Monday, February 19, 2018

Russian OAR Not?

It's not like I can really blame NBC's broadcasters for being confused, but I've heard the Russian team called about five different things during these Olympics.  Officially, of course, Russia isn't competing in PyeongChang, and the individuals are referred to as "Olympic Athletes from Russia."  But there have been plenty of variations of that name.

"Olympic Athlete Representing Russia" has been a common one, even though that is 100 percent incorrect since they technically aren't representing Russia at all.  Terry Gannon is among those who are just calling a spade a spade and saying "Russia."  What are they gonna do anyway?  Nothing!  Then there are the announcers who've given up entirely and just say "OAR" (which Kenny Albert might be doing just because it's quicker).

We all knew when the IOC came up with this compromise allowing Russians to compete in PyeongChang that is was going to sound weird and be a little awkward.  But it's been even more awkward than anyone anticipated.  Even the stadium PA announcers are having a hard time with what to call them.  (They also need to decide if it's singular or plural, although the hockey team consists of multiple people, so it has to be Athletes there.)

The IOC is responsible for most, if not all, of this confusion.  When they suspended the Russian Olympic Committee in December, they also threw them a bit of a bone by including the word "Russia" in the name of the team that the approved athletes would be on.  They just as easily could've been "Independent Olympic Athletes" like the Kuwaitis were in Rio.

But to act like there's no "Russian" team here is ridiculous, especially when you consider OAR is the fourth-largest team, which means everyone is going to have to talk about it throughout the Olympics.  And, frankly, that's where the "OAR" designation is kinda stupid.  Everyone knows that they're Russian.  And everyone knows the situation.  So there's no use in pretending it's anything else.

When the IOC announced Russia's suspension and this OAR compromise, I was actually on board with it.  Punishing the country for its doping problem was definitely warranted, but it would've been unfair to clean athletes to take away their ability to compete.  I know it wasn't the most popular decision, especially among some high-ranking Olympic officials.  They would've preferred a complete suspension, with the clean athletes as collateral damage.  That doesn't sit well with me, and it doesn't sit well with IOC President Thomas Bach either, so he decided against that.

Instead, the IOC invited individual Russians to be a part of the OAR team.  Most people expected that would mean a handful of Russian athletes, not an entire team.  That rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, and I can see their point.  What was the point of the suspension then?  The only difference is that they can't wear Russian uniforms or wave Russian flags.  Although, it was generally understood that the suspension would be lifted in time for the Russians to march under their own flag at the Closing Ceremony.

There were certain conditions placed on the OAR team that most assumed, if met, would lead to that reinstatement in time for the Closing Ceremony.  None of these restrictions seemed particularly harsh, which is why the assumption was the Closing Ceremony would be Russia's grand return.  That may be in jeopardy now, though.  Because the IOC's nightmare scenario may, in fact, be playing out.

One of the requirements placed on the Russian athletes was signing an anti-doping pledge, especially important considering the reason for Russia's suspension in the first place.  Well, that took a big hit when it was announced that Aleksandr Krushelnitskiy, who won a bronze medal in mixed doubles curling, had failed a doping test.  Any other country would've been bad.  But OAR?  Catastrophic.  Both for Russia and the IOC.

Now, I'm not going to get into why a curler would feel the need to take a performance-enhancing substance.  But for it to be a Russian is devastating in a number of ways.  For starters, the IOC extended invitations to those Russian athletes it deemed "clean."  Now they've got mud all over their faces.  And the Russian athletes had to know that they would be subjected to increased testing because their every movement in PyeongChang was going to be intensely scrutinized.

Details are still emerging in the Krsuhelnitskiy case, so I don't want to pass judgment just yet.  But this is a bad look for the IOC.  A guy they deemed "clean" in the country they suspended for doping gets busted.  Whatever the reason (some are saying meldonium, the same drug that prompted Maria Sharapova's suspension), it's definitely a black mark.  And it's got a lot of people saying "I told you so."

Whether or not Russia is reinstated at the end of the Games, it'll still be two and a half years until Tokyo, so you'd have to think they'll be back competing under their own flag in Tokyo.  Which, whether you think they should be there or not, you've gotta agree is better than "OAR."  A compromise name that just didn't work.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Disappointing So Far

You wouldn't know it if you've been watching NBC over the past week, but there are more than three sports in the Winter X-Games...sorry, I mean Winter Olympics.  So, if you were tuning in to watch something other than snowboarding, figure skating or a weather delay at alpine skiing, you would've been better off watching NBCSN.  Because the coverage on the broadcast network has definitely left something to be desired.

This is an odd position for me to be in.  I'm usually the one defending NBC for their programming decisions during the Olympics.  And they have done some things that I like (more on that later).  But, overall, their coverage of the PyeongChang Games has been incredibly disappointing.  At least in prime time.

Prior to the Games, NBC wouldn't shut up about the fact that they were going to have live coverage every night and that the entire nation would see the prime time show at once.  That decision was a good one.  It's 2018.  We've reached a point where they were no longer able to get away with making the West Coast wait three hours to watch stuff on TV, especially when those events are live.  It also didn't make much sense to make them wait when they're used to the early start times for the Super Bowl, World Series, etc.

As for the live thing, that wasn't particularly difficult to achieve.  South Korea is 14 hours ahead of the East Coast, so NBC was able to use its incredible influence within the Olympic Movement to get certain events scheduled for the morning local time, which is prime time the night before in the U.S.  They did this 10 years ago in Beijing, and they'll likely do it again at the next two Olympics as this tour of the Far East continues.  I don't particularly blame them for their choice of events, either.  The picked the ones where they thought there was a chance at an American gold medal (where, for the most part, they've been right) or they know people are going to watch regardless (figure skating).

But, they've been a bit preoccupied with the live thing, which I think is my biggest problem with the coverage.  Nothing but live events means a lot of down time, and, for some reason, NBC has struggled with filler.  Instead, we get extra commercials or nonsensical pieces/interviews (cough, Adam Rippon, cough) that serve no purpose other than to kill time.  And, the weather delays at alpine skiing have been a double whammy for NBC.  They've forced them to find a way to fill all the time they'd allotted for skiing while also screwing up their plans for the days when those events were rescheduled.

It's also felt like the broadcasts have been catered towards West Coast viewers.  Not only is the prime time show live coast-to-coast, the Pacific time zone ends up getting an extra half hour while the rest of us are sent to local news.  And the late night show, which has been renamed "Primetime Plus", is essentially just an extension of prime time coverage.  The nice thing about the late night show, though, was that it was always a bit lighter and a good way to wind down at the end of the day.  If you missed it, big deal.  Now they essentially have prime time coverage going until 1:30-2:00 in the morning...and people have to go to work the next day!

NBC has shown some tape-delayed events in prime time (as well as on the entire daytime show), mainly as filler before the live events start.  However, sometimes the taped events they plan on showing end up getting bumped by skiing or figure skating or snowboarding that runs long.  And, if an American didn't win, good luck seeing them.  Case in point, the other day, they showed the quarterfinals of a women's event in short track because of Maame Biney.  Just the quarterfinals.  Not the semis.  Not the final.  Only Mike Tiricio going "by the way, the Italian won the gold medal" after they kicked it back to the studio.  Or yesterday, when they left Nordic Combined in the middle to got to NBC News coverage of the shooting (which obviously was the right call), and just left us hanging regarding what happened in the event.

In past Games, complaining about NBC's coverage seemed to be an unofficial Olympic event (although, sometimes that was complaining for the sake of complaining, I think).  I think the "problem" people had wasn't so much the taped events (in London and Sochi, for example, there wasn't much NBC could do about that since prime time here is the middle of the night there) as it was their inability to watch them live and not having a choice about it.  Which, in hindsight, was a legitimate gripe.

For years, NBC resisted streaming events live if they planned on showing them later on TV.  It wasn't until London 2012 that they started showing every event live online.  In Rio, they added prime time coverage on NBCSN opposite the prime time coverage on NBC, obviously showing different events.  But, oh, how times have changed.  Now, they're actively encouraging people to watch stuff online and on cable.

The coverage on NBCSN has been a stark contrast to the coverage on NBC.  And by that I mean it's been tremendous.  They've had several days of 24-hour coverage on NBCSN, which obviously can't all be live (and nobody seems to have a problem with that).  The NBCSN coverage hasn't just featured sports like cross country and biathlon and short track, either.  They've shown entire events, not just edited portions.

My favorite thing about NBC's use of NBCSN, though, is that it's essentially their overflow channel during prime time when there are multiple live events taking place (another benefit of time-shifting your coverage).  That's also where the stuff that gets bumped off NBC ends up being shown and where coverage picks up if they run out of time on NBC (which happened during women's snowboard qualifying).

And the decision to have full coverage of the figure skating on NBCSN was very smart.  They started this in Sochi, which is when Tara & Johnny were unleashed on the world, so that people could watch it live in the afternoon before NBC's delayed coverage at night.  By doing it again in PyeongChang, they've been able to appease the figure skating audience by showing them every skater, but still show another marquee event (also live) on NBC.

That decision was a good one.  So was Mike Tirico.  When he was hired by NBC, it was pretty clear he was the heir apparent as Olympic host whenever Bob Costas decided to step away.  And that transition has been incredibly smooth.  He has a different style than Costas, but is a perfectly capable host and will only get better as time goes on (and he gets more to do beyond throwing it from one event to another).

Has NBC's coverage of the PyeongChang Olympics been serviceable?  Yes.  Has it been great?  No.  Are the higher-ups at the Peacock Network satisfied?  Most likely.  I just personally wish the nightly show on the broadcast network was a little bit better.  Because, the cable coverage, like the PyeongChang winds, has been blowing it away.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Olympic-Sized Idiocy

It's been an incredible opening weekend of the PyeongChang Games!  And I'm glad that the competition in Korea has been the story.  Because there were a pair of stories just prior to the start of the Olympics that had the chance to overshadow the competition.  Fortunately, that hasn't happened, mainly because people quickly dismissed the comments for the idiocy that they were.

I wish it was as easy for me to overlook such ignorance.  I can't, though.  Because they both really bothered me.  The first was Shani Davis throwing a temper tantrum that he wasn't chosen as the American flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony.  The other was much more disturbing.  The Fox News executive who, rather than celebrating Team USA for its diversity, was critical of it instead.

The Shani Davis thing is a lot more straight forward and much easier to tackle, so we'll start there.  Luger Erin Hamlin was announced as the Team USA flag bearer on Thursday night, a tremendous honor for any Olympian.  But leave it to Shani Davis to take that moment from Erin Hamlin and make it all about himself.

Selecting the flag bearer is actually a pretty meticulous process.  Each team chooses a captain, and that captain chooses a nominee from their sport.  The captains then all get together and vote on a flag bearer from those candidates.  If there's a tie, there's a coin toss.  Those were the rules set forth by the USOC.  So, when Hamlin and Davis each got four votes, it went to a coin toss.  They didn't arbitrarily decide to have one.  Everyone knew going in that was the process.  Hamlin won the coin flip and was named the USA flag bearer.

How this process is at all controversial I have no idea, but evidently Shani Davis didn't like the idea of letting a coin toss decide it, and he took to Twitter to whine.  He spewed off all of his stats, implying that alone should've made him the selection.  I'm not going to disagree with his athletic credentials.  That's why he was the speed skating nominee.  But there's also much more that goes into it than just your athletic credentials.

If Davis had left it at that, it wouldn't have been an issue.  But he took it to a complete other level by ending it with #blackhistorymonth, implying that there was some sort of racial motivation for his losing a coin toss.  That's not only the furthest thing from the truth, it's a totally asinine thing to even think.  It's also an incredibly immature and disrespectful reaction.  And it only served to make Shani Davis look bad.  He came off as an incredibly sore loser.  Nothing else.

He took Erin Hamlin's moment and made it all about himself.  Fortunately, NBC didn't mention Shani Davis at all during the Opening Ceremony.  Davis, by the way, stayed back at the Village and pouted instead of marching in the Opening Ceremony, although he claimed he was never planning on going and only reconsidered when he found out he was in the running to be flag bearer.  Sure, Shani.

And just when I though Shani Davis would provide us with the most idiotic, ignorant comments in the pre-Olympic build up, I was proven wrong.  The Fox News guy (whose name I don't know and I don't care to know) absolutely takes the cake in that department.

This year's U.S. Olympic team is one of the most diverse in history.  The USOC is proud of that diversity, and rightfully so.  (That is, after all, one of the basic principles of this country, that everyone is created equal.)  But the Fox News guy evidently has a problem with this for some reason.  He even went so far as to suggest the USOC had some sort of quota system and even recommended a new motto: "Darker, Gayer, Different."

Now, you don't need me to tell you how wrong his views are, in a number of ways.  But I'll start with the easiest counterpoint.  The U.S. Olympic Team is the hardest in the world to make.  In order to make it, you have to make it.  Maame Biney made the team.  She wasn't put on it because she's black.  Adam Rippon was selected to the team because was one of the three best skaters, not because he's gay.  Chloe Kim's on the team because she's the best in the world at women's halfpipe snowboarding.  And, to go back to Rio, Ibtihaj Muhammad fencing in a hijab made for a nice story, but it had nothing to do with why she was on the team.

To imply that the USOC has some sort of diversity quota is an insult to all those athletes who make the team.  It totally disregards all the work they put in, all the hours of training, to achieve their goal of representing their country at the Olympics.  Likewise, to suggest that the USOC cares more about having a diverse team than a competitive one shows how little he understands the Olympic mindset.  The first thing everyone looks at is the medal count.  The USOC chooses the team capable of bringing home the most medals.  Plain and simple.  The ethnicity, sexuality, age, etc., of the athletes are irrelevant.

Although, the Fox News guy did make one good point in his (since deleted) article.  So I'll let him use his own words to contradict his entire point: "In the Olympics, let's focus on the winner of the race -- not the race of the winner."  I couldn't agree more.  They're all members of Team USA.  That's all that matters to me.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Olympic Medal Picks

The PyeongChang Olympics have started, and we're just hours away from the first medals being awarded.  For the first time, there are more than 100 events in a Winter Games (102 to be exact), and many of the new events are in freestyle skiing and snowboarding, so you'd figure that'll help to increase the medal total for the United States.

I do think the U.S. will come away with quite a haul in the new events, but I'm not going overboard with my expectations.  I'd rather undersell my prediction for American success than oversell it.  There are the easy gold medals to predict like the ones from Chloe Kim and Mikaela Shiffrin, but I'm seeing a lot of silver and bronze, too.  The American total will be well over 20, and it may even approach 30.  Top five?  Yes.  Number one?  Probably not.

They mentioned during the Opening Ceremony that the last time the Winter Olympics were in Asia, the United States won 13 medals in Nagano, then jumped all the way to 34 four years later in Salt Lake City.  There were several reasons for that, one of which was the new training facilities now available to American athletes.  Another was that the new events are ones Americans do well at.

That host country boost is something that you always consider at an Olympics, and it'll be no different here.  We know South Korea is going to do well in short track speed skating, but where else?  Well, they've got the top ranked athlete in men's skeleton, so I think that's a real possibility.  We could see some Korean medals in long track, too.  Should we see any in another sport, that would be a real surprise.

Meanwhile, I think there's a real chance that both New Zealand and Belgium could come away with gold medals.  We could also see Hungary win its first Winter medal since 1980 and Spain take its first since 1992.  Liechtenstein is the only country to have won medals in the Winter Games but not the Summer Games.  Their last was in 1988, but we could see them get one in alpine skiing.

Russia's technically not in PyeongChang, but still has the fourth-largest team.  As a result, OAR will still come away with plenty of medals.  I predict somewhere in the 15-20 range, which would easily put them in the top 10 of the medal standings.

As for who's going to end up atop the table, you've gotta look towards the usual suspects.  And by that I mean Norway and Germany.  Canada has established itself as a powerhouse, too.  In fact, the Canadians could be right up there with the Norwegians and Germans not only for the most overall medals, but for the most golds, too.

My top 10 medals standings includes everyone you'd expect.  You know the Dutch will clean up in speed skating (although probably not to the extent they did in Sochi), and traditional powers like Austria, France, Italy and Switzerland will get their regular share of medals.  The interesting thing to watch will be where the Asian countries end up.  I'm not just talking about our current Korean hosts.  I'm talking about the Chinese, the hosts of our next Games, too.  I see both of them just outside the top 10.  Same with Japan.  Although I do see the Japanese winning a bunch of golds.

Overall, I've got 31 countries ending up with places on the Olympic podium.  Norway finishes in the top spot in both total and gold medals, with Germany and Canada right behind.  I've got the United States in fourth, with the Russians rounding out the top five.  Here's my full top 10:

      1. Norway                     14-14-11          (39)
      2. Germany                   13-12-9           (34)           
      3. Canada                     12-10-12         (34)
      4. United States             6-12-7            (25)
      5. Russia                        4-7-7              (18)
      6. France                       8-4-4              (16)
      7. Sweden                      4-9-2              (15)
      8. Austria                      4-5-5              (14)
      9. Italy                          3-5-6              (14)
      10. Switzerland              4-4-4              (12)
South Korea I've got just outside the top 10.  I have the hosts finishing with 11 total medals, although eight golds would tie France for fourth in that category.  Japan is the only other country I have reaching double-figures in total medals.  I've got 10 Japanese medals, six of them gold.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

PyeongChang Preview

I don't know about anyone else, but I'm watching downhill skiing training runs right now and I'm loving it!  Yes, my two weeks of extreme sleep deprivation have begun.  I still don't understand why they need an extra day for the Winter Olympics than they do for the Summer, even though it's a third of the events, but I'll take this little taste before the cauldron is lit on Friday.  It's kinda like the soccer games in the Summer.

Anyway, I decided to break my Olympic preview up into two parts.  This first part will be about each of the different sports.  But I'm saving my medal picks for part two, which will come your way either before or after (but definitely not during) the Opening Ceremony.

There are 102 events in PyeongChang, which is a Winter Olympic record.  As a result, the USA has the largest Winter Olympic team ever for any nation.  And the USA is expected to challenge for the top of the medals table.  At the very least, Team USA should surpass the 28 medals (that's the current total, which is still subject to change) won in Sochi.

Alpine Skiing
Two of the top female alpine skiers in the world are American.  Mikaela Shiffrin won giant slalom gold as an 18-year-old in Sochi.  Now she's an all-around skier and a medal contender in at least three events.  Lindsey Vonn, meanwhile, is arguably the greatest female alpine skier ever.  And she's back after missing the Sochi Games due to injury.  Vonn and Shiffrin should bring home quite a haul.  As for the men, veteran Ted Ligety looks like the best medal shot in his fourth Olympics.

Cross Country Skiing
We could see some history in cross country skiing.  The United States has won a grand total of one Olympic medal in the sport--a silver in 1976.  That could definitely change in PyeongChang.  There are actually two Americans who are medal contenders.  Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall are both capable of ending up on the podium, and that first-ever American gold in cross country isn't completely out of the question.  Although, that would require Marit Bjoergen not winning one.  The 10-time Olympic champion has a chance to become the most decorated Winter Olympian ever if she wins four medals here.

That silver 42 years ago is still one more medal than the USA's entire all-time haul in the sport of biathlon.  That could change, too.  Lowell Bailey won the 20 kilometer event at the 2017 World Championships.  His Olympic results haven't been great.  But he wasn't a defending World Champion in either of his previous Olympic appearances.

Ski Jumping
The only American Olympic medal in ski jumping was a bronze in 1924 (which wasn't even awarded until 50 years later).  Don't expect that to change.  Poland's Kamil Stoch is the top ski jumper in the world, while Germany and Norway have the top teams.

Nordic Combined
Likewise, Germans and Norwegians are favored in Nordic combined, the marriage of ski jumping and cross country.  The U.S. has been successful at Nordic combined in recent Olympics (Bill DeMong won a gold and Johnny Spillane won three silvers in Vancouver).  Norway and Germany won seven of the nine medals awarded in the sport four years ago, though.  It probably won't be much different here.

Freestyle Skiing
New events in freestyle skiing means more medal opportunities for the United States.  Of the 10 freestyle events, there's at least one American medal contender in about seven of them.  The only real exception is aerials, which is dominated by China and Belarus.  The other freestyle skiing event where an American medal would be a surprise is men's moguls.  Mikael Kingsbury of Canada is the overwhelming favorite, but Korea could grab a medal from Choi Jae Woo.

As the IOC continues in its quest to turn the Winter Olympics into the Winter X Games, they've added still more snowboarding events to the program.  (There are now 20 events, or 20 percent of the entire Winter Olympic program, between freestyle skiing and snowboarding.)  And since the USA is really good at snowboarding, those added events should serve to increase the American medal haul.  There are familiar names like Shaun White and Jamie Anderson back for more, while Chloe Kim, who many think is the next big thing, will make her Olympic debut as the favorite in women's halfpipe.

Speed Skating
Calling the Sochi Games a disappointment for USA Speed Skating would be an incredible understatement.  Not a single medal (well, yeah, the Dutch won literally all of them).  They think they've solved the problems that plagued the team four years ago, so a return to form seems likely.  Brittany Bowe and Heather Bergsma both look like solid medal contenders (although, Bergsma is married to a Dutch skater and lives in the Netherlands).  The US could also win a medal in the new mass start event, which is kinda like a cross between short track and track cycling.

Short Track
NBC did the Olympic organizers a huge favor by getting the figure skating competition put in the morning PyeongChang time.  Because that meant short track got bumped to the evenings.  And short track happens to be South Korea's national sport.  Expect the atmosphere to be great and the crowds to be raucous, as South Korea will likely pick up a whole bunch of medals in short track.  Although, it's a little disappointing that Viktor Ahn wasn't one of the approved Russian athletes (for reasons that are still somewhat unclear).  Because it would've made for quite a story (and scene) to see him competing in South Korea after unceremoniously being cut from the Korean team.

Figure Skating
This has the makings of a fascinating figure skating competition.  Russia could easily go 1-2 in the ladies' event, but the bronze medal is definitely up for grabs.  The pairs competition, meanwhile, is wide open between China and Germany.  In the men's event, though, we could see quite a battle between defending Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan and American Nathan Chen, who dazzles with his arsenal of quadruple jumps.  The ice dancing competition is really the one to watch, though.  Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the gold medalists in 2010 and silver medalists in 2014, are again the gold medal favorites.  That is, unless you think the French team of Papadakis and Cizeron is.  Then there's that bronze medal.  Which could go to any of the three American teams. 

Russia, Canada, USA was the order of finish in the inaugural team competition four years ago.  That should be the case again here.  Although, I wouldn't be shocked if Canada and Russia swapped places.

Erin Hamlin will be the U.S. flag bearer in the Opening Ceremony.  She won a bronze in Sochi, becoming the first American ever to win an individual Olympic medal in luge.  Hamlin will end her career in PyeongChang, where she could end up on the podium again.  The favorites, of course, are German.  Germany won all four gold medals in Sochi and could sweep again.  They're that good.

Since women's bobsledding was added to the Olympics in Salt Lake City, the U.S. has been one of the dominant countries.  And they're once again medal contenders, along with the Canadians and (surprise, surprise) the Germans.  The women's competition will also see Nigeria make its debut, and we'll also see a women's sled from Jamaica for the first time (although, sadly, no Jamaican men's sled).  Speaking of the men, the USA is still recovering from the devastating death of No. 1 driver Steve Holcomb, the gold medalist in Vancouver.  Russia won gold on home ice in Sochi, but that's one of the many Russian medals from Sochi that's since been taken away.  Canada and Germany should battle for gold.

A Korean is ranked No. 1 in the world in men's skeleton, so you know the home fans will be into this one.  You've also got the Dukurs brothers from Latvia and American Matt Antoine.  We've seen medalists from all over in women's skeleton throughout its Olympic history.  But this time, it's looking like the traditional sliding powers.  And I'm, of course, talking about the Germans and Canadians.

Mixed doubles curling is kinda fun, I've gotta admit it.  It's a much quicker game than the traditional version.  The American team in mixed doubles is the brother-sister duo of Matt and Becca Hamilton.  They're also on the regular four-person American teams, which means they'll be incredibly busy in PyeongChang.  Once the regular tournament starts, it'll be everybody's quadrennial obsession once again.  From Norway's pants to Britain's skip (trust me) to the people screaming "Sweep!" in all different languages.  And, most likely, we'll see Canada atop the podium once again.

Last but not least, we have hockey.  A hockey tournament that will look very different.  The first one in 24 years that doesn't include NHL players.  I'm not gonna get into the NHL's lack of an Olympic break (I think I've made my feelings about that pretty well known).  Instead we'll have mainly European-based players, which bodes well for Russia.  (Imagine the irony of Russia finally winning the hockey tournament at the Olympics where they're not even allowed to call themselves "Russia.")  Sweden and Canada met in the final in Sochi and, even without their NHL guys, look like they should be in the medal mix again.  The USA, I think, is a fringe medal contender.  On the men's side at least. 

On the women's side, it'll once again come down to the USA and Canada.  The USA is tired of seeing Canada win and desperate to reclaim the gold for the first time since the inaugural tournament 20 years ago.  If it's not another USA-Canada women's hockey final, that would be one of the biggest shocks of the Games.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Crediting the Assistants

Bill Belichick's staff is being dismantled piece by piece.  NFL teams can't hire assistants from other teams until they're eliminated from the playoffs, which means all of the head coaching jobs are usually taken by the time the Patriots are done.  Except that's beginning to change.  Two teams waited until after the Super Bowl to make their coaching announcements so that they could hire New England assistants. 

Matt Patricia has officially been named Head Coach of the Detroit Lions, and Josh McDaniels will take over as head coach of the Colts by the end of the week.  We have no idea how they'll do as head coaches (McDaniels was fired after less than two seasons in Denver).  And we'll also have to wait and see if the Patriots' run of dominance continues without both of their coordinators.

Last week, in all the pre-Super Bowl hype, I saw an article asking whether Brady or Belichick deserved more credit for the dynasty.  I'm not taking anything away from either of those future Hall of Famers (or owner Robert Kraft).  But I'm not saying they deserve all the credit, either.  Because Belichick has surrounded himself with some pretty good assistants over the years.  And that's been the real secret to the Patriots' success.

It's easy to forget because they've won three of the last four AFC titles and are in the AFC Championship Game every freakin' year.  But the Patriots went 10 years without winning the Super Bowl between their runs of three in four seasons (2001-04) and two in three (2014-16).  During that time, a lot of Belichick's top assistants left to become head coaches elsewhere.

Let's look at the early years of the Patriots dynasty.  They won their first Super Bowl in the 2001 season.  Assistants on that New England staff included Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, Rob Ryan, Eric Mangini and Josh McDaniels.  They were joined in 2003 (the second title) by John Hufnagel, with Patricia replacing Rob Ryan on the staff in 2004.

Rob Ryan never became a head coach, but all of the others did.  In 2005, Weis left to take over at Notre Dame, Crennel became head coach of the Browns, and Hufnagel went to the Giants as their offensive coordinator.  He left for Canada in 2008 and won two Grey Cups in eight seasons with the Calgary Stampeders, including one in his first season.  Mangini, meanwhile, spent one more season with the Patriots before being hired as head coach of the Jets in 2006, where he made the playoffs in his first season.

The only two guys left once Mangini departed were McDaniels and Patricia, and McDaniels got the Broncos job in 2009.  After he got fired in Denver, he came back in 2011.  McDaniels' return coincided with the Patriots' second Super Bowl loss to the Giants, and, of course, the latest run of three in four years (he was there for all eight Bradicheck Super Bowl appearances, and Belichick's never been to one without him).  Now he's once again leaving to become a head coach, while Patricia is the seventh different former Belichick assistant to get a major head coaching job.

To review, here's a list of the Belichick assistants on the 2001-04 Super Bowl teams who moved on to head coaching jobs (four of whom have been the head coach of two different teams):

  • Romeo Crennel: Patriots Assistant (2001-04), Browns Head Coach (2005-08), Chiefs Head Coach (2011-12)
  • Charlie Weis: Patriots Assistant (2000-04), Notre Dame Head Coach (2005-09), Kansas Head Coach (2012-14)
  • Eric Mangini: Patriots Assistant (2000-05), Jets Head Coach (2006-08), Browns Head Coach (2009-10)
  • John Hufnagel: Patriots Assistant (2003), Stampeders Head Coach (2008-15)
  • Josh McDaniels: Patriots Assistant (2001-08, 2012-17), Broncos Head Coach (2009-10), Colts Head Coach (2018-)
  • Matt Patricia: Patriots Assistant (2004-17), Lions Head Coach (2018-)
And, while he wasn't on one of his Super Bowl staffs, Texans Head Coach Bill O'Brien is also a former Belichick assistant.

Sure, Belichick gets a lot of credit (and deservedly so) for grooming McDaniels and Patricia, while Weis and Crennel were Bill Parcells assistants with him.  But I don't think its a coincidence that when all of his top assistants left, Belichick stopped making the Super Bowl every year. 

So, I wouldn't be surprised if they "struggle" (by Patriots standards) with two new coordinators next year.  Because as brilliant as Bill Belichick is, a good football coach is only as good as his assistants.  He would know.  After all, that's what everyone was saying about Belichick when he won two Super Bowls as Giants defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Super Bowl Pick

Before getting into the game itself, a fun fact about the Super Bowl that's just too good not to share.  As NBC has repeatedly reminded us, they have both the Super Bowl and the Olympics this year.  This is the third time that the Super Bowl and Winter Olympics are on the same network in the same year.  It also happened in 1988 (ABC) and 1992 (CBS)...which was also the only other time the game was in Minnesota!

But before NBC's fun in Korea starts, there's some business to take care of in Minneapolis.  And we've got a rematch of Super Bowl XXXIX, with a situation very similar to the one we had 13 years ago.  The Patriots looking for their third title in four years against an underdog Eagles team looking for its first Super Bowl (and first NFL championship since 1960).

You can't help but be impressed with what the Eagles have done in their first two playoff games.  Even though they were the 1-seed, they were the underdog in both games.  Then they went and completely shut down the Atlanta offense before totally dominating Minnesota in the NFC Championship Game.

Of course, the Patriots present a far different challenge than either the Falcons or Vikings.  But Philadelphia has proven that we can't take them lightly.  They've also embraced the underdog role, so I don't think it bothers them at all that nobody thinks they're going to win.

It'd be a mistake to count them out, too.  They looked lost in the final couple games of the regular season, which is why nobody had any confidence in them heading into the playoffs.  But, they took advantage of their bye week and revamped their offense to suit Nick Foles' strengths.  And it worked!  Now, they're gonna need to adjust again.  Except this time, the adjustments will need to be on the defensive side.  Because Matt Ryan and Case Keenum aren't Tom Brady.

New England actually fell behind 20-10 in the AFC Championship Game.  As soon as Jacksonville kicked that field goal to go up 20-10, I said to myself, "The Patriots are going to win 24-20."  Sure enough, that was the final score.  Which is why it drove me nuts when everyone was acting so surprised that they won.  "Can you believe they did it again?"  Yes!  They do it all the freakin' time!  Why would you expect it to be any different?

Last year, of course, Brady once again showed his brilliance, leading that comeback from 28-3 down against Atlanta.  And that game, as well as the Jacksonville game, are prime examples of why it's so hard to beat the Patriots.  If you get a lead, you need to keep doing what you were doing.  You can't take your foot off the gas pedal.  Otherwise, you're playing right into Brady's hands.  Meanwhile, if they get ahead of you, your chances of coming back are slim to none.

Which puts the Eagles in a real catch-22 situation.  Their defense will have the unenviable task of trying to contain Brady, while their offense will be tasked both with keeping him off the field and putting up enough points to give Philly a fighting chance.  And the Eagles likely can't rely on too many points coming from the defense.  Not when the QB on the other side is a three-time Super Bowl MVP who's playing in his eighth Super Bowl and looking for his sixth ring.

To say Brady's been here before would be a tremendous understatement.  The Patriots's five Super Bowl titles have come by a combined total of 19 points (and the two losses to the Giants were by a combined seven).  Last year was their largest margin of victory...and that game went to overtime!  So, what we know is that it's likely going to be a close game, and it's likely going to finish the same way as the others (except the two against the Giants).

So, my pick is the obvious one.  Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin aren't on the other sideline.  They're the only ones who've figured out how to beat the Patriots on Super Bowl Sunday.  And, let's not forget how New England has won its last two titles.  The Seahawks made a dumb decision at the 1-yard line that led to a game-clinching interception, and the Falcons stupidly took a sack that knocked them out of field goal range and allowed Brady to march down for the tying score.

Philadelphia needs to play the perfect game to win.  And they need to play it for 60 minutes.  That's where the Patriots get you.  They never stop, so you can't either.

Bottom line, as sick as all of us are of seeing the Patriots win, we've also come to expect it.  So why would anyone think this year would be any different?  Thirteen years ago, they beat the Eagles for their third Super Bowl title in four seasons.  More than a decade later, they'll become the second team with six Lombardi Trophies by beating the Eagles for their third Super Bowl title in four seasons.  And, for the sake of symmetry, let's say it'll be the same score, too.  Patriots 24, Eagles 21.