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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Footing the Bill

The Playoffs have arrived and that's got to be worth a mention. I'll try to start with some arguably thoughtful football coverage, but today won't stray too far from the football topic.

CBS Sportsline's Clark Judge opines on the
Coach of the Year candidates, and dares to include within the deserving a few that the mainstream seems all too bored to consider, namely, Philadelphia's Andy Reid and Bill Belichick – both of whom have taken the honor in past seasons. Of Belichick's merit in 2006, he notes:
… All I know about Belichick is that he lost offensive and defensive coordinators, offensive linemen, wide receivers and defensive backs ... yet continued to dominate the AFC East. In fact, until this season he hadn't lost consecutive regular-season games in nearly four years. Magnificent. So is this: He knocked off Chicago. He hammered Jacksonville in Jacksonville. He buried Cincinnati in Cincinnati. OK, so this isn't his best record. So the schedule isn't his most demanding, either. But this isn't his deepest or most talented team – not by a long shot – and Belichick has it behind only Chicago, San Diego and Baltimore in overall record. That tells you the job he's done.
Well, the likely to-be-ignored New England head coach has gotten plenty of media attention this week – particularly in the Boston and New York media markets – as he prepares to square-off against the New York Jets, coached by his former defensive coordinator and protégé Eric Mangini.

First, though, here's one more
thoughtful piece. ESPN's Len Pasquarelli attempts to identify the locus of the AFC's continuing dominance over the NFC. He quotes several sources who observe that they cannot pinpoint the reason, but finally observes:
But here are two potential reasons for the superiority: Statistics aside, the AFC has the better quarterbacks, in terms of performance and longevity. Second, even in an era when the shelf life for head coaches has been reduced, the sideline bosses in the AFC enjoy more tenure.
Seems reasonable enough. As much as any other argument. All I know is that it is so. One need look no further than the 2006 Bears, whose arse Dennis Green implored you to crown in October, but which lost their glossy sheen once they started playing AFC teams.

Dennis Green provides the You Tube moment of the season

The NFC's best teams are good teams, but the second tier is a significant drop-off. The AFC's 3rd and 4th tiers are better than the NFC's top tier, and the AFC's 2nd tier teams are often just as good as the best the NFC can offer. Witness every Super Bowl since the Rams beat the Titans. It ain't even worth arguing.

Anyway, Pasquarelli's nerdy ESPN colleague
John Clayton tries to augment the QB experience argument by counting up wins, noting:
There is virtually no playoff experience in the NFC. Rex Grossman of the Bears, Drew Brees of the Saints and Eli Manning of the Giants are each 0-1 in playoff games. Who would have ever thought Jeff Garcia of the Eagles would be the second-most experienced playoff quarterback in the NFC? He's won one of three playoff games. Tony Romo of the Cowboys will be seeing his first playoff action. The most experienced and most dangerous quarterback in the NFC is Matt Hasselbeck of the Seahawks. He's 2-3 in the postseason, including a trip to the Super Bowl last year.

The AFC is loaded at quarterback. Philip Rivers of the Chargers is the only AFC quarterback making his playoff debut. Tom Brady is 10-1 in the playoffs. Steve McNair has a 5-4 postseason record. Peyton Manning is 3-6. Chad Pennington is 2-2. Trent Green is 0-1. The AFC has a clear edge at quarterback.
Hmm … insightful (?) SI dot com's Peter King does better. Of the Patriots-Jets match-up on Sunday, in Foxborough, King says:
The Jets' 17-14 win in Foxboro on Nov. 12 caused the Patriots to install FieldTurf at Gillette Stadium because the field was all muck. Will that matter much here? It could – for the Jets as well as New England. Leon Washington, who has emerged as a Dave Meggettish threat for the Jets, carried it only 10 times against the Patriots this season, but he could be New York's mystery key in Revenge Bowl III on the fast track of the FieldTurf. The Patriots scored only 38 points in eight quarters against the Jets this year and will need to do better here. Luckily for them, Tom Brady is getting in sync with his receivers and seems poised to have a strong postseason.
Right ... the Sunday Pats v. Jets game ….

A friend of mine who tends to visit
Las Vegas a few times a year asked me what I thought about the Pats' third bout of the season against their increasingly un-liked division rival to the south. Presently, the boys in Vegas have the Pats giving 8 ½ points to the Jets, which to me sounds way too big of a spread. Still, I told said buddy that I wouldn't touch this game if the spread was a field goal. While I hope and expect that the Pats will show up, the Jets are always a risk.

Classic Belichick was in force this week, as Newsday reported in a Thursday story headlined
Taking high road: Feud? What feud? Belichick and Mangini exchange compliments. After responding coldly to his former protégé in the division rivals' two regular season match-ups, Belichick said on Monday of his former defensive protégé:
"I think Eric and his staff have done a great job down there," Belichick said. "They've got them playing very well. It's one of the best teams in football. They're very hot right now."
NY Daily News Jets beat writer Rich Cimini puts an exclamation point on the first name gesture, with the lead: "Eric. Eric. Eric. Eric. There, Bill Belichick said it. He said it four times, in fact."

Newsday columnist Wallace Matthews
suggests that there was little sincerity to Belichick's gesture, and that the Pats coach's refusal to further elucidate his feelings about Mangini's departure is merely one more affirmation of his status as a "sniveling rat." Thank the Cosmos for the New York media … and especially the grumps out on Long Island. As for New York proper, the NY Post's Mark Cannizzaro sheds more light on Belichick's Wednesday conference call:

So on yesterday's conference call there was a clear-and-present agenda to Belichick's madness.

It was a call that Belichick seemingly prepared for with the same verve that he uses when putting together his infamous Sunday defensive gameplans. He came to the phone as prepped as he would have been standing on the sidelines to face Peyton Manning and the Colts.

Belichick was universally ridiculed for the way he disrespected Mangini in that November conference call and in his "dead-fish" postgame handshake after the Jets beat the Patriots, including raising the ire of some of his own players who like and respect Mangini.

So yesterday, in beginning the conference call with a rare opening statement, he quickly referred to Mangini as "Eric" with some bland praise.

From there, Belichick called Mangini by name four times during the call.

Most of his praise was phrased like this: "Eric and his staff have done a great job with their team."

When asked specifically where his relationship with Mangini "soured," there was such a long pause that reporters could have left the room, cooked a three-course meal, done the dishes and returned in time to hear the answer.

"I made comments about Eric when he was hired and I still feel that way; nothing has changed there," Belichick said after the interminable pause. "This game is about these two teams this week playing to keep their season alive. That's really what my focus is and that's what our team's focus is."

Asked why he was so cold to Mangini during the postgame handshake in November, Belichick repeated three times, "I never said anything negative."

True, he never said anything negative. The man don't lie.

Dan Shaughnessy brings out one of his patented
cutesy columns, including among other eye-rollers:
The animosity was obvious when the rivals met twice during the 2006 regular season. Getting Belichick to say Mangini's name became a parlor game with media members in Boston and New York. The perfunctory postgame handshakes were downright hilarious. Remember the look on the face of German Chancellor Angela Merkel when President Bush gave her an impromptu back-rub? Remember Nancy Kerrigan on the podium with Oksana Baiul? That's what Belichick looked like when he shook Mangini's hand. The soundtrack for that video should be Dylan's "Positively 4th Street."

"You say, 'How are you? Good luck.' But you don't mean it."
Actually Dan, I don't remember Nancy Kerrigan on the podium with Oksana Baiul … but … anyway … For reference sake, I send you to BYOB who apparently knows what the Curly Haired Boyfriend is typing about … But I still don't get the Dylan reference ... Sooo ... moving on.

Not to be outdone by CHB, the Herald's
Gerry Callahan cross references Animal House and Seinfeld in his Mangini story.

Believe it or not, some writers are actually focusing on the game itself … you know, with the players who run around the field and such. NY Post's Mike Vaccaro focuses the
importance of Jets QB Chad Pennington. Cannizarro wrote about former Jet, present Pat cornerback Ray Mickensyesterday. The Globe's Mike Reiss provides this compendium of views of other coaches on both sides of the ball.

Globe columnist Jackie MacMullen focuses on the
absence of Patriot safety Rodney Harrison, who was declared "out" for Sunday after suffering a knee injury against the Titans last Sunday. NYDN columnist Mike Lupica tells the story of the Sunday playoff match-up in the "My buddy, the GM, told me …" formula.

Herald beat writer John Tomase looks at Tom Brady and observes that the QB has been closely analyzing the Jets'
defensive success in the second regular season game between the two teams. Comparing them to the Dolphins, who beat up on Brady "when his offensive line was overwhelmed by the physical skills of defensive end Jason Taylor," Tomase observes:

The Jets did it not with athleticism, but their game plan. On the simplest level, they disguised their intentions, holding their ground while Brady made protection calls at the line of scrimmage, then shifting at the snap.

Whatever blocking adjustments the Patriots had made were suddenly moot and blitzers like safety Kerry Rhodes consistently came free. Every team aims for such defensive subterfuge, but the Jets actually pulled it off. It’s the approach the Patriots themselves used with so much success against Peyton Manning during their Super Bowl run.

One last thing Patriots

Patriots back-up QB Vinnie Testaverde, with friends

Whoever says Belichick isn't a softy needs to rethink the proposition after last week's decision to substitute Vinnie Testaverde for number-two QB Matt Cassel late in the Fourth Quarter. Testaverde stood poised to end his streak of successive seasons in which he threw a touchdown pass at 19 seasons. So, with the Patriots handily in front on the Titans, Belichick inserted the veteran QB, who took all of five plays before finding Troy Brown in the end zone for his first touchdown in this, his 20th straight season with one.

It harkened back almost exactly one year ago, when Belichick inexplicably removed Cassel in favor of Doug Flutie, in what was likely going to be his last NFL game. On fourth down, the 43 year old QB assumed a regular shotgun formation, but just before the snap, retreated several more steps, caught the ball, bounced it into the grass and nailed the first dropkick extra point in the NFL since 1940, thus ending his career on a memorable note. NuttyaboutSportsBlog makes the same observation here.

Nothing wrong with a little sentimentality, now.


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