WORLD CUP FEVER
Because I cover tackle, American football for this website, you might think that I feel that the rest of the world’s football is for girly sissy men. Not so. I only think World Cup football is for girly sissy men, because I’ve seen more diving and shin-clutching writhing around on the turf in 3 days of watching the World Cup then I saw in 6 months of watching the English Premier League this past year. While I’m sure the knockout rounds will bring more drama and excitement than group play has, I have to say that what I’ve seen so far hasn’t been too scintillating, but here’s my impressions so far.
So far, the most entertaining game has been the very first game of the tournament. Germany and Costa Rica went at it in a firewagon type of game, won by the host Germans, 4-2. In this game I was introduced to the gangly-legged magic of Costa Rican striker Paulo Wanchope, who had both goals for Costa Rica, and finally answered the burning question of what Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez would look like in soccer shorts. He would look like that guy.
My New Favorite Footballer
Togo had 2002 semifinalists South Korea on the ropes in their opening game. They got out to 1-0 lead and took it into the locker room at halftime. But in the second half, Togo’s manager got his ass golden booted out of the game, and the Koreans tied the game on a free kick, and then went ahead to stay in the 72nd minute.
Chad Johnson Has Nothing On These Guys
Then there’s the tiny island nation of Trinidad & Tobago, which managed to come out of its opening game against Sweden with a point after a 0-0 draw. Reinforcing why soccer will never ever make it in this country, because we just aren’t interested in something America is worse at than Trinidad & Tobago is.
As for Sweden, well, at least they’ve got THIS going for them:
God, you’d never know she used to be a man.
Finally, Australia was down 1-0 very late in its opener against Japan, and had been listless the whole game. Then they erupted for 3 goals in the final 10 minutes of the contest to win their first World Cup game ever. Oi!
No debate here. The US team set the cause of its sport back 10 years with a 3-0 opening game drubbing at the hands of the Czech Republic. Now the US has to defeat Italy to have any hope of advancing to the second round. Prepare to have a big bowl of spaghetti dumped on your heads America.
That About Sums It Up..
And while we’re at it, England should probably do a lot better than winning 1-0 against Paraguay. That would be like the NFL Pro Bowl team winning 7-0 against the Paraguayan soccer team in American football. Not good.
I Like Sweden Better…
So that’s my impressions of the World Cup so far. That and KAKA scored a goal today for Brasil, ably assisted by Poo Poo.
-Well, if you haven’t been living in a cave, with your eyes closed, and your fingers in your ears for the last day or so, you’ve heard by now that Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger has been in a serious motorcycle accident. Rotowire.com had the following synopsis of the situation:
“Reports from the scene seem to indicate that the accident was serious. According to an eyewitness, Roethlisberger went over his handle bars and hit his head on the windshield of a car. He was not wearing a helmet. The eyewitness reports that Roethlisberger tried to get up, but was bleeding from the head.”
Roethlisberger underwent seven hours of surgery after the accident and is said to be in “serious but stable” condition. He has a broken nose, a broken jaw, and has lost most of his teeth. He has also blown his chance to be on the Israeli Motocross team in next year’s X Games. Steeler fans, learn to love Charlie Batch! It’s Charlie’s Chocolate Factory now! Moo hoo hoo…ha ha..Moo hoo..ha ha.
-On the topic of quarterbacks with gruesome injuries, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer continues to rehab his knee. Coach Marvin Lewis said this week that he does expect Palmer to be ready for the Sept. 10 opener. Who would have thought, the Bengals’ injured quarterback healthy, and the Steelers’ healthy quarterback injured. I’m freakin out here.
-The long-discussed trade of Steve McNair to the Baltimore Ravens has finally been completed. Being that I have talked about this trade in pretty much every column I’ve written for the last 3 months, I’ll leave it at that.
-The Texans hired former Broncos assistant GM Rick Smith to be their real GM. Smith is 36 years old, making him the youngest GM in the NFL. He’s still older than me though, which is nice. For me.
And that’s about it as far as news goes. Now it’s time for the segment you all love so much, the part where I preview one of the NFL’s 6 tradition-steeped divisions. Today, we visit the division that was won by a nail-biting margin of 7 games in 2005, the NFC West.
Rushing Offense 4.7 Yards Per Attempt, 4th in NFL, STRENGTH
Shaun Alexander was, by far, the best player in the NFL last season. He scored TWENTY…SEVEN…TOUCHDOWNS, which was seven more than the next closest running back, KC’s Larry Johnson. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry on 370 attempts. In short, he had a season that not only helped the Seahawks reach their first Super Bowl in team history, but also may have written his ticket to Canton and the Pro Football Hall of Fame when his playing days are over.
Shaun was an unrestricted free agent this past off-season, and the Seahawks wisely chose to give him everything he wanted. In doing so, they virtually ensure that they will make another strong run at the Super Bowl in 2006.
Passing Offense 7.67 Yards Per Attempt, 5th in NFL, STRENGTH; 27 Sacks Allowed, 6th in NFL, STRENGTH
I’m usually the first to push the panic button on young quarterbacks, say they irrevocably suck and should never see the starting lineup again. I say it all the time about David Carr, I say it all the time about Kyle Boller, and you’ll probably hear me say it a lot about Rex Grossman this season, provided he can stay healthy. Hawks’ QB Matt Hasselbeck is the rare case where growing pains actually led to the development of a premier NFL quarterback.
In 2005, Hasselbeck’s 98.2 passer rating was a full 10 rating points better than his previous career best. He cut down on his interceptions drastically, throwing only nine after posting 15 picks in both 2003 and 2004. As unlikely as it sounds, Hasselbeck is probably the best quarterback in the NFC right now.
Part of the reason for that is a solid, if unheralded receiving corps, led by Bobby Engram and Darrell Jackson. However, that group of wideouts will no longer have Joe Jurevicius, who parlayed a 10 TD season last year into a big free agent contract with Cleveland. The Hawks will attempt to replace Jurevicius with former Minnesota wideout Nate Burleson, who flopped as a #1 last season, but could thrive in the more familiar role of slot receiver. Seattle also has one of the better receiving tight ends in the game in Jerramy Stevens.
Hasselbeck also is the beneficiary of some very good protection. Although the Hawks made a big time blunder in letting restricted free agent guard Steve Hutchinson bolt for the Vikings this offseason. Even after this gaffe, the Seahawks still have an excellent O line, and probably the best left tackle in the game today in Walter Jones.
Rushing Defense 3.6 Yards Per Attempt, 4th in NFL, STRENGTH
There were few teams better at stopping the run than the Seahawks last season. Of course, you also need to take into account that they played the Cardinals twice, and they would have run the ball better if they brought Stump Mitchell out of retirement, the Niners twice, who were pretty much a horror show offensively last year, and the Rams twice, whose running attack scared nobody last season. So take that 5th overall ranking with a grain of salt. They did get a nice season out of DT Rocky Bernard, who was among the top 10 at his position in tackles last season, and a five star rookie campaign out of second round middle linebacker Lufa Tatupu. Michael Boulware and Jordan Babineaux can make some stops in the box from the safety position as well.
Passing Defense 6.23 Yards Per Attempt, 16th in NFL; 50 Sacks ,1st in NFL, STRENGTH
Yup, that’s right, the Seahawks led the league in sacks last season. I know, that didn’t look right to me either, but there it is. They didn’t even get to play against David Carr and they still finished on top. Part of the reason you don’t probably weren’t aware of this was that no one guy on the Hawks D set the world on fire, but a lot of guys had very good seasons. DE Bryce Fisher came over from the Rams and picked up where he left off after a strong 2004, getting 9 sacks. Bernard provided pressure up the middle with 8 Ã‚Â½ sacks, and 3rd round rookie LeRoy Hill and Tatupu combined for 11 Ã‚Â½ sacks from the linebacker position. Things could get even more dangerous for Seattle opponents this year, as the Hawks have added another strong pass rushing linebacker in former Niner Julian Peterson, and drafted another potential difference maker in the second round, defensive end Darryl Tapp.
Being that the pass rush was so effective, it’s troubling for the Seahawks that the pass defense as a whole wasn’t. The responsibility for that falls on the secondary. Marcus Trufant is a premier corner, but it’s not decided who will play opposite him. Andre Dyson won’t be, he’s flown the Hawks nest and will be a Jet this season. That leaves either veteran Kelly Herndon, or first round draft pick Kelly Jennings as a starter. If this Seahawk team has a glaring weakness, the secondary is it.
Kicking Game 72.0% FG Accuracy, 29th in NFL, WEAKNESS
Josh Brown hit 5 attempts from outside of 50 yards last season, and that’s a lot. He also missed quite a few more makeable attempts, going 4 of 7 from between 40 and 49 yards. He’s got a huge leg, but accuracy was an issue for him only a year after hitting 92% of his attempts.
HERE’S YOUR FORECAST
I said it most of last season, and I was right. The Seahawks were the best team in the NFC in 2005. I don’t think anything has changed. This offseason they did everything they needed to do to make another run at the Super Bowl. Well, except for letting Steve Hutchinson slip away, and almost making their head coach quit in the process I guess. But the important thing is, Shaun Alexander is still a Seahawk, and that alone is enough to give the Hawks another NFC West title this season.
Alexander the Great
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Rushing Offense 4.0 Yards Per Attempt, 15th in NFL
Last year Stephen Jackson got his big chance to replace Marshall Faulk and burst onto the season as one of the league’s premier young running backs. Results were mixed. Jackson rushed for 1046 yards on the season, but with the exception of a 179 yard performance in a win over Jacksonville, wasn’t very impressive. He’ll be the starter again in 2006, but the Rams expect more than they got out of him in 05.
Passing Offense 7.27 Yards Per Attempt, 8th in NFL, STRENGTH; 46 Sacks Allowed, 26th in NFL, WEAKNESS
While far from being the pinball machine turn of the century greatest show on turf era Rams we know and love, the Rams offense was still pretty potent last year. When he’s healthy, Mark Bulger can hang with any quarterback in the NFC. Unfortunately, that was only for 8 games last year. When he wasn’t healthy, the Rams were trotting out Jamie Martin and Ryan Fitzpatrick last season. That won’t happen this year. They signed a competent backup in Gus Frerotte.
Bulger and/or Frerotte have one of the best groups of wide receivers in the league to work with. Torry Holt is at the height of his powers. He caught 102 passes for 1331 yards and 9 TDs last season, despite missing 2 games. It was Holt’s 6th consecutive 1300 yard season. By the way, just to put that in perspective, the almighty Terrell Owens hasn’t had one of those since 2002. I’m just saying here. The guy actually peaked 5 years ago but nobody realizes that, so big ups to him for hiding that fact. Anyway, back to the Rams. Kevin Curtis has supplanted Isaac Bruce as the #2 wideout, thanks to posting 801 yards and 6 touchdowns last year. Bruce should still be a solid #3 option, and even if he isn’t Shaun McDonald certainly is.
The offensive line struggled in pass protection last year, but it’s a veteran unit, and their poor sacks allowed totals are probably more a reflection of the ability of the guys they were blocking for (Martin and Fitzpatrick), then of their own ability. Orlando Pace still anchors the line at left tackle, and the Rams hope that last year’s first round pick, Alex Barron, can continue to improve at the right tackle.
Rushing Defense 4.7 Yards Per Attempt, 32nd in NFL, WEAKNESS
Thirty Second is dead friggin last in case you’re wondering. Yes, the Rams were terrible against the run last year, and on a per carry basis, nobody was worse.
To try and remedy this, the Rams went on a big time shopping spree in the offseason. In up the middle is former Cowboy tackle LaRoi Glover. Glover is more of a pass rushing tackle, so it remains to be seen whether he will be part of the solution to improving the run defense. Will Witherspoon also arrives as a free agent. The former Carolina Panther is an excellent coverage linebacker, but against the run is pretty ordinary. New safety Corey Chavous isn’t that special against either. So yeah, the Rams made a lot of defensive changes, but I’m not sure those changes help them in the area they need help the most.
Passing Defense- 6.75 Yards Per Attempt, 26th in NFL, WEAKNESS; 41 Sacks, 10th in NFL, STRENGTH
OK, so the pass defense needed a lot of help too, and in this department the offseason additions make more sense. Witherspoon will help a lot in pass coverage, taking the great receiving tight ends and running backs of the NFC West out of their game. Guys like, uh, Jerramy Stevens, and uh, you know, that guy. Hmmm. Glover would be a great addition to the pass rush, if this was 2000, when he had 17 sacks. But it’s not, and he isn’t.
The Rams do have a pair of good pass rushing ends in Leonard Little (9 Ã‚Â½ sacks in 05), and Anthony Hargrove (6 Ã‚Â½). The secondary should get a boost from first round pick Tye Hill, a speedy corner who probably will begin the season starting opposite Jermaetrius Butler.
Kicking Game- 87.1% FG Accuracy, 8th in NFL, STRENGTH
Jeff Wilkins rebounded nicely from a shaky 2004. He was 4 out of 5 from 50+ for the second year in a row (he’s an awesome 20 out of 29 career from that distance), and was 9 out of 11 from 40-49.
HERE’S YOUR FORECAST
Last August, on Patrick’s IP Sports Radio, I, your NFL Expert, in all my infinite wisdom, picked the Rams to go to the Super Bowl. I am happy to tell you, I pick them again this year. Or not. The 2006 Rams will be just about what you expect the Rams to be, an exciting offensive team with a subpar defense. That adds up to somewhere between 7 wins and 9 wins, and does not add up to a postseason spot.
Will Torry Have Any Big Games To Play In This Year?
Rushing Offense 3.2 Yards Per Attempt, 32nd in NFL, WEAKNESS
The Cards’ running game was miserable last year. With the addition of former Colts star Edgerrin James, it won’t be miserable this year. However, the big question is, was the poor running game solely to blame for this team missing the playoffs in 2005? If the answer to that is yes, then the Cards have found their missing piece, and will be one of the better teams in the NFC this season. Kind of an NFC version of the Bengals, if you will. If there are other issues with this team that Edgerrin James won’t fix, then we’re looking at another mediocre season in the desert.
Passing Offense 7.05 Yards Per Attempt, 12th in NFL; 45 Sacks Allowed, 24th in NFL, WEAKNESS
Arizona had one of the most exciting aerial attacks in the league last year, and they weren’t afraid to use it, and use it, and use it some more. Their offense was so heavily stilted towards the pass because it had to be. They didn’t have a viable running game, so in most contests they didn’t pretend to, and just passed it 40-45 times a game. The addition of Edge should change that, and it should make the Cardinals’ passing game even more dangerous. Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald are the best pair of wide receivers any team in the league has. It’s odd to say the Arizona Cardinals have the best anything, but there you go. Boldin and Fitzgerald both had over 1400 yards receiving last year, and combined for 17 touchdowns, despite a constant flux at the starting quarterback position between Kurt Warner and Josh McCown.
There shouldn’t be that kind of instability behind center this year. The job is Warner’s for this year. After 2006, all bets are off. The Cards drafted Matt Leinart in the first round this year, and now the clock is ticking towards when he will be inserted in the lineup. When Warner was in a similar situation 2 years ago in NY with Eli Manning, the change was made at midseason. This year, expect Warner to be the starter all year, barring injury, which isn’t a sure thing behind Arizona’s suspect O line.
Rushing Defense 4.0 Yards Per Attempt, 16th in NFL
The Cardinals fared pretty well against the run last season, with the whole of the defense performing better than the sum of its parts. Darnell Dockett, Karlos Dansby, and James Darling will be joined this season by former Giants tackle Kendrick Clancy, who fits the solid but unspectacular mold of the Cards defense.
Passing Defense 6.35 Yards Per Attempt, 19th in NFL; 37 Sacks 15th in NFL
As is the case with the run defense, the Cardinals passing defense is pretty ordinary, and devoid of real difference makers. In past seasons, defensive end Bertrand Berry was one of the best pass rushers in the game. Last season he missed 8 games with an injury, and his sack total dropped from 14 Ã‚Â½ in 2004 to 6 in 05. The Cards need him healthy for all 16 games this season.
The secondary is anchored by two experienced safeties, Adrian Wilson and Robert Griffith. Wilson is the better player of the two, and he had a remarkable 8 sacks from the safety position last year. Experience is not an asset at the corner positions. Antrel Rolle was the 8th overall pick in the 05 draft, but missed all but 5 games with an injury last year. He showed promise while healthy though, so the Cards look forward to seeing what he can do this year. David Macklin mans the other corner. He was sixth in the NFC amongst corners with 17 passes defensed last year.
Kicking Game 95.6% FG Accuracy, 1st in NFL, STRENGTH
If you’re a fantasy football player, and if you’re reading a football column in June I am willing to bet you are, then I don’t need to tell you how good Neil Rackers was last year, his 3rd in the league. He was 40 out of 42 on field goal attempts, a total that included an absolutely silly 19 out of 21 from 40 yards plus. He’s the best in the league right now.
HERE’S YOUR FORECAST
The Cards are the second best team in this division, which puts them in the running for a playoff spot. Are they better than the other teams in the running for a wildcard spot, teams like the Giants, Cowboys, Redskins, Vikings, Bears, Falcons, Bucs, and Panthers? Probably not. The NFC doesn’t have any great teams, but it has a lot of good teams. The Cards first have to prove they are one of them, then perhaps in 2007, they can start realistically thinking playoffs.
Picking The Cards For the Playoffs May Be Too Bold(in) A Statement
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Rushing Offense 3.9 Yards Per Attempt, 17th in NFL
In reading this Niners preview, you’re going to get the impression that I think Mike Nolan is a very good coach. I think he is, and I think he will have the Niners back in the playoffs in this decade. The fact that the Niners were able to rank in the middle of the NFL in yards per carry despite not having a good running back, and having an absolutely atrocious passing game, is part of the reason why I have faith in Nolan. Rookie running back Frank Gore split carries with veteran Kevan Barlow last year, but Gore was definitely the more effective of the two. Gore averaged a very strong 4.8 yards per carry, while Barlow managed only 3.3. Gore should be featured more this season. The Niners also signed veteran Cowboys guard and future Hall of Famer Larry Allen this offseason. Allen is 35, but he can still play, and his addition will only help the running game.
Passing Offense 5.63 Yards Per Attempt, 31st in NFL, WEAKNESS; 48 Sacks Allowed, 28th in NFL, WEAKNESS
You know what else I like about the way Nolan runs things, is that I get signals from the Niners actions that they realize that last year’s draft was a weak draft, and just because they used the first overall pick in that draft to select Alex Smith doesn’t necessarily mean they have to throw the next 5 years of the franchise’s life down the toilet if it turns out the guy can’t play. They realize there is a very real possibility that he could be a bust, and that’s it not fair to the other 44 guys on the roster to have Smith have no competition at his position just because he was a first overall pick, while they all have competition at theirs.
In keeping with this, the Niners traded Ken Dorsey to the Browns for Trent Dilfer this offseason. Smith will begin the season as the Niners quarterback in all likelihood, but if he doesn’t produce some wins early in the season, you are going to see Dilfer. Smith won’t be coddled the same way the Texans have coddled David Carr and the Bears have coddled Rex Grossman. He’ll have to play his way onto the field just like anybody else, and that can only be good for him and the team.
At wide receiver, last year’s #1, Brandon Lloyd, is gone to DC. Replacing him will be former Browns and Cowboys wideout Antonio Bryant. 2005 was by far Bryant’s best pro season, as he had 69 catches for 1009 yards (catching passes from Dilfer and rookie Charlie Frye, a similar situation to the one he’ll be in in SF). He’s only 25 years old, so he just now may be coming into his own, and could develop into one of the top guys in the league in the next few years. Then there’s tight end Vernon Davis, the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft. He’s supposed to be once in a generation kind of talent, and it will be fun to see what he can do in his rookie season.
Rushing Defense 3.8 Yards Per Attempt, 11th in NFL
This is the facet of the Niners defense that isn’t horrible. We’ll get to the part that is in a moment. SF actually played very well against the run last year. Derek Smith is one of the better run stopping linebackers in the game. He has been able to focus solely on that part of the game in the past, because the Niners had Andre Carter and Julian Peterson to rush the passer. Now there is no more Carter and Peterson for the Niners, so it will be interesting to see how that effects Smith’s play. On the line, end Marques Douglas is strong against the run, and first round pick Manny Lawson and veteran end Bryant Young also should have good seasons.
Passing Defense 7.69 Yards Per Attempt, 32nd in NFL, WEAKNESS; 28 Sacks, 29th in NFL, WEAKNESS
And here’s the part of the SF defense that’s really bad. The Niners wisely let Peterson and Carter walk, because well, for the money they wanted, the Niners can finish last in pass defense without them thank you very much. They drafted Lawson to be the pass rushing 3-4 linebacker Peterson was, so that role has been filled. They also added depth in the secondary by signing veteran corner Walt Harris, and San Diego first round washout Sammy Davis. They’ll compete with incumbents Shawntae Spencer and Mike Rumph for starting jobs. The Niners also hope that 34 year old end Bryant Young can repeat his surprising 8 sack performance of 2005, which would be helpful given that they lost a quarter of last year’s team sack total when Peterson and Carter left.
Kicking Game 89.7% FG Accuracy, 3rd in NFL, STRENGTH
Joe Nedney was 26 of 28 last year, which is even more impressive when you remember that he should have been 26 of 27, if they didn’t make him attempt a 75 yard field goal into an 85 mile an hour wind before halftime in Chicago. He was also a perfect 10 of 10 from 40-49 yards. An impressive season considering he was out of the league in 04.
HERE’S YOUR FORECAST
The Niners are a team headed in the right direction. The turnaround won’t be swift, but they are doing the right thing in trying to incorporate their numero uno draft pick quarterback in the greater scheme of the team, rather than making him the centerpiece of the team. SF will play pretty much every game tough this year, and should improve on the 4 wins they had in 2005.
An Inconvenient Truth: Gore and the Niners Have A Long Way to Go
THAT’S A WRAP
That’s gonna do it for this week. We have only ONE division left to preview, before I go exclusively World Cup. So come back around this time next week and I’ll go all AFC West on ya. In the meantime, check out these masters of the exquisite art of clownboxing:
Patrick reminisces about meeting Ronaldinho at the Big Balls Convention
Daniels hates on Red Bull New York
Price is in Hockey Heaven right now. I remember when we had an NHL team in Chicago. Now all we’ve got is the Wolves and the AHL.