The right question to ask about Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles

College Football, NFL

As the Philadelphia Eagles make one headline after another during the NFL’s free agent frenzy, the question most often being asked about Eagles coach and de facto organizational boss Chip Kelly is, “Does he know what he’s doing?”

It’s a bad question, but it’s all part of an agenda designed to ridicule, express sarcasm and make preemptive “predictions” as to how the additions and subtractions will fare. It unavoidably degenerated into the ludicrous as football know-nothing Stephen A. Smith of ESPN trolled for ratings and web hits by implying that Kelly is a racist.

The idea in and of itself is nonsensical but, ironically, it coincides with why Kelly’s wheeling and dealing shouldn’t be viewed as a blind loyalty to the University of Oregon at the expense of keeping his job. No football coach can be labeled a racist today because no football coach who wants to keep his job can afford to be a racist; no football coach can be labeled as married to a former college program and reunite it in the pros because no football coach in his right mind believes that even the best college teams can succeed in the pros.

The right question to ask regarding Kelly has nothing to do with racism, his college loyalties or his system. It has to do with whether or not what he’s doing will work. It’s that simple. And the answer to that won’t be known until the team is on the field.

Looking at NFL history, every coach who tried to do something different saw the new schemes universally treated as if there was a personal affront being committed against the history of the league; that it couldn’t possibly work…because…it just couldn’t. There was rarely a logical explanation with a point-by-point refutation of the new strategy. It was the simplistic and stupid, “That’s not the way we do things here.” If that were the case, there would never have been the forward pass, the spread formation, the run-and-shoot (which most teams use a variation of now), the slot receiver, the pass-catching tight end, or the decision to go back to the old-school smashmouth and a vicious, punishing defense. Anything will be viewed negatively for no other reason than it’s deviating from the current norm. When it’s an unwanted interloper like Kelly who purports to be reinventing the game, then the media and NFL lifers will grow even more incoherent, angry and restless.

The names of Eagles that have come, gone and remained – LeSean McCoy, Nick Foles, Sam Bradford, Kiko Alonso, Ryan Mathews, Jeremy Maclin, Mark Sanchez – are largely irrelevant. What’s important is whether or not Kelly is doing things his way and is going all-in as he does it.

Much was made of Kelly triangulating himself into being the main voice in running the Eagles after winning the power struggle with former general manager Howie Roseman. Roseman had his role changed to executive vice president of football operations, but his job will be limited to negotiating contracts. Kelly managed this by responding to the firing of his front office ally Tom Gamble by threatening to get out of his Eagles contract to go back to college.

College.

The looming threat is always there for coaches who made their names in the NCAA and are more than willing to go back if the “NFL thing” doesn’t work out. Some coaches like Jimmy Johnson were essentially professional coaches when they were in college. Some, like Steve Spurrier and Bobby Petrino, were college coaches who were giving the NFL a shot knowing they’d eventually head back to college sooner rather than later. And some are perfectly content with either/or. Jim Harbaugh and Kelly fall into that category.

The concept that Kelly is gutting the Eagles and replacing the erstwhile roster with something akin to what would have been found at a University of Oregon booster meet-and-greet with NCAA football championship contending players of yesteryear is a convenient storyline to make him look as if he’s pining for his college days and transferring what was in the Pacific Northwest to the Northeast and trying to succeed with it to prove his genius. In truth, any boss is going to want to import people with whom he has a rapport; who know how he wants things done; who are so accustomed to his tics and quirks and style that there’s a spoken shorthand streamlining communications. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Johnson was torched when he got to the NFL, took over the Dallas Cowboys and followed Tom Landry’s distinguished reign with a 1-15 embarrassment. But it was that 1-15 embarrassment that planted the seeds for the Cowboys’ three Super Bowls in four years. It was the decision to trade Herschel Walker at mid-season and getting what amounted to the S&P 500 worth of draft picks that let him get the players he wanted.

But Johnson was in the NFL and had zero intention of going back to college. Spurrier on the other hand, took the job as head coach of the Washington Redskins to feed his own ego, make a ton of money and try to prove that he was not only the best college football coach in the land, but the best football coach period. He’d do it his way with University of Florida players – whether they were suited to the NFL or not – and he’d do it while making plenty of time for golf. His offense didn’t work and his attitude was a disaster. He ran back to college as an almost foregone conclusion once he realized he couldn’t dominate the games with his offensive genius, intimidate the players by holding their scholarships over his head, and control the media simply through their lovelorn, glazed-over lust for him. People dared to have the audacity to question the ol’ ball coach Spurrier. He couldn’t have that.

When Vince Lombardi entered the NFL as an assistant coach for the New York Giants, the players rolled their eyes at him and thought he was some short, loud jerk from college. Eventually, he gained their respect and got the job as the czar of the Green Bay Packers. It was there that he set about resurrecting a moribund franchise by making such unpopular moves as immediately trading away the team’s best player and most prominent personality Billy Howton because Howton was insolent, had a big mouth, was divisive and was exactly the type of player who would sow dissent in the locker room because he wasn’t getting the ball enough. In part it was due to the new coach wanting to send a message; in part it was due to Lombardi realizing he was going to install a power-based running offense that didn’t need a mouthy end demanding the ball.

If Lombardi were around today, set about rebuilding the Packers in the way he did in 1959 with the same players and there was 24/7 sports talk and cable channels, Paul Hornung would be called a Heisman Trophy bust, Bart Starr would be called a non-prospect joke, and Lombardi would be referred to as a would-be drill sergeant who never served in the military and had a Napoleon complex with no clue how the NFL really functioned.

Lombardi is considered the greatest football coach in history.

Even Bill Belichick wasn’t immune to the criticism for making necessary cuts to further his plan for the New England Patriots. It’s easy to forget now, but Belichick was said to have “lost” the locker room after he cut Lawyer Milloy at the end of training camp in 2003. It was a salary cap move made because Milloy refused to take a pay cut. Leaders like Ty Law and Tedy Bruschi were livid. After Milloy (and former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe) and the Buffalo Bills obliterated the Patriots in the opening game of that year 31-0, there were questions as to whether Belichick’s job was on the line. He stayed stoic, explained his position, made clear he was the boss and in command, and that the decision to cut Milloy was best for the organization in the present and future.

Then the Patriots won 17 out of 18 games through the Super Bowl and Milloy wasn’t mentioned as anything but a meaningless, “Oh, yeah. That.” They won the Super Bowl the next year as well and Belichick’s job status has never been in question since.

Someone has to be in charge.

Coaching in the NFL can be a dirty business and if a coach isn’t willing to play dirty and use somewhat underhanded tactics in organizational politics, he’s not going to last very long. If being static were the idea with no room for innovation and change, we’d be trapped in a purgatory of players in leather helmets running into each other with no excitement, no innovation, no intelligence – just brute force and dullness. In a similar sense, in years gone by, coaches had bizarre – often dangerous – training tactics like refusing to allow players water while they were practicing and forcing the players to partake in pads-on scrimmages that were even more brutal than the games themselves. Without positive advancement, the players wouldn’t even be allowed to seek big money in free agency. It wasn’t that long ago that NFL free agency was a wink-and-nod joke with every team knowing they had what amounted to indentured servants at their disposal. Innovation and change is a good thing.

Kelly has a top-to-bottom idea of how he wants the team to function from the dietary habits of the players to the training techniques to the fast break offense he wants to implement. If he’s doing it and doing it his way, then he’d better make sure to throw all his chips into the center of the table and either win big or lose it all. That’s what he’s doing. It’s not racism. It’s not stupidity. It’s not ignorance. There’s only a hint of megalomaniacal arrogance that you find in all NFL head coaches and there’s a method behind the perceived madness. He’s right to do it his way in theory even if it fails in practice. At least then there won’t be the regret of woulda, shoulda, coulda. Like any other change, it’s either going to work or it’s not. Then will be the time to judge. Not now.

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Johnny Football’s Half-Day Off And The NCAA’s “Incompetence”

College Football, Games, Management, Media, Players, Politics

Apart from Texas A&M and the NCAA, it’s universally agreed that the half-game suspension of quarterback Johnny Manziel is an insult to society’s collective intelligence. What most are doing in their ravaging of the NCAA is looking at it from the wrong perspective. Once the way the NCAA runs its operation is examined for what it is, then there won’t be such moral outrage at the ambiguity of its rules.

Let’s look at the myths and misinterpretations regarding the NCAA.

The incompetence is unintentional.

It’s very easy to be stupid when one is stupid. There’s also less of a backlash. But when one is run by a large outfit of seemingly intelligent people who know the law, know the rules and know about ethics (even if they don’t apply its principles), then it goes beyond not knowing what one is doing. It extends to knowing what one is doing better than critics and adversaries. The NCAA knew that there would be this kind of reaction to such a silly penalty for Manziel allegedly signing autographs and getting paid for it. They also knew that there was an expectation that they’d let him slide if it was proven he did anything against the rules. They split the baby by failing to provide evidence that he signed the autographs and was paid, but punished him anyway. They didn’t let him slide, but technically didn’t use preferential treatment with him or his school. In a backwards way, it’s brilliant.

Fundamental principles apply

It was never actually proven that Manziel did anything wrong, but that’s never mattered to the NCAA. The key is that Manziel is the Heisman Trophy winner for a big-time college football school. He was the first freshman to win the award and is a rainmaking celebrity. If this was some walk-on kid who has a uniform and might get in for five plays in a season in a couple of blowouts, the point would be moot because no one would be asking for his autograph let alone pay him for it. If it was a mid-level kid who had a partial scholarship and signed an autograph for $10 because he played for a big time college program even though no one knew who he was, he would’ve been used as an example by the NCAA of what happens to those who violate the rules and punished to the fullest extent possible. Since it’s Manziel, he gets a tsk-tsk-tsk slap on the wrist, warning not to do it again (whatever it was he did or didn’t do), a wink and a nod and unsaid understanding that he and his school are special cases.

The NCAA is not a dictatorship

The NCAA is the dominant administration in college sports and acts like it. There’s a “what are you gonna do about it?” attitude for which there is a certain amount of justification. Precisely what, other than write angry columns and lampoon the penalty, is anyone going to do to bring down this monolith known as the NCAA?

It’s a dictatorship and like any type of government run in such a manner, the results are what’s important. If Manziel’s punishment was seen as appropriate, they’d strut around and use it to exemplify why the NCAA knows what it’s doing. Since there’s such an overtly negative reaction to it, it’s twisted into an agreement between the school and the governing body to function as a warning that even the biggest stars in college sports can be subject to sanctions.

In other words, if it works, I was for it; if it doesn’t, I’ll point the person next to me and blame him.

It’s not about money

Dictatorships need funding and funding comes from people with money. Boosters who support universities and their athletic programs are not going to sit idly by when the players who help the teams win are suspended for questionable reasons. Television networks counting on big ratings from broadcasting Texas A&M games simply because they have Manziel are going to demand he be allowed to play. The number of people connected by the NCAA reaches exponential proportions. That was never going to be placed in jeopardy over $7,500 supposedly paid to a kid who’s already from a wealthy family.

There are qualifications that can be made. Money from collegiate sports is used to increase a school’s visibility, attract students, promote research and raise the boats for all. Are any of the featured players in the drama going to allow one autograph session harm everything that is linked by college sports?

The NCAA must maintain its façade of being about healthy competition between schools side-by-side with the fact that it’s a business. It’s a big business with a don’t ask/don’t tell/don’t get caught policy. Depending on who it is that gets caught will determine what the punishment will be. Since it was Manziel, the punishment is one-half of one game that the team would probably win no matter who’s playing quarterback. It’s a non-suspension suspension to give the NCAA and the school plausible deniability that they’re looking the other way and that there are issues in play other than their contradictory rules.




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Belichick Won’t Be Blamed For Hernandez’s Mess

College Football, Draft, Football, Free Agents, Hall Of Fame, History, Management, Media, NFL, Players, Playoffs, Politics

Bill Belichick is one of the few coaches who won’t get any of the blame for the current predicament that Aaron Hernandez is facing. You can read about the latest with Hernandez here, but at best it sounds like another player who got involved with “associates” who he would have been better served not to have been involved with. At worst, he’s in a lot of trouble.

Regardless of that, what would be said if this were another incident in the long line of incidents that occurred with the Dallas Cowboys under Jerry Jones and company? What would be said if it was Rex Ryan and the New York Jets with their overt lack of discipline and seemingly fundamental need to embarrass themselves with loud talk and little on-field action? The Cincinnati Bengals have had their share of off-field turmoil. The Oakland Raiders have a long history of actively seeking out players who would be in jail if they couldn’t play football—and they might be in jail anyway.

Fairly or not, there are organizations for whom the players’ behaviors are seen as an entity unto themselves with no responsibility doled out on the team or the men who signed them, tacitly agreeing to take the personal problems in order to try and win. That the Patriots, under owner Bob Kraft, were the team that drafted Christian Peter claiming not to know his history of misogyny and then chose not to sign him once they “found out” about them created the image of a team that doesn’t do it “that” way meaning the Jones way or the Al Davis way in not caring about personality as long as the player can help them.

The image failing to jibe with the reality is meaningless. If the coach of the Patriots were a Barry Switzer-type outlaw, then of course the blame for Hernandez’s predicament would be dropped on the desk of the coach because he couldn’t “rein in” his player as if that’s even possible with grown men. Since it’s Belichick, he has the power to do the things he wants and if that includes dumping a player who can still produce because he’s mouthy and violates team rules, so be it. Other coaches without Belichick’s resume and the organizational track record of success would have to make certain compromises and bend the rules to try and win to keep their jobs and have the fans come to the games. Belichick has the best of both worlds: he can dump the player or he can sign the player and no one will say anything either way.

Belichick can sign Randy Moss, Chad Johnson, Albert Haynesworth and other players who’ve had on and off-field issues and see if they’ll fit into his program. He can sign Tim Tebow and not worry if it’s going to lead to a huge media circus around his team, nor be frightented of Tebow’s legions reacting negatively if he cuts him. If these players don’t help his team, he can dispatch them with no harm, no foul. If they do, it’s more evidence of Belichick’s “genius.” In truth, it’s still a compromise, but the compromise doesn’t have to be buttressed by putting up with the same behaviors that got the players in trouble and made them available to the Patriots on the cheap in the first place.

No matter who the coach is, how scary he can be and the rigid discipline he displays to keep his house in order, there will always be players for whom trouble is a magnet. Some skirt it and rejuvenate themselves, dodging the bullet sometimes literally and figuratively, as Ray Lewis did; sometimes they end up in jail for the rest of their lives like Rae Carruth. When dealing with grown men making the money amid the fame that NFL players are today, there’s nothing a coach can do to keep his players completely in line during their off-hours. Nor should it come as a surprise if a vast majority of professional athletes are carrying firearms. In fact, given the history of people seeking out athletes to rob because their salaries are so prominent, they’re irresponsible if they don’t take steps to protect themselves. Given today’s debate regarding guns, it’s not politically correct to say that, but there’s a difference between a person who has a need to protect himself and a mentally unstable person who is able to acquire weapons for the express purpose of committing mayhem.

A coach can’t tell a player not to take steps to keep himself safe and no one—not even Belichick—has such omnipotent powers to shield a key to his team like Hernandez from what happened in this case. Belichick has protection as well: the championships absolving him from any questioning and blame. Other coaches don’t have that. That’s his weapon if he chooses to use it and, unlike what might have happened with Hernandez, it’s not going to get him sent to jail if he does.

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Draft Day Rant Understated

Award Winners, Basketball, Books, CBA, College Football, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Football, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Management, Media, MiLB, MVP, NFL, PEDs, Players, Prospects, Stats

I’m not going into my usual rant about the attempts by Major League Baseball to turn the draft into an extravaganza along the lines of what the NFL does. The differences are obvious and conveniently glossed over. The most glaring being:

  • The game of football from college to pro is essentially the same.
  • The players are recognizable to a vast majority of people who follow both versions of the sport.
  • It’s easier to project what a player is going to be when he gets to the NFL than it is for a baseball player transitioning from amateur to pro.
  • And in the NFL (and NBA for that matter) the player is walking out of the amateurs and into the highest level of play he can achieve—there are no minor leagues and evolutionary climb along with the favoritism that’s shown to a higher draft pick who has a lot of money and hype invested in him in the other sports.

In addition, most of the “scouting reports” you get from the “experts” in the media is regurgitated trash that they’ve heard from someone else or have accumulated by watching a five minute clip of a player and using buzzwords and catchy phrases designed to make the statement sound in-depth when it’s anything but.

The most refreshing thing I read today regarding the draft came from a GM the stat guys have grown to loathe, Dan Duquette of the Orioles. Duquette was asked about the draft age son of the player he signed for the Red Sox, Manny Ramirez, and Duquette replied, “I don’t know much about Manny’s boy.”

If it were a GM with a pretentious reputation to protect like Billy Beane or a media draft “expert” like Keith Law, a load of facts, figures and analysis would’ve been rattled off as if it was only a matter of flipping through brain files, finding Manny Ramirez Jr. and providing a biography, a comparison to his dad, his positives and negatives, and projection of what he can be. Most of it would’ve come from the aforementioned brief clip of film, information from someone else that was memorized because they knew they’d be asked about him, or foundational statements that couldn’t be proven or disproven due to their all-encompassing randomness.

Here’s the truth: while a GM for a big league club follows the amateur players who are the potential high draft picks, the grunt work is left to the lower level scouts who find the players. They send information up to the cross-checkers to sift through the recommendations and verify what the scouts are saying. It’s then sent up through the ranks to the upper level of the organization to give a yay or nay to the top picks. Once it gets down to the later rounds, the players who aren’t in the top echelon become names in a barrel with some kind of skill or attribute—a searing fastball, a good eye, speed, home run power, a great glove—that makes it worth drafting them knowing that a player drafted from beyond the tenth round probably isn’t going to make it past Single A and if he does, it’s a fluke.

Duquette’s personality (or lack thereof) isn’t such that his ego has to be stroked with others marveling about what he “knows” because he’s perfectly willing to admit what he doesn’t know about the son of a player he himself gave $160 million to join the Red Sox. There is simply too much for a GM to do running the organization to watch every single draftable player and come to an assessment. There aren’t enough hours in the day. The GM will go and look at the top tier players, but apart from that, it’s left to the underlings. It reflects on the GM who he hires to be the scouting director and the methods in which they find players, but to blame the GM or give him credit? Not even the scouting directors are able to look at every single player past the projected first ten rounds and come to an ironclad conclusion as to what a player will be. It comes down to talent, development, opportunity and luck.

You’ll hear a lot of names today and vanilla scouting reports from the draft-watchers that they got from a guidebook, magazine, website or via the whispers of someone who’s supposed to know what the players can do. Most of those names you’ll never hear again. Then we’ll start the process all over again next year with the same wasted time and energy listening to people who are making money quantifying the unquantifiable exercise known as the MLB Draft.

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The Astros Blueprint Begins To Fade

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For the Astros, all of a sudden the blueprint isn’t as simple as plugging a bunch of numbers into the machine and achieving the desired result. With the resignation of CEO George Postolos there’s speculation that the Astros “united front” of rebuilding by detonating the entire organization isn’t as united as it was portrayed to be. There’s also talk that Nolan Ryan now has an opening with the Astros to be the team president since the Rangers have mitigated his CEO role and he was unhappy about it.

To put an end to the speculation on both ends, Postolos is not a baseball guy. He’s a business guy who assisted Astros owner Jim Crane in getting the franchise. Losing him is irrelevant.

Ryan has ties to the Astros fans from his days pitching for them, but think about it logically: He would be leaving the Rangers because his say-so was supposedly undermined by the promotion of GM Jon Daniels to head of baseball operations and Ryan is now seen as a figurehead, but going to the Astros and working for GM Jeff Luhnow and placating the fans who are angry at the team being so supernaturally terrible would be the epitome of a figurehead move. Luhnow certainly wouldn’t listen to Ryan’s old-school baseball theories and the stat people in the front office would roll their eyes at him when he was out of the room. It wouldn’t be a lateral move, but a step down into the “old man” status he so clearly loathes. In actuality, the one place aside from public relations in which Ryan could help the Astros is on the mound. Since he could throw 90-mph years after his retirement, there’s a pretty good chance that he could still throw in the 80s even at age 66 and would have the pitching savvy to do better than what the Astros are currently tossing out there.

Dismissing the departure of Postolos and the talk of hiring Ryan, the Astros are coming to the inevitable conclusion that the fans being onboard with this expansion-style rebuild was fleeting. They’re not going to pay to see a product that is so blatantly and intentionally not of Major League quality, nor are they going to sit happily while the owner scoffs at the fans wanting him to spend more money to at least make the team cosmetically better. It’s easy to draw up the plan for a teardown and reconstruction without accounting for the blowback from such a decision. There’s support for what Luhnow and Crane are doing and that support will not waver in places like the halls of Baseball Prospectus and Keith Law’s house, but that doesn’t mean they have carte blanche to do whatever they want with the fans merrily going along with it sans complaints. Ryan might quiet them briefly if he was hired, but how long would that last while his suggestions were being ignored and Crane was trotting him out as a human shield to protect him from fan and media vitriol? Fans don’t go to the park to see the team president do his presidenting. Most probably didn’t know who Postolos was and while they’d know Ryan, that wouldn’t perfume the stink that these Astros are generating.

The key for Crane is twofold: 1) can he stand the constant attacks he’ll be under as the team gets worse before it gets better? And 2) Can Luhnow find the talent to make the club viable again?

On the first front, Crane is probably not accustomed to people talking to or about him the way they currently are. Rich, successful businessmen aren’t pleased about criticism and when it’s an alpha-male Texan where any small concession is seen as a sign of weakness and can cost money and clients, it’s magnified.

Regarding Luhnow, because the Astros are going to have so many high draft picks and are pouring most of their resources into development, it will be hard not to get better and show signs of significant improvement eventually. Whether that will yield the results that are expected in a replication of the Rays or the new “genius” in the Moneyball sense remains to be seen and it’s not guaranteed to happen. Already there should be concerns that their hand-picked manager Bo Porter is starting to look overmatched and was rightfully mocked because he didn’t know a fundamental rule of the game last week against the Angels. To make matters worse, his coaches didn’t point out to him that what he was doing was illegal either. That he got away with it only made it look worse.

There are similarities between another Texas team that was purchased by a brash rich man who didn’t want to hear what didn’t work in the past as Jerry Jones bought the floundering Cowboys from Bum Bright in 1989. Jones said some stupid things as Crane has, but he also had the foresight and guts to fire Tom Landry and hire Jimmy Johnson to put him in charge of the entire on-field operation. Of course it helped that Troy Aikman was sitting there as the first pick in the 1989 NFL Draft and that Johnson was a ruthless wizard with moving up and down the NFL draftboard and dispatching those who couldn’t or wouldn’t help him achieve his goals as rapidly as possible. But the key for those Cowboys was the Herschel Walker trade in which Johnson fleeced the Vikings for a bounty of draft picks that he used to put a Super Bowl team together in four years.

Jeff Luhnow is not Jimmy Johnson in terms of personality nor intensity, can’t trade up and down the MLB draftboard, and he doesn’t have a Herschel Walker equivalent on his roster to trade. Porter is not Johnson in terms of on-field strategic skill and in threatening and pushing his coaches and players to get it done or else.

Unless there’s some past business animosity between the two, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jones has called Crane as Al Davis used to call Jones during the Cowboys’ 1-15 season in Jones/Johnson’s first season running the team and told him to keep his chin up. By “chin up” I don’t mean Jones is suggesting to Crane to have the ill-advised, multiple plastic surgeries Jones has had as he’s aged, but to keep his chin up in response to the raking he’s getting for the atrociousness of his team. Not only does Crane need to keep his chin up, but it had better be able to take a punch as well because they’re starting in earnest now and won’t stop until there’s a marked improvement in the on-field product. And that’s a long way away.

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The Implausible Image Reconstruction of Joe Paterno

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The Joe Paterno image reconstruction has entered the last vestiges of rebuilding a myth that was undone months before Paterno’s death. For a man who dedicated his life and put forth the pretense of doing things differently—and “right”—while crafting an unassailable persona of delineating between what he did and what the likes of Barry Switzer did at the University of Oklahoma, the memory of decency and adhering to principles is all that’s left and the family is taking great pains and presumably undertaking significant expense to salvage whatever’s left of that crumbled persona.

Paterno took pride in not recruiting the type of player who wouldn’t go to class; who couldn’t read; who was passed through because of his skills on the football field and the money he could bring in by helping the team win; who would commit crimes and get away with them. He did all of this while allowing a pedophile, Jerry Sandusky, to work as his defensive coordinator and stalk his campus even after he was no longer the defensive coordinator. Which is worse?

In this New York Times piece discussing the report commissioned by the family to defend Paterno, it’s noted that Paterno and Sandusky didn’t have a personal relationship; that Paterno didn’t like Sandusky. If that’s the case, why didn’t he fire Sandusky? I don’t mean for the child abuse allegations, but years before just because he felt like it? Even if Sandusky wasn’t accused of these heinous crimes, Paterno was under no obligation to keep Sandusky around if he didn’t want him. Was Penn State’s on-field dominance and recruiting going to suffer without Sandusky? Highly unlikely. Was Sandusky an irreplaceable defensive wizard? The consensus is that Sandusky was a good defensive coordinator, but this isn’t the NFL where there has to be a scheme to suit the players and the head coach’s job was dependent on the performance of his assistants. They could’ve found someone else to install as the defensive coordinator and there wouldn’t have been a noticeable difference on the field.

Did Sandusky have something on Paterno that necessitated keeping him around and letting him run free with his nefarious activities? It’s a viable question. Paterno was so powerful at Penn State that he was able to control the entire campus if not the entire state of Pennsylvania. His power was so vast that could’ve named his wife as defensive coordinator and gotten away with it and, given the talent levels they had, the team would’ve won anyway. In fact, he could’ve put a headset on a monkey and stuck him in the booth with a hat that said, “defensive coordinator” and there wouldn’t have been a marked difference between Sandusky or Sue Paterno doing the job.

This was not a professional sports situation in which a coach has to accept certain mandates in hiring his assistants because of owner desires or other factors. Paterno was basically the “owner.” He could do what he wanted. There are circumstances in professional sports where a manager is told which coaches he’s going to have. We saw it last year to disastrous results with the Red Sox and Bobby Valentine not speaking to his bench coach Tim Bogar, who he saw as an undermining spy (and was right), and not having a relationship with his pitching coach Bob McClure, who was fired during the season.

Veteran managers like Jim Leyland and Joe Torre have had coaches thrust upon them in the past. In all of Leyland’s jobs, there have been “his” guys Milt May, Gene Lamont, Lloyd McClendon and Rich Donnelly. He trusts them and they’re his aides-de-camp. With the Pirates, though, he had Ray Miller as his pitching coach. Leyland and Miller weren’t buddies, but Miller was a fine pitching coach and Leyland had little choice in the matter because Miller was hired by the front office.

In the end, Leyland was going to do what he wanted with the pitchers no matter what the pitching coach said so it didn’t matter who was sitting next to him on the bench and the same was true with Paterno. It was his show. When the aforementioned Switzer took over the Dallas Cowboys from Jimmy Johnson, he essentially inherited an entire coaching staff, many of whom wanted his job and were still loyal to Johnson. Switzer wanted to be Cowboys coach and that was a concession he was forced to accept to make it happen.

This is not unusual. Front offices don’t want managers hiring their buddies and managers don’t want people they don’t trust in their clubhouse. The front office always wins out. Paterno was not in the position where he had to be agreeable about anything. He was the front office and he made the final call.

Much like the saying that there’s nothing more useless than an unloaded gun, what purpose did Paterno’s accumulated power serve if he was more concerned about his legacy and pretentiously ensuring that the image surpassed the reality than with dealing with what Sandusky was doing? I get the impression that Paterno was told about Sandusky and didn’t truly understand what it was he was being told. Whether that was due to old age; a compartmentalized wall he’d built in his mind not to acknowledge that people—especially someone with whom he’d worked for decades—would do terrible things to children; a desire to protect himself, his legend and Penn State; or all of the above was known only to Paterno.

On both sides of a legal argument, anyone can find an “expert” to say whatever needs to be said to bolster the viewpoint of the person who requested the testimony and investigation. They’ll have “proof” regardless of how ludicrous and farfetched it sounds. The family collected credible names in former United States Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and attorney Wick Sollers to provide the defense. These men have lots of credentials, impressive resumes and letters after their names. Not to impugn their impartiality, but since they were paid by the Paterno family, what were the odds they would find fault in what Joe Paterno did? That they would agree with Louis Freeh’s conclusions? You don’t have to come up with a number because I can tell you what it is: zero.

Freeh, the former FBI Director and lead investigator hired by Penn State’s board of trustees in the Sandusky case, had no obvious vested interests. Agree with him or not, it made little difference to him whether Paterno was complicit in any part of the case. If he was innocent, what difference would it have made for Freeh to say so?

In such a public pronouncement and presentation as that of the Paterno family, there are no parameters for the defense. Paterno’s dead and the only dissection and finders of fact will be done and made by the public. Their judgment is not legally binding nor does it have worse consequences than what the Paterno family is currently fending off. They’re saving a monument, not keeping someone out of jail.

Some will be searching for justification of Paterno’s innocence; others seeking confirmation of his ignorance and/or guilt. Each side has their own versions of the facts and individual desires to have them seen as the “truth.” We’ll never know the answer. But if the Paterno family thinks that this report will rebuild “Paterno” as the totem and not the man, they’re as ignorant as Paterno himself was when Sandusky operated with impunity with Paterno the man, wittingly or not, contributing mightily to Paterno the totem’s downfall.

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Expressing Anger at Torii Hunter Solves Nothing

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It’s fine to expect all professional athletes to be as accepting and understanding of others as Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe is in regards to the sexual orientation of others. Kluwe has expressed as such publicly, multiple times and as a result people who ordinarily haven’t the faintest clue who the punter for the Vikings is, now know due to his outspokenness on a controversial subject. But expecting every athlete to be so open is not reality. There’s still a wall between certain players and the possibility that in the future there will be an openly gay teammate in their clubhouse.

There are ways to deal with any reluctance on the part of players who are open about their feelings regarding this issue as Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter was when in this LA Times article on the subject he said he’d be “uncomfortable.” Savaging them in the media, getting them to backtrack and/or apologize when they don’t mean it isn’t an effective method to solve the underlying beliefs that led to his statement in the first place.

There are methods though. One is through management of the club saying that if you have a problem with it, we’ll accommodate you…by getting rid of you.

Vince Lombardi’s brother Harold was gay and in his time as a coach, Lombardi had gay players. He also made it a point to tell the other players that if they ever questioned said players’ manhood, they’d be gone. Presumably, he would also have used his power to blackball that particular player from other NFL teams. Nothing stops the side effects of prejudice like fearing for one’s livelihood that if you can’t deal with working X person, then you won’t have a job. It won’t eliminate the core beliefs that led to the prejudice, but it will prevent it from festering and infecting the club.

Interestingly, while Vince Lombardi is often held up as a paragon of conservative values, he was an ardent Democrat. It was Harold Lombardi who happened to be a staunch conservative when the Republican party was about business interests and not about telling people how to live their lives; he was a Republican before the Republican party was overrun by religious fundamentalists who excluded rather than included. That hardline attitude is shaking the ground beneath the feet of the ultra right wingers and religious right with the prospect of party marginalization that accompanies continuously losing elections with the untenable candidates they’re presenting such as Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock. This is serving to “educate” them far better than an enlightening discussion that’s not going to enlighten anyone.

The bottom line tells all. Losing jobs, losing elections, losing money—it all results in the sudden epiphany of, “Hey, okay. I can work with others! I can be flexible.”

Hunter’s comments have been the catalyst for indignant blog postings and Tweets expressing shock that someone would dare say such a thing on the eve of 2013 when we, as a society, are supposed to be beyond all that, but maybe a little understanding of where Hunter is coming from would be beneficial. When a person is told from the beginning of his or her life that homosexuality is a sin; when the “proof” of this is presented in biblical texts and hammered into their brains at home from their parents; when they hear from respected members of the community such as pastors, priests, and rabbis, and, in conjunction, they’re functioning in the testosterone-fueled fishbowl of sports, do you think they’re going to express a liberalism when it comes to a person’s sexuality?

Because the public doesn’t want to hear what Hunter said, it’s not eliminated from existence.

These are facts and they’re not politically correct. The ever-present litany of clichés for athletes was created for public consumption and is designed to shun controversy. With that, you have athletes saying flavorless sound bytes of vanilla nothingness. Hunter spoke honestly of his beliefs on the matter. It’s opened the door to talk about it and perhaps convince those who think like Hunter that they need to be a little more accepting of an issue that they can’t control and that their resistance in doing so might eventually cast them out if they’re unwilling or unable to adapt to the prospect of having a gay teammate.

The only way to end that type of ingrained feeling of discomfort is to confront it, not by providing standard, pat responses out of fear of public reprisal, but with actual, honest answers so Hunter can be convinced that not every gay person is going to be staring at him in the shower as if he’s their next date; that the person is not committing a mortal sin and sentencing themselves to an eternity of damnation from a behavior Hunter views as against God’s laws; that it isn’t a choice. If Hunter says, “I’d be fine with it,” when he wouldn’t be fine with it, it does more harm than good. Lying can’t make a player who’s gay feel comfortable living his life publicly with the unsaid knowledge that there are players who are steering clear of him intentionally because of it. Only true education, discussion, or at least agreeing to disagree and working together in spite of it can do that.

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An RG III Win for the Redskins Renders Rob Parker an Irrelevant Footnote

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Rob Parker’s ridiculous query as to whether Robert Griffin III was a “cornball brother” is evidence of the inherent stupidity of Parker himself. Anyone who’d seen Parker on ESPN’s First Take or read his writing before knew what he was prior to his insipid comments about Griffin. Now that stupidity is known to the masses. Parker became a national name through the cheapest of means and the attention he coveted has resulted in widespread awareness that he’s clueless about sports and uses controversy to stand out from the crowd. That he’s doing so as one black man questioning the racial bona fides of another black man is made worse by Griffin being a worthy role model for the community on and off the field even if he might be considered a “cornball brother” by Parker or anyone else.

The NFL rules of today are designed to protect the quarterback and prevent the “lessons” that went on years ago and had to be endured by Troy Aikman, Steve Young, John Elway and Hall of Famers from 10 years ago and beyond. They have also served to let rookies like Griffin and Andrew Luck enter the league and produce rather than struggle and be benched as they failed to learn quickly enough or took too brutal a beating.

For Griffin to be diminished by someone like Parker and have loyalty to his background called into question because he might or might not have a white fiancée; because he might or might not be a Republican; because there’s a lot Parker doesn’t know, is more despicable than what Parker actually said. Parker, if he wanted answers to his questions, should’ve had the courage to ask Griffin directly rather than use it as a topic for a show. But then he might’ve gotten an actual answer and that’s the last thing he wanted because he doesn’t care about Griffin’s personal life or his politics. He was using him.

Let’s say all of Parker’s questions (presented in the tone of accusation) received a response in the affirmative. Would it be reason to criticize someone who graduated from Baylor University in three years and may or may not be a Republican and may or may not have a white fiancée? What would he have to do to not be a “cornball brother?”

Griffin’s story, unlike that of another Washington phenom Bryce Harper, doesn’t have the phoniness crafted to sell it as someone “special” in every aspect of his life. Harper’s tale, including having passed the GED without studying, strikes of creative public relations nonsense. Griffin, in opposition to Parker’s passive aggressive insinuations and the faux storyline surrounding Harper, appears real. The Harper story is destructive because it puts readers and influential youngsters into a position of feeling unworthy because they couldn’t pass the test in similar fashion and fail to see the reality that it’s likely not even true. Griffin should be held up as an example and not used for selfish reasons by a hack seeking notoriety.

Griffin’s brilliant season and star presence is singlehandedly changing the culture of the Washington Redskins. Whereas they were a dysfunctional mess with accompanying coaching changes, front office restructurings, past-their-prime star players signed to outrageous contracts by owner Dan Snyder to piece together a winner without a payoff, they’ve turned into a place where players will want to go specifically to play with Griffin.

Parker asserting that Griffin is not “down with the cause,” or “not one of us,” or “he’s kind of black, but he’s not really like the kind of guy you really want to hang out with,” and the firestorm that followed is missing the true point of contention that Parker was denigrating someone he should’ve been crediting. Parker was indulging in inaccurate armchair sociology. Would it be negative for Griffin to use his own mind and beliefs to come to a political affiliation? To decide whom to marry? To shun going with the crowd to fit in due to skin color or other factors of birth that are only relevant because someone like Parker brings them up?

On the field, players looking at the Redskins as a destination aren’t going there to hang out with Griffin away from the football field. If they’re looking for someone with whom to party or to go where the girls are, they can go to play with the annual team that signs the useless journeyman Matt Leinart.

Griffin can lead the Redskins to the playoffs on Sunday. That will go further in garnering positive perception than being “down with the cause.” Winning and leading can attract other players to want to join him in Washington. None of his teammates or the Redskins fans will care about his personal life or politics. They’ll be riding along with him and not using him as the equivalent of a promotional gimmick as Parker did. It will also quiet the footnote to Griffin’s season overtly referencing Parker’s incendiary and unnecessary attack on one who should be celebrated for what he is and not ridiculed for what, in the view of one talentless face in the crowd with a forum like Parker, says he is or should be.

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Tim Tebow’s Sideshow Reaches Its Climax

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Tim Tebow was acquired by the Jets as a gimmick while thinking he’s a football player. When the Jets saw what a limited football player he was and that the packages they installed centered around him didn’t fool anyone, they used him in a perfunctory fashion with dreadful results.

While still in the playoff picture, they marginalized Tebow. To make matters worse for Tebow, the game against the Cardinals in which Rex Ryan had finally seen enough of Mark Sanchez to pull him, Tebow was injured with fractured ribs, so Greg McElroy entered the game and led a game-winning drive. In a dysfunctional manner only the Jets can muster, Tebow’s fractured ribs prevented him from playing in the week before’s Thanksgiving night humiliation at the hands of Tom Brady and the Patriots (complete with Sanchez’s buttfumble) even though he was inexplicably active. It was inexplicable since the Jets never gave a coherent explanation. He was inactive against the Cardinals in the McElroy game. Then, in Jacksonville, Tebow was the number two QB and didn’t play when Sanchez played poorly again, but not poorly enough to be yanked, especially with Tebow sitting behind him and not McElroy.

If this sounds convoluted and confusing, that’s only because it is.

Sanchez stayed in the Jaguars game and the Jets won again, through no fault or help from Sanchez. Would Ryan have pulled Sanchez if he’d had McElroy available? And why wasn’t McElroy available? Because Tebow was needed in uniform in the town in which he starred for the University of Florida; playing against the Jaguars team for whom he’s likely to play in 2013 (and I do mean play, not stand there as an owner’s show pony and object for him to tell his socialite friends, “Look what I bought.”), he was the second quarterback with, barring an injury, no chance to actually play. Period.

Was it naïveté on the part of Tebow to believe that the Jets had intentions for him other than the owner seeing dollar signs when looking at Tebow’s chiseled arms? Did he truly believe the whispered sweet nothings Ryan, GM Mike Tannenbaum and offensive coordinator Tony Sparano (the “innovator” of the Wildcat formation that was supposed to be Tebow’s forte)? Was he confident enough in his abilities or trusting to the point that he felt that he’d be an important part of the offense and see 20 plays a game when its logic and reason were nonexistent? Was he hearing what he wanted to hear? Did he look at Sanchez and say, “I can beat out that guy,”? (In fairness, Steve DeBerg might be saying that right now and planning a comeback.) Did he believe that his faith was directing him to the Jets for a reason?

Was it all of the above?

More importantly, was Tebow wrong to allegedly refuse to play in the Wildcat packages last Sunday in the Jets’ loss to the Chargers, leaving the Jets to use Jeremy Kerley in the package and Tebow to put forth the decidedly un-Christian like pouting and self-interest when he was asked to do something by the team and refused?

I understand why he did it as do the other players, but given what he believes, he should have done what he was asked to do. That they intended to use him as an attention-grabber the week after the team was eliminated from the playoffs and he declined to partake is ignorant of the reality that he was being used as an attention-grabber when they traded for him.

This is where the self-image and truth clash. Tebow thinks he can play; the Jets thought he’d sell some stuff.

Perhaps Tebow has had enough of the Jets and how they run things and would like to stay healthy and alive to join another club that’s not going to treat him so shabbily and openly lie to him to use his star power to sell some jerseys and garner attention for themselves. But he has to accept that his limits as a quarterback predicate that he’s going to be given an opportunity, in large part, due to his celebrity. If, as expected, he winds up in Jacksonville next year, it will be a similar situation for a Jaguars team that has no expectations and nothing much to lose by playing him.

With he combination of Tebow’s inability to play, the lack of respect as a player he has throughout the league, and his latest episode of refusing to participate in the game when asked, how can the Jets bring him back?

Tebow can’t use his status to continually get job after job and make a ton of money with limited skills and then complain when teams use him for the same reason they keep giving him a job. It’s possible that he can learn to be a competent quarterback or, at the very least, one who can manage a game. The Jets used him and he used the Jets. The only ones that benefited from this use/use relationship were the Jets off the field by selling some stuff. That didn’t last long. Owner Woody Johnson’s deep involvement in Mitt Romney’s failed presidential bid as the chairman of Romney’s New York campaign was repeatedly peppered with questions about Tebow and Johnson said while discussing his political activities that he “can’t get enough Tebow,” making clear where he stands in this messy situation.

As nightmarish as the scenario may be to Jets’ fans and Sanchez, with Johnson’s affinity for Tebow, he might be back with the Jets in 2013. Ryan and Tannenbaum are presumably dead-set against this and have to impress upon the owner the disastrous nature of a return engagement of Tebowing in 2013 is similar to the Republicans turning around and re-Romneyating Romney in 2016 expecting it to work better than it did the first time. Maybe Johnson would get that analogy and see past his own arrogance to comprehend that Romney 2016 and Tebow 2013 would be identically ludicrous and fail miserably. Maybe.

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ESPN Is To Blame For Rob Parker

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Rob Parker is a symptom, not the disease. In spite of ESPN’s decision to suspend him for his absurd comments about Robert Griffin III, Parker’s presence or absence from the network is not going to cure the malady that infects any sports fan who has no choice but to use ESPN because it has such a wide-ranging hand in every sport.

Is Parker to blame for pushing the envelope with comments that were designed to provoke? Isn’t that the ESPN mandate? To get people to pay attention to them not with legitimate sports news and analysis, but by doing the equivalent of screaming “FIRE” in a crowded theater with impunity? So entwined with every aspect of sports, there’s no escaping ESPN. This makes Parker and his inept ilk in their employ all the more galling. They get away with this silliness, so why couldn’t they get away with deciding not to partake in this fire-stoking, and chose to provide quality and substance instead of resorting to antics like a bad Madonna outfit?

Parker maintains the inexplicable combination of knowing nothing about sports and writing in an amateurish, clumsy fashion. Yet he’s employed by ESPN and treated as one of their “signature” voices with a prominent platform. It’s just easier to find a stable of Rob Parkers than it is to find people who will be able to express themselves in a manner befitting such a pulpit.

Of course Parker’s responsible for what he says, but those claiming he should be fired for his offensive and borderline incoherent statements are missing the point of the entire Parker package: Why is he employed by ESPN in the first place? How can it be that the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports” is so incapable of hiring talented, intelligent, knowledgeable people who can draw an audience without having the content secondary to numbers they’re able to accumulate through cheap tactics.

ESPN need only look at the foundation of today’s NFL to understand the narrow difference between “look at me!!!” to accrue a brief burst of activity like staring at a train crash, and attracting a consistent viewer/readership.

The late Hall of Fame NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was a public relations man and knew how to create a business that would provide thrills and watchable sports action without turning it into a circularly ridiculous entity doomed to fail. Tex Schramm was also in publicity (in fact, he hired Rozelle with the Rams) and knew that in order to succeed, he also had to sell. With the Cowboys, that’s what he did: he sold an image. Tom Landry was the football guru; Gil Brandt the personnel “genius”; the Cowboys, with their space-age uniforms, unique style implemented by the religious, stoic Landry and moniker of “America’s Team” wouldn’t have gone anywhere if the product wasn’t high quality. In addition to creating an image and making money, the team won, so Schramm wasn’t tricking anyone with trash. There’s a fine line between sale and scam and ESPN crossed that line long ago. Whether or not they’re aware of it is the important question.

ESPN could learn the separation between entertainment and rubbernecking by examining how the NFL became what it is today in large part because of Schramm and Rozelle.

Rather than emulate the NFL, ESPN has chosen to copy the doomed Vince McMahon project the XFL in which pro wrestling announcers were shoved into a “professional” football broadcast booth and Jesse “The Body” Ventura (then Governor of Minnesota) tried to start a pro wrestling style feud with Rusty Tillman, one of the head coaches who wanted to coach football and not undertake a starring role in McMahon’s carnival. It didn’t work. There has to be something to cling to for the fans to stay and watch. Like McMahon’s main moneymaking venture, the WWE, you know what it is when watching it and if the viewer chooses to suspend disbelief and become invested in the canned nature of professional wrestling, it’s a wink-and-a-nod contract made with the show itself. There’s something dirtier about ESPN when they’re hiring the likes of Parker and encouraging these types of comments, then hanging Parker out to dry when the comments are deemed as “offensive.”

The difference between what Schramm and Rozelle built in the NFL is that if you pull back the curtain behind all the hype, there’s substance for the old-school football fan to still watch the game if they’re not interested in the sideshow. Is that the case with ESPN? Do they have anything substantive—from their intentions to their implementation—left? What is their long-term purpose apart from ratings, webhits, and the higher advertising rates that come along with it?

For every quality person ESPN has working for them, there are ten who shouldn’t be allowed to write a personal blog, let along have a forum on ESPN. Parker is one of those people. The only time people care about what he says is when he says what he said yesterday; they’re certainly not going to him for sports insight because he doesn’t have any, nor does he have the skills to present his non-existent knowledge in an engaging way. If he was able to do that, he’d be due a certain begrudging credit for being able to write. But he can’t, so there’s no reason whatsoever for him to be there.

Firing him will placate the masses who are calling for his dismissal as if it would accomplish something, but Parker isn’t the problem. ESPN is. If they fire Parker, they’ll simply replace him with someone else. I’d say whomever it is that replaces Parker couldn’t possibly be worse, but this is ESPN and if any company has the skills and history of discovering the newest-latest in lowest common denominator, it’s them.

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