Sunday, April 30, 2017

Giants Open 2017 Season with Historically Bad April

Struggling out the gate - With the month of April coming to a close and a month of baseball already in the books, Giants fans are more than glad that May is peeking its face as the team has gotten off to a forgetful start to begin their 2017 campaign. And anything that can go wrong for San Francisco, pretty much has. With injuries to several key players in the early going, none was greater than that of Giants ace Madison Bumgarner who hurt himself in a dirt bike accident during the Giants' off-day in Denver. The 4-time All-Star and former World Series MVP suffered bruised ribs and an AC sprain in his left throwing shoulder which sent him on his first career stint to the disabled-list, costing him to miss three months as he's not expected to return until July's All-Star break. As if the team wasn't already struggling with their most reliable pitcher on the field, losing Bumgarner for any chunk of the season is a huge blow that they could ill-afford in hopes of making it back to the postseason.

At the time of Bumgarner's accident, he had suffered from poor run support as the Giants offense would score a whopping 7 runs in his four starts, two of those runs Bumgarner would drive in himself in Arizona when he became the first pitcher in Major League history to belt a pair of Opening Day home runs. But even before the injury to Bumgarner, an injury to their most reliable hitter in Buster Posey would leave a sour taste in the mouth of Giants fans as he took a Taijuan Walker fastball to the head in his first at-bat of the Giants home-opener, also against Arizona. While the former National League MVP would appear to be fine, Giants skipper Bruce Bochy chose not to take any chances with his All-Star catcher as he was placed on the 7-day disabled-list with a concussion. In his first game back, Posey would shake off the cobwebs by collecting three hits in five at-bats in a 2-1 win in Kansas City where the Giants made their first appearance since their thrilling Game 7 victory to win the 2014 World Series.
Bumgarner's injury would prove to be a bad omen as their trip to Colorado would only get worse. Not only would they get swept for the first time this year in the three-game series against the Rockies, but Johnny Cueto who entered his fourth start of the season with the lowest ERA of all-time (2.43) at Coors Field would be welcomed rather rudely in his first visit to the mile high city of 2017. Not only would Cueto suffer the loss by allowing a season-high 6 earned runs in 5 innings pitched, but in his 10th season in the Majors, he would also surrender the first Grand Slam of his career. And with the Giants outfield already struggling to produce at the plate, they would leave Coors Field with another player lost to the disabled-list.

Other notable injuries would be suffered by left fielder Jarrett Parker and center fielder Denard Span, both of whom hurt themselves while crashing into the outfield wall. While Parker suffered a broken clavicle which will sideline him for 8 weeks, Span was sent on the DL with a shoulder sprain. With the injuries in the outfield coupled with minimal production from left fielder Chris Marrero, the Giants were forced to make several call-ups from the Minors including Drew Stubbs and Michael Morse. As for the infield, injuries sustained by Aaron Hill and Brandon Crawford would result in the call-up of the Giants' No. 2 ranked prospect Christian Arroyo. The 21-year old rookie who was lighting up the Minors at Triple-A Sacramento at the time of his promotion to the big club, would provide a nice jolt of offense in his first week. After going 0-for-4 in his debut, Arroyo would collect his first Major League hit the following day against some guy named Clayton Kershaw. The following he day he would connect for his first career home run in a walk-off victory over the Giants' bitter rival Los Angeles Dodgers. He would add another homer in San Francisco's following series against San Diego. Though he's hitting only .207 in 29 at-bats thus far, Arroyo figures to be a bright spot and the future of the Giants for many years to come.
But perhaps the Giants biggest surprise individually is none other than pitcher Matt Cain. In what's been a rough patch over the last three seasons for the former ace of the staff, Cain has experienced a resurgence thus far. Despite allowing 4 runs in his first start of the season, Cain has registered four consecutive strong outings in which he's allowed one run or fewer and has a 2-0 record and an ERA of 2.30 to show for it. After being plagued by injuries in each of the past three seasons and mechanical issues to boot, Cain has easily been San Francisco's best pitcher through the first month. As for pitcher Ty Blach who was moved from the bullpen to the starting rotation following the injury to Bumgarner, the Giants lefty has filled the void rather nicely in his first two starts by pitching a combined 12 innings and allowing only two earned runs. And though his last outing would be one of his best yet, his 7 shutout innings of 3 hit ball would be all but forgotten thanks to another meltdown by the Giants bullpen. In San Francisco's series-finale against the Padres and in their final game of April, the Giants took a 2-run lead into the ninth inning where closer Mark Melancon would blow his second save of the season in a 5-2 loss in extra innings, derailing Blach's hopes of notching his second career win.

The deflating loss would be San Francisco's 17th of the season as they finished out the month April with a record of 9-17. The dreadful month would mark their first 17-loss April in modern baseball history and their worst winning percentage in April since 1983. With a sub par bullpen being their biggest weakness a season ago, 2017 hasn't been much different thus far as the bullpen carries with them an ERA of 5.04 into the month of May. Though it's still way too early to write anyone off just yet, including the Giants, it hasn't been a pretty start to the season as their only series victory came in the home-opening series against the Diamondbacks (April 10-12). And with the month of May beginning with a nine-game road trip including the first three games at Dodger Stadium, things can get ugly quick if the G-Men are unable to turn things around right away. Despite their ugly start, the Giants have now sold out over 500 consecutive home games at AT&T Park, setting a new National League record. With that being said, here's to hoping those fans have much more to cheer about in May.

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Thursday, April 27, 2017

49ers open 2017 NFL Draft with a Bang!

Round 1 - Under a new regime, the San Francisco 49ers made quite the impression in Round 1 of the 2017 NFL Draft. And in their first draft together at the helm of the 49ers, head coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch had an unforgettable first day of the draft which included the Niners selecting two solid players on defense as well as stockpiling a few more picks along the way. With Myles Garrett going 1st overall to the Cleveland Browns as we all expected, there San Francisco was at pick No. 2 where they were ready to select Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas if unable to trade back. And then came calling the Chicago Bears who would treat us to our first "wow moment" of the Draft by working out a trade that allowed them to select UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky. One pick later, the 49ers would find their man in Thomas.

The move would prove to be a sign of despair for Chicago as Trubisky might have been on San Francisco's radar, but not at pick No. 2 which means the Bears were either smoke-screened into thinking Trubisky would be taken by San Francisco or that someone else might swoop in via trade to select him. Either way, the move would help Lynch and company make out like bandits as they received the No. 3 pick as well as Chicago's 3rd (67th overall) and 4th round picks (111th overall) this year and a 3rd rounder next year in exchange, all while selecting Thomas who they intended to take all along. But Lynch's brilliance and busy night wouldn't end there as he was able to flip one of the picks received from the Bears to move back into the first round. With rival Seattle on the clock at pick No. 31, San Francisco sent their 2nd round pick (34th overall) and the 4th rounder received from Chicago to the Seahawks, which the Niners would then use to select Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster.
Prior to the draft, the Niners had Garrett ranked as the no. 1 player in the draft, Thomas ranked no. 2 and Foster no. 3, meaning they managed to land two of their top three ranked players in the entire draft. This order was confirmed by Lynch during the 49ers' press conference following Round 1 of the draft, so to land Foster at pick 31 is a complete steal in the eyes of Lynch & Shanahan. After drafting a defensive lineman with their top pick in each of the past two seasons despite being under two different head coaches and a different GM, Lynch who also went to school at Stanford, made it a third straight year with the selection of Thomas. Oddly enough, their alma isn't the only thing the two have shared as they even had two classes together a few years ago when Lynch returned to Palo Alto to finish his degree. The two would grow quite the relationship over the years with Thomas even asking Lynch for advice before the biggest game of his career in December's Sun Bowl, not knowing he would later be drafted by his fellow classmate to work alongside him within the same organization. Another positive for Thomas would be the 22 mile trip from Stanford's campus to his new digs in Santa Clara as he's just a stones throw away from Levi's Stadium which will make the adjustment to the NFL life that much easier.

After soaring up the rankings on draft boards thanks to his dominant Sun Bowl performance which led to game MVP honors against Trubisky's North Carolina Tarheels no less and a glaring need on the defensive front for the Niners, it was an obvious decision for San Francisco to take Thomas despite the many different directions they could've gone. Thomas who has been looked upon as virtually being another Myles Garrett, can help stop the run as well as pressure the quarterback. Both are areas the 49ers struggled at a season ago when they allowed the most yards in franchise history and ranked last in the league in yards allowed and rushing yards allowed just a season ago, while also ranking near the bottom of the list in generating pressure on the quarterback.
As for Reuben Foster who I'm personally delighted to see in a Niners uniform, it was rather shocking to see him fall so deep into the first round the way he did. While there's been character concerns regarding Foster heading into the draft spanning from a diluted urine sample and an argument with a hospital worker which led to him being sent home at the scouting combine, there's no denying his passion for the game and the talent he possesses. It wasn't long ago that most draft experts had Foster projected to go in the top-five, but a shoulder injury that Foster claims to be "90% healed" could've also been just as much to blame for his draft stock taking a plunge. Niners fans can't help but be excited to now have Foster on the team especially after what San Francisco went through last season following the injury to NaVorro Bowman which made it very clear just how valuable the linebacker position is and how thin they were at said position. The same could be said about the defense in general as it's no secret how many lingering holes this team had on the defensive side which already looks much improved after only one day of the draft. With Rounds 2 through 7 still yet to come and the Niners owning picks in every round but the 2nd and a total of  11 picks, more selections on defense will be added with the addition of Thomas and Foster who already figure to help bolster a defense that couldn't stop a nosebleed a season ago.

Stay tuned for more coverage as the Draft continues.

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Friday, April 21, 2017

Eric Thames - From Sleeper to Stardom

Milwaukee Brewers slugger Eric Thames is all the rave right now in baseball after returning to the big leagues from the Korean Baseball Championship (KBO) where he not only revived his career but set records while doing so. After being selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the seventh round of the 2008 Major League Baseball draft where he saw little success in his limited time while bouncing around between the Jays and the Minor Leagues from 2011 to 2012 before being traded to the Seattle Mariners, Thames elected to play overseas by signing with the NC Dinos in 2014. The move would not only summon a new found power in Thames' swing, it would make him a cult hero as his hot hitting and base stealing helped gain him instant stardom. During his three seasons in the KBO, Thames averaged over 41 home runs and became the first player in league history to hit for the cycle twice in one season as well as become the league's first ever member of the 40-40 club by stealing 40 bases and hitting 40 home runs on his way to an MVP Award in 2015.

Thames was so admired in the KBO that he was given the nickname "God" by Korean baseball fans and was seen in cartoons. He even had his own theme song that the Dinos and their fans would play whenever Thames would hit a home run. It wouldn't be long before his old stomping grounds in the MLB began to take notice of Thames' success which resulted in the Milwaukee Brewers taking a flyer on him by offering the 30-year old Thames a $16 Million, multi-year contract despite not seeing him play in person and relying strictly on video and game play footage. The lofty expectations for the Brewers newest slugger would be noticed right out the gates as the move prompted the ball club to designate first baseman Chris Carter for assignment even after he led the league in home runs with 41. With deeper ballparks and all around better talent in the MLB than what Thames grew accustomed to in the KBO, Thames hasn't skipped a beat in his first 15 games of the season with Milwaukee who's off to a 9-8 start. Currently leading the league in home runs (8), slugging percentage (.981) extra-base hits (14) and total-bases (52) as well as being atop the National League with a .415 batting average, Thames has fit in quite nicely and appears to be worth every dime the Brew Crew dished out to acquire him in the small sample size we've seen thus far.
Having hit a home run in five straight games this year and becoming the first Brewer to achieve that feat since Jeromy Burnitz in 1997, not even Thames can explain what changed in his approach. Regardless, he's enjoying every minute of it and is relishing at the fact that he can go unnoticed in public (at least for now) unlike his time spent in Korea. I think we can all expect Thames to return to earth sooner than later, but here's to hoping this wave continues. 

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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Bumgarner makes History in Opening Day Loss

Baseball season is back at last! Sunday served as Opening Day for six MLB teams including the San Francisco Giants who made it as far as the National League Divisional round last season before falling in a best of five series against the eventual champion Chicago Cubs. And if there was one thing that kept the Giants from making it to the World Series for the fourth time in seven years or in its fourth consecutive even year if you believed in the even year magic, it was the inconsistency of the bullpen which showed its face all too often in 2016. After owning the dubious title of leading the league in blown saves a year ago with a total of 30, Sunday seemed all too familiar for Giants fans.

After leading for most of the game thanks to a bit of small ball and a pair of Madison Bumgarner home runs which we'll get to after the dreadful bullpen, Giants skipper Bruce Bochy saw much of the same in Game 1 of 162, falling to a walk-off loss on the road against the division rival Arizona Diamondbacks. Though Arizona starter Zack Greinke was only able to make it thru the first 5 innings due to a high pitch count, the former AL Cy Young Award winner who has some ownage on the Giants, would be bailed out and no longer on the hook for what appeared to be an imminent loss. With MadBum supplying some offense of his own as well as pitching a gem thru 5 innings and not allowing a single base runner until the bottom of the 6th, the Giants ace who made his fourth consecutive Opening Day start, would hit a rough patch as he surrendered three straight hits to end both his bid for a perfect game and the shutout. Following a 1-out triple by D-Backs catcher Jeff Mathis and a Nick Ahmed single to put Arizona on the board, A.J. Pollock tied the game at 3-3 just three pitches later with a 2-run homer. It would be a deflating inning considering how dominant Bumgarner was pitching before allowing his first hit, striking out 11 D-Backs batters in total, but he wouldn't let it effect him too much as he would more than make up for it during his next at-bat the following inning.
With the Giants back on top in a 4-3 ballgame, Derek Law would take the ball in the bottom of the 8th inning in relief of Bumgarner but would be greeted rather rudely as three straight singles tied the game once again and put an abrupt end to his day. Relievers Ty Blach and Hunter Strickland would limit the damage thanks to a double-play and a ground out to end the frame. Onto the 9th they went where a lead-off triple by Joe Panik who scored on a pinch-hit sac-fly by Conor Cillaspie one batter later, appeared to be the deciding blow. However, the third time would not be a charm this time around as San Francisco's bullpen struggles only continued. While the Giants headed into December's winter meetings with a closer atop their list of needs, they walked away with their guy after throwing what was then a record of $62 Million over 4 years at Mark Melancon. Though it would be a lot of money to invest into one guy, not to mention a reliever, the Giants were in desperate need as the signing received positive reviews among Giants fans who are hoping he'll be the anti-Santiago Casilla for years to come. But while facing his first big test in a San Francisco uniform, things didn't quite go as planned for the 3-time All-Star.

After retiring the first two batters he faced and needing only one more out to complete the save and seal the win, the same guy who ended Bumgarner's bid for perfection, sparked the late rally for Arizona. Jeff Mathis' 2-out double would be followed by three straight singles including the decisive blow off the bat of Chris Owings as the Diamondbacks walked-off to a 6-5 Opening Day victory, spoiling Bumgarner's record-setting day and Melancon's Giants debut as he was tagged with the loss. Defeat is always a bummer but this one stings a bit more because of how the Giants went ahead three different times and had their opponent's back against the wall and needing only one out for the win, but hey, its the first game of many. Let's just pray to the Baseball Gods that this isn't a repeat of the 2016 Giants bullpen. It'll be up to All-Star pitcher Johnny Cueto to get the Giants in the win column as he'll toe the slab in Game 2.
The biggest takeaway from the game would be Giants ace Madison Bumgarner who has proved to be almost as dangerous at the plate as he is on the mound. After making a bid for the Home Run Derby last season before the idea was shot down by Giants manager Bruce Bochy, baseball fans everywhere are already putting his name in the hat in hopes of getting a glimpse of MadBum at this year's Derby after his Opening Day magic which saw him belt a pair of home runs including his second career homer off of Zack Greinke. After becoming the fourth pitcher in Giants franchise history to connect for a home run on Opening Day, Bumgarner did something no other pitcher has done by becoming the first pitcher in MLB history to hit multiple home runs on Opening Day. It would also mark the fifth time a Giant at any position would have a multi-home run game on Opening Day with a guy named Barry Bonds being the last to do so. Following his home run in the fifth inning which tied him for the franchise lead for the most career home runs by a Giants pitcher with 15, Bumgarner separated himself from the rest of the list with another dinger in his very next at-bat for career home run No. 16. Though it won't last too long, how cool is it to say a pitcher (who isn't just any normal pitcher) is currently leading the league in home runs.

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Monday, March 27, 2017

Third Town a Charm for Raiders?

The entertainment capital of the world just got a whole lot more entertaining. If you haven't heard by now, the Oakland Raiders are the latest NFL franchise to get the green light to relocate after 31 of 32 team owners approved the move. And when they leave Oakland for their new home which most likely won't be until the 2020 season when the construction of their new $1.7 Billion dollar domed stadium is expected to be complete, they'll be playing where no NFL team has ever played before -- Las Vegas. It's been a long time coming for Vegas to be taken seriously by the NFL even if the possibility of the Raiders coming to town has only been in the news for a few blinks of the eye after Raiders owner Mark Davis was given the shaft by Commissioner Roger Goodell when he tried moving the team to Los Angeles a little over a year ago. After those hopes went up in flames in favor of the Rams relocating to L.A. instead, Davis had his sights set on the glitz and glamour of Sin City. All the NFL needed to make the lofty dreams of relocating the Raiders (or any other franchise for that matter) to Las Vegas a reality was an organization to take the risk which in this case proved to be the NHL. And now just nine months after Sin City was approved for its NHL team -- the Vegas Golden Knights, Las Vegas will be awarded its second professional sports franchise. 

It's hard to believe that after being deprived of a single professional sports team for so long, Vegas will now have two at the drop of a hat. But with the issue of gambling no longer a blockade and now archaic as its ever been at least in regards to a pro sports franchise, Vegas is no longer looked upon as being that forbidden destination for an NFL team. Or in Disney terms, Vegas is no longer that dark place on the map like in the Lion King that Mufasa tabs as off limits for Simba to step foot on although he would later do so anyways. Players living in Vegas and playing for the Raiders will now have to follow strict guidelines that prohibits them from sports betting. And though this is nothing new, now calling the world capital of gambling home could be a bit more enticing seeing as their new facility will be next door to a casino. Similar to how those playing for teams like the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos, two places that in recent years legalized the use of marijuana, have to avoid using the drug.
Relocation is something Raiders fans know all too well after then team owner Al Davis moved the team from Oakland to Los Angeles in 1982 only to head back to Oakland some 13 years later. But at least then the Raiders were some 370 miles away from their birthplace and still in the state of California. Now they're taking on an entirely new image by moving out of state, albeit only a state away. Still, it's worth seeing if the fan base which is among the most loyal fan bases in all of football is willing to follow them on their latest and perhaps their most disappointing business endeavor, especially considering few teams in all of sports mean more to their community than what the Raiders mean to the city of Oakland. With a deal already in place to move the Golden State Warriors who are currently next door neighbors to the Raiders at Oracle Arena across the bay to San Francisco, Oakland sports fans will soon be left with only the MLB's Oakland Athletics. But with the A's still playing ball within the crumbling walls of the Oakland Coliseum which is said to have had pluming issues for years now and is the only remaining MLB team that still shares a home with an NFL team, who's to say the Athletics won't be next to pack up their bags and leave? Or perhaps the city of Oakland can take note of the A's being their last hope and somehow work a deal to at least keep one of their beloved franchises in the East Bay.

What's also unfortunate for Oakland Raiders fans is the timing of the relocation. For the first time in over a decade, the Raiders are relevant again and are coming off a rejuvenating 12-4 season in 2016 and making the playoffs for the first time since 2002. With a promising crop of talent led by QB Derek Carr, WR Amari Cooper and reigning Defensive MVP Khalil Mack under the tutelage of head coach Jack Del Rio, the Raiders are finally on the right path of competing for a Super Bowl. Sadly, if and when that title comes, it'll most likely be while calling Vegas home and not Oakland. Then again had Carr not suffered a season ending leg injury in the second to last week of the season, they could've been a real threat to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC. In what will be the NFL's third relocation in the last 14 months, the Raiders will now leave the 6th biggest media market in the country for the 40th, joining the Rams' decision to flee St. Louis for L.A. last season and the Chargers' decision to leave San Diego for January. This many moves in such little time is never a good thing for a league but after living in Vegas for three quarters of my life, I have a hard time seeing an NFL team NOT succeeding here. In my personal experience I've learned that Vegas is a city that thrives on whats new and whats in, so if you're a Vegas local and weren't a football fan already, chances are it won't be long before you see the light.

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Monday, March 13, 2017

49ers lead Busy Offseason with Free Agent Frenzy

With a new general manager and head coach on board to help right the ship in San Francisco, the 49ers made quite the splash in the free agent market and wasted little time to do so. In just the first 49 hours (instead of the first 48, get it?) of NFL free agency, the 49ers brain trust of John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan signed a plethora of new talent as the franchise looks to turn the page under its newest regime. Day 1 of free agency opened with the Niners signing seven players to come aboard -- QB Brian Hoyer, WR Pierre Garcon, WR Marquis Goodwin, TE Logan Paulsen, FB Kyle Juszczyk, K Robbie Gould and LB Malcolm Smith. More signatures would hit the dotted-line on Day 2 as QB Matt Barkley, WR Aldrick Robinson, DB Don Jones and LB Brock Coyle all agreed to contracts to round out San Francisco's busy free-agent frenzy. But GM John Lynch began his new line of work even earlier than that.

With defense being the glaring weakness for San Francisco after allowing the most yards (both total and rushing) and points in franchise history this past season, the 49ers were quick to land a run-stuffer in DT Earl Mitchell who was recently released by the Miami Dolphins. Other early signings included WR DeAndre Carter and CB K'Waun Williams as well as Jeremy Kerley who was inked to a new three-year contract extension after leading the team in receptions (64) and receiving yards (667) in 2016. It's safe to say Shanahan is trying to duplicate what he had on offense in Atlanta by contacting players he's already familiar with and why wouldn't he? Carcon for example ran amok in Shanahan's system, totaling a career-best in receptions (113), targets (184), and yards (1,346) with the Redskins in 2013. Tight-end Logan Paulsen also served under Shanahan for all four of his years with Washington from 2010-13 and is known for being an exceptional blocker at the tight-end position. Receiver Aldrick Robinson is another player that is well familiar with Shanahan, having followed him around the league from Washington for three years to Atlanta this past season where he hauled in a season-high 111 receiving yards on four receptions vs the 49ers in Week 15.
There's also receiver and Olympian Marquise Goodwin who provides Shanahan with a burst of speed on offense, allowing him to stretch the field and help fill the void of the recently released Torrey Smith. And then there's the unknown of DeAndre Carter who grew up in San Jose just a stones throw away from Levi's Stadium and was a notable receiver at Sacramento State receiving FCS First-Team All-American honors in 2014 but went undrafted and has yet to hit the field in an NFL regular season game. All Shanahan is missing in terms of targets is a go up and get it receiver like he had in Julio Jones. However, that one will be much harder to come by as Jones is hands down the best receiver in the league and a once in a decade type talent. But we could all expect a receiver or two to be selected by San Francisco in April's Draft. After making the Pro Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in 2016, the 49ers made Kyle Juszczyk the highest-paid fullback in league history with a four-year, $21 Million contract. The signing comes a year after the team did away with the fullback position under head coach Chip Kelly and some reports say Juszczyk could've signed for more elsewhere but took less to play in Shanahan's system. Expected to be another target for the quarterback to throw to, the versatile fullback out of Harvard who caught 78 passes over the last two seasons will be used by Shanahan much like he used Patrick DiMarco in Atlanta.

As for the most important position in all of football -- quarterback, the 49ers finally added two QB's to the roster after Colin Kaepernick's recent decision to opt out left a gaping hole at the position. Veteran QB Brian Hoyer was the first to land via a 2-year deal after serving last season as Jay Cutler's backup before being forced into the starting role after Cutler sustained an injury in Week 2. Hoyer played well for the Bears and became the first QB in franchise history to throw for over 300 yards in four consecutive games before a broken arm ended his season in Week 7. Hoyer finished the season with six touchdowns and zero interceptions before being replaced by Matt Barkley who coincidentally signed a 2-year pact with the Niners a day after Hoyer did. Since falling from grace and once upon a time being projected as not only the first quarterback taken in the 2012 Draft but the first pick overall, the former USC Trojan has yet to prove that he's capable of being anything but a backup QB at the NFL level. Nonetheless, he and Hoyer will more than likely be competing alongside whoever the third and possibly fourth quarterback is come training camp.
Another pair of shoes to fill will be those of kicker Phil Dawson who signed with the rival Arizona Cardinals and will now be replaced in San Francisco by long-time Bears kicker Robbie Gould who agreed to a two-year deal after signing late last season with the New York Giants where he converted on all six of his field goal attempts. At the time of his departure from Chicago, Gould had set franchise records for the most field goals made (276), field goal percentage (85.9), field goals made from 50-yards or more (23) and total points scored (1,207). Here's to hoping he can duplicate those numbers in a 49er uniform as the 42-year old Uncle Phil was a favorite among the fans and players alike.

Back to the defensive side and with the 49ers switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme on defense, linebacker Malcolm Smith who had a disappointing two-year stint across the Bay with the Raiders, will try and rebound under new 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. Like Shanahan who targeted multiple players he was familiar with, Saleh spent three seasons with Smith in Seattle where he served as the Seahawks' defensive quality control coach and watched from the sidelines as Smith took home Super Bowl MVP honors in Super Bowl 48. Hopefully the two reuniting together again in the NFC West can do Smith some good. Two defensive players signed to help make an impact on special-teams is linebacker Brock Coyle and defensive back Don Jones. Though lots of work has been done in the short time Shanahan and Lynch have been with the team, there's still plenty of work to be done in preparation of the 2017-18 season and the Draft is the next area of focus.
It's worth noting that newly hired general manager John Lynch has already matched former Niners GM Trent Baalke's free-agnet signings from 2012 to 2016 in a matter of days. 49er fans haven't been the only ones giddy about the team's recent acquisitions as media members from both NFL Network (Ian Rapoport) and ESPN (John Clayton) have taken a liking to San Francisco's moves and praised them for adding depth and spending wisely opposed to shelling out cash to the top-tier names on the market. These deals have already made them one of the most improved teams in the league according to Clayton who ranked them fourth just behind Jacksonville, Detroit and Tennessee. Sure a few of the deals might have been slight overpays, but with more than enough in spending money and John Lynch in the drivers seat for the first time, it was to be expected. Not to mention the fact that incoming players know the rebuild in San Francisco is a process and thus a few more dollars will be needed to attract free-agents. That could all change in the coming years, though, if and when we begin to see positive results on the field.

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Dirk Joins Elite 30K Club

Last night Dirk Nowitzki joined an elite group of basketball legends by becoming just the sixth player (first international member) in NBA history to score 30,000 career points after dropping a 25-spot (all in the first half) at home against the Los Angeles Lakers. In what's been a forgetful season for the Dallas Mavericks who currently sit nine games under .500 and 1 1/2 games out of the eight seed in the Western Conference standings, the Mavericks' all-time leading scorer and future Hall of Famer still gives Dallas fans something to cheer for while averaging nearly 14 points and 7 rebounds per game. It's something both the fans and Dirk have grown accustomed to as their relationship has now spanned 19 seasons and will likely reach 20 as the German native has expressed his plans to return next season. If his 20th season is spent in Dallas next year which it almost certainly will considering the family-like relationship between Nowitzki and Mavs owner Mark Cuban, Dirk will tie a record with Kobe Bryant for the most seasons with a single franchise throughout an entire career.

Entering Tuesday's game needing 20 points to reach the milestone, Dirk was well on his way to that mark after scoring 18-points in the opening quarter alone and getting his team off to a fast start. And the basket that would catapult Dirk into the 30,000 point club would be none other than a fadeaway jumper, only not of the one-footed variety he's become known for. After draining a three-pointer to eclipse the 30K mark, Dirk was mobbed by Cuban and his teammates while receiving a standing ovation from the Dallas crowd. It would be an emotional moment for all involved including Dirk's coach and mentor Holger Geschwindner who was in the building for the historic night. The 7-footer would finish the game with 25-points, all scored in the first half, in a 122-111 win against the Los Angeles Lakers. Out of the six players to reach the feat, Dirk becomes only the third to put up 30K with one team, Kobe and Karl Malone (Utah Jazz) the others. After a Draft day trade in 1998 that led Dirk to Dallas by way of a deal with the Milwaukee Bucks, it's been quite a ride for the 13-time NBA All-Star and former Finals (2011) and league MVP (2007).
Despite not playing for one of the NBA's glamour franchises or even in a city not known for its basketball which comes secondary to the game of football in the state of Texas, Dirk helped bring the city of Dallas its only championship in the four major sports since the turn of the century. Dirk also stormed his way to greatness the way you're supposed to while also serving as a phenomenal ambassador to the game overseas. Not to mention he's as clean on and off the court as they come having done it for nearly 20 years without a single fuss as the soon to be 39-year old Nowitzki has never been linked to a single incident with the law, a rarity nowadays which makes him the perfect model athlete in this day and age and one we'll soon be celebrating in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Lakers make Magical hire

With the NBA currently in its All-Star break and some 50 games into the regular season, the Los Angeles Lakers which consists mostly of a young crop of talent, are enjoying some time off the court in preparation of the final stretch. But while the team sent zero players to participate in the actual All-Star Game itself, the organization has remained every bit as busy in the front-office. And on Tuesday, team owner Jeanie Buss made the announcement that both Mitch Kupchak who had been with the Lakers organization since 1981, including six years as a player before spending the last two plus decades in the front-office as general manager, and Jim Buss (executive vice president of basketball operations) would be relieved of their duties. And the man Jeanie would replace her own brother with is one that knows the Lakers franchise as well as anyone -- Mr. Earvin "Magic" Johnson. After helping lead them to five NBA titles in the 80's, Magic isn't quite done helping the Lakers return to being the dominant franchise he remembers them as.

The move to bring Johnson aboard is a seismic shift in the landscape of the Lakers organization and is one Jeanie Buss says she should've made years ago as the franchise is suffering from its worst playoff drought in team history which will reach four consecutive seasons come seasons end. And in just his first day on the job, Johnson wasted little time before making phone calls to get a deal done just days before Thursday's trade deadline as he shipped guard Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets in exchange for small forward Corey Brewer and a first round pick in this year's draft. Williams, a former Sixth Man of the Year Award winner in 2015 with the Toronto Raptors, is having the best year of his career while averaging 18.6 points per game coming off the bench. With the Rockets (40-18) being one of the better teams not only in the Western Conference this year but in the entire Association, the acquisition of Williams provides depth to a team already stacked with shooters including Eric Gordon who won Saturday's Three-Point shooting Contest and is second in the league in points off the bench, trailing only his new teammate.
The trade figures to help both teams as the Lakers add another draft pick in their ongoing efforts to rebuild and Houston adds another shooter which now gives them the top two highest scorers coming off the bench. Not to mention Rockets superstar James Harden gets some much appreciated help while leading the league in assists per game (11.3) and trailing only Russell Westbrook and Isaiah Thomas for the scoring title. With the Western Conference looked at as being Golden State's to lose, Houston is one of the teams that isn't expected to stand in the way of the Warriors but at least stands a punchers chance and could cause problems for the back-to-back Western Conference Champions come playoff time.

Back to the Lakers, Los Angeles is suffering yet another disappointing season at 19-39, one win better than the Phoenix Suns for the worst record in the West and third worst overall, but has already surpassed last season's win total of 17-65 under first-year head coach Luke Walton. After a fast start to the season which saw L.A. win six of its first ten games for the first time since the 2011-12 season, Walton's team has taken a step back whether that be a result of a series of injuries they've endured or the young guys are experiencing exhaustion while still getting acclimated to the grind of the NBA season. Or perhaps a combination of the two. Moving forward, Johnson promised in his interview with Spectrum Sportsnet that when it comes time to making a pitch to a player in the free-agent process, that it won't be about telling old stories about the organization's past success during the Showtime Lakers or the Kobe-led Lakers, but rather "the new Lakers." For me personally, this comes off as especially important considering its an area that Kupchak struck out in numerous times in the past few seasons when attempting to lure star players via free agency. With a new GM expected to be announced in the coming days, only time will tell if the hiring of Magic will pay off. But at least for now it's a hire that ensures Lakers fans they've got someone in the drivers seat who cares dearly about the organization and one who will give it his all to try and right the ship in Tinsletown just like he did on the court.

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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Niners set for New Era under Shanahan/Lynch

From Niners ball boy to head coach - For 49er fans the wait is finally over as the once proud San Francisco football franchise held a press conference on Thursday to officially introduce and announce the hiring of John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan as their newest general manager and head coach. It's been a long time coming for the Niners who have been without a coach for over a month after deciding to relieve Chip Kelly of his duties following the final game of the regular season -- a 25-23 loss to Seattle. GM Trent Baalke was also let go following the loss, though his firing wasn't as big a surprise. Since then 49ers CEO Jed York searched high and low to find the next candidates to help pull the franchise from out of the rubble. And while the hiring of Shanahan would make him the team's fourth head coach in as many years, it finally feels like Jed got it right with this one.

Brought in to become the 20th head coach in franchise history, Kyle Shanahan who spent the last two seasons as offensive coordiantor of the Atlanta Falcons, grew up around the 49ers organization, serving as the team's ball boy as a teenager while his father Mike Shanahan served as offensive coordinator for three years. The elder Shanahan helped lead San Francisco to a victory in Super Bowl 29 before heading off to Denver where he would win another pair of Super Bowl's as head coach of the Broncos. With son Kyle now in the drivers seat, he'll try to instill the same success his father did with the team he grew up helping as he and his father become the seventh father-son coaching tandem in NFL history. But with Shanahan behind schedule due to Atlanta's trip to the Super Bowl which prevented the 49ers from hiring him until after the Falcons' season concluded, there's lots of work to be done in between now, the start of free-agency and April's Draft. One glaring hole is the vacancy at the team's defensive coordinator position. As for the offensive job, there won't be any interviews needed as Shanahan has expressed he'll be the one in charge calling the plays on offense.
What's different this time around compared to San Francisco's hiring's of the past, is the patience and commitment York figures to have with Shanahan and Lynch. With both Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly each fired from the head coaching job only one season into their four year deals, it's obvious that the rebuild is going to take much longer than the time each of the past two coaches were given. Hoping the third time is a charm for the Niners after York's decision to part ways with Jim Harbaugh which proved to be a day in infamy and a decision that has left a sour taste in the mouths of 49er fans as the team's been trying to pick up the pieces ever since, both Shanahan and Lynch agreed to six-year pacts. Though both guys are new to their positions, the excitement by the 49er Faithful couldn't be greater heading into next season. And with a projected cap space of $87.6 Million dollars on the books, San Francisco could make a splash in the free-agent market.

One position they'll surely have their eyes on is at quarterback as the 49ers currently have zero QB's under contract. With Colin Kaepernick most likely to exercise his player option to opt out of his contract to play elsewhere in 2017 and Blaine Gabbert, Thad Lewis and Christian Ponder all free-agents, next year's staff could look entirely different at the quarterback position. Early rumors have Shanahan kicking the tires with several potential QB candidates such as Matt Schaub, Jimmy Garoppolo and Kirk Cousins. Having worked with Cousins for two years in Washington where Shanahan served as OC, the two have history together. The same can be said about Schaub who served three seasons with Shanahan as a Houston Texan and this past season as Matt Ryan's backup with the Falcons. Serving as Schaub's QB coach in 2007 before moving to OC for each of the next two years, Shanahan helped Schaub lead the league in passing in 2009, earning him his first of two Pro-Bowl appearances. Unfortunately, Schaub is entering his year 36 season and is over a year removed from his most recent start. But given the fact that he knows Shanahan's system already and could sign at a much more affordable rate as a free-agent opposed to having to be traded for like both Cousins and Garoppolo, it might not be such a bad move.
First we'll have to see what direction the Niners go in with the Draft and whether or not they'll take the risk of drafting their quarterback for the future with the second overall pick. Even so, Schaub starting while the rookie QB watches from the sideline and learns from a distance instead of being thrown into the mix right off the bat, might not be such a bad idea after all. Shanahan brings with him his impressive resume that helped the Atlanta Falcons put together the number one offense in the league as well as aid Matt Ryan to an MVP Award. Under Shanahan's tutelage, the Falcons ranked 1st in the league in points per game (33.8), 2nd in total yards (6,653), 3rd in passing (4,725), 5th in rushing (1,928) and tied for the fewest giveaways. Those stats are a day and night difference from what the 49ers produced on offense this past season, ranking among the league's worst in almost every category. However, Shanahan's most recent performance in the Super Bowl has drawn criticism for the way the final two quarters played out on offense. With Atlanta leading by 25-points midway thru the third quarter, the Falcons would fail to score again as New England pulled off the largest comeback in Super Bowl history to win its fifth title. Part of the blame was put on Shanahan for not running the ball as often as many say he should've, especially considering how well the run game worked in the first half. Then again it was Atlanta's defense which allowed their opponent to score on each of their final five possessions.

From commentator to GM - For John Lynch who attended school at Stanford and played collegiate football under 49ers great Bill Walsh, the general manager position is entirely new for the 9-time Pro-Bowler who played strong safety with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Denver Broncos. Though he has zero front-office experience, Lynch has a plethora of football knowledge having played the game at a Hall of Fame level and serving the past eight years in the broadcast booth as a color commentator with the NFL on FOX. Despite his inexperience at the position, those who know Lynch best have had nothing but positive things to say after news broke that he would become the 49ers next general manager. The news came as a surprise to everyone considering his name was under the radar and was never mentioned by the media among candidates interviewing for the job. Lynch later revealed that it was his request that the interview process was kept a secret between him and 49ers brass to test whether or not he could trust 49ers CEO Jed York.
Foreign to his new position, Lynch wasted no time to make his first move by adding Broncos Vice President of Player Personnel Adam Peters to his staff. The hire garnered praise and many around the league have called the move a home run as Peters is said to be one of the most respected talent evaluators in the NFL, not to mention he comes from a winning background having been a part of three Super Bowl victories with the Broncos and Patriots. Lynch followed up that move by naming former Lions GM Martin Mayhew as the team's Senior Personnel Executive. With a long way still to go for the Niners, the franchise finally appears to heading in the right direction with the foundation in place to return the 49ers to prominence. But of course, only time will tell.

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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Pats Shock Falcons in Super Bowl LI

For the fifth time, the New England Patriots are Super Bowl Champions. Led by the greatest quarterback-coaching tandem in NFL history, the Patriots pulled off the unthinkable by completing a 25-point comeback in the first ever Overtime Super Bowl. With the Falcons leading New England by a score of 28-3 midway through the third quarter, the game seemed to be all but over as Atlanta appeared to be on their way to claiming their first ever Lombardi Trophy. So much so that President Trump even reportedly left his Super Bowl party early once the Patriots fell into their 25-point hole. But Tom Brady and company would have none of that as they would soon orchestrate the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history, while treating us to an instant classic in the third most watched Super Bowl ever.

Making their record-setting seventh Super Bowl appearance, Brady and coach Bill Belichick would have their fair share of mistakes early on as the tide quickly turned against them following a scoreless first quarter. With New England marching on offense and putting together what appeared to be a promising drive, things would soon go up in flames as running back LaGarrette Blount was stripped of the ball just two plays into the second quarter. The play would ignite a scoring barrage by Atlanta who scored 21 unanswered-points in a span of 12 minutes. After Devonta Freeman began things off with a 5-yard touchdown in which he cut far left and found his way into the end zone untouched, QB Matt Ryan who was named MVP the night before, needed only five plays to extend that lead, ending the drive with a 19-yard touchdown pass to his tight-end Austin Hooper. Things would only get uglier the rest of the half as the Patriots were plagued by a series of unfortunate firsts.
After failing to score in a quarter for the first time in their last 32 quarters, came Blount's first fumble in 16 games. It would also mark the first time the Patriots would trail in a game since Week 12. Then came an 82-yard interception returned for a touchdown by Robert Alford to make it a 21-0 game. It would be the first return for a touchdown of any kind all year against New England and the first pick-six thrown in Brady's postseason career. It wasn't long before you began seeing coach Belichick on the sidelines, pencil and paper in hand, making early adjustments to address in the locker room come halftime. With only a field goal to show for at the half, the Patriots would watch their deficit climb to 25-points following a second touchdown pass from Matt Ryan on Atlanta's second possession of the third quarter. Leading 28-3 with a quarter and a half remaining, New England would need to pull off the largest comeback in Super Bowl history if they wanted to award their future Hall of Fame coach and quarterback duo with an unprecedented fifth ring. But while most teams would fold under pressure when facing such a deficit, Brady remained calm and poised as ever despite his team having its back against the wall. After a touchdown pass to backup running back James White who had himself a game to remember, the Patriots managed to inch a bit closer before the start of the fourth quarter, despite a missed extra-point by kicker Stephen Gostkowski, his fifth missed PAT of the year.

With Atlanta ahead 28-9 thru 3 quarters, the Falcons seemed destined to win and had the odds in their favor considering teams leading by 19 points thru 3 quarters in the postseason were an unbeaten 93-0 all-time. But if anybody was going to put that record to the test, you knew it would be Brady. Another Gostkowski field goal to start the fourth quarter helped make it a two-score game. And on Atlanta's ensuing possession, the New England defense would step up and put the ball back into their captain's hands. Facing 3rd and 1, the Falcons elected to opt for a pass play as Ryan was blindsided by middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower who made it to the quarterback freely after Devonta Freeman failed to pickup the blitz, resulting in a fumble recovered by New England. With new life and only 25-yards to go, you could feel the momentum shift immediately as Atlanta suffered their first turnover of the postseason. A touchdown pass from Brady to Amendola five plays later and a successful 2-point conversion on a direct-snap up the middle to James White made it an 8-point game.
Pinned back at their own 10-yard line, the Falcons quickly found themselves at mid-field as a wide-open Devonta Freeman gained 39-yards on the first play of the drive. Two plays later Julio Jones would display the type of footwork that would make Super Bowl hero Santonio Holmes proud as Jones somehow contorted his body and got both feet in-bounds to make a spectacular 27-yard catch, despite his momentum falling towards the sideline all while securing the ball. It would be the last positive of the day for Atlanta, however, as they soon found themselves going backwards. With the ball at the 22 and kicker Matt Bryant standing by in case of a field goal attempt to make it a two-score game, the Falcons would be doomed by a 12-yard sack and an offensive holding call which knocked them out of field goal range and allowing Brady and company to pull off a comeback for the ages. Entering the game, the longest drive the Patriots had put together all season was 91-yards, and with the game on the line, New England would need to duplicate that mark in order to tie the game.

With three and a half minutes to go and a pair of timeouts remaining, Brady would march his team into the end zone with time to spare. But not before a miraculous catch that almost wasn't as Atlanta nearly intercepted the ball which would've sealed the win for the Falcons. Instead, receiver Julian Edelman came down with an awe-inspiring reception that rivaled that of David Tyree's helmet catch against Brady and the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Surrounded by three defenders, Brady looked for Edelman down the middle but had the pass batted up into the air by Robert Alford. With Alford falling back on the play and landing on his back, the combination of Alford's foot and the hand of safety Ricardo Allen prevented the ball from hitting the ground which then allowed Edelman to get both hands on the ball as all four players hit the ground simultaneously. Though the catch would feature" 70% of luck" according to Edelman himself, it would help gain another 23-yards to keep the drive alive and avert disaster. Four plays later, James White scored his second of three touchdowns with a 1-yard run up the middle. Still needing to tack on the game-tying 2-point conversion, New England would to just that. With WR Danny Amendola in motion, Brady threw a dart to his receiver who was met at the goal-line, barely breaking the plane and knotting the game at a dead-even 28-28.
Heading into overtime, the Patriots seemed destined to win whereas Atlanta was left stunned at the fact that they had squandered a 25-point second half lead. And after winning the coin toss and electing to receive, New England marched their way to the 2-yard line before once again handing the ball to James White who put the finishing touches on the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history by breaking the plane to win it, 34-28. Hoping to get another crack at it and pull off some late-game heroics of his own, the reigning MVP was left watching hopelessly from the sideline as his defense was unable to keep the Patriots out of the end zone. While many have blamed the Falcons collapse on the offense for simply disappearing in the fourth quarter, Atlanta's defense allowed New England to score on each of their last five possessions, including their game-winning touchdown in OT to the tune of 31-unanswered points. Though I agree that they probably should've ran the ball more, if Atlanta stands their ground and stops at least one of New England's two-point conversion attempts, it's Matt Ryan and the Falcons who are the ones celebrating a tinker-tape parade. Instead, the Brady-Belichick regime etches yet another milestone into their legacy, becoming the first-ever QB and coach to hoist five Lombardi Trophies.

As for the Falcons who remain one of 13 NFL franchises yet to win a Super Bowl, the road back to Super Sunday figures to be a much harder task given they'll be without offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan who agreed to take the reigns as the next head coach of the San Francisco 49ers on Monday. Shanahan will be replaced by college offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian after serving in last month's BCS title game with the Alabama Crimson Tide. As for the Patriots, they now trail only the Pittsburgh Steelers' 6 Super Bowl titles and tie the 49ers and Dallas Cowboys with 5. With the loss, Matt Ryan became the eighth MVP since 2000 to make it to the Super Bowl and lose (0-8). Completing 17 of 23 passes, Ryan threw for 284 yards and 2 touchdowns but suffered that pivotal fumble which helped New England turn things around. Brady on the other hand set Super Bowl records for the most pass attempts (62), completions (43) and pass yards (466) to go with his pair of touchdowns and one interception, helping him claim Super Bowl MVP honors for a record 4th time. Many (Brady included) think it was Patriots backup running back James White who deserved the award, as he rushed six times for 29 yards, tallying a record 14 receptions for 110 yards and adding three total touchdowns to become the first player to ever record two rushing touchdowns and one receiving in a Super Bowl.
Now begins the speculation and chatter of whether or not we've seen Tom Brady in uniform for the last time. With a record five Super Bowl's under his belt and a promising young quarterback behind him in Jimmy Garoppolo for the Patriots to fall back on if need be, the man has nothing left to prove having already etched his name alongside his boyhood idol Joe Montana as the game's all-time greats, regardless of how you want to rank them. But with Belichick at his side and no real threat in the AFC to get in the way of yet another title run, why wouldn't he return for No. 6? After sticking it to his critics and redeeming himself from the Deflategate scandal, it's obvious that the fire still burns inside of Brady and that he's not ready to release his grasp on the league just yet.

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