2016 NFL Preview

By Michael LeCompte

Every sports news outlet and publication has offered up its insider, in-depth analysis of every NFL team in the last month to get us ready for the season opener this Sunday. All of that analysis is wholly unnecessary, though, because while the NFL loves to declare that parity among its franchises has never been greater, there are really only about six teams with a legitimate shot to make the Super Bowl.

So, here’s a brief preview of the top storylines heading into the 2016 NFL season, a look at two teams (one from each conference that could surprise), and the six teams that have a realistic shot at reaching the Super Bowl.

The Storylines:

Tom Brady: He finally accepted his punishment for Deflategate and will sit out the first four weeks of the season. Football fans across the country see this as justice finally being served, while in Boston Saint Tom is now a true martyr. Whether he was guilty of anything, or whether the league overreacted with a heavy-hand doesn’t matter. The reality of the situation is that Brady finally chose to stop fighting and serve his four games because the Patriots open the season with games against Arizona, Miami, Houston, and Buffalo. New England should be able to start 3-1 and not miss a beat without Brady. It’s Jimmy Garoppolo time in New England now-for four weeks anyway-but remember, before Bledsoe went down nobody had ever heard of Brady either. A decade from now we might just be talking about Garoppolo the Great.

Colin Kaepernick: The for-now backup quarterback in San Francisco is a story as the season starts, but not for his national anthem protests which have dominated sports media recently. Kap’s fading football career (at least in San Francisco) is the real story this season. Here was a young guy who along with Newton and Wilson was ready to revolutionize the league. He went to one Super Bowl and was a Richard Sherman tipped pass away from another and then…nothing. While he could still probably outrun half of the NFL Kaepernick failed to develop as a passer and now finds himself on the bench.

Whether Kaepernick works his way back onto the field-in San Francisco or anywhere else will be a storyline to watch this season.

Teams To Watch

Every season a couple of teams seem to surprise and become competitive and perhaps even make the playoffs. In 2016 those teams are Oakland and Minnesota.

Oakland: The Raiders have been downright terrible for over a decade now. However, they are a young, talented team and with Manning gone in Denver their division is suddenly up for grabs. Oakland has the pieces in place for a dominant defense with a shutdown secondary and the offseason addition of Bruce Irvin at linebacker should help. With a little more consistent play on offense from quarterback Derek Carr the Raiders could snag a Wild Card playoff berth.

Minnesota: The Vikings made the playoffs as a Wild Card last year and were a shanked field goal away from upsetting Seattle. Expectations were high this year until Teddy Bridgewater tore up his knee. Most pundits feel the NFC North belongs to Green Bay now. The Vikings still possess a dominant, top-ten defense, though, as well as an explosive running game led by Adrian Peterson. While the signing of Sam Bradford at QB may not have thrilled fans, it could work. Bradford inherits a team that features a quarterbacks two best friends (the aforementioned running game and defense). Bradford doesn’t have to be brilliant for the Vikings playoff hopes to be alive and well.

The Legitimate Contenders

AFC: The Patriots are still the team to beat in the AFC. Brady, Belichick, Gronkowski, and company should dominate their weak AFC East schedule again, and are probably the AFC Super Bowl favorites.

Pittsburgh: If the Steelers-especially Roethlisberger-stay healthy they could challenge the Patriots for AFC supremacy. Always stout on defense Pittsburgh now has the explosive offense to put them over the top. Mike Tomlin’s penchant for going for two rather than kicking the now 33 yard extra point should also pay off over the season.

NFC: The NFC field is fairly crowded with four teams that could make it to Houston’s RNG Stadium in February.

Carolina: The Panthers went 15-1 last year and made the Super Bowl, yet they still don’t get the press or respect that most dominant teams do. Carolina should be just as good this season, perhaps even better with the return of big-play receiver Kelvin Benjamin.

Arizona: The Cardinals have a deep, shut-down defense and an explosive offense. This team has a lot of potential, but it will only go as far as Carson Palmer takes them. Arizona made the NFC Championship game last year before Palmer imploded. A more consistent year from their quarterback and Arizona could easily be in the big game.

Green Bay: It seems as though Green Bay has gotten preseason Super Bowl hype for about the past five years now, before being beset by injuries and forgetting to play defense. Rodgers and company should put up over thirty points a game yet again, but coming up with enough stops on defense could be an issue once more.

Seattle: The Seahawks have had the NFL’s top-ranked defense for four straight seasons now-a rare feat. How long the Legion of Boom can stay on top remains to be seen, but with the emergence of the Hawks’ offense into a top-ten unit last season, they don’t need to be as dominant as they have been. Seattle can now beat opponents in multiple ways-by shutting them down defensively, or overwhelming them offensively-which could equal another Super Bowl for Seattle.

There it is, a brief 2016 NFL preview for the casual fan. I will hold off on making some bold Super Bowl prediction due to the possibility of shredded knees, locker room discord, contract disputes, drug suspensions, and domestic violence charges. However, look for one of these six teams-New England, Pittsburgh, Carolina, Arizona, Green Bay, or Seattle- to hoist the Lombardi trophy come February.

The Rematch

By Michael LeCompte

Curry/LeBron II tips off on Thursday night and for the second straight year the NBA Finals are set to showcase the two best players in the league.

Last year the storylines going into the Finals were Curry, LeBron, and the Championship fates of two long-suffering franchises. The sharp-shooting “Splash Bros” of Curry and Klay Thompson prevailed and Golden State captured its first title in 40 years.

This year Curry and LeBron are again the headliners, but unlike last season Cleveland is now healthy enough to compete against the Warriors. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are healthy and ready to support LeBron and Cleveland is poised to win its first major sports Championship since the Johnson administration (the Browns won the NFL Championship in 1964).

Why Cleveland will win:

LeBron is the best all-around player the NBA has seen since Michael Jordan. He can score, defend, and he is big and physical. The only thing he hasn’t done extremely well is win in the Finals. “King James” is making his 6th consecutive trip to the Finals, yet he only has rings on two fingers.

This year could be different, though. LeBron came home two years ago to win a Championship in and for Cleveland and he has shown something beyond the impressive numbers this season-hunger. The one knock on LeBron throughout his career has been his mental toughness. When the games got hard, especially in the Finals, when his shooting touch ran cold, he often shrugged or threw his hands in the air, or started complaining to the refs.

Not so this year. Perhaps incensed by falling short to the Warriors last season and then having to watch them march through the regular season, winning a record 73 games, he has played with a hungry urgency, almost refusing to let his team down. This newfound hunger after twelve years in the league should serve the Cavaliers well in the Finals during those inevitable moments when Golden State seemingly can’t miss from beyond the arc.

Why Golden State will win:

Of course, the Finals still must be played and the Warriors won’t roll over for a suddenly hungry LeBron. After their record-setting regular season the playoffs have been anything but a cakewalk for Golden State. Perhaps that is what this historically good team needed, though, and why they just might repeat as champs.

The regular season looked ridiculously easy for Curry and company and until they were finally tested in the playoffs-falling behind 3-1 to the Thunder-it was unsure if this team had the resiliency to repeat.

The criticism of the Warriors is that they don’t play a good brand of basketball, that they are nothing more than a bunch of sharpshooters, willing and able to pick opponents apart from long-range without getting physical inside. Perhaps after winning it all last season they weren’t really hungry until the Oklahoma City series, but when they fell behind big in the Conference Finals, when every game became an elimination game for them, they dug deep and found a way to pull it out. That resiliency proved that as a team Golden State does indeed have the collective heart of a champion.

Toss Up:

Curry is healthy and the Warriors seem to have righted themselves in time for the Finals. The “Splash Bros” continue to launch from long-range and Golden State still has one of the deepest benches in the league.

LeBron has a healthy complement of sidekicks this time around and is shooting 55% from the field in the playoffs. As a team the Cavaliers have only lost twice in the playoffs and-perhaps taking a page from the Warrior’s playbook-have been relying on the three-pointer along the way.

The Pick:

Curry vs. LeBron II, the Rematch, is the perfect Championship matchup. It’s the showdown sports fans love, the two best players in the game-at the top of their games, in their primes-for the title.

This time, though, LeBron should have enough help to get it done and end Cleveland’s 52 year title drought.

The Pick: Cleveland in 7 games.

The Best That Could Have Been

By Michael LeCompte

Playing hurt used to be a part of the game of baseball and Dodgers outfielder Pete Reiser was one of the best at taking the field injured-even if he’d have to be carried off it.

Harold Patrick (Pete) Reiser (1919-1981) excelled at baseball, basketball, football, and bowling as a child. Although he dreamed of playing football for Notre Dame he signed with the Dodgers in 1938 at the age of 19 for $100.

A natural athlete, Reiser’s 5’10” 185 pound frame was built for speed and power and by 1939 he was playing for the Dodgers Class A affiliate in Elmira, New York.

Reiser was first bitten with the injury bug that would dog him for the rest of his career while batting .373 with Elmira. He felt a sharp pain in his arm while making a throw from centerfield. He stayed in the game-and then played for the next two weeks, ignoring the pain until it became unbearable. After finally going to a Doctor it was revealed that he’d fractured a bone in his right arm.

1941 was Reiser’s first full season in the majors and his best. He managed to stay healthy and won the National League batting title as the Dodgers captured the pennant.

Reiser

After the season Reiser tried to join the Navy, but was classified 4-F.

Reiser started the 1943 season at a .356 clip until he ran head first into the cement wall in center at Ebbets field chasing down what would eventually be an inside-the-park home run. Although he failed to make the catch Reiser did manage to locate the ball and fire it to the infield before losing consciousness. When his teammates got to him blood was pouring out of a crack in Reiser’s skull. He would will himself back into the lineup a few days later, but would really never be the same player again.

Following the 1943 season Reiser successfully enlisted in the Army and played baseball at several military bases. When he dislocated his shoulder during one game he simply started throwing left-handed and stayed in the game, day after day.

Reiser re-joined the Dodgers following World War II, but played in constant pain as his shoulder popped in and out of place. His 1946 season was ultimately cut short when he fractured his fibula.

In 1947, following another head first collision with an outfield wall, Reiser was administered the Last Rites and lay unconscious in the hospital for four days.

Reiser continued to play-mostly as a bench player-for parts of five more seasons. Over twelve, usually injury-shortened seasons he hit .295 with 786 hits and 368 RBI.

Although the numbers aren’t impressive by today’s standards they do show the promise, and ultimately, the sadness of a career that could have been. Reiser was a gifted natural athlete with speed and power who many baseball pundits believe would have been a comparable talent to Willie Mays if not for the injuries. As his one time manager Leo Durocher said of Reiser, “he had everything but luck.”

After retiring as a player Reiser enjoyed a minor league managing career with the Dodgers, Cubs, and Angels.

Reiser played hard, fast, and usually, hurt. In an age before million dollar contracts and cutting-edge sports medicine when only death would put a player on the DL.

As fans we love it when our superstars gut out a win. However, for every Kirk Gibson hobbling around the bases or Schilling and his bloody sock, there’s an unsung hero of the game, someone like Pete Reiser, playing with reckless abandon for the love of the game.

 

 

The Sad End of the Rainbow Man

By Michael LeCompte

We’ve all seen him on sports highlights, he’s the guy in the rainbow colored  clown wig holding a sign with a spiritual message at seemingly every major sporting event. Known as “The Rainbow Man” because of his wig, Rollen Stewart’s strange career as that guy with the sign, began at the 1977 NBA Finals.

Born in 1944 Stewart lived a fairly normal, sports-loving life, until the mid nineteen seventies when he was born again. Then he felt it was important to “get his message out” and decided that nationally televised sporting events were the perfect avenue to do so.

Of course Stewart was hardly the first person to make the comparison between major professional sports in America and religion, but he took his ministry to the extreme, as he personally moved closer to the abyss.

From the late seventies through the early nineties Stewart travelled the country attending nationally televised sporting events. Strategically buying tickets behind home plate in baseball, courtside at the NBA, or between the goalposts at football games, Stewart ensured that TV cameras would find him. His plan worked. He was quickly dubbed “Rockin Rollen” and the “Rainbow Man” by TV announcers and cameramen were instructed to quickly cut away after catching him in a shot.

As he crisscrossed the country Stewart held a variety of signs with religious messages on them, but his two most commonly used were “Jesus Saves” and “John 3:16” (For God so loved the world that he gave his only son,  so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.)

Stewart married and divorced four times as his actions became more extreme and ultimately, unstable. By the time he set off a series of remote-controlled stink bombs at the Masters golf tournament in 1991 the end of his antics was near.

In 1992 Stewart picked up two transient day-laborers with the promise of work and took them to a hotel outside the Los Angeles airport. On the seventh floor he pulled out a gun and tried to get the men into his room. The men fled to safety, but Stewart held a maid hostage in the bathroom while he hung John 3:16 signs from the windows so they could be seen from the airport. Eventually Stewart started shooting at planes and was arrested. The maid was unharmed.

In court Stewart claimed that the rapture was to occur in six days. When he took the stand he explained that “all I was trying to do was make a statement about the end of the world.”

His last statement earned Stewart three life terms (to be served concurrently) for hostage taking and terrorism. His colorful wigs would be exchanged for a prison jumpsuit.

Always a colorful character Stewart was a fixture on the national sports scene for well over a decade and his camera-craving antics have spawned a generation of brightly dressed, sign-wielding fans. The “Rainbow Man” has recently been the subject of a documentary film and in perhaps the surest sign that he achieved pop culture icon status Christopher Walken has portrayed him on Saturday Night Live.

Rollen Stewart is eligible for parole in 2017. Perhaps we have not seen the end of the original super fan. As sports fans we love a good comeback. Maybe one day we will see the return of the “Rainbow Man.”

Mr. Irrelevant

By Michael LeCompte

The first three rounds of the NFL draft have become a spectacle, with the commissioner making the first couple picks amongst much fanfare. Rounds four through seven, though, are an afterthought-to the extent that the last overall pick has become known as Mr. Irrelevant.

While the commissioner calls out the names of a few instant-millionaires in the early rounds it is an elderly, distinguished looking gentleman by the name of Paul Salata who announces the selection of Mr. Irrelevant every year.

Salata, now 89, played at USC as a receiver and enjoyed a short professional career with the Colts and 49ers. He also starred in the 1951 film Angels in the Outfield and in 1955’s Stalag 17.

irrelevant

Following the 1976 draft Salata created Irrelevant Week, which gives the last pick of the draft and his family a weeklong stay in Newport Beach. The week includes a regatta, golf tournament, and roast of the player selected last. The event is also used as a way to raise money for charity and since its inception Irrelevant Week has raised over $1 million dollars.

A parody of the Heisman Trophy-the Lowsman-is also presented during Irrelevant Week. The trophy depicts a football player fumbling, seemingly fitting for the last pick in the draft.

SP/IRRELEVANT

While Irrelevant week is done in jest and for a good cause Salata explains that there should be no stigma attached to being the last pick of the draft. On the official Irrelevant Week website he explains that, “…it’s not a negative to be picked last in the NFL draft; rather, it’s an honor to be drafted at all. The last draft pick’s demonstration of perseverance is a lesson that resonates not only with NFL players and fans, but also with people everywhere.”

There certainly didn’t seem to be any negativity surrounding Kalan Reed, the 253rd and final pick, the Mr. Irrelevant of 2016 as he held up his Tennessee Titans jersey on Saturday night. He may be the butt of jokes for a while, he may not go on to NFL greatness, but the 5’11” 195lb cornerback out of Southern Mississippi just reached the pinnacle of the game he loves, and he grabbed a vacation in Newport Beach along the way.

 

73-9 vs. 72-10

By Michael LeCompte

This season the Golden State Warriors broke what many fans assumed was an unbreakable record by going 73-9 in the regular season. All season long the eyes of the basketball world were on Steph Curry and company as they chased history. Golden State may have set a new mark for wins, but their dogged pursuit of the record raises many questions about its meaning.

Did Golden State really need the record? and is 73-9 really any more impressive than 72-10?

Before the season Golden State coach Steve Kerr told his team they could win sixty plus games. Players reportedly replied that they could go for the record and a season under pressure-from themselves, fans, and the media-ensued.

Golden State eventually set the record, but at what cost? Curry is now out for at least two weeks with a sprained knee. Perhaps winning 60-65 games and periodically resting superstars down the stretch would have been a more prudent way to sustain a title-defense.

The old mark of 72-10 set by Jordan’s 1995-96 Bulls long-seemed an unbreakable record. It was the basketball equivalent of DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak. It was a feat that required a superstar at the top of their game, day after day, over the course of a long season.

The Bulls capped their 72-10 season by overwhelming Seattle in the Finals for their fourth title in six years (on their way to two more). Chicago already had three titles and was able to stay motivated and hungry enough to be historically good.

Golden State may have beat Chicago’s record, but only by one game. 73 wins to 72 is similar to a tip-in at the buzzer, one team prevails at the end, but not necessarily because they are better.

At this point Chicago’s 72 win season is still more impressive than Golden State’s 73 victories because the Bulls achieved the record in the middle of their dynasty. Golden State may be the defending champions, but they are far from dynastic (especially with Curry’s weak ankles). If they fail to repeat, their 73 wins get overshadowed by the fact that they were a good team with a great year, and perhaps just one title to show for it.

Maybe the Warriors will repeat and go down as one of the greatest basketball teams ever. Maybe not. Bandwagon Warrior fans may want to tap the brakes, though-at least until #30 is back on the court. Even then Golden State will likely have to get through either Oklahoma City or San Antonio in the West and probably Cleveland in the East for 73 wins to mean more than 72 wins with rings.

6 Tips For Staying Young

By Michael LeCompte

Health tips abound these days, the internet is littered with strategies for staying young. These lists are nothing new, though, as athletes and ordinary folks have long been interested in looking, feeling, and doing their best and with living as long as possible. As it turns out one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history compiled his own list of healthy habits decades ago.

Leroy Robert Paige (1906-1982) grew up poor in Mobile, Alabama. He made money by carting traveler’s luggage at the bus depot for ten cents a suitcase, earning the nickname “Satchel” because of what he carried for others.

Caught shoplifting, Paige was sent to The Industrial School for Negro Children in Mount Meigs, Alabama and it was here that he was introduced to the game of baseball and learned to pitch.

Paige had a storied pitching career throughout the Negro League, across Latin America, and finally, in the Majors. His pitching exploits were legendary (such as when he instructed his fielder’s to sit down at their positions then proceeded to retire the side on nine pitches). Sometime along the way of earning 131 professional victories Paige also compiled a personal list of 6 tips for staying young.

Satchel Paige’s 6 Tips For Staying Young

  1. Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood
  2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
  3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.
  4. Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble aint restful
  5. Avoid running at all times.
  6. Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.
These simple tips may sound like corny, homespun wisdom, but they seemed to keep Paige young and in the game. In 1948 he finally made it to the Majors, becoming the oldest rookie in history when he signed a $40,000 contract with the Cleveland Indians.
Paige continued to pitch in semi-professional leagues until he was 60, finally retiring after the 1966 season.