Ryan McNorris – Why the NHL’s Most Valuable Defenseman Plays in New York

Last night, I found myself in a strange situation…

Mac Truck

I agreed with Pierre McGuire. The often-harassed analyst for NBC’s NHL coverage told viewers that Ryan McDonagh should receive serious consideration for the Norris Trophy Award, handed out annually to the NHL’s best defenseman. He had expressed the same view earlier that day while on the phone with WFAN’s Mike Francesa. I didn’t expect to gain much from that segment of “Mike’s On”, which is now simulcast on Fox Sports 1. Francesa is a man who treats hockey like the red-headed step-child of professional sports, and Pierre is, well, Pierre. But then I thought of how McDonagh has played this season, particularly since the NHL resumed from its Olympic hiatus.  Continue reading

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When Loyalty Becomes Foolishness

Being a Jets Fan Is Not Easy…

I started rooting for the Jets when I was eight years old. The year was 1997, and I was a student in Mr. Scott Kurtis’ third grade class. Mr. Kurtis liked to make class fun – extra free time on Fridays, create games based around the curriculum, and make homework as burden-less as possible. Early on in the year, Mr. Kurtis decided to not assign homework any Monday following a Jets victory.

The Jets were coming off a disastrous 1-15 season, and had fired Rich Kotite in order to bring in Bill Parcells. Pre-season expectations were for there to be a lot of homework on Mondays for our tiny third grade class. But the Jets surprised many by going to their mid-season bye week with a record of 5-3. Wins in three of the next four weeks gave the Jets a pretty record of 8-4, and a trip to the playoffs seemed academic.

Then, I discovered that being a Jets fan is not easy. The Jets dropped back-to-back games against Buffalo and lowly Indianapolis to bring them back to the pack. A 35-0 shutout of the Buccaneers breathed hope back into Jets fans, and made life a lot easier for a certain third grade class, who received no homework for the entire week leading up to Christmas break because of the football result. However, the Jets couldn’t defeat Barry Sanders and the Detroit Lions in a turnover-laden finale, and the Jets missed the playoffs with a record of 9-7.

Not much has changed for this Jets fan since then. Granted, time has passed, but the story has always been the same. No matter what, the Jets will always find a way to take something good and crush it into tiny pieces. For example, the Jets would reach the AFC Championship Game in the 1998 season, only to follow it up with a disappointing 1999 season known for Vinny Testaverde’s season-ending knee injury in the season opener. The off-season saw numerous departures to the staff. Bill Parcells left the coaching role to become the general manager. That, in turn, caused his successor Bill Belichick to take a head coaching job with the New England Patriots, who promised him to have more control over personnel than the Jets would have allowed him. The same month, Woody Johnson purchased the team from the Hess family, after long-time owner, Leon, had passed away earlier the previous year.

The Jets were a model of consistency, if nothing else, throughout the 2000′s. There was disappointment, as Al Groh’s first and only season as head coach saw the team suffer another December collapse to snatch the off-season away from the jaws of the playoffs. However, with Herm Edwards at the helm, from 2001-2004 the Jets had just one sub-500 season. That was in 2003 when quarterback Chad Pennington missed the first half of the season with a dislocated elbow. The Jets were two missed field goals away from the AFC Championship game in January of 2005, but heartbreak is tied into the Jets’ fanbase as much as anything else. After another injury-plagued season to Pennington in 2005, the Jets traded Edwards to Kansas City in exchange for a fourth-round compensatory draft pick.

This Is Where It Gets Crazy…

The Jets brought in Mike Tannenbaum as the general manager, and Eric Mangini to coach the Jets in 2006, and he took the team to the playoffs in his first season. But after Pennington was once again unable to stay healthy in 2007, the Jets suffered their second losing season in three years, and Mangini was on the hot seat. To fix the quarterback position, the Jets signed Brett Favre, who had retired just five months earlier after a distinguished career with the Green Bay Packers. It was a move largely orchestrated by Woody Johnson, and a departure from how the Jets normally built teams. The Jets became enamored with a win-now philosophy, possibly because of the recent Super Bowl success of their in-stadium rivals, the Giants. But the Jets didn’t win with Favre; at least not enough to make the playoffs. The Jets turned an 8-3 start into a 9-7 disaster, and Mangini was fired at the end of the season.

In came defensive guru Rex Ryan. The former defensive coordinator with the feared Baltimore Ravens, Ryan turned a passive defense into an all-out attack. It helped that he was able to convince Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard, a couple of his Ravens cronies, to sign with the Jets. It helped that David Harris, drafted in 2006, was quickly becoming a tackle machine. It also helped that the Jets had developed the best cover corner in the game. It’s still stunning that Darrelle Revis did not win Defensive Player of the Year in 2010. The Jets defense was enough to make up for rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez’s growing pains, and the team began to click in time for a post-season run. Yes, they played teams with nothing to play for, but they also beat two teams in the playoffs to reach the AFC Championship Game before blowing a second half lead against the Colts.

The Jets continued to go for a championship in 2010 by bringing in aging running back LaDanian Tomlinson, and superstar cornerback Antonio Cromartie. Again, they made the playoffs behind a little bit of luck. But again, they defeated two quality teams on the road to make the AFC Championship Game, where they finally ran out of steam.

It’s Been Ugly Since Then…

Mark Sanchez’s inconsistent 2011 season caused the Jets to miss the playoffs for the first time under Ryan’s tenure, and the cracks were starting to show in the team. The win-now philosophy was taking a toll on the Jets’ personnel. They hadn’t developed a player through the draft since Darrelle Revis. The offensive line had eroded. Mark Sanchez had taken steps backwards, not forwards, in his development. And the New York Giants had won their second Super Bowl in five seasons. The Jets made a trade for the controversial Tim Tebow, a move that was the brainchild of Johnson. Tebow was nearly never used, Sanchez struggled to hang onto the ball, and Buttfumble became a household name in a disastrous 2012 season. Rex Ryan survived, but Tannenbaum did not. In came John Idzik to help Ryan re-build the team.

The Jets drafted Geno Smith in the second round of the 2013 Draft as the heir-apparent to Sanchez. While Smith did not exactly put up stellar numbers in 2013, the Jets ended their season with a record of 8-8, and saved Ryan’s job yet again. The play of the offense could not be placed entirely on Smith, who had no offensive weapons to work with at either the receiver or running back position.

Enter Michael Vick…

At last, we get to the meat of the issue. Despite Ryan voicing support for Geno Smith throughout the offseason, the Jets decided to bring in Michael Vick by signing him to a one year, $5 million contract. Forgetting Vick’s past off-the-field issues, bringing in the mobile quarterback is just the latest step backwards by the Jets. While the front office can say that the move is so Geno Smith can learn from Vick, make no mistake about it: Mike Vick is here to win the starting job. If Vick starts the entire year and plays average, then, at worst, it’s a waste of a second-round pick that was spent on Geno Smith. At best, it’s a delay on the return on investment in that pick. If Geno ends up winning the job, then it’s a waste of five million dollars that could have been better spent improving other areas of the club.

Vick does not markedly improve the Jets’ backup quarterback position. In the 31 games that Mark Sanchez started in 2011-2012, he turned the ball over 60 times while only passing for 39 touchdowns (and rushing for an additional 6). From 2011-2013, Vick played in 29 games, turned the ball over 52 times, and had 39 total touchdowns (passing plus rushing). Additionally, Vick has not played a complete season under center since the 2006 season. Vick had tons of talent around him in Philadelphia, yet was only able to take his team to the playoffs in 2010. The “Dream Team” of 2011 crumbled even before his injury problems, and they didn’t improve while Vick was healthy early on in the 2012 season. He is not a winning player, or a leader. Leaders find ways to win games. Vick has found ways to not complete games.

There were other options with less sketchy backgrounds than Vick. Josh McCown and Matt Schaub might have been high-price options, but they would have pushed Smith harder to win the starting role, and would deliver higher quality play. A cheaper option, and the one that I would have chosen, would be Jason Campbell. Don’t let his 1-7 record with Cleveland last year fool you, Campbell is a quality backup who can perform when he has talent around him.

As a Fan, It’s Not The Losing That Bothers Me…

Losing is a part of sports. Any team can go through a bad year or decade. Some signings make sense, but just don’t work. Sometimes you run into better teams, or teams that happen to be better on that particular day. It’s what make sports so magical.

What bothers fans is when ownership and management make moves that make absolutely no sense. Signing Tim Tebow made no sense. Not starting Tim Tebow (or third-stringer Greg McElroy) when Mark Sanchez was incapable of playing quarterback in 2012 made no sense. Michael Vick makes no sense. Because of his legal history, he’s a media circus waiting to happen. Because of the structure of the team, he’s a distraction to Geno Smith’s development. Because New York is the media capital of the world, this is the perfect storm for a disaster. Sadly, if this experiment fails, it will probably be Rex Ryan who takes the fall for it. Rex Ryan, particularly his defensive scheme, has been the only reason why the Jets have been watchable for the past five years. But intelligent fans know that this is not Rex Ryan’s fault. This is Woody Johnson and his megalomaniac decisions to bring in names that attract attention. In this way, he mistakes attention for relevancy. But we’re not third graders anymore. We know that when ownership makes moves just for the sake of money, it doesn’t end well. When your owner is the biggest problem, there’s no escaping defeat.

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The 2012-13 NFL Awards

A tradition like almost any other returns to NASB. This is where I announce my end of year awards, and look back at what I did and did not get correct when I wrote my pre-season predictions. As always, we get started with the serious awards.

Most Valuable Player – Adrian Peterson – RB, MIN

Adrian Peterson literally carried the Vikings into the postseason. Rushing for 2097 yards, the second most in NFL history, Peterson answered every question about whether he would be the same running back he was before his ACL tear, merely 54 weeks ago. Many people, including your’s truly, thought that Peterson would not be able to have a productive season, and were proven to be dead wrong. What’s more is that Peterson did it without much help. Yes, his offensive line is great, but Peterson often faced nine men fronts because defenses would try desperately to stop him. When you look at the Vikings passing statistics, which had the second fewest yards per game in the league, and how there was no reason to ever respect their passing game, it makes Peterson’s feat even more incredible.

While I greatly respect what Peyton Manning did with the Broncos, I think he has a better supporting cast than Peterson. The Broncos rank 5th in the league defensively, as compared to the Vikings at 15. Manning’s aerial attack was supported by a running game that was right around the league average, compared to the nearly non-existence of the Vikings passing game in support of Peterson. While my vote would go to Peterson, Manning is a very close second. I don’t think it would be surprising if they ended up splitting the award, as Steve McNair did with Manning in 2003, which I would be fine with.

Defensive Player of the Year – J.J. Watt – DE, HOU

Watt followed up an extraordinary end to his rookie campaign by dominating offensive linemen in 2012. Watt registered 20.5 sacks, made 68 tackles, and forced four fumbles. He’s noted for his ability to have an impact on the play even when he can’t get to the quarterback – knocking down 16 passes by deflecting them at the line of scrimmage. Watt’s main competition for this award comes from another sophomore, Denver’s Von Miller. While Miller’s season is nearly equally as impressive (18.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 55 tackles), I think the edge goes to Watt for his ability to knock passes down at the line.

Comeback Player of the Year – Peyton Manning – QB, DEN

I believe that Manning deserves some recognition for what he has been able to do this season. After missing the entire 2011 season with a neck injury, questions about whether he would ever play again, and being released by the Colts, Manning’s comeback was a credit to his mental toughness as much as it was to his physical prowess. After starting the season 2-3, Manning led the Broncos to the second most potent offense in the league and to eleven straight victories. They finished the season at 13-3 and the number one seed in the AFC.

Offensive Rookie of the Year – Russell Wilson – QB, SEA

In a three way race between Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, my vote goes to the Seattle quarterback. While Wilson got off to a slow start, his and his team’s offensive numbers soared once the calendar flipped to November. Wilson threw 26 touchdowns, more than Luck or Griffin, although he threw for the least amount of yards of the candidates. Griffin and Wilson have nearly identical stats, which makes it very tough to distinguish one over the other. The difference to me is who Wilson had to face. Wilson played in the NFC West, which meant he faced the 4th, 5th, and 15th ranked pass defenses twice. The Seahawks went 3-3 against divisional opponents, and Wilson’s numbers weren’t great, but not bad (7 TDs, 7 INTs, 60% completion). Outside of the division, Wilson threw only three interceptions in 12 games, racking up 19 touchdowns and completing 66 percent of his passes. Griffin faced significantly poorer passing defenses. The Eagles were a top ten defense, but Dallas was merely average, and the Giants were one of the worst in the league. Against the poor defenses in his own division, Griffin tore up defenses for 13 touchdowns and only three interceptions.

Wilson gets the edge over Griffin based on quality of opponents faced, and we’ll see which quarterback gets the better of the other in this weekend’s Wild Card playoff game.

Defensive Rookie of the Year – Bobby Wagner – MLB, SEA

Wagner played an important part in the league’s leading defense. He registered two sacks, made three interceptions, and made 85 tackles which was 3rd among all rookies. There is no standout player this year, but Wagner’s yeoman work in one of defense’s most important positions might be enough to grab him the award. He might be overlooked compared to Janoris Jenkins’ playmaking ability (three INTs for TDs), or Casey Hayward’s six interceptions. While there is nothing glamorous about Wagner’s season, he was a solid and dependable defender that started all but one game.

Coach of the Year – Bruce Arians, IND

There is so many remarkable parts of the Colts season that it is difficult to know where to begin. Consider the fact that the team was thought to be in a complete rebuilding mode after a 2-14 season in 2011. Consider that they lost Pierre Garcon and Peyton Manning. With a rookie quarterback and the youngest team in the NFL, it was expected that the Colts would take a few years before Chuck Pagano would have a contending squad. The team started off 1-2, including a loss to the dismal Jaguars in Week 3. Then Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with cancer, forcing Arians, the offensive coordinator into an interim role as head coach. The Colts responded by going 9-3 under Arians and locking up a playoff berth in Week 16. Two of their losses came to playoff teams (Patriots and Texans). What Arians did without any preparation or knowledge that he would be taking over an entire team is remarkable. Yes, Chuck Pagano was in the background assisting Arians whenever he could, but the gameday decisions by Arians, many of them in close games where the Colts needed to come from behind, should give Arians the award. It is unorthodox for the award to be given to someone who is not technically the head coach, especially since Pagano returned to his duties in time for the season finale, but he was astounding. A close second would be Pete Carroll, who has created a deadly offense for Russell Wilson to use, and the league’s top defense.

What I Got Right

There wasn’t much that I got right. My pre-season Super Bowl pick, the Giants, stumbled down the stretch and missed the playoffs. My Super Bowl runner-up, the Ravens, have been as inconsistent as they have in years past. Although, I do deserve bonus points for correctly predicting that Ray Lewis would retire at the end of this season, although I was hardly alone in saying that.

Here were my playoff predictions at the beginning of the season.

AFC - #1 Patriots, #2 Ravens, #3 Texans, #4 Broncos, #5 Steelers, #6 Bengals

NFC - #1 Packers, #2 Giants, #3 Saints, #4 49ers, #5 Bears, #6 Eagles

The AFC wasn’t bad. The seeding was a little sketchy, and I overestimated the Steelers and disregarded the Colts, but I was fairly accurate. I got my own team correct, to the exact record, saying that they would go 6-10 because of their defense.

What I Got Wrong – The Entire NFC

Let’s start with the Saints, who showed that they needed Sean Peyton (or a bounty system) more than I thought. I knew it would be difficult for the offense to be as prolific as it was in its record-setting 2011 season, but it was worse than I thought it would be. Drew Brees ended up with a fairly good season, but his 19 interceptions were the second highest in his career, and his completion percentage was the lowest in his time with New Orleans. Their defense was also abysmal, looking to be completely incompetent of stopping a high school team. Their 7000+ yards given up was the worst in the league by nearly a thousand yards.

I also overestimated the Eagles, and thought that they would have improved in their second season with a bunch of talented players. But they didn’t. Michael Vick was a turnover machine, LeSean McCoy had injury issues, and questions about Andy Reid’s job security were a distraction off the field. Yes, Reid deserves blame for the team not making it to the playoffs for two straight seasons with ultra-high expectations, but some blame must be put on the construction of the team, which went from a team that always built from the draft and made smart free agent moves into a team which tried to buy their way to a championship.

I did not think Seattle would do anything this season, and questioned why Russell Wilson was given the starting job when they had spent so much for Matt Flynn. Clearly, I underestimated Wilson’s talent, and the Seahawks’ coaching staff for designing a brilliant system. For a while, it looked like I was going to get it right with the Bears, but they folded down the stretch, which cost Lovie Smith his job. I also did not think Atlanta would make the playoffs, and they are the top seed in the NFC. I still don’t trust this team to make it to the Super Bowl and I still question Matt Ryan’s poise in a big game, but they have proved me wrong thus far.

Nothing, however, was more incorrect or completely off target than my prediction for the Kansas City Chiefs, who I had as my sleeper team to contend for the playoffs and finish at 9-7. They were dreadful, mainly because of Matt Cassel, and an offense that turned the ball over 37 times (tied with the Jets and Eagles for tops in the league). Romeo Crennel was rightfully fired after the Chiefs finished with the top pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, and GM Scott Pioli just barely survived being fired.

New Predictions

Now that my original Super Bowl Prediction has gone the way of the dodo, let’s take a look at the playoff picture. In the AFC, I think we’re headed for a New England – Denver AFC championship game. If that happens, my money is on Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Belichick always finds a defensive scheme to confuse Manning enough to throw him out of his rhythm. Still, New England is not invincible. If the Ravens face them in the Divisional playoff, which would require for the Bengals to upset Houston, I think the Pats could be knocked off then. If that’s the case, then I think Denver will advance to the Super Bowl.

In the NFC, I could see a bunch of teams coming advancing to the Super Bowl. I think Seattle is very deadly, and have caught fire of late. I think they’re going to beat the Redskins this week, which would set them up with a third game against the 49ers, unless Minnesota can upset Green Bay. We saw how dominant the Seahawks were against San Fran two weeks ago, and I don’t see it going any different. I think Seattle can advance to the Super Bowl if they face Atlanta in the NFC Title game, but might have a tough time beating Green Bay in Lambeau if that ends up being their destiny.

Super Bowl Prediction: It’s a tough call, but I’m going to say New England vs. Seattle in the Superdome on the first Sunday in February, with New England winning.

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A Rough Landing for the Jets

On Monday, following a dismal end to a dismal season, the New York Jets fired Mike Tannenbaum, their General Manager since 2006. Rex Ryan, hired as head coach four years ago this month, was not fired, nor was first year offensive coordinator, Tony Sparano. As I have detailed on multiple occasions, the New York Jets failed to adequately replace key offensive players that made them a legitimate playoff contender from 2004 through 2010. Beginning with the 2011 season, Mark Sanchez and the Jets offense began taking numerous, clear steps backwards. Their rushing attack, which was the class of the league in 2009 and 2010, disappeared. Because of this, extra burden was placed on Sanchez to lead the offense, which he proved to be incapable of doing. Continue reading

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State of the Blog – 2013

After a long, long absence, I am back. I realize that my last post was back in October, when I previewed the League Championship Series, and apologize for the extended hiatus. Ever since this blog’s inception, nearly two years ago, my publications have been streaky, at best. Some reasons are valid – most of this year I was up in Oswego, attending school, getting solid grades, and participating at the student television station, WTOP, where I was the sports anchor for Sunday night newscasts in addition to being a crew members for live sports broadcasts and serving as an analyst for basketball telecasts. For the first time in my life, I had to adjust to living with a roommate, which means that some sporting events that should have been watched were missed.

As a writer, you try to get into a rhythm. The best example of this comes from the blog’s most productive period in 2012. During baseball season, when I would post biweekly re-caps of important baseball action, which kept this site active from April until I left for college at the end of August. I was blessed with a captivating NBA playoff, the Johan Santana no-hitter, and the Yankees turbulent 2012 season to keep me active. While early on in the fall semester, the blog was still active, schoolwork and school life started to affect the creative process. The final eight weeks of the semester were filled with papers, reading assignments, and work for WTOP. The few moments where I was free were spent with friends.

All of this had its impact on the creative process. I was cut off from both watching and writing about sports, making it difficult to think of what to write about, let alone producing something that would look better than a third grader’s work. My writing was constrained to 140 characters per post, which I was more than happy to post on Twitter. Whereas my Twitter activity was low over the summer when the blog was active, I found myself Tweeting more as my activity here declined.

What pains me is that there was a great deal to write about. From the Jets blundering around, to great NFL stories in Washington, Seattle, Indianapolis and Minnesota, the NFL season the shiny pearl it usually is. The San Francisco Giants put themselves on the fringe of dynasty discussion with a deadly pitching staff and a young catcher who will inherit the reins from Derek Jeter as the face of baseball if he and his team continues to win. The NBA off-season produced a chaotic start to the season for one Los Angeles team, while the other one has been nearly unstoppable. The New York Knicks will enter 2013 as a contender for the Eastern Conference title and are driven by Carmelo Anthony’s MVP-worthy season, while the Brooklyn Nets have run into as much trouble in their new location as they did across the river.

Nothing has pained me more than not being able to follow all of this as much as I would like. However, 2013 is a new year and a new start. I’m looking forward to the new year for a few reasons. I will graduate college in May. While it’s not guaranteed to stay this way, as of now, I have no roommate assigned to me, which should make following everything considerably easier, as well as allow me to stay concentrated on my writing.  There will be a new amount of dedication put into this blog, which will aim to have at least one high quality article per week. This will begin on January 2nd with reaction to what the New York Jets do in regards to their head coach and general manager and the future direction of the organization. It will continue through the NFL playoffs, which offers an incredible mix of veterans such as Manning and Brady, and young stars like Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson. I look forward to sharing my thoughts and my passion with you.

I understand that nearly all of my readers are either family members or friends, and that this blog will never be popular with anyone aside from the loyal few that do read it. I don’t expect it to, nor does it deserve to be held in a high regard after I have disregarded it for the past ten weeks. If I can get ten readers for an article, that’s a win for me. Twenty readers for an article is a miracle. Interactivity at NASB is something that I hope to build upon. There will be more polls, more questions posed to readers, and more feedback requested. You can leave a comment here, but I’d prefer it if you sent me a Tweet. I check it more frequently, and it is easier for me to access. I think 2013 will be the most productive year yet, and I look forward to ringing it in with quality writing.

 

Follow me on Twitter @JustinCirillo

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National League Championship Series Preview

One day, and one awful broken ankle injury later, the National League Championship Series will hope to provide what the first game of the ALCS provided last night. Just without a major injury. Continue reading

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American League Championship Series Preview

At long last, the League Division series, which rewrote the definition of awesome playoff baseball, has concluded. In five games, the Giants, Cardinals, Yankees, and Tigers will play for their respective pennants. It was a week unlike any other – from the Giants’ stunning comeback against the Reds by winning three straight on the road, to Raul Ibanez’s heroics, to Justin Verlander dominating, to the Cardinals desperate ninth inning rally to survive the Nationals.

After all of that, how can you not be excited for the League Championship Series? Continue reading

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