Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Pats need help as playoffs near

The New England Patriots, the walking hospital ward of a team, are halfway through a perfect December, which was recognized as a must-do after the home loss to Pittsburgh, suddenly the NFL's hottest team.

And as the 49-26 thumping of the Oakland Raiders showed, New England is still capable of handing it to a team, including the kind they may have to face come January.

And yet, despite all of that, despite the fact that the Patriots have done nothing but their job since the last day of might not be enough.

Because the Ravens kept winning. And the Dolphins kept winning. And for a stretch, the Jets looked unbeatable.

And those close calls? Those unnecessary roughness calls on final drives, those lost coin tosses, those times spent overwhelmed by a team's throwback scheme? Those actually aren't as forgettable as we tried to convince ourselves when it was happening.

That close loss to Indianapolis? The overtime defeat by the Jets? The fluke loss to Miami? Each time, the thinking was the same. Once we get to the end of the season, it won't matter.

Welcome to the end of the season. And it matters.

The Patriots, Dolphins and Jets have all lost five times. But unlike the Jets, the Patriots lost two of those games in the division. Unlike the Dolphins, the Patriots saved all of their losses for the AFC. So here we are, at the end of the season, where everyone dusts off those tiebreaker rules...and finds out the Patriots don't own any of them.

So the Patriots need to do more than win. They need others to lose.

They need the Ravens to lose this Saturday to the on-again, off-again Cowboys for a wild card. Or they need the Jets to get tripped up by Seattle, or the Dolphins to get toppled by the Chiefs. And if one of those teams should lose, New England needs that team to win when the Jets and Dolphins play each other in the season finale at the Meadowlands.

And of course, above all else, the Patriots need to win. At home against Arizona, on the road against Buffalo. One loss doesn't mathematically nail the coffin, but it makes divine intervention the only other hope.

Hard to imagine an 11-5 team out of the playoffs. But unless other teams get into the Christmas spirit and give the Patriots a few games, that's just what will happen.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Bleacher Report: The final project

The Internet has spawned rises in popularity of many fields and interests. Journalism is one of them.

From the massive amounts of blogs to creations as specific as iReport on CNN, the standards have changed. Originally meant to be reported by people with journalism degrees and press passes, the news is now being brought to consumers by anyone, from anywhere, with an enthusiastic interest and some free time.

In sports, it’s the same way. Fans from all over the country are getting a chance to follow their favorite teams, and notify the public of what they see. And they’re doing it on Bleacher Report.

Thought up in the summer of 2005, with a prototype appearing in 2006, Bleacher Report has quickly become what it labels itself on the home page, “the open source sports network.” Anyone can join. Anyone can write. Anyone can participate, evaluate and criticize.

But Bleacher Report isn’t just the home of massive amounts of sports journalism. It’s the home of good writing. Articles cover all ground, ranging from objective and balanced to slanted and opinionated, and include predictions, commentary, running game notes, and even advice for that other growing sports trend, fantasy.

And the site is only growing. Bleacher Report moved into an office in San Francisco shortly after the February 2008 formal launch, pays its staff members, and has its articles appear at the forefront of several hot sports topics. The writers are in the thousands, the funding is in the millions.

“We certainly hoped it would (reach this point),” site creator Dave Nemetz said. “The idea was that there was a gap in the world of sports that wasn’t being put on display, and if we got fans together, there’d be more coverage than anywhere else on the web.”

The beginning (map available here)

The success has come fast for a site that began with such modest expectations. The concept for Bleacher Report originated when Nemetz was a student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. A Bay Area native and avid sports fan, Nemetz grew tired of the limited coverage he could find of his favorite teams, namely the San Francisco 49ers, San Francisco Giants, San Jose Sharks and Oakland-based Golden State Warriors.

Nemetz noticed his best chance of following his teams was on the internet. Soon after, he found blogs, a sign that sports news existed beyond the pages of the Los Angeles Times.

“What drove me to create the site was that I grew dependent on the internet to get news on my favorite teams,” he said. “I discovered blogs about my favorite teams, and some of them were good. It struck me that there were fans out there capable of good insight.”

He wasn’t alone. Enlisting the help of close friends and fellow Bay Area natives Dave Finocchio, Bryan Goldberg and Zander Freund, the group went to work on a website prototype. Though they had an idea of what they wanted the site to be, and websites to serve as inspirations, the specifics had not yet been worked out.

“When we started out, we didn’t know where we were headed,” Nemetz said. “College Humor was an example, and Wikipedia has been an example of what we try to do. And ESPN has been the golden standard of things.”

According to Freund, now the site's community general manager, in charge of promoting member interaction and building up the site's community, it was clear amongst the four what they didn't want the site to become.

“We didn't try to be a catch-all web 2.0 sports site from the get-go. We created an identity early on and have stuck to that identity for the most part,” he said in an e-mail. “We didn't try to be a sports betting site/fantasy games site/sports chatroom/celebrity sports gossip site all rolled into one. We started out as and continue to be the place where fan-journalists come to publish their opinions on the world of sports and engage in stimulating debate.”

With continued effort from Nemetz in Los Angeles, Finocchio in Chicago, Goldberg in San Francisco and Freund in New London, Conn., the prototype was finished. Soon after, in Menlo Park, Calif., the website was launched. The content, originally, was provided only by the co-founders and focused only on Bay Area teams.

It didn’t last that way for long.

“We always intended to cover a broad range of sports. We didn’t have just the California focus. We never tried to limit it,” Nemetz said. “We’d take writers from wherever we could get them. We started with ourselves, and kept going from there.”

Freund said that the website is now at a point where its content surpasses that of other sports networks, including the one in Bristol, Conn.

“We provide a far greater breadth of coverage than that of any other sports media outlet,” he said. “We publish 500 and counting original editorials per day, compared to sites like ESPN which publish less than 20. On Bleacher Report you can find original editorial analysis on just about anything that matters in the world of sports.”

Maintaining quality

Shortly after launching, the site began to grow. Writers joined from all over the country, enchanted by the idea of writing about their teams and seeing their names attached to their products. Staff positions were created, some of which were aimed at keeping the writing at a consistent quality.

One of those positions, managing editor, went to Ryan Alberti, who turned his eagerness for people to read his writing into an eagerness to improve the writing of others.

“I got started with Bleacher Report just as the site was getting off the ground,” Alberti said. “I was motivated by authorial vanity as much as anything else. There was definitely an ego kick involved in seeing my work published on the web.

“Over time, that thrill yielded to the satisfaction of helping other writers polish their own work.”

Alberti’s position enables him to clean up the content of the site if necessary, and the site is designed to have the higher-quality stories make it to the front of the page. Even with those steps in place, he said that the writers on the site are talented enough to make his job easier. As the site has grown, some of the stories written by Bleacher Report writers have been picked up by other companies.

As its writers are being featured more prominently, Bleacher Report is getting noticed and regarded more and more by the online community. Mark Hendrickson of Tech Crunch is an example of a fan of the Bleacher Report style, saying that the site reminded him "how knowledgeable and opinionated about sports that [sic] ordinary people can be."

Alberti said there are ways that the site makes sure its best writing is the material getting viewed by outsiders.

“Factors like article relevance, user ratings, and writer ranking are weighted most heavily in assigning placement,” Alberti said. “In general, the system does a pretty decent job of letting the cream rise to the top.

“That said, the quality of the work on the site is and always will be determined by the quality of Bleacher Report writers. Bleacher Report is just a platform. It's the writers who provide the content. If the work is good, it’s because the writers are good—nothing more and nothing less.”

“An open platform”

Bleacher Report’s fast start can be attributed to the same fact that makes for a bright future: There are plenty of sports fans, and there are plenty of sports fans that are determined to have their opinions heard.

“I think the site has become not only a community, but an addiction for some people,” said Bleacher Report editor Tim Coughlin, a Northeastern alum, former Patriot Ledger sports co-op and current Brockton Enterprise part-timer. “Some people are totally absorbed. I've seen people admit they started spending three hours a day on the site cold upon discovering it.”

Joe Beare, a journalism major at Northeastern who worked as a sports writer for the Patriot Ledger and is a Bleacher Report contributor, agreed, while echoing Nemetz’s feelings towards spotty coverage of his favorite teams.

“I originally joined Bleacher Report as a San Jose Sharks writer because I felt that the fanbase was being misrepresented in the main stream media by poor, uninformed journalistic coverage,” he said. “Bleacher Report has managed to do so well because its readership and its writers are one in the same, primarily.”

From the disenchanted fan to the writer looking to see his name published, to the up-and-coming journalist looking to get connected to a growing site, Bleacher Report is giving a pen to a nation of sports enthusiasts, eager to show they can write a little bit, too.

“It’s really an open platform,” Nemetz said. “In many cases, it’s the fan looking to get their voice out there, or the aspiring writer looking to enhance their portfolio.

“I’m incredibly proud. It’s been a lot of hard work, with no guarantee it was going to work out. But it continues to grow, and it’s been an amazing experience.”

Monday, December 8, 2008

Stayin' alive

It wasn't pretty. But at this point in the season, it rarely is.

After seemingly waiting three quarters for their game to complete the trip to the west coast, the New England Patriots staged a fourth-quarter rally to defeat the Seattle Seahawks, 24-21.

Entering December, it was clear that the Patriots had to win out to have a reasonable chance at the playoffs. Against the lowly Seahawks, it seemed to be an easy way to kick off the high-pressure month. It was anything but.

The same old problems re-emerged. The defense showed its age in its inability to stop the quicker players on the field (such as quarterback Seneca Wallace and wide receiver Deion Branch - remember him?), and an overmatched secondary was again the reason behind New England's inability to stop Seattle on third down.

Another problem - injuries - again hit the Pats hard. Venerable linebacker Tedy Bruschi left the game with a knee injury, forcing Rosevelt Colvin and Junior Seau, who weren't on the team a week ago, onto a lot sooner and more often than expected.

But unlike the Pittsburgh game a week ago, the same old strengths were there to take control of the game late. The defense, led by Brandon Meriweather and Jerod Mayo, made crucial drive stops late in the game, allowing Wes Welker, who returned from a vicious hit to make 12 catches for 134 yards, and Matt Cassel to march down the field.

The Patriots had to work for the victory, however. Wallace had thrown for three touchdowns, two to former Patriot Branch, by the fourth quarter, and New England was down, 21-13.

With the season in the balance, Cassel responded. He drove the Patriots deep into Seattle territory, resulting in a Stephen Gostkowski field goal. Taking over again after a critical New England stop, Cassel's second drive was better than the first. He completed a 13-yard pass to Welker on third down, then hit Welker again with a 25-yard pass that brought New England to the Seattle 6-yard line.

On fourth-and-goal, Sammy Morris scored on a one-yard run for the go-ahead score, with - who else - Welker catching the two-point conversion for the final points.

Though the game was closer than anticipated, the Patriots showed the traits of a playoff team late in the game. The defense, which adjusted to the Bruschi injury admirably and professionally, shut out the Seahawks when it was needed the most, and the offense did the rest to keep the Patriots alive in a suddenly deadlocked AFC East.

The playoffs still aren't a certainty. New England needs help. But at this point, it's good to see that the Patriots are helping themselves.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Good, interesting performance by Adam Gaffin, the founder of, on Wednesday. It's always neat to hear from people who started with simple blogs (like all of us in the class) who then see it develop into something huge and renowned. Sometimes, it's a result of hard work and dedication. Other times, it's just what happens when you get a unique idea.

With Mr. Gaffin and UniversalHub, it appears to be a little of both. He had the unprecedented idea of putting together a roundup of Boston news, rather than having to read each individual source for information. He is also very committed to the blog, as his frequent posts and wide range of stories pulled from around the internet would suggest. And yet, I was surprised by what he gave for the hours he spends at work on the site. He said he works on it in his off time at work, and when he's exercising at home. Unless he has around seven hours of free time at his job (which I doubt), he's packing a lot of hard work into the spare minutes he has.

The advertising aspect to UniversalHub speaks more for the uniqueness of the site. Mr. Gaffin said the site pulls in around $15,000 net a year, and he said himself that he doesn't spend the time on advertising that could be spent on a site of this much recognition. That means that companies are looking for and finding him and his site, and are looking to get connected with UniversalHub.

Mr. Gaffin mentioned his main news interests for the site, which included stories about the T, and anything in towns that blow up. That is another reason for UniversalHub's effectiveness and popularity; you don't have to look far to find interesting subjects. Boston is home to plenty of interesting news, and UniversalHub helps you find it.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Sackman Returns

Of the multitude of problems stemming from the 33-10 loss to Pittsburgh last Sunday, the pass rush was one of the chief concerns. Belichick and Co. didn't waste any time fixing it, and they didn't have to turn too far for help.

The Patriots re-signed linebacker Rosevelt Colvin Wednesday, filling a roster spot left open when nickelback Jason Webster was placed on IR.

New England's pass rush had deteriorated significantly with the loss of Adalius Thomas (broken forearm) and the drop in sack totals from Mike Vrabel (12 last year to three this year) and Jarvis Green (6.5 to zero). If Colvin is anywhere near his form during his prior Patriots career, this could be a major help, just in time for a playoff push.

Colvin's five-year stint with New England was marred by injury (including a potentially devastating, season-ending broken hip two games into his first season), and ended due to a high salary-cap figure, but it was impossible to deny the outside linebacker's pass-rushing ability when healthy. He had 26.5 sacks in 61 games from 2003-07, and led the team in 2006 and 2005 and was third in 2004, his first year back from the career-threatening injury.

Colvin could defend the pass, he was able to stop then run, he could notch an interception or two. But that wasn't what he was paid to do. His job was to rush the quarterback.

The signing also adds another wrinkle to the playoffs, should New England make it. Adalius Thomas, arguably the team's best all-around linebacker, is out with what has been reported as a season-ending arm injury. Despite the ominous diagnosis, we are three weeks removed from the injury, and Thomas, still, is not on injured reserve. Because there is no sense to keep a player with no hope of returning active (see Rodney Harrison and Tom Brady), it's fair to assume that Belichick is holding out hope that Thomas can return in time for the playoffs.

If that's the case, with Colvin and Thomas, New England could see its pass rush improve drastically. But first, the Patriots have to get there.

With the return of the Sackman, those prospects are looking better.

Twitter feeds

In our class on Monday, we looked at using Twitter as a journalism tool, and at the various news organizations and personalities that have used the site to further their effectiveness. Here are some I noticed on the site:

1. The Boston Globe Patriots feed. Due to the nature of this blog, this would seem to be a good feed to look at. It is pretty complete, with links to all of the Globe's coverage available. Furthermore, it's a fast-updating site. For example, the hot topic of the day was Rosevelt Colvin's resigning with the team, which was made official this morning. There were already four articles published on the subject in four hours, one of which was a locker room interview. That type of attention to updating material is often the sign of a healthy feed, which it appears the Globe's Patriot site is.

2. Barack Obama has a twitter feed as well. Or at least his campaign does. Anybody researching Obama, looking to analyze his approach to the presidency or trying to find an example of his politics can make good use of this feed. You can find a long list of his speeches on the feed, so if you were looking to prove that he is flip-flopping on a particular issue, you could trace down the individual rally that could serve your point. As it may be easy to understand, a Washington reporter could make good use of this feed.

3. The Patriot Ledger is also getting in on Twitter mania. For a newspaper feed, this one isn't great. It appears to just be a glorified RSS, and with hardly enough updates (sometimes going 10-12 days without one), it can't be confused for being the most up-to-date news source in the world. It does have links to the stories, however, so it qualifies as functional.

4. And would you look at that. Darth Vader has a feed. The journalistic merit may not quite be up to snuff, but the feed is essentially a Darth Vader blog. We've talked in class about how the line between blogging and journalism can be blurred or, in some cases, gotten rid of. If you're looking for humorous Star Wars material for a multiple-years-old movie review, this is your site.

All in all, I see the good that Twitter can do, but most sites seem to simply turn their feeds into RSS knockoffs. I'm not sure whether that's a fault of the individual members or the makeup of the site, however, I'm not convinced that Twitter is the same revolutionary tool that sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Google Reader have been.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Rain pain

Just when you think they're back among the AFC elite, the 2008 New England Patriots consistently return your expectations to Earth.

Riding high after a high-energy victory in Miami, the Patriots returned home to face frigid, drenching rain and the NFL's best defense, factors that didn't bode well in a 33-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

After a game in South Florida in which seemingly everything went right, nothing did in Foxboro. In the second half, anyway. In the first half, New England, despite key drops from the ultra-reliable Randy Moss (one for a sure touchdown with seconds remaining until halftime) and a botched chip shot field goal from the even-more-reliable Stephen Gostkowski, was tied with the Steelers, 10-10. Furthermore, they were generating more offensive chances than Pittsburgh and had the ball to start the second half.

It didn't matter, as the Pats regressed at an alarming rate. Fumble on the kickoff. Pittsburgh field goal. Fumble by Cassel. Pittsburgh touchdown. Another fumble by Cassel. Pittsburgh field goal. Interception by Cassel. Suddenly, a game that New England was verging on putting away before halftime was a laugher in all the wrong ways.

New England resembled a heavyweight contender keeping pace through eight tough rounds in the heavyweight championship, then getting floored on the first punch of the ninth. New England was a drop by Moss away from making a statement. They ended up three scores behind the opportunistic Steelers, and a lot further from being a realistic AFC playoff contender.

It's a mistake to count the Patriots out of the playoffs. They have four winnable games coming up, while Baltimore (in possession of the second wild card spot) has to play this same scary Steelers team again, as well as the Redskins and Cowboys. If the Patriots win out, they'll finish 11-5. That should be good enough to play in January.

But who knows how well? On Sunday, Patriots fans saw an offense that compiled over 1,000 yards the past two games fail to catch and hold on to the football, and a defense playing against an O.K. Steelers offense in drenching rain somehow allow 33 points. These factors can't be ignored. For the Patriots to make an impression in the playoffs, they'll have to live with them.