Friday, June 21, 2013

Lebron joins GOAT shortlist with 2nd title

Though I've always rooted for the Spurs dating back to the Admiral-Duncan Twin Tower days as much as a neutral (or a Laker-hater) can, I will confess that I was pulling for King James to pull off a 2nd title.  Had Ray Allen's 3 pointer with 5 seconds left in Game 6 not gone in, Lebron would have been saddled with 3 NBA Finals losses in 4 tries, probably permanently damaging his claim to be the Greatest Of All Time, at least in my mind.  Just like in the days of watching Jordan in his prime, the pure sportsfan in me wants to see the transcendently great players perform their best when it counts.

With this back-to-back title, Lebron clearly surpasses Kobe on GOAT scale.  He's got 4 regular season MVPs to Kobe's measly 1.  They share the same number of Finals MVPs.  I tire of hearing Laker fans holding up Kobe's 5 rings in their arguments.  Is Scottie Pippen mentioned anywhere in the GOAT of all time conversations for having 6 rings?  Sure, he's a HOFer to be sure, but he can't be on the list of those transcendent GOAT simply because of MJ.  So, Kobe was Pippen while Shaq was Jordan in those first 3 championships.  Shaq won the Finals MVP all 3 times.  End of discussion.

To be the greatest, you have to be both the best in the regular season and the best when its all on the line, in the championship.  I think to qualify for GOAT consideration, you need to have achieved both merits multiple times (sorry Dirk).  The following is a list of all players with multiple awards in both categories.  Not surprisingly, it is an accurate representation of most reasonable people's GOAT lists.
GOAT list (in no particular order)
Russell - 5 MVPs, Finals MVP did not exist, but they did name the award after him. (Out of 11 rings, he would have probably won Finals MVP at the very least, what, half the time?).
Jordan - 5 MVPs, 6 Finals MVPs
Kareem - 6 MVPs, 2 Finals MVPs
Magic - 3 MVPs, 3 Finals MVPs
Lebron - 4 MVPs, 2 Finals MVPs
Duncan - 2 MVPs, 3 Finals MVPs
Bird - 3 MVPs, 2 Finals MVPs

C Kareem, PF Russell, F Lebron, SG Jordan, PG Magic - would be my pick for greatest starting 5 in history.  (Laker haters shouldn't have much to say since there's two here).  For my money, Jordan and Russell have the best claims to GOAT.  Jordan's 11 MVPs (which is probably only surpassed by what Russell would have won) is the benchmark for which to measure Lebron.  If Lebron can get another MVP or two and 3 more Finals MVPs, he would clearly have an argument.  The best part about this is that he still has about 4-5 years more prime years left.

Just miss:
Shaq - 3 Finals MVPs, but only 1 MVP, an indictment on a lack of season-long committment.
Wilt - 4 MVPs, but only 1 Finals MVP - an indictment on his play on the biggest stage.
Moses Malone - 3 MVPs, but only 1 Finals MVP
Kobe - 2 Finals MVPs, but only 1 MVP
Hakeem - 2 Finals MVPs, but only 1 MVP

Now who are the players to win the MVP and Finals MVP in the same season as Lebron did this year?

1970 Willis Reed
1971 Lew Alcindor
1983 Moses Malone
1985 Larry Bird
1986 Larry Bird
1987 Magic Johnson
1991 Michael Jordan
1992 Michael Jordan
1994 Hakeem Olajuwon
1996 Michael Jordan
1998 Michael Jordan
2000 Shaquille O'Neal
2003 Tim Duncan
2012 Lebron James
2013 Lebron James

So only 10 players have accomplished the feat since 1969 when the Finals MVP was first awarded.  Only 3 players have done it multiple times (Jordan 4, Bird 2 and now Lebron 2).  Remarkably, all 3 did it in back-to-back years and Jordan even did it twice.

Monday, March 25, 2013

2012-13 UCLA Basketball Season Review, Howland Fired

Coach Howland Fired

Ben Howland was relieved of his duties two days after UCLA's pitiful performance in the 1st round of the NCAA tournament.  It was really the only major disappointment of this season.  I still think that if we had Jordan Adams, we beat Minnesota probably 7 out of 10 times.  But the way our team is constructed, a poor offensive shooting night coupled with the constant of mediocre defense will lead to occasional blowouts (think about our game at Cal).  Too bad it came on the biggest stage.  I would have loved to get another shot at Florida in the 2nd round.  Just getting through our Gator nemesis to reach the Sweet Sixteen would have been glorious.  On the other hand, if were eliminated by UF for the fourth time in our last 6 appearances, it would have been unbearable.

But overall, though he was on the hot seat all year long, the reality is that Howland had a good season.  He reeled in one of the top classes in the country and they produced on the court.  Howland had 4 new starters from last year, 3 of them were freshmen.  He lost 2 rotational contributors to transfer and 1 to dismissal, giving him almost no depth.  (We'll get into this more later).  As a result, our team played poor interior defense and was out-rebounded nearly every game.  He changed the style of play to suit the team, which is something he hasn't done before at UCLA.  With all those obstacles, he still managed to win his first Pac-12 regular season conference title since 2008.

Howland didn't deserve to be fired for the job he did this season.  I believed that it was justifiable after last season (2 missed tourneys in 3 years), but not now.  That said, after the last 3 years, he probably needed an extraordinary, meteoric, Elite8/Final4 type year to make up for it.  A good season wasn't going to cut it with the boosters.  And it didn't.

If you look at Howland's 10 year tenure on the whole as national pundits have done in questioning his firing, he's had an outstanding run.  After a 8 year Lavin-induced drought, Howland won 3 straight Pac-10 titles, before adding a 4th this year to give him 4 in the last 8 years.  It is the most conference titles won by any Bruins coach besides Wooden.  Obviously he took UCLA back to the Final Four after 11 seasons of Lavin-induced mediocrity, then returned the 2 following seasons.  He put an outstanding number of players into solid careers in the NBA - Farmar, Afflalo, Hollins, Westbrook, Love, Mbah a Moute, Collison (and I didn't even mention Ariza, Holiday, Malcolm Lee, Honeycutt).  And he ran a clean program, never being questioned by the NCAA.  Lastly, I love that he respected and revered Coach Wooden and the UCLA program the way that he did.  He said it was his dream job, and nobody has doubted him for a minute.  For all those things, Howland should always have a place in our hearts, especially after suffering through the Lavin reign.

I think its fair to say that Howland is the 2nd or 3rd best coach we've ever had at UCLA.  He finished with a 233-107 record, more wins than anyone besides Wooden.  Only Jim Harrick has an argument, as he won 3 conference championships in 8 years, never missed a NCAA tourney, and of course won UCLA's lone title since Wooden.

What the national pundits don't understand is the failures of the last 5 seasons.  They see the meteoric success of his first 5 seasons but they fail to understand the enormous problems since then.  What national powerhouse (Duke, UNC, KU, UK) misses the NCAA tournament twice in 4 years?  Howland hasn't made the Sweet Sixteen the last 5 years, the longest UCLA streak since a 9 year stretch from 1981-89.  He has only captured 1 conference title in the last 5 seasons.  As glorious as his 3 year Final 4 run was, it would have been better to make periodic Final Four runs like a Tom Izzo does.  It shows consistency in his coaching.  It shows the ability to replicate success over the years with different rosters.

Speaking of rosters, a big part of the reason for his recent failures is his player management.  Perhaps something changed after Howland's Final 4 seasons.  Perhaps he started compromising his recruiting, looking for the kind of athletes that could get him over the top at the cost of those who fit his system.  Or perhaps his ego grew and his treatment of players and staff suffered.  Or he began overlooking player behavior issues as long as they produced on the court.  Whatever it is, these are the facts, and they are not in dispute.

Howland's program was destroyed by the following headache players.  Nikola Dragovic was perhaps the first mishandled problem player - a screwup off the court (and a subpar player on it) but was favored by Howland for reasons still unknown to us.  Next, the 2008 Fab Five class contained several problem players, led by the insubordinate Drew Gordon who had to be dismissed midseason, Bobo Morgan who was also dismissed later and Jerime Anderson.  The worst of all was 2009 recruit, Reeves Nelson, an out of control maniac who enjoyed bullying others.  He eventually had to be dismissed midseason, though Howland tried to keep him around as long as possible, since he was our best player.  Before this season, the last of the party players, Anthony Stover, was finally dismissed - unfortunately he was our best defensive big man.

The amount of outgoing transfers in the last 5 years is another indictment on Howland's player management.  It seemed that many players who weren't starting were very interested in getting away from his team.  Perhaps they saw how out of control Howland had allowed his program and those problem players to get.  Perhaps they felt like they never received a fair chance with Howland.  Perhaps they felt mistreated.  Either way, Howland's transfers depleted our depth, one of the issues that AD Guerrero alluded to.  SF Chace Stanback left us for UNLV after our last Final Four season, becoming an important contributor.  SF Mike Moser also escaped to and starred at UNLV even though we had little depth at his position.  G Matt Carlino has been productive double-digit scorer for BYU.  This season, junior G Tyler Lamb, who was a starter for us last year, walked away instead of fighting for his spot and C Josh Smith opted to fight his weight problem at Georgetown instead.

With all those player dismissals and defections, it didn't help that our best remaining players would choose to leave the program earlier than they should have.  In 2009, Jrue Holiday cost himself millions by not being drafted in the lottery as he would have been if he stayed to run the team and showcase his skills.  Not coincidentally, we missed the tournament the following year.  In 2011, Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt both left early, dropped to the NBA 2nd round, and we missed the tournament again in 2012.  Howland couldn't get his best players to buy into his system, while losing control of the problem players that stayed.

Lastly, it seems that Howland's poor relationships or poor reputation with SoCal connections led to an inability to recruit at home in recent years.  Either that or it was pure incompetence.  Think about our recruits this year.  Shabazz is from Vegas.  Kyle is from New Jersey.  Jordan and Tony are both from Georgia.  This is UCLA.  We should be able to pluck the best players every single year from the Southland.  And yet, the last 5 star recruit we got from LA was Jrue Holiday in '08 or Honeycutt in '09, depending on what recruiting site you visit.  Why did we not offer LA native and current Pac-12 player of the year Allen Crabbe?  Why did we not offer LA native Derrick Williams, the #2 player of the 2011 NBA draft?  Why did Klay Thompson not get a sniff?  UCLA should be able to put together national championship contenders just from recruiting in California alone.  I'm not saying we should limit ourselves to that since I'd like to be in the mix for every player that Duke, UNC, KU and UK are looking at, but we don't even have a hometown advantage anymore.

Howland had a great run back from 2006-08.  He took Lavin's 10-19 team, rebuilt it and led it to the national championship game in his 3rd year.  Perhaps the most memorable game of Howland's tenure came in the Sweet Sixteen vs Gonzaga that season.  Then with my three favorite Howland players who represented his ideals, Afflalo, Mbah a Moute and Collison, we went back again.  The biggest disappointment came on our 3rd and final run to the F4, when we were the best team all season, armed with Love, Westbrook and Collison, but were badly out-coached by Calipari's Memphis team.  That 2008 game was the beginning of the end for Howland.  Since then, he's only won 2 tournament games.  Ultimately, I'm just glad that he finished his tenure here with one last conference title.

Next coach

My personal preference in Brad Stevens from Butler.  He took them to back-to-back national championship games.  He does seem like the type to enjoy the Indiana low-key lifestyle however, so Guerrero better make him a solid pitch.  The way I see it, there isn't much more he can accomplish at Butler.  Shaka Smart seems like Guerrero's favorite candidate - with his high tempo offense and havoc defense.  He seems to be the ambitious type who would want to try his hand at a national program.  Ideally we would get one of those two coaches to make a name for themselves here at UCLA with championships.  However, though I don't prefer it, I also see the benefit of proven guys like Pitino or Donovan.  We know what we'd get.  Even if they're coming in like a mercenary (and we'd have to pay them exorbitant amounts not including buyouts), its still worth it in the end if they can get us to the top.  Hanging another banner is all that we want.

2012-13 Season Review

I've talked all season about how Howland changed his team style to an offensive-oriented, high tempo attack.  Maybe the change to a more attractive style was made to save his job or attract better players in the future.  But it certainly paid off in a conference title.  Did our season turn out better or worse than I expected before our first tip-off?  The answer is both.

Preseason, I thought we should finish somewhere around 25-7, win a Pac 12 title, and make a push for the Elite 8.  Well, we finished 25-10, won a Pac-12 title, and lost in the NCAA first round.  But it doesn't tell the story between.  We started with a team that had depth both in the front and backcourt.  We ended our last game with 7 healthy scholarship players.

Josh Smith immediately showed that he didn't lose much weight, and possibly gained some, and was a liability on the court.  Ideally, had he been in shape, Smith would have dominated the paint in just about every game we played.  The Wear twins are perfect college complements to a player like Smith because they can stretch the interior defense with their outside shooting.  Their inability to rebound or defend would have been mitigated by Josh, if only he lived up to even half his potential.  With Smith's defection and Stover's dismissal, we now only had the Wears and freshman Parker, who just wasn't ready.  Anderson ended up being our best rebounder by far, and that is a major indictment on the Wears, who are taller and 3 years older.

David Wear has played 130 less minutes than Travis, but has actually grabbed more rebounds on the season.  I'm also upset about both Wears' predilection for shooting jumpers with one foot on the 3 point line.  Who taught them that that is a good shot?  It is literally the worst shot in basketball.  Step back 8 inches!!!  Defense and rebounding ought to be the major focus, this offseason.  Being outrebounded by Anderson should be embarrassing.  5 rebounds in 30 minutes of play at C is just flat-out subpar.

Jordan Adams was major revelation, starting the season with 4 straight 20 point games.  We all thought he was merely a good outside jump shooter, but he showed that he had the moves and guile to also get to the hoop.  Even with Shabazz gone next year, Jordan will be our go-to-scorer, toughest defender and best all around player.  I'm expecting close to 20ppg for him.  This season, it was clear that his bball instinct would relegate Tyler Lamb to the bench, which is why Lamb left us the same week as Smith.  I thought it was a cowardly act for a junior who was starting just last year.  Especially given our defensive liabilities early on, Tyler easily could make a case for considerable playing time.  I wonder if Howland had made it clear that he wasn't going to play.  His defection especially hurt us in our last two games when Jordan went down.

Larry Drew II was an afterthought given our incoming freshman stars, but his play this season had pundits like Jay Bilas calling him the conference player of the year.  The 5th year senior broke Pooh Richardson's (236) single season assists record at UCLA with a final tally of 256.  Given the shadiness of his midseason departure at UNC 2 years ago, I was certainly down on his ability to lead our team.  But he undoubtedly proved me wrong.  His play also made it clear to Kyle Anderson that he wasn't going to play point.

Kyle Anderson realized this immediately and transformed himself into the most versatile player on the team.  He worked hard at PF to grab boards (his 302 boards was 131 more than 2nd place David Wear), played defense even while throwing out the 2nd most assists on the team (122).  In many ways, he reminds me of a Mbah a Moute with court vision and handles.  Anderson's only true downside is his lack of raw athleticism.

Of course, the biggest name at UCLA this year was Shabazz Muhammad.  Many have labeled him as overrated, given the hype coming out of high school, but he did lead the nation's freshmen in scoring at 17.9 ppg and won a conference title.  True, he didn't show up in the NCAA tournament, as his crazy trojan father was planning on.  And yes, he came in as an iron-clad one and done mercenary.  But given the 5 star recruits of the last 5 years - Holiday, Honeycutt, Smith - Shabazz accomplished the most.  He won't ever be loved or revered here, but he should at least be appreciated.

As for his NBA prospects, I'm not so sure another year in college won't serve him well.  He doesn't have an elite explosive level of athleticism and his offense moves are predicated on strength (think about all those charges) instead of skill, which won't work at the next level.  He's a much better spot-up shooter than off the dribble and his defense, while improved, is still mediocre.  But I'm not holding my breath that he'll come back.

Norman Powell had a solid start to the season, but his minutes and confidence began to wane when we started conference play.  Perhaps our freshman really began to come on, but someone with Powell's athleticism should be able to force his way onto the court.  He'll get a chance next season with Bazz' departure, if he can hold off our incoming freshmen, all of whom are guards.

Tony Parker didn't get much playing time and spent most of the time that he did get committing stupid fouls.  It seems that he wants to transfer, but I'm amazed that he doesn't take one look at the Wears and believe that he is in the best possible place.  You are at UCLA.  We have no true talent at PF or C.  Why in the world would you transfer?  Hopefully the new coach can get him to come to his senses.  Hopefully he'll hit the gym hard this summer.

Ultimately, Howland was able to coax a Pac-12 title out of basically a new group of players.  He incorporated 5 new players to an 8 man rotation - including 4 new starters.  He managed to beat the Pac-12 favorite, Arizona, 3 times.  No, we didn't contend for a championship or even make a deep tourney run, but considering his personnel, it was as good as we could expect.  We ought to be proud of this accomplishment.

Projected Starting Lineup 2013-14

G: Allerik Freeman (Fr)
G: Jordan Adams (So)
SF: Kyle Anderson (So)
PF: Travis Wear (Rd Sr)
C: Tony Parker (So)

Bench: PF David Wear (Rd Sr), SG, Norman Powell (Jr), SG Zach LaVine (Fr), SF Noah Allen (Fr)

Next year is difficult to predict, first because of the coaching change.  Will Kyle Anderson shock everyone and declare for the draft?  Will our incoming recruits, LaVine and Freeman renege and re-open their recruitment?  If everyone listed above is on the roster next November, then we'll be 9 deep.  Not bad.

- Without a true point guard, I'm guessing Kyle will play as point forward unless one of the freshmen Freeman or LaVine shows some playmaking skill.

- Jordan is an easy auto-starter.

- Travis is also slated in because he's started all season, but my personal preference is David, who is a better 3 point shooter and rebounder.

- I'm banking on Parker to come back stronger, more confident and more skilled.  On potential alone, he should start.

- I've got Allerik Freeman starting over Zach LaVine even though LaVine seems to be the better athlete and is rated higher by both Scout and Rivals.  Its for one simple reason: Duke and KU both offered Freeman too.  They must see something in him.  Adams wasn't rated that high and look how he turned out.

Next year, I expect another conference title and a minimum Sweet 16 appearance.  That's the goal.  Now, sign on the dotted line, Brad Stevens!

Games I attended:

11/13/12 - W 80-79 UC Irvine
11/15/12 - W 100-70 James Madison
11/25/12 - L 70-68 Cal Poly
12/4/12 - W 83-60 Cal State San Marcos (Exhibition)
1/5/13 - W 68-60 Stanford
1/17/13 - W 74-64 Oregon St.
2/27/13 - W 79-74 ASU - OT game.  Sons met Bazz, Jordan, Kyle.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

UCLA wins Pac-12 Conference outright

UCLA beat UW in Washington for the first time since Howland's first season in 2004 to win the 2013 Pac-12 regular season title.  With Oregon's two losses this final week, UCLA clinched the title outright.  This is UCLA's 41st regular season conference championship in history.  However, it is only UCLA's 4th conference title since Lavin's only title in 1996 and the first since Howland won 3 straight from 2006-08.  Howland has now won more conference titles at UCLA (4) than any coach not named John Wooden (19).  This is also the first title since the conference expanded to 12 teams last season.

Howland's Bruins finished with a 13-5 Pac-12 record for the 3rd time.  The two previous times in '09 and '11, UCLA ended up in 2nd place.  His previous conf title records were 14-4 in '06, 15-3 in '07 and 16-2 in '08.

With all the criticism Howland has endured the past year, fans have no reason to complain about this season.  He has gone out and recruited some of the nation's best players.  He has installed a high tempo offense and played a more attractive style of offense.  He has withstood Josh Smith's defection and UCLA's defensive and rebounding liabilities and willed the team to a regular season title.  Obviously the NCAA tournament result matters, but I am ecstatic with the season so far.

I couldn't care less about the Pac-12 tournament.  Of course I want to win every game that we step foot in, but it is obviously a money grab (complete with ugly uniforms that Adidas hopes will generate more sales) that doesn't really determine a true conference champion.  I'd rather we play all other 11 teams home and away instead.

As for the tournament that matters, Howland hasn't been past the Round of 32 since his Final Four runs.  That's 4 straight years of major disappointment in March.  Given our team's big man deficiencies, I think a Sweet 16 appearance is a realistic goal.  An Elite Eight would be cause for euphoria.  Yes, our expectations have changed since 2008, haven't they?

Thursday, February 28, 2013

UCLA downs ASU in OT, my sons meet 'Bazz

This was my family's last visit to Pauley this year (and perhaps for many years) so an 8:30pm start time didn't deter us at all.  By the way, what is up with so many strange start times this season?  Back when we were almost exclusively on FSN, 7:30pm every games was the norm.  Anyway, all I hoped for was a W so that our last night of new Pauley would live on in our minds just as our last night at old Pauley did (when we upset a ranked Arizona, Trapani scored the last basket of classic Pauley and we took pictures on the old court).

Our 3 freshmen starters certainly carried the scoring load as they each individually outscored the combined output of the other 4 players.  Shabazz started the night strong and finished with 21 points (3-4 from 3-point land) and 7 boards.  Kyle Anderson had a career high 21 points (8-8 on FTs!) as well and grabbed 15 boards, which was more than twice the number of any other Bruin.  Jordan Adams scored a game-high 22 points, his 3rd consecutive game with 20 points or more, including 9 of our last 12 points (6 in OT).

It was also a big statistical night for Larry Drew, whose 13 assists catapulted him from 6th place (205) to 2nd place on UCLA's all-time single season assists list with 218.  Pooh Richardson's 1989 mark of 236 is definitely in danger since Drew has somewhere between 4 to 12 (championship!) games left this year.  He also posted a season high of 7 turnovers (never even getting to 6 previously) - being haphazard with the ball is certainly uncharacteristic of his year.

Much has been said of Howland, but you cannot deny that his freshmen class has lived up to the enormous expectations placed on them.  He recruited them and they are producing.  They are not the issue.  Our biggest problem is and will continue to be our interior defense and rebounding.  The blame rests with Josh Smith's lack of discipline, the Wears lack of athleticism and Tony Parker's lack of experience.  A Sweet 16 appearance at this point would be an achievement.

The best part of the night however was that we were able to get down to court level after the game.  True, we stayed another 30 minutes after an already late game, but it was worth it.  Joe Bruin took my boys on the court and posed for a picture.  Kyle, Norman, Jordan and Shabazz were all nice enough to take pics with the boys too.  A friend of ours had made my eldest son a shirt which has Shabazz's face on Buzz Lightyear's body - a perfect gift considering my son's twin loves for Disneyland and UCLA bball.  My boy couldn't wait to show it to Bazz, who said he liked it and made my son's day.  Up to this point, I think his favorite player was Josh Smith.  It was one last memorable night at Pauley for one and all.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Jeremy Lin comes to town

I took my brother-in-law to see Jeremy play in person for the first time.  The NBA celebrated the night as Chinese New Year.  They had a chinese artist do the national anthem, the Clippers wore Chinese-themed warmups, there were Chinese subtitles on the Jumbotron and they rolled out a pathetic martial arts demo at halftime.  It was pretty comical.

We didn't count on James Harden sitting out with a sprained ankle or the Clippers dropping 46 points on Houston in the 1st quarter, including a couple monstrous dunks by Griffin and Jordan, to essentially put the game out of reach.

Jeremy had a strong first half, but a poor 2nd half, as he was fouled hard a few times, including being kicked by Ryan Hollins when he was down.  He finished with 14 points, 7 assists and 2 boards.  He could have easily had twice the assists, if his teammates had shot just moderately well.  I think the fact that Harden was out, and it was the 2nd night of a back-to-back, poor perimeter shooting by Houston, and Jeremy being battered all night by hard fouls, all contributed to a down night for Houston.  But Jeremy showed his ability to dive into the lane, even against Chris Paul, to create opportunities for others.  Still, minus Harden, I would've liked to see him look for his own shot more.

As for the Clippers, I couldn't be happier that they are ruling the city.  With Paul, who is probably one of the top 3 players in the league alongside Lebron and Durant, they have the quality and the depth to make a run at the title.  But with two other great teams in the West in SA and OKC and a dominant Heat in the East, it will definitely have to be earned (unlike Kobe's championships against the undermanned Magic and elderly Celtics).

The biggest downside to this loss is the fact that it brings the Lakers closer to the playoffs.  As much as I am enjoying their disastrous and embarrassing season, I actually would prefer that they make the playoffs as a 6th or 7th seed (as long as Jeremy makes it too) and believe that they are close to getting it right.  Being stuck in the land of NBA mediocrity is better for Laker haters than seeing them blow it up and starting over.  A team like the Lakers can recover with free agents in no time.  So that's the goal, keeping them mediocre - not a true contender, but, you know, not too bad.

The most comical part about the Lakers season is that the one guy they should be trying to keep happy, Dwight, is the one guy they are criticizing and ostracizing the most.  The dude has a torn labrum and a bad back.  He knows that he has to get healthy because he will be a free agent this summer.  He is the only piece that must be considered as critical to the Lakers future.  He also plays much better when he is coddled and treated delicately.  Kobe and Nash are nearing the end, believe that now is the time and have little patience for Dwight.  Add to the fact that D'Antoni is the absolute worst coach for an old and slow team with two of the best post players in the game.  It seems he would rather eliminate post play completely.  D'Antoni is the guy who took a look at Pau Gasol, who dominated teams in the summer Olympics single-handedly, and decided to start Earl Clark.  Hahahaha.  This is great.  It is also as plain as day now, that Kobe will never be considered the great champion that Jordan is.  He has a team with Nash, Dwight, Pau, and they aren't even at .500 at the all-star break.  Really?  Would Jordan have ever allowed his team to be in this position?

But I digress.  It was great to see Jeremy live.  I was reminded that his greatest ability is to drive into the paint and create from there.  In the open court, he is a fantastic to watch.  His jumpshots look great in warmup, but need consistency in the games.  It was interesting to see that Houston's offense was completely lost without Jeremy in the game.  And not since Yao came into the L, have so many Asian people, including numerous older Asian couples, attend NBA games.  They definitely seemed out of place.

With my Kings on the way to Seattle, I think I'll probably never have my own team to root for.  I'll follow Jeremy and other ex-Bruins.  I'll root for Duncan's Spurs, Durant's Thunder and Lebron's Heat and whoever's playing the Lakers.  I might even raise my boys as Clipper fans just to try and make sure they aren't lured to the dark side.  But this is the year that I'm done being a true fan of a team.  Unless one day I end up a Clipper season tix holder or something.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

US loses to Honduras in 1st game of Hex WCQ

Honduras definitely deserved a point with that amazing bicycle kick.  But we gifted them 2 more points with a defensive breakdown.  These are the main story lines from the game.

- Clint Dempsey's volley goal off a pass from over his left shoulder was a beautiful goal.  In these kinds of games, we are most apt to score a scrappy goal off a set piece or a rebound, etc.  But his beautifully timed run, Jermaine's perfectly weighted pass, and his made-it-look-easy finish across the keeper was an early candidate for goal of the year.  Too bad it was wasted.

- Timothy Chandler is captied, finally.  After nearly two years of indecision, Chandler finally made good on his promise to play for the US.  Unfortunately, he was uncharacteristically outclassed, even getting beat badly a few times.  Ironically, we probably would have been better off defensively with Cherundolo.  Speaking of defensive veterans...

- Klinsmann's landmark decision to play Gonzalez over Bocanegra backfired badly, but it means that Bocanegra is most likely all but eliminated from Brazil 2014 roster consideration.  I get that Klinsmann needs to start testing viable options for Brazil 2014, since Boca will be 35 in a year and a half.  Gonzalez is definitely coming off a mercurial MLS season and deserves to be part of the fold.  But to pick the first game of the Hex WCQs to be Omar's first meaningful international game of his career, on the road, seems to be a bit rash.  Bocanegra's strength is backline organization and leadership, which seem critical in a road WCQ, played in the heat of day.  And I'd bet he wouldn't have been left dozing as Gonzalez was for that 2nd goal.  Both CBs were culpable on that play -  Cameron didn't clear the ball and Gonzalez lost focus, hesitated, and got beat to the pass.  Big picture however, it seems that Klinsmann intends to go with Gonzalez and Cameron, if at all possible.  I suppose it is the right decision, as long as we qualify.

- Klinsmann continues to play 3 defensive central midfielders together.  Fans used to hate on Bob Bradley for always playing two defensive midfielders together - Bradley & Edu, etc.  They derisively called it the "empty bucket", implying that we lacked a central offensive midfielder behind the forwards and inside the wings, essentially leaving them stranded.  Numbers wise, fans wanted to see at least 5 players in attack (2 forwards, 3 mids) instead of 4 (2 forwards, 2 wings).  With Klinsmann's hiring and promise to play a more attractive, attacking, possession style offense, we figured by now we'd be in set in the formation and style that he/we want.  So what do we have? 3 defensive midfielders.  Danny Williams sat right in front of the CBs while Bradley and Jones played just above him.  I know that Klinsmann does not see Bradley and Jones as defensive players, but as 2 way players instead.  But I think its clear that their natural strengths are more defensive-oriented, and less the creative playmaker.  At this point, switch out Jones for a Kljestan/Torres/Donovan and we'd be happy.

- Donovan is still needed.  I can't wrap my head around the fact that he might retire from international soccer sooner than Brazil 2014.  This is the type of game that his experience might have had a huge impact on.  We ran out of gas and we ran out of ideas.

The good thing is the Mexico managed to draw at home, leaving us only 1 point behind in the group.  The bad thing is that we are in last place by ourselves, the only team to not finish with a draw.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

49ers' Worst Loss Ever

It hurts.  We don't lose Superbowls.  And yet, after a 109 yard 2nd half kickoff return, we found ourselves down by an ultimately insurmountable 22 points.  Do we deserve to win if we're ever down by 22?  No.  Were we cheated by a holding call at the end?  (Or even a pass interference on 2nd down?)

Maybe.  But that's not the reason we lost.  We lost because our defense couldn't stop them from scoring TDs in the first half.  We lost because we couldn't get pressure on Flacco to prevent some of those long pass plays.  We lost because Culliver couldn't prevent that long bomb or the ridiculous TD run-after-catch.  We lost because our offense couldn't score more than 6 points in the entire first half.  We lost because LaMichael James pulled a Kyle Williams and didn't protect the ball.  We lost because of terrible time management right before the half - had we scored, it would have been just 21-10 at the half.  We lost because our shoddy kickoff coverage allowed Jacoby to run straight up the middle for a 109 yard back-breaking TD.  We lost because Kaepernick's inexperience cost us 2 valuable timeouts - nobody should be allowed to take a timeout mid 3rd quarter ever.  We lost because the play-calling on our last 4 downs was terrible - no passes into the endzone until the last 4th down gasp.

Give Baltimore the credit.  They imposed their offensive will on us right off the bat.  They were disciplined enough to maintain all three 2nd half timeouts to the very end - had we scored a TD on our last drive, there's a great chance they would've have tied/won the game with a last second FG.  Their defense made it difficult on our last 4 downs to score.  They realized that Kaepernick's inexperience might manifest on the most critical downs with a overloaded blitz - he didn't have a go-to hot route rapport with any WR.

Just like our first two playoff games, we were a team of two halves, especially on defense.  In the divisional round, Green Bay scored 24 points in the first half and 3 in the 2nd half.  In the NFC Championship, Atlanta scored 24 points in the 1st half, and zero in the 2nd.  Here, Baltimore scored 21 in the 1st half and only 6 points against our defense in the 2nd half.  But, that kickoff return TD is what killed us.  How can we expect to mount comebacks in back-to-back playoff games?  We can't expect to go down 17 points one week and then 22 points the next and emerge with wins.

That we had a chance to go ahead in the last few minutes of the game is a testament to SF's resiliency.  We scored 17 straight points in the 3rd quarter to pull within 5.  We had a chance to tie the game with a 2 point conversion with 10 minutes left.  Kaepernick actually had more yards than Flacco with 302 yards and rushed for another 62.  We had a pair of 100 yd receivers - Crabtree with 109, Davis with 104.  Gore finished with  with 110 yards on 19 carries (5.8 average).  We just needed one more stinkin' TD.

I haven't been able to bring myself to watch TV or go to sports sites.  I'm in sports depression.  This is the worst loss ever.

Friday, February 1, 2013

San Francisco 49ers Superbowl History & Prediction

1981 Superbowl XVI vs Cincinnati Bengals
January 24, 1982
Stadium: Pontiac Silverdome, Detroit
Final Score: 26-21
Key Moment: Up 20-7 in the 3rd quarter, the 49ers defense stuff the Bengals 4 times from inside the 3 yd line.
MVP: Joe Montana, 157 yards, 1 TD; 18 yards rushing, 1 rushing TD
Notes: Montana and Walsh shock the world by taking a 6 win team to a 13 win championship team, announcing their arrival to NFL dominance.

1984 Superbowl XIX vs Miami Dolphins
January 20, 1985
Stadium: Stanford Stadium, Stanford
Final Score: 38-16
Key Moment: Montana leads 3 straight TD drives to open up 18 point lead in 2nd quarter.
MVP: Joe Montana, 331 yards, 3 TDs; 59 yards rushing, 1 rushing TD
Notes: In essentially a home game, Montana destroys the much heralded Marino to prove the 49ers' first SB was no fluke. 

1988 Superbowl XXIII vs Cincinnati Bengals
January 22, 1989
Stadium: Joe Robbie Stadium, Miami
Final Score: 20-16
Key Moment: Down 3 points on the 8 yard line with 3:10 left, Montana leads a 11 play drive, culminating in Taylor's 10 yard TD catch.
MVP: Jerry Rice, 11 receptions, 215 yards, 1 TD
Notes: Montana becomes legendary with the greatest comeback drive in NFL history.

1989 Superbowl XXIV vs Denver Broncos
January 28, 1990
Stadium: Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans
Final Score: 55-10
Key Moment: 49ers score TDs on 6 of first 8 possessions.  Early 3rd quarter, Montana's 28 yard TD to Rice immediately after an Elway INT pushed the score to 34-3, snuffing out any last comeback hopes.
MVP: Joe Montana, 297 yards, 5 TDs. 
Notes: Montana's last superbowl was his best performance, cementing his status as best ever.

1994 Superbowl XXIX vs San Diego Chargers
January 29, 1995
Stadium: Joe Robbie Stadium, Miami
Final Score: 49-26
Key Moment: 49ers score 2 TDs in each of the first 3 quarters.
MVP: Steve Young, 325 yards, 6 TDs; 49 yards rushing
Notes: Young gets the monkey off his back with the single greatest performance in SB history.  49ers are the first franchise to achieve 5 Superbowl championships.

Superbowl Prediction:

2012 Superbowl XLVII vs Baltimore Ravens
February 3, 2013
Stadium: Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans
Final Score: 34-23
Key Moment: Kaepernick leads 4th quarter TD drive to go up by 2 scores.
MVP: Frank Gore, 107 yards, 2 TDs.
Notes: 49ers dominate line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and applies enough pressure to Flacco to minimize the deep threat.  Akers makes both FG attempts.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

2014 Brazil WC Roster Prediction - Jan 2013

As the US enters the final round of WC qualifying - the 10 games of the Hexagonal (6 team group), where top 3 advances automatically and 4th place plays a home/away vs Oceania champion - this is my best guess into Klinsmann's mind come WC 23 man roster selection time in 2014.

Tim Howard (S), Brad Guzan, Bill Hamid

In the mix:  Sean Johnson, Nick Rimando, Tally Hal

Currently at 84 caps, Howard will eclipse the 100 game mark likely before Brazil.  It is probably his last WC, but there is still no clear cut young keeper in waiting that will supplant him post-'14.  Guzan will definitely be the backup.  In my gut, Bill Hamid will earn the nod over Sean Johnson, who is currently Klinsmann's 3rd string.

Carlos Bocanegra (S), Geoff Cameron (S), Clarence Goodson, Omar Gonzalez

In the mix: Tim Ream, Oguchi Onyewu, Zak Whitbread, Matt Besler, George John, Maurice Edu

This is my 4th Brazil prediction but the first time I'm including Bocanegra.  Yes, he'll be 35 and slower than ever.  But with a year and a half to go, he's still Klinsmann's first choice for starter and captain amidst all the uncertainty at CB.  Omar finally forces his way onto Klinsmann's squad with a unparalleled CB play in the MLS.  If Cameron and Gonzalez prove themselves reliable through the Hex however, Boca might find himself replaced by youthful speed come June '14.  CBs in England - Ream and Whitbread just have not made the right impression on Klins.  Onyewu might have wasted his last shot.  Also worth mentioning, Maurice Edu has been given a look back at CB as well.

Outside Backs
Fabian Johnson (S), Timothy Chandler (S), Steve Cherundolo, Eric Lichaj

In the mix: Michael Parkhurst, Edgar Castillo, Alfredo Morales, Jonathan Spector, Michael Orozco Fiscal, AJ DeLaGarza

Timothy Chandler could get cap-tied as soon as the 1st game in the Hex.  If so, he will probably be the starter at RB in Brazil alongside his German-born compatriot, the long awaited LB savior of US Soccer, Fabian Johnson.  Cherundolo might still be the most reliable bench option we have, even at 35.  I'm taking a big risk on listing Lichaj, whom Klinsmann has shown little to no interest for, instead of his regular backup rotation.  Otherwise, Parkhurst would probably be the first call.

Central/Defensive Midfielders
Michael Bradley (S), Danny Williams (S), Jermaine Jones, Maurice Edu

In the mix: Kyle Beckerman

Given that Klinsmann will probably choose to play no less than 2 and sometimes even 3 of these 4 players above at the same time, all four naturally defensive midfielders will probably make the team.  If you're counting, that's also 4 German-born players, so far.

Attacking Midfielders
Landon Donovan (S), Brek Shea (S), Sasha Kljestan, Graham Zusi

In the mix: Josh Gatt, Mix Diskerud, Jose Francisco Torres, Stuart Holden, Benny Feilhaber, Joe Corona, Robbie Rogers, Brad Davis, Alejandro Bedoya

Toughest group to predict by far.  Nobody should dare predict that Donovan won't be on the plane until it actually happens.  But the fact that he's decided to not join the team for the first game of the Hex is worrisome, if for no other reason than losing the respect of European-hardened teammates.  Zusi has emerged as Klinsmann's go-to backup on the right side, while I believe that Shea will get his act together in time to claim the starting left side.  Kljestan adds a 2nd consecutive great club year to barely beat out Torres and Diskerud.  Holden just can't be counted on until after he emerges from his last competitive game in May 2014 injury free.

Clint Dempsey (S), Jozy Altidore (S), Hercules Gomez, Terrence Boyd

In the mix: Eddie Johnson, Juan Agudelo, Edson Buddle, Teal Bunbury, Chris Wondolowski

Dempsey starts.  Jozy and Hercules battle each other for the other spot.  Boyd beats out all the MLS options for the bench and becomes Klinsmann's 5th German-born convert in Brazil.

Predicted Starting Line-up


Friday, January 25, 2013

49ers' Significant Playoff Games

1981 NFC Championship vs Cowboys
The 49ers' rite of passage game.  Tom Landry and the 'Boys were the dominant past which had suppressed the 49ers.  No more.  Montana to Clark.  28-27.  Enter Bill Walsh to NFL hegemony.

1988 NFC Championship at Chicago
Having lost all 3 road playoff game in Walsh's tenure thus far, SF had a tough task at Soldier Field.  Also, the Bears' vaunted 4-6 defense had been all the rage while the 49ers had been underachievers in the playoffs for the prior 3 years.  Then Jerry Rice happened: 133 yards, 2 TDs.  9ers win 28-3.

1994 NFC Championship vs Cowboys
This was the real NFL championship that year.  3 straight years before, the 9ers had lost in the NFC Conference Championship.  Montana's last 9ers playoff game vs the Giants started this streak.  The last 2 years, the Cowboys had been the ones to eliminate them.  Steve Young just couldn't win when it really counted.  Then we jumped out to a 21-0 lead and won 38-28.  I wasn't old enough to enjoy "The Catch", so this ranks as my favorite non-SB 49er game ever.

1998 Divisional Rd vs Packers
3 straight years we had been eliminated by Favre and the Green Packers.  With 8 seconds left and down 4, Young drops back (nearly falls) and launches a perfect strike to a sandwiched TO.  TO cried.  9ers overcame the Pack in Young's last playoff run ever.

2002 Wild Card vs Giants
The 49ers missed the postseason in consecutive seasons '99 and '00 (the first time since '79-'80), then were promptly dismissed by the Pack in '01.  Then we found ourselves down 38-14 to the Giants in the 3rd quarter.  Jeff Garcia proceeds to lead the 9ers on a 25-0 run to edge out NY 39-38.  And, in the spirit of the game, I don't think you deserve pass interference if you mess up a field goal try that badly.

2011 Divisional Rd vs Saints
9 long years.  No playoffs in 9 stinkin years.  Then Harbaugh resurrects a franchise from 6 wins to 13 wins and a 1st round bye.  Against NO, the 9ers jump out to a 17-0 lead but find themselves down 3 with mere seconds left.  Alex Smith's strike to Vernon Davis conjures memories of Clark and TO's catches.  Vernon Davis' cries 9er nation's cathartic tears.

2012 NFC Championship at Falcons
An anemic offense and 2 Kyle Williams turnovers on kick returns vs NY cost the 49ers a Superbowl spot a year ago.  This year with a Kaepernick-led explosive offense, the 49ers turned a 17-0 deficit on the road vs Atlanta into glory.  The defense shut out the Falcons in the 2nd half to book the long-awaited (18 years) trip back to the big game.

Monday, January 21, 2013

49ers advance to their 6th Superbowl!

Key moments from the 2012 NFC Championship

- After being dominated the entire 1st quarter (9ers had no first downs while Falcons had no punts) and going down 17-0, SF finally responds with a 11 play, 6:46 minute, 80 yard TD drive.  It was capped off by a 15 yard LaMichael James run from a read-option handoff.  What was encouraging was that the 9ers didn't panic, but opted to hand off to Gore 4 straight times to start the drive.

- After a Falcon 3 and out (finally), the 49ers drove 91 yards for 2nd straight TD.  This drive was notable for Kaepernick's lone positive rush of the day - a 23 yard broken play scamper up the left sideline - as well as Vernon Davis' reappearance in the SF offense.  He accounted for 3 catches for 48, including the 4 yd TD reception.

- Though Atlanta scored a TD to end the half, the 49ers started the 3rd quarter with a 3rd consecutive TD drive.  7 plays, 82 yards - Randy Moss contributed with 2 catches totaling 38 yards, while Gore had 4 rushes for 24 yards and a TD.

- Next 2 Falcon possessions ended in turnovers - a Culliver interception just past midfield and a Ryan fumbled snap well inside FG territory.  Disappointingly, the 49ers squandered both ensuing scoring opportunities with a Akers missed 38 yarder and a Crabtree goalline fumble.  That's 10 points we should've had.

- However, Crabtree didn't fumble away our field position, and Atlanta's ensuing 3 and out punt coupled with Ginn's 20 yard return provided us with a short field.  6 plays and 38 yards later including Gore's 9 yard read-option run, SF had a 28-24 lead.

- Atlanta went on a 7 minute, 70 yard, 14 play march, needing a TD to win.  (On one 3rd down play, Harry Douglas brought down a pass, fell, lost control of the ball since it clearly moved after contact with the ground but was still ruled a catch even after replay.  Utterly ridiculous.) Inside 2 minutes, the last 4 downs from the SF 16 were as follows:
1) 1 yd Rodgers run stuffed by Patrick Willis on first down.
2) 5 yard pass to Snelling, tackled by Willis while Ahmad Brooks piledrove Ryan and his left shoulder into the ground causing injury.
3) Ahmad Brooks bats down a Ryan pass at the line of scrimmage intended for an open Roddy White on the right.
4) NaVorro Bowman contacts White withing 5 yards and breaks up a short pass up the middle - turnover on downs.

The 9ers defense allowed 24 points in the first half, but shut them out in the 2nd half.  This is the 2nd greatest comeback in championship game history - only behind Peyton's beautiful 18 point comeback against the Patriots in 2006.

Harbaugh's decision to go with Kaepernick has been justified simply because the 49ers have advanced further than Alex Smith was able to take us last year.  This year, we even had to play this NFC Championship on the road, against the team with the best record in the league.  Kaep's big play ability with both his feet and his arm has even made up for a comparatively less stout defense than we had last year.

Another fact of note: this is only the 49ers' 3rd playoff win on the road, ever.  We are now 3-9 all time on the road in the playoffs.
1970 Divisional Round at Minnesota 17-14
1998 NFC Championship 28-3 at Chicago 28-3
2012 NFC Championship at Atlanta 28-24

By the way, my 38-24 prediction would've been right on had we scored that FG and Crabtree fumble.  Just sayin.

Its been 18 years since the 49ers have been to the Superbowl.  We are the only team in history with more than 1 appearance to be undefeated in the biggest game.  Think about that - there is no team that is even 2-0 in the SB, while we are 5-0.  And now, the 49ers have a chance to tie for the most Superbowl wins in NFL history (Pittsburgh has won 6, but lost 2) and regain our status of greatest NFL franchise in the Superbowl era.

Friday, January 18, 2013

49ers v Falcons Prediction

Reasons why the 9ers shouldn't be the favorite:
- Simple.  We are playing on the road in a noisy indoor stadium.  Interestingly, the 49ers haven't won a road playoff game since 1989 at Soldier Field (Harbaugh was the backup Bears QB).
- We haven't won 3 straight games all year.  This is the 3rd game.  Unlike last year, we are susceptible to lapses in concentration.
- Our defense has been susceptible lately as well.  Justin Smith is not 100%.
- Kaepernick is starting just his 9th game of his career.  Matt Ryan is starting his 82nd game.
- Atlanta was up 27-7 on Seattle's vaunted defense going into the 4th quarter.
- Atlanta outrushed Seattle 167 yards to 123.
- Atlanta's receiving corp is much more experienced and prolific than ours.  They were 6th in passing yards this year.  We were 23rd.
- Atlanta's won 13 games in the regular season, losing only 3, including an irrelevant last game of the season.
- David Akers has been unreliable.
- We are a 4 point overdog, never a good motivational position to be in, especially on the road.

What do we have to do to win:
- Our offensive line should dominate their inferior rush defense.  Kaepernick and Gore both need big days.
- Our offense needs to control the clock and limit their possessions, just as we did against Green Bay's defense.
- Our TEs need to exploit their linebackers/safeties for big chunks of yards.
- Our defensive line needs to get constant pressure on the QB without the aid of blitzes.
- Our secondary needs to limit pass interference penalties on that indoor fast track.
- Our kicker needs to be automatic under 50 yards.

Before the playoffs began, if you asked me which teams I feared more out of GB, Seattle and Atlanta, the Falcons would have been last.  I figured if they even reached this round, we would crush 'em by double digits.  Now, after a week of being widely panned by national critics, the 49ers may be facing a highly motivated home team.  Also, with all the publicity that Kaepernick has received, will he be able to play with this new pressure?  Will the team keep its concentration?

I think so.  Last year we were happy to be here.  This year, its all business.

49ers 38 - Falcons 24

Also, lets go Ravens.  I'm holding out hope for an upset, but I think NE wins 31-17.

UCLA beats OSU for 10th straight, Jamaal Wilkes jersey retired

I took my boys and my parents to see the 24th ranked Bruins get to a 10 game winning streak.  Its UCLA's first 10 game streak since the 2008-09 season (and we lost the next game).  The season before in 2007-08, we actually had a 14 win streak that was snapped in the Final Four vs Memphis.  While we're on the subject, the 2006-07 team started their season on a 14 game win streak.  And the 2005-06 team went on a 12 game tear, finally losing in the national championship.

This is also the first time UCLA has opened the conference schedule with a 5-0 record since Howland's 2003-04 team, which promptly lost its next 6.  Against Oregon State, we have won 23 of the last 24 games played at home.

Shabazz led all scorers with 21 points in our 74-64 victory.  Kyle Anderson might have been the player of the game though, as he shot 7-9 from the field, 17 points, and had another strong night on the boards with 9.  Also with 17, Travis Wear has been on a tear of late ever since his 22 points in that massive game vs Missouri.  In the past 6 games, he scored 100 points exactly, a 16.7 per game average.

But the biggest reason I wanted to be there was for Jamaal Wilkes' jersey retirement.  We haven't had one since 2004 when Gail Goodrich was honored.  Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton (announcing the game for ESPN), Marques Johnson, Mike Warren, Don McLean (announcing game on radio) and other Bruin greats were on hand as Wilkes' #52 was unveiled in the rafters.  Even AC Green, former Laker great and OSU alum, was in attendance.

UCLA retired jerseys (and the year they were retired) include:
Lew Alcindor 1990
Bill Walton 1990
Walt Hazzard 1996
Sidney Wicks 1996
Marques Johnson 1996
Ed O'Bannon 1996
Gail Goodrich 2004

Jamaal Wilkes 2012
Reggie Miller 2012 (Jan 30th)
Don Barksdale 2012 (Feb 7th)

I'm trying to understand why it took so long for Alcindor and Walton's jerseys to be raised.  And why the same year?  And why did Hazzard, Wicks and Johnson have the retirements the same year alongside Ed O'Bannon, who only waited 1 year?  And why jam 3 retirements into this season?  Just strange administrative decisions, if you ask me.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

49ers: NFC Championship Game History

The San Francisco 49ers are about to play in their 14th NFC Championship.  Its their 2nd straight NFC Championship game, the first time they have played in consecutive NFL semifinals since they played in 3 straight from 1992-94.  In fact, of the 14 times the 49ers have made it, only twice (1981, 1997) did they make the NFC Championship without playing it in the year before or reaching it the year after.  Since the playoffs take place in the following calendar year, we'll denote each 49ers appearance by the regular season's calendar year.  ( For instance, the 49ers are about to play in the 2012 NFC Championship).  The years in which the 49ers were victorious are in bold.

Dallas Cowboys 17 - SF 49ers 10
Kezar Stadium (SF)

Dallas Cowboys 14 - SF 49ers 3
Texas Stadium

SF 49ers 28 - Dallas Cowboys 27
Candlestick Park

Washington Redskins 24 - SF 49ers 21
RFK Stadium

SF 49ers 23 - Chicago Bears 0
Candlestick Park

SF 49ers 28 - Chicago Bears 3
Soldier Field

SF 49ers 30 - Los Angeles Rams 3
Candlestick Park

New York Giants 15 - SF 49ers 13
Candlestick Park

Dallas Cowboys 30 - SF 49ers 20
Candlestick Park

Dallas Cowboys 38 - SF 49ers 21
Texas Stadium

SF 49ers 38 - Dallas Cowboys 28
Candlestick Park

Green Bay Packers 23 - SF 49ers 10
Candlestick Park

New York Giants 20 - SF 49ers 17
Candlestick Park

SF 49ers v Atlanta Falcons
Georgia Dome

Random Observations:

- In our 13 previous conference championship games, we have won 5 and lost 8.  Starting with the Walsh dynasty, which is really the 49ers that I know, they've actually been 5-6.  From 1990 on, we've been 1-5.

- From 1981 to 1997, we played in 10 of the 17 NFC Championship games.  Considering our sustained excellence over 17 years, the fact that there was a 13 year absence is quite sad.

- We went on to win the Superbowl after each of our 5 NFC Championship victories.

- SF will be tied with Dallas in appearances with 14, but 7 of theirs were before 1980.  They are 8-6 overall and they also haven't made it since 1995.

- Of the 13 previous games, we've played Dallas 6 times, more than any other team, winning only twice.

- The 49ers have hosted 9 NFC Championships, far and away the most by any team.  Dallas and Washington have each hosted 5.

- Our record at home in this game is 4-5.  (4-4 at Candlestick Park since our 1st NFC champ game was played at Kezar Stadium.)

- The 1981 game against Dallas featured Montana-Clark's "The Catch", which jump-started the Walsh dynasty.

- The sweetest NFC championship win was the 1994 game over Dallas.  It was the 3rd consecutive meeting between these rivals in the NFC Championship, with SF coming up short both times before in '93 and '92.  The 49ers also disappointingly missed the '91 playoffs (even with a 10 win season).  As for 1990....  

- The most bitter NFC championship loss may have been the 1990 game where our hopes of an unprecedented Superbowl 3-peat was abruptly ended by the Giants in a 2 point loss.  This was the last playoff game Montana played for the 49ers.

- The 1997 loss to GB was just about as painful because the Packers had ended our postseason 3 consecutive years ('95, '96, '97 - which is clearly why TO's '98 "The Catch II" to beat the Packers was so cathartic).  If anyone was writing the storybook properly, we were supposed to finally prevail in 1997 (or at least in '98) and win the SB, just as the '94 49ers defeated the Cowboys on the 3rd try.

- Our record on the road is only 1-3, with our lone victory coming at Soldier Field in 1988.  We lost at Texas Stadium twice and RFK once.

- Atlanta has played in this game twice before - beating the Vikings in '98 (30-27) and losing to the Eagles (27-10) in '04.  The Falcons were on the road both times so this is the first time Atlanta will host the NFC Championship.

- The first and only time the 49ers played the Falcons in the postseason was in the 1998 playoffs where the Falcons beat SF 20-18 in the Georgia Dome.  It was the last playoff game for Steve Young.  Ironically, SF had also just beaten the Packers to advance.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Candlestick & Kaepernick, 49ers beat the Pack

The whole season led to this game, for the team and for me personally.  The NFC West title was nice and a lot closer than we all thought it would be, but it was the assumed outcome from the preseason.  However, getting that first round bye so we could host our first playoff game - that was where our season should really begin.  Ever since last January's heartbreaker vs the Giants, we had been .  And it led to this divisional playoff at Candlestick on Saturday, Jan 12, 2013.  We had traveled to the Bay for a Friday funeral so it just happened that we had a free Saturday AND inlaws as babysitters.

I couldn't pass up this chance.  Who knows, this could be the last of so many historic playoff games held at Candlestick before the move in 2014.  (I certainly hope not - that would mean we won't win the division next year).  This was going to be the 27th playoff game played there (9ers are now 20-7), the most of any NFL stadium in history.  From Dwight Clark's catch to TO's catch to Vernon's catch - all at Candlestick.  Also, we were playing one of the most storied teams in football - the Packers own 9 championships (before 1966) and 4 Superbowls.  Plus, they were the nemesis who had beat us 4 of the 5 times we've met in the postseason.  And, with reigning NFL MVP Rodgers in his prime, many had picked them as the preseason favorite to win the SB.  Lastly, the greatness of modern football teams can be hard to maintain.  We came out of nowhere last season and our window could close just as fast.  If we win it all this year and I merely watched our last playoff home game on TV a mere 25 miles away, I'd regret it forever.

I had probably spent multiple hours of my life last week scouring ticket sites last week and by Thursday night decided that paying about $50 over face value per ticket was about the best rate we were going to find, especially for 3 seats together (one old college roommate was persuaded easily).  But right before we pulled the trigger, I decided to check Ticketmaster and lo and behold, the 49ers had just released more tix.  We were going for face.  What's more, my parents were gifting a pair to my wife and I.

The last and first time I went to Candlestick was in 2003 (Garcia and TO's last 9ers game).  Traffic getting to the stadium was not nearly as bad as I thought.  We rolled into the rundown neighborhood of South SF nearly 2 hours before kickoff.  Walking from a distant parking lot, I noted the distinct lack of a criminal element feel, even while breathing in some 2nd hand illegal smoke.  Sure, there was back and forth banter with Packer fans, but it felt good-natured ("Discount double-check this!"), not intimidating the way it would at a dodger or trojan game.  We walked across a strange wood/concrete bridge, the kind you'd see at Frontierland in Disneyland, to get from the far lot to the close one.  There was a bottleneck before walking up that 2 way bridge and another going up the main escalator to the upper level.

Candlestick might be historic, built in 1960 for the Giants and retrofitted in 1971 for the 49ers, but its still oddly shaped for a football stadium and just seems barren and dated.  It has no modern amenities nor aesthetic charm and contains little true sentimental value on its own merit.  The "concrete baffling" which encircles the top of the stadium was originally designed to decrease the wind factor, but is only effective in its memorable unattractiveness.  To combat the wind and chill of Candlestick in January, we came with at least 5 layers and a blanket.  (Had Walmart or Target sold 49ers snuggies, I might have been persuaded.  Snuggie, you missed your chance).

I bought a 12 inch polish sausage for $8 (not bad at all for stadium fare) and we made our way to our seats in section UB53.  It was in the Northeast corner, upper tier, left (when facing the field) of the scoreboard, just about in line with the North endzone.  A pretty decent view, especially remembering the less enjoyable views of football from upper endzone seats.  Also more enjoyable was the fact that we were away from the rowdier fans in the upper reserve behind us.  Our section was full of more good-natured 49er fans who loved to high-five everyone around them every single 1st down.  And we had a lot of 1st downs.  Also memorable was the fact that most of our section stood for large portions of the game - something I did not expect outside of college football.  The normal wine & cheese 9er fans clearly turn up the intensity and the noise when it comes to the playoffs.  I guess just like UCLA basketball fans, our standards are too high to get worked up for just anything.  Huey Lewis & the News sang the national anthem and timed it perfectly with the jets above.

To beat the league MVP with a QB starting his 8th game, I thought we needed these things: minimize Packer possessions by controlling the clock through running the ball, decimate the Packers' porous offensive line to apply pressure while containing Rodgers' rollout ability, avoid big plays and pass interference calls on their playmakers, avoid turnovers and capitalize on our field goals.  Through 1 quarter, it seemed we were not successful.  However, the truth was the Packers had scored in unlikely ways.  The 2 key plays: a pick-six and a lucky deep bomb were not reliable ways to score.

On the other hand, Kaepernick was leading long clock-consuming drives.  80 yards and 48 yard drives in the 1st half and 3 key consecutive drives of 80, 93 and 93 yards in the 2nd half to seal it.  In the end, the 49ers had dominated the clock 38 minutes to GB's 22.  We had earned 26 first downs to GB's 16.  We had accumulated 579 yards of offense to their 352 (including 323 to 104 total rushing advantage).  This is the most prolific offensive performance in 49ers playoff history, including the romps over the Dolphins, Broncos and Chargers in those Superbowls.  Also most impressive was that the 49ers were 8-13 on 3rd downs.

Kaepernick had set a NFL playoff record for most QB rushing yards ever with 181 yards, bettering Michael Vick's previous mark of 172 yards.  He even outperformed Rodgers with more passing yards (263-257) and averaged 8.3 yards per pass (Rodgers 6.4).  So, on the night he had 444 total yards with 2 passing TDs and 2 rushing TDs.  It's just the 4th time anyone in playoff history has thrown for 2 TDs and rushed for 2 TDs.

There is no question now that Harbaugh's gutsy decision to bench Alex Smith has been justified.  I must admit that I wanted to see Alex finish out this season, banking on his experience to give us a better chance of winning.  But Harbaugh knew that we could have a higher ceiling with Kaepernick and made the unconventional decision.  Even with the added explosiveness, I also figured that Kaep would require a typical beginner's learning curve.  The lack of experience in dealing with defenses that will start game-planning for him might hurt us come playoff time.  Hey, we're not building for the future!  We can't afford to waste this year!  But I was wrong.  GB certainly knew what was coming but couldn't stop him.  (Still, defenses will only get tougher in the next 2 games).

And while the hype has been on rookies Luck, Wilson and RG3, Kaepernick has actually started less games than any of them (by half) but is the only one left still playing.  I'd even argue that he might be a better option than RG3, simply because you never see Kaep take hard hits like RG3 does multiple times a game.

Against the Packers, Kaep rebounded from his horrible pick-6 decision with a drive that culminated in a 20 yard TD run.  Midway through the 3rd quarter, he scored the go-ahead TD with a 56 yard dash.  I will always remember that play because of the relative silence.  After faking the handoff, Candlestick fell strangely quiet, as if we were all trying to figure out who had the ball, and then we realized that he was galloping downfield with no defender in position to stop him, and then we thought "was this really happening?", and then the Stick erupted.  It seemed that he was virtually untouched on both plays.

Two other 9ers on offense finished with big games - Frank Gore rushed for 119 yards, 1 TD, and had another 48 yards receiving.  Michael Crabtree has really emerged with Kaepernick's tenure and he grabbed 9 balls for 119 yards and 2 TDs.  Vernon Davis' role has conversely shrunken but I won't forget Kaep's 44 yard seam pass over the top to Davis that Alex Smith used to throw to him regularly.  At least on the night, Kaep attempted 5 passes to Davis.  Maybe another week or two of practice will help us make better use of Vernon's skills.

Our defense really was amazing.  Though we only finished with 1 sack on Rodgers, we forced 4 punts and intercepted him once.  We held them to 2 TD drives both in the 1st half (until the last garbage time drive) and allowed only 3 meaningful 2nd half points.

The final key moment of the game to me was when the 49ers were up 2 touchdowns with a quarter to play.  GB was driving down the field as Rodgers completed his first 5 passes.  Then came 3rd down and Rodgers' deep ball was just out of Jennings' reach.  Though they were at midfield, they decided to punt on 4th and 5 with nearly 12 minutes left, down 2 TDs.  SF went on a 8 minute TD drive, including lining up for a 4th and 1, and the game was over.  3:30 left, up 3 TDs, we at Candlestick were pulsing in celebration.

After the game, we soaked it in, took a few pictures, then walked down to field level as we exited.  We posed for pictures at the edge of the north endzone of the field, the very same spot that Dwight Clark jump-started the 49ers dynasty with "The Catch" back in 1981.  And that's one of the pieces of history that made what might be my last ever visit to Candlestick absolutely perfect.

Monday, January 7, 2013

2012 49ers Season, Playoff & Packers Historical Facts

For the 2nd straight year, Harbaugh again led the 49ers to the NFC West crown and the #2 overall seed in the NFC.  Had Akers been his normal self and made the 2 OT FGs in both games vs the Rams, we would have finished 13-3 just like last year, instead of 11-4-1.  However, the replacement ref's horrific call which cost the Packers a W early on vs Seattle actually ended up helping us win that first round bye and the right to host Green Bay this week instead of traveling to Lambeau.

This is the first time the 49ers have won back-to-back NFC West titles since doing it 4 times straight from 1992-95.  This is the 19th NFC West title in the 43 years we've played in the West.  That's about 44% - not bad.  But recently, its only our 3rd in the last 15 years - horrifically bad.

Since the Superbowl era began in 1966, this is the 23rd playoff appearance for the 49ers.  In those past 22 playoff seasons, this is how we fared:
Eliminated in Wild Card round - 2 times.
Eliminated in Divisional round - 7 times.
Eliminated in NFC Championship round - 8 times.
5 Superbowl victories - No losses in the big game (eat your heart out, Brady.)

This is the 6th time the 49ers finished as the 2nd seed in the NFC West and yet have only won the Superbowl from this position once.  (The other 4 championships were won from the #1 seed).
1983 - 10-6 - Div champs, lost in Conf round
1988 - 10-6 - Div champs, Superbowl Champs
1993 - 10-6 - Div champs, lost in Conf round
1995 - 11-5 - Div champs, lost in Div round
2011 - 13-3 - Div champs, lost in Conf round
2012 - 11-4-1 - Div champs, TBD

This is also the first time the 49ers have had double digit number of victories back-to-back since 2001-'02.  Interestingly, we actually won 12 games in 2001 but failed to win the NFC West (because of Kurt Warner).  Before that, SF had been in the double digits for an astounding 16 years straight - from 1983-1998.  You could argue 17 years straight, since 1982 was a strike shortened season and the 49ers won 13 games in 1981 (not to mention the Superbowl).  In fact, in the 35 years that the NFL expanded to 16 games (minus strike shortened year), the 49ers have won double digit games 21 times!  That's 60% of the time.

Though we've finished with double digit wins 20 previous times since the 16 game season began, we've only actually finished with exactly 11 wins once before.  It is eerily similar to this season.  In 1995, the 49ers finished 11-5, just beat out the Packers for the #2 seed, then hosted them in the divisional round.  How'd we do?  We were behind 21-0 by the 2nd quarter and lost 27-17.

Our Playoff history vs the Packers isn't good at all:
1995 Divisional Round - Lost 27-17 in Candlestick - Down 21-0.
1996 Divisional Round - Lost 35-14 at Lambeau - Down 21-0 to start again.
1997 Conference Round - Lost 23-10 in Candlestick - Down 23-3 before late kick return.
1998 Wild Card Round - Won 30-27 in Candlestick - TO's "The Catch II".
2001 Wild Card Round - Lost 25-15 at Lambeau - GB scores last 10 points.
2012 Divisional Round in Candlestick

Though both teams have extensive history - 9 Superbowls between them, it is interesting that they had not faced off in the postseason until the 90s.  But then they met 5 out of 7 years, with the 49ers getting the short end of the stick in painful fashion.  TO's game-winning endzone catch was cathartic for 9er fans because it ended a 3 year streak of season-ending losses to GB, but the truth is the Packers have won 2 Superbowls since the 49ers last hoisted the trophy.

Last season, we were poised for a conference championship showdown with the 15-1 Packers before the Saints upended them prematurely.  Though we beat the Pack 30-22 in Lambeau to open this season, they are clearly a much improved and healthier team now.

To win, we need to take advantage of playing at home, overwhelm their porous offensive line, control the clock, avoid penalties in the secondary and make our field goals.  Can Kaepernick, in just his 8th start, beat the reigning NFL MVP, Aaron Rodgers?

Prediction: 49ers 23 - Packers 20

Sunday, January 6, 2013

UCLA wins 7 straight in beating Stanford

The rumor was that after the loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Howland was on the verge of being axed.  Had he lost to CSUN the following game, boosters would have demanded his head.  Though UCLA won that game easily, they lost the next game vs a ranked SDSU in a nationally televised exhibition, which also exposed the lack of fan support.  Quietly, Howland continued to teach his defensively challenged squad, even using a strangely scheduled exhibition game to work on playing and attacking man-to-man defenses.

His 2 best recruits, Shabazz and Kyle, had been relative disappointments, not to mention that the big man with the most pro potential had suddenly transferred (eventually to Georgetown - good luck motivating Josh, JT).  Then starting with a sparsely attended game at Reliant Stadium, Howland found a way to win.  Then he beat 3 pushovers, scoring an average of 91.7 points a game.  In a measuring stick game, UCLA beat #7 Missouri in overtime, which included two enormous OT 3 pointers from a now-in-shape Shabazz.  Honestly, I would have taken that W over the bowl game vs Baylor.  Maybe its because I'm more a UCLA basketball guy, but a win over a top 10 team pre-conference goes a long way when it comes to tournament selection time.  The last time we beat a ranked team was over #10 Arizona 2 seasons ago.

UCLA proceeded to handily win its Pac-12 openers vs Cal and Stanford (albeit in ugly fashion) and all of a sudden, Howland finds himself 12-3 with perhaps just a couple more wins away from cracking the top 25 again.  Has the team arrived, ready to make a run at Final Fours for the next few years?  No, this is not like any Howland team we've ever seen.  I remarked earlier in the season that perhaps he has sold his basketball soul to keep his job.  They say in his first 9 seasons, his teams had only scored 90 or more points, 10 times.  This season in 15 games, they've already surpassed that mark 4 times and scored 89 in another.

However, defensively, it is clear that all our new additions (minus Parker) are improving immensely.  Shabazz is in much better game shape and responds well to coaching.  Kyle has become much more comfortable on the court and is far and away the best rebounder on the team (which is an indictment on the Wears).  Jordan Adams' offense has returned to earth a bit, but he's made up for it with notable defensive efforts.

But perhaps the most important defender is Larry Drew.  PG penetration is pretty much the key to basketball, and he's literally stepped up to opposing guards in key moments.  Nobody on our team is a lockdown defender (Powell is the closest we have), but with nearly half our season gone, we are much improved.

Against Stanford, the Wears again fell in love with their jump shots early, but were extremely ineffective on the boards.  In 50 minutes of combined play, the Wears TOTALED FIVE rebounds at the center position.  FIVE.  They were each outrebounded by 4 other players, including the point guard (Drew) and backup shooting guard (Powell).  Thankfully, Shabazz had 10 boards while Kyle had 12.  Most disappointingly, our clear weakness is the lack of interior defense - again, an indictment on the Wears.  Tony Parker might be our strongest defender, but he's only getting a couple minutes a game.

Shabazz is obviously going to leave us after the season.  He might not have the explosive ability that some of the elite athletes - Westbrook or Wade - possess, but he fills up the stat sheet game after game.  His game might not be pretty, but he's effective.  And he's been hitting big jumpers in crunch time, exactly what we expected the #1 recruit in the country to do.

Ultimately, I still think Howland needs a Pac 12 title (or at least contend with Arizona until the last weekend) and a Elite Eight appearance to keep his job.  Now he's put himself in position to make a run at it.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

NFL Reg Season Review, Postseason Predictions

Week 17 Record: 13-3

Final Season Record: 173-82-1

Of ESPN's 12 expert pickers each week plus the computer predicter and the public consensus vote, only 2 outpicked me: Mortensen (178-78) and Wickersham (179-77).  just saying.  I did worse than last year (179-77) but much better than 2010 (158-102).

Regular Season Review

In the NFC, I correctly predicted the 49ers as the West champs with Seattle finishing in 2nd.  I also had the Falcons taking the South over the Saints, but didn't figure NO's calamitous year included a playoff absence.  In the North, I figured the Packers would easily take it instead of the come-from-behind scenario they pulled off in reality.  And I had the Vikings in dead last, not knowing the Lions would be that terrible and the Bears would think so poorly of their coach even after a 10-win season.  Minnesota's last second game-winning FG over the Packers of course sealed the 49ers 1st round bye as well as their own unlikely playoff berth.

The NFC East was hardest to predict and the division title came down to the last game of the reg season.  What wasn't in doubt was that my preseason pick of the Eagles was dead wrong.  Halfway through, it looked like the Giants, with a 3 game lead, had it sown up already.  The Redskins, whom I had last, finished first and the Cowboys, whom I had as a wildcard, failed in Dec again.

So I only picked 3 of 6 NFC playoff teams correctly, though 3 were division champs.

In the AFC, I nailed all four division champs but missed with both wildcard picks.  Denver, Baltimore, Texans and Patriots were relatively easy calls, since they basically led their divisions all season.  The Steelers were usurped by the Bengals while Andrew Luck justified his #1 pick by taking a 2 win team to 11 victories his first season.

Postseason Predictions


Bengals at Texans - Houston wakes up after losing last 2 games of reg season. 
Colts at Ravens - Baltimore's sloppy ways catch up to them.  The Luck legend grows.
Seahawks at Redskins - I'm am holding out faint hope that RG3 grows his legend too.
Vikings at Packers - Minny beats GB for the 2nd time, this time at Lambeau?  naw.

Texans at Patriots - That drubbing in NE does not bode well for Houston.
Colts at Broncos - Colts legend, meet future Colts legend.  Peyton schools pupil.
Packers at 49ers - MVP Rodgers vs Kaep starting his 8th game.  SF defense shows up in upset.
Seahawks at Falcons - I intended to take Seattle because I have no faith in ATL.  But this time, I'm taking the Falcons in a reverse upset, thinking Matt Ryan has finally learned his playoff lessons.

Patriots at Broncos - Peyton vs Brady for old times' sake.  I think Brady pulls it out again, unfortunately.
49ers at Falcons - SF dominates from beginning to end.

49ers over Patriots - Kaepernick establishes a new world order and keeps Brady from matching Montana's 4 championships.