Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Five, Two and Even

Bill Belichick allows Tom Brady a privilege he denies to every other New England Patriot including himself. The quarterback has the leeway to discuss a Pats' season in more macro terms than the next game on the schedule.

After last Thursday night's game against the Jets, a victory far closer than anyone in the NFL world including most Jets expected, Brady chose to exercise his right to take the long view.

"We lost our first game, and we're 5-2," Brady allowed. "That's not so bad."

Tough to top that for succinct and faultless analysis. Warts and all, the Patriots haven't been nearly as bad overall as they were in their two shoddy defeats. They are one of the six NFL teams with 5-2 records. Complaints are few among followers of the other five, the Colts, Chargers, Ravens, Lions and Packers. All are assumed to be what they are, strong favorites to make the playoffs, except maybe the Lions, whose history has left deep scars on its fan base.

I daresay that if one had tapped a random Pats fan on the shoulder in August and told them their team would be 5-2 after seven games, that fan would almost certainly have said, "I can live with that" or even "sounds about right." Continued success does jade fans, but a .714 winning percentage is not  considered the mark of a team in crisis unless it plays in the SEC West instead of the NFL.

My summary of the 2014 Pats to date as viewed from the International Space Station goes as follows. The team remains vulnerable to problems in blocking and stopping the run. Those are serious vulnerabilities. They are far outweighed, however, by the team's success in maintaining three vital strengths, the ability to win at home, the ability to clobber the Buffalo Bills (the key element of its AFC East dominance) and the ability of Brady himself.

As long as the Pats can keep folding those ingredients into their omelet, they will serve up another division title and playoff berth, just as everyone in the world assumed would happen before the season began. In fact, in super macro NFL terms, the local home team is a prime example of what has so far been the defining trait of the 2014 pro football season -- an almost total lack of surprises.

Try as I might, I can only think of one, the Cowboys. Nobody, especially me, thought they'd be any good this season, and after their horrible Opening Day loss to the 49ers. most expected them to be terrible. Funny how a team gets better when it puts the functional equivalent of Jim Brown in at running back.

After that, the NFL has been "Ode to Banal Forecasting," a sonata played in chalk. What most people thought would happen, has. The teams forecast to be good have been, the ones expected to be dreadful have been so and then some. The Bengals were a mirage. Peyton Manning has continued to break records. Some might say the Seahawks' 3-3 record is a shock, but they're wrong. It's never a true surprise when the Super Bowl champ struggles the following season. It happens more often than not.

Season's not half over. Surprise may yet rule the NFL. Today's favorites may become December's disappointments. The Cardinals could keep on winning. Anything is possible, or so the theory goes.

Some things are more possible than others, however. I wouldn't advise Pats fans to be complacent, not with four of the other 5-2 teams plus the Broncos left on the schedule. But I wouldn't advise them to worry overmuch, either. During the regular season anyway, they root for a franchise that ought to be called Conventional Wisdom's Team.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Belated Advertisement for Myself

This will no longer be the only forum where my sports thoughts will appear. I will be found, on a weekly but no set day basis, on the Boston.com Website as well. I've already posted twice there, but since I am an idiot at self-promotion, it's now too late to link to them. I promise from here on in I will do so. Every click counts.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Oh, Grow Up

Carl Crawford made the last out for the Dodgers in their playoff loss to the Cardinals last night, and some alleged Red Sox fans went on Twitter to taunt the former Boston player as well as Red Sox-then-Dodger Adrian Gonzalez. This is a perfect example of loser fan behavior. It is the epitome of that ancient and honorable baseball epithet, bush.

Three World Series titles in this century, one of  'em just last season, and some Boston baseball fans still can't let go of spite as a reflex emotion. This is why, fellow residents, baseball fans elsewhere loathe Sox fans almost as much as they do Yankees and Cardinals fans. Successful people who taunt others for their failures are seldom popular.

It's unseemly, no, make that ridiculous, to mock another team's elimination from the playoffs when one's own team was eliminated from the postseason by Labor Day. And assuming Crawford and Gonzalez where the reason LA lost belies the notion that Bostonians are the world's most knowledgeable fans.

The Dodgers lost because Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher in the sport in the regular season, twice went into the seventh inning with leads and could hold neither one and because manager Don Mattingly may be a superb leader of men, but doesn't seem to have a knack for bullpen juggling. Gonzalez led the majors in RBI this year. Without him, the Dodgers wouldn't have qualified to lose to the Cards.

Twitter plays hosts to millions of born losers speaking before they think (those that are capable of thought) on every topic under the sun each day. In 40 years as an alien sports fan in this city, I have learned that the overwhelming majority of Sox fans are blessedly normal, happy in victory, sad in defeat, but above all, primarily concerned with their own damn team.

The normal majority suffers for the sins of its loudest, dopiest brethren. Bushers have a way of dragging down a franchise -- on or off the field.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Serenity Now?

On Wednesday, Bill Belichick will again give his midweek press conference. I for one hope he answers each and every question by saying "we're moving on to Buffalo."  He's earned the horselaugh and I like laughing.  More importantly, it'd be good for his mental health.. If Belichick spent any amount of time pondering the last two Pats' games, he might just go nuts.

 What is a football coach noted for excruciating attention to detail and a heaping helping of professional paranoia to make of a team capable of playing a game in which it did nothing right followed by a game in which it did nothing wrong in the space of one week? He can be happier, but he can't be any less puzzled.

I am leery of attempting to read Belichick's mind, but I'll go this far. He's not assuming blowing the out the Bengals means that he's solved all the Patriots' problems and restored the 13-3 natural order of things. Leave that to the bipolar fans and media.

Belichick likely was cheered to see that like all quarterbacks Tom Brady plays better when upright, but that's something he already knew. It is quite possible the coach is admitting to himself that Darelle Revis's theories on how to play pass defense have merit.  But as for having the faintest idea how the Pats will perform next Sunday against Buffalo or the game after that and on down the line, Belichick can't hazard a guess and wouldn't if he could. He's not much on guessing

I'll guess where Belichick won't. The Pats' split of their last two games by the combined score of 57-58 shows that the local team is part of a shift in the NFL cosmos in the 2014 season where the concept of parity has taken a bizarre turn. For years, it's been used to sell the league as providing more close games than any other sport. So far this year, parity seems to mean that on any given Sunday, Monday, Thursday, every team is capable of blowing out an opponent or being blown out by them.

The dismal Thursday nighters are the most visible aspect of this phenomenon. The Eagles, who have routed opponents and been routed within individual games on a regular basis, are its most extreme example. The last two unbeaten teams in the league, Cincinnati and the Cardinals, went down yesterday by a combined 84-37 score. Nobody's immune. It's my firm belief that the Broncos and Seahawks have ass-kickings in their near futures (if not tonight for Seattle or next week for Denver).

Since 2001, the New England franchise has sneered at parity as a loser's idea. It has made consistency its hallmark, gliding along to double-digit victory seasons as a matter of habit, indeed, as a matter of birthright. Since winning IS a habit, this attitude led to more victories leading to more attitude and so on in a virtuous circle of smug.

The circle is broken. A big rebound win addresses a team's problems by indicating they have solutions. It doesn't make them go away. Tbe boat race in Kansas City was the Pats' worst loss in over a decade. No coach forgets such an experience, no matter how hard he tries. Seeing a game where the offensive line did block may have been gratifying for the coach, but it couldn't have been completely reassuring it will block equally well from here on out.

To a certain extent, this is normal. NFL coaches live in a cloud of uncertainty. Bill Parcells once told me that even for a championship team, a coach never really understood his team's possibilities until around Thanskgiving, and when this theory was put before Belichick, he didn't disagree.

As was said here last week, by then the Chiefs' loss could be a forgotten anomaly in a brilliant season
Or it could be the worst example of issues that have plagued an inconsistent team since its very first game. Since the coach's primary and nearly impossible goal is to create consistent performance, Belichick's mind is likely to remain uneasy for some time to come

On the other hand, problems with solutions are better than those without. Doubt is easier on the soul than panic.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Silver Threads Among the Golden Couple

The rain wasn't stopping, and I was bored, so I did some random remote clicking this afternoon. First, naturally, I tried the 197 or so sports channels I overpay for.

On two of the cheap talking head shows all the channels have to fill time, commentators were arguing about whether four mediocre to awful games in a row mean Tom Brady is in irrevocable decline as a quarterback at age 37. That got way older than 37 very quickly, so I abandoned sports for the world of entertainment.

On TMZ's show they were interviewing some well-known except to me woman from the fashion world, a blogger or journalist or some such. As Nielsen was my witness, the topic was whether at age 34, Gisele Bundchen was "on the back nine" of her modeling career.

About Brady, opinions differed. About his wife, they didn't. Nobody thought she wasn't still the preeminent superstar of her weird profession.

There you have it, America. There's definitive evidence that the audience for tabloid shows about celebrities is considered harder to fool than audiences for sports talk programs.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

In the Long Run, All Football Teams Are Dead, Too

There have been other horrible, humiliating losses for the New England Patriots in the 21st century, the 2003 Opening Day beatdown in Buffalo, a 2002 game against the Packers in which they flat out quit, the January 2011 playoff loss to the Jets, to name three. Each time, the franchise rebounded in short order.

So maybe last night's 41-14 defeat (no sportswriting synonym for getting beat like drubbing, thrashing, etc. is adequate to this occasion) to Kansas City will be a little-remembered L by December. Every season, every NFL team, even the Super Bowl champ, turns in one complete stinkeroo in which every player fails in an inexplicable defiance of the bell curve of probability. Maybe this was the Pats' bomb for 2014, like the overtime loss to the Jets was their 2013 turkey.

Or maybe not. It's possible those folks saying or thinking "the Pats will be fine," which is most people inside and outside the NFL, are placing their faith in facts from seasons past, not from season present. The "this was just a bad bump in the road" thesis rests on the plausible notion the Pats can't possibly be as bad again as they were last night. Trouble is, this wasn't their first bump of the year.

What was last night's misery but an extended play version of the second half of the opening game in Miami? Every single catastrophic flaw evident against the Chiefs was equally evident in the last 30 minutes against the Dolphins.

Inability to prevent the rush from getting to Brady? Check. Brady's subsequent inability to prevent said rush from causing him to commit turnovers and wasted plays? Check. Inability to run coupled with utter and complete inability of the defense to stop the enemy running game from impersonating the Oklahoma Wishbone attack of the 1970s? Check and checkmate.

One bad game can be a coincidence. Two is an issue. It is not alarmist to state that a season in which the Pats have played 16 quarters and been outscored 64-14 in six of them is a crisis. New England has played two games in which it didn't just lose, it was unable to compete.

The most glaring and disastrous of New England's problems has been the shocking decline of its offense, especially Brady's decline. But it's not a mysterious problem. When a team can't block very well, it won't move the ball very well. Should its quarterback be fortunate enough to escape disabling injury, he will wind up approaching every down in crisis mode to his own and everyone else's detriment.

The shocking Patriot problem is how twice this season its defense has been blown away by the opposing running game. This has always been a New England strength in the Bill Belichick era and especially in the Vince Wolfork era. Admittedly, Jamaal Charles is a superb back. His backup Knile Davis was Jim Brown last night. That's a defense getting blocked.

The inability to block and the inability to tackle are the most fundamental of football disasters. They spell loser on every coach's clipboard in the sport's history. They're also problems that rest more on the athletic abilities of the players involved than on a coaching staff's ability or inability to instruct them in the proper techniques, making them very hard to solve indeed.

Were I one of the many who cynically regard Belichick as the NFL's Machiavelli, I'd suspect him of replacing Brady with Jimmy Garoppolo in the fourth quarter to distract the QB-obsessed fans and media with the shiny object of a nonexistent controversy as he tries to address what he regards as his real priorities in what will seem to him as a very short week of practice indeed.

I am cynical enough to observe that in the offseason, the Pats had contract issues with two linemen. Coming off an injury, Wilfolk accepted a pay cut and stayed with the team. Logan Mankins refused one and was traded.

One fourth of the season in, the Pats can't block and have trouble stopping the run. Maybe they got that one backwards. Maybe the franchise's belief that all players except Brady are fungible has come to where all theories must travel -- the point where they stop working.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Briar Patch of Fame and Fortune

The sports writing of Bill Simmons leaves me cold. Simmons' career as an entrepreneur of sports commentary leaves me breathless with admiration, never more so than this morning.

Simmons managed to turn a podcast with a respectable audience in which he offered the very ordinary opinion that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is lying about the Ray Rice mess into a national news story by provoking ESPN into giving him a three week suspension for his words, specifically the words challenging his bosses to punish him for his opinion. This has transformed Simmons from one of thousands of sports talkers talking about the same thing into a martyr for the First Amendment, a pigskin John Peter Zenger calling 'em as he sees 'em.  Millions more Americans know that Bill Simmons disapproves of Goodell than did had ESPN ignored his little diatribe. Millions more Americans know who the hell Bill Simmons is than did yesterday and do so in a story in which he looks good -- at least compared to its other parties.

Don't misunderstand. I don't believe Simmons made his remarks with publicity aforethought. He spoke in the heat of his belief in his opinion. The ancillary benefits he will draw from expressing that opinion were the result of an unconscious gift for enterprising self-promotion, an instinct for his game that, as the cliche goes, can't be coached.

As in many stories, Simmons vs. ESPN has a much more interesting villain than hero. Why did Simmons' employer martyr him in the first place? Why generate an incident that even the dimmest boss's nephew intern could perceive as making the network look just awful?

The obvious possible motive, the one which does the most damage to ESPN's public image, is that the network punished Simmons to truckle under to the NFL for fear of offending the business partner whose games make ESPN a lot of money. Like many obvious suspicions, this one wilts a bit under closer scrutiny.

For one thing, ESPN itself is the source of the reporting that has most damaged the NFL's credibility in the Rice case, reporting that pretty much calls out an entire NFL franchise, the Ravens, as an institutional liar. No one thinks this has damaged its business relationship with the league, and they shouldn't.

ESPN broadcasts NFL games on Monday nights because it has paid well over a billion dollars for the rights to do so. The league has changed rightsholders more than once over the past decades, always for the same reason. Some other network made a higher bid. That and that alone could sever ESPN's ties with the NFL. Words will never hurt a multi-billion dollar business enterprise unless they're uttered by a federal judge.

Institutional groupthink causes far more organizational catastrophes than does venality, and it is my belief this is why Simmons is enjoying a theoretically unpaid vacation today. ESPN is, after all, a subsidiary of the most famously rigid and humorless corporation in the country, Walt Disney Co. No other business has as many rules for its employees. Authoritarianism is in Walt's frozen DNA.

I also think that having been dared by Simmons to suspend him, ESPN executives let their emotions rule and took the dare. They are probably ruing their action this morning. By lunchtime, they will see the silver lining.

Truth is, bad publicity will have about as much effect on ESPN as on the NFL, little verging on none. As long as ESPN's networks keep broadcasting live sports events, it will continue to win the blue ribbon as Disney's prize cash cow. It's not as if television executives have much of a public image to damage anyhow.

Let's consider where Bill Simmons fits in the ESPN empire. ESPN has its endless sports broadcasting empire, from NFL games to College Gameday, and a smaller but aggressive straight journalism operation based primarily on its Website and magazine. Bill straddles both of these operations, the primary reason for his uneasy relationship with his bosses. This was not his first suspension.

As a journalist, Simmons is the founder and guiding spirit of Grantland, the long form journalism subsite on ESPN.com which produces a goodly amount of excellent work. Grantland's reputation and audience can only be enhanced by Simmons' new status as National Sports Truth Teller.

Within the entertainment empire division of ESPN, Simmons' highest profile role is as one of the commentators on the network's NBA pregame and postgame shows. These shows suffer the same problem as pre- and postgame  shows for all sports. They're terrible television, being 90 percent talking heads either speculating about an event that's going to be over in a couple of hours, or commenting on an event the viewer just saw.

Ah, but what if the shows contain a talking head with a national reputation for confrontational honesty, who might upset the applecart at any moment in a blaze of apparently self-destructive righteous anger? Can't hurt those ratings. Confrontation is the essence of television entertainment.

Is it cynical to note that Simmons' suspension will end several weeks before the start of the NBA season? I prefer to think of it as recognizing ESPN's management can't possibly be as dumb as it appears to be here. Maybe they even know something about the history of their own business.

Long before mobile computing or the Internet, before cable television even, there was a sports commentator who straddled the divide between journalism and entertainment. He never held back an opinion, no matter who it offended, and never stopped boasting about that, either. He was by far the most famous sports commentator of his era, adored by million, and loathed by millions more who somehow couldn't stop watching or listening to him.

Just a guess. ESPN sees Bill Simmons as a possible Howard Cosell for the 21st century. If so, his suspension wasn't discipline. It was marketing.