Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Barbaro, 2003-2007

When a domesticated animal dies, there is always grief. The difference between the sorrow in a home that's lost a family pet and the mourning for a Kentucky Derby winner is one only of scale. Barbaro was a famous animal who suffered a life-threatening, life-taking injury before an audience of millions. Barbaro got a front-page obit in the New York Times, his death led ABC's nightly news yesterday evening, and he's mourned by millions. Somewhere last night, children mourned the loss of their cat with equal pain flowing from the same mysterious wellspring inside OUR species.

Many many people feel for animals with the pure illogical passion of true love. Almost everyone in the horse racing business does. If you saw Barbaro's vet on TV last night, you know Dr. Dean Richardson expended every erg of his being to save his patient, and was wracked with grief that he'd failed. Alice and Hope Gee, who don't care a fig for racing, were saddened to hear of Barbaro's death. To them, he was an athlete dying young, and the fact Barbaro had four rather than two legs was irrelevant to the central idea of his tragedy.

Since human beings kill and eat animals, sometimes even after treating those future dinners as pets, our deep affection for other animals is a confounding fact of our nature. I know it's inside me. I voluntarily took on the inevitable passing of a beloved pet, and since Blackjack is 12 now, the bill for that decision will be coming due. Doesn't matter. I'll never regret the choice. Why? I dunno. Perhaps if I had a million years and a million philosophers to help I could come up with an answer.

I know this. The love people have for animals is one of our species most redeeming qualities. If we ever lost it, human beings wouldn't be worth keeping around, either.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Best Government Money Can Buy At Costco

Every election cycle, and the US now has a permanent election cycle, just like for baseball news, political journalists and high-minded commentators spend a great deal of time bemoaning the huge sums needed to run for national office. This ritualistic "tut-tutting" allows these lazy sods to avoid the real questions about just what's at stake in any given election.

Every editorial, lecture, article, broadcast, etc. on the high cost of politics ignores the most salient fact of the issue. The "huge" sums are chicken feed. America sells itself very cheaply indeed, so it's no wonder so many vested interests are willing to pay for play. Considering the potential return on investment, it's as if Pebble Beach were to cut its greens fees to $10 a round.

Proving this contention is absurdly simple. Merely look at the money in politics through the prism of the money in American sports.

In last year's Massachusetts' gubernatorial election, venture capitalist Chris Gabrieli spent approximately $15 million to finish a decisively beaten second in the Democratic primary. This was a record amount discussed in the same awed tones as track fans discussing Bob Beamon's long jump in the 1968 Olympics.

Gabrieli spent $1 million more than it'll cost the Red Sox to employ J.D. Drew this season. The chief executive office of the Commonwealth has roughly the same market value as an oft-injured, well-traveled outfielder. That's not so bad, considering a well-funded bid for the US House of Representatives costs $5 million, and you can't even buy a decent middle reliever with that kind of chump change.

As has been true in every presidential election since Jefferson and Adams locked horns in 1800, the 2008 campaign will be the mopsr expensive ever. Sounding exactly like Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers' movies, Gwen Ifill of PBS noted the total sum spent by the eventual Republican and Democratic candidates could be as much as "ONE BILLION DOLLARS!"

A billion dollars is a lot of money, yet then again, it isn't. It's value rests upon what one spends it on.

A billion dollars is roughly the value of a large-market NFL franchise. It's about what Bob Kraft would expect to realize from the sale of the Patriots, Dan Snyder for the Redskins, or Jerry Jones for the Cowboys. And since the billion cited by Ifill is the total spent by two people, the real purchase price of the presidency is $500 million. You can't buy any NFL franchise for such a trifling sum. Go try the NHL, piker.

There's our national public life in a nutshell. A chance to get your hands on the Vince Lombardi trophy is twice as valuable as the chance to get your face chiseled onto Mt. Rushmore.

God bless America.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Consumer Alert for Area Football Fans

Just finished watching the NFL Network's "America's Game" series on Super Bowl champs, an hour devoted to the 1976 Raiders.

Fans have rights. One right is to have the occasional sordid fling with a team you didn't grow up rooting for. The Raiders of the '70s were my such fling. I lived in Oakland for a year plus in the early '70s, when God knows the Eagles weren't making any noise except death rattles. I KNEW some Oakland Raiders. Seldom does fact match legend, but for these guys it did.

NFL Films got the facts and the legend just right. The three narrators were John Madden, Ken Stabler, and Phil Villapiano. All three were perfect Raider narrators. Villapiano basically confessed to war crimes. So did Madden. Stabler was his sly, twisted persona to the max. Fabulous stuff. Note to Patriots fans: The Hamilton call was chickenshit by the standards of that era. Today, it'd have been a 60-yard penalty. The tuck rule leaves history even, OK?

But service rules even blog journalism. Tomorrow night's team is the 2004 Patriots, and all New England fans are urged to watch, if their cable system gets NFL Network, that is.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Inner Life of Tyrants

When this blogger was a small boy first exposed to sports back in the late '50s and early '60s, Paul Brown was the most feared and despised man in pro football.

Everyone acknowledged Brown was the smartest coach of the time, probably of all time. The Cleveland Browns he founded played in 10 straight championship games in the All-American Football Conference and then the NFL, winning seven. Brown was a technical innovator like no other. He invented the screen pass. He was the first coach to call all the plays. He was also a quiet social pioneer, seeking out and signing African-American players in a sport that was as lily-white as pre-Jackie Robinson baseball, but just quieter about it. All Browns' decisions gave his team a huge leg up on his NFL competitors.

However, nobody but nobody liked Brown one bit, certainly not his players. Even the Hall of Famers (and the '50s Browns produced more than any teams but the '60s Packers and '70 Steelers) had no use for him. It wasn't so much that Brown was mean, although he was. Mean coaches had been around since the flying wedge. Brown was mean in a new and disturbing way.

Before Brown, the prototypical mean coach was a holler guy, a screamer who bullied his players with verbal abuse and punishment wind sprints. He was a Parris Island drill instructor with a whistle.

Brown was the football coach as Prussian general, icy, aloof, ruling with bloodless and ruthless intellect. He should have worn a monocle on the sidelies. Brown didn't scream at his team. He had other, crueler means of making them quake.

In Brown's time, teams brought up to 100 players to training camp. In one of Brown's most celebrated innovations, he was the first coach to begin camp by giving those players a written general intelligence test. The night after the test was handed in, Brown would immediately cut five or six guys.

This had nothing to do with the test or anyone's results in it. These were players Brown knew had no shot of making the team anyway. The purpose of the cut was simply to scare the shit out of all the remaining Browns. Worked like a charm. Some sweetheart of a boss, huh?

Karma's a bitch. Brown's tenure in Cleveland ended when he was saddled with one player couldn't intimidate, irreplacable superstar Jim Brown. The popular media image of Brown-the idea that he personified football science gone mad in the pursuit of victory, remained vividly stuck in the sports' memory bank of a kid growing up in Wilmington, Delaware.

Fast forward almost 30 years to January, 1989. Brown is now the semi-retired figurehead president of the Cincinnati Bengals, the AFC team in Super Bowl XXIII. The kid is now a sportswriter assigned to the game.

History's my favorite subject. There was no way I was going to grind out a week of Super hype without interviewing and writing about Paul Brown. Who wouldn't be curious about a real live goblin from one's childhood.

You may guess where this is headed. The panzer-driving coach of the '50s was as gracious and delightful an interview subject as I was to meet in three decades of newspaper work. Brown was generous with his serious insights and a superb storyteller. Many of the stories were funny ones, and more often than not, Brown was the butt of his own jokes. Reporters of the '50s hated Brown's brusque, non-communicate manner. In 1989, Brown spoke to some reporter he'd never heard of for over an hour. The Bengals PR staff had to drag Brown away so he wouldn't miss seeing practice and I wound up with more story than I could possibly fit into Herald space.

History is Bill Belichick's favorite subject too, and Brown is the past NFL coach the Pats' head man most reveres as a contributor to the game. And, of course, Belichick is the heir to Brown's public image. He's TODAY's Prussian general, only with a hoodie instead of a riding crop, a brilliant, driven, anti-social leader to be feared and despised from afar.

The image has some basis in fact. Belichick didn't exactly jump the net to congratulate Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning last Sunday night. Fair or not, the world expects someone's who's been a big winner to be able to accept defeat with better grace than he managed.

But as I learned in a Miami hotel function room many years ago, images are broken reflections of reality. Human beings have many sides, but can only show one at a time. Accomplished people have the most sides of all.

So as Belichick takes a certain amount of heat this week, I'm left to wonder about the future. There's some kid out there in America today who loves football and roots against the Pats because he fears and hates the team's coach in equal measure. Thirty years from now at Super Bowl LXXI, played at a domed stadium at Donald Trump's moon resort and casino, what if the same kid-turned-sportswriter sits down to talk with the terrifying legend of his youth? Will Belichick charm the pants off the reporter as Brown did?

I probably won't live long enough to find out. But it wouldn't surprise me in the least.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Sign of the Times Corporation, No Question Mark

The thing people need to understand about the New York Times is there's two of them.

The more familiar Times is the newspaper itself. It's the world's finest one-stop source of information, both more accurate and cheaper than the president's daily intelligence briefing. The Times is an indispensable product for any citizen of the world wishing to find out what the hell's going on out there.

Unfortunately for the Boston Globe, its owned by the other Times, the NYT Corporation. That's a Fortune 500 business operating on the same principle as its corporate peers-a complete lack of 'em. Wholly in thrall to hyperactive 28-year old Wall Street stock analysts, the NYT board of directors, like almost every other American board, would burn down an orphanage for a $2-a-share bump in the stock price.

The Globe's announcement its closing its three remaining foreign news bureaus makes clear where New England's leading newspaper stands in the Times scheme of things. It's a conquered province which exists to be exploited for its maximum value. The closing of the bureaus will save the Glober $1 million annually. Globe management didn't want to do it, and expressed the pious hope those savings could save jobs for its Morrissey Blvd. employees. Rest assured if that million's needed to boost a Times quarterly earnings report, Globe jobs will be lost anyway.

What the Times corporation is telling we 3 million or so residents of greater Boston is this: You hicks want foreign news-buy the Times itself. All a Boston newspaper should do is write about school board meetings and local real estate deals. It's the Judge Smails school of journalism. You'll get nothing and like it.

A couple of people with far better credentials than I, Northeastern journalism professor Dan Kennedy and former GE CEO Jack Welch, recently declared all "regional" dailies (that's shorthand for every paper but the Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal) have no choice but to create a business model devoted exclusively to local news. That is to say, since newspapers have lost their advertising monopolies to the Internet, they must form information monopolies-each paper becoming an exclusive provider of news available nowhere else.

I disagree. Leave aside the obvious peril to consitutional democracy posed by an endless string of proprietary sole-source information outlets. When it comes to my former trade, I'm no goo-goo. I worked for Rupert Murdoch and how I wish I still did.

No, my disagreement with Welch and Kennedy stems from bitter personal experience. I worked at a paper which attempted to provide "local focus." The business plan worked so well I got laid off along with about 25 percent of the rest of the newsroom, and the paper itself has one foot firmly inside death's doorsill.

No paper could be more Bostoncentric than the Herald's been the past decade. It barely covers news from Newton, let alone Nigeria. This emphasis was a most logical decision by publisher Pat Purcell. If the Globe was run by an out-of-town behemoth, presenting the Herald as the home town-owned source of home town news had obvious merit, especially in our proudly provincial burg.

Logic took a beating. The Herald's circulation and revenues losses only escalated each time its news focus narrowed. Strange as it seems, newspaper readers are not vacant eyeballs to be delivered en masse to advertisers. They're consumers with economic minds of their own. When a paper shrinks its staff, newshole, or focus of coverage, readers quickly perceive they're being asked to pay just as much as ever for a lesser product. Quicker than you can say "Adam Smith" many of them turn down the offer. Readers like the idea there's more in their paper than they can or even want to read. They want the best infobang for their half-a-buck.

One more thing. In the 21st century global village, the word "local" has a flexible definition. The biggest world news right now is Iraq. Half a world from Boston, our nation's locked in a frsutrating and confusing foreign war.

In the early stages of the war, dedicated Globe staffers did outstanding work. One of them, Elizabeth Neuffer, was one of the first reporters to die covering the conflict. All of them took hair-raising risks to provide Globe readers with information and insight they couldn't get anywhere else. It made you proud to share their profession, even in the court jester's role of sports columnist.

Over a year ago the Globe shut down its Baghdad office, citing the difficulty and dangers of obtaining information there. By "difficulty" the paper meant, of course, "expense". Hey, the Times still had lots of reporters in Iraq. Only costs a dollar. Why not subscribe to both papers?

As newspapers USED to understand, foreign wars are the ultimate local news. Globe subscribers are fighting this war. Many more Globe subscribers have loved ones serving there. A tragic number of Globe subscribers have buried loved ones who lost their lives in Iraq. Not covering a war your readers are fighting isn't "focusing on local coverage." It's an insulting rip-off. Anyone who's dropped the paper as a result of this decision is to be congratulated. They are the best sort of citizen.

Aaah, maybe I'm just an old hack, an unemployed one at that. Newspaper workers are the world's best bitchers. Maybe I'm just the modern day equivalent of a blacksmith from 100 years ago, cursing the universe as I watch the Model Ts roll down Main Street.

I don't think I am. I remain just enough faith in the free market system and humanity at large to believe there's no real path to long term business success besides putting out the best possible product. The cure for the newspaper industry is to produce papers (or websites, etc.) that have more, not less, information.

The motto of the actual Times is as famous as the paper itself. All the news that's fit to print. Not to get too hokey about it, but the Times stands as the paragon of its business because the thousands of dedicated and talented people who work there live by that slogan every minute of every working day. Not just the reporters and editors. The delivery truck guys, ad salesmen and all the other indispensable back office workers commit to the same pursuit of excellence.

The motto the Times corporation appears to have chosen for the Globe is a little different. It goes "Sullivan Tire has to advertise SOMEWHERE." There have been more inspirational battle cries.

Generation Xs and Os

Lane Kiffin, offensive co-ordinator at USC, was named head coach of the Oakland Raiders. Kiffen will be 32 when he takes the field for his first regular season game come September, which makes him either the youngest or second-youngest coach of modern (post WWII) NFL times.

This fact will have no effect on Kiffin's career. History teaches a coach's age or lack of same has no effect on his ability to win or lose in the NFL.

There are 18 men inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as coaches. The median age for when they first became NFL head coaches is 39. Nine were younger when they got the job, nine older. By a happy coincidence, future Hall of Famer Bill Belichick was exactly 39 when he became the Browns' head coach in 1991.

Three immortal mentors were actually YOUNGER than Kiffin when they first became NFL head coaches, but that fact's a bit of a cheat. Fritz Pollard, 27, and Curly Lambeau (yeah, that Lambeau), 21, were player-coaches in pro ball's fly-by-night Roaring '20s. George Halas, 25, was a player-coach-owner-league founder his first season running the Bears.

However, consider the ages of some more contemporary Hall of Fame coaches when THEY first accepted the headset of high office. Don Shula was 33 when the Colts hired him in 1963. Chuck Noll was 37 when he took the Steelers' job. Hank Stram was 37 when he became the first head coach of the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs. Paul Brown was an ancient 38 when he became founder-coach of his namesake Cleveland Browns, but we must remember Brown had already been head coach at Ohio State at age 34. At the time, that was an infinitely higher-profile, higher-significance job than working in pro ball.

Kiffin's age, therefore, is no barrier to his enjoying a long and successful career as an NFL head coach. Where Kiffin will be working, however, is more than a barrier, it's a guaranteed sinkhole. The Raiders are a study in dysfunction. If the set of HBO's "Rome" was decorated with much more silver and black, the show would be an exact representation of life in the Oakland front office.

Kiffin may well be only 32 on Opening Day. Come December, that won't be a problem for him. By then, Kiffen probably won't look a day over 102.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Another Inconvenient Truth

Advance copies of the State of the Union Address reveal the president will call for a crash program cutting America's gasoline use by 20 percent over the next 10 years.

Color me unimpressed. Yours truly has reduced his personal gasoline consumption far more than 20 percent in only 18 months.

All it took was losing my job.

Media Relations Note

What kind of a guy is Bill Belichick? My experience is the answer depends on the day of the week. My experience also is this formula holds true for every coach in the NFL.

Raymond Berry, Dick MacPherson, Bill Parcells, Pete Carroll, and Belichick are as different as men in the same profestion can be, but when it came to assessing their emotional state or using them as sources of information, all you needed was a calender.

Here's the formula. Keep it in mind every time you see a coach on TV or read a quote from the poor guy.

After the game on Sunday: The worst, win or lose but especially lose. The coach can be as laid-back as Tony Dungy or as driven as Belichick, doesn't matter. The coach is toast. He's been through an emotional and intellectual wringer that's likely taken a year off his life. Just exactly what is a coach supposed to say two minutes after a cruncher like the one Belichick went through last Sunday night? The miracle is there aren't many more Jim Mora "playoffs" or Denny Green "crown their asses" meltdowns in post-game press conferences.

Monday: A little better. But that's when coaches get the first injury news of the week, and it's seldom good news.

Tuesday: No media access. Good for both sides.

Wednesday: Big interview day of the week. The coach isn't hostile, but can be terse, as this is "silly sound bite question" day.

Thursday: Much better. The coach is most likely to approach candor on team-related issues.

Friday: Best of all. If one is willing to scrap the search for breaking news and just chew the fat about football, this is when the coach is most likely to resemble a normal human being. It was Friday when Belichick showed reporters his dad's old NFL game films and waxed eloquent on the single wing. It was the Friday before the first Tuna Bowl that Bill Parcells was willing to tell Boston (but not New York!) reporters why the hell he'd kicked the ball to Desmond Howard in Super Bowl XXXI. Parcells went on to explain all the disastrous decisions he'd made in that game. It probably won't surprise you he still defended each and every one.

It doesn't too much insight to see the pattern here. Football coaches are at their most relaxed and informative when they have the time and space to be, when the emotional wrench of the last game is longest past, while the preparation for the next one is nearly complete. They shouldn't be judged by their reactions at the most gruesomely stressful moments of their lives. Asking a coach about a loss like last Sunday's right after it happened is the exact journalistic equivalent of those TV interviews which begin "So how did it feel to come home to a triple homicide?" How the fuck do you think they feel, moron?

The late Will McDonough was one of the best storytellers I ever met, and at a long ago Super Bowl, I was lucky to hear this one from the Globe's ambassador without portfolio to pro football. McDonough, of course, was one of if not the first print reporters to also do network television assignments as well. His first big gig at NBC was a Super Bowl, where McDonough was assigned to do the post-game interview with the losing coach, who was going to be either Joe Gibbs or Don Shula.

At the Saturday meetings with the coaches and star players, McDonough had only one brief request of the two Hall of Fame mentors.

"I want you to ask one thing," McDonough told each man. "When you see me coming, remember this. It wasn't my fault."

Don't Just Do Something, Stand There!

When a pro team ends its season without a championship, the day-after stories in all media declare "many changes" will take place in the off-season, and they'll be dramatic, franchise-shaking changes, too. This reflects the processes of the sports section or department in question, not the team. No sane reporter will author a story saying "status to remain quo for next year." He's begging the readers (or listeners, or viewers) to tune him out until the first game of next season.

The teams which come up short have a nearly identical vested interest in forecasting major personnel shifts. They're telling the customers, "we're mad, too, and we'll leave no stone unturned in our quest for victory." After losing in the playoffs, it'd take a brave/compulsively honest/just plain foolhardy coach or general manager to say, "well, we didn't get the breaks this time around, but we'll get 'em next year. Changes? We're in pretty good shape and don't anticipate more than a few tweaks here and there."

The fan base wouldn't take such candor well. There's reasons for every loss, and the usual reaction to a season-ending defeat is the desire to make sure those reasons never happen again.

Given those imperatives, two very unsurprising things happened in Boston sports yesterday. All media outlets forecast "major changes" for the Patriots in the 2007 off-season. And as always, faced with the choice of an unconvincing fib or an inconvenient truth, Bill Belichick picked option three-silence.

The dull old truth is, the Patriots DON'T need to make major changes. Tweaking will do just fine thanks. As constituted this very morning, the Pats will enter 2007 as they entered 2006, prohibitive favorites to win their division, the AFC East, and hence one of a half-dozen or so teams with a solid chance of becoming Super Bowl champs. The dull fact of the matter is there's a distinct limit to how far a team quarterbacked by Tom Brady can fall unless it's ravaged by injury, and a 9-7 record would appear to be the Brady-built floor.

Of course there will be changes in Patriotland, and maybe major ones at that. But they'll be moves forced upon the franchise. Belichick and Scott Pioli won't go out looking for them. Do you think they sat around in December thinking "Asante Samuel's having a career contract year. Gosh, that's great! I was worried I'd be bored this winter"?

The problem facing the Pats this winter isn't the need for drastic improvement. The decisions being forced upon them run smack against matters of ingrained team policy. Belichick is as empirical a football mind as there is, but it's hard for any human to break habits, especially if they've been successful habits.

Patriot habit one: The Pats are extraordinarily reluctant to hand out the bonanza contracts created by the NFL's free agent system. Since they've also had tremendous success in acquiring young and relatively underpaid talent, player-franchise stress is inevitable.

Samuel-related stress is bound to dwaft the Deion Branch brouhaha of the last off-season. There isn't another team in the NFL which couldn't use a 26-year old corner who led the league in interceptions. The law of supply and demand is working better for Samuel than it does for Saudi Arabia.

Patriot habit two: No successful coach in history as has been as willing to slam youth into his starting lineup as Belichick-with one significant exception.

When it comes to the offensive line or the defensive backfield, the Pats' coach will happily insert rookies into starting jobs. Results have born out this confident belief in the virtues of youth.

When it comes to linebackers, however, Belichick believes just the opposite. He likes them as or more aged than bottles of fine Bordeaux. The coach's career-defining statement about linebacking was made in the 2006 off-season. When Willie McGinest left for the Browns, speculation was rife the Pats would be looking for linebackers in the draft. They didn't pick a one. Belichick waited until training camp and lured Junior Seau out of a one-day retirement.

Again there's no arguing with the results. But veteran players bring built-in drawbacks to the table along with skills and smarts. Older players are slower healers (see Seau, and Rodney Harrison for that matter). Older players are usually on short-term contracts, and they naturally seek the highest possible offer on their next deal (see McGinest, whom the Pats would up missing far more than Adam Vinatieri). Most of all, veteran players inevitably hit the day when they're TOO veteran. The 'backers at the core of New England's defense may have already hit that mark. They're surely near it.

Those are knotty problems requiring all of Belichick and Pioli's considerable abilities. They do not, however, require breaking-news solutions that'd drive the Red Sox off the top of the sports section for a week or so.

My Patriots' off-season guess? When pushed to the wall, the franchise has given bonanza deals to players it deemed irreplacable (Brady, Richard Seymour). After some backing and filling, they'll likely do the same for Samuel. As for the linebackers, I confidently expect a bevy of old guys brought into camp to become new Patriots, just as in every other off-season.

Those are the dullest possible solutions to New England's problems. That makes them the smartest solutions as well.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Sign of the Times Corporation?

For at least the past 20 years, the Globe and Herald sports sections have had at least one very different approach to covering big events of extreme local interest, such as yesterday's AFC championship game. The three Globe editors in that time, Vince Doria, Don Skwar, and Joe Sullivan, have preferred to be on-site at the event, directing their writers personally. Their three Herald counterparts, Bob Sales, Mark Torpey, and Hank Hyrniewicz, have preferred to stay in the office, keeping their hands as close as possible to the actual production process.

There is no issue of "right" or "wrong" in this difference. All six were and are outstanding newspapermen, and all produced excellent sections on big stories under extremely difficult professional circumstances-Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS, to cite one vividly recalled example.

So I wasn't surprised to read today's Globe and discover Sullivan had been in Indianapolis for the game. What DID surprise me was seeing Joe's byline in his own section, atop a sidebar on Ellis Hobbs, who had a big day for both good and ill for the Pats.

In addition to his other talents, Sullivan's a good writer, and his Hobbs piece was well worth reading. But was it worth him writing it? Writing on deadline requires a great deal of concentration. So does putting out the sports section of a major daily newspaper. To me, at least, it was startling to see Sullivan doing a Chuck Bednarik impersonation playing on both sides of the ball.

There are two possible explanations for Sullivan's Hobbs' story, one benign, the other less so. One hopes Sullivan's team had matters so well in hand that the boss felt free to take a busman's holiday and indulge his reporting gene. If so, he was entitled. Being a big city sports editor is a grinding job. Being a middle manager of any kind in contemporary American journalism is a simply miserable experience. By contrast, writing coherent prose on tight deadline, which isn't easy believe me, would be a well-earned day at the beach for the Globe's sports editor.

The other possible explanation for Sullivan's story should be more worrisome to the Globe's customers. Sullivan had x amount of space to fill with Pats-Colts' coverage, and y amount of stories with which to do it. Hobbs was obviously one of the topics to cover. It's possible Sullivan looked around, found himself one reporter's body short when it came time to distribute assignments, and was forced to call his own number.

There were eight other Globies with bylined stories on the game, which sounds like a lot and is. But let me say from the other side of a tough professional rivalry, I can't remember the Globe EVER not having enough bodies to throw at a big sports story-talented bodies, too.

It wasn't just the stars like Peter Gammons or Leigh Montville who made the paper one of America's top five sports sections in the '70s and '80s, the Globe had and employed awesome top to bottom depth for major events. On college football Saturdays, the plethora of New England colleges had top staffers writing their games stories. Today, the Globe has stringers cover all the football and basketball games of our state university.

That's not Joe Sullivan's doing. I suspect his good piece on Hobbs is another sign of the baleful influence the NYT corporation has had on New England's newspaper of record. The bosses in New York haven't done any spectacular harm, but they've foolishly let the Globe sort of waste away with a resulting devastation of the paper's bottom line.

It's one of the oldest mistakes in business. Treat a corporate acquisition as nothing but a cash cow, and in no time at all, it stops giving milk.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Another Reason to Admire Tom Brady

In his post-game press conference tonight, Brady was both disgusted and disheartened. In the inevitable way of TV reporters someone asked the Pats quarterback "What did Bill (Belichick) say to you guys after the game?"

Brady's answer: "I don't remember. I was over in the corner busy taking my crap (uniform) off."

Translation: I wasn't listening. Who cares?

Brady admires Belichick very much. But the guy's a football coach, not a Tibetan life guru.

Colts 38-Patriots 34

"I learned one thing a long time ago about football, baby. What could have happened, did happen."-Dreamer Tatum in Dan Jenkins' immortal "Semi-Tough."

" I can't see anything we have to be mad about."-Patriots nose tackle Vince Wolfork.

This one was a gut-check. Not Peyton Manning's gut, or Tom Brady's lower intestinal tract. The 2006 AFC Championship Game was a psychic colonoscopy for every fan of the New England Patriot franchise, a more severe test the longer said fan had subjected themselves to what used to be a most creative form of masochism.

Why waste words? Anyone who can't jump the net and congratulate the victors after this excruiating loss not only doesn't understand sports, they have no soul. Sometimes, it's not about you, or about your team. The Colts turned every awful thing said about them in the past five years into a dirty lie when it appeared impossible they could. This game was THEIR story, their struggle, their triumph. The Pats aren't any less an historic champion for this loss, any more than Joe Frazier's legacy suffered from the Thrilla in Manila. If what the Colts put out on the field tonight is what it takes to beat New England, that's a feature, not a bug, of the Pats' dynasty.

When historic teams play historic teams, they lend dignity to all who care for them. Even the ones unhappiest with the outcome.

The Gutless Chokers-An Unbeatable Dream Team

(I posted this mythical All-Star team in a Herald column once. It bears re-listing every year come NFL playoff time.)

Here's the depth chart for an imaginary team I made up some years ago. Check it out.

QBs: Sonny Jurgensen, Dan Fouts, Warren Moon (3rd).
RBs: Earl Campbell, Gale Sayers, Barry Sanders
FB: Joe "the Jet" Perry
WRs: Charlie Joiner, Steve Largent, Bobby Mitchell
TEs: Kellen Winslow, Ozzie Newsome
OTs: Jackie Slater, Dan Dierdorf, Bob Brown
OGs: Joe deLamielleure, Mike Munchak, Tom Mack
C: Dwight Stephenson

DEs: Deacon Jones, Elvin Bethea
DTs: Merlin Olsen, Leo Nomellini, Ernie Stautner
MLB: Dick Butkus
OLBs: Dave Wilcox, Bill George
CBs: Night Train Lane, Lem Barney, Jimmy Johnson
SS: Ken Houston
FS: Larry Wilson

PK: Morten Andersen
KR: Ollie Matson

COACH: George Allen

Pretty good, huh? It's fun being an imaginary GM. I got to cut O.J.Simpson for character issues.

Readers steeped in football history (and you've stopped by now if you aren't) will grasp how my team was shaped. None ever played on an NFL, AFL, or AAFC championship team. Only three-Andersen, George, and Stephenson even PLAYED in an NFL, AFL, or AAFC title game.

And, of course, my imaginary team is invincible. Every man on its roster is a member of the Hall of Fame, except Andersen, who would be if he'd ever stop kicking. We don't have a punter because they're aren't any in the Hall, but frankly, we wouldn't need one.

Here's a bet for the good people behind Madden 2007. Get to work on creating an imaginary all-time game. I'll play my team, and you can create a dream team out of all the other players in the history of professional footbal, from Jim Thorpe through Tom Brady. I wager my team wins 50 percent of the games between the two.

Championships are a very important measure of a player or coach's ability. But they're only one measure, and not the most important one at that. Any individual game is too random to assess lasting value from its results.

In homelier terms, if Peyton Manning and the Colts come up short again tonight, and we all know they will, it will be a bitter disappointment for Manning and another blot on his resume.

But Manning will remain a future Hall of Famer no matter what. And he can still play for me, any time, any game.

Notes About Some Fans

By and large, to probably well over 95 percent, Patriots' fans and Red Sox fans are the same people. Sure, some like baseball much more than football and vice versa, but New Englanders who follow sports have no problem rooting equally hard for both regional franchises.

Considering they reside in the same human beings, it's continually fascinating how different Pats and Sox fans can be. Nowhere are they more different than in the matter of pregame predictions. Sox followers barely notice them, Pats' fans scan them with the neurotic intensity of a Broadway producer reading his play's review in the Times.

Here are a few concrete examples from my own predicting past. In 2003 and 2004, the Herald sports staff was required to call the outcome of the Yankee-Sox ALCS's, backed by a one-sentence rationale.

In 2003, mine read "Yanks in 7. Two words, Mariano Rivera." The Yanks won in seven, and it's generally thought the opposing managers' faith or lack thereof in their bullpens played a significant role in the outcome. Not one Sox fan took the opportunity to verbally shoot this messenger. That's laudable self-control after the most galling defeat ever for a franchise known for the same.

In 2004, my prediction read "Yanks in 7. I won't believe differently until I see it." Lo and behold, I DID see a different outcome. Feedback on my snarky and inaccurate call was nil. Not one Sox fan took the trouble to gloat, not by email, phone, or in person. By resisting a justified "nyah-nyah, na, nyah-nyah!" Sox fans showed even more laudable self-control.

Once baseball season ends, these same people become Pats fans and take a completely different attitude towards public predictions. The opinion of the commentator is thought to reflect deep-seated prejudices towards New England's team. As if we cared. As if the NFL writer of, say, the San Francisco Chronicle spent more than 15 seconds making his prediction for today's AFC title game.

In 2003, yours truly wrote a piece saying the Pats had better lose a game down the stretch of the regular season, because there was no way in the modern NFL any team could win 15 straight games, which is what a Pats' streak needed to be to carry it all the way to the Lombardi Trophy. From the minute said column hit the stands, yours truly was subjected to abuse and ridicule from an angry fan base, much more than I ever got for once writing the Celtics should trade aging and injuured Larry Bird. (I must note the abuse and ridicule was wholly good-natured with the exception of Glenn Ordway and Pete Sheppard. Those two, I want as enemies.)

The Pats proved me wrong, delighting me in the process. Seeing history made was what I liked best about newspaper work. The team itself by the way didn't make the offending article bulletin board material. They joked about it. The Pats themselves were acutely aware how illogical that particular championship season was.

Yet another Super Bowl later, Pats fans are STILL angry about pregame predictions. Local sports media critic Bruce Allen, ordinarily as sane, fair, and balanced as fans get, listed 26 predictions for the Colts-Pats game from national NFL reporters . Nineteen picked the Colts, a fact cited as justification for New England feeling disrespected by the football world.

The 19-7 split could be fairly criticized as the usual sportswriting groupthink. Confronted with an even matchup, the experts took the line of least resistance and picked the home team. '
Twas ever thus.

Disrespect? No. The absurdity of that notion becomes apparent by reversing the two teams' circumstances. Suppose the Pats and Colts still possessed 14-4 records, but their regular season meeting had been Indianapolis, the Pats had won it, and as a result, today's game was at Gillette Stadium. Does anyone think the picks would still be 19-7 in Indy's favor? I daresay three "experts" at most would have selected Dungy, Manning, and Co. to advance to Super Bowl XLI.

Going over the top in thought, word, and deed is the entire point of rooting for any sports team. Fans, however, must share time and space with the rest of us. They should learn the difference between acceptable and unacceptable irritating behavior.

Example: Yankee fans are allowed to be smug, arrogant, and condescending. It makes them unpleasant companions sometimes (OK, always), but history says they're entitled. Yankee fans are NOT, however, allowed to feel sorry for themselves when things go wrong. That merits a hearty STFU from the rest of us.

After many weird years in the wilderness, Patriots' fans are rooting for one of the great teams in NFL history. On the eve of a playoff game against a foe that team has hoodooed like no other, those fans are absolutely allowed to be supremely confident, smug, and downright arrogant in their expectations. A bunch of them will be doing just that watching the game at my house tonight.

No follower of any team, however, is allowed to be overconfident, smug, arrogant AND insecure to the point of paranoia simultaneously. That behavior doesn't make you a fan, it makes you someone working out significant personal issues in the context of professional football.

As a matter of fact, it makes you Terrell Owens.

Legacy, Part Deux

Frank Gatski is an immortal oxymoron. He's an obscure Hall of Famer.

Gatski, now 84, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985. I'll bet not one fan in a 1000 knows anything about him. The NFL works overtime to convince the world its history began with Super Bowl I in 1967, so guys like Gatski who played in the 1940s and '50s are SOL in the publicity department.

The first sentence on Gatski's plaque in Canton is a Cal Ripkenesque attendance record. Gatski never missed a game in a 12-year pro career, in college, or in high school. Since Gatski retired after the 1957 season, that streak should be considered in light of the following fact-for 90 percent of his career, there weren't any face masks.

The second sentence on Gatski's plaque, however, is why I wish to celebrate the man this morning. In those 12 years as a pro, Gatski played in 11 (!!) championship games. His record in title tilts was 8-3.

Well, talk about a legacy of winning! Compared to Gatski, Tom Brady and Joe Montana were pikers. In fact, no matter what further success Brady achieves, which will be plenty, he'll NEVER match Gatski's record. Brady's already had two seasons end short of the Super Bowl.

So why isn't the Super Bowl champion awarded the Frank Gatski Trophy instead of one named after some coach who actually finished out of the money in FOUR seasons in his 10-year career? Positional discrimation, that's why. Gatski was a center. They don't count. As all ill-informed fans and commentators know and repeat ad nauseum, only coaches and quarterbacks are important enough to be judged on their won-loss record in big games. Everyone else on the field and sidelines is an interchangable part.

The two best quarterbacks of this era, two of the best of any era, will meet in tonight's AFC championship game. Whatever happens, the resulting blah about Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will create a cloud of toxic hooey larger than the one surrounding the presidential candidacy of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Unless one of them gets injured or commits a major blunder, the names of Pats' center Dan Koppen and his Colts' opposite number Jeff Saturday won't be mentioned after the pregame lineup introductions.

Forget getting the monkey off Manning's back or the Pats taking another stride into pigskin Valhalla. My real fantasy for the game is this: at some point in the proceedings, Koppen and Saturday trade turns refusing to snap the ball to Brady and Manning. The ensuing chaos would the most fitting tribute possible to the legacy of Frank Gatski.

Friday, January 19, 2007


Legacy is a dirty word. Whenever it's used by a president of the United States, we citizens have the right to haul the poor bastard out and shoot him, because he's of no further use to us, his alleged employers.

My sentiments on the l-word must pale next to Peyton Manning's. Whenever the word legacy is used in a sentence with his name in it, the author is really saying, "Peyton, you suck worse than any quarterback who ever lived."

That's arrant nonsense. Manning's misfortune, which I'm confident we'll see in action Sunday night, is only that he's a great player butting his head up against a better team. He's Wilt Chamberlain without the compensation of all that great casual sex. Wilt eventually won his titles. So did John Elway. Manning might not be a Colt when he wins a Super Bowl, and I'd unhappily bet Tony Dungy won't be his coach when he does, but he's still a way better than 50-50 shot to play for at least one NFL champion.

I miss my old life, but from the bleachers I see why so many sports fans hate sports journalists. What an association of soreheads! Sorry, I forgot to mention the sprinkling of ass-kissers who leaven the dry bread of contemporary sports commentary. Somewhere between sycophancy and cynical, self-promoting moralizing, there must be a happy medium.

There is, of course. Many of my old friends and former peers live comfortably in the sphere where truth and entertainment coincide. They're not opposites, after all. Their numbers and influence, however, wane daily. It's so much easier and more profitable to scream that today is the end of the sports universe for all time.

"If this is the ultimate game," said Duane Thomas before Super Bowl VI, "then why are they playing it next year?

If the Colts lose Sunday, what prevents them from winning next season? Nothing, as Bill Belichick would tell you tonight if he had the time. Or to put the cleat on the other foot, if the Colts manage to win, it obviously wouldn't downgrade what the Pats have already achieved. Why in the world should every game be the end of the story? What fun is that?

Here's a lesson Belichick taught me. To the people at the top of the pro football food chain, every day starts from scratch. No histories, no legacies, no projections into the future. Time and space are an endless progression of moments, the eternal now.

If he could've done more push-ups and laid off the heroin, Jerry Garcia might not've been a bad football coach.

If I Gotta, I Gotta

Habits are hard to break. I'm my own blogging boss and know no form of sportswriting is more useless and stupid than predictions. Yet a voice inside tells me only a horseshit scribe wouldn't make picks for the two NFL conference championship games, especially if the home team is in one of them. So here goes.

One's easy. Doesn't mean I'll be right, but my forecast is a clear vision. In the JV, er, NFC championship, I like the Saints over the Bears. New Orleans' offense has the best mixture of power and explosiveness of the four teams remaining. The Saints' most grievious weakness, a haphazard defense with a penchant for surrendering 70-yard gains will benefit from the Bears' distrust of their own quarterback, Rex Grossman. Teams with a "don't lose it" offensive game plan usually do just that.

Now for the hard one. Hold the Patriots and Colts up to any light you find, and they seem as equal as can be. Identical regular season records. Each team coming off a road playoff win where its Hall of Fame quarterback didn't play too well. Both nothing if not familiar with their foe to the point of actual boredom.

This will be the 7th meeting between the Colts and Pats in the past four seasons, seasons in which they've been the most successful regular season teams in the league (Indy 39-15, New England 40-14). As you may have heard, however, the Patriots have won two Super Bowls in that period and the Colts none. They're 0-2 against the Pats in the playoffs.

These facts dominate local news in these parts to the point where even the most devout Pats' fan might develop a sneaking hope the Colts win Sunday. Those who cite them ignore a basic fact of athletic human nature. In Vegas, the dice have no memory. In the NFL, players don't have much more.

Here is a brief summary of the last six meetings between the Colts and Patriots. The point is not to find a pattern, but to note that none exists.

2003 regular season at Indy: Patriots 38-Colts 33. As thrilling as can be imagined. A last second goal line stand is the most delightful of all football outcomes.
2003 AFC title game at Foxboro: Patriots 24-Colts 14. New England grabbed early double-digit lead and controlled game throughout. This is the most typical postseason game description of all.
2004 regular season opener at Foxboro: Patriots 27-Colts 24. Another thriller, in which the Colts squandered their chances with a series of dismal blunders. Eerily reminiscent of last week's Pats-Chargers' game, right down to the missed field goal on its final play.
2004 divisional playoff game at Foxboro: Patriots 20-Colts 3. Worst Indy effort of the bunch. Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy showed the white feather by punting on 4th and 1 from inside Pats' territory in the third quarter, and the Colts promptly collapsed. In fairness, this was also best Pats team of the bunch, too.
2005 regular season at Foxboro: Colts 40-Pats 20. Indy opened up a tall, frosty can of whupass from start to finish.
2006 regular season at Foxboro: Colts 27-Pats 20. Indianapolis scored on first three possessions and New England never caught up. 2003 AFC title game in reverse.

Go ahead. Tell me how those games help predict Sunday's outcome. They don't. They can't. The Colts and Pats touched all the possible bases in those six tilts. Analysis leads to one conclusion. This baby is most likely to come down to the football's funny bounces. That being the case, the Patriots are the only possible winner to to predict.

There's never been a team that's done more with funny bounces than the Pats. When the going gets weird, they get going at a pace no foe can match. Save the hate email deranged New England fans. I'm not discussing luck, which exists in every game. Winning off the bounces, or the tuck rule is the ability to make luck work for you, one of the supreme skills of any champion in any sport.

I was tempted to conclude this essay by saying Lady Luck throws herself at Tom Brady just as all the other ladies do, but I think there's something more to the Patriot's QBs knack for prospering when logic says he shouldn't. Let's not waste time. The Colts and Pats are potential champions because of their quarterbacks, period. Drop anybody else into those roles, and New England is a 9-7 marginal playoff squad. The Colts would've gone 5-11, tops.

As individual talents, there is nothing, repeat nothing to choose between Brady and Manning. It's our privilege to watch both. Put Manning on the 2004 Pats, and he'd have that Super Bowl ring. Put Brady on the 2004 Colts, and he would've thrown 49 touchdown passes that season.

So why is Fate Brady's best girl while she won't return Manning's phone calls? I've been lucky enough to watch each man's career from a very good seat, and I think it comes down to their respective lives.

When one sees Brady play football, one sees a man who's living the dream., which when you think about it is exactly what Tom's life has been.

When one sees Manning play, one sees a man raised from childhood for the terrible responsibility of inheriting and running the family business, which when you think about it is exactly what Peyton's life has been.

To the Colts and Pats, football's not just a game, nor it should it be. It's their lives, their destiny. But the team's whose biggest star can come closest to PRETENDING it's just a game has, in my opinion, an edge worth betting on.

Pats 28-Colts 24.

The People's Tribunes

Everyone who likes to laugh has seen Stephen Colbert's star turn at last year's White House Correspondent's Association dinner. The association, composed of some of the most pompous, cowardly frauds to walk this earth, wants to make sure nothing like that will ever happen again.

This year's master of ceremonies will be Rich Little (yeah, I didn't know he was still alive either). Not only that, but Little's been instructed not to make any jokes about either President Bush or Iraq, for fear of hurting the Leader of the Free World's feelings.

This poses no problem for Little, who may not be aware of either Bush or the war. He'll just fill the time with cutting edge material on Richard Nixon and the 18 1/2 minute gap. The rest of us have been given a splendid view of the dual role of Washington reporters.

If news organizations meant all the crap they give us about journalistic ethics, the members of the WHCA would be told to either resign from the organization or get fired. How can there be an organization of reporters trying to make sure their own event makes no news?

Nothing like that will happen. People don't understand what the "journalists" at the top levels of Washington really do. They're double dippers. Sometimes they're journalists, but more often they're lobbyists representing the interests of the giant corporations which employ them. And the closer their assignment takes them to the seat of power, the more lobbying and less reporting they do.

The best example is the man on the top of the Washington press corps. The corporate flow chart says Tim Russert is Washington bureau chief for NBC News, and occasionally he is. Russert's more important role, however, is to represent the General Electric corporation in the corridors of power. Without going into the blogger-beloved complexities of the case, let's just say this dual role is why Russert's on the witness list for the Scooter Libby trial.

That's the way it is. Work at the White House for Time, you'd better keep an eye on what might affect AOL. The two newspapers which devote the most space to news from the capital, the New York Times and Washington Post, are Fortune 500 companies in their own right, rife with interests in the government way beyond telling us what the hell it's doing.

Don't get me wrong. These institutions aren't totally corrupt. Probably they're corrupt less than 1 percent of the time, a very high honesty quotient for 21st century America. Putting out a successful product is an important part of corporate success, and the news companies want that, too.

Let me cite my own case. I was employed at two differenct papers owned by Rupert Murdoch. Mr. Murdoch is the most agenda-driven titan in the business. He is, however, also its most legendary buccaneer. Simply put, if you made money for Murdoch, he did not give a rat's ass what you thought. My political views, equal parts free marketeer, social democrat, and despairing nihilist, are not his. But I was in sports, a money-making part of the Murdoch empire. If I did my job of stirring the pot and attracting attention, ideology wasn't an issue. In 1993, some members of the Ryder Cup team boycotted a photo-op with President Clinton because they objected to the fact Clinton had raised taxes on the wealthy-them. I wrote this was a chickenshit move even by the standards of professional golf. The only feedback I received was a wistful query from the corner office boys as to why I hadn't used stronger language.

If I were a Murdoch employed member of the WHCA, things would be different. My gifts as a courtier and schmoozer would be what mattered. Sticking up for a Democratic president would not be tolerated (unless, of course, doing so would make more dough for Murdoch).

There are countless reporters doing splendid important work in Washington. They work long hours to provide vital information to a citizenry that, let's face it, doesn't give much of a shit.
The double-dippers at the top of the heap started off among their number.

Weird world, national political reporting. The byproduct of success is promoting oneself out of one's own integrity.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

And He Figured This Out Without Having to Watch "New England Tailgate."

The following quote, uttered before the sport of football was invented, explains why watching any NFL pregame show or reading any pregame "analysis" is a complete waste of your precious time on earth.

"No plan survives the first five minutes' encounter with the enemy"-German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke (1800-1891)

Political Football

Last week, Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) announced he would not seek re-election in 2008. Worried state Republican leaders approached John Elway asking him to be their candidate.

One sees the logic of their idea. If a bum NFL QB like Heath Shuler can be elected to the House of Representatives in his first crack at elective office, the sky's the limit for a Hall of Famer like Elway.

Sadly for the GOP, Elway declined the honor. One sees his logic, too. Based on past career experiences, Elway must've figured he'd have to suffer three straight landslide election losses before winning the office.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Happy Birthday, Champ

Muhammed Ali turned 65 today. Aging is, of course not an unusual process. Nothing drives me crazier than when stories call someone an "aging" sthlete. Find one who isn't, THAT's news.

Ali has been news his whole life. Out of the limelight, robbed of his charismatic power of speech by Parkinson's disease, he's still news, still far more important to far more people than any of the innumerable jocks since who've imitated Ali without understanding him.

Assessing Ali is hard to do without appearing to slam athletes of our time. Nothing could be further from my mind. If Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan are more inner-directed great athletes, that's both their right and irrelevant to evaluating their work. An artist owes us his or her art and nothing else.

BUT, and this is a but deserving a larger typeface, when an artist engages the public on a level beyond their work, when he or she makes the public feel part of that work, when the artist gets people to believe that work is part of THEIR lives, and above all, when the artist stands for something beyond themselves, that artist achieves something so far beyond technical merit us lesser humans don't have many words for it.

The mouthy, playful heavyweight with the warp speed hands became, somehow, a symbol for plain folks the world over. There was some shit Ali would not eat. He suffered in exile for his beliefs, returning both a lesser fighter and an infinitely greater champion. Not to get too hippy-dippy '60s here, but if Ali hadn't stood up to the draft board and the US government, he couldn't have stood up to Joe Frazier the last five brutal, glorious rounds of the Thrilla in Manila. No way.

I note without comment that the notion of a current professional athlete suffering significant career damage for the sake of a principle is so bizarre as to be comical. It isn't even the jocks fault. If our society isn't throwing up so many real heroes, its because deep down we don't want any. Just as well. We don't deserve too many, either.

I will note that some guys lead the sports section, and others lead the whole paper. Muhammed Ali is and always will be a front page guy, even if the lede is only he's now eligible for Medicare.

For $100,000, You Can Cover Reggie Wayne in the Dime Package

The Globe reports this morning the Patriots are offering a deluxe ticket package for this Sunday's AFC Championship Game in Indianapolis. Suite holders and club seat members are eligible to purchase the two packages which include, a ticket to the game, a room in the team hotel, a chance to attend an NFL party, and most inside and cherished of all benefits, the lucky buyers will travel to and from Indianapolis on the team's charter flight.

Purchase price: $10,000.

The Kraft family's entrepreneurial flair is always a thing to behold, and as a means of making more money off the Pats' franchise, this travel deal is both creative and harms no one. Whoever buys these things will be someone who can easily afford to and who'll be genuinely thrilled at the whole deal.

Nevertheless, I must issue a consumer alert to any prospective buyer. Based on my experiences covering the NFL, think carefully before giving the Pats your Amex platinum number.

A team hotel is much like every other hotel except many people you meet on the elevator are really big. Rest assured you'll be kept far far away from ultra-secret Patriots' activities like team meetings and breakfast.

This blogger has attended many an NFL party in his life, and jolly affairs they are, too. There is, however, a distinct difference between SUPER BOWL parties and the social gatherings at lesser games, even conference title games. The former are devoted to as much wretched excess as can be imagined. The latter, well, let's put it this way. If you've ever attended the free hors d'oeuvres hour in a Marriott concierge lounge, add an ice sculpture, and you have your basic NFL party.

The danger for the well-heeled fan who grabs this deal, however, lies in the perk which seems the most attractive-riding the team plane. The danger is, it's a round trip ticket.

Going out will be OK no matter what. The coaches and players will be firmly in their own universe, but Gil, Geno, and the kindly Pats' PR staff will probably be willing to chew the fat for a few minutes. Give a shout to my man Paul Perillo of Patriots Weekly, too.

The problem is, between the journey out and the journey home, your fellow passengers will participate in an important professional football game. It's entirely possible they'll lose it. Any non-Pats/Colts fan who doesn't think this contest is a 50-50 proposition is delusional.

(Unrelated note to the faux fan radio and TV nitwits of the Boston and Providence markets. When a team on the road is a three-point underdog, it isn't really an underdog. That's the standard point spread differential that's been established by decades of gambling experience and believe you me, if it weren't accurate, the boys in Vegas would've changed it by now. The spread doesn't mean the "experts" are dissing the Pats, it means they think the two teams are fucking equal. That is all. We now return to our original point.)

So there's a very real chance the package buyers will return to New England in the company of their favorite football team after it's suffered the most galling loss the NFL affords. Losing the conference title game is infinitely worse than losing the Super Bowl. You don't even get to be a well-known goat. Trust me, no matter how much you may love the Pats, you don't want to do that.

Many many years ago, when Chuck Fairbanks was coach, and the Pats weren't quite as structured as they are today, this rookie sports hack from the Phoenix traveled back from a garden variety regular season Monday night game in Miami on the team charter. It was a grim experience worth missing altogether. Never before or since have I seen people sleep angrily.

Magnify that jolly atmosphere by about 1,000 and one might approximate what the flight back from a conference championship game is for a road loser. If a Pats fan is aware of this and still wants to buy the 10K package, more power to 'em. They're willing to get close to a part of the NFL experience most fans aren't.

Kickoff Sunday is at 6:30 p.m. The Pats' charter won't leave Indy until well after midnight. Except for FedEx, the skies will be empty. Flight time back to TF Green will be 90 minutes or less.

If the Pats lose, it'll feel like 90 years.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

R-E-S-Please Go Away

Yours truly has the utmost respect for professional football players. I'd have even more than that if they'd just shut the fuck up about their delicate egos. NFL athletes are big, strong, tough, and apparently more sensitive than the average Project Runway contestant.

There's strange behavior, and then there's the twisted kind. Spending the better part of three hours in ultra-violent hand to hand combat with another team, only to get upset because they did a dance at the end falls squarely into the latter area. For that matter, so does doing the dance in the first place. Hey, Ellis Hobbs! You just knocked the Chargers out of the playoffs! Trust me, your Shawn Merriman impersonation won't make them worse about that.

This sort of mutual idiocy has become de rigeur NFL behavior. That's no excuse. Digging a little deeper into the psychic pit taunting and showboating represent, we find what Dr. Amos Alonzo Freud called "projection."

LaDainian Tomlinson usually stands aloof from "hey ma, lookit me!" shenanigans. It wasn't too difficult to guess why the Charger star got involved in a hooley at the final gun, or why he bitterly denounced Bill Belichick. Tomlinson was filled with rage on the topic of Shawn Merriman, but he knew he couldn't express his true feelings-his loudmouthed teammate had come up totally empty, and that's one reason San Diego lost. It may have sounded as if Tomlinson was defending Merriman, but what he meant was "hey, I know he sucked, OK? Don't rub it in on me."

The same translation works for Tomlinson's rip of Belichick. LT was furious with an NFL coach, all right, just not the one he talked about. Tomlinson had to vent, but maintained enough self-control not to scream, "will somebody get Marty the January Jonah off our sideline while I'm still capable of leading a Super Bowl winner. Please, I'm begging here!"

I have no problem with the Pats taunting Merriman. By their code, he deserved it. Had Merriman played well, or if Tomlinson was San Diego's resident egomaniac, the Pats wouldn't have said a word.

Rest assured his professional peers like Terrell Owens no better than do the rest of us. Less, actually. Players have a better understanding of how Owens' behavior wrecks the professional lives of his teammates.

In Super Bowl XXXIX, MVP Deion Branch mimicked Owens' Eagle-flap dance after scoring a touchdown. This fell into the category of spontaneous overacting, and bothered no one, not even Owens.

When the game ended, and the Pats REALLY had a chance to taunt Owens, their reaction was the exact opposite. Branch, Rodney Harrison, Belichick, and the rest were unanimous in praising Owens' performance to the skies. He'd played on a bum leg and had a tremendous game, doing all he could and more to try and help the Eagles win a title. Compared to that, the Pats felt, the warts on Owens' character meant nothing.

That's a harsh but fair value system for a very harsh sport. Seeing it in action enhanced both my understanding of and appreciation for the remarkable team New England was and is.

But fellas, I have to say this. If you guys are pulling out the "no respect" chestnut for the 2006 playoffs, you're either delusional or think the rest of the world is pretty stupid. Moreover, if the Pats think they NEED that tired crutch to maintain an edge, the Colts' chances of reaching the Super Bowl are better than I first thought.

Were I still working, and one of the men in the Gillette Stadium locker room gave me that line, I'd laugh, shut my notebook, and walk away. Wouldn't matter how much I admired the player. It could be Harrison, Tedi Bruschi, Tom Brady, anybody. Don't play me for a fool and expect respect in return.

No respect? Do the Pats not read sports news, or do they think nobody else does? They watch game films with no sound, but most folks watch games on TV and listen to announcers. The Prophet Mohammed does not get better notices in Riyadh than the Pats do from Phil Simms, John Madden, and all other national broadcasters. New England is a dynasty and all commentators treat it as such. There are indeed a large percentage of neutral fans and journalists who'd prefer to see the Pats get knocked off this Sunday. Thanks to human nature, that's what happens to all sports dynasties. It isn't a lack of respect-it's the ultimate manifestation of respect. Fans only hate teams they truly fear.

All Tomlinson, Hobbs, and the ensuing frothy brouhaha did was taint my pleasure in a rousing high-stakes football game. No, they also reminded me of my old high school football coach.

Bob DeGroat coached a candy-assed little prep country day school and won much more often than he lost in the 50s and 60s. The coach didn't say much. Didn't have to. He was tough in ways Merriman will never know. DeGroat got shot down over Germany in WWII, and spent 18 months in POW camp with a half-dozen bullets in his leg.

The only element of game demeanor our coach insisted upon was SHOW NO EMOTION WHATSOEVER! We warmed up in silence. We barely shook the hand of a teammate after he scored a touchdown.

"It's the best way to demoralize an opponent," DeGroat said. "Act like professionals."

Coach DeGroat died some years back. Wherever his spirit is these days, I sure hope he's not watching the NFL.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Patriots 24-Chargers 21, Part II

Which came first, the chicken, the egg, or Marty Schottenheimer?

The most puzzling condundrum in sports is just where to draw the line between comebacks and chokes. One man's heroic triumph against the odds is another's gutless punting of defeat out of the jaws of victory.

The abiding fallacy of all fans is that their team and theirs alone is in control of all occurances during a game. An astonishing number of sports journalists who should know better fall into the same trap, one that's magnified by the "shout at the top of your lungs" approach currently dominating all news media. Case in point: Game Six, 1986 World Series. To Bostonians, it's as if the Mets weren't even there during the fatal final inning, just Calvin Schiraldi, Bob Stanley, and, of course, Bill Buckner. This skewed view has taken over our national sports memory as well. That the Mets got more than one two-out, two strike hits to begin the story is forgotten.

In a nice case of historic irony, the 2004 Red Sox will NEVER get the credit they deserve for the all-time comeback in post-season history. America's long tradition of Yankee-hatred insures the '04 ALCS is destined to go down in the books as baseball's biggest choke.

As noted by Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell, it takes two, baby. Over 99 percent of all memorable comebacks/chokes are murder-suicide pacts in which good deeds and wretched misdeeds combine to form the improbable result. Some are more comeback than choke, some more choke than comeback, but one finds few straight up chokes or comebacks in any sport.

Football is the most chaotic of team games. Hence it has fewer pure comebacks or chokes than other sports, perhaps 1/10th of one percent of all notable late game surges. The famed Harvard-Yale 29-29 tie was one. Harvard's comeback energy made the Yalies irrelevant spectators of their own misfortune. The Bills' 41-38 1993 playoff win over the Oilers is another. Houston led 35-3 in the third quarter. Any coroner would rule the Oilers dead by their own hands.

The Pats' win over San Diego is more typical-a 50-50 comeback/choke proposition, an omelet of New England credit and Charger blame intertwined beyond hope of separation. From the opening kickoff, the contest's pattern was of the Chargers creating opportunities to win and either failing to capitalize on or downright squandering them. The Pats spent their time battling prolonged stretches of futility on both sides of the ball, then throwing sporadic but devastating counter punches.

Comeback? Choke? Beats me. The ambiguous nature of post-game analysis was captured perfectly by Lee Jenkins of the New York Times, whose lede for his game story was that Tom Brady proved he could do it all-he won a game by throwing an interception.

I do, however, believe there's a common thread, make that two sides of the same thread in the Pats' and Chargers performances yesterday. Guided by experience and faith, New England remained true to itself. Guided by Schottenheimer's experience and subsequent lack of faith, San Diego vacillated and perished.

The Patriots' offensive and defensive game plans were clear from the git-go. They didn't expect to run for much yardage. They expected Brady to be blitzed early and often, and depended on their quarterback and receivers to make the Chargers pay when they did. On defense, New England HOPED to slow LaDainian Tomlinson down, but COUNTED on thwarting Philip Rivers and the San Diego passing game.

These plans didn't work as well as Bill Belichick must've wished. Brady was horrible more often than not, compiling as many three-and-outs as he does in the average month of the regular season. The Chargers blitzed him to distraction, and when he went deep on single coverage, Brady couldn't complete his bombs. Meanwhile, the Pats couldn't slow Tomlinson down at all. He had 23 carries for 123 yards and two touchdowns, and caught two passes for 65 more yards. Divide Tomlinson's regular season stats by 16, and you come out with almost exactly the same numbers. In short, LT performed at his typical historic levels.

The Pats' reaction was to adjust by making no noticeable adjustments. They kept letting Brady chuck it downfield. They resisted the temptation to being 8 or 9 guys to the line to stop LT, and kept concentrating on the Chargers' passing game. Brady only completed one deep ball, but it was the one that won the game. As happens in close games, the Chargers encountered situations where they had to pass, and couldn't manage enough of them to establish the control Tomlinson should've given them.

Meanwhile, San Diego suffered from a failed personality makeover. Having established both a reputation for ultra-conservative football and a 5-12 career record in the playoffs, Schottenheimer decided to throw caution to the winds. The results were as pathetic and predictable as if this middle-aged suburbanite were to buy a new wardrobe, a Porsche convertible and start hitting the downtown bars in search of companionship. The Chargers were not true to their own selves, and Marty's now 5-13.

Rule number three of conservative football: Always take the points. At 0-0 in the first quarter, the Chargers had 4th and 11 on the New England 30. Instead of attempting a 47 yard field goal, Marty went for it. Result: Sack, fumble, turnover, no points.

Rule number two: Put the game in the hands of your best player. With the score tied 21-21 and 3:30 to go, the Chargers began their next-to-last possession by running Tomlinson off tackle for five yards. Excellent. Now run your hoss down the field till you have to shoot him. Crunch time is Hall of Famer time. San Diego than called two passes, both incomplete. Result: One punt, one New England scoring drive, one loss, one squandered season.

Rule number one of conservative football, the one from which all others flow: DON'T BEAT YOURSELF!!! Protect the football. Don't make unforced errors. Keep your head and remember the risk-reward ratio at all times.

The Chargers did none of the above. It was obvious turnovers were the Pats' defense's only recourse. San Diego dosed itself with football repellent all day long. One wait a long time to see a basically very good team take as many moronic penalties as did the Chargers. Forget the DB's insane head-butt after creating a turnover on downs for a second. I'd like to know just how a man on the kicking team can commit a personal foul on an extra point. That one I'd never seen before.

And, of course, when he made the interception that should have cemented San Diego's victory, Charger safety Marlon McCree didn't think "fall down quick and let LT win it for us." No, McCree's idea was "Anytime I get the ball I am going to try to score."

There's the yin and yang of comeback and choke in one second of play. Yes, Troy Brown made a magnificent, game-winning play reminding us why he should get a bust in Canton, Ohio. But McCree gave Brown the opportunity to be a hero, one he shouldn't have been allowed to sniff.

Secure in their own skin, the Pats remained confident good things would happen if they persevered despite plenty of evidence they wouldn't. Insecure in his, Schottenheimer abandoned the principles he'd made famous. He gave his club the whip when it needed to be reined in.

In football, luck isn't the residue of design. It's the residue of faith.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Patriots 24-Chargers 21

"In war," said Clausewitz or Napoleon or one other of those famous old dead guys of military history, "victory goes to the general who commits the next-to-last blunder."

Throughout pro football history, there haven't been many teams better at making the next-to-last blunder than the 21st century New England Patriots.

Colts 15-Ravens 6

When the Denver Broncos won their first NFL championship, John Elway sucked. In Super Bowl XXXII, one of the all time top quarterbacks completed 12 of 22 passes for 123 yards and one (most hurtfully timed) interception. You can look it up.

And you'll have to look it up. Nobody but nobody remembers Elway's numbers from Denver'
s stirring 31-24 victory over the Packers. Almost a decade later, the great man's ineptitiude is lost in the glossy haze of revisionist history. All that's left is the "this one's for John" tearjerking and Elway's admittedly marvelous head over heels scramble for a first down in the second half.
And that's as it should be. Elway's teammates took him off a hook he never should have been hung on in the first place.

The alert reader will note Elway's performance was WORSE than Manning's (15-30, two INTs) was yesterday against Baltimore. Manning was subpar by any standards, let alone his own, but he turned in many more significant pass completions than Elway managed in his career-fulfilling triumph.

One might think commentary on the Colts' win over the NFL's best defense would've simply left Manning out of the equation. Surely some observers would realize for the Colts to carry their quarterback to a win instead of their accustomed other way around meant Indianapolis is a far better TEAM than it's been in seasons past.

The game evolved into a contest out of Brian Billick's dreamiest fantasies-a contest of rousing violence, no scoring, and error avoidance. When push came to shove, the Colts won by controlling the ball with simple, straight ahead, muscle on muscle running. It was a manly effort indeed by a team constantly derided as just this side of sissified.

In expected but saddening fashion, the Colts' win was seen through the prism of Manning's performance. Indianapolis was somehow tainted because Manning didn't have a big day, although the exact opposite was in fact true. One gets a skewed view of Manning in these parts, as he's the opponent Pats' fans hate and fear the most. But on a sportswriter's web site where participants earn their living by knowing better, Manning drew 10 slams for every bit of praise his team received.

Manning does far, far too many television commercials. This should not blind us to the bedrock fact of yesterday's game. It's the idea every coach I've ever met has tried his hardest to impress upon fans and journalists, the first cliche in a sport built upon bromides. To wit, it's a team game.

Win and all 45 players on the active roster did something to contribute to their shared success. Lose and the same is true in a negative direction. It's really simple to figure this out. Football is played with 11 guys on a side, more than all the other games. Ergo, it's the sport where the collective matters most and the individual least.

Of all Tom Brady's gifts as a quarterback, his greatest is his ability to suss out his proper role in any given game more quickly than any QB I've ever seen. When Brady perceives the Pats can win if he does less and concentrates on error avoidance, he downshifts immediately. There's never been a big star so good at playing second banana, a character attribute beyond rare among quarterbacks, all bred to be leaders since childhood.

It's also an attribute Manning has never had, partly due to his serious, borderline grim, personality, and partly because he never felt he had the luxury of winning Best Supporting Actor. Throughout his distinguished career, one could look at Manning's individual passing stats after a game, and with no other information, immediately divine whether the Colts had won, lost, or been clobbered.

Not yesterday. Obviously the Colts aren't going to win many playoff games with an average or worse Manning. The point is, they won one, one few folks thought they would under any circumstances. The unhealthy co-dependency between the quarterback and his 52 teammates was broken, if only for a day.

To me, that only makes the Colts a far more dangerous opponent for the rest of the season. Perhaps you disagree. OK, but Bill Walsh, Bill Belichick, and the ghosts of Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi are on my side of the argument.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Weekend Investment Seminar

There are no sure things in life and especially not in football. Occasionally however, a beneficient universe lets you run into an overlay.

As a wagering proposition, the Patriots are getting five points for Sunday's divisional playoff game at San Diego against the Chargers. In the post-season, five is a very big number. Subtract the customary three-point advantage for home field, and the odds market favors the Chargers by two points which cannot be explained by traditional pigskin analysis.

My guess is the odds reflect how much closer San Diego is to Las Vegas than is New England. The sports books have likely been full of giddy Charger fans betting the gas bill money on their heroes, thus skewing the spread. This is beside the point. How an investment opportunity comes to pass is not nearly as important as recognizing one when it hits you in the face with a 2 x 4.

Here are a few relevant facts on the Chargers-Pats' matchup. One team has won three Super Bowls in the past 5 seasons, compiling an 11-1 playoff record. The other is coached by Marty Schottenheimer, whose teams (and there have been a few) haven't won an opening playoff game since 1993, when Marty's quarterback was one Joe Montana.

But wait, there's more. Thanks to their success, the Pats are rarely underdogs for any game. I cannot remember the last time they were given as many as five points for a regular season game. I do know the last post-season game New England was given that many or more points was Super Bowl XXXVI, the game that killed double-digit point spreads in the Super Bowl for all time.

This doesn't mean your correspondent is picking the Pats to win the whole game. I remain wholly undecided. There are as many easily constructed scenarios for a Charger victory as for a New England one. The last two times these teams met (regular season 2002 and 2005), LaDainian Tomlinson and company ran the ball right up the Pats' gizzle. It could well happen again.

This essay is about arbitrage, not second sight. Look at the Chargers and Pats from any conceivable angle, and they look extremely tied. Only the Pats, however, start off your wager leading 5-0. That, friends, is the classic definition of an overlay.

The whole proposition boils down to a rhetorical question. Gamblers, how many times in your life will you have the opportunity to have both Tom Brady AND the points on your side? It's worth making the bet just to see how that feels.

Weekend Investment Seminar

There are no sure things in life and especially not in football. Occasionally however, a beneficient universe lets you run into an overlay.

As a wagering proposition, the Patriots are getting five points for Sunday's divisional playoff game at San Diego against the Chargers. In the post-season, five is a very big number. Subtract the customary three-point advantage for home field, and the odds market favors the Chargers by two points which cannot be explained by traditional pigskin analysis.

My guess is the odds reflect how much closer San Diego is to Las Vegas than is New England. The sports books have likely been full of giddy Charger fans betting the gas bill money on their heroes, thus skewing the spread. This is beside the point. How an investment opportunity comes to pass is not nearly as important as recognizing one when it hits you in the face with a 2 x 4.

Here are a few relevant facts on the Chargers-Pats' matchup. One team has won three Super Bowls in the past 5 seasons, compiling an 11-1 playoff record. The other is coached by Marty Schottenheimer, whose teams (and there have been a few) haven't won an opening playoff game since 1993, when Marty's quarterback was one Joe Montana.

But wait, there's more. Thanks to their success, the Pats are rarely underdogs for any game. I cannot remember the last time they were given as many as five points for a regular season game. I do know the last post-season game New England was given that many or more points was Super Bowl XXXVI, the game that killed double-digit point spreads in the Super Bowl for all time.

This doesn't mean your correspondent is picking the Pats to win the whole game. I remain wholly undecided. There are as many easily constructed scenarios for a Charger victory as for a New England one. The last two times these teams met (regular season 2002 and 2005), LaDainian Tomlinson and company ran the ball right up the Pats' gizzle. It could well happen again.

This essay is about arbitrage, not second sight. Look at the Chargers and Pats from any conceivable angle, and they look extremely tied. Only the Pats, however, start off your wager leading 5-0. That, friends, is the classic definition of an overlay.

The whole proposition boils down to a rhetorical question. Gamblers, how many times in your life will you have the opportunity to have both Tom Brady AND the points on your side? It's worth making the bet just to see how that feels.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

How To Get Out of Iraq

Here's an idea that hasn't been tried: Present George W. Bush with the bill.

The abiding contradiction of America's occupation of Iraq is the discrepancy between blood and money. Our nation has spent over 3000 lives and 25,000 total casualties in pursuit of whatever our government's aims are in that horrible country, yet the total expenditure of American treasure on the project remains the same: $0.00. The entire cost of the war, now rising towards half-a-trillion bucks, has been borrowed, primarily from Asian central banks.

In other words, we're willing to fight to the last dollar we can scrounge from China. For those of you with adjustable rate mortgages, this means your home is a hostage to a Communist government. Cool, huh?

Within a month, Bush will send a supplementary appropriations request for over $100 billion for the war to Congress. The new Democratic majority has neither the guts nor the votes for the simplest responses to this insanity, refusal to pass it and/or impeachment. So here's a third alternative. Pay for it. Raise taxes by the exact amount requested by the White House.

Not just any old taxes, mind you. Those raised should be leveled squarely upon Bush's dearest loved ones-large corporations and the extremely wealthy. Democrats should ram a fully-funded Iraq bill through committee, sit back, and watch the fun.

The Democrats are afraid to refuse further expenditure because they don't want to be accused of "not supporting the troops." My idea puts the onus of that proposition squarely on the Republican party. The idea "Iraq's worth dying for, but not paying for" is both politically insupportable and sound-bite friendly enough to use on the average distracted voter. I never underestimate the venal lunacy of the Bush base, but really, who'd want to run for re-election on THAT platform?

When the bill passes, let Bush make the decision. He says he enjoys that. Worst case scenario: He signs it, and the Republic staves off fiscal ruin for a bit longer. Also, the Republican party falls apart. Best case: Bush vetoes. The money runs out by the end of the fiscal year, and the troops must come home.

Will this wonderful idea ever happen? Hell. no. The Democrats are too cowardly to think about increasing taxes. Even in the majority, their plan remains, "let's roll into a ball and hope the whole thing blows over."

Honestly, there are so many times when my emotions about being a Democrat are identical to my feelings about being a golfer. Both are lifelong loves forming a significant part of my identity. Both offer satisfactions. Both, alas, also create the same frustration.

Realizing that the party's response to the escalation of an already lost war will be precisely nothing and plenty of it, I feel the same as I do when I leave a ball in the trap a second time, or I'm schlepping my clubs through O'Hare airport.

Why DO I bother with this stupid fucking game?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

If You Worked Here, You Could Be Nuts By Now

This correspondent is currently unemployed. Therefore, I'm more than willing to be either the general manager of the New York Giants or coach of the Miami Dolphins.

Scott Pioli and Pete Carroll, on the other hand, already have jobs. Good jobs, in fact, jobs far better than the ones they were offered this week. Patriots fans had to be reassured when Pioli turned down the chance to interview with New York. This again proved he's smart enough to help keep their team a success.

I'm personally of Carroll, so I hope he's strong-willed enough to resist the siren song of the NFL. Frankly, the Dolphins job is one of those assignments that no one capable of doing it well would be so foolish as to even try.

Let's look at why there's a vacancy in Miami. Nick Saban, your classic intelligent, paranoid, on-the-make football coach, left a national championship college team for a king's ransom from Wayne Huizenga. Two seasons later, Saban decided he had a better chance of competing with the ghost of Bear Bryant at Alabama than of winning with the Dolphins.

THERE'S a recommendation. Thanks in part to Saban's own ineptitude, the Dolphins are a franchise with no quarterback, indeed, no offense to speak of, sustained by wonderful veterans on defense nearing the end of their careers. Unlike the Bear, Don Shula and Dan Marino are still around to remind Miamians of better times. A handy rule of thumb is never take a job in a town where they've named freeways after a predecessor.

At USC, Carroll is the emperor of a self-sustaining college dynasty. The Trojans went 11-2 and won the Rose Bowl in a rebuilding year. His USC winning percentage is up there in Rockne territory. Still in his early '50s, Carroll could end up BECOMING Bear Bryant, a college football legend.

Best of all, Carroll works in a city that doesn't have an NFL franchise. He and the Trojans are football in LA, our nation's second-largest metropolitan area. If Carroll, Julia Roberts, and Tom Cruise all arrive at the same restaurant without a reservation, it's the movie stars who must wait at the bar.

All coaches are psychotic competitors. Of course Carroll harbors a desire to return to the NFL for a third crack at success. The hope is he'll be wise enough to let the NFL come to him. Sooner or later, probably sooner, some team is going to relocate in LA, and its first order of business will be hiring legendary Pete Carroll to run the show for the richest coaching contract in history.

Carroll should follow Pioli's lead. Once again, I'm sure there's a part of Pioli's ego yearning for the chance to operate on his own, separated from Bill Belichick. The Pats' inside office honcho, however, had the self-discipline to realize the Field Turf is pretty damn green on the Gillette Stadium side of the street, too.

The Belichick-Pioli relationship is difficult to describe, even for them. They're not equals exactly, nor is Belichick the undisputed boss. It's more that Pioli is the coach's alter ego.

"He sees things as I do," Belichick once said.

The closest parallel I can draw to these two guys is the relationship between Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Lee was Jackson's boss, sort of, but their minds ran so alike the flow chart didn't tell the story.

"I never troubled to give him instructions," Lee said after Jackson's death.

Pioli must know breaking that relationship would be a considerable trauma both personally and professionally. He surely must know the new Giants' GM will inherit problems 1 and 1A, namely, what to do about Tom Coughlin and, how do we get more out of Eli Manning? It's quite possible problem 1A has no solution.

Pioli decided to stay where he was happy, productive, was part of three going on four NFL champs, and where Tom Brady is quarterback. Only the most provincial New Yorkers (all of them) could argue he made a poor choice.

Coaches and executives switch jobs all the time. It's a cutthroat racket, and everyone's entitled to climb towards the top of the mountain. But some guys REACH the summit. After that, all moves are sideways, attempts to decide which side of the peak offers the best view.

Bill Parcells can't find a comfy spot up there, which is just his nature. Pioli decided Route One was all the vista he needed for now, a mature choice in a profession for overgrown children (no offense, sportswriting's even more so).

Well-wishers can only hope Carroll understands that for him the sight of sunset over the Pacific is far lovelier than sunrise over the Atlantic.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Patriots' Immediate Future

By common consent and the memories of an awestruck young boy and teenager, Jim Brown was the greatest running back of all time-probably the greatest player at any position.

In his nine year career with his Cleveland namesakes, Brown played for only one NFL champion. He only appeared in three title games, in an era when only the two conference champions made the post-season.

In other words, the single most awesome weapon pro football has ever known was not enough to carry his team past the other top teams of his era. The Browns were always contenders, but eight times out of nine, they came up short.

Later on in history, we come to another interesting fact. Only two men have both won the NFL rushing title and gone on to be on the Super Bowl champion, Terrell Davis for the '98 Broncos, and Emmitt Smith for all three of the Cowboys' titles in the '90s. What do you suppose those clubs had that Browns' Browns didn't? Don't all speak at once. Everyone knows the answer is Hall of Fame quarterbacks John Elway and Troy Aikman.

To my youthful sorrow, I saw Sam Huff and the Giants' defense of the '50s and '60s thwart Brown in big game after big game, and learned a primal football truth. Any top-shelf defense can bottle up one running back no matter how great he may be. It's simply a matter of committing enough resources to the task. Unless the 10 other guys on the runner's team, specifically the quarterback, receivers, and whoever's calling the plays, to make the defense pay for its choice. Until Frank Ryan had a career day in the 1964 title game, no Browns quarterback could.

One of the worst NFL rushing defenses in HISTORY committed all its resources to stopping one of the two best backs in the league last Saturday. Neither Trent Green nor Herm Edwards could make the Colts pay, and the Chiefs are history themselves.

LaDainian Tomlinson is the nonpariel back of our era. Philip Rivers is, well, who knows, really? More significantly, throughout his long and distinguished career, there has been no more devout believer in the error-avoidance, safety-first approach to football than Chargers' coach Marty Schottenheimer. It's won his teams a lot of games. It's why January is Marty's least favorite month of the year.

Does that mean your correspondent is ready to blithely pick the Pats over San Diego on Sunday. Not quite. At kickoff, however, the burden of proof will be on the home team, not the visitors.