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Cloud9 Sports: Opinionated musing on the sporting world.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

NFL: What the World has Wrong about the Perfect Patriots.

The best team ever? Maybe not. The most potent offense of all-time? Debatable. Super Bowl XLII champions? Probably.

The fact sheet on the Patriots greatness has been written in the blood of the reports who've been slurping them all year long. The knocks, however scarce they may be, have leaked through to the back pages and focus on the perceived ineptitude of their rushing attack.

While the trend among several powerhouse NFL franchises (Dallas, Green Bay, New Orleans, Indianapolis, New England) has shifted in favor of passing to set up the run, a good tailback is still essential for anyone claiming to be a contender. Firstly, because it helps protect leads and shorten games, and secondarily because the cold playoff weather changes the scope and dynamics of your offensive game planning. The playoffs, which start in the dreaded winter season, cause havoc on the skill positions that are heavily relied upon to put points on the board. So when passing becomes more challenging due to the elements, you typically hand the ball off to your stalwart running back and hope your offensive line can manufacture some holes. It's this very factor that many mainstream talking heads have deemed New England's biggest liability and potential Achilles heel, as it is suggested that they've yet to demonstrate the ability to rush the ball with desirable proficiency.

Once again Bill Belichick has outsmarted the observers of the game; those whose job description includes accurate analysis of these critical parameters of victory (a group that also includes the 14 opposing coaching staffs his team has trampled this year). New England can run boys and girls, but heres the rub: Belichick just doesn't want them to, and for good reason.

Once the rosters are set, an NFL coaches ability to asses and exploit strategic advantages over their opponent is the primary determinate of their teams success. When two great field generals (in this case, the Coaches) face off in battle, they all plan based on the most likely course(s) of action of their opponents, it's game theory, and an extension of the Art of War. However, the best of the great generals forces their opponents into defending an attack that will never be launched through deception. The best generals attack formlessly, for the formless cannot be predicted, anticipated, nor defended, thus making it the clearest and most reliable path to victory. Only a fool fights battles he cannot win, and Belichick ensures through meticulous calculation that his team has the best chance to win every Sunday.

When breaking down the numbers, the strategy issued by Coach Belichick becomes increasingly well illustrated and transparent. Their current lead running back, Lawrence Maroney, was the secondary ball carrier last year, although he was impressive behind Corey Dillon who carried a mere 24 more times than Maroney in 2006. With Dillon out of the picture for the 2007 season, Maroney was promoted into the #1 tailback role. Enter Belichicks' genius.

It follows sound intuition that one might want to keep a pivotal piece of your championship puzzle rested and healthy, of course while brilliantly doing so not at the expense of Maroneys' learning and maturation processes. As the numbers show, Maroneys' mileage is nearly identical to his successful rookie campaign with total carries projected at only 4 greater (175 v. 179), while average yards/carry remains within 0.1(4.3 v. 4.2). Surprising are these figures given New England's pass-heavy offense, which effectively creates an average of about 4 less rushing opportunities per game. Even in the absence of the necessity to run, Belichick has quietly managed to get Maroney his essential carries in lieu of wearing him out deleteriously, all the while infatuating their defensive opposition with game planning for the Patriots lethal aerial attack.

Not only is the confidence of a young rusher effectively nurtured by these tactics, but Belichick has ensured optimal health and energy levels in highly valued, highly physical skill player. With a well rested, but battle-tested Maroney in the backfield come January, the elements will not sway the Patriots dominance, but facilitate it. Either the opposition stuffs the box to stop the climate-dependent running game, thus opening up the secondary for the pass, or they rush the passer conservatively and allow Maroney to run all over the field on them. This is the formless attack that Belichick has designed perfectly from game one. He has earned the distinction of greatness for reasons such as these – well, and that dynasty he's orchestrated in New England over the past decade.

To further recount the ways that Belichick has groomed the Patriots for greatness would result in a long-winded almanac deservedly set to music, featuring both food service and an interlude. He may not be charismatic and friendly, nor talkative or honest, but in the management of his on field personnel he has repeated proven his aptitude as an elite field general and strategic luminary. Look for Maroney to hog the ball in the second half of New England's playoff games, especially if they've got a lead on the frosty tundra of Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. Enjoy as the Patriots steamroll to 19-0 and a Super Bowl ring on the back of their reliable, rested and game-ready running back – err, and that Tom Brady guy, I've heard he's having an alright year.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Drugs in Sport: Digging the MLB out of their grave.

[Writers Note: This topic won't go away and I can't resist setting it straight. There is a good deal of crossover here between my hobby (writing about sports), my paying job (Nutritional supplement consultant), and lastly my education (Pharmacology – ie. Drugs). While still wet behind the ears in the writers' game, I can unquestionable speak from an authoritative position with respect to the latter two credentials.]

Little has been resolved regarding the steroid issue in baseball following the publication of the Mitchell Report. In fact, more questions have arisen from the clearly contrived report produced by an individual paid tens of millions for his investigation. The same individual who also remains under the umbrella of the Boston Red Sox organization. From his labours over the past 18 months, George Mitchell gave us a handful of superstar ball players, namely Clemens, Petitte and Bonds, a few others that could have rounded out an All Star team circa 1993, and several dozen additional faceless names. This is much more than a clear disappointment, it's fraudulent. Former Senator Mitchell was the judge, jury and executioner throughout this spurious investigation, and decided to wield his axe merely for show in favour of bending a few old timers over his knee. Bluntly, the Mitchell Report is as synthetic as the performance enhancing drugs which he was chartered to report on.

Prior to dealing with the issue of the players themselves and their integrity in a sport which ignored, and thus backhandedly endorsed the use of steroids, hGH and their cohorts, the organization brass of the MLB require stern reprimand. The league's problem today was their solution and saving grace in the early-mid '90's when the home run records were being shattered by McGwire and Sosa, prior to which their attendance and television ratings were at near all-time lows.

At the time of all this, Major League Baseball made a conscious decision to ignore their cheating in lieu of the rejuvenated revenue associated with the success of the games juiced-up stars. In doing so, they became complicit to the illegalities embarked upon by their players. But when the dust bunny that was the issue of performance enhancing drugs became the elephant in the room – who just passed wind – nowhere to be found were league officials who deservedly must share the blame. This whole era is a black eye on baseball from top to bottom and will continue to looked upon as such for decades to come.

In yet another blunder the league hoped that commissioning Mitchell to report on the abuse of performance enhancers would atone for their lack of foresight issued previously. The Mitchell Report was nothing but a cage that merely sheltered the prey in shark-infested waters. Instead of demanding answers, journalists and reporters waited eagerly for this report, which promised no stone unturned through thorough (but voluntary) interrogation of those inside and out of the game. The release of the 400+ page document last week found itself quickly in the hands of baseball lovers alike, but instead of squelching the issue of cheaters and quieting the speculation to validity of records, it chummed the waters and broke open the cage.

The intentions were good, but the means were suspect to valid criticism. Yes, Geogre Mitchell is an employee of MLB, and is great friends with the Commissioner himself. No, he could not use the power of subpoena to demand the truth from those he interviewed. And yes, while a lawyer and former Senator himself, Mr. Mitchell was fully aware of the causal nexus he could plunge himself and the MLB into at will.

Do you consider a report from a wealthy, well-known league employee, limited to analyze receipts and hearsay as evidence genuinely credible given everything we've learned about this situation. No, or at least thats the take of those with a rational opinion on the matter. There is a reason the term honest lawyer brings about a grin from most who hear it – and Mr. Mitchell can thank the free pass he gave to the MLB executives and countless hundreds of players for that. Mr. Mitchell is owed a steroid-size debt of gratitude to all those he failed to call out and incriminate, for whichever reason he saw fit.

We just need to move from this whole era. Accept it as another one of baseballs injustices and avoid trying to deduce sound conclusions from so much convoluted information. Although where fairness is concerned a proper solution remains allusive, I propose the records stand asterisks free. The problem was too rampant, too miffed up from the start to go patching it up in the wrong places now. Regrettably, this era of doping and record breaking will bring about one solemn conclusion: baseball is now formerly 'the only sport in which records actually matter'.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

I'm Back!

My latest exploits have been both adventurous and tiresome, but alas I've flown back from Australia and New Zealand and immediately immersed myself in the wonderful world of sports. It will take me a day or two before I get a column together, but I hope to reestablish my connection with my (scant) readership.

In the near future, I'll be starting a podcast featuring a variety of guest contributors and my opinions, thoughts and musings on life and sport. Look forward to it and thanks for reading the blog!

- Derek.