Monday, October 22, 2007

Into His Heart It Will Creep, So Bet the Over

Every trade has an occupational health hazard. Coal miners get lung diseases. Authors and baseball managers get drinking problems. Poets get suicidal. Sportwriters get sports talk radio gigs.

Football coaches get paranoid. It can't be helped. Coaches get paid to worry about every tiny detail of a chaotic activity every waking moment of their lives. Naturally, almost all of them start finding imaginary worries to complement their real ones.

Stands to reason that being a better football coach than most anyone else, when Bill Belichick went paranoid, he didn't stop with a mild case.

The Patriots coach attracted a little attention to New England's otherwise utterly mundane 49-28 rout of the winless-on-merit Dolphins by putting Tom Brady back in the game after removing him when a 42-7 lead shrank to a skintight 42-21 margin. Some critics said Belichick was running up the score. The coach's explanation, that no lead is safe in the NFL, did not strike most folks as a rational motive for the decision.

Well, it wasn't. That irrationality, however, doesn't mean it wasn't Belichick's real reason for revoking Brady's half-day off. The paranoid flee where no team but Miami approaches.

Like most paranoid fears, Belichick's concern for a measley 21-point lead has its roots in an actual trauma, namely, the Pats' blowing a 21-3 lead in their 38-34 AFC championship game loss to the Colts back in January. Even back when New England had Peyton Manning's number, and the reason the team was invincible was Belichick's defensive genius, Indianapolis was the opponent the coach respected/feared the most. In the aftermath of a startling defeat, that fear/respect seems to guide every action Belichick takes.

The Colts have an unstoppable offense and a record-setting quarterback? OK, we'll get those, too. We lost an 18-point lead by relaxing perhaps an erg in a big game. I, Bill Belichick, will never relax during a game again, and to hell with the score.

(We pause here to point out the obvious. Belichick wasn't running up the score on the Dolphins, because you CAN'T run up the score in the NFL. It doesn't have a Division 1-AA. Everybody's getting big money, and if the other team can't stop you from scoring, that's their problem. For God's sake, the biggest rout in pro football history, Bears 73-Redskins 0, was in a CHAMPIONSHIP GAME.)

Belichick's concern with the frailty of leads led him to ignore certain obvious facts, such as that Cleo Lemon ain't even Eli Manning, let alone Peyton. The most dangerous fact he ignored, of course, was the frailty to the human body, to wit, Brady's body.

"I've said this before," Brady said afterwards, "our objective isn't to be 7-0." Forgive me for thinking the quarterback was aiming his remarks at his coach, not the media.

Brady is a very durable player, and his ability to take a hit would make him a stellar Hollywood stuntman. But telling a player he's done for the day, then reneging, can rob the player of the tiny fraction of mental alertness he needs to keep catastrophe at bay. Or so Pedro Martinez and Grady Little told me once.

Belichick didn't just expose Brady to needless risk, he increased the amount of danger in the bargain. That's a mighty big bet to make on the payoff of a 28-point lead against the Dolphins. As risk-reward ratios go, it's about like waking up tomorrow and buying every subprime mortgage in sight. Hey, they're cheap now, right?

In cold fact, the kind Belichick specializes in, a healthy Brady is worth losing almost any individual game. The Dolphins weren't going to come back, but had they, the loss, while galling, would have meant exactly diddley-squat to New England's pursuit of the 2007 NFL championship. Calculating odds like those with as little regard for human emotion-his own included-has made Belichick a Hall of Famer. It was disconcerting to see the coach take counsel of his fears. He knows better.

And that, I suspect, was why Belichick was so tight-lipped on the subject afterwards, acting angry at the question. He was angry at himself. He does know better, and in retrospect, his fears looked foolish and he felt foolish.

Irrational fears always look foolish in retrospect, when it's too late.


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