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It’s finally here, the start of the NFL season!  As of writing this very sentence we are T-Minus 80 minutes from kickoff.  So I’m just in time to offer my NFL predictions.  Now I’m not going to go and start picking the trendy teams, that’s just not my style.  In fact lets look at who the ESPN experts liked to win last year’s Superbowl: http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/preview09/news/story?id=4424374

If you want to save yourself the reading basically it’s 16 people either picking the Steelers, Chargers and Patriots.  Yawn.  One of those failed to make the playoffs and the other two were bumped in their first game of the playoffs.  I can see nobody picking the Saints (although I picked them to win their division) but nobody even picked the Colts?  16 so called experts and not one of them even got one of the two Superbowl teams right.  Amazing.  So who are the trendy picks this year?  Lets take a look: http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/news/story?id=5528592

This time we have 25 picks so lets see who ESPN jinxed this year: Ravens (8 votes), Colts (7 votes), Packers (5 votes), Falcons, Cowboys, Saints, Chargers, 49ers (All 1 vote).  As for the Superbowl losers: Cowboys (4), Steelers (1), Chargers (2), 49ers (1), Ravens (3), Texans (1), Packers (8), Bengals (1), Colts(1), Giants (1), and Saints (2).  Wow, that’s a pretty big spectrum.

So according to the experts the most likely Superbowl winner is the Ravens and the most likely loser is the Packers, so I’m not going to be picking either team.  I could see either team make it, but my #1 rule to picking the Superbowl is don’t go with the trends, it rarely works out.  First let me go ahead and pick the divisions.

NFC North: I am going with the Packers.  I just don’t see Favre having another great year like he did last year.  I love Aaron Rodgers and the defense.  The Bears will once again be held back by Jay Cutler who I find highly overrated and the Lions, who will get better, are still a ways away.

AFC North: Give me the Bengals.  If Palmer can really step up his game this will be a very good team.  They are deep at receiver and if their defense can stay healthy (unlike last year) they will be tough to beat.  Pittsburgh will be hurt by the loss of Roethlisberger and I’m just not sold on Dennis Dixon being anything more than a flashy college player, a 1-3 start in this division might be too much to overcome.  I like Baltimore but I don’t love them.  Their best defensive players are up there in age and who’s playing corner for this team?  The Browns, if they can get something out of Dellhome, they will at least put up a fight each game but that’s about it.

NFC East: Give me the GGGGGGGG Men!  No not the Cowboys, simply put, I don’t trust their offensive line.  I don’t see them being able to run or pass protect very much.  The Giants will be back on defense with the addition of Bulluck and their offense will only get better as their young receivers get better.  The Redskins, well I think McNabb will help but I still don’t like their run game or skill position players minus the tight ends.  The Eagles I think could be a real sleeper, it just depends if Kolb can be what the Eagles want him to be.  I’m not totally sold on him but I could see him doing well.

AFC East: Patriots by default.  I’m not at all sold on the Jets.  Sure their defense is great but I think putting in LT over Thomas Jones is a downgrade and Sanchez didn’t exactly light it up last year, plus they were a 9-7 team that year that made it to the playoffs by beating scrubs.  The Bills will be the Bills.  Miami it really just depends on Chad Henne, I’m not sure he’s a franchise type QB myself but he’s got himself a very dynamic receiver now so if he can’t get it done it’s on him, no more excuses.

NFC South: It’s gotta be the Saints for obvious reasons.  I like the Falcons quite a bit, if their secondary can improve from last year they have a chance to make it interesting.  The Buccaneers I think will be better than people think because I do like Freeman at QB but there’s still a lot of work to do on that defense.  The Panthers will be in last, their QB situation is really shaky right now with little to no experience and I’m not even sure if the guys they do have on their roster are that good anyway.

AFC South: Again gotta go with a team by default and that’s the Colts.  Not that I think it will be easy because it wont be.  The Texans will need to overcome a really tough schedule and the loss of Cushing for a few games, I’m not sure they can.  The Titans will be interesting to watch because it’s all on Vince Young.  This is a no excuse year.  He’s sat on the bench long enough, learned, and he played very well last year, but not great.  Now he needs to be great and that defense needs to get a lot better too.  Jacksonville, I’m thinking it’s time to rebuild, Del Rio and Garrard are not the answer, and how they passed on Dez Bryant I’ll never know, he could have been huge for them.

NFC West: Again it’s the 49ers by default.  They are in a similar boat at QB as the Titans.  Smith has learned long enough and he’s shown flashes but he’s got to be great to be the franchise QB they need him to be.  But to win this division, he just needs to be solid because their defense and run game can get it done against their competition.  With the Cardinals I like them better with Leinart actually.  Derek Anderson isn’t a good QB.  In his “good year” he still had 19 interceptions and failed to get the Browns to the playoffs in the one game they really needed to win (at Cincinnati and he threw 5 picks).  With Leinart, yea he’s probably not going to be good but we’ve never really seen him play enough.  He might not be a big upgrade over Anderson but I think he would be.  The Rams will simply be focused on building up Bradford and the Seahawks I think will be evaluating their QB situation themselves.

AFC West: Who’s ready for a surprise?  Kansas City!  Will it happen, probably not but if it does you heard it hear first.  Every year has a surprise team to make the playoffs and if Cassel can play well and remain upright then why not them?  I don’t have a lot of reasoning behind this pick other than they will just play much better than people expect, call it a shot in the dark.  The Chargers I just think are on the decline, their players are a bit overrated and if they don’t have Vincent Jackson they are in real trouble on offense.  The Raiders will be a little improved but I don’t see Campbell as a franchise QB even if he did deserve a second chance, he’s a stop gap QB to me.  The Broncos will probably be in last place, their best defensive player is out for the year, their running backs can’t stay healthy, who’s going to catch passes from uhh Kyle Orton?

OK so here’s my NFC playoff teams: Packers, Giants, Saints, 49ers, Cowboys, and Falcons.

AFC: Bengals, Patriots, Colts, Chiefs, Titans, Ravens.

And now my Superbowl pick which probably wont happen but at least it wont be trendy and boring: Bengals defeat the Saints.

Look I’m not here to defend Morgan for throwing a ball at a fan or his shoving of the catcher but when it comes to last night’s brawl I will defend Morgan all the way.  Let’s recap.

The night before in the 10th inning Morgan was called out when he collided with Marlins’ catcher Brett Hayes.  As a result Hayes separated his shoulder.  Sure it’s a bad deal but it’s a collision at the plate and it looked 100% clean to me.  Plate collisions happen and injuries can happen but they are still clean plays.  Had Morgan gone in spikes up or tried to kick Hayes in any way sure I’d be angry but he didn’t it was a clean play.

The following night Volstad hits Morgan with a pitch.  I didn’t think this was warranted but it happened, I understand it but don’t agree with it but whatever, it happened.  So then Morgan steals 2nd and 3rd base.  This apparently angered the Marlins because they had a large lead at this point.  Now I gotta ask, why does this anger the Marlins?  Is Washington supposed to just quit in the 4th inning?  Yea I know they’re down 11 runs but an 11 run comeback is NOT unheard of at all especially still early on in the game.  So what happens when Morgan gets to the plate again?  Volstad throws behind him.  No he didn’t hit him but the message was clear “Don’t mess with us.”

Sorry but I don’t take Morgan’s steals as taunting the Marlins, I take it as a stolen base.  If Volstad doesn’t like it then try to pick him off, keep him close to the bag, throw him out.  Don’t let him steal and then get mad about it.  So Morgan comes out to the mound and swings at Volstad which no I don’t agree with that but then here comes Gabby Sanchez and totally cheap shots Morgan.  Pathetic.  Seems Morgan has some anger issues but on this issue I agree with him.  What the Marlins did was uncalled for and cowardly.  There was no need to hit Morgan in the first place and there was ESPECIALLY no reason to try and send Morgan a message for stealing bases.  Shame on the Florida Marlins.  Hopefully in the end people will see it my way but it doesn’t seem like that’s going to be the case as ESPN has come out in favor of the Marlins for the most part (typical ESPN basing decisions on reputation and not actually thinking about it).  As for suspensions yea I’d suspend Morgan for charging the mound and throwing a punch (2-3 games) but Volstad and Sanchez I’d bring the hammer down on them, I’d give them 10 games each.  Seems harsh I know because Morgan got 7 for throwing a ball at a fan (I would have given Morgan a much longer suspension for that but that’s just me) but it’s time to put an end to needless revenge.  You throw at a guy once, fine, even if this one was uncalled for, but twice?  No that’s junk.  Send a message Bud.  I know you wont but I can still hope can’t I?

The term “winning with pitching” is not unheard of for national league teams.  Even right now just look at the 1st place Padres, they have a below average offense, stellar pitching and it’s working.  Well that was the idea that the San Francisco Giants had.  2007 was supposed to be the year that the Giants turned it around.  You see, ever since they came within a hair of winning the World Series in 2002 and then being booted from the playoffs by Florida in 03 the Giants were marred in obscurity.  They had made awful trades (Francisco Liriano, Boof Bonser, and Joe Nathan for A.J. Pierzynski) and the team essentially became a sideshow just waiting for Barry Bonds to pass Hank Aaron’s home run record.  Even worse the Giants offense had gotten so bad that Bonds in 2004 remains to this day the last man to hit 30 or more home runs for the team.

So by 2007 something needed to be done but it wasn’t all bad.  Noah Lowry was a promising young pitcher who had some nice years and Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain were on the verge of becoming big stars.  But a talented veteran was needed to head up the rotation.  The Giants looked no further than across the bridge to one Barry Zito.  But who is Barry Zito?

Sexy...

Mysterious...

A rock star...

So yea he was a pretty popular player in Oakland but Zito was a free agent and it was time to cash in on his success.  Oakland wasn’t going to pay him but somebody was.  Zito was a California guy but the Mets we’re one of the teams that wanted Zito and at the time you could see that working out, a guy like Zito in New York, sure, makes sense.  But despite playing in Oakland he lived in San Francisco and the Giants stepped up to offer him (at the time) the largest major league contract in history (7 years 126 million) and with that Zito was a Giant.  And it made great sense.  Zito, who was still only 29 and in his prime could head up a young staff.  The Giants made their intentions clear, we want to win with pitching and in the NL, that’s really what you have to do.  Offenses in the NL for the most part consisted of guys who could steal bases, get sack flies and maybe a cleanup hitter who could hit 30 or so home runs and bat in the low to mid .200s.

Now while pitching in Oakland Zito averaged an ERA of 3.49 a year and a record of 102-63 with a Cy Young award thrown in there.  Not too shabby.  The problem was out of the 6 years Zito spent in Oakland he was only the best pitcher on the staff twice, the year he won the Cy Young (2002) and his final year.  But even his final year numbers were only average (16 wins, 3.8 ERA).  So was he REALLY an ace?  The Giants thought so.  I mean he did have good numbers in Oakland and he would be moving to the worst hitting division in baseball so yea he could probably be an ace.  But I don’t think anyone thought what was going to happen, would happen.

Zito’s first year as a Giant he posted an ERA of 4.53 and a record of 11-13.  I can forgive the record because their best offensive players were Barry Bonds way past his prime, Randy Winn, Pedro Feliz, and Benjie Molina.  Not exactly the Big Red Machine Cincinnati Reds of the 70s.  But the ERA of 4.5, that was a career high, what happened?!  Maybe it was just first year jitters, trying to live up to that big contract and having people boo you, can’t be easy.  But it was about to go from bad to worse.

2008 Would be Barry’s worst year as a pitcher with a dreadful 10-17 record and ERA of 5.15.  Zito started the year 0-6 with an ERA of 7.53 and the team had seen enough and sent him to the bullpen.  Zito didn’t make any appearances out of the pen but the message was loud and clear, PITCH BETTER!

2009 Was a little bit better for Zito.  He was 10-13 but the ERA was 4.03 so he was the victim of the occasional no run support but even so, he was brought in to be the ace and he was anything but.  An ERA over 4 is not ace stuff, it’s fine for a #3-#5 starter but not the ace.  But let’s be honest Lincecum and Cain were the #1 and #2 guys, Zito was #1 in name only.

But then came 2010 and it looked like the nightmare was over.  I mean Giants fans did have a lot to be hopeful about seeing how Zito did have a decent 09.  Things only got better when Zito started the year 5-0 with a 1.49 ERA.  Could it be?  Is this FINALLY the Zito the Giants paid for?  Yea those 3 years were rough but imagine if Zito finally got on track and turned back into the old Cy Young award-winning style of pitcher!  You’d have Lincecum the reigning back-to-back Cy Young award winner, all star Matt Cain, an up and coming Johnathan Sanchez who already had a no hitter under his belt, AND Barry Zito pitching like his old self?  Can you say playoffs?  Certainly looked that way early on, and to be fair, as of me writing this the Giants are still very much alive in the playoff race.  I mean look what Zito was doing!  His curve ball was unhittable!

But sadly it was not to be.  As it stands now Zito is 8-9 with a 4.07 ERA, that 5-0 seems like forever ago.  In August Zito posted a 6.23 ERA and 0-3 record.  So now what?

Part of me thinks if the Giants fail to make the playoffs this year, or even if they do, that the Barry Zito experiment is over in San Francisco barring a huge miracle.  He’s not pitching well, the fans don’t like him, and he’s lost 14 more games than he’s won.  All the things that made people in California like Zito (the laid back attitude, the yoga, the music) now people don’t like.  You can get away with being a little different or unique when you’re producing, when you’re not, you’re annoying.  Take a hint from the team across the Bay with what they did to JaMarcus Russell.  Sure you’ll owe him a ton of money (unless you find a trade partner which seems really unlikely) but sometimes you just gotta move on.  But don’t feel bad for Zito, he’ll land on his feet.  I can think of 10 teams off the top of my head that LOVE reclamation projects, good teams too like Boston and New York (not the Mets, I said good teams).  I mean everyone loves left-handed pitchers anyway.

But it makes you wonder, why has it not worked out?  Zito had everything in his favor, he was moving to the weak hitting NL West, he was pitching in a park that consistently leads the league in least amount of home runs allowed, he was pitching in a city he had lived in for 7 years, and that part of the country knew what he was capable of and loved him.  Zito isn’t the first player to flop after signing a big contract and he wont be the last but he is one of the more perplexing busts.  Usually it’s the other way around, pitchers from the NL can’t cut it in the AL (look up Chris Carpenters numbers in Toronto and then St. Louis, and then look up Javier Vazquez’s numbers in New York/Chicago and then Atlanta).  So might Zito be better off in the AL?  Maybe even as a #4 or 5 starter?  It’s possible.  I’m confident the future isn’t that bleak for Zito but chances are the future isn’t in San Francisco.