Early Favorites for AOTY (Plus a mini announcement)

I’ve come to a realization during this first part of 2019 regarding music: for the last several years I’ve been trying to take in as much quantity as possible, and maybe I’ve been missing out on digging in as deeply as I could into the highest quality of music available to me. Some of this, admittedly, is self-inflicted by the existence of Apple Music and the fact that paying for the account allows me to listen to pretty much anything I want without consequence. So Friday mornings throughout the last few years have included swiping through the New Music lists, picking out potential new listens based on genre, record labels or simply based on the album cover. Not exactly scientific, and the result of which left me with a mixed bag of discoveries. Sometimes I would listen to an album once, sigh a little “well, that was an album,” and move on; other times I wouldn’t even make it all the way through, but it always ended up in an adventure. And, from time to time, I’d listen to something that I didn’t know about before hand, hadn’t been anticipating or pining over for months, but ended up enjoying and returning to throughout the year.

But here’s the thing: the new stuff didn’t get the benefit of the doubt that a known artist would. So if, say, the new album from a band I’ve been following for years didn’t quite hit the first time, I was more likely to give it several more listens before bowing out and deciding it wasn’t working for me. Bands or artists I didn’t know previously didn’t get that same opportunity, at least not most of the time, and so were left either getting deleted from my library or sitting there, lost amongst more listened to albums. Sure, it didn’t cost me anything, other than time, to try to see if the records would prove to connect with me, but it also feels like a crapshoot I don’t really want to invest that time in.

All this lead up is to say that I’m trying to do this less for 2019, and likely moving forward. This isn’t to say that I won’t sift through the new music lists each week, it just means I’m a little more reluctant to give up the time to listen to something I’m not familiar with at this point than just to give that time to listen to an album I’m really loving for the 10th, 15th, 20th time. I think I’ve just grown disappointed with the depth of knowing I’ve had with my favorite records over the last few years. I can still sing all the lyrics to my favorite albums from my college years, and I don’t feel connected to some of my recent favorites at the same level. This, to me, is an unfortunate shame; so I’m willing to sacrifice the possibility of fewer new musical discoveries to really dig into and connect with more music this year and beyond.

With that in mind, 2019 thus far has been focused on three albums more than most: Pedro the Lion’s Phoenix, Copeland’s Blushing and American Football’s American Football (LP3). Yes, there have been other albums that have come out this year that I’ve enjoyed and will likely revisit throughout the year (Switchfoot’s Native Tongue, Swervedriver’s Future Ruins and Alameda’s Time Hasn’t Changed You are all quality in their own way), but these three records, those top three, have just plastered themselves in my brain. Whenever I find myself needing something to listen to, one of the songs from one of these albums pops into my head on cue. To me, that’s the mark of a great record, but it’s also what I’m looking for. I want those songs burning in my ears, I want the lyrics bounding around in my head, to feel like they’ve become a little part of me. It’s true that all of these albums came from bands I’ve followed for a long time, and it’s actually interesting that each shares the similar story of being a band that disappeared for a while (or in the case of PtL and American Football, a long while), only to come back and restart the band in earnest years later (although, in fairness, that last statement isn’t necessarily true of Pedro yet, while both Copeland and American Football are on the second post-return records). Maybe there’s something to that, or maybe it’s a coincidence, but here’s what I know for sure: they all made excellent albums that came out in the first few months of 2019.

I’m not saying that my new method is going to be a foolproof way to avoid listening to bad music (have you heard Weezer’s Black Album?) or that my longtime connection to a band will make certain a connection will be generated with more of the music I consume each year, but I do know that focusing on the quality over quantity will grant me fewer (or more, depending which side you mean) opportunities on either side. And since this is the point, that will count as a win for me. I’m looking forward to seeing how well these albums hold up, not just throughout the year, but in years to come as well.

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A side note that is mostly unrelated to the above information. I’ve decided to get back into podcasting. It’s been a few years since my buddy Ryan and I stopped doing episodes of our Brew With A View Podcast, mostly because it took a lot of time and required a great deal of effort to make it happen, but recently I’ve been searching for more ways to express my creativity. The blog is good, and I’ve got more writing projects in the pipeline and continue to consider ways to write and record more music, but this podcast idea just sort of flowed out of me once I really dug into it, so I figured I owe it to myself to try it out. The plan is release episodes twice a week, with varied topics of interest each month, since I couldn’t decide on one idea that piqued my interest more than any other. So look for the appropriately named (according to my wife) Things That Matter (To Me) podcast in the coming weeks. Who knows, I may enlist the help of you, person who is reading this blog right now. Be ever ready.

Hope When Hope is Lost

For the record, right up front, this is a sports post.

Okay, now that’s clear, we can soldier on.

I wrote a few months back about my long-suffering San Francisco 49ers fandom and how thrilled I was that after many years of being awful–with a short, pseudo-dominate period  tucked in between–it looked liked my beloved football team was on the right track, mostly due to the presence of head coach Kyle Shanahan and his savant-level offensive mind and newly minted QB Jimmy Garoppolo, who for a brief moment was the highest paid player in pro football.

Then this happened:

Image result for jimmy garoppolo knee injury gif

As the Niners were mounting a drive to possibly pull themselves within a score of the scorching hot Kansas City Chiefs, Garoppolo tried to make something happen to help his team win the game. But instead of getting out-of-bounds, saving a timeout and taking what he could get, the 49ers franchise QB fancied himself a running back (which, by the way, never sign $137 million dollar contracts), tried to make a cut on Chiefs DB Steven Nelson and, well, you can see what happened. The quarterback collapsed in a heap, and not only did the Niners not score (although a TD on the next play by C.J. Beathard was negated by a non-existent Offensive Pass Interference call), but the season was, for all intents and purposes, over before the third game even finished. This, combined with the loss of newly signed RB Jerrick McKinnon at the end of practice before the season opener and a host of other smaller injuries, has left the Niners a shell of their potential, as they lack the depth in key areas–especially quarterback–to continue their upward trajectory.

While the beginning of the season–a gauntlet that included away games at Minnesota, Kansas City and the Chargers, along with a tough trip to Green Bay on Monday Night and the Rams at home–was always going to be tough, regardless of who was quarterbacking, the loss of Garoppolo has certainly turned winnable games against the Chargers, Packers and Cardinals (twice) into either end-to-end defeats or demoralizing late-game collapses. So a team that might have had wild card playoff aspirations is now the mathematical favorite for the overall number one pick in next spring’s draft. Yesterday’s loss, a 18-15 sad-fest at Arizona, which featured a 5-3 halftime score and some of the most absolutely abysmal attempts at football I’ve ever watched (and yes, I watched every minute of the game, including the final drive, where Larry Fitzgerald once again stabbed the Niners in the heart). At this point, the top pick in the draft, even if it is edge rusher extraordinaire Nick Bosa, is little consolation; losing this often and in this manner is getting old.

You see, while there is a sort of badge of honor worn by fans of bad teams (sorry Browns fans), after a lot of losing, that honor fades into something more like disgruntled fanbases, and, in the case of the 49ers and their relatively new home in Santa Clara, fans giving up on the team altogether (although some of that may have to do with being far away from San Francisco, extreme ticket prices and a whole half of the stadium that is significantly hotter than the other). For a franchise that is among the most successful in NFL history (5 Super Bowl titles, tied for second most in league history with the Cowboys and Patriots), this is difficult to swallow, especially from the opposite end of the country, where the team being bad means it’s harder to watch games and team merchandise is only available through online resources.

Still we Niners fans are reminded that this is a process, and that season was likely to be a roller coaster ride, even with Garoppolo and McKinnon in the backfield. To make matters worse, the defense has been sloppy, with second year players regressing or not living up to draft position on every level (Solomon Thomas, Reuben Foster and Akhello Witherspoon) and unable to generate much in the way of a consistent pass rush from the edge. And even though it has played well as a unit in spurts, even in the team’s only win, they allowed a certain victory to nearly fall apart late in the game. And outside of Sunday’s game, every team has scored 24 or more points, leading to their averaging the 5th most allowed points through the halfway point of the season at 29.5 and the second most overall points, just one fewer than the Cincinnati Bengals. Garoppolo might have been able to mask some of that, yes, and it’s unlikely he would have turned the ball over quite as often as Beathard has (17 total this year, including 5 in the week 5 loss to Arizona, pretty much accounting for all of the Cardinals points), and also likely that a stronger offensive unit would help the defense stay off the field and play from behind less, but the defense is showing it wasn’t quite there yet. But the rebuild is definitely stalled by the two majors injuries, and Shanahan and his staff aren’t quite up for working with the poor depth the team possess, usually the last thing to get shored up when a team gets gutted like the Niners did last off-season.

Yet hope is not lost. Every week I’ve gotten an email from SB Nation asking me questions about the NFL, and every week the survey ends with the same question: “How confident are you with the direction of the franchise at the moment?” This is a loaded question, but one I’ve always answered the same since before the season started: confident. Yes, the team is 1-7 with a Thursday night date with the Oakland Raiders, a long week and then Monday Night Football against the New York Giants–both at home–coming up, and yes, both of those teams are just as bad, if not worse on the field than the 49ers right now. But I say confident because I know this wasn’t the plan for this year, and that with another off-season to build the defense and depth at various positions, and with a rejuvenated starting QB and RB tandem back on the field for 2019, the franchise is still in good hands to turn this putridity around sooner rather than later. The 2018 season has been a disappoint, and at this point it’s looking like the team won’t even get back to the 6-10 record they posted last year, but overall I remain hopeful for the future and that eventually this front office and coaching staff will put all the pieces to get the team into contention and (hopefully) remain there for many years to come.

Underoath’s “Erase Me” & Shifting of Life

My first interaction with Underoath was in college, and they terrified me a little bit. Why is that guy screaming? I can’t understand a word he’s saying! Fortunately, this initial listen was via the band’s 2004 album They’re Only Chasing Safety, a relatively pop-centric screamo album, featuring a lot of singing from drummer/clean vocalist Aaron Gillespie, although the bulk of the vocals came via Spencer Chamberlain’s guttural growls and piercing high screams. Over time, I came to appreciate the energy of the songs, the passion of the vocals–both sung and screamed–and the overall sensibilities of the music. The album rocked and popped at the same time, but the heaviness of the sound covered up the shifty ease of the song structures.

In the albums that followed–2006’s Define the Great Line and 2008’s Lost in the Sound of Separation–the pop sensibilities of the band’s third record faded more and more, as the sound got both heavier and more sprawling, taking major steps away from verses and choruses in favor of more classical structures, parts and sections, movements and motifs. Some time after Separation, Gillespie left the band, but they added a new drummer, with whom they recorded 2010’s  Ø (Disambiguation), the moodiest record in the band’s album since their early black metal days before Safety.

And then they disappeared, playing a short set of farewell tours in late 2012, and played their final show in January 2013. Two years later, they released a documentary about the tour–Tired Violence–that showed a band ending under not quite the best of circumstances, as some members, namely Spencer, wanted to continue, while others wanted to get off the road and spend more time with their families and take opportunities to do other things. Later that year, the unthinkable happened: the band announced a reunion tour, which would feature the playing of both Safety and Great Line in their entirety, a special vinyl release for both records and, perhaps most importantly, the return of Gillespie and the rest of the band who created those records. The announcement was a strange and unexpected occurrence, especially considering the depth of the relationship severing that felt apparent on Tired Violence, and yet there it was.

I went to see the Rebirth Tour at Amos’ Southend in Charlotte, and it was a wild, energetic show, albeit one I watched from the back because the mosh pit frightened me a little bit. I also assumed that was it. But as has often been the case with Underoath, I was wrong about that, too.

Earlier this year, the band suddenly dropped a video for a song called “On My Teeth,” and subsequently shared even bigger news: the band was really back now and was releasing Erase Me, its first album in nearly eight years, in April. Obviously when a band of its size goes away for a long time and then comes back, a lot of questions are asked: Is this a cash grab? What made them go away in the first place? What will new music sound like? Initial responses to “On My Teeth” were interesting, but the opinions of the general public aren’t really of major concern to me at this moment; instead, I’ll say that I was okay with the song at first, but was especially less enthusiastic about the single that followed, the very radio-friendly track “Rapture.” Still I tried to hold off full judgment until the album came out.

April 6 came during Spring Break, so E and I were in Charleston with her family, but on the Saturday morning that followed I found myself mostly alone in the big house we were all sharing. After watching Everton play rivals Liverpool to a 0-0 draw, I decided to get some writing done and throw on Erase Me for the first time. The record kicks off effectively, with “It Has to Start Somewhere” feeling a lot like pretty classic Underoath, especially the They’re Only Chasing Safety era of the band. The two singles–“Rapture” and then “On My Teeth”–followed, and the former continued to leave me at a loss, while the latter felt pretty comfortably mid-career Underoath to me. Then comes the middle of the record–roughly “Wake Me” to “ihateit”–where the radio friendliness, at least a first listen, began to make me feel uneasy. This was not the band that had left in 2010, it wasn’t even the band that released a giant album in 2004, although it did feel like some sort of strange hybrid of most of the band’s history, save for one thing: there were several songs without any screaming at all.

The record ends with a little more traditional Underoath turns, but closes with the moody, piano-led “I Gave Up,” which matches the melancholy and the pace of a song like “Some Will Seek Forgiveness, Others Escape,” although unlike the closer for Safety, the final punch of Erase Me sticks with its softness, ending the album on a dour note. My issue was that upon first listen, I didn’t feel the urge to listen again; I just felt disappointed.

Look, I know what a lot of you are thinking: bands are allowed to change, and should actually be encouraged to do so. And yes, I agree with this. But even for people like myself who consider themselves pretty advanced listeners, sometimes it’s true that emotions take over higher level thinking. The weirdest part about this particular instance is that there isn’t a singular sound I wanted from Underoath, because I like the string of Safety to Separation all a great deal, but for very different reasons ( Ø (Disambiguation) never did much for me, although in going back to it recently, I admit it’s got its charms). I don’t exactly what I expected of the band in 2018, but initially I knew that Erase Me wasn’t it.

A week or so after the release, I finally went back to the album, and soon the ear worms began to dig in. There was something undeniably catchy about songs like “Rapture,” “Bloodlust” and even the silly-titled “ihateit,” and as I began to take in more information about the record itself–like Matt Carter’s podcast with guitarist Tim McTague on the making of the record, or Spencer’s appearance on the Lead Singer Syndrome podcast–I felt compelled to go back to the record, to give it more than the chance my first listen suggested I should.

For various reasons, I don’t think I’ll ever get to a place where Erase Me rises above my three favorite Underoath records–there are just too many outside factors that are part of the reason I connect with those three so much and they’ve been part of my life for so long, I can’t imagine this new album having that much power–but I am willing to acknowledge that my first impression wasn’t completely accurate. It’s a good album, even if it’s not a spectacular one to my mind, full of interesting sonic choices and featuring a band that finally seems to be on the same page, as weird as that is to say this many albums in. The songs that sound more like alternative rock tunes are catchy, but still feel genuinely Underoath in a lot of ways, and are certainly better than most of what rock radio has to offer these days.

The point of all this is similar to something I considered after the release of the second Colony House album: music as art is tough, in part because of expectations of fans, but also because it’s one of the few mediums where the fan matters almost as much as the artist does. Maybe that means that Erase Me remains a mid-tier Underoath record in my mind, or maybe over the years I learn to love it more for whatever reason. Either way, my ability to grow with artists and to continue to let them do what they think is best is always going to be better.

NFL Draft and 49ers Strategy

The NFL draft starts a week from yesterday, and it’s been months since the Philadelphia Eagles shocked the league, winning Super Bowl 52 over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots with back up QB Nick Foles at the helm, 41-33. Those two things combined mean one thing: we’ve seen oodles of draft takes, mock drafts and breaking news reports about which teams like which players and what such and such team will do with such and such pick, and at this point, the draft can’t get here any faster. While I had originally intended to create my own mock draft and analyze it in this space, two things are true: a) I’m not all that versed in college football, so my analyses would be surface-level and mostly repeats of what I’d heard others say and b) as noted, I’m all mock drafted out.

Furthermore, my main methods for draft intelligence comes via online games like First-Pick and FanSpeak, and they are unpredictable at best, fully wrong at worst (while still being remarkably fun). So while I’ve continued to play these games, essentially they brought me to the conclusion that I should be a little more general in my thoughts. Instead of my mock draft, I’ll explain generally what I think my beloved San Francisco 49ers, namely GM John Lynch and HC Kyle Shanahan, should do with the picks they have at their disposal for the 2018 NFL Draft.

Round 1, Pick 9

There are a lot of directions the 49ers could go here, especially if the QB rush is as heavy or heavier than expected. From there, you have to take into account both need, fit and positional value. While a player like Notre Dame OG Quenton Nelson would be great in terms of need and fit, there’s a both a high likelihood that Nelson is gone by 9, and I’d argue that with Jimmy Garappolo’s quick release, guard isn’t as high on the need list as most people think, at least not enough to grab someone else who isn’t Nelson here. All the controversy surrounding last year’s first round pick Reuben Foster has many thinking that a sideline-to-sideline LB like Georgia’s Roquan Smith or Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds would make sense, but there’s a question of it this is too early to fix that issue when there are two larger problems: pass rush and outside pass defense.

This leaves the Niners with two options, so far as I’m concerned: Boston College EDGE rusher Harold Landry or Ohio State CB Denzel Ward. Each has his issues–Landry wasn’t as productive last year as he was the year before and Ward is a little undersized–but each presents the team with a huge upside, and one that would immediately improve the squad. The cornerback class in this draft is quite deep, however, while the edge class is decidedly not, so all things being equal, Landry is the way I’d go here.

Now that said, I’ve got one alternative idea here, and that’s trading down. Let’s say only three quarterbacks go in the top 8, leaving names like maybe Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield, or Lamar Jackson available for teams at nine. It’s possible one of those teams, like Arizona, Buffalo or even the AFC champion Patriots could be interested in moving up to grab a QB they like. The Cardinals are at 15, and would like need to swap picks with the 49ers, as well as throwing in a 2nd rounder (47th overall) and maybe another pick, either this year or next, to get to 9. Buffalo already moved up to 12 from 21, but still have 22, and the pairing up 12 and 22 might work to get them to 9, and I quite like this trade (although I’d like to see an early in there, and the Bills only have a pick three spots before San Francisco). But my favorite might be the option that New England might be able to throw in there: either both their first round picks (23 and 31) or the 23rd and 43rd, with the possible inclusion of a 3rd/4th rounder in there to sweeten the pot, since the Patriots are coming a long way to get to nine. The best part of this trade is that it means the 49ers will have ended up getting Jimmy G for nothing, all so the Patriots can get another back-up QB/future starter. The downside to trading with New England is that it likely takes an edge rusher off the table, save for UTSA’s Marcus Davenport, but it certainly puts that position in flux until next year, whereas trading with the Bills might mean Landry is still there four picks later, making the switch very similar to the swindle John Lynch pulled on the Bears last year, moving back from two to three and getting the guy he wanted anyway.

Round 2, Pick 59

If predicting a first round pick is difficult, then choosing players after that first round is close to impossible. The Niners’ pick is late in round 2 (there are only five selections after theirs), making it even harder. It becomes even more difficult when you factor in potential trades like the ones I suggested above or others involving non-49ers teams. That said, this is the spot I’d choose to address the OG position if players are available–in my draft games, a name that came up often was Nevada OG Austin Corbett, who is projected to hang around into round 2, making him a good prospect for the Niners.

Most ideally, however, would be for the great depth at cornerback to have an impact on players, allowing certain talented CB prospects to fall to the 49ers late in the second. To that end, I’ve got my sights on Colorado CB Isiah Oliver, former teammate to current 49er Akhello Witherspoon, who has all the measurables to be a good fit in DC Robert Salah’s scheme. He could then learn from new Niner Richard Sherman and then become the second starter next to Witherspoon beyond that. In this scenario, the 49ers will have shored up their pass defense in the first two rounds, leaving things pretty open in the mid-to-late rounds.

Round 3, Picks 70 & 74

The Niners have two picks in quick order in the third, so I’ll handle them together, since the proximity of the picks allows them to do a lot of things here. For arguments’ sake, let’s say they’ve selected Landry and Corbett so far, leaving CB a pretty high need, as well as possible additions at WR, TE and RB, as well as considering linebackers to fill Foster’s hole and longer term answers at OT, with LT Joe Staley getting older and RT Trent Brown’s future up in the air.

The 49ers did work out Humboldt State OT Alex Cappa during pre-draft visits, but this might be too early for a player who might be a project over the next year or so. If he’s still there in round 4-5, though, he might be a good fit. This might be a good space to select a RB who can impact the passing game, like Oregon’s Royce Freeman or Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson, or maybe a WR like Colorado State’s Michael Gallup or Memphis’ Anthony Miller, but either way, I think it’s high time to get some skill players for Shanahan’s offense. It doesn’t have to be in both spots, either, so they could be RB/WR at 70 and take a tackle or cornerback at 74. They should definitely take advantage of these two picks so close together, and make sure they get two quality, immediate impact players.

Round 4, Pick 128

Selection 128 overall is pretty deep into round 4, so I have an inkling that Lynch will have moved around to get closer to the front. For this pick I have one hope: CB Quenton Meeks out of Stanford. As was mentioned with Oliver, ideally Meeks doesn’t have to play at one of the outside corner spots right away, but instead can contribute on special teams and learn from Sherman, also a former Cardinal, and a player whom Meeks is often compared to physically. Meeks’ scheme-ideal size and high upside as a cover corner make him an ideal mid-round guy for the 49ers.

Round 5, Pick 143

Round 6, Pick 184

Round 7, Picks 227 & 240

If everything holds pat, the Niners will be more than halfway through their draft picks at this point, with four left. Rounds 5-7 are where things get interesting, so I’ll take them together. While the Niners got a great amount of production from their two 5th rounders last year–TE George Kittle (146) and WR Trent Taylor (177)–that is pretty rare. Even rarer for 6th and 7th round picks, although they did get solid snaps from DT DJ Jones (198), and great play from S Adrian Colbert (229). So ideally the 49ers are looking to stockpile at loaded positions in the draft–like CB–or are looking to add someone who is freaky good at one thing and maybe not so much at others. Take, for example, Devron Davis, cousin of former 49ers’ TE Vernon Davis, who would have a high upside because of his size, but could use some grooming for the next level. Another example is Florida State WR Auden Tate, who is freaky large (6-5, 225) and could be a red zone threat for the 49ers, or even taking a flyer on UNI WR Daurice Fountain, who excelled at the Shrine Game earlier this year. Whatever the position–be it cornerback, linebacker or offensive skill position–these players should be ones who can fill a specific role or have a high ceiling. Hopefully they’ll pan out. It’s those types of picks that set good teams apart from Super Bowl caliber squads.

Welcome Back, Baseball

I’ve written here before about the odd but special place baseball has played in my life. This time around, my intention is to dig into the game more specifically, especially putting into focus my newfound affection for one of the oldest teams in the sport, the Chicago Cubs.

I married into the Chicago connection, and my first time visiting the group of my wife’s family still living in Illinois coincided with the Cubbies’ first trip to the World Series in 71 years. Evenings revolved around games 3, 4 & 5 at Wrigley Field just an hour or so away from Sycamore, which saw the Cubs fall behind the Cleveland Indians 3-2 before storming back and winning the final two games in Cleveland to give the franchise its first championship since 1908.

My history is such that I never really felt emotionally tied to a baseball team. Football, sure, basketball, definitely, and eventually soccer, absolutely, but I never expected to care that much about what a baseball team–especially one located over 700 miles from where I live–did with their season. But the Fall of 2016 was a perfect storm of budding fandom, as being surrounded by a room full of people who really cared about what happened to this lovable team, who lived and breathed the atmosphere that was Cubs baseball, well I immediately bought into that because I knew what that felt like for other teams. And before I knew it, the butterflies that tied up my stomach during George Mason’s Final Four run in 2006, or prior to each of the final four plays of Super Bowl XLVII or Everton’s nearly knocking off heavily favored Manchester United in the 2016 FA Cup semifinal, found their way into my stomach as the Cubs and Indians slugged out two close games in Chicago (games 3 & 5, game 4 was a 7-2 stomping by Cleveland).

There was something, too, about getting into the fray at that moment in history. The Cubs were long known as lovable losers, but the arrival of President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein–who had GM’ed the Red Sox to breaking their own long-suffering World Series drought–in 2011 proved to be a turn towards contention for the organization, as Epstein was instrumental in drafting current Cubs stars like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and others, along with orchestrating moves to bring in big time veterans such as Dexter Fowler, Jon Lester, John Lackey and others who were major cogs in the World Series run, as well as the NL Wild Card team that came prior to the championship win and the NLCS trip the year after. Going into the 2018-19 season, expectations remain high for a Cubs team that is led mostly by its young core. Watching history unfold in front of my eyes really helped to connect me to the bunch from the Northside of Chicago.

But what finally solidified my adoration for the club was when E and I took a day trip into Chicago when we visited the Illinois family in late May 2017. We took an hour-long train ride into the city and visited a few sights, but the day revolved around a night game at Wrigley, where we saw the Cubs beat the San Francisco Giants 5-4 on an exceptionally chilly Chicago night. The stadium is clearly old architecture, but its design is beautiful and pretty much every seat in the house feels right on top of the field. And Cubs fans are incredible, even at that point in the year where the team was in the middle of a poor stretch. Being there, though, made me appreciate the history of the team, and has cemented my Cubs fandom, but also ensures that visiting the Friendly Confines will be an important piece of any trip to Illinois from here on out.

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I may never make it to Santa Clara to see the 49ers play at Levi’s Stadium and it’s even less likely I’ll see Everton at Goodison Park, mostly because both stadium trips also require airline flights, making them much less cost-effective, even if I’d say each is its own piece of a sports-focused bucket list. I do make it to regular Hornets games, but seeing as they’re close to home, they don’t feel as much of an event as the trips, both past and future, to Wrigley did/will. With Opening Day 2018 coming up this week, I’m looking forward to seeing how well the Cubs fair this year, and to being back at Wrigley Field this July, seeing a game that will end in a rousing rendition of “Go, Cubs, Go.”

Jimmy GQ

I should warn you, this is going to be a pretty gushy blog post. I’ll give you a moment to decide if you care enough to continue reading.

 

There, now you’ve been warned.

So it should be clear by now that the San Francisco 49ers are my favorite football team, and that I feel a certain amount of emotional attachment to them and their ability to be good at football/win games. Logically I understand it makes no sense, but I get sad and angry when they are bad/lose, and feel happy and excited when they are good/win; close games make me nervous, bad calls cause me to scream at people who can’t hear me. Such is the life of a sports fan (see, too: reactions to Everton football matches and Hornets basketball games).

I noted recently that the Niners have had an up and down last few years (mostly, let’s be honest, down), and the beginning of last season, while providing some reason for optimism with the hires of new GM John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan, didn’t really help ease the aggravation. On Halloween night everything changed.

It was the last few hours before the NFL trade deadline and my phone buzzed: “49ers have traded for Patriots back up QB Jimmy Garoppolo.” Say what? This was the guy that Patriots coach Bill Belichick had recently said was pretty much untouchable, and now, it appeared, he was a 49er, essentially tabling all the “will the Niners sign Kurt Cousins?” and etc questions for the upcoming off-season; and, most importantly, allowing the team an opportunity to have what it had not had since, well, Steve Young (who’s last full season was in 1998) or, if I’m stretching it, Jeff Garcia (who was only 8-15 over his last two seasons in San Francisco, 2002-2003) or possibly Alex Smith (who was only really good for the Niners for his last two seasons, with a combined record of 19-5-1, after winning only 19 games in the previous five seasons) or the ghost of Colin Kaepernick (who won 25 games in 2 1/2 seasons and then three in his final 16). So it’s been a while since consistency existed at the quarterback position for the 49ers.

Other fun QB stats. In Smith’s rookie season, he was one of four QBs to start at least two games, including Cody Pickett, Ken Dorsey and Tim Rattay; Smith still won the most games. In 2007, it was four QBs again–Smith, 35-year-old Trent Dilfer (6 starts, 7 total games), Shaun Hill (2 starts, 3 total games) and 35-year-old Chris Weinke (1 start, 2 total games) for a 5-win squad. And don’t forget the 2008 season, where Smith missed the entire year with an injury and Hill and J.T. O’Sullivan combined for 8 starts a piece and won a total of 7 games. And finally there was 2010, the Singletary season, where the out of his depth head coach waffled back and forth between Alex and Troy Smith, and even tossed David Carr out for 13 pass attempts on his way to getting fired 15 games into the season. So yes, Garoppolo’s presence in red and gold was a welcome sight.

Yesterday afternoon, the 49er interrupted the bonanza of another trade deadline–this time it was for the NBA–with more big QB news: they had locked in Garoppolo long-term, to the tune of 5 years for $137.5 million (the exact terms are still not available as of this writing). For those of us who have been waiting for an answer at quarterback–and had been fooled into thinking the solution had come in the form of Kaepernick just a few years ago–this was music to our ears. Obviously given the sudden cliff-dive of Kaepernick’s play after he received his contract extension (the team was 8-8 in the season that followed, and coach Jim Harbaugh resigned, leading to the organization’s current predicament, not all of that was Kap’s fault, and some of the facts are likely untrue), there is some trepidation; but generally speaking, it’s all smiles in 49er Land and the optimism seems to extend beyond the team’s headquarters in Santa Clara.

Despite the team finishing just 6-10 last season, there are many pundits touting the Niners as one of the top 10-15 teams in the league, with a large number of those experts predicting the team will be able to compete not only for the NFC West title, but also make some noise in the playoffs. The argument is sound enough. Last year’s NFCW leaders were the Los Angeles Rams, who finished 4-12 in 2016 before hiring a new coach and turning around to win 11 last season. The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles came off a mediocre 7-9 rookie year for QB Carson Wentz before skyrocketing to 13-3, the number one seed in the NFC and eventually winning the whole thing (albeit under back up QB Nick Foles). The Jacksonville Jaguars were 3-13 in 2016, but shored up their defense in the off-season to help them make a dramatic turn around to 10 wins and a spot in the AFC Championship game. And that’s just from this past season.

The NFL has enough parity for there to be a worst-to-first story on an almost yearly basis. In fact, since 2003, this has happened every season except 2014, and in both 2005 and 2006, three of the league’s eight divisions saw it happen. Of the now 22 teams who have accomplished that feat in that time period, two–including the Eagles–went on to win the Super Bowl (the Saints in 2009 were the other). It isn’t a foregone conclusion, but it seems like the Niners are going to at least be competitive again, with a look to keep that up for years to come. And it’s mostly because of this guy:

Garoppolo-Signing-CP

Obviously Jimmy GQ, as is his now Niners Nation official nickname, won’t do it on his own. But he has one skill that leads me to believe he, unlike those flash-in-the-pans who came before him in recent years, can sustain his excellence for years to come: he makes the players around him better. No disrespect to Brian Hoyer or C.J. Beathard, but they just didn’t do that for the rest of the roster last year, and it showed with the 1-10 record they posted together before Garoppolo was inserted into the line up against the Bears. Like the man he sat behind for 3+ years in New England, one Mr. Tom Brady, Garoppolo has shown he can make a lot out of nothing (see: the porous interior offensive line suddenly looking competent during the 5-0 run). The roster can still improve around him, and the team still has plenty of cap space and draft capital to make that happen during this off-season.

In short, having this QB means the most important position in sports is solidified for at least the next five–and hopefully many more–years. If the front office is smart with how it uses its assets and money, they can remain competitive for as long as Jimmy G is there. Maybe in 2036 we’ll be looking back at that long run and how jealous the rest of the league was that the Niners have it all figured out.

That would be the best.

Super Bowl LII and Fandom

This is a pretty easy statement to make, but Sunday night’s Super Bowl LII match up between the eventual champions Philadelphia Eagles and perennial contending New England Patriots was one of the top 5 Super Bowls I’ve ever watched live. Top on the list is the San Francisco 49ers Super Bowl XXIX demolition of the San Diego Chargers, to date the only Niners championship I can recalling having seen with my own eyes, followed closely by this year’s game, Super Bowl LI and the magical comeback, the Saints win over the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV and the gripping ending of XLIII the year before, with the Steelers’ last second victory via a Santonio Holmes sideline toe-tapper (for the record, the only SB loss in 49ers history comes in at #6, only because they lost; it would be #2 otherwise). I’ve watched a fair amount of football in my life, but as far as the intensity and entertainment factor goes, watching Nick Foles lead the Eagles to the franchise’s first ever Super Bowl win after so many people thought the team’s year was over after Carson Wentz went down with an injury in mid-December is difficult to beat.

The thrilling nature of the game started from drive #1, when Philly marched down the field, only to be stopped just short of pay dirt and settling for a chip shot field goal from rookie kicker Jake Elliott, a feat which New England’s offense quickly matched (by the by, this was the first time a Tom Brady-led Patriots offense had EVER scored in the first quarter of the Super Bowl). The offenses really never sputtered at any point in the game from there on out, as the two teams combined for the most yardage in any NFL game ever with 1,151 total yards; a defensive struggle it was not. The game featured only one punt (by Philly’s Donnie Jones for 41 yards at the end of the first quarter), four 100+ yard receivers, featured the 1st and 5th most passing yards by a QB in a single game, included passes thrown by four different players and overall saw the two teams combine to tie 12 and break 17 Super Bowl records. So yes, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say this was one of the best Super Bowl–nay, one of the best football games–I’ve ever seen.

Still this game was wildly divisive, mostly because of the presence of the Patriots, who have now been to a NFL record 10 Super Bowls as a franchise, including eight featuring the dynamic duo of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. They’ve been to three out of the last four, winning two of those, after having won three of four to start the dynasty back in 2002, 2004 and 2005 (they didn’t make the game in 2003). This 18 year run of being in contention–combined with a few scandals during the period–has led to the team becoming the NFL’s Public Enemy No.1 for most of the time that the Brady/Belichick pairing has been in place. I have a friend–a supposed diehard Steelers fan–who openly cheers against Tom Brady at the smallest opportunity, and even texted another friend “Fly Eagles Fly” after the game was over. I enjoyed watching the Eagles win, but mostly because a) overcame the adversity of losing their star QB and won it all anyway and b) they front office has shown how important team building is in today’s NFL (something I hope John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan were paying attention to). But the enjoyment was not in any way related to a dislike for Tom Brady, Bill Belichick or the Patriots organization; furthermore, I think anyone who does base their cheering interest solely because of the team’s previous success is just jealous.

I will admit that I have had two instances where I cheered for one team because of a certain dislike or disdain for the opposition: Super Bowls XLVIII and XLIX, both featuring the Seattle Seahawks. To me, this is the one caveat in the “I hate the Patriots” rule I’m going to suggest here: if the Pats are your teams’ rivals, then all bets are off. This is why I was the only person at the party I attended to watch the Pats/Seachickens game that was rooting for the AFC squad to take home the title, and why I cheered when the rest of the room groaned the second Russell Wilson’s pass ended up in Malcolm Butler’s hands instead of Ricardo Lockette’s. The year before, I watched as Seattle’s storied defense trounced the most prolific offense in NFL history, turning Peyton Manning into some third-rate QB en route to a 43-8 drubbing. The 12’s became even more insufferable than they had been before (with apologies to all my friends who are decent Seahawks fans). What I’m saying is this: I understand disliking a team, a fan base and really enjoying watching them not win games, especially championships.

Beyond that requirement, I think it’s pretty obvious to me what everyone else feels here in regards to the Patriots: it’s jealousy. It’s hard to really make an argument that they’re boring (all of their Super Bowl appearances have produced highly watchable, often exciting games, including several that game down to the final minutes or seconds of the game and the only overtime session in Super Bowl history), unless repeated success is boring. The thing is, you’d never make that argument anywhere else. Imagine someone saying “Oh man, my favorite band made another great, innovative album. How boring!” Is that even a thought people have? But when it comes to sports, one team being really good all the time gets that label. It’s mind-boggling to me.

I will say this: I know I’m jealous. My team was awful from 2003-2010, winning a total of 46 games in eight years, before experiencing a mini-renaissance during the Jim Harbaugh era where they went to three straight NFC Championship games and the aforementioned Super Bowl loss. Starting in 2014–Harbaugh’s last year–the struggle began again, with just 21 wins over four seasons, eight of which came in 2014; and while things are looking up, to call the 15 years since Steven Mariucci left tumultuous wouldn’t really be an understatement. So to be blunt, I’d be ecstatic if you told me that Lynch, Shanahan and Jimmy GQ were on their way to being contenders year in and year out until 2036, and would win several Super Bowls along the way. And I wouldn’t even care if  the rest of the football world thought we were boring or hated us.

I’m not trying to insinuate that you aren’t allowed to have your own feelings about the teams you root for and those you root against. I just feel like the general feeling of loathing felt toward the Patriots is misguided and petty. If you want to be excited about the Eagles win on Sunday, that’s great, I’m right there with you, in large part because of the narrative surrounding the victory, but it isn’t in any way connected to any negative emotions I have regarding the Patriots. Sunday night I was just a football fan looking for a good game of football. In that regard, I got more than I expected, and it was thrilling to watch.