What Happened to Leicester City?

Leicester City
Photo Credit: Getty Images

A season ago, the Foxes of Leicester City were the toast of European soccer.

As you may know, the team overcame 5,000-1 odds (longer championship odds than the Browns‘) to win the English Premier League title in one of the most stunning triumphs in the history of sports. The rest of the world noticed and appreciated their Cinderella performance. I wrote about them, and in that piece, I noted that Leicester earned 22 points in its final nine games the year before just to avoid relegation to England’s Football Championship League. The miracle finish in 2014-15 at least partially precipitated the miraculous title run in ’15-’16.

But halfway through this season, Leicester City may need to harness their relegation-dodging magic once more.

Yes, just a little under eight short months after winning the Premier League title, Leicester finds itself far closer to relegation than it does to defending their championship. Granted, a regression to the mean was to be expected this season; after all, the Premier League has not seen a repeat champion since Manchester United won back-to-back championships in 2008 and 2009. Even with many of the same pieces returning from last year’s team, expecting a similar performance from LCFC this season would be insane.

Still, you would expect them to at least be competitive in the league. So far, their 2016-17 season is slowly morphing from a championship defense to a survival quest just to stay in the league.

At just about the halfway point of the season, Leicester find themselves 16th in the Premier League table. Just as a reminder, the bottom three teams in the Premier League at the end of the season are relegated to the Football League Championship; the Premier League has twenty teams. The top three teams in the Football League Championship (currently Brighton, Newcastle, and Reading) are promoted to the Premier League while the bottom three of the top league are relegated to the Football League Championship, and so on and so forth for England’s lesser leagues, as well.

Leicester played in England’s second and third leagues from 2004 until 2014, the year in which they were promoted to the top level of English soccer. This year, they will have to fight to remain in the top level.

Following a 2-0 home loss to Everton on Boxing Day, opposing midfielder Gareth Barry had this to say about the defending champions’ confidence:

“They’re not the team they were this time last year […] Football is about confidence, it was always going to be tough for them to repeat what they achieved last year. It was once-in-a-lifetime what they achieved.

Barry is absolutely right, but still, these are the defending champions we’re talking about here. In the States, we think that the Denver Broncos had an unsuccessful season after losing one of the best quarterbacks ever and going 8-7 to this point in the season. Imagine if Denver went 2-13 to this point in the year and still had Peyton Manning. That is the equivalent of what has happened to Leicester this season.

There are any number of reasons as to why the Foxes have fallen off from last season. One would be crazy to expect the squad to repeat their dominant performance from last year; anyone could see that last year’s team over-performed under once-in-a-lifetime circumstances. After all, that’s what made the title all the more astounding. However, this season’s failure has been team-wide and systemic, and worst of all, it hasn’t been a fluke, either.

For example, take star forward Jamie Vardy. After a season in which he scored 24 goals for the league champions, Vardy was seriously courted by Arsenal FC. Arsene Wenger’s team, based largely on one productive season from the striker, decided to offer Vardy a £22 million transfer (or a little over $27 million in American dollars). Vardy declined the offer and re-upped with Leicester, citing the decision as an easy one that allowed him to continue his career with the Foxes.

This season, though, Vardy has not lived up to LCFC’s £100,000 per week investment in him. To this point, Vardy has scored just five goals; needless to say, this is a massive decline in production from a season ago. At the halfway point of the season, Vardy is on pace for roughly ten goals, which leaves Leicester fans wondering why the organization overpaid for his services and Arsenal fans feeling lucky that they did not pay up to bring him to Emirates Stadium.

However, Leicester’s failures are not solely Vardy’s fault. One of the biggest reasons behind the Foxes’ championship last season was their defense, one that surrendered just under one goal per game. This year, that figure has ballooned to 1.72 goals per game with virtually the same roster from a season ago. The only starter to leave the organization from a season ago was N’Golo Kanté, who signed a £32 million contract with Chelsea in the offseason. Kanté was a significant loss but that alone does not explain the precipitous decline in performance from last season to this one.

And that’s the frustrating thing. There really isn’t anything that does explain what’s going on. Most of the same team from last year has returned but almost no one has matched their performance from a season ago. Many praised Leicester for the team nature of their victory last season, as the squad came together like we had not seen before.

Unfortunately, that also applies to how they’ve fallen apart this season. The Foxes won as a team last season; this time around, they’ve lost as a team. Unfortunately, things are not getting easier for the Foxes anytime soon. Out of the twenty matches they have left this season, only four of them are against teams currently below them in the Premier League table. Even worse, another six of those matches come against teams in the top six of the league standings. Currently, LCFC finds itself just three points out of the bottom three of the league standings.

Sure, stars like Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have under-performed. But so has just about the entire rest of the team. That has made this long, nightmarish collapse all the more unbelievable: there’s not just one place where manager Claudio Ranieri can look to find a solution to his team’s woes. Their problems are littered all over the field.

The Foxes find themselves in serious danger of something they were able to avoid 21 months ago: relegation.

Who would have thought that would even be possible going into this season?

Why Are There So Many College Football Bowl Games?

Photo Credit: Otto Kissinger/Associated Press

The above picture contains two teams you probably wouldn’t be able to identify unless I told you who they were, a blue field, and several completely empty sections of bleachers. If the photo does not perfectly encapsulate what college football’s bowl season is all about, I don’t know what does.

If you aren’t quite familiar with how bowl season works, here is a brief explanation. All teams in Division I with records 6-6 or better are invited to play in a bowl game and there are 41 of those (42 if you count the national championship game). Occasionally, 5-7 teams are invited (like last year, when three such teams went to bowl season and won and this year, when North Texas and Mississippi State were selected). The really significant bowl games are the ones that comprise college football’s four-team playoff, but those don’t take place until New Year’s Eve. The winners of those two games move on to the National Championship Game on January 9th. Four other games combine with the playoff games to comprise the New Year’s Six, games played around the calendar change that are widely regarded as the marquee games of the bowl slate.

So, to recap: there are 82 teams that have played or will play in a bowl game this December or January. There are 42 bowls in total, but only three really count, and only four more comprise the best teams in the sport. So why are there so many of them?

Well, the simple answer to that question is money, as it is with most other things. Television networks, mainly ESPN, are willing to pay large sums of money to the NCAA for the rights to broadcast these games; the network(s) make up this money through advertising revenue and, in the Worldwide Leader’s case, revenue from cable subscriptions. The NCAA and its institutions profit handsomely from the broadcasting of the games as well as the bowls’ sponsorships (such as the Dollar General Bowl, which is on ESPN as I write this article). The players get paid in experience and exposure. The amateurism model is terrible. I digress.

Moving right past that, the bowl games are pretty much made for television. An illustration of that fact comes in the form of this tweet by ESPN’s Darren Rovell:

That game was played earlier this afternoon between Eastern Michigan and Old Dominion in a matchup you would be more likely to equate with a Round of 68 play-in game in college basketball. Those in the Bahamas for the game came out by the dozens to witness it. So while the network and the NCAA profit off the game, the empty seats don’t exactly look attractive to the viewing audience.

Also, the quality of play in these games is not that of elite college football. While some games are fun (Idaho defeated Colorado State last night by a score of 61-50 in the Idaho Potato Bowl) and others are competitive and enjoyable, most of these games are not played at the highest of levels.

And yet, interestingly enough, people seem to be consistently tuning in to watch these contests. According to SportsMediaWatch, all five bowl games carried by ESPN/ABC last Saturday drew over a million viewers. The two highest rated games were the Celebration Bowl, which pits the SWAC champion against the MEAC champion in a battle of HBCU schools, and the Las Vegas Bowl, a San Diego State victory over Houston. Both of these games took place on ABC and were televised consecutively in the afternoon, but the numbers still tell an interesting story: people seem to be enjoying the expansive spread of bowl games.

And while the games may not be played at the competitive level of, say, a playoff game, it is still major college football. After all, Americans have demonstrated time and again that they have little to no time for substandard football; the XFL and Arena Football League learned this lesson the hard way. However, people will watch if the product is even decent; if you build it, they will come.

NFL ratings dipped earlier in the season but they have now rebounded; my guess as to the reason for this half-season dip is that some Americans were more engrossed with this year’s Presidential Election, but it’s really anyone’s guess. However, the NFL product was simply not very good to start this season, and because of this, people tuned out and looked for other options.

Another thing that seemed to kill the NFL, though, was over-saturation. With games on Thursday, Sunday, Monday, and even Saturday, many seemed to be suffering from football burnout. That is the issue that college football may have with so many bowl games in such a limited amount of time; however, this is happening over the span of three weeks and not seventeen, unlike the NFL. It hasn’t seemed to hurt the sport yet, but it will be something to follow over the next few years.

And finally, we need to keep this in context: NFL ratings are so much higher than those of college football. The two bowls I referenced earlier pulled in a combined 6.455 million viewers. On September 26th, the same night as the first Presidential Debate, a Falcons-Saints matchup on Monday Night Football drew the lowest rating in the 46-year history of the series. The game failed ESPN so badly that it only pulled in…. roughly eight million viewers.

College football simply does not have this type of ratings power; their way of making up for this is by showcasing their product as often as humanly possible. If that is what works for the sport, then the volume of bowl games is good for the game. However, I do believe that the significance of making a bowl game is significantly watered down when you consider the amount of bowl games and the fact that so many bad teams have made it to bowl season that just this past April, the NCAA placed a three-year moratorium on the creation of even more bowl games. Yes, more bowl games.

Also, the relevance of these games has to be called into question when stars like LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey choose to sit out their teams’ contests for fear of injury and hurting their NFLdraft stock. If these games were more meaningful, the chances of McCaffrey and Fournette playing in them would exponentially increase (LSU is playing Louisville in the Citrus Bowl while Stanford plays North Carolina in the Sun Bowl).

This is the central point of the debate: college football, and specifically the NCAA and the broadcasters of the games, will make a ton of money off of college football this month. So while it may seem like over-saturation, the extended bowl season is likely a good thing for the sport. Lower-level programs get necessary exposure, coaches get attention, and recruits get to see more teams in action. The players don’t benefit, but that’s a debate for another time.

There may be a lot of bowl games in the next couple of weeks, but no one said you have to watch them. If you do, know what you’re getting into. If you don’t, know that there will still be plenty of opportunities to get in on the fun this holiday season.

Zeke Elliott, the Salvation Army, and the NFL’s Fun Problem

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 18: Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates after scoring a touchdown by jumping into a Salvation Army red kettle during the second quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at AT&T Stadium on December 18, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Photo Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

On Sunday, the Cowboys played and defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by a score of 26-20. Star running back Ezekiel Elliott jumped into AT&T Stadium’s famous Salvation Army kettle after scoring a touchdown in the game. The internet may never be the same.

If you are living under a rock haven’t seen the play yet, this is what Elliott did after a second quarter touchdown:

The celebration was easily the best part of the play, as Elliott casually flipped himself into the kettle and played hide-and-seek with a couple of his Dallas teammates. The act was the seminal act of this NFL Sunday, as it was a fun, harmless moment that even brought attention to a good cause; the Salvation Army has reported a 61% increase in donations since the jump. While it was flagged, even the most jaded football fan could see the goodness in that moment.

And yet, amazingly, it underscored the NFL’s issues with fun and individuality. And yes, this is a discussion many in the sports community have had before.

This is why we’re talking about it: when Elliott did the deed on Sunday night, Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell voiced his displeasure with the NFL over their handling of the incident. The league opted not to fine Elliott (and rightfully so) because he jumped in the pot and drew attention to the object (and a worthy cause) instead of himself. That judgment is more than fair and the league made the right decision. However, this is what Bell said about the NFL’s treatment of him as compared to Elliott:

First of all, we should probably take Bell’s opinions with a grain of salt; after all, he once tweeted this about a “random” drug test he received this past April 20th. Ironically, Bell was suspended for four games roughly three months after sending out that tweet because he missed several drug tests. Interesting.

Anyway, Bell actually does have a point here. On Thanksgiving, he and wide receiver Antonio Brown engaged in a celebration after Brown caught one of his three touchdowns on the game. Bell was fined $12,154 and Brown was docked $24,309 for the incident (Brown had been previously fined for his infamous end zone twerking exercises).

However, there is an argument to be made in favor of Bell’s point. If it’s okay for Elliott to do what he did, why are other stars fined for similarly harmless acts that may not necessarily draw attention to worthy causes? I’m not arguing that Elliott was wrong to jump in the kettle; actually, I’m doing quite the opposite. I’m arguing that players should feel empowered to express themselves like Zeke did this past weekend. However, that clearly isn’t going to happen under the NFL’s current operating system.

And there’s also another point that needs to be covered here: why does the NFL support Zeke’s celebration while undermining the efforts of other players to bring attention to their own causes?

For example, take current Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Marshall has gone through well-documented issues in his life with borderline personality disorder. He’s had a troubled past that includes domestic abuse incidents and disturbances with police. Since coming out in 2011 about having the disease, though, Marshall has turned his life around and used his platform to voice support for mental health awareness. Along those lines, Marshall decided to wear neon green cleats for several games during the 2013 season (bright green is the color of mental health awareness). And shortly thereafter, Marshall was, wait for it, fined a total of $25,500 by the league over the course of the season for being in violation of its dress code. Yes. Seriously.

Two weekends ago, the NFL briefly changed course on their stingy uniform policies, allowing players to wear custom cleats as part of their “My Cause, My Cleats” week. The initiative was met with praise but also with one question: why doesn’t the league let players do this every week? There were no fines during “My Cause, My Cleats” week, with the exception of Dorial Green-Beckham. He was fined for wearing custom cleats in honor something called the “Yeezy Foundation”, which is essentially Green-Beckham’s lame attempt to convince the NFL that Kanye West is a charity and not a rapper. He was fined slightly over $6,000. I personally don’t think it’s possible to legislate stupidity, but I’m happy to amend that opinion in this case.

Anyway, did you notice something? This is what I took from that anecdote: Marshall was fined more for promoting his cause (mental illness) than Green-Beckham was for promoting his (this dude). But that’s not the point. The point is that the NFL has exercised hypocrisy over the past few years when it comes to players and their charitable causes. It shouldn’t be a fine for players like Brandon Marshall who only wish to express support for their causes in their choice of footwear. In essence, “My Cause, My Cleats” should be the NFL’s policy, not just a one-week promotion.

And that brings us back to Elliott. While the league did the right thing when it comes to his incident, that does not fix the league’s mistakes in past years. While it was the right decision, the NFL now has to explain to some of its other players why their actions were finable offenses and his weren’t. Based on precedent, the league should have fined Elliott. Thank God they did not make their ruling based on precedent.

Here’s one final example. Every October, the NFL forces all of its players to wear some pink article of clothing in an incredibly showy and somewhat gratuitous display of breast cancer “awareness”. In fact, the league is so all-in on this cause that much of the memorabilia is sold in the NFL shop on the league’s website. This sends the message that breast cancer is important… but only in the month of October. I’m not saying that breast cancer isn’t an incredibly important cause that should be addressed and honored. What I am saying is that the league should allow players to honor that cause all year long and not shut down their efforts, just like they did to DeAngelo Williams.

Hopefully, in light of the Kettle Hop Heard ‘Round the World, the NFL can re-examine its policies in regard to letting players express themselves and support their own causes.

Unfortunately, something tells me that’s not going to happen.

Purple Reign: Why Did Washington Make the College Football Playoff?

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports
Photo Credit: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

Let’s play a game.

There are two teams in college football. Both of them are in the College Football Playoff, and both have the same record of 12-1. In fact, they are so supposedly similar that they are only separated by one spot in the rankings. There is only one difference between them, though: their out-of-conference schedules. Here they are: one team is Team A, the other Team B.

Team A

Team B

Bowling Green (W, 77-10)

Rutgers (W, 48-13)

Tulsa (W, 48-3)

Idaho (W, 59-14)

@Oklahoma (W, 45-24)

Portland State (W, 41-3)

As you can see, Team B’s schedule is significantly weaker than that of Team A. By now, you’ve probably guessed it: Team A is Ohio State. Team B is Washington.

Let me preface just about everything I am about to say by expressing that Washington looked awfully good at the end of this season. The Huskies blew through their final three opponents, including a road win against Washington State and a Pac-12 title game triumph over Colorado. However, their best opponent on the schedule (USC) easily handled them on November 12th. Washington checks all of the boxes when it comes to being a Playoff team (one loss, conference champion, talent), but does that mean they should actually be in the Playoff? Let’s take a closer look.

For starters, the three teams that were contending for the final Playoff spot were Washington, Penn State, and Michigan. Penn State and Michigan both had two losses, but the former won the Big Ten Championship Game over Wisconsin. In fact, the presence of those two teams in the conference title game was and is a testament to the strength of the conference; both the Big Ten’s two best teams, Michigan and Ohio State, were unable to make their own conference’s championship game because the conference was just too good. Additionally, the Big Ten had four of the top eight teams in the final Playoff rankings. The Big Ten kinda sorta cannibalized itself at the end of the season, and it’s clear that two of the three teams competing for the fourth spot played in college football’s best conference. As for Washington…. not so much.

The Pac-12 had its fair share of struggles this season, as established powers such as UCLA, Oregon, and Stanford all struggled to some degree over the course of the year. Unfortunately for the Huskies, this weakness manifested itself in their schedule. Washington’s best regular season game was easily a home tilt with USC in week twelve. The Trojans defeated Washington, 26-13, but that’s not all they did: they showed that it is entirely possible to handle the Huskies in all facets of the game, even on their home turf. Even though Chris Pedersen’s team was undefeated at the time, that game should have sent major warning signals to the Playoff Committee. It didn’t.

Instead, the Committee only dropped Washington two spots; in fairness, week twelve also happened to be the week that Clemson lost at home to Pittsburgh and Michigan lost on the road against Iowa. When that is taken into consideration, Washington’s loss is the best out of the three. Also, Michigan did not drop after that loss and Clemson only dropped two spots as well. So the committee was very fair to Washington then, but why were the Huskies that highly ranked in the first place?

No, really, I’m serious: when your best in-conference win is Stanford and your best out-of-conference win is Rutgers, why was Washington the fourth-best team in the country? Granted, they did look very impressive until the USC game, but how could you know for sure that the Huskies could hold their own against any team in America? And let’s go back to the aforementioned out-of-conference schedule. If we’re really splitting hairs, the Huskies’ out-of-conference slate was not as good as Western Michigan’s. And once again, I’m completely serious.

Another facet to the anti-Washington argument is this: should we value winning, the eye test, or a team’s resume in our assessment of said team? Personally, I believe that we should use all three, but we should also use another measuring stick: common sense. And common sense is what takes us back to the last Saturday of November in Columbus, Ohio.

On that day, Michigan and Ohio State squared off in the rivalry so amazing that it is literally referred to as “The Game”. In The Game, the Wolverines and the Buckeyes went back-and-forth and eventually needed overtime to decide a winner. In the second overtime, Michigan kicked a field goal on their possession; Ohio State was faced with a fourth-and-one on their possession and opted to go for it to keep the game alive. The best rivalry in college football hung in the balance. The call was a run up the middle for quarterback J.T. Barrett. Michigan’s defensive line got a push and came in contact with Barrett just short of the line to gain. And then, college football’s game of the year came down to this spot:

Photo Credit: Greg Storer/YouTube

Good luck trying to decipher that one. I thought the spot was correct, but chances are we will never know for sure. Ohio State got the first down and a touchdown on their very next play. The Game was over, as was Michigan’s Playoff chances.

Here is my fundamental point: Michigan was ranked third that week in the Playoff rankings. In watching that game, what in the world could convince you that the Wolverines did not deserve one of the four spots? They went on the road to play the second-ranked team in the country, held their own, nearly won, and the entire game literally came down to that spot! I know that we want every game to count for something, but the result could have been very different if not for just one play. And yet, Michigan tumbled to fifth after that defeat, and their not making the conference championship game doomed their hopes of a national title. Washington, on the other hand, destroyed Colorado (who, full disclosure, is a ten-win team) and held on to the fourth and final spot in the Playoff.

The objective of the College Football Playoff is to get the best four teams, no matter what. Unfortunately, the Playoff committee did not do that this year. Michigan deserved the fourth spot over Washington, regardless of the fact that they have two losses.

They were clearly better than Washington this season, and that shouldn’t change just because of their record alone.