Thursday, January 30, 2014

XLVIII

In order to form a just estimation of the character of any particular people, it is absolutely necessary to investigate the Sports and Pastimes most generally prevalent among them.
              Joseph Strutt - Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (1801)

There's no game that better embodies Strutt's theory than American football nor an event that more fittingly encapsulates everything the United States is about than the Super Bowl. In addition to lending itself perfectly to pro-pot propaganda, Sunday's match up between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos seems to affirm the American idealized vision of itself as a meritocracy in which a combination of hard work and talent yields the rewards of success as the game's most dominating defense will be pitted against the league's offensive juggernaut; the top seeds from each conference playing in the final for just the third time since 1993. I can't fight the condescending smirk my lips form whenever I hear someone refer to baseball as America's pastime; they just don't get it on any level from opinion polls and TV ratings to water cooler talk and the behavior of society itself. According to Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory, "[b]aseball is where we were. Football is what we have become." Little kids play Pop Warner, high schoolers fight the glare of the Friday night lights, and kids go to college to play football (or play football so they can go to college) all for a shot to one day be drafted by an NFL team and have the chance to fulfill their dream of one day playing in the Super Bowl.

When Peyton Manning leads his Broncos into MetLife stadium he'll be trying to duplicate brother Eli's feat of winning his second Super Bowl on his brother's home turf. Could it be his last game? Will he go off a champion a la his boss, John Elway? Just a few of the many subplots that will pump up the media buzz around the single biggest day in American sports. Heck, it took over Thanksgiving years ago and is threatening Christmas as the most important day on the calendar. Yet, no matter how many games they play in London every year (where they'll play three next year), the sport will remain a uniquely American phenomenon as it parallels the dichotomy that is America. Projecting military power (now occupying 134 countries!) at will while paranoiacally trying to monitor the world's most intimate thoughts for fear that someone's out to get them and simultaneously creating as many enemies as possible. Paradoxically powerful yet vulnerable as in football where gridiron warriors line up in formation to bomb, blitz and sack in an attempt to control the trenches while field generals fire bullets trying to blow away their enemy while inflicting very real physical damage on one another that will result in long-term health consequences every bit as serious as real soldiers. It's no coincidence that pro football has witnessed a jump in popularity in the post 9/11 world.

America's a post racial society as well of course as they elected a black president not once, but twice, and  Russell Wilson could become the second black Super Bowl winning quarterback (yes, Doug William in XXII!). Yet, somehow I doubt Richard Sherman would agree, nor Trayvon Martin's family, or the one out of three black men who will go to jail in their lifetime (not to mention the women, including Broncos' WR Demaryius Thomas' mom and grandma sharing the same cell for selling crack) nor the median black income earner making less than half as much as his Asian counterpart leaving black median household wealth at less than 5% those of whites. Both America and the NFL are financial superpowers as well, constantly in search of growth regardless of the damage it does. Actually existing capitalism isn't a system to nurture the American Dream but to cultivate socialism for the rich and desperation for the poor; backdoor (and front door) bailouts for the banks, privatization of essential services providing guaranteed profits for everyone from private prisons, mercenaries and missile makers to power companies and billionaire farmers at the expense of hungry kids, the unemployed and the 'fortunate' ones who compete in the part-time McJob labor market. Meanwhile the richest sports league in the world, worth over $35 billion hasn't paid taxes since 1966 thanks to its non-profit status that it retains despite Roger Goodell's ambition to nearly triple league revenue to over $25 billion by 2027. Goodell got paid $29 million to run a socialist, revenue sharing league where millionaires bash each others brains on the field so billionaires can bilk billions from society.

Yet it seems no matter how hard it tries to turn me off the sport, the NFL still has the power to pull me back to the screen every Sunday. I can ignore the air force flyovers, the marine recruitment spots and star spangled army veterans used to sell perpetual war and convince folks that drone signature strikes are as accurate as Russell Wilson's TD strikes (true, so long as the former are targeting bridal wedding convoys the way the latter targets receiver convoys). I can overlook the fact that most of these Sunday warriors will end up crippled, suffering from CTE, or worse, provided we get wild week 17 win-your-in finishes to determine the winner of all four NFC divisions. Hell, it seems I can even look past the morally-deficient likes of Riley Cooper, Richie Incognito or pretty much every NFL teams' owner and count myself as one of the tens of millions who tune in every Sunday (and Thursday, Monday and playoff Saturdays) to take in the action. Everything about the game, much like its home country, screams Roman gladiator end of empire pans et circenses, but I can't help myself. I love the game and this Sunday's Super Bowl showdown between the Seahawks and Broncos has all ingredients for a great game: the best offense against the best defense, the... wait, let's review the season before we get to the game.

The (not so) Regular Season -

Peyton Manning started the season with a bang. Or more like a bomb or better yet a clusterbomb as he connected for seven TDs in the Broncos' season opener against the defending Super Bowl champ Ravens and at least partially avenging last year's playoff loss. Though he didn't manage to maintain his 112 TD pass pace, he did manage to duplicate Dan Marino's 1984 feat of breaking both the TD pass and passing yard records in the same year, 55 and 5,477. Five different Broncos scored ten or more touchdowns, and the teams 606 points were a record and a big part in the league as a whole setting records for total points scored (11,985 or 46.8/game) and touchdowns (1,338 breaking last season's 1,297). Even the Broncos' kicker got in on the record fun as Matt Prater broke the NFL longest field goal record booting a 64-yarder at Mile High. Though the Eagles' LeSean McCoy, who led the league in rushing with 1,607 yards, picking up over five yards a carry and adding 539 receiving yards, fantasy football's MVP Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs and even a Brown, Josh Gordon, who led the league in receiving yards with 1,646 despite missing two games to suspension, had excellent seasons, there's little doubt Manning was the league MVP having lead his team to the #1 seeding in the AFC and the Super Bowl. Elsewhere in the conference, Brady somehow led the Patriots to the #2 seed, the Chiefs ran off victories in their first nine before fading, the Bengals had another un-Bungle-like regular season, the Steelers opened 0-4 and almost made the playoffs, and besides the Colts the AFC South went, well, south.

Talk on the defensive side of the ball starts with the Seattle Seahawks as they became the first team to lead the league in points allowed in back-to-back seasons giving up a paltry 14.4 per game by fielding what could be the 2nd best pass defense since the '70 AFL-NFL merger. Add in a pretty good pass rush and you have a defense that allowed teams to only score 3.7 points per red zone trip and created takeaways on 20.1% of opposing possessions, one out of five! Offenses get most of the glory but the top five defenses in the league made the playoffs and 96 defensive TDs were scored in the regular season. Those Seahawks have a couple of the defensive player of the year candidates in their secondary, Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman. Panther Luke Kuechly will probably wind up with this year's DPOY but Texan J.J. Watt could easily have been a repeat winner as could have Bengal Vontaze Burfict, 49er NaVorrow Bowman or sack masters DEs Robert Quinn of the Rams and Colt Robert Mathis along with the aforementioned Seahawks as they were all equally deserving. Other happenings in the NFC saw a vastly improved Panther, Eagle and Cardinal teams, consistently inconsistent Bears, Rodgersless Packers for nearly half a season, Payton's brother Eli throw 1.5 picks for every touchdown, an RGIII shutdown, and a Falcon meltdown.

The league also continued to somehow strike the right balance between parity, consistency and novelty. Five teams (the Chiefs, Panthers, Saints, Eagles and Chargers) made the playoffs after missing out last year with the Chiefs and Eagles rebounding from last to first (the 11th consecutive year at least one team has done it), the Patriots became the second team to win at least ten games in eleven consecutive years joining the '83 to '98 Niners (Brady also became the first QB to lead his team to win 11 divisional championships) while the Chiefs matched the feat of the '08 Dolphins and '12 Colts in following up a two win season by winning eleven the next. Defenses around the league learned to deal with 2012's offensive innovation in the pro game, the read-option, but new wrinkles were added along with new adherents as the Eagles, Chiefs, Raiders, Bills and Jets joined the Niners, Seahawks, Panthers and Redskins in using it to varying levels of success. Fresh blood was pumped into the league with offensive rookie of the year candidates such as bulldozing RB Eddie Lacy of the Packers and Chargers' wide-out Keenan Allen, Bills' LB Kiko Alonso, Jets' DE Sheldon Richardson and Bengals' RB Giovani Bernard to name but a few who made a splash in their first year.

Most surprising team (one the positive side):
The Carolina Panthers
There was no shortage of teams who made huge strides this year, but none shocked me as much as the Panthers. Sure, the Kansas City Chiefs went from 2-14 to the playoffs at 11-5 after starting the season with nine straight wins. Yeah, the Philadelphia Eagles took the NFC East (thanks to the woeful Cowboys) at 10-6 after a dismal 4-12 2012/13 season. However, both weren't in the shocking category. Ok, it was a bit surprising to see Andy Reid's new incarnation as the round red tomato be successful in Kansas City, but Chip Kelly turning around the Eagles was almost expected, albeit not with Nick Foles at quarterback. Had the Arizona Cardinals made the playoffs, they'd be in the running too, again though, thanks in large part to new coach Bruce Arians. The Panthers though? While my preseason prediction record is far from stellar (at least compared to my Superbowl predictons, incentive to read on), I had Carolina firmly ensconced in the basement of the NFC South only to see them not only win it but also earn a first round playoff bye with the 2nd best record in the NFC at 12-4.

The secret to the Panthers success wasn't a sudden transformation of QB Cam Newton back into Superman; he was a bit better than last year but he's nothing more than a good quarterback who can run. After starting the season with two losses, it was all about the dominant D. They won one of the toughest division in football thanks in part to a crash and burn season from the Falcons, a fading Saints team and a head coach in Tampa Bay who destroyed a promising Bucaneers team, but mostly thanks to a tenacious defense. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis both had Defensive Player of the Year caliber seasons while Greg Hardy picked up 15 sacks, including eight in the last three games of the season. The defensive front was further bolstered by the strong rookie seasons of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. New GM Dave Gettleman worked some salary cap and free agency magic while Riverboat Ron Rivera earned his nickname and the gambles turned around a 1-3 start to the season and brought them to the precipice of the NFC Championship game.

On the negative side:
Houston Texans
Almost a photo-finish with the Atlanta Falcons but the fact the the Texans will be picking #1 in the draft this spring puts them over the top. Both teams were trendy picks this fall to make it to the Super Bowl yet neither could manage five wins, with the Texans dropping their final 14 in a row to finish 2-14 and the Falcons winding up at 4-12. The Texan phenomenon needs closer study, there must be something to teach future generations about exactly what not to do. Sure, there were a bunch of significant injuries with Owen Daniels, Danieal Manning, Brian Cushing and Arian Foster all landing on injured reserve at some point in the season. In fact things got so bad at running back, a position they were loaded at to start the season with Ben Tate along with Foster, some guy named Jonathon Grimes was signed right before week 17 to become their fifth starting running back of the season. It's true Matt Schaub was never going to be a great quarterback, but who woulda thought he'd throw as many pick 6's as touchdowns (ok, not really, but he did throw one in four straight games). The nightmare season was perhaps a bit of karma for a team that fired coach Gary Kukiak December 6th a month after collapsing on the field.

How About Those $100 Million Quarterbacks

Along with Matt Ryan, lucrative deals were inked before the season by Joe Flacco, Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers. Well, splashing out $103.5 million for Matty Ice and $119.5 million for Tony Romo and their combined 2-7 playoff record, Joe Flacco pulling in $120.6 million for winning a Superbowl and extending Stafford's contract, bumping it to eight years and $150.5 million didn't even get their teams to the playoffs. Aaron Rodgers' Packers, though making it to the dance, saw how risky such investments can be when Rodgers collarbone snapped in week 9. Sure, it healed up in time for him to lead the Pack to a dramatic week 17 victory, but who knows what the long-term effects will be. Ryan's Falcons flopped, Joe went from Super Bowl to super average, Tony's Cowboys choked in week 17 and failed to reach the playoffs again while Matthew had his team peaking just a little early as they looked great on Turkey Day but stumbled down the stretch to finish 7-9 leaving the Lions without a playoff victory since 1991 when they won their only one in the past 55 years.

Remember way back to two years ago? The owners had locked out the players and the 2011/12 season was in doubt but was miraculously saved at the last second when the owners and players' union finally agreed on a new 10-year CBA (collective bargaining agreement)? Sighs of relief were exhaled as we all inhaled more hope and change smoke and mirrors. Two and a half years later we're starting to get a feel for who won the negotiations and I'll give you a hint: it wasn't the players or the fans. The only team whose books we have access to thanks to their ownership status, the Green Bay Packers offer a glimpse at the winners. The Packers earned a record $54.3 million for the 12-month period ending March 31, 2013, up 26% from the year before making an $85.8 million post-CBA two year total. In the two years before the CBA they made $22.3 million for a near four-fold increase. I'm guessing their situation isn't unique among the 31 other teams. Strangely, no wait, predictably, that money isn't trickling down to the players, rookie salaries were cut in half, kids are entering the draft too soon in order to start the free agency clock as young as possible, and veterans are being priced entirely out of the league. Yes, it seems the owners' man, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell really did earn his $22.3 million bonus in 2011.

To recap. Profits are up for the owners while salaries are down or at best flat except for the elite QBs and CEO. Sounds pretty familiar so far. Adding fuel to the fire, salaries are not only capped but often back-loaded which along with the team's right to use the franchise tag or cut a player at any time make guaranteed money and signing bonuses of paramount importance in a sport where every snap of the ball could lead to the snap of a femur or ligament and be your last. All of which has turned simple contracts into complex covenants and their negotiations into a labyrinthine maze only understood by the chosen few. Hmm, sounds kinda familiar too, a little like the work of those Wall Street wizards, no? Much like their robber-barron brethren's manipulation of the public to obtain bailouts, NFL owners used the financial crisis to leverage concessions from the players' union such as a temporary drop in the team salary cap that has only just reached 2009 levels again this year.

It doesn't take a rocket-scientist to realize that if elite QB salaries are rising and the total salary number is stagnant it leaves less for the rest of the players just as in the real world the growing slice the 1% are taking of the income pie leaves the 99% growing hungrier. Owners taking a bigger cut reduces the take of the players in much the same way higher corporate profits as a percent of GDP lowers the salaries of the workers. Worse, just like the country, many owner's refuse to accept that runaway inequality does more harm than good as the Bears made Smokin' Jay Cutler the leagues newest $100 million man after leading his team to, um, nothing. Remembering what inequality does to a country, think higher homicide, incarceration, obesity, mental illness and teenage pregnancy rates coupled with lower social mobility, child well being and education achievements, it suddenly becomes clear what ailed the Falcons, Cowboys, Lions and Ravens this year.

Half Time Show

A few months ago, the NFL revealed who would have the honor, privilege and responsibility of following on the heels of such performers as Michael Jackson, his sister Janet's right nipple courtesy Justin Timberlake, Prince, The Rolling Stones, U2 and most recently Beyonce. The name they came up with? Bruno Mars. Huh? It's like they picked the name by seeing who the world's most boring teenager tweets about most often. In an admission of the massive mistake, they were forced into adding The Red Hot Chili Peppers in an attempt to stir a bit of interest in the show; otherwise, heaven forbid, millions of eyeballs might not be glued to the real star of the show, the marketing extravaganza. At $4 million per second spot, the commercials are as valuable as most of the players. Mention the words Super Bowl anywhere outside North America and after a moment of doubt, without fail the only glint of recognition will be when someone remembers the commercials. It's what America does best, making empire look sexy, poison look tasty and pick-up trucks look manly. There's now marketing campaigns around the commercials themselves and even a cottage-industry of producing ads for the purpose of getting them banned, the perfect fit for a nation and game where wealth creation and destruction are one and the same.

Other distractions from the game include gambling, lots of it, with tons of prop bets this year (over 500) such as whether or not the Gatorade will be green or Knowshon Moreno will cry during the national anthem (parlay yes with Renee Fleming forgetting or omitting a word in her rendition), and of course Richard Sherman. Yes, Richard Sherman sounded stupid, juvenile, and egocentric after the 49ers game but wait until you make the defensive play that puts your team into the Super Bowl and see how you react. No, it doesn't take anything away from his amazing season, subtract from his charity work, diminish his scholastic achievements (4.2 GPA in high school, 3.9 at Stanford, or trivialize his journey from Compton to the Super Bowl, and, no, it doesn't make him a thug. Oh, and yes, the twitterverse and Joe Sixpack were using the word thug as a racial slur instead of the N-word (when they weren't using the N-word that is). No, he shouldn't be suspended. Yes, Richard Sherman is a popular prop bet play as well: whether or not he'll get a taunting penalty, currently about 4/1 against.

As for another of the prop bets, looks like the over/under on Manning hollering 'Omaha' in the pre-snap count will be at 27.5, take the over after 44 against the Chargers as the Nebraskan town's biggest marketing success since the Counting Crows gets another boost from the suddenly personable Peyton (but Bud Light, really?). The actual halftime show gives a few more opportunities to blow money on whether or not a Red Hot Chili Pepper will perform shirtless and what kind of headwear Bruno Mars will be sporting (I'd go yes and fedora). Between shots of cheerleaders while the players are leaving and returning to the field we'll get a female sideline reporter, Pam Oliver or Erin Andrews (another prop bet), giving us an interview every bit as choreographed as the halftime show but no mention of the ten thousand odd women and children sex-slaves brought in for Super Bowl week to serve the influx of predominately male fans. Of all the distractions though, one stands a clear chance of affecting the game: playing the Super Bowl outdoors in a cold weather stadium. What was the NFL thinking in its blind greed? Of course there's a prop bet for the kick-off temperature to boot along with whether or not it'll snow. Game day weather forecast is here.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Regardless of whether you see it as a good or bad thing, all this financial hocus-pocus has changed the sport. No longer is winning or losing all about athletic and coaching talent but building a team that'll stay under the salary cap today and tomorrow. Sadly, no system is perfect and there's always someone trying to get a leg up on the competition by finding, or better, exploiting, the loopholes. In their build up to the lock out in 2011, the owner's opted out of the previous CBA in 2008 which led to an uncapped 2010 season. Despite warnings from the league to not flaunt the temporarily non-existent cap, the Cowboys, Redskins, Saints and Raiders did just that, leading to the former two being punished thanks to their owners' indiscretions. Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder lead the group of Ugly Owners thanks to their fumbling, mumbling, swindling and meddling ways. Yes, the once legendary Cowboys-Redskin rivalry on the field has been diminished to a neck and neck NFC East battle over who has the worst leader in the owner's box.

Nearly every owner is to some extent guilty of screwing up, talking out, knocking off or butting in to some degree, but Jones and Snyder excel in all four categories, particularly meddling. Snyder may have eventually handed over the day-to-day operations to Coach Shanahan but did enough damage (Jeff George, Bruce Smith, Albert Haynseworth and Donovan McNabb) to last a lifetime while Jerry is still doing his best to keep the Cowboys a .500 team and blow the salary cap (really, a lucrative long term contract for the most interchangeable part of a team, the kicker?). Anyone who watched the Cowbums blow another opportunity to sneak into the playoffs week 17 must have noticed the number of backups without the talent or teaching to play, forced into action thanks to the lack of depth resulting from Jerry's reckless spending. An NFL team is only as good as the bottom of its depth chart. Dan Snyder, in addition to being football-tarded is simply an evil man. Since 1999, the year Snyder took over the Redskins, the Cowboys have a 120-120 win-loss record (136-136 since '97 and coming off their third straight 8-8 season in 2013) while the Redskins sport a 104-136 mark, the former with a grand total of one win in the playoffs during that stretch and the latter with two. Proving once again that in America the only way to create wealth is by creating disasters, the Cowboys are the league's most valuable team, worth over $2.1 billion while Snyder's train-wreck is #3 at $1.8 billion. Who's worse? Snyder? Jones? It's a toss up but I'll take Snyder by a nose, he is simply loathsome, while Jerry's just, well, Jerry.

Joining them would have to be Jimmy Haslam, Jerry Richardson and Zygi Wolf, owners of the Cleveland Browns, Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings respectively. Like many an NFL owner Haslam came by his fortune (dis)honestly, he was born into it, son of 'Big Jim' Haslam, founder of a single gas station that grew into Pilot Flying J, the largest truck-stop chain in North America. While his brother Bill became governor of Tennessee, Jimmy was teaching his sales force to run a rebate scam for which the feds are now currently sniffing up the management chain trying to pin the blame. I'm sure the ongoing investigation was in no way a distraction for the team leaving him no choice but to fire yet another head coach and start afresh. Again. Richardson seems to have been the ringleader in the CBA negotiations, crying poor and exhorting his fellow owners to "take back our league" even while turning a $112 million profit. Meanwhile, another trust fund baby, Minnesota Viking's owner Zygi Wilf, was found liable last year for breaking civil state racketeering laws and in the judges words had used "bad faith and evil motive" in keeping separate accounting books to fleece former business partners of shared revenue.

Of course Cowboys' Jerry pays no property taxes on his billion dollar pleasure palace, Panthers' Jerry siphoned cash from Charlotte taxpayer pockets and Zygi used the extortionary 'pay for the stadium or I'll move the team' ploy to shake the state of Minnesota down for $678 million (well, he got a state senator to do it for him!), an old gambit that's darn-near a prerequisite to get onto the Bad Owners list. Home Depot cofounder and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank not only creamed a cool $200 million to put towards construction costs but even secured a revenue stream from a state hotel-motel tax to help offset costs of maintaining and operating a new stadium which will run into the hundreds of millions over 30 years. The Saints owner used a hurricane for leverage, the 49ers owner got a new stadium for nothing, the Seahawks Paul Allen got the state taxpayers to foot 70% of the new home for the 12th man which is about the NFL average of the capital cost covered by public money. In fact, research has found that the owners of the Bills, Bengals, Browns, Texans, Colts, Jaguars, Chiefs, Saints, Chargers, Rams, Buccaneers and the Titans have all turned a profit on stadium subsidies, meaning they have received more money from the public than needed to build their facilities. Only three franchises, the Patriots, Giants and Jets have paid three-quarters or more of their stadium capital costs. Yet, the Patriot and Jet owners still easily qualify as bad: the Pats' Robert Kraft extracted concessions from Massachusetts by threatening to move to Hartford, had that weird ring incident with Vladimir Putin and c'mon, look at that dude; the Jets' Robert Wood Johnson IV, somehow thinks being known as Woody will cleanse him of the stigma attached to the roman numeral after his name and his being heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune and also thought Mitt Romney winning the 2012 election was more important than the Jets having a winning season.

Which leaves us with pretty slim pickings for potential Good Owners: the Giants, Ravens, Broncos, Dolphins, Raiders, Steelers, Cardinals, Bears, Lions, Eagles and Packers. Thinning the field further is child's play as Ravens' owner Steve Bisciotti made his fortune founding America's biggest staffing company, and a particularly evil one at that. Stephen Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins went so far as to create a PAC to raise money to fight politicians who were against publicly funding billionaires' hobbies. Al Davis may no longer soil the Earth or curse the Oakland Raiders but his son Mark is keeping up the tradition by threatening to move to, yes, Los Angeles, if he doesn't get some free money. Dating back to their days in Chicago, it's little wonder the Arizona Cardinals have the longest title drought in the NFL, not having won since 1947 when current owner "Dollar" Bill Bidwill's dad ran the show as Bill was infamous for his frugal style which included selling players to cover operating expenses or making them pay for their own cleats and deducting lunch from their paychecks. Oh, and he did move his team to the desert when St. Louis refused to ante up. Virginia, the current Bears owning Halas (well Virginia Halas McCaskey) doesn't seem so much evil as useless which equals bad. Meanwhile, William Clay Ford, owner of the Detroit Lions, has guided his franchise to one playoff win since he bought the team in 1963.

With a bit of charity, that leaves five seats in the Good Owners luxury box. John Mara and Steve Tisch may have inherited the New York Giants from their fathers, but have since guided the team to their third and fourth league titles. Mara has come out and said the league has forsaken players health in their dealing with the concussion issue while Tisch cut a video supporting gay marriage way back in 2001. Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney has the good fortune to be a Rooney, football royalty, and also the name behind the Rooney rule which requires teams to interview a minority candidate for both head coach and general manager positions. I've got a soft spot for Pat Bowlen, owner of the Denver Broncos, as he's not only Canadian but spent many years in Edmonton. Plus, you've gotta like an owner who seems to really believe his team belongs to the fans and writes an email to season ticket holders apologizing for a "gut-wrenching" loss. The Eagles' Jeff Lurie is what every owner should be, like a child, seen and not heard. It doesn't hurt that he had Philly's Lincoln Financial Field retrofitted with 80 wind turbines, 2,500 solar panels, and a 7.6 megawatt biodiesel power plant. Finally, as if you didn't see this coming, we have the owners of the Green Bay Packers sitting atop the field as it is the only form of ownership that makes sense, a publicly-owned non-profit company with 364,122 shareholders. To prevent any predator from trying to take over there is a limit to share ownership in a system that has produced four NFL championships and the most loyal fan following in the league. Naturally, the hyper-capitalistic NFL has long since banned such a practice but the Packers have been grandfathered in. Er, think it's time to get back to the game on the field...

Week 17 and the Playoffs

Week 17 - Maybe it was just me, but this years final regular season Sunday seemed every bit as exciting as a playoff weekend; 13 of the 16 games played had some sort of playoff implication. All four NFC divisions were up for grabs, two of them decided by head-to-head win-your-in games. The Packers needed to convert three fourth-downs including a fourth and eight 48-yard strike (enabled by John Kuhn) courtesy the just returned from a broken clavicle Aaron Rodgers to a just returned from a snapped fibula Randall Cobb to snatch the NFC North from the Bears 33-28. Later, the Cowboys didn't need Tony to pull a Romo as back up QB Kyle Orton threw a game ending interception to hand Dallas their third consecutive NFC East deciding week 17 loss, this time to the Eagles after losing to the Giants and Redskins the previous two years. Earlier in the day the Seahawks sealed up the West by beating the Rams and the Panthers clinched the South winning a squeaker over the lowly Falcons which relegated the Saints, despite their demolition of the Buccaneers, to a wildcard spot. The Saint victory combined with the surprising Cardinals falling heartbreakingly short in their comeback bid against the Niners left the red birds on the outside looking in and cemented San Francisco's number five seed as a wildcard.

Although the AFC divisional crowns had already been decided there were still more than enough combinations and permutations to keep things interesting. In addition to bye-weeks and homefield advantage, the wildcard race was wide open with even the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had opened the season 0-4, with a shot: all they needed was a victory combined with losses by the Ravens, Dolphins and Chargers. When the Ravens mediocrity finally caught up with them, the defending Superbowl champs fell with a thud to the AFC North winning Bengals, and the Dolphins couldn't even come up with a home victory against the lowly Geno Smith-led Jets, suddenly the impossible seemed within reach as the Steelers did their job and took care of the down-and-out Browns. The late afternoon game that followed pitted the Chargers, needing a win to get in, against the already playoff-bound and position locked Chiefs. Though Kansas City sported an 11-4 record coming in and may have normally been favored, the game was meaningless to them and therefore coach tomato, er, Reid decided to rest all his starters rather than risk injury thus leaving the Chargers with a cakewalk into the playoffs against a bunch of second-stringers. You should read Bill Barnwell's account of the Chargers' day over at Grantland, but suffice it to say the Chargers needed a missed FG and penalty call to get to overtime and then an even more bizarre fake-punt which looked like a fumble returned for a winning touchdown by the Chiefs called back on forward progress to sustain their game winning field goal drive. Elsewhere, the Patriots joined the Broncos as bye-week benificiaries as winners of the East and West with a win over the Bills, and the Colts locked up a date with the wildcard Chiefs as the winners of the South.

Wildcard Weekend - Of epic comebacks, bizzarro universes, playoff futility and an Arctic vortex

Kansas City Chiefs @ Indianapolis Colts - Shrug off losing a third of your offense on the sixth play of the game (Jamaal Charles), pass the superhero cape to Alex Smith and jump out to a 38-10 lead. Then, remember you are the Chiefs, haven't won a playoff game in 20 years in an 0-7 stretch, your coach is Andy Reid who couldn't manage time even if it weren't linear, and watch Andrew Luck snatch the cape and play catch with T.Y. Hilton as they lead the Colts to a 45-44 win. NFL playoff record 1,049 combined yards.
New Orleans Saints @ Philadelphia Eagles - Nearly the mirror image of the early Saturday game, the Saints show they can win on the road in the cold with Drew Brees playing poorly as the Saints held the league's #2 offense to only 256 yards while racking up 185 yards on the ground spearheaded by heretofore first round bust Mark Ingram and some guy named Khiry Robinson.
San Diego Chargers @ Cincinnati Bengals - There's good Andy Dalton and awful Andy Dalton. The awful one keeps showing up in the playoffs: three playoff appearances in three years with zero wins and six interceptions. The Bengals QB added a fumble to his two picks on this cold, soggy Sunday meaning Philip Rivers only needed to throw for 128 yards in the victory as the Bolts' RBs combined for 196 yards.
San Francisco 49ers @ Green Bay Packers - With temperatures falling towards 0° F (so what does that mean? -50° C? Bloody Americans and their bizarre measurements) the game had the feel of a heavyweight fight with the Niners left standing as Colin Kaepernick remembered he was a running QB and moved to 3-0 against the Packers. A textbook five minute drive for a last second field goal.

Divisional Round - In which brains fart, luck runs out, Superman's cape is swiped and destiny is duped

New Orleans Saints @ Seattle Seahawks - After demolishing the Saints at home 34-7 just six weeks prior, rainy, windy Seattle once again welcomed New Orleans. The Seahawks only managed to jump to a 13-0 lead three plays into the second quarter after being up 17-0 at the same point in the previous match up but a steady diet of Marshawn Lynch, who bulldozed his way to 104 of his 140 rushing yards between the tackles, allowed the 'Hawks to hang on to a 23-15 win thanks in part to this bizarre Marques Colston brain fart.
Indianapolis Colts @ New England Patriots - Seemed Andrew Luck wanted to replay the script from the Chief win, throwing an early pick (four on the day) to hand the Patriots an early 14-0 lead but he didn't count on the transformation of this Patriots team into a power running steamroller, grinding and gashing out all six of the touchdowns on the ground (plus a 2-point conversion) on 243 rushing yards (LaGarrette Blount with four on 166). Brady and Belichek head to their eighth conference championship together with a 43-22 thrashing of the Colts.
San Francisco 49ers @ Carolina Panthers - The Panthers defense smothered the Niners November 9th 10-9 but the roles were reversed as the Niners D picked off Cam Newton twice, sacked him five times and stuffed the Panthers on the 1-yard line twice in the first half, including a pivotal fourth down stop. Cam's Superman outfit seemed to fit Niners' QB Colin Kaepernick just fine in the 23-10 win.
San Diego Chargers @ Denver Broncos - After improbably beating the Broncos at Mile High to spark their improbable playoff charge in week 15, the Chargers came in with the feeling of a team of destiny (fun fact: the previous five Superbowl winners had begun their season with a game against the Eagles. Who played the Eagles to begin the year? The Chargers). Yet, destiny and another strong defensive performance against the Broncos weren't enough as Manning came through when it mattered and the Bolts offense was anemic for three quarters before a late rally brought them within a touchdown only to fall short, 24-17.

Conference Championships - When Welker channels Belichek and Kap's cape slips

Patriots @ Broncos - Neither CBS nor the story books could have dreamed up a better match-up, Brady versus Manning. Again. The 15th meeting and fourth in the AFC final with Brady coming in up 10-4 and 2-1 respectively. Sadly, the game didn't live up to the hype as the Patriots didn't even put up much of a fight nor duplicate their amazing week 12 comeback OT victory over the Broncos thanks to Brady's atypically poor play, a more-than-questionable Wes Welker pick play that took out Aqib Talib (hmmm, wonder where Welker learned to do that Bill?) and a series of clock chewing drives orchestrated by Manning allowing him to even up the championship record at two wins apiece thanks to a 26-16 victory.
49ers @ Seahawks - Another perfect pairing as an all out, old school, knock 'em down, drag 'em out slugfest was all but guaranteed. The game was bookended by turnovers, an opening play fumble by 'Hawk QB Russell Wilson and a game sealing interception of Niner QB Colin Kaepernick off a Richard Sherman tip in the Seahawk endzone in the most exciting game since the Wildcard round. Kaepernick ran for 130 yards but had three fourth quarter turnovers while Wilson was steady and Seahawk beast Marshawn Lynch picked up 109 yards and a TD in the 23-17 victory.

Super Bowl 

You couldn't ask for more on paper. A pair of 13-3 (now 15-3) teams; the best offense led by the best quarterback in a passing league against the best defense in a sport where defenses are said to win championships. The tale of the tape would have to give the Broncos the nod at QB. The league-wide passing rating this year was 84.1, the highest in history. As a comparison, Roger Staubach lead the NFL in 1978 with an 84.9 rating! Manning registered a 115.1 in the regular season, but it was the records that made his year special. Meanwhile, Russell Wilson managed a 101.2, putting him over the century mark for his first two season while becoming the winningest 2nd year QB in league history. At twelve years and 250 days, the age differential between the two will set a new Super Bowl record, breaking the Kurt Warner/Ben Roethlisberger record by almost two years. If we take into account Wilson's mobility and we take heed of Peyton's age, wobbly neck and 0-4 record in playoff games with kick off temperatures under 40° F, the Broncos advantage becomes a near wash as it should be around freezing come game time Sunday.

Have I mentioned how perfect a pairing these teams are? Seriously, it's been 23 years, Jim Kelly leading the Bills against the Giants, since the #1 offense has played the #1 defense in the big dance. There's been some classics but you couldn't draw it up any better than this. There's tons of marquee matchups in this game, Manning vs Wilson, Beast Mode up against Pot Roast, but let's face it, the pivotal battle will be between the Broncos' ball catchers, WRs Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas, and the Seahawk secondary, "The Legion of Boom" of Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Earl Thomas, Jeremy Lane and Kam Chancellor. Whichever group plays better will likely determine the winner. The Seahawks had a league-leading 28 interceptions which helped the team also lead with a +20 turnover ratio. Their ball-hawking (who knew puns were so fun) ways come courtesy of their aggressiveness as they challenge receivers on the outside while playing zone around them. Some say the 'Hawks clutchy-grabby ways fall on the wrong side of the rule book, but regardless, it'll be interesting to see how the Broncos receivers deal with it.

The Seahawk receiving core should get a major upgrade with the return of Percy Harvin which could tip the scale in their favor going up against the Broncos' secondary, the weakest link in their defense playing without Chris Harris. Harvin, Seattle's major off-season acquisition, has only appeared in a couple of games following hip surgery, including less than a quarter against the head-hunting Saints in the divisional round, for a grand total of 37 snaps. Along with his fellow receivers, regular season team reception leader Golden Tate, NFC Championship heroes Doug Baldwin (six for 106) and Jermaine Kearse (game-winning grab), and TE Zach Miller, they've got more talent than the coverage which will put pressure on the Broncos front seven to, well, put pressure on Wilson.

They've been dominant  in the playoffs even minus Von Miller, holding the Chargers and streaking Patriots running attack to an average of 64.5 yards. Former Jaguar coach now Broncos' defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is making his boss GM John Elway look like a genius for his part in luring Terrance 'Pot Roast' Knighton to Denver from Jacksonville as he's been the key to not only stuffing the opponents run but even made a pivotal sack on Tom Brady two weeks ago. Lining up against the rotating weakest link of Paul McQuistan and James Carpenter at LG, Pot Roast will be a disruptive force in the middle. Center Max Unger will have to slide over to help but Seattle can't afford to devote too much otherwise they'll open things up for Broncos' LB Danny Trevathan who has turned around an embarrassing start to the season when he pulled a Leon Lett. Shoddy play often characterized the whole defense much of the season as the team kept winning in spite of the defense, including a 51-48 shootout victory over the Cowboys, or even losing because of them as in the comeback loss to the Patriots after leading 24-0. In their last four games they've given up more than 100 fewer yards per game compared to their first 14.

Looking at the stats, the ground game seems to be becoming meaningless; there were only 13 running backs who hit the 1,000 yard mark this year, down from 16 last year and 23 in 2006. However, Marshawn Lynch will be a difference-maker; if the Broncos' defense can dominate the line the way the Cardinals did against Seattle in week 16, they'll win. Next to Manning, Knowshon Moreno doesn't seem quite so pivotal, but their three-headed attack which also includes Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman do have the benefit of a great blocking offensive line. The Seahawks should have some success pounding the ball behind Okung or on the edges while look for Moreno et al. to have some space as they run the no-huddle and employ spread formations to keep the Seahawks smaller defenders on the field. Remember, Seattle's run defense was 'only' seventh in the league and gave up 100+ yards 11 times. To stuff the run they'll need to find ways to keep their version of Pot Roast, Brandon Mebane, on the field. Denver's O-line only allowed the immobile Manning to be sacked 20 times but this speaks more to Peyton's pre-snap reads, Omahas and quick decisions, releasing passes a league-low 2.36 seconds after the snap. They'll have their hands full with a Seahawk team that produced 44 regular sacks and the versatile defensive end/linebacker hybrids Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril and Bruce Irvin while Michal Bennett has a match-up advantage over guard Zane Beadles.
  
With weather being a factor, there's a good chance it'll be turnovers or the third phase of the game, special teams, that'll be the determining factor. Even without the cold, you only have to think back to Jacoby Jones' kick return TD last year for the Ravens or the Saints' onside kick a few years ago. After showing up on the injury report a few days ago, Broncos' kicker Matt Prater has gotten over the flu and seems ready to show off his NFL record holding range. He's hit on 30 of 32 this year through the playoff while the Seahawks' Steven Hauschka has been even more money, hitting an astounding 39 of 41 through 18 games. There should be fewer touchbacks in the cold meaning more returns which will put Trinidad Holiday in the spotlight for the Broncos. The small-statured speed merchant, who'll handle punts as well, has had four touchdowns in two years for Denver but he's also fumbled ten times. It's hard to say for sure, but I'll bet the Seahawks will wheel out Percy Harvin for at least a few returns despite his fragility, it's the Super Bowl after all. He was only the league's leading returner in 2011 and '12 for the Vikings and managed this beauty against his former team the only time he suited up in the regular season. Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin are no slouches themselves, so, advantage Seattle.

If you think having been there before helps, the Broncos have the advantage as they'll field four players to the Seahawks zero with Super Bowl experience: Peyton Manning, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Wes Welker and Jacob Tamme. It won't, Manning's the only one to have won and the cold will limit his effectiveness Sunday. Though I'm loath to do it, after all, over the years I've called the Seattle team everything from the Seachickens to the Shithawks while being forced to suffer through all too many Sunday afternoon games as theirs was inevitably the only game being broadcast when I was growing up in Alberta, I'm picking the Seahawks to upset the favorite Broncos, straight up and of course against the spread.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Abhorrent Anniversary Gifts

Chances are you forgot to buy a present again this year, after all, anniversaries are hard to remember. What with the aftermath of that whole another former Disney girl goes off the rails thing, the release of another copy of a phone that'll make your life better and the anticipation of another brown people massacre, you could be forgiven for forgetting given the buzz surrounding Miley's strange twerking, Apple's chain jerking and Obama's postponed berserking. As if that weren't enough, there's always America's monthly mass shooting, the release of a video game glorifying said killing while looting or some kind of sporting event featuring flag saluting or home team rooting. Yes, it seems the official narrative of the Great Recession has sanctified September 15th, 2008 as the day the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) began with the failure of Lehman Brothers. On cue, the distraction industry inundated those still paying attention with a slew of stories to perpetuate this myth, ranging in theme from the horror of the meltdown to how it couldn't have been predicted to hagiographies of those who saved us from even greater disaster and how the world of finance has changed since, thus ensuring it couldn't happen again. Nearly all miss the point and couldn't be more wrong as all we had to do was open up the newly released Fortune 400 list of richest Americans to see the cause, how nothing's changed and that the worst is yet to come.

Though many will be cheered and applaud the newest Fortune list, the inequality in wealth that it illustrates was not only the disease at the root of the crisis but a sure sign that like a malignant cancer it is metastasizing. Hooray! Bill Gates is still the richest man in America and passed Carlos Slim to reclaim the #1 slot in the world. Mark Zucherberg's wealth jumped almost $10 billion to get him back into the top 20 so you can rest easy, all those hours you've spent on Facebook weren't wasted. Warren Buffet, the Oracle of Omaha, had the biggest dollar gain while some schmoe named David Duffield, co-CEO of some outfit called Workday had the biggest percentage rise. All told, the wealth of the richest 400 in America climbed from $1.7 trillion to $2.02 trillion in a single year making them worth more than such economies as Canada, Mexico and Russia. Hooray that is until you realize where this mind-boggling wealth is coming from and for that all you had to do was notice what stock prices did this September 18th when the Fed announced it was going to continue its $85 billion monthly bond buying program, AKA quantitative easing 3, AKA printing money to buy assets from banks at book value instead of  market value, AKA providing a massive tax payer subsidy to the stock market.

Fortunately for the attention span challenged, the past couple of weeks have also seen a couple of other reports highlighting the financial situation of the rest of the country. The US census bureau's report on income and poverty was full of sobering stats, but the most telling were regarding poverty and median income leaving people angry, disgusted and frustrated. Now, I'll grant you the fact that these statistics are subject to manipulation and often don't compare well over time, but the raw numbers are shocking in themselves. The poverty rate remained above 15%, some 46.5 million people; meanwhile children are the poorest group, 21.8% (the highest in the industrial world) or 16.1 million children under 18, and the younger, the poorer as 25.1% of kids under 5, the years of greatest brain development, were poor. Meanwhile, the median household income was unchanged from the previous year, not so bad in itself until you notice this means the household that falls in the exact middle of the income range, with half the families in the country earning more and half less, earns less than they did in 1989, a quarter century of stagnation.

These details are important when one wants to discuss inequality as many free market believers will close their ears upon hearing the word as visions of Marxist hordes coming to take away their money flash before their eyes. Ironically, the previous two paragraphs illustrate Marx's theories to a tee as the former shows how well capital is doing while the latter paints a grim picture of labour's situation. As America's 2nd richest man, the aforementioned Oracle, said "[t]here's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning." It's not my purpose today to get into the nitty-gritty of this war, you can check out how it was waged here, here, here, here, here or here, but to look at the conscious choice we made five years ago to continue the slaughter along with how and why things will continue to get worse if nothing is done to stem the tide.

Back to our anniversary. It's five years ago and we've been told the financial world is on the verge of collapse with the implication that there will be mass panic as bank machines refuse to spit out cash, credit lines seize up and pension plans crumble. Not only were bankers and brokers about to start jumping off window ledges, supermarkets soon to run out of food and grandma sure to freeze to death, but horror of horrors, we wouldn't be able to get the new iPhone 2.0! If anybody was to blame besides bankers it was Bush; Dubya had messed up the country and it was time for a change, brand America was due for an overhaul. Lo and behold, there was an election coming, contested between an old white guy who wanted to bomb Iran and a young, black, hip, handsome, debonair, peace loving constitutional law professor. Many (myself included) were blind to the fact that Obama was just another marketing stunt that changed the packaging but not the substance. At the same time he was surrounding himself with an economic team sure to carry on past policies favouring Wall Street and the rich, men such as Emanuel, Geithner, Bernanke and Summers, he had an all-star marketing team including a Facebook founder, a social secretary and David Axelrod who ensured the public wouldn't notice that Goldman Sachs was his campaign's biggest private contributor. Every tool in the marketing arsenal was used to create and sustain the Obama brand from the perfectly calibrated logo to viral marketing, product placement, infomercials and brand alliances.

Yes we can hope and change was nothing but cover for the great con job of the past five years. Sure, My administration," the president added, "is the only thing between you [bankers] and the pitchforks." Yes, the new president would be the greatest reformer since Franklin Roosevelt, the press sold it and the public bought it. Obama the socialist was coming to take away not only the wealth of the rich but everyone's, a fear so strong it spawned the Tea Party. The ultimate irony though is that despite all the noise, vile and bile directed against him by the rich, Obama left their great money making machine pretty much intact as he told the bankers behind closed doors "[y]ou guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help…I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…. I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger." Help and shield he did, enabling the greatest transfer of wealth, from the bottom up, in history.
Obama played the populist card when he had to with the help of the star-struck press. Stories of the president hauling in the heads of the 13 largest financial institutions to explain their actions and justify their sky-high salaries and bonuses were peppered with quotes to justify our faith: "

While millions were losing their homes and jobs, trillions were pledged to prop up the rich, the banks and corporations. TARP's $700 billion was quickly followed by trillions in loans and guarantees to the likes of McDonald's, Harley Davidson and UBS, $1.75 trillion in bond purchases in 2009 for QE1, $600 billion more the following year in QE2, another $400 billion of mortgage purchases in 2011 during 'Operation Twist' and of course the now-always-taper-threatened-in-order-to-allow-insiders-to-profit QE3, the monthly $85 billion in purchases. This back door bailout also includes six years of artificially low, near zero interest rates and the implicit guarantee that the government will step in and save them if necessary. Meanwhile, while the government plays back door man to the rich, we play the cuckold, getting screwed over, footing the bills and getting left out in the cold, some literally, thanks to the never-ending debt ceiling budget battles this profligacy along with Dubya's wars and 30 years of tax cuts for the rich have led to. The enormous shift in power away from labour has allowed capital to further squeeze jobs and wages from the lower and the middle classes. As late as 1980, economists believed labour's share of national income was pretty much fixed, but since that time it has slowly dwindled (not just in America). More money is flowing to corporate profits (and thus shareholders, ie. capital) than ever before while an ever larger slice of the smaller pie left to labour is being served to those at the top of the income scale. The result is obviously growing inequality.

Which brings us to another recently released study of note, Emmanual Saez's 2012 US inequality report, Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States. Sadly, it brings no surprises, only confirmation of the suspicions of those paying attention; inequality is getting worse, itself no surprise as inequality feeds on itself in a vicious circle. After a brief drop immediately following the GFC, thanks in large part to policies that could have no other result, the top 1% of income earners have captured 95% of the income gains in the first three years of the so-called recovery, leaving America's income distribution more unequal than any time since records have been kept. The proportion of income going to the richest decile broke through the 50% mark for the first time ever while that going to that top 1% increased from 19.65% to 22.46% in just one year. In case you're wondering, the share going to the top 0.01% jumped from 4.32% to 5.47%, the largest percentage increase since 1927-1928. However, this inequality is dwarfed by that of wealth, perfectly encapsulated by this video. But wait, so what, right? Some people win, some lose, that's the way capitalism works.

Right. But wrong. Huh? Well, the thing is, capitalism and thus society works better when inequality isn't so severe as can be seen in many ways. The first and most obvious is to look at the history of income distribution, the chart above that practically forms, in the words of Robert Reich, a suspension bridge. Before a new standard was set last year, inequality had peaked in 1928 and then again in 2007. It's no coincidence the Great Depression followed the former in 1929 and the GFC followed the latter in 2008 as the majority of the population simply don't have enough purchasing power necessary to maintain a consumer economy. Worse, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pinkett convincingly demonstrated the link between inequality and a wide range of social ills such as teenage births, homicides, obesity, lower educational achievement, drug use, mental illness and infant mortality rates in their book The Spirit Level. Not only do they show the link, they dispell the "correlation is not causation" complaint by showing the same effects between countries as well as within countries finding the same correlation among the 50 US states.

Perhaps most ironically of all, as America moves its way up the inequality charts, the most American story of all, the rags to riches, Horatio Alger, land of opportunity parable, slowly dies. As "The Great Gatsby Curve" illustrates, the more unequal the economy, as measured by the GINI index, the more closely children's income is tied to that of their parents. The US already has one of the lowest earning elasticities (how much a father's income affects their offspring's) in the developed world, and as it becomes more unequal this affect will only worsen. Social mobility has become a thing of the past in much of America, the chances of someone born into the lowest economic quintile in Atlanta has a 4% chance of reaching the top 20%. One study suggested that the loss of life from income inequality in the US in 1990 was the equivalent of the combined loss of life due to lung cancer, diabetes, motor vehicle accidents, HIV infection, suicide and homicide.

The reason for the negative economic and social effects of inequality is bundled up with why the phenomenon seems to feed on itself, getting worse and worse. Inequality increases economic insecurity for those at the bottom while transforming wealth into political power for those at the top. The proletariat, er, the 99%, er, well, the majority of us are forced to fight for fewer jobs, which pay less and offer less security, thus upping the stress. The official unemployment rate may be down but the labour-force participation rate is also down, at a 35 year low, as new jobs haven't kept up with population growth. The jobs created are paying less on average, with less hours than those lost in the GFC. Those who kept their job have most likely had their hours and benefits cut and are probably earning the same or less as five years ago but are happy now just to have a job. If you don't have a job you are shamed as being lazy, someone gaming the system, a taker (or skiver for you Brits) coasting on the beneficence of the rich. These makers (yeah, there's a British version too, strivers), ensure the only legislation that passes protects their power and/or expands GDP, like blowing brown people up, creating a crazy health care system centered on insurance or passing new free trade deals such the upcoming TPP which will lower wages for 90% of workers.

There were of course a couple other significant anniversaries that have passed in the past couple weeks that illustrate the corrosiveness of inequality on empathy and imagination: 9/11, both the 12th and the 40th and Occupy Wall Street's 2nd. Whether created or not, the only answer to the fear that was produced by the terrorist strikes in America a dozen years ago could ever be blowing stuff up as not only does it enrich those buying the election but also because those at the top are no longer able to understand the Other. Mirror neurons, which allow us to get into the heads of others, seem to reflect better for the powerless but much worse for the powerful. In simpler terms, the rich and powerful have less empathy helping explain the results of a study last year showing the rich are more likely to lie, cheat and even take candy from children. Amassing great wealth breeds an arrogance made even more harmful given the with us or against us atmosphere of the GFC and war on terror. Worse, those in power thanks to their wealth know they won't need to sacrifice anything as only poor people's children fight and die in wars. Thus the public ignores both the epidemic of returning GI suicides and the near doubling of suicide rates in the past 10 years for the general public aged between 50 and 59; used up by war and used up by the GFC.

The CIA helping Pinochet take out Allende in Chile in 1973 turned another possible socialist success story (I know there haven't been any yet) into a laboratory for the Chicago Boys to study free market economics. Ever wonder where economists got their field research to test and try to prove their wacky theories? Chile was the real ground zero. Allende's mistake was trying to give the wealth of the nation back to the people when everyone knows mulinational corporations are the only actors rational enough to control it properly. Er, wait, that's right, thanks to folks like Gary Becker, people are rational actors constantly making rational economic choices in a world of equal knowledge and power as we make our way through a world filled with attempts to alter our decision making process, ie. advertising. How is that supposed to work again? Wouldn't it be great if we all really did have equal information and power to make this fiction possible? Oops, that sounds like socialism, sorry guys. By the way, why didn't many people notice that John Kerry met with Henry Kissinger, a man intimitately involved with the events of September 11th, 1973, on September 11th this year to discuss Syria?

In What Money Can't Buy, Michael Sandel puts forward the argument that without realizing, debating or noticing it we have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society. What was once a tool for organizing productive activity has become a way of life allowing market values to usurp moral values. Particularly in America, but more and more around the world thanks to austerity, market values have penetrated every part of our world, from education to politics, health to war. Students are paid to get good grades, admissions to elite universities are auctioned and the whole idea of education has been transformed from gaining knowledge into job training. The arts, philosophy and non-financially lucrative scientific fields are shunned in favor of finance, public relations and programming. With student loan debt of almost $30,000, the average graduate can't afford to believe in anything that won't get them a well paid job. Seems like slavery to me but instead economic freedom is being able to bet on people dying by buying people's life insurance; the gamble lies in the higher payoff the sooner the insured die.

Obscene wealth and growing inequality have separated us from each other creating an ever growing empathy deficit. It's not only gated communities, private beaches and exclusive restaurants anymore as barriers are being thrown up all around us. Sports have traditionally been about competion but also about bringing people together, be they teams, cities or nations, societies large and small. As recently as 1980, we'd go to a ball game at a stadium named for a public figure where one would rub shoulders with Joe Six pack and Richie Rich as tickets prices ranged from a couple of bucks for bleacher seats to a few dollars for the best seats in the house and root for our home town heroes. Today we go to InsertCorporation Stadium, segregate ourselves according to wealth to the bleachers, box seats or luxury boxes, to cheer for a team threatening to change cities if their owners aren't granted more public concessions, made up of free agents who change teams for raises of tens of millions. While there, we're as likely to be discussing transfer fees and salary cap restructuring as we are ERAs or wins and losses. An institution that was a source of civic pride and social glue has been transformed removing a bond that held us together, in the words of Sandel -
In fact, for most of the twentieth century, ballparks were places where corporate executives sat side by side with blue-collar workers, where everyone waited in the same lines to buy hot dogs or beer, and where rich and poor alike got wet if it rained. In the last few deades, however, this has changed. The advent of the skybox suites high above the field of play has separated the affluent and the priviliged from the common folk in the stands below.
As for Occupy, another potential source of human contact and feeling of community, well thanks to the wilting of the collective imagination, how you view it solely depends on where you get your news. They might have just been a gang of smelly hedonists looking for a good time as evidenced by their lack of a coherent message or the nudge that awoke a glimmer of public consciousness to the problems of inequality. The reason for the ferocity of both the media propaganda machine and the coordinated nationwide military style attacks on the movement was the importance of convincing people, particularly those who would be activists, that there's no hope to change anything, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rather than entering the humanities to expand their minds, today's youth, the imagination of tomorrow, are streaming into the indoctrination machine. In 2006, just before the GFC, 25% of graduating seniors at Harvard, 24% at Yale and a mind blowing 46% at Princeton were starting their careers in financial services. The creation and maintenance of a reality where everything is only about profit and there's nothing else to believe in.

No wonder wealth reduces compassion. The self interest needed to survive in a system of such extreme inequality not only drives financially measurable crimes from petty theft to hiding $32 trillion in tax havens forming a fraction of the tax evasion industry or pseudo-financially-measurable-for-bank crimes such as laundering terrorist money and world wide interest rate manipulation, it rips at the fabric holding societies together. Gun nuts are right, it's not just guns that kill people, it's a system that glorifies greed driving people over the edge. American exceptionalism in terms of inequality is becoming as dangerous to itself as their military version is to the world yet strangely much of the world seems to want to emulate their uniqueness. Chilean economist Manfred Max Neef has claimed that "[t]his economy can go on no longer…because it has become absolutely criminal…this economic model is killing more people in the world than all the armies put together" and has proposed an economic crimes tribunal to mete out justice. He's also part of the King of Bhutan's General Assembly working to develop a new economic paradigm based on well-being, happiness, ecological stability, adequate distribution of wealth and intelligent use of natural resources. Basically, the opposite of what we do now so it must be worth a shot. 

Chances are, however, nothing much will come of it as most people are trapped in a never ending cycle, forced to work to simply survive and are voiceless in a world where power only listens to money. We were given the opportunity five years ago to change the world for the better but were instead fed a pipedream of hope and change. It seems a type of madness to try sustain a broken system, our current suicidal economic model of infinite growth, in a manner that seems designed to fail, but that's just what's happening. Budgets need to be cut when it's spending that goes to the needy, yet the US government continues to subsidize the rich to the tune of over $1 trillion per year. Capital is winning the struggle with labour, whose spending drives the economy. Left with so little, labour can simply survive, not thrive. In 1947, labour's share of US nonfarm business income was 65%, in 2000, 63%; in 2013 it's 57%. This shifts about $750 billion annually from the workers to the rentiers. The age of austerity offers little hope for today's youths, burdensome tuition indebtedness, worklessness, homelessness and powerlessness, virtually guaranteeing mass shootings will become a daily occurrence, in fact America's almost there already. If only this infection was contained to the US it may not be so bad but in a study of 22 other advanced countries it was found labour's share of income fell from 73% in 1980 to 65% in 2011, a trend occurring in poorer countries as well.

Perhaps the decades of shared prosperity in America from WWII until the late 70's that created a thriving middle class was simply a historical fluke due to unique circumstances, after all, most of human history has featured but two classes, the aristocracy and the peasants. We've forgotten the battle that took place in order to create the institutions that enabled this historical anomaly known as the middle class and are passively allowing the system to be dismantled as we stare blankly into our propaganda screens, be they TV, tablet or telephone. The tension is all around us; politically, partisanship rules the day as the likes of Citizens United has made the voice of the few louder than the many; economically, finance rules the day as the rentiers extract rents from the rabble; socially, we've become zombified by those aforementioned screens, disillusioned by a dollarocracy masquerading as democracy and indebted by an economic system that forces you to borrow to eat, sleep, learn or even get sick. The World Economic Forum (you know, those rich guys who meet in Davos every year) listed severe economic disparity at the top of their Global Risks 2013 report. President Obama was forced to admit that "[t]he folks in the middle and at the bottom haven't seen wage or income growth, not just over the last three, four years, but over the last 15 years," only to have it suggested later in the same interview that "[m]aybe a president just can't stop this accelerating inequality?".

This is exactly what the elite want us to believe, that no one can do anything about inequality, that it is a natural occurrence that 'incentivizes' effort. What if we could show them that even their lives would be better in a more equitable society? Woah! Wait, if you could do that what would the cognitive dissonance of working against their own self interest do to their brains? The same thing that should happen to the rest of us when we realize the neoliberal fairy tale of supply side, trickle down economics is just that, a fable, and scream the emperor has no clothes. Bankers shouldn't earn more than teachers and nurses, four members of one family shouldn't have more wealth than the combined wealth of just under the 50 million poorest American families and resources need to be allocated to those who are forced to start behind others. Intuitively, absolute poverty causes negative health and social outcomes, but unfortunately it is slightly less so regarding inequality leading to the 'so what' attitude of so many. Yet, 'status anxiety' or insecurity seems real enough in a society that places people in a hierarchy which increases competition for status and causes stress, leading to poor health and other negative outcomes such as the falling life expectancy of poor white women in the southeast of America, surprise, where inequality is highest. Too bad we seem to have lost our empathy, otherwise we might try to do something about it. Well, at least tell your friends to go see this movie -

Thursday, September 5, 2013

That Time of Year

Since fleeing North America more than a decade ago I've lost touch with most everything back home, from friends and family to TV and celebrity culture to Kraft Dinner and maple syrup. Sure, there's Facebook and Skype, the odd movie and cartoon as well as the occasional Big Mac and peanut butter sandwich, but the most solid connection that's kept me plugged into the rhythm of American life is the NFL. Along with relaxed vacation days and weeks of August always comes the current of training camp preparations for fantasy drafts and opening day. This year's no different, though the NFL marketing gurus will once again mess with my internal clock by starting the season on Thursday night as the Baltimore Ravens open up their Super Bowl defense against the Denver Broncos September 5th. With May Day's illegitimate propaganda offspring Labor Day falling on the 2nd this year I suppose they had no choice but it still messes with my vacation. Don't they know it's hard to write a proper post from the beach? There's no time, but while I've been a most inconsistent blogger, I've managed to maintain a biannual NFL posting tradition with a preseason and pre-Super Bowl post for four years running and this year's no different, so let's get down to it.

AFC North

Every year brings something new, this one not only a new format (running through divisions starting with the Super Bowl champs' along with a hit or miss quick team take) but also a new defending champ. Yeah, the Ravens gutted out the silverware last year, outlasting the upstart 49ers in a good, if not epic, Superbowl. No better place to start really as the AFC North really exemplifies American smashmouth football and looks to be as competitive as any this year.

Cincinnati Bengals - 10-6
Hit - WR AJ Green and rookie TE combine for over 20 TDs while rookie RB Giovani Bernard subpoenas, er, supplants the Law Firm at RB and the defense continues the play that has carried the team to back-to-back playoff appearances.
Miss - QB Andy Dalton plays like the ginger he is and the team's long term contract negotiations with the league's best 4-3 defensive tackle, Geno Atkins, fall apart.
Baltimore Ravens - 9-7
Hit - Ed Dickson becomes Joe Flacco's new Dennis Pita, Jacoby Jones' proves his playoff heroics weren't a one-time wonder, Ray Rice morphs into a part-time slot receiver giving Bernard Pierce more reps while newcomers Elvis Dumervill, the Ravens' first four draft picks and Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb returning all the way from injury keep the Ravens D as scary as ever.
Miss - The loss of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pita prove too much to overcome.
Pittsburgh Steelers - 8-8
Hit - Rookie RB Le'Veon Bell is the bruising hurdler he was at Wisconsin and Ben Roethlisberger stays rape and injury free while the defense finds a way to make it six years running being among the top five yards against teams without James Harrison.
Miss - Without WR Mike Wallace to stretch opposing defenses, the offense collapses on itself, Ben finds himself in another bathroom bar with another chick and Troy Polamalu can't suit up for half a dozen games.
Cleveland Browns - 6-10
Hit - Trent Richardson becomes Jim Brown and rookie defensive end Barkevious Mingo beats out teammate D'Qwell Jackson for world's dumbest name.
Miss - Soon-to-be 30-year old 2nd year QB Brandon Wheeden keeps throwing pitches into defensive linemen's arms and WR Josh Gordon keeps spending more time getting high than going high.

Yep, the past five years have seen five different Super Bowl winners and February 2, 2014 will bring a sixth. We've mentioned it before but it's worth harping about again as the reason for the competitive nature of the NFL is the ironic fact that America's favorite sport is its most socialist. Through salary caps and redistribution the NFL has achieved a Marxist sporting utopia. Joe Flacco led his team to a championship so the team had to pay to keep him, and by giving him what was the largest contract in league history (since surpassed by Aaron Rogers) they were forced to cut back elsewhere. Strangely enough, thanks to loopholes and crypic clauses, the Ravens weren't forced to make so many of the cuts to save money this year, but they'll pay the price in the future, a story that may seem familiar to folks from Detroit to Greece.

This is of course not to say the system doesn't have it's problems, after all it exists within the realm of America's broken crony capitalist system. In the classic Horatio Alger rags to riches, er, make that modern-day American Dream of winning the genetic lottery, Cleveland Brown's owner Jimmy Haslam was born the son of 'Big Jim' Haslam, founder of a single gas station that grew into Pilot Flying J, the largest truck-stop chain in North America. Jimmy's brother Bill grew up to be governor of Tennessee in 2011. Anyway, Jimmy's chain was running a rebate scam on their customers and the feds are moving up the management chain trying to pin the blame. Meanwhile, another trust fund baby, Minnesota Viking's owner Zygi Wilf, has just been found liable for breaking civil state racketeering laws and in the judges words had used "bad faith and evil motive" in keeping separate accounting books to fleece former business partners of shared revenue.

Now no one's claiming Jimmy's been screwing over Brown's fans (well, any more than they're used to at least) or that Zygi's been hatching nefarious plots in the land of 10,000 lakes (well, ok, maybe when it comes to funding the new stadium) but anything that may tarnish the NFL image is frowned upon by the commissioner and owners. Have no fear, however, at this point it appear neither case will have any effect on the day-to-day operations of the teams. After all, it's not like they killed anybody. Oops, getting ahead of myself...

AFC South

In the south the song remains the same, though more likely something with a Texan twang. Many will jump on the Colts bandwagon forgetting they've got a new coach and not realizing the huge role luck, along with Luck, played in their success winning so many close games last year. Meanwhile, the Titans seem destined for perpetual mediocrity while the Jaguars will remain declawed until they find a QB not named Blaine or Chad.

Houston Texans - 10-6
Hit - Rookie WR DeAndre Hopkins compliments the Andre Johnson and Brian Cushing comes back completely from his torn ACL.
Miss - Arian Foster's NFL leading 1,061 carries over the last three years catch up to him and JJ Watt is the only guy playing defense.
Indianapolis Colts - 9-7
Hit - Free agent RB Ahmad Bradshaw can find running room without interior blocking and Andrew Luck turns Darrius Heyward-Bey into a reliable receiver.
Miss - Age finally catches up with WR Reggie Wayne and the defense without Dwight Freeney plays even worse than last year.
Tennessee Titans - 8-8
Hit - The improved offensive line bring the return of CJ2K and the young and talented WRs turn Jake Locker into an NFL quarterback.
Miss - Plodding free agent pickup Shonn Greene outgains Chris Johnson and WR Kenny Britt winds up in jail.
Jacksonville Jaguars - 4-12
Hit - A fully healthy Maurice Jones Drew racks up 1,500 rushing yards, Justin Blackman, Cecil Shorts and rookie RB/WR hybrid Denard Robinson combine for 150 receptions and 2,500 yards.
Miss - The QB is Blaine Gabbert so the above can't happen.

The division favorite Texans find themselves tied with the Rams at the bottom of the league in one category where it's good to be last - arrests since 2000. As the chart on the right shows, the flip side top spot is shared by the Bengals and the Vikings (nice infographic here breaking down the incidents, teams and resolutions). The division that leads the league is the AFC West while the NFC West seems to be the best behaved, indicative of the fact that the AFC is ahead of the NFC in this category.

Unsurprisingly, the league has its statisticians and lackeys working overtime to show that though there may be some arrests, NFL players don't get arrested any more than the general population. Well, not really general population but Americans, the most arrested people in the world, men the most arrested gender and young men, the most, well you know. Face it, the best football this summer came out of Florida where it was announced that the naming rights to the Florida Atlantic University football stadium had been awarded to the GEO Group. No, not a bank profiting off the debt slavery of the students but a private prison company, the second biggest in America, reaping the rewards of the new Jim Crow while violating their inmates' human rights. Unfortunately, the news led to protest by those bothersome students and the deal was nixed. No worries, the bigger fish in the game, Correction Corporation of America, is sure to be on the lookout for an NFL stadium to sink its teeth into.

AFC East

What was traditionally an ultra competitive division is beginning to look more and more like the NFC West circa-2009 as any team sporting better than a .500 record will win this division. The Pats should manage that and more while the Dolphins and Bills both could battle for mediocrity and the Jets continue to spiral down toward a crash landing.

New England Patriots - 11-5
Hit - It turns out Tom Brady doesn't even need anyone to throw to as they open the season minus their top 5 receivers from last year.
Miss - Tim Tebow takes more than 10 snaps at QB thus nullifying the team's advantage of being in the same division as his former team, the J-E-T-S, Jets!
Miami Dolphins - 8-8
Hit - Free agent speedster Mike Wallace gives 2nd year QB Ryan Tannehill the boost he needs and Cameron Wake keeps the defense strong.
Miss - I could try to write something here but why bother, so .500, plus it was done better here.
Buffalo Bills - 7-9
Hit - CJ Spiller gains 2,500 all-purpose yards and EJ Manuel grabs the starting QB spot and shines with two rookies at wideout while the defense gels.
Miss - The Bills are the Bills, after all, they haven't made the playoffs since 1999, the longest current streak in the NFL.
New York Jets - 4-12
Hit - Um, maybe Geno Smith is an RGIII type athlete and Chris Ivory becomes an every down RB.
Miss - The defense outscores the offense.

Hatin' on the Jets is fun. Hating on Jet rookie Oday Aboushi this summer was pure racism. See, he forgot that he plays in a major sports league in America, where they love Israel and hate Palestine because the TeeVee tells them to. Or, in this case, a rag called FrontPage Magazine reported that "NY Jets Player Speaks at Extreme Anti-Israel Conference" which is far less true than saying "US President speaks at Extreme Palestinian Killing Conference" seeing as the conference Aboushi spoke at was organized to promote inspirational Palestinian-American success stories while Obomber spoke to a group of people raising money to buy bombs to kill people.

Making matters worse, the story was picked up and the lies repeated by Yahoo! Sports and amplified when Major League Baseball's media coordinator who tweeted "The @nyjets are a disgrace of an organization. The Patriots have Aaron Hernandez, the Jets have Oday Aboushi", both of which have since been deleted but live on thanks to the intertubes. You'd think journalists would've noticed that a US Congressman, Nick Rahall, spoke at the same event as Aboushi and that a sports media coordinator would avoid equating success stories with murderers but that's the America of today, the same as that of yesterday.

AFC West

There were many Peyton doubters, myself amongst them, but seldom does one man change the fortunes of a team so quickly. Manning's Broncos are being picked by many to go all the way, while the Chargers continue to sink, the Chiefs look likely to start turning things around while the Raiders are still the same, with or without Al Davis.

Denver Broncos - 12-4
Hit - With so many targets, Peyton Manning miraculously avoids becoming a real-life bobblehead for another year while the defense led by Von Miller can thrive despite Elvis (as in Dumervil) having left the building.
Miss - Neither of the young RBs (rookie Montee Ball and 2nd year back Ronnie Hillman) can find holes in a suddenly porous looking centre of the offensive line or anything happens to Peyton and somebody named Brock or Zac wind up taking snaps.
San Diego Chargers - 8-8
Hit - With Norv Turner finally gone there's always hope I suppose.
Miss - Ryan Mathews finds a way to break his collarbone on the first play of the season, AGAIN, leaving Danny Woodhead as the team's most talented player.
Kansas City Chiefs - 7-9
Hit - Some see a worst to first turnaround as new QB Alex Smith and head coach Andy Reid turn elite RB Jamaal Charles and WR Dwayne Bowe into household names and the defense gets out of the league basement in takeaways.
Miss - Andy Reid's problems in Philadelphia were no fluke leading to a rash of parking lot suicides.
Oakland Raiders - 4-12
Hit -Sebastian Janikowski kicks a 73-yard field goal in the dying seconds of week 16 thus ensuring a .500 season.
Miss - Darren McFadden misses every other game with a pulled something or another and Matt Flynn stinks worse than their home O.co Colosseum.

How does a guy making millions playing a game end up behind bars, accused of pumping bullets into his fiancee's sister's boyfriend instead of iron in the gym? Aaron Hernandez's murder charge was the most publicized of what will be around 50 arrests of NFL players since the end of the last regular season. It coulda been the angel dust, mighta been losing his dad at 16 or maybe the fact his mom then married an abusive coke dealer. Most likely though it was the cash, both what he earned and what he earned for others. This Rolling Stone article paints a portrait of a young man who not only, in his own words, "fell off especially after making all that money", but also blames a cast of shady characters for helping to cover up Aaron's past misdeeds. After all, he couldn't help Urban Meyer's Tim Tebow led Gators win college championships or make Robert Kraft millions rotting away in a metal cage. Oops, too late for that I suppose.

NFC North - Oh Canada!

That's right, the CFL invasion has finally begun. Ok, maybe not a full scale invasion but the Dolphins' Cameron Wake must be the best CFL import since Warren Moon and there's a new coach in Chi-town as the Bears try to salvage the train wreck that turned a promising 7-1 start to last season into a 10-6 playoff missing breakdown by bringing in former Montreal Allouette coach Marc Trestman from the CFL where he won two of the last three Grey Cups. Of course he'll find that while the Packers colours are quite similar to the Edmonton Eskimos, the similarities end there as the Detroit Lions ain't the BC Lions and there's no teams called the Roughriders, Blue Bombers or Stampeders.

Green Bay Packers - 11-5
Hit - A healthy Nick Perry compliments Clay Matthews on defense while Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and James Jones each have 1,000 yards receiving and 10 TDs.
Miss -  Eddie Lacy continues the Packer drought at running back
Chicago Bears - 10-6
Hit - Trestman convinces Jay Cutler to finally have brain surgery and the defense dominates without the services of Urlacher and Idonije.
Miss - Brandon Marshall misses any time meaning they can't complete any passes. Seriously, the dude made every Bear reception last year.
Minnesota Vikings - 9-7
Hit - Three first round picks gives them a chance to continue the improvement they made a year ago going from a 3-13 disaster to a 10-6 wild card team especially if Cordarrelle Patterson can replace Percy Harvin.
Miss - Matt Cassels Christian Ponder
Detroit Lions - 7-9
Hit - Lion receivers stop falling down inside the 5-yard line (um, 23 times; Calvin Johnson was downed at the 1-yard line five times), their coach doesn't lose any more games throwing 'illegal' challenge flags and Reggie Bush is more Dolphin like than Saint like.
Miss - Ndamukong Suh keeps kicking QBs in the balls and Matthew Stafford's arm falls off on his 728th pass of the season.

Just a week ago it seemed the over/under (or in this case the before/after) bet on when the latest US bombing of a country run by some bad guy we don't like would have been an easy one had it been for the NFL's opening night though America usually prefers bombing countries closer to the Super Bowl. Obomber's sudden about-face decision to seek permission to blow stuff up from Congress not only achieves the goal of making him appear troubled by the decision but also provides more circus to distract the public. It's easy to confuse long bombs with exploding bombs when watching them on the TeeVee, cheering from the comfort of the couch.

Without permission, From Mexico courtesy of the comment thread at nakedcapitalism.com -
It’s quite amazing to witness this normally clandestine love affair between the Democrats and Republicans blossom into public view. This bursting into bloom only happens, though, when public opinion reveals the lovers’ hand, like what happened with TARP or the current advance on Syria. Both flowered into blitzkriegs on the American people, perpetrated by our newfound Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare’s inamoratos, in comparison to our stealth lovers, were harmless. The pairing of Democrats and Republicans looks a lot more like the will to power achieved in the marriage of Stukas and Panzers, Luftwaffe and storm troopers in Germany’s Wehrmacht than the tragic resolve of Shakespeare’s hapless duo.
NFC South

Not far behind, if not ahead, of the north in terms of competitiveness, the south boasts four great offenses so it'll be on the defensive side of the ball where the division is decided. I know, it's accepted wisdom that the Falcons coming off a 13-3 season and the Saints getting their head coach back will battle for top spot but I'm going out on a limb here and taking the Bucs. Something tells me Matty Ice used up his luck in beating the Seahawks in the divisional round last year and the 'aints 'll always be the 'aints in my book while the Panthers still don't have enough pieces around Cam Newton to push past to the top.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers - 11-5
Hit - Doug Martin ran like he did in his rookie season last year in which he picked up 1,454 yards and 11 TDs, only this time with two returning All-Pro offensive linemen in Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph who will also be protecting Josh Freeman giving him more time to find Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams.
Miss - Mike Glennon ends the year at QB and Revis Island sees more air traffic than Fantasy Island.
Atlanta Falcons - 11-5
Hit - They find a way to make me stop disliking them so much despite all their talent which is doubtful for a team that can managed to blow a 17 point lead in the NFC Championship.
Miss - Steven Jackson makes me stop disliking them and actively hating them.
New Orleans Saints - 10-6
Hit - The return of the bounty program overlord Sean Payton heralds the return of Breesus to the Super Bowl and the city residents are forced to attend mandatory speech therapy sessions; Who Dat, seriously?
Miss - Hiring Rob Ryan to fix the mess that is the Saints defense leads to them giving up more than the 15% more yards than the next worse defense they did last year.
Carolina Panthers - 7-9
Hit - First rounder Star Lotulelei becomes a defensive, well, star and 2013 DeAngelo Williams finds a way to become 2008 DeAngelo Williams.
Miss - Cam Newton takes another step backwards

The Atlanta Falcons were one of a group of teams who decided it was time to give their quarterback way more money than they deserve. Sure, it's become a quarterback's league but this summer saw some ridiculous pay days. One could argue that Aaron Rogers deserves his $130.75 million deal or maybe even Joe Flacco could be sold as meriting his $120.6 million after winning the Super Bowl (the Ravens have to be kicking themselves for not negotiating it earlier) but $119.5 million for Tony Romo, he of the 1-3 playoff record and 0-3 record when a playoff berth is on the line? $103.75 million for Matt Ryan of the 1-4 playoff record? $41.5 million in guaranteed money for the same Matthew Stafford who missed six games in 2009 and all but three games in 2010 due to injury?

Ah yes, that phrase, guaranteed money. In this age of salary caps NFL contracts have become as meaningless as the green pieces of paper they promise. They're backloaded in such a way as to guarantee they'll be renegotiated before getting close to the final year. Stafford's deal was made this summer well before his rookie deal was set to expire to free up salary cap space, thanks to signing bonuses, workout bonuses and other accounting tricks, Roger's salary-cap charge for this season in only $12 million, a figure that increases yearly before hitting $21.1 in 2019. What worries me isn't the whole kicking the can aspect of the contract game so much as the inequality it is creating. Sure, quarterbacks have always been the pretty boys, paid a bit better than the men paid to protect and make him look good but this trend is set to continue; imagine when the group of QBs now in their rookie deals come up for renewal. The more spent at this position, the less there is for elsewhere and we all know the problems inequality always seems to cause...

NFC East

Ah, the east, home to the bane of my football existence, my Dallas Cowboys. Saddled with them from childhood as my favorite team, I've enjoyed many highs but have of late suffered many more lows. Nevertheless, I'll be a homer and take them this year as Romo rises to silence his many detractors, all the more after his massive offseason deal, the Giants stumble and bumble there way to a 3rd consecutive 9-7 season, the Redskins ambitions pop with RGIII's knee and the Eagle's need a season under Chip to cleanse the stench left by Andy Reid.

Dallas Cowboys - 10-6
Hit - DeMarco Murray somehow stays healthy and DeMarcus Ware plays even better with his hand on the ground with the transition to the 4-3 defense.
Miss - The deafening offseason Buzz around Dez turns into screams from his mom, or mall security or some jeweler and Jerry Jones is, well, Jerry Jones.
NY Giants - 9-7
Hit - Eli gets hot and the friendly schedule maker's gift that sees them not need to get on a plane from October 11th to December 7th keeps nor even sleep in a hotel bed for 34 days keeps them fresh.
Miss - Jason Pierre-Paul's back and the absence of Osi Umenyiora tame the pass rush while David Wilson fumbles away the offensive ground game.
Washington Redskins - 8-8
Hit - Alfred Morris and RGIII avoid the sophomore slump
Miss - Off-season LCL and ACL surgery leaves RGIII running less than
Philadelphia Eagles - 7-9
Hit - Michael Vick takes a lick and continues to tick and the defense somehow manages not to really suck.
Miss - Chip Kelly's high tempo Duck offense doesn't translate to the NFL from Oregon.

NFC West

Seems like just yesterday that this division was a joke, Pop Warner quality and suddenly this year all the talk is Seahawks versus Niners being the new Steelers/Ravens rivalry. What happened to the old Sea Chickens? The Shithawks? Pity the poor Rams as they look better and even the Cardinals who might even compete in most other divisions as the NFC will be represented in the Superbowl by one of the west coast contingents.

San Francisco 49ers - 12-4
Hit - Colin Kaepernick's second time around the league is as successful as his first while Justin Smith returns healthy on defense making Justin Smith good again.
Miss - Jim Harbaugh spontaneously combusts following a missed call and the defense can't shake the nightmares of this happening.
Seadderall, er, Seattle Seahawks - 11-5
Hit - Russell Wilson really is the man, Marshawn Lynch is the beast (mode), Percy Harvin returns in late Nov/early Dec and the defensive secondary plays up to half its potential.
Miss - Refs start flagging the Seahawks at home for 12th man violations leading Pete Carroll to inexplicably announce all games will be played on the road.
St. Louis Rams - 8-8
Hit - Off their best season since 2006, 7-8-1, high expectations could be met if rookie Tavon Austin's can't-miss superstar label isn't a knockoff and new left tackle Jake Long turn QB Sam Bradford into something resembling the former #1 pick he should be.
Miss - Most of their wins come scoring 12 points (on four Greg Zuerlein field goals, one over 70-yards).
Arizona Cardinals - 7-9
Hit - New head coach Bruce Arians means Carson Palmer becomes Kurt Warner just like Andrew Luck became Peyton Manning, Patrick Peterson becomes a triple threat superstar and the Honey Badger sticks at safety.
Miss - When your running backs are Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams you know you'll have injury issues and maybe that defense isn't as good as it seems on paper.

Seadderall, as in Adderall, the PED (performance enhancing drug) normally fed to kids by the bucketful to treat ADD (attention deficit disorder). Always on the lookout for an edge teams and players use anything, from Ray Lewis' deer antler spray to Alex Rodriguez's human growth hormone (HGH)  are always o one step ahead as they deploy an army of scientists to beat the testers. The Seahawks lead the league under Pete Carroll in suspensions for PED violations with six. By sheer coincidence, Carroll's college team, the USC Trojans, also seemed to have a little problem with PEDs. Feeding kids drugs, sounds about right in a country that glorifies torture, sanctifies killing and indemnifies those who do it. Guess it's no worse than feeding them the propaganda that passes for news and education.

Meanwhile, there's a substance that an unknown number (possibly a majority) of players are taking that makes them bigger, faster, stronger and helps them recover from injuries faster that isn't banned and another that may make them bigger bellied thanks to the munchies, and may help treat a variety of ailments which is. The players' union has been dragged kicking and screaming to the point where an NFL player “population study” to determine baselines for HGH is being done (a concept akin to using rock stars in a study to determine a baseline for recreational drug use) to make possible the testing for the use of HGH (human growth hormone), but penalizing is still a ways off while those caught smoking marijuana are seeing their careers thrown into jeopardy or destroyed. The smart GMs are beginning to see the opportunity such a ridiculous policy affords them as the Arizona Cardinals were able to nab Tyrann 'Honey Bear' Mathieu in the 3rd round of the draft thanks to his past 'problems' with weed.

Whatever it is they've been feeding the football team in the Pacific Northwest, it's not hurting their play on the field. As wildcard or division winner they're the team I'm picking to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl where they'll triumph over the Bengals, not the Broncos on February 2, 2014 in a snowstorm at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.