Sunday, March 29, 2009

College Sports Consumer Reports

As of this posting, 10 of the 15 games of the NCAA hockey tournament have been played this weeked. So have 10 of the last 15 games of the NCAA basketball tournament.

In the multi-kazillion buck basketball tourney, which is universally and correctly considered one of the nation's leading sports events, one of the top-seeded teams lost, when Pitt was defeated by Villanova in a superlative thriller that exhibited the best the sport has to offer. Three of the other nine games, Pitt-Xavier, UConn-Missouri, and Kansas-Michigan State, were pretty good games that would not have left a spectator feeling out of pocket, nor caused the TV viewer to click the remote except during commercials. I can't remember the other games.

In the hockey tournament, which is a cult event even in those regions of the country where ice and snow are winter companions, the following events have taken place. Three of the number one seeds bit the dust in the round of 16, including one reasonably historic upset when Bemidji State beat Notre Dame, surely the first time that phrase has appeared in U.S. history. Cornell beat Northeastern in a third period comeback topped by a game-winning goal with less than 20 seconds to play. Vermont beat Air Force in double-overtime to advance to the Frozen Four.

And those were the fifth, fourth, and third-most astonishing events of the tourney! New Hampshire scored a tying goal against North Dakota with a tenth of a second on the clock, then won in overtime, and that isn't even first! Minnesota-Duluth's win over Princeton takes that honor. UMD scored TWO goals in the last thirty seconds of regulation, again including one with less than a second to go to force the overtime where it scored the winning goal.

I know basketball is a national game and hockey a regional one. I know no one except the Boston Herald sports department is demented enough to conduct office pool gambling brackets on a sport as variable as college hockey. But look at those summaries!! If the purpose of watching sports is the form of entertainment the Greeks called catharsis, and we proles call excitement, there's no comparison. The hockey tourney is putting on an historic show, the basketball tournament has been, well, a marketing opportunity for General Motors (what will happen to those Pontiac scholarships when GM discontinues Pontiac?).

The divine hand which looks over the American sports fan gave us the TV remote. Let's be smart shoppers and use it a little. Check your local listings,

Saturday, March 28, 2009

We're Pretty Sure It's Not a Tribute to the Late Howlin' Wolf

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has brought one of its institutional neuroses out in the open for all to see, providing "all" have flashlights handy.

Fans watching the NCAA basketball tournament regionals in Boston and other venues have noted the color scheme for the event, namely, the NCAA's fondness for that peculiarly somber shade of blue that sucks the light out of the building. The site of the South regional, the Memphis gym, which already has a blue color pattern since that's the school's color, looked on TV like a scene from a nature documentary on the Marianas Trench.

In order that blue not receive competition from any more cheerful light spectrum, the NCAA put its own court floor down at the Garden to remove all that pesky green the Celtics have on their floor. The Fabled Parquet (trademark pending) is only the most famous court on earth. But the NCAA's goal is to make everything it touches look like Cedar Rapids.

The dreary blue has been the tournament's color scheme for as long as I can remember-- behind the scenes. The considerable spaces where TV and the press work are covered with drapery in the shade, as are passageways, etc. There's carpeting in the blue, as well. Then the NCAA turns the lights down. Spending 12 hour days working in that environment is to walk a mile in the late Kurt Cobain's moccasins.

The tournament is perhaps our nation's jolliest large sports event, so drenching it
in a color any psychologist would call depressing never made sense to me. After a few tournaments, it started to bother me. But, since who cared about backstage, I never wrote about it.

Now, however, the NCAA has gone too far, and is subjecting paying customers and TV audiences to the same subtle bummer it visited on the press for so long. It's having the expected effect, too. There have been some quiet crowds at the games so far. It's tough to reach the operatic passions needed for basketball rooting when surrounded by a visual barbituate.

Why the NCAA is in such a down mood when staging its largest celebration is a mystery. But they shouldn't lay their bad trip on us. Call around and find an interior decorator, gang. Someone who can recommend a tasteful, cheerful off-white.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Definitely Au Revoir, Not Adios

Farewell thoughts on Curt Schilling are tempered by the knowledge that retirement from baseball or no, Schilling's not going anywhere he might possibly be missed.

Some people are destined, no, impelled to spend life in the public sphere, and Curt is one of 'em. Boy, is he. He will doubtless reemerge as a color commentator, Internet impresario, political candidate, or some other vocation requiring that Schilling be in near-constant communication with his fellow men - all of them he can reach.

It's easy to tease Schilling, and I've done my fair share. His over-the-top personality, for which the term "galactic melodrama empress" doesn't come close to a full description, is ripe for poking fun. It also is why Schilling has not been a universally beloved teammate-even on teams who wouldn't have won World Championships without him. Baseball teams live in constant claustrophobic companionship. It's submarine duty with opportunities for extramarital sex thrown in. Imagine spending six months in a sub with Curt. Scary, huh?

And yet, the qualities that make it easy to ridicule Schilling are also why I was fond of him, and not incidentally, one of the main reasons he was one of history's top clutch pitchers. I wasn't Curt's teammate. I was there to write about him. Schilling was/is candid, loquacious, opinionated, and fond of a good argument. Speaking as a columnist, what's not to like?

Fans and sportswriters can't have it both ways. You can't bemoan the disappearance of the colorful athletes of yesteryear and the cliched nothings of the ESPN era, and then, when an athlete with a strong personality does appear, rip him for being colorful.

On a more cosmic level, Schilling is different from most people because he has the ability to become completely, passionately engaged with whatever comes his way. That quality can make others uneasy. It also means Schilling is getting more out of life than most of us.

On a pure baseball level, there can be no doubt that Schilling's need to be the center of attention was the part of his makeup that made him such a desirable starter in a big game. We laugh at the "bloody sock" drama of the 2004 postseason. But you know, a pitcher less stuck on himself, and less conscious of himself as the star of one of sport's history's great moments probably would have called in sick for Game Six of the ALCS.

Almost all great pitchers (Koufax is the one exception that comes to mind), have an element of playacting about them, the ham element to be precise (Pedro!!!). They had a role, a personality on the mound different from their everyday selves. This is strongly related to why they weren't everyday pitchers. Schilling has an heroic ideal of himself. Give him the ball, and he did his considerable damnedest to live up to his vision. Hard to consider that a bad thing.

No sooner does a player of accomplishment retire than the Hall of Fame arguments begin. A cursory glance at reveals the obvious fact that if there were a Postseason Baseball Hall of Fame, Schilling would be unanimously inducted as soon as eligible.

In the Hall of Fame of our space-time continuum, Schilling's stats, regular and post-season, put him in the gray area. He has a strong case, but his career numbers in some VERY important Hall metrics, like career wins and ERA (don't yell at me, figure filberts, I'm just telling you how the Hall electorate works), are a trifle short, due to the injury and weirdness-ridden endgame of Schilling's Phillies stint.

So when Schilling is eligible in 2013, there will be controversy, and a fierce controversy because both sides will have legitimate arguments. Fans will go berserk on Internet message boards and talk radio. Sportswriters will create long, passionate pieces in whatever medium is still employing them by then on both sides of the dispute. Curt Schilling will be one of baseball's most prominent topics during the winter months of the election period.

I'm sure Curt will just hate all the fuss.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Everybody Needs a Vice

President, that is.

Barack Obama didn't want to go to last night Gridiron Club dinner, so he didn't, and went to Chicago for the weekend instead. That's understandable. The Gridiron Club is one of those Washington affairs where the overpaid, stuck-on-themselves nitwits of our national press corps put on tuxedos (or gowns), sit in a hotel function room, and listen to each other make "humorous" speeches. Who wouldn't rather be in Chicago, or the eighth circle of hell for that matter?

But, the pompous poobahs had their feelings hurt. So Obama sent Joe Biden, who LIKES getting dressed up in a tuxedo and telling terrible jokes to a bunch of stiffs. Biden had a swell time, and presumably, so did the President.

Wouldn't it be great if everybody had a Vice- who showed up at the stuff you didn't want to do? Not work, or the Registry, or stuff you HAVE to do in daily life, but the tedious, awkward social bits you'd rather skip. Like, say, your significant other really wants to see a movie you'd rather catch in the big DVD release in the sky, or insists you bond by watching their alma mater blow a second half lead in the NCAA over nine beers while he/she screams at Ted Valentine.

No sweat. You'd call in your carefully vetted swing state Vice-Michael (insert your name) and go back to doing what you really wanted. The Vice-You would always be on tap for robocalls, Girl Scout cookie peddlers, and promises made by others on your behalf. Life would be sweet. And, since you're the boss, you wouldn't have to listen to the Vice's terrible jokes either.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

According to a Source Close to the Coffee Cup on My Desk

Here's a sportswriting aptitude test. What do you think of trade rumors?

If, like most fans, you said "I love 'em, they're really something to talk about," then your professional aspirations had better focus on talk radio and blogging.

If you said, "there a big pain in the ass, Congratulations! You are a spiritual sportswriter, which, the way the industry is going, is the only kind that will exist by 2012.

My friend and former colleague Vic of came up with a doozy trade rumor this week, reporting that the Carolina Panthers were going to swap disaffected defensive end Julius Peppers to the Patriots for a second-round draft choice. The moment I heard this spectacular example of the major pain rumor, I thought, "aww, Vic, why'd you have to go make so much trouble for everybody else."

On the news media freakout scale, this rumor was a Defcon 4. If true, it would be a spectacular deal. It also would be the biggest self-inflicted swindle this side of the Treasury Department and indicate Panthers GM Marty Hurney is not capable of using public transportation without an escort, but the relative sanity of trade rumors is in inverse proportion to their newsworthiness. Swindles are the kind of trade fans love best. In Boston, the rumor swelled the belief Bill Belichick is a sorcerer with a headset. In Charlotte, it fueled the righteous indignation that fans enjoy almost as much as winning.

And here's the part that makes such a rumor so horrible for those chasing it. Nine-hundred-ninety-nine thousand, nine-hundred, ninety-nine times out of one million, the rumor is pure moonshine. A trade is an investment like any other, and if it sounds too good to be true, it usually isn't.

But not always. Kevin Garnett is a Celtic, isn't he? And so the reporters must treat the rumor as a fact until they can prove otherwise, which is impossible. Oh, it's a joy.

Hurney immediately denied this story. What else could he do? HURNEY: I'M AN IDIOT is not the sort of headline GMs like to see. Belichick did something even more insidious. He gave an interview, a very special Bill Belichick interview.

Among his many skills, Belichick is a master of the non-news situation. If the Eskimos have 1000 ways to say "snow," the Pats coach has twice that many ways of saying nothing while at the same time implying anything you wish to imagine. He can surround himself in an impenetrable cloud of ambiguity. World leaders should take his correspondence course.

The trio of diligent questioners on WEEI had no chance of pinning Belichick down on this story. A trio of the late Tim Russert, Perry Mason, and Inspector Maigret would have had no chance. The rumor is a pure win-win for Belichick. Even if it doesn't come to pass, it enhances the Pats' status as bold, canny tacticians of the flesh market. That can't hurt. So Belichick did what he could, which was plenty, to keep the rumor alive without actually stating a single fact or even opinion.

Meanwhile, some poor sod in every sports journalism outlet in New England (and North Carolina) had to write or broadcast a story based on Belichick's words. It would be easier and more fun to write a story based on a communique of international finance ministers, and the resulting story would contain more useful information, too.

Trade rumors highlight a fact about journalism of which its customers should be more aware. All information is treated as a possible fact even if it seems ridiculous on its face. Ninety percent of the work you do results in stuff you DON'T print or broadcast, because it turned out to be bullshit, or just because you couldn't verify its status one way or the other.

Vic verified the Peppers' rumor to his own and his bosses' satisfaction. When people in a position to know say something MIGHT happen, that's a rumor that can be printed. It is amazing how often people in a position to know use the word "might" when speaking on or off the record. If the conditional tense doesn't morph to a declarative sentence, their asses are covered. The reporter's posterior, not so much.

If I had to guess, Peppers will not be traded to the Patriots. He is at daggers drawn with the Panthers in a contract dispute (poor lad, working off nothing but a $17 million guarantee for 2009). In that kind of situation, it is not unheard of for a player agent to float a trade rumor just to shake up the negotiating dynamic a bit-a financial rally cap, if you will.

But I could be wrong. That last sentence is why reporters in Charlotte and New England will be placing unreturned calls to Peppers, the Patriots, the Panthers, and dozens of other NFL people every day between now and the draft. Most of them are Vic's friends, too. But right now, they're probably a little miffed at him.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

What Does a Champion Designed by a Committee Look Like?

The National Collegiate Athletic Association regrets to announce there isn't going to be a men's Division I basketball champion this year. Too confusing.

But since there's all this gambling going on, the NCAA did decide to create a 65-team team field for the annual tournament so fans won't be disappointed, although going by recent form, all 65 teams will be eliminated before reaching the Final Four.

Three of the number one seeds, Pitt, UConn, and North Carolina, lost their last game. They didn't even reach the FINALS of their respective conference tournaments. UConn's on a two-game losing streak and missing a key player. No matter. The Huskies were sure great in January.

For that matter, two of the number two seeds, Michigan State andOklahoma, didn't reach the finals of their conference tourneys either, nor did two of the third seeds, Villanova and Kansas. That's 7 of the 12 top teams as rated by the selection committee who will be entering the tournament coming off a loss, in many cases, an unexpected and embarrassing loss.

The committee decided their wisest course of action was to stop time around March 1, and act as if the last week of the season hadn't happened at all. So, in SelectionCommittee world, the schools that were considered juggernauts of destiny two weeks ago were given all the perks of power allowed in the bracket process. They did move Louisville up, but it would have been very difficult to give Pitt and UConn number one seeds and not the team that finished ahead of them in both the conference regular season and tournament.

About the perks. They are mostly geographic, allowing top seeds to play their first and second round games a shortish drive from home -- that is, they get to play home games. In the case of Villanova, a three, that's literally true. It will start the tournament at the Wachovia Center in Philly, a 30 minute drive from campus, and where the team plays several regular season games each year.

The committee wants to sell tickets. But come on, gang, the price of gas is back down under $2 a gallon. Fans don't have to walk. Ohio State, an 8 seed, will open in Dayton. That's closer to their campus than any road game the team played this year.

But enough fulminating (OK, one more, Jay Bilas is an ass! Felt good to get that off the chest.). Time for the wild surmises. Such a more polite word that "guesses," don't you think?

I have traditionally broken my handicapping down by region, but am going for a different approach this year. Why? Boredom, lack of patience, change of luck, and probably in that order.

Final Four: Pitt, North Carolina, Kansas, Memphis.

First one seed to fall: UConn

First two seed to fall: Oklahoma

Teams most likely to make a hash of the Final Four just posted. Florida State, Butler, Wake Forest, Purdue. Not to make the Final Four themselves, mind you, just most likely to upset my picks.

Teams the committee had to seed higher than it really liked them, and hence punished with wicked opponents: UCLA, a six, gets Virginia Commonwealth. BC, a seven, get USC. In each case, the lower seed is better than even money.

It won't happen, but what a hoot if it did: Binghamton, which is breaking the laws of God, man, and academe to make its play for Division I, opens with Duke, the sanctimonious poster child for "doing things the right way." Oh, for a Binghamton win. Won't happen. America East has had any number of stronger conference champs.

A team you should watch for fun: Mississippi State

Chances all 7 Big Ten teams miss the Sweet Sixteen. At least 33 percent. Showing that knowledge truly can come from anywhere, Jim Nantz pointed out that Ohio State's 82-70 win over Michigan State on Saturday was the first time a team had scored 80 or more in the conference tournament since 2004! Knock the bottoms out of those peach baskets before the game, fellas. Speeds things along.

Local color: Boston hosts the East Regional. My guess is you'll see Pitt, Florida State, Villanova and Duke hanging around the Garden.

That's it. That's all the prognostication for 2009. From here on in, back to second guessing. So much easier.

Good luck with your own gambling, gang. And may the game you want to see not have Gus Johnson at the mike.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Hard Out There for a Tout

Way, way back in the G.H.W. Bush administration, my boss at the Herald, Bob Sales, let me do a pro football gambling column. The theory was, it would be a common sense counterpoint to our other gambling column, which was very much of the standard "The Jets have not covered on the road in an NFC West stadium with game time barometric pressure under 30.12 since 1973" variety. My idea was to use the space to explore pro football issues that interested me, and hopefully, to pick more winners than losers in the process.

Along about week four of the season, I didn't like any of the games on the card. So I wrote that, pointing out to the readers that there was no law forcing them to bet every week of the NFL season (the laws forbidding them to do so, of course, the Herald never mentioned and still doesn't). Bob let the piece run, called me into his office the following Monday, and told me never to do anything like that again, pointing out the inherent contradiction of a gambling column which advises people not to gamble.

So I have a certain sympathy, limited but real, for the stock pickers on CNBC, who are taking a little heat these days. They HAVE to keep picking stocks, even as the market executes a three-and-a-half pike off the 10-meter board. If they told the audience "sell and buy Treasury notes, or some index fund you don't have to think about," and people took the advice, there would be no CNBC. Which would be for the best, but not for them.

Gamblers/investors don't WANT to know how their games work. They just want winners. And since picking winners is hard work, many are foolish enough to rely on others they regard as authority figures, including, God help them, me.

Late in that season, I hit a bad patch, as all handicappers do, and received a phone call from a loyal reader. Would it be OK, this poor soul inquired, if he stopped betting my picks until I got rolling again?

I was horrified. The idea that people used their money to back my opinions had never occurred to me. I had never read a gambling column except for entertainment purposes, because I had always figured that if any gambler could beat the odds consistently, they would keep their methods to themselves. I assumed no REAL gamblers were desperate enough to take the advice of someone who had warned, in his very first piece, that picking winners was not the essential point of this particular journalistic exercise.

Chastened, I would up around .500 for the year, a five percent loser to the vigorish. My audience could have done worse than take my advice, but my heart wasn't in it anymore. The next season, the Herald replaced me with the extremely enthusiastic and dangerous I.M. Bettor, a veritable Jim Cramer of the gridiron, who may be there today for all I know. I went back to writing about events. It was a tremendous relief to shed the burden of fraudulent omniscience.

It was a profitable (spiritually) enterprise for me if not for Herald readers. Once you've actually BEEN a forecaster, you never accept any forecast at face value again.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Airing of Stale Grievances

Jonathan Papelbon had some mean things to say about Manny Ramirez in the paper today. Why anyone, including Papelbon, paid this the slightest attention is beyond me.

Leaving aside the accuracy of Papelbon's statements, about which I have neither clue nor interest, Ramirez's relationhip with his FORMER Red Sox teammates ceased to be news shortly after Ramirez reported to the Dodgers in July, 2008. Had Papelbon issued his condemnation while Ramirez was still in Boston, it would have been news. Now, it's not even history. It's an addenum to a postscript to a footnote to history.

Ramirez is long gone, and since departing his old club and his new one made the 2008 playoffs and he resigned with the Dodgers after a particularly pointless contract negotiation. The chance of Manny impacting the 2009 Red Sox depends on both teams making the World Series. Ramirez is out of Papelbon's life for good. The phrase "let it go" comes to mind, but sadly, it didn't come to Papelbon's mind.

If indeed Ramirez was a terrible teammate (we didn't hear any complaints from the Sox closer following the 2007 World Series), pointing the fact out now casts Papelbon in as bad a light as it does Manny. Nobody is particularly impressed by a character assassin who holds his fire until the target is 3000 miles out of range.

There's another very good reason why ballplayers seldom publically criticized teammates or former teammates they just can't stand. It breeds suspicion among other teammates that the criticizer might be a tad judgmental about them, too.

If Jason Bay starts the year 6 for 38, Papelbon shouldn't be surprised when sportswriters come around asking him about Bay's slump, looking for cheap headlines. He has a rep now.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Cabin Fever Strikes Front Office

The winners? of the Terrell Owens sweepstakes are the Buffalo Bills, who signed TO to a one-year, $6.5 million contract less than 10 hours after my previous post expressing doubt as to the wisdom of this acquisition. Don't they have the Internet up there?

On a more serious philosophical note, if, as the saying goes, a second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience, what does that make a fourth marriage? Or in this case, a fourth employer?

Those of you with a religious bent are urged to light a candle for Trent Edwards.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

T.O. to Get Permanent TO?

They don't look very much alike, but currently unemployed wide receiver Terrell Owens has always reminded me of Don Zimmer. That thought probably needs a bit of explanation.

Zimmer probably knew as much about the tactics and in-game decision-making of baseball as any man who ever lived. Joe Torre had damn well better have Zim standing on the podium next to him at Cooperstown when he accepts his Hall of Fame plaque for managing the Yankees. Without Zimmer's input as bench coach (there should be a better title for that, maybe "thinking coordinator") the Yanks would have won considerably fewer games on Torre's watch.

Zimmer, however, was a notably unsuccessful major league manager, and it wasn't because he didn't have talented teams to direct. The flaw of this intelligent and decent man was deeply personal. Zimmer couldn't relate in human terms to pitchers. This was understandable. Pitchers came very close to killing Zimmer. He suffered beanings in the 1950s that morphed him from the hottest prospect in the game to a utility guy, the kind who has to study the game seeking means of compensating for a .250 batting average.

Alas, the care and feeding of pitchers is far and away the most important chore on a manager's t0-do list. Zimmer is best known for his poisonous relationship with Bill Lee back in the Red Sox day. Well, Bill's a friend, but I can see why any manager might find him a handful. It spoke volumes more that Zimmer couldn't get along with Ferguson Jenkins. A manager who can't deal with a Hall of Famer has a serious issue that more than partially disqualifies him for the job.

Look past the ESPN blather, and Owens' NFL career is almost exactly parallel to Zimmer's managerial one. Owens WAS (not is, not at 35), one of the best players in his game. He could dominate from a position at which it is extremely hard to dominate. But he can't keep a steady job, and it stems from a deep personal/professional neurosis.

In the fall of 2004 at the National League Championship Series, my distinguished former professional colleague Bob Ford of the Philadelphia Inquirer said of Owens. "He's the best player the Eagles have had in the 20 years I've covered them, and the biggest asshole." Quite a few assholes have been astonishing successes in sports, just as in any line of work. What handicapped Owens is what KIND of an asshole he is.

Just as Zimmer couldn't relate to pitchers, Owens, at a profound subconscious level, cannot abide quarterbacks. At each of his three NFL ports of call, he wound up as a bitter enemy and public and in-house critic of the man who threw him the ball-Jeff Garcia with the 49ers, Donovan McNabb with the Eagles, and finally, Tony Romo with the Cowboys.

Receivers all chafe if their quarterback isn't very good. That wasn't Owens' beef. None of those three guys is a Hall of Famer. All had floaws. But all were/are well above average, leading teams that won far more often than they lost, making Pro Bowls and playoff appearances along the way.

On the surface, Owens' complaint with his QBs is that they don't throw him the ball enough. That doesn't explain the depth of his antipathy to them. ALL receivers believe they don't get thrown the ball often enough. ALL of them believe they are headed for a touchdown on the next play, if only they get a chance to get their mitts on the ball. There has never been a huddle in history where a receiver told the QB, "they're double-covering me, better throw to Fred today."

Wide receivers do not as a rule take that complaint to Owens' psycho level of discontent. They recognize it is professional suicide. Teams won't abide in-house feuds about the quarterback. Quarterbacks don't care for it, either. To complain about being frozen out of the offense is to risk it becoming a reality. Without the quarterback, a receiver is a man being paid a lot of money to run wind sprints.

That reality is what drives Owens crazy. His ego cannot handle the fact that a wideout, no matter how gifted, is in a dependent position to the man who throws him passes. His coping mechanism is to wind up resenting, then loathing, any quarterback on whom he depends.

Forced to choose between a quarterback and a wideout, teams always choose the QB. Doesn't matter if the wideout is a star and the QB a schlub. Wideouts of Owens' ability aren't easy to replace, exactly, but they're much easier to replace than quarterbacks. Cheaper, too.

Mark Maske of the Washington Post, an excellent reporter, was on ESPN last night floating the idea that the Colts might pick up Owens, because surely no receiver could fail to collaborate effectively with Peyton Manning. This is incorrect. It is my theory that Owens would hate a truly gifted quarterback even more, because such a player would be an even more painful reminder of his dependency on the guy. And the notion of Mr. Fusspot Manning tolerating Owens' hi-jinks is laughable.

Owens is 35 and on the downslide at a rapid pace. An NFL team would be deranged to hire him for the 2009 season. Of course, one will. I have a short message for the lucky quarterback of the team which promises TO yet another new beginning.

Serenity now, dude. Serenity now.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Bridegroom Wore White, Red and Gold

Here's an etiquette question. If Tom Brady was the quarterback who got married, why did Bill Belichick send Matt Cassel a present?

Make that three presents. First, the New England Patriots sent Cassel a tasteful franchise tag, meaning he instantly acquired a guaranteed salary of $14 million for 2009. Then, perhaps fearing the neighbors would gossip about such a miserly show of affection, Belichick traded Cassel AND Mike Vrabel to the Kansas City Chiefs. This in effect gave Cassel the two things every pro quarterback wants most-his own team to run and even more money. The Chiefs will soon award Cassel the traditional franchise quarterback's long-term contract, featuring probably twice as much guaranteed dough.

In return, the selfless Belichick asks for nothing more than a second-round draft choice and a nice thank-you note. If the pick doesn't work out, the coach can always frame the note.

It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Belichick, as very smart people sometimes do, razzled his own dazzle in the Cassel matter. If, as the reliable Mike Reiss states, the idea was that the Pats would franchise Cassel, then trade him to some quarterback-starved club for a king's ransom, well, a second-round pick, while more than a court jester's ransom, isn't all that much more. It is what the Browns got for Kellen Winslow, Jr., whose picture is next to "damaged goods" in the NFL dictionary. The Chiefs got Cassel and the venerable but still useful in spots Vrabel. A good haul, that.

To be fair, Cassel came with his own built-in dilemma. To trade him, the Pats had to franchise him. But to franchise him, they had to make Cassel so expensive, they limited the market for his services, by telling all 31 other NFL teams they HAD to deal the guy, or have the most insupportable quarterback situation of modern times.

Set aside the dire salary cap setup. Consider public opinion. There are nitwits in New England right now who think Cassel is better than Brady because their short-term memory loss prevents recalling 2007. Should Cassel have been holding a clipboard for approximately $875,000 a game, the din from the birdbrain section after every Pats loss would have been deafening. My personal guess was that even if Cassel was still under Pats' contract for half-a-million a year, Belichick would have dealt him away the moment he decided Brady was going to be healthy for the 2009 season.

Add to that the other teams' knowledge that a trade for Cassel meant a new deal for Cassel at franchise quarterback rates, and you have what CNBC calls a thin market. Very thin. According to reports, the only clubs to make serious offers were the Chiefs and Broncos. Those teams, not coincidentally, are run by Scott Pioli and Josh McDaniels, two men who were Cassel's supervisors with the Pats last season.

To me, that's the most interesting part of this trade. Opinions on the shape of this quarterback sure differ. Every club has the same films to study. About a dozen teams need quarterbacks desperately. And yet, the only decision-makers who saw Cassel as their QB of the future were guys who were involved with Cassel as their quarterback of the present in 2008. Everybody else passed, including some teams Cassel lit up like the Bellagio last fall. They'd rather take their chances with the Sage Rosenfels of the world, or pay as much or more than Cassel will get for some rookie.

Doubtless these teams will say that Cassel was a product of the Pats' "system," that is, he only played well because he was on a good offense. Well, duh. Find me a quarterback who plays better with lousy personnel around him. I want to be that guy's agent.

It could be that all those quarterback-starved clubs (yo, Brad Childress, we're talkin' to you! Hey, Lovey Smith, listen up!!) are planning to make Kurt Warner wealthy beyond imagining. If so, they get a pass. But I don't think so. My guess is that many teams pass on Cassel for the same reason they'll pass on having a quarterback who anyone could call a "franchise" player and keep a straight face.

Beef up the offensive line, and fans and owners can't really see whether or not the money spent is delivering return on investment. If it doesn't work, you'll get fired, but not for a season or three yet. Pick a franchise quarterback who isn't one, and you get fired faster.