Friday, January 15, 2010

Sticking In My Craw

LenDale White goes into the end-zone for one of his three touchdowns against Texas in the BCS championship game following the 2005 season. He finished with 124 yards on 20 carries.

I have to get this out of my system.

From Bill Plaschke's column in the LA Times on Wednesday, the day after Lane Kiffin was named Pete Carroll's replacement as head coach at USC:

"A program that thrives on the big play just hitched its future to a guy who was holding the controls during this team's worst play in many years.

"It was the Rose Bowl after the 2005 season, the Trojans needed one first down to clinch the win and national title against Texas, it was forth and two, remember?

"USC called a running play with LenDale White plowing straight ahead while Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush incredibly watched from the sidelines. White was stopped, Texas took the ball and eventually a game, the dynasty's downfall began.

"The offensive coordinator for that play? Your new USC head coach, Lane Kiffin.

"What was Mike Garrett thinking?"

And then, from Friday's edition, by Chris Foster and Gary Klein, in regards to offensive coordinator Norm Chow's decision to remain at UCLA rather than return to USC:

"...USC fans have been slow to forget that it was Kiffin who was calling plays when the Trojans failed to convert a fourth-quarter, fourth-and-two running play in the Bowl Championship Series title game against Texas in January 2006.

"Bush was standing on the sideline when tailback LenDale White was stopped short of the first down."


This line of thinking always irritated me, for the sheer stupidity of it, but this week it's really gotten to me, to the point that I'm about to snap. If you know anything about USC football from 2003-2005, you know that LenDale White was the short-yardage and goal-line back for the Trojans. Reggie Bush was one of the best college football players of all-time, but White was SC's hammer, and with good reason: At 6-1 and 235 lbs, White was your prototype big back, and he was damned good. In fact, he was great. At the University known as Tailback U, White holds the record for most rushing touchdowns with 52. In only three years of play, mind you. He also finished with 3,159 yards and a 5.9 yards per carry average. In 2005, Bush's Heisman-winning season, White rushed for 1,302 yards and 24 touchdowns!

And a lot of those touchdowns were a result of White's size and his skill around the goal-line area, where he served as Mr. Reliable in the greatest offense in college football history. Similarly, in short yardage situations - like, say, fourth-and-2 - White was SC's go-to-guy. The thing is, I thought everyone knew this. When Bush was drafted the experts said he wouldn't be an every down back. He wasn't at USC. He's just not a big guy: 6'0", 200 lbs and that's probably being generous. Why would he be the short yardage back over someone as big and good as White - who only fulfilled the same role with the Titans two years ago, scoring fifteen touchdowns on the ground as the thunder to Chris Johnson's lighting. In fact, in college White and Bush were even nicknamed "Thunder and Lightning." Again, I thought this was understood.

I guess not. And the worst part is, in this instance we're talking about local people who are still criticizing the call! It's one thing for people not as familiar with the situation to be critical (although they are not excused either; if they're going to speak about it they should know their stuff); it's another for the people who are actually from Los Angeles and followed the team and know better.

People like, um, Plaschke and USC fans. Yeah.

Are you really going to second guess the call just because it failed, when it worked so many times in the past? When they won 34 straight games with the same exact strategy? C'mon son. If USC was going to go for it there (another decision that is oft criticized but should have been just as anticipated, considering that SC always went for it in those situations; the confidence in the offense was the most high, and rightfully so), White was the guy who was going to get the ball. The calling of his number should have only been expected.

So, please, for my sake, stop being so idiotic. You're killing me.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Not Enough Time

In nine seasons at USC, Pete Carroll amassed a record of 97-19 (.836) and won 2 national championships.

When I heard Friday morning that the Seattle Seahawks had fired Jim Mora, my reaction, like everyone else's, was "Hmmmmmmm...that's odd." Afterall, Mora had been handpicked as Mike Holmgren's successor in Seattle and had only been at the helm for one year. Little did I know that, later in the day, it would become evident that it was part of Seattle's scheme to make one of my worst sporting nightmares a reality.

Pete Carroll held a goodbye press conference from Heritage Hall Monday afternoon, formally announcing that he was stepping down as head football coach of the USC Trojans to take over the same position with the Seahawks, and recapping the nine years of great success and great times he enjoyed while at the school.

Great times and great fun times they indeed were, for an entire city, and they're over far too soon.

An arrow was officially pierced through the heart of Los Angeles today, and it's not a Cupid's arrow, because there is nothing at all for this town's football fans to love about this scenario (except for the ones who chant for U-C-L-A).

To call what Carroll rebuilt here at USC a "powerhouse" would be to understate just how dominant the Trojans were in his tenure. Carroll built a dynasty, a machine, leading USC on one of the most jawdropping runs of excellence in the history of college football. After going 6-6 in his first year here in 2001, Carroll's Trojans went 82-9 over the next seven years, winning back-to-back national titles in 2003 (splitting with LSU when the AP voted USC as their season-ending #1) and 2004 and seven consecutive Pac-10 titles. They went 6-1 in BCS Bowl games and produced three Heisman trophy winners. In the 2005 BCS title game versus Texas, they came one epic Vince Young performance away from becoming the first college football team ever to win three straight national titles. In all that time, they did not win fewer than 11 games, and most mind-boggling of all, they lost no games by more than six points. In his first eight seasons at the helm, they lost one game by double-digits: to Notre Dame by 11 in 2001.

It's a sign of the standard of success that was created that USC went 9-4 and won a bowl game this year and the season was considered a catastrophe. They failed to win the conference and suffered two blowout defeats, to Oregon and Stanford. You figured they would get back in the BCS picture, but those big losses made it seem like the end of an era. Could they ever regain the same mystique and swagger?

An era is over in more ways than one now, with Carroll, the face of the school and an icon in the city, out the door, and who knows what about to possibly enter. The timing of his departure seems suspicious. It's cold in Seattle, and while Carroll denies that his decision to leave now was influenced by ongoing NCAA investigations into the Reggie Bush and Joe McKnight scandals...well, if NCAA sanctions are indeed leveled upon the football program, I can envision Trojan Country not being too happy with their beloved Pete.

But even if he's just trying to beat the tidal wave, I really don't care; I have already chosen to remember all of the good things, all of the fun Carroll recounted at the presser. The team was so influential in the city. No NFL team? No problem. Outside of New England, no city, college or pro, got more joy or cherished moments out of their football team. When Kobe fell from grace and the Lakers fell into mediocrity, it was Matt Leinart who became the city's most popular athlete and the Trojans who became its most popular team. Those Leinart-Bush teams, 2005 especially, transcended college football and became a real Hollywood team, not much un-like the Lakers during the Shaquille O'Neal-Bryant days. And if Leinart and Bush were Shaq and Kobe, then Carroll was Phil Jackson, made for it all. It wouldn't have been the same without him, or been possible. He was huge in the community, too, trying to inspire the troubled young men in this city, taking late night van rides to dangerous neighborhoods and giving pep talks to guys who needed them. He says he will continue his work in the community here, which offers some solace.

It was wishful thinking to believe he would stay here forever; Trojans fans didn't want to believe it, but it was really only a matter of time before he went back to the NFL. He's flirted with multiple pro teams over the past several years and conventional wisdom has always said that he would return. His mantra here was "always compete," and the man is a fierce competitor. His stay in the NFL is often misrepresented as a complete failure, when in actuality he compiled a respectable record of 33-31 with the Patriots and Jets. But it has never been a secret that Carroll was not satisfied with his work there, and was interested in another shot.

"If you know anything about me, you know I can't pass up this challenge," he said Monday.

But he was such a natural fit in the city, so synonymous with the school - in my dreams Carroll was supposed to grow old at USC, like Paterno did in Happy Valley and Bowden did in Tallahassee. There were more games to be won for Carroll at USC, more fun to be had.

But it was always a dream, and for Pete the time was right. He thanked everyone who supported the program during his final press conference at the school Monday. On behalf of everyone he thanked, I'd like to thank him, too.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Dwight Howard Is No Superman

Dwight Howard is a great player. Having just recently turned 24, in his sixth year out of high school, he has already been named All-NBA three times (first team twice, third team once), All-defense twice (once each first and second team), won a Defensive Player of the Year award and been the centerpiece of a team that went to the Finals. In the past two seasons his team won 52 and 59 games, and so far this season they are 24-10. Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy has devised this killer inside-outside offense in which Howard is the key. Orlando surrounds him with four shooters, and is able to survive playing only one non-perimeter player because Howard can handle all of the rebounding and shot-blocking responsibilities by his lonesome. Anyway you look at it, he is one of the league's most valuable players, a true franchise guy, one of the top three guys in the league that you would most like to build your team around.

But the thing is, they call him the league's new Superman. We all know who the original was, and I'm here to tell you all that, Dwight Howard, my friends, is no Superman. He's simply not worthy of the title, at least not yet. Howard can rebound and block shots with anyone in the past 10 years - in particular I think he is the best natural rebounder since Dennis Rodman. But as far as being a dominant offensive force, as Shaquille O'Neal was in his heyday and as Howard should be to truly earn such a nickname, Howard is far from it and I'm starting to doubt that he ever will be.

Through five seasons, Howard has never averaged more than 20.7 points per 36 minutes, and (through Monday) this year is averaging only 17.5 - that's his lowest average in that department since his second year. By comparison, Shaq averaged 22.2 as a 20-year-old rookie - followed 26.5 at 21, 28.5 at 22 and 26.5 at 23. An excuse is often made that Howard doesn't get enough touches, that his teammates don't pass him the ball enough. There is certainly an argument to be made for this - per 36 minutes, Howard has never taken more than 12.5 shots a game, and this year he's taking only 9.3, his lowest since his rookie year. Recently on TNT, Chris Webber made the point about Howard's lack of touches, and when Kenny Smith countered by pointing out Howard's deficit of post moves Webber replied that young Shaq didn't have many post moves, either, and still managed to get his touches. This is true, also.

I think the difference is two things. For one, Shaq was the kind of overpowering force that Howard is not. For all of the comparisons, we must remember that Howard is listed as two inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than Shaq has been listed at in any point in his professional career. At 6'11" Howard is written down at 265, at 7'1" O'Neal never less than 305. He is clearly outsized by Shaq, and is no bigger than the size of man Shaq ate for breakfast and got remnants of stuck between his teeth during his prime. Granted Shaq did that to everybody, to men bigger than Howard (see Sabonis, Arvydas), but still.

Of course with that being said, Howard is the most physically impressive and overpowering force in the game today. He is not at the level of O'Neal, but he is the closest thing we have - I concede that. He is a man amongst boys, and people tackle, er, foul Howard to prevent him easy layups and dunks in the same way they did to Shaq in his prime. But - here comes difference number two - Howard lacks the personality of a dominant offensive player. Something tells me if he really wanted that ball, I mean if he really wanted it, if he had that gene that great big men scorers have, he would be getting it. He might say he wants it, but men like O'Neal demand it. Their games insists upon it, and their personalities do, too.

Howard reminds me of Kevin Garnett. Like Garnett, Howard is a dominant rebounder and defender but not a naturally dominant offensive player. In Garnett's case the skills were there, but as with Howard not the mindset. Garnett was always somewhat reluctant as Minnesota's top offensive threat. He always would have been better off in the situation he's found himself in in Boston, with other, more natural scorers around to equally share the load (and carry the crunch-time responsibilities). He doesn't have to worry about being The Man there, not in the traditional sense; he can focus first on being the complete, all-around menace that he is and think about scoring second. This was the key to Boston's title run two years ago - finally Garnett was put in a situation that best suited his immense talents. And while the Big Three shared the credit (and rightfully so), it was Garnett who was most pivotal to the Celtics' success.

I wonder if Howard is the same way, if maybe we need to reconsider how we think he should be used. Maybe he will peak as an S-class (Shoefly lingo) big man who gets 18-20 points a game rather than 25-30, but protects the rim and rebounds like no other and still wins multiple championships, the modern day Bill Russell rather than the second coming of Shaq. No one would complain about that scenario taking place; in fact I'd rather see the next Russell than the next Shaq, because there hasn't been anyone like Russ since Russ, and Russ retired 40 years ago.

As an offensive player, David Robinson was further along at this stage in his career than Howard is in his. Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon were, too, albeit by lesser margins. I can honestly say that, best case scenario, I don't ever see Howard averaging more than about 23 points a game. But whatever happens in the future, and whether or not we need to recalibrate our expectations for Howard, for right now the least we need to do is put a moratorium on calling him Superman. I suppose it really doesn't matter, but technically it is inaccurate to call him that.

And if the nickname doesn't fit, we must quit.