More On Easterbrook!

by Bryan

I’ll say this about Gregg Easterbrook’s dalliance with a complete lack of reason: it’s gotten me to read his column. And most of the football parts, at least, are non-offensive to me. He just has this thing for the Patriots, this, “I coach football so I can talk about sportsmanship w/r/t the NFL, but it actually makes no sense, so here’s the Hubble Space Telescope and oh yeah, BillBelichickHatesPuppies and Al Gore is a fraud — his time would clearly be better spent writing football columns.” Say what you will about Gore’s politics, but a criticism of them doesn’t belong on ESPN.com, does it?

Anyhow, his narrow view of the Patriots’ running-up-the-score charge is not unlike that of many others who don’t follow the games closely. Only Easterbrook professes to actually follow what’s going on quite closely and seems to miss, oh, a whole lot. From today’s column:

At the end of the third quarter, the Patriots were leading Buffalo 42-7 — more than the margin of the greatest comeback in NFL history — yet Tom Brady was still on the field, still throwing passes like mad while the Flying Elvii were going for it on fourth down rather than attempting a field goal, frantically trying to run up the score. This is bad sportsmanship, plus it needlessly exposes starters to injury.

In previous columns, Easterbrook has criticized New England for playing Brady in the fourth quarter of close games: now we’re up to the third quarter. What’s next, the half? As the Patriots were up 35-7 at halftime, they could have easily been up 35-0, a deficit which every team in NFL history save one has not come back from. Should he be benched then? Well, that’s ludicrous. But the late third quarter is not ludicrous now, because it fits into Easterbrook’s narrative. Sigh. Brady did not play a single down in the fourth quarter and the Patriots ran the ball a hefty percentage of the time. It was, in fact, a display of sportsmanship. That the Bills cannot stop the Patriots is not the Patriots’ fault.

He also accuses the Patriots of being ruthlessly efficient in their first seven drives, scoring touchdowns on all of them, and this is true, but he criticizes them in going for it on fourth down (see above). Yet earlier in the article he writes:

And in other football news, trying for the first down on fourth-and-short isn’t a “huge gamble” as sportscasters say. Rather, it is playing the percentages properly. Jacksonville is 7-3 and leads the NFL in fourth-down attempts and fourth-down conversions. See more below.

So wait… for Jacksonville, going for it on fourth down is a cause of their success, while in 10-0 New England, it’s a symptom of excess? I’m confused. This is a clear double standard.

After this pre-determined silliness, he moves on to effusive praise of the New England offensive line and writes:

The Flying Elvii are doing everything to near-perfection, but TMQ continues to think too much credit is going to Brady and his flashy receivers, not enough to the offensive line and defensive front seven. On the night, Brady was never sacked, was hit only once and hurried only once; otherwise, he stood in the pocket as though he was posing for a magazine cover, no rusher even near him. Put Joey Harrington behind New England’s great offensive line, and he’d be a star.

Now, I hate the Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady debate, because I think it’s reductive and meaningless, and there are too many other factors that determine their performance to conclusively say that one is better than the other (hence the debate’s popularity). But the argument always goes something like this: [x] is underrated, so [y] is overrated. Which is fun but wrong: they have nothing, in a very real sense, to do with one another. What does this have to do with Easterbrook? Well, Easterbrook is making the argument that even Joey Harrington would be a star on New England. That may be true, but I think Tom Brady can get an appropriate amount of credit here and not be compared to Joey Harrington. It’s not that only Tom Brady is overperforming, or that only the offensive line is overperforming, or that only the wide receivers are overperforming — they all are. They are connected, but it’s not a case of if one is performing particularly well, the other is not. To take away credit from either Brady or the offensive line is ludicrous.

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