Monday, January 15, 2007

Marty Ball

If there were any doubts that Marty Schottenheimer is a lousy coach they should have been erased Sunday as Nate Kaeding’s 54 yard field goal attempt fell about two yards short and three yards right of tying a game the Chargers should have won handily. It might seem convenient to pin the blame on Marty even though the players made more than their share of mistakes on the field. After all it was timely turnovers and penalties that gave the Patriots extra chances to keep the game within reach, but it was a Schottenheimer trademark, poor two minute defense, that made the upset possible. Tom Brady was brilliant at the end of each half when he calmly directed his offense down field to score. It was like déjà vu. John Elway’s legacy was fashioned around the creampuff coverage Schottenheimer employed when he coached the Browns and Tom Brady’s legend was bolstered yesterday.

Ultimately the biggest mistakes were made by the coach. Players often react in a manner that reflects the attitude of their coach and in spite of being heavily favored the Chargers played like underdogs. They seemed desperate even when they had a lead. Could that be because anytime Marty is in the postseason he’s an underdog?

Look at the final play: A 54 yard field goal attempt to tie the game. That’s a long distance for any kicker in that situation but for Kaeding it matched his longest. With 15 seconds left on the clock it would have been advisable to run one more quick play in hopes of picking up a few more yards. Just one yard might have been enough to give the young kicker a sense of confidence going onto the field. The difference between 53 and 54 yards is huge when 54 yards represents the longest kick you’ve ever made. Perhaps it’s only psychological but when it comes to kicking its all about the head. That’s why coaches still see fit to “ice” kickers if they have a time out to burn.

Of course that entire drive might have been different if the Chargers hadn’t burned their time outs prior to taking the field with just over a minute to play. Phillip Rivers was forced to waste one on the previous drive but the biggest waste of a time out, possibly in the history of the game, was when Schottenheimer challenged a turnover early in the quarter. Actually it was a double turnover but there was no reason to suspect that the officials had gotten the call wrong. Even at full speed it was clear Marlon McCree coughed up the ball after picking off Tom Brady. It provided the Patriots with a second chance and they capitalized by scoring, however the lost time out is what really cost the Chargers the game. The challenge reeked of desperation. Schottenheimer was hoping that there would be something on the replay he just wasn’t sure what it would be.

But even before that Schottenheimer demonstrated unnecessary levels of desperation. With plenty of game to play and an easy field goal on the table, Schottenheimer threw caution to the wind and went for it on 4th and 11. Phillip Rivers was sacked providing the Patriots with excellent field position on what should have been only a moral victory in holding the Chargers to three points…Three points that would have forced a tie. Instead the Patriots took advantage of the play and scored three points of their own. Schottenheimer looked ill at ease.

Bill Belichick, on the other hand, was cool and collected the whole time. Even as the underdog facing a ferocious defense and an unstoppable running back, Belichick stayed calm and called his plays. His team took advantage of every mistake and didn’t allow their own miscues to change the way they played. Instead of stuffing the line of scrimmage with players in hopes of stopping Tomlinson, Belichick treated the superstar they way he would treat any other back and resigned his defense to the fact that the Chargers would move the ball. They just had to keep it close. The offense played the same way, knowing that they would take a beating and need to pounce on every opportunity. They avoided costly penalties and stayed focused on the task at hand. In the end, the Patriots did what they had to do and won the game because they played smarter.

It’s too bad. By all accounts Marty Schottenheimer is a great guy. Players love him and he’s one of the more accessible coaches in the NFL. He’s polite and professional with the press and affable with fans. At times he does rub the front office the wrong way and he has been at odds with San Diego’s brain trust. This loss won’t endear him to the management team. Because of the loyalty Schottenheimer inspires in his players and the regular season success he enjoys, San Diego might have to keep him, but will they be able to do it without front office fireworks? Somebody will have to be held accountable for this loss and Schottenheimer might bristle at the prospect of being forced to hand an assistant coach out to dry. There might be no way to salvage this relationship.

And that’s how it has to be. It’s not luck. Schottenheimer is just a lousy postseason coach. The problem seems to stem from employing regular season preparation with post season strategy. Historically speaking, Schottenheimer’s teams consistently fail to match the intensity of their opponents in the playoffs. They don’t make adjustments and fail to execute on critical plays. His playoff teams also make a lot of foolish mistakes. Perhaps the biggest difference between regular season and post season Martyball is the so-called “killer instinct”. During the regular season Marty’s teams will seem dominant achieving victory early and using aggressive defense to quell the threat of a comeback. In the postseason, Martyball gets conservative and his teams seem to play not to lose. Many of his post season losses have come late in games when his opponents have been forced to play from behind.

This Chargers team might be the best Marty has ever coached. Many experts believe that Tomlinson is the best football player ever. That might be premature but he’s certainly a dominant force and unlike Barry Sanders, Tomlinson is surrounded with quality talent. Outstanding talent, in fact, which makes it hard to believe he’s in the same league as Barry Sanders, Jim Brown or Walter Payton. Nevertheless, the guy is good and he demonstrated that yesterday. For some reason, Schottenheimer seemed reticent to put the game on Tomlinson’s back which is another cause for concern. Clearly the Patriots couldn’t stop Tomlinson with their standard defense, so why not hand the MVP the ball 35 times until Belichick had no choice but to load up with a goal line set? It’s not as though you have to keep his legs fresh.

With the NFL being what it is, this might have been the best shot the Chargers and Marty would have had at a Super Bowl win. San Diego’s front office spent heavily in hopes that this team would win it all and free agency will take a toll on this team. If the Chargers clash with Schottenheimer the team will struggle next year (Marty has been self destructive after his ego’s been bruised) and if they fire him you can expect transition to be cruel. Who will replace him? Even if Tomlinson can replicate his performance in coming years, teams are going to find ways to minimize his impact and victories will be harder to come by. It also doesn’t help matters much that the Chargers will be playing a tougher schedule next season. And then you have the steroids issue haunting the defense. Can Merriman stay clean under the rigorous testing he’ll be subjected to over the coming months? Lights out indeed.

A lot of people will have high hopes for the Chargers next year. Analysts and fans alike will believe that this is the beginning of something special but it seems more like the beginning of the end. The Chargers had their chance and fell short. They can thank Marty Schottenheimer for that.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Mark McGwire belongs in H.O.F.

There's a heated debate in baseball's inner circle. The writers who vote on whether or not a player should get into the Hall of Fame are fussing over Mark McGwire. Some think he should get in. They argue that he was the most formidable slugger of his era and his record breaking 70 home runs in 1998 revived American interest in the sport. Few will offer a counterpoint to McGwire's statistical largess. He was a one-dimensional player but when he was healthy, as was the case in 1998, the man could regularly whack the stitches off the ball. When it came to that single dimension there are few players in history who were more proficient and none in his era.

Of course the argument against McGwire is the question of steroids. Of the voters who intend to deny Mac's induction, the vast majority believe that the specter of steroids have tainted everything the reclusive slugger has accomplished. Because of his ties to Jose Canseco, McGwire's connection to the illegal substances dates back to the late 1980's and the massive physique Mighty Mac was known for was undoubtedly enhanced with illicit chemicals. Nobody disputes this, not even McGwire.

Perhaps the most damning evidence against McGwire was his testimony before congress where he nervously refused to discuss the past or focus on the negative. Clearly Mac wasn't as comfortable with lying as his counterpart, Raffy Palmiero, but Mac was definitely not interested in being truthful either. It's a sad state of affairs when the most honest and respectable man in the room is Jose Canseco, but considering those present were lawyers, politicians and professional baseball players, that was the case.

There are some writers who won't vote for MacGwire on the first ballot, as if there is some special wing in the hall of fame for first ballot inductees. Those who are in this category are actually MacGwire supporters because they believe he belongs in the hall of fame but that his connection to steroids is something he should be shamed over. Apparently waiting six years instead of five is humiliating for a player.

Those who support Mac, regardless of which ballot on which they offer that support, believe he should be in the Hall of Fame in spite of using steroids because Major League Baseball did not have a formal steroid policy in its rule book at the time. Major League baseball did not revise its drug policy to specifically ban performance enhancing drugs until 2002. So technically speaking, McGwire didn't cheat.

The same people will take the argument a step further and challenge anybody to scientifically quantify the advantage steroids provide a slugger like McGwire. They will tell you that it is impossible to determine how many home runs steroids added to Mac's totals each season and some will even try to argue that the extra muscle mass associated with steroid use is actually a detriment to a baseball player. They will trot out the old adages about bigger muscles being slower muscles and bulky physiques being inflexible. There was a time not all that long ago when weight training was taboo for so-called "skill" athletes. Jose Canseco smashed that myth for baseball when he posted his legendary 40-40 season.

The final, and most compelling, defense from those in Mac's corner is perhaps the most logical because it's true. How can you punish MacGwire when we have no idea how many other players were also taking steroids back then? Surely the substance abuse wasn't limited to the Bash Brothers. Recent drug tests have revealed that pitchers seem to realize a benefit from taking steroids and there are people who suspect that Roger Clemens might owe his impressive longevity to some chemical assistance. Scouts have noticed that there are pitchers who entered the league projected as middle relievers who would rely on location and timing to keep hitters off balance only to discover a 98 mph fastball in their arsenal after a few seasons in the minor leagues. Eric Gagne was a mediocre pitcher until he came back from surgery with an extra 10 miles per hour on his fastball.

It's a great point. We have singled out Mark McGwire because he was caught with a legal supplement that is classified as a steroid precursor. Even though Andro was banned from other sports at the time and has since been banned by baseball, Mac had done nothing wrong and even had the bottle of Andro out in the open in his locker. Some suspect the MacGwire was alternating steroid and Andro cycles in order to maintain a much higher level of testosterone in his system, other believe that the Andro might have been a red herring kept on hand to throw investigators off the trail.

You see, steroids are illegal. Even though baseball didn't have a ban on them until 2002, the federal government has had steroids on the list of controlled substances since 1990. So it is true that Mark McGwire wasn't violating any of Major League Baseball's rules, but he was breaking the law. Perhaps Mac made the Andro available after a case of paranoia. Throw off the feds.

It's a tough subject and most of the baseball writers who vote on Hall of Fame selections don't like being caught in the pickle. In spite of the fact that sports writers will call themselves journalists, the reason they choose to cover sports is because they don't much care for the responsibility of covering real news. They like things light and fun. Steroids are heavy and distressing. Steroids require critical thinking, research and journalistic integrity.

Few sports writers are willing to do real work. In sports the facts are logged into the official record of every game and the debates are harmless. Arguing over who the best hitter in the game is easy because it's all about interpreting stats and there really are no right or wrong answers. Sports writing can be a bit like philosophy. Steroids are a serious topic with deadly consequences and your average sports writer isn't ready for it.

So they defer. They hide behind the game and try to focus on statistics. They try to make the argument about what happened on the field. They know that nobody can offer scientific evidence that will effectively quantify the impact of steroids and even if somebody can measure that impact to the inch, those writers know there will be equally compelling evidence to the contrary. So they never have to face steroids.

But that's a cop out. The fact of the matter is that a Hall of Fame induction isn't about science, it is about opinion. There is no rule that mandates certain statistical accomplishments. Players don't have to play for a minimum number years to qualify. The only rule is that players are not to be made eligible for induction until five years have passed since they ended their careers. The logic is that five years gives everybody time to put that player's accomplishments into perspective. Writers like to talk about fixed criteria because it makes their jobs easier, but ultimately induction is completely arbitrary. Sports writers are just too gutless to admit it.

In McGwire's case it is obvious that he took steroids throughout his career. He was a mountain of improbable muscle. The physical transformation occurred quickly and the change was dramatic. He started his career looking a bit like a red-headed bean pole and he finished his career looking like the Incredible Hulk's orange cousin. We don't have any positive tests that prove he took steroids but there is convincing evidence nonetheless. And frankly we don't need proof. Enshrinement is not a right and denying McGwire induction is not a legal matter. It's all about opinion. We can't throw Big Mac in prison based on our proof, but we can certainly sentence him to exclusion from the Hall of Fame.

Steroids are really easy to quantify if you care to be honest about them. They make athletes better. Period. Steroids made Mark McGwire bigger, stronger and faster than he would have been otherwise and his use of the illegal substance extended his career. The increased levels of testosterone help older athletes perform at a level similar to much younger players. Steroids might put athletes at risk for chronic joint and muscle problems but before critical massis achieved they are a veritable fountain of youth. That's why Barry Bonds has better bat speed and hand-eye coordination in his forties than he did in his twenties. His knees are shot, but he can still swing a bat.

Because he took steroids, Mark McGwire played much longer than he would have otherwise. Because he took steroids, Mark McGwire was stronger and faster than he would have been otherwise. You can't separate the two. Mac and 'roids are one. Everything Mark McGwire did was enhanced by his dependency on steroids.

How many of the 70 home runs can we attribute to steroids? All of them. There's a distinct possibility Mark McGwire wouldn't have been able to play major league baseball without steroids and because he started taking them so early in his career nobody can dispute that. Mac might have been a bench coach in Akron in 1998 had he not taken steroids. We don't know for sure. All we know about steroids is that they make people better athletes. Ben Johnson showed us that in 1988.

So the question we face isn't about Mark McGwire at all, it's about steroids. Do we honor what steroids have accomplished in baseball?

Ultimately that answer is yes. Even before the andro was spotted on the shelf in Mac's locker, most people were pretty sure he was juiced but when the subject was broached, sports writers and fans bristled at the slanderous insinuation and defended Big Mac. Why, they lamented, is every muscular athlete dogged with questions of steroids? Why do we want to tear down our heroes?

The same question surfaced around Sammy Sosa who also emerged as an impressive slugger who increased his home run total by 30 in 1998 and enjoyed a similar physical transformation to MacGwire's. Sosa began his career as a wiry outfielder with a quick swing and quicker feet. Over the years he went from being a tightly muscled 30-30 guy to becoming a human fire plug who smashed over sixty home runs in back to back seasons. But how dare anybody besmirch the integrity of the game with questions of steroids?

Back in 1998 everybody wanted to celebrate. The issue of steroids was there but it was ignored so we could watch too chemically enhanced cartoon characters bury one of the most melancholy records in all of sports. Roger Maris played the game in an era where players didn't take steroids. It's not that steroids weren't there but back then steroids were widely misunderstood and so were muscles. Baseball players were discouraged from using weights and body-building techniques because the exercise physiologists of the era believed big muscles were stiff and slow. A popular term of the era was muscle-bound. Back then the only athletes who regularly used weight training were football players and that was limited to linemen who required brute strength to finish blocks and tackles.

Maris didn't take steroids but his accomplishment was dismissed, ridiculed and eventually clarified with an asterisk because he played more games than Babe Ruth. Roger Maris was essentially a pariah because he broke one of baseball's most impressive and enduring records by playing every game with honor, class and integrity. But yet we see fit to defend players who voluntarily injected themselves with illegal performance enhancing substances.

The benefits of weight trained weren't fully appreciated until the mid-1980's. As our understanding of physiology grew and people became aware of the factors that influence muscle growth and development, athletes from all sports began to use training methods that included prolific use of weights. With proper nutrition and a combination strength, speed and flexibility exercises bigger muscles meant both strength and speed. Hank Aaron should be miffed that his record is about to be passed by Barry Bonds. Who knows how many home runs Hammering Hank might have hit if he had been encouraged to lift weights, let alone take steroids?

The evidence is readily available in archived footage. Compare athletes from the early 1980's to their counterparts in the early 1990's. What happened? Now you see muscles everywhere. Even golfers are finding that a little added muscle mass is helpful. Brute strength alone won't win tournaments but a little extra muscle certainly separates the top performers from the middle of the pack. Tiger Woods spends a lot of time in the gym hitting the weights. It's no coincidence that he's the best golfer in the world.

So muscles matter and it seems as though everybody came to that conclusion around the same time. How long do you suppose it took for somebody to reach for a bottle of steroids? Steroids make growing muscle much easier.

Jose Canseco used to laugh about how easy it was for him to achieve tremendous gains in the gym with minimal effort. That's why steroids in baseball center around him. His teammates saw how effective steroids were in building muscle, connected the muscle to Canseco's performance and immediately demanded that Canseco share his supply with them. Canseco and McGwire led the A's to three consecutive world series appearances with an impressive 4-0 sweep over the Giants in 1989. Even back then, as people watched the bulging Bash Brothers send hundreds of balls over the fences, the fingerprint of steroids was obvious.

So why not induct McGwire into the Hall of Fame? As a society we have watched steroids become a fixture in every sport and readily ignored the obvious signs. Instead we demand that the various leagues assure us they are testing for steroids and offer up the occasional sacrificial lamb. Even with the testing, which is laughable when compared to international standards, steroids are still rampant because the risk/reward ratio is still favorable. League officials do just enough to satisfy the conscience of the fans who in turn readily accept players back after the minimal punishments are imposed.

Inducting Mark McGwire into the hall of Fame is tantamount to giving steroids a stamp of approval but it seems we have already not only accepted steroids but embraced them. If we don't want to hold players accountable for using steroids while they are playing, why bother pretending it matters five years later. The Hall of Fame is a sham anyway, let MacGwire in and make the circle complete.