Sports Outside the Beltway

NFL to Consider Several Rules Changes for 2006

In addition to finding a replacement for Paul Tagliabue, several rules changes are on the agenda as the NFL’s owners gather in Orlando.

Let the search begin here first thing Monday morning when Tagliabue addresses the owners and team igh-ranking officials to kick off the annual gathering, which also will include discussion on several rule-change proposals from the competition committee, expanding the playoff field from 12 to 14 teams, expanding the scope of instant replay and tending to the matter of where a new stadium might be built in Los Angeles.


Certain also to grab attention over the next three days will be a couple of rule change proposals: Prohibiting low hits on quarterbacks in the pocket, better protecting the deep snapper on place kicks, prohibiting the punting team from blocking in the back during coverage, broadening the horse-collar tackle to include grabbing the jersey from behind, too, and allowing eligible receivers to flinch and reset without a false start immediately being called if the action does not induce the defense to jump off sides.

Also, the competition committee, co-chaired by McKay and Tennessee head coach Jeff Fisher, will propose allowing one designated player on defense to have headset communication with the sideline, just as currently is in place for quarterbacks.
“We want to prevent offenses from borrowing signals,” McKay said. The proposal states each club before the game must designate the one defensive player to be equipped with the sideline communication devise. That player can not change during the course of that game, even if a debilitating injury occurs. If that happens, the team simply loses the ability to verbally communicate defensive signals to the huddle.

As usual, there will be discussion to tweak instant replay. Tampa Bay will propose allowing all penalties to be subject to review, which would seem a long shot since the league is so conscious of game length, which this past year was 3 hours, 7 minutes, 6 seconds – “Down 40 seconds from last year,” McKay said.

Length of game is one of the reasons why there will be the discussion on tweaking false starts. McKay said there were 850 false starts called in 2006, and that a “a lot of those” were flinches by the receivers which had no effect of the ball being put into play. “That is a big number,” McKay said, noting the league’s 256 regular-season games each averaged 17 penalties, “and maybe we can save some time.” There also will be discussion to make the always controversial down-by-contact ruling susceptible to instant replay and to reduce the referee’s time limit for making a decision from 90 seconds to 60 seconds.

And as has been the case over the past couple of years, Kansas City will propose expanding the playoffs from 12 teams to 14 teams, which might fall on fewer deaf ears since the AFC’s sixth-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers won Super Bowl XL in February. The wild-card Steelers run also will encourage discussion of not automatically awarding division winners higher seeds if they do not have a better record than wild-card teams.

That the committee is proposing broadening the horse-collar tackle penalty will be interesting since it seems defenders are rarely called for grabbing a ball carrier from behind inside the shoulder pads and immediately yanking him to the ground. But McKay said the competition committee saw too many times when defenders instead are grabbing the ball carrier’s jersey from behind and getting away with the same type of tackle deemed dangerous last year. “There seemed to be more players comfortable with this tackling tactic,” McKay said.

There are way too many ticky-tack penalties that slow down the game and cause second guessing after exciting plays. The more of those that can be eliminated, the better.

And any rules change that helps prevent injuries, especially to quarterbacks, deserves the presumption of being worthy. It’s good for all concerned for the best players to be on the field. Some years back, John Madden proposed changing the rules so that quarterbacks would be treated like punters, with zero contact allowed once the ball left his hands. I have always thought that was a good idea.


Cinderella is Overrated

So says Bomani Jones.

In the old days, the gap between Cinderella and big-conference stepsisters was much larger. But since widespread early entry into the NBA draft makes a junior in the Big East seem as seasoned as Julio Franco — and those who stick around three years frequently weren’t spectacular to begin with — mid-majors aren’t the underdogs they once were. The stepsisters have spent the last decade watching their star players depart early, staying long enough to lend their talents but not long enough to contribute the guile and leadership that separates very good teams from great ones.

Take this as evidence of the effect of early entry on tournament fields: Only six top seeds in the history of the women’s tournament have not made the Sweet 16. This season, 14 of the 16 teams seeded 1-4 made the Sweet 16. The lowest seed remaining? Albuquerque region No. 8 seed Boston College, a school from a conference too large to get anybody warm and/or fuzzy.

Since the WNBA isn’t cutting checks large enough to make it worth the stress for anyone to leave school early, the best players in the women’s major conferences stay in school. Let the WNBA get a gigantic television deal — I mean, I guess that might happen some day in my grandchildren’s lifetime — and the kids might skip out in search of riches. Instead, Candace Parker will be dunking on overmatched young women until 2009.

The men’s game just doesn’t work like that.

Cinderellas end each season with a definite idea of who’s coming back for the next season. They are better able to build teams on experience. George Mason has six players who average 20 minutes per game, and three are seniors. So what’s so surprising about the Patriots beating a North Carolina team that started two former walk-ons, two freshmen and another player who averaged 4.5 minutes last season? If the Patriots and Tar Heels played two games out of three, there would be no great reason to bet against George Mason. That day — and maybe on another — the Patriots were the better team (and the same can be said about Bradley and Kansas).

These schools are no longer hopelessly overmatched. They don’t walk into the gym and stare at guys like Craig Smith with amazement, as if John Henry were in the layup line. They come to play ball, able to beat big-time schools without having to depend on a stepsister’s bad day to run concurrently with their best days or having a David Robinson-like star.

Come to think of it, Cinderella isn’t that charming. She’s not even a belle at a ball. She’s the semi-cute girl hanging around a minute or two before last call. When most of the dimes have gone home, the nickels start looking awfully shiny.

There’s nothing inspiring about that, but that’s how you wind up with a Wichita State-George Mason regional semifinal. At this point, schools like Wichita State and George Mason are only underdogs because most people have never heard of them. There’s nothing moving about that. Give the Missouri Valley Conference and Colonial Athletic Association better television deals, and you can bet they’ll get little to no love.

That’s about right. I’m a very, very casual fan of college hoops and tend to fill out my brackets based on some combination of my logic telling me that seeding means something and my intuition developed over twenty-odd years of awareness of the game. This year, that system totally failed me although, so did just about everyone else’s.


George Mason Makes Final Four

The biggest Cinderella story since at Villanova’s stunning 1985 championship run is on, with #11 seed George Mason continuing its improbable march through the NCAA tournament with an overtime victory over top seeded UConn. Ironically, its semi-final opponent could be Villanova, whose game with Florida just tipped off.

H. Darr Beiser of USA Today provides a quick game summary:

The George Mason Patriots danced their way into the Final Four on Sunday with a stunning 86-84 overtime victory over top-seeded Connecticut at the Verizon Center in Washington. With the win, George Mason became the highest seeded team to reach the national semifinals since 11th-seeded LSU reached the Final Four in 1986. But as has been the case with the Huskies all tournament, they simply wouldn’t go away when the game seemed all but over.

George Mason held a 74-70 lead late when the Huskies’ Marcus Williams hit a jumper with seven seconds left to cut the deficit to two. Rudy Gay then committed a quick foul on the Patriots’ Tony Skinn with six ticks left on the clock. After Skinn missed the front end of the one-and-one, Williams swiftly drove to halfcourt and passed to Denham Brown on the wing. Brown drove baseline and made an acrobatic reverse layup that bounced on the rim three times before finally falling through the net after the buzzer sounded to send the game into the extra frame.

In overtime, the Patriots calmly nabbed a quick lead after Will Thomas hit a jumper with 4:13 left. The teams traded baskets for the next two minutes until Thomas hit another jumper with 2:11 remaining that put the Patriots up 82-78, a lead they would not relinquish a second time.

Jai Lewis led the way with 21 points and Lamar Butler and Will Thomas added 19 apiece. But the win didn’t come without a complete team effort. All five Patriots starters finished the game in double figures as Skinn pitched in 10 and Folarin Campbell added 15.

MSNBC piles on,

Now this is madness.

George Mason stunned No. 1 Connecticut 86-84 in overtime at the Washington D.C. Regional final on Sunday, as the No. 11 seed became one of the most surprising stories in NCAA Tournament history.

Connecticut was regarded as one of the tournament favorites due in part to their coach, Jim Calhoun, who has won two NCAA titles, and their roster of NBA-caliber players, led by probable draft picks Rudy Gay, Marcus Williams, Hilton Armstrong and Josh Boone.


IRL Driver Paul Dana Dies After Crash

IRL Driver Paul Dana Dies After Crash (MIKE HARRIS, AP Motorsports Writer)

Photo Driver Paul Dana of St. Louis, Mo. is seen at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla. Saturday March 25, 2006. Dana died after a two-car crash Sunday, March 26, 2006, during the warmup for the season-opening IRL IndyCar Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. (AP Photo/Luis Alvarez) Driver Paul Dana died after a two-car crash Sunday during the warmup for the season-opening IRL IndyCar Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The other driver, Ed Carpenter, was awake and alert at a Miami hospital, IRL officials said.

Dana, 30, a former motorsports journalist with a degree from Northwestern, was a rookie who competed in three IRL races for Ethanol Hemelgarn Racing last year with a best finish of 10th in the race at Homestead.

The Toyota Indy 300 race was expected to be run as scheduled. Bobby Rahal, co-owner of Rahal Letterman Racing for which Dana was to race this season, said the team’s other two cars — driven by Danica Patrick and Buddy Rice — will be pulled out of the race.

“Obviously, this is a very black day for us,” Rahal said. “This is a great tragedy.”


LeBreton: Vanderjagt More Important Signing than T.O.

Veteran sportswriter Gil LeBreton argues, convincingly, that “[Mike] Vanderjagt could end up making more of an impact on the Cowboys’ final 2006 record than Terrell Owens will.”

No one should have to remind Cowboys fans of this, but three times last season a field goal — either by Jose Cortez or Billy Cundiff –would have averted a heartbreaking fourth-quarter defeat. That would have turned a 9-7 also-ran into a 12-4 division winner. And how different would this Cowboys off-season have seemed then?

If you groaned aloud, therefore, at Owner Jones’ Thursday acquisition of Vanderjagt, you’re just not doing the arithmetic. Vanderjagt could end up making more of an impact on the Cowboys’ final 2006 record than Terrell Owens will.


A team with championship ambitions can’t afford not to have a dependable place-kicker. The NFL record books show that the Cowboys just signed the most dependable kicker of all time. I’m guessing that Parcells’ cardiologist also approves of the signing.

Forget the Pittsburgh kick. Three years and $5.4 million isn’t much for a guy who could end up being a playoff team’s MVP.

Indeed not.

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Cinderella’s Dirty Secret

Jacob Leibenluft argues that the purity myth surrounding the Cinderella stories in the NCAA tourney each year are just that: Myths.

Much of the little guys’ appeal comes from the fact that the players don’t turn pro after their sophomore year and the coaches don’t get paid big bucks. But that has less to do with morals than opportunity. Mid-major players don’t emerge fully formed from a magical peach-basket-laden gym in rural Indiana, ready to hoop it up and hit the books with equal enthusiasm. They come from the same shady prep schools and junior colleges as the major-conference studs—they’re just not quite good enough to get recruited by the top-tier teams. (Sometimes they even come from the major-conference schools. Wichita State has players who once suited up for Illinois and Marquette.) And there’s no more mercenary figure in sports than the mid-major coach. Every year, a small-time coach or three—Kent State’s Stan Heath, Nevada’s Trent Johnson, Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Bruce Pearl, the Tulsa coach du jour—happily parlays a tournament run into an opportunity with a big fish.

What separates the mid-majors from college basketball royalty isn’t scholar-athlete purity. It’s two more tangible things: history and money. Mostly money. What happens when a mid-major gets flush with dough? It morphs into Gonzaga, a school that quickly and eagerly adopted the same skewed priorities as its big-time brethren. Constant hype on ESPN? Check. A recruiting scandal in the recent past? Check. A coach that gets paid more than twice as much as the university president? Check.

Quite right.


Keyshawn signs with the Panthers

Len Pasquarelli reports that:

Wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, released by the Dallas Cowboys last week, has reached agreement with the Carolina Panthers on a four-year contract.

Complete financial details were not immediately available, but it is believed that Johnson will receive a $5 million signing bonus.

Johnson, 33, visited with the New York Giants earlier this week and it is believed he turned down a contract proposal that would have paid him $3 million per year. He then visited on Thursday with the Panthers, one of the teams he cited as a possible landing spot when he was released.

In 10 seasons, Johnson has 744 catches for 9,756 yards and 60 touchdowns.


Bledsoe Excited about Throwing to T.O.

ESPN’s Michael Smith reports that Drew Bledsoe is effusively excited about the prospect of throwing to Terrell Owens in the upcoming season.

For some reason I didn’t think to check my watch. But I’d say it was about 4-ish, 7 Eastern. This was last Monday, the second day of the third annual Athletes First Classic benefiting the Orangewood PALS charity. We were on the No. 7 tee at Monarch Beach Golf Links when Drew Bledsoe’s BlackBerry began buzzing. Bledsoe had an incoming call from an unfamiliar number, originating from area code 678. He turned to his longtime agent, Athletes First’s David Dunn, and asked where 678 was. Dunn told him Atlanta. “Who’s calling me from Atlanta?” Bledsoe asked.

Smith then details some reasons why Owens may confound all expectations and actually behave himself throughout the three years of his contract with the Cowboys: The contract pays him handsomely, removing the respect factor. Parcells and Jones know how to let their star players be themselves and yet get the job done on the field. And Bledsoe is a much better “pure passer” than other QBs Owens has played with, so he’ll get the ball. All that remains to be seen.

So there’s a good chance we won’t see as much of Owens’s histrionics in Dallas. Not that it would bother Bledsoe much anyway.

“I’m just going to establish right from the start: Hey, I don’t need all the noise and all that stuff. You come to me and give me honest information and I’m going to get you the ball,” Bledsoe said. “Give me something to use for the next play. I’ll make sure he knows that I’m always focused on the next play and not the last play. The noise isn’t going to help us on the next play.

“I’m going to give him his respect and listen to what he has to say. But he’s going to know going in that all the noise is not going to get him the ball more. What’s going to get him the ball more is honest information. That’s all I need.”


The Cowboys didn’t consult Bledsoe before signing Owens, but “I would have signed off on it in a heartbeat,” he said.

“Listen man. I’m going into Year 14. I want to win. This is a guy that’s going to help us win right now.”

Bledsoe was being sincere, not politically correct. If you’re curious about his immediate reaction to the news that the Cowboys had added Owens, ask his buddy Damon Huard, who was with him when Bledsoe got the word and who called his brother, Brock, and told him how psyched Bledsoe was.

Bledsoe is willing to give T.O. the benefit of the doubt because he isn’t taking the word of ESPN or Sports Illustrated or sports talk radio. He isn’t judging Owens on what he saw or heard from him or read about him. Instead, he’s taking the word of buddies who have played with Owens, who’ve seen his legendary work ethic, the way he approaches practice, how he and the guys play cards in the locker room. Of course, the numbers speak for themselves.

That they do. Bledsoe had a pretty good year for the Cowboys last year, although there were three or four horrible passes in the mix, a couple of which cost the team wins. But he has a much improved offensive line this year, which should buy him more time. And he now has the best wide receiver in football to throw to.

For how long is anyone’s guess.


NFL’s Meaningless Contracts Good for the Game?

AP sportwriter Tim Dahlberg thinks the lack of guaranteed contracts in the NFL has been a major factor in making it the premier American sports league.

This isn’t baseball, where George Steinbrenner ate Kevin Brown’s $16 million salary the last couple years, and has to pay Randy Johnson even more until he collects Social Security.

Almost left out in the tributes to the departing Paul Tagliabue last week was the fact that he has – with help from the players’ association – kept in place a system that rewards performance and comes close to forcing players to actually play for pay. Signing bonuses may be huge, but with no guaranteed contracts there’s rarely any complacency among players. The system, tied together with a salary cap, works, unlike baseball’s dysfunctional labor division.

Tagliabue said at the Super Bowl this year that the philosophy on guaranteed contracts goes back to the founders of the league, who believed that a significant portion of pay should be for performance. “Guaranteed contracts, within the context of a salary cap, takes it away from a player who is playing and gives it to a player who is not playing,” Tagliabue said.

Players have generally gone along with that, often at a high price to those unfortunate enough to suffer career-ending injuries or whose performances, like Allen’s, were just declining. Many others, though, have made it up on the other end with signing bonuses that Tagliabue estimates make up half the league’s $3.4 billion in annual player costs. And it’s hard to argue when the amount of money each team can spend on players has gone up $35 million in the last five years.

Quite right. I would like to see some sort of insurance system put in place to take care of players who suffer career ending injuries. But, as a general matter, the system works.

As Dahlberg notes, it allows the Cowboys to take a gamble on Terrell Owens–and thus allows Owens another chance, too. While it would be expensive to cut him after one year if he fails to behave, it will be manageable. Under a baseball-style system, it would simply have been idiotic to risk $25 million on such a volatile player.


Goose: Larry Allen Should Retire

Rick Gosselin thinks Larry Allen should retire a Cowboy rather than trying to hang on another couple years as a shadow of his former self.

. . . Allen [has] regressed from his Pro Bowl form into just another guard. Sure, Allen went to his 10th Pro Bowl last month. But that honor was a reflection of what Allen once was as a blocker. NFL players have historically voted their peers to Hawaii based on reputation – and Allen was playing on a reputation he crafted in the 1990s as an NFL all-decade selection.

At 34, Allen can probably milk another year or two out of his career like Emmitt Smith did. But what’s the purpose? Allen ought to talk to Smith before he signs anything. Smith privately regrets spending the final two years of his Hall of Fame-caliber career with the lowly Arizona Cardinals.


If he walks away now, the clock starts ticking on his Hall of Fame eligibility. After the Triplets, Allen is probably the most deserving player of a bust in Canton from the Dallas dynasty of the 1990s.

Troy Aikman retired a Cowboy. Michael Irvin retired a Cowboy. Allen should walk away from the game now as a Cowboy – with his reputation intact of having been one of the finest offensive linemen to play the game.

As a fan, that would be my preference as well. My second choice would be to have him stay on another year or two with the Cowboys at a much lower salary with incentives.

But playing football is how Allen makes a living. It’s hard to begrudge him taking a few million dollars from an owner who thinks the NFL is fantasy ball where signing big names is the way to win.


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