Previewing the 2011 Season for the Redskins

At last, pro football is back.

After a long, tumultuous offseason during which there was uncertainty about whether the season would start on time, the 2011 NFL season is set to begin tonight as the New Orleans Saints take on the Green Bay Packers on national television.

Three days later, the Washington Redskins will be among several other teams as their 2011 campaign commences.  In his second year as head man in DC, Mike Shanahan and his team have their work cut out for them after a disappointing 6-10 season.

While the Redskins got off to a 4-3 start during which they beat three eventual playoff teams, the wheels had quickly fallen off amidst open questioning of Donovan McNabb‘s conditioning (as well as a quarterback controversy in general) and the re-emergence of the $100 million malcontent on the defensive line known as Albert Haynesworth.  Coming into this season, both McNabb and Haynesworth have been traded, and Shanahan finally has the pieces he wants in place to develop.  Rex Grossman, despite his flaws as a quarterback, has a grasp on the Shanahans’ offense.  John Beck, while already 30 years of age, is still relatively young in football years, as he has not taken a meaningful snap since 2007.  Barry Cofield is actually willing to play the ever-important nose tackle position in the 3-4 defense.  Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan have the potential to be a formidable pair of bookend outside linebackers.  With Tim Hightower, Roy Helu and Ryan Torain, the Redskins have a stable of tough running backs not afraid of contact.

But despite all these positives, the Redskins are still expected to finish last in the NFC East, a division among the toughest in football.  While the Giants have been bitten by the injury bug this preseason, they still pose a threat.  The Cowboys are expected to bounce back from a disappointing season during which Tony Romo went down with an injury.  And of course, little needs to be said about what the Eagles have done this offseason.  While their schedule has each team from the paltry NFC West, as well as last-place teams Minnesota and Carolina from last year, they also have to face two of the toughest teams in the AFC in New England and the New York Jets.

The prediction? The Redskins have another 6-10 or a 7-9 season and finish last in the NFC East.  Despite where they are expected to finish, every team they play better take them seriously, because they have the potential to sneak up on a few teams.  The pieces the Redskins have in place may be raw, but there is definitely room for growth, and Shanahan and his staff will do everything in their power to help this team fulfill its potential.

Recapping the Draft of the Washington Wizards

Due to the impending labor situation arising in the NBA, Thursday’s draft may have lost some of its luster, with several high-profile college players such as Jared Sullinger, Harrison Barnes and Perry Jones staying in school for at least another year.

Despite the lack of can’t-miss talent and the uncertainties surrounding next season, many teams still had room for improvement and needed to take advantage of this opportunity.

And on Thursday night, the Washington Wizards did just that.

Last year, Washington finished near the bottom of the league in several categories, including field goal percentage for and against, points allowed per game, three-point field goal percentage against, offensive rating, defensive rating, and effective field goal percentage.  The players the Wizards drafted last night will certainly help them improve on the defensive side of the ball.

Several mock drafts projected the Czech forward Jan Vesely to be taken sixth overall, and many blogs speculated that he was Washington’s guy all along, so it only stood to reason that they would take him when he fell to sixth overall.  At 6’11″ and 240, Vesely’s length, athleticism and toughness projects him to be a small forward who could fill in at power forward if needed, similar to the Jazz’ Andrei Kirilenko. They also liked that he already was a key contributor to his Serbian club team (which former Maryland Terrapin James Gist happens to play for).  The problem is that Vesely is a raw talent with poor touch on his jumper, though that aspect of his game is well-publicized, looking at his 54 percent free throw shooting.

Aside from that, Vesely has shown the attitude and swagger off the court that this team has needed since Gilbert Arenas (before he started twiddling with his guns in the locker room), calling Blake Griffin “the American Jan Vesely” when asked in the interview at the draft, which is certainly better than comparing yourself to Chris Bosh in the worst possible way.  And how often do you see a player already score just seconds after being drafted?  This is going to be fun.

Washington selecting forward Chris Singleton 18th overall was the better value pick, however.  The reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year will bring that very mentality to the team, as well as his length and athleticism.  At Florida State, Singleton averaged slightly less than 1.5 blocks per game, even at 6’9″.  Like Vesely, however, his offensive abilities at the NBA level will be a point of concern, but because Singleton will not be expected to shoulder the load offensively, the Wizards will put him in the best situations for him to succeed at that end.

In the second round, the Wizards chose guard Shelvin Mack, who led the Butler Bulldogs to back-to-back National Championship appearances.  Mack can serve as the backup point guard to John Wall and has the ability to knock down the open shot in a key situation.  The fact that he helped will the Bulldogs to two National Championship appearances shows his winning mentality and leadership ability that this team needs more of.

While the Washington Wizards did not land any of the few so-called “can’t-miss” prospects, the front office did well enough this year to help build around one of the league’s budding superstars.

Gus Johnson’s Move to Fox is CBS’ Loss

If you’re a hardcore college basketball fan, you’ve probably heard of him. You may have already heard some of his calls, whether live or on one of the several videos on YouTube. Hell, you might have heard his shouts from outside your window even if you WEREN’T watching his game.

The meteoric rise to fame of play-by-play announcer Gus Johnson is characterized by the excitable, dramatic nature of his calls, particularly in critical game situations.

And there are very few other sports events that epitomize excitement and drama more than the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the event that Johnson has been associated with since 1996.

Earlier this month, it had been reported that Johnson had left CBS after not being able to agree on a new contract.  The following week, he reached an agreement to call college sports and select NFL games with Fox Sports Media Group.

And because CBS and Turner Sports still hold the rights to the NCAA Tournament until 2024, this announcement means that the de facto voice of March Madness will no longer announce tournament games on TV in the foreseeable future.

That’s right, we will not hear any of the classic “The slipper still fits!” or “HEARTBREAK CITY!” or descriptions of someone hitting a shot from the parking lot during next year’s tournament.

And the fact that CBS bigwigs weren’t pleased with Johnson’s ascent as the “de facto voice of March Madness” shows just how highly they think of Jim Nantz as the main sports voice at the network, especially given that he is only 52 years old and has been employed at CBS for half of his life.

That said, Johnson’s act has been polarizing to many fans.

While many enjoy his act, there are just as many who are glad that he is no longer employed by CBS.

Until he suffered a stroke late 2008, Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated would always rank the NFL commentators after each season, and he would place Johnson’s broadcasting team near the bottom of the rankings for the same reasons that some might like his broadcasting style, along with his tendency to get certain facts wrong and/or omit other facts.  One would presume that Dr. Z would be glad that Johnson is no longer announcing NFL games on a regular basis.

In fact, in the aforementioned UCLA-Gonzaga clip, he failed to mention that UCLA had forced a held-ball situation in which the possession arrow favored UCLA when he was caught up in the moment, uncontrollably screaming.

Despite his popularity, the CBS executives would still place Johnson on their fifth or sixth tier on NFL telecasts, and for a brief time, was removed from coverage of the NCAA regionals, so it was quite evident that CBS had no plans to give Johnson any higher profile than he did, aside from announcing the occasional MMA event either on CBS or Showtime.

On the other hand, the Big Ten Network, the channel Johnson had been with since 2008, began utilizing him more in 2010.  Already assigned to certain basketball games and the nighttime broadcasts of the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament that were not aired by the ESPN networks or CBS, Johnson was featured in a promo for the Big Ten Network alluding to his increased workload with the channel.   There was even a Gus Johnson sound-alike contest held by the Big Ten Network’s website back in February and March.

With Fox Sports Media Group, Johnson will now serve as the top announcer for Pac-12, Conference USA and Big 12 football games on FX, and he will do play-by-play for one of the conference championship games, the Cotton Bowl, and NFL games after the college football regular season ends, all on Fox.  He will also call a few football games on Big Ten Network, which Fox has a minority stake in, while remaining the network’s main college basketball announcer.  In 2013, he will announce games from the Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament.

As one can probably tell, Fox is making good use of one of the most enthusiastic announcers in the business; one who is truly passionate about the work he does, unlike other lead announcers.  When the 2012 NCAA Tournament comes around, and Gus Johnson is not announcing the games on the CBS/Turner Sports joint venture, CBS will eventually realize that they let a good one get away.

Déjà vu feeling for Caps fans?

It’s that time of year again.  The Stanley Cup playoffs are upon us.

With the hard-hitting, the late-game drama and unpredictability relative to its counterparts in other leagues, some say the Stanley Cup playoffs is the most exciting playoff tournament in North America.

But to Washington Capitals fans, the “unpredictability” of the playoffs is the very aspect they dread.

Since their return to the playoffs in 2008 in Bruce Boudreau’s first season as coach, the Capitals and their fans have known nothing but playoff disappointment.  Despite earning seeds of 3, 2, and 1 in 2008, 2009, and 2010, respectively, the Caps have only advanced from the first round once, in 2009.  That series, just like the other three, went seven games.

And it was that series where the Caps faced the New York Rangers, who will once again oppose the Capitals as the 8-seed  in the playoff series starting tonight.

For many Caps fans, this was the matchup that they feared the most.  The makeup of this Rangers team resembles everything that has led to playoff failure year after year.  Stout defensive play.  World-class goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist.  Takes few penalties.

These were the factors that have done the Capitals in last year against the Montreal Canadiens last year, facing a goalie in Jaroslav Halak who, after being pulled from Game 3, suddenly caught fire.  He held the high-powered offense of the Caps to just one goal per game in the last three games of the series, all of which were won by Montreal.

And during a season in which the Caps had seemingly struggled offensively for a good chunk of the year, a matchup with a team like the Rangers would certainly have Caps fans worried, especially after the Rangers won 6 out of a possible 8 points from the Capitals in the regular season, including thrashings of 7-0 and 6-0.

After all, this city hasn’t but dealt with constant disappointment in recent years, from the fallout between Redskins’ quarterback Donovan McNabb and Mike Shanahan, to the end of the Gilbert Arenas era for the Wizards, to the perennial cellar-dwelling of the Nationals, only compounded by the loss of Stephen Strasburg for most, if not all, of the 2011 season.  It has become Pavlovian for D.C. sports fans to expect the worst, even when it comes to the city’s best major pro sports team today.

But despite the struggles in scoring, the eight-game losing streak (which included the 7-0 beating), career-low in points from Alex Ovechkin, and calls from fans for Boudreau’s job during the rough times, the Caps were convinced that this season would be different, and for the better come playoff time.  The team had focused on strengthening the blue line depth, as well as an overall emphasis on defense.  Out went Tomas Fleischmann and David Steckel.  In came Scott Hannan and Dennis Wideman as reinforcements to injury-riddled Mike Green and Tom Poti, and the emergence of brightly-shining youngsters Karl Alzner and John Carlson.  The addition of Jason Arnott provided the team with more depth at the center position, as well as valuable playoff experience.  As these moves were made during the season, it was clear that this team was definitely being built to win in the playoffs, regardless of the bumps in the road along the way.

According to GM George McPhee, focusing on better defensive play had been in the works since last season’s early playoff exit.  Says McPhee:

“Playing better defensively was something that we had addressed at the end of last season. We continued to talk about it, and wondered if it was time to make that shift but we had been successful playing the way we were playing. But when we got into that losing streak, we thought then that it was time to try this.  It’s a dangerous thing to do, because players get confused when you change systems. Sometimes they’ll lose faith in the coaching staff. It doesn’t work very often, but our coaching staff did a terrific job of making it work. We’re a better team today as a result. I’m glad they pulled it off, because it’s making us a more formidable club.”

And this has certainly showed.  The team that had constantly finished in the bottom half of the league in goals allowed and penalty kill percent in the previous three years has finished 4th and 2nd in those respective categories.  By the end of the 7-0 defeat, the Caps had surrendered 91 goals in its first 32 games, nearly three goals per game.  In the 50 games afterward, they allowed just 101 goals, good for roughly two goals per game.

Yes, the Caps are facing Lundqvist again.  Yes, the Rangers have tended to be the Caps’ kryptonite in recent years.  No, the team isn’t scoring goals at the rate they had been in past years.

But after the trials and adversity the team faced, there is good reason for fans to feel more optimistic heading into this year’s playoffs.  Déjà vu?  Not likely this year.

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