AJ McCarron

Teams should be very wary about AJ McCarron

Earlier this week, A.J. McCarron won his grievance case against the Bengals. The former Alabama standout is set to become an unrestricted free agent. The supply and demand for decent quarterback play in the NFL is as out of whack as it has ever been. Thus, McCarron and several other quarterbacks are about to be grossly overpaid by quarterback needy teams.

In today’s NFL, if you do not have a quarterback, you don’t have anything. So, teams must overpay at that position on occasion. However, here is why turning to McCarron in particular is going to be a grave mistake for some franchise.

He is even less of a proven commodity than other quarterbacks who may be on the move:

Drew Brees has given every indication that he will be back in New Orleans. Assuming that is the case, it would be a stretch to call any of the free agent quarterbacks elite. The same goes for trade candidates. Still, guys like Kirk Cousins, Nick Foles and Case Keenum have all had stretches where they looked like guys who could carry a franchise for a decade.

While any team should think twice about giving big money to a quarterback who has been pedestrian for his entire career and then suddenly catches lighting in a bottle, McCaron has never had a hot stretch like the three names in the last paragraph

The only season where he had relevant playing time was 2015. He played in 7 regular season games including three starts for an injured Dalton. He put up 854 yards, six touchdown passes and two interceptions. Those numbers are okay, but there certainly are not the kind you build your franchise around.

McCarron’s only playoff start was also unremarkable. He barely completed half of his throws while tallying just 212 yards, a touchdown pass and an interception. He did put his team in positon to win, but they didn’t. Now, some might argue that McCarron has not been given an opportunity to be “the guy” and that is why he has never been anything more than average. That fact is actually very telling as to why teams should avoid him like the plague.

McCarron never really pressured Dalton:

With a career passer rating in the 80s, a completion percentage in the low 60s, and a winless playoff record, Andy Dalton is the posterchild for average quarterbacks everywhere.

Andy Dalton

Photo: Getty Images

Yet, there was never a true quarterback controversy in Cincinnati. As a Cincinnati native, I can tell you that the only talk that ever really existed was in the fan base. Whatever a fan base talks about is pretty meaningless, as fun as it may be. Many fans in NFL cities want to change the quarterback and head coach after every loss. Thankfully, the league does not work that way.

The Bengals organization is far from being run well. However, the people who run any NFL franchise are smarter than the vast majority of fans. If that were not true, the fans would be running the team.

In the last two years, the Bengals have posted losing records. If McCarron was anything special, Cincinnati would have thrown him in there to try and turn the last two years around, but that never happened. If he cannot beat out Andy Dalton, the only place he can take a franchise as a starting quarterback is off a cliff.

McCarron has already had the best supporting cast he is going to get:

Scroll up and read McCarron’s numbers from 2015 again. That Bengals roster had seven pro bowlers on it. Those numbers are all McCarron could manage. Wherever he goes, he won’t be surrounded by seven pro bowlers. Instead, he will perhaps be asked to turn guys like the Jets receivers into pro bowlers. The numbers do not lie. He is not capable of that.

McCarron is about to make a whole lot of money for doing very little in the NFL. He is by no means the first nor will he be the last player this will happen for. Good for him. However excluding rookie deals, these situations rarely turn out well for the player or team involved. Brock Osweiler in Houston, Mike Glennon in Chicago, and the list goes on.  McCarron will no doubt continue that trend.

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NFL coach hot seat

An early look at the 2018 NFL coaching hot seat

Unfortunately, the NFL offseason has arrived, but the pressure on coaches to win never ceases. It is also never too early to start looking ahead at the NFL coaching hot seat heading in to the 2018 season.

It goes without saying that established winners like Bill Belichick, Sean Payton and Mike Tomlin should feel very good about their job security at the moment. The same can be said for rising stars like Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay.

Even though it is becoming less and less unheard of for head coaches to be fired after a single season, all the guys who just took new head coaching jobs are safe unless things go sideways to an extreme extent.

Also, Marvin Lewis has done a nice job in Cincinnati to bring that franchise back to a respectable level. However, the end of last year was the time for him to go and he got another contract extension. Thus, he is excluded from any article like this until further notice.

Here are the coaches not as lucky as those mentioned in the last three paragraphs.

Hue Jackson

Jackson is well respected around the league. So, it is not all that surprising that there was not much outrage when it was announced he would be back for a third season in Cleveland.

Still, this situation is about as cut and dry as it gets. Jackson is coming off a winless season and has won a grand total of one game with the Browns. Browns management actually sticking with a coach for more than a cup of coffee is refreshing and admirable. They could greatly assist their current coach by somehow finally getting the quarterback position right this offseason.

Regardless, if there is not significant improvement in 2018, Jackson is gone.

Vance Joseph

Much like Jackson in Cleveland, Joseph’s biggest issue in Denver last year was the quarterback position. The difference is the Broncos and their fan base are not used to picking in the top five of the draft.

How John Elway will address the quarterback position for the Broncos may be the single biggest question of the entire offseason. The roster has talent. Previous head coach Gary Kubiak guided many of the same players to a 9-7 mark in 2016 a year after winning the Super Bowl.

5-11 is not good enough for this franchise. Last year was Denver’s first losing season since 2010. Joseph will need to get this team in or very close to the playoffs in 2018 to keep his job.

No matter who the quarterback is, Joseph and his staff need to limit the careless turnovers and mindless penalties that doomed the Broncos in 2017. Only Cleveland had a worse turnover margin last year.

Andy Reid

Reid is an outstanding football coach who has won almost 200 games in this league when regular and postseason stats are combined. However, his lack of postseason success is starting to catch up with him in Kansas City, similar to the way it eventually did in Philadelphia.

NFL coach hot seat

Photo from 12up.com

Even with an 18-point halftime lead at home, league rushing champion Kareem Hunt was virtually invisible in the second half of Kansas City’s playoff loss to Tennessee. Reid is not solely responsible for the play calling, but that is the kind of loss that people lose their jobs over.

Reid and the Chiefs have taken a huge gamble to start the offseason by shipping ultra-consistent quarterback Alex Smith to Washington. This means the organization is now all in on second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who has infinitely more upside than Smith at this point in their careers. But turning the keys to your franchise over to a young quarterback is always a huge gamble. This is especially true if the guy being replaced has been reasonably successful like Smith.

The bottom line is this. With the way last season ended and this offseason began, heads are going to roll in Kansas City if the 2018 season does not produce another trip to the playoffs as well as a win or two once the Chiefs get there. The first guy out is almost always the head coach.

Dirk Koetter 

Lovie Smith was forced out of Tampa Bay a couple years ago so that young quarterback Jameis Winston could be polished by Koetter, whose background is on the offensive side of the ball.

Year two of the Winston-Koetter marriage was a disaster. Tampa Bay’s win total decreased by four from 2016. Moreover, two of their five wins came with journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick starting at quarterback for an injured Winston.

The two big concerns on Winston coming out of Florida State were maturity and turnovers. Neither has been adequately cured under Koetter. Winston and the Bucs likely need a playoff appearance in 2018 to keep Koetter around. Otherwise, the head coach is always going to be shuffled out of town before the young quarterback with loads of raw talent.

Honorable mentions

NFL coach hot seat

Photo from profootballtalk.com

Even though the Cowboys have not reached the conference championship game since the glory days of Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith, Jerry Jones always thinks his team is a legitimate contender. So, Jason Garrett should be nervous if the 2018 season fails to live up to expectations that are probably unrealistic.

Adam Gase is also worth keeping an eye on in Miami. He gambled on bringing Jay Cutler out of retirement to fill in for an injured Ryan Tannehill and lost. Even with a playoff appearance in 2016, Gase has not yet turned the Dolphins offense into a consistent point producer. At some point, you have to live up to your “offensive guru” label or else.

 

Featured image from Cleveland.com

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post australian open storylines

Aussie aftershocks: A spin around the tennis world

With the Australian Open now firmly in the rear view mirror, tennis typically struggles for storylines until a pair of huge hardcourt events in Indian Wells and Miami come around. This year appears to be a welcome exception to that rule.

Serena is officially back

If you guessed Ashville, North Carolina as the place where Serena Williams would officially start her tennis career as a mother, you could have made a lot of money. The 23-time major winner is there along with her older sister, Venus, as the American national team begins its Fed Cup title defense against The Netherlands.

She will play doubles alongside Lauren Davis on Sunday, but could also be substituted in to singles as well. Williams’ return to tournament play will come in Indian Wells next month, where she will be unseeded. Slowly building up to that occasion is probably wise.

For now, all eyes will be on Ashville to see where Serena’s game stands.

Federer chasing history… again

Believe it or not, there are still records out there for Roger Federer to break. The 20-time Grand Slam champion has taken a late Wild Card into next week’s Rotterdam Open. If the reigning Australian Open title holder reaches the semifinals, he will once again become World No. 1.

post australian open storylines

Photo from tennisworldusa.org

The historical context here is the eye opener. Not only would Federer extend his own record to 303 weeks at the top ranking spot, he would also become the oldest man ever to be World No.1. The current mark is held by Andre Agassi, who got to the top spot at age 33. Federer is 36.

His road to the semifinals and back to the top spot could include a clash with his compatriot and friend Stan Wawrinka. As those two have grown closer over the years, their meetings have been tricky for both players.

From a tennis perspective, Federer has always been guarded about publicly stating his goals. However, getting back the top ranking is clearly one of them. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be playing next week.

Whether Federer gets the title of World No. 1 back next week or not, the fact that it is even a realistic conversation again given his age, and the fact that he was written off less than two years ago speaks to Federer’s greatness as much as anything ever has.

Can Zverev get going?

World No. 5 Alexander Zverev is still very much ahead of schedule as the youngest player in the top 30. However, the Australian Open was his 11th career major. The 20-year-old German has still not reached a quarterfinal.

Time is still on his side, but at some point he can no longer live on the unlimited potential label. This part of the calendar needs to be the spark that gets his year going. Before coming to the states, Zverev will be among the top seeds in Rotterdam and Acapulco. He has held his own against the living legends of the sport, beating Federer and Novak Djokovic in finals last year.

So, Zverev has all the shots and the game to make an impact at the majors, but until he does, he is just another pretender who can catch lightning in a bottle once in a great while. Even with the French Open a long way off, Zverev’s only chance at a deep run is to have a solid few months leading in. Rotterdam and Acapulco are as good a place as any to start building some much needed confidence.

Women’s top ranking also on the line

The vast majority of the ladies top 20 are in Qatar prepping for a hardcourt event that starts on Monday. Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki and runner-up Simona Halep lead another wide open field.

post australian open storylines

Photo from reuters.com

Halep needs to reach at least the last eight to have a chance to retake the top ranking from the Dane. The tennis draw gods clearly have a sense of humor when it comes to next week. Wozniacki could run into Maria Sharapova in round three. Wozniacki and Sharapova have had a hotly contested rivalry over the years. Sharapova holds a 6-4 edge

The Russian is still unseeded and making her first appearance on the Middle Eastern swing since 2013 in an effort to raise her ranking and avoid draws like the one she has at this event. Anytime the top ranking is on the line at an event, a layer of intrigue is added. A five-time major champion like Sharapova being a dangerous floater, who could directly affect the situation, certainly adds another.

 

Featured image from wlos.com

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Roger Federer Tom Brady

Federer and Brady: The two ageless wonders of our time

Tom Brady is about to be the centerpiece of yet another Super Bowl, and Roger Federer is fresh off his 20th major victory in Australia. We are witnessing two of the greatest athletes ever still at the peak of their powers.

Comparing individual sport athletes to team sport athletes is difficult. However, these two are running out of suitable comparisons in their respective sports. So, here it goes.

What makes them similar?

Unprecedented longevity

The Swiss icon and the former sixth-round draft pick are in uncharted territory for their age brackets in their sports. At age 40, Brady will become the oldest non-kicker to take part in a Super Bowl. This makes the fact that he is still playing quarterback at an MVP level all the more impressive.

The closest thing Brady has ever had to a consistent rival was Peyton Manning. Despite winning the Super Bowl in his final game at age 39, Manning was a shell of himself in his last year. He missed a handful of games due to injury and accounted for more turnovers than touchdowns. Yet, Brady just keeps rolling.

So does Federer. With his win in Australia, he joined Ken Rosewall as the only men to win multiple majors after the age of 35. Rosewall did it in the early 70s. The game is infinitely more physical now and has much more depth. Also, the 36-year-old has six Australian Open titles. Every player he beat to win his first in 2004 is now retired.

We keep waiting for these two to slow down. They seem intent on keeping us waiting a little while longer.

The ability to stay healthy

There is an old saying in football that availability is your best ability. The same is true in tennis or any other sport.

Whether you look at Federer’s younger challengers in tennis or Brady’s in football, almost every one of them has dealt with major injuries as their careers have worn on. Brady missed the 2008 season after a knee injury in the opener. Federer’s knee kept him off the tour from the summer of 2016 to January of last year. Other than that, neither have missed extended time due to injury.

Brady’s commitment to keeping his body fresh is well publicized. Other than very smart scheduling, Federer’s is less so, but clearly just as effective. To be a living legend at any sport, you have to almost obsess over your craft. These two have always had that covered.

A second run of dominance 

It would be a stretch to say either of these incredible athletes was ever an afterthought in their sport, but not much of one. Following a third Super Bowl in four years after the 2004 season, Brady’s Patriots were always in the mix for more titles, but were dealt a string of tough playoff and Super Bowl losses.

Had he walked away from the game without more Super Bowl wins, his legacy as the greatest quarterback ever would not be as secure as it is. This is especially true once we all learned of the Spygate and Deflategate scandals.

Minus the scandals, everything above can be said of Federer had he not won more majors following his win at Wimbledon in 2012. He already had the greatest of all time title in hand in 2012. Still, he was in danger of becoming something we see all too often in sports. A legend who held on too long.

Now, three more majors for Federer and another chance for Brady to win three titles in four years has us in awe of both of them. No matter what happens for the rest of their careers, they each have cemented their legacies as the best to ever undertake their respective crafts.

What makes them different?

Brady is a little more clutch

In football, history judges the best of the best based on the playoffs and the Super Bowl. In tennis, it is about major finals and head-to-head rivalries. Federer has contested 30 major finals and Brady has played 36 playoff games. Despite Brady’s teams having six more chances to lose on the biggest stages, they still have only nine playoff losses while Federer has 10 losses in major finals.

Moreover, Brady’s head-to-head edge over other great quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger has long been established.

Conversely, Federer’s chief rivals have been Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. When you take into account all meetings, Federer only has the edge against Murray. There is much more to be said about Federer’s competition later.

You don’t get as good as these two without being clutch, but Brady has the advantage in this area.

Brady has had better help 

At its core, tennis is obviously an individual sport. Despite that, it is also more of a team sport than people realize. There are many coaches and trainers that put a ton of work into getting a player on the court and in a position to be successful.

Roger Federer Tom Brady

Photo: si.com

Federer has had some legends like Paul Annacone and Tony Roche in the coaching box over the years. Even so, Switzerland did not have a rich tennis history prior to Federer. So, he likely didn’t have access to great facilities growing up.

Meanwhile, Brady was drafted to what many people feel is the greatest coach and owner ever. He would have been very good no matter where he ended up. Still, he would not be what he is today had he ended up in a place like Cleveland or Cincinnati. Brady has made the careers of several castoffs. However, he has also been surrounded by his fair share of all-time great talent like Bill Belichick, Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski just to name a few.

Federer has had stiffer competition

This is the most glaring difference between the two. Brady and New England have to beat great teams in the playoffs every year. However, the best way to ensure playoff success is playing at home.

Roger Federer Tom Brady

Photo: talktennis.com.

The best way to make that happen is winning your division. New England shares a division with Miami, Buffalo and the Jets. For the vast majority of the last 20 years, these organizations have not been able to get out of their own way. New England has failed to win the division just twice since 2001. You only need two hands to count the total number of playoff wins to count the rest of the division has combined for during the Brady-Belichick era.

On the other hand, Federer has had to deal directly with Nadal, Djokovic and Murray for 11 months a year for the past decade plus. All three of those guys will likely join Federer in the greatest of all time discussion when their careers are over. The only question mark is Murray. The other two are already well into double-digits as far as major titles.

As noted earlier, Federer’s record against his chief rivals is not all that convincing. Still, the fact that he has been able to rack up 96 total titles and 20 majors in an era of such great players speaks for itself.

Who is better

Tennis people are going to say Federer and football people are going to say Brady. I am a rarity in that I am both. I say who cares? They are both awe inspiring. Whether you tune in to see them win or to hope they lose, enjoy greatness while it lasts, because it does not last forever.

 

Featured image from SI.com

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2018 Australian Open men

2018 Australian Open grades: The men

With the ATP World Tour currently enjoying a rare week off from official tournament play, the world is still digesting everything we saw over the last two weeks in Australia. Here is how some of the big names stack up.

Roger Federer

There are no longer sufficient adjectives in the English language that do Roger Federer justice. As the bodies of his much younger rivals continue to break down and be put back together again, the 36-year-old Swiss icon is coasting along, having just picked up his 20th major title.

Not only did he extend his own record for men’s major singles titles, but the way he did it was just as impressive. He did not have to break a sweat until his up-and-down performance in the final, where he won in five sets.

Federer’s biggest attribute has nothing to do with a serve, forehand or backhand. His ability to stay healthy is what we all should marvel at. At this particular tournament, Rafael Nadal was struck down by injury, Novak Djokovic was clearly not fully healthy despite playing his first tournament since Wimbledon last year and Andy Murray had to sit this one out altogether.

Meanwhile, Federer has been on the tour since 1999 and has had one extended injury layoff. Father time will eventually win, but Federer continues to milk the clock as well as anyone ever has.

Grade: A+

Rafael Nadal

With the way he started at this event, it sure looked like Nadal was headed for a rematch of last year’s final with Federer. However, he was forced to retire from his quarterfinal match with a hip injury and could barely walk in the press conference afterwards.

The good news is it is not another knee injury. The bad news is another part of the body is apparently now an issue for the 31-year-old Spaniard. He showed up and played well in Australia, which was in doubt until the last possible moment.

Even so, his extremely physical playing style continues to catch up with him. The clay court season is the one part of the calendar where Nadal is still the unquestioned man to beat. His upcoming schedule is in question, but not seeing him back on court until April or May is a possibility.

Grade: B

Underdogs

The top of the men’s game has been so good for so long. Thus, we do not see many fresh faces when we get deep into a major at the moment, but we got three in Australia.

2018 Australian Open men

Photo from news.com.au

Hyeon Chung used a unique blend of power and speed to become the first Korean man ever to reach a Grand Slam semifinal. The 21-year-old upset Djokovic and has a bright future. The same can be said of 23-year-old Brit Kyle Edmund, who upset a pair of top 12 seeds on his way to his first Grand Slam semifinal.

The loan bright spot for the American men was 26-year-old journeyman Tennys Sandgren, who came from nowhere to upset two top-10 seeds and reach the last eight. He had never previously won a main draw singles match at a major.

Cinderella stories in moderation are a good thing in tennis. They help balance out a top heavy sport.

Grade: A

Stan Wawrinka

Here we have another athlete with multiple Grand Slams that returned from a long injury layoff in Australia. Perhaps he should have waited a little bit longer. He was dismantled in straight sets by Sandgren in the second round.

It is always great to have the best players playing at the majors, but Wawrinka is currently a shadow of the player that has won three of them. Coming back from knee surgery at 32 years old is a tall order. He clearly has a lot of work to do.

Grade: C-

Novak Djokovic

Ordinarily, going out in the fourth round of a major would be disastrous for a 12-time major champion like Djokovic. It was his earliest exit at a Grand Slam since 2007. However, when you take into account that this was his first event in over five months due to an elbow injury, the result is not terrible.

It is obvious that he is still tweaking his game to protect his injured elbow, but coming out of this tournament healthy was the main objective. Mission accomplished as far as we know.

Grade: B-

Marin Čilić

2018 Australian Open men

Photo from USA Today

The Croat was the benefactor of Nadal’s injury in the quarterfinals and got the soft draw of Edmund in the semis. It was his performance in the final that had to turn some heads. He pushed Federer to five sets. Federer blew out an injured Čilić in last year’s Wimbledon final.

The 29-year-old is quietly putting together a really solid career in an era of all-time greats. The new World No. 3 has now reached at least the final in three of the four Grand Slams, including a surprise victory at the U.S. Open a few years back.

Each time he reaches the second week of a major, he looks like he belongs. That is half the battle.

Grade: A

Alexander Zverev

Quit is a very strong word in the context of sports, but that is exactly what the 20-year-old German did in the fifth set of his third-round defeat to Chung. He failed to win 10 total points in the set. The new World No. 5 has the game to make it big.

He defeated Federer and Djokovic in the finals of regular tour events last year and can be as great as he wants to be, but Zverev is still looking for his first appearance in a major quarterfinal.

This is the kind of performance that raises questions as to whether or not he has the mental toughness needed to go with his immense physical gifts.

Grade: D

Nick Kyrgios

Before the event, Kyrgios would have been a safer bet than Zverev as far as a talented youngster quitting at the business end of a match. After all, he was fined for “lack of best effort” in the not too distant past.

However, the controversial 22-year-old played well enough to back up his 17th seeding on home soil. He was taken out by Grigor Dimitrov in the round of 16, the third seed was just a tick better. There is no shame in that.

It has never been a question of talent with Kyrgios, but rather desire. With his early results in 2018, he has gone a long way towards answering those questions in a positive way.

Grade: B+

You can check out my grades for the women here.

 

Featured image from SI.com

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2018 Australian Open women

2018 Australian Open grades: The women

The 2018 Australian Open is officially in the books for the women. Yes, the top two seeds reached the final, but the tournament was anything but routine. Let’s see how the world’s best fared down under.

Caroline Wozniacki

Less than two years ago, the Dane’s ranking had fallen to 70 in the world. Now, she is finally a Grand Slam champion and will return to World No. 1 on Monday. She was down two match points in just the second round, but never flinched.

Wozniacki always hung her hat on defense and waited for opponents to miss. Great players rarely miss at the business end of majors. Thus, Grand Slam glory had always eluded her. In Australia this year though, Wozniacki built on a strong finish to last year and finally perfected a more balanced style that allowed her to finish points on her own more often. She was also among event leaders in aces.

Combine all of this with the fact that Wozniacki is still one of the best movers and defenders in the world, and you get a Grand Slam champion. She has had a career and personal life full of ups and downs. It is hard not to be extremely happy for her.

Grade: A+

Simona Halep

The Romanian was narrowly denied a Grand Slam winner’s trophy by a player who was just a little braver down the stretch. All three of Halep’s major finals have followed that script. However, it sure felt like she turned a corner at this event. Halep’s issue has always been mental toughness and folding in big moments.

2018 Australian Open women

Photo from The Australian

After rolling her ankle in the first round and being down match point in both the third round and the semis, there was plenty of opportunity for Halep to fold. However, she instead dug deeper than she ever has to reach the final.

After this gritty effort, it is hard not to believe Halep will make the ultimate breakthrough sooner rather than later.

Grade: A    

Angelique Kerber

The 2016 Aussie champion appears to be close to that kind of form again in 2018. After falling out of the top 20 in 2017, the left-handed German grinder came into Melbourne on a winning streak that included a title to start the year in Sydney.

She demolished some really good players on her way to the semifinals. There, she came within an eyelash of beating Halep. With the way she was playing, it has to be disappointing for Kerber to leave the Australian Open without any hardware.

Even so, she looks happy to be on the court again and is well-positioned to be a factor all season long.

Grade: B+

Maria Sharapova

Is the third round where a five-time major winner like Sharapova wants to be bowing out? Of course not, but people that are writing off Sharapova after her blowout loss to Kerber need to slow down.  Every other time Sharapova has been written off by the majority of the masses, she has gotten back to the top.

Keep in mind, the Russian is attempting her first full season since 2014 due to injuries and suspension. Her comeback began in April with no ranking. She will be World No. 41 on Monday. That is pretty good folks.

If Sharapova is still unseeded at the majority of events, unhealthy and bowing out in the third round of majors in a few months, then we can talk about her being done. At the moment, Sharapova’s situation is not great, but it is also far from dyer.

Grade: C   

Top ranked American women

Things looked great for American ladies tennis as 2018 came calling. The U.S. won the Fed Cup title last year as well as claiming all four semifinal spots at the U.S. Open. Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and CoCo Vandeweghe were all highly seeded in Melbourne, and deep runs for all were a reasonable expectation.

However, Keys was the only one who managed to win a match. She was whipped by Kerber in the last eight. Williams had a tough draw and Vandeweghe was ill, but the history books don’t care. Serena Williams will be back next month.

Still, it is hard to look at Australia as anything other than a complete bust for the women who set New York on fire just a few months ago.

Grade: D+

Elina Svitolina

The fourth seeded Ukrainian matched her best major result by reaching the quarters. However, the odds makers’ early tournament favorite had a cakewalk draw to reach her first semi or perhaps go even further.

She did not face a single seeded player and was still blasted off the court by a bigger hitter. This script is becoming all too familiar for Svitolina at the majors. If she was unable to make the semis or better with this draw, it makes you wonder if she will ever deliver.

The good news is time is still on the 23-year-old’s side, but the questions continue to linger.

Grade: C-

Garbiñe Muguruza

Ever since winning in Cincinnati last summer, early losses and injuries have piled up for the reigning Wimbledon champ. She has not even reached a semifinal and failed to finish both of her Australian Open tune-up events.

The Spaniard was upset in the second round at the year’s first major. Quite frankly, she looked miserable on the court and either needs to take extended time off to get healthy or make some changes and play her way through this slump.

Grade: D-

Elise Mertens

2018 Australian Open women

Photo from heraldsun.com.au

It is always nice to end on a positive note. Belgium has struggled to make an impact in the tennis world since the retirements of all-time greats Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin. However, the Clijsters academy has produced a prospect to be excited about.

Mertens came in to the Australian Open fresh off a title defense at a small event in Hobart, but was still unseeded. She hit her way to the semifinals highlighted by a dominant quarterfinals win over Svitolina. She lost a competitive match to Wozniacki in the semis. The 22-year-old is a bit of an awkward mover, but can do damage with both the forehand and backhand.

We have seen several players announce their arrival with surprising deep runs at majors in recent years. Most have struggled to back up their initial breakthrough. Only time will tell if Mertens will fall into that category. For now though, life is good for the new top 20 entrant.

Grade: A

Be sure to check back in a couple days for my men’s grades.

 

Featured image from mirror.co.uk

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NFL head coach hires

How to help and how not to help an NFL quarterback

The NFL world is simply waiting on the Super Bowl for the next week or so. After that game, Matt Patricia and Josh McDaniels are expected to take the head coaching jobs in Detroit and Indianapolis respectively. This will fill the remaining head coaching vacancies in the league.

Like every other year, many of the new coaches are inheriting murky quarterback situations. Thus, it is hard to predict how they will fare until the quarterback questions are answered.

However, two of the new head coaches inherit no quarterback questions whatsoever. The Lions and Titans have quarterbacks that have been reasonably successful in the NFL, but need to get to the next level and start winning playoff games on a consistent basis. One of these teams is about to make the right hire for that to happen, and the other has already made the wrong one.

The right hire: Matt Patricia

NFL head coach hires

photo: freep.com

Like McDaniels and Indianapolis, Patricia will have to fight against the dismal head coaching track record of Patriots assistants over the years, including McDaniels. The good news is Patricia inherits something that many other new head coaches would kill for, Matthew Stafford.

Stafford has never won anything important in this league, but he has also rarely, if ever, been the problem in Detroit. He has thrown almost twice as many touchdown passes as interceptions in his career and flirts with throwing for 5,000 yards every year. It is beyond debate that Stafford can play at a high level.

The problem in Detroit in recent years has been defense, discipline and situational football. This year, Detroit narrowly missed out on the playoffs, finishing at 9-7. They lost games when they scored 24, 26 and 38 points. One or two more defensive stops and the Lions could have done damage in the playoffs.

The now famous Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary clip below from the NFL’s YouTube channel is also worth revisiting. This was a December game dripping with playoff implications. A facemask penalty gave the Packers an untimed down for a prayer into the end zone. The Lions inexplicably had defenders in the middle of the field on the final play and lost because of it.

Fortunately for Lions fans, Patricia cut his teeth on defense and comes from New England, where discipline and situational football are taught as well as they have ever been. Regardless of whether Patricia keeps highly regarded offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter or not, Stafford will continue to produce.

All Patricia has to do for the Lions to become factors when the weather gets cold every year is correct the mistakes detailed in the previous two paragraphs. Stafford has the talent to get this franchise where it wants to go. Moreover, Patricia has the pedigree and the specific knowledge the Lions need to make everything around its franchise quarterback just a little bit better.

The wrong hire: Mike Vrabel

NFL head coach hires

Photo: oregonlive.com

Yes, Mike Mularkey won the Titans a playoff game. However, Marcus Mariota threw more interceptions than touchdown passes this year. So, moving on from Mularkey in the hopes of finding a head coach who can better help develop a 24-year-old quarterback is perfectly reasonable.

What makes absolutely no sense is hiring a first time NFL head coach that has only spent one year as an NFL coordinator to accomplish the above goal. It makes even less sense when you add in the fact that Mike Vrabel’s one year as a coordinator was spent overseeing a defense that gave up a league worst 436 total points this year.

Now there is more to being an NFL head coach than just developing a young quarterback, but you do not have to be a genius to figure out that Vrabel does not have the background or the proven track record to get the best out of Mariota.

Vrabel has to pick the right offensive coordinator. If he does, he has a puncher’s chance of not crashing and burning in Tennessee. However, Titans fans should be nervous about Vrabel picking the offensive coordinator. He has already said he wants to put his young quarterback in a Chip Kelly style offense. Chip Kelly’s offense was nothing short of a complete disaster in the NFL. Why anyone would want to explore that again is beyond me, even though Mariota played for Kelly at Oregon.

Tennessee and Detroit are both franchises that have a great deal of hope tied to their franchise quarterbacks under the age of 30. The difference is the Lions organization has been holding Stafford back for years now. Conversely, Mariota is holding back the entire Titans franchise at the moment. Those are both very delicate situations to be in. Detroit made the perfect hire for its situation, while Tennessee completely whiffed.

 

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2018 Australian Open

Melbourne mayhem: the 2018 Australian Open so far

We are at about the halfway point of the 2018 Australian Open. Like any other tennis major, there is no shortage of storylines. Here is a closer look.

Men’s all-time greats are still the greats

With Andy Murray not in Australia at all and injury concerns surrounding Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, there was considerable thought that we could see an out of the box champion in Melbourne.

Think again. Between them, defending champion Roger Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have dropped a grand total of one set. Upsets have been more than common to this point. In fact, between both singles draws, a total of seven players ranked outside the top 70 are still alive. Despite that, the upset bug has not gotten close to the best of the best.

Federer and Nadal have been particularly dominant on serve and have not played from behind at all. Djokovic hasn’t played in half a year but is getting better and better.

Especially with Juan Martin del Potro and Alexander Zverev already on flights home, it is a virtual guarantee that one of these three legends will add to their already fantastic career numbers. Whether or not this speaks to the quality of the trio or is an indictment on the rest of the field is always a debate.

For now though, the cream continues to rise to the top.

Halep toughing it out

Despite being ranked World No. 1, Simona Halep has struggled in big matches for the last couple years. She blew a huge lead in the French Open final last year and lost in the first round of two other majors.

2018 Australian Open storylines

Photo from eriosport

Thus, Halep could have easily folded when she rolled her ankle in her opener at this event. Instead, she has done just the opposite. The Romanian has grinded her way into the last 16. This includes a third-round victory over American Lauren Davis that was one of the longest women’s matches in Australian Open history. Halep had to save three match points to win 15-13 in the final set.

Halep relies on her movement and isn’t moving at anywhere near 100 percent. Her body may not allow her to win her first Grand Slam title at this particular event.

Even so, she has clearly made some progress during the offseason. More than anything, that is what will eventually earn her that prized Grand Slam title.

Kerber dominating

2017 was a year that saw Angelique Kerber start out as the top-ranked player in the world and holder of two major titles. The German lefty finished last year without winning a tournament and ranked outside the top 20.

Kerber has rebounded in a big way in 2018. She is undefeated on the year and has already picked up a trophy in Sydney. If you are going purely on current form, Kerber is the pick to win this title.

2018 Australian Open storylines

Photo from sport.bt.com

In a battle of the only two remaining Grand Slam champions in the draw, the 21st seed needed just over an hour to send a suddenly resurgent Maria Sharapova packing. Unless your name is Serena Williams, it is eye-popping to see Sharapova dominated the way she was by Kerber. Sharapova’s countless detractors will be eager to write her tennis eulogy after this defeat.

However, the 6-1 6-3 score line had more to do with Kerber being astonishingly good than it did with Sharapova being bad. Any player who can have a single-digit unforced error total after playing two sets against a player of Sharapova’s caliber deserves nothing more than a tip of the cap and to be considered the favorite in a wide-open women’s field as we head into the second week.

Television coverage of the Australian Open continues nightly for another week on Tennis Channel as well as the ESPN family of networks.

 

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NFL Conference Championship preview

NFL Conference Championship weekend preview and picks

We can only hope the NFL’s Conference Championship weekend is half as competitive as last weekend was. Three of the four games were nail biters, which made for some strange results in terms of predictions.

As has been the case throughout the postseason, games will be picked both straight up and against the spread. All point spreads are from rtsports.com at the time of my writing. You can see last week’s picks here.

Last week: 1-3, 3-1 against the spread.

Postseason totals: 4-4, 5-3 against the spread.

Jaguars at Patriots

Three teams have gone into New England and won a playoff game in the Brady-Belichick era, two Ravens teams led by John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco and one of Rex Ryan’s Jets teams. All these teams had one thing in common: They ran the ball and were very good on defense.

With the top ranked rushing offense and a sack happy defense that has dominated all year long, Jacksonville certainly fits that bill. This will not be a simple coronation for the Patriots. Just because the Jaguars approach to winning games is fairly bland does not mean they do not deserve to be here.

That defense will keep this interesting for four quarters. However, there are three pieces of insurmountable bad news for the underdogs. First, Blake Bortles is still their quarterback. Second, Tom Brady is the opposing quarterback. Finally, Bill Belichick is not going to run 15-yard pass plays on 4th and 1 or run an onside kick with two timeouts and more than two minutes left like Pittsburgh did last week.

One of the biggest yet simplest reasons New England has been so good for so long is they never make in game strategy calls that leave even casual fans scratching their heads in the moment. As good as they are, the Jaguars needed a lot of help to outscore the Steelers last week. New England will not be so generous this week.

Winner: New England

Good bet: Patriots (-9) NE 31 Jac 20

Vikings at Eagles

Something has to give here. These two teams have mastered the art of the playoff choke job over the years. Now one of them is going to the Super Bowl.

At this point in this season, these teams are going about winning games the same way. They both rely on their great defenses to make up for limitations at quarterback. Make no mistake, Case Keenum and Nick Foles have limitations.

Foles only threw for 246 yards last week against Atlanta. However, he did not make a big mistake that crippled the team. When you have a defense that is capable of holding what was a hot Falcons offense to just 10 points, that formula is good enough.

NFL Conference Championship preview

Photo from espn.com

Keenum tried to make that crippling mistake with his late third quarter interception that sparked the Saints comeback last week. However, he and the Vikings were bailed out by a miracle finish that was more blind luck than anything else. There is no shame in that. Every Super Bowl champion there has ever been has required some degree of luck.

What this game comes down to is both teams will try to run the ball. It is hard to imagine either having much success against two of the best front sevens in football. So which average quarterback will do a better job of getting the ball to their playmaking pass catchers?

Well, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen each caught over 60 balls in the regular season and accounted for several of Minnesota’s 10 third down conversions last week. Meanwhile, the Eagles pass catchers have virtually disappeared since Carson Wentz went out. Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffery had seven catches combined last week. They need to have somewhere around seven catches each should Philadelphia struggle on the ground in this one.

Moreover, if there is a weak spot on either defense, it is the Philadelphia secondary. They got torched by the lowly Giants twice this year.  There is no reason Diggs and Thielen should not carry their team to a home Super Bowl.

Winner: Minnesota

Good bet: Vikings (-3) Min 23 Phi 17

 

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2018 Australian Open preview

New year, same contenders: 2018 Australian Open men’s preview

As has been the case at most majors for the last decade, the number of men who can realistically win the 2018 Australian Open is much smaller than the number of women who can do so. Here are some interesting first-round matches to watch in Melbourne.

(14) Novak Djokovic vs. Donald Young – With Andy Murray finally deciding to undergo hip surgery and on the shelf until who knows when, it sure is nice to have a 12-time major winner like Djokovic in Australia, who is apparently healthy enough to answer the bell.

Donald Young was once a child prodigy. At 28, the left-handed American will likely never live up to the massive expectations once placed on him. Even so, he has turned himself into a serviceable pro who is always ranked in the 40-80 range.

2018 Australian Open preview

Photo from ausopen.com

Djokovic could have drawn much simpler opponents for his first official match since Wimbledon. He is still quick to point out that he is not fully healthy, but the Serb at 85 percent is better than most guys at 100 percent.

(12) Juan Martín del Potro vs. Frances Tiafoe – The big Argentine is playing his best ball since winning the U.S. Open in 2009 and will return to the top 10 on Monday. He is even hitting a non-sliced backhand for the first time since multiple wrist surgeries cost him almost two years.

Tiafoe is arguably the most promising American male prospect in tennis. He made a name for himself by pushing Roger Federer to five sets at the U.S. Open last year. In just his seventh Grand Slam main draw, this is probably above his current weight class, but this should still be a fun watch.

(19) Tomáš Berdych vs. Alex De Minaur – Three weeks ago, this matchup would not have caught anyone’s eye, but de Minaur made a semifinal in Brisbane followed by a final in Sydney playing as a home country Wild Card. The 19-year-old beat some good players in the process too, including former Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic. He will take on another Wimbledon runner-up here.

While still a very good player, Berdych is on the down side of his career. De Minaur’s speed and somewhat unorthodox style will make the veteran work hard at the very least.

Predictions

Doing predictions for the men’s Grand Slams requires much less analysis than the women at the moment. The tennis media gets a lot of heat for focusing on the “Big Four” too much. However, the fact is Djokovic, Murray, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal all missed large portions of 2017. Yet, they all managed to win at least one event. Federer and Nadal split the four majors.

For that reason, there is no indication that this Grand Slam will be any different, even with Murray missing altogether and Djokovic and Nadal still recovering from knee and elbow injuries. Whatever combination of those guys shows up at a Grand Slam are the favorites until someone proves they aren’t.

However, there are a few players that have a shot at upsetting the norm. Here is a look at that small group.

The young guns – If none of the younger players could lift a Grand Slam trophy last year, it is tough to believe they will do it this year. Despite that, No. 5 Dominic Thiem, No. 4 Alexander Zverev and No. 17 Nick Kyrgios have all had flashes of brilliance in the recent past, but have just two trips to major semifinals between them.

Kyrgios is particularly maddening. You will be hard-pressed to find anyone with more natural talent. Yet, he is still more known for his off-court antics and on-court tantrums than his game. The Aussie won in Brisbane to start the year, but it is so hard to trust him. Tennis is dying for more personalities. If Kyrgios ever “gets it,” he can help with that.

2018 Australian Open preview

Photo from theguardian.com

Thiem and Zverev stand in Djokovic’s way before a semifinal with Federer. However, they have a grand total of two wins against Djokovic between them.

Juan Martin del Potro – Injuries are the only thing that has kept del Potro from creating a “Big Five” over the years. His forehand may be one of the greatest shots ever. He has beaten Federer and Nadal at the business end of majors as well as Djokovic twice at the Olympics. As noted above, his opener is intriguing. It is his possible quarterfinal matchup with Federer that might be the defending champion’s toughest hurdle.

Grigor Dimitrov – The third seeded Bulgarian is a few years older than the young guns, and he was able to take advantage of last year’s high profile injuries. He won the Masters event in Cincinnati and the year-end championships in London. While he is still looking for his first Grand Slam title, he seems to be a little further along in terms of week in week out consistency than the youngsters.

Semifinal predictions: Federer d. Djokovic. Dimitrov d. Nadal

Championship match: Federer d. Dimitrov to defend his title

The Australian Open begins Sunday night at 7 p.m. ET across the ESPN family of networks and Tennis Channel. I will tweet out my complete picks for both singles draws before play starts. You can follow me on Twitter below and check out my ladies preview here!

 

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