Bill Belichick Is Bold

ESPN writer Tim Keown wrote an opinion piece on about the end of the Super Bowl.  He says that while the decision by Belichick and the Patriots defense to allow the Giants to score a go ahead TD in order to get the ball back with enough time to have a chance to score was the right call, it was not a fitting end to the Super Bowl.  While he makes an interesting case about how it is a situation unique to the game of football, I think his argument fails to be compelling because he doesn’t accurately understand what kind of coach Bill Belichick is.

His premise about Belichick being the “great defender of all that is manly and stoic and arrogant in the world of the National Football League…” is flawed to a fault.  As a Patriots fan, there are plenty of examples of Belichick playing the percentages and doing what seems counter-intuitive over doing what is deemed conventional wisdom.  There are two prime examples.

First, the 4th-and-2 play against the Colts back in 2009.  Conventional wisdom was to punt, give the ball back to Manning, and take your chances with a struggling defense that was tired and had been shredded in the 2nd half by Manning as he charged back to make it a close game.  They went for it, and failed, but the percentages at that time, according to people who do the numbers crunching on percentages for these things said he was actually making the right call based on the percentages.

My favorite example, however, remains the Monday night game against the Broncos in Denver back in 2003. The Pats were going to have to punt out of the end zone, down by one, late in the 4th quarter.  Belichick instructed his long snapper to snap the ball over the punters head and out of the end zone for a safety, putting the Broncos up by 3 points.  This eliminated the possibility for the Broncos of a blocked punt recovered for a TD at best or excellent field position at the very least.  Instead, the Pats were able to free kick from the 30 and change the field position, get a stop, and come back and score on a TD pass to David Givens to win the game.  It remains one of my favorite games of the Brady-Belichick era.  It seems obvious that it was the right move, aside from the favorable outcome, if for no other reason than the change in field position, but the conventional wisdom is to never put points on the board for the other team.  There is nothing arrogant, stoic, or manly about giving away free points, whether 2 or 6.

The fact is Belichick has the freedom to do things unconventionally because of his success.  It’s a luxury that few coaches probably do not feel like they have, which is why more teams do not do things like this.  But Belichick has never been a completely conventional coach either.  It’s why he plays Troy Brown or Julian Edelman at CB, Mike Vrabel as a goal-line TE, or Dan Klecko as a blocking FB.  It’s why he played nearly an entire second half against a Drew Bledsoe-led Bills offense with nobody on his defense in a 3 point stance.  He takes chances all the time, whether the rest of the league, his critics, or the Patriot fan base thinks it’s emasculating or wrong, because he doesn’t care about the perception of things.  He’s interested in putting his players in the best position to actually win the game.



Handicapping the Suck for Luck Sweepstakes

With a little over 1/3 of the regular season completed, it is shaping up to be an interesting final 11 weeks of NFL football.  And not just for the teams that are fighting for a playoff spot and have a legit shot at the Super Bowl.  There is a special prize awaiting the team with the worst record at the end of the year in the form of Stanford QB Andrew Luck, the consensus #1 pick in the coming 2012 Draft.  The hype surrounding Luck is growing every week, and it is making him out to be the most highly touted, can’t miss #1 pick quarterback to come out of college since Peyton Manning.  I’m not suggesting that teams will blatantly tank their seasons in order to try to get the #1 pick for next Spring by using the term “Suck for Luck” here, but there are a number of teams in the race for the #1 pick and more than a few teams that need help at QB.  And landing an elite QB can turn around the fortunes of a franchise.  Based on a combination of record, overall team talent, division strength, team need, and remaining schedule, I think there are 11 teams that are in play right now for Andrew Luck.  Here’s a look at them:

12. Carolina Panthers (1-5) – They are listed here because of their record only.  The bottom line is that even if they do end up with the #1 pick, they won’t take Luck, because they’ve already found their franchise QB in Cam Newton, who is better than anyone thought he would be this soon.  Even though Newton is a talent, the Panthers still need more talented players on their team.  And even if they wouldn’t be interested in Luck, they could trade the pick to the highest bidder for a pretty big ransom.

11. Cleveland Browns (2-3) – Their wins have come against Indianapolis and Miami.  Not impressive.  Colt McCoy is serviceable as a QB, but they have to play a ball control style of play because he just can’t chuck it all over the field.  They’ve still got two games against both Pittsburgh and Baltimore.  They could climb up this list in the coming weeks.

10. Washington Redskins (3-2) – They may have a winning record right now, but I don’t think any objective observer wouldn’t consider them the worst team in the NFC East.  And they’ve just made a QB change from Rex Grossman to John Beck, neither of whom is a desirable option.  Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me if they only won one more game the rest of the year.

9. Seattle Seahawks (2-3) – A well-earned 2-3 with a tough starting schedule.  Still, their lack of talent, particularly when Tavaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst are your QBs, is low enough to keep them in the running for the season.

8. St. Louis Rams (0-5) – Talk about a tough schedule.  Philly, NY Giants, Baltimore, Washington, and Green Bay to open the season?  No wonder they’re 0-5.  What makes it bad, though, is that they’re not even averaging 10 ppg.  Dallas and New Orleans are next, which likely means 0-7.  But then their schedule gets easier.  And the Rams are probably in the same situation as the Panthers, with Sam Bradford as their franchise QB.

7. Kansas City Chiefs (2-3) – The Chiefs are threatening to make a move off of this list.  I thought with Jamaal Charles going down for the season and the way they played the first two weeks that they would be a front-runner in this.  But even though they were the quickest out of the gate due to injuries, they have fallen back to the pack.  And with Oakland this weekend without Jason Campbell, they could be on the move.

6. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-5) – They dumped their incumbent starter at QB before the start of the season, and handed the reigns over to rookie QB Blaine Gabbert.  He’s shown some flashes, but this is a bad team with a bad coach.  The question is whether Gabbert is the QB of the future for them of not.  If they bring in a new head coach for 2012, he will not be beholden to Gabbert in any way.

5. Minnesota Vikings (1-5) – The Donovan McNabb Era was incredibly short-lived.  He does not have anything left in the tank.  Minnesota plays in a tough division (NFC North), has turned the offensive reigns over to a rookie QB (Christian Ponder), and their only consistent offensive weapon is Adrian Peterson.  That and a decent defense should be worth a few wins, but no more than a few.

4. Denver Broncos (1-4) – The time that America has been waiting for with bated breath is here: Tebow Time in Mile High.  Tim Tebow takes over at QB for the ineffective Kyle Orton.  Denver seems to be in the best position they could hope for.  Tebow is talented and dynamic, but might not be a legit NFL QB.  Lucky for them, Tebow fans and Broncos fans don’t seem to care, because they have worked themselves into such a frenzy over him.  The Broncos are in a win-win situation because they can give the fans what they want by starting Tebow, and make an actual evaluation on him in the process.  If he is a wild success, it’s great for them.  If they keep losing, they can say, “I told you so…” to their fans and move on.  Also, they traded their #1 receiver this week in Brandon Lloyd, the leading receiver in the league last year.  The Broncos are under a new regime in John Fox as head coach.  And, oh yeah, a former Stanford QB is also their president: John Elway.

3. Arizona Cardinals (1-4) – Sure, it may be too early to close the book on the Kevin Kolb Era in Arizona, but it might not be in a few weeks.  So far it looks like they got fleeced by Philly in that trade.  Their division is arguably the worst in the league, so I don’t expect them to win too many non-division games.  And San Francisco seems to have a firm grip on that division, and they’ve got to play them twice still.

2. Indianapolis Colts (0-5) – Of all the years that Peyton Manning has a serious injury that knocks him out for most, if not all, of the season.  This could be shades of the San Antonio Spurs landing Tim Duncan the year that David Robinson was injured.  It’s stunning how absolutely awful the Colts are without Manning.  Not just on offense, but their defense too.  When you play against Manning, he has an impact on both sides of the ball, because opposing offenses have to play against his ability to put up points and move so quickly up and down the field.  Their head coach seems out of his depth even more so than he used to.  Dallas Clark and Reggie Wayne look downright pedestrian without Manning.  It’s interesting to see the difference between the Patriots without Brady (11-5 in ’08 without Brady) and the Colts without Manning.  You may think it speaks about the players and their value to their teams.  But it really speaks volumes about the organizations and the value of team depth vs. putting all of your eggs in one basket, so to speak.

1. Miami Dolphins (0-5) – Even though the Colts are bad, I think Miami has a legit shot at 0-16.  They lost their starting QB for the year recently.  Replaced by Matt Moore, who was atrocious in a few starts for Carolina last year.  Their coach is clearly on the hot seat and seems a little combative about his team losing.  Reggie Bush is expected to play a prominent role in their offense, when history has shown he should only be touching the ball 10-12 times per game.  The worst part, though, is that they are awful at home.  For some reason, the Dolphins are 1-11 in their last 12 home game, dating back to December 2009.  That’s unbelievable.  Not playing well on the road is one thing, but not being able to even hold your own at home is not a good sign.  Miami, right now, is the front-runner for Andrew Luck.


A Red Sox Postmortem

There was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth in Red Sox Nation after the season ended abruptly with the greatest September collapse in baseball history.  The Sox blew a 9-game lead and surrendered the Wild Card to the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday night by losing to the Orioles.  The Rays came back from a 7-0 deficit against the Yankees to win in extra innings and punch their ticket to October baseball.  Meanwhile, Red Sox fans are left wondering what happened to their team this season and with even more questions about the future.

The Red Sox came into the year with high expectations, some deserved, some undeserved.  After some major offseason acquisitions in the form of 1B Adrian Gonzalez and LF Carl Crawford, some people were ready to anoint the Red Sox the greatest team ever and were comparing them to the 1927 Yankees before a single pitch was even thrown.  These people were idiots.  SP Josh Beckett got some overly excessive criticism in the preseason for saying that he’d never been on a 100-win team and thought this team could do something special.  41 of 41 ESPN “experts” predicted the Red Sox to win the AL East and most of them also predicted the Sox would make or win the World Series this year.  Expectations for this team, both internally and externally, were pretty high.

So what happened?  They started out 2-10 and ended the season 7-20 in September.  In between they went 81-42, which is a .659 winning %, which if they had maintained for the entire year would have put them around 107 wins.  The way they started had everyone baffled, because of the talent on the team.  Then they hit their stride and everyone thought they were the best team in baseball.  And then they imploded in September and the way they finished was even more baffling than the way they started.

Part of the reason for their implosion can be attributed to injuries, certainly.  For most of August and September, the Sox had to rely on John Lackey, Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller, Erik Bedard, and Kyle Weiland to mix and match around the starts of Jon Lester and Josh Beckett.  The loss of Clay Buchholz with a back injury was significant.  Less significant was the season-ending injury to Dice-K, the Japanese “National Treasure” that they can have back anytime.  But a look at the contrast in their offense and defense is troubling: 1st in runs, 2nd in batting average, 1st in on base percentage, and 1st in sligging percentage, but 22nd in ERA, 28th in quality starts, 16th in WHIP, and 9th in batting average against.  And those offensive numbers are misleading, because they scored a lot of their runs in bunches and had a lot of games where they struggled to produce runs when they needed them.

Some players had great individual years, Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, and David Ortiz, and Alfredo Aceves in particular.  Lester and Beckett were mostly good, but wore down toward the end.  And other guys like Lowrie, Scutaro, Salty, Reddick, and Bard had stretches where they played well.  But too many guys had atrocious seasons; most notably John Lackey, Carl Crawford, J.D. Drew, and Dice-K.  Kevin Youkilis had a lost season with several nagging injuries.

Crawford, whom they spent $142 million to acquire in the offseason, was never comfortable all year.  A dynamic player in Tampa Bay his entire career, he seemed to struggle initially trying to live up to the expectations of his big contract and never got on track.  It didn’t help that they never really found a proper place for him in the lineup either.  I still think Crawford can return to form and be a productive player, but he needs to do some serious work and soul searching in the offseason.  There are some guys that just aren’t able to cut it playing in the intense atmosphere that is Boston and I hope Crawford is not another name that has to be added to that list.

John Lackey easily submitted one of the worst pitching performances in franchise history.  The only thing he didn’t do this season was squat down and leave a steaming turd on the pitchers mound.  Although that probably would have been more impressive than the way he pitched this year.  In his two years in Boston, he has simply not gotten the job done.  Beyond that, he is a terrible teammate by the looks of things.  He throws his arms up in the air and rolls his eyes when defenders make mistakes behind him when he is on the mound.  He is abrasive and antagonistic with the fans and media, who tried to cut him a lot of slack because his wife is dealing with breast cancer.  But now it has come out that he is leaving his cancer striken wife.  So not only is he a bad teammate, his is also a bad human being.

Now that the season is over, word has come out that there were some serious clubhouse issues going on behind the scenes that were not talked about.  People complaining about bus rides, a pitcher drinking beer in the clubhouse on days he wasn’t scheduled to pitch, and general team chemistry issues could not be resolved for some reason.  Also, a lack of conditioning on the part of some players was an issue.  Part of the blame for that is on the manager, Terry Francona, and part of that is on the players as well for not stepping up and showing any leadership in the clubhouse to bring each other together and bond over the course of the season.  There was a famous saying about some past Boston teams with a lack of comraderie that there were “25 cabs for 25 players” after every game.  I would say that this team was a lot closer to that than the “Cowboy Up” group of 2004 that circled the wagons and, to a man, would probably take a bullet for one another (well, except for maybe Orlando Cabrera…).  And when Terry Francona is the person divulging all of this information during a media session the day after the season, you know it’s a serious issue, because Francona goes out of his way to protect the players and shield them as much as possible from media scrutiny.

So, where do the Sox go from here after this historic collapse?  Well, it looks like Terry Francona may move on and there is also a possibility that Theo Epstein does too.  Personally, I think letting either of them go would be a mistake, unless they just don’t want to be here anymore.  They share some blame here, but there is plenty of blame to go around and the players need to be held accountable for their performances and their actions too.

On the plus side, the team is able to rid themselves of J.D. Drew, whose contract is finally over.  David Ortiz, Jonathan Papelbon, Jason Varitek, and Tim Wakefield are also free agents.  Tough decisions are going to have to be made about whether any of them are brought back.

They almost need Papelbon to come back, even if they need to overpay him by a few dollars, because Daniel Bard is clearly not ready to be the closer for this team as he wilted in a major way down the stretch, sporting a 10.64 ERA for the month of September.

Players like Varitek and Wakefield, as much as they have done for the organization and as beloved as they will always be by the fans, need to be nudged out the door, preferrably into retirement, but the cord needs to be severed with these guys.

“Big Papi” David Ortiz is a bigger problem.  He returned to for this year after there were serious questions the last two seasons over whether he was pretty much done.  At 35, his best days are behind him, but he can still be an effective player for another 2 or 3 years.  But the problem is that the Red Sox have 3 elite guys for 2 positions.  The trade for Adrian Gonzalez moved Kevin Youkilis to third base, and the conventional wisdom was that Youk would be fine because it was his natural position.  But this season showed that his body is not capable of being an everyday third baseman any longer.  It is a position that is taxing on the body, and his body broke down over the course of the season.

Here is essentially what I see as the crux of the Red Sox offseason.  As Papi is a full-time designated hitter, something has to happen here.  Either the Red Sox allow Big Papi to leave and sign with another team and make the DH spot a position where they can get guys like Youkilis routine days off in the field, or they bring Papi back and ship Youkilis out of town for whatever they can get for him.  The benefits of keeping Papi over Youk are as follows: he is a local icon, he is universally loved by about every player in major league baseball, and his presence in the clubhouse is a significant bridge for management in relating to Latino players.  The downside to keeping Papi: He is 36, he is limited to pretty much just DH which limits your roster flexibility, a left-handed hitter in a lefty-heavy lineup, and there are some injury concerns.  The benefits of keeping Youk are: you can play him a three positions (1B, 3B, DH) if necessary, Youk is younger and cheaper to keep and the Sox would probably have to pay some of his salary for someone to take him, he is intense and driven on the field, and he is a right-handed hitter in a left-heavy lineup..  The downside of keeping Youk is: he may have more significant injury concerns than Big Papi, even though he is 32, his best days may be behind him as his production slipped significantly this year, and sometimes he psychs himself out for big games.

There is no easy answer for which player to choose to keep.  My heart says Papi, my brain says Youk, mostly.  The deciding factor here may be their lineup composition.  As it stood in 2011, their batting order featured Ellsbury, Gonzalez, Ortiz, Crawford, and Drew; all of whom are left-handed hitters.  That’s more than half the lineup.  In matchups vs. left-handed pitchers, that is problematic.  And if Ellsbury, Gonzalez, Ortiz and Crawford are supposed to be four of your best five hitters, with the fifth being Pedroia (a right-handed hitter), you can’t hit them all in order like that without running into trouble at some point.  And when Crawford doesn’t like to hit leadoff and is making $20 million, so he can’t very well hit 9th, and Gonzo is your best source of power and highest average, it makes sense to hit him 3rd or 4th, it complicates things.  Ideally, the Sox need Crawford to be able to bounce back in 2012.  Ellsbury leads off, and then Pedroia and Crawford hit 2 and 3 in some order, followed by Gonzo in cleanup.  If they bring Youk back, he hits behind Gonzo most nights.  If they bring Ortiz back, then he hits sixth with whatever right-handed bat they bring in for 3B or RF hitting in the 5-spot.

The right field position is going to be upgrade almost by default with the departure of J.D. Drew.  Whoever they get to play there may not be as good defensively, but as long as he is adequate, the upgrade he will represent at the plate and his ability to play through any small injury will more than balance things out.  Might I suggest Corey Hart as a replacement?

As for pitching, Buchholz returning healthy would be a good start.  If you can get a bag of balls for Lackey, I would move him, even if it meant paying half his salary for the next three years.  Dice-K can take his time coming back from Tommy John surgery.  If he never suits up in a Red Sox uniform, I’ll be happy.  Lester and Beckett wore down toward the end of the season.  For all of the speculation about Lackey and other players, I wonder if the comments during the press conference yesterday from Francona and Epstein about conditioning were at least partly directed at them.  Bedard can walk as far as I’m concerned, as the Sox clearly picked the wrong Seattle pitcher to rent while Detroit got the right one in Doug Fister.  After two years of the John Lackey experience, I am wary of the team just throwing money at the top-rated free agent pitcher in the offseason, even if that pitcher is C.J. Wilson and is someone I like as a pitcher.  However, if C.C. Sabathia opts out of his contract for a bigger payday, you offer him a blank check to bring him in, because that guy is a stud, a workhorse.  Sadly, I don’t think they have the pieces necessary to make a trade for someone special like Felix Hernandez, although I would really like to see them try, and Felix deserves to be on a team that can get him wins to match his amazing pitching abilities.  He is too good to be toiling away on a sub-.500 team in Seattle.

With it looking more and more like Francona may be done as manager of the Red Sox, it is fair to speculate who could/should replace him.  I think they have to hire a name manager, they can’t just promote any ol’ Joe Schmoe bench coach from another team.  The first person I would ask is Joe Torre.  Although, I don’t think that is a direction they would go in, because of the chemistry issues on the team and they may think they need to bring in someone more hardnosed and someone who won’t coddle the players as much.  Both Francona and Torre are “player’s managers” and so that might disqualify Joe.  Tony LaRussa would have to be considered.  If they were to hire a bench coach from another team, I would suggest Tony Pena.  A name I haven’t heard, but I would be interested in because of what he had done before he quit earlier this year in Washington is Jim Riggleman.  I don’t know his style or philosophy as a manager, but I know that the Nationals had started to turn a corner with him at the wheel, and for some reason the managment there was not willing to commit to him.

Lastly, if Theo Epstein were to leave for the Cubs job or anywhere else, my first call would be to Billy Beane. Why not?  They almost hired him away from Oakland last time before they settled on Theo.  I would love to see what Beane could do with a sizeable budget for once.  Barring that, I would look to guys who used to be in the Red Sox organization, like Jed Hoyer in San Diego.  Either that, or bring in a local boy like J.P. Ricciardi.

The 2011 Red Sox season was a subpar performance and a disappointment, but I do not think it is the catastrophe that some people are making it out to be, even though it was a historic collapse.  There are a lot of tough decisions to be made in this offseason, but I am still confident that this team will stay competitive and be in the mix for the postseason again next year.


The Decision And The Disappointment

Last July I wrote a lengthy post about LeBron’s decision to leave Cleveland and take his talents to South Beach and play for the Miami Heat.  What followed was a frenzied season of basketball that saw the Heat become enemy #1 in the basketball world as they painted a bullseye on their own backs and got every team’s best night in and night out along with an insane amount of media scrutiny.  But the important thing to remember is that they did it to themselves.  And last night they lost out on their first chance to silence their critics.  Everything that has transpired since The Decision has led me to believe that LeBron James is not the player we thought he was nor the player we wanted him to be.

As I said in that previous post, fans always want to believe that the players they are witnessing in the present are the greatest to ever play the game.  We want to see someone assume the mantle of best player alive and then strive for a chance to be mentioned in the conversation for greatest of all time.  And LeBron was supposed to be that guy.  Heck, he was being groomed for it since he was a teenager.  But somewhere along the line, something has gone terribly wrong.  His career is taking a different path than what he and everyone who anointed him way back when envisioned.

I have no qualms in saying that I think LeBron is the most physically impressive athlete to ever lace up a pair of sneakers and play basketball.  He is a physical specimen.  His blend of size, power, and speed are wholly unique.  He is a gifted player who has worked hard to get where he is.  He is an unselfish player on the court.  He can see and do things on the court that most people only dream of.  He still has plenty of more opportunities to win himself a championship and enter into the discussion of being an all-time great.  But…

We’ve seen LeBron for 8 seasons now.  And it still does not feel like he has reached his potential as a player.  He shows glimpses occasionally.  Any NBA fan will remember his “49 Special” performance against the Pistons in a playoff game.  He’s won multiple MVP awards.  He is just entering into his prime years as an athlete.  But for every glimpse of greatness and every accolade he has achieved, they have been mirrored by perplexing moments and frustrations.

At times, especially during the playoffs, he has had moments where he looks like he has checked out or had some kind of mental block that is hampering his game.  He defers to his other teammates.  He disappears on the court.  In Game 5 he had a triple double, but it had hardly no impact on the game.  The head questions came up during last year’s matchup with the Celtics when it looked like LeBron checked out in that series too.  Last night he scored 9 quick points in the opening couple of minutes of the game and then only managed 12 point the rest of the game.  Whenever is going on in his head , he’s got to get it figured out and put it behind him.  He has to be locked in for every playoff game.  Even as I’m writing this, I’m watching ESPN breakdowns of the game that show LeBron just standing still or drifting toward halfcourt when the defense is collapsing on a penetrating teammate who needs to kick the ball out.  Too often in this series against Dallas, LeBron was a stationary player, not an aggressive one looking to impose himself.  That is a problem if you’re the most physically imposing player in the game.

And that is the frustrating thing about LeBron.  He can be an unstoppable player if he so chooses.  When he gets a head of steam and drives toward the rim, he is nearly impossible to stop without fouling.  And even then, he can often fight through a foul and get a lay-up and a 3-pt. opportunity because he is just so strong.  However, in the 8 years in which LeBron has been in the league, his game has not evolved as much as it could.  And too often he is content to meander around the 3-pt. line instead of being attacking constantly, because he is essentially unstoppable when he attacks the basket.  But LeBron absolutely needs to develop an effective low-post game.  There were a few instances in Game 6 when he got the ball in the post with mixed results.

On one possession he had a beautiful spin move on Marion for a basket.  On a second possession he was guarded by the diminutive J.J. Barea and got called for an offensive foul when he shoved him away with his forearm.  On a third play, he had a nice spin but an awful bank shot that didn’t even hit the rim.  There is no excuse for why LeBron has no developed a post game yet.  He is not a dependable outside shooter.  The best defense against LeBron is to guard his dribble penetration and make him settle for jumpshots and the deeper the better.  One of the big reasons the Heat beat the Celtics and the Bulls, aside from Wade dislocating Rondo’s elbow, was that LeBron and Wade were hitting their outside shots at a better than average clip, which disappeared during the Finals.

Why would  LeBron dedicating himself to a post game improve his game and make his team better?  It would put him closer to the basket, allowing him to take higher percentage shots instead of the 3s and long jumpers he puts up that are not his strong points.  His physical strength would allow him to back his man down if he’s guarded by someone smaller than him or to get past someone bigger than him.  Also, because he is such a gifted passer, he can effectively pass out of potential double teams, passing to a teammate who has a matchup to exploit.  There are a multitude of options for him down there to explore.  Also, it opens up the driving of Wade to the basket.  As dynamic a player both James and Wade are, their offensive games are a little too similar to one another right now, as attacking the basket is both of their strongest suits and their perimeter game is shaky.  LeBron James in the post would make his game and his team’s offense more diversified and dynamic.  And it’s not that he needs to do it all the time, either, but it should be a far bigger part of his overall game than it currently is.

One other area he needs to work on is his decision-making and sense for the moment.  As I said, he is a gifted passer and almost always will make what is technically the right basketball play.  He will pass up his own shot if a teammate has a better shot.  But the great thing about sports is that sometimes the “right” play is not what is required.  Sometimes “right” is wrong for that moment in time.  Sometimes what is required of a star player like LeBron James is to take the ball and drive to the hoop or create a shot for himself instead of swinging it along the perimeter or dumping it down to Juwan Howard.

That is what makes sports, and especially basketball, such a great game, the constantly shifting dynamic between an individual performance and a team performance.  And the balance for that is always shifting.  Sometimes a basketball game requires a LeBron James or a Kobe Bryant to be a bit more selfish with the ball and dominate a game; other times it requires them to sublimate their talents for the greater good (“The greater good…”) of the team and get others involved.  LeBron hasn’t reached a point in his career where he knows when that is required of him in the biggest moments most of the time.  There are glimpses of it, like the “49 Special” or his epic Game 7 matchup with Paul Pierce in 2008.  But then there are moments like in Game 6 of this Finals where his team is trailing in the last few minutes of the 4th quarter and they need him to step up and deliver and instead he passes the ball and becomes just another guy; Clark Kent when his team needs him to step into the phone booth and be Superman.

This is the thing that is so maddening and sad about LeBron James right now.  And part of the problem is that LeBron is seemingly immune to the constructive criticism of his game.  For over a decade now, he has been surrounded by people who have kissed up to him and told him everything he wants to hear.  His inner circle is a bunch of Yes Men.  Since he was probably a sophomore in high school he has not really had to be held accountable to anyone on the basketball court.  Nobody has confronted him about the shortcomings in his game or called him out on anything.  That’s part of the reason it was so shocking to see Wade yelling at him in Game 4.  I think that is part of the reason why it seems like LeBron gets the mental yipes on the biggest stages.

I also think that another potential factor in that is that he went straight from high school to the NBA, and he was part of the last draft class to be able to do that.  I think if you look at the successes and failures of the players from the mid-90s to the early-00s who went straight from high school to the NBA you will see that there is something missing from their games.  The most successful of the bunch is, easily, Kobe Bryant.  And as great as Kobe is, there are deficiencies to his game; it took him a long time to figure out that he couldn’t be so selfish with the ball and just be gunning for his out there night after night, and even now on the downside of his career, he still doesn’t always get it.

There is something to be said about players getting experience by playing college basketball.  The best thing the NBA ever did was to eliminate the ability of high school players to jump straight to the pros.  It prepares a player in multiple ways.  It prepares them for playing on a bigger stage than their high school gymnasium.  It gives them more practice on the game than if they were rookies in the NBA where practices are infrequent because of the schedule.  It allows them to work on their fundamentals and progress at a more normal rate than just being thrown into the deep end of the NBA and the publicity that surrounds the league.  Think about what just one year of college could have done for LeBron.  Was he NBA-ready at 18?  Yes.  But just think about 1 year in college could have done for him in the long-term instead of 1 year of pro basketball.  You don’t think he would have benefitted from a year of picking the brain of Coach K (I assume he would have gone to Duke since he is a frontrunner who roots for the Yankees)?  You don’t think he would have benefitted from a college coach yelling at him and instructing him and teaching him instead of everyone anointing him as the King?

The post-game press conference after Game 6 spoke volumes about where LeBron is right now as a player.  Instead of being distraught he appeared defiant, lashing out at people critical of his game and those who wanted to see him fail.  He doesn’t get it.  The people around him don’t get it.  And until he does get it, he’s going to continue to run into a brick wall instead of leaping over it.  The important thing is that it’s not just his potential and his game that is the “it” that he’s not getting right now.  It’s his critics and the media.  He doesn’t understand why seemingly everyone turned on him.  It’s not because they want to see him fail, at least not everybody.

I am critical of him and rooting against what he is doing right now because I feel like, having taken his talents to South Beach, he is wasting them or not maximizing them.  As a fan of sports, I want to see greatness.  I don’t want to see it stall and falter when it could be easily remedied.  Fans want to root for LeBron James.  We want to see him become the player he is capable of and harness his powers.  We don’t want to see him teaming up and deferring to Dwyane Wade, we want to see him vanquish Dwyane Wade and others on his path to greatness.  We want to see him imposing his will on both ends of court and taking command of crunch time, not deferring to someone else, passing the ball like it’s a hot potato, and wanting no part of the moment.  And based on what we’ve seen so far and based on his attitude, it’s fair to wonder if that will ever happen, or if he even wants it.  He defiance makes it seem like he’s content to do things his way and not really improve.  Needless to say, his career is at a crossroads.  I want to see him take the right path.  I just hope he has it in him to do so.

Regardless of where he goes from here, this season has done permanent damage to his legacy.  The greatest players do not come up small on the biggest stage, and that is what happened to LeBron in these Finals.  His rebounding and assist numbers may have been in line with his career numbers, but his scoring was way down.  And not just his scoring, but important, tell-tale indicators of how he scored, were down too.  His 4th quarter scoring and free throw attempts were drastically lower than they should have been.

Whether he ends up putting it all together within the next few years or never remains to be seen.  And how we remember LeBron James will not be defined only by what happened in the 2011 Finals.  I will remember his hellacious dunks, his memorable performances, how he shrunk the court with his speed, his chase-down blocks from behind, his ability to drive to the basket like a hard-charging bull, and his skillful passing.  But beside those memories I’ll also have The Decision, The Welcome Party, Fan Up (surprisingly, not to be found online anywhere), his disappearing acts two years in a row, deferring to D-Wade, and being called out on the court by D-Wade.  How much of damage these instances inflict on his legacy is still to be determined.  It could end up being a small blemish or a gaping plot hole that undermines everything else.  The whole story has not been written, but the main character stands looking at a sign and he must choose his own adventure.

And so, a season after The Decision comes an even more important, and far less publicized, decision to be made.


Patriots Draft Needs

The NFL may not have a season to get ready for anytime soon because of the lockout, but, thankfully, there is still a draft this week.  After an impressive 14-2 season in which they overachieved, my Patriots enter the draft with a bounty of riches once again.  They own two picks in each of the first three rounds, six picks in the first 94 picks of the draft, and 3 of the top 33 picks. 

Usually, the Patriots are wheeling and dealing on draft day.  Coach Bill Belichick moves up and down the draft board like he’s playing Chutes & Ladders.  This year, it may be a little harder to make moves, since teams cannot trade any players on their roster because of the lockout, so only picks can be traded.  On the plus side, though, teams have no had the benefit of free agency prior to the draft, so teams may feel more inclined than usual to make moves to go get a player they want with the uncertainty of what may be available in the eventual free agent period.  Regardless, the Patriots will be major players on draft day as they always are.  Most experts do not expect the Patriots to stay in their top 3 spots and make selections, and they probably will most likely trade down or trade out of either the 28th or 33rd picks for later picks or for a pick in 2012.  They almost always seem to make a trade that rolls over for next year’s draft.

No matter where they are drafting, though, they should be in position to add some much-needed talent to some positions.  Here is where I think their biggest areas of need are:

1. Defensive End – The Patriots won three Super Bowls not just because they had Tom Brady at quarterback, but because they controlled the line of scrimmage, offensively and defensively.  Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, and Vince Wilfork made for as impressive and imposing of a D-Line as any other in the league when they were together.  Two years ago, they traded away Richard Seymour to Oakland for the Raiders 1st round pick this year, which turned out to be the 17th pick.  They could very well find his replacement with that very same pick.  And this is supposed to be a draft that is very deep with defensive ends.

2. Offensive Line – Stephen Neal has retired, Logan Mankins is franchised but unhappy, and Matt Light is a free agent and up there in years.  Dan Koppen is under contract, but also getting older.  Again, controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball is of utmost importance.  And nothing is of greater importance than protecting Tom Brady.  The Patriots have always done a good job of coaching up talent on the O-Line and getting more production out of lesser talent than most teams.  Dante Scarnecchia is a great position coach.  But there are holes that will need to be plugged.  I would expect two or three draft picks to be used on this area, including at least one of the higher picks.

3. Outside Linebacker – As great as the Patriots defense was when it was winning championships, they never possessed an elite pass rusher.  Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest were the closest things, and they only showed flashes in that area.  And in the years since they have left, the Patriots have struggled to get to the opposing QB.  Their pass rush is in dire need of talent as most of their pass rush is scheme-based.  Last year they selected Jermaine Cunningham from Florida and, when healthy, he showed some good potential toward the end of the season.  But they need to find one more guy who can pressure the quarterback.  Finding an OLB to play in a 3-4 is difficult, because many of them are college DEs who convert to the position, and it is difficult to project how they will do.  The Patriots have never invested higher than a 2nd round pick on a OLB under Belichick.  Does that change this year?

4. Running Back – As impressive as it was that BenJarvis Green-Ellis ran for 1000 yards last season, he is not a long-term answer at the RB position.  He is replaceable.  And if they can find a talented running back that can help carry the load, then I hope they would do it.  It seems unlikely, after being burned by Laurence Maroney, that the Patriots would invest a 1st round pick on a RB.  But anything from a 2nd or 4th round pick wouldn’t be out of the question.  The RB position is not one of great need or importance, necessarily, in the Patriots offense, and they tend to go with RB-by-committee more often than not.  However, one needs only to look at the 2004 season and see Corey Dillon run to see how impressive this team can look if it is truly balanced.  So it is possible that Mark Ingram is on their radar in the first round.

5. Wide Receiver – The seemingly unthinkable happened early last year.  The Patriots traded away Randy Moss.  Even more unthinkable was that it made the Patriots better.  Despite the gaudy numbers he put up with Moss, Brady has always been at his best when his best receiver was “the open one.”  They have some quality talent at this position, but could still use one more body.  Wes Welker should be better ever further removed from knee surgery.  Deion Branch returned to the team after exile in Seattle and looked like he never lost a step.  Brandon Tate has shown some signs of being good, though more in practice than on the field.  Taylor Price is still very raw.  They don’t have a “stud” like when Moss was at the peak of his powers, but if they find someone who is a big play threat to spread the field, or someone with size who can be a possession receiver that should be enough.  I don’t see them using a high pick on a receiver, but maybe something in the middle rounds.

6. Cornerback – When the Patriots selected Devin McCourty last year in the first round, it was met with sharp criticism and derision.  All he did was make the Pro Bowl his rookie year and would have won Defensive Rookie of the Year if not for the force of nature known as Ndamukong Suh in Detroit.  Outside of him, they could use another player.  Leigh Bodden missed 2010 due to injury.  If he can come back healthy, he is an immediate boost to talent and depth.  Kyle Arrington surprised with his strong play in 2010, earning a starting spot through the course of the season.  Darius Butler, sadly, has not been the player he was hoped to be when he was drafted two years ago.  There is some depth in this draft in terms of corners too, particularly for corners with some size.  I would expect a high mid-round pick to be used on this position. 

7. Safety – Not a huge area of concern, but James Sanders is under contract for one more year and Brandon Meriweather, despite being named to the Pro Bowl the past two seasons, has found himself in the doghouse on a few occasions because of his poor play.  Patrick Chung seems like the real deal.  So a pick here may be necessary to prepare for a lack of depth in the near future.


Patriots Post-Mortem

I wrote this in an e-mail after a friend goaded me into expanding on my thoughts about the Patriots 2010 season ending by comparing my reaction to Pete Carroll.  Since the Patriots are my most beloved team, I am going to also post later on about what I’d like to see them do in the offseason heading into (hopefully) the 2011 season.  Here we go:

Wow.  You keep you head down, push forward, and limit what you say to just a few comments on Facebook and suddenly you’re compared to Pete Carroll.  The gall, I say!  Very well…

Yes, I was disappointed that the Patriots lost the game to the Jets.  They did not play the way they are capable of playing, and they did not play the way that had been playing heading into the playoffs.  If you make mistakes in the playoffs, you lose. 

But I refuse to be too broken up about it or the fact that they have lost their last three playoffs games.  Because there is a lot to be optimistic about as a Patriots fan.  But there are definite reasons why they lost those games.  And there are signs that they are turning the corner and correcting those things that they need to work on.

I think the biggest reason they’ve lost the last few years is because they did not have good drafts from 2005-2008.   If you look at the drafts of 05, 06, 07, and 08 the Patriots only have eight guys (out of thirty three picks) from those four drafts still on the team.  That is not good.  You need to replenish the talent on your roster as age and free agency take their toll.  And the Patriots were not able to do that because they drafted poorly.  However, look at the last two drafts: at least 16 of 24 players are on the team, and a lot of those guys are contributing and/or starting.  But those poor drafts have an effect on the production of the team 3 or 4 years down the line.  Conversely, good drafting will have a good effect three or four years down the line, and they are already reaping the benefits from players like McCourty, Hernandez, Gronk, Vollmer, Edelman, Cunningham, Spikes, Chung, Tate, and Mesko.

So they have been able to replenish their roster a lot in the past two years, and get significantly younger in the process, without taking a dramatic step backwards.  As I’ve said, most teams will scrap things and end up with a 6-10 season as they flush out their roster and rebuild.  The Patriots dropped down to 10-6 in ‘09.  Simply amazing.  Now, having said that, because they got younger, they had to sacrifice experience in the process.  So while you do still have veterans like Brady, Welker, Light, Mankins, Koppen, Wilfork, et al., you still have a lot of guys who do not have the playoff pedigree and experience of those guys.  Even someone like Jerod Mayo is gaining experience.  I’ve been onto this since back in last season (the dead giveaway was noticing how all of a sudden teams were able to fool the Pats D on halfback screens that the Vrabels and Bruschis and McGinests of the past would have sniffed out), and because I was able to recognize it early, I’m able to keep my expectations for the team level.  The experience will come. 

The other thing that kept me from getting too down about the loss was the kind of NFL season it has been.  This has been a wide-open, anything-can-happen kind of year.  For the past however many seasons, there has been one or two elite teams that stood out.  There has been a team that jumped out to a 9-0 record or something.  This year was not the case.  Everyone had a loss after Week 5, I think.  No team established itself early.  The Jets, Packers, and Ravens were considered the top teams early.  Then Philly for a while.  Then Atlanta or Pittsburgh for a while.  And then New England at the end.  So it doesn’t surprise me that the Patriots, in a “down” year like this year, managed to overachieve with a 14-2 record, which they really did considering the talent level of their roster.  And so, in turn, it doesn’t surprise me that they would then also lose in their first playoff game.  It’s been that kind of a year.  I mean, look at the Super Bowl matchup.  How many seasons can you think of where the #6 seed in a Conference was arguably the best team in its Conference, let alone being favored in the Super Bowl? 

They’ve got 3 picks in the first 33 picks of the draft, and 6 picks in the first 92 picks.  If they hit on talent the way they have the last two drafts, they’re going to improve themselves.  They’ve positioned themselves well in terms of free agency.  Their biggest free agents are Logan Mankins and Matt Light.  Just about everybody else is good but replaceable.  Look at the decisions in player personnel that the Jets need to make.  The Jets were really built to win this year.  That doesn’t mean they can’t and won’t retool for next year, but they’ve got a tougher road to travel.  The Patriots are in a position to be competitive year-in and year-out for the foreseeable future. 

So, yes, I am optimistic and positive.  But not in a Pete Carroll, “Golly gee whiz you guys!” kind of way.  My optimism and hope is grounded in tangible things that I can point to and say “I’ve seen what Belichick and Brady have done in the past with the right team to work with.  They may not be there yet, but based on what I’ve seen, they are on their way and can get there again.”

Favre. Real. Uncomfortable. Jenn.

One of the most annoying subplots of football for the past several years has been the offseason speculation of “Is Brett Favre going to retire?”  Even before he has retired and un-retired for the past three years there was the regular offseason carousel of speculation for probably four years before that.  And I hate to lend any more space to Brett Favre than is necessary because, frankly, I’m sick of him and just want him to go away, but I am loving that what is happening this season is basically taking a hatchet to his legacy. 

Athletes, especially superstar athletes, understandably have a hard time letting go of the limelight that they’ve existed in for so many years.  But Brett Favre has taken it to new heights of ridiculousness.  He’s been known as a gunslinger who is just having fun playing the game and was adored by nearly everyone in the media and by almost all fans.  But that has slowly eroded the last few years when he left Green Bay for the New York Jets and then the past two seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.  Nothing is more damaging to a players legacy, at least in the short term, than jumping ship and going to play for their rivals.  In time, the Packer fans will probably forgive him and welcome him back with open arms, but he has taken a flamethrower to his popularity among one of the most devoted fanbases in the league. 

Not only has he alienated the Packer fans, and countless other NFL fans, but the media has started to turn on Favre.  Even as I’m typing this, ESPN’s Sportscenter anchor Brian Kenny opened the show by saying, “You thought you were Favred out, but…”  The praises of him being a “gunslinger” and someone “just out there having fun” have been replaced with criticisms of him being reckless with the football, taking too many chances on the field, and not being committed enough to practicing and learning the playbook and system. 

Now, finally, on top of all of this, there are now allegations from a former New York Jets employee, Jenn Sterger, that Favre sent her inappropriate voicemails and text messages and explicit photos of himself back in 2008.  The NFL is investigating the allegations, and it has been reported that Favre admitted to the league that he left the messages but not the pictures.  If it turns out that he did in fact do this and sent the photos, he’s opened up a huge can of worms for himself.  There is the possibility of a sexual harrassment lawsuit.  It could even open up the league or the Jets to a lawsuit.  And then there is the dreaded “violation of the NFL Personal Conduct Policy” which could lead to the league suspending Favre.  If that were to happen, then he’d probably just retire.

Which is maybe what he should have done in the first place.  If he had just simply stayed retired after the 2007 season instead of coming back in 2008 with the Jets and then two more times with the Vikings, this whole can of worms never happens.  So now the chickens have come home to roost for Brett Favre for being such a drama queen for the last few years.