Evagelos, Baltimore: Hello, David. Let me start off by saying, I have been a long-time reader of your column and love the you tell it the way it is while staying open and objective. My question has to do with our two defensive stars, Ray Lewis/Ed Reed, being out of the lineup for so long. Do you have any insight on why they have been sidelined with these "injuries" for so long? Are they dodging a bad season, showing their displeasure with their current contract negotiations or are they really that hurt? It seems that the team and the media seem to be tiptoeing around this subject. Could you please shine some light on this subject or at least give your opinion on this subject? Thanks!
Thomas, Fort Collins, Colo: Will Ray Lewis and Ed Reed take off their skirts and play any football at all in this dismall season? By the way Ed, there is no such thing as a high ankle sprain, I Googled it.
I grouped your questions, and this answer, together for obvious reasons. I thought you were blunt, Evagelos, until I read Thomas's question. Yikes. I'm re-defining the term.
I appreciate your plain-speaking nature, Thomas, but just for the heck of it, I Googled 'high ankle sprain' and got several descriptions in medical web sites and journals, all of which mesh with the explanations us newspapers hacks have gotten from team doctors and trainers in recent years, since the description first came into vogue. Not to get all Sanjay Gupta on you (he's CNN's medical analyst, by the way) but high ankle sprains are real; they just look really different from the usual ankle sprains because they take place, well, up high. Ligaments, but not joints, are involved. I guess the exceedingly lazy player could fake one, but the ones who have them are in legitimate pain. Todd Heap had one last season, and not only did he miss almost 11 weeks, not many fans wondered aloud whether he was wearing a skirt. And hamstring strains are serious as well, mainly because if you play on one before it heals, it can go at any second from a strain to a tear. This has been your Baltimore Sun Medical Minute.
Now, are either of them rushing back? No, and plenty of football people would back them up considering this has become a lost season. Getting even more seriously injured in a game with no playoff implications is, at best, questionable, and at worst, stupid. It's not many levels above playing on a bad knee in preseason.
I might be naive, or at least less likely to jump to negative conclusions about a highly-paid player than many, but I'd be surprised if either Ed or Ray are sitting out to make a statement about the contract extensions they want. Ray Lewis has been in the middle of contract hassles before, and yet the only times he's been off the field is when he's been seriously injured. As for Reed, if he can't do the things he's capable of doing - basically, if he can't cover the field and make a quarterback think twice about throwing anywhere near him - he's a liability. Or, he's no better than Chad Williams, so you might as well just play Williams.
Having said all of that, I can't completely rule out one of Evagelos' theories: that they're "dodging bad seasons." Going out and playing while injured, getting hurt again or playing at half-efficiency, taking playing time away from someone whose future might depend on it, and continuing to lose anyway, isn't exactly a cheery prospect. Even with the money they make, I'm not sure how eager I would be to do it.
Sam, Baltimore: Why do you and others keep beating on this team? Even before the season you should have known they weren't a good team.If you and others keep beating on Boller what good will that do?
David Steele: Hi, Sam. True, before the season we did know they weren't a good team. We who write for The Sun said so, quite directly. A lot of people flat-out didn't believe it, though. A lot of people thought we were being too harsh after the Colts game, after the Tennessee game, even after the Lions game - because it was too early, because we weren't being fair to Kyle Boller or Jim Fassel or Jamal Lewis, because the refs were screwing them. For several weeks, there were too many excuses being made for why they were off to such a bad start, and too many exotic explanations as to how they were going to return to the playoff level so many had predicted for them. So yes, not to pat ourselves on the back, but we were pretty much in the minority early on. A lot of us could see the bad signs back in the preseason.
Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that we in the media are "beating" on this team. That would be one of the reasons. It would be easy to find rationales or justifications for why a team that underwent the changes it did in the offseason, a team predicted by many and expected by themselves to be contenders for the division title (at least), a team that had committed itself to making Boller a more effective quarterback, went into the weekend 3-8, including 0-6 on the road. It would be easy to blow the wins over the injury-ravaged Jets, the inept Browns and the Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers (in overtime) at home, out of proportion. Same for the "comeback" last week in Cincinnati, after they had fallen behind 34-0.
But it would be irresponsible to sugarcoat anything about this season. We do have a responsibility not to be cheerleaders for the home team, but to tell the truth about it as best as we see fit. Just as we do about the Orioles, the Maryland football team and whoever else is asking the public to part with its hard-earned money and valuable time on their behalf.
The players, meanwhile, have to be willing to accept the criticism when things go bad, just as they do the accolades when things go well. Victory parades, glowing profiles and fat endorsement contracts are out of proportion to the real value of pro athletes, but when things are going well, players accept that readily. They need to be capable of accepting it when things swing in the other direction. The job of keeping Boller's confidence high and his mind focused falls on Brian Billick, his assistants and the other players. The job of critiquing his play, in the context of what we've been told he can and should do on the field, is ours.
Irv, Baltimore: At what point during Billick's press conference will a reporter ask a hard question regarding the team and not accept a "spin" answer?
David Steele: Hi, Irv. All I can say about that is, we ask the questions. If Billick gives a "spin" answer, all we can do is report it for what it is. You think it's tough here, go to a White House press briefing once in a while. If the reporters there ever get a straight, 100-percent honest answer to anything, the windows of the briefing room would shatter from the sound of all the jaws hitting the floor. (That, of course, goes for pretty much every presidential administration going back to George Washington. That was as much a non-partisan example as I could give.)
Give Billick, and all the coaches in every sport, credit: It's in none of their best interests, or the interests of their teams, for them to give a fully honest answer to anything. Yes, part of his responsibility is to be accountable to the fans, through us. But his bigger responsibility is to the people who pay him, and the players who are supposed to follow him. If blowing a little (or a lot) of smoke once in a while gets the job done, you can't blame them sometimes. It's a real high-wire act, and never more so for Billick than this year, his first really bad year record-wise. His attempts to put the best light on things, to deflect criticism, divert attention, play the whole cat-and-mouse game with the media and season ticketholders, are understandable. We've seen honesty as a tool of selfishness and greed, from a guy with the initials T.O. Would you prefer that
Now, do we accept it? Read the paper, especially Mike Preston's regular observations. What do you think?
The problem isn't with Billick's attempts to "spin'' this season. The problem is that he's not doing a good job at it. As Richard Pryor (and others) once said, are you gonna believe him or your lyin' eyes? 3-8 is 3-8.
G. Blackson, Chestertown: What's the status of Brian Roberts?
David Steele: Hello, G. Our baseball writer, Dan Connolly, provided a timely update on Brian just last week. It was around the time they lost B.J. Ryan to Toronto, so it served as some piece of good news to balance things out. Brian is rehabbing in Arizona and, according to his agent, is still on schedule to be in uniform on Opening Day. That's more than encouraging; in light of the gruesomeness of that injury, it's amazing. He will be playing six months after surgery. Modern science is amazing.
Ray, Charlottesville, Va.: David, do you think the Orioles take into consideration a player's OBP? Too many of their players, especially the outfielders do not get on base enough. Also what about potential platoons in the outfield? Are there any players out there that might make a Roenicke/Lowenstein type of tandem that the team could get cheaply?
David Steele: Hello Ray, and thanks for that nostalgic reference to Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein. This Orioles team could live with that, except that at any outfield position, both platoon players might have to come from outside the organization currently. There just aren't that many candidates on the 40-man roster. Eric Byrnes, with all his energy, has pretty much proven he's not an everyday player. We essentially knew that already about Luis Matos, and B.J. Surhoff can't play forever. Assuming the Orioles will put Jay Gibbons at first base for good (and I think that with Paul Konerko taking less money to stay away from Baltimore, it's safe to assume there's not a better first baseman candidate out there), he's out of the outfield mix.
So, to answer your question: let's hope that Mike Flanagan has trade irons in the fire for exactly that kind of player. There aren't any in free agency right now; the guys out there put the "age'" in free agency. Bernie Williams, anyone? I've heard Jeff Conine's name thrown out there. I'd personally love to see Reggie Sanders here, if he's healthy. But even those players, much less anyone else, would be strictly a stop-gap. A better one than Sammy Sosa was, but a stop-gap nonetheless.
As for OBP (on-base percentage), yes, the Orioles value that; their players just aren't the type to produce it, particularly the outfielders. It's just another one of their weaknesses. The Orioles were in the middle of the pack in the AL, a shade below the league average, which is either amazing or pathetic considering they have Roberts, Miguel Tejada and Melvin Mora at the top of their lineup.
Thanks to everyone that wrote in. Hope I answered your questions somewhat, or at least made you forget what you asked.
David Steele periodically answers questions from Sports Direct subscribers. If you would like to receive Sports Direct, baltimoresun.com's free weekly newsletter, click here.