Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Flick On Your Lighters and Groove on the Light Show -- Not the Scoreboard

When a great rock band jams, there is precise collaboration mingled with improvisation, based on the rock-solid structure of a memorable tune. The individual musicians are never more part of their group than when their instrument leads the music.

When a mediocre rock band jams, it's a series of lengthy and increasingly pointless solos, each one disconnected from the other. In the final analysis, it's a lonely sound. Music without ideas.

Based on what I saw last night, the Miami Heat have a lot of Foghat in 'em. I wonder if they'll last as long as Blind Faith.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Epitaph for a Season

There's no GOOD way for a baseball team to be eliminated from the playoffs. But of all the ways there are, taking a called third strike for the final out has to be the worst. Not that I'm blaming Ryan Howard for the Phillies losing. Howard, like most sluggers, isn't very good at fouling off wicked tough pitches on the border of the strike zone. So he trusted his fate to a 50-50 proposition and lost.

Howard's last out, however, was an example of why the Phillies lost. The Giants got a good many run-scoring hits with two outs in the NLCS, and the Phils got almost none. It's really that simple.

Hits with men on base and two outs are hard to get. I almost never expect them to happen, even during the regular season. But you don't get to be champions without them.

Football Is Cruelty, You Cannot Refine It

The NFL Network is running a series in which it selects the 100 best players in NFL history. It's a terrific program for football fans, and the series is getting up to the top of the top, the real immortals.

Checking in at number 30, and he could have been higher was 50s and 60s defensive back Night Train Lane, by common consent history's best DB. His segment started, naturally, with some grainy old black and white football film. In it, Lane goes full speed into a defenseless receiver coming across the middle and delivers a head, shoulder and bicep blow to the guy's head and neck. The receiver drops to the ground a limp sack of flesh.

Every segment has the player discussed by a presented, a talking head who extols the immortal's virtues (for Tom Brady, number 21, it was Derek Jeter, which at least I thought was pretty funny). For Lane, it was former coach Jerry Glanville. Glanville saw Lane as a pioneer of the sport.

"He was the first guy to realize you could tackle a man with his face mask," said Glanville, accompanied by film showing Lane doing just that. "So they passed a rule against it."

"He invented the necktie tackle," Glanville continued, again accompanied by a film of Lane committing another war crime. "So they passed a rule against that."

The segment then went on to show Lane demolishing runners with extreme prejudice and making some of his 68 career interceptions. There were never any receivers near him in the film clips. Wonder why.

All of this mayhem was presented in a wholly approving manner. And really, it should have been. Night Train Lane was a great defensive player because he was very good at hurting offensive players. That's what defense is. You get to hit first. It's your one advantage over the offense. Take that away, and NFL games would have higher scores than NBA games.

This little television segment, which took maybe three-four minutes, made several points very clear about the current controversy over dangerous collisions and undue violence in pro football. One is that, hard as is this may be to believe, the NFL is LESS dangerous and violent than it once was -- very much so. Over the last 50 years, the league has, fitfully and not always intelligently, made the sport cleaner than it once was. It LOOKS dirtier because we see more. There are a dozen TV cameras and endless replays to show us the sport as it truly is. Back in Night Train's day, there was a camera at the 50 yard line (not to mention one less official to watch for rules violations). It followed the ball. Off the ball was never shown.

I believe, although I cannot prove, that football is marginally less dangerous than it once was, too, for basically the same reason. We believe more players are getting hurt because we KNOW more, infinitely more, about sports medicine and the damage done to the body, and notably to the brain, by what football does to the human body. In my youth in '60s, I don't believe I ever heard the word "concussion" on a football broadcast. Guys who were knocked cold were revived and sent back out to battle.

Apocryphal story I heard decades ago: Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle is sacked hard and gets up woozy. Over on the bench, the team doctor asks him a few questions.

"Y.A., who am I?"

Tittle correctly answers.

"What day is it?"

"Sunday." Another right answer.

"Where are we?"

"Pittsburgh," Tittle answers.

"Well, it's Cleveland, but that's close enough. We need you back in there."

I don't think anyone wants to go back to medicine of that caliber. I don't think anyone, fans included, wants the NFL to go back to the carefree chaos in which Lane flourished. Fans want it both ways, as people always do. We want to see big collisions in which no gets hurt in any permanent way. Fans accept the reality that playing football is a cinch ticket to major health problems in later life, but we don't see the players' later lives, so it's easy to wipe out that reality from our minds.

(I have seen a lot of football players my age and older. It's a sobering vision. They almost all have this peculiar rolling gait, an exaggerated version of the sailor's uncertain steps on dry land after a voyage around Cape Horn in a small vessel. The gait says there's a lot of plastic replacement parts in the knees and hips of the legs of the man who's walking).

So, on balance, it's a good thing the NFL is once again trying to take more fitful steps towards greater safety. The principles are simple enough. Don't hit a man who can't defend himself. Don't anyone in the head. These principles are very difficult to encode in formal rules, and the increasing speed of the collisions of NFL action mean they won't eliminate catastrophic hits. But if enforced, they will lead to another incremental reduction in the sport's danger level.

I have a suggestion for another rule, or rather, the removal of some rules, that I believe would also lead to an incremental reduction in catastrophic hits. The idea came when watching the Night Train Lane tribute. Glanville also credited Lane with inventing bump-and-run coverage. Nobody uses that anymore, because it's a sure invitation to a penalty.

For over 30 years, the NFL has tweaked its rules to limit contact between defenders and receivers on pass plays before and when the ball is in the air. I submit that this is a direct cause of the catastrophic, concussion-causing collisions that got the league's knickers in a twist last week. It's the law of unintended consequences in action. If it becomes more difficult to prevent a receiver from catching the ball, defenders are naturally going to focus on separating that receiver from the ball the moment he touches it -- by hitting him with maximum force at the exact instant the receiver is most defenseless.

If defenders were allowed to do a little more manhandling of receivers down the field before catches, scoring would go down. I think concussions would go down as well. Getting grabbed and pushed is annoying. It's not quite so dangerous as a 30 mph helmet-helmet collision.

But my proposal would also only amount to an incremental improvement in player safety. That's the only kind of improvement there can ever be. The nature of football can't be changed by its rules, anymore than the nature of war can be changed by smart bombs. The sport is built on people hitting people as hard as they can. As a wise man once said, "the only defense a football player has is hitting back." The players must, for their own safety, show reckless disregard for the very idea of personal safety. That contradiction is at the heart of football's violence, its danger, indeed, at the heart of the sport itself.

Maximum effort at all times by all players insures that players will get hurt and insures that many players will be walking with that sailor's gait by the time they're 60 -- or maybe 45. But without maximum effort, football is a farce.

I love football. I loved playing (got cold-cocked once, too), I loved covering it, I love watching it. I don't the love the contradiction at the sport's core. Who could? All I can do is keep on loving football and hope that incremental progress someday leads to old football players walking like the rest of us.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Momentum Trade

As the Patriots and Ravens just proved, momentum in football is very real. It's just called by the wrong name, so people misunderstand it.

Momentum is aggression, that's all. On every play, one team's pushing, and the other's getting pushed. One team is first to the ball with the most men on defense, and first to open space on offense. That's aggression.

Aggression is hard to maintain in a close game between teams that are reasonably equal in talent. That's why it's important to take of care of it, and nuture boldness with the tender desperation of a farmer caring for the newborn calf of a prize cow. Because once lost, aggression is almost impossible to recover.

The Ravens had third and less than a yard around midfield, and tried a pusillanimous quarterback sneak. Then on fourth and inches, they went for the outright craven punt. And from then on, whatever the scoreboard said, the Ravens were losing and the Patriots were winning. It took awhile for that result to be finalized, but that was really foreordained.

Look back at every risk Bill Belichick has taken in his coaching career, and there have been some doozies. All of them stem from a primal desire never to let aggression stray from his sideline.

Hard to blame when you see what happens when it does.

Leading Pigskin Indicators

If the Patriots beat the Ravens today, that would be a strong indication that New England will be a very good team all season. Baltimore is the most difficult opponent the Pats have faced so far. Any team that beat the Steelers and Jets on the road has legit conference championship credentials (not that the Ravens will get there, just that the possibility obviously exists).

BUT, the Pats are at home, and good teams are supposed to beat other good teams when they're at home. So while a victory would be quite the feather in New England's cap, it wouldn't be an entire Sioux headdress. For at least one observer to raise his (my) evaluation of the Patriots to that of realistic Super Bowl contender, I'd need further evidence.

To wit: If the Pats beat the Ravens today without scoring either a defensive or special teams touchdown, THEN I'd rate them very highly indeed. Such sudden and unexpected touchdowns are marvelous things, and teams can and do win Super Bowls leaning on them. Ask the 2009 Saints.

However, if we ask the 2010 Saints, they might tell us that opportunistic big plays tend to come and go on their own whim. And when they go, a team better have plain old vanilla sound football to fall back on.

The Pats are apparently rededicating themselves to the glories of vanilla. Today would be fine time to help themselves to a double scoop. No jimmies, either.

Postscript to Previous Playoff Post

Correction to my final thought of yesterday: If Shane Victorino and (especially) Jimmy Rollins don't start hitting real soon, as in tonight, I won't be surprised at all if the Phillies lose to the Giants.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Uneasy Lies This Head That Wears the Cursive "P"

The baseball saying invented approximately three days before Alexander Cartwright laid out the first diamond goes "you learn something new every day in this game." You can feel something new every day, too.

This baseball fan of over 50 years standing has been wrestling with an entirely new emotional setup the past month. I've been placed in a rooting framework that is wholly unfamiliar. I, and all other Phillies fans, will be pulling for a favorite when the NLCS starts tonight against the Giants. Cheering for the overdog? As much as I want the Phils to win, that's too weird an experience for me to be comfortable.

The Phillies are not favorites. They have not been favorites since they were founded in 1883. They are the baseball team with the major league records for most losses and most finishes in last place. Their victories (and there have been some) are always surprises. The proper emotions for a Phils fan are resignation, anger, and dread, often all three at once.

Saw my first Phillies game in 1956 at age seven. They lost. From age 9 to 12, I rooted for a team that finished last every year, and threw in a post-1900 record 23-game losing streak in as a bonus for my devotion. Then came 1964. No scars from blowing a 6 1/2 game lead with 12 to play.

I'm not complaining. The Phillies have won two World Series in my lifetime, which considering it took 97 years for them to get the first one, is two more than in the lifetimes of many good Phillies fans no longer with us. That first title in 1980 cured me of the Philadelphia fan negativity that was my birthright. I have never since believed in predestined doom for the Phillies or any other team. Even good stuff happens, sometimes.

But there's quite a gap between rooting for a team you think has a chance and one you think OUGHT to win. When the Phillies won it all again in 2008, I was thrilled, and also surprised. They were a good team, but I hadn't figured them for champions. When they reached the Series in 2009, I was again thrilled and surprised. The Phillies last year were a combination of extreme baseball virtues (a potent lineup with a penchant for late-inning production) and extreme vices (a closer who couldn't get people out). It was engrossing and excruciating to watch how the team's virtues raced its vices to the end of every playoff game.

This year, well, there's no getting around it. The Phillies are winners who play like it. Every objective and subjective standard I have used to evaluate baseball teams tells me they're winners. The little voice of Philadelphia dread is almost impossible to hear, outshouted by the evidence.

Aggressive front office able to address team weaknesses? Over there I see Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt. Put down a check mark.

Able to withstand adversity? Every member of the starting infield, including two former MVPs, spent at least three weeks on the disabled list. Yet here we are, getting ready for another NLCS in Philadelphia. Another check mark.

Play their best when it counts? For the fourth consecutive season, the Phillies came from off the pace, this time way off, to win their division. September has become their month. Put down four check marks. For a veteran of 1964, that's a real mind-blower.

Opportunism? See Game Two against the Reds last Saturday. Cincinnati's slipshod fielding gave the Phils a crack, and they used the crack to break the Reds apart for good. Check mark once more.

Here's a completely subjective metric. Fans of other teams are starting to say "I hate the Phillies." That ONLY happens to overdogs. Fans of other teams used to regard the Phillies with contempt and pity the once every decade they gave the team any thought at all.

Gosh, doesn't that sound great? It is. You'd think it'd make me a happy fan, and it does, sort of. But it's the "sort of" that gets me. I am profoundly ambivalent about rooting for a favorite. It is better than rooting for a patsy, no doubt about it, but it makes me uncomfortable. The easy arrogance of the Yankee fan (or Celtic fan, or Cowboys fan) is not for me. There's enough old-school Philadelphia fan left in my soul to feel, deep down, that the Phils' new status is a disruption of the universe as it should be. I put off writing this post for a week because I wasn't sure I should make my feelings public. Just saying the Phillies were favorites might jinx them.

Jinxes are for losers. I don't believe in them, when it comes to all other sports teams. With this one, my first sports love, my oldest love, I do and I don't. The evidence of my own eyes and the record books isn't quite enough to erase childhood terrors.

Although I must say Halladay is just about enough evidence to do it. How good are he and his teammates? Good enough that if they lose the NLCS to the Giants, I won't just be very sad. I'll be a little surprised. Being surprised when the Phillies lose WOULD be learning something new.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Worse Sign For His Side Than Any Poll -- Rasmussen Included

So I'm on the Obama mailing list from '08. I'm on a few mailing lists, and by and large the President of the United States is a less intrusive presence in my Internet life than my dear old alma mater or, the most aggressive e-mailers of all and who can blame them, UNICEF.

Needless to say, I was informed that Obama will be in Boston for an election rally next Saturday. No surprise. As I understand it, the Democrats are losing because their side isn't planning on showing up at the polls on November 2. Massachusetts would be a good place to address that problem.

But, on my e-mail notice, there were words that should (and did) make the blood of any registered Democrat freeze in their veins. To wit: Special musical guest, James Taylor.

James Taylor!?!? I know Obama is sensitive about being the first African American president, but holy cow, even white people think James Taylor's music is way too white. Then, and perhaps more electorally awful, there's the age deal.

Again as I understand it, the primary group of Democratic voters planning on doing something more useful on Election Day than participating in it are young people, the 18-30 demographic. Almost none of them know who James Taylor is. Those that do are either way too into musicology by his music or associate it with their bad relationship with their parents.

Holy hell, Mr. President! You're not even 50. James Taylor's music is too old for YOU!!!

Friday, October 08, 2010

CSI: Foxboro

Former economics major Bill Belichick could give any Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board a run for their money when it comes to answering questions in a public forum which leave the questioners with less information than they had before. Yesterday's press conference in which the Pats' coach discussed the trade of Randy Moss was a splendid example of Belichick's ability to offer content-free information in a blandly reassuring manner. Ben Bernanke should have been taking notes.

Belichick was happy to say what WEREN'T the reasons Moss got traded. It wasn't because he and Randy were on the outs, or Moss was a discipline problem. It wasn't because of Moss' contract status. It wasn't about anything that would have made for more than a minute's worth of sports talk radio.

OK, then Bill. So why was Moss traded?

Here's when Belichick's inner Fed chair kicked in. It was a "complex" decision involving many different factors. Too complex, in fact, to be explained, at least in public.

The coach's reluctance to be specific is nothing to fret about, or even really to make much fun of. For one thing, better to have an evasive coach than a flat-out liar. Many an NFL mentor past and present would have created a feature-length fairy tale to explain a decision is big and controversial as the Moss trade. For another, Belichick actually was in roughly the same position as Bernanke is when he testifies before Congress. Neither man's real audience, Wall Street in Bernanke's case, the Patriots franchise and its fans in Belichick's would take well to actual candor.

Imagine the headlines if Bernanke ever flatly said, "The economy's screwed, and there's only so much the Fed can do about it." Better yet, imagine the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Same thing with Belichick. Imagine if the coach actually went through the decision making process as to why he traded Moss. It would be a lengthy discussion in which he would have to acknowledge (because you know he thought about them), the deal's manifest risks and chances of negatively affecting the 2010 season. People would HATE knowing that stuff, and many of the people who'd hate it most are Pats players.

Belichick gets paid to consider all the angles and make the 51-49 calls as he sees them. He also gets paid to suppress the idea his calls have a 49 percent chance of being wrong, or even a one percent chance. This is especially true for Belichick, who is very willing (it's one of his major strengths) to go all in on a decision even if he knows its not an odds-on value bet. For such a gambler, the projection of serene self-confidence is more than half the battle.

It's not that hard to deconstruct the Moss trade. Evidence of the first four games suggests quite strongly the Pats were in the process of reducing Moss' role in the offense to that of a decoy and red zone option. Wide receivers in contract years as a group don't take kindly to the decoy role, and Moss has a history of, uh, call it woolgathering on the field and wallowing in self-pity off it when he feels less than a vital part of his team's offense.

So Moss was traded. A possible problem has been avoided at an acknowledged cost. What earthly percentage was in it for Belichick to discuss either the theoretical (at this point) problem he acted to prevent or the costs of doing so? For that matter, Moss, the other party in this affair, looked at exactly the same set of facts and came to the same conclusion as to how to describe them to the public. Randy's bland diplomacy at HIS press conference was a match for Belichick's. In fact, if anyone wanted to tell me that the two men spent their meeting after the trade getting their stories straight, I wouldn't argue the point.

Look, Belichick knows this trade has big-time potential blowback built into it. He made that clear at his press conference by doing something he hates almost as much as lying -- bragging. The coach cited the Patriots' won-loss record over the past decade to make the point that he knows what he's doing, and is entitled to the benefit of the doubt when he makes another big bet on the future of his football team.

He does and he is. But as Belichick knows and didn't say, even people who know what they're doing never have a perfect record.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Don't Throw Me in That Purple Briar Patch

The singular fact about the trade of Randy Moss is that the one party in the transaction running the fewest risks with the greatest chance of reward is Randy Moss. Football financial situations where teams are more vulnerable than players are very rare.

Player seeking new contract requests trade/receives trade is not exactly an unheard of event in NFL life, but it is notable how willing both the Vikings and Patriots were to make a deal that poses serious risks for both of them while Moss emerges with nothing but the chance for blue skies, puppies and serious sums of money in his future.

What did Moss want yesterday? What does every wide receiver want? The chance to have many footballs thrown his way and the chance to sign yet another lucrative contract. In New England, Moss's chances for the first were looking weak after the Monday night game in Miami, and as he stated himself months ago, his chances for the second were nonexistent.

In Minnesota, Moss will have his number called early and often by Brett Favre (that's one of the big risks in the deal for the Vikings). If he can't make the plays, well, Moss is no worse off than he was before. If he can, he'll be happier, and at least incrementally more likely to receive a new contract from the Vikings or somebody else than he was in New England.

For the Pats, the risks of this deal are beyond obvious. They are trading a Hall of Fame skill position player (in his sunset years, perhaps, but a Hall of Famer) from an offense which is still going to be expected to carry a defense that's, well, call it a movie still in development. Special teams touchdowns are great, but they're no formula for playoff qualification. Bill Belichick obviously believes that the Pats' offense is strong and versatile enough to survive the loss of Moss with no significant drop in production. He could well be right. He'd better be right. The consequences of incorrectness would be severe.

For Minnesota, the risks of the deal are that they have wrongly assessed their talent, and that Moss' presence will just make it more obvious that Brett Favre is at last done. Moss will make it less likely Brett remembers to hand off to Adrian Peterson every so often, and more likely Favre will end his career buried under a ton or so of pass rushers sometime this fall. While I do not believe Moss is the perennial malcontent some others do, it is a fact that he, like almost every other good wideout, tends to lose interest in a losing situation and/or an offense unable to use him.

Moss has lots of reasons to stay interested as a Viking, however. He's going to a franchise that's already proven it's desperate to win now and will cater to almost every whim of a player it deems valuable. I can't imagine a better situation for him from the pure self-interest standpoint.

Lucky Randy. Lucky Pats? Could be. But I think I want to see how those rookie tight ends take being doubled, and how Danny Woodhead handles shots from strong safeties with a four step running start on pass patterns before answering the question.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Greatest Country in History for Compulsive Gamblers, Chapter 2

Tonight is a night off. None of the four major professional sports leagues has a scheduled regular season or postseason game.

Hope you've made plans. It'd be a shame to waste this down time. According to my calculations, the next such night off will take place the second Monday of July, 2011, the day before the All-Star Game.

Football Theory -- And Practice

Just spitballing here, but it seems to me that if I were a pro football coach trying to incorporate a bunch of young players into my regular offensive and defensive player rotations who were full of athletic ability and what used to be called "piss and vinegar" but maybe a little rough in the technique department, I'd be very tempted to stick a bunch of them on special teams and allow them much more free rein than I usually do.

That way, I'd be maximizing their strengths while they work on their weaknesses, as special teams are where athleticism and desire (or more accurately, reckless disregard for personal safety) far outweigh the subtleties of the sport.

Anyway, I was just wondering if Bill Be... What's that you say? Why, yes. I did go to bed at halftime of the Pats-Dolphins game last night. Why do you ask?

Sunday, October 03, 2010

GQ Down and Out

As anyone who cares enough to watch the event knows, the golf clothing worn by the U.S. Ryder Cup team was basically designed, or chosen from various designs, by Lisa Pavin, wife of team captain Corey Pavin.

Without offering any opinion on what Ms. Pavin has picked for our overprivileged heroes to wear, I will say this. If Mr. Pavin lets his wife dress other guys, clearly she determines most of what he puts on every day of the week. The Ryder Cup has made me VERY curious to catch a glimpse of Corey Pavin out in public in civilian clothes -- particularly on an occasion where the dress code says "formal."

A puce tuxedo? I wouldn't put it past her.

We Hold This Lock of the Week to Be Self-Evident

Florida-Alabama did not turn out to be quite as good as game as had been advertised, so I did a bit of remote-clicking last night.

By my count, there were six different FBS college football games on the Verizon Fios cable system of Lexington, Mass. at 8:30 p.m, including such surefire ratings dynamite in the New England market as Texas Tech-Iowa State. Next week's Nielsen book will show its usual low-to-so-low-as-to-be-unmeasurable ratings for all of those games.

Hang the ratings! Journalism is service, no matter who you're serving. Each autumn Saturday reminds us there's never been a better time for compulsive gamblers in our nation's history.