Saturday, September 15, 2012

We Are All More Frowns Than We'd Care To Admit

Surprise to nobody: I have an unabashed, unapologetic love for Jay Cutler as quarterback.  The thing is, none of us should have to justify our love of Jay Cutler; he's a legitimate superstar at the marquee position of the NFL.  He stands as a monument to the idea that having a strong pocket passer matters, with an arm that turns the entire field into territory to be defended.  That arm should make him beloved, certainly among those who think that a quarterback darting around outside the hashmarks is a mortal sin.  And yet he's unloved because he has the audacity to frown.  To which I say this: In the words of Jay Cutler himself, you can go f*$k yourself.

Seriously, I look at Jay Cutler and I see someone who gets it.  I wake up every damn day and my job presents me obstacles I can't begin to manage in a pleasant fashion.  So I have to figure out how to make it work, however unpleasant it’s going to be; most of us learn in our mid-20's that life isn't fun, it's a solemn duty to do well.  My job is not Jay Cutler's job, which certainly entails less fame and fortune, but also entails me not trusting five individuals proven to be incompetent at their job to protect my present success and future well being. 

I get Jay Cutler's sour face.  I get his lack of enthusiasm talking about his job.  I even get him being pushed to the point of yelling (and potentially embarrassing) his coworkers for failing to do their jobs.  Because when you wake up to do something that isn't going to be fun, and is certainly going to cause you at least momentary misery, all you want to do is get through the day by doing your job, and Jay Cutler, whatever else you can say about him, does his job.  And when you do your job, you understand that like is hard enough without other people making it more difficult, and when they do, sometimes you just want to scream as if it could fix anything.

The reality is that Jay Cutler being unhappy doesn't make him less sympathetic; given the circumstances, it makes him more sympathetic.  Sports fans have been unfortunately trained to want our athletes to be ideals instead of us, which sucks, because I think we'd all enjoy the fun and games we're watching more if we could relate to any of the people playing them.  Superstars in that world would look more like Jay Cutler.  They'd all wake up, and they'd understand that there is work to be done, and that the measure of an individual is strongly tied to their ability to bow up beneath the weight of the world and not just get by, but excel.  And sometimes, like we're still waiting for with Jay Cutler, talent and success would meet, and we'd get to see real joy because we'd know what it looked like, as opposed to the Thrill Of Victory ® we've had forced down our throats by the Kevin Garnetts of the world.  And other times, in the face of failure, we'd be better people for understanding that these athletes are people, and failure hurts people.  And still other times, when circumstances beyond our favorite athletes' control kept them from achieving the goals they so clearly deserved to achieve, we'd look at the people responsible and tell them to go f*$k themselves too.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Endgame 2011 - New England Patriots

With the wild card round over, let the REAL playoff previews begin...

It’s a hangover, is what it is. The rest of the league makes mistakes, and the Patriots keep exploiting them, and we all pay for it for years and years. Tom Brady drops out of the sky in the draft, the Dolphins release Wes Welker, the Jets release Danny Woodhead, the Seahawks trade for and then trade back Deion Branch; it just never stops. It doesn’t feel natural, the way this organization has become a sort of king vulture, eating the stragglers and growing stronger while they feast. Yet it works, largely because of the hyper-talented combo that acts as the collective mind of the system on and off the field, with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick combining their mutual gifts for tactics and burning indignation and perceived and real slights to drive the team to new heights. The result is perfection built on imperfect athletes, which is frustrating to no end for me as a fan of elite athletes being unleashed, but is certainly commendable in the creativity it achieves in succeeding despite (and, for this system, because of) the lack of multiple rare, unique talents on either side of the ball. Because as much as I criticize this team for never allowing stars to develop outside of Tom Brady, there really are no weak links on this team, the result of it’s successful poaching of the missed opportunities of other teams.

Indeed, the flexibility of the system, allowing its humble talents to “do their job” makes it hellish to face in any single game, particularly given Belichick’s penchant for adjusting to his opponent on the fly and Brady’s refusal to accept that there is a defense he can’t figure out over the course of a game (that last Colts game sealed it; this dude is the new GOAT). You can’t crush this team because they (and the league) protect the quarterback, and stomping anywhere else is like stepping in a mudhole, a lot of force that just opens up more problems to deal with. Each offensive piece does a discreet job that requires attention, and each piece does that job to an elite level, particularly the tight ends Hernandez and Gronkowski, who are uniquely devoted to stretching the field for their position, allowing the receivers to outpace coverage underneath the defense.

The defense is similarly structured around one or two key pieces, the most significant being Vince Wilfork, who engulfs offensive linemen and allows the team’s standard pass rush and zone schemes to work. Equally intriguing is Devin McCourty, who has a Darelle Revis feel to him in the way that any receiver in his area seems to be consistently outmatched for position (watch how he embarrassed Braylon Edwards compared to how Edwards abused Darius Butler earlier in the year). With those two in place and Jerod Mayo swarming around the middle and free to use his athleticism to its fullest expression (which McCourty and Wilfork allow him to do), the rest of the defense simply needs to be in the right place, and as frustrating as that can be on offense, on defense it drives opponents insane, particularly considering the discipline with which the system is run under Belichick. Again, one hyper talented player doing his set job to an elite level allows other, less special athletes to succeed by merely executing to a pedestrian level.

To which I say: Is this our dream now? I know that we’re living in the era of LeBron James the villain and Tea Party driven “power to the people” and an NFL that has been rejecting new forms of critical thought and analysis for a solid decade, but what the hell happened to big dreams of amazing people doing amazing things? If all of that seems unfair, then maybe it is, and I can’t take anything away from what the Patriots do on the field in terms of success. And yes, it’s largely the result of a man who had what was a revolutionary vision in 2000 and stuck to it, but damn, we can’t move on to the next thing? We’re all either clinging to the idea that we can’t be better with more talent (hence the treatment of Randy Moss this year) or just throwing rosters without plans at the wall and hoping they work (cough...COWBOYS...cough). But this can’t be where the game ends, with talent being something to be feared instead of groomed and used to find new ways of doing things. So no, I won’t be rooting for this team this year, and while that has a lot to do with the Jets, it also is in the hopes that someone who is at least trying to build something different can knock off what has become either a rudimentary philosophy on talent to be worshipped, or an ideal that can’t be achieved due to “too many stars,” an idea that makes me squirm.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Hard Candy Christmas

The holidays always result in travel, which leaves me less time to fully form my thoughts on any given week, but here are a couple of embryonic ideas that are nagging at me.

- Peel back the layers of weirdness that surround ANY fetish (no matter how seemingly tame) and the total lack of judgment involved in posting a private, personal video on a public website while working in the public eye, and isn’t the LOCKER ROOM SHATTERING SCANDAL taking place behind the scenes for the Jets kind of...sweet? Certainly, I’m not shy about looking for reasons to root for my team, but I don’t think I need to reach all that far here. We’re talking about a man who didn’t do something illegal, immoral (at least by any conventional standards), or even all that dishonest (anybody who wants to argue that a corporation has the right to know what you do in the bedroom should probably apply for a job in the 1950’s). The man is really, really into his wife, and he likes feet. As to the former point: We should all be so lucky. As to the latter point: Ken Tremendous (formerly of Fire Joe Morgan) said it best with, “Hey, you know who’s into weird stuff that would really surprise people? Literally everyone on earth.” I’m not trying to take this into the realm of absurd anti-populism and declaring “today, we are all foot fetishists,” but certainly we’re not the society of uptight prudes that the media coverage on this is making us all out to be.

- Because let’s just pick a fight with EVERYBODY today: I like Tim Tebow. I like him as a person, but I also dig him as a football player. Certainly, the showing against the Raiders didn’t cement him as an all time great, but to hear the naysayers, you’d think he pissed himself on the field and threw the ball backwards. Tebow made some nice throws (don’t buy the hype: the TD pass was a REALLY well placed ball, not luck), and the TD run showed some of the unique physicality that he’s capable of bringing to the position. Of course, as with any QB that doesn’t immediately conform to the way the game has always been played, we’re seeing people turn on Tebow, and this is only made worse by the fact that he seems to be an authentic individual, which, as readers of this blog (both of them) should know, is the greatest sin an NFL player can commit. Again, I’m not trying to say that Tebow is going to be a great NFL quarterback, but why should the fact that he’s different both on and off the field serve as any sort of evidence that he can or can’t play in the NFL before he really gets a chance to prove that point on the field? Instead of patience and common sense (to say nothing of actually rooting for good things to happen for a good person), we’re seeing the majority of Tebow detractors attack him either for being an unconventional football player, which makes traditional coaches uncomfortable by questioning their perspective on the game, or being an unconventional human being, which makes everybody uncomfortable by questioning their perspective on themselves.

- Finally, Mike McCarthy earned a pass on the team underachieving last season after the near win he put together in New England, a game in which he rolled backup QB Matt Flynn out as his starter. If you think “almost” doesn’t count, you’re in the wrong place, and I’d even go so far as to say you missed what was essentially a blueprint for how the rest of the league needs to deal with the Pats; you need to match a pummeling defense with an offensive mindset that is trying to squeeze as many points as possible out of every possession, as opposed to playing field position football and praying for survival. If Aaron Rodgers starts that game, the Packers win, and maybe even win in dominant fashion (side note: Matt Flynn could actually continue a trend of backup Packers QBs who go on to be successful starters elsewhere, something Favre’s tenure was marked by thanks to Hasselbeck and Warner). Yes, I understand that the Packers are in danger of underachieving and missing the playoffs again, but they’re in control of their own destiny (they get their one-on-one matchup with the Giants this week), but there has to be some merit found in a coach whose team was decimated by some serious injuries on offense putting together a plan that showed he thought he could beat a more talented opponent in statement-making fashion, as opposed to just hanging around and hoping for a faith healer style miracle at the end (cough...JETS...cough).

Alright, happy holidays to everybody!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Why Do They Have To Be Snakes?

It has been a week of reconsidering old grudges for me, at least with regard to the NFL. For years, now, I’ve held Del Rio up as an example of what ugly, stubborn, bully coaches can do to a potentially dangerous franchise. I stand by much of my criticism with regard to his refusal to help develop an athletic receiving corps that showed flashes of brilliance into anything other than a novelty. Matt Jones and Reggie Williams are out of the league (despite each having shown the ability to succeed at the NFL level), and even Marcedes Lewis, a physical freak of nature, had to wait for five years and everyone else to leave before Del Rio would consider utilizing him as a centerpiece of his aerial attack. Nevertheless, if I rake Neanderthal Jack over the coals for clinging to his own personal perspective on the game rather than adapting to the talents he has under his command, I need to give him credit for his dogged loyalty to David Garrard, who has proven both this season and in 2007 that he can carry the Jaguars to legitimacy when he’s working efficiently. Certainly, this is more of Del Rio clinging to his vision of a world in which the pass is only utilized as a counterpunch or trick rather than a integral tool, but kudos to him for having the conviction of his beliefs in the face of so much adversity.

Indeed, perhaps this is why Del Rio was so eager to displace former QB Byron Leftwich with Garrard a few years ago; Leftwich represented the allure of dominance from the position, and was exactly the kind of quarterback who could win a game with his arm that fans were clamoring for as recently as earlier this year. Garrard, by contrast, plays toward an effective management of resources and situations. It is, however, a total management of the game as opposed to merely the passing offense, and the result plays out in the Jaguars record: When Garrard is efficient, the Jaguars win, and when he is asked to do more than he can handle, they lose. But for the Cleveland game (the one true test of Garrard as a focal point of the offense, and one which he passed), the Jaguars have yet to win a game in which he throws more interceptions than touchdowns. This explains why the apparent strategy has been to keep Garrard from overextending himself (he has attempted just 291 passes on the year), and yet Garrard has responded in just the opposite way we have come to expect from the stereotypical “leader” under center, becoming a top 10 quarterback with a QB rating over 90 despite having no receivers in the top 30 in receiving yards (Mike Thomas comes in at #37).

This fascinates me as someone who enjoys seeing personalities of coaches and players stamped on the on-field product we see each week. As much as Del Rio can be faulted for not allowing his receivers to do embrace their identities on the field, it’s almost endearing the way he clings to Garrard as a brother in arms, allowing Garrard to fully embrace his own role as a tactician and manager in the most positive senses of both of those terms. MJD has seen increased success as the year has progressed precisely because Garrard has not been forced to create his own openings for punishing defenses that ignore him, but rather has waited in the reeds, compiling enough surprising death blows (go back and look at those wins over Indy, Houston, and Oakland) in a limited sample size to give the appearance of being far deadlier than he may actually be (although I would remind everyone that in 2007, Garrard was a damn Cobra with the way he punished teams caught ignoring him as a threat). If this isn’t the sort of imposition of will that I look for from players and schemes, it is at least the imposition of illusion resulting from the freedom to explore exactly what works best for Del Rio and Garrard as a necessarily bound duo.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

We're All So Damn Afraid

I mean, I may not want to write about it, but there's really only one thing that's happening in the league right now, or at least one thing with regard to victory in the present (watch those Bills and Browns, though). We all need to be watching and appreciating what Belichick, Brady, and the Patriots are doing to the league right now. In two consecutive weeks, they've played teams that have the offensive talent to overpower their young, often shaky defense and the defensive talent to harass Brady, and the results have been season altering embarrassments for both teams. And while I stand by what I've said earlier about my disdain for certain aspects of "The Patriot Way" and the fake indignation that has become synonymous with it, it's hard not to respect the results of that indignation on the field. Because while the composition of the team may scream "THIS IS THE RIGHT WAY TO LIVE", the execution on the field is almost delightfully "F*** YOUR COUCH."

I, for one, am grateful. Yes, watching my team of choice get their doors blown out was painful, but at least it happened in a way that should have taught them a lesson: Hanging around until the end is not a game plan worth respecting (the fact that they didn't learn this the next week is on the Jets, not on the Patriots). The same thing held true for the Bears, who decided they were going to use the weather and home turf to hold the Patriots within shooting distance, only to have the Pats come out burning the boats of "keep it close", and breaking their spirit at the end of the first half (seriously, how is it that only the coach I hate understands that not always trying to score with over a minute left in the half is shameful?). The B&B connection has embraced the reality that their surrounding talent does not stack up conventionally against other teams, and as a result have executed a game plan built to shock teams into submission. It's the "FIGHT" in "fight or flight" as played out by a team that is too dedicated to winning to ever consider playing anything other than a fearless game plan.

That none of their opponents have dared to take the fight to them is shameful, particularly when you consider that neither the Bears nor the Jets have any real "dignity" to which they should be clinging. Does nobody else think that Braylon, Santonio, and Keller should KILL this Patriots secondary, or that Jay Cutler has the arm to punish them down the field and a sold out pass rush from Peppers could shake Brady to the core, or that either team's "creative" offensive guru couldn't construct a rush game built to confuse an inexperienced linebacker corps? Instead, both challengers brought chess sets to gunfights. Am I the only one who has watched enough horror movies to understand that you don't get to walk away alive unless you KILL the monster?

All of this makes me reconsider where my head has been at on New England this year. I still think they did Moss wrong (whatever the mainstream says, this should have been his championship team), and I can't stand the "nobody believes in us" lie that was shed a decade ago, but I'll be damned if I haven't found myself in awe of the killer instinct that both of these things have created in this team. At least, I'm as much in awe of them as I am disappointed that none of their opponents, many of whom built talented rosters specifically to seize their thrown (LOOKING AT YOU JETS), feel the sense of urgency that must necessarily accompany power being seized. Instead, they carry themselves with what they mistake for dignity, but is the game planning equivalent of the emperor's new clothes.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Living Long Enough Isn't a Goal

Been sick as a dog this week, so let’s cobble two lines of thought into one post...

- I've been saying this all week, but it's worth remembering: A 20-17 near miss would have counted for just as many losses as that 45-3 blowout did for the Jets. If you thought we were going all year without a total meltdown by a Jets team comprised almost entirely of combustible elements, you were crazy. That game was lost in the first quarter (really as soon as Eric Smith gave up a PI in the end zone), things got away from a team that was utterly unprepared for the tone the Pats wanted to set early in the game, and then the only way things could end was in a blowout. Again, it happens; anybody who doesn't sympathize with things spinning wildly out of control either hasn't risked anything or is in the midst of that cycle and doesn't realize it.

None of which is to say that the Jets had the right idea going into the Monday night debacle. New York showed up for their usual drawn out, meandering game in which they hang around and are healed by a miracle at the last second. New England, by contrast, was out make an example of the Jets early and march around Foxborough with their heads on pikes for three quarters. The end result was the Pats jumping out ahead (thanks, in no small part, to the genius tandem of Eric Smith and Robert Turner, who need to vanish quickly) and the Jets having nothing even resembling an aggressive mindset, let alone an aggressive response to unexpected circumstances. The whole thing was sickening to watch for anybody who believes that players or coaches value winning above putting forward a respectable face, and the Pats should be commended for killing the idea of respectably losing early in the game. It's no way to live in the NFL, and shouldn't be tolerated.

Equally intriguing is the idea that the Pats have once again become the enemies of talent rising above that we all remember from 2007. In eschewing Moss and making him look like a spare part instead of one of the most gifted receivers of his generation, and replacing him with an offense based on interchangeable pieces, we’re once again looking at a team that deliberately devalues the power of the rare individual, once brought to their full potential, to overpower any planning or manipulation from off of the field. If that seems harsh, it’s actually just an understanding that Bill Belichick is the single greatest scheme creator (or disruptor, if you prefer) ever. The shame of it is that it’s all executed with this air of entitlement and unwarranted indignation, as if we all don’t know how good this team is (a lie apparent to anybody who watches any sports media) or this team exists without any “superstars” or is better without having elite talents (a lie because TOM BRADY). I’m thrilled to have somebody to hate again. Also, New England is super racist. Look it up.

- The other big thing on my mind is the McDaniels firing, about which I alternate between being understanding and disappointed. On the one hand, McDaniels is, for lack of a better word, a jerk. He undermined Jay Cutler’s leadership on the field in his first months on the job, and he completely refused to work with the most talented offensive weapon on his team. Throw in the Peyton Hillis trade, which flew in the face of all logic even when he made it (people forget he did good work in Denver), and the hammer was primed to come down on the abrasive youngster who acted with brazen recklessness because he simply believed he was smart enough to succeed without mastering basic leadership tools and concepts. History has shown that nobody is that smart.

Except I kind of believe that McDaniels might be smart enough to get by while he doesn’t have those tools and recognize the need to develop them in the meantime, and if that’s the case, isn’t this a really, really, REALLY big mistake by the Broncos? The truth is that in two years, McDaniels has just now managed to put whatever locker room dynamic that he was hoping to create into place. He’s kept a team that is significantly less talented (at the present stage of development) than their opponents in games that they have no business keeping close, has coached Kyle Orton and Brandon Lloyd into an elite passing tandem, and is starting to see signs of life from Knowshon Moreno. Also worth noting is that he wasn’t the one who shipped Cutler out of town; Bowlen did that on his own. So if you believed in him a year ago, and were thrilled with him when he took a more talented but still clearly flawed team to greater success, has so much changed in one year that it merits this? Worse still, what happens to the young offensive talent that McDaniels has pieced together when a new regime takes over?

In the end, I get the firing, but I feel like we’ll look back on McDaniels’s two years in Denver the way we look back on Mangini’s three years in New York: Largely a failed experiment, but there were flashes of brilliance along the way hinting at future potential. The difference is that McDaniels isn’t being given the one additional year Mangini got to test whether or not his system would succeed with the roster he had crafted and established (and it's worth noting: Mangini learned how to temper his own self-destructive idiosyncrasies en route to being a great coach in Cleveland). That year could have made a huge difference, and I think it would have been a worthwhile investment in one of the most innovative offensive minds in the league (and yes, if somebody takes Schotty off of the Jets’ hands, I want the Jets to pay him whatever he wants). If we demand that coaches develop their players, it's no less important for franchises to allow young coaches to grow into the leaders they expect them to be.

Alright, back to health, and back tomorrow.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Grind Cuts Both Ways

As unlikable as the whole lot of them can be (Rivers is a douchebag, Vincent Jackson has the most juxtaposed off-field demons on any WR in the league, and GM A.J. Smith is becoming the posterboy for shortsighted bullies in upper management), what this Chargers team is doing is as much an example of one of the tenets of this blog as anything else: Talent, around which a system is patiently tailored to maximize strengths and dampen weaknesses, will and should always win out in the end. Hell, this is what Norv Turner has been doing for his entire tenure with the team, and is probably why they brought him in to replace the elder disciplinarian Schotty in the first place. In week 5, there might not have been a team you’d rather face than the Chargers, who were a dissonant mass of individual talents whose stats couldn’t hide a total lack of focus in those areas of the game where focus matters most (special teams matter, people). Now, in week 13, there might not be a scarier matchup in the league. At his best, Rivers is a fusion of Drew Brees’s methodical distributor and Jay Cutler’s moody prodigy, and with Jackson returning (never forget: the NFLPA left him out to dry), he now has the elite WR on the outside that he has lacked all year, one that stands on his own talents and need not be created by the system or the QB (Malcom Floyd on any other team is Malcom Jenkins). Indeed, Jackson’s return will likely lead to a new wrinkle in an offensive game plan that is consistently adapting to new data. It grows with its players; what a remarkable concept. Throw in a defense that proved on Sunday that it is ready and willing to coach its unheralded talents (Shaun Phillips was always better than Merriman, and who the hell is Kevin Burnett) up to the habits of any opponent, and the result is a team that seamlessly blends its own strengths with schemes designed to frustrate opponents.

That it’s not particularly pretty when looked at too closely is, perhaps, the result of any product so reliant on high notes for its identity. The Chargers, left to their base identity, are out of place in a league whose history is built on tightly run, closely managed ships. Jackson doesn’t even like this team, and he’s going to be an integral part of their playoff run. This is what leads to the ugliness that was the early part of this season, when the team was finding a way to bring it’s mixture of injuries, suspensions, and harshly edged personalities and talents together. What we’re seeing now, however, flies in the face of the “clean locker room” mentality that Bill Parcells preached into dogma even as he relied on LT’s insanity to build his legend. Rather than expelling discord, Norv Turner has faithfully stuck by his collection of talents and attempted to create a plan of attack in which they can coexist, knowing that if they do so long enough, they will thrive. It’s why he’s crucified by the mainstream media, who love a good old morality play, but it’s also why he may be the real evil genius of the league.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Don't Just Get By

I feel the same way about Vince Young walking out on Jeff Fisher’s post game conference as I did about Michael Vick shooting the double bird salute to a booing Atlanta crowd after a close loss at home: Good for him. At some point, you don’t owe people any more respect than they give you, and both young men certainly earned more than they had received from their respective targets at the time things fell apart. Hell, in the case of Fisher, I’m not sure the man has earned a level of objective respect for his accomplishments, considering that he hasn’t won anything significant in a decade, watched his team flame out in their best season, and singlehandedly prevented his team from reaching the playoffs last year. At what point do we say that a coach's job is to maximize the achievement of his young talents while protecting them from the pitfalls of great expectations in the NFL?

Contrast that with what Fisher has done to Young: He fed into the growth of Young's legend when it benefited him to do so, failed to construct a roster to protect Young as a passer, sacrificed Young's development at the altar of pragmatism, and finally hitched Young's future to an unrealistic requirement that he live up to a lightning in a bottle past, essentially demanding that Young become a solid starting quarterback in order to earn the right to develop into a solid starting quarterback. I like to think that Young leaving that locker room was a moment of clarity, one that ought to be commended in a young man who is so recently removed from being dangerously handicapped in his self-understanding: Fisher was never going to respect Young, let alone embrace him as the inextricable part of Fisher's future that he is. Why stay in that room, pleading for a resolution that had been dangled in front of him all year but would never arrive? We hesitate to put ourselves in the shoes of athletic phenomenons paid more than we can imagine, but I refuse to believe we can't all sympathize with the suffocating relationship Young was in, or nod our heads at the decision to break free and come up for air.

All of this is why I think Bud Adams gets it. Yes, Fisher has done a commendable job turning grunts and foot soldiers into a winning football team. That is why Adams keeps him around; he’s the kind of coach who will rarely helm a dead fish of a squad. Adams’s refusal to jettison Young, however, speaks to an understanding that for all of the good things he does to keep the team afloat, Fisher shouldn’t get to KEEP this team treading water, where he can deflect criticism with the refrain of making lemons out of lemonade. Young (in addition to Chris Johnson, who plays a position that is much easier to transition to the NFL, and Kenny Britt, with whom Fisher has also had major problems) represents the potential for greatness, which benefits everybody but Fisher, and which Adams has wisely chosen to force Fisher to either embrace, or flee.

As foreign as that seems to NFL coaching society, shouldn’t the debacles of the Singletary and new-Parcells eras show us that talent isn’t beaten out of an unwilling pupil by an infallible tyrant, but highlighted by an understanding coach creating an environment in which his player can succeed? If Fisher does decide that he won’t be told how to do his job, one that he has proven capable of doing over the years, I’ll ask for the same thing I’m asking for Vince Young: Understand that a man has a right to refuse to be bullied.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Ones That Matter - Week 11

From here on out, we're picking the games that you should be watching every week, and we're telling you why.

Raiders at Steelers (1:00 PM, Sunday)

If you didn’t see this coming, then you’re probably not a believer, and you’ve stumbled onto this blog by accident en route to some former quarterback telling you that the Steelers will win because they’ll “circle the wagons” and “play Steeler football”, but allow me just one thought before you click on by: If the Raiders are actually coming together, and not simply riding a fluky streak of wins, this team has the talent to add a legitimate dark horse to the playoffs as opposed to an obligatory AFC West entrant. The Chiefs simply don’t have the defense or the second receiver to hang with more heavily armed opponents, and nobody should root for the undisciplined Chargers after what they’ve pulled with Vincent Jackson this year (Just wait until he’s in a Pats uniform and tearing up the league, along with the team’s seven (SEVEN) picks in the first four rounds of the upcoming draft. Thanks for that, AJ Smith.). The Raiders, on the other hand, look like a scary opponent that you don’t mind getting behind. Jason Campbell (or Bruce Gradkowski) both have a palatable skill set under center, particularly when Campbell is getting rid of the ball more quickly and spreading it around to his wide receivers, any of whom can go off for monster days in any given week. Run DMC is what the Bills were hoping CJ Spiller could be this year, performing capably between the tackles and putting the fear of God into defenses once he’s in open space. Zach Miller has been toiling in obscurity for a minute now, but it merits mentioning again: The dude is the next Antonio Gates. On the defensive side of the ball, Nnamdi is having another Nnamdi year (there might not be an elite player who excites fans less...a large part of his style), and the front line has notched 27 sacks on the year, with DE Richard Seymour playing like a man possessed and rookie DE Lamarr Houston getting involved for 2 of his own.

The point is that this is a team that can actually play a lot of different kinds of football, depending on what the situation calls for, while still having the firepower to impose their will on the game. Considering how beaten up the Steelers are looking at this point, and how they were made an example of by the Pats last week, isn’t it worth considering that we’d all rather live in a world with more teams like the Raiders, brimming with unanswered questions and undeniable potential, than the Steelers, who at this point are more of a monument to what was rather than any sort of promise as to what could be?

Browns at Jaguars (1:00 PM, Sunday)

If Eric Mangini wants to be taken seriously, he needs his team to win this game. Hell, we all need his team to win this game, if only because I’d hate to see Jack Del Rio rewarded for stripping this team of any identity to the point where they win because you have no clue who they are. At this point, the Jaguars win games by dragging them into an unlikable mess of chaos, not because they rely on Garrard’s unique blend of brute force and precision or MJD’s otherworldly ability to disappear between defenders. Certainly, Mike Thomas has been a pleasant surprise (though short WRs have a way of disappearing after a little while, as Mike Sims-Walker taught us), and TE Marcedes Lewis has been a revelation (7 TD on the year, finally using his massive frame in conjunction with his known receiving talent). All of these things, however, are reduced to clanging instruments without harmony under Del Rio. Mangini, with less talent (remember this: no Browns WR would be a top 2 WR on ANY other NFL team) and more adversity (I’ll always weep for you, Seneca Wallace) is crafting a symphony, focused around certain outstanding set pieces (The Avalanche Peyton Hillis on offense and CB Eric Wright on defense), but nevertheless relying on the cooperation of sound and sheet music. Put simply, only one of these head coaches deserves to helm a team next season, and it isn’t the one with the better record right now.

Buccaneers at 49ers (Sunday, 4:05 PM)

I’m rooting for the 49ers, because I think this Bucs team still has time to grow (one more solid draft, particularly for the defense, and they leap from explosive wild card to genuinely high-functioning machine), because the Falcons and Saints are going to prevent the Bucs from achieving in the postseason anyway, and because FREE TROY SMITH! FREE TROY SMITH! FREE TROY SMITH!

Giants at Eagles (Sunday, 8:20 PM)

The amount of athleticism that will be at war in that Eagles offensive backfield is going to be incredible. This is basically the football version of one of those Star Wars spacecraft battles.

Broncos at Chargers (Monday, 8:30 PM)

You think Josh McDaniels used up all his “F*** YOU” anger against KC? This Chargers team has yet to pull together a victory that impresses (the Texans victory was a fluke against a mediocre opponent, the Titans didn’t have any pass attack, the Cardinals are a mess, and the Jaguars hadn’t gone into full blown black hole mode). Meanwhile, the Broncos play southpaw offense, and are coming off of the kind of post bye week win that makes me think McDaniels has figured out how to use his underrated ground weapons (yes, that’s right, Knowshon Moreno and Tim Tebow are underrated). When the dust settles, this feels like the kind of game the Chargers have been losing all season, close contests that depend on a team executing consistently to win.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Undone Origami

Here’s the thing: We all knew exactly what Michael Vick was capable of doing. The man didn’t get three Pro Bowls and playoff wins because he sells jerseys. To say that we are only just now seeing what we believed Michael Vick could be is a lie for that very reason. What we’re seeing now is something even more remarkable; Vick is becoming the sort of singular engine of effective offense that only Brady and Manning have been up until now. Watching him operate on Monday night was a revival of the dream of a quarterback becoming something more dynamic. It’s not a rejection of the classic way the position is played, as there will always be a place for pocket passers like Brady and Manning, but it certainly provided an alternative path to success, one built on a gripping combination of athleticism and cleverness. The way Vick uses his speed to hold defenders in place, allowing his weapons to find space and exploit mismatches, is just as effective as any well timed pocket play or pinpoint accurate pass; it is, then, a different way to play a game that has long been perceived as immutable (as untrue as that perception may be).

There is, perhaps, a second beauty to be found here, as well, one that extends beyond the breathtaking game that Vick is playing. Certainly, he gives hope that coaches can, and therefore will attempt to win by leveraging unique gifts as weapons in and of themselves rather than as tools fitting a system, but he also gives a voice back to creative game planning and risk taking in the NFL. If a team can win by playing THIS kind of different, who’s to say that another team can’t also create their own way? Coaches desperate for success, rather than retreating to old standards, could now push into undiscovered territory of schemes and systems, unearthing new tactics in the process. It all allows for the possibility of completely unique identities for teams, each one distinctly built to succeed based on the unique combination of individuals and abilities involved. Yes, I’m rooting for one player, but if you can’t see Vick is bigger than that, you’re missing the future unfolding before us.