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Diamonds, Gridirons and Ice

By Bill Campbell

The Officials' Year

They will be talking about the year 2012 in professional sports for a long time to come. Why? Because it will be remembered as the year in which you often couldn't find the difference between a football replacement official and a full-time major league baseball umpire. Both were often identified by their sheer incompetence.

The National Football League allowed its comedy of errors to last three weeks. But baseball prolonged the agony by adding an extra game to the schedule and christened it the "wild card" game. And there was a call in that game that had to be seen to be believed. At least it earned the game the "wild" moniker.

It was all about the misapplication of the "infield fly" rule by umpire Sam Holbrook during the Atlanta Braves-St. Louis Cardinals game. The rule gives an umpire discretion to call an automatic out on a pop-up with more than one runner on base. Holbrook raised his arm much later than usual signifying the rule was in effect and that Atlanta's Andrelton Simmons, who had hit a pop fly into shallow left field, was out. The trailing Braves thought that he had loaded the bases with one out, and disputed Holbrooks's call. It had cost the Braves a multiple scoring opportunity. But the Braves' protest was disallowed, according to Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, because disputed calls on the "infield fly" rule are non-appealable. To add to this mess, Joe Torre, major league baseball executive VP of on-field operations, upheld the ruling. Normally, the protest would be in written form and decided without 24 hours but Torre said that, since this was a one-game play-off, he decided to rule immediately. "I refused to disallow the protest based on the fact that it's a judgment call by the umpires," he explained. The crowd went berserk because Holbrook had been so clearly wrong when the reply was run and the Braves lost to the Cardinals, 6-3.

This all makes me wonder if anyone really knows the rules anymore. Furthermore, baseball needed a one-game play-off like it needed a new bat or ball – something that also seems to be under constant consideration. But if you're going to have one, call the game right. In truth, a play-off game can have only one objective: another big crowd providing more money for the teams involved. Maybe it's a boon for the players and, yes, even the competent officials to show up for one more game. But when a game leaves a bad taste in the fans' mouths, it isn't worth it.

On another baseball note, in addition to the Phillies' shake-up of their coaching staff after a disappointing season, managers are starting to move. Terry Francona, who spent the past season broadcasting after being bounced in Boston, has become the new manager of the Cleveland Indians. He is, of course, a former Phillies manager who won two World Series titles in Boston. Jim Tracy has resigned as manager of the Colorado Rockies, saving the club the decision to axe him. The Rockies went 64-90 this year, a new record for the team's losses. Tracy had been voted the National League manager of the year as recently as 2009 and had a year left on his contract. How quickly things can change. And let's not forget that Ryne Sandberg is the Phils' new third base coach. Charlie Manuel may be looking over his shoulder a bit come spring training 2013.

Eagles – Steelers

Before last Sunday, the Eagles had stopped the Cleveland Browns, the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Giants in the fourth quarter. But they couldn't stop the Pittsburgh Steelers. Steeler quarterback Ben Rothlisberger led his team on a fourteen-play, sixty-four-yard drive that included two important third down conversions. One was a third and 12, another, a third and 4, in which the Steelers found a slot receiver open. In Andy Reid's words, the Eagles "needed to get off the field in that last drive" and they couldn't do it. In retrospect, that Pittsburgh drive decided the game but this was a loss in which many should claim some measure of responsibility.

The Eagles' defense performed more than adequate work on Sunday, holding the Steelers to 16 points. But it played without much fire power from the offense, which has averaged only 16 points per game itself and has seldom given the defense a lead to protect. Quarterback Michael Vick 's season to date has been confounding, to say the least. In the Steelers game he went 20 for 30, throwing the ball for 175 yards and two touchdowns – one to LeSean McCoy, the other to Brent Celek. But Vick also had two fumbles, including one at the goal line that was a killer in the opening period. He had another that was overturned by an official review and still another that was recovered by a teammate. There's nothing that takes the heart out of a defense more than to keep having the QB fumble the ball and Vick now has 11 turnovers for this season. He keeps saying, "I will do a better job of protecting the football" but these errors continue. With a bit of wistfulness, Vick stated, "I wish I could take back the fumble on the goal line but I can't. Ultimately we put ourselves in the position to win this game but we didn't win," to put it mildly. Add to these problems the fact that every Eagles game seems to contain some controversial time-outs. Reid exhausted two time-outs on the Eagles' go-ahead drive and had only one left to stop the clock late in the game. The team paid the price for that. But timeouts were really not the problem in this contest. The defense missed many chances to make stops and steal this one. They didn't do it.

Shady McCoy's return to Pittsburgh where he had played college ball marked his lowest rushing output of the season with 53 yards on 15 carries, although he did catch four passes for 27 yards and a TD. The Eagles ran the ball for 23 of 56 plays, limiting the number of overall pass calls. The two Vick fumbles in the first quarter were a factor, McCoy noted saying, "We were really driving early but the turnover at the goal line changed the game a bit." Pittsburgh's Isaac Redman, a Paulsboro High School grad, ran the ball four times for 8 yards on the Steelers' game-winning drive, going into the game as the Steelers' leading rusher with 72 yards in 32 carries. Demetress Bell started for the Eagles at left tackle, although King Dunlap was healthy, indicating that the position which has bounced back and forth between the two belongs to Bell, at least for now. The Eagles also deactivated wide received Riley Cooper, who had returned from a broken collarbone, for the Steelers game.

Of note too is the fact that the Eagles opened the game in a no-huddle offense. It seemed to help them establish a rhythm yet it was used sparingly on their TD drives. Perhaps we'll see more of it in the future. In an overall sense, this was a game for the defense to win and they fell short. Someone is going to have to begin to make the big plays. The Eagles had zero sacks and for the second straight week failed to force a turnover. For the Steelers, Rothlisberger had his 25th career scoring drive in the regular season. He was 4 for 5 in the final drive and is 14-1 against NFC opponents at Heinz Field. You can't beat him if you can't take him down.

NFL Highlights - Good and Bad

In the fifth week of the NFL, some highlights are worth mentioning:

Tom Brady cemented his claim to greatness by improving to 9-4, head-to-head with Peyton Manning who has two more MVP awards than Brady but two fewer Super Bowl rings.
The NFL West is the only division in the league that has four teams above 500, improving its overall record to 14-6 including a 3-0 mark vs. the more vaunted NFC East. In his first game since tearing his interior cruciate ligament last January, the Steelers' Rashard Mendenhall produced 101 yards against the Eagles and scored his team's only touchdown.

A week after taking a kick-off 105 yards for a score, Minnesota's Percy Harvin scored on a TD run and catch last Sunday. Through five games he has 814 all-purpose yards. Conversely, the Buffalo Bills were burned for 45 points and 621 yards, 311 on the ground and 310 in the air, by the 49ers on Sunday. The Bills have surrendered 1,201 yards over their past two games and have given up at least 45 points three times in five games. And in the category of worst investments has to be the non-dynamic due of Angelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The Carolina Panthers, who have committed roughly $80 million to the pair of running backs, have to be shaking their heads over these two who have produced next to nothing this season. Instead, the team's Cam Newton leads the club with 209 yards on the ground; a bright spot for the Panthers. Eighty million is a lot to spend on two guys who've been mere decoys so far.

The Local College Scene

On Saturday, Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin scored the big go-ahead touchdown for the Nittany Lions' over Northwestern in a surprising Big Ten win at Beaver Stadium. After his 39-28 upset victory, coach Bill O'Brien decided to have some fun with his fifth-year QB who had trouble winning the decisive starting slot from former coach, Joe Paterno. "Now Matt's going to come in on Monday and tell me he's a 4-3-40 guy," joked O'Brien, referring to McGloin's time in the 40-yard dash. "I'm going to tell him we're timing his 40 with a sundial." O'Brien later said of McGloin, "He's just the one that tells me every week that we need the quarterback draw." But turning serious, O'Brien added, "He's a great kid, a lot of fun to coach. I love coaching competitive people and he's a very competitive guy." McGloin got the job done after Penn State had fallen behind 28-17 in the final minutes of the third period. He scored two of his final TD's in the fourth quarter, hitting Allen Robinson for one and later running it in for a score with two-and-a-half minutes to go. "He understands it's a sixty minute game," said O'Brien, "He's grown up a lot. When you're a senior and playing your last few games here at Penn State, that means a lot to him. I can't say enough about Matt McGloin. He's gotten the job done to this point in the year." McGloin has thrown 12 touchdown passes this season, 5 rushing. He's accounted for 17 of the 21 TD's scored by Penn State this season. He set a Penn State record on Saturday with 35 completions and his 51 attempts tied him for all-time second highest. The dramatic victory enabled the Nittany Lions to enter their bye week as a pleasure week. Coach O'Brien said he would stay as close as possible to a business-as-usual week by the time the players report on Monday for a film review.

Temple had a productive day in its re-entry into the Big East. Montel Harris led the way in a breakout performance as the Owls downed South Florida 37-28 at Lincoln Financial Field. Harris rushed for 133 yards, with 74 of those yards and both of his touchdowns coming in the fourth quarter. Temple quarterback, Chris Coyer, said, "We needed a boost" especially when backfield mate Matt Brown suffered an ankle injury. A healthy Harris could give the Owls a big push as the season winds on. He's a transfer from Boston College where he was BC's all-time leading rusher with 3,735 yards. He also was BC's career leader in 100-yard games and in carries (786), and was third in TD's with 27. Harris had hardly played at Temple since his transfer due to hamstring injures. But he made his mark on Saturday.

Villanova went into the weekend with a four-game winning streak at home, having turned the ball over only once on its own turf. But it came to an end with four turnovers against Richmond on Saturday, ending at 28-17. The Wildcats are 4-2 in the Colonial Athletic Conference Association and will meet Old Dominion next week. The Penn Quakers lost to William and Mary, 34-29, for the third time in the Scholarship Program, falling to 1-3 for the first time since 2007. Like the Eagles, Penn had two fumbles, the only turnovers of the game, and both resulted in W&M touchdowns. It's fundamental: you've got to hold on to the ball.

Hockey in Limbo

Meanwhile, the NHL is entering its fourth week of inactivity and the Flyers have realized one of their fears as one of their players has sustained an injury while playing overseas. Twenty-three-year-old Jake Voracek sprained his right knee while playing for the Czech Republic's Hockey Club Lev Praha in the Kontinental Hockey League. It looks like he will be sidelined for 4 to 6 weeks. All players under NHL contracts were required to insure every dollar of their deals against injuries before going to play overseas. Voracek signed a four-year $17 million deal extension with the Flyers this past summer and he surely complied with this rule. But it doesn't offer much comfort the longer this stand-off continues. The longer the two sides remain in their corners, the more we're going to hear about players like Voracek incurring injuries. As of this writing, the season remains in jeopardy.

So it's on to the Eagles- Lions game this Sunday at the Linc at 1:00 p.m. Only game in town, right?

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