Ali Krieger 1-on-1

In the summer of 2011, I, like the rest of America, watched as the US Women's National Soccer team made a run to the final of the Women's World Cup. They lost that final in excruciating fashion, on penalty kicks to Japan. Alex Morgan's star was born that summer. Abby Wambach's was cemented, as was the place in our collective American sporting hearts for the girls donning the red, white and blue.

That support showed immediately following the World Cup as crowds filled stadiums around the country to see those same players play in Women's Professional Soccer (WPS). In August, just a month after the final, I ventured from Syracuse to Rochester, NY where the Western New York Flash were facing the Philadelphia Union in the WPS Championship game. I filed this report for Sportsnight on WAER:

Play-by-play courtesy on the Wambach goal to Ian Darke, ESPN TV

Just a few months after that game and that report, the league folded. It was stunning to me considering the success, but the business side had again doomed a women's professional soccer league.

Determined to succeed where others have failed, the National Women's Soccer League was founded shortly thereafter. Now, in 2016, it's still going and is doing so as the most successful women's soccer league in American history. I wanted to know why, so I sat down with Ali Krieger of the US Women's National team and the NWSL's Washington Spirit to ask her. You can read more at the link below and check out our chat, as heard on 106.7 The Fan.

2016 QB Rankings

Putting digital pen to paper on rankings that I could easily say on radio and deny in the future is probably mistake. This is, essentially, an invitation to be wrong. Our perceptions change dramatically over the course of an NFL season as players improve, fall off, get hurt, and everything in between. 

That said, it's a fun discussion and a productive activity. Most analysts have 15 guys they'd say our top 10 quarterbacks without making an actual list, and I'm just as guilty of that as anybody. I know I've done it with quarterbacks, not to mention NBA players and who knows what else.

As we enter the NFL season, I thought it'd be productive to put the list down on paper to get a real feeling of how I feel about certain guys. This list is subject to change, and it does not exist without context. Just because I think one guy is 15 and another guy is 12 doesn't mean I think there is a significant difference. In fact, grading QB's in tiers is probably a better way to divide them. That said, everyone likes lists, so here's a list.

This list is made for this season only. It is simple. If I would trade Quarterback A for Quarterback B, then Quarterback B is ranked higher. Some of these are splitting hairs where both sides would say no. For instance, neither the Cowboys or the Giants would trade Tony Romo for Eli Manning, but I have to put one above the other because it's a list, so I picked one. Injury projection is essentially ignored because there's no way to predict injuries, even based on injury histories. With all that explaining out of the way, the list:

  1. Aaron Rodgers - He can do everything. He's a football genius with a bazooka for an arm and legs capable of making plays. From a skill standpoint, there's literally nothing you would add to his toolbox, and he knows how to use them all. He's the best, the end.

  2. Tom Brady - Everything Rodgers has from a passing standpoint, minus the ability to run. I could punish him another slot or two for the suspension (because of the lack of availability) but the 12 games he's scheduled to play will be better than most quarterbacks playing 16. He did fall off last year without Rob Gronkowski, who has already started battling injuries in camp, but he's still at the very top tier of the league.

  3. Ben Roethlisberger - Big Ben has an A-grade command of his offense. He pushes the ball down the field like few others, resulting in an offense that moves in chunks through the passing game. His ability to extend plays is mostly a blessing, although it leads to him taking some unnecessary hits when he could have easy gains to stay on schedule with on-time check-downs.

  4. Cam Newton - He's a superhuman. He's an incredible athlete with perhaps the best arm in the NFL. He plays in an offense designed to maximize all of those things. He, like Roethlisberger, looks to gain chunks in the passing game, leading to a top 10 yards/attempt in 2015 despite the 28th best completion percentage. He was the MVP for a reason. ESPN.com had him as the top, tier 2 QB. He's a tier 1 guy for me.

  5. Russell Wilson - It's amazing how good he is considering there are plays where he flat out can't see what's going on because of his lack of height. He's super smart, well studied and makes plays in and out of the pocket. His escape ability is second to none and he escapes to throw, often leading to points.

  6. Philip Rivers - Perhaps the most underrated QB of this generation is still really, really good. He's got over a decade of experience that he puts to use weekly. His release is one of the quickest in football and he's competitive as hell. 

  7. Drew Brees - Many would argue he's the smartest QB in football. He certainly has the best rapport with his coach. He knows what Sean Payton wants and has been delivering it at an elite clip for 10 seasons. He's thrown for 4,000+ yards every year in New Orleans and four of those seasons have gone for over 5,000. He's slowed down a touch, but is still safely a top 10 QB.

  8. Carson Palmer - Another guy who loves to push the ball down the field. He's beyond technically sound. He's not going to make any plays running, but he has active feet in the pocket and throws darts to a talented receiving corps.

  9. Andrew Luck - The pendulum has almost swung too far on Luck negatively. He's a prisoner of the outrageous expectations placed on him coming into the league, but he's largely been good. He has a turnover bugaboo that he needs to curb, but he's asked to do a lot in the Colts offense and has delivered more times than not.

  10. Eli Manning - He's continued to get better every year and really played well in Ben McAdoo's system last year. In year two, you'd expect even more growth and another 4,000 yard season. He's unflappable (despite the occasional Manning face) and one of the best two minute QB's we've ever seen.

  11. Tony Romo - Romo is still really effective when he's not asked to do too much. The '14 Cowboys that featured a running game also featured a Romo that would be significantly higher on this list. He's elite pre-snap. He gets into trouble when he tries to force. He's never quite mastered "discretion is the better part of valor," but he's still incredibly effective when healthy.

  12. Joe Flacco - After a lost '15 season for the Ravens, Flacco looks to get back to his '14 form where he threw for 27 touchdowns and 12 INT's. Flacco at his best is as good as literally anyone. He's the holder of arguably the best postseason by a QB in NFL history when he lead Baltimore to the Super Bowl with 11 TD's and 0 INT's in '12-'13. He's not played that well since, but it's somewhere in there. He's probably the guy I have the hardest time with on this list. I could slide him at least four spots down.

  13. Matt Ryan - Ryan is the other guy I have a hard time placing. He's super smart, has the arm and has a solid, but not elite track record of success. He also has had some really disappointing games in big spots and extended stretches of "why isn't this guy better?" All things considered, I'd still be comfortable with him as my QB but know it comes with no guarantees of glory.

  14. Jameis Winston - The reports out of Tampa is last year's number one overall pick looks really good. He's shed weight, allowing him to make more plays with his feet. He's a football genius that will be in the top 10 of this list next year with more experience to pull from and shred defenses with. Simply a matter of time.

  15. Kirk Cousins - The next step for Cousins is looking for bigger chunks more often. He's already super effective getting a pre-snap read and quickly distributing the ball for positive yards. There are times though where 7 yards could've been 27 or more. Some of the bigger plays in the Redskins offense never get a chance to develop because Cousins gets to his check-downs too quickly. By doing this, he gives his backs and receivers chances to make plays because defenders aren't close. He was better at this when DeSean Jackson came back, but he still left plays on the field. If he finds a better balance, he'll shoot up this list into the top 10.

  16. Andy Dalton - Dalton was excellent in the regular season last year, but still only threw for 3200 yards. He cut down on turnovers, but he's also not asked to do quite as much as a guy like Cousins who threw it 4 more times per game last season. 

  17. Derek Carr - Another guy who has a chance to shoot up this list. He's super talented, has a stud young weapon in Amari Cooper and will continue to get better. Another "just a matter of time" guy.

  18. Matthew Stafford - He's one of the best arm talents in the league and he's thrown for a ton of yards, but only made the playoffs once in his career. He's now without Calvin Johnson. I don't expect the production to stay or the lack of winning to change.

  19. Alex Smith - You know exactly what you're getting with Smith. He's not going to turn it over. He's going to make some plays with his feet. He will never throw the ball down the field. It's Cousins problem, but worse and with a longer track record of not fixing it. Smith won't change. Cousins might (and I predict he will). That's why Smith is lower.

  20. Teddy Bridgewater - We're 20 QB's in and I'd still be happy with Bridgewater. He's still young and not asked to do much. He could move up with a more accurate year, both in the completion percentage and interceptions department.

  21. Jay Cutler - The Bears QB had a renaissance year under Adam Gase, but Gase left his offensive coordinator post to become the head coach in Miami. Can Cutler retain and apply what he learned. Part of that renaissance was simply cutting what he was asked to do. He threw it less, resulting in fewer turnovers. He's a worse version of Tony Romo who mistakenly over-trusts his arm too often. 

  22. Blake Bortles - He's still getting better, but he's not there yet. He's gotta be more accurate. Eighteen interceptions is too many. Completing less than 60% of passes isn't good enough either. That said, Bortles did throw 35 touchdown passes which is a great number and something to build on.

  23. Marcus Mariota - We still don't know much about Mariota as an NFL QB. He had ups and downs as a rookie before his season ended with an injury. He's got plenty to grow on moving into 2016.

  24. Ryan Fitzpatrick - He has a beard. It is spectacular. He also has a track record of mediocrity, although he was solid enough last year. If he can just be solid, the Jets might have a shot at the playoffs.

  25. Ryan Tannehill - He's not good on 3rd down. He's not good in the 4th quarter. He does have Adam Gase on his side and one of the best receivers in football in Jarvis Landry to throw to. He's gotta be more consistently accurate and maintain that level in high leverage situations.

  26. Tyrod Taylor - He's fine for what Rex Ryan wants in a QB. He'll hit the occasional bomb. He's a pain in the ass on 3rd down because he's so skilled as a runner. He's got lots of room to grow as a pocket passer, but still produced at a very solid level last year.

  27. Brock Osweiler - Big guy. Big arm. Couldn't beat out noodle arm Peyton Manning at the end of last year. He has a long way to go and experience will help. So will Bill O'Brien. He's the first guy on this list where I'd go "you can have him," which isn't bad for 27.

  28. Sam Bradford - He can't stay healthy and when he is, he isn't very good. We'll see how he is in a more traditional system after a turnover plagued year under Chip Kelly.

  29. Robert Griffin III - He's an incredible straight line runner with a terrific arm, but really struggles to read defenses from the pocket. Hue Jackson is trying his best, but the reports out of Browns camp say he's still struggling. He never had to read a defense before getting to the NFL. I also think he might still be struggling with proper drop depth on some plays. He just seemed out of rhythm multiple times last Friday night.

  30. Mark Sanchez - He's not accurate. He doesn't throw well down the field. He struggles with complex coverages. There's a reason he's #30.

  31. Colin Kaepernick - Cannon arm, incredible sprinter but he clearly has a lot of issues playing the position. He has no touch. Everything is a fastball. Since Jim Harbaugh left, he's been a disaster.

  32. Case Keenum - If the Rams thought he was good, they wouldn't have drafted Jared Goff number one overall. He's not a disaster, but he's not good either.

That's it, that's the list! Let the debate begin!

 

Chris Sale, Child

I saw a headline last night on ESPN.com that made me laugh. "Alex Cora explains why what Chris Sale did was not acceptable." Allow me, not former major leaguer Alex Cora, explain to you why what Chris Sale did was not acceptable:

He is an adult.

This is not a shot at the ESPN headline writer or Cora or the producers of that show who said "well, we have to talk about this" because every single of of them is right. It just really doesn't take an expert. It's the most obvious thing in the entire world. 

Sale cut up his team's throwback uniforms while his teammates took batting practice because he thought they were uncomfortable and didn't want to pitch in them. He thought the team was valuing marketing over winning. 

Hey Chris Sale, you're being paid $9.5 million dollars to throw a baseball. You think that money grows on trees? This sport you play is a business, and that means trying to market it. Should that come at the expense of winning? No, but it's a uniform man. It's not like the time the White Sox had their players wear shorts. Yes, that really happened.

So even at this point, I could see siding with Sale. He's the team's ace and he didn't like the cut of the uniforms. Making him comfortable should be really important and trying to sell a throwback jersey isn't worth it if the uniforms don't fit. Saying that would've been the proper thing for Sale to do because, again, he's an adult.

Sale isn't so great at adult-ing though. He was extremely upset with the organization when Adam LaRoche didn't understand that every day couldn't be "bring your kid to work day" and wound up retiring because of it. LaRoche had that prerogative to decide to retire to spend more time with his son, but Sale getting upset about it was a joke. He's also had a number of other run-ins with management during his career.

So instead of talking to his manager like an adult, and asking for a change in uniform, an alteration or some other solution, he cut all of the uniforms up with scissors so that the team literally could not wear them. Imagine a grown man getting paid millions of dollars going through 25 lockers to cut up 25 jerseys.

Does he get two in and go "well, I guess I gotta do it now?" Why didn't he just cut up his own? That's some serious property destruction and some serious petulance.

We like to do this thing with sports where we pretend like it's not a real work place. Sometimes that's okay and accurate. The nature of sports is very different than a lot of other businesses, starting with the fact that the money is inverse of the power structure. Players report to coaches who report to front office people. Players make the most money, followed by coaches and then the front office people (outside of ownership). There is also the competitive side (many businesses are competitive, few actually keep score) and other differences, but the fact that they are professionals does indeed mean that pro athletes are part of a business.

What Sale did is unbecoming of a professional to an extreme degree. This is taking your company's presentation and ripping it up on the day of the meeting because you don't like it and to hell with what everyone else thinks.

Beyond that, it's just childish. Who throws a temper tantrum like that beyond the age of nine? When I was two I was a nightmare if I didn't get the color cup I wanted, and then I figured out the liquid tastes the same. Sale is 27!!!

Sale is thought to be on the trade market for an astronomical asking price. I have no idea if this effects his value (although I highly doubt it), but I would be very careful about bringing him into the wrong clubhouse with his history of immaturity. I can't flat out say I wouldn't want him because he's one of baseball's very best pitchers, and while what he did was extremely petulant, it does not rise to the level of the off-field concerns that can tarnish a franchise. More directly, this wasn't a case of domestic violence or some other crime that the person should probably be in jail for.

This was a misdemeanor for property destruction, and so if I had a locker room where his voice wouldn't mean anything and all he had to do was pitch, I'd take him so long that the price is right. In the end this story is more annoying and said than it is anything else. It's not maddening. It's not one that shakes you to your core. It's just annoying.

It's time for Chris Sale to grow up.

Where To Find Me This Week

Lots of radio this week! Here's where to find me over the next ten days or so:

Wednesday, July 20th:

6-10 pm, WQAM - Miami (Listen: http://player.radio.com/listen/station/560-wqam-sports-radio)

Wednesday, July 27th:

8-11 pm, 106.7 The Fan (Listen: http://player.radio.com/listen/station/1067-the-fan)

Thursday, July 28th: 

7-9:35 pm, 106.7 The Fan

Friday, July 29th:

7-9:35 pm, 106.7 The Fan

Sunday, July 31st:

12-2:30 pm, 106.7 The Fan

The 2016 Athlete Renaissance

The modern American athlete is changing before our very eyes and it has never been clearer than at last night's ESPY awards. The awards started in 1993 as a way to honor the best in sports, and, if we're being completely honest, fill a night on America's first all-sports TV network on the dullest night of the sports year.

However that night turned magical when Jim Valvano gave one of the greatest speeches any man has every given. Riddled by cancer, his friends and family didn't know if he'd make it through the speech. Then, when the lights came on, Valvano came alive. He dove deep into our minds, our hearts and our souls with those magical words "don't give up, don't ever give up."

The 2016 ESPY's might go down as just as memorable thanks to four of the NBA's biggest stars stepping out and sending a message that "enough is enough." Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James started the awards show cold, with Anthony welcoming the audience in Los Angeles and on television and then starting a plea with a similar message to his Instagram post last week. The message was that they, as men of influence thanks to their athletic prowess, must lead the charge for change in their country. 

"The system is broken, the problems are not new, the violence is not new, and the racial divide definitely is not new," Anthony said. "But the urgency for change is definitely at an all-time high."

Paul was next, stating that he is proudly the nephew of a police officer who represents the hundreds of thousands of good police officers in this country. In the next breath he exclaimed that the racial profiling must stop. That the shoot to kill mentality must stop. The message was clear. The message was balanced. The message was powerful. He also invoked the names of legends passed, including Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabar, who were in the audience as well as the late, great Muhammad Ali.

Wade then took the stage, driving home the point with perhaps the most memorable line of the night:

"The racial profiling has to stop. The shoot-to-kill mentality has to stop. Not seeing the value of black and brown bodies has to stop. But also the retaliation has to stop. The endless gun violence in places like Chicago, Dallas, not to mention Orlando, it has to stop. Enough. Enough is enough."

James closed the opening segment with a call to action that all athletes and all people must do better. James is proudly from Akron, Ohio where he's likely spent millions re-investing to the city that he says raised him. He asked that all athletes use their time, influence and resources to give back and rebuild communities to help break the cycles of poverty and violence.

Certainly some people will have a problem with what was said because there are inordinate amount of people in this country who deny the problems we have. The first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging it and it takes those with influence to spread the knowledge of the depth of the issues that exist.

James, Anthony, Paul and Wade are not dumb jocks. These are athletes who have done immense amount of research on these issues, even partnering with politicians as high as The President to help initiate change. These are four men who have been using their influence in a positive manner and are now asking more of themselves and their fellow athletes.

The message was delivered perfectly. It had power. It had conviction. It had empathy. It had knowledge. It had compassion. It had purpose. It was delivered by four men who represent the three biggest markets in America (Anthony - New York, Paul - Los Angeles, Wade - Chicago) and the most famous active athlete on the planet on national, network television.

Athletes have started speaking up over the least year as more and more high profile incidents of racial profiling and gun violence have dominated the news. None have done so on a platform like this because platforms like this don't exist very often. This is why they approached ESPN to ask for it, and kudos to the network for obliging.

What really stood out to me though was that the activism did not stop there. Steph Curry received the first award of the night and immediately commended and thanked James, Wade, Anthony and Paul for their message. He later introduced the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, whose recipient is a victim of gun violence.

The activism expanded beyond race and violence as well. Abby Wambach took time in her speech receiving the icon award to say she is most proud of the fight her team has shown for issues of injustice and inequality, including their current battle for equal pay.

The moment that really drove home that things were changing though was 21 year old Breanna Stewart's acceptance speech for female athlete of the year. She stepped to the microphone and uttered "wow, this is a lot of people" before composing herself and thanking ESPN and the media for all the coverage she received at UConn, where she won four straight national titles. She then wondered why as she moved to the WNBA, where the best of the best women in the world play basketball, she doesn't receive the same attention.

As she spoke, and received raucous applause from the audience, it became clear the modern athlete is changing before our very eyes.

After years of silence from athletes following the era of Brown, Ali and others in the 1960's and 70's, athletes are again speaking out. The thought that "Republicans buy sneakers, too" as once said by Michael Jordan would be met with scorn now. Fear of political backlash (on either side of the aisle; this isn't a shot at Republicans, merely the quote that Jordan had) is no longer seen as a valid excuse. The problems run too deep. If a modern athlete has something to say, he or she feels empowered to speak out, and they are in mass.

This makes a lot of people uncomfortable. They like their sports in a bubble. Sports is, after all, a great escape from the world's problems for so many people. However what sports, and the athletes that play them, have realized is that instead of being merely an escape, they might just have the power to help eliminate some of those problems. 

Now we wait to see how the experiment goes. Will these athletes follow through on their promise? Hopefully we do more than just wait, and join them in the fight in whatever ways we can. Their calls to action are about more than fellow athletes. They're meant to inspire all of us. In the end, change comes down to all of us. It comes down to how we treat each other on a day-to-day basis and those micro interactions make up the whole of the situation.

Watching Anthony, James, Wade, Paul, Wambach and Stewart last night left me inspired. It also left me proud.

One of my best friends growing up always used to yell at me because she would say "you're wasting your brain on sports!" Stephanie was, and is not like a sports hater by any means. She loves sports and we still talk about them frequently. She just couldn't believe that I, who excelled in school with minimal effort (yeah, I was that kid...sorry), spent so much of my time and energy on something that seemed so meaningless.

What those athletes did was remind us that sports aren't meaningless. The games themselves, in a vacuum, are. However the platforms are massive and the ability to connect people is unique. That makes me proud to be in the world of sports and gives me hope that my world can help move our world forward.

The ESPY's may have started as a lofty dream to "honor those that inspire us in the world of sports." In 2016, it undoubtedly reached that reality.