All posts by michaelbrianwalker

Currently: math/economics teacher at Ramsey High School, commissioner of both a fantasy baseball league and a fantasy football league Past: Graduate of Midland Park High School Class of 2000 and Colgate University Class of 2004, pricing/yield analyst at AvisBudget from 2004 through 2007, member of MPHS baseball and cross-country teams Fan of: Mets, Devils, Giants Achievements: Named "World's Slowest Eater" by everyone who knows me, played on the 2003-4 Colgate intramural-championship ice-hockey team, three-time IceHouse Adult League Champion (twice as a Seal, once as a STRanger), have twice been hit by deer while driving, coached the league-tourney-champion 2008-9 Ramsey Rams JV ice-hockey team (universally regarded by me as the greatest JV hockey team of all time), once ran 6 miles listening to nothing but Lonely Island's "Jack Sparrow" on repeat, picked Gonzaga 10 times to win the championship (yes, I was that guy before it was fashionable to be that guy), stayed for all 17 innings of a 2000 Newark Bears/Somerset Patriots game (and caught my only career foul ball at a pro game during the 16th inning), and have not eaten breakfast regularly since 1996

After a Thrilling Weekend of Football, Let’s Discuss the MLB Trade Deadline

We are coming off an epic weekend of playoff football.  While I hate when people try to put things in historical context immediately after the events happen, any non-Saints fans can agree that the end of the Saints/Vikings game was one of the greatest moments in NFL history.  However, many people have many great things to say about this past weekend of three fantastic football games.  I do not have anything novel to add.  Therefore, while everyone else zigs, I will zag and say something I have wanted to say for six months about the MLB Trade Deadline.

I am a purist when it comes to sports.  If you have read some of my other blog entries, you might have picked up on this.  At the same time, I am an Economics teacher who majored in Mathematical Economics in college.  Therefore, in previous blog entries, I have preached of purist ideas only if there is economic defense for them.  For example, I hate the NHL’s 3-on-3 overtime and shootouts, but I do not push for the NHL to eliminate these occurrences.  I know that enough people like these things.  Thus, the league would be making an economic mistake to get rid of them.  That is why I instead proposed the 3-2-1-0 point system as a sound way to improve the 3-on-3/shootout situation.  It satisfies both the NHL’s purists and the NHL’s profits.

That said, today I am going to deviate from my usual rule of advocating change only if it makes economic sense.  I am going to speak of a change that the purist in me would love but that the economist in me would hate.  Here it goes: I wish that MLB would move its trade deadline to its former date of June 15.

Because of economic reasons, this change will never happen, but I am going to discuss my purist desire for the change anyway.  It is my understanding that the spirit of a trade deadline is that leagues do not want teams who are out of playoff contention to unload all of their top players during the last week of the season.  It would not seem right to have the top teams in a league suddenly get an influx of great players during the last week.  However, bad teams would be inclined to make such deals, in that they could receive prospects and salary relief in exchange for players who would be of little-to-no value when that team becomes good again.

Image result for trade deadline deals 2017 mlb

Actually, I assume that this is the logic that led Major League Baseball to the June-15 trade deadline in days of yore.  Back then, the league was likely very concerned about teams unloading their top players for prospects as soon as the teams were to fall out of playoff contention.  Back then, MLB probably did not like the idea of subpar teams trotting out minor-league lineups in August and September after having traded so many top players.  Then again, in those days, there were fewer entertainment options in this world.  Therefore, fans were happier to keep watching their non-playoff teams until the end of September.  In fact, during that time, only 4 teams made the playoffs each season, so many fans never even had expectations of their teams qualifying for the postseason.  It is a psychological truth that lower expectations can often lead people to greater happiness than higher expectations.

Anyway, in 1986, MLB moved the trade deadline to July 31.  Actually, that is and was the waiver trade deadline.  Teams could and may continue to trade players who have passed through waivers until August 31.  (Technically, trades can happen after this point, but traded players are ineligible for playoff rosters.)

As a result, in modern baseball; by late August, bad teams have unloaded most of their good players.  Meanwhile, good teams have loaded up on players from bad teams.  I hate this.  I know that this will not change because of economic reasons, but I still hate this.  The New York Mets are a professional baseball team, but they traded Lucas Duda, Curtis Granderson, Addison Reed, Jay Bruce, and Neil Walker last July and August.  Based upon the trade deadline, those were all wise decisions by the Mets.  Most fans nowadays stop watching when a team becomes bad, so the Mets might as well have traded those expiring contracts for prospects.  That said, the purist in me believes that those five players should have stayed on the Mets until the end of the season.  The purist in me hates that top teams like the Cubs and Nationals were gifted September games against the Mets with a bunch of minor-leaguers playing.  The purist in me says that this is the whole reason why the trade deadline used to be June 15.

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Granted, full disclosure: the Mets greatly benefited in 2015 and 2016 from such trade-deadline moves.  During both seasons, the Mets beat up on teams like the Phillies and Reds – teams who were already bad but who became worse in August after trading top players.  I was happy to see the Mets win those games, and I was ecstatic for the Mets to ride 2015-deadline-acquisition Yoenis Cespedes to an NL-East title.  As a Mets fan, I loved all of that.  However, today, in the dead of winter two years later, I can sit back and concede that my inner purist wishes that baseball were not this way.

I wish that teams had to decide by June 15, when no more than 2 or 3 teams are “out of playoff contention”, what trades they were going to make.  This way, you would not have traditional “buyers” and “sellers”.  Instead, you would have teams making “baseball” trades – current talent for current talent.  Sure, you would have rare cases where atrocious teams would already be unloading good players on June 15.  However, it would take a really bad team and a general manager who is willing to admit defeat to his or her fan base in June for this to happen.  Meanwhile, the best result of this deadline change would be that bad teams would no longer suddenly get worse during the last two months – and the most important games for good teams – of the season.  This would make the last two months of the season more competitive across MLB.

At the same time, good teams would not be able to improve suddenly with a month left in the season.  It was a great story to see Justin Verlander help Houston win the World Series, but the purist in me has trouble with the star of a championship team arriving a month before the playoffs.  Likewise, good teams with bad bullpens in July never need to worry, because they can always poach good relievers off bad teams.  Look at Robertson, Kahnle, Doolittle, Madson, etc.  We saw the Yankees and Nationals have no trouble acquiring quality relievers last summer, a year after the Yankees traded Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman to the ultimate pennant-winning teams.  Look at the rosters of any playoff team, and you are likely to find a reliever or two poached from a bad team in July or August.  I do not like this.

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Again, this will never change.  The trade deadline will never move forward.  Why won’t it change?  This is how business is done now.  With 10 playoff teams, it is now easier than ever to improve from being a 90-loss team one season to being a playoff team the next, as I hope the Mets will do this season.  Gone are the days when teams needed to build great rosters over several years with the hope of someday reaching the 95-win plateau.  That was in the 4-playoff-team era, when only the elite teams played in October.  Now, fewer than 90 wins is often good enough for a playoff berth.  Now, if you are a bad team, you might as well unload your top players for prospects and salary relief.  In the offseason, you can sign free agents, and, if your team is good enough as of late July, you can add rentals for a championship run.  Moreover, with 10 playoff teams, “good enough as of late July” can often mean “a few games below .500”.

This is the logical way to run a baseball team nowadays.  Furthermore, the month of July is super-exciting because of all the trade possibilities.  While the purist in me dislikes the current deadlines, the Mets fan in me loves spending all summer on Metsblog looking at trade rumors.  MLB knows that I am not the only person like this.  People spend a lot of time watching baseball, MLB TV, and team websites monitoring potential trade activity.  Plus, in a league with 10 playoff teams and in a world with endless forms of entertainment, fans do not have time to watch teams with no playoff chances.  Therefore, the combination of having 10 playoff teams and July 31/August 31 trade deadlines is best for the overall interest in MLB and thus for MLB’s and teams’ bottom lines.  Therefore, the July 31/August 31 trade deadlines are here to stay.  However, the purist in me will never like this.

Four Inexpensive Moves to Make the 2018 Mets a Playoff Team

After a 70-92 2017 season, the Mets have left most of their fans expecting a rough 2018 campaign.  Since the end of last season, the Mets have more or less kept the team intact.  The three notable changes have been hiring Mickey Callaway as manager, signing reliever Anthony Swarzak, and signing Jay Bruce (whom the Mets traded away in August).  While I like the Swarzak and Bruce moves (and the jury is out on the Callaway move), let us not act like these moves make the Mets major playoff contenders.

Let us examine the hypothetical world in which the 2017 Mets had Anthony Swarzak and did not trade away Bruce in August.  At best, that Mets edition might have been 5 games better than the actual 2017 team.  This is a very generous “at best”, but I will go with it.  In that case, the 2017 Mets would have finished 75-87.  Keep in mind that the 2017 Mets had Jose Reyes for the full year and Neil Walker, Lucas Duda, Curtis Granderson, and Addison Reed for most of the year.  All of those players are now either gone or currently free agents (whom the Mets could potentially sign).  While none of those players is going to set the world on fire by himself, those five players nevertheless represent a great deal of talent to lose.  The Mets would have likely been at least 4 games worse without them for the full 2017 season.  Meanwhile, the Mets would have likely been at least 5 games better last year with Noah Syndergaard healthy all season.  The sum of those alternate-reality scenarios would have put the Mets at 76-86 last season.

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That “76-86” mark is important, because that is the record that I feel the current Mets would have attained if they had played together for all of 2017.  Therefore, how are the Mets to improve by 14 games to gain a playoff berth in 2018?  One way would be for the Mets to go out and sign big-time free agents at catcher, second base/third base, and starting pitcher.  Wait, why are you laughing so profusely???  Oh yeah, that’s right.  The Wilpons have too much debt and never spend a lot of money.  Therefore, that “spending lots of money” option is off the table.  Forget about Yu Darvish.  Forget about Lance Lynn.  Forget about Mike Moustakas.

Anyway, since bringing in high-priced talent is off the table, the Mets must get creative.  I do feel they have a set of moves that can bring the club to 90 wins.  Within their budget, I feel their best option is to do the following four things:

  • Move Matt Harvey to the bullpen. This is my #1 way to improve the team.  The guy comes into every start wanting to blow people away.  I guess this is how he impresses his supermodel girlfriends, so I guess I do not blame him.  However, Harvey clearly has a closer’s mentality.  Starters have to manage their way through several innings.  They cannot max out on every pitch like Harvey tries to do.  Harvey often does well in the first and maybe second innings of games.  Then he completely falls apart.  He had a 4.86 ERA in 2016 and a 6.70 ERA last year.  That is where having a plethora of  5-or-6-run 3rd and 4th innings will land you.  The guy should be a closer.  This role will allow him to pitch one inning per appearance and max out each time.  He will end up throwing no more than 80 innings, which is good for a man with as many physical ailments as he has.  Plus, I know he really does not want to be a closer, but I really don’t care (Demi Lovato).   He is lucky he is still in the majors, and he can wave bye-bye to the massive contract that 2015 Matt Harvey thought he would earn in 2019.  Starting pitchers with ERAs approaching 7.00 are not given very good contracts if they get any contracts at all.  However, good closers are at least paid moderately well.  The Mets and he might as well try this option, as they have nothing to lose right now.  As for the supermodels; if he is with a supermodel now when his baseball career seems broken beyond repair, he will do just fine after he starts to excel as a closer.

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  • Move Zack Wheeler to the bullpen. I have heard this nonsense about the Mets potentially using Harvey, Wheeler, and Steven Matz for no more than 4 innings per start.  That sounds like an absolute train wreck over a full season.  This plan will sound great when every reliever has already made 20 appearances by the end of April.  So great.   Anyway, sarcasm aside, the truth is that Wheeler is an unreliable commodity.  After missing two seasons due to Tommy John Surgery, he pitched in 2017 to a 5.21 ERA.  I do not care if he was once a hot prospect; he is currently a pitcher who has pitched poorly since returning from a two-year injury hiatus.  Is it possible that he someday becomes a great starting pitcher?  Of course.  However, I would rather see him pitch in the bullpen first, so that the team initially relies on him for fewer innings.  Give me a bullpen of Harvey, Wheeler, Jeurys Familia, A.J. Ramos, Swarzak, and Jerry Blevins.  That is actually a fantastic bullpen.  You can win a World Series with that pen….and other good players.

 

  • Sign R.A. Dickey. The key to the 2015 Mets’ pitching success was the reliability of Jonathon Niese and Bartolo Colon.  That season, neither veteran missed a start.  This was huge, as the Mets managed Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and Jacob deGrom through injuries and innings limits.  In 2016, Colon continued that reliability.  However, last year, the Mets had no such starter.  I wrote a lengthy post in August about the large number of Mets pitching starts of more earned runs allowed than innings pitched.  That happens when you have to use the likes of Tommy Milone and Tyler Pill to make a whole bunch of starts.  If the Mets sign Dickey, a fan favorite, to a presumably relatively cheap contract, they will have that veteran starter.  He should be able to give the Mets a regular 6 innings pitched and 4 or fewer earned runs allowed.  Plus, Dickey would allow the Mets to have three somewhat sure things in the rotation – deGrom, Syndergaard, and Dickey.  Meanwhile, Steven Matz would be the fourth starter, and Seth Lugo would be the fifth starter.  Both of those are unknown quantities.  Matz can be the ace of the staff when healthy, but he is never healthy.  Lugo has pitched to too small a sample size for me to judge him accurately.  If one of those guys can stay healthy and effective, the Mets’ rotation should be just fine.  Rafael Montero would likely be the fifth starter if one of these two cannot get the job done.  Hopefully, it does not come to that.  Actually, the ideal scenario would be for the Mets to sign Jason Vargas as a fourth starter.  That would give the Mets six legitimate starters and two sure-thing veteran pitchers.  It would mean the Mets could avoid Montero as long either Lugo or Matz is healthy.  However, even Vargas is probably too expensive for the Mets.  However, I really really really wish they could sign him because that would make me feel excellent about the rotation.

 

  • Bring back Jose Reyes. While most of us Mets fans were ready to run Jose out of town last spring, he ended up having a good season.  He could play second base or third base in 2018 and could bat leadoff or further down in the order.  This would give the Mets plenty of roster flexibility.  Reyes, Asdrubal Cabrera, T.J. Rivera, and Wilmer Flores could play second base or third base.  Meanwhile, Jay Bruce, Wilmer Flores, and Michael Conforto could play some first base if Dominic Smith struggles.

 Image result for jose reyes 2017

In fact, I think that the Mets’ strongest offensive/defensive lineup (if they bring back Reyes) would actually be:

  • Reyes 2B
  • Rosario SS
  • Conforto RF
  • Cespedes LF
  • Bruce 1B
  • Cabrera 3B
  • Lagares CF
  • d’Arnaud C
  • Pitcher

 

At the same time, a bench with Smith, Brandon Nimmo, Flores, and Rivera is fine with this lineup.  Meanwhile, Yoenis Cespedes is clearly a front-runner.  With a good team, he is inspired to be a great player.  With a bad team, this is far from the case.

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In the end, I am not saying that the aforementioned moves would guarantee the Mets a playoff berth.  However, I do feel that the combination of a healthy and more motivated Cespedes, a healthy Conforto (he did miss the last six weeks of 2017 too), 30 MLB starts from R.A. Dickey (as opposed to a potential of 30 starts from fringe MLB pitchers), slightly healthier seasons by Matz and Lugo, an improved Amed Rosario, the return of Jose Reyes, and a revamped bullpen make it possible that the Mets earn those 14 extra wins needed to reach 90 and a likely playoff berth.

Continuity is a Good Thing

When I heard the other day that Marvin Lewis would be coming back for a 16th season as coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, I was surprised.  The guy has no playoff wins, and the Bengals have disappointed for the past two seasons.  However, I cannot argue with the Bengals’ decision.  Continuity is a very important thing for a team to have – most specifically continuity at quarterback, head coach, and general manager.  We have heard stories of quarterbacks like Alex Smith cycling through coach after coach and offensive coordinator after offensive coordinator.  Usually, this cycling does not result in great success on the field.

Meanwhile, many people find it laughable that Hue Jackson remains coach of the Cleveland Browns after winning once in 32 tries as Cleveland’s head coach.  However, I am glad that Cleveland has finally resisted the urge to fire a coach after two or fewer seasons.  Before Jackson took over the reins, the Browns had 4 coaches, none lasting more than 2 seasons, in 7 seasons.  Eventually, a team has to stick with someone and let him grow a program.

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As for another team who has had minimal success in recent years, the Jets have done the right thing by letting Todd Bowles keep the coaching job and grow into (in my opinion) a strong coach.  The Jets’ organization now has a corps of talented young players and a stable climate that should both be beneficial if the team drafts a young quarterback and if the team tries to lure free agents this offseason.

I like to think that the Jets and Browns “get it” in these cases.  Good for them, as it is rare that either of these teams “get” anything.  In my mind, a team should only look to change its head coach (or GM or quarterback, but my focus here will stay on the head coach) if either a) the coach is clearly not the right coach or b) there is a great coaching candidate on the free market.

By that logic, the Rams were right to part ways last offseason with Jeff Fisher.  I do not know if the Rams had Sean McVay in mind when letting Fisher go, nor could the Rams have guaranteed that McVay would become as successful as he has been this season.  However, by last season, moving from Fisher to anyone else seemed like a good plan.  As for the second clause listed above, I was surprised that the Raiders fired Jack Del Rio.  I thought that his playoff appearance last season had earned him the ability to keep his job after a disappointing 2017 in which Derek Carr was never fully healthy, in my mind.  However, once the Jon Gruden rumors began to circulate, I understood the Raiders’ decision.  Granted, coaches who return after long layoffs are rarely successful, but at least the Raiders did have a Super Bowl-winning coaching candidate in play.

Meanwhile, the Giants were generally correct in their two most recent “firings”.  Tom Coughlin had been a great coach, but the 2015 season saw too many moments where Coughlin seemed overmatched by end-of-game strategies.  It was time to get a younger coach.  That younger coach, Ben McAdoo, was similar to Del Rio in that his 2016 playoff berth was followed by a disappointing 2017.  As you would probably guess, I think it is ridiculous that the Maras fired McAdoo because of “the way he handled the Eli benching”.  The Maras were like me in that they were shocked by the uproar over the Eli benching.  Therefore, even though the Maras probably initiated said benching, they needed to sacrifice a scapegoat to the Giants’ fanbase.  That scapegoat became McAdoo.  Anyway, I never liked McAdoo either, so I am OK with his firing; I just do not like using the Eli benching to be the reason.  At the same time; now that the season has ended, I suppose the end justifies the means.  But I digress…

The Giants, Raiders, Rams, Browns, Jets, and Bengals have all made defensible coaching choices; unlike the Lions.  Look, all football fans like to make fun of Jim Caldwell.  Ever since Peyton Manning’s reaction to Caldwell’s awful timeout call in a 2010-season Colts playoff game, it is easy to do.  At the same time, look at the stats.  From 2001 through 2013, the Lions made exactly one playoff appearance and had exactly one season finishing above .500 (2011).  After taking the Detroit coaching reins in 2014, all Caldwell did was lead the Lions to 2 playoff appearances and 3 seasons above .500 in 4 seasons.  Also, in my opinion, the Lions are one of the several NFC teams who are not in this year’s playoffs but who would have likely been a Wild Card team if in the AFC.  Furthermore, Caldwell has coaxed two 9-7 records these past two seasons out of a team who lost the top wide receiver (Calvin Johnson) in the league after 2015.

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So why would Detroit make the decision to fire Caldwell without having a great candidate on deck?  Probably to appease the fans.  Right now, Bengals fans are probably unhappy to keep Lewis while Lions fans are happy Caldwell is gone.  However, if I were to put money right now on one of these two “cats of prey with a decent veteran QB with no career playoff wins” teams, I would bet on the one whose quarterback does not have to take on a new coach and likely a new offensive system in 2018.

One Problem the NHL Faces in Today’s World/The Difficulty of Being an NHL Beat Writer

“Though there are skilled players (on the New Jersey Devils), the players have bought into the notion that they are not skilled enough as a group to rely on that talent to win games and, instead, must outcompete their opponents for the puck.” – Devils’ beat reporter, Andrew Gross, on December 29.

Never mind that this quote is a blatant rip-off of Herb Brooks, this quote is also completely ridiculous in today’s NHL.  Literally zero NHL teams since 1995 have taken the approach not to outcompete opponents for the puck.  Zero.  Look at the most talented players in the NHL – Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin, Kane, Toews, Karlsson, Tarasenko to name a few.  All these players always try to outcompete opponents for the puck, and these players are usually successful at this endeavor.  After all, they are great players.  In November, I wrote that hockey is the only sport where the “result retroactively becomes the strategy”.  This dumb quote by Gross is a perfect example of this.

I watched most of the Devils’ games from 2012-3 through 2016-7, during which the Devils spent five seasons as one of the worst teams in the NHL.  The Devils of these seasons always competed hard, but they lost much more often than they won.  Why?  A combination of lack of speed and lack of talent.  Way too often over those five seasons, I would see over-the-hill veterans or never-will-be young players send soft, unscreened wrist shots from the point to the goalie.  I saw these guys come down the wing and take low-percentage shot after low-percentage shot with no teammate in reasonable position for a pass or rebound.  I saw the Devils pass the puck around the perimeter for large chunks of power plays, but the puck would never make its way with authority to the net.  All of this was not because of bad strategy but instead because of a lack of talent.

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Meanwhile, I would watch other teams send multiple players to the Devils’ net with speed.  I would lament that this is how you score goals but that the Devils lacked this requisite speed.  Yes, rebound goals are considered “garbage goals”, but they usually happen because a puck carrier enters the zone with speed, takes a hard shot, and sees the rebound go to a teammate with speed.  I would see opposing teams make quick passes behind the Devils’ net and quick passes from the corner to the blue line.  I would see opposing players hungry to take shots, as opposed to the Devils who seemed intent to pass the puck around the perimeter.  Lastly, I would see opposing players win more puck battles than the Devils because the opposing players were faster, stronger, and more talented.

Well, finally this year, the Devils are doing all those wonderful things I saw opponents do to the Devils for five years.  It is amazing how much more successful an NHL team can be with an influx of offensive talent – Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Brian Boyle, and Taylor Hall (albeit a second-year Devil) – and fast, puck-moving defensemen (Will Butcher and Sami Vatanen).  This has been a delight for me.  I woke up this morning with the Devils essentially in first place in the Metropolitan Division (if first place is considered the team with the most points per game).  Coming into this season, I would have been ecstatic if the Devils were to enter New Year’s Day within 3 points of the last playoff spot.  This has been quite a turnaround.

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That said, you do not hear much buzz about the Devils in most sports-media circles.  Much of that is because a) the Devils are always an afterthought in this metro area, and b) the NHL is the fourth-most popular professional sports league here.  However, the Rangers are a much bigger media draw than the Devils, yet they do not generate the buzz that teams from other sports do either.  Most of us know that a main reason for this is that most Americans do not grow up playing hockey like they do baseball, football, and basketball.  That is probably the biggest factor.  However, there is another factor in play.

With the proliferation of media – from TV to radio to social media, etc. – people in this country love debating sports every bit as much as they love watching sports.  As maligned as baseball can be for its “boring” and slow pace, has there ever been a time when individual baseball games get more discussion?  I think not.  The Mets and Yankees both play 162 games, yet we all dissect decisions made in April games for hours on end.  It is very easy to do.  Because of baseball’s slow pace, there is plenty of time for us fans to play “manager” and decide if we agree with what Joe Girardi or Terry Collins (RIP to both of them) have done.  In every game, there are probably five or six managerial/player decisions that are controversial enough for fans to discuss.  This is baseball.  As for football, every game is dissected like it is the Super Bowl.  With playcalling, personnel decisions, and “go for it”-versus-“kick it” conundrums, each game provides fifty big discussion points.

You are probably now wondering, “Wait, I thought he was talking about hockey’s problems.”  Precisely.  What hockey actions or strategies are there for fans and media to discuss?  Hockey is my favorite sport because it is fast-paced, and there are few breaks in the action.  For the “ADHD” aspect of today’s American population, this is a good thing.  However, for the “Let’s vilify people for every decision they make” aspect, it is a horrible thing.  In today’s NHL, every player must be responsible offensively and defensively.  Every player must be in peak physical condition.  Every player competes very hard on every shift.  Hockey is the ultimate team game, and no player could look his teammates in the eye if he were not to do one of these afore-mentioned things.  Really bad NHL teams do all these things.  Really good NHL teams do them too.  The only difference between good teams and bad teams is talent.  Therefore, fans cannot realistically criticize players for their work ethic, “compete level” (God do I hate this new-age term), or heart.

Strategically, fans have nothing about which to complain either.  Sure, it was revolutionary when the 1993-5 New Jersey Devils rolled four lines and three defensive pairs and had all players be responsible defensively.  However, by 1996, the whole league had caught up to that.  The 1995 Devils were vilified for playing the “neutral-zone trap”, which I always found silly.  The league was simply adjusting to a team that had all of its players playing solid defense in all zones.  Nowadays, all teams play some variation on a trap.  Really, the “trap” is the ideal defensive approach, but it happens only if a team has appropriate talent.  This strategy requires simply that players are responsible positionally in all zones, but all players are fine with this and have played some degree of a “trap” their whole organized-hockey lives.

Watching an NHL team is like clockwork.  Breakouts, cycling, and forecheck strategies are all virtually the same premise for all teams.  Players and reporters act like teams have vastly different “systems”, but that too is silly.  John Hynes, coach of the Devils, preaches that he wants the Devils to play a “puck-possession game”, and reporters often act like this quote is akin to hearing The Beatles for the first time.  News flash – all teams want to play a “puck-possession game”.  This brings me back to the original quote.

I do not fault Andrew Gross for making a stupid statement.  The fact is that hockey writers have the toughest job in the beat-reporting profession.  There are too few times where players or coaches have the time to make decisions that we can scrutinize.  Sure, we all get frustrated when a player passes when he should shoot (like the Devils historically do way too often on 2-on-1s) or when a goalie allows a soft goal.  However, the mistakes happen, and there is not too much debate to be had here.

As a result, hockey reporters must fabricate silly stories like Gross’s comment.  Deep down, he probably realizes that all teams in today’s NHL try to outcompete opponents for the puck, but, deep down, he is probably also thinking, “Man, what the heck am I going to write about every day for the next three months, or five months if the Devils go deep into the playoffs?”

Speaking of playoffs, it is always funny to read the “Keys to the Game” that are often printed in the lead-up to playoff games.  The keys usually include “Be strong on the power play”, “Be good even-strength”, “Have strong goaltending”, “Stay out of the penalty box”, or “Play Hard”.  Those are some bold strategies, Cotton.  Let’s see if they pay off for them.

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Of course, my favorite playoff lines are “The team needs to show more heart” or “The team that wanted it more won.”  These are just ridiculous.  In the playoffs, hockey players play through broken jaws, broken legs, broken arms, and so on because they want so badly to win the Stanley Cup and to support their teammates.  It is impossible for hockey players to show more heart or to “want it more”.  It turns out that the reason why teams lose games is that somebody has to win, and somebody has to lose……and, in the playoffs, when both teams are good, it means that good teams lose games and series.  Yes, it does happen – even when players are showing maximum “heart” and “wanting it to the max”.  Oh, and if you ever hear a reporter say that a player “is not a good fit for the team’s system”, the reporter means to say, “This guy sucks.”  Every team has the system of playing hard in all zones, getting traffic in front of the opposing goalie, not playing too fancy, looking for rebounds, and deflections, playing fast, playing big, being aggressive, and being positionally sound.  If a player is bad for one NHL team’s system, chances are he is bad for the other thirty teams’ systems as well.

That said, if I were the Devils’ beat reporter this year, I would have probably already written 30 pieces on how the Devils are faster than last year and how they are better shooters and passers.  Plus, I would have written a piece on how Cory Schneider should play no more than 80% of the games, because I have that belief for all NHL goalies.  I probably would rewrite that same piece once every two weeks to fill space.  However, I would like to think that I would avoid writing frivolous cliches just to fill space, but I cannot say for certain.  I have not been in that position.

In the end though, I love hockey.  It is my favorite sport.  However, it is not the sport for Monday-morning quarterbacks.  Those people can stick to baseball, football, basketball, and now politics.

Expansion Teams are Supposed to be Terrible.

Expansion teams are supposed to stink.  This is one of the basic principles of sports.  The New York Mets, the Houston Texans, the Ottawa Senators, the Vancouver Grizzlies, etc.  I could list bad expansion teams all day long, but that would be silly.  Therefore, I will stop.  Just know that, before 2017, every single expansion team in the history of the four major North American sports leagues had been bad.

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This whole premise makes perfect sense.  Fans of expansion teams are ecstatic to have a team.  These fans do not need a good team.  Having a bad team is better than having no team at all.  Therefore, a league can milk several years of good attendance out of bad expansion teams.  It is a tried and true formula.  Nobody would be dumb enough to mess with it….except of course the man who continues to value an overtime/shootout win the same as a regulation win, the same man who stopped letting teams skate around the ice before the beginnings of periods (because it would make sooooo much of a difference in terms of keeping the ice slick).  Yes, the man is NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

During Mike Francesa’s last few radio shows, he interviewed Bettman.  During the interview, I heard Bettman say that the league deliberately let this year’s expansion Vegas Golden Knights build a great team because he did not want to deprive their fans of playoff hockey.  If ever there were an NHL version of an “Occupy Wall Street” protest, he probably heard this idiotic short-sighted idea there.  OK, OK, I do not want to get too political here, so I will use a different analogy.  Bettman essentially said that the 30-year-old guy who has been rejected by women all his life should now be handed a supermodel girlfriend.  That is ridiculous.  That guy is going to be happy being in a relationship with any woman.  As a society, we do not need to waste a supermodel (in limited supply) on this “happy to be with any woman” guy.

Well, in reality, the Vegas hockey fans are this 30-year-old guy, and the Golden Knights – currently in first place in the Pacific Division – are the supermodel.  Meanwhile, standard terrible expansion teams represent the “any woman”.  Golden Knights fans would have been perfectly happy rooting for teams of this low caliber, just as “the 30-year-old guy” would have been happy in a relationship with any woman.

You might be wondering how the NHL set Vegas up to have such a strong expansion team.  In the expansion drafts, teams were allowed to protect no more than 11 players.  This was different from the last expansion draft of 2000, when teams were allowed to protect at most 15 players.  This might seem like a minimal difference, but the change meant that many more quality players were available for Vegas to draft than for previous expansion teams to draft.  I do not like this.

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To me, it was a great story when the Ottawa Senators finally made the playoffs in their fifth season or when the Nashville Predators finally made the playoffs in their sixth season.  I was excited for their loyal fans to finally experience playoff hockey.  However, I am not pumped for Vegas’s fans to get playoff action in the team’s first season while loyal fans of teams like Carolina, Buffalo, Florida, Arizona, and Colorado must suffer through yet another playoffs-less season.

Moreover, when the supermodel eventually breaks up with the 30-year-old guy, that guy is going to be disappointed by all future girlfriends.  The same goes for Vegas’s fans, when the team regresses and misses the playoff next season.  Instead of Vegas’s fans getting 4-5 seasons of joy by watching a bad team grow into a good one, the fans get immediate gratification followed by inevitable years of disappointment when the team misses the playoffs.  Therefore, instead of 4-5 seasons of guaranteed large crowds, Vegas is guaranteed 1 season of a large crowd.

Classic short-sighted move by the NHL.  Expansion teams are supposed to be terrible.  This allows for expansion teams to do well financially for their first 4-5 years instead of their first 1-2 years.

Six Ways I Can Improve Sports

I think that most sports fans would agree that instant replay is usually a wonderful thing.  I think that most sports fans would agree that instant replay is occasionally a terrible thing.  I think that most sports fans feel that replay should exist to eliminate the egregious bad call that every TV viewer immediately knows is bad.  I think that most sports fans feel that replay should not be employed to use “super slo-mo” to overturn a call that looked completely fine to everyone in real speed.  In this vein, I have one major fix that we need to make to replay.  Following that, I will add two smaller fixes that also would serve replay well.  Following that, I will add three other fixes that will improve professional sports.  In the end, you will see six changes that can make your sports-rooting lives so much better.  Merry Christmas from me.

  1. With the exception of reviews of NHL goals, no replay should last more than one minute. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Dez Bryant, Jesse James non-Decker.  All of these gentlemen have been involved with high-profile receptions/TDs that were overturned to the chagrin of most viewers.  In the cases of Bryant and James (not Kobe and LeBron), many people take umbrage with the fact that the NFL requires players to “complete the catch to the ground”.  Thus, many people say that the NFL should take away said rule that a receiver must “complete the catch to the ground”.  I disagree with that general sentiment.  If a player makes a diving-catch attempt only to have the ball come out as he hits the ground, that should be called an incomplete pass.  The player did not “complete the catch to the ground”.  The issue fans truly have is when a player either takes a few steps while falling, juggles the ball while taking a few steps, or turns to dive into the end zone while repositioning the ball in his hands, etc…….and THEN loses the ball when hitting the ground.  These are the plays where everyone watching in the stadium or on TV thinks it is a catch….and everyone watching is livid when the “catch” call is overturned.

That said, it is tough to legislate exactly when it should or should not be necessary to “complete the catch to the ground”.  By the letter of the law, the guy who loses the diving catch as he hits the ground is in the same circumstance as Jesse James on Sunday night.  After all, Jesse James* did not technically have possession yet as he dove for the end zone, just as a receiver trying for a diving catch does not have possession yet when the ball hits the ground.  However, we all generally feel that the former is a catch, while the latter is not….but how do we fix this?

In my mind; since it is tough to change the “complete the catch to the ground” rule to cover all circumstances appropriately, we need instead to implement a “one-minute replay” rule…..and we need it in baseball, football, and basketball.  An official/umpire/referee should get one minute to watch replays.  That is all.  Within one minute, an official can overturn an obvious knee hitting the ground before a fumble, a ball short-hopping before entering a receiver’s or outfielder’s hands, a foot on or off the three-point line, a second foot on or off the sideline, or a “safe”/”out” call.  Of course, “obvious” is the operative word here.  An obvious bad call will be easily overturned within a minute.  However; if a call cannot be overturned in a minute, then the call on the field could not have been that egregiously bad, and we should stick with the call on the field.

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One minute would not have been enough time to overturn the Jesse James play, the Dez Bryant catch, or either of this year’s Seferian-Jenkins plays.  Needless to say, most of America outside of Massachusetts and Wisconsin would have been pleased to see these calls on the field stand.  Moreover, if you think we need this rule in football – with a 16-game schedule – then you know we really really really need it for baseball and its 162-game schedule.  Find me one person who wants to watch a five-minute replay to see if a base-stealer’s butt came off second base for a split second before his hand touched the base.  Stop it.  Nobody wants that.  Likewise, as a veteran of four years of umpiring in the Midland Park Baseball Association in the late ‘90s, I know that a first-base umpire is to listen for the sounds of the runner touching first base and the ball entering the first base glove’s pocket.  Whichever “pop” comes first dictates the call, yet now we are subject to five-minute soundless replays where we break things down to super-super-super-super-duper-slo-mo.  (Even if the sounds are actually the most reliable evidence in some cases)  Again, that is not the spirit of replay.  Replay is for Denkinger, Galarraga, and Beltran (in Santana’s no-hitter); it is not for the afore-mentioned garbage.

2) NFL teams should be able to challenge penalties. It is ridiculous that replay can take away ASJ’s seemingly obvious Jets touchdown and give the Pats the ball, while replay cannot overturn an egregiously terrible 50-yard pass-interference penalty.  It is my understanding that 31 of 32 NFL coaches usually turn down the proposal of being able to review penalties.  Bill Belichick is the only one who votes in favor of it.  Apparently, NFL coaches do not want to have to worry about something else, while Bill Belichick knows that, being so much smarter than the other coaches, he will be better than the other coaches at challenging penalties too.  I have watched enough bad coaches over the years to know that he is correct, but that does not change my view in the slightest.  Furthermore, I feel that the rookie coaches like Sean McDermott, Sean McVay, and Kyle Shanahan are much smarter than old coaches in terms of game scenarios (when to punt, when to kick a FG, when to go for the first down, when to kneel, when to tell the running back to stop before the goal line, etc.).  Therefore, they would probably be better at knowing when to challenge penalties too.  Regardless, nobody likes to see games decided by phantom holding, illegal-block-in-the-back, unnecessary-roughness, or pass-interference calls, and many of these penalties are game-changers.  Therefore, they should be subject to replay, just like anything else.

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3) NHL offsides should not be reviewable once the defensive team has possessed the puck.  I left the NHL out of the “one-minute replay” rule because the bulk of NHL reviews deal with whether or not a goal is legitimate.  In a sport in which a team scores an average of fewer than three goals per game, the league cannot afford to get a goal-call wrong.  Plus, NHL games have a fast pace and rarely last beyond 2.5 hours.  Thus, the NHL can withstand a few longer replays for a good cause.

However, it is ridiculous that a team can have a goal called back because the team entered the zone offside two minutes prior.  Therefore, the league should change the rule such that, when replaying a goal, the officials may watch footage back to either the moment when the puck entered the offensive zone or the moment when the defensive team most recently possessed the puck – whichever of the two is most recent.  This way, replay will continue to overturn goals on clearly-offside odd-man rushes.  However, it will eliminate most cases in which the offside entry happened well before the goal.  If a defensive team has had the chance to clear the puck but has not been successful in doing so; the defense, not the offside entry, is responsible for the goal.  Thus, the goal should stand.

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4) If an offensive player fumbles the ball into and then out the opposing end zone, it should be considered a loss of down with the fumbling team getting the ball at the other team’s 20-yard line. This is my proposed change for the Seferian-Jenkins/Pats and Derek Carr plays.  In sports as in life, the punishment should always fit the crime.  If the defense has not recovered a fumble, why should that team get credit for a turnover?  Furthermore, if the fumble goes out of bounds before the pylon, the offensive team keeps the ball at the 1-yard line.  However, if the fumble hits the pylon or goes out of bounds slightly beyond the pylon, the defense gets the ball.  To quote Jackie Chiles, this seems “capricious and arbitrary” to me.  My plan continues to punish the fumbling team, in that the next down takes place at the 20-yard line.  However, the team maintains possession.  If the fumble happens on 2nd and Goal, the next play will be 3rd and Goal from the 20, and so on for other downs.  If the fumble happens on a play that gains the first down, the next play will be 1st and Goal from the 20.  Of course, if the play happens on fourth down, the defensive team takes over possession at its own 20-yard line.

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With this change, the punishment will fit the crime.  The fumbling team suffers a loss of yardage, but it maintains the likelihood of earning at least a field goal.  That seems reasonable to me.  Also, I did hear Bill Simmons mention a similar idea to this in a podcast a few weeks ago, but I swear I thought of this before hearing him.  That said, I just want the world to be a better place.  If this rule change happens, I do not want any credit.  That is all Bill’s.  I will be a happy man knowing that society is better off.

5) In the NHL; the “delay of game” penalty for shooting the puck over the glass while in your own zone should apply only if you have possession of the puck. In other words – if a defenseman takes a whack at an uncontrolled puck, and the puck goes over the glass; that should not be a penalty.  That is not the spirit of the rule.  The rule is intended to deter players from deliberately sending the puck over the glass in order to get a stoppage in play.  If the player simply hits an unpossessed, loose (and often bouncing or airborne) puck; he is unlikely intentionally sending the puck out of play.  Therefore, that should not be a penalty.   Only if the player has control of the puck and shoots it over the glass should a penalty be called.

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 6) On NFL Sundays, there should always be at least 4 4:00 games. I don’t get it.  When I was a kid, there was better balance between the number of 1:00 games and the number of 4:00 games.  However, that was before DirecTV and RedZone and thus before we NFL junkies could reap the benefits of having multiple games at a time.  Nonsensically, now that we have these wondrous viewing creations, the NFL too often saddles my idol Scott Hanson with only 3 or sometimes 2 (gasp!) 4:00 games.  What kind of garbage is this?  There should be at least 4 games at 4:00 every Sunday.  4 is the minimum number of games needed, in my mind, to ensure that there is always something of some interest taking place in at least one game.  With 2 or 3 games, there is too great a chance of all games being in commercials or at halftime at the same time.  While Scott Hanson does a great job with that filler time, it is an inefficient use of his wonderful talent.  Even on a 6-bye, London-morning NFL Sunday, there are 9 Sunday-afternoon games.  That should break down as 5 games at 1:00 and 4 games at 4:00.  If we can achieve this 4-game minimum with 9 afternoon games, we can certainly achieve it during other weeks that have between 10 and 15 Sunday-afternoon games.  This past Sunday, we had 8 games at 1:00 and only 3 at 4:00.     Not on my watch!

 You are welcome, America.  I just made sports better in six different ways.

 

* Yes, I started a sentence with two Cher songs.  Yes, I am aware of it. Yes, I am very proud of it.

Ranking This Year’s Notable NFL Injuries

Injuries are an inevitable part of football.  Every year, many NFL players miss games.  Every year, some players suffer season-ending injuries.  However, this 2017 NFL season has clearly set the unofficial record for number of marquee players suffering season-ending or near-season-ending injuries.  By my count, ten marquee players have fallen into this dubious category.  Eight of these players likely rank among the Top 25 among offensive –skill-position players, while the other two are arguably the biggest defensive stars (albeit not necessarily the two best defensive players) in the game.  Naturally, the majority of the eight offensive players are stars as well.

Much has been written and tweeted about the NFL’s low ratings and problems this year.  That said, the NFL entered 2016 on a very lofty perch in terms of ratings and popularity.  Therefore, the NFL is still incredibly popular, even if it has taken a hit over the past two years.  For the ratings decline in 2017, some of it might be traced to the national-anthem protests; however, it certainly does not help to have so many stars standing on the sidelines on Sundays.

As a result, I am going to rank the ten most devastating injuries this season, as far as what I think the injuries have done to the level of interest in the NFL.  Without further ado, here is the list:

Honorable Mention) Allen Robinson: If you drafted him on your fantasy team, you were upset when he was lost for the season.  However, an excellent receiver on a terrible Jacksonville Jaguars team does not have much cache.  I know Jacksonville is now a good team, but, unfortunately for Robinson, he has not been a part of the renaissance.  Therefore, I doubt his injury has hurt the NFL’s popularity.

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10) Dalvin Cook: This running back, the Vikings’ first-round pick, was off to a solid start to his NFL career, with 354 rushing yards in 3-plus games, when he tore his ACL.  That ended Cook’s season.  In a league where young running backs usually shine and where first-round-picks at skill positions receive much hype, this was a minor blow to the NFL’s popularity.  While Cook was not yet a household name, he provided more ammunition for those who tune out because too many players get hurt.

9) Julian Edelman: Truthfully, as long as Tom Brady is playing quarterback, the Patriots are the NFL’s biggest draw.  Either you root for them, or you despise them.  Regardless, you are watching.  However, it was not great for the NFL’s image to lose a 1106-yard (2016 stats), Super Bowl-hero receiver for the season in a preseason game (non-contact ACL tear).  Moreover, I think that last year’s Super Bowl vaulted Edelman’s status from “He’s just Brady’s slot receiver du jour” to “This guy is actually a great receiver.”  This was the first season when the NFL could have marketed him as a star, but that was all for naught after he tore his ACL.

8) JJ Watt: Between 2011 and 2015 (when he played all 80 regular-season games), a JJ Watt season-ending injury would have been more devastating popularity-wise, but Watt played in only 3 games last year.  Therefore, fans entered this year accustomed to having Watt on the sideline.  However, we are talking about a defensive star.  Now, after breaking his leg this year, fans must start wondering if we have seen the last of the great JJ Watt, and that is bad for football.  Hey, at least we will always have Bad Moms.

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7) Richard Sherman: I will leave it to Rob Sartori to discuss the relative merits of the great players on Seattle’s defense.  However, Sherman is the biggest star.  He makes big plays, and he says memorable things.  Some people love him; some people hate him.  Either way, things are much more interesting when he is on the field, which he will not be for the remainder of the season.

6) David Johnson: After amassing more than 2100 yards from scrimmage in 2016, he entered this season as a Top-3 running back, alongside Le’Veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliott.  No, he might not be as much of a name brand as those two backs, but a Top-Three running back is a Top-Three running back.  Furthermore, we have officially entered the “The injury makes the team a whole lot worse” part of this list.  With David Johnson, the Cardinals entered the season as a trendy playoff pick in the NFC.  However, when David Johnson fractured his wrist in Week 1, that all changed.  Very few running backs in today’s NFL have such a drastic impact on a team’s success level.  Bell, Elliott, LeSean McCoy, and Todd Gurley might be the only other backs who do.  True to form, the Cardinals’ offense (in part because of Carson Palmer’s injury) has generally been weak this season.

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5) Andrew Luck: The Colts would have been playoff contenders with him; they will be drafting in the Top 5 in April because they have played this season without him.  That is how tough it is losing Andrew Luck for a full season.  You might expect me to put Luck closer to #1, given that he is a Top-5 quarterback when healthy.  However, because he missed 10 games to injury in 2015-2016 and because there were rumblings about his health during the offseason, many NFL fans entered 2017 already bracing for his absence.  In my opinion, the NFL can better withstand season-ending injuries when they happen in the offseason.  In September, fans greatly crave football after the long offseason.  Therefore, they are less bothered by injuries.  However, as the fans get their fill of football and become attached to players during the season, injuries to players are more likely to push fans away.  Again, just my theory.

4) Carson Wentz: Speaking of midseason injuries pushing people away….It is one thing to have a terrible season like the Colts have had.  Again, their quarterback has been hurt all season.  It is another thing to end up with the #1 or #2 seed in the playoffs and be forced to use a backup quarterback, Nick Foles, instead of your MVP candidate, Carson Wentz.  If you are a sports fan, you feel “off” inside when a great team has to use a back-up quarterback in a playoff game.  Nick Costanzo sums it up best.

3) Odell Beckham Jr.: He is the biggest non-quarterback star in the league.  He is a dominant player, and his extracurricular antics are always interesting.  While the Giants did go 0-4 in games he played this year, his season-ending ankle fracture turned the Big Blue offense from “average” to “bad”.  The guy is a huge star nationally, and he is the biggest star of a “New York” team.  Furthermore, his absence has made Giants games unwatchable for many people.

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2) Deshaun Watson: While he had played only half a season for Houston at the time of his ACL tear, Watson had already established himself as a potential Top-10 quarterback in the league.  Meanwhile, he was playing like a Top-5 fantasy quarterback.  He had taken a chronically moribund Texans offense and made it elite.  Watson had vaulted the Texans into the discussion of “legitimate AFC Super Bowl contenders” with the Patriots, Steelers, and Chiefs.   Texans games were must-see TV.  Then, he got hurt, and viewers became stuck deciding whether or not to tune in for Tom Savage.  Not a good thing.  As for the “Super Bowl contender” thing, the Texans are now Top-5-draft-pick contenders.  Ouch.

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1) Aaron Rodgers: Beckham and Watson are rare examples in which one man’s injury changes a team from “very watchable” to “very unwatchable”. Aaron Rodgers is the extreme case of this.  While Brett Hundley has improved in recent weeks, he underwhelmed in his first few starts.  The Packers are annually a marquee team, and Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are clearly the best two NFL quarterbacks.  Every year, football fans count on being available to watch these two QBs’ games.  It does not matter who your favorite team is, if you do fantasy, if you gamble, etc.  Aaron Rodgers is an amazing quarterback, and sports fans love watching him.  It is great to have him back this week, because man was it depressing to watch the Packers without him.

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And there you have it, my list of devastating NFL injuries this season.  Of course, if Antonio Brown, Drew Brees, and Todd Gurley get hurt over the next three weeks; I will have to update this list.  Let us pray that does not happen, but we all know it is possible.