Super Bowl or bust in Los Angeles?

Harrington Gardiner | Contributing Writer

Two years ago, the Los Angeles Rams were a franchise in disarray. They were suffering with a 4-12 record under head coach Jeff Fisher. Their first round draft pick Jared Goff had not played most of the season, and once he actually got playing time, he looked like a disappointment.

Another downside was the underwhelming performance of running back Todd Gurley, who finished 27th in rushing after finishing in the top five in 2015. Things weren’t looking good in L.A.

However, the Rams organization looked to turn things around when it decided to hire former Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay.  The hiring made McVay the youngest head coach in NFL history, but that youth didn’t stop McVay from changing this organization for the better.

McVay brought in receiving threats for Goff such as Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. He also hired defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who has had a great impact on defenses in the NFL, including the Denver Broncos defense that won the Super Bowl in the 2015 season.

Revitalizing the offensive line was another key to getting things on the right track. The Rams made it their mission to do so by bringing in one of the league’s best offensive tackles in Andrew Whitworth.

McVay wanted to focus on building around the two gems he had on offense — Jared Goff and Todd Gurley — and it paid off in the 2017 season. During McVay’s first year as head coach, he helped the Rams get to an 11-5 record and finished with an NFC West first place crown.

With such a turn around after the team had less than five wins a season before, McVay won NFL coach of the year and made the Rams a team that will be feared for years to come.

Despite the positivity that surrounded the Rams in 2017, they ended their season in sour defeat after losing a home wild card game to the Atlanta Falcons. After the defeat, they realized that there were holes that needed to be filled.

The first adjustment was adding to the coaching staff former UCLA offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, who will now serve as Rams offensive coordinator. The Rams did have some key departures this offseason, which included inside linebacker Alec Ogletree and receiver Sammy Watkins, but they made up for it with the acquisitions they made. The Rams traded for former Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters, who is one of the league’s best corners.

Another great cornerback added to this team was Aqib Talib, and don’t forget about corner Sam Shields as well.  Just when Rams fans thought the team’s defense couldn’t get any better, they signed Ndamukong Suh, who is still one of the best defensive tackles. Suh will be playing next to Aaron Donald, who is considered the league’s top defensive tackle.

The combination of their front seven and secondary will make it extremely hard to get any offensive production going for opposing teams. With this vaunted Rams defense and an offense that finished in the top 10 and just added receiver Brandin Cooks from the Patriots, the Rams will be a force in 2018.

Of course, along the way, there will be challenges. With the moves that they made, their goal now is to dethrone the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. The question is, can the Rams do it?

The talent on their roster most definitely says yes. The key for L.A. is just staying consistent and staying disciplined. This is a Super Bowl-or-bust season for L.A., and part of getting to the Super Bowl is to beat the team that won it all. Philly will be back and better than ever.

Not long ago, the Rams were a team facing obscurity. Now they’re on their pursuit for a Lombardi Trophy.

2018’s best quarterback prospects

Harrington Gardiner | Contributing Writer

It’s that time of year where franchises around the league analyze college football prospects to prepare for the future. We’re several weeks removed from pro days, and the nation’s top quarterbacks are getting non-stop attention.

With loads of talent on both offense and defense this year, the quarterback position seems to be the main focus of this year’s NFL Draft.

Each of the top five QBs projected to go in the first round have had tremendous success in college.

The collegiate accolades are great and all, but NFL scouts and general managers want to know which QB will take their team to a higher level.

It’ll be interesting to see the QB that comes off the board first on draft day.

Josh Allen – Wyoming

Allen has everything you want in today’s NFL QB. He’s got the stature, arm strength and the ability to lead an offense.

Allen has a cannon of an arm, and he also performed well at this year’s NFL Combine where he threw a deep ball nearly 70 yards downfield during a drill.

Despite his intangibles, people question whether he’s worth a shot so early in the draft due to the fact that he played at Wyoming, a small school with very little competition.

During his time at Wyoming, he also never had a completion rate of over 56 percent and was wildly inconsistent with his throws.

Allen has the skill set and athleticism to be a decent quarterback, but whether or not he’s an NFL starter is a question that is still running through the minds of NFL scouts.

Sam Darnold – Southern Cal

Darnold played at one of the most popular football schools in the country. With that being said, the competition level isn’t really a question; Darnold has played against some very tough teams during his time with the Trojans. He has decent size for an NFL QB and can read defenses well.

Another one of his strengths is that he’s confident under pressure. NFL teams would love to have a QB that can deliver great passes while under pressure in the pocket.

When it comes to weaknesses, Darnold turns the ball over way too much. A lot of these plays come from him trying to make something out of nothing, and most times, he ends up taking more hits than he should.

NFL executives call Darnold the most complete QB in the draft, but he has to limit fumbles and interceptions. If he can do that, then Darnold has the best makeup to be a good pro.

Josh Rosen – UCLA

Another PAC-12 standout is Rosen. This guy is also getting very high praise from scouts for his ability to stay in the pocket and deliver beautiful passes. He’s also extremely smart  and skilled in field mechanics.

However, Rosen is not very durable, his decision making is questionable and his arm strength is below average. Rosen had a tremendous upside and can make a wonderful first impression, but he has to work to develop a better skill set and become a starter for a team that needs a QB.

Baker Mayfield – Oklahoma

Heisman Trophy winner Mayfield had an outstanding year. He played in many big games during his time at Oklahoma and was one win away from playing in the national title game before losing to Georgia in the Rose Bowl.

Mayfield is probably the most competitive player in college football, and he’s also tough as nails. His teammates rally around him, and he brought tremendous energy to the Sooners.

Another strength of his is that for his size he is very athletic and he uses his mobility to buy time to make spectacular plays. Despite his strengths, scouts are hesitant with Mayfield because of his antics on and off the field.

He has run into trouble with the law before, and his competitiveness has led him to act unprofessionally in some instances.

Another question that teams have is about his footwork and tendency to throw off of his back foot way too often. Mayfield has had the most success out of every one of these quarterbacks, but NFL executives are still skeptical of him.

Lamar Jackson – Louisville

The 2016 Heisman Trophy winner had many highlight reel plays. He used his versatility to get an edge over defenders, and many people compare him to Michael Vick. Jackson has the open-field instincts of an elite running back, and he is decent when throwing on the run.

Unfortunately, due to his size, he is more susceptible to getting hurt after big hits. These hits often come from his ability to get down field in an instant. NFL executives worry that with the speed of the NFL being tremendously different from college, the adjustment will be too large to make.

They’ve also seen that Jackson underthrows deep balls and has a high turnover total. No one’s doubting that he has the potential to be a dangerous dual-threat quarterback, but Jackson must develop into more of a pocket passer to be sufficient in the NFL

Teams adjust entirely too quickly for him to make the absolutely insane plays he made in college. So, if Jackson can get better with his accuracy and standing tall in the pocket while occasionally using his speed, he can be a great pro quarterback.

Garoppolo the Key to San Fran’s Success?

Harrington Gardiner | Staff Writer

The San Francisco 49ers made a bold statement to the league by signing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a five-year, $137.5 million contract extension.

The newly acquired quarterback was traded from the New England Patriots back in October after he served as a backup for Tom Brady in his first four seasons.

Garoppolo finished the 2017 season with 1,560 yards passing, seven touchdowns and a QBR of 78.2. He played well, but making him the highest-paid player in the league was surprising for someone with seven career starts.

With the quarterback market running thin, GM John Lynch and the Niners got their franchise cornerstone.

In the Patriots’ system that follows the mold of “do your job” and “no days off,” Garoppolo was everything that a team needed in a backup quarterback. Jimmy G had the drive, determination and skill set that was impressive to see out of a backup quarterback who rarely touched the field.

The 49ers were impressed with his ability to flourish in a championship system under legendary Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Garoppolo gained most of his attention when Brady was suspended for the first four games of the 2016 season. In his first four games, he threw for 502 yards, four TDs and had a quarterback rating of 86.0, all while throwing zero interceptions.

San Francisco traded a 2018 second-round pick for Garoppolo, who led the Niners to a five-game winning streak to end the 2017 season. During the winning streak, three of the Niners’ foes were playoff teams. In each of those games, he threw for at least 200 yards.

With Garoppolo starting, success followed in San Fran. The 49ers were one of the most dangerous teams heading toward the end of the season, and a lot of it was due to the play of Garoppolo.

As they will have him for a full season in 2018, are the Niners a dark horse in the NFC?

 

NBA’s biggest surprises and flops

Harrington Gardiner | Contributing Writer

This NBA season so far has its fair share of expectations. The Warriors, Spurs and Rockets are expected to compete for the Western Conference crown. It’s also expected that LeBron James will lead the Cavaliers to Eastern Conference supremacy for the fourth year in a row.

However, every year, it’s important to recognize the different highlights that occur in the association. Even with annual big surprises, there are always flops–whether it’s individual performance or teams not playing up to their true potential. With this being said, surprises and flops are important to help fans understand who’s improving and who needs a little bit more work.

Biggest surprises:

1. Trusting The Process

The Philadelphia 76ers have been one of the emerging young teams in the NBA. Although they are currently 8th in the Eastern Conference, the play of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons has been really impressive.

These two players have shown star power material, and they’ve both proven that they can help this team reach the postseason for the first time since 2011.

Simmons is showing that he can win this year’s rookie of the year award, averaging 16.6 points, 7.2 assists and 3 rebounds per game. Simmons was drafted in 2016 but missed all of last season with a foot injury. Embiid is just dominating this year, averaging 23.9 points, 11 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game. Embiid also made the All-Star team for the first time in his career. The process has been somewhat delayed with No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz being out for a while, but improvement is looking good in Philadelphia right now.

2. The Greek Freak

Although the Milwaukee Bucks aren’t playing up to their true potential as of now, Giannis Antetokounmpo is playing like a man on a mission. He’s an MVP candidate not just because of his major improvement, but because of his dominance over other players.

His long wingspan and dangerous versatility make him nearly unguardable. He’s also carrying his team right now. He has a career high in points, field goal percentage and rebounds. Giannis, otherwise known as “The Greek Freak,” is easily in the MVP discussion, but who knew he’d be in the discussion this fast?

3. Rookies making their mark

This year’s rookie class has definitely balled out. Of course, going into the season, the hype revolved around Lonzo Ball and his impact on the Lakers.

However, many of this year’s rookies have played just as well if not better than Bell. Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Kyle Kuzma, Dennis Smith Jr. and Lauri Markkanen have all shown they can become the cornerstones of their respective franchises. They’re all putting up stellar numbers and are helping their teams ascend in the win column. Highlights and crossovers are great and all; but when a young player can come into the league and contribute night in and night out, that’s flat out impressive.

Biggest flops:

1. Oklahoma City Big Three

Going into this season, the trio of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George were thought to be lethal. It turns out that they’ve been absolutely horrendous. Inconsistency has been a problem for this OKC team and it has caused them to be less of a threat as the year progresses. Lastly, their biggest weakness is their bench play. If they plan to go deep into the postseason, things have to improve, and it starts with their bench.

2.Sacramento Fountain of Youth

Years of drafting young talent on this team hasn’t really paid off for the Kings. This past draft, they got four very skilled rookies: De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson, Harry Giles and Frank Mason. They also acquired Zach Randolph, Vince Carter and George Hill from free agency this year.

They have a great mixture of veteran presence and young potential, yet they currently sit in last place in the Western Conference. Sacramento is way behind schedule in a conference that’s already tough as nails.

3. Inconsistency in D.C

The Washington Wizards have one of the best backcourts in the league in John Wall and Bradley Beal. They also have a decent supporting cast with Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre and Marcin Gortat. The question many are asking is what’s wrong?

Last year, this team was in the discussion for the best team in the East, but this year, inconsistencies have plagued them. They’ve had some injuries here and there, but that certainly can’t be an excuse for losses to teams they should not be losing to.

The Wizards have the talent to be the best in the conference, yet they just aren’t playing like it.

 

After a four-game skid, are the Chiefs in trouble?

Harrington Gardiner | Contributing Writer

KC Chiefs 4.jpg
chiefs.com

Early in the season, the Kansas City Chiefs were considered by many to be a potential Super Bowl favorite and a threat to the always dominant New England Patriots in the AFC.

The superior play of Alex Smith at quarterback as well as the emergence of rookie running back Kareem Hunt caused many to believe that this team has what it takes to be a Super Bowl contender.

Lately, though, they’ve been inconsistent and have taken losses in their past games.

In the first five weeks, they looked to be the NFL’s hottest team, but now they are 6-6 and in a three-way tie with the Los Angeles Chargers and Oakland Raiders atop the AFC West.

What happened with the Chiefs, and can they rebound to save their season?

With the talent on their roster, it’s definitely possible.

Kansas City started off with a 5-0 record and was the last remaining undefeated team in the league. Early in the season, the Chiefs suffered a huge loss, losing pro bowl safety Eric Berry to a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Even with this loss, other Pro Bowl-caliber players on the roster have made an impact, including tight end Travis Kelce and receiver Tyreek Hill.

The two men have been making plays all year.

However, the struggles for this team are a serious concern, especially since the Chiefs are competing for a playoff spot.

The inconsistencies on offense have resulted in failure to put enough points on the board. This has led them to question of whether or not Alex Smith should be benched for rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

While it’s unlikely that Smith will be benched this late in the season, it’s important for the Chiefs to figure out the solutions to their problems.

Otherwise, things could get even uglier in the final weeks of the season.

Kansas City’s offense this season has been dangerous at times. Unfortunately for them, their issues lie on the opposite side of the ball.

The defense, which looked legit the first few games of the season, currently sits in the bottom half of the league.

Having a subpar defense this late in the season heading toward postseason play is a huge red flag.

The Chiefs may no longer be a Super Bowl contending team, but it’s not too late for them to save their season.

They can still rebound from their inconsistencies with the remaining games that they have on their schedule.

Andy Reid and his coaching staff will be put to the test late in the season. It’s time to see if this Kansas City team is the real deal or just all hype.

The Chiefs must remember this: It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish.

MEAC battle at HU against NC Central

Harrington Gardiner | Contributing Writer

Hampton - FAMU Football Game
Yankee Johnson (#2) | Courtesy of Glenn Knight

After a three-point loss to Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., the Pirates face their toughest test of the season this upcoming weekend against North Carolina Central.

Central is coming off an impressive 42-14 homecoming win against Delaware State, and now the Eagles will come to town sitting a game above the Pirates with a 6-2 record. The Pirates, however, are sitting at 5-3 with a 4-1 record in MEAC play and must now put Saturday’s loss to the side to focus on this much-anticipated matchup.

Prior to this past Saturday’s game, Hampton coaches acknowledged the importance of the inter-conference battle against NC Central. However, like any team, they were focused on the task ahead: to handle Bethune-Cookman on the road.

Pirates defensive coordinator Kevin Ketchum stressed the importance of focusing on the task ahead.

“We know Central is very good; they’ve lost one game in this last three years in the league, and that was last week to Norfolk State,” Ketchum said. “Do we have a game plan? No. We have our plan of how to practice, and you don’t change that.”

Ketchum also discussed the Pirates’ 5-2 record and the landscape for the rest of the season in MEAC play.

“So far, 5-2 has been successful, but there’s four left,” he said. “Now, with four left, that can go 9-2, or that can go 5-6. I don’t see anything that would lead me to believe that any of the last four are going to be easy.”

Injuries are another factor that could decimate a football team, and they have impacted some games already. Ketchum addressed that by saying, “You’re deep into the season, so try to get some kids who are hurt back onto the field so that you have a full complement of players to be ready for Saturday.”

The Pirates fell just short on Saturday afternoon against Bethune-Cookman. They had 125 yards rushing along with one rushing touchdown and a 6.8 passing average per attempt. Hampton also had two passing touchdowns, both of which were thrown by quarterback Delmon Williams to wide receiver Ronald Bell. Bell had 119 all-purpose yards, 79 of which were receiving.

This game had been controlled by Bethune-Cookman for the first half, but after halftime, Hampton came back to take a lead late in the third quarter. Even after the Pirates took a 21-17 lead, the Eagles scored late in the fourth quarter with a 7-yard touchdown pass by wide receiver Jawill Davis, making it a 24-21 game.

In heartbreaking fashion, the Pirates were unable to tie the game toward the end, as kicker Adam Brown missed a 29-yard field goal that would have sent the game to overtime.

Hampton did struggle late in Saturday’s game, but with time to regroup, the Pirates should be ready to play arguably their most important game of the season. NC Central, however, has plenty of momentum heading into this Saturday after a dominating performance against Delaware State. With that being said, they’ll be confident in trying to gain MEAC supremacy over Hampton.

The Pirates will look to secure a win to stay on track of what already seems to be a promising year so far.