Matt’s Mail

I’ve written 187 articles for Goose’s Gabs. That’s a lot. I couldn’t come up with any good ideas for Friday’s article, so I decided to put the burden of creativity on my readers. I asked my Facebook friends to pose questions and issues in the world of sports, and I would answer them. Lucky for me, my friends came through. I received questions about baseball, basketball, soccer, and football. Which is great, because those are the professional sports I feel qualified to talk about. So without further ado, here’s my first ever “mailbag” style article:

James from New Zealand wants to know about “the inherent redundancy of the Celtics having Shaq and Kevin Garnett on the same roster.”

Actually, there is little redundancy in having Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett on the same team. They play two different positions, each of which requires height, but otherwise demand a very different set of skills. Shaq is a center. Garnett is a power forward. The center’s job is to stand almost exclusively underneath the basket while on offense or defense. Offensively, the center receives passes and then dishes them back out to perimeter shooters, usually small forwards or guards. If he chooses to shoot, he relies almost exclusively on quick-motion layups or dunks. Centers almost never shoot from outside of the key. Defensively, they are there to contest driving layups to the basket, block shots and collect rebounds. There is an incredible amount of physical contact between centers, who are always jockeying with each other for ideal position.

Power forwards, meanwhile, CAN play under the basket, but generally position themselves NEAR the basket but outside of the free-throw lane, an area called the “low post.” This means that power forwards need to be able to shoot from a distance as well as from up close. While defensively they also block shots and rebound, they are not there to cut off layup drives unless the center is pulled out from the under the basket (which can happen). Garnett is a particularly strong low post player, usually able to out-maneuver his mark and get to the basket. And when he has to, he has a very accurate twenty-foot jump shot.

So in effect, Shaw is there to guard the basket, and Garnett is there to play from the post and shoot from a distance when the opportunity presents itself. They are not redundant at all. Also, while KG is tall, he is also somewhat lanky, with not nearly the upper-body presence of Shaq. If he had to repeatedly contend with true centers, he’d get destroyed.

Sara from Weymouth (and her dad) wants to know, “How come the Pats don’t have a (good) running back that’s under thirty?”

While I can’t argue that the Patriots running game has always been old and then gotten older, I wouldn’t say it has always been actually bad. Let’s take a look at the performance and age of their running backs over the last ten years:

In 2001, the season when the Patriots won their first Super Bowl, their primary running back was Antowain Smith (Kevin Faulk was on the team, but he only gained 169 yards, serving as always as a “third down back”), 29 at the time. In that season, Smith rushed 1,157 yards and 12 touchdowns. That’s 72.3 yards a game. That’s not amazing, but it’s certainly serviceable. And he put up 92 yards in Super Bowl XXXVI to lead all rushers. Not too bad.

Smith turned 30 before the 2002 season, a season in which the Patriots missed the playoffs due to tie-breaker rules. At 9-7, they didn’t really deserve to go, and the running game can at best be called “partially responsible.” In fact, Smith’s yards-per-carry average dropped just 0.1, from 4.0 to 3.9. It seems that other factors were more responsible for that season’s failings than Smith, who essentially produced at the exact same level.

2003 marked the next season in which the Patriots won a Super Bowl. Smith was 31 and still the starting running back. His production dipped to 3.5 yards per carry, but he also touched the ball 105 times less in 2003 than in 2001. Tom Brady, meanwhile threw the fourth-highest number of passes in his career (only 2005, 2007, and 2009 were higher). We all remember the Super Bowl in which Brady and Jake Delhomme just traded deep bombs for the last two minutes of the game before Vinatieri won it at as time expired. It should also be noted that 2003 was Faulk’s best running year, in which he rushed for 638 yards on 178 carries, both career highs. Faulk was 27 at the time. The two running backs combined for 1,280 yards, or 80 yards per game. So in effect the team ran the ball BETTER in 2003 than 2001.

In 2004, the Patriots knew that Smith was starting to decline, released him, and signed veteran running back Corey Dillon, 30 at the time. Dillon alone rushed for over 1600 yards that season, averaging more than 100 yards per game. That’s a spectacular performance, and the Patriots saw no reason to go after new running talent. They won the Super Bowl that year, with Dillon piling up 106 all-purpose yards and a touchdown.

Dillon’s 2005 season was marred by injury, with Dillon not playing in 4 games and only gaining 733 yards. So in 2006 the Patriots made a smart move AGAIN and drafted a running back: Laurence Maroney. In 2006, the two shared rushing duties, with Dillon rushing just 24 times more than the 21-year old rookie. They combined for 1,557 yards, average nearly 100 yards per game. This was the season that ended when the Colts engineered one of the greatest comebacks in NFL playoffs history, and the Patriots still would’ve won if not for a couple of gaffes by wide receivers (which led the way to Belichick bringing in Randy Moss and Wes Welker in 2007).

In 2007, the Patriots threw more than ever before. Brady broke the NFL record for most touchdown passes, and Moss broke the record for most touchdown receptions. The Patriots didn’t need to address Maroney’s mounting injury issues (he did not play in three games that season), and they came very close to an undefeated season. No need to bring up sad memories.

After 2007, things get dicey. The Patriots maybe should’ve looked to augment their running game as it became clearer that Maroney was an injury-prone back, but there was much less out there than you think. The 2008 free agent running backs featured a bunch of backups and franchise players unlikely to leave their former teams (and free agents are not viewed nearly as favorably in the NFL as they are in the MLB or NBA because you don’t know how well a player can unlearn an old system and learn a new one; plus it’s harder to sign them). In 2009, the crop was even thinner, with the best back, Brandon Jacobs, labeled as injury prone. So that avenue was closed.

But what about the draft? In 2008 they only had one first-round pick, the tenth. Only two running backs in the first round went after the Patriots. Chris Johnson has turned out to be a monster back for Tennessee, but Rashard Mendenhall is adequate at best. And Ray Rice looks like a second-round steal NOW, but at the time he was a good back coming from a weak college football conference (Big East). The Patriots used their pick to select Jerrod Mayo, one of the best linebackers in the draft. Can you blame them? They expected to have another solid year on offense after 2007, but realized their defense had gotten old under their noses. So they used both their first and second round draft picks on defense, and I support that decision.

The 2009 draft was strange. New England dealt most of its early-round draft picks. Honestly, none of the running backs drafted have yet to show much. And the 2010 draft didn’t feature many strong running back prospects either.

So there you have it: New England had a very good running game from 2001-2006, then didn’t really need it in 2007. After that, a combination of forces beyond their control- injuries, poor draft options, few free agents- kept them from rebuilding it. Now, at least one reporter thinks the Patriots might be trying to position themselves to get Alabama running back Mark Ingram in the 2011 NFL draft. And if that happens, the Patriots running game may turn itself around, and QUICKLY.

Magnus from Norway asks, “Why isn’t soccer catching on in the US?”

Let me first say that I don’t think it has anything to with the way soccer is played. Hockey is low scoring, and soccer game-play itself is not nearly as slow as it’s stereotype. The answer has three parts:

1) The best players aren’t playing in the U.S. The average MLS soccer play makes $138,000 a year. The average EPL (English Premier League) player makes $1.75 million per year, over 10 times more. Several of the European soccer leagues, such as Spain’s La Liga (which contains Real Madrid, one of the most successful football clubs of all time), also average salaries over $1 million. Where would you want to play? The only games Americans would watch on a routine basis are those played in the evening. And rebroadcasting doesn’t work because the real soccer fans will just look up the score as soon as the game ends. The games have to air live and in the evening to attract viewers, and the competition level in the MLS is so comparatively bad that no one wants to bother. And when it comes to live games, several teams play in stadiums that are too large to support a soccer crowd, leading to semi-empty stadiums and a diminished viewing experience. The New England Revolution play at Gillette, for instance, which has a capacity of 68,756.

2) The best players aren’t American. As I said, the average MLS salary is $138,000 a year. The average salary for the MLB is $3.3 million. The league average in the NBA is $3.4 million. The league average in the NFL is $957,000 for running backs and $1.05 million for wide receivers. Kids who show athletic ability are encouraged to redirect it to other sports, because that’s where the money is. The direct effect of all of this is that we don’t breed too many good soccer players in the U.S. (we’ve had some great female soccer players, but I honestly don’t believe women’s professional sports will ever achieve equal standing with men’s in terms of either exposure or pay. It sucks, but it’s true). I think our recent performances in the World Cup prove that.

3) Not as many people play soccer as kids in the U.S. as you may think. In urban settings, children mostly grow up playing basketball. In rural settings, football or baseball is king, depending on the region. Soccer seems to mostly fall into the realm of the suburban. The classic image is the mom driving her kids to practice in an SUV or minivan, yelling on the phone about a business deal, then redirecting that ire to the coach or referee of her kids’ game.

Let’s take a look at some recent high school state soccer champions:

Ludlow, MA, has one of the most successful public school soccer programs in the country. They were state champions in 2008 and runners up in 2009. Their town was 95.8% white as of the 2000 Census.

Collins Hill High School is a Sunawee, Georgia, public high school that has won the state championship for two straight years. It’s a town that is 84.9% white.

La Cueva High School is a public high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that has won the past two state championships. That city is 71.59% white.

South Salem High School is the 2009 6A state championship team from Oregon. It’s 83% white.

Lastly, Lyons Township High School won the 3A championship, playing in LaGrange, Illinois. 91.2% white.

It’s important to remember that the 2000 Census showed the U.S. to be 75% white. Are you starting to get a picture of who actually PLAYS soccer as a kid? We’re drawing from a specific demographic within the country and even if that group is the majority ethnicity, we’re still not getting an accurate depiction of the athletic abilities of Americans on the whole. There’s a quarter of the population of the U.S. who have minimal or no interest in soccer. That suggests that soccer will lose popularity in any town where there is even a decently large minority population. Soccer isn’t catching on because it seems to only appeal to a certain race in America (not worldwide, obviously, there are many Hispanic or African-descended players who are AMAZING soccer players) enough that they want to excel at it. Everyone else watches or plays something else.

Kim from Cotuit and California asks “What are some random sports that most people don’t know about, but are awesomely cool?”

OK, here are the top 5 sports I found while looking online that seem random, awesome, or both.

1) Chess boxing: It’s exactly what it sounds like. You chess, which requires you to use your brain. Then you box, which requires you to punch the other guy in the head (no one ever gets knockouts on body blows). Whoever checkmates or knocks the other guy out first wins. I can’t think of anything more entertaining than watching two people suffering from post-concussive syndrome trying to play chess with each other.

2) Unicycle sports: Basketball, handball, and hockey, and polo all have organized unicycle leagues. No news as to whether you have to wear skates while playing unicycle hockey, however.

3) Mindball: In some ways, this is the opposite of the sport. Two players put on headsets which measure brain activity. The more you can calm your mind down and focus, the more a ball on a screen is pushed towards the opponent. Whoever gets the ball all the way to the opponent’s side of the table wins. I think this may the first sport whose pursuit will help us develop our telekinetic powers faster than our athletic abilities.

4) Bossaball: this little gem from Spain (invented by Belgians) took the already awesome game of volleyball and added the one thing that could make it even awesomer: trampolines. Players bounce off of trampolines and other inflatable objects to gain additional height, allowing for massive spikes. You can also kick the ball over the net. The object, like volleyball, is to hit the ball to the opponent’s court.

5) Blind soccer: you play soccer with blindfolds on. I assume there are a lot of bone-crushing collisions. And if there aren’t, there ought to be. Online research suggests that Brazil might be the best at blind soccer. Well, is that all that surprising?

And finally, a friend who shall remain anonymous wants to know, “Where does one go to meet single Red Sox players?”

Personally, I don’t recommend dating baseball players. They spend half the year playing, which means being on the road for upwards of two weeks at a time. Then they spend the off-season sitting around with nothing to do. I’d think they’d get awfully clingy. But if you insist, my guess would be Game On, the soulless, overpriced, source-of-all-evil bar that sits at the corner of Brookline Ave and Lansdowne St. Check out this gallery of photos from their 2007 AL East division-clinching party at Game On, taken by my friend’s coworker (or his coworker’s friend, or something). There are some great photos, including Coco Crisp dancing with every girl he could find, Pedroia tending bar, and Josh Beckett leading the crowd in a “Cy Young” chant while wearing a “Stay classy, San Diego” t-shirt. But the belle of the ball is without a doubt Clay Buchholz. Four pics in, there’s a shot of him taking a shot. I can’t tell what, but it’s a light yellow color. Maybe tequila? Who knows.  Whatever it was, fast forward to four pics from the end to see the effect. Clay is trashed! One eye is looking up, the other is looking down. I’ve never seen a person drink so much their eyes literally shift levels, but now I know it’s possible! Ladies and gentlemen: your 2010 AL Cy Young runner up (sorry folks, he ain’t winning)!

Anyway, that’s all for now. I had a blast reading, researching, and answering your questions. Let’s do this again real soon!

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