Monday, December 19, 2011

Generic Sports Holiday Cheatsheet for Nonbelievers

So, you're busy, you're stressed, you just found out the Christmas gift you got your mom is USELESS because she already bought it for HERSELF (and since you bought it online, now you have to figure out how to return it). With everything going on, you aren't interested in trying to keep up with five or six sports leagues, too, right?

That's cool.

But your holiday prep is winding down, and soon you'll be looking for an excuse to turn on a TV, turn off your brain, and enjoy watching others exercise for awhile. Here's a cheatsheet to maximize your enjoyment and minimize awkward holiday party silences between now and the start of 2012.


The Indianapolis Colts (who finally won a game!) politely decided to play on a Thursday, leaving room for some GOOD games Christmas weekend. The bulk are on SATURDAY (Christmas Eve) starting at 1pm EST. Here are the highlights:

It's a scientific fact that the best (funny) Christmas movies take place in Chicago, and the best (tear-jerky) Christmas movies take place in New York. Well, this Christmas both New York teams desperately need to win this game in order to get that shiny lil' playoff spot this year. It will be emotional. It might get ugly. Not, like, bench-clearing-brawl ugly; more like fumble fumble interception dropped pass missed coverage ugly.

But, generally speaking, the two quarterbacks in question (Mark Sanchez and Eli Manning) are popular with the lady fans (just ask Grantland's Sarah Larimer and Katie Baker). So, that's less ugly. This game should be a lot of fun for a neutral observer. However, I'm pulling for the Official Little Brother of the Indianapolis Colts. We need a Manning in the playoffs!!!

Another game with serious playoff implications and equally serious choke potential. Again, delightful for the neutral observer.

First of all, I'd like to send sincere condolences to the Packers for losing the perfect season. It sucks, but at least you didn't lose because you sat your starters; that sort of thing has been known to destroy entire franchises (see: Indianapolis Colts). Deep breath, regroup, you're gonna be fine.

Secondly, I'd like to give an equally sincere shout-out to my guy KYLE ORTON for making me look like a GENIUS! Always knew he could do it. Also, I thought he broke one of the fingers on his throwing hand, like, a week ago? Guess it's no big deal. He may even get the chance to spoil his former team's (and Tim Tebow's) playoff hopes. Ironic.

The Bears/Packers rivalry is always fun, even if one team is mucho superioro. When the Packers start opening the whoooopasssss, you can always try a little game: drink every time they mention how the Bears are missing Jay Cutler; drink again every time they show Jay on the sidelines; drink twice if Jay has a surly expression on his face, and treat yourself to an entire gingerbread house if they catch him smiling.

The rest of the time, just enjoy the delightful adorkableness that is Aaron Rodgers.


To be honest, I haven't really followed the NBA since the whole Pacers/Pistons throw down several years ago. I've never in my life watched pro-basketball over holiday break, but I likely will this year for a couple of reasons.

1. We weren't expecting a season due to the NBA lockout. The season is actually STARTING on Christmas Day this year (better late than never, I guess). Crazy how the lockout psychology seems to have affected fans this year. The NFL lockout tricked me into watching preseason games for the first time maybe ever, and the NBA one tricked me into thinking these games are important, too. Nice marketing buzz, NBA.

2. Two of my favorite Purdue basketball players (JuJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore) both got drafted by the Boston Celtics, and Christmas Day will be their first real game. I may get a little misty-eyed, like a proud parent to my Baby Boilers. Stupid Celtics tricking me in to liking them. There's a lot of TRICKING going on...

3. My mom digs the singing group Celtic Thunder. I guess someone from Celtic Thunder is doing the National Anthem for the Boston Celtic game, so she wants to watch it just to see that. The 'Celtic' in 'Celtic Thunder' and the 'Celtic' in 'Boston Celtics' are not pronounced the same way and it's BLOWING MY MIND. Also, is it weird to have people not from America singing the Star Spangled Banner?



I don't claim to be an authority on hockey - in fact, I'm not even sure I know the rules. However, the Winter Classic (played outside, sometimes in the snow) is a very cool event, and if it's on wherever you are, it wouldn't kill you to take a moment to appreciate it.


As a side note, it would also be good if you were socially aware of the status of Sidney Crosby. He's the kid who scored the gold medal goal in overtime for Team Canada in the Vancouver Olympics. The rest of the time, he plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Read this, and then know that since that was written, Sid returned to the ice, got two goals in his first game back, and now is out again with 'concussion like symptoms' although he hasn't done anything that should cause them. Well, anything other than normal hockey things.

Sid's 24 years old, he's the best hockey player in the world, he's the face of the NHL - and he basically hasn't played in a calendar year. Kind of like Peyton Manning... except that he's 24, not 35. I can't help wondering if we'll be watching an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on 'what might have been' in a few years. Sadness.


Boise State, the 7th ranked team in the nation, wasn't picked for any of the "real" bowl games, so they're stuck playing on Thursday December 22 at 8pm, the SAME TIME AS THE COLTS CRAP MEANINGLESS STUPID EXCUSE FOR A... Blah. I don't know who they're playing, and I don't care. I think they lost two games in two years by a total of 6 points or something like that, and this is their reward.

All I have to say: Keep your eye on quarterback Kellen Moore. He's going into the NFL draft after being largely overshadowed and under-appreciated his entire college career. Sometimes... just sometimes... that is the perfect recipe for a "WHERE DID THIS GUY COME FROM" scenario.

UCLA vs ILLINOIS - December 31st 3:30pm
Both of these teams have already fired their coaches after mediocre seasons. Why are they playing in a bowl game?

WISCONSIN vs OREGON - January 2, 5pm EST (ESPN)
The Rose Bowl! This should actually be an entertaining game. And the Ducks are famous for having killer uniforms.

STANFORD vs OKLAHOMA STATE - January 2, 8:30pm (ESPN)
The Fiesta Bowl! Our last chance to see Andrew Luck before he enters the NFL draft and probably turns my fandom into a tense and nauseous experience for a few months.

Andrew's dad, Oliver Luck, played in the NFL for Houston. Oliver Luck took over for Archie Manning. Archie Manning is Peyton Manning's dad. Dizzy yet? Okay, let's keep going.

A lot of people expected Andrew Luck to skip out on school and go to the NFL draft last year. From what I read, Andrew actually called Peyton Manning and asked him for advice - and apparently Peyton told him to stay in school. Maybe because it was the decision Peyton made back in his day. Maybe it was because of the NFL lockout. Who knows. Either way, now Andrew's looming like a storm cloud over Peyton's scary neck surgery recovery efforts, and every time I watch Stanford I feel like an adulteress.

When Peyton Manning played in his last bowl game for Tennessee, he got blown out of the water by Nebraska. If the same thing happens to Andrew and Stanford in this game, I won't be able to handle to spooky-cosmic-linkage.

(Note to self: Write Santa a new letter, asking him to give me an open mind and thick skin to handle the impending soap opera.)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Curious Case of Kyle Orton

Every sports fan knows who 'THAT guy' is on their team - the guy they blame when things go wrong, whether it's really their fault or not. I have many fond childhood memories of my father yelling at the television: "Brad, you bonehead!"

My dad's 'THAT guy' was Brad Miller, a player on Purdue's basketball team in the mid-1990's. Brad was good. Brad is still good (he's been in the NBA since 1998, and played for Team USA twice). Didn't matter. My dad loved yelling at Brad.

My first 'THAT guy' was Travis Dorsch, the kicker for Purdue's football team my freshman year. One of my fondest college memories is of sitting in the student section, waiting for Travis to punt out of his own endzone, and hearing the guy behind me scream, "FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, TAKE THE SAFETY!"

I don't remember why we blamed everything on Travis back then, but we did. It was a joke we shared as a student fanbase. I even had a large lecture class with Travis that year. And you know what? He set the curve. Brilliant, all American academic guy who is currently working on his PhD. He was drafted in the 4th round of the 2002 NFL draft, right after David Garrard. DAVID GARRARD! Our 'THAT guy' kicker was drafted directly after quarterback David Garrard. Shocking.

Travis went to the Cincinnati Bengals just in time to make way for our new 'THAT guy' at Purdue: Kyle Orton. A Nebraska fan from Iowa, almost exactly a year younger than me, he had the audacity to attempt following in the footsteps of Drew Brees, patron saint of Purdue Quarterbacks. No pun, just fact.

Kyle was my truest of true 'THAT guy' players. We went through most of our Purdue careers together. We moved to Chicago at the same time. I feel we share a special bond, even though we've never met.

But here's the thing with 'THAT guy' - generally, he's better than you give him credit for.

Drew Brees's best year was the 2000 Rose Bowl year. The Boilers reached 9th in the national rankings, Drew was drafted by the San Diego Chargers, and his wild ride to winning Super Bowl MVP as a New Orleans Saint is well documented (and properly dramatic). Drew is dynamic, Drew is exciting to watch, Drew is a vocal and classy leader. We all love Drew.

On the other hand, Purdue fans wince a little when the Kyle Orton era comes up because we all immediately flash to the same moment in time: The 2004 Wisconsin Game.

Two side points:
* The caption below this video on YouTube says "Purdue has never been the same since." And that is 100% true.
* I was at this game live, so I'd never seen the way the announcers colored on the telestrator; enough time has passed for me to appreciate the hilarity. Nice work, guys.

But did you notice Purdue's ranking in the scorebox? They were ranked 5th in the nation going in to that game. I remember the 'experts' saying that if they'd won, they probably would have been ranked 1st. I also remember the 'experts' saying that if they won, Kyle Orton would have been a Heisman Trophy Candidate. I laughed really hard at the time. I also laughed really hard when I heard Kyle was entering the NFL draft.

Kyle was taken in the 4th round, after Alex Smith (who was considered a complete and total bust until he met Jim Harbaugh earlier this year), Aaron Rodgers (who is adorkable), and Charlie Frye and David Greene (who I don't think are in the league anymore).

Orton started as a rookie for the Chicago Bears after Sexy Rexy Grossman was injured in the preseason. I could not have been more delighted, drinking in every game like one of those people who watches auto racing just for the crashes. But Kyle played well enough as a rookie to get the Bears to the playoffs - then they shoved him aside for Rex, who hadn't played all year. And they lost in the first round.

Kyle played off and on for a couple more years, always doing better than I expected, but never well enough for Bears fans to forget the other quarterbacks on the roster.

Then the Jay Cutler thing happened.

The Bears traded Kyle (plus their jewelry and all of the spare change in their couch cushions) for cranky, petulant Jay Cutler. At that moment, Kyle Orton ceased to be my 'THAT guy' and I became perhaps his biggest advocate. For the first time, I saw a favorable comparison between Kyle Orton and Drew Brees. Drew had been tossed aside by the San Diego Chargers. He landed in New Orleans, found a perfect fit with the team/city/coach/system, and THRIVED.

I wanted Kyle to do the same thing. Reinvent himself in Denver, find somewhere he could focus on his strengths instead of his weaknesses for a change. I remembered the things he's done well over his career. For example, I was at Purdue's Bowl Game in Orlando after the 2003 season, where Orton dislocated his thumb. I remember how the crowd (including me) ROARED when he came back into the game, gritting it out and leading Purdue on a come-from-behind drive to force overtime.

He's not Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Drew Brees. He's not flashy, particularly marketable, or inspiring to watch. But he's tough, and he can play. As someone who's spent my share of time expecting him to fail and clamoring for his backup, I've learned he's better than the alternative, in most cases. But we never see it, even if it's right in front of us. Why is that? What is it about Kyle Orton that makes our eyes dart around, looking for ANYWHERE ELSE TO GO?

How many of us have experienced something similar in our professional lives? Something about our workplace stunts our performance. We clash with a manager. We aren't in a system that knows how to use us properly. We don't have the opportunity to meet our full potential and we digress into apathy. The formula for success is the same in any walk of life - you prepare as much as you can, but you still have be the right person in the right place at the right time to reach EXCEPTIONAL.

Would Tom Brady be 'Tom Brady' if he'd been drafted in the 2nd round by the Oakland Raiders instead of in the 6th round by the Patriots? Would Peyton Manning be 'Peyton Manning' if he'd gone to San Diego instead of Ryan Leaf? We can speculate, but we'll never know for sure.

Your average quarterback has four (4) years, and Kyle's already nearly doubled that. He's not my 'THAT guy' anymore. For a few minutes it was Curtis Painter, but for now, the position is vacant.

All of that being said - I will be cheering HARD for Tim Tebow this weekend. If only Tim and Kyle could have somehow played together.