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Column: Game must go on in the NFL

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Column: Game must go on in the NFL

Sometimes, the game must go on.

Especially in the NFL, where the games always seem to go on.

The assassination of President Kennedy a half century ago didn't stop the NFL from playing games barely two days later. The tragedy that unfolded Saturday in Kansas City won't stop the Chiefs from taking the field Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium against the Carolina Panthers, either.

A young woman is dead, killed in a shooting that left a 3-month-old baby without a mother. Her killer is dead, too. Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot himself in front of his coach and general manager outside the Chiefs' practice facility.

There's no way to make sense of it all.

But a football will sail into the air and reality will be suspended for a few hours. The Chiefs will find a way to play through their shock and grief.

It seems too soon, yes. It surely is for coach Romeo Crennel.

One day he watches in horror as one of his players commits suicide in front of him - but not before thanking Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli for all they've done for him. The next, Crennel is on the sideline trying desperately to find a way for his underachieving team to win a game they likely have no desire to play.

There's no playbook for this kind of thing, though the initial outcry on social media was for the game to be postponed. But the mayor of Kansas City said it was important for the team to carry on and by the time it was announced the game was a go, the charter carrying the Panthers had already headed west.

As painful as Sunday will be, the NFL got it right. The game itself is about as meaningless as they come, pitting a home team with just one win against a Carolina team going nowhere at 3-8, but it was a game that had to be played.

There will be tears in the stands, hugs on the sidelines. Teammates will grieve and so will fans. No doubt there will be a moment of silence for Belcher and 22-year-old Kasandra Perkins, the mother of their child.

Maybe fans will look at their heroes on the field and realize that they are human, too. Maybe it will put a face on the epidemic that is domestic violence and might somehow help prevent even more tragedies in the future.

How Crennel or Pioli will get through it, I can't imagine. More than likely they will still be in shock from what they witnessed, something so awful that it will surely scar them for life. They weren't harmed, but in some way they're victims, too.

Football is by its nature a violent game, something those involved in the NFL understand all so well. But it's a controlled violence with people watching to make sure rules are enforced and limits aren't violated.

That two people died in a murder-suicide involving a current player isn't an indictment of the NFL because the same kind of crime happens in neighborhoods around the country on an all too regular basis. And there's no empirical evidence to suggest that NFL players are more prone to hurt people than anyone else.

By all accounts, Belcher was a quiet fourth-year player who graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in child development and won a starting spot in the NFL through hard work despite not being drafted.

``He was a good, good person ... a family man. A loving guy,'' said family friend Ruben Marshall, who said he coached Belcher in youth football on Long Island. ``You couldn't be around a better person.''

Pictures on Perkins' Facebook page show a seemingly happy couple cuddling their infant daughter.

But things aren't always as they seem, especially in the NFL. We see the players making big checks and driving big cars, but it's a tough job to get and a brutal one to keep.

The pressures to perform are immense, the contracts never really guaranteed. A player like Belcher is always one bad game away from getting the ax and being forced to find a new career.

And we haven't even begun to explore the possibility of brain injury. Too many former NFL players have done too many irrational things for it not to be raised as a question. Belcher was listed in a 2009 injury report as being limited in practice because of a head injury but not much else is known.

There are no easy answers.

So they will play a game Sunday. As difficult as it will be for the Chiefs, it won't be easy for the Panthers, either, playing through a delicate situation they never could have imagined.

The fans will come to cheer, but hopefully they also come to reflect, too.

In the midst of a miserable season for the Chiefs, nothing can be more miserable than this.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org orhttp://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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7 things to watch in the round-robin that will tell us if the Caps are Cup contenders

7 things to watch in the round-robin that will tell us if the Caps are Cup contenders

Hockey is back! Or at least we have a date for when hockey will be back. After pausing the season on March 12 due to the coronavirus, the NHL will return to action on Aug. 1 when the qualification and round-robin rounds begin. As one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference, Washington will play three round-robin games against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins. You can view the schedule and a list of important dates here.

By the time the Caps return to the ice for their first game, nearly five months will have passed since the last time they played so the 2020 postseason will essentially be a clean slate. When trying to size up the team's chances at a Cup run, the round-robin will give us our first glimpse of what we can expect from them. Here are the specific areas to keep an eye on.

Braden Holtby

Todd Reirden has already declared that the starting goalie job is "Holtby's job to lose." Holtby had a rough regular season (.897 save percentage, 3.11 GAA), but he has a Stanley Cup to his name and the fifth-best playoff save percentage of all-time. While it makes sense to start Holtby going into the playoffs, you can bet he will be on a tight leash. The fact is that his numbers have been in steep decline the last three years. A lengthy pause could prove beneficial for the 30-year-old netminder who will turn 31 in September, but considering he wasn't even able to get on the ice until the team moved into Phase 2 of the NHL's return to play plan on June 11, just how well he will play after so much time off is a complete unknown.  

You also have to consider the fact that Ilya Samsonov will be the team's backup and played well for the majority of the season. While I believe Holtby would have to completely fall apart in the round-robin for Samsonov to start in the first round, I do think that Holtby's performance will dictate just how long the leash is once the playoffs start in earnest.

RELATED: CAPS SET TO RETURN AUG. 3 VS. LIGHTNING

The new players

The Capitals acquired defenseman Brenden Dillon and forward Ilya Kovalchuk at the trade deadline. At the pause, Dillon has played in only 10 games for Washington while Kovalchuk played in seven.

The transition to a new team during the season can be a tough one for players, but they have certainly had a significant amount of time to study up on their new team's system. They also will get a brief training camp before heading to Toronto that will give them more practice time to adjust. That could be a huge boost for Washington when looking at Dillon in particular. Defense is the major weakness of the team and Dillon has taken on a top-pair role with John Carlson.

On the other hand, while the number of games Dillon and Kovalchuk would have gotten before the playoffs would be limited, its more than they are getting now. Ultimately you're not going to be able to adjust to a new system without playing in it. Instead of a few regular-season games to adjust, Dillon and Kovalchuk's next game will be in the round-robin when the games count again.

General manager Brian MacLellan acquired both players with roles in mind for a Cup run. Both players now have to learn on the job and get up to speed quickly in order to live up to the roles MacLellan acquired them for.

The veteran players

The Caps are a veteran-heavy team. Nicklas Backstrom is 32, John Carlson is 30, Lars Eller is 30, Carl Hagelin is 31, Braden Holtby is 30, Ilya Kovalchuk is 36, T.J. Oshie is 33 and Alex Ovechkin is 34. After such a long pause, the veteran players will come into camp well-rested, but also a few months older.

After nearly five-months in between games, this has essentially been a full offseason for the league and a player's performance varies from season to season. Five months is not an insignificant amount of time and age may catch up to a handful of players at some point during the postseason even after having so much time to recuperate. These three games will give us a look at whether players like Ovechkin and Backstrom will still be able to perform at an elite level for another postseason run.

Michal Kempny

Kempny may have saved the team in 2018, but in the 2019-20 season, he was really struggling. A torn hamstring affected his preparation in the offseason and even after he returned he did not look like he was quite right. It's unclear if that had to do with any lingering physical issues or if it was purely mental. Regardless, he has had plenty of time to either heal further or regain his confidence which should mean improved play.

if the Caps suddenly got back 2018, first-pair Kempny, that would be a huge boon for the blue line.

Lineup decisions

Offensively, you can pretty much pencil in these lines:

Ales Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Lars Eller - Ilya Kovalchuk
Richard Panik - Nic Dowd - Garnet Hathaway

If those lines change going in, that's significant and bears watching. If they change over the course of the three round-robin games, that is something to keep an eye on to see if there is something Reirden does not like or wants to switch up.

Defensively, there are more question marks.

Can Kempny regain a top-pair role? Where does Dillon ultimately fit? Who plays on the right side of the second pair? Does the team dress three lefties and three righties or does Reirden go with four lefties?

Granted, all of these decisions have to be taken in context. Whether Reirden is reacting to someone's play or to the standings of the round-robin is important to keep in mind. Still, there is not much time to really experiment with and I would expect Reirden to give his projected lineup for the playoffs as much time as possible to prepare for the playoffs.

The power play

The power play has been terrible this season and ranked 24th in the NHL since Dec. 23.  Many have argued it has become too predictable, but really, everyone knew what they were trying to do for years and still couldn't stop it. Zone entries and puck movement have been the two biggest issues with the power play unit this season. The quick puck movement that makes a power play so hard to cover just has not been there and the players appear to be slower and more methodical with their puck movements, to their detriment. Even if the power play can improve to just average for the payoffs, that will be a major boost.

Defense

The biggest weakness of all for the team this season, the defense has been just flat out bad. The team has struggled to find a partner for Carlson, the team has only one top-four right defenseman and the efforts to shuffle players in and out of the top four have led to some dreadful third-pair combinations. Carlson has to be the team's best blueliner every night, someone has to lay claim to the top-pair role and Nick Jensen or Radko Gudas need to show they can handle a second-pair role.

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A poll of 250 college basketball coaches reveals 74% want a semi-normal schedule this year

A poll of 250 college basketball coaches reveals 74% want a semi-normal schedule this year

Several college conferences across the country are preparing for the fall sports season amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Big Ten announced on Thursday that it will go to a “conference-only” model for all fall sports. The Pac-12 followed announcing football, men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball will play only conference games. Earlier in the week, the Ivy League announced no sports would be played until January 1.

RELATED: MAYBE OTHER LEAGUES SHOULD FOLLOW THE IVY LEAGUE'S LEAD

More conferences are likely to follow shortly. But after fall sports, what will happen with winter sports and, specifically, with college basketball? Stadium basketball analyst Jeff Goodman conducted an interesting poll.

Of the 250 Division I head men’s basketball coaches (of a 353 total), 74% want a season with non-conference and conference play. Only 24% of coaches want to push the start of the season to January and play exclusively conference games.

One of the unique aspects of early-season college basketball is the non-conference matchups, sometimes in exotic locations. One of the most notable, the Maui Invitational, is planning to move forward as scheduled.

A handful of local teams are scheduled to travel to tournaments this November. Virginia and Georgetown will both head to Anaheim, Calif. for the Wooden Legacy. VCU is part of an eight-team field at the Charleston Classic and George Mason is reportedly traveling to the Bahamas for the Junkanoo Jam.

There is plenty to be sorted out before the start of the college basketball season but for now, we will take some optimism from the men on the sidelines. 

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