The Replacements

The Replacements

Welcome to Sport on the Silver Screen. In this series, I will be looking back over sports movies that I have recently watched/re-watched and giving my thoughts on them. Getting into the Schmoedown and starting to follow a number of the personalities from the show has given me a much greater appreciation of movies and seen me starting to watch more.

Being a fan of both movies and sports, I have taken the chance to start highlighting the sheer volume of sports movies out there. For each movie I will be giving some details about the movie and then a quick review, including a section giving a sports fan’s perspective of the action’s realism.

This series has been heavily influenced by Ben Bateman and Andrew Ghai of Action Industries, and as such I will be borrowing a couple of sections that they use in their weekly show Action Movie Anatomy: Fist-pump moment and favourite line. Be aware, there will be spoilers, but I will try to keep them to a minimum.

Today I will be looking at one of my favourite sports movies: The Replacements

ss the replacements

Key facts

Directed by Howard Deutch

Music by John Debney

Released in 2000

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Gene Hackman, Orlando Jones, Jon Favreau, Rhys Ifans, Brooke Langton

Synopsis: When the NFL players all go on strike with 4 games remaining in the regular season, the Washington Sentinels bring in head coach Jimmy McGinty (Hackman) to help the team make the playoffs. Rather than bring in semi-pros, McGinty chooses to bring in a hodgepodge of players he has watched through their careers to create the craziest team of replacements ever.

Review

If you’re looking for a piece of cinematic greatness, this is not going to be it. What it is though, is a genuinely fun sports comedy movie. I can’t even remember exactly how I first found this movie, I just came across the DVD at the bottom of my box of DVDs one day, decided to watch it and fell in love and it is a feel-good movie that I will consistently return to.

Much like many ensemble team sports comedies, the members of the team we follow all fall into their distinct roles: Keanu as Shane Falco is the heart of the team who has his funny moments but is generally used as the more serious spine to keep the story on track along with Hackman, Rhys Ifans is the one trying to run from his past, while Jon Favreau and Orlando Jones are key to a lot of the comedic moments as they play a maniacal linebacker/SWAT officer and a shop assistant who speaks before he thinks most of the time. Langton is there primarily as a love interest, but I do appreciate that she is shown to be highly knowledgeable about the team and the sport, helping her feel like a character in her own right rather than just a female for the lead to fall for.

As with many sports movies, it is always interesting to see where the antagonists come into play. The opposition are antagonists to some degree – especially specific players at times and the way Dallas are portrayed as so superior to the Replacements in the final match – but the real antagonist is the usual Quarterback, Eddie Martel (Brett Cullen) and his group of striking players, which is a dynamic that I think works quite well in that he is there at the start, but dealing with him brings the replacements together and it is only when he returns for the final match that things start to go wrong for the team again.

For me, the comedy really hits in this movie. Orlando Jones, Jon Favreau and Rhys Ifans are all incredible comedic actors and Gene Hackman plays off everyone around him so well. All of this then allows for more poignant moments, much like Keanu’s “Quicksand” speech and the scene where McGinty has to tell him that Martel has returned to the team.

Finally, I just want to mention the music of the movie, as I have had the soundtrack downloaded for years. I really like what John Debney does in this movie, combining a soundtrack of existing songs and a score to create something that works really well in the moment. The score works really well to cover a lot off the more sports-heavy moments, while the use of existing songs has led to me really appreciating Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and discovering “Heroes” (They use a cover by Marc Bonilla & Font 48, but it led me to David Bowie’s version).

Sports perspective

The movie utilises the actors playing the game as much as possible in the Baltimore Ravens’ stadium, which really helps in terms of making everything look realistic – though if you pay attention you will notice it leads to a number of inconsistencies as plays are shown from different angles.

The movie itself is very loosely based on the 1987 NFL strike and the Washington Redskins (who won all 3 games during the strike and went on to win the Super Bowl), but it is only really as far as the general premise and some similarities in the teams faced and the QB controversy. Archie Lee Harris, Jr. (who plays Wilson Carr, one of the striking players) was in fact one of the replacement players during the strike, playing tackle for the Denver Broncos in 3 games on their way to the Super Bowl.

Having real NFL coaches portraying the opposition head coaches and having the commentary duo of John Madden and Pat Summerall for the matches goes a long way to helping the action feel authentic, and it genuinely feels like the pair had fun with some of the commentary.

As someone who has been watching the NFL for years, though, there are a number of occasions where what we are seeing doesn’t quite match up with real life. Though I understand that a big part of it will be to keep the focus on our main characters, we do end up with circumstances where players are involved in plays where their position would usually not feature, such as a QB on a kickoff return and a linebacker and corner both involved in an offensive play. Similarly there are instances where the rules of the game are not quite as we see in the movie, such as having to call a timeout at the end of the play after fielding the kickoff (the clock would automatically stop) and the officials combining a number of penalties against the Sentinels on one play (in reality, it would have been just 1 penalty, though I wonder if any players would have been ejected, especially under modern rules).

Finally, I just need to mention the oddity that Keanu’s character Shane Falco is goes from starting QB to being cut when Martel returns to the team. QB is such a vital position, teams will always carry at least 2 on the roster, so from a sporting sense, Falco would just be benched rather than cut. Obviously, this wouldn’t have been as impactful narratively, but from a sporting perspective, it would have been easy enough to add a moment in where McGinty is forced to cut Falco as well as take back Martel.

Useless trivia

Keanu’s character in this movie, Shane Falco, studied at Ohio State, which is also the alma mater of his character Johnny Utah in Point Break.

Fist-pump moment

I almost went for Fumiko’s “fat-man score” against San Diego, but for me, the fist-pump moment is the bar brawl after the first match. We get to see all of our main characters from the team working together, while also bringing out the individuality of each character.

Favourite line

Falco’s “Quicksand” speech is definitely up there in showing how so quickly a situation can deteriorate when things start to go wrong, no matter what you do. Instead, I ended up going for an inspirational quote from one of the huddles in the final game.

“Pain heals. Chicks dig scars. Glory lasts forever.”

 

What did you think of this movie? Let me know in the comments. Until next time!

Kyle Shanahan has a problem…

Kyle Shanahan has a problem…

Kyle Shanahan has a problem, and he needs to address it quickly.

Watching the San Francisco 49ers enter the 4ᵗʰ quarter with a 10 point lead, I assumed that a team with one of the best defenses in the NFL would be able to see the game out from here and I switched part of my brain off to think back to the halftime show. So imagine my surprise when the still focused part of my brain saw the Kansas City Chiefs draw level and go on to take a 20-31 victory.

This was Shanahan’s 2ⁿᵈ Super Bowl appearance in the last 4 years, having been the Offensive Coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons when they faced the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI. In that game, the Falcons found themselves ahead 28-3 midway through the 3ʳᵈ quarter and 28-9 ahead entering the final quarter, but eventually lost in OT 34-28. Following the game, Shanahan was heavily criticised for not putting more focus on a rushing attack that contained Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, which would have helped the Falcons reduce the time available for the Patriots to come back.

nfl kyle shanahan falcons 49ersOnce again in Miami, I feel that the rushing game was not featured enough in the final quarter, despite the dominance of their rushing game through the playoffs. Even in this game, the rushing attack was having some success. The Niners finished the game with 141 yards from 22 carries (6.4 yds/carry), if you look at just Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert then you get 86 yards from 17 carries (5.1 yds/carry). In contrast, Jimmy Garoppolo attempted 31 passes, completing 20 for 219 yards, 1 TD and 1 interception. Granted, the stats would have been impacted slightly by the need to get down the field in a short period of time after going behind late on, but there still doesn’t appear to be a big enough focus on the rush. With running backs like Mostert and Coleman and an elite Tight End like George Kittle, who is an effective blocker and not just a receiving threat, the Niners’ running game is dangerous, but it also does 2 other very important things:

  • It keeps the clock running between plays, limiting the time the Chiefs have to come back
  • It gives the defense time to rest and recover. Even an elite defense will tire and fade if they aren’t getting a decent break within series, as we saw when Damian Williams broke off a 38-yard rushing TD to end a drive in just 2 plays and effectively guarantee the win

Now I’m not putting all of the blame on Shanahan. Jimmy Garoppolo missed a deep throw late on to Emmanuel Sanders on 3ʳᵈ & 10 that would have probably ended in a Touchdown, or a 1ˢᵗ & Goal at worst. There were also a couple of dubious calls, such as a no-call on what appeared to be an offside – which really seemed to help flip the momentum, while Damian Williams’ go-ahead touchdown was too close to call and eventually came down to sticking with the on-field decision to award the touchdown.

The thing is, sport has narratives, and ever since the Falcons lost in the Big Game, there has been a narrative that Shanahan chokes in the big moments. Unfortunately, the way that this game finished will have done nothing to help dispel this, and if anything has added fuel to the fire.

And so it comes back to my initial point: Kyle Shanahan has a problem and he needs to address it quickly. He is a fantastic coach and I fully expect him to grow from this experience and improve his play-calling. But he has to find a way to break that narrative, as even if he doesn’t believe it himself, it will weigh him down and be on the minds of him, his staff and his players. I seriously hope that he can get past this.

NFL Pick’Em: Divisional Winners

NFL Pick’Em: Divisional Winners

Football is back! It feels like forever since Tom Brady and Bill Belichick won yet another Super Bowl and while we have had the Draft, Hard Knocks and preseason to keep up going for a bit, this is where the fun really begins.

Last year, 3 friends and I decided to challenge ourselves to predict the 8 Divisional winners in the 2018 NFL season and the teams that would compete in Super Bowl LIII. This year, Ed (the Baker Mayfield-obsessed Patriots fan) and I are returning to see if we can do any better. However, this time we will be looking at just the Divisions – we were gonna pick the Super Bowl too, but neither of us could narrow down the field enough in the AFC!


AFC North

Pittsburgh missed out on the playoffs last season as Le’Veon Bell sat out the entire season. With both him and star receiver Antonio Brown gone (putting more attention on JuJu Smith-Schuster), it’s going to take a lot for them to be at the top. Baltimore finished the regular season well with Lamar Jackson under centre, but did not look comfortable as they lost to the Chargers in the Wild Card Round and do not have great options behind him in RGIII and rookie Trace McSorley. As for the Bengals, it is hard to imagine them even reaching 8-8, especially with star receiver A.J. Green injured. Though they have been a joke for so long, I can actually envision the Cleveland Browns topping the division as the WR pairing of OBJ and Jarvis Landry and the RB pairing of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt (once he returns from suspension) will give Baker Mayfield every chance of avoiding a sophomore slump, while they also have a high level defence to keep games close.

Ed’s pick – Cleveland Browns

America’s new favourite team, the young and talented Cleveland Browns look to provide us with a lot of excitement this year. Mayfield has shown his class, and with receiving options Landry/OBJ with breakout Nick Chubb and soon to be Kareem Hunt, this side can go places with the strong Defence they already boast. That being said this is the Browns, and the wary Ohio fanbase may not be riding the hype the rest of the country (and I) am. Pittsburgh almost look a different side this year with 2 of the big 3 departing in unceremonious style, however with emerging talent in Juju and Conner that loss won’t be as big as it sounds. This side knows what it takes to win and will push the relatively inexperienced Browns right to the finish line. We shouldn’t count out the Ravens who will continue to be competitive fronting a fresher, younger side than we have seen in previous seasons. The success or failure will be defined by how Lamar Jackson can handle the starting position with no room for excuses following Flacco’s exile. Unfortunately I can’t see the Bengals keeping up with the other three in what is one of the NFLs increasingly numerous competitive divisions, one feels that until they finally part ways with Dalton they are never going to be above average.

AFC East

The Jets were one of the worst teams in the league last season and while the RB corps (now featuring Le’Veon Bell) may take some pressure off Sam Darnold and Robby Anderson, it is hard to imagine them reaching .500, likewise for the Miami Dolphins who have traded half their stars away and are looking at Fitzmagic to lead the team and likely make way for Arizona reject Josh Rosen once his performances go downhill. The Bills roster screams mediocrity and I think that a winning season will be a success for them. All this goes to suggest that it will be another easy season for the Patriots, despite Gronk no longer being on the roster. Let’s be honest, while Brady and Belichick are there, it is brave – if not stupid – to bet against them!

Ed’s pick – New England Patriots

Unfortunately a year on this is still the weakest division in the NFL, it will be interesting to see how the QB class of ’18 all progress this year, facing the ageless Brady. The Jets have made some solid improvements bringing in a stud RB in Bell who will be fresh following his infamous holdout last year and Sam Darnold seems the pick of the QBs and the type who could really blossom in his 2nd year. The Bills meanwhile have spent the offseason crowding Josh Allen with experienced wideouts and backs, and have a fairly reasonable schedule to begin the season. That being said I cannot see a universe where either of these sides even challenge the Brady/Belichick Pats who although without Gronk will have no problem winning here. Small shout out goes to the Miami Dolphins who are actually still an NFL franchise and my favourite for Pick no. 1 next April.

AFC South

The Jaguars have finally moved on from Blake Bortles at QB and now need to hope that Nick Foles can replicate his Eagles form rather than his Rams form. I had the Colts winning the division when I initially wrote this, but following Andrew Luck’s retirement, I see them struggling. Tennessee have a good roster but need to hope Marcus Mariota can stay fit (though Ryan Tannehill is a good backup) and need to hope Derrick Henry produces throughout the season rather than just towards the end; Taylor Lewan’s suspension is not gonna help this at all. The Texans may have lost Lamar Miller to injury but Duke Johnson is a great pickup from the Browns and I think they have enough stars on either side of the ball to take the top spot in the AFC South.

Ed’s Pick – Houston Texans

The AFC South has been turned on it’s head with Andrew Luck announcing his retirement – a sad day for the sport that has made the division very level indeed. Indy have dropped from my no.1 seed here down to a lowly 3rd place as a result. It just looked like this was their year with a roster that looked like it had no holes… but now has a gaping one in the most important position in sport. This does however open the door to the challengers. The Texans seem the most likely to take advantage. They underwhelmed last year when you look at the strength they posess on their roster with annual MVP candidates Watt, Hopkins and Watson. It never came together truly came together last season but if Watson can be protected these guys can fly. I will admit I have no idea what the Jaguars will throw up, their Defense is filled with confidence but if that overflows things can go wrong, and whilst they moved on from Bortles’ inconsistent and short arm I’m not easily convinced Foles is the guy who will bring the party… but we’ve heard that before… Unlike the previous divisions I don’t see the Titans being a bad side like with the Fins or Bungles, but here is another division that will be tough to shine in. Mariota’s health continues to concern me and entering a contract year has a lot to prove not only me but his own front office. Is this year going to be Corey Davis’ year, backed up by Humphries and rookie AJ Brown the Titans may finally have something to shout about at the position.

AFC West

The Antonio Brown show is more likely to derail the Raiders’ season than save it. With Mike Mayock brought in as GM, this looks to be a franchise building towards the future, but Hard Knocks has not shown me anything to make me confident in their success this year. Emmanuel Sanders and Von Miller look wasted in a franchise that looks like it may be starting Joe Flacco at QB. I expect this season to be another fight between the Chiefs and Chargers for the top spot with the other likely to earn a Wild Card spot, however with Hunt no longer in Kansas City and defences now having a season of footage on Patrick Mahomes, I give the advantage to the Chargers, as long as Melvin Gordon ends his holdout soon and then stays fit.

Ed’s Pick – L.A. Chargers

I don’t know why I have a slight obsession with the Chargers, but I am sticking with these guys as my pick for the AFC West once more. They boast an impressive depth chart in almost every position, with and without the ball and showed that when they play, they can beat anyone. The question is can Rivers be consistently good, because I believe Mahomes will continue to be. With Hill looking like he won’t miss any time (a decision I cannot understand) there will be TDs flowing at Arrowhead once more, but with the 31st ranked Defense in 2018 Mahomes will have to be slinging at MVP pace just to keep the points difference positive and this could ultimately cost them another Superbowl chance.
Whilst he boosts any roster AB continues to be AB and if he manages to start the season it’s only a matter of time before he misses games for one reason or another. Without him the side looks starved of high level talent and Hard Knocks isn’t doing anything to prove me these guys will mount any sort of challenge. Similarly Denver have lost their reputation of being one of the toughest outfits to play and now seem welcome relief after big games. Can gritty defensive coach Vic Fangio bring back the No Fly Zone of old – with a pass rushing duo of Miller and Chubb it’s possible, but it’ll have to work hard if Flacco can’t find a good start, I wonder whether we will be seeing Drew Lock sooner rather than later…

NFC North

Detroit finished bottom of their division in 2018 and such is the strength of the NFC North, I can’t see them doing much better this year. Aaron Rodgers will keep any team competitive but this is not the strongest of Packers rosters by any stretch and it will be interesting to see how Matt LaFleur does in his first head coach role. The Chicago defense is incredible, but there are still questions over Mitchell Trubisky, whereas I think that the Vikings will do better this year with a season now that Kirk Cousins has had a year to get used to playing in Minneapolis. It will be close, but I give the Vikings a slight edge over the Bears.

Ed’s pick – Green Bay Packers

The first game of the 100th season of the NFL could prove to be the decider in the NFC North, which looks to be a close scrap between the Packers and Bears. Matt Nagy’s second year defensive juggernaut has drafted wisely and rookie RB David Montgomery is making a name for himself in the preseason. They’ll likely go head to head with the new duo of LaFleur and A-Rod who whilst fit is a proven winner assuming his Defense can limit points against. I wasn’t far from adding the Vikings to a three way battle, they have strength in every position and the return of Dalvin Cook is huge – but can Kirk Cousins be the player he was paid to be… I have never really believed the hype and I think he is more of an anchor preventing progress than he is given credit for. Detroit can be safely removed from the others and look to be comfortably propping up the division. Patricia needs to put his stamp on this team, and get the ball moving but that 10,000 day playoff drought doesn’t look like its ending this season…

NFC East

Alex Smith’s injury is a huge hit to the Redskins, so their hopes rely on Case Keenum… gulp! Daniel Jones was a shock selection 6th overall in the draft so the battle between him and Eli Manning seems underwhelming and not something Giants fans will be looking forward to. Philadelphia has a strong roster but needs to hope Carson Wentz can get to his pre-injury form, whereas the Cowboys can overcome the lack of an elite QB (though he is still above average) with one of the best RBs in the league, a receiving corps that was boosted by the addition of Amari Cooper and a strong defense.

Ed’s pick – Philadelphia Eagles

The NFC East starts the season with big question marks over each team, will the Zeke holdout continue in a fashion similar to Bell’s last year? Can Carson Wentz stay healthy now postseason extraordinaire Big D*** Nick has moved on? Who will start under centre for the Redskins and the Giants?
Assuming all goes to plan the Cowboys look to be one of the best sides they have had in a long time with genuine playoff credentials, if they can keep last seasons momentum rolling they would be a franchise no one should take lightly. Philly also look a very strong beast with very few holes who will be going head to head with the Boys, a lot rides on Wentz and whether he can win over the locker room and fans to take the Eagles into January where their fans believe they belong.
I can’t say the same for the other two sides, losing OBJ, Vernon and Collins won’t help the already lacklustre chances for Big Blue who continue to maintain Eli will take the reigns to start the season. It might not be long before we see shock 6th overall pick Daniel Jones on the hot seat and whether the gamble paid off… We have another rookie QB in Washington in Dwayne Haskins who will be competing with Keenum for the starters spot following an up and down pre season. But in an aging team devoid of playing and coaching talent it’s hard to see those empty seats being filled anytime soon.

NFC South

I can’t imagine Buccaneers WR Mike Evans is too thrilled that he will be catching passes from Blaine Gabbert, Jameis Winston or Ryan Griffin… he deserves better! Carolina need to find some wideouts to complement RB Christian McCaffrey and the ageing Greg Olsen… and hope that Cam focuses more on the football than his outfits. The Falcons have some great players on offense but need to improve defensively if tey are to live up to their full potential. If the Saints can replicate last season’s form, they should be able to push for a #1 or #2 seed.

Ed’s pick – New Orleans Saints

This division has sent a team to the NFC Championship game for 3 of the last 4 years, and is rightly regarded as arguably the most competitive in football. The Bucs have stagnated in recent years and have moved on from Doug Marone to Bruce Arians in an attempt to stop the rot, can he bring the best out of Jameis Winston and turn the ship around? It will undoubtedly be hard within the division but there are some favourable fixtures outside of it. The other three sides all remain with huge playoff plus potential, New Orleans have a Super Bowl ready team with superstars on offence (Thomas & Kamara), an experienced elite QB in Brees and a better defence than they are credited for. It looks to me like they will just pip the Falcons, devastated by injuries last year they bring a whole new crew of co-ordinators to a talent filled roster who barring a shock should perform to a wildcard round level. I’ve only heard promising reports about Cam Newton this offseason and if he can be the “stud” he really should be with his build and his arm, with McCaffrey fulfilling his potential at his side we could see even more competition in this division. Unfortunately Superbowl Cam haunts me and his injury record and dress sense could quickly turn him into the flop potential he certainly possesses.

NFC West

With a 3-13 record, the Cardinals were the worst team in the league last season and Kyler Murray will need to grow quickly into his role as an NFL starting QB, so will need plenty of help from David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald. San Francisco’s 2018 season was ruined by injuries to Jerick McKinnon and Jimmy Garoppolo; if they can keep their roster fit then an 8-8 finish is possible. The Rams will surely be pushing for the playoffs again, but there are questions over Todd Gurley’s health and I think that they will find things harder now teams have a season of game footage – just look at how the Patriots nullified them in the Super Bowl! My Divisional Champions are the Seahawks, who always find a way to remain not just competitive but extremely strong in the division and recently added yet another defensive star in the form of Jadeveon Clowney.

Ed’s pick – Los Angeles Rams

The InstaRams and their fans will be fuming on social media after losing in the Superbowl last year, but with McVay’s brain filling the void in Goff’s head these guys aren’t going anywhere and remain odds on favourites to win the division. No one knows what is going on with Todd Gurley but with or without him we will see an exciting, high scoring side once again. The other three in this division for me are very much of an unknown entity, with each going through individual identity crises. The 49ers (Jimmy G’s) huge preseason hype was ended far too early last year for us to know just what we will get from him and he remains the key in answering this question, Shanahan and co. will be hoping Joey’s brother Nick at pick 2 will be a difference maker on the other side of the ball. The Seahawks’ unknowns lie all over the field, will we see running back by committee or a favourite emerge from the pack, can Lockett and rookie DK Metcalfe provide Wilson with enough power, and with only one member of the Legion of Boom returning in Bobby Wagner, albeit surrounded by a plethora of talented young players how will the once feared Defense fare? Similarly the Cardinals, last years laughing stock now have a fully fit David Johnson and #1 pick Kyler Murray back with old pal Kliff Kingsbury, have had an up and down preseason and who knows what we will see from this outfit. I suspect the Hawks have enough talent to push in this division, but I’m not so sure about the others…


Not gonna lie, I think Ed has put me to shame with the thought he has put into this – I’m going to blame a little something called the Rugby World Cup being on the horizon!

Who do you think will win the divisions?

NFL Bold Predictions: How Did We Do?

NFL Bold Predictions: How Did We Do?

Back in September and with the NFL regular season about to get underway, 3 friends and I decided to put our necks on the line and show our knowledge of the NFL by predicting the 8 Divisional Champions and the teams that would make it to the Super Bowl.

Now that the regular season is over and the playoffs are underway, it’s time to see how we did on our predictions…

Teams who made it into the playoffs are marked with a *

NFC North

How it ended: Bears*, Vikings, Packers, Lions

The shock addition of Khalil Mack took the Bears’ defense to another level, while the offense was able to do enough to get the victories and win the division. The Vikings fell back this year despite a great start to the season from Adam Thielen and you can’t help but wonder if spending big money on Kirk Cousins was the right decision. An early Aaron Rodgers injury stopped him from performing to the level we expect and with him not at 100%, the team’s deficiencies were all too clear, while the Lions were anything but the king of the jungle.

Our predictions: Me – Vikings, Rob – Vikings, Matt – Bears, Ed – Vikings

Not a great start for 3 of us who were all expecting the Vikings to push on with a franchise QB at the helm, but Matt’s trust in Trubisky paid off for him.

NFC East

How it ended: Cowboys*, Eagles*, Redskins, Giants

In a division that was struggling for quality, the Redskins looked on course to crawl into the playoffs until an injury to Alex Smith derailed their season. The Cowboys got it together down the stretch with an improving defense and an offense that looked much more dangerous once Amari Cooper was added. The Eagles struggled initially with Nick Foles under center but did not drastically improve when Carson Wentz returned from injury and eventually turned back to Foles to scrape into the final Wildcard spot at the Vikings’ expense. The Giants stuck with Eli Manning but it is hard to imagine them doing so for much longer as a 1-5 record against their divisional opponents killed any chance of the playoffs.

Our predictions: Me – Eagles, Rob – Eagles, Matt – Eagles, Ed – Eagles

All of us fell into the Minnesota trap of expecting a franchise QB to lead one of last season’s strongest teams to the playoffs, though Matt’s pick may have also been driven by his Eagles bias.

NFC South

How it ended: Saints*, Falcons, Panthers, Buccaneers

The Bucs spent most of the season switching between Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick in an attempt to get a string of wins together, with generally poor results. The Panthers started 6-2 before a run of 7 defeats ruined their season, while the Falcons lost to all 4 teams from the AFC North to put them out of playoff contention despite a 4-2 record against their divisional rivals. The Saints ran riot this season with the attacking trifecta of Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Micheal Thomas almost impossible to stop.

Our predictions: Me – Saints, Rob – Saints, Matt – Saints, Ed – Saints

The first time that all 4 of us were all correct, the balance that New Orleans had in their offense was too strong to ignore and we all had enough faith in their defense to hold strong enough to concede less than the offense scored.

NFC West

How it ended: Rams*, Seahawks *, 49ers, Cardinals

The 49ers’ season was over before it had barely begun after losing Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 3 after having already lost RB Jerick McKinnon before the season even started – with Pierre Garçon also missing half the season, it’s impressive that they even got to 4 wins! The Cardinals season was a disaster as they finished 3-13 with a franchise-worst 1-7 home record. The Seahawks were meant to be in a rebuilding phase but recovered from an 0-2 start to make double-digit wins earn a wildcard spot, while the Rams burst out the gate to be the early leaders, only for a 35-45 loss in a shootout at the Superdome and 2 disappointing losses in December to strip them of 1st seed in the NFC.

Our predictions: Me – Rams, Rob – Rams, Matt – Rams, Ed – Rams

No shocks here with so many teams coming into this season part-way through a rebuild, whereas the Ram’s additions suggested that they are very much in win-now mode.

AFC North

How it ended: Ravens*, Steelers, Browns, Bengals

The Browns are competitive again! With young stars Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward, and with Hue Jackson and Todd Haley fired after Week 8, the Browns put together an impressive run that hints at things to come, while a narrow loss to the Ravens in Week 17 clinched Baltimore the spot in the playoffs at the expense of Pittsburgh. The Ravens also had a midseason change of fortunes after Lamar Jackson was given the nod at QB, while the Steelers were left without Le’Veon Bell – who sat out the entire season – and may be set to lose Antonio Brown after relations appeared to sour during the season. The Bengals started well, getting to 5-3, but only managed 1 win in the second half of the season, with Tyler Eifert, Andy Dalton and A. J. Green all missing significant time.

Our predictions: Me – Steelers, Rob – Ravens, Matt – Steelers, Ed – Steelers

Rob can feel smug here as the Ravens defense saw him be the only person to correctly guess this division’s champion, though I’m sure more of us would have made that pick if we’d realised Bell would sit out the entire season and not just a portion of it.

AFC East

How it ended: Patriots*, Dolphins, Bills, Jets

A 3-0 start soon went wrong for the Dolphins, who promptly lost 7-38 at Gillette Stadium and only picked up 4 more wins all season – though they did manage a remarkable walk-off victory against New England at home. 4-12 was the best that the Jets could do this season but there are positive signs for the development of Sam Darnold. The Bills managed shock victories over the Vikings and Titans when they were both looking strong, but were unable to get enough consistency. The Patriots 2-1 start and poor performances got some people wondering if their dominance was over, but despite maybe not looking as strong as in some seasons, they still finished 11-5 to earn a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Our predictions: Me – Patriots, Rob – Patriots, Matt – Patriots, Ed – Patriots

Given that the Patriots have won the AFC East in 15 of the previous 17 seasons, is it any shock that we all went for them here?

AFC South

How it ended: Texans*, Colts*, Titans, Jaguars

The Jaguars defense couldn’t live up to last season’s performances and Blake Bortles was back to being Blake Bortles. The Titans’ season was ended in Week 1 in hindsight, with Delanie Walker picking up and injury that saw him out for the season and Mariota also going down with an injury that he struggled with on and off the season. Despite this, they kept going and were only denied a playoff appearance with a loss in a winner-takes-all match against the Colts who recovered from a 5-1 start to finish 10-6. The Texans also had a poor start, going 0-3, but a 4-0 divisional record helped them on their way to 11-5 and the top spot in the AFC South.

Our predictions: Me – Texans, Rob – Jaguars, Matt – Texans, Ed – Texans

With questions around a number of these teams, Houston appeared the safe choice assuming everyone could stay fit. I imagine Rob is regretting picking the Jags about now…

AFC West

How it ended: Chiefs*, Chargers*, Broncos, Raiders

The Raiders were a shambles, trading away 2 of their best players in WR Amari Cooper and OLB Khalil Mack. Case Keenum was unable to replicate his form from last season with the Vikings. The Chiefs ran out to 9-1 as Patrick Mahomes wowed fans and pundits alike with his play, however they did lose a couple of matches following the release of Kareem Hunt for off-field issues. Despite a late win in a shootout at Arrowhead Stadium, the Chargers’ loss to Denver in Week 11 saw them finish the season as the 5th seed in the AFC despite having a 12-4 record that only the Chiefs could match – the Chiefs earning the 1st seed by virtue of their record in the division.

Our predictions: Me – Chiefs, Rob – Chiefs, Matt – Chargers, Ed – Chargers

How fitting that in the closest of divisions, this was also the one with the greatest variety in the predicted winner (2:2 rather than 3:1). For this to have come down to record in division games shows just how hard a decision this was to make.

The Final Tally

In what was a very close affair, Rob, Matt and I all finished on 5/8 correct, but Ed finished on 4/8

Super Bowl Prediction

  • Me: Vikings v Patriots
  • Rob: Jaguars v Saints
  • Matt: Eagles v Texans
  • Ed: Chargers v Packers

So it’s safe to say that these predictions were awful! Of the 4 of us, only Matt managed to predict a match-up that included 2 teams to qualify for the playoffs, however even that came to a quick end as the Texans are now out after losing to the Colts in the Wildcard Round.

Now the only question left to answer is if any of us will even have 1 of our selected teams make it to the big game…

Designing a League: Getting the Right Format

Designing a League: Getting the Right Format

If you are a regular reader, you may have noticed that I watch a lot of sport (probably more than is healthy) and in some cases – most notably rugby – follow a number of different domestic leagues within a sport. As a result of this, I have come to see that most sports leagues will follow one of 2 formats:

The first is what I would call a League Format, where every team will play home and away against every other team in the league, as seen in the Premier League, Top 14 and the Gallagher Premiership.

The second is what I would call a Conference Format, where the league is split into a number of conferences and teams play a schedule that does not feature matches against every opposition, these league will then have a playoff at the end to determine the champion. Leagues that follow this format would include the Pro14, Super Rugby and the NFL, which takes things even further by splitting its 2 16-team conferences into 4-team divisions.

Now, imagine you were able to create and organise a professional league of your own, what format would you pick?

League Format

The big draw of the league format is that it has a balanced schedule. Each team plays everybody else both home and away so – beyond the changes in form through a season – every team is on an even playing field by playing the same fixtures.

While this is great in principle, it does have its drawbacks. It is harder to have a large number of teams in a league of this format as for each team that is added, that is a further 2 matches that must be added to the schedule. Just look at the Premier League, which contains 20 teams and runs from August to May (there will be some international breaks, but there will also be some midweek games to make up for this).

Tying into the long season is the lack of a rest for players as this means that there is very little time between the end of one season and the beginning of the next preseason – something made even worse in rugby by the international Test matches being straight after the European seasons finish. This means that players get very little time to rest and recuperate away from the sport itself, and may lead to more frequent injuries if they are not recovering fully.

This format is also beneficial in a tiered league structure that includes promotion and relegation, as it is very clear from the standings which teams should go up or down as the balanced schedule makes it clear which teams have been strongest and weakest throughout the season.

This format also allows the league organisers to decide if they want any playoffs to determine the overall winner (as in the Gallagher Premiership) or name the team that tops the table as the winner (as in the Premier League).

Conference Format

The big benefit of this format is that as teams don’t have to play home and away against everybody else in the league, which allows for a much larger number of teams but also a shorter season (the NFL has 32 teams play up to a maximum of 20 matches over 22 weeks, 16 matches in 17 weeks if they don’t make the playoffs). This means that there is much more time for players to recover and recuperate between the end of the season and the beginning of the next preseason.

However, this shorter schedule may not be ideal as it will not be balanced. Teams may play home and away against some teams, but there will also be a number of teams that they will not play every season, leading to an unbalanced schedule where one team may play a higher proportion of weaker teams that some of the opponents they are directly competing against in the standings. Just take a moment to look at the Pro14 this season, where Conference B contains Leinster (10 wins, 1 loss at time of writing) but Conference A’s strongest team is Glasgow (8 wins, 3 losses). However, Conference A has 4 teams with more points than Conference B’s 3rd-placed team (Scarlets) and their spread of points (41-16 – 25 points) is less than in Conference B (49-12 – 37 points). Considering every team will have the same number of matches in the regular season, a stronger schedule will immediately put some teams at a disadvantage, so this type of format is not necessarily as fair.

Along with the strength of schedule, the teams that qualify for the playoffs will usually also be decided within each conference, so if we keep with the Pro14 example, Connacht are currently set to miss out on the playoffs as they are 4th in their Conference, despite having 2 points more than Scarlets, who would qualify for the playoffs as 3rd place in their Conference.

For the same reasons, promotion and relegation would be harder in this format as it would be harsh to relegate a team that had a point less if they have had a much harder schedule than the next team, so a playoff would likely be required for this. This also requires playoffs to establish a winner, unless teams were at the end of the season grouped into a combined table, but again this gives a benefit to a team with a weaker schedule.

My preference

For me, the balanced schedule is a huge draw and it makes the playing field fair, therefore if I was developing a new league, I would want to run a League Format however to avoid overly long seasons and too many games I would limit the league to probably no more than 10 teams and just increase the number of tiers in the sporting structure, with one or 2 teams being promoted and relegated each year, depending on the size of the league and the quality of the leagues below. I would personally not see the need to include a playoff at the end of the season, however if it was required – I can see the benefits both to the money coming in and the guarantee of when the title will be confirmed – then I would have no more than 4 teams competing in the playoffs, most likely just 3 in a smaller tournament.

So that would be my preference, but what tournament format do you prefer?

Wade to the NFL

Wade to the NFL

In the big news of the week, Christian Wade has left Wasps and rugby union as a whole with the intention of pursuing a career in the NFL. The winger, capped just once by England, could potentially have broken the Premiership record for tries in a career but appears to have played his last game (for now at least).

Since the news broke, I have not yet been able to find anything saying how he plans to enter the league: whether he plans to train with a view to entering the draft, or will he sign on directly with a team as an undrafted free agent in a similar way to rugby league star Jarryd Hayne.

Wade becomes the latest in a list of pro rugby players who have made the switch to the NFL in recent years. The aforementioned Hayne had an impressive preseason but struggled in the regular season and split his time between the active roster and practice squad before leaving for the Fiji rugby 7s team less than a year after signing for the 49ers. 2015 RPA Sevens Player of the Year came through the NFL’s International Player Pathway program and currently finds himself on the Atlanta Falcon’s practice squad. Former Worcester lock Christian Scotland-Williamson also finds himself on the practice squad, in case for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

As can be seen from those players, it is not an easy transition from rugby to the NFL. The two sports may share many similar skills but they are also two very different games. Whereas rugby requires endurance to keep going for 80 minutes, the NFL is about 4-6 seconds of going flat out with rests in between. Roles are much more specialised and involve skills such as precise route running and blocking. On top of this, there is the extra equipment (a gumshield looks insignificant next to NFL pads and helmets) and also the extra physicality from more larger players and plenty of impacts that would be far from legal in rugby.

Assuming Wade can make the transition, where will he play? Personally, I see him playing offense due to his dangerous footwork and ability to make a player miss. With that footwork and pace, I expect his earliest contributions to be as a returner, much with Hayne in San Francisco. If he develops well enough to feature away from special teams, then I can see him at one of two positions.

My initial thoughts when I heard he was leaving rugby was to imagine him as a Wide Reciever. At 5’8″ it will not be easy for him especially in the redzone, but if he can run precise routes then he could become a dangerous slot receiver like Wes Welker, while his pace could also make him a dangerous downfield threat.

The other position I can see Wade would be in the backfield. Obviously he’s not someone that I would want to see running between the tackles regularly but in more of a scatback role – running outside the tackles and catching out of the backfield. My only worry about this position would be the need for him to learn to pass block and pick up the blitz, or his Quarterback could be in trouble.

How will he do? Well judging by the fact that Wasps look set to sign Malakai Fekitoa, Wade must have been on a pretty nice contact at Wasps, so to give that up he must be confident that he can make it in the NFL and, I would assume, have taken advice from people who know the league. The important thing will be getting a team that will be willing to take the time to develop him rather than expecting him to be an immediate star. It will also help to end up on a team with coaches who can scheme to take advantage of his skills while also trying to limit the impact of his weaknesses. Suffice to say, I will be following the progression of this story with great interest.

Start or Sit?

Start or Sit?

When Baker Mayfield was named the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, it was always going to be a question of when, not if, he would become the starting Quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. In Week 4 of the season, Mayfield made his first start after coming on in relief of the injured Tyrod Taylor the week before and leading the Browns to their first win since December 2016. After the hit-and-miss play of Taylor over the first 2 and a bit games, it’s highly likely that the Mayfield era has now begun in Cleveland. But is it right for a QB to become the starter (permanent, not just as injury cover) in their rookie year?

The NFL does have its stories of stars being picked early and quickly becoming stars in the league. Peyton Manning was an immediate starter for the Colts in 1998 and didn’t miss a start in the regular season until injury saw him miss the 2011 season, while his heir Andrew Luck was also starting from the very beginning.

But for every star like Manning and Luck, there are busts. Manning’s rival for the number 1 draft pick, Ryan Leaf is probably one of the most famous draft busts and was out of league by May 2002. One of Luck’s fellow 2012 first round picks, Brandon Weedon was a regular starter for only his first season and has predominantly been a journeyman backup since the 2013 season, having last played in the regular season in 2015.

As a Titans fan, the 2011 draft was one of the few I paid attention to as I knew the Titans would be going for a new QB with the number 8 pick. After everything I had read and heard, I remember hoping that Blaine Gabbert would be available at the spot. He was available, but the Titans chose to go for Jake Locker instead and Gabbert went to the Jags 2 weeks later. After 2 bad performances by Luke McCown, Gabbert was given his first start in Week 3, but he seriously struggled behind a questionable O-line and has only started 50% or more of his team’s games in 3/7 completed seasons for 3 different teams. He’s now made his way to Tennessee as a backup for Marcus Mariota.

Gabbert is a prime example of the issue for so many rookie QBs, being thrust to the fore without having the real chance to adapt from college football to the NFL. Most QBs coming out of college will not be used to a pro-style offense and instead be more used to hurry-up offenses or spread offenses. Suddenly as well they will be up against players 10 years their senior who know every trick in the book and many that aren’t. Let’s look at Baker’s first start, against the Raiders. He may have made some lovely plays and thrown for just under 300 yards and 2 touchdowns, but he also had a number of bad plays, being picked twice and losing 2 fumbles, the second of which came on a fumbled snap likely caused by his lack of experience under center (he never played there in college).

For me, the ideal situation for a team is to go down the route of 2 of the best QBs currently playing. Tom Brady was never meant to be a star judging by his 6th round pick, but after a season on the bench behind Drew Bledsoe, he took over the reins of the Patriot following Bledsoe’s injury in the 4th quarter of their Week 2 match during the 2001 season and has never looked back since. Perhaps a more comparable tale is that of Aaron Rodgers. Picked by the Green Bay Packers 24th overall in 2005 (behind Alex Smith), Rodgers only appeared in 7 matches over his first 3 seasons as he sat behind the legend that is Brett Favre. Rodgers was made starter for the 2008 season following Favre’s retirement (he later returned but was traded to the Jets) and he has since gone on to win a Super Bowl and be named NFL MVP twice, while being regarded as one of the greatest QBs of all time.

Sitting a QB for their rookie makes sense as they can get used to the environment and adapt to the way football is played in the NFL. The big problem is that the NFL is a business and if a team is not getting results, then the people in charge won’t be there long enough to sort things out. Too often a team is taking a QB in the first round because they need someone who they feel is good enough to start and win immediately. A rookie QB may be able to do enough in the first season or two to keep a coach in their job while they build a team around their star.

But if a coach was brave enough to let that young lad sit for the first year, would the lack of results in year 1 be outweighed by the benefits down the line? I think so. A good QB is a comfortable QB and one year on the bench is surely worth it for potentially developing the franchise QB of the next 10 years. Now teams just need to start thinking a couple of years ahead and picking up a promising rookie while they still have a reliable veteran there to learn from.

How will Baker, Sam Darnold and the other rookie QBs work out down the line? Only time will tell…