Sunday, January 31, 2010

Gratitude for Hall of Fame Admission...Where Is It?

In the past six months, there has been a lot of press surrounding Hall of Fame inductions in various sports. Most of what has been said can be divided into two categories: who gets admitted (and why) and how they are admitted. The former is more important, but the latter is surprisingly newsworthy these days. Some would find it strange that the admission to an exclusive institution is less talked about than how the admitted person is represented, but more and more me-first people seem to pop up every day. It’s difficult to tell whether or not Andre Dawson is one of them, but his actions in the last month have been somewhat selfish.

If you didn't know, Dawson was recently inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame after a 21-year career for the Montreal Expos, Chicago Cubs, Florida Marlins and Boston Red Sox. Dawson wanted to be inducted as a Cub (the bronze busts in the HOF are made with each player wearing the cap of the team he represents), but Major League Baseball dictated that he would be ushered in as an Expo. Some would say the MLB's reasons are purely political (the Expos have only one other player enshrined in the Hall), but Dawson did play eleven seasons in Montreal while winning 1977 Rookie of the Year and finishing as runner-up for the Most Valuable Player award in 1981 and 1983 (he won the award with Chicago in '87).

Frankly, the fact that players even get the chance to pick a cap at all is, for lack of a better term, dumb. The idea that players can shape how people remember them by choosing one logo over another is ludicrous. Players' legacies are made during the game, not after it during a press conference or in the offseason. Fans will nitpick over off-the-field incidents, but that won't stop most from agreeing on whether or not someone is a fantastic player. It's the MLB's fault that the cap issue even exists, so in some respects, Dawson is a victim of a flawed system. But the fact that Dawson is even worried about what cap he wears is just silly. Most players would be overjoyed to have even made it into the Hall of Fame, regardless of what team they represented. The least Dawson can do is be grateful for being there and not worry whether his cap says "C" or "M". As one Chicago Sun-Times writer suggested, he could just choose to have no logo on his cap and hope that fans remember his days with the Cubs as his best. Wake up, Mr. Dawson - you're being recognized as a great player and you choose to focus on some smaller detail? Why? 

Most Halls of Fame have clauses in their induction criteria (written or unwritten) stipulating that any player who "has damaged the integrity of the game," as the Basketball HOF puts it, can be barred from admission. Some have violated this clause (Pete Rose betting on baseball, Mark McGwire taking steroids, Ron Artest fighting with fans, Todd Bertuzzi punching out Steve Moore), and they may never make their respective Halls of Fame because of their transgressions. Dawson has not violated the integrity of the game, but he's tarnished his reputation for not showing the gratitude he should. Cal Ripken Jr. once said that "to be remembered at all is pretty special." Dawson would do well to keep that in mind, regardless of what hat he’s wearing.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

For Ex-Raven Adalius Thomas, A Tale of Two Cities

By Tyler Springs

The last time the Baltimore Ravens met the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs, Adalius Thomas was wearing a purple jersey.

That was the 2006 AFC Divisional Playoffs. This is now.

Almost three years removed from agreeing to a $35 million contract with the New England Patriots in the spring of 2007, Thomas has not been anything close to the All-Pro caliber player that Bill Belichick thought he had acquired.

In the three seasons he started for the Ravens' defense, Thomas averaged nearly 80 tackles and over 9 sacks each season, including a Pro-Bowl campaign in 2006 and a league-leading 3 non-offensive touchdowns in 2005.  Thomas saw time at linebacker, cornerback, defensive end and special teams, maximizing the rare speed and strength he possessed in his 6'2", 270-pound frame.  He was a smart player that grew to be a fan favorite in Baltimore, a face of Rex Ryan's vaunted defensive unit.

When he signed with the Patriots on March 3rd following the 2006 season, the Ravens were sad to let him go, knowing they had lost a good player to higher pay.  Since that time, however, the phrase "I wish we had Adalius back" has not been common refrain.  Role players and stars alike, including Jarret Johnson, Jameel McClain, Trevor Pryce, Brendon Ayanbadejo and Terrell Suggs, have taken over different parts of Thomas' former duties and have played well in those areas.

Thomas, on the other hand, has suffered in the painfully cold New England weather and similarly frigid playing environment that is Bill Belichick's locker room.  After being elected a defensive captain at the start of the season, Thomas has been frozen out twice, deactivated from the 45-man game roster against Tennessee and Carolina despite being healthy.  The second time was the result of being one of four players late to an 8AM meeting on a morning when traffic was congested due to a morning snowfall.

Said Thomas: "Sending somebody home, that’s like, ‘You’re expelled until you come back and make good grades.’ Get that [expletive] out of here. It’s ridiculous."

In his three years with the Patriots, Thomas' numbers have been significantly less than billed.
He hasn't had an interception or scored a touchdown since 2007, and his sack total in that time has been 14.5, barely half of his production level in Baltimore.  Much of Thomas' decreased stat totals may have had to do with his progressively diminishing playing time (he played just over 50% of New England's defensive snaps this season), but that's also a chicken-or-egg rationale that might suggest he wasn't playing as well in the first place.

Thomas will probably not survive the offseason in New England (even if he wants to) unless a new collective bargaining agreement is reached.  Under the present salary cap terms, the Patriots would owe Thomas a figure north of $4 million for the next two seasons if they were to release him at this time.  At 32, he still has a few good years left in the tank and could be an attractive free agent pickup (if he is released) for teams looking to shore up their pass rush, but his disgruntled public behavior and recent under-performance won't help him in that regard.

So much for the grass being greener in New England.

Sources: Boston Globe, ESPN

Monday, January 4, 2010

Video Interference: Ravens-Raiders Referees Weaken Integrity of NFL Officiating

By Tyler Springs

With 18 seconds remaining in the second quarter of Sunday's game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Oakland Raiders, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco took a 3rd-down snap and dropped back to pass, not knowing that the footsteps he made in the ensuing six seconds would potentially change the NFL's use of instant replay in future seasons.

Flacco evaded pressure from the Raiders defense and started to scramble toward the line of scrimmage, seemingly intending to advance the ball a few yards across the line of scrimmage with a short run. As he approached the line, Flacco spotted running back Ray Rice alone in the endzone. Flacco then rifled the ball to Rice in an attempt to score a touchdown in the waning moments of the half, but the pass sailed over Rice's head and fell incomplete.

The problem with Flacco's decision was that he had already passed the line of scrimmage at the moment he released the ball. According to NFL rules, such a play constitutes an illegal forward pass, a penalty that demands a five-yard penalty on the Ravens and a loss of down; additionally, because the action occurred within the last two minutes of the game, it required a deduction of ten seconds off the game clock.

Everyone watching the game knew Flacco had committed a penalty. In spite of the obvious infraction, no official called a penalty on the play.

There is a general understanding among football fans that instant replay cannot be used as a tool to call penalties that are not originally called during the course of the play. The next five minutes of television shattered this understanding entirely.

Knowing that Flacco almost certainly committed a penalty, the NFL officials in the replay booth took the play into their own hands, calling for an official video review of the play (which they are legally allowed to do with any controversial play within the final two minutes of the half). After reviewing the play, the officials determined that an illegal forward pass did occur and penalized the Ravens for down and distance in relation to the previous play.

Under league rules, the wording of the instant replay policy allows the instant replay process to be used in helping determine whether or not an illegal forward pass occurred; in the spirit of the law, however, this application was probably intended to clarify whether or not an illegal forward pass is made during an attempted lateral, not when the pass was intended for a down-field target. When a play like that occurs, such as the famed Music City Miracle, then the penalty is appropriate, but in this situation, the results could have been disastrous for the Ravens.

The outcome of the play was an incomplete pass, leaving 12 seconds on the game clock before halftime with the ball on the Oakland 15-yard line. Because of the penalty instituted by the replay booth, the field goal attempt ended up being snapped from the 20-yard line, meaning it was 37 yards long. Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missed the attempt wide to the right side, meaning the Ravens had less than a one-touchdown lead (14-10 rather than 17-10) heading into halftime.

Did Cundiff's miss ultimately affect the end result of the game? No. But the significant role that the officials played in altering the circumstances of the kick could be crucial in future games. The way in which the penalty was called, even if it was the correct call, sets a precedent that is dangerous if not counter-productive to the review process.

Imagine a similar situation in which there are less than two minutes left in the game and the ball is spotted just inside field goal range. Then imagine that the offense throws an incomplete pass, but the booth chooses to review how many people were on the field at the snap of the ball. (This assumes that the excess of people was an accident, as it is unlikely that an NFL team would actually try to run a play with 12 players.) After review, the officials agree that there were 12 offensive players on the field at the time of the snap. The offense is penalized five yards and is now out of field goal range, despite the fact that the result of the play did not help them at all.

It's scary to think that officials who aren't on the field can have such an impact on the game, but that potential is now on the table. Just don't blame Joe Flacco.