Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A Friendly Reminder

More than one Patriots fan and local commentator has expressed surprise and not a little outrage that the spread for Super Bowl 51 is Pats giving three, and that it has stayed at that mark despite a majority of bettors in Nevada casinos putting their money on New England. One would think they would be overjoyed at seeing an overlay, but never mind.

If anyone is tempted to bet the Pats because of the spread, well, go ahead. You could be right. But I advise considering the following statistic before you do.

Nevada sports books made a collective profit in December 2016 of over $19 million. It was their 41st consecutive winning month. The last time the house collectively lost money was July 2013.

One of the oldest of sports gambling maxims, one I first heard as a teenager, is don't bet against the streak.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Meatless Soundbite Sliders with a Side Order of Blah

Many Patriots fans, sensitive souls that they are, are convinced the national sports media has it in for their team. This is untrue. All dynasties breed criticism just as they earn praise. It's part of the deal and should be welcomed by the dynasty's fans as a proof of its power.

It is true, however, that national reporters in Houston this week for Super Bowl 51 will approach New England interview sessions with a sinking sense of desperation and no little despair. When a team is in its 7th championship game in 16 years, what on earth new are you supposed to write or say about them?

This isn't an issue for New England or Atlanta writers and broadcasters. Their audience can't get enough information on their heroes and the villains on the other side of the ball. This makes for a week of hard work, but at least you know people are reading/watching that work. That's the most reassuring thing in journalism.

But for the out of town neutral media, which is about 90 percent of the total, the issue is quite different. Their audience is in two parts, stone cold pro football fans and a larger total of casual fans for whom the Super Bowl is as much social rite as sports event. Those folks want to know enough not to look like saps at parties come Sunday, but not much more. They may really be unaware of Bill Belichick's life and times except that he wears a hoodie and doesn't smile much. How to being them up to speed without boring oneself to death, or worse, repeating what you wrote/said for Super Bowls 36, 38, 39, 42, 46 and 49?

There are two solutions to that problem. You can make a pitch to the stone cold fans with the straight x and o approach. As every season is different from every other, there are some new Pats features of interest for those readers who have bookmarked Football Outsiders, know what DVOA is and pretend to know something about interior line play. In order of their important to New England's 2016 season, they are the revival of the offensive line under Dante Scarnecchia (a great quote BTW and I urge my former peers to jump on this one, it'll get one day off your schedule), the ability of the whole offense to compensate for the loss of Rob Gronkowski and the improvement of the defense after the trade of Jamie Collins. The last of those has already been done by the Wall Street Journal, but the Super Bowl is no place for originality. Trust me, with 2000 media on hand, nobody can come up with an exclusive angle.

A few national NFL beat guys and commentators will take that approach, but only a few. The others will have bosses who'll remind them that fans with a passion for that sort of thing are a small minority, and that they've been sent to Houston to drive up clicks and ratings, damn it. This will inevitably lead to the Super Bowl "controversy" non-story in which 1000 reporters all dutifully ask the same stupid questions of the same three or four people.

I don't know what Matt Ryan thinks of Tom Brady, but he'll probably hate him come Sunday after being asked to compare himself to him a bazillion times this week. Will Scott Pioli and Tom Dimitroff be asked to tell the world what Belichick is really like? You bet! Frequently.

But that'll be nothing to the biggest non-story of all. Brady, one of the all-time greats of the game, will spend the next four days evading questions on his relationships with a) NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and b) President Donald Trump.

Brady's a good ducker on and off the field, so I'm confident no reporter will get a sniff of a sack. The Goodell questions are totally legitimate. He's a player Goodell suspended four games on the flimsiest grounds imaginable. He can and should be asked what he thinks about that.

But the Trump questions to come will be unimaginably stupid and tedious. Personally, I have as much interest in Brady's political opinions as he has in mine. Don't know. Don't care. I realize celebrities who enter the political arena are fair game there, but there's a time and place for everything, and the offseason is the time to prod Brady about his life off the field, not the damn Super Bowl.

For me, it's a matter of professional pride. Any news or political reporter who asks Trump what he thinks of the Super Bowl this week (you know one will) stands revealed as a foof, a fraud, somebody cheating their audience and dodging the demands of their job with an easy out.

The reverse is true for sports journalism. Sometimes sports and the real world intertwine, as with the NFL concussion issue. A reporter must be serious, a columnist must take a moral position. But we shouldn't go dragging the real world into the mundane story of Star Quarterback Faces Super Bowl. That's just as lazy as "who do ya like Sunday, Mr. President?"

Dear distinguished former fellow colleagues. Do the hard work of trying to make the Pats more interesting to your readers than they are. Don't coast on dragging a controversial pol into the Super Bowl just because you can. Suck it up and ask Brady about Julian Edelman and Marcellus Bennett.

You'll feel a lot better looking in the mirror next Monday morning.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Boomer Esiason Is an Idiot

Boomer, who is a two-faced fraud who takes the New York point of view in his New York shows and sucks up to the Patriots, not without reason, when he comes on the air in Boston, said remarks to this effect on Toucher and Rich yesterday morning.

The Patriots should consider getting rid of Rob Gronkowski because he gets hurt a lot (true) compared to, not making this up, Eli and Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Yeah, tight ends are just the same as quarterbacks. Let me know when there's a play where Eli has to chop the defensive end split wide.

Boomer's a blowhard. I do wonder, however, what Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz, the only reason Esiason's still alive today, thinks of his remarks.

Hockey, Eh

All sports have their moments. When Nadal came back in the fifth set of the Australian Open semis, tennis was the greatest sport ever. When the Packers and Cowboys were in the last two minutes of their game, it was football. And so on.

Tonight was hockey's turn. As part of the NHL All-Star Game weekend, they had a game for old-timers and celebrities. Celebrities who forgot old-time hockey players are more dangerous than IEDs.

Hall of Fame or should be defenseman Chis Pronger saw former teen idol, Canadian and hockey fan Justin Bieber picking up the puck in the corner. He did what came naturally. He wiped Bieber out. Smashed him head first into the boards in the process.

Celebrities, heed this moment. Stick to golf pro-ams.

Monday, January 23, 2017

It's Not Like the NFL to Go to Reruns This Early

Most fans and commentators expected, or at least hoped that yesterday's conference championships would be shootouts. They got what they wanted, sort of. Most real-life shootouts usually go to the shooter who hits first.

So it was with the Falcons against the Packers and the Patriots against the Steelers. Each winning team got a 10-0 lead in the first quarter in which unsolvable problems for the losers were revealed. The Steelers could get no pass rush on Tom Brady. The Packers' secondary couldn't cover Julio Jones or any other Atlanta receiver. To have even the ghost of a chance to keep the games close, the Pittsburgh and Green Bay offenses were going to have to score touchdowns on a consistent basis, like on over half their possessions.

Every so often that happens in an NFL playoff game, and the result is a thriller fans always remember, like last week's Green Bay-Dallas game. Way more often, it doesn't. The high-scoring team with the early lead keeps right on scoring, while the trailing offense succumbs to the urgent necessity of winning the game by itself. Being down by more than one score in the first half is no worry. In the third quarter, it's a drag. In the fourth, it's deadly. Even a very poor defense (and no playoff team has that) is 50-100 percent better when all it has to do is rear back, rush the passer and wait for the turnovers a desperate offense creates all by its lonesome.

The early line on the Super Bowl, which both reflects and sets the conventional pregame wisdom as well as the spread, has the Patriots as three-point favorites with an over/under of 59 points. That is to say, it forecasts a New England victory by a score of 31-28. A shootout as the term is commonly understood -- a close game featuring much scoring.

Could well happen. Conventional wisdom always has a little better than a .500 record at its worst. But what I saw yesterday makes me wonder, and makes me very cautious about going long on Super Bowl LI at this point in time.

One of the many, many ways the Super Bowl differs from other NFL games, even playoff games, is that the time-scoreboard continuum runs at a faster pace. The desperation created by trailing by 10 or more points starts earlier. The third quarter drag becomes operative in the second, fourth quarter anxiety starts in the third, and by the fourth, well, poise and execution require almost superhuman discipline and willpower. One simple stat tells the result. In 50 Super Bowls, the margin of victory has been 15 points or more 21 times. No team, ever, has come back after trailing by more than 10 points in the second half. Some have come close, but that's all.

This possible gambler thinks it more likely that the Falcons and Pats play the kind of shootout where one team goes "bang" right out of the blocks and the other says "ya got me!" in response. If only I had the slightest notion of which team will be the shooter and the other the shootee.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

No Coach Is an Island, Even If He Owns a Home on One

It may be as soon as the Pro Bowl or not until the Giants and Patriots have their annual exhibition game come August, but when their paths do cross, Odell Beckham Jr. owes Bill Belichick a sincere thank you and hearty congratulations. The New England coach singlehandedly torpedoed Beckham's status as out-of-shape white guys' sports whipping boy of the week -- at least everywhere east of the Connecticut River.

As you may have heard, Beckham and a number of his Giants teammates took their scheduled day off last Monday with a party the night before and day boat excursion in Miami Beach. Much tut-tutting ensued. The tuts grew to thunderclap volume when Beckham didn't play very well in New York's 38-13 loss to the Packers last Sunday night. His lack of dedication to the cause is this week's what the sports world is coming to outrage.

The outrage ignores that none of the Giants played very well, even those who went home to suburban New Jersey to sip milk and study film on their days off, if any did. I'd pay good money to know how many of 'em spent their time off clubbing in Manhattan, and I'm sure it wasn't none.

No matter. In the fantasy world inhabited by all too many fans and exploited by all too many commentators for profit, losing is a sign of moral failure. It's too simple to say, "hey, Aaron Rodgers sure is good." It's so much more satisfying to tag Beckham, admittedly an emotionally volatile man, as a sinner. He was out late partying? Doesn't he know girls sap your strength?

That part of the Felger and Mazz show yesterday not spent mocking the Texans was spent dumping on Beckham. Then those on the air switched to comparing Beckham and the Giants unfavorably to the Patriots. No New England player would ever engage in hedonistic hi-jinks the week before a playoff game. It's film study and milk for them, warm milk, too. That's why the Patriots are the best team in the NFL.

The obvious counter to this argument is that just five years ago the Patriots went to the Super Bowl with a freaking murderer as an important part of their offense. Aaron Hernandez may have had impeccable practice habits, but his day-off use was somewhat sketchy.

Here's why Belichick is a genius. He came up with an even more obvious counter to the specious Beckham blather and the coach wasn't even awake when he did it.

Sometime late yesterday afternoon, a photograph of Belichick became public. On HIS day off, the coach was on the Nantucket ferryBOAT, sawing serious wood as he traveled to his vacation home, presumably with his girlfriend.

Good on ya, Bill. For a man looking to get away from it all, it's tough to beat Nantucket in January. We all recharge our batteries in different way. While the off-duty haunts of a sixtysomething are unlikely to be those of a rich young jock, the impulse is exactly the same. And so is the freedom to do it.

No honest person can dump on Beckham for spending a day off on a boat without dumping on Belichick, too. Unless, of course, you're so far gone as to believe the coach draws x's and o's in his sleep.

Belichick wouldn't do that. When he's off-duty, the coach recalls an old lost love and dreams about lacrosse.

Snidely Whiplash Needs His Own Sports Talk Show

Sad to say, the sneer has always been one form of sports commentary. Sadder to say, nowadays it often seems as if it's the only form.

The awesomely gifted and even more awesomely dedicated young men (and every now and then , their women athlete peers) who reach the top rungs of professional sports get looked down on so often, those who get paid to think, talk and write about them must live on the planet Neptune. Being humans, athletes often deserve criticism for their words and deeds. Being in a zero-sum trade, they frequently lose. But the posture assumed by their critics is distasteful in the extreme. I've made fun of Bill Belichick in my time for his habit of describing the weakest of upcoming Patriots' opponents as a roster of 45 Hall of Famers to be, but that hyperbole is closer to the truth than its opposite number in print or on the air where jocks and the teams they play for are depicted as hapless stumblebums.

Around here, the Houston Texans are the of Stumblebums of the Week. The Texans weren't as good as the Patriots this season. They almost surely won't win the divisional playoff game in Foxboro Saturday night. Too bad for them. Too bad for the rest of us, they are being subjected to an awful new American pastime -- ridiculing the underdog. They are discussed with adjectives and vocal tones of pure disgust.

This is inaccurate. The Texans are a flawed team, but they don't stink. No team in the final eight of the playoffs can be that bad. They could lose 48-7 against the Pats (and they might!) but that would be because New England played a superb game, not because Houston had some nerve showing up in the first place.

Worse yet, the sneering is dishonest. In a technique whose best-known practitioners in Boston are Michael Felger and Dan Shaughnessy, it's a setup for future sneers, the creation of a scenario where no matter what the score, the commentator can't lose.

If the Texans get massacred, the commentator will sneer some more and say "what did you expect?" If the Patriots win a close game, they will be viewed with alarm (the concern troll's sneer) until the AFC title game. Should the Texans pull the shocking upset, why then the commentator can spend the months until training camp sneering at the New England organization instead.

Don't know about you, but I find games where one side can't lose to be tedious.  Also crooked.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Chalk Dust Is Supposed to Make It Hard to See, Except This Time

Wild card weekend did nothing to alter my conviction 2016-17 has been the dullest NFL season in over 25 years. Four football games with a total score of 121-45, all of their outcomes obvious by halftime, revealed only that the eight teams participating did not get playoff byes for some very good reasons.

If Las Vegas is to be believed, and it should be more often than not, next Saturday night will be even more boring for devotees of competitive football. The early line has the Patriots as modest 17-point favorites over the Houston Texans. That's a line one usually sees for Iowa State-Oklahoma games, not the NFL divisional round. It is the house's way of giving up, a plea to attract at least a few contrarian investors who see taking big points as playing with the house's money. These are the sort of investors who trade on Donald Trump's tweets.

The Patriots are not as unbeatable at home in the postseason as many of their enthusiasts believe. Ask Rex Ryan and Joe Flacco. The Texans, however, appear perfectly suited for their role as prohibitive underdogs. Houston has a competent but hardly overwhelming defense. On offense, they boast a journeyman running back in Lamar Miller, an outstanding receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, and Brock Osweiler, a quarterback whose most impressive statistic is his bank balance. Brock will begin the 2017-18 season in second place on the team's depth chart unless Houston wins the Super Bowl.

Throughout history, there's been one immutable truth about the NFL playoffs. From Jim Brown through Barry Sanders through Odell Beckham Jr. last night, a team with a defense good enough to help it reach the postseason can take any one wideout or running back, no matter how great, out of a game. Take the 17 points if you must, plungers, but the safest bet for this game is that Hopkins will spend most his time running wind sprints alongside multiple New England defensive backs.

In 16 regular season games that included six AFC South opponents, Houston scored an average of a bit over 17 points a game. That'll win in the playoffs if the team in question is the 1985 Bears or 2000 Ravens. The chance Houston's defense will reach that level against the Pats is remote.

Remote does not equal unpossible. Turnovers, plays owing more to luck than ability or design, etc. are football's equalizers, and Houston isn't a sad sack outfit like the Jets, Rams, Browns and 49ers, to cite some random Pats' regular season victims. The Texans have enough ability to capitalize on big breaks. Too bad they need about five of 'em.

Despite the above paragraphs, I wouldn't advise betting ON the Pats. Giving 17 points is basically a declaration that you believe a team is so good bad luck can't hurt it and that this superiority cannot be affected by letting up in garbage time. Betting against both fate and human nature is risky.

Not as risky as betting only on fate and human nature though. Anyone betting Houston this week is investing on the proposition that the football won't take merely funny bounces, they'll be hysterical.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

The Case of the Less Crowded Trophy Case

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are as close as two men in a business relationship can be. Like the savants of Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation, they communicate in film study with a series of half-sentences, shrugs and half-words that speak volumes to themselves and eventually to Patriots' opponents. They owe their historic success to each other and they both know it.

Therefore, it seems cruel that Belichick might win his fourth NFL Coach of the Year award at the cost of Brady getting his third NFL MVP award.

That last actually should read MVQ, Most Valuable Quarterback. No other position is seriously considered for the honor. If J. J. Watt couldn't get it for a 2014 season where he dominated as few defensive linemen ever have, no non-QB has a shot for the foreseeable future unless Zeke Elliott runs for 3000 yards one year.

And that's the rub for Brady. He has excelled at his position, setting an NFL record with 28 touchdown passes but only two interceptions in 12 games. As you may have heard, Brady missed the first four games of 2016 due to his suspension for the Deflategate fiasco. But upon his return, the Pats won 11 of those games to finish with the league's best record at 14-2. Surely individual excellence and team success make a strong case that Brady had the most value to his team in 2016.

Maybe they do and maybe they don't. If Brady DOESN'T win the award, it won't because of anything he did or didn't on the field, it'll be due to the Patriots' success in the four games he wasn't allowed inside stadiums, the very success that is likely to propel Belichick to HIS individual award. New England, playing a backup quarterback and a third-string quarterback in Brady's absence, went 3-1. That accomplishment is the element in Belichick's C of the Y resume that separates him from a field of worthy candidates such as Jason Garrett, Adam Gase and believe it or not, Jack Del Rio.

Because his team did so well without him, Brady's superlative 2016 season will carry a nonsensical asterisk among MVP voters.  This has some slight element of fairness if Brady's being compared to Matt Ryan. The Falcons quarterback excelled for 16 games, directing by far the league's highest-scoring offense. But the fallacious logic of this year's MVP voting, and really that of all awards voting in all sports, is revealed by the fact that the third leading contender for the honor is Aaron Rodgers.

The Packers' QB finished strong, as did his team. Green Bay won its last six games to take the NFC North title and Rodgers threw 18 TDs with no picks in that span. Pretty damn valuable, you'd have to say.

Prior to that run, however, Green Bay was 4-6, lost four in a row, and Rodgers was something less than his usual outstanding self. Put bluntly, he was at the Ryan Fitzpatrick-Case Keenum marginal starter for a bad team level. It's terrific Rodgers rallied to the extent he did. Only a fool would ever knock him. But I don't get how Rodgers' actual bad games on the field aren't held against his total 2016 performance while the games Brady missed altogether are somehow a blot on his copybook.

I'm certainly not going to say life is unfair when the life in question is Tom Brady's. Besides, he could still win the MVP anyway. Awards voters are quirky folks. I oughtta know, I was one once.

If Brady doesn't get it, however, his coach and his teammates are the ones responsible. Shame on them for being so good at their jobs.