Friday, July 29, 2011

This Could Be Good For Football

My radio chat-partner John Madden has often decried the fact that the NFL lacks the sort of year-round buzz that attends to baseball. He's pointed to baseball's post-season awards, followed by off-season free agent signings and trades, followed by spring training as a process that ensures baseball stays in the sports headlines year-round.

He's right, but the NFL may have stumbled into a solution.

What makes baseball spring training compelling is the uncertainty: every year, a phenom emerges somewhere. Every spring, the fans back home thrill to the exploits of some guy they've never heard of. Once in a while, the phenom is the real deal; often, he's just a spring flash in the pan.

And for the next few days, NFL training camps could have that same "anything might happen" feel. Because the lockout scrambled the whole free-agent signing process and for arcane legal reasons I don't pretend to understand, NFL camps have opened without a full complement of veteran players.

Take the 49ers, for example. They only have one veteran quarterback on the roster--the oft-maligned Alex Smith--and he can't legally practice until sometime next week. In the meantime, the quarterbacks are Colin Kaepernick, the exciting University of Nevada product, and a guy named McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who has been a backup quarterback for the Arena League San Jose SaberCats.

Neither has ever thrown a pass in an NFL game (regular or exhibition). Bethel-Thompson started his collegiate career at UCLA but wound up at Sacramento State, which to my knowledge has never produced a starting NFL quarterback. Heck, I'm not sure it's ever produced a backup NFL quarterback.

But for the next few days, these guys will be taking snaps, throwing passes, and getting the undivided attention of the coaching staff. Sure, the 49ers front office could well be working on a deal with a more experienced quarterback, and yes, Alex Smith will be at work soon, but for now, these are the boys of summer.

Somewhere around the NFL, maybe one of these longshots will sneak through the door that's been left slightly ajar by the lockout and settlement. Something tells me that would be good for the NFL.

Monday, July 25, 2011

NFL Deal's Unintended Consequences

As I write, the i's are being dotted and the t's crossed on the new NFL labor deal. Much is being made of how the players managed to stave off a management demand for a longer season while also getting limits slapped on the number of practices a team can hold.

All in all, these are reasonable steps toward a safer future in a violent business. Less wear and tear on the players' bodies has to be a good thing. Each story we read about an NFL retiree fading away in dementia reminds us that the sport needs to work much harder on this issue.

But it may well turn out that the limiting of practices becomes an impediment to younger players. Believe it or not, many (some would argue most) players arrive on the NFL's doorstep with serious fundamental flaws in their game. There's also the steep learning curve faced by players switching from the college game to the pro game. In either case, fewer practices will mean less learning for younger players.

A cynic would say that the players who negotiated this deal took care of themselves (after all, how many 10-year veterans want or need all that extra practice?) at the expense of future generations of players. A cynic might be right.

Yet it's in the NFL's interest to keep its pipeline supplied with capable young talent. My KCBS colleague John Madden thinks it's inevitable that the league will launch (and fund) a sort of "NFL Academy"--a league-wide effort to bring younger players up to speed. The defunct NFL Europe once provided this function, but it shut down 4 years ago.

The other three big North American sports benefit from minor-league or developmental-league operations where players can be groomed. The NFL has no such learning league. A couple of years of watching the impact of limited practices on younger players might force the league to do something about that.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sports Builds Character

The beauty of sports is sometimes a little hard to see when your team comes up short.

But Sunday brought two "oh-so-close" moments that serve as a reminder of how fine the line is between victory and defeat.

First, the U.S. women's soccer team learned exactly how it felt to lose one after its stirring quarterfinal win over Brazil. The World Cup final saw Japan beat the U.S. for the first time ever. Japan had been 0--22-3 against the American women, and its World Cup win was remarkably similar to the U.S.-Brazil victory. Late goals in regulation and overtime followed by a shootout win--the kind of win that is inevitably described as proof that the winning team is plucky, mentally tough, and wouldn't say die.

But does that mean the losing side was wimpy, weak, and full of quitters?

Of course not. But it does hurt to lose. Just ask Tyler Farrar, the American cyclist who won a stage of the Tour de France earlier this month and had a shot at another win on Sunday. But Farrar's last-second burst just failed to catch the sport's most dominating sprinter, Mark Cavendish. Afterward, Farrar was disconsolate, seeming near tears as he discussed the win that got away.

For both Farrar and the U.S. women, there will always be personal questions about whether they did enough, whether they "gave the game away", whether it would turn out the same way if they got a second chance.

But the beauty of sport is that it doesn't matter. We can talk or write about it ad nauseum but nothing changes the reality of the final score.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Shut Up. Please, Shut Up

I'm not sure I can put it any better than Twitter user @dean13 who, back in June, managed to squeeze this thought into 140 characters:

Shut up, Bobby Valentine. Shut up, Bobby Valentine. Shut up, Bobby Valentine. Shut up, Bobby Valentine. Shut up, Bobby Valentine. Shut up.


The downside to the Giants winning the World Series is the fact that they've become hot stuff for the network folks, guaranteeing more appearances on the Saturday Fox broadcasts and the Sunday night ESPN games.

I say "downside" because this means Bay Area viewers lose the capable and comfortable Kruk & Kuip, and get stuck instead with motormouths like Valentine. "Insufferable" is a good place to start when describing this guy. "Ceaseless" is a good place to start when describing his chatter.

The wizards at ESPN decided to empty their broadcast booth of two Hall of Famers (Jon Miller and Joe Morgan) so they could stuff in Dan Shulman, Valentine, and Orel Hershiser. As far as I can tell, Shulman calls a very good game. But it's hard to hear him because Valentine doesn't leave much room (fill-in play-by-play guy Dave O'Brien got the same treatment in last night's Giants-Mets game).

The first couple times I caught this act, I figured somebody upstairs would hear it too and rein Valentine in. No such luck. And it's not just how much Valentine talks; it's often what he says. For example, last night, he took pains to criticize the Giants outfielders for the way they were aligned in a late-inning situation. As a former major league manager, Valentine ought to know that the outfielders don't position themselves; there's a bench coach worrying about those details. For a guy who seems to want to show everyone how much he knows, he misses the mark pretty often.

I have friends who used to cringe when Morgan would mangle the language or launch into another self-serving story. But at least he occasionally shut up.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Another Idea For Timmy

Florida Marlins manager Jack McKeon is griping about Tim Lincecum's All Star status. It's silly, of course; McKeon's in his 80's and has been around the game long enough to know better.

Lincecum's stats are not great this year, but they're not awful, either. After his mediocre July 4th start against the Padres, Timmy is 6-7 with a 3.14 ERA. On a team that scores more runs, he could easily have 10 or 11 wins. His WHIP is at 1.19, which is about in line with his career average (and better than what he posted last year).

Giants and NL All-Star manager Bruce Bochy need not defend his choice of Lincecum to join a pitching staff that also includes San Francisco teammates Matt Cain, Brian Wilson, and Ryan Vogelsong. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Gwen Knapp does an able job of explaining why in today's piece. In short, Gwen points out an obvious fact: Lincecum is one of those transcendent athletes who the fans deserve to see. Some guys are automatic All-Stars in my book: Jeter, Pujols, Mariano Rivera. Unless they're injured or truly awful, they have to be there.

But my esteemed colleague Steve Bitker tosses out another point of view. Maybe, Steve suggests, Lincecum should be left off the All-Star roster this year for his own good. Part of Lincecum's charm is the fact that he wears his emotions on his sleeve. We thrill to his highs, but right now, he seems a bit worn out. Steve argues that Lincecum might benefit from an All-Star break--time away from baseball, time to recharge his mental battery.

I'd sure miss seeing him on the All-Star mound, but a refreshed Timmy would be a fine sight for the rest of the Giants season.