Thursday, February 24, 2005

Eight

Antoine Walker, welcome back. The Celts have reacquired The Bomb for Tom Googs, Yogi Why Is He Named That Stewart, and Gary Payton. Is this a good move? I will say definitively, no. Marcus Banks can not play an NBA point gaurd, and Delonte West isn't ready yet. Toine has point skills, but that doesn't work on a fast break team. He needs to be under the basket rebounding (9.4 rpg this year Mr. Blount) and finding the point for an outlet. He can't do both. This will be a wonderful chance for Boston to truly see what they have in the young 1's, but I'm not sure they'll be happy with what they find. The Ninth believes that West will be a successful point guard, but not quite yet. And Banks, so far, just doesn't have it.

One player that will almost certainly benefit is Paul Pierce. While I think GP helped Paul a lot, Pierce played his best basketball when Walker was in town. He has not been the same since, and that can't be anything but psychology. Who woulda thought. On the other side, I believe you'll see a lot less time for Mark Blount with LaFrentz playing more 5. A major factor in Walker's return is his ability to hit the boards, and he and Raef should make a pretty good pair on the glass.

All in all, I don't love the move for the overall success of the team, but as a fan, I can't wait to see that first wiggle. Estimated time, Friday 9:11 eastern.

P.S.- Kudos to Ryen Russillo of the Zone who broke this story first. A big step for the best NBA guy in Boston. Ryen has also mentioned that Atlanta will likely waive Payton after the acquisition. Not entirely sure why. There is a chance though that GP could then immediately resign with the Celts. A dream scenario, but it could come to pass.
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Friday, February 18, 2005

Promise of a Brand New Day

Each time the Red Sox imploded in earlier seasons, an Official Ninth Friend would call and insist “they have to blow up the team.” In a thoroughly Bostonian fashion, he would overreact, utterly panic, and prepare for the life boats. “Trade the superstars”, he would yell, “there’s something about them that can’t win.” Astute analysis. Manny, Nomar, and Pedro were usually the source of his ire, and no matter how the ever-reasonable Ninth pleaded, he stuck to his ground. Was their reason to his argument? Did he have facts, statistics, or history? No, not really, he’s a Red Sox fan. The most he could come up with was “they just can’t do it.” After having this conversation three or four years in a row, I sort of figured his point. Sort of.

If a team can’t win with the same cornerstone players for a while, sooner or later you should try something else. I think. And where better to start trying else than with those very cornerstones? Certainly we can all admit that there was something missing in the attitudes of the Big Three, something a bit more me-focused than us-focused. I still believe that if a player is in the top three at his position and doesn’t head butt umpires, you’re probably better with him than without him, but the Official Ninth Friend had his day. Nomar was traded, Pedro’s importance and influence were reduced, and Boston won the World Series. Delicious. Do the two have anything specifically to do with each other – that is, would it have been impossible for the Red Sox to get rings with Me Firsters like Nomar and Pedro in charge? No, I don’t think so. But I do believe, as much as it pains me to say it, that intangibles like “spirit” and “cohesion” are somewhat required to come back from a 3-0 playoff deficit. You know, I’m not even sure I believe that, but let’s just say it’s so for the time being.

Well now the Red Sox have really gone whole hog. Pedro’s ego is off the books, Jason Varitek is installed as the team captain, and Manny has been again reminded that he is supremely tradeable. Boston has, in the last year, given itself a major makeover, showing a dedication to value, flexibility, and attitude, and moderate disregard for superstar ability and MVP track record. Yes, I’m simplifying. Would they have acquired big timers like RJ, Mulder, Hudson, and Beltran were the price a little more Bob Barker? Sure. But they were always aware of that bottom line, in a way that Dan Duquette or Brian Cashman might not have been. And we’re not saying this is a bad thing. Who wants another Jose Offerman around, other than maybe Mrs. Offerman? He’s lazy around the house. But here’s the thing about guys like Nomar and Pedro: they’re really good. They have marginal attitude problems, and both of them at one point or another last year priced themselves above their actual worth, but this is what superstars do. Somebody usually comes along and signs them anyway. Unfortunately, if you’re going to succeed in baseball, especially in playoff baseball, you might need a couple of these guys. Who’s going to hit Randy Johnson in Game 1 of the ALCS, Mark Bellhorn? I doubt it. Who will strike out Gary Sheffield with the bases loaded in the 5th, Matt Clement? Uh, I guess. And they could, you know. That’s the great thing about baseball, anybody can be a hero. But if I’m going to war, I’d rather be there with a guy who’s flown the chopper before. And that’s what these superstars have done. They have a level of ability that has allowed them to succeed in difficult situations in the past and will likely allow them to again in the future. This has nothing to do with being “clutch”, or “heady”, or “big-game”, it has to do with being remarkably good at playing baseball. In the playoffs, you face a higher level of competition, a level that can expose the flaws an 8 million dollar player has that a 12 million dollar one does not. The Red Sox have decided this season to take their chances with the 8 million’ers. And given the options available, I think I would’ve done the same thing. But it’s different.

Matt Clement is no Pedro Martinez. You look at their stats last season and the results were surprisingly similar, but they’re not the same guy. You tell me that you feel the same about Pedro and Clement pitching Game 2 in Yankee Stadium and I tell you that you’re lying. Because you are. Martinez’s demands were too high, they shouldn’t have signed him, but they’ll be times when they wished they did. Renteria is a very good player, and the old Nomar doesn’t really exist anymore, but you’ll miss him more than once. I promise you. The great thing about shopping for value is that sometimes you find a David Ortiz, but the bad thing is that usually you don’t. The 2005 Red Sox are a wonderfully balanced team that will depend more on their sum than the individual parts. There should be an excellent chemistry, with Jason Varitek and Trot Nixon very much in charge. No one man will think himself above the rest, and few contracts will force management into things they regret. There’s just one problem, I’m not sure they’re any better. In fact, they might be worse.

The Ninth should be back on the radio Friday around 3. Check www.1510thezone.com to tune in.
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Friday, February 04, 2005

Two Hats

The problem with writing your prediction column on Tuesday is that when you think of more stuff to say, you have nowhere to put it. Unless you want to write a whole other column, and let’s be honest, I’ve had a tough enough time getting one of these puppies finished. Two is a bit presumptuous. But sloth be damned, I’ll get it done. So here we go, Super Bowl article numero two. I mean it’s not like the Patriots are in the Super Bowl every year. Oh wait.

-- How does Joe Theismann get to pass off “If Donovan McNabb has the game of his life, Philly will win” as actual analysis? Where’s Mrs. Theismann on that one? Is there a Mrs. Theismann? There’s got to be someone close enough to the Theis to whisper quietly into his ear: “that’s the most obvious thing anyone’s ever said”. And after the effect of that one has sunk in, maybe follow with “you’re terrible at your job”. Not in a mean way, but just enough so that he knows you mean business. It’s not that Theismann is dumb, but if you told me that he and Paul McGuire shared a brain, I’d be surprised that half a brain could do so little. Please someone else do the game on Sunday. Please.

-- You know you work at a serious company when your CEO is double-fisting wine glasses at 5:45 on a Thursday.

-- It’s going to be very interesting to see what defense Philadelphia comes out with on Sunday. Jim Johnson, as we all know, is in love with the blitz, but not to the point of irresponsibility. As one of The Ninth’s favorite writers, Greg Easterbrook, regularly points out, the blitz is perhaps the NFL’s most abused and misused technique. An experienced team loves nothing more that being consistently blitzed because men will be open and they will find them. If you do anything with regularity against New England, they’ll notice it, take advantage, and you’ll lose. But Johnson knows that, and he won’t let himself become predictable. So how does he mediate his desire to send guys with the Pats’ ability to pick it up? A lot is made of Brady’s pocket presence, but anyone can be blitzed if they aren’t expecting it. This will be fun to watch.

-- Nothing more enjoyable that placing a large, complicated order at the local pizza joint right around the end of the first quarter of the Super Bowl. There’s always a disarming amount of noise in the background and the guy sounds about 20% more frantic than he ought to be. Oh, is it busy? So you can’t my pepperonis up into triangles to match the shape of the pizza slice? That’s too bad. If you end up ordering from a place that takes offensively long (The Ninth and Official Freshman Year College Friends waited over two hours in ’96), the best thing to do is call another pizza place and have them deliver their pies to the overworked store. Subtly sends the message of your displeasure.

-- While Tom Brady deserves a great deal of credit for putting the ball where his receivers want it, but the New England receiving core is one of the best at simply making catches. It’s hard enough in the NFL to get a guy open, recognize him, avoid a rush, and get the pass there – you just can’t have people dropping the ball. I promise you’ll see it once or twice from Philly this weekend (paging Mr. Pinkston), and it almost never happens to the Pats. When’s the last time Givens, Branch, Brown, or Patten just muffed one? I can’t think of it.

-- Everyone is picking Corey Dillon as their MVP, and frankly, I can’t see any reason to argue with that. One thing to keep in mind however: against the blitz (which as we discussed earlier, is a Philly favorite), nothing works better than a screen, and both Patrick Pass and Kevin Faulk run them better than CD. Either of them could have big days and possibly cut into Dillon’s field time. Another favorite of Charlie and Bill’s? Putting two TE’s on the line, blocking a heavy blitz, and sending a speed receiver deep against single coverage. Mr. Branch, Mr. Johnson, we’re talking to you here.

-- There is one sad thing about the Super Bowl this weekend: we’ll never to get to see this team again. Sure the Pats will be good again next year, but how can you not miss these guys? Oh well. As Mrs. G used to tell us, “you take the good, you take the bad, you take ‘em all and there you have the facts of life.” Indeed Mrs. G, indeed.
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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Slow Those Wagons, REO

The NFL can be a little simple-minded. Sit down Kordell Stewart, we're not talking about you. The Colts came into the playoffs having demolished their recent mediocre opponents and were given a great chance to throw over the Patriots, despite the rich and expansive history to the contrary. Then the Steelers, considered the best team in the league, were picked by many to blast past New England to the Bowl that is Super even though they were a terrible matchup for the occasion. And now, because the Pats have had an admittedly dominant run the last two games, they are being lauded as a sure-fire gaurantee for back to back championships. Because I guess the Eagles aren't planning on coming on Sunday. Or maybe they'll show up but have trouble seeing the ball with all the weeping, bruises, and eye blood. New England is a very good team, the best going in fact, but they're not automatic. And right behind them, nipping at their minute men boots, are the Eagles, the second best team going. Are we to believe, simply because the pundits insist it, that there is a Rich Garces-sized gap between the two clubs? As they're basing their opinion on an overreaction to the most recent 120 minutes of football, I will continue the alarmingly sardonic tone of this column and say nay nay. That means no. Look, The Ninth has spent the last two weeks encouraging readers to accept the Patriots as the tippy tops, and I'm not backing off that. But the Eagles are capital G Good. And if Terrell Owens finds his way onto the field 50% of the time, they're a lot better. And better in a way that I don't believe you can scheme out of.

In week 10 against Dallas, TO caught a 5 yard slant over the middle. The play had no other purpose than to make second and third down more manageable, but no one told Owens that. Well, they probably did, but his listening skills lack excellence. So Terrell caught the ball, and instead of being brought down by the two adjacent linebackers like every other receiver in football, he stiff armed, turned on the jets, and was off for a 59 yard touchdown. And this wasn't a pure speed job either, Owens got hit. Several times -- and he won each event. After which he just kept running. It was a display of such miraculous strength, speed, and skill that it should be played in every Patriot locker for the next five days. Because honestly, I have no idea what Belichick can do about it. You can try to keep the ball out of TO's hands, hit him when he comes off the line, pressure McNabb so he doesn't have time to find him, but there will be times when that doesn't work. There always are. And this player can make you pay for that more than any other. If Owens gets the ball in the right, or wrong - depending on your perspective, position a couple of times this Sunday and someone misses a tackle, the field could open up a certain way, and points will go on the board. That makes it hard to win. Granted, it's somewhat of a perfect storm scenario, but Owens is that potent an ingredient, and against all others teams a type of weather pattern that isn't playing. That's what makes the Eagles dangerous. If he's there in the Super Bowl, there could be a problem. And all the brains in the world can't stop it. Is this likely? Not terrifically. But it makes the game interesting, and somewhat hard to predict. New England will not run away with it, unless they're facing just McNabb and Westbrook. Unless a pundit knows that be so, we should not be convinced by their ultra-certain swagger. It will be a close one, but one that ultimately Corey Dillon against a mediocre d-line should be able to control. And it would hardly be the playoffs if Brady wasn't driving and Vinatieri wasn't kicking. So expect there to be more than just commercials on Sunday, and don't get too comfortable with that spread. Like always, it's Pats by 3.

Patriots 20, Philadelphia 17.
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