Sunday, November 19, 2017

Don't Root for Injuries, Embarrassing Depositions Are Much More Fun

The most entertaining part of the football season is not only outside the lines, it's outside the stadiums. Jerry Jones and the NFL are on the outs. Dire threats are being issued by both sides, threats that will almost certainly never materialize, but oh, boy how all right thinking sports fans wish they would.

The Cowboys owner has said he'll sue the league if his fellow owners give commissioner Roger Goodell a contract extension. Through the league, the other 31 owners have said they'll retaliate with stern if somewhat vague sanctions against Jones, even though they agree with him about Goodell, who has been the very worst type of leader known to political science -- a weak tyrant.

A burst of Jones v. NFL litigation in state and federal courthouses across the land would provide the first real spark of suspense and fun in what's been a pretty dismal pro football season to date, marked only by the weekly devastating injury to one or more of the league's increasingly few celebrity superstars. (Are there any folks out there who think that barring a similar injury to Tom Brady, the Patriots won't be the AFC team in the Super Bowl? I know a fair of number of Steelers' fans, and they don't even think so.).

Indeed, legal trench warfare might help the NFL with its increasingly troubling decline in TV ratings. Just get the various judges in a Jones-Goodell tussle to schedule all hearings, motions, etc. for Thursday nights, replacing the loathed Thursday night games. Trust me, high priced attorneys arguing over impenetrable statues of commercial law can be tremendous entertainment.

The Sullivan family's legal travails in the late '80s were way more absorbing than the Pats' actual play in that time. As Mark Blaudschun, then of the Globe, said, "the only day you can turn your back on this team is Sunday!"

As a capper, I propose that in such proceedings, the lawyers for both sides be required to wear Color Rush three-piece suits. Move over, "Big Bang Theory." There's a new ratings champ in town!

Fantasies are great, but my vision of NFL civil war is just a daydream. Twenty five years of covering the league lets me know better.  It is beyond unlikely that Jones, Goodell and the 31 other NFL owners will devolve into one of the weirder McMahon family WWE plot lines. That would require each side to but pride above the profit motive. That WOULD be a violation of NFL ownership's Prime Directive.

All NFL owners are billionaires. Nobody gets a billion bucks without enormous drive, enormous greed and/or enormous inheritance. Just because the other owners are quieter than Jones doesn't mean that at bottom they're not just like him. The 32 owners are often referred to as a club. This is a poor metaphor. A better one would be the analogy that's increasingly appropriate too all the top levels of sports, pro and amateur: organized crime.

In the league's case, the OC in question is the Mob in its 1930-1960 heyday, It is a partnership of 32 men not used to having partners, each in control of a territory (franchise) where they are despots, but forced to cooperate to keep all 32 territories cranking out money at the pace to which they've become accustomed.

In this metaphor, Pete Rozelle was the Lucky Luciano, the business genius who showed his prideful board of directors that getting along was far more profitable than fighting. Few if any of today's owners are old enough to remember, but had the NFL-AFL war not ended, more than one franchise in both leagues would've gone belly up.

Few mobsters were as bright as Lucky, of course, so in the Goodell era, the commissioner has become that staple of good mob movies, the front man. He's the fans' whipping boy, the players' object of hatred, and most of all, has to take the blame when a boss, excuse me owner, steps out of line and must be disciplined for the common good. The majority of capos support Goodell not because he's any good at leadership, but because somebody's got to be front man and it might as well be him.

Another common feature of good mob movies and the actual history of organized crime is the star gangster who makes waves through his aggressive tactics. That'd be Jerry, natch. He is tolerated by his fellow owners, even grudgingly respected, because to not coin a phrase, he has always made money for his partners.

Lawsuits make money for nobody but lawyers. Jones and his fellow owners know that perfectly well, which is why I don't believe their mutual threats for one second. The most probable outcome of their squabble is that it'll be resolved more or less amicably at a mob peace conference, I mean owners' meeting. In this case, I recommend a pool party, a refreshing soothing mutual dip in the Scrooge McDuck money swimming pool in the basement of NFL headquarters at 345 Park Ave. They do have one, don't they?

Were I Goodell, I'd be eagerly ordering the snacks and drinks for such a powwow. Rozelle drove NFL profits. Goodell is merely a symbol of a profitable status quo. He's easier to keep than to remove, for now. But this veteran fan of mob movies can't help remembering he's seen a lot of front men get rubbed out in the next-to-last reel.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Surely a New Face in the Dugout Will Help Our Guys Hit Justin Verlander And/Or Clayton Kershaw

Sports seems so quiet the first few days after the end of the baseball playoffs. Of course, the same thing goes for the first few days after the Super Bowl and the NBA and NHL playoffs. Where's all the noise, all the tension, all the splendid drama? We know sports seasons have to have beginnings, middles and ends, but to return to sports in their middles and beginnings creates the classic post-holiday letdown.

Maybe that's what's affecting the Dodgers' front office. It's been five days since they lost the seventh game of the World Series, and they still haven't fired manager Dave Roberts.

Come on guys. Don't you want to be trendy? That's been the hot new thing in the national pastime in 2017. A team has a swell year where they make the playoffs, then as soon as they're eliminated, they can the skipper who helped get them there.

John Farrell of the Red Sox. Gone. Dusty Baker of the Nationals. Gone. Weirdest of all, Joe Girardi of the Yankees. Gone. That's three out of the nine teams which made the postseason but didn't win it all. That's three teams whose decision-making doesn't breed confidence for their chances in 2018.

Baker's is the easiest firing to understand, which is hardly the same as to justify. The Nationals have won four NL East titles in the last six seasons, including the last two, and have never, ever, gotten out of the divisional round. The natural insane levels of frustration this generates in everyone from fans to ownership is the sort of thing that gets managers fired, whether or not they deserve it. Since baseball is not devoid of cosmic cruelty, the same level of frustration, which believe it or not is felt by Nationals players more than anyone, also inhibits their performance in winner-take-all situations. Trying harder while fear of failure sits in one's head breeds two out, two on popups and gopher balls.

The Nationals might win it all next season. They're plenty good enough. But that will only come when the players enter the post-season with a healthy "fuck it, it's just another ballgame" attitude. There have been about five managers in my lifetime who've been able to install that mindset in their players through force of will, and the chances the Nats' next skipper will make it six are low.

The most inexplicable firing is clearly Girardi. Nobody in New York from GM Brian Cashman to the many ferocious and knowledgeable baseball beat writers there, have been able to state a coherent, let alone convincing, rationale for his departure. Was it the Steinbrenner's sons homage to dear old Dad? That makes as much sense as any other suggestion.

So a team that wasn't supposed to make the playoffs sees a number of young players blossom into stars, gets within one game of the Series and immediately decides the manager is superfluous to requirements? Makes no sense. I and I suspect many others have worked for organizations where employees felt management had lost the plot. It did not generate the serenity now associated with phrases like "28th World Championship." A bright Yankee future is now hazy, industrial pollution haze at that.

John Farrell's case falls between those two extremes. Yes, Red Sox ownership, fans, etc. were frustrated with two straight divisional losses. But only the most deluded among them could possibly have associated those losses with anything any manager could do.

The Sox lost to the Indians in 2016 and the Astros in 2017 because their highly vaunted and even more highly paid starting pitchers got their jocks knocked off.  Put John McGraw, Casey Stengel and Earl Weaver in the dugout and they couldn't come up with a solution to that dilemma. There isn't one.

And if that's all there was to Farrell's situation, I doubt he'd have been fired at all. Truth is, a significant portion of the Red Sox community was after the guy even during the regular seasons when the team was winning its division. Every show on the Sports Hub was after Farrell's hide during any three-game losing streak. It is a mistake to think talk radio sets the agenda. It reflects the sentiments of its audience in order to attract and hold it.

Truth be told, my opinion was that Farrell was an average major league manager. He was no McGraw, but he was no Bobby Valentine or Grady Little either. And in 2017, he was well above average.

The 2017 Red Sox had the very same 93-69 record as the 2016 Sox. The 2017 Sox did not have David Ortiz in the lineup. They were without the 2016 AL leader in doubles, RBI, slugging percentage and OPS. To win the same number of games minus that Hall of Fame level production from the middle of the lineup is a major accomplishment. Among less paranoid, defensive and entitled fan bases, it might've been seen as such.

It wasn't. And I doubt new skipper Alex Cora will be given any slack in his managerial debut. Already one hears the question, "does he have what it takes to make it in this market," a commentators' phrase meaning "can Cora put up with assholes like me."

Why should he? Maybe what Alex Cora needs isn't a veteran bench coach (a particularly silly demand coming from fans and media who've been second-guessing managers all their lives), but the ghost of Billy Martin to inspire him as he faces the world.

Maybe what Red Sox Nation needs is a manager it's afraid of for a change.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Remedial Football Math

Sports talk radio guys gotta eat, and they can only cadge one meal a day through plugs, so I probably shouldn't have been too surprised nor upset when Mark Bertrand and Scott Zolak, who know better, began their show this morning by wondering if the subpar performance of the Patriots' offense against Kansas City and his own utterly forgettable evening meant that Tom Brady was in danger of getting benched in the 2017 season.

No, the sad thing is that this obvious effort to drive listeners to the phones in sputtering rage as a way to fill up four hours of air time was based on the program's knowledge that most fans are 1. always overly focused on offense, especially the quarterback; and 2. completely innumerate when it comes to the NFL.

Did Brady play his best or even within shouting distance of it? Oh, God no. Did the offense sputter or worse at vital moments. Sure. But let's take a look at the scoreboard. At game's end last Thursday night it read Chiefs 42-Patriots 27.

Let's multiply 27 by 16, the number of games in an NFL regular season. This gives us a total of 432. Now let's look at the NFL scoring stats for last season. What do we find?

First, we find that scoring 432 points would have made a team the third highest-scoring offense in the league. In fact the Packers, rightly known as one of the league's top offenses, scored exactly that. The Patriots, during a season where nobody called for Brady to be benched, scored 441, all of nine points more.

Delving a bit more, let's note that the average NFL team, winners and losers alike, scored a smidge less than 23 points a game, 22.8 to be more precise than smidge. Of course, this means that the average team also allowed that figure.

This is well within the parameters of NFL scoring since pass blocking was deregulated in the late '70s. Over the decades, scoring has climbed from a little less than 21 points a game per team to 22.8. For all the changes pro football has seen in that time, one thing has remained constant. Score 27 points, you are way more likely to win a game than not.

Of course, there's one other constant, too, one that's of the most relevance to the Pats' 0-1 record than is Tom Brady. Give up 42 points, and you have an over 99 percent of losing, and over a 90 percent chance of losing very badly indeed.

I guess devoting an entire four hours of broadcast time to the proposition "a defense that made Alex Smith look like Brett Favre gunslinging on one of his best days had better improve" just wouldn't drive the ratings meter. But I'll bet Bill Belichick has spent hours a day considering it, and about five minutes worrying about Brady.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

No Days Off, Just the Occasional Night

Local reaction here in New England to the unexpected-by-everyone-on-Earth-especially-me Chiefs win over the Patriots by the embarrassing margin of 42-27 has been instructive. Among the Patriots themselves, disgust was the prevalent emotion. They turned in a performance unworthy of their talents, knew it, and reacted accordingly.

That's good. A "just a few bugs to work out" reaction would've been an alarming sign of a franchise so accustomed to success it had forgotten how to cope with failure. Among fans and commentators, reactions were more mixed, indicating some had indeed forgotten, as if Super Bowl LI had given their heroes a perpetual pass from the sport's inherent difficulties.

Oh, sure, there were the usual subset of Boston fans who believe that the game meant certain doom, just as a win would've had them tweeting about a 19-0 season; It was the (slightly) subtler analyses that were more revealing.

Mr. Proud Negativity himself, Michael Felger, was the leading exponent of one of the silliest rationalizations. He argued, as did others, that had two, three or four plays gone differently, the Pats would've beaten Kansas City easily.

Anyone making this case is honor bound to ask themselves the following question. What would you have said had any Falcons fan said the same thing back in February? One doubts there'd have been much sympathy here.

Another reaction was to isolate each and every Pats misdeed in purely technical football terms. That's OK in itself, analyzers gotta analyze after all. But so much time was spent dissecting the offense! To focus on Rob Gronkowski's indifferent evening or Tom Brady's for that matter is to ignore the obvious. New England's offense scored 27 points. The total average for points scored by NFL teams in all NFL games is about 22 points. The Pats scored enough to win most games.

Of course commentators and fans lambasted the defense, too, as well they might've. If Dont'a Hightower is so invaluable his loss to injury means the defense collapses, well, that's kind of a problem given his injury history. Giving up 78 yard TDs and 80-yard two play scoring drives to an opponent who due to both talent and coaching inclination usually takes 14 plays to go that far is alarming.

All NFL defenses stress preventing big plays as their Prime Directive. It's a religious tenet for Bill Belichick. They only happen for two reasons. 1. Somebody fucked up. 2 and much much worse. Your guys chasing the men with the ball just aren't as fast as they are.

There might not be anybody in the NFL who can catch Tyreek Hill from behind. Leave that one aside for now. Defensive screwups happen. If all those KC big plays came from such errors, that's disturbing for the coaching staff, but errors can be corrected.

What can't be corrected except by every man on the roster is the following narrative. The Pats led after three quarters and went further south than Rio in the fourth. It was a total team collapse not seen, well, since the last game New England played, except in reverse. And such a collapse puts, or ought to put, the burden of proof on the team that suffered it.

The Falcons play the Bears tomorrow. I am sure every Atlanta fan and commentator is looking towards the game with the wariest of eyes. The Falcons themselves must have inner doubts. What will happen the next time things get tough for us? That's why, oddly, they'd be better off winning a close one than blowing Chicago out as talent says they should.

For decades I've noticed the peculiarity that athletes whose teams suffered beatdowns to blame their own lack of effort, an enormous professional sin, rather than just saying "those guys were a lot better." It's a defense mechanism. Anyone can try harder at anything. Human beings, however, cannot just will themselves to be faster, smarter, stronger and more poised.

But sometimes the self-loathing is justified. I think the Pats themselves are closer to the reality of the Chiefs game than are outsiders. When the going got tough, they stopped going. They're right to be disgusted.

Every NFL team turns in at least one pure stink bomb per season. Perhaps the Pats have gotten theirs out of the way early and it'll be smooth sailing on a sea of excellence for the remainder of 2017.

But fans saying that is unhelpful, whether it's true or not. New Englanders should spend the next week getting a little Philly on their heroes' asses.

It'll be good for the heroes, and make the fans feel better, too. They'll have done their part in the re-education process.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

All In Off a Guess on the Other Guy's Hole Card

Danny Ainge likes to gamble. An NBA GM who doesn't should be in another line of work. As a veteran gambler, Ainge knows the time to bet big is with a big stack. But big stacks are not always the professional gambler's best friend. More often than not, they do their best work when the stack's low and the rent is due.

Thing is, gamblers like to gamble. And by trading Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder AND the Nets' unprotected draft pick next year to get Kyrie Irving, Ainge has bet close to his whole stack without really knowing what hole card his opponent might have.

Might be a great bet with a huge reward, and if that happens I wouldn't be too surprised. But that outcome rests on the hole card Ainge can't see. He can suspect, but that's all.

Obviously, the hole card is LeBron James. If James is intent on heading to LA or Golden State or anywhere else at the end of next season, Ainge rakes in the chips. Cleveland becomes Boston with a draft pick who I'm going to say right now will not be as good as LeBron. He will also have Irving, who's better than Thomas (not by all that much) and doesn't have a health issue that got him shut down in the Conference Finals. That's Ainge's hole card and the Cavs can't see that either until physicals roll around.

But if LeBron is happy in his home town and doesn't leave, then Ainge has swapped equal parts of his not as good team for those of the better team and then let it have a draft pick which even if it's not an all-time will make it better still. Let's not forget Jae Crowder. Is he great? God no. Is he the kind of player who winds up on title teams? Let's ask Robert Horry.

Don't interpret this post as a knock on Ainge. No big bets, no rings.  But there's no such thing as a worthwhile big bet without an equally large risk

Monday, July 31, 2017

Summer Is Too Short to Waste a Second Thinking About Fall

The Patriots are both defending Super Bowl champions and the NFL's most historic dynasty, so naturally there's a lot of fan interest as training camp has just begun. But there should also be even more interest in cookouts, golf, swimming, going to the beach and other activities of the season besides thinking about large men in plastic armor sweating as they go though the unutterable tedium of football practice.

Therefore as a public service, I present the following guide to following the Pats' preseason, or any team's preseason in any summer for that matter. It's not a complex process.

1. Pick medium of your choice for receiving sports news, print, broadcast, social, whatever.

2. Access Patriots' news.

3. Are there injuries in the news? There usually are. Read or listen to injury news carefully. (For the purposes of this process, assume a surprise retirement like Rob Ninkovich's is an injury story).

4. Is there no injury news? Stop paying attention immediately. You KNOW Tom Brady is a good passer. His practices mean nothing to you. Resume summer-related activities.If you just can't let sports go, call WEEI or the Sports Hub and bitch about the Red Sox.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Brief Sports SAT Answer

Aaron Judge is 1 for 21 since the All-Star break, the one hit an infield single.

Winning the Home Run Derby is to baseball what being on the cover of Madden is to the NFL.