Back-up QB’s Diminish Cousins’ Value / In Revived BIG 12, Trae Young Is Tres Good

January 16th, 2018 sendarama Posted in college basketball, pro football No Comments »

Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins earned 24 million dollars in 2017, which is about twelve million more than the combined salaries of Case Keenum, Blake Bortles and Nick Foles. This previously unheralded trio, of course, led their teams to victory in last weekend’s divisional playoffs, overcoming twenty five million dollar men Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, and Drew Brees in the process.

Keenum’s last-second fling to Stefon Diggs for a 61-yard touchdown was football’s Shot Heard Round the World. The Minnesota Miracle may have done more to alter pro football’s landscape than Bobby Thompson’s legendary blast off Ralph Branca in 1951 affected baseball. First, it was the first playoff game to end in a touchdown and certainly the most exciting ending to an NFL playoff game since Franco Harris’s Immaculate Reception in 1972; second, it resuscitated an NFL season plagued by boring games, sideline kneel-downs, interminable play reviews, and declining ratings; third, it set the stage for the Vikings to be the first team ever to host a Super Bowl; and fourth, together with the performances of Bortles and Foles, it may have put the lie forever to the notion that you need a top-tier quarterback to succeed in the NFL.

Keenum was undrafted out of Houston in 2012. He bounced around for several seasons between the Texans and Rams before signing a one-year contract with the Vikings for two million as a backup to Sam Bradford. He became the starter in week two after an injury to Bradford, and has excelled ever since, no more so than with his perfect pass to Diggs. Foles is playing for Philadelphia because of an injury to Carson Wentz. Bortles has been much-maligned during his five years in Jacksonville.

Stefon Diggs makes miracle grab

Throughout Cousins’ free agency, during which he has received the franchise tag twice, the debate has been whether he was an elite quarterback worth a top tier rate over a long-term contract. In light of the playoff performance of the back-ups, perhaps the better question is whether Cousins has the skill set to mesh with the current roster of Redskins to deliver a regular playoff contender. If not, as appears to be the case, then the payroll can be put to better use acquiring a number one wide receiver, a durable running back, a sure-tackling free safety and yes, a serviceable but not star quarterback. For the same reason that a non-contending baseball team refuses to pay top dollar for a closer, the Redskins may pass on Cousins.

Cousins is a former back-up who made good seeking great quarterback money. In an odd twist, the success of his erstwhile colleagues may have turned the market against him.


Just a few years ago, after the massive realignment of the power conferences, the Big 12 was the little kid left at the station. Think Kevin in “Home Alone.” Gone were Nebraska. Colorado, Missouri, and Texas A&M. Replacing them, sort of, were West Virginia and TCU. WVU pitched the SEC hard, but took the Big 12 as a last gasp. While the ACC, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-10 increased their memberships to fifteen , fourteen, fourteen, and twelve teams, respectively, the Big 12 reduced to ten. But it kept its name, the Big 12.

There’s been pressure on the football side for the Big 12 to add member schools. At twelve, it could create two divisions and add a conference championship game, thereby increasing the chances of the winner qualifying for the college football playoffs. And additional members would perhaps facilitate the creation of a conference-themed TV network as the Big Ten, SEC, and Pac-10 have done.

But on the basketball side, there’s an advantage to being smaller. One of the most attractive features to conference play has always been the rivalries, which fester best in home and home regular seasons. Familiarity breeds contempt. The second meeting between conference rivals, late in the season before a boisterous crowd, with NCAA seeding on the line, is an inspired setting.

Having expanded to an unwieldy number, the ACC, SEC, and Big Ten have been required to abandon the balanced schedule, with the result that some teams face tougher schedules than others, and there is only a limited home and home component. You cannot judge a team based on conference record without having examined its conference schedule.

But the Big 12 remains pure. Top to bottom, the conference is arguably as good as it’s ever been. Nine members have qualified for the NCAA’s in the last two years, The outlier, TCU, started this season 12-0. Kansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and TCU breezed through the non-conference portion of their schedule at 54-5. Kansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech are in the top ten of the current AP and Coaches poll.

But the biggest reason for the Big 12 buzz is Trae Young, Oklahoma’s lighting quick 6’2” freshman point guard. The Young-ster leads the nation in scoring (30 ppg) and assists (10/gm). On December 22, he handed out 22 assists against Northwestern State, tying a record set by Sherman Douglas of Syracuse 30 years ago. He’s a lock for freshman of the year and a near-lock for player of the year. Young says that he patterned his game after assist maven Steve Nash, but his quick release, global range and striking accuracy most resemble Steph Curry. At TCU January 13th in a revenge encounter, Young added another name to his cast of characters – Russell Westbrook.

Trae Young at work against TCU

With the Sooners trailing by six points late, Young took over. En route to a 43-point, 11 rebounds, 7 assist performance, Young scored 11 points in the last three minutes to force overtime, where Oklahoma pulled away. It was the second wrecking job that Young inflicted on TCU this season. On December 30, he registered 39 points and 14 assists against the Horned Frogs including two foul shots with seconds remaining to win it. “Sometimes you wonder if he’s even human,” mused teammate Christian James.

Also on January 13, Kansas, at home, edged Kansas State 73-72, and Texas Tech overcame a 10-point deficit in Lubbock to defeat number 2-ranked West Virginia 72-71, ending the Mounties’ 15-game winning streak. Just another routine day in the Big 12. Considering the strength of the conference, this looked like the year to break Kansas’s 13-year stranglehold on the Big 12 regular season title. But on Monday, as a 6.5 point underdog at West Virginia, Kansas put its detractors on hold. The Jayhawks made up a 16-point second half disadvantage to startle the Mountaineers 71-66, their second defeat in 48 hours after winning fifteen straight. Last night, Kansas State at home flashed its bona fides by spanking Oklahoma 87-69. Young, who can be overzealous, came back to earth with eleven turnovers.

You can make the case that there is no more difficult task in college basketball than winning a conference game on the road in the Big 12. “There are no easy outs in the Big 12,” lamented WVU coach Bob Huggins. “Every team is tough.”

All ten of them.

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NFL Fumbles on Catch Rule

January 16th, 2015 sendarama Posted in pro football 1 Comment »

Dez Bryant at the end of the play

Odell Beckham, Jr’s reign as maker of the Greatest Catch Ever was about seven weeks and two hours old when Dez Bryant threatened to usurp him.

Beckham’s back flipping, one-handed grab of an Eli Manning aerial on 11/23 against the Cowboys was widely hailed as the greatest catch of all time. Nobody had ever seen that kind of catch before. But the impact of the stunning grab was to the senses only. Beckham’s second quarter touchdown did not avoid the Giants’ 28-31 loss, their sixth straight, which Bryant sealed for the Cowboys with his second touchdown catch of the day with 1:01 remaining.

The stakes were a lot higher last Sunday in the NFC playoffs when on fourth and two from the Packers 34 with 4:42 to go, trailing 21-26, Cowboy quarterback Romo launched a 30-yard spiral towards the left sideline to Bryant, who was closely guarded by Sam Shields. Bryant made a terrific leaping catch at the eight yard line, turned in mid air, planted his left, then right foot, and then drove off his left leg to the end zone while switching the ball from his right to left hand. When Bryant’s left hand hit the ground just short of the goal line, the ball came loose momentarily, and Bryant secured it. The ruling on the field was a completed catch, and a Dallas first down at the one.

When the catch occurred, few questioned it, least of all the announcers, who were dumbfounded by Bryant’s athleticism and made no mention of the ball coming loose. Perhaps they were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the play, which was described by Sally Jenkins in Tuesday’s Washington Post: “Bryant’s catch was such an act of vaulting physical genius that for a moment it shook off all earthbound anxieties.”

So much had occurred between the catch and the ball’s dislodgment: Bryant had landed both feet in bounds, taken an additional step, switched the ball into his left hand, and then dove to the end zone. At worst, we had a catch, and maybe a fumble, recovered by Bryant. Beckham tweeted his agreement. “I thought Bryant made the catch, then went towards the end zone for a touchdown, lost the ball, and then recovered it.”

It was a surprise when perspicacious Packer Coach Mike McCarthy requested a review of the play, and an absolute shock when the referees reversed the catch. The reason offered was that Bryant had not maintained possession of the football “through the entire process of the catch.”

The ruling stems from Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3 of the NFL Rule book, which states, “If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass, he must maintain control of the ball through the process of contacting the ground.” But the same section provides: “ A catch occurs when a player secured control of the ball in his hands, and has maintained control of the ball long enough to enable him to perform any act common to the game.”

Bryant took three steps after making the catch and lunged to the end zone. Later, Referee Gene Steratore said, “ Bryant’s actions after the catch were all done while falling, and he never had another act common to the game.” NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino said, “We need control with both feet and then (the receiver) do something with it.”

I can’t define “an act common to the game,” but I do know that when a receiver takes a step, switches the ball into another hand, and dives to the end zone, then he is “doing something.”

The rule was introduced a few years ago to eliminate the need to determine whether a player had full possession before reaching the ground. But when a player continues to push forward after making a catch, without breaking clear of his tackler, the referee must be able to draw a line between the catch and the fall. To the dismay of everyone but Packers fans, the officiating crew on Sunday did not do so.

Bryant had trumped Beckham‘s great catch, on November 23, and now the referees had trumped Bryant.

Bryant could not believe it. For a very long moment, he plaintively extended his hands face up to the sky, and asked the world for justice. But he wasn’t getting it from the 80,000 Lambeau Field attendants, who could not believe their good fortune.

Bryant has had a troubled past – born to a 14 year old crack addict, arrested for domestic abuse, and branded as a hothead for most of his early career – but it’s doubtful that he’s ever felt more abused by the system than when his magnificent moment was snuffed out on a technicality.

The call, of course, was outcome-determinative. The Packers took over at the 34, and ran out the clock.

The official Cowboys reaction was surprisingly accepting . ‘Boy fans were slitting their throats, but owner Jerry Jones and coach Jason Garrett stayed composed. “I do think he made it (the catch), but we’ve had a lot of re-looks at things around here. Sometimes they go for you and sometimes they don’t,” he said. Jones view was tempered by the knowledge that the Cowboys had beaten Detroit the week before with the aid of an egregious no call on an obvious pass interference; and he is a member of NFL royalty. Garrett was about to sign a five year contract to continue as coach. Neither was in a position to cry bloody murder.

Not so for the millions of fans who know a catch when they see one and are fed up with games being decided by the application of obtuse rules which run contrary to the mainstream of judgment. One writer noted,”I could go into a bar right now, and ask 50 drunks whether it was a catch, and all 50 would say it was a catch.”

The NFL has had a very bad year off the field. Only by the sheer magnificence of its on-field product has it managed to thrive ratings-wise and revenue-wise. But when games are decided on the basis of technicalities rather than the quality of performance, it’s high time for another rule change.

Or maybe they should hire drunks as referees.

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Pro Football Pleasures

December 15th, 2012 sendarama Posted in pro football No Comments »

The exterior of the Riviera Cafe, at the corner of 7th ave and 4th street in lower Manhattan, offers no hint of the pleasures which lie within. There’s no view of the water. There’s not even a sign that says “Sports Bar.”

You have to pass through the main level, midst the scent of omelettes and eggs benedict, down the stairway, and to the right before you come upon a sight more beautiful than the chorus line at the Follies Bergere – seven flat screen tv’s, each tuned to a different game, lined up in a row for the ten or so lucky patrons who have secured their seats at the bar for NFL Sunday.

What distinguishes this venue from the sports books at casinos or the gaudy sports bars which have sprouted up like weeds are the intimacy of the surroundings and the close proximity of the televisions. Without crooking your neck, by a mere roll of the eyeballs, it is possible to digest four games at once from the comfort of a bar stool a few feet away. With a nod to the left, or a slight turn to the right , the other three games come into view. Truth be told, one game was left uncovered. On this full house Sunday, with eight games kicking off at 1:00, there was no screen available for Philadelphia-Tampa Bay.

Because the Patriots were playing Monday, there was a smaller crowd than usual at this Boston-leaning bar; and though arriving late, I was able to secure a prime seat center court. Things were heating up. I had invested more than usual in the outcomes of several of these encounters, and felt good about my bets. Throw in multiple Dewars and sodas, an order of chicken wings, and the Sunday New York Times for slow moments, and I was set.

Early on there were setbacks. Pittsburgh fell behind big early, dooming my teaser. My straight plays on Washington, Cincinnati, and the Jets were going back and forth like a pinball. Because of line movements, I had live middle shots on Chicago-Minnesota, and Indianapolis-Tennessee. Of the seven games on the screens, I had action on six.

When you’re watching games like this, you develop an awareness of the teams which transcends what you read in the write-ups or see on the highlights. Last-second victories have a way of obscuring mistakes. For example, lost in the euphoria of the Redskins comeback win against Baltimore was D’Angelo Hall’s feeble attempt to dislodge the ball from Anquan Boldin rather than tackle him on a critical play.

At third and four from the Washington 35 late in the fourth quarter, Boldin caught a short pass near the left sideline and turned downfield. Hall latched on early, but instead of forcing Boldin out of bounds, or, God forbid, tackling him, Hall punched several times at the ball. But Boldin’s grasp was firm, and he ran 28 yards to the 7-yard line setting up the Ravens’ go-ahead touchdown. Had Baltimore’s lead held up, Hall would have received his rightful roasting.

Dallas was hailed for its emotional comeback road win over Cincinnati just a few days after two of its players were involved in a fatal car accident. But had the Bengals taken care of business and not muffed several scoring opportunities, the ’Boys would have been sent packing. A.J. Green bungled a sure touchdown pass in his breadbasket which would have clinched the game.

Even the Jets received plaudits for their second consecutive victory, a snorefest win over Jacksonville. The tabloids praised Sanchez for playing a mistake free game, but the Jets offense was as somnolent as ever. Rarely taking a chance, Sanchez accumulated a less than robust 111 yards through the air, which was an improvement over the previous week , when he was replaced by third string quarterback Greg McElroy. The Jets are so bad on offense that when they get inside the 20, the Red Zone Channel ignores them.

But no discussion of quarterback ineptitude would be complete without mention of Arizona’s signal callers who have strung together, in the words of Mike Francesa, “ the worst quarterbacking performances in the history of the NFL. “

Against the Jets two weeks ago, a 7-6 loss, Ryan Lindley, a rookie drafted in the sixth round out of San Diego State, went 10 for 31 and zero for 15 in third down opportunities. His replacement last Sunday, John Skelton, threw four interceptions in a 58-0 loss to Seattle. After starting the season 4-0, the Cardinals have lost nine straight. The most compulsive gambler in the universe could not bet this team no matter the spread.

At this late stage of the season, several of the contenders are revealing themselves to be pretenders. After its thrashing by Carolina Sunday, 11-2 Atlanta cannot be taken seriously. Pittsburgh lost a game which one diehard called “the Steelers’ worst home performance in his lifetime.” And he’s 50.

Despite their explosion against New Orleans, the Giants defense relinquished 350 yards on the ground the past two weeks and appears vulnerable. Houston was decimated by New England Monday night. Chicago, after starting 7-1, has lost four of five. Only the Patriots have demonstrated the consistency of performance of a potential champion.

By 4:30, all of the one o’clocks had been decided, the Redskins’ overtime win being the capper. Fittingly, after an afternoon of wild game (and mood) swings, Kai Forbath’s field goal on the last play of the early games provided the winning margin for the Redskins and for me (-2.5). Three hours of unrestrained debauchery had ended on a high note; but I was tired, a little bit drunk, and in need of a nap.

After all, I needed to be ready for Giants-Saints at 8:30.

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Wanted Dead or Alive/ Kentucky Means Business

March 4th, 2012 sendarama Posted in college basketball, pro football No Comments »

Josh Randall would have thrived in today’s NFL.

Randall, the fictional bounty hunter with the sawed-off Winchester played by Steve McQueen in the TV western ‘”Wanted Dead or Alive” (1958-1961), which catapulted the laconic McQueen to stardom, traveled long distances on horseback for small pay to catch his man. When he found him, he practiced fair play and sought to “bring him back alive,” despite the show’s title.

Had Randall participated in the National Football League, he would not have been bound by such limitations. He would find his prey directly across the line of scrimmage; the cash rewards would be greater; and he would not have been prevented by his conscience from going all out to maim the opposition.

McQueen as Josh Randall

With the revelation that the NFL Saints under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams engaged in a three -year- long system of rewarding players for injuring their opponents or forcing them out of the game, and that similar shenanigans have been going on for years with other teams, including the Redskins, the NFL is facing a public relations nightmare, and the wrongdoers are facing huge fines and suspensions.

The NFL has determined that Williams, with the knowledge of head coach Sean Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis, paid $1500.00 to his players for “knockout hits” and $1000 if a player was carted off the field. The money was generated by fines, and by contributions from Williams and other players. Evidently, informal reward systems for big hits and forced fumbles have been going on for years; but this is the first time we have become aware that payoffs have been awarded to players for inflicting injury with the express consent of management.

The reaction among players and some egg-headed talking heads is that similar practices have been going on for so long throughout the league that “it’s no big deal.” But this argument ignores the fundamental distinction between a) accidental injury; and b) management-inspired mayhem. The former is a cost of doing business in the NFL. Long ago, the Courts determined that athletes in team sports “assumed the risk of injury which comes with participation in a violent sport.” But when management plays a role in orchestrating injuries, we have mischief of a different level bordering on criminal conduct.

This scandal could not have come at a worse time for the NFL, which is already facing a barrage of lawsuits alleging that it failed to take proper precautions against concussion-related injuries. Now, add to the list of potential litigants any player who has been injured as the result of a “bounty” program.

There is no way that Williams, now the defensive coordinator at St. Louis, can survive the disclosures. The feeling here is that he will be suspended for the entire 2012 season by Roger Goodell and that the Saints organization will be fined at least a million dollars, plus lost draft picks, which will be the most severe penalty ever imposed by an NFL commissioner against a player, coach, or organization.

Through the televised NFL combine, the Peyton Manning saga, and speculation about the upcoming draft, the NFl has been remarkably successful in keeping itself on the front page of the sports section during its off season. But this is one time when the League might have preferred a little anonymity.

Kentucky Means Business

Since the rule requiring high school seniors to complete one year of eligibility before entering the NBA draft was enacted in 2005, no “one and done” has played a key role in leading his team to a a national championship. Marvin Williams was the sixth man on the 2005 champion Tarheels; freshmen-based Ohio State (Greg Oden, Michael Conley) lost in the finals to Florida in 2007; and Derrick Rose missed by a hair in 2008 with Memphis. If there has been a pattern to recent champs, it is that they have been led by experienced players in their second or third years of stardom. Rookies, it appeared, did not have the savvy to take teams all the way.

But as I have watched Kentucky, led by three star freshmen, repel the challenges of Mississippi State, Vanderbilt (twice) and Florida over the past couple of weeks with a toughness and sagacity befitting a squad of seasoned assassins to finish undefeated in the SEC (16-0) and 30-1 overall, it is clear to me that the Wildcats are about to turn the tables on conventional wisdom.

The three freshmen are 6’10” center-forward Anthony Davis, small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and point guard Marcus Teague. Each has long-arms, off –the- charts athleticism, and fierce determination. When teamed with returning lettermen Darius Miller, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones, they form a seamless sextet capable of running the table in the NCAA tournament.

Anthony Davis Stands Tall

Kentucky coach John Calipari has been called everything but a great coach, but how else do you explain his molding a youthful squad in to the best defensive team in the country? On the perimeter, the length and quickness of Davis, Teague, and Kidd-Gilchrist have made life miserable for three-point oriented teams such as Florida and Vanderbilt. In the paint, Davis, a natural forward playing center, has set a record for blocks by an SEC freshmen, recording 146 swatbacks; and like Bill Russell, he keeps his blocks in play. Overall, the ‘Cats defend the two @ 36.4% and the three-ball @ 31.8%. On offense, they shoot 48.9 and 36.4, respectively. Small wonder they play to a 19.3 ppg winning margin.

Offensively, Kentucky has been getting better with near geometric progression, particularly Davis, who would be a player of the year candidate if he couldn’t shoot a lick. But Davis, a converted guard, has just begun to display his offensive versatility. Against Vanderbilt last week, his critical 3-pointer beat back a Vandy rush. He shot 8 of 9 from the field and made all six of his free throws. Yesterday, when Florida narrowed a 16 point deficit to 57-53, his lefty jump hook, block, and put back dunk stifled the Gators for good.

There is nothing that Kentucky does not do exceptionally well. Even its 3-point game has improved. But the ‘Cats’ best attribute may be their mental toughness. They may let you back in; but once you get close, they will swat you down like a pesky insect. One blocked shot, a fast break, and a three-ball later, and their two point lead has stretched to seven. But since Kentucky is not deep, like Syracuse, they remain vulnerable to injury and to foul trouble. Ironically, in the upcoming SEC tournament, where they are likely to play Vanderbilt or Florida for the third time, they may also be subject to complacency.

After all, when you’ve got your sights set on a national championship, what’s another SEC title?

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‘Cuse Weathers the Abuse/ Yanks Shuffle the Deck/ Giants/ Ali

January 19th, 2012 sendarama Posted in baseball, college basketball, pro football No Comments »

It’s been joked that the best team in the country is Syracuse, and the second best is their bench. But if the games of last week are any gauge, it may not be a stretch at all to assert that the Orange’s top five reserves could play tough or beat the rest of the Big East and many of the top 25.

Admittedly, it’s shaping up that there are few exceptional teams. In the past several days, top teams have been dropping like flies to lesser foes. North Carolina was pounded by Florida State 90-57. Ohio State lost to Illinois. Duke was upended by Temple, Michigan State by Northwestern. In the Big East, Villanova stinks, UConn has lost to Seton Hall, Rutgers, and Cincinnati; and most surprisingly, perennial power Pitt lost its sixth straight Big East game Monday to Syracuse, which marched to 20-0 for the first time in its celebrated hoops history.

Syracuse has previously suffered from early departures, but not this year. They return four starters and four experienced reserves from last year’s 27-victory squad. Add freshmen Rakeem Christmas and Michael Carter-Williams, and you’ve got a 10-man rotation, ten players averaging ten minutes or more. Check it out folks – no other team in the top 25 plays nine.

They are not just deep and talented – they are balanced, with several interchangeable parts. Scoop Jardine, Howard Triche and Dion Waiters can all play the point or shooting guard. 7 footer Fab Melo ( Fabricio De Melo), after re-structuring his body, has emerged as a dominating shot-blocker; and his replacement, Baye Moussa Keita, is easily the best back-up center in the country. Kris Joseph and C.J. Fair fill the lane with gusto. Fair can also play the power forward. G-F James Southerland, in limited playing time, has scored 14 pts or more five times this season Freshman Christmas adds bulk up front. It’s been speculated that Syracuse has nine potential NBA players on its roster.

Waiters lays it in against Villanova

And almost everybody got in the act against Pitt. Five players scored between 10 and 16 points in the 71-63 triumph. Coach Jim Boeheim has so much depth that he could afford to yank Christmas after one minute of the second half for failing to prevent an offensive rebound. The youngster did not return.

In winning, the Orange cemented their hold on the No. 1 ranking for the sixth straight week. Their strength of schedule is 2nd in the country; but of the eleven games left, only road affairs at Louisville and UConn loom as threats to the first undefeated regular season in Division One play since St Joseph’s ran the table in 2004.

Unlike their counterparts at Penn State, the Orange have not been derailed by the sexual abuse allegations hurled at a member of their staff, long-time assistant Bernie Fine. When Fine was named as a youth predator, fresh on the heels of the Penn State situation, it was feared that Syracuse would suffer comparably to Penn State; but Boeheim’s keeping his job, no administrative heads have rolled, and Fine himself will probably avoid indictment.

There is no such calm at Penn State. The Board of Trustees has come under attack for its heartless dismissal of Paterno by late evening phone call. The selection of Pats assistant Bill O’Brien as Paterno’s successor has been widely derided. And administration officials, with knowledge of the pending grand jury investigation of Jerry Sandusky, allowed him to watch Joe Pa’s 409th victory from the presidential box just one week before Sandusky’s indictment on 50 counts of sexual assault.

Sally Jenkins’ interview of Joe Paterno for the Washington Post published this week did little to alter the negative view of Penn State or the dismay over Paterno’s inaction. It provided a sensitive portrait of the ailing ex-coach but little in the way of new facts or explanations for his decade-long failure to stop Sandusky.

Joe said that he was unaware of the 1998 police investigation of Sandusky, and had no suspicion prior to 2002 that Sandusky was a sexual deviant. He did not follow-up, he said, because he did not want to “exert influence for or against Sandusky.” Though the interview did not provide much new information, it did muddle the government’s pending perjury case against Penn State administrators Tim Curley and Gary Schultz.

Curley and Schultz were indicted for telling the Grand Jury last year that Assistant Coach Mike McQueary in 2002 did not tell them that he saw Sandusky committing sex in the shower on a 10-year old, but rather described “inappropriate behavior or fondling” in the shower. That is substantially the same as what Paterno says McQueary told him. But McQueary told the grand jury that he described Sandusky’s behavior to Curley and Schultz in more graphic detail than he did to Paterno, specifically describing sodomy on a 10 year old in the shower.

The case against Curley and Schultz will rely almost exclusively on the testimony of McQueary, who admits giving two different versions of what he saw. Curley and Schultz will certainly be consistent in their accounts of what McQueary told them. That’s two against one, and the one has already been trapped in an inconsistency. It looks like an uphill climb for the government.

Yanks Shuffle the Deck ….The Yankees’ recent trade of top prospect Jesus Montero for young stud pitcher Michael Pineda and their signing of free agent pitcher Hiroki Kuroda on the same day signal changes to come throughout the Yankee roster.

Montero, a powerful hitter but a defensive liability at catcher, was projected to catch 30-40 games and serve as the right-handed DH. But Yank GM Brian Cashman must have recognized that DH was no place for a developing player and that he could not trust Montero behind the plate. By trading Montero for a top of the rotation pitcher, the Yankees undid a logjam at catcher and DH, strengthened their staff, and opened up a number of intriguing lineup possibilities.

First, the right-handed DH slot is freed up for more than occasional occupancy by Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Eduardo Nunez started over eighty games last year at third and can be counted on to spell Jeter and A-Rod in the field when these aging veterans need rest. When Nunez starts and A-Rod DH’s, the Yankees can come at you with speed (Granderson, Gardner, Nunez) and power (A-Rod, Teixeira, Cano, Swisher). Look for a change in the batting order with Cano batting third and Teixeira fifth. Jorge Posada’s retirement leaves an opening for a left-handed DH. Ex-Yank Hideki Matsui, a free agent, would be perfect.

But the trade may have its most dramatic impact on the pitching staff. The arrival of Pineda and Kuroda marks the downgrading of AJ Burnett and Phil Hughes. Pineda and Kuroda will be slotted second and fourth in the rotation, respectively. Ivan Nova should be number three. That leaves Burnett, Hughes and Garcia to duke it for fifth starter. Expect Burnett as a number 5 to equal or exceed reduced expectations, Hughes to go to the bullpen or be traded, and Garcia to spot start and do long relief.

Under the new collective bargaining agreement, teams will be more sharply penalized for exceeding the luxury tax threshold. In anticipation of the new rules, and with exception for the 1-year deal to Kuroda, the Yankees steered clear of this year’s free agent pitcher class and have instead chosen to stockpile young hurlers under contract by trade (Penada) and through their farm system (Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelo)

These are not the free-spending Yankees of the George Steinbrenner era, who wasted tens of millions on multi-year contracts to free agent pitchers Kevin Brown, Jared Wright, Kei Igawa, and yes, Burnett. Mistakes on pitchers may be made in the future; but if so, they will be made one year at a time.

Giants….. In an NFL season filled with more story lines than a Dickens novel, the late-season run of the Giants continues to be a page-turner

There’s been no shortage of heroes during the Giants’ four-game march to Sunday’s NFC Conference title game against San Francisco: Eli, the defensive line, the resurgent backfields, offensive and defensive, the wide receiver corps. Improvement in each of these areas has contributed to consecutive victories against the Jets, Dallas, Atlanta, and Green Bay altering the course of a season which just a few weeks ago was heading south.

Now, as Giant fans evoke parallels to the 2007 Super Bowl run, they are poised to win it all.

But ask yourself what if Victor Cruz does not make that 99 yard catch and run against the Jets in week 16. Here’s the scenario – Fresh off an abysmal defeat to the Redskins, the Giants were 7-7 and on the brink of a lost season. They needed to win out to make the playoffs. The Jets, at 8-6, had been modestly successful, but had the inside track to a playoff berth. Before the game, Jets coach Rex Ryan stoked the fires by claiming that the Jets were the better team.

The Jets dominated the early going, and led 7-3 with 2:12 left in the half and the Giants pinned back on their own one yard line with a 3rd and 10. If the Jets stopped the Giants and got the ball back at midfield, they had a good chance to take a potentially crippling 14-3 lead into halftime.

Instead, Eli completed a short toss to Cruz over the middle. Cruz eluded one tackler, dashed to the sideline, leaped over another defender and cruised 99 yards for the score. It was the play that sent the Giants soaring, and the Jets reeling.

Since Cruz’ touchdown, the Giants have out-scored their opponents by 118-43, and have registered four touchdowns of sixty five yards or more in four blow-out victories. Since Cruz’ touchdown, the Jets lost their last game of the season to miss the playoffs, fired coaches, and have been riddled with dissension. The franchises have been heading in opposite direction at warp speed.

On the Giants’ march to a Super Bowl victory, there may be many more big plays, perhaps even a game-winning one. But of all the plays in all the games, the one that changed the course of the season, the one Giant fans will most cherish will be Victor Cruz’ gift of a 99-yard catch and run against the Jets on Christmas Eve.

Ali …… Muhammad Ali, nee Cassius Clay, turned 70 Tuesday. Incredibly to men of a certain age, it’s more than 50 years since The Mouth that Roared won a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics; and it’s just under 48 years since he toppled Sonny Liston in the sixth round in Miami Beach in February, 1964 in what many consider to be the greatest sports upset ever.

Clay entered the fray as a 7-1 underdog. An examining doctor, shocked at Clay’s heart rate, expressed concern for his safety against ex-mob enforcer Liston, who had destroyed Floyd Patterson twice with his savage right hand and was considered unbeatable.

After achieving Olympic Gold, Clay plowed through a slew of pretenders and contenders, boldly predicting the final round by rhyme. When he narrowly edged Doug Jones in an elimination bout at the Garden in 1963, he became 18-0 and in line to fight Liston for the title.

The fight was much anticipated, but by today’s standards, it was conducted in secret. There was no home TV and only limited closed circuit availability. Some early cable systems carried the fight, and this writer drove 75 miles to Ithaca, New York to watch the bout in grainy black and white.

Clay surprised the world by dashing and slashing and jabbing Liston for six rounds, so befuddling the Big Ugly Bear that he didn’t come out for the seventh. Clay bounced hysterically around the ring shouting “I am the Greatest.”

Shortly thereafter, Clay announced his conversion to the Muslim faith and his new name, Muhammad Ali. Three years later, he was stripped of his crown for resisting induction to the armed forces. While in exile, he embarked on a speaking tour of liberal-leaning colleges, including the University of Michigan, where he conducted an hilarious monologue of black-white jokes. He was handsome, witty, and gracious.

Ali was the most polarizing athlete of his generation, but he transcended sports. He had a world championship game and a world championship personality. That is a package we may never see again.

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