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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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.

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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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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The Costas Factor

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I’ll preface this by saying I agree with Bob Costas’s premise that the overt celebrations in baseball when there’s a walkoff of any kind, especially a walkoff homer, have gone so far over-the-top that it appears as if a relatively meaningless game in June is the seventh game of the World Series. We’re not that far away from players gathering at home plate on a first inning home run like they do in college and high school. It’s bush league, amateurish and ruins the specialness of games in which there should be a legitimate celebration: no-hitters, perfect games, milestone achievements, post-season clinchings and series victories.

When presenting the afternoon’s baseball highlights, however, Costas gave a mini-editorial with smiling disdain while calling the Mets’ celebration after winning in walkoff fashion on Kirk Nieuwenhuis’s home run “another indication of the ongoing decline of Western civilization.” The clip is below.

The truth of the matter regarding these celebrations is that everyone does it. Costas’s snide comment regarding the second division Mets and Cubs is accurate in the overriding silliness of the act, but the “classy” Cardinals and Yankees do it as well. Prince Fielder celebrated a walkoff homer with teammates by acting as if he was a bowling ball and knocking over the pins (his teammates) and got drilled for it the next year. Kendrys Morales, then of the Angels—a club that took their cue on stoicism and professionalism from manager Mike Scioscia—severely damaged his ankle leaping onto home plate and lost a year-and-a-half of his career because of it. They’re not going to stop doing it no matter how badly Costas wants to go back to 1960 with players celebrated by shaking hands like they’d just had a successful meeting at IBM.

Frankly, I couldn’t care less what Costas says. As he’s aged and his status has grown as a crossover broadcaster whose opinions on a wide range of subjects are given weight, he’s turned increasingly crotchety, preachy, smug and obnoxious. He’s almost a likable Bill O’Reilly with a smile—sort of how Bill O’Reilly was when he was hosting Inside Edition and when The O’Reilly Factor first started before market dictates and egomania forced him to lurch far to the right and put forth the persona of screaming in people’s faces as an omnipotent pedant. Costas has the forum and gets away with it because he’s Bob Costas, therefore he does it and this will happen again unless his bosses tell him to can it.

This is only a small blip in comparison to his halftime op-ed regarding gun control the day after Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher’s murder/suicide last December. That clip is below.

Speaking of the decline of Western civilization, the conceit that is evident everywhere stemming from the me-me-me attitude that has been exacerbated with social media, easy fame and its trappings has led to a rise in pushing the envelope to make one’s voice heard over the din whether it’s the proper forum to do so or not. Would a Costas commentary on gun control be given airtime anywhere if he didn’t blindside his employers by interjecting it during an NFL halftime show? Would anyone listen to it if there wasn’t a captive audience of people gathering to watch the game who were suddenly inundated with Costas’s political rant?

The NFL halftime show is meant to be talking about Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Robert Griffin III, not going into a long-winded diatribe directly challenging the beliefs of a massive constituency of the NFL—conservatives who believe in the right to bear arms. If Costas has these little vignettes planned on the state of sports and the world in general, perhaps he should save it for a time in which people who are tuning in would expect it and make the conscious choice to hear what he has to say on the variety of off-field subjects and negligible behaviors that he’s made it a habit of sharing his feelings on. But then, maybe no one would tune in because they want to hear Costas talk about sports and would prefer if he saved his personal feelings for a time when it’s appropriate, not when viewers looking for sports and highlights have to endure his arrogant and high-handed opinions.

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From North Dallas Forty To Biogenesis

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Major League Baseball’s ham-handed investigation into the Biogenesis Clinic and the players who might have been involved in PEDs after being named as clinic clients is an attempt to appear as if they’re on top of the situation done in a way similar to how the National Football League would’ve done it. Except the way in which MLB is handling it is the way the NFL would’ve handled it in 1970, not 2013.

The tour-de-force account of how the NFL operated back then was the 1979 film North Dallas Forty as the protagonist, Phil Elliot is struggling through injuries and the refusal to “play the game” and the “game” isn’t football—it’s going along to get along, taking shots of painkillers, playing injured (different from playing hurt), being used and willing to be used to fill the masochistic need to play the actual on-field sport.

In the movie, the North Dallas Bulls with their megalomaniacal and exceedingly wealthy owner, iconic and cold-blooded coach, and hard-partying teammates (*wink wink* at the “similarities” to the Dallas Cowboys) prepare for the next week’s game. Early in the film, Elliot experiences a break-in at his home and catches the perpetrator in the act who threatens Elliot with a gun and flees. In the penultimate scene, the break-in was revealed to have actually executed by a private eye who had been hired by the club to get dirt on Elliot with the complicity of the league to catch disposable, independent-minded players like him smoking pot and using an excess of painkillers in order to exploit the violation of league rules not to pay their salaries when they’re dumped as Elliot eventually was. Left out of the equation was that Elliott was smoking pot with the team’s star quarterback, but the club couldn’t very well function without the star quarterback and cutting Elliott filled the dual function of sending a message to the rest of the team that they’d better behave or suffer the same fate of not only being cut, but also having their reputation sullied throughout the league and face a suspension for drug use if they didn’t do as they’re told.

Elliott’s quote regarding his marijuana use, “If you nailed every guy in the league who smoked grass, you wouldn’t have enough players left to field the punt return team,” still resonates today in every sport and with every drug—performance enhancing and otherwise.

MLB is trying the same type of thing sans the illegalities (that we know of) with the Biogenesis case in their over-the-top show of trying to extract information from the head of the clinic Anthony Bosch to the degree that they’re paying him and, according to other potential witnesses, “bullying” with threats and empty promises of help in a legal case if they cooperate. The problem for MLB is this when thinking about the tactics similar to those used in North Dallas Forty: the movie was from 34 years ago and it was adapted from a book published 40 years ago about the way the game was run in the 1960s.

And that’s what MLB is doing. They’re using methods from the 1960s to garner information in 2013.

The problems with the way in which MLB is reportedly running this investigation is manifold and goes far beyond the Cold War-era strategies. Let’s just say, hypothetically, that this Biogenesis clinic was used by players in today’s NFL and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell who was at the top of the hill in this new scandal instead of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. Would the entire structure be handled differently? Better? More competently?

Selig is essentially seen as a doddering figurehead whose main job descriptions is that of a functionary. It’s not far from the truth. His performance as commissioner has been a byproduct of what is good for the owners’ pockets rather than what is promoted as good for the game. While the PEDs were rampant throughout baseball and were used with the tacit approval of everyone in an effort to draw fans, restore the game’s popularity following the 1994 strike, and accrue money for the owners and players alike, there was Selig with a faraway gaze either clueless as to the reality or willfully ignoring it. Perhaps it was a combination of the two.

Selig’s performance in front of Congress along with the players who showed up that fateful day was humiliating in a myriad of ways. From Rafael Palmeiro’s finger-wagging lies; to Sammy Sosa’s “me no speaka the Inglés”; to Mark McGwire not being there to talk about the past; to Curt Schilling clamming up after his yapping for days before and after the fact, baseball has never acquitted itself well when self-preservation came to the forefront at the expense of stating the facts.

Has baseball improved since then? Has Selig gotten the message? Let’s just compare Selig with his NFL counterpart Goodell. Only people inside baseball’s front office know how alert Selig is to the Biogenesis investigation or anything else. Perhaps it’s a matter of, “Don’t tell me what I don’t want to know so I don’t have to lie about it later.” But this is an indicator that MLB should’ve tossed someone overboard when the entire PED scandal initially broke to send the message that a new sheriff was in town and things weren’t going to be done the old way. And I use old in every conceivable context of the word when discussing Selig. That would’ve meant that Selig had to go a decade ago, and he probably should’ve.

Would Goodell be so disengaged to not know every aspect of what’s going on with an investigation of this magnitude? Would he not take steps to control the message and how it’s framed as politicians—like Goodell and Goodell’s father Charles, a former United States Senator from New York—do and did? This is the fundamental difference between MLB and the NFL. Goodell is smooth, smart, and cagey. He’s available yet insulated; touchable but unknowable; protected and in command. Selig on the other hand is cadaverous and scripted, but unable to follow the script; he’s anything but smooth and the disheveled clothes, $10 haircut and bewildered countenance that was once somewhat charming lost its luster as he had to get to work to restore the game’s validity. What makes it worse when having a figurehead as commissioner is that baseball doesn’t appear to have taken steps to place competent people behind the scenes to pull the levers to keep the machine greased and running well. It’s people charging headlong into each other and having the bruises to prove it.

If Goodell makes the implication that the witnesses will be assisted in a criminal investigation as was alluded to in the ESPN piece linked above, you can bet that the NFL and Goodell himself will have the connections to follow through on the promise.

MLB? What are they going to do about it? Are they even capable of helping anyone? Would they know who to call and would that person even take the call as he would if he heard, “Roger Goodell is on the phone,” instead of “Bud Selig is on the phone,”?

Not much thought was put into any of this going back to allowing of players to get away with PED use and then the about-face due to public outcry, the banning of substances and the potential fallout of doing so. They want to clean up the game, but keep it entertaining to the fans. Did it ever occur to them that the reason that so many man games are being lost due to injury stems from the tendons and ligaments becoming weakened from carrying the extra muscle built through chemical means? That players can’t play 150 games and toss 225 innings and maintain performance without chemicals? That they aren’t going to be able to beat out a dribbler on the infield in August by chugging cups of coffee and cans of Red Bull as they would from their trusted amphetamines (greenies)? That the risk/reward for players like Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Melky Cabrera and anyone else whose name was caught up in Biogenesis was such that there was no reason not to do it?

What’s 100 games in comparison to the half a billion dollars in contracts—just for playing baseball alone and not counting endorsements—A-Rod will have made once his career is over? What’s 100 games in exchange for Braun’s MVP and the minute risk (Braun’s just unlucky, arrogant and somewhat stupid) of getting caught? What’s 100 games in exchange for a slightly above-average talent like Cabrera being given a contract for $16 million almost immediately after his humiliating suspension and public lambasting?

Until MLB does something about the laughable penalties, players will keep trying to navigate their way around the tests and punishments because it’s worth it for them to do it given the likelihood that they’ll get away with it.

Attendance and TV ratings are down all around baseball. In large part it’s because the fans who jumped on the bandwagon at the excitement of the home runs have little interest in watching Joe Maddon outmaneuver Joe Girardi with tactical skill. They want homers and if they’re not getting them, they won’t bother to watch. This new “get tough” policy is falling flat not just because of the maladroit manner in which it’s being implemented, but because there’s no integrity behind it. The owners are interested in one thing: the bottom line. Many are as blind as Selig was to the PED use and only came around when the evidence was plunked on their desks with the widespread demand to “do something” about it to “save the game.”

Using the 1960s as a guideline for running the Biogenesis investigation in 2013 forgets that back then, there wasn’t the constant flow of available information with real time stories, opinions and criticisms appearing immediately and going viral. Back then, MLB would’ve been able to get in front of the story using friendly, like-minded reporters who were willing to do the Max Mercy thing from The Natural and “protect” the game. In other words, they would protect the people who owned the game against the ephemeral presence of the players who come and go and who were using drugs to undeservedly place themselves in the stratosphere of legends that was once rightfully limited to Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Bob Feller. Now there are bloggers, reporters and networks gathering information as it comes in. It can’t be controlled.

For MLB to put forth the pretense of being all-in for the Biogenesis investigation is the epitome of wasteful hypocrisy. They can pound on doors, stand on rooftops and proclaim their commitment to stopping PED use. They can threaten, cajole, demand and make empty promises, but that’s not going to alter the reality that the changes to the game have to be foundational and not a self-serving attempt to clean up a game that has been infested from the top to the bottom due in large part to the inaction of MLB itself.

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Umpiring Won’t Change For A Generation

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The two-game suspension of umpire Fielden Culbreth for his inexplicable mistake in the Angels-Astros game is fine. While it’s not much of a deterrent for an umpire to make a gaffe since Culbreth didn’t do it intentionally, it’s a symbol to the fans and the media that MLB is “doing something.”

That umpiring error along with Angel Hernandez’s failure to overrule a missed home run call off the bat of Adam Rosales of the A’s after he saw the replay has again dragged umpiring into the spotlight. Amid the demands for a command central to handle home runs as they do with goals in the NHL and more strict overseeing of the jobs the umps are doing, the fact is that the umpiring culture will not change to a by-the-book methodology for another generation.

Umpiring is ingrained and comes from the ground up. They’re taught by former umps; there’s a brotherhood, a clique, and a learned strategy for “handling” players; and they aren’t entreated to follow the rulebook to the letter, therefore they don’t. Until that changes and an MLB-crafted guideline is created to train and recruit the umpires, there won’t be a monolithic difference in the way the games are called.

We’ve come a long way from Doug Harvey being the only umpire to enforce niggling rules like only one batter being allowed to hover in the on-deck circle at a time; from Harry Wendelstedt enforcing a rarely-if-ever referenced rule that Dick Dietz being hit by a Don Drysdale pitch that would’ve ended Drysdale’s scoreless inning streak was nullified because Dietz didn’t try to get out of the way; from Ed Runge testing young batters with a gigantic strike zone, staring at them to see how they reacted, and telling stars like Mickey Mantle that he’d better straighten out mouthy rookies who dared question him. Now all the games are on television, the umpires are known by face and name, commentary abounds on what “must” be done and how to “fix” the umpiring without some blogger realizing: A) how fast the game is; and B) that the umpires, for the most part, do a very good job, treat the players and the game with respect and are respected in turn.

The problem is that the blown calls are prominently featured as news stories and the demand that umpiring be improved trumps the fact that the majority of games move along without a hitch. When the Hernandez and Culbreth mistakes—as separate and different as they were—happen as rat-a-tat as they did, it exponentially raises the scrutiny on the umps and, by proxy, on MLB’s VP of Baseball Operations Joe Torre and MLB itself.

Because players are so much more lucratively paid than the umpires it almost takes the tone of a cop stopping a guy in a Porsche for running a stop sign and being subjected to a browbeating as to how much higher the driver’s net worth is than the police officer’s. There’s no justification for the increasing incidences of umpire abuse or for the likes of Curt Schilling to have smashed the QuestTec device because it was altering “his” strike zone. But this is the culture that was built and it’s going to take a long time for it to change.

It starts from the training schools and minor leagues with the conscious decision to shun the oft-heard umpire lament of “my” strike zone; and “my” way of calling a game; and “my” style. You don’t see officials in the NFL making up their own version of the rules as the game goes along because the NFL is harder on their officials and the rules are the rules—there’s no self-aggrandizing interpretation. As the veteran umpires retire and are replaced by younger ones, the structure will change if the younger umps are trained correctly and taught that they have to enforce the rulebook as is and not put their own artistic flair into something that is supposed to be sacrosanct. It won’t be until 20 or 30 years from now that the seeds planted now will have sprouted. Until then this will continue and not much, if anything, can be done about it.

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Robinson Cano Puts His Money Where His Heart Is

2013 MLB Predicted Standings, Award Winners, Ballparks, Books, CBA, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Management, Media, MVP, NFL, Players, Stats, Trade Rumors

The initial reaction to the splashy headline that Yankees’ second baseman Robinson Cano fired agent Scott Boras and replaced him with rapper Jay-Z was that I would follow suit and hire a literary agent with my first choice being comedian Dave Chappelle.

Of course Jay-Z isn’t going to be Cano’s agent in spirit where he’ll be sitting across from Brian Cashman and exchange numbers for the upcoming Cano mega-contract. The media is being politically correct by saying how smart Jay-Z and great a businessman Jay-Z is—and they’re right—but he’s not an attorney and he’s not an agent even though he recently received a temporary license to represent baseball players. This is a business expansion on the part of Jay-Z as a frontman and recognizable name to garner street cred with his athlete-friends and entirely unlike the idiotic decision on the part of former NFL player Ricky Williams who, in 1999, was drafted fifth overall with first overall talent and decided to hire Master P as his agent and signed what has been referred to as the “worst contract contract for a player” in NFL history.

Jay-Z didn’t get where he is being arrogant enough to think he’s capable of juggling all of these endeavors and handling the nuts and bolts. It’s a business deal with a legitimate agency, Creative Artists, that represents such diverse clientele as Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt (the real Pitt, not Billy Beane) and has also recently negotiated Buster Posey’s contract extension. Cano didn’t do something stupid here. He hired an agency to: A) get him paid; and B) keep him a Yankee, not necessarily in that order.

Cano’s personality never lent itself to Boras and the Boras style of negotiation with the current club portrayed as the enemy rather than an employer with whom to engage in a give-and-take to come to a reasonable agreement. It had already started with the Yankees making a conciliatory decision to forego their longstanding policy of not negotiating with players prior to the contract expiring by making what was termed a “significant” offer for Cano to preemptively sign. Boras scoffed at the offer. No one knows what it was, but it was probably a genuine, signable, framework deal to cobble something together. This is the Yankees we’re talking about so there wouldn’t be a Jeffrey Loria bout of lying and cheapness. They’re perfectly willing to pay their players. Presumably, Cano hired Boras because of the name recognition and the likelihood that other players were telling him, “Yeah, hire Scott. He’ll get you paid.” But if I, you or Jay-Z was functioning as Cano’s agent—and doing the actual agenting—we could get him $200 million from the Yankees. Alex Rodriguez, who knows more about the positives and negatives of having Boras as his father-figure and Svengali representative than anyone, might have told Cano that if the situation continued down this path, he’d be in a Dodgers’ uniform after the season. Cano doesn’t want to leave the Yankees and Jose Cano is his father. Cano is subdued, quiet, definitely not an overt leader, and relaxed to the point of appearing zombie-like. He didn’t need the uncertainty all season.

This will spur talk that Boras’s power base is evaporating; that players are no longer willing to follow the Boras plans and schemes to extract as much money as possible from someone whether it’s in their preferred locale or not, but these are exaggerations. There will always be players hypnotized by the Darth Vader-like fear that Boras’s name engenders throughout the industry and his history of coming through more often than not. In the end, Cano hired Boras in what was a clear preparation for free agency and saw his agent and club being at loggerheads with the potential of having to leave the only baseball home he’s ever known whether he wanted to or not over a negligible (at that level) amount of money. Perhaps Cano realized that when the offers are $230 million and $250 million, there’s really not much of a difference and decided to make the move to not move where he’s comfortable and happy. Cano wants to be a Yankee and the hiring of Jay-Z essentially assures that he’ll be a Yankee and that the negotiations will progress with an agreement likely sooner rather than later.

Please check out my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide, now available on Amazon, Smashwords, BN, and Lulu.

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