Friday, February 29, 2008

Roger Clemens Learns the Timeless Lesson: It's Not the Crime, it's the Coverup

You would think that everyone would have learned the lesson decades ago when the Watergate scandal brought down President Richard Nixon, who just a few years earlier had won reelection by a landslide margin: the American public has demonstrated on many occasions that it will forgive just about any transgression if the person who committed it apologizes and truly seems to be contrite--but if a public figure lies and steadfastly denies that he did anything wrong then those falsehoods almost inevitably bring him down. After Jason Giambi was exposed as a steroids user, a lot of criticism and hostility were directed toward him but he apologized and the matter seems to be largely forgotten; few people are saying that he should forfeit his 2000 AL MVP to second place finisher Frank Thomas (I actually think that he should be stripped of that honor in similar fashion to how track and field authorities stripped Marion Jones of her medals but I am less forgiving than the general public). The funny thing is that Giambi's apology was weak and vague and never even mentioned the word "steroids" but people still forgave him.

When the Mitchell Report first came out, Roger Clemens should have done a "Giambi." Like Giambi, Clemens is probably too arrogant to ever directly admit to using steroids but if Clemens had simply issued some kind of apology then his reputation would not be in its current Pete Rose death spiral. Think about the difference between Clemens and his friend/teammate Andy Pettitte: Brian McNamee testified under oath that he personally supplied illegal performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to both Pettitte and Clemens. Pettitte immediately admitted his PED use and no one is investigating him; he probably won't even be punished, even though he has hardly come clean completely about all of the circumstances surrounding his PED use (he did not initially admit to getting HGH from his father in addition to getting HGH from McNamee and I highly doubt that Pettitte's HGH use was as limited as he wants us to believe). Pettitte is literally a criminal and a cheater and yet he has emerged from this situation as some kind of paragon of integrity. Clemens is a bigger star than Pettitte and would have probably been subjected to harsher scrutiny but if MLB is not going after Giambi's MVP then I doubt that there would have been much effort made to go after Clemens' honors if he had not arrogantly and foolishly decided to defiantly proclaim his complete innocence.

Instead, Clemens has apparently lied under oath about matters great (illegal drug use) and small (attending a party at Jose Canseco's house), not only gravely damaging his reputation but very possibly setting himself up to serve time in jail for perjury. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has formally requested that the Justice Department investigate whether Clemens lied during his testimony to that body. Committee chairman Henry Waxman bluntly said, "We didn't think Clemens was telling the truth."

Clemens could have avoided this mess by simply apologizing. In fact, even saying nothing at all would have been preferable to issuing vehement denials that are highly implausible. Committee member Tom Davis recently said, "If Clemens had not said anything when (the Mitchell Report was released) and he was one of 80 or 90 other guys, nobody would have cared, really. But he came forward with such strong statements to the contrary. This gives me no joy at all. I would have liked to (have) punted on this."

Monday, February 25, 2008

"Spygate": Much Ado About Nothing

When the so-called "Spygate" matter first became publicized, I declared that it was "even more played out than the custom of attaching 'gate' to the end of a word every time there is a controversy." Five months later, my opinion has not changed--and the members of the NFL competition committee apparently agree with me. "In my mind, it was yesterday's news," committee chairman Rich McKay said last week. New York Giants President John Mara added, "I'm tired of hearing about it. It's been thoroughly investigated, thoroughly handled."

Not that it should matter, but I doubt that Patriots Coach Bill Belichick is the most popular person among his NFL peers, due to his success against them and his less than gregarious personality. If Belichick had really done something that seriously threatened the competitive balance in the NFL, don't you think that the coaches and executives from other teams would be jumping at the chance to put him in his place?

People make a big deal over how significant a punishment that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell levied against Belichick personally and against the Patriots. The real issue here is simply one of power and control. The NFL has many rules great and small and the league becomes very perturbed if any of those rules are not followed to the letter. The loss of a first round draft pick and the heavy fines sent a message throughout the league: don't think for one second that you can step the slightest bit out of line as long as Sheriff/Judge/Executioner Goodell is on the case.

Here is the exact wording of the rule in question: "Any use by any club at any time, from the start to the finish of any game in which such club is a participant, of any communications or information-gathering equipment, other than Polaroid-type cameras or field telephones, shall be prohibited, including without limitation videotape machines, telephone tapping or bugging devices or any other form of electronic devices that might aid a team during the playing of a game."

Belichick refused to talk about the details of the case while the season was going on but now that it is over, Belichick told Mike Reiss of the Boston Globe exactly what the Patriots had been doing and why he thought that it was permissible: Belichick focused on the phrase "that might aid a team during the playing of a game" and thus he was filming the signals that teams used for future reference, not for use during that same game. He emphatically denied that he ever made halftime adjustments based on the results of such filming, adding, "My interpretation was that you can't utilize anything to assist you during that game. What our camera guys do is clearly not allowed to be used during the game and has never been used during that game that it was shot." He said that on a scale of 1 to 100, the impact of such videotaping on the Patriots' preparations was a "one." Of course, many people would respond to that by wondering why Belichick and the Patriots bothered to do such videotaping at all. Belichick's answer to that is, "Why do anything? Why study tendencies? Why study stances?"

The "Spygate" matter had pretty much died down until Senator Arlen Spector decided to start grandstanding on the eve of the Super Bowl and then disgruntled ex-New England employee Matt Walsh claimed that he had information that could be damaging to the Patriots. Walsh has offered no proof to support his assertions and refuses to do so unless he is indemnified against being sued by the Patriots. While Spector basked in the attention being showered on him and Walsh enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame, the Boston Herald reported on February 2 that an anonymous source said that the Patriots had taped the St. Louis Rams' walkthrough before Super Bowl XXXVI. Belichick told Reiss that this accusation is completely false: "In my entire coaching career, I've never seen another team's practice film prior to playing that team. I have never authorized, or heard of, or even seen in any way, shape, or form any other team's walkthrough. We don't even film our own. We don't even want to see ourselves do anything, that's the pace that it's at. Regardless, I've never been a part of that."

It would be a lot simpler if the NFL simply permitted teams to film anything that is publicly available. Signals that teams use on the sidelines during a game are not issued with an expectation of privacy. If the Patriots did film a private walkthrough then that is wrong, although it is still not clear what exactly they would have gained by doing this.

My take on this matter mirrors my opinion about the Roger Clemens case: if Belichick truly gained a significant competitive advantage by cheating then he should be punished--and if Walsh is lying and/or the Boston Herald's report is not true then they should be punished for slander.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Truth or Consequences

The Roger Clemens case has serious implications but at the core it is simple to figure out. It comes down to how you answer one question: Who do you believe? Roger Clemens has testified under oath that he never took steroids or human growth hormone; his former trainer, Brian McNamee, has testified under oath that he personally injected Clemens with those substances. Point blank, someone is lying--and if it can ever be proven beyond a reasonable doubt who is lying then that person should absolutely go to jail. If Clemens is lying then he broke federal law, violated the spirit of fair competition and contributed to a climate of cheating that set a terrible example for literally millions of young fans who look up to him. If McNamee is lying then he is guilty of slandering the good name of a sports icon who established himself as perhaps the greatest pitcher of the modern era.

Before Clemens and McNamee testified under oath last week to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, committee chairman Henry Waxman declared, "...We have found conflicts and inconsistencies in Mr. Clemens' account. During his deposition, he made statements that we know are untrue...In other areas, his statements are contradicted by other credible witnesses or are simply implausible." This case has already produced hours and hours of televised testimony and reams of affidavits and quotes but when you break everything down here is what we know for sure: Roger Clemens' wife and his teammates Andy Pettitte and Chuck Knoblauch received human growth hormone from McNamee. How likely is it that so many people who are so close to Clemens were taking HGH under the direction of Clemens' trainer and that Clemens not only did not take HGH but was not even aware that these people were using it? Most of the rest of the stuff that is being argued about is just a sideshow. Again, the important question is simple: Do you believe that Clemens did not know that his wife and best friend received HGH from his personal trainer and that despite their usage of this substance that he never tried it?

The American public has already seen great athletes look into the collective eyes of the nation and deliver bold faced lies. Pete Rose swore that he never bet on baseball. Marion Jones angrily denied ever taking performance-enhancing drugs. Clemens' defiant denials are quite predictable and prove nothing; it is much more significant that his story is riddled with inconsistencies. Wouldn't the patty cake session that Clemens had with Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes have been a good time to mention his wife's HGH use? It is obvious that Clemens thought that this would never come to light, so he did not bring it up. Clemens' defense has been riddled with arrogant missteps; it was only after he played the tape of his phone conversation with McNamee for a national television audience that McNamee countered by revealing that he had physical evidence of Clemens' use and that Clemens' wife also used HGH.

McNamee's credibility as a witness is certainly not impeccable--but he has been offered immunity from prosecution if and only if he tells the truth. What possible motivation would he have to lie about Roger Clemens and thereby incur the wrath of the Rocket and his army of attorneys? Pettitte and Knoblauch have already admitted that McNamee told the truth about their HGH use. Why would McNamee tell the truth about Pettitte and Knoblauch and then throw into the mix wild lies about Clemens? It would certainly have been easier for McNamee to not mention Clemens' name at all--but if he did that and then evidence of Clemens' PED use came to light then McNamee would go to jail.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

20 Second Timeout is the Place to go for the Best NBA All-Star Weekend Coverage

Soon I will be heading down to New Orleans to cover the NBA All-Star Weekend, so there will not be any new posts here for the next few days. However, I encourage you to visit my other site to keep up with everything that is going on in the Big Easy:

20 Second Timeout

Obviously, there is a lot going on in the world of sports, including the Roger Clemens case and the so-called "Spygate" situation, but rather than even attempt to be the first to comment on such matters I prefer to provide the best analysis. I am not impressed by the current media fad of making instantaneous, bombastic reactions just to attract readers/viewers. So, if you can't make it to New Orleans to enjoy All-Star Weekend in person, let me be your eyes and ears for the next few days.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Rare Sight: Six Browns in the Pro Bowl

In recent years, watching a Cleveland Brown perform in the Pro Bowl became even more rare than seeing the Browns in the playoffs. The Browns last made it to the playoffs after the 2002 season, while the last Brown to make the Pro Bowl prior to this season was Jamir Miller, who earned that honor after the 2001 season. The Browns returned to the Pro Bowl in a major way this season, with six players making the trip to Hawaii: return specialist Josh Cribbs and receiver Braylon Edwards earned starting nods, Ryan Pontbriand was selected as a long snapper and quarterback Derek Anderson, tight end Kellen Winslow and left tackle Joe Thomas made it as injury replacements. This was a major goal for Winslow, who delayed offseason knee surgery because of the possibility that he could be added to the Pro Bowl roster. Thomas is the first Browns offensive lineman to make it to the Pro Bowl since Cody Risien made the squad following the 1987 campaign and he is the first Browns rookie Pro Bowler since Chip Banks in 1982. The last time the Browns had six Pro Bowlers was 1994, which is also the last time that the Browns won a playoff game; the Bill Belichick-coached Browns beat, ironically, the New England Patriots before losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Anderson and Winslow are the first Browns to make the Pro Bowl at their positions since Bernie Kosar (1988) and Ozzie Newsome (1986) respectively.

It is difficult to stage a football All-Star game at full intensity, because no one wants to risk having star players suffer serious injuries in an exhibition game. Blitzing is not allowed, intentional grounding is permitted and other rules adjustments favor not only safety but also the offense. Not surprisingly, these games tend to be high scoring affairs and the 2008 edition was no exception. The AFC raced to a 24-7 first half lead and the teams combined to tie the Pro Bowl record for most first half points (48, a mark set in 2000). Terrell Owens and Adrian Peterson each scored two touchdowns as the NFC rallied to post a 42-30 victory. Owens had a game-high eight receptions for a game-high 101 yards, while Peterson received the MVP after rushing for 129 yards, the second best total in Pro Bowl history.

All of the Browns players saw extensive action. Thomas and Pontbriand performed well in their important, albeit non-glamorous, roles. Cribbs averaged 26 yards on six kickoff returns, gaining 41 yards on his best effort. Anderson completed passes to both Edwards and Winslow, the first time in literally decades that a Browns quarterback has connected with a Browns receiver in the Pro Bowl. Anderson did not put up great numbers but the initial backlash in Cleveland about his statistics in this game is bizarre. It is important to understand that while trying to lead the AFC back from a 12 point deficit late in the game he threw several long incomplete passes before his final attempt was picked off by Darren Sharper. Anderson completed 10 of 26 passes for 103 yards and no touchdowns. Edwards finished with two receptions for 40 yards, while Winslow had one reception for 11 yards.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Bill Belichick and the Handshake

A record number of viewers watched Super Bowl XLII, so it is very hard to understand how Mike Wilbon can declare that Bill Belichick did not shake Tom Coughlin's hand after the game. Wilbon even said that Belichick should be suspended for this alleged infraction. What a bunch of nonsense. Approximately 100 million people saw Belichick stride across the field, shake Coughlin's hand, put an arm over his shoulder and offer words of congratulation. By Belichick's standards, that was a veritable outpouring of emotion and by any reasonable standard it was certainly a perfectly acceptable display of sportsmanship. It is not Belichick's fault that the timekeeper made a mistake with the clock and that by NFL rules one more play needed to be run after both teams had already come on to the field. Should Belichick have stayed on the sidelines until the clock read triple zeroes? Maybe, but this is hardly a big deal. This is nothing like what Randy Moss did as a Viking when he left the field with time remaining on the clock and his team needing his services to try to recover an onside kick. This is nothing like Tony Dungy having a wink, wink agreement with Jeff Fisher to not call a timeout to force the Titans to have to attempt a punt at the conclusion of the final game of the regular season. Those actions potentially affected the outcome of games. Belichick congratulated the victorious coach and then he left without witnessing the final kneeldown play. Belichick is an easy target for criticism because he makes it clear that he does not care what other people think and because he does not go out of his way to make things easier for the media. He actually has the gall to give terse answers to stupid questions and to not reveal information that might affect his team's team's chance to win. This means that writers covering his team have to actually know their stuff and do some work, instead of just depending on plugging some bon mots from Belichick into their paint by numbers stories. That is why Belichick will be respected, not loved, in victory and why he will be trashed mercilessly in defeat.

The General Abandons His Troops in the Middle of the Battle

Bobby Knight is one of the greatest coaches of all-time. He is also a bully and a hypocrite, someone who has long preached self-discipline while refraining from practicing it himself. Knight solemnly said that he was not prolonging his coaching career just to set the all-time wins record but that is about as believable as Roger Clemens asserting that he does not care about the Baseball Hall of Fame. Knight's boorish behavior resulted in him being exiled from Indiana, the site of his greatest triumphs. Texas Tech took him in at a time when his career and reputation were at a low ebb, providing him the opportunity to set a record that he professed not to care about. Now, with that record safely in his rear view mirror, Knight has rewarded that loyalty by abandoning the team in mid-season, essentially forcing the school to give his son the chance to coach a talented squad and thus get the inside track toward succeeding Knight. The title of Pat Forde's article about this situation says it all:

Knight's final act a hypocritical one in a career full of them

Super Bowl XLII: The Aftermath

The New York Giants' 17-14 win over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII will be talked about for decades to come. Here are a few thoughts that come to mind in the immediate aftermath of this incredible upset:

1) The New York Giants deserve a lot of credit for coming up with good game plans on both sides of the ball and then executing them under pressure against an undefeated team. Some people said before the Super Bowl that all the pressure was on New England because of the perfect season and because New York was a heavy underdog but I never bought that; when you are playing for a world championship there is a lot of pressure. The Giants faced a lot more pressure in this game than they did in the regular season finale versus New England, when the Patriots had much more at stake.

2) Neither Tom Brady nor the New England Patriots will ever mention this or make any excuses but anyone who watched Brady guide New England's record setting offense this season can plainly see that he was not the same player after he injured his ankle in the AFC Championship Game versus San Diego. The Boston Globe and Boston Herald both reported that he suffered the dreaded high ankle sprain in that contest; more than a week before the Super Bowl, said that after reviewing game film ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski concluded that Brady was initially injured in the first quarter and then reinjured the ankle in the third quarter, probably after a Luis Castillo sack with 13:15 remaining. Brady threw two of his season-high three interceptions after that hit, including one on the very next play. He did not complete a pass of longer than 19 yards the rest of that game or in the Super Bowl; down the stretch versus San Diego, the Patriots uncharacteristically relied on their running game after being a pass first team for the vast majority of the season. In the MSNBC article, Dr. Steven Weinfeld explained what kind of impact the injury could potentially have on the Super Bowl: "But if it’s really a high ankle sprain, those things take up to three or four months to resolve. Two weeks is better than one week, but I think there’s a chance that he might not be at the top of his game come Feb. 3."

Watching Brady play in the Super Bowl, two things stood out: (1) he is normally accurate on deep throws but in this game he consistently failed to complete passes that he had made throughout the season; (2) like Dan Marino used to do, Brady is a master of making subtle moves in confined quarters to buy an extra split second to complete passes but against the Giants Brady's footwork seemed awkward and sluggish. These shortcomings are what one would expect from someone who has a gimpy ankle. The Giants deserve credit for their relentless pass rush but Brady faced blitzes all season long and had a phenomenal passer rating and completion percentage in those situations. I'd say that he was operating at about 75% versus the Giants, a level that would probably still be good enough to beat most teams but did not quite get it done against a very determined opponent.

Injuries are a part of the game and no matter what condition Brady was in the Giants still had to make plays and they should be commended for doing so. All I am saying is that I don't believe that physically this was the same Brady who torched the NFL record book during a 16-0 regular season.

3) We will probably never know the true extent of Brady's injury unless it turns out that he has to have surgery. However, the same is not true of Ellis Hobbs, the cornerback who Plaxico Burress beat to score the game winning touchdown. reports that Hobbs played most of the season with a sports hernia/groin injury that is going to require surgery and that he aggravated that injury in the first quarter of the Super Bowl. Of course, Burress also played hurt for most of the season, so he may have been just as physically limited on that fateful play as Hobbs was.

4) Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on fourth down with a 7-3 third quarter lead instead of kicking a field goal has already been heavily criticized, in no small part because of the rather obvious fact that the Patriots ultimately lost by three points. However, there are some other, less obvious facts that must be considered when evaluating this decision. The first thing is that it is hardly a sure thing that Stephen Gostkowski would have made the kick; I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that Belichick has a better idea of his kicker's range than random outsiders do. Also, Belichick has always been a firm believer in going for it on fourth down. You could say that is part of his basic strategy, just like blackjack players have a basic strategy--and any good blackjack player knows that basic strategy only works if it is applied consistently. Statistical research has shown that if a team goes for it all the time on fourth down--even deep in its own territory--in the long run the extra possessions will lead to more scores than the opposing team will get as a result of making stops on fourth down. Even Belichick is not going to go for it on fourth down deep in his own territory but he is pretty consistent about going for it on the other side of the 50 unless time, score and field position strongly dictate kicking a field goal. Just because this was the biggest game of the season is no reason to vary from his basic strategy. Finally, if the Patriots had indeed made a field goal then both teams would have played differently on offense and defense the rest of the game, so it is hardly certain that the score would have ended up 17-17 at the end of regulation. People who want to second guess this one decision should keep in mind that this and other aspects of Belichick's basic strategy have resulted in three Super Bowl victories and two winning streaks of at least 18 games. Are you really sure that you could do a better job strategically from the comfort of your living room couch?

5) The line between immortality and complete failure is razor thin. The Patriots just missed completing several plays that could have all but assured victory. Of course, the play that will be talked about forever is David Tyree's incredible "helmet-catch" that set up the winning touchdown but what about the potential interception that sailed through Asante Samuel's hands earlier on that drive? Or, for that matter, what about Eli Manning writhing free of tacklers perhaps a nanosecond before being sacked and then firing a laser to Tyree? It is truly staggering to consider how history would be completely different if not for a couple inches here or there.

Some athletes and teams reach a point in their careers where nothing other than a championship is good enough. In the late 1980s, the Detroit Pistons just missed winning the title a few times before trading Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre in the middle of the 1988-89 season. Detroit went on to win the championship that summer--and nothing less than that would have been good enough, as Aguirre told me almost 20 years later: "We had to win the title. There is no question. Before I came, I let them know that if we don’t win the title this is a bust." The Patriots have won three Super Bowls, so for this coach and this group of players nothing less than a championship will ever be acceptable. The Patriots' 2007 season will always be considered, in Aguirre's words, "a bust," but it is too soon to say how this will affect the Patriots' overall place in history. When John Elway was a three-time Super Bowl loser he had one place in history but two titles at the end of his career completely rewrote that story, even though he still had a losing career record in the big game. Bill Belichick's Patriots are 3-1 in Super Bowls, including back to back championships, two winning streaks of at least 18 games and the only 16-0 regular season in NFL history. That already is a most impressive resume and if the Patriots add one or two more Super Bowl victories--and I'll go on record now saying that the Belichick-Brady duo will wind up with five Super Bowl rings before it is all said and done--then this Super Bowl loss will be one setback in the midst of a tremendous run. Even if this turns out to be Belichick and Brady's last Super Bowl the Patriots will still go down as the team of the decade--unless the Giants win two more Super Bowls--and their three titles in four years will be enough to keep them in the discussion with the Lombardi Packers, Noll Steelers, Walsh 49ers and the 90s Cowboys. As devastating as this Super Bowl loss is, the most that it can do is "taint" the 16-0 regular season; no rational person can say that it detracts from the previous Super Bowl wins.

6) It is really remarkable how this Super Bowl brought the Patriots full circle; their championship run began with them being heavy underdogs against a high scoring Rams team and producing an upset victory. This time around, the Patriots were the huge favorites and they had an offense that was even more productive than St. Louis' "Greatest Show on Turf." It will be very interesting to see if the Giants can use this triumph as a springboard to win more championships or if they will fade away like the Ravens, Buccaneers and other one year Super Bowl wonders. There is little doubt that the Patriots will still be formidable Super Bowl contenders next season, as they have been during most of Belichick's tenure.

7) There is a certain mystique about champions who always win the big game. Michael Jordan not only won six titles but he never lost an NBA Finals series. Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana each went 4-0 in the Super Bowl. Bill Russell did lose one NBA Finals but after that he won eight in a row and he finished with 11 championships overall, so his one "failure" can be "forgiven." The one thing that Belichick, Brady and the Patriots can never recapture is the aura of having never lost on the biggest stage. Even if they surpass the Noll-Bradshaw duo and win five Super Bowls, in many people's minds that 5-1 record will not be better than 4-0. This is not entirely rational, because playoff losses in earlier rounds seemingly don't figure in this equation--Brady's career playoff record of 14-3 tops both Bradshaw's 14-5 and Montana's 16-7--but the fact is that wins and losses in the final playoff round in any sport are weighed more heavily in the minds of not just fans but also historians.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Giant Upset: Eli Manning Calmly Cancels the Patriots' Pursuit of Perfection

Super Bowl XLII will forever be remembered as the game that ended the New England Patriots' pursuit of perfection--and wrote the first chapter in the legend of Eli Manning. The New York Giants' stunning 17-14 victory is, as ESPN's Steve Young put it, "contextually" the greatest upset in NFL history. Manning earned Super Bowl MVP honors by completing 19 of 34 passes for 255 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception--but the numbers only begin to tell the story of how cool Manning was in the clutch. He led the Giants to two fourth quarter touchdowns, including the winning score--a 13 yard pass to Plaxico Burress--with just :35 remaining. That capped off a dramatic final stanza that featured a Super Bowl record three lead changes.

The template for a Giants victory included shortening the game by winning the time of possession battle and putting constant pressure on Tom Brady when the Patriots had the ball. New York opened the game with a 16 play, 63 yard drive that consumed 9:59 and resulted in a field goal. The Giants set Super Bowl records for most plays on an opening drive and most third down conversions (four) on an opening drive. New England used the remaining time in the first quarter to drive to the New York one yard line. The two total first quarter possessions set a new Super Bowl low. The Patriots scored a touchdown on a Laurence Maroney run on the first play of the second quarter to take a 7-3 lead.

Amazingly, even though the Patriots set the all-time single season scoring record, the margin remained 7-3 entering the fourth quarter. This Super Bowl will have a special place in history because of its shocking outcome but the fact is that most of the game was not particularly exciting. Of course, an air of drama constantly hovered over the proceedings because of what was at stake: the 18-0 Patriots were playing for immortality. Manning opened the fourth quarter with a 45 yard pass to Kevin Boss. That turned out to be the longest play from scrimmage in the game; the Giants not only held the Patriots to 14 points but New England did not have a play from scrimmage longer than 19 yards, which is truly stunning considering how unstoppable that offense looked for most of the season. Boss' reception set up Manning's five yard touchdown pass to David Tyree. New England and New York traded punts after that but then Tom Brady--who went 29-48 for 266 yards and one touchdown--led the Patriots on a 12 play, 80 yard touchdown drive that put New England up 14-10 with 2:42 left; Brady completed 8 of 11 passes for 71 yards on that drive. It briefly seemed like order had been restored and that the Patriots would make another great escape along the lines of the ones that they made in several late season games.

After the ensuing kickoff, the Giants needed to go 83 yards to win the game. Manning seemed to channel the spirit of John Elway playing the Cleveland Browns as he and the Giants repeatedly avoided disaster by the slimmest of margins as they marched downfield; he narrowly escaped sack attempts, the Patriots missed a couple chances to make interceptions and his receivers made some spectacular catches. The Giants had one fourth down conversion and two third down conversions on the drive. Burress did not have a huge game statistically (two receptions for 27 yards) but his game-winning touchdown will have a permanent place in not only Giants' lore but also NFL history as the play that ended the Patriots' dream of going 19-0.

The Giants relentlessly pressured Brady all game long and that trend continued during New England's last desperate possession, which included three incomplete passes and a sack. New England has won three Super Bowl titles and just put together the only 16-0 regular season in NFL history--setting numerous individual and team records along the way--but the Patriots are now the only 18-1 team to not win the Super Bowl, a bizarre distinction that will surely never be matched. The Patriots may very well go on to win more Super Bowls but this season will always have a strange, twisted place in history: a fabulous achievement that will ultimately be remembered as a failure.

Eli Manning, Coach Tom Coughlin and the New York Giants have received a lot of criticism in recent seasons but all of that will be forgotten now because they have pulled off one of the most memorable victories in Super Bowl history. Whether this turns out to be the start of something big for Manning and the Giants or simply a once in a lifetime championship like the one that Joe Namath and the New York Jets famously won, no one can ever take this moment away from them.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Patriots Will Not Stumble Now That They Are One Step From Glory

It has become almost chic to pick the New York Giants to upset the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. For instance, Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman--who normally handicaps games in a very analytical fashion--eschewed logic and picked the Giants based on little more than their road winning streak and what he frankly calls a "hunch." Last I checked, the Patriots have a bit of a winning streak going, too, including a win against these very Giants in the last game of the regular season. That was the game of the year and both coaching staffs deserve credit for the way that they handled a game that was "meaningless" in terms of postseason seeding. It is not a stretch to say that the Giants rode the momentum from their strong performance all the way to the Super Bowl. Nevertheless, despite the fact that they had a double digit lead and despite the fact that they played very well, it is worth remembering that the Giants lost to the Patriots.

That New England-New York game was contested outdoors in the winter elements. The Patriots scored 38 points anyway but late in the season their offense has been stymied a bit--at least compared to the numbers they posted previously--by playing in windy, cold and/or snowy conditions. New England's defense can be effective in any environment but the balmy conditions at the Super Bowl will help to unleash their offense, for which home field did not really provide an advantage in the first two playoff games. It is true that New England's three previous Super Bowl victories were all tightly contested but those Patriot teams did not have the kind of offensive attack that these Patriots do. On a big stage like the Super Bowl, the game can get out of hand quickly. In Super Bowl XXII, Denver took a 10-0 lead over Washington and then lost 42-10. I don't doubt that the Giants can keep things close initially and maybe even strike first blood but without weather as an ally it is hard to believe that they can keep New England's offense under wraps for four quarters. It is also hard to believe that an 18-0 team coached by Bill Belichick that has two weeks to prepare for a game will not perform at its best.

Although there have been a lot of stories written and broadcast about New England's amazing season, I still think that it is fair to say that the media spends so much time following Tony Romo around, looking for reasons to bash Terrell Owens and speculating about Tom Brady's boot that it has literally taken its eyes off of the ball. The game--the competition--is ultimately what the NFL season and the Super Bowl are all about. The NFL is structured to create parity and to prevent one team--or a small group of teams--from dominating year in and year out; the best teams one year get the toughest schedules and lowest draft picks the next year. It is not uncommon to see NFL teams go from worst to first or vice versa from one season to the next. In this environment, it is nothing short of remarkable that the Patriots have already won three Super Bowls in four years, that they are poised to win their fourth title in seven years and that they stormed through 18 straight games without a loss. This type of success is literally legislated against in the NFL--and yet Bill Belichick's Patriots have actually been down a similar road before: in the process of winning back to back championships in 2003 and 2004, the Patriots won 21 straight games. That is something that has really not been emphasized enough: this is the second time that Belichick has coached an NFL team to at least 18 straight wins. Perhaps the media struggles to place this accomplishment in its proper context because so many writers and broadcasters spent years underestimating and denigrating Belichick. Remember when conventional wisdom suggested that Bill Belichick was out of his depth as a head coach and that all he had done during his career was ride the coattails of Bill Parcells? Belichick has torn that "theory" to shreds but it is also worth noting that Parcells was a mediocre coach when he did not have Belichick on his staff: Parcells' record with Belichick is 117-73-1, while his record without Belichick is 55-57. Parcells won both of his Super Bowls with Belichick at his side and the year that he coached New England to a Super Bowl loss was the only year that Belichick was on his staff there. In seven seasons coaching without Belichick, Parcells never won a playoff game. In fact, Belichick coached the Cleveland Browns to a playoff victory--the most recent one for the Browns--in 1994 over Parcells' Patriots.

Long past the time that it should have been obvious that Belichick had been a major asset for Parcells, many members of the media were still reluctant to give Belichick the credit that he is due. Remember when the "experts" said that the Patriots would not be able to withstand the losses of coordinators Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis? That was an ironic twist considering that when Belichick was a coordinator for Parcells he was not considered indispensable by the media--though it should be obvious that he played a much more important role for Parcells than the departed Crennel and Weis later played for him.

The most recent attempt to not give Belichick his due credit is the so-called Spygate situation, which has to be one of the most overblown stories in NFL history. Hall of Famer Howie Long and his fellow Fox network commentator, Super Bowl winning coach Jimmy Johnson, have both stated that the kind of videotaping of signals that the Patriots did is widespread throughout the league. Long does not justify this conduct but says that it is hypocritical of the league to only go after New England and not try to investigate similar actions by other teams. Whatever the Patriots did during the first half of the first game of the season, it is not going on now and had nothing to do with all of the games that they won.

The Patriots will beat the Giants 38-17, crowning one of the greatest seasons in sports history. Hopefully, the media will get Belichick's story right this time; they sure have had enough practice getting it wrong.