Sunday, February 28, 2010

Opining on 'Cuse hoops, T.O.'s departure, Drew Brees and Olympic hockey

So how good is this Syracuse basketball team?

So good that it can throttle the nation’s seventh-ranked team by 18 points on a night when its best player – Wes Johnson – misses nine of 11 shots from the field – that’s how good.

I was thinking that at some point in March and April, the Orange men are going to need Johnson to put the team on his shoulders the way Carmelo Anthony did in 2003 and John Wallace did in 1996. But there’s so many go-to guys on this wonderfully balanced basketball team that maybe that’s not going to be necessary. As ESPN analyst Jay Bilas astutely noted, the go-to guy on this unselfish team is the open man.

My good friend and former colleague, Frank Bilovsky, knows as much about college basketball as anyone I know and he told me a month ago that this is the best Syracuse basketball team he has seen. I would tend to agree, but it won’t be regarded as such unless it caps this season by cutting down the nets in Indianapolis. That’s the harsh reality of the sports world. And Frank and I have covered several Orange hoop teams with the talent to win it all that didn’t.

The dismantling of a very, very good Villanova team last night gives SU 27 wins – the most regular-season victories ever in school history. It also improved the Orange men’s record to 7-0 vs. ranked teams. They are unbeaten on the road, which bodes well for tournament play. And they play better defense than any Syracuse team I’ve ever seen, and my history goes back to the Dave Bring-Jim Boeheim playing era of the mid-1960s.

It was fabulous to see not only that enormous Orange-clad throng in the Dome, but also SU legends such as Floyd Little, Derrick Coleman, Pearl Washington, Lawrence Moten and Wallace. I could have done without the foolish Dome Ranger, but, what the heck, if the fans like him, then so be it.

It would be a nice boost for Orange Nation if SU were ranked No. 1 in this week’s poll. But as Boeheim said, the true No. 1 won’t be determined until early April – on the court and not by pollsters. And that is how it should be.

• As expected, Terrell Owens’ career with the Buffalo Bills was one-and-done. Terribly inconsistent quarterback play and declining skills conspired against T.O. putting up big numbers for the Bills. But he did provide some exciting moments, including a 98-yard touchdown reception, the longest pass play in team history. And he did reach the 1,000-reception milestone during the season finale. His brief stay in Buffalo was devoid of the histrionics that plagued him in other places. Owens seemed to genuinely enjoy his time there and the fans enjoyed having him.

• Those of us involved with Rochester Press-Radio Club Childrens Charities are tickled pink to have Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees as the headliner for our Day of Champions Dinner on May 12 at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center. Brees is only doing a handful of these affairs. That he would choose our cause is a great honor. Kudos to our vice-president Mike Kauffman for negotiating the deal that will bring the New Orleans Saints quarterback and philanthropist to our banquet. It’s become increasingly difficult to land sports stars of this caliber, so it was great to see Mike’s perseverance rewarded. Tickets are $125 and going fast. You can purchase them by calling 585-340-1460 or clicking on our website at We are an all-volunteer organization and the proceeds go to local children’s charities.

• Am looking forward to today’s Team USA-Canada gold-medal hockey game. I believe the Canadians have too much fire-power along with the incentive of their earlier loss to the Americans. But as we all know, strange things can happen in Olympic hockey. The U.S. will need a superb performance by Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller. And as we saw in the first meeting between these teams that’s not out of the question. Call it Canada 4, U.S. 2.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Olympic upset, yes. Miracle, no way.

Thirty years ago today in the winter wonderland that is Lake Placid, we believed in miracles as a rag-tag group of college hockey players catapulted the United States to an Olympic victory of seismic proportions against professional hockey players from the Soviet Union. It was an incredible pick-me-up moment for beleaguered Americans, who were reeling from a bad economy and series of global setbacks that had us wondering about our future. Given the circumstances and its transcendent impact, the 1980 Miracle on Ice is my choice for the top sports moment of all-time.


I thoroughly enjoyed watching the USA’s 5-3 victory against gold-medal favorite Canada last night. The game was played with a Stanley Cup Finals level of intensity and passion that was evident even to the casual hockey observer. But I was irked by the many comparisons made between this upset and the one by the Americans against the Soviets three decades earlier.

The lazy columnists and commentators who made the analogy need to study up on their history. The chasm between the talent and experience of the teams in 1980 was as wide as the Grand Canyon. The gap between this year’s Canadian and U.S. hockey teams is not huge.

The Americans’ victory in Vancouver was an upset, but nowhere near to being a miracle. A little perspective, please.


If the U.S. goes on to win the gold, Chris Drury will have another trinket to add to an already interesting sports trophy case. The former Buffalo Sabres star certainly would become the first person ever to have won a Little League World Series, an NCAA hockey championship, a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal. And, while we’re on the subject of Drury, I still wish the Sabres hadn’t let him get away.

So how do you explain the Olympic scoring outburst of U.S. defenseman Brian Rafalski, who has four goals in three games during this tournament compared with four goals in 57 games during this NHL season?


Did you notice that Syracuse’s free-throw shooting was the difference in that narrow victory against Georgetown last week? By the way, the last time the Orange men swept the Hoyas in the regular season they won the national championship. And you have to love the fact that SU is unbeaten on the road, including 5-0 vs. ranked teams. That bodes well for the tournament.


Happy 278th birthday to the original George W. – George Washington.


And congratulations to friends Jim and Kerri Mandelaro on the birth of their daughter Sophia Hayden Mandelaro at 3:53 this morning. The population of Red Sox Nation just increased by one.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

SU Hoops in a funk, but should be OK

While working out at the gym the other day, I was amazed to overhear a number of people bemoaning the changing fate of the Syracuse basketball team. You would have thought a loss preceded by some offensively challenged wins was the end of the world.

Yes, the Orange men are in a funk lately, especially Wes Johnson, who is battling uncertainty and a thumb injury on his shooting hand since that scary fall a few weeks ago. But slumps and nagging injuries are going to happen during the grind of Big East Conference play, and better that they occur now than in March.

I still believe the 'Cuse has a shot at the Final Four. The Orange men just need to battle through a tough stretch that all teams endure during the course of a long season.

* Jimmy Clausen won't be able to work out at next week's NFL Scouting Combine because he's still recuperating from surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right big toe. No big deal. The Notre Dame quarterback will still be able to work out for the scouts at a Pro Day he'll hold on campus in the spring.

* I'm thinking the best the Bills can do is a third-rounder for Marshawn Lynch, given all the baggage he's carrying. And even that might be optimistic on my part.

* As the parent of a University at Buffalo student, I experienced some anxious moments yesterday after hearing reports that a man with a gun had entered one of the school's libraries. Fortunately, no gunman was discovered and I was able to make contact with my son via cellphone.

* I love watching those Olympic skiers traverse those mogul courses, but I wonder what shape their knees and backs are going to be in when they turn 40. Of course, you could wonder the same about football players.

* It appears this could be the final time active NHL players participate in the Winter Olympics. And you can't blame them. Interrupting your season for three weeks isn't fair to the fans, the majority of whom would rather see a Stanley Cup than a gold medal.

* What are the odds of this? Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time, and Jim Brown, arguably the greatest football and lacrosse player of all-time, were born on February 17. His Airness is 47, while Brown is 74.

* Mark Twain once complained, tongue-in-cheek, that everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. I thought about that sage remark while watching Vancouver Olympic officials busing in snow while dealing with 50-degree temperatures and rain for much of the first week. Blame the International Olympic Committee for the problems because moderate temperatures and rain are the norm not the exception this time of the year in that part of Canada. It's not nice to fool Mother Nature.

* From the don't-let-the-facts-get-in-the-way-of-a-good-story department: NFL officials claim that Super Bowl 44 was the most watched television show in history. Methinks there's more than a billion viewers in China who would beg to differ. The Olympic basketball game between China and the USA in 2008 drew more than a billion viewers worldwide, about 10 times as many people as Super Bowl 44. And the World Cup regularly attracts that many viewers.

* Pitchers and catchers report today, a sign that spring can't be too far away.

* In retrospect, I'm glad I didn't drag Beth to the Carrier Dome on Valentine's Day. There wasn't much romantic about the Cuse's performance in that loss to Louisville.

* This is how ludicrous things have become in the world of sports: 13-year-old David Sills of Wilmington, Del. received a football scholarship from Southern Cal coach Lane Kiffin recently.

* COMING ATTRACTIONS (ALSO KNOWN AS A SHAMELESS PLUG): Looking forward to giving a lecture and doing a book-signing at Syracuse University's Bird Library Thursday afternoon at 5. I'll be talking about the historical, cultural and emotional significance of old Yankee Stadium. It's free and open to the public, so if you happen to be in the area, please stop by.

Friday, February 12, 2010

McNabb wouldn't be Bledsoe II, but it's probably a moot point now any way

Not surprisingly, my suggestion that the Bills trade a first-round pick for Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb stirred up some passionate responses. Roughly 60 percent were in favor of the move, but the 40 percent who opposed it clearly were more vehement.

A few readers compared the move to the one the Bills made eight years ago for Drew Bledsoe. But I maintain there are major differences. While McNabb isn’t as good as he was in his prime, he is not the washed-up quarterback that Bledsoe was when Buffalo acquired him from the Patriots. Drew was coming off a life-threatening injury and had lost his job to Tom Brady, who promptly guided New England to its first Super Bowl title. Bledsoe was reborn for about 12 games that first season in Buffalo, then reverted to the sack/turnover-prone QB he had become in the years leading up to the injury that cost him his job. I think McNabb’s statistics from the past two seasons reflect a quarterback who is still near the top of his game, and I believe he has about three solid seasons left.

Another critic compared McNabb to Matt Casell. Again, I don’t believe the comparison is accurate. Casel's football resume included just one successful NFL season (and a lackluster college football career) before he left New England for Kansas City, where he struggled mightily for a bad Chiefs team. McNabb has proven himself over a dozen seasons, and was a three-time Big East Conference player-of-the-year at Syracuse Unviersity.

Many Bills fans are still pining for Michael Vick, saying he would be a better option than the immobile McNabb behind Buffalo’s inexperienced offensive line. Yes, Vick could probably do a better job of running for his life, but he’s been about as accurate throwing the football as SU basketball center Arinze Onuaku has been from the free-throw line. To me, Vick is a much worse option than McNabb, who would bring leadership, an ability to read defenses and a much more accurate arm. Vick is NOT the answer, folks. He was an electrifying player (emphasis on the word WAS) but he never was a good quarterback.

This debate, though fun to engage in, probably has become moot anyway because sources in Philly are saying that McNabb doesn’t care to go to an organization in a serious rebuilding mode. The more likely scenarios include him staying with the Eagles or being traded to Minnesota (depending, of course, on Brett Favre’s status) or Arizona (McNabb lives there in the off-season and the Cardinals aren’t exactly enamored with Matt Leinart as Kurt Warner’s replacement.)

If McNabb’s not an option, then I’m taking a serious look at drafting Jimmy Clausen from Notre Dame. I believe he has the grit, swagger and arm to succeed in Buffalo. Of course, in order to procure him, the Bills are going to have to trade up and be willing to suffer through a transition year while he learns the NFL ropes, surrounded by a supporting cast in serious need of a talent upgrade.

• Happy 201st birthday to Abraham Lincoln. And belated birthday wishes to Rochester Boxing Hall of Fame president Tony Liccione, who turned 61.

• My wife, Beth, is so happy to have her dining room table back now that I’ve finished the heavy work on three different books. Hey, what can I tell you, writers need room to spread all their stuff. (More on the specifics of the books in an upcoming blog.)

• I think Johnny Damon is a fool for listening to super agent Scott Boras and making a ridiculous contract demand from the Yankees. How much money does one person need? Too many athletes and celebrities measure wealth only in dollars and cents. Why not return to a place where you are welcomed by teammates and fans and where you have a chance to win another World Series?

• I was going to try to convince Beth that a trip to the Carrier Dome to watch Syracuse play Sunday would be a great way to spend Valentine’s Day, but I could see how being surrounded by close to 30,000 orange-clad, vociferous crazies might not be considered romantic.

* One of the readers opposed to my McNabb idea said it was a good thing I wasn't the Bills GM. Hey, I might not be qualified, but I definitely think I could have matched the records of the office-holders of the previous 10 years. It's pretty hard in today's NFL to go a decade without a playoff appearance and record just one winning season.

* I'm thinking it's a mortal lock that Wayne Gretzky lights the Olympic cauldron tonight.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

If I'm the Bills I'd go hard after McNabb

There are reports the Bills are one of three teams (Denver and Cleveland are the others) to inquire about the availability of Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb.

That’s good news and I hope Buffalo pursues McNabb aggressively.

Although he played poorly against the Dallas Cowboys in late-season and playoff games and will turn 34 on Nov. 25, I believe the former Syracuse star still has plenty left in the tank. He finished 2009 with 22 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 3,553 passing yards and a 92.9 quarterback rating. Compare those stats with the paltry numbers compiled by the Bills QB triumvirate of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Trent Edwards and Brian Brohm, who combined for 15 TD passes and 19 interceptions and just 2,463 yards.

Yes, there are risks in making this deal. McNabb can be sack- and injury-prone, but he would give the team the leadership and experience it’s been lacking at football’s most important position for nearly a decade. If you could squeeze three more seasons out of McNabb that would give you time to draft a quarterback in a later round and groom him for the future. Donovan clearly would sell tickets, and his appeal would stretch all the way to Central New York, where thousands of Orange fans would become Bills fans.

I’d be willing to part with a No. 1 in order to acquire him. Here’s hoping Buddy Nix goes after McNabb as hard as he said he went after Chan Gailey.

• I don’t know much about the two new strength and conditioning coaches the Bills hired, but I like the fact they made a change. The Bills lost an NFL-leading 20 players to the injured reserve list last season, an inordinately high number at a time when the percentage of IR players dropped throughout the league. Yes, many injuries can be attributed to bad luck, but Buffalo has appeared to suffer more injuries than most teams in recent years, so there might be more at work here than just fate. Instituting a new training program can’t hurt.

• There’s been a lot of grumbling about former Denver Broncos running back Floyd Little making the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite lacking glowing numbers. But sometimes you have to look beyond the numbers. Little played behind some terrible offensive lines (think the Bills lines that O.J. played behind before the arrival of Joe DeLamielleure and Reggie McKenzie) for most of his career, and still managed to lead the league in rushing one season. Without Little, the Broncos probably would not have survived and become one of the NFL’s premier and most valuable franchises. I believe he belongs. Just as I believe Andre Reed and Steve Tasker belong in Canton, too.

Monday, February 8, 2010

I admit it. I was wrong; the Saints were Super

Well, that's why I warned you that it can be hazardous to your wealth to bet based on my predictions.

I clearly thought Super Bowl 44 was going to be Peyton's Place, as in Peyton Manning.

Instead, it wound up being Payton's Place, as in Sean Payton.

The New Orleans Saints coach showed no fear, going for it on fourth-and-one and calling for an onsides kick at the start of the second half, which set in motion the momentum that led to the undoing of the Indianapolis Colts and their superstar quarterback.

And let's give Payton's defensive coordinator - Gregg Williams - some props, too. The former Buffalo Bills head coach had his unit extremely well prepared against Manning, limiting the cerebral QB to just one touchdown pass and intercepting him on the crucial play of the game when the Colts were marching toward the tying touchdown.

The pick six by Tracy Porter turned what could have been a 24-24 deadlock heading toward overtime into a 31-17 Saints victory.

Good for N'orleans, which has suffered through so much heartbreak through the years, and good for Payton, the young coach who, unlike many of his peers, showed what can happen when you're intrepid and believe in your players and assistants.

Good, too, for Williams, who failed in his first go-around as a head coach, but might be ready for a second chance after his defense's brilliant performance in holding the high-scoring Colts to just 17 points.

* Funny, how quickly people turn on someone. Take the case of Manning. Before the Super Bowl, many columnists were writing that he had a chance to stake a claim as the greatest quarterback of all-time. But after losing, the tide had turned with several labeling him a choke-artist and a guy with gaudy numbers but only one ring.

The truth is that Manning is not Joe Montana - then, again, who is? But neither is he a choke-artist. And he's much more than just a numbers guy. He's clearly one of the 10 best to ever play the game, and maybe even a top-five quarterback.

Yes, he's had his struggles in the post-season with his ledger now 9-9. And, yes, Manning came up small in the biggest moment of Sunday night's contest, and he should be criticized for that. But to trash his legacy on the basis of Sunday's night performance and the fact he has just one Super Bowl ring seems a little harsh and premature to me. He still has several more years to play, so let's wait till it's all said and done before trying to assess his legacy.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Call it: Manning 34, Saints 27

A Super Bowl victory by the Saints clearly would be a great story, considering all the trying stuff the city of New Orleans has been through. But there are two words why I don't believe it will happen: Peyton Manning.

The Colts field general is such an incredibly cerebral quarterback who is able to figure out even the most complex defenses. And there have been few players in the history of the game who have been able to elevate the play of those around him as well as Manning has. Look at what he has done despite the loss of all-time great receiver Marvin Harrison, the lack of a solid run game and the tepid backing of a defense that will never be mistaken for the Steel Curtain.

I'm hoping for a close game, but after witnessing two of the most compelling Super Bowls the past two years, we might be due for a clunker, especially if the Saints experience first-time jitters and start turning it over.

Call it Indianapolis 34, New Orleans 27.

* Imagine how different the history of the Colts would have been if general manager Bill Polian had chosen Ryan Leaf instead of Manning. In retrospect, the decision seems like a no-brainer, but at the time the majority of NFL GMs polled said they would draft Leaf. The rap against Manning was that at Tennessee he couldn't win the big game against arch-rival Florida and that he was a mechanical, immobile quarterback who relied too heavily on systems and couldn't improvise on the fly. So much for that scouting report.

* People forget that before the incredible success the Colts have enjoyed this past decade, they were among the dregs of the NFL when they first stole away to Indy. The joke during their early years in the Hoosier State was that Colts stood for: Can Only Lose This Sunday.

* Back to Polian, I can't help but wonder how different the history of the Buffalo Bills would have been these past 16 years if he were still in Western New York as GM and president. Purely speculation on my part, but I believe there would have been at least two Lombardi Trophies in the lobby of the Bills administration building at One Bills Drive.

* I love the fact that we get to watch the 'Cuse play hoops on this Super Bowl Sunday. It sure beats having to watch yet another two hours of mind-numbing football analysis.

* This Syracuse matchup with Cincinnati has all the markings of a trap-game upset. The Orange have been rolling along and have big games with UConn and Louisville at home followed by a Georgetown rematch in D.C., so they could be looking ahead. Plus, the 14-8 Bearcats are a tough out at home, having won 11 of 12 at Cincy's Fifth Third Arena.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Catching up on Wesley Johnson's fall, DeHaven's return and other sporting topics

Sorry folks for the sparse verbiage of late, but I had three books coming due at once, so my words have flowed elsewhere.

That said, it's time to play a little catchup:

* That scary tumble Wesley Johnson took during the Syracuse basketball game the other night evoked sad memories of what happened to late Rochester Royals star Maurice Stokes. Like Johnson, Stokes was undercut while way up in the air, but unfortunately, Stokes landed on his head and wound up almost dying. He suffered encephylitis - swelling of the brain - and never walked or talked again. Fortunately, his teammate, Jack Twyman, became his legal guardian and he and his family looked after Stokes for the rest of his life. Their friendship is one of the truly compelling sports stories of all-time.

* I'm happy to see Bruce DeHaven back in Buffalo as special teams coach. He clearly was made a scapegoat for the Music City Miracle kickoff return that bounced the Bills from the playoffs back in 2000. DeHaven played a pivotal role in Buffalo's extraordinary special teams during the Super Bowl run of the early 1990s. It's too bad the Bills lost special teams guru Bobby April, but landing DeHaven clearly lessens that loss.

* That's incredible that there will be 34,000-plus at the Dome for Syracuse's game against 'Nova later this month, but I'm just wondering why they capped it at that number. One of these days it would be neat to try to move the basketball court to the middle of the football field and shoot for 40,000 or 45,000.

* I get a kick out of people who try to instantly grade college football recruiting classes. NFL teams spend millions of dollars researching prospective pro players and they still get it wrong more than 50 percent of the time. So, when you're attempting to project what kind of college players 17- and 18-year-old high school kids will become, the odds you're going to be wrong are even higher.

* It's great to see former Bills Frank Reich and Pete Metzelaars having success as assistant coaches with the Indianapolis Colts. They are classy guys who deserve another shot at the ring that eluded them in Buffalo.

* I'm happy that Dick Jauron landed the defensive back coach's job with the Philadelphia Eagles. I always thought he was a decent man, who just didn't have what it took to be an NFL head coach.

* And while we're on the subject of former Bills head coaches, New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will be facing one of his toughest chess matches when he tries to stop the cerebral Peyton Manning. If Williams somehow managed to befuddle the Colts Hall of Fame QB, he could put himself back in the running for another NFL head coaching job.