Thursday, May 21, 2015

Remembering Bryan Burwell

For many years, I enjoyed reading Bryan Burwell's articles about the NBA. He covered the league for a variety of publications. I never had the opportunity to meet him face to face--and I regret that I never will, since he passed away from cancer last December at just 59. Bernie Miklasz, a St. Louis sportswriter who was a colleague of Burwell's, penned a warm and loving tribute to his friend titled
Bryan Burwell Will Always Live in Our Hearts. Here is an excerpt:

Day in and day out, Bryan Burwell was the happiest person you could find in any press box, or in a media work room. In a profession of notorious grumps, he was good for morale. You'd show up, and grouse about something, and Burwell would turn and smile, offer support, and then get to work on repairing your mood.

And you didn't have to be a media star, or a colleague, or a longterm friend to get Burwell's attention or empathy. He always treated nervous young journalists with respect and caring, giving them so much of his time you'd think these kids were Pulitzer Prize winners. Burwell didn't care about your status, or where you ranked on the ladder of journalism. If you shared a press box with Burwell, you were his equal. And if you needed his advice, he would patiently and generously offer it. There was no time limit on his kindness.

Until the end of his life, Bryan maintained the kind of enthusiasm that often wanes when sportswriters and broadcasters have been in the industry for a decade or two. Well, it was impossible to diminish his joy or take away his laughter...

Burwell saw the best in everyone, but he had the courage to take a stand and express a strong and unpopular opinion. And as you probably can understand, it wasn't always easy being an outspoken African American sports columnist who didn't hesitate to take a stand. I cringe at the memory of some of the emails he received; you can only imagine. He would show a few to me every now and then and it made me crazy with anger. But you know what? The nastiness couldn't take Burwell down. The viciousness probably stung him more than he'd let on, but he'd brush it off and continue being Burwell. A first-class man, all the way.

Astounded by his relentless civility, I once asked him: Why do you respond to people who are so vile and hateful? I'll never forget Bryan's answer. "Because they took the time to write," Burwell said. "That's the first thing. The other thing is, I can't change the world we live in. But by having a conversation, I can try to change one heart at a time."

And he meant it. Burwell put that into practice, every single day.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Putting the Wells Report in Proper Perspective

When Bob Kravitz, Mike Wilbon and other reporters called for the NFL to heavily punish New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick based on unsubstantiated accusations about the Patriots deflating footballs prior to the 2015 AFC Championship Game, I criticized them for reckless reporting. I stand by what I wrote; it is wrong to call for someone to be fired based on a mere accusation and it is even more wrong to do so when that person is subsequently completely exonerated. The NFL's investigation of this matter, known as the Wells Report, has been publicly released. The Wells Report explicitly states that neither Belichick nor the Patriots organization had anything to do with deflating footballs. Kravitz, Wilbon and the rest of the reporters who engaged in reckless speculation and accusation owe Belichick and the Patriots a public apology.

After months of investigation of the matter, here is the conclusion reached by the Wells Report: "...it is more probable than not that Jim McNally (the Officials Locker Room attendant for the Patriots) and John Jastremski (an equipment assistant for the Patriots) participated in a deliberate effort to release air from Patriots game balls after the balls were examined by the referee. Based on the evidence, it also is our view that it is more probable than not that Tom Brady (the quarterback for the Patriots) was at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities of McNally and Jastremski involving the release of air from Patriots game balls."

Put more simply, there is no evidence that anyone from the Patriots actually deflated the footballs but it is possible--given the time frame involved and where the footballs were prior to the game--that enough time existed for the footballs to be intentionally deflated. If the footballs were intentionally deflated, this was most likely done by McNally and Jasremski. Based on the fact that McNally and Jastremski referred to Brady in text messages and that Brady called Jastremski after this became a major news story, it is "more probable than not" that Brady "was at least generally aware" of footballs being intentionally deflated.

From a purely legal standpoint, it is true that in criminal trials defendants are convicted based on circumstantial evidence all the time. The idea that you cannot be convicted on circumstantial evidence is a common misunderstanding of people who do not have legal training. However, the circumstantial evidence in the Wells Report--which was not prepared for a criminal trial or using the standards required for a criminal trial--is flimsy even regarding McNally and Jastremski and is almost nonexistent regarding Brady.

The NFL's response to this flimsy evidence is to suspend Tom Brady for four games, fine the Patriots $1,000,000 and deprive the Patriots of two draft picks. The Patriots have already suspended McNally and Jastremski indefinitely.

Frank Schwab has written a must-read takedown of the NFL's overreaction to the Wells Report. Schwab starts by noting that the NFL historically has taken very little interest even in proven game day manipulation of footballs:

Last season, the Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings were caught, on a cold day, using sideline heaters to warm up footballs. That's against the rules. You can argue that it's not the same level as deflating footballs in a bathroom, but it has the same effect: something outside of the rules to make the football easier to grip and catch. The Panthers and Vikings were...warned. That's it...

Also, in 2012 the San Diego Chargers used towels with an adhesive substance on their game balls and didn't give them up to the NFL immediately when ordered to do so. If you think the Panthers-Vikings thing was just some honest mistake, it's a lot harder to convince anyone that there was no intent by the Chargers to gain an advantage. And the Chargers' punishment? A $20,000 fine. That's it.

What about the Patriots' supposed "failure to cooperate" with the investigation? The authors/investigators of the Wells Report did not have subpoena power nor did they have the power to receive any testimony under oath. No one was under any obligation to say anything to the authors/investigators and--legally--no one can assume that someone is guilty because he fails to say something. As far as I know, the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination still applies to the NFL and its employees. Nevertheless, Schwab documents that the Patriots did cooperate:

They turned over text message records of employees, security tapes, secured interviews with dozens of their employees. "The failure to cooperate" is the NFL's pandering at its worst. The "failure to cooperate" is this: The Patriots say McNally was made available for four interviews but the investigators were turned down when a fifth interview was requested. Brady met with investigators, answered all their questions, but refused to provide text messages and emails. That's it. That's the extent of "failure to cooperate." There are no other examples of any lack of Patriots cooperation in the report.

Brady's alleged guilt/complicity is supposedly proven because he made some phone calls to Jastremski after the deflated football issue became a public story. The Wells Report says nothing about the content of those phone calls but implies that because Brady had not called Jastremski in the preceding few months this means that Brady knew about Jastremski's (alleged) activities. Think about that tortured logic for a minute. Pretend that you are Tom Brady and you know absolutely nothing about footballs being deflated. Then, the alleged deflation of footballs by your team becomes a national news story and you are being accused of deflating the footballs. Would you not call the equipment manager and try to find out what happened? That scenario is just as plausible as the one that the Wells Report offers. In fact, look at it the other way and pretend that you are Tom Brady and you are the mastermind of the football deflation. Would you make traceable phone calls to your accomplice just days after the story broke, after not calling him for months? If you were able to set up the whole conspiracy without using a phone, would you not either lay low or else communicate in a less traceable way? If there was a conspiracy, wouldn't each party know that the best thing to do is to keep quiet? Would that message really be best delivered in a traceable phone call?

Tampering with footballs is wrong but the NFL has never seriously policed this issue, as noted above. If the NFL intends to severely punish violators it should (1) make that clear beforehand and (2) have very credible evidence before issuing severe punishments. In this case, all the Wells Report proved is that it is theoretically possible for one person to use a needle to deflate a dozen footballs in less than two minutes. The Wells Report offers no credible evidence that this actually happened, let alone that Brady was complicit in this happening.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

David Friedman Scores 6-0 in DCC Championship to Capture 10th Title

The Dayton Chess Club Championship has been held since 1959. After winning the event a record nine times (1997, 1999-2000, 2002, 2004, 2007, 2009, 2011-12), this year I sought to capture one more title to double the original mark of five set by Richard Ling in the late 1960s/early 1970s. This year's field included three other former champions: Les Whorton (2012), John Dowling (2004-05, 2008) and David Guehl (1979-80). I was the second seeded player (2151) behind John Miller (2163), followed by Whorton (2110), Dowling (2078) and my former student Yutong Cao (1792).

After my third round victory over Dowling, I owned clear first place with the only perfect score, setting up a round four showdown with Miller, who had two wins plus a half point bye. I defeated Miller to move a full point ahead of the rest of the field with two rounds to go. I have a long history with Whorton, my fifth round opponent; I have faced him 39 times at regular time controls, more than any other opponent other than four-time Ohio Champion (1958, 1975-76, 2005)/two-time DCC Champion (2005-06) Ross Sprague (who I faced 52 times at regular time controls). I defeated Whorton en route to a 3-0 start in the 2014 DCC Championship but I did not finish that event well. My most memorable game with Whorton is probably our encounter in round six of the 2012 DCC Championship. Whorton had White and only needed a draw to clinch clear first but I won in 42 moves to join Whorton (and Richard Mercer) in the winner's circle. This time, a win would clinch me clear first while Whorton needed a win to pull even with one round to go. I had to maintain the delicate balance between not taking too many risks and not playing so conservatively that I drifted into a passive position, while Whorton had to take calculated risks to complicate the position.

Here are the moves from my game versus Whorton, along with some brief annotations:

[Event "DCC Championship 5/2/15 (6)"]  [White "Friedman, David"] [Black "Whorton, Les"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "B33"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Qb6 5. Nb3 Nf6 6. Nc3 e6 7. Be3 Qc7 8. a3 This is a good prophylactic move, denying Black use of the b4 square. Be7 9. Be2 O-O 10. O-O Rd8 11. f4 d5 12. e5 Nd7!? (...Ne4) 13. Nb5 White is slightly better. Qb8 14. Bd3 g6 15. Qg4 b6 16. h4!? (N5d4 is more solid) Nc5= 17. Nxc5!? (N5d4) bxc5 18. h5! Fortune favors the brave! I only needed a draw to remain a point ahead of the field with one round to go but this is the best and sharpest continuation. c4?? (Kg7) 19. hxg6+- cxd3 20. gxf7+!? (gxh7+ +-) Kh8?? (Kxf7 is Black's only chance, though White is better after Qh5+) 21. Rf3 Ba6 22.Rg3 Rg8 23. fxg8(Q)+ Qxg8 24. Nc7

Now the only remaining questions were if I would finish with a perfect score and if a perfect score would be enough to push my rating above 2200. I completed the tournament with a 44 move victory as Black against Bruce Bryant, who earned an upset win against Dowling in round five. Not including Alex Goldin, a Grandmaster who once ranked in the top 100 in the world who did not reside in Dayton but inexplicably elected to play in a tournament otherwise comprised of dedicated amateurs, the last time a DCC Champion achieved a perfect score was 1984 (Jim Jordan). Ling is the only player who is confirmed to have posted two perfect scores in DCC Championship play (1965, 1973). My new rating of 2190 is a career-high and just 10 points short of the National Master title that I have been chasing for quite some time.

Cao scored 4/6 to claim clear second, while Miller and Whorton drew to join a four way tie for third place.

Here is the complete list of DCC Champions, along with available score information (to the best of my knowledge, this score information has never been previously published in one place). I will continue to update the scores until they are complete, much like I did in History of the Ohio Chess Congress. The score data prior to 1988 is courtesy of the Ohio Chess Bulletin, the Dayton Chess Club Review and Bill Wall's History of the Dayton Chess Club. Wall's article is excellent in many respects, though I did find at least one error; he states that Blossom scored 5-0 in the 1987 DCC Championship but both the original wall chart and the crosstable published in the September-October 1987 Ohio Chess Bulletin show that Blossom scored 5/6 before defeating Burk in a one game playoff.

The 1988-2015 data comes from my own records (I participated in every event except for 1996) and from USCF crosstables.

DCC Champions, 1959-2015










1959 J. Fink 5.5/6


1960 H. Fleat 6.5/7




1961 R. Ling 5.5/6



1962 V. Zukaitis



1963 D. Wolford




1964 D. Wolford




1965 R. Ling 5/5




1966 R. Ling




1967 R. Ling 3/4 (match)




1968 R. Buchanan 4/5




1969 D. Wolford 4/5




1970 V. Burk 4.5/5




1971 C. Unruh 5/5




1972 D. Wolford 5/5




1973 R. Ling 5/5




1974 B. Espedal 6/6




1975 A. Casden 6/6




1976 A. Mantia 5.5/6




1977 A. Mantia 5.5/6




1978 V. Burk 5/6




1979 D. Guehl 5/6




1980 D. Guehl 5.5/6




1981 B. Beard 5.5/6




1982 V. Burk 5/6




1983 V. Burk 5.5/6




1984 J. Jordan 6/6




1985 G. Vitko 5/6




1986 A. Hood 4.5/6





J. Jordan 4.5/6





E. Wikle 4.5/6




1987 D. Blossom 5/6




1988 T. Chou 5.5/6




1989 A. Miravete 5.5/6




1990 R. Springer 5/6




1991 M. Chiminiello 5/6




1992 V. Burk 4.5/6





A. Mantia 4.5/6





J. Langreck 4.5/6




1993 J. Vehre 5.5/6




1994 A. Mantia 5/6




1995 F. Titus 4/5




1996 C. Atkins 5.5/6




1997 D. Friedman 5/6




1998 M. Fowler 5/6




1999 D. Friedman 5.5/6




2000 D. Friedman 5/6




2001 E. Wikle 5/6




2002 D. Friedman 5/6





E. Wikle 5/6




2003 C. Atkins 5.5/6





E. Wikle 5.5/6




2004 E. Wikle 4.5/6





D. Friedman 4.5/6





J. Dowling 4.5/6




2005 R. Sprague 4.5/6





M. Kalafatas 4.5/6





J. Dowling 4.5/6





B. Coraretti 4.5/6




2006 R. Sprague 5.5/6




2007 D. Friedman 5.5/6




2008 E. Wikle 4.5/6





C.Atkins 4.5/6





J. Dowling 4.5/6




2009 D. Friedman 5/6




2010 A. Goldin 6/6




2011 D. Friedman 5/6




2012 D. Friedman 4.5/6




             R. Mercer 4.5/6
             L. Whorton 4.5/6
2013     W. Sedlar 5/6
2014     W. Sedlar 5.5/6
2015      D. Friedman 6/6

Notes:

The December 1966 Ohio Chess Bulletin explains that to determine
the 1967 champion the DCC held a six player round robin challengers'
tournament including the highest rated (based on club ladder, not
USCF) members who accepted invitations. Ed Lawrence scored 4.5/5
to earn the right to face two-time defending champion Richard Ling
in a match. Ling lost the first game but eventually won the match,
3-1. Lawrence, who wrote about the championship for the OCB,
opined, "After four times champion, Ling could retire confident that
no one will match his record." Ling did not play in the 1968-1970 DCC
Championships but he returned to action in the 1971 DCC
Championship. In 1973 he added one more title to his resume
and his mark stood untied until 1992 and unbroken until 2007.

In the 1973 event, Ling and Bud Lytle each scored 5-0 before Ling
defeated Lytle in a playoff match.

Dale Burk's given name was Vernon, so that is why he is
listed as "V. Burk" on the trophy; Chiminiello (1991) changed his
surname to Kalafatas (2005).

5/24/15 Update: Tony Mantia graciously provided additional
information about the 1976, 1981-83 and 1990 DCC
Championships. Guehl and Ling tied for second in 1976, a full
point behind Mantia. In 1982, Burk tied with Riley Driver and
Richard Ling for first place but prevailed in a playoff by winning
against Ling and drawing against Driver. 

Most Wins:

David Friedman: 10
Earle Wikle: 6
Richard Ling, Dale Burk: 5
Dave Wolford, Tony Mantia: 4

Repeat Champions (including shared titles; except for special circumstances affecting the 1986 and 1992 championships, most first place ties were resolved by playoffs until the late 1990s when it was decided to simply list tied winners as co-champions):

Dave Wolford (1963-64)
Richard Ling (1965-67)
Tony Mantia (1976-77)
David Guehl (1979-80)
Dale Burk (1982-83)
David Friedman (1999-2000)
Earle Wikle (2001-04)
John Dowling (2004-05)
Ross Sprague (2005-06)
David Friedman (2011-12)
Will Sedlar (2013-14)

At Least Three Championships in a Four Year Span (including shared titles):

Richard Ling (1965-67)
David Friedman (1997, 1999-2000)
Earle Wikle (2001-04)
David Friedman (2009, 2011-12)

At Least One Championship in Three Different Decades:

Dale Burk (1970s, 1980s, 1990s)
David Friedman (1990s, 2000s, 2010s)

Won Championship With Perfect Score (data incomplete for some years):

Richard Ling 1965 (5/5)
Charles Unruh 1971 (5/5)
Dave Wolford 1972 (5/5)
Richard Ling 1973 (5/5)
Bruce Espedal 1974 (6/6)
Alan Casden 1975 (6/6)
Jim Jordan 1984 (6/6)
Alex Goldin 2010 (6/6)
David Friedman 2015 (6/6)

Friday, March 13, 2015

Evaluating Tennis Greatness: Serena's Dominance and Nadal's Superiority Against Federer

Tom Perrotta's Wall Street Journal article The Unconquerable Serena Williams makes a strong case that Williams is the greatest female tennis player of the Open era. Williams is tied with Helen Wills Moody for third on the all-time Grand Slam singles titles list with 19 (Williams had won 18 at the time Perrotta's article appeared) but Perrotta points out that perhaps the most impressive aspect of Williams' legacy is "she has yet to meet her match."

Williams is 17-2 against Maria Sharapova (16-2 when Perrotta made the comparison), 14-11 against her sister Venus Williams, 14-3 against Victoria Azarenka, 10-1 against Caroline Wozniacki, 8-6 against Justine Henin, 10-4 against Lindsay Davenport and 7-2 against Kim Clijsters. Martina Hingis briefly gave Williams a run for her money by winning three of their first four matches but Williams took their last three encounters to finish with a 7-6 record against Hingis.

Perrotta notes Williams' strong record in Grand Slam Finals (now 19-4) and her plus-.700 winning percentage against Top-10 opponents before concluding, "In tennis, 'greatest' means different things to different people: Total majors, weeks at No. 1, career titles, longevity and consistency are among the variables that shape the debate. In one important measure, though, Williams seems to have the best credentials of any player in the Open era. She figured out how to beat everyone who tried to dethrone her, and she did it often. Even if she fades away in the next few years, she'll be able to retire knowing that no other champion got the better of her."

A similar statement can be made regarding Rafael Nadal, as I have noted in several articles (including Why is Rafael Nadal Not Praised Now the Way that Roger Federer Was Praised in 2006? and More Fun With Tennis Numbers). About a decade ago, it became popular to assert that Roger Federer is the greatest tennis player of all-time--but then Rafael Nadal emerged, beating Federer head to head as if Federer had stolen something from Nadal. Those who touted Federer's all-time supremacy not only shortchanged great players from previous eras like Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg but they also failed to adjust their thinking after Nadal's strong groundstrokes pounded gigantic holes into the credibility of their assertions.

Some Federer supporters say that the Nadal-Federer comparison is not fair because Nadal is younger and because Nadal is supposedly a clay court specialist while Federer is an all-around player. Paul Gibson of The Guardian tears apart both of those claims:

Every tennis player is different, but if we assume that these two entered their peak years around the age of 22--the time Federer won his first Grand Slam title (Nadal had already won three French Opens before he turned 22)--and both will compete somewhere around this level until their 30th birthday, that gives each an eight-year period at the top of their game. It also allows that both men faced each other in their simultaneous primes from the summer of 2008 until the summer of 2012.

Closer analysis of this window of time is telling. They met 14 times in that period, with Nadal winning on 10 occasions. Federer's victories came on the clay of Madrid in 2009 and on the hard courts of London and Indian Wells--neither were Grand Slam events. Among Nadal's 10 wins, three were on hard courts, one was on grass and the rest were on clay. Notably, four of his victories were when it mattered most, in Grand Slam finals. They also occurred on three different surfaces--the Mallorcan ceased being a clay court specialist very early in his career. 

In total Nadal won eight Grand Slams in these four years, compared to the five Federer collected, and he amassed 12 Masters titles with Federer winning six. Nadal also won the Olympic gold medal in 2008, and in 2010 he became the only player in history to win three Grand Slams on three different surfaces in one season. He has already bypassed Federer on the all-time list of Masters triumphs--no one has more than Rafa's 27 trophies in their cabinet. 

It should also be noted that in 2009 Nadal, struggling with tendonitis in both knees, suffered the only defeat of his career at Roland Garros (in the fourth round to Robin Soderling) and was unable to defend his title at the Wimbledon Championships. In his absence Federer won both tournaments and in doing so completed the career Grand Slam of winning a Major on all four surfaces and broke Sampras' record number of Grand Slam titles. Few believe he would ever have won the French Open had he had to contend with a fit Nadal.

Clearly, the majority of Federer's achievements have come when Nadal is not around. Indeed, the Swiss already had twelve Grand Slam titles in the bag before Nadal entered his peak years. This is perhaps not surprising when a quick look at his major rivals pre-Rafa reveals a distinctly different calibre of opponent. Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin were all good players; but certainly no more than that. When one sees the names of Mark Philippoussis, Marco Baghdatis and Fernando Gonzalez also on the list of Federer’s victims in Grand Slam finals, it suggests that this was not exactly a golden age in men's tennis. 

Comparing Federer, Nadal and other modern players to the greats of yesteryear is difficult because the sport has changed so dramatically over the past few decades--but there is no problem comparing Federer with Nadal and any objective person can see that Nadal has more than taken the measure of Federer, no matter how many paeans are penned in Federer's honor and no matter how beautiful Federer's game is said to be by so many (including Federer himself, who Gibson notes bizarrely criticized Nadal for being "content to do one thing the entire time" en route to beating Federer into submission in the 2011 French Open, as if for the sake of art and/or sportsmanship Nadal should have deviated from an unstoppable tactic in order to give Federer a better chance). 

Borg versus Nadal is a fascinating historical matchup to contemplate--but Nadal-Federer is a matchup that we have seen 33 times and we know how it ends: Nadal wins (23-10), Federer whines (about Nadal's game not being aesthetic--as noted above--or this gem, also after the 2011 French Open: "If I play well, I will most likely win in the score or beat him; if I'm not playing so well, that's when he wins." It's such a shame for tennis history that Federer has played poorly against Nadal 23 times out of 33; this spate of bad luck is apparently baffling to Federer).

It is not too late for those who prematurely called Federer the greatest of all-time to admit the error of their ways.

Friday, February 20, 2015

What Are the Consequences for Reckless Reporting?

The Most Overinflated "Scandal" Ever has taken a few interesting turns in the past couple weeks. In case you did not know or forgot--and how could you not know, with multiple media outlets breathlessly releasing misinformation every hour on the hour?--the whole saga began when Indianapolis linebacker D'Qwell Jackson told someone on the Colts' sideline that the football he intercepted from Tom Brady near the end of the first half of New England's 45-7 win over Indianapolis was deflated. Except, of course, that Jackson never said that at all; Indianapolis Star reporter Bob Kravitz, sure that he had latched onto a Pulitzer Prize-winning scoop about dastardly deeds committed by the Patriots, either made the whole thing up or relied on a source that has about as much knowledge of the situation as Sergeant Schultz and about as much credibility as Joe Isuzu.

Kravitz was not content to merely get the facts wrong; he also took it upon himself to call for the firing of New England Coach Bill Belichick. Then ESPN, not wanting someone else to enjoy all of the glory that comes with bad reporting and baseless, grandstanding commentary, weighed in with their full armada of talking heads. Mike Wilbon, without doing any investigative reporting on this issue whatsoever and without any facts suggesting that Belichick had committed any offense at all, demanded that the NFL strip the Patriots of their Super Bowl berth because the Patriots are "on probation" in his fevered mind. Chris Mortenson invented a story about 11 of the 12 game day footballs used by the Patriots being significantly deflated. Kravitz' co-worker at the Indianapolis Star, Gregg Doyel, chimed in by calling for Belichick's immediate firing.

Michael Hurley offered a brilliant take on all of the members of the "Shout first, shout some more and don't bother to think later" school of reporting. His whole article deserves your attention but here is his three point breakdown of why the so-called scandal is unfounded and ridiculous:

First, at a press conference last Thursday in Phoenix, NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino spilled the beans that the PSI of the 12 Patriots footballs were never recorded by referee Walt Anderson. Blandino said that balls were measured, and if they were under the low threshold of 12.5, they were simply pumped up with some air. So instantly, the report by ESPN’s Chris Mortensen that said 11 of the 12 footballs were a full 2 PSI under the threshold was essentially debunked. How could Mortensen have that information if nobody could have that information? (The answer, of course, is that a source who desperately wanted such misinformation out there gave him the "scoop.")

Secondly, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported the morning of the Super Bowl that just one of the 11 footballs was 2 PSI under the limit, while the other 10 were "just a tick" under the 12.5 threshold. Rapoport's report was crucial for a number of reasons. For one, he is paid by the NFL, and so he can't afford to be wrong. If his report, which makes Roger Goodell's bloodthirsty office look like a bunch of clowns, turns out to be wrong, how much longer would the league keep him on the payroll? Second, the phrasing of the footballs of being "just a tick" under the limit is at once believable, because that's how non-technical measurements would be recorded, and also because footballs which were originally inflated near the lower limit would likely lose some air pressure after two hours outside in January.

And then there's this: The one football that was 2 PSI under the limit? That was the ball intercepted by D'Qwell Jackson, the pizza man puncher, according to ProFootballTalk. It was the football that was taken to the Colts sideline and then submitted to the NFL to launch an investigation. You're going to tell me that the Colts didn't manipulate that football before submitting it? The team that fired off the accusations of cheating didn't take an extra step or two to make sure they were right by sticking a needle in that football and letting it drain for a few seconds before handing it over to the league and saying, "Hey, the Patriots are using underinflated footballs, so you need to investigate"?

Hurley was just warming up. Next, he pointed out that the same Bob Kravitz who called for Belichick's head on the basis of unfounded ball-deflating allegations pleaded in print with the NFL to give Colts' owner Jim Irsay a second chance after Irsay's DUI fiasco:

So to recap: Irsay took drugs and stepped behind the wheel. He could have killed someone. But Kravitz wasn't angry. Then Bill Belichick was accused of playing football with footballs that had a little less air in them. Kravitz was irate.

Here’s what Kravitz wrote after a very compromised source with an ax to grind against Belichick told him that the Patriots used some underinflated footballs: "If Patriots owner Robert Kraft has an ounce of integrity, he will fire Bill Belichick immediately for toying with the integrity of the game for the second time in his otherwise magnificent career...If Roger Goodell has an ounce of integrity, and he's not spending all his time going to pre-game soirees at Kraft's mansion, he will not only fine Belichick and take away draft choices, but suspend the head coach for the upcoming Super Bowl."

So, driving under the influence of prescription drugs, an act which could result in the deaths of innocent people, is simply the act of a man who needs some help. Underinflate some footballs, and you deserve to lose your job. Solid reasoning there, especially now that we know the entire deflated football accusations were essentially made up out of thin air.

Aces.

Kravitz also fully believed Irsay when he said he had $29,000 in cash on him because he's "extremely generous," but he didn't believe Belichick for not knowing how much air gets pumped into the footballs. His judgment is sound...

OK, I'm sorry, but one more quote from my man Bob Kravitz: "Still, it is utterly amazing (but not really) how far some media will go to defend their city's team, especially when it wins Super Bowls."

If Alanis Morissette ever writes a sequel to her hit song, I hope she'll include this line from Kravitz, which comes while he's doing his local team's bidding.

The whole story just gets better and better every day. Breaking news, stop the presses: there is video of a Patriots' locker room attendant doing something that seems fishy. No further investigation necessary, case closed: Pulitzer for Kravitz, sanctions for the evil Belichick. Oh, wait; the Patriots' locker room attendant was set up by an NFL employee who was switching out footballs as part of a memorabilia scam. If Kravitz' eyes were not obscured by the two feet protruding from his mouth, he might have done some actual investigating and discovered a real scandal!

What are the consequences for reckless reporting? Kravitz, Doyel, Wilbon and Mortenson can get the facts wrong, smear people's reputations and not suffer any meaningful consequences. That is grossly unfair, both to the targets of their sloppy work and to real journalists who deserve the opportunity to provide insightful coverage. NFL players who don't perform well get cut, NFL coaches who don't win enough games get fired but media members who have the right contacts enjoy lifetime job security no matter how sloppy and/or tendentious their work is--and that is the most deflating thing about all of this.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Bill Belichick's Legacy Should Not Be Defined by One Game

It is harsh and unrealistic to define any person's legacy by one moment or one game. A legacy is, by definition, an accumulation of moments and games. Bill Belichick can add to his legacy if his New England Patriots win Super Bowl XLIX but, considering his long track record of success, his legacy cannot possibly be defined solely or primarily just by this game. The reality is that Belichick's legacy has already been largely defined by a series of great moments and games, dating all the way back to his time as an assistant coach. Belichick's defensive game plan from Super Bowl XXV resides in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Belichick, then the defensive coordinator for Bill Parcells' New York Giants, came up with a brilliant strategical approach to slow down the seemingly unstoppable Buffalo Bills' offensive machine headlined by quarterback Jim Kelly. Parcells never made it to a Super Bowl without Belichick by his side.

Belichick has won five Super Bowls--two as an assistant coach with the Giants, three more as the head coach of the New England Patriots--and today he will be making his ninth appearance (three as Parcells' assistant, six as New England's head coach) in arguably the biggest, most prestigious game in all of sports as his New England Patriots face the defending champion Seattle Seahawks. This is expected to be one of the most competitive Super Bowls ever (I'll go on record picking the Patriots to win 24-21 in a contest decided in the waning moments of the fourth quarter) and many people perceive this to be a legacy-defining moment for Belichick. If the Patriots lose, Belichick's critics will crow that Belichick still has yet to win a Super Bowl since the so-called "Spygate" scandal, when the Pattiots had an employee in full team regalia openly and publicly shoot real-time video of football games. If the Patriots win, Belichick's critics will whine about The Most Overinflated "Scandal" Ever and confidently declare that the victory is somehow tainted. In other words, no matter what happens in Super Bowl XLIX, Belichick's legacy will supposedly be tarnished.

This narrative--that Belichick loses no matter what--is ridiculous. I much prefer Kevin Clark's take in The Dueling Legacies of Bill Belichick. Clark writes that Belichick's defining legacy is "bringing value investing to football." Belichick had great success with a 3-4 defense when few NFL teams used that alignment. Belichick was a master at finding players who other teams overlooked who could fit perfectly in that scheme. Belichick did so well with the 3-4 that most of the league's teams copied him and started looking for the same kinds of players. Belichick used to have his pick of the litter among nose tackles because few other teams were looking for nose tackles, but when many other teams started running the 3-4, the Patriots--who always fell to the bottom of the draft because they were at the top of the standings--could not so easily draft the players who they needed. This is when Belichick's genius became fully apparent. Clark explains, "Free agency became even harder. It was no longer cheap or easy for Belichick to get the players he needed. So he did something insane. He completely changed the system." Belichick switched back to the 4-3 defense.

Clark describes what happened next:

He found the cheap and great players there. New England kept winning and he's swung back and forth a handful of times in the remaining decade. Whenever one system gets too costly, he jumps to the other.

This sort of value-searching is common with anything Belichick, who operates as the Patriots' general manager and has full control of the roster. While the NFL waits around for its "moneyball" revolution, the search for inefficiencies is actually long over. Belichick found them all.

A handful of teams have tried to imitate this but have failed. That is because adopting the Belichick model is akin to trying to adopt the Usain Bolt model for running. It takes talent that is really, really hard to acquire.

People who are jealous of Belichick's success and/or spend their lives looking for snipers in grassy knolls fail to appreciate the hard work and intelligence that is the foundation for New England's success during the Belichick era.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Most Overinflated "Scandal" Ever

In the past week or so, we have learned that there is no consensus among NFL quarterbacks concerning the ideal amount of air in a football. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers--arguably the best quarterback in the game today--prefers that his footballs are "overinflated," while other quarterbacks prefer that the footballs are not inflated past the NFL's prescribed air pressure range. The New England Patriots are being accused of deriving some supposedly great advantage by allegedly deliberately underinflating the footballs that their offense used during the first half of New England's 45-7 victory against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game. The NFL is investigating the matter and all that can be confirmed at this point is that New England's 12 footballs were properly inflated before the game, that 11 of those footballs were deemed to be underinflated by halftime and that the footballs New England's offense used in the second half of the game were properly inflated at halftime and after the game. New England led 17-7 at halftime before blowing the game open in the second half and Tom Brady's worst pass of the game was an underthrown attempt late in the first half that was intercepted by the Colts' D'Qwell Jackson.

According to an Indianapolis writer who perhaps thinks that this is his chance at snagging a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, Jackson immediately detected that something was wrong with the football and Jackson submitted the football to Indianapolis' trainer for further investigation. The problem is that this is not true. Shockingly, a member of the mainstream media wrote something that is false (forgive the sarcasm but the mainstream media is completely out of control and if writers cannot even get their stories straight about footballs then why should we trust what they say about matters of global importance?). Jackson emphatically states that he noticed nothing wrong with the ball that he intercepted. Jackson kept that ball because he wanted a souvenir of his first postseason interception. He could not tell the difference between that football and any other football. Ironically, thanks to this media driven "scandal," Jackson does not even have possession of his souvenir, because the NFL is keeping it as some form of evidence.

It is bizarre to believe that the Patriots would tamper with footballs on game day after the footballs have been inspected and fully realizing that officials and opposing players are going to handle those footballs. Every time the Patriots see the Colts, the Patriots beat the Colts like the Colts stole something and the Patriots generally accomplish this by running the ball down the throats of the soft Colts defense. So how would underinflating the footballs even fit in with New England's game plan?

I have a theory about this. I think that the Colts knew that they were going to lose and that they sent an undercover operative to New England's sideline to tamper with the footballs. That tampering resulted in the Brady interception that helped to keep the score reasonably close at halftime and the subsequent "scandal" has diverted focus from how poorly the Colts prepared for, coached and played this game. Of course, I have no proof whatsoever to support this theory but why should that stop me from writing about it? Lack of proof does not stop anyone else from coming up with asinine theories and then lying about the facts in order to bolster those theories. I demand an NFL investigation into the Colts' tampering with New England's footballs!

I don't believe a word that I wrote in the last paragraph. The point is that it is easy to make stuff up and create a tempest in a teapot. Let's try to apply Occam's Razor here. Instead of coming up with conspiracy theories and looking for underinflated footballs under grassy knolls, wouldn't it make more sense to believe that footballs that are thrown, squeezed, spiked and otherwise handled during wet, cold weather will probably lose some inflation during the course of a game? Has anyone from the NFL tested footballs at halftime of cold weather games prior to last weekend? The only reason that this is a national story is that some doofus writer in Indianapolis has an ax to grind with New England and/or he wants his 15 minutes of fame. So why didn't the second half footballs become underinflated? Maybe the outside conditions that affect inflation changed. Maybe fewer footballs were used during the second half. Maybe the second half footballs were slightly overinflated to make sure that even if they lost air they did not become underinflated.

It is reassuring to know that the NFL and the mainstream media are right on top of this story, though. This is a lot more important than PED use, concussions, domestic violence, fatal DWIs, etc. ESPN's Mike Wilbon wants the NFL to throw the hammer down on New England Coach Bill Belichick because Wilbon considers Belichick to be a habitual rules breaker. Does Wilbon have an opinion he would care to share with the world about his fellow ESPN employee Ray Lewis, who led Baltimore to two Super Bowl wins after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice in a still-unsolved double murder? If you just want to cover sports, bloviate during a half hour TV show and make up controversies, then stick to that. If you want to be some kind of commentator and social crusader, then don't pick and choose your issues--unless you think that "Spygate" and some allegedly underinflated footballs are more important than a double murder. Before someone throws out "innocent until proven guilty" concerning Lewis, keep in mind (1) Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in an unsolved double murder so he is, by his own admission, at least guilty of obstruction of justice and (2) just because Lewis has not been proven criminally guilty of double murder that does not mean that the NFL and/or ESPN must hire him or glorify him.

Media members have been on Belichick's case for more than 20 years. They hated him when he mumbled through his press conferences in Cleveland, they mocked him when he did not take the head coaching job with the Jets and they have looked for every reason to discredit/belittle his success in New England. That is the real story here. This deflated football controversy has provided a great opportunity for grandstanding media blowhards to revive the so-called "Spygate" case. If we are going to stomp over that well-trod ground yet again, let's at least stick to the facts:

1) The Patriots did not "spy" on anyone; they conducted their filming out in the open, using a team employee who was dressed in full Patriots regalia. In a May 2008 article, I explained how ludicrous it is to suggest that the Patriots conducted some kind of covert, nefarious operation:

I have not been able to find the "Spygate" videos online but SportsCenter had a great clip of someone--presumably Matt Walsh--standing under a huge stadium scoreboard in full Patriots regalia openly filming the field. The only way he could have been more visible is if he had worn a Bozo the Clown nose and started waving giant semaphore flags. There is no way that any objective person could watch that tape and conclude that the Patriots were trying to hide what they were doing. They committed a technical violation of an NFL rule and were heavily punished for that but to call them "cheaters," to imply that this was some kind of covert operation or to suggest that the Patriots' Super Bowl wins are in any way tainted is absurd--and for Specter to call for a Congressional investigation of the violation of an NFL rule is ridiculous. Should Congress investigate holding penalties and pass interference calls, too? Any analogy made between "Spygate" and the performance-enhancing drugs problem is bogus because PED usage without a prescription is illegal and represents a potential public health problem, particularly for young athletes who look up to stars like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

2) Some sore losers and some New England haters are resuscitating the unproven allegation that the Patriots secretly taped the St. Louis Rams' walkthrough before New England's 20-17 victory over St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI; the Boston Herald irresponsibly--and without any evidence--published that unfounded rumor just two days before the Patriots lost 17-14 to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII, a terrible accusation to make at any time and particularly before such a huge game. The Boston Herald subsequently published a retraction of that article, admitting that there is no factual basis for their original story and that they never should have published it.

3) Two-time Super Bowl winning coach Jimmy Johnson publicly stated that his teams and many other teams did the same kind of filming that the Patriots did.

4) The Patriots won 69.3% of their regular season games prior to "Spygate" and they have won more than 75% of their regular season games since "Spygate." The Patriots have the best regular season record in the NFL since "Spygate." "Yes," the man wearing the tinfoil hat while listening to alien communications from Area 51 says, "but New England won three Super Bowls before 'Spygate' and New England has not won a Super Bowl since 'Spygate.'" The answer to that is simple if you understand probability and sample size; the best NFL team wins the Super Bowl less than 25% of the time. That is why even when Tiger Woods was by far the best golfer in the world it was smart to bet on the field over Woods in any one particular event. The Patriots are in contention to win the Super Bowl almost every year, just like the San Antonio Spurs are in contention to win the NBA title almost every year--but even the best team cannot realistically expect to win every game or every championship.

5) If people are going to persist in declaring that New England's pre-2007 success is "tainted" by "Spygate" then let's take an unjaundiced look at some other Super Bowl champions. The New Orleans Saints figured, "If you can't beat 'em, maim 'em," and their ownership/management/coaching staff/players put out bounties on opposing players. The Saints mauled their way to the 2010 Super Bowl title before the NFL suspended GM Mickey Loomis, Coach Sean Payton and several other coaches and players after discovering the long paper trail proving the existence of the bounties. The San Francisco 49ers violated salary cap rules during the 1990s. Any time you hear the iconic "This one's for John" audio, keep in mind that John Elway failed miserably in his first three Super Bowl appearances before the Denver Broncos circumvented the salary cap in order to put enough talent around him to help him win the big game that he was never able to win while following the rules. The Broncos were twice fined nearly $1,000,000 for those salary cap violations. The 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers are considered the pioneers of NFL steroid usage, which could explain why so many players from those squads have experienced mental and/or physical problems before dying young.

If you believe that a guy sitting in the stands wearing Patriots regalia and filming signals that anyone could "intercept" by carefully watching a TV broadcast committed a sin against football remotely equivalent to the actions of the Saints, Broncos, 49ers and Steelers then there is nothing I or anyone else will be able to say to help you think more clearly.