2010 had its highs and lows in Arizona sports. 2011 might just be lows.
When I wrote my Arizona Sports Year in Review last week, I noticed that Part 2 was basically a 2,500 word eulogy for professional sports in the state. Where the first half of the year had white-outs in Glendale, NFL playoff games, and Western Conference Finals wins, the second half was marked by blown leads in baseball, NBA free agent defections, and football throttlings.
Considering how bad things have been lately, you might be thinking, It's a new year, 2011 cannot possibly be worse than the second half of 2010. Well, it took all the way until Jan. 2 to show that yes, yes it can be worse.
On the second day of the year, the Cardinals finished their season by getting punished 38-7 by the 49ers, the Coyotes lost in overtime, and the Suns blew a late double-digit lead to the worst team in the NBA. Even the University of Arizona men's basketball team -- off to a nifty 12-2 start -- lost to chronically below average Oregon State (making that an Arizona sweep for the Beavers). Happy New Year!
Unfortunately, that seems to be more a harbinger of things to come than just a tough Sunday.
Since Arizona became one of those fancy states with franchises in each of the four major sports (NBA, NHL, MLB, NFL) in 1998, there has been just one calendar year in which the state saw no playoff games. That year was 2004, when the Cardinals were non-existent in the playoffs coming off a 4-12 2003 season, the D-backs posted their worst record in franchise history, the Coyotes won their fewest games since moving to Phoenix, and the Suns won under 30 games for only the fourth time in their 43 seasons.
While I can't imagine 2011 being that bad, if the year ended today (just meet me halfway here), 2011 would take its place alongside 2004 as the second such playoff-less year.
As you're certainly aware, the Cardinals have already lost their chance to play a 2011 playoff game. This speaks nothing to the 2011 offseason, in which the Cards can drastically improve the team by opening up the pocket book from one of the lowest payrolls in the NFL, but there is technically nothing they can do to play a playoff game in the 2011 calendar year.
That leaves the 2011 playoff hopes with the Suns, Coyotes, and D-backs.
No disrespect to the D-backs, but the Kevin Towers rebuilding project doesn't seem like a quick job. Even in their primes, Melvin Mora, Henry Blanco, and Geoff Blum weren't going to be construed as game changers. The other big offseason acquisitions were Zach Duke and Xavier Nady. Yup, I just called those guys big offseason acquisitions.
There's also that little matter of the defending World Series champs and three other solid playoff contenders in the D-backs' division. A return to respectability is a reasonable expectation, but a playoff berth would be an enormous upset.
In years where the other three teams have struggled, the Suns have carried the hopes of the city. But even the most optimistic Suns fan has to be shaken by the team's recent struggles. Some will point to the fact that the team floundered until January last season and is still working to integrate new pieces, but don't kid yourself -- these aren't the same teams.
That edition of the Suns didn't lose too many games to the dregs of the league. This edition just lost to the Kings, Clippers, and 76ers in the span of a week. Phoenix has now lost nine of its last 12 and is tied for 10th in the Western Conference. Sure, they are only three games back of the eight seed, but you have to wonder how long the patchwork, ass-backwards built team is going to stay together. At a certain point, you've got to figure that a team like this just isn't very good.
Are their playoff hopes dead? Certainly not. Am I optimistic? Same answer as before.
Surprisingly enough, the much-maligned Coyotes probably stand the best chance of making their playoffs, as, though they currently sit in 12th in the Western Conference, they're actually only four points back of the five seed. Still, the problem with being 12th is that there are a number of teams in front of you and for the ‘Yotes, that includes a number of division foes and the defending Stanley Cup Champions.
Down in the college ranks, the optimism isn't exactly at extreme highs, either. Hoops-wise, Arizona State is off to a pretty lame 8-5 start and plays a style of basketball that makes even the biggest basketball lover want to lay down in traffic. To the south, U of A has the aforementioned 12-3 start, but a scan of their schedule indicates they've not beaten anyone worth a damn.
In football, ASU hasn't been to a bowl in three seasons and the Wildcats will probably need to win games in November and December to avoid another terribly disappointing season. Pending another fall of pedestrian 2011 results, both schools could be in the market for new coaches.
Is it all dark and gloomy? Probably not.
If you ask me, the Cardinals can put themselves right back in contention in the putrid NFC West with a shiny new quarterback who's capable of moving an offense down the field. You'll be shocked at the way a good quarterback will manage to improve the defense ... just by keeping them off the field.
The Coyotes can probably see the light at the end of their business struggle tunnel and they play in the NHL where a good goaltender -- which they have in Ilya Bryzgalov -- can take you places come playoff time.
Kirk Gibson and his D-backs should at least have a bullpen that won't inspire the city to drink heavily.
Notice how I said nothing about the Suns? Well, I can't even pretend to say anything nice about the Suns after last night. Someone else pump the sunshine for me because I'm tired.
Really, that's the best I can muster. Hey -- at least the Mercury and Rattlers should be 2011 playoff contenders. How's that for relatively cold comfort?
If you view sports as seriously as I do then my advice would be to heed the 2011 New Year's resolution I've developed for myself: relax, don't get too frustrated, and get more fresh air because it's going to be a long year.