The Weekend Wrap

December 22, 2008 |

Those Dirty Birds: ‘The Worldwide Leader’ will probably be gushing over the Tennessee win over Pittsburgh. Maybe the four letter network will be talking all about how New England has an easy path to the AFC Eastern Division title. Maybe they’ll even talk about Dallas’ latest loss. We know how they work. We also know they are missing a pretty good story with the Atlanta Falcons.

The Vikings were a field goal favorite to beat Atlanta and clinch the NFC North division, thereby making tonight’s game between the Packers and Bears meaningless. But, a funny thing happened on the way to Minnesota’s division title. The Falcons did.

While most of the league was paying attention to Matt Ryan and Michael Turner, the Falcon defense was flying under the radar. Not anymore. Atlanta recovered four Viking fumbles, turning those into 17 points, which turned out to be the difference in the ballgame. Ryan and Turner played OK, but not like they had at other points during the season.

With the win, Atlanta improved to 10-5. They are on their way to the playoffs. The Atlanta Falcons. The same team that lost Mike Vick to prison. The same team that hired Bobby Petrino as their coach before the 2007 season, only to watch him slither out of town before the season ended for the comfort of college football. The Falcons were a mess less than a year ago. How did they get it turned around so fast?

That’s an easy one to answer. The NFL is a copycat league. Owner Arthur Blank and former GM Rich McKay noticed the kind of success the Patriots have had this decade, and decided if they couldn’t hire Scott Pioli that they would hire the next best thing. Piloi’s assistant. Thomas Dimitroff. He might not have been a household name, but he was the correct hire.

Not only did he bring the Patriots philosophy to the ATL, but he’s the one who hired Mike Smith as coach. When Smith got the job, a lot of people scratched their heads. How did a career assistant get this kind of opportunity? Well, after fifteen games we now understand, don’t we. The man knows how to coach a defense. That was always his specialty. He’s not doing anything different than he did when he was in Jacksonville. In fact, the vaunted Jaguars defense has struggled since he left.

Smith also had the courage to start Ryan at quarterback as opposed to Chris Redman. Most coaches would have trusted the veteran, but Smith gambled with the rookie and won. Won with the guy Dimitroff identified as the franchise quarterback they had to have last April.

Dimitroff has done a wonderful job since taking over football operations in Atlanta. He convinced Michael Turner, the free agent back evereyone wanted, to sign with his club. He not only drafted Ryan, but moved back up into the first round to select Sam Baker from USC, who played well when he was healthy earlier this season.

The Falcons may not get the same kind of pub the Titans, Patriots, and Cowboys do, but they are no less of a story. In fact, don’t be surprised if Dimitroff wins NFL Executive of the Year when it’s all said and done. He deserves it for turning around this franchise.

And though Tennessee’s Jeff Fisher will probably win Coach of the Year honors, Smith deserves it just as much.

Lebron’s future: Have you ever seen as much talk about someone’s future as there has been about Cleveland’s Lebron James? The man doesn’t hit the free agent market until July of 2010, and yet there are teams already falling all over themselves trying to clear enough cap room in order to sign him. The Pistons dealt Allen Iverson to try and clear cap room. The Knicks traded a number of players in order to clear cap room. It seems as if some teams are willing to sacrifice this season, and even next season if it means they can sign King James.

But, what happens if James never hits the open market? He now says he will consider re-signing  with Cleveland this coming off-season. What if he is really serious about staying with the Cavs?

Then again, maybe James is just saying the politically correct thing. Maybe James is just saying that because the Cavs are red hot this season, and he doesn’t want to rock the boat. In fact, that is probably the case. James probably sees this Cavs team as being the best one he’s ever been on, the one that could not only get him back to the NBA Finals, but win it this time. Why do anything that would put that in jeopardy?

Here’s the bottom line. If James hits the open market (okay, when he hits the open market), he’s gone. It won’t matter if Cleveland can offer him more than any other team. His NBA salary will pale in comparison to what he can (and already has) made as an endorser. And no offense to the fans in Cleveland or any other small market NBA city, but the endorsement dollars, especially in today’s economy, are more readily available in a New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago than they are in Cleveland.

Of course, if James does actually re-sign with the Cavs this summer, we’ll all look pretty ridiculous. But, no more ridiculous than the GM’s who were willing to sacrifice this season and next season for a pipe dream, right?

Sad Deal Holyfield:In case you missed it, and most of us probably did, former Heavyweight Champion Evander Holyfield lost a split decision to Nikolai Valuev Saturday as the former Olympian tried to recapture the Heavyweight Title. That was not a surprise. Holyfield is 46, hasn’t won a meaningful fight in years, since knocking out Hasim Rahman six years ago.

The surprise was in all the moaning and groaning that came after the fight. There were some analysts who went on television and complained that Holyfield was robbed. That he should have been given the win, and the title that comes along with it.

There isn’t a boxing fan around that doesn’t admire Holyfield for what he has accomplished. But, he’s got to stop fighting for his own good. Beating Valuev would be the worst thing that could happen to Holyfield. Because then you would see him in the ring with either Wladimir or Vitali Klitschko. Either fight would be a mismatch. Both of the Klitschko’s would overwhelm the 46-year old Holyfield, maybe even hurt the future Hall of Famer. Who would want to see that? Who would want to remember that?

There are so many things to remember Holyfield for. The1984 Olympics. Moving from Cruiserweight to Heavyweight and winning the title. The trilogy with Riddick Bowe. The first knockout of Mike Tyson. Bite-gate in the rematch one year later. The last image we all get of Holyfield should not be him seriously hurt at the hands of a younger, stronger, and better fighter.

But that seems to be the way it’s going to end for him. Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen his name pop up in an investigation concerning performance enhancing drugs. He’s talked freely about his financial problems, which were partly his own fault. He has eleven children by seven different women, two ex-wives, and the $40M plus he made in his career is pretty much gone. For losing to Valuev, Holyfield was paid a paltry $600K.

But that’s the trouble with boxing. Fighters tend to hang on too long. Whether it’s because of the money or the love of the spotlight, a lot of fighters continue their careers way past the time they should have gotten out. Even George Foreman, who shocked the world in 1994 by winning the title with a one punch knockout win over Michael Moorer, kept going. He should have made the Moorer fight his last one, but he didn’t, and only quit after losing to Shannon Briggs three years later.

In fact, the only boxer that got out while he was still at the top of his game was probably Marvelous Marvin Hagler. He never put on a pair of gloves after losing to Sugar Ray Leonard in 1987. Many people thought Hagler won that fight. Many people thought he was still the best fighter on the planet. But Hagler was so disgusted with the split decision loss to Leonard that he walked away. And never came back.

Holyfield should do the same. A fighter like him ought to leave on his own terms. Not because he hung on for one fight too long.

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