Saturday, January 21, 2006

Achievement Awards Part 2 (the mostly not so good)

mediocre latex salesman aswell

“The Julia Louis-Dreyfus/Jason Alexander/Michael Richards” Award for greatest decline away from former supporting cast: Chad Henne.

I’m not proposing some groundbreaking social theorem here by saying that once departed from Seinfeld that the triumvirate was pretty terrible. Save your “well, situational comedies thrive on the group dynamic and singular character traits that are really only conducive to success in a perfectly controlled environment” arguments for someone else, I think Taxi and Cheers sort of survived. That is, if you consider Kelsey Grammer, Danny DeVito, Ted Danson, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Lloyd and Jud Hirsch to have “survived”.

Henne’s inability to complete a 13 yard slant really has nothing to do with Michael Richards’ most notable performance since Kramer coming on a made-for-TV-movie, but it’s still the same kind of demise. No one thought Henne was going to do any better than he did with Braylon, and especially not without a healthy Breaston, Hart and most of his offensive line, but did it really seem like losing them had anything to do with it? And what’s disappointing is that maybe only two or three of you will say it did. Over the bye-week and into Indiana and Ohio State there was talk that Henne went from a read-and-react passing scheme to more pre-designed routes, but if that was the case – that his problem was so easily confined to the playbook – why was he so bad against Nebraska? It was like Jason Alexander having an episode of Listen Up that was just “not as abominable as the others,” then returning to its hackneyed routine after that, which was sort of what happened in the Alamo Bowl.

If you ever watched “Bob Patterson” or “Watching Ellie”, they might as well have just sat around telling knock-knock jokes, knowing how hard the audience was going to try and laugh at whatever labored punch line they came at you with. And that’s what it was like every time Henne completed a seven yard out-pattern with even the slightest bit of precision. We all pumped our fists and pretended it was the beginning of this strident march back towards stardom, when really it wasn’t much different than trying to be amused when someone like Newman guest starred on “Listen Up” and Jason Alexander tried to act like he’d never met him before. At this point, Henne has about as good a chance leading a successful sitcom as any of the three do, but if for no other reason than to prevent further exhausting my techniques in criticizing him, can’t he just get his shit together next year?

It's like I walk around with a glock with no ammo

“Friends Series Finale” Award for most disproportionate ratio of hype to actual utility: Prescott Burgess.

Let’s try and figure out how this is possible: Burgess comes to Michigan as a five-star safety prospect from Ohio, is moved to linebacker with the idea that he’ll grow naturally into his 6-5 frame. Playing with the strength of a linebacker and the speed of a defensive back, he'd be able to become a hybrid defenseman better than Lawrence Taylor and Mike Singletary combined, almost as good as God, and much better than the yeast sliced bread was baked with; the greatest physical creature of the last 5-6 million years. So it seemed. Three years after the initial estimate, we realize that Burgess is now too slow to even play linebacker. I’ll let that sit for a little while.

Looking at his recruit profile on, he ran a 4.55 40 out of high school, which for a player his size makes that “third best linebacker in the country” ranking of yesteryear look plenty justified. I guess my biggest problem is his weight, which went from 215 pounds as high school senior to almost 250 as a college junior. Because let’s be honest, the only time Prescott’s ever going to run a 4.55 40 again is if “40 yards” suddenly means “23 yards”, and I don’t think the fact that he’s on the Mike Gittleson Diet For Aspiring Quadruple Bypassees is helping.

Everything you’d want in a linebacker Prescott had: the near boastful swagger, a really slick haircut, probably a posse, and that smirk when he pulled his Michigan cap from a duffle bag during the High School All American game that basically proclaimed “I’m really a good guy, but if I pulled a weapon from here too you shouldn’t be surprised.” He was a cowboy, a desperado, a vigilante who was going to knock your face through the back of your skull the moment you touched the ball going across the middle of the field. Now? Well now he’s just a pretty athletic bouncer.

I dipped in my stash, splurged on a chain/ Now I'm Titanic, Iceberg's the name

“Michael Olowokandi” Award for longest residency in dog-house and most anticipated “breakout” that never actually happened: Gabe Watson.

If you’re something close to 6 feet and a half, a little over 3 bills and a half, running the forty in less than five and a half, odds are your future as an NFL player is between “First rounder with a Bentley and a palace” and “Vacationing every year in Cabo ‘cause you can’t afford a summer place there yet”. But even still, I’ve spent more time saying things like “Oh, don’t worry, the only reason Gabe couldn’t make the play is because he was double-teamed” than I ever did about him destroying the inner two thirds of an offensive line.

Once they slapped that “agile for a player his size” tag on Gabe, there was nothing he was going to do to lose it, which pretty much eliminated any incentive to get better or angrier or skinnier. Guys like Gabe and Kandi will never have to perform even remotely close to their expectations to get paid; that’s just what happens when you’re a physical anomaly who likes sports. They used to put those people on Ripley’s and in the circus, now they just pay them a lot of money and hope they become the next Shaquille O’Neal or Warren Sapp.

Gabe was easily one of the most exciting prospects Michigan’s had since I started following recruiting, but unless he tore a ligament or got arrested, he was going to move his mom into a new place, get his brother a new car, and his girl a new wardrobe. No matter how uninspiring his collegiate resume was. If you were in college with a few million in a safety deposit box you’d be handed the key to in a few years, what’s going to be your mindset? That’s why I really can’t blame him for probably spending more time being big and getting girls than working out. Every year you knew Carr was going to keep him out of the starting lineup for a few games, but you also knew Gabe was really a warmhearted guy and most likely hadn’t done anything wrong so much as not done anything at all. In the end, he was just a formidable name who translated well to video game ratings and paper-matchups, but that was about it. He didn’t do any more or suck any less than a guy like Prescott; I guess his motives were just more permissible.

It's because I'm not invincible everyday

Emeril LagasseAward for most pre-season (meal) “Bang!”s and “Oh yeah, babe!”s relative to on the field (plate) performance (food): Steve Breaston.

Unless cooking’s your thing, I doubt you can name two chefs other than Emeril or maybe Mario Batalli. The same thing goes for dangerous punt returners, where Steve Breaston, Ted Ginn, and Devin Hester are about all you can muster in a “guy you’d most want to get your team to midfield for one last drive” argument. It doesn’t mean Emeril or Breaston are any good (though when he’s healthy, I’ll fight to death for the latter), it’s more that they have a few catchphrases or a really awesome highlight reel.

It’s sort of the same thing that goes for Gabe (and Prescott, and Woodley, and Henne, and Tabb, and…you get the idea, this wasn’t a good year for Michigan); Breaston will always be a “good” player so long as he can mix a few neck-breaking touchdown plays in with the fact that he can’t catch a deep ball or break tackles very well, and Emeril will still be hailed as a culinary wizard as long as he cooks on TV and says a lot of things that sound like they’re accentuating a confidence he has in his recipes.

Here’s the difference though: I’ve watched Emeril make food before, and it’s just a guy wearing a fancy white uniform and a cloth slung over his shoulder, overusing ingredients, probably saying to himself “well seasonings are sort of like toppings, toppings are great on ice cream sundaes, Bam! Let’s give it a try!” But with Breaston, you know there’s reason for hope, that you do feel like you know what you’re talking about when you bring him up in conversation, and that deep down he’s easily the most dangerous player on the team. You can consistently say that, even if he doesn’t consistently prove it.

I’ve had a thing for the number 15, but I think there’s more to it than that, that maybe we didn’t put him on a pedestal in some predisposed, over biased exalting simply because he happened to be the closest thing Michigan fans had to Reggie Bush. There’s this feeling you get when you know a player’s worth something, where you sense the eye’s of the world and every loose molecule in the atmosphere gravitating toward them. And then before you can catch your breath Michigan’s trailing Penn State by a touchdown, the kick off’s fallen into his hands, he’s at midfield, your lungs deflate, and the camera pans out and you see an image like the one at the end of “Field of Dreams” where miles of headlights are being pulled to that one player everyone can’t stop watching.

More tomorrow

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Achievement Awards Part 1 (The Good)

Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills

Player of the Year: Jason Avant

“In the Michael Irvin mold,” is the earliest bit of hyperbole I can remember being thrown at Jason, back when Tom Lemming’s Tuesday recruiting chats on were all I had. Lemming – the same self-absorbed, over-exposed thirty-something with too much time on his hands and a too liberal administer of the“guru” tag – also rated David Underwood a better running back than Cedric Benson out of high school, and compared current safety Anton Campbell (who?) to Gale Sayers. So while Lemming’s credibility should have dissolved to the point where anything but “catches the ball similarly to past receivers, in that he uses his hands” was observed with skepticism, my adolescence and the 28.8 modem it was equipped with really didn’t know that. I just assumed that for the next four years or so Michigan would be at least good enough to make the Divisional’s of the NFL playoffs.

In the end, Underwood was overshadowed by a pouty kid from North Carolina, and a year later by a kid who couldn’t have been much bigger than Underwood was in elementary school; Campbell, meanwhile, has served only as perhaps the most notable case for why Michigan’s coaches aren’t any good, or how high school-professional player parallels can go wrong, probably both. But while Jason’s charisma, second gear, elusiveness and potential for an entrepreneurial venture with Nate Newton are certainly not equal to Eight-Eight’s, the comparison hasn’t been that far off.

If you want to call Jason a “poor man’s Irvin”, go ahead, you’d probably be right. But knowing what you know now about the two of them, could you say you’d rather have Irvin on your football team? Unless your last name is “Escobar” or “Montana”, probably not. It’s the same reason no one talks about how his fumble in the Alamo Bowl was the most critical play of the game. We all know that, but because it’s Jason, we don’t really care.

Yeah, so a quintessential offensive cog like Jason winning an award like this really can’t happen unless the season does end in 7-5 territory, but it was always the little things he did. Getting seven yards out of a wide receiver screen against press-coverage when Breaston would have been grabbed for a two yard loss, the way he gave Henne that “shake it off” head nod when Chad had just thrown the ball somewhere he shouldn’t have, and the unmistakable feeling you got where any time you saw the ball and Jason in the same screen that he had a chance.

Jason was like that girl you were best friends with in high school but never considered dating, even though you probably should have. When Braylon was around, the only time you heard Jason’s name was “Alright, it’s 3rd and 7. Just stay calm, Jason’ll be open.” And you always knew that was ok with him. When Braylon graduated and Breaston was hailed as the second coming, Jason stood as a blurred image in the background of Michigan’s offensive portrait, but still, he never seemed to mind. Then Adrian Arrington got injured, Breaston stalled, and Jason quietly (almost silently) had a thousand-yard season without even an “I got it guys, don’t worry.” You just knew he’d be there, and that was how it always was.

“Milk and Eggs” Award for Player You Can’t Do Without: Mike Hart

There’s a scene that takes place at least once a game involving Mike Hart, and it goes something like this:

Hart rushes for 13 yards and in the process avoids a defensive tackle and a linebacker in the backfield, hurdles one of his own lineman, cuts to his left, slips past another linebacker, barrels himself into the knees of the strong safety, carries him for 4 yards before getting pulled down by the other safety. Stands up and smiles as he flips the ball to the referee.

Brent Musburger: Boy oh boy is he a good one, folks. The little guy! From Syracuse, New York! He is such a deceptive runner for a kid his size, and, let’s remember, Gary, he’s just a sophomore. Just remarkable what he’s been able to do for the Michigan Wolverines.

Gary Danielson: You got it, Brent. I don’t even know if these defenders can see him when he comes through the line! They chuckle. The thing about Michael Hart is not only the way he uses his body, but his feet.

Cuts to obligatory replay of previous run, showing Mike from his knees down. Danielson comes in as they pan up after he’s tackled for close-up shot of him smiling.

Musburger: Now, partner, I know Mr. Peterson in Oklahoma is the Sophomore with the big name, but this one’s not so bad either.

Danielson: Very true, Brent, and…Ha, look at the face on that guy! That’s what you love to see. What a smile, such a good sight to see.

You get the idea. Aside from forcing each announcer to come within six or seven words of calling him “adorable,” every game, he was also the biggest part of Michigan’s offense. I was critical early in the season of the theory that Michigan would be 5-0 if Mike Hart was healthy, but his absence was probably responsible for the Notre Dame and Wisconsin losses. Would they have needed Henne to try a goal line-sneak against Notre Dame if Hart’s hamstring was ok? Would he have fumbled where Max Martin did against Wisconsin, or been stopped on fourth and goal as Grady was? No. But my answer to that doesn’t say much, considering I’d probably elect Mike for president, or at least vote for him in the primaries. Honestly, though, what would you say Michigan finishes if they have ’04 Hart?

When Hart's in the game, a part of me almost roots for a few defenders to break through the line. You know, sort of like playing the first couple levels of Galaga, where there was no real threat of losing and you just wanted to blow (break) a lot of shit (tackles) up. That's how it felt in games like Michigan State, where 15 yard runs started to get boring and you just wanted a challenge. I mean, you know he’s going to take care of whoever gets to him, and it’s really pretty entertaining to watch mountainous defensive linemen spin in circles to try and grab a player who could probably run through their legs if he crouched an inch or two.

But then Hart got injured, chaos ensued, and no one knew how to fix it, nevermind root for it. The problem was that with guys like Grady and Jackson in the backfield, it was like Gallaga had suddenly fast-forwarded to the boss of the last level who had the double-shield, lasers, shrink ray, and napalm. I know Grady was playing a few pounds too heavy with a busted line and getting more carries than he should have, but he isn’t, nor will he ever be a Hart-type. Jackson was a serviceable “running back”, but more in the same way Taco Bell is a serviceable “restaurant” when you’re hungry. I know everyone liked to blame Henne’s failings on Hart for getting injured, but I think that was just the lazy solution to killing two birds with one stone. Henne won games without Hart, just like he lost some with him. I think the bigger problem was accounting for the incompetence of Michigan’s line, and Hart was really the only one who could do that.

(Something a little like this- One of the best runs you'll ever see)

More tomorrow.