Tuesday, October 29, 2013

NFL Week 8 Snap Judgments

This weekend's slate of games was fairly weak compared to the last few weeks, with only the Detroit/Dallas being the truly dramatic game between two teams with at least .500 records.  The good news is that game had plenty of drama and stuff to talk about, which I'll get into.  The stark reality though is that we're nearly halfway through the NFL season, which is both exciting and disappointing considering how quickly it moves by.

1. I come to bury the Eagles and Falcons, not to praise them.  I have a little egg on my face this morning considering two of my preseason predictions this year.  I had predicted the Eagles would win the NFC East, considering the division is very mediocre, and a last place team rebounds every season to win its division outright the next year.  Not only are the Eagles not going to win the NFC East, but they are every bit as bad as they were last year.  Their quarterback situation is a mess, and Chip Kelly's heavily hyped offense has looked atrocious the last two weeks.  They're certainly in line for another top-10 draft pick in April.

As for the Falcons, I had picked Matt Ryan to be the league MVP this year, and I thought it was a good pick that was a bit outside the box.  There was no way I could have expected Peyton Manning to have the kind of season he's been having, but the Falcons have been extremely disappointing this year, mostly because they've been decimated by injuries.  Matt Ryan basically has no one to throw the ball to, and Steven Jackson looks pretty much done for his career.

2. Who will win a game first, the Jaguars or the Bucs?  That, of course, works on the presumption that either team will win a game this season.  The Jaguars at least are guaranteed of not losing in Week 9 since they are on a bye, but the Bucs have to travel to Seattle.  I had thought Greg Schiano would be fired Friday morning after the Bucs were embarrassed Thursday night at home against Carolina, but he somehow still has his job.  Either way, look at each team's next four opponents.  After their bye, the Jaguars are at Tennessee, home against Arizona, at Houston, and at Cleveland.  If I had to pick one, I would guess at Cleveland is the most winnable game of that bunch.  If they don't win that game, they'd be looking at 0-12 in the face and running out of chances of winning a single game this season.

Meanwhile, the Bucs are at Seattle next week, then home against Miami, home again against Atlanta, and then at Detroit.  I'd say Seattle and Detroit are losses for sure, but I have no idea how well they could do against Miami or Atlanta.  Has there ever been a season where the league had two 0-12 teams at the same time?  If there has, I can't remember it.

3. The Saints are probably the best team that somehow is flying under the radar.  In a season where the best teams are considered the Chiefs, Broncos, Seahawks, 49ers, and Patriots, how are the Saints being overlooked?  They're 6-1, and while their offense is as solid as ever, their defense has actually stepped up.  They have given up the third-fewest points in the NFC so far this season and put themselves in a good position to lock up one of the top two seeds in the playoffs, which is a great turnaround after a rough 2012 season.

4. Speaking of good teams flying under the radar, take a look at the Panthers.  Quick, name the team in the NFL who has given up the fewest points in the league thus far this season.  If you said the Chiefs, you're close; the Panthers actually have them beat, having given up 96 points to the Chiefs giving up 98.  They are over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2008 season, and their true colors will show up in the next few weeks as they get to a meaty part of their schedule: home against Atlanta, at San Francisco, home against New England, and at Miami.  They also face the Saints twice in three weeks in December, so if the Panthers make the playoffs as a Wild Card they will definitely have earned it.

5. Calvin Johnson is a man among boys.  Johnson managed to single-handedly outgain the Cowboys as a team yesterday by a margin of 329 yards to 268.  Think about that for a moment.  A wide receiver outgained an entire team by over 60 yards.  I can't say he's the greatest receiver in NFL history because he isn't Jerry Rice, but he is the best receiver in the league right now by a pretty wide margin.  The closest guys to him are probably Larry Fitzgerald and A.J. Green, but neither of them really come close to Johnson.  This guy has the physical talent and strength to beat triple coverage, which is a feat in and of itself.  If the Lions make the playoffs by winning the NFC North, they could be a tough out between Johnson, Reggie Bush, and their defense.

6. The Goat of the Week Award goes to the Steelers' special teams unit.  Two missed field goals and a blocked punt that eventually led to a touchdown for the Raiders will make any special teams unit look bad.  The worst part of it is the Steelers only wound up losing by three points in a game they had no business winning in the first place.  The Raiders played soft defense and allowed them to get back in the game late, and Shawn Suisham's two missed chip shot field goals were the deciding factor in another loss for the Steelers.

7. Marvin Jones is giving the Bengals the #2 receiver they need to have opposite A.J. Green.  As talented as A.J. Green is, he could be shut down by double coverage in the secondary and taken out of a game.  The Bengals needed someone on the other side of the field to use in such cases, and the last couple weeks Marvin Jones has quickly emerged as a very good option.  He tied a league high of 4 touchdown receptions this weekend, and Andy Dalton has made serious progress in his third year in the league.  I thought the Bengals would become a true contender in 2014, but they look ready to contend now.

8. No Randall Cobb, James Jones, or Jermichael Finley and no problem for Green Bay.  The Packers' offense was built around its passing attack for years, especially since Aaron Rodgers took over from Brett Favre.  They didn't need a rushing attack because Rodgers could find whichever receiver was open down field.  Now they have Jordy Nelson and a bunch of guys nobody has ever heard of, and they're still cooking now that they have a solid running back in rookie Eddie Lacy.  Lacy carried the load in the second half of the game Sunday night, which will also help the Packers come December and January when Green Bay's weather reaches the single digits.

9. Up is down, wrong is right, bad is good, back is front, and the Seahawks beat the Rams.  As nonsensical as that lead sounds, the Seahawks shouldn't have beaten the Rams last night.  The Rams sacked Russell Wilson seven times, held the ball for 38 minutes, rushed for 200 yards as a team, gave up a total of 41 rushing yards to the Seahawks, and only allowed seven first downs to the Seahawks.  With stats like those, the Rams should have won the game easily, but their awful quarterback situation now that Sam Bradford is done for the year was the key to why they still lost. To add literal injury to insult, Rams running back Zac Stacy sprained his ankle during the game last night.  The Rams already had to use him as their primary back thanks to other injuries, and now the question is whether Stacy will miss any time.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

NFL Week 7 Snap Judgments

This weekend was arguably the best weekend slate of games in the NFL thus far this season.  Seven games had finals within 7 points, 3 of which were determined on the final possession.  My Ravens found themselves on the short end of the stick on one of those last-minute scores which I'll get into in a bit, but it was overall a fantastic weekend with plenty of dramatic conclusions.

1. Geno Smith may not light up the scoreboard the way Cam Newton, RGIII, or Andrew Luck do, but he's got a bright future ahead of him.  Smith's line on game looked unimpressive but efficient: 17 of 33 for 233 yards, a touchdown, and a pick-6, but he looked a heck of a lot more comfortable playing than a month ago.  The Jets' quarterback situation was a laughing stock entering the regular season with Sanchez hurt (and eventually done for the season), and the untested rookie Smith being forced to start.  I thought 4 wins for the entire season would be very likely, but they have 4 wins now, and could well finish around .500 by season's end.

2. It had nothing to do with the game itself, but one Jets fan deserves the Goat of the Week Award for punching a woman in the face.  I don't know who this guy is, I don't know what led to the incident, and I don't know who said what to whom.  But none of that matters.  This guy is a jerk, and I hope he's arrested for his actions.  Take a look:

3. Just when you thought you had forgotten about Josh McCown, he resurfaces yet again.  I had no idea Josh McCown was still playing in the NFL.  If you had asked me even last week who was Jay Cutler's backup, I would never have been able to guess.  He was forced into playing Sunday when Cutler went down with a groin injury, and actually was serviceable while letting Matt Forte carry the bulk of the workload.  Time will tell how much McCown will play going forward, but he may be serviceable as long as he remembers he can just hand the ball off to Forte.  Then again, this is Josh McCown we're talking about.

4. Are ACL injuries coming in greater numbers now than ever before, or is it just me?  Before the season even started, several notable players went down with season-ending ACL injuries.  They included the Packers' Bryan Bulaga, the Eagles' Jeremy Maclin, the Broncos' Dan Koppen, and the 49ers' Chris Culliver.  You can even add Adrian Peterson and RGIII to that list considering they were coming off ACL injuries late last year.  This weekend, Sam Bradford and Reggie Wayne both tore their ACLs, and Bryan Cushing tore his LCL.  I don't recall hearing many reports of injuries like these prior to around 2001, but I'm sure they happened.  How did athletes recover from such injuries before modern medicine had developed reconstructive surgeries and rehab programs?  Were their careers essentially over if they did sustain such an injury?  I highly doubt the NFL could do much to minimize torn cruciate ligaments the way they are trying to minimize concussions and other head injuries, but they are becoming more and more prevalent every season.

5. The Bengals are officially the Cardiac Cats.  That's two last-second, game-winning field goals for the Bengals now, both of which came on the road.  I didn't think the Bengals were quite ready to take the next step to play with the big boys in the AFC, but putting together big wins like those can go a long way to building confidence, and maybe even a home playoff game or two come January.  Given how the Ravens have struggled this season, the Bengals could be a year ahead of where I had expected them to be.

6. Speaking of the Ravens struggling.... Ugh.  The game on Sunday was a typical Ravens/Steelers match up, filled with hard hits, tension, and drama, as well as a last-second play to win the game.  I knew it would come down to one or two crucial decisions or plays to win the game, and even though John Harbaugh has caught a little heat for going for an onside kick with over 10 minutes to go in the 4th quarter, I didn't mind the call.  I thought it was gutsy, and perfectly timed to catch the Steelers off guard.  It just didn't work out the way he had hoped.  If it did work, he'd likely get plenty of kudos and pats on the back this week.

I actually thought the game's outcome was a bit ironic.  After the Ravens had scored a game-tying touchdown with under 2 minutes to go in the game, the Steelers' Emmanuel Sanders returned the ensuing kickoff for a go-ahead touchdown.  However, the play was called back because Sanders had stepped out of bounds around the Steelers' 40-yard line.  It was the right call, and the refs had correctly caught it.  The irony here is that the Ravens would have been better off had the touchdown stood because they would have gotten the ball back with about 1:45 to play in the game with 2 timeouts.  They could have tried for another game-tying drive, and considering Joe Flacco had been 9 for 9 on the previous touchdown drive, the Steelers couldn't stop him.  Instead, the Steelers kept the ball and drove down for a game-winning field goal.

7. Beware the Chargers.  It's amazing what a difference not having Norv Turner as head coach is.  Turner is one of those guys who has long been better fit as a coordinator than head coach, and I'm shocked that he was around in San Diego for as long as he was.  Most of Philip Rivers' best years in the league were relatively wasted under Turner, and I actually thought he would never bounce back with a bad offensive line and depleted group of receivers.  Instead, the Chargers are a respectable 4-3, and Rivers has thrown 15 touchdowns against 5 interceptions already, with a completion percentage of a very impressive 73.9.  I don't expect the Chargers to make a playoff run, considering the Chiefs and Broncos are both in their division, but they are quickly rebuilding.

8. Alex Smith's fake hand off touchdown run might be the best improvised play of the year.  If you haven't yet seen this play, this is something to marvel at.  The Chiefs were driving down to score and had the ball at the Texans' 5-yard line.  Alex Smith was supposed to hand the ball off to Jamaal Charles, but Charles went the wrong way and wasn't there to carry the ball.  Smith was left to fake a hand off to nobody, and wound up running in to score by himself.  If that description doesn't make sense to you - and it probably won't - here's a video to check out.  Kinda makes me wonder what kind of career Alex Smith would have had in an alternate universe where he didn't go through one offensive system after another.

9. Pyrrhic victory: Greg Schiano might have been right about Josh Freeman all along.  Freeman looked like he had no business playing quarterback for any NFL team last night.  A QB whose line on the night is 20 of 53 for 190 yards is pathetic in and of itself, but he also overthrew his receivers sixteen times.  Granted, he had only been with the Vikings for 10 days, so he barely had enough time to learn the playbook much less build rapport with his teammates.  Still, I couldn't even bear watching the game last night for more than a few minutes considering how awful both teams looked.  Schiano will face the chopping block in Tampa soon enough, but at least he knew what he was talking about in Freeman.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

NFL Week 6 Snap Judgments

I'm going to start this column talking about the horrific story involving Adrian Peterson's son from last week.  I'm not a father, but I do have a 2-year-old niece.  I can say with absolute certainty that if anyone ever caused harm to her, no one would find that person's body when all was said and done.  I've read conflicting reports over whether Peterson even knew the boy was his son prior to Thursday, but even if Peterson didn't know, we're still talking about a 2-year-old boy beaten to death by his mother's boyfriend.  If that doesn't make your stomach turn up in knots, I don't know what will.  My heart bleeds for Peterson right now, and I can only pray he will find some semblance of peace with his other children and family around him.

1. The football gods must love them some Patriots.  Three weeks ago I looked at the Patriots' upcoming schedule, and saw three super tough games back to back to back: At Atlanta, at Cincinnati, and then home against New Orleans.  I thought there was a real chance the Patriots could go 0-3 during that span, but instead they went 2-1 and proved me very, very wrong.  In typical Tom Brady fashion, the Patriots were down 4 points with 12 seconds left in the 4th quarter.  He threw a game-winning touchdown with 5 seconds left on the clock, sealing the win for the Pats.  These kinds of performances are the kinds that only the football gods allow to happen.  I never would have expected the Patriots to be much good without Rob Gronkowski in their group of tight ends and receivers, but Tom Brady has somehow figured out how to make his rag tag group of no-namers competitive.

2. Another week, another pick-six for a Texans quarterback.  This time it wasn't Matt Schaub, since he had to leave the game because of an injury.  It was T.J. Yates, filling in for Schaub, throwing a pick-six as the Texans blew one at home against the Rams.  You may not believe me, but there actually was a time when the Texans were 11-1 last season.  Since then, they've gone 4-8 including the playoffs last year.  Head coach Gary Kubiak got himself a contract extension for winning the division the last two seasons, but the Texans' real colors are showing now, and the Colts are in the driver's seat for the division.  Kubiak has put himself squarely in the crosshairs of both fans and management in Houston for why this season has gone so badly.

3. Speaking of coaches on the hot seat, Greg Schiano can't be around much longer in Tampa.  The Buccaneers have a great receiver in Vincent Jackson.  They have an elite defensive tacke in Gerald McCoy.  Their secondary includes the likes of Darrelle Revis, Dashon Goldson (even though Goldson is a bit of a head case), Mark Barron, and rookie Johnathan Banks.  They have one of the best young running backs in the league in Doug Martin.  So what exactly is their problem?  It sure isn't the roster.  The only real possibility is their head coach.  He doesn't have much of a plan on how to run an NFL roster, and his experience in head coaching prior to the Bucs was the Rutgers college football program.  If he does find himself canned (and there's no reason not to expect that considering the team is now 0-5), the team could very well find itself in a massive turnaround once they find the right guy to coach the team.

4. Stop the presses, the Broncos were held under 40 points!  And against the Jaguars, no less!  No, this is not a misprint or a dream.  In a game where the Broncos were favored to win by 28 points, they were held to "merely" 35 points against the single worst team in the NFL.  Peyton Manning even - GASP! - threw a pick-six early on.  Manning isn't the type of player who underestimates any competition, so he took the Jaguars far more seriously than anyone else probably would have.  Still, the Jaguars showed there is a way to hold the Broncos to under 40 points, something no one else has been able to do so far this season.

5. I hate to do this, but the Goat of the Week Award goes to John Harbaugh.  I love John Harbaugh.  I think he's a fantastic coach and motivator for the Ravens.  But he made a really, really dumb decision right before halftime that ultimately led to determining the outcome of the game Sunday.  I had no problem at all with going for it on 4th and goal to put 6 points on the board early on.  I had a much bigger problem with throwing the ball with 12 seconds left in the first half.  Why not just take a knee and send the game into halftime?  I'm a lowly blogger and would never pretend to know as much about football as Harbaugh does, but it seemed like a no-brainer to me.  So when Flacco was hit and lost the football, the Packers recovered and were able to score another field goal before halftime.  Those three points proved to be the deciding factor in the game.  

6. The Eagles would be better off with Nick Foles at quarterback the rest of the way.  No turnovers, less risk of injuring himself, and a good grip on the offense.  I don't know how long term of an answer Foles would be at quarterback for the team (considering they had drafted Matt Barkley in April), but if the Eagles want to challenge the Cowboys for the division, they should keep him under center.

7. Time for a ridiculously early and absurd thought about the playoffs.  The 49ers have clearly righted their ship after starting the season at 1-2.  Compare them to the Eagles and Cowboys, who sit tied atop the NFC East at 3-3 (and also face off in Philadelphia in Week 7).  Now recall the hoopla made over the Saints in 2010, who went 11-5 in the regular season but was a Wild Card because the Falcons won the NFC South that season.  The Saints - who were defending Super Bowl champions at the time - had to travel to Seattle for the Wild Card round of the playoffs because the Seahawks wound up winning the West at 7-9.  Not only are we talking about a real possibility of history repeating itself, but this is even a step further.  We're talking about a possible playoff game in January where a west coast team might have to travel to the eastern time zone, and the Wild Card team will have at least 3 more wins than the NFC East winner.  It's been well-established that west coast teams traveling east to play a game at 1:00 on a Sunday rarely perform well, which would put either the 49ers or the Seahawks at a major disadvantage.  I don't know what the solution to the problem is, and frankly in 2010 I didn't really care because I figured it was a fluke.  If this kind of situation keeps coming up, the NFL might have to consider seeding the playoff teams based on teams' records more than divisional winners automatically hosting a playoff game.

8. If not for Peyton Manning this season, Andrew Luck might be in the running for MVP.  Color me impressed.  I don't normally like the idea of hyping up a young player fresh out of college because it can invariably set the player up to disappoint once he takes the field; Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell are just two good examples of young players with tons of hype who were colossal busts.  Andrew Luck has most definitely lived up to his hype and expectations so far, and it's almost a shame his season to date has lived in the shadow of what Peyton Manning is doing this year.  If not for his receivers letting him down last night, he'd have had another stellar performance.  

Thursday, October 10, 2013

That's One Way to Kill Time During a Furlough

Since I've had an awful lot of time on my hands over the last 10 days or so, I've taken to finding new ways to entertain myself.  I used a lot of last week to catch up on the series Homeland since I had heard a lot of good things about it, and I have to say after watching every episode on demand, it's more than lived up to the hype.  I definitely plan on watching the new episodes since the third season just started two weeks ago.

On top of Homeland, I usually like giving the new fall season a chance or two to check out some promising new series.  I'm a TV junkie, but my tastes in television differ I think somewhat than the general public.  I don't watch much in terms of comedy on television except for It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The League, considering most broadcast network comedies just aren't clever enough to make me laugh (though I did watch the first episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and that was pretty funny).  I especially hate series like Two and a Half Men and 2 Broke Girls since they pretty much embody everything I hate about forced set up and punchline moments in sitcoms today.

I've been much more of a drama fan, though once again the mainstream shows like CSI, NCIS, or Bones have never appealed to me at all.  They're all the same show week after week, and I much prefer serialized shows where story lines continue to build week after week, 24 and Lost being a couple good examples of that style.  The one drama that has really interested me this season is The Blacklist, which after three episodes has been a pretty effective and fun show that is a combo of both stand-alone stories of the week, mixed with long-term arcs and questions for the show to eventually cover.

My point is that for every series that does get an order from a network, there are plenty others that are written, shot, and produced that aren't ordered.  Every May the networks have a selection from a couple dozen possible pilots, and they choose from those batches which ones eventually make it to air.  There are always a few that aren't picked up that make good "what if" cases, leaving the entertainment industry to wonder how the series might have turned out, had they made it to air.

Just to make my point more clear, here are a few examples of both good and bad pilot ideas that weren't picked up for this fall:

  • Delirium - Based on a series of young adult novels, the series takes place in a time where love is deemed illegal, and the emotion is eradicated from existence from each person alive.  One teenage girl is only months away from undergoing the procedure, except she falls in love.  My take: Totally stupid idea.  Why would even one sect of society decide that love should be deemed illegal?  How could that same sect somehow get the entire planet to agree that love should be eliminated?  Plus, the plot only exists to serve itself.  
  • Backstrom - Drama about a cop who lives a very self-destructive lifestyle, but he has to balance that with his job.  Starred Rainn Wilson (!!!!) as the title character.  My take: Would have been interesting to see an actor known for comedy breaking into a dramatic role radically different from what he was known for previously.  Could have gotten exhausting watching him endlessly live a self-destructive life though, kinda like how tiring it was watching Denis Leary on Rescue Me after a few years.
  • The Sixth Gun - Based on a graphic novel taking place around the Civil War about six mythical guns, each equipped with magical powers.  Developed by Carlton Cuse (Lost).  My take: By far, the one pilot that wasn't picked up that I wish had been.  This sounds like my kind of show - a little weird, but definitely unique for prime time TV.  And it doesn't involve cops, lawyers, or doctors!  I'm sure it was a hard sell though, which was probably why the network felt it wouldn't bring in ratings.
  • NCIS LA: Red - Another NCIS spin off that was written as an episode of NCIS LA last season.  A mobile team of agents roam the country chasing bad guys.  My take: Yawwwwwwwwwn.  Exactly the kind of show that bores me to death.
Based on that small sample, I felt like looking into pilots that weren't picked up for series in the past.  What surprised me is that there's a wealth of information online about pilots that networks didn't buy, including full episodes produced in many cases on YouTube.  I have to say, there are some pretty interesting shows that weren't picked up, along with plenty of shows that were just so bug nuts crazy I'm surprised anyone thought they would be a good idea.

To wit:

Thoughtcrimes - A girl goes to her high school prom, only to find out she is telekinetic.  She thinks she's crazy, so she checks herself into a mental hospital, when a government agent finds out about her condition and trains her on how to use it to her advantage.  She eventually is recruited to work as an undercover agent for ops around the world.  Pretty interesting idea, especially on how she is trained.

Still Life - Drama about a family coping with the loss of their oldest son who tragically passed away.  The show is narrated by the dead character, giving it a bit of a twist.  Not picked up because let's face it - that would have gotten to be really depressing really quickly.

1775 - A family of five runs an inn during pre-Revolutionary times.  The pilot episode was about the dad - who happened to be George Washington's brother-in-law - wanting to marry off his oldest daughter.  Yes, this was a sitcom.  No, hilarity did not ensue.  But if you have that kind of fascination where you need to check out a car accident on the highway, this is worth a watch.

Earth Angels - Supernatural drama about angels and demons fighting one another while in human form.  Co-created and written by Anne Rice.  Think a supernatural CSI.

Poochinski - A vice cop is accidentally run down one night, only to be reincarnated as his pet bulldog.  Yup, it is just as silly as it sounds.  

Steel Justice - I saved the best for last.  A homicide detective in the early 21st century is dealing with the aftermath of his son's death and his wife leaving him.  His dead son comes back to the form of a robotic dinosaur toy.  No, I swear I am not making this up.  That plot description alone is plenty bug nuts crazy, but what's even more bizarre is that the episode was shot as a very dark and serious drama.  The plot description sounds kitschy, but the tone is anything but kitsch.

I'm not sure if I should expect to be thanked or cursed for posting such time-wasters.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

NFL Week 5 Snap Judgments

Another week and two more previously unbeaten teams each took a loss.  That leaves us with Denver, Kansas City, and New Orleans as the only unbeaten teams left in the league.  I'm marking my calendar now for November 17, since that Sunday the Chiefs play in Denver.  The Chiefs have a fairly easy schedule between now and then, and the Broncos' only tough game between now and then is in Indianapolis in two weeks.  It's not inconceivable that both teams will be undefeated between now and then, leaving their head to head match up as the clear game of the week.

1. Tom Brady is human after all.  He is presently on pace to throw for 23 touchdown passes this season, which would be by far his lowest total since 2006 (not counting 2008 when he had torn his ACL).  Granted, monsoon season had set in Cincinnati on Sunday which would make throwing any touchdown passes difficult.  His best receiving option is still hurt though, and it's a weekly discussion over when he will make his season debut.  An even bigger question is just how effective Gronkowski will be once he finally does take the field.  Brady is one of a few quarterbacks in the league who can make receivers around him better, but the group of guys the Patriots just aren't effective.

2. Reports of the 49ers' demise are greatly exaggerated.  I actually thought this team was facing being buried after two bad losses to the Seahawks and Colts, as well as losing one of their best defensive players in Aldon Smith.  Instead, they win two games back to back in big fashion, completely shutting down the opposition.  They have an uphill battle the rest of the season with the Seahawks leading the division, but I expect them to still be in the playoff hunt.

3. Meanwhile, the Jaguars' demise cannot be exaggerated enough.  You know the old saying, "The train wreck is horrible to look at, but I can't take my eyes away from it"?  That saying applies to the Jaguars this season.  Their quarterback play is atrocious.  Their offensive line was also bad enough, but they had used their first-round pick (#2 overall) on left tackle Luke Joeckel from Texas A&M to anchor their line.  They made what they felt was a good business decision and traded their current left tackle Eugene Monroe to the Ravens.  Joeckel had been playing right tackle, and they moved him over to the left side (his native position) this weekend.  Naturally, Joeckel sustained a high ankle fracture during the game on Sunday, and is now done for the season.  I'd normally ask what else could go wrong for the Jaguars, but I'm afraid to find out just what that would mean.

4. The Goat of the Week Award goes to Matt Schaub.  Congratulations, Matt.  You now live in infamy by being the first quarterback in NFL history to throw an interception returned for a touchdown in four consecutive games.  I suppose that's one way to get in the record books, though I doubt that's how Matt Schaub wanted to work his way in there.  The question now becomes whether the Texans make a change and have T.J. Yates replace Schaub.

5. What will happen to Tom Coughlin?  I can't think of any other head coach who had won a Super Bowl and faced being fired within two years after winning a championship.  At this rate, the Giants will have almost no choice but to make a change at head coach after the season.  They may cloak it somehow and allow Coughlin to announce his "retirement" versus say he's been fired.  Coughlin has had a history of finding himself on the hot seat in the past and saved his job, but I don't see him leading the Giants out of an 0-5 start.

6. The Broncos can't possibly keep up the kind of pace they're on right now....can they?  Check out this list of offensive stats the Broncos are on pace to shatter this season as a team.  They are currently on pace to break the record for points scored in a single season by nearly 150 points.  Peyton Manning is on pace to beat Tom Brady's record of touchdown passes in a season by 14.  I want to believe that the Broncos will come back to Earth at some point this season, but they prove me wrong every single week.  Still, if they do choke in the playoffs again it will likely go down as the greatest choke in the history of ever.

7. Bryant McKinnie might as well pack up his locker in Baltimore.  When the Ravens made their aforementioned trade for Eugene Monroe, it was pretty much a giant flashing neon sign signaling McKinnie was back in John Harbaugh's dog house.  Monroe would eventually take over the starting job at left tackle, and it was just a matter of how much time he'd need to learn the offense.  McKinnie has repeatedly shown he's unmotivated, selfish, and a bad influence in the locker room.  The Ravens will have to try trading him, though whether they find a team who would want him is another question all together (ironically, the Jaguars have an opening at left tackle now...).

8. The Saints are quietly running away with the NFC South.  Funny how the Saints are 5-0, and yet somehow fly under the radar a bit.  Every other team in their division is under .500, and they've already beaten their primary divisional opponent in the Falcons.  The Saints' defense is still their liability, but since their offense is one of the best in the league, they can overcome their Achilles heel.

9. Speaking of the Falcons, what on earth happened to them?  They've already lost more games than they did all of last season, and while I didn't expect them to equal last year's success, I didn't expect them to be 1-4 after 5 weeks.  Matt Ryan certainly isn't the problem; injuries to their wide receivers and running backs are at least part of the problem.  They're already in deep trouble, and if not for the Giants they'd probably be one of the most disappointing teams this season.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Review: Gravity

I haven't done a movie review in a long time, and this is a film that I've been looking forward to all year long, so why not?

In short, Gravity is absolutely amazing.

The first shot of the film is a huge image of the Earth from space, and gradually the space shuttle Explorer docked with the Hubble Telescope comes into view.  It's breathtaking, and the total lack of sound beyond some garbled radio communications between the shuttle and NASA Control in Houston.  In fact, aside from the dialogue and music, there is almost no sound in the film.  Any sound of knocking on doors, drills, or buttons being pushed are largely muffled.  As scientifically accurate as this is (and the film opens with some text laying out this fact), it's still unsettling.  In an age when film relies largely on sound to build suspense through explosions, metal scratching on metal, and thrusters firing, the film is actually more suspenseful at times because there is no sound.

Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a mission specialist technician working with Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and a team of astronauts on maintenance work on the Hubble Telescope.  An accident leaves the shuttle destroyed and only Stone and Kowalski survive.  Matt has to keep Ryan calm as they form a plan on how to survive and get back to Earth.

Any movie that is largely a one-man or two-man show is extremely difficult because the audience really has to care about the main character in order for the movie to work.  This idea worked in Cast Away and I Am Legend, but it failed miserably in The Woman in Black.  Gravity is probably the strongest film of this type because of how director Alfonso Cuaron puts the audience in Ryan's perspective throughout the film.

On more than one occasion, the film takes a first-person perspective so the audience sees exactly what Ryan sees.  The first time Cuaron uses this technique is right after the shuttle explodes and Ryan is left tumbling in space.  She can't stop tumbling, and is crying out for anyone to respond to her calls for help.  Her breathing becomes sharper and faster, and even though we aren't even 10 minutes into the movie, the audience is doing the exact same thing.

Even though this is essentially a "man vs. nature" film, space is a very different beast than any other natural foe in film.  It's dark, silent, and filled with nothing.  It's frightening, and the tension is revved up to another level in Cuaron's visual style of very, very, very long takes throughout the film.  I'm talking continues takes of over 15 minutes at times.

Rarely does a film truly need to be seen in IMAX and/or 3D in its theatrical release, but this is definitely that kind of film.  Cuaron made a film where the audience actually feels like they are with the characters in space; it isn't just about having pretty stuff to look at.  The audience becomes an active participant in the entire film from this point on.

Gravity is probably the best film I've seen thus far this year, and even more intense than World War Z was.  I have a feeling that it will lose something when made available for home viewing, so I may have to see it at least one more time in theaters.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Aside From Everything Else, How Was the Play, Mrs. Lincoln?

Today marks the first day of the partial government shutdown since 1995.  My first of many thoughts about this situation can be summed up in a joke I remember hearing way back in 8th grade.

Question: What's the opposite of progress?

Answer: Congress.

I've been furloughed along with my father and sister while Congress works on resolving this problem.

"Resolving."  Right.

When I was offered my job within CMS over two years ago, I was excited for so many reasons.  I went to grad school to get my MBA since my undergrad degree was in Electronic Media and Film, something that was an extremely niche degree program.  An MBA would be much more attractive to employers out there, giving me a multitude of opportunities that my undergrad degree alone wouldn't.  I had wanted to work for the federal government eventually anyway, and I had hoped that an MBA would attract interest from a federal agency.

Moreover, I had expected a federal job would be the most stable career path possible.  I'd be set for life, in terms of advancement opportunities, retirement, and overall job stability.  I wouldn't face being shown the door like I was in my last job.  

Until now.

Well, I wasn't shown the door this time, but I am sitting on my bed with my laptop at home, waiting for this federal budget plan to be approved by Congress.  And I'm really pissed off about this.

Most of last week was spent stressing out about whether I'd be going to work today.  My entire division was sent emails from our directors laying out what would happen in case a furlough did in fact happen.  On Friday I got an email labeling me a "non-essential" employee, which meant I would be furloughed unless a budget plan was approved prior to midnight Monday night.

I tried distracting myself last night from watching CNN all night by having Monday Night Football and the Rays/Rangers game on rotation.  It didn't help much, and as the clock ticked towards midnight I got more and more nervous.  I wanted to believe that both parties would avoid a shutdown at all costs, and somehow they would agree on a plan prior to midnight.

Now I'm frustrated, annoyed, stressed, and pissed off over a proverbial dick-measuring contest going on between the Democrats and Republicans in Congress.  I have no faith at all in either side, considering the Republicans waited until the last four days prior to the deadline to start negotiating, and the Democrats refuse to negotiate with them at all, even now.  Both sides have so much more to lose in the public eye by allowing this shutdown to happen, and if they stretch this mess out through the rest of the week (which I expect it will), who wins here?  I can't believe that either side could claim a victory with a straight face, but I bet a victory speech will go something like this:

"This is a great day - not for [insert political party here], but for the American people.  While it was a stressful time in resolving this issue, we [other political party] don't see this as a victory for ourselves, but for our entire country."

Give me a break.

Hey Congress, don't try selling the idea that you're doing this for something so noble as the people of this country.  Even though I've never been a fan of Obama or Obamacare, my feeling at this point is that if it does go forward as it is, what's the worst that could happen?  It fails miserably?  Then guess what - the Democrats would have egg on their faces, and the Republicans could use that as ammunition against them in next year's midterm elections and the 2016 Presidential election.  

Oh, but the Republicans are crying out they don't want to dig the country into a hole by allowing Obamacare to more forward.  In the court of public opinion, they are making themselves looking like bad guys by fighting this the way they have.

Hell, both parties are handling this like a massive group of 6-year-olds.  I'd even wager that if we replaced all of Congress with a bunch of first graders, they'd get this whole thing worked out in time for recess.

But here's the real kicker: we haven't even gotten to the real elephant in the room yet.  Let's say that Republicans and Democrats are magically able to put their egos aside and work out a federal budget plan by tomorrow.  The government shutdown ends, and everybody goes back to work.  Happy ending, right?

Nope.  Not by a long shot.

On October 17, the federal debt ceiling reaches its max.  What this means is October 17 is the deadline for Congress to continue borrowing money on credit in order to avoid defaulting on its expenses.  If the government were to default on its debts, things would obviously go ka-blooey.  Increasing the ceiling has been the status quo for most of the last decade or so, but the national debt has soared to over $16 trillion (yes, TRILLION) dollars.  Calling such a dollar amount "Monopoly money" isn't even fair since even Monopoly doesn't come close to that figure.  Of course, settling the debt ceiling problem can't be addressed until the federal budget has been passed for the new fiscal year.  

What we're left with at the moment is a whole lot of finger pointing and blaming from both sides of the political spectrum.  Such arguments get nothing done, and really are giant Houdini plays on the American public.  It deflects attention away from the bigger problem of how to resolve the problem versus claiming who is strong-arming whom.  

I've spent most of today watching CNN, which has been a completely depressing experience.  I've been writing sports-related posts lately as a distraction and venue to avoid being a Douglas Downer.  But as someone who has been directly affected by this mess along with most of his family, I couldn't ignore it.  I just don't see an end in sight.

NFL Week 4 Snap Judgments

Remember what I said last week about the good teams starting to separate themselves from the crappy teams?  Yeah, never mind.

I still don't trust the Patriots, even though they won Sunday night.  The Broncos and Seahawks are clearly each conference's best team, but when was the last time the Super Bowl featured a pair of #1 seeds in the game?  The last time a #1 seed even won the Super Bowl was the 2009 Saints, but I can't remember the last time both top seeds even got to the big game.

Then there are a bunch of teams like the Ravens, Bears, 49ers, Falcons, Bengals, and Redskins who have at least hit stumbling blocks, if not flat out underachieved so far this season.  So just how many teams can be seen as true contenders in the league right now?

I know talking like this is absurdly premature, and it probably won't be another month or so before we really know which teams could realistically make a Super Bowl run.  I still have this feeling that this year's champ will have a run similar to what the last three Super Bowl champs had - a hot run starting in mid to late December, followed by a big push come January.

With that said, let's switch things up a bit by taking a look at each division through four weeks.

1. The AFC East: It ain't just the Patriots and a bunch of lousy teams anymore.  I am a believer in the Dolphins.  I don't care that they were easily handled by the Saints last night.  I was a little hesitant to pick them to win the AFC East before the season, but as each week passes I am more and more confident that they will win the division this year, forcing the Patriots to fight for a Wild Card spot.  I have no idea what to make of the Bills yet, because even though they beat the Ravens on Sunday, they still found themselves in a position where the Ravens could have at least forced overtime, if not drove down field to win the game with a touchdown.  And the Jets are, sadly, still the Jets.

2. The AFC North: Mediocrity is king.  Three of the four teams are 2-2, and the Steelers are 0-4.  The Ravens and Bengals shot themselves in the foot this past weekend, but I think the Ravens in particular inflicted a lot of self-damage for a couple reasons.  First, five interceptions speak for themselves, but at least two interceptions were not Flacco's fault (an argument could be made for a third not being his fault either).  Factoring in the atrocious offensive line play and pathetic run defense, and there's plenty of blame to go around the entire team for their loss.  Then again, the fact that the Ravens even had a chance to tie the game if not win it outright at the end says an awful lot about how bad the Bills played as well.  They had the Ravens down dead to rights when they were up 20-7, so the Ravens had no business having a chance to win that game at all.

Then there's the Bengals/Browns game.  I don't know how the Browns have done it, but they have won their last two games in pretty convincing fashion.  They took the Bengals' best player out of the game completely, and made Andy Dalton look below average at best.  I didn't think the Bengals were quite ready to compete for the division title this year, and this weekend is a pretty good indicator that I was right about that.

3. The AFC South: The Texans are doing exactly what I had expected them to do.  I said in my predictions that I expected the Colts to steal the division away from the Texans, implying it would be a close match down the stretch.  It may not be as close as I had originally expected.  If the Texans continue to blow 17-point leads like they did to the Seahawks (at home, no less), they could very well find themselves on the outside of the playoff hunt looking in, especially with the Chiefs bouncing back this year in a big way.  The Titans are overachieving so reality will settle in on them being a mediocre team, and the Jaguars could probably be beaten by at least a few college teams, especially Alabama.

4. The AFC West: The Chiefs could wind up with at least 10 wins but not be able to host a playoff game.  Talk about a raw deal for the Chiefs.  They've pulled a 180-degree turnaround from where they were a year ago, and already doubled their win total from 2012.  And yet because they are in the same division as the Broncos, they would have to go on the road for the playoffs.  Andy Reid is an early pick (a VERY early pick) for Coach of the Year at this point, especially if they do make the playoffs.

5. The NFC East: 8-8 could be enough to win the division.  Remember the hoopla from a couple years ago when the Seahawks won the NFC West at 7-9, and hosted a playoff game?  We could face a similar situation with the NFC East this year, given how mediocre (and that's being polite) the entire division looks.  The Giants are putrid, having score 7 points in their last 8 quarters of play; the Eagles' fast paced offense looks like a Week 1 wonder; I trust Jason Garrett as far as I can throw him; and the Redskins are 1-3.  I thought the Eagles could win the division by winning 10 games, and at this point I doubt any team in this division will win that many.

6. The NFC North: There could be a changing of the guard.  I'm not about to bury the Packers necessarily, but the Bears and Lions both look vastly improved from last season.  I didn't expect the Lions to be much better than they were in 2012, but Reggie Bush has been an incredible addition to their offense (and to my fantasy team, if I may brag for a moment).  They use him how he should have been used for his entire career, and even though the Bears hit a wall against Detroit this weekend, they look better as well.  The Packers have the best quarterback in the division (and one of the best ones in the entire league), but they could find themselves on the outside of the playoff hunt come December as well.

7. The NFC South: Proof positive that a team still needs its head coach to be as good as it can be.  The Saints' lone Achilles heel continues to be their defense, but their offense looks more fluid and coherent through its first four games than it did all of last year.  Last night's game shows Drew Brees is back to his old self, and the Saints have certainly benefited from the Falcons stumbling out of the gate a bit so far.

8. The NFC West: The curse of the reigning Super Bowl loser lives on.  There was a stretch for a while where if a team had reached the Super Bowl but lost, they had failed make the playoffs the following year.  This stretch was broken with the Seahawks in 2007, but the 49ers have looked largely sluggish through their first four games this season.  I'm not sure if that's a product of teams figuring out how to defend Colin Kaepernick or the injuries the team has sustained so far (Aldon Smith is another issue all together).  The Seahawks currently have a 2-game lead in the division, including a huge win over the 49ers in Week 2, so if that gap continues expanding San Francisco may also be fighting for a Wild Card spot.