Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Smith leads Shock into finals

By Mel Greenberg

August 29, 2006

Katie Smith has said that she would not mind going into dentistry after her women's basketball career is over.

Drilling teeth may be in her future, but these days Smith is drilling shots for the Detroit Shock, a key reason that coach Bill Laimbeer's squad has advanced to the WNBA Finals for the first time since winning the title in 2003.

The Shock will open the best-of-five Finals against the defending champion Sacramento Monarchs on Wednesday night at 7:30 (ESPN2) at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

Sacramento dispatched the Los Angeles Sparks in a two-game sweep in the Western Conference finals. Detroit eliminated the Connecticut Sun, the team with the best overall record, by dominating Sunday's decisive third game, 79-55, for the Eastern Conference crown.

"You look at position by position, and Detroit seems to have such an advantage," said Hall of Famer Ann Meyers, who will provide commentary for some of the games on ESPN Radio. "But Sacramento plays with such heart."

Smith and Sacramento center Yolanda Griffith will be on opposing sides in a pro women's basketball championship for the first time since the two played in the former American Basketball League.

In 1998, Smith's Columbus Quest beat Griffith's Long Beach StingRays in the ABL finals.

A five-time WNBA all-star, Smith is the all-time leading scorer in women's professional basketball in the United States with 5,558 points, including 1,431 in the ABL.

By reaching the WNBA Finals, Smith, 32, joins the recently retired Dawn Staley of the Houston Comets in a unique category.

Smith and Staley, who also coaches Temple, are the only two to compete in an ABL championship series and a WNBA title series, win Olympic gold medals, and play in an NCAA title game.

Smith won't be done after the WNBA series. She'll catch up with the USA Basketball senior national women's team that will compete early next month in the FIBA world championship in Brazil.

Both the Monarchs and the Shock had questions coming into the season. Detroit center Ruth Riley, the former Notre Dame star and MVP of the 2003 Finals, had sought a trade before agreeing to return to the Shock.

Laimbeer moved Smith to point guard, where she proved helpful in running the squad as well as being deadly on the perimeter.

Former Connecticut star Swin Cash, who scored 16 points to match Smith in Sunday's win, finally recovered from a knee injury suffered late in the 2004 season.

Sacramento suffered several injuries and had to deal with the loss of defender Chelsea Newton, a top rookie out of Rutgers a year ago who was taken by the Chicago Sky in the expansion draft.

Erin Buescher of the Monarchs was named the WNBA's most improved player.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Mike Vrabel: Beyond the Numbers

August 27, 2006

Numbers Often Lie When It Comes to Football


In 2001, after four seasons in the N.F.L. and with little success, linebacker Mike Vrabel was frustrated. Drafted in the third round in 1997, it seemed that the Steelers could not find a use for him. Maybe it was time for law school, he figured.

But thinking about law school is about as close as he came to leaving the N.F.L. Someone did find a use for him: Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, who, as Sports Illustrated reported, was impressed with the way he played the power block and with his understanding of the game. It was not Vrabel’s time in the 40-yard dash, or his vertical leap, or his total number of tackles.

Since then, Vrabel has been one of the Patriots’ most productive players, helping them win three Super Bowls, and scoring touchdowns in Super Bowl XXXVIII and Super Bowl XXXIX. Not once has he made the Pro Bowl.
He is a good example of how little an individual’s statistics mean in football. Numbers like the quarterback rating, yards per rush and total tackles are so closely tied to the performance of others that they become almost meaningless.

If Vrabel does not break through the offensive team’s blockers, the running back may gain 15 yards instead of being thrown for a loss of 2. Yet the running back gets the statistics. If Vrabel fails to break through the pass defense, the quarterback completes the pass 30 yards downfield rather than taking a sack. In this case, the quarterback gets the statistics.

In the N.F.L., if your teammate fails to perform, if the defense happens to be in the wrong place or if the coaching staff makes a bad call, your statistics will be affected.

Take the quarterback ratings for Joe Montana. In each of the 13 seasons he played regularly, his rating was above average. But in eight of those seasons, his rating averaged 86, not much better than the league’s average. In the five others, it was significantly higher, near 100, among the league’s best. Why such variance?

Obviously, some was due to variability in his performance. Athletes can have bad days. But one would expect more of this variability from game to game rather than from season to season.

The rest is due to factors beyond his control. A quarterback can control the direction and speed of the ball, but he cannot block his blind side, nor can he compel a receiver or a running back to run the correct route. A quarterback’s statistics are an outgrowth of the his actions, as well as the actions of his 10 teammates, the quality of his opponent’s defense and the quality of plays called by his coaching staff.

How much of a quarterback’s rating is predictable? Not much. If we look at six seasons of quarterbacks who threw at least 224 passes in successive seasons — the minimum to be ranked in the N.F.L.’s quarterback rating — a past rating has a poor predictive value.
Take Peyton Manning. He produced a quarterback rating of 104.1 last season. This season, based on the six seasons of ratings, there is a 95 percent chance that his rating will be between 73 and 111. In other words, he is going to be either pretty bad or pretty good.

Maybe the problem is with the quarterback rating itself. After all, it captures only what a quarterback does with his arm. The rating is complicated, but in the end, it does not provide a full picture of a quarterback’s production. Few would doubt Michael Vick’s impact on a game, but his rating has hovered around the low 80’s for much of his career. In 2002, when he was so dazzling in passing for 2,936 yards and running for 777, his rating was a moderate 81.6.

A better measure for a quarterback would incorporate passing attempts, sacks, rushing attempts and turnovers. But even with these improvements, there are too many variables to create a reliable rating.

So beware, fantasy football players. Last season, three former Pro Bowl quarterbacks changed teams. Daunte Culpepper moved to the Dolphins, Steve McNair to the Ravens and Drew Brees to the Saints.
What kind of seasons will they have? My guess is that one will be great, one will be average and the third will struggle.

Who will be great? I have no idea. On second thought, I’ll take McNair or Brees; neither plays Belichick’s team.

Martin B. Schmidt is an associate professor at the College of William & Mary and the co-author of “The Wages of Wins.”

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Busy Days for Neil Cornrich, NC Sports

August 20, 2006

These have been busy – and heady – days lately for Beachwood-based football agent Neil Cornrich and his firm, NC Sports. In the last two weeks alone, Cornrich has:

  • Flown to Boston to attend both a New England Patriots practice and a birthday celebration for his client, Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel (who starred at Ohio State and Walsh Jesuit High).

  • Attended practices and given full-squad presentations at Oklahoma, Arizona, South Florida and Virginia (coaches Bob Stoops, Mike Stoops, Jim Leavitt and Al Groh, respectively, are Cornrich clients).

  • Seen his firm succesfully negotiate one of the top contracts for a 2006 first-round pick: an estimated $29 million deal for Buffalo Bills defensive back Donte Whitner (a former OSU and Glenville High star).

Zastudil Solidifies Punting Game

By Steve King, Staff Writer

August 20, 2006

Few fans at Browns training camp pay attention to them.

They’re off on another field, sometimes working and other times just standing and watching the rest of the team practice.

In terms of providing excitement, the two punters, two kickers and long snapper Ryan Pontbriand aren’t exactly riveting.

But that’s OK, for those specialists all know that what they do on Sundays has as much – if not more, in some cases – to do in terms of determining whether the Browns win or lose the game than the efforts of the offense and defense.

Pontbriand is right on target with his snaps. Place kicker Phil Dawson is the second-most accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history.

And now the Browns have a difference maker at punter again in Dave Zastudil. Listed last on the veterans alphabetical roster because of his last name, the product of Bay Village (Ohio) High School and Ohio University will nonetheless have a front-and-center role as he looks to solidify a part of the team that’s been shaky ever since the reliable Chris Gardocki was let go following the 2003 season.

And though camp isn’t over until next Thursday, Zastudil has proven the Browns did the right thing when they signed him as a free agent from the Baltimore Ravens in the offseason.

His kicking has been extremely crisp. The kicks are high and long, and he’s been able to place them in the coffin corner. Yes, there have been some shanks – you can’t avoid it – but they are few and far between.

The last two years, Browns punters – even in practice – struggled to find any kind of consistency. There never seemed to be even as few as three good punts in a row. Shanks were ever present.

That was a sizeable problem. Trying to rebuild the team, the Browns needed every yard they could get. Winning the field-position battle was crucial to them having a chance to win the game.

Zastudil will help them do both. He is coming off a career-best average of 43.5 yards per punt in 2005. In his final game as a Raven – their 20-16 loss to the Browns at Cleveland last Jan. 1. in the regular-season finale – he averaged 44.9 yards a kick on eight attempts. The Browns also punted eight times but averaged just 40.6. That difference of 4.3 yards per kick can really have an impact, especially on a day such as that one when the game was so close and the punters were so busy.

Now it’s the Browns who should be enjoying that advantage.

Zastudil did a good job in the preseason opener last Thursday night in Philadelphia. Being busier than he wanted to be because of the struggling offense, he punted five times, averaging 43.2 per kick.

That’s all well and good, but he knows that for him to have a real impact, he will have to keep turning in numbers like that – or better – on a continual basis.

“I’m hitting the ball well so far, striking it solid,” Zastudil said following Wednesday’s practice. “I’m confident, and I’m healthy.

“But the most important thing for me is to be consistent.”

He said special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg has helped him with that consistency.

“He’s been great,” said Zatudil, who also holds for Dawson on field goals. “Plus the coverage of the special teams has been solid. I’m in a good situation here.”

Zastudil’s mind-set about punting is that the past is in the past, so to speak. You can’t do anything about something that has already happened – even if it’s something negative that you really want to change.

“You have to have a short memory if you’re a punter,” he said. “You just have to let it go and move on.

“There was this one punter I studied – I can’t remember his name – who, every time he hit a bad one, went to the sideline, grabbed a cup of water, took one sip and then threw the rest away. I laughed every time I saw it, but that was his routine. That is what helped him to clear his head.

“If I have a bad punt, I want it to be a good bad punt, if that makes any sense. I still want to get it high and at least 35 yards.”

The Browns’ training facility in Berea is no more than a couple of nice high punts away from where Zastudil grew up in Cleveland’s western suburbs. It was a big part of the reason why he signed here – to play for the team he rooted for as a kid, and to be close to home.

“Let’s be honest, training camp is training camp, no matter where you hold it,” he said. “But being that I’m in camp here, it’s nice. My wife’s family is from Columbus, so we’re closer to them, and I’m just a 20-minute drive from home. I can hop into the car and go visit my grandmother and other family members and friends I haven’t seen much in recent years.”

He denies there’s extra pressure on him in coming back to Cleveland, where he’ll be kicking in front of those family members and friends.

“There’s no pressure,” he said. “I just want to kick well and, more importantly, help the team win.”

To make sure he can do that, Zastudil is careful to monitor his kicks. Though he will have made about 800 punts by the time camp breaks next Thursday, he spreads them out so as to keep from doing too much and wearing his leg out.

“I over-kicked in camp my first couple of years in the league, and I learned from it,” said Zastudil, a fourth-round selection of the Ravens in the 2002 NFL Draft, when Browns general manager Phil Savage was assistant GM of the Ravens. “Now I kick smart, especially early in camp.”

That’s why Zastudil, Dawson and the two other kickers in camp, punter Kyle Basler and place kicker Jeff Chandler, are sometimes seen doing nothing. Just as a pitcher in baseball doesn’t throw a lot between starts, kickers bide their time. They have a specific routine they go through.

After all, the most important thing for them is not to be a camp wonder, but to be fresh and ready to go for the start of the regular season on Sept. 10.

That’s when the fans will really start paying attention to everything Dave Zastudil and the Browns specialists do.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Cole Shows Packers His Merit


Posted: Aug. 16, 2006

Green Bay - It's not always about money. Some know their worth is best measured in other ways.

But the fact is, Ryan Pickett is a $14 million free-agent defensive tackle with a reputation and a recognizable name, and he was brought in to replace Grady Jackson and assume the anchor position for the Green Bay Packers' defense.

"They're going to sign guys every year, and I'm not a guy who is going to expect to be given anything," Colin Cole said. "Last year was just my first year playing full time, so I didn't expect them to sell the house on me and expect that I was going to be 'the guy.' I knew coming in that I would have to prove myself again. It doesn't make a difference. If I go out there and perform the way I know how to, the chips will fall the way I hope."

"Our defense starts and ends with the defensive tackles," Cole said. "Even though we have the cornerbacks, safeties, linebackers, if our defensive tackles don't play the way we're supposed to play, then the linemen block our linebackers, our safeties, and we're not going to play very well."

The defensive line didn't have the best performance in the Packers' exhibition season opening, a 17-3 loss Saturday night at San Diego. Worse still, a position that had such depth a few days ago might be weakened. Pickett and Kenderick Allen, another free agent added to bolster the defensive line, suffered injuries.

The 26-year-old Cole has had a good training camp thus far. The staff has called him the best run-stuffer on the team.

"He's probably been the most consistent interior lineman to this point," coach Mike McCarthy said last week. "I know the coaches are very satisfied with him. He's staying square, playing with good hand placement, things like that."

A year ago, Cole began the year far back on the depth chart, but one by one leapfrogged Donnell Washington and James Lee, and he made Cletidus Hunt a memory. Cole played in all 16 games, starting four, and had 62 tackles for the one bright spot of 2005: the Packers' seventh-ranked defense.

At Minnesota, he had two sacks and knocked down two passes. He had seven tackles against Cincinnati and five against Atlanta, where he got a good pressure against quarterback Michael Vick. One of his sacks in the season finale against Seattle was negated because of an offside penalty. He had the fifth most snaps, about 30 to 35 a game, on a unit that rotated liberally.

"Last year we had a pretty good rotation. Everybody got in and contributed," Cole said. "We have enough guys that we're able to roll in and keep everyone fresh. That helps us out a lot."

Then Cole spent much of the off-season in Green Bay, where he relocated with his wife and 13-year-old stepson, and he took full advantage of the off-season workout program. He trimmed down 10 pounds by cramming fruit and yogurt into a blender for smoothies that he used to replace breakfasts or lunches.

The weight loss should help Cole on the line, even though his position has historically been held by Packers 50 pounds heavier like Jackson and Gilbert Brown.

McCarthy wants his defensive tackles to act as anchors in the middle. This is not universal in the NFL. Tampa Bay and Chicago, for example, want speedy defensive linemen who are quick off the ball. But Green Bay's defense, which no longer really has the so-called three-technique defensive lineman, is designed to have two anchors in the middle who will command the attention of the offensive line. Their job is to absorb double-teams and keep the offensive linemen off the linebackers, so Nick Barnett can make plays.

Pickett is listed at 322 pounds but he weighs 10 pounds more. Allen is 328 at 6-foot-5. They're both mountains. But Cole has held up the double-teams and stopped the run better than anyone so far.

"You don't have to be 400 pounds, 350 or anything like that," Cole said. "If you have good pad level, good leverage, regardless how much you weigh, you can anchor the inside. I have the ability because I am a lot stronger in my lower body, but at the same time, I'm not as heavy, so I can move just as quickly as the other D-linemen."

If Cole continues his progression this season, then maybe he'll land a big contract as a free agent at the end of the season.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Rookie Safety Shows Smarts

Fourth-round draft choice Nate Salley should get the start at safety on Saturday in the preseason opener.

Charlotte Observer Photo by Jeff Siner

STAN OLSON, The Charlotte Observer

August 11, 2006

SPARTANBURG, S.C. - The word that keeps coming up when you ask Carolina Panthers coaches about rookie safety Nate Salley is "smart." He's picking up the Panthers' defensive schemes quickly, they tell you, and this week he's even been playing with the first team.

That's unlikely to last; veteran starters Mike Minter and Colin Branch are both out currently.

Still, Salley, the team's fourth-round draft pick, is getting noticed.

"He's very smart, he's picked things up very well," Carolina defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac said. "He's doing a nice job of picking it up; we like his intensity, the way he studies, and we'll see in the games."

That starts Saturday night against Buffalo at Bank of America Stadium, when Salley is likely to be in the starting lineup for the exhibition. If that's something of a surprise, his intelligence shouldn't be.

Salley is the youngest of three siblings, the first to attend college.

The first, in fact, to graduate from high school, he said recently during a break between practices.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Vrabel Vital to Patriots

Monday, July 31, 2006


FOXBORO - Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of the New England Patriots defense over the last few seasons has been Mike Vrabel's ability to handle anything and everything thrown his way.

He established himself as a quality outside linebacker during his first four-plus years in Foxboro, then midway through last season moved inside alongside Tedy Bruschi and helped save a fast sinking ship.

"I don't think Mike Vrabel got enough credit," Bruschi said after a weekend training camp practice at Gillette Stadium. "I think he is a bit overlooked for what he does. I thought he was the MVP of the defense last year, to tell you the truth.

"He is vital to our communication on the field, his leadership (is important). If I have a question, he's pretty much the guy I'm going to ask, let's put it that way."

Vrabel, who did not start so much as one game in the four seasons he spent with Pittsburgh before joining the Patriots as a free agent in 2001, is on the move again. He is sliding back to the outside, this time to fill the void left by free agent departee Willie McGinest. He should play on the left side or behind defensive end Ty Warren in the team's 3-4 defense, with Rosevelt Colvin on the opposite side, playing in back of All-Pro Richard Seymour.

Regardless of his role, Vrabel has become a more significant part of the defense with each passing season.

"To be a good leader you can't go out there and just talk about it and say, 'I'm going to be a better leader,'" Vrabel said. "You gotta go out there and work and be productive. You gotta show up every day and let people know you're ready to work and willing to put the team first."

His teammates seem convinced.

"Mike's a player, whatever situation you put him in, linebacker, inside, outside, tight end, he'll be fine," Colvin said.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Buffalo's Whitner Lands Quite a Deal

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Former Ohio State and Glenville High star defensive back Donte Whitner has plenty of reasons - yes, millions - to smile about his newly signed contract with the Buffalo Bills.

Whitner, taken No. 8 overall in April's NFL Draft, not only has a deal worth nearly $29 million - he's got one for five years, which will make him a free agent sooner than numerous first-round picks who signed for six years (including Browns linebacker Kamerion Wimbley).

Whitner's deal is almost 15 percent higher than that of last season's No. 8 pick, Antrel Rolle of Arizona. Among other goodies in Whitner's contract:

He'll make $12 million more than the rookie taken one pick after him (Ernie Sims of Detroit) and nearly $4 million more than the player selected two spots before him (Vernon Davis of San Francisco).

He'll make nearly $4 million more than Wimbley - even though Wimbley's deal has an extra year. Whitner's deal was negotiated by NC Sports, which counts Browns punter Dave Zastudil among its numerous clients.

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