Kevin Cody

All Ball Sports: Turner whitewash, Helton hangs on, Herbert needs help

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by Paul Teetor

The stunning news broke late Sunday night: 9 Dodgers and support staff members had tested positive for Covid-19 over the weekend. The shocking story came just two days after MLB issued its whitewash report on the Justin Turner post-World Series Covid-19 incident.

No one in a position to know is saying that there’s any connection to a Covid-19 positive Turner leaving his quarantine after the Dodgers won the World Series and defiantly emerging onto the field to celebrate with family and teammates.  Nor have they identified any of the people testing positive.

But common sense says there is likely a direct correlation between Sunday’s out-of-leftfield news and Turner’s defiant and risky behavior 10 days earlier.

As of Monday night, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred had not commented on the latest twist in the bizarre Turner case. So for now they are sticking to the story contained in the report they released Friday night after a week and a half of investigation.

Essentially, they said they had been too harsh by initially condemning Turner’s risky behavior and blaming it all on him. Upon further review, they said, the Dodgers and yes, even MLB should share in the blame for letting it happen. Therefore, they said, there would be no sanctions against Turner or the Dodgers and everyone could go on their merry, super-spreader way.

Putting a tidy ribbon on the whole stinking mess of an “investigative report” was the abject letter of apology penned by Turner – or more likely by his PR people — that was released along with the report.

“I asked whether I was permitted to return to the field with my wife in order to take a photograph,” Turner wrote. “I assumed by that point that few people were left on the field. I was under the impression that team officials did not object to my returning to the field for a picture with my wife. However, what was intended to be a photo capturing the two of us turned into several greetings and photos where I briefly and unwisely removed my mask.”

Oh sure, and who could have seen that happening when one of the team’s stars emerged onto the field in the midst of a joyous celebration?

Turner’s prepared statement continued: “In hindsight, I should have waited until the field was clear of others to take that photo with my wife. I sincerely apologize to everyone on the field for failing to appreciate the risks of returning to the field. I have spoken with almost every teammate, coach and staff member, and my intentions were never to make anyone uncomfortable or put anyone at further risk.” 

Now, with this latest and very serious twist, MLB may have to revisit the entire episode that they had hoped would magically disappear, like a virus killed by drinking bleach.

Stay tuned.      

USC Commits Grand Theft Football  

There was a brazen daylight robbery Saturday afternoon at the LA Coliseum. The victim: Arizona State University. The perp: The University of Southern California football team.

The sentence: USC Head Coach Clay Helton was released from coaching jail – for one week. His probation continues indefinitely.

The Trojans motto has always been Fight On, accompanied by that annoying, repetitious, overly brassy fight song the USC marching band plays over and over.

But Saturday they should have added a clause to the time-worn slogan: Fight on, no matter how bleak it looks! Helton had a near death experience and lived to tell about it after his team saved his job with a fantastic finish.

“A year ago, we may not have won this game,” a visibly relieved Helton said moments after the game ended.

It wasn’t like Helton was going to be fired after the game if he had lost, although in 2013 USC did exactly that to Lane Kiffin – on the LAX tarmac, no less — after he lost to the very same Arizona State.  But in a pandemic-shortened 7-game season, losing the first game surely would have signaled that this was Helton’s last season. As it is, he will be facing the same win-or-else pressure every week.

Helton, who was promoted from offensive coordinator to interim head coach in October 2015 and finally given the permanent job two months later, has been in serious danger of being fired for each of the last two years. Trojan football boosters – rich guys who give buckets of tax-deductible money to the university in exchange for having their calls returned — have raised the decibel level louder and louder every year in calling for his dismissal.

Too dull, too gray, too vanilla, too predictable, too many penalties, too many losses – the indictment is always the same. It boils down to this: we need a big-name coach with NFL experience who can fire up the fans and the media and recruit all those future pros who took the Trojans to the mountain top under former coach Pete Carroll, now leading one of the best teams in the NFL in the Seattle Seahawks.

Every year Helton somehow escapes the torch-and-pitchfork mob coming for his whiteboard and communication headset. Last year was a particularly close call. He only escaped the chopping block because new Athletic Director Mike Bohn, on the job for only a few weeks, did not want his very first action to be firing the football coach at such a high-profile football school. So he gave Helton one more year.

But the writing was on the Coliseum wall even before the pandemic hit. Helton, armed with a pre-season Heisman Trophy contender in sensational sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis,    had better have a great season – win the Pac 12 title and go to the College Football playoffs or at least to an elite, high-profile bowl game — or face the ax.

With only two Pac-12 teams ranked in the preseason top 25 – Oregon at number 12 and USC at 20 – everything was set up perfectly for Helton in a shortened season. He wouldn’t have to play Oregon unless and until they met in the Pac 12 championship game. And the Pac-12 has been so devalued that one of them would have to emerge undefeated to even be considered for a CFP game.

On a cold and rainy Saturday morning that began at the crazy time of 9 a.m. (to accommodate Fox’s east coast TV schedule) Helton’s team had put on a typical performance for two and a half hours: some great throws by Slovis, but in the trenches there were too many dumb mistakes, too many bad play calls, and too many momentum-killing penalties at just the wrong time. And so mid-way through the fourth quarter they were trailing un-ranked Arizona State 27-14 and in need of a miracle.

Lo and behold, as the sun came out to shine over the near-empty Coliseum, a miracle appeared.

Three of them, in fact, all in a span of less than three minutes.

First, a high-arching pass by Slovis toward the end zone was tipped into the air by Amon-Ra St. Brown. Standing five feet away was five-star recruit Bru McCoy of Long Beach, who had taken a long and circuitous path to USC: he committed as a high school senior, at the last second switched to Texas, and after becoming homesick for SoCal transferred back to USC.

So in his first game after a two-year football odyssey that ended where it started, he found himself in perfect position to grab the batted ball for a touchdown that cut the ASU lead to 27-21.

So little time was left that Helton elected to try an onside kick, which rarely works.

But this time it did work. McCoy recovered the ball after it had gone more than 10 yards and an ASU player had touched it.

Now SC was back in business with 2:49 left on their own 45-yard line, but they still needed to score a TD and kick the PAT.                     

Seven plays later, Slovis was facing a do-or-die fourth-and-nine situation at the 21-yard line. He dropped back, looked left to draw attention away from his real target, and threw a frozen rope over the middle with just enough height on it to get behind the converging defenders. Emerging star Drake London – who came on strong at the end of last season – leaped for the ball and came down with the winning TD that sent Trojan Nation into ecstasy. Even some of the cardboard cutout fans in the stands seemed to be cheering the miraculous 28-27 win.

Slovis finished with 381 yards passing and two TD’s, keeping his Heisman Trophy dreams alive. 

London, a star in the making, finished with 8 catches for 125 yards and the winning score.

And after one game USC’s dream of winning the Pac-12 is still alive.

Helton’s dream of keeping his job? That’s still alive too.

Turns out sometimes crime does pay.

Justin Herbert needs a little help from his friends

The bad-luck Chargers found yet another way to lose a game Sunday afternoon: they flipped the script.

Instead of their usual pattern of running up a big lead behind sizzling hot rookie quarterback Justin Herbert and then blowing it with too-cautious play calling and a porous defense, this time it was the Chargers who came roaring back against the Las Vegas Raiders with two chances to win it from the 4-yard line in the final seconds.

On both plays Herbert appeared to throw a game-winning TD, and on both plays his receivers couldn’t hold onto the ball and Chargers fans were left screaming at the TV as they fell to a 2-6 record after the 31-26 defeat. The last pass, to tight end Donald Parham, was actually ruled a TD on the field, setting off a wild Chargers celebration. But after further review it was reversed because replays showed that he dropped the ball before establishing full possession.

After four straight weeks of blowing leads of 16 points or more followed by this nightmare finish, the inescapable conclusion is that Herbert needs more help.

Consider these horror-show plays from Sunday’s game. 

On his second drive, Herbert lofted a picture-perfect 60-yard bomb that landed in the hands of second-year receiver Jalen Guyton, who had been picked up off the Dallas Cowboys practice squad. But he let the ball go right through his hands.

Herbert desperately needs some better receivers who can hang onto the ball when he delivers a perfect strike. Right now, only Keenan Allen and Mike Williams fit that profile, and Williams had a couple of out-of-character bad drops Sunday that could have been TDs.

On the next drive, Herbert threw a 10-yard dart to the normally sure-handed tight end Hunter Henry. Henry had a TD in his grasp, only to drop the ball and kill the drive. Then, on the ensuing field goal try, kicker Michael Badgley missed a very makeable 48-yarder. Badgley, who gave himself the nickname “The Money Badger,” has already cost the Chargers a couple of games by missing easy kicks in this cursed year. The moral: never rely on a guy who gives himself a nickname. 

Herbert – and the Chargers — need a better kicker.

For most of the game, Head Coach Anthony Lynn and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen continued their inexplicable and entirely predictable pattern of running the ball on almost every first down. Why they continue to try to establish the run game when the opposing defenses are terrified of Herbert’s passing game is one of the great mysteries of the mysterious year 2020.

It was only late in the second half, when Herbert had five minutes to march the length of the field and try for a winning touchdown, that the offense was forced into the scheme they should be using all the time: turn Herbert loose for big chunks of yardage until the defense is so preoccupied with stopping the pass that the runners can be sprung for big gains.

Herbert needs better, more creative coaches calling the plays. The thought of him paired up with Rams coach Sean McVay, a mad scientist of pre-snap movement, mis-direction plays and thinking three plays ahead would be frightening to the rest of the league.   

Their leading runner Sunday was Kalen Ballage, a pickup from the New York Giants practice squad playing in his first game for the Chargers. He finished with 69 yards on 15 carries.

Herbert desperately needs better runners around him. Where have you gone, Austin Ekeler? 

Oh, and there was one more ominous pattern that became clear against the Raiders, one of the more brutal and physically imposing teams in the NFL. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound Herbert was always the biggest kid on the block in high school at Eugene, Oregon and even during the four years he starred at Oregon. It’s easy to understand why he was so fearless and even reckless when deciding to tuck the ball away and run for a first down or a TD. But this is the NFL he’s playing in now, and he suffered a couple of devastating collisions Sunday that knocked him woozy. On one touchdown pass that pulled the Chargers within two points, he was smashed so badly that he lay on the turf for a couple of minutes, had to be helped off the field, and sat down while his backup Tyrod Taylor came in to try for a 2-point conversion. Taylor failed, and Herbert was soon back in the game, but his coaches need to stress to him that staying healthy and upright is more important in the long-term than an any short-term yardage that may be gained by a reckless run.

As it is, Herbert had another great game, connecting on 28 of 42 passes for 326 yards and two TDs with zero interceptions. He outplayed the Raiders’ Derek Carr, a very good QB who finished with 165 yards while hitting on 13 of 23 passes for two TD’s. Herbert is having a rookie year for the ages, and Sunday he broke Cam Newton’s rookie record for passing yardage in his first seven games with 2,147. That means he’s having the best first season of any rookie QB since 1950. But even though he’s played seven great games in a row without a single clunker, his team’s record in those seven games is 1-6.

Justin Herbert needs more help.

Now.

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com.Follow: @paulteetor

 

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