Friday, January 31, 2014

Oh, Yeah, the Game, Vol. 2

Preface: Sunday I will have my revenge on Roger Goodell. He can put the Super Bowl anywhere he wants. I'm going to Florida to watch it anyway, damn it!

A family celebration is actually why I'll be down there this weekend, a celebration whose pleasant requirements will keep me offline until Tuesday, when even the NFL Network will be sick of rehashing the game. But it's a poor pundit, even a former pundit, who won't make some effort at picking the Super Bowl.

Picking this one requires no effort at all. I did it almost a decade ago -- in principle, anyhow.

In January, 2005, I was in the media room of the Indianapolis Colts' practice facility ending a week of covering the Colts as they prepared for a playoff game against the Patriots. My colleague and pal Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star and I were idly discussing the NFL and the game when suddenly he asked me quite seriously who I thought would win.

"I'm sure there will be an NFL playoff game at some point," I answered, "where a team with a great offense beats a team with a great defense. I just don't expect to live long enough to see it."

I'm still here, and I still don't. Seattle Seahawks will be your new NFL champions on Sunday night.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

New Boss of New Jersey, Boss

My roommate for my freshman year at college had a theory. It was Steve's belief that there was a foolproof means of obtaining international celebrity. Just go mute. Refuse to say another word and stick to it, he argued, and you'll be the most famous person on earth within six weeks or less.

Nearly 50 years later, Marshawn Lynch has gone a long way towards validation of my roommate's hypothesis. The Seattle Seahawks running back has become the most famous/notorious person at the Super Bowl not by going mute, but simply by not saying much. Had he really clammed up, Lynch might already have been voted MVP.

Lynch did not go Trappist for sordid financial reasons. He didn't want to draw the heavy fines the NFL lays on players and coaches for failure to cooperate in the sacred process of Super Bowl hype. So he has attended the mandatory sessions for about five minutes of the scheduled hour, and spoke a few sentences about how weird he finds the whole thing and how he doesn't really want to speak to the media.

Lynch also, at least to my eye, appeared stoned as a loon in his brief interview with Hall of Famer and professional clown Deion Sanders at Media Day. I doubt he was, but if so, congratulations, Marshawn! First sensible idea about Media Day anyone's ever had.

Lynch knew the audience he didn't want to address. Nothing gets the sports media more interested in someone than if said someone shuns them. Before Media Day ended, Lynch, not motormouth teammate Richard Sherman, was the symbol of All That's Wrong With American Jockdom.

 Being that symbol has been a very good deal for most of the half-century I've followed sports in this country. From Muhammad Ali to Ray Lewis, the Bad Guy has been a most well-paid role. Lynch is much better known outside the football world than he was last week. If he was exploiting the media for profit, good for him. My former peers are supposed to be professional skeptics. Getting played is their bad, not his.

Of course, the babble is that Lynch's quasi-silence was one of those dread Super Bowl "distractions." So was Sherman saying too much, which appears to create a logical contradiction, but logic and the Super Bowl parted ways around the time of the first Up With People halftime show.

The Seahawks don't seem distracted. They appear to be getting a hoot out of Lynch's position. Nothing much seems to bother Seattle. It's one reason I fancy their chances against a team led by the gifted Fusspot di Tutti Fusspots Peyton Manning.

I prefer a simpler explanation than manipulation for Lynch's bashful pose. He's not saying much because he doesn't want to. His motives for that reluctance are irrelevant. I'd like to think it's because he finds the usual "insert banal quote" here structure of the average sports story as rigid and obsolete as the sonnet, but I doubt it. Point is, he's entitled to his motives and his taciturnity. Lynch is being himself. That's what sports journalists should hope for, not resent.

His few words are an inconvenience for the sports journalists engaged in hype creation, but that's all they are, and a minor one at that. What good, after all, is testimony/quotes uttered under duress?

Today was the last mandatory media session. All the players and coaches are in a cone of silence until the game's over Sunday night. I hope with all my heart Lynch spends his free time until kickoff calling his friends and relatives long-distance. And I hope even harder that if Seattle does win, and Lynch is voted MVP,. he holds the Lombardi Trophy aloft and spills his guts to an audience of millions.

I want to hear Marshawn Lynch exult, "How nice for us."

Saturday, January 25, 2014

And That's Why He's An All-American

ESPN hastened to inform me yesterday afternoon that the NFL had fined Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman the peculiar sum of $7,875 for taunting 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree in the NFC Championship Game. I hastened to change the channel.

A commercial flashed on the screen, one of those film noirish ads for that headphone brand that feature professional athletes. The athlete in this one, of course, was Sherman. In a dark, stylized rendition of a locker room he was conducting a press conference -- a press conference that was a close facsimile of the actual one Sherman gave in Seattle last Tuesday, except he had slightly better lines. Practice makes perfect.

When a questioner uses the word "thug" Sherman does not respond. He gives a sharp but sly glance, puts on the headphones and we fade to a big picture of the product and its slogan of only hearing what you want to hear.

I wouldn't guess what Sherman got paid for that ad. I'd be willing to bet $7,875, however, that it was a lot more than $7,875. Celebrity, not bitcoins, is this country's real alternative currency, and Sherman knew how to leverage notoriety for both fun and profit, especially fun. It had to be fun to make a commercial validating Sherman's not-too-hidden belief that the critics of his football rage rant last Sunday are clueless about the sport and life in these United States in general.

We will also note that a corporation making a consumer good felt a good way to sell it was to give Sherman's beliefs an approving pat on the back. For every outraged middle-aged white sportswriter, there may be 10 much younger people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds who might be convinced headphones are a fine means of projecting attitude and shutting out the world that doesn't understand them.

As a further sign of genius, both Sherman and the unknown to me ad agency that should get a big bonus hastened to strike when the bullshit controversy iron was at its hottest. Cable news nonsense nonnews has a very short shelf life. Even now, Justin Bieber is driving the Sherman "issue" off the air with tornadic power. By Monday, only Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless will still be arguing about it.

So if Sherman thinks he's smarter than most people, he may be right. I suppose many folks will be horrified or at least saddened that he was able to cash in on what was (or was it?) a spectacular loss of self-control. Myself,  as an American citizen I found that commercial oddly reassuring.

The Chinese may make more stuff than we do. The food's better in Italy and France. Pick a country and its health care system works better for more people than ours. But no other land on earth can or ever will top the U.S. in self-promotion. It is our true national gift.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Ultimate Endpoint of Pro Football Commentary -- I Hope

Today at a little after 4 p.m on ESPN's "NFL Insider"., Jerome Bettis set the all time record for sentences nobody thought they'd ever hear, nor were even capable of imagining. This distortion in the sports-space-time continuum visibly staggered his colleagues, and deserves to stand alone in a museum, but the next paragraph will have to do.

Bettis was angry. He had a complaint. "They're making a mockery of the Pro Bowl!!"

They'll be shooting at topping the glorious idiocy of that one for many years to come. Skip Bayless, you're on the clock.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Already a Long Two Weeks and It's Only Been Two Days

Americans lead sheltered lives, but not as in protected, I mean sheltered as in clinically removed from the evidence of their five senses. Otherwise, how could people be so startled to learn that important professional football games generate high levels of emotion and ill will among their participants?

Richard Sherman doesn't much care for Michael Crabtree. Bill Belichick has no use for Wes Welker. OK by me. They want to shout out their opinions to the entire world? I wouldn't, but I'm not them, am I. Go for it fellas. Shout bewildering abuse at poor (if not-so secretly delighted) Erin Andrews. Make a preposterous public charge of felonious assault easily disproven by two minutes or less of film study. Get it all off your chests. I hope it made you feel better.

It didn't make me feel anything, and I cannot see why it should. The Welker-Belichick feud is an old if mystifying one, and to see one participant on the losing side of the scoreboard lash out in frustration is no shock. If there's been an NFL game since oh, 1991 or thereabouts where receivers and defensive backs didn't engage in nonstop insult duels it's news to me. Sherman is known for maximum hyperosity on the field of play and for shrewd self-promotion. Notice how he used one to complement the other? When an athlete can subconsciously manipulate hype, that's All-Pro marketing.

Aqib Talib wasn't injured intentionally. He didn't have to be. The injuries in both the AFC and NFC championship games were constant and in the case of NaVarro Bowman, horrifying. This deplorable reality didn't get much post-game attention, because it's depressing. Offenses against the dead-for-several-centuries-now ideals of sportsmanship allow for outrage and weighty essays on the meaning of it all. Acknowledging that a sport built on violence and pain both attracts people who're somewhat out on the edge and keeps pushing them further out there as they pursue it spoils the fun.

Neither Belichick nor Sherman are wholly admirable individuals. Few of us are, me most definitely not. But they had the honesty to reveal one very human side of the NFL. It's no place for the ethos of the Victorian English public school. Its inhabitants have a harsher code. They must.

There's a lot of unseemly behavior in pro football. It's an unseemly sport. Those seeking decorum on and off the playing field are advised to spend the Sunday after next watching the Phoenix Open instead of the Super Bowl.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Oh, Yeah, the Game

The AFC Championship Game offers a striking contrast between what Wall Street calls "retail" and "institutional" investors and what bookies call "public" and "smart" money. Among the commentariat and assorted experts around the U.S., more people are picking the Patriots to win than the Broncos. Yet out in Las Vegas, where trading volume rules, the Broncos remain 4 1/2 point favorites.

Given the very weird nature of the teams' regular season meeting, you'd think pick 'em would be the line. Allow Denver three points for its very real home field advantage and we're still left with 1 1/2 inexplicable points. I attribute that spread to the fact that Peyton Manning appears in advertisements for mass market products while Tom Brady's endorsements are most for luxuries.

The alleged expert consensus for New England would appear to rest on the history of the matchup of the two quarterbacks, ignoring the fact all but one game of it involved a different than the Broncos, and the general feeling, which I share, that picking against the Pats is an inherently risky business. Hardly scientific football analysis, that.

My own analysis is a model of cowardly vacillation. Fifty-one percent of my football brain sees the Pats winning on the belief they have a 1-2 percent better chance of hindering the Broncos' offense than vice versa. But the range of plausible scenarios runs the spectrum from five touchdown routs by either team and everything in between.

I will note the following two facts. The chance to bet the Pats getting more than four points is a rare one (eight times in the last 11 seasons, to be specific). And "retail investor" is a Wall Street euphemism for "sucker."

A Football Filled With Hot Air Can't Explode Soon Enough

The most profound and sincere compliment I can pay Peyton Manning and Tom Brady is to say how much I still love watching them play despite how sick I am of reading or hearing about them. That I know they're even more sick of hearing about themselves is of little comfort.

Players for both the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots will spend today wishing it was already 1 p.m. Central Standard Time and they could the damn AFC Championship Game already. Fellas, you have nothing on me there.

Oh, forgive me. Did I say Broncos and Patriots? I should have used the team names most commonly cited by broadcasters "Tom Brady and the Patriots" and "Peyton Manning and the Broncos." The other 44 accomplished professional athletes on each side are relegated to a second billing lower in stature than that of Gladys Knight's Pips.

Hall of Famers they may be, but the sick emphasis placed on the two quarterbacks is a travesty of football perception and in addition, very dull. Tom and Peyton haven't exactly hid their lights under the ol' bushel basket the past 10 years. What on earth is there new to say about them until they play another game? Why make the hype rubble bounce yet again?

Of course I know why. Writing a column about Manning's "legacy," as Dan Shaughnessy did this morning, is easy to do. Lazy foolish things almost always are. As an economist once said of a rival theory "that's not even wrong." Legends are legends. Look up Johnny Unitas' record against Bart Starr. Consider that Jack Nicklaus bear Arnold Palmer more often than not. What an insult to an athlete to be compared to Wilt Chamberlain!

Back in Denver, I'm sure somebody wrote or babbled about Brady in relationship to Spygate. Same difference. Something has to fill space and time, and the lame but quick way out has an undeniable appeal to the hack soul.

I am rooting for a game Sunday in which Brady and Manning are each their almost incomparable selves and the final score is 49-48 or thereabouts. I do so because the pleasure I would take in those three hours is worth the pain of the hooey I know I'll endure after the final gun.

I'm still looking forward to the AFC Championship Game despite its very worst feature. No matter what, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms can't lose. They'll have a quarterback to describe with sycophantic drool come what may.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Short Stories of a Long But Simple Game

Most football followers have believed for a long time that if Jim Brown had ever played with a Hall of Fame quarterback, that team would've scored an amazing amount of points and have been damn near unbeatable.

This banal assumption has been proven long after the fact of Brown's career. LeGarrette Blount has been the functional equivalent of Brown in his past two games, generating over 300 yards of rushing and 500 total yards. Sure enough, the Patriots have scored an astonishing amount of points with Tom Brady serving as their second offensive option, and last night anyway, appeared damn near unbeatable.

On the flip side, Andrew Luck's undeniable gifts led many people who should've known better to ignore the true story of the Colts' historic comeback win over the Chiefs. Surrendering over 40 points on defense while throwing multiple interceptions on offense is not a formula for long-term success at any time, let alone the playoffs. But when a team is giving up 40 points, its quarterback will inevitably throw interceptions based on his suspicion he needs to score on every play, never mind possession.

Conventional wisdom is a sworn enemy of fun in any field of human endeavor. But conventional wisdom gets that way for a reason. It wins more often than it loses. Last night, the CW won and covered by even more than did the Pats.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Temperate Zone Blocking

The New Orleans Saints offered further proof last night of a football fact that seems to require endless proof, as it is forgotten before the start of every season.

There is no such thing as a "cold weather" football team, or a "hot weather" football team or a "fill in your weather here" team. There are teams that can move the ball consistently on third and short and those that can't. There are teams that make tackles on first contact and those that can't. All the rest, even the powers of the sea and skies, is just so much blah to fill up pregame shows.

A team, like the Saints, can play its games in a domed stadium, and have a wretched record on the road. Its road playoff game can be in subfreezing or subzero temperatures for that matter, with howling winds to boot. But if it can run the ball, and complete shorter passes, and keep its quarterback off his ass, presto chango, it is as well suited to miserable conditions as any Northeastern or Upper Midwestern franchise in the NFL.

I get a kick every year right around Thanksgiving when the more yahooee segment of Patriots fans and commentators cite the team's outstanding historic December record as somehow related to the elements. What then, I wonder, accounts for the team's historic record of success in September? And it is possible the two facts are somehow related?

By the same token, the idea that snow, wet and cold are why the Patriots are prohibitive favorites in home playoff games is also daft. Three of New England's last four playoff losses (all but Super Bowl LXVI) were at Foxboro. All were played in the cold, and all were more or less ignominious butt-whippins'

Why ignore the obvious. The Pats have a terrific home playoff record for the same two reasons other teams do. 1. Home teams win more games than visiting teams as a matter of course. 2. To get home games, especially games not in the wild-card round, a team has to have already won a lot of games of all kinds in the regular season, meaning it's a damn good team -- period.

I think the popular assumption that weather is as important as field position or special teams in pro football comes from the common human error of relying on the evidence of one's own five senses. Let's face it. In these parts, and in many other parts of this country, January is a felonious assault on those senses. Spend a few hours shoveling snow or negotiating traffic in freezing rain and there's a natural tendency to believe that the weather must be as disruptive for football as it is for your own life.

This belief is magnified immensely among season ticket holders. How could it not be? Sitting outside nearly motionless (the real problem) in cold and/or wet for three or four hours is just the pits anyway you slice it. For the fans, bad weather changes the football experience dramatically, even dangerously. Let me just offer this friendly reminder to the good people of Green Bay this morning. Baby, it's HD inside.

 But for the players it changes only in degree, not in kind. Playing NFL ball is always a painful experience made palatable through adrenaline and exhilaration. Severe cold, or wet, or wind merely adds frosting to the hurt cake. The basic principles of the sport remain untouched. You guys with the ball, push those other guys backwards. You guys without the ball, knock those other guys down. Hurts like hell when it's cold. Hurts like hell when it's nice out, too.

 The hothouse Saints did both of those better than did the Eagles. So they won. Mother Nature didn't have a thing to do with it. When it comes to the NFL, she's as neutral as a bookie.