Wednesday, December 16, 2009

#138: Last-Minute Christmas Gift Idea

---Ultimate Super Bowl Book---

If you're scrambling around, trying to find the perfect gift for the pro football nut on your list, I have a suggestion.

I was recently provided a review copy of the following book, which may be the most comprehensive tome on the subject of the Super Bowl.

"The Ultimate Super Bowl Book" is as complete a history of professional sports' biggest annual event as you could ever hope to find (until Super Bowl XLIV is played this coming which point I presume it will be amended).

Each chapter is presented mostly through the journalistic eye of author and long-time Green Bay Packers writer Bob McGinn with some occasion for editorializing. However, 99% of the book is "Just the facts, ma'am."

And facts there are.

Each of the 43 chapters (one for each of the Super Bowls played to date) describes each score in a page-turning narrative format (though often non-chronological), gives credit to those who made otherwise thankless blocks on key plays, and explains who made critical errors that cost their team points.

Those literary depictions alone would be worth the purchase price.

The true treasures, however, are the in-chapter tables that provide complete team and individual statistics, the rosters for both teams and all of the coaches. McGinn credits the compilation these tables to his wife. These tables elevate this piece of work from "enlightening" to "important".

In addition, the appendix at the end of the book reveals just about every current Super Bowl record, including what team gained the most total yards in a Super Bowl and which two teams combined for the most passing first downs. I'd reveal those facts myself, but I'd be giving things away.

McGinn also deftly interlaces quotations from coaches, players, and front office officials into his narratives. Some of those words were spoken shortly after the game in question was concluded. Others were said in interviews years later, giving the reader the added perspective of time and how some people on the losing end of the contests saw the game after the heat of the moment had long passed.

He also takes the time to compile a few "Top Ten" lists, including "Top Ten Hits", "Top Ten Plays by a Wide Receiver" and "Top Ten Super Bowl Upsets". Feel free to agree or disagree.

As someone who did not watch a Super Bowl until the Chicago Bears drubbed the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX and didn't really understand the game until somewhere around XXIX, when the San Francisco 49ers proved they were more than a match for the San Diego Chargers, I found the accounts of the earlier Super Bowls extremely informative. For instance, perhaps the MVP of the New York Jets over the Baltimore Colts should have been running back Matt Snell (121 rushing yards on 30 attempts and the only touchdown for New York) against the vaunted Baltimore Colts defense.

The later Super Bowls (XXX through XLIII) were more like a refresher course, with the added insight of why some of the teams employed the offensive or defensive strategies they did, or why players ended up committing key mistakes.

Why did Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell throw two balls into the stomach of the Dallas Cowboys' Larry Brown in Super Bowl XXX?

How were the Denver Broncos able to contain the explosive Brett Favre-led Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII?

Same for the New England Patriots against Kurt Warner and the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" in XXXVI?

Finally, McGinn's work does not reflect any apparent bias, either on his part, or on the part of the media. While he mentions the New England Patriots' "Spygate" scandal, it is not until Chapter XLII, when they were defeated by the New York Giants. "Spygate" is not referenced in any of the teams' victories over St. Louis, Carolina, or Philadelphia. There is also no word from McGinn himself as to whether he thinks that gave New England an unfair advantage. He steers clear, offering only a quote from Hall of Fame coach Don Shula on the subject.

He recognizes the controversy surrounding Super Bowl XL's officiating, offering many quotes from Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren throughout the chapter, but otherwise accurately portrays the game as an unspectacular contest decided by three big plays by the Pittsburgh Steelers and questionable clock management and untimely injuries suffered by the Seahawks.

This is an inspired piece of work.

Now, to the admittedly picky criticisms.

This first gripe is really something I don't think could have been helped. There are just so many people involved in each game, literally over 100 total. Over the course of a chapter, many of the names become confusing, especially if you are not a follower of either of the teams involved. Sometimes I found myself reading a quote or a depiction of a play, then thinking, "Wait, who was 'Smith' again? I'm sure he was introduced earlier in the chapter, but after Jones and Kendall and Brady and Mack, I'm not sure I remember..."

It's almost certainly a casualty of the absolute saturation of info, but occasionally it does affect the flow of reading if you like to get all of the details straight.

The second "complaint" is that sometimes the chapters in general have an odd flow to them. As mentioned previously, most of the chapters do not proceed in chronological order. Often, they will focus on the most exciting or pivotal points of the game first (something the readers will be more likely to recognize, such as Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes's fingertip catch and toetip drag to help his team take the lead for good in XLIII). Then, after focusing on the play itself or the drive that led up to the play, the narrative will bounce to another part of the game that made the pivotal play necessary.

I realize that to have given an introductory paragraph highlighting the dramatics, then immediately starting at the beginning of the game and working through to the end would have made for a very dry read. Still, trying to follow the plethora of surnames while striving to recognize the chronology can stir the brain a little much at times.

Again, I don't think this is something that could be fixed without damaging another equally (or more) important facet of the book. Nevertheless, it exists. I am sure that McGinn and the publisher, MVP Books, talked about these things throughout the process.

And, finally, this book is only available in softcover. Perhaps it is because the book will be somewhat outdated in a year's time (another Super Bowl will have been played). Still, I feel this first printing should have also been available in hardcover as more of a collector's item.

Considering the scope of this project, the relative brevity and precision of his game-by-game dissections, the mountains of statistics and the extensive bibliography, all in under 400 pages, the aforementioned critiques cannot take anything significant away from this work.

(Five out of Five Stars).

"The Ultimate Super Bowl Book" is available at most bookstores and online booksellers, or through

Friday, December 11, 2009

#137: Head-Hunting

---Merciless Masses Demand Change---

Pittsburgh Steeler fans are at once the greatest backers in sports and the sorest of losers.

With Thursday night's 13-6 loss (to the Cleveland Browns, of all teams), the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately facet of Steel City fandom has emerged with a vengeance.

Message boards on the websites of local and national news outlets, as well as independently-run fan sites, are almost unanimously calling for Head Coach Mike Tomlin to lose his job.

Last year, everything was rosy, and Tomlin was the man. Someone who had a gift for pushing the right buttons.

Now, the battle cry is that he was only riding former coach Bill Cowher's coattails.

Yes, that's how things work in Pittsburgh, especially when it comes to a football season in which a playoff appearance is almost certainly no longer possible.

Hindsight isn't always 20/20.

Fans wanted Cowher fired after a couple of dismal seasons in the late 1990s and early 2000s before he finally was able to capture Number Five.

Had the Rooney family let him go when the public demanded it, it is possible that the "One for the Thumb" would have come sooner than Super Bowl XL, but it's also possible the Steelers would still be looking up at Dallas and San Francisco in the all-time number of rings.

If Steeler fans want someone on the staff to take the fall for this season's failures, they need to concentrate their energies toward one of two possible candidates (or maybe both).

1) Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians.

The list of sins is long, but these are a couple of the low-lights.

- During the ill-fated Cleveland game, with time winding down toward halftime, Pittsburgh went into the no-huddle offense for the first time and was able to drive into the red zone in short order. They didn't have quite enough time to score a touchdown, but the team was able to move the ball for the first time in the game. The no-huddle never reappeared.

- Arians seemed content to keep trying to run the ball both last season and early this year with oft-ineffective Willie Parker. Now that a far more viable running back (at least for this offensive line) is in the backfield in Rashard Mendenhall (whose yards-per-carry average is consistently better than his predecessor's), Arians seems unwilling to use him. This is a poor appraisal of your own talent.

2) Director of Operations Kevin Colbert.

Follow this link and look at the draft choices since 2000 (the beginning of Colbert's tenure).

The Steelers, historically, don't go out and raid the free agent market. Their supposed claim to fame is building through the draft.

First-round choices are usually pretty easy, but after that, Colbert's record is spotty at best.

How many players (taken after the first round) are making a positive impact with the team today? How many of them are making positive impacts with other teams?

How many are out of the league?

Genius (or lack thereof) in the draft is measured in later-round value. There has been precious little in ten drafts.

To date, Tomlin has had two successful seasons versus one that was not. He should still be young enough to be able to learn from the multitude of mistakes he's made since training camp and set things straight in 2010, or, at the very least, not repeat the same ones.

For better or for worse, Steeler fans are going to have Mike Tomlin leading their team for the foreseeable future. The Rooneys do not fire head coaches after a rough patch like other organizations. So, unless Tomlin himself decides that he's in over his head and resigns, fans need to use their breath more productively.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

#136: All But Over

---Planning Ahead (to 2010)---

One thing has become very apparent in the last four weeks: safety Troy Polamalu is the Pittsburgh Steelers' Most Valuable Player.

Yes, there is a very strong case to have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger bear that mantle, and while it's highly unlikely that the Steelers would have won either Super Bowl in the 2000s without him, Big Ben bows slightly to the Unstoppable Hair.

Following the Steelers' inexcusable 27-24 loss to the Oakland Raiders, it has become apparent that Troy Polamalu is the "C" when it comes down to either -losing- games, or -closing- them.

It's hard for Steeler fans, let alone NFL fans, to remember the Black and Gold losing so many 4th quarter leads, but, during the team's four-game slide, they've managed to surrender them a total of five times (once in Kansas City, once in Baltimore, and three times at home against Oakland), and they were tied with Cincinnati in the 4th during their second match-up.

Polamalu watched them all evaporate from the Steeler sideline.

He is apparently the only one in the secondary who truly understands how to wrap up a ball carrier while tackling him, instead of simply acting like an appendageless missile.

He is apparently the only one whose hands are made of something resembling "soft".

And he is apparently the only member of the Steelers' defensive backfield who has the respect of opposing quarterback and offensive coordinator alike.

As such, it is clear that Head Coach Mike Tomlin must keep Polamalu out for the remainder of the season so that he can fully heal from his recurring injury, and start looking ahead to a 2010 rebound.

The only way anyone should suggest playing Polamalu again this year is if the Steelers manage to squeak by the inept Cleveland Browns next week, and the following outcomes also ALL occur by the time the Green Bay Packers come to Heinz Field in two weeks:

- Baltimore loses to either Green Bay or Detroit

- Carolina beats New England

- Miami beats Jacksonville

- Indianapolis beats Denver

- Tampa Bay beats the New York Jets

That is how far down the pecking order the Steelers have fallen in terms of claiming a Wild Card spot.

There are nine teams ahead of the Steelers overall, five of whom are not division leaders. Of the current Wild Card teams, Denver has a two-game lead on Pittsburgh, and Jacksonville virtually does, as well (by virtue of a two-and-a-half-game conference record lead).

Too much has to break right for the Steelers to even have the opportunity to defend its Super Bowl crown.

I cannot qualify playing a structurally-weakened Troy Polamalu, a player who can obviously help the Steelers long term, in a season that is virtually over.

While some fans see this kind of outlook as "disloyal" or "weak or something negative, it's clear that making sure Polamalu gets fixed up properly is the "smart" and most positive thing for the well-being of the team.

If Polamalu were to be permanently damaged during this quickly-fading campaign, it would be some time before Pittsburgh's defense would be able to regain elite status.

And, maybe, by having a higher draft pick, the Steelers can get that much-needed offensive lineman or defensive back - a player who can step in right away without having to wait for someone to get injured (see Exhibit A: DL Evander "Ziggy" Hood) or a player who is not ready when his chance does present itself (see Exhibit B: DB Joe Burnett).

The Steelers might also consider giving Dennis Dixon some snaps down the stretch, as well. It is evident that Dixon has some talent but needs some game-time experience to improve his reads.

And prevent things like being picked off by rookie defensive linemen.

If the wheels do indeed fall all the way off, Tomlin should consider cutting his losses and playing as many of his bench personnel as possible (especially those that the Steelers want to keep under contract) so that they are better prepared for games in the seasons to come.

White flag? Perhaps.

Right call? Absolutely.