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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Jonathan Dwyer, Not Ray Rice, Is NFL's Test Case

The Ray Rice incident is "The Big One" in terms of the NFL and its half-hearted personal conduct policy. Not only did we hear about it, but we saw it with our own eyes.

And it wasn't just some name on the back of the jersey. This was THE Ray Rice. Super Bowl Champion. Star. Pro Bowler. Driving force behind Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco's uncanny ability to throw the ball to no one and yet have someone run under it. The Ravens' decline in 2013 can be directly traced to Rice's decline in production.

And now, the Rice incident is allegedly a part of a massive cover-up by both the Ravens and the NFL.

While it's the case that will get all the attention and may ultimately change NFL and NFL Players' Association policy, it's not the only case. In fact, it's not even the most important one. For that, everyone needs to start looking west.

Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer is now the fourth player--at least that we know of--to face legal issues with domestic violence. Dwyer was arrested and booked last Wednesday for an incident that took place on Sept. 11.

His case is no more egregious than any other case, including Rice. The difference is that there is no video evidence. We know that the NFL will be typically reactionary to what is caught on tape. But what will they do in a case where no one is watching?

In football terms, Dwyer is obscure compared to Rice. He was cut twice by the Pittsburgh Steelers when the team was bereft of competent running backs. He has had some success in his limited time with the Cardinals, but certainly nothing to raise eyebrows in anyone's fantasy league.

It will be interesting to see how the league responds to the low-profile cases, because those are the ones that they've stuffed behind the couch for years. Terrell Suggs would be an example of that mentality. The "Disciplinarian" Commissioner Roger Goodell, the owners, and their underlings have scarcely said a word about Greg Hardy, Ray McDonald, or Adrian Peterson--until the public relations nightmare got too scary.

The NFL and Goodell, who finally appeared from the Bat Cave last Friday, are talking a good game about getting serious about this sociological, societal and personal mess that they have enabled. But are they just mugging (sorry, poor wording) for the cameras or do they truly mean business?

Cases like Dwyer will tell the tale. If the League is honest about taking care of players and families--and that is highly questionable at this point--then they'll spend much more time on Dwyer than Rice. The case is textbook for all of the issues that surround Domestic Violence issues and policies, including laws and law enforcement.

Dwyer's wife, Kayla, has called the police several times, but was frightened to press the issue because Dwyer threatened to commit suicide. That raises the issue of why women stay in abusive situations. They often fear for the lives of themselves, their children, or someone else.

Teammates described Dwyer as "always smiling" and said that no visible signs of problems existed. Often, law enforcement is the first (and perhaps only) entity to have full knowledge of the issues at hand. Domestic violence is all about covering the truth, and the NFL has excelled in perpetuating the issue. In spite of their immense resources and power, the league and its member teams have refused to take a deeper look at this issue.

The Cardinals cannot activate Dwyer this season because he's under psychiatric evaluation. Now we have the issue of mental illness, the kind that is largely ignored and untreated in all segments of society. It also an issue that strikes players with concussions and brain injuries.

Finally, there is the issue of the legal system. Law enforcement could neither stop and/or help Dwyer nor protect his family. The full weight of that responsibility fell on a terrified wife. Rather than yelling about changing the NFL, perhaps we should spend more time looking at the domestic violence laws in our respective states. Something has to be done to give law enforcement fair power to intervene.

Thankfully, the Cardinals saw fit to keep Dwyer from playing until this matter is somehow resolved. Perhaps they were smart enough to learn from the mistakes of the NFL, the NFLPA, and at least four other teams that have botched every aspect of dealing with domestic violence issues.

Even still, it certainly didn't hurt that Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians is married to a lawyer who is an advocate for abused children. The rest of the league would be wise to find lawyers like Christine Arians, who deals daily with domestic violence issues. That might teach them how to help prevent and deal with domestic violence. And it's a much better option for the League than scrambling for defense attorneys and PR reps.

This case could be the poster child for helping with all of the issues that involve domestic violence. While the NFL is not obligated to deal with these issues, it certainly has a moral responsibility to give its best efforts to help.

The Dwyer case will be the one that tells us if the NFL truly cares about its players, families, and society as a whole. No, they cannot be the Morality Police of America, but they could use their billions of non-profit dollars to make a statement on this issue. Forming panels and advisory committees is nice, but it will amount to nothing if the league refuses to take action, with or without video evidence.

The NFL is pretty much like the Mafia that we see in the movies. They can do what they want, take what they choose, and influence whom they please. It's time for them to press the domestic violence issue to its limit in every arena of life.

Jonathan Dwyer is in a position that he never expected. His case may well determine if the NFL is really going to be a force for good in the society it so powerfully influences, or if it will simply continue to run the PR machine to its advantage.

I hate to say this. But with Roger Goodell at the helm and billions of dollars at stake, I fear that the latter is going to rule the day. And the NFL will miss an opportunity to have an impact that goes well beyond their most recent TV deal.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Michael Sam and the Media: It's not What You Think

Hey, did you know that Michael Sam is the first openly gay football player to be drafted?

And that he had a sack in a preseason game?

And that he sacked ESPN's other creation, Johnny Manziel?

And that he didn't make the 53-man roster?

And that he didn't get signed to the practice squad?

By the way, did you know that Michael Sam is the first openly gay football player to be drafted?

Seriously, how could we forget? ESPN adds that tag to every mention of Michael Sam on their "Bottom Line". And since when do 7th-round draft choices get a mention on the "Bottom Line"?

After his brief flirtation with Oprah Winfrey, one gets the feeling that Sam has learned his lesson. He gives every indication that he's ready to walk away from being a gay football player, and would be grateful to play football at all. For anyone.

Unfortunately, he may not get that chance. The media that loves to report on Michael Sam may lose their major story of the preseason. ESPN commentators are hinting that teams do not want a practice squad player who is going to get major media attention.

Let the irony of that sink in for a second. The commentators who work for the company that is obsessed with Sam are now saying that he might not make a practice squad because he gets too much media attention.

I have too many friends and Twitter followers who are more than happy to blame this on "the gays". Some are even cheering the St. Louis Rams for taking a stand against the "gay liberal communist anti-American anti-God media agenda" (and yes, that's a quote).

Just one problem:  Even if you believe that there is a gay/liberal/socialist media agenda, it's not driving the Michael Sam story. The excessive and obsessive presence of sports media is driving the story.

Think about ESPN for a minute. They have a reporter who is essentially devoted to covering the Dallas Cowboys, a team that hasn't won a second-round playoff game in 6,793 days. The NFL preseason may be the most boring sports "event" ever created out of nothingness in an effort to fill air time.

All those reporters need something--anything--interesting to justify their jobs. Anything that is a "first" or even the slightest bit out of the ordinary is going to make it to your iPhone, because some reporter is looking to stay employed. It's certainly more profitable if the story elicits strong emotions, even negative ones.

And it is certainly profitable for the World Wide Leader to keep their cash cow at the front of the headlines, even in the midst of baseball playoff races and the start of college football. As absurd as it may be, the reporters are doing the job that ESPN wants them to do, and the cash register keeps ringing.

This is not about anyone's agenda outside of the super-saturated, excessive, obsessive, and ever-intrusive world of sports media. If there is no story, one has to be created, and that's exactly what ESPN did. Michael Sam learned early on not to seek this kind of attention, but the craving for any kind of buzz means that the story is seeking him.

If the Rams took any kind of "stand" in this, it was against this ridiculous ESPN over-reporting that they endured, right down to their locker room shower habits. That may be what is scaring off teams, much more than the fact that Sam is gay.

Let's keep in mind that he is the first openly gay player to be drafted (just in case you missed it). There have been other gay players. Vince Lombardi IS the NFL, a man's man in a testosterone jungle and object of admiration even in the modern era. And he defended gay players at a much more ambiguous time. Sexual preference is much less of an issue for the locker room than a media that won't stop talking about it.

Sam's sexuality is much less of an issue than the fact that ESPN won't let it go. This is about a man who made what I believe to be a courageous confession, and is now trying to move past that in order to be an NFL player. ESPN's coverage probably won't keep him out of the league, but it certainly doesn't help.

Hopefully, Sam can navigate these difficult and annoying waters and get another chance to prove that he can play. He will have a much better chance to prove that he can (or cannot) play if the SPORTS media will drop the topic and let the man play football.

The good news in all this is that the Dallas Cowboys seem poised to sign Sam to their practice squad. If any team can handle the Sam media circus, it's the Cowboys. They'll probably revel in it.

And somewhere, silently in the night, Ed Werder is smiling. He'll finally have something to report about the Dallas Cowboys, no matter how irrelevant the story truly is.

Then again, stories about the Cowboys have been irrelevant for a while. 6,793 days to be exact.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Things that Clemson & Carolina Fans Should Never Say: 2013-14 Edition

Last year, I hacked out an article about the ridiculous things that Clemson-South Carolina fans say to one another. It was an easy one to write, because no one does ridiculous quite like the fans in the state of South Carolina.

As I scanned the Facebook page following this year's game and into the bowl season, it seemed there would be plenty of material for another article. But judging from the kind of things that fans, who were apparently friends at some point, said to one another, I decided to let the vitriol fade a little.

Well, it hasn't. The talk is still strong and the insanity reigns. In what promises to be an annual event, here is your 2013-14 edition of the evidence that both fan bases need to get the tint out of their glasses. Here are some things that Gamecock and Tiger fans need to stop saying. Now.


1.  We killed y'all in the stats! Really? That's where you're going? It stunned me that some Clemson fans were actually saying this after the latest South Carolina victory.

You know who talks about their team's great stats? The fans of the team that lost.


2.  5. Okay, Gamecock falls, fold up your five little digits and put your hand back in your pocket. Yes, you've won five in a row, but let's keep a little perspective in mind, shall we? Clemson has streaks of three or more wins 11 times in this series, including a series record of 7 straight (which included 6 by double digits and 4 shutouts). You trail in the overall series by 23 games (65-42-4).

You're not dominating the rivalry, because you just now made it a rivalry.



3. 65-42-4. Yes, yes, Clemson has dominated this "rivalry" for decades. You are miles ahead in the win total.

But sorry, it's a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, an instant gratification society. Twitter isn't interested in the winning streak of 1934-40. You've had your fanny delivered to you five straight years by more than double-digits.

And until that changes, Gamecock fans will have reason to crow.



4. We're the state champions! Um...so what?

It's nice to be able to "stick it" to your rivals; but you know what you and the Head Ball Coach really want. You want--you need--that SEC title to validate all that you've accomplished since the HBC arrived. And you know that's what HE really wants to solidify that oh-so-annoying legacy. Well, annoying to half the state of South Carolina and the entire SEC, anyway.

After all, neither one of you even won your CONFERENCE in 2013...

5. We're the first team in the state to win a BCS game! Well, congratulations! You won a game in a horribly flawed (if not corrupt) system that is officially--and mercifully--headed to the trash heap. And as arrogant and annoying as it is, Gamecock fans are correct:  You are getting these chances because you're in the ACC, not the SEC. And because Duke can't muster enough fans to fill up the Orange Bowl.

You won the Orange Bowl against Ohio State and a coach that is almost as arrogant and annoying, if not as chatty, as Steve Spurrier. (And Urban "the II" Meyer has physically threatened a reporter...not sure if he got him "reassigned"). That's more than good enough.


6. ___________________ has no class! This one is just too easy.

You know that Spurrier doesn't coach anymore, don't you? He just sits in his office thinking up ways to jab Dabo and the Clemson fan base.

And then he calls up Dabo, who we know is not really coaching, and tells him what he's going to say. That gives Dabo just enough time to come up with a comeback. Or at least enough time to find someone who can think up a good comeback.

The problem is that we, as fans, take this all too seriously. And we get mad and re-tweet and paste it all over Facebook to express our outrage.

Maybe "classy" is not the right term for this situation...

There is absolutely nothing more boring to listen to than coaches talking before, during or after a football game. We scream for honesty; then, when we get it in the form of some cheap shots between coaches, we get mad and accuse coaches of having "No Class!!!"

People, this is great. We are blessed to have coaches who will at least say something interesting, sprinkled with at least a hint of what they truly think. And both coaches know exactly what they're doing when they say it.

All it does is work the fans into a frenzy, and both of these coaches are working it for all it's worth. Stop letting it drive you crazy and learn to revel in it.

Actually, forget that last statement. Keep it up, Gamecock and Tiger fanatics. It ensures that I'll have at least one entertaining blog to start each new year.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Paladins Wake Up the Echoes in Remarkable Win (Part 2)

No one expected the Furman Paladins to win the Southern Conference championship in 1978. As unlikely as their first championship was, lucky #13 that came against Wofford was on the verge of impossible, and certainly unimaginable to everyone outside of the Paladin locker room.

In fact, this SoCon title was as unexpected as anything since the 1988 National Championship--and that's not overstating the matter. That team was at least picked fourth in the conference, while this team was picked no higher than fifth (You know the policy on how these are counted--without AppSt and Georgia Southern).

Just consider for a moment that the 2013 Furman Paladins were a blocked field goal away from losing to Presbyterian and going 0-3 (all against the Big South) to start the season.

Some other obligations kept me away from the stadium that day, but I was following along (as usual) on my phone. My wife and I were sitting at a restaurant when PC went ahead 20-7, and I told her, "If they lose this game, they might not win a game this year".

How in the world could anyone dream that they would be sitting with her in a restaurant on Nov. 24, watching to see if Samford could pull of a win that would send this Furman team to the playoffs? Nor did I see this coming after a putrid performance at Chattanooga that spurred the locker room to decide it was time to start playing football.

That decision marks one of many turning points to this season. This team started the season with 45 freshman or redshirt freshman on the roster. On top of that, they had a rash of injuries that included every quarterback on the roster. At one point, the team turned to true freshman walk-on Duncan Fletcher, who was playing 1-A high school football in 2012. They had to move defensive back Richard Hayes III to the Wildcat QB, just to have someone else to run the offense if Fletcher went down.

It's hard to imagine how steady Bruce Fowler and his staff had to be to push this team through a rash of injuries, inexperience and adversity. But several great moments, even beyond that blocked field goal against PC, helped with that push. And none was greater than a play for the ages against Appalachian State.

App State has their wretched "Miracle on the Mountain", but Furman now has the "Pickoff at Paris Mountain". (Yes, I know that's some gosh-awful alliteration...better suggestions will be gladly accepted!).

Wilkins' INT was poetic justice in the final meeting with Appalachian State
Gary Wilkins' 98-yard interception return for a touchdown--complete with an Edwin Moses over Appalachian wide receiver Andrew Peacock, will go down as a season-changing play for the ages. Just as the Mountaineers were about to take the lead, Wilkins interception return put Furman ahead 13-3.

And they've never looked back. That oh-so-satisfying victory in the final game ever against the Mountaineers sent them back up to Boone with their tails between their legs and the Paladins on what might be the most unlikely run in their football history.

Starting with that game, the Paladin defense has produced 20 turnovers in their last seven contests. Their overall turnover ratio for those games is +13. Getting QB Reese Hannon healthy rejuvenated the passing attack and helped Furman take care of the football.

Signs that something special was on tap came the following week in Baton Rouge, when the Paladins played a stellar first half and only trailed #13 LSU 20-16 at half time. (Except for a bogus false start, the score would have been tied). After the confidence boost of that game, Furman reeled off four straight to earn its 13th conference title.

No team in the history of the Southern Conference--including the charter members or the more academically-challenged, ready-to-depart members--can match that total. No one. 13 is a record that looks to stand for quite some time. And along with that 13th SoCon title, we can also wave good-bye to some of the "Fire Bruce Fowler" talk. What he has accomplished with this team leaves no doubt about who the head coach needs to be.

Now, following a win against South Carolina State in their first playoff triumph since 2005, Furman travels to the "balmy" world of North Dakota to take on the number one team/program in the nation in the North Dakota State Bison.

It took some coaxing to get them out of the stands, but the Furman students finally embraced their football team.
This is the two-time defending national champion, a team that has defeated four straight FBS opponents. They're the only game in town in Fargo. They don't have to compete with a slew of other FCS or FBS opponents at their own back door. 


Stunningly, Saturday will provide the most significant challenge that this group of Paladins has faced. It's bigger than overcoming a 2-4 start and having to beat teams with a combined 9 national championships in the second half of the season. It's bigger than the 15 major surgeries to players throughout the season. It's bigger than having to win six of their last seven games just to get to this point. And it's bigger than beating South Carolina State for their first playoff win since 2005.

Yes, this game is about as huge as it can get at the FCS level.

And yet, it really doesn't matter whether or not this group of Paladins loses (no, I can't believe I'm saying that). As much as I despise the phrase, this team is playing with "house money". They've overcome so much just to be here that everything else is just icing on the cake. There are plenty of reasons to be proud, no matter the outcome in Fargo.

But I doubt seriously that these players are taking that perspective. They seem absolutely unfazed by any challenge that stands in their way. They've overcome every possible obstacle in the last seven games in order to be here, so who's to say they can't overcome the powerful Bison on Saturday? Or two additional obstacles on their way to Frisco, TX?

"Playing with House Money" is about the only way to put it for this particular team, as they have exceeded the expectations of just about everyone. They've played beyond imagination for seven straight weeks, and nothing is holding them back from laying it all on the line for at least one more.

They are probably playing a year ahead of schedule, and there is a lot of work to be done, particularly with an offense that should be far more prolific than it is. Yet, this team exudes a spirit and attitude that doesn't seem to give losing a second thought. They just go about their business and execute, with every belief that this will lead them to another "W".

Here's the thing:  No matter what happens on Saturday, this team has already established itself as something special, a team that knows how to far exceed expectation, baffle the experts, and beat the odds. There is no reason to think that they might not have a shot to do those things at least one more time.

But even if they don't, the 2013 Paladins have given Furman fans plenty of reason to believe again. They have restored the once-proud legacy that started in 1978. Here's to hoping they can keep it going for at least one more week.

And if we're lucky, maybe they'll keep it going all the way to January 4.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Paladins Wake Up the Echoes in Remarkable Win (Part 1)

Saturday was 1978 all over again.

Nearly 35 years to the day, Furman earned their first-ever Southern Conference football championship during that remarkable inaugural season under Coach Dick Sheridan. On Saturday, the Paladins pulled off an even more mind-boggling--and record-setting--13th championship.

They beat the Wofford Terriers, their oldest and perhaps most annoying rival, in order to get it. After finishing their part of the job, the post-game scoreboard watching paid off. Samford engineered a miracle comeback to beat Elon and give the Paladins their first automatic playoff bid since 2004, and first playoff appearance since 2006.

It was a terrific day, partially spent greeting old friends with whom I played during my brief and relatively forgettable (at least to everyone else) Furman career. I spoke with Brian Bratton, who was part of the last SoCon championship in 2004; and a winner of the Grey Cup as part of the Montreal team.

I also shook hands with some of the same men that won Furman's first conference title in '78, including current Furman coaches Bruce Fowler, Tim Sorrells and Jimmy Kiser; and former coach Bobby Johnson. I saw a slew of other players that I had once chased around the field for autographs after every Furman game.

I was seven years old at that first championship game. I trudged up the hill to sit on the scratchy concrete bleachers of the old Sirrine Stadium in downtown Greenville, ready to cheer on these college students who seemed like giants to me. Even in those days, Sirrine was a relic, with its rickety wooden field houses and cinderblock steps. It fit the surrounding landscape of a downtown area that was deteriorating and falling behind the times along with Furman's football venue.

This was in the shadow of the plot of land that once housed Furman University, the version that my parents and grandparents once new. It fit into a disappearing world when students could walk to the stadium after visiting Belk Simpson or Meyers-Arnold on what was once a vital Main Street. With the mills closing down and the stores moving out to Haywood Mall, downtown needed something good to happen. Why not a Southern Conference Championship?

I was decked out in whatever purple I had to wear. Affordable Furman merchandise was even harder to come across in those days than it is now. We actually took food into the game with us (Can you believe this was ever allowed?).

For every minute of that day in 1978, I sat on the edge of those concrete bleachers, hoping that Furman would beat their arch-rivals, The Citadel, for the first time in seven years to have a shot at the conference title. We saw Citadel fans wearing t-shirts that said, "Beat the Doo-Doo Out of Furman" as we walked in, forever cementing my spite for the Bulldogs.


(Side note:  I remember my mother being appalled at those t-shirts and that awful language. Yes, even in the 70s, it was a much more genteel time when southern ladies still clutched their pearls at such things. We might be relieved these days if that was the worst thing we heard or saw at a game).

The Paladins had come out of nowhere, under first-year head coach Dick Sheridan, to go 7-3. They needed help to win the conference, but they had to take care of business first.

Across the field was their despised rival and their former head coach, Art Baker. He left Greenville for the head coaching position at The Citadel, an act of treason punishable by making you an outcast at the wine and cheese tailgates of the Furman faithful.

Baker followed the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" philosophy when he made the move. He didn't win a single game against the Bulldogs while coaching the Paladins, and changing sidelines would not change his luck. Not today.

Halfway through a somewhat lackluster game (this was in the days when football still involved defense), Furman President Dr. John E. Johns left the press box, walked down to the cheerleader microphone stand, took of the purple jacket and grabbed the mic. Apparently, he had enough of the fans saying Bravo! and clapping gently, because he looked at the crowd and said, "We're gonna make some noise!"

He went well beyond the "FU One Time!" cheer. He kept the microphone in hand until Furman's last fateful play.

The Paladins had taken a 17-13 lead on the backs of an old-school defense and methodical offense. But The Citadel had the ball for one final drive, and masterfully moved the ball to a point where they could only become a part of Furman football history.

Furman stopped the 'Dogs on the final play of the game that wasn't the final play of the game. A penalty gave The Citadel the ball at the one-yard line for one more chance with no time left on the clock. An oh, by the way, they had one of the best running backs in the nation in future Pro Bowler Stump Mitchell.

That's when it happened. The Stand.

They didn't exactly have HD in 1978...
Everyone in the stadium new who was getting the ball, and that included Steve Botkin. He was the center of the storm that greeted Mitchell before he even sniffed the goal line, along with just about everyone else. The Furman defense overwhelmed the Bulldogs and made a goal-line stand for the ages. The sidelines and the stadium erupted, players and students rushed the field, and Furman football history changed forever.

The Paladins beat The Citadel in 12 of the next 13 match-ups. They also proceeded to win 11 more conference championships and a national title, things never envisioned before Nov. 18, 1978.

I pulled my mom and dad and somewhat disinterested sister onto the field as fast as I could. I ran with my game program to get autographs from Russell Gambrell and David Kelly (whose injured arm could barely write). Then I found quarterback David Henderson, who said, "Here, want a sweatband?" He tossed it to me like Mean Joe Greene tossing a jersey to some kid with a Coke bottle. And with that fateful toss, his least important of the day, he cemented my eternal passion for Furman football.

The deal was not quite sealed at that point. There was scoreboard watching to do. For some reason, WLOS-13 carried the Western Carolina-Appalachian State game that evening, a game that Furman needed Appalachian to win in order to make their first championship official. I glued myself to our 13-inch screen inside of our wooden console television, hooked up to the stack antenna on the roof. With mom yelling at me to get up and clean my room, I refused to budge until I knew the trophy was officially coming to Greenville.

On Nov. 24, 2013, I was a 42-year old who was once again 7 going on 8. The stadium is on campus rather than downtown, with field turf and a modern, updated facelift being added. But many of the original championship players from the relic of Sirrine were still there, including Furman coaches Bruce Fowler, Tim Sorrells and Jimmy Kiser. I shook hands with Steve Williams, Bruce Lancaster, and Charlie Anderson, the same guys that I chased for autographs after every Furman game when they wore the diamond F. I also had the honor of shaking hands with guys like Don Clardy, Fred Sturgis, and Kevin Welmaker, with whom I wore the uniform during my brief and relatively uneventful career.

This time, I sat on the edge of my metal-backed seat, and took pictures with my iPhone as someone unveiled the numbers "2013" on the field house, under the sign heading that said "Southern Conference Championships". And I followed ESPN Game Cast as I sat at the restaurant, waiting for confirmation that Samford would beat Elon, giving Furman the title and the automatic bid to the FCS Playoffs.



I don't think I was one bit less excited than I was in 1978. And I am forever grateful to that group of players who tolerated annoying little kids and overcome everyone's lack of expectations to begin a history that culminated in the unlikeliest of championships last Saturday.

Like the Originals, the 2013 edition of Furman football came out of nowhere to earn a championship, to prove that they had grit and perseverance beyond anyone's expectations. This group continues the legend of the 1978 Paladins by simply refusing to believe that it can't be done.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Paladins Need to Drop their Bad Wildcat Habit

What started as a nightmare has turned into a potentially glorious season for Furman football. For only the second time in the last seven years, the Paladins will play games in November that count for something more than pride.

With their Homecoming win over 20th-ranked Samford, the Southern Conference frontrunner, Furman moved itself into position to potentially win the conference title. It was a win that no one would have anticipated as late as October 18, and it demonstrated the marked improvement of almost every area of this very young team.

Every area except the offensive game plan, which still includes the Wildcat. Furman needs some help from other teams to earn their first conference crown since 2004. They can do a lot to help themselves by losing the Wildcat.

In their usual display of school apathy, the Furman student body cleared Paladin stadium as soon as the Homecoming winners were announced on Saturday. They could do everyone a favor by taking that momentum-killer formation out the gate with them.

Plenty of people will point to the fact that the Wildcat has had some success this season for Furman. They scored one touchdown out of the formation, and actually completed a pass from it as well. The problem is not that the Wildcat is never successful at making positive yards. The problem is that its success is mitigated by the way that it kills the rhythm of the offense under quarterback Reese Hannon.

The ever-ambiguous "eye test" says that Hannon is at his best when he is in the game and running the offense. At LSU, where the Paladins used their "supplemental" offense very sparingly, Hannon looked incredible at ease and effective against a superior opponent. In spite of some good play against Georgia Southern and Samford, Hannon seemed off when exiting and re-entering the game.

The offense was absolutely stagnant for the majority of the second half last Saturday. Hannon looked completely out of sync and uncomfortable dropping back to pass on third down after running quarterback Richard Hayes III and tailback Hank McCloud were stopped for short gains on spread option plays.

This didn't cost the team in the game, thanks to stellar efforts by the defense. But eventually, it will. If Reese Hannon is the quarterback for this team, then he needs to be the quarterback. Let him win or lose the game running the offense that is suited for him. If he's ineffective or cannot get the job done, then use the Wildcat.

It doesn't seem to be as much of a problem if the Wildcat is used selectively, perhaps even on first down rather than second down. But it makes no sense to randomly run the starting quarterback to the sidelines in the middle of a series. It also doesn't help that Hannon is the only quarterback who is any real threat to throw the football. And Furman certainly can't afford to keep Hannon on the field in some decoy role, considering that he has missed time with injuries twice this season.

Here's the thing:  Furman has produced big plays on both sides of the ball in wins over Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Samford. They've also needed sustained drives at times in all of those games, and Reese Hannon is the man that produced those against all of those teams and against LSU. That's the long-term formula for winning offense and keeping a vastly improved defense rested.

If they plan to beat a much-improved Western Carolina team and the energy-draining, clock-consuming triple option of Wofford, they're going to do it with solid play from the starting quarterback. It's time to cut the cord for Reese Hannon, and let him be the quarterback/leader for the Paladin offense.

The Wildcat is a spare offense and should be used like a spare tire:  Only in the most critical and necessary situations. If Furman wants to make the most of their late season surge, they'll get it out of Paladin Stadium faster than the students.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Random Thoughts on FCS vs. FBS and a First Half to Remember

It's been tough to keep pace in the blogosphere lately, but a fantastic trip to Baton Rouge last weekend has driven me back into the game. (Again, if there is anyone who can get me out of this full-time job thing, I'll happily write more often).

In the first week of the season, seven FCS (Football Championship Subdivision, aka I-AA) teams beat FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision, aka I-A) schools on the football field. We'll forget for the time being that one of the defeated FBS schools was South Alabama. There was great outcry that FCS was catching up. Gaining ground. Creating a more even playing field.

A few weeks later, Louisville defeated Florida International (an FBS school) 72-0. Miami defeated Savannah State 77-7. Ohio State defeated Florida A&M 76-0. There was great outcry that FCS (or perhaps schools that really should be FCS) have no business playing against FBS schools. Bad games. No competition. Someone is going to get hurt.

In spite of this ESPN-driven schizophrenia, both are ridiculous arguments and both are dead wrong. The occasional upset doesn't mean the playing field is getting more level; but it also doesn't mean the games should be stopped.

While Appalachian State is the best-known of the giant killers, Furman and The Citadel kind of started the trend of making the "big boys" earn their money on their de facto bye week. For 30 minutes of playing time in Baton Rouge on Saturday, Furman threatened to do it again.

LSU wasn't exactly in a panic at halftime of their game against Furman. But a 20-16 lead (which should have been 20-all) drew at least a bead of sweat on the Mad Hatter's head. The massive advantage in size, speed, athleticism and depth swamped the Paladins in the second half. Still, when it was all said and done, Les Miles and Company new they had been in a football game.

That's the beauty of the FCS-FBS matchup. Furman got what it needed:  A lot of confidence, a chance to test itself against the best in the nation, and a huge paycheck. They put in a pretty good day's work, even for half a million dollars.

LSU got the same:  A "warm-up" game before the pre-Alabama bye week, a homecoming win, and a reminder that they still have a lot of work to do. Miles probably welcomed the chance to say to his locker room, "Do you think that effort will get it done against Alabama?"

For as much criticism as big schools take for scheduling these games, I have no problem with the matchups. Fans from small schools get to enjoy a big game atmosphere. It's a great opportunity for the little guys to play on a big stage and test themselves against Goliath. And occasionally, we get to see David win. What's so bad about that?

Some other thoughts from Saturday's LSU-Furman game:

-LSU was a terrific game day experience, with a beautiful and well-organized tailgating area, plenty of great food, and a live tiger. How can you beat that? The fans were certainly more gracious than they might have been towards an SEC opponent.

-It was eerily quiet in Tiger Stadium for the first 40 minutes of playing time.

-I've watched the Paladins play against FBS teams, even from the sidelines. It was stunning how physically superior LSU appeared; and even more stunning that Furman stood toe-to-toe with them in the first half.

-Furman's offensive line was eventually overwhelmed, but they did not back down an inch from a feisty and frustrated Tiger front seven.

-Of all their players, Furman's Dakota Dozier looked like the one who should have been on the opposite sideline. He absolutely man-handled several LSU defenders, particularly against the run. Dozier will most likely translate to a guard in the NFL, and LSU announcer Kevin Mawae could not say enough good things about his effort. Mel Kiper Agrees.

-Furman's game plan on offense was excellent, controlling the clock and mixing runs with short passes to neutralize LSU's speed and pass rush. But without any ability to go down the field, the game plan fizzled as the game wore on.

-One horrendous aspect of that game plan was the Wild Cat offense. The Paladins need to put those plays in the shredder. They are going to win or lose with Reese Hannon or Duncan Fletcher, and gimmicks do little other than break up their rhythm.

-Furman's defense is still young, thin and struggling. But eight turnovers and two scores in the last two weeks certainly is a sign of improvement, and one that will need to continue this Saturday at Georgia Southern.

-This game could be a springboard to a strong finish. Furman has been wildly inconsistent this season--not just from game to game, but literally from quarter to quarter. If they can put together 60 minutes that will rival the 30 minutes against LSU, they have a chance to make some strides.

-Better play-calling and halftime adjustments, particularly on offense, will be critical to helping that happen.