Sunday, January 31, 2016

Complacency Is a Hobgoblin of Minds Little and Big

Most Patriots commentators, national NFL commentators and many New England fans have spent the past week executing a difficult and curious two-step opinion dance. It's a dance fraught with peril for their peace of mind come autumn of 2016.

Step one is the universal shower of second-guessing that follows a close loss by the home team in any home town in any sport. Since a loss could hardly be closer than what the Pats suffered against the Broncos in the AFC title game, the second-guessing has been proportionally extensive. Questioning and even criticism has been directed at Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, let alone the poor unfortunates of the New England offensive line.

So far, so normal. One week from tomorrow, we'll hear the same sounds emanating from either Charlotte or Denver. What makes the Pats-related hot take adagio unique is the breathtaking leap its chorus line makes from aggrieved complaint to calm assurance. Yeah, the team lost in the semi-finals. Don't worry. They'll be in the Super Bowl next year. It's next door to a cinch.

Airtight logic, this is not. Premise B does not exactly follow all those second guess As. But since football is only sporadically logical, the local belief that the Patriots are favorites for Super Bowl LI (back to Roman numerals next year, gang) is not a complete fallacy, either. It's just true enough to be be dangerous, a house built half on bedrock, half on sand.

Let's start at bedrock. Having been a very good team for the last 15 seasons, it's much more likely than not New England will make it 16 straight. There's no reason to believe Brady won't continue to be among the two or three best quarterbacks in the NFL. The Patriots defense is evolving from quite decent to way better than that. Its performance in the second half against Denver, when they knew damn well giving up a touchdown meant doom, was admirable to the max. Belichick doesn't figure to forget much football in the next seven months.

Pause for a few quibbles. If the 2015 Pats taught us anything, it's that the quarterback cannot sustain an offense by himself no matter how good he is. Brady's irreplaceable receivers Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman may fairly be regarded as injury prone at this point. Dion Lewis's supernatural agility made him just as valuable. Running backs returning from knee surgery tend to be less agile. And the line did allow Brady to suffer more than one beating, although none as thorough as the one in Denver.

But those are quibbles, not red flags. Line the Pats up as is next year, which they won't be, and they're still a double digit winner, tougher schedule (goodbye, Jags, Titans, and the NFC East, hello, Bengals, Steelers and NFC West) and all. Anyone saying New England is AMONG the favorites to be AFC champions next season may stand on 17 with as much confidence as 17 warrants.

It's the next step where the Pats' forecasting dance takes a pratfall, the big leap where we are assured that New England will succeed because it will have no other real rivals in the AFC. The Broncos won't have a quarterback, the Chiefs have Alex Smith, the Steelers always have cap problems, etc., etc. And of course the Pats will win their division with ease because the rest of the AFC East will stink as it always does.

(For the record, New England didn't exactly breeze through its six divisional games in 2015. The Pats went 4-2, both losses coming when a win would've given them number one seed for the playoffs, and only one game, home against the Dolphins, was less than close).

That the Pats will stand far above their AFC rivals is a premise based on 15 facts not in evidence, the 15 other teams in the conference. No one knows, not even they, what kind of teams they'll put on the field next year. Some will be about the same, some will even be worse. But some will be better, count on it, and one or two might be much, much better.

In 2014, the Carolina Panthers won their division with a 7-8-1 record, won a playoff game because the Cardinals had to start Ryan Lindley at quarterback, and were duly eliminated by the Seahawks. It's safe to say they weren't among the Super Bowl favorites last August. They weren't favorites in their division, the Saints and Falcons were.

The Panthers are 17-1. They were the best team in the NFL in the regular season and are strong favorites in Super Bowl 50 -- an opinion as justified by the known facts as any sports prediction can ever be. As it turned out, prognosticators should've paid more attention to Carolina's five straight wins at the end of the 2014 regular season than to the team's overall mediocrity.

No blame should be attached to that miss. All predictions are based on the past because time doesn't work any other way.  However, that's also why predictions should be made with diffidence, not confidence. A prediction about a football season eight months from kickoff should probably not be made at all.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Many Enemies, Much Honor

My daughter Hope is living in Bordeaux, France, and last Sunday she went with some friends, both American and not, to a sports bar to watch the AFC Championship Game (the NFL is a minor interest there, kind of like rugby, which the French adore, is here). She wore the Patriots' stocking cap I bought her for Christmas.

Googlechatting with her mother, Hope said, "I was the only one there rooting for the Patriots, and everybody else even the French hated them. Ask Dad why that is."

All questions from children should be so easy. "Ask Hope how she feels about the Yankees," I responded.

"Nobody boos a bum," Grantland Rice wrote in a poem over 70 years ago. "Haters gone hate" is the 21st century saying, but it expresses roughly the same sentiment. No haters ever have or ever gone hate an 8-8 football team or an 79-83 baseball team. Only success, repeated success, generates enough resentment to create the moronic and demented thinking that leads to sports hatred on the grand scale.

To take a couple of particularly dumb random examples, it is only their status as historic champions that led subsets of golf and NASCAR fans to insist that Phil Mickelson and Jeff Gordon, each a devoted family man with a stunningly beautiful wife, were in fact gay.

Or take a person New England fans have been known to hate -- Peyton Manning. Manning has become an example of how absolutely nothing a sports hatee can do short of rescuing children from forest fires can earn the good opinion of haters. A decade ago, Manning was shattering NFL passing records on a daily basis, but he was a choking dog because of his team's playoff losses. In 2016, the Broncos are in the Super Bowl after two playoff wins, one an upset, but Manning is still a bum because look at his lousy passing stats.

The Patriots make a great hate target. Start with Bill Belichick. He is an almost typecast evil genius. If only James Bond villains wore sweatshirts, Belichick would have his post-coaching career all set. The mumbled wiseass press conferences, the, uh, creative approach to the NFL rulebook, the general air of paranoid secrecy, every element of Belichick's coaching style is designed to drive opposing fans into a frenzy composed of equal parts fury and envy. And that image is starting to affect Belichick, too, at least a little. He is absolutely more of a jackass to reporters than he was in the early 2000s when I covered him. He was soft-spoken then, but he didn't mumble.

Then there's Tom Brady. Brady is a good villain precisely because he is almost a caricature of a fictional football hero. From matinee good looks to supermodel wife to carefully tended "aw shucks" image,  Brady is every resentment every defensive player has ever had about quarterbacks brought to life. In wrestling terms, he is the ultimate babyface. Who among us hasn't cheered at least a little on the inside when a babyface gets hit from behind with a folding chair?

On the Boston Sports Media message board, one fan, a perceptive one, once posted of Brady, "Can you imagine how much we'd hate the guy if he was on some other team?" I cite this fan not just for his honesty, but as a good example for other Pats' fans. To put this as kindly as possible, many of them have become the number one reason other fans hate New England.

Champions may be many things, but never, ever can they display self-pity. The orgy of paranoid self-pity on display among followers of the 2015 Patriots was irksome to neutrals,. and absolutely designed to make rooting against New England a must for fans of 31 other NFL teams. Do you know how unlikable you have to be to have other people be on Roger Goodell's side in a dispute?

Deflategate was an inane waste of time and money over a rules violation so minor as to be unknown prior to the controversy. All it did was prove Goodell's incompetence yet again, which is akin to conducting a billion dollar experiment on the law of gravity. But instead of scoffing from day one, Patriots fans, who it must be admitted were taking a cue from the foolish stonewalling of the franchise itself, reacted as if accused of participation in the Lindbergh kidnapping. Ignoring the many other teams Goodell has fucked over with his arrogant bungling, too many Pats fans saw their heroes as unique victims of a vicious conspiracy. Everybody hates us!

Saying that last sentence over and over is an excellent way of making it come true. Who could blame a Titans fan, should such exist, for noting the latest Lombardi Trophy in the Foxboro case and saying. "Get over yourselves, you jerks!"

Packaging the 2015 Pats' season as the Revenge Tour, which many fans and sadly, media members did was a surefire means of getting every other fan base eager to see New England take a hard, hard fall. During the Pats' 10-0 start one wished for at least one fan to point out that maybe when one is turning the 1972 Dolphins into sentimental favorites, rooting for the home team has taken a dark turn.

Look folks, it is demonstrable fact that the New England Patriots test the outside of the rules envelope as a matter of policy and this has led to broken rules. So what? The NFL has far too many trivial rules of game process, probably to compensate for its inability to protect players from the consequences of the sport's violence. Hitting a defenseless receiver in the head gets a 15-yard penalty, but as we learned last Sunday, so does staying out of bounds on punt coverage. Given this innate absurdity, why get bent out of shape if others call you heroes cheats?

The neurosis of Pats' fans that requires them to believe their home team actually ARE heroes, perfect in perfect in deed and thought, is now also demonstrable fact, a regrettable one. It gets their favorite team a bad rap it doesn't deserve. It makes the game less enjoyable for Pats' fans themselves. Strangest of all, it ignores the sports history of Boston itself.

Down by North Station, the city put up a statue honoring sports' ultimate heel, a genius who made villainy an art form, a man who reveled in the hatred he generated and who got his teams do the same. How many of the green and white banners in the Garden rafters are there because Red Auerbach taught the Celtics that hatred should be a source of pride and that villains have more fun? At least a couple of them, I believe.

So the Patriots are villains. All that really means is that they win a lot. If it wasn't Spygate and Deflategate, the world west of the Connecticut River would have some other reasons to hate them, trust me. Don't be paranoid about that, take it as your due.

Remember this. Nice guys don't always finish last, but for every sentimental favorite who grabs a trophy, 100 heels win big.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Boston Sports Demographics -- An Insight

The suburban liquor store was empty enough at 2:30 p.m. today that the manager was able to chew the fat with a younger guy with a fabulous tan who was clearly a distributor's rep. They were talking sports, and the rep joked he'd be able to score Super Bowl tickets if the Pats won the AFC title game.

Tickets are never a joking matter for long in this town.

"No, really," said the younger man, "for us, getting Celtics tickets is easy. Bruins tickets are hard, real hard."

Not wanting to disappoint a good customer, the rep offered some advice. "You probably ought to talk to one of the beer guys for those," he said.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

First Thoughts on AFC Championship Game

1. It's the old couplet, "Offense gets the glory, defense wins the game."
2. Ever wonder why they have so many big buildings in Las Vegas? Patriots minus three should be a hint as to the answer.

Friday, January 22, 2016

A Caution to Patriots Fans: Consider the Oddity of the Odds

Nobody likes the Broncos this Sunday, well, almost nobody.

Among the NFL commentariat, opinion is as near to unanimous as it gets. Thousands of voices and word processors from coast to coast, from highly knowledgeable observers down to Skip Bayless, are of one mind. The Patriots will defeat Denver in the AFC Championship Game. It won't be difficult for them and the score shouldn't be close. In fact, I had to leave the country to find a forecast of a Broncos victory -- by Paolo Bandini, the NFL writer for the British newspaper "The Guardian."

Let the record show I am wholly behind the tide of conventional wisdom. Because Peyton Manning can no longer throw with consistent accuracy, the Broncos' offense does not generate big plays and the Pats' offense sure does. My expectation is that the game will resemble the Patriots' win over the Chiefs. New England will build a quick early lead and let Denver futilely try to "chase the game" to use the British soccer term. The Pats should win by between 6-10 points and there's considerable upside potential for the spread to be more than that, or much more.

I have only one qualm about that forecast. A group of mostly anonymous folks who have the most direct stake in the game's outcome aside from its participants disagree with me. This dissent from conventional wisdom comes from an unexpected source -- the bookies of Las Vegas.

These worthies made the Patriots a three-point favorite over Denver early this week. That spread has not budged a fraction, even though it is reported that over 80 percent of wagers on the game have been by New England bettors seeing an easy overlay.

According to classic gambling theory, that's not how the spread is supposed to work. Books are expected to use the spread to equalize wagers on both sides of an NFL game, thus guaranteeing themselves the five percent profit from their commission on each bet. Most of the time, that's how the spread does work. But not always. It's the bookies' spread to set as they see fit, after all. Sometimes, the oddsmakers think the public is full of it, and set the line based on their own collective opinion. As is said, they take a position.

Bookies aren't actuaries. They're gamblers. Books take a position for the same reason JP Morgan Chase does more investing than just borrowing money at low rates and lending it at higher ones. More risk equals more reward. If five people bet $11 to win $10 on the Broncos and five do the same on the Pats, the book makes a guaranteed $10. But if eight of the 10 bet on New England and Denver covers, the house makes $68.

Of course, if New England covers, the house loses $58. So for the bookies to take such a strong stand against public money in a high-profile, high-wager volume tilt as the AFC title game, they must have a strong opinion indeed that Denver's chances are far better than we conventional wisdomites assume.

Whenever my forecast of a sports event differs significantly from that of the boys in Vegas, I get twitchy. It's not a question of "what do they know that I don't?" There's no fact about this contest that isn't in the public domain. There isn't a fact about this contest fans aren't sick of hearing about by now.

No, I'm asking myself, "why do those guys believe what I don't." Few bookmakers' guesses are just hunches. Las Vegas didn't get to be a big city by putting much faith in its own luck.

So if I'm a Pats fan, I'm asking myself this morning, "why do THEY feel lucky." And getting just the slightest bit twitchy, too.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

My Cliches Can Beat Your Cliches

If America's NFL national beat reporters wanted to make Peyton Manning the sentimental favorite in Sunday's AFC championship game between the Broncos and Patriots, they're doing a damn fine job of it. Even the most devout Manning-hater, and as with any great athlete in any sport there are plenty of them, would start pulling for the guy if he had to listen and/or read the dismissals of Manning and his team these guys have been throwing out there since last Sunday night.

There are two schools among national pro football reporters, those who deliver the conventional wisdom with "get me rewrite" breathless excitement and those who deliver the same with a sneer, as if to say, "anyone who doesn't know this is an idiot." The former now speak of Manning with patronizing pity, the latter with outright contempt. I have never met Will Brinson of CBS Sports, and after listening to his self-satisfied spiel on Toucher and Rich this morning I'm gonna make sure it stays that way.

The indisputable fact cited by these folks is that Manning is no longer anywhere near as good a quarterback as Tom Brady. This fact is no scoop. It's known to, oh, any and everyone who watched pro football in 2015. Manning should've retired last year, and has struggled so much in 2015 Papa John's had to bring in J. J. Watt and Joe Montana off the bench to help him in its commercials. Brady remains one of the top four quarterbacks in football at a minimum,. Many games this season, he was the best of 'em all.

And yet, here Manning is. He lost his starting job, then got it back. He's playing with a list of medical problems borrowed from the table of contents of "New England Journal of Medicine." One might think this would earn Manning a modicum of grudging admiration for his sunset season. For some reason, and this is indeed the fault of the sports audience, all praise has come to be associated with network broadcaster-level sycophancy. Admiring athletes is not a good career move in sports journalism except on the golf beat.

So we have the following spin cycle. Manning isn't as good as Brady. Therefore, the Broncos have no chance to beat New England. Denver's seven-point win in a home divisional playoff game was a lucky fluke. New England's seven-point win in ITS home divisional playoff game was the mark of an invincible juggernaut. The only rational basis for that assessment is that Brady had an excellent game, Manning a mediocre one.  The other 44 guys who wore Bronco and Patriot uniforms were mere window dressing, except for Julian Edelman, whose return to action was a big part of the invincible juggernaut theme.

Such is the power of NFL conventional wisdom. Cliche number one is "it's a quarterback's league."
It is the assumption on which all pre and post-game analysis is based. Like all cliches, it's based on truth. Quarterbacks are important, the most important players on their teams. Like all cliches, it contains an oversimplification. "Most important" is not the same as "all important."

This cliche, however, has utterly triumphed over the older conventional wisdom prevalent as late as the time of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. Whatever happened to "Defense wins championships" anyway?

Nobody said it after the last Super Bowl, even though the defense turned in the game-winning play. Nobody said it after the Super Bowl before last, even after the defense of the Seahawks obliterated the highest-scoring offense in league history. The sight of countless regular season blowouts where good passers have their way with average or worse defenses has driven yesterday's cliche into hiding, probably in the attic of Mike Ditka's house.

If history or common sense are any guide, however, it's the old, discredited cliche that any team wishing to beat the Pats in January or February ought to make its watchword. Common sense is a simple proposition. Betting the house on your guy, even if he's Peyton, on outplaying Brady by a significant margin is poor risk management.

History offers numbers to back common sense. In the Bill Belichick-Brady era, the Patriots have always had a strong offense, sometimes historically so. In those 14 going on 15 seasons, they have lost only eight playoff games. The total number of New England points in those eight losses is 143, almost exactly 18 a game. Only once in those losses did the Pats score more than 21 points, the 34 they put up when losing to the Colts in the 2006 AFC title game against the Manning that used to be. The enemy quarterback in one of those losses was Mark Sanchez, fair proof that any conventional wisdom is a percentage, not a law of nature.

In short, the evidence supports the notion that the way to beat Brady is what I call the Strachan-Tuck game plan. Put him on his ass as often as possible. Understand your defense is going to have to supply the big plays that turn the game. Your quarterback must move the ball, sure. Most of all, however, he must not give it back to New England. I don't think I'm giving away any of Gary Kubiak's secrets when I assert that's exactly what Denver hopes to do come Sunday afternoon.

Easier said than done, of course. The Patriots also have a defense, and although it had its troubles with Brock Osweiler (a game conventional wisdom has now decided just didn't happen), it's no stretch to envision them holding the ghost of Manning and friends under 21 points themselves.

But the last time New England won a playoff game scoring less than 21 points was in the divisional round of the 2004 season, when they beat the old Manning and Indy 20-3. We'll call that another victory for yesterday's cliche, which could yet wind up being next Sunday's cliche, too.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Silence Is an Answer, Sometimes Even a Good One

As everyone knew he would, Bill Belichick decided that clamming up and staying clammed was his best possible response to questions about Chandler Jones' very bad drug experience last weekend. Actually, it probably wasn't even a decision, just a primal response to stress.

The Pats' coach, after all, had spent previous press conferences refusing to answer a question that had no possible bearing on how his football team will perform in the NFL playoffs, namely, "hey, Bill, how'd you get the black eye?" Belichick's commitment to silence is such he was willing to appear a complete ass from coast to coast then display the slightest amount of self-deprecating humor about a minor personal accident (exercise equipment mishap is my guess).

Well, we all have our little personal quirks/demons. In the Jones case, Belichick's silence was sound policy even if based on paranoia. There was nothing he could say that would not make this weird situation a bigger story than it already was. More significantly, there was nothing he could say that wouldn't make Belichick himself part of the story. THAT was a prospect to be avoided at all costs.

I was a journalist for over 25 years, and naturally wished that all my questions received answers, preferably honest ones. But I also tried to have some empathy for those I interviewed (leads to better questions) and if in their place I wouldn't have said word one, I wasn't unhappy when they didn't. So it doesn't bother me that Belichick isn't real anxious to delve into his personal and official reactions to an important player engaging in a comically stupid fuckup shortly before a real big game.

Jones, after all, recovered enough from his bad drug experience to show up for work the next day apparently none the worse for wear. Youth, it's a beautiful thing.

But I bet Belichick knew something was up. He's Wesleyan '75 after all. Speaking as a Wesleyan '71, I can confidently state that even if the coach never had a bad (or good!) drug experience himself in his college days, he saw some, enough to remember what they look like from the outside.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The View From Injured Reserve

On Christmas night, there was an impromptu bowl game played in my Florida hotel room. Final score, Marble Tile 1 -- Gee most definitely nil. My fall cost me 10 stitches in my forehead and a fractured left wrist, which has since had surgery.

So no golf, although on the bright side it wasn't my eating and drinking hand. But I am a poor typist with all body parts intact. Typing with one hand and a head full of Percoset was simply beyond me (try holding the shift bar with the right thumb while trying to type capital A with the rest of the hand), so the Pats had to lose two straight and college football stagger through the worst bowl season in memory without my advice and counsel.

Follow-up appointment is tomorrow morning, and maybe, just maybe my cast will be removed. If so, I hope to fill this space more regularly during the rest of 2016. I don't know if readers miss me, but I miss talking to them.