“King Crimson” AJ McCarron on this week’s SI cover

In this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (11/25/13)—on newsstands now— executive editor L. Jon Wertheim writes about Alabama’s big man on campus and he doesn’t mean Nick Saban. No, the Big Mac in Tuscaloosa is quarterback AJ McCarron, Bama’s master of passing efficiency, who is on the brink of leading the Crimson Tide to its third national championship in four years. Writes Wertheim, “McCarron might be almost as well known for his arm candy as his arm strength, his body ink as his body of work. But let’s be clear: He’s not just one of the great Alabama quarterbacks. AJ McCarron is on the short list of the most successful players in the history of college football. Even if not many think of him that way.” (Page 39)

Despite his 35 wins in Tuscaloosa and two BCS titles, McCarron has never been a Heisman finalist or a first-team All-America. Instead of being considered one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, he’s routinely labeled as a “game manager.” He plays on a team with an old-school philosophy and with a stern disciplinarian and perfectionist as its head coach.. “He has as many national championships as he does defeats,” writes Wertheim. “He holds the Bama record for passing yards (8,184) and touchdowns (70). He has yet to lose a road game. In an offense designed to pick up as much on the ground as in the air, he still tosses for 222.8 yards a game.” (Page 41)

Joe Namath, who won a national championship at Alabama in 1964 under legendary coach Paul (Bear) Bryant and who Bryant referred to as “the greatest athlete I ever coached,” has nothing but high praise and high hopes for McCarron. “Everything AJ has shown has been positive,” Namath says. “He’s productive in the right way. He’s excelled under pressure. He plays well in big games. He’s a leader. He’s carried himself beautifully. He’s going to go into those interviews and wow them. He’ll be successful [in the NFL], and anyone who knows football knows why.” (Page 45)


Boston Strongman

In this week’s Sports Illustrated—on newsstands Wednesday—  senior writer Tom Verducci writes about how 2013 World Series MVP David Ortiz, one of the greatest postseason sluggers ever, used leadership and resilience to carry the Red Sox and the city of Boston to their third Series title in eight years. Ortiz, who had a .688 BA with 11 hits and two home runs in the six- game Series against the Cardinals, shares this week’s cover with Boston police officers Javier Pagan and Rachel McGuire and detective Kevin McGill –all three appeared on SI’s April 22, 2013 cover as the issue reported on the Marathon bombings.

Writes Verducci, “If any one person were to lead the Red Sox and—given the team’s cultural importance in New England—by extension Bostonians through a terrible time, it was a man with an outsized capacity for resilience. The grind of a 162-game season played in a 182-day window, followed by the wilds of postseason play, would test even Lewis and Clark. But among baseball’s 109 world champions there has never been a story of resilience quite like this one. No team—not the 1969 Mets, not the ’91 Twins—has won the World Series in the year after being as bad as the Red Sox were in 2012 (.426 winning percentage). And only six months before the Series—just a half mile east on the same street where Ortiz was applauded—two pressure-cooker bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people, wounding 264 others and terrorizing hundreds of thousands. Four days later the citizenry was ordered to “shelter in place” during a daylong citywide lockdown, while a manhunt for the bombers proceeded. The pleasant routines of life, including baseball, were put on hold.” (Page 32)

Things were not always easy for Ortiz in Boston. Since arriving in Boston in ‘03 Big Papi has battled through injuries, steroid allegations, batting slumps and criticism from an ex-manager who claimed Ortiz quit on the team. Still, Big Papi remained ebullient and ready to lead by example.

Writes Verducci, Ortiz is the team’s leader in every imaginable way, a man of imposing size (6′4″, 250 pounds) yet easy accessibility. He delivers the right words and mood for a club as reliably as he does big hits. He is a baseball -philosopher—thoughtful, colorful, -profane—and his well-scarred career and outsized personality serve him well in big situations that can rattle others. “You can be the real deal today and s— tomorrow,” he says. “That’s how the game goes. On the day you feel your best, you can go 0 for 5. You go home and say, ‘I feel like Superman, and I went 0 for 5.’ That tells you how tough this game is: On your best day you had a bad day.” (Page 32)


Waiting for the Hate

In this week’s Sports Illustrated—on newsstands now—senior writer Austin Murphy writes about how (and why) the nucleus of the Pac-12 is changing, as No. 2 Oregon (8–0) and fifth-ranked Stanford (7–1) prepare to face off in the Pac 12’s game of the year in Palo Alto on Thursday, Nov. 7.

Historically speaking, the Oregon-Stanford college football rivalry never really registered on anyone’s radar west of the Golden Gate Bridge. It never warranted any cool nicknames like The Iron Bowl (Alabama-Auburn) or The Red River Rivalry (Texas-Oklahoma) or the simple and direct moniker The Game (Michigan-Ohio State). The Ducks and the Cardinal never had the national spotlight on their intense coaching matchups the way Bo Schembechler versus Woody Paige or Bobby Bowden versus Steve Spurrier did.

It was only over the last few years that the Ducks versus the Cardinal took on any type of significance outside the Pacific time zone. The two schools have been forging a rivalry that has shifted the Pac-12’s power nexus had an annual impact on the national title hunt. Writes Murphy, “Besides, acrimony excepted, this game will have everything. It’s Oregon’s second-ranked offense, led by quarterback Marcus Mariota, against Stanford inside linebacker Shayne Skov and the Cardinal’s 25th-ranked D. It’s a play-in to the Pac-12 title game, and the latest dramatization of the conference’s power shift from Los Angeles. It’s a clash of fashions—the Cardinal’s basic red-and-white versus whatever space-age design the Ducks are rocking—and of philosophies reflected by those unis: Stanford’s old-school, smashmouth power game versus Oregon’s no-huddle, hurry-up Blur attack.” (Page 48)

For more than 60 years, Pac-12 football was dominated by heavyweight contenders UCLA and USC, which have won a combined 18 conference titles and 55 national titles between them and which have produced Hall of Fame players such as the Bruins Jackie Robinson (yes, he played football too), Ken Norton Jr. and Troy Aikman, and the Trojans’ Frank Gifford, Marcus Allen and Lynn Swann. Now all eyes in the West are focused on the Ducks’ Mariota and wide receiver Josh Huff and the Cardinal’s Skov and linebacker AJ Tarpley. Nevertheless, the talent surge at both schools can also be attributed to a surge in resources.

Writes Murphy, “The Ducks have won 12 games in each of the past three seasons; the Cardinal, 12, 11 and 12. The Ducks have been to four straight BCS bowls; the Cardinal, three. Both teams’ ascent to the college football aristocracy has come (relatively) recently—spurred largely by a couple of sugar daddies. Call it the Nouveau Riche Bowl. John Arrillaga (net worth: $1.8 billion), who played basketball at Stanford in the 1950s and developed much of the real estate that is now Silicon Valley, has given at least $251 million to his alma mater, where six buildings bear his name. Nike shogun Phil Knight (net worth: $16.3 billion) has kept his name off the architecture in Eugene, but he’s been even more generous, bestowing at least $300 million.” (Page 48)

While Stanford, known more for its academic achievement than its touchdown prowess, has surprised some with its recent success, it’s the Hatfield Dowlin Foot Performance Center, Oregon’s new state-of-the-art, 145,000 square foot football facility that has gone viral across all recruiting and social media platforms. However, Murphy says Knight plays down the importance of his philanthropy and influence on the football program’s success. “The secret is not the money” Knight says. Even with his gifts, Knight believes, Oregon has less to work with “than any of the traditional powers. The secret is management.” (Page 49)


Gone Crazy

This fall, the 2013 World Series has been the greatest show on Earth. In this week’s sports illustrated–on newsstands now–senior writer Tom Verducci explains how the Cardinals and the Red Sox both brought the weird in the 109th fall classic—from whacky beards to foul-ups, bleeps and blunders—in a series full of tense games and never-seen-before endings. But look past the drama and the two evenly matched teams, and you see a sport in need of change. Think the DH was funky? Make way for the bonus at bat.

Writes Verducci, “The atmosphere of the 109th World Series could be described in many ways—-intense, passionate, noisy—but rarely does rushed enter into the 21st-century baseball conversation. As scoring has declined and pitching has come to dominate the game over the past decade, every pitch carries an intensity that prompts hitters into deep bouts of concentration and routine, as if they’re preparing to dive off the cliffs of Acapulco 292 times, which is the average number of pitches in a major league game in 2013.” (Page 34)

Boston and St. Louis were the best teams in the majors this season. Only twice during the Wild Card Era — in 1995, when the Indians met the Braves in the first year of the three-tiered format, and in 1999, when the Yankees played the Braves — has the team with the best record in each league squared off in the World Series. However, the paths each team took to this year’s Fall Classic were drastically different. While the Boston’s pitching staff was middle-of-the pack all year, the Cardinals’ rode to glory on the arms of their flamethrowers, especially during the postseason.

Writes Verducci, “The National League champion Cardinals epitomize how young power pitching rules today’s game. Throughout the postseason they ran to the mound eight homegrown pitchers between 22 and 26 years old who threw between 95 and 100 miles an hour. Those callow flamethrowers combined to throw 71% of St. Louis’s innings through the first 15 games in October while piling up 92 strikeouts in 96 innings. So enriched with pitching is baseball that it was harder to get a hit in the big leagues this year (.253 batting average) or get on base (.318 OBP) than at any time in the 40 years since the designated hitter was adopted.” (Page 34)

In contrast, the Red Sox relied on patience at the platelong pitch counts and late rallies (plus a late season surge from DH David Ortiz)to get wins. “The American League champion Red Sox are the preeminent counter-tacticians to this wave of superior pitching: They turn offense into defense. They saw more pitches than any team this season, 158.3 per game. They willingly sign up for strikeouts—they were eighth in baseball in whiffs while blowing past the franchise record—as the tariff for “grinding out at bats” to “run up pitch counts,” the highest virtues of hitting as extolled by coaches and the media. Where offenses of great potency once earned such menacing nicknames as Murderers’ Row, the Big Red Machine and Harvey’s Wallbangers, baseball now aspires to “grinders” when it comes to hitting excellence. Players who make outs return to high fives and fist bumps in the dugout as long as they saw five or more pitches.” (Page 34)

Stylistically, the Red Sox–Cardinals World Series highlighted the drawn-out, low-scoring war of attrition that baseball has become. As an alternative, Verducci suggests that baseball should consider a mechanism that guarantees the best players get to hit at the most exciting time. Call it, The Bonus At Bat.


The Long Rangers

Stephen CurryHow’s this for the next great NBA tag team? One is 6’7” and 207 pounds and the prototypical NBA wing. The other lacks strength, can’t jump and is freakishly skilled. There has never been a backcourt like the Warriors’ Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry, two young gunners whose shooting range astounds even themselves.

Writes Chris Ballard, If Thompson is a classic NBA type, Curry is an outlier. While many stars are considered blueprints for the next generation—seven-footers who shoot threes, linebacker-sized point forwards—Curry is a throwback. No GM would scour the college ranks for slight, 6′3″ guards who fit the “Curry model,” because there are none. You could call him a small, scoring, hybrid point guard, but that’s not accurate. What he really is the best long-range shooter in NBA history.”

Both Curry and Thompson are NBA legacies. Dale Curry, father of Stephen, played 16 seasons in the NBA and is the franchise leader in points (9,839) and three-point field goals made (929) for the New Orleans Pelicans‘ (formerly the Charlotte Hornets). Mychal Thompson played 12 seasons in the league and won two titles with the Lakers. Writes Jenkins, Ask the fathers how much of their sons’ success is genetic and how much is due to everything else, and they struggle to answer. Mychal thinks for a while, then settles on 50% genes, 50% other factors. Dell puts it at 25/75: “You can have a great skill set, but if you don’t work to develop it, it won’t get you that far.” Genetics aside, there has never been a pair of teammates like Thompson and Curry. | SI senior writer Chris Ballard


The Nets New Nucleus

Brooklyn NetsWhen Paul Pierce persuaded Kevin Garnett to play for the Nets—and for rookie coach Jason Kidd—it clinched the deal of the summer. Now the clock is already ticking on a group of highly paid but aging stars as they strive to lead the franchise to its first NBA championship and give new meaning to the Beastie Boys’ addage, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.”  Writes Chris Mannix, “Perhaps the most persistent concern is what Garnett, 37, and Pierce, 36, have left, a question that was raised after the Celtics lost in the first round last spring. “Don’t read too much into that,” says then Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “When [Rajon] Rondo went down, we asked them to do too much. They went from trying to mesh into the team to having to carry it again. But Paul can play forever; he never uses his athleticism. And Kevin—as long as you watch his minutes—can still be Kevin Garnett.”

Kidd is as attuned to the modern game and player as any, even though he is lacking in procedural aspects and experience at the helm. Last season he was a veteran player. This season he will be the boss, but not so far removed from his fraternity of brothers in the locker room. Unlike most first-year coaches, Kidd isn’t expected to develop talent, but rather to make full use of a surplus of it,” writes Mannix. “Kidd understands that on a team loaded with stars, he is potentially its biggest liability. Still, his philosophy will blend the approaches of the men he played for.” | SI senior writer Chris Mannix


This Joint Is Jumpin': Derrick Rose’s New Knee

Derrick RoseA year and a half after he tore his left ACL, 2011 MVP Derrick Rose is back. But will he be as good as new? Rose is one of 12 top NBA players who are attempting to return from knee surgery. Vrentas writes, “According to a 2010 article in the Sports Health journal that tracked the league’s injuries through a 17-year period, no other body part causes more missed games in the NBA than the knee. As players continue to get bigger with each passing season, and as the game has become more acrobatic, their bigger and stronger bodies place a greater strain on the knee as they twist and turn and jump. This applies to ACL injuries as well as tears to the meniscus, the C-shaped piece of cartilage in the knee joint.”

Rose was criticized by fans and media for sitting out last season instead of making a speedy recovery as did Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who returned to play nine months after tearing his left ACL. “NBA players recovering from knee surgeries face unique demands, including an 82-game season,” writes Vrentas.  A sustained pace with dozens of sharp, abrupt movements; up to 12 minutes per quarter; and little margin for error in the essential skill of shooting. Returning to the court after knee surgery may take longer in the NBA than in other professional sports, like the NFL.” | SI writer Jenny Vrentas


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