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Dregs of the NFL Contend for Honor of First Draft Pick

By Martin Duke
sports columnist

All of this talk about playoff possibilities and huge games is all fine and good, but what about the other end of the spectrum? What hopes do the dregs of the NFL have for the rest of the season, especially when you consider that the worst team gets the all-important first draft pick?

The front-runner for the honor, of course, is the New York Jets (111), who have somehow managed to set a pace that should have them finish even worse than last year. The scary part is they went 111 against the soft part of their schedule!

Their remaining four opponents are all .500 or better: Houston, New England, Philadelphia, and Miami. Given that, it's not hard to pick the Jets to go 115 and once again get the first pick.

The latest rumors indicate that the Jets will retain the services of Rich Kotite next season. Why ownership would tolerate a probable 428 record over two years, especially considering the huge infusion of cash last off-season, is beyond me.

Right ahead of the Jets are the refuse of the NFC West: the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints. Both are 210, but Atlanta, tragically, defeated the Saints in their first matchup to capture the all-important first tiebreaker.

The Falcons still have to play San Francisco, but besides that both face nothing but quite beatable teams, including each other in the Georgia Dome. Look for the loser of that game on Dec. 8 to capture the second pick.

Granted, the Saints are operating with what may be an interim coach, but it was a peculiar choice, to say the least, to hire Rick Venturi, someone who hasn't even won five games at the college level, much less the pros.

Among the worst of the rest, the Baltimore Ravens stick out with their 38 record. With home games against Pittsburgh and Houston, and games at Cincinnati and home-field juggernaut Carolina, they are quite unlikely to win another game. Of course, for Baltimore fans starved for football for over a decade, it'll hardly matter.

The St. Louis Rams are 38 going into last Sunday, but have a game against Atlanta and two against the Saints. Given that atrocious opposition, five wins is not too much to ask.

More mediocrity in the NBA

I'm trying to like the Boston Celtics, but they're making it very hard. They have played four quarters of basketball only once, in a rout of the Atlanta Hawks. Their only other win was a come-from-way-behind affair against Indiana.

In every other game they have been on the other end of those equations. No lead is safe when it is held by the Boston Celtics. They have blown double-digit leads in each of their other games, except for dismantlings at the hands of Seattle and Milwaukee.

There are two rays of hope in this dismal season - one is the play of Antoine Walker and Dana Barros, even if Barros is tremendously overpaid. The other is that Boston owns the Mavericks' first-round draft pick, meaning the Celtics ought to have two high lottery picks.

As much as M.L. Carr has contributed to the disintegration of the franchise, he did make an interesting proposal last week. He offered the Nets a straight-up trade of first round draft picks, so that neither club could be accused of trying to improve their lottery position. As much as this would have improved both teams' situation from a sportsmanship perspective, John Calipari (oh-by-the-way, John, didn't we warn you about New Jersey?) realized that his team was probably going to end up a lot worse than Boston. Oh, well.

I hope other lottery GMs pick this tactic up, as it could do a lot for the competitive integrity of the league.

Defense wins championships

There has been much wringing of hands about the lack of scoring in the NBA this season, but it seems to just be a symptom of a much larger situation in American team sports.

It is an accident of all the major team spectator sports that defensive skills and strategies are the quickest ways to success, even if it attracts fewer fans. We saw the same thing in hockey the last few years, with the slow-it-down defenses of New Jersey advancing deep into the playoffs, despite the best efforts of the NHL rules committee.

When one looks at NFL games between two teams of good caliber, one can't help but notice that rarely does a team exceed 30 points. In fact 14 to 17 points seems to have become the norm. This is because coaches have realized that defense, though unglamorous, is the hallmark of the class teams of the league.

In baseball, offense generally rules the day, but Atlanta, the perennial World Series contender, is based on one of the greatest rotations of all time. Even the Yankees were built around pitching and defense, not power.

Meanwhile, offensive behemoths that can't pitch or play defense, like Boston, sit at home. Even in the NBA, the defensive trend is older than this season.

The handchecking rules and tinkering with the already mystifying illegal defense rule have failed to counteract what is a very strong defensive trend everywhere in the sports world. Expect it to be a major part of the crisis that will face the NBA when Michael Jordan retires again.