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

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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.

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