Alvin Bailey, Ross Rasner, Tarvaris Jackson, Sean McGrath, Ty Powell & the Super Bowl

Ex Hog and Bronco Ross Rasner sure knows how to get after it.
Ex Hog and Bronco Ross Rasner sure knows how to get after it. Via Instagram
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McDonald (upper left) with other 2004 all-metro players such as Darren McFadden (#5) (via Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Heading into this Sunday’s Super Bowl, there appears to be three players with Arkansas ties on the rosters of the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks. The one who will likely play the biggest role in the game itself is Clinton McDaniel, a Jacksonville native/pass rusher extraordinaire who specializes in collapsing the pocket on third downs. Learn more about him in my Sporting Life Arkansas profile here.

Offensive lineman Alvin Bailey also looks to get some burn in the big game. The former Razorback left school early last spring, went undrafted, but has carved out a nice niche for himself in Seattle. He threw a key block in the NFC Championship game to spring running back Marshawn Lynch for a 40-yard touchdown run. Those points proved to be the winning margin in a game which finished 23-17.

“I’m having the time of a lifetime,” Bailey told The Oklahoman’s Berry Tramel.

He’s made no starts. But Bailey played about a dozen snaps in the NFC Championship Game as an extra lineman. And he cleared out 49er safety Donte Whitner, allowing Lynch to score and put the Seahawks in control.

Bailey said leaving Arkansas wasn’t just a good decision, “it was a great decision.”

“I thought I was going to get drafted. Things didn’t work out that way. But I made it to the Seahawks, we’re in the Super Bowl now. I don’t regret anything.”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=atqhbbUnmAM&w=560&h=315]

Btw, here’s a nice KARK interview with Bailey’s gargantuan uncle, who’s livin’ large in Little Rock and is the main reason Bailey chose to attend Arkansas in the first place.

Tarvaris Jackson

Jackson hardly looked like a future pro during his two seasons as Razorback quarterback in 2002 and 2003. He had plenty “physical tools,” sure, but so does every other QB who starts at least one game in the SEC. What he lacked was the maturity to put it all together, and the patience to see it through in Fayetteville. Ten years after he transferred to Alabama State, he becomes the most unlikely former Razorback quarterback to be on a Super Bowl roster only a couple years after becoming the most unlikely ex Hog to throw for 3,000 yards in the NFL.

To me, it doesn’t matter that he likely won’t play a snap. Or that in the last week he has inspired such headlines as “Tarvaris Jackson’s Super Bowl Preparation is Sad and Boring.” But laugh not. Appreciate how amazing it is he’s almost been in the League for a full decade at QB, given how uninspiring his UA days were. It would be like time traveling to the NFL circa 2022 only to find Brandon Mitchell there as a savvy backup QB to Rafe Peavey in the Cowboy’s long-awaited return to the Super Bowl.

The Left Overs

None of the following guys with Arkansas college ties are on the rosters for Denver or Seattle. But don’t discount the part they played earlier in the season sharpening their teammates for the long haul.

1. Ross Rasner – Ras-Nasty sure could deliver a hit in his Hog days in 2009-2012, whether on special teams, as linebacker or safety. He wasn’t the most technically sound decleater we’ve ever seen on the Hill, so it wasn’t a surprise when he went unpicked in the 2013 Draft. Still, there was some cause for optimism when Denver signed Rasner as a free agent last spring and brought him to camp. Even if rookie stuff like this was happening:

khyyz_rasner_670089

Unfortunately, in the end, the burden of beating out veteran safeties like Quentin Jammer and Mike Adams for a final roster spot was too much to bear. Rasner was cut on August 31, 2013. He hasn’t yet resigned with another team, but if you think this is a man feeling down on his luck, these swag-tastic Instagram updates will have you thinking otherwise:

ras nasty

2. Sean McGrath

The 6-5, 247-pound McGrath is one of the most physically imposing college players to come out of Clark County, Ark. since Cowboys great Cliff Harris. While Harris played for Ouachita Baptist University, McGrath played in 2010 and 2011 for Henderson State after transferring from Eastern Illinois.

The Illinois native found the culture change tough at first, as he shared with ESPNW:

After two seasons as an EIU Panther, McGrath was dismissed for a violation of team rules… He got some help finding his next step from his assistant coach at EIU, Jeff Hoover, who would die in a car accident just a few months later.

“I was fortunate,” McGrath said of getting a second chance. “The late Jeff Hoover hooked me up with Coach [Scott] Maxfield down at Henderson State U, and bada-bing, bada-boom, I’m in the Bible Belt. Arkadelphia, Arkansas.”

Sounds made up, but it’s a real place. There were, of course, a few growing pains for McGrath, who adjusted to the South while sitting out the 2009 season.

“It’s a different place,” he said. “When I first got down there I didn’t know what a dry county was. Needless to say we had to get that changed. Political process went into effect and, you know. Let’s just say it was wet when we left.”

By 2010 the students of Henderson State were getting their buzz on and McGrath was back on track, catching 55 passes for 565 yards and four touchdowns. He was injured for much of his senior year and went undrafted, but he refused to give up on his dream to go pro.

Last year, McGrath played as a tight end on Seattle’s practice squad for four months before finally being called up. McGrath played well and improved over the offseason. By last spring, he’d worked his way into being the Seahawks’ second-string tight end , and sent some Seattle sports opinionators into a caffeinated craze along the way. One blogger even imagined McGrath’s role in the waning minutes of a (then) hypothetical Super Bowl:

Wilson snaps the ball.  Broncos linebacker Von Miller reads the run coming his way, and attacks the line. Oddly, he finds himself moving backwards despite his legs churning forwards. Seahawks tight end Sean McGrath is walking him back off the line. It starts slowly, but McGrath gains momentum and has completely overpowered Miller by this point. Miller is a full five yards beyond the line of scrimmage when McGrath assassinates his dignity.  [emphasis mine]  He is no longer moving backwards because McGrath has planted him on his back.

McGrath was cut by Seattle on August 31, but soon picked up Kansas City. He ended up starting nine games for the Chiefs, tallying 26 receptions for 302 yards and 2 touchdowns. And he would never, ever, think of assassinating the dignity of a good locker room interview:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCBetSs3ROI&w=560&h=315]

Keep this man away from the “Discovery Channel”!

3. Ty Powell

Seattle head coach Pete Carroll loves his linebacker/safeties fast, physical, big and snarling. That’s why he chose the 6’2″, 248-pound Powell in the seventh round, with the 231 overall pick, in the 2013 Draft. Powell had been plenty impressive at Harding University, where he was ranked the 17th best outside linebacker in the nation (inc. Division I) after a 2012 season that included 12 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and four blocked kicks [This, btw, may be a single season Arkansas college football record. Perhaps Hog Dan Skipper will break it…]

Powell says in the below video he believed he could have gone as high as the third or fourth round, so when he dropped to seventh he was left with a bit of a “chip on my shoulder”:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F85esPoPyGE&w=560&h=315]

If Powell had a chip on his shoulder then, you know he had a veritable tortilla shell on the shoulder after being waived by the Seahawks this past September. Buffalo snapped the linebacker up the following month, though, and Powell finished with nine tackles in the the last four games of the season.

P.S. Kicker Eddie Carmona, who nailed a 62-yd FG at Harding, signed w/ Oakland in 2011, 2012
P.S. Kicker Eddie Carmona, who nailed a 62-yd FG at Harding, signed w/ Oakland in 2011, 2012

Arkansas leads Nation in Home/Road Wins Disparity. Guess Who’s #2?

Nothing ever seems to get better for these road woe-erriers.
Nothing ever seems to get better for these road woe-erriers.

Razorback fans, you can rest easy now.

If you had any doubt  that under Mike Anderson, the Hogs have been the nation’s most Jekyll and Hyde program, fret no more. I have scoured the back alleys of the World Wide Web, and have found not a single other Division I program which so predictably cranks out win-at-home, lose-on-the-road outcomes in recent years. As you can see in the graph below, Arkansas has been extremely strong at home since 2011-12, Anderson’s first year. But the Hogs’ simultaneous struggles on the road (which I have explored for the New York Times and Sporting Life Arkansas) have been even more remarkable.

Season

Overall

Home

Road

RPI

2013-14

13-6

12-1

0-3

76

2012-13

19-13

18-1

 1-9

93

2011-12

18-14

17-3

1-9

106

Home Winning %  90.2
Road Winning %    8.7
Disparity: 81.5%

If the heart were a neck muscle, 98% of Hog fans would be suffering some degree of whiplash by now. Will it surprise anyone if Arkansas knocks off a good Mizzou team at home tonight [Mizzou has never won at Bud Walton], but then proceeds to lose handily to LSU on the road, then beats Alabama at home, then goes to Vanderbilt and shoots either 12% on three-point attempts or 52% on free throws for the game?

Sadly, this is the whipsaw future almost all Arkansas fans expect these days.  Home heroism mixed with road woes have come to rival up-tempo defense as the Razorbacks’ most well-known trait. Arkansas is not alone in this boat, though. There are a few other programs who have mightily succeeded/struggled in the same way. Again, not to the extent Arkansas has, but enough to lock down the #2, #3 and #4 spots in college basketball Jekyll and Hyde-dom.

Without further adieu, I present to you the three fan bases who are most likely to be able to empathize with Arkansas’:

Maryland

Season

Overall

Home

Road

RPI

2013-14

11-8

7-2

1-4

67

2012-13

25-13

18-3

 3-7

65

2011-12

17-15

13-4

1-8

103

Home Winning % 80.9
Road Winning %  20.8
Disparity: 60.1%

Now in his third year, Mark Turgeon hasn’t yet been able to return the Terrapins to their glory days of the early 2000s, when they won the national title in 2002. This was supposed to be the year Maryland returned to the NCAA’s but the team still isn’t winning enough conference road games to fulfill that potential. “Too often, the Terrapins have appeared rudderless,” one Washington Post columnist opined while discussing the team’s point guard problems. Another big reason is the road shooting woes of its most explosive wingman, Jake Layman.

Razorback fans know the feeling. Wing Michael Qualls looked like a darkhorse All-SEC type player before faltering so far in conference. Qualls shoots 49% on field goals at home, and 8% on the road.

Wake Forest

Season

Overall

Home

Road

RPI

2013-14

13-6

11-0

1-4

62

2012-13

13-18

11-5

 1-10

168

2011-12

13-18

9-7

3-8

176

Home Winning %  72.1
Road Winning %   18.5
Disparity: 53.6%

When it comes to emotional roller coaster rides in the last  five years, I doubt any program has been so high, and fallen so low, as Wake Forest. The alma mater of Tim Duncan and Chris Paul was ranked #1 nationwide in January, 2009. A little less than a year later, their coach was fired and Jeff Bzdelik hired.

The resulting downward spiral and apparent dysfunction reads like a jock’s rendition of Requiem For a Dream. Last season was a season of protests directed against Bzdelik, as well as  a radio show fiascobrutal public relations, a highly active Internet campaign, and thousands of dollars in local media ad buys, as ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan points out.

Bzdelik hasn’t exactly righted the ship this year despite notching wins over UNC and North Carolina State at home. While the Demon Deacons did nab a conference road win last week, that only makes WF 2-27 in ACC road games during Bzdelik’s tenure. Wake Forest fans have come to expect  “jubilation at home and misery on the road,” Robert Reinhard wrote for SB Nation. “It’s completely unacceptable that a team can perform that well at home yet so miserably on the road.”

Nebraska

Season

Overall

Home

Road

RPI

2013-14

9-9

8-1

0-6

86

2012-13

15-18

11-6

 2-10

98

2011-12

12-18

9-8

3-9

145

Home Winning %    65.1
Road Winning %     16.7
Disparity:  48.4%

At home, this season, the Huskers have come within a point of beating Michigan while knocking off Minnesota and  Ohio State (a win apparently every bit as satisfying to Husker Nation as the Kentucky win was to Hog Nation). But second-year coach Tim Miles is 1-14 in true games, the last being a loss to an extremely bad Penn State team. “We’re right there,” star player Terran Petteway said earlier this month. ”Every day everybody has to come with a positive attitude, come ready to work. As you can see, the past couple games were pretty close. Once we get over the hump, it’s going to be special.”

N.B. Nebraska forward David Rivers, a former teammate of Bobby Portis at Little Rock Hall, has struggled this year on the road and at home. He’s found his groove at neutral sites, though.

Just for kicks, here are Neutral Court results from the last three seasons:
Maryland: 10-9
Nebraska: 3-5
Wake Forest: 3-8
Arkansas: 1-7

* Maryland, Wake Forest and Nebraska records and RPI rankings are through January 24, 2014. 

Ranking Peyton Manning & Tom Brady Vs All-Time Best QBs

BradyManning

At this moment, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are near-unanimous Top 10 quarterbacks in NFL history. Some will knock Brady for winning Super Bowls only on teams which operated during New England’s “Spygate” era. That may be so, but since the season that scandal broke – 2007 – Brady has still led his team to two Super Bowls and put up historic numbers. Likewise, Manning has been criticized for only winning one of two Super Bowls despite surpassing Dan Marino as the best regular season quarterback in NFL history. Still, Big Peyt led his team to ONE Super Bowl title – which counts for something. Not as much as two, but he deserves a spot in the Top 10 alongside the likes of Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway and, yes, Drew Brees.

But for every modern player that enters fans’ conversations a near-lock Top 10er, someone from the olden days has to be knocked down a notch. This is a topic I explore in a piece for the Daily Beast:

The question of whether either quarterback has a legit claim to being the all-time best remains, though. The answer may seem clearer after the game, but will again muddle in the coming years as time erodes fans’ perceptions. Most of today’s NFL fans would agree Brady and Manning deserve to be ranked somewhere in the league’s all-time Top 10 quarterbacks. But Brady and Manning could not have already ascended into that pantheon unless older all-time greats like Otto Graham, Bart Starr and Sammy Baugh were knocked down a few notches.

Baugh, who starred for the Redskins in the 1940s, is the only player to lead the NFL in passing, punting, and intercepting in the same season. That’s pretty awesome, but unfortunately for Baugh’s reputation, he’s ancient history to most NFL fans. Nobody mentions his name anymore “because nobody’s seen him,” Joe Montana said in 2012. “It’s always about what’s happening now.”

It’s difficult to imagine, but to some future generation Manning’s career tally of 491 touchdowns and 219 interceptions will look as unimpressive as Baugh’s 187 TDs/203 INTs career total looks to us now. There will be quarterbacks faster, stronger and quicker than their predecessors who will in the coming decades earn teammates’ loyalties, shatter today’s records, win at least three Super Bowls and surpass Manning and Brady on most fans’ Top 10 lists. The young, explosive dual-threat stars squaring off in the NFC Championship Game—Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson—remind us Manning and Brady’s time at the top of their profession is limited.

For proof of how fluid all-time rankings in sports can be, and how current generation-centric most of us are, look at the below list compiled by Roland Lazenby for his book “100 Greatest Quarterbacks.” Most people would still have Montana, Bradshaw, Unitas, and maybe Staubach and Marino in their list, but you won’t see the others very often. Not since John Elway, Brett Favre and Steve Young have broke onto the scene.

Circa 1988
Book Circa 1988

[polldaddy poll=7727343]

Top 10 Greatest One-Season Turnarounds in Sports History

Few turnarounds in sports history surpass what Gus Malzahn and his team pulled off.
Few turnarounds in sports history surpass what Gus Malzahn and his team pulled off.

When Auburn barely fell 34-31 to Florida State on Monday night in a showdown for the national title, it didn’t just lose a game. It lost a shot at securing status as the greatest one-season turnaround in major American team sports history. Auburn was within three points of completing a U-turn which, in terms of winning percentage and postseason results, had never before been seen on this scale.

That said, these Tigers still went from 3-9 to 12-2 and a No. 2 ranking. That in itself is still historic and ranks at the top of all-time turnarounds in major college football. But, when it comes to all-time bounce backs, a few examples in pro basketball and football still take the cake.  The St. Louis Rams, for instance, overcame 300-1 odds heading into the 1999 season to win the 2000 Super Bowl. In fact, looking at the official odds at the start of the season has provided fodder for some of the best “comebacks” and “turnarounds” recorded in recent time. One may click here for more on NFL betting this postseason and ask themselves if anything indicates a franchise turnaround.

Unquestionably, those ’99 Rams and these ’13 Tigers are  all-timers. Here are eight more:

10. Hawaii (college football)

1998: 0-12 (12.4 points per game / 35.2 points against per game)

1999: 9-4   (28.5 points per game / 26.8 points against per game)

Like at Auburn, an offensive guru turned the Rainbow Warrior program around.

When June Jones arrived as Hawaii’s head coach, he faced a team which was suffering through an 18-game losing streak and could not pass the ball to the Pacific Ocean. Within a fall, he had the offense humming and led Hawaii to the Oahu Bowl, where it beat Oregon State 23-17.

“He actually came in and gave us a system,” former Hawaii quarterback Dan Robinson told the Montgomery Advisor.  “We started the exact same players as the season before when we went 0-12. He gave us a system and taught us how to believe in that system. The season before, every week, we’d run a different offense.”

9. Kansas City Wizards (pro soccer)

1999: 8-24 (24 goals scored total / 53 goals scored against total)

2000: 16-9*-7 (47 goals scored total / 29 goals scored against total)

In 1999, the team had a talented roster – including two-time World Cup starters Tony Meola and Alexi Lalas – but could not put it together. Of course, it’s never a good sign when a defender (Lalas) is your third-leading scorer for a season. Putting points on the board was not a problem for KC the following season, thanks to the vastly improved play of midfielder Chris Henderson and his Danish friend and MLS newcomer Miklos Molnar. What’s now Sporting Kansas City won its first MLS Supporters’ Shield, beating the Chicago Fire 1-0.

*Eight draws, along with 16 wins and seven losses. This was the first season MLS games were allowed to finish in ties.

8. New England Patriots (pro football)

2000: 5-11 (17.2 points per game / 21.1 points against per game)

2001: 11-5  (23.2  points per game / 17.0 points against per game)

It’s hard to imagine the Patriots slogging through a losing season under Bill Belichick. That’s because it hasn’t happened since 2000, when he start reorganizing everything in his first season as head coach in Foxboro. He certainly laid a good foundation, which was unexpectedly helped in the second game of the following season when the Patriots were blessed by the “fortune” of having their 29-year-old franchise quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, go down with a sheared blood vessel in his chest. Tom Brady, a sixth-round draft pick in 2000, stepped in to replace him and proceeded to lead New England to an 11-3 record as starter. With the help of three clutch Adam Vinatieri field goals, the Patriots won the franchise’s first Super Bowl.

Continue reading Top 10 Greatest One-Season Turnarounds in Sports History

Trey Flowers Keeps Pursuing His Dream of Chasing His Razorback Dreams

trey flowers
All-SEC Trey Flowers pursues quarterbacks and, apparently, transhuman forms of consciousness.

Press releases.

God bless the fine sports information men and women who have to crank ’em out and the coaches and student-athletes who have to say something, anything really, to make them look more official.

It’s a fairly standard process that keeps the entire sportswriting-industrial complex humming along. Sometimes, though, there’s a glitch in the system. Somebody’s not quite on their “A game” when it comes to clearly thinking about what to say, or to write.

The result can be words that stretch the limits of logic to a breaking point. Case in point is today’s press release from the University of Arkansas  that nearly sent my mind into a metaphysical tailspin. The statement declares star defensive end Trey Flowers is returning for his senior season to anchor the Razorbacks’ line. “I’m very excited for Trey and not just his immediate future, but for everything down the road,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema pronounced.

Bielema should be excited about Flowers’ immediate future. Not only is the Alabama native returning as a second-team All-SEC player who has superb on-the-field awareness, but it’s possible he’s tapped into another dimension altogether.  Bielema said Flowers told him he’d decided to forego entering the 2014 NFL Draft because “he wanted to maintain and pursue his dream of playing and chasing his dreams here at Arkansas for another year.”

Pursuing a dream of chasing dreams? I don’t exactly know what that means. I’m pretty sure it means there’s a lot of dreaming going on. Beyond that, if I had to guess, I’d say it Bielema is trying to tell us young Trey also has the ability to meta-dream, a quality typically ascribed to techno-saviors of mankind who can flit between alternate realities and download their consciousnesses into avatars – you know, that sort of thing.

Bottom line: Flowers is still very much plugged into the program at a time when it desperately needs him. And that’s something for Hog fans to cheer about.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqxwtEdxOCw&w=420&h=315]

Proof I’m not a dirty liar:

Flowers Announces Return For 2014 Season

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers announced Monday he was returning to the Razorbacks for his senior season after considering early entry into the NFL Draft.

“I have made the decision to stay at Arkansas for my senior season,” Flowers said. “Coach Bielema was very supportive throughout the process and helped me and my family navigate this decision. I still have goals on and off the field I want to accomplish at Arkansas, beginning with graduating, and want to continue pursuing those. On the field, I am excited about the program being built and wanted to help the Razorbacks back in 2014. Even though my draft grade was good, I believe another year with Coach Bielema will help improve my draft status. I am looking forward to another season at Arkansas, where we have support from our administration, some of the best fans in the nation and a bright future for the football program.”

A second-team All-SEC selection in 2013, Flowers finished the season with 44 tackles, including 13.5 for loss with 5.0 sacks, three forced fumbles, one interception, two pass breakups and five quarterback hurries. His average of 1.23 tackles for loss per game ranks second in the SEC and 35th in the NCAA, and his tackles for loss total is tied for third in the conference. His tackles for loss accounted for 58 yards lost, the ninth-highest total in the SEC. He recorded 9.5 tackles for loss in conference play, which ranked fourth in the SEC. The Huntsville, Ala., native also is tied for second in the conference and for 23rd in the country with three forced fumbles.

Through his first three seasons as a Razorback, Flowers has recorded 122 tackles, 32.0 for loss with 12.0 sacks, 17 quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles, seven pass breakups and one interception. He is tied for 11th on Arkansas’ career tackles for loss list and is tied for 16th on the school’s career sacks list. In addition to his All-SEC inclusion in 2013, he also was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team in 2011. The economics major has earned recognition on the SEC Fall Academic Honor Roll and the Razorback Honor Roll for his work in the classroom.

“I’m very excited for Trey and not just his immediate future, but for everything down the road,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “I went through this process, going back to last spring when I first sat down with him and his parents to talk about exactly where he was and where we thought we could get him. Then we’d have a decision to make. I really kept them in the loop as much as we could. I talked to his parents several times throughout the course of the year. Trey came in as I expected after the end of the regular season and we sat down. We filled out the information. We did a telephone conference with his father. I said we’d wait for the grades. We got our grades in, and I believe I was notified on Jan. 1. Last Friday afternoon I flew over to Alabama and myself and Coach (Ben) Herbert sat down, went through about 15 documents with Trey and his mom and dad, the information that I gathered for him to make an informed decision. Thankfully he notified us shortly thereafter and said he wanted to maintain and pursue his dream of playing and chasing his dreams here at Arkansas for another year. He’ll be able to get his degree and hopefully move his draft status that much more for the future.”