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When Competitive Fairness Didn't Matter to the NFL
by Kevin Sheehan
May 24, 2015 -- 2:27pm
ESPN 980

There was a time when the NFL didn't care much about competitive advantages.  Shortly after the merger in 1970, the NFL was the Wild West.  Stick-em on fingers, hard objects wrapped in tape on hands, tarps lifted from fields days in advance, heat into visiting locker rooms, and wind through stadium tunnel doors before field goal attempts.  Pretty much anything went and the NFL itself was the biggest offender thanks to a ridiculously crazy NFL playoff system.

Prior to the 1975 season, NFL playoff home-field advantage was based on a year-to-year divisional rotating system.  Regular season performance meant nothing to postseason home field.  Most NFL fans know that the undefeated '72 Miami Dolphins played the AFC Championship game on the road in Pittsburgh against the 11-3 Steelers but that was just the most visible tip of the unfair NFL playoff iceberg. 

In that same '72 postseason, the 11-3 Redskins had the best record in the NFC and hosted the wildcard Cowboys in the championship game at RFK Stadium.  What most Redskin fans don't know is that the Skins would've played the NFC title game on the road in San Francisco against the 8-5-1 49ers if the Niners had won the previous week over Dallas.  It was the NFC West's turn to host the title game if they were in it but Dallas roared back from 15 points down in the 4th quarter to pull off the win and allow RFK to host the NFC Championship game.

In 1970, the 10-4 Cowboys hosted the wildcard Lions in the first round when based on record (and a rule prohibiting division teams from facing each other until the championship game), they should've been on the road against 12-2 Minnesota while the 49ers hosted the Lions.  The Cowboys played in Super Bowl V three weeks later.

1971 was messed up.  The two best teams in the NFC faced each other in the first round while the same happened in the AFC.  11-3 Dallas opened up at 11-3 Minnesota while the 9-5 49ers hosted the wildcard Redskins at Candlestick.  The Redskins should've played their first franchise playoff game since 1945 in Minnesota based on a fair seeding system but instead lost at San Francisco 24-20. 

In the AFC, the two best records faced off in a Christmas Day multi-overtime epic.  However, KC and Miami should’ve hosted games that first weekend against Baltimore and Cleveland respectively.

The Redskins had the best record in the NFC in 1972.  They faced Green Bay in their first-ever playoff game at RFK Stadium.  They dominated the Packers 16-3 to advance to the title game the following week.  With a seeding system in place, the Skins would've faced San Francisco in the first round while Dallas would've traveled to Lambeau for an Ice Bowl rematch 5 years after the first one. 

The AFC title game featured 14-0 Miami AT Pittsburgh in '72.  Can you imagine the outcry if the 2007 16-0 Patriots had played the AFC Championship game on the road?

In '73, the L.A. Rams went 12-2 and played a first-round game on the road against 10-4 Dallas.  The Cowboys won that game and then incredibly got to host 12-2 Minnesota in the NFC Title game a week later.  They lost that one. 

The AFC was really screwed up in '73.  Miami had the best record (12-2) but had to host division-winner Cincinnati instead of wildcard Pittsburgh while Oakland got the Steelers at home when they should've been on the road at Cincinnati.

1974 was the last year of the alternating home sites.  Minnesota beat the Rams in Minneapolis 14-10 in the NFC Championship game to advance to Super Bowl IX.  That game should've been played in Los Angeles.  Both teams went 10-4 in the regular season and the Rams beat the Vikes 20-17 which with a tiebreaking seeding system would've put the title game in L.A. 

The AFC was twisted around in '74.  The first-round had Miami at Oakland in the classic "Sea of Hands Catch" game when the Dolphins should've been hosting Pittsburgh in the first round.  Instead, the Steelers got a break and played a home game against Buffalo and won that game on their way to an AFC Title appearance in Oakland.  The Steelers won that game and went on to win their first Super Bowl.  A seeding system would've forced them to win two road games instead of one.

It was a different time for sure but it's still amazing to think that a league as intent now on competitive fairness played it so unfairly back then.  Super Bowl matchups are etched in the minds of fans but how the teams got there is hazy.  Baltimore's Jim O'Brien kicked a 32-yd field goal to beat Dallas in Super Bowl V.  Dallas had an unfair road to that game.  Perhaps Minnesota if given the fair opponent at the proper time could've been a better foe for the Colts.

Imagine if the '71 epic Chiefs-Dolphins Christmas Day game had been played a week later as it should have.  Instead of an unusually balmy 60-degree day at Arrowhead, the warm-weather Dolphins would've played a week later on a sub-freezing day.  Perhaps Super Bowl VI would've featured the Chiefs against the Cowboys.

History tells us that Super Bowl IX featured Pittsburgh beating Minnesota 16-6 for the Steelers first of what would be many World Championships.  But the Steelers got a huge break when they got to host a first-round game against Buffalo instead of playing a road game in Miami.  The Vikings should've played the NFC Championship game on the road in Los Angeles but held on in a close 14-10 win at home instead.  Competitive fairness would've likely given us a far different Super Bowl IX.  Rams vs Dolphins would've given Miami a chance at a 3-peat.  Rams vs Raiders was a possibility too.

The league worries now about tenths of PSI pound differential and scant percentage points on PAT probability.  It's so meaningless compared to what they allowed to happen in the early 1970's.

Worst Wizards' Game of Playoffs Ends Season
by Kevin Sheehan
May 16, 2015 -- 12:13am

ESPN 980

The Wizards picked a bad time to play their worst game of this postseason.  The season is over after losing 94-91 in Game 6.

1.  Worst effort of the playoffs.  The Wizards laid an egg for the first time in the playoffs.  After 9 superior efforts, they came out flat and played tired tonight, especially in the first half.  Gortat was sick and they missed him tonight.  He's a big part of Wall's game offensively and that wasn't available tonight. 

2.  1st-half struggles.  The Wizards scored just 39 first half points on 35% shooting from the floor and generated just 3 first-half fast-break points.  Amazingly they were able to snag 13 first-half offensive rebounds (thanks mostly to Otto Porter) but couldn't convert on 2nd and 3rd chances.  The Hawks had 12 offensive rebounds.  Luckily, Atlanta was a little off themselves in the first-half or they would've had a double-digit lead at the break.

3.  Defensive problems most of the night.  The Hawks were a tough cover tonight.  Teague & Schroder abused the Wizards all night long creating for themselves and others.  They combined for 29 points and 11 seemed like it was more than that.  Millsap and Horford were near impossible for Nene, Gortat, Seraphin, Gooden, and/or Pierce to check and Carroll was a tough guard regardless of who was matched up against him.  People can complain all they want about Wittman, Nene, Gortat, etc....there weren't many options tonight.  If your perimeter people can't keep the ball in front of them, it's going to be a long night, especially when you've gone small for big portions of the game and don't have much rim protection.  Atlanta's ball movement once they broke the defense down on the perimeter was excellent.

4.  Hawks' 6-0 run end of first-half hurt.  Despite their worst half of the playoffs, the Wizards were still tied up at 39-39 with a minute left in the first half.  The Hawks however went on a 6-zip run that gave them a ton of momentum going into halftime.  It carried over into the 3rd quarter where they built a 15-point lead.

5.  Wall and Beal carried the Wizards offensively.  Wall and Beal combined for 49 points but got little help from anyone else.  Seraphin contributed a career playoff high of 13 off the bench but was the only other player on the team that scored in double figures.  Pierce went 1 for 7 for 4 points and looked tired on both ends.  Nene struggled again and gave them nothing on offense.  Gortat was sick and Porter didn't give them much scoring-wise even though he was super-active as a rebounder on both ends. 

6.  After finally taking the lead...disaster.  Give the Wizards credit; they didn't quit down 15 midway through the 3rd quarter.  They hung around within 7-10 pts for a long stretch between midway through the 3rd quarter and midway through the 4th.  Their big run started with just over 5 minutes left in the game when they went on a 9-zip run to take an 88-87 lead.  The Verizon Center was going nuts but that would be the end of the fun.  Disastrous offense followed.  They had three possessions with a 1-point lead and they couldn't extend it.  Nene missed two free throws after grabbing an offensive rebound off a Porter short miss.  Then a shot clock violation because Wall waited too long to make a move with the ball.  Then Pierce missed a 3-pointer.  They would miss one more free throw (Wall) and 3 more point-blank layups the rest of the way.  When all was said and done, the Wizards scored just 3 points over the final 3:49.

7.  Pierce shot too late.  A tough way for a season to end but the would-be 3-pointer came 1/10th of a second too late.  Still, what thrills he provided over the last 3 weeks.

8.  What's next?  I think that if Wall didn't break his hand and miss three games in this series, the Wizards would've won in 5.  They swept a series for the first time in franchise history and they played very well in 9 of their 10 playoff games.  They need to get more athletic in the front court and could use a more effective back-up for Wall.  Sessions did a nice job and is under contract but they need a bit more on both ends off the bench.  Nene's best days are obviously in the rear view even though he's under contract next year.  Pierce should come back and hopefully Porter's emergence in the playoffs results in a 2015-16 breakout season.  Wall and Beal are two legit stars and they'll continue to get better.  It would help if they could make it through a season & postseason healthy.  It'll be interesting to see what they do with Seraphin.  They've always liked him and he proved during the regular season and tonight in the playoffs that he can help as an 18+ minute bench player at the very least.  Without any major changes, they'll win 45-50 next year and be a threat to win at least one series if not 2. 

Wall Back & Good But Wizards Lose
by Kevin Sheehan
May 13, 2015 -- 11:59pm
ESPN 980

The Wizards got John Wall back but lost an ugly heartbreaker 82-81.

1.  Ugly offensive game.  Both teams were sloppy combining for 44 turnovers.   The defense was good but the offense was careless.

2.  Wizards' turnovers.  The Wizards had 19 of the game's 44 combined turnovers.  Too many of them were unforced and not enough of them came because they were being overly aggressive pushing pace.  They had 9 in the 3rd quarter after they had built an early 10-point lead in the quarter. 

3.  Hawks blocked 13 shots.  That combined with 19 turnovers meant the Wizards had 32 possessions that didn't include a shot that made it to the rim.

4.  Wall's return was much more good than bad.  For starters, Wizards fans should never forget what he did tonight.  The man played with a broken wrist/hand.  He was an inspiration and he played well.  Yes he had 6 turnovers but his presence in the lineup was felt right from the start.  For starters, the Wizards were much better defensively than they were in Game 4.  He had 4 steals and 2 incredible blocked shots but the key to the teams' defensive performance was Wall's ability to make things harder for Teague and Schroder.  He didn't look that compromised because of the wrist/hand.  He made several open-court plays in the first quarter that made it clear he was back, ready, and healthy enough to have an impact which he did.

5.  Officiating.  I thought this was a poorly officiated game....both ways.  Wall should've been called for a foul on a pump-fake 3-point attempt by Teague in the first half.  Beal traveled twice and wasn't called for it.  Beal got called for a charge on a clear no-call with the Wizards up 7 in the 3rd qtr.  Pierce got fouled by Korver on the steal that led to Carroll bucket that gave Atlanta an 80-78 lead.  That missed call cost the Wizards a chance to hold for the final shot of regulation in a tied game.

6.  Wizards didn't stay aggressive.  They opened the 4th quarter with an 11-1 run to take a 9-point lead with six minutes left.  They got too comfortable, became too slow, and had some bad offensive possessions.  Atlanta put Carroll on Wall and that seemed to hurt the Wizards' offensive sets.  It's why staying up-tempo even after made shots is so important for the Wizards.  Facing a set defense tonight especially when Carroll moved to Wall created problems for Washington.  After building that 9-point lead, they became stagnant, became easier to guard and Atlanta got the stops and then buried two huge threes as a part of an 8-0 run and the game was up for grabs again.

7.  Defense on Korver.  The combo of Beal primarily but also Porter on Korver has essentially shut him down.  He had the huge long-range 3 in the 4th quarter but it was his only made shot of the night.  He now has just 15 points in his last 3 games on 5-14 from the floor.  He's getting very few open looks.

8.  Pierce go-ahead 3-pointer.  The Pierce 3-pointer that gave the Wizards the lead was perfectly called and executed.  It was a very good pass from Beal and a nice screen by Gortat.  It would've been a helluva game-winner. 

9.  Horford game-winner.  Blame it on Nene if you want but Pierce helped on the Schroder drive against Wall and Nene rotated to box out Millsap.  That left the opening for Horford who made a great play.  The reason Nene came back in for Gortat is that Nene was a better defender than Gortat tonight against the pick & roll in particular.  Wittman wanted to stay small to guard the pick & roll guessing that the Hawks would go pick & roll but Schroder attacked the rim off the inbounds pass.  It's a tough call.  If you put Gortat and Nene in the game to reduce the chance of an offensive rebound, you probably ensure that Horford or Millsap are going to get an open shot.  Anybody that 2nd guesses can do it but Wittman was faced with more than one obvious answer.

Hawks Even Things Up
by Kevin Sheehan
May 11, 2015 -- 11:38pm
ESPN 980

The Wizards couldn't overcome the loss of John Wall tonight.  Atlanta played its best game of the series in a 106-101 win.  A few takeaways.

1.  Atlanta's offensive execution was excellent.  The Hawks got what they wanted offensively all-night long.  Whether it was hammering the Wizards with dribble-penetration by Teague and Schroder or either guy playing very effective pick-roll/pick-pop offense with Millsap and Horford, they got where and what they wanted.  Their court-spacing was the best it’s been in this series which made it harder to help on Teague/Schroder dribble-penetration.  The Hawks had 30 assists on 41 made shots.  That's great offense by any standard.

2.  Wall missed most on defense.  The Hawks found something that worked late in Game 3 that they went to the well on tonight.  Without Wall, there is nobody on the roster that can stay in front of Teague and/or Schroder.  Sessions, Bynum...didn't matter who it was; it was too easy for Atlanta's point guards to drive the ball into the paint and either score or create an easy opportunity for teammates.  They played together a bunch tonight and combined for 40 points and 16 assists.  That made it really hard for the Wizards to match-up.

3.  Beal was really good.  He went for 34 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds, 3 steals, and a key block that gave them a chance to tie the game late.  He was their best defensive player most of the night too.  He had the late block of a Schroder shot down 104-101 but also had a steal down 89-84 that the Wizards couldn't convert on the other end.  He'll need two more games like this one with more help if the Wizards are going to move on without Wall.

4.  Porter/Gortat struggled.  This was the worst night of the playoffs for both Otto Porter and Marcin Gortat.  Beal got a ton of help from Pierce and a little more from Nene but the Wizards needed more production from Porter and Pierce and just didn't get it.  They combined for 7 points on 2-11from the floor.  Gortat never seemed in rhythm.  Most of his misses were good shot attempts for him but he was just off.  Porter just didn't see the floor well tonight.  He had an opportunity in the 4th quarter to kick a pass to a wide-open Beal standing behind him but instead missed a contested shot.  And then down 95-88, he rebounded a miss and immediately threw it away to Teague.

5.  Wittman's out-of-bounds plays/scores at the end.  The Wizards ran three perfect plays after timeouts on their final three possessions of the game.  Down 104-97 following a timeout, Wittman dialed up a play that got Beal open off a screen for a quick layup.  Next possession down 104-99, they ran perfect play for Pierce off a screen then a pass to Nene for a quick dunk.  Then down 104-101, they got Paul Pierce open for a 3-point look to tie the game on a great play with multiple screens and misdirection freeing Pierce for a wide-open look.  Wittman has been very good in these situations all postseason long.

6.  Pierce's open 3 to tie.  Off a bone-crunching and barely legal screen by Nene on Carroll, Pierce got a wide-open 3 to tie the game and missed.  Carroll fell onto Pierce's feet which was definitely a distraction to Pierce but probably not a foul.

7.  Korver traveled.  Up 3 with 3.8 left, Korver slipped/stumbled/traveled after catching the inbounds pass.  It should've been Wizards' ball with 2.8 left with a chance to get off another game-tying 3-point attempt.

8.  Bynum will get more minutes in Game 5.  Will Bynum is a liability on defense but his ability to score means he’ll get more than 14 minutes in Game 5 assuming Wall can’t go again.  He was 5-7 from the floor for 10 points.  He was credited with 4 turnovers but 2 of them should have been assists instead including what should’ve been a catch/layup for Porter to cut the lead to 89-86.

Five Big Shots in Wizards/Bullets History
by Kevin Sheehan
May 10, 2015 -- 3:19pm

ESPN 980

Here's a quick list of some of the biggest shots in Bullets/Wizards history.  All of the shots are from the postseason and all are since the team came to Washington. 

1.  Bobby D.  In overtime of Game 7 of the 1979 Eastern Conference Finals, the score was tied with 20 seconds left.  Bullets' coach Dick Motta huddled the team and said the following...."get the ball to Bobby and get out of his way."  Bobby Dandridge got to his favorite spot 12-15 feet out on the right baseline and buried the game-winner over the Spurs' best defender, Larry Kenon.

2.  Gil's buzzer-beater in Chicago.  With just over 5 seconds left in Game 5 of the 2005 playoffs, Gilbert Arenas calmly worked to a spot on the left wing and sunk the game-winning shot over Kirk Hinrich.  The 112-110 win gave the Wizards a 3-2 series lead.  Two nights later, they won the series at home.

3.  Pierce calls "game" on bank-shot buzzer-beater.  After blowing a 21-point 4th quarter lead, the Wizards ran the play for "The Truth" and he delivered.

4.  Wes clinches a title.  With 12 seconds left in Game 7 of the 1978 NBA Finals, Wes Unseld stepped to the free throw line with the Bullets clinging to a 101-99 lead over Seattle.  Wes was a 53% free throw shooter and had already missed 5 in the game including his previous two.  He nailed both and with it clinched the Bullets only NBA Championship.

5.  Frank Johnson's 3-pointer from way out.  In the 1982 playoffs, Bullets' guard Frank Johnson nailed a 28-foot 3-pointer with three seconds left to beat the Celtics in Boston Garden, 103-102.  The shot evened the Eastern Conference Semifinal series at a game apiece.  Larry Bird said about the shot,  "it takes a lot of guts to shoot from that far out at that time, and from where I was standing, it was good all the way."

Wizards Walk-off Without Wall
by Kevin Sheehan
May 10, 2015 -- 9:17am
ESPN 980

8 thoughts on the Wizards Game 3 walk-off win.

1.  Organizational win.  The Wizards had answers for the loss of John Wall and they were well-coached throughout.  Ernie Grunfeld deserves credit for the roster but more specifically as it relates to this game, the addition of Pierce and the late-season additions of Sessions and Bynum.  Randy Wittman had this team ready from the start in this game on both ends and his in-season management of Pierce's minutes has paid huge post-season dividends.  I thought the Wizards ran some of the best half-court set-play offense they've run in these playoffs.  The game-winning shot was a play put in Friday to get Pierce matched up against a smaller player.  Defensively, he's been one-step ahead of his opponents throughout the playoffs.

2.  Great start.  Maybe it was the confidence of hanging around in Game 2 without Wall but the Wizards were so confident from the start in Game 4.  Every player including the players that came off the bench were aggressive on both ends.  They defended well, ran very good set plays on offense, and made the right decisions in transition.  Nene gave them a huge offensive lift.  He went for 13 in the first half on 6-8 from the floor.  He dominated Atlanta's bigger players Antic and a flu-ridden Millsap.  The Wizards had 16 assists on 22 first-half field goals and shot 51%.  Eight players scored in the first-half and nobody was bashful looking for offense.  They led by as many as 18 and the tone set early continued into the 3rd and early 4th where they built what seemed like an insurmountable lead.  

3.  Beal's all-around game.    It would be easy to pick on his five turnovers and his always too-casual ball-handling but Beal had 8 assists, played excellent defense, and drew double-teams all day long.  He was the target of Atlanta's defense and for the most part he did a very good job of setting up others. 

4.  Wall's replacements.  Ramon Sessions went just 2-10 from the floor for 8 points but he put pressure on the defense most of the day.  He had 6 assists including a couple of great Wall-like corner to corner passes for open 3's.  Will Bynum led the team in 4th-quarter scoring and knocked down two huge free throws in the closing seconds of the game.  Their defense on Teague/Schroder left a lot to be desired but they didn't get much help as the rest of the team stayed on 3-point shooters most of the day.

5.  Otto Porter.  He was very good again scoring, passing, rebounding, and defending.  It's crazy to say it considering what we watched during the regular season but he's been the most consistent all-around player since Game 2 in the Toronto series.  I'm not saying he's a better scorer than Wall, Beal, or Pierce.  Not saying he's a better rebounder than Gortat.  But it's a given now that Porter is going to give you something decent to much better than decent in an all-around way. 

6.  Atanta's comeback.  Chalk up Atlanta's comeback to a combination of hot shooting and the Wizards' carelessness with the ball.  Six 4th quarter turnovers were six shot attempts the Wizards didn't get but worse, the majority of the turnovers led to easy points on the other end.  No John Wall means Atlanta can really pressure the ball.  Beal must improve his ball-handling when be guarded closely by a legit defender.  Teague and Schroder are legit quick and both anticipate well.  Even Shelvin Mack got a clean pick and layup.

7.  Schroder travelled.  Sliding on the floor with control of the basketball with both feet in the air should be traveling....I think.  Schroder's skid set up the Muscala game-tying 3.

8.  Pierce game-winner.  It was a great play out of the timeout by Randy Wittman.  Will Bynum set a great screen forcing Schroder to switch on to Pierce.  With a 6-inch height advantage, Pierce was able to shoot over him.  At first it looks like Pierce's buzzer-beating bank shot was lucky.  With any other player I'd say it probably was.  Not him.  BTW, it is arguably the biggest shot in franchise history.  It's certainly the biggest since the Arenas buzzer-beater in Game 5 back in 2005 that gave the Wizards a 3-2 series lead over the Bulls.

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