Thursday, November 26, 2015

Sports Illustrated, Here Are Your Sportsmen and Women of the Year

English soccer team Tottenham Hotspur had a road game today in the Europa League, which is basically a runner-up competition for European teams that were good but not real good the previous season.

The game against rival Qarabag was in the latter's home town -- Baku, Azerbaijan. It's a modest 2500 mile flight from London, and only involves travel over two countries currently shooting at each other, Turkey and Russia. Azerbaijan is in the Caucasus region. Gets cold there in November, and this was a night game.

Tottenham won 1-0. The account of the game in the British paper the "Guardian" said that among the handicaps facing the visitors was that their contingent of traveling fans was "only 100."

Only 100!?! How about "Tottenham had the support of 100 heroes"? These Limey superfans were in a stadium in a part of the world where centuries-long blood feuds take place over matters much less important than soccer. They flew over a war zone. They doubtless drank whatever is the national booze of Azerbaijan, which I don't even want to know it is.

Those 100 loonies are the glory of sports. If Spurs ever play a game in Boston. I hope to meet them. Hell, all who can fit are welcome to crash at my place.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

There Are No NFL Moral Victories, but There Are Pyrrhic Ones

I'm not quite sure at what point of last night's game Bill Belichick decided he had more urgent priorities than just beating the Bills. I only know the decision took place.

Maybe it was in the third quarter after Leodis McKelvin's fumbled punt. Up 17-10 with the ball on the Buffalo 30, the Patriots ran the ball four times in five plays and settled, for once the right verb, for a Steven Gostkowski field goal and a 10-point lead. Maybe it was after Tom Brady's interception early in the fourth quarter, or after the last Buffalo hit on Brady that led to an extended dialogue between the quarterback and referee Gene Steratore. They could have been discussing holiday plans, but more likely Steratore was seeing if Brady was a concussion protocol candidate.

But for sure the decision was made before the Pats' final possession. Leading 20-13 with over two minutes to play, Brady handed off to LaGarrette Blount three times. If he got a first down, great? When he didn't, well, defense and special teams get paid, too. Let them be the heroes tonight.

In the event, they were. Field position off the kicking game, defense, and the uncanny ability of Rex Ryan's teams to punch themselves in the face are the reasons New England is 10-0 this morning. Nobody wins without them, of course, but the manner of this particular victory was particularly unBelichickian. His Patriots are legendary for never letting their collective foot off the accelerator, taking the fastest and most direct route between Kickoff A and Win B at all times. Except last night. Ahead on all the judges' cards, Belichick was content to waltz out the last rounds of the fight.

Content's likely the wrong word there. Belichick felt he had no choice. I couldn't read his poker face up close when I covered the team, and I'm not going to try and peer into his mind from watching TV, but the coach's actions speak for him, and what they said last night was "I've seen one injury too many tonight. I've seen about five hits too many on Tom. And I've seen about two hours too much of my offensive line."

Danny Amendola out. Aaron Dobson out. It's getting downright dangerous to be a Patriots wide receiver, but that's not what changed New England's offense down the stretch. What did were the double-digit shots Buffalo pass rushers took to Brady's torso. Tom is a big, strong, fanatically conditioned man, but no amount of muscle pliability can protect ribs, collarbones and shoulder joints.

So Belichick made Blount Brady's safe word. It had to be hard for the coach, Brady too for that matter. They're not the types to choose discretion as the better part of valor -- unless they had to.

They had to. The simple truth that New England is the best team in pro football but only so long as Brady is ambulatory outweighed the franchise's creed that the game at hand is the most important, only important matter in the world.

Here's a bet. You'll hear Blount's name called more often in the next six games. The Pats will give Brady the late game hero's role only when they absolutely have to, and the definition of "have to" will be very strict until January rolls around.

Do your job is a fine slogan. But a man can only do his job if he's healthy enough to get out of bed and go to work.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Skill Be a Lady Tonight Just Doesn't Have the Same Zip to It

The Hon. Charles Baker, Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, stated last week that daily fantasy sports websites DraftKings and FanDuel aren't gambling, they're "games of skill." Baker said he learned this by playing one free game on DraftKings.

For once, I'm hoping a politician IS trying to play the voters for suckers. If Baker actually believes that, then HE's the sucker. Those who live by the gambling dollar regard those who think the odds through brain power as their very best and most profitable customers.

Baker isn't a sucker, he's a sharp guy. Like most pols uttering nonsense, he wasn't lying per se, but offering a ritual statement not meant to be believed by a soul for a second. As all governors must, he was just supporting local industry, that is, Boston-based DraftKings, come what may. To show the bipartisan nature of that sentiment, Martha Coakley, the Democrat defeated to be elected Governor last November, is on the DraftKings payroll as a legal adviser.

(BTW, for an instructive lesson in how moral attitudes towardsDraftKings has many legal advisers and is hiring big-name law firms the way its suckers, sorry, players, load up on Rob Gronkowski every week. They are responding as Baker was to the announcement by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman that daily fantasy is too gambling, and as such, illegal in the Empire State. If other large states were to follow suit, all those daily fantasy ads would be off TV, and DraftKings would be yet another spectacular Internet-based business bust. This would in turn cost its investors serious dough and cause much agita among its marketing partners, such as your New England Patriots.

I have no stake in daily fantasy, so I don't have to insult anyone's intelligence. Of course daily fantasy is gambling. The federal law loophole that lets it operate says because it's "based on the assessment of the skills of the participants." Uh-huh. And why exactly is risking money on the proposition Tom Brady is gonna have a good game skill and risking money that the whole Pats team will cover the spread just a matter of chance?

ESPN was showing the final table of the World Series of Poker last night. The talents of the players at that table in disciplines ranging from mathematics to psychology are unbelievable. Compared to top level hold-'em as a game of skill, fantasy football is Candyland.  And yet nobody, least of all the poker players themselves, would say they weren't gambling.

I don't care that daily fantasy is gambling. Society's hypocrisy about its vices doesn't much bother me, either. I'm used to it. My objection to daily fantasy is on simpler moral grounds. It's a bad bet, a bet so bad as to constitute a ripoff. Players who use DraftKings and FanDuel are competing against huge numbers of fellow players. They are all handicapping a horse race with about 250 entries, the skill position players of 32 NFL teams (28 or 30 on bye weeks). The odds stink, and the only way to lower them is to use Wall Street tactics, making hundreds of entries based on computer algorithms determining who all the other bettors are picking for their teams.

That is how at least one employee of one of the two companies made big money playing on his competitor. The uncanny resemblance that bears to insider trading is what began official scrutiny of daily fantasy. Well, that and the national horror at all those damn ads.

So daily fantasy is a mug's game. Why, the only worse bet you can make is buying a lottery ticket, a form of gambling legal everywhere and heavily advertised by every state that runs one, including New York. Governments everywhere have succumbed to the reality that while voters don't see a tax increase to fix the crumbling bridge on their road to work as a sound investment, they'll happily squander the same sums on a below infinitesimal chance to get rich quick.

That in fact is what I think will be the future of daily fantasy. It won't be outlawed in New York or anywhere else. It will become a quasi-governmental operation, with the states letting sites operate in return for a healthy slice of the daily handle. The public sector has learned that the self-righteous satisfaction of outlawing "vice" pales in comparison to a new revenue stream.

This will all be presented as a means of protecting civic morals while protecting the interests of the little guy, the nickel and dime daily fantasy patsy. The odds of the game will not change in the slightest.

Pols treat voters as suckers for the same reason the house treats gamblers the same way. It's a majority of their customer bases.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

The Most Important Position on the Field?

There are four remaining undefeated teams in the National Football League this season. The Patriots, Bengals, Broncos and Panthers all have 7-0 records.

Denver quarterback Peyton Manning has an NFL passer rating of 75.1. Quarterback Cam Newton of Carolina has a rating of 78.1. By way of contrast, Tom Brady leads the league with a rating of 115. By further way of contrast, by the NFL's measuring stick, Manning and Newton have had worse seasons throwing the ball than such notables as Geno Smith, Blake Bortles and Colin Kaepernick, who lost his starting job with the 49ers yesterday with a rating of 78.8.

Notable fact related to these statistics: there has been quite serious talk that Newton is a league MVP candidate!

Notable implication of these statistics: despite the fantasization of pro football, the aerial circus is not the only way to win ballgames. Defense may not be as dead as the Saints and Giants think.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Quickie Quarterback Quiz, Rhetorical Variety

Because the Patriots have gone 7-0, and score a lot of points because their Hall of Fame quarterback is playing very, very well. the assumption in these parts is that they must be the best team in the NFL, probably the greatest team in history. The only debatable issue is whether they'll go 19-0 to win the Super Bowl, or only 18-1.

We'll leave aside the fact pro football greatness is impossible to achieve before Election Day. What interests me is the blithe assumption New England is far better, no, make that ludicrously superior to,  the other NFL teams who haven't lost yet. This is particularly true of the 7-0 Denver Broncos. Denver throttled the previously unbeaten Packers in every aspect of the game last night, but that's nothing compared to how the Pats did the same thing to the Dolphins last Thursday. The disdain for Denver is based on comparing the rotten season Peyton Manning has had so far (until last night, anyway) with the fabulous 2015 performance of Tom Brady.

All football fans are overly quarterbackcentric, but nowhere more so than here. This was true when the Pats had lousy quarterbacks, and it's even truer now that they've had 15 seasons of an all-time superstar under center. So my question is aimed at a very specific audience  -- Patriots fans.

Gang, be honest now. What do you think the Pats record would be if Brady had played as poorly as Manning did in the Broncos' first six games? Think your heroes would've beaten the Steelers, Jets and Bills anyway? If so, let me congratulate you for your loyalty and hand out your failing quiz grade.

Manning's no-good, horrible very bad first six games DID happen. And Denver won 'em all the same. From where this quizmaster sits, that's as least as impressive an accomplishment as hanging 51 points on the Jaguars.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Doesn't Matter How Deep the Well, Eventually You Can Go There Too Often

The Patriots have won their first six games of the 2015 season. In those games, Tom Brady has averaged almost 42 pass attempts a game, 41.8 to be specific. That puts Brady fourth among NFL quarterbacks in passes thrown per game. The three QBs ahead of him are, in order, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees and Andrew Luck.

Each of those three play for losing teams, all of which have resembled circus fires more than once this season. The reason they throw so often is obvious -- they're the only chances the Chargers, Saints and Colts have to win, or even to lose in less than embarrassing fashion.

New England wouldn't be 6-0 if Brady was their only means of winning games. But it sure seems as if Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels and Brady himself believe he's their only reliable means of scoring points. The only other explanation is that these three smart guys have fallen in hopeless love with the idea of an invincible offensive machine, and I'd be insulting them to think that. They all know better, don't they? A team that throws over 50 passes in a game doesn't have a machine, it's got a one-man show.

One-man shows can get vinced in a hurry. Only takes one play. When a 300 pound violent maniac known to the world as a defensive end twists a quarterback's body the wrong way, all the avocado ice cream in the world can make the boo-boo go away.

Revision of Revisionist History

Not too long ago I poked fun at the stat fanciers at five-thirty-eight for posting an article claiming the 2007 Patriots were the greatest team in NFL history. But I've come to believe they didn't miss by as much as I thought.

If we grant the premise a championship is not relevant to the issue of greatness and then consider the performance of two men in the years since the 2007, we can say that five-thirty-eight only missed it by one. The 2007 Pats weren't the greatest team ever. That'd be the 2008 Pats, who went 11-5 with starting quarterback Matt Cassel.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Top Dogs Learn Old Tricks, Not New Ones

In October of 1968, the Kansas City Chiefs were preparing for a game against the Oakland Raiders, their rivals for the AFL West championship (the Raiders eventually won in a playoff). Chiefs coach Hank Stram faced about the worst problem imaginable -- all his quarterbacks were hurt.

Starter Len Dawson had an arm issue and could barely throw. Backups Jacky Lee and rookie Mike Livingston were out. There was no way the Chiefs could run their normal offense. Kansas City was screwed, or so the smart and dumb money thought.

Stram thought that while Dawson couldn't throw, he could still hand off. The Chiefs came out in the straight-T formation, which had been revolutionary when employed by the 1940 Bears, but which hadn't been seen on a pro football field for close to 20 years. It sure hadn't been seen by any members of the Raiders in their football lifetimes. The Chiefs offensive line had devastating angles on the standard 4-3 defense of that time, Kansas City ran for 294 yards and won 24-10 while throwing all of three forward passes.

That's a real football trick play for you, one hidden in plain sight. It wasn't Stram's invention, just a part of the game so old as to be unrecognizable by contemporary players. He never used the T again, either, not once, because Stram knew damn well every coach in the sport had reacted to his stratagem by going back to their dustier textbooks and boning up on the defenses that had made the T obsolete back in the no-facemask days.

Remember the Wildcat formation craze of about a decade ago? Same deal, except the Wildcat was based on the single wing, an even older offense than the T. It worked great for a few teams for a few weeks. Opponents located the appropriate reference material, and the Wildcat quickly died. It still pops up in NFL games from time to time, mostly as an indicator the team running it has serious quarterback issues, and it averages about three yards a play at best.

All this history is being cited for the benefit of Chuck Pagano. The Colts' coach's big mistake with that bizarre and comical fake punt play wasn't trying to be tricky, it was trying to be original. Surprise is a legitimate and important part of strategy. Every team has a fake punt somewhere towards the back of the playbook. But all of 'em were probably first used in 1931 or thereabouts. They'd at least had some field testing. Most of all, they don't start off looking like fakes. How Pagano expected the Pats to react with anything but cautious suspicion to his cocktail napkin doodle escapes me.

In the years I covered Bill Belichick, he employed more than a few unusual plays and formations on offense, defense and special teams. Many worked, but surely not all. However, without exception, when asked about them, he would cite their origins in football history, college and pro. The coach was building off of the work of the zillions of coaches before him, not trying to create the Pigskin Theory of Everything.

It's no accident that the topic on which Belichick is most loqacious, informative and which he clearly loves best is football history. Borrowing from the past doesn't have to be plagiarism. Done right, it's an homage.