Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Altius, Dude, Altius As We Can Get

Like many Olympic sports, snowboarding is decided by judges. Snowboarding wasn't in the only Winter Games I covered way back in 1994, so I have no idea what the sport's judges are really like, but based on my experience with other judged sports, I can guess.

Basically, Olympic judges are officials of their sport who've been around it since childhood and don't stray too far from the stereotypes of said sports. That is, Olympic boxing judges run to the hilariously incompetent and corrupt, gymnastics judges seem to be in excellent shape for their ages, and so on. Figure skating judges were cruelly but not totally inaccurately portrayed in the movie "I, Tonya" as stuffed shirts drawn from the stuffy elites of their various countries.

So the mental picture I have of snowboarding judges is both vivid and inescapable. They are middle-aged men and women with great suntans verging on skin cancer. The men have beards, the women run to braids, and they all wear cowboys hats even if they're from some place like Slovenia. When not judging, they live in resort towns such as Telluride and Chamonix with no visible means of support.

And when judging, they are stoned as loons. Also when not judging.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

The Patriot Way of Cognitive Dissonance

It is best to cut a bit of slack to NFL franchises that have just lost the Super Bowl. Everyone drawing a paycheck from it is in the grips of severe depression. They're a little to a lot off balance, and apt to say and do things they will regret come, oh, April.

But there's cutting slack, and then there's ignoring objective reality. The idea that the return (did he leave long enough for that to be the right noun?) of Josh McDaniels is a signal all will be well in Foxboro next season is the latter. The idea the Patriots are a near cinch to be back in the Super Bowl next year is another fallacy. I know because it's the same fallacy on which I based my somewhat erroneous Super Bowl prediction last week.

I thought the Pats would win the game because they usually win games. Charles Schwab makes a point of saying past performance is no guarantee of future results, but straight line projection is a trap all humans fall into sooner or later. The humans associated with the New England franchise appear to have both ankles firmly snared in it. To be blunt, the Pats seem high on their supply.

Political scientist Brendan Nyhan has a series of Twitter posts on US current events in which he asks "Imagine if you saw this in another country." I ask Patriots fans to do the same. Take these events of this past week and slap the names Tennessee Titans or Chicago Bears on them.

As the overwhelming consensus favorite, the team lost the Super Bowl despite magnificent performances by its future Hall of Fame quarterback and ditto tight end. This was because its defense gave a disgraceful performance revealing some true weaknesses, most having to do with foot speed, or rather, the lack thereof.

The future Hall of Fame coach benched a starting defensive player for the Super Bowl for reasons he refuses to divulge. He allowed the player to dress and be on special teams, but kept him on the bench as the Eagles rolled off 20-yard gain after 20-yard gain. Unsubstantiated stories then were leaked to the media about said player, indicating he'd been sat down for a wide variety of disciplinary reasons. The player denied this in a social media post endorsed by a number of his teammates -- including the franchise's quarterback.

After the Super Bowl, the future Hall of Fame tight end, coming off the latest in a series of serious injuries, refused to deny reports he was considering retirement.

If Pats fans read or heard similar stories about other franchises, they'd assume those teams had some serious problems on their hands, and they wouldn't be wrong. Antoine Saint-Exupery wrote that "defeat divides" almost 80 years ago. It's still true. It's the main reason no team has lost the Super Bowl and returned the next season since the Bills did it three times in a row in the early '90s.

Now for the "good" news. The offensive coordinator broke his word to another franchise and won't become its head coach after all. Tough luck on the other members of the Pats' staff Josh McDaniels recruited to join the Colts, but what matters is that New England's "succession plan" is still in place, McDaniels will replace Bill Belichick as head coach of the Patriots at some indefinite future date.

Question number one: What if that date is not two or three years from now, as is commonly assumed, but two or three weeks? There's no evidence that is true, but there's no evidence the common assumption is, either. Belichick has made sudden unexpected career moves before. It's difficult to see him walking away after a Super Bowl loss, but it was more difficult to believe he'd make a decision that helped cost his team that loss based on either inexplicable rules in Belichick's head or a terribly wrong "football decision."

Question number two. How's the Tom Brady "succession plan" coming along? If that one doesn't work, it won't much matter who replaces Belichick. I assume no member of the Kraft family is daft enough to let McDaniels, the man who made Tim Tebow a first round draft choice, anywhere near that decision. They in turn must be assuming that since Belichick drafted Jimmy Garoppolo, who's shown himself a capable starter after schooling by the Pats' coaches,  he can do it again with some other college QB, no problem.

Could be. Belichick's real smart. But creating starting NFL QBs, let alone championship caliber starters is a high-risk low percentage endeavor. You can scout talent, you can coach it up, but you can't control whether the talent is a winner and most importantly, a winner who can stay healthy. That pudding must be eaten on faith.

It took real guts for Belichick to keep Brady as starter after Drew Bledsoe was healthy again in 2001. This proved to be the rightest right personnel decision in pro football history, but if it hadn't, Belichick would be Wade Phillips today, the super valuable defensive coordinator nobody wants as head coach.

Belichick found another keeper in Garoppolo, and now he's being asked to do it again? The coach would be as inhuman as his reputation if he didn't find that demand to be on the far side of enough.

This essay is not pure contrarianism. As long as Brady can still play effectively, which NFL MVPs can be assumed to do the next season, and as long as the rest of the AFC East stinks, the Pats are not going to fall off a cliff into 8-8 Land, or even 10-6 Land. That's a far cry from the belief they have a permanent working vacation the week before the first Sunday in February.

I don't blame fans for making that assumption. They're entitled. The past is an unreliable guide to the future, but it remains the only guide we have.

No, what interests me is the "all will be well" attitude is so widely shared by members of the media who cover the Pats for a living. These men and women are not homers or softies. Each and every one is working with all their might (well, maybe not Shaughnessy or Zolak) to discover the real reason Malcolm Butler didn't play and if they find it, they'll be happy no matter whom it makes look bad.

But it was Globe reporter Ben Volin who wrote the "McDaniels is back, hallelujah" piece in the Globe today. It was Greg Bedard on Sports Hub who forecast the Pats will win at least 12 games next year and did so with evident scorn that anyone would think otherwise. Smart men, good reporters. In fact, I think they're reporting skills are at the root of their shared attitude.

To get close enough to any group of humans to report accurately on their doings, the journalist is going to be exposed to that group's attitudes and group identity on a daily basis for a long, long time. The reporter may maintain his or her own opinions and probably will, but simply doing a good job means that the group's attitudes and identity will come to inform its coverage. To boil that down, I think Volin and Bedard's opinions are strongly influenced by the attitudes and group identity of the secretive, somewhat paranoid humans who work at Gillette Stadium. If their sources within the Patriots' organization didn't think all was well, believe me, Bedard and Volin would say so.

Hey, the Pats might be fine. But if they believe they are, that makes it harder for me to believe it. Uneasy rests the head who wears the crown? Much, much uneasier should rest the heads that just lost it.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Worst and Laziest Super Bowl Prediction Post Ever

If anyone wants to read a Super Bowl prediction piece full, maybe even overfull, of actual information, mosey on over to espn.com and check out the estimable Bill Barnwell's very long column. It has insight, information I haven't seen elsewhere, and all the statistics a boy or girl could ever want.

Spoiler alert: Barnwell winds up picking the Patriots to win because Carson Wentz isn't playing. I wouldn't miss a Barnwll piece, but he needed stats for that?

Well, not to brag, but my own prediction is based on even simpler evidence than that. It's the same evidence I use all season long every season where the New England Patriots are concerned.

I am picking the Pats to win because they usually do. When you see something happen time after time, it's tough not to expect it to happen the next time. My motto as a columnist at the Super Bowl was "don't be afraid to grasp the obvious." What's more obvious than thinking the Patriots will win?

For those who need a spread guess with their predictions, I'd be inclined to say the Pats will cover as well, but I'm not married to it. They have played a lot of games this year where it was close for a half or three quarters and then wasn't by the end, and I could see that being the case tomorrow.

A pretty boring end to a less than gripping NFL season. Seems appropriate.