Friday, January 20, 2017

Championship Predictions

The Grandstander brings a 7-1 record for Playoffs Predictions into NFL Championship Weekend.  Astounding!

In the NFC, I was amazed last week at both the performance of the Atlanta Falcons and the individual performance of the Packers' Aaron Rodgers.  It looks to be a set up for a terrific game with a lot of scoring.  It is hard to go against Rodgers, but I am going to play a hunch and choose the FALCONS to defeat Green Bay and make their second trip to the Super Bowl.

In the AFC, well, we all know that the New England Patriots are the NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS, for God's sake.  Belichick, Brady, and all that.  Yes, they are formidable. Yes, they are favored, and yes, it will be huge task to defeat them.  However, back in September, I predicted that the Steelers would win the Super Bowl, and Tomlin, Roethlisberger, Bell, Brown, and a young and an improving-by-the-week defense are pretty good, too, so I see no reason to back away from that this late in the game. So it will the the STEELERS over the Patriots on Sunday, and a record ninth trip to the Super Bowl for the franchise.

If I am right, and we end up with a Steelers-Falcons pairing in the big game, I will offer a third prediction:  Endless wailing and gnashing of teeth from all the sporting pundits bemoaning the fact that there will be no match-up between Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. Hey, I concede that those two guys are capital G Great, but have you ever witnessed such a slurp-a-thon as we have seen in the last week over two players? I mean...

This endless moaning will also lead to the inevitable speculation of "Who will even bother to watch a Pittsburgh-Atlanta game, when it could have been Brady vs. Rodgers?"

There you have it.  As always, watch, but don't bet.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

To Absent Friends - Eugene Cernan, Tommy Allsup

The first Absent Friends post of 2017 is a two-for-one entry.

Gene Cernan

Astronaut Gene Cernan passed away yesterday at the age of 82.  Cernan was the veteran of both the Gemini (one flight) and Apollo (two flights) space programs.  As Commander of Apollo 17, the last flight to the moon, Cernan became the twelfth and, more importantly from an historical perspective, the last human to have set foot on the lunar surface. Like all of America's astronauts, Cernan led a life of accomplishment, and he surely was made of the Right Stuff.   His obituary noted how he spent much of his final years testifying before Congress and lobbying the powers that be that America continue it's space exploration.  He wanted to be sure that he would NOT be the last person to set foot on the moon.

Cernan's death now leaves only six living persons to have set foot on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Dave Scott, John Young, Charles Duke, and Harrison Schmitt.   Duke and Schmitt are the youngest of these six, and they will turn 82 in 2017.

RIP Gene Cernan.

Tommy Allsup
(right, with Buddy Holly)

This morning's paper also included the obituary of musician Tommy Allsup earlier this month at the age of 85.  The Oklahoma born guitarist spent a lifetime touring with and serving as a session musician for artists such as Bob Willis, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Kenny Rodgers, Charlie Rich, and Zager and Evans.  However, Allsup's place in music history is secured as a result of a lost coin flip.  While touring the Midwest in the winter of1959, Allsup lost a coin flip to singer Ritchie Valens.  As a result, Allsup was stuck taking the usual tour bus, and Valens got to ride on a private airplane to the next stop.  You can guess the rest of the story.  The coin flip took place in Clear Lake, Iowa, and the plane carrying Valens, Holly, the Big Bopper, J.P Richardson, and the pilot crashed, killing all on board.  It was, as legend has it, the "Day the Music Died".

The obit tells of how Allsup kept that half-dollar coin for the rest of his life, of how he always wanted to reach out to the Valens family, but worried about how they might feel towards him as a result of that fatal coin flip.  It wasn't until 1994 that he actually met with Valens' family members, and how warmly they greeted him, saying that he was their "only link to Ritchie" and how they would like for him to be the "brother that they missed having all of their life."

As I always say, you can find some of the most fascinating stories by reading the obituary pages.

RIP Tommy Allsup.

NFL Playoffs Thoughts

Some thoughts on the NFL Divisional Playoff round.  You know, that was the round where The Grandstander posted perfect 4-0 prediction record. (Yes, I believe I had that!)

Game of the Weekend.  Hands down, Green Bay's 34-31 win over Dallas.  That game had everything one could possibly want in a football game.

Play of the Weekend. The pass from Aaron Rodgers to Jared Cook along the sideline with :03 left in the game to set up the game winning field goal for the Packers.  Not sure what was more impressive, Rodgers' throw, Cook's ability to catch and keep his toes in bounds, or the game official seeing it and over-ruling the initial call of incomplete.

Runner-up Play of the Weekend.  Ben Roethlisberger's third and three pass to Antonio Brown from inside his own ten yard line to make first down and enable the Steelers to run out the clock and preserve their 18-16 win.

Surprise of the Weekend (to me anyway). How good the Atlanta Falcons were.  I hadn't seen Atlanta all season, so, like I said, this one surprised me.  Sets up what should be one whale of a game between Atlanta and Green Bay and an Aaron Rodgers - Matt Ryan showdown/shootout.

What Is He Doing Here? Award.  This one goes to Houston QB Brock Osweiler, and do I have to go into the details on this one? Whomever the genius was in the Houston Texans brain trust who decided to bestow a $72 million contract upon this guy has got to be concerned about HIS job security right about now.

He's Proved Himself Award.  This one goes out to Dallas rookie QB Dak Prescott who was pretty terrific in that game against Green Bay (and all season long, for that matter).  Tell me again what some people (ahem, Jerry Jones) were suggestion that Tony Romo would be brought into that game if Dallas fell behind early.  Dallas did fall behind early, and it was Prescott who led them back into that game and almost won it for them.  Best wishes to Romo as he goes to a new team for next season, because it sure looks like Prescott is going to be The Goods for Dallas for years to come.

The Other Guy.  To be honest, I had to go to the Google Machine to look up who Atlanta's coach was as I was watching that game on Saturday.  The NFL has a Final Four of coaches that counts nine Super Bowl appearances and six Lombardi Trophy winners, Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin, and Mike McCarthy.  And the Other Guy.  Dan Quinn.

Are They Vulnerable?  Despite the fact that the Texans were easily the worst of the eight teams that played this past weekend, they were able to hang with the Patriots for at least the first half of the game, so it raises the question, Are the Patriots vulnerable?  Houston's pass rush did get to the Golden Boy a few times in that first half and made him look like a 39 year old quarterback.  Of course, they play four quarters, not just two, and Tom Brady was definitely Tom Brady by the time all was said and done, but the question lingers....

Most Valuable Talisman.  For the second week in a row, these babies produced a Steelers Playoff victory:

Yes, I will be wearing them again come Sunday at 6:38 PM.  Belichick and Brady....BEWARE, and #FearTheSocks. Many thanks to pal Joe Risacher for coming up with that hashtag.

Predictions.   Not ready to make them yet, but here's a hint:  Back in September I predicted that the Steelers would win the Super Bowl, and I am not about to back away from that prediction.  As for Green Bay and Atlanta, I need to cogitate just a bit more on that one.  Look for the call(s) come Friday.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Movie Review - "Hidden Figures"

This afternoon we saw what was without doubt the best movie among all of the end of year releases that we have seen up to this point, director Theodore Melfi's "Hidden Figures".  This movie tells the true story of the role that three African-American women played in the American space program back in 1961, the time when the USA was struggling to catch up with the USSR in succeeding in manned flights into outer space.  The women are played by (as pictured above) Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer.  All are terrific in their roles, but first among equals is Henson as the mathematical genius whose work and contributions were critical to NASA.  Also, featured in key roles are Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, and Kevin Costner.  No longer the dashing leading man, Costner has now become a character actor, and he is terrific in "Hidden Figures".

We came away from this movie with two thoughts.  One, how is it that this story was never told and is so unknown, and, two, how shameful it was that we once lived in a country that required separate restrooms, segregated buses, separate water fountains, and even separate coffee pots in offices.  Two great scenes: When chief engineer Costner, clueless up to this point, realizes that he is losing one of his best workers for large portions of the day because she has to leave the building in order to use the "colored ladies" bathroom located in another building, and a scene in a now integrated rest room between Spencer and Dunst.

I can't recommend this one highly enough.  An unequivocal Four Stars from The Grandstander for "Hidden Figures".


On the subject of movies, I recently re-watched this one again:

After watching the Blue-ray two days ago, I went back into The Grandstander archives and saw that when I wrote about seeing it in August, I rated it at Two and One-half Stars, to which I said to myself "What was I thinking???"

"Hell or High Water" is easily one for he best movies of 2016, and deserves a rating of at least three and one-half stars.  Jeff Bridges is utterly fantastic in his role as the crusty old soon-to-retire Texas Ranger, and the final scene of the movie between him and Chris Pine is fabulous.

"Hell or High Water" has been available on DVD for some time now, and I am sure that it can be streamed easily enough on the various services out there.  See this one as soon as you can.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

This, That, and the Other....

Cleaning out the Mental In-Box.....

  • The Grandstander went 3-1 in his NFL Wildcard Playoff predictions last weekend, missing only the Packers win over the Giants.  In truth, none of he games were all that great from a competitive point of view, although I loved the non-competitive nature of the Steelers thrashing of the Dolphins.
  • For this coming weekend, I give you this....Patriots over Texans (Joe Starkey suggested today that, somehow, the Pats managed to get another bye week in the Playoffs), Falcons over the Seahawks (the fact that Seattle let a lousy Lions team stay with them into the fourth quarter prevents me from picking them), Packers over the Cowboys (just gotta go with Aaron Rodgers over the rookie Dak Prescott), and Steelers over the Chiefs (not going to back down from my prediction of a Super Bowl win for the Steelers).
  • I also missed on the CFP game.  Congrats to Deshaun Watson and all the Clemson players on their victory.  To their sanctimonious coach, Dabo Swinney, well, all I can say is that he is one of the few guys I can think of that would make me want to root for Nick Saban.
  • Got a chance to watch this Ron Howard-directed documentary this week:

  • If you are a devoted follower and fan of the Beatles, I am not sure that you will learn anything new about the band from this, but it does give you a chance to see the group performing live in their touring years.  As everyone knows, The Beatles stopped making live performances in 1966, so any chance one gets to see them perform like this is a bonus.  There is also some color footage of the group performing at a concert in England in 1963 that is astonishingly good in terms of picture and sound quality, and that is something that I, at least, had never seen before.  I rate this a solid three stars, and will say that any fan of The Beatles should add a copy of this movie to their Beatles Library.
  • Those same fans might also want to download or buy this CD which was recently remastered and reissued in conjunction with the Howard movie:
  • Last week's issue of Sports Illustrated featured a cover story about Ben Roethlisberger, whom that called the "NFL's most polarizing player".   I wish someone at SI would explain what the point was in publishing that story.  It broke absolutely no new ground.
  • That same issue featured and "SI True Crime" sort about former Cowboys running back Joseph Randle.  "True Crime", apparently, is now going to be a monthly feature in SI.
  • With both stories, I felt like I was reading the National Enquirer, and not Sports Illustrated.  
  • Sports Illustrated also announced that US Olympic gymnasts Simone Biles and Aly Raisman will be featured models in its upcoming swimsuit issue.  Miss Biles and Miss Raisman have made this choice freely, and I presume that they are being paid handsomely for doing so, but I hope that I never hear them complain that they are not being "taken seriously" as competitive athletes, or that they are being "objectified", now that they have chosen to be a part of this issue of the magazine.  I wonder what a true pioneer like Billie Jean King would have to say about this.
  • I guess that this is just what print publications have to do in an increasingly digital age.
  • Finally, I am enjoying this short series from Amazon that was written and directed by Woody Allen:
  • Allen also stars in the show that also includes the great Elaine May as his wife.  I had seen that critics weren't too wild about this series, but I think it has its moments.  I have not finished watching the entire series and will wait until I do to give my final judgment, but, so far, not bad.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Book Review - "Chuck Noll, His Life's Work"

As the book, "Chuck Noll, His Life's Work" by Michael MacCambridge was about to be released, I heard Dan Rooney being interviewed, and he said something to the effect that he was tired of going to NFL meetings year after year and hearing about how great guys like Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells were, while no one ever said anything about Chuck Noll.  So, in 2012 Rooney, at that point a United States Ambassador, approached author Michael MacCambridge and asked if he would be willing to write a definitive biography of the former Steelers coach.   MacCambridge agreed to take on the task, and now, after four years of dedicated research (the bibliography covers five printed pages), hundreds of interviews, and actually sitting down and writing, football history, not to mention football fans in general and Steelers fans in particular, are the better for it.   I just finished reading this book and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Part of the reason that so little is known of Noll other than the runs-hits-and-errors (if I may use a baseball metaphor) of his coaching record can be traced to Noll himself.  A naturally reticent man, Noll was a notoriously private and closed individual. Part of this is his family heritage and background, which is told in great detail here, and he made his choice to be that way.   Yet, he was one of the more interesting and well rounded men - away from the football field - that you will ever read about.  He was, MacCambridge says, "one of the last hugely successful NFL coaches to have an identifiable life outside of football, to be such a well rounded person."  However, few people knew this, and players who played their entire careers for him will tell you that they never had a personal conversation with him.  Those same players will also tell you, decades removed from their playing days, just what an effect Noll had on them and continues to have on them in their life's work as, say, football coaches (Tony Dungy), businessmen (John Stallworth), and parents (Cliff Stoudt).  

Above all, the book is about the love story that was the life and fifty-seven year marriage of Chuck and Marianne Noll.  Marianne Noll and the Nolls' son, Chris, cooperated with and were interviewed by MacCambridge for this book.  During all the years of Noll's coaching tenure, the Noll Family was very private by their own choice, you knew they existed, but you knew nothing about them, so their stories and input to the book are invaluable and extremely insightful.

Two things I learned in this book that I never knew.  One was that Noll suffered from epilepsy, which he lived with and controlled all of his adult life.  Secondly, when his older sister became widowed at the age of 38 with seven children under the age of ten, Chuck and Marianne contributed greatly to the upbringing and raising of those nieces and nephews.  Chuck walked his one niece down the aisle at her 1989 wedding.

Just about every important and significant name in football and the Steelers of that era agreed to talk with MacCambridge as he researched and wrote this book with one notable exception - Terry Bradshaw.  Probably just as well given Bradshaw's penchant for giving, shall we say, contradictory viewpoints of his relationship with Noll (and others) over the years.  There is a great anecdote in the book of Stoudt running into Bradshaw at some NASCAR event in 2002 where he pretty much tells Bradshaw to give it up and realize just what Noll did for him.

Like many biographies, the best part of the book comes in the telling of the subject's life after he leaves the main stage, and this one is no exception.  I defy anyone to read the last two chapters and the epilogue of this one without a few tears welling up in your eyes.  

But, okay, if all you really care about is the football stuff, there is plenty of that in there for you, too.   Reading it brought back memories of many football games at Three Rivers Stadium where I was present, including the Immaculate Reception Game, but two other stories recounted in the book also stand out to me.  One was the reaction of Glen Edwards in the tunnel waiting to be introduced before Super Bowl IX when one of his old college teammates, now a member of the Vikings, refused to acknowledge him.  If you know your Steelers lore, you know this story, but it's one I never get tired of reading.  The second story was about the Wild Card Playoff game win over the Houston Oilers in overtime in 1989.  It was a loss that cost Oilers Coach Jerry Glanville his job, and the players' euphoria over that win rivaled that of previous Super Bowl wins.

Like I said, I cannot recommend this one highly enough.  Four Stars from The Grandstander for this one.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Wild Card Weekend Predictions

Yes, it is time for the Annual Grandstander Predictions for the NFL Wild Card Weekend Playoff Games.

Raiders at Texans.  While it is ingrained in my DNA to never root for or, even worse, feel sorry for the Oakland Raiders, it is hard not to feel just  bit of sympathy for the Silver and Black this year.  After years of ineptitude, the Raiders had the look of a genuine Super Bowl contender this season, right up until QB Derek Carr broke his leg in the 15th game of the season. Then backup Matt McGloin goes into concussion protocol.  Now, rookie Conner Cook makes his first ever NFL start in a playoff game.  The Texans QB situation isn't much better, but they do have a strong defense.  The TEXANS  to win this one.

Lions at Seahawks.  After a good start, the Lions back into the playoffs after losing the final three games of the season.  The SEAHAWKS  win this one.

Dolphins at Steelers.  The Dolphs come into frigid Heinz Field, and the STEELERS avenge that early season 30-15 loss in Miami on their way to the Super Bowl.

Giants at Packers.   This may well be the best game of the weekend.  The Packers are on a roll, winners of six straight, but the Giants have shown an ability in recent years to overcome conditions at the Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field.  The Grandstander plays a hunch and says that Eli outplays Aaron, and he GIANTS win.


CLEMSON VS. ALABAMA.  I am going to guess that this game may well be more highly contested and more entertaining than any of the four NFL games that precede it this weekend.  An interesting sidelight of this one was Nick Saban jettisoning OC Lane Kiffen on the eve of this game.  Man, those two must have really hated each other.  And while Saban is not exactly the most lovable guy in the universe, I must confess a personal dislike for Clemson HC Dabo Swinney.  This traces back to a game last year, I believe it was in the ACC Championship game, when the Clemson punter made some horrendous gaffe in the game, and Swinney chewed him out as he came to the sideline.  That was somewhat acceptable, but then Ol' Dabo sought the kid out while he was sitting on the bench and then went totally bat-shit crazy on the kid.  On the punter.  Swinney is one of those pious guys who love to invoke the name of the Lord after Clemson wins, but then acts in just about the most unchristian manner imaginable and play tough guy with his punter.  It's not easy to make Nick Saban look like the sympathetic good guy in a given match-up, but in my mind anyway, that's what he is when compared to Dabo Swinney.

So, that's how I'll be rooting.  A Clemson win would make Pitt's season look a bit better since Pitt beat the Tigers at Clemson (remember that one, Dabo?) in November, but I just don't see it happening.  It will not be an easy win, but ALABAMA gets Saban his umpteenth national championship with a win over Clemson on Monday.

There you are....Texans, Seahawks, Steelers, Giants, and Tide are winners.  As always, watch, but don't bet.