Sunday, January 31, 2010

Time Travel Remains Impossible Except in Sportswriting

It's unfortunate that my former colleague and still I hope friend Bob Ryan fell victim to one of the most pernicious and virulent fallacies in sports in his Globe column today -- the comparison of Then and Now in absolute terms.

Bob's contention was that the Indianapolis Colts of today would wallop the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, because players are bigger, faster and stronger today and because the game has changed. And this would be true, if one assumes the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s were transported into current time (or the Colts back in time), without the experience changing them.

But that's crazy even for science fiction. We have to assume that the very best athletes of yesteryear would adapt to today's conditions, rules, nutrition, etc., and THEN perform against contemporary jocks. Simply put, if Willie Davis was a defensive end today, he'd weigh more, and if Jeff Saturday was an offensive lineman back then, he'd weigh less. And for sure, if Vince Lombardi saw today's rules, he'd have the Packers pass one hell of a lot more than they did in 1962.

We even have evidence to support that latter conclusion. When offensive holding rules were strict, nobody ran more and passed less than Don Shula's Dolphins. The rules changed, Dan Marino fell into Shula's lap, and all of a sudden no team passed more.

To assume that a 250-pound tackle of the past wouldn't bulk up to compete today is to assume he lacks the extraordinary motivation that lifted him to the top of the football heap during his own era. It's kind of the whole basic idea of evolution -- successful adaptation to circumstances. By definition, the greatest players and teams of any sport in any era were really good at adaptation. That is not a skill that changes with body size or, in games like golf and tennis, with equipment changes.

There's room enough for arguments about what's happening in sports in the here and now. Arguing about sports by comparing the past and present is both futile and a disservice to both sides of the comparison. It represents the eternal human desire to bend time to our will.

As of this morning, time still posts an undefeated record.

The Unscrewable Pooch Meets Roger Goodell

In a past life, I'd be leaving for the Super Bowl today. The iron routine of that event was that each team flew into the host city late Sunday, and of course, the press corps had to get there ahead of them.

I will confess to a heretical sportswriter thought. I enjoyed covering Super Bowls. The hype and nonsense amuse me. I liked spending an entire week in a community of thousands of people who were thinking of nothing but football (well, that and where their next free food and drink was coming from). If your home team is in the Super Bowl, covering the game is an enormous amount of work, but you have the consolation of knowing that a reasonably high percentage of your audience is following you work. If the home team isn't in the game, it's a breeze. There's no night work until the game itself, when adrenaline kicks in, even if you're covering a Super Rout (I covered three of the top four blowouts).

This year, the routine will be different. Nobody's showing up until Monday. The Pro Bowl is today, and by NFL decree, nothing can interfere with this megacolossal non-event. The league is making members of the Colts and Saint who were named to the Pro Bowl teams show up and watch! Of course, it hasn't been able to prevent Pro Bowlers from other teams who don't give a damn, like Tom Brady, from sending their regrets. Since the game's being held in Miami instead of Honolulu, there were more dropouts than usual, too.

When the plan to shift the Pro Bowl's date and location was first announced back before last season, opinion was unanimous. This was a stupid idea. Now that the change is actually upon us, however, opinion has shifted. This is about the stupidest idea in sports marketing history.

The truth is, it doesn't matter when or where the Pro Bowl is played. Honolulu in February or Paris in the spring, the game is always going to suck, and no one is going to care about it. Football is just not a game where the All-Star concept works. The sensible thing to do would be to name two Pro Bowl teams (players DO covet that honor), ferry them all out to some subtropic resort, and have an AFC-NFC golf tournament. I'd tune in to watch somebody like Vince Wolfolk try to play Pebble Beach, and I bet others would, too.

But the problem with today's Pro Bowl is more insidious than its sure-to-flop status. In the tiniest, most incremental way, the NFL has started messing with the routine and setup of the Super Bowl itself, the most successful event in U.S. sports history, the league's crown jewel and cash cow. That's not dangerous in itself, but once organizations start messing with success, they have a terrible tendency not to know when to stop. Commissioner Goodell has shown a marked tendency to micromanage. He appears to be just the kind of CEO who feels he must leave an imprint on a business -- whether or not it needs any.

A tweak here, and a tweak there, and pretty soon, the unscrewable pooch is no longer a virgin, the Super Bowl is no longer the ultimate mass marketing experience, and your league is no longer as rich as it used to be.

Think this can't happen? Check with the International Olympic Committee. They screwed the American television pooch in less than a decade.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Lyin' Eyes, Lyin' Numbers

One of George Carlin's most famous monologues was on the differences between baseball and football. It's too bad Carlin died before he could work Tim Tebow into that bit.

Suppose, if you will, Tebow was a baseball player, with the equivalent level of performance in that sport in top-shelf college competition that he enjoyed as Florida's quarterback. Suppose also that Tebow had baseball-related technical flaws evident to the naked eye of any fan, let alone scout. A Jim Furyk-like hitch in his swing, say, or a pitching motion reminiscent of the funkier deliveries of Bugs Bunny when he twirled for Warner Bros.

Well, there would be debate about Tebow's future in the big leagues among the anonymous scouts and front office types who gossip over the back fence of baseball notes columns. But there would also be a number something like a 1.046 OPS or a 1.10 ERA listed to the right of Tebow's name. And there would be no doubt whatsoever, even among Tebow doubters, that he would be a high draft choice. Very high. He'd be scanning online apartment listings in Greater Pittsburgh, Kansas City and San Diego right now.

Let's go back to the real Tebow, the football player. At the most statistically quantifiable position at his sport, Tebow has compiled astonishing numbers in what is generally thought to be the toughest college football conference in the country, the NFL's highest minor league, if you will. He threw for zillions of yards, ran for hundreds of touchdowns, and last but certainly not least, Tebow started 39 games as a QB and lost four. If there were footballmetricians, they would be screaming at the Rams to make Tebow the number one pick in the draft this April.

There aren't really any footballmetricians, except the gang over at Football Outsiders, and even they don't fancy Tebow's chances in the NFL. In this game, eyeball evidence matters, not numbers. The tapes from Senior Bowl practices, which the NFL Network thoughtfully has rebroadcast on a 37-hour a day basis, show Tebow fumbling snaps, throwing passes straight into the ground, and passing with a sidearm motion not even seen in baseball anymore.

As a result, there is a consensus in the NFL community, and among all fans outside northern Florida, that Tebow ain't got it. He will never be a starting pro quarterback. The most generous estimates of his future, like mine, are that he could be a useful supplemental change-up to a team's basic offense -- a Brad Smith who doesn't return kicks. In other words, a fourth round draft pick.

There are contrarian opinions on Tebow, some issued by people whose ideas must be respected, like Jon Gruden, and some, like Michael Felger, who are just jerking your chain. As far as can be ascertained at this moment, none of the contrarians will be making draft selections this April.

About Tebow, we'll see. I'm using him here as a case study in the difference in talent evaluation between our two largest professional sports. In baseball, the war between the seamhead-old scout alliance and the quant empire is over. The numbers-crunchers have won, and statistical analysis is at worst a 50 percent factor in every team's assessment of a player's future.

In football, allegedly a far more scientific and futuristic game, eyeball evidence rules, and stats are cited only by agents. From Bill Belichick down to humble outsiders such as you and I, football people make up their minds about a player by watching him, and filtering what we see through the infinite complexity of our brain, or at least that part of it stuffed with football information, prejudice, and guesswork.

Here's the kicker. The success/failure ratio of talent assessment of these two methods are exactly the same. The conventional wisdom is more often right than wrong, but wrong often enough to make depending on it an express train to failure.

The numbers argue J.D. Drew is much, much better than you think, but you're right, and they're wrong. Eyeballs that had been watching football for decades told the San Diego Chargers that Ryan Leaf would be a Hall of Fame quarterback.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Revisionist History

The NFL Network ran a rebroadcast of Super Bowl III last night. Sick soul that I am, I watched the first half, even though I basically know every play by heart.

Sometimes, however, the familiar can be seen with new eyes. In this viewing of the greatest upset in pro football history, and perhaps most financially important game in sports history, a new perception emerged.

It sure was a lucky thing for Don Shula that Joe Namath guaranteed a Jets victory, because had post-game commentary focused on the Colts and not Namath and his team, Shula might never gotten another head coaching job.

Simply put, the Colts blew the game in the first half to a far greater extent than the Jets won it in the second. Given every opportunity to create a tidy 14-0 lead, they kicked each and every one of them away. Three red-zone entries and no points? At least two sure interceptions either dropped or whiffed on? These are the marks of a team that just not prepared to perform its best.
Coaches tend to get blamed for stuff like that.

All in all, the 2001 New England Patriots, winners of the SECOND-biggest upset in NFL history, Super Bowl XXXVI, were the beneficiaries of few fewer enemy self-destruct mechanisms than were the Jets. The Rams made one huge blunder -- forgetting Marshall Faulk. Otherwise, the Pats whupped up on them physically for 60 minutes. Indeed, the Pats survived one mega-blunder of their own -- a penalty negating a defensive touchdown.

Conventional history isn't ALL wrong. The Jets did what underdogs must. Stay close, play percentages, and above all, maintain emotional self-control. Namath's role in that last matter is impossible to overstate. The Jets did believe they were equals going in. When they took a lead, thanks to the Colts' bungling, the Jets felt they were the superior team, and acted like it.

But when a team has five turnovers in a title game, as the Colts did, it's more proof that upsets almost always are more suicide than homicide.

PS: The other thing one takes from watching Super Bowl III is this: Boy, did placekicking stink back then.

Duty Calls

The trouble with predictions is you have to keep making them. I have nothing particularly witty nor uniquely insightful to say about the Colts, Jets, Vikings and Saints, but damn it, there's an obligation at work here. What kind of ex-scribe would only pick the playoff divisional round?

Anyway, to our topic. The Jets, who are a promising but in truth middling team, caught a lucky break against the Colts in December and have made the most of it. That is to their great credit. Since they ARE a New York team, it is not to the amount of credit they've gotten this week. Rex Ryan talks a lot, but one stat about the playoffs he's failed to mention is this: Opposing field goal kickers are 0-5 against New York in postseason. Nate Kaeding has more to do with the Jets' presence in the AFC championship game than does any single member of the New York roster.

The Colts remain as they ever were. It always LOOKS like they should be vulnerable to a team that can control the ball on the ground and keep the score down, and sometimes they are (see the 2005, 2007 and 2008 playoffs). Last week against the Ravens, however, they sure weren't.

We can and do overthink these things (NFL Network has a six-hour pregame show today!!). For the Jets and Colts analysis shouldn't beyond the basics. In the green corner, we have Mark Sanchez. In the blue corner, we have Peyton Manning. That rests the Colts' case.

Approximately 99 percent of football fans would like the Saints today. So would I. What could be a better story? What could be a more fun team to watch play in the Super Bowl? Why can't I pick them?

I can't because I remain impressed/frightened by the Vikings' defensive line, which gave poor Tony Romo a Class A beating last week AND stuffed the Dallas running game in the bargain. Added to that, I think I've stopped expecting Brett Favre to have that throwback three-interception game I've been expecting since training camp.

Wouldn't you know it. My next to last pick of the football season, and I spend three hours watching the game and hoping I'm wrong.

Friday, January 22, 2010

In Your Face, Grand Theft Auto!!

According to the crawl on ESPN News, the video games industry firm Electronic Arts (EA to you, bud) has shaken off recent events in the news and will introduce its latest version of the EA Sports Tiger Woods golf game sometime this June.

If there are any of the company's designers who on that project, fear they'll be laid off soon, and are independently wealthy, this could be by far the most wicked awesome video game EVAH!

Tiger swings! But then he's gotta duck Elin's swing!!!

The Dick Van Dyke Show of Life

We've been having a little electrical trouble at our house, so my wife Alice went to the hardware store, bought a few fuses, and left them in a brown paper bag on a table in the foyer.

My alleged lunch today was supposed to be a roast beef on rye I made the night before, also in a brown paper bag.

Because I work a long way from where I live, and will do ANYTHING to avoid rush hour traffic, the alarm goes off early -- before 6 a.m. early. This doesn't work in terms of a good night's sleep.

I woke from a fitful four plus hours of slumber, showered, made coffee, pulled the sandwich out of the refrigerator, and made my first mistake. I went out to the driveway and the papers (there's a tipoff I'm old).

Stumbled back in, read the box scores and the funnies as I have every day since I learned to read, gulped down the joe, and left, grabbing my lunch. Or rather, grabbing a brown paper bag. As you've doubtless guessed from this lengthy setup, I had a tasty selection of 30 amp fuses for my dining pleasure. I discovered this approximately one-third of the way between Lexington and Ipswich.

If only I'd had the foresight to put a Web cam in my car. This stupid post would be the biggest thing on YouTube right now.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Sincere Message to a Former Foe

Back when I was in the sport media game, Pete Sheppard didn't care for my work and said so on the air. I didn't care for his work and said so in print. Our personal relationship was on the chilly side of nonexistent.

But I'm on Pete's side today. I know from personal experience what it's like to be separated from a job you love for reasons that have nothing to do with your performance. The word "sucks" doesn't cover it. It's wrenching and traumatic, and it can screw up your life for a long time.

That last part happened to me. I sure hope it doesn't happen to Pete. He has my deepest sympathy and best wishes. And in all honesty, he wasn't the worst Boston sports talk radio personality out there. Not by a long shot.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Pre-Post Game Analysis for Everything That Ever Happens.

Sports events are won and lost by a total number of reasons that equals the individual acts during the event multiplied by the number of participants. So for an NFL playoff game, that's a lot of reasons.

Stocks go up or down for a total number of reasons equal to the number of people who bought and sold said stock. That's one hell of a lot of reasons.

Elections are won and lost by a total number of reasons equal to the number of votes cast. Millions of reasons in a statewide election in Massachusetts or any other reasonably big state.

So whatever you think about ball games, finance, or politics, you're probably right. You're just a small fraction of the overall answer, but you're not completely wrong.

And if you accept the validity of this post, you won't read, listen to or watch commentary ever again, and I'll have put myself out of this nonpaying business.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Wednesday Night Will Be Great for TV, Whatever's On

I like politics, I have my beliefs and like Curt Schilling (whose beliefs I don't precisely share), I enjoy working for them. Committed citizenship was something I couldn't do when I was a paid sportswriter.

BUT, there has never been an election, no matter how important (the one tomorrow is not quite as big as advertised, but big enough), where I couldn't wait for it to be the day after election day the night before. Win or lose (everyone experiences both), I'm sick of it all and wish all candidates, pollsters, commentators, and the entire Internet was dead and in hell.

Any of feel that way tonight? I hope so.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Best Postseason Analysis Yet

I must give a hearty shout-out to Bruce Allen of Boston Sports Media Watch for providing what I feel is the most succinct and salient commentary on the New England Patriots this week.

Allen posted it on his site's Forum, a home for some good fans and funny wise guys and gals. He stated that watching the Colts-Ravens game was intensely depressing to any Pats fan. This was because comparing the performances of the Colts' offensive and defensive lines versus New England's lines the week before revealed there was no comparison. The Colts blockers, known as a superior group, thwarted the pass rush that nearly killed Tom Brady. The Colts front seven, NOT known as a superior group, shut down the Raven running game and made Joe Flacco try and win the game, which he couldn't.

I could not agree more with Bruce's thought. The really significant damage to the Good Ship Pats is all below the waterline.

Nonpartisan (I Hope) Political Questions

1. Why do people in politics think robocalls work to their advantage? Are there really voters whose lives are so bereft of human contact they listen to them all the way through? If so, our society has fundamental issues beyond the reach of Republicans or Democrats.

2. On WBUR the other day, I heard two political experts, one R, one D, agree that campaign ads the weekend before election don't do candidates much good, as if this was a generally accepted truth like the distance from Boston to Worcester. So what explains what's been happening on my TV?

3. Why don't people vote? Really, I don't get it. Voting is way easier than filling up one's car with gas, buying a lottery ticket, or any number of other mundane chores. And AT A MINIMUM, it offers the psychic satisfaction of knowing your choice is pissing off someone you don't like. Oh, your candidates may lose, but you have that glow coming out of the booth that you stuck it to the other candidates but good. Spiteful satisfaction is an underrated emotion.

I'm On a Partial Roll

Having 1-0-and 1 timorous weasel in yesterday's NFL playoff choices, I am obligated by the logic of fools to keep going.

My old pal Charles P. Pierce, whose Globe blog is excellent but causes me much peer pressure (it's not so bad being friends with a talented writer, but it's hell when he or she is a naturally prolific one and you're not) has opined this morning that Brett Favre is destined to do something Favreish to sink the Vikings against the Cowboys. Certainly history is on Charlie's side, but I am not sure I agree.

I am, in fact, very skeptical of the emerging consensus that Dallas has ended its years of season-ending failures through the exorcism ritual of beating the bejabbers out of the Eagles at home on back to back weeks. The Eagles injured offensive line and smallish defensive front were about the best matchup Dallas could've wished for in a must-win situation. The Vikings, at least on the defensive front, pose a more severe test of manliness.

On December 1, it was my opinion that Minnesota was the class of the NFC, and possibly the entire NFL. I will let that opinion ride today, holding my breath each time Favre lets one go.

The Jets-Chargers game is less of a riddle. Much less. Every year, some team makes the playoffs with the Jets' formula of strong defense-run the ball-make sure the quarterback doesn't fuck up. These teams NEVER win the Super Bowl, and almost never win road playoff games. To win in championship competition, a team needs its quarterback to help win games, not merely avoid contributing negative plays. That means letting the quarterback take a certain amount of risk, like it or not.

In other words, I can very easily see Mark Sanchez having the sort of game my friend Chas and about 50 million other people expect Favre to suffer in the early game.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Pick 'Em? Oh, Why Not?

Predictions are onerous. However, a blog that doesn't contain something resembling regular posting is even more onerous, so here we go.

Last season, three of the four NFL divisional playoff games were won by the visiting team over the home club that had had the bye week during the wild card round. This is the exact opposite of what happens most seasons, and has led to a heightening of the customary boost in support for the wild-card winners based on the ever popular "the last thing I saw will happen again" school of football analysis.

This effect is even more pronounced because two of the wild-card winners playing this weekend, today in fact, did indeed beat home teams in last year's divisional round -- the Cardinals and Ravens. While I am very fond of Arizona on aesthetic grounds, being an admirer of Kurt Warner and who can't love a team that lucks out in a 51-45 win, their chances of victory today seem remote. The Ravens on the other hand....

The Cardinals thrashed the Panthers last year because Jake Delhomme threw five interceptions. It is difficult to imagine Drew Brees doing the same. Considering their game last Sunday, if the Cards aren't at least a little fatigued by the fourth quarter, their strength and conditioning coach should be on the cover of next week's "Sports Illustrated."

The Ravens are at Indianapolis, playing the most enigmatic of clubs, the Colts. I mean, really, has there ever in NFL history been a team that has been as consistently excellent over a long period as the Colts while at the same time consistently looking so vulnerable and weak? Even their one Super Bowl victory was a model of inefficiency against a foe that had forgotten to bring a quarterback to the game.

The Colts have and always have had a systemic weakness. They are small on defense. Tony Dungy's framework of speed up front and many guys in zone coverage has left them susceptible to getting pushed around by teams which line up their overfed no-necks and blow off the line intent on violent collisions which will allow their runners to have mismatched violent collisions with Indy's willowy linebackers and DBs.

Does that sound like any club to you, those who were in attendance at Gillette Stadium last Sunday? The Ravens kicked the hell out of New England with that very same game plan. It's the only game plan they have. It's their identity. We're all pretty good at our identity.

In football, the slugger beats the boxer approximately 999 times out of 1000. So I'm picking Baltimore, right? Not exactly. I think the Ravens should win, but I'm damned if I'll say they will win.

It's simple. Peyton Manning is that 1000th boxer. I'm afraid of him. And if you're a Patriots fan, and you're honest, you'll admit you always are, too.

No shame in it. If he scares Bill Belichick, Manning ought to terrify mere bettors.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Friendly Word of Advice From a Former Comrade

Dear Michael Felger and Tony Massarotti: You guys were great teammates back in the day, and I wish you well. I don't wish sports talk radio well as an institution, but it's a sports commentary gig, which is more than I've got these days, so I want you to succeed, honest.

That's why I'm giving the following heads-up. On my drive home from work today, there were at least two occasions where you asked each other questions, and your communal answer was "I don't know." That's very bad. In theory, people are listening because you do know.

It's a show prep thing. You don't ask factual questions on the air without being sure your co-host has an answer. It should be the right answer if possible. These are, after all, your own questions.

Worse, however, Michael, is the habit of yelling into the microphone for one of the staff to hit Google and come up with the information you need. They should know to do that without being told, and for God's sake, DON'T TELL THEM ON THE AIR!!!

That's a fine journalistic attitude to project. Facts are for gofers. We're beyond that now.

Politics, Journalism, Football

You may remember the considerable amount of controversy generated by Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on 4th and 2 against the Colts. Politically speaking, Barack Obama's decision to visit Massachusetts to campaign for Martha Coakley is pretty much the same thing. He'd really rather not, but it's the only way he sees to win the game.

Sports commentary debated Belichick's reading of the percentages. Political commentary is more simple-minded. Obama's decision is seen as risky because now he'll get some of the blame if Coakley loses.

Presidents always get blamed for everything, at least, the 11 I've lived under have. It's one reason it -- like being a pro football coach, is kind of a sucky job.

At least Obama has his own helicopter. More than Belichick can say.

Drive-Time Political Science Thought

While I am a fan of constitutional democracy in general, I would be willing to consider some other system if said system made political discussions on sports talk radio a capital offense.

Guys, you're white men with money. You're Republicans. That's OK. But I don't care, and nobody else does either.

Monday, January 11, 2010

There's No Linebacker Aisle at Lowe's

Even when disgusted and depressed, Tom Brady's common sense did not desert him.

In his post-game press conference following the Patriots' grim loss to the Ravens yesterday, Brady demurred at a question which implied that the team must be completely altered in the wake of the 33-14 whuppin' at the hands of Baltimore.

"We were 10-6," Brady noted. "It's not like we were 2-14 or anything."

Just so. The Pats need work. Lots of work. But remodeling and rebuilding are not the same thing. The process of overhauling an NFL franchise that's hit bottom is much simpler, not easier, but simpler, than attempting to improve a squad that's where the Pats are today -- a slightly above-average team which appears to have far more future downside risk than upside potential, but which is, after all, still better than more half of its peers.

The project must start in a big way. Yesterday's butt-whipping was the third leading indicator of a club on the verge of collapse to something wretched. First came New England's home-road discrepancy. Then came their second-half slumps, both during games and in the overall season. Then the final symptom. The Ravens just dominated the Pats physically. They were faster, stronger, meaner, always first to the play with the most players. The Pats committed football's primary sin. They were outhit.

That is NFL humiliation. The humiliation felt by the crowd at Gillette is why the team got booed.
Didn't like it, boys? Call up any Eagle you know and see if you get any sympathy.

The project, however, will be a delicate one. Living and working in a construction site is dirty and stressful. There are just so many damn decisions. Separating the elements of New England's 10 wins it wishes to keep and its 7 losses it wishes to get rid of will require nice judgment -- especially since many of the win and loss factors are contained within the same players.

Bill Belichick, you, me, and every kid in Pop Warner knows GENERALLY what the Pats need. Ath-uh-letes. Bigger, faster, stronger, more hostile players at nearly every position one cares to think about. Not 15 to 20 new starters like the Rams need, but four or five bell cows who can impose their presence on a game from start to finish on a consistent basis.

SPECIFICALLY, I have no idea who those worthies might be, neither do you, and neither does Belichick, at least not yet. History tells us two things, however. 1. Above-average teams on the fade can be reconstructed to be better. 2. It's never a one-year turnaround, and the likelihood is that one or more seasons of true 6-10 or worse type pain will be part of the costs of construction.

By history, I mean Belichick's own history with New England. He was hired to remodel a former Super Bowl team on the fade, and did so as quickly as could be imagined -- in two seasons. The first one, which practically no one remembers was the 5-11 drag of 2000. Practically no one chooses to remember that Belichick took much heat from fans (not just the media) during that lost season, too.

Perhaps the Patriots community will be a little more forbearing during the next remodeling. All construction takes longer than the contractor and client think. But football history, here and everywhere else, suggests that patience is a far rarer commodity than Super Bowl rings.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Semi-Football Political Thought

I do not know if Martha Coakley is a Patriots fan (All pols say they are, but....). For her sake, I hope Coakley watched New England get whupped' by Baltimore this afternoon.

The moral of the Pats' first home playoff loss of the Brady-Belichick era speaks directly to Coakley, or should. Just because something has always happened before has no bearing on whether it happens THIS TIME.

That's up to who's in the game.

A Loud Choice, Not a Loud Echo

Competition is the soul of America. That's got to be after the Pats' loss today, on WBZ-FM Gary and Gresh were saying it was all the defense's fault, while over on WEEI, Pete and Fred were saying the offense was to blame.

They were both right, but that's not the point. There's nothing like postgame loss sports talk radio. The overall attitude from both stations was, "Let's see how FAR we can throw out the baby with the bathwater. And after that, we'll set fire to the bathroom!!!

A chance of life had me driving to Cambridge right after the game. I had never heard either postgame show this season, and next season, God willing, I never shall. But I will say this. Gary and Gresh make listening to Pete and Fred seem like you're listening to chat from Bill Walsh and Chuck Noll.

Math Is Not an Adverb: Another Non-Political Political Post

Two polls on the Massachusetts Senate race were released last night. In one, Martha Coakley leads Scott Brown by 15 points. In the other, she trails Brown by one. Both polls were taken by reputable firms with admirable records for accuracy -- until now. One of those reputations is headed for a little bruising.

How do we explain this discrepancy, which is as far beyond the chance of random error as those advertisements for "Chuck" during yesterday's football games were beyond tolerable? The answer lies in the English language; specifically, the adverb "likely." Each poll sampled what it calls "likely" voters. How did they know their respondents are likely to show up at actual polling places on January 19? Because, that's why.

Each pollster had a "model" (the technical mathematical term for "guess") of the Massachusetts electorate. The UNH poll in the Globe modeled pretty much the same electorate that shows up most of the time, that is mostly Democratic, and so Coakley had a big lead. The polling company PPP (which, by the way, is a firm affiliated with the Democratic party) has a model, which it used in 2009 elections with mixed results) that assumes very high levels of Republican and Republican-leaning independents will vote while hardly any Democrats will. In that poll, Brown is ahead by a nose.

So which is right? Who the hell knows or can know? What I do know is that I fail to see exactly how public opinion polls differ significantly from reading sheep entrails as a means of predicting the future. I'm sure there were entrail-readers in Roman times who had enviable reputations for accuracy, too.

France bans the publishing of polls in the week preceding an election. It's a society with a deeper respect for logic than ours.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Trend Is Your Friend

Idle Thought: It's not even 8 p.m. in Vegas. Given what happened in the first two NFL wild card rematches of regular season finales, the amount of money being placed on the Packers must be monumental.

Upward Mobility is a Relative Term

For Pete Carroll, the wages of NCAA sin appear to be a five-year sentence with the Seattle Seahawks. By Thanksgiving, Carroll surely will consider this punishment far too severe to fit the crime.

Yeah, I know he's getting $35 million for his troubles. But Carroll was Pigskin King of Los Angeles. He's going to wind up being another 5-6-7 win coach for the NFL's most and most deservedly anonymous franchise. He won't be the first guy to learn that a raise does not necessarily equal a promotion.

If Carroll has the wit to ditch the Seahawks uniforms and its hideous color scheme, I may revise my forecast.

Playoff Picks Made Simplistic, I Mean, Simple

The thing is, the NFL got the name right. Wild card round implies a certain volatility, and the implication is an accurate one. Year in and year out, the eight teams which open up the post season are pretty darned good, but not so darned good as they are darned close.

Wild card teams, by and large, have between 9 and 11 wins in the regular season (that fits all eight this year). The true wild card teams, the runners-up, weren't as good as a divisional rival during the regular season. The home team division winners had to have had a few glitches along the way to fail to earn a bye, and more often than not qualified thanks to the abysmal nature of the division in which they're located (see Cardinals, Arizona: 2008-2009).

I have been known to make the occasional small football wager. I have never opened my wallet on wild card weekend. It's OK to have an OPINION on today's Jets-Bengals game, but if forced to consider it as an investment, the only prudent reaction is "What's my third choice?" Each team's good enough to win and more than flawed enough to lose.

I'm 90 percent sure the Cowboys will beat the Eagles, because, contrary to the cliche, it's easier to beat a team three times in a year than it is for the 0-2 team to win the third one. I'm 85 percent sure the Patriots will beat the Ravens, because the main reason the Pats made the playoffs is their ability to win at home (an increase in the discrepancy between home and road performance, by the way, is a leading indicator that a top team in any sport has started its trip back down the mountain, but that's a thought for another post). I wouldn't touch the other two games on the card with your money.

The only thing I know for sure is that the wild card games provoke the same reaction each and every year. Fans and media around the country will spend all next week hyping the four winners to the skies, and constructing scenarios in which it seems the four bye teams ought not to bother to show up for the thrashing they'll receive in the divisional round (You watch. If the Pats win Sunday, even Michael Felger will be talking about what a bad matchup they are for the Chargers).

As a sportswriter, I fell into that particular trap about a dozen times in my career, approximately 10 of which were to my sorrow. It's OK for fans to be optimistic. What fun would pregame hype be otherwise? But if you're investor, recognize that other people's optimism is almost always your opportunity for profit.

Friday, January 08, 2010

A Disquieting Day With My New Medium

The reason the Internet is replacing newspapers, of course, is that one can spend a whole lot of time on the Web at work without looking like one is goofing off. This is impossible with the funnies.

Communication is good, and a means of getting more folks in on the action is therefore also good. BUT, work was boring today, and I spent a few more random 5-minute snatches of time scanning the worlds of politics, finance, sports, and the arts as they are presented on Web sites on blogs than I usually do.

The inescapable conclusion: The Internet is not a place where people go to be happy and tell you all about it.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

A View From Abroad -- Florida Is Abroad

Happy Belated New Year! This correspondent has returned from a holiday week family vacation in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Sportswise, this resort community has a passel of outstanding golf courses, and is the headquarters of the PGA Tour and the ATP tennis tour. As you might guess, it's not exactly a hotbed of high school basketball.

Ponte Vedra is, however, the home town of Tim Tebow, who is the resident's overriding sports interest. I mean, if you fans in Boston are sick of hearing Tebow praised to the skies every time you turn on a college football game, don't, whatever else you do, get on a plane to Jacksonville. In a total of six dinners out, five were dominated by locals either blathering on about Tebow's contributions to Gator greatness and the progress of humanity at large, not necessarily in that order, or, more ominously for me, grilling the damn Yankee former sportswriter on Tebow's future in the NFL.

Fortunately, I was able to escape being beaned by a creme brulee through judicious equivocation. Tebow's ability is a subject of intense debate within the NFL itself, of course, as evidenced by the split between Jimmy Johnson, who won two Super Bowls as a coach and thinks Tebow will never make it as a pro, and Troy Aikman, the quarterback who's one of the two big reasons Johnson won those Super Bowls, who thinks Tebow can be a star. Indeed, the argument over Tebow's future is the most if not only interesting feature of his college career, which is otherwise tediously perfect (FWIW, Ponte Vedra is a small, gossipy town, and if there are cracks in Tebow's Christian humility, nobody's seen any).

As an intellectual football issue, Tebow is a classic. He is a phenomenal college quarterback, an obviously great player who just as obviously doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to any of the great PRO quarterbacks past and present. Tebow's running ability from the spread offense is his moast visible strength. Deep down, every NFL coach and executive hates running quarterbacks. They see all that money putting itself in danger. He has a strong, accurate passing arm -- and a throwing motion built for strip sacks and interceptions.

Worst of all, Tebow's primary ability is a QB is invisible, except on the scoreboard. He was the leader of a college team that won almost every game it played for three years. How much of that was his doing, and how much that of the other guys in Florida uniforms? That's a literal football philosophy question, one that many NFL folks would rather not ever consider.

As a top draft pick or potential long-term starting quarterback, Tebow is a capital R Risk. He'd require a creative coaching staff and imaginative front office willing to adapt its talent-seeking to his skills. This eliminates about 90 percent of the league's 32 franchises as good homes for this oddly unemployable superstar. Put Tebow on the Redskins, he'll flop, guaranteed. Hell, put Tom Brady on the Redskins, he'd have been cut in training camp in 2000.

I'm no philosopher, but I'll take a position. Tebow's a football player. He'll win games for you, one or another -- if you're smart enough to figure out those ways in advance.

I note that Brian Billick, Super Bowl winning coach, is a Tebow detractor. Billick once thought Kyle Boller was a quarterback of the future. I note that Tony Dungy and Bill Belichick, also Super Bowl winning coaches, are in Tebow's corner (Belichick less vocally, since he's in a position to put Tebow in HIS corner). I know in whose camp I'd rather stand.

Not so long ago, every team had a feature running back who got 95 percent of the team's carries. Nowadays, this is rare. It is acknowledged that such workloads simply end player careers by age 28 or so. Even Adrian Peterson gets replaced on 20 percent or more of the Vikings' plays by Chester Taylor. Kevin Faulk may play till he's 40, because he has skills which serve the Pats in good stead five or six times a game.

In my opinion, the position of quarterback is undergoing a similar evolution. The very concept of "franchise quarterback" is becoming obsolete -- unless a team's starter is a certified Pro Bowl or Hall of Fame talent -- a Brady, a Rivers, a Peyton Manning. The use of the spread by so many high school and college teams means that ALL the players of the future, not just quarterbacks, will be accustomed to that formation. It's inevitable it'll be used in the pros, too. The Wildcat is just the tip of that iceberg. Teams will have two basic offenses, their regular pro sets, and the spread set. That means they'll need two different guys to take the center snaps, the regular QB, and the spread runner.

Since Tebow is, by acclamation, the best spread quarterback to date, there would seem to be considerable reward for the franchise willing to embrace the future and make him their spread specialist. Football is a game of specialists. Why not invent another one?

We even have our first test results on my theorem. Bit by bit, Michael Vick is contributing more to the Eagles offense, with no apparent detriment to Donovan McNabb's performance. If Andy Reid, Mr. Conventional West Coast Offense, can adapt to the idea of two quarterbacks, any smart coach can.

Summing up, Tebow will prosper in the NFL to the extent he is allowed to do so. He may not be a high draft choice, because teams don't like to shell out big bucks for specialists. But in the right fit (and New England would be PERFECT), Tebow will be a productive and long-lived pro.

What is Tebow but a bigger Doug Flutie? Flutie was an unconventional quarterback chock-full of intangibles who also had a glaring weakness, a worse one than Tebow's actually. Doug was never an accurate passer. Flutie was with a lot of poor fits in the start of his pro career, and he had to go to Canada to become a superstar, then come back to an NFL job.

Flutie did, however, play till he was almost 40. Hard to call that professional failure.