Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Faith Can Move Mountains, We'll See About Defensive Tackles

The Patriots' trade of Logan Mankins was startling. The reaction to the trade by fans and commentators both inside and outside New England was more startling still. Ours is a querulous, distrustful sports world, apparently except when it comes to Bill Belichick.

The Patriots swapped an All-Pro offensive lineman for a tight end the Tampa Bay Buccaneers found superfluous to requirements and a fourth round draft choice. That's a bold and puzzling move less than two weeks before the season starts for one of the Super Bowl favorites. Yet inside and outside New England, the consensus among fans and commentators was not criticism, or even doubt, but childlike belief in the guy who made the trade. Bill must know what he's doing, even if I can't figure it out.

Belichick DOES know what he's doing. Most (but not all!) of his personnel moves DO work out for the Patriots, a track record which should be a significant part of any assessment of the Mankins deal. But it's one thing to say, here are Belichick's reasons for the trade and why he believes they are good ones. It's quite another to assert, whatever those reasons are, they must be good. The man's a football coach, not a sorcerer. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Blind trust in any authority figure is dangerous for both the trusting and the figure himself. Infallibility is impossible, and disillusionment with a failed authority once deemed infallible is the sort of thing that starts revolutions. A decent respect for Belichick's opinions requires us to try to deduce them, since he's not gonna tell us himself why Mankins is now a Buc.

Start with a process of elimination. All pro football personnel moves are partly about the money, but trading Mankins couldn't be ALL about the money. The financial aspect of the Pats' 2014 roster is a baked cake. Barring miracles, there won't be any available veterans worth spending Mankins' $6 million salary on. If Belichick needed Mankins' 2015 salary for future moves, a likely possibility, better to wring another season our of a still productive vet and then dump him.

This leaves us with the human portion of the deal, to wit, tight end Tim Wright. He has to be the source of most of the trade's logic from Belichick's point of view. The highly esteemed for cause coach of a preseason Super Bowl favorite which operates on the principle anything short of championships equals failure decided his best option for a title was to pay a high price for a tight end of promise.  That speaks of a deal born of need, not choice.

If Belichick believes the Pats need a tight end, they do. That much much blind faith I'll give him. Scouts and such compare Wright to Aaron Hernandez. Perhaps Belichick has concluded New England needs a return to its formidable two tight end offense to nose past the Broncos come January.

Or perhaps Belichick is worried about running a one tight end offense. If so, his sorcery will be sorely tested this autumn.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Scoreboard On Its Back

The National Football League has unparalleled wealth, popularity and influence. It's also in increasing danger of becoming our society's latest celebrity drug overdose story. The NFL's use of touchdowns has gone past social or casual. The league has a points addiction, the worst case outside the Big 12 conference.

Counselors say that if a substance causes problems in a user's life, it IS the problem. By that measure, the NFL in August 2014 is ripe for an intervention. The league's desire for more and more offense is is inflicting havoc on two of the league's other priorities, one of them a primal element of its appeal.

Wes Welker, wbo'd be well advised to find something else to do with his life, is the latest casualty of the conflict between the NFL's lust for points and its commendable effort to mitigate the risks of an inherently unsafe sport. Welker's latest and doubtless not last concussion was the last and doubtless not last example of the law of unintended consequences doing its worst.

Welker was the victim of a violent collision that's an inescapable part of his specialty, catching short passes in the middle of the field. He's a master of getting open as a slot receiver, that is, he's really good at avoiding the one collision allowed defenders in the first yards of a pass route.

This means Welker is particularly vulnerable to the only tactic those defenders have left to them, hitting the receiver after he touches the ball. Short passes are best thrown low. A crouching receiver plus a hurtling defensive back seeking to avoid a head shot equals more head shots, legal and otherwise.

I have suggested this before, but if defenders were allowed to jostle, thump and bump receivers for more than just five yards, both receiver and defender might be less likely to encounter each other at top speed when one or both was not upright. The NFL must think otherwise, as it has instructed officials to have a zero tolerance policy towards such contact. Or rather, the league isn't thinking. It's just reacting to its jones for 38-34 games.

The conflict between the safety and offense-first imperative of pro football's rules is reasonably obvious. This summer, I have sensed a more subtle but more self-destructive side effect of the NFL's craving for scores. Offense above all is threatening one of the league's pillars of existence -- the hallowed concept of parity.

Since I was a child, one of the NFL's proudest boasts was On Any Given Sunday (now any given Thursday, Sunday or Monday). The league sold itself as the sport offering the highest level of regular season competition. Every fan's team, no matter its record, was said to have an excellent chance of winning its next game due to football's very nature.

Not trusting to nature, the league also has tampered with it to foster competition throughout its history, starting with the draft in 1936. The draft, free agency plus a salary cap, strength of schedule adjustment, etc., all instituted to bolster the fortunes of weak teams and hinder those of strong ones.

The NFL also believes that its customers want to see scoring over any other element of the game. Maybe so. But what happens when scoring and parity become mutually exclusive? We're finding out.

It's been a slippery slope since the league decriminalized offensive holding in 1978. First Bill Walsh discovered this made passing a far more efficient means of moving the ball than running it. Since incompletions have a limited spectator appeal, rules were tweaked so there'd be fewer of them. Quarterbacks thus became more and more important, and thus rules were tweaked again to minimize (can't be eliminated) their exposure to the risks of football's violence.

It's QBs Uber Alles in the NFL in 2014. To be fair, that's been true to some extent since Sammy Baugh was playing. Teams with superior quarterbacks have always had a competitive advantage. But the offense addiction has led to that becoming an uncompetitive advantage -- at least in the regular season.

Is there anyone, anyone at all, who hasn't forecast the Broncos and Patriots to meet in the AFC championship game? I haven't run across one, and I have had my own addiction to NFL preview media since about 1958.. It is assumed, and I believe correctly assumed, that Peyton Manning and Tom Brady give those teams an edge their rivals cannot match.

The Packers are a team with some spectacular liabilities on defense. No matter. They also have Aaron Rodgers, and so remain among the squads discussed as possible NFC champions.

That's macro competition. Let's take it down to the micro level. Patriots fans, do you believe your team is in any danger of losing any of its first three games to the Dolphins, Vikings and Raiders? If so, you are a true worrywart. The rest of the world sees Brady vs. Ryan Tannehill, Matt Cassel and Who Knows and places the likelihood of New England losing at about the same percentage as the chance of its last home game taking on a warm, sunny day.

Chris Gasper of the Globe opined that the NFL's focus on eliminating downfield contact between receivers and defenders was to cater to the popularity of fantasy football. Actually, fantasy football's rules demonstrate how real pro football's fetish for making passing easier and easier is damaging parity.

Fantasy football is really parody football, bearing no resemblance to 21st century offense at all. At a time when running backs, even historically great ones like Adrian Peterson, have never been less important to the outcome of games, in fantasy football, they remain the most valuable players for their teams due to the game's stupid scoring rules, which jiggle statistics to distort what actually happens on the field.

Fantasy does this to maintain its own competitive balance. If quarterbacks were as important in the game as they are in the NFL, Manning, Brady, Rodgers and Drew Brees would be the first four players picked (in no particular order) in each league in the world, and one of those four teams would win each and every league depending on seasonal variations in Hall of Fame performance levels. Who'd play a game where the results are evident before it starts?

 We pause here to consider your defending NFL champion Seattle Seahawks, who won the title with a dominant defense, a primo runner in Marshawn Lynch and for whom quarterback Russell Wilson was more frosting than cake. First, we note the league reacted to Seattle's title by the immediate installation of more limits on pass defense. Second, we note Wilson is a pretty damn good QB, not a Dilfersque placeholder.

Last and most importantly, we note that playoff football retains more parity than the regular season brand.  Brady and Manning's teams aren't perennial champs because in the postseason, the ability disparity between quarterbacks is less, making the other elements of a game more important to its results.  In the four Super Bowls lost by those two superstars, the rival quarterbacks were Eli Manning, Brees and Wilson, not E. J. Manuel or Geno Smith.

I wouldn't begin to guess how the 2014 NFL playoffs will turn out. I would readily guess which 12 teams will qualify for 'em, and of course the Broncos, Pats, Packers and Saints are on the list. Bet they're on your list, too.

Every fan of the NBA and NHL knows that their sports' playoffs are a different and superior brand of entertainment than their regular seasons. Is that really the path the NFL wishes to trod? More relevantly, is it the path CBS, Fox and NBC wish to trod?

The Seahawks were the best break parity has received in the NFL for over a decade, a model on how those teams not blessed with super QBs can compete with those that are. The NFL reacted to its good fortune by taking steps to make sure the model can never be used again.

Addicts live in their own reality. Wonder which network will be first to propose the intervention? 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Shakedown Artistes

The National Football League's ideas about music have always been a trifle old-fashioned, so it's not a surprise that the league's exploratory foray into the music industry should come from a bygone era, the inglory days of the Mob's role in the business in the 1940s and 1950s.

As reported by "The Wall Street Journal," the NFL has narrowed down the possible performers for the Super Bowl halftime show next February to three, Rihanna, Katy Perry and Coldplay. It's all up to which of these popular acts is most willing to give the league a share of the receipts from their next concert tour for the privilege of performing a 12 minute show before what the league assures them is an audience of hundreds of millions.

I'm sure this is legal, as most everything is in the music business, but it sure smells like extortion. One wonders what'd happen if the average nightclub owner tried the same thing.

Unhip and proud of it, the NFL's little power play rests on a vision of the music business that's been out of date since, oh, 2002 at the latest. Back in the 20th century day, the league could've made big stars pay to play halftime without the stars even knowing they did. It'd all have been quietly arranged between the NFL and the stars' record companies.

But the Internet came along, and in this day and age, concert ticket sales have replaced sound recording royalties and sales as the primary revenue stream for star pop musicians. This makes those musicians work harder, but it also gives them a more direct connection to their dough. That is to say, the big stars in question are very likely to see the NFL's proposal as the racket it is.

Rihanna, Perry and Coldplay would have to be prize chumps to do anything but jointly tell the NFL to pound sand. They're being asked to turn over real money for the illusion of mass marketing. In short, they are being asked to purchase a Super Bowl ad they don't need.

Appearing at halftime will not help any of the three performers sell more tickets and downloads or acquire more lucrative corporate tie-ins. The TV audience for the Super Bowl GAME may be in the hundreds of millions, but come halftime, it fragments like the rest of the media universe. Viewers who are either fans of a specific performer or seriously into pop music in general watch the mini-concert. The rest tend to be eating, drinking, going to the bathroom, arguing about the first half or just plain socializing. It's the one part of a Super Bowl party that's free time.

Let's take a typical viewer we'll call me. By all accounts Bruno Mars gave an excellent performance at the last Super Bowl. I never heard a note. Halftime was when the gracious host of the party I attended brought out the pulled pork, cole slaw, potato salad and cornbread. The sound of clattering cutlery drowned out Mars, and so what? I like music, but not as much as I like dinner.

So the people who saw Mars and actually paid attention fall into the subset of consumers who were already more likely to go to his concerts and download his songs than other folks. He was singing to the music fan choir. As a Super Bowl ad, a halftime performance is a worse investment than a real ad.

Arrogant and proud of it, the NFL has come to the mistaken assumption the big name performers of its halftime show need it more than they need them. Never strong on its own history, the league has forgotten just why it started putting them on the midfield stage in the first place, something that began only 20 years ago.

The music superstar Super Bowl halftime show did not truly begin until Super Bowl XXVII in 1993, when Michael Jackson performed at the Rose Bowl. Before that, big names sang the National Anthem, and halftime shows tended to be song and dance pastiches or the likes of Up With People and college marching bands. The NFL thought Up With People and college marching bands were perfect cultural fits, and given its druthers doubtless would still trot them out there. The big names were brought in because the league had a problem on its hands, a potential money-losing problem.

The problem had two causes. One was the dismal succession of Super Bowl routs of the 1980s and early '90s caused by the dominance of the NFC in that era. This in turn led TV networks to counterprogram the Bowl, scheduling programs designed to attract non-football fans to begin roughly at halftime, betting on a drain of casual viewers of the game due to its noncompetitive nature.

The bet worked. Nothing makes the NFL move faster than a threat to ratings, so the league responded by soliciting Jackson to perform, which in turn worked well enough to lead to the big star mini-concert becoming a regular Super Bowl feature. If the big stars tended to be a decade or more past their prime, well, as I said, unhip and proud.

The league's gotten spoiled lately. Since roughly 1995, most Super Bowls have been competitive well past halftime, and a good number have been genuine thrillers. This may have led the NFL to conclude that the halftime show has become a favor it does the music business, and should become a billable 12 minutes instead.

An exciting football game is never an inevitability. Super Bowl XLVIII was not competitive. It was over by halftime, over from the start, really, and had AMC had the nerve to put, oh, the series finale of "Breaking Bad" on at halftime, they'd have done well, very well.

Whomever looks after the business interests of Rihanna, Perry and Coldplay is advised to study this little chapter of pro football history, and then to send the NFL direct to voice mail. Let the league see if Up With People is still around. It's the halftime show the league deserves.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Perception Is Only Reality for Those Paid to Offer Perceptions

In his first exhibition game last Friday night, Tom Brady completed eight of 10 passes for 81 yards and a touchdown. He also threw a pick six. The consensus of both local and national opinionators was that Brady looked his old self and is ready to roll (local inane criticism of Brady focuses on his failings at an unspecified future date).

Didn't catch the Redskins-Browns game last night, lucky me, but the consensus of local and national opinionators today was that Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III was just terrible and is probably going to be maimed for life on a running play if he's not benched in favor of the obviously superior Kirk Cousins. The consensus was so vehement it aroused my curiosity.

A few mouse clicks on revealed the following. Griffin completed six of eight passes for 112 yards and threw an interception. He ran four times for 24 more yards. That's a lot of production in three series. Maybe he didn't look good out there, but the numbers say he did SOMETHING right. They also say the opinionators are opining off the back foot of conclusion first, evidence later.

Zebra Stampede

In 2012, National Football League owners had a brainstorm. They could play hardball in contract negotiations with the game officials because refs really were not that important a factor in the sport's commercial success. A few high-visibility disasters by the replacements in the early part of the regular season, and the owners were disabused of their delusion.

In 2014, the NFL, which always and forever means, by a consensus of team owners, instructed the refs to be very strict in calling contact by pass defenders against receivers. One has to assume this was in response to the Seahawks, a team built on uninhibited pass defense, winning the Super Bowl and humiliating the league's MVP (Most Visible Player) Peyton Manning in the process.

So instructed, so carried out. The letter of the law, hell, the punctuation of the law, has been enforced to the fullest in the exhibition season, to the point of absurdity and to the more salient point of rendering preseason games even more of an unwatchable mess than usual, no mean feat. Commentators, especially commentators paid by the league's TV partners, have begged, cajoled or screamed, at the NFL to cut it out and resume violent business as usual.

The universal assumption is that the league has been hoist on its own touchdown besotted petard. The refs, who hoisted said petard, are assigned the passive role of order-followers.

I wonder it that's entirely true. The NFL's decades old effort to portray its refs as anonymous robots has succeeded to an extent outsiders tend to forget two salient facts about officials. One is that they're smart. The second is that they are highly skilled professional athletes. They're middle aged men instead of young Goliaths, but calling a pro football game can't be assigned to some random chess master. It's a physical endeavor.

As highly skilled athletes, referees have highly developed egos. And I suspect that the flag storms of August 2014 are a demonstration of professional pride. Also of professional power.

All sports tweak their rules in search of improving their entertainment value (and to be fair, sometimes on behalf of improving the experience of playing). No other, however, does so as ceaselessly and extensively as the NFL. The kickoff, which has only been part of the sport since the first damn game in 1869, may not live out the decade. Same goes for the extra point.

For the past several seasons, NFL rules changes have stemmed from the laudable and necessary goal of player safety. Here commerce and virtue work in tandem. A stream of broken bodies are bad for the conscience and the bottom line.

Every rules change, no matter how beneficial, gives the officials more to do. It's not like football didn't have a great many rules back in 2000. But refs have indeed attempted to enforce the newer safety rules to the limit. After all, keeping an unsafe game as safe as possible has always been their prime directive.

Then this spring the officials got a new directive. Intervene to make the competition between pass receivers and pass defenders not safer, but more one-sided. Strictly enforce a rule which does not affect safety, only the scoreboard.

This instruction was an unintended insult to the officials, a denigration of their most cherished professional ability -- good judgment. All sports which involve physical collisions between players would be unwatchable if all their rules were strictly enforced at every moment. Deciding which illegal collisions impact the outcome of a play enough to warrant sanction is the essence of competent officiating.

The new "point of emphasis" on contact between receivers and defenders was a statement by the NFL that it found its officials' judgment inadequate. At least, I believe that's how the officials, probably still a mite touchy after 2012, saw it. And the officials have responded with one of the most ancient job actions in labor relations -- mutiny by obeying orders. They are working to rule. As always happens, work to rule has resulted in a drastic decline in production, the product in question being good football.

I note that the reaction of journalists and broadcasters far closer to the NFL than the rest of us is that the penalty parade will peter out as the regular season begins. Those more inclined to see the world from the league's point of view say this is because defenders will adjust to the new order. Others just sort of say it will without stating a reason, assuming no one will tolerate 30 penalty games that matter to millions of fans, fantasy players and gamblers as a self-evident truth.

My guess is the refs' job action has already succeeded and that pass defense in 2014 will be pretty much like pass defense in 2013 with a few high-profile exceptions to maintain the pretense the new  point of emphasis is the rule. The officials have proved that meddling with those rules can ruin the sport as a spectator experience. They have reminded the NFL powers-that-be of their own power in the bargain.

And those powers-that-be had best take the officials' warning to back off. The refs have an even more powerful rule to work to left in their bag. Offensive holding, if called to the letter on every play, would result in a weekly feast of three and a half hour games ending in scores like 10-6.

Better for the NFL to let Richard Sherman and Darelle Revis get away with the more than occasional downfield bump. Far better.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Sweat Shouldn't Make a Sound

Johnny Manziel is having one hell of a training camp. At his current pace of overexposure, NFL fans of teams other than the Cleveland Browns will hate him with the heat of a thousand blazing suns before the final exhibition game of the 2014 season.

The overexposure isn't all Manziel's fault, of course, but he sure gives no evidence that he dislikes it in the slightest.

By contrast, let's move a few nonperforming NFL franchises west and check in on the draft's other megastory rookie, Michael Sam. This New Englander can testify he hasn't heard or read one word about Sam this summer. It's almost as if he was some anonymous low-round draft choice scuffling to make his team's final 53-man roster.

No way of knowing whether Sam's good enough to play in the NFL, but his choice of a low profile shows he's more than smart enough to do it. It also shows Jeff Fisher is a somewhat cannier coach than whoever's got the job for the Browns this season. Or do I mean month?

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Praise Where It's Due

Trading Jon Lester was not a good idea in the long run for the Boston Red Sox. However, in the short-run, the team's management deserves congratulations for obtaining Yoenis Cespedes in return for Lester.

An actual breathing 2014 All-Star outfielder still under contract for about $10 million in 2015 is a far, far greater return than I ever expected the Sox to receive for Lester. Deadline trades of proven veterans usually get back prospects beloved by Baseball America whose worth cannot even start to be determined until the next spring training.

It's an especially high price coming from the Athletics, a franchise whose acquisition of Lester figures to be a pure late season rental play. If Oakland enters a competitive bid for free agent Lester come next winter, it'll be the most shocking development of the offseason.

So take a bow, Boston front office. It's as good a trade as it can be for the Red Sox. Of course, that's not nearly as good as this trade is for Jon Lester. The lefty will get to make his final free agency pitch by pitching in a pennant race and the playoffs for a team whose chance of winning the World Series is as good or better than any other team's. If he does well, as he has so far in 2014, this can only enhance Lester's bargaining position when November rolls around.

My praise for the Sox' management is genuine. But it is also tempered by the knowledge that well struck bad bargains seldom add up to genuine prosperity.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Nobody's Ever Been Smarter Than the Law of Supply and Demand

Peter Abraham's lead story in the Globe sports section this morning was that the Red Sox were looking seriously into trading Jon Lester because the team simply would not match or come close to matching the contract Lester believes could be his as a free agent come November.
Right underneath it, a second story, also by Abraham, reported that the Blue Jays nipped the Sox last night by a score of 14-1, mercilessly thrashing Sox starter Clay Buchholz and wanna-be starter Felix Doubront in the process.

This striking juxtaposition should win whoever was layout editor a Pulitzer nomination in the Commentary category. It used no words to make the most salient point possible about Lester's future, namely, that if it's not going to be in Boston, the Sox' near-term future is dimmer than December twilight.

The idea that Lester is headed elsewhere was hardly news in itself, although Abraham advanced the story by a considerable distance. The lefty's employment status has been a subject of discussion since spring training, a discussion that's become louder and louder as the Sox' 2014 chances have become more and more purely mathematical.

And every time the topic has arisen in my own mind (not that often, really), it has reinforced my awestruck wonder at one of the oldest mysteries of sports. What is it about games that cause the wildly successful and astute businessmen who own teams to forget the first principles of their previous businesses?

John Henry's game is finance. He must be very good at it. A very few people have made millions from dumb luck, but billions always require skill. Yet the Red Sox' treatment of Lester is a rejection of concepts of finance so elementary even I understand them.

Principle the first: There's no such thing as yield without risk. Those seeking higher returns, be they wins or dollars, must accept a higher possibility of losses.

Long-term contracts for starting pitchers are a riskier proposition than just about any derivative security you could name. The risk of lost seasons and tens of millions of bucks due to injury alone is frightening. The risk that according to reports that Sox are balking at in Lester's case, that a free agent pitcher's performance will decline due to age in the back end of a contract is in actuarial terms closer to a cinch.

But no baseball asset class offers a higher yield than superior starting pitching. It offers the closest thing the game offers to a guarantee that a team will be competitive in a game no matter what else happens.  So if a franchise expects to be a consistent winner, it has to have it. This is why Jon Lester will join the ranks of the One Percent by Christmas.

Stocks are riskier than bonds. But as Henry knows better than his home telephone number, if a portfolio is to grow, it should hold more stocks than bonds, because otherwise the rate of return won't cut the mustard. Missed gains are almost as much of a loss as are real losses.

It's even worse in baseball. Most of the time, an overly risk-averse financial portfolio won't lose money. A roster portfolio which avoids the risks of expensive starting pitching is close to a dead cert to be dead in the standings before the All-Star break, unless it has succeeded in acquiring and nurturing a flock of starters too young for free agency or has had unbelievable luck with journeyman vets turning in career seasons. Either of those events are longer shots than any bet Wall Street has to offer.

So if the Sox don't retain Lester's services, they will have to replace them or get worse. (in both finance and sports, things can always get worse). This is liable to cost as much or more in money, not to mention lost time, than just ponying up the going rate for a starter who is conveniently on hand.

Finance Principle the Second applicable to Lester's situation is a quotation attributed to countless persons. "The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent." In baseball, substitute the phrase "above .500" for solvent.  The contracts being given superior starting pitchers these days are indeed irrational as a matter of cold accounting. Some of what Clayton Kershaw is scheduled to make will become dead money, a pure loss on the books of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Wins on the days Kershaw pitches, however, go into the NL West standings right now. The tickets sold because of the Dodgers' place in said standings go into the books immediately, not in 2020.

Markets are often irrational. But they're often rational, too. The trick is determining which is which. Baseball history suggests that no matter the cost of starting pitching, it's an investment a team can't afford to pass up. Google is a very expensive stock. Doesn't mean it's a bad buy.

The price of quality free agent pitchers has never been higher than it is today. Coincidentally, neither has the overall price of stocks.

I'm going to assume Henry still buys the occasional stock.