I'm back. I asked for a month or so off to promote a rap album, but my bosses weren't too excited by that idea so they sat me down. They probably expected a little more, expected me to write the Sports Daily every day.
Say, now that I think of it, it's amazing how similar my situation is to that of Ron Artest, the Pacers forward who asked the team for some time off to recover from some nagging injuries and fatigue caused in part by a busy offseason spent pursuing music moguldom. That idea went over like a Shawn Bradley dribble drive with Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, who benched Artest for two games.
How prescient was the last edition of this column, last Monday's NBA preview, in saying about the Pacers, "Ron Artest can get his rest during suspensions"?
Artest is being strung up for compromising the integrity of his team and not being a part of the reality-based community and all that, and there's little doubt he's a first-class dolt when he's doing anything but shutting down the other team's best scorer while pouring in 24 points of his own.
But all he's really done is publicly acknowledge what nobody in the NBA likes to admit: The regular season is all but meaningless. Artest was actually right. Good as he is, and he is either the Pacers' most important or second most important player, his missing two games, or even a month's worth of games, wouldn't mean a thing. The Pacers are going to the playoffs. Their season starts in April.
NBA teams good enough to contend for the title should routinely give their players vacations during the "regular" season, so they'll arrive in the playoffs mentally and physically fresh.
Artest is a lousy office politician, but he's living closer to the reality-based community than people who think Pacers games in November are anything more than glorified exhibitions.
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Maurce Clarett's allegations [PERMALINK]
And speaking of reality, the other big brouhaha that's gone down in sports while this column was having its feet massaged by twin Swedish thumb-wrestling champions was ESPN the Magazine's exposé of alleged improprieties in Ohio State the University's football program, the highlight of which is Maurice Clarett detailing payments, academic help and no-work jobs he says he got from boosters with the knowledge of coach Jim Tressel.
The university says consider the source, and that's not an unfair statement. Clarett has not exactly made a reputation for himself as a truth teller. On the other hand, consider how nothing Clarett alleges sounds like something that wouldn't happen at a big-time football program. Hundred-dollar handshakes, no-show employment, phantom classes, free use of expensive cars? Nah, we've never heard of that sort of thing happening around a big football or basketball program, have we?
And consider how his statements dovetail with the statements of others about Ohio State, including retired NFL star Robert Smith, known for his intelligence and integrity, who said he heard teammates bragging about the same kind of under-the-table payments when he was at OSU in the early '90s, though he says he doubts the university itself is involved.
I believe the Clarett saga is just one small episode in a series of events that's going to bring down major college sports as we know them. The enterprise is crumbling, as inevitably happens with any enterprise -- Ponzi schemes, that sort of thing -- built on a foundation of lies or, in the case of college sports, one Big Lie: that the athletes are amateurs, students engaging in extracurricular activities.
How can any rational person look at these numbers from one of ESPN's Clarett stories and not see something very wrong: In 2002, when Clarett helped lead the Buckeyes to the national championship and his No. 13 jersey was on the back of every kid in the state, the Ohio State football program reported revenues of $53 million against expenses of $15 million. Clarett's share of the booty: $13,379, the value of a full scholarship for in-state athletes.
An "education" so bogus that OSU athletes who try to switch schools find that many of their credits don't transfer.
Clarett's another one being strung up. He's a cancer, a troublemaker, bad news. Because of that, his stock in the NFL draft continues to fall.
I think that's stupid. He's a risk because he does have a nose for getting into trouble, and he's brought some of that on himself, as when he lied to police about the value of goods stolen in the car break-in that sparked the initial investigation into his situation last year.
But he's a pretty good risk because most of his troubles stem from the fact that he saw himself -- correctly -- as a professional football player from the moment he stepped onto Ohio State's campus, and everything he did was an attempt to get what he thought -- correctly -- should have been coming to him. Once he's getting paid for his services, that motivation's gone.
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NFL Week 10 picks [PERMALINK]
I've been following the Artest and Clarett stories, but because I haven't had to meet deadlines and file columns, I'm not worn down or fatigued at all. I feel like an NFL team that's coming off its bye week, well-rested and doubly prepared.
That's the prevailing wisdom, anyway. I defy you to find an analysis of Sunday's Vikings-Packers game, for instance, that doesn't mention that the Packers are coming off a bye week and should be well-rested and doubly prepared. Ditto the Jaguars, Titans and Falcons, who were also off last week.
Guess what: So far this year teams are 10-14 in the game following their bye week. And that's not because bad teams are overrepresented in that bunch. The eight teams who had byes either last week or this, the final bye week, have a combined winning percentage of .500.
At least this year, being well-rested and doubly prepared has translated to a losing record, while being not so well-rested and singly prepared has led to a winning one. Keep that in mind this weekend when you hear about the Packers, Jags, Titans and Falcons being well-rested and doubly prepared. And next week when you hear the same thing about the Broncos, Dolphins, Raiders and Chargers.
By the way, having an off week hasn't had a delayed positive effect either. Teams that have played two games after their bye weeks have gone 9-11 so far in the second game.
Keeping that in mind, your well-rested, doubly prepared servant turns to Week 10, with predicted winners in all caps.
Baltimore (5-3) at N.Y. JETS (6-2): With injured Chad Pennington out and Quincy Carter in at quarterback, the Jets are in trouble if they can't run the ball, and guess who's great against the run. (Hint: the Ravens.) But I'm picking the Jets on the basis of a theory I hold dear, even though I have no idea if there's a shred of truth to it: Teams play over their heads in the first game after a star player goes out with an injury, and then reality hits. If I'm right, that's good news for the Browns, who host the Jets next week.
Detroit (4-4) at JACKSONVILLE (5-3): Quarterback Byron Leftwich will miss two games with a sprained knee, this one and next week at home against the Titans. Another test of the injured-star theory. And don't forget the Jaguars are coming off a bye week and should be well-rested and doubly prepared.
Chicago (3-5) at TENNESSEE (3-5): Rookie quarterback Craig Krenzel, who has been alive for exactly one day longer than I've been a legal adult, not that that bothers me or anything, has led the Bears to back-to-back wins, including an upset on the road against the Giants last week. But with Steve McNair back from an injury, the Titans should be able to stop that streak and go another week convincing themselves they can still make the playoffs, which they won't do. One day. Jeez. The Titans are coming off a bye week and should be well-rested and doubly prepared.
Houston (4-3) at INDIANAPOLIS (5-3): Not everyone's had their bye week yet so there's still a little stagger in the standings, but if the season ended today, the Colts -- picked by half of this column's readers to go to the Super Bowl and by a third of you to win it -- would miss the playoffs. The Texans are playing pretty well, but they don't have enough of a pass rush to keep Peyton Manning from doing whatever he wants to do.
KANSAS CITY (3-5) at New Orleans (3-5): The paper bag masks are back in the Big Easy! The Jim Haslett Please Keep the Coach's Office Clean for Nick Saban, Who'll Be Using It Next Year, Tour stops in to the Dome for a home loss, even with Priest Holmes out for the Chiefs.
Pittsburgh (7-1) at CLEVELAND (3-5): What the Heck Pick of the week. A tailor-made WTH. The Steelers are hotter than Paris Hilton's amateur video career, coming off consecutive wins over the undefeated Patriots and Eagles, with the national media panting about Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh looking like it can beat anybody. The Browns are -- I don't know how else to put this -- the Browns. Of course the Steelers will trip. And of course I threw in a random mention of Paris Hilton's uncensored videos to get some free hot, steamy page views from search engines.
SEATTLE (5-3) at St. Louis (4-4): These two teams battling for the NFC West lead have combined for one (1) win over teams that currently have a winning record. And that was the Rams' win over the Seahawks a month ago. On the theory that someone has to win, I'll take the Seahawks, who have at least been doing so lately.
TAMPA BAY (3-5) at Atlanta (6-2): This is a much more intriguing game than it would appear from a look at the records. The Falcons have been wildly inconsistent since their 4-0 start, losing at home to the Lions and getting blown out in Kansas City, but also notching quality wins over the Chargers -- when's the last time anybody typed those five words? -- and Broncos. And besides, they're coming off a bye week and should be well-rested and doubly prepared. The Bucs, meanwhile, started 0-4, and have since gone 3-1. Brian Griese has provided actual NFL-level quarterback play, and running back Michael Pittman, a journeyman who missed the first three games on a suspension, is putting together a career year since his return. The Bucs are banged up on defense, but I'm picking them to win this one and appear in Atlanta's rear-view mirror in the formerly locked-up NFC South race.
Cincinnati (3-5) at WASHINGTON (3-5): Hooboy, this is a dog, though both teams have actually been playing better in the last few games. The pick is that the Bengals' awfulness on the road will trump the Redskins' lousiness at home.
CAROLINA (1-7) at San Francisco (1-7): Well, this is one way to get that second win. The Panthers have to go 4-4 in the second half to finish with a better record than the 2003 Raiders, the worst defending conference champion of the Super Bowl era. If they care about such things, this a must-win game.
Minnesota (5-3) at GREEN BAY (4-4): The Packers are on a roll and the Vikings are stumbling. Minnesota receiver Randy Moss is out and Packers defensive tackle Grady Jackson is back. The Packers are at home and the Vikes venture outdoors for only the third time all season. The Vikings are on a short week while the Packers are coming off a bye week and should be well-rested and doubly prepared. This one looks so much like a Packers win that the Vikings are the obvious choice. That's why I'm picking the Packers.
N.Y. Giants (5-3) at ARIZONA (3-5): The Giants have a defensive line without ends, amen. Michael Strahan and Keith Washington are out for the year. Strahan going down last week should make the Giants the pick under the "first game after a star player's injury" theory, but I think the Cardinals are going to take this one. They're not a bad team at all these days, and Giants quarterback Kurt Warner has reverted to his pre-mini-renaissance struggles.
Buffalo (3-5) at NEW ENGLAND (7-1): Last week Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown played safety, kicker Adam Vinatieri threw a touchdown pass, and linebacker Mike Vrabel caught one. For their next trick, the Pats will have John Kerry play quarterback -- and they'll still win.
PHILADELPHIA (7-1) at Dallas (3-5): Where have you gone, Quincy Carter?
Season record: 76-54
Last week: 8-6
What the Heck Picks: 5-4
Record in games this year involving teams coming off bye weeks: 8-15
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