medley was cut because it kinda duplicated the 400m medley whithout utilising the four different swimming disciplines that you would expect from a true medley.

By the end of the Olympic Games in Rio, 2016, there will have been 306 Gold Medals awarded, but if it were up to me, that amount would be cut by 154. And that’s how i’d ruin the Olympic Games for around half of the competitors and millions around the globe, for a short time at least. Imagine if every four years, the best physical athletes in the world fought over just 152 Gold medals – still a lot of action, but with the fat well and truly cut. Winning a gold medal, or any medal, would mean that much more. I may be being a puritanical fantasist (if you know me, that’s nothing new) but I genuinely believe that that would actually make the Olympics more satisfying, returning it to it’s rawest elements of physical battle, the ecstasy of victory and the agony of defeat. But that’s just me, I like to spoil your fun, especially if you play handball.

I am contemplating taking the events I have kept in my hypothetical, pure, Olympics and make a true medal table for it to see who really is the greatest. If I do that, you will see it below after the Games. America will still probably win.

 

 

 

Leicester City, the Greatest Sporting Achievement of All Time & Snap-Judging the Favourites for Next Year’s Crown

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Manager Claudio Ranieri, ‘Captain Morgan’, and their band of unlikely heroes lift the most unlikely of Premier League titles. Credit: sportsmole.co.uk

Football has always been my favourite sport – all you need is a ball, and that doesn’t even have to be a ball; and from it all has come memories – both good and bad – which are as vivid as the clearest memories I have. That is why sport is important, and why football is most beloved around the world.

In recent years though, it’s been hard to love it quite as much. While the magic of playing football can never be taken away, the culture of football seemed to be in a constant nosedive. Cynical owners had essentially bought titles for teams of their choice, transfer fees and wage bills continue to rise so high that ticket prices rise to meet them and keep the common fan away from regular matches, the sport’s governing bodies showed themselves rotten to the core – in short, a sport that draws the most love and loyalty across the world, and it’s fans, have been relentlessly abused by those who oversee it. The natural result of this was an apparent exclusive club of competitive teams in the Premier League who, given the conditions, would be the only possible league champions. That is until this year when, without hyperbole, Leicester City have undone them all and struck a blow for true football and justice, while rejecting what just seemed to be expected norms of champions.

I won’t analyse Leiciester and the specific reasons of their victory too much because – as is borne out in the inability of teams to stop them – they almost defy such analysis, but there are some characteristics of their play which spells success, even if opponents are completely aware of what they are up against – something of a perfect storm, though certainly no accident of circumstance.

It reads like a fairytale: Leicester City, having scraped themselves to safety in the Premier League last year, coached by a manager coming off a run of dismissals whose appointment was questioned by many, and players who had either languished in lower leagues or been cast aside by other teams, were up against a league which offers the most TV rights money of any other to top teams and dominated by a small group of teams so rich that challenging them should be insurmountable. But Leicester City did, did so after spending a fraction of the money of their competitors, and did so in style.

In this day and age Leicester City shouldn’t be able to win the Premier League. For teams who survive relegation, their championship becomes staying in the league, maybe finishing surprisingly high, staying out of the relegation fight, and feeling more secure in the division. Everyone at Leicester City was written off, and frankly, in an objective way, rightly so, but cliched as it is, there is no greater motivator than being told ‘you can’t do this’. ‘Motivated’ is just one word to describe Leicester City this year. Ranieri, with nothing expected of him, created an atmosphere where players could believe in themselves, where everyone was equal and no one’s past mattered; the only thing that mattered was playing to your potential, doing your job, and having fun while doing it. With some notable exceptions, even now I don’t think many of the Leicester team are particularly remarkable players or among the best at their position, but they did their job as asked and rarely faltered. Ranieri, formerly a ‘tinkerman’, had evaluated his squad and set them up in a system which played to their strengths and created remarkable football; not parking the bus and fighting for scraps, but playing firm and pressing at the back, siphoning the ball forward in midfield with short passing, and attacking and counter-attacking with pace and precision.

So often in the Premier League, top teams will simply sell and replace unsuccessful players, but at Leicester City, league champion players were created with training, and savvy scouting which found the right players for their role who could be trained to be rock solid in their role. The team as a whole has raised the level of every individual there, the work-rate and passion of the players has made them very hard to break down and out-play, and the chemistry of the players, borne of a unique level of bonding and brotherhood, has given them a consistency to their play which eventually saw off all competitors.Of course, players like Mahrez, Kante, and Vardy are more than just role-players – their creativity and skill helped give them an extra edge against both the most talented and most stubborn players and teams in the league.When a team has everything from motivation, determination, creativity, a free-flowing mentality, and the players and coaches to follow it through, it suddenly feels less shocking that they would win the league.

The real reason I am writing this article though is that, despite the subjectivity and inability to compare successes in different contexts, I believe that Leicester’s achievement is so unlikely and so remarkable that it is quite clearly the greatest sporting achievement of all time.

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Advertised as canon-fodder, Buster Douglas knocks out Mike Tyson credit: deepishthoughts.com

League’s are designed as such that victory excludes those that rely on flukes or luck and insists that the winner be the best consistently over the course of an entire season. So as great and memorable as one-time successes like Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson, non-league Luton knocking Norwich City out of the FA Cup, or Japan beating South Africa at the rugby world cup are, these are freaks of nature, magical moments that happen once. As special as that is, it doesn’t compare to a team defying the odds time and time again and actually proving a dominance over their competition. So, to my mind, the only achievement that could compete with Leicester’s win would be a similar sort of league-structured victory.

As big an NFL and New York Giants fan as I am, it would be easy to look at their Superbowl XVII victory over the to-date undefeated Patriots, but the truth is, the Giants are a team who had already won two Lombardi trophies before that victory, and as great an achievement as any Superbowl victory, it only comes together after a maximum of twenty games in which you don’t play every other team competing. So as far as i’m concerned, a Superbowl victory is ruled out from this discussion, and that is before even considering the several – laudable – policies in place throughout North American sports which encourage a rough parity of competition and also rule them out of consideration for this honour. It has indeed been fascinating trying to see American sports fans marvel at Leicester City without culturally being unequipped to fully understand the magnitude of the achievement.

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John Daly, a rookie unknown, poses with his PGA Championship, credit: nydailynews.com

I have also seen some comparisons made to John Daly’s 1991 PGA Championship win. It was certainly a hell of a shocking and remarkable victory. Daly, a rookie, who until then was often not even an also ran, being an alternate for championships before, who only secured a place in the tournament days before when Nick Price dropped out, who had to use Price’s caddy for the championship, and who hadn’t had a chance to practice at the course beforehand, went on to win the championship in most certainly the most incredible golfing victory ever. In terms of odds being against him and the surprise of the victory, he is close to rivaling Leicester, however, when you consider the nature of golf and their tournaments, it falls short. Though it takes consistency to win a golf tournament in a way that largely eliminates any ‘luck’, it still only takes good form over a weekend to succeed, again, as opposed to a whole season. More importantly, in golf, though you play alongside rivals, you control your own ball and aren’t competing directly with anyone – other golfers don’t game plan for you and you don’t have to our smart opponents, you just have to play the best on your own. A team, liable to each other and facing a team that is game-planning for your style and actively trying to stop you succeed, requires much more of an effort in overcoming than simply the playing field alone, and so as impressive as Daly’s achievement was, it simply can’t compare.

So back in the world of football, there are a few achievements that are reminiscent of Leicester City’s Premier League win. Perhaps the most reminiscent is what Brian Clough achieved with Nottingham Forrest between 1976 and 1980. Forrest, as a second tier team, were certainly of similar standing to the Leicester City of last year when Clough took charge, and by getting swiftly promoted and then winning the top tier championship in their first year of promotion, Nottingham Forrest completed a magical, unlikely achievement. This was only surpassed when Forrest went on to win two successive European Championships – the pinnacle of European club football. This, on paper, even surpasses the Leicester victory, but it is important to remember the footballing climate of the time. While this in no way undermines the Nottingham Forrest achievement, the fact is that the financial gulf between not only teams in the top division, but between teams across divisions was nowhere near as large. With the right manager, like a Brian Clough, though it was still a huge challenge, it was much more feasible for a new team to rise up and compete for the first division championship. In fact, when Forrest signed Trevor Francis for £1.15 million, the fee smashed the existing transfer fee record, showing that Forrest, despite coming from the lower league, were more than able to play on level playing field to their competitors. Compare that with Leicester, who were on the fringe of the second tier football last year; their largest transfer fee was just £7 million for Shinji Okazaki, a very small fee for any starting calibre Premier League player, never mind one of it’s strongerst performers. Though Nottingham Forrest’s rise and success is the most reminiscent of Leicester’s then, it still can’t compare because they simply didn’t face the inherent barriers that Leicester faced as a team who had previously barely survived the Premiership.

So what about a more modern footballing achievement? In terms of sheer near-unparalleled achievement, Arsenal’s 2003/04 run in which they dominated the Premier League and went undefeated in doing so will quite possibly never be replicated again. Since the old first division became the Premiership, and the sponsorship money and larger gaps in financial power came in to play, such dominance should have been impossible. Arsenal were no doubt one of those financially blessed teams themselves, but the fact that they never slipped up and lost even once was truly remarkable. That Arsenal performance was truly special, but the only reason it drops in relevance when compared to Leicester City  is that Arsenal were already a strong and very competitive team going in to the season having won twice since 1997 and competed well in years well they fell short. Not only that, but Arsenal built a team around historically great players like Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp. When compared with Arsenal, players like Vardy and Mahrez are great, but simply not in the same conversation as Henry and Bergkamp; and Leicester City’s win came out of almost literally nowhere. As amazing as Arsenal’s modern invincibles season was, it was the result of historical momentum and historical talent that Leicester simply didn’t have.

POR: Euro2004 Final: Portugal v Greece

Angelos Charisteas celebrates his unlikely winning goal for Greece in the Euro 2004 final credit: realclearsports.com

The final phenomenon that could, to some, challenge Leicester City’s win for greatest sporting achievement is the still surreal happening of Greece winning Euro 2004. Greece, who had only been to two major tournaments in their history and never won a game, showed up in Portugal and went on to grind out results against the likes of Spain, France, the Czech Republic, and finally, the hosts in the final to win the most unlikely international title of all time. Greece were a team of practical nobodies who, like Leicester, played smart, hard-working football (though without the flash of Leicester City), and beat out the giants of Europe. The result was practically an aberration as Greece would never replicate anything like this success again, a success which legitimately shocked the football world. Even compared to Leicester, this team had no expectations of victory. However, despite how anonymous they were, their prospects of victory were still more feasible simple because of the amount of competition they faced. Greece were one of just 16 teams competing for the European crown and only had to play six matches in the tournament. While Greece won the tournament, they did so after a series of shocks coming from eked out victories while Leicester really shone and looked unstoppable over a 38 game season. Greece’s Euro 2004 victory will live on in memory forever, as will Leicester’s, but Leicester’s victory coming over a longer season with more competition means it again edges the Greece victory in terms of level of achievement.

While it’s hard to make such a sweeping statement, the more I think about it, the more I want to double down: Leicester City, coming out of a relegation battle, with cheaper players who had been rejected or ignored previously, and going on to beat out a sizable handful or financially and historically elite teams with flair and apparent ease and from out of nowhere is the greatest sporting achievement of all time. We’re just lucky we all got to witness it.

Snap Preview of the 2016-17 Premiership Season
The 2015-16 Premier League season has indeed been like a fairytale, driven by new contenders playing with youth, passion, and dedication, usurping the historic and financial powerhouses of the league. Now that the winner is determined, the big questions that are rising are can Leicester City and – to a lesser extent – Tottenham, keep a hold of the new young standouts that propelled them to the top of the table, and can they possibly recreate their success next year and in seasons to come?

With that in mind, i’m going to do something I’ve never done before – mainly because my interest in the league had been slowly waning – and preview who I believe to be the likely contenders for the 2016-17 Premier League title and explain why I think they will, or won’t, win the league. Perhaps I’ll overlook an underdog like Leicester City were this year, but hopefully not.

Leicester City
The story of Leicester City’s season was one of consistency, being doubted because of their pedigree, and a slow tide of belief that they might actually go and win. One of the major narratives of the season was that despite their consistency and the length of time they spent as league leaders, there was still skepticism about their ability to follow through; and that seems to be the prevailing thought even know – that yes they won the league, but surely it was a one off.

I’ve written at length about why they won the league this year, so I won’t rehash that, but theoretically at least, there is no reason to imagine they can’t recreate that. Teams had plenty of time this season to ‘work them out’ and didn’t because their system was about consistency, not surprise, so if they can continue to play to their tactics and maintain their work-rate, they should be contenders. The dangers for Leicester will be if other teams are smart enough to adopt aspects of their philosophy, and whether they will have the right players at their disposal to execute their game plan. Indeed, the prevailing question about Leicester City is whether they will be able to keep their key players like Schmeichel, Morgan, Kante, Okazaki, Vardy, and especially Mahrez. If they lose any of these players, they will need to replace them with new players who can play to those standards and with the intangibles of passion, work-rate, and creativity that have made them the difference-makers for the champions.

To my mind though, I think there is an obvious love and passion for the club that, when reciprocated by the fans, played a large role in their success. The team  showed faith in the players and achieved something special, and when you mix faith and success, you will usually create loyalty in your players. Leicester will surely have to offer these key players lucrative and competitive new contracts, but that shouldn’t be a problem given their success, With money presumably not an issue, I don’t see why players would want to leave the reigning champions who will be playing in the Champions League for another team in England, especially given the many flaws and inconsistencies shown by the established ‘Top 4’ teams. Therefore, I think it will take an elite European team such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, or Bayern Munich to tempt players away, and as good as these players are, perhaps with the exception of Schmeichel, I don’t see those teams being quite interested in them.

I singled out Schmeichel there because having an elite Goalkeeper is near priceless and given his performances, and certainly not hindered by name recognition, there could be interest in him. I don’t see him leaving though. Schmeichel, despite his lineage has had a rough ride of a career until now, playing for teams like Leeds and Notts County before making it back to the top. He has been playing with Leicester for 5 years now and their faith in him, mixed with the success they have brought him, I think will create a strong sense of loyalty in him. That goes even more for Vardy and Morgan. Both have been with Leicester for multiple years in lower leagues, and neither would have imagined the possibility of winning the league. They did that because of their place at the club, and I find it very hard to believe that players who have been on such an incredible, long journey with the club and the fans will have much desire to leave at the height of success.

That leaves Kante, Okazaki, and Mahrez under the microscope. These are Leicester’s most flashy, skillful players who will have caught many a manager’s eye, and they are also the ones who have been with the club for the shortest amount of time, not toiling through the lower leagues with them like the others. Nonetheless, I think the obvious team spirit and bond created at Leicester surely wasn’t lost on them, not to mention, as before, the opportunities that playing for Leicester as champions itself now presents. Even for these players, it is hard to to think of a club with a significantly superior draw than Leicester that would also be particularly interested in the players. Perhaps some of them could leave, but I will be surprised.

I think, personally, that the real danger faced by Leicester is trying to make the sort of preseason moves that may be associated with top clubs: most obviously, high-profile signings. While their big-money rivals will hope to learn from Leicester, there is potentially a danger that Leicester try to behave more like a top club and make impressive signings of players who don’t fit their system. In many ways, it would be ideal is Leicester could just play next season with the exact same squad, but if they are tempted by the transfer market, they have to be careful to respect what this history-making team have achieved, and only buy players who can play the high octane, high effort style that Leicester play while remembering to fulfil their position and role diligently. If they are able to do that, they will be competing again.

Tottenham Hotspur
Tottenham Hotspur themselves would be the fairytale team of the league this year if it wasn’t for the ridiculously unlikely achievement of Leicester City. Tottenham have a rich history and have been fleetingly involved in European football in recent years with the emergence of Gareth Bale, but despite these relatively humble successes, they haven’t been close to a title run in decades. They are also surrounded by similar questions to Leicester City going in to the next year – namely, can they repeat their feat next year and challenge for the title. Interestingly though, the prevailing belief seems to be that they will be in a better position than Leicester, despite losing out in the title race to them this year.

While Leicester showed the consistency of champions, it is hard to argue that there was a team who played to the level of quality as Tottenham at their best. In recent years, Tottenham have always had a fairly neutral disappointing goal difference, but this year they have had, statistically, the most fearsome attack and most sure-handed defence leading to a monster goal difference. Players like Kane, Lloris, Vertonghen, and Erikson have managed to maintain a high-to-incredible level of play while players like Alderweireld, Walker, Rose, Lamela, and Alli have emerged from either lower leagues, other teams, or relative mediocrity to play to the same level. No team has had such rich quality throughout their ranks as Spurs have, and Mauricio Pochettino is seemingly the architect of the flourish. Unfortunately for them, too many draws early in the season before they really found their feet and not quite being able to match the consistency of Leicester when it counted costed them a championship they perhaps objectively deserved.

It will be interesting to see how much difficulty Tottenham face in keeping their squad together because unlike Leicester, there doesn’t seem to be much speculation that they will struggle to. They will surely get tempting offers for Lloris especially and other members of the squad, but something special seems to be going on at the club, and as a Champions League team with a huge new stadium in the works, and increasing financial power, I think Tottenham should be able to hold on to their players, especially now that Pochettino has signed a big new contract extension. He was perhaps the most likely to be pursued by rivals, but it is clear he is building something at Tottenham. That’s something you don’t leave behind, and it’s something that the players will want to stay around for. If they do, Tottenham will keep a very powerful, young and exciting squad.

This season did have a feel though that if they couldn’t win this year, they might not get another chance, and as teams have a preseason to adjust themselves to the approaches of Tottenham and Leicester and perhaps take inspiration from them to close the gap, there are valid reasons to worry that Tottenham might not be able to quite recreate the magic of this year.

But again like Leicester, philosophically at least, if they keep the same quality in their squad, and the same passion and work-rate in their play, there is no reason at all that Tottenham can’t make another strong push for the title. For Tottenham, there aren’t many areas of their squad that can be significantly improved, but what they do need is strength in depth, and if they can add that to their squad without upsetting it, if anything, they’ll be in an even stronger position than this year.

Manchester City
Manchester City are an intriguing prospect, having seemingly forgone any interest in Premier League as they limp to the end of the season while going on an unlikely run in the Champions League. Despite that success though, that seems like a bit of a misnomer if i’m completely honest, Manchester City feel like a team in flux, en route to a new era and major rebuild under incoming headline manager Pep Guardiola. Guardiola is generally seen as the best manager in the world following his long list of achievements at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, and he will certainly, again, have a huge transfer budget to play with this preseason. So despite the huge disappointment of this year, City will certainly be considered among the favourites next year.

That said, Guardiola and City have a lot of work to do with a squad which seems old, tired, and listless when compared to how powerful it should be. As good as many of the players there are on paper, there has been a high turnover of starting City players since City became a financial powerhouse, meaning that players have seemed more disposable and their time at City more transitory. In this time, there have been some players such a Hart, Kompany, Silva, Toure, and Aguero who have become stalwarts, and the closest thing to ‘hearts and souls’ of the team possible for such a cynical venture as they have become. But as time goes on, the number of players on that list good enough to anchor a championship winning team has dwindled. Vincent Kompany, once the fiery figurehead of the team, had become injury prone and less effective when able to play, while Silva and Toure have appeared less motivated and consistent; and as good as they are, a team can’t be highly successful in a league with a team anchored by three consistently good to great players in recent stalwarts Hart and Aguero, and newer sensation Kevin De Bruyne.

What it means is that this team, in line with it’s ethos, has to be largely torn apart and rebuilt. Keep Hart, De Bruyne and Aguero, sell the coasting dead weight like Navas, Silva, and Demichelis, and buy at least 4 or 5 hungry, quality players. Guardiola’s name and City’s money will be enough to draw most of any players they have their eye on, and while the potential of a ‘Galacticos’ approach is shaky at best, City themselves have had success with it before.

Nonetheless, even if City make these moves, which isn’t guaranteed, it would be a major rebuild which could quite possibly take more than a season to ‘take’. I don’t think City can win the league with their current squad, and I think a manager like Pep will want to stamp his authority on the side, so I can see this sort of rebuild taking place, so City’s prospects will rest solely on how quickly Pep’s new team can gel, and while I think City will be force eventually under Guardiola, I think there will be enough competition to beat out City as they rebuild next year.

Manchester Utd
Manchester Utd are currently a fascinating team. It is natural that after a legendary manager like Alex Ferguson moved on, that they would go through a period of struggle and rebuilding, but given the recent history of Utd, it has been a period of huge disappointment for the fans, and of schadenfreude for fans of their rivals. In the second half of this season though, something has started happening there that gives them reason to be very hopeful for the future. This season, part of their struggles have come due to a raft of injuries to top players. The rather sizable silver lining of this though has been that Louis Van Gaal has been forced in to select numerous players to his starting eleven from deep in to the Utd youth system. The arrivals of Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Jesse Lingard, and most explosively, Marcus Rashford, has given Utd a tempo and attacking flair that the side have been sorely missing for the past few years. Giving young prospects starts is something Van Gaal is well-known for regardless, but it’s a pretty safe bet that these players wouldn’t have all gotten their shots so quickly were it not for the injury bug; in fact, the injury bug may have forced Utd to play less like a ‘top’ team, and more like Leicester City did, with youth, passion, and desire.

These three young players have been nothing short of a revelation. They have played to incredible standards at their respective positions and have lit a fire under other established players like Anthony Martial, Antonio Valencia, and even Wayne Rooney who seems to have been playing more freely now that the attacking verve of the team doesn’t run near exclusively through him. The team is still inconsistent and definitely needs more development, but the foundation of these players as well as having a world-class goalkeeper and improving centre-back in Chris Smalling is giving them something to really build on.

With this in mind, this is no time for a change at manager, and Van Gaal deserves one more season to see if this foundation can be built on. Keeping De Gea will be crucial, but if they can do that, add one or two more dominant defenders, and add a bit more youthful, hungry depth to the squad, I think Manchester Utd could be on for a major revival, and quite possibly, a run at the Premier League title.

Arsenal
Arsenal are under consideration here due to their consistent place in the Top 4 in the past decade and the fact that they were, for some time, a legitimate contender for the title before fizzling out shortly after Christmas. Arsenal are a strange team who consistently play quality, flowing football, but who, in recent years have also been – if you will  – consistent in their inconsistency, perhaps keeping faith in players unduly long after they should have been replaced. For years, they have flashed with quality but haven’t been able to maintain it enough to make a serious run, and I don’t see why that would change next year.

Giroud is a good striker, but certainly not good enough consistently, and though Welbeck, Walcott and even Campbell are good, it just feels like they are lacking the sort of transcendent striker that Leicester, Tottenham, City, and maybe Utd have to make them true contenders. That, mixed with a couple of upgrades at the squad’s weakest points – maybe a savvy signing each in defence and midfield replacing the aging Monreal and bringing in competition for Ramsey – could possibly make them more realistic contenders, but their problem is also of attitude.

Fair or not, Arsenal seem to play without urgency for lengthy periods, and don’t seem to have the fire of more successful teams. It is this, more than a few squad changes, that would be key to their next title challenge. Wenger is a great manager, but if he is the problem, it is in this respect.

Chelsea
Chelsea are seemingly a team in no man’s land, at least relative to the recent expectations. Guus Hiddink managed to steady the ship for the most part after the freefall they experienced at the start of the season, but Chelsea have been non-starters this year and a near irrelevance in the league. Like their super-wealthy contemporaries in City, their team just feels tired, and are about to hire a new manager who should rip up the team and start again, and should have the budget to do it. The problem is, Chelsea seem to have even less current talent than City do, haven’t had any sort of European run, and are hiring a manager with much less of a draw than Guardiola. Besides Courtois, Hazard, and maybe Diego Costa, no one really seems irreplaceable, but so invisible has their season been that it’s hard to imagine many top quality players having a huge interest in a move to Stamford Bridge. That all said, Chelsea’s season has been so strange and anonymous that they are a real wildcard for next season.Speaking from a pure hunch though, I just can’t see them building any sort of significant challenge.

Liverpool
Liverpool haven’t really earned consideration as title challengers next year based on their performances this year, but the cult of Klopp mixed with flashes of quality play over this season and Liverpool being in the mix in recent years means they can’t quite be ruled out as contenders.

Though Liverpool have some excellent players such as Coutinho and Firmino, they are lacking the requisite quality to really challenge significantly since Gerrard and especially Suarez left. For teams like Manchester City and Chelsea, I have suggested complete rebuilds in line with their resources and ethos, but for Klopp, I think he will have to rely on his open, fluid managerial style as much as he will on new players. Some new signings will be necessary, but his real job will be to get the most out of some players who still have some potential to live up to; players such as Lallana, Can, Ibe, Benteke and Sturridge all seem to have more to give, and if Klopp can get them playing more naturally and consistently in his system over the course of a proper pre-season regimen, they could improve a great deal.

So without further ado, and purely on instinct, here are where I predict these teams will finish next season:

Predicted Top 6
1) Tottenham Hotspur
2) Manchester Utd
3) Manchester City
4) Leicester City
5) Arsenal
6) Liverpool/Chelsea

NFL Roundup – Week 8, 2015

NFL Week 8 Headlines and Round-up

  • Kansas City Chiefs Continue a Resurgence, Thrash the Detroit Lions in London
  • Denver Broncos Outclass the Green Bay Packers in the ‘Battle of the Undefeateds’
  • Offensive Records Set as the New Orleans Saints Edge the New York Giants in Shootout

With only the Monday Night showdown between the Indianapolis Colts and Carolina Panthers still to play, Week 8 of the NFL season has seen the fall of undefeated teams, numerous heart-breaking injuries, and offensive records crushed.

Miami 7 – 36 New England

The emotional, resurgent juggernaut of Dan Campbell’s Miami Dolphins was brought to an abrupt halt by the superior and still undefeated New England Patriots on Thursday night. The Patriots’ ability to make the most of what they have, create stars, and dominate, no matter the circumstances again proved too strong for their opponents this week. Completely shutting down Miami’s run game, the class the Patriots boast in Brady, Gronkowski, Edelman, and now Dion Lewis completely smothered the Dolphins who, for the two weeks previous, looked like a very dangerous team playing hard for their interim coach, demolishing both Tennessee and Houston consecutively. The strength of their opponents may have given the Dolphins a false sense of security though, and with the potentially season-ending Achilles injury to pro bowl Defensive End Cameron Wake, the resurgence of the Dolphins may be short lived. The Patriots, on the other hand, continue to look a step ahead of every other team in terms of game plans and quality, playing with a bespoke approach to every opponent they come across, and succeeding. In this form, talk of an undefeated season looks increasingly credible.

Detroit 10 – 45 Kansas City

The London game has gained a reputation as something of a ‘coach killer’, its latest victim being Joe Philbin of Miami following their devastating week 4 loss at Wembley. The Detroit Lions have already replaced their Offensive Coordinator this season, and after the team’s performance this week in London which saw them fall to 1 and 7 and dead last in the league, Lions Head Coach Jim Caldwell must be on a very hot seat. If anything, the ten points flatter Detroit who played without ambition and a spark, only managing to score a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. For Kansas City, you can only beat who you play, and Kansas City more than did that job. Starting with a well worked end-around to Charcandrick West and bookmarked by a standout game by Alex Smith, the Chiefs dominated the Lions in all facets of the game. Smith threw for two touchdowns and rushed for another, as well as rushing for 78 yards, highlighted by a 49 yard run the Lions D will be very embarrassed to have given up. In contrast, Matthew Stafford who was benched earlier in the season due to bad play, must have been close to the same fate this week after throwing two interceptions in close proximity and driving with very little success. The Lions are playing well below the potential Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate III and Ameer Abdullah should provide while the Chiefs, who looked to be struggling severely going in to Week 7, have now won 2 straight games.

Tampa Bay 23 – 20 Atlanta (OT)

In undoubtedly the upset of the week, Tampa Bay visited their division rivals in Atlanta and handed them only their second loss of the season in overtime. In an early flagship career victory for Jameis Winston, the rookie who had struggled with turnovers early in the season played an unremarkable but smart game, leading the team to a game winning field goal where just the week prior the Bucs had given up a similar lead, largely built on a strong running game. While Julio Jones returned to statistical form for Atlanta, the Falcons were disappointing in defeat, giving the ball up four times and allowing the Buccaneers to compete. The result was certainly disappointing, and their 6-2 record flatters them, but ultimately, the Falcons will remain happy with their standings, still very much in contention for a playoff place either as divisional winner or wild card.

San Diego 26 – 29 Baltimore

In this match-up of underachieving AFC teams, a suitably close match was decided by the sure foot of Ravens kicker Justin Tucker. Philip Rivers has the unenviable trait of putting up huge statistical numbers as a passer without necessarily consistently winning games, and this week fell in to that pattern as Rivers threw for 301 yards and 3 touchdowns, only to be let down by a defence which is among the worst in the league.  This was exploited by a Baltimore Offense which has been decidedly mediocre on 2015, with Joe Flacco recording 319 passing yards and a touchdown, as well as a rushing touchdown. Unfortunately though, this game could well be remembered for a very disturbing reason. What Offense Baltimore have had in the air has almost exclusively been the result of the tenacious, once-in-a-lifetime talent of Steve Smith Sr, and this game seemed to be little different as Smith gained 82 yards as a receiver before falling to a season-ending Achilles injury. Injuries are upsetting as they are, as was the season-ending one to the Chargers’ talismanic wide receiver Keenan Allen, but the season-ending injury to Steve Smith Sr is a real heart-breaker. The fiery, charismatic playmaker had indicated that this season would be his last, and this season could spell the end of a glorious career. Both teams now lie at 2 and 6 in divisions boasting undefeated teams and despite any explosive offensive displays in this game, both teams are almost certainly already out of playoff contention.

Minnesota 23 – 20 Chicago

A balanced performance in the air and on the ground saw the Minnesota Vikings snap a seven game losing streak at Soldier Field following a fourth quarter surge. The Chicago Bears had looked strong since the return of a seemingly motivated Jay Cutler at quarterback, and were on a two-game winning streak themselves going in to this game. The Bears, Cutler and wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey were productive but were ultimately overpowered by the elusive play of Teddy Bridgewater mixed with the 100+ yard game by Adrian Peterson which saw them improve to 5 and 2 and a three-game winning streak to make them a realistic playoff contender.

Arizona 34 – 20 Cleveland

A promising and explosive start by Cleveland was nullified by a second half collapse as Arizona scored 27 unanswered points to secure an away victory in Cleveland. This game was like a microcosm of McCown and the Browns’ season – some encouraging, eye-catching play, ultimately undermined by inconsistent play. McCown threw touchdowns to Gary Barnidge and Brian Hartline, but their offense dried up in the second half, with McCown giving the ball away twice while the well-oiled Arizona offense took the game over with a 100+ yard rushing game from Chris Johnson and 374 yard, 4 touchdown performance by Carson Palmer. Arizona look as dangerous offensively as they did last year before Palmer’s injury and have to be considered favourites for the NFC West crown while Cleveland, already 5 games behind the undefeated Bengals, have nonetheless made definite advances this year and are better than their 2 and 6 record suggests.

 

Tennessee 6 – 20 Houston

The Marcus Mariota-less Tennessee Titans travelled to Houston to take on another struggling team in the Texans. With Ryan Mallett out of the building, Brian Hoyer has been able to step up as QB1 without controversy, and though an unconvincing franchise prospect, Hoyer has the ability to shine and win games. He showed that against the Titans, passing for 235 yards and 2 touchdowns in a game where the Texans were never really troubled. The game was really won, however, in the trenches, with the Texans rushing and harassing backup quarterback Zach Mettenberger, sacking his 7 times; 2.2 for J.J. Watt and 3.5 for Whitney Mercilus (living up to his name). Under that sort of pressure, Mettenberger and the Titans could never really get anywhere as they fell to 1 and 6. Luckily for them they are in the worst division in football and find themselves still in contention for the divisional title. That is even more the case for the Texans, now 3 and 5 but second in the division. This loss proved to be the final straw for Head Coach Ken Wisenhunt though as he was fired after the game due to the poor performance of the Titans, and while he may feel aggrieved at that given that his rookie star quarterback Marcus Mariota is out injured, it is important to remember that the Titans struggled even with Mariota, as well as Wisenhunt’s his combined 3 and 20 record as head coach.

New York Giants 49 – 52 New Orleans

The term ‘shootout’ has never been more aptly used than in this insane offensive battle in New Orleans which saw both quarterbacks setting personal records, and collective records, combining for 13 passing touchdowns and over 100 combined points. Both defences had limited highlights, with sacks totalled for the Saints early on and two takeaways from the Giants witch the in-form Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie central to both. Those successes aside, this game was a defensive catastrophe with Eli making throws that had no right to be made, and Brees picking apart a depleted Giants secondary. Ironically in a game with only points from touchdowns, the Saints managed to just outstretch the Giants with a last-minute field goal to break Giant hearts. Given the kind of game it was, the result almost felt like a toss up, but the Giants ultimately cost themselves by allowing a long punt return compounded by a personal foul penalty which put the Saints and new kicker Kai Forbath just about in range to make the game-winning field goal. The loss saw the Giants fall back to .500 but retain their light grip on first place in the NFC East though depending on the final standings at the end of the season, it could be a loss that hurts them. The Saints went the other way, improving to .500, which is only good for third in the ultra-competitive NFC South.

Cincinnati 16 – 10 Pittsburgh

Ben Roethlisberger returned to the field in Pittsburgh in an ugly divisional encounter with the Cincinnati Bengals that ultimately saw the Bengals retain their perfect record and move to 7-0 for the first time in their history. This was an inconsistent game for both the returning Roethlisberger and for Andy Dalton, who has been gaining plaudits for over-performing his reputation all year, though his performance took a definite step back this week, throwing for 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. Roethlisberger would later apologise to Steelers fans though after throwing 3 interceptions, eventhough the play made on him by Shawn Williams was more earned by brilliance than poor play. That was the difference in the game though. Dalton played slightly better than Roethlisberger, the Bengals Defense slightly outplayed Pittsburgh’s, and it was just enough to maintain their clean record. The return of Big Ben improves the Pittsburgh offense overall, but he looked hobbled and rusty, and in a week full of upsetting injuries, the likely season-ending injury to Le’Veon Bell will hurt the Steelers especially as they haven’t been able to get all of their play-makers on the field at once, making playoff aspirations from 4 and 4 seem increasingly unlikely. Bengals fans may worry about ‘the real Andy Dalton’ showing himself this week, but it is a truthful cliché that championship teams win ugly even if their standard drops, and perhaps that was what we saw this week.

San Francisco 6 – 27 St. Louis

The NFC West is a reverse image of what it was just two years ago when San Francisco were a juggernaut ultimately competing for Superbowl 47. This year both the Seahawks and 49ers are struggling, Arizona and St. Louis are in the playoff driving seats, and Colin Kaepernick is being benched due to poor performance and a reported split in the 49er locker room. Kaepernick has looked to be regressing at the position, and has looked shaky and indecisive for most of the season. In this game he threw for just 162 yards and no touchdowns but also was guilty of terrible vision on an early play where wide receiver Torrey Smith was lined up completely uncovered, trying desperately to get the attention of his quarterback, only for Kaepernick to run a rush up the middle for a couple of yards anyway. Contrast this with the play of the Rams’ skill players, especially breakout rushing talent Todd Gurley and the explosive Tavon Austin, and it is clear that St. Louis simply played with too much quality for San Francisco to handle. Gurley rushed for 133 yards and a touchdown and Austin gained just shy of 100 receiving yards and touchdown while the 49ers could only manage field goals. T win improves St Louis’ lot and though they remain two games back of Arizona, they are still very strongly in contention for a playoff berth. Meanwhile, the 2 and 6 49ers are seemingly imploding. Kaepernick is to be replaced by the proven mediocrity of Blaine Gabbert, have unfortunately lost Reggie Bush to a torn ACL, and have traded away genuine receiving threat Vernon Davis to the Denver Broncos. In terms of ambition, the 49ers season is all but over, and attention will turn to rebuilding the historic franchise back in to a position where it can win though the question of who their quarterback of the future is to be will be a tough one to answer.

New York Jets 20 – 34 Oakland

The Jets and the Raiders are two teams who have struggled in recent years but have been showing significant signs of recovery in 2015. Oakland find themselves above in genuine playoff contention for the first time in years while the Jets were at 4 and 1 before losing a well-contested game to the Patriots last week. The Jets’ success this year has been based on excellent defense and a quietly explosive offense through Chris Ivory and Brandon Marshall, but what defined this game as well as the Jets’ loss was the quarterback play. Despite the special talents of Ivory and Marshall, they are held back by relative mediocrity at the quarterback position. Fitzpatrick started and was replaced by Geno Smith after Fitzpatrick injured his thumb. Smith, the initial choice for starter was injured in the preseason when IK Enemkpali assaulted him, came in to the game and performed acceptably, throwing for 265 yards, 2 touchdowns, and an interception. While the Jets seemingly have two quarterbacks who can carry a team while being susceptible to careless play, the Raiders currently have perhaps the most explosive and promising prospect behind Center in Derek Carr. After a laudable rookie season, Carr has become a dependable playmaker for the Raiders in 2015, perhaps put in sharpest focus in this game. Taking on a Defense which significantly troubled the Patriots, Carr threw for 333 yards and 4 touchdowns, despite the Jets and Darelle Revis practically shutting down any protection from Rookie of the Year candidate Amari Cooper, and showing a Brady-esque ability to successfully find lesser-name talents. That, mixed with the Raiders gaining nearly double the rushing production of the Jets and the Raiders elder statesman of Charles Woodson adding to his takeaway stats, was enough for the Raiders to gain their fourth game of the season without much trouble. Jets fans will be worried about the two game losing trend they are now on in a division with the still-perfect Patriots, but they are still likely to stay in contention through the season. The Raiders are in a very similar position, 4 and 3 in a division also featuring the still-perfect Broncos, and while they are in playoff contention, the most pleasing fans for Raiders fans is that they can be quietly confident of finally having a franchise quarterback after this game.

Seattle 13 – 12 Dallas

The return of Dez Bryant to the Dallas Offense couldn’t bring a much-needed spark to the team as he was blanketed by the coverage of Richard Sherman and the Cowboys could only manage four field goals against the Seahawks. 12 points were nearly enough to win the game, but Russell Wilson and his Offense finally managed to edge the Cowboys in what was truly a defense-heavy game with very little to highlight offensively. While both teams managed over 100 yards rushing, their ground and pound styles ultimately led to little on the scoreboard. As has so often been the case this season though, the Seattle quarterback managed to prove the difference , scoring the game’s only touchdown on a connection to Luke Willson and driving the team in to field goal range for the game winner in the dying minutes. Seattle returned to .500 after a slow start to the season but while they seemed to be on a surge in recent weeks, they will need to perform above this standard offensively to have any shot at the playoffs this year. Dallas’s fifth successive loss should see them out of contention, and they do have a difficult road to the playoffs , but the Giants’ loss in New Orleans went some way to keeping them in contention in the mediocre NFC East. In sadder news, Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette was added to the long list of players added to the IR list for the season after a scary-looking injury during a kickoff return saw him laying unconscious on the field and requiring surgery to stabilise ligaments in his neck.

Green Bay 10 – 29 Denver

Rumours of Peyton Manning’s demise may have been greatly exaggerated. In this battle of two undefeated teams, the game seemed to be two greats facing off at different phases of their careers with an in-prime, all-time great in Aaron Rodgers facing off against a diminishing great in Manning who has been propped up by an excellent Defense. The game didn’t match the build though as the Denver Broncos smothered Green Bay in all phases, shutting down Rodgers for the almost unbelievably small production of only 77 yards and no touchdowns and keeping the Packer rushing offense to only 69 yards. Though the Packers have looked to be slowing in recent weeks, they have never looked like being contained like this. For the Broncos, though Manning didn’t score any touchdowns himself, he threw for 340 yards, making some key long throws on the way which had seemed beyond his abilities so far in a season which has shown him throw painful interceptions on a regular basis until this week. On the ground, C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman combined for 161 yards and three touchdowns while the headline-grabbing Broncos Defense frustrated the Packers with blanket coverage and constant quarterback pressure. Green Bay may no longer be perfect, but they lost to a near-perfect team in the Broncos, and lying at 6 and 1 with the quality of players they boast, remain in a very strong leading position in the NFC North. Denver move to 7 and 0 and are firmly in the driving seat in the AFC West. The sighting of an in-form Peyton Manning will be encouraging to the Broncos as they are perhaps the most complete team in the league when he is performing at his best, but it should be remembered that this performance came on the back of a Broncos bye week, and it remains to be seen if Manning specifically can continue this form week after week or whether the grind of the game will cause him to struggle again in the future.

 

 

Indianapolis 26 – 29 Carolina (OT)

In the heavy Carolina rain, a game that started off slow, tentative, and ugly, turned in to breathless race to victory which nearly saw the Colts secure a three-score comeback, only to be fought off by the Panthers who would remain perfect at 7 and 0. The first half was a mistake-riddled slog as players struggled to handle and progress the wet ball with Andrew Luck looking especially vulnerable and both teams losing the ball on slippery snaps. Under pressure, Luck was making terrible decisions and missing relatively easy throws, leading to three interceptions in the game for him. The weather made it hard for the Panthers to run away with the game until, seemingly, the fourth quarter where a Corey Brown touchdown seemed to seal the game with a 17 point lead. In complete contrast to the rest of the game though, Luck responded, leading his team to a game tying 17 unanswered points, and looked more like the player who made the Colts among the preseason favourites for Superbowl contention. Overtime provided both teams with opportunities to win the game. The Colts added a further three points to the board, forcing the Panthers to drive down-field and score three themselves. Top shelf tight end Greg Olsen proved his value yet again, making a one handed catch to continue the must-score Carolina drive before the Panthers Defense took the ball back after a tipped pass from Luck, allowing the Panthers to win with a final field goal in sudden death. This will be a painful loss for Indianapolis after their amazing effort to force overtime, but despite their fourth quarter surge, there is much for the Colts to be concerned about. Andrew Luck looked like a prime benching target in the first half of the game, and if that is representative of Luck for the rest of the year, they will be in trouble. Remarkably though, they find themselves somehow top of the AFC South, and if Luck can turn himself around and play more like he did in the fourth quarter, they will be favourites to reach the playoffs from the weak division. Carolina, despite their perfect record, are only a game and a half ahead of the Falcons in the contrastingly strong NFC South. Cam was by no means perfect, throwing an interception himself and showed a disregard for his own health, but he nevertheless looked a strong and determined leader as well as a match-up nightmare for defences who need to prepare for him to both throw and run on them. Cam and Olsen are enough to make their Offense dangerous, but that mixed with their star-studded Defense make them a very difficult team to overcome, and very strong prospect for the playoffs.

Looking Back and Forward: The New York Giants Year in Review, 2014-15

Giants Team Photo, 2014, credit: giants.com

Giants Team Photo, 2014, credit: giants.com

It’s been a while since my last post on the Neon Idols, and even longer since my last NFL post in which I – poorly – predicted areas of the draft. Nonetheless, as a Giants fan it’s been another disappointing season, and I felt it would be cathartic to break down the team’s successes, failures, and potential future. It was, a bit.

Successes

The usual – and understandable – first port of call when discussing the successes of the G-Men’s season has usually been the team’s 1st Round Draft pick, Odell Beckham Jr. The genetically gifted wide out has set the league alight with an acumen for route running and uncanny ability to make acrobatic, game-changing catches, and has broken both franchise and league rookie records, despite missing the first four games of the season. Beckham has the potential to be an All Pro, multi-time Pro Bowler and leading NFL wide-out at his current trajectory, and his presence on the field will continue to bolster the team’s success for as long as he is with the team.

"The Catch", credit: BBC

“The Catch”, credit: BBC

Beckham is not the sole beacon of light for the team going in to 2015. OBJ is simply the crown jewel in a collection of draftees and young players on the team who were given game time thanks to Big Blue’s slew of injuries this year. Rookie running back Andre Williams struggled at times when carrying the load of injured free agent acquisition Rashad Jennings, but also had a couple of real break out games with well over 100 yards rushing. Also on the offense, especially given the untimely and upsetting injury to Victor Cruz, made the emergence of receiving threats in the surprisingly dependable Preston Parker, flashy Tight End Larry Donnell, and often frustrating prospect Rueben Randle who seemed to finally play to his potential with a couple of monster games towards the end of the season. Indeed, Ben McAdoo’s Offense has taken hold generally as the season has gone on, improving by leaps statistically though still occasionally leaving points on the table. For a phase that team President John Mara said was broken at the end of the last season, it has improved a great deal and is cause for quiet confidence in the future.

Meanwhile, on the defensive side, injuries to the talismanic Jon Beason, increasingly stellar corner Prince Amukamara, and free agent acquisition at Safety, Walter Thurmond, among others, significantly weakened Perry Fewell’s defense. Thankfully, some young studs stepped up with impressive performances under difficult circumstances, with ballhawking Quintin Demps, Damontre Moore, Kerry Wynn, and especially excellent value fifth-round pick, Devon Kennard who added well to the team’s dynamic pass rush in the second half of the season. That, on top of the expected success of Jonathan Hankins at Defensive Tackle, means that, despite the troubles of the Defense this year, there is reason for hope in the future of the team.

Areas of Improvement

The Defense is the biggest and most immediate area of concern for the Giants. Injuries are a legitimate excuse for some of the woes on defense, but that does not take the spotlight off of it given the handicap it has been all season. Consistently giving up big plays, especially on 3rd down and being porous in crucial situations (Dallas’s game-winning drive in the second game against the Cowboys and the ease with which the Jaguars were allowed to come back later on being the most heart-breaking examples). To add to that, the Giants have struggled against the run and have been ground down in many games because of that. When the team is struggling against the run and giving up too many drive-saving plays is a devastating combo.

A contributing factor to the difficulty the team has had running the ball has been the ever-shifting O-Line, an issue the team has had for more than just this year. Will Beatty was on a trajectory to be released as soon as the move became cap-friendly, but this year has gone a long way to solidify his continued place at Left Tackle, while Justin Pugh built on his rookie year to solidify the Right Tackle spot. The interior line has struggled more though with rookie lineman Weston Richburg doing well at points but taking his time to adjust to the Left Guard position position as a natural Center. That, with well-paid Guard Geoff Schwartz getting injured and relying on John Jerry at the other slot caused extensive difficulties for the line, eventhough it grew stronger as a bond was allowed to form.

Special Teams has been another area of weakness for the G-Men, giving up several special teams touchdowns and not creating much in response. Save from a couple of successes with surprise onside kicks, the Giants have lost the special teams battle consistently and as a result, giving up field position and putting the struggling Defense in even harder predicaments.

Big Questions

Coaches
By the end of the loss to the Jaguars, I regretfully had the opinion that Tom Coughlin should probably be moved aside with dignity. However, after the relative push of the team and the obvious fire they played with despite having no shot at the playoffs, as well as the early connection Coughlin seems to have with Beckham, it became clear that it still wasn’t time for Coughlin to go. McAdoo’s job was secure by the end of the year, leaving Perry Fewell in the spotlight after his Defense were the biggest area of deficiency on the team. Though it seems Antrelle Rolle is keen to fight for Fewell as well as Coughlin, I am still of the opinion that a change may be required at this position if the right candidate becomes available. I also think Special Teams Coordinator Tom Quinn should be replaced given the shambles the special teams phase suffered this year.

Jason Pierre-Paul
I love JPP and own his jersey, but if you’d have asked me after around the first half of the season, I was starting to wonder whether it would be worth bringing him back. JPP finished with double-digit sacks, as well as consistently playing the run well, being a leader for the team, and being a passionate member of the Giants family. That said, I am troubled still by JPP’s future prospects. His late season flourish in the backfield is eerily reminiscent of Justin Tuck’s from last year and it would be more reassuring if he had done it consistently throughout the year, rather than mostly confined within five games. That aside, I am now convinced he should come back, but it needs to be for a reasonable price. The name will attract many suitors and I’m sure one will be willing to pay up to $10 million a year for him – if JPP wants that sort of money for four or five years, I would be worried about giving that to him. The talk as of now is that the Giants could franchise him for the year guaranteeing that sort of pay for the year. I’m not keen on that because it is still too much money in my opinion, but it could be a gamble that pays off, financially at least, forcing either JPP to prove his worth, or maybe guaranteeing a more realistic contract thereafter.

Pierre-Paul and Rolle will be two big cap questions for the Giants this year. Credit: nydailynews.com

Pierre-Paul and Rolle will be two big cap questions for the Giants this year. Credit: nydailynews.com

Antrel Rolle
Antrel is another of my favourite Giants players, and another huge off-season question for Big Blue. He has been the Giants most skilled, durable, and inspirational defensive player for a while now, being our lone Pro Bowler from last year. Rolle, however, has had something of a down year by his admittedly high standards, and is in some ways an even harder decision that JPP. Rolle is a huge part of the team’s identity, but if this season is the start of a slide in performance as he gets older, giving him a significant contract could be a mistake. That said, for the same reasons, Antrel may not attract the same attention he would have a year ago, so it is more likely the Giants can keep him for a reasonable price, especially because Rolle seems emotionally attached to the team.

Victor Cruz
Cruz’s injury against the Eagles sucked the life out of the game, and, briefly, of the franchise. Seeing Vic go down was heart-crushing as he is one of the great success stories of the franchise’s recent history. Odell Beckham’s emergence satiated this sense of loss with his incredible play, but as we look ahead to the future of the receiving corps. The big question surrounding Cruz is whether he can return to field at full speed or close to full speed. If he can, he can possibly look to a big comeback year opposite OBJ. If not, the future is less certain.

Rueben Randle
Rueben Randle is also in the spotlight, but for different reasons. Randle is a young receiver who has disappointed staff and the fans with an apparently lethargic approach to the position. Randle was benched a couple of times apparently for reasons of dedication and he really didn’t seem to rise to the opportunity in terms of receptions once Cruz went down. However, Randle really seemed to switch on in the last few games, using his height and strength to turn in dominating performances in his last few games. So the question surrounding Randle going in to next year is what Randle we will get next year. Randle can’t afford another season of hit and miss play if he wants to stay a Giant, but if he can play like the monster of the last two games more consistently, he could be part of a monster receiving corps starring Beckham Jr and Cruz, making the Giants passing offense amongst the most dangerous in the league.

Jon Beason
Last year, Beason was credited with a big part of the team’s face-saving resurgence which earned him a contract this past off-season. Unfortunately, some of the injuries which lowered his trade value have come to haunt him this season, and he has struggled to stay on the field for any amount of time. In the mean time, Jameel McLain stepped in to the middle linebacker slot and did an admirable job as a natural leader in a way which perhaps made the loss of Beason less noticeable and therefore makes his role in the team a big question. If he can prove himself fit, he will be a cap-friendly leader for the team alongside McLain, but if there are any questions, he may struggle to stay on the roster.

PThis is a difficult question mainly because Thurmond got injured so early in to his Giants tenure. Before his injury, he was solid without being spectacular. He still has the rub of the Seattle defense he came from, but at this time, I am not terribly anxious for Thurmond to stay in blue. I imagine he will be available for a good price after a year on the shelf, and I would be excited by his role in our secondary and the depth he would provide, but I believe the decision on Thurmond will be based on the team’s other free agency targets; if cap room is needed, Walter maybe allowed to walk.

Off Season Priorities
It is difficult to say precisely at what phases of the off-season that these moves will have to be made because it depends on the state of the free agency market, which in turn forms the team’s draft board, but between those two phases and the resigning of Giants talent, there are areas that Big Blue needs to bolster or improve on.

The biggest area of interest is the Offensive line. I think Beatty, Richburg and Pugh are guaranteed places, but the whole interior line is fluid going forward. We know Richburg has a spot, but will it be at Guard or his more natural Center. Ideally, Richburg would secure Center and leave the two Guard spots up for grabs, but that depends on what happens with J.D. Walton, who largely did a fine job on the center. So, through competition, free agency, and the high end picks of the draft, the O line has to be secured to anchor the team.

The Defensive trench is also another area of priority. Hankins is a lock, but aside from that, it is an area with a few questions. Cullen Jenkins has done a great job, but is rising in age while Mathias Kiwanuka is another player who is definitely slowing down. Especially if we assume JPP stays, pass rush should be solid with the impressive play as Robert Ayers and Damontre Moore, but the starter at Left End will be up for grabs, and the line will need bolstering generally through the off-season.

The Linebacker corps is in motion currently, though Kennard and McLain seem deserving of starting spots. The question will be whether Beason will start, and if not him, then who, be it Pasinger or unrestricted free agent Jacquian Williams, or a new recruit. However it turns out though, a bit more depth would certainly be welcome, especially if Beason can’t play.

Finally, especially with Rolle’s future up in the air, the safety spot is one that will require attention during the off-season. Even if Rolle stays, questions remain whether Thurmond, Brown or Demps can start consistently. If a talented safety is available during the off-season, it could be a wise addition to the team either as a starter, or as a depth addition for a secondary which seems plagued by injury throughout the last few years.

Overview

I have written with a surprising amount of positivity for a team which finished with a 6 & 10 record, but that record deserves to bring with it much criticism, especially after somehow not bettering the 7 & 9 record from the similarly shambolic 2013-14 season and indeed, taking a backwards step in the W column. While I have echoed the support of the Giants staff for the coaching staff, another losing season in 2015-16 will necessitate change – it’s a cliché but this next season really is must win. Nonetheless, I feel that there is room for positivity in the Big Blue Nation. If we can replicate the positives and potential from this past season and translate it to next, with fewer injury problems and more consistency of personnel and performance, the Giants could be an offensive juggernaut with at least a solid defence. The NFC East will be as competitive as ever though. The Cowboys have built for a solid future and will retain most of their playmakers, and likewise with the Eagles, though they will need to solve their QB question; even Washington, especially with a healthy RGIII will be poised to improve. With the right personnel decisions and a bit of fortune though, there is no reason why New York shouldn’t improve and be competing for a playoff birth.

Breaking Down Superbowl XLVIII, and Why The Seahawks Will Win Convincingly

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Skill players from this year’s lineup – notable by the fact that the only player from the combined linups who already has a Sperbowl ring, is Peyton Manning. Source: http://fc05.deviantart.net/fs70/f/2014/019/9/7/superbowl_2014_wallpaper_by_angelmaker666-d72wwge.jpg

This NFL is a rollercoaster ride through the Draft to the Regular Season, Playoff Chase, and attritional knocking out of teams until the Superbowl, where the cycle starts again. Strangely enough, with one of the very biggest, most important, and most watched spectacles in sports around the corner, it is at this time of year where things take on a calm; an eye of the storm perhaps – 30 of the 32 teams are now out of action, and there are two weeks to wait until the Superbowl is finally settled. This coming Sunday saw the earmarking of the main players in this year’s big game as the Number 1 seeds from both conferences won through t face off for the famous Lombardi trophy, the first time this has happened in four years. The statistically best teams from each conference facing each other should promise a close, tense game, but this article – just one of surely thousands to be written before February 2nd – will argue not just that the Seattle Seahawks are destined to win, but that they are destined to win by quite some margin.

I preface all this with an assertion that almost anything can happen, and that to count Peyton Manning and the Broncos out so easily may well prove to be a pratfall, but having looked at the teams, their strengths and weaknesses, and how they fared against the teams they played to win their respective conferences, the match-up seems incredibly one-sided. It is this ‘x’s & o’s’ approach that I will take in my explanation, by breaking down and comparing the teams as clearly as possible.

Quarterbacks
Personally, I have had a very changeable reaction to Peyton Manning; as a Colt I despised him for reasons I can barely remember, and then when he returned from his career-threatening neck injury I gained a grudging respect for him, though still not really wishing his Broncos well. Over the last year though, catalyzed by the team’s heartbreak against the Ravens in last year’s playoffs, and following what is unquestionably the greatest regular season performance ever by a Quarterback, breaking all-time records in passing yards and touchdown receptions, my respect for him is no longer grudging. He has proved himself to be the smartest and most tactically savvy player in that or any position of the current day, and quite possibly the greatest Quarterback ever. Make no mistake – as talented as much of the Broncos roster is, the team lives or dies by Peyton, and if they win in New York, it will down to him.

In most match-ups, Peyton would be an area of strength over the opposing teams. There are, however, a few Quarterbacks that can claim to be as devastatingly brilliant, though perhaps in different ways, and Russell Wilson is one of them. Analysts lump Wilson together with the many other Quarterbacks that broke out in 2012-13, but Wilson has proved himself to be the cream of that excellent crop. In his second year in the league, Wilson can’t match Manning’s game aptitude, but where Manning has the football brain to pick apart most defenses, Wilson has maturity beyond his years, and crucially, some skills Manning doesn’t have: most notably the ability to keep plays alive with his feet and make incredible things happen as a result. While Manning can shift around in the pocket, he has neither the legs, nor the arm that Wilson possesses to extend a play and break it open for something huge. Look no further than Wilson’s 51 yard completion to Baldwin, which followed him being flushed from the pocket – a play which eventually set up a field goal – the Seahawk’s crucial first points in the game for proof of what Wilson has when the pocket breaks down.

What we learned from their conference championship games
Manning is the best there is, but he is not infallible. Against the Patriots, as against the Chargers, Manning was lucky to escape without big interceptions. The Seahawks ballhawking Number 1 Defense will be less forgiving to any throws that go astray. Wilson, for his part, was not perfect either, but the animalistic 49er defense had him constantly on the run, causing rushed throws and the occasional questionable decision. The Broncos Defense did surprisingly well against the Patriots, but they don’t pose anything like the threat of their San Franciscan counterparts, which will mean more thinking and playing time for Wilson.

In terms of who has the edge, while I think the match-up suits Wilson best, it would be foolish to say Wilson is any more than even with Manning, and so that is exactly what I will say – neither team has an advantage in this specific position.

Running Game
The combination of Moreno and Bell has been potent for the Broncos this year, and will be a pairing the Seahawks will have to prepare carefully for. That combination, however, can’t match up to the mostly-singular threat of Seattle’s ‘Beast’, Marshawn Lynch, who has been ploughing through defenses and breaking out big runs all season, as advertised by fantasy fanatics at the start of the year.

What we learned from their conference championship games
The Patriots performed pretty well on defense against the Broncos, but they are certainly not famed for stopping the run, and despite that, the Broncos barely racked up 100 yards between their two running backs. The Broncos didn’t run as much as Seattle, but it is also telling of the ceiling the Broncos running game has – it is more of a compliment to their aerial game rather than a focus. That is especially true when comparing the match ups. The Broncos are moving from the Patriots to the Number 1 defense in the league, a defense which held the duo of Gore and Hunter to around 15 yards. Yes, Kaepernick ran on them effectively, but Manning will hardly be breaking for the open field during the game; the Seahawks linebackers wont have to spy him, and can focus on plugging up Moreno and Bell. Meanwhile, Seattle take the more old-fashioned approach of balancing the run and pass properly, not getting away from that, and at times, revolving around the run game. Lynch ran for over 100 yards alone against the monsters on the 49er defense – a defense loaded with big, bad brutes and legitimately four linebackers which would probably all be in the league’s top ten. While the Patriots struggled to run on Denver, this is a much more favorable match-up, and if Lynch can run well on San Francisco, he can run even better on Denver.

That said, Seattle have the definite edge in the run game and the match up, and will be able to wear down the Broncos and control the game very effectively, and possibly start breaking out big-yardage runs.

Receiving Corps
Personnel-wise, it is clear who has the advantage here; while the ‘Hawks have been decimated, losing Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin, their Numbers one and two and leaving them with Golden Tate as a talented but not top-caliber receiver as their number one, while the Broncos have the outstanding – and healthy – combination of Welker, Decker, and Thomas for Manning to find. It should be added though that Harvin has since been cleared to play in the Superbowl and represents an intriguing unknown. He was a big splash free agent pick up in the preseason for Seattle, but has spent the vast majority of the season injured. When on the pitch, he has been magnificent, but has struggled to stay on the pitch, as we saw against San Francisco where he looked dangerous before being taken off with a concussion. Key questions are how big a role Harvin will have, and if he can stay on the pitch, how will that affect the game. While the defensive back attention Denver will have to give him through double coverage will make Baldwin and Tate, who looked great against San Francisco, even bigger and attainable targets. Nonetheless, Tate, Baldwin and a questionable Harvin still wouldn’t usually be preferred over Welker, Decker and Thomas.

What we learned from their conference championship games
Similar to the running game though, the match-ups with the defense weigh the game in Seattle’s favor. Manning throwing to his talented receivers will doubtlessly be hard to stop, but if there is one team who can stop them, its Seattle, whose defensive backs excel in coverage, sticking to receivers for longer than any other team and basically throwing a blanket over most receiving groups. Manning will definitely rack up yards, but he’ll certainly be held to more manageable numbers by Seattle.

Meanwhile, as mentioned, Seattle balance run and pass much more, and actually seem to favor the run. This has partly been a result of their lack of skill at that position following the injuries to Tate and Harvin, but Wilson and the Seahawks have nonetheless been able to enjoy some success throwing to Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin, who shone particularly against the 49ers. Again, the fact that Wilson threw for over 200 yards against the incredible San Francisco defense bodes well when you consider that the Broncos secondary is certainly inferior to San Francisco’s.

In control conditions, Denver would have the advantage when it comes to the receiving game, but the disparity of the defenses, and especially the secondary in favor of Seattle – I believe – evens that out so that the passing and receiving potential of the two teams will be hard to separate significantly in this area.

Defense
Defense has been a thread through all of the areas of analysis so far in this article, and the truth is, that is because it is the true key to this game. The Seahawks are strong across the board, but their biggest strength is their defense. Ignoring the controversy surrounding it, the post-game interview with Richard Sherman was notable because he represents the ace of this defense: furious, hungry, hard, and confident. They take the ball away from everyone, and will almost certainly take it from the Broncos at the Superbowl; the question is – just how many times?

While I’ve given the edge to Seattle in the run game, the differences between the two offensive squads is much smaller than the difference in quality between the two team’s defenses. While Seattle won’t be able to score on demand against Denver by any means, a much softer Broncos defense will be a breath of fresh air after taking on the bruising 49er unit.

What we learned from their conference championship games
I just hinted at it, but the key here is that while the Broncos will be facing a tougher defense than last week that will challenge them more, especially in the secondary; the Seahawks have already faced their toughest defensive task possible in the 49ers – a team almost built to take them on, and while the Broncos defense played well against the Patriots, they have a whole new challenge against the Seahawks. I won’t speak on the Seahawk’s pass-rush as they seemed to struggle with that against San Francisco, but what I do know is that the Seahawk’s offense will have a reprieve from the bullish 49er defensive line, and that extra time will equate to more successful offensive plays. Meanwhile, the Broncos will struggle like never before this season to get separation and make catches and will be vulnerable to turnovers both from interceptions and fumbles as this brutish defense smashes in to them at every opportunity.

This, as I say, is the crucial difference, and it is undoubtedly in Seattle’s favor. There are, of course, x-factors – aspects in the match that aren’t as easily measured and perhaps it is these factors that could over-ride the analysis. A big one is that Seattle will have no ‘12th Man’ that has helped un=nerve opponents and give the Seahawks an instant advantage. I do feel I can largely disregard this though, not because it’s insignificant, but because the Seahawks roster don’t need it to win, especially seen as the match is in neutral New York and not Denver, and as Peyton Manning would be less affected by it than any other player at that position, cerebral and professional as he is. Other X-factors that simply can’t be prepared for, such as fumbles, moments of genius, magic, or divine intervention are the sort of things that mean this game, like any game, won’t necessarily go by the stats. At the same time though, those things can go either way, and I can’t predict a game based on it. It is a slightly outdated football cliché, but here it holds true that the game will be won based especially on strong running and defence. Seattle have that, and a great Quarterback, so while I welcome a close game won in the last two minutes, I see Russell Wilson making a legacy for himself, and the Seahawks earning their first Lombard trophy in style by 14+ points.

Coming Home: A Quick Reflection On Andy Murray’s Wimbledon Victory

Andy Murray, this first British male to lift the Wimbledon singles trophy since 1937. credit, disgitalspy.com

Andy Murray, this first British male to lift the Wimbledon singles trophy since 1937. credit, disgitalspy.com

I don’t know what I can say that is more or even equally powerful to the emotional effect, the instinctive reaction of Murray’s win over many people. I myself was in a pub in Kilwinning surrounded by Scots who were starting to believe, ready to pounce on the clement moment of victory before finally being able to, and being clutched by my father in an ecstasy born of 77 years of waiting. It was sport in its purest form, and as pithy as my response is, the weight of that history demands as much documented reaction as possible.

My love of sport, and my belief in it as a medium has given me a few dogmatic and certainly clichéd refrains, one of which is that ‘narrative is the key’ in sport. We clutch stories to our hearts, and, in my experience, its these stories that we remember, interspersed with soundbites and maybe still images – accurate or not – when we think of defining moments in history and even our own lives generally. That is just some of the value of sport, and sport seems to have an uncanny knack for providing the narrative. Today, one of the longest-standing narratives in British sport finally came to a satisfying conclusion. I think it is very safe to call Murray’s win at Wimbledon the most significant moment in British sport since 1966. I don’t know when it started to become an issue, but for my entire lifespan certainly, the wait for the next British winner of the male singles Wimbledon championship has been an ever-present source of intrigue and discomfort for even the usually disinterested Brit. If narrative is indeed the key for great sporting moments, then 77 years of suspense makes for a degree of instant sporting significance.

I think the over-riding feeling was of relief. For year we have been anointing single players as our saviour, with Tim Henman becoming something of a plucky, caricatured British sporting martyr, unable to deliver the championship back to its native land amidst dying cheers of “Come On Tim!” Despite Murray being clearly several levels above Henman in terms of skill, the 77 years of hurt (as t’were) meant that no one ever really considered Murray’s success a fore-gone conclusion. That didn’t dampen the desire for the once polarising player to claim the trophy.

The advert captured not only national feelings surrounding the albatross around Britain’s neck, but also predicted very well the atmosphere when releasing it actually came to pass. One of the most powerful narratives, caught in the advert, and self-evident in sports across the world, is that of the triumphant homecoming. There is something beautiful and instantly relatable about watching someone fight, and win, before their home crowd. I am reminded of the Jim Ross call during the first ever TLC match at Summerslam 2000 accompanying Jeff Hardy (wrestling before his hometown crowd) dragging himself up a ladder, crying “you’re at home son!” That was part of the joy at Murray’s win; not just that we naturally support a British sporting figure, but that no British person has held that particular title, that British title, in so long. That moment of tense, heart-racing, breathless silence was something seemingly uniform across an entire country with the weight on Murray measured in the anticipation of a nation. With this background, the source of joy becomes obvious as, at least figuratively, Murray brought the title home.

Brazil lift the Confederations Cup at home at the Maracana, credit www.straitstimes.com

Brazil lift the Confederations Cup at home at the Maracana, credit http://www.straitstimes.com

In order to try and stem what may be becoming a drippy love-fest, i’ll move on to frame Murray’s win with another beautiful, recent, sporting moment that I neglected due to my time being at a premium. That caveat in place, i’m talking about Brazil’s recent victory at the Confederation Cup, hosted in Brazil. The ‘homecoming’ theme was strong here – most immediately because the tournament took place in Brazil, but even more because the final itself was at the refurbished and reopened Maracana – a pure and historical sporting cathedral. In the first sporting final in the reopened arena, for Brazil to be involved and succeed there so convincingly was incredibly poetic. And finally, there was a real feeling that the Brazil team who, for a while had floundered in the international rankings and were taking on the undisputed best team in the world and current #1, were returning on the world’s stage before hosting the World Cup next year. Before the tournament, the team had been chastised for not living up to former generations of Brazilian teams; teams that themselves were naturally considered what Spain are now considered – the best team with the most beautiful playing style in the world. Brazil went in as underdogs, but after the glorious, acapella rendition of the Brazilian national anthem at the revitalised Maracana, a feeling came across me that no-one could possibly defeat Brazil in this setting. That feeling was supported with Fred’s goal after 2 minutes and categorically concluded with an emphatic 3-0 victory. Brazil are back, and it was one of the most beautiful events of recent memory for me.

Today was beautiful and will go down in history; and all we need now is another sporting goal for the nation to get behind and feed us a narrative to buy in to wholeheartedly.