The NFL season is upon us and after our big picture look at the AFC, it’s the NFC’s turn.
In review, I like the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens to clearly lead the parade in the American Conference, with the Bills, Titans and Texans contending but not that fiercely. Other teams that bear watching for various reasons are the Bills, Steelers, Patriots, and Colts.
But if the Chiefs and Ravens aren’t playing for a Super Bowl berth I’ll be surprised.
The 49ers parlayed a supreme turnaround year into a near-Super Bowl title, but I don’t see them getting there this time.
My NFC favorite? The Dallas Cowboys. Yes, America’s Team (I can’t believe I actually used that term), finally make it.
Mike McCarthy has readied himself to lead this group which possesses a superb front-7 on defense and a potent attack led by QB Dak Prescott who emerges in a big way without the luxury of a long-term deal.
I believe the challenges to the 49ers will be severe, including the Russell Wilson-led Seahawks and to a lesser extent the oncoming Arizona Cardinals.
The Cowboys will have an easier time winning their division with the Eagles slipping, and the Giants and Washington rebuilding with new head coaches.
What about Green Bay, you say? As high level as Aaron Rodgers has been, something always happens to the Pack and his dissatisfaction in not having a new flashy receiving weapon to work with, will take its toll.
The Vikings seem to be the most solid team in the NFC North, but not a major challenger to the Cowboys or the 49ers.
Did I bury the lead? I guess I did. In newspaper parlance, the lead represents the most important item, the number one fact in a story. You lead with your best, and go from there. I failed to do just that. So here it is.
Tom Brady has a new team, in case you’ve been hiding in your closet.
The big question is, will Brady lead the Tampa Bay Bucs to the Super Bowl?
I don’t think he will. Not because he isn’t the Greatest Quarterback of all-time.
He is. And not because the Buccaneers won’t be more formidable.
They will be.
But I feel that in most cases, teams have to learn to win before they actually do.
They have to go through the pressures and expectations to win games late in the season. The Bucs got better toward the end of last season. They appear better now. Bruce Arians is a coach who knows how to get the most out of his personnel.
Tom Brady has strong weapons. All this is true.
But unlike the 49ers of a year ago, who were not a target, these Bucs are.
I may be wrong, but I just don’t see it happening.
In fact, I don’t see the New Orleans Saints with Drew Brees approaching his swan song, not winning the NFC South crown.
Will Tampa Bay make the playoffs? Possibly. Especially since they’ll be an added team to post-season, making it 7 from each conference.
But when you consider the Cowboys, 49ers, Vikings, Saints, Seahawks, Packers, Eagles, and possibly another team from the West, you see the challenge the Bucs face, even with the great Brady at the helm.
It was a tough week with three truly great sports figures passing the scene.
They all deserve recognition here.
One I got to know well. Another I knew to a lesser extent. And one I never met.
I didn’t know Tom Seaver. But I was in New York, when the Mets came into existence. They were a hapless outfit. A laughing stock, losing over a hundred games a year in their beginnings.
It was a shock to see such an inept team, lovable as they were, in a city that had boasted legitimate powerhouses in baseball.
The Yankees were always the standard-bearer in the sport.
The Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants seemed always to be contending for National League honors, with the Dodgers the dominant team without question.
When the Dodgers and Giants moved to the west coast, New York didn’t have a National League representative.
That is, until the Mets joined the league as an expansion entry.
You can always find the one player, or coach, or manager, who turns around a franchise and makes them not only respectable, but ultimately, a champion.
For the Mets, it was Tom Seaver.
Seaver’s nickname was “Tom Terrific” . What an understatement that was.
He died last week at 75. He was the most feared pitcher in the game.
You can look up his Hall of Fame statistics.
Seaver broke in with the Mets in 1967. Two years later he was their ace as the Mets captured their first World Championship, beating the favored Orioles in five games.
But it wasn’t only his brilliance on the mound.
Seaver was the epitome of the ultimate teammate.
There are countless stories of how he helped new young players adjust to the big leagues. How he included them in clubhouse activities. Made them feel comfortable. You hear how he was simply, a wonderful person.
Tom Seaver had another nickname as well. He was also labeled, “The Franchise”.
Now, that’s more like it.
We also lost Lou Brock. One of, if not the most, feared base-stealer in the history of baseball. I don’t remember seeing, or talking to Brock, when he didn’t have a smile on his face. You can check out his numbers, but there have been few players who have caused more nightmares for pitchers and catchers in the history of the game, than Lou Brock.
He had a knack of getting on base, taking a modest lead off first base, then standing still, while the pitcher’s attention was split between the batter, and the speedster on first. Lou had the uncanny skill of being able to take off for second base with a standing start, and make it with ease.
Perhaps he wouldn’t have gained his Hall of Fame status were it not for a trade in 1964.
Playing for the Chicago Cubs, Brock was dealt to the St.Louis Cardinals on the June trading deadline. The Cards were in 8th place in the 10-team National League, and the Cubs who would finish next-to-last, were actually a game-and-a-half ahead of the Cardinals. It was a six-player trade, but the headliners were Brock, and pitcher Ernie Broglio who won 18 games a year before.
Brock was a .251 hitter at the time. But his acquisition ignited the Redbirds, who catapulted to the National League pennant and a World Series triumph over the Yankees.
Lou Brock would hit .348 after the trade, with 33 stolen bases.
That was only the beginning.
Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson died at the age of 78.
Thompson might have done more for African-Americans of college age than anyone in any sport.
He was a national championship coach, and a Hall of Famer, but that doesn’t begin to portray the man who perennially recruited African-Americans to Georgetown, often with less than ideal experiences with the law, and less than ideal backgrounds.
His interest in them wasn’t solely as athletes who could win, although they did regularly. He was interested in them as students, and as citizens, and as youngsters who would graduate and earn a diploma.
He played college ball at Providence. Then was a backup center to Bill Russell on the Boston Celtics. He and Russell bonded. What a plus that was for both men.
During Thompson’s reign at Georgetown, he was hardly a favorite of the media, as well as opposing fans.
The coach set the tone for a sometimes arrogant, sometimes antagonistic, and secretive posture the basketball program presented.
Georgetown wasn’t liked by the outside. And John Thomson fueled the flames.
In 1980, when the Hoyas upset the second-ranked Syracuse Orangemen in the last game played at Manley Field. House, the forerunner to the Carrier Dome, Thompson declared, “Manley Field House is officially closed”.
That comment will never be forgotten in upstate New York.
The players were reluctant to speak and open up, and during their tournament appearances, the coach would sequester them at unknown headquarters.
Dealing with Georgetown wasn’t easy.
But I got to know the man during my time at TNT working NBA telecasts, at times partners on the broadcasts, also prior to my working Georgetown games for Fox Sports long after he retired.
He told me that when he arrived at Georgetown, the basketball program had no identity. So he set out to create an image of secrecy and intrigue. There was an unmistakable mystery attached to the Hoyas. As John related, it was all for show.
I remember him telling me, “people always had a curiosity as to what was on the other side of that closed door? The fact is, there was nothing”, he said.
I was shocked in hearing that. Personally, I wondered whether all that was necessary. But John Thompson thought it was. And it worked.
I found him to be a decent man, who had done wonders for Georgetown, and the players he coached.
It was a tough week, with the passing of three sports greats.
But the NFL is back. And that is a good thing.