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Midseason magic on tap at Verizon Center; hurry while supplies last!


In the eyes of many, we’re living in an alternate universe filled with alternative facts. But not even that phenomenon fully explains what’s happening in downtown D.C.

The Washington Wizards are the NBA’s hottest team, 11-2 in their last 13 games. They have suffered back-to-back losses just once since Dec. 2. With New York in town Tuesday, Washington is a half-game out of the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, which means the Wizards are a threat to host a playoff-series opener for the first time since 1979.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Washington Capitals have taught us better than that.

With the midseason break complete and the second half set to resume, the Caps have the NHL’s best record. All-Stars Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby delivered big plays for the Metropolitan Division on Sunday, just as they’ve been instrumental in Washington’s 13-2 record in the last 15 games. The Caps haven’t lost two straight since Dec. 29.

D.C. sports fans are forgiven for not knowing what to think. Pessimism is our default mindset and it’s totally understandable. Goings-on at Verizon Center never work out quite right for the Wizards or Capitals, who occupy different ends of the spectrum but disappoint nonetheless.

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Laughs for NBA All-Star votes but NFL Pro Bowl is real knee-slapper


The NBA will announce its All-Star Game reserves on Thursday. I’m going to assume the league’s coaches were serious in voting, a stark contrast to the players, who acted like standup comedians in balloting for the starters.

Having fought for, and won, the right to vote on starting lineups for the first time, players used the opportunity to crack jokes.

Ben Simmons – along with several others who have played as many games as yours truly this season – appeared on ballots. So did luminaries such as Adreian Payne, Pierre Jackson and Bryn Forbes, who have logged fewer than 100 total minutes. Other ballers receiving All-Star nods from peers included Jarell Martin, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and the Wizards’ own Tomas Satorsanky.

There were 154 players who didn’t have a check next to Kevin Durant and 128 players who didn’t circle LeBron James. Only 63 deemed Stephen Curry worthy to be a starting guard for the Western Conference (though to be fair, that omission makes sense considering the mind-boggling exploits of Russell Westbrook and James Harden).

All told, 283 different players received at least one vote on the 324 ballots. Former Washington fan favorite Garrett Temple was among the 98 players who received a single, solitary vote.

“I’m very disappointed in the players,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr told reporters Monday. “They’ve asked for a vote and a lot of them just made a mockery of it. I don’t know what the point is.”

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NFL wants a great Super Bowl, Goodell just wants Falcons to win


The hope every year is for an entertaining, competitive Super Bowl. But we’re really desperate for one after this postseason stew of stinkers.

Only two of the 10 playoff games were close – Green Bay’s 34-31 thriller over Dallas and Pittsburgh’s 18-16 nail-biter against Kansas City. Every other contest was settled by at least 13 points.

Six of the matchups were decided by 18 points or more, including Sunday’s conference championships when Atlanta and New England advanced by 23 and 19, respectively, against the Packers and Steelers.

For whatever reason, the NFL’s veneer dulled and its invincibility cracked this season. Theories for the decline in TV ratings are plentiful and diverse, encompassing everything from politics and culture to supply and demand. Don’t forget the question of quantity versus quality. Game officials didn’t help, either, calling too many iffy penalties while blowing obvious ones.

Pro football appears to be wounded but it remains the king. According to Nielsen, the Packers-Cowboys tilt Jan. 15 was the most-watched NFL divisional playoff game ever and the most-watched telecast of any kind since last year’s Super Bowl. It drew more viewers – 48.5 million – than Game 7 of the Cubs-Indians World Series (40 million).

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Thin line on limits for conditioning but a new mindset is in order


My youngest daughter has taken to watching “Friday Night Tykes,” the reality TV show about ultra-competitive youth football programs in Texas. In the season premiere Tuesday night, a coach got in the face of a 12-year-old who struggled to keep up during wind sprints.

“You do this every damn day: ‘I can’t breathe … I’m gonna have a heart attack,’” the coach mocked. “You ain’t dead yet. Push through it!”

During another conditioning session, the adult gave the youngsters encouragement: “Throw up and keep going! Throw up and keep going!”

The modern football mindset is built on those primitive foundational principles. Construction begins at the peewee level. Players who continue through high school and onto college often are the toughest and hardest working. Some of them fear nothing except being called “soft.”

But peers can apply the label whether you endure grueling drills or succumb.

That’s what happened after three University of Oregon players were hospitalized late last week following a series of offseason workouts. On Tuesday, new head coach Willie Taggart suspended Irele Oredinde – the strength and conditioning coach who followed him from South Florida – which led to criticism from players who didn’t spend several days in the hospital.

“How do you suspend a man for three players being out of shape?” junior wide receiver Darren Carrington II tweeted. “All I can say is wow!”

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Howard trying to carry good name to football field with London


Howard University is known for a lot of things, but not much positive in the field of athletics.

The famed school in northwest D.C. has produced more African-American Ph.D.’s, lawyers and architects than any other institution. Equally impressive is the number of black doctors, dentists, engineers and other professionals who graduated from “The Mecca.”

And the list of former students who enjoy big-time careers in business, politics and entertainment is unsurpassed, especially among historically black colleges and universities. The history dates to Howard’s founding in 1867 and the current wave includes TV stars Taraji P. Henson and Anthony Anderson, mayors Kasim Reed and Ras Baraka, and entrepreneurs Cathy Hughes and Sean Combs.

Unfortunately, my alma mater’s athletic department has failed to keep up, particularly in the marquee sports. Howard has just two Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference football titles (1987 and 1993) since joining the league in 1970.  Success on the hardwood has been similarly infrequent, with a mere three tournament crowns in men’s basketball (1980, 1981 and 1993).

But the university took a step in the right direction last week when it hired Mike London as football coach. London, who won a Division 1-AA national title at Richmond (2008) and was named Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year at Virginia (2011), gives the Bison a level of credibility they haven’t enjoyed since alum and 10-year NFL veteran Steve Wilson patrolled the sidelines.

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New football, hoops leagues increase sports’ financial incentives


What’s in it for you?

What do you get from the fun and games that too many folks treat like life and death?

Monday’s college football championship had a little bit of everything for participants and spectators. There was drama and suspense, exhilaration and celebration. There were multiple moments of tension, relief and depression, depending on your rooting interest.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney got all of that and a lot more.

His bonuses for winning 11 games ($150,000) and the ACC title ($150,000), reaching the playoff ($400,000) and championship game ($400,000), plus winning the title ($100,000) and finishing with a Top 5 ranking (200,000) earned him bonuses totaling $1.4 million. That’s on top of his $4.5 million in base pay.

The players? Not so much. They got memories on top of their scholarships. (The unrighteousness of that unbalanced equation is another subject for a different day).

But everyone gets something.

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Everyone wins with expansion except the group no one cares about


The winner of Monday night’s battle between Alabama and Clemson is the national champion, a simple enough formula. That’s much tidier and more efficient than previous processes, which left space for split titlists but left out worthy contenders.

The clamor for a definitive champ grew slowly and steadily until the Bowl Coalition was formed in 1992. But it wasn’t good enough and lasted just three seasons.

Up next was the equally maligned Bowl Alliance, also put down after three years. Like the preceding solution, it failed to assuage the masses who demanded a clean verdict.

The Bowl Championship Series enjoyed relatively long life after debuting in 1998, but remained a less-than-ideal substitute for true bracketology. Mid-majors were excluded, too many computers were included and teams were rewarded for running up scores.

Like all the other pretenders, the BC-Mess was terminated. It was replaced in 2014 by the College Football Playoff.

But even before the four-game format was announced, outcries for an eight-game model were prevalent. The drumbeat has grown loud enough to echo in the halls of power. Last month, NCAA president Mark Emmert indicated his desire to double the entrants so that all Power Five champions are represented.

“I’m kind of old school about that, I guess,” Emmert reportedly said at the Learfield Sports Intercollegiate Athletics Forum. “It would be really fun to have a model where those five champions all got a crack at moving forward. I don’t know what that looks like.”

Here’s the view from here:

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Odell Beckham Miami Beach day-off party much ado about nothing

odellbeckhamBy DERON SNYDER

Did you go to a New Year’s party Sunday night?

Monday was a holiday and many people had the day off. No matter what awaited at work this week, you were free to dance, imbibe and socialize until the wee hours – if so desired – before tackling your plate starting Tuesday.

Unless, of course, you’re a star wide receiver on a playoff-bound NFL team.

In that case, you’re obligated to go straight home and rest in a hyperbaric chamber for 24 consecutive hours, taking breaks only for nutritious meals, nature calls and film study. Every waking moment must be dedicated to football and the pursuit of victory, to your mental preparation and physical restoration. Doing anything else mean you’re unfocused and undisciplined, immature and irresponsible, a selfish player who doesn’t understand the concept of personal sacrifice for team goals.

The New York Giants’ Odell Beckham and three fellow receivers were pilloried in some quarters for dashing to Miami after dashing Washington’s playoff hopes. The foursome were pictured at a celebrity-encrusted party that drew stars such as Justin Bieber, Jamie Foxx, Lil Wayne and Johnny Manziel, who has morphed into sports’ most irrelevant serial reveler.

Social media was flooded with pictures of the players out and about, including a shot of shirtless group members sunning on a boat the next day. Lots of commentators were hot after seeing the images, including a New York columnist who said the junket was “a bad look. He said every player should “be all-in and concentrate all their effort on winning in Green Bay and not posing with Bieber or being inside the same club on the same night when Johnny Manziel reportedly made and appearance and taking two extra flights when players crave getting rest this time of the year when they are fortunate enough to still be playing.”

Players also should not do anything to upset geezers who can’t imagine doing their job if they stay up past midnight or jet to Miami or hang out at a nightclub seven whole days before a game.

And, shudder, what if EVERY player did what Beckham & Co. did? The entire paradigm on appropriate behavior for 24-year-old stars would be irrevocably altered, setting up the next generation for utter failure. How could Beckham be such a poor example?

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Kirk Cousins – and Pierre Garcon – belong in DC next season


With the New Year underway, it’s time to check off some items on my “TIDU List” – Things I Don’t Understand:

*How Kirk Cousins can be elsewhere next season.

We’ll forget that his final pass of 2016 was a completion to Jordan Reed (whose lateral was returned for a touchdown). It’s Cousins’ next-to-last pass – a defeat-clinching interception – that will be remembered and used as evidence against his case for a long-term contract. He played poorly in a couple of must-win games and posted slight decreases in several categories compared to 2015.

Looks like he’ll have to scrape by with $24 million from a second franchise tag.

*Why Chip Kelly would stay in the pros.

His NFL experiment began with back-to-back 10-6 records in Philadelphia, suggesting he might be headed the sort of success enjoyed in four seasons at Oregon (46-7). But Kelly didn’t survive a power-grab and nosedive to 6-9. Worse, he jumped at a four-year offer from one of the league’s most dysfunctional franchises, San Francisco, which dumped Sunday him after a 2-14 season.

Here’s true genius, though: Being owed money from two teams that fired you 367 days apart.

*Why anyone blamed Otto Porter for anything.

Players selected third overall – even in drafts as thin as 2013 – are expected to quickly evolve into star performers. Porter’s development was slowed by injuries and Randy Wittman, but the Georgetown product has become a versatile threat for the Wizards. He wasn’t at fault as a first-year starter when the team regressed last year and he’s a key to success this season, averaging career-highs in points, assists and rebounds.

It took a while, but Porter’s game is on Otto-Pilot.

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After Washington’s regular-season finale, reality finally sets in

redskinsfinaleBy DERON SNYDER

LANDOVER, Md. – Sunday at FedEx Field was about resignation, about coming to grips with reality regarding the state of Washington’s NFL team.

A victory would’ve virtually guaranteed a playoff berth pending the late result from Green Bay at Detroit. But the evidence throughout the afternoon and into the evening clearly proved that Washington wasn’t a contender, even if it reached the postseason.

There’s no shame in that fact, except the team should’ve beat a Giants squad that couldn’t improve its seeding and therefore had absolutely nothing to play for.

New York dominated in a manner that the 19-10 final score doesn’t reflect. The margin was aided by a touchdown on the final play from scrimmage, when the Skins’ desperation lateral was picked up and returned 11 yards with no time on the clock.

Washington wasn’t going anywhere this year in the long run, but it had a chance to extend the season moments earlier, driving for a potential game-tying field goal or go-ahead touchdown. But Kirk Cousins gave his critics ammunition for the offseason when he threw an ugly, double-pump interception, late and into tight coverage.

That sealed the outcome of the game and the 2016 season. But folks had been coming to peace with the likelihood all day. It’s shocking and disappointing and unbelievable that Washington couldn’t pull out one more victory to reach the playoffs. However, a postseason berth wouldn’t make the Skins better defensively or better at clock management or better at converting third downs or better in the red zone.

We could’ve forgotten those deficiencies momentarily if Washington came out and routed New York, sending Eli Manning to the sidelines early instead of watching him play the entire game. We could’ve put the necessary improvements on the shelf if Cousins led the offense downfield for a crucial score.

Winning is a great deodorant and a playoff berth is like cologne.

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