Thursday, September 28, 2006

Sad, Weird, Sick, or All of the Above

Terrell Owens wants us to know he's feeling good about life. Suicide attempt? Don't be silly. T.O.'s Tuesday night trip to the emergency room was merely the result of an allergic reaction to 35-40 doses of different healthful medications, the sort of understandable mix-up that's so familiar to all those who, like Owens, have live-in publicists and personal hyberbaric chambers out in the garage.

Hey, maybe Owens' version of events is correct, and the initial Dallas police report citing his medical problem as a suicide attempt was the work of two bored patrolmen with overheated imaginations. Thanks to an unfortunate incident in the station basement a few decades back, the Dallas P.D. has roughly the same amount of credibility with the public as T.O.

Let's hope Owens' version of events is truthful. Otherwise, the unlikeable but truly great NFL player is on borrowed time. Without help from others, those who attempt but fail to commit suicide rarely stop there. Where there's a will there's a way.

According to the Dallas Morning News, Owens has been upset over recent family problems. Emotional misery doesn't check bank balances. IF the Cowboys' star did overreact to a moment of despair, his reaction and that of his bloodsucking entourage says nothing good about the culture of celebrity athletics.

Depression, pain, and fleeting thoughts of self-destruction are part of the human condition and are recognized as such. They take over all too many people, leaving more pain in their wake. Why would it be wrong for a pro football star to admit to sharing a human failing? What's in it for Owens and his handlers to insist he's the same unaware, self-loving jackass he's always been? To put it as cynically as possible, letting the world know he attempted suicide is about the only ploy that might make most Americans less hostile to Owens. Better to be seen as a man in trouble than as one who's nothing but trouble.

Thanks to the combined efforts of Owens, the Cowboys, and the Dallas police, the truth about Owens' medical emergency will never be known-not in time to do any good, anyway. If Owens gave the straight version, then his next public eruption will be a familiar pain in the ass, probably an attempt to strangle Drew Bledsoe on the sidelines one Sunday in the near future.

If not, then T.O.'s next ride to the hospital may be shared with the county coroner.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Broncos 17-Patriots 7

Train of Thought No. 1: The average NFL team scores roughly 20 points a game. If the New England defense continues to allow only 17 points a game, the Patriots will win more games than they lose, especially since they have the only house with running water in the football favela of the AFC East.

Train of Thought No. 2: Paging Ron Jaworski! Football is indeed a game of matchups. The evidence continues to mount that the strengths and weaknesses of the pretty good Broncos mesh perfectly with the gears needed to defeat the pretty good Patriots.

Train of Thought No. 3: Thoughts 1 and 2 are irrelevant. Something's wrong with Tom Brady's game. Seriously wrong.

That's not long-distance psychoanalysis of the John Madden variety. With its love of facial closeups, TV both overpersonalizes and overemotionalizes team sports events. NBC's montage of Brady's frustrated grimaces could've been duplicated by zeroing in on any QB in the process of getting shut out.

No, the issue here is Brady's PERFORMANCE. Things the Pats' quarterback ordinarilly does superbly were things he did poorly indeed against the Broncos.

Brady is the best quarterback I've ever seen at getting his offense out from under poor field position. Backed up against the Pats' goal line, he almost always gets the initial escape first down at a minimum, and usually gets much more than that, up to and including touchdowns.

Not last night. Brady led three Pats "drives" that ended at the New England 15, 24, and 8-yard lines, respectively, one big reason the whole game felt like one endless Patriots' return of serve.

Brady is a first down machine. He's a master at turning second and long into third and short and subsequently moving the chains. Against the Broncos, seven of the Pats' 12 possessions generated one or fewer first downs, including three three-and-outs.

The gift from which all of Brady's good qualities flow is his accuracy as a passer. Greg Maddux has nothing on him when it comes to putting the ball where it does the most good. Ominously, that's the very attribute Brady didn't have against Denver. Has he ever thrown so many wild pitches? Balls thrown low hit the dirt. Balls thrown high sailed in the general direction of the Gatorade containers on the bench. His attempts to go deep were no-hopers one and all.

Is Brady out of synch with his new receivers, as will be assumption A around here this week. How the hell would I know? Knute Rockne couldn't watch a game on TV and make an informed judgment on whether or not Brady was wild because his receivers were covered or was just wild period.

What I do know is that the Broncos made the conscious decision stuffing the Pats' running game would be priority A for their defense. They dared Brady to beat them, which most of the time is like sticking out one's chin and daring a youngThomas Hearns to take his best shot, and the dare paid off big-time.

Maybe match-ups explain what happened to Brady. Maybe they don't.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Europe 18 1/2 - US 9 1/2

After our biennial beating in the Ryder Cup, it's time for the equally traditional fit of navel-gazing on the state of American golf. This exercise more pointless now than ever before. The US pros aren't unfit for team play, or too selfish, or unmotivated. Don't bother second-guessing Tom Lehman, the latest in a line of unhappy US captains. In short American golf community, get over yourself. This rout wasn't about you.

Europe won for the reason teams usually win sports events. They were better. And if they played next weekend, they'd still be better. Way better.

As one who covered the last US Ryder Cup victory in 1999, the truth seems obvious. The balance of power has shifted. The European squad possessed way more championship golf talent from players 1 through 12 than the American squad, just as it did in 2002 and 2004. The US has stars, but no bench. In an event of 28 matches where no man can play more than five times, that's a tough way to win.

In the ferociously close Ryder Cups of the '90s, the European team depended on a handful of stars (Colin Montgomerie, Nick Faldo, Bernhard, Seve Ballesteros) to build up an early lead in the first two days of pairs play and to win enough points in singles to thwart the inevitable rally when the deeper US team went one-on-one with the lesser lights, players 7-12, of the European lineup. In '99, this approach blew up on the Euros when the Americans came out and massacred poor sods like Jean Van de Velde who had no business in the event, then used momentum and an alcohol-fueled crowd frenzy to a stirring victory.

In the last three European wins, THEY'VE won the majority of singles matches, in the last two, they've won 8 of the 12. No morale deficiency explains away losing 2 out of every 3 one-on-one confrontations. That's a talent beating pure and simple.

Let's put it this way. American rookies Vaughn Taylor, J.J. Henry, Brett Wetterich, and Zach Johnson are fine players one and all. Golf gamblers, have any of you ever picked one of those four in a majors pool or Calcutta auction? Me neither. By contrast, the upper middle level of the Euro team, guys like David Howell, Luke Donald, and Paul Casey, are decent bets to be in the Top 10 in majors for the foreseeable future. Two-time Masters champ Jose Maria Olazabal was almost a forgotten man on the Euro team in '06. That's impressive depth.

So is this. The Americans were a combined 18-under par in singles, and eight of them were under or at even par. That's not half-bad. The Europeans were a combined 35-under par. ALL OF THEM were under par for the day. They were impossible to catch, let alone beat.

The US comeback in 1999 began in earnest when Sergio Garcia lost his singles match. Garcia was never in his match this morning, either, and the Europeans barely noticed. Padraig Harrington, one of their "name" players, went winless in five matches, and his failure meant nothing.

The US had the top three players in the world, Tiger Woods, Jim Furyk, and Phil Mickelson. Poor Lefty, who may NEVER recover from the 18th at Winged Foot, went 0-4-1, and the Americans were essentially toast. For that matter, Woods was 3-2, and Furyk 2-3, and those records weren't good enough either. Since Woods and Furyk were pairs partners, all three of the American stars would've had to win 4 of their 5 matches for the US to have prevailed at the K-Club. That's an unfair burden in a format as chancy as match play.

I'll leave the "what should we do" navel-gazing to the cheerleading sycophants in the American golf commentariat. There's no quick fix against superior talent. Maybe the US should make Woods playing captain in 2008. Tiger's solved every other golf problem he's encountered. Let's see how he does with this toughie.

Political Analysis of the Year

Last Friday night, CBS-TV4 in Boston released a poll on the Massachusetts governor's race showing Democratic nominee Deval Patrick with a 64-25 lead over Republican Lt. Governor Kerry Healey. Discussing the poll, anchor Jack Williams gave a unique insight into the special nature of the state's electorate.

"Patrick leads among all key groups," Williams declared, "including men, women, and independents."

Friday, September 22, 2006

A Good Show Spoiled

Memo to NBC Sports: The difference between a major sports event shown on tape delay and live TV is the difference between watched porn and actual sexual intercourse.

NBC Sports is the king of tape delay. Since it holds the rights to the Ryder Cup, today's matches (on USA) and tomorrow's at the K-Club in Ireland are not being shown in real time to the American audience. Irish time is five hours ahead of Eastern time, so the event is being shown with a delay of approximately that time.

As this is being written, it's 9:30 a.m. Eastern, and USA is showing the front nine of the morning fourball matches. This devout golf fan isn't watching, he's writing this screed instead. It's somehow reassuring to see newspapers aren't the only media unable to cope with the Internet.

A few clicks of the mouse, and I know how all the morning matches came out. I've read detailed summaries of each one. As far as information goes, there's no need for me to watch the broadcast whatsoever. If I need pretty pictures of Ireland, I have my scrapbooks in my house.

All true sports fans hate tape delay. The attempt to hide from real time news spoilers is both stupid and futile, and in the personal computer age, nobody's doing it. Golf fans would rather spend the time seeking a streaming webcast from a European TV network. We like Bob Murphy and all, but his comments aren't worth that wait.

NBC Sports is king of the tape delayed format, one big reason the network has taken a considerable ratings plunge in several Olympic broadcasts. The rationale for its devotion is as simple as it is greedy. The proper time to show sports is whenever its advertisers are able to see it, and the people who buy TV spots mostly live on the East Coast.

The idea that tape delay builds ratings is a fib told to said advertisers. Ratings are likely not too high right now in California, our nation's most populous state. Anyhow, it's Friday, and wherever they live, most adult males (the overwhelming majority of golf fans) are at work or getting ready to get there.

The other rationale NBC will give is the delay will allow fans to see all the matchea, whereas a live show would end at around 1 or 2 p.m. This is true as far as it goes. What the network really means is that an entire day of tape delay equals more commercial spots than five hours of real time.

Tape delay does actual harm to our nation's standing abroad. It's done nowhere but here. The rest of the world's sports fans are proud of tuning in to big games and events at ungodly hours of their time zones. To them, delay is evidence the US is a country full of wusses.

Being a light the candle, not curse the darkness guy, I have a suggestion for NBC-USA. The afternoon matches will likely all go off before 10 a.m. Eastern. Why not reverse the order and show them live, THEN fill the second half of trhe broadcast with the tape delay of the morning matches. Don't worry about spoiling continuity or suspense. The Net has already done that for you.

This would serve both the audience and NBC's revenue needs. Since it's sensible and this is TV, it'll never happen. Meanwhile, this potential Ryder Cup viewer is back to the web.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Radio Wager

There's 20 bucks at this address that says it's even money someone at Entercom radio in Boston, either WRKO or WEEI, says something about the Massachusetts governor's race that gets the station picketed.

Give me three to one, and I put up the same money that one "personality" makes a comment that gets him suspended.

The world is full of slaves who dream not of freedom, but of one day owning their own slaves. Talk radio is for them.

A Bronx Zoo for the 21st Century

The Yankees would a lock to win the World Series if only Alex Rodriguez had told Jason Giambi to go fuck himself, on the record in the pages of this week's Sports Illustrated.

A first-ballot Hall of Famer in a slump doesn't have to listen to a harangue from a kind-of-confessed steroid user who hasn't had a home run in a month (last Giambi tater, Aug. 20) himself. Giambi told A-Rod the latter had no right to try and end his slumps with bloop hits because that negated the value of all the walks Giambi was working to draw in lieu of his own extra-base hits. As a class, ballplayers aren't into irony, but the hypocrisy of Giambi's complaint had to echo in the New York clubhouse.

Unfortunately for Yankee fans, Rodriguez did no such thing. Nor did he tell off said fans, which would've been the next best development for New York's post-season hopes. As Tom Verducci's illuminating article made clear, A-Rod is far too sensitive to the opinions of others for his own good. He's that not uncommon character in American life, the insecure superstar.

Rodriguez wants people to like him and works hard at it. Too hard. Through no fault of his own, it's an uphill struggle. As the highest paid player in baseball who draws that paycheck from the Yankees, 95 percent of Americans are going to dislike A-Rod on principle, and some of those folks share a clubhouse with him.

Rodriguez is smart enough to know this. It's a peculiarity of the New York team that many of its players are perceptive people. He just can't help himself. He's committed to a quest for superstar perfection in all aspects of life, a quest that's making his life truly unpleasant.

As the world knows, Rodriguez is enduring the worst season of his career. We should point out this involves his offensive production slipping from "one of the ten best players ever" plateau to the "borderline Hall of Fame" level. He's still fifth in the American League in RBI, and had his ninth straight season with at least 30 homers and 100 RBI. There's no denying, however, that A-Rod has battled at least two wicked slumps at the plate, and one bizarre throwing slump afield.

The slump is one of baseball's enduring mysteries, and like the common cold, there's no known cure but time. Time is the one thing the Yankees aren't allowed to have. George Steinbrenner's mindset has become the franchise's mindset and the fan's mindset. Every game is the seventh game of the World Series. This imperative is perfect for making a star's slump longer and deeper than need be.

Before A-Rod was born, Bill Veeck wrote that the best treatment for a slumping player was two pieces of cotton, one for each ear. Were I a Yankee, I'd have taped that sentence to A-Rod's locker. Instead, the New York organization made the bizarre decision to light a fire under Rodriguez by making their frustrations with his struggles public. Verducci is an outstanding reporter, but his sources' co-operation had to be green-lighted at the tippy-top levels of the Yankee power structure.

That's how to relax a guy desperate for approval who can't understand why the world's against him. Tell him, it's not juust the world, it's us, too. Oh, yeah, that'll loosen A-Rod up at the plate.

Rodriguez will never win the universal public approval he seeks. The last Yankee who got that was Joe DiMaggio. Nor will he become an accepted part of a clubhouse band of brothers. The Yanks are anything but that. One day hanging around that team reveals that while the players have the utmost respect for each other, good buddies they're not. Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui get along with everyone, and that's about it. Leaders Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are inner-directed chaps. A-Rod should follow their example. Why would anyone WANT to be Mike Mussina's friend in the first place?

There is literally nothing Rodriguez can do to earn the approval he craves. He can hit 8 homers in the playoffs and lead the Yanks to the title, and the general reaction will be "what took him so long? It's the slugger's eternal burden.

When in doubt, give up. A-Rod's idol is Michael Jordan. Didn't he see what happened when Mike tried baseball himself? Rodriguez needs a new role model, one who embodies the best approach to his dilemma.

The ideal sports psychologist for Alex Rodriguez would be Manny Ramirez.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

There Ain't No Sanity Clause. No Morality Clause, Either

Many neutral observers are mounting their high horses about college football's latest "scandal," the revelation that an agent made significant payments to the family of Reggie Bush, 2005 Heisman Trophy winner, when the Saints rookie was at USC. Mounted on the tallest steed in the corral, the New York Times, coiumnist Selena Roberts used her space in today's paper to link Bush to former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett.

Roberts is a fine writer, but she's swum way too deeply into the murky depths of "sports as a mirror of society" pool. Clarett just pled guilty to aggravated robbery charges and will spend at least the next three and a half years in prison. Bush stands accused of violating NCAA rules and will spend at least the next three and a half years playing for the New Orleans Saints. Pardon me if I fail to see a connection there.

The NCAA has many rules for student athletes, all of which are constantly being violated by most people in the college football and basketball businesses. This is not news, and shouldn't be news. The Times has run excellent investigative pieces into some of these violations which result in no changes whatsoever. The alleged victims, the institutions of higher learning involved, don't care. Many times, they're the perps as well as the marks.

Nobody should care about the charges against Reggie Bush. All he's accused of is violating the NCAA's salary cap.

That is all the "illegal" payments to college athletes amount to. They are limited to scholarship, room. and board to maintain football and basketball's profitability and to prevent bidding wars for players like Bush. Hurting some racket's cost containment strategy doesn't pose a menace to society.

A scholarship athlete is already paid. At a school like USC, they get services equal to perhaps $40,000 per annum, a fine entry level salary for people their age, plus whatever future earning power the athlete gets from the college experience.

In Bush's case, said earning power was large indeed. So if an agent made payments to Bush's family in return for a promise of becoming Bush's business partner, that's an understandable free market transaction.

AND THAT"S ALL IT IS! There is no harm to society, USC, or anyone else here except an NCAA rule that's a manifest violation of justice and common sense. If some USC undergrad was a whiz at gene-splitting, and Merck put him on the payroll while the kid was still enrolled in school, nobody would say boo. That's their business. If Steve Spielberg gives a promising film student $10 K a week to follow the master around, Hollywood doesn't go ape. Why should sports be different?

It bothers me when college athletes are involved in actual crimes due to their sense of entitlement, because that hurts people. It bothers me somewhat less when college jocks are allowed to shirk their academic responsibilities. That's cheating them of future earning power, but they're doing it to themselves, so whaddaya gonna do?

It bothers me not at all whether college athletes get paid under the table and how much they get if they are. That's just business. They're in a business. Their compensation level is nobody else's business.

Two Political Journalism (TV DIvision) Complaints

The Massachusetts Democratic gubernational primary yesterday was won by Deval Patrick by a far wider margin than anticipated. Among other things, Patrick was the candidate who spent by far the LEAST money on TV ads, because he had the least to spend.

One would think this might lead at least one reporter to conclude TV ads are not the be-all and end-all of political success. None did. Instead, they all jumped to a prediction, in some cases a gleeful one, that Patrick would now face a REAL challenge from Republican candidate Kerry Healey. Why? Healey had unlimited funds to spend on negative TV ads, and would start spending it right away.

Not one commentator countered by noting Patrick had triumphed in the most expensive primary in state history against two opponents who much more than he. Of course, had any talking head made that point, they'd be back covering firemen rescuing kittens in trees in Lunenberg for the 5 o' clock news.

Political advertising is a biennial windfall for TV stations, which are suffering at the bottom line like all other big media. Their stake in inflating the importance of such ads is obvious, and a blatant conflict of interest and if their business had ethics, would be a grievious violation of same.

And another thing. In the interests of suffering humanity, could there be a nationwide moratorium on panels with partisan ex-pols and spin doctors on election night? These bores do nothing but repeat boilerplate talking points in ways that make it clear why they became ex-pols in the first place. They're all the electoral equivalent of Sean Salisbury.

Grow a spine, TV. Ask your reporters what THEY think. Assuming they can.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

No Sportswriter Left Behind

My former Herald colleague Michael Felger is a superior football reporter. Alas, he has not fulfilled one of my dearest hopes. Instead of ashcanning the "Patriots Report Card" when Kevin Mannix retired, Felger made the nosious feature his own.

Newspapers love report cards in sports. They take up space on slow news days (and the day after a game is usually slow except for medical reports). They lend themselves to snappy design. Most of all, report cards are easy for any fan, hell, anyone who can read, to grasp.

Writers like report cards, too, especially a busy workaholic multi-media chap like Michael. They're easy to do, and even easier to steer towards generating increased and indignant reader feedback, which all papers adore more than anything except money.

There's only one thing wrong with report cards, which have spread their inane tentacles into other sports besides football in the past few years. They're such an oversimplification of reality as to be an active distortion of same. Instead of information, the format provides the reader with a hot, fresh pile of hippopotamus dung

The Herald's Patriots' report card is typical of the genre. The home team's performance is broken into sections, then graded. Quarterback, running back, offensive line, defensive line, etc. As a general rule, grades are too high when the team wins and too low when it loses, but since that's the way football teams tend to grade themselves, that's a relatively minor quibble. The real problem is that breaking the team's effort into neat sections gives a false idea of how football is actually played.

If there's one thing yours truly learned from five years of listening to Bill Belichick (aside from an infinite number of ways to brush off unwelcome questions), it's what I call the unified string theory of football. Simply put, every player's performance affects the performance of every other player. It's all tied in together, and pulling it apart for the sake of a glib explanation is futile.

Case in point. Tom Brady has not played up to his high standards in the first two games of this season. Is that because Brady has yet to synchronize with a new set of wide receivers, a popular local theory? Or is it due to the homelier fact that's Brady's been clobbered and knocked loose from the football in two consecutive games, the experience most likely to negatively affect a passer's performance? Should the wideouts get a bad grade, or the blockers, or Brady himself?

Nobody knows the answer. Not you, not me, not Belichick, not Brady. That's why teams spend all that time practicing and watching video. And when the Pats make their conclusion on this issue, their answer certainly will be "all of the above."

When Belichick goes into cliche, he's often making the most sincere effort possible to express his deep-set ideas about the sport he loves. Last Sunday, he went back to one of his favorite coma-inducing coachspeak phrases, speaking of both the good and bad things he saw his team do "in all areas of the game." The Pats' coach ALWAYS mentions every area of his team's performance because he's convinced that only by making all of them better will any specific area be able to improve. He's right, too.

Until a way is found to express Belichick's idea in a letter grade, the report card should be banished in the interests of better journalism. It won't be, of course. You tell America's sports editors to dispose of such a handy if bogus tool. Their lives are tough enough as is.

There are only two grades in a football game, pass or fail. The Pats passed last Sunday. That they did so without honors is irrelevant.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Patriots 24-Jets 17

When a professional football team runs the ball for almost three times as many yards as does its opponent, it will almost always win the game no matter what else happens.

"Almost" was used as a modifier in the preceding sentence to cover happenings such as Tom Brady getting killed, which seems to be a secondary feature of New England's offense so far this season.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Say It Ain't So, John. You Too, Hil

Attempts to fix elections are as old as American democracy itself. Up until now, however, the fixers always cheated in an attempt to WIN.

Times change. Based on the available evidence, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) are doing their darndest to make sure their parties LOSE the upcoming congressional elections. If they're not actually dumping, the two solons are at least shaving points.

This unconventional strategy may or may not be in the best interests of the nation, but it certainly serves the two senators' personal ambitions. McCain and Clinton would both like to be the next president, and their chances would be much enhanced if the other party controlled Congress for the next two years.

We start here with a caveat. Both McCain and Clinton would tell you they're sincerely acting in the best interests of the nation, and they're not lying. No one reaches their prominent place on the national stage without the ability to weave the ideas of personal and public good into a seamless web.

As usual, McCain, who must sleep in TV makeup, is attracting the most attention of the two. He is leading the faction of Republican dissidents who oppose President's Bush's plan to, why sugarcoat it, legalize torture. The administration's hope was that Democrats would be forced to take a stand in favor of the Geneva Convention and human rights, thus dooming them in November.

Leaving aside the moral implications of torture as a political winner, McCain and his fellow rebels have shattered the practical effects of Bush's manuver. The senator has created a high-profile intramural fight in his party on the eve of an election where the GOPs prospects are not as bright as they could be. This has a devastating internal effect on an organization built on heirarchical, not to mention authoritarian, principlesa.

And if one hopes for a McCain administration in 2009, that's all good. As everyone knows, the biggest hurdle on stout conservative McCain's route to the White House is the distrust and dislike he inspires among the ultra-conservative Republicans who dominate the party's structure.

On the surface, disloyalty to Bush wouldn't seem the best way for McCain to overcome that handicap. Ah, but here's a case where it's far better to be hung for a sheep than a lamb. Having controlled both the White House and Congress for the past six years, the ultra-conservatives would be frantic with fear should the Democrats take the latter this fall. They'd be looking for a winner in 2008, and loyalty oaths be damned.

Ms. Clintons's point-shaving is more subtle. It's a sin of omission, and hence, almost impossible to trace to her. As such, it befits her career as the most low-profile, high-profile national politician of modern times.

Clinton is running for re-election against some unknown Republican she'll smash to smithereens on Election Day. She has also accumulated a campaign treasury of over $20 million. She's on point for what's projected to be a Democratic landslide in the Empire State.

At the same time, as many as five New York Republicans in the House of Representatives are potentially vulnerable to Democratic challengers this year. Or so it was thought. To date, these challengers have run smack into the formidable advantages of any non-indicted incumbent. If some of them can't win, the Dems' chances of re-taking the House shrink and possibly vanish.

Boy, those candidates could sure use the help of a popular, well-funded Democrat this fall. Any help they've received from Sen. Clinton has passed under the radar screen of Hillary-obsessed national political reporters. We're left to conclude her assistance has been minimal.

How come? Well, for a member of the opposition party running for president, being totally shut out of power has many advantages. With no power comes no responsibility. The most absurd blue-sky campaign promises can be made without fear of their being tested in the arena. Were the Democrats to control even one branch of Congress, Clinton would be forced to present her agenda for debate, something she's avoided like Monica jokes so far. And on the meanest personal level, a Democratic congress would create new party leaders, new voices, and new stars, all potential rivals in '08.

McCain and Clinton share the most pressing motive for wanting the other side to win this fall. It would help them cope with the consequences of national catastrophe.

Thanks to Bush, the Republican party's stance on national security has boiled down to a sentence. We must continue the unpopular war in Iraq or Arab terrorists will blow up Mr. and Ms. American Citizen while they sleep. It's not a bad stance, politically speaking. Feat and its handmaiden hate always sell.

However, the Bush policy is a captive to events-bad events. Should there be another terror attack inside the United States (most unlikely) or a complete political collapse in Iraq requiring American withdrawal (rather more likely), the Republicans themselves would face collapse.

In those unhappy circumstances, a potential Republican president had better have been a rebel. A potential Democratic candidate could only benefit from representing a powerless minority. If Clinton's party wins in November, she'll HAVE to propose some plan for Iraq, like it or not. Since all options suck, and truth-telling loses elections, it's better to be able to shirk that duty.

So much for trashing two people who are among the more tolerable of our nation's leaders. I'm mean and I admit it. I just can't help looking forward to election night, when both McCain and Clinton will receive mucho network face time. Whichever party wins, I predict one solon's joy and the other's sorrow will be stoicism personified.

Friday, September 15, 2006

A Recommendation

On-line or by hard copy, go straight to the New York Times and read the NEWS story on the relationship of Long Island high school football rivals Cold Spring Harbor and Roosevelt.

Without including any spoilers, I'll just make the following comment on the piece. No one who covers sports for a living escapes the question of whether or not they're wasting their time on insignificant nonsense. If you don't ask it of yourself, other people sure will.

The Times' story is a splendid answer to that pesky inquiry. Sports is a satisfying and worthwhile field to cover because every so often, you run into a stories like this.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


Derek Jeter is going to be the American League's Most Valuable Player for 2006. That's fine by me. The Yankee shortstop is as good a choice as any and better than almost all the rest.

The baseball community, especially including the writers who include the actual voters for the award, are almost unanimous in their opinion Jeter deserves the award. This morning's Globe had a typically forthright column by Bob Ryan saying just that in this morning's Globe.

(One thing about Bob. He's not what politicans call a "leaning voter." It'd be great to hear Ryan get polled by a telephone sampler on any topic under the sun.)

About the only person inside baseball who hasn't gotten with the Jeter program is Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz. The league leader in home runs and RBIs is caught in a time warp. Ortiz doubtless can't help remembering that less than one month ago, the baseball community was just as near-unanimous in its opinion HE'D be elected MVP in a landslide.

What's changed in that time? As far as Jeter's and Ortiz's individual performances go, nothing. Each was having an unbelievable season back in mid-August. Each still is. Both their teams could not afford to lose their services. When Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield, 250 RBI's worth of production, were lost with injuries, Jeter responded with the best season of his Hall of Fame career. As far as can be determined, Ortiz has hit more late-inning game-tying or winning homers as any slugger ever. He's got an excellent chance to set the all-time Red Sox record for home runs in a season, and he plays for a team that's put some pretty fair hitters in its lineups over the years.

In short, Jeter and Ortiz BOTH have impeccable MVP credentials. In my favorite offensive stat, runs produced (runs+RBI-HR), the score stands Jeter 183-Ortiz 182, and it's been that close all year. Why were Ortiz's deemed so much stronger four weeks ago? Why has Jeter put him in the shade?

The answer is simple, maddening, and most of all, has nothing to do with either man. In August, the Yanks and Sox were locked in a tight race for the AL East pennant. Since then, New York has kept on winning, while Boston has imploded its way out of the playoff hunt. Ortiz is being punished for the sins of his teammates. If only he could've pitched some middle relief last month, Papi would still be consensus MVP.

The Sox' season died when they swept by the Yankees in a five game series Aug. 18-21. Ortiz went wild that weekend, culminating his sports fiction-for-boys performance by climbing out of a hospital bed after treatment for heart palpitations and slamming two homers in a game. No individual could've done more to be of value to his team.

Ortiz's heroics were useless. Boston pitchers surrendered 49 runs in the five games, 47 of them in the first four. No hitter real or imagined, not Ty Cobb on human growth hormone nor Babe Ruth with an aluminum bat, can save his team when it gives up 10 runs a game.

Riddled with the injuries inherent to old position players and pitchers of all ages, the Sox have continued to stagger. Ortiz, after a week off to treat his condition, has continued to hit. For all the good that did him in the MVP race, he might as well have shut his season down on August 22.

As noted, Jeter will be a deserving MVP. But we shouldn't ignore the bogus reasoning cited for that decision. Ortiz's clutch heroics staved off an inevitable Sox collapse for months. There is NO reason why failure to prevent the destined makes a player less valuable than a player whose TEAMMATES rallied to support HIS valuable performance.

Next to love, value is the most subjective concept in human life. Gold, a soft, shiny, and essentially useless metal, has been the definition of value throughout history. In sports, the Seahawks thought Deion Branch was at least twice as valuable as did the Patriots, and we won't know which assessment was correct for a long time.

Recognizing this, the custodians of the MVP award, the Baseball Writers' Association, has issued the loosest of guidelines to the voters (two beat writers, different each year, from each league city). "Valuable" means whatever a voter thinks it does. As a result, the standards for the winner vary wildly from season to season. There's really no way to change that phenomenon. Expecting sportswriters to define a word that's baffled economists and philosophers for centuries is a bit much.

I have two exceptions to that permissive attitude. The idea that an individual's value to a team is displayed by that team's position in the standings is utterly bogus. It's also not-kosher to cite reasons for a vote that contradict one's past standards, or that are meant to hide the voter's true motive.

Guys from last place teams have been voted MVP. So it's not an iron-clad rule the winner must come from a team that makes the post-season. With baseball's expansion to six different divisions and the wild-card format, there are both more cellar-dwellers and pennant winners than ever, so there should more exceptions to that tired formula.

Consider the National League MVP race, which has boiled down to three leading candidates, Ryan Howard of the Phillies, Carlos Beltran of the Mets, and Albert Pujols of the Cardinals. All three have enjoyed top-shelf super-MVP quality seasons. In a head-scratcher of cosmic proportions, Beltran is considered the long-shot of the trio because his team has won TOO MUCH. Ergo, he can't be so valuable as the best guy on a contender with a lesser record. Huh?

Without Pujols, the Cards would be sunk. Without Howard, the Phillies might've vanished altogether. Many commentators, who will be echoed by some voters, say the decision will come down to this: the Cards are bound to finish first in the NL Central. If the Phillies can't win the wild card, then Pujols, not Howard, should be MVP.

The NL wild card race is a scramble among four or five essentially .500 teams. That's the living definition of a random variable. If the Phillies and Cards were to trade places, Philadelphia would lead the Central, too. By the logic of Pujols' boosters, he's more valuable because his team plays in a lousier division. That's a double "Huh?".

Moving back to the American League, the real reason Jeter will win the MVP in a landslide isn't his team's success. That's an excuse. The truth is the electorate has decided, "Hey, it's his turn."
They do that. Alex Rodriguez had a better year for the last place Rangers in 2002 than in 2003, but he won his first MVP in the latter year because the voters felt they couldn't keep screwing him because of Texas' pitching forever.

Jeter is a surefire first ballot Hall of Famer for a perennial winner who's enjoying the finest season of his career. He OUGHT to be an MVP sooner or later, and if not now, when? That very same sentiment, by the way, made Ortiz the MVP favorite back in the summer. The world knew the vote last season between runner-up Big Papi and winner Rodriguez could've gone either way with equal justice.

"It's his turn" is not an idea one can express in statistics, nor is it a particularly judicious motive for ANY decision. It's a lot easier to point to the standings as why Jeter was more valuable than Ortiz. It's a lot more specious, too.

Oh, well. The truth is, some poor bastard gers screwed in the MVP voting almost every year, jbecause there are usually more than one obvious candidate who carried his club on his back with a career year. In 1999, known in these parts as the year George King screwed Pedro, Manny Ramirez had 165 RBI for the AL Central champion Indians. He finished FOURTH in the MVP vote.

Discussing the MVP award, one of the five greatest players on history once told me to look up the best year he ever had. So I did.

In 1963, Hank Aaron played 161 games, had a .319 batting average and 201 hits. He led the National League in homers (44), RBI (130), runs scored (121), and slugging percentage (.586). With an OBP of .393, Aaron's OPS was a manly .979. Oh, yeah, he also stole 31 bases.

Aaron was not, however, voted the MVP. That award went to some bum southpaw named Koufax.

David Ortiz is a friendly, so I hope he won't mind some friendly advice. Never sweat an award voted on by outsiders. Keep on slugging, and sooner or later, it'll be your turn as MVP.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Pack an Umbrella, Deion

Deion Branch got what he wanted today. The Seahawks got what they wanted, too.

The New England Patriots may have gotten their heart's desire from the trade that sent Branch westward. Since the Pats received Seattle's first round pick in the 2007 draft for Branch, they'll have to wait and see if that's the case.

Assessing "winners" and "losers" in a player transaction is a specious proceeding more often than not. But if one must play that silly game, the side described in the future conditional tense is never the winner.

Branch has the big contract for which he held out, and has been traded to a team whose Super Bowl prospects are as bright as New England's. The Seahawks have a quality wide receiver they needed at a price they consider a bargain. The future is never more now than it is for the franchise that lost the last Super Bowl.

The Pats? Well, a first round pick, even a late first round pick, is a valuable asset. However, it's an asset that won't issue dividends this season. Any talented player, which Branch certainly is, is difficult to replace. As a group, wide receivers are the least difficult type of talent to replace, IF one has a quality quarterback, which of course New England does. But "least difficult" doesn't equal "won't miss the guy." The Pats will assuredly miss Branch. The question is, how much?

Sorry, this trade actually comes with TWO questions for the Pats. It's easy to see why Branch held out and why the Seahawks were willing to pay his and New England's price for his services. For the life of me, I can't guess why the Patriots let this contract squabble come to this extreme and unfortunate resolution. New England had the cap room to accomodate Branch, but not the will. It's a puzzle Reche Caldwell hasn't yet helped me solve.

Astounding True Fact

In their opening game of the season, the New York Giants rushed 28 times for 286 yards, an average of over 10 yards a carry! They lost anyway, defeated 26-21 by the Indianapolis Colts.

Let's put that figure in context. Ten and 2/10ths yards a carry is almost double Jim Brown's career mark of 5.2. Running the football dominates the game's time and space to such an extent teams which gain 150 or more yards on the ground win over 80 percent of the time. Giants aside, such squads were 4-1 yesterday. New York ran for almost twice that many yards.

Because teams run more with a lead, simply rushing for more yards than the enemy is usually a token of victory. Excluding New York, clubs that did went 10-3 in Week One (there are two more games tonight).

The Colts ran for 55 yards. The 231 yard differential in the two teams' rushing yardage is more than all of the total yards gained running by all but one of the other teams in the league. The Giants ran for at least twice as many yards as all but two other teams.

By the reckoning of every coach since Walter Camp, the Giants should've won last night by something like a 31-10 score. But they lost. Their football took hysterical bounces.

Yours truly, no longer a full-time newspaper employee, can no longer get the Elias Bureau to return his calls. But I'll bet Steve Hirdt and everyone else in their office today a beer that what happened in the Meadowlands last night never, ever happened before in the history of the National Football League.


One former reporter's most vivid memory of Sept. 11, 2001 took place on Sept. 12.

The actual day remains somewhat blurred. It was "everybody report in" at the Herald, of course. Wrote a column of which I don't remember a word. Spent hours and hours on the phone trying to confirm a tip that former Bruin Ace Bailey had been on one of the planes that struck the World Trade Center. He was. I was better off than colleagues Rich Thompson and Steve Conroy, who spent their day talking to dead people, or rather, listening to the victim's answering machine messages.

At Foxboro Stadium the next day, the Patriots, not knowing what to do any more than anyone else, attempted to hold their normal media session for a Wednesday. Coach Bill Belichick and then-quarterback Drew Bledsoe couldn't think of much to say and who could blame 'em. Then came guard Jow Andruzzi.

As the NFL later made much of, Andruzzi came from a New York Citu family where practically every one of his male relatives, dad, uncles, brothers, etc, was either a cop or a firefighter. A number of them answered the call to the WTC the day before. Thankfully, all had survived.

Many of their fellow cops and firefighters didn't, and those included many folks who'd been Andruzzi's friends and neighbors, men he'd known his entire life. Andruzzi was a study in psychic overload, burdened with relief, grief, guilt, and rage to such an extent it was apparent he wasn't going to be playing ball next Sunday no matter what the NFL decided.

That's not the memory. At the end of a wrenching 15 minutes, Andruzzi tried to sum up his feelings for the reporters present.

"Don't worry guys," Andruzzi said, "we're going to get through this."

This was the first, last, and doubtless only time I heard a professional athlete use the word "we" to include the sports media. You'd have to belong to either group to fully understand just what a leap of consciousness Andruzzi made in that one sentence. It was one of the most moving moments of my life, and pride in my fellow citizens, all of them, was what moved me the most..

Wish to hell it had never happened.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Break Point for the Fox Doubleheader Game

Roger Federer has been whaling the tar out of John McEnroe at the US Open the past two weeks. The world's top-rated tennis player is an odds-on favorite to do so again in today's men's final.

McEnroe isn't playing, of course, he's a CBS/USA commentator up in the broadcast booth. Oddly enoughl, that's why Federer has thrashed him more soundly than any of his six on-court opponents.

Tennis can be one of the most dramatic spectator sports ever invented, but when Federer plays it, not so much. He's too good. When the rest of the world's best players, say numbers 2 through 10, are on their very top form, they can give him a game. When not, Federer rips through them in a 6-0 or 6-1 set in about 15 minutes.

This poses a serious marketing problem for broadcasters. Tennis fans are the opposite of golf fans. In that game, when Tiger Woods (the athlete to whom Federer is most often compared) dominates a tournament, ratings soar. In tennis, it's the reverse. Oh, the fans admire Federer as a worthy champion, but tennis fans don't root for players so much as they root for the game. Oh, sure, the crowd will pull for Andy Roddick this evening, but it's not just because he's an American. Roddick's the underdog, and tennis partisans always pull for the guy or gal who's behind. They want to see more tennis, damn it. Give a tennis audience a five-set match with a few 20-18 tiebreakers thrown in, and it doesn't much care who wins it.

So McEnroe has a vested interest in seeing Federer lose, or at least struggle. But the former champ is really above such tawdry commerical motives. At bottom, McEnroe is a tennis fan just like his audience. He too wants to see more tennis. That desire is heightened by the fact McEnroe probably played in more memorable, even historic, matches than any of his champion peers, and lost as many as he won (Wimbledon in 1980 against Borg being the obvious case).

McEnroe's craving for high drama on-court has led to some comically peculiar commentary during Federer's last two wins in the quarter and semi-finals. He's constantly searching for vulnerabilities in Federer's game that aren't readily apparent to the naked eye.

Federer allows opponent to reach a break point. Mc Enroe, "He's really lost his concentration and let (opponent's name here) back in this game, set, match."

Federer gets broken. McEnroe: "He hasn't dominated as he has before, and he's let this become a match."

Federer breaks back at love in the time it takes Zorro to carve a "Z' with his blade. McEnroe: Silence.

Federer loses a match point. McEnroe: "He's had trouble putting guys away the last few matches."

Federer wins match point. McEnroe: Even more silence. Dick Enberg throws it down to the on-court interviewer.

It's not nice to tease one of the handful of excellent ex-player commentators in all of TV sports. I just couldn't help myself. Besides, McEnroe is speaking for his audience. We're all tennis fans, and we too would like about four hours of five-set melodrama this evening at Arthur Ashe stadium.

We're not expecting it, however. I expect to hear a good deal of silence from McEnroe and to see most of the second half of the Cowboys-Jaguars game.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Democracy, Deader Than the Red Sox?


I have a dream. It will never come true. I dream of the day when an American politician takes a stand, turns to the electorate, and says, "fuck you if you can't take a joke."

There evidently aren't any mirrors in out nation's homes. Polls show a vasy majority of citizens are infuriated with the current state of affairs in the USA. No poll ever even asks said citizens "so much of that do you think is your fault?" The voters who're supposed to govern the country are never confronted with the consequences of their own decisions. Instead, they're allowed to pretend that elected officials were imposed upon us by our Martian overlords.

As long as that lie is allowed to stand, American politics will remain dysfunctional. This became clear yesterday as I confronted three political situations, all incredibly wrong for society, all the fault not of the polticians involved, but of the voters they were courting. One was trivial, one significant, one crucial. Each callled for laughter, rage, tears, or all of the above.

The trivial. The three Democratic candidates for governor of Massachusetts had a debate last night. (Full disclosure: My son has been a volunteer for candidate Deval Patrick for well over a year, and his old man could use a job.) Afterwards, two different "expert" analysts, Jon Keller and Dan Payne, said Patrick's performance was marred by a tendency to sweat.

Patrick will inevitably be asked about this by inquiring reporters today. I'll feel infinitely better about my upcoming vote if he'll say "What? What possible relationship do my sweat glands have with who'll make the best governor. Anyone who'd cast a vote on that basis is a complete moron, and any journalist who'd cite it is an ever bigger moron who should be fired immediately."

Won't happen. But if it did, Patrick would be a hero speaking truth to inanity.

The significant. As the "liberal" in the race, Patrick was naturally asked if he'd said "no" to the "special interests." You know, like cops, firemen, and teachers. Isn't it funny how those groups are hailed as society's true heroes until they show up at the pay window? Then they're wicked special interests.

Had Patrick wanted to commit a glorious act of political hari-kari, he could have said the following. "Sure I have. I said "no" to most of the voters in the state. I'm against rolling back the state income tax, and they're for it. They're wrong, and need to be told. Every four years, somebody peddles the fairy tale we can cut taxes without cutting services, and that's just a lie. People always would rather believe an easy lie than a difficult truth, but as long as they do, they're going to choose lousy goverment."

Patrick said no such thing, of course. He WANTS to be governor. But should he lose anyway, the candidate will have passed on his chance to strike a real blow for America.

The crucial. The president of the United States confessed to war crimes this week. That's not hyperbole. In revealing he'd authorized the secret CIA prisons everyone knew about, and the torture of terror suspects, George W. Bush was 'fessing up to quite specific violations of US criminal law, to wit, the War Crimes Act of 1996. Look it up, skeptics.

The president's solution to this awkward situation was to propose legislation that would make such acts retroactively legal and create military tribunals to try said terror suspects where the Constitution and most law created since Magna Carta would not apply.

Well, Bush is what he is, and he's not the subject here. What blew this citizen's mind was that "expert" Washington political observers unanimously agreed his speech was a political masterstroke. The president, they declared would force the opposition Democrats to take stands in favor of the rule of law and against two torture only two months before an election!

The unspoken subtext of this commentary is reasonably depressing. In the experts opinion, the majority of Americans are such cruel cowards they'd rather live under tyranny and endorses crimes against humanity than worry for one nanosecond they might get blown up by some Ay-rab, especially if they live in some Godforsaken hamlet were nary a Catholic, let alone Muslim, has set foot in decades.

Far more depressing, to date, no Democrat has contradicted this opinion. They're keeping a low profile on that controversial, "torture, good or bad?" issue. These worthies are such sad egomaniacs they honestly believe their phony-baloney careers are more important to the future of the Republic than upholding the oath of office they all swore on the Bible.

No. Politics is about stuff, and no stuff is more fundamental than "what s0rt of people are we?" A pol who's afraid to say "not the kind that holds secret trials and tortures people, thanks" because they're afraid they might be outvoted is of no use to anyone on any issue. Someone has to point out that it isn't Bush who's choosing evil, it's voters.

Taxes are onerous. The desire to pay as few of 'em as possible is human nature, and the proper level of taxation is an endlessly debateable issue where the best answer varies with circumstances.

Torture and the Constitution, not so much. Those are "for or against now and forever", issues. I know where I stand, and I don't have much interest in voting for any candidate who isn't willing to stand on my side-IN PUBLIC. ALSO LOUDLY.

For the undecided on this issue, let me say one thing. It's one where avoiding mirrors doesn't help. Choose evil, and the consequences will find you no matter what. As our current government apparently never heard, what goes around comes around.

Create a monster to fight a monster, and sooner or later one of the two eats you. Whether it's the one you built or the other guy's won't matter much.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Wrong Again, Another in a Series

Contrary to at least one confident opinion, Deion Branch won't be in the Patriots' starting offensive lineup this Sunday after all. The incorrect pundit fell into the oldest error in the game of life, assuming human beings would act rationally in their own best interests.

Uh, no. It's obviously in Branch's interest to be paid a great deal of money to play football, and in the Pats' interest to be his employers, but neither is happening. Instead, both parties are knee-deep in the NFL labor grievance procedure, a labyrinth that makes my nose bleed just reading about it. The outcome will almost certainly neither please nor serve either side.

When it comes to contract fights, fans always root for a quick settlement and the player's return to action. This is a sound analysis of what's best for everyone in the fight, not merely the bystanders with a rooting interest.

When the fight escalates into serious lost time as the Branch matter has, fans and media observers then make the mistake of dividing the two sides into "right" and "wrong." There's no such thing in American commerce. Fights over large sums of money divide into "smart" and "stupid" and it's quite possible for both sides to be on the same side of the line.

Branch fucked up. When the Pats gave him a week to make his own sign and trade deal with another team, he trusted them. At that point, his best option was to file his grievance AND return to action. If he lost legally, no further harm would be done. If he won, he might be a free agent WHILE IN ACTION, a lucrative situation indeed.

Bill Belichick, Scott Pioli, and Robert Kraft fucked up, too, and their blunder is more significant. Branch's folly affects his own career most of all. The Pats' management team makes every decision about the franchise. Its mistakes can be repeated. And it's one of the paradoxes of existence that smart people who're usually right make the most catastrophic mistakes when they're wrong.

Books have been written on the Pats' formula for success. When it comes to creating a winning roster under the NFL salary cap, their approach may be summarized as followed. Use the coercive parts of the labot agreement as much as possible to drive down salaries for young talent. Allow almost all players to get top dollar elsewhere when they reach free agency. Spread the money saved as widely as possible through the depth chart. Make exceptions to these rules only for VERY special players.

To be specific, the Pats were willing to create new contracts for Richard Seymour and Tom Brady. In their opinion, Branch wasn't that special, nor was David Givens, not Adam Vinatieri.

The formula has worked for two reasons. Brady and Seymour really are very special. Equally important, Belichick and Pioli have had an uncanny nose for finding the best not-quite-special players, who in turn were attracted to New England because it was able to offer just a bit more for their services. Most special teams aces don't get to draw an NFL salary as long as Larry Izzo has, for example.

The Pats weren't cheap. They had a different formula for sharing the artificially limited wealth. Their contrarian stance was wildly successful. Now it's paying the price of every innovation in pro football-imitation. Every team has broadened its search for the best not-quite-special players. As a result, the price of those guys' services is on the rise.

Ernest Givens is a good receiver. Your truly wouldn't have given him the deal he got from the Titans, but that's not the point. The market wants what it wants, and the objective reality of the good or service for sale isn't the issue. For the last five years, no one in the NFL has done a better job of walking the tightrope between a seller's and buyer's market than Belichick and Pioli. What the Branch fight shows, however, is that market fundamentals have changed. There's more money getting thrown at the same number of players. Branch is a holdout for the same reason it costs more to fill up your car-inflation.
Inflation is a double-edged sword. Branch should remember that when the price of gas gets high enough, some folks trade in their SUV for a Prius and cope just fine.

The Pats need to remember that their success WASN'T built on a formula. The beauty of the Belichick system is that it isn't a system of all. Every game, every player, every decision is a special case to be dealt with according to its own facts. The cost inflation of 2006 is an unpleasant fact the franchise cannot ignore.

In a game where any player can be disabled on each and every play, no one can be irreplaceable. Willie McGinest, Branch, Vinatieri-no single departed Pat should ring any alarm bells about their chances in the upcoming season.

The pattern does. Throughout the years of their run at the top, the Pats have spent to the cap limit each season. In 2006, they have not. Branch isn't the only one tampering with the franchise's economic playbook. The men who wrote it are doing the same.

Monday, September 04, 2006

How to Write a Pigskin Preview

By the time the Steelers and Dolphins kick off the 2006 NFL season Thursday night, every media outlet in the free world plus all those in North Korea either has or will issue a detailed preview of the upcoming year, highlighted by the outlet's intrepid predictions as to which teams will make the Super Bowl and who'll emerge as the champion. There may be more useless journalistic endeavors ("Will Hillary Run?" comes to mind), but not many.

Gambling on pro football is a multi-billion dollar indsutry precisely because peering into the sport's future is a fool's enterprise. Pity all the preseason magazines who went to press BEFORE the defending Super Bowl champions' quarterback's near-fatal motorcycle. Pity the sports weeklies who put their previews to bed before Ben Roethlisberger topped that act with an emergency appendectomy.

In other words, medical news will make hash of nine out of ten NFL predictions before Columbus Day. Injuries aside, which is sort of like saying "violence aside" in a Baghdad real estate ad, coaches who know WAY more about footbal than thee and me, including Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, agree they don't get a real handle on the state of their own teams and the league in general until after Thanksgiving at the earliest. Even then it's a slippery handle. Last Turkey Day, the Steelers were dead, a consensus choice to miss the playoffs.

Just because a job's pointless and impossible, however, doesn't mean you don't have to do it. No football writer is allowed to skip his or her NFL preview any more than a Boston newspaper can skip running Labor Day photos of students moving into Fenway apartments. News is as much ritual as fact, maybe more.

Those of you with blogs, which near as I can tell is every football fan, will be issuing NFL previews of your own. Here are a few tips from the pros, the time-honored formulas that allow professional writers to get this onerous chore done with the minimum time and effort, which believe me is all it deserves.

1. Pick Last Year's Champions.

What happened before will happen again. This is the laziest and hence most typical pigskin preview. Man, those Steelers and Seahawks looked good last January. Ergo, they'll look good again this year. Throw in the Pats, Broncos, and Panthers, and voila, a preview has its lede. All that's left is adding up all the personnel changes and throwing in a few wisecracks.

For the flaws in this approach, see the paragraph on Ben Roethisberger.

2. Pick the Home Team

This approach has several benefits, the best being it cuts down on indignant e-mail from fans. The obvious drawback is it's an option available to forecasters in perhaps 25 percent of NFL markets. A Bay Area sportswriter who picked either the Raiders or 49ers to reach the Super Bowl would be on the fast track to a desk in the office taking sailing agate over the telephone.

But if someone in Denver wants to pick the Broncos this year, they're no more likely to be wrong than anyone else. The same's true here in New England. Only unimaginable catastrophe can keep the Patriots from winning the AFC East. After that, it's all karma. If your Super Bowl pick wins its division, you did a good job.

Amateur pickers avoid the worst drawback of the home team pick. When a local writer picks 'em, the players call it a jinx if anything goes wrong. They also say they were disrespected if they DON'T get picked, but hey, they're football players. It ain't a game big on logic.

3. The Surprise Pick, or "We Got Great Art."

This formula works in stages. Team finishes strong the year before, narrowly making or missing the playoffs. Team goes out and trades for or signs as free agent a big-name player. Add two together and presto! You have an informed surprise Super Bowl pick and a nice photo of a star that'll helpfully sell more papers or magazines or attract more Web hits.

Upside: Pictures of stars do indeed sell more papers, magazines, and attract more Web hits.

Downside: Picks using the formula are always wrong. Always. Most of the time, they're comically wrong. Sports Illustrated just picked the Dolphins as 2006 NFL champs. Somewhere out there, some poor soul, probably more than one, opined that Terrell Owens will put Bill Parcells and the Cowboys back in the Super Bowl. An infinite number of things will happen this season. Those won't be two of them.

4. Keep Trying Until They Get It Right.

Throughout NFL history, there's usually been a team on the verge of championship success, but never quite there. Often this team has its fortunes in the hands of one superduperstar. Forests were killed in the 50s and '6os explaining how Jim Brown would lead the Browns to a title, and in the '80s and '90s doing the same about John Elway. The next winter, an equal number of trees went under the knife for "what went wrong with Brown/Elway" thumbsuckers.

Brown and Elway eventually DID win championships, but only after the forecasters gave them up for dead and moved on. The 1964 Browns and 1997 Broncos were double-digit underdogs in their respective title games.

The Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning are perhaps the most obvious "keep trying" pick of all time, and their bandwagon remains crowded. Not by me. I'm haunted by the memory of a sportswriter from a long time ago.

Tex Maule was Sports Illustrated's first pro football writer, and had a more than distinguished career. Maule was the man who named the Colts-Giants 1958 overtime duel "The Greatest Game Ever Played." Maule (remember his nickname) also noted the Cowboys were building a unique organization destined for success when Dallas was a struggling expansion team.

Maule's brilliant insight came with one drawback. Every September from 1963 on, without fail, Maule picked the Cowboys as the next NFL, then Super Bowl champions. After years of frustrating defeats, the Cowboys finally won a title when they beat Miami in Super Bowl VI in January 1972.

By then, Tex Maule had retired.

5. Pick 'Em All, a special bonus for electronic media.

With a half-hour of airtime to fill each night since the opening of training camp, I'm pretty sure the good folks at ESPN's NFL Live have created scenarios for at least 19 different teams to emerge as the winners of Super Bowl XLI in Miami. For fun, check out how many different writers and broadcasters anoint different teams "Super Bowl favorites" after each week of the regular season. There will be at least ten consensus choices. There always are.

My picks? Didn't I explain how bogus it all was? OK, who am I to argue with tradition. I wish CBS would bring back it's "dot-da-da, da-da-DA-DAHH" theme music from the Lombardi era. I'm going to go with a mixture of formulas 2 and 4.

As long as Tom Brady stays ambulatory, picking the Patriots is as vanilla a choice as can be in the AFC. I may be wrong, but I won't look stupid if I am.

The NFC stinks. Rare is the team whose fans hate all their quarterbacks the summer following a division title, but the Bears have managed that feat, and Chicagoans know pro football. The Panthers, however, stink less than most of their Fox-broadcast peers.

I've been picking Carolina to return to the Super Bowl since their last appearance in 2004. They're bound to prove me right sometime-at least before Janet Jackson gets back to one.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Pigskin Preview Preview

Compared to the National Football Conference, baseball's National League fields powerhouses from top to bottom.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Greece 101-U.S.A. 95

Two observations and a modest proposal.

1. Teams of superior athletes who use pressure as their main defense have a great deal of success until they run into a team of smart passers on a hot shooting night. They they lose. Always. This principle holds from JV girls teams right up through the world championships. Mike Krzyzewski knows this perfectly well, but pressure is also the easiest defense to teach an All-Star team because it's the most fun to play.

2. The US can no longer afford to pick a team based on wishful thinking about image, marketing or coachability. Distasteful as it may be to all concerned, that means Kobe and not Lebron should've been on the '06 squad. By '08 it might be a different story.

3. If this nation is going to take international competition seriously (I know we're not, but humor me), there's one idea too obvious to overlook. How about changing our rules to theirs? How about playing prep, college, and NBA games under the international rule book. The differences aren't all that great, but adapting to new guidelines once every two years HAS to be a competitive disadvantage to our country. We don't insist on running the 100-yard dash in track anymore, why not use the rest of the world's three-second zone and three-point line?