And Now For Some Good News … Milwaukee

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When people ask me if Marquette University is in Michigan, and I tell them my alma mater is in Milwaukee, they sometimes say, “What’s the difference?” – Steve Rushin

Steve Rushin is among my favorite sports writers because he takes such joy in the play of words, as evidenced in his timeless jest – “Happy 110th Birthday to Frank Zamboni who left us in 1988 but who still resurfaces periodically.” Understated and smart. His offhanded defense of Milwaukee strikes just the right tone as well; he leaves room for the reader to be amused but feels no need to hammer home the obvious observation that one of the partners in that conversation is an idiot, and it’s not Steve Rushin.

To be fair, Milwaukee is generally underappreciated. Yes, the mind leaps to the obvious points of celebrity, Beer, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, the oldest bowling alley in America, the Harley-Davidson Museum, the world’s largest dinosaur skull, the massive collection of microphones including that used by Hitler in the Eagle’s Nest, and, of course, the statue of Arthur Fonzarelli (The Bronze Fonz), but to the uninitiated, Milwaukee resides in popular estimation as a very small market sports town. Think Milwaukee, think Sacramento, Toledo, Stockton, Boise, Reno. Even Clevelanders presume themselves a more populous sports base, that’s from two major sport Cleveland, actually roughly two hundred thousand people short of Milwaukee’s population.

Why this paean to Milwaukee? Why now?

Well, we could start by noting that at the present rate, Christian Yelich, the reigning NL MVP, is on pace to hit 162 home runs. That’s a hypothetical prediction, of course, but in the here-and-now, the Brewers have a roster that should give NL pitchers bona fide Wisco fits. For the last two seasons, three Brewers have hit more than thirty home runs; in 2019, it’s entirely possible that six Brewers (Yelich, Shaw, Aguilar, Braun, Moustakis, and Grandal) could become thirty plus roundtrippers. Pitching looks solid, fielding excellent ( Lorenzo Cain’s game winning grab at the wall on Opening Day! ), and spirit is sky high.

And then… The Milwaukee Bucks are almost certainly the Number One seed in the Eastern Division NBA playoffs, likely facing the Magic, Nets, or Heat in the first round, then dealing with whatever carnage the Raptors, Celtics, 76ers, and Pacers wreak upon each other. Just as MVP Yelich sets out to repeat as MVP, the Bucks mega-star, GIannis Anteokounmpo is the only player other than the prolific scoring James Harden contending for the NBA’s MVP award, which, if God is in his heaven, he should win. It’s fun to watch Harden score; it is inspiring to watch Giannis control every game in which he plays.

I was not fortunate enough to have been raised in Milwaukee or as a Brewer or Bucks fan. Neither team existed as I came up; the Braves arrived in Milwaukee when I was seven and shoved off for Atlanta by the time I had become a rabid Yankee fan terrified of Spahn, Burdette, Matthews and Aaron, terror made real in 1957 as the Braves beat the Yankees in the World Series, Spahn tossing a 5-0 shutout in the seventh game. It’s taken some time for me to catch up with Milwaukee’s teams as a fan in late-adulthood (senescence), but I’ve come to admire and respect the franchises for a host of reasons.

Another of Wisconsin’s finest products, J.J. Watt, put it simply in describing himself, a description that I extend to Brewer and Bucks fans as a group: “I’m a Wisconsin kid, so I like brats and burgers and stuff like that. Cheese curds.” With that confession in mind, I encourage all fans of baseball to make a pilgrimage to Maryvale, a small community within the Phoenix, Arizona city limits, to a ballpark that seats about seven thousand, next to playing fields operated by the city, the high school,and the Brewers training facility. Ticket prices vary; most games run from eight dollars to twenty-five, but when the Brewers play the Dodgers or the Cubs, prices leap to twelve to thirty-eight dollars a seat, and there is not a bad seat in the house.

Spring Training has become big business in the Cactus League as the number of teams has grown and as almost all of the stadiums have been modernized. The amenities at all are now impressive, and the menus distinctive. The Rangers and Royals serve Cheese Steaks and Barbecue, the Dodgers no Dodger Dogs but a sorry replacement, the Chicago Dog. The Mariners and Padres live large with Salmon Caesar Salad and Baja Fish Tacos, while the Indians trot out six varieties of hot dog – the Jumbo, the Chicago Dog, the Arizona Dog, the Cleveland Dog, the New York Dog, and the ever-popular Cincinnati Dog.

Brats and Beer. Throw in some Cheese curds. Wisco cuisine at its finest. Maryvale does Brats, Klements Bratwursts. One of my favorite rites of spring is the annual photo of the three Racing Sausages (The Polish Sausage The Hot Dog, and Brat Johnsonville) with suitcases in hand, ready to board the team plane for Phoenix. They race at every home game, before the sixth inning, bringing the crown to its feet every time.

My son and I like to sit behind home plate in Maryvale ($14.00 for a Mariner game) nestled in among Brewer fans and scouts with stopwatches and World Series rings. The scouts talk among themselves, but Brewer fans manage to keep track of the game while catching up with far-flung friends and family, creating mini-Milwaukee for folks flying in from LA and Denver. You can take the Badger out of Wisconsin, but … you know. Yes, beer is spilled and brats occasionally roll to the front of the stands, but these Brewer fans are the warmest, kindest, most welcoming groups of people we’ve ever encountered. They’re happy to chat at length, probably the only fans we’ll encounter who wear a Seattle Pilots’ Saint Patrick’s Day ball cap, devoted to Milwaukee but true to the team’s origin.

By the end of the third inning, we’re up to date on the entire lineup and the hardcore Brewer fans turn to prospects ripping up the Carolina League with the Mudcats, or the Midwest League with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, playing now in Grand Chute. The Rattlers are no joke; a partial list of alumni includes David Ortiz, Boog Powell, Dean Chance, Alex Rodriguez, and Goose Gossage. Keep an eye on Keston Hiura, a second baseman with an OPS of .875.

An afternoon in Maryvale reminds me of why baseball calls me back year after year. I love the clean symmetry of the field and the remarkable athleticism of the players, but it’s the buzz in the stands, the spontaneous catching of breath as a ball almost clears the center field wall, the happy hum of families taking on those brats that allows me, a fugitive from all other parts of the country, to feel at home in the midst of Brewer Nation.

LeBron and the Lakers , Antonio Brown and the Steelers, Bryce Harper and Nats fans – too much sturm und drang. I’ll take the Bucks and Brewers, thanks, and remember why I love sports.

 

Let’s Get Past This GOAT Stuff, Shall We?

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I don’t know when the acronymical shortcuts took over ordinary and perfectly serviceable terms, such as President of the United States (POTUS) or Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). We got along just fine with President and Supreme Court, assuming that when we used the term President, we meant President of the United States as opposed to President of Guinea-Bissau and our own Supreme Court, not that of Andorra. I’m ok with IKEA rather than Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd (Founder’s name and hometown), but these Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) controversies are inane, seriously.

It’s in the air now because the football season has ended, spring training has not begun, the NBA still has a number of pointless games to play before the playoffs begin, March Madness won’t arrive until March, and golfers are playing in the Midas Muffler Four Ball Scramble in Burkina Faso. The twelve all-sports-all-the-time channels are still pumping out hour after hour of fast-breaking sports nonsense, primarily about trades that might happen, haven’t happened, shouldn’t happen.

The air is thick with sports blather. Even the sportscasters themselves have difficulty in summoning the will to debate the pros and cons of signing Carmelo Anthony to a $124,000,000.00 contract. I’m sorry. What are the pros?

So, out come the “Greatest of All Time” banners, now floating above Tom Brady, but only a month ago whipping from the LeBron camp to the Jordan camp. Is he? Are they? Pats greatest football dynasty of all time? Sabin the greatest college coach of all time? Tiger? Jack?

I’m as enthusiastic in promoting my heroes as the next guy, and evidence of greatness is all about us, but let’s not get reductive. With every assertion (LeBron! Michael!) universes of magical moments in sport are obliterated. Sticking with the basketball argument for the moment, what happens to the Cousey behind the back pass, Jerry West’s jump shot, Kareem’s twenty seasons, Bill Russell’s defense, Magic, Larry, Elgin, Wilt, Oscar, Hakeem, Kobe? What about Steph? What about KD?

Back when he was a reliever for the Rockies, Adam Ottavino was unyielding in his assertion that he’d strike out Babe Ruth every time the Bambino stepped to the plate. Probably snuff out Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Tris Speaker, and Eddie Collins too, according to those who think hitters back in the day did not have to face the fireballs hurlers are tossing on a daily basis. In 1917, however, a lab in Connecticut measured Walter (Big Train) Johnson’s fastball at 134 feet per second, roughly 92 miles per hour. Smokey Joe Wood was a little faster. Bob Feller hit something close to 104 mph, and Nolan Ryan’s best (108 mph) beats Aroldis Chapman’s 105 mph, fastest of the modern era.

The point is obvious: Take it easy in making comparisons across the decades.

Stats don’t tell the whole story, no matter how elegantly the sabermetrics are trotted out, but it’s worth taking a moment to look at the top ten in baseball and basketball in terms of wins above replacement (WAR), the stat that is generally believed to have the best chance of describing a player’s value to a team. The baseball list has a few surprises; Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Roger Clemens, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner. Ruth’s WAR is 182.5; last season’s best, Mookie Betts, rang up 86.8, Mike Trout 79. I don’t know Adam Ottavino’s WAR … oh, wait. Here it is: 2.6 last year, 8.6 career.

In the NBA the stories are perhaps more complicated as the list of the top ten includes LeBron and Michael at the top (James 128.01/ Jordan 104.43) followed by Karl Malone, Kevin Garnett, and Charles Barkley. The next five include Tim Duncan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, David Robinson, Larry Bird, and Jason Kidd. Steph Curry is 33rd. Kawhi Leonard ranks 110th.

And none of this matters if you saw Ichiro beat out an infield single, Rod Carew lay down a bunt, Jackie Robinson steal home, Brooks Robinson spear a line drive down the third base line, Omar Vizquel or Ozzie Smith scoop up a hard hit ground ball, Sandy Koufax or Nolan Ryan or Pedro Martinez or Mariano Rivera, or Greg Maddux or Bob Gibson or Whitey Ford or…

None of this matters if you saw Barry Sanders break a tackle and fly, if you saw Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, Gayle Sayers, Bo Jackson, Jim Brown, Tony Dorsett hit the line, stutter step, blaze through, then accelerate. Which highlights do you want to watch? Joe Montana? Jerry Rice? Lawrence Taylor? Reggie White? Dick Butkus? Johnny Unitas? Red Grange? Slingin’ Sammy Baugh?

I like the other sorts of stories, the “we didn’t see this guy coming” stories, the most recent of which is Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman drafted 232nd as a quarterback from Kent State. I like the authentically good person stories, like those of Roberto Clemente and J.J.Watt, super-stars who changed the lives of those they helped. I like the improbable but true overcoming of obstacles, like Peyton Manning winning a Super Bowl with what was pretty much a bolt-on neck, Willis Reed lifting the Knicks from the bench in the 1970 final games, Kerri Strug sticking a perfect landing on an injured ankle, one-handed Jim Abbott throwing a no hit game against the Indians, the Cal Bears running a last play, weaving through the Stanford band, already celebrating on the field.

The greatest of all time?

Army-Navy. Willie Mays’ Catch. Sabrina for a decade. Federer for a decade. Messi. Ken Griffey, Jr. if he hadn’t been injured. Ted Williams if he hadn’t served in two wars. Mo’ne Davis shutout in the 2014 Little League World Series. A Championship for Cleveland. The San Diego Chicken.

On the other hand, if you think I’m in max-grouch mode about the GOAT discussion, check this site when Mel Kiper starts to pontificate on the Jaguar’s sixth round draft strategy.

Playing With Pain

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I was living fairly close to Los Angeles in 2008 when a friend from Jacksonville tipped me to the imminent arrival of Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ hot prospect who had been mowing through batters  for the Double A Jacksonville Suns.  As a determined “I’ll believe it when I see it” student of the game, I expected the usual fanfare and flourish followed by this Kershaw fellow’s settling in to a respectable career in Dodger blue.

And then … he turned out to be Clayton Kershaw, the most dominant pitcher in the league and among the most highly esteemed pitchers in the last 25 years.

Kershaw’s been placed on the DL this week, the back strain again, after throwing in the mid 80’s recently.  I wish him every success in his recovery, but it’s unlikely that he will regain the pop in his fast ball.  He has a wicked curve, and with time he might be able to become the Greg Maddux of his generation, an artist, a tactician, but he’ll be a different Clayton Kershaw.

All of which got me thinking about the small number of truly exceptional athletes for whom the second half of their career, the post-injury portion of their career, was superb although less sparkling than it might have been had they remained healthy.  Tiger’s flame-out was spectacular, and his recovery has yet to establish him as a golfer to be feared in every tournament.  It could happen, but he’s clearly not the Tiger of legend … yet.  Peyton Manning survived having his neck bolted together, became a FrankenBronco and took his team to the Super Bowl, but was never really a dominant quarterback again. 

And yet, Buster Posey.  Adrian Peterson. Paul George. Giancarlo Stanton.  Mario Lemieux, Drew Brees, Sue Bird, Lindsey Vonn, all came back to a successful career.

I’m interested in the “what if” conversation about athletes who did recover well, who continued to make the All Star roster, who won championships, who perhaps found an easy path to induction in a Hall of Fame, but whose skills were then merely mortal, and my reflections begin, as might be expected, with Mickey Mantle.

First round Hall of Fame, 12 trips to the World Series, 7 championships, three-time MVP, Triple Crown, third all-time in home runs when he retired (536) … pretty good resume, particularly given what might have been a career-ending injury in the 1951 World Series, at the end of Mantle’s rookie year.  The account of the injury is, literally, the stuff of legend.

Mantle had an impressive rookie year; he was an accomplished fielder, probably the fastest base runner in the game, and hitter with pop who was expected to take over Joe DiMaggio’s role as the Yankee Clipper limped into retirement, an eventuality DiMaggio met with crusty resignation.  Crusty may be an understatement as Dimaggio literally did not speak to Mantle until the second game of the World Series.  Manager Casey Stengel had told Mantle that Dimaggio was fading fast and instructed him to go for every ball hit to right centerfield.  Willie Mays lofted a fly ball, Mantle raced to get it, and there was no doubt he would be in place.  He heard DiMaggio call out that he had the ball and not wanting to run into him, Mantle tried to stop, slammed his foot into an uncovered drain and went down hard.  From the moment he hit the ground it was clear he would not be getting up.  Writhing in agony as his twisted knee was folded at an impossible angle,  Mantle moaned as DiMaggio approached and spoke to him for the first time that season.

“They’re coming with the stretcher, kid.”

Mantle played in pain and at half speed for the next seventeen years, was the face of that Yankee dynasty, and remains one of the iconic ballplayers of his era.  I’m a hopeless Mantle fan, stuck somewhere in the 154 game, 16 ball club version of baseball, and for me, the stats simply do not tell the story.

Athletes play with and through pain; highly conditioned competitors will be injured, most many times over the course of a career.  Some, like Mantle, Tony Romo, Grant Hill play with pain, and some like  Bo Jackson, perhaps the most impressive multi-sport athlete of the modern age, take performance with pain to a new level, popping his own dislocated hip back in its socket, causing necrosis of the hip-joint.  That ended his football career, but he signed with the White Sox after being cut by the Royals until his body finally gave out.

So, Clayton Kershaw the most dominant pitcher of his era, toting his tendon damaged arm, shuffling to the mound with a strained lower back, has a $93,000,000 contract through 2021 with the LA Dodgers.  It’s gonna hurt, but the hope is that we’ll see a craftier, nastier Kershaw not as fast, but worth every penny to a Dodger team aching to climb back to the top of the heap.





Really? Coke Bottle at EVERY press conference?

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This week’s brouhaha surrounding Alabama’s coach, Nick Saban, has to do with his decision to start and play Tua Tagovailoa in a meaningless game against The Citadel, a team that has already lost to Wofford, UT Chattanooga, Towson, East Tennessee State, and Furman.  Tua is injured.  He’s the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore.  He will likely be the top draft pick whenever he decides to enter the draft.

There are arguments to be made on both sides.  We’ve seen players of great promise (Robert Griffin III) whose careers have been upended by injuries aggravated by playing  when not fully recovered.  On the other hand, coaches believe the team’s morale is undermined when a star gets to sit out; everyone is playing with injuries, they’d say.  Holding out a star player essentially admits that the upcoming game is hardly worth playing, demeaning the opposing team.

Cut to the chase – The Citadel already knows they are lambs about to be slaughtered; it’s not news to them.  Tua’s teammates know that he is special, special enough to be essential in their bid for a national championship.  What’s worse for morale?  Sitting Tua or carrying him off the field?

What rankles this week, as it does with every Saban press conference, is the condescending arrogance with which Sabin meets questions from reporters who cover his team.  He is the most successful college football coach of this era without doubt.  He is adored by Crimson Tide fans; there is a statue of Saban outside Bryant-Denny Stadium.  The venue was built in the 1920’s and was named in honor of Alabama’s president, George H. Denny, but then the universe righted itself, football took its proper place as the heart of Alabama’s cultural life, and famed coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant’s name was added in 1975.  Bryant racked up 323 wins in his career; Saban has 228 but is tied with Bryant for most national championships.  He makes eight million dollars a year in salary and another three to four million in assorted other football related enterprises.

Life is good for Nick Saban.

He does have to deal with idiotic questions about “his” team, but that gives him the opportunity to grouse from the podium about how little fan support Alabama gets at home games, not-very-patiently-putting up with reporters, the developmentally challenged serfs somehow able to get past the moat at Castle Saban.  And, it gives a place of prominence to the sixteen ounce unopened bottle of Coca Cola placed at this right hand.

I am stunned by his shameless shilling for Coca Cola, placing that full bottle on the lectern, label prominently facing cameras, a silent nod to the income streams that swell the Saban bankroll while hapless reporters wither under his thinly veiled contempt.  He’s arrogant, but many of the most successful coaches are; they live in the football bubble, protected by boosters and fans.  As the dreadful and sad end of Joe Paterno’s career with Penn State proved, even the most despicable acts cannot dissuade the true believers from canonizing coaches.

He’s got a statue too.

At least “Joe Pa” didn’t act as a huckster for Klynveld Peat Marwick Goesdeler (KPMG) the auditing firm based in the Netherlands, Rolex, Workday, Inc., Callaway, Mizzen + Main (performance menswear).  That’s Phil Mickelson, professional golfer and billboard.  Saban’s brand of product placement is more subtle (!) in that he doesn’t wear the logo on his hat, jacket, shirt, and shoes, but … really?

I confess I may have forgiven some excesses on the part of coaches I like. ..

Actually, no, I haven’t, because my teams are coached by coaches rather than corporate robots, coaches who understand that they have a special relationship with the fans (and reporters) who give themselves heart and soul to the sports we love.

Alabama will probably roll again, with or without Tua Tagovailoa, Nick Saban will probably emerge triumphant one more time, and I ‘ll probably sit alone and friendless, wearing a Michigan Rose Bowl shirt (2008 – USC, L 18-32), eating Doritos and drinking Pepsi.

If I were a betting man …

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It was not that long ago that I was shocked to learn that  friend of mine was scrambling to come up with cash to pay off his bookie.  Who knew a bookie?  How would one even find a bookie?  And, really, who would bet on baseball on a daily basis?  Come on.

Bookies lived in the shadows, I thought, tempting Shoeless Joe, Paul Horning, and Pete Rose, but were generally not travelling in polite society.  I had seen Newman and Redford as con men in The Sting, had wallowed in one of HBO’s best series, Luck, and had long admired the wordsmiths who write about the nether world of horse racing and gambling, many of whom wrote with an immediacy missing from accounts of other sporting events.

Damon Runyon gave us Brandy Bottle Bates, Nicely Nicely, Harry the Horse, and Nathan Detroit, mixing strikingly vivid gambling jargon in prose that was unfailingly elegant and always in the present tense.  The following exchange was not included in Guys and Dolls, the adaptation of Runyon’s story,  “The Idyll of Sarah Brown”, but includes much of the breathless urgency of Runyon’s prose.

“ONE of the first guys out of Mindy’s and up to the crap game is Regret, the horse player, and as he comes in Brandy Bottle is looking for a nine, and The Sky is laying him twelve G’s against his soul that he does not make this nine, for it seems Brandy Bottle’s soul keeps getting more and more expensive.Well, Regret wishes to bet his soul against a G that Brandy Bottle gets his nine, and is greatly insulted when The Sky cannot figure his price any better than a double saw, but finally Regret accepts this price, and Brandy Bottle hits again.”

“The Race Track” ran in The New Yorker from 1926 to 1978.  The byline used the moniker Audax Minor, but the writer was George F.T. Ryall, regular contributor to the New Yorker and frequent contributor to Town and Country as he also wrote about auto racing, polo, and mens’ fashion.  His prose was less breathy, more contemplative, as befit a writer writing to the New Yorker crowd, but it too captured the affection of writer for the sport of horse racing, a sport that belonged to breeders of throroughbreds and the railbirds who bet on them.

“There was something about Belmont that raised it above the level of other racecourses. It wasn’t merely the historic races that were run there, for richer stakes were to be run elsewhere, and it wasn’t just the excellence of the track itself, which gave every runner a fair chance. But Belmont seemed to show racing at its best, in a spacious setting. Whatever the reason, it also brought out the best in horses, and winning at Belmont was was something that a stable could be justifiably proud of.”

Charming, but lest we find ourselves simply waxing nostalgic, let’s recall that these enterprises of great pith are attached to gambling, an issue which is very much on my mind as the Supreme Court tosses out the federal ban on sports betting, the NFL waffles on its policies about gambling in its usual down-the-rabbit-hole fashion, mumbling its disapproval while planning the development of NFL fantasy football empires, and as network radio sports hosts tout betting sites on air. CBS, ESPN, and Fox Sports regularly report the betting lines set on the weekend’s games; talking heads and Vegas gamblers debate the value of taking the over or under on the game’s point spread.

Approximately ninety-five billion dollars will be bet on NFL and college football this year, not counting the three hundred million that DraftKings will collect in entry fees.  Given the behavior of sharks when chum hits the water, we can reasonably expect that the scent of billions in transit is more than enough to tempt serious investors to nudge the outcome of games, if only slightly, just enough to beat the line.

A high stakes gambler doesn’t have to fix a game, just shave a few points.  I have to wonder how much a fluffed field goal is worth at the end of the game where a point or two does not change the outcome of the game but does change the spread.  Kickers get no respect; the temptation could be irresistible.

Point shaving and game fixing have been around for as long as games have been played I suppose.  Boxers have taken a dive, jockeys have pulled up on the reins, tight ends have dropped a pass, ballplayers have let a fly ball drop.  Easy.  Well, easier to fix in less closely scrutinized circumstances.  Fix the World Series, for example, and someone might notice; fix CCNY  or BC basketball, Northwestern football and the harsh light of public inquiry is less likely to shine.  Oh, wait.  All three of those rigged enterprises were discovered.  Major League Baseball works with Genius Sports to monitor betting on all games; even the benighted NFL keeps track of the lines.  The bad news for the NBA was that referee Tim Donaghy gambled himself into debt and made up some of his losses by betting on games he officiated; the good news is that he got caught.

True confession.  I drop $25.00 a year on DraftKings, setting up my fantasy lineups with great care and high hopes.  If my imagined roster does well, I “win” $3.00 to $5.00 bucks which allows me to continue to play for a week or two more.  These stakes are low and the impact on the economy slight, but I am an example of a reasonably avid football fan who once watched my team play on Sunday and tuned in other games at playoff and championship season.  To be candid, I did not give a rat’s tail about how the Cowboys were doing, as long as they were losing.  This Sunday, however, as the balance of my account is now at $11.68 (I know, huh?), I will be keeping track of the Rams defense, Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph, and, of course, watching the Lions … and wide receiver Golden Tate.  Whew!  Full day of football ahead.