Monday, September 28, 2009

Go Figure

Cal takes its #6 ranking into Eugene, and gets destroyed by an Oregon team that seemed to be sputtering in its first three games.

Washington comes off a stirring victory over USC and loses to Stanford.

Arizona State goes into a tough road game at Georgia and sees its backup placekicker miss a late field goal before the Bulldogs hit their own FG to eke out a 3-point win.

Who knows if the Pac-10 is any good? But you can't argue it isn't exciting.

A couple of games into its conference schedule, Stanford is leading the Pac-10. Supposedly superior Cal has to get its act back on track by beating USC, or it'll find itself fading in the conference race.

Or will it? UCLA is still out there and apparently a force, though the Bruins haven't played a conference game yet. Heck, even Washington State, the most outmanned team in the conference last year, looks like it's a team that could pull off an upset somewhere along the way.

Don't make any Rose Bowl plans just yet.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

We sports fans are besieged with statistics. They can illuminate, but they can often obfuscate.

Case in point: the Raiders' 13-10 win over Kansas City in NFL Week 2.

Don't ask me why, but I watched the whole game. My esteemed colleague Steve Bitker did not, and was incredulous that the Raiders could have won a game in which the Chiefs outgained them 409-166 yards. He was even more incredulous that I could maintain the Raiders actually controlled the game.

Allow me to explain. Let's start with those 409 Chiefs yards. 205 of them were amassed on 4 drives that netted KC exactly zero points (one drive ended in a field goal, one in an interception that led to a Raiders field goal, and two in punts).

So really, I can argue that Kansas City wasted over 200 yards of offense. Shiny numbers, but meaningless.

Oakland's offense was feeble overall, but when it mattered, the Raiders delivered. A 58-yard 2nd-quarter drive led to a long Sebastian Janikowksi field goal (by the way: will this guy make a 70-yarder someday?), and then JaMarcus Russell salvaged his horrible afternoon with the 69-yard 4th-quarter drive that led to their only touchdown.

Total offense? Not so important. Turnovers? Important (KC had two; the Raiders, none). Field position? Yes. KC's average drive started on their own 24, and 7 of their 11 possessions started inside their 21-yard line.

Bottom line: the game stats failed to tell the story of this game. While Steve argues there's wisdom hidden in the stats, I argue the stats can lead you astray. What would a stat-head make of the Miami-Indianapolis game, also in NFL Week 2? That's the one where the Dolphins won the time-of-possession battle by a more than 3-to-1 margin (the Dolphins had the ball for less than 15 minutes), outgained the Colts, and still lost the game.

Statistics are interesting, but it's the game that matters.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Rooting For Laundry

I don't know who first said it, but I've always loved the phrase. "You don't root for teams anymore. You just root for laundry."

The implication is that in the era of big-money player transactions, teams don't stay together for long. So if you are, say, a Warriors fan, you're cheering for the team colors, because the guy you loved last year could very well be gone this year.

Our latest Bay Area example is the San Jose Sharks, who just traded Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek for high-scoring winger Danny Heatley.

Cheechoo led the league in goals scored a couple of years ago and has always been a fan favorite for his gritty play, exuberant goal celebrations, and remarkable backstory (he's the first and only NHL player from Moose Factory, Ontario).

My wife is shattered; she loved Cheechoo's style of play and sweet smile. My son, the biggest Sharks fan in the family, is worried.

You see, this is the third Sharks star to be dealt after my son bought that player's replica jersey. Owen Nolan and Steve Bernier preceded Cheech (Bernier even signed my son's jersey before he was shuffled off to Buffalo).

My advice to anyone who wants to stay in San Jose? Find out whose shirt Geoff has in his closet.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Too Much Emotion?

Musings after a few days in which athletes and their emotions were front and center, to wit:
  • Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount cold-cocks a Boise State player after a game (and winds up suspended for the season)
  • Milwaukee Brewers slugger Prince Fielder orchestrates a choreographed home plate celebration after a walk-off homer (and ticks off everyone in a Giants uniform)
  • Giants pitcher Brad Penny barks at Padres slugger Adrian Gonzalez for supposedly taking too long to admire a home run (and later admits he uses emotion to stoke his performance)

What's it all about? Emotion.

Playing sports is not like working a spreadsheet or building a cabinet. You have to play like you care. Paradoxically, you can't let your emotions get the best of you, but without emotion, you're pretty useless.

Most agree that Blount crossed the line with his punch (even if they think his punishment was too harsh). Many feel that Fielder was a bit clownish in turning a thrilling moment into a bit of goofy street theater. And Penny? Well, if he's on the other team, you can't stand him.

Penny freely acknowledges his outburst at Gonzalez and his shouts and gestures at the Padres dugout when the inning ended are part of what fuels him. For Brad Penny, it's adrenaline or nothing. By contrast, we've seen pitchers like Greg Maddux, whose demeanor never varied, no matter what.

Bottom line: you go with what works for you. But that emotion stuff can be dangerous; a little goes a long way. Too much, and you're in trouble.