Monthly Archives: January 2011

My Bucket List

So, I’m not sure exactly what the inspiration for this was, but I figured it was time to put a bucket list down on paper. I’m going to include things that I can actually already check off, just so it doesn’t make me feel like my life has been empty and completely void of anything fun. You can probably gather it’s sort of categorized.

Daytona 500

Go to Indianapolis Motor Speedway

See a night race at Bristol

See a Formula One race

Do the Petty driving experience

NFL playoff game

Do a Falcons road game

Go to a Super Bowl

Attend a college football bowl game

SEC championship game

Tech/UGA game

Go to a Tech road game

NCAA Men’s basketball tournament game

ACC Men’s basketball tournament

MLB playoff game

World Series game

Go to Wrigley Field

Baseball hall of fame

Attend a golf major tournament

Step foot on Augusta national

See a World Cup game in person

Attend an Olympic sporting event

Washington D.C.

New York

Disney World

Road trip to California

Denver

Alaska

Europe

See Phantom of the Opera on Broadway

See Les Miserables on Broadway

See the Australian Pink Floyd cover band live

See an ocean besides the Atlantic

Las Vegas

See one of the Great Lakes

Eat at a restaurant owned by a Food Network Star, preferably at a time when they are cooking there, ha ha

Obtain a Plymoth Superbird

Break 80 on a golf course

Invent something that people find useful

Save a life

Leave an indelible mark on someone’s life that not only can they not forget, they don’t want to forget

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Atlanta’s 10 Most Heartbreaking Sports Moments #8

2010 NLDS Game 3– The 2010 Atlanta Braves were actually a collection of three teams.

There was the team that began the season 18-20, falling into last place, 6.5 games out of first by mid-May.

Then came the squad that went 38-20 thru July 22, building up a lead of 7 full games in the division, a remarkable 13.5 game swing in little over two months.

And lastly, we have the team that took the field in game three of the National League divisional series playoffs against the San Francisco Giants. It was a team that consisted of just two of the eight everyday players remaining from the opening day lineup. Seven positions from opening day had a new name on the lineup card for what ultimately became one of the most heartbreaking games in Atlanta Braves annals.

At catcher All-Star game MVP Brian McCann was still there, and was beginning to take claim to a new roll as the unquestioned leader and face of the Braves.

The other player remaining in the lineup? Just that rookie Jason Heyward, who himself had battled through injury throughout the second half, hurting his production, but not enough to prevent him from finishing second in rookie of the year voting and being the best offensive player on the team.

First basemen Troy Glaus, he off the ridiculous hot streak through May and early June that carried the Braves out of the slump? Age, injury, and ineffectiveness had taken him out of the lineup. Insert Derek Lee, another injured first basemen, seemingly a shell of the player he once was, but still, an uprgade over what Glaus had become at the plate, and a massive upgrade in the field.

At shortstop, the club had seen enough of the enigmatic Yunel Escobar and traded the super talented, but temperamental youngster to Toronto for veteran Alex Gonzalez. Gonzalez provided a more stabling presence in the infield, and perhaps more sound overall defense (though he made some crucial errors down the stretch), though without the potential flair that Escobar was supposed to offer.

Future hall of famer, and Mr. Brave Chipper Jones may have started slowly, but his bat began coming around in the second half of the year. Then, making one of the finest defensive plays he’s made in years, Jones season ended with an ACL tear. Initially all-star second basemen Martin Prado had been penciled in to play third, but after his season ending injury Omar Infante took over. All Infante did was, after making the All-Star team has a reserve, go on to contend for the National League batting title.

In left field, Melky Cabrera proved to be one of the worst off-season acquisitions in recent memory for the Braves, and when the playoffs rolled around, it was Matt Diaz making the start in the most important Braves game in half a decade.

In center, Nate McClouth got off to a start that was so bad nobody would have believed it without actually seeing it first hand. While McClouth seemed to recover after a stint in the minors and at least be serviceable, it wasn’t McClouth starting in center field on this night, instead it was late season pick-up, and ironically enough game two hero, Rick Ankiel.

And now we get to second base, yes, second base. It was manned at first by Prado, en route to selection to an all-star game. However, following the Chipper Jones injury, Prado was moved to third base, and Omar Infante took his spot at second. However, with just merely five games left in the season, Prado was lost for the year. Infante was moved from second to third, and in came Brooks Conrad at second. Conrad had become a folk hero of sort for the Braves, delivering some clutch hits off the bench in some huge wins for the club over the course of the year. However, his clutch at bats off the bench over shadowed his biggest weakness, he was a huge liability in the field. There’s a reason he was 30 years old and a rookie in the big leagues at such an age.

The team entered the season think Jair Jurrjens would be their ace, after his outstanding 2009 season, marred by poor run support. Jurrjens however couldn’t stay healthy throughout the year, and wasn’t even on the post-season roster.

Yet, here the Braves were, at home, playing game three against the National League West division champion San Francisco Giants, with the series knotted at one apiece.

The fact that the Braves were in such a spot was a testament to what the team had displayed all year, a fighting, never say die, it’s never over spirit. After dropping the first game in a nail biting 1-0 pitchers duel, the Braves faced a must win in game two.

Trailing 3-0 in the 8th, with for all intents and purposes the season seemingly pretty much over, Atlanta did what it had done all year. It picked itself up off the deck and scored three runs, the big blow coming from Alex Gonzalez’s two run double.

Into extra innings the games went, and there, another in season pick-up, Ankiel, would pick up the slack, turning a 2-2 pitch with one out in the top of the 11th into a moon shot that landed in McCovey Cove, well beyond the right field wall for a one run lead the Braves would not surrender.

However, to get into the 11th, the Braves had to pitch their way out of a jam in the bottom of the 10th. And while they accomplished that feat, closer extraordinaire Billy Wagner had to make a difficult defensive play on a ball out in front of the mound on a throw to second base. On the throw, Wagner injured an abdominal muscle and would no longer be available for the Braves in the playoffs.

So, yes, as the Braves entered game three of this division series, tied, with a chance to go up 2-1, wit Cy Young candidate Tim Hudson pitching, they were doing so with 6 of 8 regulars different from opening day, and their ace pitcher and their closer also both being someone different from who was expected from the opening pitch.

So as Braves fans, expecting a serious run to the World Series was just too much to expect, right? Well, no. Not with this team, not with the fight they’d shown all year. Not with the comeback against the Reds earlier in the year, not with they way they fought and clawed with an undermanned squad to get themselves into the playoffs, not with this being Bobby Cox’s last year and the team doing everything it could to send him out the best way they knew possible. No, it wasn’t too much to expect.

These are the dream seasons and magical story lines that seem to happen all the time, well, all the time in cities besides Atlanta.

Remember when I mentioned that Brooks Conrad had become the teams second baseman? He reminded us all with an error in the first inning.

In the second inning, he just reaffirmed it. Conrad, attempting to take a pop fly away from first basemen Derek Lee, misplayed the ball, allowing the Giants first run to score, giving the Giants a 1-0 lead.

It was a 1-0 lead that held all the way into the 8th inning. Then the Braves did what the Braves have done, again.

Alex Gonzalez singled to lead off the inning. Up next, Conrad, with a chance to atone for the damage done earlier in providing the Giants their only run. Asked to bunt, he couldn’t do it. He popped the bunt up, wasting an out.

One out, man still on first. Up to the plate stepped Eric Hinske. Sergio Romo’s 0-1 pitch didn’t go where he wanted it, and it landed exactly where he did not want it. The left handed Hinske turned on it, at once the crowd at Turner Field rose, fans in their living rooms all across Georgia rose to their feet. And then they all screamed and yelled and cheered in ways they’d not screamed and yelled and cheered in years.

Eric Hinske celebrates what should have been the game winning home run in game three of the NLDS

2-1, the Braves led. The stadium shook. It was good.

The Braves entered the 9th however without Wagner, who was going to close things out. Rookie Craig Kimbrel, the closer of the future, found out the future was now. At a time like this, you ask that the guys behind the pitcher help the youngster out.

And then here came that Conrad guy again. The Giants picked themselves up off the deck, rallying with two outs, with the Braves one out away from having two chances to close the Giants out, one of which would come at home, to score the tying run and put two more on base.

They tied the game at two, but there were still two outs, the Braves would be batting again, all was good. Then Giants catcher Buster Posey did the very best thing he could do. He hit the ball right at Brooks Conrad. Through the wicket it went, in came the go-ahead run, and with it went the Braves playoff hopes.

Nobody hurt more than Brooks Conrad after committing three errors in one playoff game, two leading to Giants runs.

Three errors in one game. Most players can’t try to do that. Brooks Conrad did it in the biggest game of his life. Conrad was the target of critics all over the country, but particularly so in the state of Georgia.

Forgotten was that without Conrad’s contributions during the year, the Braves wouldn’t even be in the playoffs. Forgotten was that Conrad was the teams THIRD choice at second base, only playing because guys like Martin Prado and Chipper Jones weren’t available. Forgotten was the decision by Bobby Cox to take out the hard throwing strike out machine Kimbrel for fellow rookie Mike Dunn, who’d offered very little value during the regular season. Forgotten was that the Braves team, really, wasn’t at this point good enough to be a playoff team, let alone one actually contending to win a series.

None of  that really mattered. What was remembered was that the Braves lost 3-2 in a game where two of the Giants runs came directly off of errors by Conrad. What was remembered was that a routine ground ball was hit to a major league baseball player, and he couldn’t make the play, again.

Even the “Nutty Nutcracker” at the Fox Theater took the liberty to get their shot in at Conrad.

Who is to say the Braves would have gone on to win that game, and if they had, who is to say they would have finished off the series? Who’s to say they advance past the Phillies and capture that World Series? We can’t know, but we never will, and it’s because Brooks Conrad couldn’t field one lousy ground ball.

The Giants, as we know, went on to win the World Series. Their toughest playoff series en route to doing so? You got it, the one where Brooks Conrad gave them game three. The Braves may not have gone on to equal the Giants run in the playoffs. But with the pitching the Braves had, and the way the team kept fighting back, one would have liked a chance.

Alas, as happens so often in Atlanta, that chance slipped between our legs, in excruciating fashion, again.

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Things That Died in the 2011 NFL Playoffs

Matt Ryan’s sense of invincibility at home

The Atlanta sports fan renewed hope that this could really be the year, or that any year could be the year

That home field advantage really means too much of anything

The myth that this Ravens defense is still a top flight and intimidating unit

Tom Brady’s playoff aura, perhaps it’s time we start recognizing Ben Roethlisberger’s

Jay Cutler’s respect league wide, however much he had

Prevailing thought that Mark Sanchez was holding the Jets back

Any belief that Jim Caldwell has any business being a head coach

Any notion that Mike Tomlin just rode the coat tails of Bill Cowher built teams to success

The notion that the loss of Brett Favre would cripple the Packers or Jets.

Rex Ryan’s fetishes with feet, he probably can’t be enjoying the taste of his in his mouth, or the feeling of the Steelers foot in his ass

Jay Cutler’s life of free drinks in downtown Chicago

 

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Atlanta’s 10 Most Heartbreaking Sports Moments #9

1997 NLCS Game 5– The 1997 NLCS as a whole could make it, but if you ask anyone what they remember about the 1997 post-season, well, any Braves fan, and they will tell you it was Game 5, and it was the name Eric Gregg.

Eric Gregg, God rest his soul, is probably the man third most responsible for the fact that the Atlanta Braves only won one World Series during their dominant run of the 90s, and Gregg never threw a pitch or took an at-bat.

To set the stage, let’s first look at how good the 1997 Atlanta Braves actually were.

1996, more on that in a few days, left as bitter a taste in the mind of the city of Atlanta as anything since that Sherman fella marched his way into town. Questions aplenty came up wondering how the Braves, and their fans, would rebound from such a painful setback as they opened up the brand new Turner Field.

It became clear over the off-season that John Schuerholz wasn’t pleased with coming up as the bridesmaid, and the tinkering began.

Only, this time, one could hardly call it tinkering.

The Braves had two right fielders in 1996, 1995 World Series hero and emerging Braves icon David Justice, and 1996 feel good rookie Jermaine Dye.

Justice began 1996 having one of his finer seasons, but a season ending injury put Justice on the shelf, and the Braves in seek of a replacement. Their primary option was rookie Jermaine Dye, who held his own quite well in the outfield.

With the emergence though of another young rookie, the uber talented Andruw Jones, suddenly the Braves outfield seemed rather crowded, as Ryan Klesko and Marquis Grissom, both key contributors to the 1995 World Series championship also had places in the outfield. Your math probably told you what it told Schuerholz, 5 is way more than 3.

Justice and Grissom were packaged in a surprising deal for Cleveland Indians center fielder Kenny Lofton. Lofton, as Braves fans remember, was an absolute pest in the 1995 World Series, and seemingly the only source of offense. Lofton had stolen 50 or more bases in each of the past five seasons, including 75 in 1996.

Having seen what the New York Yankee bench had done to the Braves last fall, Schuerholz was poised to add to the Braves, particularly in the infield.

With that in mind, he shipped Jermaine Dye off to Kansas City as the primary cog in a deal to bring in infielder Keith Lockhart and outfielder Michael Tucker.

The moves, for the most part, probably didn’t work out.

Lofton was hampered by a hamstring injury and never got things figured out. His defense and his ability to change games on the bases was greatly diminished. While Lofton posted an outstanding .409 OBP, the fact that he missed 40 games and stole just 27 bases, while being caught a whopping 20 times, has Atlanta fans thinking they had gotten the very wrong end of the deal, especially considering David Justice had arguably the best season of his entire career in Cleveland.

Keith Lockhart though was outstanding off the bench for the Braves, but Michael Tucker wasn’t anything overly special.

So giving up Dye, Grissom and Justice had essentially yielded a slap hitting center fielder who couldn’t really run on the bases anymore, a solid bench player, and what would turn out to be the second easiest out in the Braves everyday lineup.

Improved? One would think not.

All the Braves did was wsn more games than any team in baseball, and were nine wins clear of team with 2nd highest win total in the National League, the wild card winning Florida Marlins.

Atlanta opened the season winning 13 of their first 16 games, setting a tone that they weren’t going to let the disastrous conclusion of the 1996 season effect them.

On April 11th the Braves moved into a tie for first place. By the conclusion of the days games on April 15th Atlanta was two games clear. Never again would a team be that close to the Braves. The Braves would only lose more than two games in a row on four occasions, all year long.

The Braves offense was among the best seen during the Bobby Cox era, coming in 3rd in the National League in runs, and 2nd in OPS. Six (Javy Lopez, Fred McGriff, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Jeff Blauser, and Ryan Klesko) hit 17 or more home runs during the 1997 campaign. Five Braves boasted an OPS of over .820 and only the light hitting Mark Lemke (17) failed to reach 20 doubles of all the clubs regular starters (Andruw Jones also contributed 18).

Despite the inability of the newcomers to provide an exceptional lift, the Atlanta offense hummed along just fine.

And then there was the pitching. Oh, the pitching.

The big three of Greg Maddux (2.20), John Smoltz (3.02), and Tom Glavine (2.96) combined to go 48-23 while combining for 17 shutouts.

The Braves team ERA was over a full run lower than the league average, and their 21 complete games more than twice the average for the National League. Opponents had an OPS of .655, .044 points lower than the next best mark in the league.

For as good as Braves pitching had been in the first part of the 90s, it appeared in 1997 it had gone to brand new heights.

Oh, wait, I’ve only mentioned three starters, right. This is where this rotation reaches a historical level of excellence. The number four starter on this stuff, darn near won the Cy Young award.

Denny Neagle was perhaps he best fourth starter in the history of Major League Baseball. Neagle went 20-5 with a 2.90 ERA. Neagle’s adjusted ERA of 140 gave the Braves four starters with such a stat, something no other staff in the modern era ever accomplished, and likely never will. MLB Network recently named the Braves 1997 rotation the 2nd best rotation, ever, in Major League history.

The Braves four starters went 68-28. The last place teams in the East and Central divisions both won 68 games, in total.

Just who was going to beat this team?

It sure wasn’t going to be their first round opponent, the National League Central Division champion Houston Astros.

The Atlanta Braves swept the Houston Astros in the opening round with relative ease, outscoring the Astros 19-5 and limiting them to a paltry .231 OBP with a .167 average. The Astros team OPS was over .300 points lower in the series against the Braves pitchers than it was during the regular season. In their three games, Houston totaled just two extra base hits.

The Braves rolled into the National League Championship Series feeling pretty good about their chances.  All that was left was the small matter of the Florida Marlins and the Braves were going to be in their third straight World Series and have their fifth National League Pennant in six tries.

Someone must have forgotten to tell Florida. Perhaps Braves fans should have entered this post season series with a bit more caution, and concern.

After all, Florida did take 8 of 12 against the Braves during the regular season, outscoring the Braves by 14 runs in doing so.

Many are familiar with what the Marlins did in 1997. They went out and acquired as many big name superstars as they could, with one goal, win the 1997 World Series, and then gut the team and be resigned to being among the league’s worst the following year. These Marlins weren’t lacking for talent.

Names like Bobby Bonilla, Gary Sheffield, Edgar Renteria, Charles Johnson, Kevin Brown, Rob Nenn, and Al Leiter littered the Marlins clubhouse. The team had players, no doubt.

All that said, there was a reason the Marlins won nine fewer games than the Braves, and why their average run differential was a full run worse than the Braves. The regular season was just a flukish occurrence of match ups, no way this fifth year franchise was going to unseat the mighty Atlanta Braves.

The Braves didn’t exactly do themselves any favors by letting Florida score three runs in the top of the very first inning of the series in route to a 5-3 Marlins victory. Atlanta evened the score in game two with a 7-1 route, only to see a four run Marlins sixth in game three give the Marlins a 2-1 lead.

Denny Neagle responded with a shutout in game four, and the series was all knotted up, with two of the last three to be played Atlanta. Advantage Braves.

Enter Eric Gregg.

Gregg was an accomplished Major League umpire. This was his fourth National League championship series, and his sixth post season overall. Gregg had also done an all-star game. So this was not a rookie on a stage he wasn’t accustomed to.

No, what it was was one of the most incompetent officials to ever officiate a major professional sporting event. Baseball America went so far to call it the third worst umpiring performance from 1975-2000. I’ll say it went beyond that.

Fred McGriff walks across the plate (the only way to reach these strikes) after an Eric Gregg "strike"

Greg Maddux took the hill for the Braves, and pitched well, really well, maybe too well. Maddux went seven innings, allowing just four hits, and striking out nine while allowing two runs to score. Unfortunately, Maddux probably spent too much time around the plate.

A young rookie for the Marlins, Livian Hernandez, a 22 year old veteran of all of 99 innings in his regular season career looked like one of the greatest pitchers of all-time.

Hernandez struck out 15 Braves on this day. Or did he? Hernandez supposedly threw three strikes to 15 Braves hitters, but watching this game, one could argue that over half of them weren’t strikes, and probably nearly that many simply were not close.

To say Gregg’s strike zone for Hernandez that day was liberal would be like saying Bill O’Reilly is a conservative. And I’m not still not sure it’s accurately described. It was later said that the strike zone was five feet high and a ridiculous six feet wide.

Keep in mind, most baseball players are in the six foot range in terms of height, so if you’re only taking off half a foot at the top, and half a foot at the bottom, there really isn’t much room left that isn’t a strike. On on instance, a ball over the head of first basemen Fred McGriff was a called strike.

Now, factor in that home plate is only 17 inches wide, which is not quite a foot and a half, and you can see the uproar over the egregious strike zone.

Of the 49 strikes Hernandez threw that were not put into play, 37 of them were called looking. Consider that Greg Maddux totaled just 13 strikes looking. Yes, we’re talking NBA type disparities here.

The tone was set from the very outset. The Braves had first and third to lead off the first for the Braves, and then Hernandez sat down the next three Braves hitters by way of the strikeout.

The strikeouts kept rolling for Hernandez, and the Braves hitters, attempting to adjust, did expand their zone. But there’s only so much you can do with a baseball that’s chin level, or a half foot off the ground, all the while being two feet off the plate.

The game ended on such a call on McGriff, a strike three called on a ball that was literally FEET off the plate.

Atlanta, as you know, went and lost game six at home, thus enabling the Florida Marlins. But for Braves fans, this series wasn’t about game 1, 3, or 6. It was all about game 5. It was about game 5 because game 5 wasn’t a baseball game. The rules that had been in place for the Braves first 169 games they had played that year suddenly no longer applied. There were rules for this game 5 that have never been implemented in any baseball game since.

So while we can lament the fact that the Braves could have, and perhaps should have, done a better job of handling their business in three other games in that series. They should have had a more fair chance to to enter game six up three games to two, as opposed to down a game. It should have been Florida facing elimination.

Yet it wasn’t, and not at all for the feats of the actual players achieved on the field. All because of Eric Gregg and his inexcusable failure to remember, or recognize, what the strike zone, home plate, or apparently anything else to do with baseball was.

Not surprisingly, Gregg never again umpired in a post-season. But that’s of little solace to Braves fans.

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Are You Serious Hawks?

The Atlanta Hawks had won 9 of 11 games following a disappointing loss to New Orleans on the day after Christmas, including wins on the road against Utah and Miami. Joe Johnson had gotten his shooting legs back under him, and Jamal Crawford had seemed to have put the distraction of his contract status behind him. The Hawks had edged ahead of Orlando, and appeared to be nearing the level of the Heat, Bulls and maybe even Celtics in the eastern conference pecking order.

Oops.

It’s funny, or, actually, it really isn’t; today Mark Bradly wrote in the AJC about the ridiculous futility of which Atlanta sports teams are known. I myself wrote the first installment of a ten part series looking at the ten most heartbreaking moments in Atlanta sports history.

Fittingly, the Hawks gave us a performance that was too dreadful to even be heartbreaking, but it was a beautifully crafted microcosm of the Atlanta sports scene. Seriously, it absolutely could not be written any better, or more accurately.

As mentioned, the Hawks had beaten some quality teams. A team long accused of lacking effort on the defensive end had become one of the more stingy defensive teams in the league.

Guys were hustling, guys were communicating. On offense the ball was moving. You almost had to a double take, this looked like a legit basketball team. An NBA championship winning squad? Of course not, what do you think this is, the NFL, or Major League Baseball? You can count on one hand teams with legit title chances in the NBA.

However, this was indeed a team capable of perhaps spoiling a playoff run for one of those teams, and a team capable of doing itself, and its city proud, in the NBA playoffs.

Having already defeated Orlando twice, they of the historically bad playoff beat down delivered to the Hawks last spring, the Hawks appeared no longer to be that team. This Hawks squad might actually be a threat to win a game in the 2nd round this year (never mind the fact the Atlanta Hawks have never once won a 2nd round series, and only in two different season have ever played a potential clinching game in the 2nd round), and not embarrass themselves.

Uh, yeah, sorry about that.

Tonight was one of the worst performances by an NBA basketball team, ever. Yes, it was one of the worst by an Atlanta Hawks team ever, but also any other team that has called itself professional.

It was the sort of night that makes you wonder how they  look in the mirror and can actually use the word professional to describe themselves.

Oh, we were missing Al Horford and Marvin Williams. Boo-hoo. We have been missing Marvin Williams for the last few weeks, we’ve seemed to be able to get over it.

We lost Al Horford in the 4th quarter, while in Miami, against that Heat squad (you may have heard of them), and still managed to find a way to win.

So you can save the excuses. This Hawks squad still trots out a perennial all-star in Joe Johnson, the league’s best sixth man in Jamal Crawford, and an all-star candidate and one of the best stat sheet fillers in the league in Josh Smith.

That’s enough to be competitive. Well, it should be.

Someone forgot to tell them that.

Down 49-34 at half-time, at home, to a New Orleans Hornets team that, while a good basketball team, and blessed with one of the game’s great players in Chris Paul, isn’t exactly the Miami Heat, is bad enough.

At this point, you have to think, well, we surely can’t put up 34 points in the 2nd half too. This is an NBA team, with NBA players, and some good ones, guys who can shoot, and score.

If you thought that, you were right.

They couldn’t put up 34 points. They could only come up with 25. Yes, that’s right, a professional basketball team, a playoff caliber basketball team, in the NBA, could only score 25 points in 24 minutes. And sometimes people wonder why the U.S. National team struggles. If, in the premier basketball league in the world, with supposedly among the greatest players in the world, you can have a team score a lousy 25 points, in their own building, in a full half of play, you have issues.

This is not about what New Orleans did tonight, it is strictly about what Atlanta didn’t do. No NBA team is good enough to go on the road, to a team with the talent of Atlanta, and beat them by 41 points without a lot of help from the hosts. Nobody is good enough defensively to limit a team to just 25 points in their own building, again, not without help from the hosts.

That the Hawks allowed this to happen speaks volumes about this team. They aren’t ready to take another next step. They might not even be able to replicate what they did last season.

Yes, this team with Horford and Williams is much better. But this isn’t about how much talent is on this team. Talent hasn’t been an issue for the Hawks in a couple of years now. Few teams can match the Hawks in terms of raw talent and athleticism.

However, you could argue that there are 29 with a substantial surplus of heart, desire, care, and effort.

It wasn’t until 4:43 was left in the game tonight that the Hawks even had enough points to outscore the Green Bay Packers last Saturday night.

 

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Atlanta’s 10 Most Heartbreaking Sports Moments # 10

With another knife delivered through the heart of Atlanta sports fans last Saturday night, I thought it time to examine the ten most heartbreaking sports moments endured by Atlanta sports fans. So, here we are with number ten.

1992 Hooters 500– Local favorite Bill Elliott entered the final race of the 1992 season at his home track of Atlanta International Raceway a mere 40 points out of the points lead, trailing Davey Allison. Just ten points ahead of Elliott was underdog supreme Alan Kulwicki, who despite his positioning seemed over matched in this championship battle with two stars like Elliott and Allison.

Elliott, the 1988 champion, was one of NASCAR’s biggest stars during the 80s and the early 90s. At a time when he professional sports scene in Atlanta was more of a joke than a Jerry Seinfeld one liner, Elliott was the only thing going for Georgia sports. And it was a torch he carried well.

The local folks were hoping to see a repeat of 1988 when Elliott came to his home track and left his sports champion. To do so, Elliott had some ground to make up, but for a driver that already had four victories on his home track, and had finished no worse than 3rd in his previous three starts, it seemed doable.

Elliott though should never have been in a situation where he found himself trailing. He had a  154 point lead with six races to go in the season before proceeding to fish 26th or worse in four of the next five races, including a 31st at Phoenix just a week before the season finale at Atlanta.

A seemingly safe, and insurmountable lead had dissipated and what seemed to be a second championship for one of Georgia’s favorite sons had become a long shot.

On Sunday, points leader Davey Allison was swept up in an accident with about 75 laps remaining in the race. At the time, Allison was in a position to wrap up the championship. But a bout with Ernie Irvan and the retaining walls on Atlanta International Raceway’s put a halt to Allison’s title dreams.

Davey Allison tangles with Ernie Irvan, ending his championship run

This turned things into a two man show, between Elliott and Kulwicki. The two had established themselves as not only the two remaining title contenders, but also as easily the two best cars on the racetrack.

The two battled lap after lap, embarking on a furious struggle to lead the most laps and capture the bonus points that would come with it. Late in the race, crew chief Paul Andrews kept Kulwicki out one extra lap, to lead just enough to ensure he would lead the most laps.

Elliott would go on to win the race, and in doing so, gain 5 points on Kulwicki, meaning if he only could have wrapped up the most laps led, Elliott would gain 5 more, and would tie Kulwicki in the standings. On the merits of Elliott’s five victories to Kulwicki’s two, the championship would’ve been his.

But alas, this was not the case. The laps led totals? Kulwicki 103. Elliott 102.

Alan Kulwicki prepares for his famous Polish Victory Lap after securing a surprising championship by the smallest of margins

One lap, at times across the line the two were wheel to wheel, so in retrospect, one foot, was the difference in Elliott winning his second title and coming up the bridesmaid for the third time in his career.

Unfortunately for all three championship combatants, neither would ever again contend for a title. Elliott, while he would win more races in his career, never again found a consistent enough of season to compete again for a championship. Kulwicki and Allison were of course tragically killed the next year in separate aviation accidents.

For Elliott though, it was the championship that got away, twice.

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How the Falcons Can Take Next Step

I’ll break this into two categories, personnel and system.

1. Interior offensive line help. We didn’t run up the middle much, and for good reason. Our running game is exactly why you don’t look at raw yardage to gauge how effective a team is at something. Michael Turner really wasn’t that good this year, but he was the “leading rusher”. He had some big days against weak opponents. Way too many of our runs weren’t what you’d call successful runs, too often our running plays got us behind. We faced way too many 3rd down and longs, and against good defenses it killed us.

2. We’ve got to find another pass rusher. I was hoping Kroy Biermann could provide a spark on one end, but no, not enough. He made some nice plays, but overall, his impact on the game was minimal. You’d think with all the attention John Abraham commanded, someone else could take advantage of it, nobody did. The fact that Lawrence Sidbury rarely saw the field down the stretch has me worried he’s not going to work out like we’d hoped. This is year two of his experiment, next year is make or break for him. I would love him to step up, but I don’t want to enter 2011 with Biermann and Sidbury still the other pass rusher. Not to mention, Abraham is up there in years.

3. We need more speed at our skill positions. I think the loss of Jerius Norwood is underestimated. I think partially it’s underestimated because he’s always hurt so we never really saw just what he could fully do on the football field, but he’s the only real big play threat we’ve got on offense. Michael Jenkins is a solid receiver, but he’s a solid number two if you’ve got a slot receiver who can help stretch the field. Jenkins doesn’t stretch the field, doesn’t require any safety help, and teams can in turn use their safeties either to crowd the line of scrimmage, or help over the top with Roddy and Tony Gonzalez. Harry Douglass was a huge disappointment this year, his impact was also pretty minimal. We absolutely need a guy who can go down the field and stretch things out. I think getting Kerry Meier back next year is a good thing, but he doesn’t solve our problem of a dearth of big plays.

4. We might need a nickel back. Chris Owens was just abused on Saturday night, and I just haven’t seen enough from him to make me want to rely on him for anything. I understand Brent Grimes had a lot of interceptions, and defended a ton of passes. However, this is also a product of being targeted a lot. This is not to say we need to replace Grimes, not in the least, he’s a heckuva football player who I want out there. However, if we can improve ourselves at the nickel corner position, I’d like to see us move Grimes around more to keep him from getting matched up against some of the league’s bigger receivers. Have him play in the slot at times, he doesn’t need to always be a boundary corner. Brian Williams was solid, and his size is a plus, but age and injury are creeping up. I know people are throwing out names like Champ Bailey and Nnamdi Asomugha, but people need to get in touch with reality, that ain’t happening. With the deal we gave Dunta Robinson last year, we aren’t spending that much money on the secondary. Thomas Dmitrof needs to be shrewd in finding a little help for the secondary.

System

1. Throw the ball deep more. I don’t know if it’s because we can’t throw it deep, or don’t, but we need tot try it more often, just a few shots here and there. Part of me thinks it’s we aren’t sure we can protect Ryan enough to throw the ball down the field, at least not against good defenses. I understand where we ranked in sacks allowed, but that comes in large part to running the ball so often, and the fact that Ryan gets rid of the ball quickly, but unfortunately, his getting rid of the ball quickly coincides with getting very few big plays with the passing game.

2. We need to use the screen game more. I am a huge fan of screens, and we need to use them more. If we aren’t going to throw the ball down the field, screen plays at least give you a better chance at making a big play than a lot of what we run. Granted, not having Norwood, or a true speed back may have impacted that, but what about slot screens to Douglass? Or even to White?

3. Our defenders need work on taking better angles after quarterbacks. Getting pressure, really, wasn’t the huge problem. The problem came when we got there. You’ve got to get these guys on the ground. We whiffed against Drew Brees all day, and then against Aaron Rodgers. If we make half the sacks we had chances to in either game, we might still be playing. I think some of this might be the youth with guys like Weatherspoon and Moore blitzing has an impact on that, and I hope they can improve. I like it when we blitz, and we should do it more often. Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson aren’t bad in the secondary. However, if we have to count on Chris Owens for anything, we are in trouble.

4. Don’t make major, major changes, clearly. We are on the right track. I still liken this team to the Patriots of the early 2000s. The 2001 Patriots received some very fortunate bounces to reach, and win, the Super Bowl that year. They took a step back the following year, and then proceeded to go on their run. The 2003-2004 bunch were the really good teams. While in our 3rd year, we obviously won’t reach the heights the Patriots did, 13-3 is 13-3, we’re a good team that needs a few tweaks. We can still get where we want to go, we’re on the way, and considering the steps we’ve been making, you have to think we’re going to keep moving in the proper direction.

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