PD Saturday Sampler 1/8/12: One Happy Return
(Editor’s Note: Since “Milwaukee Brian” has seen fit to usurp Sunday posts on this site, we will endeavor to get this feature out on Saturday for the foreseeable future.)
It was an eventful week in Badgerland. While much of the news was negative, there was one positive development in Madison so we’ll start with that first. Junior running back Montee Ball has decided to return for his senior year with the University of Wisconsin football team.
On the surface, the decision could be seen as something of a surprise. Ball rushed for over 1900 yards this year, culminating with a 164 yard performance in the Rose Bowl. Along the way he scored a phenomenal 39 touchdowns, tying Barry Sanders’ 1988 NCAA single season record, and was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. As a football player one would think his profile, and therefore his NFL draft status, would never be higher. It’s only logical to assume that Ball would prefer to take advantage of that situation.
But, as ESPN college football ‘analyst’ Lee Corso is fond of saying, ‘not so fast my friends’.
It’s been reported that NFL draft evaluators told Ball that he projected as only a 3rd round pick for next year. Unfortunately, the track record of past UW running backs probably worked against Ball in this instance. Unlike offensive lineman, the Badgers have had a number of running backs who were successful at the college level but didn’t live up to expectations in the pros. Michael Bennett had one 1,000 yard season among 5 with the Minnesota Vikings and Terrell Fletcher managed to hang on for 8 seasons as a multi-purpose back with the San Diego Chargers. Perhaps the most disappointing was Ron Dayne; the NCAA’s all-time rushing leader and Heisman-winning tailback hung around for 7 pro seasons but never gained more than 770 yards in a single year and never really found his niche. Others like Brent Moss, P.J. Hill, Brian Calhoun, and now John Clay with the Pittsburgh Steelers, haven’t even made that much of an impact. Given that history, it’s understandable that NFL scouts would be skeptical in viewing players coming out of that program.
In light of all this information, it’s probably a wise move for Ball to remain at Wisconsin and focus on his education. That doesn’t necessarily mean that his prospects in football will automatically improve. Ball was supposedly told that he needs to get bigger and stronger to be considered more highly by the pros, which is ironic since Ball actually lost weight prior to last season in a successful attempt to get quicker. And, while Ball is staying, he’s about the only one. Quarterback Russell Wilson has used up his eligibility and starting center Peter Konz has indicated he will leave for the NFL. With an inexperienced QB due to be under center next season, Ball is sure to attract the lion’s share of attention for opposing defenses, even more so than this year.
There is also the not so little matter that the most prominent members of the offensive coaching staff look to be joining former Offensive Coordinator Paul Chryst at the University of Pittsburgh. Head coach Bret Bielema has kept the Badgers atop the Big(12)Ten standings during most of his tenure but he has always had Chryst as his right hand. While Bielema’s background is as a defensive coordinator, it has been the offense that has largely carried the team the last few years. Bielema has also had a hand in coaching the special teams, which haven’t always been spectacular either. Let’s just say that, with all these impending departures, it wouldn’t be a shock to see at least a slight downturn in the future fortunes of Wisconsin football.
Montee Ball has clearly been good for the University of Wisconsin. Let’s just hope that Wisconsin will continue to be good for Ball.
Aside from the news about Ball, it wasn’t a very good week for the Badgers on the gridiron or the hardcourt.
In somewhat of a mixed bag the football team lost its second consecutive Rose Bowl, an exciting 45-38 contest against 6th ranked Pac-12 champion Oregon. Going into the game, I thought the Badgers would be hard pressed to keep up with the fast-paced Oregon offense but as things unfolded, it became more of an exercise in frustration as the Badgers again missed a golden opportunity at an upset in “the granddaddy of ‘em all”. The Wisconsin defense repeatedly missed tackles against the quicker Ducks and the offense committed a couple of key turnovers, the last of which was a fumble by wide receiver Jared Abbrederis that foiled their best chance at a comeback. There was also a subplot involving two ill-advised Wisconsin timeouts, leaving them short toward the end of the game. Justified or not, that prompted some of the old clock management issues surrounding Bielema to resurface.
Things weren’t any better this week for coach Bo Ryan’s basketball team. It’s rare for Ryan’s Badgers to lose consecutive games and it’s unheard of for them to do it at home, but that’s just what happened at the Kohl Center.
Just as disheartening was the way they lost those games. Perhaps owing to personnel, the Badgers have increasingly relied upon the 3-point basket over the course of the last few years. That makes it particularly devastating when those shots aren’t falling, as they weren’t this week. The Badgers went a combined 8-60 from beyond the arc in the games against Iowa and Michigan State The many long rebounds as a result of such an approach have had a detrimental effect not only on the offensive glass but on the defense going the other way. The biggest offender in this regard seems to be backup guard Ben Brust. Brust could be an asset if he’d make judicious use of his jump shot within the flow of the offense but he really needs to check himself from jacking up 25 footers with time remaining on the shot clock. The other downside of this manifestation is that the team is often left standing around, leaving point guard Jordan Taylor as the only player inclined to attack the basket. That puts too much pressure on Taylor and more or less defeats the purpose of the ‘swing offense’.
There have been plenty of times in the past when things looked bleak for the Badgers and they’ve always managed to bounce back. We’ll see if these losses have snapped them out of their lethargy when they go to Ann Arbor on Sunday to take on the Michigan Wolverines.
The end of the regular season in the NFL brought about the annual rite known by some as ‘Black Monday’, in which the coaches of unsuccessful teams are shown the door. This year’s initial victims were St. Louis Rams’ coach Steve Spagnuolo and Tampa Bay Buccanneers’ mentor Raheem Morris. Neither firing came as a surprise as the Rams compiled a 10-38 record under Spagnuolo’s 3 year watch and the Bucs regressed from a 10-4 record last season to 4-12 this year. Also this year, Black Monday extended into ‘Blacker Tuesday’ as a couple of general managers also fell under the ax; namely Chicago Bears’ GM Jerry Angelo and Indianapolis Colts’ executive Bill Polian.
Angelo’s misadventures with the Bears are well documented but Polian was a respected personnel mind for decades in the NFL. The Colts’ collapse in the wake of franchise quarterback Peyton Manning’s neck injury probably sealed Polian’s fate. His exit coupled with Manning’s uncertain future are a telling signal that Indy will no longer be Peyton’s place. Ironically, Polian could possibly replace Angelo in Chicago, which would be an upgrade for the Bears. But, at the same time, it could also be problematic for the Bears as Polian would have to coexist with current head coach Lovie Smith. The potential dilution of authority with a coach predating a general manager doesn’t have a positive history as Packers’ GM Ted Thompson can tell you from his experience with former Packers’ coach Mike Sherman.
Perhaps the two most surprising moves in the NFL this week were the ones that weren’t made. The San Diego Chargers retained both GM A.J. Smith and head coach Norv Turner in what Yahoo Sports Radio’s Steve Czaban termed “a stunning recommitment to mediocrity”. And the Philadelphia Eagles declined to part ways with head coach Andy Reid. For most of the season, Reid appeared to be nearing the end of his shelf life in Philly but his team did play better down the stretch. Considering that last year’s labor lockout probably hindered Reid’s ability to acclimate the team’s numerous acquisitions to his program, there is a rationale for granting him another year. As always, it doesn’t make sense for a team to replace a coach unless there’s clearly a better successor in line.
Closer to home, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and the NFL is far from immune to the concept. The Oakland Raiders have hired longtime Packers’ director of football operations Reggie McKenzie to become their new general manager. McKenzie, who started in Green Bay under former GM Ron Wolf, was long overdue for an opportunity to run his own shop. Now that deceased owner Al Davis is literally out of the Raiders’ picture, McKenzie should have a real chance to build a consistent winner in Oakland.
On the plus side, reports are that college scouting director John Dorsey declined an interview request from the Colts to remain in Green Bay and Wolf’s son Eliot, who was rumored to join McKenzie in Oakland, will be promoted to succeed McKenzie with the Packers. The latter is key in that the younger Wolf could be Thompson’s heir apparent in Green Bay. Meanwhile, Packers’ offensive coordinator Joe Philbin has supposedly already had a couple of interviews for head coaching jobs.
Fortunately, unlike the Badgers, the Packers appear to be well positioned to sustain such personnel losses.
RANDOM SAMPLINGS: There is still no definitive word on where free agent first baseman Prince Fielder will end up, but the Chicago Cubs appear to be out of the running as they acquired first base prospect Anthony Rizzo from the San Diego Padres this week. I know all it takes is one team and Fielder’s agent Scott Boras has a history of getting teams to bid against themselves, but the longer this takes the less likely Fielder is to actually see the money many anticipated it would take to sign him. If he ends up signing with a team that doesn’t win, I wonder if he won’t ultimately regret his decision to leave Milwaukee………..Yahoo Sports Radio’s Steve Czaban went on a protracted rant about ESPN’s Skip Bayless’ ‘man-crush’ on Denver Broncos QB Tim Tebow. Now, it’s one thing for irritated listeners to get annoyed with Bayless’ act, but he looks even more pathetic when broadcast peers like Czaban and Dan Patrick, who know how the media game is played, feel compelled to call his journalistic integrity (if, in fact, that concept can even be applied to ”Clue-less”) into question………..The Big(12)Ten conference continued its deplorable record in major bowl games, going 1-4 this last Monday with the only victory being a comeback triple overtime verdict by Michigan State over Georgia in the Outback Bowl. Of course, last year they went 0-5 on New Year’s Day so maybe that can be considered ‘progress’. Michigan did manage to help the conference save some face by defeating Virginia Tech a day later in the Sugar Bowl………..Speaking of bowl games, heard an idea this week that made some sense. Short of actually having a college football playoff system, condense the bowl schedule down to 10 games or so and play them all on New Year’s Day. At least that way we’re almost guaranteed to see some significant and interesting matchups………..This NFL season was notable for Drew Brees’ breaking Dan Marino’s NFL record for passing yards in a season while Aaron Rodgers eclipsed Lynn Dickey’s franchise record with the Packers. But, for my money, with the way the game pro game is played now the former holders’ accomplishments were more impressive………..Finally, Penn State filled its vacant head coaching position by tapping New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. The hiring of O’Brien, known mostly for a sideline dustup with Pat’s QB Tom Brady earlier this season, was met with swift and negative reaction by many former Nittany Lions’ players. The track record of former Bill Belicheck assistants as head coaches isn’t sparkling, but the reaction from the Penn St. alums may also be a reflection of the insular nature of a program that allowed the Jerry Sandusky situation to exist for far too long. It’s only natural that the university would want to go ‘outside the family’ in an effort to distance itself from the recent past. The Penn State job may still be a “top 5 program” as described by ESPN’s Chris Mortenson, but probably not for O’Brien who will only be the caretaker until the shit-storm of the Sandusky scandal blows over.
Thanks for reading. Enjoy the rest of the weekend.