The National MMA League.




Don’t panic.  I’m not going to talk about MMA.  Well, I am a little bit, but it’s not going to be the point.  The massive slab of humanity pictured above is Brock Lesnar.  He was the UFC heavyweight champion until Saturday night when he was pummeled in about 4 minutes by Cain Velasquez.  Lesnar had little MMA training compared to his rivals in the heavyweight division, but he was considered to be too big to lose by some.  Get ready for a long heavyweight reign is what we heard.  I’ve now read the same thing about Cain Velasquez.  I’ve read it about many MMA champions, but what gives MMA a unique flair is that dominance is incredibly hard to come by.  It seems to be the nature of the game.  MMA thrives (relatively speaking) despite its propensity for upsets and the volatile hierarchy of talent.

It is starting to feel that the NFL is entering this realm.  It’s not necessarily just parity anymore, it’s 32 teams with a puncher’s chance.  It’s 32 teams that could come into a game completely unprepared.  When I think of parity I think of a mass of teams that operate at about the same level.  That’s not what we’re seeing in the NFL.  We’re seeing teams look like completely different entities week in and week out.  To complete the MMA analogy they can knock someone out in the first round one week,  and suffer the same fate themselves a Sunday later.  Look at the examples from Sunday:

The Browns beat the Saints 30-17.  This isn’t about Cleveland (it was an odd 30 points) as much as it is about New Orleans, who blew out Tampa last week, but couldn’t handle the Browns on Sunday.  Cleveland had 2 defensive scores and won the game easily despite barely gaining 200 yards on the day.  How about the Raiders?  Coming off one of the worst games of his career, Jason Campbell leads a total destruction of the Denver Broncos, 59-14.  The Raiders didn’t look like a team that could score 59 points in a month last week, but there they were today easing off the pedal like a good-natured college team before they hit 60 or 70.  In a post last week I said the Bengals looked like a team that could beat the best team in the league one week and lose to the worst the next.  They looked a little like both of those teams in the span of four quarters against Atlanta on Sunday.

The question I have is, can this be successful for the NFL?  In MMA it is important to have identifiable champions, but the unknown nature of the outcome isn’t much of a deterrent for fans.  A lopsided match-up can still be entertaining.  A match-up of two unheralded competitors can often be more fun to watch than a title fight.  In the NFL, blowouts are rarely exciting, and the level of play has gotten so bad in some cases that even close games between 2nd tier teams are basically unwatchable.  I’m not saying there shouldn’t be upsets in the NFL, or that every game should go according to preconceived notions, but in football it helps when there is a general idea. What teams and what players are legitimately good.

What I mean by that is that football benefits from casual fans thinking they know the game.  A person tuning into a fight doesn’t have to  know anything about Muay Thai or Jujitsu, they are just looking for a show.  In football a lot of fans like to think they know the game inside and out.  They can read defenses, talk strategy, and generally, apologies for the cliché, armchair quarterback.  The other area this manifests itself is in gambling and fantasy football.  There is no doubt that gambling and fantasy football contribute greatly to football’s overwhelming popularity.  You can’t tell me that football is that much more exciting than other sports, but I do know that fantasy football is the best manifestation of that hobby and football is tailor-made for gambling.

So with unpredictability and inconsistency ruling the day in the NFL are we in danger of taking all the fun out of armchair quarterbacking?  How many people left tens of fantasy points on their bench this week?  How many people have exhausted every gambling trend and theory they can think of?  I might be getting close to that point, and the NFL is getting a little less fun for me.  I just don’t know exactly what I’m seeing.  Was that a good win for Cleveland today?  What is Denver going to do next week?  Should I play Drew Brees?  Can I count on the Raiders not to come out flat?  Too many questions, and in a sport where I think it helps when you have at least some answers, I think this is bad news for the king of American sports.




Closing the Book on the Phils.


Ryan Howard Fan


I’m operating in a slight game six fog today.  The football games on TV are threatening to put me to sleep.  How could they compete?  I thought I was going to be spending the afternoon ratcheting up for game 7.  Instead I watch the Eagles and Titans try to out inept each other on offense.  Even when the possibility is right in front of you, the baseball season tends to end a bit abruptly, and the fan in me is still trying to recalibrate my priorities in the wake of having no more games to watch. I’ve never been a World Series or failure kind of person, much like the championship grace period, I don’t think it makes much sense.  The Phillies season wasn’t a failure, but it ended badly, and as always my biggest regret is gap created by the lack of excitement.

The Giants deserved to win the series.  It would be hard to argue otherwise, but they didn’t win it by drastically outperforming my expectations.  Cody Ross was an unexpected variable, Matt Cain pitched better than I thought he would, but this wasn’t my east coast bias failing to identify a juggernaut.  Several Giants underperformed.  Game six starter Johnathan Sanchez was pedestrian and could be a cause for concern for San Francisco in the upcoming World Series.  No, the Giants gave you about what you’d expect.  They pitched great, scored a grand total of 19 runs in six games and that was enough to get the job done.  It was the Phillies who didn’t live up to their end of my prediction.  A sorry statement, considering we weren’t asking too much.

The most obvious thing that went wrong in the series was Philadelphia’s failures with runners in scoring position.  Game six was indicative of the entire series.  A clutch hit, a two-out hit, sometimes even something as simple as a sacrifice could have given the Phillies the extra run here or there that would have made the difference.  The series ended with the tying run on second base and Ryan Howard watching a third strike sail by.  Howard will take a lot of blame over the winter.  He scattered his post-season hits such that he didn’t record a single RBI.  It’s hard to say he was slumping, given the number of balls he stung into left-center, but he was certainly a different hitter with runners on base.  To put it all on Howard, though, to simply say the Phillies didn’t hit enough would be missing the full picture.  This was a collective effort.

First, the defense was shockingly bad.  Wasn’t this a strength for the Phillies not long ago?  The right side of the infield has become an anchor-like liability.  The defense as a whole played a role in three of the four losses.  Along with the defense, Charlie Manuel will take his share of shots for what went down against the Giants.  Manuel is probably the most beloved coach this city has seen since Buddy Ryan (?), but he was burning through his built up credit in this series.  It starts with pitching Joe Blanton in game 4.  From there the second-guessing continues with bullpen moves, the running game, and everything else.  The criticism with Manuel has always been he’s not a great in-game manager.  The players love him, and that’s enough when the team wins it all, but watching this series gave you an idea how Charlie Manuel managing a bad team could drive you crazy.

We’re four years into this Phillies window.  The way the team is made up right now, you’d have to say they are certainly closer to the end of the window than the beginning.  The starting pitching has taken over from the offense as the strength of this team, and moving forward the core group on offense will have to deal with changing personnel and another year flipped on the calendar.  Sustaining a championship level for more than a few years is difficult for seemingly every team in baseball aside from the Yankees.  Is a Phillies decline inevitable, or are they going to be able to make the moves to restock the talent and stay atop the NL East?  It is easy to forget this team was close to moving Jayson Werth at the deadline, the Oswalt deal wouldn’t have happened, and 2011 would have a much different outlook. So, given the current situation where are we going?

The Issues…

1.  Jayson Werth.  If I was ranking issues based on uncertainty, I’d put Werth near the bottom.  Barring a shake-up of monster proportions, Werth will be playing elsewhere in 2011.  His strong finish, his run through the playoffs secured the big deal he will get this winter.  I don’t envision a hometown discount scenario, and while Werth’s right-handed bat is crucial for the middle of this order, the Phillies wouldn’t be able to justify another 16-17 million per year salary.  Werth’s replacement will be Dom Brown.  The entire balance of the outfield (A Francisco platoon, a mid-level right-handed free agent) won’t be known until moves are made this winter.  The Phillies would probably love to trade Raul Ibanez, but I don’t know that he has the value to trade him without also paying the majority of his salary.

2.  Chase Utley.  Utley desperately needs a season where he stays healthy.  Perhaps he needs a new off-season regimen, maybe he just needs a little luck, or a different approach, but Utley doesn’t seem to be able to stay healthy.  The results of these injuries, the cumulative beat down,  have Utley looking more like 35 than 30.  Have we seen the best of Utley?  Is he going to need a position change?  Utley’s style of play makes you wonder if his shelf life is more NFL running back than MLB second baseman.  In 2011 Chase will be in dire need of a bounce back year, not just for the Phillies offense, but for his own psyche.

3.  The Bullpen.  Remember back when the bullpen was the biggest problem the Phillies had?  In Spring Training I wrote it was the only thing that could derail them.  At times it looked like it might, but by the end of the year the guys out there were doing a serviceable job.  Problems remain, though.  Chad Durbin may have pitched too many innings since 2008.  There is a stunning lack of left-handers out there.  That would be priority one for me.  And, often it seems like putting together a bullpen takes a bit of luck.  You get misses like Danys Baez and surprises like Jose Contreras.  The last thing to ponder would be, is Scott Mathieson, the highly regarded but oft-injured right-hander, going to make a contribution in 2011?  How long has it been since the Phillies got a bullpen arm from their own system?

4.  Fifth Starter.  The top of the rotation will remain the same, and with Roy Oswalt for a full year, you could argue the Phillies will be set-up even better for the regular season in 2011.  Joe Blanton, stuff-wise if not in the wallet, is a fine #4 starter.  Or, he seems to end every season looking that way.  Then he can’t get anyone out until mid-May.  It’d be nice to avoid that next year.  In the fifth spot in the rotation, you’d have to imagine that Kyle Kendrick has the inside track.  I suppose next year will finally be the year we figure out if Kendrick has any real future here.  Right now, there doesn’t seem to be much competition.  Perhaps Vance Worley, hopefully not Jamie Moyer.

5.  The Rest of the League.  We saw in 2010 that the National League caught up to the Phillies a little bit.  The Phillies had the best record in all of baseball, but plenty of NL teams were right there within a handful of games.  Next year the NL East will only be tougher.  The Giants will still have this great pitching staff.  The Rockies, a year matured and healthier could be a handful.  The Cardinals still have a great rotation.  When the Phillies got Roy Halladay last winter they were penciled in as National League champs in just about every publication you could get your hands on.  I imagine the NL previews next spring will be a little more democratic.

I also wrote once this year that I hoped all the Philly fans like this team, because it was going to be around for a while. To that point, the team that takes the field on opening day next year could have only 1 different player in the starting line-up.  Brown for Werth.  It could be that simple.  It’s unlikely to be, but the meat of this team will be the same.  And, there’s nothing wrong with that.  Not for 2011.  The starting pitching, if healthy, should enable the Phillies to win plenty of games.  The offense, while likely to remain streaky, should see enough mediocre pitching to do their share of damage. The difference will all be in the fine tuning.  How good will Utley/Howard/Rollins be?  Who are going to be the small additions, can Dom Brown play almost every day?  Those are the kind of questions that will determine whether or not the Phillies are just a good team, or a team that can duplicate or exceed what they’ve done the last couple of years.

In the end, I’d let the pessimism slowly fade away.  It’s not quite time to bury this team, not quite time to close the window.  I know everyone probably wants to take the 2008 title and go sit with it quietly in the corner today, but that feeling should fade as well, and next year I think we’ll be able to crank it up again.