Saturday, January 14, 2012


The National Football League playoffs are in full swing and I’m sure you’re wondering who I think will win. Sorry to disappoint but my crystal ball is out of order, as always. Except at the racetracks I don’t pick winners (and there not enough), and have no patience with commentators who do. If they knew who was going to win even a bit more than half the time they wouldn’t have to work. Nobody who could would.

But I will make one prediction: No NFL team will go all the way with its No. 1 quarterback on the sidelines. That’s about the nearest thing to a “lock” I can imagine.

A review of league action to date fully supports that view; teams whose QBs have gone down have gone home, or will soon. Indeed, even ones whose signal callers were partially impaired will watch this weekend’s games on TV, like the rest of us.

The list starts with the Indianapolis Colts, whose nonpareil helmsman, Peyton Manning, hasn’t taken a snap all season because of a neck injury that, it seems, resulted from no particular blow but from the cumulative effects of his 13 NFL campaigns. His loss transformed the Colts from one of the league’s best teams to its worst. Nuf said.

The Chicago Bears’ season turned to ashes in Game 10 when it lost Jake Cutler to a broken thumb. Yeah, the injury came not from a sack but from his attempt to be a real football player and tackle a guy who’d intercepted one of his passes, but with the pummeling he was taking behind a weak O-line it was only a matter of time before he was hurt. Cutler was bashed as a wimp when a knee injury knocked him (and his team) out of a playoff game last season, but his fortitude in the face of adversity in this one should have put that rap to rest. Maybe from now on he won’t feel obliged to prove his manhood.

The Arizona Cardinals spent big money to bring in QB Kevin Kolb, but because of concussions and a foot injury hardly got to see him play. Concussions ended the Cleveland Browns’ Colt McCoy’s season prematurely and, maybe, his career as well. The Miami Dolphins’ Chad Henne lasted four games before going out with a separated shoulder. The Houston Texans lost Matt Schaub to a foot injury in Game 8 and his backup, Matt Leinart, to a broken collarbone the next week. The Texans soldier on behind QB3, the rookie T.J. Yates, but you’ll get really good odds if you think he’ll take them past this weekend.

Quarterback injuries that weren’t season-ending spoiled other teams’ hopes. Michael Vicks’ midseason hiatus with broken ribs hurt the Philadelphia Eagles, the Dallas Cowboys’ playoff bid was sabotaged by Tony Romo’s broken hand, and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger looked like he was running on stilts after a late-season ankle injury ended his year in playoff defeat.

Such stories are all too typical of a sport that, against all reason, exposes its most-important (and highest paid) performers to the greatest injury risk. In the act of passing, which they do on most plays, quarterbacks usually are stationary and their attention is on their receivers downfield, not on the behemoths bearing down on them. Even getting the ball away in time doesn’t always save them from getting creamed.

It’s instructive, I think, to compare the league’s treatment of quarterbacks with that of punters. The latter are the lowest-paid players on most teams, and the most-easily replaced, but if they are molested during or immediately after they carry out their task the punishment is swift and severe. Hence, their injury rate is low.

On the other hand, it’s always open season on QBs, the players around whom every team’s offense revolves, so those guys take more blows than Evander Holyfield on a bad night. Indeed, a legal tackle after a pass has been released is so common that there's a boxing-like statistic for it—the “hit.” Further, the line between a legit “hit” and a penalizable “late” one is thin and the reward for stepping over it is high. Is it worth 15 yards to sideline a Tom Brady or a Drew Brees? Need I ask?

In recent seasons the league has moved to increase quarterback protection by instituting the “in the grasp” rule that stops a play before a QB has been wrestled to the ground and banning below-the-knees tackles by would-be sackers. That’s fine but not enough. Limiting to six the number of defensive players who can rush the passer on any play would help. So would a blanket extension of the “intentional grounding” rule. Trading a few quarterback sacks for more ambulatory QBs would be a good deal, I think.

Whenever the subject of protecting quarterbacks comes up on sportsblab radio or TV somebody coughs up the line that you might as well put those guys in skirts. Football’s a rough game any way you slice it, and it’s played by volunteers who willingly accept the risks, so let the boys be, the knuckleheads say.

But that argument weakens with every new study of the long-term effects of football-related injuries, and as a fan I’m tired of watching backups play as every season’s schedule unfolds. If the league won’t shield its players for their own sake they might consider the people who pay the bills.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


Despite an unprepossessing matchup, last fall’s baseball World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers was a honey, a seven-game struggle of the sort we haven’t seen for years. Game Six was a classic, featuring do-or-die comebacks from each team in an 11-inninger that ended with the Cardinals winning, 10-9, and, eventually, taking the championship.

Just as remarkable, though, was the quote given to after the sixth game by the Rangers’ Josh Hamilton, whose two-run home run in the 10th inning gave his team a 9-7 lead and, at the time, looked to be a game-winner. It concerned a conversation Hamilton says he had with God just before his memorable swing.

“He told me, ‘You haven’t hit one [a homer] in a while and this is the time you’re going to,” said Hamilton .

I still was digesting that revelation when I came across a story in the New York Times of November 2 about the horse trainer Larry Jones, whose filly Havre de Grace was favored in the Breeders Cup Classic a few days hence. Jones had been out of the sport the previous year because of burnout and physical ills, but had returned fit and, again, successful. He described what led him out of retirement thusly: “The Good Lord had a conversation with me. He told me that He had given me a talent, a blessing, and it was time for me to get my butt off the couch and start training horses.”

The quotes and their treatment caused me pause on a couple of grounds. The first was that they were buried in the body of the stories that contained them, not even rating a headline, and spurred no later discussion. You’d think the news that “God speaks to man” would cause a stir, but it didn’t.

Second, Hamilton’s assertion indicated that God not only was helping him but also was up on his stats, particularly the one showing that he’d gone homerless in his 65 previous post-season at-bats. With seven billion people on the planet and the usual array of wars, natural disasters and personal tragedies playing out, you’d think God would have plenty to occupy Him (or Her) besides our fun and games, but apparently that’s not the case.

Fact is, of course, that sports and religion are connected so closely in this land that the spectacle of athletes, etc., claiming intimacy with the deity doesn’t cause us to blink. If someone we actually know would tell us that he acted in such and such a way because of specific direction from Above we’d probably think he was daffy, but when an athlete (or a Republican presidential candidate) says that we smile benignly and continue the conversation. Decades of watching batters cross themselves before facing a pitcher, or jocks of all stripes pointing skyward after a signal achievement, have made the connection seem both natural and inevitable.

It’s not difficult to figure out why this should be so. If it’s true that there are no atheists in foxholes it’s also true that there are few in locker rooms, and for pretty much the same reason. Like war, all sports are games of inches, with barely measurable differences regularly separating success from failure. Even the most talented athlete knows full well that his day often will hinge on, say, the smidge by whether a line drive off his bat is caught or falls safely, and there’s enough randomness in the process to make it wise to propitiate the Almighty to help the breaks go his way. And—hey!—when the snoopy media drop by to talk, a shoutout to the Big Guy Upstairs might not hurt, either.

The rub comes when ostentatiously religious athletes like Tim Tebow take the field. Tebow, the Denver Broncos’ Lil’ Abnerish quarterback, has been in the playin’- and-prayin’ spotlight since his college days, punctuating his considerable gridiron feats with scriptural citations and prayerful poses that have come to be called “Tebowing.” In the process he’s become at once a celebrity with the extracurricular income to prove it, and a lightning rod for those on both sides of the religion-in-public issue that plays out in many American venues.

People who wince at Tebow’s doings often are hard pressed to explain why, but they shouldn’t be. Even granting his sincerity and good intentions (as I do), it’s enough to point out that his occupation consists of zero- sum games in which someone’s success always comes at someone else’s expense. Thus, for an athlete to imply that he enjoys God’s favor demeans his foe, who may believe himself to be equally worthy. That, I think, is what those Detroit Lions players were saying a few weeks back when they “Tebowed” after sacking or intercepting the Denver QB, although they might have expressed themselves better.

Indeed, the fact that failure and defeat are recurring themes in just about every athlete’s life probably goes farthest in explaining the group’s bent toward pietism. While most of us labor in obscurity, and rarely know if we’re winning or losing (or, even, how to keep score), the athlete’s failings are public and, thus, impossible to conceal. Every day in every sport half the teams lose, and even the best baseball hitters bat around .300, which means they fail about 70% of the time. Under those circumstances it’s tough to keep one’s chin up.

I read the other day that Plaxico Burress, the New York Jets’ pass receiver, has the motto “Everything Happens For A Reason” tattooed on his back. That’s a theological statement if there ever was one. Failure, defeat and even disgrace can be acceptable if they are seen as having the divine purpose of preparing one for greater tests to come. If Burress can believe that shooting himself in the leg in a nightclub with an illegally concealed weapon can have redeeming value, the rest of us can take heart from our own trials.