Thursday, July 28, 2016

Give Him a Problem, He's a Happy Man

Within the parameters of his press conference deadpan, which run the gamut from Buster Keaton to "traffic cop who's just pulled you over for going 90," Bill Belichick seemed almost jolly yesterday during his opening of training camp remarks. Even odder, the Patriots coach was downright candid on how he planned to handle his most obvious and serious challenge of the preseason.

You can go years between Belichick statements of policy and strategy (I know, believe me). But the coach did not hesitate to say how he planned to cope with Tom Brady's four-game suspension at the start of the 2016 NFL season. Maybe that's because Belichick thought his solution was so obvious even sports media should have figured it out for themselves.

During the preseason, Jimmy Garoppolo will be treated as if he's the starting QB. Once the suspension is over, Brady's back. Simple, eh?

But what does that MEAN. How many reps will Garoppolo take from Brady? How much of the exhibition games will he play? How will Brady prepare for a season he won't start? Belichick didn't say, and I thought the questions were a little mean. NFL coaching is a terrible job. Let the man get some enjoyment out of it. Let him tussle with issues that'll help keep him awake during what is by my count the 42nd training camp of his life. Besides, if Belichick HAD answered them, the questioners would have nothing new to report during camp themselves.

I am not so far gone as to think Belichick is anything but unhappy that Brady won't open the season in Arizona in September. Yet I do believe that a small part of his football-obsessed soul is at least piqued by the arrival of an unprecedented coaching challenge. Unprecedented but also in an odd way easier for any coach, let alone one of his ability, to address.

In the final analysis, a four-game suspension is a lost time injury for which a team can prepare. It is the equivalent of Brady suffering something like a sprained MCL during one of his brief exhibition game appearances. Pro football's SOP in that instance is "Next man up and let's go." Here, Belichick has the chance to shape that next man to his heart's content, KNOWING exactly when Garoppolo will take the step up for real.

The six weeks of tinkering this gives Belichick has to give him no little consolation for losing a Hall of Fame QB for 25 percent of the Pats' season. Judging by his demeanor yesterday, I think he's looking forward to it. And that bodes well for all 100 percent of said season.

Training camp is significant, no, essential for any NFL team. It is also very boring for all concerned. It is re-registering your car and doing your taxes for three weeks straight while sweating profusely and suffering muscle pain. Nobody loves anything more than Belichick loves football, and he once told me (and others) training camp gets real dull. The boredom is magnified in the case of a team that's been on top of the league for over a decade as the Pats have. The most diligent perfectionist (the only personality type Belichick tolerates in a player) can think they're being diligent and perfect in a tedious practice while their soul is only going through the motions.

Now consider the coach. Like I said, he's been to over 40 of these things. How can he maintain his inhuman focus day after inhuman summer day? Making practices interesting is one of the primo challenges for any coach in any sport. Less noticed but just as difficult is making those practices interesting to the coach himself.

Those challenges are no problem for the Pats this summer. The coach has a camp with a ticklish problem requiring lots of fret, infinite attention to detail, and most of all, a constant need to adapt to changing circumstances (nobody knows how Garoppolo will do. Belichick must wait to find out like the rest of us). He won't be bored. Neither will the veteran Pats. They all know damn well they have to as close to their best as possible in September. In a way, they start the season with playoff games. News flash: Professional athletes are insanely competitive people who adore being presented with just such a situation. They may fail, but not from lack of attention.

The Pats aren't better off because Brady will serve his suspension. Far from it. But they have to be a lot less bored in the next month because of it. That's not nothing. How can something be nothing if it cheers up Belichick?

Monday, July 18, 2016

Great Athletes Are So Different From the Rest of Us, Chapter 1,785,982

Phil Mickelson was about five minutes past signing his scorecard for the final round of the 2016 Open championship. That document showed that Mickelson had shot a six-under 65 at Royal Troon and didn't make a single bogey in the process.

The giant yellow scoreboard by the 18th green showed that this was not good enough. Mickelson's playing partner Henrik Stenson had shot a ridiculously superb 63 to finish at 20-under par, a total that shattered numerous major tournament records and incidentally beat Phil by three strokes.

Nobody focuses on the bright side so much as those announcers who interview pro golfers on tournament broadcasts. The chap handling that chore for NBC asked Mickelson if he took solace in  the fact he had played his best in one of the greatest final rounds in golf history (Mickelson's score for the tournament would have won or forced a playoff in 141 of the previous 144 Opens).

Mickelson's stare of blank astonishment indicated the chap with the blazer was actually a seven-eyed create from Planet Qoxxo. There was a second of silence that seemed much longer, then Lefty turned in a championship display of repressed emotion.

"No," Mickelson said. "No, you inhuman monster, I just played one of my great rounds and STILL lost the Open. How can you imagine I feel any way but bad" was what Mickelson obviously meant.

All golfers from 25 handicappers to Jack Nicklaus remember everything they ever did on a golf course. Some part of Mickelson's brain was doubtless chewing on the fact that was his 11th second-place finish in a major, and that's he even runner-up in that awful statistic, behind Nicklaus's 14 second places.

Roughly two questions later, Mickelson went on a relatively long spiel about how in fact he was happy with his game and had all sorts of good feelings about tournaments to come. It wasn't canned blah, his emotions were too raw and close to the surface for that. What might have appeared as signs of a split personality was merely the top athlete's coping mechanism in action. To survive the trauma of Troon, Mickelson's mind was jumping ahead to Baltusrol, site of the PGA Championship in 10 days time.

The second most important element of the magnificent blessing and horrendous curse of the competitive zeal at the heart of every great one in every sport is that losing hurts them so much more than it does for anyone else. Fans who think their home team's losses blight their lives are only playing at the pain which most pros live with on a near daily basis. When said top athlete is measuring himself in performances which come only four times a year, as Mickelson is the pain is more exquisite still, but for all of those wealthy famous men and women, losing is a burden so heavy it would drive them mad with frustration -- except for one compensation within their souls.

The most important element of that competitive zeal is the part, the larger part, that says after each defeat "that won't happen next time. I won't let it."

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Supremely Bored, if a Trifle Amused

It is the right of every citizen of the United States to appeal their case in litigation to the Supreme Court.

Few get to do so, however. It is also the right of the Supreme Court to tell said citizen to get lost, a right the court exercises regularly and frequently.  That's why the case of Tom Brady v. the NFL will almost surely peter out into one of the following two endings, neither satisfactory for him.

Ending 1: Brady considers the odds and decides to accept the decision of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. He cuts his losses, cuts loose from the Players' Association legal team, and serves a four-game suspension at the start of the 2016 season.

Ending 2: Brady fights on. He appeals to the Supreme Court, which has its clerks read the briefs, enjoys a hearty chuckle, and sometime after the first Monday in October when it resumes session, issues a one sentence ruling telling Brady to get lost. Sometime could be anytime. It could be that first Monday. It could be after Super Bowl 51. It could be before the final four games of the regular season, or before the start of the playoffs. Whatever time the ruling came, it'd be either really or desperately inconvenient for the Patriots.

I suppose fairness requires we consider Ending 3, in which the court takes Brady's case and we'll parse the fine points of constitutional law with Scott Zolak for months on end. I give Ending 3 one chance in 10,000. It takes the vote of four of the eight, used to be nine justices to accept an appeal. Unless half the Court has Brady in their fantasy leagues, that won't happen.

Don't know if you've ever noticed this, but Supreme Court Justices have somewhat outsized egos. Compared to them, Cristiano Ronaldo is plagued by doubt about his worth. It's not their fault, really. The combination of being really smart, having oodles of power and a lifetime job would breed an extreme sense of self-importance in any human. Our Constitution sets them up to become jerks.

Somehow, I don't see four of those folks voting to hear extended arguments involving gas laws, football air pressure, or even the finer points of the NFL and NFL Players' Association Basic Agreement. The Court likes to envision itself debating constitutional principles that could alter the destiny of the nation, not some case whose practical effect would be to give Rex Ryan and the Bills false hope of winning the AFC East.

As I said, the Justices take themselves (and to be fair, their job) very seriously. As I also said, they're all very intelligent, more than smart enough to know that taking Brady's appeal would immediately uphold the unwritten constitutional principle "America is ridiculous." It'd be a head-on slide into the national freak show. I bet we'll see Anthony Kennedy on "Dancing With the Stars" before that happens.

Brady never gives up in a game It's a big part, probably the biggest, of his greatness. So maybe he'll appeal and take his chances.

But Brady does give up on a play from time to time. We've all seen him go limp to protect himself when the rush closes in and a sack is inevitable. There's always another play coming up. Why tempt disaster.

Brady would have a lot more plays left with 12 games to go in the season than he will on the first Monday in October. Not to mention the first Monday in December.