Friday, January 30, 2015

Further Review Deflates Patriot Hate

Maybe you have been wondering why, if the air pressure inside a football is such a potentially game-changing variable, the National Football League doesn't keep the oblate spheroids in a locked container under heavily armed guard until kickoff at each game and mandate quality control after each change in possession.

Well, turns out it's because -- contrary to widespread assumptions about less-inflated footballs being easier to grip, throw and catch, thereby allowing the dastardly New England Patriots to overcome otherwise superior opponents and cheat their way to unprecedented dominance for lo these past 14 years -- it really doesn't matter.

On Thursday, Popular Science published the results of computer simulations of the impact of removing two pounds per square inch of pressure on how a football is thrown, travels through the air and is caught and found almost none.

When gripped to throw, the simulations revealed a football inflated to 10.5 psi, as were the ones used by New England in the first half of its 45-7 win over Indianapolis in the AFC title game, "caves in by an extra 0.02 inches, or about a millimeter," said Barry Christiansen, director of marketing for ANSYS, the company that ran the simulations (and a self-described fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers).
“There’s a lot of discussion going around about what kind of advantage does it give? Based on this simulation, it really doesn’t give the Patriots much of an advantage. The gripping ability of the quarterback is going to be roughly the same.”
As for the flight of the ball after release?
The ANSYS simulations investigated how the 2 psi difference in air pressure might have changed how the Patriots' footballs would have flown. They found that the 10.5 and 12.5 psi balls had the same shape, air flow, and aerodynamics. So either way, the onus is on the quarterback to make sure the ball flies right.
But, but, what about the effect on the catchability of a barely less-firm football? Surely, that must explain why Rob Gronkowski is so much better than your team's receivers!
In a word: No. Modeling how a receiver would catch the ball again showed a deformation of just 0.02 inches again—not enough to make a difference, according to Christiansen.
As for the widely shared and Tweeted "study" that shows, through shoddy methodology and intentionally misleading graphing, that the Patriots have fumbled with freakish infrequency over the past few years (which implies yet another advantage to softening the football), well, it turns out that's pretty much a load, as well.

Thankfully, we live in a country where we possess the inalienable right to believe only in science that reinforces our previously held beliefs, and put more weight in theories that do the same -- especially those spoken aloud on television or thumbed out on Twitter and/or Facebook -- than in evidence that disproves those same theories.

So feel free to continue hating Tom Brady because he's a lousy cheater and NOT because he's been better for longer than any quarterback in NFL history, and certainly not because he makes more money each Sunday than you and I will combined in the next five years, or because his wife is hotter than everyone's but mine.

The same goes for Bill Belichick. Go on thinking his teams haven't made the playoffs 12 times in the last 14 years or reached six Super Bowls over the same span because he works the draft, salary cap and even New England's practice squad better than any of his peers and deftly adjusts his schematic approach from game to game and within each contest. It's because he's Lex Luthor in a hoodie.

Either way, you can tune in Sunday night and watch the Patriots beat the Seahawks 35-26. Or 28-22. Or 45-42. (Note: There is no logical basis for the exactitude of any of these predictions, other than their correlation with the numbers I have in three separate pools. As for the allegedly ongoing NFL investigation, WWM's prediction there remains the same.)

Not because New England is perfectly situated to exploit the injuries to Richard Sherman's elbow and Earl Thomas' shoulder, which figure to weaken Seattle's defense against both the power running of LaGarrette Blount and Brady's throws to tight end Rob Gronkowski, two areas in which the Seahawks have shown vulnerability even with a healthy Legion of Boom.

No, a Patriots victory would be due to some as-yet-undiscovered chicanery. Or because it's all fixed, anyway. Or, if you're as silly as this person, you can claim that that single millimeter of pliancy should have disqualified New England in the first place.

Or you can sit back, load up on your favorite fatty foods and carbonated beverages, and enjoy what could be a brilliant game between the two best teams in football.

Either way, WWM strongly recommends that you take a few minutes to watch this, if only to see Marshawn Lynch's expression at 5:15 and Gronkowski's doe-eyed reaction to being serenaded by Conan O'Brien, beginning at 6:43.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Soft-Ball Questions, Conspiracy Theories Shrink 'The Big Game'

Since it seems that anyone who writes, talks or thinks about professional football is required to offer an opinion on how 11 footballs came to be slightly deflated before or during the New England Patriots' 45-7 win against Indianapolis in the AFC Championship game, here's mine:

The locker room attendant did it. To the dismay of conspiracy theorists everywhere, he acted alone.

This view, like the rest bouncing around both corporate and social media for the last couple weeks, is based almost wholly on conjecture. With a splash of reason thrown in. Unlike most of the hot takes floating around on this issue, I'll even concede that I could be wrong.

It's easier for me to believe that an over-zealous, low-level team employee took it upon himself to curry favor, even anonymously, with a quarterback with an expressed preference for gripping a softer football than it is to envision Tom Brady and Bill Belichick huddling with said low-level employee to concoct a scheme offering minimal benefit and carrying maximum risk.

The adamant denials from New England's quarterback and coach of any involvement would likewise be far more self-destructive than self-serving if they were made knowing they could be undermined by a guy (presently under investigation by the NFL after being caught on video slipping into a men's room with the offending footballs on his way to the field before kickoff) who decides he isn't willing to take the fall.

Widespread acceptance of such a scenario, of course, would have denied the nation's sportswriters and expert analysts the opportunity to call for the firing or suspension of the most-successful, and most-hated, coach in professional sports, or to smear the legacy of the game's most-successful, and most-openly envied, quarterback.

It would also deny millions of Americans fuel for the emotion treasured above all others -- self-righteous outrage. Not to mention the unlimited opportunity for ball-related puns and double entendres.

The nice thing about following a sport, professional or otherwise, used to be the escape it provided from the nonsense of the real world.

"Sports is the toy department of human life," said Howard Cosell, who was at once the best-loved and most-hated of broadcasters over the course of several decades because he brought elements of hard-news reporting into a journalistic genre that had long specialized in shamelessly promoting the image and interests of the athletes and organizations it purported to cover.

Cosell, a dogged critic of the National Football League's arrogance and hypocrisy -- at a time when it was much less brazen about both -- would probably get a kick out of the crossover chaos leading up to Sunday's meeting between New England and Seattle in perhaps the gaudiest single event in American Life, the Super Bowl.

The 49th renewal of The Big Game (as all commercial entities not licensed by the NFL must refer to the event in advertising materials) features two teams that clearly dominated their opposition through most of the regular season and playoffs. The stark contrast between the physically overpowering Seahawks and the strategically superior Patriots makes for a potentially spectacular contest.

That last part has been all but lost amidst the frenzy engulfing the run-up to the game itself. The Patriots, infamously caught videotaping the New York Jets' defensive signals in the 2007 season opener, again find themselves cast in their customary and comfortable role as the bad guys.

Never mind that no evidence had emerged as of press time that connects Belichick or Brady to this peculiarity. This is America in 2015, where roughly half the country believes science is for commie nerds (except as it pertains to air pressure inside a football, apparently), and previously academic topics such as the age of the earth and once-innocuous small talk fodder like the weather are just two more topics for partisan rancor.

So it is with Deflategate, or Ballghazi, if you prefer.

Those who envy or otherwise resent the Patriots' sustained excellence over the past 14 seasons -- a run unmatched in duration by the Packers of the 1960s, the Steelers in the '70s, the 49ers in the '80s or the '90s Cowboys -- decided right around the time reports of air-pressure inconsistency emerged that Belichick and Brady were undoubtedly cheating again.

New England fans, meanwhile, look for reasonable doubt wherever they can find it.

As for the game (sorry, The Big Game) itself, history shows that the Seahawks had best prepare to duck. After Spygate received the obligatory “–gate” suffix in early 2007, the Patriots laid waste to the rest of the league for four months, compiling the league’s first, and to date only, 16-0 regular season with an average score of 37-17.

With half of Seattle’s starting secondary operating at less than full capacity due to injuries, the league’s top defense over the past two seasons suddenly appears vulnerable, particularly when faced with a riled-up Patriots offense.

Should New England prevail, the wailing and gnashing of teeth from deflation truthers will carry on until next season, and beyond. I have especially enjoyed the passionate concern over the integrity of a league that just this season realized domestic violence is a problem among some of its employees – at least when that violence is captured digitally and released to the public. The NFL’s sacrosanct integrity also involves suspensions for the use of performance-enhancing drugs so frequent they barely rate a national mention unless a star player is involved.

Absent an accusatory confession from the ball boy, the Patriots will get fined the proscribed $25,000 for failing to provide properly inflated footballs by the NFL, which will close the investigation and announce its findings after destroying any evidence.

Either way, no one is going to change his or her mind about any of this, putting the entire matter into the same realm of pointless, unwinnable debate as just about any political topic you care to mention.

If Cosell were alive today, he would realize that we no longer need a toy department. We live in one.

UPDATE: After a version of this post was published in this week's Artvoice, longtime NFL quarterback Jeff Blake said deflating footballs was a standard part of game preparation for all seven teams that employed him in the 1990s and 2000s.
Asked to be specific about the timing of deflation, Blake said it regularly happened as soon as quarterbacks got the balls before the game. 
"As soon as they give them the balls," Blake said. "On the sideline before the game. The quarterbacks would come out to warm up in pregame ... I would just say, 'Take a little bit out, it's a little bit hard.' And then they'd take a little bit out and I'd squeeze them and say 'That's perfect.' That's it."

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Smilin' Rex Gives Bills A Character

It will be January of 2016, at the earliest, until Rex Ryan shows whether he can get the Buffalo Bills to the playoffs for the first time since the earliest days of the millennium. Even before his official introduction on Wednesday, though, he provided something else they have been missing for even longer.


It didn’t take much. A beer with Jim Kelly at The Big Tree. A customized pizza from La Nova. A Sabres game with new defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman. Toothy grins at every stop, with photos snapped at each location spreading across the internet on Tuesday.

He followed up his quick tour of Western New York with an introductory press conference on Wednesday, demurring a bit when given the chance to repeat the guarantee of a Super Bowl berth he made when hired by the Jets.

“Am I going to guarantee a Super Bowl? I’ll guarantee the pursuit of it,” he said.

Ryan did promise that his new team will, at long last, have a clear identity.

“We are not going to be pushed around. We’re going to be the bullies. It’s easy to build your football team the way this community is built, with the same kind of work ethic, the same kind of mentality. We will not be pushed around. We will do the pushing. We will build a bully.”

Ryan’s reputation already overshadows the mixed results of his six seasons leading the New York Jets. His travels on Tuesday underscored that he is, by birth, something the Bills have never had in a head coach—a Buffalo guy (OK, he and twin brother Rob lived in Toronto with their mother while their father, Buddy, was coaching at the then-University of Buffalo in the 1960s, but as we are regularly told, this is a regional franchise).

Forget football for a moment, particularly that the same core problem—a quarterback situation ugly enough to overwhelm all the good around it—that doomed Ryan in New York awaits him in Buffalo. When was the last time you saw an NFL coach smile?

We’re talking about a smile that suggests the guy is actually having fun, or even understands what fun is, as opposed to the tight-lipped, I’d-really-rather-be-in-the-film-room-or-yelling-at-somebody expression occasionally displayed by Ryan’s predecessor, Doug Marrone, and the humorless automatons heading just about every other team in the league over the last few decades.

Ryan also delivered one of the great pep-talks ever recorded when he and the Jets starred in HBO’s training-camp documentary series Hard Knocks.

“Let’s make sure we play like the (expletive) New York Jets and not some (expletive) slap-(expletive) team. That’s what I want to see tomorrow. Do we understand what the (expletive) I want to see tomorrow? Now let’s go eat a God-(expletive) snack.”

Do yourself a favor and take 2:20 to see Rex (pre-gastric bypass surgery) address the Jets without all the expletive deletion:

Ryan might already be the most charismatic Bills coach since Lou Saban, but let’s be honest. It’s a pretty low bar around here. Before Marrone’s drill-sergeant act came:

• Chan Gailey and Dick Jauron, seemingly nice guys who appeared thrilled to get another shot in the league, while hoping no one would notice;

• Mike Mularkey, who, like Marrone, mistakenly thought a single 9-7 season in Buffalo would be worth a lot more on the open market;

• Gregg Williams, who like, like Marrone, appeared to be overcompensating for insecurities stemming from never having played the game at its highest level by affecting a modern-day Vince Lombardi approach, without any actual accomplishments to back it up; and

• Wade Phillips, like Ryan, the son of an iconic NFL character, who, unlike Ryan or either of their fathers, never showed much affinity or aptitude for the public-image part of the job.

Even Marv Levy’s success had much less to do with the force of his own direction than his willingness to let players like Kelly, Kent Hull and Darryl Talley lead the way. When I think of Hank Bullough’s disastrous tenure, which is rarely, the thought involves the story my late friend Jay Bonfatti, then the Associated Press writer covering the Bills, loved to tell about the coach answering one of his questions with forced flatulence. As for Kay Stephenson, well, he was here, too.

You have to go back to Chuck Knox to find a coach who provided a Buffalo team with its identity. Like Ryan, Knox’s previous NFL job involved multiple playoff trips and an inability to find a quarterback whose flaws were not fatal.

Of course, it helped that Knox’s arrival in 1978 coincided with the onset of Joe Ferguson’s prime. While some remember Ferguson’s trait of hanging his head after throwing an interception, he was beginning his sixth season as the starter and blossomed into one of the league’s top quarterbacks during Buffalo’s brief run as a contender under Knox in the early ‘80s.

Ryan, meanwhile, has E.J. Manuel, whose erratic development led Marrone to believe that Kyle Orton provided a better chance to reach the playoffs, or at least the best shot at heightening his own marketability.

Manuel isn’t going anywhere, and Orton’s abrupt retirement the day after the high point of his stay in
Buffalo, a meaning-free win against New England’s stand-ins, leaves the roster without another option, though one or more may arrive via free agency or the draft.

“He’ll certainly be given an opportunity here,” Ryan said of Manuel. “That doesn’t mean we’re set at the quarterback position.”

As shown by Ryan’s 26-38 record over his last four seasons in New York, personality does not always lead to victories. He did, however, coach in the AFC title game following his first two seasons. And along with Cleveland, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville, the Jets—who are undergoing their second front-office makeover in three years—make the Bills appear well-run by comparison, including an even more dismal situation at quarterback.

The Pegulas, who ultimately lucked out when Marrone ended any talks about a contract extension by exercising an opt-out clause worth $4 million, plan to have Ryan around for a while, reportedly agreeing to a deal that pays the new coach $5.5 million for each of the next five seasons. If he fulfills the contract, Ryan would become the only Bills coach other than Levy and Knox to last five full consecutive campaigns in Buffalo.

Again, a pretty low bar. But then, this is Buffalo, where you can hire a head coach who won five fewer games than the guy he’s replacing and consider it an upgrade.

It already is. At least until the football starts.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Whatta Marrone! When A Power Play Backfires

(Note: This column originally ran in this week's print and web editions of Artvoice, but We Want Marangi's multi-media department again fell down on the job, failing to post it before now. For those who have already read it there, this one has links! As for the Bills' ongoing, ever-expanding coaching search, stay tuned.)

Maybe Doug Marrone wasn't so smart, after all.

When the most recent coach of the Buffalo Bills abruptly walked away from the franchise on New Year's Eve, there were two ways of looking at his decision.

From a fan's perspective, it was a matter of simple betrayal, abandoning his team about 72 hours after it beat a rather shoddy facsimile of the New England Patriots to secure Buffalo's first season in which it won more games than it lost since 2004. And about 72 hours after telling his players "It's all about the Bills family" in the visitors' locker room at Gillette Stadium, where they had won for the first time ever.

From a more detached viewpoint, though, Marrone's decision was harder to condemn. The opt-out clause in his contract had been negotiated between his agent and the Bills, taking into account the then-fragile health of since-deceased owner Ralph Wilson. Being guaranteed a year's salary, particularly when that salary is $4 million, had to be particularly tempting, especially with a soft landing spot with the Jets in New Jersey in the offing.

Given the circumstances -- new owners, front-office uncertainty, his own torching of any sort of a relationship with the only remotely feasible quarterback left on the roster after Orton's Irish Goodbye and that sweet opt-out clause, triggered by the sale of the team to Terry and Kim Pegula following Wilson's death -- it's difficult to argue that Marrone didn't make the right decision, one which most people would have made in the unlikely event they had the opportunity.

But the Jets' coaching search did not end when they interviewed Marrone over the first weekend of 2015. In fact, they have expanded their coaching search in the days since.

Meanwhile, Marrone's candidacy has taken a beating in the New York-area media, with a series of articles in the Daily News portraying his various gripes about the team's personnel department -- particularly the selections of E.J. Manuel and Sammy Watkins in the last two drafts -- and prickly relations with some within the organization, as well as his hurt feelings over criticism from press and fans in Western New York. Much of the friction had already been reported by the Buffalo News, but having it trumpeted from the pages of a New York tabloid on the morning of his interview with Jets owner Woody Johnson could not have possibly helped Marrone's chances.

There is no small amount of irony here. Marrone's dismay that not everyone treated Buffalo's 21-13 win over Green Bay as affirmation of his coaching genius reportedly played a role in his decision to split. If Buffalo's sporting media, which consists of one major newspaper from Buffalo, one from Rochester, and a handful of TV and radio stations, was too much for Marrone, how was he going to handle his coaching decisions being dissected at length by Mike Francesca, or mocked in screaming headlines on the back pages of the Daily News and the Post? If he winds up without a head-coaching gig after all this, Marrone can blame it on his hometown papers instead of the meanies around here.

(Note: We Want Marangi's editorial board endorses Marrone for the Jets job, if only to set up a reader contest to guess the date when one of the tabloids goes with "Whatta Marrone!" While this would be a fairly obscure reference to an old Bugs Bunny catch-phrase, the target demographic of most daily newspapers is now people who first experienced Warner Brothers cartoons in a darkened theater, after the newsreel and before the feature presentation. So it's a natural.)

A number of stories center on Marrone's relations with both general manager Doug Whaley and the team's long-entrenched administration, much of which dates back to the Super Bowl era and beyond. He may have had a point about the need for organizational change, but if so, it was buried by the way he left.

For all the uncertainty surrounding the Bills and their former coach, at least we now know what Marrone meant when he kept saying Kyle Orton "gives us the best chance to win," despite all statistical and aesthetic evidence to the contrary.

Translation, in light of this week's new information:

"I have a three-day window at the end of the season in which I can collect $4 million and get the hell out of Buffalo, and since I have absolutely no idea how to develop the young quarterback who I was involved in selecting less than two years ago, I believe Kyle Orton gives me the best chance to scrape out an extra win or two this year, which could be the difference between another team that has not really been paying attention viewing me as an up-and-comer or realizing that I am really Mike Mularkey with a Bronx accent."

Being a bright guy, though, Marrone deftly used first-person plural pronouns to give the impression that he might have given a crap about the progress of Buffalo's first-round quarterback, or anything else related to the Bills beyond Dec. 31, 2014.

Clearly, he did not.

So, good for him. Assuming he is really as hot a coaching property as he and his agent believe, Marrone can now take his asterisk-riddled 9-7 record to New Jersey, or wherever.

As for the Bills themselves, whatever meaning there might have been to that win in New England – or Buffalo’s eight other victories in 2014, for that matter – followed Orton and Marrone out the door.

Maybe Marrone was right. Maybe the Bills would have gone 6-10 or 7-9, or worse, if he stuck with Manuel.

Or maybe Manuel would have improved, beginning with what would have been his 15th professional start.

Either way, the Bills would have a better idea whether Manuel has a future here, or if those who are convinced he's a bust -- in no small part because Marrone benched him -- are correct.

Instead, they open the offseason without a coach, without a quarterback and without a first-round pick in the upcoming draft.

That last missing element was yet another source of discontent for Marrone, according to multiple reports. Supposedly, he was against drafting Manuel, too.

All of which makes you wonder a bit. How much of the decision to bench Manuel, and keep Orton in there even after some horrific outings, was about sticking it to Doug Whaley, Buffalo's general manager and Marrone's chief adversary in several anonymously sourced stories dating back to last summer? After all, if Manuel did rebound from his own low point in Houston enough to get Buffalo, home to one of the NFL's top defenses, to .500 or above, Whaley's choice of Manuel would have looked inspired.

Marrone certainly did not take any chances on that happening. Instead, he stuck with a guy who was, by any measure, one of the league's least-effective full-time starters, just as he had been in previous long-term stints in Chicago and Denver before bouncing to a stop-gap role in Kansas City and a headset/clipboard combination with Dallas.

The chronic under-usage of Watkins through much of his rookie season also seems a little more odd. Fans and media have griped about Watkins being out-performed by other first-year wideouts chosen later in the draft, like the superlative Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants, while insisting Whaley gave up too much to get him. Marrone reportedly agreed with that thinking. Writing Watkins out of the game plan in several key contests did little to combat either impression.

You would like to think that an NFL coach would not be so petty, or power-hungry, as to make decisions intended to show up his boss. But at this point, Marrone deserves the benefit of zero doubts.