Bob Sparks - 6/61 - SaintPetersBlog

Bob Sparks

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

Jaguars snap losing streak with 38-17 victory

For the first time since October 17, the Jacksonville Jaguars walked off the field as a winner. They 38-17 drubbing of the Tennessee Titans broke a nine-game losing streak and made a winner of interim coach Doug Marrone in his first outing.

Marrone may have had an immediate impact on his quarterback, Blake Bortles, who had a spectacular day. The former Central Florida star threw for 325 yards and a touchdown without an interception.

A good portion of the criticism directed toward former coach Gus Bradley was the lack of improvement coming from Bortles this season. He was actually going downhill.

Whether a cloud was lifted or Bortles just had a good day, the Jaguars will think about that later. All that matters is they saw what they thought they would see from their quarterback on a regular basis.

Marrone also excited the fan base by opening up the offense. A connection between Bortles and wide receiver Marquise Lee for a touchdown should be a common occurrence.

Jacksonville’s first score was a 21-yard connection. In the fourth quarter with the Jags leading only 25-17, it was Lee hitting Bortles for a 20-yard score on a trick play that pushed the lead back to two scores again.

The Jaguars’ defense deserves their share of accolades as well. They harassed Titans’ quarterback Marcus Mariota all day, limiting him to just 99 yards passing before leaving with a severe leg injury in the second half.

They also held Tennessee to only 58 yards rushing. To cap off the afternoon, Jalen Ramsey picked off a Matt Cassel pass to racing 30 yards to the end zone with a pick-six. It was his first career touchdown.

Any team breaking a losing streak like the Jaguars ended should have them near the top of the sports center highlights. It is their luck that the Cleveland Browns won for the first time on Saturday against the San Diego Chargers.

Jacksonville finishes the regular season on New Years’ Day with a trip to Indianapolis to face the Colts.

Then, the search for a permanent coach will begin in earnest. Former coach Tom Coughlin is said to be interested.

 

Dolphins escape Buffalo with 34-31 OT victory

It turned out closer than it should have, but the Miami Dolphins beat the Buffalo Bills 34-31 in overtime on Saturday in upstate New York. Andrew Franks tied the game at the end of regulation with a 55-yard field goal and won it with only 55 seconds left in the extra period.

With the victory, the Dolphins moved to 10-5, the first time they have won that many games since 2008. That is also the last time Miami qualified for the NFL playoffs.

They are on the verge of clinching a wild card spot. A win next week at home over New England or a Denver loss puts Miami in the playoffs.

The Dolphins led 21-7 in the third quarter, but the Bills, who had 589 yards of total offense, came back to eventually take a 31-28 lead with only 1:20 left. Backup quarterback Matt Moore, filling in for the injured Ryan Tannehill moved the team down field setting up Franks’ game-tying kick.

Moore finished with 233 yards passing with two touchdowns. The hero of the day was running back Jay Ajayi, who rushed for 206 yards on 32 carries.

It was the third time this season Ajayi has run for more than 200 yards. No NFL back has done that since 2005 when Tiki Barber of the New York Giants turned the trick.

“It’s about running hard through the whole game and finishing strong,” said Ajayi. “Division rival game, December game, a lot was on the line.”

The Dolphin defense was seemingly out of gas late in the fourth quarter and in overtime, but they made plays when it mattered most. On Buffalo’s first possession in overtime, they were forced to settle for a field goal try after reaching the red zone. Former Dolphin Dan Carpenter’s try from 45 yards out was wide to the right.

On the game-winning drive, Ajayi accounted for 75 of the 77 yards that set up Franks for the deciding kick.

If the Dolphins do need to defeat the Patriots next week, they would like for New England to be in a position to not need the win themselves. They are playing for home field advantage throughout the playoffs and held a one game advantage over the Oakland Raiders when the day began.

If the Patriots have clinched home field, they are certain to either rest many of their key players or have them play sparingly. If Miami must face a motivated New England team, they should be expected to be ready.

Everyone is motivated to play the Patriots.

 

Former Seminole DeAndre Johnson making most of second chance

Joe Mixon and DeAndre Johnson are two very talented football players. They also have something else in common.

Both have punched women with their fists and both have suffered consequences. The severity of those consequences is where the two players traveled different paths.

Mixon is preparing to play in a major bowl game with the Oklahoma Sooners. Johnson, a former prized recruit at Florida State, just finished the season at an obscure community college.

Seventh-ranked Oklahoma and Mixon are preparing for a great matchup against 14th-ranked Auburn in the Sugar Bowl on January 2. Mixon, a vital part of the Oklahoma offense, had more than 1,600 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns this past season.

As the big game approaches, people are not talking about what he did on the field in 2016. The chatter is all about what he did off the field in 2014.

In an ugly episode reminiscent of former NFL running back Ray Rice, Mixon knocked out a female student with one punch. The video is hard to watch, but it shows the victim, Amelia Molitor, shoving Mixon, who responds with a thundering right hand.

The blow broke four bones in her face and her jaw was wired shut for weeks.

Mixon was suspended for the entire 2014 season by Coach Bob Stoops and the university. The video was only recently released, which brought the matter front and center again.

Many are outraged that Mixon is being allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl. Stoops does not defend what Mixon did.

“It was horrible,” said Stoops. “I hated it. I hated it as much as anybody did, absolutely.

He believes the punishment of missing an entire season was severe and thought it was tough enough at the time.

“Two and a half years ago, I thought we had a significant penalty, a strong penalty,” he said. “Now it isn’t enough.”

Stoops made another pertinent observation. Mixon, Stoops pointed out, had not yet played a down for the Sooners as an 18-year-old freshman.

“But in the end, it’s easy to just dismiss it or remove a guy and head on down the road,” he said. “In the end, too, maybe I have too strong a commitment to these guys I recruit.”

By today’s standards, Stoops said, Mixon would have been dismissed. He also lamented the lack of opportunity for players like Mixon (had he been dismissed) to have “a second chance.”

This is the perfect segue into the case of Johnson. He was a highly touted quarterback from Jacksonville, who was recruited to Florida State by Jimbo Fisher.

Like Mixon, Johnson was caught on video punching a woman in 2015 before he had played a down for FSU. Fisher dismissed Johnson from the team.

To his credit, Johnson took responsibility and apologized to the victim, and his mother, on national television. Seeking another chance, he enrolled at East Mississippi Community College, dubbed “Last Chance U” by a Netflix documentary for their history of taking players with issues.

He played in 11 games this year, throwing for 2,646 yards and 26 touchdowns and rushing for five more. Next season he will be back in Florida, playing major college football.

Newly-hired Florida Atlantic Coach Lane Kiffin made Johnson his first recruit last week. He will have three years of eligibility.

In addition to playing football, Johnson will be assisting in efforts to combat a violence prevention program.

Johnson will probably watch Mixon play in the Sugar Bowl. Had he not done what he did, he would likely be leading the Seminoles into the Orange Bowl against Michigan. It is possible Deondre Francois might have beaten him out for the starter’s job, but we’ll never know.

Though Stoops thought a year’s suspension was enough at the time, thankfully Fisher did not feel the same way only a year later. Oklahoma could have cut Mixon loose and forced him to earn his second chance the way Johnson did.

Both, however, have provided a shred of a silver lining with their separate actions. Awareness is growing about violence against women. With awareness there is an increased chance of more prevention.

That’s a good thing.

Electoral College vote a non-story unless Donald Trump is involved

Just like that, it was over.

In Tallahassee and around the country, 538 electors cast their ballots to officially elect Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States.

Of course, they did. There was never going to be a different outcome. Never.

Florida’s 29 electors gathered in the Senate Chamber to do what everyone knew they would do. While protesters gathered in the fourth-floor lobby outside the chamber, all 29 ignored the noise, kept their pledges, and cast their votes for Trump.

I have never felt the desire to attend previous sessions because nothing earth-shattering would occur. Not that anything would be different this time, but I did accept an invitation to sit in the gallery to watch the proceedings.

There was a brief silence when House Republican Leader Ray Rodrigues missed the roll call, but he was in the chamber minutes later.

Every four years the Electoral College goes through the same exercise with little fanfare. The only difference between 2016 and every other cycle was the manufactured fake news surrounding a normally routine one-hour ceremony.

This should not have even risen to the level of a story. Ok, maybe the obligatory interviews for a day or two with those who want no part of Trump.

But the every day, every hour, hysteria of the doomed-to-fail pipe dream of getting 37 Republican electors to flip? Should we mention that Trump led by 74 electoral votes going into Monday and officially won by 77?

While two did not vote for Trump, five Democrats decided Hillary Clinton was not for them. Not even Michael Moore’s offer to pay state fines could turn the trick.

Let us not take cheap shots at those who report the news. Instead, many need to be called out for continuing the charade, thereby giving false hope to those reaching for the unreachable.

Most of this falls in the lap of the major networks and national outlets. They were looking for history by fomenting hysteria.

History tells us that a similar attempt failed 16 years ago, when a Republican lost the popular vote, but had more electoral votes. Many might remember political consultant Bob Beckel trying to find two “faithless” electors to flip from George W. Bush to Al Gore in 2000.

If Beckel could not coax or coerce two souls to “vote their conscience,” then finding 37 this year would be comparable to climbing Mt. Everest in Bermuda shorts.

For this exercise in futility, or fake news, good people were subjected to a barrage of intimidating calls and emails. This includes all 29 of Florida’s electors.

Some in other states received death threats. The national media focus was on flipping the electors, not the tactics used by some of the activists.

When the gambit rose to this level, many wonder why President Barack Obama did not issue a statement that might de-escalate the dangerous rhetoric. With electors’ lives being threatened, where is the Justice Department? Federal crimes were being committed.

The media’s conduct surrounding all things Trump faces continuing bipartisan scrutiny. Republicans backing other candidates in the primary, along with the candidates, were frustrated their message could never break through the haze of all Trump, all the time.

Trump opponents were sick of all of the free media he generated. The New York Times estimated Trump earned nearly $2 billion in free media during the primary season. It was off the charts during the general election.

Trump is a ratings magnet. He was responsible for even MSNBC to draw its best numbers during the fall.

This likely explains the hysteria surrounding faithless electors. There will be plenty of opportunities both before and after January 20, 2017, for other Trump-inspired ratings opportunities.

There is a rumor he wants to climb Mt. Everest in Bermuda shorts.

Jaguars lose 9th straight in Houston; Gus Bradley fired

Never before had the Jacksonville Jaguars lost nine games in a row. On Sunday in Houston that statement became inoperable when the Houston Texans came from behind in the fourth quarter to beat Jacksonville 21-20.

After the game, Jaguars Coach Gus Bradley was fired.

“I thanked Gus Bradley for his commitment to the Jacksonville Jaguars over the past four seasons,” said Jaguars’ owner Shad Khan. “As anyone close to our team knows, Gus gave his staff and players everything he had. It is unfortunately evident that we must make a change.”

An interim coach will be named soon.

In his last game as coach, Bradley’s Jaguars led 20-11 going into the fourth quarter before Houston mustered just enough offense to steal the win. Despite having 20 points on the scoreboard, the Jaguars season-long struggle on the offensive side of the ball continued.

They had only 150 yards of total offense all day, including 44 in the second half while they tried to hold off the Texans. Houston had 387 yards.

Texans’ coach Bill O’Brien benched starting quarterback Blake Osweiler in the second quarter after the second of his two interceptions. The latter pick set up the Jaguars on the Houston 37-yard line where they would score their only offensive touchdown of the day to go up 13-0.

Jacksonville’s only other touchdown came on a 100-yard kickoff return in the third quarter by Marquise Lee. They led 20-8 at that point.

Osweiler’s replacement, Tom Savage, threw for 260 yards. Meanwhile, the struggles of Blake Bortles continued as the Jaguars’ quarterback only managed 92 yards on the day with one interception.

He has clearly regressed this year, but perhaps the lack of a running game has led him to try and do more than he is capable of doing under this offensive scheme and with the talent around him. That is a major reason, along with a 2-12 record, why Bradley lost his job. More personnel actions are certain to come in the next two-to-three weeks.

There are pockets of talent for the new coach, whoever that might be, to build upon. Lee is one of those who have shown a high level of ability. So has cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the first-round draft choice from Florida State who had one of the Jaguars’ two interceptions on Sunday.

Jacksonville has only two more opportunities to end the season on a high note. The first comes on Christmas Eve when the Tennessee Titans come to EverBank Field. Tennessee won the previous meeting in Nashville, 36-22.

 

Dolphins clinch winning season; keep playoff hopes alive

For the first time since 2008 the Miami Dolphins will finish the regular season with a winning record. That welcome development was assured after the Dolphins drubbed the New York Jets 34-13 in East Rutherford, New Jersey on Saturday night.

By improving their record to 9-5, Miami also stayed in the playoff hunt in the AFC.

The Jets made a game of it for a half, trailing only 13-10 at intermission, but Miami put up three touchdowns in the third quarter to turn the game into a laugher. Though New York finished the game with more total yards, Miami was far more successful at getting into the end zone.

After spotting New York a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, quarterback Matt Moore, filling in for the injured Ryan Tannehill, took over. He threw four touchdown passes on the night, a career high, including a 52-yard strike to Kenny Stills and a 66-yard scoring play to Jarvis Landry that put the game out of reach.

Walt Aiken got the second half going with a blocked punt and a return for a touchdown to make is 20-10.

The Dolphins are catching the Jets at the right time. Right now, New York is a dreadful team.

They are looking for some semblance of respectable quarterback play, but going between Bryce Petty and Ryan Fitzpatrick has not been the answer. A 4-10 record, including just 1-6 at home, is Exhibit A.

The Dolphin defense knocked Petty out of the game in the second half and harassed Fitzpatrick into a 17.1 quarterback rating the remainder of the game. Things are a bit brighter for the Miami quarterback situation, at least for this week.

Moore was 12 for 18, good for 236 yards and the four touchdowns. He threw one interception.

While these are good numbers against the Jets, he has two more games to win that will hopefully get the Dolphins into the playoffs.  Next up is a winnable game in Buffalo against the fading Bills on Christmas Eve.

Some are saying Tannehill could possibly play in the team’s final game, a showdown with the New England Patriots at Hard Rock Stadium. It is more likely that Miami will pin many of their post season hopes on Moore.

The obscure backup quarterback has the chance to make the most significant contribution of his career. His next step comes in one week.

 

UCF returns to bowl action against Arkansas State

The University of Central Florida Knights look to start another string of bowl appearances when they face the Arkansas State Red Wolves in Saturday’s AutoNation Cure Bowl. They are not traveling far as the game will take place in Orlando’s Camping World Stadium.

Players are always happy to be in a bowl game, but normally look forward to a trip away from home. For a team that went 0-12 the year before, the Knights are more than happy to stay home.

“It’s just a blessing to have the opportunity to be here, said linebacker Shaquem Griffin. “The Cure Bowl is showing us so much love right now and it’s good to have that feeling back. The scenery is awesome. The resort is so big we got lost trying to get (to the press conference).

First-year UCF Coach Scott Frost and the coaching staff are thrilled about the quick turnaround and the opportunity to go to a bowl game based in Orlando.

“I think it’s exciting for our university to get back to a bowl game so fast,” Frost said. “It’s great that it’s hear in Orlando. We hope last year was just a blip on the radar for UCF. I think we’re headed in the right direction, there is no doubt about that.”

Arkansas State (7-5) is glad to be in Orlando as well. Having endured struggles of their own, they are the perfect opponent for UCF.

Everything’s first class and the kids are having a blast,” said Red Wolves Coach Blake Anderson. “It’s been a long road to get here and we struggled to get to this point to be able to win a conference championship and become bowl eligible.”

The Knights rightfully feel they belong in bowl games. The results over the past decade back that up.

Beginning with the 2005 season, former coach George O’Leary took the Knights to seven bowls over 10 seasons. The pinnacle of the program’s success came on New Year’s Day 2014 when they upset Big 12 Champion Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, 52-42. UCF, led by quarterback Blake Bortles, was a 17-point underdog to the Bears.

After an appearance in the St. Petersburg Bowl following the 2014 season, everything came crashing down. Following last year’s winless season, O’Leary was gone and Frost was brought in.

Not many would guess the Knights (6-6) would become bowl-eligible in Frost’s first season, but they made significant improvements in all areas, especially on defense. UCF has some things in common with Saturday’s opponent.

“I think our football team and their football team are similar,” Frost said at Thursday’s bowl press conference. “Taking nothing away from the rest of their team, I think the strength of their team is their defense. Their defense and our defense are, I think, the two most improved in the country coming off last year.”

Kickoff is 5:30 p.m. Central Florida has been installed as a six-point favorite.

Will the Lane Kiffin-FAU marriage lead to more wins?

Lane Kiffin is a head coach again. The new Florida Atlantic coach takes over a program anxious to climb the ladder to respectability.

His last stint as a head coach ended on a Los Angeles tarmac in 2013, where he was fired by then-Southern California Athletic Director Pat Haden. The Trojans had just given up 62 points to Arizona State.

Kiffin will, of course, be expected to win, but the pressure will be far less than in previous stops. He lasted only 20 games with the Oakland Raiders, going 5-15 before being fired.

The Raiders’ owner, the late Al Davis, had a simple motto; “Just win, baby.” Kiffin was not the only Raider coach who did not follow the motto.

He then went to Tennessee, another program where 100,000 fans in Neyland Stadium strongly prefers winning over losing each week. Even before their first game, Kiffin accused Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators of cheating.

Kiffin apologized before his 2009 Volunteers went 7-6 in his only season there.

He spent most of four season in Los Angeles, where he took over a program at USC that sports 11 national championships. He was 25-13 in his first three seasons, but lost the first two conference games in 2013, including the 62-41 debacle at Arizona State.

Haden could not even wait until the following morning to fire Kiffin in his office, which says as much about him as it does Kiffin. Did I mention Hayden is the former athletic director?

Over the past three years, Kiffin has improved his stock value while serving as the offensive coordinator at Alabama. While the Crimson Tide is so well known for their defense, there can be little argument that Kiffin’s offense was designed to the strengths of their personnel.

Head Coach Nick Saban yelled a lot, including at Kiffin, but in the end, the ‘Tide’s offense played its role in developing championship-caliber teams.

“I’m very grateful to Coach Saban,” Kiffin said at his introductory press conference in Boca Raton. “My phone was not ringing very much at the time after USC.

“As he says, I got my ass-chewings from time to time,” Kiffin continued. “I’ve learned to accept those. It’s been a great run.”

Despite being on a longer leash than he would be at one of the power programs, Kiffin vows the FAU program will “make great things happen.”

FAU Athletic Director Pat Chun made it very clear why Kiffin was hired.

“Why he emerged, he wanted to be the next head coach at FAU more than anyone we talked to.”

To be the head man, Kiffin is taking a pay cut from the salary he earned as an Alabama assistant. He will earn approximately $1 million plus incentives while he was paid about $1.4 million in Tuscaloosa.

With his previous head coaching experiences on the West Coast ending badly, here is some advice for Kiffin. Should you build FAU into a winner and start receiving offers to take over big-time programs, stay in the East.

California isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

 

High-flying ‘Noles, road warrior Gators offer entertaining basketball

While their bowl games are still about three weeks away, the athletic departments at both Florida and Florida State each have other quality products to showcase. Each of their men’s basketball teams have something to prove in 2016-17.

At the top of the to-do list is making the NCAA Tournament, something that has eluded both. Florida has missed the Big Dance the last two seasons while Florida State is enduring a four-year drought.

The Gators have been ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 for most of the season. This week, they came in just a few votes behind No. 25 Cincinnati. The Seminoles started the season there, fell out, and then returned this week at No. 23.

What is remarkable is the fact Florida has not played a home game yet this season and will not until December 21. The Stephen C. O’Connell Center is undergoing extensive renovations, forcing the Gators to play their games at other venues.

They have played in Jacksonville, Lakeland, Orlando, Tampa and next week in Sunrise. They played Duke in New York City and had true road games against FSU and North Florida.

On December 21, Florida will unveil what will be known as Exactech Arena at Stephen C. O’Connell Center when Little Rock comes to Gainesville.

After Sunday’s 83-78 loss to FSU in Tallahassee on Sunday, Florida dropped to 7-3. The losses have come against No. 5 Duke, No. 8 Gonzaga and FSU.

“We can sit here and complain about having to play on the road,” said Florida Coach Mike White. “I’m pretty happy we get to play on the road in the fall because that means we are about to move into a beautiful new facility. Also, it gives you advantages, opportunities to grow, to become more cohesive as we’re traveling and coming together.”

White is now in his second year and has some experienced players. Seniors Justin Leon and Kasey Hill are joined by juniors Devin Robinson and John Egbunu. Canyon Berry joins the team as a graduate transfer from the College of Charleston along with highly touted freshman Eric Hester.

On the other hand, Florida State has played eight of their 11 games at home in the Donald L. Tucker Center. Two games were in Brooklyn, NY and one in Washington, DC.

The Seminoles were ranked 25th when they let an 18-point, second half lead get away against Temple. Following Sunday’s close win over the Gators in Tallahassee, FSU stands at 10-1.

FSU Coach Leonard Hamilton is blessed to have some experience and some gifted players on his roster. Sophomore Dwayne Bacon and Freshman Jonathan Isaac are elite talents. Xavier Rathan-Mayes and Terrance Mann add skill and experience in the backcourt.

“We are going to be playing even faster this year,” said Bacon shortly before the season began. “We’ve got guys that can run the floor and the big guys can get up and down.”

While that is true, FSU is paying closer attention to its defense and it is making a difference.

(It should not be forgotten that both schools have outstanding women’s basketball teams as well.)

Florida State opens conference play on December 28 at home against Wake Forest while the Gators open on the road (of course) on December 29 at Arkansas.

The football Seminoles take on Michigan in the Orange Bowl on December 30 while Florida faces Iowa in the Outback Bowl on January 2.

It will then be OK to focus on basketball full time.

 

Dolphins survive Arizona comeback bid; Ryan Tannehill injured

On a rainy Sunday afternoon in south Florida, the Miami Dolphins were cruising to a victory over the Arizona Cardinals. In the end, Miami would need a last second field goal from Andrew Franks to escape with a 26-23 victory.

The Dolphins bottled up Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald and David Johnson in the first half. Palmer had his worst half as a Cardinal, throwing for only 50 yards.

Miami would take a 21-9 lead and appeared headed for an easy win. As the third quarter wound down, quarterback Ryan Tannehill was hit low by Calais Campbell, injuring his knee. No flag was thrown.

With Tannehill out, Arizona came to life. Palmer led them on a 99-yard scoring drive. When the extra point was blocked, Walt Aikens picked it up and took it to the end zone for two points to make it 23-15.

After a Dolphin punt, Arizona went 50 yards in seven plays, but this time the two-point conversion was good and the game was tied at 23-23.

After exchanging punts late in the fourth quarter, Miami backup quarterback Matt Moore drove his team to the three-yard line. After time nearly expired before getting a timeout, Franks drilled the game-winner.

Before the injury, Tannehill threw for 195 and three touchdowns in the bad weather. Even with the late flurry, Palmer was limited to 145 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

The Miami running game was again limited with Jay Ajayi picking up only 48 yards on 20 carries. Jarvis Landry had 103 yards receiving.

Johnson finished with 80 yards rushing for Arizona while Fitzgerald had only 12 yards receiving.

The Dolphins are hoping they will not personify the old saying about winning the battle, but losing the war. Losing Tannehill would be a jolt to their playoff hopes. More will be known about the severity of his injury on Monday.

With the victory, Miami moves to 8-5 on the season. It is their seventh win in the last eight games.

Next Sunday, they travel to New York to take on the struggling Jets.

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