Monday, December 31, 2007

#85: Auld Lang Syne

-- Steelers will get out of the Wild Card round. As in: blown out.

-- Penguins finally starting to find their groove. Just not divisionally.

-- Panthers have abundance of misfortune, lack of depth

-- Neal Huntington taking his sweet time. And that could be a good thing.

---Steelers Primed for Quick Exit---

This team is lost.

The fact that James Harrison was voted the Steelers MVP for 2007 (read: an award voted on by his own teammates) is illustrative of that fact.

The word is that Harrison won it because the vote was split on Ben Roethlisberger and Willie Parker. Why Willie Parker was getting enough votes to pull away from Big Ben, though, is the mystery there. Yes, he was the NFL's leading rusher up until he was injured, but he was even more the NFL leader in rushing attempts. The reason they were able to keep feeding Parker the ball, especially in the early games of the year, was that because a certain player wearing #7 has helping stake the Black and Gold to leads.

And Parker, even with all those yards, only rushed for two TDs all year.

I'm not sure when the vote was taken, but it couldn't have been much earlier than when Ben stood on the brink of breaking the franchise record for TD passes in a season...behind one of the most sieve-like offensive lines we've seen in Pittsburgh.

Not that I don't think Harrison shouldn't have gotten some votes. But he's not even the best player on the defense.

The Steelers got lit up by New England on December 9th. That wasn't a huge shock; the Patriots have that capability. It's why they're going to be the first team to ever go 19-0. But Aaron Smith went out that game.

Then, a defense that hadn't given up more that 112 yards rushing to any team, promptly gives up double that, in one game, at home, to Jacksonville. That's right...224 yards. They only gave up 90 to St. Louis, but the Rams were playing from behind much of the game. Then, they gave up 180 to Baltimore.


I don't know how much Tomlin's laid back style is rubbing off on players. We could be seeing the downside of Tomlin running the players ragged in training camp. But I think it's more than that.

The Steelers aren't playing smart football. Defenders aren't missing tackles because they're getting run over in their lanes; they're missing tackles because they don't stay in those lanes and they can't get back in time. And the folks in the secondary don't believe in wrapping guys up. They prefer to fly in like missiles and try to knock the opponent off his feet that way.

Jacksonville looms.

And while they had to travel to Houston this week, then have a short week to travel yet again (and the Steelers only had a go a couple hundred miles), they rested most of their starters. They'll be ready.

And there's abundant evidence that the Steelers are not ready for the playoffs. Physically or mentally.

---Divisional Power Outage---

The Penguins are the only team in the Eastern Conference with 10 losses in regulation against divisional opponents.

There are two teams in the Western Conference with 10 or more regulation losses against divisional opponents: The last place L.A. Kings, and the 3rd from the bottom Edmonton Oilers. The team in between, the Phoenix Coyotes, have 3 games in hand on Edmonton and are only 2 points back.

That paints a pretty ugly picture.

Yes, the Atlantic Division is tough. It may be the toughest division in hockey top to bottom. Were it not for each team's particular strengths and weaknesses, the Penguins would be looking more like the '05-'06 version than the '06-'07 group.

I don't know what the statistics are for intra-divisional games, but get this. My three top hockey stats to determine how good a team is:

First, and most importantly, shots on goal differential. Want to know why Detroit is kicking just about everyone's butt this year? They're absolute tops in the league in SOGD with +11.7. That's an average. Through nearly 40 games, Detroit has outshot it's opponents by almost 12 shots per game. That is unreal.

2nd place? The New York Rangers. With +4.8. Almost 7 shots different than Detroit.

The Capitals are out of the Eastern Conference (and SouthEast division) cellar. How? On November 13th, they had a SOGD of -0.9. After their 8-6 win over Ottawa on Saturday, they have a +2.2 (7th best). They've picked up 6 points in their last 4 games. However, they're next to last in save percentage (88.8%), so they shouldn't threaten to make the playoffs.

Back to the Atlantic division, here's how the teams measure up in SOGD:

1) NY Rangers (+4.7 - #2 in league)
2) New Jersey (+1.3 - tied for #11 in league, with...)
2) NY Islanders
4) Pittsburgh (-1.1 - #20 in league)
5) Philadelphia (-6.1 - #30 in league)

The next most important statistic, and I alluded to it earlier, is save percentage.

1) Philadelphia (91.6% - tied for #3 in league)
2) New Jersey (91.1% - tied for #9 in league)
3) NY Rangers (91.0% - #11 in league)
4) NY Islanders (90.3% - tied for #16 in league)
5) Pittsburgh (90.2% - #19 in league)

And, finally, scoring efficiency. Philadelphia's abysmal SOGD is offset by the fact they they're among the top in save % and efficiency.

1) Philadelphia (11.61% - 2nd in league, .01% behind Dallas)
2) Pittsburgh (9.65% - #16 in league)
3) New Jersey (8.64% - #25 in league)
4) NY Islanders (8.11% - #27 in league)
5) NY Rangers (7.80% - #30 in league)

The Penguins are in the bottom half of the league in all three categories, but they are holding their own in the standings. It just so happens when it comes time to play their divisional foes, the statistical tendencies tend to not favor Pittsburgh's finest. They are 4-10-1.

They'll have time to prepare, though. They don't have any super-long strings against divisional opponents until the end of the season.

Ten of their final 11 games are against the Atlantic.

(They do own a 7-1-0 record against Western Conference opponents, though.)


It seems to happen every year, though not quite like this.

The Pittsburgh Panthers climb up the rankings and edge into national legitimacy, only to have some team that nobody expected come up and knock them back down a notch.

Dayton smacked the Panthers around like you would have expected, maybe, North Carolina to do.

Perhaps it was a letdown game. Remember, only a little more than a week after Pitt staged one of the best comebacks in team history against the always formidable Duke Blue Devils. And on National TV no less. The only casualty of that great triumph seemed to be senior Mike Cook, who tore his ACL. Cook has been maligned through much of his career has making bad passes and not being a reliable shooter in the clutch.

If nothing else, this would have set the stage for a younger player to get some extra minutes on the floor and perhaps make the team better.

Now, though, Jamie Dixon is going to have to find a way to win without Cook and Levance Fields, who might be back in time for the Big East Tournament with a broken foot.

Dixon, though, has had it pretty good when it comes to his players not being injured. Aaron Gray was playing hurt most of last season, but everyone else was more or less intact, if memory serves.

Now, two very experiences players are going to be watching, and two players are going to have to come up very quickly.

Pitt's fall is faster than it's rise, seeing them plummet 7 spots to #13 in this week's rankings. Of course, it's a bit of a consolation to know that Dayton was on the edge of being ranked.

Still, one way or the other, the Pitt Panthers seem destined to rise into the top 16, and stay there.

---The Wisdom of Neal---

At least that's what we hope it is.

Neal Huntingdon has picked up a couple of minor league catchers. They're no one I've ever heard of, and their numbers don't scream, "Hey! I'm your catcher of the future!", but picking them up is a good thing any way you slice it.

1) He's not doing a Dave Littlefield by going out and getting ancient catchers as a stop-gap. Benito Santiago and the like are expensive stop-gaps. There's as good a chance that one of these younger guys will do about as well, with perhaps more of a learning curve, at much less of a price, should they make the team.

2) He's telling Ronny Paulino that the lack of effort exhibited last year did not go unnoticed. I may be one of the last 2 or 3 people on the planet who thinks Ronny has the capability of being a reliable backstop, but someone needs to teach that boy to care.

Considering that Huntington said point blank that he wasn't going to pursue high-profile free-agents, at least he's looking like he's trying to restock the farm system.

And he's not asking for the moon for anyone, and if the offer is being rejected, he's not making unreasonable concessions for the sake of making a trade.

The ultimate test will be the draft.

We all knew going in that rebuilding the Pirates, with Nutting ultimately pulling the strings, is going to be a near-impossible task for anyone.

At least this is a method we haven't seen yet.


And so, my friends, with that, I wish everyone a Happy 2008! May all my gloom-and-doom predictions be wrong!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

#84: No Guarantees

-- Anthony Smith does something dumb.

-- Pitt football fans are sated until September.

-- Pens in last place, but close to first.

-- Adios, Castillo.

-- Random

---Joe Namath, He Ain't---

Anthony Smith may help prove me right, after all.

For the past few weeks, since a couple days before they played the Indianapolis Colts, I've said that the Patriots will be 19-0, and all of the non-New England fans should just be thankful that we're getting to see history being made. It would be easier if it were, say, Buffalo, or Kansas City, or maybe Atlanta making this undefeated run, but, to paraphrase past Steelers coaches: It is what it is.

Statistically, the gap between the Steelers and Patriots has not only closed, but Pittsburgh has eclipsed New England. The most important of these stats, Yards per Pass Average, gives the Steelers a slight edge entering this game. New England does average more yards per pass than the Steelers (8.3 vs. 7.1), but when you factor in what each team allows through the air (the Patriots' 6.2 vs. the Steelers' 4.8), the differential gives the Steelers a +2.3 over New England's +2.1.

On the ground, the Steelers have a +0.5 advantage. Considering that both teams have been struggling with various aspects of their game the past couple of weeks, the fact that the differentials are still positive (NE gives up as many rush yards per attempt as they gain, on average), this should be an awesome match-up to behold.

However, the fact that Smith, a backup safety (starting only due to injury) has now not only disrespected the Patriots by guaranteeing a win, he has disrespected them going into Gillette Stadium. Those elements combined may more than wipe out the statistical advantage.

It would not surprise me to see Tom Brady come out and immediately test the zone where Smith will be patrolling.

If Pittsburgh is to win this game, it is imperitive that New England is kept out of the end zone on its first drive. Even if New England scores on its second possession, the defense will know it can keep the Patriots out.

And the first time Randy Moss touches the ball, they have got to give him a tackle he won't soon forget. At least for the duration of the game.

And somehow, some way, the offensive line has to protect Ben Roethlisberger. Belichick has shown us what he can do with a patchwork secondary over the years (Hank Friggin Poteat was on the 2004 Superbowl XXXIX team). If Big Ben is under the pressure he's been under most of the season, you'll see multiple INTs.

Question to answer in the comments:

What will the result of the Steelers/Patriots game be?

A) New England will win and cover the spread (roundabout 2 touchdowns).

B) New England will win, but not cover.

C) The Steelers will win outright.

---Wanny's Signature---

First, let it be said that I was pulling for the Mountaineers to win a close game. I side with Pitt in the Brawl, but I don't have that "I hate WVU" fervor that Pitt alums seem to possess in limitless supply.

It's just been hard to root for a team that has been as poorly coached as the Panthers since Dave Wannestedt took the helm. This year, it was a little different, because the Panthers have been injured to a ridiculous extent. I don't think Bowden or Paterno could have done more than a win or two better.

Now that that's out there, the Panthers were able to survive egregious calls on the field by the officials and the intimidating crowd and pull an upset that seemed to be very nearly another Appalachain State/Michigan.

The spread was ridiculous. West Virginia had every reason to show up for the game. A victory seemed guaranteed. Even I went on the air on "Saturday Morning Sports Talk" on WMBS during the 9AM hour Saturday and said that Pitt didn't have a chance.

It was just one of those situations that demonstrates why they play the game.

And along with Wannestedt's extention through 2010, which most people greeted with an audible eye-roll, he finally got his signature victory.

Regardless, the Panthers end the regular season without a bowl berth for the third consecutive year and far more questions than there are answers.

Question to answer in the comments:

What will this win do for the Pitt Panthers organization?

A) Nothing significant. The Panthers will continue to underachieve under Wanny.

B) This is the first glimpse of a team that will be a legitimate contender in two years.


---Tight Race---

The Penguins had been in the Atlantic Division basement for a while entering their game with the New York Islanders.

That statement alone would make one think that the Penguins weren't very good.

The fact is that the Penguins are just in the midst of a huge pack in the Eastern Conference. The best team, the Ottawa Senators, leads all comers with 37 points in the standings. The Washington Capitals bring up the rear with 20. The middle 13 teams are all within 8 points of each other (Carolina is 2nd with 33, Florida is in 14th with 25).

Divisionally speaking, the Penguins are ahead of the Islanders in fourth place with 30 points. The Rangers, Devils, and Flyers are all tied for first with 32.

Obviously, a little more than one-third into the season, there are absolutely no guarantees.

Flashing back to my previous post, the Pens have improved their Shots-on-Goal differential since then. They've also gone 7-2-1 over that stretch (and they're currently in overtime against the Flames). The SOGD has improved from -1.3 to -0.2.

Meanwhile, checking on the Philadelphia Flyers, they were dead last with a -9.1 SOGD. They're still dead last, though their differential has improved to -7.7.

The story with the Flyers is that their save percentage has fallen from .930 to .917. They are 4-3-2 over the same stretch. The Pens and Flyers play again on Tuesday in the City of Brotherly Love.

The statistical oddity of the day...remember what I wrote about Ottawa and Washington? Their SOGD are scarily close. Ottawa: 2.4 - Washington: 1.9

Could the Caps be on the verge of making a push to get back in the race?

Question to answer in the comments:

What is the biggest factor that's held the Penguins back this year?

1) Play in goal

2) Defense

3) Too much passing

4) Not accustomed to wearing the proverbial target

---Bucs Toss Castillo Overboard---

Not terribly much has been happening in Pirateland during the MLB Winter Meetings. However, they did jettison a player who, two years ago, looked like he was going to be a valuable second baseman. The Pirates released Jose Castillo on Thursday.

They've also let go a couple of lower-profile players: Brad Eldred, an aging career minor leaguer (with the exception of a couple of stints aboard the mothership...even making the 25-man roster at the beginning of this past season) who got bit by the injury bug; and Brian Rogers, one of the Dave Littlefield disasters of 2006 (traded Sean Casey to the Tigers for this AA player).

I'm not overly concerned with any of these. They were players whose stock was declining (or never really there in the first place) and was not likely to rebound. I'm only disappointed that Castillo allowed himself to fall off after a reasonably successful 2005 campaign.

Apparently, the Astros may be willing to deal either Chris Burke or Luke Scott for Damaso Marte. The offensive help would be awesome. I suspect we'd get Scott if the trigger got pulled one way or the other.

DL would manage to get us Dave Borkowski instead (another middle reliever...who has a career ERA of 5.68).

Let's see if Neal Huntingdon can at least get one of the guys rumored. Marte would be a fair trade. The first step in getting this organization back on its feet is at least making trades that make sense. That are equitable. Establish yourself as a reasonable general manager. Then, maybe you'll get one of those trades that net you more than what you give.

Question to answer in the comments:

Do you agree that Luke Scott or Chris Burke for Damaso Marte would be fair?

1) Yes.

2) More than fair, actually.

3) No. We need reliable middle relief.

4) Seriously, I haven't been paying attention to the Pirates for 5 years.


-- WVU kicker Pat McAfee received a FaceBook death threat and other text messages (hate texts?) for missing two field goals (20 and 32 yards, I believe) during the Backyard Brawl. Do we suddenly live in South America? That's the kind of crap that those nutso soccer fans do near the equator and south.

These kids are not paid to be out there (and if they are, we're not supposed to know about it). Sports are not important enough to even threaten death to someone, even if they're professional. Yeah, it sucks to watch your team fall, especially in a situation where they should win.

I have a hunch that the team that loses feels worse than their fans.

And if the source of the ire is because you placed a heavy bet on a team? That's your own fault. Never bet more than you can afford (or are ready) to lose. A lesson I learned the hard way.

-- ESPN's Stephen A. Smith essentially says that bloggers shouldn't be allowed to reach a mass audience because they're "not professionals".

Just allow the irony of this to sink in.

-- Tim Benz of Fox Sports 970 is no longer going to be partnered with Joe Bendel during the evening drive 3-7PM timeslot. Link here

The article makes it sound like Benz dropped out on his own. I think it's because WBGG is tired of getting beat by (or being tied with) yours truly's own WMBS. Don't believe me? Go here to see what I mean. Look for WBGG (Fox Sports 970's call letters).

Maybe I should send in my demo...

-- In the meantime, you can tune into WMBS (590 AM) just after 9AM on Saturday's for "Saturday Morning Sports Talk" with host Dutch Wydo. I'm his "wingman" on the show. It's the most consistent sports talk I've got going for me.

Question to answer in the comments:

Should I resume podcasting?

1) Definitely

2) If you want to

3) Absolutely not

4) You used to podcast?

5) Only if I can go on with you.