Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Syracuse hoop fans have every reason to be crazed

Jim Boeheim says Syracuse basketball fans who’ve been talking about booking flights to Indianapolis for the 2010 Final Four are a little crazed. He’s right. But how could they not be after watching the way this team has performed while winning 20 of its first 21 games in decisive fashion.

And after the way the ‘Cuse turned a 14-0 deficit into a 17-point blowout victory against 10th-ranked Georgetown last night, expect the citizens of Orange Nation to become even more crazed. Consider this: After spotting the Hoyas that two-touchdown lead in the first three minutes, SU outscored them 73-42 the rest of the way, fueled by 19 forced turnovers. That’s the kind of ho-hum, yawn-yawn steam-rolling you might expect against Colgate or Marathon Oil, not against the 10th-ranked team in the nation.

I’ve been following Orange basketball since the mid-1960s – the days when the incomparable Dave Bing and a gangly, bespectacled guy by the name of Boeheim were manning the backcourt at the dark and dusty basketball pit known as the Manley Field House Zoo. I’ve witnessed a handful of SU teams more talented than this one, but I can’t recall any who have played better defense or been more unselfish on offense. The word ‘chemistry’ is thrown around a lot, but this team truly has it. You can tell by their actions that they genuinely enjoy playing together.

The NCAA statistics bear out just how well-rounded this team’s dominance is. SU is tops in the nation in field goal percentage, second in assists, third in scoring differential, seventh in scoring, ninth in blocked shots and 11th in field goal defense.

Five guys are averaging in double figures, led by Wes Johnson’s 17 ppg, and Rick Jackson and Scoop Jardine are close to joining that quintet. Their backcourt of Andy Rautins, Brandon Triche and Jardine combine to average 13.3 assists per contest.

Yeah, I know, there’s still that old bugaboo – free throw shooting – to be concerned with, but I don’t believe it’s enough of a problem to derail this team’s march to Indianapolis.

The way I see it, injuries and complacency are the only things that will stop this march.

If the regular season were to end today, I could see SU receiving a No. 1 seed and being placed in Buffalo for the first two games. Playing in HSBC Arena would be like having two home games and propel them into the Sweet 16.

Johnson says the players aren’t looking any farther ahead than Saturday’s Big East Conference game at DePaul, and that’s good. But he also says he’s noticed how stoked the fans are talking about a trip to the Final Four, etc., and he says that’s good. “Let ‘em have their fun,’’ he says. “That’s what being a fan is all about.’’



How could they not be?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Gailey's hiring by the Bills a surprise, but not necessarily a pleasant one

As this search stumbled on and candidate after candidate after candidate said thanks but no thanks, it became painfully obvious that the Bills would have to settle for an underwhelming choice as their new head coach.

And that’s clearly what’s happened with the naming of NFL retread Chan Gailey as the 15th coach in franchise history Tuesday afternoon.

Because his name hadn’t surfaced on anyone’s radar screen or blog, Gailey’s hiring came as a complete surprise. But not a pleasant one. His coaching resume isn’t much more impressive than the Bills’ previous retread hire – Dick Jauron – and we all know how wonderfully that worked out.

Of course, beggars can’t be choosers.

After Bill Cowher, Mike Shananhan, Brian Schottenheimer, Jim Harbaugh, Russ Grimm, Marty Schottenheimer (am I missing anyone here?) turned them down, they decided to end this embarrassing process and hire a guy who has had moderate coaching success during a much-traveled career that has seen him work as either a head coach or assistant for 11 teams/schools in the past 33 years.

So much for a big splash, or even a fresh face, such as the Minnesota Vikings hot defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier, who reportedly had been the Bills top remaining candidate.

Owner Ralph Wilson had promised dramatic changes after Buffalo completed the first playoff-less decade in the team’s 50-year history. He was going to shake things up from top to bottom. No job was safe. Money wouldn’t be an object, even if it took $10 mil a year to lure the likes of a Shanahan or Cowher. But, on the surface, it appears as if it’s the same old, same old at One Bills Drive, what I termed back in October as the “status woe.”

Gailey, 58, becomes the fifth Buffalo head coach since Marv Levy retired 13 years ago. You’d be historically accurate in saying that Levy was a coaching retread too when he was hired to replace Hank Bullough midway through the 1986 campaign and went on to earn more than 100 victories and a bust in Canton. Of course, Marv had a lot more going for him than Gailey does – namely a talented roster featuring future superstars such as Jim Kelly, Andre Reed and Bruce Smith and a front office led by Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian and shrewd talent-assessor John Butler.

So are there any glimmers of hope with this hire? Any reason to believe the Bills won’t continue to be stuck in NFL purgatory? Let me try to offer a few positives from Gailey’s resume:

• He has NFL head coaching experience, having guided two so-so Dallas Cowboys teams to an 18-16 record and two playoff appearances in the late 1990s;
• He is regarded as an innovative thinker whose work as an offensive coordinator with the Steelers, Dolphins, Chiefs and Cowboys was lauded by his players and peers;
• He comes to Buffalo on the recommendation of Cowher, who reportedly was going to bring Gailey along as his assistant head coach/offensive coordinator when he returns to the NFL sidelines;
• He won’t be queasy about having to work with mediocre quarterbacks such as Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Brohm (I left Trent Edwards off this list because I believe he’s a goner). After all, Gailey was able to make it to four Super Bowls and 11 playoffs in 15 NFL seasons with the likes of Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart and Jay Fiedler.

I want to cut the guy some slack, I really do. Just as I want to cut Bills GM Buddy Nix some slack. But it just seems that we’ve been down this road so many times before and the final destination never winds up being the playoffs.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mark my words: McGwire still delusional

I'm glad Mark McGwire finally admitted what most of us have known for years - that he used steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs during his baseball career. But I'm disappointed to hear him say the juice had no bearing on him producing other-worldly numbers.

Come on, Mark.

If you are going to come clean, come completely clean.

We're not stupid. You never hit more than 49 home runs before in a season and all of a sudden you dial long distance 70 times and hit balls 30, 40, 50 feet farther than you ever hit them before, and we're supposed to believe that it was just your superior hand-eye coordination, some extra bench presses and your Wheaties.

As far as I'm concerned, your mea culpa only made it to second base. If you want us to forgive you, you're going to have to stop deluding yourself that you would have put up those numbers regardless if you were juicing or not.


Now that McGwire has sort of confessed, will we hear from the other major frauds of the Steroids Era - Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa? Methinks not.


Hey, at least temporarily, NBC has created some drama in its 10 p.m. time slot. I normally don't watch Leno, but I flipped it on last night just to listen to him diss his bosses.


If you connect the dots, Buddy Nix probably is hoping for a Schottenheimer father-son coaching combo.

Nix sided with Marty Schottenheimer when the former San Diego head coach was on the outs with Chargers general manager A.J. Smith a few years ago. Nix would like to have Marty be the Bills head coach for the next year or two, then turn the reins over to Brian Schottenheimer, the Jets offensive coordinator, who will interview for the Buffalo head job in the near future. Interestingly, Brian's three NFL jobs before the Jets were with teams his dad coached.

If the Schottenheimer connection fails, Nix might lean to Ron Rivera, the Chargers defensive coordinator.

And I'm still wondering why Brian Billick hasn't been interviewed. I hope it isn't because the Bills aren't willing to pay for the top-flight staff of assistants Billick wants to bring with him.


Brian Schottenheimer spent the 1999 season as Syracuse's quarterbacks coach under Paul Pasqualoni. Troy Nunes was the QB that season as the Orangemen went 7-5 with a 20-13 victory over Kentucky in the Music City Bowl in Nashville. Schottenheimer left SU after one year to take a similar position with USC, before returning to the NFL. I don't know what kind of relationship Schottenheimer had with Pasqualoni, but I wonder if he would consider his former boss as his defensive coordinator should he become the Bills head coach.


Although Syracuse is ranked fifth again in the current college basketball poll, they haven't been playing like a Top-5 team lately. I still believe that when crunch time arrives later this Big East season, Wesley Johnson is going to need to become a little more selfish and take more shots. He's definitely capable of carrying a team.


I don't have a vote, but if I did Kurt Warner would be a first-ballot selection for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's a two-time league MVP and has a career passer rating of 93.7, which is better than all but a handful of quarterbacks in the Hall.

But the thing that seals it for me is his post-season play. He has a 9-3 record which includes a Super Bowl victory. In those 12 starts, Warner has thrown 31 touchdown passes, been intercepted 13 times and has an astounding 104.5 passer rating.

If that's not worthy of a bust in Canton, I don't know what is.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Opining on dad, movies, layoffs, the Bills coaching search and Goofy Gilbert

Had one of those shocking 'where-did-the-time-go?' revelations this morning when I realized my late dad would have been 97 years old today. He was born on this date in 1913 and died 10 days later in 1971 of a heart attack at age 58. I was 15 at the time and his death affected me profoundly. Those 15 years I had with him were very good ones, despite his declining health, and with each passing year I become more grateful and appreciative for the sacrifices he made for me. Happy Birthday, Dad! I miss you.


Speaking of father-son moments, Beth and I recently saw "The Young Victoria'' at the Little Theater and we applauded when Matt Garner's name appeared among the credits rolling up the screen. Matt was co-editor of the movie and is son of my good friend and Democrat and Chronicle film critic Jack Garner. What a fabulous feeling that must be for Jack and his wife, Bonnie.


And while I'm on the subject of movies, my lovely bride and I also saw "Up in the Air,'' starring George Clooney. I can see why the film has created such Oscar buzz. On a personal note, it was difficult watching people being laid off by the cold-hearted Clooney and his young assistant. Having been down-sized by a corporation myself, I could empathize with the real-life displaced people who appeared in the film. You have no idea how devastating and de-humanizing the experience is unless you go through it yourself. This movie does an incredible job of putting real faces on this most cold and cruel numbers game, which sadly has become the American way of doing business in the 21st Century.


Now, on to other, less personal, matters . . .

* I've written it before and I'll write it again: I hope I'm wrong but I just don't see Bill Cowher winding up as the new Bills coach. And the interview Ralph Wilson had with The Associated Press Friday has only strengthenned that belief. When asked if the former Pittsburgh Steelers coach is interested in the Buffalo job, Ralph responded: "I don't know. You'd have to ask him.'' Cowher isn't going to a place that will sully his reputation. He wants to have a fighting chance to turn a program around, and he probably doesn't believe that will be the case in Buffalo. I think Cowher will return to the TV studio and wait until next year to test the NFL coaching waters again.

* I'm wondering why the Bills haven't yet interviewed Brian Billick, the former Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl-winning coach or Jim Fassel or Marty Schottenheimer.

If they aren't going to sign a former NFL head coach, I'd like to see them take a chance on Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh. I know there's a high failure rate among former college coaches making the leap to the pro sidelines, but Harbaugh has experience as an NFL assistant and his 14 years as a quarterback, playing for respected coaches such as Ted Marchibroda, Mike Ditka and Bill Walsh should be viewed as a major plus for a team that's going to need to develop a QB during this major rebuilding process.

While we're on the subject, is Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier a better alternative than former Bills interim head coach/defensive coordinator Perry Fewell? Yes, Frazier has produced top-rated defenses in Minnesota the past two years, but look at the talent he's had his disposal. Fewell had to make a go of it with fewer skilled players and had to overcome the loss to injuries of five full-time starters and one part-time starter on defense. I'm not campaigning for Perry to become the Bills full-time coach. I just think it would to too tough a sell to Bills fans who would perceive it as Ralph taking the easy way out again. I just wonder how much better a hire Frazier or some other hot-shot coordinator would be.

* I'm not ready to anoint Alabama national champion in football. Let 'em play unbeaten Boisie State, then I'll cast a ballot for No. 1. You know where I'm going with this - a playoff for NCAA Division I football.

* I'm happy Andre Dawson finally earned induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but I can't believe the voters conitnue to leave Bert Blyleven and Gil Hodges on the outside looking in. And I definitely would have included Roberto Alomar on my ballot if I had one. Yes, I know about the infamous spitting incident, but that was one bad transgression in an otherwise good-guy career. I've never seen a second baseman with more range, and Alomar's offensive numbers are comparable, if not superior, to several of the second sackers already enshrined in Cooperstown.

* Congratulations to Bills receiver Andre Reed for being one of 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But I'm afraid his chances of being elected this time around are hurt by the fact there are two other receivers - Jerry Rice and Tim Brown - on the list. Voters don't like to overload a class with a particular position - unless it's quarterback - so Andre probably will have to wait 'til next year.

* Should gun-toting Gilbert Arenas be found guilty of a felony, NBA commissioner David Stern could void his entire contract, meaning Goofy Gilbert will be out $80 mil over the next four years. Perhaps that will send a message to athletes that they aren't above the law.

* And while we're talking about knucklehead athletes did you hear that Bills running back Marshawn Lynch is back in the news for allegedly stealing $20 from a woman at a T.G.I.F. Fridays in Orchard Park back in December? The Buffalo News reported that story this morning. He was going to be traded any way after his lack of production and previous problems, which resulted in a 3-game suspension at the start of the 2009 season. Unfortunately, this further devalues what the Bills can get for him in a trade. In the end, they may wind up having to just release him.

* My picks for the NFL this weekend: Jets over Bengals; Eagles over Cowboys; Pats over Ravens and Packers over Cards.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bills end miserable decade on a winning note

Some random thoughts about the Bills 30-7 victory against the Indianapolis Colts in Buffalo’s season and decade finale Sunday while attempting to type with my gloves on in the frigid press box at the Ralph:

• How can you not feel good for Fred Jackson? Here is a guy who rose from the oblivion of Division III, paid his dues in the football minors before earning a roster spot with the Bills and making the most of his NFL opportunities once they arose. Jackson finished with 212 yards on 33 carries while frolicking in the snow against the Colts. The versatile Coe College product (yes, the same alma mater as Marv Levy, who recommended Jackson’s signing) finished with 1,062 yards rushing and became the first player in league history to have 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 kickoff return yards in the same season. Jackson’s proof that the NFL personnel evaluators, despite research more thorough than Sherlock Holmes, still haven’t found a way to measure heart and desire. Jackson clearly has been a diamond amid the ashes of this Bills season, the team MVP.

• Been covering this team for more than a quarter of a century and I’ve never seen worst white-outs at a Bills home game than I witnessed Sunday at the Ralph.

• I’m always astounded to see bare-chested fans watching games in sub-zero wind chills. I don’t care how liquored-up you are, that can’t be comfortable. And I wonder how they must feel the morning after when they’re being treated for frost-bite.

• I thought Perry Fewell did a decent job with what he had to work with during his seven-game audition, which resulted in a 3-4 record. The Bills were competitive in all but one of the games he coached – the 31-3 loss to Atlanta the week before. And I liked the fact his players didn’t run for the bus and instead put in an all-out effort against the Colts “JV’’ team in the season finale Sunday. I think Fewell will be a head coach in the NFL again someday. I just don’t believe the timing is right for him to take over the Bills at this time. I think it would be a tough sell to Buffalo fans who have suffered through a miserable decade and are clamoring for dramatic changes. That said, I wouldn’t mind seeing Fewell back as the Bills defensive coordinator.

• Well, if that indeed was the final glimpse of Terrell Owens in a Bills uniform, it was a memorable one. That 41-yard touchdown reception in the snow and the high-fives T.O. administered to many of the zanies who stayed till the end was a nice farewell. Interestingly, T.O. didn’t totally rule out a return to Buffalo next season, citing the hiring of new general manager Buddy Nix, who coached the diva receiver in college. I don’t see it happening. Then again, I never saw Owens coming here in the first place.

• At least the diehards who braved today’s blizzard conditions got to see Peyton Manning for three series. The dropoff from the legendary Colts quarterback to backup Curtis Painter is like going from the top of Mt. Everest to the bottom of Death Valley. Manning completed 14-of-18 for 95 yards and one pick in a game that amounted to nothing more than a playoff tune-up exhibition for him. Painter, meanwhile, completed 4-of-17 for 39 yards, a pick and a 15.1 pass efficiency rating. He also lost a fumble. Hey, on the positive side, his rating was better than last week, when he posted an 11.2 rating.

• Ryan Fitzpatrick had a decent outing, throwing three touchdown passes and no picks for the Bills. But let’s keep things in perspective. He didn’t have to contend with Dwight Freeney or Robert Mathis breathing down his neck. Imagine how miserable life would have been for Fitz if he and his offensive line had to face the Colts sackmeisters?

• It was so cold at the Ralph, I kept waiting for the Zamboni to come out to clear the field during timeouts.

• With Jamon Meredith starting at left tackle, the Bills fielded their ninth different offensive line combo this season.

• ESPN reported that Bill Cowher had interviewed with Buffalo. As much as I would love to see it happen, I’m still having a problem believing the former Pittsburgh Steelers coach is truly interested in coaching the Bills.