Sports Outside the Beltway

Michael Irvin Apologizes for Racial Jokes about Tony Romo

Former Dallas Cowboy wide receiver and now ESPN analyst Michael Irvin has apologized for joking that Tony Romo is so talented he must have some black blood in him.

ESPN broadcaster Michael Irvin apologized on Monday for comments last week which said that Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo’s athletic ability must be the result of an African-American heritage.

“I do want to apologize for those comments,” Irvin said on the Dan Patrick Show on ESPN Radio. It was on the Patrick show last week that Irvin made the comments on Romo’s athleticism.

“They were inappropriate and insensitive. My whole thing, what I always try to do, is give people a first-hand knowledge of what it’s like in the locker room and how we as players joke around with one another. This is how I joke around with Romo when we’re playing basketball … certainly, there’s a difference from me the player and me the broadcaster. We may joke around like that in the locker room, and I’m trying to bring them in the locker room. I certainly have to know where to draw the line and certainly I needed to draw the line last week and I did not, so I apologize for that.”

Tony Romo and most of the audience understood that Irvin’s comments were humorous. It’s sad that, forty years after the Civil Rights Act, we’re still so sensitive about race that we can’t have a sense of humor.


Cowboys Cut Mike Vanderjagt

Mike Vanderjagt, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, is unemployed.

For the first time in team history, Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones spent millions on a kicker. But that kicker did not make it through the season. On Monday, the Cowboys cut Mike Vanderjagt, who in March signed a three-year, $5.5 million deal that included a $2.5 million signing bonus, and signed Martin Gramatica.

The most accurate kicker in NFL history, Vanderjagt made 13 of 18 field goal attempts in the first 11 games after missing just seven kicks in the previous three seasons with Indianapolis.

He never completely earned Bill Parcells’ trust despite reassuring the coach he was fine. However after missing two kicks Nov. 19 vs. Indianapolis from 32 and 46 yards, Parcells admitted he was concerned about the kicking situation.

On Sunday, the Cowboys play at Giants Stadium, a tricky place to kick in the winter, with a chance to take a two-game lead on the New York Giants in the NFC East

Gramatica spent time earlier this season with Indianapolis when Adam Vinatieri was bothered by an ankle injury and was in training camp with New England.

For the first time since 2003, Vanderjagt kicked off regularly, and the Cowboys allowed just 18 yards per return. Vanderjagt had three touchbacks.

An unbelievable move and one that makes no sense. Yes, Vanderjagt’s misses were frustrating. But there’s a reason Gramatica was on the street. Especially ironic since Billy Cundiff was out there until a couple days ago.

Frankly, as aggravating as Vanderjagt was, there’s no reason to think he’s not going to get better. You have to ride it out with elite players. If nothing else, drop the project-of-the-week guy at the bottom of the roster that Big Bill loves to churn and add a second kicker.

Update: Matt Mosley seems to agree: ” The Cowboys have just replaced the most accurate kicker in league history with, perhaps, one of the most inaccurate kickers in football. Over the 2003-04 seasons, Martin Gramatica was 6-of-12 from 30-39 yards. But he did manage to go 4-of-13 in the 40-49 range. “


Tony Romo’s Fast Start

Todd Archer compares Tony Romo’s fast start with those of other recent phenoms, Kurt Warner and Tom Brady.

In his first five starts, Tony Romo has energized the Cowboys much as Kurt Warner and Tom Brady did their teams in St. Louis and New England. Those quarterbacks won Super Bowls in their first season as starters. Here’s how their first five starts compared with Romo’s:

Kurt Warner, St. Louis, 1999

Record: 5-0

Result: Won Super Bowl XXXIV

Stats: 1,428 yards, 15 TDs, 3 INTs

Tom Brady, New England, 2001

Record: 3-2

Result: Won Super Bowl XXXVI

Stats: 1,023 yards, 7 TDs, 4 INTs

Tony Romo, Dallas, 2006

Record: 4-1

Result: TBD

Stats: 1,394 yards, 10 TDs, 2 INTs

The numbers are quite comparable, indeed. The Cowboys trail only the San Diego Chargers in points scored, and that’s with Drew Bledsoe at the helm the first five and a half games. Romo’s Cowboys have a chance to be something special, like Warner’s Rams and Brady’s Pats. There’s still a lot of football to be played this year, though, before that happens.


Tony Sparano Secret to Cowboys’ Success?

Jean-Jacques Taylor has an interesting piece in today’s DMN about Tony Sparano, the Cowboys’ offensive play caller and assistant head coach.

Now, you know why Sean Payton wanted Tony Sparano to join him in the Big Easy. Now, you understand why Bill Parcells wouldn’t let Sparano be Payton’s offensive coordinator.

He wanted Sparano to be a difference-maker in Dallas.

Sparano, perhaps the most anonymous assistant on a staff Parcells shields from the public, calls the plays for a Cowboys offense that hasn’t been this prolific since Troy, Michael and Emmitt were scoring touchdowns and leading the Cowboys to championships.

The offense never reached its full potential under Drew Bledsoe because he took too many sacks, directed too many passes toward Terry Glenn and made too many poor decisions that lost games.

When Parcells finally benched Bledsoe five games ago and inserted Tony Romo into the lineup, no one thought the 26-year-old who didn’t throw his first pass until this season would ignite an offense.

He’s done it by executing Sparano’s game plans better than Bledsoe. Talk to enough players and they’ll tell you Sparano’s game plans are designed to make each of the Cowboys’ offensive weapons a play-maker during the course of the game.

That didn’t always happen with Bledsoe at the helm; Romo makes sure it does.

So T.O. no longer whines about his involvement. Even Glenn, who had a special karma with Bledsoe, is averaging more yards per game with Romo at quarterback.

The Cowboys rank third in the NFL in total offense – fourth in rushing and fifth in passing. No other team ranks among the top five in both categories. Dallas’ 28.1 scoring average ranks third.

“He’s done a good job,” Parcells said about Sparano in an understatement.

Assistant coaches seldom get the credit they deserve and that’s especially true with Parcells at the helm. Still, he’s selected and groomed some good ones over the years. Sean Payton is having a terrific year as the Saints’ new head coach this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sparano didn’t get a shot somewhere very soon.


Stupid Charger Fumble Ruled Illegal Forward Pass

Charger wideout Vincent Jackson made a really dumb mistake in yesterday’s game with the Oakland Raiders. He got away with it, though, because of a strange quirk in the rules.

A moment of celebration by San Diego receiver Vincent Jackson turned into 10 minutes of confusion in the fourth quarter of the Chargers game with the rival Oakland Raiders.

With the Chargers trailing 14-7 and facing fourth-and-2 from the Raiders 40, Jackson caught a 13-yard pass from Philip Rivers, rolled to the ground untouched, then stood up and spun the ball forward. Oakland’s Fabian Washington jumped on the ball, believing it was a fumble, and setting off 10 minutes of confusion as the referees sorted it out.

Referee Mike Carey originally signaled Oakland’s possession, but then the Chargers were flagged for illegal forward pass. Even with the 5-yard penalty for the illegal pass, the Chargers still had a first down, at the 32. Four plays later, LaDainian Tomlinson threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Gates to tie the game at 14.

While the call was questioned on the field, NFL Supervisor of Officials Mike Pereira confirmed to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen that the call was correct — and not without precedent. It is illegal to intentionally fumble a ball forward and, by rule, an illegal forward fumble is an incomplete pass. That makes it a dead ball. A 5-yard penalty is then assessed from the spot. Jackson spinning the ball forward when he was not down by contact constituted an intentional illegal forward fumble and thus an illegal forward pass. Had he spun it backward, it would have been a live fumble. A similar call was made when Plaxico Burress did the same thing with the Steelers on Oct. 1, 2000.

Truly bizarre. Still, it was the correct call under the rules.


Michigan State Hires Cincy’s Mark Dantonio

Mark Dantonio is leaving the University of Cincinnati to become the new coach at Michigan State, which fired John L. Smith while struggling to a 4-8 record this season. The Michigan State Board of Trustees, in a special meeting Monday morning, unanimously approved a recommendation to hire Dantonio. The five-year contract guarantees Dantonio about $1.1 million a year. It also has a $200,000 signing bonus and incentives that could boost his income. The school scheduled a noon news conference to introduce Dantonio.

“Leaving UC is a hard decision for our family,” Dantonio said in a statement posted on the University of Cincinnati athletics Web site. “The last three seasons have been incredible for us as our staff has been able to get Cincinnati football back on track. … Michigan State is a special place for me.”

Michigan State first interviewed Dantonio on Saturday night, followed up by a second interview with university president Lou Anna Simon on Sunday morning. “Everyone agreed, head and shoulders, this was the right person for the job,” athletic director Ron Mason said.

The 50-year-old Dantonio is a former Michigan State assistant who has been head coach at Cincinnati for the past three seasons. He has an 18-17 record, including a 7-5 mark this season with a win over previously unbeaten Rutgers. The Big East school is awaiting a bowl bid, its second under Dantonio.

This seems like an obvious choice: A proven winner with ties to the school who’s young enough to spend several years rebuilding the program.

Still, even the NFL doesn’t allow teams to poach coaches from other teams during the season. It’s quite bizarre that the NCAA allows it to happen at the college level, where coaches have made a commitment to their players on a much more personal basis. Dantonio’s kids at Cincy have played hard for him all year and will now play their bowl game knowing he’s abandoned them for a better gig.


USC Leaps Over Michigan in BCS Poll

Losing to Ohio State two weeks ago didn’t drop Michigan out of the #2 spot in the BCS rankings. Having the week off did.

Southern California is a win away from returning to the national title game. The Trojans moved into second place in the Bowl Championship Series standings Sunday, passing idle Michigan on the strength of a 44-24 victory over Notre Dame and closing in on a matchup with undefeated Ohio State in the title game.

USC plays crosstown-rival UCLA on Saturday and a victory would likely lock up the Trojans’ third consecutive appearance in the BCS title game. The Trojans have already locked up the Pac-10′s automatic BCS bid, but playing in the Rose Bowl would be a letdown for USC this season.

“I think we’re a pretty good team right now,” USC coach Pete Carroll said after beating Notre Dame. “We’ll play anybody, anywhere.”

First-place Ohio State has already sealed up its trip to Glendale, Ariz., for the Jan. 8 championship game. The final BCS standings and bowl pairings will be announced next Sunday.

Michigan had managed to hold onto second place after losing 42-39 at Ohio State two weeks ago, but the Wolverines’ lead over USC was razor thin.

USC’s convincing victory over the Fighting Irish helped the Trojans increase their cushion over Michigan in the coaches’ poll and Harris poll, and boosted USC’s computer rating ahead of the Wolverines’.

This is the right result, as it would have been absurd to have a rematch between undefeated Ohio State and a team that they’d already beaten decide the mythical national championship. Still, it’s a mighty strange process.


Alabama Fires Mike Shula

As expected, Mike Shula has been fired as head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide football team.

Mike Shula Photo Fired as Alabama Head Coach Alabama has fired coach Mike Shula, whose Tide struggled to a 6-6 regular season finish in his fourth year but enjoyed a 10-2 record the season before, a newspaper reported.

Shula told his assistant coaches late Sunday night that Alabama athletic director Mal Moore had dismissed him, The Tuscaloosa News reported on its Web site. Reached at home, Moore declined comment. The university said he would hold a news conference Monday in the football office at 2 p.m. CT.

A shame for Shula, who is a genuinely decent guy and who faced ridiculously high expectations for a program on NCAA probation. Still, you can’t lose four years in a row to Auburn and keep coaching at Bama.

As I noted when Larry Coker was fired at Miami, this is just the nature of big time college football. While the Tide hasn’t been as successful of late as the Hurricanes, it has many more championships over its history. Fans of such programs are not patient, nor do they fully understand that competing for a title every year is very difficult in the modern age of limited scholarships, closer NCAA scrutiny, and comparative parity.

The speculation about successors has already begun, with South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier an obvious choice. Defensive coordinator Joe Kines, named interim coach, is a long shot. This early in the process, Alabama will have a lot more options than it did last go-round, when Mike Price got dumped in the middle of the summer after an embarrassing scandal involving a rather unattractive stripper.

UPDATE: The Huntsville Times notes that Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban, Navy coach Paul Johnson, and Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe are among the other names being “bandied about” on various fan fora. There’s no way on earth Saban would be interested. Johnson is an intriguing choice, indeed, though. If you can win at Navy, you can win anywhere.

UPDATE: More on Johnson:

Johnson took over a program that had posted a 1-20 record the previous two years before his arrival in 2002. After a 2-10 mark in his first year, the Navy football program has achieved what many thought was no longer possible at an Academy, as Johnson has brought the Midshipmen back in to the national spotlight with a 26-11 (.703) record over the last three years. The Mids’ 26 wins over that time span equals the most in school history over a three-year period.

In 2005, despite returning the fewest starters in the country, Johnson led the Midshipmen to an 8-4 record, a school-record third-consecutive bowl game and a school-record second-straight bowl win. More importantly, Navy swept Academy rivals Air Force and Army to win the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy for a third-straight year, which is also a Navy first.


After Johnson took over as head coach at Georgia Southern in 1997, he returned the Eagle program to national prominence statistically and in the won-lost ledger. In addition to Georgia Southern’s 62-10 mark, the Eagles scored 2,855 points (39.7 points per game), picked up 25,941 rushing yards (360.3 yards per game), 7,816 passing yards (108.6 yards per game) and 33,757 total yards (468.8 yards per game). GSU scored 380 touchdowns in the Johnson Era, an average of 5.3 per game. The Eagles’ scoring margin under Johnson was +21.5 (39.7-18.5).

Johnson picked up a milestone victory in the 2000 I-AA National Championship Game against Montana. Not only did the 27-25 victory give Georgia Southern its second-straight national title, but it was Johnson’s 50th-career win in four seasons. Only three other coaches in the history of Division I football have won 50 or more games in four seasons, as Johnson joined Walter Camp (1888-1891, 54-2 at Yale), George Woodruff (1892-1895, 53-4 at Penn) and Bob Pruett (1996-99, 50-4 at Marshall) on the exclusive list.

Very impressive.

Update: ESPN’s Ivan Maisel is pessimistic that the Tide will hire someone really good.

After a week in which Alabama forced head coach Mike Shula to the edge of the plank, the university pushed him off Sunday night, firing the former Crimson Tide quarterback after four seasons. Athletic director Mal Moore made the formal announcement on Monday afternoon.

Shula took an impossible job, replacing a scandalized Mike Price in May 2003. He went 26-23 while trying to rebuild a roster depleted by NCAA penalties. Shula, hired by Alabama despite his lack of head coaching experience, didn’t learn quickly enough to suit his employer. He couldn’t overcome his poor record against the Tide’s archrivals. His last victory over Auburn came in 1985, when he played quarterback.


That coach will need to come in and resuscitate a program that has spent the last 10 years creating its own problems, chief among them NCAA probation, infighting and bad hiring decisions. The next coach will be the fifth since Gene Stallings retired 10 years ago.

Perhaps the powers that be at the Capstone finally realize what the rest of the college football community understood about three or four Tide head coaches ago. The Alabama name doesn’t carry the weight that it once did. Ask recruits, teenagers too young to remember when Alabama ruled the SEC West.

“Alabama is not a factor anymore,” said a former Crimson Tide assistant who still actively recruits the South.


Alabama hasn’t hired anyone remotely similar to the right guy since Stallings came in 1990. That’s Gene Stallings, who had a losing record at Texas A&M and a losing record with the St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals. He returned to Alabama, won the 1992 national championship and four of the first five SEC West championships and retired with a 70-16-1 record in seven seasons.

There’s no reason to think that Moore or a powerful trustee named Paul Bryant Jr. will hire the right guy this time. They’ve had more opportunities than most and they haven’t done so yet. It comes as little solace to Alabama fans these days, but the right guy is rarely the obvious one.

Still, this is a premium job. I would target an up-and-comer who has proven himself at the lower levels, like Ohio State did with Jim Tressel. The Tide did it with then-TCU coach Dennis Franchione, who had a good run with the team before jumping ship after an NCAA smackdown to take the Texas A&M gig.

UPDATE: Mike Shula’s statement:

I am deeply disappointed to be fired as the Head Football Coach at the University of Alabama. From my very first day on this job, I had a single mission: To return the Crimson Tide to its place among the elite programs in college football. Although I maintain that we were moving steadily in that direction, I regret sincerely that I will not be given the opportunity to finish the job I was hired to do.

I am forever grateful to my loyal coaching staff, who worked so tirelessly to help us overcome the difficulties we faced during these past four years. Despite inherited restrictions, including probation and scholarship limits, our teams played with integrity and commanded respect. Our 10-2 record in 2005 was no fluke; it was evidence of a program on the rise. Although the past season was not as fulfilling, it was nevertheless a season that witnessed the emergence of several young players who will help the Crimson Tide win big in the years to come.

I want to thank our players and their families for committing to our mission. I am sorry that our record this past year did not reflect your passion and commitment to winning. When we met Sunday night, I fully believed that I was going to remain the head coach at the University. I apologize that you did not learn about my firing from me. Do not let the circumstances of my firing allow you to lose your focus. Do not let this transition rob you of your potential for greatness. Together with the talented recruits who have committed to join the Tide next year, I am fully confident that the pieces are in place for you to accomplish great things.

Finally, I want to acknowledge and thank those of you who made our four-year stay at Alabama a rewarding experience. Your kindness toward me, Shari and our family will be remembered fondly.

In closing, I leave Alabama proud that the football program is a better place than the one I inherited four years ago. Although time will ultimately gauge the depth of our progress, I am confident that the return on our efforts will be realized by the University and its football community.

As a former player and a graduate of this great University, I wish the program great success in the years ahead. Roll Tide.

Classy, as always.


Related posts below the fold.


Miami Fires Larry Coker

As expected, the University of Miami has fired head football coach Larry Coker after a mediocre season.

Miami fired football coach Larry Coker on Friday, a day after the Hurricanes beat No. 18 Boston College 17-14 to salvage a 6-6 season to become eligible to play in a postseason bowl game. Coker was informed of the decision by athletics director Paul Dee early Friday. Coker has three years remaining on a contract that pays him nearly $2 million annually, and the school will owe him between $2.4 million and $3 million in a buyout. “The university has made a decision to change head coaches for our football program,” Dee said at a news conference.

If Miami is invited to a bowl game, Coker will coach the team. “I’d like to certainly end on a positive note,” Coker said.

Coker, 58, won more games in his first six seasons than any other Hurricanes coach except Dennis Erickson, and he has won more games since 2001 than all but five Division I-A coaches. Coker had a 59-15 record, a winning percentage of nearly 80 percent, and won a national championship in 2001 and played for another title the following season.

“There were a lot of issues, but certainly the direction the program was going was certainly one,” Dee said. “I wouldn’t say that was totally it, but if you want to look in that direction, that was one. There were disappointments. There were opportunities, I think, to play better and we didn’t. It all comes to the head coach.”

There are plenty of potential candidates to replace Coker, including former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez, who is close with Miami president Donna Shalala; Rutgers coach and former Miami assistant Greg Schiano; and Tulsa coach Steve Kragthorpe.

Miami is a dream job. It’s the winningest program of the last quarter century and sits on the most fertile recruiting ground in the land. Still, it’s probably the most demanding job in college ball as well, with a national title the only acceptable outcome to a rabid fanbase spoiled by the program’s recent success.

Ironically, the University of Alabama’s Mike Shula finds himself in the hotseat for an identical 6-6 record. While the Tide hasn’t been as successful of late as Miami, it has many more championships over its history. Fans of such programs are not patient, nor do they fully understand that competing for a title every year is very difficult in the modern age of limited scholarships, closer NCAA scrutiny, and comparative parity.


Shutdown Cornerbacks

Jeffri Chadhita notes that the era of the “shutdown corner” is long gone.

What happened to this marquee position? Back in the 1990′s, Deion Sanders made the shutdown cornerback one of the most marketable and highest paying jobs in the game. The man became a recording artist, a host of Saturday Night Live and a frequent reason why opposing offensive coordinators hated facing a defense that employed him. He wasn’t alone, either. The league was filled with other talented cornerbacks who were less concerned with self-promotion. You had James Hasty, Rod Woodson, Eric Allen and Darrell Green — and they all could lock up the most gifted of wideouts. There was no second-guessing those names.

To be honest, I don’t think today’s cornerbacks are any less talented than those players. What’s different, however, is the entire environment that current defensive backs have to endure. The expectations on that position have reached such outrageous levels that man-to-man coverage in the NFL is quickly becoming a lost art. The rules, for one, don’t help. When the league decided to penalize defenders for touching receivers more than five yards downfield, they basically “legislated the shutdown cornerback right out of the league,” as one AFC personnel director put it.

Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown says the rules are so biased against defenders these days that “there isn’t a cornerback in this league who can hold a receiver down for an entire game anymore.” The rules are bad enough, and with today’s bigger, faster receivers, it’s hard to argue against Brown. And for those defensive backs with enough skill to handle those challenges, there’s also the very real possibility that opposing coaches can neutralize them with schemes.

It’s a fair point. As a Cowboys fan, I got spoiled by Deion Sanders. We’ve had Terence Newman, widely regarded as among the best corners in the game, several years now but he is much more prone to giving up big plays than Sanders ever was (to say nothing of being a much less awesome kick returner). Some of that is a matter of talent and style. Much of it, though, is about changed rules. And we usually forget that as fans, judging players only by results.


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