Hawks on Ice

Quick apology to all of our SL readers for the break in sports content.  As a sports writer and college student, I felt I deserved a little break to just spend time with the family back home, and enjoy a diet that isn’t solely comprised of ramen.

Two seasons ago, the city of Chicago was graced with another Championship title, the most recent since the ’05 white sox run and the first on ice since 1961.  With the NHL experiencing a divinci-esque renesaince, Chi-city has reached full on infatuation mode with their Blackhawks, packing and rocking the United Center at every opportunity. The sports editor of Secret Laboratory (yours truly) was lucky enough to receive some Hawks tickets for a day after Christmas throw-down against the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets.  And even though I currently reside in the stat of hockey, one experiencing their own boon of success, never have I been in a more engaging and overall entertaining arena for a hockey game.

For Blackhawks fans, these things will be old hat, but still take pride in the fact that a writer from Minnesota is giving you props.  One of th first noteworthy items about the arena itself is the layout.  We had 3rd level seats, which provided us an excellent vantage point (to really take in the complexity of hockey, I highly suggest you sit up high enough to see everything happening away from the puck).  The concession stands were quick, and the design of the restrooms allowed for efficient ingress and egress.

As far as a fan experience goes, a Blackhawks game is second to none.  First to note are their numerous introductions.  The first promo video highlights greats of Blackhawks past (Stan Mikita himself was signing autographs at the game, more on that layer). After that you get a spectacular laser light show on the Ice, coupled with more hype on this years team, and an awesome video of them skating through the streets of Chicago towards the Madhouse on Madison.  After all of that, the starters for the Hawks are announced to an uproarious crowd.

Did I mention the place is a madhouse?  Perhaps the greatest and most electrifying tradition at a Blackhawks game is the singing of the national anthem.  Any singer who has ever graced the ice at either old Chicago Stadium or the UC, big pipes are a necessity.  Fans show their respect for our nation by cheering as loud as possible throughout the entirety of the song, but it’s easier to show you:

You’ll hit the national anthem at about 1:45, but feel free to enjoy the wonderful voice of Jim Cornelison as he belts out “O Canada” first.

The fans and players also took another moment to honor some of our nations heroes, as the referees literally put the game on hold as fans cheered for three honored members of the US military we’re shown on the video board.  Player even took the break in action to salute the men with a tip and or point of their sticks, a very touching and respectable moment overall.

But let us not forget that hockey is a rowdy sport, and having a good time is usually one of the goals behind purchasing a ticket.  One such way to enjoy the game is to sit back and listen to what the fans have to say.  I overheard these three gems among numerous others during the game, and I quote:
“Hey ref, are you pregnant, ’cause you’ve missed two periods”
“Pepper the net boys, Swiss Cheese Mason (referring to starting Jackets goalie  Steve Mason) is open for business”
“Hey Duncan, quit limp stickin’ it!” (referring to Duncan Keith, who legitimately looked about as excited as a 78 year old man without his little blue pill every time the puck came his way).

This isn’t to say that Hawks fans are only their to rail on the players.  In fact, the fan base overall seemed to have a very high hockey IQ.  Fans focused n the game away from the puck, and voiced their excitement about a developing play in unison the way a bunch of bees with a common hive mind can coordinate everything they do.

This Ice Girl is just two reasons to attend a game at the UC

And don’t forget the on ice entertainment.  I guess I should mention that the Hawks cruised the Jackets 4-1, and it wasn’t ever really close (despite the shot

totals, which the Jackets outdid the Hawks 39-19).  The intermission entertainment was highlight by a stiff in a shirt and tie with a jersey hastily thrown over it winning 500 cool ones, and a youth hockey shoot out they displayed an array of youngsters imitating the goal celebrations of their favorite pros after beating their goalie like a rented mule.  Oh, and the Ice Girls.  The ice crew comprised of very able bodied skating (for lack of a better word) foxes.  Lucky me,  I was able to get a group picture signed by a few of the very talented ladies.  Combine all of this with the roaming Tommy Hawk (a fan favorite) and its easy to see that the organization really caters to attendees of all interests and ages.

Hockey fans are a special bunch, and the arenas that they frequent are like shrines to the only remaining professional sport with a true sense of code and honor.  So treat yourself to a ticket to a hockey game, and more power to you if you can make it down to the United Center, I guarantee it will be an experience you won’t regret (even if you just go for the Ice Girls, no one will blame you).

Playing in the Met-No-Dome

The Minnesota Vikings currently sit in the cellar of the NFC North, and look to be on their way to securing a top five draft pick in the upcoming NFL draft.  But for this one weekend, the gloomy dim of the Metrodome will be illuminated by the light eminating for Tim Tebow and his Colorado crew, as the Vikes play host to the Denver Broncos.  Obviously, the headline story coming into the game is Mr. Tebow himself, and the unprecedented success he and his team have been having since taking of the reigns six weeks ago.

The Vikings have very little to look forward in the game, especially with the news of Adrian Peterson (aka the only relevant Viking anymore) sitting this game out.  However, lucky for us as fans, we have plenty to look forward to in this game, and like TNT, we’d like to think that we truly do know drama.  Here are some possible stories to follow during the game
1. Eric Decker’s Return to the Homeland.  Gaining on Joe Mauer, Eric Decker is quickly becoming the primary example of great Minnesota born athletes finding high levels of success on the professional level.  Decker, who had a fantastic career at the University of Minnesota, has earned his stripes this season, breaking out after a mediocre and injury plagued season last year.  Under the Tebow revival, Decker has caught an astounding eight touchdown passes thus far this season, and has had six times as many receptions as he did last year.  Along with his contribution in the passing game, Decker also has occasionally thrown his hat into the return game, the highlight being an electrifying punt return in the first game of the season.  The Vikings defense is not exactly the premier stopper in the land, and you can expect plenty of cheers every time Decker touches the ball on the field where he spent three of his four seasons as a Golden Gopher.
 (Quick tangent: You may also be aware of the other fellow Gopher on the Denver Broncos practice roster, former QB Adam Weber.  For any of you from Minnesota that may have hated on Adam Weber, get the hell off.  Weber is one of the only few Big 10 quarterbacks to throw for over 10,000 yards in his collegiate career and did that while playing under arguably one of the worst college football coaches in the history of football itself, Tim “Randomly on the sidelines as a reporter” Brewster.  Also, don’t forget that word early on during training camp was that Weber actually looked better than Messiah Tim himself, and you could argue that he does a pretty good job preparing that stout Denver D on the scout team.  To sum it up, I love Adam Weber, keep it up buddy!)
2.  Florida vs. Florida St.  Another college story line, the starting quarterbacks in this game have bad blood tying into the fact that one bled Orange and Blue and the other Crimson and Gold.  Tebow is also reunited with former teammate Percy Harvin, who if you’ve been keeping up with the Vikings (and haven’t given up on life), is actually starting to build up quite the connection with rookie Christian Ponder.  Ponder has gone on the record saying that he isn’t a Tebow fan, not because he doesn’t like the guy, but simply because of the fact that he went to Florida.  In their two meetings during college, Tebow’s Gators owned Ponder and the seminoles, winning in 2008 45-15, and the following year in ’09 37-10.  Look for that trend to most likely continue, but nevertheless, it might make things a bit interesting.
3. TIM TEBOW.  This will be a chance for Minnesota to actually see Tim Tebow in action, and even though we’re huge supporters of Tebow, you don’t know how much longer he’ll be a marquee performer in the NFL.  A quick soapbox moment.  To all of the Tebow haters out there, you are literally perpetuating the support of terrible role models.  Tim Tebow is absolutely one of the best things to happen to the NFL in years, and it’s a terrible mistake that they haven’t used his image more.  If you have children, has there ever been a better athlete to point to and say to the youngsters, “that’s who you should try to be like.”  Tebow worked hard for everything he’s ever gotten in his career.  He was a home schooled child growing up, largely influencing his deeply rooted Christian beliefs, and still was able to come into a high school environment and immeadiatly demand respect.  After his highly successful prep career, Tebow went to the largely publicized University of Florida, and took center stage for two National Championship teams, winning the Heisman award along the way.
          During his entire career, Tebow never once comprimised who he was, never allowed his moral compass to be detoured, and continued to prove that he could win football games.  Since making the NFL, nothing has changed.  Tebow still works harder than anyone else, and nobody deserves success more than he.  For anyone out there talking about how the Denver offense is an abomination in the pro game, and how they win ugly, let me pose you this question; If a team plays the Superbowl, has negative yardage gained on offense, looks terrible, runs an option, and has a quarterback consistantly dropping to one knee, but they end up with more points than the other, they win the Superbowl right?  So what’s so wrong with the way Tebow’s winning, last time I checked, getting to the playoffs was determined by the amount of wins, not style points.
So there you go, three other things to think about while you’re watching Tebow option the shoes off of Chad Greenway.  But in case you get bored with that, you can day dream about the constant flip flopping going on in St. Paul in regards to the new stadium deal for the Vikings.  It would be a big mistake to not facilitate to the Purple People Eaters.  The Twin Cities need to keep the Vikings around, and although I fully feel the Arden Hills space is the best for the club, finding a compromise near downtown would be best for all parties.  The Cities have made a huge effort in connecting the entire area up with the light rail and with a pretty competent bus system as well, and a premier football venue in the downtown area could further ignite development in the shadier parts of town (we’re still waiting for the warehouse district to live up to it’s potential after the construction of Target Field).
Hang in there Viking Fans, you have a lot to look forward to, just think how great it’s going to be next season when you have a quarterback controversy involving Ponder and Matt Barkley (Hooray for a controversy not involving sex boats and Brett Favre), and despite their current performance, the Vikings are actually only a few pieces away from becoming a great place to integrate a young QB.  SKOL.
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Change of Pace Revolution

In the early weeks of the 2011 season, the New Orleans Saints seemed to have pulled the right strings and found their way to picking up the free agent steal of the offseason, signing Darren Sproles after his time in San Diego.  A strikingly similar running back, the much more well known Reggie Bush, was on his was out of New Orleans, taking his big time personality and personal life to a city with the same traits, Miami.  These two backs were merely ships passing in the night, and it seemed that the Saints had made the right decision, with Sproles playing much bigger than his 5 foot 7 inch stature, and Bush maintaining his flash in the pan performance.

However, with the recent re-emergence of Bush’s career in Miami, and Sproles continued production for the Saints, it’s clear that the revolution of the change-of-pace back is upon us.  Bush and Sproles are just poster children for the movement, and a with a quick look at the list of this breed of running back, you’ll find very few teams in the league operate in the more traditional one back system.

First, let’s examine the common traits of these bottle of lightning that light up the gridiron.  Most changes of pace backs possess a level of speed and quickness impossible to maintain for a back that carries the ball at a workhorse pace (rarely do you find a change of pacer who carries the ball more than 10-15 times a game).  This injection of velocity allows an offense to effectively jab the defense, and if there is any open space on the field, chances are the change of pacer will find it and usually exploit it.  Speed isn’t the only trait, for where there is fire, there is always ice.  On the flip side of the coin, change of pace backs can be goal line vultures; big backs with the abilities to dominate the north-south running game and break through arm tackles.  Backs like this come in handy in short yardage situations, and are valuable when the primary rusher on the team is more agile in nature.

Backs in this category also compliment this speed with the ability to factor in the passing game.  The Saints in particular demonstrate this extremely well with Sproles, running bubble screens tailored to get him in space and into the passing game.  Solid handed backs also provide their quarterbacks a safety release, and while big time wide outs are drawing the defense down field, the underneath route opens up, and these backs make a living camping out under deep zone defenses.

Let’s take a look at Bush and Sproles, and their production thus far this season.  Darren Sproles has rushed the ball for 402 yards this season, nothing great, but the statistic to note is his yards per carry, at a beautiful 6.8 yards.  Combining this production with his receiving numbers, 62 catches for just over 475 yards and three touchdowns, every time Sproles touches the ball in the Saints offense, on average he’ll get you between 6.8 and 7.7 yards, and he puts his fellow stable mates in position to churn out short yardage downs and further allows Drew Brees to exploit defenses on early downs and short yardage to go.  And to add frosting onto an already delicious cake of running back, Sproles has provided the Saints with over 900 combined yards of kick off and punt returns this season.

Bush on a slightly lower level has provided similar production with a heavier emphasis on the running game.  Bush has rushed for 567 yards this season, averaging 4.3 yards per carry, and has caught the ball for only 237 yards, but still manages to average 6.8 yards per reception.  It’s easy to see that Sproles performance has been more productive, but it’s no stretch to say that Bush has been a pivotal factor in Miami’s recent improvements in play.

These are just two examples of teams that have greatly benefited from a change of pace back.  Save Fred Jackson in Buffalo, Marshawn Lynch in Seattle, Ray Rice in Baltimore, and Rashard Mendenhall in Pittsburgh, very few teams follow this predominantly one back system.

Here’s a team-by-team breakdown of their every down back and their change-of-pace back (COP) that compliments the primary workhorse:

Arizona: Beanie Wells, COP: because Edgerrin James and Emmitt Smith are now retired, reports are that the Cardinals are targeting Curtis Martin as their next running back

Atlanta: Michael Turner, COP: A guy with literally one of the sweetest names in the NFL, Jacquizz Rodgers

Baltimore: Ray Rice = One man wrecking machine

Toronto/Buffalo: Fred Jackson

Carolina: DeAngelo Williams (you could easily argue their every down back is actually Cam Newton), COP: Jonathan Stewart

Chicago: Matt Forte, COP: Well, Marion Barber is a stretch here, considering Forte is arguably the best all around back in the league

Cincinatti: Cedric “Suspension” Benson, COP: no one that really changes things up for the Bengals, they’re all basically carbon copies of Benson

Cleveland: Madden Curse

Dallas: DeMarco Murray, COP: Felix Jones

Denver: Tim Tebow, COP: A tie between Jesus and Willis McGehee

Detroit: Um….check the injured reserves list, and be shocked that Jahvid Best isn’t on there.

Green Bay: Ryan Grant, COP: James Starks, but you could easily flip these two around.

Houston: Arian Foster, COP: Ben Tate (Just a heads up, these guys are now officially the offense, not just running backs with the appearance of Jake Delhomme in town)

Indianapolis: Andrew Luck, COP: Andrew Luck

Jacksonville: Maurice Jones Drew, COP: After the team moves to L.A., this position will be held by the next Mr. Kardashian

Kansas City: Jamaal Charles right leg, COP: Dexter McCluster

Miami: Daniel Thomas, COP: Reggie Bush

Minnesota: Adrian Peterson, COP: Percy Harvin, we know he’s technically a wide out, but they run more screens for Harvin than anyone else, and Toby Gerhart looks more like a fullback than anything

New England: Another three headed beast between Danny Woodhead, Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis, and Kevin Faulk

New Orleans: Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles, are all change-of-pace guys for one another

New York: Used to be home to the ultimate three headed trio of backs, Ahmad Bradshaw, COP: Tiki Barber, the ultimate change-of-pace back, considering he’s probably at home eyeing up NBC interns through the TV.

New York: Shone Greene, COP: Ladainian Tomlinson and Mark Sanchez’s 15-year-old girlfriend

Oakland: Darren McFadden, COP: Michael Bush

Philadelphia: LaSean McCoy, COP: Michael Vick, because despite being hurt, he’s actually higher on the season rushing yardage list than Bradshaw and Sproles

Pittsburgh: Rashard Mendenhall, COP: none really since Willie Parker left for the UFL

St. Louis: Wait? I thought it was just Stephen Jackson, they have a whole team in St. Louis?

San Diego: Ryan Matthews, COP: Matt Tolbert

San Francisco: Frank Gore, COP: that other guy that looks a lot like Frank Gore

Seattle: Marshawn Lynch, COP: does it matter?  Lynch is actually living up to his high draft pick status, and Seattle has arguably some of the most entertaining uniforms in the league.

Tampa Bay: LeGarrett Blount, COP: None really that are worth anything

Tennessee: Chris Johnson, COP: His new contract, which turned out to be the thing that changed CJ’s game the most this season

Washington: It’s a Mike Shanahan run offense, so like when everyone got a trophy for playing soccer in 2nd grade, all of the running backs on this team are winners.

It’s also worthwhile to note that this strategy seems to have a correlation with team success as well.  The top five rushers in the league are Fred Jackson, LeShaun McCoy, Matt Forte, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Adrian Peterson.  Of those backs, only Forte’s Bears have a winning record.  Meanwhile, you won’t find a running back from undefeated Green Bay until number 22 (James Starks), number 35 (Darren Sproles) for the 7-4 Saints, and not one in the top 50 for the 8-3 Patriots.  This isn’t to say teams don’t win with one primary back.  Frank Gore is number 7 on the list for the 9-2 49er’s, Ray Rice is 17 for 8-3 Baltimore, and number 13 is the recently injured Darren McFadden and the 7-4 Raiders.

The NFL’s history is rich with change of pace packs, from the punishing Larry Csonka and his tandem counterpart Mecury Morris, to the more recent “smash and dash” combos of LenDale White and Chris Johnson, the super bowl champion Giants Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, and the numerous backfield platoons today, it’s easy to see that the change of pace back is in it’s renaissance.  Like the yin and the yang, the thunder and lightning, good things come in pairs (and sometimes threes), and NFL backfields don’t seem to be any exception.

NFL Predictions

The end of the NFL lock-out is old news, and after a flurry of free-agency and trade action, the league seems to be settling down and settling in for the upcoming season.  With a  shortened offseason, now more than ever, teams will rely on proven veterans and coaching staffs to bring the players up to speed, and get all of the gears in the machine working in sync.  So without further ado, here is the TPD’s official 2011-2012 NFL season final regular season standings, along with a couple of other noteworthy predictions.

NFC North
Green Bay (12-4)
Detroit (9-7)
Minnesota (9-7)
Chicago (8-8)

NFC East
Philadelphia (12-4)
Dallas (8-8)
New York (7-9)
Washington (2-14)

NFC South
Atlanta (12-4)
New Orleans (12-4)
Tampa Bay (9-7)
Carolina (4-12)

NFC West
St. Louis (9-7)
San Francisco (7-9)
Arizona (6-10)
Seattle (4-12)

AFC North
Pittsburgh (12-4)
Baltimore (12-4)
Cleveland (6-10)
Cincinnati (3-13)

AFC East
New England (12-4)
New York (12-4)
Buffalo (6-10)
Miami (6-10)

AFC South
Tennessee (10-6)
Houston (9-7)
Indianapolis (8-8)
Jacksonville (3-13)

AFC West
Oakland (10-6)
Kansas City (9-7)
San Diego (7-9)
Denver (5-11)                                      

Sleeper/Surprise Teams: No real sleepers in the NFC this season, but we have jumped on the Lions bandwagon.  The defensive line put together in Detroit is enough to put pressure on even the top tier offensive lines in the league, but injury issues with rookie Nick Fairley could weaken it just a tad.  The real key to Detroit’s success will be keeping Stafford healthy, which we understand isn’t a ground breaking statement, but nevertheless, is extremely true.

In the AFC, we really like the Titans and Raiders to be highly competitive squads this season.  The Titans biggest move of adding quarterback Matt Hasselback provides them with a proven veteran to keep defenses honest and allow Chris Johnson to return to elite fantasy back status, as long as his contract hold out comes to an end soon.  Tennessee will also hit their peak at the right time, as we predict Indy to finally fall back down to earth.  Peyton Manning is behind on his rehab, and a neck injury for a quarterback who depends on making quick reads will be detrimental to their offense, the Colts only saving grace.  Oakland was impressive last year, and barring an improvement on last year by either Kansas City or San Diego, the Raiders will be an interesting team in the otherwise weak AFC West.

Fantasy Sleepers by Position

QB: Believe it or not, we like Jason Campbell, but with one major stipulation; that Darren McFadden continues his climb towards elite running back status.  Campbell will have the luxury of handing off the McFadden, and another year of development with Darius Hayward-Bay.  Another QB we like is Hasselbeck, who will be throwing to Nate Washington and Kenny Britt.  Again, like Campbell, Hasselbeck will need a solid season from  his running back, Chris Johnson, in order to keep defenses honest.  We’re putting out a fair warning on both Peyton Manning and Phillip Rivers, both are QB’s we’re unsure of.

RB: Green Bay running backs Ryan Grant and James Starks could turn the passing juggernaut that was the Packers last season into an unstoppable force.  Green Bay knows it can throw the ball with Rodgers and the gang, and the return of Jermichael Finley at tight end will keep the opposing linebackers honest, so look for Grant and Starks to play a bigger role this season.        Who we don’t like so much?  We don’t see either former Dolphin backs doing much, as Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams both went to teams with established starters, and we don’t see too much for Darren Sproles in New Orleans either.  Sproles seems a bit too much like Reggie Bush for our liking, and we all know how that ended up.

WR: Percy Harvin and Michael Jenkins.  Minnesota went out and picked up veteran signal caller Donovan McNabb, who comes into the fortunate situation of having one of the top backs in the league lining up behind him.  This should allow McNabb to have a bit more free reign to make some plays, and both Jenkins and Harvin will be looked upon to do so.  Bernard Berrian is also apart of that receiving core in Minnesota, but he’s more of a one trick pony.  Also look for Steve Breaston to become a nice complimentary receiver to Dwayne Bowe in Kansas City.

TE: Todd Heap, who is not necessarily a sleeper, but could play a big role in the Cardinal offense.  New quarterback Kevin Kolb running the show, he’ll have one of the most dynamic downfield weapons in Larry Fitzgerald at his disposal, but little running game behind him.  Look for Kolb to use Heap as a safety release, and a good second option in the passing game behind Fitzgerald after the departure of Steve Breaston.

D/ST: The usual suspects again sit at the top of the board amongst defense and spec. teams units, as the Ravens, Steelers, Jets, and Eagles all look to be big time point producers.  The Lions are slowly creeping into this level, but they’re still largely unproven.  We like the idea of Tennessee and New England providing solid defensive seasons.

K: Honestly, we could care less, just be wary of taking Adam Vinateri.  Vinateri could find himself on an offense that has an injured quarterback unable to turn his head more than five degrees, a bunch of injury prone wide-outs and a running attack that relies on the oft injured Joseph Addai and Donald Brown.  With that combination, they’ll be lucky to make it into field goal range, or you could look at it with the perspective that he may be their top scorer.

And as an apology for such a long absence between posts, we’re going to allow this piece to be a bit more interactive, and ask our readers to post who they feel will be the top performing rookie this season, as far as fantasy football goes.  Please feel free to comment below with your selection.    

MLB Needs Some Cuban Flare

A once storied franchise now finds themselves in a situation a housewife might see while watching a mid day soap opera.  The Dodgers and their owner Frank McCourt are financially locked in a brutal divorce, and much like the Dairy Queen’s and Long John Silvers disappearing around the nation, the club finds themselves unable to pay it’s employees.  But there is a knight in shining armor waiting on the horizon of Chavez Ravine, and he rides his horse out of Dallas, Texas.

Mark Cuban has made his interests in purchasing a Major League Baseball franchise no secret, and the Dodgers are merely the most recent team to find itself in his crosshairs.  At one point, Cuban had contemplated the purchase of the Chicago Cubs franchise, and then later the Pittsburgh Pirates, his hometown team.  Each time, despite a proven amount of wealth and passion, Cuban has been stonewalled by the MLB, a mistake that is robbing baseball and it’s fans of an instant shot to the arm (we apologize for the steroid connection to that last metaphor).

The truth is, the old money that makes up the ownership in baseball seems to think that Cuban is just too much noise.  Much like the last old codger left on a block that is being converted into suburban neighborhood, Selig and his AARP gang sit on the porch of Major League Baseball and shake their sticks at anything loud, or that they can’t understand.  There goes YouTube, passing by the old MLB house with its shiny, newfangled video’s, allowing fans to watch the greatest highlights of the game and catch up on the nights web gems, and all old man Selig can do is run inside and ban it from the neighborhood.  There are plenty examples of baseball merely drawing the shades when change approaches, and Cuban is a like a loud group wine cooler drinking kids who ring the doorbell to ask if they can use the pool.

We understand the nostalgic feel baseball has been able to maintain.  It’s the oldest of the big four sports in the U.S., and judging by the number of Cialis and Viagra commercials during their broadcasts, one can assume their primary viewing audience is older men.  But as the older generation begins to flock down to Florida where it’s obvious nobody knows what professional baseball is, Major League Baseball has to consider changing their structure and marketing to target the younger generation of money makers, consumers who are more than willing to spend their money on sports.  And nobody can embrace this younger generation as an owner better than Mark Cuban.

Cuban owns his teams with panache unparalleled by the white haired corpses that fill the uppermost club suites of big league parks.  Imagine how excited Dodgers fans could be if they were to arrive at the ballpark, and to their excitement, see Cuban sipping on a beer and heckling the umpire.  He’s an everyman fan with the bank account of an owner.  He’s a relatable guy that is living the dream of every sports fan in America.  To bring up a time proven cliché, he’s a guy you’d like to have a drink with.

Imagine the jolt the MLB’s abysmal social media would receive if Cuban started tweeting about the Hollywood big shots he’s inviting to Dodger Stadium.  Imagine a owner in the big leagues who’s willing to play Xbox with the players after the game.  Imagine if Manny were still in L.A. when Cuban took over, and the conversations they could have while wearing Mannywood dreadlock hats and riding tricycles around spring training.  It may sound like a circus to some, but if there’s anything that we can learn from the Minor League teams around the country, standing out and being original puts bodies in the seats, and less open seats, the more money, an issue that should be at the top of the list of concerns for the Dodgers.

Change is good old man Selig, and although you might enjoy the safety of your den as you listen to your programs on your transistor radio, the new generation of consumers is a generation of instant gratification.  Your product already requires them to sit for three hours and watch, but its one of the only sports that allows them to access all of their media and information during the game.  The long run survival depends on baseball’s ability to accept this change, and allowing Cuban into the league is a good first step.

Out With the Old Guard, In With the New

The Dallas Mavericks victory over the Miami Heat was many things.  It was the end to a great career for Jason Kidd, a defining moment for Dirk Nowitzki, catapulting him into the upper echelons of the greatest forwards to play the game, a long awaited pay off for owner Mark Cuban, and another sorrow filled event for LeBron James.

The Mavericks not only toppled the highly despised Heat, but they stood as a last vestige of the old guard in the NBA, a group of highly successful players entering the twilights of their careers and phased out by a newer, younger group of established and emerging stars.  Players like Ray Allen, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, and Tim Duncan are being replaced by names like Stephen Curry, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, and numerous others.

With the departure of the old guard, the league also loses a state of mind that those players carry with them.  An all business, hypercompetitive drive that drove many of the era to greatness.  The shrewdness and bravado of Kevin Garnett, the killer like attitude of Kobe Bryant, the silent but deadly demeanor of Tim Duncan.  With every great player on the last leg of their career, also hangs the attitude that was the driving force behind the many memorable moments left behind during their run.  The NBA is now at a crossroads, one in which we’ll see the newer group of stars adopt these attitudes and carry on the legacy, or a complete transformation of the league in which players focus on being liked by one another and attempting to ensure they don’t come off as a bad teammate or being too cocky.

What many of these players have yet to realize, is that calling out teammates and being overly confident is what has driven the greatest in the game over the leagues history.  Greats like Russell, Bird, Magic, MJ, Kobe, etc., all didn’t hesitate for a second to straighten out a teammate or chirp about any issue in the post game press conference.  The greats are driven by success, and every single obstacle standing in their way, whether teammate, coach, friend, or family, was taken care of and disposed.  Victory was their ultimate goal, and nothing was going to stop them.

This new generation of NBA superstar is still young, but shows no true signs of steering towards the ways of legends past.  The leagues most talented player teamed up with a buddy, who should have been a rival, and another superstar for the chance to play together in a young city and chase titles.  The league’s MVP is far too humble, letting poor performances by teammates slide under the radar as he absorbs all the blame.  One of the leagues top performers has issues taking command late in the game, allowing a much more confidant but less talented guard shoulder the load in the closing minutes.  In case you couldn’t guess it, the players just touched on were James, Rose, and Durant, arguably the top three young players in the league at the moment.  Yet here they are, all three unwilling to take charge and become the big man on campus.  Why is this?

We have a few theories, and the most likely reason is probably a combination of them all.

First off, many of the young players in the league are the not only the best on their team, but are also on teams that are made up of mostly young players.  The Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder are perfect examples of this.  Derrick Rose is easily the best player on that roster, but whom does he have to teach him the ropes.  What seasoned guard is there to guide him through his career, and more importantly, call him out and teach him how to be a commanding leader both on the floor and in the locker room.  The answer?  Nobody.  The Bulls, despite being successful, lack a veteran presence on the team that can assume a leadership role and mentor the young players.

Swoop down to OKC and you’ll find the same situation.  The Thunder are lucky enough to have four extremely talented young players that look to be the core make up of their future.  Westbrook, Durant, Harden, and Ibaka.  All four are superbly talented, but again, who is there to teach them how it all works.  Sam Presti needs to go out and secure the Thunder a no nonsense veteran that will put Westbrook into his place and inspire Durant to become the leader of that team.  When that dynamic is settled out, the rest will fall into place, but the beauty of MJ and Pippen was that Pippen knew his place, and that’s a lesson Westbrook will need to learn in order for the Thunder to reach their full potential.

This theory holds true for nearly all of the top young stars in the league.  In Orlando, a lack of veteran presence has possibly been the hold up on Dwight Howard reaching his full potential.  Despite their fading talent, the old guard still has a role to play in the development of the new guard; the only issue is whether or not they are willing to listen.

The second theory on why the new group of NBA stars seems to lack the “killer” gene stems back before any of them stepped onto a college basketball court, much less a professional one.  Many of the leagues young stars played in one of the biggest booms of AAU basketball to date.  Any young star worth his salt in an NBA uniform surely played in the ranks of AAU ball, being placed on select teams with other great talents and traveling the country to play the same teams again and again in different tournaments.  The AAU dynamic is one that has not received much credit to the cause of the, “lets all be friends attitude.”

The fact of the matter is; many NBA players have actually shared the same basketball court for years by the time they reach the pros.  Players like Kevin Love and Michael Beasley played AAU ball together, and their only one of hundreds of examples of this.  Even if players weren’t on the same team, it’s almost a guarantee that at more than one point during their career they played another great player.  Add this on top of the fact that many players play for multiple teams, chasing the teams that provide the most exposure and talent.  All of this wrapped up creates an environment in which players are constantly in contact with other great players, developing friendships that are reignited at next tournament and carried upwards through their careers.

Team hopping and consistently facing the same competition also creates the need to acclimate to any team or set of teammates.  This dynamic was especially well chronicled in George Dohrmann’s book, “Play Their Hearts Out.”  Recent findings with the questionable recruiting done by perennial powerhouse Indiana AAU also demonstrate the darker side of competitive amateur basketball.

The combination of these two ideas, a past dominated by AAU basketball and the current lack of veteran leadership on many young NBA teams has led to the situation the league finds itself in now; an aging group of old veterans with an old school attitude, and a crop of young stars emerging in the league, carrying with them a new kind of competitiveness, one in which everyone can seemingly turn off the switch with the final buzzer and all be friends the same night.

From Horseshoe to Hambrecht?

With the recent news of Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor forgoing his senior season with the Buckeyes amidst much scandal, Pryor’s future is very much up in the air.  With continuing turmoil befalling the National Football League, Pryor and his agent have mentioned the possibility of Pryor playing in the Canadian Football League, or securing himself a private quarterbacks coach until the next NFL draft.  But Terrelle Pryor could be ignoring another option, the United Football League, and what a season of the UFL could allow Pryor to do to further his professional football career.

Pryor’s departure from OSU comes after a shockwave of scandals and compliance violations ripped through the Buckeye athletic department, also leading the early leave of head coach Jim Tressel.  Already facing a five game suspension to start the season, Pryor looked to be a continuing target for the NCAA, as they seem to have Ohio State in their cross hairs as the next example for stricter punishments, fresh off of retracting the 2004 USC title.

Despite it’s ending, Pryor’s career at OSU was nothing short of very successful.  Pryor arrived in Columbus as the top rated recruit in the high school class of 2007, and quickly made his way to the top of the quarterback depth chart.  The 6-foot-6 signal caller was a dual threat in the backfield, with an arm strong enough to keep Big Ten secondary’s at bay, and the legs to keep pass rushers modest and to not over pursue.  Perhaps even more important, Pryor was a proven winner, leading the Buckeyes to victories in both the Sugar and Rose Bowl.

Pryor may be headed for the UFL this fall.

With his future uncertain, the UFL certainly should be on Pryor’s mind.  His ability to scramble in the pocket, along with an ever improving passing game, could bring a dynamic that is about to seemingly explode on the UFL scene.  Along with other newcomers Pat White and Jeremiah Massoli, the three would join Daunte Culpepper as quarterbacks whose rushing ability must be respected.

The 2010 season for Pryor was easily his best yet.  Looking at his career numbers, its easy to see that Pryor has truly developed into a premier dual threat quarterback, with his passing numbers increasing each of his three seasons, and his rushing numbers evolving as well.  During the 2010 Buckeye campaign, Pryor threw for over 2,700 yards for 27 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions, all while rushing the ball for 754 yards and four touchdowns.  Despite both his rushing yards and touchdown totals slightly dropping, his increasing in passing numbers from 2009 to 2010 tell of story of growth and improvement.  From 2009 to 2010 alone, Pryor’s completion percentage rose over nine percent; he threw for nearly 700 yards more, and increased his touchdown total from 18 to 27.  For a quarterback whose passing ability was questioned as a freshman, Pryor has proven he has the ability to command the pocket.

With a track record of steady improvement, Pryor could certainly find a suitable home in the UFL, even if just for this coming fall.  The move might also be what Pryor needs coming off of a sour ending to his college career, as the UFL could provide a safe haven from legally stressed NFL.  Despite his transgressions, the numbers don’t lie; Terrelle Pryor certainly has the potential for a successful UFL career.