Wednesday, December 23, 2009

We Won't Know Until We See the Films, and We're Not Watching Those

Over 60 hours have passed since the final gun of the Pats-Bills game, and my thoughts on the contest remain the same. I still haven't got any. Nor should I.

The Patriots have played far worse games in the Bill Belichick era, but seldom have they turned in a more forgettable contest on artistic terms. I can call up every play of games from the 2001 season, but in no time at all, the Bills game has become a jumbled blur of obscured memories. There was Randy Moss' touchdown catch, New England's "milling around in front of the flight gate counter" defensive formation (which I quite enjoy watching), and just one hell of a lot of penalties. The rest I can't remember, because I didn't much notice it when it was happening in real time on TV.

A game has to be awesomely dull if a Hall of Fame quarterback pretty much stinks and you only realize it when you read the game stats in the next day's paper. During the game, I was dimly aware Tom Brady was not exactly lighting it up. But it was only Monday when the full horror of his 11-23-115-1 TD-1 INT performance was made visible to me in cold type. Those are backup QB numbers, and in fact are not much different from those posted by Bills career backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. One need hardly point out that a similar performance by Brady in a playoff game will equal instant elimination for New England.

They can't all be fantastic finish fodder, of course, and once a team gets stuck in a snoozer, winning still beats losing it. The Pats muddled through, just as they muddled through against the Panthers the week before. Muddling through (which is euphemized as "finding a way to win" or "grinding" by players and coaches) looks to be New England's default game plan the rest of the way in 2009.

Muddling though is a virtue, not a flaw. It is the reaction of poise and adaptability to adversity. No team has more muddle-through wins this year than the Colts, which is why they're 14-0. But muddling through, as we've seen these past weeks, is not superior entertainment.

A team that STARTS a game looking to muddle through isn't a superior team, either.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Abiding Mystery of Suck

Randy Moss had a bad game yesterday. Lots and lots of folks are sure they know why. I'm not. I don't they think they know what they're talking about, either. If figuring out why football players sometimes perform poorly was easy, football coaching would not be such an insecure profession.

I realize that reputations are irrevocable in the often-brainless of sports. That's why Moss gets 1000 times the criticism for poor play in a Patriots win than Tom Brady got for his poor performance in the fourth quarter of a LOSS to Miami, a performance directly responsible for that loss. But reputation and reality are not constant companions. Reality is a little too deep for reputation's taste.

It's possible Moss went through the motions because his feelings were hurt when Bill Belichick sent him home for being late to a meeting Wednesday morning. But when wideouts decide to cut corners, the first chore they usually skip is blocking. My television set showed several plays where Moss was diligently performing that chore. Doesn't mean he wasn't dogging it, just a note I made during the game itself.

It could be that Moss made a bad play or two early and couldn't snap out of it. In my experience, this happens far, far more often in sports than a player quitting. Effort begets failure which begets confusion and doubt which begets more failure. It would be foolish to deny that wide receivers in general and Moss in particular are more subject to mood swings than are, say, centers.

Or, and here's a radical notion, Moss might have been invisible as a receiver because the Carolina Panthers did a good job defending him. Any adequate defense can take any wide receiver out of the game, especially the deep threat guy. It's a matter of committing resources. The trick is to make that commitment without leaving the rest of the enemy offense free to do as it wishes, a trick the Panthers failed to pull off in the game's second half.

Which brings me to the oddest Moss critics of all -- the Panthers. Members of their defensive backfield said they had shut Moss down because he stopping trying. This leads one to the inescapable inference that the Panthers believe any opponent who tries hard ought to beat them silly.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

No Snow Angels at Foxboro This Week

This blogger's views on sports team interpersonal conflicts were formed in his youth, in 1973, the year he lived in Oakland, California in the middle of the A's dynasty of that period.

About once every three weeks, the A's would have some major beef. A screaming match between the manager and a player, or the manager and owner Charlie Finley, or a fistfight in the shower between members of the pitching staff or some other shenanigans that would keep Boston talk radio at Defcon-Five for a century would go down, and the public always reacted the same way.

Express buses would be chartered to take gamblers to Reno and Tahoe as fast as could be, because everyone knew another A's beef meant another A's winning tear on the order of 12 of their next 14 games. So I've always been a little skeptical of the idea that harmony is necessary for winning.

I've also always suspected that the percentage of professional athletes who can't abide their immediate supervisor, the coach/manager, is close to the number who feel the same way in regular businesses -- a significant one. So all in all, I've been hard pressed to get too upset to learn that Adalius Thomas and Bill Belichick won't be each other's Secret Santas at the Patriots' Christmas party.

Thomas was punished (only in football could a day off be considered punishment) for getting to work late because of yesterday's snowstorm. Since Belichick is not nuts, I have to assume that at some point this season, he told his team that weather would not be an excuse for tardiness.

That Thomas was angry at being punished is hardly surprising. It's a harsh rule. Most football teams have harsh rules. It's a harsh sport. It's an especially harsh sport when the team starts losing and no one from coach to star quarterback to punter appears to have a handle on what to do about it. Which is not at the root of Belichick and Thomas' mutual antipathy, but is surely why both men let this contretemps enter the public domain.

Thomas' choice was self-evident. He gave a bitter press availability on the matter today. Belichick's was only slightly more subtle in making the matter public. The normal punishment for such a violation would've been a fine. Fines can be kept in-house. A player not being at practice can't be. Belichick WANTED the world to know he was mad at the snowbound miscreants who missed his 8 a.m. meeting.

As Voltaire said in another context, the four players were publicly shamed "to encourage the others." It was the most efficient means Belichick could think of to convey the message that life has become grim and earnest in Patriotland to its other inhabitants. It also allowed him a rare indulgence in frustration-venting, which is probably good for his coaching going forward.

Thomas and Belichick will not go forward. They want a divorce. Like all estranged couples, they look at each other and see a mistake. Thomas sees a coach who sweet-talked him into signing as a free agent at a place where he would make sacks and win Super Bowls and neither has happened much. Belichick looks at Thomas and sees what Pats' fans see, that is, not much of anything this season. Then he sees a giant cartoon dollar sign where Thomas' face used to be. Having given Thomas over $20 million, Belichick regards Thomas as one might regard the stockbroker whose advice got you into Bear Stearns when it was at $165.

That last paragraph would have been true if Thomas had been on time yesterday. But it wouldn't have been an Issue, the sort of topic beaten into the ground by fans and commentators. Years of experience tell me that the Great Truancy Flap will have a distinctly measurable effect on the Pats the rest of the season. Zero is a measurement, too.

Antoine Saint-Exupery said it 70 years ago. Defeat divides. Tom Brady doesn't throw a horrible interception in the end zone last Sunday, and Commutegate doesn't happen. Bet on it. Now that it has happened, Thomas' teammates will consider it for about five seconds and then go back to worrying about themselves and the next game they'll play. Bet on that, too.

The one part of Thomas' rant today that made sense was his observation that if the Pats beat the Panthers Sunday, his lateness on Wednesday would be forgotten by everyone outside the organization and by most inside it, too. As a veteran, the slowly vanishing linebacker is familiar with the Iron Law of Football Commentary.

The Law reads: All teams always have problems. After defeats, commentary presents problems as crises. After victories, commentary denies problems exist.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Memo to the Dept. of Weather

Dear Folks: While attention to customer service is always appreciated, you up there in the Cosmic Powers building appear to have misinterpreted the millions of calls for and general buzz about a white Christmas that always pop up after Thanksgiving.

Don't blame yourselves. Human beings have a difficult time expressing themselves clearly, and when it comes to the White Christmas concept, they're hopeless. So on behalf of my species, let me get more specific. People DO want a White Christmas. But they have a very narrow interpretation of the term.

"I'm dreaming of a white Christmas" means the person in question is dreaming of the following scenario: It is the evening of December 24. The presents are bought and wrapped, the ingredients for festive meals are in the kitchen and liquor closet, the tree is trimmed, and hokey music is on the sound system. Then, and only then, is it supposed to start snowing. And it should be a gentle, fluffy snowfall that wouldn't stop anything from getting and to and back from midnight services. It should also stop promptly during morning of December 25, so those trips to grandmother's house don't turn into holiday horror shows.

THAT'S a white Christmas. All snowfalls before December 24 are just what snowfalls are after December 25 -- enormous pains in the ass.

Thank you for your attention in this matter.

Sincerely yours,

Friday, December 04, 2009

You Learn Something New Every Day in This Game -- Unfortunately

Back in my innocent youth, before Thanksgiving, I was sure that no experience could be more dismal, painful, and misspent than reading, listening to or watching sports commentators discuss politics.

Tiger Woods took it upon himself to prove me wrong. Reading, listening to or watching sports commentators discuss sex, marriage and human relationships is infinitely worse. Better four hours stuck with Fred, Steve, Pete and the Big O going over monetary policy's effects on the balance of payments than one nanosecond of what has been inescapable the last few days.

For many of you out there, the shallow and mundane moralizing on Woods, his wife, the Other Women, etc. does offer the compensation of the dark humor generated by the unintentionally self-revealing nature of the commentary. It's when we talk about others that we most show ourselves, after all. This twisted pleasure, alas, is denied me. I WAS a commentator. I know these people. All I'm left with is excruciating embarrassment for those colleagues of yesteryear and a profound sense of social awkwardness. As Woods proved, it's hard to drive a car when feeling socially awkward. And he was just in his driveway. I'm out on 128.

Here's a tip for my former fellow commentators. Gang, take it from us WASPs. There are many moments in life when repression is the most useful and wise psychological impulse of all. This is one of those times.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Writer's Blocking and Tackling

At least a half-dozen times since last Monday night, I've come up with different ideas for posts on the 2009 New England Patriots and their loss to the Saints. As far as I know, they were, if not good ideas, at least fresh ones.

(Note to some fans and commentators: A 38-17 loss does not indicate your team's offense was the problem.)

But as you may notice, I didn't turn any of those ideas into actual posts. I can't. Every time I sit down to type, a vision of the 2008 Arizona Cardinals gets in my way. Specifically, I see the Cardinals on December 21, 2008 down at Gillette Stadium, where they lost to the Patriots by 47-7 or thereabouts in one of the single most disgraceful performances by a professional sports team it has ever been my misfortune to witness. You can't even say the Cardinals quit in that game, because "quit" implies there was a point where the team was doing something.

Naturally, I and 100 other people wrote the Cardinals off for the playoffs, for which they had already qualified. Teams just can't look that bad and do anything in the postseason less than two weeks later.

Somewhat less naturally, the Cardinals proved us all wrong, winning three straight playoff games in admirable fashion to reach the Super Bowl, which they also damn near won. December's poltroons were January's swashbucklers. Same guys. Same coaches. Same game plans. There's no such thing as character transplants. To explain the Cards' transformation, we are left with the inescapable conclusion that regular season games are less than a 100 percent reliable indicator of postseason game results.

Actually, we also left with one of my oldest observations about the NFL. Almost every team, regardless of record or talent, turns in one genuinely rank performance each season, a festival of errors, timidity and helplessness. And that performance is an outlier, with no real bearing on what'll happen to said team in future games (two or more such games sure as hell is an indicator, but teams that bad have usually proved their lack of worth by Columbus Day).

The Patriots will have to play a lot worse than they did against New Orleans (who, correspondingly, will be hard pressed to match their performance that night the rest of the way) for a lot longer than one game to miss the playoffs. They may fail dismally in their first postseason game, or they may have become what most folks thought they'd be back in training camp.

I'll bet postgame analyses will not mention the Saints game in either case, nor should they.