Tuesday, January 31, 2012

To Lose the Will for Free Shrimp Is to Lose the Will to Live

Both Boston sports talk radio stations have emigrated to Indianapolis this week, part of that odd but apparently effective programming strategy of broadcasting from the Super Bowl host city without covering any Super Bowl events, then leaving town 48 hours before the game.

Early this morning, two of the hosts of one of the AM drive-time shows, the one that can be funny on occasion, were discussing the host city committee party for the media, which will be held this evening at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The hosts said they weren't going to attend.

These guys were missing a bet. Of the pre-Super Bowl parties to which media members are or can get invited to, the host city party, usually held on Tuesday, is by far the more jolly occasion. The vaunted Commissioner's Party on Friday night, quite the blowout back in the day and worth hitting as recently as the 1990s, has evolved into what essentially is the Republican National Convention with a buffet instead of speeches. If rubbing elbows and every other body part with an inchoate mass of old rich people is your idea of fun, well, start scrambling for your invitation.

The crowd is much less dense at the media party, the food is just as good, the drink just as free, and the locals of both sexes who have wangled themselves into the party in the mistaken belief it's an opportunity for social climbing tend to be way more physically attractive. All in all, it's a pleasant evening out to which you, the media member, is being treated. It's only POLITE to accept the host city's bread and salt. Also beer.

Morning radio personalities have to get up very early indeed, so I could understand why the two hosts weren't going. But the tone of their dismissal bothered me. They implicitly and then explicitly stated that the media party was an event for small-town boobs and small-time journalists, a fundamentally uncool event which any person with a decent respect for their own hipness would avoid as fervently as work at a Christian music format station.

Avoiding generally accepted social rituals is sometimes a wise decision. Avoiding them as a matter of policy makes you a person others will seek to avoid. Skippin Super Bowl parties, hype and fun while you're AT the Super Bowl isn't cool. It's just stupid.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Humor Is Lost on Some Crowds

Today's New York Times and Boston Globe each had stories reporting that upon arriving in Indianapolis, Bill Belichick both expressed pleasure at being at the Super Bowl and made some mild pleasantries about that fact. The tone of both stories was of utter incredulity indicating each reporter felt it merited a headline along the lines of "LUCKY LINDY MAKES IT!!!"

Poor Bill. No, really. The more time passes, the more I feel the Pats' coach is a man stuck out of time in a world that cannot, no, refuses to make the slightest effort to understand him.

Start with the obvious. If Belichick's happy to be at the Super Bowl, it's because he's breathing. There is nobody, from team owner down to the most cynical sportswriter, who doesn't land at the airport of the host city and think "Hey, I'm at the Super Bowl. Cool!" That's because being at the Super Bowl is cool, and the coolness of the experience is in direct proportion to the amount of one's involvement in the event. Being a writer was cooler than being a fan who won tickets in some contest. Being a coach is about one million levels of coolness above sportswriting (How coaches feel when they LEAVE the Super Bowl is another story). Can't we accept that Belichick has human emotions even when he's on duty? So he's good at suppressing them. That doesn't mean they aren't in there somewhere.

As for being surprised Belichick made a funny or two, well, that indicates the reporters are prisoners of conventional wisdom, comedy-wise anyway. In my experience, Belichick was often humorous, or attempted to be humorous. This went unnoticed by many because in humor as in many other things, the Pats' coach is a man born out of his proper time.

Belichick's humor is subtle, dry and as understated as he can make it. Many legendary humorists (James Thurber comes to mind) were of that style. Like Thurber, most of 'em have been dead for some time. The wholly dominant style of comedy through most of Belichick's adult life, since "Animal House" in 1978, has been overstatement: the broad gag, the use of hyperbole, the ranting monologue dialed up to 11 for effect. Think "Bridesmaids," "Two & a Half Men" and the late Sam Kinison.

If a man has a Thurber sense of humor in a Kinison world, many of his jokes will move right past his audience. It's not that they don't get it. They don't even recognize it.

I yield to no man or woman in my appreciation of overblown, sophomoric to juvenile humor. But there's a place for wit as well as belly laughs in the comedy universe. Belichick should be congratulated for his contrarian approach to laughs, but it's not something he dreamed up for the Super Bowl. It's part of his personality that's always been there.

Now, if Tom Coughlin cracks jokes at HIS introductory press conference in Indy today, THEN you've got a front page story.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Hard Time

T.F. Green and Newark Liberty airports are not destinations often thought of with longing. But that's how the Patriots and Giants are thinking of them today. The flight to Indianapolis tomorrow represents about a 90-minute escape from the disorienting limbo of the Super Bowl off-week.

It won't be until they check into their maximum security luxury hotels that the players will absorb the wretched truth that they've only exchanged limbos. Being closer to the Super Bowl in terms of three-dimensional space will not bring it any closer in the fourth dimension of time. There's an eternity of tedium left until kickoff.

By both circumstance and design, the Super Bowl is very different from every other NFL game. By far the biggest difference, the most real of all the so-called "distractions" is how much sitting/standing/lounging around is involved for the players. The world championship of professional football is a test of patience as much as it is of strength, skill and will.

Tom Brady, taking one for the team as usual, spewed forth the obligatory "we wish the game was today" bromide this week. But cliches get that way because they're true. That's how Brady does feel, that's how they all feel. And that Brady knows full well how much time he's got left to fill up before 6:30 p.m. February 5 only makes his longing more acute.

Every football fan knows the feeling of wistfulness, aggravation and disorientation that comes on the weekend of the Super Bowl offweek when it sinks in there's no game to watch -- unless you count the Pro and Seniors Bowls, which no one does. Magnify that feeling by about a trillion, and you almost halfway to imagining how the Pats and Giants all feel.

Want to imagine another good test of patience? Think of answering the same question 10,000 times in a week. By and large, players don't mind the obligatory time they must spend with the media at the Super Bowl. It's something to do besides review the tapes of the Pats/Giants last six games one more time. It's nice to have the world make a fuss over you, too. But they'd like it better if the media got together and agreed to ask every question only once and shared the answers.

"The Super Bowl," observed Drew Bledsoe, not usually known for wittiness, "is a place where you get tired of your own life story."

Coaches, who deep in their hearts would prefer playing one game a year for which the practiced incessantly, are grateful for the extra time the Super Bowl makes for planning, preparing, and fretting. Players aren't, unless they're dealing with an injury as Rob Gronkowski is. They're used to having three days of practice and a week of study before a game. A few, like Brady, get more out of the extra time. Most get little or none, and there's always one or two for whom the delay creates the paralysis of analysis.

At the 14 Super Bowls I was blessed enough to cover, by the Friday before the game I couldn't wait for it to be Sunday evening. That's a writer! Believe me, all my fellow scribes felt the same way. That sentiment was one of the very rare occasions where I believe that for a microsecond or two I had some distant inkling of what it was to be like one of the people I was covering.

Well, football players are supposed to be able to take it, including tedium. The real problem comes during the Bowl itself. The first item on Bill Belichick's Super Bowl game plans is a full discussion of just how much standing around there is AFTER kickoff. Halftime is longer. The commercial breaks are much longer, and there are more of them. Rest assured every replay will take twice as long as usual. No official wants to be the zebra who makes the call to decide a Super Bowl, let alone a wrong call that does. The waiting will be enforced on 90 men whose bodies contain more natural biochemical stimulant than could be produced by all the meth labs of Fresno in a decade.

Considering how awful that waiting must be, and considering how a sport built on repetition and routine makes its championship game as singular and different as possible, I always feel there's no bigger miracle in sports than Super Bowls which are well-played and dramatic contests. It speaks well of the contemporary NFL that 21st century Bowls have so often been memorable or at least diverting ones.

I do know this. If I possessed some way of measuring the collective psyches of football teams to determine which of two rivals was the group that was least easily bored, I'd never ever lose a bet on the Super Bowl.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

When A Protest Falls Somewhere Besides the Rose Garden, Does It Make a Sound? No.

Tim Thomas has a lot to answer for. Anyone who gives sports commentators an excuse to talk politics has committed a grave disservice to humanity.

There are two normal reactions to Thomas' decision to skip the White House ceremony honoring the Bruins for their 2011 Stanley Cup triumph because the goalie is EXTREMELY unhappy with the policies of President Barack Obama, and I had them both and in the proper order, that being a) who cares? and b) that's his business isn't it?. We got rights in this country, even Vezina Trophy winners.

It was sort of refreshing that the third Boston jock in history to skip a White House team ceremony had semi-coherent political motives for doing so. When Larry Bird stood up Ronald Reagan in 1984, a bad hangover was almost surely the reason. When Manny Ramirez stood up George W. Bush in 2008, well, your guess is as good as mine.

Then I had a third reaction, a mild bit of wistful sadness on behalf of Thomas himself. The Bruins' goalie was the only person affected in the slightest by his gesture of protest, and while it doubtless made him feel good and full of righteous satisfaction last Monday, in time he may come to see that day as the missed opportunity it was.

I assure you Barack Obama doesn't care that Thomas stood him up. Pols are very used to snubs, and millionaire professional athletes are not the demographic David Axelrod is counting on to sweep Obama into a second term come November. If Obama's a hockey fan, he's hiding it well. I don't think we've ever had a real hockey fan as President. Coolidge, perhaps?

Nor will those celebrating Thomas as a principled hero do so for very long. It is the nature of the overly political person that there's a new hero/outrage every day. Should Thomas let in three goals in a period next Tuesday against Ottawa, public opinion will not be concerned with his views on society.

All that will be left is that Thomas's teammates will have the memory of a pleasant ceremony where the President of the United States made a minor fuss over them while they had their picture taken, and he will not. And it's all due to a terrible if terribly common misunderstanding.

Like most of his fellow citizens, Thomas does not grasp that the President of the United States, any President, has two different and separate jobs in our political system. One, the big one, is the elected political leader of the executive branch of the U.S. government. THAT'S the Barack Obama Thomas is mad at.

The other Presidential job, less important but no less real, is our ceremonial Head of State, the individual who presides over rituals deemed important by our political system and society. Things like visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Memorial Day, or hosting the President of Horribledumpistan at state dinners or having little White House moments for Americans who have done a thing.

Some President long before Obama (Carter is the first one I remember, honoring the 1980 Olympic hockey team) decided that having champion sports teams at the White House would be one of those rituals. Like all damn fool political decisions, once it became a tradition, this ritual became impossible to get rid of, and I'm sure other Presidents have wished they could. They're kind of busy.

The point that escaped Thomas is that the ritual ceremonial Head of State President is not political in any sense of the word. He's a purely totemic figure created to satisfy demands of, uh, national etiquette is as good as a phrase as any. Protesting a President by avoiding one of those ceremonies, which has been done by noted figures whose politics lean both right and left, is protesting a person who in a sense is not in the room at the time of said event. It's a gesture without a target, let alone an audience.

All Thomas missed was an occasion where America, in the person of its elected-for-now ceremonial Head of State, expressed the opinion that it admires sports champions, and that he, Tim Thomas, was one. Plus there might have been lunch or at least snacks.

And as time passes, if he and his descendants aren't too busy polishing their sniper rifles and gold bars and cooking canned foods at the Thomas Family Compound near the Montana-Alberta border, Thomas might come to regret passing up that token of his accomplishments.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Lots of Big Hits Needed a Script Doctor

If some focus group of groundlings had convinced Shakespeare the play needed a happy ending, "King Lear" would still have been a memorable drama. But it wouldn't be "King Lear."

If Bruce Springsteen gave a concert without multiple encores, it'd still be a great concert. But the audience would leave the building feeling more than a bit let down.

That's sort of how I feel about yesterday's AFC and NFC championship games. As football art goes, they offered their audiences all the catharsis one could want -- until their final scenes.

The Patriots beat the Ravens on a missed short field goal. The Giants beat the 49ers when they recovered a fumbled punt return. Those are the most and second-most anticlimactic ways thrilling football games CAN end. And I think only the most devout partisan fans of the two winners aren't at least a little downcast about the conclusions of two episodes of magnificently tense and melodramatic football, the very best the sport has to offer as a spectator experience.

Big plays of course, aren't necessarily good plays. The word big is value-neutral. But one (this one anyway) likes to see a close game determined by an action of the winners, not by a miscue on the part of the losers. It lessens the contest's value, including its historical value.

Super Bowl XXV was an outstanding game. But a game whose defining moment was a field goal missed is always going to be less celebrated in pro football lore and legend than a game defined by a field goal made -- such as Super Bowl XXXVI.

It's not that the endings of the two games are any aspersion on the winning teams. By definition, one-play games are games in which both teams turned in an effort worthy of a victory. But as a matter of aesthetics and out of pure human sympathy, I want a one-play game decided by a play that makes me cheer, not wince.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The AFC Championship Game in a Quote From Years Ago

"Every time you line up for a field goal in the second half, you're closer to losing the game" -- Steve Young in his playing days.

Morning-Day-Night Tripleheaders Are Tough at My Age

Hitting a bar to watch a big game with a bunch of diehard fans is an odd experience to check off the to-do list by 10 a.m., but I managed, after watching Tottenham Hotspur lose in extra time to Manchester City at the Kinsale by Government Center with the Spurs' Boston fan club. Any group which contains members who're having Buffalo wings at 9 a.m. is worth knowing.

So I need to regroup before the NFL comes on, and that will make my predictions briefer if not necessarily more accurate than is customary.

I never expect the Patriots to lose, and today is no exception. New England has more ability to win the muckers' game the Ravens want to play than Baltimore has to win the firehouse fast break game the Pats want to see. It's POSSIBLE Joe Flacco could hit two or three bombs for scores and upset that equation, but it's possible in the same sense Rick Santorum could have a major turnaround in Florida. Both are, as yet, purely theoretical possibilities unsupported by laboratory observations.

The NFC game is altogether more interesting, or rather, the forecasting I've sampled about the game is more interesting. It's as if nobody saw the 49ers-Saints game, or even knows its final score.

If I've heard one commentator babble on about the 49ers tough defense, I've heard a thousand. They're getting credit for a win they damn near turned into a loss all by themselves. Generating four turnovers is great, but it's not as great as allowing two 50-yard plus touchdown passes to lose leads in the fourth quarter is awful.

It is my belief, partially confirmed by observation, that road playoff victories are a significant indicator of success in subsequent playoff games. The Giants are the only team left, in fact the only team period, that's won a road playoff game this season. I don't see why they won't win another one, unless they too turn it over five times.

Oh, boy, a Patriots-Giants Super Bowl rematch. As far as Pats fans are concerned, that'd have to be the most annoying possible two weeks of Super hype.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Revis-No, Make That Delusionist History

Deion Branch is has had a long and solid career as a step-above-competent NFL wide receiver. He's a swell fellow to boot. But as a propagandist, Branch is a dismal flop. He hasn't learned the important rule that to be convincing, falsehoods must contain an element of truth, about as much as the vermouth in a proper Martini.

Branch's comment this past week that the Patriots "have been underdogs all year" was straight bathtub gin, pure moonshine in both senses of the word. We all know athletes enjoy the feeling of being scorned and persecuted by a hostile world almost as much as Newt Gingrich does, but really, there's a limit. A member of the most successful pro football team of the 21st century saying they're underdogs is about a light year past said limit.

Let's recap the facts of public, especially sports commentariat, opinion about the Pats this season for Branch and that odd subset of fans (all teams have one) that gets off on feeling put upon. In the preseason, the Patriots were team most favored to be the AFC representative in the Super Bowl, narrowly leading the Steelers and, let's not let anyone forget the commentariat has its problems too, the Jets and Chargers. There was no one, not even Rex Ryan, who didn't pick New England to at least make the playoffs.

Last but not least, for tomorrow's game against the Ravens, the one Branch was talking about, Las Vegas, which works strictly on math, not emotion, has made the Pats seven point favorites. That's an awful lot of points for a disrespected underdog to be giving its presumably better regarded foe.

It is true that when the Pats' defense had its problems this season, many commentators and fans said those problems might cause the team to be less successful than they'd previously thought. It's extremely unlikely New England players only heard that criticism from the outside world. I'm willing to bet that opinion was a prominent feature of Bill Belichick's remarks in the locker room throughout November and December.

That's a far cry from dismissing the Pats' Super Bowl chances altogether, which nobody did except on those days when radio talk shows felt the calls weren't coming in fast enough. One wishes players and the public would learn to discriminate between honest opinion and obvious emotion manipulation.

Branch, of course, was trying to manipulate himself, and almost surely failing. He's too sharp not to know the Patriots were overdogs all season long, just as they've been for the past decade. They are among the overest overdogs in the history of the National Football League. But for reasons of policy, they refuse to admit the obvious.

Some of the greatest teams in sports history, like the Larry Bird Celtics if one wants a local example, reveled in their identity as overdogs and made that image work for them to help them win. Remember Derek Jeter telling Aaron Boone to trust the ghosts? That's overdogism doing its thing.

The Pats will never acknowledge being favorites. Belichick won't permit it. Deep down, the Pats' coach believes, and I'm not saying he's wrong, that pro football is such a difficult endeavor that it's fundamentally surprising when any team wins a game, let alone his own.

But not even Belichick was willing to shatter reality the way Branch did. Indeed, I believe that as much as is constitutionally able, the coach took the opposite tack.
On Friday, after accurately noting that the Ravens are a tough opponent, Belichick expressed satisfaction with the Pats' practices and readiness for the game.

That's as close as close as Bill Belichick can or will ever get to saying "We got this."

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Decisions That Don't Work Are Not Always Bad Decisions -- Got That, Ed?!

The oddest thing about Ed Reed's criticism of Joe Flacco is how inaccurate it was. Why it makes you think Hall of Fame defensive backs have some innate prejudice against quarterbacks, even their own.

As has been recounted quite a bit in Boston media this week, Reed said that Ravens QB Flacco got "rattled" in Baltimore's 20-13 playoff victory against the Texans. This was a mystifying choice of words. No one would use the word "stellar" to describe Flacco's play in that game, but "rattled" is le mot injuste.

Flacco spent almost the entire game unable to move the Baltimore offense more than about 12 yards a possession. He was sacked early and often, threw some incompletions lucky to hit the field turf and generated about a half's worth of three and outs. It took a modest fourth quarter rally by Flacco to allow him to finish with more passing yards than Tim Tebow had against the Patriots.

Still, Flacco's stone mediocre passing line of 14 for 27 good for 176 yards also contains two touchdown passes. Flacco neither fumbled nor threw an interception. For that matter, the Ravens had no turnovers and not a single penalty. No false starts, no holding, etc.

Those are not "rattled" numbers. Offenses led by "rattled" quarterbacks don't have penalty-free games. Flacco had the numbers of a competent quarterback facing a superior defense playing close or at its capabilities and making the best of that bad situation. Flacco did an excellent job of choosing the least worst option available on passing plays. Sacks are about 100 times less damaging to an offense than interceptions. Three and outs are about the same. They hurt, but they're flesh wounds compared to turnovers -- as the Texans themselves proved beyond reasonable doubt.

I think what Reed meant to say was that the Texans gave Flacco an unpleasant afternoon, and that he hoped his quarterback knows that 176 yards in the air isn't going to get it done in New England this Sunday. And that's when the fact that deep down Ed Reed hates all quarterbacks took control.

I wonder what Reed used to say about Kyle Boller?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Less Can Be More, But It's Hard to Do

Statistical anomaly #1 of the NFL divisional playoff round: The Denver Broncos had more total yards losing 45-10 to the Patriots than the Baltimore Ravens gained in beating the Houston Texans 20-13, 252 for Saturday night's routees as compared to 227 for the team that'll be the Pats next opponent.

Statistical anomaly #2: The Patriots were the only one of the four winning teams that LOST the turnover margin, having two to the Broncos' one. Indeed, without turnovers, the Pats would be playing the Texans this Sunday, and the Saints would be packing for a trip to Green Bay, having beaten the 49ers 44-24.

Statistical anomaly # 3: The Ravens not only had no turnovers yesterday, they had no penalties. This is the anomaly I'm sure Bill Belichick will be stressing in meetings today. When a team does nothing to hurt itself, it can get away with long stretches of not doing much to help itself.

These anomalies are presented as a gentle counterpoint to the conventional wisdom through pro football and its followers, not just here in New England, either, that the Patriots are the prohibitive favorite to emerge as Super Bowl champions because of their Hall of Fame quarterback and unstoppable offense. I'm not at all sure conventional wisdom is incorrect. The Pats DO have a Hall of Fame quarterback, and their offense has been well-nigh unstoppable since Halloween. Those are helpful qualities in a football team.

But I can't help remembering that as of noon last Saturday, conventional wisdom was that the Pats were one of THREE strong favorites to become NFL champions, as all three teams having Hall of Fame quarterbacks and unstoppable offenses.

Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are still on track for Canton, and the Packers and Saints' offenses weren't exactly stopped. They did get beat, though.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

They Can Break All Those Who Break Even

The best measure of how thoroughly (and ridiculously) the Patriots dismantled the Broncos last night is this: as terrible as Tim Tebow was, and he was very terrible indeed, he had far from the worst night of any Bronco player. He might not have made the top (or bottom, depending on your point of view) five. That poor defensive back number 30, whose name I omit because I watched with the sound off. When he wasn't getting hurt, he was getting beat. Alleged superstar-in-the-making Von Miller had to start a fight to get a camera on him.

The massacre continued the oddest trend of New England's 2011 season. Against mediocrity, the Pats are invincible. As a friendly poster on sportsjournalists.com noted this morning, the Patriots now have an 8-0 record against teams which finished the season with .500 records.

The significance of this statistic escapes me. I strongly suspect it has none, except as a continuation of the Belichick era trend in which New England hardly ever loses games it REALLY shouldn't lose. But it's notable just for the big number of games. I know there's parity and all, but to play about half your games against .500 teams is a fluke so large it qualifies as an accomplishment.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Suggestion for Opinionators

Before offering the absolute, definitive, we now the answer yards of words on Tim Tebow's NFL future, please consider the story of the quarterback whose team won the early game today.

If anyone was more buried by more people than Alex Smith, I don't remember it. For five straight seasons, yet. But this afternoon, he was all the quarterback any team could want. He was a champion.

May not be next Sunday. That's the point. There's a lot of market volatility in quarterback stocks.

Dull Prediction Department

No sports forecast is both less interesting to its audience and more dangerous to the forecaster than predicting that the outcome of a rematch will closely resemble the course and outcome of the first meeting of the teams in question. Nevertheless, logic and instinct tell me that's what's going to happen in the Patriots-Broncos game.

There is a significant chance that Tim Tebow will come out and stink tonight and the Pats will win by a telephone number. I was in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida over the holidays, Tebow's high school home town and where He will come again some day to be a back-bench Republican congressman. I thus was forced to watch every play of the Broncos-Chiefs game, and I have never, with the possible exception of the playoff games of the 1985 Bears, seen a quarterback that helpless. Tebow just didn't know what he wanted to do, and so did less than nothing.

But that didn't happen in the first New England game, and I don't think it will happen again. I have resolved the Tebow issue to my own satisfaction. He's Mark Sanchez who runs. He's going to be very bad in any number of games and his team will lose. But he can beat you, too. There will be games, more of them, when he's a reason Denver wins. There are plenty of NFL quarterbacks I rate below both those guys.

Tebow had a more than decent game against New England last month. He had over 280 yards of offense. The Broncos scored 23 points, the exact same number they scored against the Steelers in regulation last Sunday, in Tebow's finest game as a passer. I suspect Denver will score in the 20-24 point range tonight. That's what most Patriots opponents have done, after all.

There is, however, no way I can see the other end of what's necessary for a Denver victory, or even for a close game. The Broncos simply don't have what it takes to keep New England's offense from producing points at the pace to which it is accustomed. Denver doesn't force many turnovers, the key to 90 percent of all football upsets. Denver's pass defense had significant difficulties against the Steelers, facing of the NFL's seven best quarterbacks playing on one leg. Tonight they face one of the league's three best QBs with two legs. Not a promising vista, that.

If Tebow stinks, call it 45-3 New England. If he plays well, call it 38-28 New England. My best guess is around 37-20.

Satan's always tough at home.

Pundits Commit False Start on Unhappiness

There has been a very odd strain of sports commentary around town this week. I just heard a fresh batch of it on the radio when I went to fill up the car with gas. Call it "preemptive bitching."

The theme, as expressed today in the Globe by Christopher Gasper, is that the heavily favored New England Patriots not only should defeat the Denver Broncos tonight, they'd damn well better. If they don't, it will indicate there's something fundamentally, deeply wrong with the franchise that has won 75 percent of its games over the last five years.

To get the full impact of this commentary, you need to listen to the radio. The tone of its advocates is cold, stern, angry even. I've heard it before, it's the exact same tone one of my high school math teachers used to talk to me about my horrible calculus grades. I was doing well in French and History, he'd say. So why couldn't I put in the effort to do well in calculus.

My teacher, a good guy, had it all backwards. I was putting in as much effort (don't ask how much) as in my other courses. My calculus grades weren't up to snuff because I didn't get calculus at all and never would. Effort and attitude had nothing to do with it. It was the same as trying to hit the curve ball.

So it is with the Pats tonight. I do not believe they will lose. In fact, I'll be startled if they do. But if it should happen, it won't be because of some inner moral weakness that strikes like clockwork in mid-January. It'll be for reasons that've been evident all year. Either the defense will fail to come up with the turnovers and red-zone stops that have saved its collective posterior throughout the regular season, the offense will find ways NOT to score 30 points or more, or both. Those possibilities have been baked into the cake of all 16 Pats' games so far, and three times they were realized.

Oh, one more reason. The Broncos could play a great game. See Jets v. Pats 2011. See Super Bowl XLII.

Winning NFL games is difficult. Winning playoff games is doubly so. Sure, plenty of them become blowouts. The teams that won those blowouts performed at or near peak capacity, and their foes did not. In other words, they happened just like regular season blowouts.

The Broncos have already won a playoff game. Logic says that gives them as much postseason credibility as all of the seven other teams still playing. So it strikes me as the height of misguided arrogance to state that it'll be solely the Patriots' fault if they win another one tonight. Failure's not always about you. Many times it's about what you're trying to do.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

You Can't Coach Up Delusion

Any trip to State College, Pennsylvania is a long and arduous one. That's a good thing for Bill O'Brien, as it means he still has time to tell Pennsylvania State University he won't be taking that head football coach job after all.

The semi-organized rebellion against O'Brien's appointment by former Penn State players should tell the Pats' assistant all he needs to know and send him running back to the cozy comfort of sideline screamfests with Tom Brady. The job he's been offered is a career and sanity-killer. He can't succeed. He shouldn't want to try. O'Brien may know more than enough football to beat Ohio State, but no coach ever lived who could beat Denial State.

That state is where Penn State football and Penn State the school obviously still live. The former Nittany Lions and their allies on fan message boards are angry because Penn State did not hire current assistant Tom Bradley or some other coach with ties to the school. It's as if November, 2011 never happened, and a successor to Joe Paterno is needed because JoePa retired of his own free will, not because he's at the center of the sickest scandal in college sports history.

The slightest effort at rational thought would show the O'Brien critics the folly of that stance. Anyone associated with Penn State football from the day Jerry Sandusky was hired until the day Paterno was fired cannot possibly be the next coach. He'd spend more time being deposed than in the film room. The school's unspoken recruiting pitch would be "we're keeping all our traditions -- except one, we hope."

But the anti-O'Brien crowd isn't capable of rational thought. The Sandusky charges, the cover-up and the firing of Paterno have fried their synapses. This is not really their fault. One of the experiences of their lives in which they have the most pride, an association that's as dear to them as family, has been revealed as having a considerable degree of culpability in monstrous crimes. That is a major burden for the human mind to bear.

So the Penn State folks who can't bear that burden are dropping it on O'Brien instead. If the school's coach was from its old boy network, then members of said network could more easily pretend that some people in that network enabled a child molester. O'Brien's presence will make that happy fantasy an impossibility. As a result, no matter how many games O'Brien wins at Penn State, there's going to be a significant subset of fans, faculty, administrators and alumni who hate him.

When those people look at O'Brien, they won't see a coach. They'll see a badge of shame with a headset. They'll see Reality.

Run away, Bill. Let some other ambitious leader of large young men become the unhappiest man in Happy Valley.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

ESPN's Answer to "Matlock"

I thought there could never be another television show I had less interest in watching than the cable news wallpapering of the Iowa caucuses.

Less than 24 hours later, the Orange Bowl was on. Wrong again.

The weirdest thing about the BCS system is that the Bs involved don't seem to grasp how much damage the system does to their individual brands. Back in the old days, every one of the big (then) New Year's Day bowl games had a chance to have an impact on the selection of a fictional/fraudulent national champion. Now, none of them do. They are all Runner-Up Bowls (you have to be old to remember that NFL invention). Some of them, like last night's Orange Bowl, don't reach that status. West Virginia and Clemson belonged in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl at best.

The Orange Bowl was an exhibition game between OK teams played three days after the traditional end of the college season. It's not a question of TV sports fans not wanting to watch it so much as it is the live possibility they'd never realize it was on in the first place. The Cotton Bowl is tomorrow night -- Friday, the night even old people like me have better things to do than the tube.

In the meantime, ESPN will spend hours and hours hyping the BCS title game for next Monday. Nothing wrong with that. But the ordinarily very shrewd gang down at Bristol can't or won't see that what goes for all the bowls goes for their broadcast partner, too. The BCS, because it has a "championship" game that is a faint but recognizable facsimile image of how a playoff would end, causes all the damage to the bowls in terms of audience and prestige that an actual playoff would -- without the compensating freight trains full of $50 bills the network and the schools would be riding on if there WAS a playoff.

I watched the Rose Bowl Monday. Hell of a game. I watched one quarter of the Fiesta Bowl, one drive of the Sugar Bowl, and none of the Orange Bowl. After a weekend of NFL playoff games, LSU and Alabama are going to have to improve on their first encounter if they expect me to hang around until the third quarter.

I bet that's a game plan more than a few football fans have for Monday night. You have to wonder about the point of a spectator sport that's working hard to make its ultimate game a spectator afterthought.