It’s apparently hard for some athletes to fake politeness

Most of today’s professional athletes grew up with ESPN. Teams have become increasingly savvy about the use of social media and have entire public relations departments to help spread good will in the community.

So how is it that the likes of Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco don’t understand how it sounds when they get defensive about their own team’s draft picks?

In a radio interview, Roethlisberger questioned the Pittsburgh Steelers’ decision to draft quarterback Mason Rudolph with a third-round pick:

“Nothing against Mason — I think he’s a great football player. I don’t know him personally, but I’m sure he’s a great kid,” Roethlisberger told 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh on Friday. “I just don’t know how backing up or being a third-[stringer] — well, who knows where he’s going to fall on the depth chart — helps us win now. But, you know, that’s not my decision to make. That’s on the coaches and the GM and the owner and those kind of things. If they think he can help our team, so be it, but I was a little surprised.”

On the other side of the NFL’s biggest rivalry, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco said even more by saying much less, opting not to answer questions after his team nabbed Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in the first round. The Ravens were complicit in his silence.

Professional athletes, like top performers in any field, need a competitive edge that most people don’t have. Beyond that, anyone who has done excellent work for their employer for several years wants to enjoy some measure of job security. But unlike most people, Roethlisberger and Flacco routinely get microphones shoved in their faces for comments on their job.

It isn’t hard to know exactly what to say here. Any of the following will do:

  • “Everyone we draft has the chance to make us a better team.”
  • “I’m looking forward to playing with [GUY THE TEAM JUST DRAFTED TO TAKE MY JOB]. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned during my time in the league, and I bet I could learn something from him, too.”
  • “Hey, I’ll do anything to help the team win. I’ll start, I’ll line up at wideout, I’ll kick, I’ll carry water, I don’t care as long as we win the Super Bowl.”

It’s not hard. Boring? Sure, but the fans love that. Derek Jeter spent two decades feeding boring to the New York press and they practically built a golden idol of him outside Yankee Stadium when he retired. (He’s had some interesting times in Miami, and interesting isn’t going so well for him.) The New York Giants brain trust of coach Ben McAdoo and General Manager Jerry Reese benched Eli Manning last year. While it was obvious Manning wasn’t a fan of the decision, he wisely remained relatively quiet after it was made. Of course, he didn’t have to: Everyone who followed football knew the move was idiotic and said so.

Squeaky wheels don’t always get greased, either. Neither Reese nor McAdoo finished the season with the Giants; Manning is locked in as next season’s starter.

Come to think of it, the only time Manning had real controversy in his career happened on his own draft day, when he very publicly made it known he wasn’t interested in being a San Diego Charger. Notably, though, Manning himself has always refused to give any reason for what prompted his trade demand.

Typically, the less an athlete says (or implies), the better. Maybe that’s boring, but boring is a much better look than the defensive jealousy brewing right now in Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

Going for it

In any sport, the pivotal moments of a game can come long before the deciding play.

Super Bowl LII fit that description. The Philadelphia Eagles officially become NFL champions when New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s final pass fell incomplete. But the gutsy play calling by Eagles coach Doug Pederson early in the game put them in the position to win.

With 38 seconds left in the first half, and leading by three points, the Eagles faced fourth-and-goal from just inside the New England Patriots’ two-yard-line. The conventional call – going for an easy field goal – probably would have meant a six-point lead heading into halftime. Not too shabby, right?

If you didn’t see it live, you’ve surely seen the highlight by now (assuming you care about football): Pederson went for the touchdown – and with a trick play, to boot.

It worked.

It wasn’t the play itself which won the game, of course. It gave the Eagles a 22-12 halftime lead, but a crazy second half but Pederson’s willingness to gamble demonstrated the aggressive strategy the Eagles would deploy all the way to the final whistle.

Contrast this with the AFC championship game a couple weeks ago. With just under a minute left before halftime, New England had scored to pull within four points. On the other sideline, the Jacksonville Jaguars had just watched their “commanding” 14-3 tighten to 14-10. There were 55 seconds left in the half, the Jags had two timeouts, and a kicker with enough range to make a 54-yard field goal later in the game.

But instead of trying to answer New England’s touchdown and reclaim some momentum, Jacksonville simply ran out the clock, waving a white flag on the first half rather than risking a turnover. They ran into the locker room satisfied with a halftime lead – any halftime lead – against the defending champions (who had, incidentally, become champions by erasing a 25-point deficit in last year’s Super Bowl).

The Jags kicked two long field goals in the second half; otherwise, their predictable, conservative play calling lead to four punts. Predictably, the Patriots stormed back. The final score, 24-20, suggests that another field goal at the end of the first half wouldn’t have helped the Jaguars’ cause.

Sure, that math works out, but the bigger point is the strategic error: When they got an early lead, Jacksonville stopped playing to win and started playing to “not lose.”

And they lost.

Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots can be accused of many things, but neither satisfaction nor timidity is among them. Belichick called for a few trick plays of his own in Super Bowl LII. They didn’t work, but would that prevent him from calling those same plays in Super Bowl LIII? Doubtful.  If he had it to do over again, would he have told his defense to let the New York Giants score a go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes of Super Bowl XLVI to conserve more time for his offense? Probably. Belichick’s willingness to push the envelope has been a major factor in his well-documented success.

Pederson and the Eagles succeeded where the Jaguars failed by coaching the same way Belichick does: staying smartly aggressive. No wins a championship by running up a big lead and hoping the other team can’t catch up. That lesson transcends football, too. Sears pioneered direct-to-consumer sales; now the company circles the drain as Amazon experiments with innovative ways to give customers what they want. Instead of presenting an original vision for America, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign slogan – “Stronger Together” – played off of the loud, often offensive rhetoric of her opponent. On the other side of the coin, note how much Coca-Cola spends on advertising and branding to remind you that their soda is more than just soda.

Like Rocky squaring off against Apollo, Doug Pederson stepped into the ring against Bill Belichick determined to give his maximum effort, win or lose. When he got into the flow of the game, he stayed true to that philosophy, especially when it meant taking a risk.

The risk paid off – and now, Doug Peterson may not have to pay for his own cheese steaks ever again.



Matt Bryant’s second chance

With a sports media that just loves story lines, the redemption story in Atlanta tops the list from the past weekend.  Matt Schaub and Mike Smith finally won a playoff game, and it was the best playoff game of the weekend.  Overlooked, for now, is the second chance their kicker got.

Giants fans remember Matt Bryant.

Big Blue signed Bryant from a life of pawn shops and personal training back in 2002, in a year when the special teams unit was a decided weak link of the team.  In a playoff game against San Francisco, the Giants held a big lead late in the second half before the 49ers came storming back to take the lead.  A furious rally brought the Giants within range for a game winning field goal.

You could have forgiven Bryant yesterday if he felt like he was watching a NFL Network replay.

In 2002, Bryant never got to show that he could make the 40 yard field goal that would have  sent the Giants onward in the playoffs.

In what was a running theme that year, the snap for the field goal attempt was off.  Long snapper Trey Junkin, aside from having the coolest name in football at the time, had been signed off the street that week due to injury – and was playing in what would be the last game of a long NFL career.  An officiating error prevented Bryant from a second chance at playing the hero.

A decade later, Bryant is an established NFL kicker (or at least as established as a kicker can be) and has kicked a 62-yard field goal (a yard shy of the record).  His bad luck in San Fran didn’t send him back to the pawnshop.

Yesterday, after Seattle tried to ice him, Bryant finally got a clean snap and a shot at the ball with everything on the line.  Atlanta plays next week – thanks to Bryant’s decade-overdue kick.

The NFL’s failing affirmative action policy

New York Giants’ defensive coordinator Perry Fewell is interviewing for the head coaching position of the Tennessee Titans.  This is the fourth team Fewell has interviewed with this offseason, having missed the cut with the Browns, Panthers, and Broncos as well.  His consideration makes sense: Fewell was an interim coach for the Buffalo Bills for seven games, and his current job is a feeder position for head coaches (at least three current NFL head coaches are former Giants defensive coordinators).

But two words pop up in almost every single story about Fewell’s interviews: “Rooney Rule.”  The rule tells NFL teams that they are required to interview minority candidates for coaching vacancies, even if they have no intention of hiring them.  Fewell is black, so he allows teams to check that box.

The rule is a double edged sword at best.  Candidates who undergo the mandatory, just-for-show interviews over a number of years  may start to generate legitimate buzz as a head coaching candidate as they get to put their accomplishments on display.  But in any industry, job seekers who interview for any and every possible opening start to earn a reputation.  Similarly, Fewell’s 0-for-3 so far in the 2011 offseason – and the possibility of going 0-for-4, since the Titans already have a favored candidate – could earn him the label of an NFL coaching bridesmaid – someone good enough to interview, but not good enough to hire.  Since several of the teams were just using him to keep up appearances, most of those interviews were unnecessary.

Fewell will most likely be a head coach in the NFL.  If he does a good job with the Giants defense again next year, he’ll certainly deserve his shot.  What he won’t ever deserve is being treated like a token so that the NFL can pay lip service to diversity.


$25 million a year isn’t as easy as it sounds

Furor over athletes’ salaries is nothing new.  From the rise of professional baseball in the 19th century to the salary explosions across all major sports in the 1980s and 1990s, the fans who live and die with their teams have groused about how much the athletes they root for make.  And recently, discussions of executive compensation have fallen into the same category.

They have something else in common: the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and the quarterback of the New York Giants both earned their highly visible positions by winning a largely invisible process where many people competed.  It’s not an easy climb to get to the top of the mountain.

To that point, check out this story out of Louisville about a journeyman minor leaguer named Kevin Barker.  Of course, Barker is getting paid to play a game, but he’s certainly not living a life I would want to live when I reach 34.

At the ballpark Barker, 34, is known as the “old man” among teammates a decade younger. He is old to be playing in the minors, old to be living in a rented apartment near River Road with blankets, not curtains, covering the bedroom windows.

That doesn’t matter to Barker. What matters is making it back to the major leagues. After all, with road trips and home games — which he leaves for in early afternoon and returns from late at night — he is rarely at home. He doesn’t even know his address. He has his mail sent to Louisville Slugger Field so, if need be, it can be forwarded to his next stop.

Shooting themselves in the foot?

Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter’s comments about the Plaxico Burress situation underscore the fact that every story has two sides. And fellow Giants wide receiver Steve Smith probably wished he had a gun when he was robbed at gunpoint a couple weeks ago outside his gated community in New Jersey.

Many gun rights groups would probably tell you they wish this story would go away, since it’s tough to make a black professional athlete into a hero. But this offers an opportunity for groups like the NRA and Gun Owners of America to get in front of the story – and with a new administration on the way in, it would smart to frame the story as positively as possible.

Given that Burress flaunted many values groups like the NRA hold dear – by all accounts, the gun was improperly licensed at best and he clearly didn’t have the safety on – they can still condemn his action, which they should. However, rather than issuing a hollow criticism of a public figure, they could follow it up by offering free gun safety courses at NFL training camps.

The NFL would likely turn them down, but gun rights groups could at least say they made an effort to help players handle firearms responsibly – and in the process, earn some much-needed positive press.

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