The Neymar debacle

Anyone who, in terms of memory, has anything exceeding the capacities of a goldfish knew this might happen. Two years after Paris St-Germain paid the improbable sum of 222 MILLION EUROS to snatch Neymar from Barcelona, ESPN FC has reported that the two parties have mutually agreed to part ways. No one is sure how exactly this is to happen, but the fact that it will happen was rather predictable.

Like many, I was somewhere in the neighbourhood of shocked when I initially heard that the Brazilian would swap the prestige of Barcelona for the riches of PSG, but it ended up happening anyway. Several hypotheses for the move were emitted at the time: Neymar wanted the ridiculous money PSG could offer; his father, who doubles as his agent, stood to make a huge commission from the move; Neymar wanted to step out of Lionel Messi’s shadow and lead his own team. Whatever the reason(s) for him wanting the move to Paris, the consensus is that his tenure as the French capital team’s marquee star will have been a failure.

Artwork by Bleacher Report

It’s not entirely fair to say this, but it’s easy to understand why many would. Neymar was acquired by PSG barely a month or so after he led Barcelona famous/infamous “remontada” against PSG in the Champions’ League (PSG won the first game 4-0 only to lose the return leg 6-1). He was the superstar who would bring not just skill, which PSG already had in spades, but a clutch gene. He would also be the super-duper star who would contribute to the team’s Hollywood status.

The showbiz dimension of the move was always going to take care of itself, but it has not generated the boost on the field that was expected, by which we mean PSG has crashed out of the Champions’ League in the two seasons he has been with the team. It doesn’t help that, last season, they fell to a Manchester United, again by way of opponent comeback. In 2017-2018, unpopular coach Unai Emery took the blame, as exemplified by the French pundit Pierre Ménès saying of Emery, “this dude reeks of fear, and he’s passing it on to the players.” So the team fired him and brought on Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel, hoping he would provide the required spark. At first, it looked as though this was happening. The players, according to Ménès, looked happier, and this boded well for what was to come. But then, PSG bumped into a Manchester United team that was still in the honeymoon phase with interim coach Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, and allowed them to pull the rug out from under them, with Neymar abroad nursing an injury, for a second year in a row, as his team suffered UCL elimination.

Conspiracy theorists were already having a field day with Neymar at that point. How was his relationship with the team? Could it be possible that PSG was actually better without him (a preposterous notion)? Wasn’t it revealing that he was apparently so standoffish with regards to his teammates? We will, of course, never get an answer to these questions, but a mere look at recent Ligue 1 history could have served as a warning for PSG on the Neymar front.

Unhappy foreign stars: a recurring Ligue 1 theme?

Remember Falcao? In 2013, coming off two tremendous seasons with Atletico Madrid, the Columbian striker was considered the world’s best centre forward, and he was reported to want a move to Atleti’s crosstown rival Real Madrid. There was, however, one problem: his contract with the rojiblancos featured a clause that prevented him from jumping ship to Real. The solution was both tremendously risky and very curious. Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev had just bought Ligue 1 club AS Monaco and brought big spending money to the club from La Principeauté. Suffering from what The Ringer’s Bill Simmons calls “first-year owner syndrome” and wanting to make a splash, Rybolovlev and his footballing right-hand man Vadim Vasilyev did what anyone without any real contacts in the footballing world would do: they contacted a super agent, in this case Jorge Mendes, and asked which of his clients he’d recommend they sign. Mendes gave them three names, the most significant one (at the time) being Falcao, the established star. One supposes Monaco and Falcao had dual motives for this move: the player would try, after a year, to strong-arm ASM into agreeing to sell him to Madrid for a profit, and the club would have a year to convince him to stay.

If you believe in karma, the way events unfolded was the story for you, as what followed was the only lose-lose scenario for player and club. Falcao suffered a season-ending injury in an exhibition game against a non-professional team (what possessed Claudio Ranieri to play him in that game is completely beyond me), while fellow new arrival James Rodriguez blossomed into the superstar player who would be sold to Madrid. Meanwhile, Monaco remain stuck with Falcao, who has looked a shell of himself since that injury.

Also, the sale of Rodriguez was made necessary not just by the player’s desire to leave, but by looming Financial Fair Play sanctions. It’s what makes Rybolovlev’s decision to buy this specific club so puzzling, unless he just happened to want to own his tax haven’s local club. Anyone could have told him from a mile away that spending his way into league and Champions’ League titles like other superclubs do is not viable for ASM because they do not have the means to generate the kind of revenue that needs to accompany such massive transfer and wage bills.

At first glance, PSG seems equipped to avoid the pitfalls Monaco has fallen into. Until Neymar, they had mostly bought smart, no worse than other big-budget clubs. They are located in the country’s capital city, with plenty for the players to do. They have a 48,000-seat stadium and a large, devoted fanbase. With they have in common with Monaco is that they play in Ligue 1.

The French first division is sometimes unfairly maligned by Anglophone media pundits, but it is largely – PSG, Monaco, Lyon and Marseille aside – a developmental league. Its level of play is undoubtedly inferior to that of the Premier League, La Liga or the Bundesliga, and the question of whether it lulls its stars into a false sense of security has been brought up multiple times. Neymar himself provided fodder for this theory by missing his team elimination against Real Madrid and later scored five goals against Metz in league play. Are stars who play for PSG doomed to pile up the empty-calorie fireworks locally but fold against European competition?

Ironically, the main argument against this point is Monaco circa 2017, who upset Manchester City in rather emphatic attacking fashion. Yet, that Monaco squad was manned by youngsters Kylian Mbappé, Tiémoué Bakayoko, Lamine Kurzawa and Yannick Carrasco. In a way, they might have been too young and naive to fear Man City. They were also good enough to win Ligue 1 in front of a loaded PSG team.

So if it isn’t the domestic league that’s the problem, the issue is internal. And if it is, Neymar has contributed to whatever situation he’s now trying to escape. As I write these lines, Barcelona have reportedly made an initial offer to take back the Brazilian. How they can match the demands of Financial Fair Play while acquiring Neymar AND Antoine Griezmann is completely beyond me, but we shall see. However, just as Falcao and James Rodriguez were ready to leave Monaco almost upon arrival, this newest Neymar saga, whether he winds up leaving or staying due to the lack of a realistic market for him, shows that the question of whether PSG can keep superstars in their prime remains complete.

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2019: The mock draft

Sound the Air Raid siren, because the NFL Draft is once again upon us. We won’t have to wait too long for suspense as the Top 5 will be utterly intriguing, starting with the very first pick. In which direction will Arizona go? Perhaps some NFL journalist will break the news before the draft even begins, but, for now, we are left wondering…

Are the Cardinals really so down on Josh Rosen after so little time spent on an atrocious roster? Ultimately, that’s the question. Because while the facile notion that Kyler Murray is a system fit for new coach Kliff Kingsbury’s version of the Air Raid offence is an attractive one, would anyone argue with a straight face that, at his best, Josh Rosen can’t excel in this system? Drafting Murray and trading Rosen for pennies on the dollar is not the kind of move well-run organisations make. Then again, this is the team that botched both the hiring and the firing of Steve Wilkes, so who knows? And should they opt against drafting Murray and go for one of the many defensive front players in the draft (there’s a really good case for them to do so), what does that mean for Murray? Or would they consider trading down? And then who would come up?

Speaking of dealing down, can the 49ers justify not doing so? If they stay at two, they’re probably taking Nick Bosa, Quinnen Williams or Josh Allen. If you combine that with the acquisition of Dee Ford and the presence of Deforrest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas, that makes five first-round defensive linemen on the roster and three who were drafted in the top 10. I love my pass rushers, but you’d have to question John Lynch’s roster allocation at that point.

And what the hell are the Raiders going to do? This is the team that traded Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper and must now make good on all the draft picks they got in return for gutting the roster. The entire NFL intelligentsia seems to doubt Jon Gruden’s commitment to QB Derek Carr. Would they consider drafting Kyler Murray should the Cards pass on him? If you’re going to draft a Josh Allen, what the hell was the point of trading Mack? The rookie contract? Wasn’t the knowledge of Mack’s stardom worth the money? Oh, what the hell.. Do they trade down? Mystery…

The team just outside the top 5 with the potential to shape the rest of the first round is the Giants. What happens if they don’t take a quarterback at six or, to put it another way, how would that affect the rest of the teams in the market for a quarterback? All fascinating questions with only one certitude: as usual, this is going to be fun.

  1. Arizona Cardinals: Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma: The reasoning for this pick amounts to this: where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Too many people have been convinced this is happening for too long, and I don’t see a scenario like last year when we found out mere hours before the draft that the Browns really liked Baker Mayfield. The Browns were taking a quarterback for sure. The Cards are either taking Murray, or they’re drafting another position. If I’m the GM, I’m really fond of Josh Rosen, and I give him the chance to crush it in a pass-happy system. However, I think Kliff Kingsbury got to watch Murray up close last year, opts to press reset again, and starts with last year’s Heisman winner.
  2. San Francisco 49ers: Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State: So I make the case that the 49ers should trade down, and I believe they should. But here’s the thing: I think they get stuck with the pick. The Jets are believed to be a lock to trade down, and few teams have the draft ammo to come up and get a defensive linemen at two. Solomon Thomas has not provided the pass rushing spark that was expected and, with Bosa, Buckner and Dee Ford, San Fran’s pass rush should be pretty scary.
  3. New York Giants (Trade with Jets): Quinnen Williams, DT, Alabama: Now before you ask, I’m predicting a pick swap between the Jets and Giants, with the Jets getting the 6th pick and the Giants’ second rounder (37). The Giants are gambling that they’re getting the quarterback at 17, and they get a dominant interior player who camps in opposing backfields versus the run and the pass.
  4. Oakland Raiders: Montez Sweat, DE, Mississippi State: Ahead of Josh Allen? AHEAD OF JOSH ALLEN?!?!?!?!?! Hear me out… A few things… First, while people have more and more of a tendency to disregard the difference between 4-3 and 3-4 when it comes to edge rushers, Jon Gruden mentioned, when the team traded Mack, that the move to a 4-3 was among the reasons for the trade. Probably crap, but you know if they’re going to draft a pass rusher (and they will), they’ll look for a fit for the 4-3, and Sweat is more of a natural for a four-man front than Allen. Also, this is exactly the kind of contrarian ranking Mike Mayock consistently carried when he worked for the NFL Network (Rashard Mendenhall over Darren McFadden; McCoy over Suh, the list goes on…). Watch the Raiders stay entertaining. Don’t ever change, guys.
  5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Josh Allen, Edge rusher, Kentucky: This is the perfect pick. With Todd Bowles taking over as defensive coordinator and running a liquid defence fueled by hybrid players, Allen is a franchise pass rusher who fits this kind of scheme diversity like a glove. Allen picks himself for the Bucs. Now, here’s to hoping they spend their second rounder on new uniforms.
  6. New York Jets (Trade with Giants): TJ Hockenson, TE, Iowa: Everybody seems to agree, for good reason, that the Jets need a pass rusher. What they also need is to surround Sam Darnold with help. There isn’t a pass rusher or a wide receiver worth taking here, so the Jets grab Hockenson, who becomes a multi-purpose weapon as both a blocker and a receiver.
  7. Jacksonville Jaguars: Jawaan Taylor, OT, Florida: The Jags continue their road to yet another disappointing season by overdrafting an unrefined, inconsistent lineman who theoretically fills a need at right tackle. Did I mention I want every member of that front office to get canned?
  8. Detroit Lions: Rashan Gary, DL, Michigan: So this is a huge risk because Gary was an underachiever at Michigan, but theoretically, he”s a local guy who adds the speed to rush from the edge on early downs as well as the strength and bulk to kick inside as an interior pass rusher on 3rd and long. IN THEORY, he never has to come off the field. Detroit’s starting DTs are A’Shawn Robinson and Snacks Harrison, and while they are both excellent versus the run, you’re not getting much of a pass rush from either one. Did I mention this is the sort of pick that has been keeping Detroit crappy for ages?
  9. Buffalo Bills: DK Metcalf, WR, Ole Miss: The Bills cook up the neat combination of a quarterback who can throw it really deep but erratically with a receiver who can really get deep but runs routes erratically. This pick is so Buffalo, it’s just too perfect.
  10. Denver Broncos: Devin White, LB, LSU: I know people are talking quarterback here, but I think John Elway made the Joe Flacco trade to push back the need to take a quarterback here. Moreover, John Elway is quite possibly fighting for his job. He must win games and thus can ill afford to spend a top 10 pick on a player who’s likely sitting next season.
  11. Cincinnati Bengals: Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State: How fitting is this? With a new coach comes a renewal at quarterback, and the local product Haskins brings exactly what the doctor ordered for the Bengals: upside. The team can now see what it can get for Andy Dalton, and keep him in the starting lineup if the offers are unsatisfying.
  12. Green Bay Packers: Noah Fant, TE, Iowa: You think the Packers’ new offensive-minded head coach would like for his superstar quarterback to have better weapons? Pass rusher was Green Bay’s other big need, but they took care of that in free agency to be able to grab an offensive player here.
  13. Miami Dolphins: Devin Bush, LB, Michigan: I smell a tankeroo in Miami, which means the Phins will focus on getting the kind of players who will help establish the desired culture for Pats alum HC Brian Flores. Were Bush two inches taller, he’d be a mortal lock as a top 10 pick. This is a steal for Miami.
  14. Tennessee Titans (Trade with Falcons): Brian Burns, Edge Rusher, Florida State: The Titans need an edge rusher opposite Harold Landry now that mainstays Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are gone. Cameron Wake is a solid veteran but could fall off the cliff at any time and isn’t a long-term option even if he doesn’t. Burns has the athletic ability and the move set to give Tennessee what they need here.
  15. Washington Redskins: Daniel Jones, QB, Duke: Some may like Drew Lock more, but Jones is a bit less up-and-down and we have yet to find out just how good he can be behind an offensive line that’s worth a damn. Shame for Alex Smith, really.
  16. Carolina Panthers: Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson: With Julius Peppers’ retirement, the Panthers now need a franchise pass rusher. Ferrell, a base end type who fits Carolina’s system, is a logical pick for the Panthers here.
  17. New York Giants (from Cleveland): Drew Lock, QB, Missouri: The Giants need a quarterback, and it makes sense for old-school GM Dave Gettleman to like a tall, big-armed passer like Lock. It’s also a plus that he gets to spend a year adjusting to the pro game behind Eli Manning.
  18. Seattle Seahawks (Trade with Vikings): Ed Oliver, DT, Houston: The Seahawks can’t believe their luck. They get a playmaking 3-technique they badly needed and Oliver’s elite quickness will remind Seahawks’ fans of Michael Bennett.
  19. Atlanta Falcons (Trade with Titans): Greedy Williams, CB, LSU: Atlanta needs cornerback help opposite Desmond Trufant and wins on its gamble that it can get a high-level starter while trading down. Williams, with his length and great speed, is a perfect fit for Atlanta’s defence.
  20. Pittsburgh Steelers: Marquise Brown, WR, Oklahoma: No one can truly replace Antonio Brown, but with the big-mouth big-play receiver gone, what remains is a duo of muscle catchers with running back builds in Juju Smith-Schuster and James Washington. Brown’s speed and field-stretching ability in the slot provides a nice complement to the pass catchers Pittsburgh already has on the roster.
  21. Minnesota Vikings: Jonah Williams, OT, Alabama: The Vikings have guaranteed Kirk Cousins the GDP of a small country, and it would be a shame to see that investment go to waste because the Vikes’ offensive line is a train wreck. They could use upgrades inside or at right tackle, and Williams can help at either one of those spots.
  22. Baltimore Ravens: Jeffery Simmons, DT, Mississippi State: Baltimore probably needs an edge rusher, but there isn’t one worth taking here. Simmons, whose dominance stood out even as he played next to Montez Sweat, fits nicely on the Ravens’ front three. He warrants a higher pick, but falls here because of his February ACL injury.
  23. Houston Texans: Andre Dillard, OT, Washington State: Whether the Texans go for Dillard depends on whether they actually think they can get passable left tackle play from Julien Davenport and/or Matt Kalil. I have my doubts. When your quarterback is Deshaun Watson, you need an athletic pass protector to man his blind side.
  24. Oakland (from Chicago): Irv Smith, TE, Alabama: The Raiders lost Jared Cook in free agency, and Smith is a quality pass catcher whose athleticism makes him an asset to whoever is the long-term quarterback for this team. Why not a wide receiver here? Because you take him at 27. There will be a receiver who belongs in round one at 27. If Smith leaves in the next three picks, the next best tight end doesn’t belong in round one.
  25. Kansas City Chiefs (Trade with Eagles): Johnathan Abrams, SS, Mississippi State: Having just lost Eric Berry, the Chiefs need help in the secondary. They could go corner, but they jump on the chance to take an enforcer safety who can make the Chiefs more physical in the back end.
  26. Indianapolis Colts: Dexter Lawrence, NT, Clemson: The Colts are starting to look pretty loaded and, even though they could go in a number of valid directions here, Margus Hunt is an awkward fit at nose tackle. The Lawrence pick makes a lot of sense in a division where you play four games against big backs Leonard Fournette and Derrick Henry. The new Haloti Ngata, Lawrence helps in that regard.
  27. Oakland (from Dallas): AJ Brown, WR, Ole Miss: To go along with the big play potential of Antonio Brown, the Raiders choose another Brown, AJ, whose big body will allow him to battle for tough yards underneath. Derek Carr is starting to run out of excuses.
  28. Los Angeles Chargers: Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson: The Chargers already have a strong pass rushing presence with edge dynamos Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Now, they add Wilkins, an interior penetrator who makes the Chargers’ defensive line even more fearsome.
  29. Philadelphia Eagles (Trade with Chiefs): Cody Ford, OT, Oklahoma: The Eagles are loaded enough to go for the best available player, and Ford can be groomed as the right tackle of the future, which would in turn allow Lane Johnson to kick over to the left side when Jason Peters finally moves on. A real value pick here for the Eagles.
  30. Green Bay (from New Orleans): Garrett Bradbury, C, North Carolina State: The Packers’ offensive line doesn’t lack grit, but it lacks talent. Bradbury is smart, tough, and talented. When the running game and the pass protection has been pedestrian for so long AND when your quarterback is Aaron Rodgers, Bradbury is a welcome addition.
  31. Los Angeles Rams: Byron Murphy, CB, Washington: With this pick, LA gets the best available player and a potential replacement for Marcus Peters if he continues bleeding big plays.
  32. Jacksonville Jaguars (Trade with Patriots): Nasir Adderley, FS, Delaware: You know the Patriots are trading out of this pick, and the Jags come up to get Adderley because Tashaun Gibson became a cap casualty, yet you need a true centre field at free safety in their defence. The safety calibre dips in quality after Adderley.

Homage series: Making the case for Ocarina of Time, 20 years later

When, in your experience with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, did you first realize you had a very special game on your hands? For me, it was when I took my first steps on Hyrule Field, and heard this.

As I write this post to celebrate the game’s 20th anniversary (wait, what?!), I still feel strongly about this: if you’ve ever played this game, the Hyrule Field theme gets a nostalgic smile out of you every time. It certainly gets one from me, as it takes me back to that time of innocence when I didn’t yet realize that I wasn’t staring at just any great game, but at what remains to this day the greatest game I have ever played. (Prior to this game, I was not a Zelda fan, so I am not a member of the group of pseudo-contrarians who argue (wrongly) that it’s a lesser game than A Link to the Past.) 

It makes me feel terribly old to say so, but the Nintendo 64 had its heyday a while ago now, in late 1998, to be exact, with this game. The ultimate compliment I can give OoT is not that it hasn’t aged; it unquestionably has, but that it has aged so impeccably well. It has not gotten old in a gimmicky, 10-minute refresher way like Super Mario Bros 3, Pac-Man, Tetris or Pong. Rather, it sticks with you much like the first great book you read or the first great film you watched. It’s not that you’re experiencing gaming greatness for the first time; it’s that, for the first time, you’re seeing it with the capacity to notice the details that add up to create it. This was one of the first non-J-RPGs that were not simply great, but memorable; that weren’t great just because you enjoyed playing them, but because you were invested in them. For people of my generation, who were either teens or pre-teens when OoT came out, this was as good as gaming would get, and most of us knew it.

My longtime friend Gab Flewelling (same age as me), whose eyes I know to be running a Nascar race from all that rolling as he’s reading this, would dismiss OoT’s claim to the title of greatest game ever on two points worth addressing. The first is the claim that Final Fantasy VII (1997) was better. The comparison is interesting because the two games came out a mere 14 months apart. VII the only game of that era that even remotely earns the comparison with OoT. The argument could be solved simply by saying something like “some prefer Ferraris, others like Lamborghinis,” which is the luxury-car-metaphor way of saying it’s a matter of taste. There is, it seems to me, great truth to this. FF7 and OoT are both landmark games, both revolutionary in their own way, both formidable. As a matter of context, here is how Greg Kasavin of videogames.com (now Gamespot) concluded his Final Fantasy VII review:

The question you must ask yourself is, are you prepared to dedicate a good portion of the next month to take part in a powerful story unlike anything you have ever witnessed before? If your answer is yes, and you can approach Final Fantasy VII knowing that it bears its genre’s inherently problematic traits, you will find it to be among the most incredible games you have ever played – or ever will.

Every word of this is true. Remember my earlier point about realizing just how special a game is as you’re playing it? People felt the same way about FF7. Again, it’s a SUPREMELY good game. But notice the mention of the inherently problematic traits of Japanese RPGs. FF7 dealt with parts of them thanks to the improved capabilities of the PS1. Characters were no longer just static pictures bumping into each other during combat, as they previously were, for all intents and purposes, in J-RPGs on the Super NES or the Sega Genesis. However, while Final Fantasy VII democratized the J-RPG for large sections of the mainstream gaming audience, hence its pioneer status, many gamers tolerated, rather than enjoyed, the random enemy encounters and the turn-based combat. Proponents of FF7 would answer that these are barely even flaws at all, that the combat system is more of an acquired taste than a true downside and that, even if it we agree live action combat would be better*, the gains in story depth more than makes up for this alleged shortcoming.

Indeed, folks, those were still the days when technological limits forced developers to choose between a great, complex story and amazing action/gameplay. What’s the first game to truly pull off a blend of both? You guessed it: our dear friend Ocarina of Time. Admittedly, FF7’s story is much more complex, and carries a great deal more chapters. Between its main story and its sidequests, VII has the depth and the replay value of modern DLC-powered monstrosities; pumping 100 hours into it is barely even hard. But not everyone wants to spend 100 hours on a game, and nowadays, some games have reached a point where gamers with an actual life are afraid to start them, as great as they are, (looking at you, Witcher 3) because they fear never seeing the end of them.

This takes me to Gab’s second point, which is that, absent the nostalgia factor, more modern games are simply better than older ones. For the most part, he’s right. Games are like cars: you can love your classics, but the 2016 edition of a car is undeniably superior to its 1996 counterpart. It features an entire list of improvements, be it in terms of safety or of convenience. And yet… there is the odd old-school model that can give you that little something your average modern-day disposable nondescript heap of metal won’t.

Nowadays, you can take gameplay like OoT’s, which an absolute legion of developers have done, and combine it with a story as long-winded as FF7’s. So how is a game which does that not instantly better than an old-school classic like OoT? Well, for one thing, there comes a point where too much is like not enough. Yes, I do like that games are like TV series now. A modern Action-RPG à-la-OoT that does not feature both outstanding gameplay AND character development would be deemed unfit for release. That said, many modern games are simply too voluminous, carry open worlds “too open” for their own good where the plot gets lost, and require you to shut yourself off from the world for a surprisingly long time to get through all that they have to offer, DLC and all. It’s one of several reasons why I consider the notion that Breath of the Wild, the most recent Zelda game, is better Ocarina to be absolute heresy. Its open world is too big for one character travelling alone pretty much as he pleases.

I truly believe there’s something to be said for the combination of greatness and simplicity, which finally leads me to my actual case for Ocarina of Time. It nails that combination as perfectly as any game ever has. Here is the conclusion to Jeff Gerstmann’s videogames.com review:

The game offers a nice challenge, a stunningly well-told story, and the gameplay to back it all up. This game is the real thing. This is the masterpiece that people will still be talking about ten years down the road. This is the game that perfectly exhibits the “quality not quantity” mantra that Nintendo has been touting since the N64 was released. In a word, perfect. To call it anything else would be a bald-faced lie.

Ten years? You must be joking! Although, in his defence, he couldn’t have known. Even today, even in this piece, which might tiptoe into long-form feature territory if I’m not careful, I struggle to pinpoint all the ways in which it was groundbreaking. In the gaming world, it remains an absolute masterclass in balancing acts: between exploration and story; between darkness and humour; between sheer action and emotional involvement. The Zelda story has been told on different occasions in different ways, but never as effectively. In fact, Ocarina has haunted its successors, none of which have fully managed to replicate its lightning-in-a-bottle kind of magic, however much I loved Windwaker. Of all subsequent Zelda games, only the supremely underrated Majora’s Mask, OoT’s sort-of sequel, exists outside Ocarina‘s shadow. This is probably because it’s aimed at OoT fanatics who were then two years older, expected something different and could now stomach something even darker. Good thing, too, because Majora’s Mask has elements and moments that would mortify young children. Too bad it came out on the same day as the PS2. But I digress.

Ocarina features an immersive soundtrack by Koji Kondo that features surprisingly beautiful melodies, whether they be location or character themes, or even the ocarina tunes the gamer plays using the C-buttons of the N64’s bizarre three-pronged controller. Listen to the themes of Kakariko Village, the Twinrova Sisters, Gerudo Valley or the Song of Storms. It’s not Mozart, and it’s not as dense as the orchestra soundtracks one can find in more recent games like the Elder Scrolls series, but it’s really quite nice.

And it would be a mistake to dismiss it as a “children’s game.” It’s a fairly straightforward tale of good vs evil, but it’s so well told. And while it’s not as dark in tone as the aforementioned Majora’s Mask, between the Skulltula house inhabited by a family whose members have been turned into giant spiders, or sinister ghosts (Poes) that haunt you at night as well as in a most important graveyard, or the haunted house look, music, and monsters of the Shadow Temple, it’s a surprisingly dark game.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the gameplay some more. What I wrote earlier about the gameplay successfully bringing together live action combat with a great story doesn’t do justice to the revolutionary aspect of this game’s combat system. There is something exhilarating about experiencing it for the first time. Generally, in those types of games, swordplay would feel forced, and the protagonist would slash his/her way through baddies that would take the hits like Rocky takes punches in the ring. So, imagine my surprise during my first fight against a Stalfo: “Pinch me and wake me up, because we have an actual sword fight on our hands… against an enemy that will actually use its shield… so I have to be patient and wait for it to leave itself vulnerable… I think I’m gonna cry…” All of this was accomplished using what was the revolutionary Z-Targeting, or as I like to call it, the fighting-engine-virtually-every-action-RPG-ever-since-has-been-using. Look at all your favourite games, kids. It’s there. Assassin’s Creed? There. Grand Theft Auto? There. The Witcher series? There. With the exclusion of, say, first-person shooters, Nintendo cracked the code on how to bridge RPG and live action. With Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

As for the “location” ocarina songs, modern games still carry a version of them: it’s called fast travel. Kind of a popular thing, nowadays, with those gargantuan world maps. Unless you consider J-RPG’s and their world maps “open-world games,” Ocarina is one of the first ones, if not THE first. It’s rather mystifying to see how many of its gameplay features have been recycled virtually as-is in modern games.

Yet, you might still be inclined to resist. Today’s consoles are more similar to computers than to consoles from 20 years ago. Modern games benefit from technological advances such as (far) better graphical engines, orchestra soundtracks and spoken dialogue, not to mention modernized controllers (seriously, what was Nintendo thinking with that N64 controller with the joystick that could be wrecked by a single game of Mario Party?!), greater story scope and length, DLC, etc. So how can I still pick Ocarina of Time ahead of all the great modern games? Basically for the same reason I still think the original Star Wars trilogy is the best one, despite today’s ridiculously more potent special effects. The novelty factor matters, especially when successors use the original’s M.O. and change next to nothing about it. Just as the other two Star Wars trilogies have the gravitas that they do strictly because of their relationship to the original one (and I won’t get into the endless list of lesser space opera knockoffs), a staggering amount of modern games live in the house that OoT built. I also feel for those kids to whom the peak of gaming glory is online sessions of FortniteCall of Duty, or sports games.

So, Ocarina, here’s to you, old friend, on your 20th anniversary. Because 20 years later, I still remember how you captivated me when I was 12. 20 years later, I still was never more of a gamer than when I played you. 20 years later, you’re still the reference, the greatest, the same. Thankfully.

*It is. The fact that games, even RPGs, have largely moved away from turn-based combat illustrates it.

2017 Mock Draft

So the draft is this week. It will begin with a familiar sight: the Cleveland Browns own its first pick, which they are expected to use on Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett. They better do it. Garrett is widely considered to be the draft’s top prospect, the franchise pass rusher that comes once every few years. There is greater consensus on Garrett than there was, for example, on Jadaveon Clowney, whose pedestrian junior season at South Carolina gave many significant cause for concern.

Garrett is thickly-built, quick twitch, long, and athletic. He was a productive sack artist at A&M. Yet, questions persist. Why did so many of his 31 career sacks come against non-SEC competition? What are we to make of Warren Sapp’s comments that Garrett is a lazy disappearing act on tape and that he’s never taken over a game?

Well, let’s look at Sapp’s comments. I love Sapp. He is, for my money, the greatest defensive tackle ever to play the game. However, his comments should be taken with a grain of salt. First off, as far as taking a game over, I would direct him to the Arkansas game from this year as an example of a time when Garrett came mighty close. I would also expect it of Sapp of all people to remember that defensive linemen don’t have to make the play to impact the game. The sheer amount of attention Garrett received from offences was intense, and it freed up some of his teammates to make plays. Sapp was double-teamed and triple-teamed enough throughout his career to understand that, when offences go out of their way to take a D-lineman out of a game, they will. When that happens, the other guys have to win the favourable matchups they are left with.

We also must remember that players coming out of college are not finished products. As far as NFL production goes, Sapp set lofty standards which I hope he doesn’t project on rookies entering the league. Let’s take Clowney as an example. Everyone remembers the giant TFL-fumble against Michigan, but he never took over games at South Carolina the way he owned that first half against the Pats in the playoffs or the regular season game against the Raiders. It’s the nature of the game. Players improve. Still, Garrett has already shown impressive gifts, and should become even more consistent once he gets acclimated to the NFL game. He’s not perfect, but he should be the number one pick.

Then, there is, as is the case with every draft, the discussion about quarterbacks. For most of the offseason, the first round QB discussion involves Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, and Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer. Each has enticing qualities and scary flaws. Watson is the winner who comes from a Run-Pass Option-heavy, one-read offence whose arm strength and zip are good, but not great. Trubisky has better arm talent, and has made NFL throws, but he’s a one-year wonder who also comes from an up-tempo spread offence that didn’t require the QB to read an entire defence. Kizer might have the most physical upside of the three, but he probably needed another year in school after his brutally inconsistent 2016 season. In recent weeks, we’ve seen a wild card enter the race: Texas Tech Patrick Mahomes. He has a cannon arm, but seems to play backyard football all the time, has shown maddening inconsistency and comes from a system that does not have a history of producing good pros at the quarterback position.

Who goes where is anybody’s guess. Trubisky would seem to have the most people excited, but a lot of coaches will value Watson’s record as a starter in college. I have no earthly idea what’s going to happen, but I’ll try to predict it just the same.

  1. Cleveland Browns: Myles Garrett, Defensive End, Texas A&M: This doesn’t have to be hard. Cleveland has a talent-bereft roster and is switching to a 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, a scheme which requires a franchise defensive end. Garrett is that guy. Cleveland, please… Don’t outsmart yourselves. Pick the man, already
  2. San Francisco 49ers: Jamal Adams, Safety, LSU: The 49ers have a poorly-constructed roster, and they could go in several different directions. However, their new GM is a former strong safety, they need a strong safety, and if they trust new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to make a versatile strong safety into one of the cornerstones of their defence, Adams makes sense here.
  3. Chicago Bears: Solomon Thomas, Defensive End: Mitch Unrein and Akiem Hicks are serviceable starters as 4-i’s in Chicago’s 3-4, but Thomas gives them a potential elite starter at a position with which defensive coordinators can really get creative. Thomas could be a playmaker who lines up all over the line for Chicago.
  4. Jacksonville Jaguars: Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: The Jags’ running game was terrible last season, and it’s clear there isn’t a top-tier back on the roster at the moment. If the additions on the offensive line improve a unit that’s been stinking out the joint for a long time, Fournette could be a catalyst for dramatic offensive improvement for the Jags.
  5. Cleveland Browns (Trade with Tennessee): Mitch Trubisky, Quarterback, North Carolina: Cleveland needs a quarterback, and if they’ve set their mind on Trubisky, they can’t afford seeing him go to the Jets or to a team that vaults ahead of Cleveland at 12 to grab him. The Browns have the draft capital to afford this trade, so they pull the trigger.
  6. New York Jets: OJ Howard, Tight end, Alabama: Eventually, you’re going to get a franchise QB in there. However, before you do, you have to make sure he won’t be the victim of a poor supporting cast. Besides, tight ends make for good security blankets for lesser QBs. Howard is one of the best prospects to come out in years at the tight end position.
  7. Los Angeles Chargers: Malik Hooker, Safety, Ohio State: This is among the no-brainers of this draft. The Chargers’ new defensive coordinator is Gus Bradley, who comes from the Seattle coaching tree. If Bradley is to bring the cover 3 base defence he’s played in Seattle and Jacksonville, he needs a rangy centre fielder type at free safety. Hooker fits the bill.
  8. Carolina Panthers: Marshon Lattimore, Cornerback, Ohio State: Logic would suggest the Panthers would go with offence, but Ron Rivera has never seen a defensive stud he didn’t want to pick. Moreover, he never expected to find Lattimore available here. Hey, you can get good RBs in the third round, right?
  9. Cincinnati Bengals: Reuben Foster, Linebacker, Alabama: The Bengals might need an edge rusher more, but their linebacking corps is severely lacking in speed. Foster is a great athlete whose attitude fits with the Bengals’ – ahem! – aggressive mentality.
  10. Buffalo Bills: Mike Williams, Wide Receiver, Clemson: As average as Robert Woods was, he needs to be replaced. Your quarterback is Tyrod Taylor, whose accuracy as about as variable as a bad umpire’s strikezone. Thus, it makes sense to add a big receiver with a large catch radius.
  11. New Orleans Saints: Derek Barnett, Defensive End, Tennessee: Tell me if you’ve heard this before: The Saints need pass rushing reinforcements. Barnett, a polished pass rusher who can provide immediate help on that front, lands in Nawlins.
  12. Tennessee Titans (trade with Cleveland): John Ross, Wide Receiver, Washington: The Titans use their tight end really well, but their lack of talent at receiver hurt them last year. Ross adds, well, 4.22 speed. Need I say more?
  13. Arizona Cardinals: Jonathan Allen, Defensive End, Alabama: The Cardinals just lost Calais Campbell and need someone to play the 4-i opposite Robert Nkemdiche. Allen lands in the perfect system to make an early impact.
  14. Washington (Trade with Philadelphia): Christian McCaffrey, Running Back, Stanford: Washington likes McCaffrey’s star power, and he gives them a multi-dimensional threat of their currently atrocious backfield.
  15. Indianapolis Colts: Dalvin Cook, Running Back, Florida State:  The Colts have 92-year-old Frank Gore as their starting running back and the rest of their backfield is comprised of a “who’s who” of “who’s that.” Cook gives them a quintessential modern back and a terrific weapon for Andrew Luck.
  16. Baltimore Ravens: Charles Harris, Edge Rusher, Missouri: The Ravens have next to no help for Terrell Suggs at edge rusher, and Suggs is getting up there in age himself. Harris brings much-needed long-term help at the position.
  17. Philadelphia Eagles: Tre’Davious White, Cornerback, LSU: The Eagles badly need cornerback help, and they’re glad to find White still available despite their decision to trade down.
  18. Detroit Lions (Trade with Tennessee): Haason Reddick, Linebacker, Temple: Detroit’s front seven stinks. They could use help on the defensive line, but Reddick is their top-rated guy at this point, so they move up to start their front’s rebuilding job somewhere.
  19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Cam Robinson, Offensive Tackle, Alabama: I cannot wrap my mind around the idea that the Bucs are fine with that offensive line. Robinson makes too much sense here for the Bucs to skip on him.
  20. Denver Broncos: Ryan Ramczyk, Offensive Tackle, Wisconsin: Denver’s offensive line is one of those positions that seems as though it’s been bad since about the turn of the century. Ramczyk fits what they like to do and will help the left tackle spot look like less of a revolving door.
  21. Tennessee Titans (Trade with Detroit): Marlon Humphrey, Cornerback, Alabama: The Titans address their other position of need with Humphrey, a physical corner with the speed to keep up with fast receivers.
  22. Miami Dolphins: Forrest Lamp, Offensive Linemen, Western Kentucky: The Dolphins could use interior line help, and Lamp’s positional versatility gives him added value.
  23. New York Giants: David Njoku, Tight end, Miami (FL): The Giants haven’t had a game-breaking tight end since Jeremy Shockey. Add Njoku and his tremendous athletic ability to a receiving corps that includes Odell Beckham, Brandon Marshall, and Sterling Shepard, and Eli Manning is going to be running out of reasons to throw picks.
  24. New Orleans Saints (Trade with Oakland): Corey Davis, Wide Receiver, Western Michigan: Ted Ginn was a contributor for the Panthers in 2015, but you can’t make real projects around him. They cannot wait any longer and come up to snatch Davis, a complete receiver who’s slipping because of his inability to participate in combine testing.
  25. Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson, Quarterback, Clemson: Tom Savage is basically being tabbed as a starter because he looked good against the Jaguars. Faint praise. Picking a quarterback in this draft is a risky operation, but the Texans don’t want to see their window of opportunity as the rest of their division keeps getting better. Others quarterbacks might have better measurables, but Bill O’Brien decides he wants to pick a “winner.”
  26. Seattle Seahawks: Garrett Boles, Offensive Tackle, Utah: This one is fairly self-explanatory. Seattle’s offensive line stinks, and repeatedly puts Russell Wilson’s health in jeopardy. This is high for Boles, but the Hawks need the O-Line help this badly.
  27. Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes, Quarterback, Texas Tech: This is an ideal time for the Chiefs to draft a talented but raw quarterback like Mahomes. They have a really good team, and Alex Smith has a few years left. Mahomes happens to need those years to adjust to the pro game. The Texas Tech product also gives the Chiefs deep passing game options they don’t have with Smith, and has just enough mobility to run Andy Reid’s West Coast Offence.
  28. Dallas Cowboys: Taco Charlton, Defensive End, Michigan: Dallas hasn’t had a consistent pass rusher since Greg Hardy was disgracing its uniform. There are questions about Charlton, but he resembles Hardy very much as a player, and gives them similar possibilities.
  29. Chicago Bears (Trade with Green Bay): DeShone Kizer, Quarterback, Notre Dame: This is a mortifying risk, but the Bears don’t view Mike Glennon as a long-term solution, but at very worst, Kizer becomes a trading chip. More realistically, Kizer learns the pro game for a year or two, which he dearly needs. From then onward, he does have rare gifts. If this pays off, the Bears’ franchise will be in good shape.
  30. Pittsburgh Steelers: Takkarist McKinley, Edge Rusher, UCLA: Jarvis Jones has been a bust and has left the team. Bud Dupree is still developing and nobody exactly what he’ll amount to. Even if Dupree flourishes, however, James Harrison can’t be counted on long-term. McKinley has the non-stop motor the blue-collar Steelers like and he gives them long-term insurance rushing from the edge.
  31. Atlanta Falcons: Evan Ingram, Tight End, Ole Miss: The Falcons give Matt Ryan another weapon. Ingram, a move tight end who can be moved around, will give the Falcons a matchup nightmare against virtually every team in the league.
  32. Oakland Raiders (Trade with New Orleans): TJ Watt, Linebacker, Wisconsin: The Raiders drop down and get good value for this pick with Watt, a versatile linebacker whose multiple talents mesh well with a very flexible Oakland defensive front.

And just for fun, here’s the second round:

  1. (33) Cleveland: Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State
  2. (34) San Francisco: Adoree Jackson, CB, USC
  3. (35) Jacksonville: Dion Dawkins, OT, Temple
  4. (36) Green Bay (Trade with Chicago): Quincy Wilson, CB, Florida
  5. (37) LA Rams: Dan Feeney, G, Indiana
  6. (38) LA Chargers: Taylor Moton, OT, Western Michigan
  7. (39) New York Jets: Chidobe Awuzie, CB, Colorado
  8. (40) Carolina: Zay Jones, WR, East Carolina
  9. (41) Cincinnati: Jordan Willis, DE, Kansas State
  10. (42) New Orleans: Jarrad Davis, LB, Florida
  11. (43) Philadelphia: Alvin Kamara, RB, Tennessee
  12. (44) Buffalo: Jabrill Peppers, S, Michigan
  13. (45) Arizona: Juju Smith-Schuster, WR, USC
  14. (46) Indianapolis: Obi Melifonwu, S, UConn
  15. (47) Baltimore: Budda Baker, S, Washington
  16. (48) Minnesota: Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt
  17. (49) Washington: Kevin King, CB, Washington
  18. (50) Tampa Bay: Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
  19. (51) Denver: Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida
  20. (52) Tennessee (Trade with Cleveland): Demarcus Walker, DE, Florida State
  21. (53) Detroit: Dont’a Freeman, RB, Texas
  22. (54) Miami: Sidney Jones, CB, Washington
  23. (55) New York Giants: Antonio Garcia, OT, Troy
  24. (56) Oakland: Joe Mixon, RB, Oklahoma
  25. (57) Houston: Montravious Adams, NT, Auburn
  26. (58) Seattle: Fabian Moreau, CB, UCLA
  27. (59) Kansas City: Cooper Kupp, WR, Eastern Washington
  28. (60) Dallas: Cordrea Tankersley, CB, Clemson
  29. (61) Green Bay: Roderick Johnson, OT, Florida State
  30. (62) Pittsburgh: Curtis Samuel, WR/RB, Ohio State
  31. (63) Atlanta: Tim Williams, Edge, Alabama
  32. (64) Panthers: Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn

The Joey Bosa problem

If you are an NCAA football player and college ball commentators talk about you before the season as a “lock for the first overall pick in next year’s draft,” start freaking out. Your stock will drop soon.

Look it up; for every Andrew Luck or Jadaveon Clowney, there are several “mortal locks” like Matt Leinart, Jake Locker, Brady Quinn or Ricky Williams. All of them were crowned “next year’s first overall pick,” and subsequently tumbled down in the first round to varying degrees (Locker, Williams, and Leinart were still Top 10 picks, but only Williams went in the Top 5); Quinn dropped much further, though not far enough). This year’s draft figures to add another name to this unenviable list: Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa.

As a sophomore on OSU’s 2014-15 National Championship team, Bosa forced the entire college football fanbase to notice him: he won the Big 10’s Defensive Player of the Year award with his 21 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. Therefore, it was clear to college football analysts that there was no better player for this year’s draft.

That said, we’ve heard the song before, and the CFB gang often gets it wrong, mostly because they look at these players from a college football perspective. They don’t pick players apart the way NFL scouts and coaches do, they seldom engage in trying to look for ways in which these players can transcend a completely different system from what they’ll see in the pros, and they certainly don’t analyse them in terms of NFL team fits (how could they?). This explains why, on the topic of predicting draft spots a year early, you shouldn’t trust them.

Now, sometimes a player is so clearly superior to the rest of the draft class that everybody agrees on it. The only reason why, for example, Julius Peppers wasn’t the first overall pick in 2002 was because the NFL was welcoming the expansion Texans. Houston, being the bright sparks that they were, decided that they absolutely HAD to throw a rookie quarterback behind a bad offensive line instead of going for the best college pass rusher of the last decade.

Players like Peppers are the exception, however, and most of the time, the attentive viewer can start to see signs that their favourite college ball analysts might be off the mark with the first overall pick predictions. For some people who looked at Bosa, the first sign was the drop in sack production: Bosa went from 13.5 sacks in 2014 to five in 2015. His defenders will argue that the lesser sack numbers were the result of double and triple-teams, and that his numbers against the run (16 tackles for loss) were again excellent. Bosa’s doubters, meanwhile, will argue that a sign of a true future NFL star is the ability to keep posting great numbers despite the extra attention.

As luck would have it, both sides have a point. When a player has a ridiculous freshman or sophomore season rushing the passer, one has to expect his sack numbers to drop somewhat the next year. If we stick with the Peppers example, it was unrealistic to expect him to match the 15 sacks he had as a sophomore at North Carolina, but the 9.5 he notched as a junior despite constantly dealing with multiple blockers was considered, for good reason, to be an acceptable drop in production. Bosa’s dip to five sacks is more worrisome, but it doesn’t prove he lacks what it takes to be a productive pass rusher in the NFL.

Recently, however, another issue has come up: Bosa lack of prototypical initial quickness. In other words, the ability to beat blockers off the snap with his first step doesn’t show up on tape. This is a potential issue that has struck me all year long. Even when facing tackles alone (an admittedly rare occurrence), Bosa appears to have neither the elite first step of the usual top-level NFL pass rushers nor the burst to turn the corner on NFL offensive tackles using speed. Scouts and coaches are now much smarter in how they interpret testing results, so Bosa’s 4.86 40-time at the Combine didn’t result in the catastrophic draft plunge that would have been a certainty 12-15 years ago. It did, however, lend credence to the idea that Bosa doesn’t have the explosion to be a classic speed rusher in the NFL. And while he did post a better 40-time at his pro day (4.77), the improvement doesn’t seem like enough to change many people’s minds on the topic.

ESPN’s Todd McShay has suggested that this doesn’t really matter; that being a top pass rusher in the NFL is more about hands and technique than about raw speed or athleticism. He’s both right and wrong. It’s true one doesn’t have to be uber-athletic to be a solid-to-good NFL edge rusher. That said, if you’re looking for a bona-fide franchise pass rusher, statistics suggest Bosa won’t be that player.

Indeed, if we recall that we are looking for either a killer first step or great speed turning the corner, the NFL’s active-sack-leaders list contradicts McShay’s assertion. The first eight players possess at least one, if not both those qualities, and there is a speed rush element to each one’s game. (The list from one to eight: Julius Peppers, Jared Allen, DeMarcus Ware, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Mario Williams.)

You have to get to Trent Cole at number nine on the list to find a player who made his mark essentially off technique and motor, and even that’s debatable. Cole isn’t a fast runner, but his first step is excellent nonetheless. Now, Bosa’s backers might respond that he could do worse than Trent Cole’s career as a pass rusher, and that sacks aren’t the be-all and end-all of the impact of one’s pass rush. Both points are valid, but while Trent Cole has been a very good player for the bulk of his career, would you, at any point, have described him as an elite pass rusher? I cannot say I would have. And on the topic of meaningful pass rush stats, sacks aren’t everything, it’s true. Yet, they are very significant in that they, more often than not, kill offensive drives.

Before we go any further, though, we must remember not to sell Bosa short. All the TV and magazine scouts are both unanimous and right in the following respect: Bosa’s pass rush arsenal and overall technique are both uncommonly polished for a college player, and his hands are among the most violent I can recall seeing on someone entering the NFL. Bosa is also a powerful player who should quickly become one of the NFL’s best defensive ends at defending the run.

But then, the same could be said about a similar prospect who came out in 2008: Chris Long. The son of the great Howie Long hasn’t embarrassed himself by any means in the NFL, but while his technique is just about spotless, his lack of elite athleticism has prevented him from reaching the pass rushing heights of his technically inferior but athletically superior former teammate Robert Quinn. Now ask yourself the following question: if the Rams knew Long’s career numbers in advance and were then transported back to the ’08 draft, do they draft Long second overall again? I can almost guarantee they don’t. And here’s an even more intriguing inquiry: if the entire NFL knows Long’s career numbers during the draft process, where DOES he get drafted?

The thing about having a Top-5 pick is that you’re hoping to come away with a Top three, maybe four, player at his position (unless he’s a quarterback, in which case he can be average and still be a mortal lock for a $100-million contract, but I digress). And if you’re looking for a pass rusher, that’s a 12-or-more sacks-per-year guy. The odds are that Bosa will be something close to that, but not quite.

So while Bosa’s floor is so unusually high that he’s probably the draft’s unlikeliest player to become a bust, his lack of a “sky is the limit” kind of ceiling will likely make him something of a tough sell in the Top 5. You can just picture several heated conversations about him between coaches and scouts. Do you allow the multi-dimensional quality of his game to overshadow his limitations when it comes to his most important task? Do you believe his technique, hand violence, and effort can compensate for his lack of raw speed and overall athleticism? If you’re picking him in the Top 5, maybe even the Top 10, you have to answer yes to both of these questions. Would I? I’m really not certain. And while it only takes the one to pull the trigger, one has to think several teams aren’t sure, either. I’m glad it’s not my call.

 

Chip Kelly’s firing: lessons from a gutsy experiment

I was surprised by Chip Kelly’s firing from his twin post of head coach and general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles, but I cannot say I was shocked. My surprise came from the fact that the team’s decision to sack him went against everything we were hearing in the days that preceded it. And while even his most energetic defenders (of which I am one) wouldn’t dare say the firing was unjustified, hence the absence of shock, his firing, much like his hiring, carries the potential of league-wide ramifications. Knee-jerk reactions were legion, but it matters for the NFL that its notoriously conservative boys’ club of coaches draw the right lessons from his firing.

One rather large problem for both Kelly and any team thinking of hiring him is that there are very few organizations for which the former Oregon prodigy coach is actually a fit. One of the reasons why this is the case is because it is rather necessary that he be hired as a head coach. Allow me to explain. Some people have suggested that an NFL team should hire Kelly as an offensive coordinator. In abstracto, this makes sense. After all, why not limit him to a role that more rarely demands the leader-of-men qualities Kelly so obviously failed to display as a head coach in Philadelphia? Upon further scrutiny, however, this idea carries its share of potential pitfalls.

The most obvious one is the following: if Kelly is not the head coach, then the team’s entire coaching staff must be unequivocally on board with the changes that Kelly’s hurry-up, no-huddle offence entails. You see, I firmly believe that there is no such thing as a mere hurry-up offence; there are only hurry-up TEAMS. Having the hurry-up as your base offensive M.O. forces coaches on both sides of the ball to alter their coaching methods to the extent that anyone who has coached in a more traditional setting will find themselves profoundly challenged by this new format. The odds are that, while some coaches may embrace the opportunity to innovate, most will not. The way hurry-up college teams practice would be heresy to many seasoned NFL coaches. A few years ago, I had the privilege of coaching a football camp with former Montreal Alouettes receiver Shaun Diner, who played for Kelly at New Hampshire. At the time, Kelly was starting to become a household name at Oregon, and Diner told me the biggest thing for Kelly was always that everyone buy into what the team was doing. Nothing kills the hurry-up, no-huddle’s chances of success faster than coaches and/or players who let their skepticism affect their preparation. If Kelly is the head coach, then he gets to pick assistants who believe the system can work. If he’s not, he has to win over a staff he hasn’t chosen, in which case his odds of stumbling into colleagues who are refractory to his methods increase dramatically.

There is more. Within the NFL community, two highly problematic viewpoints about Kelly’s system appear to persist:

  1. The system has become so intimately associated with Kelly himself. Is it possible that Kelly simply lacks the man-management skills required to connect with the group of narcissistic and capricious millionaires known as NFL players? Of course. However, it would be both dangerous and intellectually inept for the larger football community (Yes, I’m looking at you, media!!) to create an amalgam between the system he brought to the league and the way he interacted with players as well as with his unequivocally disastrous decisions as personnel director. Whatever one thinks of Kelly’s system, though, it would be hasty to condemn it along with the coach himself given that so many other factors went into the Eagles’ struggles this year. If the NFL community refrains from hiring a coach who runs a similar offence just because Kelly “failed” in Philadelphia, then his firing will be a tremendous setback for the mere idea of offensive innovation in the NFL. (P.S.: So two 10-win seasons and a playoff berth in three years is failing in the NFL, now? I’m sure the likes of Ron Rivera, Jason Garrett, and John Fox are glad they weren’t held to that same lofty standard. Makes you wonder why, though.)
  2. It’s still often associated with the expression “The Spread”, and with option quarterbacks. Coming into the NFL, Kelly had enjoyed plenty of success spreading the field, and combining his hurry-up, no-huddle with a lethal read-option game at Oregon. Unfortunately, though, it seems that seeing so much option coupled with spread formations, the hurry-up, and the no-huddle has convinced many people, including several journalists that all these things go together and cannot be dissociated from each other. Without getting into the tactical minutiae of why this idea is problematic, let’s just quickly separate these notions from one another. Not all spread attacks carry pure run-run option plays (in fact, on aggregate, few of them do). Moreover, we really have to rethink of what we include in the definition of the  “option” play, because to think of it as strictly a running play that puts the quarterback in jeopardy, nowadays, is inadequate; the run-pass option, which usually keeps the quarterback in the pocket as a passer, is such a huge part of college football now that many offences use it as the foundation of what they do. Also, just because the quarterback is in the shotgun doesn’t mean his team runs a spread offence, nor does his being under-centre prevent the offence from being a spread (to the latter’s effect, the system Drew Brees ran at Purdue comes to the mind). Even if your quarterback is in the gun, if the rest of your personnel includes a fullback, a tailback and a tight end, you’re not in a spread alignment. Too many people who comment on the NFL have internalized these amalgams (along with the idea that spread offences can’t work in the NFL though they have now become the norm in the league today), and it’s a problem.

Looking at things as they stand today, it seems obvious that many people around the NFL are delighted that Kelly has “failed.” Unfortunately for those of us who badly want to see his brand of offence succeed in the pros, his detractors have on their side a few undeniable points:

  • The fact that, for the reasons we’ve just covered at length, he HAS to be head coach if you’re going to hire him. 
  • Making his offence work is going to be a high-maintenance balancing act from a personnel perspective: If the player personnel director isn’t on the absolute same page as Kelly, the organization risks assembling a team of square pegs for round holes. Therefore, the easiest thing would be to put Kelly in charge of personnel… except the Eagles tried that, and the results were nothing short of atrocious. In the span of what amounts to a year-and-a-half, he managed to a) cut two key starting offensive linemen and replace them with scrubs; b) get some players to state publicly that he can’t relate to stars, and that he doesn’t like black players (the latter is most likely untrue, but the damage is done); c) make other really, really puzzling roster moves – i.e. 1) let Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson go, but re-signed Riley Cooper, 2) traded Brandon Boykin for what amounts to Big Mac leftovers, 3) spent a first-round pick on the invisible Marcus Smith, 4) spent big money on free agent bust Byron Maxwell, a press corner who, from the very beginning, might as well have come from Seattle with the expression “product of the system” tattooed on his forehead, and then played him at free safety, where he’ll never get to press, 5) signed BOTH DeMarco Murray and Ryan Matthews to play running back, neither of whom were really going to work because the O-Line was neglected, and Murray flopped badly; d) replaced Nick Foles (not a great fit for Kelly’s offence) with Sam Bradford (an even worse fit for his offence). The condensed version of this train crash? Kelly has proven himself unworthy of controlling personnel.
  • The offence may be a tough sell for many NFL veterans. We’ve blamed Kelly, the person, for many of his Eagles’ struggles. Journalists have speculated ad nauseam about whether his way of handling players might only be suited for the college game. However, the system does require an unusual level of commitment from players, especially when it comes to the way they practice. I want to blame Kelly’s failings on his inability to be the diva whisperer most pro coaches have to be and on his blunders as a GM. Still, we have to account, at this point, for the possibility that the system itself might be as tough to accept for players as Kelly’s personality. I hope it’s not true, and I don’t think it is. But we can’t rule it out.

That said, NFL GMs and owners would also do well to contemplate the following facts, which show Kelly in a more favourable light:

  • The notion that his system has proven itself fundamentally unsound for the NFL is a misconception: No, it didn’t look pretty this year with the wrong personnel, and yes, it does put pressure on the defence when they fail to at least gain a few first downs. Yet, Kelly himself will have to wonder not only what possessed himself to make all these reprehensibly dumb personnel decisions, but also why he so bastardized the offence that worked so well in his first year. In fact, one could make the argument that he coached against ghosts, and anticipated that opposing coaches would “figure it out” instead of testing whatever so-called solutions DCs would have for it. He was roasting the NFL with his run-pass option plays his first year. Why did he get away from that? What would happen if a coach, Kelly or someone else, stuck to that gameplan and combined it with Kelly’s trademark tempo? Take the read option, for example. Tune in to the NFL Network, and you won’t have to wait long to hear some meat-head ex-player triumphantly claim that NFL coaches have figured the read option out. No, they haven’t! There is no “figuring it out.” You either ask one guy to play both potential ball carriers, or you assign a player for each one. Both ways have their strengths and weaknesses but, in the end, it’s a sound football play that carries its share of counters depending on how the defence plays it. And in any case, athletes will make plays on it, or they won’t; just as is the case with any other play, really. Kelly’s tempo just makes it harder for defensive players to muster the concentration required to defend it properly.
  • If it’s not Kelly, it’ll have to be someone else because… at all other levels of football, neither the spread nor the option are going away, people. Used to be, high school teams would take their best athlete and put him at running back, because if you’re running a pro-style offence, it’s the best way to get him a higher number of touches. But with the spread came the realization that while putting the great athlete at running back meant he touched the ball a lot, putting him at quarterback means he touches the ball every single play. It’s simply too advantageous a proposition to pass up. And since spread systems with lots of run-pass options (which mean lots of short throws to left-alone receivers) are now the norm in the NCAA as well, several players who would have played receiver or running back in the past because of their marginal passing skills now play quarterback despite the fact that they can’t make every throw because they’ll still be dynamite as dual-threat guys. Before Marcus Mariota, a legitimate first-round NFL prospect, those are the kind of guys (Dennis Dixon, Jeremiah Masoli, Darron Thomas) Kelly turned into college superstars. And no, none of Mariota’s predecessors would have been suitable starters for the NFL, but that’s the nature of the beast; some spread option products will be good enough for the NFL, and most won’t be. Yet, how is that any different from products of NCAA pro-style offences? Need we really reminisce about the likes of Jimmy Clausen, John David Booty, Jordan Palmer (Carson’s brother), Matt Leinart, or the immortal Mark Sanchez? In any case, spread passers outnumber the Andrew Lucks of the world by a stronger ratio every year, even now. UCLA has a dynamite pro-style prospect, Josh Rosen, who played the 2015 season for the Bruins as a true freshman. What did he run at UCLA this year? All run-pass option stuff. It baffles how quick we are to dismiss the likes of Colin Kaepernick or Robert Griffin as being finished as NFL starters because they don’t work when handcuffed in a traditional offence. Yet, we seem to think it’s OK that thoroughly limited players like Andy Dalton, don’t-give-a-shit-itis sufferers like Jay Cutler, and good-stats-on-a-bad-team guys like Matthew Stafford are on $100-million contracts, holding their teams hostage because said teams don’t want to risk “winding up in quarterbacking hell.” Instead, these teams are stuck in QB purgatory, and I hope for their sake that their fans learn to enjoy it, because that’s where they’ll remain as long as these mediocre passers remain on their roster, eating up cap space like offensive linemen eat up carbs at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Something’s gotta give, so unless the NFL is willing to start its own minor league system, the league’s largely inflexible coaches will need to start doing a better job of tailoring their offence to the abilities of dual-threat quarterbacks.

Moreover, there is another reason to want Chip Kelly, and his brand of offence, to succeed: the sheer spectacle of it. Watch Oregon games from Kelly’s time there, or even the very first game he coached for the Eagles. It is fun, man! College football has spoiled us in terms of system diversity to the extent that I often find it tedious to watch 32 teams run variations of the exact same offence. Seriously, I watch NFL offences play, and most of the time, the only thing that allows me to tell them apart is their teams’ uniforms. Potentially, Chip Kelly could change that. There were even times in Kelly’s three years in Philadelphia when it looked as though he just might have pulled it off. For the sake of the “watchability” of its offensive football, the NFL needs Kelly, or someone else like him, to succeed. Since Kelly is already here, the NFL might as well give him a real go. Lots of things have to be in place within a team’s infrastructure for it to work, and for goodness’ sake, Kelly mustn’t be put in charge of personnel. None of it, however, alters the fact that the main thing I hope to learn about the Kelly experiment in the NFL is that it isn’t over.

 

 

The case for Marshall Faulk as a Top 5 all-time running back

After watching Marshall Faulk’s “A Football Life” episode on the NFL Network, it dawned on me that he’s in danger of winding up historically underrated. Reading this, it might occur to you that I’m being hyperbolic. After all, the man is in the Hall of Fame, he’s widely recognized as a great in the sport’s history, and so on.

And yet…

Ask anyone to give you a Top 5 running backs list, and see how many of them will have Faulk in there. Now, I wasn’t born to see OJ or Jim Brown, I was too young to remember Payton and I missed the first third of Emmitt Smith’s career. But however great these players were, I am making the argument that Faulk belongs on any Top 5 list.

Watching the episode brought historical context to things I barely remembered about him, and even taught me a few things I didn’t know (I must confess feeling selfishly relieved that the Miami Hurricanes lacked the vision to recruit him as a running back. Faulk playing for the Canes? Help us all!).

Statistically, Faulk numbers leave little to be desired. He is one of only three players to have rushed for 10,000 yards and caught for 5,000 (Marcus Allen and Tiki Barber being the others). He is the fastest player to reach 16,000 and 17,000 yards from scrimmage in NFL history. Only he and Jim Brown have ever reached 1,000 yards rushing in six games. Only he and Ladainian Tomlinson have accumulated 10 seasons of five or more rushing touchdowns. Consider the following receiving numbers: 87 catches, 1,048 yards, five touchdowns. Not a bad year for a receiver, right? Thing is, those are Faulk’s numbers from 1999.

One of the clichés we have in sports is that a player’s statistics “speak for themselves.” However, in Faulk’s case, it feels as though they do not. Not quite. As great as his stats are, Faulk’s true greatness doesn’t lie in his tangibles.

Watching the “A Football Life” episode, it struck me that they could have taken away the interviews, the music, the human interest stuff, and simply rolled game footage for an hour, and it would have been enough. Between my days as a player and a coach, I’ve been involved in over 200 games of football, and I’ve watched who knows many more. Football often leaves me impressed, but seldom in awe. Marshall Faulk left me in awe. A lot. Even as I watched the episode, as it replayed moments I could still remember, my jaw dropped several times as I watched him wiggle his way out of piles that would have been impossible to escape for anyone else not named Barry Sanders. If Walter Payton was “Sweetness,” then Marshall Faulk was “Magic.” Unlike several great backs, Faulk wasn’t just great; he was memorable.

But that’s part of the problem. One of my theories as to why Faulk risks being historically shafted to some degree is that nobody seems quite sure what to make of him. We know he was great, but how great, exactly? His rushing numbers are indeed impressive, but they are topped by backs who have managed to play longer. In a way, Barry Sanders may have helped his case by retiring so early, because the fact that he only played eight years will serve as a caveat to justify his not having the numbers some of the other greats have. Fans relish their memories of Walter Payton, for whom running looked so effortless. Most people, for whom running back should be runners above all else, might prefer stallions types with an unnatural combination of length, speed and power, such as Eric Dickerson and Adrian Peterson. And, of course, there are the technical masters, who would never take a step wrong, like Tomlinson and Emmitt Smith. 

How much should we value the fact that Faulk is unquestionably the best receiving back of the modern era, or any era, for that matter? Even that last claim is bound to be contested. Some day, some stat geek born in 2002 or something will crunch the numbers and say that Ladainian Tomlinson was pretty much as a good a receiving back as Faulk. And he’ll be wrong.

Still, if we’re being honest, we must examine whether Faulk benefited from era-specific advantages. This is an especially salient question when we look at his receiving numbers. His prime took place in the last era when a linebacker lighter than 240 pounds was considered too small to play in the middle, 250-pound, 4.9-running Sam linebackers defended tight ends, and virtually all strong safeties were Kam Chancellor types who stank in coverage. Of course, Faulk was matchup hell for these guys. But what about now? It’s hard to believe he wouldn’t be the best receiving back in the league, but would he be quite the same matchup nightmare working against guys like Lavonte David, or Thomas Davis, or DeAndre Levy? Does he pull off his receiving stats from 1999  in today’s NFL? Does he even get enough snaps, given that the running back-by-committee approach is now the norm in the NFL?

They’re not invalid questions, but even if we concede all these points, there are also things in today’s NFL from which he would surely benefit. Would he not be even more of an assassin as an inside runner in today’s zone schemes? Would a lighter workload not allow him to prolong his career? Would the imports from inventive college passing attacks, such as the Air Raid, not compensate for the fact that modern NFL linebackers and safeties are closer to matching him athletically?

I would argue that he would still be a monster receiver because a) today’s linebackers and safeties might be much better athletes, but they still aren’t good enough in coverage to stay with Faulk, and b) in today’s NFL, a bright coordinator would have schemed his way into making Faulk uncoverable. If Dion Lewis can look unstoppable in the Pats’ offence, imagine how Faulk would do. Moreover, given that he was surprisingly durable in an era when front 7 players were much bigger than they are today, it’s safe to assume that lesser workloads would have prevented him from “losing a step” overnight as he did, much like Tomlinson and Eddie George, and would have allowed him to extend his career in much the same way as Emmitt Smith did. Imagine the numbers he would have posted then.

And just in case you remain unconvinced, allow me to give you the bullet-point presentation of why I rank Faulk in my Top 5 running backs of all time, and you should too:

  1. He exuded “X-factorness” (not a word, I know. Sue me.) : We have already discussed this at length, but again, this cannot be overstated. Faulk is one of those players you had to see to truly grasp just how exceptional he was. Look at Emmitt Smith or Tomlinson’s stats, and you pretty much get the picture. Not true with Faulk. He was one of those players who pushed back the limits of what we thought running backs could do. I think that counts for something.
  2. He was a complete, total, utter matchup horror show: You would have needed one of your starting cornerbacks to cover him (and even then, I can think of several stiff starting corners who wouldn’t have had a prayer of staying with him). But you couldn’t have gotten away with that because a) he never lined up in the same spot, and b) because even if you did red-dog him with a starting corner, that would have meant assigning a safety or a nickel corner to cover either Isaac Bruce or Torry Holt (translation: suicide). And while he wasn’t a physical runner, he could wiggle out of tight spaces better than anyone other than Barry Sanders. Your typical NFL linebacker is faster now than he was back then but, with moves like his, Faulk could still leave most modern backers in the dust. One more thing: as a blocker, his cerebral prowess allowed him to excel against linebackers as big as modern defensive ends. Against today’s smaller players, he’d be a world-beater as a blocker. If you want a modern comparison for the kind of mismatch nightmare he was, think Rob Gronkowski. Different athletes; same gameplanning impossibility.
  3.  He turned the moribund Rams into a Super Bowl team: While the media was having a field day signing the praises of Kurt Warner because he was the cuter story, Marshall Faulk was busy being the actual catalyst for the Rams’ turnaround. It’s not that Warner’s performance was without merit, far from it, but ask yourself the following questions: Could the Rams have won that Super Bowl and gotten to another one two years later with Trent Green at quarterback instead of Warner? Probably. Could they have done it without Faulk being the terror that he was, and creating tons of favourable matchups for Bruce and Holt? No, not a chance. 1999-2001 Faulk was, along with Randy Moss, the most dynamic offensive weapon in the NFL. Warner was an unusually smart and accurate quarterback. Deprive him of an offensive star in peak form (Faulk in St.Louis; Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona), however, and his limitations become much more apparent.
  4. Given my tendencies as a fan, I should have hated him, but I didn’t: I have a confession to make. I hate media darlings. And when the media caught on to the fact that they might have, in the ’99 Rams, an amazing Cinderella story in both Kurt Warner and the Rams in general, they couldn’t stop feeding it to us. When I was younger, that drove me even crazier than it does now. There are many players I dislike not because of anything they did, but because I couldn’t take the media marveling over them anymore. I despised Kurt Warner, and I was never too fond of Bruce and Holt. I couldn’t help but like Faulk. I was not very far advanced in my football fandom at that point, but I could tell this was a historically great player having a historically great season. And he was so magical to watch that I couldn’t help but enjoy it.

I realize no one would dare argue that Faulk is overrated, and that nobody is questioning his status as an all-time great. Still, however, I will state until I’m blue in the face that this isn’t enough. There are many names one could put on a list of the greatest running backs of all time and get an argument from no one, but you would get one from me if you were to put five names ahead of Marshall Faulk.

A refresher course on the pain of losses, big and small

Just about every single player on our team was crying. Even our most stoic players and coaches were sullen as hell with our eyes wandering around our home field, the site of a return-to-the-Bol d’Or clincher that never happened. It was as if 40 teenagers had been informed of their mother’s death all at once. It dawned upon me that, of all the things I had ever experienced in my many years of football, I hadn’t gone through this. I had never experienced a playoff loss at home against a team I knew we should have beaten. Part of me feels proud that it took me so long to find myself in this situation, and that every playoff loss I had ever endured at that point was against an admittedly better team. However, I could have done without the first time for that.

The silver lining of this lacrymose postgame is that I had very little time to dwell on my own disappointment, for I was too busy being heartbroken for our Sec. 5 players. It is a remarkable group, one that is largely responsible for the bulk of the high school football community being aware of our program’s existence; a group that took us from no playoffs to the championship game in a single year, and who were, for the most overwhelming part, a joy to coach. I know how badly most of them wanted to close their high school career with a ring, and just like that, this game is now a giant turd in the punch bowl of their legacy at the school, or at least that’s how most of them will see it.

This pains me to no end. As is the case with every game, countless factors went into determining its outcome. It was a valuable lesson to learn, and it’s a good things every player on our team learned it. I really wish, however, that it didn’t have to be like this. Perhaps some of our guys will have found that they left something on the table, and it’s important for them to learn that they shouldn’t. But, man, it remains one hell of a cruel way to teach that lesson to kids, because that’s still what they are, talented though they may be. This must be what parents feel like when their kids go through their first breakup. Sure, the kids are at least in part responsible for their own predicament. Sure, it’s a valuable lesson for them to learn. Still, however, you feel like complete and utter shit, because you hate seeing them like this and you wish you could protect them from the pain, but you can’t. You just can’t. And you only remember that this is a good thing AFTER everyone has recovered from the ordeal to some degree.

Football is a powerful emotional amplifier. You can do well for yourself in other walks of life. You can get some high out of being accepted in the CEGEP and/or university program of your dreams. You might also get thrills from doing well on exams, from graduating, etc. If you’re lucky, you might even get a job that allows you to get a strong sense of fulfillment out of the everyday accomplishment of your work.

Do any of these emotions even compare to those you experience as part of football, though? No fuckin’ way. Not a chance. I’m not exactly sure why, but I know this to be true. Maybe it’s because, of all sports, football almost certainly has the most lobsided practice-to-game, pain-to-gain ratio. Maybe it’s because the mental and physical investments are so great. Maybe it’s because so many coaches convince you that practice is shit (I try my very best not to), but when you think about it, you still found ways to enjoy some of it. Maybe it’s because you forge a bond with teammates that you couldn’t possibly have with co-workers in another context. Maybe it’s all those things; I don’t know. But I do know this: five years after my last snap as a player, I remember mere snapshots from the games themselves, and that’s more than most other former players I talk to. But the relationships, and the emotions that came with the most powerful moments, and the intensity of the whole thing, I remember it all as if it happened a minute ago. This shit brands you in ways that transcend description; you have to experience it to fully understand the power of it.

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A few days later, on Remembrance Day, I found myself alone at work, contemplating the fact that this was the 10th anniversary of my grandfather’s death. 10 years ago on that day, I was woken at roughly 6:30 AM by my mother, who told me she was going to the hospital to see him. I also remember her adding that it might be my last chance to chat with him, because all signs pointed toward the end being rather near. Groggy AS HELL, I went, but there would be no conversation. When we arrived at the hospital, he was already gone, looking as peaceful as he ever would in that damp, depressing place. Although losing a relative is never a million laughs, we had an easier time remaining serene about it, because he had a good life, and we all stood there, united as a family, as evidence of that.

For the life of me, I can’t really remember why I decided to go about the rest of my day normally, but I did. I had tutorship training and a walkthrough practice at Vieux Montréal. I couldn’t tell you a damn thing about the class or the practice, except that I found myself thinking, at some point during the class, “Am I actually here right now? Really?” I didn’t so much regret it as I had trouble wrapping my head around it. The next day, I had to join the Vieux Montréal colleagues as we faced off against F-X Garneau – as they were called back then – in the playoff semi-finals. I was dreading the predictable bad game, but everything seemed to break right for me. I’m not saying it was a “Brett Favre losing his father then casually dissolving the Raiders into atoms” kind of performance, but it seemed as though I could do very little wrong. Just to give you an idea, we lined up in a 5-man front, and F-X had the bright idea of running a toss play with their backs to their end zone on Joash Gesse’s side (not only was the guy a future pro, but ask anyone who was there: that year, he was on a fucking MISSION). He tackled the running back in the end zone, and I saw that the ball was out. So even though I figured he would be ruled down by contact, I picked up the ball just to be able to say that I played to the whistle, and jogged about two steps to the end zone. Turns out there was no whistle, and I had scored a touchdown. That’s the kind of day it was. A religious person, which I am not, might have said my grandfather blessed me from above.

His funeral was by far the most beautiful I can remember being a part of. It truly was, in every sense of the term, a celebration, although I really struggled to hold it together when one of my mother’s Atelier lyrique singers performed the Dido and Aeneas aria, “When I am laid in earth.” (Fuck you, Henry Purcell! What were you trying to pull off, composing this thing? Gets me every time. I have a reputation to maintain!!) But still, for a funeral, it was remarkably happy and upbeat. And when I wondered how I could be so upbeat myself, I started thinking back to that handful of Thursday afternoons when I would visit my grandfather at the hospital between class and football. Not only did I know he appreciated it, but I was glad I did it, knowing he was gone. It felt good to know I had actually taken advantage of the time he was still with us as much as I could have. Had I not done so, it would have been one nasty morality tale for me.

The last time I had lost a close relative, I was just a few months under the age of five, too young to fully understand what it meant. Given that it had been so long, I had no earthly idea how I would cope with such an event given my full awareness of what was going on. I figured I would not allow myself to be my usual emotionally-handicapped self and stay away from my grandfather in his last days out of fear of not knowing what to say, or whatever other shit. It remains to this day one of the best decisions I have ever made, because I can honestly say that I have no regrets over how I handled his last few weeks.

There are some lessons you learn by taking them on the proverbial chin, and others you don’t. Sometimes, you actually have a choice, provided you’re aware enough to realize that you have it. I’m lucky I understood what was at stake, and made sure I avoided having to live with that regret. Because the shitty thing about regret, and the reason it’s so important to leave no room for it, is that it’s the unpleasant lesson you never stop learning, that you never stop taking on the chin.

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And that’s what, thinking back to both our premature elimination and the 10th anniversary of my grandfather’s death, really struck me: similar kind of sadness, different reason. Don’t get offended by my daring to make such a parallel. As I’ve told you, football is an emotional amplifier. Only a person who’s never allowed themselves to truly care about the sports they practice would fail to understand how, on the spot, the two might be similarly painful. It’s not “important” in the “grand scheme of things”… but it kind of is. Football, like all sport, is a metaphor for life. You win, you lose, you laugh, you cry, you fight, you reconcile, you scratch and bite and crawl, but most importantly, you care.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Then, you have the good stuff underneath, which in other words is everything you share with teammates: the superstitions; the preparation; the shared down time in the locker room spent talking about who knows what (probably women); the moment when you allow yourselves to believe your school, of all the ones in contention, might take home the title; and yes, the suffering when it doesn’t work out. When that last one happens, to call it a figurative stomach punch doesn’t quite begin to cover it, especially when there’s regret involved. That’s why I dare compare the feeling of losing a relative to what happened to us on the football field last week. Of course, the pain of a season-ending loss will subside quicker than the pain of losing a loved one, as it should but, in the immediate aftermath of that kind of defeat, the way in which emotion overwhelms you is eerily similar.

For parents who might not have played sports, or just played them “for fun,” and therefore might not have the reflex of drawing a comparison with some of the very worst shocks of their lives, I can only imagine how unsettling it must have been for them to see their sons so devastated. That’s why the overwhelming postgame downpour of emotion forced me to stop mourning the loss and start just being there for these kids. Their parents might not fully grasp how it’s possible for their sons to react to a loss much like they would if their wives died in childbirth. However willing they are to be there for them, they may not completely understand what their sons are going through. And that’s the thing about being a former player and a coach. I do.

 

 

20 minutes to write why I’m voting to fire Stephen Harper

In what is unquestionably his friendliest and least puerile campaign ad, Stephen Harper says that today’s election is not about him. It is, for my money, a good ad. If the Tories’ ads all felt as mature as this one, many Canadians would probably feel rather differently about the Prime Minister. The problem, of course, is that when Mr. Harper says this election is not about him, he’s dead wrong. It is most definitely about him, and if he finds himself genuinely bemoaning this, he only has himself to blame.

In general, people become overly emotional when discussing politics. Adversaries are confused with enemies; people of the other viewpoint are not simply wrong, they are dangerous. Usually, it is a mistake to think like this. The Globe & Mail’s John Ibbitson, a man who is, to put it mildly, far less critical of Harper than most, lamented the fact that we often see things this way.

As much as I agree with Ibbitson on principle, I disagree with him that to think of Harper in such extreme terms is a mistake. There is next to nothing about Harper that isn’t extreme. Yes, I do look at him as an enemy. Yes, I do think he’s dangerous. I do not think of him this way because he is a conservative. Conservatives can hold whatever views they like, for all I care. The problem with Harper, as it has been put so eloquently by many others, is not the ideas he defends; it’s his modus operandi when it comes to defending them.

There is nothing problematic with being an adversary of the left. If your agenda involves lowering taxes for the wealthy and for big business, if you want to eliminate barriers to the expansion of Alberta’s oil business or buy F-35s that are almost assuredly more expensive than the price you claim to have paid for them… Hell, if you want to eliminate the gun registry or reduce the length of the census, as far as I’m concerned, I’ll be sure not to vote for you, but that’ll be it. If that was all I could criticize about Harper, I wouldn’t look at him as a danger or as an enemy.

Our political system breeds people such as Mr. Harper as much as it attracts them. If and when we vote him out, it’s completely possible that the only change we’ll be getting is a new face and name at the head of our government. But when you…

  1. Cut the CBC’s funding, then pretend you haven’t actually cut it and then, when that bullshit idea gets blown up by the first journalist with half an analytical brain, you have the gall to say the problem with the CBC isn’t the cuts, it’s ratings;
  2. Cut or even quit funding government organizations and NGOs because you feel their findings might expose some of your economic policies as misguided;
  3. Cut funding to the arts because you cynically calculate that artists and the people who support them are unlikely to vote for you anyway;
  4. Prorogue the Canadian Parliament several times in order to dodge policy questions;
  5. Make it harder for journalists to do their job, which you know all too well is to hold you accountable, than any Canadian Prime Minister in modern history;
  6. Eliminate nearly all forms of environmental policy, and then pretend you’ve done the opposite;
  7. Base your criminal law reforms not on evidence, but on the kind of dogma that would be found in the hypothetical “Reactionary’s guide to politics” ;
  8. Use the aforementioned dogma to justify keeping a Canadian citizen locked up in Guantanamo;
  9. Make a mockery out the relationship between the legislative/executive branches of government and the judiciary as well as go out of your way to publicly ridicule the country’s Chief Justice.
  10. Pull a page out of the PQ’s book and bring up the stupid fuckin’ niqab as a so-called issue to boost your poll numbers;
  11. Use Karl-Rovian wedge politics at every possible turn to further polarize the Canadian electorate;
  12. Muzzle your own MPs and prevent them, through your all-powerful office, from answering questions and taking part in TV debates;
  13. Globally, generally, and continuously insult the electorate’s intelligence;
  14. Much, much more.

When you do all that, you are not merely an adversary of the left. You are an enemy of democracy. He who views democracy as a necessary evil is merely lucid, but he who treats it as a nuisance is a menace. For nearly 10 years, Mr. Harper has treated the democratic institutions of Canada as mere obstacles to be surmounted. This, and not because he is a right-wing ideologue, is the reason why he has to go.

Soccer thoughts: FIFA, Barcelona, and Canada’s first game at the Women’s World Cup

Many of my sportwatching days are spent pondering just how much there is wrong wth the NCAA and the NFL. However, for Roger Goodell (NFL’s head honcho) and Mark Emmert (NCAA’s head honcho), looking at FIFA and its legion of corrupt bureaucrats must be as comforting as it is for a slightly overweight person to go to an all-you-can-eat buffet: no matter how overweight you are, in one of those places, there will always be a fellow customer who outweighs you by at least 150 pounds. Well, in much the same way overweight people have all-you-can-eat buffets, Goodell and Emmert have FIFA and its former president Sepp Blatter, a man who makes them look like the NBA’s Adam Silver, and Adam Silver look like Nelson Mandela.

Blatter had to step away from his presidency a mere four days after his reelection, a perfect illustration of the saying that the night is always darkest before dawn. I, for one, was starting to wonder if he’d stay on and live until the age of 140 just to watch his detractors spew in a kettle of their own bile. In the end, of all the things that could have happened, it was an investigation by the FBI that sounded the end for the Swiss. The irony is delicious: as the comic John Oliver pointed out, it took the nation that gives the least bit of a shit about football to accomplish the one thing soccer fans were starting to think would never happen.

These next few months will be a revenge best served cold for fans, as the rats who took part in FIFA systemic corruption will start turning on each other just to get better deals when the authorities come asking questions. Already we have seen that the man who gave the FBI tangible information on Blatter and co. was Chuck Blazer, until recently FIFA’s most important American member. After it was revealed that then-FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke accepted a $10 million bribe as part of bidding for the horror show of a tournament that ended up being the 2010 World Cup, a leaked email confirmed what many suspected: Blatter himself was aware of the bribe (though it is argued, rather nonsensically, that this does not constitute involvement). And this weak, uber-crook and former head of CONCACAF Jack Warner promised heaps of evidence to bury Blatter and his friends.

Of course, this leaves us with more questions than answers, namely the prospective identity of Blatter’s replacement: UEFA’s Michel Platini comes to mind. Once pegged as Blatter’s eventual replacement, Platini is believed by many to have soured on the Swiss when he changed his mind about stepping aside for this year’s election. And when word of the FBI’s investigation got out, Platini was suddenly very swift in declaring that Blatter was bad for FIFA’s image.

Few would question Platini’s “qualifications” for the job, although voters would be wise to question if experience within FIFA governance is really such a good thing under the circumstances. Platini would be a new man in charge, sure, but exactly how much change would he bring about? Does electing him not constitute a risk of carrying on with the status quo? And if the new boss was someone newer, how would he deal with the many people who have no interest in seeing FIFA cleaned up?

Because let us make no mistake about it: if everyone involved with FIFA believed, as most Western soccer fans do, that Blatter was a nuisance and a force for all things bad in the sport, he would have been out of a job long ago. Blatter got to stay in charge because as wacky an orator and as much of a crook as he is, the Swiss is also a remarkable politician. His ability to build lasting strategic alliances with people who perhaps were not so concerned with corruption was second to none, and his replacement, whoever he is, will have to deal with Blatter’s allies. I would not trade places with this person for all the cannelloni in Italy.

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Barcelona wrapped their amazing treble season with a 3-1 win over Juventus in the Champions’ League final in Berlin to go along with the Copa Del Rey (highlighted by Lionel Messi’s second stupidly amazing goal in less than a month) and the league title. It is possible to become a little blasé about Barcelona’s recent sustained success (just ask all of England), but while the Catalans had pulled off a treble before, what amazed me about this year’s accomplishment is the way in which they did it.

In 2009, when Pep Guardiola took over FCB’s then-profoundly dysfunctional team, he lost his first game in charge against newly-promoted side Numancia, whose entire yearly wage bill was inferior to Lionel Messi’s yearly salary. But then, they morphed into a juggernaut and never really looked back, capping off their magical season with two emphatic wins: the first an 6-2 obliteration of Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu, the second a comfortable victory against Manchester United in the Champions’ League final. At no point in the latter match did anyone think United had a chance. This was also the year when Messi officially took over alpha dog status at Barcelona from the departed Ronaldinho, though the Argentine had hinted at it the year before when Dinho was giving greater effort in the clubs than on the pitch.

This time, though, Barcelona could not have established their dominance in a more progressive manner. You would have been hard-pressed, at the Christmas break, to find a Spanish soccer fan who didn’t think Real Madrid were the league’s dominant team. The league title looked well in hand for Los Blancos, and a repeat victory in the Champions League. But as the injuries mounted for Madrid and the imbalance of their team started to show in the results’ column, Barcelona took the lead, never to surrender it again. But even when that happened, there was still something unconvincing about them. It was a side that, as many commentators noticed, didn’t show the dominance to which the Blaugrana had accustomed us in the recent past. The difference wound up being a positional change.

Since the departure of Samuel Eto’o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Lionel Messi had settled into the role of “false nine,” which helped him amass the goal-scoring record we all know. Coach Luis Enrique, perhaps feeling his setup was not taking full advantage of the newly-acquired Luis Suarez, made a bold decision. He switched Messi back to the right wing, a position Messi played with devastating effectiveness in 2009, and moved Suarez to his more natural position of striker. The impact was instantaneous. The trio of Messi, Suarez and Neymar found another gear and combined for over 100 goals on the season. Unless all three show up on game day hung over, I can’t think of the tactical disposition that would allow a team to effectively defend all three.

People immediately began asking whether this Barcelona side was the greatest ever. For my money, the 2009 team still takes the cake. (The starting lineup: a front three of Eto’o at striker, Messi and Thierry Henry on his last great season manning the wings (unfair); a midfield three of Xavi and Iniesta in their prime plus Yaya Touré (Holy Shit !!!); a back four featuring Dani Alves having the greatest season of his career, Puyol still in playing shape, an emerging Piqué and a healthy Eric Abidal (wicked); Victor Valdez in his prime as the goalie.) The fact remains, however, that the 2014-15 front three might just be the most spectacular collection of attacking talent ever put together, and unless the defence completely falls apart, the front three should suffice to guarantee Barcelona continued excellence in the coming years.

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The Women’s World Cup has now begun. Canada squeezed a tight win against a China team that can park the bus like nobody’s business. Anybody can park the bus, but China combined this defensive tactic with a terrific pressing game that forced the Canadians to make very quick decisions with the ball, a task which Sinclair and co. rarely performed with the required effectiveness. By the second half, it looked as though Canada had given up altogether and decided to resort to punting the ball to its outnumbered forwards. You’re not going to win 4-0 against a team defending like this, but it is possible to create gaps by combining effective wing play with a quick, precision passing game.

For most of the game, Canada displayed neither. In fact, they could have conceded twice due to the appallingly atrocious passing of their back four. It was a shame too, because China showed no interest in creating anything on the offensive end, and did not deserve any kind of opportunity to put the ball in the back of the net.

It must be noted, however, that this Kadeisha Buchanan is going to be some player. At only 19, and still a student at West Virginia, she shut down any Chinese attacker who came her way with the ball with impressive athleticism and superior technique. Surely, Buchanan will be tested to a greater degree by New Zealand and the Netherlands, but Canada appears to have found the building block of its defence for years to come.

In the end, Canada’s goal came on a penalty from a call that some might call soft, but I would say was legitimate nonetheless. You can get away with some body-to-body contact (insert your inappropriate joke here) in the box, but an armbar such as the one the Chinese defender used on the Canadian attacker Leon will get much less leeway from the referee. Be that as it may, Canada will have to play much better, especially in the passing game, if they wish to have the kind of tournament the locals are hoping for.

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