December 30, 2010

What will become of Michael Vick?

Conservative pundit Tucker Carlson made headlines this week by claiming that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick "should have been executed" for maliciously murdering canines while running a dog-fighting ring.

Naturally, this drew a lot of uproar, and the bow-tie wearing buffoon has been appropriately castigated for his outrageous statement. But the incident, much like Nils Lofgren's equally pointless ESPN.com piece, should remind us all that Michael Vick, or "Michael Vick," has become something far beyond a human being.

To journalists, columnists, bloggers and political analysts, he's a talking point; a living, breathing cultural and moral debate waiting to re-explode at any second. To sports fans and sportswriters, he's an amazingly exciting quarterback, a once-and-future millionaire, an can't-miss athlete, a superstar-turned-felon-turned-superstar that sells newspapers and drives up ratings. Right now, he's more entity than man.

Countless eyes are on him, more than maybe any athlete ever. Supporters of rehabilitation are flocking to him as their poster boy. A eclectic collection of racists, dog lovers and hard-line reactionaries want nothing more than to see him fall. And if the Eagles make it to the Super Bowl, expect this all to be amplified tenfold.

I don't know if Michael Vick will continue his trend of good behavior. I like to think that he's matured and learned his lesson, that he values the love of his family, freedom, financial success and the adoration of millions of sports fans enough to avoid any future risky situations. But as time goes by, even for Michael Vick fans like myself, it's fair to wonder.

Several people, including Ray Didinger and my father, have noted that when Vick has faced adversity in the last few games, he's reverted back to his Falcons-era ways. Running and gunning, forcing passes, not looking at all like the quarterback that's revitalized the Eagles and the city. He's looked a lot like the free-wheeling Vick that got in so much trouble.

Can you analyze Vick's response to on-the-field struggles and compare that to how he'll deal with any real-life issues? Maybe. Then again, he was the sole catalyst behind the team's triumphant comeback in New York, and he might have done it again in Minnesota if not for a quad contusion. Maybe his frustrations are totally justified; maybe I'm reading too much into this. Like I said, I love and believe in Michael Vick. I think, so far, he's done everything possible to turn over a new leaf and reinvent himself as a new man.

But to respond to your proclamation, Tucker Carlson, we should not end Michael Vick's life for killing dogs. Nor should we end Donté Stallworth's or Leonard Little's for killing actual human beings. People deserve second chances, and Vick's made great strides in capitalizing on his.

And if he survives whatever happens in the playoffs, good or bad, maybe he'll start to quiet all this insane talk. Maybe he'll finally return to being just another athlete, one of a few dozen professional quarterbacks trying to win a championship. Living in the limelight, sure, but a much more limited set of pressures. For his sake, I hope that's the case.

December 29, 2010

The ante has been upped.

Whether the Philadelphia Eagles like it or not, they've upped the ante for 2010.

A few months ago, when Kevin Kolb's continued maturity was the season's main selling point, 8-8 would have been acceptable. LeSean McCoy was a question mark. The defense was relatively unknown. It was a young team that had a good chance of maturing into a championship contender over the next few years.

Five Pro Bowlers, one MVP-caliber quarterback and one Coach of the Year candidate later, that's no longer acceptable.

The talent is there, the ability is there. We've seen them win big games, we've seen them win close games, we've seen them win good games. A healthy, competitive Eagles team could, and should, compete for a Super Bowl. But they're not healthy, and minus the mind-exploding quarter in New York, they haven't been very competitive. So now is the time for the Eagles to decide how they want the season to end.

On my way home tonight, a radio caller mentioned that this time, we can't blame Donovan McNabb. It's been interesting to note the improvements in the two-minute drill, the comeback offense, the way they've finished out close wins with a bang. That wasn't what we'd come to expect with McNabb under center, especially near the end of his Eagles career, and it provided hope for the future.

But those October and November flashes of brilliance won't matter once January rolls around. As always, we'll lose all interest in regular season wins, Pro Bowl nominations, record-setting offenses and award ceremonies. Hell, even one or two playoff victories won't cut it. McNabb-led teams have been there, done that.

The bar has been returned to where it once was; nothing but a championship is acceptable. Granted, this is a young team; they could win next year, or the year after that, if these young players continue to gel. But the NFL might not be this wide open in 2011 and 2012. The New England Patriots are the prohibitive favorites, but they aren't the 2004 Patriots. Nor are they the 2007 Patriots.

Overall, it's a very lackluster league, shades of the 2002 season that produced a Tampa Bay/Oakland Super Bowl. Had the Eagles beaten Tampa in the NFC Championship Game, that one would have been theirs. This one might be just as within reach.

So what's derailing the Eagles' chances? Bad playcalling, weak defense, fatigue, inexperience, regression to the mean -- call it whatever you want. But it's inexcusable to lose to the Minnesota Vikings, and there's no reason they shouldn't compete with the Chicago Bears or Green Bay Packers come playoff time.

When Dallas comes to town on Sunday, the Eagles need to sit Michael Vick, sit DeSean Jackson, sit Asante Samuel, sit anyone that's good. Rest everyone up and take your shot at the Packers or the Giants in the first round. This will be your bye week; hopefully it's enough. It's been a great ride, but we've all seen those before. Fix what's ailing you and ride Vick to glory; you might not get another chance that's this good.

December 21, 2010

I don't wanna miss a thing.

Roughly two weeks ago, I realized my (very early) bus ride back to Philadelphia for Christmas directly clashed with the Eagles/Giants game, a match-up that would ostensibly decide the NFC East champion.

This, obviously, was not good. Unfortunately, due to time constraints (and the fact that I was traveling with Queen Myno), changing to another bus wasn't an option. Luckily, I have a generous (and handsome) friend with access to NFL Sunday Ticket, and he was happy to donate his password so that I could stream it to my iPhone. Success! It would be an entertaining bus ride after all.

But when I settled down at 1 PM and clicked over to the game, it refused to play. I had forgotten about the NFL's archaic blackout rules; it was the national game, so it had to be watched on FOX. I was in trouble.

I considered shelling out $25 for the NFL Audio Pass, but the form was too hard to navigate on my phone and the bus's Internet was down. And as I was fumbling around and cursing, I started getting texts. The Eagles couldn't move the ball, nor could they stop the Giants on third down. Mario Manningham was torching Dimitri Patterson, and before you knew it, New York had built a huge lead.

I certainly wasn't happy, but I have to admit, I wasn't that sad. It sounded like an awful game, the kind you consider turning off midway through the third quarter. Definitely not the kind you shell out money to watch, let alone just listen to. It looked like the only game of the 2010 season I'd miss would turn out to be the worst; I had gotten lucky.

So I contently sat on the bus with my girlfriend, reading the occasional text update and following fans and beat writers on Twitter. Everyone was frustrated, especially when Andy Reid chose not to challenge an obvious non-fumble by DeSean Jackson. That should have been the nail in the coffin. It was 31-10 with 8:17 left.

But then my phone starts buzzing. My friend Jon Cifuentes is bombarding me with updates. My ESPN ScoreCenter app is freaking out, constantly informing me of Eagles touchdowns. Even non-Eagles fans are texting me, saying either "Wow!" or the more popular "VIIIIIIICKKKK!" Michael Vick, the new face of the Eagles organization (and, coincidentally, of my fantasy football team), was taking over the game.

I'm going nuts in my seat, getting excited over a game I can't even see. I'm starting to believe that maybe they can come back. I'm picturing Tom Coughlin's head turning red and exploding, praying for the Eagles D to finally step up and make a few big stops, imagining this perfect-sounding onside kick falling into Riley Cooper's hands.

Finally, the dust settles. It's somehow 31-31 with about a minute left. If they hold the Giants here, it's overtime. I can't believe it; I've missed the best comeback in recent Eagles history. Even if the Giants win, those final few minutes were obviously incredible. "Man," I think, "I can't wait to watch this when I get back home."

And then, all at once, I receive 30 texts in giant capital letters. My Twitter feed goes nuts. It's all unintelligible gibberish, cheering and carrying on; all the bells and whistles that come with a game-changing, and maybe season-changing, play. The only constant word? "DeSean."

So I didn't see DeSean Jackson's life-altering punt return. I didn't see the Giants fans sobbing, the Eagles fans going insane, the suddenly wobbly 2010 playoff run being immediately righted by a player that most "experts" had bashed all last week for "showboating." Notice that you didn't hear many negative comments over his pre-TD sideline-to-sideline celebratory jog. Like I said, when you're a true game-changer, you can show all the swagger you want.

If I had pushed our bus back a day, to Monday, we'd have been caught in a big Boston snowstorm. If we had left on Saturday, we'd have skipped a party at my friend's house. Are these reasonable excuses? Not exactly; I'm still fuming about missing the game.

But regular season wins, no matter how thrilling, come and go. It's what happens in the game, not the win, that really matters. And what we should all take away is that this is a special team with an aura around it, one not felt since the early days of Donovan McNabb. They can do it all, and if they overcome a recent rash of defensive injuries, well, you can be sure I won't miss a snap of postseason football.

December 14, 2010

Welcome back, Cliff Lee.

When the Philadelphia Phillies essentially traded Cliff Lee for Roy Halladay, people mostly understood.

Yes, Lee was the hero of the 2009 World Series run. Hell, he was the only reason the Phillies even sniffed a championship. He came over from the Indians as a man possessed, dispatching National League hitters like they were cardboard cutouts. While Cole Hamels floundered after an exhausting 2008 season, Lee established himself as an elite playoff pitcher. Everything the Phillies needed him to do, he did.

But with only one year left on his contract, we also thought he'd chase the money. After a rocky 2007 in Cleveland that included a demotion to the minors, Lee had finally been christened a star on baseball's biggest stage. He was in line for a gigantic deal, and he deserved every cent of it.

Meanwhile, Roy Halladay, a Cy Young-winning arm who dreamed of pitching under the bright lights in Philadelphia, was ready to leave a boatload of money on the table for a shot at a championship. He took a three-year, $60 million extension, ensuring that the Phillies would still have a true ace on the roster. As hard as it was to believe, he made Lee expendable. If, for whatever reason, you could only have one, Roy was your guy.

But then, even after Cole Hamels got his mojo back and Ruben Amaro Jr. traded for Roy Oswalt, it still wasn't enough to lock down a third straight World Series appearance. Three aces. Not bad, but still not enough.

Lee hit the market, and the bidding started high. Far too high, we all assumed, for the budget-conscious Phillies. But then this afternoon, out of nowhere, rumors started to leak of a "mystery team" entering the Lee sweepstakes. Who was this team? Did they really have a shot at the left-hander? Unlikely, everyone said. Lee's getting his payday in New York or Texas, that's for sure.

Yet here we are, at 12:43 in the morning on Tuesday, December 14th, and the unthinkable has occurred. If you thought the Roy Halladay negotiations were generous, well, say "welcome back" to burgeoning humanitarian Clifton Phifer Lee.

The rumors say five years, $100 million; either way, it might be the most absurd turn of events in recent baseball history. Everyone said Lee loved playing in Philadelphia, but no one could put a price tag on that kind of speculation. Well, now we can; $38 million. That's how much Lee turned down, how much he valued happiness in Philadelphia over pitching somewhere else.

It will be tough to fall asleep after all this, but it might help to imagine Cliff Lee's powerful left arm gently rocking me to unconsciousness. The prodigal son, the man Philadelphians dreamed about reacquiring someday, is once again a member of Phillies. As Clark Griswold once said, "Hallelujah! Holy shit! Where's the Tylenol?"

December 13, 2010

DeSean Jackson can dance if he wants to.

"When you see antics like Sunday night's touchdown dive, it makes [DeSean] Jackson look like a me-first player."
-Jerome Bettis
When ex-players preach like this, busting out the "everything was sunshine and rainbows in my day" card, do they ever come off as anything but old and sad? I've come to expect it from aging sportswriters, most of whom act as if they've been given a heavenly mandate to judge the game and its players, but not former NFL stars who know the joy of a big play against a rival team.

DeSean Jackson's fall into the endzone came after a 91-yard touchdown, the longest play from scrimmage in the 2010 season and one that made every Eagles fan leap out of their seats. I was dancing around so wildly that my roommate tried in vain to whip his phone out and take a quick video of the whole embarrassing ordeal.

It put the Eagles up on a hated opponent, a team that Jackson has been extremely vocal about wanting to defeat for almost a year now. It was an adrenaline-fueled celebration of excitement, and the only thing it took away from the Eagles was 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff. It had nothing to do with "me-first" football and everything to do with winning the game for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Yes, DeSean Jackson has gotten a lot of publicity lately for wanting to be paid at a level proportional to his talents. And rightfully so; he's a top-10 NFL receiver in a sport where careers can be very short. But at the same time, he hasn't bitched and moaned in public like Terrell Owens, and he hasn't held out like Vincent Jackson. He's earning his money out there on the field, and most of the time, he makes his presence felt with a big, momentum-swinging play.

Has he recently come up short on a few balls across the middle? Yes, but he also did just return from a bone-crushing hit that could have ruined his career and crippled him for the rest of his life. He's not the first player to suffer from alligator arms, but he's also no Todd Pinkston. In fact, you could make the case that the Eagles need to do a better job of keeping him out of harm's way. Don't waste him on all these unnecessary reverses, Andy Reid; there are better ways to get three yards.

But of course, don't tell all this to The Bus. Bettis, taking the easy way out, also decides to play the "this is bad for the league" card. So a guy that hasn't committed any crimes, someone the NFL values enough to feature in its Sunday Night Football opening promo, gets dragged over the coals for celebrating a little after a huge, game-changing play.

Other NFL players, meanwhile, are raping, murdering and murdering some more, being far worse human beings and threatening the lives and livelihoods of people around them. My gut tells me these are the kind of guys Bettis needs to get up on his soapbox about, not DeSean Jackson.

Hell, I'd rather see people trash Michael Vick than DeSean. I'm MV7's number one fan, but the acts he's committed in the past were genuinely awful and illegal. Jackson is just a braggart and a show-off, and last time I checked, that wasn't against the rules.

People always say, "If DeSean Jackson wasn't an Eagle, Philly fans would hate him." Well, obviously. If Michael Irvin was an Eagle, we'd all love him. But he was a Cowboy, so we cheered when he got paralyzed. Philadelphia's often characterized as a "meat and potatoes" sports town, but when a guy brings the sizzle and the steak, you know even the old white people are gonna come around. We can recognize greatness.

Simply put, DeSean Jackson is an eccentric and electric talent. Andy Reid knows all this, and luckily, he seems to love it. Yes, there was that recent blowup, but I think that was more about reorienting DeSean's priorities than criticizing the guy's focus or his work ethic. We all remember the uncharacteristic chest bump; hell, Reid even said after yesterday's game that he "loved [DeSean's] enthusiasm."

When bad players make bad decisions or take stupid penalties -- Jorrick Calvin's idiotic unnecessary roughness call shockingly comes to mind -- they deserve whatever they get. But I get the sense that, as long as DeSean's using that unbelievable speed to haul in record-breaking touchdowns, he'll justifiably be allowed to show a little swagger. And if you think that's unfair, well, you must be a curiously loyal Jerome Bettis reader.

December 6, 2010

Werth his weight in gold.

Jayson Werth is no longer a member of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Most of us saw this coming, but a few tweets immediately afterward shocked me: people moaning about the good old days, when "baseball was about purity." Was it? I do remember hearing of an era where greedy owners and a crappy union meant players were trapped on the same teams their entire lives. Was that purity, or an modern take on indentured servitude? I prefer this era, where players are free to go elsewhere and get paid at market value.

This particular split was amicable enough, although Werth made it a bit more uncomfortable when he brought up "feeling unwanted" in Philadelphia. Give us a break, Jayson. You took the big deal elsewhere, as well you should have. Until Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford sign, Werth's contract is tied for the fourteenth-richest in baseball history: seven years and $126 million. Absolutely insane, and if history is any indicator, trouble for the team that dealt it out.

Those numbers should look familiar to you Blue Jays fans out there; it's the same deal Toronto gave to Vernon Wells in 2008. Think J.P. Riccardi regrets that one? Barry Zito's serving out a carbon copy of that contract, too, and I think the defending champions Giants would love to celebrate their title by dropping a piano on his head.

I'm not saying Werth will bomb in Washington, D.C.; he's a talented player who would be a great complimentary piece to a Ryan Zimmerman/Bryce Harper/Stephen Strasburg core someday. But that remains more than a little uncertain; unless they all stay healthy and meet incredibly lofty expectations, the Nationals are nowhere near contenders.

Washington GM Mike Rizzo has been (understandably) talking up Werth nonstop, but everyone knows it's just that -- talk. Werth isn't a franchise player; he's outrageously overpaid before even playing a game. It's telling that his agent, Scott Boras, didn't even take the offer to other interested parties. He knew the jackpot had already been hit.

The Nationals paid the "crappy team tax," and they seemed happy to do it. I'm extremely glad that Jayson Werth's family is set for life, and I'm happy that such a key part of the 2008 championship squad is being rewarded for his contributions to baseball (and my personal happiness). But will I really miss him, or the giant, awful contract that would have kept him around? You bet I won't.

Unless they waste those bucks on shitty, shitty Jeff Francoeur, of course.

December 3, 2010

Go to hell, Nils Lofgren.

If you haven't noticed, I'm one of the biggest Bruce Springsteen fans ever. Best American band in existence, greatest live performers of all time, blah blah blah. But right now, I think Springsteen associate and E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren should shut the hell up.

Lofgren penned a diatribe against Michael Vick for ESPN.com, stating that he's "so disheartened and disappointed" by the sporting community's praise for the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback. It's possibly the worst article that site has ever run, which is saying something about a company that employs Rick Reilly.

First off, Lofgren is upset that Michael Vick didn't realize killing dogs was wrong. Hey, 59-year-old white millionaire musician: Not everyone grew up studying classical music in the suburbs. Things are different where Vick was from, and we have to take that into account. Whether we like it or not, that can be part of the culture in some areas of our country. And when you grow up surrounded by things like that, when all your role models do it, when no one slaps you on the wrist and tells you it's wrong, you might not realize just what you're doing until someone shackles you and throws you in a paddywagon.

How can we justify this to our children, Lofgren wails. Yes, the poor children. God forbid they come to understand the power of redemption, the idea of second and even third chances, the fact that people make mistakes, even horrific ones. I personally hope that my children aren't defined, that they don't define other people, by singular moments and situations. I hope they understand that human beings are nuanced and complex and you should delve beneath a catchy headline or an easy-to-grasp ideal to find out what they're actually all about.

Lofgren believes that Vick does not deserve "a lofty place in our culture." He feels the NFL should ban him permanently. Even though one of the supposed "goals" of imprisonment in this country is rehabilitation, Lofgren apparently doesn't buy into that claptrap. He thinks a man's entire future, the next 40-50 years of his life, should be torched because of something he did when he was young. It sounds to me like Lofgren wants Michael Vick locked up and the key thrown away, which I think is patently absurd.

Look, Michael Vick participated in the killing of dogs. He probably killed a few himself. Heinous? Yes. A crime worth punishing? Absolutely. But Vick served 23 months in federal prison and filed for bankruptcy. For a little while, he was despised by an overwhelming majority of the entire country. He was a shattered shell of a man. Even now, when he's achieving a great deal of success on the football field, he still owes millions of dollars to creditors. And he'll always be known as the athlete who killed dogs, even if he wins six straight Super Bowls. I'd say he's suffered appropriately for what he's done.

Donté Stallworth drunkenly ran a man over with his car and killed him. He served 24 days in prison and paid the family off to avoid further trouble. He's already returned to the NFL with minimal fanfare. Leonard Little drunkenly killed a woman with his car in 1999. He received four years of probation and played in the NFL until 2009, even though he received another DWI in 2004. Ray Lewis was involved in the murder of two people, yet he's become one of the most celebrated defensive players in the history of the league.

But because Michael Vick is a hot topic these days, because the success he's achieving bothers people, he doesn't get those chances. Even though he's saying and doing all the right things, even though he's had several years to examine his life and mature as a person, it's all bullshit to them. Some people aren't buying it, even though they've bought it so many times before from far less deserving athletes and celebrities.

Look, if Michael Vick goes out and kicks a cat in the face tomorrow, I'll be the first to admit that he's a piece of shit. And if he throws three interceptions in a playoff game and costs the Eagles a shot at the Super Bowl, I definitely won't be penning as many loving Vick-centric blog posts. But I think he's the definition of a man who has learned his lesson, who's been given another chance and has taken full advantage.

And he definitely, definitely, doesn't need to be called out by a grandstanding, aging musician. This is the first "hey you kids, get off my lawn" moment I've noticed from the mouth of an E Street Band member; I hope the rest of them learn from it and make it the last. Go sit on your hands and wait for Bruce to call you into the studio, Nils, and let the rehabilitated Mick Vick play football.

December 2, 2010

Remembering Leslie Nielsen.

I might have been the only 13-year-old boy that went to the movies specifically to see Wrongfully Accused. My brother was definitely the only 10-year-old. But, of course, we were laughing louder than anyone else in the building. Such was the power of Leslie Nielsen.

We saw it with our grandma in West Chester, Pennsylvania; I bet she didn't enjoy it at all. Honestly, there's not a lot to laugh at...unless you're a fan of the comedy stylings of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker. They're the men behind Hot Shots!, BASEketball, Mafia! and the final two installments in the Scary Movie series. And, of course, they turned Leslie Nielsen into one of the most beloved comedic actors of his generation.

It started in Airplane!, which seems dated now only because every spoof movie of the last 30 years has stolen from it. That's where Nielsen became beloved, developing a comedic persona that made him legendary for the next 15 years and at least very rich for 15 more. He provided most of the movie's really memorable quotes; I can't imagine being in an unexpecting Airplane! audience, seeing this stoic man delivering ridiculously out-of-place lines with an stone-like poker face.



It's even crazier that, before Airplane!, Nielsen was a dramatic actor. He screen-tested for Ben Hur and apparently appeared on every television show of his era, so most audiences had seen him before. That must have made it even more jarring when he dropped deadpan responses to comments like "Well, we had a choice of steak or fish," with "Yes, yes, I remember, I had lasagna."

Actors don't usually do that. They don't transition from straight drama to pure comedy, especially not Zucker/Abrahams comedy. But Nielsen, along with the equally memorable Lloyd Bridges in Hot Shots! and Mafia!, did just that. They took lifelong serious personas and made themselves into legendary comedic actors, icons for people of my generation that like their jokes fast, silly and surprisingly witty. They looked like normal actors, and they used it to their advantage. Maybe it was aging that gave them the freedom to do so, to realize that they could take what they've built up over 30 years of acting and use it to really make people laugh.

Nielsen is probably even more well known for his work in the Naked Gun movies, where his Lt. Frank Drebin bumbles around with OJ Simpson's Nordberg and drops lines like "Cheer up, Ed. This is not goodbye. It's just I won't ever see you again." Lots of people swear off his later work, Spy Hard and the aforementioned Wrongfully Accused, but I find them to be just as funny in their own way. The jokes are a bit stupider, the plots a bit more lazy and hackneyed, but in the end, there were still a bunch of great moments where Nielsen worked his magic. This spoof of The Fugitive's escape scene is as funny as anything in the Naked Gun movies:



And this Spy Hard scene, although horribly out-of-context, is just a little sampling of the movie's understated cleverness (for a post-Naked Gun Nielsen film, anyway). Plus, it has Robert Guillaume!



Nielsen also popped up in the very forgettable Scary Movie 3 and Scary Movie 4, probably as a "thank you" to director David Zucker, or maybe the other way around. Regardless, it was great to see him on screen in one more prominent role, even if the movies weren't that funny and most younger people probably didn't understand who this weird white-haired man was. But if one kid in each audience took a liking to his jokes and ended up stumbling upon Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult in the process, that's all worth it right there.

Leslie Nielsen died on Sunday, November 28th at the age of 84. He taught me that being funny isn't all about mugging for laughs or belting out a big obvious punchline. It's also in delivery, in a subtle glance or brief pause, in taking basic language and situations and pushing them slightly over the line into absurdity. Like a midget at a urinal, he kept us all on our toes. He will be missed.