Father’s Day Memory

I wonder if Al Cowens remembers seeing me at my first baseball game in 1977.

by Cole Pepper

Neither my father nor I are particularly emotional people. I am, however, fairly nostalgic, especially when it comes to sports. In particular, the teams that I cheered for in my youth.

On this Father’s Day, I thought I would share the story that most powerfully comes to mind when people start talking about memories with their fathers.

In 1977, the Kansas City Royals were a young team with a starting lineup that featured five players 26 years old or younger: second baseman Frank White, left fielder Tom Poquette, catcher Darrell Porter, right fielder Al Cowens and 24-year old third baseman George Brett.

In addition, 21 year old Willie Wilson, 19 year old Clint Hurdle and 23 year old U.L. Washington all got a cup of coffee that year. Most of these names would serve as the foundation for the success of the Royals in my early formative years.

For those of you under 30, I should take a moment here to point out that in those days, not only did the Royals content, but they actually won. You can check out the championship flags at Kauffman Stadium if you don’t believe me.

On April 30, 1977 (it was a Saturday), Dad announced that he was going to take me to the Royals game the next day. At the age of four, I was already a Royals fan. I watched every game that I could and had a better chance of reciting the batting order than I did of finishing my ABC’s. I don’t know what first grabbed me about baseball. Maybe it was the excitement of the announcers when something happened. Maybe it was that the home team was winning and so I felt like I had “chosen” correctly to root for the Royals. Whatever the reason, the next day would be my baseball baptism.

I would love to tell you all of the details of the morning, but all I can remember is climbing into my dad’s old Audi (I think it was an Audi 100) and spending the 30 minute drive in overload knowing that I was going to see the Royals in person. This was to be one of the two most memorable moments of 1977 (I’ll thank George Lucas for the other one).

When we arrived at then-Royals Stadium, I had a hundred questions. They started as we approached the parking attendant. “Dad, what’s that guy do?” “Dad, did you see that truck?” “Dad, can we get cotton candy?” “Dad who are the Royals playing?”

“He takes money for the parking lot, yes I did, we’ll see and the Toronto Blue Jays,” he answered. We had just gotten out of the car.

I think we parked pretty close, but at 4 years old and in anticipation of what was about the happen, the stadium looked like it was a million miles away.

When we finally got into the stadium, we walked to our seats and as we walked down the concourse, I could see the bright green of the Royals Stadium artificial turf flash through the tunnels. I had never seen anything so…well, so green.

I asked dad about and he said that it was artificial turf, which led me to refer to all artificial turf as just “turf” for quite a few years. It wasn’t until someone offered my surf and turf that I realized my mistake.

Dad patiently answered questions about what the scoreboard was all about and when John Mayberry was going to hit (I remember being disappointed when he walked, instead of hitting a home run).

Looking at the box scored on the indispensable website Baseball-Reference.com, I see that Brett led off and that Tom Poquette, who never quite lived up to the early promise, hit third. The Royals collected five doubles (they hit a lot of doubles and triples in those days) and that Larry Gura pitched seven efficient innings of six hit ball to get the win as the Royals beat the Blue Jays 8-2. Most of those facts I don’t remember. For some reason, i remember the name Otto Velez. Maybe because he hit a home run for the Blue Jays.

All I remember is that the Royals won, Dad had an answer for every questions. I think we got cotton candy and to that point in my life, it was the best day that ever existed.

A Little Fun with Baseball Numbers

Do you know this man? He almost won the American League Most Valuable Player Award once.
Do you know this man? He almost won the American League Most Valuable Player Award once.

by Cole Pepper

This one is mostly going to be for my Kansas City friends or for people who really like to look at old baseball statistics, you know, the nerds.

Take two players. Here’s player A:

162 games, 98 runs, 189 hits, 32 doubles, 14 triples, 23 homers, 112 RBI, 16 stolen bases and a .312 batting average. For some advanced numbers .885 OPS (on base percentage + slugging percentage).

Here’s Player B:

139 games, 105 runs, 176 hits, 32 doubles, 13 triples, 22 homers, 88 RBI, 14 stolen bases and .312 batting average. For some advanced numbers, .905 OPS.

Player A finished as the runner up in the American League MVP voting. Player B finished 13th in the voting. They played on the same team.

These were the statistics for the 1977 Royals teammates Al Cowens (player A) and George Brett (player B). At the time, Cowens was 25, Brett was 24. Brett batted leadoff most of the year, was the defending batting champ and for the second year in a row, was chosen as an All-Star.

Cowens lost out to Rod Carew in the MVP voting and at first glance you would be impressed that there were two of the top 13 MVP candidates from the same team. Until you realize that five Yankees finished in the top 11 (Graig Nettles, Sparky Lyle, Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson and Mickey Rivers). Heck, the Red Sox had three in the top 10 (Jim Rice, Carlton Fisk and some guy named Bill Campbell, nicknamed Soup like every other guy name Campbell in history, who led the league with 31 saves that year while averaging two innings per outing).

What got my attention was how similar the numbers were for Cowens and Brett at about the same point in their careers. 1977 was Cowens’ breakthrough season. He had never hit .300 in his three previous big league seasons, had never driven in 100 and never had more than 155 hits, much less the 189 he collected that year. He also won the gold glove in right field in a year when he had 14 outfield assists (Cowens always had a good arm, hitting double digits in outfield assists in his first four seasons in the big leagues). Cowens did commit six errors, a lot for a right fielder.

From looking at the numbers, you would have thought that these two young hitters who could both run, had good gap power and emerging home run pop would both be in line for great careers.

Instead, Brett went on to the Hall of Fame, while Cowens never again hit .300 again, never drove in more than 78, and never collected more than 152 hits in a season. What happened? Was the 1977 season just a flash in the pan? Statistically, yes it was.

Cowens had been a long shot, drafted in the 75th round in 1969. Mike Piazza is the famous late round draft success story. Clearly, he had a better career than Cowens, but Piazza was drafted in the 62nd round as a favor.

Cowens had his jaw broken by a pitch in 1979 and I recall the jaw guard that Cowens had attached to his batting helmet. It would be easy to say that the broken jaw was the catalyst for his career tailing off. The Royals traded Cowens to the Angels for Willie Aikens and two utility infielders, Todd Cruz and Rance Mulliniks.

I suppose its a less in two things. First, just because a young hitter has a good year, it doesn’t mean they will keep having good years (it’s just statistically more likely to happen). Second, baseball favors outfield defense a whole lot less now than it did in 1977.


Jaguars Rookies Adjusting to Life in the NFL

Gratz minicamp
Jaguars rookie cornerback Dwayne Gratz (27) is one of six rookies who could start for the Jaguars in 2013. (photo by: AP)

by Cole Pepper

Six weeks have passed since draft weekend, but for rookies all around the NFL, it’s been a crash course in pro football.

Several of the Jaguars rookies I spoke with at the team’s mini-camp this week talked about a number of similar themes: the speed of the game, the opportunity to focus just on football and the attempt to realize their dreams of making and NFL team.

Make no mistake, some of the high draft picks are all but assured a roster spot. Some, like second overall pick Luke Joeckel, second round pick Jonathan Cyprien and third round corner Dwayne Gratz have been working with the first team. Others, are just hoping to earn a spot on the roster, or even the practice squad.

Perhaps the most compelling Jaguars rookie is former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. He has more to learn than any of the rookies as he makes the move to running back.

“I have to learn the offense and learn to be a running back first,” Robinson said. “How to do the right things like a running back, how to run routes, make sure I know how to get to the blocks, get to  the linebackers. I just have to be a sponge right now.”

Denard Robinson mini-camp
Denard Robinson is adjusting to life as a running back. The college quarterback could be the Jaguars starting kickoff returner come opening day. For now, he’s learning how to approach the game from a new position.

Robinson can turn to veterans Maurice Jones-Drew or Justin Forsett for guidance, but with Jones-Drew not working out with the team full-time and Forsett new to the Jaguars, he is also leaning on fellow Michigan alum Chad Henne for help.

“I’m trying to get with Chad and go somewhere with him (this off-season) so I can get better at catching the ball and learning the offense,” Robinson said.

Cornerback Dwayne Gratz (pronounced Grahts) has a veteran at his position to turn to. But Marcus Trufant can be even more valuable to the rookie because Trufant was signed as a free agent from Seattle, where he played in Gus Bradley’s defense.

“He just talked to me and said that as a young player in the NFL, he thought he had to make every play,” Gratz said. “He said just relax and feel comfortable. There are going to be plays where they’re catching the ball on you. You just have to forget that.”

Fullback Lonnie Pryor is also adjusting. He told me that he has to put on at least five pounds of muscle to be better as a fullback. He’s also spending lots of time in the classroom learning the offense.

“It’s kind of like a job now,” Pryor said. “In college, you have to worry about school, but now, I’m doing what I’ve wanted to do my whole life.”


Gus Bradley Looks at QBs Differently

Gus Bradley minicamp

by Cole Pepper

Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley said something interesting after the final mini-camp practice that I have long suspected, but haven’t heard many coaches admit publicly: as a defensive minded coach, he judges quarterback’s differently than the offensive coaches.

“The things that I’m looking for offensively from the quarterback are probably different than what Frank (quarterbacks coach Scelfo) and Jedd (offensive coordinator Fisch) are looking for,” Bradley said. “My mindset for the quarterback is that I want him to be the leader. I want him to compete play in and play out and demonstrate his belief. That simple. The other things, I know the other coaches will take care of, but that’s what I know we need as a team.”

It makes sense, but its not something you hear very often.

As a coach who cut his teeth on the defensive side of the ball, Bradley isn’t as concerned with the quarterback’s progression through the route tree, or the depth of his drop or if he looks off the safety. At least, not yet. No, at this point in the off-season, Bradley is looking for quarterbacks to move, act and behave like a quarterback should.

He’ll leave the other analysis to his offensive coaches.QUOTE Bradley on QB minicamp

Bradley’s coaching approach is beginning to emerge with each practice session. It’s clear that, as it comes to offense anyway, he’s going to look for the higher level issues like leadership and approach and not be as concerned with the tactics and the day to day operational issues that the offensive coordinator will deal with. It does not appear that he will take that same approach with the defense where he has been more hands on.

Fisch told me last week that the best thing the quarterbacks have done this off-season, as a group, was protect the football. That can lead to confidence which can show up with some of the things that Bradley is looking for. It will be interesting to see how much he weighs those factors in the final analysis. At some point between now and opening day, Bradley will have to make the decision on who his starting quarterback is going to be.

Handicapping the race, based on Bradley’s criteria

If you simply use Bradley’s criteria, here’s how I believe the quarterback competition would look as of now. And note that both Gabbert and Henne have worked with the first team, although Gabbert has taken far more snaps with the ones.

Leadership – To this point of his career, Gabbert has not been as comfortable playing the role of leader. Last year, there were some Jaguars who privately questioned Gabbert’s leadership. According to a story by Michael Silver of Yahoo Sports, one former Jaguars assistant called him “Blame Gabbert” because nothing was ever his fault. Gabbert is still young, but that excuse is running out of steam. Henne, I’m told, just acts more like a quarterback in the meeting rooms and on the field. Advantage: Henne

Competitiveness – Both Gabbert and Henne are competitive. Neither likes to lose, but so far we’ve not seen either of them “will their team to a win.” Gabbert played with some injuries each of his two seasons in the NFL. Advantage: Push.

Belief – This is a tougher category to handicap. How much will either quarterback believe in what they’re doing in the system. Based on Gabbert’s self-assured nature, you would have to give him the edge here, but Henne has much more of a “don’t sweat the small stuff” approach. That can be good and it can be bad. Advantage: Gabbert

So what’s this all mean? Gabbert has more physical skill than Henne: Taller, better arm, faster, more athletic. Henne has the edge in intangibles: maturity, leadership, etc. If Gabbert wins the job (and he’s the early favorite to do so) we won’t truly be able to gauge the choice until the season is well underway.



Jaguars Off-Season Analysis: Quarterbacks

Gabbert Henne Fisch minicamp
Jaguars quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne with offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch (right).

by Cole Pepper

There is no one position that has been under more scrutiny in Jacksonville for the last decade than quarterback.

While that statement may be true for most losing teams (and some winning teams, too), the Jaguars don’t appear to be any closer to knowing if they have the guy or not. That may be good.

It’s roundly agreed that this is Blaine Gabbert’s last chance to prove himself in Jacksonville. Is three years enough time to show if you are a franchise quarterback? Maybe. It’s certainly enough time to show that you aren’t and Gabbert hasn’t shown enough in his first two years to merit the benefit of the doubt. However, his physical skills merit another chance.

He’s being given that chance this year. While everyone says he is competing with Chad Henne for the starting quarterback spot, all indications are that Henne will have to clearly outplay Gabbert to get the job. Both quarterbacks are downplaying the competition and seem to be reading from the same talking points when it comes to their approach.

“The competition brings out the best in all of us,” Gabbert said. “There’s competition every year, whether it’s said or not. You have to earn your pay every day.”

Henne, echoing the same sentiment, and the same approach that is being preached by new head coach Gus Bradley, says he’s using himself as the barometer for improvement.

“I just try to go out there every day and compete against myself, rather than against other quarterbacks who are here,” Henne said. “Just trying to get better everyday, improving on my craft instead of worrying about somebody else.”

The Jaguars have three other quarterbacks in camp. Rookies Matt Scott (Arizona) and Jordan Rodgers (Vanderbilt and the brother of Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers), and recently signed Mike Kafka.

That’s a lot of arms. Bradley said during mini-camp that he wouldn’t rule out taking all five to training camp, but I can’t imagine all five being around for long. It would take away too many snaps from the quarterbacks (especially Gabbert and Henne) who are not only competing for the starting spot, but also learning a new offense.

So why bring in Kafka? Will the Jaguars carry three quarterbacks on the active roster? Not likely. I think its more likely that the Jaguars carry two with a rookie on the practice squad. I’m looking at the competition this way: Gabbert vs. Henne, winner is the starter. If Henne wins, there is a chance that Kafka stays as the backup and the Jaguars move Gabbert. If Gabbert wins, I would suspect that Henne would be the #2, unless Kafka just lights it up in the preseason. The other battle is between the rookies for a practice squad spot, Scott vs. Rodgers. So far, Rodgers has missed time in the off-season with a sports hernia, while Scott has flashed at times, including Wednesday at mini-camp.

With all of the unknowns at quarterback for the Jaguars, we can safely say this: this time next year, the Jaguars will know who their quarterback of the future is. It will either be Gabbert or almost certainly someone they draft next April.


What Will Jaguars Offense Look Like?

Jedd Fisch2

(photo: Jaguars.com)

by Cole Pepper

If you are an NFL owner and you want a traditional NFL team, you hire a traditional NFL coach with experienced NFL assistants.

That’s not what Shad Khan did when he hired first time head coach Gus Bradley. And it’s conventional was certainly not what Bradley had in mind when he chose 37-year old Jedd Fisch as his offensive coordinator.

Bradley could have hired a former head coach looking for another shot or a retread offensive coordinator looking for another chance after being, say a quarterbacks coach on another NFL team.

Instead, he plucked Fisch from the University of Miami to install a more innovative offense in Jacksonville. So what will Fisch’s offense look like?

When I spoke with Fisch last week, he used several golf analogies to describe the process of building and installing the offense. Picture every player as a golf club and Fisch wants to find out who does what well.

“We treat it like a driving rang. Let’s try all of our different clubs out,” Fisch said. “Let’s put the flag at 150 and see what we want to hit. Let’s see if this guy can run this route, let’s see if this guy can handle this, let’s see if this guy can make this throw.”

The Jaguars have a number of players with quarterback experience on their roster. Cecil Shorts began his college career as a quarterback, rookie Denard Robinson spent most of his career at Michigan as a quarterback. Add to the list the quick-twitch ability of WR/KR Ace Sanders and speedy running back Justin Forsett and you have a lot of ingredients. The question is, how will they all work together?

“We have an athletic group of guys,” said Fisch. “We have a lot of different skill sets. Then you have to figure out what they do best.”

When I asked Fisch about the diminishing role of the fullback and the move to the smaller, more athletic tight end (unlike Marcedes Lewis, who plays a more traditional style of tight end), Fisch referenced some teams that had a great deal of success last year, and in the recent past.

“I do see New England using the tight end pretty well and I saw Baltimore and San Francisco use their full back pretty good, so I think that it’s just a matter of what you want to do,” Fisch said. “The way we run the football, the fullback is very involved. The way we throw the ball, the tight end is very involved. We’re excited to use these guys and most importantly, we want to take the mindset use whoever we have in the best possible position and not have one of the best 11 sitting next to us.”

Veteran center Brad Meester told me that the pace of the offense and the different looks they’ll be able to show defenses will be an advantage. Still, it all boils down to quarterback play. And in Jacksonville, the question is unanswered: who will be the starting quarterback? Perhaps even more importantly, how well will the quarterback play?

You can run all of the gadget plays, show multiple formations and run an up-tempo offense all you like, but if the quarterback doesn’t play at a high level, you aren’t likely to win the modern NFL.

For Fisch, innovation must be joined by execution. During the recent OTAs, Fisch said that the quarterbacks have been executing, throwing onl six interceptions in between 450 and 500 passes. He would take those numbers in the regular season.

So the answer the question: what will the Jaguars offense look like? We can’t say for sure yet, because Jedd Fisch is still determining that. But we can say this, it won’t look like the offense of the past several years in design. The Jaguars hope it won’t look that way in output, either.

Billy Butler’s BBQ Sauce Has Secret Powers

Billy sauce2

by Cole Pepper

As a Kansas City born, Jacksonville transplant, I have things in common with Billy Butler. Butler is from Jacksonville and now plays for the Kansas City Royals. And apparently, we have barbecue in common.

The Royals broke out of a slump with a six game winning streak thanks to (they say) a bottle of Billy Butler’s “Hit it a Ton” BBQ Sauce. Apparently, it’s just one bottle, unopened, that has been imbued with magical powers–powers so strong that it can even lift the Royals out of the doldrums.

Then again, maybe it’s the addition of George Brett as the teams hitting coach.

Or, maybe (and my money’s on this one), it’s the fact that they won five of those game against two last place teams, the Twins and the Astros.



For the sake of science, I am willing to use my sauce to break any bad streaks out there. For science. 

Can LeBron Unseat Jordan?

Lebron dunks

by Cole Pepper

Let me start with this: he’s not there yet.

But LeBron James, who has guided the Miami Heat to within four wins of a second straight NBA Championship, is doing everything he can to stake a claim to the title of “Best Ever.”

By acclimation, Michael Jordan owns that title (although I can make a compelling case for Wilt Chamberlain. Did you know he once led the league in assists?).

James did everything in Miami’s 99-76 victory over the Pacers in game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. He began the game by setting up just about everybody in Miami from Dwayne Wade to Chris Bosch to Ray Allen to Dan Marino. Kenny Smith made a great observation at halftime about James’ basketball IQ and his ability…no, his willingness, to turn down open looks to get his teammates involved.

James has the highest scoring average in game sevens in NBA history, 33.8 ppg.

That’s clutch.

For a guy who missed (and at times, didn’t take) a lot of clutch shots early in his career, he’s become the ultimate “get a bucket” guy in the NBA. Despite that, its possible that scoring is his third best skill, behind passing and rebounding.

Jordan has the six titles. James has just one. But Jordan isn’t going to win any more and James is still just 28 years old. If the Heat win the title this year, he’ll have the same number of championships as Jordan at the same age.

It’s reminiscent of the Jack Nicklaus vs. Tiger Woods arguments.

I asked this question on Twitter: is there anything that James can do shy of winning six championships to stake the claim as the best ever.

I believe that there is. Now, he has to win multiple titles. Three is probably the minimum, four would be better (obviously). But the way James is playing (he’s clearly the best player on Earth right now), its tough to envision someone unseating him as the best in the game for the next four or five years.

If you want to put Joran’s portrait on display in the G.O.A.T Museum (greatest of all time), go ahead, but don’t thrown away the key. LeBron, while already in the featured gallery, may wind up as the Mona Lisa by the time his career is over.

Jaguars Off-Season Analysis: Tight End


by Cole Pepper

The tight end position has evolved in the NFL over the past dozen years or so. Everybody wants a Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates to create match-up problems. It’s rare to to find a big powerful tight end running down the seam like the league featured in the 80s and 90s.

But that’s the kind of tight end the Jaguars have, at least, at the top of the depth chart, in Marcedes Lewis. The former first round pick had a better year in 2012 than his disastrous (at least, as a pass catcher) 2011. Still, Lewis can be better. In 2010, with a healthy David Garrard under center, Lewis enjoyed a career year with 10 touchdown catches. He was the Jaguars main red zone threat. He looked like a Pro Bowl tight end.

Then came the quarterback change, Blaine Gabbert’s struggles and the dysfunctional season that had Lewis hearing it from coaches and fans. Last year, despite inconsistent quarterback play, Lewis was better, but still…you look at him and just know that there is the potential for more. Even with a former tight end as a head coach, Lewis was too often put in a position to fail. Spend anytime at all watching him and you know that he isn’t likely to turn a curl route into a big play. He’s a big, powerful tight end, not the quick elusive H-back type. Too often last year, Lewis was asked to run routes that resulted in him catching the ball with his back to the defense.

To get the most out of him, new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch must design routes that play to Lewis’ strengths: his size and strength.

Which brings us to the biggest question about the Jaguars tight ends this year: how will they be used. From what we have seen so far, Fisch’s offense is going to be based around speed. With players like Cecil Shorts, Denard Robinson, Ace Sanders and Justin Forsett, the Jaguars will have the ability to strike deep and create mismatches. On the surface, Lewis doesn’t seem to fit.

This is the ultimate challenge for an offensive coach. The good one’s find a way to utilize the talents and abilities of everyone on the field. Gus Bradley has talked a lot about that, albeit, mostly in conversations about the defense.

This is Fisch’s first stint as an NFL offensive coordinator. Clearly, the spotlight will be on the quarterback position this year, but keep an eye on the tight end position. It’s a group in flux. Gone are Zach Miller and Zach Potter. Matt Veldman and Brett Bracket are returning from injuries. Isaiah Stanback is trying to rejuvenate his career after switching from wide receiver. Those are the top contenders to be the #2 tight end. Clearly, there is a lot of work to be done at this position.

Defining Success: If the Jaguars can get numbers out of Lewis that more closely resemble 2010 and get any kind of productivity out of the backups, you would have to consider it a victory. This position, that looked like it could be one of strength this time last year, looks very thin at this point. Then again, sometimes things don’t follow the script. You need only to look back one season to see that.

Projected tight end depth chart:

TE Depth chart