Tuesday, January 10, 2017

No Coach Is an Island, Even If He Owns a Home on One

It may be as soon as the Pro Bowl or not until the Giants and Patriots have their annual exhibition game come August, but when their paths do cross, Odell Beckham Jr. owes Bill Belichick a sincere thank you and hearty congratulations. The New England coach singlehandedly torpedoed Beckham's status as out-of-shape white guys' sports whipping boy of the week -- at least everywhere east of the Connecticut River.

As you may have heard, Beckham and a number of his Giants teammates took their scheduled day off last Monday with a party the night before and day boat excursion in Miami Beach. Much tut-tutting ensued. The tuts grew to thunderclap volume when Beckham didn't play very well in New York's 38-13 loss to the Packers last Sunday night. His lack of dedication to the cause is this week's what the sports world is coming to outrage.

The outrage ignores that none of the Giants played very well, even those who went home to suburban New Jersey to sip milk and study film on their days off, if any did. I'd pay good money to know how many of 'em spent their time off clubbing in Manhattan, and I'm sure it wasn't none.

No matter. In the fantasy world inhabited by all too many fans and exploited by all too many commentators for profit, losing is a sign of moral failure. It's too simple to say, "hey, Aaron Rodgers sure is good." It's so much more satisfying to tag Beckham, admittedly an emotionally volatile man, as a sinner. He was out late partying? Doesn't he know girls sap your strength?

That part of the Felger and Mazz show yesterday not spent mocking the Texans was spent dumping on Beckham. Then those on the air switched to comparing Beckham and the Giants unfavorably to the Patriots. No New England player would ever engage in hedonistic hi-jinks the week before a playoff game. It's film study and milk for them, warm milk, too. That's why the Patriots are the best team in the NFL.

The obvious counter to this argument is that just five years ago the Patriots went to the Super Bowl with a freaking murderer as an important part of their offense. Aaron Hernandez may have had impeccable practice habits, but his day-off use was somewhat sketchy.

Here's why Belichick is a genius. He came up with an even more obvious counter to the specious Beckham blather and the coach wasn't even awake when he did it.

Sometime late yesterday afternoon, a photograph of Belichick became public. On HIS day off, the coach was on the Nantucket ferryBOAT, sawing serious wood as he traveled to his vacation home, presumably with his girlfriend.

Good on ya, Bill. For a man looking to get away from it all, it's tough to beat Nantucket in January. We all recharge our batteries in different way. While the off-duty haunts of a sixtysomething are unlikely to be those of a rich young jock, the impulse is exactly the same. And so is the freedom to do it.

No honest person can dump on Beckham for spending a day off on a boat without dumping on Belichick, too. Unless, of course, you're so far gone as to believe the coach draws x's and o's in his sleep.

Belichick wouldn't do that. When he's off-duty, the coach recalls an old lost love and dreams about lacrosse.

Snidely Whiplash Needs His Own Sports Talk Show

Sad to say, the sneer has always been one form of sports commentary. Sadder to say, nowadays it often seems as if it's the only form.

The awesomely gifted and even more awesomely dedicated young men (and every now and then , their women athlete peers) who reach the top rungs of professional sports get looked down on so often, those who get paid to think, talk and write about them must live on the planet Neptune. Being humans, athletes often deserve criticism for their words and deeds. Being in a zero-sum trade, they frequently lose. But the posture assumed by their critics is distasteful in the extreme. I've made fun of Bill Belichick in my time for his habit of describing the weakest of upcoming Patriots' opponents as a roster of 45 Hall of Famers to be, but that hyperbole is closer to the truth than its opposite number in print or on the air where jocks and the teams they play for are depicted as hapless stumblebums.

Around here, the Houston Texans are the of Stumblebums of the Week. The Texans weren't as good as the Patriots this season. They almost surely won't win the divisional playoff game in Foxboro Saturday night. Too bad for them. Too bad for the rest of us, they are being subjected to an awful new American pastime -- ridiculing the underdog. They are discussed with adjectives and vocal tones of pure disgust.

This is inaccurate. The Texans are a flawed team, but they don't stink. No team in the final eight of the playoffs can be that bad. They could lose 48-7 against the Pats (and they might!) but that would be because New England played a superb game, not because Houston had some nerve showing up in the first place.

Worse yet, the sneering is dishonest. In a technique whose best-known practitioners in Boston are Michael Felger and Dan Shaughnessy, it's a setup for future sneers, the creation of a scenario where no matter what the score, the commentator can't lose.

If the Texans get massacred, the commentator will sneer some more and say "what did you expect?" If the Patriots win a close game, they will be viewed with alarm (the concern troll's sneer) until the AFC title game. Should the Texans pull the shocking upset, why then the commentator can spend the months until training camp sneering at the New England organization instead.

Don't know about you, but I find games where one side can't lose to be tedious.  Also crooked.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Chalk Dust Is Supposed to Make It Hard to See, Except This Time

Wild card weekend did nothing to alter my conviction 2016-17 has been the dullest NFL season in over 25 years. Four football games with a total score of 121-45, all of their outcomes obvious by halftime, revealed only that the eight teams participating did not get playoff byes for some very good reasons.

If Las Vegas is to be believed, and it should be more often than not, next Saturday night will be even more boring for devotees of competitive football. The early line has the Patriots as modest 17-point favorites over the Houston Texans. That's a line one usually sees for Iowa State-Oklahoma games, not the NFL divisional round. It is the house's way of giving up, a plea to attract at least a few contrarian investors who see taking big points as playing with the house's money. These are the sort of investors who trade on Donald Trump's tweets.

The Patriots are not as unbeatable at home in the postseason as many of their enthusiasts believe. Ask Rex Ryan and Joe Flacco. The Texans, however, appear perfectly suited for their role as prohibitive underdogs. Houston has a competent but hardly overwhelming defense. On offense, they boast a journeyman running back in Lamar Miller, an outstanding receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, and Brock Osweiler, a quarterback whose most impressive statistic is his bank balance. Brock will begin the 2017-18 season in second place on the team's depth chart unless Houston wins the Super Bowl.

Throughout history, there's been one immutable truth about the NFL playoffs. From Jim Brown through Barry Sanders through Odell Beckham Jr. last night, a team with a defense good enough to help it reach the postseason can take any one wideout or running back, no matter how great, out of a game. Take the 17 points if you must, plungers, but the safest bet for this game is that Hopkins will spend most his time running wind sprints alongside multiple New England defensive backs.

In 16 regular season games that included six AFC South opponents, Houston scored an average of a bit over 17 points a game. That'll win in the playoffs if the team in question is the 1985 Bears or 2000 Ravens. The chance Houston's defense will reach that level against the Pats is remote.

Remote does not equal unpossible. Turnovers, plays owing more to luck than ability or design, etc. are football's equalizers, and Houston isn't a sad sack outfit like the Jets, Rams, Browns and 49ers, to cite some random Pats' regular season victims. The Texans have enough ability to capitalize on big breaks. Too bad they need about five of 'em.

Despite the above paragraphs, I wouldn't advise betting ON the Pats. Giving 17 points is basically a declaration that you believe a team is so good bad luck can't hurt it and that this superiority cannot be affected by letting up in garbage time. Betting against both fate and human nature is risky.

Not as risky as betting only on fate and human nature though. Anyone betting Houston this week is investing on the proposition that the football won't take merely funny bounces, they'll be hysterical.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

The Case of the Less Crowded Trophy Case

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are as close as two men in a business relationship can be. Like the savants of Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation, they communicate in film study with a series of half-sentences, shrugs and half-words that speak volumes to themselves and eventually to Patriots' opponents. They owe their historic success to each other and they both know it.

Therefore, it seems cruel that Belichick might win his fourth NFL Coach of the Year award at the cost of Brady getting his third NFL MVP award.

That last actually should read MVQ, Most Valuable Quarterback. No other position is seriously considered for the honor. If J. J. Watt couldn't get it for a 2014 season where he dominated as few defensive linemen ever have, no non-QB has a shot for the foreseeable future unless Zeke Elliott runs for 3000 yards one year.

And that's the rub for Brady. He has excelled at his position, setting an NFL record with 28 touchdown passes but only two interceptions in 12 games. As you may have heard, Brady missed the first four games of 2016 due to his suspension for the Deflategate fiasco. But upon his return, the Pats won 11 of those games to finish with the league's best record at 14-2. Surely individual excellence and team success make a strong case that Brady had the most value to his team in 2016.

Maybe they do and maybe they don't. If Brady DOESN'T win the award, it won't because of anything he did or didn't on the field, it'll be due to the Patriots' success in the four games he wasn't allowed inside stadiums, the very success that is likely to propel Belichick to HIS individual award. New England, playing a backup quarterback and a third-string quarterback in Brady's absence, went 3-1. That accomplishment is the element in Belichick's C of the Y resume that separates him from a field of worthy candidates such as Jason Garrett, Adam Gase and believe it or not, Jack Del Rio.

Because his team did so well without him, Brady's superlative 2016 season will carry a nonsensical asterisk among MVP voters.  This has some slight element of fairness if Brady's being compared to Matt Ryan. The Falcons quarterback excelled for 16 games, directing by far the league's highest-scoring offense. But the fallacious logic of this year's MVP voting, and really that of all awards voting in all sports, is revealed by the fact that the third leading contender for the honor is Aaron Rodgers.

The Packers' QB finished strong, as did his team. Green Bay won its last six games to take the NFC North title and Rodgers threw 18 TDs with no picks in that span. Pretty damn valuable, you'd have to say.

Prior to that run, however, Green Bay was 4-6, lost four in a row, and Rodgers was something less than his usual outstanding self. Put bluntly, he was at the Ryan Fitzpatrick-Case Keenum marginal starter for a bad team level. It's terrific Rodgers rallied to the extent he did. Only a fool would ever knock him. But I don't get how Rodgers' actual bad games on the field aren't held against his total 2016 performance while the games Brady missed altogether are somehow a blot on his copybook.

I'm certainly not going to say life is unfair when the life in question is Tom Brady's. Besides, he could still win the MVP anyway. Awards voters are quirky folks. I oughtta know, I was one once.

If Brady doesn't get it, however, his coach and his teammates are the ones responsible. Shame on them for being so good at their jobs.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

'Twas the Night Before Christmas, and All Through the House, All That Was Heard Was Ouch

Almost all NFL players are younger than 30, only a handful older than 35. Many got married young, too, and have children. Therefore, their children are often at the age where they still believe in Santa Claus.

That means that a goodly number of said players, probably including most of the Patriots and Jets, will drag their asses back to the old if palatial homestead tonight after having the snot beaten out of their bodies for three hours by their homicidally inclined peers. THEN, they'll get to assemble and wrap dozens of presents for good little boys and girls.

Oh, how I hope any bicycles, Star Wats forts and weapons, or any other present that comes with instructions was built earlier this week by foresighted players (Belichick may have made Pats' interns go around and do it), then stashed in a neighbor's garage.

Failing that, I hope those players have a recipe for eggnog with extra whiskey and more than a dash of Tylenol.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Quickie Yuletime Quiz

Q: Is there anything sadder in sports than the pre-Christmas Day bowl games?
A: Yes. Watching them.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Regular Season's Greetings: A Yawn

There are two given Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays left in the 2016 NFL season. For most fans, the stretch run will conclude in a crescendo of impatient boredom.

Oh, I imagine diehard followers of the Texans, Titans, Buccaneers and Falcons, should such exist, are both thrilled and filled with anxiety about the AFC and NFC South divisional races. Can't pretend to share their excitement, and it's a safe bet I'm in the majority in that regard. Experience has taught us all to disregard the struggle for supremacy in four team divisions where a 9-7 record is enough to bring home the crown.

The Falcons are the league's highest scoring team by a wide margin. That franchise's entire history has taught me to ignore them no matter what. Aside from Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, I couldn't name a single Falcon. This might make me a poor excuse for a fan. But for fans outside of metro Atlanta, it makes me a normal one, too.

For sheer drama, the Lions have been the team to watch this year. All those fourth quarter comebacks. So I watched the Lions play the Giants last Sunday. That is, I tried to. The game of two playoff contenders was a dreadful display of offensive tedium. If it weren't for Odell Beckham, Jr., I wouldn't remember a single play today.

Time for honesty. How many readers of this post think the Lions will somehow hold off the Packers in the NFC North? Me neither.

Steelers-Ravens on Christmas night might be a good game if they hold the war crimes down to five or six a side. But those two teams are ancient rivals and, above all, an old story. They were expected to compete in the AFC North and they did.

That's been the trouble with pro football in 2016. What was expected to happen, has happened. The regular season has been disturbingly cut and dried.  Any given Sunday has become "what we took as a given" Sunday.

Major happy surprise teams of the season: The Cowboys.
Less major/minor happy surprise teams of the season in descending order of surprise: Raiders, Dolphins, Falcons, Giants, Titans.
Surprise still in doubt: Lions
Unhappy surprise teams of the season in descending order of shock: Panthers, Cardinals.
They are who we thought they were, except those that were even worse than we thought: Everybody else.

The story in the Globe this week on how the Patriots are 11-3 against the spread was the story of the NFL. It's been a year for chalk. The Pats and Seahawks are among the Super Bowl favorites? There's a shocker. The Browns and Jaguars were beyond horrible? Get me rewrite! The Broncos have struggled on offense with a first-year quarterback? Well, I'll be! Even my unhappy surprise teams aren't that surprising. A Super Bowl loser struggling the next year is hardly unprecedented. How can any bad season for the Cardinals be startling?

It's no surprise that here in New England it is assumed by everyone that the Pats will return to the Super Bowl. That's the assumption every December. The level of overconfidence isn't even as high as it was last January before the AFC title game. But all commentators from Terry Bradshaw to the quants at Football Outsiders share the assumption, too. Four months of action have conditioned to expect the expected.

There are seasons where the favorites prevail, most of them in fact. But I have to go back a long ways in my memory to recall a year where the favorites prevailed with so little fuss and muss along the way. That would be 1989. Everyone knew the 49ers were the class of the NFL in August. Everyone was right, too. They cruised through the regular season then won their three playoff games by a combined score of 126-26, including their 55-10 squeaker over the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV.

The Patriots are the favorites to be the champs when Super Bowl LI is over. If that comes to pass, good for them. Not so good for anyone who likes football in general rather than the home team in particular if they do so by walking over postseason opponents as they did the Rams, Bills and Browns. It's been a long time, 14 years in fact, since there's been a blowout Super Bowl. I've been to my share of those, and watched even more of TV and they remain one of sports' most singularly depressing experiences.

So in this season of chalk, I cling to one statistic as my NFL hope for January-February 2017. In the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era, the Patriots have been in six Super Bowls. They've won, and they've lost, but they've never bored. All were at least good games. Five of the six were genuinely thrilling. Three were historically so.

Unless you were a 49ers fan, that season wasn't much fun. Spectators adore champions, but they also want to see the champ put to the severest possible test.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

December's Team

If Dave Dombrowski didn't already know Red Sox fans are bipolar, he sure does now. Trading a raft of well-regarded minor league prospects for Chris Sale and Tyler Thornburg was guaranteed to lift one of the two poles to heights of dizzy rapture while sending the other pole into a slough of winter despond.

In less fevered baseball climes, the additions of Sale, one of the best lefthanded starting pitchers extant, and superior reliever Thornburg to what was already a divisional pennant winner in 2015 would result in universal acclaim for the general manager who pulled off the deals, especially if he didn't surrender a single major leaguer in the process. And indeed, Dombrowski is getting a kind of universal acclaim. It's just that in Boston, all sports acclaim comes served with a side order of querulous doubt.

Adding Sale and Thornburg, especially the former, caters to one of the two prime neuroses of Sox followers -- their need to start each season and go through said season with the belief that their team should not ever lose a game. If Boston isn't a primeval juggernaut, it's nothing.

A headline on the Website of the Globe captures this twisted belief neatly. It read "Will Sox moves make Ortiz reconsider retirement?" (Note to Papi: For God's sake, man, don't do it.) Sure, a 95-win team just got better. But that's not enough. We need a 120 win team to feel good about ourselves.

Right underneath the cited headline was one for another story, one that showed how the Sox community will find perverse suffering even in moments of hot stove league triumph, when their 2017 really is undefeated. It read "Did Dombrowski gut Sox farm system?"

No fans in baseball obsess more about their team's minor leaguers than those here in New England. This has been true as long as the 40 years I've lived in Boston and doubtless long before. Writing about the Boston farm teams are how Peter Gammons got his start way back when. He saw a need and filled it.

The need to believe that Boston has a farm system stocked with can't-miss prospects who will make the team unbeatable in two-three-four years time is as strong a psychological imperative for fans and baseball media as the need to believe that the current Sox team is a cinch for at least the American League pennant. Forget that a farm system which has produced Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr, has already done its job for the next five years and then some. Forget that baseball teams run in cycles, and that there is a time to sow long term and a time to reap short-term pennants.
If there aren't possible replacements for guys on the big league roster who do something sinful like go 1 for 20 in a week in June, the Sox are doomed.

In other words, Sox fans believe that the future is now, and that's it's also not now. Worse yet, they feel very strongly both ways. Worst of all, there's no such thing as a cinch in baseball and never will be.

I've seen more than a few Red Sox GMs come and go in my time here. The above paragraph is why even the winners have moved on.