Saturday, March 10, 2012

Hitting on 18 Is Seldom Sound Strategy

Peyton Manning was in Denver yesterday. He's supposed to be in Phoenix today. Then, well, who knows? Miami? Seattle? Cleveland? No, not Cleveland. But wherever an NFL franchise lacks a quarterback and good sense, and it's amazing how often those two needs go together, Manning will be a welcome visitor, especially by local TV news directors.

Nothing wrong with houseguests. It's the franchise that pays rent to Manning for the use of its spare bedroom that's in trouble.

Nobody wants to see the career of one of the NFL's greatest players ever end in sad confusion such as that awful press conference in Indianapolis last week. But rooting for a happier ending is not the same thing as paying big money and turning your football team upside down in the hope of creating one. Sentimentality is nice. Sentimental decision making is delusional.

Forget football metrics. Occam's Razor is the only analytical tool we need to assess Manning's playing status as of this morning, to wit, as of this morning, he's still not physically capable of being an NFL quarterbacks.

Hypothesis 1: People in sports are not skilled professional actors, least of all Jim Irsay. Irsay's tongue-tied anguish at releasing Manning was genuine. He hated the decision thrust upon him. Ergo, it WAS thrust upon him. Irsay saw no alternative to releasing Manning. Irsay has a number of twit-like qualities, but he is the one person outside Manning himself with the most information on the hero's medical condition. And he did not believe Manning can play ball in 2012.

Hypothesis 2: It being very much in Manning's interest for others to believe he can play football, he ought to say he can. Such a statement did not come forth at Manning's Indianapolis farewell. "Wanting to" and "very close" are not the same as "round up a few wide receivers and I'll go out in the parking lot and throw for you."

Sentimental as I am, that's still the evidence I need to even consider the possibility Manning will play again. Close-up, own eyes viewing of practices or miles of video tape of Manning scrutinized by the most skeptical assistant coaches in Christendom. Put it this way. If Bill Belichick told me Manning could play, I'd believe it. Jon Gruden, I wouldn't. Some Zapruder film of a fuzzy high school football field drill session doesn't cut it at all.

As far as I can tell, any team which signs Manning will pay for the privilege of allowing the immortal to continue his rehab on their dime (make that many dollars) in the HOPE said rehab concludes successfully and Manning will be able at some point in 2012 to begin real practices and enter real games and the even fonder hope he'll resemble the Manning of the 2000s when he does. That's not strategy. That's a lottery ticket bet. No, it's worse. It's buying a lottery ticket, then buying a cabin cruiser before the drawing is held.

It's a cinch bet that some team will make the 1000-1 bet on Manning. Teams without quarterbacks look at the odds much differently than outsiders. Check the Redskins, who cheerfully surrendered their 2013 and 2014 first round picks to move up a mere four spots in the 2012 draft to get their mitts on Robert Griffin III. Griffin had better turn out to be about as Manning was for Washington not to have swindled itself.

Once that happens, this football fan will pull with all his heart for Manning to come through and get out on the field again. He's an admirable athlete whose performances bring me pleasure. He deserves a happy ending, or at least the right to end his career on the field rather than some doctor's office.

The sportswriter part of my soul will hold its tongue. If there's one thing that's changed in my outlook on games since leaving the little world of sports, it's that I'm less interested in failure and losing than I used to be. They're inevitable. Contrary to conventional sports journalism wisdom, winners, being much rarer than losers, I find to be more interesting stories.

But rooting is free. Running an NFL franchise most emphatically is not. Betting on dreams is a most expensive way to do business.


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