Bryan Joiner

Why then I

Category: Patriots

The Patriots’ happy ending

The Patriots aren’t in the Super Bowl, and it will be at least 10 years since they won anything that mattered. Except, you know, all those games. Ask a Cleveland fan what they would have given for this season. Then think of Joe Flacco’s ugly face, and take it all back. Then take a giant hop over the Red Sox’ season and land at next year’s Patriots season opener, the next real game that matters.

Dealing with decline is difficult, and the Patriots have largely spared us by refusing to decline. Bill Belichick runs a volume business, and he has given us volume. There is more yet to come; if there was going to be decline, it would have started by now. The end will be abrupt, unexpected, and suddenly being a Patriots fan will mean a whole new thing. Some people, invariably, will not like it.

It will never be better than this. Think about what will happen to San Antonio, post-Duncan and Popovich. Think about the sheer churn the Patriots have imposed on NFL history, and the team’s outsized share of the last 11 seasons among its competitors, for victories and airtime. The Patriots are the sixth-most valuable franchise in sports, fourth-most valuable in American sports, and third-most valuable in the NFL. When I was young and licensed NFL gear was harder to come by, you could almost never buy a Patriots jersey out-of-state. If Eastbay offered up just one, I’d be all over it.

That was why Drew Bledsoe was such a big deal. By 1998, he was easily the best skill-position Patriot who ever lived, which seems categorically insane now, but there we were. And that’s where the story ends, really. Tom Brady has been the Patriots’ choice to start and finish games every day since September 23, 2001, and you know his story. He belongs to the world, but we just get him for a little while. That little while is already longer than we had any right to ask for, and I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter if I think I’m greedy for asking for more, or trying to be content with what I have, they’re just going to keep on winning and winning and winning. And then they won’t, it’ll be over, and we’ll talk about it long past the point anyone cares. It’s a feel good story, and one that has a happy ending, no matter what happens from here on out. We won’t be able to resist.

(Go Niners.)

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Colin Kaepernick: The Tom Brady Story, Remixed

Troy Aikman made it very clear during Sunday’s 49ers/Saints game that he didn’t think it was fair that Alex Smith lost his job as a starting quarterback. “He didn’t do anything to lose it,” he said. This is wrong. What Alex Smith did to lose his job is be worse than Colin Kaepernick at playing quarterback. It is simple in its simplicity. It is sports at its core. If you are not good enough, you will be replaced.

The rise of advanced analytics has shown us how well sports play out this equation. Even before Bill James, sports did a good job of sorting who was best, because the bulk of results. The only thing that really stood in its way was a bunch of -isms, and only in baseball did it really stick beyond those. But in all sports, if you can play, you can play, and that’s what they make good movies about. The old quarterback is always good enough to stick around, and the young one is just good enough to sneak past him, if only for a second act. The reason this formula works is that the story can always go one of two ways. In this story, it’s obvious that Kaepernick is the better player, and Jim Harbaugh is stretching this out as long as he can to iron out Smith’s anger. It’s a master class in jerk that we would have seen eleven years ago had Drew Bledsoe not gotten injured in week two.

It seems like a fait accompli that Brady would have started for the Patriots eventually, and I’m pretty sure he would have started in the regular season whether or not Drew Bledsoe got hurt early on. Drew was something of a lock to get hurt eventually, given that he couldn’t move around whatsoever, but the fact he got hurt when he did made it a simple decision for Bill Belichick, who loved Brady anyway. Bledsoe was probably considered the least likely Boston athlete to go anywhere at the time this happened, which is the strange part, now. Bledsoe was the quarterback we had bet on, and Brady was the casual $1 bet we tossed off and won the house with. That’s not how it looked at Patriots camp, where the consensus was that Brady was better. That’s what’s been happening in San Francisco all season. He is, Brady was, and Tim Tebow isn’t, someone who just wins games. This does mean that they’re supermen, but put good enough quarterbacks on good teams and good things happen. The reason people were angry at the Tebow furor was that Tebow clearly wasn’t these guys, and the script was being flipped: The team had been moribund before he played, but he had led them to victory, they said.

It is difficult to forget:

“Unleash.” Tim Tebow wouldn’t chase a squirrel eating his steak, but he would run a football through Asante Samuel, and God bless him for it. Drew Bledsoe was a walking tree, but he was our walking tree. Alex Smith can move fine, but he’s no Colin Kaepernick. Tom Brady had the best footwork in the league before the injury, after which he has relied on his famous duck move. The key here for all of these replacements is motion. The people who moved better got the jobs. One of these is Tom Brady, one of these at the start of his ascent, and the other is Tim Tebow, who was just lucky. None of them are Alex Smith. For all the imbalance in the player/league relationship on the league side, the team owes the player nothing beyond what’s in the contract. Smith and Bledsoe had the same draft position, wear the same number and went to college in a similar part of the country. Smith’s a little faster, noodlier arm, a tortured history instead of a tony one. They both lost out, and it’s permanent. The Colin Kaepernick story—the Tom Brady story with a bi-racial, tattooed rocket with legs—is the 2001 story remixed, in just about every way. Belichick is from New England, Harbaugh is from San Francisco. Belichick is a dick, Harbaugh is a west coast dick; you do or do not know the type, because I may have just made it up. The defenses range from great, in the Patriots’ case, to merely amazing in the 49ers’ case. The Niners have their Frank Gore; the Patriots had Tedy Bruschi. But those are small matters. The star of the show is Kaerpernick, and when the show is over, we’ll feel like he was the show all along. He’s inspiring, and his story is inspiring and taking place in real time.

The stories of the losers? Those don’t come until later. The stories of those who no longer have it, the good ones, the moment the know it—we call those stories moving. The Alex Smith story does not move me. The Drew Bledsoe story didn’t even move me, and he was my favorite player ever by 100 nautical miles. The guy who can win should play next. It is truly, as they say, all in the game.

Patriots

The family Christmas was scrapped this year in favor of a trip to Dallas over Super Bowl weekend back when I thought the Patriots had no shot of making it there. Instincts! Look at me, diagnosing the problem early on: no real playmakers and a shoddy defense. Look at me, forgetting late last week when asked if I thought the Jets +8.5 line is too high. “After a couple beers Friday night, I was convinced the Patriots were going to win,” I told Frowns. “And I never feel that way.” That should have been the sound of sirens, alarms, car horns. If I never think the Patriots are going to win, and they almost always do, I had the answer in my hands and let it slip away, like Alge Crumpler. The end was nigh.

It wasn’t inevitable, but it was clear from the second drive of the game that it was the type of game the Patriots lose. Any Patriots fan would know it, too, but many were so blinded by the 14-2 record that they felt a trip to the Super Bowl was a birthright. Even Kornheiser and Wilbon picked the Patriots over the entire rest of the playoff field. Now we’re looking a third Steelers Super Bowl in six seasons straight in the face, along with Roethlisberger/Brady arguments to propel the perpetual motion talk machine. All because the Patriots managed to lose to a divisional opponent, one which had previously defeated them and was designed specifically to beat them. All credit to the Jets: they have more talent than the Patriots. Yesterday was a clinic in what bigger, stronger players can do.

A word on Rex Ryan. Talking is not his strategy. Talking is part of his strategy. Note the quick retreat after the game in Ryan’s Brady-taunting. Watch the Jets quiet down this week against a team just as big as strong as them. I don’t think they’ll win the Super Bowl, but that’s not what yesterday’s game was about. Not that you’d notice, if you’d followed the postgame on Twitter, where the Internet was praising the Jets as if they had been crowned champions. It’s a great win, sure, but Ryan has said all year the goal is to win the Super Bowl. The guy has his priorities straight. Let’s not praise him for getting closer than the other losers. If the Jets win next week, we can start building rhetorical towers to his greatness.

For Patriots fans, remember: the Super Bowl is always the goal, and not getting there reinforces how good we were to win three. Those years are fading fast in our memories, but the Super Bowl is not a birthright. It must be earned. You don’t win that game without wining this one. Sometimes the bar eats you, and sometimes Tom Brady cannot stop it. If you want to take solace in anything, do it in the fact that the Jets aren’t celebrating today. They’re preparing. They’re trying to revive a championship culture. It might be time for us to do the same.

Connecting the Dots on Health Care

If Martha Coakley loses today, and if Scott Brown effectively scuttles the Obama Health Care bill, someone’s eventually going to connect the dots and conclude that it might be Ted Kennedy’s fault. I’m going to do it first.

The facts are these: Ted Kennedy’s wish was to see a health care bill passed. He died while it was being constructed, and it has taken longer than expected to get to the final stages before some version of it is signed into law. None of this, nor the fact that the exuberance of the 18-month campaign has fizzled under the work of actual governance, could really be considered a momentus surprise. Nor is it incredibly surprising, despite what most national news outlets make you think, that a Republican could mount an effective campaign in Massachusetts. I lived there almost exclusively under Republican governors, and more recently, Mitt Romney held that position. I knew far more Republicans when I grew up in Massachusetts than I do now because I chose to be in a place teeming with liberals, just as political pundits seek out other political pundits and create a self-serving narrative where it’s a “shock” that a GOP candidate can compete in the Bay State. Both classes of people — the blue establishment and the punditry — underestimate Republicans at their own risk.

My friend Robb, who is a Republican living in Massachusetts, is pro-Scott Brown. To him, and to others, I sense that they see his insurgent candidacy as a vindication of sorts; Robb parrots tea-party rhetoric on his Facebook page, and while I don’t get the sense he actually believes Barack Obama is a socialist, there’s a certain resentment there that’s exacerbated by living in Massachusetts, which is sort of a Petri Dish for blue ideas. For all I’ve just written, Massachusetts is obviously solidly blue; it’s just that the state has never been afraid to elect a single member of the GOP at any given time. The Republican Party is Massachusetts is always ready to send a message, and the Democratic Party is able to stay in “bend-but-don’t-break” mode and flourish. One loss, for them, isn’t worth crying about—usually.

If Scott Brown wins, it will certainly disrupt the health care bill and possibly scuttle it altogether. Is that worth crying about if you’re a Democrat? Absolutely. Is that worth beating a drum over if you’re a Massachusetts Republican? Strangely enough, I don’t think that’s the motivation here. I think the motivation is far more provincial than that. This move is really meant to stick it to Massachusetts Democrats, and my reasoning is this: If Ted Kennedy was still alive, and this election was still happening, Martha Coakley would wipe the floor with Scott Brown.

Robb posted this Brown quote on his Facebook page the other day—one that I happen to agree with:

“With all due respect, it’s not the Kennedy seat and it’s not the Democrats’ seat, it’s the people’s seat.”

… but as true as that is, it wouldn’t make a lick of difference if Kennedy was still alive: If he had resigned early in the Obama term, that would have pegged a special election somewhere between 145 and 160 days from the time of his resignation. Obviously he didn’t know when he was going to die, but having taken the Senate seat with him, he didn’t get to throw his support behind a candidate while he was still alive. Scott Brown tore down the perception that the seat belonged to Kennedy, but he did so because the perception was strong. He has done so as effectively as he could have done, and Martha Coakley has fought back as weakly as anyone could have done. But suppose Ted Kennedy has resigned and his office spent his final weeks urging his supporters that the cause endured, the hope lived, and the dream would never die with Martha Coakley in office. Are you telling me that a guy who posed naked in Cosmo would beat that?

So to any voters in Massachusetts who read this: If you think Scott Brown is a better representative of the people of Massachusetts than Martha Coakley, vote for him. But if you’re voting for Scott Brown as a referendum on Obama, think about this for a second. Obama was a objectively great campaigner, and you likely think he’s a bad President. Scott Brown is objectively a good campaigner… but that doesn’t necessarily make him a good Senator. What you’re taking away from with this vote has the strong, strong potential to affect every American and their children, and their children’s children, for decades. If no one has explained to you why that’s so important, imagine Ted Kennedy is doing it as you enter the voting booth. He might have messed up: He wasn’t there to help you through it, because he didn’t foresee the sequence of events that got us here today. That may be his mistake, but it’s one that hundreds of of millions of Americans will pay for. Health care might die because Ted Kennedy, of all people, miscalculated. It’s my hope that if your mind isn’t made up, you can find that mistake worth forgiving.

That’s the best I can do.

The Decline

The Patriots are on the decline. There’s no question about that now. I pooh-poohed people Bill Simmons earlier this year for calling them DOA after the Indy loss, but I stand by that. Simmons and his ilk fed us the Patriots as “winners when it matters” for the last decade, but called the dynasty kaput over a matter of a couple inches in Indianapolis. To suggest that 4th-and-2 had anything to do with what happened today was ludicrous. Maybe the plays preceding 4th-and-2, but not the event itself.

Randy Moss probably has to go. I’m drawing some parallel with Gisele here. Tom Brady finds a tall, lanky, good-looking friend. Tom Brady is enamored to the point of supplicance. Moss certainly appears to dog it from time to time out there, and Brady doesn’t seem to raise word one with him. Every time they talk, it’s a pep talk or they’re trying to speak some superstar language. That ain’t going to win you ballgames when a team’s got as many holes as this one. Put another way: that, in itself, probably has no bearing on much. But take away the time from Brady trying to fix the little problems with the offense, and that’s time wasted. As is becoming clear, there’s not much time left.

It seems like Brady and Moss are on one island, and the rest of the offense is somewhere else, particularly the offensive line. The defense played like crap today, and that’ll happen. It just hasn’t happened to us in such a big game in awhile. The defense was pretty good in the Super Bowl two years ago, but not anymore.

The Patriots now remind me of those late nineties 49ers teams that raged against the dying of the light with increasingly futile playoff campaigns. The magic could show up for any single game, but never stuck around to get them what they really wanted, which was another title. There were too many teams that were just younger and hungrier, despite their best efforts.

I got a Facebook message after the game consoling me. I don’t know what I have to be sad about. If this is the end, I can’t say I didn’t get everything I ever wanted, and more.

The Play, Continued

I love baseball statistics, and I love their modern updates, but I find some of their hardcore backers offputting. I’m happy that anyone has an opinion on baseball, and if they think Juan Pierre should be batting leadoff because he steals a lot of bases I find it amusing and cute to some degree. I generally find positions like this to be borne in the ignorance of value of a single player, and not ignorance of the sport as a whole, and there are so many baseball players I just let it go.

There’s also the baseball’s ficklness (is that a word?). You can make the wrong decision—like batting Juan Pierre leadoff againts anyone, but we’ll say Tim Lincecum—and he can go 3-for-4, and voila!, whomever you argued against feels emboldened. Rather than fight it, I try to appreciate baseball as a sport where odd things can happen and root for my teams to make the right decisions.

I don’t feel the same way about football, and the 4th-and-2 play called by Bill Belichick to win the game against the Colts. I liked the call when it happened, and now I’m so in favor of it that to hear anyone speak against it grates against me. Bill Simmons devoted the first 12 minutes of his podcast to whining about Belichick, with his sidekick calling Belichick both “arrogant” and not confident in his defense; funny that he’s arrogant and unconfident. I’m generally a Simmons defender, but this was an abomination. I’ve yet to hear one good explanation for why the Patriots should not have gone for it. Not. One.

Here are the reasons to go for it, one more time:

• Statistics

The numbers bear out the call, or make it too close to call. The NYT says 78% of the time going for it will result in a win, while punting it will net a win 70% of the time. Football Outsiders does some more math and calls it basically even. Still: no definitive reason NOT to go for it.

• Confidence

For all the talk of the Patriots “not having confidence in their defense,” isn’t this HAVING confidence in the offense? And as Joe Posnanski pointed out, isn’t potentially putting your defense on the field with a 30-yard stand ahead having MORE confidence in them? (I’m not sure this is actually true in this case, but it makes as much sense as anything a grown man who goes by the name “Cousin Sal” says.)

• Logic

As I wrote yesterday, you play to win the game. You work for months to get into a position to do so. Do you take the chance? Bill Belichick did. That’s what I want in my coach. The fact that it didn’t work should have no outcome on our appraisal.

I look at this like the Spurs’ loss to the Lakers when Derek Fisher hit that miracle shot in the playoffs. Two almost identically matched teams, rivals of a decade, the game ending dramatically and by a hair’s breadth. The Patriots are the machine that makes the good decisions, anchored by their consistent star. The Colts are built around one superstar, leading to high risk and reward. The Pats made the right decision and lost. That’s all there is to it.

FINAL NOTE?: Barring Barack Obama suddenly opining on this, I’m going to drop it, but not before linking to a clip of Merril Hoge defending the clip on ESPN. For all the criticisms you can level against Hoge, he nails it here. That’s good, but what’s telling is Josh Elliott’s absolute refusal to let him just say what he thinks. It’s like Hoge was on the O’Reilly Factor or something. It’s embarassing. For all the things ESPN debates that are completely pointless, here’s something that should be discussed, and the host tries to nip it in the bud. Well played, guys.

The Play

They start in the spring. They being practicing as a mass, knowing that in a few months their numbers will be whittled to 53.

The summer comes along, and it’s time for cuts. Every day, the players but their asses to make the NFL. At the end of the month, some do, some don’t. The ones that do have one charge: win football games.

In an average football game, there are 125 plays, on average. You can lose the game on almost all of them, but you cannot win the game on most of them.

So when you get to 4th-and-“2” (really 1) against the best team in football, in their stadium, with the statistics in your favor and an all-time great staring you down, and you finally have a chance to win the game*, do you take it? For months, you’ve practiced and practiced and been taught to execute. Would you take that one chance?

I would, and Bill Belichick would. I’ve heard talking heads say he “disrespected” his team and that he “didn’t trust” it. Nothing could be further from the truth. He trusted his team to make 4th-and-2, and win them the game. He played to win the game. He understands what he is there to do.

Too many times in football and outside of it, people make the easy decision to save themselves, to look better. Belichick did what was right, not worrying about the consequences outside the lines. He ought to be commended.

The one good thing about the Pats’ failure on the play (if they even failed) is it exposed so many football analysts and writers as just fundamentally misunderstanding of the game. The list is long. Bill Simmons. Rodney Harrison. Peter King. Tedy Bruschi. Tony Dungy. Tom Jackson. Keyshawn Johnson. More, more, and more.

Make no mistake — they are wrong. Bill Belichick played to win the game, and he lost.

* Despite what he said, there actually was no guarantee of a win. The Colts take their timeouts after two running plays, and the Pats run a third to move the clock down. That gives Peyton the ball on the 20 or so with about a minute remaining if there’s no first down. That, I could live with.

The Patriots Don’t Hate Their Coach

After the Patriots cut Lawyer Milloy, Tom Jackson said, “They hate their coach right now?”

Turned out they got over it. They won the Super Bowl, and Belichick has been beloved by his players ever since. And he’s hated Jackson for talking about stuff he doesn’t know about.

So all that garbage you hear from Tedy Bruschi, Trent Dilfer, Rodney Harrison, et al about Belichick insulting his defense or some crap like that, just ignore it. Two of those players used to play for the Patriots, so they sound credible, but the emphasis is on the past tense.

Time to move on. They sure have.

Baffling (UPDATE)

Of all the baffling things about the Pats’ loss last night, perhaps the least baffling is Bill Belichick’s decision to go for it on 4th and 2 from his own 28 yard line. Seems like a simple calculus: Will it be easier to get 2 yards or stop Peyton Manning? You play to win the game, not delay your opponents from winning it. I was all for the fourth down decision, and I thought it had worked. I was wrong.

Outside of that I’m completely baffled. I have no idea how the Pats lost, outside of Peyton Manning simply being incredible. It was just… I try not to get worked up about games any more. I try not to let them affect my outside life. Today I am a miserable failure. I had to compose myself for 30 minutes before coming to work on the off chance that someone mentioned anything to me about this game. This week is going to be brutal. I know, intellectaully, that the Patriots are going to bounce back, but if they feel anything like I feel I can’t imagine how that’s going to happen. The truth is they feel worse, I’m sure, it being their livelihood and all.

Maybe this corn muffin will bring me joy.

UPDATE: Numbers people Joe Posnanski and Brian Burke who are not as non-war-related shell shocked as I bring you explanations.

UPDATE 2: Nate Silver weighs in on the call, defending it. I only wish all this logic permeated the media I usually consume.

Brady vs. Manning

Not a lot of time today, so I’ll go down a well-traveled road: Brady vs. Manning.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Peyton Manning will finish his career with superior passing stats. He’s played in a pass-first offense his entire career, and he plays in a dome. I’m not making excuses for Brady here; I am, as always, just saying. Brady will probably finish with better winning stats, depending on how you define it. The three Super Bowls, the 16-0 season, the highest all-time winning percentage—they’re all his.

These guys entered the league around the same time and have matching career arcs, so they’re natural to compare more than, say, either one of them and Ben Roethlisberger (who came later), Donovan McNabb (who didn’t reach as high), Drew Brees (late bloomer) and the newer crop of Philip Rivers, Eli Manning and Matt Ryan (two of whom didn’t actually postdate Ben, but whose success did). Part of that contrast, for a while, were their styles: Manning ran the Blue Angels-like airshow, while Brady ran the crafty, surgical Patriots offense. Before Randy Moss arrived, the Patriots weren’t known as a team to blow out their opponents. They didn’t always win big, but they always won.

Then 2007 hit, and Brady was doing his Manning impression. He wiped Manning’s 49 touchdown record from the books in a game ya boy was at (and at which he was egged for wearing a Welker jersey), and led the Pats to within 90 seconds of the Super Bowl title. Then he got hurt eight minutes into the following season, left to watch his backup lead the Patriots’ spread offense to a respectable 11-5 record, two wins better than near Super Bowl Champions Arizona Cardinals.

Brady returned this year against the Buffalo Bills hoping to spread-offense them into submission, and the Pats won only because they got bailed out by a (typical?) Bills error (see number four here). Then they lost to the Jets, who blitzed dropback Brady into submission, and the Pats went back to the drawing board. The new Pats gameplan would look a lot like the one that won them three Super Bowls: more running, more play-action, a greater mandate to eat time away and set up big plays rather than go for them on every down. It’s something of a Classic Brady offense, even if it’s more Classic Belichick scheming: use what you’ve got. The Patriots are short on wide receivers, so this is the best plan for them.

At 6-2, the plan seems to be working. Now we’ll see how the contrast in styles with Manning’s Colts works this year. No longer do Brady and Manning look like the same quarterback, as they did in 2007. Brady’s back to being The Guy That Wins and Manning’s brought his aerial attack to another level. The contrast in styles is back, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s Pats/Colts, and it’s as big as ever.