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Rizzo, not Harper, is Nats’ biggest pending free agent



Baseball’s hot stove might as well be a deep freezer this offseason.

Based on CBS Sports’ ranking, eight of the top 10 and 12 of the top 20 free agents remain unsigned with spring training a few weeks away. The word “collusion” has reared its ugly head as players who expected to break the bank – J.D. Martinez, Yu Darvish and Eric Hosmer among them – wait impatiently by the phone.

The calls will come, eventually, though for a variety of reasons the dollars could be fewer than expected.

Many of the top free agents are older with worrisome injury histories. Agent Scott Boras controls an inordinate slice of the top tier. Additionally, lots of teams are either tanking/rebuilding, enjoying their revenue-sharing profits without trying to compete, or waiting for next year’s mind-boggling free-agent class.

Those factors undoubtedly contribute to the slow pace of signings. Another is front offices’ growing reliance on analytics, which are less-than-flattering when applied to several of this crop’s leading names. So instead of prices continuing to rise unabated, regardless of who’s available, the market is undergoing a slight correction.

In short, teams appear to be wising up.

Unless we’re talking about the Washington Nationals.

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Many of sports’ vital lessons have little to do with sports



Athletic competition can teach us a lot. Through sports, we’re able to learn about athletes and fans, as well as coaches and owners.

The most obvious lessons center on principles like sacrifice, dedication and commitment. No one comes close to, or reaches, championships without paying a price, whether in team or individual sports.

But some of the most important takeaways have nothing to do with our fun and games.

Instead, we’re presented valuable instruction on real life and death, issues like human rights and civil liberties.

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‘Gruden Bowl’ has a snowball’s chance



Reaching the Super Bowl is hard enough for an NFL coach, who must fend off 15 contenders in his conference.

The odds of his brother doing likewise in the other conference, in the same season, are astronomical. Mainly because his brother would never coach an NFL team, in any season.

But five years ago, the sun, stars and moon aligned just right, giving us Baltimore and San Francisco in Super Bowl 47, aka the “Harbaugh Bowl.” It was a family affair, with Ravens coach John Harbaugh pitted against his little brother, then-49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.

Brothers had never coached against each in the Super Bowl. Harbaugh Bowl II is out of the question with Jim now coaching the University of Michigan. But with Oakland’s newly hired head coach, it’s possible that the NFL one year will witness another sibling rivalry on the sidelines on the first Sunday in February.

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Revenge of the so-so quarterbacks



The adage about quarterbacks receiving too much credit for wins and too much blame for losses doesn’t fully explain weekend results in the NFL playoffs.

Four quarterbacks who played in a Super Bowl took the field. Three had won a Super Bowl and two had enjoyed multiple victories. All were former league MVPs.

The other half of the QB field was a motley crew of mediocrity, a quartet of pedestrian passers. Their careers were either long enough to be typecast as so-so, or short-and-not-sweet enough to lean in that direction.

Either Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Dew Brees or Matt Ryan have participated in nine of the last 14 Super Bowls. Entering the weekend Case Keenum, Blake Bortles, Nick Foles and Marcus Mariota combined had one game of playoff experience.

That proved to be irrelevant. The quarterbacks in Sunday’s conference championships will form history’s all-time easiest, “Which of these don’t belong?”

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For Lakers, LaVar Ball brings undesirable meaning to “Showtime”



You want to say LaVar Ball is crazy and there’s some truth to that.

But he did draw 1.6 million viewers for the inaugural game of the Big Baller Brand Challenge in Lithuania. That’s the tournament he created and convinced his sons’ team, Prienu Vytautas, to host.

I guess the team is nuts, too.

Vytautas shifted around its entire season to accommodate Ball. It skipped the Baltic Basketball League in favor of the tournament, a series of five friendly matchups against other Lithuanian clubs. It slapped the BBB logo on the halfcourt circle and restricted area arcs.

Even the referee uniforms featured the logo, which makes you think visiting squads shouldn’t expect a fair shake. Given that Vytautas promised extensive playing time for LaMelo and LiAngelo Ball, they’re probably not worried about foul trouble.

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Ninth in All-Star vote a joke for Beal; should be fifth at least



Bradley Beal is having a great season for the Washington Wizards, which has led teammates, fans and local media to lobby for his first All-Star berth.

But to the chagrin of his supporters, Beal ranked just ninth among Eastern Conference guards when the first round of fan voting was released last week. The indignity was amplified by Dwyane Wade (a shell of his former self) and Isiah Thomas (who had played one game at the time) being ahead of Beal.

Wade and Thomas clearly have no business in the sixth and seventh positions, respectively, based on performance. By that measure, John Wall (fifth), who has missed 11 games due to injury, should trail his smooth-shooting backcourt mate, too.

However, All-Star ballots are about popularity more than production.

Wade had been a Top 3-vote getter from 2005 until last season, when he was knocked to fourth place by Thomas’ MVP campaign. There’s also an advantage when you play on a national-darling franchise with LeBron James, which could be worth a quarter of Wade’s 165,000 votes.

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Jon Gruden’s brand A-plus, but his coaching could be grade inflation



Jon Gruden’s legend is built primarily on Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl team 15 years ago.

That’s an awfully long shelf life.

He left the Bucs after the 2008 season and slid into the Monday Night Football booth, where his quirky personality and professional shtick have made him a star. He also brings his persona to NFL draft coverage via “Jon Gruden’s QB Camp,” a popular ESPN show in which top prospects go one-on-one with “Chucky.”

As far as brands, he’s an A-plus.

As far as coaching, it’s fair to question how he earned his high grade.

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Skins and ‘Hard Knocks’ make a great fit



If the NFL and HBO want compelling drama with a dash of dysfunction for the next edition of “Hard Knocks,” there’s no choice better than Washington.

The Skins will feature a plethora of juicy storylines entering the 2018 season. The quarterback will be a fabulously wealthy Kirk Cousins or the replacement trying to fill his shoes. Coach Jay Gruden will shoot for postseason success like his famous brother, who’ll be back on the sidelines with the Raiders or still grimacing in the Monday Night Football booth.

Senior V.P. of player personnel Doug Williams will stamp the franchise after his first draft without groundwork from the former GM. Team president Bruce Allen will fight the narrative that he’s just a suit and not a real football guy. Team owner Dan Snyder will stay in the background and hope no one highlights the bountiful lowlights of his tenure.

Unless the league and HBO executives are skittish about weeks of saturation coverage drawing attention to the franchise’s nickname, Washington is a perfect subject for their in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at training camp.

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NCAA president disses athletes again with faulty reasoning



Mark Emmert has said a multitude of ridiculous things in the seven years he’s been president of the NCAA.

Most of his crazy talk has involved the sham of “amateurism” and its phony correlation to big-time college football and basketball. But he went a step further last month, suggesting that prep players with NBA ambitions shouldn’t enroll at institutions of higher education.

“Is this a part of someone being part of your university as a student-athlete, or is it about using college athletics to prepare yourself to be a pro?” Emmert said at the SportsBusiness Journal Intercollegiate Athletics Forum. “If it’s the latter, you shouldn’t be there in the first place.”

Of course, that’s a preposterous stance, as if “student-athlete” and “NBA prospect” are mutually exclusive. It’s not an either/or situation. You can be both.

But players with professional ability, like Maryland forward Justin Jackson, might strongly consider leaving sooner rather than later.

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QBs the only story in NY vs. DC on New Year’s Eve



EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Two quarterbacks who might be elsewhere next season, leading two teams going nowhere this season, faced off on a bitterly cold day at MetLife Stadium.

That really was the only interesting aspect of Sunday’s game between Washington and the New York Giants.

Not whether the visitors would complete a three-game winning streak to finish at 8-8. Not whether the hosts would snap a five-game losing streak and produce a victory in front of new GM David Gettleman. Not whether the fans who showed up – including the (fool?)hardy souls tailgating in sub-zero wind-chill temperatures – would report cases of frostbite.

No, this was all about Eli Manning and Kirk Cousins, quarterbacks who are equal parts similar and dissimilar.

Manning came out on top as the Giants prevailed for an 18-10 victory that ended with kneel-downs from Washington’s 1-yard line. Cousins’ third interception moments earlier had ended thoughts of a comeback and – God forbid! – overtime.

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