Monday, February 25, 2019

The Wages of Sin Are Usually Ridicule

When the high and mighty walk into open manholes, everyone else laughs. The immediate reaction, also the continuing reaction to the news that Patriots owner Robert Kraft was busted for soliciting prostitution was a barrage of off-color jokes, some quite funny. When it was known the bust involved Orchids of Asia, a very low-rent south Florida strip mall massage parlor, the barrage grew heavier, dirtier, and I have to admit, funnier.

I have no cannons of my own to join the barrage. Sure I laughed, but the whole affair makes me depressed, a sadness that grows the more I think about it. I feel bad about Bob Kraft, about wealth, about human males, of which I am one. Kraft's bust is pure yuck all the way down.

Start with Kraft himself. Let me confess I've always kind of liked him, ever since I covered the Pats' Wars of the Sullivan Succession back in the '80s when Kraft showed the real way to a reporter's heart by returning my phone calls. He has been a model sports franchise owner, learning through trial and error that football is not like regular business, and that the path to success is to hire football people you think are good at it, while focusing the owner's energy on his skill -- making money. He's made oodles of money and the Pats have won six Super Bowls. That's as fair a bargain as fans can expect.

And this is what he does for fun? Is the quest for fame and fortune so empty that it ends at the Orchids of Asia? Don't the Lombardi Trophies he can use for office doorstops provide enough of an inner glow that at age 77 he doesn't feel the need for a rub and tug in a joint no prudent man would enter without wearing a Hazmat suit?

Evidently not. Evidently great wealth breeds a sense he can do what he wants whenever he wants, and personal dignity be damned.

Also personal decency. Like any other business, prostitution comes in many forms, and the reason Orchids of Asia became a Jupiter police department priority is that its form was pretty close to slavery, with immigrant young women held against their will, helpless by their inability to make contact with the outside world that isn't all horny old men. That's not just yuck. That's an outrage that ought to shame all of us.

Why did Bob Kraft wind up there? Is he just a cheap bastard, unwilling to pay for the top-shelf courtesans he can afford to set up in their own mansions if he wishes? Maybe. I hope so anyway. It's the most flattering explanation.

The other explanation for Kraft bust is a damning one, literally so for the religious among us. It's possible Kraft knew perfectly well what the setup was at Orchids of Asia and that's why he was there. The youth and vulnerability of its sex workers were a turn-on. Degrading himself was a turn-on.

That's beyond yuck to pure disgusting.  I hope it's not so. Maybe Kraft was just horny and as stupid as that condition generally makes the human male. If that's the case, then the only punishment he will really suffer, a subsequent lifetime of being laughed at by millions, will fit his crime. I mean, I'm gonna laugh next fall when CBS gives its obligatory shots of Kraft in the owner's box at Gillette and Jim Nantz has to say something. How could anyone not?

Behind my laughter, however, will remain the dark suspicion something very much darker was going on when Kraft visited that massage parlor, a darkness for which society has never found a punishment. Worst of all, society's never even tried.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

There's a Limit to Even Mad Science

Mark Geragos must be a pretty good attorney. It doesn't matter how much Colin Kaepernick got in his settlement with the NFL. To force a settlement from a league that took Tom Brady to the appellate courts over the air pressure of footballs takes some quality lawyering.

Geragos, however, may not have equal gifts as an NFL pundit. His statement that NFL teams now considering hiring the Nike martyr as a QB included the New England Patriots inspired this reporter to a spit take on the old keyboard. My first thought was Garagos must be related to somebody big in Boston sports talk radio.

"Consider," however, is a verb with many meanings. It could mean Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick discussed signing Kaepernick long into the night last week. It could also mean some drunk came up to  a Pats PR intern in a bar on Route One, asked him about Kaepernick, and the kid very properly refused to say anything. Amazing NFL rumors, ones far bigger than Kaep-to-Pats, have been started in just such circumstances.

Let's acknowledge that if Geragos wasn't just talking through his hat, his consider is probably close to the second meaning, not the first. But before I dismissed it as an impossibility, I remembered that Belichick has given tryouts to two other controversial (for strictly football reasons) quarterbacks who were otherwise unemployable in the NFL -- Tim Tebow and Doug Flutie.

In each case, Belichick did so not out of team need, but out of his own desire to weigh every possible option for his football team, or even for football itself. He didn't want to see Tebow leave the NFL without seeing for himself if he could find some way to employ Tebow's, uh, unique skill set. In the event, he couldn't, which Tebow took as advice to take his dreams to the Mets.

I firmly believe Belichick signed Flutie and kept him on the Pats' roster solely to have him try a drop kick in live action. Bill was much younger then, more willing to take a harmless flyer out of pigskin whimsy.

It's not impossible to believe Belichick has thought about signing Kaepernick because it's impossible to imagine him not thinking about any aspect of pro football that comes up or has ever come up. So let's play a little game. What possible circumstances could make New England think Kaep was worth the inevitable bullshit that'd surround his arrival? How could he help Belichick win games? And do these scenarios have any connection to reality as it exists at Gillette Stadium?

The most obvious thought is that Belichick wants to see if Kaepernick could be an upgrade over Brian Hoyer as Brady's backup. This has some connection to reality, but there's never been any suggestion anyone in the organization, Brady most importantly, is in any way unhappy with Hoyer. When it comes to quarterbacks, the Pats have adopted the policy the Colts had with Peyton Manning, as elucidated by offensive coordinator Tom Moore. Asked why Manning's backup saw almost practice time with the first string, Moore replied, "if 18 gets hurt, we're fucked, and we don't practice fucked." Unless Hoyer himself is unhappy, and why should he be, it's unlikely Kaep would be hired just as a backup.

Except for another unless. What if Belichick has decided that the 2019 college quarterbacks do not include any he wants AND can get with New England's draft spots? Then he might think of Kaepernick as a future bridge, a guy who could start while some yet-to-be rookie is groomed upon the unthinkable disaster of Brady retiring.

That's a plausible idea except for Brady retiring part. Tom's a terrible dissembler who can't even keep a poker face, and his every word indicates he's not leaving any time soon. That could change if he was faced with long-term rehab of a serious injury, or if the Pats suddenly declined to a 9-7 bunch, but those are long shots no coach would waste time preparing for.

So all in all, my personal guess is that Belichick HAS thought about Kaepernick, more than once, too. Kaepernick's good seasons showed a lot of skills, including the icy night where his 49ers won at Gillette in 2012. One thing about spending every waking moment on football thoughts is that it gives Belichick time to consider all sorts of such thoughts, from the concrete and immediate, to blue sky daydreams.

Geragos may have invented Pats' interest in his client, but it probably wasn't a lie, just a lucky guess. Well, kind of lucky. The bet from me is that Belichick spent about 20 minutes sometime since the Super Bowl considering Colin Kaepernick. He probably drew something on a napkin, or even pulled some tape from the Pats' library.

Then Belichick said to himself, "oh, fuck no!" and went on to consider something else.

Monday, February 04, 2019

Offense Gets the Glory Even When It Doesn't Deserve Any

Tom Brady was voted the MVP of Super Bowl 49. Afterwards, he gave the car that comes with the award to Malcolm Butler, whose end zone interception made him the Patriots' Super Bowl hero if not its MVP.

Julian Edelman was voted MVP of Super Bowl 53 last night. If he's got any class at all, nobody but members of the New England defense will ever get behind the wheel of his car.

Edelman had a fine game, catching 10 passes for 140 yards. And the Pats scored 13 points. If yesterday morning you had asked anyone on earth aware of the NFL, Bill Belichick included, what would happen in the game if the Patriots only scored 13, and they'd have answered that the Rams win it going away.

Didn't happen, because LA only got three points, and barely made those at that. Ask the same anyones on Sunday morning what's the final score if the Rams have 3, and all of them would have responded, Pats win by like 42-3.

That didn't happen either. Two of the highest scoring teams in one of the highest scoring years in NFL history combined for the lowest point total in Super Bowl history in an astonishing display of defensive prowess. And after watching it, the NFL gave the MVP to a wide receiver.

No offense to Edelman meant, but the Pats would've won this game if he hadn't been on the field at all. They'd have won if Brian Hoyer had played quarterback instead of Tom Brady. New England's defense was that good, and it had to be, because the Rams defense was almost its equal. The Pats came about six inches from a goal post of pitching the first Super shutout.

Offense is timing, and defense is about destroying timing. Has their ever been an offense who watches were as unsynchronized as those of the Rams? By the end of most pass attempts, poor Jared Goff looked like an unprepared student thirty seconds away from the final bell of his final exam. Not until the Pats were trading space for time late in the fourth quarter did LA look like it had a passing chapter in its playbook.

(To be just, Goff and the Rams had a handicap. Can we dispose of the blatant lie that Todd Gurley's been in excellent health the last three weeks? Teams do not put their best offensive player on part-time duty in the Super Bowl unless said player is hurt.)

Stephon Gilmore was as dominant as a cornerback can be. He didn't get the car. Tre Flowers, Dant'a Hightower, Devin McCourty, they didn't get it either. It isn't so much that Edelman's award was an injustice, it was merely incorrect. It's the symbolism that counts, how the award shows the 21st century pro football mindset. Faced with a game where offenses did very little and defenses almost everything, the NFL reaction was to pretend an offensive player was its leading difference maker.

Worse yet, 90 percent of America's football fans did worse than hate the game, they ridiculed it. In my own little Super Bowl viewing groups there were jokes about the punters (both Ryan Allen and Johnny Hekker were excellent, and take my advice, never joke about punting to Belichick). Jim Nantz was making fun of the game in the third quarter. The immediate national consensus about Super Bowl 53 was, what a boring game.

I don't get this. If the seventh game of the World Series is 0-0 going into the eighth, nobody says that's boring. A 1-1 tie in the last five minutes of a Game Seven Stanley Cup Final would have fans throwing up with tension, not cracking wise about their ennui. Why should football be different? Why is excellence from 11 players on one side of the ball lionized, while equal excellence from the 11 guys on the other side derided?

Touchdowns are more exciting than punts, sure. But if the game develops to a place where your punter is the most important man on the team, why not celebrate him if he does well? Three and outs are not engrossing in and of themselves, but when they pile up, as they did to both teams last night, it means some people out there are playing great football.

The entire Patriots defense was the collective MVP of Super Bowl 53. They just have an average, no, just a good game and Aaron Donald's on his way to Disney World as I write this.  Oh, who am I kidding. Rams win 17-13 and Goff would be MVP. That's how Eli Manning won two.

As I have said before, I played defense in high school. I am prejudiced. But if there isn't SOME collective award for the New England defense, we ought to invent one. Best defensive performance in a Super Bowl. Ever.

My horrible suspicion is that the award for the Pats' Super Bowl D will come at an owners' meeting this offseason, when yet again the rules will be altered to give the offense still more advantages, to create more scoring for the NFL's increasingly jaded audience.

Forget the car. The reward for Super Bowl greatness on defense will be the league trying to make sure it never happens again?

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Past Performance Is No Guarantee of Future Success, But It's a Good Way to Bet

One of my brothers e-mailed me this week asking for a Super Bowl prediction. He himself said he was picking the Patriots because of "experience." And so am I, but not because of their experience, because of mine.

I am picking New England to win over the Rams today for the simplest of reasons. I'm a prisoner of my own five senses. I've seen the Patriots win almost all the time for 18 years now, and that has had a strong effect. Human beings see what they expect to see. They expect to see what they've seen before. I'm no exception.

Some sophisticated analysis, huh? Dedicated readers if I have any will note it's the same rationale I used to pick the Pats in the last Super Bowl, and the one before that, too. Come to think of it, the only Pats' Super Bowl where I didn't fancy their chances was the one against Seattle. They won that one. Teach me a good lesson. Won't make that mistake again. If I'm gonna be wrong, I want company.

After almost two decades of seeing an NFL team compile a record where its big game losses can be counted without using all one's fingers, I approach every Patriots game the same way. From season opener to Super Bowl, I NEVER really expect them to lose. When the Falcons led 28-3 in Super Bowl 51, and the Pats' fans at the party I attended were ready to jump off the apartment balcony, I said, "not over yet." I was right, too.

Of course, the Pats do lose. I said "not over yet" when Tom Brady was strip sacked in crunch time in last year's Super Bowl, and I was wrong. I was also surprised. That is my invariable reaction to a New England defeat. And it should be. The Pats have won roughly three out of every four games since Brady became the starting quarterback in 2001. That's one hell of a lot of autumns and winters watching win after win, some stirring, some historic, most pretty routine. Roughly once a month I'd see a loss. How can I deep in my heart conceive of any outcome this evening but another wretched Bob Kraft speech holding the Lombardi Trophy?

In a solid result for human nature, the true serious analysts of the NFL amongst the media have almost all picked the Pats, and when one cuts through the stacked boxes, 11 personnels and the like that clutters their prose, their reasoning is the same as mine. New England will win because, well, because that's what happens.

This effect is so powerful it can rewrite actual history. I have noticed that not just in Boston's media, but throughout the NFL world, you'd think the Pats had beaten the Eagles last year. That game has been memory holed. It doesn't compute. And a lot of this season, has been forgotten too, at least the awkward parts like New England getting run off the field by the Lions and Titans, or even more recent events. The Pats gave up 24 points in the last quarter of the AFC championship game, and there has been more than piece written on how their defense was the key to victory against the Chiefs.

On paper, or perhaps I should say on pixel, the Rams are one of the strongest opponents the Pats have faced in their nine Super appearances. The number crunchers supreme at Football Outsiders took all their stats I will never understand, ran a gazillion simulations, and had the Pats win 50.1 percent of the time. That's a true pick 'em matchup, or it would be if one of the two teams didn't already have a wing under construction at the Hall of Fame.

There are people outside the Ram organization who have picked them to win today. Two such worthies place seven-figure bets in Vegas to back their choice. I wonder if deep down they expect to cash those tickets, or if they are the type of plunger who must buck the crowd some what may, telling himself he's found another overlay.

I am not so bold, nor definitely so rich. Contrarianism is fine for talk radio, but not so hot as an investment strategy. My brain and spirit tells me that dynasties get that way because nobody expects them to win more than they do and no one is more surprised when they don't. Victory is a habit, just like sound pass blocking technique.

I suppose a critic could say I'm picking the Pats because I'm lazy. It's the line of least resistance to the nth degree.

Maybe so. But one thing I've learned about the NFL. The line of least resistance is often the shortest distance between two points. And one championship.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

The Relevant Question Is, Who Will Be the Greatest Player of All the Time from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m Tomorrow?

Tom Brady is now called the Greatest of All Time as a routine honorific, like Sir Nick Faldo or how Bruce Springsteen inherited the title "Hardest Working Man in Show Business" from James Brown. People say it and don't think about its implications. It is not denigrating Brady in any way to say that this title is as much about how people view history as it is about his two decades of sustained excellence. It's even more revealing about how we see pro football in 2019 as opposed to how it was seen in 2009, let alone in 1969.

Perhaps the best way to make this point is through a series of questions and attempted answers, with questions in increasing degrees of complexity.

Is Brady the greatest quarterback of his time, a very long time now? Sure. Hell, yes. Nobody argues this point, not even his peers who're also gonna be Hall of Famers, like Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees.

Is Brady the greatest quarterback of all time? He certainly has a very strong case, but so do previous contenders for this mythical and pernicious distinction. Joe Montana never lost a Super Bowl nor threw an interception in one, and played under rules that exposed the QB to much more physical mayhem than today. Johnny Unitas was commonly regarded as the greatest when he played under rules allowing even more mayhem, where receivers where subject to hits on every play that'd earn a DB a suspension today. Otto Graham played 10 seasons and started 10 championship games. He went 7-3 and each loss was to another Hall of Fame QB (Norm Van Brocklin and twice to Bobby Layne).

Then there was Sammy Baugh, the first passing QB, who threw a ball that more resembled a cantaloupe than the regulation Duke of today. Baugh's era also had all players, even the biggest stars, going both ways for the full 60 minutes. One year he led the league in passing, interceptions as a defensive back, and in punting. Could Brady do the same? We'll never know, because neither he nor we are going back to 1943, thank goodness.

The only sane way to weigh the evidence of the preceding three paragraphs is to acknowledge that pro football has changed so much from era to era that cross-era comparisons just aren't possible. Brady himself said earlier this season that the sport had changed dramatically just from the early years of his career. "It's more of a skills competition now," he said.

Just so. Bit by bit, year by year, NFL rules continue to change to favor scoring, passing, and well, playing quarterback. There has never been a higher value placed on Brady's skills, accurate passing, nimble footwork and instantaneous recognition of defenses. Could Baugh or Unitas have done the same. Again, we'll never know. Therefore, we shouldn't care.

Is Brady the greatest NFL player of all time? We're now into the realm of the unknowable, of the actually impossible to discuss, let alone know. There are more than 25 (counting special teams) different positions on a football team, and there have been some chaps who've been as or more dominant at their jobs as Brady has been at his.

Is Brady better than was Jerry Rice? Jim Brown? Lawrence Taylor? Joe Greene? Deion Sanders? John Hannah? He's a quarterback, and quarterbacks have been the most important players on a team since Baugh came along, but "most important" isn't the same as "best." Without Bart Starr at quarterback, the 1960s Packers aren't a dynasty, but Vince Lombardi called tackle Forrest Gregg the "best" player he'd ever coached.

Back in 2010, midway through Brady's career to date, NFL Films assembled a board of experts and ranked the top 100 players of all time. Brady wasn't number one (he came in at about 20th, give or take a few spots). Neither was any other quarterback. At number four Montana was the highest rated at that position. Rice got number one, an error, since Brown, number two, was the obvious "right" answer to an unanswerable question. Yes, that's 14-year old me writing that last sentence.

Those rankings reflect one of pro football's hidden but very real in-house biases. Quarterbacks are football players, except they're not quite seen as total players. It's not the same disdain given kickers, but it's the same principle. Quarterbacks are protected. Most players aren't. They are given special exemptions from the game's unending violence, both by rule and custom. There's no "roughing the guard" penalty. If a running back or tight end slid to avoid contact on a play (to do it to maintain possession is kosher) they'd be blackballed as surely as Colin Kaepernick.

 It is very notable that non-QB players have much esteem for how a QB can accept the physical punishment he does get, which is still considerable whatever Rodney Harrison tells you. Brady scores highly among his peers in this area due to his longevity (his ability to duck and cover never gets enough credit). He's a tough guy and respected for it. But somewhere in the back of every lineman's mind is the thought, "we never hear about a dead quarterback's skull being cut open in a CTE study."

That attitude is unfair. Quarterbacks don't make the rules. Nasty old billionaires do. But if there's such a thing as a just bias, this is one. In a game of horrendous physical risk, those protected from that risk must work to be seen as part of the gang. Why do you think quarterbacks buy Rolexes and such for their offensive lines?

The outside world has the exact opposite bias. We are quarterback centric, translating "most important" as "therefore must be the best." The very first time they let fans vote for Super Bowl MVP was Brady's first victory against the Rams. He was MVP, and spent his entire postgame press conference accurately arguing he didn't deserve it.

The outsiders bias has only gotten more intense as football has changed in the 21st century. One of the first lessons to learn about history is that our thoughts on the past are shaped by the present we live in.  Quarterbacks have never been more important in the NFL than they are today. They might as well name the MVP award that'll go to Patrick Mahomes tonight the MVQ, because no other position gets it. So many jump Brady, the best QB of his time, to the head of the best player of all time queue not because he's great, which he is, but because he's a great Q.

Bill Belichick will go to his grave without answering the question, which was the best player you coached, Brady or Taylor. Some reasons for that are obvious, but I like to think that Belichick wouldn't answer because his deep knowledge of football history lets him know the question is irrelevant, not really a question at all.

Been a tough quiz so far, so I'll close it with an easy question, the only question at issue in the here and now that won't be history for a long time to come. Is Tom Brady a great enough QB to be on the winning team in Super Bowl 53?

Sounds as if the ayes have it.