Delray Beach Open

Late February Tennis Tidbits

In pro tennis, February is mostly about breaking down January’s Australian Open and gearing up for two big American hardcourt events in Indian Wells and Miami. Even so, there are a few stories out there. Here is a brief spin around the tennis world.

Federer Keeps Defying Father Time:

Australian Open champion Roger Federer returns to the tour next week in Dubai. Not only did he win his 18th Grand Slam immediately after a five month layoff, but the 35 year old announced that he has signed a deal play his hometown event in Basel, Switzerland through October 2019.

Roger Federer

Photo: bbc.co.uk

Even though the game has slanted towards older players in recent years, winning a Grand Slam at 35 is still quite remarkable. One of few things that tops it is Federer making his intentions known to play at least two more full years. He had been very coy about retirement until now.

Playing until you are staring down your 40th birthday is virtually unheard of. Despite that, Federer is competitive and healthy. As long as that remains the case, he will honor his commitment to do just that. The longer players like Federer stick around, the better off the sport is.

Kerber is Searching for Answers:

2016 was a banner year for Angelique Kerber. She finished the year with the number one ranking, won two Grand Slams and grabbed an Olympic silver medal. Given that she started 2016 barely ranked inside the top ten, her rise is one of the most surprising in recent memory.

However, it is not 2016 anymore. Kerber failed to reach the quarterfinals in her Australian Open title defense and has lost the top ranking to Serena Williams.

Angelique Kerber

Photo beinsports.com

Her general lack of power and service variety have always made her vulnerable to big hitters that are on their game. In 2017, Kerber’s insane defensive skills have not been enough for her to get by on.

She has posted a record of just 6-4 this year, but has reached the quarterfinals this week in Dubai and is still alive there after avenging her Olympic loss to gold medalist Monica Puig. She must build on this event and do well in Indian Wells and Miami. Given her struggles on the clay courts that dominate the circuit from April-early June, if she cannot right the ship while still on the hardcourts, her time at the top may be over as quick as it started.

Del Potro is Back… Again:

 For the second straight year, 2009 U.S. Open winner Juan Martin Del Potro is making a return from a long injury layoff at the Delray Beach Open in Florida. Ever since 2010, the big hitting Argentine has been plagued by injuries to both wrists, resulting in three surgeries.

Since his first full time comeback last year, Del Potro has been forced to hit most of his backhands with slice. Fortunately for him, his serve and forehand are plenty good enough to make up for it. His wrist issues also do not allow him to train as hard or play as often as other players.

Juan Martin Del Potro

Photo: si.com

Del Potro returned to prominence last summer. He defeated Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in route to an Olympic silver medal. He also led the Argentinean national team to a Davis Cup title. After this glorious flurry to close out the year, he was quick to announce he would not start 2017 on time due to general fitness concerns.

Known as “Delpo” to fans everywhere, his return got off to a solid start with a win over South Africa’s Kevin Anderson. He is still alive in his comeback event.

Even after all these years, there are a precious few guys who scare Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray. With 17 career wins over the “Big 4”, Del Potro is certainly one of those precious few. Thus, having someone like him still committed to the sport and capable of playing ata high level when managed properly is fantastic for the game.

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Tony Romo

For Some Teams, Not Signing Romo is a Bigger Risk Than Doing So

Despite Cowboys owner Jerry Jones not sounding fully ready to move on, reports emerged earlier this week that quarterback Tony Romo will be released. Assuming these reports are true, the market for the often injured 36-year-old quarterback is not being viewed correctly. For three teams in particular, he would not be a risk, but rather a lifeline.

Before we get there, let’s trim the field a little bit. By his own admission, Romo only has two or three years left. Thus, being part of a total rebuild in Cleveland or San Francisco is out of the question. Carson Palmer is coming back in 2017 for another season with the Cardinals. The Broncos continue to articulate their commitment to Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch.

The Jets and Bills are hoarding young quarterbacks in the hopes that one might stick. Adding a veteran like Romo just does not seem to be on their radar, but perhaps it should be.

All these teams seem poised to either stand pat, add a quarterback through the draft, or look for a longer-term solution in free agency. If he is released and not traded, the teams that should be beating down Romo’s door are as follows.

Bears: Chicago is not as far away as last year’s 3-13 record suggests. They lost six games by one possession. Despite not being highly thought of by fans, John Fox is actually a heck of a coach. He got to a Super Bowl with Jake Delhomme and won a division title with Tim Tebow.

Jay Cutler John Fox

Photo: twitimes.com

The organization seems poised to move on from the temperamental enigma that is Jay Cutler. Romo is the kind of upgrade Fox needs to improve upon his 9-23 mark with the Bears and keep his job beyond this year.

 

Pair Romo with emerging running back Jordan Howard and an improving defense that ranked seventh against the pass last year, and the playoffs are not a stretch. Romo has roots in Illinois. The same can be said of Jimmy Garoppolo, who could be a fallback option for the Bears. Regardless, Chicago will likely add a quarterback at some point in the draft as well.

Texans: These next two teams would be tricky from a financial perspective, but I am not an accountant. It took winning a playoff game with Brock Osweiler for Texans head coach Bill O’Brien to receive confirmation from ownership that he would return in 2017.

O’Brien is a fine coach who had nothing to do with the ridiculous $72 million contract Osweiler was given. Rest assured though, O’Brien will take the fall if quarterback play continues to hold the rest of this championship caliber roster back. A completion percentage under 60 and more interceptions than touchdowns should be enough to give up on Osweiler after one year, despite his contract.

Romo would bring quarterback stability to Houston, something the franchise has never had. If he gets hurt, the Texans would be right back where they are now. However, at least he would offer a potential off-ramp from the path to nowhere they are on with their current quarterback options.

Vikings: I am on an island here, but Minnesota is loaded. With guys like Anthony Barr, Everson Griffen and Xavier Rhodes on defense, the Vikings are a notch below the 2015 Broncos. The defense cannot win a title by itself, but a slightly more balanced Vikings team would be lethal.

After his devastating training camp injury last year, questions continue to linger about Teddy Bridgewater’s future. Mike Zimmer seems strangely stubborn about sticking with Sam Bradford. Granted, the Vikings did give up a lot to bring him in. As good as his record completion percentage and four to one touchdown to interception ratio made him look last year, there is one very important thing Bradford has never done all that well: win games.

sam bradford

Photo: foxnews.com

In 78 career starts for three different franchises, Bradford has posted a winning percentage of 41 percent and has never lead a team to the playoffs. In the words of a very wise Canadian songstress, “that don’t impress me much.” Yes, football is the ultimate team sport. However, the blame has to start going on the quarterback and not the supporting cast.

After fading down the stretch behind Bradford last year and putting up only nine points in a home playoff loss with Bidgewater the year before, Zimmer needs to start winning big quick or whispers will start about his job security. With the talent on this roster, a healthy Romo makes the Vikings instant Super Bowl contenders. Sticking with Bradford makes Zimmer being unemployed within two years a virtual certainty.

Understandably, there is real skepticism about Romo’s ability to stay healthy for an entire season. He has not done so since 2014. Even so, for these three coaching staffs under varying degrees of pressure to win now, his career winning percentage (61 percent) makes him a chance worth taking. In fact, recycling average veteran or unseasoned young quarterbacks that will get them nowhere is a much bigger risk.

 

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“From Our Haus To Yours”

John Lynch

Lynch Trying not to Join Infamous List of NFL Head Scratchers

The San Francisco 49ers raised more than a few eyebrows at the end of last month when they hired John Lynch as their new general manager. Despite a borderline Hall of Fame playing career, Lynch has no relevant front office experience to speak of. In fact, he is coming straight out of the television broadcast booth.

While it is much too early to pass judgment on Lynch’s hiring, there have been a few other peculiar NFL coaching and front office hires in recent years. For the most part, they have not worked out.

Art Shell: Raiders head coach (2006)

Art Shell

Photo courtesy of USA today

Raiders fans will not enjoy the first part of this article. Up until very recently, Oakland spent almost a decade as the NFL’s top dumpster fire. For some reason, late owner Al Davis thought it would be a good idea to bring Art Shell back as head coach after a 13-year hiatus.

The game changes in 13 years and it left Shell behind. Shell was a Hall of Fame offensive lineman for the Raiders, but his second tenure as head coach is best left forgotten.

His first big hire to his staff was offensive coordinator Tom Walsh. Walsh had been out of football for six years and was running a bed and breakfast.

Walsh is also infamous for saying that the skills of wide receiver Randy Moss were “diminishing.” After being traded to the Patriots, Moss had a record-breaking season in 2007.

Unsurprisingly, Shell’s Raiders stumbled to a 2-14 finish and he was let go after a single season. Somehow, Oakland’s next head coaching hire was even worse.

Lane Kiffin: Raiders head coach (2007-2008)

Lane Kiffin

Photo courtesy of sfgate.com

Lane Kiffin is well known to football fans now. When Davis first hired him to resurrect the Raiders in 2007, Kiffin was a 31-year-old who had never been a head coach at any level of football.

The friction between Davis and Kiffin was almost immediate. The Raiders still had virtually no talent on the roster. To make matters worse, they drafted quarterback JaMarcus Russell who went down as one of the most spectacular draft flops in NFL history.

Davis fired Kiffin during the 2008 season in an epic press conference that resulted in Kiffin taking legal action against the Raiders. He posted a record of just 5-15 and has since bounced around the college ranks.

Matt Millen: Lions President and General Manager (2001-2008)

Matt Millen

Photo Courtesy of Seattle Times

This is the story that makes 49er fans most nervous. Much like Lynch, Millen was hired straight from broadcasting after a really good playing career in 2001. The result was disastrous. Under Millen’s direction, the Lions best single season record was 6-10.

While no one in the NFL fails all on their own, Millen’s biggest gaffe was using a first-round pick on a wide receiver three straight years. Moreover, the Lions passed on guys like DeMarcus Ware to draft Roy Williams, Mike Williams, and Charles Rogers.

After years of losing and fan protests, Millen was put out of his misery in September 2008. The Lions had just begun what would become the only 0-16 season in NFL history. Millen has since returned to broadcasting.

Paul DePodesta: Browns Chief Strategy Officer (2016-present)

Admittedly, the jury is still out on this one. However, that does not make hiring a former MLB analytics guru for a major executive role in the NFL any less odd. The Browns have been a laughing stock since returning to the league in 1999. Maybe they know something the rest of the world does not, but I doubt it.

A 1-15 debut was not encouraging for DePodesta and the rest of the Browns revamped front office, but next year will tell the tale. The Browns have five of the first 65 picks in the 2017 NFL draft and are among the league leaders in salary cap space. That should mean a significant improvement. If not, it may well be back to the drawing board yet again in Cleveland.

What you do not see in this article is as important as what you do see. Generally, the teams who make these type of moves are bad for a decade or longer. Teams like the Patriots, Packers, Steelers, Seahawks and Broncos do not go outside the box very often. Those are the teams in contention year in and year out.

Given the current state of the 49ers, Lynch will be fighting the odds not to join the likes of Millen, DePodesta, Kiffin and Shell.

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“From Our Haus to Yours”

Maria Sharapova

Ready or Not Sharapova is Coming Back

Earlier this week, the Madrid Open became the second event to grant the soon to be returning Maria Sharapova a wild card. The 29-year-old Russian is serving out the final weeks of a 15-month suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. The Italian Open, French Open and Wimbledon are all rumored to be extending invites for her to play as well.

Giving Sharapova easy access to the sport’s biggest events again seems highly controversial considering the reason for her lengthy suspension. However, there are a few reasons that it shouldn’t be.

She Has Paid Enough of a Price:

By the end of her suspension, Sharapova will miss four Grand Slams and an Olympic games. That is a very steep price to pay under any circumstances. It becomes even steeper when one considers the specific circumstances of this case.

Sharapova tested positive for a drug called meldonium. It was added to the banned list by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) at the start of 2016. As flimsy as her “I did not know it had been banned” excuse sounded, there was some validity to it when over 100 athletes tested positive for the same drug after its banishment.

Sharapova Press conference

Photo Courtesy of the dailymail.co.uk

Think about that for a second. The only commonality among all those tests was that the vast majority of the athletes were Eastern European. Either over 100 athletes with very little in common decided to deliberately cheat at the same time, or WADA did not properly communicate that the substance was added to the banned list. At some point, logic has to kick in.

Not only was Sharapova the biggest star caught using the drug, she was also the only one who held a press conference and freely admitted to taking it over a 10-year period. Moreover, she acknowledged failing a test at the 2016 Australian Open.

Her story never changed. Honesty should count for something. Her suspension was originally two years and she won an appeal that reduced it to 15 months.

Sorry folks… She Gets The Benefit of Star Power:

With the legal side covered, let’s move on to the tennis side of the story. In a sport that struggles to generate stars, Sharapova may be the brightest of them all. Prior to this scandal, she was the world’s highest-paid female athlete for over a decade running. From fashion, to candy, to endorsements, she is one of the most recognizable faces in all of sports.

Sugarpova

Photo Courtesy of the national.ae

Even before this lone black mark on her career, there were plenty of people out there who loved her, and plenty who hated her. If anything, the drug scandal will only increase how polarizing she is. Tickets for her first match at her comeback event in Stuttgart, Germany on April 26 have been sold out for weeks.

Tennis tournaments are a business. The people who run them want the stands packed and lots of media coverage. Having someone like Sharapova at an event certainly helps accomplish that goal. The fact that her star is now somewhat tainted only adds to the intrigue surrounding the Russian star.

A certain number of wild cards are given to each tournament to use at the tournament director’s discretion. They almost always go to local young players or more established stars, who for whatever reason do not have a ranking that would get them in the event.

For lack of a better term, wild cards are designed to go to any player who can add a little “sizzle” to the event. Based on that criteria, what tournament director would be foolish enough to deny Sharapova access? The answer is none.

Would a lesser player, who has been suspended for 15 months and no longer has a ranking, have to start all over again at the lowest levels of the sport? Sure, but Maria Sharapova is an Olympic silver medalist, 35-time WTA Tour title winner, including five Grand Slams, and a former world number one. Unless you are in jail, that résumé will open some doors for you.

Context of the Comeback:

Sharapova’s icy demeanor while in competition and her loud on court grunting have always rubbed some people the wrong way. Once it is all over, the last 15 months will only add to that chorus of detractors.

Fortunately for her, Sharapova has always been a fierce competitor and very comfortable in her own skin. This is a woman who once said “It’s pretty hard being a tennis player and Mother Theresa at the same time and that’s just the way it is.”

Sharapova never got in this business to make friends. She did so to win tennis matches. The other players are the only ones who can stop her comeback. To do it, they will have to do something only Serena Williams has done consistently over the years: beat her.

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“From Our Haus to Yours”

Terrell Davis

The Right Terrell is Going to Canton This Year

There is not much more that can be said about Super Bowl LI. For every epic comeback, there is an equally epic meltdown on the other side. Prior to the game itself, the 2017 Pro Football Hall of Fame class was a big source of debate. Lots of controversy has surrounded Terrell Owens being “snubbed” again, but there is a Terrell being enshrined this year, and it is the right one.

While there is certainly a case to be made that Owens is more worthy than Terrell Davis, if you look beyond raw numbers, the reverse of that argument is not the least bit crazy and here is why.

First, this was a crowded year for the Hall of Fame. With the maximum of five “modern era players” going in this year, three were stone cold lead pipe locks. Pass rusher Jason Taylor, quarterback Kurt Warner and running back LaDainian Tomlinson.

That leaves two spots. As much as we all like to make fun of kickers, the most important thing in the NFL is scoring points, and Morten Andersen has done that more than anybody else. Thus, he is worthy of a spot after having to wait a few years. It is reasonable to speculate that many voters came down to Davis and Owens for the final spot.

Before making the majority of my argument, it was necessary to point out the strength of the class as a whole. You would be hard-pressed to take one of the other four inductees out to make room for both Owens and Davis in the same class.

 It is virtually impossible to overstate the impact of Terrell Davis on the Broncos organization. Prior to his arrival in the mid-90s, the Broncos were a slightly better version of what the Colts are now. They had a truly great quarterback who was not surrounded by much additional talent.

John Elway led Denver to three Super Bowl appearances in the 80s. The closest the Broncos got to winning one of those games was a 19 point defeat against the Giants. As Elway entered the twilight of his career, a Super Bowl ring looked like a pipe dream.

Denver Broncos

Photo Courtesy of Denver Post

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan plucked Davis from obscurity and made him the starting running back as a rookie in 1995. By 1997, Davis had posted consecutive seasons of well over 1000 yards rushing to start his career. However, the Broncos and their aging quarterback had not found postseason success.

Davis had another stellar year as Denver won the AFC West. In four playoff games that year, Davis rushed for over 100 yards in each and tallied eight touchdowns. The Broncos upset the Packers to win Super Bowl XXXII. Davis scored three touchdowns and was named Super Bowl MVP.

In 1998, Davis was again the centerpiece of the Broncos offense. He rushed for over 2000 yards. There have been only seven such seasons in NFL history. Davis was named league MVP as the Broncos coasted to a second straight Super Bowl victory. He rushed for a total 1049 yards in the 97 and 98 postseasons combined.

Starting in 1999, Davis was haunted by knee trouble that started when he attempted to make a tackle on an interception return against the Jets. He would appear in just 17 more games after 1998. He retired during the 2002 preseason.

His lack of longevity certainly hurt his Hall of Fame chances, he had to wait a decade. However, when he was at his best Davis was as good as the game has ever seen. The injuries prevented him from being near the top of numerous rushing record lists. Even so, fellow Hall of Famer and teammate Shannon Sharpe summed it up best in Davis’ A Football Life documentary on the NFL Network. He was quoted as saying “Without T.D. we don’t win Super Bowls”

Terrell Owens

Photo Courtesy of foxsports.com

Similarly, think about how differently John Elway’s career would be viewed if not for the two Super Bowl wins Davis spearheaded in the last two years of Elway’s career.

As for Terrell Owens, he ranks second all-time in receiving yards and third in touchdowns. On that alone, he is certainly Hall of Fame worthy. Unfortunately for Owens, players do not exist in a vacuum nor should they.

As productive as he was, Owens never made a team he was on better. The 49ers were perennial contenders before Owens arrived. Philadelphia was already on a string of runs to the NFC championship game.

In 2004, the Eagles finally reached the Super Bowl, but Owens was injured for the playoffs and did not return until the Super Bowl, which Philadelphia lost. He turned in an admirable performance despite not having fully recovered from a broken ankle.

The only thing having Owens on your team guaranteed was not winning many big games and him throwing whoever his quarterback was under the bus for not getting him the ball enough, despite those Hall of Fame numbers. This always led to more ridiculousness like him being sent home then holding press conferences and doing sit-ups in his driveway.

San Francisco 49ers

Photo Courtesy of si.com

Owens played for five franchises in his career. With his numbers, it is very telling that T.O. bounced around so much. In his first three stops, Owens eventually became a cancer to the team he was on. Jeff Garcia and Donovan McNabb have said as much, Tony Romo has always been more tight-lipped about the controversial wideout.

In his final two years in Buffalo and Cincinnati, Owens was simply irrelevant. Your reputation follows you everywhere. In the case of Owens, that includes the Hall of Fame ballot. He has no one to blame but himself. He will forever be more known for his dancing and politicking than his on field work. Any other player with those numbers have already taken their rightful place in Canton.

The good news for T.O. is that he will absolutely be inducted in the not too distant future. For now, there is no issue with a guy whose teams won Super Bowls because of him going in before a guy whose teams often imploded around him.

 

 

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Venus Williams

So Much More Than Serena’s Sister

Almost a week removed, the tennis world is still buzzing about the Australian Open. February is not a very exciting month on the tennis calendar. Thus, it is a good time for a bigger picture look at one of Australia’s most heartwarming stories, Venus Williams.

For much of her career, Venus has been in the shadow of younger sister Serena. In fact, Serena won in Australia at her sister’s expense to break the modern era record for Grand Slam singles titles. Much more will be written about Serena, and rightly so. However, Venus deserves the spotlight all to herself at least once.

She is much too humble to say something like that herself. So, leave it to me. Here are a few reasons why Venus Williams is so much more than Serena’s sister.

Longevity:

 It is extremely difficult to get to and stay at the top of any sport. Tennis is no exception. The amount of time Venus has been a threat to win every event she enters is staggering. She reached her first Grand Slam singles final in 1997. It took her three more years to breakthrough and hold the big trophy. 20 years after her first splash on a big stage, Venus is still a top 20 player and fresh off playing in her 15th Grand Slam final.

 

Some of her contemporaries like Justine Henin, Martina Hingis and Kim Clijsters have had multiple retirements and comebacks in recent years. Even with a litany of injuries and illnesses, the 36 year old American has chugged along.

The elder Williams sister also deserves a ton of credit for fighting through adversity. It is easy to keep playing when you are healthy and making a deep run at a tournament every week. For Venus, who was diagnosed with an autoimmune illness known as Sjogren’s syndrome in 2011, it would have been much easier to call it a career at times.

She failed to win a singles title from February 2010 to October 2012. Healthy or not, that is a massive drought for a player the caliber of Venus. She kept going and also believed that success on a Grand Slam stage was possible again.

Despite being written off many times, Venus was eventually proven right with her run to the final of the 2017 Australian Open. It was hard not to get emotional after seeing the joy she expressed after each win down under.

Australian Open

Photo courtesy of firstpost.com

 

Professionalism:

Many pro tennis players have been around awhile and battled adversity, but professionalism is what separates Venus from just about everyone else on both tennis tours. Every year, most top players play at least one smaller event where they are the main attraction. Undisclosed cash bonuses are sometimes involved.

 

For Venus, the St. Petersburg Open in Russia fit this bill in 2017. After her unexpected run in Australia, most expected Venus to withdraw. The tournament began just a couple days after Australia concluded. There are withdraws due to fatigue every single week. Some are far less legitimate than this one would have been. However, Venus showed up and played. She lost her opening match, but I doubt any other top player would have gone that far.

“I wasn’t feeling my best today. You have to go out and you have to try every tournament…I always give all my heart on the court” Williams said after her loss. When you come across a quote like that, it is easy to see why Venus kept going through the tough times. She loves the sport as much as anyone who has ever played it.

 

Numbers:

  Hard numbers and data are tough to deny. Venus has tallied 49 WTA singles titles, seven Grand Slams, 11 weeks as the top ranked player in the world, and an Olympic Gold Medal in singles at the 2000 Sydney games. She and her sister have also dominated the doubles tour over the years. However, regardless of who she is related to, Venus has built a career that deserves to stand all on its own.

Wimbledon

Photo courtesy of abcnews.go.com

 

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What Will (and Won’t) Decide Super Bowl LI

Much of the hype leading into Super Bowl LI has centered around the two quarterbacks, Matt Ryan and Tom Brady. It is understandable considering that Brady and Ryan threw for over 60 touchdowns and fewer than 10 interceptions combined in the regular season. However, Super Bowl LI will not be won or lost by either quarterback.

Both quarterbacks and the offenses they pilot have scored with such ease this season that it is difficult to imagine either offense being shut down completely. In many matchups like this, the two great quarterbacks cancel each other out. Ryan is just a one-year kind of great for now and Brady is a best-of-all-time kind of great. They have both exhibited greatness all year long though. Each quarterback will “get theirs” so to speak.

So, it is wise to look beyond the quarterback position when trying to determine which team will snatch glory on Sunday. The same can be said of receivers and tight ends. They are tied directly to the quarterbacks. As good as guys like Julio Jones and Julian Edelman are, they will not decide the game.

As unsexy as it is, this game will be decided along the offensive line. That unit for each team has a tough task of it. However, the improvement up front is the single biggest reason why these teams are where they are.

Super Bowl LI

Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

The Patriots fell one game short of the Super Bowl last year because Tom Brady wore Von Miller, Malik Jackson and others as accessories in the AFC Championship Game. He was sacked four times and hit several others.

After the season-ending loss, longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia was lured out of retirement and back to New England.

You cannot put offensive linemen on your fantasy football team. Scarnecchia’s impact has gone largely unnoticed, but has been massive. Despite very little change in terms of personnel, New England’s offensive line ranks top five in fewest sacks allowed this year.

Better offensive line play has also allowed the Patriots’ plethora of running backs to be more consistent as both rushers and receivers. Containing NFL sack leader Vic Beasley will be top priority for this unheralded but very solid group.

For the Falcons, signing long-time Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack was the origin of their fairy tale season. The whole offensive line gelled around the four-time Pro Bowler. Even though they are middle-of-the-road in terms of sacks allowed, the Falcons offensive line has given Matt Ryan enough time to author an MVP-caliber season.

Super Bowl LI

Photo Courtesy of 4thandgoal.com

More importantly, the Falcons are the most balanced offense in football. They are top five in both rushing and passing. Many of the skill positions on Atlanta’s offense are the same as last year. Their sudden emergence as a Super Bowl contender can be traced to the offensive line improvement.

Super Bowl LI Prediction

The only way to slow down either of these offenses is to pressure their respective quarterbacks. As already outlined, this is easier said than done. The Falcons defense has more name value in terms of pass rushers with Beasley and Dwight Freeney.

There is something about New England’s defensive unit as a whole. They give up their fair share of yards, but are the league leaders in the only category that really matters. New England gives up under 16 points per game. Based on that, as well as experience, the Pats will find a way to get ring number five for Brady, Bill Belichick, and the entire franchise.

NE 30, ATL 24

 

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“From Our Haus to Yours”

Spectacular Super Bowl Blunders

The Super Bowl has many great plays throughout its history. James Harrison’s 100-yard interception return, John Elway’s helicopter run, and David Tyree’s helmet catch all spring to mind. There are several others, but this piece is not about those plays. Here are some of the most spectacular single play blunders in America’s biggest sporting event.

First, there is one blunder you will not see here. Even though it makes every other list like this, Scott Norwood’s missed field goal in the closing seconds of Super Bowl XXV is not really a blunder by him. Shady clock management and play calling by the Bills down the stretch left Norwood facing a career long outdoor field goal attempt. How one could have expected Norwood to suddenly do something he had never done before on the biggest stage the sport has to offer has always baffled me. Anyway, let’s get down to business.

Rocket Screen- Super Bowl XVIII:

Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs and quarterback Joe Theismann did not expect to find themselves trailing the Los Angeles Raiders by 11 in the final seconds of the first half. The Redskins put up 541 points in the 1983 season, an NFL record at the time. Even so, the smart money was on the Redskins taking a knee deep in their own territory and heading to the half.

Instead, Gibbs called “rocket screen,” a play Washington had ran with great success when the two teams met in the regular season. This time, the result was disastrous. LA linebacker Jack Squirek picked off the pass and walked in to the end zone with 12 seconds left in the half. The play kicked a Raiders blowout into overdrive. You can watch the play below on the NFL’s YouTube channel.

Garo Yepremian- Super Bowl VII:

When kickers have to throw, bad things tend to happen. Here is the earliest evidence of that. Trying to finish off an undefeated season, the Dolphins sent out Garo Yepremian to attempt a field goal that would have made it a three possession game with just over two minutes to go. The kick was blocked.

After a subsequent comedy of errors, the Redskins ended up scoring a touchdown on the play to make it a 14-7 game. Fortunately for Yepremian, Miami held on to complete their perfect season. Fear not, the NFL’s YouTube channel has us covered on Yepremian’s misery.

Lewis Billups- Super Bowl XXIII:

This is a nod to the pain of my family and Bengals fans everywhere. It may not have directly decided the outcome of the game, but it sure was big. Leading Joe Montana’s 49ers early in the fourth quarter, Bengals defensive back Lewis Billups dropped an easy an interception a player could ever come across. The 49ers got the game-tying score on the next play and mounted another fourth quarter scoring drive to win the game and championship in come-from-behind fashion. This play is the ultimate sports “what if” in Cincinnati. See it below from Michael Schiefer on YouTube.

Leon Lett- Super Bowl XXVII:

Leon Lett was actually a borderline Hall of Fame player. Unfortunately for him, that is rarely remembered. What is remembered is Lett costing Dallas a Thanksgiving game in 1993 by gifting Miami another shot at a game winning field goal. However, this mishap from about a year earlier happened on the grandest stage of all.

Lett recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter of a Cowboys blowout and there was nothing but green grass between Lett and the dream of every defensive linemen. Bills wideout Don Beebe had other ideas while Lett rumbled and showboated down the sideline. The result is one of the most recognizable pieces of video in NFL history. See it below on the NFL YouTube channel. For the sake of the players involved, let’s hope nothing is added to this list in Super Bowl LI.

 

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“From Our Haus to Yours”

 

 

Back to the Past: 2017 Australian Open Men’s Final Preview

If nothing else, the 2017 Australian Open has proved that time travel is indeed possible. With the Serena and Venus Williams facing off for the ladies trophy and Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal slated to slug it out in the men’s final, this tournament feels like it was plucked straight out of the mid-2000s. Here is a look at Roger/Rafa volume 35.

Context

Despite being possibly the two greatest players that ever lived, the fact that these two will face off in a Grand Slam final again is a huge surprise. Federer is always a threat on the grass of Wimbledon, and the same is true of Nadal on the clay of Roland Garros. However, the two hardcourt majors have been dominated by Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray in recent years. Federer has not tasted Grand Slam glory outside of Wimbledon since this event in 2010. Other than the French Open, Nadal has not hoisted a Grand Slam trophy since the 2013 U.S. Open.

Given that, and the fact that both of these all-time greats have struggled with injuries recently, a run to the finals of this Australian Open was highly unlikely for both of them. When Djokovic and Murray fell victim to early upsets, that all began to change. Federer coasted, and Nadal grinded through the draw. Federer’s form after missing the last six months of 2016 with a knee injury has been astonishing. Other than two five setters, he has had his way with his opponents. Nadal’s score lines have looked similar, but his style of play remains infinitely more physical than that of the Swiss man. Look at the action shots below. If you study them for a moment, they say an awful lot about that difference in physicality.

Photo Courtesy of flashtennis.net

Nadal leads the head to head 23-11 and 6-2 in Grand Slam finals. In fact, Federer has never beaten the Spanish lefty at a Grand Slam other than Wimbledon. Not much thought should be given to those numbers though. It has been six years since they met in a Grand Slam final and eight years since they played the final in Australia. So much has changed in that time for both great champions. Regardless, we as fans are so fortunate to still have these two class acts playing at such a high level.

Prediction

 

As strange as it sounds, in tennis years, 35 year old Federer is younger than 30 year old Nadal. Prior to his freak knee injury suffered while bathing his daughters last year, Federer was never injured, he played in the main draw of 65 straight Grand Slam events. He has his free, easy, and graceful style to thank for that. Moreover, the time off last year seems to have done him some good and may extend his career.

On the other hand, Nadal has missed extended time with knee, back, wrist and appendix issues in recent years. It is amazing that he finds himself in this spot again, but it is hard for me to trust his body after two weeks on hardcourts. Recent history says it will break down, either by injury or general fatigue and loss of stamina. We saw it happen in the finals of the 2014 Australian Open against Stan Wawrinka. Federer’s serve is the difference as he gets Grand Slam title number 18 to extend his own record. The Pick: Federer in four sets.

The match will air live at 3:30 AM ET Sunday morning on ESPN with a second showing at 9 AM ET on ESPN 2. I once said I would watch these two legends compete at hopscotch. Thus, I am beyond excited that we get to see them compete on one of the biggest stages in tennis at least one more time. The rest of the world should be too.

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Sister Act Volume 28: 2017 Australian Open Ladies Final Preview

Against all odds, it will happen again. Serena and Venus Williams will meet for the 28th time overall. Not only that, but this will be the 9th time the sisters will meet in a Grand Slam final, their first matchup with that distinction since 2009. For several reasons, this meeting feels different than the previous 27.

Photo Courtesy of allonline.tv

Context

Perhaps the biggest difference this time is that very few people thought this would ever happen again in a Grand Slam final. While Serena has been a much more consistent force at the top of the game in recent years, both she and her older sister have struggled to stay healthy. Serena was out of the game for almost a year after a pulmonary embolism in 2010 and has missed small patches of time with several nagging injuries since. The fact that she has been able to add nine singles majors and an Olympic singles gold medal to her tally after a brush with death is as incredible a feat as you will come across in any walk of life. She now sits a single win away from breaking Steffi Graf’s modern era record of 23 Grand Slam singles titles.

 

For Venus, it has been a battle just to get on the court since late summer 2011. She was diagnosed with an autoimmune illness known as Sjögren’s syndrome. The trademark symptoms are fatigue and joint pain. Two of the last things any 30+ year old trying to play tennis at a world class level needs. She soldiered on even as the early losses and withdraws piled up, despite an occasional flash of brilliance.

Photo Courtesy of zambio.com

 

Venus failed to reach the second week of any Grand Slam event in singles from 2011-2014. Since then, she has reached the second week four times. She had notched enough big wins to become a solid player ranked in the top 20 again. Even so, lifting another Grand Slam trophy seemed like a real stretch. However, the stars and draw have aligned in Australia to kick off 2017. Judging from her reaction after her semifinal win, I am not sure that Venus herself can believe she has this chance again. Watch it on the Troll Tennis YouTube channel and try not to get emotional. The Australian Open winner’s trophy has eluded Venus to this point in her stellar career. She could not get past her sister in the 2003 final. 14 years later, she has another crack at it.

Prediction

My heart and head say two different things here. I suspect most fans are in the same boat. Since the sisters have literally played against each other since they were toddlers, it is pointless to do an Xs and Os type breakdown. Like their previous 27 battles, this one will feature big hitting and be competitive. However, competitive has not always meant well played over the years. An awkward situation for both players has always produced some scratchy tennis.

Serena leads the head to head 16-11. Each player is very capable of beating the other. Venus has almost always handled the emotions of their meetings better, but Serena’s slightly superior natural talent is virtually impossible to pick against. The situation has to be just right. Even then, I am usually wrong. She gets number 23 and denies her big sister number eight. The pick: Serena in three sets.

Enjoy this one folks. With both Serena and Venus well into their 30s, we may never see it again. The match will air live on ESPN at 3:30 AM ET Saturday morning with another showing at 9 AM ET on ESPN 2.

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