Real Madrid: what happens when you run a club like a fantasy team

After Real Madrid’s surprise Champions League exit against a game Juventus, Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti probably figured his countrymen had hammered down the final nail in the coffin of his coaching tenure with the Spanish giants. Add to that the fact that he is suspended for the last two games of the La Liga season, and Ancelotti has likely coached his last game for Real Madrid. It is a common theme at the world’s most famous and profitable club: when the team falls short of its own expectations, the reflex is to fire the coach and add another superstar or two.

In all likelihood, it’s about to happen again. As The Guardian‘s Sid Lowe noted, not since 1983 has a coach remained at Madrid after a trophyless season, and that manager was club legend Alfredo Di Stefano, whose unrivaled place in club lore most likely explains this exceptional clemency. Therefore, Ancelotti is unlikely to get the same treatment, although many people in and around the club are validly arguing that he should.

It starts at the top

Despite Emilio Butragueno’s cringe-inducing claim that Real Madrid President Florentino Perez is a “superior being” (un ser superior), Perez resigned from the post in 2006 after having presided over the club’s longest trophyless run in 50 years, amid wide-ranging criticism coming from virtually everywhere. It’s a testimony to both Madridistas’ short memory and to the ineptitude of Ramon Calderon, Perez’s successor, that the latter’s return to the Madrid presidency in 2009 was not only unopposed, but celebrated. Perez also generated tremendous buzz that summer by signing Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo over a span of four days, a spectacular reminder to Madridistas that, as long as Perez was President, they would at least have the benefit of never losing an offseason.

However, his new reign began in exactly the same way his initial one ended: with failure. Despite posting the highest point total of the team’s history, Madrid’s 2009 team finished behind an even more impressive Barcelona in the league, but that alone was justifiable. What was not, however, was Madrid’s improbable Round-of-16 Champions’ League exit against Lyon, and manager Manuel Pellegrini was predictably fired at the end of the season. Then, in a move that made sense on paper but had those who follow Madrid refusing to believe it until they saw it, Perez hired José Mourinho. The Special One had just won the Champions’ League with Inter Milan and beaten Barcelona along the way.

Mourinho is the antithesis of a Perez coach: brash, abrasive and unafraid to criticize (publicly or privately) the establishment of his club. After Mourinho predictably and quasi-instantly ruffled feathers among the Madrid administration, Perez made a decision that showed the full measure of his desperation to beat Pep Guardiola’s apparently unplayable Barcelona: he backed Mourinho, giving him full control over personnel. Mourinho had what one might describe as mixed results at the helm of Madrid, winning La Liga (which Madrid hadn’t done since 2007) in 2011, but ultimately falling short of winning the Champions’ League, and sparking highly-publicized spats with his own players, most notably Sergio Ramos.

In retrospect, Mourinho’s tendency for both condescension and inflammatory comments was guaranteed to cause many blowups with Madrid’s heavily political press (namely sport publications Marca and AS), unconditional Perez backers since his return to the presidency. His approach was also doomed when it came to his players. One could tell the Portuguese wanted his team to actually hate Barcelona, but it’s much harder to get a player to hate a club-football opponent he’s won a Euro tournament and a World Cup with. When Mourinho and Madrid ultimately agreed to part ways amid heavy speculation that the Portuguese manager would return to Chelsea, Perez insisted that Mourinho wasn’t a failure. However, his subsequent decision to hire Ancelotti was a sign that the President was not too keen on having another Mourinho-like personality at the helm of his club.

The perfect man for Perez

It is simultaneously a slur and a compliment to call Ancelotti the greatest yes-man in all of football. While he is certainly a coach of considerable tactical acumen, his personality trait most responsible for landing him coaching opportunities at many of world’s biggest clubs – most recently AC Milan, Chelsea, Paris St-Germain and Real Madrid – is the fact that he takes whatever roster is given to him, does his best to maximize its potential, and never complains. It has been a precious ability, because few high-level managers can claim to have had their chances to win more often short-circuited by imbecilic and short-sighted personnel decisions.

Therefore, Ancelotti was ready-made to run a Madrid team, a club where, as Lowe so eloquently puts it, perhaps the most important skill for a coach is his ability to fall on his sword. In his first season in charge, Ancelotti pulled off an extraordinary achievement, as he captured Madrid’s elusive tenth Champions’ League crown. It’s an even greater feat than it appears.

See, Madrid management admits that, under Perez, it builds the football team like a Hollywood blockbuster. Basically, let’s pile up as many stars as we can, and let the coach figure out how to line them up. It’s why Perez has historically gone for players with star power: either Ballon d’Or winners or World Cup stars or both. His Madrid teams have boasted six different Ballon d’Or winners, but before Cristiano Ronaldo won the award in 2013, none of them had captured it as a Real Madrid player.

Perez believes that stars pay for themselves, a belief about which it he’s been fortunate to be right, given the transfer fees he has paid for them. Of the five most expensive players ever, four were bought by Madrid, all of them by Perez. What perhaps constitutes the greatest critique of his model was made when Figo, Perez’s very first Galactico, said that “it all went wrong when marketing took precedence over football.” Figo’s words were no exaggeration. While no one would dare insinuate that results don’t matter at Real Madrid, it is interesting to see just how often the club uses the offseason to put disappointing seasons in the rearview mirror.

So Carlo Ancelotti arrives and wins the Champions League for Madrid on his first try. It is worth wondering whether he realized at that point how thankless his job had just become. There are several places where winning the Champions’ League, possibly the hardest trophy to capture in all of professional sport, would grant a coach an additional honeymoon period, but not in Madrid. The Champions’ League is Real Madrid’s holy grail. As an institution, they are absolutely obsessed by it. So even though he won it last year, Ancelotti likely arrived this season well aware that unless he won the league by 20 points, he would lose his job lest he win the Champions’ League again. Now that he has failed this objective, he is likely on his way out, a probability compounded by the fact that public perception will have it that, by losing, Madrid have basically handed the Champions’ League to arch-rivals Barcelona, in the same week that their draw against Valencia virtually assured the Catalans of the La Liga title.

Be that as it may, Florentino Perez and his advisers had better be careful what they wish for, because they just might get it. Could Perez be tempted to go with a stronger personality, i.e. something closer to Mourinho? Perhaps, but the candidates don’t abound, and the President’s track record suggests this is unlikely. Failing that, however, the alternative is what Gab Marcotti affectionately called a “diva whisperer.” In other words, a coach whose personality is just strong enough to prevent the team’s big egos from causing the squad to implode from within. And if that is the type of coach Perez is seeking, he’s about to fire the best one he could possibly find.

An incapacity for introspection

In addition to Ancelotti combining the yes-man persona with uncommon coaching abilities like nobody else, what he has achieved with Madrid is quietly spectacular. Of course, it’s what is expected of a coach as well-paid as Ancelotti, but this is no reason to minimize the significance of winning that Champions’ League title in 2014, and coming so close in 2015.

Real Madrid’s front office is apparently loaded with people who either don’t understand how team dynamics work, or who fool themselves into thinking a chemistry or balance problem can be solved by throwing one more potential 20-goal scorer on the squad. Any coach worth his salt will tell you it doesn’t work that way.

All those fancy signings look great on paper, but I’ve been watching sports for too damn long. A team cannot have multiple alpha dogs, that is to say a player around whom the team’s offence is built. It didn’t take a tarot card reader to figure out that, given his skill level and his personality, Cristiano Ronaldo would assume that role on arrival. But while he has given Madrid tremendous productivity, the fact that he has assumed the most significant portion of Real’s scoring has meant that several other stars brought in by the club have had to play the Robin to Ronaldo’s Batman. Before the injury bug hit Kaka, it was happening to him. Striker Karim Benzema, another player who would have had legitimate alpha dog aspirations, has had to turn himself into an assist provider for Ronaldo. And James Rodriguez, a classic no.10 signed after his spectacular display at the World Cup for Columbia, has struggled to find a role in Madrid’s 4-3-3.

Which is what made the 2013 signing of Gareth Bale signing so interesting. The Welch talisman is neither a global superstar nor a big-time performer in international tournaments. He’s just a really talented, speedy, and powerful footballer. Depending on the numbers you trust, Bale’s transfer to Real Madrid made him either the most, or second-most, expensive player in history. His price tag, given the things he can do, was ludicrous, and he now finds himself paying for it as he has endured a bad run of form in the 2015 half of this season. Rumours of Bale’s departure are fascinatingly fed by both the English media, hopeful to see Bale return to a Premier League they believe he never should have left, and the Madridista press, presumably anxious to see the Welchman make way for the next superstar with a stratospheric price tag.

At Tottenham, Bale was clearly the team’s alpha dog and its best player, but that didn’t guarantee he wouldn’t fit in with Madrid. In fact, there is still an argument to be made that he does fit in. At first, the idea of Bale joining Madrid seemed ludicrous: a player whose style, all based on speed and power, is so obviously informed by, and suited to, the English game would likely be seen as crude in Spain, a country where short passing rules and counter-attacking is not so much a strategy as it is a curse word. But on second thought, the combination of Ronaldo and Bale could work, because their skill sets complement one another. While Ronaldo is a dribbler who requires much of the ball and takes loads of shots, Bale is a player who frequently disappears, only to reappear just long enough to strike. He doesn’t need to touch the ball all that much to make an impact. It remains possible that he might be the perfect Robin to Ronaldo’s Batman, if he can just regain his form. It would be a shame to see Madrid give up on him so quickly, especially since he had a very good first season in Spain, but there are several English teams who would welcome him back if Madrid did choose to cut their losses.

While Marca called Los Blancos’ exit against Juventus the “fiasco of the century,” they ought to be saying that of the way this Real Madrid team was built. The importance of balance on a team is an element Perez has consistently overlooked, and the most recent example of this was the decision to let go of Xabi Alonso. In and of itself, the decision is defensible given Alonso’s age. The questionable move, however, was to replace Alonso with Toni Kroos. The German is doubtlessly an excellent player, but he cannot fill Alonso’s recover-and-launch role, and this is an attribute of which the Madrid roster now finds itself devoid. Kroos, who is much better as a creator than as a holding midfielder, has to play a defensive role he is ill-suited for because, well, someone has to do it. The same goes for the instinctive Luka Modric. What point is there to having these artistic passers on the team if their talents are going to be wasted? And who’s going to give all those scorers the ball if nobody on the pitch can consistently take it away from the other team?

It’s not just the midfielders, either. Scorers need enablers, and if the enablers are played out of position, everybody loses out in the end. In abstract terms, James Rodriguez just might be a better player than Angel Di Maria, but he’s not if you’re looking for a 4-3-3 winger who widens the play and creates space for Ronaldo and whoever is playing striker. Central midfielders played on the wing tend to take the ball back inside where they are more comfortable, and Rodriguez is no exception. By the time even Ancelotti found James’ situation untenable and ruled that he’s not a winger, we all remembered that the reason why Madrid put him there in the first place is because… there was nowhere else to put him. If you really have the temerity to put a no.10 behind the striker in a 4-3-3, those two remaining central midfielders better a) be defensive monsters, which can be said of neither Modric nor Kroos and b) have two sets of lungs, because they will have to cover an outrageous amount of ground when the opponent counter-attacks.

Perez’s declaration when he sold Claude Makelele (“We won’t miss Makelele much. All his passing either went sideways or backwards.”) and essentially replaced him with David Beckham betrays the fact that he refuses to acknowledge the existence of a fundamental part of football: taking the ball away from the other team. Zinedine Zidane, outraged by the move, lashed out with this question: “What is the point of giving the Bentley another coat of gold if you’re taking away the entire engine?”

Is there no one at Real Madrid, Zidane or someone else, who would dare raise this point with Perez? And even if there were, would Perez listen?

At a crossroads

Simply put, in trying to stockpile superstars, Perez has destroyed whatever balance Real Madrid previously had, which already wasn’t much. He now finds himself at the proverbial crossroads. He could decide to trust someone who tells him that adding a defensive midfielder wouldn’t hurt the team’s offensive productivity, but enhance it. If he does, Madrid would instantly benefit from the move and look less unbalanced than they were this year. Or he can decide that the Hollywood dimension of Real Madrid football is what’s most important and keep running the club like an online fantasy team. If he chooses the latter, the problems will remain; Madrid will keep underperforming, and to find the cause of this, Perez will need to look not in the dugout or on the pitch, but in the mirror.

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The Mock draft

M piece on Marcus Mariota aside, the draft is today, and I have put together my first round mock draft while I was taking a break from studying (my version of events) or procrastinating (everybody else’s version of events). So without any suspense at all, the first overall pick is…

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jameis Winston, quarterback, Florida State: I can’t see how this doesn’t happen. You have a head coach who comes from a long line of offensively conservative former defensive coordinators. (Translation: a spread-option quarterback probably has as much appeal to him as would a leper.) You have a team that has been inept at the quarterback position for the longest time. You have a quarterback in Winston whose conduct gives you considerable pause, but who has shown he can play a pro-style offence at a very high level in 2013. The Bucs will talk themselves into thinking there is a reasonable explanation for every question mark about Winston. In fact, they already have. Put it in your draft prediction. Next Thursday is when we get confirmation that Winston’s first NFL uniform will be an XFL one.
  2. Tennessee Titans: Leonard Williams, Defensive tackle, USC: I have gone back and forth on this so many times, I can’t describe it. My first version had the Chargers trading up to this point to send Philip Rivers to Tennessee and drafting Marcus Mariota. But I hit this problem: the trade makes a ton of sense for Tennessee, but for San Diego, it means rather minimal returns for a franchise quarterback who still has gas left in the tank. There will be talk of a trade until the very last second, but it won’t happen. This will leave the Titans with the pick. I don’t believe they think as highly of Zach Mettenberger as they pretend to. However, I do think a coach like Ken Whisenhunt is as skeptical of a spread-option quarterback fitting into his system as any NFL coach, and I don’t think he’s willing to change what he’s doing for the sake of a adapting to a different type of signal caller. That leaves Williams, who can be a productive 5-technique in a Titans defence that could be quite a group if they can stay away from injuries. A front that includes Williams along with Jurell Casey, Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo can be an annoying proposition for any offensive line, especially the rather weak ones of the AFC South.
  3. New York Jets (Trade with Jacksonville) : Marcus Mariota Quarterback: The Jets now have something resembling a receiving crew. The new administration wants to start anew with a new player under centre. Mariota has a great personality to handle Gotham City, and the Jets have to come up in order to beat the Browns, also reportedly looking to trade up, and grab Mariota. Here comes the Jets’ next saviour. For his sake, let’s hope he doesn’t end up like the other ones.  
  4. Oakland Raiders: Amari Cooper, Wide Receiver, Alabama: This team needs pass catchers in the worst way and management is celebrating at landing Cooper, a polished receiver who knows how to get open and is very hard to tackle. He will give Derek Carr a much-needed no.1 receiver. A slam dunk pick.
  5. The Washington pro football team: Dante Fowler, Defensive end/Rush linebacker, Florida: The Washingtonians will entertain all kinds of offers. This is Daniel Snyder, so he’ll flirt with a flashy offensive pick (i.e. wide receiver), but ultimately, they lost Brian Orakpo, and Ryan Kerrigan is not a good enough athlete to work through constant double-teaming. Fowler was used in all sorts of funky ways at Florida, as Will Muschamp had him dropping to many different spots. This suits the 3-4 Fowler will insert himself into in Washington. With seemingly every other pass rusher trying to hurt his stock with off-field incidents, grabbing the pass rusher who is a model citizen is a must.
  6. Jacksonville Jaguars (trade with New York Jets): Kevin White, Wide Receiver, West Virginia: My case for the Jags making this pick, and not taking a pass rusher, in four parts. 1. The Jags quietly had 45 sacks last season (sixth best in the league), which is more than their combined sack totals of 2012 and 2013. According to the website Football Outsiders, their adjusted sack rate was second in the league. Nobody saw it because next to everything else about this team sucks, but the Jags defence put really good pressure on quarterbacks last season. The traditional stats don’t always reflect it because their offence was so woeful. 2. Who would Vic Beasley or Bud Dupree be replacing? Chris Clemons looks as though he has at least one good year if not two in the tank, and going for a pass rusher here either means a reach or an off-the-field concern. 3. The Jags lost Cecil Shorts, who, while not a superstar, gave them underrated production. What Jacksonville will want to add at receiver will be a size-speed combo guy who will provide a deep threat. Do I really have to mention that they can’t count on the “weedster extraordinaire” Justin Blackmon? 4. The Jags have put all their eggs in the Blake Bortles basket, and they clearly understand this means giving him as many tools to work with as possible. They signed Julius Thomas, they drafted two second-round wideouts last year, one of whom is an all-around guy who can do good work after the catch (Lee). What the Jags are missing in their receiving corps is a pure deep threat. White, who has drawn comparisons with Julio Jones, fits the model. Last question: Who’s going to block for Bortles?
  7. Chicago Bears: Danny Shelton, Nose tackle, Washington: With both top receivers gone, John Fox turns to Chicago’s porous run defence. Shelton can play as a nose tackle in a 3-4, as a 1-technique in a gap charge scheme or as a two-gapper in a gap control scheme. He will instantly improve the Bears’ run defence, which is especially important after losing Stephen Paea. And until he gets traded, you still play Adrian Peterson twice in that division.
  8. Atlanta Falcons: Vic Beasley, Defensive end, Clemson: So… Atlanta has no pass rush. They have hired Dan Quinn from Seattle, who will presumably install the Seattle defence for the Falcons. Beasley, undersized for a defensive end, is the most polished pass rusher in this class, and is absolutely tailor-made for the Leo role, which compensate for his lack of power by allowing him to rush for outside the tight end. This just might the best fit in the entire draft.
  9. New York Giants: Brandon Scherff, Offensive Line, Iowa: The Giants need offensive line help if they don’t want Eli Manning to die during the coming season. Scherff is a guy who can help at either guard or tackle, so they can’t lose here.
  10. New Orleans Saints (Trade with St.Louis Rams): Bud Dupree, Outside linebacker, Kentucky: The Rams don’t like the need/value balance here, so they trade down and allow the Saints to jump on a riser who has been able to stay away from the ganja. Besides, it’s not like the Saints couldn’t use him.
  11. Minnesota Vikings: Trae Waynes, Cornerback, Michigan State: There are a lot of places where the Vikings don’t quite know what they have on their hands. They can still use help at cornerback, and Waynes’ press ability complements that of Xavier Rhodes.
  12. Cleveland Browns: DeVante Parker, Wide receiver, Louisville: The Browns could use some help at receiver given the uncertain future of Josh Gordon and the overall lack of talent of the remainder of this unit. They’re happy Parker is still here after certain mock drafts placed him in the Top 10. The quarterback situation remains complete chaos, but at least there would be a #1 receiver candidate on the roster.
  13. St.Louis Rams (Trade with New Orleans): Andrus Peat, Offensive tackle, Stanford: The Rams are another team that isn’t completely what they have on their hands, especially at the receiver position. After a few years of looking like a bust, Brian Quick started showing flashes of why the Rams spent a second-round pick on him a few years ago. And while they have not yet figured out how to use him yet, Tavon Austin still has tantalizing potential. So with these questions, they go the safe route and bring more beef on the offensive line.
  14. Miami Dolphins: Nelson Agholor, Wide receiver, USC: Who the hell knows with Miami? This is the team that grabbed Juwan James in the first round last season. They can’t possibly be content with the talent they have at receiver right now. Agholor is a slight reach here, but he’s the kind of all-around talent teams like to have as a no.1 receiver.
  15. San Francisco 49ers: Malcolm Brown, Defensive end, Texas: The 49ers realize that Aldon Smith is not the same player without the contribution of a strong defensive end like Justin Smith. Brown has the strength and quickness to force teams to devote some attention to him, allowing for Smith to take advantage of favourable matchups on his way to the quarterback.
  16. Houston Texans: Ereck Flowers, Offensive tackle, Miami: The Giants don’t like that they missed out on the offensive linemen. However, they don’t have a free safety on the roster. Collins is more of a strong safety type, but frankly, just getting a playmaker in the middle of that secondary would give this disaster zone of a Giants defence a big boost.
  17. San Diego Chargers: Todd Gurley, Running back, Georgia: Gurley is one of the draft’s three most talented players, and he represents the Chargers’ biggest needs on offence. If he stays healthy, this just might be the steal of the draft.
  18. Pittsburgh Steelers (Trade with Kansas City): Landon Collins, safety, Alabama: Troy Polamalu just retired, and Pittsburgh needs a player who can fill his shoes, if not in the same way, at relatively the same level. Collins is a playmaker who has the kind of attitude the Steelers love in their safeties
  19. Cleveland Browns: Arik Armstead, defensive end, Oregon: The Browns continue to stack front 7 talent with a player with terrific physical gifts in Armstead. Can they get the most out of the underproducing Armstead?
  20. Philadelphia Eagles: Jaelen Strong, Wide Receiver, Arizona State: The Eagles have depleted their roster at wide receiver in the offseason, and need to retool the position whether Sam Bradford starts or not. Given the propensity for bubble screens in Chip Kelly’s offence, the strength of strong could be the tie-breaker because of his upside as a blocker and ability after the catch.
  21. Cincinnati Bengals: Randy Gregory, Defensive end, Nebraska: Character concern? No problem for the Bengals, who tend to gloss over these things. They like Gregory’s upside, and remember that there isn’t a great pass rusher on their roster. Given the Bengals’ tendency to sit their first rounders on defence, it gives them time to develop Gregory into what they want him to be.
  22. Kansas City Chiefs (Trade with Pittsburgh): Marcus Peters, cornerback, Washington: Having signed Jeremy Maclin to help with the receiver position, the Chiefs upgrade a position that could use some upgrading.
  23. Detroit Lions: Kevin Johnson, cornerback, Wake Forest: Rashean Mathis is 36. The Lions could also use help at right tackle, but there isn’t a clear pick here. Johnson can be groomed to take over for Mathis next year and can help as a nickel guy this year.
  24. Arizona Cardinals: Melvin Gordon, Running Back, Wisconsin: This pick makes a lot of sense. The running back position is a big need for Arizona, and Gordon is absolutely worth this pick. Provided Shane Ray fell off a cliff on their draft board, the other pass rusher are not good value here.
  25. Carolina Panthers: D.J. Humphries, Offensive tackle, Florida: The Panthers’ options at offensive tackle are atrocious. Like Kelvin Benjamin last year, this pick makes itself.
  26. Baltimore Ravens: Dorial Green-Beckham, Wide Receiver, Missouri: The Ravens are a “best available player” team, but exactly who that player is at this point is not clear. Meanwhile, Green-Beckham helps out a supremely thin receiver position for the Ravens and has flat-out unfair upside.
  27. Tennessee Titans (Trade with Dallas): Eddie Goldman, Defensive tackle, Florida State: The Titans trade back up to grab a nose tackle they need as much as anything else. This defence is now scary.
  28. Denver Broncos: Cameron Erving, Centre, Florida State: The Broncos need offensive line help to keep Peyton Manning upright. Erving is tremendous value at this spot.
  29. Indianapolis Colts: Eli Harold, Outside linebacker, Virginia: Eric Walden? Not starting material. Period.
  30. Green Bay Packers: Breshad Perriman, Wide receiver, UCF: This is a value pick here for the Packers who don’t especially need anything, so they take the best player available on their board.
  31. New Orleans Saints: Maxx Williams, Tight end, Minnesota: The Jimmy Graham trade leaves the Saints with a need at tight end. Williams doesn’t have Graham’s athleticism, but he’s a more complete player and will contribute to the Saints’ running and passing game.
  32. New England Patriots: Jalen Collins, Cornerback, LSU: After losing Darelle Revis, the Pats reload with a raw, but physically gifted cornerback from a school that has a reputation for producing quality players at the position.

Entrée before the Mock Draft: the Marcus Mariota conundrum

Here we go. The NFL Draft is less than a week away. Most NFL-driven sites start popping out mock drafts months in advance, which makes no sense from a football perspective given that teams try to solve part of their needs with free agency, not to mention the fact that we have to give time for the legitimate rumours to separate themselves from the pure smokescreens. My mock draft is coming up on draft day, by the way, but until then, there are still lingering questions, namely those surrounding the number two pick.

The Titans figure to have at least a few attractive options for the pick. Are the Chargers going to press the reset button for a quarterback who doesn’t mind playing in L.A.? It’s a hell of a risky proposition, given that the quarterback in question is likely to be Marcus Mariota. There is no overstating just how much the current draft situation sucks for Mariota. I don’t think an Aaron Rodgers-esque free fall is happening. There simply aren’t enough good starting quarterbacks in the NFL for so many teams to skip on him. However, rough seasons from mobile quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin have put teams even more on edge about taking spread option quarterbacks than they already were. Even a guy like Cam Newton, whose accuracy remains sporadic at best, doesn’t help Mariota’s cause, either.

What sucks even more is that much of the criticism aimed at these guys is unfair. Griffin hasn’t been the same athlete since the injury he suffered at the end of his rookie season, but here are a few things to consider: 1. He had already missed significant time at Baylor due to a knee injury before ever entering the NFL. 2. If you’ve paid attention to Griffin’s career so far, you’ll have seen a guy who has very much made the mistake of buying into his own hype. 3. The one offensive coordinator who’s been willing to adjust his scheme to Griffin’s strengths got a great season out of him. Hell, Skip Bayless was driving the Griffin-over-Luck bandwagon at about 175 miles/hour after their first season, and he wasn’t alone.

Something really bugs me about this entire mobile quarterbacks discussion. Yes, in most cases, fitting them into conventional pro-style offences is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. However, as goes the coaching maxim, you adjust the system to the players, not the players to the system, and it’s amazing to witness how completely these words of wisdom are lost on NFL offensive coaches. I’m not suggesting NFL coaches should grab 2011 tapes of Oregon’s offence and implement it overnight. However, it really makes me laugh to see the NFL community, change-averse as ever, claiming that the read option is dead in the NFL because coaches have figured it out. What complete and utter drivel! Defences haven’t “figured it out,” offences have stopped running it. I was in pain watching Kap, Griffin and Newton operating under centre last season, going through the motions of offences not at all suited to their skills.

To me, the Niners’ situation is the most puzzling. It’s as if they got together in their offices and had a discussion that went something like this (we’ll avoid mention names, so as to avoid embarrassing the individuals in question; look them up if you like) :

– Head coach: Alright, let’s get this started. Guys, I wanna get your take on the offence.

– Defensive coordinator: Sure thing, coach.

– Head coach: Now, I was watching tape. And it got me thinking… you know… this whole Kap running the ball thing is just working way too well!

– Linebackers coach: Aye, aye! The way we moved the ball against that unplayable Seattle defence in the playoffs…They just didn’t have a solution for Colin’s foot speed. I’m like, ‘Thank God we went to Crabtree against Sherman with the game on the line. Otherwise, this might have been the opening of a real Pandora’s Box!’

– Defensive coordinator : Plus, you have to think that DCs around the league are going to spend the offseason working on a solution to defend it. Right ? Tomlin said that the other day.

– Head coach: Good point. Where would you start?

– Defensive coordinator: No idea. But I’m sure someone will come up with something.

– Offensive coordinator: Well, in any case, we’d best not take any chances. I’m thinking we get Kap back under centre, run a regular offence. If it works, we’ll look like geniuses. Plus, as a bonus, we get the rest of the league to fool themselves into thinking you can just turn any spread QB into a dropback passer, so we weaken the opposition. If it doesn’t work, then we’ve proven our point.

– Head Coach: Sold! Let’s do this!

I’m being a tad facetious, but this spread quarterback discussion shows just how much of an ol’boy network NFL coaching is, and its consanguinity is costing potential starting quarterbacks careers. And I’ve got news for these coaches: spread quarterbacks aren’t going away. It just makes too much sense to take your best athlete and put the ball in his hands on every play, which you can do at no position except quarterback. High school and college teams are glad to take prototypical dropback passers when they get them, but such players are hard to find. Used to be, NCAA coaches would try to scheme their way past a lack of talent with a running quarterback. That’s still happening, but now, even top programs are going for these dual-threat athletes and are incorporating running plays for them. And they’re going to keep doing it because it works. We even see guys who could fit in “pro-style” offences in college, but who simply don’t play in them (see: Bortles, Blake).

For the NFL, terminally stuck in the 80s, the traditional pocket passer remains such an ideal that teams are willing to settle for mediocre ones instead of actually trying to model their offence around a spread system alum with rare skills. “Golly, Andy Dalton might not be able to throw more than 30 yards, and he might have an anti-clutch gene, but at least he goes through a West Coast read progression!” Think I’m exaggerating? The prohibitive favourite to be the first overall pick this season, Jameis Winston, threw 18 interceptions last season (many of which were down to mistakes by freshman receivers, but still…) Count ’em! 18. He had a potential sexual assault case against him dropped in supremely fishy circumstances and now faces a civil suit from the alleged victim. This is me talking about one of my Florida State boys. While I do think his off-the-field issues outside the potential sexual assault have been overstated and that recent comparisons to JaMarcus Russell are patently ridiculous, if I’m a Bucs executive and I know we’re about to pick him, I’m nervous on about 100 different levels right now. But hey, the other guy played in a spread-option offence, so there goes that debate!

The end result is a strange paradox: the league is more pass-oriented than ever, but it hasn’t had as few truly competent passers since, like, the seventies. And it’s not because there is less quarterbacking talent. It’s because more and more players are not used correctly. How many teams can say they are not at all in the market for an upgrade, or an update, at quarterback? People still talk about “the Big Four” of Rodgers, Manning, Brees and Brady at quarterback. Newsflash for all: Three of these four are older than 35, and Aaron Rodgers, while still in his prime, is 31. In the younger generation, we have Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson (one of the rare mobile QBs who’s actually allowed to use his legs) and if you can spot the other sure things, you’re a better talent scout than I am.

So as far as feeling safe with their quarterback situation, how shall we divide them? I propose the following categories, which go in descending order of quality:

  • Absolutely set for several more years barring a crucial injury: Green Bay, Indianapolis, Seattle, Atlanta
  • Pro Bowl-to-Hall-of-Fame hopefuls on their last bits of mileage (or balking at a move to L.A): New England, Denver, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, San Diego
  • “Not quite” guys on far too much money: Baltimore, Detroit, Dallas, Kansas City
  • Still waiting on promising young guys: Jacksonville, Oakland, Minnesota, Tennessee
  • Caught in average-to-mediocre veteran no man’s land: Chicago, New York Giants, St.Louis, Cincinnati, Arizona
  • Slightly (or not-so-slightly) freaking out about guys who should be coming of age: San Francisco, Carolina, Miami, New York Jets, Houston, Washington (In the case of the Panthers, Niners and Washington, I put 80% or more of the blame on the coaching)
  • Who the f— knows? : Philadelphia
  • Jameis Winston: Tampa Bay (Oops! That was supposed a… ahem!.. surprise!) 
  • Complete, total, unmitigated disaster: Buffalo, Cleveland

The first two categories involve guys who we know can win the Super Bowl. In fact, of those nine teams, six have quarterbacks who HAVE won a Super Bowl. But then, the second category carries guys for whom you cannot make long-term projects. (No, Ravens fans, Flacco doesn’t belong in category 1. Yes, he tends to excel in the playoffs, but he doesn’t play that way consistently enough to be a true franchise guy.)

So we have a league in which the quarterbacking is not especially healthy, but coach after coach sends quarterback after quarterback to the bust bin. So yeah, Marcus Mariota is a very big risk, but that has as much to do with the lethally inflexible coaching he’s likely to receive in the NFL as it does with his spread background. In his book Swing Your Sword, Washington State head coach Mike Leach said that the level of football at which one coaches is not really a reflection of their ability. I agree with him more every day I spend coaching and watching football. When I consider the inability to adjust to players’ strengths displayed by so many NFL coaches, I’m starting to think it might not be the quarterbacks teams ought to replace.

The Suh question

An interesting piece on Grantland asks the following: Would you want soon-to-be free agent defensive tackle Ndamokung Suh on your team?

My response: “Is that a trick question?”

To me, it deserves to be the subject of one of those silly-question Geiko ads. It ranks alongside gems of idiocy such as “Did the Lakers give up too much in the 2008 trade for Pau Gasol* ?,” or “Was it really wise for the Broncos to sign Peyton Manning to replace Tim Tebow?,” or even the ESPN First Take clanger “Would you take Tom Brady or Tebow as your quarterback with two minutes left and the game on the line?”

Yeah, but Turp! That tells us you’re passionate about your answer, not what your answer actually is! Point taken, so here goes. Yes, I would sign Ndamokung Suh, and I would do so in less time than it would take anyone to say “the best since Sapp.” For crissakes, not since Reggie White has such a dominant defensive lineman hit free agency at the peak of his powers! Sapp was almost completely over-the-hill when he went to Oakland, and though Julius Peppers arrived in Chicago with quite a bit of gas left in the tank, he was already starting to decline a bit.

That said, I have to acknowledge my bias. Yes, I struggle to hate great players at my position. Yes, I find something cathartic in watching a defensive lineman beat up on quarterbacks in a league where they are so ridiculously overprotected compared to their fellow players at other positions, in a league that so deliberately handicaps defence to favour offence. And yes, I’m the guy whose delight when he sees quarterbacks take a pounding just might be described as Joker-esque.

In other words, it’s impossible for me to hate a guy who can pull off shit like this (the whole thing’s impressive, but the tackle starting at 1:59… Oh my!) :

Or this sack of notorious don’t-give-a-shit-itis sufferer Jay Cutler (P.S.: Forget the regrettable injury and watch the play):

However, what I would now like to submit is that, while my love of Suh has an emotional component to it, so does a large part of the vitriol aimed in his direction. Not since Terrell Owens at the peak of his petulance has the league’s best player at a given position been so universally reviled. And even then, I think Suh takes the cake.

Today, Suh is not only one of the NFL’s most despised players, but also one of its most under-appreciated. Of no other player of such talent would CBS’ Pete Prisco say, in a calamity of a column, that he’s the league’s most overrated player. Is it really fair that a player who

  1. grabbed the title of best at his position during his rookie year,
  2. single-handedly alters offensive gameplans,
  3. plays with the kind of abandon that we wish all pro athletes would display,
  4. has seemingly never been anything but a model teammate, and
  5. has never said a wrong thing in the media

would have an asterisk put on his greatness by such an overwhelming amount of people in the media and in the viewing public? No, but so far, this is Suh’s legacy, and there are no signs of that changing anywhere in sight. People have just made up their minds about him.

I’m not surprised to see a guy as bright and as composed as Suh deal with his heel status by pretending he doesn’t actually have it. What impresses me a lot is to see that he hasn’t taken offence to people suggesting, both implicitly and explicitly, that his style of play diminishes his value or his greatness as a player. Do we dare put Gerald McCoy, as talented as he is, in the same conversation as Suh unless we’re trying to diminish Suh’s stock? I have my doubts. McCoy is terrific, but anyone who actually watches Suh on tape, instead of relying on the box scores, knows that his on-field dominance is so profound that the only other defensive lineman who can hope to impact games in such a way is JJ Watt**. Suh and Watt simply operate in another dimension. There are other Pro Bowl-level defensive linemen in the NFL, namely McCoy, but they belong in the “everybody else” conversation. We’re starting to see some analysts recognize that (better late than never) after Suh did a better job of harnessing his intensity this season, but it’s taking time.

But Turp! You’re conveniently leaving out that he’s such a dirty player! It’s funny how selective our memories get when it comes to these things. James Harrison caught more flack for publicly insulting Roger Goodell than for his multiple attempts at maiming opposing players. Rodney Harrison was an artist at ending seasons (see: Green, Trent) with knee-level hits, but he’s one of the best in history at his position, so we can chalk that up to intensity and to the fact that, back when Harrison played, dirty hits didn’t carry such a stigma. Bernard Pollard ended the seasons of two quarterbacks, including America’s Darling Tom Brady, but we know him as a “physical, run-stuffing safety” even though he’s the football equivalent of the fourth-line goon. And don’t even get me started on Deacon Jones. Using his patented headslap, he probably shattered more eardrums than the last 40 years of boxers and MMA fighters combined. He got away with shit 10 times worse than anything Suh would dare attempt. But the NFL Network still ranked him as the best pass rusher ever (despite the fact that it’s unclear how he projects in today’s game), and to this day, his dirty play is revered, not frowned upon.

So what’s so different about Suh? Well, the era for one. In the cartoonishly violent NFL of 12-15 years ago, he would have been a demigod. But that was then and this is now. The league now has to fake concern for player safety in the hopes of avoiding more lawsuits by former players. But I can’t help but feel there is more to it than that. I’ll concede without resistance that some of the things Suh has done (the stomp on Evan Dietrich-Smith, the kick to Matt Schaub’s groin) cannot be defended.

However, he has received penalties (and sometimes, subsequent fines) that betray the fact that officials have been instructed to flag him when in doubt. I’m in complete agreement with the analyst on this one:

And that’s just one example. The facile argument that his reputation now precedes him cannot possibly constitute a valid justification for his getting zero benefit of the doubt on the field. You can justify giving him larger fines because he has “proven” to be a “recidivist.” What you can’t do is decide that an act which would not have been considered a transgression had another player committed it suddenly becomes a transgression because it is Suh’s doing. This push is probably a 50/50 call if it’s someone other than Suh doing it, and it’s almost a guaranteed non-call if it happens to a non-quarterback. It has come to a point where Suh is now basically getting flagged for hitting too hard. Strictly speaking, many though not all of Suh’s “dirty” plays are within the rules, but given his ferocity and raw power, well… we’d best try to get him to rein it in a bit.

Another valid question pertains to where Suh’s aggressiveness (or out-of-control play, according to some) stems from. Every defensive player is told to punish ballcarriers. Few actually do it on a regular basis. They hear their coaches talk about “imposing their will,” take them with a grain of salt, and tackle players however they can. But what if you had someone with unusual ability, combined with the most pure upper-body strength of any defensive lineman since Reggie White, and who played as though he actually took the coach’s speeches 100% seriously? Would you not want that guy on your team? Would you not go out of your way to have him on your team?

Now, as for the price, well that depends. Detroit couldn’t use the franchise tag on him, which would have forced them to sign Suh to a deal that would’ve counted for nearly $27 million against the cap next season. It’s not a matter of whether he’s worth it, but giving a player such a cap-killing contract makes no sense regardless of the player’s identity. It’s a playoff-chance crippler. However, if I were advising the Lions, I would urge them not to play hardball with Suh and do everything they can to re-sign him before the start of free agency. His impact is such that a Suh-less Lions’ defence would be unrecognizable, and not in a good way. Moreover, there are lots of teams with lots of cap room who will seriously consider making a run for him. If you’re the Lions, do you really want to get into a bidding war with them, which would lead you to having to pay Suh a lot more than you’d like***?

Again, though, I’d take him on my team in a New York minute. I’ll even make a bet with you, dear readers. If he signs with my hapless Jaguars, I’m buying his jersey. Of course, he won’t, because he’s neither that stupid nor that desperate for money. If you’re going to get paid a king’s ransom wherever you go, you might as well pick a spot where you have a chance to win something. And I hope he signs with a team that’s good enough to win a Super Bowl, as well as the Defensive Player of the Year award he’s completely capably of. And that he just keeps giving the Manning-like “I just play with intensity” speech so the haters can spend even more energy spewing in a kettle of their own bile. I say this even though, quite frankly, part of me wishes he’d pull off the complete heel turn and go completely CM Punk on the NFL and its entire fanbase. Goodness knows we’ve all earned it.

* For the record, the trade was Gasol and a 2010 second-round pick going to the Lakers in exchange for 2008 and 2010 first-round picks, draft rights to Pau’s brother Marc, Javaris Crittendon, Aaron McKie and the immortal disaster zone Kwame Brown heading to Memphis. I can’t think of three more hideously one-sided trades in modern sports history. 

** My friend Gabe Flewelling, an incurable Titans homer, will be irate at me for not mentioning Albert Haynesworth. It’s true that, at his best, Haynesworth was as routinely unstoppable as Suh. His ability to take over games was quite spectacular indeed. But he also could never be bothered to give a shit unless he was playing for a contract, didn’t so much take PLAYS off as he took GAMES off, and outdid himself by taking a mammoth shit in Washington’s hands after Dan Snyder gifted him the first $100-million contract to a defensive tackle not only through his poor play but also by failing a conditioning test. I can’t take such a guy’s resume seriously, regardless of how periodically dominant he was capable of being. Even Shaq thinks Haynesworth was lazy. (Seriously! How are you a pro football player and fail a conditioning test? That’s like a high school teacher turning up for his class naked. It’s that egregious!)

*** A few hours after I published this article, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that Suh had agreed to terms with the Miami Dolphins. In related news, this raises questions about the point of free agency start date if people can agree contracts before said date. Or perhaps more to the point: what legally stops Suh’s agent Jimmy Sexton for using the now public terms of the Dolphins’ offer sheet to leverage another team, or the Phins themselves for that matter, into giving him more? If the deal gets done, though, it makes the Dolphins’ defensive line a monstrous unit provided Cameron Wake doesn’t take a plunge in terms of production. Doesn’t solve their offensive problems, but hey, they’ll hunt quarterbacks like nobody’s business. 

Why I still would take Manning over Brady… and will never change my mind

Everybody respected Ivan Drago’s talent, but very few people, if any, wanted him to beat Rocky. How could they? The boxing machine from the Evil Empire could not possibly hope to find a sympathetic soul among an American audience trained to detest and fear the USSR and communism, and to find nothing more haunting than the thought of one of their own losing to one of the bad guys.

Yeah, yeah, I know. The analogy doesn’t totally work. It’s not meant to, except to this extent: could it be that the reason why so many people would say Tom Brady is a better quarterback than Peyton Manning might come down to human interest?

A good story

Hear me out. You can’t deny that, on the scale of human interest likability, the Tom Brady story ranks as highly as any in the history of professional sports. Journalists absolutely love stories like this. Of course they do. Brady is a story to which all of us can relate on some degree. He started out as a scrawny Californian. He backed up Drew Henson at Michigan (don’t repeat that sentence too often to yourself or your brain might liquefy). He showed up at the NFL Combine skinnier than an emo high schooler, and ran that slow-ass 40-yard dash with the flappy t-shirt that had us all wondering if Brady would lift off like a kite. His body wouldn’t have caught Gisele’s attention at the time, much less impress an NFL scout. The Pats nearly opted to take Tim Rattay, one of several boogeymen who haunt the nightmares of 49ers’ fans, instead. Nevertheless, he was a sixth-round pick in a draft where the only quarterback picked in the first round was Chad Pennington, and where the likes of Chris Redman and Giovanni Carmazzi went in the third.

He got to the NFL and worked his way into being worthy of a starting job. And when Drew Bledsoe forgot to get out of bounds and paid for it with a collapsed lung from Bryan Cox, Brady seized his opportunity and never looked back. He outclassed most other NFL quarterbacks (including many a roasting of Pennington’s Jets), was a member of three Super Bowl teams in four years, married the woman of his (every man’s) dreams and became the face of the NFL’s newest most likable franchise. (Stephen A. Smith goes as far as saying they have taken the nickname of America’s Team from the Dallas Cowboys.) He was not just a good-looking, polite, humble, and worthy champion. He was the NFL’s equivalent of a self-made man, the kid who started out with absolutely zero fanfare, but built his career and his reputation from scratch, maximizing his talent with grit, determination, and class. Even his name is tailor-made for marketing departments to sell. Tom Brady. Short, simple, rolls right off the tongue. This story is so American you might as well have “America The Beautiful” playing in the background during the documentary on Brady’s life.

Sure, none of it would have mattered had he been deprived of certain gifts, namely an NFL arm. The guy just so happens to have a tad more talent for throwing a pigskin around than 99.9% of us. Still, we can like Brady for no other reason than because we think we’d show the same kind of dedication to mastering our craft if we were given the same opportunities. Or something like that.

Rehash this story in your mind, then answer me this: compared to that, who the hell could possibly hope to relate to Peyton Manning? The son of one of Mississippi and New Orleans’ greatest football darlings, Manning was pretty much guaranteed at least a look in the NFL, provided he didn’t: a) suffer a career-ending injury, b) drop out of school, c) fall victim to a substance-abuse problem or d) all of the above.

How many people can say they were born and bred, pretty much from the day they were ejected out of their mother’s womb, to play quarterback in the NFL? To ask the question is to answer it. This story, in complete contrast to Brady’s, has more potential for schadenfreude than any improbable tale you or I might come up with. The trade-off of Manning’s privileged upbringing seems to be that any success he would have in the NFL was bound to be somewhat thankless. “Wow! Peyton Manning has really lived up to the hype!” Well, of course, he has! His father is Archie Manning, Big Easy folk hero and undeniable good guy! His younger brother was also a first overall pick. He fell into the quarterbacking Kool-Aid when he was a kid. How could he not have all the right stuff? Sure, he works harder than any quarterback on the planet, but hey, he can thank his genetics too.

Let’s face it: as much as (if not more than) we like to see people who “come from nothing” succeed, we sure love to see people who appear to have it all fail. Upsets aren’t just great because the little guy gets to win every once in a while, they’re great because the big guy loses. And don’t we ever love seeing the big guy get a reality check?

So, Turp, uh… What was the point of psycho-analyzing the universal appeal of David vs Goliath? My point is this: as much as we recognize Manning’s skill, work ethic, and greatness, there is still a large portion of us that takes all of it for granted.

Taking Manning for granted

Exaggerating, am I? I really don’t think so.

How many times must a Super Bowl champion, and a player who so routinely makes playing the quarterback position look as simple as playing it in the Madden games, be told that more is needed in order for us to finally admit that no one has ever played the quarterback position quite like him? But maybe his continued dominance has been the problem all along. Again, we expect it of him, and we always have. Mississippians expected it of him in high school because he was a Manning. We expected it of him in college because he is a Manning. Then we expected it of him because he was a National Champion and a Heisman Trophy finalist. Then we expected it of him because he was all those things and a first overall pick. And at every stage of his career, from college to the draft process to the NFL, there have been quite a few of us who have had the gall to tell him that it wasn’t enough.

Defensive players don’t edge top offensive players for the Heisman trophy. They just don’t. But wait… it happened to one dominant quarterback. Care to guess who? That’s right. Manning is the butt of the joke and the exception that proves the rule, having lost the 1997 Heisman to Michigan’s Charles Woodson. (Delightful irony: The year Manning lost the Heisman to Woodson was also the year voters stupidly named Karl Malone NBA MVP over Michael Jordan, for no other reason than their desire for something new. Is there a parallel with the NCAA media feeling that Manning, having won the 1996 National Championship, was yesterday’s news? Crazier ideas have been voiced. Now, awarding the Heisman to Woodson over Manning is not the crime scene that was picking Malone over Jordan. I love Woodson; I think he’s one of the best defensive backs ever to play the game. But again, defensive players NEVER win the Heisman. I always bemoan it. But they just never do.)

Then came the draft process. Sure, Manning is good, but there’s this hotshot out there called Ryan Leaf who just might have more upside. Maybe Leaf should be the first pick. Those who dared utter those words should have been forced to seek political asylum, but for Peyton Manning, it was just another getting-taken-for-granted day at the office. Then, people started asking for Super Bowls while conveniently ignoring the sheer mediocrity of the defences he was asked to compensate for.

Consider Manning’s second season (1999). The Colts finished 13-3, up from 3-13 (not too shabby, just sayin’…), but when the playoffs came around, they were unfortunate enough to stumble onto another 13-3 team, the Titans, who had Eddie George S&M-ing bad defences into admitting they didn’t deserve to live. In what universe is a 13-3 team a wild card squad, you ask? In a universe where the Jacksonville Jaguars are 14-2, but I digress (I had to put that in. I just had to!). Now, just look at this shit soufflé of a Colts defence from top to bottom: Chad Bratzke, Ellis Johnson, Cornelius Bennett (solid starters); Mike Peterson as a rookie, Tyrone Poole, Jason Belser (Passable starters); Bernard Whittington, Shawn King, Mike Barber, Chad Cota, Jeff Burris (stiffs).

Project that over the bulk of Manning’s Indy career, and while there were a few upgrades (replacing Bratzke in the role of main pass rusher with Dwight Freeney, Mike Peterson maturing into a fringe Pro Bowler), the overall level of the Colts’ defence always remained comparable to that of 1999’s meddling unit. (Even Bennett had a subpar year in ’99; only Bratzke and Johnson played at a truly high level.) Later, Peterson left for Jacksonville, and the Colts never replaced him or their lesser players at linebacker. Nor did they ever put it together in the secondary, where they seemed allergic to any cornerback over 5-9 during the whole of Tony Dungy’s tenure as head coach of the Colts. In the meantime, Manning was busy making Brandon Stokley into a 1,000-yard receiver, not to mention fooling the world into thinking that you could get away with starting guys like Blair White and Hank Baskett at wideout. But hey, he just hasn’t won enough Super Bowls.

Compounding this narrative is the infamous Super Bowl loss against the Seahawks, for which Manning routinely gets blamed. I remember Michael Wilbon on PTI saying, “I don’t wanna hear about the O-Line; Manning had a bad game.” That should have gotten Wilbon banned from getting to talk football ever again. Sure, you can blame the loss on Manning… if you accept that:

  1. Part of his job description includes catching snaps that go six feet over his head.
  2. He should be able to throw touchdown passes while blocking for himself and his running backs.
  3. He should have singlehandedly rescued Eric Decker from Sherman Island.
  4. He should have managed to rematerialize Demaryius Thomas, who was getting his ass shut down, before the game was lost. (Don’t give me the offended face and his final stats. Watch the game again. How many of his receptions were in garbage time? How many went for over 10 yards? That’s right, case closed.)
  5. He should have played both ways and singlehandedly made up for the no-show from Denver’s defence.

So yeah, Wilbon, you might think Manning had a bad game. If you had a head injury.

Meanwhile, the way he plays quarterback is both an art and a science. Words fail to do it justice. He dissects defences like no other quarterback in history. And it took him about three years to become his team’s de facto offensive coordinator. Recently, there was a pundit who talked about how Emmanuel Sanders suddenly looked like a man possessed and said that it was an important signing because he really fit Peyton Manning’s offence. It was not a bad way to phrase it at all. Peyton Manning has long been not just a quarterback, but an offence. I might be wrong, but I think this means something. It’s representative of what has always been asked of him, and of what he expects from himself. Brady deserves credit for adapting his game to what his many coordinators wanted to do, but we can’t forget that it was convenient for him to do so. 2007 aside, the effect was always that it took tons of pressure off him, while Manning assumed that pressure head-on because, again, that’s how much of a contributor he expects himself to be.

Then again, another one of Manning’s problems is that he’s about as anti-Hollywood as it gets. And trust me, I remember the young Manning; he’s far better at looking human for the media than he once was. Look back to Manning as a rookie. He’s practically looking at the camera like it’s one of those alien tripods from War of the Worlds and he fears getting get zapped into dust. Great attribute to keep one focused on getting better on the field, sucks for a league that’s trying to sell a product, and the media trying to sell heart-warming human interest stories, off it.

I’m not saying Manning never had a bad game; I’m not saying he never had a bad moment in crunch time. But every time his defence gets pounded by an Eddie George, every time his offensive line goes MIA, every Willie McGinest sack-fumble, all of it is blamed on him. He has been a monster at the position at both the micro and the macro level, yet he’s almost systematically greeted with a “yeah, but…” This would be OK, I suppose, were the NFL fanbase not so vastly more indulgent with Brady.

Pro-Brady double standards abound…

While everyone constantly asks Manning for more, they tend to look at Brady through pink-tainted glasses.

Everyone talks about the superiority of Manning’s offensive weapons for most of his career compared to Brady’s. It’s not a meritless argument. I’d take Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne any day over the likes of Troy Brown, David Patten or David Givens. However, anyone who’s watched enough football will tell you that it’s much easier to disguise your athletic shortcomings with scheme on offence than on defence. Charlie Weis, whatever appropriate criticism anyone may have of him, can really draw up and call a play. On defence, you can do certain things to confuse the offence, sure. But with defence being a game of reaction, you have much less control over what the matchups are when the ball is snapped. Whatever weaknesses your defence has, they WILL stick out like a sore thumb, especially against good coaching. Thus, while Brady does get props for getting good production out of the likes of Deion Branch, he did benefit from a superior defence that decided many of his tougher games.

Also, when did having a good supporting cast become an argument to diminish someone’s accomplishments? No one dared question Joe Montana’s spot atop the QB pyramid until Brady showed up, and Joe had the benefit of playing with a pre-salary-cap juggernaut, which, of course, included the greatest receiver of all time. Moreover, did we forget that the one year when Brady was statistically transcendent, he had Randy Moss to throw it to, not to mention the fact that they were passing as much as a run-and-shoot team? And, just to be sure, did I mention Randy Moss? Seriously, Harrison was great, so was Wayne. None of the two is Moss. Ochoquatro just be might the most talented receiver to ever play in the NFL. Give that dude to Brady along with Wes Welker as a perfect complement to his skills, and Moss destroyed the NFL and stopped just short of claiming ownership of it. Oh, so Brady only had Moss at full-strength for a year? Yeah, and he only had a season like 2007 with Moss on the field. I know this is supposed to prove he could do about as well as Manning with a superior supporting cast, and it does. But let’s not pretend he set the world alight in a similar way when Moss wasn’t there.

On another matter, everyone wants to slam Manning for so-called bad performances in playoff games, but it’s not as though Brady has been completely immaculate in the playoffs, either. Before this year, the Pats had not won the Super Bowl since 2004. This is not a coincidence. Brady has had less-than-stellar moments himself, only most of the time, his teammates didn’t take the kind of dump in his hands Manning was subjected to. Remember when Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck turned Super Bowl 2008 into a pass rush party? Well, by Wilbon’s logic and by that of Manning’s detractors, we should hold this against Brady. I don’t, but you know,  just sayin’… Nobody does. The Giants D-Line had Brady so rattled he threw two separate one-hoppers on screen plays. Then, when the Pats faced the Giants again in the Super Bowl, Brady had a game-losing overthrow intended for a wide… ass… open Wes Welker on fourth down. So while Brady-acs can’t stop talking about the horrendous interception Manning threw to Tracy Porter in the Super Bowl against the Saints, they can’t look me in the eye with a straight face and tell me Brady’s clutch overthrow didn’t damage his team’s chances to win as much as Manning’s pick. And two years ago, when Brady faced Manning with Peyton’s team being the strongest, Gisele’s husband looked as helpless as Manning would look two weeks later, only Brady got hit less. But he wasn’t brilliant by any stretch of the imagination. People conveniently forget this.

And don’t even get me started on the football gods inventing the stupid tuck rule to help the Pats weasel past the superior Raiders, or about the fact that Brady was named Super Bowl MVP against the Rams. Watch Ty Law’s game again. 7 tackles, a sack, and a pick-6, on a defence that limited the “Greatest Show on Turf” to 17 points while the Pats’ offence was stagnating? I don’t want to hear about the last drive! Giving the award to Brady is a scandal. Again, people conveniently forget this.

Also, remember when people were saying Manning was kind of a hard-ass with offensive teammates, while Brady was supposedly all smiles and his teammates loved him for it? And remember how that somewhat swayed the intangibles comparison in favour of Brady? Well, maybe the part about Brady was true when he was a second-year guy and would have been out of place to call out some of the more seasoned vets, but after that, he was every bit as much of a hard-ass as Manning was, so there goes that theory. But what chance does reality have against a myth?

Want the most egregious example of this double standard? Bill Simmons, the notable Boston homer, had the nerve to compare Brady-Manning with the Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain debate. Let us not waste much time over this calamity except for one thing: Celtics fans revere Russell because he was the quintessential team player, a guy who always focused on being whatever his team needed him to be. He won 11 titles in 13 years in the 50s and 60s. So New Englanders make the easy connection: Wow! Brady really is a lot like that.

I’m even willing to grant it to them. But let us make no mistake: the buck stops there. While Manning has been a model teammate and leader who instantly turns his team into a Super Bowl contender, Wilt was a ridiculously talented but seriously misguided self-destructive coach killer who never had a clue what team dynamics are about. Any comparison with Manning is positively ludicrous. But Brady-acs love it, because it allows them to paint Brady as the intangibly perfect myth of a quarterback while Manning is concurrently the stats machine who is tangibly as close to perfection as possible, but somehow intangibly flawed.

It is a complete farce. But I am positively staggered by the number of people who seem to actually believe it.

In the end…

There is positively no doubt in my mind that we are talking about two of the best three quarterbacks ever to play the game. What decides it for me is something Simmons’ buddy Chuck Klosterman so eloquently wrote when making a case for Wilt as being superior to Russell. The beauty of sports icons being credited with possessing intangible greatness, he wrote, is that fans can make them into whatever myth they want because their imagination is not, in such cases, restricted by reality. It makes for a beautiful fantasy, but it is by no means a path to the truth. There is no comparison between the two when we pick the better human interest story, but unless we agree to look at sports through no other lens than that of the media, we cannot allow this fact to play a role in our final verdict.

So let’s get back down to earth for a second. If we agree that Manning’s statistical superiority, thanks to his mostly superior receivers, is moot, then so is Brady’s title count, for he usually had the better overall team. Therefore, it is problematic to point to Brady’s four (cue to Raiders’ fans losing their shit) Super Bowls, even as a tiebreaker, because none of them were all down to him. All that remains is what we should have been doing from the beginning, which is to look at these two players’ individual performances. Then, we should ask ourselves this question: if we forget the simpleminded notion that nothing matters in sports except for the winner of the last game of the season, in a vaccum, which of these two giants was actually better at playing the quarterback position?

It’s close. I would pick Brady over a ton of people. But I wouldn’t pick him over Manning.

Charlie Hebdo, CBC et mon 7 janvier 2015

Au-delà du caractère intrinsèquement choquant d’un attentat meurtrier comme celui survenu au Charlie Hebdo, on peut faire ce que beaucoup ont déjà fait, c’est-à-dire dénoncer l’atrocité des gestes posés, proclamer haut et fort l’importance de la liberté d’expression ainsi que notre détermination à ne pas nous laisser intimider par une telle barbarie. Certes, des témoignages comme celui de Philippe Val, ancien directeur de Charlie Hebdo, sont touchants. Toutefois, les mots (ou les dessins d’ailleurs) ne sont que cela s’ils n’inspirent rien d’autre que des voeux pieux. Voilà quelque chose que les défunts employés de Charlie Hebdo avaient compris. C’est pour cela qu’ils sont demeurés défiants jusqu’à la toute fin.

Nous avons beaucoup entendu, le jour de l’attentat meurtrier, les politiciens parler de l’importance d’être vigilants. Bien dit. Je me permets toutefois d’espérer que la fureur que nous ressentons à voir l’expression réprimée par la violence poussera notre vigilance plus loin. Plus spécifiquement, je souhaite qu’elle nous mène à faire preuve de la même méfiance à l’endroit des tactiques de censure plus subtiles et, lorsque nous sommes témoins de ces tactiques, de la même fougue que celle manifestée aujourd’hui.

C’est assez mal parti. J’apprenais, par le journaliste Steve Rukavina, que la CBC a décidé de ne pas diffuser les caricatures du Charlie Hebdo. Le motif: on ne voulait pas, nous dit-on, offusquer la population musulmane canadienne. J’étais à la fois amusé et indigné de voir Rukavina, sur Twitter, réduit à dire que la décision n’était pas la sienne et qu’elle émanait de ses patrons.

Pour moi, la décision de la CBC est lâche et indéfendable. Ses journalistes ont passé la journée à nous dire que l’atrocité du Charlie Hebdo ne représente pas la majorité des Musulmans. D’accord là-dessus, mais cet énoncé me ramène à une question qui ne revient pas assez souvent à mon goût: qu’est-ce qui distingue les musulmans de cette majorité dont il est souvent question des fondamentalistes comme ceux qui ont abattu les gens de Charlie Hebdo? Je ne vois qu’une possibilité, c’est-à-dire que la majorité des musulmans ont choisi de pratiquer leur religion à la carte, ignorant les diktats barbares, datés ou autrement incompatibles avec la vie en société civile. Et pourtant, la CBC a déterminé que la valeur journalistique des dessins était moins importante que le fait d’épargner les sentiments des musulmans canadiens…

Pourquoi? Au nom de qui parmi eux? Neil MacDonald de la CBC le dit sans détour: le sujet est trop radioactif. Il ajoute que les médias de masse acceptent de diffuser du contenu qui taquine toutes les autres religions, mais pas l’Islam.

Voilà qui nous confirme que cette décision est à ne pas confondre avec le simple acte de courtoisie. C’est d’abord infantiliser les musulmans canadiens d’un point de vue émotif que de penser qu’ils sont incapables de voir des caricatures sans innonder la CBC de plaintes, de poursuites ou pire. De plus, les musulmans qui ont accepté les idéaux démocratiques et constitutionnels canadiens, sans bien sûr qu’on exige d’eux d’être complètement à l’aise avec le contenu des caricatures, pourraient accepter qu’elles consistuent un élément clé du reportage sur la fusillade dont elles sont le motif et par conséquent qu’on les montre, non?

Et ceux qui voudraient me répondre que ce n’est que des Islamistes que la CBC a peur n’aident pas leur cause. Soit la CBC nous ment en plein visage pour éviter de dire carrément qu’ils craignent des réprésailles islamistes (raté puisqu’encore une fois, Neil MacDonald l’a admis), soit la CBC est sincère dans son intention de ne pas offusquer les musulmans et est moins convaincue qu’elle ne le laisse paraître de leur émancipation constamment évoquée par rapport aux passages plus lubiques du Coran. Ou les deux. La voilà bien, la réelle insulte aux musulmans modérés.

Ce navrant épisode me ramène donc à l’un des premiers songes que je me suis permis une fois l’horreur de l’instant quelque peu estompée. Certes, il faut se méfier de la possibilité d’un attentat violent et être aux aguets. Cependant, nous dépendons surtout de nos forces de l’ordre pour nous protéger de ceux qui attaquent notre appareil démocratique de l’extérieur. Ce qui est en notre pouvoir et qui, à mon sens, est de notre devoir, c’est de rester à l’affût de ceux qui chercheraient plutôt à l’attaquer de l’intérieur en retournant contre nous nos institutions démocratiques et judiciaires. De dénoncer vigoureusement ceux qui, abusant des limites trop expansives à mon goût de la liberté d’expression, tentent de mettre leur religion à l’abri de la critique. Et enfin, surtout, d’éviter d’être cléments avec ceux qui nous semblent déterminés à s’offusquer.

Quand à ce dernier élément, un de mes idoles, Christopher Hitchens, relève d’ailleurs son caractère problématique. Après les incidents au Danemark en lien avec les caricatures du Jyllands-Posten, il écrivait ceci (ma traduction) :

“j’ai fait une apparition à CNN, qui était si terrifiée de représailles potentielles qu’elle a pixelisé les dessins que ses téléspectateurs avaient besoin de voir. Et cette peur ignoble à Atlanta émanait d’une illustration dans un petit journal scandinave dont personne n’avait entendu parler! N’est-il donc pas clair que ceux qui sont déterminés à être “offusqués” découvriront une provocation quelque part? Nous ne pourrons jamais suffisamment nous ajuster au goût des fanatiques, et est dégradant le simple fait d’essayer.” (Pleine chronique de Hitchens en anglais disponible ici.)

Pour ma part, j’avais abordé la question lorsqu’une poursuite par une école musulmane de Montréal contre Djemila Benhabib m’avait mis en rogne. Cette mauvaise humeur m’avait poussé à écrire ceci:

Donner aux gens le droit de s’offusquer, c’est-à-dire le pouvoir de citer leur offusquement comme argument, est un luxe que nous ne pouvons pas nous permettre. La protection de la liberté d’expression et même de la liberté de religion dépend de la diminution maximale des tabous, tant de leur teneur que de leur nombre. Le fait que les propos de Djemila Benhabib fassent l’objet d’une poursuite nous montre à quel point certains individus sont prêts à utiliser nos institutions, sensées nous protéger du totalitarisme, pour nous imposer leurs tendances totalitaires. Peut-être le fait de donner à ces gens le droit de s’offusquer donne-t-il bonne conscience à notre société, mais l’affaire Benhabib nous montre que d’accorder ce droit représente un choix toxique et potentiellement fatal pour nos valeurs démocratiques.

Il n’est pas nécessaire de mépriser les pratiquants d’une religion, dont la personnalité et la vie sont souvent bien trop riches pour se résumer à la simple foi religieuse, pour décrier le réflexe que peuvent avoir nos sociétés d’accorder aux religions le droit au prosélytisme tout en accédant à leurs demandes d’être protégées de la critique. À aucune autre institution ne donnons-nous ainsi le beurre et l’argent du beurre. Et à mon sens, aucune institution religieuse n’a fait quoi que ce soit pour le mériter. J’admire les défunts membres de Charlie Hebdo non pas pour le détail de chacune de leurs caricatures, mais pour le fait qu’ils aient compris cela. Et bien sûr parce que ce sont les excès de ceux qui revendiquent ce double-privilège dont le journal se moque, pas des pratiquants en général.

Ce qui me ramène à la saga en l’apparence anodine de la décision de la CBC de ne pas montrer les caricatures. Je faisais référence à l’admission de Neil MacDonald à l’effet que les médias de masse n’aspirent pas à être Charlie. Retournez voir son “édito” plus haut. Écoutez attentivement sa dernière phrase. Pour ceux qui ne parlent pas anglais, grosso modo: “J’aimerais que des voyous et des meurtriers ne puissent pas intimider des membres de ma profession. Mais je ne suis pas naïf à ce point-là.”

J’admire sa candeur, mais le tout ne m’est pas moins désolant. Et ce qui m’a davantage déprimé a été d’aller consulter son compte Twitter, où de nombreux journalistes semblaient prendre son constat pour des paroles de sagesse. S’il est empreint d’une lucidité certaine, le propos de MacDonald n’en est pas moins symptomatique d’une capitulation. Peut-être celle-ci est-elle le produit de l’expérience, de la frustration ou d’un réalisme résigné qui s’installe après avoir passé suffisamment de temps dans les coulisses de la “business” du journalisme. Peut-être viens-je de passer 1 400 mots à être excessivement dur avec la CBC étant donné les circonstances. Mais je ne la critique pas parce qu’elle ne tente pas d’être Charlie Hebdo dans la forme; pas sûr que ce serait souhaitable. Sauf que si elle n’essaie pas ne serait-ce qu’un peu d’être aussi animée, sceptique, critique que CH sur le fond, même par rapport à l’Islam, il y a déjà de quoi s’inquiéter. Si, en plus, elle multiplie, de son propre aveu, les déplorables démonstrations d’auto-censure comme celle d’aujourd’hui, force est de constater que les meurtriers de Paris, à bien plus grande échelle que ce qu’ils pensent, ont déjà gagné.

Letter to Jameis Winston

Dear Jameis,

I know this is one letter you won’t read, especially since it comes from an FSU fan from Canada. As I write this letter, you have been cleared of misconduct charges in your code-of-conduct hearing at Florida State, and you get to focus on the upcoming Rose Bowl against Oregon. Look at this letter as my way to cope with feelings that I suspect many FSU fans experienced when it comes to you, although they probably would have preferred losing that dumpster fire of a game against Florida rather than admit to it.

See, I watched the 2013 season, and by extension, you, and I loved every moment of it. I loved your 24-of-26 game against Pitt, I loved the big comeback to win the National Championship against an Auburn team that outplayed us for most of the game. But more importantly, I loved that destruction of Clemson in Clemson, and I adored your pregame speech.

I’m sitting there going, “And this is a freshman? Oh, this is going to be fun!” On the field, you were, and have been since then, one of the purest incarnations of leadership and poise I’ve ever seen. And for the first time in a long time, such an incarnation was wearing an FSU uniform. To make the moment even more glorious for me, it came against Clemson, a team I’m fairly sure I despise more than most Noles’ fans. Having to watch this team steal top Florida prospects from us, and then not coach them for four years before they bomb in the NFL is painful. Especially considering that, during Bobby Bowden’s final few years, they beat us pretty regularly.

You have to understand just how desperate we were, as a fanbase, for the arrival of someone like you. We had to endure a long global decline of the program, after Weinke and Warrick’s National Champions, that wasn’t completely erased until you arrived. Though Christian Ponder pulled the program out of the ground and EJ Manuel improved it even more, we could feel it getting better, but we knew we weren’t there yet. And in the meantime, we had to deal with a whole bunch of shit we never had to worry about before. Picture having to ask yourself whether we were going to take one up the chin from powerhouses like Virginia, Wake Forest or Boston College. Imagine having to endure two last-gasp game-winning drives in three years from Russell Wilson’s NC State. But worst of all, think about just how excruciating it was to hear everybody gloat about how amazing those insufferable, gag-inspiring, self-righteous Tebow Gators were.

You allowed us to move on from this dark period as a fan base. You symbolized our return to prominence. Non-sports fans can’t understand just how amazing that feels to us actual fans who usually take this stuff too seriously. 2013 was like a dream, and you were the face of that dream.

So the rape accusations? Man…

In the grand scheme of things, I’m not really concerned about you stealing a bunch of crab legs, though which voice in your head told you this was a good idea is completely beyond me. On its own, it could be dismissed as a youthful error in judgement, And I care even less about the whole “F*** her right in the p****!” incident, which is really quite juvenile, but on the face of it, it’s a mere facepalm moment. It sure wouldn’t have gone down, in any case, as your proudest moment as an ambassador of the program, but the only reason why it’s not seen as almost harmless is because a) it made your lapses in judgement look like the rule and not the exception and b) it happened in the context of rape accusations, giving the story a darkly ironic feel.

You see, Jameis, what I’ve done so far is what we journalists call burying the lede. I did it mostly to establish the context of my anger towards you. I say this because you have put yourself in a position where football should take a backseat to the damage you’re accused of having caused. Stealing crab legs? I can call it an error in judgement. Yelling an obscenity in a public place? Ibid. But if you did rape that girl? That’s not just an error in judgement. Aside from flat-out murder, it’s not a stretch to say it’s the most reprehensible thing one can do to a fellow human being.

And what it looks like from the outside, Jameis, is that you were protected from the consequences of your actions simply because you’re a great football player. Now, the judge’s ruling says you are innocent. However, the stats suggest you did it. Deadspin’s Daniel Roberts calculated that the odds of someone being falsely accused of rape vary between 50,000 and 200,000 to one, and that’s accounting for the fact that 68% of rapes in the United States go unreported. In other words, to say the stats suggest you did it is a strong euphemism. They scream it. Emphatically.

I must reiterate that none of this constitutes actual proof in your individual case. The average person can be forgiven, however, for looking at those stats, along with the interests of the people involved, and coming to the conclusion that two plus two equals four. The ‘Noles are what the otherwise banal city of Tallahassee has for entertainment. Your head coach, Jimbo Fisher, is now the highest-paid public sector employee in the state of Florida in no small part because of you. A successful Seminoles football team is a tremendous source of revenue for Florida State University.

As for you, an immensely lucrative NFL career awaits. Yeah, I know, you’re in for a brutally exhausting interview process at the combine. Teams are going to fire a lot of questions about every transgression you’ve committed, and that doesn’t even include the rape accusations. Some wise-ass coach might even shout “RAPIST WINSTON!” as you enter the room. Some teams will take you off their draft board altogether. But not all of them. And the teams that need a quarterback have very few options at the position in the 2015 draft. Marcus Mariota? He’s likely going first overall, but I can promise you that some, if not all, teams who figure to have a chance to draft him, are going to take a long look at you because you’ve played in a pro-style offence. Consider the atrocious year it’s been for mobile, former spread/option quarterbacks in the NFL. Kaepernick, Cam, RG3, all these guys are going to make teams really nervous about taking Mariota, or any spread/option product. Add that to the fact that the best pro-style quarterback in the draft after you is Michigan State’s Connor Cook (at best a slightly better version of Kirk Cousins), plus that you now have next to zero chance of going to jail, and it’s easy to see how your stock is bound to climb. Teams’ll just bring themselves to consider you and say things such as, “Well… he wasn’t actually convicted of anything. In fact, he was never criminally charged. Plus, he’s a great leader, and the skills are there.” Next thing you know, you’ll be a first-round pick in spite of all this chaos.

All this figures to happen despite the fact that the investigation into your accuser’s claim was so obviously botched that, again, anyone trying to connect the dots can easily come to the conclusion that the botch job was intentional and done solely to protect your team, your school and you. Between the systemic dismissive treatment of rape victims when they do come forward and your importance to the livelihood of many successful figures at FSU, one is on safe ground when saying that you, your head coach, your athletic director and Florida State University as whole, have millions of reasons to lie about what happened while your accuser has next to none.

You can claim your innocence. Your lawyer can come out and say this is the worst attack job in the history of amateur sports. Jimbo Fisher can back you up as unconditionally as he has. But of course all those things will happen. Meanwhile, the mishandled investigation, which, obviously, produced insufficient evidence to warrant any criminal charges, seems far too convenient. It makes you, your lawyer, and Coach Fisher come across as disingenuous. It discredits any FSU fan who attempts to defend you, no matter how valid their arguments might be in theory.

Under no circumstance does the legal system require you to prove your innocence, and I cannot per se hold it against you that you haven’t. But there is a giant difference between a lack of evidence in a properly-conducted investigation and a so-called lack of evidence in an investigation with enough procedural irregularities to make it unbelievable even if you tried to make a crime-thriller movie about it. You can say the investigation produced no evidence of wrongdoing on your part but, given its flaws, you can’t expect people to take it seriously.

In the meantime, I grit my teeth thinking that your situation has made the team so unlikable that everybody keeps fishing for reasons to knock us out of playoff contention. We started the season at number 1, and were dropped as low as number 4. Do we get dropped to 4 without this rape accusations fiasco? I have my doubts. Coach Fisher has spent the year spewing a narrative along the lines of, “our guys use the nation’s hatred to fuel their focus and togertherness.” Fuel their focus? You must joking! You have played like anything but a focused team. You guys are way too talented to have to squeeze out victories in extremis, wrestling-heel style, against the OK-at-best ACC competition you faced this year.

I hate feeling at least a bit unclean at the idea that I might be supporting a (more) morally bankrupt program (than all the others) when I read take-down pieces like this one. Drew Magary can be a blowhard, and he’s being one here, but it becomes harder to dismiss the substance of his argument when I read this from a writer I respect and can’t bring myself to disagree with much of what he says. Here’s what I’ll say in defence-ish of your statement: we should not minimize the gravity of a false rape accusation just to emphasize the gravity of an actual rape, and it seems to me several journalists are guilty of this. But even then, I kinda get their point. You were wrong, morally at least, to pretend that rape and false rape accusations are equivalent in legal or moral terms. They are not.

I’ll never forget 2013, but I find myself wishing you’ll declare for the upcoming NFL Draft not because I don’t like you, not because I think we’d be better on the field without you (an idea so idiotic it should cause anyone to question the sanity of the person who utters it), but because things have reached the point where I don’t want you to be FSU’s problem anymore. But all these admittedly selfish footballing preoccupations are irrelevant compared to the more important one: if you did do it, and the undeniable fishiness of the investigation forces me to keep asking myself the question, then there is a young lady out there suffering not only from the traumatic experience of the rape itself, but from the inevitable slut-shaming she’s probably been facing since she filed the accusation. And this would be both a tragedy and a scandal. So is the fact that she would have faced all of it anyway, from the less reputable FSU fans, even if you HAD been found guilty. This is what you have forced us, as fans of both you and of the Florida State Seminoles, to square our morals with.

So go on and prepare for the Rose Bowl. You’re going to need all the preparation you can squeeze into whatever time you have left before the game. Hell, if you and the team play as you have all year, you’re getting blown out by at least 30 points against this steamroller of an Oregon offence.

Not that this was ever the point.

Regards,

AT

Petite critique de Cyrano de Bergerac du TNM

Cyrano de Bergerac, tel que monté par le Théâtre du Nouveau Monde et mis en scène par Serge Denoncourt, m’a laissé dans un curieux état. J’ai quitté le théâtre à la fois impressionné et fâché, comme si on m’avait servi un repas cinq étoiles dans une assiette de carton.

Patrice Robitaille, que j’étais incapable d’imaginer jouer Cyrano, me fait ravaler mes paroles en livrant une performance d’une impressionnante solidité. Le rôle est titanesque, immanquablement l’un des plus grands de l’histoire du théâtre, peu importe la langue, et Robitaille parvient à rester touchant du début à la fin. Son monologue à Roxane sous le balcon de cette dernière, lorsque Cyrano se substitue à un Christian incapable de charmer une femme si sa vie en dépendait, est épatant de sincérité.

J’ai aussi éprouvé une grande admiration pour Magalie Lépine-Blondeau (Roxane) et François-Xavier Dufour (Christian) étant donné la façon dont ils ont su donner vie à la vision parfois réductrice de Denoncourt des deux personnages. Ils font tout ce qu’ils peuvent et leur énergie et leur talent transcendent la mise en scène. Dans le même ordre d’idées, à part quelques moments inégaux ici et là, notamment des accents gascons un peu surfaits, les personnages secondaires et ceux qui les interprètent sont solides.

Cependant, certains choix du metteur en scène Denoncourt s’expliquent mal. Le fait que la pièce soit produite en collaboration avec Juste pour Rire ne rend ni nécessaire ni approprié de tenter de la jouer pour aller chercher des rires. Ce désir apparemment profond de Denoncourt de faire de l’humour bien au-delà de ce qui ressort naturellement du texte nuit considérablement aux personnages de Roxane et de Christian. La première a parfois des airs de diva de film d’ado. Elle semble par moments si superficielle qu’on s’imagine mal comment un être aussi profond et raffiné que Cyrano s’éprendrait d’une telle potiche. Quant à Christian, il semble tout droit sorti d’une pièce de Feydau tant il est bouffon ici. Cette Roxane et ce Christian se méritent, ce qui ne se veut pas un compliment, soit dit en passant.

Ma confusion quant à la démarche de Denoncourt ne se limite pas à cela. Tout au long du spectable, on peine à déterminer en qui/quoi, du public, de ses acteurs ou du texte, Denoncourt a le moins confiance. Qu’est-ce qui a possédé le metteur en scène de doter la pièce d’une trame sonore pratiquement plagiée lourdement inspirée de Spiegel Im Spiegel d’Arvo Pärt? Que cherchait-il à faire? À signaler au public un peu niais que c’est maintenant qu’il faut brailler ou faire “onnnnnnnnnnnn!” ?

Je sais que ne s’attaque pas à Serge Denoncourt qui veut, mais quelqu’un aurait dû s’assurer qu’il était au courant que c’est Cyrano de Bergerac qu’il présente. Ce texte serait émouvant s’il était récité par Daniel Lemire dans son personnage des pubs de Listerine des années 90. Il est donc impardonnable de rajouter cette musique, qui infantilise le public en lui disant ce qu’il doit ressentir. Ce l’est d’autant plus qu’un metteur en scène aussi chevronné que Denoncourt devrait savoir qu’une trame sonore aussi peu subtile n’aide pas la puissance des moments forts de la pièce; elle la diminue. Je repense à la déclaration d’amour de Cyrano sous le balcon. Il y a un moment où il aurait été possible d’apprécier un silence si lourd de sens que cela aurait été LE fait saillant de cette production. Sauf que, right on cue, la mautadite musique intervient et prive le moment de toutes ses nuances. Et pourquoi? Pour nous faire dire “onnnnnnnnnn!”, malgré le fait que même sans musique, il faudrait être comateux pour ne pas être touché par la beauté du moment et par le flair dramatique de Robitaille.

Parlant de Robitaille, cela me rappelle qu’il faut insister sur la qualité de la prestation des acteurs, qui portent à bout de bras cette production et qui valent à eux seuls le déplacement. Ça reste une distribution qui n’a pas à être complexée de ce qu’elle accomplit. Et ça reste Cyrano. Je reviens à mon analogie du repas cinq étoiles dans l’assiette de carton. Oui, la présentation laissait à désirer et il a pratiquement fallu manger avec nos mains. Mais quel repas!

The Prodigal Son Returns

In the end, it turns out neither LeBron James nor the Cleveland Cavaliers could go on without each other. Back in 2010, “The Decision” was received by several basketball fans and non-fans much the same way wrestling fans took Hulk Hogan’s betrayal of WCW and the subsequent creation of the NWO. LeBron had become a wrestling heel on that day. The difference, however, is that while Hogan knew what he was getting into by turning the most popular character in wrestling history into its biggest bullying jackass, James clearly never meant his switch to Miami as a heel turn. It’s not that “real sports” don’t function like wrestling, with storylines and characters. Of course, they do; the media make sure of that. It’s just that LeBron is not comfortable with being a heel. That much was obvious even during his time in Miami.

Meanwhile, the Cavaliers never recovered from LeBron’s departure. Owner Dan Gilbert wrote him an angry letter that was only taken off the Cavaliers website a few days ago (a fact that still baffles my mind), when James’ return to Cleveland became a distinct possibility. The Cavs stumbled around for four years in a swamp of on-court mediocrity fueled by horrendous personnel decisions and a general feeling of being cursed. “God hates Cleveland,” the saying goes, and the city’s fans have adhered to this belief a long time ago.

There will not be a more important piece of news in the sporting world in 2014. (Well, in any country not named Germany, anyway.) James’ return helps the Cavs in more ways than mere on-court performance. It shines a positive light on a Cavaliers’ team that has seldom attracted spotlight for reasons other than ridicule since LeBron’s departure.

As was the case for many NBA observers, I could not believe LeBron would return to Cleveland. The split had been too painful and violent, the backlash too great. The mere existence of Dan Gilbert’s letter was one thing, but the words he used were another. They were not just hyperbolic, they were personal. Gilbert attacked LeBron not merely on his judgement, but on his character. I never would have handled “The Decision” as poorly as James did, but had someone said of me the things Gilbert said of LeBron, I could never have forgiven him, much less play for the man’s team again.

Was the decision to return to Cleveland as selfless as LeBron makes it appear? Obviously not. Had LeBron believed the Heat were a good bet to go three-for-five in terms of championships, I still think he would have stayed in Miami. However, the case can be made that the roster he’s joining has more upside than the one he’s leaving. It’s hard to believe that his departure wasn’t somewhat precipitated by Dwayne Wade’s worrisome health/performance in the finals, the apparent beginning of Chris Bosh’s decline, as well as the less-than-stellar personnel decisions by Pat Riley and the Heat’s top brass. Amnestying Mike Miller turned out to be ill-inspired, as were the signings of Michael Beasley and Greg Oden, two fairly high-profile NBA draft busts. By the end of last season, LeBron was visibly tired and angry, realizing that after leaving his hometown Cavaliers, he was suddenly stuck on the same kind of team from which he thought he liberated himself when he left Cleveland. Add that to the fact that there was no way he could get max money from Miami and, all of a sudden, his departure looked more likely.

So do I believe the slick letter that was published on SI.com? Well, I believe a little bit of everything, but not all of anything. I do believe he wanted to return home; I believe, and no one can convince me of the contrary, that a big part of him has always felt guilty about ever leaving home. I do believe he’s genuinely enthusiastic about the upside of this Cavs team. (Note: LeBron mentions the names of several future teammates he’s anxious to team up with, but conspicuously absent from those names is that of Andrew Wiggins. This has brought many to suggest that a trade for Kevin Love might be in the works, with Wiggins likely headed to Minnesota. Call me shortsighted, but trading as good a defender as Wiggins when the 2013 Cavs couldn’t stop anyone from scoring 110 points unless they were allowed to use crowbars strikes me as a bad move. I like Love too, but scoring points wasn’t Cleveland’s problem last year, AND they’re getting LeBron. James is an elite defender, but he needs help on the defensive end too, and a player like Wiggins, who’s already close to elite defender status with the talent to improve his offensive game, seems to me to be the kind of asset an up-and-coming team should hold on to. What am I missing?)

Back to LeBron’s letter. I’ve already dealt with the fact that I do not believe his diplomatic claim that Miami’s roster had nothing to do with his decision. Nor do I believe he has become as stoic as he pretends to be when it comes to Dan Gilbert. “Who am I to hold a grudge?”, asks LeBron. I understand why he would want to put it this way. It’s another acknowledgement that “The Decision” was as poorly executed as it was ill-advised. It’s his way of saying, “Hey, I messed up too, so I don’t want to get on my high horse.” Still, who is he to hold a grudge? Well, let’s see. He’s the guy Gilbert called a traitor, a quitter and a coward. He’s the guy who would have been well within his rights to tell Gilbert to go fuck himself. Because as viciously as LeBron backstabbed Cleveland, and as right as Gilbert is to say James owed him, at the very least, the courtesy of a phone call to let him know he was going to Miami, Gilbert had a duty, as an NBA owner, to act like an NBA owner and not like a child who needs a reminder from Mommy that two wrongs don’t make a right. James’ actions were bad, Gilbert’s were shameful. There is no comparison between the two, and I think LeBron knows this. He just can’t say, “Fuck Dan Gilbert, I’m coming back for my family and my hometown, not for that little bitch!”

I also wasn’t a fan of the overwrought, heavyhanded collection of clichés about the blue-collarness of “Northeast Ohio,” which Lebron needlessly uses to ingratiate himself with a fanbase he’s already reconquered by the sheer act of his return. One thing I suspect LeBron might have said, had he been allowed to be more candid, is that those championships in Miami didn’t give him the sense of fulfillment he’d get from winning a title in Cleveland. SI’s Phil Taylor suggested, at the time of “The Decision,” this might happen to LeBron and I think he was right. Of course, LeBron would never admit to it.

It hasn’t taken long for some to ask whether this puts him back in contention to pass Michael Jordan as the greatest basketball player of all time, or if it puts him out of it altogether, given that it’s bound to take time for this roster to mature enough to contend for an NBA title, let alone the four James needs to match MJ’s ring total. I’m sure I won’t be the first to say that this discussion needs to stop. There ‘s no passing MJ. And that applies to anyone in the foreseeable future. The biggest problem with this discussion, though, is that it’s mostly held between two groups of people, both lacking the objectivity to assess things correctly.

On the one hand, you have the incurable Jordanites (Me? A Jordanite? Yeah, you got me!). To them (and I exclude myself here), the discussion is now worth continuing, because a) LeBron copped out when he went to Miami, teaming up with the very player he should have aimed to beat, which Jordan never would have done in a million years, and b) it appears that LeBron will fall short of Jordan’s six rings, not to mention that MJ remains the only top 10 player never to lose a final.  Thus, it enhances Jordan’s profile that even a player as talented as LeBron can’t surpass him.

On the other hand, LeBroniacs now shout that we can’t compare the two (they have a point) because a) they played in different eras, which conveniently excludes Jordan from the discussion of where LeBron ranks in the pantheon of hoops stars, or b) these LeBroniacs accept that Jordan is currently impossible to dislodge from the top of the NBA’s pyramid and that any battle for NBA greatness will net you the number 2 slot at best.

Personally, I’m with my fellow Jordanites on the facts of the debate, but I agree with the Lebroniacs that we need to put it to rest. LeBron is not catching MJ. It’s not just about rings, MVPs or All-Star appearances. It’s also impossible for him to pass Jordan, the myth. LeBron is too talented and great not to become a myth once he’s gone. Lots of great things will be written/have already been written about him. But I’m as close to certainty as I can be that, about LBJ, no one will ever write something like this:

Jordan always knew who he was. He had to win at everything. He studied up on opponents and searched for any signs of weakness, even pumping beat writers and broadcasters for insider information. He soaked teammates in poker on team flights so brutally that coaches warned rookies to stay away. He lost in Ping-Pong to teammate Rod Higgins once, bought a table and became the best player on the team. He dunked on Utah’s John Stockton once, heard Utah owner Larry Miller scream, “why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” then dunked on center Mel Turpin and hissed at Miller afterward, “He big enough for you?” He bribed airport baggage guys to put out his suitcase first once, then wagered teammates that his bag would be the first one on the conveyor belt. He stormed out of a Bulls scrimmage once like a little kid because he thought Doug Collins screwed up the score. When a team of college All-Stars outscored the Dream Team in a half-assed scrimmage and made the mistake of puffing their chests out, Jordan started out the next day’s scrimmage by pointing at Allan Houston and simply saying, “I got him”…. and Houston didn’t touch the ball for two hours. (Excerpt from “The Book of Basketball,” by Bill Simmons, p.613, paperback edition, ESPN Books/Ballantine Books. I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it.)

There’s no topping this. That’s the kind of pathological, borderline morbid competitiveness that Jordan had. Few people other than sports fans would find this laudable or endearing, but Jordan is deified because of it. Does LeBron have this? Obviously not, or it would have showed by now. If he had it, he would have been far too obsessed with topping Dwayne Wade to join him in Miami. And now that Wade is aging and that his health is a source of increasing concern, James would turn his attention to proving his superiority to the next guy in line, probably Kevin Durant. And in this age of Twitter, he just might rub it in everyone’s faces 24/7/365. Is it damning for LeBron that he isn’t wired like this? Not at all. Would he need to be like this to top Jordan? I think so.

But one question should haunt sports fans: why do we want to see LeBron pass MJ so badly? Do we just care because the media tell us we should? Or is it something else?

I ask because if one person seems to have pulled out of that race, it’s LeBron James. It is legitimate to ask whether this is something he ever cared about. Sure, there was the whole wearing-number-23/doing-the-MJ-powder-toss-before-games shtick, but as much as people wanted to compare LeBron to MJ, he never really played like Jordan. I can’t remember the name right now, but a short while ago, someone said of LeBron James that he’s the most unselfish player in the league. For all his strengths, no one in their right minds would say that about Jordan. He believed, like Kobe Bryant, that whatever was best for him was best for the team. Not LeBron. In the Heat’s 2011 playoff series against the Celtics, Dwayne Wade practically had to tell him, “Man, snap out of me-then-you-then-me mode! The Celtics have no one who can guard you! Hog the ball, and make them pay!” Put Jordan there at that time, and his teammates barely see the ball.

And when you think about it rationally, was LeBron’s decision to join Wade that awful? Not really, until you consider the ugly truth: the MJ expectations are something WE have imposed on LeBron, and before he left for Miami, it seems he was too polite to say, “Hold on! You don’t get to dictate what MY expectations of myself are going to be!  I’m going to Miami, and I couldn’t care less what you think.” In many ways, “The Decision” was a cry for help, and as is the case for most cries for help, it came out wrong. While some liked the fact that he joined the Heat to form a Super Team and many didn’t, the way he went about “The Decision” garnered near-universal scorn. In other words, it’s not THAT he went to the Heat but HOW he went to the Heat. OK, but this would mean we basically faulted LeBron for not bullshitting us the right way. Could we really be that superficial?

Actually, we are. Want proof? Look at the reaction to his return to Cleveland. Nothing but praise. Strange, isn’t it? In a vacuum, it’s hard to argue that his decision to leave Miami (i.e. a declining Dwayne Wade, not much of a supporting cast, and another paycut) for Cleveland (i.e. a talented but super raw roster, a rookie coach, a max contract and not much else but the comfort of home) is any less selfish than his choice to join the Heat in the first place. But the fact that he was much slicker about it this time adds to the praise he was always going to receive for walking away from the “purchased” championships of Miami to go home.

There is something romantic and exciting about the story of LeBron returning to Cleveland to play for the closest thing he has to a hometown team. This isn’t a great story because his choice negates his infamous “Decision,” or the pain he caused an entire city on that day, but precisely because it doesn’t. Burying the hatchet is a far more beautiful and noble gesture than to pretend the hatchet doesn’t exist. Sure, it’s scripted. Sure, LeBron is coming home for other reasons than merely “coming home” or fulfilling his responsibilities to his community. Sure, LeBron’s so-called maturation has much more to do with style than substance. But it’s everything we wanted to hear. He might not give us the “topping-MJ” narrative, but he’s so talented, and he so badly wants us to root for him, that he just might give us anything else we want. Definitely not fit to be a heel, then.

À la défense d’un diffuseur public (version light)

Le gouvernement Harper continue de charcuter Radio-Canada en annonçant un autre 100 millions en compressions au financement de la société d’état. Avec les 135 millions retirés à la SRC plus tôt cette année, Radio-Canada devra réduire sa main-d’œuvre d’environ 25% d’ici 2020. Toutefois, ce qui est le plus frappant dans cette saga des coupures, et Marc Cassivi de La Presse le souligne dans sa chronique du 22 avril dernier, ce ne sont pas les coupures elles-mêmes mais notre indifférence collective devant ce saccage de notre diffuseur public.

J’ai étudié en journalisme à Concordia avec plusieurs individus qui font maintenant fierté à la profession. Plusieurs anciens ou actuels journalistes de CBC/Radio-Canada m’ont enseigné. J’ai quelques amis et anciens collègues qui travaillent à Radio-Canada. Et même en l’absence de tout cela, je défendrais quand même avec toute mon énergie non seulement l’existence, mais la vitalité de notre diffuseur public. Je ne suis pas en train de suggérer que les médias privés n’ont pas leur place en information, mais je suis absolument convaincu qu’un service de diffusion public et indépendant est primordial pour la santé d’une démocratie comme la nôtre.

Les médias privés ont une limite importante : leur mandat. Il serait impensable pour un diffuseur privé comme TVA ou V d’assumer les coûts de certains piliers d’un diffuseur public. Cassivi donne l’exemple évident: le réseau de correspondants à l’étranger de Radio-Canada représente un non-sens pour TVA. Toutefois, la population québécoise ne saurait se priver d’un tel service sans que notre sa culture générale et sa santé démocratique en souffrent un peu. De plus, si un tel service nous importe (la question n’est manifestement pas réglée), encore faudrait-il le laisser savoir au gouvernement Harper.

Ce même gouvernement, obsédé par le secret et impitoyablement efficace pour mettre des bâtons dans les roues aux journalistes, considère vraisemblablement Radio-Canada comme un empêcheur de danser en rond. Que fait en général ce gouvernement lorsqu’il sent qu’un organisme qu’il finance critique un peu trop vigoureusement ses agissements? Il leur coupe les vivres. Pourquoi agirait-il différemment avec Radio-Canada ? Il faut se rendre coupable d’un sacré aveuglement volontaire pour prétendre que deux et deux ne font pas quatre.

On ne peut complètement ignorer l’impact de la soumission d’un diffuseur public aux lois du marché. Quelque chose me dit que Harper le sait. Il existe bien sûr des commanditaires qui n’exigent pas de relation quid pro quo au-delà de l’échange de services, et même plusieurs. Cependant, comment oublier les histoires de convergence comme celle des trois importants journaux anglophones néo-bruswickois appartenant tous à la chaîne pétrolière Irving, journaux dont, en 2003, les éditoriaux attaquaient tous avec une rare virulence les grévistes du Syndicat canadien des employés publics, sans véritable égard pour leurs revendications? Nul besoin non plus de fouiller trop loin dans sa mémoire pour se remémorer des chroniqueurs de Quebecor qui défendaient la conduite pour-le-moins-ordinaire de l’entreprise pendant le lock-out au Journal de Montréal. Plus Radio-Canada doit agir en chaîne privée et satisfaire des commanditaires, plus elle court le risque de se trouver prisonnière de ce genre de dynamique.

Et que dire du contenu de l’information en général? Radio-Canada a un mandat qu’aucune chaîne privée ne se donnerait et ce mandat l’a historiquement poussée à produire une information d’un niveau de qualité, de profondeur et de diversité plus élevé que celui de ses sœurs privées. Souvent, la dimension éducative de Radio-Canada mène le réseau à présenter du contenu que le privé refuserait, sous prétexte que cela n’intéresserait pas « son public ». La diversité d’options pour le spectateur existe de moins en moins, car Radio-Canada se dénature un peu plus à chaque nouvelle série de coupures. Un diffuseur public, pour être digne de ce nom, ne saurait être « bâtardisé ». Le fait d’ordonner au diffuseur public de se comporter comme un diffuseur privé est voué à l’échec : Radio-Canada ne subtilisera pas le public de TVA en essayant de battre ce dernier à son propre jeu. Par contre, il est certain que les fidèles de Radio-Canada qui apprécient ce que la SRC fait différemment des chaînes privées seront aliénés par cette mutation.

Tant que Radio-Canada fera la course aux cotes d’écoute, elle est condamnée à ressembler de moins en moins à une entité qui vaut d’être sauvée. Pas réaliste, la proposition que Radio-Canada fasse abstraction des cotes d’écoute? Di Radio-Canada pouvait compter sur un budget stable et sur une liberté de produire du contenu conforme à son mandat, pourquoi pas ? J’en profite d’ailleurs pour lancer le message suivant : le parti fédéral qui s’engagera à restaurer le financement de Radio-Canada aura mon vote.

Comment le gouvernement Harper s’en tire-t-il avec tout cela? En misant sur le fait que, de toute façon, plusieurs diront que c’est un réseau qui produit du contenu ennuyant avec l’argent de nos taxes. Que, de toute façon, ceux qui s’insurgeront contre les coupures ne sont pas du genre à « voter conservateur ». Pour les autres, ils se laisseront séduire à nouveau par la cassette “santé économique” que les Conservateurs repasseront lors des élections de 2015.

Bien que j’aie choisi de me réorienter dans mon choix de carrière, le journalisme demeure une profession qui me tient très à cœur et que je respecte infiniment. À mon sens, c’est à l’antenne des diffuseurs publics, indépendants et bien financés qu’il se pratique à son plus haut niveau d’excellence. L’exemple évident reste la BBC, qui demeure, à mon sens et malgré ses défauts, le standard mondial d’excellence en matière de journalisme. C’est dans un tel contexte de pérennité qu’il reste aussi libre que possible des pressions du marché et de la tentation de niveler par le bas.

Cela dit, malgré l’occasionnel sentiment d’impuissance, je crois au potentiel de Radio-Canada et je crois à l’importance de le défendre. Je sais que mes anciens collègues à l’école de journalisme qui sont maintenant à l’emploi de Radio-Canada (et même ceux qui ne le sont pas) y croient également. Ne reste plus qu’à espérer que nous ne sommes pas seuls.

 

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