Monday, January 12, 2015

The Unlikeliest Showman

Bill Belichick faced a crisis a little after five p.m. last Saturday evening. To win against the Baltimore Ravens, the New England Patriots were going to have to play an exciting game.

Coaches hate exciting games. It's easy to see why. An exciting NFL contest is one in which both teams have roughly equal chances to win or lose. The more time spent in that situation, the more exciting the game. In other words, the more stress faced by the coach, the more pleasure given to neutral couch potatoes who face no consequences from the results.

However, when a team gets down 14-0 in the first quarter of a playoff game, it really has no choice. It can try and win an exciting contest, or it'll wind up losing a very dull one. That's way worse than excitement on the coaching stress scale.

Thorough preparation, indeed, overpreparation, is the activity which consumes well over 90 percent of every coach's time. The rest is spent on game days making those "adjustments" one hears so much about. An adjustment is nothing more than a decision made in reaction to the new information and circumstances created by the chaos of game action All coaches make them in every game, unless, like poor John Fox yesterday, they are faced with an insoluble problem such as "the Hall of Fame quarterback's injury we've been covering up for a month has not healed!"

Among the most notable ways Belichick stands apart from his peers are his quickness in reacting to information and his willingness to go whole hog in a new direction if he deems it necessary. Against Baltimore, Belichick became P.T. Barnum in a sweatshirt. If thrills were required, he'd provide 'em or go down trying.

In chronological order, here are Belichick's decisions helping create what was without question the most entertaining game of New England's 2014.

1. Fuck the run. What's OUR Hall of Fame quarterback for? Tom Brady threw 50 passes, and the Pats needed each and every throw.

2. The delightfully arcane formation making Shane Vereen an ineligible receiver. If this one doesn't work, it could get Brady killed. It should also only work once. It worked three times against the Ravens, because John Harbaugh, a fine coach, could not bring himself to believe it was within the rules.

I am willing to believe that that formation was part of New England's original game plan, created as a means of discombobulating Baltimore's front seven. No way I will ever believe that's true of the next bullet point.

3. The double pass from Julian Edelman to Danny Amendola. I don't know how many pages are in the Pats' playbook, but I'll bet the one with this play is much closer to the appendices than to the title page. It was a trick play called in the heat of the moment by a staff and head coach who had embraced the need to use every possible bullet in a shootout. It was a brilliant decision with an extremely high chance of going terribly wrong (which wouldn't have made it any less brilliant). If  fortune always favored the brave in the NFL as it did on that play, we'd all see many more exciting games.

It all sounds so simple, doesn't it? When a coach sees which way the game is flowing, he issues instructions accordingly. As often in sports, what's simple isn't easy by a long shot. Coaches are trained from their unpaid college assistant days to be risk averse. It's the line of least resistance to assume that a game with early scoring won't be a shootout, that a defense of the Pats' caliber will recover its equilibrium, letting the team run a "normal" offense. It is psychologically difficult for a coach to throw away hours and hours of careful study and preparation to embark on a new strategy under duress. That's why so many of them wait to do so until it's too late.'

I'm sure it was difficult for Belichick when he realized his team needed 30 or more points if it was to have a chance to win. Point is, the difficulty didn't slow him down. He may not be a born gambler. But when he bets, it's always for the table limit. If nothing else will do, he'll be an entertainer with a headset.

Of course, right now the coach is in his office or a meeting room at Gillette Stadium, planning how and hoping that Sunday's game against the Colts is as humdrum a victory as possible. He's had enough excitement for these playoffs.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

To Err Is Human, To Lose Money Erring Even More Human

There is a unique consensus among the vast pro football commentariat about this evening's playoff game between the Patriots and Ravens. Almost all of them are predicting a Pats victory, but only in a close game. It's like they were writing or broadcasting network promos.

Of all the predictors I've seen, only Benjamin Hoffman of the "New York Times" has picked the Ravens to win. But only Jim McBride of the "Globe" has formally chosen the Pats to win by a double-digit point total (a couple of others, including the stat-crazed gang at footballoutsiders.com) have hinted that this is their guess).

The consensus is best expressed by a seven-expert panel of CBSsports.com, who unanimously predicted that Baltimore would cover the seven-point spread. One of them, Pete Prisco, subsequently wrote that New England should triumph 28-24. I'll bet at least four others of the seven also think the Pats will win.

"They'll win, but it'll be close" is a prediction that echoes the vapid search for the "sensible middle" that is one bane of American political commentary. Worse than that, it's gambling malpractice. Strange as it may seem, many bettors are guided by the thoughts of people who they innocently assume know more about pro football than themselves. I know, because I once wrote a gambling column for the Herald, meant to be more than slightly tongue in cheek, and I took phone calls from happy/sad/very angry souls who had taken my predictions as Gospel.

Bet the NFL consistently, you'll lose money. You'll lose it much faster, however, if you ignore certain principles of wagering. Pats to win but not cover is a bet that violates a Prime Directive.

Never, never, ever bet the underdog just to cover. Only take points if you believe that the team getting them will win the game without artificial assistance. This goes quadruple for road dogs, and ten times that for playoff games.

I see the Pats winning and covering, I could be wrong. The consensus could be right. But in pro football, as in all other sports, blowouts occur more frequently than nailbiters. Close games are celebrated precisely because they're rarer than dull ones.

"All life is six to five against," Damon Runyon wrote. Why seek out an eight-to-five against proposition?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The (Pitching) Staff of Life

According to the Website AZcentral, the Diamondbacks traded Wade Miley to the Red Sox largely because the pitcher adamantly refused the team's repeated requests he go on a gluten-free die.

Whether Miley will help the Sox in 2015 I couldn't say. He hovered somewhere between mediocre and competent in 201. meaning Miley could start on Opening Day if he has a strong spring training.

But I will say that if Dunkin' Donuts doesn't feature Miley in its advertising next year, it's missing a bet.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Life Comes With an Obstructed View Seat

There have been two big news stories in Boston this week which have captured public imagination and dominated public discourse.

People are shocked and appalled that a well-to-do Harvard Business School professor completely lost his shit over a $4 charge in a bill at a Chinese restaurant.

These very same people are shocked and amazed that Jon Lester decided to sign with the Chicago Cubs instead of the Boston Red Sox just because there was an extra $30 million or so in it for him.

Monday, December 08, 2014

You Don't Need a Weatherman to Know to Defer When You Win the Coin Toss

During this century, the New England Patriots have won many more games than they've lost in the month of December. Of course, this is also true of the months of September, October and November, but there's just something about how the Pats tend to finish strong that brings out the laziest, most hackneyed prose imaginable by football commentators.

The boring truth, which is that the NFL back loads schedules to feature divisional games during the stretch run of each season and that the other three teams in the AFC East haven't been very good for a very long time never seems to come up. Instead, we are assured there is some mystical bond between the Patriots' victories and how December is when New England weather really starts to suck. So beloved is this inane false correlation that actual weather conditions don't apply to it.

"Pats heat up as the weather cools off" was the headline of one newspaper story last week previewing the Patriots game against the Chargers last night, a game played in San Diego, California, the American city with the best year-round weather. Going one better, NBC color man Cris Collinsworth talked about how the Pats got better as the weather got colder as the game was going on. Regrettably, his words were not followed by a cut to a shot of the skimpily dressed Chargers cheerleaders on a typically pleasant southern California evening.

Despite the lack of chilblains among the spectators, the Patriots won 23-14 anyway. Maybe Bill Belichick showed videos of Boston local TV weather forecasts for his pregame pep talk.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Puttin' on His Top Hat Would Be Better

As the clock ran out on the Packers victory over the Patriots yesterday, and Bill Belichick ran onto the field for the post-game ritual meeting with the opposing coach, he looked like he always does after a loss, a portrait of misery and gloom. At least his face did.

But clothes can unmake the man, or at least make him look foolish as well as unhappy. Atop his head, Belichick wore an official NFL stocking cap. This was prudent headgear for Green Bay in late November, but the cap's cunning design of alternating rings of red, white, blue and gray topped with an adorable little red pompom made it appear Belichick had swiped it from the set of a particularly cloying Hallmark Channel holiday special. The contrast between the coach's visage of pain and the jolly fashion statement on his head made Belichick look ridiculous. It was the moment in the Hallmark special when Santa's senior elf learns Old St. Nick has checked himself into rehab four days before Christmas.

NFL head coaches have an impossible job involving constant near-lethal stress levels. They all love it, but that doesn't make it easier. It seems the height of cruelty that during the three-plus hours of game day that are the splendid, horrible peak of their professional lives, the league orders them to be dressed in nothing but copyrighted NFL merchandise, the mass produced crap it peddles to those fans who love their teams not wisely but way, way too well. Bad enough Belichick lost a game that had to be utterly draining for both coaches. For the sake of a little free advertising, the league made him lose his dignity as well;

That's pro football in the 21st century, since about the 1980s in fact. A Hall of Fame coach can be jerked around by the whims of some Reebok designer angling for a better gig at Uniqlo because the NFL thinks there might be a spare nickel in it. I don't often feel sorry for Belichick, but when I saw that cap I did.

Oh, well, New England's next game is in San Diego, win or lose Belichick will be spared the indignity of dressing up for a junior high skating party. That leaves only one question about Sunday's crucial tilt.

What does the official New England Patriots Hawaiian shirt look like, anyway?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Dull Can Be Beautiful

The producers of the approximately 1,827 Sunday night NFL highlight shows must've been frustrated by the Patriots' 34-9 throttling of the Lions yesterday. They had to avoid showing the most important plays of the game at all costs.

Incomplete passes are TERRIBLE television.

Football's single snooziest play was the core of New England's lethal efficiency against Detroit. Twenty-seven of Matthew Stafford's passes hit the ground out of 46 attempts. Granted, a good number of those did so after they first hit a Lions receiver, but the hallmark memory of this game was a ball sailing past a Detroit player wearing one or more Pats defensive backs as a sweater vest.

All of that nothing happening represented a uniquely outstanding performance by New England's defense. As the NFL evolves towards its Madden 2050 destiny, the incompletion has become almost as endangered a species as its more flamboyant cousin the interception. Quarterbacks just aren't harassed into completing less than 50 percent of their passes anymore even in blowout losses. The rules do their best to forbid it.

In the Denver-Miami game, Peyton Manning and Ryan Tannehill combined for only 16 incompletions in 71 attempts. OK, that was a 49-36 shootout. But Colin Kaerpernick and RGIII had only 16 incompletions between them in a game were the final was San Francisco 17-Washington 13.

The Pats pass rush was solid but not what one would call terrifying against Detroit. New England's defense has become an outfit working from back to front. In the era of pass first and also second, that's logical. It's also fiendishly difficult to do.

As of this morning, there are only three starting quarterbacks in the NFL with completion percentages under 60 percent, Brian Hoyer, Stafford and Cam Newton. There's also whoever's playing quarterback against the Patriots, an imaginary QB clocking in at 58.1 percent and an NFL passer rating of a soon-to-be-benched 82.

New England is one of six teams holding rival quarterbacks to lower than a 60 percent completion rate. The others are the Eagles, Bengals, Colts, Browns and 49ers. Not coincidentally, their combined record is 45-20-1. If there's a prop wager in Vegas allowing you to take those six as eventual Super Bowl champs, it's a value bet.

What's most difficult to do is inevitably also the most worthwhile to accomplish.