Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Just plain Draft – the Velvet Bear

After all the hype, all the hot air, all the column inches, the NFL finally gets down to the 2008 Draft this weekend. As with everything in the NFL, it seems to have taken an awful long time to arrive and there has been an awful lot of speculation about two days of horsetrading where the final outcome is, frankly, anyone’s guess.

The basic premise of the Draft is to ensure that every one of the 32 teams gets a fair crack at signing the best college players available in a given year. The teams are ranked according to their success in the previous season, then pick in reverse order. The logic of this is that the side which did worst in the year just ended will have most need of the best players in the Draft. This year, the Miami Dolphins were the worst team in the league, finishing 1-15 for the season, so they have the first pick in the draft. The New York Giants won the Superbowl, making them the best team (even though the New England Patriots were unbeaten in the regular season) so they have the 32nd pick. Everyone else falls into the places in between.

There are seven rounds of picks. The first two (or three if there is time) will be on Saturday, the rest on Sunday. All of the big attention is on the first two rounds anyway. Each side gets 15 minutes to make their pick in the first round, ten in the second and five in the other rounds. Surprisingly, this isn’t done just to build the drama of the moment. The Draft is about more than just picking players by rota, like in the school playground.

First of all, there is no transfer system for players in the way that we know it. If a player changes teams during the season, no money changes hands. Instead, teams trade by exchanging players, or by offering Draft picks in exchange for them, or by a combination of the two. If you want to 'buy' a big name quarterback, you might have to offer your first and third round Draft picks to the team he is currently with. Alternatively, if you want an unknown running back, you could get him by giving up a fifth round pick or even lower.

This means that, to begin with, teams have an unequal number of picks in any Draft, because some will have traded away picks and some will have acquired them. The prime example in this Draft is the Patriots. They lost their first round pick as a punishment for the ‘Spygate’ affair last season. As losing Superbowl finalists, they would’ve had the 31st pick. However, they had already acquired the San Francisco 49ers’ first round pick in a trade and so take their 7th spot in the Draft. The 49ers themselves will have the 29th pick, because they received that from Indiannapolis Colts following another trade. And the Dallas Cowboys will have two first round picks, their own and the 22nd pick they received from the Cleveland Browns last year in the bartering which led to the Browns taking Brady Quinn in last year’s Draft (of which more later).

Then there is the problem that drafting new players is expensive. Any side's drafts get a signing on payment, plus, if they make the full team, a guaranteed salary of at least $250,000. A first round pick will demand much more than that – last season’s #1 choice, JaMarcus Russell was still haggling over his contract when the season began in September.

Taking all of this into consideration, some teams prefer not to pick high in the Draft, because they will be paying a lot of money for someone they might not really want when, by swapping their high first round pick for a low first and second round pick, they might get two cheaper players who they do want. This particularly appeals to sides who have extensive rebuilding to do, as they can then draft more players for their money. There’s even talk that the Dolphins might do this, because they need so many new staff.

On the other hand, there are sides who might not want to take many players. A strong team may want one or two very good prospects and that is it, so will trade away all of their other picks to move up the draw in the first and second rounds to be sure of getting who they want. This might appeal to a side like the Colts, who are not in the first round but who don’t think they have many weaknesses anyway.

Finally, you have the compensatory picks. These are extra picks awarded to sides who lost more players than they gained during the February free agency period in 2007. The end result of all this being that some teams, such as Atlanta, have no fewer than 11 picks in this Draft. And boy do they need them!

Now that all of the workouts and tests are over, the top five or six picks are pretty much known. One, Chris Long, is the son of a much loved former player, Howie Long, and will probably be the #1 pick. The problem is that there are four linemen in the top six prospects and, ideally, the Dolphins would like them all. They will certainly pick one of Long, Vernon Gholston and Jake Long, but which one depends very much upon which pundit you ask. Only Bill Parcells knows for sure and something tells me that he will only make his mind up at the last moment.

You might notice that that is only three linemen. The fourth, Glenn Dorsey, is recovering from a leg injury and no-one thinks he will go to either Miami or St Louis, who pick second. Atlanta have the third pick and will almost certainly take the first quarterback, Matt Ryan (and will hope for better luck than they have had with certain other quarterbacks). The next two pickers, Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs, both look set to pick the other two linemen (although the Chiefs will take Ryan if the Falcons go for someone else) leaving the New York Jets to take the first running back in the almost-alliterative Darren McFadden.

Having said all of that, in every year there are surprises. Last year, Brady Quinn was vying for the #1 spot with JaMarcus Russell. Or so everyone thought. Then Quinn plummeted down the rankings and ended up being the 22nd pick. This season, watch out for two other quarterbacks, Chad Henne and Brian Bohm. Both seem to be too lightly rated and Bohm was regarded as a top 10 pick last year – when there were already two other QBs in that top ten – before he decided to go back to college.

Speaking of going back to college, one name missing from the Draft this year is Michael Oher. One of the biggest names in college football and the subject of the best selling book The Blind Side has surprised everyone by deciding to take his final year at college rather than enter the draft. Ole Miss’ gain is the NFL’s loss for this year, but this time next year there will be enough drivel written about him to fill another book.

Finally, a word of warning. Don’t get too excited when someone picks Brandon Flowers. They’ll be getting a cornerback from Virginai Tech, not the lead singer of the Killers. Although, in a year when Billy Crystal has played in MLB, anything is possible!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Something in the air - Byebyebadman

Barcelona versus Manchester United is a fixture with the capacity to leave behind a memory that evokes everything that is great about the game of football.

They do not have a rivalry as such; familiarity or proximity are the governing factors there and neither applies in this case, with the teams having met only seven times in a quarter of a century and separated by hundreds of miles of land and sea. Also absent is the whiff of vengeance on either side, the need for a wrong to be righted, for justice to be served. No handled goal, no dodgy referee, no harsh sending off, nothing. Yet the sense of expectation surrounding this fixture is huge.

There is some history – when they first met back in 1984 Manchester United managed to overturn a two goal deficit from the first leg when, amidst a cacophonous atmosphere that many Old Trafford veterans consider to be the greatest the old stadium has ever heard, Bryan Robson inspired a three-goal comeback to put United in the Cup Winners cup semi-finals.

In the same competition seven years later the Red Devils emerged victorious again, this time in the final in Rotterdam, and with a delicious irony it was Mark Hughes, returned to United after a poor spell at the Camp Nou in the mid-eighties, who scored the decisive goals.

Which brings us to the modern arena of combat, the Champions League.

United took their baby steps in the league format in 1994 and escaped from their initial encounter with Barcelona at Old Trafford with a two-all draw thanks to a late goal that proved to be the highlight of Lee Sharpe's time at United. In the return in Catalonia there would be no such fortune. Those in Manchester have always claimed their team hamstrung by the three-foreigner restrictions but any team would have been powerless to stop Stoichkov and Romario in such a devastating mood as they inflicted a seminal four-goal masterclass that must rank among the most one-sided defeats in United’s history.

If that was an indicator on how much ground they had to make up on the elite of the continent then United learnt quickly in time to face Barcelona in the group stages again in 1998.

A breathtaking three-all draw in Manchester was followed, implausibly, by the teams sharing six goals at the Camp Nou in what was then and remains now the greatest game of club football I have ever seen.

A description or a YouTube montage barely tells the story and it seemed an irrelevance after a match where the wider context disappeared and all that mattered was the immediate moment that both teams earned a solitary point and Barcelona were eliminated. Fittingly, United would return to that glorious cathedral of stadium to lift the trophy six months later.

Follow that as they say, as we wait for the next instalment of a tie that has fired the imaginations of both sets of fans, managers and players.

A healthy and mutual respect characterises the relationship between the clubs, who share many similarities – a belief in a certain style of play, an air of romance and on a wider scale a strong regional identity and civic pride in the cultural contribution of their respective cities. Although United have also contested epic battles with Real Madrid through the decades there could never be a similar communal love-in, perhaps due in part to Madrid’s recent penchant for year-long media campaigns to unsettle and sign the best players at Old Trafford, a situation with which Barcelona would readily sympathise.

They are also cursed by the nagging sense, given their stature, of underachievement on club football’s biggest stage.

United, as their neighbours down the M62 never tire of telling them, lag behind Liverpool in the European Cup count by a score of five to two. Over in Spain the disparity is even greater, with Barcelona’s two European Cups dwarfed by the incredible nine titles picked up by their detested domestic rivals at the Bernabeu.

Both clubs find themselves on the same rung of the European ladder as Inter Milan, Porto and Juventus amongst others so an added frisson to this semi-final is the chance in Moscow to enhance their standing amongst Europe’s elite.

First, to battle. The first leg is at the Camp Nou on Wednesday night and the tie will culminate at Old Trafford six days later. We have no right to expect a classic but I hope somewhere in their consciousness the modern cast of star players hold some awareness of just how special this fixture is and approach the game accordingly.

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