Author Archive

Let’s Get Physical

There’s a tendency in sports analysis — and maybe it’s just because it’s football season now that I think it’s especially true in football — to attribute any and all mistakes to poor decision-making. There are no physical errors; only mental ones.

Take Jacoby Jones’ muffed punt in the Texans’ loss to the Ravens. Jones was excoriated not for failing to properly secure the kick, but for even trying to do so. It was an “inexcusable” mistake, akin to “driving a car on the freeway in the wrong direction and once he realized it he sped up to get to the next exit (which would actually be the on ramp) and while changing lanes had a head-on collision.” His “gaffe” is defined as “opting to field a punt that took several bounces in front of the fifth-year veteran at the Texans’ 13 and not being able to handle the football.

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Prior to the Snap: Championship Sunday

Let’s dispense of the formalities and get right to it:

#2 BALTIMORE AT #1 NEW ENGLAND

You ready to get Gronked? That sounds disgusting.

What percentage of Patriots fans have worked the verb “Gronk” into their regular vocabulary? I haven’t heard it yet, but I assume 100. “Gronk,” interestingly enough, is almost always modified by the adverb “totally” and takes the direct object “workout.”

Now seriously, can the Ravens stop Rob Gronkowski? I wouldn’t frame the question that way. Stopping the Patriots isn’t about stopping any one of their wide receivers/tight ends (and like, what’s the difference; we can even throw running back into that slash line) so much as it is about stopping Tom Brady. How does one stop Tom Brady? You get pressure on him, obviously.

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Prior to the Snap: Divisional Playoff Sunday

#3 HOUSTON AT #2 BALTIMORE

Does anybody care? Presumably the people in Baltimore and Houston.

And you are? Not there.

So let’s do this one quick: The Texans are the Ravens, just a little worse at everything (except running the ball, I suppose). Combine that with the home-field advantage for Baltimore, plus the fact that the Ravens have already beaten the Texans while playing a below-average game, and it all adds up to a Ravens win, right?

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Prior to the Snap: Divisional Playoff Saturday

Since Divisional Playoff weekend is far and away the best weekend of football every year, we’re splitting up my monstrously digressive predictions into two parts. Here’s my take on Saturday’s showdowns:

#3 NEW ORLEANS AT #2 SAN FRANCISCO

First off, what’s the best thing about this Divisional Playoff weekend? That the #1 seeds didn’t get screwed this year. As Pierre has mentioned before but probably won’t discuss at length this year for lack of relevant examples, the NFL’s second round has been hurt in recent years by improper seeding regulations. Now, as you know, the NFL rewards divisional winners with home games in the first round regardless of record (thus, 8-8 Denver hosting 12-4 Pittsburgh). I’m cool with this. The problem comes in the second round, when the NFL re-seeds (i.e. the top seed plays the worst remaining seed); however, the league does this based on seed instead of record, still for some reason rewarding division winners at the expense of top seeds. So most years, the #1 seed ends up playing a better team in the second round than the #2 seed. Continue reading

Prior to the Snap: Wild Card Weekend

Regular season? Like who does that anymore? It’s playoff time, and thus time to break out a digressively detailed look at this weekend’s four Wild Card matchups. Do Cincinnati fans have it worse than Houston fans? What car brand sponsorship do I refuse to acknowledge? What mistake has altered our perception of Victor Cruz more than any great play? And just how much does God love Tim Tebow?

#6 CINCINNATI AT #3 HOUSTON

Playoff time! As I’m fond of saying this time of year, the music’s changing…just like it used to in Tecmo Super Bowl.

Speaking of… Neither of these cities has seen a second-round playoff game since the year Tecmo Super Bowl came out, or 1991. Cincinnati hasn’t won a playoff game since a 1990 Wild Card Weekend win over—guess who—the Oilers. Houston hasn’t seen a playoff win since those Oilers won a year later on Wild Card Weekend against the Jets.

Those are long droughts: The longest in the league, along with Detroit (1991). Continue reading

The Art of Fielding and Fictionalizing History

“What happened to Steve Blass? Nobody knows, but some speculation is permissible—indeed, is perhaps demanded of anyone who is even faintly aware of the qualities of Steve Blass and the depth of his suffering. Professional sports have a powerful hold on us because they display and glorify remarkable physical capacities, and because the artificial demands of games played for very high rewards produce vivid responses. But sometimes, of course, what is happening on the field seems to speak to something deeper within us; we stop cheering and look on in uneasy silence, for the man out there is no longer just another great athlete, an idealized hero, but only a man—only ourself. We are no longer at a game.”

—Roger Angell, “Gone for Good,” June 1975

Nobody knows. Even 35 years later, nobody knows what happened to Steve Blass, why, after his best season in the major leagues, Steve Blass lost the ability to pitch. Blass was, historically speaking, the first in a list of infamous players that now includes Mackey Sasser, Steve Sax, Chuck Knoblauch, and Rick Ankiel—baseball players who suddenly and inexplicably could no longer do simple tasks that they had long ago perfected.

Sports, as Chad Harbach points out at one point in The Art of Fielding, create a strange paradox between the art they aspire to and the artless, thoughtless repetition required to best attain it. Baseball, just like any other sport, relies heavily on muscle memory and on keeping your brain as far out of your physical movements as possible. KISS, we all hear at some Little League practice: keep it simple, stupid.

Harbach’s much-anticipated debut novel—it isn’t often first-timers get six-figure advances these days—adds another name to that ignominious list with Henry Skrimshander, a balletic shortstop for Division III Westish College in lakeshore Wisconsin. Harbach’s novel essentially takes its cue from Roger Angell’s oft-praised (and deservedly so) profile of Blass from 1975: What happens to a baseball player when he loses the ability to play baseball? What happens when your self-definition dissolves?*

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Attacking the BCS (Again)

Man, John…could you be more John? Way to seize upon the first regular-season game in five years to make the BCS look like a good idea and promote the hell out of your “let’s-take-it-to-absurdist-realms-and-then-see-how-you-like-it” point that the BCS is good because it’s different.* Once again, people dislike the BCS not because it’s different, but because it’s unfair. You’ve admitted this yourself.

*Methinks The Human Centipede made the same case on its own behalf.

Your pro-BCS screeds have taken on a pattern by now: you take a poorly conceived article from a member of the mainstream media, point out its flaws, conflate his vantage point with mine, and wonder if anyone writing such nonsense gets sports at all. You’re fortunate that 14 seasons of the BCS have provided you with plenty of chances to squash such low-hanging fruit; sportswriters are running out of ways to say the same thing each autumn. Last year, it was Dan Wetzel’s incorrect interpretation of college football rankings; this year, it’s Dan Wolken’s perplexing insistence that the hype surrounding LSU-Alabama is bad for the sport (since when is hype bad for a sport? Isn’t it about time Jay Caspian King wrote an article for Grantland saying the NFL should annex the SEC West since it lacks star teams?). Maybe next time attack a sportswriter not named Dan.

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