Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Despite recent fall, Sox can still celebrate

Jonathan Papelbon and the Red Sox should have saved the celebrating for the AL Division Series. Photo from this site.

The Red Sox clinched the John Blake Cup—and with it the American League wild card—in perhaps the most anticlimactic fashion possible early this morning, when, hours after the Sox dropped their fifth in a row (albeit after a frenzied comeback against the Blue Jays fell one run short), the Rangers were eliminated from contention with a 5-2 loss to the Angels.

Terry Francona said he wasn’t planning to stick around to watch the Rangers game, but apparently a lot of the Sox players did and whooped it up once the Angels won. Which, quite frankly, strikes me as somewhat lame. Clinch the berth on the field, or clinch it by virtue of a Rangers loss a few hours after a Sox win? Party until dawn. Watching the Sox clinch the AL East by watching the Yankees lose to the Orioles on the final Friday of the 2007 season—and the subsequent celebration—was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever experienced as a sportswriter.

But celebrating a wild card berth clinched hours after a loss seems a little excessive. Of course, the Yankees celebrated a division title earned in alternately similar yet far worse fashion in 2000, when they were in the midst of losing 15 of their final 18 games, and things turned out pretty well for them, so what do I know?

(And this may be of interest only to me, but the Sox’ decision to celebrate without allowing the media—not even the NESN cameras—into the clubhouse is a fascinating one, one that perhaps symbolizes not only the Sox’ continuing desire to conduct even the most routine of business in private fashion but also an ever-increasing divide between the franchise and the media. I smell the extra chapter in the paperback version of Fighting Words…but don’t wait, order the hardcover now!)

Even though they qualified following a loss, I don’t think for a second the Sox backed into the playoffs. A team that loses seven of nine games and still makes the playoffs with five days to spare didn’t back in, it merely earned the berth by distancing itself from the rest of the field weeks earlier. I’m willing to chalk this stumble up to human nature—with the Rangers in the midst of a toxic stretch in which they’ve lost 12 of 18 games, including eight by at least five runs, there was no sense of urgency to the final lap of the wild card pursuit—as well as the Sox running into the buzz saw Yankees last weekend.

Still, it’s natural to grow a bit skeptical about the Sox in light of their recent hiccups. But having learned my lesson multiple times this year about burying the Yankees too early or declaring the sky was descending upon the Sox, I figured I’d try the middle-of-the-road approach and research how teams that stumbled into the playoffs fared once they got there.

Except, well, someone beat me to it, and did a bang-up job in the process. Lisa Swan at The Faster Times (link found courtesy of's Circling the Bases blog) ran the post-Sept. 1 numbers on all of this decade’s playoff teams and notes that two playoff teams that played sub-.500 ball after September 1—the 2000 Yankees and the 2006 Cardinals—went on to win the World Series while none of the 10 playoffs teams that played .700 ball after Sept. 1 won it all. In fact, the only team that hot to make it to the World Series was the 2007 Rockies, who of course lost to the Sox in a four-game sweep.

Bob Harkins of notes that the idea that a team has to be hot in September in order to win the World Series probably stems from the fact that of the four champions to play .600 or better ball in September, three were wild cards—the 2002 Angels, the 2003 Marlins and the 2004 Sox.

As usual, the truth is a little different than perception. Swan’s research reveals the average post-Sept. 1 winning percentage for eventual World Series winners is .586, a smidge lower than the .596 winning percentage recorded by World Series losers.

The Red Sox’ winning percentage thus far this month, courtesy of Harkins? .555. Not great, not awful and, as Harkins also notes, not relevant at all come the first pitch of the Division Series. Especially since—and this is me writing, not Harkins or Swan—the Sox are playing the Angels, which gives the Sox a pretty damn good shot at earning a second and far more appropriate champagne-fueled celebration.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The 1-2 punch cannot be cut in half

An injury to Jon Lester or Josh Beckett could put the Red Sox down for the count in the playoffs. Photo from this site.

The Red Sox will enter the playoffs (and yes, with the magic number down to one, we’re well within reason in assuming the Sox will win once or the Rangers will lose once in the next six days) with one obvious edge over the rest of the American League playoff field. But the Sox were reminded of the precariousness of their starting pitching advantage twice in the last four days.

Jon Lester’s availability for the playoffs appeared to be in serious doubt when he could barely walk off the Yankee Stadium field after taking a line drive off his right leg in a 9-5 loss Friday. There still seemed to be plenty of reason for concern when the Sox announced shortly thereafter he had suffered a “quad contusion,” which seemed to be the fun-with-semantics strategy they used in describing Josh Beckett’s finger injury as an “avulsion”—and not a recurrence of his familiar blister issues—in 2007 as well as Jonathan Papelbon’s “shoulder subluxation”—and not a dislocated shoulder—in 2006.

But Terry Francona said Monday Lester is expected to make his next start as scheduled against the Indians Thursday, which qualifies as off-the-charts good news considering Lester appears likely to start Game One of the AL Division Series.

Alas, any relief the Sox felt over that was tempered by, if not outright negated by, the decision earlier Monday to scratch Josh Beckett from his start against the Blue Jays due to back spasms. It’s probably just a matter of the Sox playing it safe with their co-ace, especially given Beckett’s stated desire last week to get some rest before the playoffs, and Francona hinted after the game Monday Beckett will likely make a tune-up start against the Indians Saturday.

But still, it was another reminder that for all of Beckett’s excellence, this is the first season in which he has exceeded 205 innings—a mark previously reached by every other member of the Sox’ Opening Day rotation except Daisuke Matsuzaka, who threw 204 2/3 innings as a rookie in 2007—as well as of the oblique injury that wrecked his postseason a year ago.

And it’s another reminder of how brittle the Sox are beyond their top two, particularly if Lester or Beckett is compromised. The Sox should feel pretty confident putting the baseball in the hands of Clay Buchholz—untested in October but brilliant lately—for Game Three of the ALDS, but the Game Four starter, if necessary, will be Daisuke Matsuzaka, as much by necessity as merit despite his recent effectiveness.

That the Sox would have to start in a potential elimination game a pitcher who missed more than half the season and produced an ERA well north of 6 would have been inconceivable way back when we were all gushing about the impressive pitching depth the club had compiled. But John Smoltz and Brad Penny didn’t have AL-worthy stuff and Tim Wakefield has missed most of the second half, which has left the Sox in the same position as a year ago: Scrambling to find live bodies—one named Paul Byrd—to take the hill in September.

As I noted in this post about Smoltz and Penny in May, the Sox received a season’s worth of starts last year out of the sextet of Byrd, Bartolo Colon, Justin Masterson, David Pauley, Charlie Zink and Michael Bowden. Those hurlers pitched to a 5.00 ERA in 163 2/3 innings over 28 starts. Only five AL pitchers who pitched at least 162 innings last season fashioned an ERA of higher than 5.00.

The filling-in-the-gaps pitchers performed even worse this season. Masterson, Byrd, Smoltz, Bowden and Junichi Tazawa have combined to post a 6.68 ERA in 129 1/3 innings over 25 starts. Add Matsuzaka’s 11 starts into the equation and the six pitchers have compiled a 6.50 ERA in 182 2/3 innings. The highest ERA among big league qualifiers belongs to Livan Hernandez, who has a 5.48 ERA between the Mets and the Nationals. The Blue Jays’ Brian Tallet has the highest ERA among AL qualifiers (5.32).

All of which is to say we’ve learned our lesson when it comes to extolling the depth of a team’s starting pitching—and that the advantage the Sox enjoy atop their rotation with Lester and Beckett is a tenuous one, one that feels ever more precarious with every ache and pain experienced by the duo.

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So root, root, root against Yankees fans...

If you think Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter are relieved to have ended the Yankees' AL East title drought, you should see how their fans are reacting. Photo from this site.

After spending the better part of 16 years living on Long Island, I’ve come to think that it’s not so much the Yankees people hate as their fans.

Oh sure, it’s impossible not to direct scorn at Alex Rodriguez (it cannot be said enough: for sheer unintentional hilarity, there is nothing funnier than the sight of A-Rod on the fringe of a Yankees celebration or brawl, desperately looking for someone to hug or a couple bodies to pry apart). The cool corporateness of Derek Jeter long ago grew old, as did his penchant for the overly dramatic (seriously, he could have made that catch against the Sox in ’04 without crashing into the seats and bloodying up his legend) and the overwrought praise that means he is still overrated despite his MVP-caliber season (and by MVP-caliber, I mean he’s in the race to finish second behind Joe Mauer). And don’t get us going on Joe Girardi.

In addition, the Yankees’ off-season spending spree—conducted one winter after Brian Cashman preached financial restraint and patience with the Yankees’ prospects and in the middle of the worst economy in nearly 80 years—hasn’t exactly endeared them to the fans of the other 29 teams, many of whom are more steadfast than ever in believing baseball’s famously unbalanced playing field needs to be fixed with a salary cap.

But while those are all valid reasons to root, root, root for whomever the Yankees are playing, I’m more certain than ever, following the reaction to the Yankees clinching the division title, that loathing the Yankees is all about schadenfreude directed at their largely insufferable fan base.

To hear, see and read (via Facebook status updates) these fans celebrating the division title is to think they’d just been freed of the world’s greatest burden, that they were some kind of bastard product of a mad scientist who spliced together the DNA of fans of the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Browns and threw in a little bit of Los Angeles Clippers DNA just because he was feeling particularly sadistic.

But no, it’s just an overwhelming sense of entitlement that has most of these fans declaring, without any trace of irony, that a great drought is over now that the Yankees are AL East champs for the first time since 2005.

“We’ll get to the Yankees as they finally celebrated that elusive division title,” said Mike Francesa, the noted Yankees fan and always-tolerable WFAN afternoon drive host on his WNBC late-night show Sunday.

Even my wonderful wife, who is the sanest Yankees fan I’ve ever known, went to the game and walked in the door singing “We Are The Champions.” A little early, dear? Invest more than $200 million in a team and it should win the division (at least until the Mets up their payroll to $200 million), at the very least.

If you think this is bad, you should mention 1982 through 1994 to a Yankees fan. To hear their tales of those 13 consecutive playoff-less seasons is to think they walked across a desert carrying multiple appliances on their backs. Don Mattingly is their Sisyphus, destined to push a giant rock up a hill while wrecking his back in the process.

Look, the night Roger Clemens struck out 20 batters for the first time, I was listening to my Walkman as Claude Lemieux snuck the game-winner past Mike Liut to lift the Canadians past the Hartford Whalers in overtime of Game Seven of the Adams Division Finals. Don’t talk to me about suffering, OK?!

Yankees fans also have this annoying habit this season of trying to paint their favorite team as a scrappy, overcoming-the-odds bunch. Sure, the Yankees have produced a major league-best 49 comeback wins as well as 14 walk-off wins at the new House That Nobody Can Afford To Enter. But fans who root for teams with a $202 million payroll have absolutely no right to declare they’re cheering for some kind of plucky outfit. Come to think of it, NO professional team, outside of maybe the Major Lacrosse League, is a plucky outfit, regardless of payroll, but if you want to root for the plucky Twins this week, I won’t argue.

I can almost understand the goofy giddiness over the seemingly improved Yankees chemistry, seeing as how that clubhouse has been dominated by dour, no-fun-allowed personalities such as Jeter, Jorge Posada and Paul O’Neill. But let’s face it: A.J. Burnett’s celebratory pies in the face would be a lot more entertaining coming from a pitcher who didn’t fill much of the fandom with a giant sense of impending doom.

Speaking of that impending doom, and the Twins, if you’re hoping to derive pleasure from the misery of Yankees fans, you should be rooting like hell for the Tigers to hold off the Twins, because Justin Verlander in Game One against CC Sabathia and his miserable postseason resume is the one shot David has against Goliath. More on the Yankees’ still-shallow starting pitching next week, as well as the other historical trends that suggest the Yankees’ Biblical championship drought is going to extend at least another year. In the meantime, remember: It’s not the Yankees, it’s their fans.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Bits and Bytes: Five-year itch?

Sorry for the longer-than-anticipated sabbatical, I had some other work that unexpectedly took up most of my week. Got a few things Sox- and Pats-related I’d like to chew on and a couple Q&As to post next week, so please stop by for those posts. But, in the meantime here’s a couple quick hits to get back into the flow heading into the weekend:

—None of this should be used in trying to project how the Red Sox will fare in the playoffs, but nonetheless, if you’re a Sox fan (and let’s face it, if you’re reading this, chances are pretty good you are), you’ve got to like the similarities between the end of this season and the end of the 2004 regular season.

As they did in 2004, the Sox took a couple weeks to gel following a blockbuster trade before authoring a blistering sprint to the finish line. They went 8-7 in the first 15 games following the Nomar Garciaparra trade in 2004 and a sizzling 34-12 thereafter, a stretch that included 16 wins in 17 games at one point.

The Sox took a bigger post-July 31 stumble this year, when they went 3-6 in the first nine games following the Victor Martinez trade, but they’re 29-14 since then after tonight’s loss to the Yankees.

Then, like now, the Sox’ surge allowed them to bury the Rangers in the wild card race. In fact, how’s this for a fun bit of coincidence: Through Aug. 23, 2004, the Sox were 70-53 and the Rangers were 69-54, marks that left the teams just behind the wild-card leading Angels (71-52). While the Angels stormed past the slumping Athletics to win the AL West, the Sox left the Rangers (and the Athletics) far behind by finishing the season on a 28-11 tear. The Rangers went 20-19 over the same span.

Through Aug. 23 this year, the wild card-leading Sox were 70-53 and the Rangers 69-54. Since then, the Sox are 21-9 and the Rangers 15-15.

And just like 2004, the Sox, in running away with the wild card, also put some unexpected pressure on a Yankees team that was cruising towards the AL East crown and gave some meaning to a series between the two teams on the penultimate weekend of the season.

That 16-1 stretch five years ago allowed the Sox to shave a remarkable eight games off the Yankees’ lead—from 10 ½ games to 2 ½--in just 19 days. The Sox closed the gap to two games on Sept. 8 and were 4 ½ out the morning of Sept. 24, when the Yankees arrived at Fenway. A 6-4 win by the Yankees that night in the Pedro Martinez “Daddy” game all but ended the race.

The Sox’ recent 10-1 run cut the Yankees’ lead from nine games to five games. The deficit was at 5 ½ entering tonight.

That said, these Yankees are also 29-14 in their last 43 games and are finishing the season in far better fashion than the 2004 club, which was 26-19—7 ½ games worse than the Sox—in its final 45 games.

—As I’ve noted here a few times this season, I’m not very good when it comes to predictions. So now seems like a good time to clarify what I meant in April when I wrote the Indians would win the World Series. I actually meant they’d endure the worst stretch the franchise has seen since 1931. That’s really freaking remarkable, considering the Indians’ abject awfulness from 1932 through 1988 inspired a movie franchise.

But hey, not all my predictions were historically bad. I wrote in April that Clay Buchholz would win many more games than Brad Penny and John Smoltz combined. That won’t happen—with two starts left, Buchholz has seven wins, two fewer than Penny (seven) and Smoltz (two) recorded before they took their rightful spot over in the JV league—but Buchholz’ recent dominance (5-0 with a 1.32 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and .185 batting average against in his last six starts) indicates Theo Epstein might have made a rare mistake in bringing aboard the rehabbing Penny and Smoltz at the expense of Buchholz, who did, admittedly, have an awful season last year.

—Speaking of predictions, sort of, all those pixels spilled by myself and others earlier this summer about the possibility of Tim Wakefield not only succeeding Cy Young and Roger Clemens as the Sox’ all-time winningest pitcher but also pitching up to or even beyond his 50th birthday look sadly foolish these days.

Wakefield has made just three starts since the All-Star Break due to a fragmented disc in his back that will likely require surgery (and yeah, we were wrong in wondering if his back injury was just a convenient way to get Wakefield some rest and Buchholz some work). He has looked every day his 43 years in those starts, often appearing as if he can barely jog to cover a base, even though he has made his last two starts on nine days rest and 15 days rest, respectively, and is expected to get at least eight days rest before he next takes the mound. Given how much recovery time he needs between starts, it seems inconceivable he’ll make the playoff roster.

It’s long been assumed the Sox would have Wakefield back on an annual basis thanks to his team-friendly perpetual option, but this is the fourth straight season in which he has been injured in the second half and he is almost sure to end the season with his lowest innings total since arriving in Boston in 1995, a pretty startling feat considering he pitched predominantly out of the bullpen from 1999 through 2002. Can the Sox really spend $4 million on a 43-year-old pitcher who may be a half-season hurler?

The Hartford Courant’s Dom Amore suggests Wakefield should announce his retirement and make a farewell start at Fenway against the Blue Jays or Indians. While something that formal is unlikely to occur, it’s fair to wonder if Wakefield’s next start at Fenway will in fact be the last of his career—and to preemptively lament how cruel it would be for Wakefield to travel so far to approach the most hallowed record in team history and still fall short.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

No offense: Why the Angels will fall to the Sox—again

Even Mike Scioscia grabbing a bat won't be enough to save the Angels from losing again to the Red Sox in October. Photo from this site.

The very, very easy thing to do after watching from afar as the Angels scrapped and scratched and whined and moaned and loafed their way to winning one of three games from the Red Sox this week in Boston is to declare the Sox will once again trounce the Angels in the playoffs, because scrapping and scratching and whining and moaning and loafing their way to a defeat at the hands of the Sox in the AL Division Series is what the Angels always do.

Now, admittedly, assuming something will happen just because it always seems to happen is borderline lazy, and the type of thing that used to really annoy people in Boston before October 2004. And relying on an I-can’t-necessarily-explain-it-but-I-know-it-when-I-see-it intangible such as Terry Francona outmanaging Mike Scioscia when it counts—as your friend and mine Jon Couture put it this week, Scioscia has a terrible habit of getting cute whenever he faces the Red Sox—will engender devotion from one half of the audience and derision from the Anaheim half.

Fortunately, there’s a reason that’s actual and factual (always a good night when you can quote TLC) beyond “it always happens” and “Terry Francona is a better manager than Mike Scioscia” why the Sox will almost surely cruise past the Angels when the two teams meet in the AL Division Series beginning two weeks and change from now. (And yes, with Yankees cruising to the AL East flag and the Rangers falling apart, we can safely assume the Sox and Angels will square off in October for the fourth time in six seasons)

Here it is: The Angels can’t hit a lick right now. Oh sure, they entered play tonight second in the AL with an average of 5.46 runs per game, snugly between the Yankees and Red Sox, and at one point last month fielded a lineup with nine .300 hitters.

But the Angels are in the midst of a massive slump, and plenty of evidence suggests this is a regression to the mean they’re not snapping out of anytime soon.

The Angels have scored 10 or more runs 21 times, but more than half of those outbursts came during a 34-game span from June 24 through Aug. 2 in which they reached double digits 12 times. On the other end of the spectrum, tonight’s 3-2 loss to the Rangers marks the 13th time in the last 18 games the Angels have scored three runs or fewer and the 52nd time overall. The Angels have scored four runs or fewer 70 times.

Those splits are remarkably similar to the ones produced by the Sox, who have scored three runs or fewer 52 times, four runs or fewer 68 times and 10 runs or more 19 times following tonight’s 11-5 win over the Orioles. The Sox have also scored four runs or fewer eight times in 18 games this month.

But the Sox have been far more consistent over the entire season, even with several stretches of offensive inactivity. The Sox have scored four or fewer runs in at least five straight games a total of four times this year, including two five-game streaks in May and a season-high six-game streak from July 17-22. Still, as denoted by the following list, they have scored four or fewer runs in more than half their games in just one month.

April: 9 times in 22 games (41 pct)

May: 17 times in 29 games (59 pct)

June: 11 times in 26 games (42 pct)

July: 11 times in 25 games (44 pct)

August: 12 times in 28 games (43 pct)

September 8 times in 17 games (47 pct)

That would look even more impressive on a graph, but such technical expertise escapes me. Regardless, it’s proof the Sox are living the cliché of never getting too high or too low and finding the steadiness most teams strive for but rarely achieve.

You know, like the Angels, whose four runs or fewer totals by month look like this:

April: 12 times in 21 games (57 pct)

May: 16 times in 28 games (57 pct)

June: 11 times in 26 games (42 pct)

July: 5 times in 26 games (19 pct)

August: 12 times in 29 games (41 pct)

September: 14 times in 18 games (78 pct)

If that were placed on a graph, it’d induce motion sickness.

Not surprisingly, the Angels’ overall record is also a bit misleading: They entered play last night at 88-59, five games better than their Pythagorean record. The only AL contender with a bigger gap is the Yankees (seven games). Last year, when the Angels were knocked out of the ALDS by the Sox in four games, they entered the playoffs with a 100-62 record that was an eye-popping 12 games better than their Pythagorean record.

Now, admittedly, in many ways, the Angels seem better prepared for the Sox this October than the last three times. They wreck havoc on the bases and have swiped 15 bases in nine games against the Sox’ noodle-armed catchers, including four in as many attempts this week. Their likely top three pitchers—Jered Weaver, John Lackey and Scott Kazmir—have combined to post a 1.95 ERA in 33 1/3 innings against the Sox this year.

But the bullpen, as it proved last week, is not the strength it has been in recent seasons. Angels relievers have a 4.53 ERA and 1.46 WHIP this year, way up from a 3.69 ERA and 1.34 WHIP last year.

A declining offense and a less effective bullpen is not a good combination heading into the every-run-is-precious postseason. The regression to the mean occurs again this October. Doesn’t roll off the tongue quite like “I live for this,” but hey, some catchphrases are more substantive than others.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Roll of the dice seems to favor Sox pitchers

Daisuke Matsuzaka's performance Tuesday might have earned him a lot more than a pat on the back. Photo from this site.

Daisuke Matsuzaka returned from the disabled list and pitched for the Red Sox last night, thereby rendering yet another one of my predictions null and void. Not only did he pitch, he actually pitched well in leading the surging Sox to a 4-1 victory over their familiar October foil, the Angels.

The concept of the Sox needing Matsuzaka in mid-September would have sounded impossible in June, when the Sox were trying to fit roughly 17 starters into five spots, and downright disastrous on the second Monday of August, right after the Yankees completed their demoralizing sweep of the Sox.

But Matsuzaka’s best start of the year—faint praise, yes, but the truth nonetheless, after he lasted six innings for the first time and allowed just three hits in the process—not only provides a flicker of hope the Sox can count on him as a fourth starter come October but also serves as a symbol of how far the Sox have come in the five weeks since scraping rock bottom.

While all the caveats were offered about how much baseball was still to be played, the feeling was the Sox were in a whole heap of trouble with an aging core that was being retooled on the fly. Yet guess who is tied with the Cardinals for the best record in baseball since Aug. 10? The Sox improved to 23-10 (.697) last night, percentage points better than the Yankees (24-11).

The Sox, just like they did in 2004, emerged from a brief adjustment process following Theo Epstein trades both seismic (Victor Martinez) and subtle (Alex Gonzalez) a much better team than they were in July.

The Yankees, meanwhile, have lost three of their last four games and are picking fights with the Blue Jays, who have been playing at a 100-loss pace since opening the season 27-14.

Maybe this hiccup is just an overdue regression to the mean for the Yankees, who are 42-16 since the All-Star Break but whose Pythagorean record through Monday was seven games worse than their actual record. And maybe their feistiness is typical crap from a team that leads baseball in hit batsmen (66) yet acts all wounded and offended whenever someone retaliates.

Or maybe the Yankees are stumbling in September again, just like they did in 2004, and heading for the playoffs with a largely naked rotation. CC Sabathia is infinitely better than anyone the Yankees trotted out to the mound five years ago, but with a 10.00 ERA the last two postseasons, he’s far from a sure thing to replicate his ace form in the playoffs. A.J. Burnett is doing one fine impersonation of Kevin Brown lately, which might be slightly less worrisome if Andy Pettitte—who was enjoying a resurgent second half—hadn’t been scratched from his start tonight due to “fatigued” left shoulder.

Beyond that, the Yankees don’t have anyone they can even remotely hope to rely upon in October. Fifth starter Sergio Mitre has a 7.63 ERA and sixth starter Chad Gaudin has played for four teams since the start of last season and fashioned a 5.13 ERA earlier this year for the Padres, who play their home games in one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the land. The laughably undefined and flexible “Joba Rules,” meanwhile, mean nominal fourth starter Joba Chamberlain will probably be limited to one warm-up pitch every other week by the time the AL Division Series rolls around.

The Sox aren’t free of pitching concerns, not with Josh Beckett’s struggles (a 6.94 ERA in his last six starts) serving as a reminder of his atypically brutal performance last October and Tim Wakefield unlikely to be much more than a bystander in the playoffs due to a back injury that seems as if it could threaten his career. But Clay Buchholz has a 1.59 ERA in his last four starts, which allows those of us who were wondering just what the hell he was doing toiling the first half of the season at Pawtucket this season to bellow and thump our chests.

A rotation of Jon Lester-Beckett-Buchholz looks pretty good at the moment—not as imposing as the trio of Curt Schilling-Pedro Martinez-Wakefield did in 2004, but certainly better than any threesome any other AL contender can offer. And sure, even after his performance Tuesday night, the concept of Matsuzaka as reliable insurance sounds odd. But hey, back at this time five years ago, so did the idea that Derek Lowe could win all three playoff clinchers.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Fighting Words The Director’s Cut: The Patriots Chapter (Part Three)

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are in sync when it comes to delivering the message. Photo from this site.

Below is the third and final part of my chapter about the Patriots and the media. Parts one and two can be found here and here. Today’s final installment delves into Bill Belichick’s famously secretive approach to the release of injury information (and how it compares to the rest of his coaching brethren) as well as how he dictates the message his players deliver to the press and how the Patriots in general have become adept at managing the news.

By the end of 2005, reporters were so accustomed to Belichick’s evasiveness regarding injuries they an entire news conference could come and go without anyone asking about a hobbled player. Defensive leader Tedy Bruschi, whose comeback from a February stroke was one of the top stories of the season, suffered a leg injury against the Jets on Dec. 26. Belichick fielded just one Bruschi question during his Dec. 28 press conference (“I’ve seen Tedy. We’ll release the injury report after practice. I think the best way I could characterize it is he’s day-to-day.”) and none at all during his press conference the next day. (Bruschi suited up for the game against the Dolphins Jan. 1 but did not play)

Part of this secrecy was a byproduct of Belichick’s famous focus: If a player could not help the Patriots this week, then it did Belichick or the team no good to talk about him because it distracted them from the challenge of winning without the player.

But most of the elusiveness was rooted in competitive interests. Belichick did not want to reveal anything that could help an opponent in its preparation. And though the Patriots were considered the least-revealing team in the NFL when it came to injury information—the Boston Herald’s Michael Felger wrote in October 2005 the Patriots are so secretive in revealing injuries “…that the NFL felt the need to institute the current policy in an attempt to keep things on the level”—Belichick was no different than most NFL coaches, who have grown increasingly secretive over the years.

Even former Jets and Kansas City Chiefs head coach Herman Edwards, considered one of the most cooperative coaches in the NFL, wanted complete control over the dissemination of injury news. According to the Jets 2005 media guide: “Head Coach Herman Edwards is the only spokesperson in the organization to report injuries to the media…(Players are not permitted to talk about their injuries to the media and should defer all inquiries to the head coach).”

When asked if his policies were similar to those of his contemporaries, Belichick—speaking through Najarian—referred to the Patriots game against the Atlanta Falcons Oct. 9, 2005, when the Falcons started backup quarterback Matt Schaub instead of first-stringer Michael Vick even though Vick—who strained a ligament in his right knee the previous week—was listed as probable (meaning there was a 75 percent chance or better he would play) on the NFL’s injury list until Saturday, when he was downgraded to questionable (50 percent chance to play).

However, Vick sat out most of the previous week’s practices, which would typically reduce a player’s status to doubtful. Given the differences in Vick, the most mobile and improvisational quarterback in the NFL, and Schaub, a prototypical pocket passer, it’s not difficult to ascertain the Falcons figured they were gaining an advantage in pronouncing Vick likely to start.

Felger wrote Oct. 12 that others in the league believed Falcons coach Jim Mora “out-Belichicked” the Patriots and theorized the Falcons should not be believed when they said Vick’s condition worsened despite barely practicing the previous week.

In 2003, Felger wrote the Patriots believed the Philadelphia Eagles’ openness about game plans and injuries helped the Patriots beat the Eagles, 31-10. The Eagles announced the Tuesday prior to the game three defensive starters would likely sit due to injury. Later in the week, their defensive coordinator announced the replacements and admitted the team would cut back on its original game plan.

The Patriots exploited the Eagles’ three new starters in their lopsided win. Meanwhile, the Eagles were almost certainly surprised to see rookie Eugene Wilson playing safety for the Patriots. Wilson spoke to Felger for 15 minutes two days prior to the game and never indicated he would move to safety against Philadelphia.

“I’m not sure why they would [reveal so much information], all I know is that we don’t,” Patriots center Dan Koppen told the Herald. “All I know is that we don’t. You don’t know who’s out there until they come out of the room on Sunday.”

“I’m not saying we’ve got all the answers,” Belichick told the Herald. “I’m just saying it’s right for us. There is some element of a competitive edge there. Maybe sometimes it’s negligible. Other times it may be more.”

While Belichick’s perfunctory press conferences would indicate he didn’t pay much attention to the media, his interest in controlling the words of Patriots players—as well as his ability to scour comments made by opponents and other outsiders in order to find any slight that could whip the Patriots into an “us-against-the-world” lather—suggested otherwise.

Before the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXIX in 2004, Belichick showed the Patriots the parade route the Philadelphia Eagles had planned in case they won. The Patriots went 16-0 in 2007 and posted their most dominating victory—a 56-10 trouncing of the Buffalo Bills Nov. 18—after Don Shula, who coached the 1972 Miami Dolphins to the only perfect season in league history, said the fact the Patriots had been caught stealing signals against the New York Jets in the season opener “…diminished what they’ve accomplished.”

Three weeks later, Steelers safety Anthony Smith guaranteed his team would beat the Patriots. Smith was beaten on two touchdown passes as the Steelers fell, 34-13. After one of the touchdowns, Brady yelled at Smith.

“We’ve played a lot better safeties than him, I’ll tell you that,” Belichick told reporters after the game.

The Patriots’ eagerness to punish anyone who doubted them appeared to make Belichick doubly determined to make sure his players didn’t provide bulletin board material for anybody else. Conformity was encouraged under Belichick— the most vocal Patriot of the Pete Carroll Era, Chad Eaton, was typically nowhere to be found when the media was allowed locker room access during the first several months of Belichick’s tenure—and players followed a carefully prepared script when speaking to reporters.

At Super Bowl XLI media day Jan. 29, 2008, Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel told the New York Daily News that 30 minutes of the daily team meeting is spent discussing what to say to reporters and how to say it.

Nobody echoed Belichick’s thoughts better than Brady—appropriate considering the two were the most indispensible parts of the dynasty. The Patriots were 5-13 under Belichick before Bledsoe’s injury forced Brady into the starting lineup—and 86-24 in regular season games with Brady behind center through 2007.

Unlike his coach, Brady enjoyed the perks of his success: He appeared on the cover of GQ, dated celebrities, guest-hosted Saturday Night Live and even occupied a choice seat at George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in 2005. But there was never a sense Brady let his off-field interests interrupt his preparation, and his focus and disdain for excuse-making made him a younger, more telegenic version of his coach.

It seemed, finally, Belichick had found someone he could trust as much as Parcells trusted the likes of Dave Meggett and Steve DeOssie, each of whom he coached with the Giants before he arrived in Foxboro. “Guys from the Giants, they were very open,” Boston Globe reporter Nick Cafardo said. “They wouldn’t just regurgitate what he said. They were very comfortable in being able to give you more than the norm. And I think [Parcells] made them feel comfortable doing that.”

Unlike those players, Brady could be counted on to toe the company line. Belichick declined comment when asked if he and Brady went over what they would say prior to their separate meetings with the press. But their answers were remarkably similar.

On Dec. 29, 2005, both men were asked to explain the Patriots’ recent red zone success. They did so by pointing out the offense had produced fewer “negative” plays inside the opponents 20-yard-line.

Belichick: “Fumbles, sacks penalties—it’s hard enough to get it down there in the condensed field anyway and then when you take one play that loses yardage or makes it a 15-yard series of downs instead of 10, then it just makes it that much tougher. If you lose a down, like we did…then the odds are really against you. Us or anybody else. Eliminate negative plays and going forward toward the goal line instead of backwards, away from it.”

Brady: “I think the one thing that sets you back in the red zone is if you lose yards. If you can keep going forward and eliminate negative plays and eliminate penalties in the red zone, you’ll be pretty successful. The hard part is when you lose 10 or you lose five or you take a sack or run the ball in early downs and come up with no yards or lose yards, those are hard to overcome.”

Belichick’s ability to dictate his players’ words spoke to a fundamental difference between the NFL and Major League Baseball as well as the Patriots’ uncanny knack for managing the message and dictating the news cycle.

The active Major League Baseball roster features barely half the players (25) of the active NFL roster (45), but baseball’s potent player’s union gives its members far more security. The mostly powerless NFL Players Association and the lack of guaranteed contracts meant conformity was good business for football players.

“No one’s going to toss Coco Crisp for saying I want to be traded or [Jonathan] Papelbon for complaining about his contract,” editor Rob Bradford said. “Everyone was saying Theo wants this team to be like the Patriots—there’s elements of truth to that, but he’s a smart guy. And I’ve got to imagine he understands the road goes in a different direction when it comes to what they can do with the players. Even the young guys who they do have some sense of control over—there’s just no way they can do everything and cover every angle.”

The Patriots, on the other hand, could not only control how their players spoke but also how the news was released. They were the first American professional sports team to embrace new media in 1995, when was launched. That year, the Patriots also became the first sports team to publish its own full-color weekly newspaper (Patriots Football Weekly).

In 1997, the Patriots began a nightly online program called “Patriots Video News.” The team also has an online radio station, carries all Belichick and Brady press conferences live online and archives the audio and transcriptions of these press conferences online.

The Patriots remain the standard bearer of online and team-sanctioned media in a league which encourages fans to view its official outlets as the source of record. Former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette would often decline comment by telling reporters to refer to the team’s website for information on the club, but he didn’t break news like the Patriots, who revealed, via, the trade of Bledsoe to the Buffalo Bills in April 2002.

Today, the other 29 teams often break news via and the NFL Network, the latter of which carries regular season games and formerly employed Adam Schefter—a well-respected former Denver Broncos beat writer for the Denver Post—as its lead reporter.

Even when the Patriots don’t break the news on, they have a knack for timing leaks, press releases and their comments to ensure maximum—or minimum—impact. reported safety Rodney Harrison was suspended by the NFL for violating its substance abuse policy on Sept. 1, 2007, a Friday night. The Patriots held a conference call with Harrison shortly thereafter, assuring the crux of the story would break during the lightest news cycle of the week.

On Sept. 16, just hours before the Patriots hosted the Chargers in a prime-time game on NBC, reported that “…league sources and sources close to the coach” confirmed the Patriots had extended Belichick’s contract through at least 2013. The terms of Belichick’s deal were previously a closely guarded secret—“I don’t talk about contracts,” Belichick told reporters in July 2007—and the Patriots had not acknowledged his contract since July 2003, when they announced he inked an extension through 2006.

The news of his new deal arrived seven days after the Patriots were caught videotaping the Jets’ signals during the season opener. On Sept. 12, Belichick issued, via the Patriots, a one-paragraph statement apologizing to the organization and said he would “…have further comment” once the league made a ruling on his punishment.

The punishment came down the next day, when the NFL fined the Patriots $750,000--$500,000 of which was to be paid by Belichick—and took away a 2008 draft pick. But during his press conference Sept. 14, Belichick refused to discuss the incident and used the term “moving on” a reported nine times while continually saying he was just worried about the Chargers game.

The response to “Spygate” provided the most resounding proof yet: Under Belichick, the Patriots talked about what they wanted to when they wanted to and on their own terms. And in keeping with his low public profile and general air of mystery, Belichick was reluctant to explain his media relations philosophies.

His longtime friend Najarian declined to be interviewed for this book, and after numerous unsuccessful requests for an interview with Belichick over a 13-month span during the 2004 and 2005 seasons, Najarian asked the author to send the questions to him with the promise he would get Belichick’s answers.

Of the 10 questions sent to Belichick via Najarian, Belichick declined to answer six. His four answers comprised a total of 59 words—42 of which occurred in one answer about the media not traveling with the Giants during Belichick’s tenure with that club.

His second-longest answer was in response to whether or not he was surprised that the Sox received more media attention during the Patriots’ run of three Super Bowl victories in four years.

“I honestly am not very cognizant of it either way,” Belichick said.

When it came to the media and the Patriots, Belichick had proven to be quite cognizant of everything else.

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Fighting Words The Director’s Cut: The Patriots Chapter (Part Two)

Bill Belichick wasn't hired by Robert Kraft to become a media darling, but the coach knew he had to have a better relationship with the press in New England than he did in Cleveland. Photo from this site.

As noted Friday, I’ll be unveiling this week, in two or three parts, the chapter about the Patriots and the media that I had to cut from Fighting Words. Though I still have no regrets about axing this chapter—there was just no way to put this in the book and maintain some sort of flow—it is a little sobering to re-read the chapter and to be reminded of how many edits it went through for something that didn’t make it to print.

Part one, about the Patriots’ checkered first three decades and how the hiring of Bill Parcells made them relevant, appeared yesterday and can be found here. Part two is about Bill Belichick, his decidedly anti-Parcells approach to media relations and how he went about fixing a reputation in tatters after a rocky four-year stint with the Browns and a historically brief tenure with the Jets.

(I haven’t done too much editing here, hoping to preserve the chapter as I intended to present it in the summer of 2008.)

Bill Belichick is to the gray sweatshirt what Tom Landry was to the fedora.

Landry, the legendary former coach of the Dallas Cowboys, lent a stately air to the savagery of football by wearing a wide-brimmed fedora and a suit and tie on the sidelines Belichick’s apparel—a gray hooded Patriots sweatshirt with his initials on the waist pocket—only deepened the belief he was football’s brilliant mind, a man so consumed with digging through film in search of that elusive advantage that he had little time for such non-essentials as finding anything other than the most basic of wardrobes.

Belichick is the son of a former football coach (Steve Belichick, who died during the 2005 season, spent more than 30 years as an assistant at the Naval Academy) who was breaking down film as a teenager. He graduated from exclusive Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he played lacrosse and squash, but little is known of his off-field interests other than an affinity for hard rock and a friendship with musician Jon Bon Jovi, who dedicated his band’s 2002 song “Bounce” to Belichick.

Between his monotonous voice, typically expressionless face, and reluctance to say much more than absolutely necessary, the gray sweatshirt is a perfect symbol of Belichick’s public persona and unyielding focus. And according to those who cover the team, it’s a personality as natural as it is painstakingly maintained.

The Patriots dynastic run is built on the belief nobody is bigger than the team. Belichick has embodied that by refusing to parlay his success into celebrity.

While some coaches unveil a more accessible personality with television networks and/or during appearances on the national stage in order to polish their reputations, those who cover the Patriots regularly say Belichick is less revealing than usual during heavily attended playoff press conferences.

When Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe suffered a concussion and a sheared blood vessel in his lung—the latter a potentially life-threatening injury—against the Jets September 23, 2001, a Patriots staffer told CBS sideline reporter Bonnie Bernstein Bledsoe’s benching was a “coaches decision.” Bernstein later told the Boston Herald she was “discouraged” the Patriots did not tell her Bledsoe was injured.

Parcells—whose most famous quote, “If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries,” was uttered at a packed press conference announcing his departure from the Patriots Jan. 31, 1997—capitalized on the Giants’ first Super Bowl win by penning his autobiography with powerful New York columnist Mike Lupica and has remained a multi-media machine in the subsequent two decades.

With co-author and Boston sportswriting legend Will McDonough, Parcells penned a book called “The Final Season” during his last year with the Jets in 1999 (four years later, he returned to the sidelines as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys) and became a well-known endorser and media personality during his four seasons with the Patriots, when he appeared on one weekly television show and made two weekly radio appearances. Parcells also worked at NBC and ESPN following each of his three “retirements” from coaching.

Belichick endorses nothing, and when he agreed to an authorized account of his life, it was with the noted journalist David Halberstam. Though Belichick appears each Monday during the season on WEEI, he surprised most observers when he agreed to appear on the Super Bowl XL pre-game show in February 2006.

And unlike the scathingly honest Parcells, Belichick was unlikely to provide colorful assessments of a player. He reinforces the team-first mantra by rarely singling out individuals, and even in victory, his post-game comments are as generalized as possible and tempered with the reminder the Patriots can always do better.

After a 31-21 win over the Jets Dec. 26, 2005, he did not praise one player, even when presented with a seemingly easy opportunity to do so. Asked about Hank Poteat and Monty Beisel, who replaced the injured Tedy Bruschi and Asante Samuel, Belichick said “We’ll take a look at the tape. Some things I’m sure could have been better than others, but overall it was a solid effort. A lot of players did contribute, so I’m sure it was good enough.”

Such reluctance to discuss particular players runs counter to the needs of writers, who often need a quote about a particular player for a feature. And Belichick’s singular focus doesn’t leave much room for reflection or prognostication, which are also regular topics for writers.

In many ways, Belichick is the football version of Bill Mueller. While teammates cherished Mueller for his grind-it-out nature, reporters were often frustrated by his reluctance or refusal to discuss his individual achievements in anything other than the most clichéd of terms. In fact, when he won the American League batting title on the final day of the 2003 season, Mueller ducked out of the clubhouse without speaking to reporters.

While Belichick was typically distant and perfunctory in his dealings with the media, he did show glimmers of personality in greeting reporters at the start of press conferences. Though he did not provide much headline fodder, he spoke at length on a variety of topics and complimented reporters whom he thought asked pertinent and informed questions.

Belichick also took the unusual step of occasionally hosting film sessions with reporters. While he would not break down any current film for obvious competitive reasons, this willingness to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the preparation process helped reporters better understand the game.

The film sessions also helped humanize a coach who is often perceived as robotic. A willingness to occasionally offer a glimpse at his relaxed side could only help, even subtly, how he was viewed by the reporters who cover him.

It was a side he never exposed during his first stint as a head coach with the Cleveland Browns. On Feb. 5, 1991—nine days after he designed the defensive game plan that shut down the powerful Buffalo Bills and lifted the Giants to a 20-19 victory in Super Bowl XXV; the game plan is on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame—Belichick accepted the Browns head coaching job.

But despite his impeccable pedigree, the Browns went 37-45 with just one playoff berth under Belichick, whose struggles on the sidelines were compounded by his troubles with the local press. The Browns were known for their open ways under previous coach Marty Schottenheimer, but one of Belichick’s first acts was to drastically cut back on the amount of access print reporters received to the Browns. Reporters were no longer allowed to watch practice and Belichick put up curtains around the field to further safeguard the premises.

Belichick gave off an air of paranoid disinterest. He once accused the rival Cincinnati Bengals of spying on Browns practices from rooftops near the Browns’ facility in a residential area of Berea. And some reporters were convinced Belichick had spies within the media who reported back to Belichick with negative comments the other reporters were making when the head coach was out of the room.

Belichick once conducted a teleconference with reporters from his office instead of meeting them in the media workroom. In 2001, longtime Cleveland Post-Dispatch Browns beat writer Tony Grossi told The Standard-Times of New Bedford, MA Belichick would hold press conferences on his exercise bike or during lunch.

Grossi and Akron Beacon-Journal beat writer Ed Meyer were regular guests on local sports talk radio station WHK, where they mocked Belichick weekly during a two-hour show called “Doom and Gloom.” Grossi so infuriated the Browns that some Cleveland reporters believe Browns owner Art Modell pressured the Post-Dispatch to remove Grossi from the Browns beat during Belichick’s tenure. And the “Doom and Gloom” segment created so much controversy that all Plain Dealer writers were barred from appearing on WHK, which eventually became a religious station.

“To read some of this stuff, you would have thought that Bill was down there in the bunker at the end of World War II with Eva Braun,” Browns offensive assistant Ernie Adams told the Akron Beacon-Journal in 1994. Adams later joined the Patriots as their football research director.

Belichick’s image was further soiled in October 1993, when he cut quarterback Bernie Kosar—a native of nearby Youngstown who directed the Browns to three AFC title game appearances in the 1980s and was enormously popular with fans and media alike—in favor of recent signee Vinny Testaverde.

Belichick’s instincts were eventually proven correct: Kosar was never again a regular starter in the NFL while Testaverde directed the Browns to the playoffs in 1994 and a wild card win over Parcells’ Patriots. The Browns were expected to contend for the Super Bowl in 1995, but they fell apart after Modell announced he planned to move the franchise to Baltimore. Belichick was fired amid nearly unanimous roars of approval from fans and writers alike after a 5-11 season.

“There were people who made it personal,” said Patriots vice president-player personnel Scott Pioli, who was a member of the Browns’ personnel department during Belichick’s tenure, in an interview with the Standard-Times.

“Some people wrote some mean-spirited things about Belichick and some went out of their way to make it confrontational,” Pioli said. “That’s what happens when you hear only one side of the story. Bill wasn’t defending himself and there weren’t people running to his defense.”

Shortly after he was dismissed in Cleveland, Belichick rejoined Parcells in New England and began restoring his reputation as the game’s finest defensive coordinator. Belichick followed Parcells to New York after the 1996 season and was contractually obligated to replace Parcells upon the latter’s retirement. But Belichick, uncomfortable with the specter of Parcells remaining as general manager and the uncertainty surrounding the Jets (the franchise was in the process of being sold following the death of longtime owner Leon Hess), stepped down Jan. 4, 2000, one day after Parcells retired—and one day after the Patriots fired Pete Carroll.

Belichick was criticized for his hasty departure—moments before he stepped to the podium, he handed shocked team president Steve Gutman an abbreviated 68-word letter penned on Jets stationary in which Belichick informed Gutman and Parcells he had “…decided to resign as HC of the NY Jets”—as well as for the rambling hour-long press conference in which he tried to explain his decision. The notoriously press-shy Belichick seemed to realize he was losing the battle of public opinion as he invited reporters to call him at home to further discuss the surprising move.

Middletown (NY) Times-Herald columnist Kevin Gleason wrote Belichick exhibited “…all the grace of a bug splattering on your car windshield” while Gutman followed Belichick to the podium and said he believed the ex-coach was in “obvious turmoil.”

Few believed Belichick would suddenly resign from the Jets without another job lined up, so no one was surprised less than three weeks later when the Patriots agreed to send three draft picks to the Jets in exchange for naming Belichick head coach.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who said he was mailed copies of Belichick’s press conferences in Cleveland by someone who did not want the Patriots to hire Belichick, admitted Belichick had made media-related mistakes and was not a natural public speaker but said he was more concerned with landing a quick mind than a quick wit.

“I’m not sure it would have been my first choice for how I liked my head coach to present himself,” Kraft told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer prior to Super Bowl XXXVIII in January 2004. “We chatted about that. In the end, I’m not into lipstick and powder. I’m into substance, and substance is winning football games.”

Still, crafting a better relationship with the press was important enough to Belichick so that one of his first moves upon becoming the Patriots’ head coach was to hire his friend Berj Najarian—a Jets public relations assistant whom New York beat writers believed was tutoring Belichick on how to handle the media—as the executive administrator to the head coach.

And Belichick admitted he made mistakes with the Browns, most notably in his attempts to adoptive a Parcells-like combative tone with reporters.

“I watched what Bill did with the New York media when I was there, and maybe I tried to do some of those things,” Belichick told the Boston Herald in December 2001. “And he was in a position where honestly, he could get away with some things that other people can’t get away with. And I don’t think I really realized that.”

The man Belichick once unsuccessfully tried to imitate made it possible for him to limit the media’s access to the Patriots without incurring a firestorm. Local reporters had grown accustomed under Parcells to closed practices (under Belichick, reporters were allowed to watch the first 10 minutes of practice, which typically consisted only of light stretching), assistant coaches who were almost always off-limits to the media, vague information regarding injured players and the game plan for the upcoming week and the concept of a coach serving as the voice of the organization.

Belichick described a player’s injury in the most general of terms—for example, an ankle injury would be dubbed a “lower leg injury.” When asked about an injured player, Belichick would tell reporters he didn’t know his short- or long-term status because he wasn’t a doctor. In addition, players were not allowed to speak to the media about the condition of another player, and those who were injured tended to be absent from the locker room whenever the media was allowed access.

“The only reason for an injury report is the betting line,” said former Patriots backup quarterback and Boston College legend Doug Flutie. “Otherwise, it’s nobody’s business.”

Belichick and the Patriots were so adept at concealing injuries that it was not revealed that quarterback Tom Brady, the team’s most recognizable and valuable player, had what the Patriots dubbed “minor” shoulder surgery following the 2004 season until several weeks after the procedure. And after the Patriots were eliminated from the playoffs in 2005, it was revealed Brady played much of the season with a sports hernia even though he was never listed as suffering from any type of groin or hernia injury.

Belichick also seemed to mock the injury report by listing Brady, who, prior to suffering a season-ending knee injury in the 2008 season opener, had never missed a start since taking over for Drew Bledsoe prior to the third game of the 2001 season, as “probable” with a shoulder injury for 74 straight games—until Super Bowl XLI, when Brady was listed as “probable” with an ankle injury.

(Part three tomorrow)

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