Leave Lolo Alone

Lolo with flag

WC News

Newsflash: Lolo is over it. Over your naysaying (you, the viewing public, who probably couldn’t hurdle over the bathroom rug on the way to the toilet). Over the player hating of Olympic medalists Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells. Even over the criticism flung at her by some in the media – namely the New York Times’ resident asshole, Jeré Longman. In fact it was Longman’s scathing and now-infamous piece – in which he eviscerated Lolo, essentially accusing her of being a self-serving, underachieving, product-shilling fraud and attention whore – that had her so worked up on NBC’s Today last week. But trust: Lolo is back to her wisecracking ways (on Twitter and ESPN’s PTI), and couldn’t give two shits what Jeré or anyone who would attempt to tear her down thinks. She never has, and to me, that’s been the secret to her greatness.

Most of us have probably heard Lolo’s amazing story (and if you haven’t you really should), so I won’t belabor it here. But consider this: if while growing up you a) had a perpetually absent father who, when not incarcerated, taught you how to steal efficiently and run to stay warm during brutal winters; b) slept and showered in the bowels of a Salvation Army church, along with your mother and four siblings, during frequent bouts of homelessness; c) were a lightly-regarded high school runner in obscure Des Moines, Iowa; and d) overcame all that to become an NCAA champion at LSU, world indoor record-holder and two-time Olympian, how much would you care what others thought of you? Exactly. The fact that Lolo let on at all that she was bothered by the withering criticism as the 2012 Games approached should show you just how pronounced and patently unfair it all was. And that was before she even began the arduous process of qualifying in London.

Life has been no crystal stair for Lolo these past four years. Entering the ’08 Olympics, she was best in the world in the 100m hurdles, and the overwhelming favorite to capture gold in Beijing. After blistering the field in her preliminary heats, Lolo entered the finals a woman in full, and on the verge of immortality. But on that particular night, for whatever reason, she was tight as a drum as she awaited the gun, and was ultimately undone by the next-to-last hurdle. Subsequent back pain led to her being diagnosed with a tethered spine, which had contributed to diminished feeling in her feet and significantly compromised spatial awareness of the hurdles when she ran (likely contributing to that untimely clip in the race of her life). After surgery in 2011 to correct the problem, Lolo endured a grueling rehab to return triumphant, taking the US Open 50m hurdles this January. But in her signature event, she was no longer the world’s fastest, as Harper, Wells and 2008 silver medalist Sally Pearson of Australia routinely posted superior times at 100 meters.

The shifting tides were on full display at the Olympic Trials in June, with Lolo finishing 3rd in a crowded field to barely make the US squad. Still, she’d punched her ticket to Great Britain, but after the spinal surgery and assorted injuries this year, she faced long odds to obtain the elusive gold (or any medal). The finals of the 100m hurdles bore that out, as Lolo stormed out of the blocks in vintage form…except this time she wasn’t felled by an errant stride – simply too much Sally, Dawn and Kellie. It has been pointed out that Lolo finished “only 1/10th of a second out of 3rd place,” but that 1/10th may as well have been 10 minutes: she is still medal-less in the Olympics, and with the passage of time and the emergence of younger, faster hurdlers, likely to remain so.

To their credit, many in the media rushed to Lolo’s defense after her unfortunate finish. They applauded her for her uncommon grace and unfailing honesty in the face of disappointment in London (same as she’d shown in Beijing), and rightly pointed out that, medal or no, Lolo is perhaps the perfect role model for young girls in an era sometimes lacking for them. An athlete of poise and virtue, of intelligence and humility, of sportsmanship and profound strength. A clean competitor who embodies the essence of living by the golden rule, and who has steadfastly refused to be defined by the limitations of an unfortunate upbringing. A true Horatio Alger story.

Lolo proclaimed to the PTI Guys her intention to train and compete through the 2016 Rio Games, and as far-fetched as that may seem, who are we to doubt her? She has been counted out too many times to mention, and if her achievements were based solely on the faith others showed in her abilities, she never would have cleared the first hurdle. It is by following her internal compass that Lolo has scaled the heights she has, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if that lands her all the way in Brazil four years from now. If it does, I for one will be glued to the television.

Dear Ocho

LA Times

Dear Chad,

That look says it all brother. As Bill Duke said in Menace II Society, “You know you done f*cked up, don’t cha???” Where did it all go so wrong? You thought you were marrying the Prom Queen, but after The Headbutt Heard ‘Round The World, you’re looking more like the prom fiend. After the debacle that was the 2011 season, I just KNEW you had your shit together now! Back home in the MIA, amongst the people you love (and who love you), on a team where you could really shine – and in the division where you could stick it to the Pats twice a year! I guess Joe Philbin didn’t see it that way. He’d already tired of your act since OTAs, and when you got all Roemello Skuggs on your new bride, well, that was just too much Liberty City for his Green Bay ways to tolerate. Which was unfortunate for you, because I think a more tenured coach (Tony Sparano for example) would have given you a longer rope on this one – especially since you’d been a relative Boy Scout your entire career. But Sparano’s no longer with the Dolphins, and now neither are you.

This had to have begun back in Cincinnati. We forget today, but it was only three short years ago that the Bengals were featured on Hard Knocks. We’d known Chad the Prolific Receiver well by then, and had already been introduced to “Ocho Cinco” in all his diva glory, but Hard Knocks in ’09 is when you arrived in full: for better and, we know now, worse. Your eccentricities and colorful metaphors were excused as Chad Being Chad, but when you tried briefly (and foolishly) to “hold out” in spring 2008, owner Mike Brown and the organization began to sour on you. And once Marvin Lewis – arguably your biggest supporter through the years – began to sour on you, you knew the jig was up. After Slim Henry’s untimely and unfortunate death, and with the direction the organization was going, a fresh start was probably best for both parties. The Bengals did you a solid when they flipped you to the Patriots for some Dunkin’ Donuts coupons, because it gave you your only best shot at getting a ring, but you [and your Prius] never would fit in up there.

I truly think you spent too much time bowing and genuflecting to the cheat great Coach Belichick (not to mention kissing Tom Brady’s ass) and not nearly enough time being yourself, which is to say BALLIN’ OUT!!! I know you and Terrell are close, but damned if you’d ever done such a great T.O. impression (dropping passes) before last season. When Tedy Bruschi unfairly ripped you for “not being in the playbook enough,” you basically ate it – and none of your teammates piped up in your defense. We should have known then that Ocho Cinco was not long for The Patriot Way, but in terms of plain ol’ football, it’s puzzling why your output wasn’t greater. With playmakers like Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker stretching the field, it’s amazing to think that with your speed *alone* you couldn’t catch more than 15 passes all year (even if you used the damn playbook to prop up your XBox).

But we’re forgetting one KEY ingredient to this disgusting gumbo that’s been cooking: Evelyn. Out of 140 characters sprang your love for this broad who was, up to that point, “famous” for having been engaged to…*drumroll*…Antoine Walker. Of course she has since gained additional fame for throwing bottles at people’s heads, but we digress. This all came along as your Twitter star was skyrocketing, and maybe you saw an alliance with some photogenic arm candy like her as a smart business move, but I’m here to tell you: that stock ain’t worth shit now. I’m all for building your brand, and when the NFL lockout rolled around in summer 2011, you were better-positioned than ANYONE to ensure a steady stream of income away from the field. Your momma was proud. Dancing With The Stars was another in a line of smart decisions for your brand, but your pimpin’ started getting real raggedy when you went Kobe on us after the news broke that you’d run up in Cheryl Burke and you did the non-apology/apology thing with Eve around last Valentine’s Day. If she wasn’t cool with the fact that a grown, single man (and popular, desirable pro athlete) had a fling with a beautiful woman with whom he’d spent considerable time, I’d have told her ass to KICK ROCKS!!!

But you went the other way. You further tied Eve to you, and after a lost season, with your athletic confidence no doubt waning, you left yourself no choice but to wife that ass. Chad, if what you said about her withholding the [drawers] from you during your struggles last season is true, you both need your asses whupped. And now that Eve has filed for divorce from you (likely without speaking to you since the events of Saturday), it’s clear that she’s been a net negative to you – much the same as Elin was to Tiger. Why athletes think they need a trophy wife is beyond me: especially since Derek Jeter has dated maaaaaaad women, remained a bachelor, and kept his reputation (not to mention endorsements) FULLY in tact! Once VH1 pulled the plug on the ill fated Ev & Ocho, ol’ girl had no reason left to “stand by her man,” so she didn’t. Which should let you know what she was about from jump street

In closing bruh, I (like a lot of people) would like to see you continue your NFL career, as you’ve brought us a ton of enjoyment through the years – doing it with style and humor, on and off the field. But the fact is that you’re a 34-year-old receiver with declining production and a suddenly tarnished reputation (and again, no team).  That’s not to say you can never catch on with anyone else (Moss and T.O. have managed to do it), just that now you’re pushing the boulder uphill, for the first time in your charmed career. This all started once you and Eve started “beefing” on Twitter – and by your logic, anyone that could make you “put the sticks down” had to be The One. Me, I’d have kept on playing FIFA.

Sincerely,

The Voice of Reason

The Off-key Ballad of Bobby V

Bobby Valentine

USA Today

Many moons ago, I interned for a summer in Stamford, Connecticut. While Stamford wasn’t the big city many of us interns were used to, it certainly had its charms (including Stamford Town Center, where much of Scenes from a Mall was filmed). One of our favorite watering holes was Bobby V’s, the eponymous sports bar/shrine/paean-to-one’s-own-greatness owned by esteemed former ESPN baseball analyst and current Red Sox manager – the inimitable Bobby Valentine. Much like our infatuation with Bobby V’s that summer, Red Sox Nation’s honeymoon with Valentine (which already began rocky) appears to be drawing to a close. Ten games into the season.

It started off with the whispers: faint speculation that the Sox and new GM Ben Cherington might seriously be considering Valentine to replace the recently-deposed (and apparently chicken-and-beer-tolerant) Terry Francona, winner of two World Series. That news was greeted about as enthusiastically as a fart in an elevator. How exactly does a man who hadn’t managed in the bigs in ten years; who once famously tried to sneak back into the dugout wearing a fake mustache after being ejected; who emigrated to Japan and all but challenged the champion White Sox to a pistol duel; and, not least, was openly critical of the very organization considering him for employment, get one of the most sought-after jobs in all of baseball?!

That question became moot once the Red Sox introduced Valentine as the new sheriff in town, and he immediately laid down his law-and-order doctrine: no clubhouse libations and tomfoolery, more spring training calisthenics, greater emphasis on “fundamentals,” etc. Which all sounded fine as long as it led to what was sorely lacking in Boston last September: wins. As the new season dawned, sadly, those were in short supply. Of course it’s a long haul, but the Valentine-mobile veered solidly off-road Monday when the skipper suggested that Sox stalwart Kevin Youkilis was not “physically and emotionally into the game.” Perhaps to the chagrin of the routinely inflammatory Valentine, Youkilis was one of the few key Red Sox veterans not implicated in Chickengate, which came to light in the aftermath of last season’s startling collapse. Since 2006, Youkilis’ first full season in the majors, he has won a Gold Glove, made three All-Star teams, and has stood up mightily as the anchor of a roster in almost continual flux since the lovable ‘Idiots’ of ’04. This then begs the question, why would Valentine choose Youk to pick on?

2nd baseman Dustin Pedroia was equally perplexed, offering that such a managerial ploy could work “maybe in Japan or something,” but that his Sox teammates have got Youk’s back. That was heartening to hear from Boston’s de facto team captain, because after essentially being responsible for their beloved Francona being fired, rallying around each other seems to be the Red Sox’s best chance at success. This is primarily because of Valentine’s managerial history: he’s known as a quick-fix artist who turns bad teams around almost instantly, but eventually wears out his welcome. He did it in Arlington and Flushing, but this Boston team is an entirely different animal – they were already good, and but for politics their former manager would still be on the job. Which leads to another question: is Valentine more than just a turnaround specialist who thrives on belittling players – those whom he views as inferior to his idealized version of himself as a player? The Red Sox braintrust certainly thinks so, and they ought to sincerely hope so, because after running both Francona and Theo Epstein out of town, their good names and reputations are riding on it.

Given all of this, it’s certainly not too late for Bobby V to quiet the gathering mob, but he’s going to have to win soon, and his best chance to do that is with veterans like Pedroia, Youkilis and David Ortiz fully on board. Fortunately for Valentine he has inherited a much better team than he did with the Rangers or Mets, so it would behoove him to update his operating manual, especially as it pertains to dealing with players. The Sox are a proud, seasoned bunch, and what would work on a last-place finisher will certainly not play in Fenway. In fairness, it’s in the players’ best interests to give Bobby a chance too, even though after a scant ten games – and Valentine’s first misfire – it’s pretty clear they’re desperately missing the other guy.

Hello Mile High!

Reuters / Rick Wilking

Top 10 “facts” about Peyton Manning’s 10-day-old Bronco career:

1. Donald Brown is not on the guest list.

2. The earth’s largest, concussion-proof football helmet is being constructed there as we speak – both in navy and that hideous brown/white.

3. Peyton’s only response to Reggie Wayne’s congratulatory phone call was, “You’re dead to me.”

4. Peyton wouldn’t step foot in the Broncos locker room until it was completely fumigated from Jay Cutler’s “stank.”

5. John Elway mistook Ashley Manning’s tits for apples, leading to an uncomfortable moment in the stables.

6. Peyton greeted new defensive coordinator (and ex-Jags coach) Jack Del Rio by announcing “You’re still my bitch!”

7. Jim Irsay drunk-dialed Broncos owner Pat Bowlen to tell him “Don’t say I never did shit for ya…”

8. Center J.D. Walton’s balls are “badly chafed and raw” from Peyton’s obsession with perfecting the snap.

9. Tim Tebow shat in Manning’s locker before skipping town.

10. The rest of the Broncos complained, “We’re already tired of the fuckin’ Oreos.”

Jaguars Lack Bite

USA Today

For a floundering franchise that ranked 25th in home attendance last year – and has missed the playoffs 10 of the last 12 seasons – the Jacksonville Jaguars sure were tardy to the Tebow Trade Party. One wonders how excited the Jags even were to attend, because once the lights went up, there were no party favors left to be had: the Jets had picked ’em clean. After a captivating sophomore season, during which he delivered an AFC West title and a riveting playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tim Tebow seemed poised to solidify his hold on the Broncos’ starting QB position. Instead, the arrival of Peyton Manning in the Mile High City only expedited Tebow’s ticket out of town. The Broncos’ sudden harvest of QB riches, that in turn necessitated moving The Messiah, offered an unexpected bounty to a team enterprising enough to recruit Tebow to lead its flock. That team was not the Jaguars.

Since its inception in 1995, Jacksonville’s NFL tenure has been a roller coaster ride: Tom Coughlin did the unthinkable by guiding the Jags to the AFC Championship Game in only their second year of existence, compiling a sparkling 49-31 record over his first five seasons at the helm. Dark days soon followed, and after three consecutive losing campaigns Colonel Coughlin was summarily stripped of his rank. Jack Del Rio succeeded him – if you consider one playoff win in nine years a success. Outgoing team owner Wayne Weaver surely tired of Del Rio’s empty promises, so Weaver fired the former NFL linebacker as a housewarming gift to new steward Shahid Khan – who inherits the Jags’ checkered history along with an ocean of tarp-covered seats.

Khan’s first order of business is restoring hope to a jaded fanbase. After some speculation that the Jags would be a relocation candidate once the NFL flies its flag in Los Angeles again, the billionaire’s purchase of the franchise came with the understanding that he’d keep the team in Florida. Khan elected to retain general manager Gene Smith, whose evaluation could best be termed incomplete after three years. As this new regime’s first head coaching hire, the Jags settled on Mike Mularkey, former head man in Buffalo and late of the Atlanta Falcons coaches’ booth. With Jacksonville’s holy trinity (owner|GM|head coach) in place, the question remaining is who will pilot the ship, and Blaine Gabbert didn’t exactly earn his wings during a pathetic rookie season.

All of the above seemed to set the stage for the prodigal son’s return to the Florida coast, but it wasn’t in the cards. Despite Mularkey’s insistence that he wanted Tebow, the Jags either weren’t willing or savvy enough to outbid the New York Jets for his services. The Jets offered to contribute half of the $5 million balloon payment owed Tebow for the coming season, and 4th and 6th round picks, for the QB and a 7th rounder from the Broncos. Jacksonville reportedly offered to pay “more than half” of the $5 million, along with a 4th rounder – but no sweetener. The Jags’ stated reasoning was their steadfast belief that you build teams through the draft – though ironically their draft record has been spotty, and none of their recent high draft picks have delivered a fraction of the value Tebow did in two short years in Denver (namely a playoff win).

Throughout his time in Buffalo and stints as offensive coordinator of the Steelers, Dolphins and Falcons, Mularkey’s coaching style has displayed hints of innovation, but he prefers to establish a power running game as the engine of offensive production. With the Jags, he has the makings of a solid offense in running back Maurice Jones-Drew, newly-acquired wide receiver Laurent Robinson and talented tight end Marcedes Lewis. The lynchpin still is Gabbert, and by whiffing on Tebow the Jags appear to have gone all-in on pocket rags – Mularkey’s track record developing quarterbacks notwithstanding. I shudder to think Jacksonville’s preference for Gabbert is predicated on the image of the prototypical quarterback, because how many rocket-armed male models have petered out at the position? The graveyard of never-weres is littered with them.

So I suppose Jaguar fans (the brave few who actually attend home games) will be left to wonder how Tim Tebow would look in teal and black. That means untold season ticket and jersey sales down the drain, not to mention the monumental goodwill squandered. A shame too, because I fear they’ll likewise be left to wonder what a winner looks like. Football fans at-large were also robbed – of an epic “mustache-off” between Khan and head coach Jeff Fisher of the St. Louis Rams (who were rumored to covet Tebow) for Timmy’s honor. So we’re all losers.

NBC Sports

USA Today

Bracket Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Upset

Getty Images

The snippet is as iconic as the event itself: anyone even casually familiar with the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament through the years probably looks forward to “One Shining Moment” – the sappy tear-jerking montage of highs and lows that runs following the Championship Game – almost as much as the games themselves. Call it nostalgia, or even a thirst for melodrama, but there is an unmistakable affinity that people have for the NCAAs, one that transcends gender, geography or one’s gambling tolerance. During March weekends, if there’s a flat-screen in sight, chances are it’s tuned to the tournament. So after three weeks consumed by brackets, blowouts and barnburners, what’s so compelling about three-and-a-half minutes of fluff that makes us wait with such bated breath? In a word, it’s the upsets.

How many times have you filled out your NCAA bracket thinking “This is THE YEAR!” – having done all your “homework,” earning a crack degree in Bracketology in the process – only to have said bracket look like your 9th grade math quiz by the first Friday of the tournament? (Or Internet Explorer circa 2003: Red X). Trust me, you’re not alone: there are almost 6 million entrants to the ESPN Bracket Challenge each year, and lord knows how many finish disappointed, ever in pursuit of the mythical ‘perfect bracket.’ No matter how promising a mid-major looks, or how hot a so-so power conference team is come tourney time, it’s just so hard to ignore the chalk and account for party crashers, yet every year these upstarts wreck our printouts and wreak havoc on our sleep cycles. Logically then, isn’t it high time we at least make it to the ball, by finally embracing Cinderella?

Take Norfolk State: it was this tiny liberal arts HBCU’s first appearance in The Big Dance, and even after steamrolling through the regular season and MEAC tournament, America gave the Spartans exactly a snowball’s chance in hell of upending the 2nd-seeded Missouri Tigers in the Round of 64 last Friday. So naturally they did. Led by outstanding big man and MEAC Player of the Year Kyle O’Quinn, Norfolk did what only three teams had done prior to this game – solve Mizzou’s vaunted four-guard starting rotation. Almost as miraculous as the outcome was this: Norfolk actually looked like they’d been there before! Throughout the waning minutes of Friday’s hectic 2nd half, Spartans coach Anthony Evans was astoundingly calm as he perched in front of his bench, absorbing the ebb and flow of a tense contest along with millions watching on CBS. Of course there was an attendant storm: Evans was authoritative and convincing in his pregame speech, as every command was met by the disciplined “Yes, Sir!” of his charges. So impressive were Norfolk’s grit and guile down the stretch that any feelings of sorrow for the untimely end to Missouri’s dream season were instantly trumped by pure giddiness – at the sight of the Spartan pep band dancing with delight at what ten men had accomplished. Now THAT, my friends, was a moment.

As fate would have it, Friday night’s Duke/Lehigh tilt was not for the faint of heart either. Sure, the Devils didn’t enter this year’s tourney as the strongest No. 2 seed in memory, but the spectre of Coach K (and the satchel that super-frosh Austin Rivers presumably needs to tote his giant stones) loomed large for the Mountain Hawks (now there’s a mascot for ya). Entering as Patriot League tournament champs, Lehigh didn’t exactly strike fear into the heart of perennial power Duke, but the Hawks sure took the floor like they meant business. While the game was never quite on upset alert during the 1st half, Lehigh hung around just close enough to make you wonder if Duke’s spotty defense and over-reliance on the three-pointer might be its undoing. Sadly for Blue Devil Nation, intermission did nothing to dispel those concerns as the Hawks, behind the heady play (and volume shooting) of CJ McCollum, broke Duke’s resolve before imposing their own will. After Lehigh went ahead 38-37 four minutes into the 2nd half, the sides traded haymakers as the enormity of the stakes grew with the passing of the game clock. On a cold-shooting night for the Devils, Rivers tried valiantly to keep them in the game, but Duke’s lack of timely playmaking and Lehigh’s dogged persistence were the Devils’ downfall. In the aftermath, Mountain Hawks coach Brett Reed played it cool, yet you know somewhere deep down he had a remarkable sense of satisfaction that just screamed, “What Can Brown Do For You?”

Suffice it to say the first weekend of the tournament was peppered with other upsets of varying degree:

  • Scrappy Pac-12 entrant Colorado withstood a 2nd half charge to hold off UNLV in the South Region’s 6 vs. 11 game
  • No. 11 was charmed in the Midwest as well, with NC State dismantling 6th-seeded San Diego State: the Wolfpack are now on to the Sweet 16
  • No. 12 also prevailed in the Midwest Region, as South Florida rolled Temple behind former Kent State darling Stan Heath
  • Not to be outdone, Virginia Commonwealth validated last year’s run to the Final Four, toppling Missouri Valley Conference champs Wichita St. in the South’s 5 vs. 12 matchup with the incomparable Shaka Smart leading the way
  • Finally, this Ohio struck a blow for the Buckeye State, closing the book on Tim Hardaway Jr. and the Michigan Wolverines in the process: the Bobcats are likewise thru to the Sweet 16, where the UNC Tarheels await

No matter your favorite team (or bracket ‘lock’), it’s inevitable to experience disappointment this time of year, be it sooner or later. After years of agonizing over poor picks, I’ve finally learned to bury the disappointment found in brackets gone bust and root for these Cinderellas and the simple joy of the game they exude. It sure beats wondering what might have been, because if there’s one thing I know about the NCAA Tournament, it’s this: Nobody knows anything.

NFL Free Agency: Musical Chairs

AP Photo/David Duprey

On the sports calendar – for football junkies in particular – this is among the most enjoyable times of the year: spring is in the air, which means the NCAA Tournament is just underway; the NBA season is in the homestretch; Major League Baseball and The Masters are just around the corner; and the NFL Draft is imminent, preceded by its dashing twin – FREE AGENCY. An institution now as closely identified with the NFL as helmets and shoulder pads, the beginning of the free agent signing period is a critical window wherein the rich typically get richer, the desperate spend lavishly, and the shrewd stand to benefit greatly. There has been plenty of all three since Tuesday afternoon’s shotgun start to the proceedings, covered of course in painstaking detail by every sports media outlet under the sun. But it’s all talk until the pads start popping, so in that spirit – and until the first OTAs of the offseason – let’s do some armchair quarterbacking of selected free agent signings:

Mario Williams/DE
Signed with: Buffalo Bills
Terms: 6 years, $100 million
Verdict: Next to Peyton Manning’s impending signing, this is The Granddaddy of ‘Em All. Second-guessed by pundits after being selected first overall by the Houston Texans in the 2006 draft, Williams has quieted the pro-Reggie Bush chorus with his relentless play and outstanding production (53 sacks in 82 games). Following consecutive Pro Bowls, Williams submitted a pedestrian 2010 season (by his lofty standards). In 2011 he moved to outside linebacker in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme, but still registered 5 sacks in as many games before going down with a torn pectoral muscle – prematurely ending his season. Despite being an integral part of their defensive alignment, re-signing Williams wasn’t financially feasible for the Texans.

Enter the Buffalo Bills: following 12 years of playoff futility, and saddled with an unfortunate inability to attract high-profile free agents, the Bills have quietly made solid moves in the past year to shore up their roster in a packed AFC East. After drafting future franchise cornerstone Marcell Dareus 3rd overall in the 2011 draft, Buffalo has signed QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and WR Stevie Johnson to lucrative contract extensions, and plans to do the same with RB Fred Jackson. Adding Mario Williams to an already-formidable defensive front that includes Dareus and Kyle Williams is a home run that could, barring injury, become a grand slam and propel the Bills into the 2012 playoffs.

Lurking in the shadows is Buffalo’s run of horrendous luck: the Bills started last season 4-1 before losing 9 of 11 to close. Similarly, they started 2008 5-1 before finishing 7-9, sealing then-coach Dick Jauron’s fate the following season. Other teams interested in Mario’s services – reported to be the Bears, Falcons and Seahawks – missed out on signing or even courting Williams, however if he turns out to be a bust in Buffalo, they will no doubt be thankful for the financial flexibility they maintained.

Vincent Jackson/WR
Signed with: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Terms: 5 years, $55 million
Verdict: Why couldn’t the Bucs make a move like this when Raheem Morris was still their coach? After Jon Gruden’s surprising ouster following the 2008 season, the Bucs underwent a complete shift in organizational philosophy, transitioning from a veteran team (that won Super Bowl XXXVII) to one riddled with young, unproven players. They fired GM Bruce Allen and promoted Mark Dominik to the position, and Dominik in turned elevated Morris to head coach from his recent appointment as defensive coordinator. However, the suddenly thrifty Glazer family didn’t spend to provide Morris with a roster capable of winning. The Bucs produced a miracle 10-6 season in 2010 behind the strong arm and clutch play of QB Josh Freeman, but their only noteworthy roster move that offseason was signing punter Michael Koenen away from the Falcons. A dismal 4-12 season followed, after which Morris was summarily dismissed.

The arrival of new head coach Greg Schiano has apparently signaled a return to generous spending by the Glazers, as they’ve broken the bank to sign Jackson, Carl Nicks (a mauler of an offensive guard), and cornerback Eric Wright. Jackson’s signing holds the key to the Bucs’ fortunes in 2012: they were non-competitive in too many games last season, and a big reason was the regression of WR Mike Williams. The Bucs’ defense also suffered from injury and inconsistency to the point they could not stop many teams, which, coupled with their offensive struggles, made winning all but impossible. For Tampa Bay to establish a solid running game behind LeGarrette Blount (or his replacement), opposing teams must respect the Bucs’ aerial attack, and a proven commodity such as Jackson will go a long way in that regard. Again, barring injury, the Chargers’ loss should be Freeman and the Bucs’ significant gain.

Cortland Finnegan/CB
Signed with: St. Louis Rams
Terms: 5 years, $50 million
Verdict: For a team as starved for a cover cornerback as the Rams, this signing was manna from heaven – though one can only wonder if they paid too high a price to secure Finnegan’s services. St. Louis actually began the 2011 season with a fair amount of promise, based primarily on a rapidly-gelling defense and the significant potential of QB Sam Bradford. The Rams brought in ex-Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator to tutor Bradford, but a rash of injuries quickly sank St. Louis’ season, resulting in coach Steve Spagnuolo’s firing. The Rams’ long list of  the walking wounded included four of their top five cornerbacks, making the Finnegan acquisition a natural.

That being said, Finnegan’s career stats call into question the amount of his hefty contract. Known as a hard-nosed (some would say “dirty”) player, Finnegan has been extremely durable, missing only three games in the last five seasons (over which time he was a full-time starter in Tennessee). However, he’s registered only 14 career interceptions and 1 Pro Bowl appearance (in 2008), and has been in the headlines as much for his skirmishes with opposing players as for actual plays he’s made to help his team. The fact of the matter is St. Louis needs far more roster upgrades than just adding Finnegan to return to competitiveness, though their mega-trade with Washington that netted three first-round picks and a second-rounder should put the Rams on the fast track.

QUICK HITS

Reggie Wayne/WR
Signed with: Indianapolis Colts
Terms: 3 years, $17.5 million
Verdict: Bit of a shocker that Wayne would re-sign with Indy, given the Colts’ drastic new direction and the ongoing assumption that he would join Peyton Manning wherever the QB lands. This was obviously a good move for Wayne financially, and for the Colts competitively considering the loss of WR Pierre Garçon to the Redskins.

Steve Hutchinson/G
Signed with: Tennessee Titans
Terms: 3 years
Verdict: Picking up a 7-time Pro Bowler is almost always a good thing – especially if it helps the Titans sign Manning. Either way, if Hutchinson has anything at all left in the tank, he should bolster an already-solid offensive line and help blow open some holes for RB Chris Johnson.

Curtis Lofton/LB
Signed with: TBD
Verdict: I mention Lofton to highlight an unfortunate conundrum of free agency, namely how a team such as the Falcons can practically usher a dynamic young cornerstone of its franchise – one who’s been the starting middle linebacker on 3 playoff teams and amassed almost 500 tackles in 4 NFL seasons – out the door, possibly to a division rival. It was announced this afternoon that the Falcons have agreed to terms with DE John Abraham on a new contract, so let’s hope they have the same luck keeping Lofton in the fold.

The Better Part of ‘Valor’

Bandito Brothers/Relativity Media

Act of Valor – the latest grand experiment in what you might call “experiential casting” (read: mostly without trained actors) – was on the movie-going docket this weekend, and I must say: it was not an entire waste of my $11 (ringing endorsement, I know). If you’re anything like me (meaning the only thing you like better than an action movie is a combat movie), you saw the trailer for Valor and thought “HELL YEAH!!!” For combat movie junkies, what could possibly be better than a film starring real-life, ass-kicking demolishing Navy SEALs?! I was so giddy about this movie’s potential that I almost forgot the SEALs would have to act – almost.

Valor is told primarily from the points of view of two SEAL teammates and friends: Lieutenant Rorke and Chief Dave (full names of the SEAL crewmen appearing in the film are not given). Through Chief Dave’s narration, you’re introduced to the SEAL team, the lives of its members, and the stakes involved with their missions. The film’s narrative centers around Lt. Rorke: before the SEALs ship out for their first assignment, we see Rorke’s painful parting from his expectant wife (they appear to live in Middle America, to no surprise). Before you can blink, the SEALs parachute into the outer perimeter of a hostile encampment, intent on retrieving a particular asset.

Here’s where the strength of Valor becomes apparent: what the film lacks in dramatic depth, it more than makes up for in technical proficiency. Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh – co-directors and the driving forces behind getting the film made – decided on casting active-duty SEALs in the lead roles when it became apparent that no actors could credibly carry the physicality involved in production. And what a decision this turned out to be: witnessing the SEALs’ stealth approach to the encampment, and the supreme coordination it required (amidst great tension), was truly remarkable. Their extraction of the aforementioned asset, which culminates in a perfect storm of contingency planning, is equally breathtaking.

Alas, the movie is not all Call of Duty: Rorke’s and Chief Dave’s conversations invariably allude to home, which of course harkens back to Rorke’s pregnant wife. This becomes important as the SEALs’ constantly-evolving objectives come into greater focus following their first mission. Information retrieved during that engagement reveals an international conspiracy, masterminded by some rather dubious villains, and the plot becomes a full-court press to neutralize the threat before American lives are lost (à la 24). This development takes the SEALs to the far-flung locales of Mexico and Somalia, but for Rorke it’s a race against the clock as he calmly deliberates his twin duties to country and family.

Navy SEALs have been the object of increased (and, for them, perhaps unprecedented) attention since the successful May 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Certain purported inner workings of its super-elite Team Six came to light immediately following the raid, and with Valor, the US Navy brilliantly capitalized on the heightened public interest. The film is admittedly an initiative to recruit SEALs, and a novel of the same title accompanied its release.

Of course all of that would be for naught if Valor could not deliver a satisfying conclusion, and to its credit, it tries to in earnest. The highlight of the international conspiracy involves utilizing foreign nationals to infiltrate the US for game-changing purposes, and our protagonist Rorke and Co. engage the threat south-of-the-border. Heavily-armed and sufficiently desperate, the enemy proves to be more formidable than anticipated, which causes the SEALs to make some tough but necessary decisions. Again, this was by far my favorite aspect of the movie: both before and during the combat sequences, you see the SEALs’ exquisite decision-making processes in action, especially their unparalleled integration of new and often unfamiliar pieces on the chessboard of war, and most importantly the outcome of such moves.

To McCoy’s and Waugh’s credit, they show the audience a painfully authentic side of military combat in closing. Valor’s final scene takes place in a cemetery as the SEALs, triumphant but battle weary, assemble to honor one of their vanquished. Over Chief Dave’s parting words the circle of life is illuminated: from the dust we are born and to the dust we must return, however the events of our life in between are what define our character – and the lessons we leave to those who follow are what define our legacy. To that end, the names of those SEALs killed in action since 9/11 that are proudly displayed at the end of the film shall indeed echo in eternity.

Goodbye Blue Sky

“And like that, he was gone…”

Fourteen years in fifteen minutes: that was the math facing Colts owner Jim Irsay and now-departed QB Peyton Manning as they stood behind a lonely dais Wednesday. How do you possibly pay tribute to such a long and stellar career, and the exemplary author of it, in so brief a period? Before those looking on could even consider the question, the man of the hour had been thanked and in turn gave thanks profusely, then – like the setting sun – was suddenly gone from view. What did we witness in those 15 minutes, in those 14 years? If you ever watched Peyton, you will know the two were virtually identical.

He entered the league under immense scrutiny and massive expectations, yet for me, the first hint that Peyton Manning would thrive in the cauldron that is the NFL occurred during the 1997 Heisman Trophy presentation. When Michigan DB Charles Woodson was announced as the winner (deservedly so), Peyton was clearly devastated, his reddened face betraying him. However in the few seconds between the announcement and the obligatory congratulations from the other Heisman finalists, he managed to gather himself and warmly embrace Woodson, displaying the style and grace that would be his permanent signature.

We’ve heard all about Peyton’s Hall of Fame résumé in the days and weeks leading up to yesterday’s announcement – the 3-13 rookie campaign, followed by a 13-3 sophomore season; the 11 playoff appearances and 4 MVPs – but what has always impressed me most is how he’s gone about his business. You never saw a fiercer, better-prepared or more driven competitor, yet you also never saw a better leader, more supportive teammate or finer ambassador for the game than Number 18.

One of the knocks on Peyton coming out of the University of Tennessee was “he can’t win the big one,” and the Volunteers’ national championship the following season did little to refute that assertion (fairly or otherwise). The Colts’ often unsightly playoff losses early in the Manning regime further added fuel to this fire, however in workmanlike fashion, he simply kept his head down and continued to refine his mental resolve and crunch-time performance. As his legend grew, Peyton’s ever-expanding regular season highlight reel gave rise to deeper playoff runs: most famously, the Colts stumbled against the Patriots in ’04 and ’05 before eventually vanquishing their nemesis en route to the ’07 Super Bowl title.

The miraculous thing is, after each of those games – whether they ended in victory or defeat – Peyton’s face betrayed neither impostor. As he did during the Heisman presentation so many years before, he always offered congratulations as graciously as he accepted them: the mark of a true gentleman. Peyton’s unyielding play, and the regal manner with which he comports himself and treats others, have earned him the universal respect and reverence of not only the quarterback fraternity, but the entire NFL (and judging by the unprecedented interest in yesterday’s press conference, the viewing public to boot).

Those 14 years culminated in Wednesday’s announcement, the scope of which hardly seemed befitting of someone who’d given so much of himself to the game, his team and his city – and asked so little in return. Before Peyton spoke, Irsay was clearly taken by the moment, explaining how he grew right along with his QB: from a young owner to a silver-haired Lombardi winner. Then it was the dearly departing’s turn to address his adoring masses, and you felt wistful that The Day had descended so swiftly. In true Peyton fashion, he stood tall and saluted those great and small, which made us feel – ever more viscerally – that we had been a part of his remarkable journey in Indianapolis.

So where does The Great Man go from here? The answer to that was left to another day, for when it was said and done, there were no more audibles to call, no more checks or pre-snap reads to make. There was only one final, scripted play for Peyton Manning to run: a victorious kneel-down.

LeBron, have a Snickers…

You’ve seen those Snickers commercials — the ones where Betty White and Aretha Franklin portray the prima donna sides of two guys (one playing tackle football, the other complaining about the AC on a long car ride)…if not, click below:

“Game” http://youtu.be/GkAnLtqWDhc

“Road Trip” http://youtu.be/_-qZOZa1y6c

Besides the fact that I derive endless comedy from them, every time I see the one with Aretha Franklin, I am instantly reminded of basketball’s biggest prima donna, Roc-A-Fella mascot, faux photographer extraordinaire, Global Icon, Spring sweater model, random Cowboys and Yankees fan, and “Chosen One” – LeBron “King” James.

As background of sorts, Atlanta’s my birthplace, so I bleed at least four shades of red (Falcons, Hawks, Braves, Bulldogs). Be that as it may, over time I have rooted for other teams in all of the major sports, and for various players on those teams, so I recognize and am willing to acknowledge greatness when it is displayed on the field or court. And I’m certainly not saying LeBron isn’t a great player, however I’ve reached my wit’s end with his primping and preening self-obsession.

One of my biggest problems with LeBron is that he was anointed “King” while still at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High — his mug plastered on SI and ESPN the Magazine — before he played a minute in the NBA. Beyond that, or maybe because of it, he has always acted as if greatness is his birthright, attributable to him (and his admittedly formidable game) by acclamation rather than actualization. Exhibits A and B: he was given a multi-million dollar Nike endorsement contract before he ever stepped foot on the court, and given a starting roster spot nearly as quickly. On the other hand, Kobe Bryant — against whom LeBron is most often measured for Best in Basketball — didn’t enter the league to anywhere near the deference given LeBron, despite a high school career arguably as celebrated as James’.

As a result, en route to four NBA titles, league Alpha Dog status and unanimity as the game’s “best closer,” Kobe has played with a remarkable chip on his shoulder, and has earned every bit of the respect he enjoys today. Despite being arguably the league’s best player since ’00-’01, his fifth season, Kobe didn’t win league MVP honors until ’07-’08, his TWELFTH season — by which time he was already a three-time champion. On the other hand, despite only one Finals APPEARANCE, LeBron has just collected his second MVP trophy in only his seventh NBA season. Which is, of course, a continuation of this theme of him being given the keys before passing his driver’s test.

Despite the schoolyard antics he routinely enjoys with his Cavs teammates, “King” James is arguably the most self-absorbed, self-conscious superstar in recent memory. How do we know this? His disturbing pre-occupation with putting himself above the team. How did he respond after the Celtics eliminated his Cavs in a tightly-contested Game 7 in the ’08 Eastern Conference Semis? LeBron went on at length in the postgame interview room about how he and Paul Pierce had given the fans a duel to rival Dominique’s and Bird’s Game 7 twenty years prior — as if this detachment from the outcome would deflect any blame that may accrue to his broad shoulders. After being rudely dismissed by the Orlando Magic in last year’s Eastern Finals (and failing to congratulate the victors)? He spent his summer largely in seclusion, emerging just long enough for conspicuous photo ops sporting t-shirts that read “LBJ|MVP” and “Check My $tats”. As if to say, “It wasn’t my fault we lost, I did my part — blame it on The Supporting Cast…”

Which is another massive problem I have with the “MVP”: after a victory during one of last year’s early-round playoff games, LeBron gave cursory credit to what he termed his “supporting cast.” Now, virtually every championship team in all of the major sports has had one or more superstars, surrounded by complementary talent at key positions. Never before, however, had I heard the best player on any of those teams refer to his teammates as “the supporting cast”: not only would that serve to marginalize and alienate them (his teammates), it would also figuratively place him (the superstar) above them, and would not bode well for the team’s championship prospects. Even if that is the pecking order — and, on championship teams, it almost always is — you NEVER verbalize that. Ever. You let your game do the talking, and your passion serve to elevate the surrounding talent and propel the entire team to glory. “King” James has yet to make this essential connection, thus he has yet to hoist championship hardware.

During his MVP acceptance speech last week, LeBron said that his goal is always “to be the best player on the court,” and that every time he steps foot on it, he basically wants the fans to acknowledge that he was such. The immortal Michael Jordan had a similar thought each game, however it was to give his greatest effort every time out, so as to provide that fan seeing him play for the first time his or her full money’s worth. That, to me, illuminates the fundamental difference in the two as players: in other words, Jordan primarily sought to *give* the fans a singular experience, whereas LeBron primarily seeks acclaim *from* his Witnesses, and until he reconciles the two, will never maximize his prodigious gifts.

Toward the end of the ’09-’10 regular season, when it became clear Kevin Durant would most likely win the scoring title, LeBron snapped, somewhat angrily:

“If I really wanted to,” James said, “if I really wanted to be the scoring [champion] every single year — every single year — I could really do it. But it doesn’t matter.”

By virtue of the fact that you acknowledged it, Bron, it must. Let’s let MJ sum up the difference between individual and team accomplishments:

“There are plenty of teams in every sport that have great players and never win titles. Most of the time, those players aren’t willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team. The funny thing is, in the end, their unwillingness to sacrifice only makes individual goals more difficult to achieve. One thing I believe to the fullest is that if you think and achieve as a team, the individual accolades will take care of themselves. Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” -Michael Jordan

As for this season, it remains to be seen whether “King” James can overcome his nagging elbow injury and lead the Cavs over the hump to their long-awaited championship, or if he’ll use the injury as an excuse should they fall short of the finish line yet again. Either way, the next time he grimaces after a play, implying the elbow hindered him, I’ll feel justified in saying “LeBron, you’re playing like Betty White out there…”

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