I often criticize the New England Patriots for their play-calling. I argue that they throw the ball too much, and the only reason they usually get away with it is that Brady is so good.

But, as a student of the game, it’s only fair I give them credit where it is due.  And at the end of regulation in Super Bowl LI, with the score tied at 28, they ran one of the most brilliant plays I’ve ever seen.

They pretended like they were just going to take a knee to run out the clock and go to overtime. But instead, they either handed off or direct snapped (I couldn’t tell which) to the running back Dion Lewis, who was lined up close to Brady in standard kneeldown formation.

Brady acted like he took a knee, then rolled out and faked that he had the ball while the rest of the team ran to block for Lewis as he ran down the sideline.

The Falcons ultimately ran Lewis out of bounds, so nothing came of it.  Some fans even criticized the play since Lewis seemingly got injured on the run.

 

Even though it didn’t work,the play was a stroke of genius for two reasons:

  1. There are very few situations where a fake kneeldown makes any sense. Obviously, you usually take a knee when you are about to win,so faking in that case is a needless risk. And no one would ever take a knee when they are trailing. The only other time it would make sense to run such a fake would be at the end of the first half. The fact that the Patriots even bothered to think about and practice such a highly specific play shows why they are so dominant.
  2. The logic is impeccable. It is a low-risk, high-reward play.  The risk is a fumble, which would only be a problem if the other team ran it back for a touchdown, since there wasn’t time for any additional plays to be run.  The odds of that were low, especially since Lewis was careful to stay near the sideline.  On the other hand, the potential reward was winning the Super Bowl.  It was very calculated.

So, well done, Patriots play-callers. Good decision.  Now just learn not to throw the ball with the lead in the 4th quarter, and not to send Tom Brady to throw blocks on reverses, and you’ll really have this football thing mastered.

I am a fan of the Buffalo Bills, first and foremost.  I will always root for them; and someday, in the words of the late, great Bills fan Tim Russert, “They will win the damn Super Bowl”.

In the meantime, though, I’ve had to find some other team to pull for in the playoffs, once Buffalo is out.  I gravitated, grudgingly at first, towards the New England Patriots.  Over time, I’ve come to have a strong affection for them as a result.

Most Bills fans will say this is treason.  They have beaten us like a drum ever since Belichick got there.  We have suffered humiliating blowouts and agonizing last-second losses at their hands.  How can I root for them, even a little?

The fact is, the Patriots are the team we all would want our team to be.  They are the premier organization in the sport.  Hate them if you want, but if Belichick and Brady came to your favorite team, would you be anything other than thrilled?

I think this tends to happen with dynasties. My Mom’s favorite team is the Steelers, but she still fondly remembers the Green Bay Packer teams that were dominant in her youth. You get used to seeing these dynastic teams so much that they become pleasantly familiar.  I associate good football with the Patriot brand.

It started out that I would pull for the Patriots in the playoffs, and over the years it developed that I pretty much root for them all the time except when they play the Bills, or when a Patriots victory would result in the Bills missing the playoffs, since the Bills almost always need help to make the playoffs by early November.

The other reason I like New England is I felt bad for them when they lost to the Giants.  I’ve never liked the Giants. (Possibly due to lingering animosity from their narrow Super Bowl win over the Bills that gets replayed every year.) I wanted the Patriots to go 19-0, and it was sad when they were denied on the freakish and bizarre “helmet catch” play.

I hoped they would win the second time around against New York, but wasn’t surprised when they didn’t.  That Patriots team had such a bad defense that they had no business being in the Super Bowl. Even the Bills beat them that year. (Trivia: the Bills have beaten the Patriots exactly three times since I started following football: Once in 2003, once in 2011, and once in 2014.  In each year, the Patriots have gone on to reach the Super Bowl.)

All this is background to the story of the 2014 season, which was the most memorable football season I have ever had in my years of following the game.

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I am fascinated by football helmets and uniforms.  I study them like some people I know study the dresses movie stars wear at award ceremonies.  Like any enthusiast, I have my opinions on the aesthetics of uniforms and helmets.

In my opinion, these are probably the two best helmets in all of football:

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Image Credit to the NFL. Reproduced under Fair Use for the Purpose of Criticism.

I’m not crazy about the black pants for the Bengals–I almost always prefer white jerseys with white pants–but otherwise I think these are pretty good. (Interestingly, the Ram helmet with yellow horn was the first football helmet design ever.)

Apart from white-on-white, I usually don’t like the same color jerseys and pants–teams like the Chiefs, Texans and Cardinals will wear all red, and they look like they are in their pajamas. I did like these old Buffalo Bills uniforms, though I would prefer it with a white helmet.

The absolute worst uniform in all of football is the Tennessee Titans’ current one.  It is a total disaster, although this mess the Jaguars wore (against the Titans even!) is pretty bad, but it was only an alternate.

I am also a big believer that you can’t change your uniform once you have success with it.  The Rams won the Super Bowl with their yellow horn helmets, then changed them to an awful gold color, and haven’t won since.  They did lose one to the Patriots, who are now stuck with a pretty bad uniform that they have enjoyed tremendous success in.

At the college level, everybody gets new uniforms all the time now, thanks to the influence of the Oregon football team.  Oregon wears a new combination every week, and I have yet to see them find one that is good, although these chrome helmets look kind of interesting.

In general, I find most college uniforms to be stupid. I do like these all-grey uniforms that West Virginia and a few other schools have done. Strangely, my team, the Ohio State Buckeyes, has not worn one of these even though grey is one of their traditional team colors.  Speaking of the Buckeyes, their regular uniforms are some of the best in the sport.  These alternates, which I call their “Christmas tree ornament helmets”, are weird but interesting.

Probably the best helmet/uniform combinations in college football are USC, Ohio State and Michigan State.  I also loved these camouflage uniforms that Army has worn a few times.

What helmets and/or uniforms do you like?

All the criticisms I’ve read of the NFL’s ruling on the deflated football scandal have come from angry Patriots fans.  They’re easy to dismiss, since they have something of a vested interest in seeing the punishment overturned.  But because my two favorite teams are the Bills and the Steelers–the first two teams that will face the Brady-less Pats–I think I can say I’m coming at it from a slightly different perspective.

On the four game suspension for Brady: I was surprised they were that harsh.  I expected at most two games, since it has not even been proven he did anything.  But, if the league wants to take a “the-face-of-the-game-must-be-above-suspicion” stance, I can’t really blame them.  I mean, ever since the Ray Rice disaster, Goodell’s judgment will always be suspect in my eyes, but this is the equivalent of a Performance-Enhancing Drug suspension. Fair enough.

Fining them money and a first-round pick, though–that’s where I think they went overboard. I don’t care what Dave Rappoccio of “The Draw Play” says, this “it was a second offense” justification is ridiculous.

In the spying scandal, everyone agreed that Belichick broke the rules for where videographers were allowed to be placed during a game.  Even he admitted it. As the Patriots head coach, it was legitimate–harsh, but legitimate–to take away a draft pick from the organization, as any decision made by Belichick is effectively a decision made by the New England organization. So, it’s fair to take away a draft pick for that.

But you know what else happened only weeks before the spying controversy?  Then-Patriots safety Rodney Harrison was suspended four games for using HGH.  That’s right; the same number of games as Brady has been suspended.  Seems logical.  A player does something to get a competitive advantage, he gets suspended.  The team’s punishment is that they don’t get that player’s services for those games.  This all makes sense.

It wouldn’t have made sense to fine the Patriots for Harrison’s rule-breaking.  Harrison was acting on his own initiative, not on orders from the organization–just as was Brady, according to the report that this is all based upon. He wasn’t doing it at the behest of the organization.  I can’t remember any instance of an organization being punished for a player independently breaking the rules.

This lends credence to the idea that the NFL is trying to punish the Patriots not merely for cheating, but for their success.  This is not as outrageous as it sounds. After all, the NFL draft itself is designed to punish success in the interest of parity.  And it makes sense they would do that–it gives fans hope. (Not that my Bills have exactly taken advantage of it these past 15 years.)

You can’t win for this long without making a lot of enemies. I think the other 31 teams are just sick of seeing the Pats every year, and are resorting to unorthodox means to take them down.

Do I think they broke the rules on football inflation?  Probably the assistants did–whether Brady ordered it or not I don’t know.  I suspect every team does a little rule-bending things like this to gain an edge, but when one team gets too far ahead of the others, the rest use the knowledge that they are doing something against the rules as a convenient way to rein them in.  It is typical cartel behavior. I think we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the NFL. I just hope Buffalo can win at least one championship before it all falls apart.

UPDATE 5/22/2015: Blogger friend P. M. Prescott posted his own thoughts on this scandal. He differs from me in that he favors a stronger punishment for New England.  He also makes the very astute point that other players and the officials should have noticed the footballs were deflated–in which case they should also be punished.

I think it’s interesting that while we differ on how much the Pats should be punished for this, we both think the NFL has mishandled this.  It’s kind of a disaster for the league, as I mentioned in the comments below, because whether the Pats are completely innocent or guilty as sin, the league’s credibility has taken a huge hit.  Personally, it will be hard for me to have as much faith in the legitimacy of everything the league does going forward, because either the best team in football is fraudulent, or the league’s policing/enforcement of its own rules is fraudulent.

At some point soon, Mayweather and Pacquiao will be fighting each other.  I know this because it has been all over the sports shows all week.  I know nothing about these two guys.  Apparently, it took five years for them to hash out all the details of this fight. That’s ridiculous–who wants to follow a sport where you need five years of legal battles to see the Championship?  That’s even worse than the old college football BCS.

Boxing seems to be making a comeback lately–fights are being advertised on a lot of channels all of a sudden.  It’s weird, because everyone has been talking about how violent football is, yet a sport where the entire point is to punch the other guy is enjoying a resurgence.

Never cared much for boxing.  The original Rocky movie was fairly dull.  It always struck me as extremely boring TV.  Even auto racing is more interesting to watch.  It is just two guys standing there punching each other.  Even wrestling, though completely fake, is more interesting to watch because there is a greater range of movement for the fighters.

It’s the question on every fan’s mind, what with the slew of arrests and allegations against players for all sorts of atrocious crimes, coupled with the already-known health effects of the game.

Personally, I’m still going to watch it.  It was shameful that the league only suspended Ray Rice for two games, but now that they have fixed that, it seems that some kind of progress is being made.  I don’t blame people who choose to boycott the league but, as I’ve blogged about before, I’ve gotten used to enjoying performances and work by people who were really awful human beings. “Hate the Sinner, Enjoy the Sinner’s Work”, I guess.

It’s not the same, though–it’s tough watching guys who are real scumbags. I think almost every team has at least one guy who has committed some crime.

The problem is, if we assume that it’s the popularity–and thus profitability–of the sport that makes some players feel so arrogant and spoiled that they think they’re above the law, then following some new sport instead will just make those people the same way. There’s really no part of the entertainment industry that’s free from criminals.

I have no doubt that soon–maybe in the next decade–football’s popularity will start to wane.  We’ve just been through the “golden age” of football over the past 15 years, and so a decline is inevitable. As I’ve said before, it will probably be replaced by virtual sports.

Former NFL coach Tony Dungy started a firestorm this week by saying:

“I wouldn’t have taken [first openly gay player Michael Sam]… Not because I don’t believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it. It’s not going to be totally smooth … things will happen.”

The press and blog reaction to this was largely negative. But, as someone who really wanted his favorite team to draft Sam, I am going to defend Dungy.

Look at his record. In 13 years of head coaching, Dungy’s teams only missed the playoffs twice, and he made the post-season the last nine years of his career.  His teams were very successful.  And when you’re coaching a successful team, you want to be careful not to upset the balance of the team.  I can understand why Dungy would instinctively not want to take an attention-grabbing seventh rounder; the media attention Sam would attract could mess up a team.  It’s not Sam’s fault, it’s the press’s fault; but all the same it’s the sort of thing a conservative (in the football, not political sense) coach like Dungy would avoid.

I wasn’t surprised that good teams like New England, Denver, Green Bay and so on passed on Sam–when you’re coaching a good team, the last thing you want is distractions.

But for lousy teams like Buffalo, it’s very different.  In the first place, they should be willing to take more gambles to find hidden talent. (I’m convinced that Sam fell a couple rounds because of the “distraction” thing.) In the second place, while it will be a distraction, the press attention will be mainly positive. And at this point, teams like them could use anything positive; even if it’s not related to on field stuff.  Wouldn’t it be nice to read “they may stink at football, but at least they’re progressive and forward-thinking” stories?

Back to Dungy: he didn’t coach lousy teams much.  He was a very good coach, so when he went to lousy teams, he quickly got them into shape.  So of course he wouldn’t draft Michael Sam–his teams were the kind that couldn’t afford to do that.

“That’s not fair to Sam!” you cry. I agree.  It’s too bad that Sam was probably going to be passed over by the good teams for that kind of reason.  But then, the draft itself isn’t fair; it’s deliberately designed to give the worst teams better players, in the interest of “parity”. Sam will get a chance to prove himself; and maybe in a few years Dungy will say “I wouldn’t have drafted him, but I sure would trade for him now!”

 

I’m watching the Columbia vs. Greece game as I type this.  I think the big thing that prevents me from really enjoying it is that there seems to be no chance of a sudden score from anywhere on the field.  I mean, in American football (which I understand is called “gridiron” by the rest of the world–much better name for it.) you occasionally see 99-yard touchdowns.  It’s unusual, but still it could happen.

But I don’t think you ever see goals that go the length of the field in soccer.  It might even be against the rules, for all I know–never was clear on where you were allowed to score from, exactly.  Also–and this may well be a mistaken impression–but somehow a 2 goal lead in soccer, like Columbia currently enjoys, feels much bigger than a 14-point lead in a gridiron game. I don’t know if it is, but it feels like it.  I’d be interested to see the in-game win probability comparisons, though.

There was a good show on PBS last night about George Plimpton, of which the above video is an excerpt.  As I have said before, I love his most famous book, Paper Lion, about his time as the “last-string” quarterback for the Detroit Lions. I also enjoyed his book Open Net about playing goalie for the Boston Bruins.

That’s really only the tip of the Plimpton iceberg, though. It would probably be faster to list all the things he didn’t do in life, but just read the Wikipedia synopsis of his career. I don’t think he could ever be accused of not living life to the fullest.

The thing that gets forgotten in the talk of the guts Plimpton had to try (and fail) all these difficult activities, is the fact that he was also a truly great writer.  I recommend Paper Lion even to people who don’t care about football in the least, simply because it is so well-written.

A Disaster

 

 

The only thing worse than drafting a wide-receiver in the first round is trading up to do so. Buffalo mortgaged the future in order to get someone who won’t help them win now.  Then they picked a lineman from Alabama, and linemen from Alabama generally don’t work out in the pros. But at least they did pick some linemen–that is the one and only good thing to say about this draft.

Really, it all goes back to the fact that I am not sold on E.J. Manuel as the quarterback.  I don’t care how good Sammy Watkins is; it’s not going to matter if they can’t get him the ball.  They would have been so much better off drafting University of Buffalo’s Khalil Mack, but I guess they saw no value in having a hometown star who plays a key position on the team.

But ok; so they decided to go the “build the offense by getting good receivers” route. I have seen no evidence that this plan will work, (look at Arizona for the past decade to see the best outcome of this scheme) but apparently, that was their strategy.

So, if that really is their idea, why would they then go and trade the best (or second-best, if you buy the Watkins hype) receiver on the roster?  I mean, do they want to have a strong receiving corps or not?

And of course they failed to draft Michael Sam, which I really thought they should have.  That’s not a disaster, but it would have been smart.  (By the way, how is it that the Defensive Player of the Year in the best college conference falls to the late seventh-round, especially when the latest any previous recipient of that honor went was in the fifth round?)

To my mind, the clear winner of this draft was Cleveland. They strengthened their defense, got someone who has the potential to be the next Colin Kaepernick or Cam Newton, and got Buffalo’s first-round pick next year (I expect it will be a very high one) to boot.