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NFL – Throwback Thursday: Raiders Slay Their Dragon

16 Sep

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Las Vegas Raiders square off this Sunday in the second week of NFL action, and for this week’s Throwback Thursday feature we’ll travel back to the AFC Championship game of the 1976 season, played in Oakland on December 26th between those 2 franchises. They had become heated AFC rivals at this point, and this was to be the third consecutive year they would battle for the right to represent their conference in the Super Bowl. There were stark differences in the two teams’ histories. The Steelers were perennial losers in the 1960s, elevated by coach Chuck Noll to become solid playoff contenders in the 1970s, and had 2 straight Super Bowl titles in their resume from the previous 2 years. Oakland had the winningest record in all pro football for a decade, but had earned a dubious distinction of not being able to achieve the ultimate goal of winning it all.

The Raiders were dominant in the regular season, finishing 13-1 overall, while the Steelers wound up 10-4 and were hampered by injuries. In fact, with both of their starting running backs, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier out with injuries, Pittsburgh was at a distinct disadvantage going into the AFC title game. So this was going to be the best chance yet for coach John Madden’s Silver and Black troops to finally climb to the mountain top by slaying the dragon that had kept them out of the big game the last 2 seasons. As expected, the defenses of both teams dominated the game. Oakland scored the only first quarter points on an Erroll Mann field goal, then increased their lead to 10-0 in the second quarter when Raider linebacker Willie Hall intercepted a Terry Bradshaw pass and returned it to the Steelers’ one yard line, with Clarence Davis bursting  into the end zone  for a touchdown.  The Steelers, knowing they needed to answer to not let the game get out of hand, did just that. Bradshaw rebounded from his miscue to engineer a 75 yard scoring drive that was capped off with a 3 yard touchdown run from Reggie Harrison, who was filling in for the injured starting backs.

Not to be outdone, Raider signal caller Ken Stabler guided his team on a long, time-consuming drive, and hit Warren Bankston from 4 yards out to give his club a 17-7 lead going into halftime. With the way the defenses were playing on this day, that lead could almost be considered insurmountable, and when Stabler found Pete Banaszak for a 5 yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, Oakland led 24-7 and was clearly in the driver’s seat. Both team’s defenses took over again after that and 24-7 turned out to be the final score. Oakland had cleared a huge hurdle in finally beating the Steelers, and they wouldn’t waste the opportunity. Madden’s forces went on to dominate Super Bowl XI, defeating the Minnesota Vikings 32-14 to capture their long-awaited first Lombardi Trophy.

 

Willie Hall tracks down Steeler WR John Stallworth

 
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Classic Team Logo of The Day

16 Sep

Logo of an FBS college football team that plays in the Sun Belt Conference, the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. Their program has existed since 2003, and used to be members of the Big South Conference. They have racked up 8 conference titles, 7 of them in the Big South. Former Chanticleers who have gone on to play in the NFL include Josh Norman, Tyler Thigpen, Mike Tolbert and Jerome Simpson. By the way, a Chanticleer is a fictitious proud and fierce rooster who dominates the barnyard.

 
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Classic Sports Card of The Day

16 Sep

1977 Topps football card of former NFL linebacker Willie Hall, who enjoyed a six year career in the league, most notably with the Oakland Raiders. Drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 1972, he was acquired by the Raiders in 1975 and became one of many reclamation projects that Al Davis produced while running the Silver and Black. Hall was a key member of the 1976 Super Bowl champion Oakland club that finished 16-1 on the season.

 
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NFL – Throwback Thursday: Another Joe Cool Production

09 Sep

The 2021 NFL season begins this Thursday, which also means the return of our weekly Throwback Thursday feature on Rayonsports. When Tom Brady guided his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to a Super Bowl title in 2020 he cemented his place as a certified G.O.A.T., winning the coveted Lombardi trophy for the seventh time. For our opening TBT story of the new season, we’ll harken back to a divisional playoff matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions, who meet on the opening’s week schedule on Sunday. This matchup, played on New Year’s Eve in 1983, featured a classic, but typical performance by another quarterback who is roundly thought of as the G.O.A.T., the one and only “Joe Cool”, 49er signal caller Joe Montana. Ironically, Brady grew up in the Bay Area and his football idol growing up was Montana.

The 49ers, in the 1983 season, had already won a Super Bowl in 1981, but regressed badly in the strike-shortened 1982 season, finishing with a dismal 3-6 record.  Coach Bill Walsh rallied the troops in ’83 and the team again qualified for the playoffs, meeting the Lions in this divisional round clash at Candlestick Park. The young, hungry Lions, who limped into the playoffs with a mediocre 9-7 mark, held their own with San Fran in the first half but could only muster 3 Eddie Murray field goals. The 49ers countered with a pair of short rushing touchdowns, from Roger Craig and Wendell Tyler, to hold a 14-9 edge at the half. The lead jumped to 17-9 on a third quarter field goal for the Niners, but the fireworks were just about to begin as the game entered the final stanza.

Billy Sims, the elusive Detroit running back who had been his team’s most potent offensive weapon all day, broke loose and finally found the end zone for his team. He rambled for touchdowns from 11 and 3 yards out, and suddenly, the favored club from the Bay found themselves trailing 23-17. So it appeared that the game was now squarely in the hands of Montana, who never saw a deficit he felt he couldn’t overcome. His statistics to this point in the game were very pedestrian, as it was the defense, which intercepted Detroit QB Gary Danielson 5 times, that had carried the 49ers. As he had done in the past and would continue to do throughout his career, Joe Cool calmly guided his team downfield and with a little under a minute and a half left, connected with Freddie Solomon for a 14 yard score that lifted the Niners to a 24-23 victory.

It was a noble effort in a losing cause for Sims, who rushed for 114 yards and the 2 TDs on 20 carries. San Francisco’s luck ran out the following week as they lost to Washington in the NFC Championship game,  but Montana would continue to collect Super Bowl titles in upcoming years.

 

Billy Sims sparkled in a losing cause for the Lions

 
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Classic Team Logo of The Day

09 Sep

Logo of a Division I FCS college football team from the Missouri Valley Conference, the University of South Dakota Coyotes. The school fielded it’s first team in 1889, and has made 2 small college playoff appearances. Former Coyotes who have gone on to play pro football include Ordell Braase, Tom Compton and Ben Long.

 
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Classic Sports Card of The Day

09 Sep

1985 Topps football card of former pro football running back Billy Sims, who played 5 years for the Detroit Lions before he was forced to retire due to a serious knee injury. He was a major star in that short career, winning Rookie of The Year honors in 1980, while also earning 3 Pro Bowl nods and a pair of All Pro designations. The 1978 Heisman Trophy winner as the top player in college fell on hard times after his playing days ended, with some bad investments forcing him into bankruptcy. Sims has recently rebounded from those troubles, and now co-owns a chain of Billy Sims Barbecue restaurant franchises in Oklahoma.

 
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NFL – Buffalo Bills’ 2021 Season Preview

03 Sep

Previewing the 2021 Buffalo Bills’ season is a bit different than previous years. The club has made steady improvement each season in the Brandon Beane/Sean McDermott era, culminating in an appearance (although a disappointing one) in the AFC Championship game. Here’s a breakdown of the club heading into a season of very heightened expectations:

Front Office / Coaching

 

Looking back at last year’s preview, the Bills were successful in a couple of areas. They managed to keep their coaching staff complete again, despite interest in both of their coordinators for head coaching jobs elsewhere. That means another year of continuity for all 3 phases of the game. Also, my lone criticism of Coach McDermott, that he had compiled a winless 0-6 record against Bill Belichick’s Patriots, was put to rest as the Bills swept the long-time AFC East dragons, including a 38-9 Monday night thrashing late in the year at Foxborough. They also completed a sweep of the entire division on the way to a division-winning 13-3 record. GM Beane did the remarkable by managing to re-sign key veterans Matt Milano, Darryl Williams and Jon Feliciano among others, and made slight tweaks, and possible upgrades, to the receiving corps by replacing the departed John Brown with vet Emmanuel Sanders and by bringing in Mitch Trubisky as a backup quarterback. The team used the early to middle rounds of the draft to beef up both sides of the trenches, while adding some possible future contributors in the later rounds.

 

Quarterbacks

 

Mitch Trubisky adds a veteran backup to the QB room

 

Josh Allen enjoyed a breakout season in 2020, cementing his status as a franchise quarterback and earning himself a massive contract extension. Mitch Trubisky, run out of Chicago as a perceived “bust”, gets a chance to reset his career as Allen’s backup. His experience and matching skill set to Allen’s make him an upgrade over Matt Barkley. Buffalo also has a pair of QBs on their practice squad in Davis Webb, who the coaches claim is invaluable in helping Allen prepare for games, and Jake Fromm, last year’s “Covid emergency” signal caller who can be groomed as a possible future backup since Trubisky is here on a one year contract.

 

Running Backs

 

Zach Moss looks to contribute in the Bills’ back by committee approach

 

Buffalo is fully committed to a running back by committee approach in 2021 based on the players they have kept on this year’s roster. Devin Singletary is the best all-around of the bunch, with elusive running skills and good pass receiving abilities. Zach Moss, back from an injury suffered in last year’s playoffs, is more of a short yardage power back. Matt Breida replaces T.J. Yeldon as the third back. He was brought in to add speed to the edge to the committee. Taiwan Jones is listed as a back but is almost strictly a special teams ace. Versatile Reggie Gilliam, who was a fullback in college at Toledo, was listed as a tight end last year, but now is back at fullback and even got a look as a tailback in the preseason. Like Jones, he is a major special teams contributor also.

 

Receivers

 

Gabriel Davis is an unsung playmaker for the offense

 

The acquisition of Stefon Diggs in the last offseason was a major coup for Beane. He became Allen’s top receiving target, leading all NFL pass catchers in receptions and yards. Cole Beasley had his best season ever as a reliable slot option for the Bills’ young QB. Emmanuel Sanders replaces John Brown as the third receiver, and although he lacks Brown’s speed, he makes up for it with veteran savvy and the ability to play any spot and run the entire route tree. The surprise of 2020 was the emergence of rookie Gabriel Davis, who worked his way not only onto the roster as a fourth round draft choice, but into a prominent role as a major playmaker in the offense. Isaiah McKenzie is back to not only add his gadget play ability to the receiving corps, but also with the added responsibility as the team’s kick and punt returner. Jake Kumerow, Aaron Rodgers’ buddy in Green Bay with the nickname “Touchdown Jesus”, made the squad also after a fine preseason showing. The Bills also stashed a couple of receivers on the practice squad – injury prone Isaiah Hodgins and Allen’s old college teammate Tanner Gentry. Surprisingly, only 2 tight ends are on the 53 man roster. They are Dawson Knox, who has had issues with drops but has enormous potential, and Tommy Sweeney, who battled Covid and major side effects from it last year, and had some injury problems in the preseason.

 

Offensive Line

 

G Jon Feliciano is back to add grit to the offensive line

 

Continuity is the buzzword for the Bills in 2021, and the offensive line is an example of that being the case. Returning are center Mitch Morse, tackles Dion Dawkins and the underrated Darryl Williams, and guard Jon Feliciano, the self-appointed “mean streak” of the Bills’ line. The only “new” starter is guard Cody Ford, who has undergone position changes and lost most of 2020 due to injury, and now gets the chance to lock down a starting spot permanently. Rookie third round draft pick Spencer Brown is the new swing tackle, with the rest of the O-line depth being provided by Ike Boettger, who started at guard most of last year, rookie Tommy Doyle, and versatile Ryan Bates, who can man any of the 5 positions along the line, making him a favorite of a coaching staff that values versatility.

 

Defensive Line

Space-eating DT Star Lotulelei is back after opting out in 2020

 

Improving the defensive line play, and most importantly the pass rush, was a top priority for the Bills in the offseason. At the final cutdown to 53, Buffalo kept an unprecedented 11 players on the D-line. The starting four, by seniority if nothing else, should have Ed Oliver and Star Lotulelei, returning after opting out last season, at tackle and vets Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison at end. Calling anybody starters is really a moot point as defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier will employ a large amount of shuffling along the line to keep players fresh. Star’s return should help shore up the run defense and free up Oliver to make more impact plays. Hughes and Addison are good at racking up quarterback “pressures” but the Bills are looking for more “finish” from their front four. Translation: More sacks. To try to accomplish this, the team added an infusion of youth with their top 2 draft picks, Greg Rousseau and Carlos “Boogie” Basham. Rousseau flashed some brilliance in the preseason and Basham showed the ability to play both inside and out. They will both be major contributors. Another newcomer is Efe Obada, a free agent signing who has loads of potential but must now show production. Second year man A.J. Epenesa will also get plenty of playing time and showed in the preseason that he’s ready to make plays. Depth on the inside will fall to Vernon Butler, a veteran who was forced to play out of his usual 1-technique spot last year because of Lotulelei’s absence, Harrison Phillips, coming off an injury, and Justin Zimmer, a classic overachiever who the coaches love.

 

Linebackers

 

Matt Milano, playmaking LB, is re-signed and ready to go

 

The Bills’ defense requires their linebackers to be quick and rangy and excel in pass coverage. Young Tremaine Edmunds, the quarterback of the defense, fits that description and despite being a two-time Pro Bowler, could be primed for a breakout year. Matt Milano was re-signed and he also has the traits the Bills look for. He’s a ball hawk when he stays healthy and a major force on the defense. The Bills play a nickel defense a majority of the time but when 3 ‘backers are on the field the third starter should be A.J. Klein. He joined the team as a free agent last season and struggled early on, then had a couple of great games when filling in for Milano to solidify his place on the club. The 3 reserves, Tyler Matakevich, Andre Smith and Tyrel Dodson, are key special teams players but also provide quality LB depth.

 

Defensive Backs

 

Levi Wallace is an underappreciated piece of Buffalo’s secondary

 

Cornerback Tre’Davious White is an All Pro and the best player on the Bills’ defense, but the rest of the starting secondary is unheralded. Unheralded, but solid as a rock. Safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde are very good at not allowing big plays, even if they get almost no mention as top NFL players. The annual quest to replace Levi Wallace as the starting corner opposite White failed again this year, and the former undrafted free agent should be back in his familiar spot. The slot cornerback is an important position in the Bills’ defense, and that spot is manned by Taron Johnson, who had a few monster big plays for the team last year. The only knock on him is durability as he’s missed multiple games with injuries in the time he’s been here. In reserve, the Bills have Dane Jackson, who made the final roster after spending most of 2020 on the practice squad, and Swiss Army knife Siran Neal, who can play corner or safety. Backing up Poyer and Hyde, who are durable as it gets, are Jaquan Johnson and rookie Damar Hamlin. All of the secondary backups will be special teams contributors.

 

Special Teams

Isaiah McKenzie becomes the Bills’ top kick returner in 2021

 

Buffalo puts a high premium on their special teams, and their roster is loaded with players whose main contributions will be with the bomb squads. Two of the three specialists, long snapper Reid Ferguson and kicker Tyler Bass, return. Bass set a team record for points scored last season as the offense thrived. Two key spots – punter and kick returner, will have new players. Matt Haack , signed away from Miami, is the new punter, while Isaiah McKenzie takes over the return duties from the departed Andre Roberts. Darryl Johnson, who was traded to Carolina on cutdown day, was a top special teamer who will be missed, but the team has plenty of capable guys to fill the ST roles. They include Taiwan Jones, Siran Neal, Tyler Matakevich, Andre Smith, Reggie Gilliam and rookies Boogie Basham and Damar Hamlin.

 

Here’s your annual song to get psyched up for the upcoming season, the Bills’ Shout song:

 

 
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Classic Team Logo of The Day

03 Sep

Logo of a short-lived football team from the old World Football League, the Charlotte Stars. The team came into existence as the New York Stars, but in 1974 as they were getting ready for their next road game, coach Babe Parilli announced that the team would be moving, effective immediately, to Charlotte. Desperate to provide a new logo for the team, an equipment manager slapped a Chicago Bears’ “C” over the New York logo. After just a few days the team changed its’ name to the Hornets, and eventually died along with the rest of the league after the 1975 season.

 
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Classic Sports Card of The Day

03 Sep

From CheckOutMyCards.com, a 1996 ProLine football card of former NFL defensive end Phil Hansen, who played his entire 11 year career with the Buffalo Bills. He played in 3 Super Bowls with the club, and ranks 3rd behind Bruce Smith and Aaron Schobel on the franchise career sack list. Hansen ran an unsuccessful campaign in 2012 for a Minnesota state senate spot.

 
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Buffalo Sabres’ Offseason Summary

31 Jul

We here at Rayonsports haven’t published much as far as our local hockey team, the Buffalo Sabres, is concerned, but the reality that the 2021 offseason is undoubtedly the most consequential in franchise history made it absolutely necessary to comment on. The following is a list of all the major issues GM Kevyn Adams has faced and our opinions on how he handled them:

 

1. NHL Draft Lottery

In this case, Adams didn’t have an important decision to make, he just needed Lady Luck on his side. She came through for him, as the Sabres won the lottery and gained the top pick.

 

2. Coaching Hire

Interim coach Don Granato did an admirable, if not remarkable, job when he was handed the reins after Ralph Krueger was fired. He simplified the game for the players, removed some of the pressure from fear of making mistakes by telling them to have fun, challenged them to reach their full potential, and with a severely depleted roster, squeezed a top level of compete from what he had to work with. Points go to Adams for promoting Matt Ellis and Dan Girardi from the hockey development department to assistant coaching roles to help Granato, as they did outstanding work in supporting the interim coach. After conducting a thorough search with multiple interviews, Adams made the wise move of removing the interim tag and hiring Granato as the full time head coach. Ellis will stay on as a full-time assistant, as will goaltending coach Mike Bales.  Two other new additions are Jason Christie and Marty Wilford, both of whom have a history with Granato, while Girardi will return to his player development role.

 

3. Expansion Draft

The addition of the new Seattle franchise, and the accompanying player draft that comes with it, added another layer to what was already a busy time for Adams and his staff. He made his first positive move when he convinced Jeff Skinner to waive the no-movement clause from his contract, helping  the club protect another young player from being exposed to the draft. Unfortunately, the team had to lose a player and in the Sabres’ case that player was promising young defenseman Will Borgen. The Kraken drafted a load of defensemen in the draft, and it’s questionable whether Borgen even makes their team. He would have to clear waivers before he can be sent to the minors, and Buffalo will have first claim on him if that happens. They could theoretically steal him right back.

 

4. Potential Trades

Following another dismal last place finish in the regular season, some important players, including the team captain, Jack Eichel, expressed, or at least hinted at, wanting to move on from the Buffalo franchise. Adams has said he plans on building the team with people who want to be here, and began that process by dealing some players who have worn out their welcome. He got a great return from Philadelphia for defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, snagging the Flyers’ first round draft pick (# 14), a second rounder in 2022 and a solid replacement D-man in Robert Hagg. The return for Sam Reinhart, one of the team’s top scorers, doesn’t appear to be as good. Only 2 assets came back in return from the Florida Panthers – their first round pick in the 2022 draft and an intriguing goaltending prospect in Devon Levi. Only 19, he plans on playing college hockey at Northeastern this season, and is a long-term prospect at best. He played remarkably well for Team Canada in world junior tournaments in 2019 and 2020. On the day free agency opened, the Sabres made an interesting deal, acquiring defenseman Will Butcher and a draft pick from New Jersey for “future considerations”, which basically means they got a serviceable veteran defenseman for free. The last remaining shoe to drop is Eichel. There’s a significant rift that has developed between Sabre management and Eichel and his representatives, mostly concerning how and when to treat his neck injury. The disagreement has become serious enough that Buffalo almost certainly will have to deal their disgruntled star. However, as Adams has pointed out, Eichel is under contract for 5 more years, so there is no pressure to give him away for anything less than full value. Minnesota, Vegas and Anaheim appear to be the teams most likely to make a serious offer for the Buffalo captain.

 

5. NHL Entry Draft

This, of course, will be an extremely important step to get right for the future of the franchise, and the results of the choices made, good or bad, won’t be immediately known as most of the players taken will need more development before they’re ready to enter the NHL. Buffalo did the expected by choosing 6’6 defenseman Owen Power to open the draft, and although he plans on attending Michigan in the fall, he looks ready to step into the NHL right now. With the Flyers’ pick obtained in the Reinhart deal, the Sabres picked Swedish winger Isak Rosen, then followed up by grabbing three consecutive slightly-built Russian wingers – Prokhor Poltapov, Aleksandr Kisakov and Stiven Sardarian. All 4 of these prospects will need to grow into their bodies but have one thing in common – they’re proven goal scorers. This was supposed to be a weak draft, and the NHL draft is always a crapshoot, especially in the later rounds. Will any hidden gems emerge from the rest of Buffalo’s 2021 picks? Here they are:

Josh Bloom, LW, Saginaw (OHL)

Olivier Nadeau, RW, Shawnigan (QMJHL)

Viljami Marjala, LW, Quebec (QMJHL)

William Von Barkenow-Lofberg, C, Malmo (Sweden)

Nikita Novikov, D, Dynamo Moscow 2 (Russia)

Tyson Kozak, C, Portland (WHL)

 

 

5. Free Agency

Buffalo should have ample cap space to add some veteran leadership to their roster through free agency. The challenge will be to convince players to sign with a franchise that has seen nothing but failure for years. The team lost a couple of important veterans to free agency when Jake McCabe signed with Chicago and goaltender Linus Ullmark, who Adams hoped to retain, bolted for division rival Boston. When UFA Carter Hutton signed with Arizona, Buffalo was left with an empty cupboard as far as goalies were concerned. They made a couple of underwhelming signings to fill that need in 40 year old Craig Anderson and 32 year old Aaron Dell, who inked a two-way deal which means he likely is Rochester bound to play for the Sabres’ AHL affiliate. Buffalo opted for bargain basement signings this time around after getting burned by low-effort, high salary Taylor Hall last year. Most of the players brought in appear to be depth for the Rochester club, but there are a trio of interesting additions who should help the Sabres in 2021-22. Vinny Hinostroza is a bottom six center who has floated around the league, most recently with the Black Hawks. John Hayden, a Yale graduate, adds some much needed size to the lineup and could be a top contributor on the fourth line and as protection for the team’s smaller players. The defense corps, weakened by the losses of Ristolainen and Borgen, was helped by the signing of an old friend, Mark Pysyk, lured away from the Dallas Stars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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