Monday, December 10, 2018

People Hate the Randomness of the Universe. Well, Bill Belichick Does Anyway

Kenyan Drake's touchdown yesterday shouldn't have counted. Replays clearly show the band was not on the field at any time during the Dolphins' game-winning play.

As far as I can tell, we have to go back to that Cal-Stanford game of the early '80s to find another instance of a desperation game-ending multiple lateral play actually working. They may, as both Bill Belichick, who got bit by one, and the entire Dolphins team, who scored on it, be practiced and practiced against on a regular basis, but they never come to much. Well over 99 percent of the time they end in confused failure: a forward lateral, a fumble recovered by the defense, an offensive lineman getting the last pass and falling to the ground from exhaustion at midfield, etc. Compared to this play, the Hail Mary has a risk-reward ratio comparable to the quarterback sneak.

Which is only right, as the Hail Mary is much less ridiculous a last chance call. It posits one miracle, a lone receiver wresting the ball from multiple defenders. The multiple lateral depends on about 612 miracles, not the least of which is your 11 guys keeping their heads while they try to create chaos.

And yet, Drake DID score and the Dolphins did beat New England 34-33. All 612 miracles duly happened. And since luck is somewhat the residue of design, not all 612 events were miracles. Drake's part of the play was skill, outstanding broken-field running (We seldom see that phrase anymore, modern defenses don't let the field get broken much).  The Miami block on Patrick Chung was downfield blocking as fantasy for offensive line coaches.  And no, Rob Gronkowski should not have been on the field.

Overall, though, the play was indeed the miracle as touted by a million post-game highlight shows. Fluke is probably a more accurate term, but it's harder to place in alliterative headlines. Which is why any of the trillion pixels and kazillion words that will be spent on The Meaning of It All this week will be either specious, futile or both. One of the most peculiar psychological aspects of football is how no one, not coaches, players, media nor especially fans, can come to terms with the sport's oldest, truest and most fundamental cliche.

A football takes funny bounces. Pats' fans should write that sentence down a 100 times a day until next Sunday's game with the Steelers. It is the one Meaning that should but won't be taken from the ludicrous glory (oh, come on, that was a magnificent ten seconds of football) of Drake's TD. Football IS chaos, and every so often, chaos spews out a result that defies the entire science of statistical probability.

It is not going too far to say that all of football's beloved preparation, all the meetings, film study, coaching and practice, is the effort to keep chaos at bay. No team in NFL history has been as successful at doing so as the 21st century Patriots. Their collective gift for making what the odds say should happen to happen is itself uncanny. But nobody does undefeated against football's random zaniness.

Consider New England's three Super Bowl defeats. David Tyree's catch. Mario Manningham's catch. The Philly Special.  Three times as favorites the Patriots were undone by plays completely unexpected and in Tyree's case physically impossible. Those plays weren't the ONLY reasons the Pats lost those games, but without them, they win at least two and probably all three.

And in their wisdom, the Pats largely saw those bitter losses as blows from an implacable hostile universe, as the flukes they were. The franchise's well-earned and extreme self-confidence, one of the most powerful of its weapons against chaos, was not disrupted. The Patriots are chalk players. They were of course shocked and dismayed yesterday. But I don't think it damaged their core belief that most of the time, the percentages are on the side of the team which plays them best.

This is, by the way, true. New England's Super Bowl chances should not be affected to any extent by the events of yesterday afternoon. Class, what is Kansas City's January home record for the past two decades?

The Dolphins won yesterday due to another truth -- percentages are probabilities, not guarantees, and in any sport, in all of human existence, the improbable, the nearly impossible even, pops up from time to time to dismay and/or delight us all. This is as it should be.

If the football didn't take funny bounces, the sport wouldn't be much fun.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

It's Almost As If It Was a Team Sport

Through 11 games of the 2018 NFL season, there is a quarterback who is closest to Tom Brady in passer rating. He has completed more passes than Brady, has a slightly higher completion percentage and higher yards per attempt. He trails Brady in TD passes 19 to 14, but has thrown only the same number of interceptions. Can you guess his name without looking it up?

Liar. It's Eli Manning, about to get benched yet again by the 3-8 Giants. The Patriots, of course, are 8-3 and methodically plodding their way to the number one seed in the AFC playoffs. This is despite the fact Brady's individual performance, while quite good by any historical standard including his own, is nowhere in the ridiculous passing stat parade of 2018. His 65.2 percent completion percentage, which would have led the league by a mile almost every year until the 21st century, is the overall average for NFL passers this season. He has thrown just about half as many TD passes as Patrick Mahomes and three times as many picks as Drew Brees. And so on and so forth.

Still, 8-3 is 8-3, and no team has that record unless its quarterback is playing well enough to win, the only standard that really matters. More importantly, no team has that record unless it's playing well enough to win as a whole. To illustrate that point, let's consider an individual stat I left out in the earlier Eli-Tom comparison. Manning has been sacked a league high 38 times, Brady only 16. Some sacks are the quarterback's fault, but not all of 'em. Manning may be getting benched for his own protection.

It stands to reason that at a time when quarterbacks are doing more than ever, they will receive more scrutiny, and hence, a lot more flawed analysis and comment. There is a school of thought, held by more than one level-headed and worthwhile NFL observer, that in 2018, Brady is, if not in decline, in a kind of gentle glide path towards the end of his career. He is doing less because that's all he's capable of. He has become the dreaded "crafty veteran."

Perhaps. It should be noted this theory must skip over the Kansas City game, where Brady was quite capable of shooting it out with Mahomes from start to finish. I propose an alternate theory, that Brady is doing less because that's all he has to do for the Pats to win most of the time. It's not decline, it's playing his own team as the chalk it's been for 20 years.

Just yesterday, Brady mused aloud on the importance of avoiding turnovers. That's a tell. Brady's known that fact his whole life, but back in his salad days, like last year, he didn't usually talk about it as a prime directive. The remark was especially noteworthy since with the return of Rob Gronkowski against the Jets, he could have just as easily said something to the effect that with all its weapons healthy, the offense could start to be both efficient and explosive. He didn't.

Is this lack of confidence in his own ability? That I very much doubt. It is more likely to express confidence in the Pats' collective ability. We will get our points because everybody in this getting their points. What we need to focus on is not giving the other guys any through error.

The Brady declinists note, accurately, that Brady played poorly in New England's losses to the Lions and Titans. He was not alone. Those defeats were total teams efforts, with ineptitude displayed by almost all hands throughout. In particular, Brady spent significant portions of both games on his back with large hostile men on top of him. All quarterbacks look bad in those circumstances. Ask Eli.

Against the Jets, who in a refreshing exception to NFL trends can't score any points, Brady was his 2018 self. He had an excellent but not spectacular game and was happy to let New England run the ball to dominate New York. Is that managing decline, or was it just "hey, this is the easiest way to win"?  And when the final score is 27-13, what does difference does the answer to that question make?

How time is affecting Brady I do not know. Not enough to matter much is my guess, but it's just a guess. How time is affecting PERCEPTIONS of Brady is beyond obvious.

When an athlete's 31 and has a bad game, people say he looked bad. When he's 41, they say he looked old.

Know who looks old out there this year? Eli Manning, who's 37. A quarterback's football age can be most accurately measured in the quality of his blocking, or lack thereof.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

How to Be a Successful Major League Manager

Step 1. Have many good players on your roster, including a couple of great ones.

Step 2. There's an infinite number of methods that work. Also that don't. Picking them is up to you.

Consider this incomplete list of historically notable managers. John McGraw, Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, Walter Alston, Earl Weaver, Dick Williams, Sparky Anderson, Billy Martin, Joe Torre, and for getting the Red Sox off the schnied, Terry Francona.

This group of men could not be more different in their personalities and managerial styles, which ranged from mellow father figure (Alston) to sociopath (Martin). All had long careers, so all of them also employed differing varieties of in-game tactics and micromanagement of teams during long seasons. What were the secrets of their shared success. It likely has something to do with the list that will compose my next paragraph.

Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, Jim Palmer, Rollie Fingers, Joe Morgan, Reggie Jackson, Mariano Rivera and Pedro Martinez. All Hall of Fame players. All were on teams that had other Hall of Fame players on them, too, or players that will or should be in Cooperstown. I could have easily substituted Lou Gehrig, Whitey Ford, Brooks Robinson, Johnny Bench, Goose Gossage, Derek Jeter and David Ortiz to make the same point.

In his rookie season as a manager Alex Cora, employing a wide variety of in-game tactics and macromanagement techniques, especially in the all important field of personnel management, won a World Series with the 2018 Red Sox, who won 119 total games and lost 57. That is outstanding. It is no exaggeration to say Cora got the most of of its team it could possibly deliver.

It is no criticism of Cora to say that his success was largely due to the fact the 2018 Red Sox started with a whole lot to give him.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Brevity Is the Soul of Wit, Also of Pitching

A brief summary of the 2018 American League Championship Series.
Game One: Red Sox pitchers walk 10, hit three batsmen, allow two homers.
Game Two: Red Sox pitchers walk 5, nit nobody, allow one homer.

Both the Boston and Houston lineups can and have do plenty of staff-wrecking on their own hook. The winner of the series will be the team whose pitchers help their opponents the least.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Trailing by Several TDs in the Game of Love

People are complicated, even football coaches and football heroes. Because of that fact, human relationships are quite complex. They're full of ambivalence. They're messy, even if they share five Super Bowl titles.

So learning that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have a relationship that's complex, messy and with its fair share of friction comes as news only if we deny that the two of them are human beings. Granted they each go out of their way to cover up their humanity, but people they are. Gifted people, which puts added strain on their relationship, since the gifted are extra complex, not least because they know damn well they're exceptional.

Expecting any team's NFL head coach and quarterback to have an endless honeymoon live-happily-ever-after relationship is childish. Worse, it infantilizes both parties in the relationship. It denies them their individuality, their pride, their own competitive natures. Pro football teams generate far deeper emotional ties within themselves than do more normal businesses, but they ARE businesses, and the relationships within them are business relationships, not romances nor pure friendships. A coach and a QB have a transactional relationship, no matter how close that relationship might be. Belichick is Brady's boss. Brady is Beliechick's most valuable employee. That's the truth at the bottom of how they interact.

Oh, how I wish the two of 'em would say words to that effect. Maybe then Pats fans and NFL media would drop the "Tom and Bill face life" soap opera and treat them as the grown, difficult men they are. This is about the vainest wish I've ever made. Belichick says nothing about football's emotional side, let alone his own, Brady says things that mean nothing, and I'm not sure which is less informative.

What would drive a great coach and great quarterback apart? Several traits they have in common. One, a ferocious and unhealthy love of competition and the need to win at it. Two, the near inhuman will, powerful ego, and yes, selfishness that come with the need to compete and triumph.

History offers examples. Otto Graham was not enamored of Paul Brown. Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw never liked each other. Troy Aikman won a Super Bowl with Barry Switzer, a coach he despised. It took the latter's illness and death for Joe Montana to reconcile with Bill Walsh

We don't need books to know Belichick and Brady have mutual resentments. We need only examine human nature. Unless they were saints, and they'd fight to be the first to deny that, it is only natural each of these prideful men might feel deep down they don't get their fair share of credit for the Patriots' unmatched success over two decades. One damnable thing about credit is it's hard to split down the middle.

Football is Belichick's life. It's what he is. He's entitled to resent the popular notion that without Brady, he'd never have made a Super Bowl as a head coach, let alone win five. After all, he saw something in the skinny kid at 2000 rookie camp worth keeping him around for. I saw that rookie camp and thought I'd never see Brady make that year's preseason cut.

Brady has more going on his life than football (I love how that drives some outsiders up a wall), but that aw-shucks facade doesn't fool anybody. He knows damn well he's at the very pinnacle of his demanding profession, one of the legends who'll be known by only one name long after he leaves the sport, long after he leaves life itself. He's entitled to feel that his coach could more freely acknowledge, in both public and private, that Brady has been pretty good at football over the years.

Does each man occasionally, or perhaps more often, that they get a "divorce." I'd bet big money the answer is yes. Yet, here they are, married for 19 years in the closest coach-athlete relationship in sports. And of all the historical feats Brady and Belichick have shared, the longevity of their joint custody of the Pats is the most amazing of all. There's been no other coach and QB who've stuck together anything like that long. Nineteen years is about half of Brady's whole life, and more than a quarter of Belichick's. There must be some reason they put up with other that's a good deal more relevant than the backstairs gossip being bandied about.

Love's great for real marriage, but for business, need is the core of a productive relationship. As much as Brady and Belichick may resent each other, which is probably more a subtext than the driving force of their day-to-day interaction, they are also smart enough to look at the scoreboards they've shared since 2001 and realize it all  wouldn't have happened if the other guy hadn't been there too.

Brady may think Belichick's a grouch. He is, after all. But I bet he also thinks that if Bill hadn't been his first pro coach, his most likely career outcome would've resembled Ryan Fitzpatrick's, bouncing from team to team, bouncing between starter and backup., maybe the occasional playoff appearance. Fitzpatrick's had a more than respectable career. A legend he ain't.

Likewise, no matter how much it may gall Belichick to hear or read he owes his success to Brady, the coach is realistic enough to know that without his Hall of Fame QB, his own career path would most likely have followed that of Wade Phillips. Many years as a highly regarded defensive coordinator for various teams mixed in with a couple of head coaching jobs where the lack of a QB got him fired. Phillips' career could be called distinguished without stretching. He's not going to Canton and Bill is.

Belichick has shared another fraught professional relationship in his career with one Bill Parcells. Oh, they've reconciled now, on the surface anyway, but the mutual tension was real and should have been. Being Parcells' number henchman had to have left scars. Parcells was a blast to write about. To work for? No thanks.

At one of the nadirs of their frenemyship. I think when Parcells was at Dallas, a reporter asked Parcells about Belichick. Bill said only "we won a lot of games together. That's all I can say." His tone and facial expression made it clear that in his mind, anyone who didn't immediately understand his answer knew nothing about football at all.

If winning is what drives you, if it's what you value most, then people who help you win have a quality that far outweighs any of their other traits. You might resent them. You might hate their guts. But you need them for the Ws to which you are so profoundly addicted. Perhaps I'm old school, but to me, the idea that Belichick and Brady have resentments and animosities makes their relationship praiseworthy, not something to be sniggered at. Isn't that teamwork in action?

Forget the second-hand drama. As long as the Pats keep winning, Brady and Belichick will tolerate each other. No, that's not quite the right word. They will continue to depend on each other.  If New England goes 7-9 this season or next, the Foxboro Bickersons might get a divorce. Otherwise, they'll co-exist win to win, and probably more wins than that.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Vanilla is First on the List of Icee Cream Flavors for a Reason

No event in sports generates as much overthinking as the NFL draft. The men making the selections run so much bullshit past their competitors and, most importantly, their own customers (fans to you) they lose themselves in halls of funhouse mirrors they built themselves.

Fans love the crap dished out to them and come back for more. It's understandable. For once, their opinion is as good as the masterminds they root for and subsequently wind up hating. Nobody will find out whether Draftee X can or cannot play at the NFL level for some time.

Bill Belichick doesn't play the draft game very much. Most years, like this one, the Pats' choices are straight-ahead picks that ought to, but don't, result in little controversy. I always thought his endless series of low-round trades were a confession he was getting as bored with the draft as I was.

But the draft bullshit game doesn't need fodder. It generates its own fuel of 100 percent methane nonsense no matter what the Patriots or any other team does.

Exhibit A: My favorite piece of post draft analysis as heard yesterday on the Sports Hub.
Co-host Mark Bertrand: "What I want to know is why won't the Patriots draft for need?"
Co-host Scott Zolak: "Well, what are their needs?
Bertrand: "I don't know!!" This was said in exasperation. That's when I almost rear-ended that school bus.

What Bertrand meant to say of course, was that the Pats used their two first round picks on offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn and running back Sony Michel when he thought they should have picked defensive players. But it sure was funnier his way.

Of course the Pats drafted for need. They lost offensive lineman Nate Solder and running back Dion Lewis to free agency, and replaced them. How is that controversial, or even very interesting?

I don't want to get lost in the mirrors, so I'll try to make this as simple as possible. All teams enter the draft with a list of their needs for the upcoming season ranked in order of their priority, and a list of hundreds of players ranked in rough order of their perceived ability. If Belichick took Michel despite the fact "analytics" have downgraded running backs to placekicker levels in NFL priorities, it's likely he did so because Michel was really high up on the Pats player list.

It is impossible for any team to get worse by adding a good player. Can't be done. I am very much of the "best available football player" school of drafting. Belichick is one of the teachers who made me that way. Unless/until Michel busts out (could happen for sure), I will assume that's what he was after the first 30 picks of the 2017 NFL draft.

Boring drafts are happy drafts. Know whose draft was even duller than the Pats' this year? The Eagles.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

A Hopeless Duty, I Mean, Tradition Like No Other

Three out of every four years,  February is my month for watching regular season college basketball. At the end of it, I am on reasonably familiar terms with at least half of the top ten teams. But every fourth year, like this one, the Winter Olympics come along. The spectacle of insane daredevils risking life and limb on ice and snow is far more appealing than viewing a parade of time outs where alleged genius coaches assault their young charges with their mighty brain waves.

The above is a long winded way of saying I didn't see much college hoop last month. When the Olympic flame was doused, I was struck with the horrid realization, "holy shit, the NCAA tournament is in less than three weeks." So by way of compensation, I overdosed on conference tournament watching.

Conference tournaments for the one-bid set of schools you could not locate on a map are magnificent drama because the stakes are so high. Tournaments for the so-called power conferences provide more than the occasional entertaining game as well.  Unfortunately, for the reason I watched them, handicapping an NCAA bracket forecast, they are useless. No, worse, they are actively deceiving. A plunger who bases his bracket on conference tourneys has a swell chance of seeing it busted before dinner time today.

Let's take an example. In ITS conference tourney, San Diego State looked as if it could give the Lakers a good game. They are an 11 seed. Are they a value bet, or a conference tourney mirage? Beats me. One thing I learned a long time ago about sports gambling. Nothing is more unreliable than what one thinks is the evidence of their own two eyes.

A sensible person would probably not fill out a bracket in Winter Olympic years, let alone expose their guess to whatever corner of public stumbles onto this blog. But I've been doing brackets for 40 years, and making them public for over 30. I'd rather be thought a fool than a coward, I guess. That's not smart.

I am not going to do a full bracket analysis because only Final Four and National Champion count unless you're in one of those mega-pools, which is even dumber than what I'm doing here. Without confidence but with resolution, I will offer at least that.

Final Four:  Cincinnati, Gonzaga, Villanova, Michigan State. Villanova over Cincinnati for the title.

If, and of course I mean when, that forecast goes south, you can't say you weren't warned.