Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Memory Hole Devouring Greece

A suffocating debt load, unable to raise money in the market and an economy in a death spiral on the verge of collapse. Sure, an apt description of the situation in Greece but one that would also apply to West Germany in 1953. February 27th of that year saw the signing of the London Agreement on German External Debts which forgave half of the German foreign debt and stretched the repayment of the remaining IOUs over 30 years. What's more, the agreement gave creditor nations an incentive to import German goods by stipulating that repayments were only due while West Germany ran a trade surplus and were limited to 3% of export earnings.

Fast forward almost 62 years and we found the new Syriza government led by Alexis Tsipras, elected on an anti-austerity platform by the Greek people January 15th, going hat in hand seeking a similar reprieve from her creditors. After five years of Troika (the ECB, IMF and European Commission) mandated austerity imposed in exchange for bailouts, the Greek economy is in ruins. Dictated spending cuts have led a plummeting economy, skyrocketing unemployment, services being cut and have ultimately cost lives. GDP has contracted 25% and unemployment is currently over 25% with youth unemployment above 50%. Experts have opined that is no coincidence that the cuts to health care, emergency services and benefits have accompanied a 200% increase in HIV infection rates, a 60% suicide rise and a plethora of other social ills.

Rarely mentioned in the press, much of Greece's pre-crisis debt was fraudulently obtained in order to qualify the country for the euro. Adding insult to injury, despite it being clear that the country was bankrupt in 2010, it was forced to add to the outstanding debt by accepting bailout money. Worse, this money didn't go to the people; instead it went directly to private Swiss, French and German banks thus effectively transferring the credit risk onto the public shoulders of the ECB and IMF. Many argue against debt forgiveness as it increases moral hazard, when risk is undertaken knowing that others will incur the costs, forgetting that private lenders undertook the original risk of lending without paying any price.

So the table was set for a showdown between unelected technocrats and the democratic will of the people. The new government had about a month to figure out how to avoid insolvency which would have occurred the day after the aforementioned 62nd anniversary while renegotiating a deal its people had repudiated. It was apropos that the protagonists in this confrontation were character yanked from the stage of a morality play as the two sides in the negotiations both attempted to claim the moral high ground; the debtor pleading for mercy and the lender stressing the dangers of moral hazard. Yanis Varoufakis, the new Greek finance minister, the leather clad Marxist economist arriving astride his motorbike versus Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, a conservative member of a conservative party whose sartorial selection was surely less S&M and more M&S.

Just as the doctor's whites convince the patient to trust him, the suits have

persuaded us that if the patient only took its austerity medicine they would be sure to recover. Yet, a quick glance tells us that no European country has done more to 'reform' its economy than Greece. It is in fact the medicine that is killing the patient. The quackery of men such as Schäuble would be more apparent if we were told of their past misdeeds. See, despite his adamant denials at the time, Schäuble, as second in command to Helmut Kohl in the 90's illegally accepted millions of marks of illegal contributions from arms dealers. As public prosecutors in Germany are not independent, but take orders from the government, of course all charges against Schäuble were dropped.

Public perception you see is far more important than the particulars. Never mind that the Greeks themselves never saw a penny of the debt they are now paying off as every cent went to pay back the banks who originally took on too much risk; the media's role is to perpetuate the myth of thrifty Germans supporting reckless Greeks. The public, already inured to the devious methods used to hoist private debt onto public shoulders, from government guarantees of bank debt in Ireland to the outright bank bailouts in the US and elsewhere, were primed to perceive the Greeks as undeserving. Instead of placing the blame on the very institutions responsible for the mess, thanks to lazy media coverage most point the finger at the shiftless Greek people. It would do us good to realize that according to the OECD, the average employed Greek works more hours than anywhere else in Europe, a measure which places Germans second from the bottom.

One couldn't help but be constantly reminded of who the Greeks owe in the past month's coverage. An example from the BBC:

Graphic showing how much Greece owes to whom

Strangely, um, not, no one seems to mention that little 1% number next to foreign banks as the reason it is so small (and those Eurozone, IMF and ECB) numbers are so big has gone down the memory hole. Of the €226.7 billion disbursed to Greece, only 27 billion has made its way into Greece with the rest going into the pockets of the banks, mostly French, Swiss and German. In this way, a bank problem was transformed into a public problem making the Greeks an easy target for demagoguery.

Ah, but still, you say, where did all this debt come from? Those lazy ouzo drinking, early retiring slackers were able to high on the hog thanks to the original loans. Oh contraire, oh contraire. Not that the public sector has ever been particularly thrifty, but much of the fault can, as usual be laid at the feet of the banks who helped swap, sweep and mortgage Greece into the euro in the first place.

Once in the club, the Greeks behaved like any other country but forgot they no longer controlled the levers of monetary policy having forfeited them to Brussels and Frankfurt helping make the Germans the unquestioned winners of the eurozone. Don't just take my word for the benefits Germany reaped being able to sell Mercedes Benzes on cheap credit from Lisbon to Athens, take a look at this. The reason Germany has become number two only to China in trade surplus is the straightjacket called the euro. While its record €217 billion surplus is perceived as growth driver, it is in fact an anchor, dragging down the rest of Europe.

One needn't be David Ricardo to figure out that comparative not absolute advantage is the basis for optimal trade policies and the running of a surplus entails financing someone else's deficit, just ask China and the US. German savings needed to go somewhere and they chose to invest in paper IOUs that might never be repaid. Monetary policy would normally correct the imbalance, but the euro has taken away this tool from national central banks in the eurozone. Instead, austerity led to a collapse in domestic (European) demand, necessitating devaluing the currency (for example through printing money, last months quantitative easing) which in turn forces the world to borrow more in an endless cycle.

It may seem facile, but it's hard not to compare the situation to the 3 1/2 year German occupation of Greece in WWII. Not only did the host have the bear the cost of occupation but the Third Reich forced the Greek National Bank to lend Hitler's Germany 476 million reichsmarks interest-free. All told, it's estimated that German occupation cost the Greeks €162 billion. While the hindsight afforded by the repercussions of forcing Germany to pay war debt following WWI makes it difficult to argue that it wasn't a good idea to forgive its debt following WWII, it's equally difficult to be blind to the hypocrisy of the German position today.

Adding insult to injury, the Germans smugly point to their success of having achieved their first balanced budget last year since 1969 while not only ignoring the direct contribution of Greeks buying BMWs but the indirect help as well. One need look no further than the cost of defence. Again, it's hard to argue in favor of, um, you know, Germany increasing military spending, but the fact is they have been able to get away with only spending 1.4% of their budget on defence (versus NATO's suggested 2%) in part because of the safety provided by Greece picking up the slack by spending 4.3% to protect the southern flank of the continent. Oh, and one should also keep in mind that though they may not buy many tanks, as evidenced by their woeful state of military preparedness, the Germans certainly do benefit by producing them; Germany is the third largest military exporter in the world. Early in the austerity shell game, Greece had to cut public spending, but they were not allowed to cancel tank deliveries from Germany.

The only way to find any kind of silver lining to last week's Greek capitulation to the Troika is to imagine that at least a portion of the public has woken up to the contradiction that is the European Union. Ostensibly a vehicle to promote cohesion, democracy and peace, it has morphed into an untenable union which ignores democratic values thus enabling warfare of a modern variety. The two key pieces of the platform that got Syriza elected, debt renegotiation and remaining in the eurozone, proved mutually exclusive. Sadly, the more likely outcome of the Greek concessions will be the empowerment of parties on the other end of the spectrum from Syriza, from the Golden Dawn in Greece to Marine Le Pen's National Front in France.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

XLIX - Completing the Process

The NFL's money men are already drooling over the prospect of next year's game. Not only will dropping the Roman numeral L in favor of the Arabic number 50 have been a boon to the marketing campaign revolving around gold (golden anniversary played in the Golden State at the home of the gold mining 49ers) and the power of technology to enhance, nay, perfect the football experience, but the game will culminate in the decisive moment being determined by a referee standing in the endzone staring intently onto a Microsoft Surface handed to him along with Bose headphones as Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will be sure to remind viewers. Played in the hyper-connected Levi's Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, closer to the Google, Facebook and Apple headquarters than any actual San Franciscan, over 100 million people will bear witness to the final triumph of technology over nature, bits and glitz over blood and guts. So lost in concern over whether the receiver completed the process, the process will be complete, and never again will we be lost in the moment.

Fear not football fans, we've got at least one last hoorah before they take the game completely away from us: the Seattle Seahawks against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX. A dream match-up in itself with the top seeded team from each conference facing off in the desert. Of course, this doesn't guarantee an epic contest as proven last year as the Seahawks demolished their fellow #1 Broncos 43-8, but the classic potential is there. (In fact, doing a bit of quick math puts paid to the idea that having #1 seeds promises a good game as the average score in the 10 games is 36-14, a cumulative 357-142 score). At least equally convincing in favor of a classic confrontation, the teams have split their sixteen meetings with the last game in 2012 finishing 24-23 Seahawks.

First Quarter - Pumping up the Pressure

As is always the case, story lines abound. Of course Deflategate has turned the game of inches into pounds per square inch and is threatening to further tarnish Pats coach Bill Belichik reputation. You may remember the last time they won the big one spawned another 'gate' scandal, Spygate in '07. Together with QB Tom Brady, they've won three Super Bowls, with Brady winning them in his first four years, but they've also suffered two Super Bowl defeats, the last coming in Sunday's venue, the University of Phoenix Stadium where the Giants spoiled the Patriots bid for a perfect season in 2008. Another loss will see Brady join John Elway, Jim Kelly and Fran Tarkenton as three-time losing QBs while a win will put the Belichik-Brady tandem on par with Joe Montana-Bill Walsh and Terry Bradshaw-Chuck Noll.

U STILL MAD BRO?
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was the last man to coach the Pats before Bill; he was fired in '99. Now, he looks to lead his team to the first back-to-back Super Bowls since, um, the Pats over a decade ago. His team's calling card might be defence, but it's QB Russell Wilson who has brought them to the playoffs all three of his seasons and now looks to follow Brady in winning two Super Bowls in his first three years. Yeah, the defence is great and is looking to earn the all-time great stamp, one that may be deserved if they beat Manning and Brady in consecutive years. Inarguably, the two best corners will be taking the field as Darrelle Revis has resurrected Revis Island since coming to New England and the younger, brasher Richard Sherman takes the field for Seattle with all eyes on his elbow. Maybe he'll be wearing his "U MAD BRO?" T-shirt?

Regardless, the public's appetite for scandal has made Deflategate the game's headline, and, in fact, the nation's leading news story: the PTB's (powers that be) perfect weapon of mass distraction. It's perfect fodder to swipe those other, you know, less important problems such as domestic abuse and the concussion crisis under the rug. It's easier to take a side on cheating than to examine the morality of supporting a sport that drives still young men to kill themselves or beat their loved ones. Better to have our Twitter feeds and Facebook walls cluttered by astrophysicists weighing in about football air inflation temperature than the planet setting a new yearly global record high temperature. Similarly, Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch is being portrayed on our screens as a "disrespectful, unprofessional dick" or a "pampered brat" after showing up to media day under threat of a $500,000 fine only to repeat 25 times "I'm here so I won't get fined." Easier to swallow that pill than to see his refusal to play Uncle Tom as a work to rule campaign with links to the steady erosion of our freedoms, growing inequality and the struggle highlighted last summer in Ferguson, Missouri. Marshawn's been warned not to grab his crotch so that the only ball's that will be squeezed will be the Patriots pigskins

TV Timeout - Trials and Tribulations

The NFL has it's stage set and definitely doesn't want to see any Sherman-esque taunting or Lynch-ian ball grabbing on the field tainting the league's carefully crafted image. Er, yeah, about that, does anybody even remember all the way back to say, September? No? Don't worry, you're not alone, seems nobody can much remember anything any more. Well, to bring you up to speed, there was a moment when much of America was starting to question their support of America's favorite sport. It had become impossible to deny the link between the battered brains of ex-NFL suicide victims and the day-to-day pounding meted out on their grey matter on the field. The acronym CTE was making its way into public consciousness as the concussion crisis was  the first waves of unease caused by supporting a sport that ultimately winds up destroying the lives of many people if not killing them.

Awareness that teams extort money from local governments to build stadiums and be given tax breaks was bubbling to the surface. Uncomfortable questions were being asked about how the league's exploitation of cancer awareness seemed to put players and merchandisers' revenues in the pink but wasn't doing much for the cause. Some wondered why the NFL doesn't pays any of their $10 billion to anyone besides themselves as not a penny reaches Uncle Sam. Another Sam, Michael didn't make the Rams, leaving the league without any openly gay player for another year. Then a grainy security tape showed up on a gossip website showing Ravens star running back Ray Rice dragging a woman out of a casino elevator almost causing the whole thing to come crashing down.

When the team, league and the commissioner did what they have always done, levy meaningless fines and insufficient suspensions, they were caught off guard by the public's reaction. What could the people want? Not only had they suspended him for two games but the victim had practically placed the blame on herself! Public rage was fuelled by the release of a second, more damning tape together with news and pictures of the injuries inflicted on his son by Viking star Adrian Peterson combined with the league's meagre response and seemingly indifferent attitude. Enter the PR men and the usual distraction circus of press conferences, releases and appearances. Although the league finally threw both players out of the league (albeit temporarily), in order to assuage public misgivings about the handling of the situation, the public still needed more to determine who knew what and when. So, the NFL employed what has become the western world's final arbitrer of right and wrong: the independent inquiry.

Like a magical wand, these investigations make uncomfortable problems disappear. They go by different names, enquiries, commissions or probes, but whether we're troubled by assassinating, bombing, torturing, lying, or blowing up the world economy, the formula is always the same. First an 'independent' truth seeker with gravitas is named, in this case it was ex-FBI director Robert S. Mueller III, not only a partner in the law firm which helped negotiate the NFL's Sunday Ticket package but who also represented the Washington football team's owner Dan Snyder. Next, promise access to all pertinent records and employees knowing full well that any paper trail has been wiped clean and loose-lips silenced. Finally, the case is closed with the release of a report ripe with reproval and recommendations but devoid of damning evidence, the whole thing designed to make the headlines without altering the baselines. The veneer of justice ensures nothing needs to change.

Our instant gratification, hyper connected environment, filled with facts, pseudo facts, misinformation, and rumour all posing as information has led to a growing disconnect between reality and perception and seems to be hurtling to the point of no return. It's gotten to where the simplest conversation has turned into a mine field strewn with ignorance, disinformation and falsehoods threatening to explode at every step. The irony is that what was supposed to put the sum of all human knowledge within our grasp, ie. technology and the internet, has in fact been the status quo's Trojan Horse.

Instead of smuggling in Greek soldiers, the underbelly of the shiny promise of knowledge and empowerment hid the noose of expectation to be at the beck and call of your family, friends, lovers, clients and boss 24/7, and the thief of reflection time, robbing us of space for deeper, more critical thinking. Although we think we're getting a lot done by doing several things at once, in the end it makes us demonstrably less efficient and more ignorant while we are increasingly convinced of the opposite. No wonder war criminals avoid prosecution and are awarded humanitarian awards, financial fraudsters skip jail and proceed directly to go and corporate criminals are given incentives to further desecrate the planet. If the casual fan's media lens wasn't so clouded by the hype machine, they may have even taken note that Aaron Hernandez murder trial finally got under way during the bye week. Rinse and repeat.

Second Quarter - Visor v. Gronk

For all intents and purposes Seattle shouldn't even be here, I mean, ESPN’s win probability bot gave the Seahawks a 3.9 percent chance of winning after trailing the Packers 19-7 with 5:04 left in the conference championship. Meanwhile, there was never a moments doubt the Patriots were beating the Colts. Now, how do they stack up against each other? At QB, Tom Brady, in the denouement of his career which has seen more playoff wins than 21 NFL teams, versus Russell Wilson, still in his opening act, looking to hit pay day after his rookie contract expires, doesn't get any better. Yet, it seems to me that the LOB (Seahawks defensive backs, the Legion of Boom) should be able to dominate the smallish Patriots wide receivers while the Patriots secondary features perhaps the best man coverage in football. Having CBs Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman for the Pats and Hawks lined up against the likes of WRs Doug Baldwin and Brandon LaFell respectively unfair at best and a waste of talent at worst.

The Patriots also feature two undersized wideouts in Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. The former, a converted college QB has been a prolific producer for the past couple of years and finally threw his first TD pass against the Ravens in the divisional game. The latter was seemingly forgotten for over a year after coming over from the Rams but recently rediscovered and making key contributions. The key passing match-up will be the Visor v. Gronk, Seahawk SS Kam Chancellor against Patriot TE Rob Gronkowski. Kam's hit on Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas early in last year game set the tone while Gronk has the same game changing ability, Gronk catch, Gronk smash. Gronk score; whoever comes out on top in this match up may lead his team to victory.

On paper, the ground game seems to favor Seattle as Marshawn Lynch has been in Beast Mode the past few months, but Belichik has gotten a lot of miles out of the three-headed attack of LeGarrette Blount, Shane Vereen and Jonas Gray.  Bill picked up Blount off the Steelers trash heap (conspiratorially or not) and has ridden him much as he did last year after plucking him from the Bucs. The Seahawks are dangerously thin at defensive tackle leaving the middle of their line susceptible to a steady battering of Blount, who suddenly seemed to find lateral jump two weeks ago. Conversely, the Patriots defense might be disciplined enough to, if not stop, at least contain Wilson's read option and tackle Lynch after first contact. Unless Jermaine Kearse or Ricardo Lockette can find a way to beat Pat's corners Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan, it could be a long day for the Seattle offense.

Half Time - "Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral."

Katy, Emily, Zooey and Siwan. Mix and match!

Yeah, Katy Perry. Hooray tits. Really? Two years running the NFL has misjudged the world when it comes to half time entertainment and been 'forced' to add a second headliner act. What's up with that exactly? Are they so out of touch they don't realize that Bruno Mars isn't exactly on the play list of most NFL fans? Bouncing boobs are great when they're on cheerleaders but don't really cut it when it comes to the biggest half hour in sports entertainment. Seriously. Will someone just let me know what's going on?

Maybe I'll just tell you what I think. Ironically, while opening up the world to anyone, any time, any where to both potential stardom and being exposed to the next big thing, technology has in fact narrowed our range of choices and limited the prospects of superstar wannabees. Sure, anyone can upload their version of Rolling in the Deep and we can listen to almost anything ever recorded on demand, but the the very same technology is being used to produce and feed us an endless loop of the same rhythm as our brains are wired to crave the melodies we already know.

Gangham Style might have over a billion Youtube views but does anyone believe it has anything on Like a Rolling Stone, or anything by the Beatles, or I don't know, even Bananarama? No longer is there a global consensus about what constitutes a superstar. As social media has allowed us to share more but really caused us to shut ourselves off from any opposing world view and cable TV has given us a bigger window on the world that really only feeds us sound bites empty of substance, the entertainment industry now measures, tracks, polishes and artificially sweetens everything to our taste by squeezing out every drop of individuality.

There was a decade-ish window that saw the NFL tear through all the acts the world agreed were worthy of Super Bowl half time stardom when we saw the Jacksons, Michael in '93 and Janet's nipple in '04, U2, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, The Who, Prince, Tom Petty and of course a few mixes featuring the likes of Madonna and climaxing with Beyonce three years ago. It seemed so normal at the time, instead of marching bands or Up With People we'd have acts that everyone agreed were, if not cool, at least universal. Well, I'll tell you what, the wonders of Youtube and Facebook have guaranteed that we'll never have such a time of agreement again and no it's not good, bad or neutral but it is pretty bland.

Third Quarter - Hail Mary

Imagine for a second describing a defenseless receiver personal foul to a fan in the 70s. "Wait. So, you're telling me that the defensive player can't hit the receiver until he has 'clearly become a runner'? No wonder receivers run recklessly over the middle, fearless where they once were fearful and quarterbacks regularly throw for 5,000 yards today." When Dan Marino first did it back in 1984 it was monumental; Drew Brees accomplishing it in 2008 was something; then when three QBs did it following more rule changes to favor the passing game in 2011, 5,000 became the new 4,000. Not satisfied with the myriad of other rules favoring the offense the league decided to make defensive holding and illegal contact 'a point of emphasis' this year. Surprise! Two of top four yardage weeks in league history happened before the end of October. A couple of more flags per game is water off a ducks back as long as it contributes to finally converting the game from one of strategy and determination into one where if I've got a flashier quarterback and bigger, taller receiving corps, I win.

Why not? As passing and scoring has skyrocketed, so have the ratings and revenue, and, as we know by now, the market determines what is right and wrong, right? After the Pats dominated the Colts in '03, the league changed the way they enforced pass interference so Peyton Manning wouldn't look so bad. Hooray, more points. The rule change that allows the offensive team to use their own game balls in 2006 thanks to lobbying by the likes of, um, Tom Brady, was passed unanimously by the rules committee, cuz, you know, what could go wrong? After all, it's a "comforting factor for the quarterback to use his own balls". Meander over here to have a look at the rule changes implemented over the past 35 years to favor the passing game.

Thank dog I didn't watch the Pro Bowl (who actually watches the Pro Bowl?), but reading about the rule changes implemented for the game actually gave me shivers. Highlights: No kickoffs; teams start at the 25 yard line. Two time outs per quarter, although only being able to carry over one into the 2nd or 4th quarter. POSSESSION changes at the end of each quarter along with two minute warnings! Adjustable width uprights for point afters and field goals. Crazy clock management with it stopping on plays gaining less than a yard with under two minutes to play and only 35 second play clocks only being wound after the officials spot the ball. Oh, and of course a trial run of the new instant replay tablet system. Fan response to all of these tweaks will have been surveyed, responses measured and committees formed to decide which ones will leak into the rulebook. The human brain being what it is, a short term pleasure seeking zombie, guarantees the changes selected will be those that give instant jolts but leave the fans starved in the long run.

TV Timeout - An exercise in excess

What Super Bowl post would be complete without a segment devoted to the commercials and consumption statistics swirling around the game. Viewership should bump up against last year's 111.5 million which is why NBC can charge $4.5 million for a 30-second spot. Sounds like much will be of the usual fare, puppies and beer (or both) but will have a burger commercial with a near-naked woman and a lingerie ad with fully padded women. This year will also continue the trend of brands you've never heard of trying to garner some gossip by splashing out with the likes of Wix.com, Loctite and Mophie, a website builder, super glue and smartphone case respectively. While NBC has the game, the real battle for eyeballs and attention will be online. 5.6 million tweeters will be paying only partial attention to the game while sending 25.3 million tweets. Youtube will livestream its own halftime show plus host Ad Blitz which rang up 379 million views as people voted for their favorite commercial.

325 million gallons of beer will wash down 1.23 billion chicken wings and 11 million pounds of chips often covered by some of the 158 million avocados used to make guacamole contributing to the 2,400 calories consumed by the average viewer (the 2nd most gluttonous day in the US after Thanksgiving). About $3.8 billion will be wagered illegally compared to the $100 million in legal bets. All told, Americans will dish out $14.3 billion on merchandise, apparel and food. Mysteriously, all apparently cause for celebration, as is the fact that ticket prices have unaccountably soared this year, the cheapest seat crossing the $10,000 threshold as of Friday morning and heading straight up. Did you know you could short sell tickets just like stocks? Hooray for the 'free' market!

Of course the glitz and glory cover up even more troubling numbers, from the inside out. XLIX host Glendale, Arizona, the city that was ruined by sports, will spend about $30 million and, as mayor Jerry Weirs predicts, "I totally believe we will lose money on this". The list of demands of the hosts by the NFL reads like those of a visiting monarch. Much like the monarchy, the league imposes a direct opportunity cost, money that could be spent on say, education or infrastructure in exchange for value that can only be imputed. Studies have shown that while fans do bring in revenue there is no way to tell how much or even rule out losses due to football fans crowding out other tourists. Another monarchy similarity, the NFL receives full exemption from city, county and state taxes. The stadium's name, the University of Phoenix is the online for-profit education company sucked $3.7 billion from taxpayers in 2012 alone and has ruined the lives of countless others with its deceptive recruiting techniques selling the dream of a ticket to the top which invariably turns out to be a debt slavery nightmare.

All this in a state where the top 1% captured a higher percentage of income growth between 1979 and 2007 than any other (84.2%). A state where the government is taken to court for short changing the schools while seriously considering cutting the state income tax. In a country that believes in economic recovery heralded by the media that buries the fact that unemployment is only sinking thanks to millions dropping out of the work force and the mini boom of slave wage jobs. A country that has seen the top 1% take more than 100% of the post crisis income growth (thanks to a decline in the income of the 99%). Where the existing inequality was the main driver in most of the causes of said crisis. This in a world where 80 people own more than 3.5 billion and the 1%'s wealth is projected to pass the 99%'s later this year. Yes, it is, has been and will be a Super Bowl for the rich while the majority stand and applaud being trodded upon. That whole dearth of critical thinking thing sure is a good thing for those higher ups, hey?

Fourth Quarter - Up for Grabs

Don't get me wrong. I still love this game and despite the trials and tribulations swirling around the game that occasionally prick my conscience, this season was by all objective measures a classic. Despite the league's best efforts to turn itself into the Arena Football League, teams such as the Cowboys showed that you can win consistently by building an offensive line through the draft and running your workhorse thirty times a game. Giants rookie Odell Beckham Jr. made perhaps the single most stunning catch in league history against the Cowboys. Just watch it. Again. And again. And yet again.

The Arizona Cardinals soared until injuries clipped their wings. The Cincinnati Bengals made the playoffs only to go one and out for the fourth consecutive year led by QB Andy Dalton. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers told the Cheesehead nation to "relax" and went on to pile up dazzling stats (8-0 at home; 25 TDs 0 ints, 38-5 overall) while leading his team to the NFC North crown. Now if we can somehow stop those horrible Hans and Franz State Farm commercials. And J.J. Watt did it all. I mean, imagine him on a good team. The Steelers completed their transformation from dependable defensive dynasty to schizophrenic sideshow as they followed up back to back six touchdown performances by QB Ben Roesthlisberger in victories over the Colts and Ravens with a loss the the Jets.

Speaking of the Steelers, their WR Antonio Brown somewhat stealthily became the best wide receiver in a wide receiver league. Sure, teams need a QB to get them the ball, but it seems that this is the era of the dominant WR. Calvin Johnson set the mold for Dez Bryant, AJ Green, Julio Jones and Demaryius Thomas to follow. The amazing rookie campaigns OBJ, Panther Kelvin Benjamin, Mike Evans of the Bucs along with the oft-injured Bill Sammy Watkins promises that Alshon Jeffery, T.Y. Hilton, Jordy Nelson, Emmanuel Sanders and Golden Tate will have plenty of company. Heck, even Steve Smith Sr. had a huge impact this year.

Just yesterday it seemed the tight ends were going to take over, but apart from Gronk and maybe Martellus Bennett and Cam Olsen, no tight end had a stellar season. Meanwhile, the legal problems of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson probably put a stake in the heart of the idea of building a team around a running back. With a good enough offensive line, the RB becomes an interchangeable piece allowing teams to draft young legs in the mid to late rounds or pick up a Justin Forsett off another team's trash heap.

Which brings me back after a circuitous journey to the game itself. It's time to make my yearly Super Bowl prediction. Too bad few will get to this point as it has proven to be the most valuable moment of my six Super Bowl posts to date (5-1 straight up and against the spread, see here, here, here, here, here and here. Damn Saints-Colts!). Love him or hate him, Wily Bill, if you're in the former group, Darth Hoodie or Bill Bellicheat for the latter, will figure out a new way to bend the rulebook, hopefully involving Vince Wilfork late in the game to give the Patriots a dramatic, controversial, until it's forgotten three days later, 23-20 win. Oh, yeah, that catch in next year's Super Bowl, completing the process, will look a bit like this.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

It's All Kicking Off

Give a drunk monkey darts and ask him to throw them at a wall plastered with teams and win/loss records and you'll get similarly reliable results to the average NFL prognosticator. Still, going through the league team by team proves to be a therapeutic exercise in building up an illusion of knowledge about the upcoming year. Sure, there's a few givens: the Seahawks will contend to repeat, the Browns will struggle and the Cowboys will lose at least one game in which they score 45 point; but, there are far more unpredictable elements to the season such as injuries, turnovers and players' names (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix? Blake Bortles? Jadeveon Clowney? And those are just from this year's draft). It's the unforeseeable that keeps us watching, the uncertainty that makes it interesting and the seeming randomness that means any team can win on any given Sunday. Anyway, if you'd just like a quick glance at the team forecasts for the upcoming year, scroll down to where the pictures start, but if you're in the mood to let your mind wander, by all means, continue reading.

A little thought experiment. Imagine for a moment that each NFL team's talent and opportunity to win was distributed across the league in the same way as wealth and opportunity for success is distributed in the United States. A little tricky as dividing the wealth of the nation the same as dividing talent among 32 teams would require 3% intervals (more or less 100% divided by 32 teams). Estimates vary thanks to offshore hoarding, but the top 1% holds between 39.8% and 46.9% of the total wealth, meaning we can cheat a bit and say the top 3% has about half of the wealth. In our football terms, that means the best team has half the talent in the league. We also know that the top 10% holds about 75% of the wealth in the country. Let's say that 10% of the population represents the top 4 teams, including the best. So, let's split up 25% (75-50) among the next three teams, about 8% each (and that's distributing much more equitably than reality). We also know the richest quartile holds 90% of the wealth, meaning the next 15% (25-10) of the population gets 15% of the wealth, huh, almost seems fair, as that's five teams each getting 3%.

Now, things start getting lean for the remaining 23 teams. We know the bottom 40% of the population has zero wealth (the bottom quintile is negative and the 2nd is barely positive, so it's easier to lump them together), so let's give 13 teams exactly nothing. Again, for simplicity, let's give the remaining 10 teams an equal share of the remaining 10% of wealth/talent, exactly 1% each. To recap, our imaginary NFL has 13 teams with no talent with less chance of winning the Super Bowl than the Cleveland Browns, 10 teams with 1/100th of the talent in the league, translating into the equivalent chances of the Jacksonville Jaguars. There are five teams that are statistically 'average' in talent, making their likelihood of winning on par with, say, the Miami Dolphins. There are three really good teams with the chances of the Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers and the New England Patriots. Finally, there is the cream of the crop, the top dog, head honcho, top of the heap, an amalgam of the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos combined with the time machine given talent of the '85 Bears and '72 Dolphins.

Oh, and it gets worse, that is to say more unequal. Seeing as inequality has a vicious tendency to reinforce itself, it'll do the same thing to the teams moving into the future. From 2009 to 2012, 95% of the income gains, which we'll translate into draft picks, have gone to the top 1%. This would take a bit of the pressure off at draft time for most teams seeing as the super team would get at least 20 picks for every pick taken by the rest of the league. There would never be a chance for a bit of excitement in Cleveland, Johnny Manziel would land with the champs every time. Injuries take a disproportionate toll on the non-elite teams, too. Though the overall wealth of the league may have increased by 26% from 2007-2013, the median family, and thus team, lost 43% of their wealth. Even worse for fans, being as stacked as they are, the champs can't possibly play all their stars, so much of their roster is inactive, much as 40% of the 1%'s accounted for wealth is simply sitting idle. We're talking an inefficiency beyond the English Premiership or even the Spanish Liga.

A few other twists to this years pre-season post. The most obvious visually is that instead of each team's logo accompanying their preview it will be a cheerleader shot from the team (unless of course that team is the Browns, Steelers, Giants, Bills, Bears, Packers or Lions who don't have official cheerleader squads). This is of course completely non-sexist and being done as a sign of solidarity with the current cheerleader class action lawsuit(s) against the Raiders for wage theft. Oh, and the similar unfair labour practice suits against the Bucs, Bengals, Bills and Jets. Legal action has already borne fruit, well, if you consider winning the right to be paid the absolute legal minimum per hour a good thing.

Just what those poor NFL owners and executives need, another legal headache, no pun intended. They probably couldn't imagine who wouldn't want a job that doesn't pay you to practice 6-15/hours a week, forces you to attend twice-monthly charity events for free, gives you the privilege to be auctioned off to sit on people's laps, fines you for minor infractions such as bringing the wrong pom-poms, forces you to buy team calendars (at a $3 discount so you can hustle and turn a profit!), pass weekly jiggle tests while staying within a +/- 3 lb weight band, foot the bill for beauty salon visits to maintain an assigned image, and give up the rights to your image all in the hopes of getting paid at the end of the year. Don't these girls know there's hundreds of aspirants who would kill to take their place? Hmmm, sounds a bit like the argument that Wal-Mart and McDonald's make. If you don't shut up and do your job, you'll be replaced. In fact, that's pretty much what the Ben-Gals cheerleader rule book says, "ABSOLUTELY NO ARGUING OR QUESTIONING THE PERSON IN AUTHORITY!!!"

Hey, wonder if these issues are somehow related to the happenings in Ferguson, Missouri. Nah, to suggest something like that would be akin to waging class warfare. On to bigger and better things.

AFC North - In a world without the Cleveland Browns, this division would define parity, the opposite of America, over the past 9 years as the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals have taken three division titles each. And what's this? Two teams without official cheerleaders? Appalling, obviously more inequality is needed.

Perhaps the best defensive player in the league is back in the person of Geno Atkins to join bizarrely-named Vontaze Burfict et al. Cornerback Leon Hall is also back to join a deep secondary manned by Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick and Terence Newman and given a much needed youth infusion by draft pick Darqueze (Darqueze?) Denard. QB Andy Dalton has a new contract, a stable of weapons, but an 0-3 record in the playoffs in his first three years (24 years and counting since the franchise has won at the dance); it's clear that the Red Rifle is more Red Regular. AJ Green has to be part of any discussion about the best WRs in the game, Marvin Jones, when back from injury, will terrorize one-on-ones on the other side, Eifer/Gresham provide a potent 1-2 TE threat and the running game features breakout candidate Giovani Bernard off a great rookie campaign to be complemented by rookie Jeremy Hill to relieve the ageing law firm. Good enough to reach the playoffs again, anywhere from 9-7 to 12-4.

With so much underperforming happening in Houston and Atlanta, it was easy to miss the fall off suffered by the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens last year. The once vaunted defense was middling while the offense was odious, especially Ray Rice. 3.1 ypc? 321 yards on 58 receptions? Seems he was no better than his fiancee at making people miss. Sorry, bad taste, but really Ray? QB Joe Flacco wasn't much better but may turn things around this year now that he has two Smiths to throw to at wide-out, Torrey and eternally young free agent signing Steve from Carolina. TE Dennis Pitta is back healthy, too. On defense Terrell Suggs is still around along with immoveable object Haloti Ngata in the middle. A pair of lockdown corners anchor a pretty good secondary as well and they drafted C.J. Mosley to shore up the linebacking crew. They're not headed back to the Super Bowl but a winning season, maybe 9-7 isn't a stretch here.

You've probably read or heard that Pittsburgh’s first-round pick, Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, and their second-round pick, defensive end Stephon Tuitt, will be starting for Dick LeBeau's defensive unit although he hasn't started a rookie in over a decade. Could be because the Steelers defense was decidedly average last year and badly in need of a youth infusion. On the other side of the ball, QB Ben Roethlisberger has lost Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders the last two years so will lean heavily on Antonio Brown who was second in the NFL in catches, receiving yards and first-down receptions and third in catches that gained 20-plus yards. He should be complemented by second year wideout Markus Wheaton and Saint castoff Lance Moore along with TE Heath Miller, entering what seems like his 53rd season. There's hope in the running game with the blunt brothers, Le'Veon Bell coming off a decent rookie campaign and Buc/Pat import LaGarrette Blount to batter the line. Rookie speed demon Dri Archer (4.26-40) should make a big play or to as well. A return to the playoffs is a distinct possibility as long as Ben stays healthy.

Let's see. Jimmy Haslam bought the Browns for a billion in 2012, had his Pilot Flying J truck stop chain raided by the FBI for fraud in 2013, and fired the Browns GM and coach in 2014. Yet none of that matters any more, at least to the media, after he had his team pick Johnny Manziel, AKA Johnny Football at #22 in this year's draft. It's a good thing Johnny had some fun before the season started though as he'll be warming the bench, at least for the first few games, for Brian Hoyer. No matter, there's not much to throw to outside of TE Jordan Cameron as the team's best target, WR Josh Gordon, who BTW led the league in receiving yards last year, will miss the entire season for smoking a plant legally sold in Washington and Colorado. Ben Tate was brought in to lug the rock and along with third round pick Terrance West might give the Browns a decent running game. Meanwhile, the defense could be stellar, loaded front to back with the high draft pick rewards of perpetual ineptitude, peppered with stars such as CB Joe Haden, LB Karlos Dansby and even a guy named Barkevious Mingo! Sorry Cleveland fans, despite the high hopes, Manziel won't start until week 5 and the Browns won't break .500.

AFC West - What's up with the western divisions? It was just a few years ago they were the league's pushovers, now they're the powerhouses. No one is catching the Broncos until Peyton's head falls off but there could be another playoff team in here somewhere...

Scary. That's the only word to describe the 2014/15 prospects of the Denver Broncos, at least for their opponents. If the offense is only 75% as good as last year, they're still going to the Super Bowl as the defense will be at least that much better. They've added DeMarcus Ware to go along with Von Miller who's back from injury to give them perhaps the best 1-2 pass rush combination in the league. Oh, in the secondary they've added corner Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward, drafted corner Bradley Harris in the first round and another corner, Chris Harris, is back from injury. Oh noes, RB Knowshon Moreno and WR Eric Decker are gone! Next man up, as long as QB Peyton Manning stays healthy, you or I could put up respectable stats. RB Montee Ball is expected to step if healthy while they've still got a plethora of receiving targets including All-World WR Demaryius Thomas and TE Julius Thomas. Oh, and Wes Welker, provided he wants to retire a cripple, and Emmanuel Sanders was brought in from the Steelers. We're looking at 12 or 13 win season here.

ICYMI, here's how the then 5-7 Chargers finished last season to sneak into the playoffs: Giants 37-14, @Broncos 27-20, Raiders 26-13, Chiefs 27-24(OT). The rollercoaster of week 17 really was special. They also beat the Chiefs in week 12. Oh, and then they beat the Bengals in the wildcard game before gamely falling to the Broncos in the Divisional round. Was it magic fairy dust? Whatever you want to call QB Philip Rivers' year, comeback, revival, Renaissance, it was one in which he re-established himself as an upper echelon signal caller, and he did it with only one legitimate wideout threat. WR Keenan Allen is back off a ROY type season along with a bunch of other guys, as is TE Antonio Gates along with breakout candidate TE Ladarius Green. Erstwhile breakable back Ryan Matthews showed he's worth the hype and little Danny Woodhead is more dangerous as a receiver than a runner. The defense throws a bunch of no-names plus CB Brandon Flower, S Eric Weddle and Manti 'Catfish' Te'o out on the field, but they should get the job done, especially if Chris Harris can finally stay healthy. If only they hadn't wasted their free agency ammunition on a 3rd string RB and instead focused on a need such as the offensive line. Still, provided they can split their first two games, at Arizona and home to Seattle, a return to the playoffs seems likely.

Riddle me this, Batman: is this the team that blew a 28-point lead in the 2nd half to the Colts last year in the playoffs or that which turned around from a 2-14 to an 11-5 record? Is the big red tomato a genius or a curse? Could Alex Smith be the best boring QB in the league? Is there any other player more important to their team than RB Jamaal Charles? Will the real WR Dwayne Bowe please stand up? Can a LB possibly cover TE Travis Kelce? How did the defense rank 5th in the league in points given up but 24th in yards? Is it Simba, Pumba, Timon or Tamba Hali? How can an offensive line survive losing three of their starters? Have you seen their NFC West/AFC East schedule? Yike. Will they back their way into the playoffs again this year? I'm betting no.

It would be difficult to blame a casual Raider fan for needing a program to figure out who's playing defense for their team. Not to say they're unknowns, just that there's so many new faces. LaMarr Woodley, Justin Tuck, Antonio Smith, Carlos Rogers, Khalil Mack and Sio Moore (the latter two via the draft) to name but a few. If they can grasp purported mastermind defensive coordinator Jason Tarver's scheme Oakland fans may be in for a pleasant surprise. Offensively, it's much the same story with at least six new offensive starters. None of which will much matter if new QB Matt Schaub sucks even half as much as last year (edit: rookie Derek Carr has been named the starter, their 18th since 2003, wow does Schaub stink!). RB Maurice Jones-Drew was brought in to lighten fragile Darren McFadden's load; if either can find a trace of their past glory, things could start to look up. James Jones was picked up from Green Bay to pair with Rod Streater at receiver with a load of odds and ends backing them up. Who's to say where the Raiders will end up but add in the fact they have the oldest roster along with the toughest schedule in football and in all likelihood it'll be somewhere well south of .500 a line they haven't crossed since 2002!

AFC East - The Patriots rule the east having won the division the last five and ten of the past eleven years. Not much will change.

It seemed at times as if QB Tom Brady was throwing to a bunch of guys picked up off the street last year and still managed to win. Well, the Patriots went out and picked up Brandon LaFell while Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins have a year of pro ball under their belt. Oh, and TE Rob Gronkowski seems to be healthy along with Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. RB Shane Vereen should catch as many passes as most teams number one receiver and may even carry the running load when Stevan Ridley breaks Billichek's brain by fumbling on the goal line, or maybe the carries will go to rookie James White. Many a fantasy player would love to be able to get inside Bill's head. CBs Derrelle Revis and Brandon Browner (missing the first part of the season to suspension) were brought in to beat the Broncos and the rest of the D should be good enough to win the division. New England was 4-2 against AFC East foes last year and went a combined 11-1 against the Bills, Dolphins and Jets the two years prior. You can take another 10+ victory season to Vegas.

While the lion's share of the press regarding the 2012 quarterback class has gone to RGIII and Russell Wilson, it's Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill who has been quietly developing the way an NFL quarterback is supposed to. Now entering his third year along with coach Philbin and free of the weight of last year's bullying shenanigans, the Dolphins might be ready to make the playoff leap they were on the way to last year before blowing the final two games. As South Beach is all about being trendy, Miami will be running a Chip Kellyesque offense after bringing in Bill Lazor. If he can turn WR Mike Wallace into DeSean Jackson, RB Knowshon Moreno can do what he did last year without a QB named Peyton and Dion Jordan's suspension doesn't sabotage the defense, there is hope for more excitement and maybe even a 10-6 year, but another 8-8ish season seems most likely.

As if it weren't bad enough being a J-E-T-S fan the past couple of years, this year they'll have to cheer for a team that doesn't seem to have any cornerbacks despite spending a couple of first rounds picks on the position in the last five years. Despite (because of?) Rex Ryan's supposed defensive wizardry, this team will be playing from behind with a quarterback named Geno. Or maybe Michael. They did add a couple of offensive weapons in the running back formerly known as CJ2K to complement unheralded Chris Ivory and WR Eric "Peyton Manning-made-my-career-last-year" Decker to complement, um, well, maybe somebody. Lucky this team has great defensive front three anchored by Muhammad Wilkerson and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson or they'd be staring down a 3-13 year, instead they'll be another .500ish AFC East team.

It can't be good when your defensive coordinator and most of his staff pick up and leave for Cleveland nor when most of the talk around a team is about a yet to be determined new owner relocating the team north of the border, but that's what the Bills face heading into 2014. There's talent here, particularly in the secondary, but also on offense, just not under center. The Bills traded up from nine to four in the first round of the draft to nab WR Sammy Watkins but the question is, can QB EJ Manuel be the guy to get him the ball? If preseason is any indication, the answer will be no as he couldn't manage a single touchdown drive in his four appearances. At RB, CJ Spiller was expected to have a huge season before succumbing to injuries last year but should be good to go alongside perennial stable mate Fred Jackson. With owner Ralph Wilson Jr. having passed this spring and the likely continuation of sub .500 seasons, the Bills should be opening in Toronto in a few years.

AFC South - Is it just me or does it seem the Colts could win this division even without Andrew Luck? Move along, there's not much else on offer here I'm afraid.

If WR Reggie Wayne comes back at 100% and Hakeem Nicks can find his 2010 form, they'll form an unstoppable pass-catching trio along with T.Y. Hilton for QB Andrew Luck. Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen are a dynamic TE duo to boot. The offensive line and running game might hold up the offense though as linemen have been falling like flies in preseason and RB Trent Richardson was hexed by an evil wizard turning him into a halting jitterbugger instead of a powerful runner. With Vick Ballard also falling to injury they might also need Ahmad Bradshaw to find his 2010 Giant form. Defensively, who needs a defense when your offense can come back from 28 down in the 2nd half of the playoffs? Yet when Robert Mathis returns from suspension, this team will be seriously stout up front, if a little lacking in the back seven. Provided they don't get docked a few losses for owner Jim Irsay's, um, predilections, you can punch their playoff ticket today.

Entering his fourth year, QB Jake Locker is playing for his football life as the Titans declined to pick up his 5th year option. Maybe this is the year he stays healthy. And learns to read defenses. And becomes more accurate. Or not, though look at the wonders new coach Ken Whisenhunt performed with Philip Rivers last year. He's got a great looking, on paper at least, new offensive line in front of him, and a few targets to throw to in the eternal Nate Washington, 94 catch surprise Kendall Wright, and breakout candidate Justin Hunter at WR along with Delanie Walker at TE. The Titans decided to save $8 million and release RB Chris Johnson so they drafted Bishop Sankey in the second round (the first RB taken) to pair with the plodding Shonn Greene. The defense will rely more on the schemes of defensive coordinator Ray Horton than talent and so may take awhile to gel. Man, this team is boring a seeming lock to be somewhere between 7-9 and 9-7.

What a difference a year makes. This time last year many we're picking the Texans to go all the way, then came, um, well, 2-14, with all those 14 losses coming after opening with two wins. I don't want to worry any Texan fans (I'm sure they exist), but did you know you fixed your problem under center by signing Ryan Fitzpatrick to play QB this year? Sure, he might not throw as many TDs to the other team as Matt Schaub, but he still makes his share of mistakes. On the positive side of the offensive ledger, RB Arian Foster could regain his 2012 form, WR Andre Johnson seems to be back for another year and WR DeAndre Hopkins has the skills to complement him on the other side. And on defence, well, having the worst record in football gifted the team the #1 draft pick, Jadeveon Clowney who looks to be a beast who might even distract from the amazingness that is J.J. Watt. Brian Cushing could also be back but after two consecutive season-ending injuries. 8-8 is a possibility but we're more likely to see 6-10.

Well, at least the offense has 9 different starters than last year. Comes with the territory when your team is as historically bad as the Jaguars. To their credit they gave up on Blaine Gabbert (and even managed to squeeze out a late round draft pick for him from the 'Niners!) and rolled the dice on another QB, christening Blake Bortles as their quarterback of the future, or present, by making him the fourth player picked in the draft. Until the future arrives though it'll be Chad Henne keeping his seat warm, a seat sure to get hot as he'll be stuck hucking it to the likes of Cecil Shorts III and Ace Sanders. Draft pick WRs Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson also offer tons of that cliche potential, but then again, so did Justin Blackmon, suspended yet again for a substance violation. At least TE Marcedes Lewis is still kicking around I guess. Toby Gerhart was brought in to lug the rock and should prove serviceable behind a revamped offensive line. On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley was brought in from Seattle to bring the Seahawks' defense to Florida. Erm, we'll see but there isn't a Richard Sherman in the young secondary, though Chris Clemons and Red Bryant were brought in from Seattle to man the front. Tough to read but should land around 5-11.

Conference Break

Time for thought experiment #2 here at halftime. In this one I'd like you to try to imagine if the NFL fan base did a gender swap. No, I'm not talking about anything involving scalpels and silicon, simply imagine a world in which the majority of football fans were women. If that's too hard for you, maybe picture watching the NFL as the equivalent of going shoe shopping. Too sexist? Sorry, but really, imagine a world where the NFL was as popular with women as shopping for shoes and you'll be able to do this. Now, imagine this shoe shopping league, or whatever, has the ability to enforce extralegal rules that allows it to punish athletes who do things that reflect poorly on their sport. Don't ask me what kind of actions would reflect badly on professional shoe shopping, maybe buying sandals to wear with socks, whatever. Could you in your wildest dreams imagine punishments such as these?
  • Test positive for marijuana - Full season suspension
  • Have a couple of beers on vacation - 4 game suspension
  • Beat your partner unconscious - 2 game suspension
No? Well, welcome to the world of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's justice. Those were the punishments handed down to Josh Gordon, Matt Prater and Ray Rice respectively in the past few months. Before we get into the justification for the penalties, just think for a moment about the message these punishments sends not only to players, but to the public at large. In the words of Keith Olbermann:
"The message to the women who the league claims constitute 50 percent of its fan base: The NFL wants your money. It will do nothing else for you. It will tolerate those who abuse you verbally and those who abuse you physically." 
Yeah, I've got a feeling that all those pink socks, gloves and other paraphenelia sported by both the players and the league in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was a bit of a waste. What's that you say? That whole thing is nothing but a marketing scam anyway that serves to enrich the CEO of Komen and the NFL owners. You don't say. No, the real message that the public gets is that even after passing 70 drug tests, if you are found to have more than 15 nanograms per millilitre in your urine sample (for comparison, the World Anti-Doping Agency requires ten times the amount, baseball and the US military require 50 nanograms per millilitre - Gordon had 16 in his "A" sample, only 13.6 in his "B", had they had the labels switched he would have passed) of a substance that is legal in a couple of states, you should be kicked out of the game for a year, but if you knock your girlfriend unconscious in an elevator, you only deserve to sit out two games. Unfortunately, this is the only video evidence we have, but the NFL is said to have even more damning tape from inside the elevator.

Of course there is the other side of the story. The commissioner's hands are tied when it comes to disciplinary actions related to drugs by the league's collective bargaining agreement (CBA - yeah the agreement that may have transferred billions in wealth from the players to the owners, good work DeMaurice Smith). Being a repeat offender in stage III means a player is automatically suspended for a year. No matter how much you hate Goodell, it's not his fault, it was the player's union that signed Gordon's (football) death sentence. Ditto for Matt Prater, apparently he was in stage two or three of the league's intervention program. Meanwhile, the woman that Ray Rice knocked out not only took some blame for provoking Rice, but testified in his defense both in court and to Goodell, and also made the decision to marry Rice after the incident. So there you go, Rice underwent counselling and, I mean, she married him, so obviously beating women isn't as big a deal as smoking a plant that is legal in a couple of states.

Wrong. The NFL is, intentionally or not, sending the message that domestic violence isn't so bad. Worse, this isn't an isolated incident, the same month of the Rice decision saw both Fred Davis and Greg Hardy slapped with new domestic assault charges; don't worry though, the Panthers are "very disappointed" in Hardy but not enough to discipline him for allegedly threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend. Daryl Washington was suspended for the entire 2014 season, but not for restraining and breaking the collarbone of the mother of his child, but, you guessed it, substance abuse-related violations. The list goes on, and on, and on.

The good news is that thanks to the backlash generated by the miniscule suspension, the league has implemented a sweeping domestic violence initiative under its personal conduct policy that calls for a six-game suspension for a first offense and a lifetime ban from the league for a second offense. The bad news is that thanks to the way our brains take in information, the whole affair has probably served as ammunition for misogynists' anti-feminist justification as they see their old world order crumble, replaced by what they see as politically correct nazis. The bottom line is this change didn't come about because there's been a shift in people's perception but because the NFL is a business and a business will always take the strongest action against people who damage its ability to make money. Hopefully enough people are paying attention to the cheerleaders situation and Goodell's next big decision, what to do with Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay...

NFC South - Since 2002, each of the four teams have won the division three times. Prognosticators beware, six times in the last 11 years the division has been claimed by the team that finished fourth the previous year. Time to get on the Bucs bandwagon?

Don't panic Saints fans, you lost RB Darren Sproles but he's on the downside of 30 while rookie WR Brandin Cooks will slide into his role. If preseason hype is to be believed, RBs Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson are improbably all set for big years on a throwing team. QB Drew Brees will have WRs Kenny Stills and Marques Colston to throw to, and yes, TE Jimmy Graham is back to dominate. Who knew that Rob Ryan's defense was the fourth ranked unit last year in both points and yards? They've added S Jairus Byrd so should be every bit as good and again led by DE Cameron Jordan. Before Brees joined the-then 'Aints in 2006, they had won one playoff game in 39 years. They won one that year and a mittful since, including a Superbowl in 2009 and are poised to make another run with one of the league's easiest schedules pushing them towards 12 regular season wins.

It was a steep fall from 13-3 to 4-12 for the 2013 Falcons as everyone seemed to break including WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White. Having both back fully healthy automatically makes this team contenders and gives QB Matt Ryan a chance to step up to the first rank of signal-callers. Yet another offensive line upgrade through draft (RT Jake Matthews, yes another Matthews), free agency (RG Jon Asamoah) and position coach (Mike Tice) should give him enough pocket protection and help RB Steven Jackson, who's still somehow only 31, find enough room to roam. The loss of all-world TE Tony Gonzalez hurts though as the team will lean on 6'8" rookie Levine Toilolo. The offense will be asked to carry a defense with a thin linebacker corps, especially with LB Sean Witherspoon out for the year, standing in contrast to run-stopping depth up front and a decent secondary. There will be points put on the board in Atlanta and the Falcons should put up a bit more than half, say 9/16ths.

The Panthers are exhibit A when it comes to demonstrating the ofttimes gaping chasm between real football and fantasy football. After QB Cam Newton, there's no one I'd want on my fantasy team but if I were fielding a real team, I'd take this squad over most others. Ok, you might take TE Cam Olsen as he's opening the year as the team's #1 receiver, but that's as much a function of the fact the Panthers got rid of all their WRs in the off-season as it is the talent of Olsen. Therefore, they're hoping one or more of their free agent acquisitions Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, or Tiquan Underwood pan out and that rookie Kelvin Benjamin merits the preseason hype. It's fantasy hell in the backfield with a three headed RB beast in the form of DeAngelo William, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert but in real life they're serviceable in their running, catching and touchdown scoring ways respectively. The defense was the key to the Panthers surprising season, leading the league with 60 sacks, finishing second in both yards and points allowed and sporting stars such as Luke Kuechly and Greg Hardy. However, there are too many red flags, the lack of proven WRs, the Jordan Gross-less offensive line, Super Cam's fractured ribs following recovery from ankle surgery plus an insanely difficult schedule (look at the first 10 weeks!), for me to pick a return to the playoffs though they should be above average.

At least Greg Schiano's reign of terror has ended. Coach Lovie Smith takes over a Buccaneer team that has chosen to start from scratch again, with a new 35-year old quarterback with a history of mediocrity joining his 8th NFL team. Ok, maybe Josh McCown did have a pretty good year with the Bears and he does have some skyscrapers for targets on the outside in Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans. However, they're not quite Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Still, what if equally freakishly statured rookie TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins pans out? Muscle Hamster Doug Martin should be more his 2012 self after an off year and the Bucs will need it since third round pick Charles Sims went down. He'll be running behind what seems to be all too common around the NFL, a rebuilt offensive line which now includes Logan Mankins at guard. The team spent 24 of the $55 million in free agent signings on DE Michael Johnson to bookend bullrushing Adrian Clayburn on a great defensive line that also boast DT Gerald McCoy, has star power at linebacker with the likes of Lavonte David and a decent secondary which will keep the team in games. Another fourth to first in the south? Maybe, but a .500 finish is more likely.

NFC (L)East - Things have gotten bad in the East. Vegas puts the odds of any of the four teams winning the Super Bowl at 15-1.

Regression to the mean for their quarterback, the departure of DeSean Jackson, and the rest of the league catching up to Chip Kelly's jet-fueled (or personalized smoothie fueled) offense could see the Eagle's come down a notch. Or not. QB Nick Foles simply can't repeat last season's numbers (league leading 119.2 passer rating; 27 TDs to 2 Ints, the 3rd lowest Int% in history) but he'll be above average. WR Jeremy Maclin should be back at 100% and together with 2nd round draft pick Jordan Matthews should be able to pick up Jackson's slack. Throw in RB Darren Sproles and just try to imagine how defenses will deal with him and all-world RB LeSean McCoy on the field at the same time. Oh, and they've got a couple of weapons at TE in Brent Celek and Zach Ertz and perhaps the most cohesive and consistent offensive line in the league. Who need a stinking defense? Here, the Eagles are definitely improved off a year in which they were last in the league against the pass. A tough out of division schedule holds this team back, but if any team in this division finishes above .500 it should be the Eagles.

Speaking of .500, the Cowboys have finished at 8-8 the last three seasons having lost in what came down to end of the regular season playoff games to their three divisional opponents to finish those last three years. So, yeah, though Jerry World may be worth a league-topping $3.2 billion according to Forbes, they're not topping any football lists this year. Unless you look at them upside down in which case you'll find the defense at the top of last year's squads which is where you'll find them again this year after losing DeMarcus Ware to the Broncos, Jason Hatcher to Washington and LB Sean Lee to injury. Not even Rod Marinelli will be able to prevent this unit from being bottom feeders again. Fortunately, the offense should be able to put up a plethora of points to keep them in games (remember the Broncos game?). WR Dez Bryant and TE Jason Witten will consistently draw double teams opening things up for breakout candidate 2nd year WR Terrence Williams. RB Demarco Murray should put up decent numbers behind the strongest unit on the team, the offensive line, while camp-buzz leader RB Lance Dunbar should contribute as a pass catcher. Why even play? 8-8.

The good news: former Packer assistant Bob McAdoo was brought in to resuscitate the lifeless offense. The bad news: the new offense hasn't looked good in preseason, RB David Wilson was forced to retire and #1 pick, WR Odell Beckham Jr. can't seem to get his hamstring healthy. Eli threw 15 picks in the first six games on his way to a league-leading 27 last year, but he does have WRs to throw to in Victor Cruz and Reuben Randle though there doesn't seem to be a TE in sight. RB Rashad Jennings was brought in from Oakland where he looked good as a starter after years on the Jaguar bench to team up with rookie Andre Williams behind an offensive line that is at least not last year's line. The biggest moves on defense came in the secondary where they picked up free agents Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and ex-Seahawk Walter Thurmond and a couple late-round draft choices. There's still Jason Pierre-Paul up front along with a middling linebacking crew. Can you say 7-9? No? Then 6-10.

So long coach Shanahan, hello coach Gruden. Jay, not Jon. Hello speedster WR Desean Jackson. The question is, will they be able to turn RGIII into a pocket passer? Or, more important, will he be able to avoid injury over 16 games. He's got the targets in Jackson, WR Pierre Garcon (who led the league in targets and receptions last year) plus TE Jordan Reed (who has his own concussion issues to worry about). RB Alfred Morris enters his third year already having gained 2,888 yards in the league; the guy can't catch but he'll add to those rushing totals. The offensive line has LT Trent Williams. The defense brought in 34-year old Ryan Clark to help the overhyped DeAngelo Hall in the backfield and LB Jason Hatcher to help Brian Arakpo get some push up front. Encouragingly, somehow for both Washington and their opponents, Brandon Merriweather won't be on the field for the first couple of games as he's too stupid to avoid suspension. Distraction over that team nickname won't help. Could be anywhere from a repeat of last year (3-13) to a 9-7 season, but I'm betting on closer to 6-10. 

NFC North - What's the deal? Three of the four teams don't have official cheerleaders. Scandalous.

Off five straight playoff appearances, the Packers also have to come to terms with their season being ended by the 49ers the last two years. Though it wasn't as painful to watch last season's playoff showdown, Kaeparnick still beat them with his legs in the end and to that end (or something), this year's defense should be less of a liability as the law of averages says they shouldn't suffer the same rash of injuries they have the past two years. Newly minted CB Sam Shields (4 years, $39 mil) is back with Tramon Williams to lock down all those willowy receivers in the division (there's also a 1st round pick known as Ha Ha Clinton-Dix!). Adding Julius Peppers to the mix along with the likes of Clay Matthews, A.J. Hawk and B.J. Raji also gives the Pack a formidable front seven. We all know the offense is stacked from top to bottom starting behind center with Aaron Rodgers, 2nd year RB Eddie Lacy behind him and out wide (or anywhere on the field) in WRs Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. The only weak leak is a shaky offensive line. Still, take the over on 10 wins.

You know we're living in strange times when it's the Chicago Bears offense that'll need to carry its defense. With a year under his belt under coach Marc Tressman's system, QB Jay Cutler seems to have cleaned up his sloppy habits and is squaring to deliver the ball. Sounds like a fancy way to say he's got the best 1-2 WR duo in the league to throw to in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. There's continuity on the offensive line to run behind for RB Matt Forte as all five linemen return from last year. Oh, he can catch, too, making him the third progression for Cutler, ahead of TE Martellus Bennett, except maybe in the red zone. The defense could be improved, though still not any younger with both DEs Jared Allen, who defected from the division rival Vikings, and Lamarr Houston expected to provide what Julius Peppers once did, that is, everything. Lance Briggs is still at linebacker while Charles Tillman was re-signed to patrol the secondary where he'll be joined by his eventual replacement, Kyle Fuller, the #14 pick in the draft. If Cutler goes down as he has so often, it'll be a long season with Jimmy Clausen as QB, but with a little luck, looks like 9-7.

The Lions have been fantasy football winners the past few years, not so much in real life. Megatron leads the way. WR Calving Johnson followed up his record-setting 2012 with another great year and will help new WR Golden Tate who should feast underneath thanks to his double-team drawing counterpart. Rubber armed QB Matthew Stafford may benefit from coaching staff changes, but will continue to draw expletives to balance the ooh and aahs. The team drafted TE Eric Ebron in the first round to partner with Brandon Pettigrew. Though you wouldn't know it, Reggie Bush is the team's second best RB thanks to the presence of Joique Bell. The defense begins at tackle with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Problem is attitude; Suh can't control himself and Fairley can't motivate himself except at the kitchen table. 2nd year man Ziggy Ansah (after the tackles, the 3rd 1st round defensive lineman pick by the Lions in the past 4 years) flashed QB hunting talent in his rookie year. Decent linebackers and safeties will need to cover for the paucity of cornerback talent in the back seven. A new head coach in Jim Caldwell as well as offensive and defensive coordinators and a wealth of talent but still, a 7-9 type club.

There's more talent here than you'd expect from such a seemingly boring team. All Day, AD, AP, the Purple Jesus, there can't be enough nicknames for the best running back in football, Adrian Peterson. Then there's the next big thing, WR Cordarelle Patterson who will be fed the ball every possible way while Greg Jennings is the #1 WR if you go according to pay cheque size. TE Kyle Rudolph ain't too shabby either. So what's missing? Oh yeah, a quarterback. If you're the Vikings, you keep throwing darts at the #1 pick. Christian Ponder. Nope. Terry Bridgewater. Well, we'll see. Despite a pretty decent preseason posted by the rookie, it'll be steady buy unspectacular Matt Cassel calling plays. Emerson Griffen, freshly minted with $19.8 million in guaranteed money will be new head coach Mike Zimmer's Michael Johnson from Cincinnati. He's also got Chad Greenway at linebacker but they're thin after him and only a serviceable secondary that may be susceptible to homerun plays. The Vikes will also call a new venue home, some bank name, which is perhaps apropos as the taxpayers were left with the bill. A favourable AFC East schedule this year makes a .500 season more than possible.

NFC West (or is it Best) - Coming in to the season, it certainly stacks up as the best division in football.

Here's a wacky stat to chill the most ardent Seahawk fan's blood: total playoff victories of the last eight Super Bowl champions the following year: 0. Yet, it's hard to imagine this team failing to add a few to that total but they'll now wear the target for the rest of the league. They're stacked, stoked and stalked. It all starts on defense, where they were far and away the #1 unit in the league last year in most categories and in the conversation for best ever. Most of the Legion of Boom is back, Earl Thomas III, Kam Chancellor, and Richard Sherman, perhaps the best free safety, strong safety and cornerback in the game. Brandon Maxwell should pick up where he left off last season playing the other corner but Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner have moved on. Three more pieces of the defense left the line, Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Clinton McDonald, and have been replaced by the aging Kevin Williams. They're supported though by an athletic linebacker group anchored by Bobby Wagner. The much ballyhooed hype coming out of camp is the team will open up the playbook which should finally make people stop referring to QB Russell Wilson as a game manager. They lost WRs Golden Tate and Sydney Rice but a healthy Percy Harvin will more than make up for the loss and along with Jermaine Kearse and Doug Baldwin will form a stronger group. Beast Mode is back though most of the preseason talk has been around RB backups Christine Michael and Robert Turbin instead of Marshawn Lynch. The TE will again be the steady Zach Miller who will work alongside the weakest group on the team, the offensive line, a pedestrian group outside of Okung and Unger. Regardless, the 12th man at home and coach Pete Carroll will have this team back in the playoffs after a double digit victory total in the regular season.

I've got a feeling the Niners take a little step back defensively while making the same size step forward offensively. The loss of Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith to free agency, injury and suspension (9 games for Smith) won't be completely compensated for by the incoming talent. S Antoine Bethea and 1st round pick CB Jimmie Ward will join a cast that is still talented but ageing, including the likes of Justin Smith (turning 35) and Patrick Willis. The forward progress heavily depends on Colin Kaepernick proving he's worth the six year, $126 million extension he inked. The team has tried to help by bringing in some wide receivers to join perennial Anquan Boldin and oft-broken Michael Crabtree in the bodies of Steve Johnson and Brandon Lloyd. TE Vernon Davis is back despite his contract threats and RB Frank Gore has another in a line of replacements in waiting behind him, 2nd pick Carlos Hyde. Oh, they've also got a snazzy new Wifi friendly stadium named after jeans. Still, should come in around 10-6 but a fourth consecutive conference championship game seems a bit of a stretch.

The Cardinals are a trendy pick this season and for good reason. Sure QB Carson Palmer is just middling at this point in his career but he's got weapons. WR Michael Floyd was promoted last year to the X receiver and had a big year while Larry Fitzgerald selflessly filled the Z slot, the possession/decoy guy. They're both back with buzzy rookie John Brown added to the mix. TE Rob Housler will be a bit healthier and better while RB Andre Ellington should be a household name by the end of the year as he'll be counted on to run more often behind an improved offensive line and can win battles for the ball split wide. The defense has a gaping hole in the middle left by the departure of Karlos Dansby to Cleveland and woman beating/substance abusing Daryl Washington's year long suspension. Their replacements are ok though, former Steeler Larry Foote and last year's 2nd round pick Kevin Minter and will have a strong cast both in front of them in the likes of 36-year-old John Abraham and Darnell Dockett and behind them with new acquisition Antonio Cromartie, eventually Tyrann Mathieu and All-World cover man Patrick Peterson. Last year's Cardinals were probably the best team not to make the playoffs and though a bit better, this year will probably be no different as they still play in the best division in football.

Losing QB Sam Bradford two weeks before the season opener shouldn't affect my forecast for the Rams all that much but it does for whatever reason. His replacement, Shaun Hill, is statistically his superior and Bradford hasn't really done much to merit his #1 draft position from 2010 but still, I was going with the Rams for my underdog pick of the year, no longer. There's positives, not only were the Rams the youngest team in the league last year (and probably this year), but even beyond Bradford the team is still pretty stacked with early round draft picks; number ones litter the roster after years of amassing high picks and the RGIII trade. There's four alone on perhaps the best defensive line in football. The back seven defenders aren't quite at the same level but are still a decent bunch. The offense features their share as well, particularly on the offensive line along with a couple at wide receiver. Unfortunately, one of those is Kenny Britt while the other is last year's #1 Tavon Austin, a mini speedster who needs space this offense can't create. Instead they'll grind out yardage with late round 2nd year RB Zac Stacy. The team splashed out on TE Jared Cook last year but he failed to live up to the hype. I can't see this team breaking .500 in this division but you never know.

Wrapping it up

Well, that about does it for the team-by-team lowdown which means it's time for thought experiment #3 before we take a quick look at who might be travelling to Glendale, Arizona to play in the 49th Super Bowl. As always, there's tons of other issues confronting the league from the Washington team name to the latest officiating point of emphasis on calling more defensive holding penalties to make the league even more pass oriented. However, you didn't think I'd let you get away without reading about the seventh round draft pick whose jersey was the sixth-best selling in the NFL since April, did you? Yep, Michael Sam became the first openly gay player drafted in the NFL only to become the first openly gay player to not make the team. In fact, no one picked him up nor did he get signed to the Rams practice squad. Despite the handful of current players who are gay, despite the fact that there have been numerous ex-players who have come out, despite his talent, there are still many who believe Michael Sam is part of the "gay conspiracy" out to destroy America or that he came out just to attract media attention to both gather fame and to ensure a place on a team. Don't believe me? Just spend a bit of time on the comment thread of any article about Sam.

It was only a year and a half ago, prior to Super Bowl XLVI that 49ers player Chris Culliver responded to the question of whether he thought there were any gay players on his team with the screed "[n]o, we don't got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do.... Can't be with that sweet stuff. Nah…can't be…in the locker room, man. Nah." Just last year, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe was released from the team according to him because he publicly supported gay marriage. If you don't think that this sort of thing along with the hyper-masculine chest beating culture of the league contributes to a climate conducive to gay bashing and this sort of craziness, chances are you're part of the problem.

The fact is Michael Sam was the 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year and would have been drafted higher and had a better chance of making the team if he hadn't come out as gay. His public disclosure caused his draft ranking on scouting reports to drop overnight by as many as 70 spots, from 90th to 160th on one list. He went from a borderline 3rd or 4th round prospect to a borderline draft pick. The accusation that he was simply trying to draw attention to himself is dispelled simply by noting the cancellation of the planned Oprah special focusing on his attempt to make the Rams. Coach Fisher was quoted saying that Sam was "absolutely not" a distraction during camp. Unfortunately for Sam, the Rams chose to cut him, most likely because of football reasons: they're simply too deep at defensive linemen, by far the teams strongest position, specifically defensive ends, the position Sam plays.

So, the NFL will have to wait yet again for its first openly gay player. Whether it's Sam playing for the Rams or some other team or someone else entirely, he has provided a template for others to follow. He didn't go public to attract attention but in an attempt to deflect it when rumours began to emerge that were getting in the way of the scouting process. Sam's agent claimed scouts were asking whether or not Sam had a girlfriend or had been seen with women before they would ask about Sam’s work ethic or playing ability. His sexual orientation only became a distraction because other people decided it should. The lesson to cull from all this is that this issue is no longer an issue in 2014 as Sam's Mizzou team mates all knew he was gay for an entire year, a year in which the Tigers had arguably their best season ever, going 12-2 and winning the Cotton Bowl before voting Sam the team MVP. Sounds like the kind of locker room distraction any team could use.

Predictions:

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Not Michael Sam
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Not Johnny Manziel
Rookie of the Year: Not Jadeveon Clowney
Coach of the Year: Not Andy Reid
Comeback Player of the Year: Not Percy Harvin
MVP: Not Peyton Manning
Offensive Player of the Year: Not Peyton
Defensive Player of the Year: Not J.J. Watt
AFC winner: Not the Denver Broncos
NFC winner: Not the New Orleans Saints
Super Bowl winner: Not the Seattle Seahawks

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2014/08/26/6655611/san-francisco-49ers-2014-season.html#storylink=