When a seemingly great matchup like the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks ends in a 6-6 tie because each kicker missed chip shots under 30 yards, you’ll get no argument from me that the state of field goal kicking deserves some scrutiny. However, there’s one thing I will argue to the death and that is the “kickers aren’t athletes” statement.
Look no further than the following tweet from a crotchety old windbag who sits in a chair all day flip-flopping on sports topics:
The utter disrespect just simply isn’t warranted. Call it like it is: field goal kicking has taken a nosedive this year and who knows what is really to blame. The athleticism, or lack thereof if you share Bayless’ viewpoint, of field goal kickers as a whole is not the culprit. If you disagree, read the science behind what goes into a successful field goal attempt. There is little to basically no margin for error.
I’ll direct you to a 2013 article from Popular Mechanics in which Alex Henery, the then Eagles kicker, explains the mechanics of the Hold, Plant, Arm, Kick, and Flight of the ball. It’s quite fascinating when you dig into it and it’s pretty amazing that almost any kick from 50-plus splits the uprights.
PM explains the “Sweet Spot” of the football: “Ideally, the kicker strikes the ball on the back seam about 4 inches off the ground. Henery’s foot rarely deviates more than 2.1 square centimeters from the target.” 2.1 square centimeters! That’s basically a third of a square inch. The amount of practice, reps, and experience it would take to make sure your foot hits the same spot on the ball within a third of a square inch is absolutely insane.
The article goes on to explain the intricacies behind balance and posture, which must be extremely precise, as any deviation can ruin a kick’s accuracy. I’ll save you the regurgitation and just encourage you to go read the article (link at the bottom).
Kickers are having a tough year, there’s no doubt about it. You could argue that offensive lines are having a similarly tough year. Look no further than the Colts, Bengals, and Cardinals, all teams that allow over three sacks per game. You’re not going to call into question whether these linemen are athletes or not, so there’s no reason to do that to kickers.
Call into question the mental state of rookie Roberto Aguayo, or make the case that Sebastian Janikowski is officially past his prime at age 38, but don’t by any means suggest that 43-year old Adam Vinatieri isn’t an athlete just because some of his counterparts can’t get it done when it counts.
Kickers are athletes. Kickers are football players. Kickers are people, too!
Read the Popular Mechanics article here
The National College Football Award Association gives out 21 awards to stand out college football players every year, none more universally recognized than the Heisman Trophy. As you likely know, the Heisman is awarded to the country “most outstanding player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” In other words, it’s for the best quarterback or running back on one of the nation’s top 5 teams.
Other admittedly similar awards include the Maxwell Trophy, awarded to the college football player of the year. I know, I know. The awards are quite similar, although you don’t see many players celebrating by doing “the Maxwell” pose. Similarly still is the Walter Camp Award, given to the collegiate American football player of the year. Um…
Okay, to be fair, these three awards are voted on by different make-ups of college coaches, broadcasters, committees, and athletic directors. It’s just always funny to me how alike they seem to be, which usually explains why a guy like Derrick Henry wins all three.
And much like Alabama’s Derrick Henry a year ago, there seems to be a unanimous favorite for these awards through nine weeks of the 2016 season: Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. You’ll get no argument from me, considering he is responsible for an average of 29.1 points per game, more than about 60 FBS teams as a whole average. Just a quick reminder of his season stats: 2522 passing yards and 22 TDs, 996 rushing yards and 16 TDs. He’s 19 years old and just a freak of nature. As long as his stats continue to trend upward and his doesn’t falter against Boston College, Wake Forest, Houston, or Kentucky (wow), he should be a lock for these three awards.
Through it all though, there has been another player that has been similarly brilliant, albeit slightly overshadowed by Jackson’s near perfect season. Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers has far and away done more amazing things on the football field this year than almost anybody. Unless you’re a Big 10 football fan or are just unabashedly obsessed with all things college ball, you probably haven’t realized that Jim Harbaugh’s lockdown linebacker has played more positions than any player in the NCAA.
No seriously, hear me out. While his major role on the defensive end is the linebacker role, he has played at least 10 different positions over the course of the season. Actually, he played 10 positions in a single game, against Michigan State a day ago. According to the Detroit Free Press, Peppers played “42 plays at linebacker, 12 at cornerback, nine at Nickelback, six at the wildcat quarterback, one at safety, one at H-back, one at receiver, plus serving as kick returner and punt returner.” Now, I got winded just writing that. I can’t imagine how Jabrill felt after that standout performance where he scored a rushing TD and a scoop-and-score off a fumbled two-point conversion by State.
All of his amazing feats over the course of this season leads me to this point: he’s likely not going to win any of those three awards, but if he doesn’t end this season with any of the major college football awards, it will be a travesty. That is why, I present you the following case for a brand new NCFAA award: The Jabrill Peppers Award, given to college football’s most versatile player.
While there won’t always be a player that can do it so effectively on both sides of the ball like Peppers, freak athletes are being born and bred every day. You may not have a 10-position player every year, but I bet you’ll see more guys like Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, who can catch the ball as well as he can run it, and who can actually throw the ball out of the Wildcat when given the chance, and is a fantastic punt returner.
Or how about someone like USC’s Adoree Jackson, who just became the school’s all-time leading kick returner and has recorded 34 solo tackles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery while playing his natural position of cornerback.
The NCFAA needs an award for this type of versatility, because you just don’t see it every day. Jabrill will probably not win an award this year, because of Lamar Jackson, or possibly DeShaun Watson, or Jake Browning…all quarterbacks by the way. All three of those names are having lights out seasons but none of them are even close to as versatile of an athlete as Peppers. He deserves the same level of recognition that these quarterbacks are getting and, outside of the Michigan sports media, that doesn’t seem to be happening enough. An “award watch” situation would certainly help with that.
So, while there’s nothing we can do for Jabrill, I’d love to see a NCFAA award that can recognize someone who can do it and do it well from so many different positions.
*Disclaimer: the Louisville Sports Commission created such an award, named after Paul Hornung, a former Notre Dame quarterback and Louisville native. This award is not affiliated with the NCFAA, however.
By now, you’ve probably seen or heard about the SportsCenter bit that laid out Chicago’s major sports championships and omitted the White Sox 2005 World Series win. It got Chicago fans, including myself, up in arms a bit. Then I got to thinking, how many people outside of Chicago have forgotten that, a mere 11 years ago, the team from the South Side of the city won their first World Series in 88 years? It’s not far-fetched to think that a good amount of the country, save for diehard baseball fans, have forgotten.
Poor Ratings by 2005 Standards
The 2005 World Series between the White Sox and Houston Astros was, by all accounts, an utter flop from a TV ratings standpoint. It had an average of 8 million less viewers per game than 2004’s Red Sox/Cardinals series. At the time, it was the least viewed World Series on average (2006’s Cardinals/Tigers series would dip even lower in ratings).
For a Sox fan like myself, getting to the World Series was a dream come true. Sweeping the Astros was icing on the cake. However, a sweep is never great for the ratings, because you lose out on three opportunities for games, especially the game 7 viewership bump that tends to happen (2014’s Giants/Royals averaged 13 million viewers, but game 7 had over 23 million).
This was a White Sox or Astros fan’s series. I wouldn’t say it was a baseball fan’s series. Not to sound like a homer, but the White Sox were going to win this series the whole way. With Jermaine Dye and Paul Konerko combining for 71 home runs in the regular season, and a starting rotation that had no individual lose more than 9 games, it was hard to see how Chicago was going to blow this opportunity.
And once the Southsiders swept the reigning champion Red Sox, and only lost once to the Angels, the writing was on the wall.
What Have They Done Lately?
The further we get into the new millennium, the shorter people’s attention spans get. And, as we’ve already covered, those short attention spans negatively affect baseball ratings, since so many “millennials” view baseball as too long and too boring. For a while there, you couldn’t blame them for that as pace of play took a nosedive and average game length reached over 3 hours.
Few casual fans want to watch a full 162 game season of 3-plus-hour games and they especially don’t want to watch a team with only 4 winning seasons and 1 playoff visits (re: 1st round exit) in the past decade. As a White Sox fan, it’s been hard to watch the team limp along since the 2005 championship. I can’t imagine how little non-fans of the team care. The “88-year championship drought” storyline was over the moment they hoisted that Commissoner’s Trophy. Now, the Sox are just another run of the mill team who can’t get it done, despite having a nucleus of young talent. When your biggest storylines of the past season, hell, the past decade, include Adam LaRoche retiring because the front office hated his kid being in the locker room and Chris Sale throwing a tantrum about jerseys, baseball fans aren’t exactly inclined to watch this team.
Even after a promising 24-12 start to the 2016 season, the White Sox went right back to the mediocre White Sox we’ve grown to know and hate. So when the craziest and most exciting story of 2016 sports is one involving the other Chicago team that’s in a 108-year championship drought and a Cleveland team in a 68-year drought, you can’t be too surprised when a sports media outlet forgets about the White Sox.
Also, let’s be honest, ESPN is kind of terrible now anyway.
Much like the foliage of early Autumn, the play of the Toronto Maple Leafs can be colorful, but often still green.
Now that I’ve hit you with that gem of an opener, how about we dive into my pick for most intriguing team of the 2016-2017 NHL season?
The Maple Leafs, who suit up six (!) rookies on their active roster, have shown signs of brilliance in the early goings of this season. Fast skates, quick sticks, and baby-faced forwards give the Leafs one of the most fun offenses in the league. However, these qualities will get old very quickly if the young team cannot get its defense and goaltending in order. Because, well, entertaining offense aside, it cannot be fun for this team and its fans to only have a single win through the first six games (1-2-3).
Figure Out the Forecheck
Because of the Leafs’ nucleus of young, fast, puck-hungry forwards, the forecheck can be this team’s best friend. So far, however, it’s been one of their worst enemies.
The key to any good forecheck is forcing the opposing players into tight corners of the ice, cutting off passing lanes, leading to turnovers in the opponent’s zone. And turnovers in the opponent’s zone often lead to great scoring chances. The Leafs have an extremely fast and active forecheck, as is the Mike Babcock way. However, speed isn’t the key to effectiveness in these situations. The Leafs’ forwards often have trouble cutting off passing lanes in the offensive zone, which against a good team, results in stretch passes and breakaway chances.
Take the most recent game against the Lightning for example. In the first period, Tampa’s goalie Ben Bishop gets his stick to a deflected puck from a forecheck, and deftly rifles it down to the end of the neutral zone right to his teammate. This results in an odd man rush that, were it not for an errant pass to the slot, would have probably ended in a goal. A better forecheck would not have let that Bishop three-quarter ice pass happen.
For the Leafs to finish games, the forecheck has to do a much better job of cutting off passing lanes and using those quick sticks to ensure stretch passes don’t get anywhere near their intended targets.
Tend the Goal
Six games in, the Leafs have allowed 26 goals. 22 of those goals were let in with Frederik Andersen between the pipes. Through his five starts, Andersen has a dismal .851 save percentage and a 4.29 goals against average. You, of course, cannot blame every single goal on poor goaltending from Andersen. His defense hasn’t given him a lot of help, save from a great one-goal performance against Ottawa. Regardless, Andersen looks extremely shaky and uncomfortable minding the net.
Andersen’s footwork is just plain bad. If you look closely at his feet, more often than not, he looks very unsure of his angles and placement. He dances around more than Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh.
Even on routine saves, he looks unsure of himself. Back in that 7-3 loss to the Lightning, a wrist shot from the point is sent in by Braydon Coburn and seemingly smothered by Andersen. However, the puck squeaks through and lands directly behind him, which ends up being a nice little tap-in gift for Alex Killorn’s fifth goal of the season. What should have been an easy save and a stoppage in play ended up being Tampa’s second goal of the period. Like I said, he just looks shaky.
Offense Gotta Play Defense
As I said, you cannot blame every goal on the guys between the pipes. Many of the Leafs’ defensive woes are results of young players trying to adjust to playing defense in the NHL. Look no further than the Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Zach Hyman third line. With an average age of 20.5, this line is going to take some time to gel on the defensive end.
You’ll see multiple examples of these youngsters not pressuring the point, allowing an opponent to set up its offense and establishing a player at the crease to shield the goaltender. When you have inexperienced defenders jockeying for position by the crease, the more experienced forward is likely going to win those battles, resulting in a tough line of sight for even the best goaltenders, let alone a struggling one.
We’ve already established that the Leafs have to get more consistent on the forecheck, but they also have to figure out how to clear the puck out of their own zone. If you get to a puck and can barely tap it along the boards, a good forward is going to jump all over that and burn you for a goal. Look no further than Steven Stamkos’ first goal. The Lightning pressured the Leafs on a loose puck that really should have been sent out of the zone more quickly, a deflection occurred, and the puck was sent right to Stamkos who made a nifty move and scored. Clear the puck, clear the puck, clear the puck.
I love watching this young team figure things out, but it’s been rough defensively in the early goings. Hopefully, they can figure out a way to get the goaltending in order and get more consistent on the defensive end. If not, it’s going to be a cold winter in Toronto.
If hockey is a sport that just doesn’t grab your attention, I can understand that. It’s extremely fast, often messy, and often doesn’t look like much strategy is involved. I can wholeheartedly agree with those first two, but the third is anything but true. If you need a good explanation of the strategy involved on both the defensive and offensive ends, look no further than Greg Wyshinksi’s Take Your Eye Off the Puck. It’s a detailed yet concise, humorous read about the ins and outs of hockey strategy.
However, I’m not sitting here on my laptop preparing to write 1000 words about why hockey is a great sport and why it is actually one of the more complex sports from a strategy standpoint that exist. My hope is, that if you’re reading this, you at least have some appreciation for the ice-based sport. I hope you’re reading this because you’re looking for a reason, or reasons, to really get excited about the 2016-2017 NHL season, even if you don’t actively root for one team or another.
Like any of the major sports, the NHL always has interesting and entertaining storylines that help make up a season from beginning to end. I’ve put together my 5 teams to watch this regular season and the storylines that will keep them interesting from October-April.
1. Toronto Maple Leafs and their Speedy Offense
If offense and goal scoring are what you need to keep you entertained night and in night out, look no further than the Maple Leafs of Toronto. Suiting up one of the youngest teams on the ice – 6 rookies are on their Opening Week active roster – the Leafs have a blazing fast offense with some great stickhandlers, including number 1 overall pick Auston Matthews (a 4 goal NHL debut, if you hadn’t heard).
What you’ll get with this team is similar to what you would have seen had you watched Team North America in the World Cup back in September: a lot of flashy offense, a nuisance of a forecheck, but not much penchant for defense in their own zone. This team will score, pleasing Toronto fans, but they’ll also give up a lot of goals, pleasing everyone else. If you need an example, look no further than their first 3 games: 2 of their first 3 games ended 5-4 in overtime for the opponents. The lack of defense was especially evident in their game against the Jets, where the Leafs started 4-0 and lost 5-4. This team may not win a lot of games, but they will play A LOT of offense.
Players to Watch: Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, William Nylander
2. Detroit Red Wings, Mr. Hockey, and Joe Louis Arena
During the Wings final home opener at historic Joe Louis Arena, the team paid tribute to Mr. Hockey himself, Gordie Howe. It was a lovely tribute to a man that played 25 seasons for Detroit and sadly passed away in June of this year. Hockey, and Detroit, lost one of the more historic names in the game.
Speaking of losing pieces of history, upon completion of this NHL season, Joe Louis arena will be torn down for good and the Wings will move to their new home at Little Caesars Arena. I know. Trading in a boxing and cultural icon for a mediocre pizza chain just doesn’t seem right.
The Wings will obviously look to have a great all-around season, but will especially try to play well at home to honor Gordie Howe and the famous arena they’ve skated in for nearly 40 years. While the offense hasn’t really been there through their first 4 games this season, the likes of Dylan Larkin, captain Hendrik Zetterberg, and Thomas Vanek will look to get things going and hold their own in the increasingly tough Atlantic Division.
For history’s sake, watch some Red Wings home games if you can this year.
Players to Watch: (stated above) Larkin, Zetterberg, Vanek
3. Calgary Flames and Johnny Hockey
Outside of the rookies like Matthews and Laine, there are few guys under 24 that have more hype surrounding them this year than Johnny “Johnny Hockey” Gaudreau. With two all-star appearances in his first two seasons, an exciting stint with Team North America at the World Cup, and a brand new six-year contract extension, the Flames will expect a great deal from the young forward.
The Flames’ 2016-2017 outcome may be one of the more difficult to predict, as two years ago they clinched a playoff birth for the first time in 6 years, but then last year they went right back to their losing ways and fired coach Bob Hartley. One thing is certain though, Johnny Hockey will look to score and score a lot to help this team win games.
Players to Watch: Johnny Hockey, Matthew Tkachuk, Sean Monahan
4. Minnesota Wild and Bruce Boudreau
Everyone who knows me has heard my “Marvin Lewis needs to be let go” speech, citing the fact that he’s never won a playoff game despite reaching the postseason six of the last seven years. Well, I often felt the same about the Anaheim Ducks’ head coach, Bruce Boudreau, who led his team to four straight playoff births but lost four straight game 7s on home ice. Boudreau was a bit different from Lewis because Boudreau at least got his team past a first round in two of those years.
However, there has never been any doubt that Boudreau was a good coach. He just needed a change of scenery and a change of personnel. He’ll be getting all of that, as he trades in sunny Anaheim for snowy St. Paul.
For the past few seasons, the Wild have been a team that has looked poised to take the next step and make a real run at Lord Stanley’s Cup. However, they always seem to get tripped up in the postseason, losing to the Chicago Blackhawks three straight years and then to the Dallas Stars in the second round last year.
A coaching change from Mike Yeo (to interim John Torchetti) to Boudreau was made in hopes that he can get more consistency night in and night out from a team that is extremely solid on paper. A shaky second half almost kept them out of the playoffs last year, and Boudreau will look to implement faster-paced play in order to get the Wild back to their consistent winning ways. Rarely does a coaching change really add to my excitement about a hockey team, but this is definitely a squad to watch.
Players to Watch: Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle
5. Florida Panthers and Their New Look
With the exception of Stanley Cup winners looking to free cap space, you rarely see a defending division champion make as many changes on and off the ice as the South Florida Kitties have. Fantastic uniform changes aside, the Panthers made a GM change, appointing Tom Rowe to the role, and added nine new players to the already solid roster.
The hopes for a deep playoff run last year were dashed in game 7 of the opening round, leading to some major officiating criticisms (and some amazing “Trocheck was tripped” memes). All of Florida’s changes in the offseason were made in order for that disappointment to not be repeated this year.
Unfortunately, the disappointment started before the season even began, as the team lost star Winger Jonathan Huberdeau for at least four months with an Achilles tendon injury resulting from a skate laceration in preseason bout. Couple that with Nick Bjugstad being out for a month with a broken hand and you have the exact opposite of the start the Panthers were hoping for.
But so far things are still looking good for the team out of South Florida, as they’ve started 2-0-1 with an offense that doesn’t seem to be missing a beat despite the notable injuries. If you’re looking for an all-around good team to watch this year, look no further than the new look Florida Panthers.
Players to Watch: Alexsander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Vincent Trocheck