Firing Gruden and Del Rio won’t fix problems

December 29, 2008
Sports Addict Gary Fineout

Sports Addict Gary Fineout

Now that the NFL regular season is over, the hand-wringing, speculation and rumors over the fates of Bucs coach Jon Gruden and Jags coach Jack Del Rio will go into overdrive.

But let’s hope the owners of both teams take a deep breath before they do anything rash.

More often than not jettisoning a head coach doesn’t fix a team’s problems. Sometimes it just makes it worse as the team transitions to a new offense, new defense, etc. etc.

Let’s just put two names in the mix: Tom Coughlin and Tony Dungy. Coughlin and Dungy have won the last Super Bowls for their current teams. But both coaches were unceremoniously forced out the door at Jacksonville and Tampa Bay despite their record of success for the two teams.

You would think that the Glazer family and Wayne Weaver would remember their own bit of history before they start down the same path this time.

It could be argued that Dungy was too nice to get his Bucs players to take that extra step, but I think his record with the Colts disproves that. The Bucs won with defense, while the Colts win with offense. Dungy has shown that he can win regardless of the talent level around him. Coughlin, by contrast, likes to do things a certain way. But his undoing in Jacksonville had more to do with a disastrous series of personnel moves that put the team up against the salary cap.

Gruden, of course, lacks charm but he was able to lead the Bucs to a Super Bowl title back in 2003. That has been forgotten, however, as Tampa Bay continues to suffer meltdowns in December. On Sunday, the team had a shot for the playoffs but somehow managed to lose to the lowly Oakland Raiders. The Bucs lost the last four games of the season to end 9-7.

One of the arguments being used against Gruden is his constant quarterback shuffling.

Any sportswriter, however, who makes that point just isn’t watching enough NFL games. MOST teams in the league lack a true, bonafide, consistent quarterback. Anyone who thinks that the Bucs could have won 9 or 10 games with Chris Sims or some other cast-off is fooling themselves.

Jeff Garcia the last two years has made a difference. There’s a reason that the Tennessee Titans handed the ball this season to Kerry Collins. Their young quarterback Vince Young just couldn’t get the job done. Gruden’s complex offense needs a smart poised quarterback in order for it to succeed.

Jacksonville’s problems this season aren’t all Del Rio’s fault. Losing two offensive lineman at the start of the season was a killer blow. And a series of once again questionable moves, like signing Jerry Porter, also contributed to the team’s demise. The Jaguars have already announced that the team’s vice president of player personnel James “Shack” Harris has resigned. The departure of Harris may be a sign that Del Rio will get one more season to turn things around.

The one thing, however, that could be used against Del Rio is his handling of the team this year, including a now-infamous blow-up with one of his star linebacker. If Del Rio has lost control of the team then it may be time to close this chapter of the Jaguars franchise.

But at the end of the day it comes down to the players, not the coaches. It was the aging Bucs defense that got ripped for nearly a thousand yards rushing in the closing month of the season. It was the Jags offense that lacked playmakers who could stretch opposing defenses.

And changing coaches will do little to fix that problem.

Time for Pennington’s Pro Bowl revenge

December 26, 2008
Sports Addict Gary Fineout

Sports Addict Gary Fineout

All I want for Christmas is a Miami Dolphins win this weekend over the N.Y. Jets.

And the person who may help me get my wish is Chad Pennington, the quarterback that the Dolphins plucked off the Jets trash heap. Pennington has had an amazing season – a 67 percent completion percentage, the second-highest quarterback rating in the NFL, and more than 3,400 yards passing – while leading the Dolphins to a 10-5 record.

How can it be that Pennington didn’t make the Pro Bowl? He got beat out by Brett Favre, Jay Cutler and Peyton Manning. It would be easy to blame this on the fans, but they only account for a third of the vote.  Pennington got the snub from sportswriters, the talking heads on the website, and most of those who discount anything outside the L.A.-N.Y. axis.

And even in the Pro Bowl fallout, some people expressed more concern over Philip Rivers not making the team than the Pennington snub. It’s a complete travesty. The Chargers may make it to the playoffs, but only because they easily play in the worst division in the AFC. The Dolphins, by contrast, have compiled a winning record in one of the toughest divisions.

Everything, however,  is in place for Pennington’s revenge. He rides into New York City with a chance to end the Jets fading postseason hopes and a chance to end to the career of Favre, who had been hailed as the savior of the Jets just four months ago.

The first game between the two rivals went the Jets way, as Favre completed two touchdowns and nearly 200 yards.

Don’t expect the same thing to happen this time around. Favre has obviously been struggling in recent weeks, leading to speculation that this could indeed be his final season. But I think the Dolphins offense is much different than the one that the Jets confronted back at the start of the season. The combination of the Wildcat rushing attack with Pennington’s patient ways will prove too much to the floundering Jets. The key to the Dolphins victory will be whether or not the defense can shut down the potent combination of Thomas Jones and Leon Washington, who will become even more valuable if the weather is wet and cold as predicted.

This one thing is clear: Pennington won’t be the reason the Dolphins lose this game. He will do everything he can to make sure that the Dolphins cap a spectacular season and go from worst to first.

Santa, are you listening?

Fearless bowl predictions

December 20, 2008
Sports Addict Gary Fineout

Sports Addict Gary Fineout

While I have a lot of reservations about the fact that we can have 34 bowls that feature teams that barely made it to a .500 record, it is still a fairly remarkable feat that five college teams from Florida made it to the postseason. It’s another reminder that Florida remains a state rich in football talent, a fact which helped all these programs succeed this season.

But getting to a bowl game isn’t the same as winning. Here’s my fearless bowl predictions for the next three weeks of college football madness.

BCS National Championship Game (Florida vs. Oklahoma): The worst thing about the college post-season is the long layoff. There’s always a small concern that a team that has been playing with such forceful momentum will get out of sync. But since October I said time and time again that the Gators have been playing some of the best college football I have ever seen. The Gators offense can keep pace with the Sooners offense in what could be a high-scoring game. But I continue to think that people have overlooked the UF defense. I think it is good enough to put the brakes on the Oklahoma high-wire act and I bet Coach Urban Meyer will put in a game plan that will emphasize long, time-consuming drives to keep the Sooners off the field. Florida 35, Oklahoma 24

Emerald Bowl (Miami vs. California): So is having your inconsistent starting quarterback suspended for the game a blessing or a curse? Well, we’ll soon find out as the Canes have to play the Golden Bears without QB Robert Marve. But even though this is close to a home game for California, the Canes have enough talent to win this game provided the defense shows up. This could be the game that sets the stage for Miami’s return next year as a national contender. Miami 34, California 27

Champs Sports Bowl (Florida State vs. Wisconsin): There are so many reasons I should pick against FSU. Inconsistent quarterback play. The collapse of the defense in the final weeks of the regular season. The weekly reconfiguration of the playbook by FSU head coach in waiting Jimbo Fisher. But here’s what I will say about Fisher and defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews. I think both of them have had enough time before this game to probably come up with a game plan that will work. The Badgers themselves have had loads of problems with their quarterbacks and the team had to go into overtime to beat a Division 1-AA team. (Sorry, I can’t go along with that nonsense that changed their classification to Division 1 Football Championship Subdivision.) Florida State 24, Wisconsin 14.

Motor City Bowl (Florida Atlantic vs. Central Michigan):I know that Coach Howard Schnellenberger has never lost a bowl game in his storied career. But then again, I’m not sure he ever took a 6-6 team into a bowl game that is essentially played in the opponent’s back yard. I just don’t think FAU even belongs in a bowl. Central Michigan 28, FAU 10.

magicjack St. Petersburg Bowl (University of South Florida vs. Memphis):This is of course not where the Bulls wanted to end up but that’ s what happens when you lose five out of your last seven games.  I’m also trying to figure out who thought it was a great idea to play a football game at Tropicana Field. Memphis does have a solid running attack. But I don’t think USF is going to play poorly in what is essentially a home game against a team that just made it to .500. USF 28, Memphis 17 

An unexpected Christmas gift for one Gators fan

December 15, 2008
Leslie Furman

Leslie Furman

You could tell when Leslie Furman got on the phone she wasn’t quite sure what to make of the phone call from Who had her cell phone number? And why were they calling?

But then the news hit her: She had won the BCS Championship Game ticket giveaway that the website has been promoting since October. And that’s when the emotions started to come out.

Fighting back the tears, Furman explained how she entered the contest as a way to try to get tickets because she wanted to take her elderly father to the game. Her father, Jack Furman, is a University of Florida alumnus and a huge Gators fan who can be seen every day sporting some sort of Gators t-shirt. But he’s also been struggling with his health in recent years.

Moments after watching the Gators beat Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, Furman started looking around online for tickets. That’s when she realized how expensive it would be to honor her 77-year-old father. The Pembroke Pines resident just started a juiceblendz franchise this past May and she said she knew there wasn’t going to be a lot of money available for Christmas gifts. So she started looking for other ways to get tickets to the Jan. 8 clash between the Gators and Oklahoma.

She entered the contest hoping that somehow this would be the answer.

And it was. On Monday morning, her name was the one pulled out of a Gators helmet.

“My heart is going a mile a minute,” said Furman shortly after hearing the news she had won two tickets on the 50-yard-line.  “When they let me know, I was in tears.”

Furman called the two tickets a “Christmas dream gift” for her father.

“To be able to take him is a dream come true,” she said. “I have chills.”

Of course there’s a even sweeter bit of irony here: Leslie Furman didn’t go to UF like her dad. She went to Ole Miss, the team that nearly derailed the Gators season when the Rebels knocked off the Gators by one point. The loss to Ole Miss, however, was where Tim Tebow made his declaration that no one would fight as hard as he could to win the Gators remaining games. After that game the Gators never looked back and are one step away from another national title.

Furman said she plans to “proudly wear”  a SEC Championship shirt to the game that lists every win by the Gators – and its lone loss to her Alma mater.

And of course she will be rooting loudly for the Gators. Right next to her dad.

Tebow’s new distinction: Being no. 1 and not winning

December 14, 2008
Sports Addict Gary Fineout

Sports Addict Gary Fineout

Buried deep in the rules and explanation of the complicated balloting system behind the Heisman trophy are the following words “the Heisman committee created the points system in an effort to eliminate any sectional favoritism.”

Oh, really.

I guess that’s one way to look at what happened on Saturday night. Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow was attempting to ride “sectional favoritism” into a back-to-back Heisman victory. But maybe here’s a better way to look at it: Tebow lost the award due to “sectional favoritism.”

How else can you explain this dubious distinction: Tebow became the first player since 1956 to take more first place votes and still wind up third behind winner Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy. And Bradford became just the third player to win the Heisman without winning the most first place votes.

Tebow received 309 1st-place votes, which means he did get some support outside the South since each section of the country gets 145 media votes. (Sportswriters and former Heisman trophy winners vote for the award.)

But interestingly enough, the Heisman process is actually rigged AGAINST the South because it places the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia in the Mid-Atlantic region with Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Washington D.C. and Delaware. Arkansas, which also has a team in the SEC, is in the Southwest region with Texas and Oklahoma.

And even in these regional lineups it’s not an even division of votes. A state may get more votes if it has a larger population and more media outlets – which I’m sure dilutes the votes from a state like South Carolina or Arkansas.

ESPN reported on Saturday that what cost Tebow may have been the fact that he was LEFT OFF a lot of ballots from the Southwest region where both McCoy and Bradford play. They also pointed out that Tebow received far less second place votes than either McCoy or Bradford.

I never expected Tebow to win. As I noted earlier this week, there’s just too many sportswriters from across the country who would base the award on statistics. The list of Heisman Trophy winners, rightly or wrongly, is a long list of truly mediocre college football players who won the award through dazzling stats, or media hype and never played a down of football come Sunday. (That is not a knock against Bradford, however, who looks like he might be a top-flight quarterback.)

But what’s surprising of course is that Tebow came so close and lost the award due to the antiquated system at place in the Heisman process. I mean even the Electoral College is at least based on population.

Since the Heisman committee refuses to release the entire list of voters it’s still a bit of a mystery as to how this played out. But at the very least, maybe the distribution of votes should be based on the number of Division 1 schools in that state that play football.

I find it hard to believe that sportswriters from the Northeast region – which includes New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island – even bothered to watch Tebow or Bradford until maybe the very end of the season.

Of course, for Gators fans, they can at least hope that the Heisman curse will strike the newest Heisman winner when he squares off against the Gators at the BCS Championship Game. But it still doesn’t make it right.

History, regionalism will deny Tebow his second Heisman

December 11, 2008
Sports Addict Gary Fineout

Sports Addict Gary Fineout

I don’t have a Heisman ballot, but I’m willing to make this prediction: Tim Tebow will walk away empty-handed on Saturday night.

The fact that Tebow is a finalist is a testament to the spectacular season that the Florida Gators had this year. Ever since his mea culpa following the Ole Miss loss, Tebow has been nearly flawless. But it won’t be enough.

Some other Florida sportswriters have suggested that Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford will win because ESPN televises Big 12 conference games and has promoted the heck out of Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech etc. But that’s a naive and simplistic argument.

If you look at the slate of known Heisman voters that has put together you can quickly deduce that many voters probably DIDN’T EVEN watch most of the games that Bradford, Tebow and Texas quarterback Colt McCoy played in. That’s because a good number of them are sportswriters from across the country.

Take Steve Ellis, who is the Florida State beat writer for the Tallahassee Democrat, and is listed as Heisman voter. To put it bluntly: I used to work with Ellis and he’s a workaholic. He’s spending each day breathing and living FSU sports and FSU football. Now because of his job Ellis watched Tebow whip up on the Seminoles. It wouldn’t surprise me if he votes Tebow first because of that performance.

But that’s just why Tebow won’t win. Too many Heisman voters will have only seen limited flashes of the Gator quarterback this season. Sportwriters west of the Mississippi were probably way too busy watching the teams they cover.

Instead the Heisman will be awarded primarily due to statistics. And when Heisman voters look at the stats, they probably will defer to Bradford. Bradford has passed for 48 tds and nearly 4,700 yards compared to Tebow’s 40 tds and combined 3,079 yards of passing and rushing.

If Tebow were going for his first Heisman, I’d say he would have a much better chance even though his numbers were much better last year. Tebow is chasing the legend of Archie Griffin and there will too many voters who feel he didn’t do enough to deserve a second trophy and join Griffin in the pantheon of college football greats.

Last minute Pro Bowl ballot box stuffing

December 8, 2008
Sports Addict Gary Fineout

Sports Addict Gary Fineout

Just to remind you: Football fans have until noon on Tuesday to submit their ballot for the 2009 NFL Pro Bowl. You can go here to cast your electronic ballot.

May I make a few last minute suggestions at stuffing the ballot box:

QB: Chad Pennington, Miami Dolphins. Pennington has played a pivotal role in helping the Dolphins rebound from last year’s horrific season. But did you know he’s actually got more passing yards right now that Matt Cassel, who had back to back 400-yard games? Did you know he’s ranked fifth in completion percentage, or that right now he’s got a higher quarterback rating than the two guys with Manning in their last name? But it boils down to this: If the Dolphins make the playoffs it will have a lot to do with Pennington.

K: Matt Bryant, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Bryant has been incredibly reliable for the Bucs and has missed just four field goals out of 32 attempts. He’s also fourth in the NFL in scoring.

OLB: Joey Porter, Miami Dolphins. Hey, he should get in for backing up his smack talk about Matt Cassel. But Porter also leads the league with an amazing 16.5 sacks. He’s a quarterback wrecking machine and the core of the Dolphins defense.

CB: Rashean Mathis, Jacksonville Jaguars. Yeah, the Jags season hasn’t been sensational but Mathis has four picks this season, including two he returned back for touchdowns.