Knicks, Oakley and organizational estrangement

Basketball, MLB, NFL, Uncategorized

madison-square-gardenThe incident at Madison Square Garden in which former New York Knicks player and longtime fan favorite Charles Oakley was arrested for a confrontation with arena security has yielded a visceral reaction from fans and media members who see Oakley as the epitome of what the current Knicks are missing. As a player, he did the dirty work, protected his teammates and was the “lunch pail” guy – the ones no team or business in general can function successfully without and whose work is largely appreciated in every context but the stat sheet. Long since retired, Oakley does not have an official role with the organization.

Given their current plight with team president Phil Jackson viewed as a disinterested observer of a team he was tasked – and received a contract for close to $12 million annually – to rebuild and owner Jim Dolan’s perceived ineptitude, it’s no wonder that the anger is reaching explosive proportions.

Regardless of the negative views of Jackson and his commitment and Dolan and his competence, is Oakley to be granted the benefit of the doubt for his behavior when no one seems to know what the dispute was even about? There must be a separation between what a player might have represented to the organization in the past and what is good for business in the future.

Every sport has these uncomfortable situations of trying to respect the past, granting deference to those who played an integral role in it and doing what’s right for the organization in the present and future. Not all reach the level of embarrassment as Oakley and the Knicks, but they’re everywhere. Legacy jobs are often harmless as long as there’s no actual decision making involved with them, but when a person is given a role without the ability to function in it effectively, it’s like a virus.

Sandy Alderson’s New York Mets regime has faced passive aggressive criticism from former Mets stars Howard Johnson and Mookie Wilson among others for their abandonment of the team’s past, but the biggest name that has elicited an over the top reaction is Wally Backman. This in spite of the Mets giving Backman a job as a minor league manager when no one else would; in spite of him repeatedly angering Alderson and his lieutenants for going off the reservation, for self-promoting, and for being the last thing anyone wants in a minor league manager: visible. In September of 2016, Backman either left the organization of his own accord or was fired – it’s still fuzzy – smothering his supporters’ lingering hopes that he would be given a chance as, at a minimum, a coach on Terry Collins’s staff.

By now, it’s clear to anyone who can read between even the flimsiest of lines that Backman only lasted as long as he did with the Mets because of his popularity with the fans and that the Wilpons were protecting him from Alderson’s axe. There are still conspiracy theories speculating about the real genesis of Alderson’s issues with Backman and whether Backman has been blackballed or not.

The only thing we have to go on is what’s happened. With that, if Backman truly is the managerial genius his fans purport him to be, it only worsens the practical reality that no affiliated club will hire him in any capacity. That Backman, for lack of big league opportunities, needed to take a job in the Mexican League is conveniently ignored in the narrative of negativity that still surrounds the Mets even as they’ve won a pennant, made the playoffs as a wild card and are a favorite to contend for a World Series in 2017, all under Alderson and Collins.

Ozzie Smith was angry with the way Tony La Russa reduced his role in 1996 and basically forced him out when Smith wanted to keep playing after that season.

Smith is royalty with the Cardinals and was treated as such by Whitey Herzog and his successor Joe Torre. By the time La Russa arrived, he was unattached to the Cardinals’ past. The club had been declining for several years, sparking the hiring of La Russa to begin with. Was La Russa supposed to enter the 1996 season relying on a 41-year-old Smith who had batted .199 the previous year? Or should he have pinned his hopes on what Smith had been five years before to keep from angering fans who want to have a winning team but also want to continue treating their stars with blind loyalty?

In his lone year playing for La Russa, Smith had a solid comeback season showing a portion of his fielding genius and batting .282 in 82 games, sharing the job with Royce Clayton. Could he have maintained that over the course of the season at that age? Could La Russa bank on that? Deferring to the past has its place, but when there are substantive changes made, collateral damage is unavoidable. La Russa didn’t go to St. Louis to mess around with what was already there and had finished 19 games below .500 in 1995. Caught in the crossfire was Smith. He’s still bitter about it, but who can argue with the success the Cardinals had under La Russa? Now had the club been worse under La Russa than it was under the prior, old-school Cardinals front office or Clayton fallen flat on his face, then there would have been a larger contingent of angry fans and media members standing behind Smith just as Knicks fans are doing with Oakley.

Tom Landry was unceremoniously fired by Jerry Jones in 1989 when Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys. When Jones made the clumsy and necessary decision and subsequently walked face first into a public relations buzz saw, no one on this or any other planet could have envisioned that less than three decades later, Jones would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame to take his place among the sport’s luminaries along with Landry.

In retrospect, the same fans and media members who were outraged at the crude dispatching of Landry had been privately saying that the coach needed to go and a full overhaul was needed. Jones, in telling his predecessor Bum Bright that he was not buying the team unless he was able to replace Landry with Jimmy Johnson, was setting the conditions that many advocated but few had the guts to follow through upon. By the time the Cowboys’ rebuild was completed four years later and culminated with a Super Bowl (and two more in the next three years), no one cared whether Landry would acknowledge Jones or still felt embittered about his dismissal.

The insular nature of sports front offices is exactly what owners sought to get away from when they hired outsiders from other industries to take charge. Before that, a large percentage of former players who rose to upper level positions in a front office did so not because of competence or skill at the job they were hired to do, but as a form of patronage. That is no longer the case and invites a backlash. When Jeff Luhnow was hired to run the Houston Astros and gutted the place down to its exoskeleton, the on-field product was so hideous and former Astros stars so callously discarded that the response was inevitable: he had abandoned luminaries and made the product worse. The Astros are contenders now and the groundswell is largely muted even if the anger is still there.

Giving former star performers a ceremonial title is not done to grant them sway with the club. It’s a placating measure to engender goodwill with the fans and media. When that comes undone, incidents like the Knicks and Oakley exacerbate current problems and provide evidence of ongoing and unstoppable turmoil.

The issue for the Knicks is that they’re in such disarray that this type of incident involving a player who was a key component of their glory years will be magnified.

The Oakley incident can be viewed as the nadir of the Knicks under Jackson and Dolan based on nothing more than Oakley having been a favorite of the fans and the media during his playing career and representing a past that is so far in the rearview mirror that a large bulk of younger fans are unlikely to believe it even existed in the first place. It occurred directly on the heels of a typically cryptic Jackson tweet that seemed to disparage Carmelo Anthony and sent the team president and “Zen master” into familiar spin control only contributes to their perceived dysfunction. If the Knicks were riding high and this happened, the reaction would have been that Oakley needs to know his place. Since they’re not, it’s symbolic of that which ails the club.

Adhering to the past might be palatable, particularly when Oakley-type incidents take place, but there needs to be a separation between what’s happening within the organization and its outskirts even if they appear to be inextricably connected.

Aroldis Chapman’s fastball eclipses principles on off-field conduct

MLB, NFL, Uncategorized

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The immediate reactions to Aroldis Chapman’s five-year, $86 million contract with the New York Yankees will fall into several categories. Some will be outraged that he’s become the highest paid relief pitcher in baseball history after his domestic violence suspension. Others will take the politically expeditious route saying that while they do not condone what he did, he has the right to work at market value. Still others won’t care a whit about the allegations as long as he lights up the radar gun and renders batters inert with his searing fastball that surpasses 100 miles-per-hour.

This is not to judge anyone who falls into those three categories or any other combination that emanate from so contentious an issue, but to state a reality that few want to acknowledge: regardless of what he’s done, as long as an athlete can perform on the field he’s going to get his money from somewhere.

The easy response regarding this particular case is to present a self-righteous polemic that the Yankees are a cold, corporate entity who care about nothing other than winning and do so with a contemptible worldview. The nuanced response is that had they not paid Chapman, someone else would have. In fact, several other teams would have.

Since there are 30 teams in Major League Baseball, the competition is growing fiercer, rules are in place to render the Yankees’ financial might as less of an advantage, and the organization is in the midst of a pseudo-rebuild that is placing them on the fringes – if that – of playoff contention, they have to make concessions they otherwise might not have had to make in the past. Rather than being an annual preseason favorite to win the World Series and the team players chose to join regardless of other suitors, the Yankees are among the rabble with multitude of holes and a “plan.” Part of that plan has involved an attempt at financial sanity and accepting that in order to take one step forward, they have to take two or three steps back resulting in four consecutive seasons of win totals in the mid-80s, one brief appearance in the postseason in which they were unceremoniously dispatched, and lost aura, ticket sales, memorabilia sales, and viewership on the YES Network. Suffice it to say that worrying about curing social ills such as Chapman being accused of domestic violence or the negative public relations they’ll get for signing him fall further and further down the list of worries.

Teams will express outrage over a domestic violence allegation commensurate with how the fans and media are reacting. Perhaps there’s a legitimate feeling of anger at what the player allegedly did, but the reality is that the bottom line will take precedence. If the player can help the billion dollar business maintain or increase its value and reach a higher level on the field, they’ll look beyond a great number of transgressions toward that end.

The talents that these athletes have is so narrow and difficult to find that there will always be multiple teams who will portray themselves as giving him a second chance in the American tradition, but in truth are simply looking out for their own interests.

The name Ray Rice is frequently mentioned in this context since he’s never been able to secure another job in the NFL following the disturbing video clip of him knocking his then-fiancée (now his wife) unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator. He was subsequently suspended by the NFL and released by the Baltimore Ravens. He hasn’t been with an NFL organization since. The incident is only part of the reason why this is the case.

The video itself, shown below, is so graphic and disturbing that it added a layer of difficulty to him getting another chance in the NFL.

Without it, maybe he’d have gotten another job. That’s a big maybe for the simple reason that his ability to play was in question. For a team to take a chance on Rice, they would need to have the willingness to withstand the P.R. hit, have the need at running back, and, most importantly, believe that Rice can still play well enough to help them. If he were 24-years-old having just led the NFL in yards from scrimmage, do you really believe that him slugging his fiancée would stop some team, somewhere from signing him? The Ravens might not even have cut him. But Rice committed his act at exactly the wrong time in his career and in the wrong place that there was a video of it to have his employer or another franchise look beyond it, formulate an excuse-laden and banal statement excoriating the act while expressing belief in the player’s remorse and that he’s in treatment as a justification to give him another chance. In 2013, he had the worst season of his career and appeared to be in decline. The Ravens might have cut him without the video simply because he could not help them any longer.

Contrast that with Chapman. If he’d blown out his elbow or his fastball suddenly disappeared, he’s signing a minor league contract with a zero-tolerance mandate that if he does anything untoward, he’s gone. Since he’s boosted his credentials even further by proving he could play in New York and helping the Chicago Cubs win the World Series, he’s gotten a contract that he’d get if he was as solid a citizen as Dale Murphy.

Athletes are not paid to be a shining example to the public. They’re paid to perform. If they can perform, a multitude of sins both public and private will be mitigated; if they can’t, they won’t. This is not condoning what they did, just expressing a truth that has gone unacknowledged and will continue to be so.

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Tom Brady, cheating, the NFL, and the American way

MLB, NFL

The decision by the NFL investigators that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Bradyprobably” cheated is a line-straddling concession similar to a civil court case in which the criteria is that the issue at hand “more likely than not” occurred. They don’t have proof beyond a reasonable doubt, so Brady still has plausible deniability even though he seems to have lied when he said he had nothing to do with the amount of air in the footballs for the AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts.

The important question isn’t whether or not he did it and if his legacy and the fourth Super Bowl he and the Patriots just won is tarnished. Nor is it whether or not he’s guilty. The important question is whether or not this is a scandal compromising the game’s competitiveness or an integral part of the game.

Cheating in sports has always been a nuanced and indefinable. Some believe that all is fair. It’s fine if there’s a certain of cheating going on as long as no one’s life is put at risk because of it and the integrity of the competition isn’t compromised by an intentional attempt to lose. If gamesmanship occurs, it’s generally perceived as acceptable in the context of professional competition. Most sports aren’t combat-related where an incident such as what happened between Luis Resto and his trainer Panama Lewis as padding was removed from Resto’s gloves and he battered Billy Collins, Jr. Lewis and Resto went to jail and Collins spiraled downward until he committed suicide. Resto later admitted that not only were the gloves tampered with, but his hand wraps were soaked in Plaster of Paris. That was criminality, not competitive gamesmanship. There’s a certain level of trust that competitors won’t go as far as Resto and Lewis did and cause severe injury even in a sport like boxing where injury is the defined intent. Although it’s a violent sport, Resto and Lewis went beyond negligible propriety of head butts, elbows and other acts that are generally accepted as part of the terrain in boxing.

Where does that put football, baseball and other sports? Is there a line between Brady (probably) having had the footballs deflated and a clever offensive lineman holding on every single play and getting away with it? What about in baseball were little tricks are used in every game – most of which are not within the confines of the rules – to gain an advantage? Gaylord Perry wrote a book called, “Me and the Spitter” based on his reliance of a career-saving spitball. He’s in the Hall of Fame. Don Drysdale pitched 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings in 1968 and it was only stopped when he was caught and warned without being sanctioned for throwing a spitball. Mike Scott salvaged a dying career with a scuffball. No one cared. It was shrugged off.

In some cases, the league itself takes part in the “cheating” by allowing it to go on or tacitly encouraging it for the greater good. Major League Baseball easily falls into this category with the performance enhancing drug explosion. To imply that no one in MLB’s regulatory body was aware that players were not having a career renaissance based on hard work is the combination of naïve and idiotic.

In football, Brady’s success is part of the problem with this latest scandal. If it was discovered that Jay Cutler had a certain, rule-bending way he wanted his footballs prepared, he’d be the target of ridicule on talk radio, social media, mainstream media and in bars. “Heh, heh, heh. Better figure out a new way to keep your balls so they don’t end up in the hands of the other team, Jay. Heh, heh, heh.”

But it’s not a player who’s viewed as a sad sack loser like Cutler. It’s Brady. The winningest of the winners. The guy who married perhaps the most famous supermodel in the world. The guy who has the life many aspire to and didn’t have it handed to him as the first overall pick in the draft, anointed since birth. He was an afterthought sixth round draft pick who worked, studied, trained and made himself into one of the best quarterbacks in history.

The idea is that this taints Brady’s career in an exponential way because it’s not the first time that there have been allegations and proof of chicanery on the part of the Bill Belichick/Brady Patriots. Given the times they’ve been caught, logic dictates that there are probably twenty other incidents in which they’ve bent or outright broken the rules and gotten away with it. Back to the Cutler analogy, is it because the Patriots cheat more than other teams or is it because they’re simply better at football? This is in line with the PED use in baseball. Barry Bonds broke records and had the best years of his career at a time when he should have been in steady decline based on age and physical breakdown. Obviously, it was because of the drugs. But he was also better than the other players who were also using the same drugs. Doesn’t that, in a bizarre way, level the playing field back to how it was when everyone was clean?

Belichick and owner Bob Kraft have not been implicated in “deflategate.” Who knows whether or not either were aware of this? It’s doubtful that Kraft is so involved in the micromanagement of his team that he’d be aware of it, especially when he’s got someone so competent as Belichick as his football CEO. As for Belichick, it appears to be an intentional, “I can always say I didn’t know if I really didn’t know, but kinda knew” method of management that is far more common in successful companies that most are willing to admit.

Belichick’s managerial style is like that of any all-powerful dictator. The leader in a sustained dictatorship has a method with his generals and subordinates: if it works, great; if it doesn’t, you take the fall. Naturally, that won’t apply to Brady while he’s still of use to Belichick. But there will be others tossed overboard because they’re disposable. After all their years together and the amount of trust that Belichick puts in Brady as the conduit from the coach’s brain to the on-field game plan implementation, the quarterback presumably has autonomy to do whatever he needs to do including certain activities that push the envelope of the rules.

To settle the issue of how much the football is to be inflated and to satisfy the public, expect there to be a boxing-style pregame check by representatives of the opposing team similar to a boxer’s gloves being examined and marked. There will either be a range in which the balls can be inflated and deflated or the NFL will simply say, these are the balls; this is how much they’re inflated; deal with it. Brady will probably be fined heavily and suspended for a game or two. That will be it.

The NFL allowed this to happen. Do you believe the NFL became the powerful entity it is by following all the rules? They had their players as indentured servants until 25 years ago when nominal free agency came into being. Apart from the public image and financial ramifications, they still don’t really care about the players’ physical, emotional and mental condition in the aftermath of their careers as they’re addicted to painkillers, unable to walk and are wandering around with brain damage and no money to pay for treatment.

The NFL itself is very effective at theoretically promoting one code of conduct to satisfy its customers and quiet the media while bowing to expediency in practice. Like the domestic violence issue in which the NFL only took steps to dispense punishments that are deemed appropriate after a video of Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancée unconscious surfaced and they spun their own tale similar to Brady’s that they didn’t know anything about anything, they acted when they had no other choice. It was a business decision, not because it’s the right thing to do.

If Roger Goodell and the NFL are worried about this latest issue with the Patriots, it’s only because they want the fans to believe that the sport is on the up-and-up; that gamblers (who the sport won’t acknowledge either) are wagering fairly; and that the business dictates they act.

The United States didn’t become the world power it is by following rules that hinder achieving that end. The NFL sells itself as an American institution. Tom Brady is considered the All-American boy. They sure are. The underlying reality might not be the conveniently salable storyline, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

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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.

Josh McCown

Browns’ signing of McCown good news for Manziel

NFL

The Cleveland Browns have been open in their public statements of no longer being committed to Johnny Manziel as their future starting quarterback. Given the public issues that Manziel has had culminating with him entering rehabilitation for undisclosed issues, it’s no surprise. He’s done just about everything he could possibly do to sabotage an NFL career that many still believe stems more from promotional skills of his handlers than actual ability to play in the league.

Whether he can play well enough to be a functional NFL quarterback – let alone the star he was in college – remains to be seen. But his off-field problems will prevent him from even getting on the field if he doesn’t get them under control. There was an intentional opaqueness to the statements from the Browns that Manziel wasn’t guaranteed to be their starter in 2015 and that they were prepared to move on without him if he didn’t begin to take his job as seriously as he did being a bon vivant celebrity who liked to party and enjoyed the “celebrity QB” lifestyle without doing the work necessary to fulfill the “QB” part. They might have been threatening him or they might have been serious. My belief is that it was the former – for now. Given his off-field value to the franchise and the still unknown on-field quantity that he is, it’s worthwhile for them to give him another chance to see if he gets the message.

Unless Manziel shows a commitment to playing in the NFL in lieu of being in the NFL, there’s no logical reason for them to go forward with him. No matter how much Kardashian-style attention and financial benefit they get for having Manziel on their roster, eventually it’s going to be a case of diminishing returns. Fans – even rabid ones – will stop watching a freakshow if the freakshow is an embarrassment and, especially, if the team doesn’t win. The players won’t support Manziel; the coaches won’t support Manziel; the media won’t support Manziel. Eventually, even his most vocal benefactors like owner Jimmy Haslam would acquiesce to the groundswell, accept the situation for what it is and move on.

The Browns being so open about questioning Manziel as their franchise linchpin is in part a fact and a message. The second part of the equation is finding someone who can serve as competition/potential replacement. Given the relative weakness of the pro free agent and trade market and that, barring a trade, they’re not drafting high enough to get a top college quarterback along the lines of Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, they had a choice: re-sign last year’s starter Brian Hoyer or sign a veteran who could play if necessary, but isn’t so head and shoulders above Manziel that he must start. They chose the latter by signing veteran Josh McCown to a three-year contract.

On the field, there’s really little difference between Hoyer and McCown no matter how many sources – identified and not – say that the team has the best chance to win with Hoyer. Hoyer’s a journeyman who somehow parlayed a few brief spurts of good play and a solid attitude into being a “starter” and “leader.” The fact is that when Hoyer was benched in favor of Manziel late in the 2014 season, there might have been some background noise from factions in the Browns’ front office that they wanted Manziel to play, but objectively, the benching was more than deserved as Hoyer had been terrible for a solid month before he was finally pulled. That it was Manziel and there was a movement for him to get his opportunity based on factors ancillary to his readiness or viability doesn’t alter that reality.

A team in need of a quarterback or possibly in need of a quarterback – the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – will sign Hoyer with the intention of him getting a legitimate shot to play with Hoyer expecting to walk in as the first man on the depth chart when training camp opens. That’s not the case with McCown.

Like Hoyer, McCown is the ultimate case of believing too much in what’s happening in the moment and looking at factors that need to be placed in better context. He’s not as good as he was in that late season run with the Bears in 2013; he’s not as bad as his team was in 2014 with the Buccaneers. His resume, however, is at least as accomplished as that of Hoyer which says more about Hoyer and his sudden in-demand position than it does about McCown or Manziel. The difference is that Hoyer will sign a contract befitting a starting quarterback and will not be happy if he’s not the starter regardless of performance. McCown will be prepared to start. He’ll also be willing to sit if that’s what will help the team. If that’s the case, he’ll be happy to try and steer Manziel in the right direction both on and off the field. Would that happen with Hoyer? And is he the player the Browns want to commit to if they’re teetering on giving up on Manziel?

While Hoyer is said to have gotten along well with Manziel, it’s human nature for him to want the younger player to continue partying and damaging his standing with the organization to let Hoyer keep his tenuous hold on the starting job long enough to get a large contract as a free agent. McCown is long past that and is now thinking about a future of hanging around a few years as a respected backup and team player with a coaching job ahead of him. That says that the Browns are still hoping that Manziel will realize that he’s owed nothing and has to work for what he gets rather than have it handed to him because of his public relations team, Heisman Trophy and name recognition.

Only Manziel knows and the Browns can judge whether or not he’s being sincere in changing his ways and is treating sobriety and his career with a seriousness he’s yet to show. It’s difficult to envision him ceasing and desisting with drinking and doing whatever else it was that spurred the (parentally? organizationally?) mandated intervention that sent him to rehab in the first place. This won’t be a matter of him evolving from the immature Johnny Football into the mature John Football. It’s going to take a sacrifice that he may not be prepared to make; one that, given the spoiled life he’s led, he won’t have the first concept of how to make. McCown can help him and, unlike what would be the case if Hoyer were still around, will be willing to help him enough so he can take the starting job and run with it if he’s capable of doing so.

Richie_Incognito

After a disastrous year for the NFL, Incognito’s acts now seem harmless

NFL

After a season in which its player conduct policy, disciplinary procedures and overall management scheme was called into justifiable question, the NFL is undoubtedly happy to have one of the most trying campaigns in recent memory over and done with.

Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald were just a few of the names that found themselves in the headlines for something other than a touchdown, an interception, a sack or a moment on the field. The Super Bowl had its own series of issues with the New England Patriots spending much of the ramp up to the game defending themselves against still-unresolved accusations that they intentionally deflated footballs during the AFC Championship Game; Marshawn Lynch refusing to say anything other than, “I’m just here so I don’t get fined”; the Seattle Seahawks unprofessional and borderline repulsive behavior during the game itself and as they threw an embarrassing teamwide tantrum after they lost; and the aftermath of the game in which three separate players who weren’t involved in the Super Bowl – Joseph RandleD’Qwell Jackson and Letroy Guion – were arrested on a variety of offenses that only added to the league’s woes.

The series of embarrassments that the league and commissioner Roger Goodell had to endure and are still in the process of navigating have obscured what had been a “major” controversy that drew worldwide attention and commentary in 2013, former Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito and the accusations of bullying teammate Jonathan Martin to the point that Martin up and left the team. In hindsight, everything that happened since has minimized the Incognito-Martin episode, accusations and complaints into what Incognito and many others portrayed it to be: athletes who took locker room horseplay and went too far with it to the point where Martin quit and Incognito was essentially fired from the team and blackballed from the NFL for an unofficial yearlong suspension.

Incognito’s behavior, while misanthropic and destructive to both himself and his team, was nothing compared to what’s happened with a troubling number of players since. It certainly wasn’t enough for him to have to sit out an entire season while he could still contribute somewhere. Several teams considered signing him, but none did making it a clear question as to whether there was a whisper campaign against him.

For a player like Incognito to return to the league, he needed one of two things: a no-nonsense coach who would put him on notice that he had one strike to play with and if he misbehaved in any way, he’d be gone; or a coach who he’d respect and would be freewheeling enough to make clear to Incognito that there was a certain standard of behavior even when it came to off-field goofing around and if that was violated, he’d be gone.

With the news that Incognito is close to signing with the Buffalo Bills, he’s getting the latter in Rex Ryan. While in Miami, head coach Joe Philbin put forth the impression of the substitute teacher so worried about keeping his job and intimidated by the possibility that the players would simply ignore him if he cracked down that it was easier to look the other way. Ryan is so worshiped by his players that if he’s betrayed, it could be seen as a hurtful affront to the trust he’s placed in those under his charge to protect him as he protects them.

In the linked article detailing the Bills’ pending signing of Incognito, it’s mentioned that Ryan, when speaking at his introductory press conference as the new head coach, said that he was going to “build a bully.” Obviously, that was a poor choice of words given the negative connotations with bullying today and that the league has been trying to put a damper on the hazing that was once an ingrained rite of passage for new players in the league. He certainly didn’t sign Incognito with the idea that he wanted people who had reputations as bullies.

Incognito did some stupid things while he was with the Dolphins and his reputation prior to that was terrible. Now that he’s getting his second chance and playing for a coach who will allow a wide range of personalities on his team to be themselves, he won’t want to blow that with similar acts that got him tossed from the Dolphins and the rest of football for a full season-and-a-half. Considering what’s happened to the league, its players and its commissioner in the time since Incognito was a household name for all the wrong reasons, it’s nothing and he deserves another chance without having to apologize anymore.

Johnny Manziel’s career Hail Mary: rehab

Football, NFL, Uncategorized

Given Johnny Manziel’s immaturity and complete lack of interest in committing himself to football instead of partying, his voluntary entry into rehabilitation for undisclosed problems appears to be a blatant attempt to throw a Hail Mary and save his career with the Cleveland Browns. In fact, considering his reputation, his entire career as a quarterback in the NFL is in jeopardy. For a Heisman Trophy winner and first round draft pick to have self-destructed to this degree in one season is hard to fathom. Somehow he managed it.

Are we to believe that Manziel woke up one morning after an especially rough night and realized that things had to change for his professional career to validate the “Johnny Football” nickname and not be used as a derogatory term of ridicule to be used in the same sentence with the phrase “Johnny Bust?” Or did he come to a different realization that being catered to, spoiled and babied while a schoolboy star in Texas wasn’t going to transfer to Cleveland as he began his pro career?

That the Browns are openly vacillating on his future made clear that something had to change. The key is whether it’s real. Rehab and perhaps converting to Christianity are the last, desperate measures that athletes, celebrities and politicians try to use to salvage their careers. Given the frequency of recidivism for drug and alcohol problems in general and with high-profile people in particular, it should be taken with a significant amount of hesitation before 28 days in a program is suddenly evidence that Manziel will be clean and sober and stay that way.

The personal problems and lack of dedication are one layer of what Manziel faces, but even if he was as clean-cut and determined as Tim Tebow, there’s still the looming question as to whether or not he’s good enough to be anything more than a journeyman backup in the league. In that sense, he’s like Tebow without the likability to get him chance after chance even if he doesn’t deserve it.

The hype machine and college success that created this image of Manziel as a future “star” doesn’t eliminate the obvious flaws in his game. Were he a prototype, 6’5”, 220 pound pocket passer with a rocket arm, he’d have the capital to act like a colossal jerk, party his brains out, alienate teammates, coaches, front office people, fans and media and get away with it.

He’s not a prototype and he’s not getting away with it. There are two layers to Manziel’s challenges in rebuilding his image and career: one, he doesn’t seem to want to work very hard; two, he might not be talented enough to be anything more than a bare minimum, game-managing starter even if he works 20 hours a day. That’s two strikes. The attitude is strike 2.2; the partying is strike 2.5; rehab is strike 2.8.

He’s running out of strikes.

When he was drafted, Manziel tried to mimic Tom Brady’s bravado by proclaiming his own future greatness, but he failed to do what Brady did and put in the work to make that a reality. Brady believed it. Manziel said it because it sounded good. There lies the difference between a Manziel and a Brady. Both have the bravado, but Brady had the ability and was, more importantly, willing to stay home at night and study his playbook in between workout sessions. Manziel’s eyes are apparently too bleary and bloodshot to read the top two lines of an eye chart, let alone a complicated Kyle Shanahan playbook. Shanahan’s gone now. While initially that appeared to be an accommodation to Manziel, it now appears that Shanahan simply didn’t want to deal with a player who couldn’t play and didn’t want to bother trying to maximize what limited skills he has.

Manziel may not have the ability and clearly expects everything to be as easy in the NFL as it’s been throughout his life. His commitment is wanting. He’d like to have the fringe benefits of being a football star without having to actually perform. If you told Brady that he could have the star status and a faltering career or a superlative career without the star status, he’d take the latter. That’s why Brady just won his fourth Super Bowl and why Manziel’s career might end before it starts.

Fans and media love a rise, but they love a fall even better. Manziel puts forth the impression that he doesn’t understand the difference between being on a big screen TV in an arena and being an exhibit in a zoo. He had every opportunity to win the starting job in training camp and didn’t. He got a chance to play late in the season, was atrocious and got hurt.

A minuscule amount of that is why the Browns are presenting a laissez faire attitude regarding Manziel. It’s his off-field behavior that’s the problem and that an offense will have to be tailored to what he can do, placing the team in a position where they’re drafting and signing players to cater to him and perhaps setting themselves back for an even longer period than they would if they cut ties with him or found a replacement, keeping him as a sideshow on the sideline wearing a baseball cap and holding a clipboard.

From the Browns’ perspective and contrary to prevailing sentiment, it won’t be a huge disaster if they have to move on from Manziel so quickly into his career. He wasn’t the first overall pick in the draft. He wasn’t even their first overall pick. For a 22nd pick in the first round, it’s easier to shrug, chalk it up to experience and move on rather than lament a massive mistake and make it worse by not accepting the truth: he might not be able to play and he’s definitely not invested in his on-field career.

So we come to the entrance into rehab. Seeing the situation deteriorating and the Browns basically telling him that he needs them, not vice versa, he or someone close to him decided that he had to take the tack of contrition instead of doubling down on bluster. Like everything with Manziel, it might be another shallow attempt at pretense. If that’s the case, his career is headed in the direction of other notable players who were famous for being famous and faded out before they realized the opportunity they’d blown. Then he’ll really begin to spiral. Then, it’s likely that he’ll really need rehab.

Damon Bruce’s Rant (Who’s Damon Bruce?)

Football, Management, Media, NFL, Players, Politics

I didn’t know who Damon Bruce was prior to about an hour ago. In fact, when I went to have dinner and came back to my Mac to Twitter-search his name, I mistakenly referred to him as “Buford.”

The name “Damon Bruce” brought me back to my days of writing fiction as I began formulating a method to describe a character to fit the name. My version of Damon Bruce would be wearing denim overalls and no shirt. He’d have a corncob pipe in his mouth as he sat on a tree stump holding between his legs a two-tone bottle of moonshine with the “XX” emblazoned across its front. His eyes would be crossed, his head titled toward the sky and the corners of his lips would be in downward curl as he gazed toward the sky. There might be a thought bubble above his head with the universal sign of thoughtlessness/blissful drunkenness: ***. His hair and goatee would be identical to what they are in reality.

The world is quick to take what they deem offensive or what they’ve been told is offensive by those who have been offended and twist it into a way to write a blog posting, go on a tangent or bolster themselves by using it (whatever “it” is) as a catalyst. Women who are insulted are fainting as if they’re a Southern belle caricature and have the vapors. Men are responding with a “how dare you?!?” tone as if they really care one way or the other. If Bruce were in a position of authority like a newspaper editor or program director, I can see the offense taken. He’s a guy looking for attention and is getting it.

You can listen to Bruce’s radio rant below:

After listening to it, I’m not sure of its purpose other than for him to get his name out there for those who – like me – had no idea who he was. It was poorly organized from the start and if one is going to intentionally build up a chain reaction controversy, it would be better executed if it wasn’t so blatant. Comparing the content provided by women in comparison to men is a silly foundation to complain about given the state of media as a whole. Male or female, the majority of supposed sportswriters don’t know much of anything to begin with and can’t write very well. It’s not women; it’s not men; it’s everyone.

Bruce played the Jerry Sandusky card when comparing the abuse that Jonathan Martin supposedly suffered at the hands of his Dolphins teammates. Without a legitimate context, this should be completely off-limits when making any kind of comparison and wanting to keep one’s job on the radio.

And that’s the key: Bruce works on the radio in San Francisco. The Martin-Richie Incognito case appeared to be what sparked this bizarre rant and that case is about lines and at what point they’re being crossed. No matter what happened and who’s completely at fault – and we really don’t know the full extent of the story yet – it was about lines more than anything else. The lines between what the coaches said and meant when they allegedly told Incognito to toughen Martin up; the lines between how far the players should have gone separating conventional team goofing and abuse; the lines between what would be acceptable. For a radio host working in one of the most liberal and intolerant cities in the world when it comes to misogyny, homophobia and racism, it’s clear that Bruce doesn’t understand the difference between drumming up some attention and saying things that will, at best, get him suspended. At worst, he’ll be fired.

If this wasn’t a planned and desperate plea for attention and Bruce had left out the gender-related commentary by saying, “Everyone is being too sensitive because this story has blown up to the degree it has. This stuff has been going on forever. All those billions of NFL fans who watch with rapt attention and spend gobs of money every week acting indignantly because the Martin case is such an affront to their delicate sensibilities are only responding because the cover has been violently ripped off of the realities of what happens in some NFL lockerrooms.”

There’s a case for that and it can be made intelligently, without having to resort to the cheap tactics that Bruce used. Now, instead of a furthering of the discussion, Bruce got the attention he wanted and he might lose his job because of it.




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The Jonathan Martin Case Puts the NFL in a Precarious Situation

CBA, Draft, Football, Games, History, Management, Media, NFL, Players, Politics, Prospects

Jonathan Martin of the Miami Dolphins having left the team due to what’s been referred to as locker room bullying has put the NFL in a delicate situation on how to regulate their players.

Years ago, this wouldn’t have been an issue. Martin would be declared weak and told that if he wanted to be an NFL player, he had to toughen up. As a former second round draft pick, the young offensive tackle has obvious value. He’s 6’5”, 310 pounds and teams don’t waste second round draft picks on players they’ll dispose of for a solvable problem. If this had happened before the NFL tried to become such a fan-friendly entity with crossover appeal, it’s doubtful it would have been a story at all.

Times are different. The simplistic approach says that when dealing with a group mentality with people in an aggressive, high-pressure environment, the way to put a stop to this type of behavior is to handle it physically. Fights within a sports team happen all the time whether they’re reported or not. The only time they are reported are when they occur in public or there’s an injury of some sort. Other than that, they’re occasionally necessary to clear out bad blood or, as in Martin’s case, to make his teammates cease being so abusive.

Could Martin have taken the supposed ringleader, Richie Incognito and given him a beating to send a message to him and the rest of the team to knock it off? Incognito is about the same size as Martin, but usually just the effort is enough to make a bully back away.

Perhaps Martin doesn’t want to resort to that.

Martin went to Stanford and both of his parents are attorneys who went to Harvard. When a physical confrontation is necessary, it’s not fear that stops the more cerebral and intelligent person from acting. It’s the potential consequences and weighing the results that keeps them from taking that step.

“What if I really hurt him?

“What if I go to jail?”

“Do I want to play this game if it makes me into something I’m not?”

They’re legitimate questions.

For whatever reason, Martin chose to take a different route and walked away. The whole episode is being portrayed as “Martin was picked on and he left the team.” It might not be that at all. No one knows the whole story. It could be a combination of issues that led to his departure. Whether or not he’ll be back is up to him.

To believe that the intra-team treatment of players is an isolated incident is naïve at best and stupid at worst.

The public response to a cellphone video that Giants punter Steve Weatherford made of Prince Amukamara being dumped into ice water by Jason Pierre-Paul was indicative of the culture. Weatherford posted it on Twitter and it became an “incident.” Was this hazing? Was it bullying?

If it’s guys goofing around, it’s one thing. If it reaches the level where the target doesn’t want to come to work, it’s another. It’s hard to blame the players because how are they supposed to know when to stop if there’s not a baseline criteria and standards of which action is in what category?

There’s a fine line between hazing and abusiveness. There’s also a fine line between looking like the school kid saying “I’m telling on you” to have it handled by a person in position of power and reporting a workplace violation. Many times, telling the boss or the teacher or the police about it is going to make matters worse. In the case of the Dolphins, what precisely is coach Joe Philbin going to do about it? He’s not exactly intimidating and doesn’t have the personality of someone the players will be frightened of. Much has been made of Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano and his staff violating what’s supposed to be a “players only” sanctuary of the locker room with spies and perceived inappropriate venturing into their territory. If the coaches aren’t supposed to go in there, then they’re not supposed to mess with the hierarchy of the room and any rituals that might go on either.

In the Giants incident, coach Tom Coughlin said that he didn’t know about it until he was told and would take care of it. Rest assured he did. Will Philbin? Or will he hem and haw and be wishy-washy about it hoping it goes away? Would anyone be scared enough to listen if he told them to stop?

A strong-handed head coach doesn’t necessarily have to be a stern, glowering taskmaster like Coughlin or Mike Tomlin; it doesn’t have to be someone whose personality permeates the room and the players know he’ll be ruthless in dealing with a problem as Jimmy Johnson was. Andy Reid and Mike Holmgren are soft-spoken puffballs, but the players know they’re in charge. And that’s without mentioning the Emperor Palpatine of the NFL, Bill Belichick.

With a coach, it comes down to this: Is it affecting the team? Since Martin left, it’s affecting the team, therefore it’s a problem that must be addressed. Other than that, they probably wouldn’t notice if they knew about it at all.

Given the nature of this story and the mere use of the word “bullying,” it puts the NFL in a precarious position on how to proceed. The NFL is taking part in anti-bullying campaigns and trying to educate young people on why not to do it and what to do if it does happen. So what is the NFL’s recourse if it’s happening with one of their own franchises to the point that the player who was reportedly subjected to the bullying got up and left?

The NFL Players Association is looking into it and there’s no doubt that Commissioner Roger Goodell is monitoring this closely. In combination with the league-wide efforts to take part in anti-bullying initiatives and that it’s making the league look bad, this happening so publicly will get some results. Whether it will stop throughout the league is the question. The answer is probably no.

Like the code red in the Marine Corps and made famous in A Few Good Men, these hazing rituals are part of the culture. On some level, the players, coaches and participants might think it’s a necessary part of building a bond and indicates acceptance into the group. Once something happens to draw it into public scrutiny, there will be the pretense of responding to the issue to prevent it from happening again, then it will be forgotten about. It’s been part of the dynamic forever. One story about a football player who decided he’d had enough won’t alter that fact.




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Check Out My Writing On FanIQ

Fantasy/Roto, Football, Free Agents, Games, History, Management, Media, NFL, Players, Playoffs

On days I don’t post here, it’s likely I will have posted on FanIQ. Check out today’s posting about the New York Jets, coach Rex Ryan, quarterback Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow and the rest of their dysfunctional mess. You can read it by clicking on this link.




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