WINNING & MUSING…VOLUME 1.22

Our first edition of W&M in 2022 is football heavy as usual, but that’ll change in the not-too-distant future. For now it is time to bid farewell to goal posts & penalty flags and say so long to QB sacks & onside kicks. Enjoy. 

Kudos to the Super Bowl Champion Los Angeles Rams. As a Steelers fan I wasn’t about to cheer for the Cincinnati Bengals, and I’m beginning to get a little uncomfortable with the sports media’s blatant attempts to position Cincy QB Joe Burrow as Tom Brady 2.0. The kid seems a bit too big for his britches (shout out to my late Grandma P.), so perhaps it’s best he was brought down a peg or two. Also, after wasting over a decade with the hapless Detroit Lions one can’t help but be happy for Rams’ QB Matthew Stafford (I bet Calvin Johnson wishes he would’ve gotten an opportunity to play football somewhere other than Detroit). The game itself was rather prosaic, although thankfully it wasn’t a blowout. I have no opinion about any of the commercials because I had company who is literally unable to STOP TALKING for longer than ten seconds at a time (it’s exhausting). I’m not going to crown the halftime show featuring nearly every old school rapper that hasn’t been shot yet as “the best EVER”, but it was sufficiently entertaining. That kind of music was never my jam back in the 90s, but if it was yours then you probably enjoyed the show way more than me. 

After an atrocious 1-7 record for each of us in the final week of the season, our Pigskin Picks of Profundity ended with yours truly scoring the season victory at 57-69, while Zach was 49-77 on the year. Although I wish we were more skilled prognosticators, as always it was so much fun doing these picks with my nephew, an annual tradition I’ve come to really appreciate.

In the wake of an ultra exciting weekend of playoff football a few weeks ago fans were calling the Chiefs-Bills clash that KC won in overtime one of the best football games they’d ever seen while lamenting the lame NFL OT rules that essentially allow a coin toss to decide the outcome. I don’t necessarily disagree with those sentiments, but I also have an alternative view. If I were in charge of the NFL overtime would follow the general idea of the current college football OT rules (more on that below), but let’s focus on defense. Y’all remember defense right?? We used to believe that “defense wins championships”, but that no longer seems to be true. Buffalo was up by three points in that game with thirteen seconds remaining. 13 seconds!! Yet they allowed Kansas City to get into field goal range with just a couple of long passes, which gave the home team an opportunity to execute the game tying field goal. While it is undeniably fun to watch great skill players & elite QBs throw haymaker after haymaker like what transpired between the Buffalo Bills & Kansas City Chiefs, let’s not get it twisted. The “Bills Mafia” can blame stupid overtime rules all they want, but the fact is that all their team had to do was stop the opposition from going 44 yards in 13 seconds and they failed. 

Congratulations to newly minted MLB Hall-of-Famer David Ortiz, who will be enshrined in Cooperstown this summer. Big Papi won three World Series with the Boston Red Sox, was a ten time All-Star, and had a .286 career batting average with 541 home runs in 20 seasons. Sadly, Ortiz’s moment was overshadowed a bit by hand-wringing over Barry Bonds & Roger Clemens not being selected in their final year on the ballot. I find it interesting that so many will passionately defend known defrauders of the game like Bonds & Clemens, yet they’re perfectly fine with Curt Schilling being excluded from the Hall of Fame. Schilling’s alleged mediocrity…6 time All-Star, 3 time World Series Champion, 3000+ strikeouts…is a weak excuse since we all know the real reason the powers-that-be don’t like him is because of his very candid political opinions. 

Y’all, I didn’t even keep track of college football’s bowl season while it was happening, but I did go back & check the numbers. Zach edged me by a couple of games in our Bowl-a-Palooza picks, going 18-19 while I was 16-21. Five bowl games were canceled altogether, while two games were played with altered matchups so those results were tossed aside. Between COVID, the transfer portal, star players opting out to prepare for the NFL Draft, & the coaching carousel, bowl season didn’t seem like very much fun this year. When the playoff is expanded something is going to need to be done to make the other games matter for fans and apparently players & coaches.

Okay, so let’s talk overtime. The current college football OT rules allow each offense to have the ball starting on their opponent’s 25 yard line, meaning they’re essentially in field goal range already. No matter what Offense A does Offense B gets the ball (also on the opponent’s 25 yard line). The wildcard is what does Offense A do with the ball?? At worst they’ll have an opportunity to kick a 41 yard field goal (unless they turn the ball over). That’s not a chip shot, but it’s more than makable in most circumstances. At best they’ll score a touchdown & put the pressure on the opposing team’s offense. Now here’s where it gets weird. If both teams trade matching scores and there is a second overtime, any TD must be followed up with a 2 point conversion instead of an extra point. Then, if we make it to a third OT, the teams just alternate 2 point plays (that start on the three yard line), which is basically a football variation of penalty kicks in soccer. I despise the two point conversion rule for overtime. In contrast, the NFL does have a kickoff (after a coin toss, with the winner of that always choosing to receive…obviously), and if Offense A scores a touchdown the game is over. If they score a FG or don’t score at all Offense B gets an opportunity. If Offense B matches what Offense A did then it becomes sudden death, and if the teams are still tied at the end of 10 minutes the game ends in a tie. My proposal would be a hybrid of the two differing systems, and would ideally be implemented on both levels…college & pro. Give Offense A the ball on the 50 yard line. I’m not usually a proponent of minimizing special teams, but in this case I believe it works best. The offense isn’t already in field goal range and has some work to do, while the defense has a legit opportunity to do their job. No matter what happens Offense B will get a chance to possess the football. Unlike the current college system I would have a time clock, but, as opposed to current NFL rules, I’d bump the extra period back up to 15 minutes (I don’t like ties but can live with the theoretical yet unlikely possibility that it could happen). No team would ever be forced to attempt a two point conversion unless they choose to do so. 

I would be remiss not to mention the retirement of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Thankfully it wasn’t a surprise, and it was time. I don’t know if all the blame belongs with offensive coordinator Matt Canada, or if Big Ben just didn’t have an arm anymore, but the offense had become painful to watch. I enjoy an occasional screen pass, and realize “bubble screens” specifically have become part of football, but I just don’t believe throwing the ball five yards or less downfield constantly is productive, especially when defenses are expecting it. To be clear, I am aware that the Steelers’ offensive line was abysmal this past season & needs a major overhaul. I’m not completely sold on the receiving corps either: Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, & JuJu Schuster aren’t nearly as great as they believe themselves to be. Aside from those issues though, an aging quarterback with zero mobility & a weakening arm simply doesn’t bode well, especially when the AFC boasts young guns who can move like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert, & Joe Burrow. Roethlisberger was never fast, but he always had tremendous escapability that allowed him to scramble & extend plays. That escapability had noticeably diminished, and when combined with a poor offensive line & questionable play calls the Steelers offense was doomed. So, as the Steelers & all the fans prepare to move forward, right now I want to give one last shoutout to Ben Roethlisberger. It has been a joy to watch you, from the moment I gathered with co-workers at a local sports bar on that spring day 18 years ago & watched my Steelers draft you with the eleventh pick, thru two Super Bowl victories, all the way to a bitterly decisive playoff defeat at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs last month. More importantly, it has been delightful to see you evolve from an impetuous young man into a mature & responsible husband, father, leader, & adult. People still like to bring up the past & criticize you for mistakes made 15 years ago, but I’d tell those people to clean their own house first. None of us are perfect, and you’ve gone thru your battles very publicly. From a football perspective I wish you’d have gotten atleast a couple more opportunities in the Super Bowl, but so many factors play into that. You got us two Lombardis & provided many other great memories. I don’t know if coaching or ownership or anything football related is in your future, but as a fan I sincerely hope to have you as part of the Steelers organization in some capacity down the road.

America’s Pastime??

Barry Bonds in action.

Barry Bonds

I had every intention of doing a full blown 2009 baseball preview. That obviously didn’t happen. Opening Day has come and gone and so it seems a rather pointless exercise.

I remember not that long ago when Opening Day was an event. Everyone, even the most fair weather baseball fans, knew when it was approaching. I suppose it’s still a big deal for a significant amount of baseball aficionados, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have the cachet that it once did. I didn’t even realize it was occurring until I heard it mentioned on the radio in my car about an hour before the first pitch was to be tossed. There didn’t seem to be much coverage of spring training this year, or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

There are probably a lot of reasons for the decline in popularity of baseball, atleast in relative terms when compared with our ever-increasing love affair with football. For me personally I’m a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, and they haven’t been anywhere close to competitive for about 17 years. We Pirates fans have no real reason for hope or anticipation and usually quit paying close attention before summer even officially begins. I’m sure this apathy spreads to fans of other teams like the Kansas City Royals, Washington Nationals, and Cleveland Indians, whose teams are rarely that good. This can be traced to the lack of a salary cap, something football has and baseball sorely needs. There are also the constant scandals that have rocked the sport for the last couple of decades. I don’t believe it’s out of bounds to hypothesize that the beginning of the end for baseball started with the downfall of Pete Rose about 20 years ago. Then in 1994 there was a players’ strike that cut the season in half and forced the cancellation of the playoffs and World Series. Baseball has never fully recovered from that season and the wrath it instilled in loyal fans. It came very very close to a much desired reconciliation with its public in 1998 due to the excitement involving Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s chase of Roger Maris’ vaunted home run record. But during the past 4 or 5 years even that progress has been unraveled as we’ve learned that all those home runs were likely a mirage, the numbers skewed by illegal substance abuse. One by one mighty heroes of the diamond have fallen from grace, from Barry Bonds to Jose Canseco to McGwire to Alex Rodriguez. Even pitchers, chief among them the legendary Roger Clemens, apparently aren’t above cheating.

We also cannot ignore the changing landscape of our nation. We prefer fast and frenetic these days, as opposed to slow and easy. Football appeals to our more modern, chaotic sensibilities, while baseball seems nostalgic and bucolic. Baseball is a relic, a living monument to a bygone era we recall with a certain sense of wistful wonder. It’s a nice place to visit occasionally, but it’s not something we can really sink our teeth into for the long haul. And with its 162 game season plus playoffs and then a World Series baseball definitely encompasses a long haul. Transversely, football season seems much shorter, even though it really isn’t. Close examination reveals that baseball opens in April and concludes in October…..7 months. Football, if one takes into consideration both college and the NFL season which basically overlap, begins in late August and climaxes in early February…..7 months. Of course there is a significant difference when one factors in that each team in football plays once per week, while in baseball your favorite team likely plays 4 or 5 times. Youngsters today consider baseball slow and boring. They have so many other choices…..video games, the internet, DVDs, Ipods. Our culture is on sensory overload, and baseball easily gets lost in the shuffle.

Football has better PR as well. Does anyone think football players don’t use performance enhancing drugs? If you do, you’re more than naïve. But no one seems to make nearly as big a deal out of it. Also, when was the last time you watched or attended a college baseball game? College baseball has an extremely limited following, while college football is HUGE. We are able to follow our beloved football players every step of the way from their recruitment to the university of their choice, through their entire college career, to speculating who’ll choose them in the NFL Draft (does anyone actually watch the MLB Draft? Ummm…no), through their (hopefully) long NFL career. We’re invested in football every step of the way. Baseball…..not so much.

This examination is not meant as an insult to baseball. I’m still a fan. I just find it unfortunate that circumstances have converged in such a way that prevents me, and legions of others, from being a passionate fan. Calling baseball America’s Pastime is nothing more than a marketing tool. It is more a reflection of America’s past.