Patriots 31--Eagles 28
Take it from a childhood Eagles fan. The Eagles did NOTHING, absolutely not one teeny thing different from their basic game plan of the Andy Reid era against the Patriots. Their uncanny genius strategy for giving the invincible Pats a hard time was to play well.
Blitz early, often, and continuously. Maul opposition wide receivers with a rough and talented secondary. Control the ball with the good old West Coast passing offense. That's it. That's why Philly's tried to do in every game of this millenium. It almost worked because several Eagles, notably A. J. Feeley and Lito Sheppard, played their asses off.
That's all the Colts did against the Pats on defense, too. Indy didn't stray from Tony Dungy's Tampa-Two. They simply did it well. There are few if any mysteries in pro football. Teams' plan to fit their personnel. Tom Brady is not going to stop passing because some opponent is weak against the run.
The next football game won by strategy will be the first one.
The New England Golfer, An Ongoing Series
It was 40 degrees in Lexington, Mass. yesterday, with 20 mph winds, which made it impossible to rake leaves. Driving on 128, I glanced over at the Pine Meadows golf course, and say not only were there players on the course, they were backed up on the eighth fairway waiting to hit!
It's not as windy today, but it is 29 at noon. It's impossible to rake leaves because many of them are frozen to the lawn. At the Stone Meadows driving range, half a dozen guys were out there beating balls.
God, did I feel like a weenie as watched these devoted souls. Not so much that I'd join them, however. Better a damaged self-image than a shattered earlobe.
The Patriots are 22 point favorites over the Eagles this Sunday. This is the largest point spread ever for an NFL game that didn't involve a first year expansion team. And the line's been bet to 23 from Monday.
The Patriots are better than the Eagles. They're playing at home, and Donovan McNabb is hurting. So the spread should be big. But 22? That's a spread that renders the actual game almost irrelevant to the wager's outcome. There is no factual difference between a 38-14 game (the score by which the Pats beat the Jets in the season opener) and a 38-17 game (the score by which they beat the Chargers the following week). Unless of course, you gave the 22.
The number represents the attempt of the gambling industry to compensate for what usually is its bread and buttered caviar. Most of its customers are not well-informed. Like voters who haven't given a thought to the 2008 election who, when polled, say they're for Hillary Clinton or Rudy Giuliani, football bettors go with the name they've most heard, the teams that are on television a lot. They're called "national" teams, and this effect can last a long time past said team's shelf life. The Raiders still get more play than they deserve.
Bettors, in short, play celebrity favorites. The fact Tony Romo dates celebrities probably adds at least a half-point to the Dallas spread each week. The Pats are the "national" favorite par excellence. The suckers, er, home investors have been betting New England with both feet. Since the awful events of the AFC championship game have convinced the Pats to never stop playing hard no matter what (isn't that an athletic virtue?), the suckers, for once, are cleaning up.
Bookmakers live off volume. Taking the Pats' games off the board would be self-defeating, since if nothing else, they serve as loss leaders, tempting the bettor to wager on other games. But it takes a great deal of vigorish to compensate for a high-volume loss on the book's balance sheet.
The 22 point spread is the effort by the sports gambling business to draw a line in the sand. It is the equivalent of the rescue fund the big banks set up to bolster the worthless mortgage-backed securities they can no longer sell to THEIR suckers. And like the fund, there's no guarantee it'll work.
What the spread WILL do is take the game off the board for any reasonably serious NFL handicapper. As noted, it makes the wager an absurdity. While there might be some spectator appeal to seeing a 40-yard dash between yours truly and Randy Moss with Moss forced to carry a refrigerator, it wouldn't be a sound bet either way.
For the 99 percent of underinformed investors, the spread might peel, oh, 10-20 percent of them away from their Pats habit precisely because it's such an eye-popping number. Any spread appeals to the human desire to get something for nothing. Three touchdowns plus a point is one hell of a sales promotion.
The slightly better informed investors will stick with the Pats habit that has rewarded them 9 out of 10 weekends this season. With a gun at my head, I'd put my money that way. Its probably a 53 percent chance. Since the Eagles have problems but are not hopeless, the Pats will be out there slinging the ball around in the 4th quarter no matter what.
All booms end in busts. The great Pats' boom of 2007 may not end as far as the records are concerned. They could well go undefeated, although that gets tougher as Christmas nears. But the Pats betting boom will end. If they cover against the Eagles, watch for the first 30 point spread in NFL history for their home games with the Jets and Dolphins.
If I had to guess, I'd say the best chance of an underdog covering a Pats spread would be when they play at Baltimore. Just a guess, though. They've been off my investment board since the Chargers game. I don't know what to think about a team that CAN beat arithmetic.
A Moral Dilemma for the Walt Disney Co.
The ABC/ESPN empire is running a poll, whose voters and methods they have to disclose to this viewer, listing the 25 Greatest College Football Players of All Time (Capitalization is a must in ESPNland). This will serve the vital social purpose of starting a lot of fatal barroom arguments in SEC college towns.
No problem with any of the persons listed to date. Of course there's a bias to the post-ESPN era, so I don't expect Walter Camp to get named, but to see Roger Staubach ranked ninth was nice, as was seeing George Gipp and Tom Harmon on the list.
The trouble is, ESPN is down/up to number seven now, and there's one notable player who hasn't been mentioned. He used to own a white Ford Bronco.
What to do with O.J. Simpson? He beat the rap for a double murder not too many people think he didn't do. He's on trial for armed robbery. He was the best college football player I ever saw.
If Simpson's off the list, the list is a farce. If he's on it, any number of ESPN football broadcasters are in for the most awkward in-the-booth cross-talk in college football history. Oh, to be torn twixt' corporate image and duty.
Ha! As if ESPN is torn. The network was has made Chris Berman and Stuart Scott big stars is hardly afraid of a little farce every now and then. The list is already absurd, since there 10 worthy honorees left out for every one named. ESPN is running VERY short mentions of the list during games (one plus for those who think they'll name O.J.), and ESPN.com remains stubbornly user-hostile, so I'm relying on memory which could be faulty, but to the best of my recollection, the following schools have yet to have a player named: Alabama, Miami, Penn State, and Oklahoma. Come on. That shows the silliness of the exercise.
There will be, in short, no trouble naming seven people all quite worthy of being ranked among the top 10 college players of all time without dragging Simpson into the mix. Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie, and Sammy Baugh have yet to be named, for example, not to mention Jim Thorpe and Red Grange, who have the advantage of being uncontroversially dead.
As Napoleon should have said, history is written by the marketing department.
A Box Score is Worth a Million Words
ATTENTION FOOTBALL FANS!!! Stop whatever you're doing this morning, especially if it involves Chris Berman or Tim Russert, and head immediately to espn.com and click on the story about yesterday's Navy-North Texas game.
Don't bother with the story. Anyone with a pulse knows by now the final was Navy 74-North Texas 62. Just take a gander at the stat box and the scoring summary, and let your imagination run wild. Eleven touchdowns scored in one 15:46 period of play. The North Texas quarterback completed 40 of 50 passes for 478 yards and 8 TDs, and not did his team lose, they didn't cover!
Here is a challenge to our country's vast surplus of sports cable television networks. It is you duty to show America next week's half hour coach's TV shows by the Navy and North Texas mentors. You know, the ones where they show highlights and break down the game. The two poor guys won't have enough air time to show all their own team's scoring.
Old Con Man of the Mountain
There's no hope for a functional American political system for another four years. The New Hampshire primary is taking place as scheduled, although they're not quite sure what the schedule might be.
The next Leader of the Free World (since the list of countries we're leading has shrunk to like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan, it may be time to drop that title) will have fallen for one of the most blatant rip off schemes ever invented. No matter who wins the primaries, the crusty, tax-hatin', "fiercely independent" Yankee citizens of my good neighbor to the north will have agaim succeeded in their primary goal, getting the system to pour money they don't deserve into their economy.
Oh, to have a stake in the balance sheet of WMUR-TV, Manchester, this time of year. In one ten minute stretch last night, Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Mitt Romney all had commercials. And Hillary and Rudy haven't even started to spend. Mailmen in Nashua are undergoing back surgery in droves, broken by the combined weight of direct mail fund-raising appeals and Christmas catalogs. Hotels in Bedford, Hanover, and Portsmouth that are empty three out of every four Decembers will soon fill with the brainless cream of our nation's political journalists, frantically pondering the meaning of the noncommital grunts of the voters.
It's all a shuck. The voters of New Hampshire select presidential nominees with only idea, keeping their unfair and, when you get right down to it, comical grasp on power. Since they are good Americans, New Hampshirepersons seek power for the most benign of reasons - making money out of it. In addition to the direct flow of campaign funds into their coffers, you may be sure that the 2009-2o13 federal budgets will contain teeny-tiny multi-million buck items that benefit no one south of the Merrimack River, promises kept by a grateful President.
People running for President are desperate men and women, and hence, really easy to fool. We are now entering the most hilarious stage of the New Hampshire Swindle, the part where its voters pretend to change their minds on a daily basis, the better to drive up the political community's frenzy quotient.
Said community is agog this morning about a yet-t0-be-released poll showing that Hillary Clinton now longer has a commanding lead among New Hampshire Democratic voters. Can you believe it? There's now a three-way tie between her, Obama, and Edwards. Why, New Hampshire just might decide the whole election!!!!
Leave aside the obvious truth that one New Hampshire autumn poll is like one New Hampshire autumn falling leaf-there's plenty more where that came from. One is inevitably eminded of the massive mood swings the Granite State electorate went through in the last double primary election of 2000, when polls showed tight races with multiple lead changes between Bill Bradley and Al Gore and John McCain and George Bush right up until two landslide victories for Gore and McCain.
Idealists, OK, maybe only David Broder, would say this proves how seriously New Hampshire takes its responsibilities as a bellwether leader of our democracy. I say the poll fluctuations show why Vince McMahon is a very rich man. If a state has a vested interest in making sure its opinion has undue influence, then foregone conclusions are bad for business, and must be avoided at all costs. Anyone who thinks the citizens of New Hampshire lack the intelligence and sophistication to pull off such a scam is insulting them.
What's even better is that New Hampshire hasn't had a real effect on an election in almost 30 years. Ronald Reagan's victory there in 1980 did indeed set him on the road to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But Presidents Tsongas, Buchanan, and Kerry? No.
This is one case where the moral onus of the swindle rests solely on the suckers. It is well within the power of the political system to put New Hampshire in its rightful, obscure place. Don't go there. Literally. No campaign stops, no commercials, no debates at St. Anselm's. Let them make up their minds in solitude, which would actually give the results some validity.
This will never happen. Not even Ron Paul has the guts to call New Hampshire's bluff. The groveling presidential candidates do there is a symbol to the system. Don't worry. I'm no threat to the status quo.
I'm old, lazy, and cynical even by the high standards of newspaper work. But if some hero were to declare their candidacy for the Presidency and announce he or she was shunning the New Hampshire primary, I would leave my job, my home, and all my worldly goods to follow their star. I would campaign for them barefoot door-to-door.
Especially if they spent the time in the Florida primary instead.
Patriots 24-Colts 20
That was an exceptionally entertaining football game, the kind where I'm delighted to be a neutral observer. There are going to very many sore bodies at film sessions at two team headquarters tomorrow.
There will be so many words around the world expended on this tilt, most by reporters who were actually on the scene, that I will confine myself to one brief observation. Remember the no-call on the end zone on Rodney Harrison in the first quarter? Remember how Rodney patted the official on the ass after the call?
One couldn't help noticing that the Patriots got hammered for (to be kind) marginal pass interference calls, including one offensive one, when play neared the end zone for the rest of the game. So maybe Rodney shouldn't have done that.
Hey, Belichick's got to have SOMETHING to bitch at the team about during the bye week.
X + 0 = A Tiring Day's Work for Gostkowski
Several Patriots fans of my acquaintance have said they wished they could read more tactical football stuff about tomorrow's game with the Colts and less about Bill Belichick's moral fiber or lack of same. I'm with them there. It is fair, however, to point out that technical football is difficult to discuss without diagrams or videotape, neither of which sportswriters or most bloggers have at their command. NFL coaches do not post game tapes on YouTube, although it would be fun if they did.
I'll try anyway. Let's examine the game from the defensive half of Tony Dungy's brain. That is, how would one attempt to thwart, or at least occasionally bother, New England's offense,which is on track to be the highest-scoring bunch in pro football history?
Let's start with the basics. Teams do what they do. Dungy must play off the Colts' basic defensive scheme and the strengths of his personnel. He cannot transform his corners into Michael Haynes and Night Train Lane and announce "we'll jam the hell out of them on the line."
Basic number two. For once, this cliche is not an ESPN catch-phrase. Dungy CAN hope to contain the Pats. He can, indeed, must plan on the expectation the Colts will score a few points, too. Since they have put up an average of 35 points in their last three games with New England, that's only reasonable. If the Pats' defense shuts down Peyton, well, the Colts' defensive game plan won't matter much.
There are our ground rules. What should a speedy, slightly undersized, young defense with excellent tackling fundamentals built on the two-deep zone do against the Pats? I will present my suggestions in bullet-point form, because I need to rake out the catchbasin before the rain starts.
1. Mix it up. Tom Brady can evisercate any single tactic enough to render it useless. See the Cowboys-Pats game. Dallas built its plan on rushing Brady. This was necessary, since its coverage sucks, and its rush is good. Alas, rushing the passer is a very tiring activity, and by the fourth quarter, the Cowboy defenders could barely stand up. The primary lesson Bill Belichick has taught pro football is that good teams can walk and chew gum simultaneously. Show different looks, accepting the fact Brady will guess right on several six-point occasions.
2. Forget the run. If Maroney beats you, so be it. He's not the Hall of Famer on that offense. Every time Brady hands off is a partial victory for your side. Fast linebackers must be able to react to the ball in time to keep runs at 4 yards, not 8.
3. Don't obsess about Randy Moss. This is another "turning into the skid" counterintuitive idea. Defenses are taught from childhood to stop the run and prevent the big play as life priorities 1 and 1A. The Cowboys, Dolphins, and Redskins all gave Moss extra attention on every play, and gave up 149 points between them. Undefended passes are usually the biggest plays of all.
3A. Whatever coverage Moss gets, make sure it keeps him outside. Those are somewhat more difficult deep throws. We are working at the margins, here, remember.
4. Aim for the one tiny weak spot in the Brady death star. The closest thing to a weakness in Brady's game is that he is prone to fumbling when he's hit. You must have at least one of those. It would be worth a penalty or two to get it.
5. When it's third and goal, cover Vrabel. It's the principle of the thing.
6. Aah, the hell with it. If I'm Dungy, I'm going to spend the next 31 hours hoping Dwight Freeney has his first non-invisible game against the Pats of his career, and hoping harder that Marvin Harrison's leg gets better. To paraphrase Charley Brown, I'd tell my strategy to shut up.
One man's guess: Patriots 41-Colts 31
Astonishing Use of the English Language of the Week
In a letter to today's New York Times on the nomination of Michael Mukasey to be Attorney General, a Mr. Bob Kelly of Keansburg, New Jersey wrote the following phrase in what he meant to be a temperate letter. We give it a paragraph of its own, because it deserves it.
"Those who tortured in good faith"
Parse that one for awhile, gang. Now tell me the United States of America isn't a doomed institution-without either laughing or crying.
Two NBA Thoughts
1. The last time I was actually curious about watching a Celtics' season opener was Rick Pitino's debut. This is not snark, but only a weird fact. They won that one, too, beat Michael Jordan and Bulls, in fact.
2. If Kevin Garnett is getting old as a player, it certainly makes him distinguished-looking out on the court.