2014 NFL Predictions

Predictions by Alex Flum 

This offseason has not exactly been the most positive hiatus for the NFL. Whether it’s Josh Gordon’s off the field escapades, Jim Irsay getting arrested for a DUI and handing out hundred dollar bills to fans at training camp or Ray Rice’s domestic disputes, it seems as though the negatives have overshadowed the positives. Despite these off the field distractions, with the beginning of the preseason drawing near, 32 different NFL camps are currently buzzing across the Nation with excitement and hope for the upcoming year. Here are my predictions for the 2014-15 NFL season.

Super Bowl Prediction: Broncos over Packers

AFC Championship: Broncos over Patriots

NFC Championship: Packers over Seahawks

MVP: Tom Brady

Offensive Player of the Year: Tom Brady

Defensive Player of the Year: Jared Allen

Offensive Rookie of the year: Brandin Cooks

Defensive Rookie of the year: Khalil Mack

Coach of the Year: Bill Belichick

Comeback Player of the Year: Robert Griffin III

 

*Underline connotes playoff team.

*(Number) in parenthesis is the team’s seeding in the playoffs.

AFC East

1. New England Patriots (1)

Nine NFL seasons have passed since Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots last hoisted the Vince Lombardi trophy. If they are going to avoid going a decade without a super bowl victory, they will need to take it up a notch this season. It should help that they made possibly biggest acquisition of the offseason in Darrelle Revis. Factor in that Tom Brady has a year under his belt with his young group of receivers and that Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola return this year at full strength and there’s no reason to believe the Patriots will be anything short of spectacular this season.

Record: 15-1

2. New York Jets (6)

The Jets may be the most cocky team in sports and I love it. Especially since their confidence can be backed up with talent. The Jets boast scary defense headlined by fourth year linebacker Muhammad Wilkerson and rookie safety Calvin Pryor who I think will turn heads this season. On the offensive side of the ball the Jets added the 2,000 yard man Chris Johnson who is hoping to return to the prime years of his career. Under center, Michael Vick will mentor Geno Smith and fill in if Smith injured. Do not count out the Jets.

Record: 9-7

3. Miami Dolphins

Last season was a disaster for this team. Not only did they endure the Richie Incognito bullying scandal, but they lost to the Bills, twice. A lot of this season rests on Ryan Tannehill’s shoulders and without a solid offensive line to protect him, there is not much hope. Starting center Mike Pouncey, the one bright spot of the offensive line, is expected to miss the first half of this season. This will harken the running game also as the Dolphins signed Knowshon Moreno this offseason who will have trouble when he realizes Tannehill isn’t Peyton Manning. On the other side of the ball, the Dolphins bring forth a 4-3 defense that has struggled vastly. Look for the Dolphins to be in full rebuilding mode following this season.

Record: 3-13

4. Buffalo Bills

An offense that features E.J. Manuel, C.J. Spiller, rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins and rising wideout Robert Woods should be interesting, but wholes in the defense will hurt this team. The departure of safety Jarius Byrd to New Orleans and the season ending injury to linebacker Kiko Alonso will keep this team out of contending for the entire season. The Bills should be picking fairly early on draft night.

Record: 2-14

AFC North

1. Baltimore Ravens (4)

The Ravens missed the playoffs for the first time under John Harbaugh’s direction last season. It was also the first season in the post Ray Lewis era. If the Ravens defense can return to elite ranks, they should be able to barge their way into the playoffs. The Ravens boast a ferocious front seven, anchored by Haloti Ngata on the defensive line and Terrell Suggs and Courtney Upshaw/Elvis Dumervil on the outside. Matt Elam, the hard hitting second year man at safety could be the second coming of Ed Reed. Bernard Pierce should be able to carry the load during Ray Rice’s two game suspension. I fully expect Joe Flacco along with his new weapon Steve Smith to return to the playoffs after a one year absence.

Record: 11-5

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (5)

Last season, the Steelers were a Ryan Succop 41 yard field goal away from making the playoffs. This was extremely remarkable due to the fact that the Steelers had started the season 2-6 and finished the year off on a 6-2 stride to put themselves right in the thick of playoff contention week 17. Ben Roethlisberger may not be what he used to, but the Steelers have surrounded him with the talent necessary. On the offensive side of the ball, the Steelers return Antonio Brown who is in the prime of his career, along with Le’Veon Bell who is primed for a breakout season. Adding LeGarrette Blount and Lance Moore through free agency will provide the Steelers with a one-two punch at running back and a deep threat in the passing game. They revamped their defense with youth parting ways with LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote and Ryan Clark; bringing in Mike Mitchell, drafting Ryan Shazier and trusting Jarvis Jones and Cameron Heyward to lead the way. This year’s Steelers will look more like the Steelers of the latter part of the 2013 season.

Record: 10-6

3. Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals had a very rough offseason in terms of their coaching staff. They lost both of their standout coordinators, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden left for Washington, while defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer took a job with Minnesota. Having won the division last season, the Bengals will face a tough schedule including matchups against the Broncos and Patriots. It will be interesting to see what Andy Dalton can do in his contract year, but I expect the Bengals to take a step back this year. This will be their last season with Marvin Lewis at the helm.

Record: 6-10

4. Cleveland Browns

The Browns may be one of the most compelling teams in the NFL. On offense they added Ben Tate, Miles Austin and  Andre Hawkins and return Alex Mack and Joe Thomas; on defense they bolstered their secondary adding Donte Whitner through free agency and drafting Justin Gilbert and Pierre Desir. I do like Brian Hoyer and think that he deserves to start over Manziel, however I do not believe he is the long term answer. Manziel should start by the tenth game as the Browns look towards the future.

Record: 5-11

AFC South

1. Indianapolis Colts (3)

Everything is in place for the Colts to have a great season. Andrew Luck appears ready to break out. The Colts’ great receiving corps should help. Reggie Wayne returns healthy, while T.Y. Hilton will be back and Hakeem Nicks could turn out to be a great addition. If Trent Richardson reaches his potential, the Colts may even be the team to beat in the AFC.

Record: 12-4

2. Houston Texans

After going 12-4 and making it to the divisional round of the playoffs in 2012, the Texans followed up their best season in franchise history with their worst going 2-14. This offseason, the Texans whisked offensive mastermind Bill O’Brien away from Penn State. It will be up to him to catapult a team with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center into the playoffs. Defensively, the Texans have no worries. Their front seven may be the scariest thing in sports. Jadeveon Clowney, J.J. Watt Brian Cushing, Brooks Reed, Jared Crick, Louis Nix… It’s already giving me nightmares. The Texans should be in the thick of the playoff race right down to the wire.

Record: 8-8

3. Jacksonville Jaguars

Once the laughing stock of the NFL, the Jaguars appear to have put together an interesting team that may be able to compete for a playoff spot. Gus Bradley’s motivational and defensive mindset elevates the Jaguars chances. I like the additions of Toby Gerhart, Zane Beadles, Red Bryant, Chris Clemons and Ziggy Hood. The Jags also had a very strong draft class. If Blake Bortles steps in, wins the starting job and plays well, this team could make the playoffs in the near future, if not this year.

Record: 7-9

4. Tennessee Titans

This team is a mess. Barring an elite breakout from Jake Locker, I don’t expect this team to accomplish anything this season. I’m predicting them to start the season 0-7. Not only do they completely lack offensive firepower, but their talent absent defense is making a switch to the 3-4 which should make things even more complicated.

Record: 4-12

AFC West

1. Denver Broncos (2)

The Broncos had a historic season last year that was trumped in the super bowl by the high flying Seahawks. The additions made this offseason should perfect this team. They provided Peyton Manning with another young weapon in Emmanuel Sanders. They improved their defense via free agency adding elite talent in DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward. I also expect top pick Bradley Roby to contribute. Montee Ball’s potential to break out appears to be the cherry on top for this team. It’s super bowl or bust for the Broncos.

Record: 13-3

2. Kansas City Chiefs

For an AFC West team not the named the Broncos, this season doesn’t look to promising. They have to face Denver twice and each of the teams in football’s toughest division, the NFC West. The Chiefs were good last year but their success overshadowed the truth. The Chiefs played one of the easiest schedules in NFL history. After not adding much to their team this offseason look for the Chiefs to take a big step back.

Record: 7-9

3. San Diego Chargers

Father of the year Philip Rivers led the Chargers on a joyride of a season and into the second round of the playoffs. Don’t be so surprised if the Chargers struggle to put forth the same success as last year. The Chargers did nothing to improve their horrendous pass defense and like the Chiefs, face a tougher schedule.

Record: 6-10

4. Oakland Raiders

It was reported recently that owner Mark Davis was in discussions with San Antonio officials to move the franchise. This defines a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs or posted a winning record since 2002. This year won’t be the year where the Raiders return to relevance. Khalil Mack will be the lone bright spot on this team. They did make some moves in free agency and the draft though and a solid offseason next year could make things interesting.

Record: 4-12

NFC East

1. Washington Redskins (4)

The outlook for this year is very simple for the Redskins. If Robert Griffin III can return to his rookie form through trust in his new coach Jay Gruden and a strong supporting cast, the Redskins can return to the playoffs. A major area of concern could be the Redskins secondary, which is comprised of veteran question marks (DeAngelo Hall, Brandon Meriweather, Ryan Clark) and unproven youngsters (David Amerson, Phillip Thomas, Baccari Rambo). Playing in a weak NFC East should help them.

Record: 8-8

2. New York Giants

Eyes are all on Eli Manning as he is hoping to rebound from one of the worst, if not the worst, season of his career. I like the Giants addition of Trindon Holliday but that won’t make much of a difference for them. Playing in the worst division in football will give them a chance of making the playoffs. One interesting storyline to follow will be the running back battle between David Wilson and Peyton Hillis.

Record: 8-8

3. Philadelphia Eagles

Chip Kelly, his offense and Nick Foles broke out onto the scene into 2013. Entering this year, the Eagles have lost their start deep threat DeSean Jackson to the division rival Redskins and the element of surprise. I expect the Eagles to have trouble replicating last year’s success despite playing in a tough division. The Eagles only hope is LeSean McCoy producing a MVP caliber season.

Record: 5-11

4. Dallas Cowboys

Tony Romo has never been the most reliable of quarterbacks. He’s struggled over the years during crunch time and has become the face of inconsistency in the NFL. Take that information and consider that Romo is now 34 years old and he is coming off back surgery. Doesn’t sound too promising for the Cowboys who had the opportunity to draft Johnny Manziel. To make matters worse, they lost longtime Cowboys Miles Austin and DeMarcus Ware during the offseason. There could be a lot of changes in “Jerry World” come this time next year.

Record: 5-11

NFC North

1. Green Bay Packers (2)

If any team can beat out the all mighty Seahawks in the NFC this year, it’s the Packers. Aaron Rodgers returns this season healthy, while Eddie Lacy, their artillery of wide receivers and a solid offensive line will boost their success even more. The Packers also added Julius Peppers, who will bring an interesting dynamic to their defense. The Packers are a legitimate super bowl contender.

Record: 12-4

2. Chicago Bears (6)

The Bears managed an 8-8 record with Marc Trestman at the helm last year. Expect the Bears to take a big leap forward into the playoffs in Trestman’s second year. They return a strong offense headlined by Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. On the other side of the ball, the Bears made some key additions, most significantly longtime divisional rival Jared Allen. Allen will fill the gap after the departure of Julius Peppers to the Packers.

Record: 11-5

3. Minnesota Vikings

It appears that the Teddy Bridgewater days may be nearing in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. If Bridgewater turns out to the be the real and Adrian Peterson stays at top form, there could be some magic in Minnesota. Otherwise, it may not be their time to burst onto the scene yet. I really like wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and think he has a legitimate shot at joining the elite ranks of wide receivers this year. Defensively, I liked their draft pick of Anthony Barr from UCLA and the free agency addition of Corey Wootton.

Record: 6-10

4. Detroit Lions

The Lions were undisciplined and underachieving under head coach Jim Schwartz. Jim Caldwell takes over the reigns this season. I don’t think he will be able to control this group of troublemakers. The Lions offensive talent of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson will make a difference, but a weak defense and a lack of discipline doesn’t help their case.

Record: 3-13

NFC South

1. New Orleans Saints (3)

Recently, Drew Brees said that he would like to play another ten years of football. Sure, maybe he could do it, but what’s important now it Drew Brees is still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He may have lost weapons Lance Moore and Darren Sproles during the offseason, but he still has star tight end Jimmy Graham and traded up to draft rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks. They also acquired Jairus Byrd from the Bills to improve a weak pass defense. The Saints are a very big threat to make it to the super bowl.

Record: 12-4

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

While the AFC wild card race appears to be wide open, the NFC one is going to be a tough competition. The Buccaneers are one of the teams that I would throw into the ring for the last two spots in the playoffs. I think that the hire of Lovie Smith will avenge Tampa Bay for the disaster that Greg Schiano was. Smith should transform the defense into an elite unit and return the Buccaneers to relevance. Remember, Smith went to the super bowl with Rex Grossman at quarterback. I have a lot of faith in him.

Record: 8-8

3. Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons caught the injury bug last season, whether it was Roddy White, Julio Jones or Steven Jackson, the Falcons were helpless. It was a season with so much potential and Matt Ryan had a chance to break out on to the scene. The Falcons drafted offensive tackle Jake Matthews who is NFL ready and will be a big help protecting Ryan. The Falcons have a chance to compete for a playoff spot but it won’t be easy.

Record: 7-9

4. Carolina Panthers

The Panthers front office endured a tumultuous offseason this year. They lost half their offensive line, several key players in the secondary and almost all their wide receivers. To make matters worse, Cam Newton is coming off ankle surgery and the Panthers seem to never change their backfield of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. The front seven is all this team has going for them. It is a strong unit led by Luke Kuechly who is quickly becoming one of the best linebackers in the NFL. This year in the NFC South, it appears the Panthers are prepared to go from first to worst.

Record: 5-11

NFC West

1. Seattle Seahawks (1)

We all know how hard it is for an NFL team to win back-to-back super bowls. It’s been almost a decade since the Patriots did it. If the Seahawks are going to repeat they will need to reproduce the domination and success that they had last season. The offensive line is a worry, and losing Golden Tate should be a problem, but I expect the Seahawks to at least make it back to the conference championship.

Record: 14-2

2. San Francisco 49ers (5)

The 49ers dominated the NFL draft with 12 picks. They drafted Belichick style which is never a bad thing. This is a team with a lot of talent and a lot of depth. They lost cornerbacks Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner during the offseason and that should set them back. In today’s NFL, a strong secondary is one of the most important units after a signal-caller. This is what I think will keep the 49ers out of contending for a super bowl. Another thing to keep an eye-on: the running back situation. Frank Gore has a lot of mileage on his career, Kendall Hunter is out for the season, LaMichael James is out for a month, rookie Carlos Hyde looks to earn some carries, while Marcus Lattimore is lurking. If one of these guys can breakout or Gore can return to his all-star , the 49ers could be right back in the super bowl conversation.

Record: 12-4

3. Arizona Cardinals

I feel bad for the Cardinals. Very bad actually. The Cardinals are loaded with talent and led by a great coach in Bruce Arians. If they were placed in any other division in the NFL, not only would they be a lock to make the playoffs, they would have a great chance of winning the division. Unfortunately for them, they are stuck behind the Seahawks and 49ers. Running back Andre Ellington has real potential to break out, while this could be Carson Palmer’s and Larry Fitzgerald’s last real shots at making a run at the playoffs. The Cardinals will be right in the thick of the playoff race but may fall short when it’s all said and done.

Record: 9-7

4. St. Louis Rams

The Rams have some real talent too. They have the best defensive line in the NFL of Chris Long, Michael Brockers, Robert Quinn and now rookie Aaron Donald. Zac Stacy will start at running back again after a stellar rookie season. Their offensive line is strong and their receiving corps is formidable. The one question mark is their quarterback. Sam Bradford, the first overall pick of the 2010 NFL draft hasn’t quite burst on to the scene yet. If Bradford stays healthy and breaks out, the Rams could catapult themselves into the playoffs. It will be tough for the Rams playing in the NFC West, but nothing is out of reach and if the Rams do finish last place, they will go down as the best last place team in NFL history.

Record: 8-8

 

 

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The Winner of the World Series Is…

Last week I was caught unprepared. At a friend’s house, talking baseball, I was asked who I thought would win the World Series.

Since the Athletics traded for Starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel I haven’t considered who I thought would win the World Series. Accuse me of being too caught up in hemming and hawing about whether or not the Red Sox should fire-sale (you’re right) but I haven’t given October baseball its proper consideration.

So I’ve spent the last week considering who has the best odds, and why.

Honorable Mentions: San Francisco Giants (18-1), Los Angeles Angels (12-1), Seattle Mariners (30-1)

Reasons for eliminating honorable mentions:

San Francisco Giants are one team in Major League Baseball with less run support than the Boston Red Sox. Congrats, Jake Peavy! The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim California America don’t have an ace to come in and shut down a must-win game. Jered Weaver isn’t that guy any longer, and Garrett Richards is too unproven. The Seattle Mariners don’t have enough offense. As a team, in the history of baseball, only five teams have had a team OBP below .300 – as of now the M’s are reaching base at a .299 clip.

(Vegas Insider Odds, as of this morning)

5. St. Louis Cardinals (15-1)

  • I’m slightly miffed as to why the St. Louis Cardinals would sign A.J. Pierzynski when there was just a well-documented case as to why he’s so terrible at dealing with pitchers and still can’t hit. Granted their entire team suffers so long is Yadier Molina is out, and Tony Cruz was hitting just .220, but risking throwing off the clubhouse with the addition of Pierzynski, as he’s done so many times, can incite unnecessary fights. They have a bonafide ace in Adam Wainwright and a solid rotation with Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller, and Lance Lynn. Unfortunately, they lost Michael Wacha to Tommy John, but they are still a good enough team to win the title. An infield of First Baseman Matt Adams, Second Baseman Kolten Wong, Shortstop Jhonny Peralta, and Third Baseman Matt Carpenter will hit for contact, but not much power (excluding Adams). Their Outfield is their key source of production, even though Allen Craig has had a disastrous campaign thus far. They are well managed and are fresh-off a trip to the World Series, so this team won’t be fazed.

4. Detroit Tigers (11-2)

  • How smart do the Tigers look right now? Answer: really smart. When they traded Prince Fielder this off-season, I was appalled. Ian Kinsler, he of the .229 July batting average, is still producing more than Fielder, who went on season-ending DL last month. Kinsler’s defense improves the Tigers from a season ago, as well as enabling Miguel Cabrera’s move to First. That also made room for Nick Castellanos, who has performed very well in his rookie season. With an incredibly productive Outfield (Torii Hunter, Austin Jackson, and the surprise J.D. Martinez), the Tigers are scoring runs at an impressive clip. They are currently 5th in the Bigs with 476 runs. They even have Rajai Davis who can play good defense and who’s a menace on the base-paths (18 steals in 20 attempts). The only complaint is that Jose Iglesias still isn’t manning the Shortstop position But from scoring runs to preventing them. Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez are the top two guys in this rotation who can make a difference in a postseason series, but weirdly enough it’s Justin Verlander, with his current 7-year $180 million deal, who’s the liability. Rick Porcello has been fine, but the back-end of the rotation is of some concern when looking at the postseason. And that’s to say nothing of their bullpen. They just went out and got closer Joakim Soria from the Rangers, which is a great move (17-19 save attempts, 2.67 ERA) because otherwise their bullpen has been atrocious. Even worse is the back end of the former closer, Joe Nathan. Dude was good in his day, but five blown saves to go with a 5.73 ERA doesn’t make happy a team with championship aspirations.

3. Washington Nationals (10-1)

  • There’s so much to be excited about here. The pitching staff, which must be strong to win a championship, is excellent. Stephen Strasburg is a legitimate Ace to which you can hook your wagon, but even if he doesn’t bring it in the series Doug Fister has been lethal since he started the season one month late due to an injury. And even then Jordan Zimmermann has pitched brilliantly and Gio Gonzalez is a change-of-pace, southpaw complement. They even have one of the best closers in the business in Rafael Soriano, who’s 25 for 28 in save attempts and a sparkling 1.10 ERA this season. OK, you’re probably saying, so what’s the deal? Why aren’t they higher? Yes, they have allowed the 2nd-fewest runs in the Major Leagues (353) and have the best run differential in the National League (plus-75), but their offense can be impotent. They’ve scored one fewer run on the season than Miami. Adam LaRoche, a fine player, is hitting .273 with a meager 13 homers as their main clean-up hitter.  Jayson Werth, their normal 3-hole batter, is nearly identical. Anthony Rendon and Ian Desmond are having great seasons, but their offense can be stymied by better rotations, which could mean trouble.

2. Oakland Athletics (11-2)

  • I want so badly to rank the A’s lower, simply because the Moneyball pioneers have never actually assembled a team to win them the title when they mathematically should have. However, this season their team leads the league in runs scored (524) and is second in runs allowed (354) by a lone run. That is domination at every facet of the game. Their run differential of plus-170 is nearly double the next best team (the Angels, plus-91). They defy statistical trends and play better on the road (34-17) than at home (31-22). It’s wizardry by Billy Beane. Now, they have defied Oakland’s past by going out and sacrificing their top-tier prospects for accomplished, skilled veterans and have assumed a win NOW approach. Caps was needed for urgency. Getting Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Chicago Cubs launches the A’s into what should be unrivaled heights. However, because of their previous failures, I refuse to make them the odds-on favorite to win. Their rotation in the postseason could feature the likes of incredible reclamation project Scott Kazmir and ridiculously talented Sonny Gray. This team is built deep and well. Third Baseman Josh Donaldson has significantly cooled off from hitting nearly .270 to a dismal .227 in July with only four homeruns as the month draws to a close. They get speed from an aging Center Fielder Coco Crisp, power and spark from Left Fielder Yoenis Cespedes and solid all-around production from Josh Reddick. Even though he isn’t the Designated Hitter on the depth chart (that’s John Jaso), Brandon Moss has hit more homeruns in the last calendar year than anyone else in baseball. That’s such an unbelievable stat. Stephen Vogt and Dean Norris were scrap-heap finds (ahem! Scott Hatteberg, anyone?) who have contributed greatly to this team. Vogt is hitting .359 in 43 games, while Derek Norris is hitting .296 in 77 games. Oh wait, it’s the A’s. Pardon me. Vogt’s OBP is .387 while Derek Norris is an absurd .396. This team is a lot of things, but it needs magic to get there this team. As Billy Beane is fond of saying in October, “the hottest team at the time wins”. The Oakland A’s hope they’ve built their team enough for it to be them. Or could their magic be the internet troll’s favorite story of AAA player winning a fan vote for the Face of MLB?

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (5-1)

  • Pitching, speed, power, defense, and gobs upon gobs of moola (and no in-fighting like DeMoula’s) are the keys to success. Clayton Kershaw is other-worldly on the mound, Zack Greinke dominates, and Hyun-Jin Ryu would be a number-one, rather than a number-three, on any other team. Josh Beckett has pitched well this year, and Dan Haren has been serviceable. Plus, when they make the postseason, Haren won’t be in the rotation, so the Dodgers need not worry. As for speed, they have many quick players in the field to play defensively (Puig, Ramirez, Kemp to a lesser extent), but they have blazing-fast Dee Gordon who leads the National League with 46 stolen bases. Plus, he’s been nabbed just 10 times. Their Outfield is stuffed with great talents, the foremost being Yasiel Puig. Then they have Matt Kemp, who’s owed $80 million more until 2019, but they can use as trade bait at the deadline. Then there’s Andre Either, a very good defensive Center Fielder who can hit some, and Carl Crawford who, upon fleeing Boston’s bright lights for the laid-back attitude of LA (wait, what?) has improved. They even have Scott Van Slyke, a right-handed hitting power bat off the bench. AJ Ellis, as Kershaw pointed out last night on Sunday Night Baseball, is a phenomenal signal-caller and has the trust of every pitcher on the staff. The bullpen is where the Dodgers only weakness lies. Reclamation projects Chris Perez and Brian Wilson have gone horrendously, with 5.06 and 5.23 ERAs, respectively. Kenley Jansen has remained steady, converting 30 of 35 save attempts. Brandon League (2.01 ERA) and J.P. Howell (1.26 ERA), both having pitched in at least 40 games, have anchored the bullpen. But the combination of being able to deal at the deadline with money as no object, and the talent they already have, should mean the World Series trophy will once again parade through the streets of L.A.

Sam Fortier is going to be a Freshman at Syracuse University this fall and writes for this blog as well as podcasting on iTunes under ‘Purely For Sport’ and ‘NFL Rundown’. He loves bratwurst and baseball, but dislikes romantic comedies. Follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR or this network @PurelyForSport.

The NFL Other Guys of 2014

-Written by Alex Flum- 

If you vastly enjoy the comedic gold of Will Ferrell’s movies like I do, then you have probably seen my favorite movie of all time: The Other Guys. Mark Wahlberg plays a disliked cop whose successful career spiraled downward after he accidentally shot Derek Jeter, while Ferrell plays his partner who feels much safer working at his desk on paperwork than pursuing cases and criminals out in the field. The movie begins with top cops Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson busting some criminals, while Wahlberg and Ferrell, stuck in the office filing paperwork are touted “The Other Guys”.

Now how does this relate to the NFL? In the NFL, you’ve got the teams that perennially bask in the spotlight: the Patriots, the Seahawks, the Saints, etc. Then, you have the other guys; the teams that trudge through a bruising sixteen game schedule just hoping that maybe for once they can defy all critics, push their way into the playoffs and join the elite crew in the league. I give you the NFL other guys of 2014.

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs went a dismal 0-8 in the first half of last season. Through that dry spell, they lost star sophomore running back Doug Martin, had a fall out over their quarterback situation and struggled mightily defensively despite boasting a significant amount of talent. Lovie Smith, the man who went to the super bowl with Rex Grossman as his quarterback is taking over the reigns and should implement his elite defensive scheme. The Bucs also boast several defensive players entering their prime with elite potential in linebacker Lavonte David, defensive lineman Gerald McCoy and safety Mark Barron. I think that this team has the potential to resemble the Bears of 2006, however, playing in a tough division with the Saints, Panthers and Falcons could prove to keep them out of the playoffs when it is all said and done.

Best-case scenario: 11-5, earns fifth seed in NFC

  1. Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals have a secret weapon in their backfield, his name is Andre Ellington. He is on the verge of a major breakout, I would be surprised if he is not a top ten, if not top five running back by the end of the season. A strong rushing attack will pave the way for a revived display through the air. This will enable quarterback Carson Palmer and receiver Larry Fitzgerald to have late career resurgences. A strong front seven and a deep secondary will certainly help the Cardinals as they face the toughest task of any team in the NFL, beat out the Seahawks and 49ers. If the Cardinals can snag two wins in a combined four games against those two teams, I believe that they can make their way into the playoffs. Bruce Arians led this team in a strong performance last year but they may be ready for a breakthrough performance.

Best-case scenario: 11-5, edge out the Niners to make the playoffs out of the NFC West

  1. New York Jets

Upon hearing news reports regarding the Jets and head coach Rex Ryan, the thought always crosses my mind: how is this guy still coaching this team? Then I come to the realization that despite the craziness, the ballsy comments he makes and the pressure of the big stage, Ryan’s squads actually produces success. Well, some success. Aside from a 6-10 effort in 2012, each of Ryan’s teams have been in the playoff hunt down to the last week or two. Two of those teams even made the playoffs. Either Geno Smith or Michael Vick is bound to step in and play well. Don’t count out the Jets…

Best-case scenario: 10-6, squeeze into the AFC playoff picture

  1. Washington Redskins

If you looked up worst-case scenario in the dictionary, you would find the 2013 Washington Redskins. The team rushed back the face of the franchise Robert Griffin III, a hierarchical problem arose, the defense was subpar and special teams was probably the worst in NFL history. The Redskins rid of the Shanahans and replaced them with Jay Gruden. They also added deep threat DeSean Jackson after the division rival Philadelphia Eagles released him. If Gruden’s can gain the respect of his team and RGIII can return to his rookie form, the Redskins could be unstoppable. If not, we may just see a different regime but the same result.

Best-case scenario: RG3 is reborn, Redskins win NFC East

  1. Houston Texans

The Kansas City Chiefs went from being the worst team in the NFL two years ago to a playoff team last year. There is no reason to say that the Texans won’t repeat this process. They have the perfect mold to do so. They return offensive weapons in Andre Johnson and Arian Foster. They boast one of the most feared defenses in the NFL, featuring J.J. Watt, number one overall pick Jadeveon Clowney and company. Ryan Fitzpatrick may not be the best option at signal caller but he is not terrible. As I said in the Jets blurb, the AFC will be weak this season. After the Patriots, Colts, Broncos and whoever comes out of the AFC North, it’s wide open.

Best-case scenario: Colts struggle, Texans edge them out and win the AFC South in bounce back year

Bonus: Jacksonville Jaguars

This is a very compelling team. They were once the laughing stock of the NFL. Could they possibly become the surprise of the upcoming NFL season? Well, after starting the season 0-8, the Jaguars posted a .500 record during the last part of the season. Toby Gerhart has potential to breakout, while the Blake Bortles era may be starting soon. In addition to that, the Jags defense is feisty led by head coach Gus Bradley. It’s not likely, but the Jaguars could turn a lot of heads this year.

Best-case scenario: Jaguars earn last playoff spot in a weak AFC finishing 8-8

And You Get a Podcast, And You Get a Podcast!

Well, here we are. I promised you five weeks ago that I would start a podcast talking sports with some of the best I know and here it is!

Now over at iTunes you can listen to some great pods, including Curt Hogg on the Milwuakee Brewers’ season, Jacob Gedetsis on LeBron’s homecoming, and Tim Scott about the strategy for the Red Sox at the trade deadline.

Thus far into the process (six pods) I’ve learned a lot. It’s annoying to say “Yep!” or “Right” a lot when talking on a podcast, because on the listen back it’s not so pleasant. Research is vital and planning it out ahead of time with the guest keeps you both prepared. I’ve had experiences I wouldn’t have had without this podcast – like calling and talking to my roommate before move-in. Podcasting is a great exercise.

Sam Fortier is a Freshman Orangeman at Syracuse University studying Broadcast Journalism. Likes: Baseball, Carlos Gomez fights, good columns. Dislikes: Flopping and the Spanish Inquisition. 

One Team is Primed to Win The East, Hint: It’s Not The Cavs

-Alex Flum-

Some say he left for the pride, some think it was for the money, others presume he just wanted to go home. Whatever the real reason Lebron James bolted the Miami Heat for the Cleveland Cavaliers may be, it does not matter. Lebron and the rest of the NBA should be well aware that he is not quite king of the jungle in the Eastern Conference as it stands. The one team standing in his way? The Chicago Bulls.

During my three month international journey to Israel, Poland and Prague, I found myself (remarkably) watching my beloved Washington Wizards facing off against the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. Yes, the Wizards, as a number five seed, upset the fourth seeded Bulls in a six game series; but the fact that the Bulls earned a fourth seed, the fact the Bulls still made the playoffs despite another tolling injury to the face of their franchise point guard Derrick Rose was remarkable.

On May 3, 2011 at the mere age of 22, in just his third NBA season, Rose was named the youngest MVP in NBA history. The fact that a player, not even in his prime yet, had been named MVP was astonishing. Rose and the Bulls began the next season with high hopes. Unfortunately, it ended with Rose tearing his ACL in his left knee, causing him to miss the duration of the entire next season. Rose returned this past season, just to go down with a season ending meniscus tear in his right knee in only his tenth game back.

Despite this second season ending injury to Rose, thanks to a stellar effort from defensive player of the year Joakim Noah and a strong supporting cast the Bulls managed to put forth a record of 48-34 and earn home court in the first round.

Not many teams would be capable of persevering through tough times and setbacks like the Bulls did this past season. Reigning NBA champion and coach of the San Antonio Spurs Greg Popovich praised the Bulls and their head coach Tom Thibodeau for their persistence in an interview with the Chicago Tribune back in January.

“First, [Thibodeau] is relentless in trying to get them better in every aspect of the game,” Popovich said. “Second, they have a group that has character — and they care. Third, they play outstanding defense and that keeps you in games on nights you can’t put it in the hole.”

Popovich said it himself, the Bulls resembled the blue print of last season’s championship winning Spurs. They played disciplined and unselfish basketball that helped them succeed in Rose’s absence. Their management’s decisions and acquisitions this offseason have made them resemble the Spurs even more.

One thing the Spurs have built their franchise on is traditional values. They have always brought forth teams consisting of stars, role players and bench players alike; but they have played like a team no matter what. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili may have been the stars for the Spurs last season and for the past decade for that matter, but to an outsider watching the NBA finals, there would be no difference between the legendary big 3 and Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and the rising and finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.

The Bulls made the move of the offseason thus far, bringing in longtime dominant big man Pau Gasol. Gasol, like Duncan in San Antonio, will not only contribute to the team with his own production but will make everyone around him better. The Bulls now boast possibly the best tandem of big men since David Robinson and Tim Duncan dominated the league as the twin towers.

In addition to Gasol, the Bulls return Jimmer Fredette from last season and former longtime Bull Kirk Hinrich coming back for a second stint with the team that drafted him. These two guards will provide depth behind Rose and will be able to step right in to the game in the case that he misses time due to injury.

A lack of offensive firepower last season led to the Bulls eventual downfall. Acquiring Doug McDermott on draft night immediately alleviated this setback. “Dougie McBuckets” will be able to provide production on offense from day one. The Bulls also bring back the likes of Mike Dunleavy Jr. along with Jimmy Butler and Tony Snell, two up and coming youngsters who can put forth playing time as wing players.

And don’t forget Taj Gibson, the runner-up sixth man of the year played an instrumental role in the team’s success last season in Derrick Rose’s absence. They also quietly brought over Nikola Mirotic from Real Madrid in Spain to further bolster their front court, he boasts superb ball handling skills for a big man and the three point shooting capability of Kevin Love.

The Bulls valued their core and their system this offseason, rather than vastly overpaying to acquire one of the top prizes in free agency in Carmelo Anthony. By not signing Anthony, the Bulls were able to bring in scraps and under the radar players along with a starter in Gasol who will immediately improve the performance and morale of the team. Whether it was intentional or not, not acquiring Carmelo Anthony was the one of the best things that happened to the Bulls this summer.

In sports, nothing is a given, but with a strong core and the return of Rose, the Bulls will be able to counter anyone standing in their way. Whether it’s the Cavs and the now humble Lebron, the young guns in Toronto, Paul George and the Pacers, the rising Wizards or the makeshift Miami Heat; the Bulls will for sure be right in the thick of it. And if Rose can stay healthy, they are the clear cut NBA favorites.

Follow Alex on twitter @flumdognosebest to see his optimistic tweets about the Wizards.

You Can No Longer Hate LeBron James

Chasing the youthful teams. Can’t win without a great #2. Classless. Disloyal. Traitor. He’s still a peasant.

Those were the type of reactions heard last Friday when LeBron announced his Decision Part Deux to return home to Cleveland. He did so in a wonderfully thought out, brilliantly insightful, and selflessly humble letter in Sports Illustrated. The contrast of this year’s choice compared to that of four years ago is stark, emphasized by the irony LeBron employed – you have to think it was purposeful – when writing a letter to announce his homecoming, because of Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s seething rebuke following The First Decision.

And, four years ago, Gilbert had every right to be angry.

On a beautiful summer afternoon I sat inside the stuffy living room of a small, Maine cottage  with a group of friends, waiting on That Decision. After commercials, five grueling minutes of Jim Gray during the interview, and more commercials we finally found out: he was taking his talents to South Beach. The whole thing stank. The TV special, the ads, the obnoxious hinting and overuse of the word ‘decision’ throughout the question-and-answer left us all with an overpowering, sour taste in our mouths. Those of us not in Florida hated it. And said so. Rancor cankers. Even the self-centered phrasing of “Taking my talents to South Beach” seemed awkward. He only made it worse by holding parties in Florida and bragging about their impending dominance before any of The Big Three had played a minute of court-time together.

Before LeBron left Cleveland, he was beloved by the NBA and its fan base. The pre-emptive conversation in 2010 was: “Who is the league’s best player? LeBron or Kobe?” not about his tainted legacy. He was a kid who grew up in Ohio, represented his upbringing, his city, well, and played hard for the family. Certainly, a few disliked him, but no one hated the guy.

After the Decision, totally different story.

Cleveland fans…well, they didn’t take the absconding so well. They burned jerseys – James in effigy – and used his bobblehead as urinal cakes.

I sat in the living room of that cottage, outraged he would leave. (Hypocritically, because I’m a Celtics fan, I hated the idea of players dictating rosters and teaming up in “Big Three” scenarios.) Part of my frustration was that evidently LeBron didn’t think he could win on his own. This was a guy who could be an all-time great – in the conversation with Jordan – and he took the “easy” way out. He thought only about winning basketball games now; neither his future legacy nor his past roots.

When he faded in the 2011 Finals in fourth quarter after fourth quarter, social media unleashed a relentless barrage of malice. Sport’s most popular villain had fallen in his quest for world (OK, NBA) dominance, and the country could not have been happier. Anyone who was not a fan of the Miami Heat felt spurred into vocal opposition against LeBron. He tried to soil the integrity of the game by joining forces with friends, but he was thwarted by ready-made protagonist Dirk Nowitzki, a one-team lifer.

Then he won two championships and, fine, the sports world decided, we can still hate him for winning. When the Spurs avenged their 2013 Finals loss the next season by humiliating the Heat in incredible fashion every non-Heat fan maniacally laughed in glee. LeBron was vanquished yet again.

Besides for immediately increasing record sales for Diddy’s track “I’m Coming Home,” in which Skylar Grey sings the hook, LeBron made the PR turn-around of his life when he went back to the Cavaliers. But, just like the biblical anecdote of the Prodigal Son, James was welcomed back home with adulation and joy by his father city. All past grievances were forgotten. My roommate at Syracuse this fall is from Cleveland and he texted me when the alert went out about the return simply, “Strangers hugging in McDonalds”.

In fact, my father, on business in Cleveland that day, went to an Indians game and saw many people in plain, orange tee-shirts, emblazoned with a simple word that held so much significance: Forgiveness. It, seemed to be the open arms of the city, ready to embrace their hero, but also LeBron’s decision to be the bigger man. He saw his hometown burn his jersey, read the rancor in Gilbert’s letter, heard the city cheer his every stumble. Yet, LeBron forgave Cleveland as much as they forgave him.

In his classy letter, LeBron says that coming home is not a basketball decision, but a personal one. How can you hate LeBron now? That decision alone distances himself from Michael Jordan. In Bill Simmons’ phenomenal column about why LeBron left, he points to a conversation he had with Doug Collins. Michael Jordan made every decision based around basketball. He wanted to win all the time, no matter the cost. He used to grimace towards the bench, indicating to his coach to get a certain teammate “The F out of there” because he couldn’t be trusted. LeBron’s decision to go home wasn’t about amassing championships; it was about trying to bring just one to his title-starved home. Quality trumps quantity. People conveniently forget about how Michael tried to extend his career in basketball with the Wizards, crucifying LeBron for chasing winning basketball when His Airness did too. MJ was always about me, this decision by LeBron is about a city. LeBron isn’t chasing rings to see who has the most by teaming up with other greats any longer.

LeBron made a personal decision within basketball, not one about basketball personnel.

You can’t hate him for choosing something that helps others. He doesn’t have the money on his mind, and it’s for the good of everyone.

LeBron has unequivocally righted his wrongs by owning up to the Heat debacle and the Decision disaster from four years ago. This time, he met with all owners, unlike in 2010 when he left Cleveland without a word to Gilbert, and said nothing the entire time. No leaks, no “here’s what LeBron wants if you want to win the lottery”. He kept it quiet and decided within his inner circle. He’s matured. Keeping in mind that LeBron went directly from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School (Akron, OH) at 18-years old to the face of an NBA franchise, he fascinatingly pointed out in his letter that Miami was like college for him. He grew up. Now that he’s matured, his experience has better prepared him to lead his hometown team.

This is good for basketball for so many reasons. They now have the redemption story of LeBron going home to a small-market team in a situation where it’s not about the money. The league-wide feelings for the Cavs isn’t, like Miami, disdain, it’s generally empathetic. After seeing the Spurs play so well for so long, it’s evident a team needs more than three Superstars in a riches and rags roster, but they need depth. San Antonio, not Miami, is the paradigm for success. It also signifies the end of the “Big 3” era, which started with the Celtics.

The Eastern Conference is opened up to provide more competitive playoffs, as well. That helps the NBA fan, too. There’s a balance in the teams, there are no more player-dictated rosters. The NBA and its fans also benefit from the new jerseys to buy (silly Cleveland, shouldn’t have burned them) with diversified plotlines and a general consensus of an unknown NBA hierarchy with LeBron in Cleveland.

It’s good for non-NBA fans, who no longer have to watch SportsCenter – um, I mean LeBron-Carmelo Watch 2K14 – and get text updates from ESPN, frantically alerting you LeBron’s son just caught a fish and the video is on Instagram. That’s the part I despise: the suffocating coverage. It’s not LeBron’s fault that he’s hounded about a decision which he can, justifiably, take weeks to contemplate. It’s ESPNs over-blown coverage and constant updates that make people sick of the NBA. Non-NBA fans will also see less Heat gear this fall.

It’s good for Dan Gilbert and Cleveland because the man gets to keep his job and the city doesn’t have to excommunicate him for his bullish actions costing them a chance at their hero. The city also will undoubtedly grow economically; according to Forbes, around $100 million. Plus, now, Cleveland, good news! LeBron cannot leave. He can’t. If he did, the world would implode from anti-LeBron propaganda and Cleveland’s rage.

It’s good for Andrew Wiggins because he will have a healthy locker-room with which to mature and the best mentor possible in the game; hard to imagine typing that even six months ago.

Anderson Varejao – LeBron has said about 242542 times that he loves Varejao as a teammate, “one of his favorites,” so that means: job for life.

It’s good for Miami because…OK, maybe it’s not great for everyone. But it’s really good for most people. Plus, Miami still has their great weather, beautiful beaches, and good-looking women. It’s tough to feel bad for them.

He even gave them a meeting, a luxury he didn’t afford Cleveland four years ago.

So as LeBron James goes back to try and win “Not four…not three…not two” but just one championship for the city of Cleveland, it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

Here’s a player, sacrificing individual awards to make the city that raised him proud. And if Cleveland fans don’t hate him any longer, neither can you.

A Time Before WAR

The WAR is won; the diamond-shaped battle-field is littered with the empty, gargantuan payrolls from teams and men that could not adapt. Sabermetricians brandish their, um, sabers as they stand atop the pile of their unyielding enemies. “Traditionalists” – the derogatory term they gave those opponents – a name on-par with Death-Eaters and Red-Coats, are laid to waste.

Gone are the days where baseball teams – to use a basketball analogy – rolled the balls out and just played the game. Sure, back then there was gamesmanship (hit-and-run, sacrifice bunts) but today

"I should've signed Bartolo in Boston."

“I should’ve signed Bartolo in Boston.”

it’s a brand-new ballgame. With the invention of analytics, baseball has experienced a serious shift. Literally. The concept on nine men standing on the field, patrolling their posts normally, is long forgotten. According to the Wall Street Journal, it’s an exponential growth. Baseball, as a whole, saw 2,357 shifts in 2011. That number leaped to 8,134 shifts the next season. Third Basemen are playing in short Right Field, teams shift per batter per pitch and Bartolo Colon’s body still qualifies as a professional athlete – its absolute pandemonium! What a game, baseball.

But what about those days of old, when the word “shift” just meant a button to press five times to get Sticky Keys. When baseball managers were prized for unique stratagem and used their eyes rather than CPUs. Did those old, ignorant, statistically-disadvantaged fools leave wins on the field? Did they not use their player-capital to the utmost of their abilities?

One of the best analytics since the advent is one of the simpler. How does Batter A fare against Pitcher B?

To solve this quandary, I looked at the pinnacle of failure: the walk-off homerun.

I used those batter-pitcher matchups from most high-profile walk-offs from before holding an advanced analytics card was as essential to a manager as a packed lip of chaw.

(Confession: as a Red Sox fan my internet browser tried to save me by censoring all results for “2003 ALCS Aaron Boone” Google search, but I had to do it.)

Pitcher-Hitter Match-Ups for the highest-profile HR in MLB History

Pitcher-Hitter Match-Ups for the highest-profile HR in MLB History

If managers had these statistics in front of them before they put in their ill-fated pitchers, would they still have been comfortable with their choice?

Bobby Cox, Manager of the 1991 Atlanta Braves, might not have been. Kirby Puckett had hit Pitcher Charlie Leibrandt well in the regular season (18-for-63) so bringing him in to face Puckett may not have been the best choice. But even then, Leibrandt had faced Puckett twice in the playoffs, and struck him out both times.

An interesting note: three of the home-runs were the first time the pitcher and batter had faced one another, occurring in 1993, 1988, and 1975.

The highest average of any of these home-run heroes is .286, yet they pulled through in the one time it counted. Four of ten batters had faced the certain pitcher multiple times, yet their home-run was their only hit.

For example, Grady Little of the 2003 Boston Red Sox would’ve had every possible ounce of confidence because by bringing Wakefield in against the Yankees in the bottom of the tenth he brought in a guy who had dominated the lead-off hitter both in the regular season (2-for-11, a pair of Ks) and in the playoffs (0-for-5, a pair of Ks). Boone has an abysmal career average of .190 against all knuckle-ballers, but as baseball randomness would have it, he crushed one over the Left Field fence.

What this list truly shows is that you can analyze and make regression sheets and track the ERA of each pitcher by hairs in their nostril on rainy, day games before the all-star break, but sometimes baseball is just unpredictable. There are moments that defy the average.

"Hairs in the nostril? Brilliant!"

“Hairs in the nostril? Brilliant!”

The sabermetricians may have won the front-office WAR, but it doesn’t mean the mean is what they get on the field.

 

Sam Fortier will be a Freshman majoring in Journalism at Syracuse University this fall. He enjoys good bratwurst and even better baseball. Read him here every Monday.