Monday, December 24, 2012

Worrywarts Are Winners

How fascinating if nor exactly surprising to learn that one person who doesn't believe that "a win is a win is a win" in the National Football League is Tom Brady.

Seen on TV,  Brady's demeanor following the Patriots' slipshod 23-16 win over the feeble Jaguars was somber verging on funereal. In the locker room, Brady was reportedly a bit livelier -- ripshit, in fact, chewing out his teammates in a rant the late Gene Mauch would've been proud to call his own.

Brady's reaction to victory was notable  because it is the exact opposite of his usual role in New England's management structure. After a loss, he's always somewhere within a short stroll of the junction of sad and angry. But on those rare occasions, once or twice a season max, that the Pats win despite playing poorly enough to lose, Brady ordinarily dwells on the bright side, pointing out the plays New England DID make that allowed them to escape their sins of o- and commission. Fretting is Bill Belichick's job. Brady is the good cop in their historically effective partnership.

So for Brady to take the bad cop role is worth considering. It's possible that Brady's competitive zeal, extraordinarily high even for an NFL player, took control of his emotions as it did on the sidelines of the Redskins game last year (another shoddy win). But it's also possible this display of real temper was deliberate, with Brady consciously deciding it was necessary for the greater good that he show his teammates his unhappiness with them -- and himself.

After any game, win or lose, Belichick is too spent to say much. I can't prove it, but I believe that holds true when he's talking to his team, not just when talking to the media. The man's got guile, but he's not a good enough actor to fake his post-game weariness. Laurence Olivier wasn't that good.

So I believe it's on Mondays when Belichick lets players know they weren't up to snuff despite the final score. Football being a sport of habit, the players certainly came off the field yesterday afternoon knowing their Christmas Eves would contain a rough patch in the meeting room.

Brady is of course the Patriot player closest to Belichick in every professional way, For him to jump in ahead of the coach's scheduled tongue-lashing with one of his own indicates that in Brady's opinion, even Belichick's creative and considerable wrath was insufficient to deal with New England's performance. Brady is worried. And he should be, both on merit and because it's good for the team when he is.

Against all but one other team in the NFL (the Chiefs retired the worst team in the league competition by doing the impossible yesterday, rushing for 352 yards and not just losing, but only scoring 13 points) New England's first and fourth quarters against the feeble Jags would meant a sure defeat. Against the 49ers, similar sleepwalking did in fact result in a loss. That's two games in a row where the Patriots came out of the gate with something less than a smooth stride. And in what had to contribute to Brady's ire, one very important way the Pats have faltered is in allowing him to get whacked too often for comfort.

Once is a bad game. Back-to-back MIGHT be the start of a trend. Or so Brady believes. On the subject of football, he certainly knows more than I do, so I'll go with him.

Might be is not the same as is. The Patriots' overall situation remains the same. They're one of the five or so favorites to win the Super Bowl, and they should be. Brady's worries are one reason why. Championship football teams tend to have fusspots in charge, either coaches, quarterbacks or both.

Brady doesn't often let his inner fusspot show, but it's strong element of his football self,  one reason he and Belichick are as much partners as player and coach. The Pats are used to hearing about worries from one side of that partnership. This week, they're getting it in stereo.

A little more anxiety might be good for their souls -- not to mention pass blocking.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

No, Don't Thank Me -- It's Time to Give Back

Governor Deval Patrick has a problem. Massachusetts needs a new temporary employee in the U.S. Senate. Someone has to replace John Kerry before the mandated special election sometime in the spring next year (oh, boy, another election! We can all hardly wait.). Patrick says that he doesn't want to appoint anyone who'd then run for the job on a more permanent basis in 2014. He wants a man or woman for whom the appointment would be a honorific to cap a distinguished or at least lengthy political career.

Few people apply to get a gold watch. So far, Patrick is stuck. In the season of giving, let me suggest a perfect placeholder, a human being for whom a three-month stint as an empty suit would be considered actual honest work. Me.

Hey, when the job calls for a nobody, I'm at the front of the line. I fulfill all the constitutional requirements of the office. I'm over 30 and a U.S. citizen. I meet all of Patrick's targets, too. I'm a a Democrat, naming me won't piss off every other pol in the state, although it will baffle them, and I have no intention of running for any office in the state or land. While I don't actually own a suit, I'm sure there will be sales at Jos. A. Banks and Men's Wearhouse right after Christmas.

If appointed, I promise to do whatever Kerry's staff (who will stay on for whatever poor devil gets the job) tells me to. I promise to never appear on television except on C-Span wide shots of the Senate chamber. I promise not to endorse any candidates in the upcoming Democratic primary for the office. Why, I even promise not to write a book about every hilariously and disgracefully embarrassing thing I see my fellow 99 Senators do in front of me.

OK, that last one was a lie. I told you I was ready to be a Senator.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Condundrum

At Yale University, "New York Times" op-ed columnist David Brooks will teach a course (for credit, natch) on humility.

Leaving aside one's opinions on Brooks's work, or the even more interesting question of how this course fits into one's management science major, I still can't get my head around it.

If a person was REALLY humble, I mean, just the Michael Jordan of self-abnegation, how would they ever summon up the ego to say "Oh, yeah, I can teach people not to make too much of themselves. They just have to be like me."

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Sense of Proportion = A Sense of Direction

Andre Johnson is an admirable NFL wide receiver. That's why I felt kind of bad that Johnson was my pregame tell that the Houston Texans were doomed last night. Maybe not doomed to lose by four touchdowns, but definitely doomed.

Johnson said last week that meeting the New England Patriots would be "the most important game in Texans' history." Even granting that the Texans don't have much history, those words were incorrect to the point of delusion. They indicated that the Texans had a cluelessness about existence in the upper echelon of pro football that would serve them ill against the Pats and all their other foes in the 2012 season.

Leave aside the fact the Texans were in two playoff games last season, which by definition are more important than any regular season game can be. Johnson's statement wasn't even true about THIS season. The Texans have yet to clinch the AFC South, and have two games remaining against divisional foe Indianapolis. THOSE games are really the most important of the year for Houston -- not last night's.

To reiterate an earlier post, all Houston really lost against the Pats, was prestige, an item of no use to the team in January. The Texans still have the best record in the AFC. If they win out, they'll have home field advantage, the only real stakes of last night's game for both teams.

 Not that Pats-Texans wasn't a big game. But in the NFL dictionary, "big" is an adjective with more meanings than "important" when modifying the noun "game." In this case, big carried the definition "an exciting and demanding professional challenge before a large audience that's way more fun than getting ready for the Jaguars." Important is an adjective that should always mean "If we lose, we're screwed."

Cut through the Belichickspeak of all the Pats prior to the Texans game, and you find it was all variations of the above definition of "big." Having lost a Super Bowl last season, the Pats aren't about to get giddy over a mere Monday nighter. They don't like Jon Gruden that much. New England has enough experience with reaching goals not to place too much emphasis on the journey rather than its desired destination.

Not the Texans. They actually conflated prestige with accomplishment. As is the way of the world in more realms than football, they wound up getting neither. They're not quite as suspect a contender as their 11-2 peers the Falcons, but they took major steps in that direction. And I do not believe one need be a psychoanalyst to suspect that the false significance the team gave to the Patriots game helped push them backwards. Emotion is a necessity in football. Too much emotion invariably results in paralysis eerily akin to the fading of a sugar rush.

Achieving the correct degree of emotion is difficult. Takes practice. Playoff games, Super Bowls, that kind of thing. Few of us have innate maturity, after all.

But we all know from realms other than football that placing undue significance on an event has a nasty way of making that event a disappointment.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

The Right to Vote Can Be Overrated

So the great Steroid Hall of Fame Crisis of 2012 snuck up on me. My ballot arrived in the mail late last week, and was posted back to the Baseball Writers' Association of America yesterday. I have less than no desire to go over the same old PED arguments one more time. I've made my position as clear as I can on this blog many times.

But it is also my belief that although the Hall vote is a secret ballot, it shouldn't be. As the holder of an extraordinarily overly exclusive franchise, I feel it is my duty to the baseball community of millions as a whole to tell it who I chose. The community is probably not listening, but Google is there for those who obsess over Hall voting -- which I know from experience is a large group of people.

Long story short, I voted for the maximum 10 players the rules allow one to select. Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Edgar Martinez, Mike Piazza, Mark McGwire, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling and Alan Trammell. If anyone wants to argue over Martinez or Schilling, please feel free to respond. Otherwise, I'm done talking about PEDs in baseball for now. Maybe when the vote's announced (early exit polls indicate a victory for the Morality Police, which will make Costas and Olbermann happy), I will feel differently. But not now.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

They Were a Quiet Team, Kind of Kept to Themselves

For once, I feel sorry for my former colleagues in the sports commentary racket, er, honored trade. Trying to find something different, let alone new, to say about the 2012 New England Patriots leaves one out in the rain one bus stop short of impossible.

Seldom has any team validated conventional wisdom as have these Pats. They were among the preseason favorites to win the Super Bowl. As of now in Vegas, they're THE favorite. They were prohibitive favorites to win the AFC East. They've already done that. They were supposed to have one of the league's best offenses. Take away the words "one of" and there's another trite forecast come true. The seekers of the obvious said in August that New England was integrating a goodly number of newcomers into its defense, which would result in some struggles but also in eventual improvement. If you're scoring at home, Obvious now leads by three touchdowns.

The Pats, in short, have had about as placid a season as their chaotic sport allows. Such is the power of their bland that even Monday night's game with the Texans cannot disturb it. It'll be damn near value-free entertainment. Win, and New England will be even more of a Super Bowl favorite. Whoopee. Lose, and the Pats will really lose nothing but prestige, an asset where they carry a large surplus on the books.

The New England franchise, particularly leaders Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, is famous for presenting a public front insisting that little of public interest is transpiring in its existence except on game days. Doubtless all Patriots are happy that this fall they're actually telling gospel truth, and they should be. There are only two ways to achieve tranquility in the NFL. Either win a lot, or be Jacksonville.

So what's a commentator to do? I dunno. No city is ever short of commentators eager to shout "Rah!"
for the home team, and Boston has its share. That's demeaning as well as dull. Were I still professionally employed, I'd probably have focused on the new guys. Becoming part of an already successful football team is not an easy chore, and their stories might be of some interest to fans or even just plain folks.

I know what I wouldn't do, though. I wouldn't take what is a depressingly popular role among the commentariat -- the pigskin concern troll. I would neither pick nits nor spend any time fretting over possible negative future events for the Pats as if I was one of those  anonymous "senior Democratic aides/officials/legislators" who're always being quoted in "Politico." That would be demeaning, dull AND ridiculous.

Every sports team on earth has a significant percentage of fans who live to worry. Those Bud Light commercials capture them quite well. Just like the theme music, they believe in things they can't understand, and what they believe is that doom is nigh. Their season, whatever the sport, always ends on December 21, 2012. Hey, I'm from Philadelphia, which has the highest percentage of such fans of anyplace. It took me almost 30 years of fandom to realize that's no way to root. Or live.

The paid concern trolls are catering to those poor devils. It's easy work, and can be quite lucrative. Right, Glenn Beck? But when commenting on a winning team, it requires ever more contorted intellectual gymnastics, maneuvers which leave the commentator looking as foolish as a rhythmic gymnast.

Here's a laughable notion that gained some currency this week due to ignorance, intellectual dishonesty, or both. The Pats haven't "played anybody." I'm tempted to respond "If so, how'd Gronkowski get hurt?" because that's the junior high level of retort it deserves. In sober truth, and by NFL rule, since the Pats and Texans both won their divisions last year, they were given pretty much the same damn schedule for 2012. Given that the NFC West has proven much stronger than was predicted, the Pats have had a more difficult road to hoe than conventional summer wisdom believed. It's one of their few surprises.

The whole idea is stupid anyway. Nobody gets to schedule Florida International or Wofford in the NFL. The Jets and Raiders are about as far as one can go in that direction. Know who didn't "play anybody", and caught enormous flak for it all season long? The 1972 Dolphins. History has taken a different view.

Being occasionally provocative is one of a commentator's duties. But a constant search for provocation is as tiresome as any other schtick. In my experience, readers, listeners and viewers are fond of good news. If you can't make good news interesting to others, perhaps commentary was not meant to be your life's work.

The news today is the Pats are good. It's not much news, but it's all we've got.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

In This League, Players Play

Confronted with sudden and unimaginable horror, the Kansas City Chiefs decided to go ahead and play their game against the Carolina Panthers this afternoon.

Mercenary as the National Football League may be, which is plenty, this had to be the Chiefs' decision. People cannot play professional football unwillingly, or, even worse, in confusion and mental turmoil. That'd make the significant risk of serious injury a sure thing.

So the Chiefs will take the field despite having lost a teammate to suicide one day earlier and learning said teammate had also murdered the mother of his infant child. Head coach Romeo Crennel SAW Jevon Belcher kill himself. He'll be there at Arrowhead Stadium -- site of that catastrophe of a life gone as wrong as wrong can be.

I'm not surprised at the Chiefs' decision. It strikes me as a purely human reaction to major psychological shock. Faced with trauma outside our capacity to understand, we tend to revert to what we know. The Kansas City franchise knows it has a game today. It knows it can function in the context of said game. So it will, because it can't think of anything else to do.

That's not said as criticism. How it could be, since in a far less horrific but still stressful situation I did the same thing. About 30 years ago, a loved one had a sudden and dire medical emergency. After a sleepless night at the hospital, the situation stabilized for the better, and I was told to go home. I went to work and wrote a story instead. Didn't know what else to do, but I knew I could do that.

What people know how to do is a safety zone. Doing something as complex, emotionally involving and, not least, dangerous as pro football will allow every Chiefs player to have Jevon Belcher out of their minds for a few hours, or at least, hidden as deeply as their individual consciousnesses will allow.

Small mercy, that. Better than none, though.