It's always tough to write about someone immediately following an early death. Steve McNair's murder over the holiday weekend is especially prickly, in part because of the mixed emotions the tragic news brought out.
I don't apologize for my first cent here, but rather I'm hoping to provide some more balanced perspective on his on-field career because the inevitable glorification of McNair is nearly as egregious as the proposed sainthood for Michael Jackson.
$.01 -- Steve McNair gets killed at age 36, apparently by a young mistress. This really struck me as a 36-year old getting the news on my wife's 36th birthday. Like McNair, we've been married for 12 years, and our careers have frequently required being apart for some time. I got to spend a 4+ hour drive home listening to a fawning public gushingly eulogize McNair as a person beyond reproach and a sure-fire Hall of Fame quarterback, and that changed my thinking from empathy and horror to enmity and disgust.
The man was killed with (by?) a 20-year old Dave and Buster's waitress with whom he had enough of a relationship to buy her an Escalade. On a holiday weekend that 99% of people I know use as a family gathering time (mine included), McNair ran off with his mistress instead of being with his wife and kids. But that's not even what bothers me the most. I know far too many pro athletes from all backgrounds who have multiple lady friends in multiple cities in spite of being purported "family" men. It's an unfortunate underbelly of working with athletes, but one that you get surprisingly numb to pretty quickly. I've long held the belief that so many of these guys do charity work to cleanse their conscience of their lewd behavior. I know that's probably very wrong and overly cynical, but I'm not perfect either. At least I can look my kids in the eye and honestly tell them I'm no cheat.
What really bothers me is the hyperbole over his on-field career. Was McNair a good player -- absolutely. He fully deserved his 2003 MVP award (shared with Peyton Manning) and was the unquestioned beloved leader of a franchise that had a lot of success. But as an actual player he was more on par with Brian Greise or Bernie Kosar than Manning or Donovan McNabb. The stats tell you McNair was a slightly above-average passer for the bulk of his career, one with a distinct proclivity for fumbling (his fumbles per pass attempt rate is third worst all-time). He played behind one of the best offensive lines of the last 25 years for the first half of his career, with an All-Pro running back in Eddie George to help ease the burden.
His numerous injuries shortened his career and took away parts of several seasons, though to his lasting credit one of McNair's greatest legacies is his incomparable toughness. Titans fans often bring up the lack of a dynamic wide receiver, but McNair made his career quickly checking down to Frank Wycheck and Derrick Mason -- both multiple-time Pro Bowlers.
McNair is also the poster child for playing one season too long. The last memories of McNair in uniform are the debacle on Monday Night Football against the Steelers, where in a yucky rainstorm he completed 13 of 22 passes for 63 yards, one interceptions and four fumbles. He played one more week after that, another checkdown fest where he ignored his downfield reads. The body simply wasn't able anymore, and unfortunately that's my lasting impression of his game, not the great winning spirit, the outstanding leadership, the physical and mental toughness.
So appreciate and mourn the man and player, but don't fall into the all-too-common trap of making Steve McNair into something that he was not. He was a pretty good quarterback on some pretty good teams and he played with a passion and toughness that set a great example and was fun to watch. That's all. He's not a Hall of Famer, he's not an all-time great. May he rest in peace.
$.02 -- We are approaching the onset of training camps, which means the transactions list will soon be populated with first-round draft picks signing their contracts. Pay real close attention to who signs before camp starts and which player holds out the longest. Since the league expanded to Jacksonville and Carolina, the team with the last first rounder to sign has never made the playoffs. With the two marquee quarterbacks already signed, also pay real close attention to the other big-ticket positions, the offensive tackles and pass rushing ends/linebackers.
Both those spots are highly dependent on quickly adjusting to the increased speed and size of the NFL, and nothing does that more effectively than practices and scrimmages. According to Bill Parcells, every lost day of camp for a rookie is one less week of effectiveness during the season. Holdouts are real legit team killers; that's why you have not seen any season previews here yet.
$.03 -- Speaking of season previews, most of the major media outlets have their predictions out for public consumption. I always enjoy reading these, particularly to see how the thoughts in my head compare to the well-paid experts. This year I'm genuinely shocked at the general perception of the Buffalo Bills. They are not without their list of assets, but all this buildup sure appears to be setting the table for major disappointment in Buffalo.
They're unlikely to win more than one divisional game, and their non-divisional road trips include Carolina, Tennessee and Atlanta, all playoff-caliber teams. It also features visits from Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Houston -- also playoff-caliber teams. It's a team built around a very good receiver corps, but saddled with a questionable starting quarterback and a shuffled offensive line that will start two rookies. They feature an undersized defense with little depth and are coached by a man who would have been fired if the franchise could afford to eat his deal.
I'm here to tell you that the 2-8 finish to their season was no fluke. Something else to keep in mind -- they rushed out to their 4-0 start against teams that all picked in the top-eight in the draft. This team reminds me so much of the 2007 Lions heading into 2008. I'll be stunned if this team wins more than four games, yet most publications have them winning 8 or 9. Simply baffling.
$.04 -- Stepping away from the gridiron for this one. Once again Wimbledon produced one of the greatest sporting contests of the year in the epic men's final between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick. It lasted five sets, with the fifth going to an unheard of 16-14 in Federer's triumphant victory. There were some serious twists, like Federer firing ace after ace and Roddick uncharacteristically nailing sweet passing shots and playing plucky defense.
I know tennis is an afterthought for most people, but any sports fan can appreciate the dichotomy between the two players in the aftermath: Roddick looking like he just walked in on his girlfriend shooting a porno, Federer in the afterglow of having just become the unquestionably greatest player of all time. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat so starkly portrayed in two valiant combatants who provided us with hours of compelling entertainment -- what a great way to spend a Sunday!
For a select few of us who stayed with NBC for the rest of the afternoon, those scenes were evidenced in both the triathlon and a very feisty AVP beach volleyball match. Youngsters Casey Patterson and Ty Loomis won their first-ever title in a big upset, and their exuberance and sheer joy in victory was great to watch. Even though the top two teams sat this one out, it's still a major accomplishment for such an up-and-coming team.
More kudos to Diane Denecochea and her partner for winning on Saturday in Brooklyn. A few years back at the AVP stop in Chicago, she couldn't have been nicer or more engaging in talking to me and my wife, both avid beach players at a lower level. She's waited a long time and victory had to taste sweet.
$.05 -- I do not play fantasy football, not in the sort of leagues that most people think of when they hear that term anyways. I prefer weekly salary cap games, where every participant can choose from the same players, not having to rely on the luck of the draft order or some deadbeat opponent. I would encourage you all to do the same, eschew the widespread format and try a game that requires more skill and aptitude. Having said that, my top-five fantasy sleepers and duds for 2009:
1. Brad Cottam, who will get a lot of the red zone looks that used to go to Tony Gonzalez in Kansas City. Great last-round pick for a patient owner in need of a backup tight end.
2. Hakeem Nicks, who should be the second rookie wide receiver taken (after Michael Crabtree). He might only catch 48 passes, but he has the ability to turn that into 900 yards and 7 touchdowns.
3. Torry Holt, who is still a very dangerous player despite his advancing age and change of teams. The Jaguars will likely be trailing often, and that means more throws to the best route runner in the game. He appears to be slipping through the cracks in most drafts I've seen.
4. James Davis, Cleveland's sixth round pick. He turned heads with his burst and quick learning of the playbook in OTAs, and the Browns appear ready to make every spot an open competition. At worst he siphons 10 carries a game off a declining Jamal Lewis running behind a very good offensive line. Another good last-round flier.
5. Marc Bulger, despite losing Holt and Orlando Pace. The Rams quarterback is due for a strong bounce back season, and his wideouts are better than most people think they are. It doesn't hurt that another undervalued player, Steven Jackson, will catch 65+ passes and turn at least 5 of those into touchdowns.
1. Brandon Jacobs. Sure he's a tank and runs behind a great line, but his style leaves him prone to injury and forces him to share the load. For your top fantasy running back, you don't want a player who shares carries or is a high injury risk, and Jacobs is both.
2. The Bears defense/special teams. It's a below-average defense that doesn't get a lot of sacks and its two best players, Tommie Harris and Brian Urlacher, are major question marks. Their return and coverage units are still very good, but if (big if) Lovie Smith ever figures out that Devin Hester cannot handle both full-time receiver and kick returner duties, they take a hit. The rule changes on blocking also will set them back a little. In two recent drafts on ESPN (where you compete against blowhard idiots who abandon their teams after Week 2 if they're not 2-0), the Bears D went ahead of the Titans, Cowboys, and Vikings. Don't be that guy.
3. Kellen Winslow. Very high-risk/high-reward player going way too high. Between his gimpy knees, his balky shoulder, and his prickly demeanor, that's just too much risk. It doesn't help that the Buccaneers have a three-man quarterback derby and a greenhorn coaching staff.
4. Leon Washington. Currently embarked in a bitter contract dispute, Washington is not even the No. 2 back in New York anymore with the arrival of Shonn Greene. If you must have him, wait until his owner drops him after Week 3, when he's accrued just 17 total touches. I'm not real high on Thomas Jones either; he has made a career of having one good season at every stop and then being a major disappointment.
5. Matt Cassel. The people in KC that I talk to tell me it truly is an open competition between Cassel and Tyler Thigpen for the starting job, and Thigpen is very comfortable in the new offense. Even if Cassel prevails, the Chiefs have a suspect offensive line and only one wide out you should even consider drafting (Dwayne Bowe, who you should draft high).
Via Jeff Risdon
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