Thursday, January 29, 2015

To beat the Patriots, Seahawks can't wait until the second half

For the Seahawks to beat the Patriots on Sunday, they're either going to have to build a solid lead in the first half, or do something that no team has done since October: outscore the Patriots in the second half.

For 10 straight games the Patriots have dominated the second half. And most of those games were against good teams: Denver, Green Bay, Indy (twice), Detroit, Baltimore. The Pats scored 160 second half points in those games, allowing 46. If you're not good at math, that's an average of 16 to 4.6. In the last 6 games the Pats have allowed 2.7 points per game in the second half

Multiple choice question: Why have the Patriots been so strong in the final 30 minutes?

A) Offense
B) Defense
C) Special teams
D) Coaching
E) All of the above

I think the answer is E, but the numbers suggest that the defense is the biggest reason this team has improved so much in the second half. In other words, the offense plays very good in both halves, the defense plays okay in the first half, then dramatically improves in the second.

In the last 10 games the Patriots have put up 174 points in the first half, 160 in the second, a decrease of 1.4 points per game. The defense has allowed 114 points in the first half, only 46 in the second, a difference of 6.8 per game. So the offense actually gets slightly less productive in the second half, while the defense plays significantly better.

In fact, in 4 of the last 10 games, the defense has held opponents to 0 second half points. And they haven't allowed a second half touchdown in 7 of the last 10.

Those are just numbers, though. The eye-test is more convincing to me. And in the second half my eyes have seen this team make plays in all phases of the game. That's why I still say the reason they do so well in the second half is E, all of the above.

Against the Ravens it was coaching and offense that put up 21 points in the second half, and defense that held Baltimore to 10. In Week 16 against the Jets it was Vince Wilfork's blocked field goal and then the offense killing the clock that secured the victory. Against the Chargers, the defense won the game while the offense struggled.

What's been encouraging about this team since Week 5 is that they've been able to win different kinds of games in different ways. They're versatile. They improvise and they improve.

If the Patriots continue to play great in the second half, the Super Bowl might be decided by the time Katy Perry takes the stage.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Blizzard of 2015 might cost Gillette Stadium a future Super Bowl

While the Patriots went through the circus of Super Bowl Media Day, Winter Storm Juno dropped 22 inches of snow on their home in Foxboro. Other areas of Boston were covered by more than 30 inches. There were travel bans, the T shut down, schools closed, offices were closed, and events were cancelled.

Last year the success of the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey gave added hope to the prospect of Gillette Stadium hosting the big game someday. But if such a proposal is made in future hosting bids, people might point to Juno as a reason to avoid hosting the game in New England.

As much as I'd love for the Super Bowl to be played on Route 1 in Foxboro, you can't ignore the potential for severe weather to impact the event. And not just the game. The week leading up to the Super Bowl is a massive event in and of itself. Media Day, all the corporate hospitality parties, it's a circus. Moreover, teams need practice facilities, and they need to be able to travel to practice.

A Boston/Foxboro would, similar to the Super Bowl in NY/NJ, would be spread out. This means it would be reliant on people being moved from one place to another. Something that snow can make difficult, or even impossible.

The plan for a Boston/Foxboro Super Bowl would require people to stay in hotels in Boston, Providence, maybe even Hartford. One strong snowstorm could bring the whole show to a standstill. The corporate sponsors would have to cancel or reduce their events. The media could find themselves stranded in Connecticut on media day. Teams could find their practice facilities under 18 inches of snow.

Snow paralyzes transportation. And a Boston/Foxboro Super Bowl would be more dependent on transportation than any Super Bowl in history.

Now imagine the worst-case scenario: the storm hits on the weekend and impacts the game. Traffic getting into and out of Gillette Stadium is bad enough. Playing football in snowy conditions can be fantastic drama. But that's assuming that the team buses can even make the trip from whatever hotel in Quincy the teams stay at to the Stadium.

The Super Bowl is a monster with many moving parts. A snowstorm could paralyze that monster. All those moving parts generate money, which makes the monster attractive. But movement can be very difficult in New England in late January and early February.

So Juno might cost Boston/Foxboro a future Super Bowl. Then again, money has the power to shorten memories.

Photo Credit: John Wilcox

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Patriots broke a rule that shouldn't be a rule

Rules are rules. And if the Patriots altered the air pressure of the ball after the refs inspected them, then they deserve to be disciplined for circumventing a rule.

But why is this rule even a rule? Why can't teams inflate or deflate the ball as much as they want? Why limit them to between 12.5 and 13.5 lbs/PSI? If Tom Brady prefers to throw a football at 11 lbs/PSI, and Aaron Rodgers wants to throw a ball with 14.5, why is there a rule preventing them from doing so?

What unfair edge would be gained? Teams use their own balls. How could one team gain an advantage over the other if both teams are using the footballs they prefer?

What's the worse that could happen? Passing offense might be more efficient and prolific? It wouldn't be the first time a rule change favored the offensive side of the ball.

The NFL allows players to select which cleats they'll use. They let quarterbacks and receivers decide to wear gloves or not. They let everyone decide the types of facemasks they want to wear. Why is this piece of equipment different?

Furthermore, the NFL allows the outside of balls to be rubbed up, broken in, scuffed, and so on. If changing the outside of the ball is fair game, why is the inside of the ball so rigidly restricted?

Again, I'm not saying that rule breaking should be excused. But I think this particular rule should be examined. It's a stupid rule.

Photo Credit: Maddie McGarvey, The New York Times

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The NHL All-Star Game shouldn't be played in places like Columbus

The NHL All-Star Game isn't exciting to watch. Almost no checking, absolutely no defense, and puck battles that are more polite than ferocious. The game mood is more like afternoon tea, than the hot wings and beer feeling you normally get from a hard fought hockey game. It might be the worst all-star game of the 4 major sports. I'm sure the goalies would agree with me there.

While the game itself is of little entertainment value, the game's presence in a city can be like a religious revival. The Church of Hockey comes to town, bringing with it the game's most enthralling and invigorating preachers. And the fans in the host city get to bask in the game they love.

The problem is, too often the host city doesn't love the game. So they're not interested in basking. Like this year in Columbus. Or 2016's game in Nashville. In fact, 6 of 9 NHL All-Star Games will have been played in markets that aren't very interested in hockey: Nashville, Columbus, Carolina in 2011, Atlanta in 2008, Dallas in 2007, Florida in 2003.

Why does the NHL choose to go to these cities where hockey is a sideshow, instead of bringing the All-Star Game to markets that care about the game, where hockey is a main event?

Look at the last time Original Six teams hosted the All-Star Game: Montreal in 2009, Toronto in 2000, Boston in 1996, New York in 1994. Yes, it's been over 20 years since America's biggest city has hosted the All-Star Game. Chicago last hosted in 1991.

And when did Detroit - a.k.a. Hockeytown, USA - last host the game? Do you believe in miracles? Yes! It was 1980! It's been 35 years since Detroit hosted the NHL All-Star Game. Jaromir Jagr was 7. Gordie Howe had an assist! So did Phil Esposito. It was Wayne Gretzky's first All-Star appearance.

And outside the Original Six, Philly hasn't hosted since 1992, Pittsburgh since 1990, Edmonton since '89, Calgary in '85, Buffalo in '78. Places where people like to watch hockey, where people like to play hockey, where the All-Stars actually come from, don't get to host All-Star Games. But Columbus, and Nashville, and Raleigh do.

I get that the NHL wants to grow in these markets. But where they see the potential for growth, I see markets indifferent to the game. The NHL trying to grow hockey in these cities is like trying to grow corn in Alaska instead of Iowa. You make money by focusing on growing your strongest brands in your most fruitful markets. You take the All-Star Game to New York, to Chicago, to Toronto, to Calgary. You energize the cities that love the game.

There are about 20 markets where people truly enjoy hockey. The All-Star Game should go to these markets. The preachers of the game should focus on energizing the faithful in Detroit and Calgary, not on trying to convert the heathen non-believers in Nashville and Columbus.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

DeflateGate of the Union

The Patriots played with deflated footballs on Sunday. Reports are coming out that 11 of the 12 balls on the Pats' sideline were under-deflated, by about 2 pounds of pressure. Sidebar: people really need to know the difference between pounds per square inch, and pounds as a unit of mass/weight.

I don't respect these actions. Nor do I disrespect them. I don't like that the Patriots did this, but I don't dislike them for doing it. Bill Belichick is still my second favorite sports figure of all-time (behind Pedro Martinez). Although as much as I like him, if I were playing poker with him, I'd cut the deck when he dealt.

You know, on more than one occasion I've broken the speed limit. I've been caught doing it a few times too. I paid my fines and saw my insurance premiums go up. When I was 17 I even got my license suspended because I got 2 tickets before turning 18. I also drank alcohol before I turned 21. I've never cheated on a girl, but I have been with girls who were cheating on their boyfriends.

What's that? You don't care? I understand. I don't really care about the Patriots deflating their balls. They cheated, they got caught, they'll have to pay for it. It's similar to the fines I paid for speeding. Or when a player jumps offside, they pay for it with a 5 yard penalty. Or if a player tests positive for amphetamines, they get suspended.

What's the appropriate punishment here? The NFL's rules prescribe a minimum of a $25,000 fine. That's just the minimum punishment. What about draft picks or suspensions?

I think suspending Belichick or Brady would be absurd. And yes, Brady is part of this. You can't just blame Belichick here. I think a hefty fine, and a loss of draft picks would be suitable punishment, and act as a deterrent to other teams. Because other teams do this. Which doesn't justify doing this, and doesn't mean anyone caught doesn't deserve punishment. But the notion that the Patriots have committed a unique crime is preposterous.

Does this tarnish Bill Belichick's legacy, or the Patriots'? In the eyes of people who already see it as tarnished, it does. However, the asterisk crowd was always going to find a way to diminish what Belichick and the Patriots have done the last 15 years.

In my eyes there is no tarnish, at least not to any part of the coach or the team that matters to me. Belichick's adherence to the rules was never a factor in me liking him. He is the best coach of the era and one of the best of all time. He pushes the rules and sometimes breaks them. He does everything it takes to win, which is a respectable philosophy that sometimes results in behavior that isn't respectable.

His job is to win. And the Patriots better win this upcoming Super Bowl. Because nothing is sadder than cheating and still losing.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Patriots would have crushed the Colts no matter what balls they used

Tom Brady holds the AFC Championship trophy after the Patriots beat the Colts 45 to 7
The Patriots beat the Colts 45-7 to win their 6th AFC Championship in the Brady-Belichick era. The NFL is investigating whether the Patriots intentionally deflated footballs to be used by their offense, which could have made them easier to grip in wet conditions.

As far as DeflateGate goes, until I stop seeing words like "investigate" and "alleged," and see words like "found" and "confirmed," then I'm going not going to give weight to the story. Maybe I'll talk about the paranoid defensiveness of Patriots fans, or the eagerness of the media to find a juicy story, or the conclusion jumping of people who don't like the Pats.

I could formulate a joke about sour grapes, and include some wordplay with "wine" and "whine," but I'd rather talk about this game.

If the Patriots had used Nerf balls, this game would have still been a blowout. LeGarrette Blount would have run for 148 yards no matter how many PSI the air pressure in the ball was. And Julian Edelman would have still ran past Colts defenders like they were standing in mud.

Anyone who put money on James Develin and Nate Solder catching Brady's first TD passes of the game, you're filthy rich today.

The Pats defense blanketed the Colts receivers, forcing a horrible game from Andrew Luck (12 for 33, 126 yards, 2 INTs). They also pressured Luck, which can be dangerous because he's very good finding open guys when he's on the move. But the coverage held.

Some fun stats that illustrate how dominant this performance was:

First downs: Pats 28, Colts 17
First downs (non-penalty): Pats 27, Colts 13
Third down conversions: Pats 12 for 18 (plus 2 for 2 on 4th), Colts 3 for 11
Total plays: Pats 76, Colts 52
Total yards: Pats 397, Colts 209
Yards per drive: Pats 36.1, Colts 19.0
Time of possession: Pats 37:49, Colts 22:11

The only blemish was Brady's pick in the 2nd quarter, which turned into a penalty aided Colts scoring drive. And that one Red Zone trip (out of 7) that didn't result in a TD.

Flawless victory.

On to the two slowest weeks in sports: waiting for your team to play the Super Bowl.

Photo Credit: Al Bello/Getty Images

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Patriots-Colts Drinking Game: AFC Championship Edition

Patriots play the Colts for the AFC Championship Sunday 1-18-2015
Another AFC Championship game. Another Patriots season that has extended deep into January, and hopefully into February. Another chance to do your job and get lubed up while watching the Pats do their job. Here's a drinking game to play while watching the game Sunday evening:

Anytime a commentator says:
"AFC" = take 1 drink from a beer
"Championship" or "title" = 1 drink
Something about the weather = 1 drink
A stupid pun or play on words involving "Luck" = 1 shot of liquor
"Super Bowl" = 1 drink
"Foxborough" = 1 drink
"Offensive line" = 1 drink
"Brady" = 1 drink
"Jones" = 1 drink
A name that ends in "-ski" = 1 drink
"Jim" = 1 drink
"Phil" = 1 drink
"Job" = 1 drink

Anytime this happens:
Penalty = 1 drink
Penalty against Brandon Browner = 1 drink, 1 shot of liquor
Tom Brady points out the "mike" = 1 drink (if drinking Mike's Hard Lemonade (why?), you can command others to drink, this power lasts until the next play)
Brady says all or part of "Alpha Milk" = 1 drink (if drinking a White Russian, you can command others to drink throughout the game)
Brady says a word beginning with "F" = 1 drink
Brady says a word ending with "-uck" = 1 drink
The Pats go no huddle = 1 drink per snap
The Pats run, but it's not Jonas Gray = 1 drink
Rob Gronkowski spikes the ball = finish your drink, spike the container (bonus points for glass bottles)
Gronkowski spikes a Colt = drink an entire beer, last one to finish gets "thrown out of the club" (forced to stand outside for 5 minutes)
You're worried Gronk is hurt = alternate between drinking and praying, taking 1 drink from your beer between each word of prayer
Vince Wilfork makes a big play = 1 drink
Wilfork forces and/or recovers a turnover = 1 drink, 1 shot
Wilfork scores a TD = 1 drink, 1 shot, eat a turkey leg
The Pats block a kick/punt = finish your beer, take a shot
Touchback = 1 drink
Kick or punt return = drink during entire return
Matthew Slater makes a special teams tackle = 1 drink

Anytime this is on screen:
The number 12 (including the scoreboard and clock) = 1 drink
Highlights from previous Colts/Patriots AFC Championships = drink during entire highlight
Peyton Manning = drink for 18 seconds (if eating chicken parm, you can command others to drink until the next commercial break)
Aaron Rodgers = drink for 12 seconds, the last person to notice and start drinking must dramatically limp around for the remainder of the game
A trophy (including representations of trophies, such as graphics on the field, or handmade trophies held by fans) = 1 drink per trophy
Jonas Gray on the sideline = 1 drink
Ty Law = drink for 24 seconds
Tedy Bruschi = drink for 54 seconds
Troy Brown = drink for 80 seconds
Brady and/or Belichick's playoff record/stats = drink the entire time the graphic is on screen
Xavier Nixon (in person) = drink a 12-pack
A Boston College alumnus (Castonzo, Hasselbeck, Cherilus, or if you see one in the stands) = 1 drink
Bob Kraft = 1 drink
Kraft talking to someone = drink during the entire conversation
"Do Your Job" = 1 drink

So enjoy the game. Remember to get lubed up responsibly. And if you survive playing (which probably means you cheated), hopefully we'll be on to the Super Bowl.

Photo Credit:
John Wilcox

Friday, January 16, 2015

Ray Lewis was right about NFL rules

Ray Lewis made a great point about the NFL and its over-reliance on rules. But his point was lost because he pissed Patriots fans off.

There are two topics that are guaranteed to piss off New England fans: SpyGate and the Tuck Rule. Start talking about these, even in passing, even as a joke, and Pats fans will flip out.

And I don't know why. I'm a Patriots fan, and I don't care about either topic. In 2001 the rules gave the Pats a break and bailed Brady out of a game-losing fumble. So what? The Raiders still allowed the game-tying and game-winning drives. The Patriots still beat the Steelers then the Rams. And yes, the Patriots filmed opposing signals from the sideline. So? If you're dumb enough to think doing so made any significant difference, then you should be mad at your own teams for either not noticing it and blowing the whistle on the Pats, or for not doing it themselves.

We in New England normally don't care what Ray Lewis says or thinks, it's just funny to hear him talk. Just imagine him dressed as Abraham Lincoln, with a beard and a stovepipe hat, giving the Gettysburg Address...

Four score, and SEVEN years ago, OUR fathers... Now we are engaged, in a GREAT Civil War... this nation UNDER GOD, shall have a new birth, of freedom. And that government of the PEOPLE, by the PEOPLE, for the PEOPLE, shall not perish, FROM THE EARTH!!!! WHO'S HOUSE IS THIS? OUR HOUSE!!! WHO'S HOUSE IS THIS? OUR HOUSE!!! 

This is Robert E. Lee we're talking about, it's a chess game!

We all have a good laugh when Ray gets going.

But when he mentioned the Tuck Rule earlier this week, people in New England lost their minds.

In his recent remarks about how overly litigious the NFL has become, Lewis made the mistake of dwelling on the Tuck Rule. He argued that Tom Brady and the Patriots would be unknowns without the obscure rule. And he chose to do it the week after his former team was eliminated by the Pats. So his message was lost. Obscured, or obstructed, if you will.

And that's unfortunate because it was a good point. Rules were once meant to govern and control the game, now they define them. Rules used to focus on the clock and on formations and on player conduct and safety. People have been throwing and catching footballs long before rules existed to define when throws begin and end, when catches begin and end. But now the elemental parts of the game are being defined by rules. The basic parts that come together to make a game - throws, catches, tackles - are becoming complicated sequences of events. Dissecting a catch is like dissecting the Magic Bullet Theory in JFK. (fun fact: Arlen Specter, a nemesis of the NFL, came up with the Magic Bullet Theory when he was a junior prosecutor)

Throwing and catching are intuitive things. The NFL has turned them into complex, difficult to understand, even more difficult to explain concepts.

Football is something you're supposed to enjoy while relaxed, maybe even while having a few beers. You shouldn't need a philosopher and a lawyer in order to explain what a catch is to fans.

The Tuck Rule was a bad rule. It tried (and failed) to define what a throw is. But we all know what a throw is. We don't need rules to define it.

We don't need rules to define catches either. Rules for in and out of bounds are fine. Rules about clocks and formations are fine (although, not to John Harbaugh). Rules to define basic things that human beings have been doing for thousands of years? No, we don't need those.

So Ray Lewis was right.