The Second Season Begins in the NFL

Well, the NFL playoffs kick off tomorrow. I finished the regular season 123-127-6 against the spread. A rough last two weeks kept me from finishing in the black. However, it is time to wipe the slate clean for the playoffs. Here’s a look at Wildcard Weekend. My picks are in bold.

Kansas City (-3) at Houston- This will be a pretty low scoring game. Both teams have great defenses. However, I trust KC’s offense a bit more. KC 20 Hou 14

Pittsburgh (-3) at Cincinnati- As a Cincinnati native and a Bronco fan who wants nothing to do with the Steelers next week, I hope I am wrong here. However, a future HOF QB going against a backup QB is a tough matchup to ignore. I expect AJ McCarron to handle himself well against a below average Steelers defense, but Pittsburgh falls out of bed and scores 30. I don’t think the Bengals can keep up for the entire game. Pit 30 Cin 20

Seattle (-5) at Minnesota- This is going to be one of the coldest playoff games ever. Seattle has finally played up to their capability over the last month and a half. They have destroyed everyone in their path, including a 38-7 drubbing of this same Vikings team. Both teams are built for the cold. The Vikings and young QB Teddy Bridgewater are ahead of schedule, but Seattle is just better right now… Much Better. Sea 24 Min 9

Green Bay at Washington (-1)- Despite being the beneficiary of a terrible division and kind of a punchline all year, Washington is playing as well as anyone right now, particularly on offense. Head coach Jay Gruden has done a great job of playing to the strengths of QB Kurt Cousins. I think the Packers are the much better team on paper, but they just cannot get out of their own way on offense right now. The Packers are 4-6 in the last 10 weeks, 3-7 without a miracle Hail Mary against Detroit. Thus, Green Bay may be better on paper, but Washington is better right now. All the favorites win and cover this weekend. Was 30 GB 24

The Hardest Working People in Sports That You Don’t Know

 

This is a post I have wanted to do for a long while. With tennis season starting this week, and the first major about two weeks out, I wanted to recognize some of the folks that do not get the headlines, but keep the sport going, the coaches. Particularly the coaches of the top players. They have the toughest job in the sport. They are not trying to build their pupil’s game from the ground up, they are trying to find that extra 5-10% that will give their player an edge over other top players. It is a tough thing to find. Here is a look at these unsung heroes and heroines.

Sven Groeneveld- This 50 year old Dutchman has been at it a long time. After retiring as a player, he coached Mary Pierce and Monica Seles to the top of the game. He spent the early and mid-2000s working for the  Adidas player development program. This was highly lucrative. During this time, he coached Serb Ana Ivanovic to her first (and so far only) Grand Slam title at the 2008 French Open and led Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki to the number 1 ranking. In late 2013, he accepted the role of Maria Sharapova’s full time coach. This was a pretty gutsy move. Sharapova was in the midst of the second long injury layoff of her career. No one knew what the future held, but he took a chance to work with the most intense player on the planet. His faith was rewarded when he brought Sharapova the 2014 French Open crown. His passion and energy for Maria’s work is amazing as he lives and dies with her all over the world. As pictured below, I have never seen him sit down during a match. He continued to stand by the Russian after another long injury layoff from July-October 2015. He has added more safety to Sharapova’s massive shots. He has her healthy and motivated for 2016.

Sven+Groeneveld jarome

Jerome Bianchi- The man behind Groeneveld in the white hat is Sharapova’s physical trainer, Jerome Bianchi. This former French rugby player has the task of keeping Sharapova fit. This is a real challenge. Sharapova’s serving shoulder was surgically repaired in 2008, before he came aboard. By all accounts, that limits what she can do on the practice court. She has to save her best for the match court. Since Bianchi joined Team Sharapova with Groeneveld, I have not seen her lose matches due to her fitness… at all. Sharapova praises his energy publically whenever she can, affectionately referring to him as “Turbo”

Severin Lüthi- Roger Federer is arguably the greatest player to ever live. He has been through several coaches throughout his remarkable career. This list includes the former coach of Pete Sampras Paul Annacone and legendary player Stefan Edberg. However, there has been one constant on Team Federer since day 1, Swiss National Team coach Severin Lüthi. He has toured with Federer since 2007, but was sort of a consultant before that. Either as the head coach or one of many, he has always been there, making tweaks to Federer’s game to keep him fresh. In recent years, the goal has been for Federer to shorten points by coming into to the net more. Look, Federer is 34 now, an age where most tennis players are long retired. However, Federer is still a threat to win any tournament he enters. It is reasonable to conclude Lüthi (pictured below holding practice balls for Federer) deserves some credit for that.

Team Fed

 

Patrick Mouratoglou- This Frenchman pictured below assumed the coaching duties for Serena Williams in the spring of 2012. Coaching someone as talented as Serena may sound like a cushy gig, but he came along at an interesting time. Serena had not won a major since Wimbledon 2010, a lengthy drought by her lofty standards. She missed most of 2011 with illness and injuries. She was inconsistent in early 2012. Rock bottom came at the French Open with her first round ever opening round defeat at a major. Williams, a part-time Paris resident began training at the Mouratoglou Academy. Within days, the coaching arrangement was formed. Mouratoglou became the first person outside the Williams family to take on a significant coaching role with one of the sisters. Credit Serena for realizing she needed a fresh set of eyes. She instantly became more engaged and went through fewer bad patches of play on court. Since Mouratoglou took over, Serena has won eight majors and an Olympic gold medal. Not to mention, the fact that Williams is not talking about retiring despite being 34 years of age. Those results speak for themselves.

Williams of the U.S. talks to her coach Patrick Mouratoglou during a practice session before her women's singles final match against Sharapova of Russia at the Australian Open 2015 tennis tournament in Melbourne

Serena Williams of the U.S. talks to her coach Patrick Mouratoglou during a practice session before her women’s singles final match against Maria Sharapova of Russia at the Australian Open 2015 tennis tournament in Melbourne January 31, 2015. REUTERS/Brandon Malone (AUSTRALIA – Tags: SPORT TENNIS)

 

 

Marián Vajda-This 50-year-old Slovak has been keeping a watchful eye on world number 1 Novak Djokovic since 2006. Meaning he has guided Djokovic to all 10 of his major titles and his Olympic bronze medal. To my knowledge, he has never given an interview. So, no one knows that much about him, but I will say a few things. Djokovic has a reputation for being somewhat of a clown on the tour. However, Vajda was able to get him to take the sport seriously, get fully fit, and develop that killer instinct necessary to win majors. However, he did not take Djokovic’s lighthearted personality away. Also, at a time when Federer and Nadal were winning everything and no one could break through, not only did Djokovic breakthrough, he began to dominate his two main rivals. Vajda was a decent player and was able to break into the top 40 any early 90s, despite not having loads of natural talent. That kind of “grinder” is the perfect balance to Djokovic. He began splitting coaching duties with Hall of Fame player Boris Becker two years ago, but rarely misses a tournament.

VAJDA

 

 

Judy Murray- For my money, the most interesting story in tennis is that of Judy Murray. Not only is she a woman who has left an indelible mark on the male-dominated arena tennis coaching, but long before she was a tennis coach, she was a mom. The two roles just happened to intersect a bit. She put tennis racquets in the hands of her two young sons Jamie and Andy when they were toddlers. Rather than ship them off to some fancy academy, she taught them the game herself in rural Scotland. 20+ years later Jamie is a world-class doubles player and Wimbledon champion. Andy is a two-time major singles champion (including Wimbledon) and Olympic gold medalist. Both boys have long since moved on to other coaches, but Mom is always watching the matches as if she is out there battling with them, in a way she is. I also cannot overstate the importance of the fact that the Murray brothers are homegrown Wimbledon champions. The UK is obsessed with tennis, but did not see one of their own win their major for 70+ years before the Murray brothers. The British Tennis Association was so impressed with Murray’s work with her sons that they put Ms. Murray in charge of developing Britain’s next wave of female tennis talent. Since then, she has had two British girls break into the top 40 under her watch. She has said that she prefers teaching the game to kids and stopped coaching on the women’s tour last year. She now travels around the world with her boys and their coaching teams full-time.

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I am not sure how many people will read this piece, but I have so enjoyed writing it. There are dozens of other coaches who work just as hard to see their players succeed. People like Darren Cahill and David Kotyza. I will leave my readers to Google those names. Professional tennis is a year-round sport. Both top tours are full go 11 months a year, there are tournaments six of the seven continents. Just the traveling and figuring out which tournaments a player should play and not play has to be a daunting task. While I’m sure these coaches and all others are compensated quite well, it is not a glamorous job. They are away from their families 11 months a year, and their names are not the ones on the trophy. Most of the time, all they can do is helplessly watch as their player battles and hope the non-televised drudge work put in on the practice court pays off. They have to take the highs and lows stoically. If they get too up or down, the player will do the same. Then, all involved parties are in trouble. They have to know what their player needs to hear at any given moment. Next time you watch a player win a tournament, notice the first people they thank are their support team. That is no accident. So, here is to the ultimate road warriors in all of sports as they get ready to tear up the globe in 2016. First stop, Australia.

A Glance at the CFB Playoff

Later today, we ring in 2016. However, from a sports standpoint 2015 is sure to go out with a bang. A full slate of college football is on tap, highlighted by the two national semifinals. The winners will play each other for the National Title on January 11th Here is a snapshot of both games.

Orange Bowl- Clemson (13-0) vs. Oklahoma (11-1) 4 ET ESPN

Two high-powered offenses here. Oklahoma comes in with the most versatile QB in the country, Baker Mayfield. The Sooners also have two talented running backs led by Samaje Perine. They have destroyed everyone since an inexplicable loss to rival Texas. They just seem to be on a mission to me. Also, I give Bob Stoops a major coaching edge here over Dabo Swinney, for whom this is uncharted territory. Clemson is undefeated. That says a lot, but their recent close wins against lesser opponents suggest to me they may be running out of gas. Heisman finalist QB Deshaun Watson and a talented defensive front seven will keep the Tigers in it, but I like OU in a shootout.

Cotton Bowl- Michigan State (12-1) vs. Alabama (12-1) 8 ET ESPN

These teams handle business much the same way. Run first offenses, extremely physical, and do not make mistakes. The dirty little secret about Alabama is that the formula to beat them is simple. Their QB play has been awful this year. They are a one man offense spearheaded by Heisman winner RB Derrick Henry. All teams have to do is have a defense good enough to contain Henry, force them to throw as often as they run, and have their QB make a few plays against their great defense. Obviously, this is easier said than done. Look at Alabama’s record. However, the Spartans fit this bill nicely. Their QB Connor Cook is the only QB in this playoff with a shot at playing on Sundays and their defense is the best in the country. MSU as a 10 point underdog here is a joke. In fact, I will take the outright upset in a low scoring fist fight. Happy New Year!

 

Why The Manning/Osweiler Debate is Pointless

The Broncos are now 10-2 and 3-0 under the young, fresh arm of QB Brock Osweiler. A first round bye and/or home field advantage in the playoffs is suddenly very realistic. The situation could get murky when 39 year old legendary veteran starter Peyton Manning gets healthy. All anyone wants to talk about is what head coach Gary Kubiak will do when that time comes. As a diehard Broncos fan, I am here to tell you it does not really matter.

Denver’s defensive dominance this year has been nothing short of amazing. They are in the top five in every major statistical category including leading the league in sacks, points per game, yards per game, and defensive touchdowns. These kind of defensive numbers are not a flash in the pan. We are 13 weeks into the season. A defense like this also makes the formula for the Broncos to win games and ultimately a Super Bowl real simple.

Whoever plays QB for Denver going forward, the objective is clear. Generate two or three scoring drives a game, limit turnovers, and let the defense do the rest. Denver will win a lot of games in the last part of the season like this. This formula requires the QB to complete five or six “must have” throws per game. Both Manning and Osweiler have had shining moments nailing these “must have” throws this year. Despite throwing multiple INTs in both outings, Manning engineered two late scoring drives on the road to knock off the Browns and Chiefs. Osweiler had a similar coming out party against the then undefeated Patriots in the snow. When comparing the tow Manning’s 17 INTs compared to Osweiler’s 3 jumps out. However, Manning has started more than double the games Osweiler and was clearly playing injured for some of the year before taking a seat.

The point is both guys are capable of doing what needs to be done for Denver to win it all when healthy. Both QBs have different strengths and weaknesses. The offense looks different under each guy, but the formula above remains unchanged. Osweiler’s mobility allows the entire run game to function better. However, Manning reads defenses better and seems to have better chemistry with the wide receivers. The offensive line needs to block better no matter who is slinging the ball around, Thus, head coach Gary Kubiak has a tough choice to make.

Kubiak has handled this brilliantly, especially when you consider who Peyton Manning is and what he has done. He has named Osweiler the starter each Monday since Manning’s disastrous four INT outing in the first half against KC at home. He has continued to speak highly of Manning’s recovery since the foot injury, while describing the QB situation as “week to week.”

Osweiler will start again this week vs. the Raiders, but Kubiak also said Manning will start throwing. This means he could be cleared for next week on the road against the Steelers. How would I handle this going forward? With Denver winning and Osweiler doing all that he is asked to. I see no need to rush Manning back. I would also start Osweiler the next two weeks for very meaningful and tough games against the Steelers and Bengals. If healthy, I would have Manning start the regular season finale vs. San Diego. Then, I would decide on a starter for the playoffs. However, the fact remains the Broncos will go as far as their defense takes them.

You Can Learn an Awful Lot From a “Meaningless” Game

After being in a creative rut for a month, I am back to blogging. However, I have been very active on the blog’s Facebook page and have done a lot of different things. Please take a look and give it a like here: https://www.facebook.com/dylansdosesportsblog/?pnref=story.

My inspiration came from an odd place. The Monday Night Football matchup between hopeless Cleveland and slightly less hopeless Baltimore ended with an improbable game winning blocked field goal returned for a touchdown as time expired by Baltimore’s Will Hill. This “meaningless game” spoke volumes about both franchises.

The Ravens have had issues from day one this year. They had legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. In fact, I picked them to win it before the season. However, key injuries and close losses mounted quickly. QB Joe Flacco, WR Steve Smith, LB Terrell Suggs, and RB Justin Forsett have all suffered season ending injuries. Thus, the Ravens are playing with backups and spare parts everywhere, but no one could tell on Monday. Head coach John Harbaugh was joking with the media in pregame and seemed genuinely excited about building a game plan around journeyman backup QB Matt Schaub and rookie 6th round pick RB Buck Allen. To Harbaugh’s credit his team was motivated and played a smart game. They were rewarded with a win. When a team preforms like that when their season is lost already, it is no wonder why John Harbaugh has never missed the playoffs as a NFL head coach. Even though he likely will this year, Harbaugh and the Ravens will no doubt be back.

Then there is Cleveland. It was night that summed up the state of the Browns perfectly. Dropped passes, poor QB play surrounded by drama, and high priced free agent signings sitting on the sidelines ruled the evening. Johnny Manziel losing his starting QB job due to bye week partying helped no one, but he did not commit a mortal sin. This organization needs to find out what they have in the former Texas A&M star, and they refuse to play him. I do not get it. The Browns secondary was carved up by QB who hadn’t thrown a meaningful pass in two years. One more thing remained constant for the Browns Monday night. They found another creative way to lose. So many of Cleveland’s issues are effort related, like dropped passes and penalties. No coach can fix that. However, at 2-9 head coach Mike Pettine is destined to take the fall. So, the Browns will likely continue to play coach and QB carousel as another awful season wraps up. As long as they do, they will go nowhere. They could learn a lot from their opponents Monday night. Since returning the NFL in 1999, the Browns have changed head coaches an average of every 1.2 seasons. No coach in the history of man can turn this mess around in 1.2 seasons. Unfortunately, there is no end in sight for Browns fans and they deserve much better. From what I saw, fans took this loss harder than the players and coaches. That may be the most concerning thing of all.

Trick or Treat? NFL Week 8 Preview

Happy Halloween to all! As the World Series rages on, The NFL’s week 8 slate features more “tricks” than “treats”. In my estimation, there are four really interesting games this week. Two are obvious. Let’s take a look.

Bengals (6-0) at Steelers (4-3)- Have the Bengals finally arrived? If they win this game the answer is yes, but Big Ben is back and the Steelers are at full strength for the first time in over a month. This is typically bad news for Cincinnati as the Steelers have won eight of ten meetings this decade. Unlike recent years, this will be a high scoring affair. Big Ben, Le’veon Bell, and Antonio Brown vs. Andy Dalton and his bevy of weapons is enticing. However, the winner here will be the team that gets a late defensive stand. I’ll go with the Steelers until the Bengals show me they can knock off big brother. Even with a loss, Cincinnati would still control the division, but objects in the rear view mirror are closer than they appear. Pit 28 Cin 24

Packers (6-0) at Broncos (6-0)- Believe it or not, Sunday Night Football really does feature two undefeated teams this week, despite the talking heads on TV and the internet already putting Green Bay in the Super Bowl and writing Denver’s eulogy. If you have read this blog or know me at all, you know where my allegiance lies. The keys to this one are as follows. Denver must find a run game similar to the one they had in Cleveland two weeks ago. It may come from CJ Anderson, Ronnie Hillman, or both, but it has to come from somewhere. They must also rush the passer and continue to get sacks at will. Aaron Rodgers will make this harder than it has been with his lightening quick release. Peyton Manning is actually playing okay. He just needs to cut out the turnovers. My head: GB 31 Den 20. My heart: Den 24 GB 21

Jets (4-2) at Raiders (3-3)-These last two games are fairly cut and dry for me. After playing New England to the wire on the road, the Jets cemented themselves as the most underrated team the league. The Raiders may be the most improved, but this is a mismatch. Young QB Derek Carr was shelled against Denver. That is the only defense he has faced that is anywhere close to the caliber he will see tomorrow. Look for the Jets to run over Oakland behind Chris Ivory. NYJ 31 Oak 13

Panthers (6-0) at Colts (3-4)-The Colts are a mess. 40 year old Matt Hasslebeck has been more effective than golden boy Andrew Luck who still doesn’t look quite right and it’s not 2008 anymore for high priced signings RB Frank Gore and WR Andre Johnson, but they are in first place. This test on Monday night against the hard hitting Panthers led by freakishly talented QB Cam Newton will either bring them together or spark a mutiny. I’ll go with the option B. Car 24 Ind 10.

Mets/Cubs NLCS should give hope to fans everywhere

There is something going on in baseball that is truly amazing. After pulling out a tight game five last night, the Mets will advance to the NLCS to face the Cubs. Think about that… The team that has spent most of its existence as the redheaded stepchild of the mighty Yankees will face the team that has not sniffed a championship in well over a century and whose fans believe the team is cursed for the right to go to the World Series. This will not be longest post I write, but it will be my favorite. I am writing this not as an analyst or predictor, but as a fan. At my core, that is what I am.

Across sports, many franchises either have horrendous overall histories or are currently in really tough 8-15 year stretches. The Raiders, Brewers, Chiefs, Lions, Vikings, Browns, Wizards, Clippers, and Twins all fall under at least one of these two umbrellas. In some cases, both are applicable. The two teams from my hometown can be added to this discussion as well. You have the Bengals, who have never won a Super Bowl and are winless in the playoffs since 1990, and the Reds who have never recaptured their glory days of the 1970s. Despite winning it all in 1990, they have been a below .500 team for most of the last 20 years. They were tantalizingly close to building something special 3 to 5 years ago, but got impatient, blew it up, and are now back to being a grease fire.

The two teams who will play to represent the National League in the World Series fit the description in the last paragraph as well as any two franchises in all sports. I see it all the time. Patriots, Seahawks, Steelers, Yankees, and Red Sox fans coming out of the woodwork. My point? If you have spent years rooting for a bad team who breaks your heart time and time again, do not change your colors and move to the front of the line now. Stick it out, because if the Cubs and Mets can play for trip to the World Series, every sports franchise and fan will have their day in the sun. No one knows when, but it will happen. Even the New Orleans Saints whose fans invented the concept of covering their faces with paper bags have won a Super Bowl in the last ten years. So, all sports fans should stick with their teams through thick and thin, because someday your team will be on top. For the record, I like the Cubs to reach the World Series in 6 games.