Golden again, US wins 1st Olympic title since '96

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Golden again, US wins 1st Olympic title since '96

By NANCY ARMOUR LONDON (AP) -- The Americans grabbed hands and backed up, eager to get a better view of the scoreboard. There really was no need. That Olympic gold medal was in the bag the minute they took the floor. The Americans lived up to their considerable hype and then some Tuesday night, routing silver medalist Russia and everybody else on their way to their first Olympic title in women's gymnastics since 1996. Their score of 183.596 was a whopping five points ahead of Russia and made their final event, floor exercise, more like a coronation. Romania won the bronze. With the Russians on the sidelines crying, the Americans stood at the center of the floor, clapping, cheering and basking in a winner's glow. When the score for captain Aly Raisman flashed, the Americans screamed and a chant of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" rang out around the arena. The women held up their index fingers for the cameras -- just in case anyone had a doubt. The Americans had come into the last two Olympics as world champions, only to leave without a gold. But this team is the strongest, top to bottom, the USA has ever had, and the rest of the world never stood a chance. After the U.S. opened with a barrage of booming vaults, everyone else was playing for silver. Now all they have to do is find themselves a catchy nickname, like "The Magnificent Seven" from 1996. Some have suggested "The Fab Five," but that belongs to Michigan basketball's Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Co. Others have tossed out "The Fierce Five." How about "Best Gymnastics Team in the World. By A Lot." Some teenagers might find that pressure tough to bear, but the Americans reveled in it. When they saw the Russians and Romanians peeking in the doorway during training sessions, they would add some extra oomph to their routines, the better to intimidate the competition. And when the gold was on the line, the Americans were simply spectacular. They essentially won the gold medal with their first event, vault, putting on a fireworks show right in front of the Russians. All of the Americans do Amanars, one of the toughest vaults in the world -- a roundoff onto the takeoff board, back handspring onto the table and 2.5 twisting somersaults before landing. It's got a start value -- the measure of difficulty -- of 6.5, a whopping 0.7 above the vault most other gymnasts do, and they ripped off one massive one after another. World champion Jordyn Wieber went first and did perhaps the best one she's ever done, getting great height in the air with her legs locked together. When her feet slammed into the mat on landing, she threw up her arms and smiled broadly. Anyone who wondered how she would recover from the shock of failing to qualify for the all-around competition got their answer. Gabby Douglas went next and her vault was even better. And then came McKayla Maroney, who let everyone know why she's a heavy favorite to add the Olympic gold to her world title in vault. She got so much height on her Amanar it's a wonder she didn't bump her head on the overhead camera. She hit the mat with tremendous force yet didn't so much as wiggle, triumphantly thrusting her arms in the air as she saluted the judges. The Americans strutted out of the event with a 1.7-point lead, and never looked back. Russia erased all but four-tenths of the deficit on uneven bars, where Viktoria Komova and Aliya Mustafina defy the laws of gravity, but the team began falling apart on balance beam. Mustafina swayed and wobbled so badly on the landing of a leap it's a wonder she didn't fall off; Komova almost stepped on the judges on her dismount. The Americans, meanwhile, made the 4-inch slab that stands 4 feet in the air look like child's play. Kyla Ross, the only American who wasn't on that world team last year (she was too young), looks like a ballerina with her long legs and gorgeous lines. She landed one somersault with her left foot curled over the edge of the beam, yet never flinched. Douglas has struggled on balance beam all summer, with a fall the second day of the U.S. championships costing her the title. But she has been clutch in London, delivering the highest score in qualifying and again Tuesday night. She whipped off a series of backflips as if she was still on the ground, a look of intense concentration on her face. She had a small balance check on a leap, swaying slightly and waving her arms to steady herself, but it was a minor error. Her score of 15.233 would all but seal the gold for the Americans, and they strutted over to floor exercise eager to close out the night with a big show. While the Russians struggled -- Anastasia Grishina stumbled forward on one pass and botched another when she all but came to a dead stop in the middle of the floor, and world champion Ksenia Afanaseva landed her dismount on her knees -- the Americans kicked off their victory party. Wieber's bright smile grew as she danced and tumbled, the crowd clapping in time to her techno pop music. Fans the world over are going to have the "Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo" from the start of Douglas' music in their heads, and little girls are sure to be bouncing in their backyards trying to get as high as she does on her leaps. Raisman closed it out with a rollicking routine to "Hava Nagila." While her teammates cheered, Raisman soared high on her tumbling passes yet she landed so securely she may as well have been stepping into a bucket of cement. Coach Mihai Brestyan was jumping up and down as Raisman finished, the tears already starting to fall. But as she fell into her teammates arms, the tears turned to shrieks of joy.

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2016-17 Season Preview: Philadelphia Flyers

2016-17 Season Preview: Philadelphia Flyers

It still feels like the season just ended, but with the draft and free agency already behind us, it's time to look forward to the 2016-17 season. We will preview every team in the NHL throughout August and take a look at what the new season may hold.

Team: Philadelphia Flyers.

How they did last season: 41-27-14 (96 points); 5th in the Metropolitan Division; 7th in the Eastern Conference. Lost in the first round to the Capitals, 4-2. 

Notable acquisitions: RW Dale Weise; C Boyd Gordon; D T.J. Brennan (two-way contract); and LW Roman Lyubimov (two-way).

Notable departures: C Sam Gagne; C Ryan White; C RJ Umberger; and D Evgeny Medvedev.

When they will play the Caps: Dec. 21 in Philly; Jan. 15 in Washington; Feb 22 in Philly; and March 4 in Philly.

Analysis: The Flyers surged into the playoffs last spring, riding a 15-6-2 hot streak ignited, in part, by no-nonsense first-year head coach Dave Hakstol, the emergence of rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere (46 points), a career-year from Wayne Simmonds (32 goals) and a breakout campaign from Brayden Schenn (59 points).

After pushing the Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals to six games in April, the Flyers had the look of a team that was a tweak or two away from being really good.

Then the offseason came and went without a whole lot happening. It shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise given the Flyers’ proximity to the salary cap ceiling. But it was still, in a word, underwhelming.

GM Ron Hextall’s biggest moves, in fact, were the signing Weise and Gordon, a pair of bottom-six forwards. Weise had one goal in 19 regular season and playoff games for Chicago after the Blackhawks acquired the big winger at the deadline from Montreal. Gordon, on the other hand, is a 32-year-old fourth-line faceoff specialist who broke into the NHL with the Capitals. 

So, yeah, that’s pretty much it.

Are the Flyers any better off? Marginally. Maybe. 

The grand plan, it seems, is for the improvement to come from within the organization in the form of a bounce back seasons from a few key vets and the emergence of a prospect or two.

Topping the list of bounce back candidates is Jakub Voracek, who missed nine games and saw his point total side from 81 to 55. It could be argued that Claude Giroux belongs in this category, too. His point totals have gone 86-73-67 the past three years. The 28-year-old team captain possesses top 10-scoring talent; the Flyers need him to get there again.

As for the prospects, the Flyers have one that many believe is ready to contribute: defenseman Ivan Provorov, the No. 7 overall pick in 2015. If the 19-year-old proves he belongs, there’s a chance Provorov (21 goals and 52 assists in 62 games for Brandon of the WHL) could give the Flyers’ blue line an offensive jolt similar to the one it got from Gostispehere last year.    

Season prediction: I’m not confident in the Flyers’ chances of returning to the postseason.

If goalies Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth—both in the final year of their contracts—push one another, I suspect Philly could squeak in again. Philly finished tied for fifth in team save percentage last season (.917).

If they just miss out, it’ll be due to one reason: After finishing 22nd in goals (2.57 per) last season, they needed to add some proven scoring talent and they did not. Hextall wanted in on the Jimmy Vesey sweepstakes, but the Hobey Baker winner ended up signing with the Rangers.

In a league where goals are increasingly difficult to come by, the Flyers need more of them. And, after poring over the projected lineup for the 2016-17, it’s hard to see where those goals are going to come from.

2016-2017 NHL TEAM PREVIEWS

Pacific Division
— Anaheim Ducks
— Arizona Coyotes
— Calgary Flames
— Edmonton Oilers
— Los Angeles Kings
— San Jose Sharks
— Vancouver Canucks

Central Division
— Chicago Blackhawks
— Colorado Avalanche
— Dallas Stars
— Minnesota Wild
— Nashville Predators
— St. Louis Blues
— Winnipeg Jets

Atlantic Division
— Boston Bruins
— Buffalo Sabres
— Detroit Red Wings
— Florida Panthers
— Montreal Canadiens
— Ottawa Senators
— Tampa Bay Lightning
— Toronto Maple Leafs

Metropolitan Division
— Carolina Hurricanes
— Columbus Blue Jackets
— New Jersey Devils
— New York Islanders
New York Rangers
— Pittsburgh Penguins (coming Aug. 29)
— Washington Capitals (coming Aug. 30)

RELATED: 2016-17 NHL Preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

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Harbaugh calls for changes to NFL preseason format

Harbaugh calls for changes to NFL preseason format

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh believes the NFL preseason needs to be shortened, and perhaps even eliminated.

This is more than a knee-jerk reaction to tight end Ben Watson suffering a season-ending torn Achilles injury Saturday night, or running back Kenneth Dixon suffering a knee injury, or Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo suffering a back injury Friday night. Harbaugh had already concluded that a four-game preseason schedule preseason was no longer worth the risk for players.

“It’s not a reaction to any injuries we had tonight, or anybody else had,” Harbaugh said, following Saturday night’s 30-9 victory over the Lions. “I know the league and the (NFL) Players Association is working very hard and trying to figure out ideas to work out the preseason.

“These guys playing in these preseason games – it’s tough and they’re not meaningful games. They are important to get better, and they improve us. But we football coaches can find ways to get our guys ready and get our players evaluated without the kind of risk that a game necessarily entails. I’m really hopeful that the union and the league can get together and do something that’s good for everybody – especially what’s good for the players and for the fans.”

Harbaugh indicated he would be in favor of expanding rosters, lengthening the regular season, and shortening the preseason.

“If you go more games, fewer preseason games, and bigger rosters, that’s good for everybody,” Harbaugh said.

Asked how many preseason games he would like to see, Harbaugh gave a definite answer.

“If I had my choice, I’d go none,” Harbaugh said. “That might be an extreme point, but we could run scrimmages, or we could run practices against other teams and figure it out. We’d all be in the same boat. That’s for people higher up than me to decide.”

RELATED: Ravens win game, but lose TE Watson for season

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Redskins' staring defense is sharp in small preseason sample of work

Redskins' staring defense is sharp in small preseason sample of work

Judging by the small sample size that the NFL preseason has become it looks like the Redskins’ starting defense is ready to go for the start of the NFL season.

The Redskins’ opponents had six possessions with their staring quarterbacks in the lineup, which usually means that those teams had all of their healthy starters in the game. In those six possessions the Redskins’ opponents mustered 53 yards of total offense.

As far as the starting quarterbacks, the Redskins didn’t face anyone who is bound for Canton five years after retirement. But there wasn’t a Case Keenum in the group either. Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Matt Ryan combined to complete six of 18 passes for 46 yards with no interceptions and no touchdowns. That comes to a combined passer rating of 33.3.

This is a major improvement over the 2015 preseason when starting quarterbacks were much sharper against the Redskins’ defense. Josh McCown, Matthew Stafford, and Joe Flacco completed 19 of 26 passes for 248 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. That’s a passer rating of 73.1. That’s not stellar but still effective.

This year the other teams apparently wanted to get the QBs some work and didn’t run a lot. The Redskins gave up 36 rushing yards on eight attempts. That’s an average of 4.5 yards per attempt. Over a year that would be an improvement over last year (4.8 per carry) but still well above the league average (4.1).

It’s hard to overemphasize the small sample sizes involved here. It would be a mistake to draw any sweeping conclusions from a few dozen snaps. But among the goals of the preseason are to look competent and, as Jay Gruden said, create some “positive vibrations”. The Redskins defense can check the boxes next to both of those.