Saturday, January 31, 2009

Seeing into the Future At Least as Well as Citigroup

Few duties are more onerous in sportswriting than game predictions. If you're wrong, you're an idiot. If you're right, you're a know-it-all smartypants. Games being what they are, you're going to be seen as an idiot more often than the more appealing option of coming off as a total jerk.

But duty is duty. Sportswriters, even lapsed ones such as myself, are expected and required to become fortune-tellers on at least three occasions, the NCAA basketball tournament, the Kentucky Derby (even if the only horses you've ever seen were on TV with Randolph Scott on top of them), and, of couse, the Super Bowl.

Tomorrow is Super Sunday. Once more into the breach, dear friends.

For many, many years, the Super Bowl was the easiest game to predict in all of sports. One just chose the favorite to win and cover, and returned to one's normal life. Two-thirds of the time, this was exactly what happened. That's about as good a rate of return as exists in sports prognostication, not to mention sports betting. On those occasions where the favorite DIDN'T cover, the underdog won outright, so the prognosticator had company being wrong, and his bad guess tended to be overlooked amid the national astonishment that something unusual had happened at a Super Bowl.

Then came the New England Patriots of the 2000s. Teams don't get inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, although they should, but if they did, the historical summary written under the Pats' team statue would surely include the words "Killed off the double-digit Super Bowl point spread forever."

It's a singular accomplishment. The Pats were/are (didn't I say I wasn't a futurologist?) a dynastic power that appeared in four Super Bowls in seven seasons. And the underdog was the winning bet in all four. New England won outright as a big 'dog, then won twice but didn't cover, the rarest Super bet outcome, and lost outright as a big favorite. Total victory margin in four Super Bowls was 12 points.

Sports betting, like all finance, is built on two pillars-optimism and short memories. The Pats' domination of this decade has caused both oddsmakers and gamblers to build an unpredictability factor into the Super Bowl line that ignored the results of the previous 35 games. This in turn has led straight-up, nongambling forecasters to see Super Bowl LXIII from the perspective of "how this will turn out to be a close game" rather than the more fundamental issues of "should this be a close game?"

Scrutinizing commentary this week (for hilarious performance art, you can't beat the NFL Network), it is remarkable how the burden of proof appears to rest on the favored Steelers rather than the Cardinals. It's as if the 2008 regular season didn't take place, and three playoff wins, all admittedly admirable, in what generally is seen as the weaker conference, erases the fact the Cardinals had, by far, the worst overall performance of any of the 86 teams to compete in the Super Bowl.

Pittsburgh is a seven-point favorite. Had the Patriots' dynasty not existed, there is no doubt in my mind that figure would be at least 10 and more likely 11 or 12. By almost every metric this blogger uses to evaluate football games, the Steelers have an edge, in most cases a big edge.

There are two exceptions. The Cardinals won a road playoff game and the Steelers didn't. That's a meaningful point in Arizona's favor. Mike Shanahan first expressed this thought, but I share it: it is much harder to win a road playoff game than to win any game played at a neutral site.

The other, weaker, indicator of a possible Cardinals win is that Kurt Warner is a better quarterback than Ben Roethlisberger. Quarterback is the most important position in the game, but Warner isn't THAT much better than his Steeler counterpart. Roethlisberger has proved he's a good enough QB to win a Super Bowl. He doesn't need to be better than that. Warner needs to be the best player on the field by a wide margin for Arizona to win.

See where we're headed here? All other factors that matter in football-defense, special teams, and, above all, a superiority in creative violence on a man-to-man basis-come down on the Steelers' side of the scale. The Arizona argument boils down to "Warner and Larry Fitzgerald will play out of their minds again." In other words, the Cardinals' big stars on offense give them a puncher's chance.

Decades of watching boxing, let alone football, have convinced me that a puncher's chance is next door to no chance at all. Good defenses get that way by turning big stars into ordinary players. Given my druthers, I bet defense every time.

As sports fan and Arizonan John McCain will tell you, more often than not, big games turn out exactly the way conventional wisdom says they will. And the Steelers aren't just a favorite. They're an overlay.

Favorite to win and cover. I told you picking the Super Bowl was easy.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Envy Is the Saddest of the Seven Deadly Sins

It is not my usual practice here to criticize the work of my former professional peers. They have gigs and I don't, so perhaps the marketplace was trying to tell me something. But there's a limit to what can go unchallenged.

In today's Globe, Dan Shaughnessy wrote a column making fun of Tom Brady for, well, basically for having Giselle Bundchen as his significant other. Man, that's just wrong on so many levels one hardly know where to start. It's irrelevant to the sports section, ungentlemanly, and above all, makes the author look stupid, which he isn't.

Honestly, what can one say to a fellow human male hooked up with Ms. Bundchen except "Congratulations, pal!!!"

PS: I know Dan's piece is meant to be satirical. To be effective, satire must spring from a halfway believable premise. This ain't one.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Oh, Just Shut Up and Let the Damn Ball Roll to the Backstop

Yours truly has avoided comment on what, if one judges by volume of commentary, is the top issue of the Red Sox offseason. But the metaphorical pot of oatmeal that is Jason Varitek has boiled all over the hot stove league to a degree it has become impossible to ignore, especially since the catcher and Boston management are moving towards mutual recognition of their common plight-they're stuck with each other.

I haven't written about Varitek just because so many others have. Glenn Ordway will be blathering about "how he handles the pitching staff" and "what if this" and "suppose that" about Varitek at his own funeral, but a relentless focus on fruitless speculation is talk radio's game plan for everything.

I haven't written about Varitek because I write this blog for my own (and others' if possible) pleasure, and what I am about to write about the Sox catcher will give me none. I have always respected and admired Varitek as a ballplayer. He has been an important contributor
to what has been the greatest period in Red Sox history. Catchers are the only players in baseball who deal with pain on a daily basis. Other guys play ball. They go to work. Varitek has embodied that principle of honest craftsmanship.

Funny thing. After one is told by somebody else that YOU'RE done, it becomes harder to blithely state that athlete X is finished and should seek another career path. Life disruptions suck. Experiencing them, however, is a helpful reminder that sports commentary involves other people besides oneself.

But I ain't blind, he's already made many millions of dollars, and it is beyond obvious that Varitek IS done as a major league hitter, and more than half past done as an effective catcher. The infallible indicator of a batter in a slump is letting pitches go by he should swing at, followed immediately by swinging at a pitch a foot or more outside the strike zone. That has been Jason's M.O. at the plate for going on two seasons. A Varitek at-bat with men on has become a painful embarrassment for all concerned.

This leaves us with Varitek's "handling of the pitching staff," that nebulous concept which involves the catcher's status as the lowest rung of management, the team's shop foreman. Actually, since pitching is a creative endeavor, the catcher might more accurately be described as the staff's editor, attempting to shape the work of others into the best it can be.

The trend in baseball analysis is to scoff at what isn't readily quantifiable, but "handling the pitching staff" exists, just as any form of management exists even if you can't see it in action, and Varitek is good at it. Think of the days in 2004 when Varitek would, often in back-to-back games, work in close consultation with Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez. There were two artists whose personalities could hardly be more different, but each was gifted, each was highly intelligent, and each, in his own way, could be an enormous pain in the ass. The skills needed to shape the work of such men are considerable. We shouldn't ignore them.

But, and this as big a but as it gets, these skills rank way below more tangible ones as throwing runners out and, most of all, hitting when we assess a catcher's value. Varitek hit 13 homers in 2008. If the Red Sox had a chance to obtain a catcher who could hit 33 homers in 2009, and the guy spoke only Farsi to his pitchers, and spoke to them less often than J.D. Salinger, every hurler on the Sox staff would be urging management to sign the new misanthrope. Pitchers may need understanding while they work, but not as much as they need runs.

Of course, the Red Sox don't have such a chance. Varitek hasn't been replaced already because there aren't any replacements who would be improvements. For reasons
requiring more research than I plan on doing, catchers are a cyclical commodity. There are times in baseball history when there's a bunch of unbelievable ones (1950s: Campanella, Berra, 1970s: Bench, Fisk, Munson, 1990s-early 2000s: Posada, Pudge Rodriguez, and yes, Jason) and then there are horrible fallow stretches in which the best teams can hope for is .245, 10-15, 60-70 lumbering semi-competence.

We are in such a fallow period. Quickly now, who were the catchers for the two teams in the 2008 World Series? I couldn't answer the question without looking it up, and I'm a Phillies fan (Top of my head, I knew his last name was Diaz, but that's it). There's Joe Mauer, and a bunch of Molinas, and well,..... Boston has had no qualms about promoting minor leaguers to starting jobs in the past few seasons. Since they haven't kissed Varitek goodbye, and in fact, have put as much or more work into resigning him than they did towards acquiring Mark Teixiera, we must conclude that option is not available here.

So Varitek will sign for much less money than he'd hoped (although it's still plenty of money, count me among the unworried that a capable player like Bobby Abreu must take a huge pay cut to a measley $8-9 million per annum). The Sox will suffer through a great many more killed rallies in 2009 than they had hoped. And the law of supply and demand will have chalked up another victory.

Despite the title of this post, you gotta have a catcher-whether you want the one you've got or not.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Kurt Warner

Over at good old, a lively debate is going on as to whether Kurt Warner is deserving of induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Warner is a two-time NFL MVP and one-time Super Bowl MVP. Those are serious credentials. His detractors point out that Warner has a black hole in the middle of his career where he lost his starting quarterback job with both the Rams and the Giants, who subsequently found him superfluous to requirements.

Obviously, if the Cardinals win Super Bowl XLIII and Warner becomes the first quarterback to win Super Bowls with different teams, his case for induction becomes infinitely stronger. But even a losss shouldn't hurt Warner's chances. Jjust by showing up at game time on February 1, his case looks better. Much better.

This will be Warner's third Super Bowl as a starting quarterback. What follows is a list of all other NFL quarterbacks with three or more Super Bowl starts. Not wins or losses (some of these chaps' Super performances were dismal verging on humiliating), just starts.

1. Bob Griese
2. Roger Staubach
3. Terry Bradshaw
4. Fran Tarkenton
5. Joe Montana
6. John Elway
7. Jim Kelly
8. Troy Aikman
9. Tom Brady

The first eight are all members of the Hall, and I don't think it's a risky forecast that Brady will join them as soon as he's eligible. That is some fast company Warner will be keeping come 6:28 p.m. EST of Super Sunday.

Were I to be Warner's advocate before a future Hall of Fame selection committee (the committee member from the player's home city is required to serve as the candidate's representative during the discussion, which brings up some issues in Warner's case), the above paragraphs would surely be among my first arguments on his behalf.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Historical Perspective, Courtesy of Rupert Murdoch

Every soul on the Internet including oppressed Uighurs in western China has already posted some wisecrack noting a correlation between the inauguration of Barack Obama and the identity of the National Football Conference champions. Unable to think of a wisecrack, we turn here to a glimpse into the history of television-specifically that of the Fox network-for an appreciation of just which side of the correlation is more amazing.

The first and second seasons of "24", which were broadcast in 2000-2002, had as a central figure presidential candidate and then President Palmer, an African American. The series was set in that vague present/near future, and as a suspense drama, had to be SOMEWHAT concerned (OK, it was "24," so somewhat is a very loose term here) with the audience's willing suspension of disbelief. So the writers and producers agreed, and the ratings agreed with them, that Americans were prepared to consider the possibility that an African American could become President in the foreseeable future.

Sometime in the early 2000s, coinciding with "24," Fox's original prime time hit "The Simpsons," ran an episode in which the town of Springfield had to cope with an additional area code (Roger Daltry and Peter Townsend were guest stars). Long story short, a group led by Homer seceded and formed "New Springfield." Whereupon the following scene takes place.

Homer, Mayor of New Springfield, sitting on sidewalk in lawn chair: "Now all we have to is sit back and wait for an NFL franchise."

Stranger in suit: "Pardon me, sir, I couldn't help overhearing. I represent the Arizona Cardinals and..."

Homer, interrupting quickly: "Keep walkin'."

Not so very long ago, two groups of smart people whose job, in part, is to figure out what Americans think came to the following conclusions. Confronted with the idea of an African American President, Americans would think "sure, why not." Confronted with the reality of the Arizona Cardinals, Americans would start laughing.

Look in the dictionary. "Equality" and "parity" aren't synonyms. But they're close.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Leave Your Lifetime Achievement Award with the Security Guard!

Jon Gruden, coach of the only Super Bowl champ in Tampa Bay Buccaneer history, got fired yesterday. Mike Shanahan, coach of the only Super Bowl champs in Denver Broncos history, got fired in December. Mike Holmgren and Tony Dungy, also coaches who won Super Bowls, retired.

Here's an odd thing. It's easy to find, make that it's impossible to avoid, fans and commentators who'll tell you each and every one of these coaches either deserved to get fired or was an overrated bum throughout his career. This is a reflection of the sick culture of 21st century sports in America. Nobody ever wins, and especially nobody ever gets beat by a superior opponent. The world of games is seen as composed exclusively of losers, chokers, and failures, plus the occasional winning cheat. Sure makes sports seem like fun, doesn't it?

Any NFL coach of a decade or more service who retires can only be congratulated. They shaved about that same amount of years off their life expectancy for the entertainment of the couch potato rabble calling up sports radio to blast their work. Nor am I about to criticize ownership for firing Shanahan and Gruden. Not enough data. Coaches as well as athletes can stay too long at the fair, and all human organizations eventually find a moment where it's time to start over.

It is likely, however, that Shanahan and Gruden's successors won't do any better next season than the Broncos and Bucs did in 2008, because they'll be stuck with the same players. Neither team has fallen far enough to be rebuilt. This will make owners Pat Bowlen and the Glazer family look foolish, a fate owners usually take out on the new coach. Note to new Tampa and Denver assistants. Lease everything-including your socks.

But I digress. The point here is, there have been a great many NFL coaches since the 1966 season, the first of the modern merged era, and only 25 of them have won Super Bowls. To put that number in context, let's just note that the Cardinals and Lions have had 29 head coaches between them in those 43 years, 30 if we count new Lions victim Jim Schwartz. By any objective measure, Shanahan, Gruden, Dungy and Holmgren rank among the very best of their peculiar, man-killing, profession. Sane fans in Denver, Tampa, Indianapolis, and Seattle (and I'm sure there are a few) are now hoping their teams' future can somehow come close to its past.

Sports is supposed to generate irrational passion. That's part of the fun. But once the game is over, an honest appreciation of the merits of one's foe is part of the fun as well. If everyone in sports is overrated, caring about winning and losing becomes rather pointless. There's no honor in beating a bum.

Marketing-driven hype is an annoying and destructive element of modern sports. By the time poor Tim Tebow hits the NFL, millions of fans will already be sick of him through no fault of his own. But anti-hype, the grass roots dementia that pervades sports culture, is hundreds of times more annoying, and thousands of times more destructive.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Rickey Henderson, Hall of Fame 2009

Rickey Henderson, the greatest leadoff hitter of all time, was not a unanimous selection to the Hall of Fame. No player ever is, and no player ever has been. Surely the oddest thing about the Hall of Fame is that some people who vote for it don't think it should have any members at all.

That's not true, of course. Like most of baseball's idiocies, the "no unanimous vote" idea can be put down to the dead hand of tradition. Some superannuated hacks back in 1936 decided not to vote for anyone in the first Hall class, and ever since, their inane and insane decision has been honored by generations of Baseball Writers Association of America members in their own voting. Not by all of them, mind you, but by enough. This is a tradition that only takes one fool to perpetuate, and there's no organization of human beings that has only one fool in it.

I'm a Hall of Fame voter. It's a burden and an honor, and I do my best to justify that honor. The "no unanimous" tradition does more than any other single thing to discredit me and my fellow voters with baseball fans. It is a disservice to the game. It pains me, and it pains well over 90 percent of the Hall electorate.

I also believe the Hall electorate should be expanded beyond BBWA members. I mean, I have a vote and Vin Scully doesn't? That ain't right. The problem is, doing so correctly. Opening the vote willy-nilly to fans will result in an electorate of average age 10 and ballot stuffing by creative PR departments. Giving living Hall members a voice is just, but would end the possibility of unanimous votes for good and all. Those guys, understandably, would rather the Hall didn't have any new members at all.

Until such time as a better process is created (in his book on the Hall, Bill James came up with a pretty workable idea), I will struggle with my annual ballot to the best of my ability. And guys like Rickey Henderson (next up on the "how could you not vote for him?" list is Greg Maddux) will receive the crowning honor of their careers amid a swirl of pointless controversy.

Strike that. The "nonunanimous" Hall of Famers generate no controversy whatsoever. ALL baseball fans take those votes as proof positive sportswriters are idiots.

Reminiscence. In the summer of 2002, I was strolling though the bowels of Rogers Centre (then Skydome) in Toronto, when I happened to inadvertently (at first) overhear a chat between then-Red Sox Rickey Henderson and teammate Manny Ramirez, walking from the indoor batting cage to the visitor's clubhouse.

I only had time to hear Henderson's side of the conversation For once, memory does not fail. This quote is verbatim.

"What'll happen then," Henderson told Ramirez, "is that people will try to get you to start thinking. And that's what will really fuck you up."

I'm sure the two future Hall of Famers were discussing hitting. But I prefer to think their topic was philosophy.

Jim Rice, Hall of Fame 2009

Evaluation: Jim Rice was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his 15th and final year of eligibility thanks to drug use - other people's drug use.

Rice's career had an unusual pattern. After 7-10 seasons of dominance, in which he was one of the five to ten best hitters in baseball, he didn't gradually decline as most stars do. Rice fell off a cliff. Third in the American League MVP voting in 1986, Rice was a benchwarmer by the middle of 1988. This precipitous fall left Rice short of some of the traditional career Hall of Fame metrics for sluggers, most notably 400 homers (he had 382).

In 1994, Rice's first year of eligibility, baseball's Steroid Era was just getting underway in earnest. Throughout that decade, 382 homers seemed an increasingly paltry figure for a Hall of Famer. Then, as knowledge grew and attitudes changed towards the use of performance-enhancing drugs by ballplayers, Rice's Hall credentials underwent a continuing reassessment by the electorate of which I am a member. His raw numbers came to seem less important, and his acknowledged status as a leading hitter of his time more so. This process culminated in his election this year.

Rice is not a top-shelf Hall of Famer. But I've voted for him since I became eligible to vote in 2000, and I see no need to apologize. All clubs, no matter how exclusive and small, have distinctions among their members. There have only been 43 different Presidents of the United States, an exclusive club indeed, but nobody argues that Rutherford B. Hayes and Thomas Jefferson were equally important figures in American history.

More to the point, Rice's election is how the Hall of Fame voting process is supposed to work, and how the entire academic discipline of history does work. The past and present are always intertwined, because the past can only be perceived in the present. The 15-year window for eligibility is designed to allow history time to work, for perspective to be gained as the game of baseball continues to change and evolve. Doesn't always work. This time, it did.

History, even baseball history, is not immutable, a fact statistics lovers sometimes forget. The sum required for the Louisiana Purchase was $6 million and remains so, but PERCEPTIONS of Thomas Jefferson have undergone what investment bankers call, with pained faces, "volatility." Conventional historical wisdom on Jefferson has been in constant and extreme flux since his death in 1826. Some of that is due to new knowledge, but most of it comes from the changes in the society examining Jefferson's life and times.

Baseball's no different. Its little society constantly changes, and perceptions of the past change with it. To use an obvious hypothetical, we view players who hit 50 homers in a season during the Steroid Boom far less favorably than we do anyone (actually, George Foster was the only one) who did so in Rice's time.

Congratulations, Mr. Rice. Welcome to the club. Don't worry. You belong.

A reminiscence: (Ballgames run together after a few years of sportswriting, so this anecdote will be vague on a few reportorial details). On a summer afternoon in the Ralph Houk era of Red Sox history, Jim Rice was in the on deck circle at Fenway Park. A batter, whose identity need not concern us, had his bat sawed off by a nasty inside fastball, and the jagged top half flew into the front few rows of box seats, smacking a small child (a girl, I think) no older than 7 or 8 square in the face.

Everyone present froze at this horrible scene - except Rice. Before even the kid's parents could react, Rice had bounded into the seats, picked the child up in his arms, and carried her (maybe him) into the clubhouse and trainer's room for medical attention.

Rice's reputation as a personality was already well-established, and I knew from personal experience he could be curt, to put it mildly, with reporters. But sitting in the press box, it was impossible not to see the truth plain as day. This was not the act of a selfish, sullen, churl. It was the act of a caring human being with quick wits and extraordinary reflexes.

Rice very much did not wish to talk about this event after the game. I didn't mind. The lesson of the story, which I ought to have learned as a child myself, had struck home. How a person relates to you is not necessarily how they relate to others. Media and human relations are not the same.

News consumers should remember that, too.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Busman's Tailgate

As part of its highly successful effort to show as little of the actual Florida-Oklahoma game as possible on its broadcast Thursday night, Fox treated us to several shots of a group in one of Dolphin Stadium's luxury suites. The well-heeled posse included Bob and Myra Kraft, and Bill Belichick and his, uh, date.

My first thought was that this was another example of the brainpower that has made New England the premier franchise in the NFL. By attending the game, the Pats' owner and coach were able to escape the worst produced and announced sports telecast in history-and got free shrimp in the bargain.

My second thought was here is another example of a sports phenomenon that receives too little attention. Most important people in the world of games are also big sports fans. Belichick spends almost every waking moment thinking about his football team. For recreation, he likes to watch other sports teams. Yes, the Pats' coach is a driven man. But hidden fandom is a characteristic he shares with almost all coaches and players in all sports.

Walk into a major league clubhouse of a Sunday afternoon, and if half the team isn't watching NASCAR on the flatscreen, they're watching the PGA Tour. Walk into the men's locker room of a country club hosting a Tour tourney, and the world's best golfers are usually arguing about college football. On their infrequent weekends off, NASCAR drivers like to fly to Europe to catch Formula One races.

Curt Schilling gets heat for his habit of calling into sports talk radio programs and his blog. This is somewhat unfair. Schilling is only taking jock fandom to its logical end point-fan insanity. Everyone knows Curt's emotions come without the circuit-breaker of prudence.

My third thoughts about the Pats' little family excursion concerned Florida quarterback Tim Tebow. Tebow may or may not turn pro now that Florida won its second BCS in his three years there. He should do so out of self-defense. One more season of hearing announcers describe Tebow as a combination of Joe Montana and Mother Teresa, and football fans are going to react to his name with the same shudder they give Brett Favre. It took 20 years for fans to take the constant Favre hype and turn it into undeserved but understandable hatred. In three seasons, Tebow is damn near the point of no return, where he is constantly ridiculed because of the ridiculous statements of others.

But I digress. The reason the sight of the Pats' brain trust made me think of Tebow is that it reminded me Belichick is very much a contrarian thinker on Tebow's future in the NFL. Conventional wisdom has it that Tebow, who has dominated college ball, has at best a marginal chance of becoming a starting quarterback in pro ball. That's a harsh judgment, especially if one considers the names Tavaris Jackson, Tyler Thigpen, Jamarcus Russell, and, well, you get the idea.

Tebow is unique. He's a quarterback/power runner. When Tebow takes off out of the spread formation, he's not seeking to turn the edge with speed. He bulldozes up the middle and off tackle in a passable impression of Earl Campbell. This causes many to worry that pro quarterback Tebow would end up in a Wile E. Coyote full body cast, with only his eyes and the tip of his nose visible, sometime during his second exhibition start. I share this fear.

Scouts also worry that despite Tebow's ludicrously good passing stats, his arm and form are not up to NFL snuff. The two wretched interceptions he threw against Oklahoma indicate this worry is not without cause.

So all in all, the NFL consensus is that Tebow will not be a high draft pick, and might not be a quarterback at all. Better to stick with a traditional model passer. This conventional wisdom is very good news for Matt Cassel's bank account.

Belichick sees Tebow differently. He is on record admiring the kid's abilities. The coach views Tebow as a player whose skills have helped Florida win many games and consist of a skill set that doesn't come along every day. Therefore, Belichick reasons, a well-managed and intelligent football team ought to be able to figure out ways Tebow can help it win games playing the position he's played his whole life-plus a few wrinkles.

That doesn't mean the Pats will ever draft Tebow. It's just an example of how Belichick's mind works. The coach looks at players in terms of their strengths first, and regards his job as finding ways to employ those strengths to best advantage. In fact, Belichick seems to regard that as the funnest part of his grinding job.

Note the absence of negative thinking in that mindset. I'm in no position to know, but I'd bet good money Pats' game planning never spends much time on hiding weaknesses. That's energy better spent designing means of using strengths to such effect that weaknesses are irrelevant.

Conventional wisdom is not always stupid. Picking the wrong quarterback can wreck a franchise for half a decade minimum, and for every Manning, there's a dozen Leafs, Couches, and Alkili Smiths. But conventional wisdom always runs towards the mean. Never deviate from NFL thinking, and your franchise is headed for 8-8.

I have no idea if Tim Tebow will make it in the NFL. I just know that when Belichick likes a player, especially a quarterback, it's best to pay attention. When Cassel reported to rookie camp in 2005, it was treated as sort of a joke. The Pats picked a college backup to be Tom Brady's backup, ha-ha. Cassel himself thought it was somewhat weird.

And I wish Pats fans could have attended the 2000 rookie camp, Belichick's first with the team. You have never seen a quarterback look less prepared to become a professional football player than did Tom Brady. Drill after dismal drill, Belichick saw something in the rookie's performance others didn't.

Tebow's resume speaks for itself. It has one man's reference on it that speaks to me.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Punt Returns

A long time ago in a far away place, 1973 in Memorial Stadium at Cal-Berkeley to be precise, I saw a punter be the star of his team's win in a big game. Ray Guy, then a rookie for the Raiders, was the reason Oakland beat the Dolphins 12-7 to end Miami's then-record 18-game winning streak. As the score indicates, the contest was totally dominated by the defenses, and Guy's kicks consistently had Miami starting drives inside its own 30. After Guy's last punt, which went 60 yards and was touched dead inside the 10, coach John Madden ran onto the field to embrace Guy.

At the time, this feat was something I thought I'd never see again in pro football. And I didn't, until last night. Mike Scifres of the Chargers was the primary reason San Diego beat the Colts 23-17 in their wild-card playoff game. Yes, I know Darren Sproles had an historic all-around game for a back and scored the winning touchdown. Without Scifres, Sproles would be remembered for fumbling on the Colts' 1-yard line, the signature mistake in a long line of Charger errors.

Scifres punted 7 times for an average of over 50 yards. Four of those punts gave Indy the ball inside its 15. His last punt, with three minutes to play and his team down 17-14. went out of bounds on the Colts' one-yard line. That punt won the game.

The Colts' problem in 2008 was no secret. They couldn't run the football. An unbalanced offense has trouble mounting long drives. Peyton Manning was 25-42-310 with no interceptions, and Indianapolis still only scored 17 points because Manning made the bulk of those yards moving the ball up to midfield.

So needing a first down to win the game, Scifres put the Colts in the one place where running is essential, and passing is limited by the urgent need to protect the quarterback from the whiff of a sack. Which, as it turned out, the Colts couldn't do. They punted, San Diego got the ball with a short field, and never looked back.

Score one for punters. I hope Ray Guy was watching the game. It is one of my personal crusades to see Guy named a member of the Hall of Fame, and a quixotic crusade it is, too. The Hall of Fame voters, who are distinguished former professional peers and some of whom are good friends, sneer at me. Their consensus, expressed by the voter whom I usually respect most, is "punters aren't football players."

No? Then how come every football team HAS a punter? The punting defense team now calls its first and only witness. Coach Bill Belichick, could you take the stand please?

Talk to us about punting, Mr. Belichick.

"Well, there aren't too many other plays in football where you move the ball 40 yards."

The defense rests. It also wishes to note that Mike Scifres will be voted a full playoff share by his teammates. The San Diego Chargers think he's a player. Their player.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Ute Fever

Utah is the national college football champion. It finished its season with a perfect record and thumped Alabama, which was rated number one for many weeks, 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl last night. The Utes turned in a far more thorough thrashing of the Crimson Tide than did Florida, the only other team to beat Alabama.

So Utah is my national champion. And when it comes to national champions of big-time college football, one man's champ is as good as another's. It's democracy in action, or rather, anarchy in action.

On its bought-and-paid-for media partners, college football will crown its national champion next Monday when Florida plays Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game. The BCS represents the true expression of collegiate sports' values. It's an insult to the idea of honest competition, a racket run by criminal gangs, a/k/a major athletic conferences, to maintain control of the the most lucrative college sport. It survives because college football fans let their love of a thrilling sport make them very stupid, and because the venality of U.S. higher education knows no limits. If Bernie Madoff had started a liberal-arts college instead of an investment fund, he'd still be out there swindling as a respected university president, and undoubtedly writing op-ed pieces on how a college football playoff would jeopardize his school's educational mission.

The JMG National Championship does not recognize the BCS, except as another of the entertaining exhibition games known as bowls. But neither does the JMG NC discriminate. Somebody wants to call Florida/Oklahoma the national champ, fine. Their guess is as good as mine. Just don't try to tell me that statement ISN'T a guess. USC, Texas, let them be champs, too. The more the merrier, or at least the more the more honest.

It's a simple deal. All sports where human judgment instead of a scoreboard determines winners and losers are crooked. Boxing, figure skating, gymnastics, all of them regularly turn in outrageous bag jobs on a near-daily basis. Human judgment is fallible and subject to self-interest. College football lets COACHES vote to pick winners, or at least the two schools who play for its BCS championship. Hard to find more conflict of interest and potential for skulduggery than that.
Barack Obama, a sane sports fan soon to be in a position of some importance, wants a playoff to replace the BCS. All people not making money off the current system do. Were I
president, I would cut off all federal aid to colleges until they came up with one, but that's one of the many reasons I shouldn't be in any position of authority.

Obama does have a symbolic means of expressing his opinion. He could pick his own national champion, and invite them to the White House for the inane "hand the President the jersey with number one on it" photo-op. Actually, a poster on had an even better idea. Obama should snub the big schools, and invite the Richmond Spiders, winners of the FCS (formerly Division I-AA) national title. Richmond won a playoff for its championship. Honoring them would be a perfect expression of Obama's opinion. Being as pompous and status-conscious as they are greedy, it would cut the big school college presidents to the marrow.

The Utes won't get to go to the White House. But as JMG national champions, any and all of them are welcome to come to my house. If they hurry, we can watch some of the NFL playoffs together.

Just leave the ceremonial jersey back in Salt Lake.

Apology and Announcement

Without notice, I took the holidays off to go to Florida and visit my parents. Also to play golf. Let me bore you about that some other time (actually, it's a federal crime to discuss one's own golf game on the Internet).

What I really wish to do is say I'm sorry for the increasingly sporadic posting I did this fall. It has not escaped management's attention that successful bloggers who attract readers post every day or damn near. To my readers, whoever you are, and if there are any left, I promise to try and do better in 2009.