Tuesday, October 19, 2004

I knew I kept reading him for a reason!

"Him" being, of course, Gregg Easterbrook, who is a writer who tends to blend equal parts talent and equal parts being full of crap. Here he is on the New England Stupid Patriots:

New England works hard and is unselfish, its players rarely boast, and its magnificent new stadium was built with the owner's money rather than taxpayer funds; there's a lot to be said for the Patriots.

But I am sick of them. At least half the games in the New England streak have turned on good luck for the Patriots on the critical downs at the end; change New England's luck even slightly, and this club becomes another middle-of-the-pack outfit. New England's good fortune at avoiding injuries has been nothing short of spectacular -- lots of NFL teams would look better if hardly anyone ever got hurt. Just ask Carolina and Tennessee, or note how much better Houston is this season with numerous injured players who missed the 2003 campaign now back on the field. Plus it's fundamentally tedious when the same team always wins. Somebody else deserves a winning streak. At this point, I'm rooting for the Patriots to lose their next 20 consecutive games.

Huzzah! I couldn't agree more. The number of lucky breaks the StuPats have received is just staggering.

In other sports stuff, let me say that although I am by no means a hater of the New York Tankees, I am rooting for the Red Sox to win the ALCS, because I really really really want to see what George Steinbrenner does when his beloved Yankees, the Jewel in the Crown of Major League Baseball, becomes the first team in baseball history to blow a lead of three games to none in a best-of-seven playoff series.

UPDATE: In comments, Sean (whose allegiance to the StuPats is bizarre) and Jess (whose allegiance to the StuPats is not) take exception to this. Sean seems to want to chalk it all up to the Pats being a good team, and good teams make their own luck, which I think is true, but only up to a point. It's no accident that only one team has managed to go undefeated for an entire season in the entire history of the NFL, and that was thirty-two years ago, when there was no free agency and when there were only 14 games in a season. The StuPats are a very well-run organization, both in the front office and in the coaching staff, and well-run teams that execute with precision tend to be good at making the most of lucky breaks.

But the thing with sports streaks is this: the longer they go on, the more dependent on luck they become. This isn't to say that each individual game becomes more a function of luck, but rather that the streak in total becomes more a function of things that could have gone seriously wrong for the streaking player or team but didn't. I'd be willing to bet that if you looked at every single hit Joe DiMaggio had in his 56-game hitting streak, you'd see some infield hits that he beat out, balls that eluded the glove of a fielder by just an inch or two, "seeing-eye balls" that just managed to bounce between two fielders, et cetera. Or consider the ultimate streak, Cal Ripken's consecutive-games-played. Yes, it's a testament to Ripken's work ethic and toughness; but it's also a testament to the monumental luck that in all those years of playing shortstop Ripken never sprained an ankle or twisted a knee; that in all those at-bats he never took a pitch on the knuckles and broke a hand; that in all those collisions at the plate or with guys sliding into second that he never planted a foot and broke a bone. Luck, there, and lots of it.

Now, I do grant that luck has played a lesser role in the StuPats' current streak than it did in their 2001 run that ended in their first Super Bowl championship. (Now there was a run of unprecedented luck. Wow-za.) But they've still received an awful lot of breaks at exactly the right times. Just to take two examples: in their game against the Bills just two weeks ago, the StuPats put the game away on a play in which two Bills offensive linemen missed blocks, allowing one StuPat to sack Bledsoe and force a fumble, and allowing the other to recover said fumble and return it for a touchdown. That doesn't happen if one, or even both, of those Bills OLs don't miss their blocks. Yes, the StuPats have a better defensive line than the Bills have an offensive line, but defensive skill doesn't make an offensive line break down at the exact right time. The other example came in last year's Super Bowl, in which the Panthers tied the game with something like a minute to play -- and then the Panthers' kicker, on the ensuing kickoff, booted the ball out of bounds. This gave the StuPats the ball on their own 40 yard line. Now, of course, this isn't to say that the StuPats wouldn't have been able to drive for the game-winning field goal in the time they had left if the Panthers had kicked off to, say, the 20-yard line, but it's another example of an amazingly lucky break that came for them at exactly the right time. Yes, they took advantage of it, to their credit; but that doesn't make it any less of a lucky break.

Jess takes issue with the idea that the StuPats have not had to deal with injuries as much as some other teams; he insists they have. Not being a StuPats fan, I of course can't totally speak to this point, but a couple of things leap to mind here. First, the StuPats' current system is to basically build a roster around a couple of stars (mostly on defense), and then round out the roster with cheap role-players and good draft picks. Injuries probably play less of a role in determining on-field results for a team that is built on such a model.

But, to move on to my second point, I don't really recall a lot of StuPat players losing significant amounts of playing time to injuries, except for Rosevelt Colvin, who spent all of last year on Injured Reserve. Now, maybe I'm wrong here, but I don't recall anything like Tedy Bruschi missing six games with a broken collarbone, or Ty Law being sidelined for four games with a separated shoulder, or anything of the sort happening to Tom Brady. (Ironically, it's worth remembering that the StuPats' single greatest lucky break of the last few years was, in fact, an injury: if Drew Bledsoe didn't get hurt in 2001, Tom Brady wouldn't have come to the fore. At least, not when he did.) I certainly haven't heard of the StuPats dealing with anything like what the Bills have been dealing with this year, what with two starting offensive linemen out, several members of the secondary out, all at the same time. A single player or two, here and there, sure. You don't go through an NFL season without injuries. But I don't recall the StuPats suffering major injuries to key players at the same time for extended periods. Here, though, I am absolutely open to correction. (But not to the extent that I will admit error!)

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