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Germany looks to shore up defense ahead of Poland clash

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EVIAN-LES-BAINS, France — Germany needs to focus on its defensive deficiencies weaknesses as it prepares to play Poland, top-scorers in qualifying round for the European Championship.

The world champions opened their campaign with a 2-0 win against Ukraine but were grateful to goalkeeper Manuel Neuer for three outstanding saves and Jerome Boateng for a goal-line clearance.

Poland, which is led by qualifying’s top scorer Robert Lewandowski, will present a bigger challenge for Germany’s defense with both sides eyeing top spot in Group C on Thursday at Stade de France. Poland also won its first match, beating Northern Ireland 1-1.

One potential positive development for Germany is that defender Mats Hummels has declared himself fit after recovering from a calf injury he sustained in the German Cup final last month in his last game for Borussia Dortmund.

Coach Joachim Loew needs to decide whether to risk Hummels, who won’t have played for almost four weeks, or continue with his stop-gap solution of Shkodran Mustafi partnering Boateng in central defense.

Mustafi opened the scoring against Ukraine but looked vulnerable at times against speedy wingers Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka, and the Valencia defender almost gifted a late equalizer in a mix-up with Neuer.

Bayern Munich midfielder Joshua Kimmich could also fill in, as could Bayer Leverkusen’s Jonathan Tah, though both players are short of experience. The 20-year-old Tah was a late call up for original Hummels-replacement Antonio Ruediger, who tore a cruciate ligament in his right knee in training.

Poland’s victory over Northern Ireland in Nice on Sunday was the country’s fist victory at a European Championship. The team is unlikely to be overawed having beaten Germany in qualifying – its first win over its neighbor in 19 games.

Lewandowski says it is “the best Polish team in which I have ever played.”

Lewandowski is partnered in attack by Ajax striker Arkadiusz Milik, familiar to Bundesliga fans from his time at Leverkusen and Augsburg. Though Lewandowski was kept quiet against the Northern Irish – no shots on goal and just 49 touches of the ball – he created space for Milik to score the only goal.

“The goal was important, I’m really happy about it,” the 22-year-old Milik said. “But even more important are the three points. We still have a few steps ahead of us; this is not the end of the journey.”

NBC Sports’ Josh Norris attempts the combine

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The lengths I go to entertain you.

Since I attempt to evaluate these prospects’ athleticism, my friends at NBC Sports thought it was only fair if I went through the same circuit of drills and tests as the future NFL players.

So what did I learn? I learned that I am no longer an in shape 18-year-old. I learned how important flexibility is for every single drill. I can’t even touch my toes, which does not help with the broad jump or turning the corner on a three cone. And I’m jealous of the rest these prospects get between their attempts.

For more of Josh’s drills, check out the full lineup here

T.O. controversy underscores need for Hall of Fame transparency

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I started down the T.O. Hall of Fame time out rabbit hole a week ago due primarily to concerns regarding a lack of transparency in the selection process. After a week of arguments, counterarguments, and a few condescending comments from voters who resent being questioned or criticized by people who don’t know the inner working of the process, I’m back to where I started.

Those who criticize the process indeed don’t know the inner workings of the process because the process is kept completely secret. And the T.O. case proves that the time has arrived for transparency.

As Peter King of TheMMQB.com pointed out earlier this week, those who voted against Owens largely have slipped into hiding.

The fact that Owens didn’t make it from the final 15 to the final 10 suggests that the nays are more plentiful than necessary to transform him from one of the final five into a Hall of Famer. Don’t underestimate, however, the possibility that the voters collectively realized that enough of them would never get behind Owens on the final ballot (where it takes only 10 to put the kibosh on Canton) to make pushing Owens to the final 10 or the final five an exercise in futility.

It ultimately may be only 10 people who are anti-T.O. Maybe there aren’t that many; maybe the handful was loud enough and zealous enough that they managed to convince enough of their peers to think that pushing Owens through to the final five would set the stage for an ugly filibuster at best or a complete waste of time (and a spot that could have gone to someone else) at worst.

The only obvious “no” votes currently known (by me) are Vic Carucci of the Buffalo News (he wrote a column about it), Jason Cole of Bleacher Report (ditto), Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts (he made his case against Owens in a radio interview), and Dan Pompei of Bleacher Report (his Twitter account makes his position clear). All of the “no” votes should be known, and those who have kept quiet while the process has been challenged generally and a small handful of their colleagues have been attacked specifically should speak up.

Even if all the “no” votes were known, we still won’t know everything that needs to be known. Those voters who have chosen to disclose their position on Owens refuse to disclose the identity of other Hall of Famers, players, and/or coaches who have privately said that Owens doesn’t belong. Setting aside the question of whether these non-voters should have so much sway over the process, the refusal to name them makes the process even harder to accept.

It’s one thing to gather facts anonymously. Gathering opinions anonymously allows for those anonymous opinions to be tainted by personal animus. Also, it makes objective assessment of the basis for the opinions impossible, allowing for all sorts of subjective factors to be twisted and warped — and for the voters to abdicate their responsibility to assess the candidate to the whispers of those who, given the benefit of secrecy, are far more likely to yield to the temptation of human factors.

The broader concern is this: When evaluating a player based on what he did on a 100-by-53-yard patch of grass or FieldTurf or green cement, it’s easy to assess the opinions of the voters and to develop opinions on the accuracy of the outcome of the votes. When things that happened from the sideline to the parking lot become relevant to the process, it becomes impossible to know what is being considered, why it’s being considered, which others have made it through despite similar concerns, and whether those standards will be applied to future candidates.

There can be no consistency without transparency, and with no transparency it’s impossible for those who view Owens as a knee-jerk Hall of Famer to understand his omission for a second straight year. The voters who oppose Owens can either sneer at those of us who think they got it wrong or they can heed the criticisms, lobby for meaningful change, and bring a different approach to the process in 2018.

If it’s the former, there will be more sneering at those of us who think they got it wrong, both as to Owens and as to others who seem to pass the Hall of Fame eyeball test but can’t get in.