PSG’s Brazil-sized gamble

As I write these lines, ESPN FC has reported that Paris St-Germain and Neymar have agreed to terms on a contract that would see the Brazilian superstar swap the prestige, the tradition and the winning ways of Barcelona for the riches and the Champions League promise of PSG. There is no overstating the importance of this transfer if it does happen.

First off, the fee PSG would have to pay is absolute nonsense. Neymar’s release clause stands at 222 MILLION EUROS. Emphasis on the expression “Release clause.” That is to say that Neymar will have cost PSG €222 m, and they won’t have paid him a penny in wages yet. This would blow the previous record transfer fee (€105 m paid by Manchester United for Paul Pogba) to smithereens. Barcelona does not wish to lose the Brazilian, so there will be no hometown discount. But then, the fact that PSG is actually making this run at Neymar means two things: 1) The fee, while astronomical, is not prohibitive for the club and 2) PSG owners Qatari Sports Investments consider him to be “worth it” (whatever that means in the warped universe of top-level European football) in every sense of the word.

Neymar

(Some nice artwork by Bleacher Report here.)

As crazy as it sounds, PSG could recoup a significant fraction of the transfer fee in merchandising money, which Neymar would generate in spades. But one hardly gets the impression that Paris’s Qatari owners care in any way about the money. This transfer is about to happen, above all, because of the message it sends. If Neymar moves to PSG, it cements the club’s status as a world superpower. The argument could be made that they already were, but this is a new level of muscle-flexing.

Sure, PSG has signed big stars before, but they didn’t have Neymar’s prestige and/or his upside. The club’s first big signing as a financial superpower was Javier Pastore from Palermo, but he wasn’t a superstar yet, and the idea was that he would blossom into one while wearing PSG’s colours. (Count me among the many who wrongly thought this was a brilliant idea.) The club also signed centre back Thiago Silva, at the time the world’s best at his position, but defenders simply don’t have the potential star power of attacking players. It may have been as important a signing as Neymar would be now, but it was far less sexy. And while top striker/narcissist extraordinaire Zlatan Ibrahimovic did beat up on Ligue 1 opposition as badly as anyone could dream of, he was seen as a star who had already begun his decline when he came over to Paris from AC Milan in a package deal with Silva.

In terms of perception, Neymar’s transfer would be something else entirely. I can think of no more than three clubs where his mere arrival doesn’t immediately make him the team’s offensive alpha dog. And the Brazilian star is actually about to leave one of these three clubs, as he enters his prime, to join the French giants. There is no overstating the importance of that, nor of the fact that PSG would be prying him away from the best team in world football for the past 12 years against said team’s will. Because let us be clear about this: Barcelona does not wish to lose Neymar. Granted, they still have Leo Messi and Luis Suarez, but both are 30, and the younger Neymar could have given the Catalan club the chance to extend its dynasty into the medium term with him as the team’s main attacking option. Losing the Brazilian means having to potentially press the reset button sooner, and no one in Barcelona wants that.

The transfer is also meaningful because it has the potential to alter the balance of power in world football. Neymar is currently, at worst, one of world football’s top five players. Individuals of such talent don’t simply define teams; they define leagues. When Cristiano Ronaldo left Manchester United for Real Madrid, it was obvious that the Red Devils would have to restructure their attack. What was perhaps less obvious was that the Premier League would never be quite the same, and it hasn’t been. Neymar’s hypothetical departure comes at a fairly terrible time for both Barcelona and Spain’s La Liga. The league’s two megastars, Messi and Ronaldo, are now 30 or over, and Barcelona faces levels of uncertainty it hasn’t seen in a long time.

Meanwhile, it’s difficult to imagine Ligue 1 reaching a level of quality comparable to that of the English Premier League, the Spanish Liga or the German Bundesliga, but Neymar’s arrival will give it an unquestionable boost. And even then, that was never PSG’s aim. Paris is obsessed with the Champions’ League. Their roster is already built to win it. It’s not a fluke that PSG is looking to acquire the main artisan of the miraculous comeback Barcelona pulled against them in the UCL last season. With peak Neymar in its lineup, Paris St-Germain won’t win it every year, but they won’t have to fear anyone, and in a few years, may get to boast about having the world’s best player.

Neymar’s motives

Hopefully, if the transfer happens, the Brazilian star is ready for the absolute firing squad of criticism that will come his way. Neymar will be accused of doing it for the money, of padding his bank account at the expense of his career. People will go on and on about Ligue 1 being an inferior league where he won’t actually have to prove his greatness every week to dominate. Some will even accuse Neymar of being jealous of Messi; we might even get a few anonymous source-fueled news stories to that effect.

This criticism is partly justified, of course, but it’ll be done in such bad faith, especially when it comes from English pundits still steamed over the fact that he’ll have spurned Manchester United, that it’ll be laughable. It’s true that Ligue 1 isn’t the Premier League or La Liga in terms of overall quality, but it isn’t China, either. Marseille, Nice, Monaco and Lyon are good teams, especially if the latter two can avoid losing too many good young players. It was Monaco, let us remember, who took out Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in the Champions’ League, and it was not a mere stroke of luck.

The money certainly doesn’t hurt, but let’s not pretend Neymar was making pocket change at Barcelona. It’s what makes his situation so special: he’ll be the first player to be the object of two top-10 most expensive transfers ever before his prime begins. This transfer isn’t comparable to the one that took him from Santos to Barcelona; the Catalan giants can afford to pay him. Several analysts have speculated that Neymar’s father, who also acts as his son’s agent, is pushing for this move in order to cash in the hefty commission that would come with the transfer. The concern is certainly legitimate, and it raises questions about the predatory nature of certain agent-player relationships, perhaps especially when parents are involved. Some clearly cannot be trusted to make the right decisions for their child’s soccer career.

Even if we accept that this is the case here, however, what appears to be driving Neymar’s consideration of moving to PSG is the prospect of the Brazilian star “being his own man,” i.e. being a team’s offensive alpha dog. Superstars such as him don’t like playing second fiddle to anybody, and Neymar is doubtlessly good enough to run his own show. It can’t hurt that PSG are selling him on being the talk of the town, the face on every billboard, and on other ego-flattering perks of superstardom. The thought of being a Robin to Lionel Messi’s Batman has probably lost its charm for the former Santos prodigy, and it surely doesn’t help that Messi has recently signed a three-year contract extension. Neymar surely understands that Messi will get to pick when he leaves, and that there is no topping the legacy of a player who was the top dog for one of the greatest dynasties in world football history. In contrast, Paris would allow Neymar to step out of Messi’s shadow and build a legacy that’s his and his only.

In theory…

I’m sure this all sounds great on paper for Neymar, and maybe he can simply land in Paris, take control of the team, and take it to the Promised Land… or it could get much more complicated than that.

For starters, Barcelona have said they would report PSG to UEFA for violation of Financial Fair Play principles. You would think, however, that PSG would not have engaged in such an energetic pursuit of Neymar had they not found a way to meet the demands of FFP. You don’t simply dish out €222 m for a single player and expect UEFA officials to look the other way. If, out of cavalier insouciance, PSG have opted to “figure it out later,” they face being blocked from UEFA competitions (read: the Champions’ League). So let’s keep going under the assumption that QSI have figured a way around FFP.

Then, there is the question of the team’s identity. People point to Messi’s talent to explain his ridiculously successful career, but the importance of the infrastructure from which he has benefited as a Barcelona player should not be understated. He was trained at La Masia, and from the moment Pep Guardiola took over and handed him the reigns of the Barcelona attack, Messi was allowed to play a coherent style of football over a sustained period of time with other extraordinary players. Few teams offer as much, let alone more. Many top clubs have academies whose products they subsequently neglect and tend to go through managers like Tic-Tacs, with a new shift in either identity or emphasis every time.

This has certainly been the case with PSG. Just over a decade ago, Figo, who had seen Real Madrid’s Galactico policy sink the club from Champions’ League winner to dysfunctional underachievers on the European stage, said it all went wrong when the team’s Hollywood factor became more important than the football it played. Well, PSG seem determined to be as Hollywood as football clubs get. One doesn’t have to be in the team’s board room to figure out that the capital team attempts to figure out what to do with the star players it purchases AFTER, as opposed to BEFORE, acquiring them. This is a very hit-and-miss tactic, with which you can get lucky (Zlatan Ibrahimovic, because he’s just that good) or unlucky (Edinson Cavani, whom Laurent Blanc insisted on playing as a winger because he was adamant on using a 4-3-3 formation). It only makes sense if you’re buying players for their star power, current or potential, as opposed to acquiring them because they fit your footballing identity or fill a particular need.

Obviously, stardom comes from somewhere, and Neymar may very well be one of those super-duper-stars – Messi in Barcelona; Ronaldo in Madrid; Ribery and Robben at Bayern Munich (though they’re getting older); Hazard at Chelsea – that you simply keep on your team at virtually all costs if you have them. When one of these guys is one the market, teams just jump on them and don’t let go because, well, these guys simply aren’t on the market most of the time. Ever since Ibrahimovic’s departure to Manchester United, PSG hasn’t had that guy on its roster, and the upside of acquiring Neymar to replace the Swede as the team’s attacking alpha is this: Ibrahimovic arrived in Paris at over 30 years of age. Neymar is 25.

There is also a realistic possibility that Neymar could have to adjust to a new coach twice in his first year with the club. Several French football analysts were surprised coach Unai Emery was brought back and, while this would seem to suggest the club recognizes that constantly switching managers is not a viable recipe for success, we should all expect Emery to be on a very short leash next season. Who does the club bring in if Emery is let go?

Then, there is the roster. If PSG is counting on the sale of several players to satisfy the demands of Financial Fair Play, it may find things difficult. Try to sell them before acquiring Neymar and you risk being short on quality and quantity if Barcelona manages to hold on to him. Sell them after and you’ll have to deal them for pennies on the dollar, and most likely pay portions of their salary, because teams know you’re desperate to sell.

And boy, is that collection of wingers/attacking midfielders an eclectic group of potential square pegs in round holes! If I’m running the team, the only sure thing is that Cavani is my lone striker up front. After that, you give Neymar one spot somewhere and have to decide where to play Angel Di Maria, Lucas Moura, Hatem Ben Arfa, Julian Draxler, Javier Pastore, Jesé, Gonçalo Guedes and Christopher Nkunku. Guedes and Nkunku are youngsters who figure to spend significant time on the bench. Still, you can’t keep all these guys. The club is stuck with Pastore’s contract, and the others, while talented, are condemned to be either misused or barely used at all. They’re all too good to be relegated to playing positions that don’t really suit them or to log symbolic minutes in midweek gimme fixtures like League Cup games. Try keeping a winning mentality within the club with a group of high-priced malcontents on your squad!

If PSG loses midfield dynamo Marco Verratti to… wait for it… Barcelona, it could opt for a base 4-2-3-1 structure with Cavani up top; Neymar, Draxler/Ben Arfa, and Di Maria/Moura as the attacking midfield trio with a three-man rotation of Blaise Matuidi, Thiago Motta and Adrien Rabiot manning the two defensive midfield spots. This allows Neymar and whoever is playing opposite him to cut inside with the ball while using the fullbacks as the wide players responsible for crossing it to Cavani. It also allows them to widen into more of a 4-3-3 look, which takes advantage of the fact that Di Maria is one of the game’s better traditional wingers and can really whip a cross inside the box.

PSG 4-2-3-1

What PSG may find to be the biggest issue with this look is that unless Neymar turns into another Cristiano Ronaldo, his scoring chances could come in more limited quantity than everyone at PSG would like. You don’t pay that kind of money for a player if you’re not expecting him to score bucketloads of goals for you.

PSG could also do the trendy thing and put their big-money purchase in a more central role, like the number 10 spot. Draxler has played on the left wing before and could assume such a role while Neymar plays behind the striker. There are two problems with this idea, however. First, Neymar is unproven playing in the centre. Second, putting him there likely means you’re going to ask the striker to play with his back to goal often and play the ball backwards to the number 10 having created some space for him to work with. This role is both not Cavani’s specialty and a severe waste of his goal-scoring talents.

Emery, if PSG keeps him long enough, is one of the game’s most respected tacticians and I wouldn’t put it past him to put together strategies that make this collection of spectacular individual talents work together. However, there is no way I can see to avoid having several of these players make serious compromises on their preferred style of play. Soccer history suggests that strong personalities like Di Maria, Draxler and Ben Arfa won’t agree to it for long, especially if they get the justified feeling that the entire show is about Neymar. Add him to the current PSG squad and it has the potential to turn into a dysfunctional mess.

Paper games

The mere act of getting Neymar to Paris would be a symbolic and financial victory for PSG’s Qatari owners. He’ll sell shirts like nobody’s business, put bums in seats and be the talk of the town. And PSG will have established itself as a European powerhouse, having acquired a player who was, for just about any other team, impossible to acquire. When QSI bought PSG, new team president Nasser Al-Khelaïfi said his plan was to turn the club into a worldwide brand like the New York Yankees or the Los Angeles Lakers. From a prestige angle, acquiring Neymar would mean success in this entreprise.

However, from a footballing standpoint, even though the Santos product is a remarkable talent, this is a huge gamble for the Paris club if he does end up coming. The price tag alone means that anything less than reaching the level of aliens Ronaldo and Messi will be deemed a failure. And even if he does reach that level, it doesn’t guarantee them the Champions’ League any more than it is guaranteed to them right now. With Neymar, they probably wouldn’t let Barcelona come back from four goals down, but would they now be favourites to beat Barcelona? Or Real Madrid? Or Bayern Munich? Or Chelsea? Or Manchester City? I don’t know that they would be. They certainly would have a fair chance, but it’s not a lock.

There’s no denying the excitement that would follow Neymar to the French capital, and they would certainly make it as Hollywood as possible. PSG would be the uncontested winner of the offseason. However, as for the on-the-field product, I’ll believe it when I see it. So far, each one of their failures has given way to the same knee-jerk reaction: “We need more superstars! Let’s fire the coach and sign some more!” Should PSG fail to provide Neymar with the right support structure, both in terms of supporting cast and tactics, it’s likely that €222 m later, the offseason is still the only thing they end up winning.

 

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St-Jean: tollé au défilé

Le fait de travailler au Rockfest à Montebello pendant une fin de semaine est un moment particulier pour moi parce que c’est l’une des rares périodes de l’année où je suis coupé du monde pendant trois jours. Pas de journaux, pas d’internet et, par conséquent, pas de médias sociaux. À mon retour, je constate que nous sommes dans une sorte d’après-tollé au sujet d’un élément controversé du défilé de la St-Jean à Montréal. Le défilé, pour ceux qui étaient dans la même situation que moi ou qui ont passé du temps en vacances dans une caverne, comprenait Annie Villeneuve, chanteuse blanche, qui chantait sur un chariot poussé par de jeunes joueurs de football noirs vêtus d’habits beiges. L’image en a choqué plusieurs.

Les diverses discussions qui ont suivi sont typiques de 2017. À en croire ceux qui étaient là, ce fut un véritable bombardement sur les médias sociaux (je le dis ainsi parce qu’encore une fois, je n’y étais pas). Ensuite, après qu’une partie de la poussière soit retombée, on voit deux points de vue ressortir. D’un côté, nous avons ceux qui persistent à dire que le tout était problématique. De l’autre, nous avons ceux qui présentent l’affaire comme une tempête dans un verre d’eau symptomatique de notre époque, où les réseaux sociaux servent de foutoir à premières impressions irréfléchies.

Une mise au point s’impose, je crois. Sommes-nous en présence d’une tempête dans un verre d’eau? Non, ou du moins, pas complètement.

Qu’on utilise le bon vieux dicton voulant que le chemin de l’enfer est pavé de bonnes intentions ou qu’on dise simplement que la valeur d’une action doit être évaluée non seulement en fontion de l’intention initiale mais aussi de son impact, il n’en demeure pas moins que le résultat n’était pas reluisant. On attache peut-être trop d’importance aux symboles, mais reste que celui-là était fort. Je réitère ce que bien d’autres ont déjà dit: personne n’accuse les organisateurs d’être racistes. Par contre, l’examen de l’intention, que Mario Girard de La Presse décrit de façon un peu simpliste comme le fait “d’aller au fond des choses”, ne saurait complètement exonérer les organisateurs de ce qui s’est passé.

Je pense que Stéphane Morneau, auteur du billet paru dans Urbania, a raison lorsqu’il écrit ceci:

Les bonnes idées et les bonnes intentions, ici, n’ont pas empêché la projection d’une image problématique qui aurait dû être détectée avant le départ de la parade. Ça ne prenait qu’un regard alerte, une personne compatissante, pour que ce char allégorique ne prenne pas le clos dès sa première apparition.

Bien sûr que l’intention noble rend la chose moins grave; notre réaction collective n’aurait pas été la même, j’ose l’espérer, si le but avoué de cet élément du défilé avait été de faire pousser le chariot d’une blanche par des noirs. Cependant, scrutez attentivement la réponse des organisateurs par le biais de leur fil Facebook:

[Mise au point] Un court extrait du Défilé de la Fête nationale qui circule présentement sur les médias sociaux a choqué plusieurs personnes. Nous en sommes profondément désolés. Nous tenons cependant à faire cette mise au point : puisque notre Défilé se veut écoresponsable, tous les chars allégoriques sont poussés par des citoyens plutôt que d’être motorisés.

Cette année, nous avons fait appel à l’Association pour la persévérance scolaire et aux jeunes de l’équipe sportive de l’École secondaire Louis-Joseph-Papineau pour relever ce défi.

Il va de soi que ces jeunes – qui étaient fiers de participer à l’événement – n’ont pas été choisis en fonction de la couleur de leur peau.

Ce n’est pas, contrairement à ce qu’affirme erronément Morneau, un rejet total de la faute. Reste que j’aurais apprécié, et je pense ne pas être le seul, que les excuses aient été faites un peu moins par la bande. Je proposerais ici quelque chose d’aussi banal que de mettre les mêmes informations, mais de finir avec ceci: “Cependant, nous comprenons que l’image projetée puisse avoir choqué certaines personnes et nous nous en excusons.”

C’est con, hein? Mais je pense que cela aurait nettement moins donné l’impression que les organisateurs refusent la responsabilité pour ce que nous avons vu lors du défilé. Je mets l’accent sur le mot “organisateurs” parce que, quand Mario Girard nous parle du fait que les concepteurs de costumes n’auraient jamais pu prévoir que les jeunes qui pousseraient le chariot seraient noirs, c’est vrai, mais quel rapport? Personne ne fait de reproches aux costumiers.

Il serait bien, en revanche, de cesser les comparaisons entre cet incident et le “blackface” de Mario Jean d’il y a quelques années. Peut-on s’entendre sur le fait que le blackface est une caricature des noirs reconnue à juste titre comme méprisante, méprisable et dégueulasse depuis maintenant assez longtemps? Si oui, on pourra également s’entendre sur le fait qu’il n’y a aucune comparaison possible entre l’un des grands symboles racistes de tous les temps et une erreur un peu maladroite dans l’organisation d’un défilé.

Au final, je critique surtout la forme des excuses, qui, en donnant l’impression qu’on les enterrait sous le renchérissement à propos de l’intention de mettre de l’avant la diversité québécoise, rajoutaient une maladresse à celle qui avait déjà été commise.

Les fameux réseaux sociaux

Il y a cependant un aspect de cette polémique qui devrait quand même nous faire réfléchir. Je parle bien sûr de notre usage collectif, souvent stupide et par moments carrément irresponsable, des médias sociaux. Ces derniers sont effectivement devenus l’ultime univers de non-responsabilité, l’équivalent intellectuel d’un “punching bag”, le parfait réceptacle à venin des gens qui carburent à la complainte et à l’indignation. Ces gens-là sont en partie responsables du fait que plusieurs ne voient dans cette polémique qu’une tempête dans un verre d’eau.

J’en reviens toujours à la fable du Garçon qui criait au loup. À la fin de l’histoire, le loup se pointe effectivement le bout du nez et, pour des raisons évidentes, personne n’accourt à ce moment-là pour sauver le garçon. Sachez donc que si vous avez trouvé ladite section du défilé problématique et que vous êtes déçu de voir que certains croient qu’il n’y a rien là, vous pouvez remercier ces milliers de morons qui vomissent tellement de conneries sur les médias sociaux qu’ils ont rendu plusieurs d’entre nous complètement blasés par rapport à toute plainte, légitime ou pas, qui part de Facebook, Twitter et al.

Si le tollé au défilé peut en faire réfléchir certains sur leur usage frivole des médias sociaux, il n’y aura pas eu que du négatif dans cette histoire. Mais j’en doute.

Le livre le plus important de 2017

Il est peut-être trop tôt pour annoncer le retour de la tyrannie en Occident, mais il est désormais approprié de déclarer ce retour possible. Moins de 30 ans après la chute du Mur de Berlin, nous avons suffisamment négligé notre rapport à l’histoire pour rétablir les conditions favorables à l’ascension au pouvoir d’un démagogue qui transformerait un pays tel que les États-Unis en dictature.

Si vous trouvez que cette idée relève de l’hyperbole, le professeur Timothy Snyder, historien à l’Université Yale, est en désaccord avec vous. Son livre “On Tyranny: Twenty lessons from the Twentieth Century”, publié récemment et, malheureusement, à l’heure actuelle, seulement en anglais, est à la fois captivant et terrifiant. C’est également le livre le plus important que j’ai lu, et que je m’attends à lire, en 2017. Aucun étudiant du secondaire ne devrait pouvoir diplômer sans l’avoir lu et sans en montrer une compréhension suffisante.

On Tyranny

Il n’existe pas d’excuse valable pour ne pas le lire. Je l’ai terminé en approximativement 90 minutes. C’est une petite perle de clarté et de concision qui soutient que l’Occident (notamment les États-Unis) est plus vulnérable à un virage autoritaire qu’à n’importe quel moment depuis, au bas mot, la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Le livre force le lecteur à confronter le problème et donne des pistes de solutions (de là les 20 leçons) pour neutraliser les dictateurs en devenir. Voici, en résumé, la thèse principale de Snyder (ma traduction):

Tant le fascisme que le communisme étaient des réactions à la mondialisation: aux difficultés réelles et perçues qu’elle créait, et à l’incapacité apparente des démocraties à les régler. […] Nous pourrions croire que notre patrimoine démocratique nous protège automatiquement de pareilles menaces. C’est là un réflexe mal inspiré. […] Les Américains d’aujourd’hui ne sont pas plus sages que les Européens qui ont vu leur démocratie succomber aux mains du fascisme, du Nazisme ou du communisme au XXème siècle. Notre seul avantage est celui de pouvoir apprendre de leur expérience.

Snyder ne le dit jamais ouvertement, mais le lecteur détecte rapidement que l’auteur craint que l’Amérique ne se soit rapprochée de l’autoritarisme en élisant Donald Trump comme président. Snyder ne nomme jamais Trump, mais il fait allusion au nouveau président américain à de nombreuses reprises. Il ne dit pas tant que Trump est le nouvel Hitler, mais nous illustre que le modus operandi du président rejoint constamment celui des dictateurs du XXème siècle.

Étant donné la tendance de Trump à balancer les accusations de “fake news” comme si elles menaçaient de passer de mode et le concept loufoque des “faits alternatifs” d’une Kellyanne Conway complètement à la rue, la 10ème leçon, intitulée “Croyez en la vérité”, semble être une flèche lancée directement vers Trump et son administration. Que cela soit ou non le cas, la justification de Snyder quant à l’importance de croire à la vérité est à la fois cruciale et superbement exprimée:

Abandonner les faits, c’est abandonner la liberté. Si rien n’est vrai, personne ne peut critiquer le pouvoir, car il n’y a aucun cadre à partir duquel le faire. Si rien n’est vrai, tout est spectacle. Le plus gros portefeuille se paie les lumières les plus aveuglantes.

Cela vous rappelle-t-il quelque chose?

Parmi les solutions proposées, Snyder en fait une qui me parle beaucoup et qui me réchauffe le coeur. Je lui suis reconnaissant de son appel à défendre le journalisme, cette profession mal-aimée pour laquelle je suis formé. Les journalistes ne sont pas parfaits, mais leur travail est difficile, encore davantage, voire impossible, sous un régime dictatorial. Comme le souligne Snyder lors de son entretien avec le philosophe Sam Harris, les journalistes, particulièrement dans le domaine de la presse écrite, talonnent bien Trump depuis qu’ils ont réalisé l’importance de le prendre au sérieux. Le moins que nous puissions faire pour montrer que nous apprécions leur travail est de les soutenir, non pas seulement en les lisant, mais en s’abonnant aux publications pour lesquelles ils écrivent. Amen.

De plus, la première leçon de l’auteur, et possiblement sa plus angoissante (car, dit-il, à défaut de l’appliquer, les 19 autres n’auront aucun sens), est celle de résister à une tentation à laquelle nous incite chaque jour la société: celle d’obéir à l’avance. La plupart du temps, observe Snyder, le pouvoir n’est pas saisi par les dictateurs; il leur est octroyé. (Le terrifiant exemple de la Turquie, qui s’est récemment transformée en dictature par voie de référendum, me vient à l’esprit alors que j’écris ces lignes.) Les dictateurs profitent, voire dépendent, de la docilité instinctive des gens, ce qui est préoccupant compte tenu de la propension à la complaisance de la Génération 2000 pour autant qu’on lui promettre une vie confortable et un écran quelconque. (Nous vivons à une époque où un professeur d’anglais s’est fait reprocher de donner comme lecture 1984, de George Orwell, à ses élèves. Les étudiants ont dit qu’ils n’en “avaient rien à foutre” du contrôle social tant qu’ils vivaient confortablement. Voilà qui représente un échec parental catastrophique, mais je m’éloigne du sujet.)

Une leçon du XXIème siècle

Stephen Colbert avait une sage pensée à partager le soir de l’élection de Trump:

Alors, comment notre politique s’est-elle autant envenimée? Je crois que c’est parce que nous avons fait une surdose. Nous avons trop bu du poison. On en prend un peu pour haïr ceux qui ne sont pas d’accord avec nous (“the other side”). Et ça goûte plutôt bon. Et on aime comment on se sent. Et il y a un petit “high” qui vient avec le fait de condamner, n’est-ce pas? Et on sait qu’on a raison, n’est-ce pas? On sait qu’on a raison!

En observant mon entourage, j’aimerais proposer, comme addendum, une leçon initiale issue du XXIème siècle: ne fais pas l’erreur de croire que ceux dont les valeurs diffèrent des tiennes ont le monopole du fanatisme politique et des pulsions liberticides. J’affirmerais qu’Internet, censé démocratiser toutes sortes d’information, a été un cancer pour la qualité du discours politique en Occident. On critiquera les médias de masse avec raison, mais leur obsession à vouloir présenter chaque point de vue, même s’ils n’ont pas toujours la même valeur, a pour bénéfice d’exposer les gens à la perspective de ceux avec qui ils sont en désaccord.

À l’époque actuelle, alors que n’importe qui possédant un ordinateur et une connection internet peut se créer gratuitement un blogue, le monde “en ligne” est devenu le théâtre de chambres de résonance où des gens qui partagent les mêmes croyances alimentent leur propre offusquement devant l’indécence et la stupidité de ceux qui pensent différemment. Ce n’est pas ainsi que nous parviendrons à mener une discussion collective intelligente à propos de l’avenir de la liberté et de la prospérité. Le résultat est plutôt que les gens se construisent un univers où ils n’ont pas seulement droit à leurs propres opinions, mais à leurs propres faits. Vu notre tendance à préférer la compagnie de ceux avec qui nous sommes d’accord, les gens deviennent de moins en moins habitués à ce que leurs idées soient remises en question et de plus en plus immatures lorsque cela se produit.

En soi, cela est déjà un problème, qui est subséquemment exacerbé par la détestable tendance, partagée par l’extrême gauche et l’extrême droite, de s’adonner à cette pratique tout en se faisant croire que seul l’autre côté s’en rend coupable. L’extrême gauche, animée par un désir généreux de protéger les sections les plus vulnérables de la population, tend à voir des -istes et des -phobes partout et, lorsqu’elle se fait reprocher cette vilaine habitude, accuse les auteurs dudit reproche de revendiquer un droit à l’intolérance. Bien que plusieurs critiques de l’extrême gauche soient effectivement intolérants, plusieurs autres proviennent de la gauche modérée et ne méritent pas qu’on les associe aux véritables racistes et homophobes d’extrême droite.

Parlant de l’extrême droite, il lui arrive souvent, à cause de sa propension à tourner en dérision les préoccupations de la gauche, de décerner auxgens de gauche le titre de “police du politiquement correct” ou de “social justice warriors” (ce terme est très commun dans les milieux anglophones, mais n’a pas de réel équivalent en français). Encore une fois, rien de productif n’émane de ce genre de rhétorique. S’il est vrai que certains membres de l’extrême gauche poussent la rectitude politique à (pardonnez-moi) l’extrême, il n’en demeure pas moins qu’on recense un nombre beaucoup trop élevé d’individus vulnérables qui subissent réellement de l’injustice et de l’intolérance et que le fait de les aider est une entreprise louable.

Que nos valeurs nous situent à droite ou à gauche, il est intellectuellement déficient de ridiculiser ou de discréditer ses adversaires politiques en leur associant des surnoms sarcastiques ou des épithètes apeurants pour éviter l’exercice d’écouter et de réfuter leurs arguments.

Avec le temps, ceux qui tombent dans pareil piège en viennent à se considérer comme ennemis plutôt qu’adversaires et comme dangereux plutôt que simplement dans l’erreur. Cette distinction importe parce que l’hostilité qui accompagne le fait de voir ainsi son adversaire empêche la conversation plutôt que la favoriser. Au bout du compte, lorsque le candidat réellement fasciste/communiste arrivera, un côté sera si heureux qu’il soit de gauche/de droite que ses membres ne verront pas la face cachée de ce nouveau leader charismatique avant qu’il ne soit trop tard. Entre temps, l’autre côté aura tellement miné sa crédibilité que la population fera la sourde oreille devant ses avertissements. Nous devrions en fait réitérer que notre engagement envers nos valeurs communes telles que la liberté transcende nos désaccords sur la taille idéale de l’état-providence ou sur la manière appropriée de traiter nos minorités. Nous ne pouvons nous permettre que la gauche et la droite soient deux factions qui crient “au loup!” dès que l’autre s’exprime. Parce qu’à la fin du Garçon qui criait “Au loup!”, le loup débarque pour vrai.

Un rappel dégrisant 

Nous payons le prix, a dit Snyder lors de sa conversation avec Harris, du fait d’avoir élevé une génération en pensant que l’histoire était terminée. Cette idée réfère à la proclamation célèbrement optimiste de Francis Fukuyama à l’effet que la chute du Mur de Berlin représentait “la fin de l’Histoire”, c’est-à-dire la fin de la confrontation entre différentes idéologies pour atteindre une certaine forme de suprématie. Grosso modo, Fukuyame voulait dire qu’avec la chute du communisme, la démocratie et le capitalisme étaient destinés à gouverner le monde de manière pratiquement incontestée. Peu après, nous découvrions qu’il avait tort; Fukuyama lui-même s’est rétracté mais, selon Snyder, la génération qui approche l’âge adulte a été élevée comme si Fukuyama avait eu raison. Le résultat, dit l’historien, est que les enfants de l’an 2000 n’ont pas vraiment appris l’histoire, et encore moins ses leçons. Lorsque combiné à leur docilité peu commune, qui émane souvent d’un hédonisme complaisant, leur manque de culture historique les rend plus vulnérables non pas à succomber à l’autoritarisme, mais à l’accueillir.

Voilà qui devrait nous ramener à l’important poème de Michael Rosen… (La traduction est de moi. Navré pour ceux à qui elle déplaira.)

Je crains parfois que

les gens croient que le fascisme arrive en chic uniforme

porté par grotesques et monstres

à l’image des interminables récits historiques sur les Nazis.

Le fascisme se présente comme ton ami.

Il restorera ton honneur,

te rendra fier,

protégera ta maison,

te trouvera un emploi,

assainira le voisinage,

te rappelera ta grandeur d’antan,

purgera les vénaux et les corrompus,

éliminera tout ce qui te semble étranger…

Il n’arrive pas en disant…

“Notre programme veut dire les milices, les emprisonnements de masse,

la déportation, la guerre et la persécution.”

Tout ceux d’entre nous qui ont, de quelque manière que ce soit, de jeunes gens à leur charge devraient rappeler à leurs élèves ainsi qu’à eux-mêmes ces vers, de même que le contenu du livre de Snyder, pendant que cela est encore possible. Si cela est encore possible.

The most important book of 2017

It may be too early to state that tyranny has returned in the West, but we can now safely say that it could. A mere three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have sufficiently neglected history to reestablish the conditions under which the right demagogue could seize power in a Western country such as the United States and turn it into a dictatorship.

If you think I’m being hyperbolic, Yale professor and historian Timothy Snyder disagrees with you. Snyder’s recently published book, “On Tyranny: Twenty lessons from the Twentieth Century,” is both harrowing and terrifying. It is also the most important book I’ve read, and expect to read, in 2017. No high school student should be allowed to graduate without having read it and demonstrated a sufficient understanding of it.

On Tyranny

You have no excuse. I read it from cover to cover in about 90 minutes. It is a clear, concise little book that compellingly argues the West (and more specifically the U.S.) is more ripe today for a tyrannical takeover than it has been at any moment since – at least – the Second World War. The book is constructed in a way that forces the reader to diagnose the problem and it suggests steps (hence the 20 lessons) to stop wannabe dictators in their tracks. In a nutshell, here is Snyder enunciating the thesis of the book:

Both fascism and communism were responses to globalization: to the real and perceived inequalities it created, and the apparent helplessness of the democracies in addressing them. […] We might think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats. This is a misguided reflex. […] Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.

Snyder never says it outright, but one only has to read a few pages of the book to realize the author fears the U.S. has moved closer to a dictatorship by electing Donald Trump as President. Snyder never mentions him by name, but references him several times. It’s not that he says outright that Trump is the new Hitler, but shows us that Trump is resorting to the 20th century dictator playbook constantly.

Given Trump’s tendency to throw “fake news” accusations around as if they were going out of style, and Kellyanne Conway’s goofy concept of alternative facts, lesson number 10, entitled “Believe in truth,” seems like a deliberate jab at Trump and his administration. Whether or not it is, however, the reason for Snyder’s emphasis on believing in truth is both crucial and beautifully put:

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then everything is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

Does any of this ring a bell?

As a part of his tips for keeping tyranny away, Snyder makes several suggestions that rang close to home for me and warmed my heart. I was especially grateful for his call to defend journalism, the always much-maligned profession for which I was trained. Journalists are not perfect, but theirs is a difficult job, made harder if not impossible by any dictator, and as Snyder pointed out in his conversation with the great Sam Harris, journalists, especially in the print medium, have done a quality job holding Trump’s feet to the fire. The least we can do in return to show our appreciation for their work is to support them, not just by reading them, but by subscribing to the publications they work for. Amen.

Moreover, the Yale historian’s first lesson, and perhaps his most stressful (because, he says, if you don’t heed it, none of the other 19 will make sense to you) is to resist an urge society urges us to develop: to obey in advance. Most of authoritarianism’s power is not taken, Snyder observes. It is given. (The terrifying example of Turkey recently turning itself into a dictatorship via referendum comes to mind as I write this.) Dictatorships thrive on people’s instinctive docility, which is worrisome considering Generation Y2K’s propensity for apathy provided you promise them a nice living and sedate with some kind of computer screen. (We live in a time when a Quebec English teacher was chastised by his students for requiring them to read George Orwell’s 1984. The students said they didn’t care about social control so long as they could live comfortably. This represents a catastrophic failure in parenting. But I digress.)

A lesson from the 21st Century

Stephen Colbert had some wise words on the night of Donald Trump’s election:

So how did our politics get so poisonous? I think it’s because we overdosed, especially this year. We drank too much of the poison. You take a little bit of it so you can hate the other side. And it tastes kind of good. And you like how it feels. And there’s a gentle high to the condemnation, right? And you know you’re right, right?! You know you’re right!

Observing my own surroundings, I would like to propose, as an addendum, an initial lesson from the 21st Century: “Do not make the mistake of thinking ‘the other side’ has a monopoly on political fanaticism or on liberticidal impulses.” I would argue the internet, which was supposed to democratize all sorts of information, has been a cancer to the quality of political discussion throughout the West. Say what you will about the mainstream media, but its obsession over giving people “both sides of the story,” even when the two sides don’t have equal merit, has the benefit of forcing people to at least hear out the point of view of those with whom they disagree.

In our current age, when everyone with a laptop and an internet connection can set up a blog, the online world has become the home of echo chambers in which like-minded people wind each other up about the indecency and the stupidity of those who think differently. This is no way to foster an intelligent collective discussion about the future of liberty and prosperity. Instead, people build a universe in which they are entitled not just to their own opinions, but to their own facts. And because of our tendency to prefer the company of those with whom we agree, people have become decreasingly accustomed to having their ideas challenged and thus increasingly immature in their reactions when their views are indeed questioned.

This is in and of itself a problem, but it’s made worse by the fact that both the extreme left and extreme right do it, yet treat it as something only the other side does. The extreme left, out of a kind-hearted desire to protect vulnerable sections of the population, tends to see -ists and -phobes everywhere and, when they are called out on this nasty habit, accuse their critics of demanding the right to be intolerant. While some of the extreme left’s critics are guilty of this, many others come from the moderate left and do not deserve to be lumped into the same boat as the true racists and homophobes of the extreme right.

Speaking of the extreme right, it often, out of some naive belief that it has a monopoly on the ability to grasp reality, will sarcastically tag members of the left as the “PC police” or as “social justice warriors.” Again, while the extreme left does have members who take political correctness to, well, the extreme, there are indeed vulnerable individuals who are in fact victims of injustice and intolerance, and there is no way around the fact that defending these people is a legitimate enterprise.

Nothing productive comes of these trials of intent. Whether our beliefs place us more on the right or on the left of the political spectrum, we should remember that it is intellectually deficient to dismiss our political opponents with sarcastic nicknames or scary epithets in order to avoid grappling with their views as opposed to actually hearing them out and refuting them.

In time, these people come to see each other as enemies rather than opponents, and as dangerous rather than simply wrong. The distinction matters because the ensuing hostility is a conversation stopper as opposed to a conversation starter. In the end, when the proper enemy actually comes, one side will be so glad to have him/her because he/she seems to agree with them that they’ll be unable to see through this new charismatic leader before it’s too late. Meanwhile, the other side will have exhausted its credibility and its warnings will fall on deaf ears. We should instead reiterate that our commitment to core values like liberty transcends our disagreements over what we deem to be the ideal size of the welfare state or the proper way to treat minorities. We cannot afford to have two factions screaming “Wolf!” about each other. Because, at the end of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, the wolf actually does come.

A sobering reminder

We are, Snyder said in his conversation with Harris on the latter’s podcast, paying the price of raising a generation under the belief that History has ended. This is in reference to Francis Fukuyama’s famously optimistic proclamation about the fall of the Berlin Wall being “the end of History,” i.e. the end of conflicting ideologies competing for some kind of supremacy. It basically meant that, according to Fukuyama, democracy and capitalism were now to govern the world mostly uncontested. Soon after, we found out he was wrong; Fukuyama himself retracted his statement but, according to Snyder, the generation approaching adulthood has been raised as if Fukuyama was right. The result, he says, is that Y2K kids haven’t really learned history, much less its lessons. Combined with their uncommon docility, which often stems from hedonism, their lack of historical culture makes them more vulnerable not so much to succumb to authoritarianism, but to welcome it.

This should all lead us back to the wise words of the poet Michael Rosen…

I sometimes fear that

people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress

worn by grotesques and monsters

as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis.

Fascism arrives as your friend.

It will restore your honour,

make you feel proud,

protect your house,

give you a job,

clean up the neighbourhood,

remind you of how great you once were,

clear out the venal and the corrupt,

remove anything you feel is unlike you…

It doesn’t walk in saying…

“Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments,

transportation, war and persecution.”

All those of us who have, in any way, young people in our care should make sure we remind them as well as ourselves of these words, and of the contents of Snyder’s book while we still can. If we still can.

NFL Draft: Sending the Bears an email they don’t want to read

Yesterday gave a us a wild first round. This was yet another night that makes me ponder just how stupid it is for us to try to predict trades when we do mock drafts. The ones that end up happening are never the ones we expect and, yesterday, we didn’t have to wait long before the first crazy trade.

Anyone who knows me is well aware that I love picking apart bad drafting and bad free agent signings. Therefore, I along with most of the NFL audience, was taken off guard when the Bears gave up several picks to swap selections with the 49ers in order to draft this guy:

Mitch Trubisky

So, while I still wanted to write some form of recap, I didn’t want to do the standard winners/losers column. So I’m going to keep it short and send the Chicago Bears an email they really don’t want to read

To: Bears GM Ryan Pace and HC John Fox. 

From: Alexandre Turp

Hey guys, far be it from me to add to the shitstorm you’ve been taking from local and national media for giving up all these picks to grab Mitch Trubisky, but I’m afraid I must. So here’s my question: On a scale of one to ‘what-the-fuck-have-we-done,’ how badly are you freaking out that there are, if you really look at it, eerie similarities between your new QB and Blaine Gabbert?

Now, Mr. Pace, I know you’re sitting there thinking, “What the hell?! Trubisky’s gonna be so much better than that stiff!!” Hear me out.

Nobody starts off wanting to draft the kind of quarterback Gabbert has become, but hindsight is 20/20. We only hate this comparison because we now KNOW what Gabbert is at the NFL level. However, I can’t help but find they have several things in common. Physically, all the tools are there. It’s why they were drafted where they were. I liked the arm strength, the apparent ability to fit the ball in tight windows, the surprising mobility.

Also, they both come from spread offences with simple reads that have little to do with all they’ll be asked to do at the NFL level.

Moreover, there is, in the case of each one, something worrisome about their college resumé. Gabbert’s passing statistics were nothing to write home about, despite his playing in an offence that facilitated big numbers, while Trubisky has only started 13 college games.

Finally, their respective situation coming into the league is positively and similarly atrocious. Both desperately need their supposed number 1 receiver to come through. In Gabbert’s case, we already know that he didn’t, as Justin Blackmon chose to prioritize weed over playing football. And… Sorry, what’s that? … What do you mean, ‘Are you still bitter about this?’ Moving on, shall we?

In your case, you let Alshon Jeffery go in free agency. You drafted Kevin White two years ago but, unless he stays healthy and becomes what he supposed to be, you’ll give your new quarterback a supporting cast about as lackluster as the one Gabbert had in Jacksonville. Plus, if White has another season of quality time with your athletic therapists, you’ve now dealt away picks that would’ve been useful when it comes to surrounding Mitchy with some actual talent. At least, your offensive line is a bit better than the one Gabbert had in Jacksonville. Small victories, eh?

In other words, if you toss Trubisky in there after the first time Mike Glennon throws two picks, he won’t know what’s hit him, and you’ll feel the pain of his being a bust just like I’m still feeling each of the million sacks Gabbert took because he was afraid of throwing an interception.

So here I am, once again, making myself the bearer of bad news. I’m sorry about that. If it makes you feel any better, just remember that I’m just a bitter Jacksonville fan who’s trying to recover from the fact that Dalvin Cook, my favourite running back in the draft, the best running back in the draft, might be sitting there at 35 when my Jags pick in the second round, but that I won’t take him because I drafted Leonard Fournette yesterday despite having no O-Line to block for him.

Peace out, guys,

AT

 

2017 Mock Draft

So the draft is this week. It will begin with a familiar sight: the Cleveland Browns own its first pick, which they are expected to use on Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett. They better do it. Garrett is widely considered to be the draft’s top prospect, the franchise pass rusher that comes once every few years. There is greater consensus on Garrett than there was, for example, on Jadaveon Clowney, whose pedestrian junior season at South Carolina gave many significant cause for concern.

Garrett is thickly-built, quick twitch, long, and athletic. He was a productive sack artist at A&M. Yet, questions persist. Why did so many of his 31 career sacks come against non-SEC competition? What are we to make of Warren Sapp’s comments that Garrett is a lazy disappearing act on tape and that he’s never taken over a game?

Well, let’s look at Sapp’s comments. I love Sapp. He is, for my money, the greatest defensive tackle ever to play the game. However, his comments should be taken with a grain of salt. First off, as far as taking a game over, I would direct him to the Arkansas game from this year as an example of a time when Garrett came mighty close. I would also expect it of Sapp of all people to remember that defensive linemen don’t have to make the play to impact the game. The sheer amount of attention Garrett received from offences was intense, and it freed up some of his teammates to make plays. Sapp was double-teamed and triple-teamed enough throughout his career to understand that, when offences go out of their way to take a D-lineman out of a game, they will. When that happens, the other guys have to win the favourable matchups they are left with.

We also must remember that players coming out of college are not finished products. As far as NFL production goes, Sapp set lofty standards which I hope he doesn’t project on rookies entering the league. Let’s take Clowney as an example. Everyone remembers the giant TFL-fumble against Michigan, but he never took over games at South Carolina the way he owned that first half against the Pats in the playoffs or the regular season game against the Raiders. It’s the nature of the game. Players improve. Still, Garrett has already shown impressive gifts, and should become even more consistent once he gets acclimated to the NFL game. He’s not perfect, but he should be the number one pick.

Then, there is, as is the case with every draft, the discussion about quarterbacks. For most of the offseason, the first round QB discussion involves Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, and Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer. Each has enticing qualities and scary flaws. Watson is the winner who comes from a Run-Pass Option-heavy, one-read offence whose arm strength and zip are good, but not great. Trubisky has better arm talent, and has made NFL throws, but he’s a one-year wonder who also comes from an up-tempo spread offence that didn’t require the QB to read an entire defence. Kizer might have the most physical upside of the three, but he probably needed another year in school after his brutally inconsistent 2016 season. In recent weeks, we’ve seen a wild card enter the race: Texas Tech Patrick Mahomes. He has a cannon arm, but seems to play backyard football all the time, has shown maddening inconsistency and comes from a system that does not have a history of producing good pros at the quarterback position.

Who goes where is anybody’s guess. Trubisky would seem to have the most people excited, but a lot of coaches will value Watson’s record as a starter in college. I have no earthly idea what’s going to happen, but I’ll try to predict it just the same.

  1. Cleveland Browns: Myles Garrett, Defensive End, Texas A&M: This doesn’t have to be hard. Cleveland has a talent-bereft roster and is switching to a 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, a scheme which requires a franchise defensive end. Garrett is that guy. Cleveland, please… Don’t outsmart yourselves. Pick the man, already
  2. San Francisco 49ers: Jamal Adams, Safety, LSU: The 49ers have a poorly-constructed roster, and they could go in several different directions. However, their new GM is a former strong safety, they need a strong safety, and if they trust new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to make a versatile strong safety into one of the cornerstones of their defence, Adams makes sense here.
  3. Chicago Bears: Solomon Thomas, Defensive End: Mitch Unrein and Akiem Hicks are serviceable starters as 4-i’s in Chicago’s 3-4, but Thomas gives them a potential elite starter at a position with which defensive coordinators can really get creative. Thomas could be a playmaker who lines up all over the line for Chicago.
  4. Jacksonville Jaguars: Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: The Jags’ running game was terrible last season, and it’s clear there isn’t a top-tier back on the roster at the moment. If the additions on the offensive line improve a unit that’s been stinking out the joint for a long time, Fournette could be a catalyst for dramatic offensive improvement for the Jags.
  5. Cleveland Browns (Trade with Tennessee): Mitch Trubisky, Quarterback, North Carolina: Cleveland needs a quarterback, and if they’ve set their mind on Trubisky, they can’t afford seeing him go to the Jets or to a team that vaults ahead of Cleveland at 12 to grab him. The Browns have the draft capital to afford this trade, so they pull the trigger.
  6. New York Jets: OJ Howard, Tight end, Alabama: Eventually, you’re going to get a franchise QB in there. However, before you do, you have to make sure he won’t be the victim of a poor supporting cast. Besides, tight ends make for good security blankets for lesser QBs. Howard is one of the best prospects to come out in years at the tight end position.
  7. Los Angeles Chargers: Malik Hooker, Safety, Ohio State: This is among the no-brainers of this draft. The Chargers’ new defensive coordinator is Gus Bradley, who comes from the Seattle coaching tree. If Bradley is to bring the cover 3 base defence he’s played in Seattle and Jacksonville, he needs a rangy centre fielder type at free safety. Hooker fits the bill.
  8. Carolina Panthers: Marshon Lattimore, Cornerback, Ohio State: Logic would suggest the Panthers would go with offence, but Ron Rivera has never seen a defensive stud he didn’t want to pick. Moreover, he never expected to find Lattimore available here. Hey, you can get good RBs in the third round, right?
  9. Cincinnati Bengals: Reuben Foster, Linebacker, Alabama: The Bengals might need an edge rusher more, but their linebacking corps is severely lacking in speed. Foster is a great athlete whose attitude fits with the Bengals’ – ahem! – aggressive mentality.
  10. Buffalo Bills: Mike Williams, Wide Receiver, Clemson: As average as Robert Woods was, he needs to be replaced. Your quarterback is Tyrod Taylor, whose accuracy as about as variable as a bad umpire’s strikezone. Thus, it makes sense to add a big receiver with a large catch radius.
  11. New Orleans Saints: Derek Barnett, Defensive End, Tennessee: Tell me if you’ve heard this before: The Saints need pass rushing reinforcements. Barnett, a polished pass rusher who can provide immediate help on that front, lands in Nawlins.
  12. Tennessee Titans (trade with Cleveland): John Ross, Wide Receiver, Washington: The Titans use their tight end really well, but their lack of talent at receiver hurt them last year. Ross adds, well, 4.22 speed. Need I say more?
  13. Arizona Cardinals: Jonathan Allen, Defensive End, Alabama: The Cardinals just lost Calais Campbell and need someone to play the 4-i opposite Robert Nkemdiche. Allen lands in the perfect system to make an early impact.
  14. Washington (Trade with Philadelphia): Christian McCaffrey, Running Back, Stanford: Washington likes McCaffrey’s star power, and he gives them a multi-dimensional threat of their currently atrocious backfield.
  15. Indianapolis Colts: Dalvin Cook, Running Back, Florida State:  The Colts have 92-year-old Frank Gore as their starting running back and the rest of their backfield is comprised of a “who’s who” of “who’s that.” Cook gives them a quintessential modern back and a terrific weapon for Andrew Luck.
  16. Baltimore Ravens: Charles Harris, Edge Rusher, Missouri: The Ravens have next to no help for Terrell Suggs at edge rusher, and Suggs is getting up there in age himself. Harris brings much-needed long-term help at the position.
  17. Philadelphia Eagles: Tre’Davious White, Cornerback, LSU: The Eagles badly need cornerback help, and they’re glad to find White still available despite their decision to trade down.
  18. Detroit Lions (Trade with Tennessee): Haason Reddick, Linebacker, Temple: Detroit’s front seven stinks. They could use help on the defensive line, but Reddick is their top-rated guy at this point, so they move up to start their front’s rebuilding job somewhere.
  19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Cam Robinson, Offensive Tackle, Alabama: I cannot wrap my mind around the idea that the Bucs are fine with that offensive line. Robinson makes too much sense here for the Bucs to skip on him.
  20. Denver Broncos: Ryan Ramczyk, Offensive Tackle, Wisconsin: Denver’s offensive line is one of those positions that seems as though it’s been bad since about the turn of the century. Ramczyk fits what they like to do and will help the left tackle spot look like less of a revolving door.
  21. Tennessee Titans (Trade with Detroit): Marlon Humphrey, Cornerback, Alabama: The Titans address their other position of need with Humphrey, a physical corner with the speed to keep up with fast receivers.
  22. Miami Dolphins: Forrest Lamp, Offensive Linemen, Western Kentucky: The Dolphins could use interior line help, and Lamp’s positional versatility gives him added value.
  23. New York Giants: David Njoku, Tight end, Miami (FL): The Giants haven’t had a game-breaking tight end since Jeremy Shockey. Add Njoku and his tremendous athletic ability to a receiving corps that includes Odell Beckham, Brandon Marshall, and Sterling Shepard, and Eli Manning is going to be running out of reasons to throw picks.
  24. New Orleans Saints (Trade with Oakland): Corey Davis, Wide Receiver, Western Michigan: Ted Ginn was a contributor for the Panthers in 2015, but you can’t make real projects around him. They cannot wait any longer and come up to snatch Davis, a complete receiver who’s slipping because of his inability to participate in combine testing.
  25. Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson, Quarterback, Clemson: Tom Savage is basically being tabbed as a starter because he looked good against the Jaguars. Faint praise. Picking a quarterback in this draft is a risky operation, but the Texans don’t want to see their window of opportunity as the rest of their division keeps getting better. Others quarterbacks might have better measurables, but Bill O’Brien decides he wants to pick a “winner.”
  26. Seattle Seahawks: Garrett Boles, Offensive Tackle, Utah: This one is fairly self-explanatory. Seattle’s offensive line stinks, and repeatedly puts Russell Wilson’s health in jeopardy. This is high for Boles, but the Hawks need the O-Line help this badly.
  27. Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes, Quarterback, Texas Tech: This is an ideal time for the Chiefs to draft a talented but raw quarterback like Mahomes. They have a really good team, and Alex Smith has a few years left. Mahomes happens to need those years to adjust to the pro game. The Texas Tech product also gives the Chiefs deep passing game options they don’t have with Smith, and has just enough mobility to run Andy Reid’s West Coast Offence.
  28. Dallas Cowboys: Taco Charlton, Defensive End, Michigan: Dallas hasn’t had a consistent pass rusher since Greg Hardy was disgracing its uniform. There are questions about Charlton, but he resembles Hardy very much as a player, and gives them similar possibilities.
  29. Chicago Bears (Trade with Green Bay): DeShone Kizer, Quarterback, Notre Dame: This is a mortifying risk, but the Bears don’t view Mike Glennon as a long-term solution, but at very worst, Kizer becomes a trading chip. More realistically, Kizer learns the pro game for a year or two, which he dearly needs. From then onward, he does have rare gifts. If this pays off, the Bears’ franchise will be in good shape.
  30. Pittsburgh Steelers: Takkarist McKinley, Edge Rusher, UCLA: Jarvis Jones has been a bust and has left the team. Bud Dupree is still developing and nobody exactly what he’ll amount to. Even if Dupree flourishes, however, James Harrison can’t be counted on long-term. McKinley has the non-stop motor the blue-collar Steelers like and he gives them long-term insurance rushing from the edge.
  31. Atlanta Falcons: Evan Ingram, Tight End, Ole Miss: The Falcons give Matt Ryan another weapon. Ingram, a move tight end who can be moved around, will give the Falcons a matchup nightmare against virtually every team in the league.
  32. Oakland Raiders (Trade with New Orleans): TJ Watt, Linebacker, Wisconsin: The Raiders drop down and get good value for this pick with Watt, a versatile linebacker whose multiple talents mesh well with a very flexible Oakland defensive front.

And just for fun, here’s the second round:

  1. (33) Cleveland: Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State
  2. (34) San Francisco: Adoree Jackson, CB, USC
  3. (35) Jacksonville: Dion Dawkins, OT, Temple
  4. (36) Green Bay (Trade with Chicago): Quincy Wilson, CB, Florida
  5. (37) LA Rams: Dan Feeney, G, Indiana
  6. (38) LA Chargers: Taylor Moton, OT, Western Michigan
  7. (39) New York Jets: Chidobe Awuzie, CB, Colorado
  8. (40) Carolina: Zay Jones, WR, East Carolina
  9. (41) Cincinnati: Jordan Willis, DE, Kansas State
  10. (42) New Orleans: Jarrad Davis, LB, Florida
  11. (43) Philadelphia: Alvin Kamara, RB, Tennessee
  12. (44) Buffalo: Jabrill Peppers, S, Michigan
  13. (45) Arizona: Juju Smith-Schuster, WR, USC
  14. (46) Indianapolis: Obi Melifonwu, S, UConn
  15. (47) Baltimore: Budda Baker, S, Washington
  16. (48) Minnesota: Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt
  17. (49) Washington: Kevin King, CB, Washington
  18. (50) Tampa Bay: Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
  19. (51) Denver: Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida
  20. (52) Tennessee (Trade with Cleveland): Demarcus Walker, DE, Florida State
  21. (53) Detroit: Dont’a Freeman, RB, Texas
  22. (54) Miami: Sidney Jones, CB, Washington
  23. (55) New York Giants: Antonio Garcia, OT, Troy
  24. (56) Oakland: Joe Mixon, RB, Oklahoma
  25. (57) Houston: Montravious Adams, NT, Auburn
  26. (58) Seattle: Fabian Moreau, CB, UCLA
  27. (59) Kansas City: Cooper Kupp, WR, Eastern Washington
  28. (60) Dallas: Cordrea Tankersley, CB, Clemson
  29. (61) Green Bay: Roderick Johnson, OT, Florida State
  30. (62) Pittsburgh: Curtis Samuel, WR/RB, Ohio State
  31. (63) Atlanta: Tim Williams, Edge, Alabama
  32. (64) Panthers: Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn

Browns and Texans break new ground in the NFL trade game

It’s official: Brock Osweiler is the anti-quarterback. So pitiful was his level of play last year after signing a four-year, $72 million contract with $37 million guaranteed that the Texans and Browns worked out a fairly ground-breaking trade.

There are a few draft picks involved but, basically, it amounts to this: Houston gave Cleveland a second-round pick in this year’s draft in exchange for the Browns taking on Osweiler’s gargantuan contract. In a way, this is a win-win for both parties. The Arizona State product’s $16 million salary for next season is fully guaranteed, but Cleveland doesn’t care. It has so much cap room that it can afford to absorb the cap hit from Osweiler’s release. (Cleveland will… ahem… attempt to trade Osweiler, and will release him if they can’t find any suitors. Now that’s what I call leverage!) The Browns don’t care for or about Osweiler, which given their QB situation, is sadly revealing about the extent to which the Oz has turned off the rest of the NFL with his 2016 performance. What Cleveland really wanted was that second-round pick, and they basically got it for free, given that they have more cap room than they could possibly hope to use on free agents and draft picks.

Denver Broncos vs. Houston Texans, NFL Week 7

Meanwhile, Houston gains significant cap flexibility and probably can make a move for Tony Romo without having to convince him to play for a discount (which Denver will have to do). Injury-prone or not, the soon-to-be former Cowboy will command top dollar in a league where Mike Glennon can make $15 million for a team that willingly released Jay Cutler.

Houston’s new-found cap room should now make them the favourite in the race to acquire Romo, unless he’s really hellbent on playing for Denver. The Broncos and Texans are remarkably similar: they have an interesting set of skill positions players but serious problems on the offensive line; they each have one of league’s two best defensive players anchoring a really good defensive unit; and they’ll both try to keep Romo’s contractual demands in check by arguing that they’re completely OK moving forward with the young quarterback they already have on their roster. To this argument, Romo’s people will correctly respond something along the lines of, “if that were completely true, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

If I’m Romo, the Texans have a slight edge for two reasons. First, they can afford to pay him better. Denver’s approach has been to present the opportunity to play for them as a favour, and to say that they’d welcome Romo if he’ll agree to play for a discount in exchange for a better shot at winning. But is it actually a better shot? Denver had run defence issues last year, and they missed the playoffs because they play in what was suddenly a brutally competitive AFC West, which reminds me… Second, the Texans play in the AFC South. The Colts have a lot of money tied up with quarterback Andrew Luck and a lot more owed to average starters they painfully overrated at the time when they signed them. The Titans showed promise last season, but still have to take that next step. Meanwhile, of course, the Jaguars are a complete dumpster fire, and represent two Ws on the schedule before the season even begins. All this to say that, for a healthy Romo, playing for the Texans is a much easier road to home-field advantage in the playoffs than running through the Oakland-L.A-KC gauntlet twice.

Of course, Romo is the last quarterback you want to have on a team with a subpar offensive line, and so Houston might find itself wishing it still had that second-round pick it giftwrapped for the Browns to convince them to take the Osweiler contract off their books. This sort of trade might also become a semi-regular occurrence in the NFL, but for now, the Texans look bad for having to compete with the team from which they “pried away” Brock Osweiler a year ago in order to acquire his replacement.


While we’re here, I wish to take a moment to make fun of the first two truly awful contracts of this year’s free agency period. What makes them even funnier is that they were both given away by the same team. I’m looking at you, Miami Dolphins!!!

Kenny Stills was their third wideout last year, and he caught a career-high nine touchdowns. If that was their justification for giving him a $32-million contract with 20 of these millions guaranteed, I’d like to offer my services to be their next general manager. Who do they think they have on their hands, here? Emmanuel Sanders? All the advanced stats suggest Stills is in line for a regression next year, and the Dolphins traded three picks during the 2016 draft to come up and select Rutgers’ Leonte Carroo in the second round. Have they already labelled Carroo a bust?

Now, they’ve frozenhim out of any playing time barring injuries, and they’ll pay DeSean Jackson money for Stills, who’s unlikely to give them an appreciable return on their investment. And their bad judgement doesn’t stop there.

With the catastrophic failure of Mario Williams, their marquee free agent defensive lineman from last season, the Phins made sure they wouldn’t lose defensive end Andre Branch, who posted an honest 5.5 sacks in rotational duty last season. To keep Branch, they gave him a three-year, $27 million contract, which seems like a terrific move if you’ve had a head injury.

Now, the exact figures of the contract have yet to come out, and so the less guaranteed money, the less risky the deal. However, we’re talking nine million per year, a comically large sum, for a player who was a bust for the Jaguars before posting decent-but-not-great statistics playing next to Hall-of-Fame talents Ndamokung Suh and Cameron Wake.

Moreover, if the Dolphins plan on making Branch a starter next season, they’ll be reminded that he’s brutally undersized when it comes to holding up against the run, and that having to do so may wear him down and make him less effective on his pass rush.

These moves truly make you question what kind of team Mike Tannenbaum thinks he has here. Yes, the Dolphins made the playoffs, but it wasn’t because they were extremely good. They got a wild card spot no one else seemed to want, and they did so by going a striking 8-2 in one-score games. Sure, because that’s happening again…

Whatever you do, Miami, please don’t change! You are an endless source of entertainment.

NFL Combine: Death of the workout warrior?

Everyone over the age of 10 can still remember at least one. Older NFL fans can still recall the meteoric post-Combine rise of defensive end Mike Mamula. Younger fans were probably old enough to witness the preposterous overdrafting of wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey by the Raiders. Jets’ fans still weep as they reminisce the virtual invisibility of edge rusher Vernon Gholston. There have been countless others over the years, but all these draft prospects of yore have in common is that they have earned the unflattering label of the “workout warrior.”

At first, the expression appears to carry a positive connotation. Of course, for an NFL draft prospect, there is nothing intrinsically bad about the ability to run 40 yards in a straight line really quickly; or about the strength to bench press 225 pounds many, many consecutive times; or about looking chiseled out of stone like a Greek God. Several prospects, who’ll turn out to be really good NFL players, will check all those boxes. However, the label isn’t meant for workout beasts who can actually play.

The workout warrior tag is reserved for players whose college resume doesn’t warrant a top pick, but whose workout numbers, at the Combine or at their Pro Day, allow them to be drafted much higher than they should be, and whose lack of actual football skill torpedoes their NFL career once they reach the pros. Bonus points go to workout warriors whose pedestrian college production should have been a red flag for NFL talent evaluators (often how it goes, come to think of it).

The olden days of workout warrior glory

Mike Mamula was the original workout warrior. Originally projected to be drafted in the third round (which would have been consistent with what eventually was his level of play in the NFL) in 1995, the Boston College product decided, along with his agent, to train exclusively to ace the landmark Combine drills, such as the 40, the bench press, the T-Test and the vertical leap. His reasoning made sense: “If that’s what I’m going to be evaluated on, then that’s what I need to prepare for.” Mamula blew scouts away. Carrying a 6-4, 248-pound frame, he ran a 4.58 4o, bench-pressed 225 pounds 28 times, and had a vertical jump of 38,5 inches. The Philadelphia Eagles started a trend of drafting workout wonders, and selected Mamula seventh overall.

Soon after, however, the flaws in the Eagles’ thinking were on full display, and everyone remembered why Mamula was rated as a third-rounder before the combine. He was a highly productive player at Boston College, but he didn’t play as fast as he timed, and he was too far undersized to beat NFL tackles with power. (In those days, he was badly undersized as a defensive end, much worse than he would be now. Tackles were much heavier, and run games revolved mostly around man-blocking, which is, at its very nature, much more physical than the zone schemes that are the norm today.) Unlike many subsequent workout warriors, Mamula didn’t have a disastrous career. He was, by all accounts, a decent rotation defensive end. However, his Combine performance made several people think he was a franchise player at the position, and these same people were absolutely shocked when he failed to live up to expectations. Still, Mamula set a trend that would have fans trying to spot who the next one would be. He can be credited, if nothing else, for making the draft process more fun for draftniks. They justified their existence by unearthing late-round gems, and issuing stern warnings about the next Mamula.

When prepping for the draft as a fan, it was once part of the fun to hear of the unwarranted rise up draft boards of a “Combine star performer,” scream at your television set or at your computer and to have, with the talking head on the screen, a conversation such as this one:

– ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr.: This guy would have been lucky to make it into the first round before the Combine, but when he was in Indy, he checked all the boxes.

– Me: Blah, blah, blah…

– Kiper: He weighed in at 315, he ran 4.87, he had 30 reps at 225 pounds. Now, I’m hearing echoes of him being drafted in the Top 10.

– Me: Wha… What the hell?! Guy’s a stiff!!!

– Kiper: He now has scouts really high on his upside as a pass rusher…

– Me: So how come that “upside” never materialized in college, you dipshit?!

– Kiper: A scout that I talked to said this guy’s build and movement skills reminded him of Warren Sapp.

– Me: Blasphemy! In what universe?! Where did this guy get his crack pipe?! There aren’t enough ‘roids in the galaxy for him to get even a glimpse of Sapp!! Whoever drafts him that high is JUST MENTAL!!

Perhaps my father, my brother and my friend Gab Flewelling will have recognized me losing my cool after hearing “Kipe” sullying the great Warren Sapp’s name by putting it in the same sentence as that of Dewayne Robertson, a Kentucky defensive tackle drafted fourth overall by the Jets in 2003*. (Hmm… Them again… I sense a recurring theme, don’t you?) A year later, after a supremely underwhelming rookie season for the Jets’ second coming of Sapp, we were hearing ESPN’s football reporters, hoping any footage of them praising Robertson had been destroyed, telling us something like this, and prompting the following reaction from me:

– Reporter: Last year, the Jets tried to play Robertson as a three-technique to give him more pass rushing opportunities, but that doesn’t really suit his game. This year, they’ve moved him to a one-technique role, where he can do what he does best, which is soak up double-teams and stuff the run**…

– Me: SO WHO THE HELL IS BEING PAID TO DO THE SCOUTING AROUND THERE?!?! Me and my ZERO years of scouting experience could have told you Robertson is no 3-tech! Don’t you think this is the sort of thing a team would want to find out about BEFORE taking the guy at fourth overall?! Because you can bet that last slice of authentic New York pizza that the Jets never draft him fourth overall in a million years if they think he’s a one-tech! How about just watching the damn film?!

I know it doesn’t look like it, but those days were fun. You just had to look at 40 times to know which player would sucker a team into taking him far too early. You just hoped it wouldn’t be your team. Then, when they did, you hoped you were wrong about the guy. You usually weren’t. Back then, teams would make picks so reprehensibly dumb you’d feel really smart calling them out on it. Except when the Jags picked Matt Jones*** in the first round in 2005. Then I lost my shit.

Robertson selected fourth overall

Where have they gone?

So, a few days ago, “The Ringer NFL Show” hosts Robert Mays and Kevin Clark were having this debate about the significance of the Combine. The strongest stance came from Clark, who argued that there is no such thing as a workout warrior anymore. Teams, he suggested, should pick the guy who destroys Combine workouts because, he says, they’re better off grabbing the guys with upper-echelon athleticism and coaching them up to be competent NFL players.

His opinion is not completely without merit. The true workout warrior flops are indeed much rarer than they used to be. Workout freaks like Adrian Peterson, Calvin Johnson, JJ Watt and Jadaveon Clowney can really play. We do, indeed,see less of the Gholstons, the Robertsons, the Troy Williamsons, the Ashley Lelies, the Donte Stallworths as we did about 15 years ago.

So how did this happen? I can offer three ideas as to why we do not have the overdrafted workout warriors we once had.

The first reason is this: teams have gotten much smarter in how they interpret combine data.  We got a perfect illustration of this just last year. When he arrived at the Combine, Chargers’ defensive end Joey Bosa was considered the 2016 Draft’s premier defensive line prospect. Scouts Inc.’s Todd McShay even had Bosa ranked as the draft’s top prospect. Then, Bosa ran a pedestrian 4.86 40-yard dash. 15 years ago, Bosa’s subpar 40 would probably have sent him spiraling down to the 20s. Instead, because this was 2016, the Chargers didn’t panic. They went back to the tape and likely said to themselves, “who cares about what he ran? We don’t see 4.86 on tape.” Bosa went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and to record 10.5 sacks despite missing significant time. This is a powerful and essential message, and it’s why even the Browns are unlikely to be stupid enough to let themselves be scared off the draft’s top prospect, Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, if he runs 4.72 instead of 4.55.

So when Clark says tape is more misleading than Combine results because it can mask the fact that a dominant college player might not be athletic enough to play in the NFL, he’s right to point out that this danger exists. This is why the Combine’s physical tests are not a complete waste of time. A cornerback who runs a 4.6 40 probably can’t hang with AJ Green or Julio Jones in man coverage. But whereas Combine results were once the be-all and end-all of player evaluation, despite GMs claim to the contrary, they now serve as a means of confirming what the tape shows about a prospect. This is, by any standard, a much more sensible way to use Combine data.

Thus, is Clark right to suggest that the Workout Warriors as we knew them are a thing of the past? In short, no. The second reason why they seem less numerous than they once were is this: Given that teams do a much better and complete job of figuring out a given prospect’s true abilities, they are far less likely to spend high draft picks on old-school Workout Warriors. Let nobody doubt it: the higher the draft pick, the higher the expectations. Ergo, a high draft choice will always get more chances to justify his draft status than a low-round pick will get to outplay his. If an old-fashioned workout warrior were to be drafted in the third or fourth round, nobody would make much of a fuss about the fact that he can’t play. These are the rounds that recent 40-time dynamos such as Kenyan Drake, Dri Archer, Cardale Jones or Clive Walford (all players whose testing numbers were better than their college careers) now occupy. Different expectations mean a different perspective on a player’s career. Imagine if Dewayne Robertson or Johnathan Sullivan had been drafted in the third round. Most likely, their respective teams don’t try to wedge them into playmaker roles they aren’t suited for, they slowly work their way into being perfectly suitable rotation players, and never do they become the laughing stocks they are now.

This leads me to the third reason: As teams get better at evaluating prospects, agents and college coaches come to realize it. Coaches can now spend three or four years telling players that, if they can’t play, that fancy 40 time will do them very little good. And agents, most of whom send their clients to high-priced training compounds during the Combine preparation period, have started sending them to places where the football skill-to-track technique ratio is more favourable to the former than it would previously have been. This becomes a must when positional drills become as scrutinized as the 40 time. It also has made players better because they spend the better part of three months, if not more, working on skills they’ll actually use beyond the Combine.

It begins

In my opinion, Workout Warriors have not disappeared. Rather, as teams have refined their evaluation methods, these testing freaks who can’t play now get exposed as such before, as opposed to after, they hit the field for the NFL team that drafts them. They are usually drafted lower, and have infinitely less significant expectations placed on them. Yet, the Workout Warriors will never be completely purged. If Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer, who has not in any way shown he’s ready for the NFL, gets drafted in the first round, it’ll be because of his Combine workouts (he’s already said to have impressed new 49ers’ GM John Lynch). If USC’s Adoree Jackson is picked in the first round by a team that thinks it’s getting a true starting cornerback, it’ll happen because his athleticism (read 40 time) was “too much to pass up.” If Miami (FL) tight end David Njoku is picked before Alabama’s OJ Howard, you can bet your last dollar Combine numbers will have something to do with it.

Whatever happens ends up happening, however, it’ll be a blast to watch it unfold, as it always is. Good news, draftniks: our second round of Holidays is upon us. Draft season is here. Enjoy it! I know I will.

 

* That year, Robertson was part of a defensive tackle class that was meant to be one of the greatest in NFL Draft history. The group became something of a disappointment. Robertson, who was a huge bust at fourth overall, was followed off the board two picks later by an even more egregious workout warrior of a defensive tackle, Georgia’s Johnathan Sullivan (6-3, 313 lbs, 33 reps, 4.81 40-yard dash, and just could…not…play… for shit!). Also disappointing were Penn State’s Jimmy Kennedy (bounced around the league as a rotation player after going 12th overall to the Rams), and Miami (FL)’s William Joseph (a mortally inconsistent player who is now in prison for an identity theft tax return fraud scheme). This doesn’t, for a single second, excuse the Jets for taking Robertson and the Saints for (trading up and) taking Sullivan. The Saints could have drafted Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Trufant, whom they desperately needed (yup, even then, they were incompetent in the secondary). Meanwhile, the Jets could have gone for Oklahoma State DT Kevin Williams (ninth overall to the Vikings, and one of the five best DTs of the past 15 years) or for Texas A&M’s Ty Warren (who tormented the Jets while playing for the Patriots). And if pass rush is what they wanted, well, a no-name guy by the name of Terrell Suggs, who had run a pedestrian 4.77 40-time, was picked at #10 by the Ravens (of course). Meanwhile, the Jets decided, three years later, that they needed a franchise pass rusher and picked Vernon Gholston with the sixth selection. But, hey, Suggs ran a bad 40, so what the hell… He’s only going to be a Hall-of-Famer. Sometimes, cheering for the Jets truly is the suckiest gig in all of fandom. Oh, and by the way, since we’re laughing at bad organizations, back in 2003, the Cardinals, who needed a pass rusher in the absolute worst way, traded down from sixth overall where they could have had local guy Suggs (from Arizona State; coming off an NCAA record 24-sack season… Who the hell wants that?!), and wound up picking two workout warriors in edge rusher Calvin Pace (decent career, but not with the Cards) and wide receiver Bryant Johnson (slow as molasses on the field and couldn’t separate, but ran 4.37 at his Pro Day, predictably went back to the whole no-separating deal in the NFL)

** Turns out, Robertson couldn’t even do that in the NFL. 

*** Jones played quarterback at Arkansas, but was a really sporadic thrower who did most of his damage with his legs, so he moved to receiver in the NFL. Ergo, the average fan and the competent team might (rightly) deem it risky to spend a first-round pick on a guy who’s switching positions upon arriving in the league. But, hey, leave it to the Jags to be completely hooked at the sight of 6-6, 242 lbs, a 4.37 in the 40 and ONE crazy one-handed grab during the one-on-ones at the Senior Bowl practices. 

 

Should the “Death Penalty” be in the cards for Baylor football?

Going as far back as two years ago, we were hearing stories about Baylor football taking cases of potential sexual assault by its players – ahem! – lightly. 10 days ago, the biggest bombshell of them all dropped, and it confirmed that our worst possible apprehensions couldn’t begin to cover the horror happening at BU.

When former Baylor assistant coach Colin Shillinglaw was fired along with head coach Art Briles, he sued the school for wrongful termination. In response, the university regents have essentially decided to chop off the arm to save the body, because the information they released makes everyone associated with Baylor look bad. Indeed, three Baylor regents released a series of rather embarrassing text messages between Briles, staff members and even then-athletic director Ian McCaw that show Baylor football had become a cesspool of crime, cheating and complete absence of accountability.

You can get all the damning details in this excellent story by Deadspin’s Patrick Redford. Suffice it to say that Baylor, a desperately terrible program before Briles’ arrival, was so starved for success that it not only allowed bums and criminals to enroll at the university and play on its team, but covered up their transgressions to keep them on the roster.

Remember when the college football world was glorifying defensive end Shawn Oakman? You know, this fuckin’ dude?

0519-shawn-oakman-sub-1

He’s a guy whom Baylor took on after he was kicked off Penn State’s team by Bill O’Brien because he was being charged with theft and disorderly conduct. Redemption stories are great, until they turn into that same guy, all 6-7 and 280 pounds of him, shoving a Baylor student into a wall, then slamming her face into her bed, calling her a “slut” and a “whore.” They become worse when word breaks out that she went to Baylor athletics to tell her story and they chose to sit on the information.

This is just a sample. On the topic of sexual assault alone, the allegation is that as many as 31 Baylor football players committed as many as 52 acts of rape and that, for all intents and purposes, Baylor football went out of its way to cover many if not all of them up.

I find myself wishing, above all, that those who have committed these acts, and those who helped cover them up, get what is coming to them from the criminal justice system. We can talk as much we like about what the NCAA will do (or won’t) about this, but I want to see the guilty parties get the criminal sanctions they deserve.

Should Baylor get the “Death Penalty?” 

For all those unfamiliar with the concept, the “Death Penalty”, or the “Repeat-Violator Legislation,” to call it by its actual name, consists in shutting down an NCAA athletic program for at least a year. Its effects on said programs are, to put it mildly, devastating. It has only been handed down five times by the NCAA, the most famous of instance of this being SMU football. SMU were shut down in 1987 by the NCAA for systemic and recurrent violations of NCAA recruiting rules, and the mandatory year of inactivity was accompanied by loss of scholarships as well as by bowl game bans. Since SMU football, whose case had no precedent in modern college football when it got the Death Penalty, still has not recovered from the sanctions imposed on it, the NCAA has been loath to administer it again.

But should they do it to Baylor?

It would seem that, as far as cases for the Death Penalty go, this one would be as compelling as it gets. SMU is child’s play compared to this. The NCAA has often sanctioned teams for failing to exercise “institutional control.” Well, in Baylor’s case, it’s an actual refusal to exercise institutional control. We may smirk at the maxim that says “with great power comes great responsibility” because most of us have heard it in Spiderman. Yet, it remains true. And not only were Briles’ players not taught to use the power that comes with being big, strong, athletic and notorious responsibly, they were pretty much being told that being big, strong, athletic or notorious enough can actually allow them to escape responsibility for their actions. There is no denying that what took place within Baylor’s football team was an absolute calamity.

As for the question of whether Baylor should get the Death Penalty, however, I must admit to being a little torn, because I like neither the thought of giving it nor the thought of not giving it.

On the one hand, I hate the idea of punishing people for the deeds of others, and that’s what would be happening here should the NCAA administer Baylor football the Death Penalty. New coach Matt Rhule and his staff, new athletic director Mack Rhoades, and all the players in this year’s recruiting class, none of them played any part in the “disciplinary black hole” that Briles and his staff established. I’m not fond of punishing them for something they didn’t do.

As far as the players go, they would obviously be given the right to transfer without losing a year of eligibility, as ordinary transfer rules would require. However, let’s not kid ourselves, this is still punishment. Beyond having to pick a different college than the one they wanted, they also would have to fit into a team that has recruited past them after they committed to Baylor. And before somebody makes the argument, we cannot pretend this year’s class of freshmen were seduced by Briles’ show-’em-a-good-time tactics, another illegal and unethical trademark of the previous regime. Of the 27 commitments in Baylor’s 2017 recruiting class, only one (!!!) had pledged to Baylor before Rhule was hired less than two months before signing day. (If Rhule decides to leave, and he probably should, this recruiting tour-de-force should serve as further evidence that the athletic director who ends up hiring him will have made a shrewd move indeed.) Rhule and his staff have done nothing to deserve this either, except agree to coach at Baylor.

It should be said that things do not look good, given that the NCAA web site already has a built-in response to my “don’t punish the innocent” argument:

The simple fact is that the punitive nature of NCAA-imposed sanctions make it unavoidable that the penalties imposed on institutions as a result of their involvement in major infractions will have some negative effect on innocent student-athletes.

Obviously, should we get any evidence that what happened under Briles is still happening, I would be quick to revisit my position on this front. As things stand, however, I’m not fond of handing down such heavy sanctions on people who have done nothing to deserve them. It’s why I argued against imposing it on Penn State five years ago, and it’s why I’m queasy about handing it to Baylor now.

But then, there is the matter of the message you’re sending if you don’t hand it down.

There is a significant difference between the cases of Penn State (which I did not want to see get the Death Penalty) and Baylor. The disgraceful pedophile Jerry Sandusky coached at Penn State from the late 60s to 1999. Next to nothing of what Penn State was in the Sandusky years remained the same, except for president Graham Spanier and football head coach Joe Paterno, both of whom were fired when news of Sandusky’s sexual assaults on children, and of the two men’s knowledge of them, became public just about 12 years after the disgraced defensive coordinator’s departure. When university officials learned of what Sandusky had done, and of Spanier and Paterno’s cover-up, they reacted the only way that they could by firing everyone involved.

In Baylor’s case, this has happened in the past five years, and Briles was fired just last year. The administration is still intact, apart from Briles and former athletic director Ian McCaw*. Therefore, the message that such things can happen under a university’s roof, and yet that all will be forgiven provided the administration cleans house when the staff’s transgressions become public is a very dangerous one to send. Several athletic departments with struggling football teams, much like Baylor was when it hired Briles, would hear this message, as they say, loud and clear. And who knows? Such a desperate school might bet that it can weather the inevitable PR shitstorm that would come with hiring an Art Briles by posting a few 10-win seasons.

I can’t give this piece’s title an answer. I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of administering the Death Penalty to Baylor, but the arguments for it are as strong as they’ll ever be. If Baylor football doesn’t get it for Briles et al. molding it into the debauched universe it has now become, I can’t think of a program that will.

 

McCaw has since been hired by the disgraceful establishment Liberty University, which is of course presided by  Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the religious nutbag and Liberty founder Reverend Jerry Falwell. Here is what Falwell Jr. had to say about his latest hiring: “Ian’s success really speaks for itself,” Falwell said. “You look at what Baylor was able to do during his tenure, it fits perfectly with where we see our sports programs going. This is an exciting time for us.” So yes, just in case you’re questioning your own brain, Falwell Jr. said this of a man who had just resigned from Baylor because it was clear the entire situation with Briles was about to blow up in his face. Such a statement would be irregular from anyone not named Falwell, which is why it was so ironic to hear Outside The Lines’ Tom Ley  emphasize how surprised he was that the Baylor incidents happened at a faith-based institution. Given all three monotheisms’ troubled history with sexual assault, that this would happen at a faith-based university rather than at a secular one strikes me as likelier, not less likely. 

 

 

Bradley and bowl-skipping backs

Gus Bradley is now the former head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. I applaud that they gave him as much time as they did. We all saw his sacking coming, but the timing of it was just so weird. After the Jags allowed the Tom Savage-led Houston Texans to pull off a comeback that felt inevitable the entire time, Bradley was basically told he was being let go as he boarded the plane back to Jacksonville. This strikes me as a blatant lack of both professionalism and competence on the part of the Jaguars’ organization.

Surely, Bradley is too smart to be surprised by the news of his firing, but for the team to let him know at that point and to condemn him to a flight home with his players and staff during which every coach on the plane was aware of the news seems cruel. And THAT, Bradley hasn’t deserved.

Say what you will about the team’s incompetence on the field during Bradley’s tenure, and there is indeed much to say about it but, as head coach of the Jags, the man has not behaved unprofessionally one time. In fact, his ability to use his upbeat nature to deflect some of the attention off some of the more disgraceful performances of his players, of which there were several, was always amazing to me.

On that front, firing him with such cruel and impossibly illogical timing is a poor way to repay him.

Meanwhile, we have heard players expressing their unhappiness with Bradley’s firing. Personally, I don’t have a shred of interest in what they have to say, and haven’t since the first Tennessee game. Their collective performance on that day, a Thursday night game at that, a.k.a. the only sniff of prime time they were going to get this year, was such a goddamn disgrace that I remain convinced that’s the day the decision on Bradley was made. I was convinced they were trying to get Bradley fired, so lackluster, inept, incompetent, piss-poor, effort-bereft, cowardly was their showing in that game. Every single one of them got a paycheck for that game. Not a single one of them earned it. Not one. So go on with the public expressions of support for Bradley, lads. Just know that from the outside, your support for your coach on the field – where it matters – was, well, less perceptible.

As for the organization, I fail to see what is gained from firing him now, instead of two weeks from now, on the aptly-named “Black Monday.” It’s not as though they get a jump on hiring anybody of any worth. Who is it the Jags want? Jeff Fisher? Otherwise, you can’t communicate with hot coordinators who are still in the playoff hunt unless you do it through their agent, which you could do on the down-lo with Bradley still coaching the team. So unless they’re going to go after a college coach stupid enough to leave wherever he’s having success to try and reboot this mess of a franchise, you’ve only brought further embarrassment to the franchise by firing yet another coach in a way that looks so profoundly improvised.

But owner Shad Khan and GM David Caldwell need not worry about embarrassing the team’s fans. They’re used to it.


Two star college running backs are skipping their respective team’s bowl games to prepare for the NFL draft. After LSU’s Leonard Fournette indicated that he wasn’t going risk injury to play in what amounts to a glorified exhibition game, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey announced that he would do the same.

And from there on, it was a matter of cuing up the predictable reactions. Most members of the media were supportive of McCaffrey and Fournette, although there were exceptions (see ESPN analyst Danny Kanell as well Kirk Herbstreit). Most former players thought Fournette and McCaffrey were making the wrong decision.

Going back to the media, I fully take their point that last year, Notre Dame linebacker had his draft status crushed by the knee injury he sustained in last year’s Fiesta Bowl, an injury which also cost him his rookie season in the NFL and, on aggregate, anywhere between 17  and $19 million. And no, the insurance policy he took to cover for his injury doesn’t cover the money he would have made as a Top 10 pick.

Skipping a bowl game that won’t lead you to the National Championship to preserve your earning power is the rational thing to do. I get it; I really do. I also hope that their draft stock isn’t affected by this, but I doubt that it will. Several columnists have rightly gone on to say Fournette and McCaffrey’s decision puts the bloated NCAA bowl system on trial, although it will survive, but that’s a topic for another day.

So again, the two RBs’ decision completely makes sense. My only issue is when I hear people suggest that they aren’t worse teammates, or that they aren’t placing themselves above their teammates, for making it.

Sorry, but… yes, they are. Don’t tell me anything about their teammates supporting them. Don’t tell me about the power and earning imbalance between the NCAA and its players. All of it may be true (in the case of the power imbalance, we all know it is), but none of it alters the fact that these two players have chosen to desert their team before their respective seasons are over. There can be no disputing this.

For me, it comes down to principle. Football is a team endeavour. As such, each players is responsible for their teammates’ aspirations, and vice-versa. Fournette and McCaffrey were as valuable to their respective teams as any player in the country. By leaving now, they are forfeiting this responsibility and jeopardizing the aspirations of the teammates they agreed to support by accepting team membership for 2016.

The facile argument according to which they have nothing left to prove seems wobbly at best. How is that any different from before the season? Both players were considered as candidates for the Heisman Trophy last year. By that logic, why wait until bowl season to start the draft preparations? Why come back to their respective schools at all?

For me, it’s about principle. Starting what you finish, being there for your teammates, taking pride in helping them achieve their aspirations of winning a bowl game that most likely means a hell of a lot more to them than it means to us as viewers, and so on… You don’t have to lecture me on the arguments to support McCaffrey and Fournette. I didn’t have anything close to their talent. I couldn’t have aspired to playing in the NFL. I don’t have a young daughter (as Fournette does). I know the bowl game is essentially an exhibition game with perks. I also know principle isn’t going to earn Jaylon Smith the money he lost because of the injury he sustained in the Fiesta Bowl last year, and that the NCAA is fully exploiting these young players.

I just struggle with the two RBs’ decision because it would not have even crossed my mind. You can call it outdated, out-of-whack morality (football people have made themselves guilty of that from time-to-time). You can call it naive. Perhaps all of it is true. I get why they did it, and I understand it “makes sense.” But if I were a teammate of Fournette’s or McCaffrey’s, their decision would be hard for me to accept.

 

 

 

 

 

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