Pardon my Common Sense

In the aftermath of the recent COVID outbreaks that have affected Miami and St Louis, there has been a great deal of silliness propounded by both the league and the local writers.  Here, a local columnist named Ben Frederickson all but gives up on the season – it’s a classic “sky is falling” article, full of the expected “woe is us” sentiment that usually accompanies a team working its way through a difficult time.

For their part, the league is re-scheduling all of these missed games as double-headers as quickly as the ink dries on the postponement.  The Cards already have 6 scheduled, and will probably have 9 within a couple of days.  Assuming that next week’s Pittsburgh series comes off, the Cards will be faced with the daunting challenge of completing 55 games in 49 days.

Just kill us now.

All of this, mind you, is against the backdrop of the league doing everything it can to coddle the players.  May I remind you that the Universal DH nonsense (here is my rant against that) was implemented so that pitchers wouldn’t have to “fatigue themselves” by actually having to bat.  But three doubleheaders in a week is OK.

The goofy extra-inning rules (ranted upon here) and the seven-inning doubleheaders were all crafted to ease the burden of a suddenly impossibly burdensome season.

All of this foolishness is almost certain to continue, and my small interjection of common sense will almost certainly vanish unheeded into the void.  Nonetheless, if anyone out there – especially MLB – would like to know the right way to proceed, I will commend to them the sage counsel of those renowned British philosophers, the Beatles:

 When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me speaking words of wisdom – let it be.

All of the angst that is building over these difficulties comes from the ridiculous imperative to cling to the full 60 games.  Let it go.  Let it be.

Some stories suggested that MLB was about to flush the whole season.  Why?  Because a couple teams have had temporary issues with the virus while 28 other teams have executed their protocols perfectly (at least so far)?  Balderdash.

None of this is really rocket science.  Let the teams that are healthy play.  If teams (Miami, St Louis, perhaps some others over the next couple of months) have to drop some games to deal with an outbreak – well, OK, so they miss a few games.  When these teams get back on their feet, they can make up such games as were lost in as sensible fashion as possible.

Here’s what that would look like for the Cardinals:

To this point, St Louis has lost 10 games – 4 against Detroit, 3 against Milwaukee, and 3 against the Cubs.  Flush all of the doubleheaders that the powers that be have imposed.  Give Detroit back its off-days.  Look at the initial schedule, and let’s start over.

The Cards and Tigers (with the doubleheaders wiped) have no more games against each other.  So, for the moment, let’s forget those games.  We will hold them in abeyance, as it were.  But for now, let’s make no effort to reclaim them.

St Louis has two more series this season scheduled with both the Brewers and Cubs.  In each of those series, schedule one – and only one – doubleheader.  That will make up two of the three games lost against each of those division opponents. At the end of the day – assuming that no more games are lost – St Louis would end up with 54 games played (90% of the schedule), all without unduly taxing the team in a breathless race to achieve that magic 60 mark.  As September winds down, if it appears that any of the lost games might carry playoff importance, then plans can be made to accommodate that.  With the schedule ending on September 27, I’m betting that those last few days of September might be available for tying up any loose ends.

I would recommend a similar approach for the Phillies and Marlins.  Let it be.  Make up the games that can be sensibly made up, and let the others go.

Now, this system will likely cost some home games.  Both remaining series against Chicago will be in Wrigley, so – under my proposal – all 9 contests against the Cubs in this strange season would be in Chicago.  Well, first of all, some of that was going to happen anyway.  Among all the doubleheaders proposed by MLB, one had the Cards and Brewers making up a game that was supposed to take place in Milwaukee in St Louis.  Additionally, the original schedule was fairly tilted, anyway.  Of the 20 scheduled games against the Cardinals’ chief opponents in Chicago and Milwaukee, St Louis was going to be the road team in 13 of them.

Everyone’s main problem in trying to pick up the pieces here is that they want to make everything pretty and even.  All of that needs to be secondary to just getting through all of this.  With wacky rules and uneven schedules, this season is going to end with a giant asterisk behind it, regardless of how smoothly it does or doesn’t proceed.  Let’s not make the whole thing an exercise in stupidity as well.

As for the Cards, yes, they have dug themselves into a bit of a hole.  They weren’t playing exceptionally well when their season was halted, and now they will be coming off a nearly two week layoff on Monday (if, in fact, they are allowed to play on Monday).  When they do play, they will have to hit the ground running without several key pieces of the club for an indeterminate time – and the losses of Yadier Molina, Paul DeJong, Carlos Martinez and the others will be felt.

But the Cards have better depth than people may realize, and have a history of playing their best under adverse conditions.  It would help a lot if they also didn’t have to overcome the mindlessness of the powers that be.

Extra-Inning Silliness coming to a Ballpark Near You

Something must happen to you when you become a baseball writer.

I had always supposed that would be a terrific gig – getting paid to watch and then comment on baseball games.  But once it becomes your job, I suppose it must become like every other job – a soul draining grind.  My heart goes out to these former fans, now imprisoned in the press box forced, probably, to shove needles into their palms in order to stay awake long enough to get to the next home run.

For many of them, their only hope seems to be to turn the grand old game into a spectacle.  Sam Miller – a sometimes columnist for ESPN – seems to be one of those.  By his resume, it looks like he used to be a baseball fan.  But now the game seems to bore him.

In his glorious review of the 2020 extra-innings rule, Mr. Miller emphasizes the new – the spectacle, if you will, of the new rules.  To quote him:

“Rather than force routinized late-game strategies, putting a runner on second base to start each half-inning has created more variety. The most exciting baseball played this week has come in those six innings, which — in a mere two hours of total baseball! — included:

A walk-off grand slam.

A rare 3-5 fielder’s choice to cut down a go-ahead run.

A rookie doubling home a run on the first pitch of his big league career.

Just one sacrifice bunt.

One strikeout in the attempting of a sacrifice bunt.

A go-ahead runner caught stealing third — and that call then being overturned.

Home run champ Pete Alonso batting as the tying run, down by three runs.

A pickle involving Shohei Ohtani as the possible go-ahead run.

Two wild pitches that moved the winning run to third base (and two game-saving blocks on impossible-to-block pitches).

Two hit batsmen.

Eight batters hitting with the infield in.

A 12-pitch walk.

Multiple close plays at the plate.

And baseball’s ultimate improbability: A walk-off triple.

Geez, Sam, if all it takes to get you excited is a little novelty, then why stop there?  There’s a world of spectacle out there that hasn’t even been explored yet.

Why not start every inning with a runner at second?  Or better still, let’s put a great big wheel of fortune on the field, and at the start of every inning, the manager of the team coming to bat gets to spin that wheel to determine how many baserunners he gets to start the inning with and which bases they get to start on.  (The fun of this is that there can be a “bust” space on the wheel, which, when it comes up, will cost the team its entire inning and put the defensive team back up to bat.  Wouldn’t that be hysterical! Just imagine the look on the manager’s face!)

But there are way more opportunities than that.  Why don’t we erect basketball stands just behind each on deck circle?  Every time a player hits the ball, two of his teammates start shooting baskets.  How ever many shots they sink during the time it takes to complete the play will be additional runs added to their score.  Imagine, those lucky fans will have so much going on they won’t know where to look!

Even better, what if the defensive team was allowed to position a linebacker in each basepath, and to advance to any base, the baserunners will have to avoid the linebacker’s attempt at what would amount to an open field tackle.  This could be great because a fight could break out – eliciting the interests of both football and hockey fans.

Or how about this.  Ring the outfield walls with enormous hoops and set them on fire.  Then, behind each hoop we can set up a pin-ball like mechanism, so that if the batter hits the ball through the hoop, it will land in the pin-ball mechanism and bounce around and around lighting up all the scoreboards and racking up hundreds of points with every ping.

Wow!  No one could ever call that game boring.

Any one of these fabulous ideas would do wonders for the spectacle aspect of baseball – and as such might even be momentarily appealing to the short-attention-span-MTV-generation.

But it wouldn’t be baseball – not anymore than the designated hitter or the automatic runner at second would be.  (Parenthetically, no one is suggesting that this extra-inning nonsense should apply to the playoffs.  As opposed to meaningless regular season games that must only be endured, playoff games apparently matter.)

There is an abiding misperception that baseball fans cling to the game’s tradition because that is the only thing that’s important, and perhaps the only thing the game has to offer – that nothing else matters as long as we are watching the same game that they played a hundred years ago.  The truth is actually the other way around.  The game has lasted a hundred years plus because it’s beautiful and perfect.

If two tourists landed at the doors of the Louvre with paint brushes and buckets with a great idea of re-painting the Mona Lisa to make her more relevant to this generation (shouldn’t she be holding a cell phone?) these vandals would be immediately deported from France with the mandate that they never return.  But baseball has no such protection, and what the restless and shallow fans along with the jaded sportswriters really want is to “dabble” in baseball the way they do the other sports – a couple of Sports Center highlights here, a semi-relevant statistic there.

And by all means let’s get those extra innings wrapped up as quickly as possible.  For God’s sake let’s not subject ourselves to any more baseball than is absolutely necessary.  Jeez, people, really?  Look, why not just flip a coin after nine innings and call it a day – a resolution, by the way, not much less valid than the current solution.

Baseball, for your general information, already had the perfect arrangement to deal with games that were tied after regulation.  All other sports have had to jerry-rig some kind of overtime period to extend the game, and all have struggled, to some degree or other, to arrive at a fair opportunity for both teams.

Baseball comes already structured with discreet units of play called “innings” which provide each team with its requisite three outs.  If the visiting team scores in the top of the inning, the game doesn’t end.  The home team will still get its three outs in the bottom of the inning.  Honestly, this doesn’t need to be messed with.

Yes, occasionally these games do run a little on the long side.  Counting playoff games, the Cards have played 3378 games this century.  Exactly 256 of them have gone into extra-innings (7.6%).  Of those 256 games, 115 have gone just one additional inning, and 63 others have lasted just one inning in addition to that.  Games that have gone 12 or more innings constitute just 30.5% of all extra-inning games, and just 2.3% of all games played.  Extra-innings notwithstanding, the Cards have played in only 90 games this century (2.7%) that have lasted four hours or more.  Is it really necessary to do this aberrant thing to this beautiful game simply because less than three percent of the contests might run a bit longer than expected?

For those of you not intimate with baseball, those extra-inning contests are actually an important if mostly unnoticed aspect of a season.  Inherent in each teams’ quest to win the championship is the expectation that they will meet the challenge represented by competing in the games following a long extra-inning game.  That intermittent challenge to the depth of a pitching staff is one of the requisite hurdles a contending team must successfully navigate.

But, of course, to appreciate that you have to understand that the vast majority of baseball’s fandom is comprised of individuals who actually care about the fortunes of their favorite team.  I know, how droll, right?  And get this, for most of us it isn’t a matter of how many runs are or are not scored.  Here’s a quiz, see how you do:

The Cardinal game has just ended and the fans are pouring out of Busch Stadium (this is in an alternate time-line when fans are allowed to see games).  Jim is standing across the street waiting for a bus when he sees his friend Mike coming out of the stadium.  He waves to him and says, “Hey Mikey, how was the game?  Who won?”  How does Mike answer?

  1. “I have no idea who won, I basically slept through the whole thing. What a boring game.  No one hit a home run.  Only one run scored – and that on a fly ball.  Somebody won 1-0, but I couldn’t tell you who.  It was the most excruciating two hours of my life – I may never go back.”
  2. “What a great, great game. Jack Flaherty was throwing daggers.  He gave no runs on only two hits while striking out twelve.  Harrison Bader scored from second on a deep flyball from Tommy Edman, and then ended the game with a spectacular catch in deep left-center.  Cards win 1-0.”

If you answered “2,” there might still be hope for you.  By the way, the most thrilling game I’ve watched in the last ten years was a 1-0 game.  It was actually this game (sorry Philadelphia fans).  It took about three hours for my heart-rate to come back to normal after that one.

I understand that this can be hard to fathom.  One run scored in almost two and a half hours of baseball?  How can that be entertaining?

It’s because baseball is so much more than the home run derby that the shallow fans want to turn it into.  A tight pitching duel between two elite pitchers is – if you understand this game – one of baseball’s most electrifying gifts to its fans.

By the way, did you notice that winning pitcher Chris Carpenter added a leadoff single in the eighth inning against his good friend (and losing pitcher) Roy Halladay?  Take that, DH.

This shouldn’t be that had to comprehend – yet, I somehow get the feeling that it is.  None of the gimmicks – designated hitters, exploding scoreboards, free runners on second base – add anything at all to the game.  It’s the honesty of the 100-mph fastball.  It’s the purity of the line-drive into the gap.  It’s the poetry of the outfielder at full extension clasping the ball in the webbing of his glove.  It’s the old game, the true game, in all of its pitcher-bunting-the runner-over-to-second glory.

As another aside, there have been several times that the fans in St Louis have given a pitcher a standing ovation for getting down a successful sacrifice bunt.  I would like all of you “spectaclist” to try to wrap your minds around that.  The most detested moment conceivable in your baseball universe – a pitcher standing obscenely at the plate with a bat in his hands executing that most excruciating of baseball’s small-ball standards – a bunt.  And doing so, incredulously enough, to the unanimous and spontaneous approval of more than forty-thousand fans.  Obviously, we see a different game than you do.

I understand that the short-attention-span generation can’t endure this, and I fear that baseball’s powers-that-be are contemplating changes that will bend the game more in their direction – hoping, I suppose, to somehow secure baseball’s future.  Please believe me when I assure you that that is a lost cause.  Nothing you can inflict on this game will hold their attention.  Anyone who doesn’t have the attention span to endure a seven-pitch at bat will never hang with the game.  No matter the bells and whistles, they will be playing with their phones by the third inning.

Could this, then, be the last generation of baseball fans?  I think that is possible.  But if it works out that way, if baseball dies with me and my generation, then at least let her go out with her dignity.  Don’t tart her up like an 80-year-old grandmother wearing hot pants and too much rouge in an attempt to look 17 again.

The great game of baseball has been the great link in the generations of America stretching back to the days just after the Civil War.  She deserves better than that.

My Designated Hitter Rant

For those who haven’t had enough of my ranting, I have another link for you.

As the DH seems to be a real threat in the near future – and many expect it to be universal and permanent by 2022 if not sooner – I am going to include the link to my DH rant at the bottom of all my baseball posts this year (and next, probably).  If you have already read it, you should know that I added a section on July 30 after the Cards first five games with the DH.  Here is the link.  If this idiocy is to become law, I want to do everything I can to make sure as many people as possible understand why this is wrong.

Doing the Right Thing Can Be So Hard

With summer camp winding down and the abbreviated regular season looming on the horizon (COVID permitting), there is all kinds of chatter among Cardinal fans about what this team will look like when and if it takes the field. But, for all of the chatter, there seems to be very little uncertainty regarding how Mike Shildt will deploy his forces. 

If you are going to bet on the outcomes of the “position battles,” this is how it is going to shake out. The outfield will begin as Tyler O’Neill in left, Harrison Bader in center and Dexter Fowler in right.  Top prospect Dylan Carlson will begin in the minor league camp.  Matt Carpenter will be the starting third baseman.  Tommy Edman will scrounge for at bats where he can find them.  And Carlos Martinez will be the closer.  Nobody expects anything different from Shildt.  Is this the right thing to do?  No.  But sometimes doing the right thing is really hard.

Let’s take third base.

Now 34 years old, Matt Carpenter has been the quintessential Cardinal.  He has played at least 114 games a season for the last 8 seasons, with an .835 lifetime OPS – all in St Louis, where he has been a three-time All Star and twice a top-ten finisher in the MVP race – most recently in 2018 when he hit 36 of his 148 career home runs.  He has also started at least 200 games at three different infield positions (3B, 2B and 1B) and even made 14 starts in the outfield.  Of all the decisions that I am about to question, this one is easy enough to justify.  At his best, Matt Carpenter is an elite offensive force.

However, Carpenter begins the 2020 season on the short end of three circumstances that must force Mike to re-evaluate his situation.  First, now 34 he is entering what is usually the declining phase of a player’s career.  Additionally, he is coming off the worst season of his career (.226 average, 15 home runs, .726 OPS).  Finally, his position was taken from him last year by the spectacular Tommy Edman, whose .304 batting average and .850 OPS led all Cardinals with at least 100 at bats last year.

The short and blunt of it is that Edman needs to play, and Carpenter’s age and recent decline make him vulnerable.  Matt may very well end the season back in the starting lineup.  Edman’s sophomore season may not live up to the promise of his 2019, or Carpenter may absolutely explode when he gets his opportunities and force his way back into the lineup.  But Matt needs to at least begin the season second on the depth chart.  After his stellar 2019, third base has to be Edman’s job to lose.

The outfield problem is Dexter Fowler – now also 34 and – if we are being honest – in clear decline.  Over the last two seasons, Fowler is a .216/.321/.367 hitter – a .688 OPS.  That figure includes a .183 average (17 for 93) last September.  He then went 2 for 33 in the playoffs – not that anyone hit much in the playoffs.

The Fowler problem is two-fold.  First, for some reason Shildt is enamored with him.  Second, the Cards are trying to graduate a whole bunch of high-ceiling outfielders.  In more-or-less pecking order they are:

  • Tyler O’Neill. Tyler has made kind of extended cameos at the big league level over the last two seasons.  His early career has been plagued by lack of contact (110 strikeouts in 293 at bats), but he has maintained a better-than-Fowler average of .258 and has 14 big league home runs.  Tyler has also been a two-time 30 home run guy in the minors and has 140 minor league home runs in about four seasons worth of at bats.  He carries a .271/.343/.529/.872 batting line over 2418 minor league plate appearances.  In 996 PA at the AAA level, O’Neill has 68 home runs and a .267/.339/.554/.894 line.  He needs only a sustained opportunity to see if that minor league success can translate into major league production.
  • Lane Thomas. It’s hard to say the impact that Thomas might have had on the team as it headed into the playoffs last year.  In 38 at bats before a broken hand ended his season, Lane hit .316/.409/.684/1.093 with 4 home runs.  That’s a bit out of synch with what Lane has done throughout 480 games and 2027 minor league plate appearances, during which he has hit 55 home runs with a .252/.329/.421/.750 batting line.  He has, though, gotten better against higher competition.  In 444 AAA at bats, Thomas carries an .815 OPS.
  • Dylan Carson. Dylan is the team’s top-rated prospect and number 16 in all of baseball.  Just 21 years old, Dylan hit .292/.372/.542/.914 with 26 home runs and 20 stolen bases across the two highest levels of minor league baseball in 2019.  He was hitting .313/.436/.469/.905 in spring training before camp shut down.
  • Austin Dean. Dean had two uninspiring partial seasons in Miami, hitting .223 in 291 at bats for the fish.  But Austin is a monster in AAA.  In 568 at bats over two AAA seasons, Dean has whacked 27 home runs and hit .331/.398/.546/.944.  Even though the PCL is known as a hitter’s league, these are still eye-opening numbers.
  • Justin Williams. After a modest minor league career, Justin – whose season was delayed by a broken hand – exploded at the AAA level last year.  In a small sample size (36 games and 119 plate appearances) Justin punished PCL pitchers to the tune of .353/.437/.608/.1.045 – numbers not easy to ignore.

The exit of Marcell Ozuna to the Braves opens up left field for one of these hitters.  The incumbent in center, Harrison Bader, deserves to begin the season as the starter based on his elite defense and his record of hitting in the minors. 

And then there is Fowler in right.  In all honesty, it will be a bit frustrating to see Fowler take at bats better given to one of the developing young talents.

What should happen here seems a bit over-obvious.  Like Carpenter, Fowler should start the season as, say, the fifth outfielder.  Some combination of Bader, O’Neill, Thomas and Carlson should man the outfield spots and the designated hitter, with Dean and Williams ready for whatever changeups the very strange 2020 season might throw.

Carlson is an interesting case.  With no previous major league experience, if the Cards place him on the opening day roster – and if he stays there the entire year – the Cards will lose a year of control over the talented young outfielder.  Whereas, if he spends the first week or so of the season in Springfield, the front office will be able to delay his arbitration years and eventual free agency by another year.  I don’t think that there is anyone connected with the club that does not believe that Dylan is one of their best 30 players right now.  In fact, since there will be no minor league season this year, St Louis is very lucky that their top prospect is close enough to major league ready that they can plug him into the big league scene this year with every expectation that he will hold his own.  Otherwise – like many of their other top prospects – this would be a mostly lost year for Carlson.

No one pretends, though, that this will happen.  At any moment, I expect to see the notice that Dylan has been re-assigned.  It will almost certainly happen.  But it’s the wrong move, and sends two bad messages.

The first bad message is that winning is nice, but pinching pennies is better.  So, we may lose a few early season games that we might have otherwise won – and that may cost us a playoff berth at the end of the season – but it’s OK because we will gain one whole season of financial control over our best prospect.  The other bad message is the one they are sending to Dylan.  That message lets him know that the Cardinals will exploit every advantage the system allows them in order to maintain maximum control over him for as long as possible.

That’s all well and good.  But one day the Cards will need Carlson’s good will.  The day will finally come when he is eligible for arbitration and finally free agency, and Dylan is likely to remember how he is treated in the early part of this season.  Putting Dylan on the opening day roster and giving him a chance to prove that he can stick in the majors might even prove to be the more economical decision in the long run.

Turning to the pitching decision, Korean import Kwang Hyun Kim has taken the team by storm.  With four plus pitches that he can throw at varying speeds and with excellent control – not to mention an unorthodox delivery, Kim is the front-runner to take the open starter’s spot.  This is not to say that Carlos Martinez’ performance in second camp has been any whit behind Kim.  But Martinez has a history as an effective closer – and the guy they were counting on (Jordan Hicks) has opted out of the season.  In the kind of logic that usually governs these kinds of decisions, that makes this an almost done deal. 

But that is only because no one on the team is listening to Carlos.

If assigned to the ninth inning, Martinez will, of course, fulfill that role to the best of his abilities.  But it has to be evident to anyone who is paying attention that being a starter is more important to Carlos than it is to any other starter on the staff.  It was his consuming desire to return to the rotation that kept him tirelessly firing breaking balls all during the break.  This was the carrot that Carlos has been chasing since last season ended.  It is almost his raison de etre.  Martinez – more than anyone else in camp – defines himself as an elite starting pitcher.

So, why in the world don’t the Cardinals exploit that passion?  Knowing that 2020 will be a sixty-game sprint, why don’t they let Martinez’ great passion help fuel that sprint? If it’s true that there isn’t a wealth of closing experience behind Carlos, it’s also true that there is no shortage of dominating arms that are clear candidates to dominate that calling.  Ryan Helsley would be my nomination, but for all of that, imagine how good Kim – a lefty with an strange motion that no one in the majors has faced before – would be in a role where teams aren’t going to get three or four looks at him a night.

Don’t get me wrong.  Kim will do well as a starter, and Martinez will succeed in the ninth.  But it’s not the right move.  The right move – the smart move – is to ride Martinez’ passion.

So often, it’s quite difficult to see what the right moves to make are.  The dawning of this abbreviated season comes with much more clarity than many. But as hard as it sometimes is to see the right thing to do, it can frequently be harder to do those right things. 

Especially since the wrong things will be so much easier.

So, Cam Newton is the Answer, Eh?

The consensus, of course, is that it was another coup for the clever Patriots as they patiently waited for Cam Newton’s price to come down.  When his contract demands finally slid under their available money, New England pounced and added the former MVP – for one year, anyway.

Cam is a phenomenal athlete.  Lamar Jackson notwithstanding, Newton may be the best pure athlete ever to play the quarterback position.  It is, therefore, understandable that everyone’s expectations are that Newton will lead the storied New England franchise back to glory.  If you have the world’s most athletic quarterback paired with football’s most inventive and flexible coaching staff, you could hardly expect anything less than great success.

Here, Gregg Rosenthal – a respected columnist for NFL.com – declares New England to be the perfect landing spot for Newton, predicting that the melding of Newton, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels to be a marriage made in football heaven.  I’m afraid, though, that I have a few concerns in that regard.

I have written about Newton before – most recently here.  Let me summarize my read on the Patriot’s new quarterback.

All of his life, Cam has been the best athlete on the field – most of the time, he was far and away the best on either team.  There can’t be anything as rewarding as being so gifted that all you have to do is show up and your team wins the game.  Imagine trying to play against Cam in high school.  Are you kidding me?  Even the NCAA could rarely provide him a challenge.  In his only season as a starter (for Auburn in 2010, in case you’ve forgotten), Cam lead the Tigers to a perfect 14-0 record and a National Championship – while carving his name on the Heisman Trophy.

It’s a great ride – and anyone who tells you that they wouldn’t love to experience all of that is probably lying.  But there is a downside to it, too.

Sports in general – and football in particular – has always come very easily to Cam.  I believe that the easiness of the sport is one of the things Newton loves most about football.  It is evident in the way he carries himself on the field – his cocky smile and signature first-down point; his team photo ops while the game is going on; his preening and self-worshiping in the end zone after he scores – it’s almost as though the game of football was invented so that the world could stand in awe of the amazing talent that is Cam Newton.  And he loves it that way.  He likes football to come easily.

The problem in the NFL, though, is that wining isn’t always that easy.  Even if you are a phenomenal  talent, preparation and discipline are the hallmarks of enduring success.  Certainly Tom Brady’s career in NE stands as a testimony to that.  During his tenure in Foxboro, Tom frequently pointed out that most teams don’t have the will to practice as long and in such painstaking detail as the Patriots do.

This, frankly, isn’t a great cultural fit for Newton, whose mechanics have never been consistent and who is erratic going through his progressions.  Details have never been Cam’s strong suit.

In the link provided above to the last time I wrote about Newton, I include this quote from him: “Sometimes you have to overcome coaching.”  This is not an attitude that will play well with Belichick.

Now, it is possible that Foxboro will change Cam.  Maybe under the storied Belichick glower, Cam will embrace the discipline of his profession.  Maybe Belichick and McDaniels can finally harness all of Newton’s wonderful potential.

I, for one, will have to see it to believe it.  Nothing about this arrangement suggests that a “humbled” Cam Newton is going to New England in the hopes of salvaging his career and re-inventing himself.  It is evident – at least to this point – that he expects the Patriots to be grateful that they have him to save their season, and that he further expects them to do things the Newton way.

My expectation is that there will be some friction here.  And this season of abbreviated camps will make the indoctrination of Newton an even more difficult task.  I expect most of their preseason time together will be taken up in re-designing the offense to fit Newton.

Beyond the differing mindsets, the offensive line that Newton will be working behind is also an issue.  In his article, Rosenthal referred to “one of the league’s best and most stable offensive lines.”  I don’t think he was watching them last year.

While during most of their amazing run the Patriot offensive line was usually among the league’s elite units, that certainly was not true last year.  In fact, New England’s greatest offensive deficiency last year was the ineffectiveness of its offensive line.

Always able to morph into a dominant running team when they needed or wanted to, last year the Patriot running game stumbled to eighteenth in the NFL, averaging just 3.8 yards per rush.  Additionally, quarterback Brady led the NFL in passes thrown away with 40.  Some of those were situations where no receiver was open.  Mostly though, these were times Brady managed to get the ball out of his hand before taking a sack as his line repeatedly allowed free runners into the backfield.  Make no mistake about it, there was little to like from the New England offensive line last year.

This is a bigger point than many realize.  In Newton’s one superior year (2015), he was playing behind Ron Rivera’s run-first offense.  Those Panthers ran the ball 32.9 times a game (in contrast to 30.9 passes a game) for 142.6 rushing yards per game (Cam accounting for 8.3 of the rushes and 39.8 of the yards).  The attempts were the most in football, and the yards were second most.  Off of the running game, Cam tallied a career-best 99.4 passer rating and led Carolina to the Super Bowl.

Once there, the Panthers went pass-happy, and the Superman cape came off.  Cam finished just 18 of 41 for 265 yards, threw one interception, was sacked six times and lost two fumbles.

While Belichick could certainly fix his offensive line (and offensive lines have been known to improve dramatically from one year to the next), it’s hard to imagine Bill running the ball 30-35 times a game.  Newton’s career passer rating is a pedestrian 86.1.  Unless Cam undergoes a significant re-invention, a game plan that calls for 40 or so passes a game from him will likely result in few wins.

There is also the injury situation to consider.  Cam has been beaten up a lot over the recent years.  But his game is his legs, so he’s not likely to morph into a stationary, pocket passer.  Because he is a running quarterback, his 31-year-old body will continue to be exposed to significant punishment – increasing the likelihood of further injury issues.

All of the hoopla surrounding the signing of Newton might lead one to believe that the problem last year was Brady – which is ironic, because Tampa Bay is hailing Brady as the answer.  Tom didn’t have a bad year in 2019.  The offense struggled around him.  There is little reason to expect Newton to provide a real upgrade.  Cam brings a mobility aspect to the position that Brady doesn’t possess.  But Newton won’t run the passing attack with Brady’s skill.

In all honesty, few people will ever run a passing attack with Tom Brady’s skill.

Going Forward

If, indeed, major league baseball can stay a step ahead of the virus and start their season in a couple of weeks, then I expect to return to the normal discipline of about 5 columns a week starting around August third.  Frankly, though, both the upcoming baseball and football season are far from certain.

The Abomination of the Universal Designated Hitter – A Rant

If, in fact, there is no 2020 season, perhaps the only silver lining might be that the National League fans will be spared the indignity of seeing a designated hitter in their parks for at least another year.  Those who are in the know, however, assure me that it is only a matter of time.  Eventually the American League sin will stain all of baseball as it is now known and practiced.

This darkness won’t come because the fans desire it.  In fact, National League fans are overwhelmingly opposed to it.  But as I pointed out yesterday, the wishes of the fans are increasingly nothing to be concerned with.  When the DH comes, it will be unapologetically shoved down our throats by the players, who covet those 15 extra “starting” positions.  If you want a barometric measurement of how little we mean to the players, this is it.  For marginally increased salaries for 15 players, they will happily betray the desires of millions and millions of fans.

With the DH discussion endlessly re-surfacing, it’s time that I laid out my case against it.  I warn you at the outset that I am not exactly a traditionalist, so my reasonings may not align with other National League fans.

Strategy

Honestly, strategy is not what I would lead with, but it is the most common refrain sung by the traditionalists.  They say that the DH removes strategy from the game.  Proponents say that it doesn’t, and have tortured various statistics in an attempt to prove their point.

They are wrong, of course.  The DH does significantly lessen the strategy element of the game.  Even in the daily decision of who to bat eighth and how to handle the opposing eighth-place hitter when he comes to the plate with runners on base – walking him is not an automatic decision.

But most of all, the pitchers presence in the lineup creates one of the few critical managerial decisions that baseball is capable of.  Take the following scenario:

Arizona is in Los Angeles, playing the Dodgers.  Madison Bumgarner is squaring off against Clayton Kershaw.  As is his wont, Mr. Kershaw is twirling a masterpiece.  Through six innings, Clayton has allowed just one hit, while striking out 10.  Unfortunately, the one hit allowed was a home run.  For his part, MadBum has allowed a few more hits, but no runs through five.

Now it is the bottom of the sixth, 1-0 Arizona.  With two outs, the Dodgers put together a couple of singles, and Bumgarner walks the eighth place hitter, bringing up Kershaw.  And here you have it.  Do you hit for Clayton or not?  There is no book here, no preferred way to handle this.  Both options are fraught with indeterminate levels of risk/reward.  If Kershaw bats, the rally likely fizzles and LA may not get another shot at Madison.  Conversely, if they hit for Clayton, whether they score or not there are still nine outs to be covered by a sometimes suspect bullpen.  Here, the manager is all alone – and if he makes the wrong call he almost assuredly loses the game.

There isn’t a moment to compare with this anywhere in the American League, so anyone who argues there is no loss of strategy that comes with the DH has little understanding as to what constitutes strategy in baseball.

And note that throughout all of this, no proponent of the DH has ever argued that the rule adds strategy to the game (it clearly doesn’t).  They only try desperately to maintain that no strategy is lost.

I don’t lead with this, though, because in all honesty this incident is exceedingly rare.  I would guess that, across the league, managers are put in this kind of pickle maybe a dozen times all year.  Most of the time, if Kershaw has pitched six inning of one-run ball he will be holding the lead.  And most of the time – unless the pitcher is one of the league’s recognized aces – six innings is about all you would get from that starter anyway.  The decision to hit for him and go to the pen would be nearly automatic.

Don’t misunderstand.  These are wonderful moments, unmatched by anything the American League can offer.  They are the only thing baseball has that approaches the fourth-and-inches decisions that football coaches are frequently faced with.  It just doesn’t happen often enough to be a principle reason for dismissing the DH.  I would begin the conversation with a discussion of:

The Pitchers That Can Hit

The ability to retire major league hitters on anything near a consistent basis is a rare and very valuable skill.  Likewise, the ability to hit major league pitching – at least to the level where you are a threat at the plate – is rare and valuable, too.  Since the two disciplines develop vastly different skill sets, it’s doubly rare to find a player who can capably do both (which is the outstanding reason why pitchers are generally poor hitters).

That being said, from time to time a player does come along who is capable on both sides of the pitcher/hitter confrontation.  Sadly, America doesn’t appreciate these athletes as they should.  Nevertheless, pitchers who can handle the bat are an integral part of baseball lore.  I’m going to take a minute to talk about four – although there are dozens of legitimate examples.

Don Newcombe – who passed away last year – was almost certainly a skilled enough hitter to have earned a living with a bat in his hands.  Newk only managed a ten-year career, but he won 149 games and led the Dodgers to their only world championship while the franchise played in Brooklyn.  He was 20-5 in 1955.  He also hit .359 in 125 at bats that year, including 7 home runs and 23 runs batted in.  He slugged .632 and OPSed 1.028.  For his career, in 878 at bats, Don hit .271 with a .705 career OPS.  He drew 87 walks over his career for a .338 on base percentage.  This included an intentional walk in 1959 one of only 17 intentional walk that we know of given to a pitcher in history.

More recent are the exploits of Zack Greinke and the aforementioned Madison Bumgarner.

Zach hit .328 with the Dodgers in 2013, and is coming off a season where he hit .280 hitting three home runs  with a .580 slugging percentage and an .888 OPS.  Bumgarner won 119 regular season games and 8 more postseason games while being part of three world championships in 11 years in San Francisco.  He has also hit 19 home runs and driven in 62 in about a season’s worth of at bats (594).

In between those pitchers was Cardinal icon Bob Gibson.  Over 17 season, Gibson won 251 games, threw 255 complete games (including 56 shutouts) while striking out 3117 on his way to an MVP award, two Cy-Young Awards and two World Championship rings (during which he was named the MVP both times).  Gibson also added 7 World Series wins in 9 starts (he completed 8 of those games).  The seven victories, by the way, came in seven consecutive complete game efforts – and he may have made it eight straight if not for a misplayed flyball.  His World Series wins are still the most of any National League pitcher, and only Whitey Ford had more – Ford won 10 times in 22 starts for the great Yankee teams.  Gibson, in fact, has more World Series victories than any non-Yankee.

A nine-time gold-glove winner, Gibby was also a dangerous and respected hitter.  In his last Cy Young season (1970), Bob hit .303 in 109 at bats with 19 runs batted in.  For his career, he launched 24 home runs in regular season play and added two more in World Series play.  His 13 career stolen bases is the most of any pitcher whose career began after 1903.  His 144 career runs batted in are the most of any pitcher whose career started after 1950.

I know that there will be many out there who can’t fathom this, but I used to look forward to Gibson’s at bats.  They were infused with this wonderful feeling that anything could happen.  Part of his domination of the game was his ability to provide the clutch hit as well as most regular hitters.  Lifetime, he was a .248 hitter (80 for 323) with runners in scoring position. This includes a .289/.279/.500/.779 batting line with the bases loaded.  With that runner on third and less that two outs, Gibby hit a resounding .310 (22 for 71).  His hitting exploits form a major part of his legend.

In point of fact, their hitting abilities added notably to the value of all of these pitchers.  I’m not the world’s greatest fan of WAR (Wins against Replacement), but according to that system, 7.2% of Greinke’s total value derives from his hitting.  Walter Johnson and Warren Spahn each derived 7.7% of their value with their bats.  Hitting added 8.4% of Gibson’s value, 12.5% of Bumgarner’s value, and a whopping 22.5% (8.5 out of 37.7) of Newcomb’s value.  Adam Wainwright – among the current Cardinals – swings the bat well enough for his hitting to account for 10.4% of his value.

These are skills that should be celebrated, not swept under the rug.  This is the very essence of team sports – the thing that separates them from chess.  In chess, all your pieces have exactly the same capabilities as your opponent’s pieces.  In sports, the game is in those things your pieces can do that your opponent’s can’t do.

If your quarterback can run, then you’ve earned that advantage over the team whose quarterback can’t.  Likewise, if your safety is an elite blitzer or your linebacker excels in man coverage.  If your third baseman is a gold glover, then you have that advantage over teams whose third baseman is an immovable slugger.

Lorenzo Cain plays center field for the Milwaukee Brewers.  Last year he was unremarkable at the plate (he hit .260 with 11 home runs), but was awarded a gold glove for the first time in his ten-year career.  Among his abilities, Lorenzo has a remarkable knack for soaring above walls to snare fly balls that might otherwise be home runs.

How much, I ask, of Lorenzo’s value to the Brewers lies in this impressive skill?  What if baseball took that away from him?  Suppose baseball decided that any fly ball that would have landed over the fence would be called a home run whether or not Cain or anyone else had actually caught it.  Before you dismiss this thought, consider that the arguments for this are exactly the same as the arguments against letting pitchers hit: it removes offense from the game and negatively impacts player salaries.  Suppose Kris Bryant has a hefty bonus clause in his contract if he hits 40 home runs.  Suppose he finished the season with 39.  Suppose Cain on three separate occasions stole a would-be home run from him.  Isn’t the players association as honor bound to defend Bryant’s bonus as they are to make sure 15 hitters who couldn’t win a regular job get paid like regulars?

I maintain that these separating abilities – these skill sets that distance players from their opponents – should be celebrated.  Pitchers that are dangerous with the bat in their hands are one of the sport’s most fascinating subsets.  And – unlike the strategy argument set forth earlier – this mini-phenomenon isn’t as rare as you might suspect.

While most pitchers don’t attain the levels reached by some of the pitchers I’ve referenced here, it is not all that unusual for a pitcher to hit well enough to make a difference.  Last year in the National League (of course) there were 15 pitchers with at least 20 at bats who hit .200 or better.  Thirteen of these were predominantly starters.  This total didn’t include either Bumgarner or Wainwright – neither of whom managed the .200 mark last year, but who remain very capable.

This number is fairly constant.  For most years, there are between 10 and 15 starting pitchers – about one per team – that will give his club some advantage because of his hitting abilities.  So, on average, about every fifth game some National League team will have earned some advantage over its opponent because its pitcher can do something that the other pitcher cannot.

This is a significant number of games.  Enough to impact a pennant race.  Enough not to be casually and thoughtlessly cast aside by the philistine phalanx that champions the DH in spite of its deeply flawed logic.

The Shallow Fandom and Jaded Reporters

While the ultimate threat is the union, they are spurred on by a pro-DH chorus of shallow fans who believe that any 15-13 game is automatically better than any 3-1 game.  They, in turn, are joined by a collection of jaded journalists who have been professional baseball writers for so long that they have lost all connection to actual fandom.  I pity this group.  I can’t imagine the excruciating experience it must be for them to sit through a baseball game.  Perhaps they dig their fingernails into their arms to keep themselves awake while waiting for the next home run.

At any rate, the shallow and jaded are not hesitant to fill the internet with arguments as shallow as they are simple.  Their favorite is that nobody likes to watch athletes trying to do something that they are not good at.  Pitchers (they say, ignoring the fact that many can hit) are not good hitters, and therefore shouldn’t even have the opportunity.

Oh, really?

Back in 2018, the Cardinals tried to make Jose Martinez their starting first baseman.  To say that Jose struggled in this role is a significant understatement.  The plan was abandoned after 84 games and Martinez was returned to the outfield.

My question is, where was the outrage (other than from Cardinal fans)?  Where from that great and enlightened army of DH supporters was any whimper of outrage over someone (Martinez) attempting to do what he clearly was not good at (playing first base)?  Wasn’t this the point of always hitting for the pitchers?  So that we wouldn’t have to suffer through their struggles?

The answer here isn’t as simple as saying that Jose should have been the DH.  Over the last couple of seasons, the Cards have been “blessed” with several questionable defenders.  In addition to Martinez, St Louis suffered through the exploits of Marcell Ozuna in left field.  In a prior life, Ozuna had been a gold glove winner.  In St Louis he got poor jumps, made bad reads, and displayed one of the weakest throwing arms in baseball.  In front of him, the Cards frequently played Matt Carpenter at third.  Matt’s arm has faded to the point that even average runners have an opportunity to outrun his high, looping throws to first.

In all this, no one made a peep.  No one at all suggested that the gloves be taken off of their hands.  However poorly they played, no one seemed at all offended.

The Cardinals, by the way, are not the only team with multiple defensive issues.  Over the offseason, they traded Martinez to Tampa Bay in the American League where he could perform the DH function.  The problem there is that the Rays already have a defensively challenged first baseman in Ji-Man Choi.  One of these challenged glove men will have to man first on any given day for Tampa Bay.  But if you are waiting for anyone to protest this obscenity, I hope you brought your lunch because it will be a long while.

Elsewhere in the Cardinals’ division, Ryan Braun in Milwaukee has been a defensive liability wherever he’s played virtually his entire career.  In Chicago, Kyle Schwarber turns every fly ball to left into an adventure.  None of this matters.  The shallow and jaded don’t care about defense.  You could send the eight worst fielders imaginable onto the field.  No one would care – provided that they can hit.

And that’s just the defensive end of it.  What about base-running?

In his younger days, Yadier Molina had a bit of spring to his step – he even stole 12 bases in 2012.  Still an intelligent runner, 16 seasons and 16,327.2 innings crouching behind the plate have pretty much drained Yadi of anything resembling foot speed.  Now, he is pretty much base-to-base, clogging the basepaths for everyone behind him.  You won’t hear a sound from the no-one-should-do-things-they-are-bad-at crowd. 

Sometimes managers will start players who are nursing injuries that inhibit their running.  For much of the last half of last season, Anthony Rizzo started (and hit leadoff) for the Cubs even though leg miseries reduced him to a station to station runner.  Do you think this disturbed the shallow and jaded?  Not a bit (Rizzo, you see, hit 27 home runs).

This is easily the most irritating thing about the DH rule, as far as I am concerned.  Nothing matters here but hitting.  Defense and base-running?  Please.  Those are those boring, inconsequential aspects of baseball that the shallow and jaded have to struggle to stay awake through until they can get to the next home run.

And another thing.  It’s apparently unendurable to allow pitchers to struggle at the plate, but there’s no problem with anyone else struggling?  Yes a National League DH rule would have kept Jack Flaherty and his .185 batting average away from the plate, but it would have done nothing for Harrison Bader and his .205 average.  Bader struck out 100 more times than Flaherty (117-17), but its Flaherty’s strikeouts that are too egregious to endure?

During the first seven years of his Hall of Fame career, shortstop Ozzie Smith hit just .235/.306/.293/.599.  Last year, there were 7 pitchers to register a higher OPS than that.  But the DH can’t apply to shortstops – even if the starting pitcher that day is a better hitter.

During most of Gibson’s best seasons, his shortstop was a gentleman named Dal Maxville.  In 11 seasons in St Louis, Maxy hit all of 6 home runs in 3087 at bats while carrying a .559 OPS.  In 1969 Dal hit .175 with a .492 OPS (Gibson hit .246 that year with a .584 OPS).  The next year, Maxville improved to .201 with a .510 OPS.  That was the year Gibson hit .303 with a .751 OPS.

Gibson was clearly a better hitter than Maxville, and a rule adjustment that truly was geared to artificially augment offense would have allowed Gibson to hit and have the designated hitter replace Maxville’s bat.  But the DH rule isn’t flexible enough to allow that.  The DH rule can only target the pitcher – regardless of how proficient he is.

This silliness will reach its height in Anaheim this season (if there is a season).  After missing a season on the mound due to Tommy John surgery, Shohei Ohtani is expected, finally, to be a fixture in the Angel’s rotation.  But when he pitches, he won’t be allowed to hit – or at least if he does, Anaheim will have to abandon the DH advantage for that game.  The stupidity here is that when Ohtani is not pitching, he will be the Angels’ designated hitter.

Now, even the fuzzy-thinking denizens of the shallow and jaded club can’t look at that situation without realizing that something is screwed up with the DH rule.

Let me add one more argument.  The starting pitcher in a National League game usually accounts for two plate appearances or less before his spot in the lineup is filled with pinch-hitters.  Between their home games and their road appearances in NL ballparks, the Cardinals (including playoffs) had 161 games in which their starting pitcher was written into the lineup.  In 132 of those games (82.0%) those pitchers managed no more than two plate appearances.

The fact is that even if you’re starting pitcher for the day was the worst hitter imaginable, you would be logically better off replacing the next weakest bat in your lineup with a DH, enduring two plate appearances from your starter, and then bringing on the pinch hitters.  This strategy would give your better hitters (on average) six of the eight at bats otherwise given to the two weakest hitters in your lineup.

But you can’t do that with the DH.  Under the dizzyingly illogical DH rule, you have to hit if you play shortstop – even if you struggle at the plate; and you can’t hit if you’re the pitcher – even if you are one of the game’s best hitting pitchers.  Even if you are Shohei Ohtani.

The question here isn’t how anyone can oppose the DH.  The question is how can anyone support it.  The only way is if you don’t think about it.  At all.

All But Eliminates the Bench

[All of the other sections of this rant were written on June 5, several weeks before the season started.  This addition is added after watching the Cards play 5 games with the designated hitter.]

American League teams and their fans are probably already inured to this insidious issue, but one of the first things I’ve noticed is how useless your bench is when you are saddled with the designated hitter.  Five games into the 2020 season, Cardinal bench players have had all of 7 plate appearances (about 4 percent of the at bats).  Players who didn’t start the game have come to the plate just 3 times so far.

Last year – under the weakest definition for what constitutes your bench – the Cards saw their bench players take 12.4% of the plate appearances.  And Mike Shildt has less use for his bench than many managers.  For Mike, basically, unless the starter is in the hospital he will be in the lineup.  In Tony LaRussa’s final season, of the 6242 plate appearances the Cardinals had (including playoffs), players who didn’t start the game accounted for 530 of those plate appearances (8.5%), and Tony’s bench as a whole accounted for just a shade below 20% of all plate appearances (1247).

This is not just a Cardinal thing.  In 2019, National League substitutes had 7295 plate appearances – with 4303 coming as pinch hitters.  American League players who didn’t start the game managed only 2881 plate appearances – just 1367 of them as pinch hitters (and I would be willing to bet that about a fourth of that activity occurred in the handful of games where the AL had to play by NL rules).

There is a loss of strategy here.  Yes, at some point the NL is going to start hitting for its pitcher.  That point is obvious.  But the question would then be which pinch-hitter.  In a universe where that hitter only gets one shot it becomes another strategic element for the National League manager to decide who gets which opportunity.

Beyond the strategic element, baseball where the pitcher hits forces involvement from the bench.  Poor Rangel Ravelo hadn’t been to the plate for a solid week since the end of summer camp, and he suddenly gets put in to hit against soft-tossing lefty Rich Hill?  Thanks a lot, Mike.  In real baseball, Ravelo would have had two or three pinch-hitting appearances during the first four games.

The carry-over for this is the DH himself, who doesn’t take the field with his team.  What is there for him to do while the rest of his team tries to keep the other team from scoring?  He’s not truly a bench player – but in the truest sense of the word, neither is he a starter.

Since time immemorial, baseball players have had the opportunity to make plays in the field, so that they are contributors even if they don’t get a hit on a particular day.  Yesterday (July 29), Kolten Wong and Tommy Edman were both 0-4, among several hitless Cards in their 3-0 shutout loss.  But most of these players were able to take their gloves to field and help prevent the other team from scoring.  Ravelo (who was 0-2) and Matt Carpenter (0-1) who assumed the DH duties late in the game have only their failures to show for the evening.

In recognition of the unnaturalness of the position, there was some early discussion about denying designated hitters admittance to the Hall of Fame – since they made no contribution on defense.  It’s as though the entire world understands that this is wrong, but lack the will to do something about it.

After almost 50 years, I am sure that all American League teams have developed a thick callous to the damage done to their teams by this ill-conceived gadget, but the fact is that the DH rule is very bad for your bench, and possibly worse for the DH himself.

A Structural Violation

The root cause that links all of these problems together is structural in nature – and not terribly difficult to understand.

There are two basic structures for participant sports.  They can be two-way games (where the participants are expected to contribute both offensively and defensively) or they can employ a platoon concept.  Basketball, for example, is a decidedly two-way sport.  Like baseball players, basketball players have varying levels of proficiency.  Some are better as offensive players than they are on the defensive end and others vice-versa.  It is the coach’s job to weigh each player’s strengths and weaknesses and deploy the lineup that offers the best chance of success.

In this construct – in baseball as it is in basketball – you live with the trade-off.  If you want Schwarber’s bat in the lineup, then you have to accept his defense in left field.  If Harrison Bader is going to make miracle catches in centerfield for you, then you are going to have to accept his .205 average and 117 strikeouts.  And, if you want to profit from Jack Flaherty’s gifted right arm on the mound, then you will have to find ways to maximize his at bats (with bunts and so forth).  This simply is how two-way sports work.

Two-way, of course, is not the only viable design.  To date, only football has embraced the platoon structure, but you cannot make the argument that football isn’t better with this system.  As a platoon sport, football is a much better game now than it could otherwise be.

Imagine that Kansas City is playing New Orleans – it is Patrick Mahomes vs. Drew Brees.  Of course, both of these prolific offenses would be expected to do considerable scoring.  But now, imagine if both of those quarterbacks were forced to play free safety as well.  Imagine Brees trying to stay with Travis Kelce over the middle or trying to deny Tyreek Hill the deep middle in zone coverage.  Imagine Mahomes similarly disadvantaged trying to defend against Michael Thomas.

Even worse, imagine Mahomes coming up to make a tackle on Alvin Kamara – or Taysom Hill – and not getting up after the play. 

Even players who could play both ways (and a guy like Nick Bosa, I think, could) wouldn’t play as well at either position as they do playing just the one.  Unquestionably, the platoon system is the way to go for football.

Could baseball embrace a platoon system?  Easily.  Instead of the half-baked and ill-conceived DH, let me put my 9 best bats in my batting order – regardless of whether any of them might play the field; and let me put my 9 best gloves in the field – regardless of whether they are listed in the batting lineup.  Allow me to nominate standing pinch-runners for any batters that I fear might be negative baserunners.

Imposing this model on the 2019 Cardinals, we could have both Martinez and Ozuna in the lineup without having to put them in the field.  Rather than deciding between Tommy Edman and Matt Carpenter, we could probably find room for both in the lineup.  Bader could reign in centerfield without having to bat – but he might be the pinch-runner for Molina.

Here is the actualization of the thing the DH only leans toward.  All hitters (in this model) are professional hitters, all fielders are the best fielders I’ve got.  Nobody running the bases embarrasses himself or clogs the bases for the runners behind him.

Would baseball be a better game if it embraced a full platoon concept?  You could make a fairly strong argument that it would.

I am not supporting this idea.  I am perfectly fine with the full two-way version of baseball.  I’m just saying that if you’re going to platoon, don’t just pick unfairly on the pitcher.  Go all the way and platoon.  Not speaking for the traditionalists, I will say for myself that I could reconcile myself to this concept of baseball easier that I could swallow the designated hitter.

I get that some of my arguments are too esoteric for the shallow and jaded who are yearning for those two or three extra home runs a game.  To appreciate these concepts you have to have a deep feeling for the game – an attachment that has grown progressively weaker in the SportCenter highlight era.

So I will end coming full circle.  Whether the shallow and jaded can begin to fathom why we in the National League like to see our pitchers hit, the fact is that we do.  By an overwhelming majority.

In a just world, that should be all the argument needed.

Why the Owners Might Not Crumble This Time

At first, I thought of it as a kind of “Hail Mary” attempt.

Faced with rivers of red ink for the proposed 2020 half season, it would almost be expected that the baseball owners would at least float some kind of profit sharing plan.  It would be likewise expected that the union would have none of it.  And so, it would be at about this point of the negotiations that the ownership group would concede the fight, realizing that some money was better than no money.

Taking a deeper dive into the numbers, though, there seems significant reason to believe that the owners won’t cave this time around, and – with the players ever unwilling to move off their position – it seems that the 2020 season is exceedingly unlikely to happen.

For an example of the owners’ situation, let’s use my beloved Cardinals.

Like all major league teams, the Cardinals get TV revenue from two main sources.  They have a local TV deal, which provides them (on a 162-game season) with about $33 million dollars.  They also reap about $50 million dollars annually from the network contracts.  This $83 million of TV money is augmented by gate receipts.  How much do the Cards pocket off attendance?  Let’s make a generous estimate.

From the ballgames I’ve gone to, it doesn’t quite seem – all things added together – that a night at the ballpark should run $50 a person, but it does come fairly close.  So, $50 multiplied by the usual season attendance figure of roughly 3.5 million – they have fallen slightly short of that mark for the last four years, but – as I said – we’re making generous estimates.

That would add about $175 million to the coffers. For total revenues of (roughly) $258 million dollars.  There are some other minor income sources, but the TV money and the attendance money are the primaries.  Of course, they don’t get to keep all of the gate receipts – as the visiting team gets a slice of that.  But then, they also get a slice when they play on the road – even though this arrangement ends with the Cards giving more than they get.  Last year their home attendance of 3,480,393 (42,967.8 per game) was answered with only 2,385,586 attendees on the road (an average of 29,451.7).  Still, all things considered, were are probably looking at a little north of a quarter of a million dollars coming in – during a normal season.

From that sizable total, the Cards are on the hook for $165,375,366 in salaries to their major-league players (roughly 64% of revenues).  The team is also on the hook for all benefits, including insurance both on and off the field, as well as all airplanes, busses and hotels (major leaguers, by the way, don’t stay at Motel Six).  In addition to stadium upkeep and incidentals (like electricity and hot water – which are probably substantial bills), they also pay salaries for all coaches, trainers and scouts while supporting a fairly extensive minor league system.  This is not to cry poverty.  Just to point out that the fat-cat owners don’t get to pocket all that coin.

In general, the system works out better than either of the parties are likely to admit – enough money for both the players and the owners.

2020, of course, is a very different story.  The past winter and spring has noted the perishing of more than 100,000 Americans, with millions more losing their sources of income and thousands of businesses closing their doors for the last time.  There has been plenty of suffering to go around.

The specific damages to baseball will include the loss of half the season – and half the TV money that that would have brought in – and the loss of all revenue associated with the fans coming to the games as it is mostly inconceivable that baseball will have its fans in attendance this year.  Now let’s re-calculate.

For the Cardinals the $175 million or so from attendance has evaporated.  The $83 million normally expected from TV will now be more like $41.5 million.  The players have agreed to prorate the salaries, so instead of being on the hook for $165 million, the Cardinals’ salary obligations would be pared to $82,687,683.  But even so, weighed against just $41.5 million of expected income it’s easy to see the club operating at a significant shortfall.  Toss in the travel expenses and any additional expenses associated with all the COVID-19 protections – plus any increase in insurance that arises from the increased threat of the virus – and an expected shortfall in the neighborhood of $45 million dollars is not unreasonable.

The Cardinals, by the way, are not the only team in this position.  A quick glance at salaries and TV money show that 25 of the 30 teams can expect to lose money if there is a 2020 season, with total losses industry wide approaching a half billion dollars.

So now, I ask you, if this is your franchise and the deadline for rubber stamping the season is rapidly approaching, wouldn’t you at least have to think about this?  As much as you would like to play the season (and the Cards, having fallen just short of the World Series last year, would very much like to play the season), would you be all that willing to give the thumbs up when you know it will cost you more than $40 million dollars?

While not claiming that they are poor, the Cardinals are not one of those franchises that are making money hand over fist.  A $45 million dollar set-back will be significantly damaging for the franchise.  This is made all the more difficult to swallow, when you realize that none of the players will lose a cent.

And let’s be very clear about this.  Mookie Betts, for example, was scheduled to earn $27 million this year.  Under the latest proposal from the owners, that would be reduced to about $6 million.  So, in some sense you could say that Mookie would lose $21 million dollars.  But that is only against expected income.  At the end of the day, Mr. Betts’ bank account would be increased by $6 million dollars.  That is very much different from having Mookie open his checkbook and write a $21 million dollar check for the privilege of playing a year of major league baseball for no salary.

This time in the salary negotiations, it is actually the players who are in the position to decide that something is better than nothing.  I would be stunned, though, if they relent.  The Players Association is nothing if not consistent.  Even when their decisions are far more damaging to the rank-and-file of their members, they will seemingly support any position that plays out in the best interest of their wealthiest members.  One of the great ironies of this situation is that if the season never happens, all of the tier-2 and tier-3 players will owe the owners a debt of gratitude (not that they will ever admit it).

How this all plays out isn’t too hard to predict.  For argument’s sake, let’s say the owners relent and agree to pay the full pro-rated salaries.  So Mookie gets around $13.5 million (instead of about $6).  Players in the $6 million dollar range will end up with $3 instead of the $1.75 the owners would have liked to pay them.

This is all fine and well until the offseason preceding the 2021 season.  What will the climate be like?  Terrific – for Mookie Betts and the other top tier stars.  Teams will lay money in front of their feet as though the financial difficulties of 2020 had never happened.

All situations, you understand, are not alike.  Given the amount of money the Dodgers’ local contract calls for, it seems virtually impossible for them to lose money on a season of any length at all.  (The Dodgers, by the way, will get more from their local TV package alone than St Louis will from all sources of income.)  There are some other teams with significant resources (the Angels, Yankees and Red Sox), who will be in position to quickly recover from any losses they might sustain this year.  There are even teams like Cincinnati – likely to lose over $30 million – who might still make a big money play for a guy like Betts, who is the best combination of baseball talent anywhere not named Mike Trout.

Think of it as a gold-plated hog trough, with all the prime slop spread out for the moneyed teams to get first crack at.  These would be the “evil empire” teams – the Dodgers, Yankees, Angels and Red Sox.  They will feed until they are sated.

Behind the tier-1 free agents, though, are a whole host of secondary players.  These are very good performers – the kind of players that can make a significant impact in a pennant race.  Players who – under normal circumstances – might walk away with five-year contracts that call for $60-$70 million dollars.  But expecting a team that has just taken a $40 million dollar bath the previous season to line up to pay these guys $12-$15 million a year is a hard sell.  Eventually, all of these players will find a team, but only after their salaries descend to about the $2-$3 million dollar level that they would be playing the 2020 season for.  This is a situation that could take two-to-three years for the less moneyed teams to recover from, so the result of a union “win” in this negotiation could lead to the tier-2 players playing for far below their true value for several seasons.

All worth it, I suppose, so long as Mookie doesn’t have do without about $7.5 million this year.  Hopefully, he’s grateful.

There are a couple of under-the-radar aspects of this increasingly contentious negotiation that are more significant then are generally realized – if, for no other reason, than for what they reveal about the players and their relationship with the owners and the fans.

A Profound Lack of Trust

In most reports regarding the negotiations, you will frequently find at least one sentence that expresses the players concerns over any potential precedents these agreements might set.  They fear that the owners will take any concessions made here and try to make them permanent.  There is absolutely no reason for them to make this assumption.  The issues underpinning this entire proposal by the owners are the special circumstances that apply only to the 2020 season.  In no sense is there any material reason for the union to fear any lasting effects from these negotiations.

And yet, they do fear them.  This is because almost all of their past negotiations with the owners have been labyrinths of deception and ill-will.  From past experience, the players have learned that the owners will attempt to twist anything to their advantage – even a situation like a COVID-impacted season.

I don’t mean to absolve the players totally.  Their negotiations haven’t always been in the best of faith, either.  But clearly the owners have created this current circumstance.  Even their hesitance to open their books under circumstances like these is evidence of the abiding mistrust that exists between these two groups.

If this were a healthy relationship, would the players make more concessions?  Hard to say.  The talks, though, would be very much different.  This relationship is marked by drawing lines in the sand rather than a common search for solutions.

The Players Aren’t On the Fans’ Side Either

The other disappointing story to surface recently was a proposal by the players for a longer regular season.  Again, this was disappointing, but hardly surprising.  The ownership plan calls for 82 games played from early July through early October – with an eye on having everything wrapped up by the first of November.  The union wants to play 114 games through the end of October and then run the playoffs through November.  Through much of the country, the weather in these months is undependable at best.

So far this century, the Cardinals have played 19 World Series games in late October either at home or in Detroit or Boston (they also played 3 in Arlington, Texas).  Eight of the 19 games have been played in temperatures below 50 degrees, with a low of 43 degrees for Game Three of the 2006 World Series against Detroit.  Over the years, St Louis has had several home playoff games rained out – a workable inconvenience in the playoffs that would provide a major headache if a regular season schedule was to be adhered to.

Ironically, the original schedule for 2020 started the season at the end of March in hopes of avoiding playing World Series games in November.

There is little gained by pushing the regular season that deep into early winter.  As temperatures drop and conditions worsen it effects the quality of the game.  A 114-game season is no more legitimate a season than an 82-game season if the last 30 of those games are played fickle weather.

Details of their plan were not released, but it would likely be heavy on having the warm weather and dome teams playing at home for much of October – to their distinct advantage and their divisional opponents’ distinct disadvantage.  In the NL Central only Milwaukee plays in a dome, so they would presumably play nearly the entire last month of the season at home, while divisional foes in St Louis, Chicago and Cincinnati – all of whom have playoff aspirations – will be predominantly road teams (or play in bad weather at home).

It’s a plan that is very likely to tilt the pennant races for no appreciable gain.  Except, of course, that the players haven’t suggested this because they are under any illusions that the fans like watching baseball games in the snow (which could happen in Colorado).  It’s simply a money grab.

Players get paid for the regular season.  More regular season games mean more money.  If they play those games in November or December, then they play them in November or December.  If the conditions force a mockery of the game, oh well.  They still get paid.  If the particular circumstances (like Milwaukee playing the last month of the season at home) alter the playoffs, too bad.

In that situation, the only ones to suffer are the fans who are emotionally invested in their teams.  Sadly, this is a group that accounts for very little any more.  Generations ago, it was the game that was absolute, and millions of young boys hoped to gain the privilege of playing in the major leagues.  Now it is the players who are the absolutes, and we mere mortals are privileged to have them play before us.  And if, at any point, the game as presently constructed doesn’t suit them, then it is the game that is folded, spindled and sometimes mutilated to fit their whim.

By the way, adding games without fans only increases the disparity between the clubs’ income and expenses.  Under a 114-game season, the Cardinals’ seasonal deficit would swell to more than $60 million dollars, and the industry as a whole could see losses topping $700 million – a proposition that doesn’t move toward resolution.

Expanding the schedule into the winter is one mild example of the players’ general disregard for the fans.  It leads me nicely, though, to tomorrow’s rant on why the Designated Hitter rule is purely evil.  Stay tuned.

The Last Champions

America’s very first champion came with an asterisk.

In the fervent case of baseball fever that gripped America in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, it took us only 6 years to form the very first, official, professional baseball league.  That would be the National Association.

In 1871, nine teams formed the inaugural major league season.  There was no set schedule, but each team was expected to play each member a minimum of five times (none of them did) with the team with the most victories at the end of the year being awarded America’s very first sports championship.

Later scholarship has changed the final win totals to give the Athletics a clear victory, but at the time two teams (the other was the Red Stockings) both finished the season with exactly 22 wins.  The committee empowered to settle any disputes awarded the Athletics the title, as they had suffered fewer losses.  Thus, not quite 100 years from the time that representatives from the thirteen American colonies met there to separate themselves from mother England, Philadelphia claimed the country’s first unquestioned (mostly) championship.  In the official records of today, that Philadelphia team is credited with 21 wins to just 20 for Boston – another early bastion of liberty.

The curious thing to moderns looking back on that season was why they didn’t simply hold a playoff.  The modern sport’s scene is dominated by the pomp and circumstance surrounding the various post season tournaments, to the point where most leagues have been busily adding teams to the post-season (the NFL will be increasing their post-season openings by two teams this year).  But in 1871 it apparently didn’t occur to anyone.  (By the way, Boston and Philadelphia did meet four times that season, with Boston winning three of the contests).

You would think that – just from the mechanics of it – the playoffs would always have been a part of professional football.  It is, after all, realistically impossible to play all of the other teams in the league even once – so there will always be teams that won’t meet on the field.  Additionally, the shorter seasons encourage similar season records, forcing some sort of tie-breaking procedure.  Even so, the NFL – and its fore-runner, the APFA – took 13 years before they divided into two divisions and initiated a championship game – even though by that time the World Series had been a staple of baseball for roughly three decades.

With the nation beginning to stir out of its covid-imposed lockdown, talks of generating some kind of baseball season have picked up some intensity.  The logistics of this, though, still seem daunting to me.  The most glaring problem faced by baseball – or any other league looking to play games this year – is the testing hurdle.  The sheer quantity of weekly tests necessary to support major and minor league baseball would clearly stagger a system that is already overwhelmed.  In the face of the crisis still at large, it’s hard to justify the disproportionate allotment of this critical commodity to the baseball community.

Even as the NFL boldly announced its 2020 schedule last night – and with MLB set to send a schedule proposal to the MLBPA at any moment, I am still under the impression that baseball – and probably football – for 2020 is a long shot.  Although now, everything seems to hover around the nation’s capabilities to ramp up its testing program.

That being the case, I have been reflecting recently on the last champions in the individual leagues.  In retrospect, they are an interesting – and not at all representative – group.

Hail to the Chiefs

Last February, you will remember that the Kansas City Chiefs erased a 10-point deficit to eclipse San Francisco, 31-20 in Super Bowl 54 (LIV).  A participant in the very first Super Bowl, the Chiefs’ only other Super Bowl victory had come fifty years before in Super Bowl IV.  In fact, over the intervening half century, the Chiefs didn’t even make an appearance in the big game.  In Andy Reid’s first six seasons as head coach, Kansas City had qualified five times for post-season play – making it as far as the AFC Championship Game after the 2018 season (the first time in 25 years they made it that far).

For Kansas City and their rabid fan base, relief had certainly been a long time coming.  That championship – their second ever (if you don’t count the AFL crown they won in 1962) gives them the lead in all-time titles won by all the reigning champions of America’s other major sports.  The other three winners had never won before in the history of their franchises.

The NBA’s Toronto Raptors

What, I wonder, is the average number of years it takes an expansion team to win a championship?  The Arizona Diamondbacks played their first game in 1998 and were only in their fourth year of existence when Luis Gonzalez’ looping single brought them their only World Series title.  The then-Florida Marlins won it all in their fifth year.  The Mets also climbed the ladder rapidly, going from 120 losses in 1962 to a championship in 1969 – just 8 years.  They have won just once since then.  The Toronto Blue Jays won back-to-back titles in 1992-93 – the sixteenth and seventeenth years of their existence.  Not only have they not won since, they have only two playoff appearances in the last 26 seasons.

The Houston Astros, on the other hand, began play in 1962 and needed 55 years to finally claim the crown.  In their seventeenth year of existence, the Kansas City Royals were gifted the 1985 title (that, of course, was the year of the Don Denkinger call).  Otherwise, they would have had to wait until their 47th year to claim their first.  It took the Angels 41 years to win their only title.

And, of course, there a several baseball expansion teams that have yet to claim a title.  The Rangers will – if the season gets underway – be playing their sixtieth season in 2020, still waiting to wear a ring.  This will be 52 years for the Brewers and Padres.  The Seattle Mariners will be playing their 44th season still looking for that elusive championship.  Relative new-comers, the Rays and Rockies are still seeking titles, having played 22 and 27 years respectively.

For the Toronto team in the NBA (the Raptors) their title came in the 24th year of their existence.  On the one hand, that is quite a long time.  Imagine a ten-year-old fan who cheered their inaugural 1995-96 season.  He would be a 34-year-old man now – perhaps with his own ten-year-old son by the time his team finally got to taste the Champaign.

On the other hand – and in spite of the fact that they had never won one before – the players and fans in Toronto had – and by several decades – the shortest drought of any of the four reigning champions.  Testimony, perhaps, to how difficult it is to bring home the hardware – and what a special experience it is every single time.

The Saga of the Blues

Speaking of expansion prodigies, the St Louis Blues played in the Stanley Cup Finals in each of their first three seasons (they lost all three series).  They once went 25 consecutive seasons making the playoffs every year (from 1979-80 through 2003-04).  Even considering that playoff admissions in hockey have always been relatively easy to procure, that is still a remarkable achievement.  No one would have expected that this franchise would have to wait more than fifty years – fifty one, in fact – to finally be allowed to take Lord Stanley’s cup home with them. 

Arguably, the best team in Blues’ history was the 1999-2000 edition.  They went 51-19-11.  Their 114 points led the entire NHL (teams are awarded two points for every victory and one point for every tie and overtime loss). 

Their first round opponent in the playoffs that year was a mediocre San Jose Sharks team (35-30-10).  A cartoon on the sports page before the series started depicted an enormous, burly hockey player dressed in Blues garb standing on a boat and holding fishing gear while a tiny little shark swam off the bow.  The player was saying, “Here fishy, fishy, fishy.”  After the Blues lost the series, the succeeding cartoon found an enormous shark swallowing half of the boat – and half of the player.  The dialogue bubble this time this time was “Bad fishy.”

So it has gone for the Blues throughout their entire existence.  Until last year, of course.  I have told people that being a Blues fan was the closest a St Louis fan could come to understanding what Cubs fans were experiencing.

Perhaps nothing captures the recent season of upheaval more than the sight of the St Louis Blues skating around the arena carrying the Stanley Cup.

Washington: First in War, First in Peace, and (gulp) First in All of Baseball?

But, perhaps, none of these tales of waiting to exhale is more bizarre – and, possibly, more rewarding (or perhaps irritating) than the reigning champion of all major league baseball – the Nationals of Washington.

Back in 1969 – the same year the miracle Mets stunned the Baltimore Orioles for the title – the National League expanded into Montreal, Canada (and San Diego, too – by the way).  The then-Expos lost 110 games that year.  They played 36 years in Montreal with almost nothing to show for it.  Their lone Canadian playoff invitation occurred in the strange aftermath of the strike-interrupted 1981 season.  Coincidentally, the only version of the Montreal Expos to play over .600 ball – the 1994 team that went 74-10 – was denied their playoff opportunity when a players strike wiped out the entire postseason that year.

So was life for the Montreal Expos.

Shortly thereafter, Montreal and baseball gave up on each other.  As it became apparent that the ownership group was looking to sell the franchise to an American city, the fans decided to stay home.  The 2004 Expos – the last version of the team in Montreal – drew just 749,550 fans.  It was the sixth time in the last seven years of the Expos that their attendance failed to reach the one million mark.

So, where would this benighted franchise go?  Why the nation’s capital, of course.  Washington DC was a city steeped in baseball history – almost all of it bad.  Two previous franchises had called Washington home – and had moved on to greener pastures.

An original 1901 member of the American League, the original Senators finished at least 20 games out of first place in each of their first 11 seasons.  In seven of those years they languished more than 35 games behind.  This futility gave rise to the ditty that Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”  For the next 14 seasons, things brightened slightly behind the fastball of Walter Johnson.  In 1924 those Senators won Washington’s only World Series until last October.  Thereafter, the franchise returned to its inglorious tradition.  After a final World Series appearance in 1933, the Senators finished in the lower half of the league in 24 of its final 27 seasons in Washington – including all of the last 14.  In 1961 they moved to Minnesota and were re-branded as the Twins.

But, not to fear Senators fans.  1961 brought a new version of the Senators in the form of a new expansion team.  The Senators 2.0 played 11 seasons in Washington – ten of them losing seasons.  In 1972 they became the Texas Rangers.

So it was that 35 years after baseball had abandoned Washington, the star-crossed Expo franchise arrived to call the District of Columbia home.  Through their first seven seasons in Washington, it must have looked like the Senators had never left.  They played .500 ball that first season (81-81) and followed that with six consecutive losing seasons – two of them 100-loss seasons.

But 2011 was the last losing season for the Nationals – who then moved on to the next level of frustration – playoff frustration.  Prior to last year, Washington had qualified for the playoffs in four of six season – losing in the opening round every single time.

So when, last October 30, the Nationals dogpiled on the mound in the aftermath of their Game Seven victory, it brought to a close a 95-year baseball drought for the city of Washington.  Whether their former fans in Montreal felt a similar sense of relief or a continued sense of frustration is anyone’s guess.

Continuing a Pattern

The National’s victory continued a curious pattern in the National pastime.  Looking back on recent baseball history, 2003 stands out as a watershed year.

As that season began, the Expos (34), Astros (41), Giants (48), Red Sox (84), White Sox (85) and Cubs (94) were riding a combined streak of 386 seasons without a championship.  But that year, there was a disturbance in the force.  A seemingly dominant Cub team – the Cubs of Kerry Woods and Mark Prior – sat, at one point, 5 outs away from a World Series date.  Their potential opponents could well have been the Red Sox – who also, at one point, sat 5 outs away from the series.

But then, forces seemingly beyond human control took over.  A bit of interference on the part of a fan named Steve Bartman and a surprising hesitancy on the part of the Red Sox to go to the bullpen contributed to the collapse of both of those teams.  Soon after, the Florida Marlins – just eleven years old – took home the hardware.  For the second time in their nascent history.  There probably aren’t words adequate to express the feeling of the fans of the Cubs and Red Sox – generations removed from their last titles – as they watched the expansion Marlins win it all.  Again.

But that would be the last year that baseball would honor the most ancient of its grudges.

On October 16, 2004 the New York Yankees pummeled their historic rivals from Boston by an embarrassing 19-8 score.  At that point the Red Sox trailed in the AL Championship Series three games to none.  No team in baseball history had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit.  But that blowout loss would be the last time Boston would lose that year.  After roaring back to win four straight against the Yankees, they swept to victory to win their first World Series since 1918 – when they were led by star pitcher Babe Ruth.  And that victory seemed to open the door for all the rest.

The following season (2005) it was the Chicago White Sox claiming their first title since 1917 (two years before the Black Sox scandal).  The Giants, who hadn’t won the series since Willie Mays made that catch in 1954 took home the 2010 title.  The Chicago Cubs ran their incomprehensible streak to 108 years without a championship before that treasured bastion of baseball stability fell in 2016 – yet another black mark in a black, black year.  Here, I mourn the expiring of the curse.  The droughts of the Astros and Nationals ended in 2017 and 2019 respectively.  (The Astros lone championship has, of course, been sullied by the sign stealing scandal that has recently come to light.  To date they have not been stripped of that title.)

Mixed in with the others were titles for Kansas City, Philadelphia, and a couple for St Louis – franchises that hadn’t suffered as much as some of the others, but had still gone more than 20 years without a title.  Both Boston and San Francisco won multiple titles over the last 15 or so seasons.

With the victories by the Cubs, White Sox and Red Sox, the Cleveland Indians now hold baseball’s longest stretch without a ring.  The tribe last claimed the prize in 1948 – 71 seasons ago.  In the interim, the city that has been variously referred to as the “mistake by the lake” has been the “other” team in 1954 to the New York Giants (the Willie Mays catch); to the 1995 Braves – the only title an Atlanta team has ever won; to the 1997 Marlins (losing the seventh game in 11 innings); and most recently to the 2016 Chicago Cubs when they had a first-hand look at the end of that historic 108-year curse.

It’s been a rough half-century in Cleveland.  The Browns last title came in 1964.  The now-defunct Cleveland Barons played 11 seasons in the NHL without a title.  Since 1964, only the 2015-16 Cleveland Cavs have balanced the scales somewhat in Cleveland.  Along with the near-misses by the Indians, the Cavs went to the finals in four consecutive seasons, losing three times, and the Browns lost three conference championship games in four years to Denver – twice when they had them all but beat.

Over the last couple of generations, there has been a lot of pain in Cleveland.

More Baseball Droughts

After Cleveland – and not counting the expansion teams that are still looking for their first win – there are four other teams in the 30-40 year drought range.  All of these title absences have come on the heels of some of the most iconic moments in recent World Series history.

Forty years ago, the 1979 Pirates – the “We Are Family” Pirates of Willie Stargell – upset the Baltimore Orioles for the crown.  They haven’t won since.  Seven years later the Red Sox almost ended their streak, but Mookie Wilson’s dribbling grounder snuck through the legs of Bill Buckner and sent the Mets on to the title.  The Mets haven’t won since.  Two years after that, Kirk Gibson hit his memorable home run off Dennis Eckersley to spark the Dodgers to the 1988 title.  They haven’t won since.  The year after that, Oakland won the bay area series against San Fran – the World Series that was memorably interrupted by the earthquake.  That was Oakland’s last title.

All of those teams – to some degree or other – looked like they would be contenders for several years to come.  But none of them ever made it back.  As former Cardinal Joaquin Andujar famously noted, “youneverknow.”

Baseball and 1918

With the many comparisons of the recent pandemic with the infamous Spanish Flu of 1918, I have been searching around for evidence of the impact of the flu on baseball.  The season was noticeably shortened – down to about 126 games each from 154 the season before.  But that was because of the war (World War I was winding down at that time), not the flu.  None of the histories that I’ve found for the league has any mention of the pandemic.

This research includes one of my favorite books – The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.  In this work, James spent 12 pages discussing the beginning of platooning, but made no mention of the flu.  One of the features of the book is a year-by-year listing of notables (baseball and otherwise) who passed away during a given year.  His listing for 1918 read: Jim McCormick, 62; Patsy Tebeau, suicide by gunshot, 54; Jake Beckley, heart disease, 54; Silent Mike Tiernan, tuberculosis, 51; Eddie Grant, killed in the Argonne Forest, 35.

It has been a bit confounding for me to reconcile the fact that a pandemic that would claim more than 600,000 American lives didn’t cause the cancellation of a single baseball game, while our current version of the plague has brought everything to a crashing halt.

The answer here lies in the delicate timing of the whole mess.  The very first case of “Spanish” flu probably originated in America, with the first reported case among the military in Fort Riley, Kansas in May of that year.  From there, it transported with the soldiers to Europe and did wide-spread damage there, but relatively little here until the soldiers started coming back at the end of the summer.

The crisis and the World Series of 1918 missed each other by days.  That year, the Series was moved up to early September, and was moving back into Boston at just about the same time the effects of the flu were beginning to express.  (Boston was, perhaps, the first American city to fully experience the second wave of the disease.) Only a little more than 15,000 people showed up to watch the series finale (as Babe Ruth pitched the Red Sox past the Cubs).  Within days, panic would grip the nation.  That October, nearly 200,000 people would perish in the much more virulent second phase of the flu.

The second wave of the 1918 epidemic peaked that October.  There was another brief third wave in November (as the soldiers returned home).  And then it was basically over.  While the flu lingered through the end of 1920, the deaths it caused fell off dramatically.  By the time teams were ready to report to Spring Training, it was yesterday’s news.

The Spanish Flu was – to be honest – never really cured.  It raged briefly until everyone had either died or recovered from it.  This article traces the timeline of the disease in America.  This article graphs the death rate per 100,000 on a week-by-week basis.  Here you can easily see how rapidly the pandemic came and went.  (The second article will require you to sign up for a National Geographic account.  The account is free, but you will get a steady stream of emails from them as a result.)

To these, I will recommend one more very interesting read.  This article ties together Babe Ruth, Boston, the World Series and the Spanish Flu in one revealing chronology.  Of particular note, here, is that Ruth reportedly caught the flu twice.  He seems to have been part of phase one as the flu was headed overseas, and then he caught it again in phase two after the season and recovered.  Viruses, I’m told, always mutate – sometimes to the point where it is different enough that even though you previously may have had it, that doesn’t mean you are necessarily immune to the mutant version.

Remember also that the second wave was particularly deadly to healthy young people.  Some scientists have suggested that the virus might have triggered a cytokine storm – best explained as a severe over-reaction on the part of the normal immune system.  Therefore, the healthier you were, the stronger your immune system was.  And the stronger your immune system was, the more deadly it became when it attacked you.  (Yes, this is a significant over-simplification of what a cytokine storm is.)

The point here is that COVID-19 could just be getting warmed up, and future generations of the disease could take on a virulence far beyond our experience with phase one.

Some Football Talk

The NFL still believes that it will play their entire schedule without interruption.  While I am skeptical, it has been a noteworthy offseason and it’s about time I address some of it.

Recently, football conducted its collegiate draft.  While the bulk of the pre-draft chatter revolved around an Alabama quarterback named Tua Togovailoa, the face of the 2020 NFL draft quickly became the ex-Utah State quarterback Jordan Love, drafted by the Packers with the 26th pick.  The gasps produced by this pick came because a) Green Bay is still led at quarterback by soon-to-be hall of famer Aaron Rodgers, who doesn’t look like he is on his last legs; and b) Love’s stock had fallen significantly on the heels of his FBS-leading 17 interceptions.  As one scout put it, there was just too much bad tape on Love for them to even consider him.  Green Bay, apparently, sees a greater upside here than other organizations.

Within days, there were internet speculations on where Rodgers might get traded to.  Let’s tap the brakes a little, here.  Remember that Rodgers himself was a first-round pick – taken at about the same part of the 2005 draft (24th overall) – even though Brett Favre (then 36 – Rodgers is now 36) was still going strong.  Rodgers held a clipboard for three years (throwing a total of 59 passes over those seasons) while waiting for his turn.  Jordan won’t turn 22 until November 2, and is clearly not ready to take over as an NFL quarterback anytime soon.  The most reasonable expectation here is that Jordan will repeat Aaron’s pattern.  He will sit and watch and learn for three or four years, and then the Packers will make a decision.

But anyone who is expecting anyone other than Aaron Rodgers to line up under center for the Green Bay Packers this season (barring some kind of pre-season injury) is badly misreading the situation.

Brady and Gronk to TB

Already one of the great retirement communities in America, Tampa Bay, Florida will welcome two of the NFL’s most decorated senior citizens.  In the talk of the offseason, Tom Brady (who will be 43 by the time the season starts) and Rob Gronkowski (30) have relocated to the Gulf Coast.  But Tom and Rob have not migrated to Florida to retire – in fact, in Rob’s case, he is coming out of retirement.  They have come to carry the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Super Bowl.

At least, that is the expectation in Tampa Bay – and, probably, elsewhere.

Gronk adds his talents to an exciting receiving corps that includes Chris Godwin and Mike Evans.  With the perception being that Brady’s 2019 season was limited by the lack of impact receivers, the bounty he will find in Tampa must seem like Christmas come early.  Tampa Bay has become the trendy favorite to make waves if there is a 2020 season.

A closer look, though, shows that New England’s offensive problems were less the lack of impact receivers.  After years of being one of football’s elite offenses, the Patriots offensive line had finally eroded to the point where it could no longer sustain the offensive brilliance that has been its trademark.

Coming now to Tampa Bay, Tom has receivers but no better of a line in front of him and no running game to speak of.  Tampa Bay did invest its first-round draft pick (number 13) on a highly regarded offensive tackle (Tristan Wirfs of Iowa), but adding Brady’s two-year, 60-million-dollar contract to their balance sheet doesn’t leave them very much cap room to improve the team around Tom.  Moreover, his defense in Tamp Bay won’t be nearly the group that supported him in New England.  The Bucs had only three games last year when they held their opposition to under 20 points.  And in two of those they were facing primarily backup quarterbacks. 

In Week 13 they beat Jacksonville 28-11 when Gardner Minshew relieved a less-than-effective Nick Foles.  Their Week 15 win over Detroit (38-17) came against backup David Blough.  The other time they allowed fewer than 20 points came in Week Two when they slipped by Carolina 20-14.  Cam Newton did play that game, but was obviously physically compromised.

In short, Tampa Bay isn’t necessarily the powerhouse that many are expecting.  Add in the loss of the play-calling of Josh McDaniel, and there is reason to believe that Brady’s introduction to the NFC South will be more challenging than advertised.

Again, if there is a 2020 season.

Rational Suggestions for the 2020 Baseball season

The shutdown could hardly have come at a worse time for baseball.  Perhaps if everything had held off until one or two regular season games were played before everything came to a screeching halt, that might have been worse.  But the timing for this is certainly bad enough.

Admittedly, it’s trivial to discuss the unrolling of a sporting season against the very serious backdrop of COVID-19.  Whether baseball – or any other sport – is even played at all this year pales in importance against the life-and-death battle that many people across the globe are facing every day.

That being said, for those of us who anticipated watching baseball games by this time of the year, the prospects for the 2020 season are a matter of some interest.  And as discussions about the upcoming season are on-going, I feel that I should weigh in here.

The NBA and NHL have both suspended their seasons just before their playoffs were to begin.  That is a very bad time for an interruption, but basketball and hockey are both indoor sports.  While it is fairly obvious at this point that the rest of their regular seasons are toast, both of those leagues could – if they wanted – wait almost indefinitely and then go straight to playoffs whenever sports get the all-clear to begin again.  Enough of their seasons have been played to make reasonable playoff assignments.

Baseball’s situation is much different.  Officially, the start of the season has been pushed back to at least mid-May, and it’s likely to be pushed back farther.  In all honesty, I rather doubt that we will see baseball at all this year, although it is still too early to pull the plug on the season.  In the interregnum – and amidst the swirling uncertainty – those closest to the process have consistently said that everything is on the table as far as putting together a schedule.  Since “everything” includes a lot of very bad ideas, I am going to chime in with a little guidance and a few commitments that baseball should make today.

All of the bad ideas in play have found their way into one suggestion by super-agent Scott Boras (read all about it here).  To sum up the bad in the plan, Scott is trying to play all 162 games, beginning in June and extending through the end of November, with the playoffs being played through December at neutral sites.  Game Six of the 2020 World Series – under this scenario – would be played on Christmas Day.

Since some of this senselessness appears in other plans – and since this specific plan has been submitted to the powers that be – it is worthwhile to understand how and why these ideas – individually and collectively – are bad for the game, its players and its fans.

Messing Up Future Seasons

Working backwards, let’s start with the impact such a plan would have on the 2021.  With the season not finishing until past Christmas, that would leave all of the playoff teams with a scant month or so before pitchers and catchers would report in early February.  Essentially, baseball would lose its offseason.  There is no one who looks at this that doesn’t agree that the 2021 season couldn’t begin any earlier than mid-April – forcing yet another season where meaningful games are played deep into November.  It is – on the face of it – senseless to allow whatever measures are selected to deal with the 2020 situation to negatively impact the 2021 season.

If, however, this were the only flaw in the plan, it might still be worth reluctant consideration.  But this is only the beginning.

Neutral Site Playoffs?

Really?

So, the Washington Nationals coming off their first ever World Championship – or the long suffering fans in Philadelphia – or the longer-suffering fans in Cincinnati (all of whom enter the 2020 season with the anticipation of a potential playoff berth) will be denied the opportunity to see their heroes play in their home ballparks?  You’re taking the playoffs away from Yankee Stadium?  From Wrigley Field?  From Fenway Park (although most prognosticators doubt that the Red Sox will be in the mix)?

In St Louis, home playoff games are held as a near religious experience as the Clydesdale’s make their way triumphantly around the perimeter of the playing field before a sea of nearly 50,000 red-robed worshipers.  Playoff baseball in these time-honored venues are the very fabric of the tradition of the game.  They are the sacred right of the local fandoms that uphold these teams with their collective faith (and wallets).  This is a heartless recommendation that defecates not only on the loyalty of the fans, but the traditions of a game where tradition means more than in any other sport.

Additionally, this plan deprives those communities of important revenue generated by the privilege of hosting a playoff game.  A neutral site playoff is so commonly mentioned that many believe that it is a foregone conclusion.  I shudder to think that this is true.

Since nothing written on this is terribly detailed, the neutral playoff plan raises another question.  Does everyone play neutral playoff games?  Say, for example, that the Dodgers qualify for the playoffs.  Their stadium is one of the selected stadiums.  Will they get to play their home games at home?  Or will they have to travel to Anaheim?  Suppose that they are scheduled to play Washington.  Where would the Nationals play their “home games,” Toronto?

Will the Nationals be expected to go into the frenzied environment of Los Angeles as the visiting team against an opponent very familiar with the surroundings, and then answer that ambiance with games in a nearly empty stadium in Toronto in a ballpark they are mostly unfamiliar with?

A whisper that made the news crawls a couple days ago suggested a World Series held in Dodger Stadium.  If the Dodgers should earn the right to represent the National League in the series, they would, indeed, play their home games in their home stadium.  And get this, the American League team will get to play their “home games” in Anaheim or San Diego.  Yeah, that’s obviously fair.

In fact, nothing about neutral-site, December (or late November) playoff games is either logical or fair.  This should be the first idea taken off the table.  And here is the second:

Regular Season Games in November

The December playoffs – under the Boras scenario – would be necessary because they would still be playing regular season games in October and November.  Baseball in November is a grisly thought.  Imagine – if you will – the Phillies playing an important series against the Mets in Shea Stadium in 20 degree weather with patches of snow and ice ringing the infield.

You can do this, of course.  You can bundle the players up and trot them out there and force them to play.  But what will the game look like?  Will it be an honest barometer of either team’s abilities?

Football, of course, is an all-weather sport, and NFL teams have to be ready and willing to play under any conditions.  Baseball is a different animal.  When the weather is uncooperative – or sometimes even when it’s just too cold – a baseball game will be cancelled and played later. 

The concern here isn’t that baseball players are any less tough or committed than football players.  The concern here is for the quality of the game.  Fans paying top dollar for major league baseball should be rewarded with more than pitchers struggling to get a feel for their breaking pitches and fielders trying to throw an icy baseball across the diamond.  In the era where so much of offense is dependent on the home run, would baseballs’ fandom be satisfied with the drop in offense that would be caused by dropping temperatures?

The Boras plan will try to maximize the warm weather sites and the domed stadiums during October and November – but that is its own can of worms.

Under the schedule as it was originally planned, the Cardinals were to play two important September series against their ancient rivals from Chicago (four at home and the last three games of the regular season in Wrigley).  Additionally, they had four potentially important games in Cincinnati.  If November is the new September, what becomes of these games?  Does the head-to-head aspect of the pennant race vanish?  Do the Cards, Cubs and Reds play all of their games against each other in July and August so that they can spend all of October and December playing San Diego, Arizona and Florida?

And what of Milwaukee?  Of the five teams in the Cardinal’s division, the Brewers have the only dome.  Do they get to spend all of October and November at home?  If so, then they will have to play almost all of July through September on the road.  Neither scenario is fair, either for the Brewers or the teams challenging them for the title.

And, of course, while they can try to maximize the warm weather/dome sites, no one pretends that they can be used to exclusion over the last couple of months.  So, under this and similar plans, critical end-of-season games will be played under conditions unworthy of pennant race baseball.

Yes, the early part of the season – March and April – are often plagued with poor weather.  But when conditions sink below acceptable levels, those games are simply postponed and played later.  That option exists with the early season games because the entire summer of improving weather lies before us.  That will not be the case in November.  If it’s 20 degrees in New York on November 29, what options are there?  The weather isn’t likely to be getting better the later in the year you go.

This is not how a baseball season should be decided.  The poor quality of play in the cold weather games is an important strike against this thought.  Even more so, the potential threat to those last-month rivalry games.  Has there ever been a season when the Yankees and Red Sox didn’t have a couple of big series in the season’s last month?

As you can see, all of these are very bad ideas – and all unnecessary.  And what, you ask, is underpinning all of these bad ideas?  Just this:

The Quest for 162

All of this is about somehow, some way, getting all 162 games played.  Details of the Boras plan were not fully divulged, but the plan does call for a dozen doubleheaders for every team.  My expectation would be that off days will also be few and far between.  This will also affect the quality of play.  Teams playing 21 games in 20 days are not likely to be playing at their best.

This is the consistent theme of this and many other plans – the emphasis of quantity over quality.  Get all of the games in, no matter how ugly they are.  While the full 162 is certainly optimal, baseball seasons have been played with fewer games in the past, and the sport has survived just fine.  A 100-game season, if completed before too much of October has passed, would be sufficient.  Even an 80-game – or 60 game – season would suffice in this era of global trial.  (If 60 isn’t doable within a reasonable time frame, that would be the time to pull the plug on the season.)

Much less important than the number of games played is the quality of play.  Bad baseball isn’t going to uplift anyone’s spirits.

There is one final potential hazard inherent in the rush to 162 that needs to be a part of the discussion.

A Dangerous Time for Pitchers

Again, few plan details have been shared.  Everyone agrees that there needs to be some kind of second spring to ramp up a little before the games start counting, but no one has voiced an idea of how much second spring we are talking about.  One week? Two weeks? A full month?

As there will be plenty of pressure to get the season restarted, I’m afraid that baseball will opt for the shorter end of the spectrum and allot two weeks or less preparation time.  If, indeed, it does shake out that way, it will almost surely lead to disaster.

When Spring Training was halted, almost all of the starting pitchers were pretty well stretched out.  They were up to five or six innings as they were nearly prepared to start the season.

And then, everything stopped.

Over the last several weeks, all of these pitchers have been trying to “maintain” their conditioning on their own.  They are trying to sustain that competitive edge without the benefit of competition.  As this is completely foreign to their normal preparation, I think it’s safe to say that the major’s starting pitchers are all over the map in regards to their conditioning.  If MLB now tries to pick up spring training where they left off, then all of these guys will go out there expecting to pick up at the five or six inning mark.  They will bring with them a sense of urgency to quickly prepare for the beginning of the season.

And when that happens, the echo of the collective snapping of elbows will resound from Miami to Seattle and most places in between.  Seeing as none of these pitchers has ever done this before, a stop-and-go spring will almost assuredly be catastrophic.  I freely predict that at least 20 of baseball’s 30 teams will lose at least one starter for not only this season, but for next year, too.

Complicating the cobbling together of some kind of 2020 season is the fact that at this point, spring training will need to start all over.  Anything less than a full month, with the starters beginning at the three-inning/45 pitch mark will be an invitation to record numbers of pitchers on the shelf.

Trust me, crowding in those extra games is just not worth it.  Baseball needs to take the long view.

Commitments Baseball Needs to Make

Here are my humble suggestions that constitute a sane approach to whatever 2020 season might be possible:

First, baseball needs to tell all of its pitchers to stop throwing.  Today.  Baseball has already lost Chris Sale and Noah Syndergaard for whatever 2020 season there will be – as well as at least half of 2021.  Baseball needs to protect the rest of its pitchers by having them stop throwing now.

Second, baseball needs to commit to a full month of spring training – allowing their pitchers to rebuild under a more normal regimen.

Finally, baseball needs to commit to starting the playoffs no later than the first few days of October, and to play all playoff games in the stadiums of the participating teams and in front of their fans.  There is one caveat to the “first few days of October” commitment that I will get to in a second.

Given this time frame, baseball will decide to play the most games that can be reasonably played, and that will be the season.

The summer of 2020 will almost assuredly be one of the most heart-wrenching in our nation’s history, with death tolls potentially reaching a quarter of a million (and perhaps much more).  This is another reason that I strongly doubt we will have any baseball at all this year.  MLB would be well advised to salvage what it can from this summer, and keep itself in the best shape possible for 2021.

One Other Option

I will offer this one alternate suggestion.  The LA World Series plan extends the regular season to October 15 before going into the playoffs.  This allowed for a 100-game season.  In spite of the reservations I expressed earlier about extending the season, this scenario could work if baseball were willing to streamline the playoffs.

Baseball’s playoff structure hasn’t always been a month-long second marathon.  WildCard games have only been a part of the picture since 2012 and prior to 1995 there was no division series.  From 1968 (the last year that the World Series was the only postseason series) until 1993 (there was no postseason in 1994) there was only one level of playoffs in between the regular season and the World Series.  Each league was divided into two divisions, and the division champions met for a best-of-five Championship Series.

It would take a little juggling – Houston would have to be invited back into the National League for this one season, but baseball could re-create this dynamic, play the 100-game regular season into mid-October, and still finish the World Series at about the same point of year that it is currently ending.

The irony, of course, is that the season was scheduled to start about a week earlier than usual in part to avoid playing World Series games in November.  While this was a noble idea, concerns larger than baseball have forced a re-shuffling of priorities.

If the last game of this year’s World Series could be played on October 30 (the date the World Series ended last year), baseball and the world would consider that a victory.

Stuff to Do During the Offseason

[This post was originally written on January 15, but instead of publishing it I had only saved it as a draft.  Sorry.]

On the final offensive play of Seattle’s season – and in spite of his 12 sacks this season – Green Bay’s Preston Smith became almost invisible.  Almost no one saw him in time to do anything about him.

Just hours after Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes authored one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history, Seattle’s Russell Wilson was reading from the same Hollywood script.  Down by 18 points twice, on the road in Green Bay, with his three top running backs done for the season and playing behind a porous offensive line, Wilson had brought the Seahawks back to the point where they trailed by just 5 (28-23) with still 3:22 left in the game.

But now it was third-and-five from his own 42, and Wilson needed a play to keep the drive going.  As the Seahawks lined up with three receivers to the offensive left, Green Bay split their front seven.  With Blake Martinez at his middle linebacker spot, the Packers had two clusters of three potential pass rushers at the edge of each line.  To the right of the line, those potential rushers were Kenny Clark (lined up over right tackle Germain Ifedi), Adrian Amos (lined up over tight end Jacob Hollister) and Smith at the very end of the line with nobody opposite him – a potential free rusher.

At the snap, Clark crashed inside and Amos dropped into coverage, leaving only Smith actually rushing the passer.  Smith was Hollister’s principle responsibility, and – because Preston lined to the outside of the line – the blocking scheme allowed him no help – a distinct advantage which Smith exploited by blowing past Jacob.  Noticing Hollister’s distress after not seeing him initially, Ifedi turned to help.  But Amos was still hovering, with the look of a safety who would come the moment Ifedi committed to Smith.  It caused just a second of distraction on Germain’s part – just enough for Preston to race around him.

Wilson also didn’t see Smith – not until he was about a half second away from getting hit.

Decision Time

Now it was fourth down.  Whether Pete Carroll thought about going for it on fourth-and-11 is unknown, but there were lots of factors mitigating against it.  The distance of the fourth down, the fact that they were backed up on their own 36, the fact that they still had all three of their timeouts, plus the two minute warning (there was still 2:41 left on the clock) all recommended the punt.

But the strong, strong argument against the punt was the 11 men who would take the field after the punt – the Seattle defense.

Several years ago, this would not be a concern.  In the Legion of Boom days, the Seattle defense would be another argument in favor of the punt.  But these are not those days.

This year’s edition of the Seattle Seahawks finished twenty-sixth in total defense, and twenty-second in scoring defense.  Among the 32 teams In the NFL, Seattle ranked twenty-second against the run (117.7 yards allowed per game), twenty-seventh against the pass (they allowed 383 completions during the year for 4407 yards), twenty-ninth in quarterbacks sacked (they dropped just 28 during the season), and thirtieth in sack percentage (just 4.5%).

Counting the playoffs, 15 of their 18 opponents scored at least 20 points against them – including four games where they allowed at least 30 points.  They had five different games where they allowed over 140 yards rushing – topped by the 253 they gave to Arizona (of all teams) in a 27-13 loss in Week 16.

In a season marked by multiple injuries and inconsistent offensive line play, it is entirely fitting that Seattle’s ultimate demise should come at the hands of their ineffective defense.

Twice in Green Bay’s game-closing drive, the Seahawks had them backed up in third-and-long situations.  But the Packers – who went 9-14 on third down that night – converted both, while Wilson could only watch from the sidelines.  In the game’s second half, Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed only 6 passes.  But they went for 123 yards.

On to San Francisco

With the victory (gamebook) (summary), it’s on to San Francisco for Green Bay.  The Packers are now 14-3 on the season – the same record that the 49ers hold.  But like most of America, I have a hard time holding them in the same regard that I have for San Francisco.  The relative softness of the Green Bay schedule – and the ease with which the 49ers won the midseason contest between these two teams – makes it difficult to imagine Green Bay overcoming San Fran.

But they will have their chance.  Whether or not they are generally believed in, this team is still just one win away from the big game.

Meanwhile, the end of the season is almost a relief for battered Seattle.  Once again, their final game of the 2019 season featured Wilson carrying the team.  Operating around 5 sacks, 2 hurries, 5 hits and 7 forced scrambles, Russell still threw for 277 yards – with a 106.5 passer rating – and led Seattle to touchdowns in their first three second half drives.  He also finished as their leading rusher with 64 yards on 7 rushes.  All other Seahawk runners combined for 46 yards on 17 rushes (2.7 yards per carry).

As in their win over Philly, the offensive line that failed to adequately protect Wilson in the passing game, did very little to aid the running game.  Marshawn Lynch – back with Seattle for the playoff run – was held to 26 yards on 12 carries.  He had 0 yards before contact for the contest, with all 26 of his yards coming after contact.

It will no doubt be a busy offseason in Seattle.

Wither the Texans

But at least the Seahawks know the work they need to do.  What do you do if you are Houston?  Certainly, the numbers suggest that their defense could use an upgrade – among other disappointing numbers, they finished twenty-ninth in pass defense (a weakness that was exploited last Sunday afternoon).

But the numbers don’t adequately express the curiosity that is the Houston Texans.

Sunday’s first game was another jewel in the playoffs following the NFL’s historic 100th season.  The Kansas City Chiefs – whose own playoff history has been a study in frustration – closed the regular season with a six-game winning streak that was highlighted by the euphoria of Week 17, when the home-standing Chiefs and their fans learned that they had qualified for the first-round bye by virtue of New England’s loss at home against Miami.  Then, the day before the Chiefs took the field for their playoff opener, they inherited home field advantage throughout when Baltimore succumbed to Tennessee.

Finally, everything seemed to be coming together for Kansas City.

Oops

The atmosphere in Arrowhead Stadium was all but overwhelming as over 73,000 frenzied fans shook the foundations of that venerable venue, only to see their beloved home team immediately fall apart.

Dropped passes, special team’s mistakes, dropped coverages – for 19 minutes the Divisional Round game between the Chiefs and the Texans was a home town nightmare.  With 10:58 left in the second quarter, Houston kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn added the field goal that made the score an impossible 24-0.  In the now elongated history of post-season disappointment in KC, the 2019 Chiefs were about to set a new low.

Or so it seemed.

Back on their heels, and making a season’s worth of mental mistakes in just one quarter, the Kansas City Chiefs needed just one thing to go right for them to get them going again.  That thing turned out to be kick-returner Mecole Hardman, who returned the ensuing kick-off 58 yards to the Houston 42.  Mahomes and the offense took it from there.

From that point, Patrick proceeded to complete 8 of his next 12 passes for 100 yards and 4 touchdowns (while scrambling twice for 35 yards) to lead KC all the way back to a 28-24 lead.

And that was just the rest of the second quarter.

The second half was an offensive showcase.  Kansas City only ran 29 offensive plays in that half, but averaged 9.0 yards per play.  Mahomes completed 11 of his 13 passes (84.6%) for 178 yards and another touchdown – an average of 13.69 yards per pass and 16.18 yards per completion.  They also added a couple of rushing touchdowns – finishing with seven touchdowns – all from the red zone where they were 7 for 8 (6-6 In goal to go situations) on their way to a remarkable 51-31 win (gamebook) (summary).

Aftermath

As impressive as the comeback was, the general composure of the Chiefs was just as impressive.  Even as his season seemed to be self-destructing in front of him, Coach Andy Reid showed no outer signs of concern – and his calmness spread to his team.  As to Mahomes, I can’t imagine that he ever trailed 24-0 in any situation ever.  But the young man was absolutely undisturbed by the circumstances.  In the two-play touchdown drive that followed the kick return, Patrick stood calmly in the pocket and delivered two perfect touch passes to get the Chiefs into the end zone for the first time.

The Kansas City Chiefs have a confidence level that matches their talent level – a truly scary combination.

But this still leaves us the mystery of the Texans.

The seasons of playoff teams usually follow a couple of familiar patterns.  Some teams hit the ground running and never look back.  Baltimore had this kind of season – mostly.  They did drop a couple of games early, but they were mostly an elite team from the time they pushed Miami around on opening day.

Others start a little slowly, and find themselves along the way – Tennessee and Philadelphia had that kind of seasons.  Others start off hot and fade at the end – like New England.  And there are some that start hot, stumble a bit in the middle, but then get it all back together for the stretch run.  Kansas City fit that pattern.  But early or late, most of these teams have at least one sustained stretch of the season where they played playoff caliber football.  Among all the teams in this year’s playoff field, every single one of them had at least one three-game winning streak.

Every single one of them except the Houston Texans.

Season in Retrospect

The Texans had some terrific moments this year.  They blew out the Atlanta Falcons, and went into Kansas City in Week Six and won there.  They beat the Patriots in one of those tight, one-score games that the Patriots almost always win; they went into Tennessee and beat the Titans in a three-point game; and came from 16 points down to win their Wildcard Game.

But half of their 6 regular season losses were to sub-.500 teams, including a 38-24 loss to Denver the week after their victory over the Patriots.

Their bi-polar nature was never more on display than in the playoffs.  Playing at home against Buffalo in WildCard week, the Bills came into their house and pushed them around for 39 minutes.  With just over 6 minutes left in the third quarter, Houston trailed 16-0.

From that point till about the 11 minute mark of the second quarter in Kansas City, Houston tore through the Bills and Chiefs by a combined 46-3.  They were then outscored 51-7 from that point to the end of the game.

It’s hard to look at this and say exactly what the issue is.  Always with Houston, you get the feeling that this is a team that should have a better record than it does.

There will be plenty for them to ponder during the offseason.

Just One Thing – Analyzing Super Bowl LIV

Sunday, December 29 in Kansas City, Missouri was cloudy, quite chilly, and memorably beautiful.  It was Week 17 of the 2019 NFL season – the final regular weekend of football’s one hundredth season.

Earlier in the week, Chiefs’ coach Andy Reid had decided to play his regulars and try to win the game.  There were reasons to consider the other path – resting his regulars before the playoffs began.  The Chiefs had long since locked up their division and were comfortably positioned to host a playoff game on WildCard Weekend.  They did have a chance to claim the second seed and a first round bye – but for that to happen the almost unthinkable would have to occur.  The woeful Miami Dolphins would have to go into Foxboro at the end of December and beat the defending champion Patriots.

An improbable enough scenario that Reid could be forgiven if he chose the path of safety.  As the fourth quarters of both games played out on that memorable Sunday afternoon, and it began to be apparent that both parts of this improbable scenario were playing out, an almost surreal euphoria settled over the denizens of Arrowhead Stadium.  A promising postseason had suddenly become much more promising.

Getting a first round bye is a huge factor in gaining the Super Bowl.  It is inexpressibly sweeter when that bye is won at the expense of a bitter rival – the much-detested New England Patriots.  The final day of the recently concluded regular season was one of the sweetest days to be a Chiefs fan in about a half century.

Two Sunday’s later, all of the hope and euphoria lie crumbled on the Arrowhead Stadium floor.

Thanks to Tennessee’s upset of Baltimore the night before, the road to the Super Bowl now led through Kansas City – a fact that made the transpirings that Sunday afternoon all the more bitter.

Playing as though they had forgotten every fundamental of football, the Chiefs were quickly buried in an avalanche of mistakes.  Dropped passes, blown coverages, blocked punts, muffed punts, pre-snap penalties – the Chiefs committed all of the above.  The beneficiaries of all this ineptitude were the visiting Houston Texans, who gratefully lapped up every gift they were presented.

Five minutes into the second quarter, Houston kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn added the field goal that increased the Texans’ lead to 24-0.  The silence in the stands was palpable.  In the long history of playoff disappointments endured by the Kansas City fandom, this one just might have been the most heart breaking.  So good for so much of the season, and now with the road to the Super Bowl paved before them, and to blow it all in the very first quarter – it was a bitter result indeed.

And then, one thing went right for the Chiefs.  Just one thing.

On the ensuing kickoff, Mecole Hardman returned the kick 58 yards to the Texan 42.  And that was all it took.

Just like that, the Kansas City Chiefs remembered that they were not the mistake-prone, bumbling offense that they had shown themselves to be for the first 20 minutes of this contest.  They remembered that they were one of football’s most potent offenses.  Two plays later, they were in the end zone (Damien Williams taking the touchdown pass off his hip), and the reverse route was on.

Beginning with that touchdown, the Chiefs would go on to score on eight straight possessions – earning touchdowns on the first seven of those possessions.  Down at one point 24-0, Kansas City would advance to the Championship Game on the strength of a 51-31 thrashing of the Texans.

For twenty minutes, Houston had played as nearly perfect a game as they could have hoped for.  Had they held onto that lead, they would then have inherited home field for the Championship Round.  But they made one mistake on special teams and let the genie out of the bottle.

But the Kansas City story was just beginning to be written.

The next week they again overcame a deficit (this time just 10 points) on their way to the 35-24 conquest of Tennessee that advanced them to the Super Bowl for the first time in a half century.

Once there, though, they found their mercurial offense virtually silenced – in particular, by the defensive line of the San Francisco 49ers.  Over the 60 brutal minutes of Super Bowl LIV, Patrick Mahomes spent most of the evening running for his life. 

They played San Francisco to a 10-all tie through the first thirty minutes, but as the third quarter dissolved into the fourth quarter the relentless pressure began to get to Mahomes.  In the late third quarter and into the early fourth – even when he did have time to throw – Patrick’s accuracy began to suffer.

With 5:36 left in the third quarter, trailing 13-10 and facing a third-and-12, Mahomes couldn’t get enough loft on his throw over the deep middle, tossing the ball right into the waiting arms of San Fran’s Fred Warner.

San Francisco turned that interception into the touchdown that put them ahead 20-10.

With 1:10 left in the third, Sammy Watkins was breaking into an open window in the middle of the 49er zone, but Patrick skipped the throw in.

Early in the fourth quarter – still trailing by 10 – Mahomes drove KC to a third-and-six at the San Fran 23 yard line.  With still 12:05 left in the game, this drive represented their best chance (and maybe last best chance) to claw themselves back into the game.

Running out of the slot to the left, Tyreek Hill darted quickly into the open middle against nickel-corner K’Waun Williams.  With a good throw, it’s first-and-ten on the 15.  But, playing very fast at this point, Mahomes slung the ball well behind Hill.  Tyreek reached back to try to make a play on it, but only succeeded in deflecting the pass into the air, where Tarvarius Moore made the interception.

The next time the Chiefs got the ball, there were fewer than nine minutes left in the game.  With a first-and-ten on their own 29, Mahomes completed this pass to Hill, but the gain could have been much more than the 9 yards they got.  With room in front of Tyreek, Patrick threw the ball short – almost into the dirt in front of Hill’s feet, with Tyreek making an excellent diving catch.

A run from Williams picked up the first, and initiated the most telling sequence of Super Bowl LIV.

On first down, a false start from Laurent Duvernay-Tardif set KC back five yards to the KC 35.  Now with a first-and-fifteen, Hill settled into an opening in the zone in front of cornerback Emmanuel Moseley.  Charging hard, Moseley arrived at the same time as the football, successfully breaking up the pass.

Now it was second-and-fifteen.  Hill, lining up on the right side, threatened the 49er zone with a strong vertical stem, pushing Richard Sherman and Jaquiski Tartt deeper and deeper.  When Tyreek put his foot in the turf and turned looking for the ball, he was on the San Fran 43-yard line with no defender within six yards of him.  Calling the game on FOX, Troy Aikman offered that this should have been Patrick’s easiest completion of the evening.  Instead, Mahomes (throwing with Solomon Thomas’ hand in his face) delivered well short again.  Hill came back for the pass and made a strong enough play on it that he was originally credited with a 16-yard reception that was easily overturned on review.

So, here was the Kansas City season.  Fourth quarter.  Just 7:13 left.  Trailing by ten points.  Facing a third-and-fifteen from deep in their own territory against the NFL’s third-most feared pass rush (rated on percentage of sacks).

To this point in the biggest game of his young career, the electric Pat Mahomes was clearly struggling.  He had completed just 4 of his last 11, and for the game to that point he was 19 of 32 (just 59.38%) for 181 yards (averaging just 5.66 yards per pass attempt, and just 9.53 per completion).  Only 8 of his 19 completions had earned first downs, and he had thrown no touchdown passes to offset his two interceptions.  His passer rating to that point of the game was a humbling 49.09 to go along with 3 sacks San Francisco had already rung up against him.

Things could scarcely have looked much worse at this point.

And then, one thing went right for the Chiefs.  Just one thing.

On third-and-fifteen, Mahomes lifted his eyes to find Hill all alone deep up the left sideline.  In spite of pressure from lineman DeForest Buckner (who was hitting Patrick as he was releasing the ball), Mahomes arched a strike into Hill’s waiting arms for a game-changing 44-yard gain.

And just like that, the Chiefs remembered again that they were one of football’s most prolific offenses.  Beginning with that completion, Patrick would complete 7 of his next 9 for 105 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Much like in the Houston game, KC went on to score touchdowns on their next three drives, flipping a 10-point deficit into an 11-point win, 31-20 (gamebook) (summary).

As with Houston, the San Francisco defense had played an exceptional game for 53 minutes.  But against Kansas City (who with the victory became the first team ever to come from 10 or more points behind to win three straight playoff games) any mistake could prove fatal.

In the almost three weeks since the official end of the season, this has been the lingering memory of this season’s playoffs.  In three post-season contests the Chiefs faced three quality defenses that each presented solid game plans that – for a time – were very well executed.  In all three games, at some point, the Kansas City juggernaut was on its heels and very vulnerable.

But if you were going to beat Kansas City this post-season, you needed to play mistake-free from opening kickoff to final gun.  It was a no-room-for-error tightrope that all these teams had to walk. At any point in the proceedings just one crucial play can flip the momentum.

And once the scoring starts, the Chiefs don’t need a lot of time to do big damage.  Against Houston, four of the seven touchdown drives took 2:03 of clock time or less.  Their three fourth-quarter touchdowns against San Francisco took 2:40, 2:26 and 0:13.

Super Bowl LIV Notebook:

Interceptions have always been something of a rarity in the Super Bowl – to a, perhaps, surprising degree.  When Jimmy Garoppolo’s desperation fourth quarter pass was intercepted, it marked the first time in Super Bowl history that both quarterbacks threw at least two interceptions.

For Patrick Mahomes, his 4.8% interception rate (2 interceptions in 42 tosses) was the highest for a winning quarterback in a Super Bowl since Pittsburgh won Super Bowl XL (40) 21-10 over Seattle in spite of 2 interceptions from Ben Roethlisberger in just 21 passes (a 9.5% rate).

Garoppolo’s 2 interceptions came in 31 passes – a 6.5% rate. That is the highest rate for any Super Bowl quarterback since Rex Grossman had 7.1% of his passes intercepted in Super Bowl XLI – Chicago’s 29-17 loss to Indianapolis.  Rex threw 28 passes that day – 2 of them to Colts.

Garoppolo’s 219 passing yards were also the fewest by a Super Bowl losing quarterback since Grossman’s 165 yards against Indy.

The Chiefs finished with a surprising 129 rushing yards – a good chunk of those yards coming on Damien Williams’ clinching 38-yard touchdown burst.  As San Francisco ran for 141 yards, that made this the first Super Bowl since the before-referenced Pittsburgh-Seattle Super Bowl (number 40) in which both teams ran for at least 120 yards.  The Steelers ran for 181 that day, while the Seahawks pounded away for 137.

That run, by the way, pushed Williams to 104 for the game.  He becomes the first running back from a winning Super Bowl team to exceed 100 rushing yards since Dominic Rhodes piled up 113 rushing yards for the Colts against Chicago in Super Bowl XLI (41).

49er wide receiver Kendrick Bourne caught 2 passes on the evening for just 42 yards.  Those yards, though, made him San Francisco’s leading receiver in yardage for the game. You would have to go all the way back to Super Bowl XXXV (35) – Baltimore’s 34-7 demolition of the New York Giants – to find the last time that the losing Super Bowl team didn’t manage one receiver with at least 60 yards.  Ike Hilliard led the battered Giant receiving corps that day with 30 yards on 3 catches.

The Undercard

So much of the focus of Super Bowl LIV went to the matchup of the irresistible force (the KC offense) vs the immovable object (the SF defense), that the matchup between the 49er offense (second highest in scoring and fourth in yards) against the much-improved Chief defense became mostly overlooked.

Looking ahead, though, the significance of the 49er appearance in Super Bowl LIV cannot be overstated.  For the last couple of seasons, we have noted the rise of the Neanderthal offense in the NFL – a Neanderthal offense is one that seeks to run the ball more than it passes.  Unimaginable a few seasons ago, there are now several teams who identify as primarily running teams.  And now one of them – San Francisco – has advanced as far as the Super Bowl.

In their games leading up to the Super Bowl. The 49ers were at their Neanderthal best.  During the regular season, their 498 rushing attempts and their 144.1 yards per game were both the second best totals in the NFL.  They ran the ball 47 times in the Divisional Round against Minnesota, rolling up 186 yards.  Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw only 19 passes in that game.

Against the Packers in the Championship Game, they rolled up 285 rushing yards on 42 carries, while asking Garoppolo to throw just 8 times.

While logic would suggest that a similar approach – if effective – would go a long way towards keeping the KC offense on the sideline, apparently a run-heavy approach was never in the game plan.

On first down, of course, San Francisco employed a very Neanderthal approach.  The 49ers ran the ball 16 times on first down – 14 of those on first-and-ten.  This they did to excellent effect, rolling up 119 yards on those carries (8.5 yards per).

Off of that first-down running game, Garoppolo ran a devastatingly effective passing attack.  Throwing 12 times on first-and-ten, Jimmy completed 10 of those passes (83.33%) for 96 yards and a touchdown – a 127.78 rating.  As you might expect, the play-action pass was a featured part of the passing attack.  For the game, Jimmy was 12 for 15 (80.00%) on play-action for 123 yards (8.20 per attempt).  His lone touchdown pass came off of play-action, giving him a 123.06 rating for the game.

When he ran play-action on first-and-ten, he was 7-for-7 for 73 yards.  But all that changed on second down.

Against the Packers, San Fran ran the ball 12 times on second down for 101 yards (8.4 per), scoring 3 of their 4 rushing touchdowns on that down.  Against KC, they barely made the attempt.

On 16 second down plays, the 49ers ran just 4 times (for 12 yards).  They asked Jimmy to throw the ball 12 times on that down, with minimal results (6 completions for 66 yards).  Both of Garoppolo’s interceptions fell on second down – leaving him a rating of 27.08 on that down.

For all of that, though, Kansas City didn’t force many third-and-long situations.  San Francisco faced third down only 8 times all evening (converting 3)

Timely Defense

The game was, in fact, rather characteristic of how the Kansas City defense played down the stretch and into the playoffs.  They forced only one three-and-out, and throughout the contest they always seemed on the verge of yielding points.  San Francisco managed at least one first down in each of their first 7 possessions.  Two of those possessions consumed more than five minutes of clock time, and four of the seven ended in Chief territory – yielding two touchdowns, two field goals, one punt, one interception and a possession that ended with the end of the first half.

In many ways, the San Francisco offense clicked along according to plan – with one glaring exception.  San Fran had three consecutive possessions in the second half during which they held a lead.  They got the ball with 5:23 left in the third holding a 13-10 lead; their next possession came with 11:57 left in the fourth with a 20-10 lead; and shortly thereafter, still leading 20-17 with 6:13 left in the game they had another possession.

These possessions should have constituted the Neanderthal moment.  This is the game situation you strive for if you are that running team.  This was the time that San Fran needed to impose its will and take firm control of the game.  In those three drives, the 49ers ran 14 plays – 6 of them running plays that earned just 18 yards.  As they had done against Tennessee, the gritty Kansas City defense just did not allow the running game to take over.  They were disciplined in forcing Garoppolo to win the game with his arm.

And that would prove to be challenge enough.

All About the Pressure

As surprising as San Francisco’s decision to de-emphasize its running game was, Kansas City’s defensive response was equally puzzling.  Throughout the regular season, the Chiefs were a moderate blitzing team, adding extra rushers about 30% of the time.  Against a similar offense in Tennessee in the Championship Game, KC blitzed on just 9 of 34 passing attempts.

But against San Francisco they decided the answer would be the blitz.  And so they came.  They blitzed on San Fran’s first two passing plays (giving completions on both plays), and 10 times on the 49ers first 13 passes – including the last six in a row.

For the game, the Chiefs ended up blitzing 20 of Jimmy’s 33 drop backs (a surprising 60.6%).  And for 3 quarters the results couldn’t have been worse.

The 49ers’ offense is especially challenging to blitz.  The strength of their play-action attack was very effective in removing the pressure of the added rushers.  Typically, the line would react as though running a stretch play, with Garoppolo faking the hand-off and then rolling in the opposite direction of his line and – almost always – away from any trouble.  The first 14 times that the Chiefs blitzed, Garoppolo completed 12 of 14 for 131 yards and his touchdown pass to Kyle Juszczyk.

And then, as Kansas City began mounting its comeback, San Francisco stopped doing those things.  They still responded to the KC blitz with play-action, but it was a less-convincing “hint” of play-action with the line in pass blocking mode.  As the fourth quarter arrived, Jimmy stopped rolling out of the pocket and waited there for the pressure to arrive.  All of a sudden, instead of dictating to the Kansas City blitz, the 49ers stood still and let the KC defense dictate to them with a collection of delayed blitzes and overload blitzes that had Garoppolo throwing under heavy pressure for most of the last quarter.

After completing his first pass of the fourth quarter, Garoppolo’s numbers for the game read 18 for 21 (85.71%) for 195 yards (an average of 9.29 per attempted pass) with 1 touchdown and 1 interception – a rating of 101.39.  From that point on, Jimmy was only 2 for 10 for 24 yards and another interception – a 0.00 rating only because the rating system doesn’t allow for negative ratings.

When given a relatively clean pocket, Jimmy was 17 for 22 for 186 yards.  Under significant pressure – which didn’t happen on any consistent basis until that fourth quarter – Garoppolo was just 3 for 9 for 33 yards, an interception and a sack.  The last 6 times that KC blitzed, Garoppolo was 0-for-5 with the sack by Frank Clark on fourth-and-ten that pretty much closed things out.

Here again the KC defense continued their meme of rising to the occasion as they continued to play their best at the game’s most crucial moments.  But the deeper story is more complex than that.  Throughout the game, San Francisco ran plays and did things that worked.  And then they stopped doing them.

Receiver Deebo Samuel carried the ball on three rushing plays, gaining 32, 7, and 14 yards on those carries.  The last of those came on the third play of their first drive of the second half.  San Francisco never went back to it again.

Both coaching staffs have done an admirable job all season.  Under the pressure of the Super Bowl, though, I think out-thinking yourself becomes a very real danger.  San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan may have done that.

Andy Reid, I think, was guilty of that as well.

Unexpected is Not Always Best

After the 49ers toppled the Packers to earn the right to play in Super Bowl LIV, I made this observation about their defense:

As teams began to understand the San Francisco defense, they realized that what made them special was the defensive line – especially Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner.  Beginning with their Week Nine, 28-25 win over Arizona, the league began constructing game plans that would minimize the impact of the defensive line, and force the linebackers and defensive back to beat them. 

Opponents began to run the ball with more commitment, and when they threw the ball they kept more blockers in the backfield to block.  Or, noting that the 49ers run a predominantly zone defense, they resorted to shorter, quicker passes and a more ball-control concept.  (Here is the full post.)

Noting that the 49er defensive line was the only part of the San Francisco defense that could cause real havoc with the Chief offense, I expected Reid and the offense to do some of those things against San Fran.  At the very least, I expected they would provide some help for their tackles (an occasional tight end, perhaps a chip from a running back).

But largely none of that happened.  The Chiefs did throw a couple of quick passes, but never really exploited the short openings in the zone.  Extra protection for Mahomes almost never happened.  Kansas City did run the ball with more than expected frequency and with good commitment, but not often enough to impact the pass rush.  And most surprisingly, they left their offensive tackles on an island against the San Francisco ends virtually the entire game – even though it was obvious before their first quarter was concluded that these were mismatches.

If asked to name the most dominant player of Super Bowl LIV, I would nominate San Francisco defensive end Nick Bosa.  But he should have been.  The opposing coach practically invited him to be.

Against the Packers two weeks before, Bosa and fellow disruptive end Arik Armstead were frequently left alone against Packer tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga.  But Bakhtiari and Bulaga are two of the top tackles in football, and they gave as good as they got against the 49er ends.

Kansas City’s tackle tandem of Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz don’t rank with the pair in Green Bay.  They are a rather middling pair of tackles.  But Andy Reid’s game plan treated them as though they were as elite as the ends he would be asking them to block.  Even after it became apparent that they were in over their heads, Reid made no move to alleviate the situation.

Schwartz fared a bit better against Armstead – who sometimes moved inside to rush where the Chiefs could get a double-team on him.  But left tackle Fisher spent the game at Bosa’s mercy.  And Nicky almost took Kansas City’s crown away from them.

Coming mostly from Bosa, 25 of Mahomes’ 50 dropbacks came under heavy pressure.  I define this as pressure that either forces the quarterback to run for his life, or that has him being hit as he throws the ball (or within a step of being hit), or pressure that forces the quarterback to make another decision with the football (like throwing it away).  Patrick was just 7 of 17 with an interception and a 61.40 passer rating under this kind of pressure – to go with 4 sacks and 4 scrambles.  It was this consistent heat that held the explosive Kansas City offense to just 10 points up until the halfway point of the season’s last quarter.

Even after the Chiefs began their comeback, the pressure continued.  Five of Patrick’s last 10 passes – including the 44-yarder to Hill and the go ahead toss to Williams – came under this level of intense pressure.  At the end of the day, it came down to Mahomes making important throws under great duress.  That he was able to deliver a Super Bowl victory in a game where his line never, ever gained control of the line of scrimmage is just another indicator of how special Patrick is.

And how consistently exploitable the 49ers were in the secondary.  As I had previously noted, the 49er defense is elite at the defensive line level, but notably less spectacular after that.  If there was one player whose mistakes might be most responsible for San Francisco’s defeat, that player might be cornerback Emmanuel Moseley.

Moseley’s Miscues

San Francisco’s only poor moment in the Divisional win over Minnesota was the 41-yard touchdown pass thrown from Kirk Cousins to Stefon Diggs – a deep pass poorly played by then-starting cornerback K’Waun Williams.  That play led to Williams being shifted to nickel corner and prompted San Francisco to elevate Moseley’s to the right corner spot opposite Richard Sherman.

On Super Bowl Sunday, that decision came back to haunt them.

Throughout, Emmanuel was very solid in man coverage.  The problem, though, is that San Francisco is a predominate zone defense – they were in zone 54.8% of the time in Super Bowl LIV – and in zone, Moseley fights an almost irresistible urge to wander – a tendency that expressed itself in a few of the game’s most critical moments.

With 14:08 left in the first half, the Chiefs – already leading 7-3 – had a first-and-ten on their own 44 after an interception.  Tyreek Hill lined up opposite Moseley and started up-field on what seemed to be a vertical route.  But after about 15 yards, Tyreek began to bend his route toward the middle, and Emmanuel drifted with him.  That allowed Sammy Watkins to settle into the vacated area, where he pulled down a 28-yard pass.  That play set KC up inside the 49er 30-yard line, and led to the field goal that accounted for their last scoring of the first half.

It was also Kansas City’s only play of 20 or more yards in the entire first half – an erratic effort that saw them head into the locker room only 1-for-6 on third down, and having gained only 155 total yards.

San Fran dodged one on the first play of the fourth quarter.  It was Watkins this time who started wide but curled toward the middle of the field – taking Moseley with him.  This left Hill all alone up the sideline against safety Jimmie Ward (who thought he only had the short zone to that side).  It was the pass rush – this time from Dee Ford – that saved the day, not allowing Mahomes enough time to wait for Hill to clear and ultimately forcing an errant throw.

They weren’t so lucky about eight minutes later.  On third-and-fifteen, and the season trickling through Kansas City’s fingers, Moseley once again abandoned his deep responsibilities to follow Watkins over the middle – making possible the momentum-changing 44-yard toss to Hill, who had the entire sideline opened to him.

For the game, when throwing to his left (Moseley’s side) Mahomes was 9 for 12 (75%) for 133 yards (11.08 yards per attempt and 14.78 per completion) – a 110.76 passer rating.  It will be something for the 49ers to chew on over the offseason.

A Tale of Two Tight Ends

One of the intriguing pregame storylines were the two tight ends, each of whom led his respective team in both receptions and receiving yards. 

In his third season out of Iowa, San Francisco’s George Kittle earned his second consecutive Pro Bowl berth on the strength of an 85-catch, 1053-yard season – his second consecutive year with over 80 catches and more than one thousand yards.

With the emphasis on the run in the 49ers’ first two playoff games, George had fewer opportunities than usual, catching 3 passes against the Vikings for 16 yards.  He had just one catch against Green Bay for 19 yards.

On the other side of the field was Kansas City’s Travis Kelce.  In his seventh season out of Cincinnati, Kelce was named to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl.  He followed up his 103 catches in 2018 with 97 more during the regular season, and completed his fourth consecutive thousand yard season – with his 1229 yards in 2019 ranking him fourth among all receivers in football.

Travis was one of the heroes of the comeback against Houston.  He caught 10 passes for 134 yards and 3 touchdowns in that game.  He was held to 3 catches for 30 yards against Tennessee.

Interestingly, in that game, Travis saw almost exclusive coverage from defensive backs, as the Titans decided to defend more against his speed than his size.

This coverage concept followed both tight ends into their Super Bowl showdown.  Kittle saw a lot of safety Daniel Sorensen – and drew more frequent double coverage than Hill.  As for Kelce, almost every time he lined up as the lone receiver to either side he drew the attention of the cornerback on that side.  When he lined up to the offensive right side (Richard Sherman’s side), he would be subjected to a very physical press coverage.  Even if San Francisco would resort to zone coverage afterward, Sherman would still jam him at the line to disrupt his route.

This additional attention was very effective for both defenses, as neither end was particularly prominent in the passing game.  Kelce finished with 6 catches for 43 yards, and Kittle caught 4 for 36 yards.  During the regular season, Kittle had caught 27 passes on third down – 18 for first downs.  In the Super Bowl, George had no third down catches, and was targeted just once on that down.  Kelce didn’t even have a third down pass thrown his way.

The difference, though, was the offenses around them.  The extra coverage on Kittle didn’t seem to compromise Kansas City’s overall pass defense.  On the other hand, while the 49ers were extra-concerned with Kelce, Tyreek Hill was targeted 16 times, catching 9 of them for 105 yards.

On the Toughness of the Chiefs

After they pushed their way past Tennessee, I made note of the unexpected toughness of the flashy Kansas City offense.  That toughness was again on display in Super Bowl LIV.  We saw it from Mahomes, who took several big hits and bounced back up every time.

On the last Sunday of the NFL’s one-hundredth season, that toughness found its best expression in the Kansas City running game and emerging running back Damien Williams.

In his second season in Kansas City after four uninspiring seasons in Miami, Williams began the season as the “other” back behind LeSean McCoy.  After rushing for just 256 yards in all of 2018, Damien began 2019 in quiet fashion.  Six games into the season, Williams had just 48 carries for 100 yards even – 2.1 yards per rush.  Then, in a Week 7 win against Minnesota, Damien scorched the Viking defense for 125 yards on just 12 carries.

From that point forward – with the exception of three late season games missed with an injury – Williams began to surpass McCoy on the depth chart.  LeSean wasn’t even listed as active for the Super Bowl.

Williams averaged 6.3 yards a carry over his last 5 regular season games, and ended the season just ahead of McCoy, 498 yards to 465.

During Super Bowl LIV, Kansas City ran the ball 10 times with less than four yards to gain for a first down – once on first-and-one; five times on second-and-one, once on third-and-two, once on third-and-one, and twice on fourth-and-one.  They converted 9 of the 10, with Williams going 7-for-7 in those chances.

One of the memorable plays from the game was the colorful spin-o-rama play.  This was one of the fourth-and-one plays called for with 1:57 left in the first quarter.

The Chiefs lined up with two wide receivers (Watkins and Demarcus Robinson) joining Williams in the backfield.  Just before the snap, all four members of the offensive backfield executed a 360-degree turn.  It was a flashy move that served a sneaky purpose as it now aligned Williams directly behind the center, where he took a direct snap.

Damien would pick up the first down, but it wouldn’t be easy.  While he was still a yard in the backfield, Sheldon Day overpowered Fisher, grabbing Damien around his knees. As Day’s hands slid down to Williams’ ankles, it seemed certain that Damien would go down – possibly before gaining the first down.

But somehow he pulled his feet out of the snare, and, executing a second spin move on the same play, he twirled out of the grasp of Emmanuel Moseley. Then – with the goal line in sight – Damien lowered his shoulder and plowed through Jaquiski Tartt’s attempted tackle.  He was ultimately pulled down inches short of the goal line, having made the first down with plenty to spare.

Perhaps no single play encapsulates the 2019 Kansas City Chiefs better.  Underneath the eye-candy – unpinning the flash-and-dash – was an unexpected core toughness.  The physical toughness to convert short-yardage runs against an elite defensive line, combined with the mental and emotional toughness to overcome large deficits in three straight playoff games to bring home a championship.

And as for Williams, the man who scored the first touchdown in their comeback win against Houston ended up scoring the last two touchdowns of the season.  He heads into the offseason as, possibly, the least celebrated 100-yard rusher (he finished with 104) in Super Bowl history.

For Kansas City it may work out better that way.  Better, perhaps, that you remember the glitter and pay less attention to the grit.