Awarding the Best, Brightest, and and
The final buzzer of Game Seven of the NBA Finals has sounded, signifying that yet another season in professional sports has come to a close. This article makes reference to the 2009 MLB season and the 2009-2010 NFL, NBA, and NHL seasons.
As we say farewell to another year in sports, it is good to look back at some of the moments that made the year what it was. In the following slides are awards for some achievements or instances of failure from this past year in pro sports.
2007 Mets Award (Best Regular Season Collapse)
Newly hired Denver Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels made his first major move in Denver by giving into to Pro-Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler's demands to be traded, which followed McDaniels' supposed interest and near-completion of a trade for Matt Cassel, ultimately losing out before he was shipped to Kansas City.
Though a trade with the Chicago Bears brought Denver two first round picks and a replacement in Kyle Orton in exchange for Cutler, McDaniels was criticized by fans for getting rid of a franchise quarterback in his first few months at the helm of the team. But the critics were, at least for some time, silenced.
The Broncos galloped off to a red-hot start, beginning their season with a win over the Bengals in which Orton threw a last-second touchdown pass for a come from behind win. With Orton having a terrific beginning to his Denver career, the offense thrived, and the defense was superb, allowing only three second-half points in the first six weeks of the season. McDaniels took it to his old team, the Patriots, in overtime and won in San Diego by two possessions on the way to a perfect 6-0 start to the season heading into Denver's bye week. This was their best start since 1998, a year in which Denver went on to win the Super Bowl. But what followed this beginning was, much like the pun at the start of this paragraph, bad.
The Broncos fell apart. Over the next four games, they went 0-4, getting spanked by the Ravens, Steelers, and Chargers. They even lost to the lowly Washington Redskins by 10. The offense and defense both deteriorated. The team descended from the platform of superiority and for the rest of the season, walked the path of mediocrity. In the weeks that followed the bye week that, for some reason, had a massive ill effect on the team, the Broncos finished their final 10 games 2-8.
In an American Football Conference where both Wild Card teams entered the playoffs with nine wins, the Broncos were favored to win a wild-card spot with a few weeks left, but lost out in their last four games. The season finale gave them a must-win situation against the Kansas City Chiefs, who had never won at Mile High. The Chiefs blew out the Broncos 44-24, giving Denver's season a fitting end. Denver began 6-0 and finished 8-8, choking their way out of the playoffs for the second straight year. This utter collapse earns them the 2007 New York Mets Award.
Empty Milkshake Glass Award (Worst Team)
St. Louis Rams starting running back Steven Jackson, though he did only taste the end zone on four occasions, rushed for over 1,400 yards in 2009. This was topped only by Chris Johnson's monster 2,000-yard effort. Jackson suited up for 15 games after playing in only 12 in each of the previous two seasons. Jackson was the lone member of the Rams elected to the Pro Bowl in 2009, the second Pro Bowl selection of his career. While he had an excellent 2009 campaign, Jackson was a one-man show.
As a whole, the Rams were beyond awful. Despite having Jackson in the backfield, the team scored less than 10 points in seven games this past season, unable to generate offense via the air. Quarterback Marc Bulger, who was recently released, missed half the season, and he had arguably the worst year of his career when healthy. Also horrible were his backups, Keith Null and Kyle Boller.
There was only one receiver who had a respectable season for the Rams, Donnie Avery, who led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns with 589 and 5, respectively. Steven Jackson led the team in receptions, with 51. The Rams also sported one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, which allowed 44 sacks on the season. It is difficult to believe that Jackson was able to have the year he had with this line in front of him.
While the offense was wretched, the defense for St. Louis was no better. The defense allowed the second most points per game, second most first downs per game, and the fourth most yards per game. The Rams were blown out in half of their games this past season, and both sides of the ball were to blame for it.
The Rams finished 2009 with a 1-15 record. After beginning their season 0-7, St. Louis achieved their lone victory of the season against the lowly Detroit Lions. The Lions defended their title as a winless team, as they had become the only team to finish a season 0-16 the year before, and, had they not lost to St. Louis, we would have seen the embarrassing feat achieved once more. While the Rams were not a winless team, they were a train wreck in 2009 and professional sports' worst team of the year. They are awarded with the Empty Milkshake Glass Award, as their milkshake has indeed been drunk.
Buster Douglas Award (Best Surprise)
With much of the season gone, it looked like the Flyers were going to fall short of a Stanley Cup playoff berth. In the final few weeks of the season, they suffered an ugly stretch, dropping 10 of 13 games, two of which were overtime losses. Management was being questioned by angry fans. Things were not looking good for the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2009-2010 NHL season.
The team, despite the rough finish, managed to make their way into the playoffs with a shootout victory against the New York Rangers in the regular season finale. At stake in the aforementioned game was the seventh seed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, while the loser of the game would go home empty-handed.
The Flyers, being a seventh seed, were obviously not favored to make much noise in the playoffs. In spite of this, they made quick work of the second-seeded New Jersey Devils, who made their third consecutive first-round exit and, for the second straight year, were knocked out by a seventh seed. After winning Game Five in New Jersey with a 3-0 shutout of the Devils to finish them off, the Flyers had life.
In the second round of the playoffs, a rare matchup between sixth and seventh seeds pitted Philly against the Boston Bruins, the team they were defeated by in the 2010 Winter Classic. The Bruins got off to a steaming start, winning Game One in overtime on a goal by Marc Savard, who had just returned from a serious concussion. Boston then went on to win the next two games, capping off their 3-0 series start with a 4-1 victory in the first game of the series played in Philly, which was, of course, then considered to be a must-win scenario. Game Four went into overtime, and a Bruins overtime goal would have completed the sweep and sent Boston into the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since '92.
Instead, a goal by Simon Gagne, who was playing injured, sent the series back to Boston for a Game Five. Philly then routed Boston 4-0 in that game, but lost goalie Brian Boucher for the remainder of the playoffs, making backup Michael Leighton their starter. A 30-save performance by Leighton in the next game led the Flyers to a 2-1 victory, and a forced Game Seven. Game Seven came, and despite Philadelphia's momentum, the Bruins gained an early 3-0 lead. It seemed that all had been for naught, and that the season was about to end. And indeed, it was about to end. For the Bruins.
Milan Lucic's second goal of the game was the third goal for the Bruins, and the final goal of their season. Philadelphia tied it at three apiece, and then took the lead once and for all on the power play in the third period. They completed the comeback, becoming the third NHL team in history and first in 35 years to win a series after being down 3-0.
In the following series, the Flyers faced the Montreal Canadiens, the most successful franchise in the history of the NHL, and the team that had just knocked off the President's Trophy-winning Washington Capitals and defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. It took Philly just five games to get by Montreal and advance to the Final.
The Flyers lost the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final, but tied the series at 2-2. The Western Conference Champion Chicago Blackhawks, however, won the next two and became champions of the NHL for the first time since 1961. There was no happily ever after for the Flyers, but it was still without question a storybook season. The Flyers beat the odds and bounced back in numerous ways this season, and awarding them with the Buster Douglas Award was not a difficult decision.
iPad Award (Biggest Disappointment)
The Pittsburgh Penguins, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Pittsburgh Steelers. All four have something in common; they were defending champions in their respective sports a year ago. Three of them have another thing in common; they made the playoffs this past season. The odd man out is the Steelers, who missed the postseason for the first time since 2006 and a year after capturing their record sixth Super Bowl victory and second championship in four seasons.
Pittsburgh began the year on a strong note, with a victory against the Tennessee Titans, who were the top-seeded team in the AFC the year before. However safety Troy Polamalu, arguably the Steelers' best and most impactful defensive player (and the latest victim of the infamous "Madden Curse") was injured in this game, and sidelined for the next four games. The Steelers dropped their next two games to the Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals, and were under .500 after Week Three.
Pittsburgh then caught fire and reeled off five straight wins. In the middle of their win streak, Polamalu came back, and the Steelers were cruising with a 6-2 record halfway through the season. It all went down the drain from there.
In their next game, the Steelers faced the Cincinnati Bengals for the second time in the season, this time at home. Not only did the Bengals complete the regular season sweep by winning by two field goals; Pittsburgh also once again lost Troy Polamalu to injury, this time for the remainder of the season. Polamalu only played five games during the season.
This loss was the beginning of a woeful skid for Pittsburgh. They dropped four games in a row, three of which were against the likes of Kansas City, Oakland, and Cleveland, while the fourth was an overtime defeat against Baltimore. A game in which the Steelers were without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. This brought the losing streak to five games, and they were once again under .500. They would need to win out to have any chance at making the playoffs.
The Steelers did indeed win out, claiming victories in their last three games against Green Bay (whom they defeated with a miraculous, last-second, Flutie-esque Hail Mary pass to Mike Wallace), Baltimore, and Miami. But their hunt for a postseason berth was to no avail. Despite the fact that two AFC teams made the playoffs with 9-7 records, tie-breakers denied the Steelers of being one of those teams. They were tough-luck losers for the 2009 season.
What hurt most for the boys in black and gold, more than the sole fact that they barely missed the playoffs, was how they obtained their defeats. Two of their losses were decided by a field goal in overtime. In three of Pittsburgh's five regulation losses, the game-winning play was made with 15 seconds or less left in the fourth quarter. Four of the losses came to teams that finished the season under .500. None of the games they lost were won by more than seven points, and five of them were won by three. And, despite all of this, one more win would have put them into the playoffs as the fifth seed.
With few doubts, the Steelers had the most disappointing season of the year as well as in recent memory, and perhaps one of the most disappointing seasons of all time. The only consolation? They get the iPad award.
1999 NLCS Award (Best Playoff Series)
There was much hype coming into the 2010 NBA Finals, as two old school rivals faced off yet again. The NBA's two most successful franchises, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, met for the 12th time in Finals history, in a series which put a finish to the sports seasons that began in 2009.
The storylines for this Finals were nothing short of epic. The Celtics and Lakers were each attempting to win their second championship in the past three years, with the Lakers going for a repeat. In terms of all-time championships, the Celtics had a chance to further distance themselves from the Lakers by winning their 18th title, leaving the Lakers with 15. On the other end, the Lakers could narrow the gap to 17-16, a tally still slightly in favor of Boston.
Boston, coming into these Finals, was 9-2 in their Finals history against Los Angeles. The series would decide whether the green could continue their historical dominance against the yellow and purple, adding to what made this an incredibly important Finals.
The Celtics came into the NBA playoffs as the fourth seed, but after their late season struggles, few had them making it out of the first round. And yet, they not only knocked off the Miami Heat in five games in round one, but also proceeded to upset both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic in the next two rounds, who had the NBA's best and second best records, respectively. Boston beat expectations to advance to the Finals for the second time in three years.
The Lakers, meanwhile, were the defending champions, and, as the top seed, they were the favorite to once again win the West. While it was no easy road, Los Angeles managed to knock off the feisty Thunder, sweep the Jazz, and finish the Phoenix Suns in six to advance to the Finals for the third straight year.
The Finals itself proved to be one for the ages. The two teams went back and forth all series long. While the Celtics were far outplayed in Game One by L.A., a three-point clinic put on by Ray Allen in Game Two led the Celts to a series-tying victory before the series moved to Boston.
The three games held in Beantown were each hard-fought, close battles. The team that was able to dominate the boards won, which was true for the entire series. While the Lakers grabbed Game Three, the Celtics bench far outplayed the Lakers bench to help Boston take the final two Boston games as well as a 3-2 Finals lead.
The Lakers, however, responded quickly and harshly. Game Six was the lone blowout of the series, and for the Boston Celtics, it was not a pretty sight. Los Angeles dominated Boston in every way imaginable to even the series, setting the stage for a championship-deciding Game Seven.
The Finals became the only championship series of the season as well as the only NBA Finals in five years to go to a Game Seven. While Lakers coach Phil Jackson had never lost a series in which his team got off to a 1-0 start, the Celtics had never lost a series in which they had a 3-2 lead, and had also never lost a Game Seven in a playoff series. Something had to give.
Though the Celtics at one point led by 13 and led after the first, second, and third quarters, it was not to be for Boston. The Lakers had a great fourth quarter, and it propelled them to their second consecutive championship. The comeback put the Lakers ahead for good by four points, and it was just four points that decided the NBA's champion.
The constant back-and-forth battling in this NBA Finals is what made it the best playoff series of this past sports season. The gameplay of the series lived up to all of the hype and storylines, and it has won this series the 1999 NLCS Award.
1998 Yankees Award (Best Team)
We have saved the most despicable for last. In 2008, the New York Yankees were eliminated from playoff contention for the first time since 1997. Their competition within the division, the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox, proved to be the American League's two best teams, as they faced off in the ALCS that year, while the Yanks watched at home.
This fueled the anger of Yankee fans and, more importantly, upper management. This is a franchise that will not tolerate failure, and, as a result, the Yankees found a solution: money.With the help of three of the biggest free agents on the market in starting pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira, the Yankees covered all of their key needs. In addition, the Yanks acquired first baseman/outfielder Nick Swisher in a trade with the Chicago White Sox. This was was an important transaction, as Swisher became New York's everyday right fielder when Xavier Nady went down with an injury early in the season and did not return.
Coming into the season, New York was heavily criticized for spending so much money in order to improve. The combined total contracts of Sabathia, Burnett, and Teixeira were worth about $423.5 million, which had many opposing fans complaining about how the Yanks were trying to purchase their 27th championship. It was also the theory of more optimistic opposing fans that lack of chemistry would ultimately be the Yankees' downfall in 2009.
To begin the season, the Yankees were good, but not great. The offense proved to be a very potent one, though in the shoebox that is New Yankee Stadium, anyone who could hold a bat could go yard. The Yankees went into the All-Star Break with a 51-37 record, but much to their chagrin, the Red Sox were, up to that point, dominating them; they had an 8-0 record against New York, and led the AL East by three games.
But it was what came after the All-Star Break that defined these Yankees. After the All-Star Break, the team went on their annual summer winning streak, starting the unofficial second half on an 8-0 tear. They also had the last laugh against the Red Sox, sweeping Boston in a four game series in New York in their first meeting after the All-Star Break, and finished 9-1 against the Sox in the second half of the season, somehow ending the season series in a tie.
The Yankees' offense and pitching got into a groove, and they became a very exciting team, if one is easily excited. The new ballpark saw many walk-off victories, defining the Yankees as a team that rarely gave up. The Yanks kept winning, and owned baseball's best record for much of the second half, and held onto it going into the playoffs. New York was baseball's only 100-win team, finishing 103-59, and had an eight-game division lead over the second-place Red Sox as well as a nineteen-game lead over third-place Tampa Bay coming into the post-season.
Once again, the Yankees were met by the critics who did not believe that the team could keep up the success in the playoffs. But the Yankees, and even Alex Rodriguez, were able to keep it going all the way to the end. The Yankees bested the Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to advance to the World Series for the first time since 2003. The Yanks then knocked off the defending champion Philadelphia Phillies in six games, and once again sat atop the baseball world, becoming MLB champions for the 27th time.
After the All-Star Break ended, the 2009 Yankees went out determined and on a mission, and did not look back until that mission was completed. They won it all for the first time since 2000, and they, truly and sadly, were indeed the best sports team in the past year. They have won the 1998 Yankees Award.