Saturday, September 25, 2010

Quarterback and Forth

Much has been made of the fact that in the first two weeks of the NFL season, 10 teams have already made in-game quarterback changes. Much, much more has been made of the fact that Eagles coach Andy Reid named Michael Vick his starting quarterback one week after saying that come what may, Kevin Kolb would be the team's QB when Kolb recovered from a concussion.

That does seem like an awful lot of wobbling by Reid, more fit for a Democratic member of Congress than a manly leader of NFL men. Actually, Reid merely is suffering from seller's remorse. Trading Donovan McNabb so as to make Kolb his starter back in April was a risky, not mention bat-brained, decision, and when the risks became apparent, Reid couldn't backpedal fast enough. When, and it's a when, not an if, Vick comes out for Philly and has one of his patently unproductive games, it will be fascinating to see what Reid does -- I mean before he gets fired for these shenanigans

Reid's extreme behavior is so uncoachly as to be shocking. Coaches HATE changing quarterbacks, and they should. Offense is precision and repetition. Therefore, stability at the most important position on offense is kind of a plus. It took Tom Landry, a Hall of Fame coach, more than half a season to act on what was obvious to anyone with eyes -- Roger Staubach was a way quarterback than Craig Morton. That's how strong the pull is to retain the signal-calling status quo.

As a rule, coaches prefer to change quarterbacks only when the incumbent is carted off the field. It is fashionable to say that Tom Brady would have replaced Drew Bledsoe some time during the 2001 season even if Bledsoe had remained healthy. It may even be true, if unknowable. But Brady was lucky. Bledsoe was on the shelf long enough for Bill Belichick to develop confidence in Brady's abilities, and for Brady and his teammates to do so as well. Brady had a couple of VERY bad games in his first few starts. He might have ended up as the Kevin Kolb of 2001.

Most of the quarterback changes of 2010 have not been injury related. They stem from the other reason coaches change quarterbacks -- they don't really have one. It doesn't make much difference which of their two or three stiffs runs the offense and piles up 150 yards passing on a good day, so the coaches flail about in an unending and futile search for the hot hand. Look at the Patriots' opponent tomorrow, the Bills. Does it really matter whether Ryan Fitzpatick or Trent Edwards is their starting quarterback? The scoreboards of 2009-2010 answer "no."

It's simple arithmetic, the law of supply and demand that made Brady a richer man earlier this month. There are 32 NFL teams, and about 25 NFL quarterbacks who on balance make positive contributions to their teams when they're on the field. There are maybe 10 who are good enough to help make their teams consistent winners if the rest of the team is any good. There are a handful who are usually the REASON their team wins when it does (Peyton Manning, Brady, Brees, Rivers, Rodgers, and now I'm running out of names.).

Which brings us to a week of spurious Patriot commentary, to the effect that Brady is no longer one of that handful because his performances in the fourth quarter of close games has been revealed as subpar by that most fraudulent of sports statistics, the NFL passer ratings. In the tendentious morality play that is so much of football analysis (bold talk from men and women safely away from all those collisions), Brady is either hopelessly stuck on that miscreant Randy Moss or has gone soft due to a Hollywood lifestyle, just like in the boxing movies of the 1930s and 40s.

Brady stunk in the second half against the Jets last Sunday. So did almost every other Patriot. He hasn't been as good in 2009 and so far in 2010 as he was before his MAJOR KNEE INJURY. Neither have the Patriots themselves been as good a team. That's the point. Quarterbacks are the most important players on a team, but they have a plurality of importance, not a majority. A good team can overcome an indifferent performance by its QB far more easily than a superb quarterback can overcome an indifferent performance by his 44 teammates. That's why Trent Dilfer has a Super Bowl ring.

If there's one thing about football I learned from Bill Belichick, it's this: It's all one. Every part of a team's performance impacts all the other parts and vice versa. Even the greatest quarterbacks can't reverse a team stuck in a doom loop out on the field. Yes, Brady is not quite the quarterback he was in 2001-2007. We see that more easily because the Patriots are much more not quite the team they were back, then either. The stat much bandied about after the Jets game was that Brady was 0-3 passing when the Jets' rallied to take the lead. To me, anyway, the key number in that line is the three. It shrieks that New England just didn't have the ball long enough to hold off the Jets. If three and outs become fatal, your team is very ill on defense, not offense.

Football is both simple and complex. Thinking about Brady is very simple. For any Patriot fan or my former peers in sports commentary who's unhappy with him, I'd like to drop a few names. Derek Anderson, David Garrard, Kyle Orton, Matt Moore... I could go on, but you get the idea. Don't worry about Brady, gang. Worry about the day he's no longer around.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Isn't the Phrase Political Football?

Got polled the other day. I'm old enough to live in a home with a landline phone and it's an election year, so it wasn't a complete surprise -- not at first anyway.

The automated questions started off routinely enough. Roughly how old was I, roughly how much money do I make, marriage status, and was I a Republican, Democrat or Independent. Then, all of a sudden, the inquiries shifted direction.

The next question, in fact, was "Who did I think was going to win the National League pennant?" It was followed by "How did I WANT to win the National League pennant?" Then the same two questions were asked about the American League.

OK, I know pollsters work for a wide variety of clients, and it's hard to get people to participate in polls, so maybe this was going to be a twofer, and we'd get back to economic and political questions now. Nope. Once I had stated it'd be nice if the Twins won the AL flag, the automated voice said we were done and thanked me for my time.

I've spent most of the rest of my time following the poll wondering what someone who paid big money to have this poll taken thinks a person's party affiliation has to do with their ability to handicap a pennant race. The rest of the time I've spent hoping I never find out the answer.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Offensive Hindsight

Tom Brady threw a good many long passes aimed at Randy Moss yesterday. The Jets beat the Pats, only one of the passes worked, and several of them REALLY didn't work -- that is, they became interceptions.

As night follows day, therefore, many Patriots fans and commentators have concluded that New England's play calling and Brady's decision making on offense were fatally flawed, and that's why New England's offense collapsed in the second half. The equally impressive collapse of the Pats' defense has not been attributed to Brady and Moss. Yet. It's only Monday.

This is an inevitable and ancient fallacy in football analysis. All plays that don't work are failures. But not all failures are bad ideas. Many in fact were excellent ideas that failed for the reason most human endeavors fail: that they must be carried out by us flawed human beings.

Look, the offensive coaching staff of every NFL team spends months of man hours of work every season designing playbooks and game plans that create the POSSIBILITY of isolating their team's primary deep threat one on one with an opposition defensive back. All this work, along with the hours spent instructing the offense on these plays, is in the effort to create an opportunity that can reasonably be expected to occur once a game, tops. Once a month is more typical. The first principle of NFL defense is don't get beat deep.

That the DB who's one on one with your deep threat might also be a player you regard as a weak sister is just too much to hope for. That never happens. Such vulnerable chaps always get help, from safeties behind and linebackers in front.

Lo and behold, Darrelle Revis got hurt on Moss's deep touchdown catch in the second quarter, and Moss was thereafter covered by Antonio Cromartie, who certainly had looked like a weak sister the week before against the Ravens. Almost all the time, Cromartie was in single coverage. His safety help, even on the pass intercepted by a Jets safety, was an "oh shit" afterthought when the ball was in the air, arriving too late to be of anything but accidental assistance.

Any NFL quarterback in NFL history would have gone long to Moss more than once in those circumstances. Some of Brady's Hall of Fame peers would have done nothing else, and they wouldn't have been wrong. That was the percentage play for the Pats' offense.

Percentages are not guarantees. The plays didn't work. Cromartie played good defense, and Moss and especially Brady executed the long passes very poorly. Brady's two interceptions were essentially thrown up as balloon jump balls. Those will be picked as often as not.

I understand why fans and commentators prefer to cite decision making rather than execution for bad outcomes when the Pats' offense misfires. It's easier, for one thing, since you don't have to watch game video to offer an accurate assessment. And for fans anyway, it's much more comforting.

When Brady isn't great, the Pats aren't going to win. The idea that Brady just played badly and couldn't make throws he should have is far more unsettling than the idea he fell in love with the bomb. In fact about the only person in New England who seems to be dealing with the former possibility is Tom Brady.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

NFL Stat of the Week

This isn't so much a statistic as it is an imaginary score, to wit: New England Patriots 38 - All other teams in the AFC East 34.

Based on the evidence of the opening weekend, this won't be the Pats' last triumph in this imaginary rivalry, either.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Patriots 38-Bengals 24

Sometimes, football is a very easy sport to explain. Teams that score touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams in one game hardly ever lose it.

Devotion for a New Season

Dear Coach Lombardi (You are still in charge of this department, right? Haven't been promoted or anything?) please heed these words.

Please instill these small bits of wisdom into the hearts, minds, and especially mouths of NFL fans, sportswriters, and other commentators.

Please remind us all each and every weekend that a pro football game is a chaotic, desperate struggle of large, athletic, violent men who are, for three hours anyway, insane as a necessity for their own survival. Players know, if the rest of us often forget, that they can get their blocks knocked off as easily when they're ahead or behind 51-3 as in an overtime barnburner.

Teach us that who's pushing who around is the vital key to making sense of that chaos, not game plans, "motivation" or any of that other hoo-hah and deliver us from overthinking. That's Bill Belichick's job, not ours.

Remind us that an afternoon/night of stylized mayhem is not a particularly effective means of assessing human character and that victory and defeat are almost never examples of moral superiority/failure on the part of the team we're discussing or rooting for, and very often the result of a ball that takes funny bounces.

Above all, instill in us the knowledge that what happened in today's game is not a straight line projection of what will happen each week until Super Bowl XLV. That way, normal fans may find peace, or at least less agitation.

We ask this in the name of thy trophy, Coach. And if you could find something, anything else for Tony Siragusa to do this fall, that'd be OK, too.

With Liberty and Telestrators for All

On this, the opening day of the NFL season, I am struck by the same fact that strikes me every other September, when the election season and football season coincide.

Our country, built on the principles of self-determination and open competition in the marketplace of ideas, offers me the football fan my choice each Sunday of four different NFL pregame shows. In almost every election, it offers me the citizen a choice between two political parties.

Since I do vote but don't watch NFL pregame shows, I've always wished that was the other way around.

Friday, September 10, 2010

This Just In! Sources Inform Us Tom Brady Has Had the Lindbergh Baby! For An As-Yet Unnamed Expansion Team in Los Angeles!!!

News that Tom Brady is now rich-er and will be quarterback of the New England Patriots for awhile longer yet makes me very glad as a football watcher, but not nearly as glad as I am for past decisions made as a mass media consumer.

Time gets more precious as you get older. My time was more precious than to waste a nanosecond consuming speculation disguised as information about Brady's contract negotiations. The outcome was preordained. Therefore, it was not worth thinking about the process by which that outcome was reached.

(BTW: I cannot prove this, but I suspect Brady and Peyton Manning have had informal discussions about their financial situations, and came to a mutual agreement Brady would sign a new deal first. The two men are not friends and are ferocious professional rivals. They are also professional peers, however, and both know darn well their financial dealings with their teams were and are linked.)

But as is too often the case, I digress. The point of this essay is that life is too short for ANYONE to have spent a nanosecond fretting that Brady might leave the Pats or receive short money. That goes for newborn infants, too.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Great Moments in Advertising Media Planning

My son is involved in one of the campaigns, so the Massachusetts gubernatorial (great word!) campaign debate was on TV at our house last night. I don't remember a thing about the event except the commercials.

That's right. WBZ-TV, which must really be hurting, sold advertising time during a public service political debate, a fact for which it ought to be ashamed and in fact a fact for which the FCC ought to pull the station's license. Making matters worse, almost all the advertising were political ads for various candidates, including at least one for one of the debating candidates. What a disgrace. Local television is a bigger moral blot on this country than even cable television, which at least presents some entertaining programs.

But that's not what struck me most about the ads. I'm still trying to figure out why over half of the commercials were for or against candidates running for elective office in New Hampshire. The logic of that very expensive purchase of Boston market advertising time escapes me.

Yes, people who watch campaign debates are ipso facto interested in politics and government and hence are likely voters. But the audience for a debate in a Massachusetts election campaign, one would think, would be likely to be likely Massachusetts voters. Not to put too fine a point on it, any New Hampshire resident who watched the debate last night was either a total crank, a shut-in, or both. They'd be a lot cheaper to reach with direct mail.

Then again, it's possible that the New Hampshire campaigns bought advertising time at a reduced rate on the premise it would be presented during news programming without knowing exactly what kind of news programming WBZ had in mind. In that case, New Hampshire citizens should now be aware that many of their leading candidates from political parties are complete suckers.

An Insult to the Memory of Richard Nixon

People who say the New England Patriots are a uniquely secrecy-obsessed NFL franchise have not been around many NFL franchises. I can testify from considerable personal experience that ALL NFL teams regard the outside world, especially reporters, as a threat to be avoided whenever possible. There are franchises, notably the Raiders, where the organization's employees maintain obsessive secrecy from each other, and nobody would say the Pats are that far gone.

The Patriots do the NFL required minimum of media disclosure. That's pretty much what about 25 of the 32 teams in the league do. Bill Belichick is very good at evading or rebuffing questions he doesn't wish to answer. That's every public figure's privilege. Warren Hinckle, the editor of the muckraking mag "Ramparts" in the 1960s, wrote that the rarest thing in journalism is when "You say 'bang,' and the guy in the interview says 'I'm dead." Belichick shouldn't be criticized for refusing to roll over and stick his toes in the air in response to inquiries. A sports team shouldn't try to prevent reporters from doing their jobs. Not answering questions does not fall into that category.

The Pats' reputation for paranoia actually is a backhanded tribute to the coach. I can see why a casual observer might think the team is more paranoid than others, because that observer is seeing a difference in degree and not in kind.

All football coaches are, professionally anyway, paranoid control freaks. It's a job requirement, like being a gladhander is for the Rotary Club chairman. Belichick's no different -- except for this: He's really smart, and he thinks very hard about football almost all the time. Therefore, he appears more paranoid only because he has discovered more things to be paranoid about.

In the NFL, worry is the mother of invention.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Steel Cage Death Match of Finance, or, True Blood Is Not the Only Fictional Drama on HBO

Darrelle Revis signed with the Jets yesterday. All I could think of was did he initial the pages "WWE?"

More than one holdout in sports history has been a prearranged fraud, and Revis' sure looks like one. He conveniently signs just in time to wrap up the Jets' miserable preseason on a (false) note of triumph, for approximately one-third the money we'd been hearing about all summer after a last-second intervention by that noted silver-tongued orator Rex Ryan. Holy cow, all it took to get Revis off the dime and down by about $100 million in demands was for the coach to ask him to do it? Is there an audience so lame (OK, there is, namely the Jets fans this was all intended to con) not to laugh at one of the creakiest deus ex machinas ever inserted into a plot line."

"Hard Knocks" should be retitled "Hard to Believe" this week. Alas for the Jets, their reality show switches networks next Sunday -- to CBS for some real games. Minus a script, I don't look for more than seven happy endings before the show's canceled on January 2, 2010.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Inertia is a KIND of Momentum

As the fearsome devastation wrought by Hurricane Earl shows us, forecasting is one of the best ways ever invented for human beings to make fools of themselves. No wonder people like reading/watching/hearing them! The forecaster gives us at least one poor goop to whom we can feel superior.

Therefore, as my treat to you, and because after all I did write about other people's forecasts in my last post without making one, which is more than slightly chickens&#*, what follows is my guess as to the 2010 New England Patriots.

Short version: Much of the personnel is different, especially on defense, but I don't expect the results to be much different, except possibly (and for the Pats a little more happily) in January

Long version Chapter One. The Floor: The Patriots have won at least 10 games in each regular season since 2002. That's seven seasons, which is a long time. The Iraq War hadn't even started yet.

When something has happened seven times in a row, the percentage bet is it will happen an eighth time. Doesn't always work, but it seems to me that the burden of proof falls upon anyone who'd forecast that the Pats will be 9-7 or worse this season. What's the evidence for thinking the team has deteriorated from 2009, and no, their playoff thrashing at the hands of the Ravens doesn't count. (BTW: Why is it in NFL forecast land that people see the Pats' opening round loss as proof of their inevitable decline, while the Packers who gave up 51(!) points in THEIR opening round playoff loss, are the trendy NFC title pick?).

I don't see the case. The Pats are pretty much the same as they were, with a superior offense (Hall of Fame QBs do that for you), and a defense with questions. At least this year, the Pats created most of those questions with a determined effort to bring in some younger players, a necessary adjustment to the march of time. As long as they can beat the Bills twice, and given the soon-to-be-highly-entertaining implosion of the New York Jets that is the one prediction I'd actually bet on, I see no reason why New England won't be at least 10-6 yet again, and AFC East winner to boot.

Chapter Two. The Ceiling: Much of the preceding paragraph could have gone in this chapter, because I don't see many reasons why the Pats will do much better than 10-6 and AFC East champions without a first-round bye, either. Change on defense may be necessary, but when young defensive backs, like young quarterbacks, make mistakes, they tend to be the sort of errors that lose games. And the Pats' offense remains firmly welded to Tom Brady's right shoulder joint. New England will score points and control space. It's still not suited to controlling time, meaning the defense-in-progress is going to continue to have a goodly number opportunities to screw up -- some of which it will take.

Somewhere, likely on the road in the playoff divisional round, the Pats' season will come to an unhappy end, and once again we'll hear that New England's days as an NFL power have ended.

Depends on how you define power. Should my forecast come true, that'd be eight straight 10-win or more seasons and seven playoff trips in eight years. That's a pretty odd definition of an also-ran.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

If You Can't Trust a Pseudonomynous Stranger on the Internet, Who Can You Trust?

Over on the Web site message board, a thread has been started for predictions on the NFL season. I bring this up only because there are preliminary indications that national sentiment as rather more bullish on your New England Patriots than you are.

As of this morning, most of the 20 or so folks who've posted predictions have picked the Pats to win the AFC East. Three of them have picked the Pats to reach the Super Bowl. I sincerely doubt that there are many Patriots fans who'd make that latter bold call. As best as I can tell, the overall mood of the New England fan community is hopeful but skittish. They remain affected by Last Game Syndrome, in which the memory of a team's last game assumes way too much influence in how one feels about said team now. The Pats' last real game, of course, was a ghastly whuppin'.

Yet here we have anonymous folks (most but not all of them work at newspaper sports sections) who seem to feel the Pats will be pretty much the same team they've been for a decade -- a damn good one. They haven't obsessed over the preseason, they probably haven't thought much about the Pats at all. They are betting on the power of inertia, on the principle that a team at or near the top tends to stay there longer than might be expected.

Like all principles of sports forecasting, that one is right just often enough to be dangerous if you're a gambler. I wouldn't want to say that my anonymous former peers have been gifted with second sight as far as the NFL goes. There's a lot of enthusiasm for the Ravens, for instance, which I can't see at all, and the consensus Super Bowl fave is the Packers, which means, as a group, members of that message board are big-time over bettors.

But I do think the contrast between what I read on that thread this morning and the mood around here, especially the very (and to me unduly) pessimistic on-the-record forecasts of local sports media is an anomaly worth studying.

Familiarity, it seems, breeds fret.