Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Best Albums of 2010

Wow. It's over already, huh?

It seems like just last month that WOXY went off the internet after playing "Answer to Yourself" by the Soft Pack as its last tune.


So looking back, 2010 was pretty good for music. Aside from the whole surf rock "slapping an echo on my voice is awesome" craze that bands like Best Coast reintroduced to us in the Big Dime, 2010 will go down in the record books as a solid, if not stellar year, for indie rock.

Here are some of the albums I had on heavy rotation this year....

1. Beach House, Teen Dream

Like The Wire, it's always awesome when something comes out of your hometown and completely knocks your fucking socks off. That said, Beach House could be from Iowa and that would not stop Teen Dream from being the absolute best album of the year and it's not even close. I discovered this album in January while painting a room in a blizzard and it will be something I remember for the rest of my life. It was one of those instant connections between an album and an action. Yeah, painting a room isn't as cool as cruising for chicks or a summer of baseball, but it will still always take me back to a moment in my life. On Teen Dream, Beach House took their cheap Casio keyboard drum machine sound and made it bigger without selling out. Now, instead of wishing Beach House songs were bigger, they are. It was like watching that scrappy shortstop come back after an offseason of hard work and hit 40 homeruns.

2. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs

I know what you're thinking. This album should be #1. And you may have a good argument as to why it should be. But #2 is still good, is it not? On The Suburbs, Arcade Fire strung a clothesline across the length of the album and hung their grievances with suburban sprawl on it. Although it's more restrained than their previous work, the band still knows when to turn it up and let it loose. This is the album we'll all come back to when we're forty, balding, with children who don't know us, and say "Fuck. Did these guys get it right or what?" And at the same time, our kids may be listening to the album thinking, "I'll never turn out like my parents" when we all know its inevitable.

3. The National, High Violet

If ever there was an album that upon first listen prompted disappointment and the feeling that "they'll never be like they were ever again" before giving way to acceptance and pure enjoyment, High Violet is it. For months, I couldn't get past a few songs on this album. The melancholy subject matter, the monotone way in which Matt Berninger delivers his lyrics, and the restraint the band showed throughout the album...it wore me out. It still does. At times I still think "this is the point where they're going to let loose" and then comes "Afraid of Everyone" and the band does the complete opposite. But in the end, I've come around. This is a great album to throw on when you're driving home after a hard day's work and you don't feel like feeling anything. And the National make that seem so easy.

4. The Walkmen, Lisbon

Lisbon, is basically High Violet times ten. If you know me, you know that The Walkmen can practically do no wrong, and with Lisbon, the same is still mostly true. But I still can't help but feel a little let down after what I thought was their best album, You & Me, where they reinvented themselves as a Sun Records revival act. On You & Me, everything worked. On Lisbon, there are hits and misses. Songs that were performed live a year ago are different on the record, and IMHO, different for the worse. "Juveniles", which was a country western tune, complete with whistling (!) when I heard it live in the fall of 2009, is now an almost cheesy lounge-act Rod Stewart wannabe tune. "Angela Surf City" was also much different live, but for whatever reason, the band changed it and it is what it is now -- one of my least favorite tracks on the album. But aside from that, Lisbon continues The Walkmen's evolution away from "The Rat", and whatever they got wrong before is made right with "The Sky Above". In the end, Lisbon is a great album, one of the best of the year, but an album that could have been better. The Walkmen, by default, usually have the top spot reserved when they make an album. Just not in 2010.

5. Wolf Parade, Expo 86

Maybe I didn't listen to enough music this year because Expo 86 fails to ignite much passion in me like the other four albums do. Yeah, that must be it. Maybe I need to go check out Kayne West's new album. Now that I think about it, Wolf Parade has let me down ever since their stellar 2005 debut, Apologies to Queen Mary. Maybe it's the dozen side-projects between them. Maybe it's just because their debut was just that good. Whatever he reason, Expo 86 is the band's most sonically crowded album to date, which is a change from a band that sounded like it was performing on the top of a scrap heap after an apocalyptic event with just a guitar, a crashing symbol and a synth keyboard straight out of a John Carpenter film. Now, there's too much drumming going on, as if every verse needs a breakdown ripped from the intro from "Hot for Teacher". Overall, Expo 86 reminds me that the bands I love will not always make music I love, and that I should be thankful for the ones that still do. There are some bright spots on Expo 86, but it's gotten to the point where this supergroup has stopped being super, and the band members' original/side-projects are where they make their best music.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Get on the bus, Gus

The #40 QuickBus has been an effective addition to rapid transit in Baltimore.

For whatever reason, the bus gets a bad rap in Baltimore.

Maybe the beating of a white passenger, Sarah Kreager, in 2007 by nine black school children is still fresh in everyone's mind. But what I've come to find in my experience with the bus in Baltimore has been nothing but pleasant.

Coming from Frederick County, I've long been waiting for work on the red line to begin so I am able to get to Baltimore without having to drive on 695 to catch the light rail or metro subway. But since the red line has been held up in red tape for the last few years, I got antsy and wanted to find a different way to get downtown.

After looking at the MTA bus schedule, I quickly learned of a couple of routes called "QuickBus". These bus routes don't act like most other buses, in that they stop at key transfer points and major landmarks, whereas the local bus can stop every block or two, making for a very long bus ride.

Currently, there are only two full-time QuickBus routes, the #40, which runs from Woodlawn to Dundalk and the #48, which runs from downtown Baltimore to Towson.

So I investigated the #40 a little more, seeing that it could satisfy my fix for a mass transit option into the city from the west. When I found out that the bus ran right by the park and ride located at the end of route 70, I pulled up Google Maps and found that I would need to walk on the shoulder of the entrance ramp to route 70 in order to catch the bus at the Forest Park stop.

So therein lies the one catch with the QuickBus -- it doesn't take advantage of any park and ride lots to allow commuters who don't live on the immediate bus route to take the bus downtown. Had the MTA built a walkway from the park and ride lot to the Forest Park stop, they could advertise the QuickBus as an alternative to the light rail and metro subway as a way to get to work or other events in the city. For now, adventurous riders, like me, can park at the park and ride and hoof it down the entrance ramp to the Forest Park Avenue bus stop.

The #40 QuickBus has 15 minute headways all day, meaning that buses are scheduled to arrive at any stop every 15 minutes. So far in my experience, this has been pretty accurate with a few instances of having to wait longer, but on average, I've waited 5-10 minutes for a bus.

From Forest Park Avenue, the ride downtown takes about 25 minutes. It travels down Cooks Lane, makes a left on Edmonson Avenue and then takes a right on Franklin Street before taking the two mile stretch of the "Highway to Nowhere" before entering downtown Baltimore. The route is very similar to the route planned for the red line, so getting downtown is a cinch. The Baltimore and Paca Street stop is close to the stadiums and the Charm Bus route is just a block away if riders want to head to the Inner Harbor, Harbor East, Fells Point or Federal Hill.

Another major issue with the QuickBus is that it's currently designed for work-day commuters only. The bus stops running around 10 p.m., which means it's not a good option for Oriole games that commonly run later than 10 p.m. or other nighttime events downtown. For that, the MTA feels that the light rail and metro subway should suffice, since both run until midnight.

So while the QuickBus may not be the answer to your east/west transit blues in Baltimore, it could be a start, and hopefully it's a preview for what is to come with the red line.

Ravens beat Browns, heading to playoffs

Ray Rice had another good game, rushing for 92 yards in the Ravens 20-10 win over the Browns.

On various Ravens message boards and sports talk shows, fans have been noticeably critical of the Ravens coaching staff this year, Cam Cameron and John Harbaugh in particular.

But the fact that cannot be argued is that Harbaugh and Cameron have taken the Ravens to the playoffs three years in a row. With a 20-10 win over the Browns in Cleveland, the Ravens clinched a playoff spot. It's looking like the #5 seed right now, but with a Steelers loss and a Ravens win over the Bengals this Sunday, the Ravens would find themselves with the #2 seed and a first round bye. And that would be about the time I kick myself for not buying playoff tickets.

So while there is plenty to be critical about when it comes to Harbaugh and Cameron, they have taken the Ravens to the post-season three times in a row -- something Brian Billick never did in his 9 years as Ravens head coach.

Yesterday, the Ravens relied on their bread and butter: their running game and creating turnovers.

Ray Rice rushed for 92 yards on 25 carries and the Ravens took away the ball from the Browns 4 times. And as the weather gets cold and the playoffs draw closer, it's about time that Cameron returned to the smashmouth football that has been the Ravens M.O the last decade.

Running the ball comes at the expense of the passing game, which us why Flacco threw for 102 yards yesterday. He chucked 2 more touchdowns and had a deep pass picked off. And while Flacco is capable of doing much more in this offense, these are the kinds of games we want to see him play.

Derrick Mason was the leading receiver, with 50 yards and a touchdown, while TJ Houshmandzadeh hauled in 4 passes for 30 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, Anquan Boldin caught just 2 balls for 15 yards. You have to wonder when the Ravens are going to work in Boldin more, but if he's content playing the decoy role for Mason and Houshmandzadeh to flourish, it's OK with me.

The defense rose to the occasion. After allowing an early touchdown, the Ravens defense hunkered down and put the brakes on the Browns offense. They scored only three more points and turned the ball over a total of four times on the day. Peyton Hillis, who had shredded the Ravens defense earlier this season, was held to 35 yards on 12 carries.

So even though there is one more game left on the schedule (Bengals), the playoff scenario is pretty much locked up. If the Ravens win and the Steelers lose to the Browns, the Ravens will get the #2 seed and a first round bye. But otherwise, they are the #5 seed and most likely headed to Indianapolis to take on the Colts.


And it doesn't get any easier, with the road to Dallas likely going through Pittsburgh and New England.

But at least the Ravens have made the playoffs again, and we can have this discussion.

And that alone feels good.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Ravens edge Saints

Ray Rice had a huge day, both on the ground and through the air.

While walking down the route 70 on-ramp to to get to the #40 QuickBus stop, Ben and I saw a bad omen. A Raven had been hit by a car and lay dead on the asphalt. A feeling of dread rushed through me. Was this a sign? Were the Ravens going to lose to the Saints?

Thankfully, that omen was proven false, as the Ravens snuck by the Saints, 30-24 in the kind of close game that the Ravens have made a habit out of losing this year.

Actually, the Ravens played what could be called their most solid game of the season. Cam Cameron went back to the Ravens bread and butter -- running the ball a whopping 39 times. That meant Ray Rice had a huge day, carrying 31 times for 153 yards and a score.

The ground game was running on all cylinders last Sunday, and the Ravens simply dared the Saints to stop them. But the Saints, thanks to some very poor tackling, could not.

Joe Flacco continued his streak of mistake-free football play, passing for just 172 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions on the day. He completed 50% of his passes, but on a day that Flacco wasn't asked to do much, he did what he had to do to win the game, completing several big passes to extend drives.

Just to show you how big a day Rice had, he lead receivers with 80 yards and another touchdown. And when Flacco only completes 10 passes, guys like Anquan Boldin (1 catch, 2 yards) and TJ Houshmandzadeh (2 catches, 15 yards) aren't going to have big days.

But the Ravens won, so everyone should be happy. Let's hope.

The defense played a solid game, and had the Saints not scored their final touchdown on a fluke catch, the game wouldn't have been as close as it was. But that said, the Ravens held the explosive Saints offense to just 269 yards of total offense, intercepted Drew Brees once and sacked him 3 times. They kept him flustered, which meant he had to get rid of the ball quick and missed out on what could have been potentially big gains.

The only question mark of the day came with 9 seconds left in the game when John Harbaugh opted to kick a field goal to put the Ravens up 30-24 instead of going for it on 4th and 1 and ending the game. Had the Saints been able to return the kick for a touchdown, the loss would have created a mob outside of M&T Bank Stadium after the game. Thankfully, it all worked out, but I didn't see the harm in going for it. Had they not converted, the Saints would have gotten the ball on their own 9-yard line, with 9 seconds left and no timeouts. And ironically, DeSean Jackson of the Eagles did the very thing that Ravens fans had feared would happen when the Ravens kicked off to the Saints. Jackson's punt return capped off a wild comeback win over the Giants.

Next week, the Ravens take on the Browns in Cleveland, where wins are never easy. And with a win, the Ravens clinch a playoff spot, their third playoff appearance in three years -- a team record.

And yet people want Harbaugh fired.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ravens survive Texans

That's right, Josh. The Ravens won by that much.

The Ravens almost gave away a game as well as their season in Houston last night in one of those wins that feels more like a loss.

The Ravens led 21-0 in the first quarter and 28-7 after David Reed's kick-off return for a touchdown at the start of the second half, but couldn't put the 5-8 Texans away. Instead, the defense looked the worst they've looked since 1996, allowing Matt Shaub and the Texans to put together drives of 99 and 95 yards to tie the game at 28-28 and force overtime.

The Ravens won the coin toss in OT, but were as hapless on offense as they'd been for the entire second half. After a short drive went nowhere to start overtime, the Ravens punted the ball to the Texans, thankfully pinning the Texans within their own 10-yard line. Two plays later, Josh Wilson picked off Shaub and took it to the house, ending the game and giving the Ravens a narrow escape.

Had the Ravens lost, they would have been 8-5 and a game in front of the Colts for the #6 seed. But thankfully, the Ravens were able to survive Houston and earned themselves the #5 seed, with the tie-breaker over the Jets, who are also 9-4.

However, with the hair-raising win, the Ravens don't look poised to make much noise in the playoffs. First and foremost, the defense was downright embarrassed last night. After turning in a dominant first half, they were absolutely torched in the second. They couldn't get off the field on third down, which resulted in the defense wearing down to the point of them almost not even being on the field at all.

The offense played the same kind of game. They moved the ball well through the air in the first half, scoring 3 touchdowns with relative ease before packing it in with 1:37 left in the second quarter. The offensive line really melted down in the second half, getting Flacco sacked a total of 6 times. They also failed to open substantial holes for Ray Rice to run through. Rice rushed for only 54 yards with a dismal 2.8 yard per carry average on the night. All signs for the Ravens offensive problems point to their inability to run the ball.

Joe Flacco played well, when he wasn't on his back, completing 22 of 33 passes for 235 yards and 2 touchdown passes. But his games are becoming repetitive. He plays well for a half while disappearing for the other half. Whether it's Flacco or Cameron to blame, something needs to be done to spark this offense because it's downright maddening to watch. And while Flacco isn't getting much time in the pocket to throw, he needs to be smarter under pressure and start throwing balls away to avoid costly sacks.

But Flacco deserves credit for his performance. He was responsible for 235 of the Ravens 253 total yards of offense. While many Ravens fans will surely be critical of Flacco after this game, it's important to remember that the Ravens won because of what Flacco did.

Derrick Mason had a great game, despite dropping a long pass in the first quarter that would have given him about 60 more yards on the night. He caught 6 balls for 78 yards and 2 touchdowns. Ray Rice had the screen game working well last night, catching 8 passes for 66 yards. Meanwhile, Anquan Boldin had trouble getting going, catching 3 balls for a paltry 41 yards.

And so it comes down to this: Cam Cameron needs to start utilizing the talent he has on this offense. He has 4, count 'em, 4 all pro wide receivers...and he can't even devise a way to take advantage of something that would give other offensive coordinators wet dreams. He's been calling the same ho-hum offensive game plan all season, despite costing the team several games. He almost cost the team another game last night with his one-dimensional play calling. Has a 9-4 football team ever fired their offensive coordinator? I don't think anyone in the country would bat an eye lash if the Ravens were to do just that.

Meanwhile, John Harbaugh deserves his share of the blame, too. When his defense was getting beaten like they stole something, Harbaugh opted to keep two timeouts in his back pocket rather than give his defense some time to breathe while the Texans were mounting their epic drives. When the Texans scored their final touchdown to bring the score to 28-26 and took the field for a two point conversion, Harbaugh AGAIN failed to call a time out. Instead, the Texans were able to convert their two-point conversion and force overtime.

While the Ravens may be 9-4 and holding down the 5th playoff spot, they look like a team headed more for trouble than making noise in the playoffs. And with the New Orleans Saints coming to town this week, you might get your preview of what will happen to the Ravens if they do hang onto their playoff spot and make the postseason.

And it won't be pretty.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

O's trade for Hardy & Harris

JJ Hardy has potential to significantly upgrade production from the SS position.

GM Andy MacPhail is still busy at the winter meetings, pulling off another trade, this time sending minor league pitchers Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson to the Twins for SS JJ Hardy and utility infielder Brendan Harris.

Hardy is the centerpiece of the deal, as he is a player who has once hit 26 and 24 home runs. Unfortunately, Hardy has seen his production slip the last 2 years due to injury. In 2010, he batted .268 with 6 home runs and a .714 OPS in 101 games. And while that is already a huge upgrade from Cesar Izturis, there is potential for Hardy to offer even more.

So already, the O's have made two significant upgrades at positions of need in Reynolds and Harris. At 3B and SS last year, the Orioles got an OPS of .668 and .549. In 2010, Reynolds and Hardy each had an OPS of .753 and .714. And with MacPhail left with several options at 1B, it'll be almost impossible not to upgrade on the .625 OPS the O's got from that position last year.

Harris looks to be a decent utility player. His career .701 OPS is average, but he's had an OPS of .672 and .446 in the last two years, so it won't be a surprise if Harris doesn't last long in Baltimore. But the O's got the player they wanted -- Hardy -- for much less than it would have cost to get the other SS they were looking at, Jason Bartlett. The Rays were rumored to have wanted Nolan Reimold and Alfredo Simon for Bartlett, who is about the same kind of player that Hardy is at this point in their careers. And the O's were right not to give up on Reimold yet. Although he is 27 years old, his off the field issues resulted in a 2010 season that Reimold is hoping to bounce back from. And there is reason to hope he will. His OBP has always been solid and his potential for power is tough to ignore. Hopefully Reimold will be one of the better stories throughout the 2011 season.

To get Hardy and Harris, the O's gave up Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson, and it doesn't look like the O's gave up much. Hoey has a 8.13 ERA in 34.1 innings pitched with the Orioles, but his MiL numbers point to him being a live arm out of the bullpen. But with many live arms, there is potential for little control, which resulted in Hoey's departure. Jacobson, the player the O's received in the Aubrey Huff trade to Detroit in 2009, is the more promising pitcher. The 23 year old posted an 8-1 season in Frederick with a 2.79 ERA in 2010. And while he is a little old to be in Frederick, he still could be a useful arm for the Twins down the road.

So there it is. The O's continue to improve, although not drastically, and not in ways that are going to sell many tickets ahead of time. But there is potential for each move to work out more than it doesn't.

I guess we can be happy about that.

Monday, December 6, 2010

O's trade for Mark Reynolds

The O's traded for 3B Mark Reynolds, who many O's fans will no doubt compare to Rob Deer.

The Orioles made their first big move of the offseason, trading pitchers David Hernandez and Kameron Mickolio for Diamondbacks 3B, Mark Reynolds.

It's a solid move to get a right-handed power bat into the line-up and fill a position of need at 3B. Reynolds has hit 32, 44 and 28 HR in the last 3 years and has a career .908 OPS against LHP.

The downside?

He hit .198 last season and lead the NL with 200+ strikeouts the last three seasons.

Yeah, you read that right.

Reynolds is not without some risk, but his upside is pretty big. He may strike out a ton but he can also get on base. Last year, with his .198 average and 211 K's, he was still able to get his OBP up to .320. And while Reynolds will never be a .300 hitter (his best year was .260 in 2009), if he can just get his average up to .220-.240 range, he could get on base at a .360 clip.

Then again, he could continue to struggle to get his average above the Mendoza line and his power could continue to decrease. He is, after all, going to be facing some of the best pitching the MLB has to offer in the AL East.

But when you consider what it took to acquire the 27-year old player, it was a good move.

David Hernandez was a promising pitcher, when he was coming up through the O's system with a K/9 rate that was around 10. But when he broke into the majors in 2009, the strikeouts weren't there. Hernandez threw a lot of pitches and never had an out pitch. He did well in the bullpen in 2010 (2.95 ERA in 39 IP with a 11.1 K/9), but you have to give up something to get something in return, and Hernandez was the centerpiece of the deal for Arizona.

Mickolio, whom the Orioles acquired in the Erik Bedard trade back in 2008, always had potential to blossom into a powerful arm out of the bullpen, but he never lived up to that potential due to injuries and control issues. Mickolio had a K/9 rate above 12 in Norfolk this year, but his BB/9 went up to 4.

The Diamondbacks needed bullpen help, and with Hernandez and Mickolio, they got two good youngish arms that could do well with a change in scenery. And since the DBacks made it well known that they wanted to shed some of the K's in their line-up, Reynolds was not going to cost the Orioles that much.

Strangely, rumors were that the O's wanted to trade Chris Tillman to the the Diamondbacks, but the Dbacks were insistent on Hernandez. Why the O's would give up on Tillman so soon is curious. Do they know something about Tillman that fans don't? Sure, Tillman hasn't done well outside of a few promising starts here and there in his two brief stints in Baltimore over the last 2 years, but he's still 23 and younger than both Hernandez, 26 and Mickolio, 24.

So at least the O's made a move. It's not something that's going to sell a lot of tickets, but it could be a move that we look back on by mid-season and think, "I am glad the Orioles made that move".

But then again, we could be asking ourselves, "Why did the Orioles make that move?"

Ravens fumble away win to Steelers

Fumbled Away: Troy Polamalu causes a Joe Flacco fumble that set up the Steelers game-winning touchdown.

Well, it finally happened.

Baltimore sports fans had to endure that rare coaching blunder that haunts fans for weeks, months...maybe years.

It was as bad as Bill Belechick going for it on 4th and 2 on his own 30 yard line against the Colts last year. It was almost as bad as Marty Morningweg opting to kick the ball off in overtime.

Trailing 13-10 with less than a minute to go at the Steelers 31-yard line, John Harbaugh elected to go for it on 4th and 2 instead of bringing in strong legged kicker Billy Cundiff for a 49 yard field goal attempt.

On that 4th down, Flacco passed to the left for an incomplete. The ball was tipped at the line of scrimmage and bounced to Ed Dickson. Game over, Ravens lose to the Steelers, 13-10 and put themselves in the hunt for one of two wild card spots at 8-4.

Granted, Cundiff's potential 49-yard game tying kick wasn't a gimme by any stretch of the imagination. But it was the call that should have been made. Going for it on 4th and 2 would have only prolonged the drive, and Harbaugh used the last timeout before opting to go for it. Had they converted the 4th down, there would have been no more timeouts and Cundiff would have had to rush a field goal kick.

It was just an inexcusable decision by Harbaugh. And this is coming from someone who has routinely stuck up for him when Ravens fans criticize him for being too smug with the media and a jerk. But his decision last night was just troubling on every level.

Harbaugh blamed the wind for the decision to go for it, and said the ball wasn't tracking well during field goal practice kicks before the game. And yes, the wind was blowing hard last night and Cundiff would have been kicking into the direction of the wind on the east side of the stadium. But from where I was sitting, the flags on the eastern goal posts were not blowing at the time of the 4th and 2. The Ravens had a window to kick a field goal and they decided to close it instead.

Harbaugh's questionable decision making was the final nail in the coffin, but it is arguably not the biggest turning point of the game. Up 10-6 on their own 43 yard line, with 3:13 remaining, Flacco dropped back in the pocket to pass on 2nd and 5 and was immediately hit by Troy Polamalu (who else?) and fumbled the ball. The Steelers recovered the ball and returned it to the Ravens 9 yard line where they scored on a Ben Roethlisberger pass to Isaac Redman 3 plays later.

So why were they passing you ask? It's your basic damned if you do, damned if you don't situation.

The Ravens are routinely blasted for being to conservative with small leads late in games, and they played conservative many times last night. But just when they decided to get aggressive, and pass on that 2nd and 5 so late in the game, it blows up in their face. No one touched Polamalu on his way to Flacco, so there was a missed assignment in there somewhere. It was the Steelers being the Steelers, and getting the big play they need late in the game to steal another win from the Ravens.

There were some positives that are sure to be overshadowed. Joe Flacco played pretty well, completing 17 of 33 passes for 266 yards, 1 touchdown and 0 interceptions. He made some great passes on the scoring drive in the first quarter. Anquan Boldin had a huge night, catching 5 balls for 118 yards and a score. And the defense played exceptionally well last night, bending but not breaking against the Steelers, who scored their only touchdown after the Flacco fumble gave them the ball at the Ravens 9 yard line. The defense's lone stumble was on the Redman touchdown, where they missed several tackles.

After the game, Derrick Mason was critical of the offense, saying what has been on the minds of Ravens fans since the beginning of the season. Why is the Ravens offense failing to take advantage of the multiple weapons it has? There has never been a good rhythm on offense since the beginning of the year, and it looks like there never will be one in 2010. It's week 13 and the Ravens are a mediocre 14th overall in yards and 17th in points scored. Is it Cam Cameron's play calling? Too many chefs in the kitchen on offense in Boldin, Mason and Houshmandzadeh?

Who knows. But the Ravens better figure out what they want to be on offense and stick with it. Last night they came out with a game plan -- to pass on the Steelers -- and it worked for a short period of time, as Anquan Boldin slipped past his defender for a wide open touchdown catch in the endzone in the first quarter. But after that touchdown, the Ravens predictably let off of the gas and allowed the Steelers to do what they do best -- chisel their way back into the game.

So where does this loss put the Ravens? At 8-4 and in the 6th playoff spot. Whoever loses between New England and the New York Jets tonight will have the 5th spot with the winner of tonight's game, the Steelers, Jaguars and Chiefs as the leaders in their division.

The Ravens still control their own destiny to make the playoffs, but with last night's loss, a division title is looking impossible. The Ravens have a tough schedule remaining, with games at Houston, home against New Orleans, at Cleveland and then home against Cincinnati.

The Steelers, meanwhile, have three home games in a row against Cleveland, New York Jets and Carolina before closing out the season at Cleveland. It's gonna take an epic Steelers meltdown for the Ravens to make-up two games against the Steelers for the division. I don't see it happening, which is why I'm not sending in the money for home playoff tickets. If the Ravens make the playoffs, they're gonna have to do what they've always done: go on the road.

Meanwhile, the Ravens locker rom is not a place you'd want to be right now. Reports are that the underlying tensions between offensive and defensive players are starting to come to a head. The dislike of Harbaugh by some players is starting to cause problems. How this team responds in Houston next Monday night after such a demoralizing loss at home to the Steelers is what could be the difference between a playoff spot and watching the playoffs from home.

So there it is.

It was the kind of game you expected, but in the end, the result was inevitable against those MF Steelers. And as with each loss so far this season, Ravens fans can't help but feel like they let another one slip through their fingers.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Dunn signs with the White Sox, O's offer lowball deal

Stop right there, Andy. I will not take $16 million dollars less to come play for the Orioles. Thanks but no thanks.

Left-handed slugger Adam Dunn signed with the White Sox for 4 years, $56 million. $14 million a year for a clean-up hitter who hasn't hit below 38 home runs since 2003 is a very fair deal to me. Plus, Dunn is only 31 years old, so it's not likely that he starts to decline by the end of his contract like most of the other available 1B free agents.

And it should also come as no surprise that Dunn signed with the White Sox, a competitive team that won 88 games a year ago.

But what is surprising -- and embarrassing -- is that the Orioles offered Dunn a deal far below the deal he got from the White Sox.

The Orioles offer? 4 years, $40 million dollars.

That's right -- $16 million dollars below what he got from the White Sox.

Dunn turned down a 3 year, $45 million dollar extension from the Washington Nationals, so what the hell did MacPhail think Dunn was going to do with his offer? Dunn is probably lining his birdcage with the Orioles offer sheet today.

And so it continues. The Orioles keep offering free agents far below their market value. It's like Andy MacPhail is an elderly shopper, refusing to believe that it's 2010. He still believes he should be able to buy stuff for what it cost back in 1976.

With the Orioles having had a great final 2 months to the 2010 season, and Buck Showalter in the manager's seat, MacPhail should be doing all he can to add talent to this roster and shed the image that the Baltimore Orioles are a failure.

But his lowball offers are doing nothing to squash that image. As a matter of fact it's only making that image worse and frustrating the few remaining fans that the Orioles haven't alienated over their 13 year losing run.

Does MacPhail really think that a player of Dunn's stature would accept $16 million less to play on a team that hasn't had a winning record since Dunn was 17 years old?

Or is this just another CYA move so that the Orioles can say "We offered him a deal". I wonder if we'll start to hear "confederate money" being thrown around the warehouse again. The ghost of Sid Thrift lives.

Wake up, Andy. Either make a fair deal or don't offer anything at all. Your cheapskate lowball offers are only embarrassing the Orioles even more.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Who's on first?

Derrek Lee makes a lot of sense for the Orioles in 2011.

As the Orioles are gearing up for baseball's winter meetings, the only major free agent to have been signed thus far is Victor Martinez, who sighed a 4 year, $50 million contract with the Detroit Tigers last week.

Martinez was on the Orioles radar. They offered 4 years, $48 million for the catcher, who has played 1B in the past. But Martinez wants to catch, and playing with fellow Venezuelan Miguel Cabrera was too much for Martinez to pass up.

As the Orioles move on, the major candidates for 1B include Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, Carlos Pena, Adam LaRoche and Derrek Lee.

None of those players would be bad options for the 2011 season, but each player comes with their own issues: money, age, defense, years of contract, declining numbers, etc...

Konerko would perhaps be the biggest name of them all, but he'd likely command a 3 year deal. And for a 35 year old player coming off a career year in which he hit 39 home runs and had a .977 OPS, there is some risk involved. Will Konerko be worth a 3-year deal? Will he decline past 35 years old? If the Orioles could snag Konerko for a 2 year deal, I'd put the right-handed slugger at the top of the list. But players are paid for past performance in free agency, and it's unlikely that Konerko is worth the life of the contract he gets this offseason.

Adam Dunn is another big-name free agent, as evidenced by his gaudy home run totals (he hasn't hit less than 38 home runs since 2003. But he is infamous for his horrific defense and he's refused to move to the DH role for an American League team. He is also likely to command a 3 or 4 year contract for well over $15 million a year. But at 30 years old, Dunn is likely to be well worth the contract.

Carlos Pena was making the most sense out of all of the candidates until he turned in a poor 2010 season where he hit .196. He still hit 28 home runs and got on base at a decent clip compared to his average (.325 OBP), but his numbers have been in a steep decline since he joined the Rays in 2007 and caught lighting in a bottle. Pena's defense at 1B is stellar and coming off a down year he could be had for cheap. But he's struggled to hit LHP in his slump, and the Orioles are desperately in need of players who can hold their own against LHP. So after years of failing to get consistent production from the biggest power position on the field, will the O's commit to another project at 1B? Especially after the epic fail that was Garrett Atkins?

Adam LaRoche may remind people a lot of Aubrey Huff. He bats left-handed and seems to alternate between up an down years. LaRoche, 30, could be nabbed for a cheap 1 or 2 year deal, but it would be viewed as another safe, low-reward move for the Orioles, who are in desperate need of a big splash signing to keep fans interested. But LaRoche is at least consistent in the home run department, averaging 26 home runs over 162 games throughout his career. However, LaRoche could very well end up as Huff did in Baltimore, turning in 2 down years compared to one very good year.

Last on the list is Derrek Lee. You may remember Lee when he was traded to Baltimore from Florida before the 2004 season. But Peter Angelos (yeah, that guy) didn't want to extend Lee and he ended up in Chicago with the Cubs for some very productive years. The GM of the Cubs back then? Andy MacPhail.

Lee had a down 2010 season, hitting only 19 home runs and a .774 OPS while splitting time between the Cubs and Braves. But Lee was hampered by an injured thumb for most of the season which may have lead to his down season.

Lee was not offered arbitration by the Braves last week, meaning that if he signs with another team, that team will not have to give up a second round draft pick. You might remember the fans frustration over the Orioles parting ways with a second rounder to sign Michael Gonzalez last offseason, especially when Gonzalez imploded and then went on the DL at the start of 2010. So Lee will not cost a lot of money, and no draft pick.

That said, Lee has his drawbacks. Injury or not, the mediocre 2010 season cannot be ignored. And Lee, who will be 35 for most of the 2011 season, is no spring-chicken. But he is a right-handed hitter who kills LHP (.907 career OPS) and has a solid glove at 1B.

And then there is the MacPhail connection. I don't have enough time to list all of the former Cubs players the O's have acquired since MacPhail arrived, so that alone should be enough reason to say the Orioles as seriously considering Lee for 1B in 2011. And when you factor in Lee's price and the 1 or 2 years he will command, it's a no-brainer for the O's.

That isn't to say he's the best option -- or a player that fans will go bonkers for if signed -- but he makes a lot of sense for the Orioles in their current position.

I wouldn't be surprised in the least to see the O's sign Derrick Lee, whether it's this afternoon or in 2 months.

And you shouldn't be either.

Ravens top Bucs

Derrick Mason hauls in a touchdown pass in the Ravens 17-10 win over the Buccaneers.

It was another one of those games that'll give critical Ravens a lot of ammo for the week.

The Ravens beat the Buccaneers, 17-10, in a game they dominated on both sides of the ball for most of the game. However, the Bucs drove the ball 77 yards over 4 minutes and 38 seconds for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to make the game look a lot closer than it really was. The Ravens lead 17-3 for almost an entire half of football.

If they had been able to stop the Bucs on that final scoring drive, they would have turned in their "statement game", in which they put the game out of reach early on. But as they have done against the Jets, Broncos, Panthers and now the Bucs, the Ravens have a way of making a game look closer than it really was.

Tampa Bay is a good young team who is going to be in the hunt in the NFC South for the next few years as their guys mature and keep learning to win. But the Ravens clearly showed that they were the better team.

The Ravens won the time of possession battle, 31:02 to 28:58. They accumulated more total yards, 349 to 263. They had more first downs, 18 to 14. And they had only 4 penalties for 30 yards to the Buccaneers 9 for 78 yards.

Joe Flacco kept his roll going, tossing for 289 yards, 2 TD's and 1 INT. He completed 71.4% of his passes. He held onto the ball too long, resulting in 4 sacks, but overall he had another fine game in what is sure to be his best season as a pro. He is on pace for 3,946 yards, 26 TD's and 12 INT's.

Derrick Mason, who'd had a spat with Flacco last week in Carolina, rebounded in a big way, catching 2 balls for 87 yards and a score. And Todd Heap, who is infamous for making tough catches while he's draped by defenders, caught a pass in stride and took it 65 yards for a TD.

On the ground, Ray Rice played the role of the closer, catching a pass for a first down and rushing for another on the game's final drive that allowed the Ravens to take a knee for the win. He had 85 yards on 20 rushes on the afternoon.

The defense turned in a solid performance against a tough QB. While they didn't record a sack, the defense flushed Bucs QB, Josh Freeman, from the pocket regularly, forcing him to make passes off balance. He completed only 46% of his passes. The Ravens D also did well against the run. They allowed 101 yards on the day, and 4.5 yards per carry, but they limited the big plays, which kept the Buccaneers in many 3rd and longs.

Would I have liked to see the Ravens be more dominant? Sure. They left at least 7 points on the field, and seemed uninterested to stop the Bucs on their final scoring drive. But for the most part, they played well, and beat the Bucs soundly in most statistical categories.

It wasn't pretty, but it was a win. And if that gets this team deep into the playoffs, I'll take it.

Moving on, the 8-3 Steelers come to Baltimore for a Sunday night matchup. The Steelers needed OT to beat the 2-9 Bills in Buffalo, and are banged up on the offensive line. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 5 times by the Bills defense and is said to be nursing a sore ankle.

The Ravens have to be licking their chops.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Bucs stop here

Gotta love those unis! Josh Freeman is leading the resurgent 7-3 Buccaneers into Baltimore.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 7-3, same record as the Ravens. This is a team that was 3-13 a year ago and many thought would fight it out with the Panthers as the last place team in the NFC South.

But the Buccaneers have opened the eyes of many in the NFL, and at 7-3, it's time to take them seriously.

Josh Freeman, a second-year QB out of Kansas State, is having a tremendous season, with 2,099 passing yards, 14 TD to only 5 INT. At 6 foot 6 inches and 240 pounds, Freeman is a monster, and can break sacks like Ben Roethlisberger.

The Bucs are also benefiting from the improved play of their running game, starting with rookie bruiser LeGarrett Blount. Like Freeman, Blount is a specimen at 6 foot, 2 inches and 240 pounds. And Cadillac Williams, the oft-injured 28-year-old running back, is also having a solid season. Throw in WR Mike Williams and TE Kellen Winslow, who head up a much improved receiving corps, and the Bucs have a nice little offense in the making.

The Bucs are the Chiefs of the NFC. They are playing much better and learning how to win but they are benefiting from playing a last place schedule. They've hung with the 8-2 Falcons, failing to convert a 4th and 2 on the Falcons goal line at the end of the game and losing 27-21, but otherwise, the Bucs were blown out by the other good teams they've faced in the Steelers and Saints.

So this Sunday, we'll find out what these young Bucs are made of. The Buccaneers will also be the best team the Ravens have faced at home, having had all their most challenging games on the road thus far, so we'll continue to learn more about this Ravens team, as well.

Freeman and Blount are good young players and could pose problems for the Ravens. Blount, especially, since the Ravens run defense has been lacking as of late despite being ranked 9th in the NFL. But overall, the sum of the Bucs' offense is better than the whole, since they're ranked 22nd in total offense. Their defense is ranked 10th in pts and 16th in yards, but their rush defense is 29th in yards. So you know where their weakness is on defense -- stopping the run. Now it's time for Cameron to exploit it with Ray Rice and Willis McGahee.

I do think the Bucs can hang with the Ravens for a half, but sooner or later, talent and experience has to take over -- and the Ravens have much more of both.

As long as the Ravens don't play sloppy on offense like they did against the Panthers -- fumbling 4 times and losing 2 -- I think the Ravens will eventually pull away and win 27-10 after the first half stays pretty close.

But if the Ravens turn the ball over, or the defense allows a couple of big plays for TD's, it's anyone's game.

The Ravens host the Buccaneers at 4 PM this Sunday.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ravens eventually blowout Panthers

Ray Rice celebrates a touchdown in the Ravens 37-13 win over the Panthers.

The Ravens improved to 7-3 for the second time in team history yesterday with a "closer than the scoreboard indicates" 37-13 win over the 1-9 Carolina Panthers.

It was closer than expected due to some Raven turnovers and a lackluster offensive performance that allowed the Panthers to get back into the game, 20-13 early in the 4th quarter. But two interceptions returned for TD's within 11 seconds made the score 37-13.

The blowout was eventually realized.

It was the kind of game that drives critical Ravens fans nuts. The Panthers, who are as banged up as they are terrible, started former stay at home dad and practice squad extraordinaire, Brian St. Pierre, as well as 3rd string running back, Mike Goodson. Goodson rushed for 120 yards and St. Pierre connected with David Gettis for an 88-yard TD pass that put the Panthers back in the game.

So apparently the Panthers didn't get the memo that they were supposed to lie down while the Ravens dismantled them. Maybe the Ravens should rethink their mail provider -- the Browns and Bills didn't get that memo either.

On offense, the Ravens had trouble holding onto the ball, which killed drives that could have made the game a blowout much earlier than the 4th quarter. The Ravens scored on their first drive, with Joe Flacco connecting with TJ Houshmandzadeh. They scored again on a Ray Rice TD in the second quarter, but came out limp after halftime. And fumbles by Flacco and Anquan Boldin didn't help either.

The one positive on offense was Flacco, who completed 72% of his passes and threw for 301 yards and no interceptions. He also moved well in and around the pocket, avoiding sacks and making things happen. It was quietly one of the better passing games of his career.

The defense, again, showed that they are no longer a force to be reckoned with. Goodson, who shredded the Ravens in preseason, did the same yesterday. And even though it was only one play, the 88-yard touchdown on Josh Wilson proved once again that the Ravens are susceptible to allowing big plays.

However, things look better on special teams, with David Reed being named the new kick returner. He had a great game yesterday, returning 3 kicks for a total of 135 yards, including an 85 yard return. And Billy Cundiff booted a 49-yard field goal that would have been good from 60 yards. He also kicked 2 more field goals and continually landed his kickoffs in the endzone.

The defense redeemed themselves in the 4th quarter, putting the game away after the Panthers had pulled within one score. Ed Reed picked off St. Pierre and lateraled the ball to Dawan Landry who took it in for the score. And only 11 seconds later, Ray Lewis showed us again that he still has plenty left in the tank, returning an interception for a touchdown.

So in the end, the game was like the heroine in a horror movie stabbing the killer only once and then dropping the knife right next to the killer's hand instead of taking that knife and cutting the killer up into chum. The game should have never been close to begin with, but the end result was the same.

What's next? The surprisingly 7-3 Tamp Bay Buccaneers travel to Baltimore this weekend for a 4 p.m. game. We'll see what they're made of, and we'll continue to see what the Ravens are made of as well.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Eighty Yards, Forty Seconds

Roddy White scores the game winning touchdown in the Falcons' 26-21 win over the Ravens.

80 yards, 40 seconds.

That's how long it took for the Ravens defense to prove that they are no longer a championship caliber defense.

The Ravens offense gave the defense a 21-20 lead last night in Atlanta with 1:05 left on the clock in the 4th quarter. The Falcons started on their 20 yard line. Seven plays and forty seconds later the Falcons had retaken the lead, and won the game, 26-21.

The Ravens defense couldn't get off the field all night on 3rd down. The Falcons converted 12 of 20 3rd down conversions, including 2 on the game-winning drive. Matt Ryan carved the secondary up for 316 yards, 3 TD's and 0 INT's. Two of those touchdowns went to Roddy White, whom the Ravens had no answer for. The only thing the defense did well last night was stop the run, holding Falcons running backs to just 60 yards.

And while the Falcons are a very good team -- and played a perfect game -- the Ravens still should have won this game despite scoring zero points and holding the ball for a little over 8 minutes compared to the Falcons' 21 minutes in the first half. Also a factor -- Cam Cameron's stubborn play calling. Ray Rice had a 4.9 YPC last night, yet with two and a half minutes left in the 3rd quarter and the Ravens trailing 13-7, Cameron threw 5 straight times, taking 50 seconds off the clock. After the Ravens punted, the Falcons drove 75 yards in 5 minutes and 16 seconds, and scored to put them up 20-7.

You can say that the defense is to blame for this loss, and it definitely is. After all, the offense did enough to win the game. But Cameron played his hand terribly on that drive. He should have used Ray Rice to milk the clock and keep the defense off the field. In all three losses, Cameron's play calling has been a major factor. I don't know if he will be back next year -- or if he even should be.

But let's talk about what really cost the Ravens the game last night. The defense. This is not the defense of Ravens teams past. This is a mediocre defense with mediocre players and a mediocre coordinator. The Ravens again failed to pressure the QB consistently, sacking Matt Ryan only twice. They had no answer for Roddy White. How many times this season have we allowed WR's to have huge games? I can think of several off the top of my head: Steve Johnson, Lee Evans, Deion Branch, Brandon Lloyd, and now Roddy White.

The Ravens used to be able to take the other team's best WR and hold him to scraps of yardage. Now they are laying out the red carpet for opposing WR's to torch them. White and Falcons' TE Tony Gonzalez had nothing green turf around them all night. Greg Mattison perhaps isn't the only scapegoat but he's not the answer, either. He hasn't been given much to work with on defense this year, and he has failed to put what he does have in position to succeed. His defenses are pure vanilla. After two years of Mattison, it's time to look elsewhere. The Ravens should have two new coordinators next year.

On a positive note, Joe Flacco played his heart out once again, and aside from one dumb throw that was picked off, he single-handedly put this team in a position to win the game after looking so flat for more than a half of football. He passed for 215 yards, 3 TD's and 1 INT, and spread the ball out to several receivers: Todd Heap, Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason and Ray Rice each had more than 40 yards receiving. If the Ravens offense would have shown up for the first half of football, the Ravens owuld have won easily.

In the end, the Falcons needed a a perfectly played game to beat the Ravens at home, and they did just that. My hats off to them. But this game hurts more than just one loss in the standings -- it proved that the Ravens defense is just average. They can no longer control the tempo of a game -- not with Cam Cameron refusing to run the ball at times to keep the defense rested. And that no doubt plays a part into the ineffectiveness of the Ravens defense, but I just think they aren't that good any more.

Thankfully, the Ravens have 10 days off before they play the 1-7 Carolina Panthers.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Get to work

It's time to make Baltimore's Red Line a reality.

The elections are over. Martin O'Malley defeated Bob Ehrlich. Now it's time to get the ball rolling on the Red Line.

O'Malley supported the Red Line, Ehrlich said he would scrap funding for it. So you can probably tell how I voted.

That's not to say Ehrlich hasn't done well with mass transit in the past. His Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative (GBBI) streamlined some of the MTA's meandering bus routes and added two "QuickBus" routes, including the #40 bus, which runs along much of the proposed Red Line route.

But when push came to shove, O'Malley backed the Red Line, which is something the city of Baltimore is desperately in need of. And now that the elections are behind us, it's time for O'Malley to put his money where his mouth is.

The many reports have been turned in, compromises have been made, and videos made, showing where the line will run and what it would look like.

And it all looks good to me.

Now it's time for the city to get to work!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ravens spear Dolphins

Derrick Mason hauls in a touchdown pass in the 26-10 win over the Dolphins.

The Ravens came out of their bye week a refocused team with the scare they'd received at the hands of the Buffalo Bills fresh in their minds. And with the help of some trash talk from the Miami Dolphins' Channing Crowder, the Ravens were motivated to start the second half of the 2010 season on a positive note.

And they did just that, handing the Miami Dolphins (4-4) their first road loss of the season, 26-10. Ironically, the Dolphins are 0-3 at home.

The game started excitedly enough. The Ravens scored on their first drive, capped off with a Joe Flacco screen pass to Willis McGahee (who made some great cuts and received some great blocks) for a 38-yard touchdown.

On the next drive, the Dolphins answered on a Ronnie Brown 12-yard touchdown run. And then the Ravens clamped down on defense and didn't allow the Dolphins back into the game for the rest of the afternoon.

The game was not without some turning points, however. The Dolphins failed to score a TD from the 1-yard line, when Chad Henne was unable to hook up with Anthony Fasano, who was open in the endzone. And Joe Flacco threw behind Anquan Boldin, resulting in a pass that was nearly intercepted and returned for a touchdown had the Miami defender not dropped the pass.

The Ravens also left way too many points on the field as well, stalling in the red zone on several occasions. That meant Billy Cundiff had a busy day, attempting 5 field goals and making 4 of them. Another field goal was fumbled by the placeholder.

So it wasn't a pretty win. But it was an easy win, which is something the Ravens needed after the Bills game and heading to Atlanta on a short week to play the Falcons on Thursday night.

The limited bright spots of the day were Joe Flacco, who completed a whopping 74.1% of his passes for 266 yards, 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. Since his week 2 debacle in Cincinnati, Flacco has thrown 11 touchdowns to just 1 interception. Ray Rice also had a huge day, rushing for 83 yards on 22 attempts and hauling in 7 passes for 97 yards.

The defense also tightened up after the drilling they took from the Bills 2 weeks ago, limiting the Dolphins to just 289 yards of total offense, and picking off Chad Henne twice. Even the special teams chipped in with kick/punt returns of 25 and 23 yards. Nothing to write home about, true, but the Ravens have been dreadful on kick/punt returns so far this year.

After the game, Crowder accussed Ravens fullback Le'ron McClain of spitting in his face. Video of the incident shows McClain jawing with Crowder, and his head jerking forward as if to spit, but nothing else. It was Derrick Mason, the target of Crowder's pre-game trash talk, who had the last laugh: he caught a touchdown, and then blasted Crowder, calling him a "horrible player" after the game while talking with the media.

At 6-2 the Ravens are tied for the best record in the AFC and head into Atlanta for a showdown with the Falcons, who are also tied for the best record in the NFC.

And after 2 sloppy wins at home, it's time to see what these Ravens are really made of.

Bills give Ravens a scare

Billy Cundiff celebrates his game winning field goal in overtime over the Buffalo Bills.

It was one of those games where you ask yourself, "is this really happening"?

Coming off a tough loss to the New England Patriots a week before, the winless Buffalo Bills gave the Ravens everything they had -- and then some -- in the Ravens 37-34 overtime win.

The Bills were up 17-3 and 24-10 at one point and even came back from a 10 point deficit to tie the game in the 4th quarter and force overtime.

Their offensive stats are staggering: 506 total yards of offense. 4 passing touchdowns. 38 minutes of ball control. If not for Ray Lewis stripping Shawn Nelson of the football on a Bills drive in overtime, the Ravens probably would have lost. They were unable to stop the Bills on offense the entire day.

It was one of those games that cemented the truth for Ravens fans -- this isn't the dominant Ravens defense of year's past.

Maybe the Ravens were looking forward to their bye week. The Bills had just come off their bye. Maybe it was one of those perfect storm kind of games where a winless team can put the fear of God into a Super Bowl contender at home.

I'm chalking it up to "any given Sunday". But the game was not without many wake-up calls.

Thankfully, Joe Flacco was Joe Cool, even as the Ravens trailed by 14 points on two different occasions. He passed for 250 yards and 3 touchdowns to no interceptions. His completion rate was a lackluster 51.6%, however, and was sacked twice. But he made the throws when they needed to be made.

The receiving corps was lead by Todd Heap, who caught 3 balls for 59 yards and 2 touchdowns -- while Anquan Boldin caught 6 balls for 92 yards and 1 TD himself.

The ground game was workmanlike for the Ravens. Ray Rice gained 72 yards on 16 carries and Willis McGahee earned 64 on 11 carries with a touchdown. Both had good yard-per-carry averages on the day, but with the Ravens trailing by so much so early, they were forced to pass the ball.

The biggest problem on the day was on defense, where the Ravens failed to stop the Bills running game (132 total rushing yards) and exhibited atrocious tackling in the secondary. Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick did a good job getting his receivers the ball quickly, underneath the Ravens pass coverage, which allowed them to break some terrible attempts at tackling for big gains. It was a fundamental breakdown. If the Ravens could have tackled properly, the game would have never been as close as it was. Not to mention, Fabian Washington was torched on the day, and it was a performance that should ultimately cost him his job as a starting cornerback with Josh Wilson on the roster.

Thankfully, Bill Cundiff made all 3 of his field goals, including the 38-yard game winner. Cundiff has been pretty reliable on the season, but he isn't going to make Ravens fans forget about Matt Stover anytime soon. However, his kickoffs are routinely downed in the endzone. Any worries that Ravens fans had about the kicking game last year with the Steve Haushka debacle and then a shaky Cundiff taking over and ultimately winning the job again this year, should be put to rest. Cundiff is fine.

In the end, it will be a game remembered for the win, rather than the close call. Hopefully the Ravens head into the bye realizing they aren't invincible, and that even an 0-6 team can go toe to toe with anyone in the NFL.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Pumpkinhead & Evilspeak

It's October. And it's that time of year when I get the itch for some good horror movies.

As a child of the 1980's, I like my horror movies from that era of the 70's and 80's -- when the slasher craze was booming and quality directors like John Carpenter, William Friedkin and Richard Donner were pushing the envelope with taboo themes and ample gore.

So while there are still dozens if not hundreds of horror movies from that era that I have yet to see, I can't help but feel like I've seen most of the great horror movies from the 70's and 80's.

And while watching Pumpkinhead, a movie that I had such high hopes for, and Evilspeak, a movie I knew would suck but wanted to watch it for nostalgic reasons, my fears were realized: Maybe I have seen all of the good horror movies from the 70's and 80's.

Pumpkinhead was made in 1988 by Stan Winston, who you may know as the special effects wizard from films such as The Terminator and Aliens. He's a true visionary. And so when he stepped behind the camera, you'd think the quality of his films would be in line with that of his special effects work.


I should have known there was a reason why Winston's only feature film directing credits are Pumpkinhead and a Gnome Named Gnorm. But that didn't keep me from wanting to like this movie. First, it's called Pumpkinhead. Great title. Second, it's Winston, so you know the make-up and creature effects should be great. And for the most part, they are. Third, the name alone is awesome. Fourth, Lance Henrikson is in it. Come on! That alone should make it awesome.

The plot also piqued my interest: A father invokes a demon to seek revenge on the teenagers who accidentally killed his son. But sadly, Pumpkinhead feels amateurish from the start and never improves. And where's the gore? I expected Winston to really show off the special effects here as a director, but aside from some nasty creature effects, the film was pretty tame by the standards of the 80's. By comparison, Raiders of the Lost Ark, a PG movie had more gore. All we get in Pumpkinhead is off-screen killings and after the fact blood.

On the positive side, the movie looks good despite the crappy DVD version I watched. Winston wisely borrowed James Cameron's steel-blue palate and incorporated some burnt oranges to give the film a nice visual feel that oozes Halloween.

But in the end, the idea of Pumpkinhead is better than the actual movie. And while I usually balk at the idea of horror movies being remade for modern audiences, I think Pumpkinhead could actually benefit from the recent remake craze. Just don't let Michael Bay get a hold of it.

Up next was the 1981 film Evilspeak starring Clint Howard, who's appearance alone made it a cult classic. I'd watched Evilspeak when I was twelve or so when our local TV station aired horror movies on Saturday's at 2 p.m. It was edited to hell, of course, but some of the images of the film had stayed with me over the years. And when I signed up for Netflix, I added Evilspeak to my queue, knowing that it wasn't a movie I could stroll down to the local video store to rent.

Evilspeak has some infamous qualities to it, since it was a Video Nasty in England back in the 80's and 90's. But while watching it, I wondered why. The first hour and fifteen minutes of the 95 minute film is just talk. That's right. We aren't even strung along with a random killing here and there. All we get is poor Stanley Coopersmith (Clint Howard) being relentlessly bullied and typing away crazily on a 1981 era computer to resurrect a Satanic spirit and get revenge on his classmates. It's really just a Carrie rip-off with really bad Atari graphics. And slllooooowwwww!

The last ten or fifteen minutes are almost worth the wait, but even the climax is too short. But get this. In the final act we get: a woman eaten alive by pigs, an upside-down impaling on a chandelier, a nail in the wrist of Jesus on a crucifix shoot into a guy's forehead, Clint Howard floating in the air wielding a giant sword, multiple beheadings, and a heart ripped out of a guy's chest!

If ever there was a horror movie that you could watch on You Tube, Evilspeak is it. Just watch the film's trailer and then the last fifteen minutes and you will have not missed a thing. I will give props to the makers of Evilspeak for the computer-being-used-for-bad themes that were about 20 years before its time. So while Evilspeak does have some things going for it, it's just too damn slow.

So yeah, I'm a little disappointed that I'm having trouble finding good horror movies from the 70's and 80's to wet my beak during this Halloween season, but it's still fun to watch a movie I haven't seen before or haven't seen in a long time.

And ironically, I've watched three excellent horror movies in the last year that were all made within the past three years: Trick r Treat, House of the Devil and Paranormal Activity. All of these films were made with the qualities of 70's and 80's horror movie -- "less is more".

So while I may not find many more good movies from my favorite era of horror films, at least some current directors are using what made horror movies so good back then, and transporting them to the present day.

I guess I can't complain.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Conservative Ravens give away win to New England

Deion Branch celebrates a 4th quarter touchdown catch in the Patriots' overtime win over the Ravens.

It was one of those games when your team is up in the 4th quarter and you start thinking about how sweet it will be to see that opposing team's fan at work on Monday and rub in the win.

I mean, the Ravens had a 20-10 lead in the 4th quarter. The lead should have been safe with the Ravens defense, right?


The Ravens, who had been able to move the ball well against the Patriots defense all day, switched to conservative mode on both sides of the ball with the 10 point lead and the Patriots climbed their way back into the game and eventually won 23-20 in overtime.

It was the kind of loss where Ravens fans want to run the coaching staff out of town: Cam Cameron for sticking with Ray Rice too long and refusing to throw down field in the 4th quarter, Gregg Mattison for using the prevent defense, which only prevented the Ravens from winning, and John Harbaugh who elected to punt on a 4th and 1 on the Ravens 47-yard line with 9:10 left in the game, instead of going for it and killing the clock.

Joe Flacco had an excellent day, completing 27 of 35 passes, throwing for 285 yards, 2 TD's and 0 INT's. And yet Cameron didn't trust Flacco to throw down the field in the 4th quarter? I'm sorry, but when you take the girl to the dance, you dance with her. Cameron's erratic treatment of Flacco thus far has been head-scratching and infuriating.

Ray Rice, meanwhile, had trouble getting going all day. He had 28 rushes and 88 yards which comes out to a 3.1 YPC average, yet Cameron put the game on Rice's shoulders in the second half, and failed to adjust when it became apparent that Rice was not able to move the chains. Willis McGahee, meanwhile, didn't get a single snap the entire game. If Cameron was insistent on running the ball to kill the clock, McGahee's fresh legs may have helped.

And the defense didn't help either. In Baltimore, you think that a 10 point lead is safe in the 4th quarter, whether at home or on the road. After all, it's the way the Ravens have won games in the past -- but those were different times when the Ravens had no offense -- and Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason and TJ Houshmandzadeh were playing in different cities. But the Ravens defense had a hand in the loss, too. The Ravens defense allowed New England put together 2 4th quarter drives that forced overtime: a 4 minute, 8 play drive that resulted in a touchdown to make the score 20-17 and then a 7 minute, 13 play drive that resulted in the game-tying field goal.

And like the conservative play calling on offense, the Ravens defense switched to vanilla schemes, rushing only three linemen, giving Tom Brady ample time to throw in the pocket with zero pressure.

And in overtime, the generic play calling continued. The Ravens were content to engage in a battle of field position with the Patriots when they should have been going for the jugular. A Le'Ron McClain unsportsmanlike conduct penalty backed the Ravens up to their 17 yard line instead of getting the gall at the 27. And on that drive, the Ravens gained 35 yards, which would have put the Ravens around the Patriots 38-yard line. Granted, it would have been a 55-yard field goal, and Billy Cundiff has been nothing but erratic with the Ravens, but when it's for a win on the road, you have to take a shot.

But in the end, it was the Patriots who won that battle. The defense allowed the Patriots to get into field goal range with a 5 minute, 7 play, 45-yard drive that resulted in the game-winning field goal with just under 2 minutes left in overtime.

The media will lap up the Patriots come from behind win and continue to hang from Tom Brady's jock while celebrating the return of WR Deion Branch, who had several clutch catches late in the game. But most intelligent football fans will also realize that the Ravens took their foot off the throat of the Patriots sometime toward the end of the 3rd quarter, and gave the Patriots life.

It's becoming obvious that Cam Cameron has some glaring flaws in his game planning strategy. His refusal to stick with Ray Rice and his 5.4 YPC average in Cincinnati ultimately cost the Ravens the game and his insistence to stick with Rice last Sunday cost the Ravens another game. It's as if the criticism from his time as offensive coordinator in San Diego has followed him to Baltimore and he's learned nothing from it.

That said, if there is anything positive to take away from the loss, it's that the Ravens can learn from their mistakes. If they hadn't taken their foot off the gas pedal late in the game, they could have very well won. This isn't the mid-2000's Ravens anymore where a 10 point lead must be treated carefully like a valuable artifact. We've got a top-tier quarterback in Joe Flacco. We've got three excellent WR's in Boldin, Mason and Houshmandzadeh. There's a reason why Ozzie Newsome brought those guys in here -- and it's to win football games with them.

Yet on Sunday, it felt strangely like 2004 again.

The Ravens take on the Buffalo Bills this Sunday before their bye week on 10/31.

Ravens tame the Broncos, 31-17

Ray Rice had a huge day in the Ravens 31-17 win over the Denver Broncos.

By now, Denver has to hate Baltimore. Even the crabcakes.

The Ravens improved to 5-0 against the Broncos in Baltimore with a 31-17 win.

Ray Rice woke up from his 2010 slumber, rushing for 133 yards and 2 touchdowns. Joe Flacco and Willis McGahee each chipped in with rushing TD's of their own and Flacco also threw for 196 yards, supplementing the Ravens ground game which was in cruise control all day.

And while the Broncos' Kyle Orton threw for 314 yards and 2 TD's, it was mostly of the garbage variety. The Broncos trailed 31-10 during the final 5 minutes of the game. The Ravens defense gave up the passing yardage, but shut down the run, and employed a bend-don't-break mentality all day.

All in all, it was a good sound win as the Ravens improved to 4-1.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

I am all for remaking movies.

I'll use any excuse to revisit a beloved movie universe, whether it is via a remake or an unnecessary sequel. We watch movies to escape reality and feel a certain way, and I always welcome going back to the time when I first experienced some of my favorite childhood movies, regardless of whether they are actually any good. Like any good road trip, it's the journey and not the destination that makes it worth while.

However, the 2010 remake of Wes Craven's 1984 classic, A Nightmare on Elm Street is making me doubt this opinion. Here we have a remake that is totally devoid of the suspense and humor that made the original one of the better slasher movies of the 80's. Even Jackie Earle Haley, who was the lone bright spot in another lifeless film -- Watchmen -- fails to exude menace in his rebooted version of Freddy Kruger.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with this remake. The film has nothing to say. Any good remake takes the original film's central idea and runs with it -- often applying the themes and morals to the current times. But Nightmare fails to do any of this. How great would it have been for this film to say something about the over medication of today's children? That somehow ADD or anti-depression medication are somehow causing these nightmares to occur. Or make the origin of this film's Freddy Kruger a chat-room trolling pedophile. Anything to update the remake for the present day and age.

The only thing this remake has going for it is a character's surprising death about a half hour into the film. But if you've ever seen Psycho -- and yes, even the remake -- you may find yourself rolling your eyes. Even a supposed main character's surprising death early in a film is nothing new.

Platinum Dunes, the studio behind this useless piece of trash, is also responsible for the remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th. Chainsaw boringly kept the movie setting in the 1970's, like the original, and Friday unwisely updated the film to present time when it could have mined the original's early 1980's setting for laughs and nostalgia. If Platinum Dunes have proven anything, it's that they are only in the horror movie remake business to make money. And yes, I know money is the bottom line for all movie studios, but the total disregard of quality in these remakes downright is shameful.

I guess I shouldn't expect anything more from the man who's directed all three Transformers movies.

In the end, A Nightmare on Elm Street is just that, a nightmare. And like any unnecessary remake, it only makes the viewer yearn for the original film.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Tale of Two Seasons

Ever wonder what God looks like?

"It was the worst of times, it was the best of times..."

I know I got it backwards, but only because the Orioles ended what was shaping up to be the worst season in franchise history -- and one of the worst seasons modern baseball -- with two months that saw the team do a complete 180 degree turn from futility to respectability.

On August 1st, the Orioles were 32-73 and on pace for 114 losses. But then Buck Showalter arrived on August 2nd and said "Let there be competitive baseball" and the Orioles finished 34-23 during two of the most surreal and enjoyable months to the 2010 season.

Was Buck Showalter's appearance in the dugout the sole reason for the improvement? I think Occam's Razor makes sense in this situation. The easiest answer must be the right one.

The players even admitted that Buck was the reason for the better record.

So it was Buck all along!

I'm still in shock. I mean, you have to remember that this was the same team that had Garrett Atkins and his .562 OPS playing 1B for three months. This was the same team that couldn't knock in a runner in scoring position if someone had a gun to the Oriole Bird's head. This was a team that couldn't protect a lead if the other team was using whiffleball bats.

Those days seem so long ago, yet they were barely over two and a half months ago.

The list of things that the almighty Buck Showalter has accomplished since managing his first game on August 3rd are amazing...

- He won more games as manager in two months (34) than Dave Trembley and Juan Samuel did combined in four (32).
- He oversaw the first winning months of August and September since 1997.
- He oversaw a 17 game period of play against the AL East where the Orioles had a winning record (14-13).
- He oversaw the team with the best record in the AL East since becoming manager.
- He oversaw the team with the second best record in the AL since becoming manager.
- And because of his final two months as manager, the Orioles had the first season to season record improvement since 2003-2004.

If Buck Showalter doesn't receive a vote for Manager of the Year, I don't know what to say. His participation in one of the most drastic turnarounds in the history of Major League Baseball deserves at least one token vote. Even if it comes from a writer at the Baltimore Sun.

Yes, Buck does deserve a lion's share of the credit. But let's not forget the players' role in this turnaround.

Brad Bergesen, who had a meltdown in Seattle in April that was painful to watch, pitched his way back from Norfolk -- twice -- to become the Orioles' best pitcher over the stretch of August and September. Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Jeremy Guthrie also played a part in making the final two months of the season some of the best pitched periods of Orioles baseball in years.

After watching these guys pitch their asses off for two months it's impossible not to get excited about the rotation for 2011.

The offense never underwent the drastic transformation that the starting pitching did under Showalter, but guys like Luke Scott, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis remain the offensive core of the team. Hopefully GM Andy MacPhail will burn the midnight oil trying to get this line-up the true clean-up hitter it desperately needs.

So while it was one of the most painful seasons to watch for four months, it was also surprisingly one of the most enjoyable for the final two.

The offseason will go by slow -- you can count on that. But hopefully we'll have some things to be excited about as MacPhail tries to upgrade this club, especially at 1B, SS and 3B.

Is it too early for Hot Stove baseball?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Ravens beat Steelers!!! And I was in Cancun!!!

My wife Kelly and I, watching the Ravens vs. Steelers game at the Tequila Barrel in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico.

Our friends, Jason and Jaime, watching the game with us.

It's been more than a week since the Ravens topped the Steelers 17-14 in what was one of the greatest Ravens wins in franchise history.

Trailing 14-10 with just a minute left in the 4th quarter, Joe Flacco finally devised one of those game-winning drives that all other great QB's have in their portfolio, hitting T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the endzone and silencing the Steeler fans in Pittsburgh. It was the first time the Ravens have won in Pittsburgh since 2006.

The reason for the late blog entry? I was in Cancun.

Was I able to watch it, you ask?

You bet.

I searched far and wide for a bar that was showing the game and finally found one in Playa Del Carmen. It was called the Tequilla Barrel. Cool place. And there was even a Steeler fan there watching the game, too.

So instead of recapping the game, which I am sure has been burned into the brains of Ravens fans by now, I'll share my experience of watching the Ravens beating the Steelers while I was in paradise.

My wife, Kelly, and my friends, Jason and Jaime, decided to go to Cancun for a much needed vacation. We'd never gone on an extended trip together, outside of Ocean City, so it was great to finally have another couple to hang out with at our resort. We arrived on Saturday, October 2nd and stayed the entire week at the NOW Jade Resort just outside of Puerto Morelos, which is about twenty minutes south of Cancun.

Originally, our plan had been to go to Carlos N Charlies, which is also located in Playa Del Carmen, a touristy town about a half an hour south of our resort. We'd heard rumors that the sports bar in our resort would be showing the game, but we didn't want to risk it. If we stayed, and the resort was not showing the game, we'd be screwed -- and miss the game.

So dressed in our Ravens jerseys, the four of us caught the local ADO bus to Playa Del Carmen. Whereas taxis can cost upwards of $30 to get to Playa Del Carmen, the ADO bus cost $1.60. If you're thinking that the local bus in Mexico is like it usually is in the movies, with people holding chickens in the back of a busted van, you couldn't be more wrong. The ADO buses are basically tour buses, the same kind that blue hairs take on their trips to Atlantic City. They are air-conditioned, have a bathroom and show movies.

When we arrived in Playa Del Carmen around eleven o'clock, we scoped out Carlos N Charlies. And when we saw it was closed, Jason began to panic. Since Cancun is an hour behind Eastern Standard Time, the games started at Noon. And with less than an hour to go, we still wanted to be 100% sure that the game would be showed, and now it looked like we'd be waiting until game time to see if the game was going to be aired because we couldn't get a definitely answer if any place would actually be showing the game.

I'd read on TripAdvisor.com that the Tequila Barrel was actually a better place to watch the game. So we headed to the other side of PDC to find it. Along the way, someone we ran into on the street confirmed that the Barrel was indeed better than Carlos N Charlies.

Along the way across town, store owners tried to lure us into their stores. "Flacco, Flacco, Flacco," they called after us, since three of us were wearing Flacco jerseys. They showed us Ravens ponchos. Mostly, they just tried to get our attention so they could sell us their wares. A few people asked us if we wanted to get high.

When we finally found the Tequila Barrel, we were able to confirm that the game was actually going to be showed, along with all of the other NFL games that day, since the bar has the NFL Sunday Ticket. It was also filled with fans of other teams, who had come there for the same reason -- to watch their teams play while on vacation. So we breathed a sigh of relief and ordered some beers, waiting for the game to begin.

Ironically, our friends Jason and Jaime knew another couple, Chris and Kim, who were staying close by in Playa Del Carmen that same weekend. So by the time the game started, we were six deep in the Tequila Barrel, cheering the Ravens on. We were representing!

The game, as Ravens fans know by now, was a certified classic. I nearly lost my voice screaming like a little girl when Flacco hit TJ Houshmandzadeh for the game winning touchdown. The Steeler fan in the bar with us tipped his cap before heading back out into the sunshine and to celebrate, the four of us did shots of pomegranate (purple) tequila.

I went on record saying that it was probably one of the best days of my life.

I still stand by it.

As we headed back toward the ADO bus for the trip back to our resort, a few more people called after us, "Flacco, Flacco, Flacco!" Some of them asked us again, "Do you want to get high?"

We were already high off a Ravens victory...and we still had a week to spend in beautiful Mexico.

It would have been an amazing trip even if the Ravens had lost. The Ravens win was just icing on the cake.