Wednesday, February 03, 2016

True If Not Necessarily Important Story of the Super Bowl

Super Bowl XXV was supposed to have all the NFL-generated hoopla of Super Bowl 50, but the Persian Gulf War got in the way. In retrospect, what this meant in practice was fewer free parties for media and sponsors and a big career boost for Whitney Houston. But at the time, people were genuinely puzzled. How could they reconcile a national mood of sober patriotism with the Bowl's need to be Super in all respects?

Among the puzzled were two 30ish guys in suits this reporter encountered one weekday before the game in the bar of Tampa's then brand-new Wyndham hotel (quite the nicest of the 14 Super Bowl media hotels in which I resided, BTW). A shared cocktail or two with these nice fellows and they confided their background. They were Walt Disney Co. middle managers, among the company execs responsible for putting on the Super Bowl halftime show. And in the manner of corporate go-getters everywhere, the two of 'em were bemoaning what they saw as a missed opportunity.

"If only they (by which he meant the White House), had given us some advance notice (of the war's start date), we REALLY could have put on a patriotic show," one of them said sadly.

After I picked my jaw off the bar, I assured them they'd do just fine in that regard, which of course they did. But let this be a lesson to all future Presidents of the United States. In case of war, make sure to notify Disney CEO Bob Iger before you phone Congress.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The End Is Only Part of A Story

The worldwide rumor that Peyton Manning will retire after the Super Bowl has now been reported as fact by Ian Rapoport of NFL Media. I believe him. A good rule of thumb is that pre-Super Bowl retirement or job change rumors usually come true. Vince Lombardi did retire after the game. Bill Parcells did leave the Patriots for the Jets. And of course, Manning's boss John Elway did retire after Super Bowl XXXIII.

I was lucky enough to cover that game for the Herald. As befitted his Hall of Fame career, Elway finished with a fairy tale flourish. He passed for 336 yards, the Broncos won the championship, and Elway got named Super Bowl MVP. A whole bunch of hearts and flowers ledes were written that evening -- mine included.

Fifty weeks later, on January 25, 2000, I was again lucky, covering the final game of another all-time quarterback, one of the three greatest passers of the last quarter of the 20th century. The last time Dan Marino put on a helmet was also the stuff of fantasy fiction -- as written by H. P. Lovecraft. Marino passed for only 91 yards, threw two interceptions and was benched for Damon Huard as his Dolphins lost a divisional playoff game to Jacksonville 62-7. I don't remember what I wrote, but it had to be sad. Even the Jaguars fans were a little sad.

Manning's final game, should this be it, is likely to fall somewhere between the poles established  by Elway and Marino. The betting line says most folks think he'll land closer to Dan than John on the storybook scale, perhaps very close indeed. The Panthers defense made Russell Wilson and Carson Palmer, two quarterbacks who had way better years than Manning, look either ordinary or awful in the playoffs. It's reasonable to assume they can make Peyton look even worse than that.

Having witnessed the ultimate extremes of how great ones bow out has led me to the following conclusion. What happens in Super Bowl 50 will not affect my memories and evaluation of Peyton Manning's career in the slightest. It'll be swell for him if Denver pulls off the upset victory, and depressing for all if he is humiliated as he was in the Super Bowl two years ago, but in the end, it won't matter.

Throughout all history in every sport, for every one historic star who goes out on top, 10,000 stay too long at the fair and end their playing days in failure. It's always sad to see, but here's the thing about greatness. Time passes, and it's the athlete's greatness endures in memory, not his succumbing
to the inevitable weaknesses of the flesh.

I remember Marino's dead swan song, but I doubt others do. If I hadn't seen it, I probably wouldn't. (For that matter, I'll bet most fans think Elway's last game was his first Super Bowl win against Green Bay). Most importantly, it's a memory swept away by others on those occasions I remember Marino at all. I recall the ridiculously quick release, or the fake spike against the Jets, or the resigned and unhappy tones of a succession of Patriots defensive coaches describing how they game planned for the guy.

That's as it should be, too. I remember watching Muhammed Ali fail to land a punch on Larry Holmes, and Willie Mays stumbling around the outfield for the 1973 Mets. I know those things happened. But that's not what I think about, or what anyone thinks about, when considering those two immortals. I mostly think about how blessed I was to see them at their best for as long as I did.

Win, lose or humiliation next Sunday, Peyton Manning will still be a first ballot Hall of Famer, one of the 10 best quarterbacks in pro football history, the pioneer of the all-passing all the time offenses of the 21st century to date. That can't change. Anybody who babbles about his "resume" or "legacy" this week is someone who's missing the point of sports altogether.

I don't need to know the ending of Peyton Manning's story. In my mind, I've already finished it.

Monday, February 01, 2016

And You Think John Farrell Has It Tough

The Manchester City soccer team in England is in second place in the Premier League, the country's major league, only three points (one win) behind the leaders. Manchester City has reached the single elimination phase of the Champions League, Europe's most prestigious tournament. The team is also still contending for the FA Cup, England's second-most prestigious trophy after the Premier League title. All in all, with less than two thirds of the season gone, it's been a good year for City.

This morning, Manchester City announced that manager Manuel Pellegrini would be replaced at the end of the season in May by Pep Guardiola, former manager of Barcelona and current manager of Bayern Munich, both legendary European teams,

I think it is fair to say City's board of directors may watch the rest of the 2015-2016 season with mixed emotions. How will they look if Pellegrini leads the club to a trophy, or two or three?

Of course, their emotions won't be as mixed as his.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Complacency Is a Hobgoblin of Minds Little and Big

Most Patriots commentators, national NFL commentators and many New England fans have spent the past week executing a difficult and curious two-step opinion dance. It's a dance fraught with peril for their peace of mind come autumn of 2016.

Step one is the universal shower of second-guessing that follows a close loss by the home team in any home town in any sport. Since a loss could hardly be closer than what the Pats suffered against the Broncos in the AFC title game, the second-guessing has been proportionally extensive. Questioning and even criticism has been directed at Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, let alone the poor unfortunates of the New England offensive line.

So far, so normal. One week from tomorrow, we'll hear the same sounds emanating from either Charlotte or Denver. What makes the Pats-related hot take adagio unique is the breathtaking leap its chorus line makes from aggrieved complaint to calm assurance. Yeah, the team lost in the semi-finals. Don't worry. They'll be in the Super Bowl next year. It's next door to a cinch.

Airtight logic, this is not. Premise B does not exactly follow all those second guess As. But since football is only sporadically logical, the local belief that the Patriots are favorites for Super Bowl LI (back to Roman numerals next year, gang) is not a complete fallacy, either. It's just true enough to be be dangerous, a house built half on bedrock, half on sand.

Let's start at bedrock. Having been a very good team for the last 15 seasons, it's much more likely than not New England will make it 16 straight. There's no reason to believe Brady won't continue to be among the two or three best quarterbacks in the NFL. The Patriots defense is evolving from quite decent to way better than that. Its performance in the second half against Denver, when they knew damn well giving up a touchdown meant doom, was admirable to the max. Belichick doesn't figure to forget much football in the next seven months.

Pause for a few quibbles. If the 2015 Pats taught us anything, it's that the quarterback cannot sustain an offense by himself no matter how good he is. Brady's irreplaceable receivers Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman may fairly be regarded as injury prone at this point. Dion Lewis's supernatural agility made him just as valuable. Running backs returning from knee surgery tend to be less agile. And the line did allow Brady to suffer more than one beating, although none as thorough as the one in Denver.

But those are quibbles, not red flags. Line the Pats up as is next year, which they won't be, and they're still a double digit winner, tougher schedule (goodbye, Jags, Titans, and the NFC East, hello, Bengals, Steelers and NFC West) and all. Anyone saying New England is AMONG the favorites to be AFC champions next season may stand on 17 with as much confidence as 17 warrants.

It's the next step where the Pats' forecasting dance takes a pratfall, the big leap where we are assured that New England will succeed because it will have no other real rivals in the AFC. The Broncos won't have a quarterback, the Chiefs have Alex Smith, the Steelers always have cap problems, etc., etc. And of course the Pats will win their division with ease because the rest of the AFC East will stink as it always does.

(For the record, New England didn't exactly breeze through its six divisional games in 2015. The Pats went 4-2, both losses coming when a win would've given them number one seed for the playoffs, and only one game, home against the Dolphins, was less than close).

That the Pats will stand far above their AFC rivals is a premise based on 15 facts not in evidence, the 15 other teams in the conference. No one knows, not even they, what kind of teams they'll put on the field next year. Some will be about the same, some will even be worse. But some will be better, count on it, and one or two might be much, much better.

In 2014, the Carolina Panthers won their division with a 7-8-1 record, won a playoff game because the Cardinals had to start Ryan Lindley at quarterback, and were duly eliminated by the Seahawks. It's safe to say they weren't among the Super Bowl favorites last August. They weren't favorites in their division, the Saints and Falcons were.

The Panthers are 17-1. They were the best team in the NFL in the regular season and are strong favorites in Super Bowl 50 -- an opinion as justified by the known facts as any sports prediction can ever be. As it turned out, prognosticators should've paid more attention to Carolina's five straight wins at the end of the 2014 regular season than to the team's overall mediocrity.

No blame should be attached to that miss. All predictions are based on the past because time doesn't work any other way.  However, that's also why predictions should be made with diffidence, not confidence. A prediction about a football season eight months from kickoff should probably not be made at all.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Many Enemies, Much Honor

My daughter Hope is living in Bordeaux, France, and last Sunday she went with some friends, both American and not, to a sports bar to watch the AFC Championship Game (the NFL is a minor interest there, kind of like rugby, which the French adore, is here). She wore the Patriots' stocking cap I bought her for Christmas.

Googlechatting with her mother, Hope said, "I was the only one there rooting for the Patriots, and everybody else even the French hated them. Ask Dad why that is."

All questions from children should be so easy. "Ask Hope how she feels about the Yankees," I responded.

"Nobody boos a bum," Grantland Rice wrote in a poem over 70 years ago. "Haters gone hate" is the 21st century saying, but it expresses roughly the same sentiment. No haters ever have or ever gone hate an 8-8 football team or an 79-83 baseball team. Only success, repeated success, generates enough resentment to create the moronic and demented thinking that leads to sports hatred on the grand scale.

To take a couple of particularly dumb random examples, it is only their status as historic champions that led subsets of golf and NASCAR fans to insist that Phil Mickelson and Jeff Gordon, each a devoted family man with a stunningly beautiful wife, were in fact gay.

Or take a person New England fans have been known to hate -- Peyton Manning. Manning has become an example of how absolutely nothing a sports hatee can do short of rescuing children from forest fires can earn the good opinion of haters. A decade ago, Manning was shattering NFL passing records on a daily basis, but he was a choking dog because of his team's playoff losses. In 2016, the Broncos are in the Super Bowl after two playoff wins, one an upset, but Manning is still a bum because look at his lousy passing stats.

The Patriots make a great hate target. Start with Bill Belichick. He is an almost typecast evil genius. If only James Bond villains wore sweatshirts, Belichick would have his post-coaching career all set. The mumbled wiseass press conferences, the, uh, creative approach to the NFL rulebook, the general air of paranoid secrecy, every element of Belichick's coaching style is designed to drive opposing fans into a frenzy composed of equal parts fury and envy. And that image is starting to affect Belichick, too, at least a little. He is absolutely more of a jackass to reporters than he was in the early 2000s when I covered him. He was soft-spoken then, but he didn't mumble.

Then there's Tom Brady. Brady is a good villain precisely because he is almost a caricature of a fictional football hero. From matinee good looks to supermodel wife to carefully tended "aw shucks" image,  Brady is every resentment every defensive player has ever had about quarterbacks brought to life. In wrestling terms, he is the ultimate babyface. Who among us hasn't cheered at least a little on the inside when a babyface gets hit from behind with a folding chair?

On the Boston Sports Media message board, one fan, a perceptive one, once posted of Brady, "Can you imagine how much we'd hate the guy if he was on some other team?" I cite this fan not just for his honesty, but as a good example for other Pats' fans. To put this as kindly as possible, many of them have become the number one reason other fans hate New England.

Champions may be many things, but never, ever can they display self-pity. The orgy of paranoid self-pity on display among followers of the 2015 Patriots was irksome to neutrals,. and absolutely designed to make rooting against New England a must for fans of 31 other NFL teams. Do you know how unlikable you have to be to have other people be on Roger Goodell's side in a dispute?

Deflategate was an inane waste of time and money over a rules violation so minor as to be unknown prior to the controversy. All it did was prove Goodell's incompetence yet again, which is akin to conducting a billion dollar experiment on the law of gravity. But instead of scoffing from day one, Patriots fans, who it must be admitted were taking a cue from the foolish stonewalling of the franchise itself, reacted as if accused of participation in the Lindbergh kidnapping. Ignoring the many other teams Goodell has fucked over with his arrogant bungling, too many Pats fans saw their heroes as unique victims of a vicious conspiracy. Everybody hates us!

Saying that last sentence over and over is an excellent way of making it come true. Who could blame a Titans fan, should such exist, for noting the latest Lombardi Trophy in the Foxboro case and saying. "Get over yourselves, you jerks!"

Packaging the 2015 Pats' season as the Revenge Tour, which many fans and sadly, media members did was a surefire means of getting every other fan base eager to see New England take a hard, hard fall. During the Pats' 10-0 start one wished for at least one fan to point out that maybe when one is turning the 1972 Dolphins into sentimental favorites, rooting for the home team has taken a dark turn.

Look folks, it is demonstrable fact that the New England Patriots test the outside of the rules envelope as a matter of policy and this has led to broken rules. So what? The NFL has far too many trivial rules of game process, probably to compensate for its inability to protect players from the consequences of the sport's violence. Hitting a defenseless receiver in the head gets a 15-yard penalty, but as we learned last Sunday, so does staying out of bounds on punt coverage. Given this innate absurdity, why get bent out of shape if others call you heroes cheats?

The neurosis of Pats' fans that requires them to believe their home team actually ARE heroes, perfect in perfect in deed and thought, is now also demonstrable fact, a regrettable one. It gets their favorite team a bad rap it doesn't deserve. It makes the game less enjoyable for Pats' fans themselves. Strangest of all, it ignores the sports history of Boston itself.

Down by North Station, the city put up a statue honoring sports' ultimate heel, a genius who made villainy an art form, a man who reveled in the hatred he generated and who got his teams do the same. How many of the green and white banners in the Garden rafters are there because Red Auerbach taught the Celtics that hatred should be a source of pride and that villains have more fun? At least a couple of them, I believe.

So the Patriots are villains. All that really means is that they win a lot. If it wasn't Spygate and Deflategate, the world west of the Connecticut River would have some other reasons to hate them, trust me. Don't be paranoid about that, take it as your due.

Remember this. Nice guys don't always finish last, but for every sentimental favorite who grabs a trophy, 100 heels win big.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Boston Sports Demographics -- An Insight

The suburban liquor store was empty enough at 2:30 p.m. today that the manager was able to chew the fat with a younger guy with a fabulous tan who was clearly a distributor's rep. They were talking sports, and the rep joked he'd be able to score Super Bowl tickets if the Pats won the AFC title game.

Tickets are never a joking matter for long in this town.

"No, really," said the younger man, "for us, getting Celtics tickets is easy. Bruins tickets are hard, real hard."

Not wanting to disappoint a good customer, the rep offered some advice. "You probably ought to talk to one of the beer guys for those," he said.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

First Thoughts on AFC Championship Game

1. It's the old couplet, "Offense gets the glory, defense wins the game."
2. Ever wonder why they have so many big buildings in Las Vegas? Patriots minus three should be a hint as to the answer.