Sunday, November 30, 2008

They Call Them Mr. Touchdown, Ms. Touchdown, and all the Little Touchdowns

Yours truly watched most or a large part of four college football games yesterday. One of them, Kansas-Missouri, was outstanding entertainment Both teams scored 14 points in the last five minutes, star players left the field hurt, then came back for more heroics, and the final quarter was conducted in a snow squall. Kansas won 40-37.

That was the LOWEST scoring game of the four. The other three games finished Georgia Tech 45-Georgia 42, Oregon 65-Oregon State 38, and Oklahoma 61-Oklahoma State 41. Tech and Georgia struggled from beyond the three-point line, or that one would've gone higher.

There have always been high point totals in college ball, because powerhouses all play at least one little sister of the utterly destitute each season. But there wasn't a cupcake on my Saturday snack tray. Every one of the eight teams cited above is bowl-eligible. Most of them will go to bowls played after Christmas (In college football, December 26 is the new New Year's Day). One of them, Oklahoma may very well play for the fraudulent, I mean, mythical national championship of the BCS.

And it gave up 41 points!!! Brent Musberger went on and on about the Sooners' "great athletes" on defense, usually before they surrendered yet another 20-yard gain. Oregon State was only playing for a trip to the Rose Bowl, and allowed 700 yards of total offense to its archrival. Its quarterback threw five touchdown passes and still lost. Matt Stafford of Georgia also threw five touchdown passes and he lost too. I guess those guys haven't learned to "manage the game."

That's not football. That's XBox football. As a former defensive player in high school (I was "gritty," meaning I sucked, but did so while full of enthusiasm), it offends me. And as the steroid fueled home run binge of the 1990s made baseball less enjoyable, so too is the touchdown binge of this decade making college football less enjoyable, to me anyway. Games are artificial creations, and when they lose their competitive balance, they become bad art-a painful exercise for the spectator.

Ergo, I am rooting for Alabama to win its final two games of the year and win the BCS. Head coach Nick Saban is a supreme jerk, who I've witnessed cop an attitude after a big win, and his word means nothing. Were I his employer, I wouldn't go to lunch with Saban without my attorney present. But Saban's team is built around its defense, and therefore, an Alabama title is an aesthetic necessity.

There are various reasons for the growth of college's touchdown tumor. The rules are consistently tweaked to favor scoring, just as in the NFL, and despite the amazing salaries talented NFL defensive players earn, the best athletes still prefer playing running back or wideout to linebacker or defensive back. And colleges are currently in the grip of a formation mania, the allegedly unstoppable spread offense.

The spread is basically the shotgun with a running back alongside the quarterback and about nine receivers set wide across the field. Its roots are in the single- and double-wing formations invented by Pop Warner. The theory is, defenses cannot cover every receiver, and if they do, the quarterback or running back has about a guaranteed 15-yard gain on every run. That is how it's working out in practice, and will until some defensive coordinator abandons the innate conservatism of his profession and takes the logical leap known as creativity.

In football coaching (and the best ones, like Bill Belichick, all freely admit it), creativity means stealing a past idea that's gone out of style. In the case of the spread, the idea goes back to the first idea of how to stop a passing game-commit grievious bodily harm on the passer.

Coaches hate giving up the "big play." If you're giving up 60 a game, there must be some big plays in there despite your efforts to contain the spread. Some genius will decide to turn into the skid, bring back Buddy Ryan's 46 defense or some variation thereof, and send 10 guys blitzing on every down. Turn Tim Tebow or Sam Bradford into sandwich spread, and the spread offense will seem less attractive to its practitioners.

Maybe it won't happen this season. But what college football needs most (besides a playoff, that is), is a mythical/fraudulent national champion who wins their final game 10-6.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The World's Greatest Deliberatve Body Goes Post-Modern

With a few million providential lucky breaks, the 112th Congress of the United States which will convene in January, 2011 will contain two new members: Chris Matthews (D-Pa.) and Hank Williams Jr. (R-Tenn.). If nothing else, this will give tourists in Washington something to do besides trudge to the Smithsonian. Also, Brian Lamb will see ratings for C-Span quintuple.

Alas, the voters of neither of these fine states are likely to be as into dark humor as yours truly. The proposed Williams and Matthews campaigns do, however, provide an opportunity for aspiring young men and women on the make who have some facility with the English language.

Young hustlers, show up at either man's doorstep and volunteer your services. Eat peanut butter, sleep on the office floor for six months to a year-AND KEEP YOUR EYES AND EARS OPEN.

Go back to computer, write diligently, and presto, you have a best-seller on your hands. And while you are unlikely to ever sing the new theme song for Monday Night Football, a long career as a cable news talking head awaits.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

ADDicted, or Just ADD?

Every so often, there's a news story about some person, invariably close to or actually elderly, who once won a big, big prize in the lottery, and wins another one. Not usually as big, maybe a daily jackpot or something, but lightning struck twice, and the officials in charge of the lottery have a vested interest in making sure we know about it, so they tip off the media.

This PR never works. Folks don't think, "wow, there's a lucky person. I should buy lottery tickets too!" No, everyone with at least one-sixth of one brain cells thinks, "Wow, there is one sick degenerate gambler!! I'd better NOT buy a lottery ticket. I could wind up like that!"

There are, sad to say, at least a few Boston sports fans who are like those double lottery winners. They think the Patriots should keep Matt Cassel and let him compete for the quarterback's job next season against that no-account playboy Tom Brady.

Their logic, while demented, is easy to follow. Drew Bledsoe got hurt in 2001, Brady replaced him, and the Pats became a dynasty. Brady gets hurt in 2008, Cassel takes over, and well, the sky's the limit. Seven or eight straight Lombardi Trophies, minimum.

All football fans are quarterback-centric, elevating the game's most important position beyond its real value. New England fans are the most quarterback-centric of all. It is their most obvious group flaw (optimism in the face of adversity is their most obvious group virtue). But this splinter group of Cassel nuts is something else. Either they have long-term memory loss commonly associated with decades of constant marijuana use, or they're quarterback controversy junkies from years of constant sports talk radio listening.

I'm not sure which would be worse.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Maybe They All Share A Glass of Shamepagne

An acquaintance asked this evening if the 1972 Miami Dolphins had their champagne toast last night to celebrate the fact there will not be an unbeaten NFL team this season, due to the Titans losing (not that I think those superannuated attention whores were too worried about a team with Kerry Collins at quarterback tying their record).

I suppose they did. But it got me thinking. Every year there's some team that's the last to lose a game, and that's when the old Dolphins shuffle into the limelight and grab hold of it for dear life. That process, however, works from the bottom up as well. Every year there's a team that's the last to WIN a game. And the 1972 Dolphins do have an evil, make that inept twin, the one team in NFL history to have lost them all, the 0-14 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Do the old Bucs note the winless clubs each fall, as they come close but fail to match their dismal but unique record. Are they JEALOUS of their status as the worst of the worst, and scoff at the pretenders who don't have their package of disadvantages, the utter lack of talent, character, and poise that allowed Tampa Bay to fail on every given Sunday?

Probably not, but maybe they should be. To be 0 for the season is, in its way, probably harder than winning them all. That takes a twisted but special brand of consistency. This reporter saw some pretty awful Eagles teams in his youth, and some pretty freakin' awful Patriots teams in the line of duty. National sexual harassment scandal and all, the 1990 Pats still bungled their way to one win. They were a disgrace, but they weren't PERFECT failures.

There are plenty of '76 Bucs still alive and in robust health. Given the turnover a first year expansion team generates, there are likely more of them than there are '72 Dolphins. I'm not being snarky here, this is genuine curiosity. Do they possess a unit esprit de corps? Do they have annual reunions? Have they ever met as a group since 1976?

I don't know, of course. But if I was a Detroit sportswriter, I'd be making it my business to find out. Because the Bucs have an NFL record that appears to be in maximum jeopardy.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Evidence That God Not Only Exists, He Went to Princeton

There are leaves left to be raked and the first snow can't be too far away, so out into the yard I went this morning.

And back into the house I came five minutes later. Forget it. Not only is it well below freezing, but a brisk (weather euphemism for "life-threatening") wind is blowing the leaves around my neighborhood faster than any person or persons could rake them up.

Silly me. It had slipped my mind that today is The Game. When Harvard meets Yale on the playing field of honor, wind meets chill on the playing field of hypothermia.

It was my distinct pleasure to cover many a Game (all others are parvenu wannabes) during my sportswriting career, a pleasure tempered by extraordinary physical discomfort. There were exceptions, I suppose. In 2003 I distinctly remember it being a nice, 60ish degree day in New Haven. But my memories of this storied rivalry generally center on being unable to feel my toes by the third quarter, and feet by the fourth.

NEVER have I been so cold as at several Harvard-Yales. There was the time I listened to the entire second half on my car radio. There was the time a breeze originating somewhere near Henry Hudson's unmarked grave blew my notes across the Yale Bowl and onto the Old Blue class of ought-something, and not this set of oughts, either. The management of these two storied institutions of higher learning aren't about to waste those trillion-dollar endowments on frills like press box heating. Yale's press box doesn't have windows. If you're cold, you sissy writers should've thought to bring a hip flask, like Granny Rice always did.

At least the seats in the box weren't made of concrete. That pleasure will be reserved for many of the fans in Harvard Stadium this afternoon. So, readers, if you can't reach your broker, lawyer, or doctor on the phone Monday morning, don't fret. They're at home, thawing out. Or they're on another line, angling for the season tickets of the members of the class of ought-something (not these oughts), who didn't quite make it to the final whistle.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Intervention Needed on Soldiers Field Road,

Somebody has to lock WBZ-TV in a closet and break their addiction to pumping the Red Sox hype machine. STAT!!!

Leading the 6 o'clock news with the fact Dustin Pedroia was named American League MVP was legit news judgment. That's a big award, and face it, we don't have much local news here most days. It's one reason I like living in Boston.

However, tonight's six o'clock news had as its second or third news report the shocking fact that Coco Crisp was traded to the Royals. A scoop that hot couldn't wait for sports.

Fourth outfielder traded!!! Somebody call the Governor!!! Coco Crisp traded to Royals for reliever not one viewer could name before today is not a news story. It is like the fourth item in the sports segment of any sanely managed local news broadcast.

WBZ doesn't do sane. They do "homer." They lead all leagues in simpering use of the word "we" by anchors discussing sports teams. Jonathan Kraft better watch out. One dark night, he'll discover unknown sign burglars renamed CBS Place with three other call letters.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Field General Economics 101

Someday, one hopes at least 70 years in the future when I'm long gone, the time will come for the reading of Matt Cassel's will. One hopes the probate attorney begins the proceedings by running a tape of the Jets-Patriots game of November 13, 2008, because that's why the reading will be well attended and why probateland will refer to Cassel's worldly goods as "the Cassel estate.

Ever wonder why men born and bred for leadership bear the indignities of being a backup NFL quarterback? You don't get to be Dick Cheney in that job, after all. Ask no more. Cassel has demonstrated it's a matter of arithmetic.

There are 32 NFL franchises, which means there are 32 NFL starting quarterbacks. And there are less than 32, somewhere between 20-25, who can do the job well enough so that their team has a decent chance of winning a game without the other 44 guys on the active roster playing out of their minds.

Many Patriots, most of them on defense, did not play out of their minds last Thursday. They stunk. And yet New England almost won the game, and would have had the coin flip for overtime come up differently, because of Cassel's performance, which was tremendous in every respect. Tom Brady is a better QB by a mile, but believe me, Brady would never have run for 62 yards in a game. He knows better. Cassel has the creative ability fueled by the desperate knowledge that this is his one and only shot at professional legitimacy.

By delivering proof that you can win with Matt Cassel (Note: Not all the time, not half the time, but just once is more than some quarterbacks can claim, right JaMarcus?) Cassel has made his fortune. As Adam Smith must love, Cassel's a free agent after this season. Either the Patriots or some other team, likely the latter, will pay him a starting quarterback's wages, that is, a sum to set up him and several generations of future Cassels for life.

Way back in the spring of 2005, just before I was what seems to be permanently separated from sports journalism, I interviewed Cassel at his rookie mini-camp. It was meant to be a light-hearted, not mean, cheap shot column - the guy who'd been a backup his whole career, holding a clipboard for Heisman Trophy winners at USC, and now drafted to hold Brady's clipboard. Did he have a hidden NEED to wear baseball caps backwards?

I noted, although the column I wrote did not adequately reflect the fact, that Cassel was a true quarterback. He believed in himself and his ability to lead others more than most folks believe in gravity. His competitive nature was such that missing an elevator could ruin his whole day. He was not a second banana. He hated every minute of the second bananadom life had sent him. Yet at the same time, Cassel was using that time to get ready for the top bananadom he KNEW, like we all know gravity exists, would come his way.

The bananadom arrived. And Cassel has handled it quite nicely, thank you. He ain't Brady. Who is? Among the reasons the Pats are 6-4, Cassel isn't number one. He's not in the top 10.

Barring catastrophic injury, Matt Cassel is going to get real rich sometime in 2009. Adam Smith approves. Me, too, And my reasons include a lot more than my belief in capitalism.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Too Much Ain't Enough? Yes It Is.

According to the paper this morning, there will be 19 college football games on TV beginning at noon and ending early Sunday morning. Except the paper doesn't count the Big Ten network, which I get, so make it 20. At 3 1/2 hours a game, roughly, that's 70 hours of football crammed into a 14-hour bag. This, of course, does not count highlight and pregame shows.

There was a college football game on last night. True, it was only Penn-Princeton, but still. There are now college football games on every night of the week except Monday night. That must be study hall.

This, I think, is why I find it exceedingly difficult to get involved with following college football. There's too much of it. One drowns in a sea of data provided by teams which by rule undergo massive roster changes each season. One doesn't know where to start, so it's relatively easy not to start at all. It wouldn't be good to end up like one of those liberal bloggers earnestly charting every ballot of every nowhereland congressional race in a recount.

I mean, if Colorado vs. Iowa State was the ONLY game on my TV today, I might watch it. It comes in at about 17 on the priority scale, so I won't. Even as devout a remote-twitcher as myself (it'll be Alice's airtight defense at the manslaughter trial), won't click on it, for fear of getting involved and missing some other game's crucial moment. God, I'd hate to be a college play-by-play announcer, working in the knowledge my audience is churning over so fast none of them will hear an entire sentence I speak.

So, as has happened with baseball to a lesser degree, fans of old alma mater A watch its game, and ignore the rest. Same for colleges B, C, and on down. This audience segmentation is economically unsound for what is, hands down, our greediest national sport. College presidents have less fiscal shame than hedge fund managers. They are the world's most pretentious panhandlers.

They're also supposed to be smart, smart enough to check in at the economics department and review the law of supply and demand. If there were only half as many games on TV today, there'd still be more than any one person could watch. There's no reason anybody east of Davenport has to be exposed to Iowa State football. There's no money in it, either.

Since there's NOTHING else on of a Saturday night, I'll probably nod off to some game or other this evening. A dozing audience does not offer marketers a particularly effective ROI (return on investment).

When the BCS rankings argument starts, don't bother waking me up.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Organization (A Political Post)

Around about 10:30 last night, some CNN babblehead remarked that Barack Obama would take office with a new weapon at his disposal "his vast army of campaign contributors and workers." Made it sound like Marshal Zhukov had them ready to storm the Reichstag.

Then I remembered. I was in the vast army. I gave the President-elect 25 bucks. I worked phone banks last weekend, struggling for mutual comprehension with North Carolinians as baffled by my accent as I was with theirs.

No group with me in it is a "vast army." The people I worked with last weekend weren't a monolithic bunch, either. Truth is, as is common in political journalism, the justified admiration for Obama's campaign has generated a massive amount of bullshit. The "New Technology" didn't make the thing run-just practical politics as practiced by Chicagoans since they built the place. Abraham Lincoln's campaign managers would have recognized it instantly.

Politics ain't beanbag, they say. It ain't rocket science, either. People get involved in politics because they want to make a contribution to something they believe in. And when they do, they like a little appreciation from their team.

One day later, I wait for the final vote from North Carolina. I was maybe one-one trillionth of the effort of Team Obama there. But I got my uniform dirty, so I care. And last night, around 11 p.m. I and three million other donors got a mass personal email - with a first name greeting - from the President-elect, beginning "I'm just getting ready to walk over to Grant Park."

I've been around. I know it was probably written in July by some Northwestern grad student and kept in a file along with the "we didn't quite make it" email until it was sent at the proper moment. But you better believe it went into the "saved mail" category. Like forever.

The Internet makes it possible for a pol to communicate with and manage millions of people. That's a difference in scale, not degree. Obama's operating principle was the same as any good South Side precinct captain's. Ask people to help you. When they ask what they can do, make sure there is something. When they help you, let them feel your gratitude.

The Obama campaign won on an idea older than he, Chicago, and the United States of America, from a culture as old as ours is young.

"When the wise leader's work is done," said Lao tse, "the people say "we did it ourselves."

Saturday, November 01, 2008

So, About That Series

The second World Championship for the Phillies in my lifetime, which is two more than many Phils fans before got in their lifetimes, was totally different from the first. That one was the end of frustration, and deeply moving. This one came as a delightful surprise. I am happy as can be, but not transformed.

This is not the team's doing. The Phillies, who'd been a good team with question marks all season, were a dominant one in the playoffs. They went 11-3, won all 7 home games, and won via pitching and homers, the most traditional means of postseason success. Wherever Earl Weaver was watching, he must've liked the show.

But it was no 1980. That franchise had never won, and the playoff failures of the absolutely loaded late-'70s Phillies made it seem they never would. Then, just when everybody gave up on them, the Phillies did win. That just didn't make me happy. It changed my life. I realized, right then and there, that being a traditional Philly boobird (I was good at it) was no way to appreciate sports. Watching ballgames is no place for raging at an uncaring universe. What if you win? Then you'll look silly.

So I still cuss the Phils sometimes, but only for the moment. All is forgiven on the next pitch. And on the next pitches of October, 2008 I was forgiving, and appreciating, the best team in baseball.

Congratulatons, gang. We knew you had it in you. It just wouldn't be very Philly for us to admit it.