Friday, October 17, 2014

No Folk hero this time: Close games not going 2014 Jets' way

Last year in the Jets' first meeting of the season against New England, Nick Folk kicked a game-winning field goal in overtime.

That, of course, came with some luck (and controversy) after Chris Jones of the Patriots was called for unsportsmanlike conduct on Folk's first attempt (from 56 yards), which was a miss. Move the ball up 15 yards and the Jets celebrated a W.

Thursday night in the 2014 Jets' first duel with the Patriots, Folk again had an opportunity to lift the Jets to victory with a long kick. Jones was again involved. This time, though, there was no penalty. Folk's 58-yard attempt didn't travel more than a few yards, as Jones, ironically enough, was the one to knock the ball down.

What a difference a year makes.

So, what is that difference, at least through seven games?

The 2013 Jets pulled out close games. The 2014 incarnation hasn't.

At their Week 10 bye last season, the Jets were 5-4. All five of those victories came by a touchdown or less.

This year, it's the exact opposite.

Four of the Jets six losses have come by one possession or less. A 14-point loss to Denver last Sunday only became that lengthy because of a pick-six in a do-or-die drive for Geno Smith and the Jets offense.

There's no denying 1-6 is an ugly, ugly record. But these Jets aren't quite as bad as that record may look. Here's the rundown of the soul-crushers:

- Lost at Green Bay in a game in which a timeout snafu cost them a game-tying, fourth quarter touchdown
- After falling into a 14-point deficit on Monday night against Chicago, came back and got into the Bears' red zone in the final two minutes with a chance to tie the game on a touchdown, then two-point conversion but could not hit paydirt
- Somehow managed to stay in a game in which Detroit thoroughly outplayed them but went three-and-out on a potential game-tying drive that began with 4:36 left in the fourth, then never got the ball back
- Somehow managed to stay in a game in which Denver outplayed them most of the way but, down a touchdown, went three-and-out on a drive beginning with 6:07 to play and culminated it with a Smith pick-six on a last gasp chance that began at their own 5 in the final 2:30
- Thursday's New England affair, in which they more than doubled the Patriots' time of possession and didn't turn the ball over but could muster only a field goal four times in Patriots territory (twice in the red zone)

Outside of the 31- 0 demolition suffered in San Diego, this team has been competitive in every game - with opponents whom are no slouches. The combined record of the teams who have defeated the Jets is 25-11.

While 1-6 looks really bad, you have to ask yourself: how much different really are these Jets than last year's version?

It was relatively agreed upon that Rex Ryan overachieved by taking that bunch to an 8-8 record. With a talent pool that is better in some places (Eric Decker at receiver) and worse in others (the secondary), Ryan's team is on pace for a much worse finish this time around.

But take a look at how the Jets won last year and how they've lost last year - it's not all that different.

Close games went the Jets way in 2013 - and they overachieved. 

Winning close games has proved impossible thus far in 2014 - and the Jets are in the AFC East cellar.

Talent-wise, plenty still needs to be done. If a penchant for tight wins and a surprisingly good final record fooled anyone out of that belief, they were sorely mistaken. Seven weeks of the 2014 season have proved that.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Rex Ryan can’t afford many more 'ass whippings'

Jets head coach Rex Ryan rarely holds back his emotions, win or lose.

Ryan’s Jets didn’t just lose to the Chargers this week - they were demoralized in every aspect of the game, from an offense that couldn’t get out of its own way to a defense that couldn’t stop a thing on third down.

It was a mess, which Ryan frankly acknowledged: “It's a complete ass-whipping and it was me that got his ass kicked. It's on me."

Candor is a plus but frankly, Ryan can’t afford many more of the beatdowns of the nature the Jets suffered in the fifth game of their season.

No team is immune to a day they don’t want to remember but for the Jets, it’s becoming a recurring script and Ryan’s seat is only getting hotter and hotter.

There was last year’s 49-9 stomping in Cincinnati, which Ryan followed up by saying: “We got our butts kicked and there’s no two ways about it. All phases of the game.”

Go back two years to a 2012 game at home when the San Francisco 49ers obliterated the Jets and Ryan said: “We got our ass kicked” and that the team needed to do some “soul searching.”

Ryan called the infamous 45-3 Monday night loss in New England in 2010, the “biggest butt whipping I’ve taken as a coach, in my career.” Ryan used the word “butt” six times in that postgame news conference, repeatedly stressing that Bill Belichick and the Patriots kicked the derrieres of Ryan and the Jets.

Some of these Ryan-led teams have gone on to make the playoffs despite such whoopings. But this one is 1-4 and looking in no shape to get hot.

With a new general manager, Ryan’s ass is on the line and, if the ship isn’t righted quickly this time, the next place it will be kicked is to the curb.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A cool story in a crazy time in Cleveland sports

One week ago, northeast Ohio was on a LeBron James-induced high after the four-time NBA MVP announced his decision to return home.

Fans still are. And the week that was produced some weird, wild and fun stories.

Here is a cool one I was able to post on FoxSportsOhio.com thanks to social media. Saw a great photo shared by @imaraindancer retweeted in my Twitter feed, talked to the people involved and ended up with a story not just about LeBron hysteria (as it would have only seemed at the surface) but hometown pride.
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Epic wedding photo captures LeBron homecoming fever

Eight groomsmen in No. 23 jerseys and a groom mimicking LeBron James' powder toss stand in front of St. Vincent Catholic Church in the four-time NBA MVP's hometown of Akron, Ohio, one day after James' colossal homecoming announcement.

You couldn't write this script any better.

When Nick Jones and Christa Deckard set their wedding date for July 12, 2014, they had no idea it would follow in the direct aftermath of what will likely go down as one of Cleveland's biggest sports stories ever.

So, what better way to celebrate a glorious life moment than with a photo for the ages, paying tribute to one of Northeast Ohio's most compelling athletes?

Jarred Wagner of Inlux Photo in Canton was the man behind the lens for the awesome photo, which he said was the groom's idea and took two takes to nail.

"I quickly collected my jerseys and we got everything rolling," Jones said, reacting ecstatically when he found out the news of LeBron's decision Friday. "We pulled the photo off even better than I could expect."

When the rumor of James' return started proliferating the weekend before, Jones initially asked his wife if he and his groomsmen could wear the LeBron jerseys as the introduction to their reception.

She obliged - just another sign that she was a keeper.

The Joneses story actually has part of its beginnings in basketball, as Christa took Nick to a Cavaliers game for their third date, Dec. 14, 2012.

"Looking back, I knew I'd marry her but had no idea where I'd be and, at that point, I didn't think there was a chance LBJ would be home," Jones said.

That December was a rough one for the Cavs, finishing the month 3-12. James' Miami Heat won 66 games on their way to a title that season. But two years later, on Jones' wedding day, the horizon gleams of much brighter times ahead for his favorite basketball team.

"LeBron coming back is the greatest thing that could have happened to us in the sports world," best man Mike Stuart said. "It is a great thing for Northeast Ohio in many ways, as he will help the economy of his hometown, inspire young kids to have their priorities straight, and of course, help break the curse of Cleveland sports."

All parties will have to wait on that whole breaking the curse deal but hopes are understandably high, staked upon the success of James' first tenure in Cleveland and a Cavs roster stocked with young talent. James' return also means he will once again be a hero to kids growing up in Cleveland, Akron and the surrounding areas of Northeast Ohio.

Jones and Stuart were once those youngsters, hitting the court together and becoming friends on basketball teams in Cuyahoga Falls. The groom and best man didn't go to high school together though, as the huge LeBron fan Jones ironically attended Archbishop Hoban, the rival high school of James' St. Vincent St. Mary.

Another groomsman, Bret Grund, was a high school classmate to Jones. The two faced adversity in those years, losing a friend and football teammate, Anthony Grimaldi, in a car crash.

Now, Grund again faces a fight, diagnosed with stage four glioma, a rare form of brain cancer. Currently living in San Francisco, Grund said the support from friends, family and love ones has been unbelievable. That support system was sowed in his home state of Ohio.

"Hard work and loyalty to our sports teams (and in general) is what my father taught me," Grund said. "And that all stems from growing up in Northeast Ohio."

Coming home is what James did in making his decision to play again for the Cavaliers.

"Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It's where I walked. It's where I ran. It's where I cried. It's where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart," James said in his first-person essay in Sports Illustrated.

These nine guys outside a church, bearing a name fittingly similar to James' high school alma mater, represent James' words too, a microcosm of the pride inherent in so many who call this place home.

"[The] wedding day really was the best day ever," Jones said. "All this is just icing on the cake.
LeBron coming home is the best thing that could possibly happen to Cleveland."

Can't find many in these parts who would argue that.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The free kick that nearly put the US in rare World Cup air

What could've been. So agonizing in sports are those moments you watch slip away, prime opportunities at what seemed so improbable.

The United States Men's National Team was an underdog coming into Tuesday's Round of 16 matchup with Belgium. They were up against it through much of the match's first 90 minutes, outshot but propped up by the otherworldly goaltending of Tim Howard. They were halfway buried when the extra-time deficit became 2-to-nil.

Then came the rush, a goal by sparkplug Julian Green to breathe some life into the situation and turn desolation into distant hope, opening the door for the moment that you can't stop thinking about after the game.

What could've been.

Twas' the 114th minute of this uphill battle when a brilliant scheme drew the U.S. achingly close to squaring the score.

A free kick facing the net square on from 35 feet out presented itself for the Yanks after a foul committed on Green. Jermaine Jones first tiptoed away from the ball, then Michael Bradley set off what appeared for those few seconds like dominoes being set down, tapping the ball to Chris Wondolowski, who slapped it to a streaking Clint Dempsey, who was denied from close in by Belgian keeper Thibaut Courtois.




So devilishly developed was that kick that it was a pity it did not hit the back of the net.

"It was a move that deserved a goal," brilliant ESPN commentator Ian Darke said of the set piece.

And it would have put the U.S. alongside only the 1982 West Germans in coming back from a two-goal deficit in extra time.

That U.S. missed opportunity was glaring from a biased American perspective. As was Wondo's shank in regulation stoppage time that would have sent the U.S. forward. Truly, the Belgian faithful had to be even more agitated sitting through 16 spectacular Howard saves and wondering why they even had to withstand 30 minutes more of jitters.

In this World Cup full of drama, knockout round extra time has become ritual, spoiling us as viewers. Five of the eight Round of 16 matchups required extra time. Two of those needed penalty kicks to determine a winner. Close is commonplace this month in Brazil.

America's journey in this World Cup will be one to remember despite a disappointing finish. Their foray through the Group of Death was ripe with dramatics, from John Brooks' game-winning header against Ghana when all hope for a win looked lost to the complete 180 of Portugal's draw-clinching dagger in the final seconds of play.

Watching Tuesday's U.S./Belgium match over again just a few hours later was sports masochism, but those 30 minutes of extra time really were something else.

And painful as it may be, four years is a long wait to soak in some more.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Stop taking a dump on soccer

I've got a gripe I need to air out.

Disclaimer: This isn't coming from someone who is a total expert on soccer or would even call myself a "diehard." I enjoy watching Premier League games occasionally and watch the major world tournaments. I don't watch all the MLS games or follow everything soccer religiously.

I do watch as much of the World Cup as I can -- every second I possibly can that I'm not working or tied up with something else. Why? Because it's the top athletes in the game representing their country in a once every four years event.

Yet, some still don't understand the allure. And that's OK. It's fine if you don't get soccer or don't like it or just don't even care. But then there's another group of people -- oh, this group of people -- who refuse to believe that anyone can enjoy this "tedious, slow, mind-numbing" game.

Many of these same folks don't understand how the World Cup works. Here's an example of a conversation:

Guy: "What happened in the U.S. game?
Me: "U.S. lost"
Guy: "Figures."
Me: "But they'll still advance."
Guy: "Oh, I don't get that." 

Some are actually willing to listen to the reasoning behind the goal differential tiebreaker. Others are appalled. A sport where you can lose and advance? Blasphemy.

How could anyone care about this "Cup" played for by the world? Some refuse to believe it's anything more than a byproduct of the media's fascination. It's not like 24 million Americans watched the U.S. match against Portugal on Sunday or anything...

Dan Shaugnessy of The Boston Globe has expressed his lack of interest in the sport on a major platform. That is fine.

It's ignorance that becomes bothersome.

"Soccer takes away our hands. This makes the game incredibly skillful and exhausting, but also robs fans of much of the beauty of sport. Hands and opposable thumbs separate us from creatures of the wild," Shaughnessy writes. "Most of the memorable plays in sports are accomplished with hands. How would we have even known the athletic greatness of Pedro Martinez, Larry Bird, Bobby Orr or Tom Brady if they could not have used their hands? Soccer takes our hands out of the game."

How would we have ever known the athletic greatness of Pele or Maradona or Messi if they could not have used their feet?

Heck, Maradona even once very infamously used his hand

Shaughnessy's argument is silly. But people make silly arguments because they don't understand and are unwilling to learn more about the sport of soccer.

As I said earlier, I'm not an expert on the game. I don't fully dissect every tactic or formation or alignment. But I like to learn. I enjoy marveling at a skill I certainly don't have, the athleticism, endurance and drama produced by the tension of the plodding play on the pitch.

A low-scoring soccer match is no indication of its excitement level. In fact, those are often those most heart-wrenching, full of goals missed by inches, opportunistic defensive plays or great saves. 

Futbol is not football. They are completely different stylistically and in their scoring, so comparing them on that basis is futile. 

Again, apathy is no crime. Blind ignorance coupled with bold assertions are obnoxious, to say the least.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Despite being 3-0, Stanley Cup Final isn't as one-sided as some say

The New York Rangers are in trouble - big trouble, in fact, in this 2014 Stanley Cup Final.

Down 3-0 after a game they really needed to win at home, a first championship since 1994 is looking improbable. While the Rangers find themselves in a massive hole, the narrative of this series has taken a turn toward the inaccurate following the Kings' 3-0 Game 3 victory.


“I would be shocked if the Rangers could win Game 4,” NBC analyst Keith Jones said in an interview on The Jim Rome Show. “The LA Kings have shown great dominance for many parts of this series against the Rangers."

Many?

For the majority of this series, the Rangers have been ahead or tied with the Kings. In each of the first two games in L.A., the Kings only took the lead once and for all on game-winning goals.

In Game 3, the Rangers squandered opportunities in the first period then the Kings pounced with a final-second goal from Jeff Carter before the intermission.

The Blueshirts had double the shots of the Kings, but not one goal to their name, Monday night. More than the Kings displaying dominance, one player, goalie Jonathan Quick, did.

Quick was simply magnificent shutting the Rangers out in the Garden, sprawling and lunging to form an impenetrable wall in front of his net. The American goalie took his play to a world-class level, unlike the first two games in which he let in eight goals.

Look at it this way. The Rangers have had two-goal leads three times in this series - and blown them all three times. Sure, the Kings are "resilient," as just about every hockey writer and analyst has called them since the Final's first game.

But more than that, they're ruthlessly opportunistic. Kings goals have come at every which angle, deflected off sticks and skates, so elusive that Henrik Lundqvist's had little shot of keeping them out. Game 2's comeback was catapulted by a third-period goal in which Kings forward Dwight King stymied any form of movement for Lundqvist in the crease. Yet the play went on - no stoppage, no penalty, just the sound of the goal horn.


It's been that kind of series for the Rangers - one where the Kings have seized their opportunities to suck the life out of their opponent.

But on the whole, despite what it says on the ledger, the Cup Final has not been some kind of epic domination. Even time after time in Game 3 when the Rangers couldn't convert, they were still peppering Quick with quality chances. Each of the first two games had to be decided in overtime.

To completely rule the Rangers out in Game 4 would be ignoring the Rangers' own resilience (the 3-1 deficient they improbably emerged from against Pittsburgh) and misinterpreting how the Kings have gotten out to a commanding series lead.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Rangers' compelling comeback

The New York Rangers are finally a team.

It took tragedy in the middle of a series in which they looked beleaguered and lifeless for it to happen but once it clicked, it was sublime to watch.  

Martin St. Louis hasn't been with the Rangers long but he feels like a lifelong Blueshirt at this point, his emotion fueling his teammates forward first in Game 5, the day after his mother died, then in Game 6 with a goal on Mother's Day.

MSG turned from funereal in Games 3 and 4 to full of passion and life again on that special Sunday in which the Rangers sent the series back to Pittsburgh. 

"You guys have been nothing but unbelievable for me these past couple days and I'll never forget that," St. Louis said after that Game 6. "I couldn't be prouder to be a fucking New York Ranger with you guys. Thank you very much."

Heart - and pride. That's infectious.

Just a little more than two months ago, the Rangers traded away a lot to bring in St. Louis, parting with their captain and a 2015 first-round pick. 

What they gained in a leader and unifying presence now seems immeasurable. 

No one knew St. Louis would be faced with such adversity and that these Rangers would rally around him. 

Finally though, the guys in blue don't look like a cobbled together bunch of stars with little chemistry and an inability to mesh. Lifted by the spellbinding performance of Henrik Lundqvist and timely scoring, the Rangers did what was unthinkable less than a week ago - get to and win a Game 7, pulling off the comeback from 3-1 down in the series against some of the world's best players. Improbably they'll continue their quest, facing either Boston or Montreal, a series away from the Stanley Cup Final.

And, for the past three games at least, the Rangers have gone from eliciting certain four-letter words to embodying one that's far from obscenity.