Thursday, May 14, 2009

Josh Portis' Long, Strange Trip

Josh Portis is talented. He's never been questioned in that regard.

As a high school senior in 2004-2005, Portis made the all-state team in California, a state known for its bevy of gifted football players.

Considered one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation, he threw for 36 touchdown passes in his senior season and ran for 13 more.

He received several D-I scholarship offers from schools like Florida, Maryland, Utah, Washington, and Kansas State. He could have taken any number of routes to play college football.

In choosing to commit to the Gators, Portis made a decision that was relatively safe—the UF football program carried a sense of real tradition and was poised for success year after year, even among the powerhouse schools of the SEC.

He wasn't the first Portis to go to school in the Sunshine State either, his cousin Clinton, now a Washington Redskin, played at the University of Miami.

As the Gators' only quarterback recruit, it seemed a near certainty that Portis would become the next signal caller after Chris Leak finished his career.

But things didn't play out that way.

As Leak's backup during the '05 season, Portis played only sparingly.

His best performance? Three for five for 45 yards against Mississippi State.

Regardless of whether or not he had enough opportunities to impress the coaches, the numbers spoke volumes: Portis was not the future of the Florida offense.

After seeing how much time the Gators were spending trying to lure top prospect Tim Tebow to Gainesville, Portis decided he'd had enough, choosing to transfer before the Gators even played their bowl game.

In Maryland, Portis found a school and coaching staff that had originally recruited him out of high school and a team in need of a consistent quarterback. Agreeing to sit out the 2006 season, Portis transferred to College Park and began practicing in order to learn the offense.

Following the season, Portis seemed ready. He set a school record for the quarterback position in the 40-yard dash, and he was recognized as the best player on the scout offense, throwing for 104 yards and a touchdown in the annual Red-White spring game. Finally, things were going his way.

September brought everything to a halt.

In a highly publicized report by the Baltimore Sun, Portis was found to have been suspended for the year for having cheated on a quiz during the spring of '07.

Everything that Portis had worked so hard to achieve came crashing down with one fatal mistake.

But Portis didn't quit. After sitting out the entire season (again), he continued to show signs of promise in the spring of '08, earning Iron Terp status for his work in the weight room. There was still hope, even as he was listed third on the depth chart for the upcoming season.

Portis managed to make it to the season opener against Cal without issue, and though he was still third on the depth chart, the possibility remained for him to prove himself.

Once again, he didn't get the chance. True, he played in eight games, more than he had at Florida. But in those eight games, how many times did Portis throw the ball?

Three. He completed one pass, gaining four yards. That's it.

Was he somewhat unlucky that Chris Turner played well enough to not be benched? Sure. Was it partially Portis' fault for not working hard enough to improve his position on the depth chart? It's possible.

Any way you slice it, the outcome remains the same; Josh Portis was leaving. Again.

This time, he'll be in California, but nowhere near an ocean. The California (PA) Vulcans, a Division II team, needed a quarterback, and Portis decided he was tired of sitting and waiting.

What will happen to Portis, now that he's practically fallen off the map? He may disappear almost entirely, as Ramonce Taylor did. He may be the next Rhett Bomar, who was recently drafted by the Giants. He may be neither one.

It's a little sad to consider all of Portis' wasted potential. Did he shoot himself in the foot? Yes. But to see someone with so much promise be relegated to anonymity is a bit depressing.

I realize that it's the way of the world, a capitalist mentality at work, but shouldn't we (or at the very least coaches) care about these guys as athletes and as people?

In this age of move-it-or-lose-it, there are many, many young Americans who are lost in the shuffle as coaches, professors, and bosses dismiss them if they don't see immediate output. Portis may not be the best or the brightest, but he's worked too hard for too long to become irrelevant.

For his sake, I hope he rises to some level above mediocrity, on the field or off of it. Anything less would be a real shame.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ravens Position Battles: Kelley Washington a Solid Fit at WR

Going into this week, the Baltimore Ravens’ receiving corps was deep in terms of personnel but on the shallow side talent-wise and very banged-up.

Primary target Derrick Mason, fresh off a superb 1,000-yard season, recently underwent surgery to repair his injured right shoulder and could be sidelined until Week 1.

Mason’s counterpart, five-year veteran Mark Clayton, has been limited in practice with an unspecified injury, and slot receiver Demetrius Williams is just beginning his return from the ankle surgery which kept him on the injured reserve list last season.

Behind those three, not one of the other eight wide-outs on the roster has more than two career NFL receptions.

Despite the confidence in the current receiving corps expressed by GM Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens asked three veteran receivers to participate in the three-day mini-camp held this past weekend, including the ex-Jaguar Jerry Porter, ex-Bengal Tab Perry, and former Patriot Kelley Washington.

Harbaugh expressed interest in signing at least one of the three.

Here’s a breakdown of the competition for that one roster spot:

To start, let’s eliminate Jerry Porter from the competition.

Is that a quick judgment? Yes, but it’s not altogether undeserved. Unless Porter shows flashes of the skills he had when he caught 14 touchdowns between 2004 and 2005, he won’t be tapped.

Porter played only sparingly last season with the Jags (11 catches) and he isn’t a good special teams player, which is an automatic deduction in Harbaugh’s eyes, a former special teams coach himself.

Now let’s compare Perry and Washington. Though both are good special teamers, Perry has the clear advantage, having set a Bengals single-season record for return yards.

Washington is more involved as a gunner on punts and kickoffs, and he has shown the ability to make plays.

Nonetheless, with Yamon Figurs struggling on returns this past season and the departure of Jim Leonhard, Perry gets the nod for being more suited to the Ravens’ needs in that category.

In comparing the receiving stats of Washington and Perry, it’s clear that although both have been in the NFL long enough to have established themselves as guys who know the game, neither one has caught many balls.

Washington has a career total of 73 catches for 896 yards and nine touchdowns, but he hasn’t caught more than 10 passes in a season since 2004.

Seen side-by-side with Washington, however, Perry pales in comparison. Despite his prowess in the return game, Perry has yet to catch more than 10 passes in any season in his short career.

So, what’s the conclusion? For me, the return game is very important, but it takes a back seat to the offense with all the injuries to the guys that actually play every possession.

Washington has shown he is capable of contributing to the offense, but he’s also ready, willing, and able to play special teams whenever necessary, and that’s a quality that should endear him somewhat to Harbaugh.

Also, Washington was rumored to have had a better tryout this weekend than Perry, so that helps his stock.

Moving forward, I see the Ravens doing one of two things; signing Washington or working with the current squad.

Ozzie Newsome is not known for signing a player just to fill a need if the player is not high quality to begin with, so I don’t think he’ll settle for anything less than someone guaranteed to contribute. Washington certainly fits that mold.

If none of the trio have done enough to improve their stock significantly through their tryouts this weekend, I wouldn’t rule out the Ravens pursuing another handful of available receivers, including Plaxico Burress (if he stays out of jail).

But that’s still a long way off. Let’s see if any of these three get signed. If we have to pick one, I’m pulling for Washington.

Where Will Plaxico Burress Go?

On June 15th, Plaxico Burress will appear in court to determine the outcome of the felony gun charges leveled against him following his accidental self-shooting last November.

The outcome of that hearing is by no means guaranteed one way or the other, and Burress could see prison time. However, if the charges are dropped or Burress agrees to a plea bargain, it might be possible for him to continue his NFL career in 2009.

I’m aware that those are very big “if” statements, but were they to come true, Burress could be signed or invited to participate in training camp by any team that lacks a go-to receiver and is willing to deal with the media frenzy that his arrival will undoubtedly precipitate.

Of the teams that need help at wide receiver, three stand out as possible candidates to sign Burress:

New York Jets Rex Ryan has already expressed measured interest in acquiring the talented but troubled receiver, contacting Drew Rosenhaus in case a deal might be in the making. Burress would be a good fit with the Jets–he provides Mark Sanchez with an alternative to Jerricho Cotchery and he would be able to remain in New York rather than taking up stakes and moving somewhere else.

Miami Dolphins Sunny south Florida appeals to just about everyone, and the Dolphins need a veteran wideout to tutor third year man Ted Ginn Jr. Chad Pennington would certainly welcome a proven player like Burress, who would keep defenses honest so they aren’t just worrying about Ronnie Brown and the Wildcat. Bill Parcells also knows how to keep his players in line, so I don’t think Burress would have any discipline issues if he landed in Miami.

Chicago Bears At the moment, Devin Hester is the only legitimate target for new helmsman Jay Cutler, and with Hester likely to handle the kick and punt return duties as well, he’ll need someone to take the pressure off him in the passing game. If Cutler can develop a rapport with Burress in training camp, the play-action pass could become a deadly part of an offense that currently focuses on Matt Forte.

Keep in mind, all of these possibilities are riding on Burress’ ability to get out of court relatively unscathed. If he doesn’t find a way out, we may not see him for a long time.

We have yet to see the full effect of extended jail time on one’s playing career (Michael Vick will be upgraded to house arrest this month), but with Burress on the wrong side of 30, it may be too late by the time he gets out.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Orioles Update: A Post-April Lineup Evaluation

With a little more than one month in the books, the Orioles sit last in the AL East at 13-19, seven games behind division leader Toronto. After a sweet Opening Day rout of the Yankees and a hot 6-2 start, Baltimore’s fast pace slowed quickly, their record falling to .500 by the end of April.

Recently, their performance has been less than spectacular winning just four of ten games in May, including three losses to start the month, completing a six game losing streak that started April 27th. The Birds’ run differential is -28, worst in the majors, but it’s not like the offense isn’t there. The O’s are ninth in runs scored, 11th in home runs, 10th in RBI, 12th in batting average, 14th in OPS, 11th in extra-base hits, and next to last in total strikeouts. In addition, Baltimore has a team batting average of .302 with runners in scoring position higher than every other team except St. Louis, Boston, and Toronto.

The offense may not be stellar, but with all of those stats in the top half of the 30 MLB teams, I’d say the Orioles’ bats are definitely better than middle of the road. If they had a pitching staff that boasted names like Sabathia, Halladay, or Matsuzaka they might have a better record.

Here’s how each starter has fared at the plate this season (in lineup order):

 Brian Roberts, 2B
The Orioles’ table-setter has played OK over the first 32 games, starting 31 and leading the team with 126 at bats. He’s hitting a solid .294 (.348 with runners in scoring position) and has scored 24 runs, good enough for ninth in the American League. However, his on base percentage is just .362 overall (an ugly .200 in May), down from .426 last month, and his batting average has dipped to an appalling .139 this month.

The good news: After tomorrow, the Birds have only one more day off this month, meaning B-Rob will have plenty of chances to get out of his current slump, and he’ll see good pitches with Jones and Markakis batting behind him.

Adam Jones, CF
A fleet-footed force in the outfield, Jones has opened the season on fire. Jones leads the team with a .353 batting average, second among all center fielders and fifth overall in the AL. Jones is also fifth in OPS and leads the American League in runs scored. His .348 average with runners in scoring position equals that of Roberts; conversely, Jones is playing as well this month as he was last. His play has been noticeably better in day games (.441 BA, 1.251 OPS), and he loves to face Yankee pitching (.421, 1.297).
The Orioles play another three-game set with New York this month, as well as five day games. Look for Jones to continue his quality performance with the lumber.

Nick Markakis, RFExpected to carry the Orioles’ offense this season, Markakis has done just that, hitting .347 to lead all right fielders. Markakis is tied with Jones for the AL lead in runs scored (33) and is sixth in RBI (30), 8th in OPS (1.016), and 13th in walks (17). Even better, he’s hitting .417 with runners in scoring position, which is exactly what the Orioles need from their best hitter. Admittedly, Markakis’ average against righties is over 100 points higher than his average against lefties, but he’s still hitting a respectable .279 against southpaws.

Markakis loves playing home games at night as well, and the Orioles have six more of those games in May. Barring an onslaught of lefty pitching, he looks poised to continue his offensive fireworks
Aubrey Huff, 1B
The O’s cleanup man is currently hitting a decent .268, but to his credit, he’s doing his job and doing it well, batting .406 with runners in scoring position and driving in 31, fourth best in the AL.

Like Markakis, Huff performs much better in home games at night. Something tells me it’s not a coincidence that the Orioles hold the worst record in the majors in day games, winning just two of eleven.

With five day games still to play this month, Huff needs to improve or O’s fans should hope that Jeremy Guthrie and Koji Uehara are not pitching on those days, thereby preventing a good outing from being spoiled by poor hitting.

Melvin Mora, 3B
Mora is coming off a hamstring injury that occurred in mid April, which earned him a spot on the 15 day DL and greatly decreased his at bat total thus far.

Prior to the injury, Mora was in midseason form, hitting a cool .364 with nine RBI in 22 ABs. However, he’s been slow to recover, hitting just .139 in his 12 games post-injury.

That said, Mora’s value over his replacement during the injury (Ty Wigginton) is significant enough that his job is probably not in jeopardy. Let’s just hope he battles back quickly.

Luke Scott, LF/DH
The majority of Scott’s 98 at bats this season have been as a designated hitter, although he has spelled Felix Pie in left field a couple times. Scott’s .303 average and 15 RBI sound mediocre for a starting DH, but those don’t tell the whole story.

In his 20 ABs with runners in scoring position, he’s hitting .350 with nine RBI. Furthermore, 10 of those 20 ABs have come with two outs, and in those two out situations, Scott is batting a whopping .500 with five RBI, and a ridiculous 1.315 OPS. Now that’s clutch hitting!

Unfortunately for the O’s, Scott hurt his shoulder in Sunday’s game and could be headed to the DL.

Ty Wigginton DH/1B/3B
Added in the offseason as a reserve infielder, Wigginton was expected to play the corner infield spots and DH in the bottom of the order on occasion, but he saw increased playing time at third base when Mora was placed on the DL. In 101 at bats this season (63 at third base), Wigginton is hitting a lowly .198, the only Oriole with a triple digit AB total and an average below the Mendoza line (the next closest is Huff at .268).

Wigginton’s forced playing time clearly exposed his inability to be a consistent starter, but there wasn’t much the O’s could have done differently when Mora went down. For Wigginton’s sake and our own, we should pray that Mora stays healthy the rest of the way.

Gregg Zaun, C
Zaun has split time this season between the No.7 and No.8 slots in the lineup, but he is markedly better when he bats eighth, hitting .326 in 46 at bats, compared to his hideous .065 average in 31 ABs in the seven hole. Zaun was not acquired for his offense, so although it may hurt your eyes to see he’s hitting .158 with runners in scoring position, it should not be a surprise.

Zaun’s veteran presence was meant to be a stop gap measure while the O’s waited to bring top prospect Matt Wieters up from Triple-A Norfolk, but the process is taking longer than expected.

Until Wieters is ready, the O’s will have to make do. With Zaun, fans should clap for the ordinary or otherwise remain quiet.

Felix Pie, LF/CF
In two years with the Cubs, Pie never had more than 177 at bats in a season, so the concern this year was to get him as many opportunities as possible. Pie has played a fair amount, starting 17 games in left field and four in center field, but he hasn’t shown much when he’s stepped into the box. In 60 ABs, Pie has amassed only 11 hits (BA .183) and more than a quarter of his ABs have ended in strikeouts.

With Luke Scott possibly headed to the DL, Pie may be forced to hit his way out of his slump. Terry Crowley is a top-notch hitting coach and should be able to get more out of Pie’s talent, but that may take a while, and fans are known for their impatience.

Cesar Izturis, SS
Like Zaun, Izturis was not signed for his bat, as evidenced by his .260 career average and his 2004 NL Gold Glove with the Cardinals. Though he can bat from both sides of the plate, he is clearly better when he hits right handed, accumulating a .444 batting average and an OPS of 1.111, compared to a .159 average and .407 OPS from the left side.

This month, Izturis is hitting .286, up 44 points from his April average. He plays well at home, and having nine home games still to play in May should boost his confidence.

For better or for worse, Izturis will be the shortstop for the rest of the season, so hopefully he can continue to provide excellent defense and perhaps increase his OBP, thereby remaining a valuable contributor to the team.