Patriots Score Every Which Way in Season Opening Victory

The New England Patriots passed, intercepted, and returned kickoffs for touchdowns Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium as they defeated the Cincinnati Bengals, 38-24. The defense, which had been heavily scrutinized during the preseason, forced two turnovers and kept the Bengals out of the end zone until midway through the third quarter.

Tom Brady, who signed a 4-year, $72 million contract two days ago, threw for three touchdowns and 258 yards, going 25/35 and finishing with a quarterback rating of 120.9.

Two of his touchdown passes were caught by Wes Welker, who was playing in his first NFL regular season game since tearing the medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments in his left knee in January 2010. Welker played this game as if none of that had ever happened. He was Brady’s top receiver against the Bengals, leading the team with 8 receptions for 64 yards and 2 touchdowns. He seemed to have no trouble cutting, frequently eluding and confusing his defenders to pick up extra yards on his receptions.

Brady’s first two touchdown passes came in the first half, then the offense seemed to take the third quarter off. Brady and his corps ran just five plays from scrimmage in the third quarter, going 3-and-out in their only drive. The Bengals, meanwhile, orchestrated two 12-play drives in the third quarter, both of which ended with Carson Palmer touchdown passes. The quarter ended with the Bengals down just two touchdowns.

However, Tom Brady found his form in the fourth quarter. He began the final quarter by driving 81 yards to the Bengals’ end zone, finishing the drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski cut to the back right corner of the end zone, and Brady lofted the ball over his head. Gronkowski went up and caught the ball cleanly for the first touchdown reception of his NFL career. The Patriots may finally have a capable tight end to complement their talented receivers. Should Gronkowski stay healthy, his 2nd-round draft pick may turn out to be one of the steals of the draft.

Brady’s drive ate up 7:41 of clock-time and pushed the lead to three touchdowns. The Bengals did not have enough time to come back.

The Patriots defense, so maligned for its youth and lack of pass rush, took steps to prove naysayers wrong. They allowed the Bengals exactly one first down in the first quarter, sacking Palmer to end the opening drive, then following that up with a 3-and-out and then a recovered fumble.

The Bengals did not put together a drive longer than five plays until just over six minutes into the second quarter. That drive ended when linebacker Gary Guyton undercut tight end Jermaine Gresham, easily intercepting Carson Palmer’s pass. Guyton then bolted for the end zone, eluding all tacklers and finishing the 59-yard interception with a touchdown. A drive that could’ve cut New England’s lead to 10 instead pushed it to 24. Through the first half, the defense allowed just a 54-yard field goal.

While it’s true that the Bengals owned the third quarter, they also received some inadvertent help from the Patriots. The second half began with the Bengals kicking to the Patriots. Wide receiver Brandon Tate fielded the ball at the 3-yard line, then after high-stepping for a moment began to sprint up-field. Eluding tackler after tackler, Tate sprinted 97 yards for the touchdown, pushing the lead to 31-3. What might have otherwise been a long offensive drive by the Patriots was instead an electrifying 12 second special teams score. It meant more time on the field for the defense, but they were happy to trade extra playing time for a four-touchdown lead.

This game was an offensive triumph. Through the entire game, the Patriots punted exactly once: during their lone 3-and-out drive in the third quarter. No one fumbled, and the Patriots only turned the ball over once: on downs, with 1:10 left in the game, up two touchdowns. It may have been an act of kindness by the Patriots to not kick an easy field goal in that situation, electing instead to go for it on fourth down and give the Bengals the opportunity to stop them and orchestrate one more drive.

Defensively, the Patriots played exceptional football for a half, then ran out of steam midway through the third quarter. Playing over 11 minutes of the third quarter slowed their pass rush, which had successfully sacked Palmer in the first quarter, and led to Palmer being hurried but never sacked in the second half. He played very well, going 34/50 for 345 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. His primary receiver was Chad Ochocinco, who caught 12 passes for 159 yards and a touchdown. He never did fire that musket.

A Massachusetts Yankee in King Bucky’s Court

Seeing red shirts in the bars around Fenway Park is not uncommon. Seeing red shirts with badgers on them, however, is. And seeing red shirts featuring a badger that acts as mascot to a university over 1,000 miles to the west is even more uncommon.

And yet every Saturday of the college football season alumni of the University of Wisconsin-Madison gather at the Baseball Tavern on Boylston Street in Boston. They cheer, they sing, they dance, they make merry with food and drink. They even do push-ups on the bar. Their goal is simple: to recreate as best they can the atmosphere they all experienced at Camp Randall Stadium, an atmosphere that defined their college experiences (and some might say their lives) for 4+ years.

I discovered this phenomenon two years ago. Recalling watching Badgers games with my parents (both Wisconsin alumni) as a child, I decided to check it out. Not actually being an alumni caused some initial friction, but I soon gained acceptance after demonstrating at least a passing knowledge of Wisconsin football history. I had watched them win the Rose Bowl in 1994, then do it again in 1999 and 2000. I knew all about Ron Dayne, John Stocco, and the great Barry Alvarez. My grandfather used to sing “On, Wisconsin!” to me as a lullaby. So while not a pure badger, I was still welcomed as an honorary alumnus (it also helped that I had been accepted there for undergraduate study, even though I matriculated elsewhere).

Boston does not want for devoted fan bases. The Boston Red Sox, Bruins, and Celtics regularly enjoy large turnouts at their home games. And these are not people with passing interest. Every fan knows the histories and rituals of their teams. There is no need to try and stir the crowd up with gimmicks or ploys; the fans can whip themselves into a frenzy just fine, thank you.

However, there is a unique psychology to the Boston sports fan. It comes from a combination of the weather, decades-long losing streaks (the Red Sox did not win a World Series between 1918 and 2004; Bruins have not won a Stanley Cup since 1972), the proximity to New York City, and an over-saturated sports media. The Boston sports media scene is ripe with writers who seem to enjoy exaggerating loses and undervaluing victories to the point that readers come away believing their teams are losers and and they are too for following them.

The result is a coldness, a chip-on-the-shoulder aggressiveness that perhaps does as much harm as it does good. Sports fandom is a great thing. But Boston may transcend from sports fandom to sports insanity. And if left unchecked it may have long-term consequences for the city at large.

But none of that is present amongst these transplanted Midwesterners. They love their team, no doubt about it. When the Badgers score (and they do), they cheer loudly. When they give up points (which they also do), the alumni groan. But the cheering lacks the desperation of Boston fans who seem to NEED to win all the time, and the groaning is measured, as if the fans realize that football in the end is just football. Midwestern values of common sense, hospitality, and kindness meet Northeastern fanatacism to produce to far healthier but no less-devoted base.

The game itself is somewhat straightforward. The Badgers take the lead early and never relinquish it. Wisconsin features a run-first, run-second, pass-third offense (they rush 46 times and pass 22 times), and it works. Their star running back, John Clay, rushes for 137 yards and 2 touchdowns. Their quarterback, Scott Tolzien, whose deficiencies I’ve been lambasting for a year, goes 15/22 for 191 yards, a touchdown, and an interception.

It’s more than enough for their defense, which keeps the San Jose State Spartans off the board for nearly three quarters, then finally gives up two touchdowns. The Badgers win 27-14 in a game that could have been a bigger blowout had the Badgers not fumbled the ball once while rushing for the end zone and muffed a fourth-and-1 from the SJSU 4-yard line. The Badgers are a team with definite talent that probably played down to their opponent Sunday and didn’t really pay the price for it. The atmosphere at the bar is jovial, although there are concerns for wide receiver David Gilreath, who suffered a helmet-to-helmet hit while catching a punt and had to be taken away in an ambulance.

Throughout the game, as much of the Camp Randall experience as possible is recreated. Band songs are imported to iPods and played over the surround-sound system. The Steve Miller Band’s “Swing Town,” a student favorite, is played and sung along to with appropriately obscene lyrics. The same treatment is applied to Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2.” When the third quarter ends, House of Pain’s “Jump Around” starts blaring, and everyone in the bar does just that. It might not carry the ground-shaking, foundation-rattling power of the 80,321-seat Camp Randall, but here in Boston it’s enough. For a few hours the spirit of Madison is back, and it’s glorious.

The game ends with the Badgers rushing for last first-down, then taking a knee. “Varsity” plays, and I’m invited to join the ring of swaying, singing Badgers, even though TECHNICALLY the line “our Alma Mater” doesn’t apply to me. Not wanting to cheapen their fun, I leave that bit out of my rendition of the song, silencing myself briefly and then coming back with “U-Rah-Rah, Wisconsin.” And then it’s over. Fans trickle out of the bar, which begins to de-Wisconsinize itself as it prepares to host the Louisiana State University alumni for the Tigers’ 7:00 PM game against Vanderbilt. The Baseball Tavern hosts many alumni groups in an effort to boost attendance at their bar, and when it’s not the Badgers’ turn the bar shows no allegiance to them.

For some, the football games are just one side of a full range of alumni experiences in Boston. The Alumni organization is well-run and large (it’s Facebook group has over 300 members), and there are many activities ranging from community service to the Head of the Charles regatta. But for others, Saturday afternoon is their only time to reconnect with something they once loved that is now gone. Under the guise of college football, that wonderful sport where the athlete ostensibly plays for love of school and the game and not for money, what is really going on is a recreation of the Wisconsin esprit de corps. Right in the heart of a city known for its fanaticism you have a group of alumni who find a way to keep their love alive without letting it consume them. The rest of Boston could learn a lesson from these Badgers.

9/8 Patriots Beat Writers Write-Up

Welcome to your first in a weekly series of Patriots news. Despite just four days separating us from Week 1 of the season, little attention is being paid to the Cincinatti Bengals. Most Patriots coverage revolves around contracts: who’s close to signing (Tom Brady) and who’s not (Randy Moss and Logan Mankins). The closest most reporters are coming to the Bengals is delving into Coach Belichick’s past history with Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco. The links below are an assemblage of stories coming from all over, from local (WEEI.com) to national (ESPN.com). So without further ado, let’s get to it!

ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss recapped Tom Brady’s Wednesday press conference, citing in particular Tom Brady’s praise for Randy Moss and Logan Mankins and his disinterest in discussing contract negotiations until they’re finished. And in his blog post Reiss mentions that Brady’s four surgeries may have opened his eyes to the possibility of injury ending his career, which might have affected his approach to these contract negotiations. How this realization affected him is not mentioned. Other blog posts mention Brady’s love for Moss, coach Bill Belichick’s connection to Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, and a random pawn shop in Las Vegas finding a 2001 New England Patriots Super Bowl ring (AFC East writer Tim Graham goes into more detail). Mike Reiss finishes things off with a conversation with former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi sizing up the team’s preseason performances.

The Boston Globe’s website leads off with a gallery of the five biggest games of the season, then its writers run the gamut on Brady’s contract and the deal reported yesterday but never confirmed. Dan Shaughnessy decries the Patriots’ silence regarding negotiations, whereas Albert Breer asserts that whatever the final deal may be, the fact that numbers are finally coming shows that both sides are talking to each other and progress IS being made. Breer backs this up with a transcription of Brady’s Wednesday morning interview on WEEI. Tony Massarotti, meanwhile, argues that Belichick’s use of so many draft picks this year suggest he may be building towards next season, not this one, and that may explain why no one seems overly concerned with Randy Moss, who they may already be planning to let go after this year. And on the “Extra Points” blog, Monique Walker has more on Belichick and Chad Ochocinco, along with a short piece on tight end Rob Gronkowski and how he will no longer be playing his brother this season.

The Boston Herald’s Ron Borges presents Brady as a rational adult, able to balance life priorities such as making money with his desire to prepare adequately and play well on Sunday. The trio of Borges, Ian Rapoport and Karen Guregian updated yesterday’s contract terms, adding a fourth year and a commensurate amount of money to the previously mentioned deal. On his “Rap Sheet” blog, Rapoport discusses Ochocinco’s love of Twitter and his coach’s disdain for it, while in his notebook he introduces us to nose tackle Kyle Love, who grew up idolizing none other than starter Vince Wilfork. Lastly, Guregian warns that Moss may play hard this season despite wanting more money, which may earn him a big-money deal from one of the Patriots’ rivals next season.

Over at CSNNE.com, Tom Curran gives us Brady’s extended take on Moss, while Mary Paoletti warns us that expecting wide receiver Wes Welker to return immediately to his position as one of the top receivers in the NFL may be a tad unrealistic. CSNNE.com also gives the injury report for Wednesday. 5 players did not participate in practice, most notably running back Laurence Maroney.

WEEI’s Mike Petraglia has an update on who was and was not at practice Wednesday, and Jerry Spar summarizes Brady’s appearance on the “Dennis & Callahan show.” There’s an especially good bit about Brady’s take on the New York Jets and their HBO show “Hard Knocks.” Meanwhile, Jerry Thornton questions why Patriots fans have suddenly gone so cold to coach Belichick’s methods, considering since 2001 the Patriots have had a higher winning percentage than any other team in any professional sport. And Christopher Price, in gearing up for the season opener Sunday, gives his five best season openers since Belichick took over in 2000. Here’s a hint: SpyGate.

Rays Score Every Which Way in Red Sox Clobbering

When they weren’t taking first base on a walk, the Tampa Bay Rays were taking home plate via home runs. The Rays homered five times and walked seven times Tuesday night at Fenway Park as they defeated the Red Sox, 14-5. The Red Sox began the game well, with the first two Boston hitters reaching base on an error and a walk to Darnell McDonald. Victor Martinez then planted a David Price (16-6, 2.92 ERA) offering off the Green Monster scoreboard, driving both runners in. The Red Sox finished the first inning up 2-0, and it looked like they might have a good night against the perpetually-frustrating Price. Their hopes were furthered by Daisuke Matsuzaka (9-4, 4.29 ERA), who got out of the first without allowing any runs and then pitched a 1-2-3 second inning. However, Matsuzaka was unable to hold the lead, giving up a 1-out double and then a 2-run home run to Ben Zobrist in the top of third inning, tying the game. This opened the floodgates for the Tampa Bay offense, and the runs came pouring in.

After consecutive walks to open the fourth inning, Matsuzaka fielded a sacrifice bunt from B.J. Upton. Attempting to throw the lead runner out at third, Matsuzaka threw too late, and the bases were loaded with none out. Matsuzaka proceeded to walk in a run and then gave up an RBI single to Zobrist and a 2-RBI double to Carl Crawford. Crawford would hit in all four of his plate appearances, including three doubles. The fifth inning went no easier for Matsuzaka. The first two outs came quickly enough, but then he gave up an infield single to Upton, who promptly stole second base. With one man on, Bartlett planted a 2-0 offering off the light tower in left field, pushing the lead to 8-2. The Rays had scored eight unanswered runs, and the night was over for the $102 million dollar pitcher. He finished having pitched just 4 2/3 innings, giving up eight earned runs on eight hits, four walks, and four strikeouts.

Boston’s middle relievers did little but pad Tampa Bay hitters’ stats. Dustin Richardson came on after Matsuzaka, walked two, then gave threw away a come-backer by Crawford, allowing a run to score (Crawford was credited with a single and no RBI). Richardson would leave without recording an out, and on came Robert Manuel. His second pitch to Evan Longoria landed in the parking lot behind left field. The fifth inning ended with the Rays up 12-2, but Manuel decided that was too low a deficit. So in the sixth inning he decided to give up back-to-back solo home runs to Dan Johnson and Upton, pushing the score to 14-2. Thankfully, his outing would end after the sixth, and Boston’s final two relievers did not allow any more runs.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, could do nothing with David Price after the first inning. They threatened in the third, but with one out Darnell McDonald was caught in a rundown between third and home. He would eventually be tagged out, ending the last scoring threat for the Red Sox against Price. Despite two extended breaks between innings while his offense teed off, Price went six strong innings, giving up just two hits (both to Victor Martinez) and one earned run. The Red Sox brought the deficit back to single digits by scoring three runs in the eighth, most notably via a solo home run from Darnell McDonald. However, all this did was provide a keepsake for one of the few fans who stayed in his or her seat through the entire game. The game ended with a double play and a strikeout. David Price picked up the win (17, now in sole position of second place in the American League), while Matsuzaka suffered the loss.

Red Sox at the Plate

There’s really only two players who deserve mention. Victor Martinez holds the honor of being the only player to hit off David Price, and he did it twice. His first hit was a double that knocked in two runs. The second hit was a single that put men on first and third with only one out. At that point it looked like the Red Sox offense might click, but it never happened. The other player to mention is Darnell McDonald, who reached base three times: twice via the walk and once via a solo home run. McDonald has been a very productive player for the Red Sox this season, far exceeding what the Red Sox could’ve hoped for when they called him up from AAA-Pawtucket on April 20. He could very easily use this season as a springboard to a major league contract next year. Maybe not as a starting outfielder, but definitely as a fourth or fifth outfielder, available from the bench. The rest of the seven Red Sox hits came from a smorgasbord of Red Sox starters and backups, as both sides substituted heavily in this game (only two Rays who started the game finished it, and only three Red Sox did).

Red Sox on the Mound

First, the good news: the final three innings. From the seventh inning on, Michael Bowden and Robert Coello combined to retire all but one hitter they faced (a two out walk by Bowden in the eighth inning). Both of these prospects should see these September games as auditions for next year. Bowden has been talked about frequently as the next great pitching prospect from the Red Sox farm system. This game, and a few more just like it, will go a long way towards showing management and fans alike that he is such a prospect. If Bowden continues to pitch like this we might very well see him in the Red Sox bullpen come April 2011. For Coello, it is unlikely that anything he does this September will get him to the majors next Spring. However, he might be able to use this outing to cement a spot on Pawtucket’s roster next year and maybe even fast-track him to the majors. If either of them can be productive, contributing members of the Red Sox next year, then there will at least be a silver lining to this debacle of a game.

However, the same cannot be said of Matsuzaka, Richardson and Manuel. It seems fitting that Matsuzaka follows up a win with a terrible loss. Such has always been his way: tease, titillate, frustrate. It would not be at all surprising to see him finish his Red Sox career without another successful season (he went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA in 2008). It would be just as unsurprising to see him go on to win a Cy Young with the next team he signs with. Because that’s what Matsuzaka does: he gives hints at his ability but never puts it all together, inevitably irritating fans and teammates. And what would be more irritating than to see him actually succeed with another team? As for Richardson and Manuel, they are both showing themselves to be either not ready or not talented enough to pitch in the big leagues. They were called up because they were available and the Red Sox needed arms. When the next season begins, they will be back to the minor leagues. With any luck, they’ll stay there.

23 Games to Go

Tuesday night, we gained some glimpses into what the 2011 Red Sox might look like. The Red Sox have a potential arm in Bowden and a potential bat in Jarrod Saltalamacchia (1-1, double, RBI). That will help answer two of the questions management will have to answer in the offseason: who will relieve and who will catch. The final 23 games should be used to answer the other questions: should Martinez be brought back? What about Adrian Beltre and David Ortiz (combined to go 0-5)? How much will the Red Sox need in terms of relief depth? And who will be the closer? The Red Sox are not going to make the playoffs. This is evident. So let’s use these final, meaningless games to get a jump on 2011. If the Red Sox can get a leg up on these issues now, before the season is over, they may have an advantage during the winter. If that translates into a trip to the playoffs, then this season will be forgiven. But if the Red Sox can’t answer these questions and go into the 2011 season with the same issues, then Boston fans may look back at this September as wasted time and wasted money. And that may have ramifications for years to come.

So Long, Pap: It was Nice While it Lasted

The Red Sox lost today, completing a sweep at the hands of the Chicago White Sox. I’d spend this blog talking about how I don’t think Boston’s going to the playoffs, but I didn’t think that BEFORE this sweep (I first mentioned “the feeling” a month ago), so repeating it here is completely unnecessary. So with nothing but meaningless games left this season, it’s time to start thinking about next season. And the question to be addressed is: what do we do with Jonathan Papelbon? 2011 will mark his final season under the Red Sox before he becomes eligible for free agency. There are arguments to keeping him for one more season, and there are arguments for trying to trade him in the off-season. Let’s analyze:

Known Quantity in an Off-Season of Unknowns

The Red Sox are going to enter this off-season with multiple needs to address. Jason Varitek and Victor Martinez will both become free agents, meaning the Red Sox will need at least one more catcher, plus they will probably want to keep someone with more experience than Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Additionally, both Red Sox third basemen- Adrian Beltre and Mike Lowell- are going to be free agents (though Lowell will likely retire). Lastly, the team will need to decide whether or not David Ortiz is worth the $12.5 million exercising his club option would cost. Martinez, Beltre, and Ortiz all potentially leaving means the Red Sox will probably have to address a power outage within its roster. With no particularly notable closers going on the market this winter (with the exception of Mariano Rivera, but he’ll probably re-sign with the Yankees), it might be a bad idea to trade a four-time All-Star. Keeping Papelbon will allow the Red Sox to focus almost entirely on offense this off-season. With so many questions already needing answers this off-season (not to mention our bullpen problems and the lack of effectiveness of Hideki Okajima), it doesn’t make sense to create another one unnecessarily by trading away a still-reliable closer. And with Daniel Bard flourishing as a set-up reliever, why mess with a good thing?

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers

For a sabermetrics-loving general manager like Theo Epstein, numbers tell far more about a player’s effectiveness than subjective observations about his make-up. And, unfortunately, the numbers don’t speak well of 2010 Jonathan Papelbon. The first number is seven. So far, Papelbon has blown seven saves this season. That’s more than in any other season so far, and the season’s not yet over. The next number is 22. That’s how many earned runs he’s given up, again more than in any other season. Then there’s six. That’s how many home runs he’s given up this season and, yup, that’s a career-high. But the numbers don’t end there. 24 is how many walks he’s given up, tied with last year’s career-high (which means he’ll likely finish the season with more walks than ever before). 60 is his current number of strikeouts, projected to finish at 71, lower than ever before. 3.36 is his current ERA, higher than ever before. And while his 43 hits allowed project to finish at 51, lower than in his previous two seasons, that is cold comfort. The numbers all show that Papelbon is starting to decline, especially if we throw out 2009’s low ERA as an aberation (he walked three times as many batters in 2009 as in 2008, and his hits allowed and home runs were about the same; my guess for the lower ERA was that he allowed fewer extra-base hits). In fact, his WHIP (his walks plus hits per inning pitched) has steadily increased since 2006. He is putting more and more men on base each season, and that will translate to more earned runs and more blown saves.

Not only that, but there are signs that Papelbon may be giving up mentally. In four of his seven blown saves he has given up three earned runs or more. That tells me that when things start to get hard for Papelbon he becomes unraveled rather than baring down and collecting himself. In fact, through 35 of his saves this season he has allowed runs just twice. This suggests that if he isn’t essentially perfect he comes completely unglued. His stat line is filled with scoreless saves and high-scoring blown saves. There’s no middle ground with him. Were everything under his control, this would all be fine. But baseball is a mind game between the pitcher and the hitter (and the catcher, to a lesser extent). Papelbon seems unable to lose a battle without losing the war. Fluke hits are an unavoidable part of baseball, and a mentally stronger player could shake them off and still record the save. Papelbon can’t, and I worry he will continue to get more and more easily unnerved as the seasons go on. As a power pitcher, his pitches tend to be more easily hittable when they’re not thrown right (plus he is terrible at pitching to contact to get ground outs). And his ever-increasing WHIP shows that he’s becoming more seeable. This will translate to more situations with men on, and Papelbon is showing this season that he lacks the mental make-up necessary to get through those situations safely. If the Red Sox want to contend next year, it might be time to use Papelbon to fill a bigger need and move Bard up to closer.

Can Bard Close?

Daniel Bard has pitched six more innings than Papelbon, and his numbers are much better. His ERA (1.80) is lower. He has also given up less hits (37 vs. 43), walks (22 vs. 24), and earned runs (13 vs. 22) than Papelbon has. His WHIP, that oh-so-indicative stat, is much better (.91 vs 1.14). He has saved three games, showing he at least CAN do it. And through the entire season he has yet to give up more than two earned runs in one outing. His potential for implosion seems far less likely. We won’t know for sure if he has the steely reserve you want in a closer, but now is the time to find out. And so with that I make my final entreatment to the Red Sox: bench Papelbon. Or at the very least, switch his role with Bard’s. Let’s use the final month of games to see if we have a new viable closer for 2011. If Bard CAN pitch, then the Red Sox can trade Papelbon and try to fill one of their open positions. For instance, if San Diego flops out of the playoffs and the bullpen is to blame (their closer, Heath Bell, has never finished a season with an ERA under 2.00 before, whereas Papelbon has three times), perhaps Boston could unload Papelbon for Adrian Gonzalez.

If, however, Bard struggles, now is the time to find out. If that happens, the Red Sox can go back to the table and try to sign Papelbon to a big-money extension. However, they’ll have three seasons’ worth of decline in performance to justify a lower salary than Papelbon might think he is worth. They might be able to convince him to sign for what they offer him rather than risk another season with even WORSE stats, which would produce even LOWER offers come free agency.

Statistics show that Papelbon’s performance has declined steadily each season since he got to the majors. The Red Sox have the opportunity in the next month to answer the question of whether or not he should close next year. These games are meaningless, so why not take the chance? If Bard can close, then there’s no point in keeping a physically declining and mentally incapable closer. Trade him while you can still get something for him. If Bard CAN’T close, by all means take your All-Star pitcher and pay him a lot of money. But now you won’t have to pay him quite so much because his last season will have been marked by a loss of effectiveness and an eventual loss of the closer’s role. Papelbon has steadily declined from an A+ closer to an A-/B+ closer. Many teams win championships with closers like that (we did it with Keith Foulke, remember, and the Diamondbacks did it with Byung-Hyun Kim). But we MIGHT have a potential A closer in Daniel Bard. So let’s use this pointless final month of the season to find out what we’re going to have next year: a brand new closer who can throw harder than Papelbon ever could, or a decent and experienced closer whose pay is finally commensurate with his experience (and not a penny more).

The Blind Side: Surprisingly Not Awful

I’ll admit it: I was in a weird place when I watched “The Blind Side,” starring Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw. Not the physical place, though I’d never watched a movie on a lawn on Commonwealth Ave, serenaded by the T and motorcycle gangs, before. No, this was a weird mental place. On the one hand, my cynical side hated the premise of the film (or at least its stereotype): a blond, southern, Christian woman adopts a big homeless Black kid from the projects and redeems him through football. Talk about feel-good, made-in-America crap. But on the other hand, the source material for the film was The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, by Michael Lewis, writer of Moneyball and all-around sports journalism god. So I figured anything ostensibly based on his writing would have to be at least o.k. And the truth is: “The Blind Side” is actually pretty decent. Trust me, I’m as surprised as anyone.

The story is about Michael Oher, a boy who became a ward of the state of Tennessee at the age of 7 after being taken from a home predominated by illegitimate siblings and a crack-addicted mother. He spent his formative childhood years jostling between foster homes and homelessness. At age 16 he is accepted into a private Memphis high school at the insistence of the man he was staying with at the time. The boy is accepted because the head coach of the football program sees him practicing outdoors and notices he has surprising quickness for a boy his size (which is somewhere in the vicinity of 6’4″, 300 lbs). The boy struggles in class despite showing the ability to absorb what is told to him orally. Eventually, he is found wandering the streets by Leigh Anne Tuohy (Bullock), who takes him into her home ostensibly for the night, then allows him to stay with her family for an extended period. Along the way he raises his grades enough for athletic eligibility, and eventually he learns the left tackle position (it is taught to him as essentially “protecting his family,” something that his test scores shows he has a high aptitude for). Physically dwarfing the other high school athletes, once he learns the position well the team takes off, dominating opponents and easily winning the state championship. Through a tutor he is able to raise his grades high enough to be eligible for a Division 1 NCAA athletic scholarship (in real life he took online courses that allowed him to substitute those grades for the lower ones earned in similar classes he took earlier in high school). All of this culminates in him accepting a full scholarship to his adopted family’s alma mater Ole Miss, then proceeding to convince the NCAA investigator that his family did not collude with Ole Miss in recruiting him. The movie ends with a shot of the real Michael Oher being drafted in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens (who had traded for the pick from the New England Patriots).

The movie essentially follows Oher’s profile in Michael Lewis’s book without discussing its historical examination of the change in offensive strategy in the NFL over the last 20-odd years. The movie pays lip-service to this research with a quick introduction by Sandra Bullock over Lawrence Taylor’s impact in the 1980s. Taylor, a linebacker of tremendous size and speed (especially when compared with offensive linesmen of the 1980s), was most infamous for a 1986 hit on quarterback Joe Theismann, wherein he fractured the QB’s right leg and ended his career. Since that time, the importance of the left tackle and his role in protecting the quarterback’s “blind side” (the side he turns his back to when getting into a throwing motion, assuming he’s right-handed) has grown to the point that it is often one of the highest-paid positions on the team. The movie quickly deals with the historical side of Lewis’s book without delving too much into it, instead choosing to focus on the story of one player’s ascension from a broken childhood to being the #5 lineman prospect in the country. I have no particular problem with this choice, as this movie is a drama, not a documentary. No need to delve into what I’m sure was exhaustive research by Michael Lewis. I also can’t say the movie was particularly inaccurate to Oher’s true story. Without reading The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, I can say that the movie’s plot seems pretty accurate to at least the Michael Oher wikipedia entry, which cites most of its entry to “The Ballad of Big Mike,” a portion of Lewis’s book that was published by The New York Times and its magazine. The movie gets the facts straight, though I’m sure it embellishes and makes up certain scenes.

This is not to say the movie isn’t without problem. The scene where Leigh Anne confronts a group of thugs whom Oher has recently visited and threatens, essentially, to shoot them if they come after her son, is borderline ridiculous. Armed or not, no white woman would walk by herself into such a situation. And each member of the Tuohy family has an almost obligatory “I accept and love you as a member of this family” moment that feels like it’s as much for our benefit as anyone in the movie’s. Lastly, it’s never clearly explained why Leigh Anne Tuohy does any of this. The NCAA investigator had every right to be suspicious, but the fact is, it’s highly unlikely that this woman saw a big Black kid walking down the street and thought “that’s the next left tackle for Ole Miss.” And remember, it was actually Oher’s African-American friend with whom he was staying who initially got him into the private high school. My best guess is that Tuohy falls under the standard “type A” personality type: a problem-solving multi-tasker. She probably saw Oher as “a problem” to be solved, then eventually grew to care a great deal for him (had she had purely exploitative instincts, she likely wouldn’t have adopted him, for instance). Nobody knows what makes someone an A-type, nor how their motivations work. But Tim McGraw’s character probably gets it right when he says that she gets some “sick satisfaction” out of solving problems and helping others. And while all of the coaches fawn over Oher, it’s not because they feel the need to recruit an ex-homeless African-American, but because they see a physically dominant player who can benefit their teams. That’s not exploitation, that’s evaluation.

It seems to me that this movie is undone more by outside stereotyping of its premise than any actual sanctimony. There are very few moments where Bullock actually acts high-and-mighty or holier-than-thou. The real-life Tuohy family probably had moments of discomfort with Oher, then probably grew to accept him as a mainstay of their family, just as most people when constantly exposed to something become gradually acclimatized to it. The fact that there was such a criticism of the movie’s premise probably has more to do with the state of racial discourse in this country than it does anything else. I WILL say that I don’t think this movie would have been as well-received or critically-acclaimed if, for instance, the Tuohy family had been an African-American family and the school he had gone to was, say, Tuskegee University. So the particular racial “alignment” of this movie is definitely important. But that may be only because Americans respond to it (maybe it’s a guilt thing, which is proposed as a rationale from one of Leigh Anne Tuohy’s prejudiced friends in the film). The film deserves most of the acclaim it received. It’s a well-written sports film, with a decent performance by Sandra Bullock. I don’t know if it deserved the Oscar, having only seen one of the other movies that was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The one I saw, “Precious,” I enjoyed far less, and I think that Bullock’s performance is at least superior to Gabourey Sidibe’s. And the fact that Oher went on to have a phenomenal rookie season (finished second in NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year voting, did not allow a sack in Baltimore’s first-round playoff defeat of the Patriots, probably played a role in their success running the ball) backs up the idea that this is a story worth telling. Oher is about to start his second year in the NFL. Who knows where he’ll wind up. But after one season he’s at least proven that he belongs in the NFL, that he’s learned to play a position well enough to justify a large salary ($13.8 million over 5 years), and that all of the help he’s had growing up has been used properly to enable to succeed in life far beyond his upbringing would allow for. I give “The Blind Side” an 8.5 out of 10. It’s not a spectacular story, and it has no point at all, but it never pretends to be something more, avoids preaching, and is historically accurate, which is more than I can say for “Remember the Titans.” But that’s a rant for another day.