Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Human Drama of Athletic Competition with the Humanity Taken Out

Tiger Woods duck hooked his drive on the 13th hole at the Masters yesterday and said a very bad word. At a rough estimate, of the million or so other Americans who were playing golf at that moment in this vast land, at least 10,000 were saying the very same thing.

Yet within moments, CBS commentator Ian Baker-Finch was given the heinous duty of apologizing to any of the TV audience who might've been offended. How much better had he chosen to end his career in a blaze of glory and said, "to anyone offended, fuck off!"

Nobody watches the Masters who isn't a golf fan, and there are no golf fans who don't play golf. Therefore there was nobody watching the tournament who hasn't either cussed at a bad shot, heard some other golfer do it, or both. Swearing and golf are inseparable companions, just like the sport's other good buddies, drinking and gambling. There were cartoons about golfers cursing in 19th century editions of the English magazine "Punch." There are probably 15th century Scottish woodcuts about it.

There's never unanimity in our society, so I'm sure there were some real life Ned Flanderses out there who were offended, for the sake of the children, of course. Holier-than-thou is never about a person claiming superiority over their fellow beings to justify the sticks up their posteriors.. No, indeed.

 I'm also guessing the offended were few in number. As the golf industry knows to its sorrow, most golfers are adults, make that adults-plus. Adults know that in the heat of competition, athletes get stressed. People under stress have been known to say things they might later regret.

In a sane world, Woods' swearing would've passed unmentioned on the air. But ass-covering is one of broadcasting's prime directives. Baker-Finch's apology was CBS saying, "it's not our fault."

Except it was. Woods didn't carry a bullhorn in his bag yesterday. It was CBS's microphones which were close enough to pick up his vocal anguish, microphones that are part of TV's inexorable drive to make sports on the tube as close to being there as possible, except better because you don't have to drive to the game, match or tournament.

That's a worthy goal, or would be if CBS (and all the other networks) didn't want to have sports both ways. They want to immerse the viewer in sports reality, but they also want that reality to be fake, to be the world of Chip Hilton books for boys, not the world of Lance Armstrong, Floyd Mayweather and, oh, yeah, Tiger Woods. This desire is particularly acute at the Masters, which CBS presents with a cheesy, smarmy solemnity which is completely at odds with the experience of the tournament in person.

Don't want to hear Woods cuss? Get the mike away from him. Don't want Bill Belichick or Gregg Popovich to blow off your inane in-game interviews? Stop doing them. Sports isn't "NCIS" or "Modern Family."  People watch because a game, match or tournament is an event beyond the control of anyone but the participants.

At least, we hope it's beyond TV's control. Some days I'm not so sure.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

What Price February Glory?

Here's a thought experiment for Patriots fans here in Boston, and I trust they'll answer it with the intellectual honesty expected of NFL champions.

It's second and goal from the one with 55 seconds left in the Super Bowl, and in a flash of brimstone, temptation appears in the form of Mr. Applegate in "Damn Yankees." He has a proposition.

"You can let this play its course and Marshawn Lynch scores on the next play and you lose. BUT, it won't snow in Boston for the rest of the month," says the man of wealth and taste. "Say the word, and I'll cloud Pete Carroll's mind and he'll call a pass and you win. After that, you take your chances with the weather, but I'd advise buying some extra shovels."

Which would you choose? Which would you choose if we get that blizzard for the weekend the weathermen are freaking about?

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Defensaurus Rex

In keeping with NFL tradition, Rex Ryan was fired as coach of the New York Jets the day after the team finished its dismal 4-12 season. Somewhat less traditionally, Ryan was unemployed less than two weeks before being named head coach of the Buffalo Bills.

It's too bad for the Seattle Seahawks that Ryan found work so quickly. Had he not, Pete Carroll could've put him on the franchise payroll as a consultant for the Super Bowl. Ryan has knowledge the Seahawks would put any price on come around 6:45 p.m. this evening.

The Jets were a terrible team in 2014 that did one thing well. They were able to play the Patriots very tough. New England won both of its games with the Jets, but they were the closest games of the Pats' season, decided by 27-25 and 17-16 and each contest in doubt until either the final play or damn near. Considering the talent gap between the two teams, the Jets overachieved on the grand scale. New England had only two other games decided by less than a touchdown, and only the Ravens in the playoffs came as close to the Pats without beating them.

So how'd the Jets manage to be a quality NFL team against the Patriots when all the rest of the year they weren't? A glance at the box scores reveals one reason Ryan had little to do with. In each game, Geno Smith played like an actual pro quarterback. He wasn't Aaron Rodgers, but neither was he the Geno Smith who's the main reason Ryan has relocated to Western New York state.

The other reason the Jets gave the Pats fits is attributable to Ryan. It's the knowledge the Seahawks would sell Richard Sherman's so-far unborn child to get. The Jets defense was able to do what no other Pats' opponent could from October 1 to today -- contain Rob Gronkowaki. The unanimous All-Pro tight end was competent but no more in his two encounters with New York.

In the first game at Foxboro, Gronkowski had five receptions for 68 yards, decent stats, but hardly overwhelming. In the rematch in New Jersey, with the Jets playing out their miserable string, Gronkowski had six catches for 31 yards and one touchdown.

The relationship between Gronk's individual performance and that of New England's overall offense is an established fact. The better he does, the more points they score. I daresay that if you let Carroll know Gronkowski's stat line tonight would be a duplicate of the line from that second Jets game, he'd very much like his team's chances tonight. So would everybody else.

What's Ryan's secret sauce for Gronkowski? There aren't many actual secrets in football, so I'll guess his "schemes" relied on the fact the Jets' linebackers are quick enough to cover Gronkowski and (the hard part) big and strong enough to tackle him. Still, Carroll and his staff surely would have found film sessions and chalk talks with Ryan a comfort over the past two weeks.

NFL coaches cherish what they regard as secrets. It's extremely unlikely Ryan would blab away his methods for defending Gronkowski to some rival firm. He has his own reputation as a defensive wizard to maintain, after all.

But when it comes to the Patriots and Bill Belichick, Ryan loses whatever balance he has. Considering how he feels about his once and future divisional nemesis, the Seahawks should at least have given him a phone call last week.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Your Guess Is As Good As Theirs and Better Than Mine

 Last year was so simple. Writing a Super Bowl prediction took about three minutes. There was no doubt in my mind that Seattle's defense would thwart Denver's offense enough for the Seahawks to win. Did I expect a thwarting by 43-8? Hell, no. But the basic outline of the game was so clear I barely bothered to make the call in the first place.

Twelve months later, clarity has been replaced by blurry double-vision. A myriad of scenarios creating a Patriots win in Super Bowl XLIX have flitted through my brain the last week (too busy laughing at Ballghazi the week before to handicap). Every time one is just about to come into focus, it's been replaced by an equally hazy and ephemeral picture of a Seahawks' triumph. While these two admirable football teams have every reason to be confident of victory Sunday night, none of the rest of us should have any confidence in agreeing with them.

Check out the pundits' forecasts in the national media. These worthy men and women are paid to be never in doubt, right or wrong. Among the brief explanations accompanying the game picks on ESPN.com were "I don't know why I did this" and "I've changed my pick every time I've thought about it."

Exactly two of ESPN's over 50 forecasters called the game to be decided by more than 10 points. Ron Jaworski sees the Pats winning big, while Ray Lewis sees Seattle winning the same way. These forecasts are surely the result of which position each man played in THEIR NFL careers. All forecasters have biases, and homerism is usually the least of them.

It has been noted that Seattle was only 3-4 in games in which it allowed opponents more than 20 points. This is seen as an indication of weakness, as it is really difficult to hold the Patriots to such a low total. It has been less noted, but is also true that New England was 2-4 in games in which it scored fewer than 21 points, and that those two wins were over the Raiders and Jets. So while difficult, it can be done, and when done, the Pats are in trouble.

Go through the matchups and records, we see more equality. New England's offensive versatility is a theoretical advantage, but no more so than is Seattle's running game. Each has a superlative turnover ratio and excellent placekicking. Each team had one horrific and embarrassing loss in the regular season in the state of Missouri (we're scraping the bottom of the matchup barrel now. Always happens by Saturday).

One Super Bowl tell I have used in years past with good effect is that the team which had a tougher time in the playoffs has earned an advantage through having stared elimination in the face without blinking. As near-death experiences, there's nothing to choose between the Pats' comeback against the Ravens and Seattle's against the Packers. Super Bowl routs occur not because the loser gives up, but because it stops expecting good things to result from its best efforts. I don't see either of these teams  succumbing to despair.

If I knew how the Pats' offensive and defensive lines, the two groups in this tilt facing the largest challenges, would perform, a prediction would be a cinch. Not even Bill Belichick knows that, though. It is best to assume that they will battle their opposite Seahawk numbers to a draw or close to it.

Assuming that, we assume a close game. To assume a close game is to assume it will be decided on between three and six "big plays" the unpredictable turns of skill and fate which we know will take place but that only the foolhardy would predict who'll they'll benefit.

The Pats got here on a halfback option pass and a weird formation, the Seahawks on an onside kick and fake field goal. Look at that sentence and tell me you think either team is a safe bet tomorrow.

Here's an unsafe bet. Combing through my double visions, I didn't find ALL things equal between the Pats and Seahawks. I give New England the tiniest of edges for creativity. It is the team somewhat more likely to improvise a game-changing play if it's forced to do so.

I expect it will be,too. Say New England by no more than three points. If I could pick a tie, I would, but that's against the rules. There's never even been an overtime Super Bowl.

First time for everything.


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.