The Almost year in review
Posted December 30, 2013
What a year it's been! 2013 has seen some spectacular things in the world of sports. From the second consecutive coronation of LeBron James as the most dominant player in the NBA to a phenomenal, final round charge by Phil Mickelson to win the Open Championship. 2013 was filled with the spectacular as well as the inspiring, as the phrase "Boston Strong" became as much a state of mind as it was a response to a couple of twisted, young minds.
However, this is about what was CLOSE to happening. This is the Almost Year in Review…
Peyton Manning ALMOST won a playoff game on Saturday, January 12, 2013. Were it not for safety Rahim Moore's abject failure to play Joe Flacco's desperation, downfield heave like even a mediocre center fielder, we would have had a completely different array of talking points. Had the Broncos simply closed out, what would have been a 35-28 playoff win over the Ravens, Manning could have gone and lost a playoff game to Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots for the 3rd time, and the second with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. You see, Manning's kryptonite isn't the cold weather, the month of the season, or even his surgically repaired neck. Manning's real poison is Belichick's defense. Peyton is 99 games over .500 against the other 30 teams in the NFL, but just 6-12 in his career against the mad scientist's defensive schemes. Alas, Moore misplayed the throw into a 70-yard, overtime-forcing touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones and Manning followed with the interception that set Baltimore up for the game-winning field goal.
Maybe that AFC title game would have been different, maybe not. But, Raheem Moore's blunder paved the way for Flacco to cash in with one of the largest contracts ever handed out to a quarterback who would have otherwise never made it to a Super Bowl. Well, ALMOST…
On Sunday, February 3, 2013 Beyonce ALMOST turned out all the lights on said Super Bowl. Well, she actually DID turn out the lights and somehow the Baltimore Ravens, who were living the very charmed existence of a second playoff life thanks to the aforementioned Rahim Moore and the Broncos, thought it was some sort of a conspiracy to prevent them from sending Ray Lewis towards the Hall of Fame on a championship wave of emotion. Come on fellas, if Mrs. Carter wanted to keep you from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy she'd have simply stayed on stage. Seriously, who was going to ask all of THAT to shut it down because there was a football game to be finished? Meanwhile, the 49ers ALMOST came back to win the game, and may have if they actually called the penalty that prevented Michael Crabtree from making a play on a would be touchdown pass.
It really started happening towards the latter part of 2012, but on Friday, March 22, 2013 it became official that the at-one-time-extremely-promising NC State men's basketball team would come ALMOST halfway to realizing 35% of its potential. You do the math there, almost halfway to 35% of the potential for a team that started the year in the national top ten, but rarely displayed the discipline necessary for potential to turn into production. Maybe the world overestimated the talents of C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown, Richard Howell, Scott Wood and T.J. Warren? In truth, only Brown is currently on an NBA roster, while Leslie and Howell toil in the D-League and Wood is knocking down jumpers in a foreign land. But that team didn't have to win a national championship, it just had to compete for everything they wanted and it never really did. But, they ALMOST came back to beat a mediocre Temple team after trailing by 16 at halftime in their NCAA Tournament opener/finale.
On Friday, April 12, 2013 Tiger Woods ALMOST won his 15th major championship as well as his fifth Green Jacket. Oh, I'm well aware of the cliche that the Masters doesn't start until the back nine on Sunday. But this is Tiger Woods, and he was about to put his game into overdrive, sitting at 5-under par and watching as his pitching wedge approach to the 15th green was headed right at the flag. A tap-in birdie would put him at minus-6, and give him the momentum necessary to resume his assault on the major championship record book. But, sometimes there are forces at work that get in the way, and that force was made of fiberglass and was sticking out of the cup. Woods' 3rd shot caromed off the flag and spun back into the water, turning birdie into bogey and stalling Tiger's engine in the second round. Then, of course, we found out that Woods ALMOST followed the rules when taking his penalty drop and was ALMOST disqualified by the tournament committee. But since it's THEIR tournament, THEY can do what THEY want and THEY didn't want Woods leaving the grounds before the weekend. So, the committee ALMOST operated with integrity, and simply docked Woods two strokes for ALMOST taking a proper drop, one that a competent committee would have alerted him to the day before.
Faced with the news Saturday morning that his drop was non-conforming, and that the committee should have figured that out the night before, Woods ALMOST considered doing what every single great champion golfer before him would have done -- to withdraw from the Masters because it was his own mistake that led to this situation. Tour players are responsible for knowing the rules and playing by them and Tiger fell short of that responsibility. Only that didn't ALMOST happen because Woods never considered withdrawing. Oh, and it was only the start of his year of ALMOST winning a 15th major.
On Thursday, May 16, 2013 Chicago Bulls All-Star point guard Derrick Rose said that he was ALMOST ready to return from the torn ACL that ended his season just over a year ago. While Rose had been working out hard, even dunking in practice, he had been declaring himself close to returning for about a month and a half. You know, exactly what Aaron Rodgers was doing for the Packers the last three weeks, only Rodgers was serious -- AND he actually came back. Without Rose, the Bulls were all about heart and effort and defense, totally admirable qualities in championship-caliber teams. In almost every case, a team with those attributes has a great chance of winning a title, as long as they've got a game-changing talent on the floor. With Rose -- that game-changing talent -- in a constant state of tease, and the organization seemingly comfortable with his varying stages of ALMOST, the Bulls fizzled out in the second round of the playoffs, losing in five games to Miami. But, if they had just been able to extend the series…well, you know.
Look, I'm not suggesting Rose should have, or even could have come back. What I am saying is that there's a limit to how long you can tell the world how close you are to returning to the team. At some point, you either play, or the organization announces that you'll be back next year. Neither happened, or maybe it ALMOST did.
On June 7, 2013 P.J. Hairston was ALMOST suspended from the basketball team at the University of North Carolina. Of course, he wasn't suspended, because -- as it was explained to me -- "what would be the reason to suspend a player since we're not in season?" Also, the semester was still at least six weeks from commencing, so what was the rush, anyway. How about the fact that Hairston was driving a rental car that he, personally, did not rent. He was also found to have been in possession of marijuana -- as were the other two occupants of the vehicle -- and police officers found a handgun on the ground that they determined to belong to the car, a GMC Yukon sport utility vehicle. Oh, and did I mention that the car was rented by a local party promoter, who was also a convicted felon. Admittedly, Haydn Thomas' crimes were minor in nature, but crimes they were. My feeling at the time was, while I'm not a prude that thinks that marijuana transgressions are tantamount to violent crimes, the totality of what WE knew, called for some action by the head coach. On top of that, in the coming days we'd also learn that Hairston, less than a month prior, had been stopped for speeding in another rental car connected to Thomas.
Call me silly, but Roy Williams had to know that his star player was treading dangerously and that it was casting a cloud over his program. Immediate, indefinite suspension would be a loud and clear statement that the head coach was livid with Hairston for his irresponsible, reckless and potentially criminal behavior. Plus, that act would have the added benefit of having no immediate ramifications. Holy cow, a win-win for everyone. Roy gets to prove that he's ticked off at P.J. while at the same time he doesn't have to punish him because they're still more than four frickin' months from even practicing in any official capacity. Nope. ALMOST two months later, after another reckless driving charge, Hairston was finally suspended. At least in this case, he was driving his girlfriend's car and not one rented by a party promoter. By now, you probably know the rest of the story
On July 13, 2013 the Major League Baseball All Star game rosters became official, and the people responsible for making up those rosters -- fans, players, coaches and league officials -- ALMOST got it right. It was pretty close, but somehow, due maybe to a clerical error or a glitch in the system, the single most electrifying, highlight-generating talent in the sport failed to be included among the 70-or so players invited to play. Since his call-up to the Dodgers at the beginning of June, rookie outfielder Yasiel Puig was hitting ONLY .391 with eight home runs, 28 runs scored and was good for an eye-popping moment on almost every episode of SportsCenter. But, why would a national audience be interested in seeing the most sensational athletic talent to play the game since Vincent "Bo" Jackson when we can watch Atlanta's Freddie Freeman instead?
Hey, no knocking Freeman as a player, he was having a great year, very deserving of being an All Star himself and was even a fringy MVP candidate (in fact, he actually finished fifth in the voting at the end of the year). But, Freeman's most memorable moment of 2013 came when he was furiously chasing raving lunatic Carlos Gomez of the Milwaukee Brewers around the bases after Gomez hit a home run AGAINST the Braves. The All Star game isn't only about the best players, it's also about the most exciting stars -- even future ones -- of the sport. So, thanks to some joint campaigning between the Braves and the American League's Toronto Blue Jays, Freeman won the final, fan vote sending the Atlanta first baseman to New York instead of arguably the game's most exciting, young star of the future in Puig.
Also, I'd wager that ALMOST a dozen people would recognize Steve Delabar, even in uniform. Delabar, a relief pitcher for the Blue Jays, was the last man onto the A-L roster, thanks to that unique, on-line, international relationship between franchises.
On Thursday, August 5, 2013 Alex Rodriguez was ALMOST suspended for 211 games by Major League Baseball for repeated violations of the Join Drug Prevention Program. One problem, Rodriguez hadn't repeatedly violated the drug policy of MLB. He violated it once. And for that, he should have been suspended for the requisite 50 games. However, because baseball claims they have proof that Rodriguez has repeatedly used performance-enhancing agents -- even since his admission to using steroids during those loosey-goosey days of the early 2000s -- and they insist he tried to obstruct their investigation and buy the evidence against him before the league could do so first, the commissioner's office sought the completely arbitrary 211-game penalty.
Of course, A-Rod appealed the decision immediately, as was his right because MLB chose not to suspend him under the "Best Interest of Baseball" clause. Had Selig gone that route, Alex would have had no right to appeal, but the MLB Players Association would have had the right to reopen collective bargaining and the commissioner was not interested in entertaining that risk. Now, the ALMOST suspension is in the hands of an arbitrator, and the smart money says that the suspension will fall somewhere short of a full season. Too bad for the Yankees, who ALMOST would have been off the hook for paying Rodriguez at all this year.
On Monday, September 2, 2013, 64-year old Diana Nyad completed a 103-mile, open-water swim from Cuba to Key West through the shark-infested waters of the Straits of Florida. It was an incredible feat for a person of any age, let alone someone closing in on monthly social security checks. However, ALMOST no one gave a rats' hind end about it. In fact, ALMOST no one actually believed she completed the swim without the benefit of a cage to protect her from sharks. To further illustrate the lack of interest, when she reached the beaches of Key West, only a few dozen people were there to witness her arrival. And, even that was only because there was a long line to get into Sloppy Joe's.
On Sunday, October 13, 2013 the Carolina Panthers went to Minnesota and curb-stomped the Vikings, 35-10, in a game that was never that close. It started a stretch of 10 wins in 11 games that earned the team it's first division title since 2008 that ALMOST made believers of the national media. Oh, it wasn't just that particular win, one in which Cam Newton accounted for 272 yards of offense and four touchdowns, it was the stretch that still left most of the talking heads shaking theirs. Wins over the Rams, Buccaneers and Falcons followed, moving Carolina over .500 for the first time in 5 years and still the brainiacs weren't convinced. While WHO you play is always a factor, HOW you play is more important, and the Panthers were destroying the competition. Even winning a slugfest at San Francisco wasn't enough to convince people of the team's arrival, nor was the comeback win over New England on a Monday night -- even as Cam Newton led the Panthers to a late, game-winning touchdown drive.
Let's be honest about this, the skeptical nature of the NFL media has NOTHING at all to do with the Panthers as a team. The doubts are entirely Cam-driven. Even as the team won nine of 10 games to set up an NFC South first place game with New Orleans, the great Peter King wasn't sold on Newton, as he related his mid-game thoughts on Cam in his Monday Morning Quarterback piece last week. "Time was drawing short for Newton to justify why he'd been the first pick in the 2011 draft…in the last 20 minutes of the NFC South title game, Sunday in Charlotte, he'd gone 3-and-out four straight times. Four series, 16 yards. At home. Sitting there at NBC, I'd seen enough. I tweeted: 'Has Cam made one play today? One?' Carolina drafted Newton first overall for games like this and he's failing them miserably today.' Until the final minute."
This has always been about Cam's "other stuff". Cam's play has been better than every other rookie/young QB not named Wilson or Luck in the last three years, but people can't get past the towel over the head or the superman styling or the first down signaling or the unpolished press conferences after frustrating losses. Get over yourselves, people. Newton is becoming a star and a grown-___-man at the same time. He's learning how to lead, be accountable and win in the clutch, so open your eyes to what's been happening. Cam's not perfect, he's not Brady or Rodgers or Luck or Wilson. He's Cam Newton, and he's a dangerous weapon on a football field. Well, ALMOST according to those whose minds were made up two years ago. To them, Cam is one step away from being the next Vince Young.
On Saturday, November 30, 2013 the Alabama Crimson Tide ALMOST beat the Auburn Tigers to stay on course for a third consecutive national championship. Since the introduction of the Associated Press college football poll in 1936 that had never happened. But, Alabama was 2:41 away from the SEC championship game and then a spot opposite Florida State for another BCS title. Then Nick Saban done lost his mind. It's one thing to allow Auburn, with not much of a passing game, to beat you with a 39-yard TD throw. That stuff happens. But, it's another thing entirely to attempt a game-winning, 57-yard field goal, with a back up kicker, on the road, in a tie game! Nick, just let A.J. McCarron throw a hail mary into the end zone and take your chances in overtime.
You know the rest, someone named Adam Griffith came on to attempt the third field goal of his career, despite having never tried one from beyond 40 yards. Predictably, the kick fell short and Tigers defensive back Chris Davis, who is also an all-american punt returner, raced 100 yards with the game-winning touchdown! Stunningly stupid stuff from Saban, who ALMOST had his team in position to rewrite college football history.
And finally, in what was ALMOST the story of the year in sports…
On Saturday, December 7, 2013, Duke ALMOST won the ACC championship….in football! No joke, Duke was a good football team in 2013. Not good for Duke, actually good. As in 10-wins, undefeated on the road in conference play, won eight times in a row, Coastal Division champion good.
The Blue Devils' two regular season defeats came in consecutive weeks with back up QB Brandon Connette forced into the starting line up due to a broken collarbone suffered by starter Anthony Boone. And, while Connette eventually grew into much more than just a red zone, read option runner masquerading as a quarterback, he wasn't when Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh showed up at Wallace Wade Stadium on back-to-back Saturdays in September. But, they rallied to win at Virginia after trailing by three touchdowns, won a physical battle at Virginia Tech -- the same place they regurgitated a huge lead a year ago -- and engineered comeback wins over Miami, NC State and North Carolina to win the division.
But this story really doesn't end there. A week after David Cutcliffe guided the Devils to that dramatic, division-clinching win at Kenan Stadium, Duke spent the first quarter trading punches with Florida State -- yes, THAT Florida State -- in the ACC championship game in Charlotte. Realistically speaking, Duke was never going to be a team as big, as fast and as strong as the Seminoles. FSU probably had 25 future professional football players on the field at one time or another that night. Yet, after Duke forced a Florida State turnover, it was the Devils that ALMOST scored first.
Starting at their own three yard line, the Blue Devils marched well across midfield and following a clutch, third and long Boone completion to tight end Braxton Deaver Duke was set up with a first down at the Florida State 33. It was then that the game likely slipped from their grasp. Jela Duncan, arguably the best of Duke's very talented running backs, broke free on a pass route down the left sideline and was waiting for a perfectly thrown spiral from Boone inside the 15-yard line. But, for the first time in more than two months, it appeared the moment overwhelmed the Blue Devils, and when Duncan allowed the ball to slip through his hands Duke's chance to slay the dragon went along for the fall.
Granted, more than three quarters of football remained, and even had the Blue Devils converted that play and cashed it in for a touchdown, it was still unlikely they'd be able to keep the Seminoles at bay the rest of the night. But, all monumental upsets have to start somewhere, and Duncan's drop was noticeably deflating. However, in a year of ALMOST, with Duke coming that close to scaring a program the magnitude of FSU's, it hardly feels as though the Devils came up short. For my money, Duke football was one of the shining moments of 2013.