Saturday, September 15, 2007

NFL week one - the Velvet Bear

When I first stated following American football, back in the early 80s, there were two positions I always wanted to play. The first, obviously, was quarterback. Who wouldn’t want to be the team’s glory boy? I don’t think that, at the time, it occurred to me that he would also be the team’s best paid player, but then neither did the possibility that he might also be the subject of huge levels of public opprobrium; as one who found himself shouting “Jesus Christ, is a quarterback with hands too much to hope for?” at Rex Grossman on Sunday, I know that only too well now.

The other position I wanted to play was tight end. “Tight what?” you may well ask, and I wouldn’t blame you for doing so. One of the nice things about this kind of football is that, unlike in sports such as rugby and cricket, most of the positions on the field have reasonably straightforward names. “Quarterback” would probably be an obscure title, but fortunately even non-fans know what that is. “Linebacker” is a bit contrived, but not too bad once you realise that linebackers are the guys playing behind the front line when the side is defending. I could explain what a ‘nickelback’ is - other than a really bad rock band - but you don’t often see someone playing there anyway.

None of which explains what a tight end is. I guess the best analogy would be with a flanker in rugby. Imagine if you will the typical American football scene, with the two lines of men facing one another, crouched down, like two rugby front rows just about to engage. The tight end will be the guy on the very end of the attacking side’s line. His job is basically to be both a blocker of players trying to get to the quarterback, but also an outlet for the quarterback to throw the ball to, usually if he is in trouble himself. In other words, very much the relationship between a flanker and his scrum half. It’s a pretty thankless job, far removed from the glamour of being a quarterback, running back or wide receiver and I have no idea why it appeals to me so much.

The nature of the role is such that tight ends get banged up pretty easily, too. There’s always someone just that little bit bigger than you trying to flatten you. Fortunately, serious injuries in the NFL are pretty rare. The padding and helmets are much maligned on this side of the pond, but they are there for a reason - you should see some of the photos from the 1950s, before there was any real protection at all - and whilst there are now concerns about the long term effects of the sport, these are more to do with the level of care (or lack of it) available to ex-players than the seriousness of onfield injuries.

All of which makes what happened to the Buffalo Bills’ Kevin Everitt at the weekend rather shocking. Everitt - the Bills’ reserve tight end - suffered a severe spinal injury when tacking Domenik Hixon of the Denver Broncos. He underwent surgery on Sunday evening to repair fractures to his third and fourth vertebrae. For a time it was thought that he would never walk again, but at the time of writing he has regained some movement in his arms and legs. It is, however, the most severe injury in the NFL since Detroit Lions’ Mike Utley was paralysed from the waist down whilst making a tackle back in 1991. That record compares very favourably with both rugby codes.

It wasn’t a good week for the Bills. They lost two other players to season ending injuries. One of them, Ko Simpson, broke an ankle tripping over a team mate. And they lost to a last-minute field goal, too.

In other news:

· Randy Moss scored a touchdown on debut as New England beat the New York Jets 38-14. The Patriots might be in trouble, though, as they are being investigated by the NFL, accused of spying on the Jets;

· In the same game, Eli Hobbs set an NFL record by running 108 yards for a touchdown;

· Big Ben Roethlisberger threw a career best four touchdowns to help Pittsburgh beat Cleveland 34-7;

· Chicago, as you might have guessed, blew their game against San Diego. Despite being 3-0 up for most of it, they contrived to both lose 14-3 and lose two key members of their defense to season-ending injuries;

· Atlanta got off to a predictably bad start, losing 24-3 to Minnesota;

· Brett Favre’s 384th season in the NFL began with a win as he lead Green Bay to a 16-13 win over Philadelphia, the winning score coming with just two seconds remaining;

· Another late finish saw Washington beat Miami 16-13 in overtime;

· The other New York side, the Giants, lost to Miami and also saw quarterback Eli Manning to a shoulder injury which will keep him out for a month. It would be unkind to suggest that this won’t make much difference to the team, but I’m going to do it anyway;

· The least said about how woeful Oakland were, the better. But at least they really have now signed JaMarcus Russell;

· More bad news for Tennessee. Not only is Pacman Jones suspended for the season, their other star cornerback Antonio Gates is out injured for it (Pacman, meanwhile, has used his time off to become a tag team wrestling champion. As you do.).

Was Ebren right? - file

In his seminal work “Rafa Needs to Sign Unproven Small Names” the venerable Professor Gunther Ebren von Sauerkraut states empirically that “Rafael Benitez [the Liverpool manager] needs to sign unproven small names”. He goes on to support this astonishing assertion with reference to historical and contemporary European investment performance analyses and outlines a plausible comparative study which leads him inexorably to the fantastic and unfashionable conclusion that Liverpool, as a football club, would be better off if they signed unproven small names.

But was he right?

Upon reflection and with the benefit of hindsight it’s possible to look at the primary sources in context:

    • Rafa’s scruffy torn out bit of notepad shopping list with the names of Torres, Voronin and Babel et al clearly crossed out, or smudged with a damp finger as in the case of Torres.

    • The spreadsheet with the balance of payments, salaries and accumulative interest and other costs of the acquisition of chosen newbies.

    • With 360 long minutes of Premiership football already completed, said team has had full opportunity to demonstrate their potential for success and provide (or not) collaborative data for von Sauerkraut’s bold claims.

As it happened Rafa elected to go his own way and turn his nose up at the hirsute Footologist’s considered advice; he spent an awful lot of money on signing proven big names who are doing very well so far, thank you.

That said, it’s clearly impossible to know what would have happened if the Reds had gone the other way so this shouldn’t detract from an assessment of Gunther Ebren’s proposal.

In fact it could be argued that shining examples of the perspicuity of that text has been on show at Wembley this week.

A manager who definitely has something to prove and has in no way already made any sort of a name for himself was forced into a position (at first) where he had to name a team of “Players with something to prove, not men who have already made a name” as the Lord of Dampness suggested for the scouzers.

This is of key importance for an England team who’ve been called many names individually and collectively in the recent past and it’s a welcome change of direction from compromised selection policy.

As many observers are reporting today; England looked hungry in the last two games but perhaps more importantly they looked humble.

For those who’ve lived off the fat of their ancestors (limited) success for far too long, humility is a powerful medicine, a panacea for arrogance, a remedy for vanity and a recipe for teambuilding.

Von Sauerkraut’s piece offers strategies too that could have been furiously tapped into McClaren’s PDA; “…the way to get world-class players seems to be to buy players that aren't world class yet.” Perhaps he mistyped ‘buy’ and put in ‘make’ instead. For the England national team it could be suggested that the success in the last two games was partly due to the truth of the statement that ‘the way to get world-class players is to make players world-class.’

Again, a radical and forward thinking position for a national manager who may well be relishing the idea of a similar career route. Although sadly, it seems that this added responsibility has yet to filter down to the FA or any of the youth teams or schools of excellence.

“Most would agree that the Galactico experiment was not a resounding success” for England or Real.

That the hundreds and thousands of Galactico topping on the Red ice-cream at Anfield is giving the appearance of efficacy so far is testament to the other truth that ‘you get’s what you pay’s for’. England, however, don’t have to worry about the price of their players, only the Galactico mentality, and that has been the overriding flavour of the resounding flop over the past decades.

”So my advice to Rafa - if you want the best you have to buy from the second-tier.” McClaren has selected from the second tier, with care, and fingers crossed, he looks like he’s getting the best from them.

This week’s performances have been as convincing as any England performance in living memory. The usual caveats apply about the length of the study, opposition, home territory and disallowed goals but over the two games England were consistent in style, balance, attitude and quality and it’s more than just the players.

So could Ebren have been right?

Yes, but about the wrong team.

Like going on an epic quest to the Oracle at Delphi for the winning lottery numbers and getting a map reference for Shangri La by mistake, or trawling through miles of ancient cuneiform for the real name of the one true Dog and coming out with an anagram of Hong Kong Phooey [Fr. Hong Kong Fou Fou].

In the immortal words of Professor Pakamambo “von Sauerkraut is nature’s red herring; a little smelly but full of protein.”

NFL team by team – the Velvet Bear

Sitting here at the start of five months of gridiron fun, it is disconcertingly easy to see who most of the playoff participants will be. This is one of the least open seasons for years, largely because so many teams were in such bad shape at the end of last season, not even extensive drafting and player trading has made a whole lot of difference. Admittedly, there is always the chance that someone will come from absolutely nowhere, as the New Orleans Saints did last season, but that isn't likely to make a whole lot of difference to the outcome. It is therefore with a certain sense of inevitability that I present my guide to the 32 candidates for the title Superbowl Champions 2008.

ARIZONA CARDINALS (2006 Record 5-11)

Just how a side like the Cardinals had such a bad 2006 season still mystifies me. How any team with Edgerrin James, Larry Johnson and Anquan Boldon can have a losing year is somewhat incredible, but the fact is that, for all of their offensive capability behind the line, the o-line itself was a shambles. They'll be hoping that the new coaching team of Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm can work that out in a way that enables them to get the best from their stars. On defense, their major problem is going to be stopping the run and the fact that, in Eric Green, they have the second-worst cornerback in the NFL. The upside of this is that the inventiveness of co-ordinator Clancy Pendergast should lead to some very aggressive play, with plenty of sacks and turnovers.


It's hard to get a worse start to the season than the Falcons have already had, with the Michael Vick affair not only disrupting their entire offensive planning, but distracting the franchise as they tried to regroup after 2006's decidedly average season. They're left with a second rate QB in Joey Harrington, two very average RBs in Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood, an unchanged defensive line which spent most of last season getting beaten up by everyone they faced and only one real attacking threat in Alge Crumpler. And you can't win games with just a decent tight end. If they win as many as six games this season I'll be surprised.


The Ravens surprised many people last season and probably hoped that they would make it all the way to the Superbowl. This year they will do well to do half as well. They're an ageing team where most of their best players are, at most, two seasons from retirement.Signing running back Willis McGahee from Buffalo will help in the short term, but he is no spring chicken either. Their best hope is actually in defense, where they are so strong, even losing a player as good as Adalius Thomas won't make a significant difference.


Losing McGahee will mean that they look ever more to the passing game. QB JP Losman is no longer the innocent youngster of previous seasons and, on his day, has a phenomenal arm. The problem is that his wide receivers are among the smallest in the NFL. Without a running game to speak of, this is going to be a problem against any side with reasonably tall cornerbacks - unless Marshawn Lynch comes through faster than expected. On defense, they have a compartively inexperienced front 7, but boy are they quick.


2006 was a huge disappointment. Injuries to Steve Smith illustrated just how badly one-dimensional they had become, even for a side with DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams in the backfield. A new offensive co-ordinator, Jeff Davidson, will be expected to redress the balance and will have to do so fast, as they have not really replaced the retired Keyshawn Johnson. Defensively, they are on the small side and injury-prone, but if Julius Peppers and Kris Jenkins can stay fit, they'll still be a handful.

CHICAGO BEARS (14-2, lost Superbowl)

Even as a Bears fan I still have to ask how the hell they managed to win so many games with a liability like Rex Grossman at QB. Anyone who saw his nightmare Superbowl ought to know that this was no shock to Bears supporters, who have had to put up with the NFL's most error-prone triggerman for far too long. Losing star RB Thomas Jones in the close season won't have helped the offense either, hence the attempt to turn Devin Hester into an offensive as well as defensive player. Otherwise, the Bears will rely upon the erratic Cedric Benson for their points - unless a miracle happens and Grossman manages to find receivers Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Mohammed on a regular basis. The defense, lead by star linebacker Brian Uhrlacher, remains a ferocious prospect for opponents.


Expect much, much more from the Bengals this year. With Carson Palmer on form and Chad Johnson, TJ Houshmanzadeh and (once his suspension is served) Chris Henry for him to aim at, stopping them scoring will take a better team than most of those they will face. They'll concede plenty of points - their secondary, Jonathan Joseph aside, is feeble - but you'd always expect them to be a score ahead anyway.


Last year was a disaster. This year won't be much better, unless rookie QB Brady Quinn comes good and the rest of the team manage to avoid being arrested. Brayon Edwards and Kellen Winslow should be potent attacking threats, but whilst they have good tailbacks in short yardage situations they have no-one who poses much of a ground threat. Their D is a solid and unspectacular unit who relied too much on rookie Kamerion Wimbley last season; they'll all need to put more effort in if the Browns are to have much of a season.


This will surprise many, but, statistically, Tony Romo was the best QB of 2006. His overall passing was better and he made fewer errors than anyone else, Peyton included. With TO for once living up to his self-generated reputation and Jason Witten a potent threat at TE, they shouldn't miss the injured Terry Glenn at all. The hard hitting Ken Hamlin shores up a creaky defense, although the secondary is still going to have to hide the woeful Anthony Henry if they are not to cough up easy points.


The astute off-season signings of Daniel Graham and Brandon Stokeley should open up more options for Jay Cutler this season, whilst Travis Henry gives them running options. It is probably too much change for a young QB like Cutler to absorb in the early season, but expect them to come strong in the second half. Having Champ Bailey and Dre' Bly on defense will make them very hard to score against, so once they can get some points on the board they will be a formidable outfit.


You have to feel sorry for Lions QB Jon Kitna. He's a talented player who deserves much more than he has to work with here.He gets abysmal pass protection, the o-line's run blocking is scarcely any better and, despite having explosive rookie Calvin Johnson wide out, he's got very few targets indeed. Basically, here's one guy who'll be spending a lot of play time on his backside this season. The defensive line spent more time injured than on the field last season, but if Shaun Rogers stays fit he and new signing Dewayne White will give them some much needed steel and probably represent their best hope of avoiding sixteen weeks of humbling.


So, Old Man Favre returns for yet another season in Wisconsin. He's interesting to watch, because his play has become increasingly maverick as the years have worn on - which must make him infuriating to coach and to play with. Just how much scope he will have for that this year, when his only real weapon is WR Donald Driver, is open to debate. He's either going to make someone a star, or it is all going to go horribly wrong for the Packers. Their defense is at least consistent, in that they make as many cock-ups as they do brilliant plays. Expect a losing season.


All change in Houston, where the talented - if untried - Matt Schaub has replaced David Carr at QB and where veteran Ahman Green has been brought in to try and give some penetration to the running game. The problem is that very little has been done about the dreadful offensive line of 2006, the one which left Carr so badly beaten up and stopped the run in the first place. Apart from Green, Schaub has only Andre Johnson and (at short yardage) Ron Dayne as threats worthy of the name, so it could be a tough learning curve - to the point where it is a toss up who will be wishing he had stayed in Atlanta, him or the Falcons. Things might be a little easier if the defense was reliable, but it isn't, it's inexperienced and has a real vulnerability at CB.

INDIANNAPOLIS COLTS (12-4, won Superbowl)

What would you like me to say. They have Peyton, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Joseph Addai and Dallas Clark. The defense is a mess, with a mass of off-season defections being led by star linebacker Cato June, but the only way that will matter will be if Peyton gets injured; the real weakness of the Colts lies in the fact that it is so much his team now, without him it is doubtful they'd cope.


A slightly disappointing 2006 for the Jags, largely as a result of their failure to hold onto the ball. If they could just stop dropping the thing, they would be a pretty formidable proposition. This season, expect much more work for running backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, who were the best RB pairing last season. The defense has the enormous tackle combination of John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, plus star CB Rashean Mathis, so they will be very hard to score against. Expect a better season than last.


A two man team if ever there was one. Larry Johnson and Tony Gonzalez must be wondering what they did wrong in a previous life to end up playing behind a line as clueless as this one. Johnson will be hoping for the same number of yards and TD s with far fewer carries than the 400+ he had last season. The defense has been strengthened by the arrival of Napoleon Harris and Alfonso Boone, but really it was youth, not weight, the Chiefs needed here. Expect plenty of 4th quarter scores against this ageing unit.


It all went very wrong for the Dolphins in 2006. They started as playoff favourites and ended as also-rans. Having released Daunte Culpepper, it is hard to see how they will be any better off with the injury prone Trent Green. The offense lacks any real weapons; for all Chris Chambers' promise at wide receiver, his iron hands will have to soften before he can be seen as any sort of threat. The defense will rely too much on the incoming Joey Porter - who is going to have to play out of his skin to justify his reported salary - and the underrated André Goodman. Another tough year in prospect.


The good news for Vikings fans is that the close season saw them shift Brad Johnson, the world's least mobile QB and a whole host of other makeweights. The bad news is that they've not actually been replaced by anyone. Second year QB Tavaris Jackson will lead them this year and will spend most of it handing the ball to Chester Taylor and rookie Adrian Peterson (not to be confused with the Bears' rookie of the same name), because the Vikings' passing game is going to be non-existent. Being more positive, the defense isn't bad, with a solid reputation against both the pass and the run.


Tom Brady will be licking his lips in anticipation. An offense which not only features Randy Moss and Donte Stallworth, but which is so strong, they could afford to let Reche Caldwell go last week. Not only that, but the defense, bolstered by Adalius Thomas, lacks any obvious weakness either. Only overconfidence can stop them now.


With Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, Deuce McAllister and last year's surprise new arrival Marques Colston, it is arguable that the Saints should've won more games, scored more points and generally beaten the hell out of most other teams. What let them down was a defense which lacked both speed and penetration; nothing they have done in the close season has changed this, so expect a very similar season to the last.


The Giants have one huge problem, which is that Eli simply isn't Peyton. In fact, if he wasn't a Manning, it is arguable that the Giants would not have persevered with him anything like as long as they have. The Giants' solution to his regular brain freezes was always to give the ball to Tiki Barber, but Tiki isn't there any more and Brandon Jacobs and Reuben Droughns are just not as reliable at digging a side out of a hole. All this is before you consider that any side which has Plaxico Burress as their #1 receiver has problems anyway. They'll be looking to their tough defense, buoyed by new co-ordinator Steve Spagnuolo, to keep them in games.


In signing Thomas Jones from the Bears the Jets have at last given Chad Pennington a decent weapon to work with. The o-line is sound, but they lack class otherwise, with Jerricho Cotchery having had a particularly shoddy season last time around. The defense has historically been good against the pass but feeble against the run and this will hurt them again this year if some serious improvements are not made.


It is hard to see how it is going to get any better for the Raiders in 2007. Randy Moss has gone, leaving the side bereft of quality wide out. LaMont Jordan and the incoming Dominic Rhodes will enhance the running game, but at the time of writing they still don't have a quarterback, with JaMarcus Russell still (contrary to what I wrote a couple of weeks ago) refusing to sign a contract. As for the defense, well, the only stars are in the corners and that is never a good thing, because you're just asking to get run into oblivion.


Donovan McNabb can't shore them up forever, but then again I say that every season and every season he does so. Brian Westbrook remains the main alternate threat, especially if McNabb's dodgy knee flares up again. They look weak wide out, though. The defense will blitz and blitz and blitz on the back of good line discipline and a talented secondary. At times it will go wrong, but no-one is going to rack up a cricket score against them.


An 8-8 season was such a disappointment to them last year, as they tried to adjust to life post-Bus. This year, they have to adjust to life post-Cowher. Can they do it? Well, a year out of the spotlight can only have helped Ben Roethlisberger and Willie Parker remains a threat on the ground. Hines Ward will be #1 receiver and the better for it, especially with Santonio Holmes to keep him company. The defense will continue to do the basics very well indeed, secure in the knowledge that if you get past the line, you've still got to get past the human cannonball that is Troy Polamalu. Definitely should have a better year this year.


The big question here whether the creaky o-line can give Marc Bulger enough time to unleash Steven Jackson, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. If they can, the Rams will be a side to be reckoned with. If, like last season, they can't, Bulger faces another season seeing more turf than gaps. The defense has been the subject of extensive surgery, but the line looks undersized and will once again be vulnerable against the run.


It isn't hard to see what will happen here. From the snap, Philip Rivers will hand the ball off to LT, LT will blast another hole in a hapless defensive line, and the Chargers will keep doing it until they score. It's a blessing and a curse. An easy offense to run, where any variation surprises, but also rather predictable. So, just for variation, they'll dump the ball off to Antonio Gates and watch him make the yards instead. The clock runs down, as does the spirit of the opposition. In defense, they've got Shawn Merriman, Quentin Jammer and a whole host of others as adept at stopping the run as their offensive counterparts are at making it. Hard to beat.


Still an improving side, the 49ers. Bringing in Darrell Jackson and Ashley Lelie gives Alex Smith some much needed options downfield, but the loss of Frank Gore for the opening games is still a big blow. An awful secondary cost them dear last time out, but this has been rectified by the signings of Nate Clements and Michael Lewis. In all, new coach Jim Hostler - and 49ers fans everywhere - have much to hope for this year.


Last season was spoilt for them by the injury which deprived them of Matt Hasselbeck for a good part of it. This year, they have lost Darrell Jackson and Jerramy Stevens, so an awful lot depends upon Shaun Alexander recovering his 2005 form. The defense is built on speed, not power, so expect them to take a pounding there, too. A shadow of their former selves.


Anyone expecting the Bucs to bring in some youth to replace their aging side will have been very disappointed. Instead, Jeff Garcia will be the second oldest starting QB in the NFL. Moreover, he's their only threat on the ground apart from Cadillac Williams. The defense is in better shape, with Gaines Adams a quality signing, but nothing less than a complete overhaul could've prevented this being a very tough season for the Bucs.


If he could play QB, RB and WR all at the same time, then Vince Young would. Moreover, if he could, the Titans would let him, because the options are LenDale White, Chris Henry and David Givens, which doesn't add up to an awful lot in my playbook. They've no Pacman Jones on defense, either, but they do have the hugely underrated Nick Harper, for which they may come to be incredibly thankful indeed.


Don't expect too much passing from the Redskins. Mark Brunell had real trouble finding his receivers last season and things aren't going to change much this year. But given that they will have to go to a running game, losing Derrick Dockery seems at best careless, at worst tantamount to allowing Clinton Portis to be assaulted several times a week. Luckily, they now have Ladell Betts as a quality backup. They'll need to put plenty of points on the board, though, because their defensive line is old, injury-prone and likely to ship points like an old bucket ships water.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Choices, choices, choices - mimitig

Although it has been a pretty wretched summer weather-wise, the last few months have been rich in terms of sport.

The weekend just gone was a case in point. On Saturday England’s cricketers were playing a crucial One-day game against India – effectively a final in a seven match series which was poised at three-all. Federer was on show in New York. Football had an important game for Euro 2008 qualifying as England played Israel. The rugby World Cup kicked off. The men in lycra were madly pedalling through Spain in La Veulta and on Sunday another bunch of cycling lads set off on the Tour of Britain.

Additionally motorsport was in full flood with Formula One at Monza, World Superbikes were doing their stuff at what I still think of as the Lausitzring (Eurospeedway – what’s that all about?), and Scotland’s own Dario Franchitti was evoking memories of the great Jim Clark as he drove to win the IndyCar Championship in the USA. Oh and Asafa Powell, the Jamaican sprinter, was busy breaking a world record.

These are just the sports I try to follow, so goodness only knows what else was happening.

With the cricket Twenty20 World Cup about to get underway, I am beginning to wonder whether there comes a point where there is simply too much sport. Particularly when one actually wants to be out there on a fine early autumn day indulging in a bit of sporting activity oneself. It’s a terrible dilemma – do you take advantage of the dry times to nip out for a couple of hours cycling, or rush home from work to check out what your various teams or individuals are doing? The healthy option, of course, is to take the exercise, and think – oh I can catch up on the results at the end of the day. But catching up on results has none of the excitement of following an event live – be that on television, radio or through the magic medium that is the interweb. So time after time over the summer and now autumn, my cycle waits patiently in the hall, or is only taken for a quick trip along the coast for a couple of miles, as I choose to spend hour upon hour glued to digital or longwave radio, the telly and my computer, multi-tasking as I attempt to keep a grip on up to five different contests at once.

It has been suggested to me, when I moan about the fact that I have a backlog of sports pages and magazines to get through (I have scarcely read a book for months – not even for my Book Group!) that I limit my enthusiasms – concentrate on just one or two sports. But how can you do this? If you enjoy, just as example, the sight of 100 or so fit young men in lycra speeding along country roads in France, Ireland, Spain, or even England at the same time as enjoying fit young men in leather muscling whacking great motor bikes around tracks across the world, or even not-quite-so-fit chaps in white, or strange pyjama garb, wielding the willow and hurling the red or white ball around, how can you just stop watching?

You can’t, you see, it’s just too much choice and too much sport.

Damn, gotta go and check the end of the Middlesex v Derby match before pumping up the bike tyres – I think I have a window tomorrow for a quick zip along the cliffs before I immerse myself in the Twenty20 tournament, while keeping an eye on my Division Two county boys as they start the last few matches of the season.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

My NFL fantasy - The Velvet Bear

This is a piece about something being different when done the American way. I wanted to start it by pointing out some of the more obvious differences between the States and here in the UK. Then I realised that all the spelling jokes had been done. And the obesity ones. And the ‘electing the same moron twice’ ones. So, instead of a snappy – if somewhat contrived – intro, I’ll get straight to the point. Fantasy football, US style.

With the start of the NFL season only hours away, I would normally be logging into NFLUK and picking the side which, for the umpteenth year running, would fail to win me Superbowl tickets, or even a place at the big Superbowl party they hold each year. However, thanks to a friend with not only a finely tuned sense of generosity, but the knowledge that I love finding new ways to humiliate myself, I am now also a player in the US competition run by ESPN. And boy, do they take it seriously.

Look at the fantasy leagues run by the newspapers and other media over here. It’s just another feature offered to haul you in as readers, isn’t it? Can you imagine any of them publishing a separate monthly magazine on the subject, as ESPN do? Or providing weekly updates on their websites, as ESPN do? Thought not.

Not only that, but the whole game is different. Not for them the situation where several million people can, all at the same time, claim to own one player. Oh no. What happens is that each team is entered into a mini-league of 10 to 12 players. That mini-league then holds an online draft, at which each team takes turns to select a player. Once that player is selected, no-one else in the league can have them.

Which is why I found myself spending last Sunday evening, when I should’ve been preparing to move house the next day, hunched over a laptop, instant messaging with half a dozen Americans I had never met before. And a friend who was chucking sarcastic comments at my every selection.

The actual process should have been very straightforward. The draft order had been selected at random (albeit not in the way I thought it was going to be), so I had third pick in the odd numbered rounds and eighth in the even ones. There were to be 16 rounds, and various other little quirks to keep people like me on their toes. Most importantly, though, none of this messing around with salary caps. If you can get them, you can stuff your team with Peyton, LT, Steve Smith and Antonio Gates without fear of anything other than your fellow league members being envious.

Unbeknown to us, though, the ESPN website had decided to introduce a random element of its own, too. This meant that, although you selected a player, you wouldn’t necessarily be allowed to have him. I don’t think that this was deliberate, but it certainly made the evening more eventful. I got Gates by accident, when I tried to draft Deuce McAllister. And I got Deuce when I tried to draft Peyton. Which sounds like a pretty good return, until I tell you that I have no idea who I was trying to draft when I got landed with Ahman Green. I’m not sure that even the Texans want him.

So, with Joseph Addai having got me off to a fine start in the season opener (the Colts beat the Saints 41-10, more of which next week), it’ll be interesting to see what the rest of Week One brings.

(Apologies to those of you who were waiting for a team-by-team pre-season rundown. I lost the notes in the move but will try and do it before Sunday)

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