Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Ravens: They're real, and they're spectacular!

I don't often compare professional football teams to women's bodies, but weren't we all rubbing our eyes in disbelief as the Baltimore Ravens mauled the Cleveland Browns 34-3 on Sunday? After scoring an historic 69 points in the first two weeks of the season, Baltimore went out and did it again, and this time the defense joined the offense in totally dominating an opponent.

A few moments from the game stood out as to how completely the Ravens controlled the game from start to finish. Leading 27-3, Baltimore's first possession of the fourth quarter began at their own 30 yard line. In this situation, conventional wisdom calls for a time-consuming, run-oriented scoring drive, but the Ravens ran six straight pass plays and drove to the Cleveland 13. When they finally changed tactics and ran the ball, Willis McGahee fumbled, but it speaks volumes about John Harbaugh's confidence in his defense and Joe Flacco's ability that he went with the passing game at this point in the game.

Also of note, on the Ravens' three rushing touchdowns, McGahee and Ray Rice reached the endzone standing, nearly unimpeded by the Browns' defense, which crumpled under Baltimore's O-line and failed to pursue, leaving wide lanes to the outside.

Going into this game, the Ravens were already ranked number one in Sports Illustrated's Power Ratings, and this morning Bob Ryan picked them to face the Giants in the Super Bowl. Now, I am as excited as anyone about this team's potential, but let's take a look at the other side of the coin, just for fun.

First of all, the Browns are terrible. Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson were so awful, they might as well have had Brady Anderson playing quarterback on Sunday. Cleveland crossed midfield just one time in the first half and only got as far as the 44-yard line, and the second half featured three interceptions. To be fair, all three of the Browns' losses have come at the hands of undefeated teams; to be unfair, none of them have been close.

Now, back to the Ravens. They now have a dominant win over a vastly inferior team, a close win on the road against a playoff caliber team (San Diego), and a closer than the final score (38-24) win against a mediocre-at-best winless team (Kansas City). The defense looked very good last time out, but there would have been much hand-wringing if it had continued in the vein it as heading after the first two weeks.

So the true test comes now in the three weeks leading up to the bye in Week 7. The Ravens play at New England and Minnesota, with a home game against the resurgent Bengals. If they drop two or more of those games, suddenly they are just another team in the playoff hunt, with abundant question marks. Two wins keeps them in solid position atop the division, especially if they beat the Bengals. Three wins and we'll get two weeks of stories about the '72 Dolphins, the 2007 Patriots, and the great Colts teams of Baltimore.

Finally, about today's post title and accompanying photo. In 1993, Teri Hatcher was a modestly successful working actress whose career was highlighted by a recurring role as "Penny Parker" on the TV show "MacGyver." But after being cast as Sidra, Jerry Seinfeld's naturally and generously endowed girlfriend, she secured the role of Superman's girlfriend in the hit series, "Lois and Clark," and was catapulted to stardom as Susan Mayer in "Desperate Housewives." Now, you could argue that her success came as a result of talent and hard work, and I can't dispute that, but in just about any job search, you have to be able to get the attention of a prospective employer, and in a place like Hollywood, being known as the woman who embodied, "they're real and they're spectacular" probably counts for something. Taking nothing away from Teri Hatcher, some small percentage of her earnings should probably be directed toward Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, or Peter Mehlman, all of whom received writing credit for that episode.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Football, movies, what else is there?

The Baltimore Ravens' defense went to such an extreme of the "bend but don't break" cliche Sunday, I felt like had tuned into an Advanced Pilates class on the Fitness Channel instead of an NFL game on NBC. The first four times the San Diego Chargers advanced inside the Ravens' 20-yard line, Baltimore tightened up and forced them to bring in kicker Nate Kaeding and settle for three points instead of six. San Diego's fifth foray into the red zone came to a dramatic, violent halt thanks to Ray Lewis, who crushed Darren Sproles (and the Chargers' last chance) on fourth down with a hit I haven't seen him make since taking on a door.

It was the kind of play that usually comes at the end of a Hollywood 97-minute macho melodrama about a group of scrappy lovable underdogs coming together to surmount internal and external obstacles to emerge victorious as champions. More on sports cinema magic later, but even though this was only the second game of the season, it was a cathartic, satisfying ending to a very entertaining game - for Ravens' fans anyway. I'm sure most coaches want to end a game with their offense grinding out a clock-killing drive while protecting at least a 10-point lead, but I'm equally sure most fans get greater enjoyment from a big play that delivers a win that was anything but certain prior to that moment. For many football teams, that play is a long touchdown pass, but for Ravens' fans, that play is more often made by the defense, and when Ray Lewis makes the game ender, well, you might as well have ripped a page out of a The Official Ravens Roost Handbook. That's the play that gets you out of your seat, causes hand-blisteringly intense high-fives and the occasional fist-pumping shoulder injury.

The Ravens went to San Diego as three-point underdogs, and while it's still early, this is a significant win for a team that has the Super Bowl in its sites. Certainly the Chargers have to be considered an upper-tier AFC team, so beating them on the road is a bit of a big deal, even when you factor in the absence of LaDainian Tomlinson and assorted offensive and defensive linemen due to injuries.

And of course Charger coach Norv Turner's ineptitude is always worth a few opportunities for the opponent. He doesn't give away the game, but he does leave it dangling in plain view. Two cases in point: at the end of the first half, he sent the field goal unit onto the field on third down with ten seconds left on the clock instead of trusting his veteran QB to either make a play or throw incomplete and leave time for the kicker. And his final call, on 4th and 2, was a handoff to Sproles, when his team had a total of 53 rushing yards and 463 receiving yards and distinct physical mismatches at wide receiver. Hard to argue that he didn't deserve the result.

The Ravens have now scored 69 points in their first two games, their highest in the first two games since they came to Baltimore. That's a completely irrelevant bit of trivia, so how about another one? The previous high was 55 points, which they scored in 2006 when they won the division and also in 2000, when, hello, they won the Super Bowl. So that's a fun, meaningless trend I'll be tracking until it becomes statistically anomalous.

For me the interesting thing about all these points is that the defense has scored none of them. Don't get me wrong, the defense has been pretty good. Most of the points in the Chiefs game came as a result of special teams and offensive miscues, but the Raven's defense of the past several years has been good for seven to ten points per game. Could be the loss of Rex Ryan as coordinator (and the departure of Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard), could just be coincidence, but the offense's ascent has come at the same time as a toning down of the defensive ferocity. Still, the results are there.

That's enough Ravens for today. Back to the movie subplot I mentioned earlier. Over the weekend, while my younger son was at a friend's house, the rest of us settled in for a nice wholesome family movie. Unfortunately, when you have a 12-year old boy in the house, it's sometimes challenging to find an agreeable selection, so eventually we gave up and chose something called "The Comebacks," a spoof of sports movies that earned every bit of its' PG-13 rating. There's no way I can recommend this fine film. It's so bad, the only suspense is in trying to figure out which movie or cliche was being mocked all the while cringing at the bombardment of sex jokes and racial stereotypes. Still, we all laughed and were thankful that it cost only $2.99.

The weekend's other movie moment came when I stumbled on the original "Bad News Bears." This one I can watch every time it's on, as opposed to the 2005 remake which I won't even dignify with a link. The team cheats, they lose, they exemplify poor sportsmanship and disrespect authority, their opponents and the game. The only concession to Hollywood sports mythology is that they come together as a team. They also have a lot of fun. I'll watch it every time.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Economic collapse

Yesterday, I mused that I could bring the United States economy to its knees simply by applying my spectacularly specious speculative skills to a daytrading account, only to correct myself by assenting that the economy went into the toilet without any help from me at least a year ago. With the passage of the stimulus bill this summer, I thought I heard that we were at the "beginning of the end" of our economic troubles, so it came as quite a shock when I learned that the US economy has been knocked out of the top spot as the most competitive economy in the world. King of the rankings since they were established by the World Economic Forum in 2004, our five-year reign of supremacy has come to an end.

Oh, no! Has China finally risen to claim supremacy and declare the dawn of the apocalypse so artfully foretold in the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics (What? That wasn't the central theme? Really? My fortune cookie from that night begs to differ). Actually, no, it's not China that took the top spot.

Then it's India, right? All those guys who provide technical support over the phone (Hello ...this ... is ... Mike ... nice ... to ... talk ... to ... you) finally cast off their headsets and rose up against the West with the rebellious flourish of a Bollywood closing number. Nope, not India either.

Okay, I know, it's the European Union, on a technicality, like when the EU caught up to the US by adding 10 new member nations last spring.

Nope, it's actually one nation that belongs to the EU ... Switzerland. Yep, Switzerland, that bastion of neutrality has an economy that is more competitive than the United States'.

Oh, come on! Switzerland? How can we be beaten by the Swiss? They don't even want to compete; they're neutral, the beige of nations. We might lose to the Swiss in just about every Winter Olympic event but we clean their clocks (pun intended) in the Summer Games. Fine, I'll give you Roger Federer, chocolate, army knives, bank accounts, clocks and cheese, but that's it. Do they even make cars in Switzerland? Well, to be fair, do we still make cars in the US? Switzerland doesn't even have a navy. Sure, it's landlocked, but let's not have any facts clouding my opinions.

Give Switzerland its due. It is the headquarters of many international organizations, including the Red Cross, the World Trade Organization, FIFA, the International Olympic Committee, and what's this, the World Economic Forum, which just so happens to come up with these rankings. I smell a little home cooking and it ain't the apple rosti.

You know what? I don't care who makes the rankings. If Swiss Miss thinks she can take out Uncle Sam, then I think I know just the guy to take care of her business:

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Open Season

Friday morning, the kids got on the bus, I turned to my neighbor and said, "Take the Terps and the points. Maryland beat Cal last year, and even though it's on the road, there's no way they'll lose by three touchdowns." Final score: Cal 52, Maryland 13. This is why I don't bet on sports.

Saturday, we went to the State Fair. One of our usual stops is the horse racing. It's a chance to sit down and relax, and the Doc never misses a chance to see horses in just about any environment. We watched three or four races, collected exactly $4.20 in winnings and one of the horses we picked broke down in the stretch and had to be helped into an ambulance.

With that kind of progression, I could probably open a daytrading account and bring the entire United States economy to the brink of bankruptcy in an hour or two. Whoops, too late!

So, I'm back on the blog, at least for now. And, what a coincidence, Mr. Tony is back on the air today as well. I'll be posting two or three days a week, about whatever seems to be crossing my mind.

Like the U.S. Open, for instance. Professional tennis was a major televised event in our house growing up. Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, John McEnroe, Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, these were well known names and faces, and I could probably rattle off another dozen or two without much thought. Of course, these days, I couldn't go more than five deep in men's or women's (Federer, Nadal, Roddick, Murray, uhh, the Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova, there's a Djokovic and a Jankovic (one's a guy and one's a girl, I think). Anna Kournikova doesn't count, so I guess I'm done.

So I'm watching some of these matches and while the tennis is impressive, I can't get too excited about the endless baseline battles with no one daring to approach the net. Fortunately, John McEnroe's commentary saves the day. During a match between Ernests Gulbis and Andy Murray, the lead announcer remarked that Gulbis was currently playing without a coach and had been known to play matches without warming up. "That's insane," was McEnroe's reply, and he went on to excoriate the lack of intelligence and professionalism that kind of thinking engendered. He went on to speculate that there were a few good coaches in New York Gulbis might want to contact while he was in town.

On the other hand, he clearly praised Gulbis when he made good plays. This is the kind of analysis you rarely hear on televised sports. Candid, direct and thoughtful. No cheerleading, no hysterical catch phrases, and yet still entertaining. McEnroe won't make you watch tennis if you're not already a fan. But he'll make me check in on a random match to see if he's calling it, and I'm likely to stay longer if he is. Because you never know when you'll see a clip like the following: