Monday, September 22, 2014

Patriots finally have a playmaking, game-changing defense, and everyone is obsessed with the offense

If you were a Patriots fan that had been living in a cave for the last 9 months, and emerged from your cave today and turned on sports radio, you'd probably panic. From the way people are bemoaning the offense, and remembering how shaky the defense has been for several years, you'd probably presume that the Pats were 0-3.

However, the defense is finally making plays and winning games. Yet the people that have been very vocally pining for such a playmaking defense, are now the ones ignoring how well they've played.

The Patriots didn't allow a touchdown Sunday. They held Oakland to 241 yards of offense, only 174 in the air and 67 on the ground. The Raiders only converted 5 of 13 3rd downs. They were 0 for 2 in the red zone. When the defense committed penalties, they weren't horrible for the situation, such as interfering with a receiver who was probably about to catch a touchdown.

Chandler Jones tipped two passes at the line of scrimmage. Logan Ryan, Kyle Arrington, and Patrick Chung all got their hands on the ball. Vince Wilfork's interception was the result of a fortuitous bounce, but when a defense gets their hands on the ball as often as the Pats did on Sunday, turnovers are bound to happen.

And even though Darrelle Revis didn't have a great game, his presence allows guys like Ryan and Arrington to be in better matchups. Revis often assumes the tougher assignments, allowing Arrington and Ryan to make plays against lower level receivers. Which is similar to what Vince Wilfork has done on the d-line, assuming tough blocks, giving other guys a chance to make plays. Ironically, Revis had a Wilfork-like game, and with the game-ending pick, Wilfork had a Revis-like game.

26.7. That was Oakland's average yards per drive. Three 3 and outs, 2 of them in the 4th quarter. The defense was great.

I'm focusing on the defense because it's been so long since we've seen a game-winning defense in New England. With the growth of Chandler Jones, the return of steady players like Wilfork and Mayo, and the relative depth in the backfield, this defense has potential to be one of the best in the NFL.

Of course, the offense was awful. The line allowed Brady to get hit too often. Brady missed throws too often. The running game got stuffed too often. Stupid penalties were committed too often, frequently at the worst possible time, such as a false start on 3rd and 10. The offense relied too heavily on Gronkowski in the red zone and on Edelman between the 20s.

When the Pats were winning Super Bowls, they found ways to win. They'd win one week with offense, the next with defense, the next with a big turnover, the next with a big special teams play. In their 21-game win streak, they beat the Browns 9-3 then a few weeks later beat the Colts 38-34. They found ways to win all kinds of games.

Time will tell if this Patriots team can win different kinds of games in different ways. At least we've seen that the defense can do it. Albeit against weaker competition and for a small sample size. It's almost as if it's still September, and having any opinion cheerfully high or bitterly low on this Patriots team based on such a small sample, would be moronic.

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

Monday, September 15, 2014

Patriots needed to win, because winter is coming


The weather was nicer, the opposing team was without their best player, and Chandler Jones. Those were the three biggest reasons that week 2 was so much more enjoyable for the Patriots than week 1.

The Patriots are 35-4 in their last 39 games after a loss. That's 90%. That's just stupid.

Chandler Jones was clearly the player of the game Sunday. Could he BE any more of a playmaker? The defense looked shaky on the first series and Jones made the only good play, shedding his blocker and blowing up a reverse. He finished the day with a pair of sacks and a blocked field goal that he returned for a touchdown.

The timing of the block was especially crucial. Instead of a 17-10 game going into the half, it was 24-7. And the Pats would be getting the ball back after the break. Any momentum the Vikings had built was knocked down by Chandler Jones, just like he knocked down the ball.

It's been years since the Patriots have featured a playmaker in their front 7. They've had DBs who could make plays, they've had solid guys like Wilfork and Mayo up the middle. I'd say Mike Vrabel was the last true playmaker up front.

This is a big year for Jones. It's time for him to form his NFL identity. We've seen the athleticism, we see he can make plays that change the game. The question is, how regularly will we see that?

The offense wasn't very good. Granted, they did not need to be good against Matt Cassel and a Peterson-less Vikings offense. The Pats were 5 of 14 on 3rd downs. They went 3 and out three times. Apart from one or two drives, there was no rhythm.

Brady looked more comfortable. He stepped around inside the pocket more, so perhaps his calf is better. In week 1 he didn't move at all after his drop. In the past we've seen him take a step to the sides or forward to avoid pressure. He didn't do that in week 1, just dropped back and planted.

Offensively, this performance was reminiscent of the early 2000s. Brady only threw 22 passes (compared to 56 in week 1) for 149 yards. Only one QB in the NFL (Ryan Fitzpatrick, 139) threw for fewer yards than Brady in week 2.

The running game was efficient. Ridley ran for 101 on 25 carries. Not a bad day, but I still question his being used as a short yardage back. Right now the Pats don't seem to have anyone for short yardage situations. Vereen added 40 yards and the team ran for 150.

Julian Edelman was the key to the offense. He caught 6 passes for 81 yards and a TD. He's Brady's favorite target for short passes as well as deep ones. Including punt returns, Edelman was responsible for 156 total yards.

The Vikings aren't a good team. So the impressive nature of this win doesn't leave an impression that will last longer than a few hours. It's premature to say they've "addressed" the issues that undermined them in Miami. The Vikings didn't offer the challenges that the Dolphins did with their rushing game or their outside pass rush.

The Pats are 1-1, time to move on.  Starting Sunday against Oakland, they begin a stretch with 5 of 7 at home.

All wins are good wins (Bill Belichick now has 200 of them). And this win was necessary. Starting off 0-2 in September makes life in November and December very hard. This is the time to collect wins, secure a good playoff position, and work on your weaknesses. Winter is coming.

Photo Credit: Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Ex-Patriot (emphasis on the X) Wes Welker suspended

What is a 33-year old man doing taking Molly at the Kentucky Derby?

As a Patriots fan, I'm not going to judge Wes Welker. There have been plenty of Pats players who have taken PEDs. There have been plenty of Pats players who have taken recreational drugs. There have been plenty of Pats players who have made bad life decisions.

However, I will call Wes Welker an idiot. And a bit of a tool.

I don't care what other people put into their body. If you want to smoke weed, snort coke, inject heroin into your veins, go right ahead. But if you want to go to the Kentucky Derby and make a spectacle of yourself handing out $100 bills, and you decide to take some Molly while doing it, you're leaving yourself open for ridicule, and worse.

Welker taking MDMA isn't the crux of the story here. Not for me at least. What's truly giving me a sense of Schadenfreude is that he was lionized by a small but vocal group of sports writers, pundits, and fans. He was the David in the David vs. Goliath narrative that unfolds whenever a player "stands up" against the cruel and stingy Patriots.

Welker became a hero to these critics and cynics. Just like Richard Seymour, Asante Samuel, and Logan Mankins. When players hold out or refuse to restructure their contracts or play hardball with the Patriots, these critics love it, and become their biggest fans. The players turn into Bob Cratchit asking Scrooge for a raise. Or Oliver Twist saying "Please, sir, I want some more."


Last year it even had some of them rooting for the Broncos to win the Super Bowl, just so Saint Wes could get a ring, just so it would stick in Belichick's craw. And before that, it had people defending Welker for taking out Aqib Talib in the AFC Championship game.

Welker is no saint. He's no hero. He's just a guy. He seems like a bit of a douche, which isn't uncommon for athletes. He seems like a bit of an idiot, which isn't uncommon for people in general.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Hunter S. Thompson's plan to shorten baseball games, then my plan

Baseball games are too long. Sunday's 8-6 game between the Red Sox and Mariners took 4 hours and 7 minutes, or 247 minutes. That's enough to watch 10.7 Simpsons episodes (without commercials).

In 2000, the late Hunter S. Thompson wrote a Page 2 post about the need for baseball games to be shortened. I recommend reading the full article, but here are the main thrusts of his proposal:

1. Eliminate the pitcher, replace with a pitching machine that can throw curves and sliders, controlled by the catcher
2. All games to have a 3 hour time limit. Highest score when time runs out wins.
3. Score determined by total bases, not runs.
4. Runners can run to any base.
5. No balls or strikes, each batter gets 5 pitches to get a hit.

All good proposals, but few have a chance of gaining acceptance. Here are my less entertaining but more feasible suggestions.

1. No timeouts for batters or pitchers with nobody on base
Except for unusual circumstances, like a batter getting dust in his eye, batters and pitchers shouldn't be allowed to step out of the box or off the rubber. When they request timeout, they must give an explanation to the umpire. If pitchers hold the ball too long, the umpire can call timeout and issue a warning, and the next violation will result in a ball.

2. No warm-up time for relievers
When a pitcher comes in from the bullpen after warming up, why does he need 2 more minutes to warm-up? If Tom Brady goes down in a game, Jimmy Garoppolo won't get 2 minutes to warm-up. If a reliever needs 2 more minutes to warm-up, he ain't warm.

3. Time limit on manager's deciding to review a play
In other sports, coaches have a limited time to decide to challenge a play. But in baseball we've seen managers and players delay while managers decide to review or not to review. So even if no challenge is made, time is wasted. Managers should have 20 seconds to decide whether or not to review a play.

4. Fewer reviewable plays
Fair or foul, homerun or not homerun, and plays at the plate. I'm tired of seeing neighborhood plays at second, and bang-bang plays at first being reviewed. There's too much philosophy involved. When do the ball and glove become one? When is the ball "in" the glove, when it's surrounded by the glove, or when it's secured? What if the ball is within the glove, but the ball is still moving? Does an umpire falling in the forest make a sound if no one is around to hear him?

I'll end this post the way Thompson ended his.

"Purists will bitch and whine, but so what? Purists will Always bitch and whine. That is their function."

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Patriots trade Logan Mankins to piss everyone off

Maybe Bill Belichick and the Patriots decided to make this move because all the excitement and optimism from the fans and media about the 2014 season was making the Pats players too cocky. It's a diabolical plan to fight overconfidence. Trade an All-Pro offensive lineman to Tampa Bay for a tight-end that was falling down the Buccaneers' depth chart. And make that a tight-end from Rutgers, so sports radio pundits have something simple they can repeatedly be sarcastic about. Change the noise surrounding the team from Super Bowl predictions, to spoiled fans whining and moaning.

This is an ingenious scheme to make the fans and media worry about the offensive line, which will in turn cause the players to remain humble and hungry.

Or it's an example of how improving at one position costs you at others.

Tim Wright caught 54 passes for 571 yards and 5 TDs last year. And that was with Mike Glennon throwing passes to him. He's listed as a tight-end, but he's a WR/TE hybrid. He's 6' 4" but only 220 pounds and isn't much of a blocker. He played receiver in college.

The Patriots have better pass catchers today than they had yesterday. They also have more cap space (Wright's cap hit is just under $500,000, and they save about $4 million by trading Mankins) to sign a replacement guard or improve at other positions.

Patriots fans and critics have been pining for better receivers. Did they think such improvement would be without a price?

The Patriots have a worse offensive line today than they had yesterday. And the offensive line is an area of concern. That's the price to pay.

The Pats have given Brady a weapon, but taken away a shield. We'll see if they go out and sign another offensive lineman as other teams trim their rosters. We'll see if the linemen the Patriots already have on their roster can be adequate at their position and fill in for Mankins.

Whether you like this deal, love it, hate it, or are not sure about it, you have to admit that it's bold. You trade an All-Pro offensive lineman for a second year tight-end. You improve at one position, get worse at another.

Photo Credit: Tom Croke/Icon SMI

Monday, August 18, 2014

Abundance of penalties poses health hazard to NFL refs

Friday night's Patriots pre-season game against the Eagles saw 28 flags. To put that in perspective, if officials threw state flags instead of yellow ones, starting with Alabama and throwing the flags in alphabetical order, they would have gotten to Nevada. Speaking of Nevada, how long until there is an over/under Vegas line on flags thrown in games?

The big question is, will the regular season be officiated so tightly? And a follow up to that is, what health risks will NFL officials face if they call penalties as frequently as they have in the pre-season?

Arm fatigue and rotator cuff injuries
Obviously the act of throwing flags will cause significant wear and tear on officials' arms. And don't forget all the gestures and signals officials make with their hands and arms. The illegal contact motion could cause severe strain on the triceps.

Don't be surprised if several NFL officials require Tommy John surgery before the season is over.

Carpal tunnel syndrome
Especially for the head referee, who has to switch his microphone on and off to explain penalties. All that repetitive clicking with the thumb and forefinger will take its toll.

Laryngitis
The refs making announcements are most vulnerable to this, especially the ones who explain calls in detail. Ed Hochuli's arms might be strong enough to endure throwing all those flags, but will his pipes be able to endure explaining all of them? By November and December, refs will be hoarse, and some will have to refrain from talking as their voice boxes deteriorate.

Lower back pain
Flags thrown need to be picked up. That requires bending over. Lift from the knees, refs.

Eardrum damage
Thousands of fans booing coupled with at least one irate coach on the sideline screaming into the ear of some poor line judge. That's going to do some serious damage to the eardrum.

Mental and nervous breakdowns
I can imagine an NFL official on his day off at home watching his kids play, then one kid slightly nudges another, and when the ref reaches for a yellow flag in his belt and finds nothing there, PANIC. Refs will grow so accustomed to throwing flags at the slightest hint of contact between two other human beings, that when they're at home or at their Monday-Friday jobs, they'll have no idea what to do without that flag.

And how many times can you say "illegal contact, hands to the face," until the words lose all meaning? And then you wonder if any words had any meaning? And if words don't have meaning, do thoughts? And if thoughts have no meaning, do people? Then you fall into a catatonic state and they commit you.

At least one official will be committed to a mental institution before week 10.

All joking aside, the penalties are too much. The games are already too long, too riddled with stoppages. I'll still watch every Patriots game, of course. I think my watching of neutral games will go down. Especially the usually mediocre Thursday Night Football matchups.

My watching of NFL RedZone will go up, my watching of non-Patriots games on CBS and Fox will go down.

Maybe NFL Network could start a YellowZone. Every flag from every game. #QuadBox.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Red Sox fans should hate Roger Clemens for not taking steroids in Boston

I really don't care that Roger Clemens took PEDs. It shouldn't exclude him from Cooperstown eligibility. And I'm glad the Red Sox don't care about that issue with their own Hall of Fame (perhaps the Sox are thinking down the road when they want to induct David Ortiz into their HOF). Cheating was accepted by writers, owners, fans, and players when Clemens pitched. It's hypocritical and unethical for that same cheating to now be judged by the same people who let it go unchecked for years.

Roger Clemens is one of the best Red Sox pitchers of all-time. That's not saying too much. From 1920 to 1997, the Red Sox didn't have many all-time great pitchers. Jim Longborg won the Cy Young in 1966, and until Clemens came along, he was the only Red Sox pitcher to win the award. Luis Tiant had a few great years. Lefty Grove was an all-time great. Other than that, Clemens was the first HOF caliber pitcher the Sox had in decades.

But let's not forget that Clemens was a lot like Josh Beckett before Beckett was out of high school. Roger let himself go. He showed up to Spring Training out of shape. He'd get hurt. He was 10-5 on a 1995 team that won the AL East. He was 10-13 the next year. His years as an Ace seemed behind him. After all, at 34 years old, how could anyone expect him to get better?

Yet he did.

The miracle of PEDs turned Clemens' career around. At 35 he won 21 games with a 2.05 ERA and pitched 264 innings. A year later, at 36, he went 20-6 with a 2.65 ERA and 234.2 innings. He turned 39 and was in the best shape of his life when he won his next Cy Young with the Yankees, winning 20 games and throwing 220.1 innings. He won another Cy Young in Houston at 42, throwing 211.1 innings.

If you look at the dip in his performance and fitness from 1993 to 1996, when he's entering his 30s, and then compare it to his resurgence from 1997 to 2006 when he's in his late 30s and early 40s, it's pretty obvious something dramatic changed about his physical fitness regimen.

Why didn't he make that change in Boston, though? Why did he wait until he was with Toronto to start juicing?

Imagine what the 1998 Red Sox could have done with Pedro Martinez and a roided up Roger Clemens?

I will always hate Roger Clemens because he didn't try here. He got lazy, got sloppy, and he didn't give 100% until he left here.

So he's a Red Sox Hall of Famer, he should be a Baseball Hall of Famer. I don't care that he cheated, I do care that he didn't cheat here. WTF, Roger?

Photo Credit: Rich Pilling/MLB/Getty Images

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The saddest thing about Robin Williams' death is that he was so sad

Robin Williams gave us so much enjoyment, and what's truly tragic about his death is that he wasn't able to enjoy being Robin Williams.

From Mork and Mindy to Aladdin to Mrs. Doubtfire to Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams added much more than laughter to our lives. It's a tragedy that he felt his own life was so empty.

The first television show I can remember watching was Mork and Mindy on reruns. As a little boy I laughed at how zany and silly Robin Williams' alien character was. I remember trying/pretending to drink juice with my fingers like Mork did.

The first R-rated movie I saw was Good Morning Vietnam, which is what I'd call a heavy comedy, because it makes you laugh, but also tells a serious, emotion evoking story. Robin Williams was perfect for that film. Both he and his character understood that laughter and silliness are seriously important.

His best role might have been in Good Will Hunting, which should have won the Oscar for Best Picture, but Titanic's special effects and star-crossed romance blinded the Academy. Not to take anything away from Titanic, but Good Will Hunting didn't need stunning special effects to be a stunning work.

Williams won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Good Will Hunting. Matt Damon as Will Hunting may have been the main character of the film, but Robin Williams' character, psychiatrist Sean Maguire, was the protagonist. Maguire drives the action, encouraging Will, helping Will, pushing Will forward. Everything Will Hunting does in the movie is an effect of Robin Williams' character. Williams is so true in the role, so believable as a caring man who wants to help, that he's able to get Will Hunting to turn his life around. Maguire challenges Will. He drives the story forward.

Williams also improvised the line "Son of a bitch. He stole my line," at the end. One of countless improvisations Williams made in his work.

Considering how much inner pain Williams was feeling, it's a sad coincidence that his best acting work might have been when he played a psychiatrist.

I don't know what it was that convinced Robin Williams to end his life. He strangled himself with a belt. A death so gruesome, filled with such self-hatred, it's impossible to make sense of it.

The thing about depression is that those experiencing it are living in their own, isolated worlds. Their perception of reality is skewed so uniquely negatively. They could find something depressing about winning the lottery, or getting a promotion at work, or falling in love, or having children. They twist good things into bad, and dwell on bad things until they're worse. They might make a movie that gives laughter to millions of people, and then convince themselves that all they're good for is to make other people laugh.

Only Robin Williams knew what kind of pain Robin Williams was in.

In the 63 years he spent on this Earth, I hope he experienced stretches of time when he enjoyed being Robin Williams. We all got to enjoy him for years, we'll get to enjoy him for years to come. It would be sadistically unfair and cruel of the universe to have deprived the man himself of at least a few glimpses of how special he truly was.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Tony Stewart used his car as a weapon

If I wave a loaded handgun in someone's face, in an attempt to scare them, and the gun goes off and kills them, I've essentially done what Tony Stewart appears to have done to Kevin Ward Jr.

Tony Stewart used his car as a weapon. He probably didn't want to hit Ward, but wanted only to scare him. Video of the killing (let's stop calling it an "incident" or an "accident," someone was killed, so it was a killing) shows the rear end of Stewart's car kick out, which happens when the gas pedal of a sprint car is pressed hard.

Stewart was essentially playing a game of chicken with Ward. Except Ward showed up with just a helmet and fire-suit, Stewart showed up with 1,400 pounds of steel and tires moving at near highway speed.

Some say that Ward was an idiot for getting so close to the cars as they passed. I won't disagree with that. But, while driving my own car I've come across people acting like morons, drunks, and cyclists stray in front of my car. I avoid them. I move my car away from them.

What did Stewart do to avoid Ward? Nothing.

Some collisions are unavoidable. Can Tony Stewart honestly claim that he did everything he could to avoid this?

He demosntrated no care or concern for the safety of another driver. A man without such basic respect for human life does not deserve to drive a car on the public roads, let alone a racecar.

I'm not a legal expert. I don't know what crimes Tony Stewart might have committed, let alone how provable it is that he committed them. His actions seemed reckless, and dangerously negligent. Seeming isn't enough for convicting. So I won't venture into any of the legal speculation.

NASCAR, however, needs to take a hard look at Tony Stewart and decide whether he should be allowed to drive for the time being. NASCAR must also consider the safety and well-being of all their other drivers, along with people who work on the track and in pit-lane, and all the fans at their races.

Is a NASCAR event safer with Tony Stewart on the track, or with him far away from it?

I think a lot of small-town dirt tracks will consider banning Stewart from racing at their facilities. NASCAR should be able to do what small-town dirt tracks are capable of, right?

Photo Credit: Empire Super Sprints, Inc./AP

Friday, August 08, 2014

Thank God there's a pre-season, so the Patriots can work on their flaws

I haven’t seen all of the Patriots’ pre-season opener against Washington as I had to work at a One Direction show Thursday night. Thank God for noise-cancelling headsets and ibuprofen. Having seen what I've seen in the Pats game so far, I’m also thankful for pre-season football, as it gives the team a chance to work on some flaws that must be improved upon before the games count.

The tackling was awful. Washington could run the ball at will and pick up significant chunks on the ground.

The offensive line didn't give Mallett much time to throw. They frequently got beat inside.

The pass coverage wasn't good. The Pats may have been without Revis, but the Redskins were playing without DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. Apart from Malcolm Butler making a few plays in coverage, the passing defense was either beat straight-up, or penalized.

In general I don’t mind Brandon Browner and the Pats taking penalties in the passing game, but it depends on the situation. If it’s 3rd and 10, and Browner bumps his receiver 6 yards downfield and his guy wasn't even the target on the play or Browner could cover him well without the bump, and the penalty gives the opponent an automatic first down, then it’s a dumb penalty. If it's 20 yards downfield and you'll get burned for a big play if you don't bump, then a 5-yard flag is a good thing.

Situational penalties.

And as long as they're called both ways, and Edelman and Amendola are drawing penalties when someone breathes on them, then it is what it is. The Pats will get flags, the opponent will get flags. The NFL wants to redefine flag football.

Ryan Mallett isn't a starting QB in the NFL. He has an amazing arm. He's very tall. He has all the required physical qualities of a quarterback. But haven't we learned from watching Mr. Brady, that decision making and reading defenses and finding the open receiver is what separates the talented QBs from the great QBs?

These pre-season games are meant to give Mallett a chance to show he's a starter, which could potentially increase his trade value. I don't think he's shown that.

These games do not give Mallett a chance to show what he can do as a backup, as the guy who's called in when Brady gets banged up, and needs to keep the team afloat for a series, or a quarter, or a game. The backup the Pats want should be able to manage a game, make smart decisions, find the easy plays that are there, NEVER turn the ball over (which we've seen Mallett do in the past as a backup playing in a blowout game, which forced the Pats to but Brady back in).

Ryan Mallett hasn't passed the audition as an NFL starter. But we can't see in pre-season games like this, if he has the mental makeup to be a solid backup.

Jimmy Garappolo is not yet ready to be a #2 QB. He's still learning how to take snaps under center.

I'm not concerned about the tackling, or the defensive backs. I do have some worries about the offensive line protecting Brady because they struggled with it last year and Dante Scarnecchia is gone. And can we stop with the Ryan Mallett trade talk? I don't think the Pats would get much for him. He's not a starter, at least he hasn't shown that he is.

Photo Credit: Alex Brandon/AP