Monday, November 17, 2008

Titans Being Treated Like No Big Deal

Why no love for the Titans of Tennessee?

They have the league's second best head coach. They have the league's best rushing attack. They have league's finest defense.

They have not lost a game.

And yet, no one seems to be seriously considering the increasing possibility that they may go 16-0. Actually, there is a reason for this. Actually, there are two reasons for this:

1) Nobody looks at them as the type of team that could go an entire regular season without losing, and

2) Nobody cares.

The Patriots were, what, 2-0 when people started wondering if they could win them all? 3-0?

But of course, that was different. The Patriots had the championship pedigree, and the previous year had lost the AFC Championship game late in the fourth quarter, after blowing a 21-3 first half lead.

Now they had added Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth, and Adelius Thomas to the mix, giving them undoubtedly the most loaded team of the salary cap era. This was a team with top-notch professionals on both sides of the ball, Pro Bowl and All-Pro-caliber talent at every level of the defense, and the highest-scoring, most jawdropping offense of all-time. They were impeccably well-coached, led by the legendary Bill Belichick and (as always) the best group of assistants you'll find in any sport, plus they were pissed off, and thus were just crushing people, with no restraint. They may have lost the Super Bowl, but seriously, folks, they were the best NFL team ever.

The Titans, on the other hand, are probably the least talented 10-0 team in the history of the league. Their quarterback is 35, and although he did signal-call the Giants to the Super Bowl in 2000, he's never really been that good. They do not have good receivers. They have a stellar two-man running game - rookie STUD Chris Johnson and touchdown machine Lendale White - but neither one them are really brand-namers.

Their defense features the dominant defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and the past-his-prime Jevon Kearse, but other than those two and maybe Keith Bulloch, they are a composition of nobodies.

Which means their greatest strength, truth be told, is their coach, Jeff Fisher, who I like to call the game's best "manufacturer." You wouldn't look at last year's Tennessee roster and think 10-6, nor would you look at the 2006 roster and think 8-8, anymore than you would look the current personnel and think 10-0 after Week 11.

But Fisher has come to excel at "manufacturing" wins, at producing enough points each week to earn a victory more often than a loss. On a consistent, Sunday-to-Sunday basis, nobody does more coaching, or gets more out of his teams, than Jeff Fisher.

The Titans are a smart, efficient, whole-greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts club that palys exceptionally hard and literally maxes out it's potential. But they do not inspire awe, or fear, like the '07 Patriots did, either on paper or on the field.

The bottom line, though, is that they have won every game that they have played this year, which as we all know is all that matters. They're more than half-way to 16-0, a mark that we know from very recent history is attainable.

Which brings us to our second problem:

We've already seen the unbeaten thing before. In fact, we've just seen it.

Maybe it's just me, but the general mood prevailing throughout the NFL atmosphere is that in the wake of last season's Patriots, people (fans and media) aren't as interested in witnessing a team finish 16-0, and will not make a big deal out of it if it happens. It would be extremely impressive and praiseworthy, a supreme accomplishment, and more shocking than when the Patriots did it.

But I doubt if it would get the same attention, or the same reaction. The thing that made New England's quest so intriguing was that the closer they got it felt like history in the making, and there's nothing we enjoy more than the opportunity to witness something take place that has never happened before. And even though the Dolphins ended their regular season 14-0 (and of course they would go on to finish 17-0) in 1972, it took place so long ago that it almost feels like it belongs to an entirely different time-frame; no one under the age of 30 remembers it.

So when the Patriots were chasing it, the entire journey was novel. It no longer is.

Anyways, regardless of all this, the fact remains that all we have seen the Titans do thus far this season is win. Why couldn't they run the table? They absolutely could. We may not believe, or care, but if they do, we will have no choice but to respect.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Completely Random and Inexplicable Rick Fox Tribute

The term "role player" is used so often in NBA discussions that it has become trite. Being a Lakers fan, I know the phrase very well: if you were watching basketball at the beginning of this century, you couldn't help but know that the Phil Jackson-led Lakers featured two superstars...and a bunch of role players. It was Shaq and Kobe...and a bunch of role players. That was the way the supporting cast was identified. And with respect to Ron Harper, Brian Shaw, and Devean George (and Mike Penberthy, if you're nasty), the three chief representatives for this group were "Big Shot" Robert Horry, Derek Fisher, and Rick Fox.

Horry's clutch shooting exploits are extremely well-documented, and Fisher hit the famous "0.4" shot against the Spurs in the 2004 playoffs, made the emotional, right-out-of-a-movie arrival to the playoff game against the Warriors two years with Utah after tending to his ailing daughter the same day, and is respected for his cool head, experience, and on-court leadership.

But Foxy? He was once married to Vanessa L. Williams, he's a renowned actor (okay, just actor) who had a small role in "He Got Game," he got in a fight during a preseason game with Doug Christie, and he was "pretty" (he once grew his curly hair long and wore it in a pony tail).

But he never got enough recognition as a player, even for one who's job was to merely fulfill a role. This always bothered me, because Foxy was the quintessential role player, and he helped my favorite team win three championships. I love the guy.

Defensively, Foxy was one of the better small forwards in the league, as evidenced by the way he shut down Peja Stojakovic in the 2001 Western Conference Semifinals. Offensively, he was a good outside shooter and passer, someone who Phil Jackson praised in "The Last Season" for his ability to make the entry pass to Shaq, a smart player who never made a boneheaded play and always played within himself. In Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals against the Kings, he had 13 points, 14 rebounds, and 7 assists. With a potential three-peat hanging in the balance, he stood taller than ever, rising to the occasion along with Diesel, Mamba, Big Shot, and Fish in helping us get back to the Finals.

Foxy won three championships, and every title team has a Rick Fox on it, or someone like him. Two of the last three featured James Posey, defensive ace, clutch three-point shooter, King of All the Little Things. The current player that reminds me most of Foxy is Shane Battier. The Lakers mollywhopped the Rockets at the Staples Center Sunday night, with Battier relegated to the sidelines with an ankle injury that will keep him out of action for at least another month. If these Rockets are to ever win a championship, you can be sure that Battier will have something to do with it, wholeheartedly throwing himself into the team concept, selflessly assuming the Fox role.

Eight years ago, in explaining that the defending champion Lakers were still the team to beat, SLAM Magazine wrote in their NBA preview "I don't care if Shaq and Kobe are surrounded by 10 Rick Fox clones." This was meant as a diss, but to me it reflected Fox's status as the prototype role player, which as far as I am concerned isn't a bad thing.

Aside from an acting gig on the CW network's "The Game" series, Foxy is now serving as an analyst for Lakers home game coverage on Fox Sports Net. He is pretty good. But he was also a good basketball player. I don't know why I felt compelled to tell you all this, but I have for a while now, and I'm glad I did.