All posts by Jared Andrews

Born and raised in Ottawa, Illinois. I have been and always will be a Chicago sports fan for life. Sports are my passion. To me, they have always been about more than just two teams playing a game. Writing is my means of expressing exactly how much sports matter to me.

Andrew Luck is a Mystery

It started early.

 
In fact, it started the first time he ever took the field as an NFL quarterback. On Andrew Luck’s first five drives in the first half of his first career game, he passed for only 78 yards. Then he flipped a switch. Beginning with the sixth drive, on which he marched his team 59 yards in 38 seconds to set up a short field goal attempt to end the half, up to the game’s end, Luck passed for 231 yards to close his debut with 309.

 

When the switch was flipped on, Luck was a game changer. When it was off, he made Colts fans change the channel.

 

Luck continued flipping that switch on and off throughout his rookie season. He was almost like two totally different people: Bad Luck and Good Luck (c’mon, who doesn’t love a terribly obvious pun once in a while?) He completed only 54% of his passes, which was good for (or bad for) second worst among qualified starters just behind the incomparable Mark Sanchez. He also tossed 18 interceptions, second most in the league. That was Bad Luck (okay, okay I’ll stop). In his best moments he led the team to four fourth quarter comebacks and seven game-winning touchdown drives. His proclivity for inept play early in games followed by miraculous and inexplicable game-winning drives late was almost Tebow-like.

 
Luck continued on a consistent pattern of inconsistency in year two. He was often ineffective throughout large portions of games yet still managed another four fourth quarter comeback wins. This tendency of his level of play to drastically fluctuate during games crested during the team’s playoff game against Kansas City. The Colts were down 21 at the half then 28 after the Chiefs scored following a Luck interception on the third quarter’s first play. Somehow, some way, Andrew Luck transformed his game. The Colts scored 35 points in the second half as Luck led the team to one of the most improbable comebacks in NFL history.

 

In his third season, Luck seemed to have finally broken away from the bad or brilliant pattern. He topped the league in touchdown passes with 40, set a new career high in passing yards, and won two playoff games. Then they played the Patriots. And lost 45-7. Luck was awful in the game, completing just 36% of his passes for 126 yards.

 
This year he began anew. The New England game figured to be an aberration. Until it wasn’t. Season four has been a trainwreck for Luck. He is now 1-5 as a starter and has already thrown 12 picks. To make him look even worse, the 96 year old Matt Hasselbeck is 2-0 as starter this year in Luck’s absence.

 

To Luck’s credit, he has actually come up with a handful of his patented second half heroics. If he had managed to put up one more score in overtime against the Panthers I may not even be writing this right now. But he didn’t. And I am.

 

It’s all so confusing. What happened to Luck? Perhaps nothing happened; we were overrating him. Or maybe we were right to lavish him in praise and this is just a weird phase that he will snap out of soon. There have been many reports of Luck’s injuries so that is one possible explanation for his poor play this season. But the word has been that he was hurt in week 3 so that doesn’t explain his sub-par play in the first two games. It also doesn’t explain his inconsistency throughout his career. Maybe this is what Andrew Luck is as a quarterback: an erratic performer who is capable of thrilling comebacks, but doesn’t play at a superb level often enough to be considered one of the game’s true elites.

 

The one certainty with Luck is that there are a lot of uncertainties. Questions have swirled around him since his college days, like “is he the greatest quarterback prospect ever?” or “does he really think that neck beard looks good?” If he was supposed to be such a sure thing then why does he leave me feeling so unsure?

 

I see three basic mysteries with Andrew Luck.

1. Why is Luck so inconsistent?

2. Has he really carried the Colts as much as the narrative suggests?

3. Why isn’t he the subject of more ridicule when the team struggles?

 

The first one I already covered in briefly recapping his career to date. I don’t have an answer to this mystery, as I don’t have a definitive answer to any of these (hence the mystery). Still being a relatively young quarterback, he is likely still progressing. The inconsistencies are simply growing pains. He will either work his way through the struggles to become more dependable, or he will continue to tease us with his potential forever.

 

A common belief around the NFL in recent years is how impressive Luck has been in carrying a mostly dreadful supporting cast to 11 win seasons and playoff appearances. The staggering number of passing yards and comeback wins seem to support his belief. Everything added up. I was accepting of this belief too until Luck missed the first two starts of his career this season. It was then that the Colts won both games without Luck, I became dubious of the narrative, and began to explore this idea. Granted the two opponents (Jacksonville and Houston) were less than formidable, the team still won without the man who had allegedly been carrying them.

 

In Luck’s absence, Hasselbeck had been relegated to the role of game manager. His duties: execute precision pass plays, milk the clock, and avoid turnovers. By not doing too much, Hasselbeck led the team to consecutive victories. He didn’t try to carry the team, and it turned out that he didn’t need to.

 

Is it possible that Luck hadn’t been carrying the team all this time? If he had been trying to do so, maybe he didn’t need to. Maybe many of the deficits faced by the Colts were at least partially Luck’s fault. If he had learned that he didn’t need to force the issue and make big plays on every single possession, he could have avoided costly turnovers and left his team in positions that didn’t necessitate a big comeback.

 

I don’t mean to ridicule Luck too harshly—the guy has accomplished a great deal in the NFL already. 33 regular season wins and 3 playoff wins are impressive. But if the Colts are 1-5 with him and 2-0 without him then he clearly isn’t carrying the team.

 

Andrew Luck and Colts had huge expectations entering this season. They were viewed by many as legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Thus far they have completely flopped. With Luck playing not just poorly, but arguably as poorly as anyone quarterback in football (30th out of 32 in Total QBR), he should be receiving more blame. Instead fans, analysts, and players around the league are quick to mention his injuries, his porous offensive line, and struggling defense.

 

If any other star quarterback was playing this poorly, he would be put on the chopping block every week. Think back to early last season when the Patriots and Tom Brady were off to a slow start. People were saying Brady was done. He’s too old. Time for Garoppolo. Now, obviously those critics were wrong. Yet the point remains, Brady was criticized when the team struggled, and rightfully so. Luck should face the same blame. And he doesn’t because…
I’m not quite sure.

 

For all the uncertainty that comes with Luck, there is enough certain good to make him an effective player. With him, you have to take the good with the bad. He is going to keep grinding every week, battling for a playoff spot. The rest of us will watch, uncertain about what we will see. He is unpredictable. That’s the just the nature of Luck.

 

 

Do you want to tell Jared he’s wrong? Follow him on Twitter (@JaredAndrews3).  And make sure to like More Than a Fan on Facebook!

You Had To Be There

How does one describe the indescribable? Isn’t that the goal of language, to make possible living vicariously through the stories of someone else? At the very least, language was invented to facilitate communication in ways that grunts, gestures and even pictures could not accomplish. The human race has done a remarkable job of creating millions of words that can be used in combination to describe a vast majority of possible experiences. But a small minority of experiences remains at large, uncaptured by language. They are truly beyond words.

 

So… why am I talking about this? I bring this up because I, and two friends, went to the Chicago Cubs playoff game at Wrigley Field on Monday. When I returned, everyone I knew asked me about the game.

 

“How was the game?” “What was it like?” “Tell me about it.” My answers were “umm,” “ughh, and “hmm.” I couldn’t come up with much else to say. I would simply pause, searching for a way to share the experience through words. I had no idea.

 

Finally, after taking a few days to wrap my mind around that night, I figured out my answer: You had to be there. That sounds like a cop out and a cliché. I know. I normally don’t care for that answer when coming from anyone else. As a writer, my work is to observe my surroundings and find a way to translate thoughts, feelings, and experiences into words and share those words with others. I normally don’t accept that particular non-answer. I say, “Well, I wasn’t there, so tell me what I missed.”

 

Now I know better. I had to experience firsthand a night like the one at Wrigley to learn that somethings cannot be described. Somethings cannot be understood unless you were there. That’s not a cop out or a non-answer. It’s the truth.

 

Now, many writers with a greater mastery of the craft than I possess (and there certainly are many) could compile a lovely array of words that sound convincing enough to make readers believe that they understand the experience by merely seeing words on a page. In reality, it’s a fool’s errand. Those wonderfully worded stories give secondhand viewers no better understanding of the experience than an athlete does by describing the feeling of his walk-off homerun in a post-game interview.

 

Have you noticed how all athletes pause for a moment before answering those sorts of questions? They search for an answer and realize it’s not there. Then they regurgitate the same vague, meaningless responses that we’ve all heard a thousand times.

 

Reporter: “How did it feel to hit that walk-off homer?”
Athlete: (Pause) “It was amazing.”

 

What does amazing even mean? Last week my friend described a burger with fried egg on it as amazing. Was the hitting the homerun comparable to eating the burger? Could the tastiest burger in the history of the world even come close to matching the feeling of feeling the atmosphere among 42,000 roaring fans all optimistically cheering for a playoff team that hasn’t won a World Series in over 100 years?

 

Words like amazing, incredible and awesome are perfectly suitable for slightly above average experiences occurring within our daily monotony. Yet all those words are meaningless in the context of a playoff game in front of a raucous home crowd because there simply is no word or combination of words that exist to describe what that moment is like. You had to be there or you just won’t know. You will never know until you are there.

 

I’m not trying to sound like a snob. Believe me, I’m far from it. Speaking from the experience of seeing game 3 in person vs. watching game 4 (a series clincher and objectively more exciting game) from a couch at home, I can safely say that they aren’t in same ballpark or even on the same planet. To say they were similar would be to say that The Dark Knight and the new Fantastic Four movie are comparable because they are both based on comic books. Umm… no. They are not the same. They are not comparable. And no one can even begin to understand what it is like to see The Dark Knight if they have only watched Fantastic Four.

 

Somethings cannot be described; you just have to see them for yourself.  Anyone that has ever been to the Grand Canyon understands this.  So if you appreciate sports (or giant canyons) you owe it to your life to take in these indescribable experiences firsthand.  Afterwards when someone asks you what it was like, you’ll pause for a moment and realize that there is only one thing to say.

 

 

 

What do you think? Follow Jared on Twitter (@JaredAndrews3) and leave a comment! Make sure to like More Than a Fan on Facebook!

The Keys to Winning the MLB Wild Card Game

Tonight marks the beginning of the 2015 MLB playoffs and the fourth year of the Wild Card games. The postseason kicks off with the A.L. Wild Card game between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees. Last year’s postseason opener, Athletics vs. Royals, was arguably the best game of the playoffs, ending with a walk-off win for the Royals with two outs in the bottom of the 12th inning. This year’s N.L. Wild Card game, featuring the Pittsburgh Pirates (for the third year in a row) and the Chicago Cubs, will be played tomorrow night.

 
As game time approaches, teams are looking for any bit of data that can give them an edge. They are studying film and searching for any stat patterns of previous winners, hoping to find the sources of success.

 
After doing my own extensive research (somewhat extensive, I mean, only six MLB Wild Card games have ever been played), I found a few consistencies between the past victors. Granted, these stats may not lead to success this year because baseball is a nearly impossible game to predict, the sample size is still very small, the teams and players are different this year, and the evidence I used isn’t overwhelming, but I did the best that I could with what I have and if you remember from earlier in this sentence—baseball is a nearly impossible game to predict. Anyway, here are the keys to winning the MLB Wild Card games.

 
Score first – Teams that score first are 4-2. Now, I realize that this doesn’t exactly represent a large majority, so I’ll amend the key slightly: score early. The two winning teams that didn’t score first had taken a lead by inning 3 (Royals) and inning 4 (Cardinals). And to be fair, the Royals only didn’t score first because they were at home so they batted in the bottom of the 1st inning, at which point they scored.

 
Hold the lead after 5 innings – In the same vein as the first key, taking an early lead has been paramount to winning. In the vast history of the Wild Card game, teams are undefeated (6-0) when holding a lead at the end of the 5th inning. While the 2014 Royals proceeded to blow their lead before staging a late comeback, they were still ahead at the end of five.

 
Play better defense than your foe – Five of the six winning teams committed the same number or fewer errors than their opponents. The only exception was the Giants team of last season. As you may recall, they had a guy named Madison Bumgarner on the mound that day and he was pretty good in the postseason last year. More than capable of making up for his defense’s errors, he still pitched a complete game shutout.

Your starting pitcher needs to be solid, but not necessarily spectacular – Teams are 6-1 when their starting pitcher finishes with five or more innings pitched while allowing four or fewer runs. The one losing team was the Rangers.  In their game, Yu Darvish gave up three runs over 6 1/3 innings but was out dueled in a 5-1 loss.
This should take some of the pressure off the starters of these games. Considering that teams are starting their number one guy, four runs over five innings really isn’t asking for much.

 

Run –   Even if you aren’t a great base-stealing team, run at least once. Teams are 2-0 when they steal at least one base. The only other team to attempt a steal (albeit unsuccessful) was also victorious. So take chances. That steal of second may just set up a two out run-scoring hit that extends your team’s season.

 

Be clutch –   Teams with more hits with runners in scoring position are 4-0. The postseason comes down to execution in pressure spots. The team with more timely hits will typically earn the win.

 
Put the ball in play –   Teams with fewer strikeouts (batting) are 4-2. Make contact and anything can happen. One error can prove costly, but that won’t happen if batters are striking out. Listen to your Little League coach: choke up, shorten your swing, and make contact.   Or…

 

Swing for the fences –   Different strokes, right? Teams that hit more homeruns than their opponents are 3-1. If your team struggles to make consistent contact, be sure that every batter’s contact counts.

 

If you have a lefty, start him –   Left-handed starting pitchers are 3-1. This is good news for the Astros and bad news for everyone else. Maybe the Cubs should think about starting Jon Lester instead of Jake Arrieta. Wait. Arrieta has only allowed four earned runs in the past 2+ months? Never mind.

 

The bullpen must flourish –   Teams are just 1-4 when their bullpen allows more than 1 run. This is a tall order. No doubt. The responsibility falls on both the manager to find the appropriate matchups and the pitchers to come through when called upon.

 
Chances are that I will be correct about half these keys and incorrect about the others, just like with my game picks. Speaking of which, I’m going with the teams of the guys that should be the two Cy Young Award winners: Arrieta and Dallas Keuchel.

 
Astros over Yankees
Cubs over Pirates

 

 

What do you think? Follow Jared on Twitter (@JaredAndrews3) and leave a comment! Make sure to like More Than a Fan on Facebook!

I’m Telling You There’s a Chance: Bold NFL Predictions 2015

Welcome to opening day of the 2015 NFL season. The 220 days of anxious anticipation are over. It’s finally here. That’s not to say that the NFL has been out of mind for all this time. Quite the contrary. We all recognize that the NFL has become a year-round event.
In fact, many of us had spent the past several weeks waiting to hear about a certain big ruling. Will he be there for opening night or not? As it turned out, the hearts of many football fans were broken when we learned that Roger Goodell will not be at the game tonight. But Tom Brady will be, so I guess that’s something.
Before the games kickoff tonight and this weekend, I, along with a couple of my biggest football fan friends, recorded our fearless forecasts for the season.  It’s our annual tradition.  We each submit one audacious prophecy per team, one that is unlikely to occur, but we’re telling you there’s a chance. Then we lay out the teams in alphabetical order along with the corresponding predictions (hey, Matthew Berry isn’t the only one allowed to make bold predictions). Then we put the papers on the fridge. At least we did when we were college roommates. Now we will probably just email them to each other or something.
Okay, that’s enough of a prelude. Here are my predictions for the 2015 season.

 

 

Arizona Cardinals – Carson Palmer, at 35 years old, will set career highs in passing yards and passing touchdowns. Reasoning: With the best weapons he has had since the days before Chad Johnson changed his name to Ochocinco then back to Johnson, and the benefit of a passing-friendly league, Palmer looks poised for a big year.

 

Atlanta Falcons – Julio Jones will have at least 1,000 more receiving yards than the next highest player on the falcons. Yeah that’s right. Reasoning: Jones is going to be the focal point of this offense. By a lot. He may reach 200 targets, Roddy White keeps getting older, and Julio is going to start 16 games one of these years.

 

Baltimore Ravens – Justin Forsett will lead both his team and all NFL running backs in receptions. Reasoning: Last season with Marc Trestman as his head coach, Matt Forte set the single season record for receptions by a running back with 102. Marc Trestman is now Baltimore’s offensive coordinator. Baltimore also has very few pass-catching options. Forsett will be a popular target.

 

Buffalo Bills – Tyrod Taylor will lead NFL QBs in rushing yards. Reasoning: Rex Ryan loves to run the ball, so why not add the QB to the mix? Taylor, one of the best athletes playing the position, will likely be looking to avoid turnovers as much as possible since he won’t need to score much with that Bills defense clobbering people. Taylor will tuck and run more than a few times this year.

 

Carolina Panthers – No receiver will reach 600 yards receiving. Reasoning: The situation is rough. Kelvin Benjamin was by far their best last season and he will not play a down this year. Other than Greg Olsen, they don’t have any even semi-reliable options. Even so, one of them will still catch a touchdown, so at least they will beat the 2014 Chiefs in that category.

 

Chicago Bears – Jay Cutler will have the best touchdown to interception ratio of his career. Reasoning: John Fox and Adam Gase are smart enough to realize that Cutler is an erratic decision maker so they will have him running a simple offense with few opportunities for him to make costly mistakes. This will mean as many rushing plays as possible and short simple throws for Cutler.

 

Cincinnati Bengals – After four consecutive trips to the playoffs, the team will win only 5 games and finish last in the division. Reasoning: They flop in the playoffs every year. The regular season is going to start looking like a long, tough road to failure. At some point they will stop believing, no matter what Journey says.

 

Cleveland Browns – Duke Johnson will lead the team in catches. Reasoning: Johnson is already the most talented player on their offense, and the coaches will be looking for any way to jumpstart their anemic passing attack.

 

Dallas Cowboys – Dez Bryant will catch 20 touchdowns and set a career high in catches and receiving yards. Reasoning: The Cowboys don’t know who to use in their running game and may be figuring that out all season. There is no one they trust more than Dez, especially in the red zone.

 

Denver Broncos – As a team, the Broncos will lead the NFL in rushing attempts. Reasoning: The coaching staff keeps promising a more balanced attack. I believe them. They will pair a run-heavy offense with a stout defense, saving Peyton for the playoffs.

 

Detroit Lions – Calvin Johnson will play in every game, and Golden Tate will still lead the team in receiving yards. Reasoning: Tate and Stafford established a strong rapport last season when Johnson missed time. I expect that to carry over into this season.

 

Green Bay Packers – James Jones, who was signed a week before the season opener, will catch 10 touchdown passes. Reasoning: The packers can plug in just about anyone here and throw him 10 touchdowns. Jones already knows the system, is familiar with Aaron Rodgers, and with Nelson out, a big opportunity is there for some Packer wide out.

 

Houston Texans – J.J. Watt will lead the team in receiving touchdowns. Reasoning: Last season the team leader had 6 touchdown receptions. J.J. Watt had 3. Closer than you thought, right? With Arian Foster out early, Houston will be looking for someone to turn to in the red zone. Why not Watt? That guy can do anything.

 

Indianapolis Colts – Andrew Luck will lead the league in passing touchdowns, passing yards, 300 yard games, and win MVP. Reasoning: This pick may not actually be all that bold, but I just want to be on record as a huge believer in Luck. The guy is great and keeps getting better.

 

Jacksonville Jaguars – Denard Robinson will be the team’s top fantasy scorer among non-QBs and will finish as a top 30 overall fantasy running back. Reasoning: Just because a team spends a high draft pick on a running back, doesn’t mean he will make an impact as a rookie. Remember Bishop Sankey last season? T.J. Yeldon is no sure thing either. Robinson can outplay him all season long.

 

Kansas City Chiefs – A Chiefs receiver will catch a touchdown pass this season. Is that too bold? Okay. I’ll go with another one. Alex Smith will set career highs in passing attempts, completions, yards, and touchdowns. Reasoning: In year three, Andy Reid will finally open up the offense more for Smith, who will now have a legitimate star receiver to throw to in Jeremy Maclin.

 

Miami Dolphins – DeVante Parker, currently fourth on the depth chart at WR, will lead the team in receiving yards. Reasoning: His talent is immense, easily the highest on the team. Jarvis Landry, the team’s current number one WR, is solid but will likely catch a lot of short passes, limiting his yardage total. Parker has the explosiveness and big-play potential to quickly make him a favorite target of Ryan Tannehill.

 

Minnesota Vikings – Adrian Peterson will lead the NFL in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and yards from scrimmage. Reasoning: He’s rested. He’s eager to prove himself. He’s a physical freak of nature.

 

New England Patriots – Rob Gronkowski will set the NFL records for most receiving yards and most receiving touchdowns by a tight end. Reasoning: Brady is back and ready to send a message. The Patriots always respond to controversy with stellar play on the field. All Gronk has to do is stay healthy.

 

New Orleans Saints – Brandin Cooks will catch at least 100 passes and score 10 touchdowns. Reasoning: With Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills gone, Drew Brees will need a new favorite target. Cooks flashed brilliance as a rookie and appears poised to build on his success this year.

 

New York Giants – Eli Manning will be a better fantasy QB this season than Peyton. Reasoning: As I already mentioned, Denver is going to run the ball a ton this year. On the flipside, the Giants don’t have a dependable running game. Instead they will attack through the air as Eli utilizes all of his finally healthy receiving options.

 

New York Jets – Chris Ivory will top 1,100 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns. Reasoning: He is the undisputed bell cow in their back field and will have plenty of opportunities to run. The improved receiving corps should help move that extra defender out of the box, which will open running lanes for Ivory.

 

Oakland Raiders – Latavius Murray will finish with more total yards than DeMarco Murray. Reasoning: DeMarco had 497 touches last season, including the playoffs. No running back that has ever carried the ball as much as he did last season has ever played 16 games the following year. The Eagles also seem set on divvying up carries to each of their backs to keep everyone fresh. In addition to DeMarco’s production likely taking a steep drop, Latavius has finally won the chance to be lead back for a full season. This role in an improving offense makes Latavius a good bet for a breakout season.

 

Philadelphia Eagles – Sam Bradford will break the Eagles single season records for passing yards and touchdowns. Reasoning: Chip Kelly is a quarterback whisperer, guru, sage, and anything else you want to call him. Not to mention that Bradford is a much better fit for this spread offense than most people realize. If he can stay healthy, he is in for a huge season.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers – Despite missing the first four games, Martavis Bryant will score 10+ touchdowns and finish as a top 25 fantasy wide receiver. Reasoning: This will be one of the best Steelers offenses ever. Big Ben is playing better than, they have two of the league’s best players at WR and RB, and there is just enough left over for Bryant, who will benefit from all the defensive attention given to the team’s top guys.

 

San Diego Chargers – Ladarius Green will be a top 5 fantasy tight end in Gates’ absence and will finish the year in the top 12 at his position. Reasoning: He has the talent; he just needs the opportunity. With Gates out to begin the season, he will finally have his chance.  I think he will take advantage.

 

San Francisco 49ers – Vernon Davis will finish the season outside of the top 25 fantasy tight ends. Reasoning: He made virtually no impact last season and has shown no reason to make me believe this year will be different. His days in San Francisco are numbered.

 

St. Louis Rams – Todd Gurley will return from injury after missing the first 4 games and still win Offensive ROY. Reasoning: The Rams ground game will struggle early without Gurley, which will cause the team to excitedly thrust him into a feature role as soon as he’s ready. From the day he takes the field for the first time, he will be the best rookie in this class.

 

Seattle Seahawks – Tyler Lockett will lead all Seattle WRs in receiving yards and finish as a top 30 fantasy WR. Reasoning: The Seahawks receiving corps has no clear cut leader, so the opportunity is there for someone to step up. After a brilliant preseason by the rookie, Lockett seems as likely as anyone to emerge as the best of the wide outs.

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Doug Martin will finish the year as a top 15 fantasy running back. Reasoning: I don’t know why Martin was so mediocre over the past two seasons after an explosive rookie campaign. I’m not sure which player he will be going forward, but I lean toward the guy from his rookie year. If he can approach that level this year, he should crack the top 15 at running back, maybe even the top 10.

 

Tennessee Titans – Marcus Mariota will lead the team in rushing yards. Reasoning: Given the recent trade for Terrance West, the team clearly doesn’t have a running back worth trusting. They will likely spread the carries around to many backs and Mariota will end up steadily accruing the team’s highest total.

 

Washington – Alfred Morris will finish the season outside of the top 25 fantasy running backs. Reasoning: The team is a train wreck. The coach doesn’t like his quarterback. The quarterback doesn’t like his coach. And there is an angry-running rookie RB that is going to take away many touches from Morris.

 

 

What do you think? Follow Jared on Twitter (@JaredAndrews3) and leave a comment! Make sure to like More Than a Fan on Facebook!

Brandon Phillips and Pedro Strop Have a Little Fun

Proper etiquette in baseball has long been a divisive issue. The traditionalist school of thought leans toward a lack of virtually all displays of emotion, no matter how benign their intent or subtle their presence. According to some, an extra second spent lingering in admiration of a homerun is grounds for a fastball to the ribs, and a passionate fist pump on the mound warrants a hostile confrontation.

 
It’s a gentleman’s game and if you don’t behave as such, they will threaten to throw things at you or beat you up. No excessive celebrations allowed; that sort of behavior isn’t tolerated. They are gentleman, after all.

 
I never understood this traditionalist school of thought, probably because I belong to a younger generation. We are far more lenient and willing to shrug off the displays some would deem excessive. Many from the younger crowd even praise extreme passion and visceral reactions after making a key play.

 
I’ve seen how old-school reactions normally play out. They end in pointless bench-clearing standoffs, or worse, brawls resulting in suspensions.

 
I’ve also seen how new-school reactions normally play out. Typically, nothing happens. Although, some moments become memorable when both parties just remember that it’s okay to instill a bit of levity into the game they love. Thus was the case earlier this week during an exchange between Pedro Strop and Brandon Phillips.

 
The playful back and forth between Strop and Phillips began on Tuesday. Strop was on the mound facing Phillips in the 8th inning as the Cubs were clinging to a 5-4 lead. Phillips was taking some particularly powerful hacks during the at bat. Strop responded with his own power in the form of a mid-90s fastball. Phillips swung and missed, ending the inning.

 
Strop pumped his fist emphatically as he bounced off the mound. Instead of reacting in a petty, egotistical manner commonly seen in baseball players, Phillips, a guy renowned for his jovial demeanor, simply grinned and flashed Strop a big thumbs up. There was not a hint of sarcasm. Phillips realized that Strop made a good pitch, so he genuinely paid him the proper respect. You bested me this time. Well done. It was refreshing to see such a classy and sportsmanlike response in this situation.

 
That gesture by Phillips was noteworthy enough, setting an example for how to diffuse tension rather than intensify it. What followed on Wednesday made for something really special.

 
Again Strop entered the game in the 8th inning of a close game. Again he squared off against Phillips. A few murmurs rumbled through the stadium from those who remembered yesterday’s encounter. Phillips’ grin was gone, replaced by a stone-like expression of focus.

 
This time Phillips won. He cracked a solid single then conspicuously flipped his bat and teasingly mimicked the Cubs mojo head rub as he hustled to first. Standing on the base, he peered over at Strop and smiled. Strop nodded at Phillips and offered a friendly point in his direction. Heading off the mound after the third out Strop and Phillips playfully exchanged backslaps and smiles on their way back to their dugouts.

 
A less humble man may have been angry with Phillips’ histrionics. But not Strop. He understood that there was no malice intended from Phillips, just as he meant none with his fist pump the day before. So he allowed Phillips to enjoy his win. To the victor goes the spoils. A little celebrating never hurt anyone. It was all in good fun.

 
The display of sportsmanship between these two emphatic yet affable competitors went a long way in showing us a great way (not necessarily the right way since I doubt only one correct way really exists) to handle harmless, mild celebrations after making a key play on the field. Everyone witnessed two grown men having a little extra fun on the diamond. That’s something people of all generations can appreciate.

 

 

 

What do you think? Follow Jared on Twitter (@JaredAndrews3) and leave a comment! Make sure to like More Than a Fan on Facebook!

The 12 Days of Cubs Walk-Offs

With another win last night (that’s now 6 in row and 21 of 25) the Cubs are 22 games over .500. That’s the most games over .500 the team has been since 2008. It’s been quite a season.

 
The 8-5 final over the Giants appeared early on to be a breezy W, but a late San Francisco rally turned the game close. Nevertheless, the win was a perfect way to open this brutal 6-game west coast road trip for the Cubs. Last night was yet another example of no win coming easy for Chicago. Amidst a season in which they have enjoyed few decisive victories, even an 8-0 lead turned tense. Yet no one is complaining. Cubs fans are happily trading their fingernails for wins.

 
In 2015, Chicago is 28-17 in one-run games and 11-5 in extra innings. The Cubs have also recorded 12 walk-off wins, already the third most in franchise history for a single season. Life is good on the north side so now seems to be as good a time as any to relive each walk-off in its individual glory.

 

1. April 13:  Cubs 7, Reds 6 (10) –  Jon Lester struggled for his second consecutive start to open his Cubs career, allowing 6 runs in 6 innings, as his era ballooned to 7.84. Jorge Soler hit a pair of two-run homers, including the game-tying blast in the 8th inning. An auspicious early display of Soler’s raw power now looks like an aberration (he has hit only 5 homeruns in 84 games since).
In the 10th the Cubs loaded the bases with no one out. After Castro grounded into a force play at home, Arismendy Alcantara ended the game with a single up the middle for his first hit of the season and his first career walk-off.

 

2. April 18:  Cubs 7, Padres 6 (11) –  Kris Bryant bounced back from a shaky debut to reach base five times in his second big league game. Chicago stretched the deficit to 6-2 in the 7th before blowing their four-run lead in the 9th inning. They regrouped to load the bases in the 11th when Starlin Castro singled to left to send the fans home happy.

 

3. May 13:  Cubs 2, Mets 1 –  This was a textbook pitchers’ duel. Matt Harvey pitched 7 scoreless for the Mets; Jason Hammel countered with 8 innings of one-run ball for the Cubs. In the bottom of the 9th the Cubs, per their walk-off M.O., loaded the bases. Soler struck out, and then Chris Coghlan drew the ever rare walk-off walk.

 

4. May 15:  Cubs 11, Pirates 10 (12) –  In a high-scoring affair, Chicago built a 10-5 lead. Pittsburgh battled back with 4 runs in the 8th and another in the 9th to tie the game. The Cubs threatened in inning 12 by, you guessed it, loading the bases. Matt Szczur popped a lazy flyball to shallow right. The ball did not appear to be hit deep enough for a sacrifice fly, but we will never know for sure since Gregory Polanco suffered a cartoonish fall as the ball dropped in for a Cubs win.

 

5. May 26:  Cubs 3, Nationals 2 –  Kris Bryant’s towering game-tying homerun in the 8th was so impressive that it nearly overshadowed fellow rookie Addison Russell’s walk-off double. Hector Rondon pitched a scoreless 9th to earn the win, the Cubs league-leading 13th one-run victory of the season.

 

6. May 31:  Cubs 2, Royals 1 (11) –  After failing to execute a safety squeeze bunt earlier, David Ross came through with the game-winner in extras. The Cubs actually had the potential winning-run thrown out at home after Anthony Rizzo’s single. Then Castro walked to load the bases and Ross delivered his fifth career walk-off hit.

 

7. June 13:  Cubs 4, Reds 3 –  During a lengthy rain delay, Wrigley kept fans entertained by playing a live feed of game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals on the new videoboards. The Cubs survived the delay and a late Cincinnati rally, ultimately capturing the W.  Bryant shined at the plate and on the bases, and Castro drove in the game-winning run with a single.

 

8. June 14:  Cubs 2, Reds 1 (11) –  For the second day in a row the Cubs won via the walk-off. For the second day in a row Starlin Castro was the hero. Castro’s third walk-off hit of the season sent Wrigley Field into ecstasy and revealed to the national Sunday Night Baseball audience just resilient this Cubs team could be. It was great night at the ballpark.

 

9. June 23:  Cubs 1, Dodgers 0 (10) –  Jason Hammel and Zack Greinke were brilliant, combining for 13 2/3 shutout innings. Neither offense could muster many decent scoring chances. There was really only one. In the bottom of inning 10 the Cubs loaded the bases and scored the game’s lone run with a walk-off sacrifice fly by Chris Denorfia.

 

10. July 27:  Cubs 9, Rockies 8 –  Chicago was rolling along, clutching a three-run lead in the 9th, eager to secure a win after being swept by the lowly Phillies. Then Colorado exploded for 4 runs, capped by Carlos Gonzalez’s two-run homerun, to surge ahead by one. A victory all but assured now appeared to be a devastating loss.
Russell led off the bottom of the 9th with a fly out. Dexter Fowler singled with one out. Then the typically light-hitting David Ross strode to the plate. He locked onto a good pitch and drove it to deep left center. Caught. Two outs.

Kris Bryant was the Cubs’ Obi-Wan Kenobi, their only hope. Two pitches later Bryant was circling the bases for his first career walk-off homerun. “Hopefully the first of many,” Bryant said afterward.

 

11. August 12:  Cubs 3, Brewers 2 (10) –  Bryant homered. Rizzo made a circus catch as he fell into the stands. The game was fun and simple. Then suddenly a simple win wasn’t so simple when closer Hector Rondon lost his control and allowed the tying run on a wild pitch. The Cubs failed to score in the bottom of the frame, so the game went extras. Leading off the home half of the 10th Miguel Montero blasted an opposite-field homer to left. Just his way of making up for the wild pitches he said he should have blocked.

 

12. August 24:  Cubs 2, Indians 1 –  A tight contest featured two top of the rotation starters on top of their games. Corey Kluber struck out 11 over 7 2/3, and Jon Lester came up one out short of a complete game shutout. But Cleveland tied the game with two outs. On to the bottom of the inning. With the Cubs apparently growing tired of waiting to load the bases before walk-off wins, they opted for a more direct route again. Sort of. The first two batters struck out. Then Kris Bryant picked up the slack by crushing a walk-off shot, his third homer in two days.  “Hopefully the second of many,”  I said afterward.

 

The Cubs will have to wait awhile for a chance at their next walk-off win. They continue their road trip tonight at 9pm CT.

 

 

What do you think? Follow Jared on Twitter (@JaredAndrews3) and leave a comment! Make sure to like More Than a Fan on Facebook!

Give Dez Bryant a Break

Dez Bryant is in the news for reckless behavior. Again. Since entering the league he has earned a reputation as being talented, but immature, a gifted playmaker, but thoughtless decision maker.

 
The questions about Dez’s maturity are reasonable. He has steadily accrued a litany of run-ins with police. His demonstrative displays during games make plenty of viewers shake their heads. He plays with an edge on the field and that part of him seems to carry over to his personal life, a tendency which has landed him in some undesirable circumstances.

 
Anytime an athlete attains a perception like the one Dez has, the same question is always posed: at what point do his problems trump his talent? For some athletes, that question is warranted and worth pondering. In Dez’s case, it is not. Actually at this point I’m wondering: when are people going to give Dez a break?

 
Last November, Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reported that police had visited Bryant’s house on six different occasions. That sounds sketchy until you realize that each incident turned out to be benign.

 
There have long been rumors about some video of Bryant in a Wal-Mart parking lot from 2011. The video was rumored to be “five times worse than the infamous clip of Ray Rice.” That also sounds sketchy until you realize that the tape still hasn’t been released and may never have existed in the first place.

 
Recently Dez Bryant fought a teammate during a Cowboys practice, and last week he was punched in the face by a Rams player during a brawl amidst the joint practice. This may seem like another reason to worry about his character until you realize that fights happen at NFL practices every year. The brawl was caused by other players. Dez was simply caught in the bedlam, as were many others. The fight with his teammate was just a case of two competitors blowing off a little steam after an intense set of plays. No hard feelings. Both players said as much after practice.

 
All of Dez Bryant’s maturity questions have proven to be much ado about nothing. He may rub some people the wrong way, and he may garner the wrong type of attention on occasion, but between the lines he is a beast. There is no question about that.

 
In each of the last three seasons, Bryant has finished with at least 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns. He has finished as a top 6 fantasy receiver in each of those seasons. And since he entered the league in 2010 he has amassed 56 receiving touchdowns, the most in the NFL. Despite frustration with his antics, his production has never waned.

 
Dez Bryant is a lot like the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld. We tolerate his quirks because the guy flat out makes great soup. Sure he yells sometimes and he doesn’t get along well with everyone. But these idiosyncrasies are just the small price to pay to enjoy his work; they’re worth the hassle.

 
Though the reactions to their work are distinct, they are equal in the awe factor. The Soup Nazi’s soup makes your knees buckle. Dez’s plays make your jaw drop. Both are appropriate, logical reactions given that you are likely sitting while watching Dez so it wouldn’t make sense for your knees to buckle and you wouldn’t want your jaw to drop while eating soup because the result would be messy and wasteful. In any case, both the Soup Nazi and Dez Bryant are eccentric in their ways yet they ultimately satisfy their consumers with the end results.

 
Sure Dez Bryant has made headlines for the wrong reasons over the years. But so what?
Despite the many reports of his issues, he has not committed any offenses that would be considered serious, aside from the numerous cases of arson for burning defensive backs.

 
All the murmurs about Bryant’s character are just those—murmurs. His production on the field speaks much louder.

 

 
What do you think? Follow Jared on Twitter (@JaredAndrews3) and leave a comment! Make sure to like More Than a Fan on Facebook!

A Friendly Tiger Woods

For many months the question endlessly circulating the world of golf has been, “what’s wrong with Tiger?” Numerous theories have surfaced to provide an explanation. But not one of them has contained the correct answer, which can be supplied in a single word: nothing.

Sure, Tiger’s last win on the PGA Tour came on August 4, 2013. To the question, “what’s wrong with Tiger’s golf game?” there is a different answer: a lot. Of course that’s what most people mean when they ask about Tiger. I realize that. In regards to Tiger Woods the person, there is more right about him now than most of us have ever seen before.

In the past, Tiger never needed fans. He had winning. Winning was always enough. Now that he has lost winning, or at least while he endures these struggles, he has been seeking another source of fulfillment. The fans are still happy to give it to him. Reluctant at first to care, Tiger is now showing signs that he is truly moved by his continued fan support.

This is the best picture of Tiger Woods in existence.
This is the best picture of Tiger Woods in existence.

In Tiger’s earlier years, every cursory wave and tip of the cap always appeared to be a feigned gesture of gratitude, as if he had accidentally made eye contact with his mailman and was forced to hastily acknowledge him.

His level of courtesy also depended on how well he played. If played poorly he had little interest in the tedium of interviews and fleeting moments with fans. Poor play caused his focus on golf to narrow even further. This was made clear through body language, tone, and often bluntly in his words. He was comparable to a petulant teenager rolling his eyes throughout a conversation with his parents. Media and fans served merely as pesky distractions standing in the way of his sole interest, which was getting back on the course to practice.

No longer is this true. Tiger now seems genuinely pleased with the appreciation and support of fans. He now tips his cap with the humility and grace of a hall of famer returning to the old ball park to be honored by his team. He has the look in his eye that indicates he is actually letting the moment sink in. His feelings are real and they are evident. He has revealed a side of himself that had previously been kept hidden.

For years we wondered something about Tiger. Through all his triumphs and impossibly clutch shots on the biggest possible stages he had kept the truth in a locked room. Only now has the door to that room creaked open, not because of his imperfect play, but because of the way he has handled it. He has proven to be flawed, vulnerable. He has grown, matured. Finally he has revealed the truth—Tiger Woods is human.

The new Tiger Woods is beatable, and that’s all right. He has shown that there is more to him than being a great champion. He is capable of being a good sport, a positive role model, and a sensitive guy (he recently mentioned enduring sleepless nights following his break up with Lindsey Vonn). I’m glad to see this from him. For whatever led him to this point, I am grateful.

Believe me; I loved watching Tiger stalk up to each green on the Sundays of majors, intensity burning in his eyes, victory in his sight. I loved watching him overwhelm opponents with his Herculean efforts, emphatically display one of his patented fist pumps, and then ultimately lift the trophy in triumph. He never ceased to amaze. I will always remember those moments fondly.

These days, the book of Tiger has turned a new page. His character has evolved. He has been humbled. And not in the way an athlete says he is “humbled” by a third MVP, but actually humbled.

In the past we always overlooked Tiger’s questionable attitude and antics because of his winning. Now the winning is gone. And I am willing to overlook that because of his warm attitude and gregarious interactions.

Maybe a room filled with 14 major championship trophies and a newfound respect and friendliness isn’t such a bad way for Tiger’s story to end.

Myths About the Chicago Cubs

1. Cubs Nation perennially broadcasts the phrase “wait ‘til next year!”

This idea that Cubs fans are willing to be both shameless quitters and hopeless optimists is confounding. No fans could hold both emotions simultaneously.  In that vein the infamous expression doesn’t even make sense.  Instead, there are basically two camps into which Cubs fans can fall at season’s end:

1. the year was lost at the All-Star break and they have a challenging rebuild ahead, in which case no one believes that next year is going to produce anything resembling a championship team.

2. the team narrowly missed the playoffs/was eliminated during the playoffs, in which case the fans are going to be hurting, not willingly purporting an “aw shucks… we’ll get ‘em next time!” The hurt only continues to grow as the team remains on the precipice of winning it all. Soon that hurt becomes bitterness with a twist of pessimism—a far more fitting description of the typical Cubs fan.

In either case, fans would not utter that cheesy expression that has unfairly and inaccurately been assigned to the Cubs.

2. Fans are content with a team of “lovable losers”

I’m not certain exactly when this name-calling began or who coined the phrase “lovable losers,” but I do not now nor have I ever subscribed to the idea that there is anything lovable about a loser.

I suppose if my future son’s Little League team loses every game I will still have to love him. I’ll just love him less. He’ll have to earn my love back during basketball or football season. Unconditional love is overrated.

I’m kidding of course. Children receive a free pass. Professional sports teams—not so much. There is something to be said about loyalty, and believe me, I will stand by my teams no matter what. But that certainly doesn’t mean I endorse a ridiculous term like “lovable loser.”

Ask any of my Cubs fan friends and I am positive that they will corroborate my claim. This is just a phrase created by anti-Cubs fans to mock those who bleed Cubby blue. True Cubs fans do not propagate that illogical phrase, and they certainly do not blissfully accept a losing team.

3. The Cubs are a losing franchise

The Chicago Cubs are currently enduring a World Series drought of epic proportions. Everyone knows that. A 106-year streak tends to garner some attention. That sort of infamy also tends to produce plenty of ridicule, mockery, and—for reasons I don’t quite understand—hatred.

Some baseball fans love to hate the Cubs. They love to watch them lose, call them losers, and deride them endlessly for their failures. The issue with that is the Cubs aren’t really losers at all. Their franchise’s all-time record is 10,558 – 10,105. That is good for the 6th highest win percentage of any franchise in MLB history.

In the team’s more recent past, they have made the playoffs thrice since 2003 and are currently on pace to reach the postseason again this year.

4. Wrigley Field is responsible for the Cubs’ high attendance rates

Wrigley Field is a treasure. It’s a favorite of players, coaches, and fans alike. Anyone who has ever visited the park will speak about its majestic beauty and pure baseball vibe. But to assert that it is the reason that Cubs fans show up to games is silly and blatantly false.

Since 2001, the Cubs have ranked in the top 6 in road attendance every year except for 2013 and have finished in the top 2 five times over that span. Their fans are eager to attend Cubs games, regardless the venue. Evidently getting drunk in the Wrigley Bleachers on $8 beer isn’t the only thing bringing fans to the games, despite what some people would have you believe.

5. Cubs fans are dumb

This one is a little tougher to debunk since there isn’t readily available IQ data on fans of the 30 MLB teams. However, there was a recent article in The Wall Street Journal that cited a study on the grammar of MLB fans. Grammarly, an automated proofreading company, found that Cubs fans made the fourth fewest mistakes of any MLB franchise’s fans when posting comments on teams’ online message boards. While this isn’t exactly the best representation of a fan base’s intellect, it still provides more hard evidence than the Ted Wells’ Deflategate Report and the NFL found that sufficient that to suspend Tom Brady for four games. So I feel safe in using this grammar data to determine that Cubs fans are not stupid.

6. Cubs Nation believes in a curse

I believe in standing by my sports teams, I believe in supporting them through thick times and thin on their journey to achieving the ultimate goal, and I believe in repeating myself to make my sentences longer. What I do not believe in is a curse.

Read this closely: there is no curse. There never has been a curse. No sane person could possibly believe that some random guy with a goat has the omnipotence to curse a baseball team for eternity.

The truth is the Cubs have had their share of misfortune, just as every other team has. The difference with the Cubs is they haven’t won a World Series in over 100 years so anytime they come close and fall short people desperately search for a story to make the Cubs appear to be victims of bad luck so the alleged curse can be perpetuated. It’s all a misguided fable.

The only people who believe in the curse, or at least enjoy talking about it, exist outside the realm of Cubs fandom. They are the reason that a curse is even a topic of conversation in some circles. But it is not discussed by Cubs fans. They obviously do not believe in such tomfoolery. Like I just mentioned a minute ago—Cubs fans aren’t dumb.

In Fantasy Football, Don’t Fear The Rookie Receiver

For years I steered clear of rookie receivers on draft day. Someone else always liked them more than I did, and I was happy to let that owner draft the newbies. Some years I would omit the first-year wideouts from my player list, removing the possibility of selecting them altogether.

Rookies WRs just never seemed to live up to the hype. For every A.J. Green there was a Tavon Austin. For every Julio Jones there were two Michael Crabtrees and a Darrius Heyward-Bay. Even the mega-prospect who eventually became Megatron, had only 756 yards as a rookie.

I was completely content to pass on all the first-year wideouts. Then last season happened.

In 2014, five rookies finished the season in the top 25 among receivers in fantasy points. And there likely would have been six if not for Brandin Cooks’ injury. Three WRs finished with over 1000 receiving yards. The last time any other rookie class had even two 1000 receivers was 1986. By all accounts, it was a historic season for rookie wideouts. Let’s revisit a few of the very best from the group.

1. Odell Beckham – 91 catches, 1305 yards, 12 touchdowns

Beckham’s numbers alone place him as one of the greatest rookie receivers in league history. He was so great that some people have already forgotten that he amassed those stats in only 12 games. He missed the majority of training camp, preseason, and the first four weeks of the season with a hamstring injury and he still finished with eye-popping numbers en route to being the runaway choice for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Plus he had that catch.

2. Mike Evans – 68 catches, 1051 yards, 12 touchdowns

Even with inconsistent QB play and dismal team around him, Evans still managed to have a highly productive season. Big plays were his M.O. He led rookies with 20 receptions of 20 yards or more. His size, speed, and play-making ability on jump balls made him an instant star.

3. Kelvin Benjamin – 73 catches, 1008, 9 touchdowns

Benjamin jumped out to a quick start with three touchdowns in his first four games. Despite some inconsistencies and drops, he didn’t slow down much from there. He led the team in targets and touchdown receptions while tying for the team lead in receiving yards. The Panthers drafted him in the first round to be their number one receiver and he did not disappoint.

4. Sammy Watkins – 65 catches, 982 yards, 6 touchdowns

Watkins was the first receiver drafted (4th overall) for many good reasons. He is described by numerous analysts as the purest route runner and most technically sound receiver in this rookie class. His effortless speed and fluid body control helped provide an immediate lift to the Buffalo offense as he fell just shy of being the year’s fourth rookie to top 1000 receiving yards.

5. Brandin Cooks – 53 catches, 550 yards, 3 touchdowns

For about half the season, Cooks looked as if he may have been the best rookie of them all. When he was injured in week 11, he was leading rookies in catches, an especially impressive feat when considering that he had to compete every game for targets, whereas others in his cohort were routinely force fed the ball since their teams lacked other options. Overall, his rookie year was more auspicious than purely productive. He makes the list because he was a valuable asset early in the season, which is very rarely said about a rookie.

6. Jordan Matthews – 67 catches, 872 yards, 8 touchdowns

Matthews took a couple games to find his fit in the oNFLffense before settling in to have a very solid rookie season. After playing the entire season as the team’s second option at receiver, Matthews evidently impressed coach Chip Kelly enough to allow Jeremy Maclin to leave, making Matthews the number one pass-catcher in Philly for the 2015 campaign.

After seeing all that these rookies accomplished last season, I am open to the idea of drafting first-year receivers.  I mean, I sort of have to be.  Three of these guys were legitimate number one WRs for a chunk of the season.  The theory that rookie receivers don’t succeed is now a myth. They are viable options for teams, both real and fantasy.

What do you think? Follow Jared on Twitter (@JaredAndrews3) and leave a comment! Make sure to like More Than a Fan on Facebook!