Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Let's All Hold Out!

NFL training camps are very dull. That's not just me talking. Bill Belichick said as much, so it MUST be true. Compared to the Pats' coach's all-encompassing love of football, Tristan took Isolde home as a closing time bar pick-up after a seven margarita night.

For the participants, training camp combines the mental pleasure of preparing one's taxes with the sheer physical joy of laying asphalt in 100-degree heat. Spectators don't have to wear pads, but the thrill of watching punt coverage drills wears thin after, oh, 15 minutes tops. Camp is tedious enough that everyone involved treats the first exhibition game of the season, the most chaotic and meaningless competition in sports, as a treat akin to Christmas morning.

Camp, however, remains way more interesting than training camp holdouts. One of the blessings of involuntary free agency is knowing one won't have to read or, worse yet, write about Deion Branch's contract dispute.

Can't we just cut to the chase? Come Sept. 10 at 1 p.m., the chances are 9,999,999.99 out of 10 million a more-or-less gruntled Branch will be in the Pats' offensive starting lineup for the season's opener against Buffalo. Knowing that, why sweat the details? Why follow the self-serving words of Branch's agent on a daily basis? It's difficult enough to get Belichick to say anything of substance about the players who're IN camp. He's not gonna say squat about a player who isn't and everyone down to the infants in Tom Brady number 12 jumpsuits knows it.

NFL holdouts always remind me of Cleavon Little holding the gun to his own head in "Blazing Saddles." The player suffers a self-inflicted financial wound to convince management he's seriously pissed off about his contract status. Sooner or later, this strategy's limits reveal themselves even to the likes of Terrell Owens, and after a face-saving compromise of some sort, the player returns. If he's bearing a grudge, we all have to wait until he's a free agent to see it.

There are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare, indeed, shockingly so. No one was more surprised and appalled when the Patriots cut Lawyer Milloy than Belichick, the man who did it.

Branch is no rookie, so the amount of camp he misses will have a minimal effect on his play upon returning. He already knows how. Richard Seymour's holdout last season had no impact on his performance. More players than I feel like listing have missed months of regular season games and practices and come back to help their teams win Super Bowls. Why should anyone fret over a player of Branch's ability skipping a few weeks of soul-crushing sweat in August?

Not to date myself, but Boston sports used to have a perennial holdout. John Havlicek never signed a contract until the last possible minute, say before the last exhibition game on the schedule. Red Auerbach was perhaps the meanest and most vindicitive front office guy in a contract dispute that ever lived. But in Hondo's case, he never seemed to mind the holdouts, or even notice them.

Taking a tip from a master, I've seldom noticed a holdout since.


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