James Harden, Ohio State, the Columbus Crew and much more in Five Things From the Week.
1. James Harden doesn’t have the leverage he needs to force a trade
The earliest James Harden can get out of his contract is at the end of the 2021-22 season. He is not an impending free agent who can leave the Houston Rockets for nothing at the end of the upcoming campaign. That means the Rockets have no real incentive to honor Harden’s trade request now unless they get what they consider a fair return. They could deal him at the trade deadline. Or next offseason. Or at next season’s trade deadline.
Houston would only feel forced into orchestrating a below-market value trade in the near future if the organization decides the eight-time All-Star is causing so much internal turmoil he simply has to go. Though Harden was delayed in reporting to training camp, he is now in Houston and there is no indication the Rockets are anywhere close to reaching that conclusion. At the moment, it is up to Harden to convince someone it is worth meeting Houston’s asking price if he wants out immediately.
2. The Big Ten did the right thing letting Ohio State into the championship game
Dabo Swinney can say whatever he wants about Texas A&M and Florida being more deserving of a spot in the College Football Playoff spot than Ohio State. The Aggies lost to Alabama by 28 and the Gators lost to them. Ohio State is one of the best four teams in college football, were eligible to play this weekend and held the tiebreaker by virtue of its win over Indiana, a victory that is only getting more impressive.
The Buckeyes are the Big Ten’s only hope of making the Playoff, and their doing so is in the best interest of the entire conference for multiple reasons. Because the Playoff selection committee could’ve invited Ohio State anyway, it’s not like the Big Ten changed its rules so the Buckeyes would be in contention. The realities of 2020 create situations that are unfair and unfortunate, but there isn’t anything anyone can do about it. Texas A&M doesn’t deserve to represent its division in the conference title game. Florida doesn’t deserve to make the Playoff after losing to LSU. Ohio State will if it defeats Northwestern.
3. The Eagles created their own problem that Carson Wentz made a reality
There have only been two seasons during Carson Wentz’s tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles that did not feature some sort of quarterback controversy. One was 2017, when he was on track to be named MVP and the Eagles won the Super Bowl. The other was last season, when he dragged a bunch of no-name skill position players to a division title. Sam Bradford was supposed to be the starter in 2016. Nick Foles won four straight playoff games in the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Then came Jalen Hurts, who started in place of Wentz this weekend.
Philadelphia was never going to choose Foles over Wentz when the former entered free agency and the latter was eligible for a contract extension, but the organization has continued to invite unnecessary questions about how much faith it has in the former No. 2 overall pick. The Hurts pick is the most blatant example. Wentz has not had effective weapons since that Super Bowl team, partly because his front office has missed on wide receivers in the draft. Using a second-rounder on a quarterback when there are so many obvious areas of need is asking for drama and scrutiny. When Wentz’s performances took a dramatic downturn, head coach Doug Pederson had to answer questions about who his starting quarterback was going to be every week because Hurts was an intriguing alternative. He finally gave in and turned to Hurts, which will only lead to more drama this offseason no matter how the rest of the season goes.
4. Major League Soccer’s best team won its most prized trophy
In a typical Major League Soccer season, the league’s top one or two teams separate themselves over the 34-game regular season. LAFC did so in 2019 (in historic fashion), as did the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United the season before that. The condensed schedule and global pandemic combined to decrease the influence of some of the league’s best players, making it more difficult to determine who was truly the class of MLS. It is not a coincidence a team built on the strength of the collective rather than star power won the Supporters’ Shield.
The Columbus Crew — newly crowned 2020 MLS Cup champions — were winning the Supporters’ Shield race until Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayán got hurt. They were the most impressive team at MLS is Back even though they didn’t reach the quarterfinals. Nagbe and Zelarayán returned in time for the postseason and the Crew emerged from the stronger conference in fairly convincing fashion. With Nagbe sidelined for MLS Cup due to a positive COVID test, Zelarayán put on a breathtaking display to defeat the defending champion Seattle Sounders 3-0. In a league known for its playoff parody, the opposite happened in 2020. Its best team wasn’t healthy enough to consistently show it during the regular season but proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt in the postseason.
5. The warning signs were there for the Steelers
The most surprising thing about the Washington Football Team’s upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 7 was that Washington was the team to end the Steelers’ quest for a perfect season. Pittsburgh had failed to rush for 50 yards in three of its previous five games and gained a season-low 21 yards on the ground against Washington. Their narrow victory over the Lamar Jackson-less Baltimore Ravens the week before was a clear indication a loss was coming. It was just a matter of time.
Falling on the road to the Buffalo Bills is not concerning in and of itself. The concern comes from the 23.7 points and 44.3 passing attempts Pittsburgh is averaging since Week 8. For reference, the Steelers scored at least 26 points in each of their first seven games. Nobody so reliant on the passing game is going to have the same level of success once the weather gets worse. A soft schedule and the 31-point beatdown of the Cleveland Browns created the illusion of a team that was on the same level as the Kansas City Chiefs when there was always a sizable gap between them. Now the weaknesses are getting exposed by better competition.
Thoughts and prayers go out to Florida men’s basketball star Keyontae Johnson after he collapsed during the Gators’ game against Florida State. It is too early to draw any conclusions about what happened, but obvious questions are raised when he had COVID over the summer. First and foremost, though, let’s hope Johnson is able to pull through. Everything else is of secondary concern.
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