Monthly Archives: September 2014

Fantasy stud, dud and pickup

Let’s revisit last week’s stud (Knile Davis), dud (Jay Cutler) and pickup (Khiry Robinson) before jumping into this week’s choices.

Full disclosure: one hit, one miss and one draw.

Davis was a definitive hit. The Chiefs backup rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown at Miami. The lone drawback – no receptions in a passing game that is anything but vertical. Cutler was a miss, though he did have his worst outing of the year by a decent margin. He still managed 225 yards and two scores at the Jets and avoid costly interceptions. Robinson was a draw. He rushed for 69 yards but was held out of the end zone and failed to catch a pass, though Pierre Thomas is the primary pass catcher out of the New Orleans backfield.

On to this week’s picks:

Stud – Steve Smith Sr., Baltimore. Motivation. Motivation. Motivation. No longer wanted in Carolina, Smith landed in Baltimore to add a veteran presence in the passing game. To date, he’s delivered. Smith has 32 targets, nearly 300 yards receiving and two double-digit games. Plus, he’s emerged as Joe Flacco’s favorite target in a passing attack Steelers fans in Western Pennsylvania don’t want to admit is as potent as it is. Smith scores one touchdown, maybe more.

Dud – Jason Witten, Dallas. Wasn’t that long ago when Witten was seemingly targeted 15 times per game as Tony Romo’s favorite safety valve. Through three games, Witten is averaging six targets per game with only 10 catches. The matchup against the Saints is attractive, but Dallas is going to need to run the football effectively (very effectively) to keep Drew Brees on the sidelines as much as possible.

Pickup – LeGarrette Blount, Pittsburgh. Tampa Bay stinks. The Steelers’ offense is good. And Blount rushed for 118 yards and a TD in garbage time Sunday night at Carolina. He’s nowhere near as good as Le’Veon Bell, but he’s as good a backup as there is the NFL. There’s an outstanding chance he adds to his two rushing touchdowns on the season.

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What I learned last week

Every September, the family drives to the Outer Banks. Not the over-populated areas of Kitty Hawk, Southern Shores, Nags Head, etc., but the off-road beaches north of Corolla. The area is called Swan Beach. Four-wheel drive is needed to traverse the 3.5 miles from the end of pavement to Idle Time, which is owned by the in-laws.

So, every year during high school football season, I work a Friday night shift, which always lasts longer this time of year. From there, it’s a 45-mile drive home, wake up the wife and child and get loaded into a sports-utility vehicle for the 9-hour drive from Western Pennsylvania to our destination. (It should be noted that after crossing the sound into the Outer Banks, we turn left toward Southern Shores and drive and drive and drive. Takes about an hour of retracking.)

It’s a brutal drive, even if I only last until 4 to 4:30 a.m. most years. It’s also a stark reminder that tired driving should be avoided.

I employ every trick in the book I can imagine to continue the trek.  I give myself 15-minute goals. Maybe a 30-minute goal. I’ll slap myself in the face. I sit up in the seat and perch over the steering wheel. It’s a test of endurance as taxing as the runs I put myself through on a near-daily basis.

In 2013, I made it one exit past Winchester, Va., on Interstate 81. This year, I made it all the way to Route 17, near Warrenton, Va. From there, my wife takes over driving duties until we stop for breakfast.

Next year, the family needs to plan better. No more tired driving.

  • The Outer Banks is a wonderful place, particularly during the early portions of the offseason, but the place sucks when it comes to pumpkin beer selection. The annual September trip to Swan Beach has sadly yielded little despite stops at multiple beer sources.
  • Pitt football taught us long ago not to get too involved, to avoid having hope. Yet, those of us who follow the program can’t help ourselves. That hope bubbled over the surface as the Panthers steamrolled to a 3-0 start, which included a thrashing of a Boston College team that beat USC. So, Pitt reminded us in an all-so-Pitt fashion with Saturday’s loss to Iowa. Pitt gained nearly 450 yards, held a 10-point lead and found a way to lose. Let’s remember people, Pitt is Pitt is Pitt.
  • Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount can smoke all the weed they want. It doesn’t change the fact the pair are the Steelers’ most dynamic running back duo in 20 years.
  • Playing a September for the ages, the Pirates (twice considered dead this season after an 18-26 start and a summer swoon where they dropped to two games above .500) have a tenuous hold on the top wild-card spot in the National League. What the Pirates are accomplishing this season ranks as more impressive than the magical 2013 campaign. Consider all the injuries (McCutchen, Cole, Walker), Pedro’s follies, the bullpen’s woes and the need to rely on Josh Harrison and Russell Martin. Amazing stuff. Clint Hurdle should be the NL Manager of the Year.
  • Some Penn State fans just don’t get it. After the NCAA lifted sanctions, which included reinstating bowl-eligibilty and lifting scholarship restrictions, it isn’t enough for some Nittany Lions followers. Oh no, it’s now time to restore all of Joe Paterno’s wins, put the statue back, have the man canonized for Sainthood and make sure everyone realizes Penn State football is better than anything else in the civilized world. So, congratulations to all the Penn State football fans who participated in the “Joe-Out” last Saturday at Beaver Stadium. You’re blatant disregard for what transpired in leading to the NCAA sanctions and Paterno’s firing added further proof to the belief that it’s all about football in Happy Valley.

Fantasy stud, dud and pickup

Welcome to a new feature here at Kovak’s Corner. It’s called fantasy stud, dud and pickup.

Rather than offer a giant lost of studs, duds and pickups – often done by the major fantasy writers so they can all go back and say they got some correct – I’m offering one for each category. It won’t be obvious picks either. Anyone can tell you to start Matthew Stafford, LeSean McCoy and Antonio Brown.

Fantasy stud – Knile Davis, Kansas City

Assuming Jamal Charles doesn’t play today, Davis is a must-start and a likely top eight back. When Davis gets a chance to play, he usually lands in the top 10, like last week when he scored two touchdowns against Denver. Expect more big numbers against Miami.

Fantasy dud – Jay Cutler, Chicago

Despite a bad rap, Cutler is a good to very good fantasy quarterback with top-shelf Brandon Marshall and another good receiver in Alshon Jeffery. And the Jets give up yards in the passing game. So why bench Cutler? Well, the Jets are strong against the run, playing at home and they will intercept Cutler a couple of times in this one. If you have a decent backup, get him in your lineup.

Fantasy pickup – Khiry Robinson, New Orleans

The waiver wire was filled with running back options this week thanks to injuries and other actions (see Adrian Peterson). Davis is a sexy pickup, so is Robinson, whose workload should increase greatly with the absence of Mark Ingram. Given the potency of the Saints offense, and the fact they’re smarting from losing two close games, Robinson should enjoy a big day.

The ‘liberating’ art of speechmaking

One day before the start of the 2010 high school football season, I made the short drive from the offices of the Observer-Reporter to Wash High Stadium, a throwback to the glory days of the sport in Western Pennsylvania.

Walking onto the same field where the likes of Brian Davis, Dan Mozes, Travis Thomas and Shai McKenzie made headlines, I approached the Prexies, who were huddled around head coach Mike Bosnic, a former player at Pitt who was at the High following a successful coaching stint at Carmichaels.

Practice had concluded, and Bosnic was at the beginning of a speech to his players. A day from that speech, Wash High would host Clairton, a perennial Class A power with a national following thanks to its wildly successful winning ways. Bosnic mentioned certain players, then told the team how that player was going to execute his assignments perfectly to help lead the Prexies to a 1-0 start.

It was inspiring, powerful and impactful. After Bosnic was done and his players headed toward the locker room, I approached to talk. I told him I was ready to run through a wall for him.

Thank goodness he didn’t take me up on it as Clairton manhandled Wash High, 41-0, in a game more lopsided than the final score.

Bosnic’s speech isn’t famous, nor will it ever be, but it’s one of many I’ve been lucky enough to hear during my long career as a sports writer. Whether it’s at the professional, college or high school level, the art of speech making is essential in coaching.

Maybe Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello is a coach because he delivered my favorite speech at the 2014 Rock and Roll Induction Ceremony. Morello inducted KISS, and wasn’t a popular choice heading into the event. After Morello’s awe-inspiring speech, no one complained.

Why mention it now? Well, my daughter, Anna, and I were listening to “Destroyer” as I drove her to school Monday and something made me think of Morello’s speech. After dropping her off, I went home and watched it. Then, I went to the gym and enjoyed a fantastic workout.

If you haven’t seen the speech, please check it out. It’s chill-inducing and liberating.

Trust this fantasy football expert

Aaron Rodgers missed several weeks of the 2013 season with a broken collarbone. For many, it spelled the end of their fantasy football seasons. After all, Rodgers is an elite fantasy quarterback – the head of a pass-first offense that takes multiple shots downfield and a player capable of rushing for a touchdown on any play inside the red zone. Rodgers may not put up the same numbers as Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, but he’s not far off.

While such an injury may doom many owners’ championship dreams, smart owners know answers are out there.

In the 2013 season, one such answer was a redhead named Andy Dalton.

Dalton may not own a playoff victory as quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals, but the TCU product is more than capable of winning fantasy championships. Don’t believe me? You should, he helped me win a title last year after Rodgers went down.

I picked up Dalton in a long-standing league run by a good friend. Dalton played well enough to help get my team (Revis Christ) into the postseason. When the playoffs began, Dalton was magnificent., and I trusted my gut and kept him in the lineup after Rodgers returned. He was the best player on a championship team and he led Revis Christ to a league-record fourth title, two more than any other owner in the league.

When it comes to fantasy football, guess you could say I’ve always had the touch. Besides owning twice as many championships as any owner in my friend’s PPR league, I’ve reached the championship game a league-record seven times (with a league-record three titles) in a quirky, touchdown-based league I run. I also won another league so frequently, it closed its doors.

Why the success?

Well, some of it has to do with luck. Some of it has to do with following the game from an unbiased eye (i.e. not being a Steelers fan can be a blessing). There’s following draft strategies and keeping a close eye on the waiver wire, and not always for the player coming off a splash week.

So, here’s some tips to follow for fantasy success. Hopefully, we can make this a regular segment here. Feel free to ask me for any fantasy football tips. I’ll be happy to assist you on your way to a championship.

1. Get two stud running backs. Employ a wishbone if possible. The point differential between an elite running back and an average one is greater than any other position. That’s why it’s important to get a Shady McCoy, Eddie Lacy or even Le’Veon Bell is available. Look at your league champion. Chances are great the owner has at least one top-eight running back. My goal every draft is to land a pair of top-12 backs. If not top 12, top 15.

2. Don’t be afraid to make tough decisions. It’s tough to bench top running backs or a first-round pick, but a bad matchup is a bad matchup. This is especially true for quarterbacks and running backs. Trust your first instinct and try to stick with it.

3. Don’t be loyal. Loyalty will burn you at least twice every regular season. It’s about winning that week, not about keeping Larry Fitzgerald in your lineup just because you were at Pitt the same time he was.

4. Please don’t draft average quarterbacks early. There’s a distinct pecking order for quarterbacks, and while the top few are worth early selections, the No. 6 quarterback isn’t much different from the No. 13 quarterback. Basically, there’s not much gap between Tony Romo and Ben Roethlisberger, or a starting Brian Hoyer for that matter.

5. Stay away from defenses and kickers until the last three rounds. Dumb. Just dumb. Grab a third receiver first.

6. Don’t be afraid to snag injury reclamations. Football injuries can be devastating, but there are mini-miracles out there in the worlds of science and medicine. If there’s a former fantasy stud one year removed from injury in Round 10, take a flier. Good late-round picks win championships.

7. Use reference, but don’t base decisions on it. There are tons of fantasy football gurus out there in the online universe, and while I find the fellas at CBS sports to be the best in the business, I don’t base lineup decisions solely on them. Remember, these guys are fantasy football writers, they aren’t beat writers. Don’t be afraid to bookmark the major papers in football towns for sound news. Beat writers know. They are there. Fantasy writers are going mostly off hunches.

Good luck this week.

What’s with all the love for Pitt?

First, Kirk Herbstreit predicted Pitt would play in this year’s ACC championship game before the college football season started.

Then, Pete Thamel followed up by predicting those who follow college football would be scratching their heads and checking their eyesight when Pitt climbs to a 9-0 record and the No. 4 position in the AP Top 25.

For those not in the know, Herbstreit is one of THE voices in college football, and one of the sport’s finest – if not the best – color analyst for ESPN. Thamel works for Sports Illustrated. Not a shabby publication.

Herbstreit later backed up his prediction on Twitter in the weeks that followed, and, soon, the pair were joined by the likes of Ivan Maisel and Mark Schlabach – both ESPN writers – in praising Pitt. Hell, even Jimmy Kimmel joined the ranks in a way when he made fun of Panthers’ kicker Chris Blewitt on air because of his rather unfortunate last name.

Pitt? Praiseworthy? National people noticing?

What in the name of Curvin Richards is going on?

Sure, there's Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin, Shady McCoy and Craig Heyward, but Curvin Richards ranks among Pitt's all-time top runners.

Sure, there’s Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin, Shady McCoy and Craig Heyward, but Curvin Richards ranks among Pitt’s all-time top runners.

After all, all Pitt has done is beat Division I-AA Delaware and a not-as-good-as-usual Boston College. All this national attention for a 2-0 team that really hasn’t beaten anyone?

Absolutely.

Granted, the level of competition is suspect, but the Panthers have been nothing short of dominant. Pitt ranks fourth nationally in rushing offense (356.0 yards per game), is tied for fourth nationally in total defense (170.0 ypg), third in team passing efficiency defense and, most impressively, are 12-for-12 in the red zone. That means in 12 red-zone trips, the Panthers have scored 12 touchdowns.

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James Conner, talked about as a two-way player before the season, ranks second nationally with 367 rushing yards and, hopefully, put to rest talk of needing him on the defensive side. Conner is bouncing off tackles with ease and making defenders wary of challenging him.

The way Pitt is running the football, it’s no wonder some national media heads are hopping on the bandwagon. The schedule isn’t the toughest. No Florida State. No Clemson. No Louisville. Iowa at home. Virginia Tech at home.

For Pitt fans, there’s hope this season could turn into something to savor. But Pitt fans know hope is a scary thing to have.

Top 10 Desert Island Go-to Albums

Facebook is chock full of challenges of late, and I finally was called out on one (with the exception of the ALS ice bucket challenge) by my great friend Bradley Rhea, one of the best bass players I’ve ever heard and a member of such incredible bands as Grinning Mob, Terrapin  Flyer and Flowerchild.

My boy BTR asked a handful of people to come up with the 10 albums they’d need if deserted on an island. For a music lover like me, it couldn’t be a more difficult decision. But I was able to come up with the following list.

Appetite for Destruction – Guns N’ Roses: Arguably the best debut album in rock history. Guns brought the heat and the melody, a rare combination in the latter half of the 1980s. “Rocket Queen” is a personal highlight and Guns’ best song in this blogger’s opinion.

Odelay – Beck: No album captures my time in college better than this. Every song hits just right, and proves Beck was the best thing happening in the mid 1990s. “Going back to Houston, to get me some pants.” All killer. No filler.

American Beauty – Grateful Dead: My favorite album, which also includes my favorite song, “Brokedown Palace.” Then there’s “Box of Rain,” “Candyman,” “Ripple.” Just ridiculous.

Europe 72 – Grateful Dead: My favorite album of live music, and it just happens to be a double album (Yes!!)

Thriller – Michael Jackson: It’s the first vinyl I owned, and still sounds as fresh today as it did when I was 10 years old.

Sticky Fingers – Rolling Stones: Can’t get enough of this album. “Sway” and “Dead Flowers” are strong enough on their own to make a great album.

Mechanical Resonance – Tesla: Another killer debut from a band I believe is as underrated as any in history. Check it out if you’ve never listened to it.

Who’s Next – The Who: The best album from my favorite British band (sorry Beatles and Led Zep). There’s no slacker among the tracks.

Blood on the Tracks – Bob Dylan: Gotta credit my mom, Mary Kovak, with getting me into Dylan at a relatively young age, and to me, there’s nothing better than this 1975 masterpiece. “Simple Twist of Fate,” “Shelter from the Storm” and “Buckets of Rain” enough said.

The Marshall Mathers LP – Eminem: My favorite rap album, just edging out Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, and Paul’s Boutique or Check Your Head from the Beastie Boys. I defy you to jam to this on your headphones at the gym and not get in an incredible workout. It’s hilarious. It’s raw. It’s brutally honest. Incredible.

So, that’s my list. The crazy thing is there’s no Bob Marley, Prince, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Led Zeppelin, KISS, Snoop and Dre, The Beatles, Red Hot Chili Peppers or Beastie Boys – all musical acts I hold near and dear to my heart. Is there anyway I can bump the number up to 100?