Belichick Won’t Be Blamed For Hernandez’s Mess

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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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Loria’s Marlins Mistake

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Instead of the accusation that Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria made the change, let’s say that the Marlins President of Baseball Operations Larry Beinfest or, preferably, GM Michael Hill called down to manager Mike Redmond and told him to switch the pitchers in the day/night doubleheader against the Twins and had Jose Fernandez pitch the opener rather than Ricky Nolasco. Would there be this huge uproar over Loria’s “interference?”

Loria denies that he did this, but given the allegations from Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle that Loria lied to their faces and his history of using the gray areas of business to justify his flexibility with the truth, believing him is impossible.

The angry reactions for this, however, are over-the-top. In the above-linked piece, Jeff Passan writes that Loria is guilty of “overstepping boundaries no other owner in baseball would dare.” How he would Passan know this? Is it out of the realm of possibility that owners across baseball are letting their opinions be known and that the employees are well-advised to, as Passan also put it in reference to Loria and manager Mike Redmond, “listen to the man who signs his paycheck?”

What happened to the front office running the team and having a pliable manager who does what he’s told as an implementer of the organizational plan? Whether or not the organizational plan meets the approval of the media and fans is irrelevant. Loria is the owner as he’s more than willing to say and act upon. He did it again in this case.

As for the potential undermining of Redmond, the threat of losing his job, and the unhappiness of the players, what was expected? Just as history has shown that Loria is willing to do anything at any time with gutting trades, lies, bloviating that would’ve embarrassed George Steinbrenner, financial shenanigans that Frank McCourt would feel are excessive, and arrogance that would lead Jim Crane to cringe, he’s also willing to fire managers and has no issue ignoring the feelings of players.

Redmond is in his first major league managing job and any job involving managing/coaching for the Marlins is rapidly turning into being hired by the late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis to coach the team: a no-lose/no-blame situation. If good things happen, they were unexpected and a byproduct of the good work done by the manager; if bad things happen, they were a result of the endless dysfunction and impossibility of the circumstances. Redmond has a three-year contract and his salary is unknown, but given that it’s the Marlins, that he’s a rookie and they’re still paying former manager Ozzie Guillen the final three years of his four-year, $10 million contract, Redmond’s salary can’t be more than $1.5 million for the duration of the deal. For Loria, if he decides to make a change at some point for any reason, that’s a business expense he’s ready to absorb.

Respect of the players? How much respect was Redmond going to have from the start? The Marlins veterans know what’s happening and will go along to get along, waiting to be traded or allowed to leave as free agents; the young players have no power whatsoever to disrespect the manager, so it’s similar to Redmond still managing in the minor leagues: do what you’re told, keep your mouth shut or you won’t play.

Regarding the supposed “standard protocol” that Passan references when it comes to Nolasco having the option of which game he’ll pitch, it’s not in the basic agreement nor is it a gentleman’s agreement that Loria is beholden to adhere to. It’s a courtesy and Loria ignored it. Nolasco is in the last year of his contract and is going to be traded sooner rather than later. Why should the Marlins care what he thinks about anything?

In retrospect, what Loria should have done was to have Beinfest or Hill tell Redmond of the change. Speaking of protocol, the smart protocol for Loria would have been to use intermediaries to get what he wanted done. This would have insulated him and provided plausible deniability for his orders. It would’ve been known, but not known and the deluge of criticism mitigated.

Either way, what’s the difference? He’s the owner. He can do what he wants. And he’s proven that to be exactly what he’s going to do.

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Melky Cabrera’s Dream Season Is Just That

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Melky Cabrera’s batting average on balls in play (BAbip) is .413 and that’s not going to continue.

It won’t.

So forget it.

He’s been smoking hot this season and is putting up numbers that, on the surface, look like he’s turned the corner. The perception that he’s playing up to his potential is leading to a misplaced belief that Cabrera is now a “star” player for the Giants.

Well, he’s not. His numbers are what they’ve always been and he’s benefiting from the aforementioned inexplicable and unsustainable luck.

Cabrera’s a useful bat with speed and versatility in the outfield; he has some pop; is a switch-hitter; and when he’s committed can produce. He’s not an MVP candidate unless he’s extremely lucky which is what he’s been this season.

This isn’t an assessment based on stats of visual analysis. It’s a combination of both.

It wasn’t long ago that the Braves non-tendered Cabrera after one season in Atlanta because he showed up out of shape, played like he was in a cloud and aggravated Bobby Cox and the Braves’ veterans in a similar fashion as he aggravated the Yankees into getting sent to the minors in 2008. A hallmark of Cabrera’s career has been the dialing down of his effort when he felt secure in his job. When he’s comfortable he gets lazy. After signing with the Royals, Cabrera appeared to realize that his life as a baseball vagabond was never going to be as lucrative as it would be if he showed up to play every day with the necessary commitment.

He has 15-20 home run power, can steal 20+ bases and play all outfield positions competently. But he’s not a star. He’s not going to win the batting title. And he’s not worth the amount of money someone is going to blindly throw at him when he hits free agency after this season based on his luck on balls in play and other attributes. Yankees’ fans in particular are soon going to use Cabrera’s numbers as a bludgeon to attack GM Brian Cashman for trading him to reacquire Javier Vazquez. Cashman’s obsession with Vazquez was blockheaded, insistent and foolish, but trading Cabrera to get him wasn’t a mistake. It was the same with the Royals. They needed an arm for their starting rotation, Cabrera was due a big raise in arbitration and they made a move for the talented and flighty Jonathan Sanchez. It hasn’t worked for them so far. That’s the way it goes.

I liken Cabrera to the former NFL cornerback Larry Brown who won the Super Bowl XXX MVP for the Cowboys by intercepting two passes from Steelers’ quarterback Neil O’Donnell. Brown didn’t make any brilliant athletic maneuvers on those plays. He was standing there, O’Donnell threw two balls to him and he caught them. From that he became a budding “star” and parlayed that misplaced credit into a lucrative contract with the Oakland Raiders that was a ghastly mistake. Cabrera is in shape; is playing hard; and is maximizing his abilities. But like Brown, he’s been in the right place at the right time. A huge contract will be a misjudgment for the team that signs Cabrera just as it was for the Raiders when they signed Brown. They’ll be paying him for what he was at his best and for good fortune and not for what he actually is.

Cabrera deserves the attention he’s getting now, but few should be surprised when he reverts back to form—that form is of a pretty good ancillary player. That’s it.

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The Yankees’ Closer Decision Is Made For Them

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You remember quarterback Matt Leinart, don’t you?

The former number 1 draft pick of the Arizona Cardinals and college superstar who has shown neither the aptitude nor the desire to be a starting quarterback in the NFL finally got his chance to play for a team—the Houston Texans—that had a very real Super Bowl chance.

Leinart took over for the injured Matt Schaub with the Texans at 7-3, heading for a division title and with the smothering defense that could’ve given them a conference championship. Leinart started his first game on November 27, 2011 and began by completing 10 of his first 13 passes with a touchdown. Then he was tackled and broke his collarbone on the play. His season was over.

This isn’t to imply that Leinart was happy to be injured, but given his reputation, he’s put forth the impression that he prefers partying to playing; that being the backup was just easier and safer.

Everyone needs an adequate number 2 and many times, the number 1 doesn’t want someone standing behind him who may or may not be holding a knife.

Leinart is content as a backup.

(Note: Yesterday, Leinart signed with the Oakland Raiders to be the number 2 behind Carson Palmer.)

We’ll never know whether David Robertson was overwhelmed with the prospect of replacing a legend as the closer for a team that judges any season that doesn’t end with a World Series win as an abject failure. But now he’s on the disabled list with a strained oblique and Rafael Soriano is taking over—officially—as the Yankees’ closer.

It’s the move they should’ve made from the beginning.

Was Robertson ever named the closer to replace Mariano Rivera or were the Yankees giving him a try before committing to him?

He’s being referred to as “Yankees’ closer” in the news reports detailing the injury, but their actions made it appear that he was taking over without it being explicitly said.

In reality, this makes the Yankees’ decision easier and there won’t be an embarrassing demotion or perception that Robertson was unable to handle the job. At the time of Rivera’s injury, Soriano was the preferable choice to take over as the closer because he’s done it before and Robertson was far more valuable pitching the more important innings of the seventh and eighth. Making Robertson the closer was the chain-of-command maneuver in a Vice Presidential succession sort of way, but that doesn’t make it right. In the games that Soriano has closed, we’ve seen the pitcher that the Yankees paid all that money for. His body language, demeanor and conviction in his pitches are all entirely different than they were as the seventh inning man. He looks more comfortable because he is more comfortable. Yes, it’s mental; yes, it’s ego; yes, it’s missing the point that the ninth inning is, many times, not the inning in which the actual “save” is recorded, but these aren’t robots, they’re people. Soriano likes closing and was good at it. Robertson was good at being the set-up man.

There’s nothing wrong with that.

Once Robertson returns, the Yankees would be foolish to make him the closer again—that’s if they ever did in the first place.

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These Are Your Jets; This Is Your Coach

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Rex Ryan was brimming with confidence when he took over as Jets coach, but it wasn’t blustery for the sake of noise, it was real. Bringing along the 46 defense and a reputation for speaking his mind, Ryan swaggered into the Tri-State area trying to change the Jets culture from one expecting to be the second class citizen in area football and a punching bag that folded or found some clever way to lose when they were on the cusp of something special.

It’s no wonder the Jets and Mets have long been associated as brothers in innovative failure.

Ryan’s personality and looseness are designed to attract players. Whether that attraction is due to the fine line of letting the players be themselves or having zero discipline is an important question. His father, Buddy, was known for building great defenses; feistiness; the close relationships he forged with his players; fighting with management, fellow and opposing coaches; and losing in the playoffs.

Up until now, Rex Ryan’s mouth has mostly been backed up by consecutive trips to the AFC Championship Game. They lost both games because the Jets, based on ability, had no right to be there to begin with. They were lucky; they were opportunistic; they were pretty good; and they were playing with house money.

House money is an interesting analogy considering Ryan’s penchant for his mouth being the equivalent of the purple suited, high-rolling pimp riding up in an Escalade and emerging in all his gaudiness, resplendent rings (one being of the Super Bowl variety won as a Ravens assistant) decorating both hands, and a booming voice designed to have the masses turn and look at him as he struts into the casino flashing wads of cash, ready for action.

The attention is the key and it’s meaningless to him whether it’s because they’re irritated by him or impressed with his brashness.

The problem with that for one who’s operating on the wrong side of societal propriety is that the attention can cause unwanted legal entanglements.

For a football coach, it makes the rest of the league, fans and media want that gauche figure to be put in his place—especially in the insular and mostly conservative world of football.

This season, the Jets were supposed to take the next step from back-to-back second place finishers in the AFC to the elite in the game.

I’m not going to start delving out of my realm and try to find reasons why the Jets ended up 8-8 and didn’t follow through on Ryan’s guarantee of a Super Bowl, but I can discuss what I know about people and the influence his pronouncements of greatness and superiority have had on his team’s results; that he’s rapidly gone from moderately entertaining to tiresome to borderline delusional.

Comparisons of the Jets to teams that maintained the perception of lax discipline or were the preferred destinations for ne’er-do-wells and malcontents fall flat when they’re examined in depth.

The Raiders were known as a halfway house for players whom no other team could control or whose talent couldn’t be unlocked under conventional football-style disciplines; the truth was that in their heyday, John Madden and Tom Flores were in charge of their teams and Al Davis was always hovering around as a powerful figure who could not only keep the players from crossing that fine line between being edgy but worthwhile and more trouble than they were worth. Push Davis too far and there was a great chance a player would never find another job in football—not just as a player, but period.

The Cowboys of the 1990s had a similar aura of chaos, but Jimmy Johnson was able to play ringleader to Jerry Jones’s circus and keep the Michael Irvins of his team off the police blotter. When Barry Switzer took over, it was a free-for-all; there was no one to slam down the hammer because the head coach and the owner were acting just as self-indulgently as the players were and the requisite hypocrisy of “do as I say, not as I do” didn’t exist under Switzer because he didn’t want to be seen as a hypocrite.

But it’s the coach’s job to be a hypocrite.

Those Cowboys managed to win another championship under Switzer, but the wheels came off shortly thereafter in part because of that cannibalistic hubris.

If a coach or player is going to open each press conference with continuous proclamations of his own greatness, then he’d better come through.

Mark Messier, Jimmy Rollins and Joe Namath made their guarantees and performed in their games to make the guarantees come to pass. Realistically, what would’ve happened had the Rangers lost in 1994? Had the 2007 Phillies not come back to catch and pass the Mets? Had the Jets of 1968-1969 not won the Super Bowl? Nothing. But because these men said they were going to win and did, they became legends. That it was circumstantial is irrelevant.

No one remembers those who said they were going to win and didn’t, but they’re going to remember Ryan because he says the same things over and over and refuses to back down; the more something is said, the less meaning it has.

Even if the Jets do win at some point following another Ryan decree, what good did it do if, on the 50th, he happened to be right? It’s as if he’s playing darts with a blindfold and saying he’ll hit the bullseye. Eventually, he’ll hit it. So?

The Jets are a rogue outfit under the stewardship of a coach who doesn’t have the first concept of taking the toys away from his spoiled brats.

Compromising principles for expediency will eventually come full circle and haunt the transgressor; he may still achieve the initial goal because of that concession, but a price needs to be paid.

The problem the Jets have is that Ryan doesn’t seem to have principles to compromise. It’s all full speed ahead; double, triple and quadruple down on the high-rolling bet he made at the beginning.

Interestingly Tom Coughlin, the coach that beat Ryan last week and is the polar opposite in terms of personality and the way he handles his lockerroom, was considered the fascist that no one wanted to play for when he had endless rules and regulations for the expansion Jaguars. In this Sports Illustrated article, Coughlin summed it up perfectly in the following clip:

“Let me say this,” he said, pointing an index finger at a camp visitor. “You only get one time to make a first impression. You can’t start easy and then get strict on players.”

Ryan can’t maintain this roster, come storming into camp in 2012 and say, “That’s it, I’m pulling in the reins!” First, no one would buy into it because that’s not his style—he can’t be someone he’s not and remain authentic; second, if the Jets are going to purge the problem people on the team, they’re looking at a significant alteration in their personnel from the one that Ryan guaranteed was winning the Super Bowl this season. If he’s allowed to do it, he’d better win because few if any coaches get a third rebuild.

In this Wall Street Journal report of today’s elimination loss to the Dolphins, Ryan somewhat adjusted his over-the-top persona:

“I’m always going to chase the Super Bowl,” Ryan said. “If you don’t, you’re going to be a loser. You have to have the guts to go for that.”

There’s a slight difference between “chasing” and “guaranteeing”.

Because of Ryan’s decision to administrate his team in this way—with the inmates running the asylum and a conscious choice to make outrageous statements—the Jets can’t drastically reset their template even if they get rid of some players and assistant coaches.

This is it.

The coach needs to shut up.

But we all know he won’t.

And by now, he can’t.

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Don Mattingly’s Al Davis Compact

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No matter how this season ends for the Dodgers (75-87 looks about right at this point), manager Don Mattingly should get a pass on his managerial record.

Off-field courtroom distractions stemming from the McCourt divorce and MLB’s attempts to seize the club have compounded the on-field issues that have ruined what looked like a pretty good team before the season began.

Injuries to key players Casey Blake, Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo, Jon Garland and Rafael Furcal left them without important veterans; terrible years from Juan Uribe and Furcal mitigated a fine year from Andre Ethier; an MVP performance from Matt Kemp; and a Cy Young-caliber season from Clayton Kershaw.

None of that is Mattingly’s fault.

Having spent his entire playing career with the George Steinbrenner Yankees from their most dysfunctional seasons of the 1980s through the beginning of the renaissance of the early-1990s, Mattingly always seemed to have just missed. He made the playoffs for the first time in his career in 1995, but retired after that season because of recurring back problems and the Yankees desire to move on with someone who was more of a threat at the plate.

The Yankees first championship of this era came the next season.

Managing the Dodgers, he’s been saddled with an even more embarrassing set of controversies than what he endured in his playing days with the Yankees. But he’s handled them calmly and without offering as an excuse the injuries or ownership questions.

Much like all of Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis’s coaches in the past 15 years, anarchy yields a pass for the man in the middle.

Mattingly is the man in the middle for the Dodgers.

He’s made some strategic blunders this year, but the club being under .500 and out of contention can’t be traced to a few gaffes by the manager. One important aspect in judging a manager is the “screw this guy” potential from the players.

The Dodgers players have never indicated the attitude that they’ve looked at Mattingly and said, “screw this guy” as if they’re going through the motions for aesthetics without caring one way or the other what happens. Mattingly’s the type who players don’t want to let down. It just so happens that the Dodgers are hopelessly outmanned this season and the off-field nightmare is contributing to the aura of chaos.

If the Dodgers are under new ownership next season, have a new GM or bring in a new manager, Mattingly should get another chance as a manager somewhere; 2011 isn’t an accurate barometer of what he can be; he’s got the added advantage of being a baseball guy whose in-game accomplishments as a player will automatically breed respect and that’s a big chunk of being a successful manager.

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Mattingly A Silent Beneficiary

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You can read about the latest round in the Frank McCourt mess herethere and everywhere. All I’ll say about it is that the piling on aspect in the interests of comedy is blatant; it would be pretty ironic if it was the McCourt ownership that brought a legal end to baseball’s rule of decree—which has always been contrary to the U.S. Constitution—as to which individual can own what franchise.

Like something out of a “trailer park meets a school for idiot savants”, the creditor story in which Manny Ramirez is the Dodgers biggest note-holder is funny because it’s Manny and the McCourts. (You can decide which belongs in the trailer park; which in the school.) Without knowing much in depth about contracts, I’d be stunned if the long-term payouts aren’t standard operating procedure for the $100+ million deals that are signed with every organization.

The court fight will resolve itself eventually. In a bizarre context, it’s good for Dodgers personnel—specifically manager Don Mattingly.

Much like the daily derangement that went on for much of his time as a member of the Steinbrenner Yankees, Mattingly has a reasonable argument to toss his hands up in the air and say, “hey, don’t blame me” if things go horribly wrong for the Dodgers this season.

Mattingly gets secondary benefit from the turmoil surrounding the Dodgers because he can’t be overtly blamed for whatever goes wrong even if it’s his fault.

For years, that was the case with the Yankees—Mattingly as innocent bystander—as the 1980s were a constant influx of players, managers, coaches, GMs and never-ending controversy.

Was Mattingly at fault for the continued failures of those Yankees teams? He was the best player in baseball between 1984 and 1987; considering his production, there was little he could’ve done personally to launch his teams into the playoffs.

It was an accident of circumstance that Mattingly’s greatness was wasted in an Ernie Banks sort of way because his teams either weren’t good enough or couldn’t overcome the meddling of the owner; that he injured his back and was a shadow of his former self when the club turned the corner under Buck Showalter and Gene Michael (while Steinbrenner was suspended) and watched team won 4 World Series in 5 years immediately following his retirement at 34 only punctuated the sadness.

While the “don’t blame me” argument is applicable and has been used with other clubs and other sports (Joe Girardi being fired by Jeffrey Loria; anyone who’s worked for Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis in his walking undead years), it doesn’t assuage blame for what’s gone wrong.

But it sure can get the individual another opportunity he might not have received otherwise.

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