Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Addendum to Last Post: The Plays Before a Funny Bounce Count Too

The Patriots need not be too mad at themselves for the double lateral touchdown that beat them last Sunday. Fluke plays are by definition something unlikely to ever happen again, even your own screwups within it. Franco Harris played 10 seasons after 1972 and never had another Immaculate Reception.

The Patriots, however, should be dismayed about the many previous plays that let the Dolphins stay within a funny bounce of victory. It's like Bob Ryan wrote about losing NBA games on bad calls down the stretch. Bad calls happen. It's your fault for letting the game be close enough to be turned on them.

New England blocked two Miami punts. A team that does that should win by 10 or more points 90 percent of the time and it should never, ever lose the damn game.

The Pats lost anyhow. They lost despite turning in about 10 game-winning plays against what might politely be called a mediocre opponent. That's what most notable about the Dolphins game.

Or do I mean ominous? No, that's still way too strong. Might not be by 7:30 Sunday evening, though.

Monday, December 10, 2018

People Hate the Randomness of the Universe. Well, Bill Belichick Does Anyway

Kenyan Drake's touchdown yesterday shouldn't have counted. Replays clearly show the band was not on the field at any time during the Dolphins' game-winning play.

As far as I can tell, we have to go back to that Cal-Stanford game of the early '80s to find another instance of a desperation game-ending multiple lateral play actually working. They may, as both Bill Belichick, who got bit by one, and the entire Dolphins team, who scored on it, be practiced and practiced against on a regular basis, but they never come to much. Well over 99 percent of the time they end in confused failure: a forward lateral, a fumble recovered by the defense, an offensive lineman getting the last pass and falling to the ground from exhaustion at midfield, etc. Compared to this play, the Hail Mary has a risk-reward ratio comparable to the quarterback sneak.

Which is only right, as the Hail Mary is much less ridiculous a last chance call. It posits one miracle, a lone receiver wresting the ball from multiple defenders. The multiple lateral depends on about 612 miracles, not the least of which is your 11 guys keeping their heads while they try to create chaos.

And yet, Drake DID score and the Dolphins did beat New England 34-33. All 612 miracles duly happened. And since luck is somewhat the residue of design, not all 612 events were miracles. Drake's part of the play was skill, outstanding broken-field running (We seldom see that phrase anymore, modern defenses don't let the field get broken much).  The Miami block on Patrick Chung was downfield blocking as fantasy for offensive line coaches.  And no, Rob Gronkowski should not have been on the field.

Overall, though, the play was indeed the miracle as touted by a million post-game highlight shows. Fluke is probably a more accurate term, but it's harder to place in alliterative headlines. Which is why any of the trillion pixels and kazillion words that will be spent on The Meaning of It All this week will be either specious, futile or both. One of the most peculiar psychological aspects of football is how no one, not coaches, players, media nor especially fans, can come to terms with the sport's oldest, truest and most fundamental cliche.

A football takes funny bounces. Pats' fans should write that sentence down a 100 times a day until next Sunday's game with the Steelers. It is the one Meaning that should but won't be taken from the ludicrous glory (oh, come on, that was a magnificent ten seconds of football) of Drake's TD. Football IS chaos, and every so often, chaos spews out a result that defies the entire science of statistical probability.

It is not going too far to say that all of football's beloved preparation, all the meetings, film study, coaching and practice, is the effort to keep chaos at bay. No team in NFL history has been as successful at doing so as the 21st century Patriots. Their collective gift for making what the odds say should happen to happen is itself uncanny. But nobody does undefeated against football's random zaniness.

Consider New England's three Super Bowl defeats. David Tyree's catch. Mario Manningham's catch. The Philly Special.  Three times as favorites the Patriots were undone by plays completely unexpected and in Tyree's case physically impossible. Those plays weren't the ONLY reasons the Pats lost those games, but without them, they win at least two and probably all three.

And in their wisdom, the Pats largely saw those bitter losses as blows from an implacable hostile universe, as the flukes they were. The franchise's well-earned and extreme self-confidence, one of the most powerful of its weapons against chaos, was not disrupted. The Patriots are chalk players. They were of course shocked and dismayed yesterday. But I don't think it damaged their core belief that most of the time, the percentages are on the side of the team which plays them best.

This is, by the way, true. New England's Super Bowl chances should not be affected to any extent by the events of yesterday afternoon. Class, what is Kansas City's January home record for the past two decades?

The Dolphins won yesterday due to another truth -- percentages are probabilities, not guarantees, and in any sport, in all of human existence, the improbable, the nearly impossible even, pops up from time to time to dismay and/or delight us all. This is as it should be.

If the football didn't take funny bounces, the sport wouldn't be much fun.