Treading water

Center fielder Charlie Blackmon has been an early bright spot for the Rocks, sharing the National League batting lead with an average of .406 through the first 20 games.

Center fielder Charlie Blackmon has been an early bright spot for the Rocks, sharing the National League batting lead with an average of .406 through the first 20 games.

It was one of those Colorado days Sunday at the ballyard. Bright blue sky, big crowd, lots of hits, lots of runs, no discernible sign of professional pitching.

This was in marked contrast to the Rockies’ three previous games — the finale of the last road trip in San Diego and the first two home games against the Phillies — in which they got shockingly good pitching, putting together their first three-game winning streak of the season by scores of 3-1, 12-1 and 3-1.

This is really the only question that matters about the 2014 edition of the Rocks. If they pitch like that even half the time, they will be pretty good. If they don’t, they won’t.

“Yeah, the game tends to fall into place when you get starting pitching,” manager Walt Weiss said before Sunday’s game when I asked him about that three-game stretch.

“That’s the key to this game. I don’t care what level you’re playing at. You get good starting pitching, you’re usually in good shape. We’ve had some guys step up. We’re talking about missing three of the top guys in our rotation to start the season. I think if you did that to any rotation in baseball, it’d be a challenge. So the fact that we’ve had guys step up and respond to the call has been really encouraging to me. And one of those guys is the guy that threw (Saturday) night, Jordan Lyles. He’s really been giving us a shot in the arm.”

Through 20 games, or 13 percent of the season, the Rocks are 10-10, and their team stats are pretty much what we’ve come to expect. At home, in the most hitter-friendly ballpark in baseball, they’re a sensational offensive team, batting .354. Their OPS of .978 is 160 points higher than the next best home team.

On the road, they’re a mediocre to poor offense, their team OPS of .662 ranking 20th among the 30 big league clubs.

Troy Tulowitzki is batting .667 at home with two homers and 10 runs batted in. He’s batting .229 on the road with no homers and two RBI.

Carlos Gonzalez is batting .375 at home, .205 on the road. Charlie Blackmon’s splits are .486 and .313; Michael Cuddyer’s .417 and .250.

As anyone who has followed the Rockies for any appreciable amount of time knows, numbers such as these are an occupational hazard of playing here. The home numbers are inflated by the Coors Field factor and the road numbers are depressed by the increased movement of pitches at or near sea level and the constant adjustment Rockies hitters must make as they switch elevations throughout the season.

You might expect the reverse effect on their pitching numbers, and over large sample sizes and multiple years, you get it. But so far this year, they’re actually pitching better at Coors Field than on the road with a home earned-run average of 3.78 and road ERA of 4.55. For individual pitchers, of course, the sample size so far is ridiculously small.

The most encouraging single development, by far, has been the work of Lyles, as Weiss noted. He would not even be in the rotation if it weren’t for a sore hamstring that kept Tyler Chatwood from making his first couple of starts. Unaffected by Coors Field and its reputation for driving pitchers insane, Lyles has thrown his power sinker and big breaking curve ball at elevation with considerable early success, giving up one earned run in 13 2/3 innings for a home ERA of 0.66. He and Chatwood have been the Rockies’ only reliable starters so far.

As Weiss noted, the pitching staff remains a work in progress due to injury. Jhoulys Chacin, a 14-game winner last year, has yet to make his first start as he works his way back from shoulder stiffness in the spring. Brett Anderson, acquired from Oakland during the offseason along with a history of being prone to injury, broke a finger hitting a ground ball and is out at least a month after making just three starts. De La Rosa, a 16-game winner a year ago, has yet to find his groove, although his most recent start, his fourth of the season, was his best. Juan Nicasio and Franklin Morales have been predictably unpredictable.

The bullpen has been very good for stretches and very bad for stretches. Sunday, with a chance to sweep a series for the first time this season, it gave up five runs to the Phillies in four innings of work. Matt Belisle took the loss, but Boone Logan had the worst day, surrendering three runs, two earned, and retiring just one batter, as the Rocks fell 10-9.

Despite what looks like a sensational defensive team on paper, they are in the middle of the pack with 12 errors in 20 games, three of them at the catcher position, and that doesn’t include two run-scoring passed balls by backup Jordan Pacheco in just five games wearing the gear. It’s nice to have guys who can hit behind the plate, but so far the poor defense has more than made up for the offensive contributions of Pacheco and Wilin Rosario.

The much-maligned Dexter Fowler trade is working out pretty well so far. It produced their best starter to date in Lyles, and it freed up the money to sign free agent Justin Morneau, who looks like a classic Coors Field reclamation project in the tradition of Andres Galarraga and Dante Bichette. Morneau is batting .364 and leads the club in RBI with 15 in the early going. He’s also avoided the dramatic splits, batting .367 at Coors and .324 elsewhere.

The fragility of their star players was a big factor in last season’s long, slow-motion collapse, and it’s already been an issue this year. Tulowitzki, Gonzalez and Cuddyer have already missed time with leg issues, a troublesome sign. It might be time to bring in a yoga instructor.

It’s early, of course. April numbers are overly examined because they’re the only numbers we have when everybody is still excited about the possibilities. Last year the Rocks went 16-11 in April and finished 74-88.

When I asked Weiss if he liked where his team is through 20 games, this is what he said:

“I like our club. I like the mentality of our club. I think our guys will fight through the tough stuff and I think that’s the X factor in this league. And I think we have that. So, yeah, I like where we’re at.”

So far, the Rocks are who we thought they were — a big-time offense at home, a small-time offense on the road and mediocre on the mound pretty much everywhere, except for that promising stretch of three games at the end of last week. If Chacin returns soon, De La Rosa finds his form and Lyles and Chatwood continue what they’ve started, the pitching could be better than mediocre. If the hitting stars can stay on the field and learn to play more situational ball on the road, the offense could be more consistently productive.

That’s a lot of ifs. The promise is there, but that’s still all it is.


A star is born

Semyon Varlamov was terrific in Game 2, but he wasn't the Avs' best player.

Semyon Varlamov was terrific in Game 2, but he wasn’t the Avs’ best player.

When the NHL playoffs began, oddsmakers really had no idea who might emerge as an offensive force for the Avalanche. The club’s leading scorer during the regular season, Matt Duchene, was injured. So one offshore sports book set the over/under on points in the first round at 4.5. For everybody.

Paul Stastny was 4.5, Gabriel Landeskog was 4.5, Ryan O’Reilly was 4.5, Nathan MacKinnon was 4.5.

Through two games, the 18-year-old MacKinnon already has seven, tying an NHL record for the first two playoff games of a career. The 28-year-old Stastny has matched him. They are playing alongside Landeskog, the 21-year-old team captain, on a line that has dominated the first two games since coming together out of necessity late in Game 1. What’s remarkable is it wasn’t a line at all when the series began.

“We wanted to try in the first game Nate in the middle with Ryan and P.A. [Parenteau] and then we went back to this,” coach Patrick Roy explained after MacKinnon, the favorite to win the league’s Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, put on a show nobody on hand will soon forget.

He didn’t merely use his speed to fly through and around the Wild, he embarrassed and ultimately intimidated the visitors from Minnesota. One is tempted to use the cliche that he was a man among boys, except, of course, MacKinnon is a boy among men, and he’s making his elders look helpless.

His first goal of the series came six minutes and 20 seconds into Game 2, after Minnesota had taken the early lead by chesting a rebound into the net just ahead of the chester, center Charlie Coyle, who drove the goal assembly off its moorings and forced a video review to determine whether he or the puck had penetrated first. The puck won and the goal counted.

Two minutes later, Stastny picked up the puck deep in his own end and fed MacKinnon on the left side inside the Avs’ blue line. MacKinnon took the pass, veered right and carried it around Wild center Mikko Koivu as if he were standing still. The first pick in the 2013 draft accelerated across the red line with all three Wild forwards in pursuit. In front of him were the Minnesota defensemen, Nate Prosser and Jared Spurgeon.

Prosser was to MacKinnon’s left and never got into the play. Spurgeon was slightly to his right. The Wild defenseman slid to his right to block MacKinnon’s path to the net. The Avs rookie looked for a moment as if he would blow between them. Then he swerved right. Spurgeon, whose momentum was taking him the wrong way, suddenly found himself in a Marx Bros. movie. His left skate went out from under him, his stick rose high in the air, as if seeking divine guidance, and he crashed to the ice. The only thing missing was the laugh track.

Wide open now, MacKinnon slid into the right circle and fired the puck over goalie Ilya Bryzgalov’s left shoulder.

“I wanted to kind of fake to the middle and kind of jump to the outside,” MacKinnon said afterward. “I didn’t know that I’d have that much room. Obviously, I was pretty fortunate that he bit on it, I guess, and I just kind of fired it on net and thankfully it went in.”

“I was laughing,” Stastny said. “That’s unbelievable. You don’t see that a lot. When he has that much speed, you’ve got to respect him. One little shoulder fake and that’s what happens. If he doesn’t cross over, he probably goes right down the middle. That shows how much respect they have for him and that shows how good he is at kind of shifting his weight. That was a pretty sweet goal.”

Not quite three minutes into the second period, Stastny and MacKinnon combined on almost exactly the same start, except this time they weren’t quite as deep in their own end. Stastny got the puck by the left boards and fed MacKinnon on the Colorado side of the center line. Again, MacKinnon carried the puck right around Koivu in the neutral zone and gathered speed as he approached the retreating defensemen.

Ryan Suter didn’t want to do a Spurgeon-like pratfall, so he retreated faster and was ready to go with MacKinnon when he went wide. That left a hole in the middle, so MacKinnon deftly dropped the puck to Landeskog, who was trailing him, yelling, “Drop it! Drop it!”

“Sure was,” Landeskog said with a smile. “He came through the neutral zone with speed and I saw that I had some room around me and Nate kind of took the D wide and made a nice drop pass to me and I had some room so I tried to get the shot off real quick.”

Landeskog drilled the puck over Bryzgalov’s glove and it was 2-1.

“I knew Landy was coming late,” MacKinnon said. “I didn’t know he had that much time, but I heard him yelling, so kind of like my first goal, I just wanted to cut to the outside and I heard him yelling and obviously, that was a heck of a shot by Landy.”

MacKinnon wasn’t finished. Nine minutes later, he did it again, taking a pass from defenseman Tyson Barrie on the far left side, again on Colorado’s side of the red line. This time he went around Koivu by passing the puck to himself off the boards. He dashed past Spurgeon into the left corner, then backhanded the puck to Stastny in the left circle, who spun and backhanded it to Landeskog coming up the slot. With Bryzgalov hugging the right side of the goal against MacKinnon’s charge, the entire left side of the net was wide open for Landeskog, who chipped it in.

“He’s terrorizing them right now with his speed,” Avalanche analyst Peter McNab said on the telecast.

“Paulie and I, we know when we play with him to use his speed and get it to him in the neutral zone,” said Landeskog, who has three points in the series so far, all of them goals. “He’s going to take ‘em wide, and then we have to yell at him a little bit to use us, but he certainly did tonight, and it paid off. The skills he’s got, the way he skates, I haven’t seen anything like it.”

Minnesota coach Mike Yeo was at a loss, so he switched goaltenders at 3-1, but the game was pretty much over. When Yeo pulled his second goaltender, Darcy Kuemper, near the end, the Avs had a Parenteau empty-netter disallowed on a dubious offsides call, gave up a shorthanded goal with a minute and 19 seconds remaining, missed an empty-netter when Stastny hit a post, then finally scored into the empty net when MacKinnon insisted on feeding Stastny one more time. The final was 4-2. The series moves to Minnesota with Colorado up two games to none.

“That line was on fire tonight,” Roy said. “They played really well. Landy and Paulie and Nate, I mean they had an outstanding game. They were moving the puck really well. They were skating well. Was it the third or second goal when Paulie went from behind to put it to Landy? That was, wow, that was a super play. But I have to say one thing here: All our guys played really well. I thought that was a really good team win.”

Nobody wants to lather up the 18-year-old, for all the obvious reasons, but this kid sounded like a player twice his age. Somebody asked him which goal he would celebrate more, the first or second.

“I think I’d like to forget about everything tonight,” he said. “I’m definitely proud of the way the team played and the way Paulie and Landy played, but for me, I just want to kind of forget about it and get ready for practice tomorrow. Obviously, it’s always nice to have some personal success, but it’s not the main thing for me at all.”

Perhaps the most pronounced effect he’s having is to tame the Wild’s aggressiveness when he’s on the ice. If he has just one or two men to beat, he’s proved he can not only do it, he can embarrass them in the process.

“It’s a matter of continuing to press, continuing to push, but doing it with a sense of, I don’t want to say caution, but at the same time we have to be very understanding and aware in particular of who you’re on the ice against and making sure that while you’re pressing, while you’re pushing, you’re not opening yourself up too,” said Yeo, the Wild coach.

The fact that an 18-year-old who was playing juniors last season is doing this to a good NHL team is stunning.

“At 18, I was in college,” said Stastny. “I was enjoying my time. I was at DU. I think 18-year-olds now compared to 10 years ago are different. Body-wise, they’re more mature, they’re more advanced, whether they start working out or the science kind of develops them a little earlier. But at the same time, he’s unbelievable. We’ve seen it all year, since the beginning of training camp, so every time something happens, it doesn’t really surprise us.”

“I think since Christmas he’s been getting better every night, which is pretty scary stuff,” Parenteau said.

And it wasn’t just at the glory end. The three scoring plays all began in the Avs’ end, which, in Roy’s system, is no accident.

“You guys are looking at points,” Roy told reporters, “but I’m looking at how he performed both sides of the ice. He’s been playing well offensively, yes, but he also played really well defensively. He made some great plays and that’s what I want to see from him. I’m happy when he puts points on the board, but I want him to play well defensively, and that’s what that line did.”

Colorado hockey fans have seen great players dominate playoff games before — Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Roy himself.

Which reminds me, goaltender Semyon Varlamov was back on his game after allowing four goals in Game 1. Saturday night, he stopped 30 of 32 shots. Of the two that made it through, one was the aforementioned chester by a charging center who literally ran into the puck.

“It’s a team game,” Varlamov said. “When the team plays better, I play better.”

“I didn’t make too much of the first game,” Roy said. “In my opinion, he played well enough to win. A goalie don’t need always to be perfect. He needs to find a way to win. And tonight, he was rock solid. He made some key saves at the right time. That’s the type of performance I was, not expecting, but I thought he was going to offer. I mean, I’m having so much confidence in him. He’s been our best player all year and tonight it was just a solid game from him.”

Good as he was, Varlamov was not Colorado’s best player in Game 2. Seldom have hockey fans anywhere been treated to a show of athletic virtuosity as transcendent as Nathan MacKinnon provided Saturday night.


Going all in

Image

The average length of a shift on the ice in the NHL is less than a minute. It’s basically a series of sprints — what is known as anaerobic activity. Once a player gets into severe oxygen debt, he’s likely to screw up, so coaches are constantly exchanging gassed players for fresh legs.

The leader in ice time per shift this season was Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson, who averaged 57.5 seconds. Perhaps because they play half their games at an elevation a mile high, the Colorado Avalanche tends toward shorter shifts than usual. Their leader in ice time per shift this year, Matt Duchene, their leading scorer, averaged 50.4 seconds, which ranked 64th in the league.

So when Avs coach Patrick Roy sent his six top players (not including Duchene, who is currently injured) onto the ice trailing 4-3 with just over three minutes to play in regulation Thursday night, he knew he was rolling the dice. They weren’t coming off until they tied the game, gave up a decisive empty-net goal or heard the final horn.

“All in,” Roy said afterward. “There was nothing else but all in. I have a lot of trust in my players. I asked them a couple times if they needed a timeout. I not only have a lot of trust in them, but I know they’re going to give everything they have. And sometimes you just want to push the limits. I thought they did a great job.”

For three frantic minutes, those six — defensemen Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie, forwards Paul Stastny, Ryan O’Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog and rookie Nathan MacKinnon — dominated possession of the puck, peppering the Minnesota Wild defense, looking for the opening that would allow them to extend the first playoff game at Pepsi Center in four years.

With a little more than a minute and a half remaining, Wild center Erik Haula got his stick on the puck in his own zone and backhanded it into the air, clearing the zone. As the puck bounced and skittered up the empty ice toward the Avalanche zone, the sellout crowd of 18,074 let out a collective groan, realizing it was headed for the Avs’ empty net.

An exhausted Johnson, on the ice for a game-high 30 minutes, 22 seconds by the time it was over, went tearing after it. As it neared the Colorado net, the bouncing puck landed on its edge and began to roll, which seemed to slow it slightly. Well into the crease, inches from the goal line, Johnson reached his stick as far as it would go and slapped the puck aside. The big defenseman then crashed into the net, knocking it off its moorings.

“Originally, I didn’t think it was going to go in,” Johnson said. “I didn’t think it had enough speed. Then it landed and it picked up speed and I thought, ‘I’m not going to get there.’ Then it kind of slowed down a little bit and I just got there at the end before it went over the goal line and inadvertently knocked the net off, which actually helped.”

That’s because the officials had to re-establish the Avalanche goal, which gave the Avs a desperately-needed break. Roy waited until the net was re-established before using his timeout, giving his top troops a couple of minutes to catch their breath with 1:32 on the game clock.

Goaltender Semyon Varlamov returned briefly for the ensuing face-off, then abandoned the net once more for a sixth skater. Again, the Avs’ six controlled the puck in the Minnesota zone, moving it back to front, side to side, looking for an opening. All five Wild skaters surrounded the crease and dug in.

With about 30 seconds remaining, Johnson took a shot from the Stanley Cup logo near the blue line. Wild goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov blocked it. The rebound bounced out to O’Reilly in the left circle. He saw an opening to slip it through the slot to Landeskog on the weak side, but the bouncing puck skittered over the Avalanche captain’s stick to the boards.

With a little more than 20 seconds showing, Landeskog retrieved the puck and slipped it down the boards to Stastny in the right corner. He tried to return it, but Minnesota defenseman Jared Spurgeon blocked his pass. Stastny regained control and backhanded the puck behind the net to MacKinnon, the 18-year-old rookie.

MacKinnon looked to return it, but Spurgeon had Stastny covered. With the calm of a player twice his age, the rookie turned and looked around the net to the other side. Wild defenseman Ryan Suter made a move to challenge him, then thought better of it and returned to the front of the net. Unmolested, MacKinnon took his time and spied Johnson above the defense, all alone near the top of the left circle. He sent a crisp pass directly to the tape of Johnson’s stick. When the puck hit it, the clock showed 17.6 seconds left in the game.

Johnson’s view of the goal was blocked by Wild winger Jason Pominville and, behind him, Suter. He waited a split second for an opening between Pominville and his stick, then shot the puck through it toward the right-hand edge of the goal. Bryzgalov slid left to block it. The puck rebounded off his left leg pad to Stastny, who flipped it just over the goaltender and just under the crossbar for the tying goal.

The clock showed 13.4 seconds. Roy’s gamble had paid off. About half an hour later, 7:27 into the first overtime period, Stastny would score again, from a similar position, to give the Avs an unlikely 5-4 victory and a 1-0 series lead in the quarterfinal playoff matchup.

Afterward, somebody asked Roy if he pulled his goalie with three minutes left because it was the playoffs.

“We almost done it at four minutes,” Roy said. “That went through my mind. I mean, at one point they had their third [defensive] pairing on the ice and we said, ‘Should we give a shot at it?’ I thought that was a little pushy. But at the same time, you have to go with your gut feeling. This is what playoffs are.”

Conventionally, NHL coaches facing one-goal deficits don’t pull their goaltenders until about a minute remains. But if you’ve watched the Avs all year, you probably weren’t surprised Roy did it earlier. Down two goals at home to the Boston Bruins in March, Roy pulled Varlamov with five minutes remaining.

“Every morning skate for the past, almost, last month, we practice our six-on-five,” Roy said. “You always hope that eventually it pay off. You don’t know when, but when it happens, you’re pretty happy. Tonight, it could be a key moment in our playoff run. It’s always important to try to score in those situations and if you do, it certainly gives some momentum. You’re talking in playoffs to get some momentum. I think this win for us should be a lot of momentum to our team.”

Roy’s first season as the Avalanche coach has already been magical. His rhetorical question — Why not us? — has become a mantra and, of course, a Twitter hashtag. The team had not put up 100 points in a season since 2004, the year after Roy retired as a player. It had not finished first in its division since the year before that, Roy’s final season as its goaltender.

For many of its young players, including four of the six on the ice for the tying goal — Barrie, Johnson, Landeskog and MacKinnon — it was the first NHL playoff game of their lives.

“I was nervous early,” Johnson admitted. “I was a little jittery, but I got my legs under me so I could move my feet, felt a lot better about the game, and what a comeback. That’s the kind of stuff you dream about when you’re a kid, is winning playoff games like that.”

“It was a lot better than I even dreamed of,” MacKinnon said. “Before the game, I got to call my dad and it was just kind of cool. All my life this is kind of what I was preparing for. I’ve always wanted to play in the playoffs. I had goosebumps twice in the game — when we came out and kind of skated around, the fans gave us a standing ovation, and they gave us another standing ovation after the game. It was definitely a pretty special feeling for everybody.”

“It beat all my expectations,” echoed Landeskog. “It was unbelievable. The goosebumps I had skating out there for the start of the game and seeing all those pom-poms, I was just smiling and my heartbeat was racing. I was looking up and it was unbelievable.”

By the final minutes of the third period, the goosebumps were long gone. Playing for what seemed like an eternity in front of an open net, the young Avs came of age.

“It was definitely an emotional roller coaster,” said MacKinnon, the favorite for the league’s rookie-of-the-year award. “I think we got on the ice at 3:05 of the third and got off at 13 seconds or something. I can’t say that I have a ton of energy in the tank right now. I’m so glad that we had an intermission after the third period.”

“They’re young guys, they’re having fun out here,” said a smiling Stastny, the old man of the final six at 28. “MacKinnon’s 18. I don’t think he worries if he’s playing fast or not, he keeps playing the same way. Maybe we were a little nervous, maybe we were back a little bit, but all year we kind of played the same game and kept going at ‘em and that’s what the focus was.”

The Avs played far from their best game. Minnesota dominated the second period, when it took a 4-2 lead. In the subsequent intermission, Roy told his team just to win the third period. Don’t worry about anything else; just win the period. With a little help from his riverboat gamble, that’s what they did.


Lunch with George Karl

Image

Had lunch Monday with George at Domo, the Japanese restaurant on Osage Street between downtown and the Colfax viaduct. George used to take his staff there when he was coaching the Nuggets because it’s near the Pepsi Center and has big tables. Diners at other tables recognized him and greeted him warmly as we wound our way to a corner table. I don’t know anything about Japanese food, but lunch was very good. Here’s the conversation:

So how’s the year been for you, your season off?

This is the time of year that I can’t deny I miss the gym more now. The excitement of playoff basketball and the last two or three weeks of the season always having some type of big game every night is fun. ESPN has been a good way for me to kind of stay connected to a lot of basketball people, so that’s been good. That’s been a positive. And I can’t deny I’ve enjoyed my freedom to be a parent and be a dad. I didn’t have that luxury in season. I’m going to go to Germany here in a couple weeks, go see Coby.

Last time we talked you were getting ready to go see him play in Italy.

Yeah, he went from Italy to Germany. He got cut in Italy and got picked up. He’s actually playing with Michael Stockton, John Stockton’s son. So it’ll be fun. They’re in a big playoff race.

Do you have playoff duties at ESPN?

I think in May I have five or six days in Bristol. I have no assignments as of yet and I don’t think I’ll get ‘em because I haven’t requested ‘em.

So you have to be back from Europe for that.

Yeah, I’ll miss the first, probably, two or three games of the first round. You have everything over there except DirecTV. They will have a game every night, but it’s usually a day behind.

I see where ESPN has given you a new name.

Swaggy G?

Swaggy G. Gucci Mane? Really? Isn’t he in jail?

Yeah. I know nothing. I mean, I read some stuff about it. I knew more about some of the guys who got killed — Tupac and Biggie. But it was totally an April Fool’s thing, which people didn’t even figure out. And what’s funny is ESPN absolutely loved it. I got compliments from guys on top.

Yeah, the YouTube clip is all over the place.

So, how close did you come, if at all, to talking to anybody about getting back into coaching?

There were a couple of rumblings around January, but the teams cleaned their acts up and started playing better.

So you never had any serious conversations of any kind?

No. And I’m not sure . . . what’s funny is, I want to coach. I’m excited and I’m healthy, probably healthier than I’ve ever been to coach in a long time. There’s a little urgency that says I’m not going to go crazy. In the last six weeks, I’ve gotten sad about what’s going on in Denver. I mean, I feel bad for the players.

Obviously, there’ve been injuries, but when you look at the way they’re playing versus the way they played a year ago, what do you think happened?

The only thing I can say is losing is a bad coach. I’ve said that a lot. It’s like last night [Sunday night in Houston, a 130-125 overtime loss that dropped the Nuggets to 33-44]. They found a way to lose that game. Good teams find a way to win and bad teams find a way to lose. I mean, they had to work hard to find that road last night and they did it. You know, some nights they didn’t play the right way. They didn’t play hard enough. I still don’t know what their personality is. I’m not sure they do. The injuries can cause that. If you use injuries as a crutch, it’ll kill you. It’ll destroy you. And they had enough talent to be good. They had enough talent to be successful. But they could never get over . . . they never could get to that switch of commitment.

Are we seeing everything Wilson Chandler has? When I look at his talent level, I think, this guy could be a big-time player.

I think Wilson’s a starter in the NBA. I think he has another step to make that he didn’t make this year. I think the thing that hurt them more than anything is [losing Andre] Iguodala. I think Iguodala was a rock that you could put pieces around, that you could make it work. And I think when you took that rock out, this team kind of flushed it — bad karma and bad luck.

What did you make of the Andre Miller thing?

I felt bad. I thought Andre deserved better.

Did you have any contact with Andre during that period?

He and I exchanged texts. That’s it. I think it hurt their team.

My understanding is it was the organization that said, basically, ‘You can’t come back,’ and forced that two-month limbo where he’s nowhere, he’s not being dealt, everybody’s just sort of stuck.

I have no idea. I wouldn’t be bragging about it because I think it was a mistake. To me, from the outside, and what I know, it seems you won a battle and lost the war. Maybe coach Shaw and the coaching staff felt they had to do that at that time.

Where should they go from here? Let’s say you were back in your old role in Milwaukee and you were in those front office personnel conversations. Where would you go from here with this roster?

I think the personnel is OK. I think if you fill in the holes that you need, and a coach should have input into that. It’s more what Brian thinks he wants than me. We felt we were a shooter away from being really, really good. I thought the mistake they made last year was they brought two shooters in. Their whole guard corps was offensive oriented.

You’re talking about [Randy] Foye and Nate [Robinson].

Yeah, you lost the best defender on your team and you addressed it with Nate and Foye. Early in the season, I thought everybody was getting in everybody’s way. The same with the bigs. You brought in [Darrell] Arthur and early in the season you mix in Arthur and [Kenneth] Faried and [J.J.] Hickson and [Timofey] Mozgov and everybody was bumping noses. I think there’s a lot of over-coverage, you know?

Too many small guards? 

There’s just too many people that don’t have an identity yet as to who they are. I mean, I think you have Ty [Lawson] and now I think Faried has got it back, but the first 60 games of the season, I thought he was somewhat lost out there.

What I was saying before was I think they have enough good players. Now, can they make them more than they are, which is what we did last year. But I definitely think they have enough . . . their face is different, but they still have skilled basketball players, as much as we probably had. I don’t think JaVale [McGee] is a legitimate excuse because Mozgov had a good year. And I don’t think they could have played a lot more together. I don’t think you want to play Mozgov and JaVale together.

Gallo is a legit excuse.

But if you didn’t know that was going to happen . . . you should have known that last year.

What do you make of the Mark Jackson situation?

This squid is very chewy.

It is.

I don’t know. It seemed to me it must have been some type of . . . from the outside, it seems like there’s a loyalty factor going on. There seems to be some kind of . . . to release people, that usually comes because as a coach, you don’t feel like they’re loyal to you.

But it’s two years in a row, right? You had a similar situation with [Mike] Malone last year.

I’m guessing. I don’t know.

Do players keep in touch with you?

I’ve talked to a couple guys. I’d say four or five reached out to me during the year. I saw Wilson Chandler about two weeks ago in a telephone store. We sat down and talked for a bit. I texted Ty a couple times. Sometimes he texted back, sometimes he didn’t. Haven’t heard much from Faried. Gallo and I have texted each other a couple times. Evan’s reached out. Jordan Hamilton reached out a couple times.

Those guys are on that list you were talking about, right? Guys who don’t yet have a real identity? Evan and Jordan and Quincy Miller?

When you brought Nate Robinson and Foye in, you killed Fournier. Your decision to bring those players in slowed his development. The coaches want to play Nate because he’s won games. Evan is learning how to win games.

But don’t you think they were in a position when Iguodala leaves, they’re not really expecting that, [GM Tim] Connelly is walking in the door, you’ve just lost 40 minutes a night, they’re just taking whoever’s out there. Foye is part of a sign-and-trade after Iguodala’s made a deal with Golden State that’s like, cover your ass, and Nate is just a free agent who’s out there. You’ve got to fill up your roster. You’ve got to get some points. I mean, it didn’t seem to me there was any grand plan. They’re just scrambling.

The only thing about all the changes is why didn’t someone hire a older guy? What doesn’t the coaching staff hire an older guy? Why doesn’t personnel hire an older guy, an experienced guy, to walk you through some of the nightmares these younger guys haven’t experienced? That goes off in my head because I’m an older guy and I like an older guy next to me. I want some guy that’s going to say, ‘George, you’re off base here. You’re wrong.’ And I just think if you had maybe an older guy there, the Andre Miller thing might not happen.

Might have been able to defuse it in some way?

When an incident like that happens, sometimes the coach goes a little crazy. He’s angry. And you have to hold his hand. You’ve got to walk him through it. It’s sad because I think both of them suffered. I think Andre suffered and I think Brian [Shaw] suffered because of it.

It was so strange because nothing like that had ever happened to Andre before, as far as I know. He was always considered a good locker room guy, I thought. Was I wrong?

He’s a great locker room guy. The thing that’s going to live with us is what happened. Whatever, 15, 16 years of being a great teammate and a great locker room guy is going to go by the wayside. There’ll be a cloud. I mean, I think Andre will get through it, but there’s a cloud.

By the same token, Brian Shaw was always known as a good locker room guy, a strong locker room guy. A guy who could bring together disparate personalities. The Shaq/Kobe stories. Stuff like that.

I don’t know. I mean, the only thing, I thought he took some shots at some guys that were really good competitors. I thought that was unfair because those guys competed for me like they were warriors, and they believed and they trusted that they could beat anybody. In six months, they’re different? I mean, I thought that was a cheap shot a little bit.

At?

At the team. He never mentioned names, but he constantly called them out for not being good competitors, they don’t know what championship basketball’s about. All I’m saying is there’s an experience about winning championships that should be on your roster if you’re trying to win a championship. I’ve been on a path to a championship every year of my career. Haven’t gotten there. But that means I don’t know the path to a championship? Or is it, you have to win the championship to know the path? I think too much is now predicated on Brian Shaw being a championship player or coach, and he knows the path. Well, he’s never guided that truck down that path. He’s always been in the back seat. And I think that was offensive to the players that had such a great year last year. To discount it in that way bothered them a great deal.

So, who wins it all this year?

I’m hoping San Antonio. I think the West is going to win.

Who’s going to come out of the East? Is it either Miami or Indiana? Is there any other possibility?

I think it’s Miami. I like what Brooklyn has done with their team, but I think in the playoffs that’s going to turn on them a little bit. They’re playing so small. They’re playing [Paul] Pierce at four and getting away with it, which I think was a great move. I think Jason [Kidd] did a great job of kind of helping their offense out that way.

And who’s the biggest threat to San Antonio in the West, do you think?

I think it’s the Clippers.

Really. Why them more than OKC?

I think right now they have better distribution of their skills and talents. They can come at you a lot of different ways. OKC, [Kevin] Durant and [Russell] Westbrook are big time, but I just like Chris Paul and Doc [Rivers] and Blake Griffin. Their defense hasn’t gotten to where I thought it would get but I think they still could win a game with their defense in a playoff situation. They’ve got shooters all over the place. (Jamal) Crawford can win you a game. (J.J.) Redick can win you a game. (Jared) Dudley can probably win you a game. And Blake and Chris Paul, I mean, we’re talking about guys that if you’re MVPing it, don’t they get two guys in the top seven or eight?

I don’t know if people take Blake that seriously yet.

When they played without Chris Paul, he was unbelievable.

All right, now let’s really test your skill because this won’t come out until after, but I’m asking you now, who wins the NCAA championship tonight?

I think Kentucky’s going to win, but I want Connecticut to win so bad.

Really, why? Because of Kevin [Ollie]?

I coached Kevin.

How long did you have him?

Two years in Milwaukee.

What was he like as a player for you?

Incredible integrity. Just a no-nonsense competitor. Made his career basically working hard.

Why do you think Kentucky’s going to win?

[John] Calipari has this karma. But I think Connecticut can win because of their guards. The best players on the court are going to be their guards. They’ve done a great job of negating size because their guard play is so much higher level. I think college basketball, even though we need big guys, the best guard is really important. If he’s the best player on the court, it’s a really important part of college basketball.

All the college coaches are saying again, for about the 90th time, that the one-and-done rule has got to be changed. Obviously, that’s up to the NBA. Do you see that happening?

Yeah. I think management wants it. The organizations want it to happen. I don’t know if the players are going to fight it. I think they’ll get two years. I think they want more than that. They kind of want the baseball rule, which I think would be great. I’d like three years. And then the high school kid that’s good enough to do it, you let him go. Cause I don’t think we’re going to overload our rosters with project high school kids. If a kid is good enough to play, we’ll take him in the top 15 or 20.

Will the D-league ever get to the point where it’s an actual minor league, like in baseball, where if you don’t want to go to college but you’re not ready for the show, you can come out after high school and go play in the D-league a couple years and hone your skills?

I don’t think it gets there until every team has its own [D-league] team. This hybrid stuff and owners not putting in the money . . . why don’t we have a team in Broomfield? ‘We.’ Why don’t the Denver Nuggets have a team in Broomfield?

Ha. You can’t shake it. Still like New Orleans? You were excited about their roster the last time we talked.

I’d say yes, but I think they’ve underachieved and they’ve underperformed to the point that it made me a little nervous. They’ve been hit with injuries too. [Ryan] Anderson, the shooter, was out the whole year almost, and [Jrue] Holiday. Seemed like they had chemistry issues a little bit.

Does this sabbatical remind you of the last sabbatical, the one before the Nuggets?

It reminds me a little bit. But I think my whole thing is, when I went through that one, I wanted to get back really fast. Now I want to get back, but there’s a window in my thought process of, what else can I do? I don’t think I want a job other than coaching, but are there adventures or an entrepreneur mentality of, for three months I’ve got to do this? I’m open to filling up my time in a good way.

Have you had any inspiration as to what sort of activities they might be?

Cancer-related stuff is always a possibility. Getting involved more in my foundation and more with some cancer situations. I think the American Cancer Society is doing a great deal for navigation for patients right now. Livestrong has always been very good in that area. I have a bunch of people who are talking about maybe trying to do some things on obesity for children. I think so much of our cancer now is being caused by obesity and what we eat. So let’s go to the problem. And there’s always the possibility of doing a book.

If I may ask you, what do you weigh now?

I weigh about 245.

What was the most you ever weighed?

290, 295.

A lot of that loss was right around your last cancer battle, no?

Yeah, I went down to probably 235, maybe 230.

When you came out of that, did you change your habits completely in terms of what you ate, what you drank?

I don’t think I did completely, but I did a good job, I think, in the mornings and the afternoons of eating right. And then if I want to goof around at nighttime, I could. Basically the rule I kind of live by is eat real food. Just don’t eat junk. Don’t eat processed, don’t eat fried, don’t eat sugar. If you don’t have cancer, eating sugar’s OK, but it’s not the best thing in the world. For a cancer person, you should never eat sugar because it feeds the cells. So my mornings and lunch, I’m trying to get my six servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit. However I do that, with a green drink or having a smart breakfast. I know we’ve been saying that for 50 years, but it still hasn’t gotten through to our people, to our kids.

Seems like there are a lot of people out there now who think this is a big part of the problem — that a lot of Americans don’t eat real food. Have you come around to that position?

I’ve come around to the position that over 25 percent of our cancers are caused by what we feed our bodies.

Where does that come from?

I think the American Cancer Society has actually published that figure.

And that’s because of fast food, fried food, processed food, all of the above?

Yeah, if we feed our immune system correctly, it’s a hell of a piece of equipment. But if what we eat has to be interpreted by our immune system, it sometimes forgets about the cancers that are growing over here or the infection that’s growing over here or a virus over here. There are switches that switch off, and that’s what causes cancers. There’s some genetic makeup to it, too.

But I think the world of health care is so crazy right now because there’s tremendous knowledge, tremendous information. The internet is feeding it every day. But we don’t have a health care system that we trust. No one trusts it. The doctors don’t trust it. The patients don’t trust it. The pharmaceuticals don’t trust the insurance companies. The insurance companies don’t trust the hospitals.

And it’s billions of dollars, so it’s capitalistically driven. It kind of drives me crazy a little bit, and the government drives me crazy a little bit, too, because we’re still hung up on spending trillions of dollars on military institutions that, to me, is . . . who are we afraid of? Terrorists? Yes, but we don’t need atomic bombs for terrorists. We don’t need new bombers for terrorists. We don’t need a billion dollars spent on a new fighter jet. We’ve already got the best fighter jets. Our educational system, our infrastructure, and the world is changing so fast. I mean, it’s moving actually too fast for me. I want it to slow down and it’s not slowing down.

Do you have any interest in running for office?

I have at times, but government is so slow-moving.

It sounds like you’re really passionate about some of these subjects, though.

Colorado is a great state and I would love to see Colorado be a kind of a leading voice in environment, a leading voice in cooperation, a leading voice in finding these health care answers. I’m a big believer that if all these institutions — there’s billions of dollars here — if they could come together and work as a team, there would be more money there. It’ll work better and everybody will benefit.

It’s like a team system. Putting five guys who are really talented together and telling them, ‘Hey, if you win, you’ll make more money than if you just do your thing by yourself,’ I think the same thing applies to the health care system. If they would just say, ‘Listen, I’ll help you there and you help me here,’ then I think it would run smoother and you wouldn’t need all the bureaucratic processes where we spend billions and billions of dollars covering each other’s butts.

I think there’s a small undercurrent of a revolution in our country that wants it done the right way. And politics and capitalism have kind of confused it all. I mean, do you understand the housing failure, the mortgage crisis? Have you ever read a book on that? I can’t figure it out. It sounds like a Ponzi scheme. It sounds like something that if a criminal got caught in, they’d be thrown in jail.

When you talk about spending priorities you don’t agree with, I understand how that money could be reallocated to infrastructure or education. But health care, we already spend more money than anybody else in the world. So why would we need more money? Would more money solve the health care problem?

One, the idea of everybody having health insurance is not a bad idea. But if it bankrupts our country, it’s a bad idea. But it’s because of some other things in the budget too. We’ve got to worry about taking care of our country. What I know about economics, and I’m not good with it, it’s about not spending our money wisely. I mean, we’re going into Saks over here and Nordstrom’s over here is having a sale selling the same things that Saks is selling, but we go into Saks and still spend the money at Saks.

The worldwide competition now . . . I mean, you have to understand there are more doctorates in China than we have people.

More doctorates than we have people?

So I’ve been told. Two hundred million people in China have a doctorate.

We’ve got over 300 million people here.

OK, well, maybe I’m a little short. But think about that. That scares me more than about the military that China’s going to have. Someone said that a computer company in China had 350 high-tech jobs. You had to know a lot to get these jobs. And they got 35,000 applications.

Why is that scary?

It’s kind of like, what are we the best at now? Let’s say in sports. What’s our best sport?

Football. Commercially, and nobody else plays it.

But are we the best at basketball still? We’re probably still the best at basketball. Are we the best golfers anymore?

No, probably not.

Are we the best tennis players?

No.

We’re not the best soccer players.

Never were.

We might not be the best baseball players.

That’s true. That’s very competitive.

You know, we grew up in the ’70s and ’80s where we were the best at all that.

We were never the best soccer players. We were only occasionally the best tennis players.

I don’t know. Jimmy Connors was pretty good.

He was. So was John McEnroe. But Bjorn Borg was the best player of that generation.

Yeah, but we were right there. Do we have a guy now even in the top 10?

No. In tennis we have really fallen off, no doubt. You’re getting very nationalistic in your old age.

I’ve got a lot of time on my hands. I think a lot.

How’s the foundation doing?

We do a very nice job in a very small way. We do a nice job in the four or five foundations that we work with. Haven’t figured out how to expand it. I don’t know if I have enough money or time to expand it. To expand it, you’d have to hire some people probably.

Do you have a staff there at all?

No. We have a board. We raise money and we give it to other foundations. We’re kind of a United Way. We maybe bring in a quarter of a million dollars and give each foundation a quarter of that.

Do you still feel as passionately about that, what is it, four years removed now from your most recent battle?

What I think our medical system needs to work on is helping the patient mentally understand his challenge and his journey. I think we’re getting better in that area, navigationally. When you’re told you have to go through 40 treatments of radiation and eight weeks of chemotherapy, they should be able to tell me what that’s going to do to me. And if I have questions I should have someone who can give me answers. I think I have the top notch of the insurance world and I’m not sure I got all the answers I should have gotten.

What surprised you? What were you not expecting to happen to you?

I had blood clots because of my inactivity. Don’t get me wrong, I was told not to be inactive. It’s on me that I got the blood clots. I think I could have been educated a little more stringently about that. An example in my treatment is I found out later that I had this gene that creates blood clots. Well, they found that after I got the blood clots. OK, cancer treatment has been known to create blood clots. Why don’t we test all patients for that gene and then put them on a higher alert? And I’m not blaming my treatment. This is all on me.

An example I’ve made quite frequently is in the middle of my treatment, Kim gets a bill for $85,000 saying that my treatment was experimental and was not OK’d by the insurance company and you will be held responsible for this $85,000. I just told Kim, ‘Don’t worry about it; we’re not paying that bill.’ I could have written a check. Just imagine if this is someone that made $80,000 a year. I got it taken care of, but it wasn’t easy.

How did you take care of it?

We had to go through some financial people at Swedish Hospital and explain to them that this was not experimental. You had to get the doctors to sign off. You had to go through a lot of b.s. and some people might not have had the confidence or intelligence to do that. And I felt I had great care. I’m just saying I’m not a guy in Topeka, Kansas who might not be getting the best care. I don’t know. We can do better. I think the whole thing comes down to, we can do better.

The health industry is very strange. Whatever you want to call it. I don’t think it’s chaos, it’s what I all chaortic. There’s an order to the chaos.

Great word. Chaortic.

It’s now become a leadership word. It’s in some leadership books. They don’t want too much structure. They want a leader to be versatile enough to handle mistakes, confusion and problems with an order. That’s what they call chaortic. It’s the action of bringing order to confusion or frustration. I think Mark Warkentien used that word when we had J.R. [Smith].

Do you stay in touch with Wark at all?

I talked to him just briefly when Phil [Jackson] got the [Knicks] job. I’ve heard from the rumblings that Phil’s going to want his people in there, but I don’t really know.

Who do you think gets that coaching job?

I think it’ll be an intellectually philosophical dude, and Steve Kerr fits that category a little bit.

They say that Golden State is interested in Kerr, too. That’s one of the rumors floating around Mark Jackson.

I don’t get that. Why would you hire Steve Kerr?

He’s a smart guy. He’s never coached, but he’s a smart guy. How many openings do you think there’ll be?

Last year there were so many, usually it goes the other way. Last year, there were, what, nine, 10, 11? I think it goes the other way. Under five, probably.

And is it a big deal to you to get one this summer, or is it sort of, if it happens, it happens.

It’s bigger than if it happens, it happens. I want to work. I want to coach. I’m ready. I’m pumped. What we did last year, I want to expand it. When you sit around all day, you have plenty of time to study the game and get the pulse of the game. I probably watch more games now than I watch when I’m coaching. I mean, I prepare, but very seldom do I sit there at 5 o’clock and watch games until 11 o’clock. I’m not saying I do that every night now, but I do it once or twice a week, probably. So you’re seeing three or four games and you’re scanning maybe another one or two games. So I’m excited about that possibility.

Would you ever coach at any other level?

I just wish Kaci was a little older. I would think about coaching in Europe.

Is that right?

I would, but I don’t know if Kim and Kaci would.

Don’t you? It did wonders for Kobe (Bryant), spending part of his childhood in Italy.

No question. Both my (older) kids, Coby and Kelci, say it was a building block in their lives. [Karl coached Real Madrid in the 1989-90 and 1991-92 seasons.] But it’s a little different over there now.

How old is Kaci now?

Kaci’s nine.

Are you so committed to that family stability that she would stay in school in Denver even if you took a job somewhere else in the country?

I think that’s a good possibility. I mean, we love Denver, and the school that she’s at is fantastic. Before I came here I wrote a letter trying to raise money for them. You never know, though. My gut says the first year probably would be an experiment.

You still think it will happen? If you were to lay odds on it, do you think it will happen or do you think you might be done?

I think I’ll get back in, but I’m not sure it’s going to be this summer.

But you think at some point it will happen.

I would just think after the year we had . . . So much of the stuff that we did I think we still are very good at. But I can’t deny that rolls around my head every once in a while.

Not getting back in?

[Nods]

Last time, you were out a whole year and then part of the next year, right?

Till January.

So you still got time.

I hope so!

You took a little heat after our last conversation.

About Iguodala?

About Iguodala.

[Shrugs] Hopefully you can write this time without me getting bombed.

Have you had any contact with him?

Iguodala?

Right.

No. In fact, I was going to text him today because he donated a big hunk of money to my foundation. I was going to give him a dinner. I’m going to make that available to him when he gets into town on the 15th, but I don’t know if he’ll be available.

Tell me something you’ve learned from all these NBA games you’ve watched this year.

The game of basketball is still about flow and rhythm and unity.


Shake, rattle and roll

Image

The day begins with a man bundled up like a polar explorer riding a lawn mower around an already-manicured outfield while another man pounds the dirt around home plate into submission and another carefully unwraps the pitcher’s mound

It ends with the man whose Twitter handle is @Chuck_Nazty putting himself in the baseball history books, the Rockies’ fifth starter of the year showing the first four how it’s done and the most beautiful swing in the game launching a ball so high and far it almost crashed the party in a string of drinking houses now occupying the previously uncharted third level in right field.

They shook, they rattled, they rolled. You could almost hear Big Joe Turner.

“Pretty much couldn’t have gone any better,” manager Walt Weiss said.

The Rockies lost three of their first four in Miami to a team not expected to do much this year. They hit adequately, but not in the clutch, and pitched poorly. It looked a lot like last year. Neither the batting order nor the pitching staff looked anywhere near as good as the spring previews of coming attractions.

So the traditional pilgrimage to 20th and Blake for the home opener carried a certain trepidation that all the offseason optimism was manufactured, a product of our pitiful wistfulness, sure to be dashed again. Then Charlie Blackmon, a.k.a. Nazty, doubled to lead off the first and scored on a Michael Cuddyer single to give the Rocks a 1-0 lead.

“I was just happy to get a hit,” he said afterward. “You go in there, you’re like, all right, first inning, you’re leading off, like, I’m just trying to jump-start the offense. Usually, I’m just trying to get a hit. And if I get one hit, come out and try and get two hits. And you just take it from there.”

He came out and got two hits in the third, singling and coming around to score, along with Cuddyer, on a triple down the right field line by Carlos Gonzalez.

Blackmon homered to right in the fourth, a no-doubter driving in D.J. LeMahieu as well. This made it 6-0 and Nazty got a little cocky.

The next time he came to bat, with the score 6-1, he doubled to the opposite field leading off the sixth, his fourth consecutive hit. On the first subsequent pitch, to Cuddyer, Blackmon took off for third. There are a number of reasons one might have advised him not to do this. One would be the old baseball rule, never make the first out of an inning at third base. You’re already in scoring position at second and the meat of your batting order is coming up. Another would be that the meat of your batting order consists of Cuddyer, CarGo and Troy Tulowitzki.

Anyway, he takes off on the first pitch from lefty Joe Thatcher. Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero fires the ball to third. Third baseman Martin Prado catches it and lays his glove, wrapped around the ball, in front of the bag. This allows Blackmon to tag himself out by sliding into it. Which he does, pinning Prado’s glove against the base with his spikes and forcing him from the game with a bleeding hand. That steal attempt is the only reason Blackmon wasn’t on base for CarGo’s 457-foot rocket to right. Otherwise, he would have scored five runs instead of four.

Of course, by then it was academic. The score was 8-1. It would become 10-1 in the seventh, when Blackmon’s single to right, his fifth hit, drove in pinch-hitter Brandon Barnes, one of the alleged contenders for the center field job Blackmon wants, who had just gotten his first hit in six tries on the young season, a triple to right-center.

It didn’t look as though Blackmon would get a sixth plate appearance. The Rocks had two out and nobody on in their half of the eighth. Two batters remained before the lineup got back up to Blackmon. But LeMahieu and Barnes both walked and here came Chuck Nazty one more time.

He lifted a slicing drive down the left-field line, where nobody plays a left-handed hitter. It dropped just inside the line and presto, hit No. 6 and double No. 3.

“I didn’t even know where it went when I hit it,” Blackmon said. “So you know you’re having a good day when you just kind of hit a ball and it ends up two inches inside the line. Just one of those days.”

That drove in the last two of the Rocks’ runs in a 12-2 romp that joined a list of memorable Colorado openers including EY’s leadoff homer in the inaugural, Dante’s walkoff in Coors Field’s debut and a Clint Barmes walkoff that briefly awoke Rockies fans in 2005.

“He’ll be in there tomorrow,” Weiss said when asked about a revolving door in center field that also includes Barnes, Drew Stubbs and Corey Dickerson in the season’s early going. “I talked about it a lot this spring. Charlie did a heck of a job for us last year — the last month of the season, played really well. Those guys are all going to play. All of them bring something to the party. But Charlie’s done a great job last year and he’s off to a great start already this year.”

Through five games, Blackmon is batting .563 with a slugging percentage of .938 and an OPS . . . oh, never mind. He staked a claim to that job, though. CarGo said twice he thought Blackmon has proved he deserves to be an everyday player.

“Baseball’s funny,” Blackmon said. “As good as today was, I could be just as bad tomorrow. So I’m not going to try and get too excited about it. That’s the beauty of baseball — good or bad, you’ve got to come out the next day, completely forget what you did the day before and try and win a baseball game. So that’s kind of where I’m at right now.”

While Blackmon was becoming the first (and only other) Rockies player to put up six hits in a game since Andres Galarraga in 1995, the fifth pitcher to start a game this season, Juan Nicasio, was correcting the first four. With Jhoulys Chacin and Tyler Chatwood out with injuries, Nicasio isn’t really the fifth starter, but Weiss held him back for the home opener because he thought his familiarity with the ballpark would give him a better chance than a newcomer like Jordan Lyles to ignore the hoopla of Opening Day.

Nicasio became the first Rockies starter to see the seventh inning this season. He repeatedly threw strike one, a strategy several of his teammates had assiduously avoided in Miami. He came out after giving up one run and four hits in seven innings. He threw just 87 pitches, 64 of them strikes. In addition to his usual gas, he commanded a tough slider and even mixed in a changeup.

“Juan did a great job,” Weiss said. “It was pretty much what the doctor ordered. We needed a good start and Juan got us deep in the game. Swung the bats well, manufactured some runs early when we had to and then had some big shots. CarGo, of course, Charlie. Good day all around. Pretty much couldn’t have gone any better.”

CarGo was drilling shots into the second deck in batting practice before the game when Weiss told him he might be the first to launch a ball into the new party deck looking down on right field from high above. Gonzalez just missed, pounding a Thatcher slider off the facing of the third deck.

“Nice and easy swing, a slider hanging right down the middle, and, you know, I got all of it,” CarGo said with a smile.

“It was a tough road trip. We could have split, but that’s going to happen. It’s a long season. A lot of things are going to happen. But the one thing that you can control is just showing up the next day with the same enthusiasm. That’s what we did today, in front of a lot of people. I think there is a lot of excitement, a lot of energy, so that really helps us.”

More than 49,000 happy souls — well, most of them were happy — wandered out into LoDo afterward thinking these guys just might prove to be pretty good companions during the summer to come. This was less a contest than a party, a celebration of baseball’s return.

“I think it’s the first time I’ve seen 6-for-6,” CarGo said. “I was talking to the guys on the bench. I don’t think I ever hit 6-for-6 even in little leagues.”

It’s a long season, as someone is sure to remind you if you offer even a hint of enthusiasm over Friday’s lidlifter. Spring will turn to summer. The Broncos will get back together for another run and the Rocks will barely be half done. Anything can happen. But coming off two last-place seasons in a row, the opener was a baseball booster shot. In the bars of LoDo, the buzz was all about the Nazty.


Descending into the bizarre

Part of the charm of the Denver Nuggets throughout their history has been their fondness for departing the mundane world and exploring the strange and bizarre. Even the truly cuckoo at times.

Whether it was Paul Westhead encouraging opponents to score, LaPhonso Ellis inexplicably developing holes in his kneecaps or Bill Hanzlik’s team threatening to put up the worst win-loss record of all time, the Nuggets have found ways to mesmerize even when they were terrible, in the manner of a train wreck.

This year, they are back at it. In what is shaping up to be one of the most disappointing seasons in their history, going from a franchise NBA-record 57 wins last year to missing the playoffs this year, at least two developments qualify as bizarre.

The first was the decision to perform reconstructive surgery on forward Danilo Gallinari’s torn anterior cruciate knee ligament 10 months after he suffered the injury, which I wrote about here.

The second is ongoing. It began with point guard Andre Miller calling out first-year coach Brian Shaw in front of the bench nearly a month and a half ago in what turned into the first “Did Not Play — Coach’s Decision” of the 15-year veteran’s NBA career. It continued when the team suspended Miller for two games without pay, rescinded the suspension the next day and turned it into a personal leave with pay, which has dragged on ever since.

Set aside for the moment that this conversion turned punishment into reward, allowing Miller to continue receiving his $5 million salary for doing nothing as a consequence of acting out.

It went from strange to inexplicable when the other two point guards on the roster — first Nate Robinson, then Ty Lawson — went out with injuries. This series of events left the Nuggets with three point guards on the 15-man roster, none of them available for duty. Playing without a quarterback — shooting guard Randy Foye filled in, putting up 14 assists, 11 turnovers and a horrific plus/minus of minus 58 in two games as the starter at the point — the Nuggets were blown out by Indiana and Minnesota to close out a dreadful 0-4 road trip that brought a merciful end to the pre-All-Star break portion of their schedule.

On the bright side, no member of the organization was invited to take part in any of the five events scheduled in New Orleans this weekend, so they should have time to rest up.

With 31 games remaining in the season, the Nuggets are 24-27, six games out of the Western Conference playoff bracket. Earlier in the season, the club’s new brain trust, particularly Shaw, liked to mention how similar the record was to last year’s team at the same point because last year’s team started slowly owing to a heavy dose of early road games. They don’t talk about that so much anymore. Last year’s team was 33-18 at this point.

Of course, that was a very different group. It included Gallinari and Andre Iguodala, for example. It did not include Foye, Robinson, Darrell Arthur or J.J. Hickson. George Karl was the coach and Masai Ujiri the GM.

So we asked Ujiri’s replacement in the front office, Tim Connelly, to join me and Tom Green on the radio show to explain what he’s doing about all this. Connelly was good enough to call in from New Orleans yesterday. Here’s that conversation:

Me: Let’s start with the question that fans are asking, I think, mostly, which is: You’re out of point guards on your team and you’ve got a point guard under contract who’s been away from the team for about a month. What is the impediment to the logical solution to that problem, which would be to bring Andre Miller back to run the point for you for a little while?

Tim Connelly: Sure. Well, we’re still looking at all options. Certainly, what happened, there were no winners. Andre’s a pro and a great guy. I think emotions got the best of him. Having a first-year head coach, as an organization we thought it was important that our guys knew in the locker room that we would deal with it internally. And certainly, that’s an option. We’ve looked at a couple different things and that’s one of them.

Tom Green: That is a consideration, though? Is anyone with the organization talking with Andre about that?

Connelly: Yeah, I was with Andre yesterday in the gym. We worked out yesterday. Two days ago, I’m sorry. I talk to Andre all the time.

Me: So Tim, overall, there’s a sort of an inflection point here where the first half of the season or so your team looked to be at least in range of a playoff berth. As time goes on now, since you’ve lost both of your point guards, it just doesn’t seem like that’s in the cards, at least at the moment. You’re six games out of the playoff bracket. So how do you look at that? Are you rebuilding, are you looking for a good draft pick at this point? Are you still competing for the playoffs? What’s your view of that?

Connelly: Certainly, we’re disappointed. I don’t think any of us expected to be here. And it’s easy to blame injuries, but in this league there’s no one to blame but yourselves, obviously. So every day I think we have to be realistic with where we are, and right now we’re not where we want to be. We’re too late in the season to talk about posturing for draft picks. I think what we have to do now is determine of the guys who are healthy who can we rely upon moving forward, both this season and next.

Green: So when you guys hit the road, before the All-Star break, you’re above .500, but this road trip obviously has been a terrible one. It’s been four games when you guys have really been blown out.

Connelly: It’s been awful. Awful.

Green: Yeah, so how do you look at that as a GM? Obviously, you’re taking a big-picture look at things as a general manager, but do those games reflect on the organization, the players, the coaches, in a way that you need to be concerned about?

Connelly: Well, certainly, like I mentioned earlier, no one’s feeling sorry for us. A lot of teams deal with injuries, maybe not to the extent that we are, but it is what it is. And I can take losses. What I struggle with is a lack of effort. Moving forward, I think it’s important for any guy that’s going to wear the Nuggets uniform, we’re going to make sure that he’s a guy that’s going to leave it on the court. With all the injuries, I understand we’re kind of behind the 8-ball a bit, and I think the coaching staff’s done a great job. But I think as a front office guy and as fans, we all expect more.

Me: Let me get back, Tim, if I can, to the point guard question, because, putting Andre Miller and that situation aside, it would seem that when you run out of point guards, you’d go get one, even if it’s just a D-league guy, if it’s a street free agent, you know, somebody who could run the point. Instead, you’re playing these games with non-point guards running the point, whether it’s Randy Foye or one of your wing guys, and I just wonder why haven’t you brought in at least somebody who fits the job description.

Connelly: Well, we have 15 roster spots. You can’t just call somebody up. The only way we could bring someone in would be a trade or release a player. If we had an empty roster spot, that would be an easy answer and a short-term solution, but we don’t have a roster spot right now.

Me: So have you considered making a transaction in order to create room for a point guard?

Connelly: At the end of the game last night [Wednesday night's 117-90 loss at Minnesota], I considered everything, including walking down to the corner bar.

Green: What about fans? Obviously, the fans are watching and you know what it feels like as a fan to watch your team play like that. So what is your message right now to your fans? Hang in there, the second half’s going to get better? What can you tell people to give them something to hold onto?

Connelly: Well, I think certainly, first of all, apologies over this last road trip. I mean, it’s unacceptable. I like our team when healthy. I don’t know how we would look, but theoretically I think we have a lot of good pieces. We’re not where we want to be. We need to add another piece here or there to be a team that’s going to win meaningful games in the playoffs. But at this moment, apologies, stick with us. Certainly, we’re not happy and we’re not going to stand pat and let this thing devolve any further.

Me: So we’re about a week away from the trade deadline. When you say you’re not going to stand pat, is that a pretty clear signal that you do intend to make a move, or more than one move, between now and a week from now?

Connelly: Sure, I’m certainly hopeful. We’ve been trying for weeks and months. I think we’ll be as aggressive as anybody and certainly we’re aware of the needs that we have. We’re trying to address them prior to the deadline and then after that, through free agency and the draft.

Me: What do you see the needs as being?

Connelly: Clearly, we need to improve our team defense. Certainly, right now, it’s tough playing all these young guys in the sense that deficiencies are expected, not to the degree that we’ve seen recently, I don’t think that’s something that we want to accept and act like it’s the norm. And I think we need one more impact player, regardless of position. Another guy we can count on on a night-to-night basis like we can right now with a guy like Ty or Wilson [Chandler].

Green: The NBA all-star game can be a convention for the league, a chance for GMs, coaches, at times, to get together, or many, just take a break. What’s going to happen for you and what’s going to happen for this team over the next few days? What are you guys going to be doing? Is there going to be some management activities?

Connelly: Well, you know, not specifically. I’m in New Orleans right now. I spent the last three and a half years here. I’m partially down here to check on a condo. But I’m going to meet with several of my buddies and colleagues who hold similar jobs with different teams, but the conversations are always ongoing. It’s good sometimes, though, to be able to look a guy in the eye and see where their interest is and hold their feet to the fire. So I’ll certainly do that over the next couple days prior to coming back to Denver on Saturday.

Me: Obviously, this is a more difficult subject for a general manager to talk about than for fans to talk about, but as fans of the Nuggets look at the 2014 NBA draft, it looks to have a number of at least potential impact players at the top. And you mentioned the need for an impact player, another impact player. You’re in this strange situation where one of the two picks that you’re going to have, yours or the Knicks’, is going to go to Orlando, and even though the Knicks have the worse record, they may have a better chance to end up in the playoffs because of the weakness of the Eastern Conference. So is there any part of you that you permit to consider that from a strategic standpoint — how you get into the lottery and give yourself a chance at one of those impact players?

Connelly: You know, I think if you’re going to take that approach, that’s an approach that probably has to be initiated on draft night. I think when we were somewhat healthy, missing JaVale [McGee] and Gallo, we proved to be a decent team, probably a playoff team. So I think we’re too advanced into the season to really look at that with any chance of it coming to fruition. Despite our recent struggles, we’re still only a couple games under .500. It doesn’t seem sensible at this point. The numbers that you have to get to reach that top six — I think there’s probably a drop-off in the draft — it would be very difficult to get to, so internally it’s not a discussion that makes much sense for us.

Green: I think a lot of people feel bad for coach Shaw. And you say nobody feels sorry for anybody, and I understand that, but Brian Shaw has come in here and it’s been a bit of a mix as far as how this roster has worked out and who’s healthy and who can play in his first year as a head coach. What are the conversations like between you and Brian going forward as far as what he needs for this second part of the season?

Connelly: Sure. Well, we actually laughed about it the other night. We’ve seen everything that you’re going to see in the first five, six months on the job — injuries, the in-house issues we’ve had. I think what he’s going to do is the same thing as we’re going to do, is see who we can rely upon. Out of the players that are healthy presently, and if we make any additions, who are guys that we can count on to kind of get it to where we want to go? Certainly, when he got here, he was very outspoken, as was I. This team has a really proud history of regular season success. For whatever reason, we’ve had trouble once we get to the playoffs. We’d like to be a team that not only gets to the playoffs but is a tough out in the playoffs once we’re there.

Me: Tim, before we let you go, I’ve got to ask you the Gallo question, because I’ve never seen a situation like that, where a guy tore his ACL and had reconstructive surgery 10 months later and starts the clock all over again.

Connelly: Neither have I.

Me: So can you give us any insight into the decision-making process that allowed that to happen, or did that all happen before you got here?

Connelly: It happened before I got here. Certainly, I think, the only insight I can give you is that whatever decision was made by Gallo and the doctor, Gallo’s focus was to return to the court as quickly as possible. Certainly, that didn’t happen. The most recent surgery was fantastic and we expect a fully healthy Gallo for next season. But it’s definitely bizarre, and it’s unfortunate not just for Gallo but kind of having that uncertainty surrounding his return or lack thereof this season. But I don’t know what happened at the time. It was right before I got here.

Me: What is the general rule in terms of who gets to decide that, the player or the team?

Connelly: One hundred percent the player.

Me: So if he says, ‘I’m going this way,’ you have no way to change his mind?

Connelly: No, the only real authority the team has is obviously they can choose to pay or not pay for specific operations or treatments, but ultimately it’s the guy’s body, so he’s going to have final say.

We have talked before about the big decisions that led the Nuggets to this point — the failure to compete financially to keep Ujiri, the firing of Karl, the miscalculation on Iguodala. Collectively, these represented the major fork in the road. Team president Josh Kroenke, son of owner E. Stanley Kroenke, decided to put his stamp on the team by clearing the decks and asserting his authority over the basketball operation. Over time, we will see how that works out.

The more recent issues suggest a lack of backbone in the young front office. In the case of Gallo’s surgery, I’m told the Nuggets’ medical and training staff opposed the decision to let the ACL heal itself through “healing response” therapy. I’m also told Nuggets brass — which would have been chiefly Kroenke at the time, in the transition between Ujiri and Connelly — didn’t want to alienate Gallo’s agent, the powerful Arn Tellem, by challenging him on this. The result was a disastrous 10-month delay in the surgery.

In the case of Miller, it’s hard to imagine why the Nuggets don’t put it to him very simply: “You’re under contract. We need a point guard. You come back and play, right now, or you’re suspended without pay. End of story.”

I don’t know if the impediment to Miller’s return is Miller or Miller’s agent or Shaw or Kroenke, but from an old-school perspective it’s inconceivable that a GM would work out privately with a player who is under contract and desperately needed who for one reason or another won’t play. Who’s in charge here? Trade him for another point guard, which the Nuggets have evidently been trying to do without success, or demand that he fulfill the obligations of his contract.

But hey, if it weren’t for the bizarre, these Nuggets would just be bad. For the moment, the Miller mystery is the most interesting thing about them.


A stunning self-destruction

Image

A Broncos nightmare in New Jersey ended in a Seahawks celebration

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Super humbling of the highest-scoring team in NFL history began on the first play from scrimmage and continued pretty much unabated for the remainder of a deceptively warm and beautiful February evening just off Exit 16W of the Jersey Turnpike.

It was shocking in its suddenness and humiliating in its comprehensiveness. The Broncos played like a pickup squad that met for the first time an hour before kickoff.

The first outdoor Super Bowl in a northern climate turned out to be a travesty all right, but the environmental conditions were the one factor the Broncos couldn’t blame. The temperature at kickoff was 49, fully 10 degrees warmer than the coldest Super Bowl on record, back when they used to play outdoors in New Orleans.

If Mother Nature treated the Broncos well, she was alone. The Seattle Seahawks manhandled and dismantled them in every way imaginable on their way to a 43-8 blowout. Give them credit, as the Broncos kept saying afterward, but blame the Broncos, too. Their early wounds, the ones that set the doleful tone, were self-inflicted.

It began on the first play from scrimmage, when the Broncos’ first snap from their own 14-yard line sailed past Peyton Manning into the north end zone of MetLife Stadium. Somehow, the Broncos were lulled by the neutral site into believing they would be able to convey their signals verbally. Had the game been in Seattle, they would undoubtedly have used a silent snap count. Buried deep in their own end, enveloped by the boisterousness that always accompanies the beginning of a Super Bowl, Manning lined up in the shotgun and called for the ball.

Center Manny Ramirez failed to snap it. So Manning walked toward the line to reset the play. Ramirez, suddenly realizing he was late, chose that moment to snap the ball.

“That was on cadence, so it was about what he was saying,” a miserable Ramirez explained afterward. “It was really loud and I (thought) I heard him. Unfortunately, I was three seconds late.”

“A little bit of a cadence issue,” said head coach John Fox.

“I felt terrible for them,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. “We didn’t deserve that. They just gave it to us.”

Running back Knowshon Moreno hustled back to the ball, turning the faux pas into a safety rather than a touchdown. It was a screw-up, but the damage was minimal. Twelve seconds into the game, the score was 2-0. It was the fastest score in Super Bowl history.

“That’s the way the start of any Super Bowl is,” said receiver Wes Welker, a veteran of three. “It’s going to be loud. The fans are going to be yelling. They don’t really know why they’re yelling, it’s just the start of the Super Bowl. We didn’t prepare very well for that, and it showed.”

Imagine that. A team that prided itself on preparation all season was unprepared for something that seemed obvious to a player who had been there before.

Following the required free kick, the Seahawks’ lightly-regarded offense marched 51 yards on its first possession, converting two third downs along the way. The Broncos again managed to minimize the damage, stopping the Seahawks about six inches short of a first down inside the 10-yard line and forcing a field goal. When Manning & Co. got the ball back, it was still only 5-0.

Following a three-yard gain on a running play, Manning completed the first two passes he threw — for two yards to Demaryius Thomas and three yards to Julius Thomas. Two completions, five yards. They had to punt.

The Seahawks began another march, using up most of the remainder of the first quarter. The Broncos’ defense once again limited the damage near the goal line, forcing another field goal when linebacker Nate Irving knocked an apparent touchdown pass out of the hands of wide receiver Jermaine Kearse.

The first quarter wasn’t over yet and the Broncos had already prevented two touchdowns on hustle plays by Moreno and Irving. Despite a disastrous start, the score was a manageable 8-0.

For the third time, Manning took the controls. For the third time, the crowd waited for the precision passing game that produced a record 606 regular-season points. A five-yard completion to Welker. A three-yard run from Moreno.

But wait. When Moreno was stopped, he was still on his feet. Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons ripped the ball from his grasp. Guard Zane Beadles made the Broncos’ third fortuitous play of the quarter, falling on the loose ball and preventing a turnover. Instead of third-and-2, now it was third-and-7.

Manning tried to convert it by hitting Julius Thomas, his tight end, up the middle, but Seahawks pass rusher Cliff Avril came around right tackle Orlando Franklin on a speed rush and Manning was forced to step up in the pocket to avoid him. He let loose a throw that wasn’t even close to its mark — a duck, as Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman would call it, both too high and behind the intended receiver. It landed gently in the arms of Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, a room service interception.

“A poor play on my part,” Manning admitted afterward.

When the first quarter ended, the Seahawks had the ball at the Broncos’ 17-yard line on their way to a 15-0 lead. The Broncos had possessed the ball only momentarily, it seemed, mostly because they were in such a hurry to give it away whenever they did.

Yet another self-inflicted wound contributed to that first Seahawks touchdown. The Broncos defense, again playing damage control near its goal line, forced a third-and-4 from their 5-yard line. It was looking to limit Seattle to another field goal when nickel back Tony Carter face-guarded Seahawks receiver Golden Tate in the end zone while gripping his jersey, possibly the most obvious pass interference call of the season. This resulted in a first down at the 1. It still took the Seahawks two running plays to punch it in.

Three minutes into the second quarter, the most prolific offense in NFL history didn’t have a first down. Credit the Seahawks’ hard hitting or pass rush if you like, but if this was tennis, both the bad snap and errant throw would be ruled unforced errors.

Moments later, the Seahawks lived up to their reputation for creating turnovers. Avril again beat Franklin, this time pushing past him and hitting Manning’s arm as he threw. The ball fluttered like . . . well . . . yes . . . a wounded duck, directly into the arms of Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith, whose 69-yard return for a touchdown would be the key to his Super Bowl MVP award a couple of hours later.

Now it was 22-0. Slightly more than three minutes remained in the first half. The Broncos desperately needed a score. Slowly, uncertainly, they began to matriculate down the field, in Hank Stram’s famous phrase from another era. They achieved a first down. Then another. Facing a manageable third-and-4 for yet another, Louis Vasquez, their best offensive lineman, was called for a false start. Yet another error. Maybe Seattle’s fearsome foursome made him do it, but still.

Moments later it was fourth-and-2. Fox decided to go for it.

“I’m thinking that three points wasn’t going to make a big difference in the game, and it proved to be true,” he explained.

At the snap, it looked like an uncovered Julius Thomas signaled to Manning for a simple pitch-and-catch that would move the chains. Instead, Manning looked the other way and threw the ball into the ground at the feet of Demaryius Thomas.

In the press box, in the stands, on social media and in living rooms all over Colorado, people who had watched this offense operate like a jet engine all season watched in astonishment as it sputtered like a lawn mower. Who were these guys?

It wasn’t just that the Broncos had switched hotels the night before the game, they appeared to have switched players, too. The replacements looked a lot like the guys they’d replaced. They even wore the same numbers. But they didn’t play anything like them.

The cherry on top came on the first play of the second half. Matt Prater, the Broncos’ Pro Bowl kicker who led the league with 81 touchbacks, inexplicably pooched the kickoff in an apparent attempt to keep it out of the hands of returner Percy Harvin. Kicking it out of the end zone, which Prater had done more often than any other kicker, would accomplish the same result.

Harvin had rushed twice in the first half for 45 yards. Rather than match strength with strength and let Prater try to boom the kickoff across the Hackensack River, the Broncos got cute. Harvin charged out of the end zone and the pooch bounced directly into his hands. Members of the Broncos’ coverage unit converged and knocked each other down as if playing electric football. Harvin took it all the way for a touchdown, 87 yards in all.

The Seahawks had again scored just 12 seconds into the half. This would converge with the narrative surrounding their 12th man — their fans, who arguably influenced the mistake that led to the first 12-second score — into a sort of mythic sense of numerological destiny.

More to the point, it was now 29-0 and the Broncos had shown themselves to be vulnerable in every phase of the game. No team had overcome a deficit greater than 10 points to win any of the previous 47 Super Bowls. At 2-0, 5-0, 8-0, 15-0, a Broncos comeback still seemed plausible, given their own precedents. Even at 22-0, a miraculous comeback from a team that averaged 37.9 points a game in the regular season seemed possible.

But the Harvin kickoff return dashed whatever hope remained. Not only was a 29-point deficit an insurmountable obstacle against the league’s best defense, the Broncos had shown little sign of even elementary competence. The more pertinent question seemed whether the Seahawks could impose the first shutout in Super Bowl history.

“We just weren’t real sharp executing our offense,” Manning said in perhaps the understatement of the season. “We got ourselves in a hole and we weren’t able to overcome it.”

Once the game was out of hand, the Broncos managed to roll up enough meaningless yards to make the final statistical comparisons look benign. In fact, of the six Super Bowl records set Sunday, four were by the Broncos. Of course, one of them was for most Super Bowl losses (five), which is not a record you want to hold. But Manning’s 34 pass completions were a record, as were Demaryius Thomas’ 13 catches. They were as hollow as any Super Bowl records ever set.

The Seahawks set records for fastest score to start a Super Bowl and most time playing with a lead (59 minutes, 48 seconds).

The cumulative record for losses in the big game might seem fastidious, conflating a 21st century result with games played in the 1970s and ’80s, but this one was eerily reminiscent of those losses in the ’80s, when the Broncos won the AFC in three out of four seasons and were blown out by successively larger margins in the ensuing Super Bowls — 39-20 by the Giants following the ’86 season, 42-10 by the Redskins following the ’87 season and 55-10, the worst blowout in Super Bowl history, by the 49ers following the ’89 season.

In each case, the result was disturbing and dispiriting. The Broncos had gone through a long season and postseason with the look of a champion, only to look utterly overmatched in the most important game of all. It’s hard to know how to react to such a dramatic reversal of fortune.

“I think we were playing a great football team,” Manning said. “I think we needed to play really well in order to win and we just didn’t come anywhere close to that . . . . Give Seattle credit. They’re an excellent football team and they caused a lot of our mistakes. But at the same time, we just didn’t play well tonight.”

Twenty-four hours after winning his record fifth Most Valuable Player award, Manning bristled when asked if the loss was embarrassing.

“It’s not embarrassing at all,” he said. “I would never use that word . . . The word embarrassing is an insulting word, to tell you the truth.”

Welker was not so reticent.

“To get this far and lose like this, it’s embarrassing,” he said.

“They dominated us across the board,” said fellow receiver Eric Decker.

The Seahawks were exuberant, of course, having won so much more powerfully and easily than even they expected. The Broncos needed to credit them to save face, and certainly they kept Manning unsettled in the pocket and hit hard in the secondary, as is their reputation.

Still, the number of self-inflicted wounds made the Broncos look amateurish and unqualified for the game. They finished with four turnovers — two lost fumbles and two interceptions — to Seattle’s none. The third turnover, by Demaryius Thomas following a 23-yard, third-quarter completion deep in Seahawks territory when a comeback was still theoretically possible, verged on slapstick.

Which was a terrible shame, considering how well the Broncos played all season. You could empathize with Manning’s sense of dignity without agreeing with him that this was not an embarrassment.

On any given Sunday, and all that. They just picked the most important game of all to pull out a true stinker.

“We had some chances to get back into it,” said John Elway, the quarterback in those losses of the ’80s and now the team’s executive vice president of football operations. “We just couldn’t get it done.”

“This team used last year’s playoff loss to fuel us; I think it made us a better team,” Manning said. “Hopefully we can use this loss to fuel us and make us better.”

Maybe they will. Elway’s Broncos were unable to bounce back from the Super Bowl blowouts of the ’80s until nearly a decade later, but Manning’s team was so uncharacteristically bad, maybe it can turn this one around much faster.

Asked if the loss reminded him of those blowouts a generation ago, Elway replied: “No. Those are separate.”

Still, for all the praise Manning gets when he’s dominating opponents, it is only fair to point out his mediocre play when opponents dominate him. The Broncos’ oft-maligned defense wasn’t great in this game, but it was required to perform a great deal of damage control for its far more famous offense.

Manning completed 34 of 49 passes for 280 yards, many of them in garbage time, with one touchdown, two interceptions and a passer rating of 73.5. His counterpart, second-year Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, the former Rockies farmhand, was 18 of 25 for 206 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 123.1. Wilson was clearly the better quarterback in this championship game.

“Offensively, we were clicking on all cylinders,” Wilson said. “That’s what we wanted to be, especially the last game of the season, to finish that way in that fashion. That’s our mindset. We want to be champions every day and bring it every time.”

Credit the Seahawks for playing a very sharp game. They deserve congratulations on winning their first NFL championship in very convincing fashion.

“We ran into a buzz saw,” Fox said.

That’s a little too easy. The Seahawks played very well, but the Broncos took themselves out of the game early by playing very badly. From a vantage point high above the action on a beautiful night for football in the New Jersey Meadowlands, it looked like the highest-scoring offense in NFL history mostly self-destructed.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 42 other followers