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Punch lines & punching bags after choke in dugout, pennant race


Washington’s final contest at Nationals Park this year was a make-up game.

Unfortunately, there aren’t enough to provide a passing grade on the Nationals’ season.

The final test, the season-ending series next weekend in New York, has gone from worthwhile to worthless. Snapping a six-game losing streak against the Mets would offer no solace whatsoever, serving only as a grim reminder of what woulda-coulda-shoulda.

At least we’ll no longer hear the auto-play responses from manager Matt Williams, a nice man whose tune didn’t change even after the Nats were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.

“We’ve got games to play,” he told reporters Saturday. “We’ve got to win tomorrow.”

They didn’t. The Nats not only lost the next day, they subjected themselves to more ridicule and mockery nationally when their  Jonathan-come-lately attacked the homegrown star and presumptive NL MVP.

There are scenarios where we might understand a lunging Jonathan Papelbon wrapping a hand around Bryce Harper’s throat and slamming him against the dugout wall. But not many.

If Harper was trying to make time with Papelbon’s wife or harm their children, OK. If a practical joke went too far by involving food and bodily fluids, sure. If Harper stole Pap’s life savings and disparaged his mother, go for it.

But for not running hard enough (in Pap’s opinion) on a fly ball in the bottom of the eighth? No.

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New atmosphere beginning to materialize in Ashburn

CousinsNewAttitudeBy DERON SNYDER

We’re only two games into the NFL season and Washington has yet to venture away from FedEx Field.

Seven-eighths of the schedule remains, including matchups against squads much more formidable than St. Louis and Miami.

Also, you might recall Washington getting off to an identical start in 2014 – losing the opener and winning in Week 2 – and that season didn’t end well (4-12).

So no one with a bit of sense is going overboard entering Thursday’s game against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium. For all we know, the final record could be 6-10, a popular prediction among observers.

But at this early juncture, there are a number of things to feel good about. Especially the feel itself.

The business-as-usual haze that hung over the franchise just three weeks ago is being replaced by fresh air. The stench of 25 losses the last two seasons is fading as we begin to catch whiffs of what’s cooking. The incessant buzz about soap-opera storylines and off-the-field drama is being drowned out by talk of a sound offense and stingy defense.

Cultures don’t change in a flash and Washington has experienced a polar night for most of the century.

But there’s a feeling that dawn is near in Ashburn.

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Tiger Woods’ back a setback in chase to catch Jack

TigerWoodsBackSurgeryBy DERON SNYDER

Not much doubt remained that Jack Nicklaus would retain his record for victories in major golf tournaments.

But any lingering thoughts of Tiger Woods possibly supplanting him were snuffed for good last week.

What once seemed inevitable has transitioned to impossible.

Stuck at 14 major victories since capturing the 2008 U.S. Open, Woods will not win five more majors. Woods will not win four more majors to tie Nicklaus’ mark (18).

He would do well to win another tournament, period, something he last accomplished at the 2013 Bridgestone Invitational. He has teed off in 23 PGA tournaments since then and missed the cut in seven of them.

With his 40th birthday arriving in December, Woods will miss reaching the first tee for several months. He announced Friday that he had back surgery on Sept. 16, breaking the news on his website, sounding like the same ol Tiger, vowing to defy age, injury and the Tour’s pride of young lions.

“This is certainly disappointing, but I’m a fighter,” he said on “I’ve been told I can make a full recovery and I have no doubt that I will.”

He’ll come back because he’s a compulsive competitor who has been obsessed with overtaking Nicklaus forever. But the landscape and his body are headed in opposite directions.

One is fresh and full of potential. The other is worn and weary. Unless Woods finds a way to make the clock spin backward like a perfect approach shot, the competitive portion of his career will be relegated to the annals of time.

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W adds weight to Gruden’s words


LANDOVER – NFL coaches can do a lot of talking.

They have deals for TV and radio shows. They are obligated to address the media regularly each week. They step to the podium immediately after each game and return the day after each game.

And that’s just the times we get to hear from a coach. In meetings, on practice fields and in the locker room, he has a special soundtrack just for players.

In just his second season as Washington’s coach, almost all of  Jay Gruden’s yapping was for naught. But on Sunday, against the favored St. Louis Rams, his team responded with an impressive 24-10 victory, proving that it hasn’t gone completely tone deaf.

It was only the fourth time in Gruden’s 10 home games that players in the burgundy-and-gold locker room could celebrate. He hadn’t changed what he said – run the ball, play good defense, be solid on special teams, limit mistakes – but the result changed.

Instead of detailing what went wrong with the plan, or explaining how the philosophy remains sound despite another loss, Gruden could point to the scoreboard as proof that his spiel can work.

“You can talk all you want, until you’re blue in the face,” he said. “But the only thing that matters is getting Ws. I’ve said all along we felt good about the way these guys are working and the change in our team, just from offseason to training camp to now. But the only thing that could really back up what I’m saying is victories.”

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No lack of degradation, debilitation in pay-to-slay games

bisonpaydayBy DERON SNYDER

Howard University is my alma mater and I’m extremely proud of my school’s legacy. Our alumni are among the nation’s most accomplished professionals and entertainers in a wide variety of fields.

Alas, the football field isn’t one of them.

Although we’ve produced about two dozen NFL players, including 10-year veteran Antoine Bethea of the San Francisco 49ers, we excel much more in suits and ties opposed to helmets and shoulder pads.

My fellow Bison and I are a bit down after the football team opened with blowout losses to Appalachian State and Boston College by the combined score of 125-0. Last week’s contest was particularly demoralizing, a 76-0 beatdown in Beantown.

The final could’ve been worse but the coaching staffs agreed to play 10-minute quarters in the second half, which kicked off with the Eagles holding a 62-0 lead.

We might come out on the short end Friday night at RFK Stadium, too, in the AT&T Nation’s Football Classic against Hampton University. But at least we’re facing a foe on our level, a peer from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

That hasn’t been the case for Howard or numerous other schools so far in the Football Championship Series, aka Division 1-AA.

During the season’s first two weeks, you almost could feel the pain when perusing scores that featured FCS squads visiting opponents in the Football Bowl Series, aka Division 1-A.

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Moses Malone one of the GOATs we often overlook


The University of Maryland men’s basketball team reached the Elite Eight in 1975.

But if a certain blue-chip recruit had followed through on his letter of intent, the Terps might’ve reached the Final Fo’.

Instead, Moses Malone went straight to the pros and eventually uttered one of sports’ most iconic quotes – “Fo’, fo’, fo’” – when he predicted that Philadelphia would sweep its way to the 1983 NBA title. He was off by one game, as the Sixers won in four against New York, five against Milwaukee and four against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Malone died Sunday in Norfolk, Virginia, at the age of 60. In case we had forgotten his impact on basketball or didn’t fully appreciate his greatness, his death served as an unwelcome reminder.

“With three MVPs and an NBA championship, he was among the most dominant centers to ever play the game and one of the best players in the history of the NBA and the ABA,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement.

“Even more than his prodigious talent, we will miss his friendship, his generosity, his exuberant personality, and the extraordinary work ethic he brought to the game throughout his 21-year pro career.”

Before that, Malone became the first high school player to skip college and go directly to the pros. He never suited up for Lefty Driesell but the former Terps’ coach remained close to his one-time recruit and helped him sign with the ABA’s Utah Stars.

“When he went pro he could’ve forgotten about me,” Driesell told Norfolk’s WAVY-TV Sunday.  “But he’d always call me and come see me whenever he was around here. Moses was just one of my best friends. And he’s the best basketball player that ever came from the state of Virginia.”

Malone didn’t need much of an adjustment period as a 19-year-old rookie. He played nearly 39 minutes per game and averaged 18.8 points and 14.6 rebounds. His ability to corral caroms stood out right away, leading to the Hall of Famer’s nickname: “Chairman of the Boards.”

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Washington’s best shot at success is to stay grounded

alfredmorrisBy DERON SNYDER

This member of Washington’s backfield had a spectacular rookie campaign that brought him national acclaim and helped lead to a playoff berth in 2012.

That was followed by a steady decline in production, leading some observers to question if his success was about the system more than his ability.

Now speculation is swirling that 2015 might be his last year in burgundy and gold, as the coaching staff is optimistic about another player at his position.

But unlike his famous teammate in the same predicament, Alfred Morris wasn’t a mere spectator  in Washington’s opener.

And if the team hopes to experience the thrill of winning this season, Morris will need more outings like Sunday and fewer like the past two seasons.

Miami won the game, 17-10, but Morris did what he must to give Washington a chance. He had 25 carries for 121 yards, a healthy 4.8 yards per pop. The ground game helped Washington dominate time of possession and keep Miami’s potent defensive front from teeing off on quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Coach Jay Gruden knows the team’s best hope is a stout rushing attack and solid defense that keeps games close. The task in Week 1 was formidable, with Pro Bowlers Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake lined up against rookie guard Brandon Scherff and second-year tackle Morgan Moses.

But Washington doesn’t want a chameleon-like offense, ground-and-pound one week and air-it-out the following week. That’s no way to establish an identity.

What you want is to take the opening kickoff and ram it down the opponent’s throat like this: Morris for 5, Morris for 6, Morris for 9, Morris for 0, Morris for 10 and Morris for 5. The drive stalled and Washington settled for a field goal, but the point was made.

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Fantasy football becoming a get-rich-quick scheme

fantasysportsBy DERON SNYDER

Turn to ESPN or some other sports-related outlet, any time of day. Doesn’t matter whether it’s TV or radio. Just wait for the next commercial break.

If there isn’t a spot for DraftKings or FanDuel, you’re guaranteed to see one the next time. Bet on it.

The rise of daily fantasy sports has led to a surge of hourly broadcast ads. And if you’ve somehow, miraculously never seen one, here’s their message: You, too, can win a million dollars! It’s easy!

Now excuse me while I go take a shower.

What began as a quaint activity between office workers, family and friends has morphed into an insidious industry that seduced and climbed in bed with corporate America. The NFL doesn’t quite fit the definition of daily fantasy sports, not – with its one-week-at-a-time IV-drip of action. But The Shield is poised to domineer DFS, like every other subject in its royal sports kingdom.

At the risk of sounding like an unrepentant moralist with a paternalistic mentality, I’m concerned about the spike in people who view fantasy sports as a get-rich-quick scheme. Methinks those who prosper the most will be the leagues, teams, media companies and other investors that pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into DraftKings and FanDuel.

Those entities are looking for fat returns on investments, They’ll be reaped on the backs of ordinary Joes and Janes, filling out lineups like lottery tickets.

This isn’t fantasy as I remember it. Back in the early ‘80s, I partook in leagues with co-workers in the USA Today sports department. Yours truly even hoisted trophies after winning championships in the NFL and NBA, though my baseball team, “Arms & Hammers,” never finished first.

It was great for fun, camaraderie, competition and trash talk.

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Until proven otherwise, Patriots’ dynasty still deserves respect


Can’t say I’ve ever been a New England Patriots fan.

In fact, seemingly like most red-blooded Americans who aren’t from Massachusetts, I’ve enjoyed rooting against them, especially when my hometown Giants whipped the Patriots to spoil their perfect season in Super Bowl 42, and then whipped them again in Super Bowl 46.

(Yes, even three- and four-point victories with go-ahead touchdowns scored in the last minute constitute a whipping. BYU scored Saturday on a last-second Hail Mary to beat the snot out of Nebraska.)

Dallas has a longer history as “America’s (Most Hated) Team,” but New England has been the vogue this century. Since 2000, the Patriots have won the Super Bowl four times while the Cowboys have won a playoff game just twice. In that span, Dallas has reached the playoffs fewer times (five) than New England has reached the Super Bowl (six).

The Patriots have ready-made villains in coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. Darth Vader could learn a thing or two from Belichick, whose dour countenance and begrudging civility are the public persona of a football savant. Brady, aka “Captain America,” has everything you hate unless he’s on your team: multiple rings, gaudy statistics, MVP trophies, Hollywood looks and a supermodel wife.

But even with all those material reasons going against the franchise, I can’t join the angry mob attempting to vandalize New England’s legacy.

The piling on since Deflategate has been unseemly, unsightly and plain ol’ ugly, enough to make this Pats anti-fan raise his voice in support.

I didn’t think critics could be more petty after expressing their outrage over the air pressure in some footballs.

But then, on the eve of the season-opener Thursday when New England hosts Pittsburgh, came a one-two punch of  the-Patriots-are-cheaters stories. ESPN weighed in with nearly 11,000 words on allegations linked to Spygate and further back, dating to the 2000 season. Sports Illustrated chimed in with another 4,000 words on the subject.

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Max Scherzer’s recent performances not helping Nationals


In the category of “What have you done for me lately?” the  generous answer regarding Nationals ace Max Scherzer is, “Not nearly enough.”

The more blunt assessment is: “You haven’t done squat.”

Scherzer was signed to a massive free-agent contract for situations exactly like Monday afternoon, a figurative-if-not-literal playoff game. The Nats had altered their rotation to put him  in line for the series opener against the first-place New York Mets, ensuring that their No. 1 starter had the ball in arguably the team’s most important game to date.

These are the spots that give aces their bonafides, spots laden with intense pressure, power hitters and postseason implications. Scherzer was spared the extra burden of facing the opponent’s best, as the visitors sent No. 4 starter Jonathon Niese – owner of an 8-10 record and 4.17 ERA – to the mound.

Four games behind in the NL East race at the series’ outset, the Nats had a chance to be one or three games back when the series concludes. (They also could be five or seven games back, but no one wants to consider that scenario.) Washington was primed to slice the deficit but Scherzer wasn;t sharp in an 8-5 loss at Nationals Park.

“I’m just making mistakes in the zone,” Scherzer said after recording his fourth no-decision against three losses in his last seven outings. Teams have capitalized on his mistakes by blasting 11 homers during that span, including three by the Mets on Monday.

“I’m leaving the ball thigh-high instead of getting the ball to the knees,” he said. “That’s something that’s been symptomatic in the second half. I have to get the ball back down to knee level. That’s what’s going to keep me up late tonight, figuring out how I’m going to do that.”

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