Et Tu, Brett?

On December 21, 2003, Irvin Favre died of a heart attack near Kiln, Miss. One day later, his son Brett played one of the best games of his life. Against the Oakland Raiders, on Monday Night Football, he passed for 399 yards and four touchdowns. His teammates rallied around him, catching bomb after bomb, sometimes in double or triple coverage. John Madden gushed, repeating over and over (and over and over), “there’s no road map for this.” A man who dedicated his life to football honored his father the only way he knew how. It was magic, the reason fans love sports and the reason writers cover them.

There was another image that stood out from that game: Favre’s wife, Deanna, watching the entire game from the owners’ suite. Her hands were always clasped together, sometimes over her chest, sometimes in front of her mouth. She always leaned slightly forward, as if straining for a better look. And her eyes, always slightly tearful, they showed a world of emotion: fear, concern, and, above all else, love. Deanna loved Brett, and it was heartwarming.

At one time in his career, Favre was possibly the most popular figure in football. Fans loved him for his talent, for his ability to make something out of absolutely nothing. The media loved him for his “gunslinger” attitude, which appealed to the old-school sportswriting image of the quarterback as the modern-day equivalent of the Old West cowboy. Everyone loved his rugged charm, his boyish grin, the way he seemed to always be having fun, an element of sports frequently lost at the professional level. Advertising played to this, always portraying him as a “good ol’ boy.”

Favre started losing his credibility as an athlete in 2008. He chose to retire, then he chose to un-retire, then asked the Green Bay Packers for an unconditional release, then finally got traded to the New York Jets. Fans and the media had seen athletes come out of retirement before, so Favre’s antics were not unusual. But when he did it again in 2009 and then again in 2010, the act got real old, real fast. And when he opted to play for the Minnesota Vikings, he essentially spat in the face of his fans in Wisconsin. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Now he’s a joke, and no one’s laughing. Before the 2010 season began, ESPN newcomer Tedy Bruschi was asked if he thought Favre could still be the quarterback of old, the man who won three straight MVP awards. Without a moment’s hesitation, Bruschi responded with an emphatic “no.” Favre was too old and too hurt to ever be the same. Lo, how the mighty have fallen.

But even as his athletic credibility was failing, his credibility as a decent person was still as strong as ever. As Michael Vick went to jail for abusing dogs and Tigers Woods went to rehab after being unfaithful to his wife, Favre seemed above it all. This was the man, after all, who shaved his head in support of his wife after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. Clearly, this man was not the horny, unfaithful, awful human being that so many other big-name superstars have turned out to be.

Or was he? News of Favre’s pursuit of former New York Jets sideline reporter Jenn Sterger, including indecent and occasionally graphic text messages, have destroyed Favre’s remaining shreds of credibility. Is it possible that’s not his voice on those voice messages? Yes. A Deadspin.com editor admitted as such. Sports fans should want this to turn out to be a hoax. Only so many heroes can fall before the childlike wonder the fan has when he or she watches these athletes finally withers and dies.

There was a time when athletes were role models. Their lives, not just their successes, were meant to inspire. Now, in an age when every piece of information is spread across the world at the speed of light, the image of the athlete as a role model is dying. It has been replaced by a new image of the athlete: greedy, lascivious, violent. Movie stars and musicians have suffered the same fate, as have politicians to a lesser extent. Who will inspire our children now? Parents can be role models, sure, but children need greatness to aspire to, not just goodness.

Brett Favre, a grandfather, may have sexually harassed a former New York Jets reporter. Now, a new report from ESPN says that his elbow tendinitis has gotten so bad that he is considering sitting out future games. That will break his 288-game starting streak. That will be the final nail in the coffin. Nothing will be left but a broken-down, dirty old man who tried to cheat on a wife who supported him through the death of his father and her own battle with cancer. The “gunslinger” will be gone, never to return. He could have ridden off into the sunset as a hero. Now, when he rides off he will be like Shane: dead.

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

By now, the sting of the Red Sox’s postseason absence has begun to fade. Yes, the team collapsed after the All-Star Break. But up until the San Francisco Giants series at the end of June things were going quite well. When that series ended on June 27, the Red Sox were leading the wildcard race and were just two games back in the AL East. However, they suffered three key injuries: Dustin Pedroia went down with a broken foot, Clay Buchholz hyper-extended his knee, and Victor Martinez broke his thumb. Jason Varitek went down soon after. Losing Varitek didn’t hurt the offense, but it forced the Red Sox to rely on even worse offensive catchers, plus these new guys didn’t know the pitchers and couldn’t call games as well. Everything quickly went downhill. Buchholz didn’t miss much time, but Pedroia didn’t play a game after his injury on June 25. A former Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player, his loss was nearly-catastrophic. And when Kevin Youkilis tore the webbing in his thumb, it was the final nail in the coffin. Injuries plagued this team all season, and they finally succumbed to them. So what does Boston do to come back next year?

The Offense: Stay the Course

Despite all of the injuries, the Red Sox were still one of the best statistical offenses in baseball. They were second in the MLB in runs, home runs, RBIs, and slugging, and first in doubles and OPS. They were also sixth or better in several other key offensive categories. All of this was accomplished with half a season from Pedroia, two-thirds of a season from Youkilis, and almost nothing from Jacoby Ellsbury. Think what this team could have accomplished with full seasons from these three. The top of the lineup will be much faster next year with Ellsbury at its helm. The middle of the of the lineup will extend with a terrific contact hitter (Pedroia) and a grind-it-out power hitter (Youkilis). And the bottom of the lineup will be better with Marco Scutaro batting ninth where he belongs. Scutaro definitely played beyond expectations this year.

The Red Sox will get key players back from injury, so their main objectives should be to just shore up the power positions in the lineup. Boston will probably have to overpay Martinez to keep him, but they should do it. He played well when he was healthy, he knows the pitchers, he can catch the knuckleball, and it will set the rotation back to introduce a new catcher into the mix. Plus, there isn’t a lot of catching talent entering free agency besides Martinez, so he remains the best option for the Red Sox. Varitek, meanwhile, will probably not be back. He should get his number retired, and he might get a one-year deal somewhere else, but his time in Boston is done.

David Ortiz, meanwhile, has a $12.5 million club option. The Red Sox would be justified in picking that option up, but the smart move might be to not do it. Yes, Ortiz had a bounce-back season. 2010 was his best season since 2007, with marked improvement in just about every offensive category. He’s reached iconic status in Boston, easily in the top five of most popular athletes in Boston history. But he’ll be 35 next year, and there’s only so much wear-and-tear a body that size can take. If the Red Sox let Ortiz go to free agency, they’ll probably be able to sign him for less than his current option. It might require a two year deal, but a two year, $16 or $17 million deal is still better than a year at $12.5 million. Plus Ortiz will feel happier knowing he has job security for two years. The Red Sox will overpay for Ortiz, but not by as much as they would by picking up the option.

The last situation to address is Adrian Beltre. He has a $10 million player option, but there’s no virtually no chance he’d take it. He was fourth in the MLB in hits, sixth in batting average, and first in doubles. He’ll get a fat check wherever he goes, and he should come back to Boston. It’s very rare that a free agent excels under the pressure of Boston’s fans and giant media presence. Beltre exceled this year. He was the offensive MVP, no questions asked. Pay him whatever he wants, but bring him back. There isn’t much in the free-agent crop of third basemen, so do whatever is necessary and make sure he mans the hot corner at Fenway Park every night.

The Red Sox had some interesting bench and prospect players come up this year, but none of them shined so brightly that they should definitely be brought back next season. The lone exception was Jed Lowrie, who played every infield position and showed some pop at the plate. It’s time he played a full season in the majors, just to see if he can handle it. Split him with Scutaro, use him off the bench, but he needs to be ready by 2012 to be the starting shortstop. And if he can’t, they need to learn that next year to so they can get a free agent for 2012. It wouldn’t be the first time the Red Sox signed a new shortstop in the off-season, after all.

The Pitching: It’s All About the Bullpen, Baby

First off, every Red Sox fans should be positively giddy over the notion of several more years of Buchholz and Jon Lester. Both of them should pick up a few Cy Young votes, and they’ll be an even more formidable one-two punch at the top of the rotation next year. Josh Beckett, on the other hand, will be looking to bounce back after a season lost to injury this year. He always plays better in odd-numbered years with the Red Sox, and he’ll want to reclaim his status as an elite pitcher. Expect a phenomenal season from him. Daisuke Matsuzaka will be entering his fifth year in the majors. He is a perpetually frustrating pitcher who never seems to improve or decline. He just stumbles along, sometimes pitching well, sometimes pitching atrociously and sometimes going on the disabled list. Expect more of the same next year. John Lackey will probably have an easier time in 2011, having had a year of experience with Martinez (assuming they bring him back). Next year he’ll start the season with a better of understanding of how his stuff can best help the team win. Expect a small improvement, which is all you really need from a fourth or fifth starter.

The odd-man out in this equation is Tim Wakefield. Getting the 14 wins necessary to take the Red Sox franchise record for victories is unlikely. He hasn’t won that many games since 2007. It’s unlikely he’d get them as a starter, and it’s virtually impossible he’d get them as a long-reliever. He’s under contract for next year, so he might return again just to get paid. But the elder statesmen could do the team a favor and just retire. He had a great career with Boston, winning two World Series championships and being named an All-Star in 2009. He has nothing left to prove, so why not make the honorable choice to retire? The team would thank him for it.

The Red Sox starting rotation was ranked sixth in ERA in the American League last year. Not great, but not bad either. With an offense as prolific as Boston’s, you can get away with that. The Yankees made the playoffs with the eighth-ranked rotation in the American League, after all. The problem lay in the bullpen, ranked thirteenth in the AL with a 4.24 ERA. The bullpen was awful this year, and it’s where the most work is needed. Now, all of the Red Sox’s pitchers should be back next year. Hideki Okajima is arbitration-eligible, but that’s it. He needs to come back next year and prove he can still be the All-Star he was in 2007. Otherwise, Felix Doubront may take over some Okajima’s duties as primary lefty reliever.

There are some decent relievers entering free agency this year. To name a few: Grant Balfour of the Rays, unfortunately-named J.J. Putz of the White Sox (though he was injured this year), and Jesse Crain of the Twins. All three of these relievers played on low-payroll teams this season, so it’s unlikely their current teams will match what a team like the Red Sox could pay. So Boston should be able to add some bullpen depth this off-season.

The Red Sox also have an alternative means to strengthening the bullpen: trade Jonathan Papelbon. This was his worst year ever as a closer. He blew eight saves, walked more batters than ever more, struck out the fewest since 2006, and gave up the most home runs of his career. His ERA, 3.90, was 1.25 runs higher than his previously worst year, 2006: his rookie year. Papelbon is declining, and he isn’t acting like or saying anything to indicate that he wants to stay in Boston. He is still an elite leader, and he is cheap. That makes him ideal trade bait. Daniel Bard had a phenomenal season as a setup-man, and he is ready to make the jump to closer. He has already shown less of a propensity for meltdowns than Papelbon. The last time he gave up more than one earned run? June 10. In 73 games he gave up earned runs just 13 times. He can handle the pressure, and he throws harder than Papelbon ever did. Trade Papelbon for an elite reliever, move Bard to the closer’s role, and the bullpen should get better real fast.

2011 Predictions

If the Red Sox can bring back its key hitters and shore up the bullpen, they should be a force next year. The AL East crown is definitely a possibility. The Red Sox tied their season series with the Yankees, and the Rays are going to lose several key players to free agency. Ellsbury may win the AL stolen base title again, and either Lester or Buchholz (or both) will factor in the Cy Young voting again next year. The Red Sox should get to the playoffs. And with a dominating one-two (and possibly three if Beckett returns to form) starting rotation like Boston has, they might go quite a long way. The last time the Red Sox missed the playoffs, they won the World Series the following season. It’s too early to say that about next year without knowing who’s going to win this year, but just remember: history is on Boston’s side.

Wait ‘Til Next Year

The New England Patriots are not winning the Super Bowl this year. Everyone knows it. The fans know. The players know it. Bill Belichick knows it. This just won’t be their year.

The reasons are myriad. The defense is too young. The offensive line has problems. The running game lacks a single playmaker. The passing game looks good, but who knows how long two rookie tight ends can carry it? And while special teams have proven they can be explosive, the special teams unit is easily the least important phase in football. The only time special teams really affects a game is when they play extraordinarily well (as they did against Miami) or extraordinarily poorly. Even above-average special teams play won’t really help a team win, and a team can usually give up a touchdown kickoff return without losing the game. The special teams unit is also a double-edged sword, because every score by them replaces a defense-resting offensive drive. So continued excellence by the Patriots special teams unit might wind up hurting them.

The Patriots are not winning the Super Bowl this year, and Randy Moss would have left at the end of the season. The Patriots occasionally pay for talent, but it’s rare that they pay for wide receivers. So Moss would go to free agency, get paid somewhere else, and the Patriots would get nothing. So if the season is not going to bring home a championship no matter what, then why not trade a player who doesn’t factor into New England’s future and get something for him?

The Patriots are going to have a lot of early-round draft picks in 2011. Alabama super-back Mark Ingram is almost a guarantee. The Patriots could also shore up an offensive line that will likely lose both Matt Light and Logan Mankins. And if they really need a wide-receiver, they might look at A.J. Green from Georgia. He might have been suspended for four games by the team, but the Patriots took Brandon Meriweather and did some good things with him. Same with Randy Moss and Rodney Harrison. Problem players usually do well with the Patriots. So while the 2010 Patriots may be a lost cause, the the 2011 Patriots will be absolutely stacked.

Whether or not Belichick actually has given up on this team, that is definitely the message he sent by trading Moss. Brady’s best statistical season was 2007, the first season that introduced the new Moss-heavy offensive strategy. It was his most accurate season (68.9 percent), his highest average throw season (8.3 yards-per-throw), his highest total yardage season (4,806) and his highest-scoring season (50 touchdowns, an NFL record). His next-best season? 2009: 65.7 percent accuracy, 7.8 yards-per-throw, 4,398 yards, 28 touchdown passes. Clearly Brady is best suited to an offense where he has a consistent deep threat because it opens up routes underneath.

Without Moss, safeties are going to creep up. What used to be one person hitting or tackling Welker or a tight end will become two or three. The rookies will get mauled while trying to catch passes. Their development may be hampered, and they might get hurt. Trading Moss crippled the offense. And when you cripple your best element, you are essentially saying that you’ve given up on the season.

To further contextualize Brady’s offensive preferences, let’s take his third-best year: 2004. You’ve got the same 28 touchdowns and 7.8 yards-per-throw as 2009. His total number of completions (288) are low, but his quarterback rating was third-highest (92.6). Who else was on the 2004 team? Corey Dillon, averaging a whopping 109 yards-per-game. The Patriots won the Super Bowl that year. So while Brady might do best in an offense with a deep threat, the Patriots might do best when Brady has a great running back to split the duties with.

Now, this year the Patriots do not have as good a running back as the 2004 Dillon, or even the 2006 Dillon-Laurence Maroney combination. Without that, in order to flourish Brady would need a deep threat. He doesn’t have that now that Moss is gone. That means that neither of the successful offensive models are available this season. Hence, a crippled offense.

By trading Moss, Belichick was willing to sacrifice the 2010 season for the possibility of a massive overhaul in 2011. The Patriots should find themselves with a truly explosive running back. The offensive line will be young and strong. And if Brady really needs a deep threat, wide receivers are usually easy to draft and there are a few big-name players entering free agency too. But the reality is the Patriots (though not necessarily Brady himself) did their best work when they had a consistent running threat. They’re not going to get it this year, so Belichick took a step necessary to ensure that they get it next year.

Trading Moss guarantees a less-successful 2010-2011 season. The offense will sputter and the defense will get overused. But all that extra playing time for the young defenders will push their development. And when the Patriots come back rarin’ to go next year, the defense will be better for the extra experience they got this season. This decade will end not with a bang, but a whimper. But next season will be a Big Bang, and the Patriots dominance will be recreated anew. Whoever wins the Super Bowl had best watch out: the Patriots will be gunnin’ for you.

“Four Days in October:” Been There, Won That

“Four Days in October” is Gary Waksman’s contribution to ESPN’s “30 For 30” short-documentary film series. The movie isolates games three through seven of the 2004 American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. Using a combination of player interviews, archival MLB footage, home video by players and a conversation between ESPN columnist Bill Simmons and Boston comedian Lenny Clarke, the movie retells how the Red Sox became the first team in MLB history to come back from an 0-3 deficit and win a seven-game series.

The problem with “Four Days in October” is that it’s been told before. We all saw David Ortiz’s game-winning hits, Mark Bellhorn’s three-run home run, Alex Rodriguez’s slap, and Johnny Damon’s grand slam. Bill Simmons said in the movie that “at some point it became like a life experience.” This is absolutely true. The problem the movie suffers from is that when you have a “life experience,” you never forget it. Every Red Sox fan knows this story. Each person knows where he or she was, who he or she was with, and how he or she reacted. And while it’s nice to have a little reminder that this event happened, it’s not like anyone’s close to forgetting it. Fifty years from now, after a few generations come and go, maybe someone will make a nice little nostalgia-piece about the four games that may have permanently changed the Red Sox organization and its fans. But this film aired not even six years after the 2004 ALCS. Who’s watching this film that doesn’t already know all about this?

Additionally, there is very little new footage or information to be gained by this film. Most of the game highlights are the same ones used in either the MLB Films 2004 World Series or NESN 2004 Season DVDs. And while some of the interviews are new (Pedro Martinez and Bronson Arroyo), most of them rehash the same information given in those aforementioned DVDs as well. We already know that Dave Roberts was able to time his steal because Mariano Rivera threw over to first enough times for Roberts to discern a pickoff from a pitch. Learning that Martinez never expected to pitch in Game Seven was interesting, but it doesn’t do anything to change how we feel about him.

The only new element in this dip into well-charted waters is the inclusion of some never-before-seen home video footage. Some of it makes Kevin Millar seem like someone who truly believed that the Red Sox could still win the series, despite being down 0-3. Before Game Four, his mantra was the same for everyone from players to fans to Dan Shaughnessy: “Don’t let us win today.” It’s charming, and it recasts Millar not as a goofball (or a drunk, depending on what you believe) but as a true believer. But the rest of the footage is just of the team celebrating victories. It’s nice that they look so joyous, but c’mon: they just won a baseball game. Did you expect them to look sad?

It would seem that Waksman is willing to trade creativity and analysis for nostalgia. This is most evident in the conversations between Simmons and Clarke. Each conversation can be thus summarized: “Hey, remember when that thing happened?” “Yeah! That was great!” “Yeah!” Both the DVDs about these games include commentary from the many strong baseball writers in the Boston media scene. These interviews help contextualize the victories. Simmons and Clarke don’t do this at all. Waksman’s choice to use these two as “analysts” speaks to his desire to avoid making any kind of point about this series. It happened. It was fun. That’s all that needs to be said.

There is one moment of juxtaposition that stood out in the film. Before the final game of the series, both Spike Lee (huge New York sports fan, mostly the Knicks, but also the Yankees) and Stephen King (huge Red Sox fan) are interviewed. In two separate interviews, both of them say “I’m nervous.” As a Red Sox fan, King had every right to be. History, after all, was not on his side. But Lee nervous? Since when do Yankees fans get nervous? What’s infuriated Red Sox fans about Yankees fans for so long has been their unshakable confidence (or arrogance), their knowledge that they will always win. The image of Lee shrinking into himself and admitting his unease as King admits his excitement suggests the shifts that might be quickly occurring in these two fan bases. After 2004, Red Sox fans began to show that extreme confidence so common in Yankee Stadium. Yankees fans, meanwhile, still boast, but it’s always been more measured, tempered by their team’s epic 2004 failure.

If you’re going to make a documentary, make a point about your subject matter. Don’t just rehash a story that has not only already been told, but has been told better. There may be new stories to tease out of the 2004 ALCS. Every Red Sox fan has a story about where he or she watched these games. Why not make a film about that? I watched both of Ortiz’s game-winning hits in my parents’ darkened living room. Both times that Ortiz worked his magic I jumped to my feet, then immediately clamped down to make sure my shouting didn’t wake my parents. It didn’t work. But that’s an interesting story. There might be many more such stories out there.

Chung and Tate Lead Way as Special Teams Dominate Dolphins

Miami Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Marshall bailed out on his rout, but quarterback Chad Henne still threw it to where he thought Marshall would be. Instead, Patrick Chung was there, and he ran the ball back 51 yards for the touchdown. The interception capped off a brilliant night from Chung, who blocked both a punt and a field goal attempt in Monday night’s 41-14 New England Patriots victory over the Miami Dolphins in Miami. Both of Chung’s blocks led to touchdowns, as BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for a 13-yard score after the blocked punt, and Kyle Arrington returned the blocked field goal 35 yards for the touchdown.

On both blocks, Chung easily broke through the Miami blockers and got to the ball. He was quick to credit preparation as the primary reason for the dominating victory, pointing out that every play they had run so successfully had been diagrammed and practiced repeatedly in the week leading up to Monday night’s game. “When the opportunity comes, it’s too late to prepare,” Chung said.

Miami’s defense, in particular linebacker Cameron Wake, dominated the Patriots early on, keeping New England off the scoreboard until midway through the second quarter. However, with 2:47 left in the half Tom Brady orchestrated a drive that led to a 30-yard field goal, cutting the score to 7-6 going into halftime, with the Patriots receiving the second-half kickoff. On that drive, Wes Welker caught four passes for 27 yards and Brandon Tate caught two for 22 yards. However, Tate was told the Patriots would need a bigger contribution, and he simply replied, “I got you.”

Tate received the second-half kickoff in the end zone, then sprinted towards the right side. Sammy Morris leveled an oncoming Dolphin, leaving Tate more than enough room to outrun the remaining tacklers. He returned the kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown, his second in four games, giving the Patriots a 13-7 lead which they never relinquished.

So dominating was the Patriots special teams Monday that it had Bill Belichick joking. “Ah, they were all right,” the coach said with a smile.

Boosted by Tate’s momentum-swinging touchdown, the second-half Patriots defense finally stepped up. They allowed the Dolphins just one touchdown after halftime, intercepted Henne and replacement quarterback Tyler Thigpen, and stopped the Dolphins on a fourth-and-2 pass play from the Miami 45-yard line early in the fourth quarter. The Patriots defense also held the Dolphins running backs to just 83 combined rushing yards through the game.

While Chung was the star of the second half, the first half belonged to former Miami practice-squad member Rob Ninkovich. Intercepting two Henne passes in the first half, the latter on a dive, Ninkovich kept the score low enough to allow the special teams to work their second-half magic. Ninkovich also sacked Henne in the fourth quarter, pushing Miami’s field goal attempt to a more difficult 53 yards and making it easier for Chung to penetrate the line and block the attempt.

The defense did suffer at cornerback once again, allowing Dolphins receivers to rack up 317 yards via the pass. However, as the game wore on the defensive more and more backs kept pace with their assignments. Though the Miami wide receivers and tight ends still caught passes, there were far fewer missed tackles or yards-after-catch than there had been in previous games. This did not prevent the Dolphins from converting 10 third downs, but the bend-but-don’t break defensive strategy held the Dolphins to just 14 points, the lowest any team has scored against New England this year. And once they had built up a 27-14 lead in the third quarter, the New England defensive strategy shifted to trade short-yardage gains for clock time. The Dolphins held the ball for 13 of the final 19 minutes of the game, but they came away with no points and had just four players for greater than 10 yards.

For the second straight week, the Patriots rushed for over 100 yards. Green-Ellis was once again the featured back, gaining 76 yards on 16 carries. Newcomer Danny Woodhead also chipped in with 36 rushing yards to compliment his 11-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter.

As the game drew to a close, Belichick appeared visibly pleased by his team’s performance. He almost skipped along the defensive bench, giving high-fives to every player he could find. It was a rare show of emotion by the head coach, brought on by an excellent all-around performance by his team. “They were the better team tonight, and they deserved to win.” Belichick said.

Brady, meanwhile, looked fired up about the win, despite only throwing for 153 yards and a touchdown. His team had been frequently maligned for their second-half issues and their inability to win big games on the road. However, Monday night his team did both of those things, becoming the first team in NFL history to pass, rush, return a kickoff, block a field goal, and return an interception all for touchdowns in the same game. Brady agreed that being repeatedly criticized for their defensive and road struggles added more intensity to this game. Referring to their taking offense at such neigh-saying, Brady said, “It’s gonna be there for awhile. We got a lot of chips.”

Deciding the Divisional Series

October baseball is upon us. The best eight teams in the MLB will contend for the right to represent their leagues in the World Series, then battle for the championship. While my beloved Red Sox won’t be in it, they still had their moment of influence. In beating the Yankees Sunday, they gave Tampa Bay the AL East title and home-field advantage until the World Series (where the National League will have home-field, thanks to their All-Star Game victory). We’ve got four divisional series to predict, so let’s get to it:

Texas vs. Tampa Bay: This one may turn out to be the quickest. Texas finished the AL West race nine games up. That means they clinched awhile ago and have been resting their starters ever since. But too much rest can hurt a team, as we saw in the 2007 World Series. Texas may come out flat in this series. Also, while Texas has the third-lowest team ERA in the American League, Tampa Bay is one of the two teams above them. And Texas’ low team ERA is boosted by their bullpen’s performance (3.33 bullpen ERA, lowest in the AL). Tampa Bay had 18 more quality starts than Texas did, meaning the Rays should get consistently better starting pitching performances in each game. The Rangers might be able to take one in Tropicana because the Rays don’t get a great crowd (they’ve even complained about it), but all that will do is push the series to five games, since it’s unlikely they sweep at home. Tack on Texas’ weak overall record (90 wins, worst among all playoff-qualifying teams), Josh Hamilton’s questionable durability, the Rays’ excellent road record (47 wins, best in the MLB), and the fact that this is likely their last shot at a ring (several key members of the Rays, among them Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, will become free agents) and I think you might see a sweep. Pick: Rays in three.

Minnesota vs. New York: Up until mid-August, I would’ve picked the Yankees to win the World Series. But after playing .500 baseball for the last two months, I’m not so sure. Every time the Red Sox clinched a playoff spot for themselves, such as 2003, 2004, 2007 and 2008, they did relatively well (two World Series championships, two ALCS game 7’s). But every time they backed into a playoff spot, they floundered (2005, 2009, two ALDS sweeps). The Yankees backed into the playoffs this year, and that’s worrying for New York. Also, the Twins have the best home record in the AL (the Yankees are second), eager to christen their new stadium with a World Series ring. Now, the Yankees have the AL’s probable Cy Young winner in C.C. Sabathia to anchor their starting rotation. But after that, it’s a bit dicey. Andy Pettite had a good year, but A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez did not. Nova is a rookie, and Hughes struggled in the playoffs last year. In a seven-game series it’d be hard to pick against the Yankees, but in a five-game set they’ll probably be able to get just three good games from their 1-2 pitchers. That means two games from untested or struggling pitchers in Yankee Stadium. They might be able to win one of those games, but two is unlikely. And while I’m unsure who the Twins will start, they have good enough starting pitching to take at least one of their home games. That means a final game, played at Minnesota. In that situation, my money’s always on the home team. Pick: Twins in five.

Cincinatti vs. Philadelphia: The return of the Big Red Machine has been one of the great stories of this season. Unfortunately, I think it’s going to end in the NLDS. The Phillies won more games (97) than any other team in the MLB, and they have home-field for the playoffs. They also have the best starting pitching rotation of any team in the playoffs. Roy Halladay has absolutely transitioned from the AL to the NL, going 21-10 with a 2.44 ERA and NINE complete games (one of which was a perfect game). He will be the NL Cy Young winner this year. The Reds will lose both games Halladay pitches, meaning they’ll have to win all three other games to take the NLDS. Cincinatti has a much better offense (which explains why they have so many pitchers with a decent number of wins but a questionably high ERA), but in the playoffs pitching really does rule. Pick: Phillies in four.

San Francisco vs. Atlanta: This one is definitely the hardest to call. Both teams clinched right at the end of the season, and their records differ by a single win. Statistically, San Francisco has a slight edge in pitching (3.38 vs. 3.56 team ERA), but Atlanta has a slight edge in hitting, having a far superior on-base percentage (.338 vs. .321; sabermetrics teach that on-base percentage is the most accurate indicator of offensive capability) and scoring 37 more runs (725 vs. 688).  However, Atlanta has the worst road record (just 35 wins) of any team in the playoffs. I look at the Braves starting rotation and I just don’t see how they can win three games. Tim Hudson might out-duel Tim Lincecum, but after that the advantage swings SIGNIFICANTLY towards the Giants. I see both teams splitting their home two-game sets, setting up a game five in San Francisco. Pick: Giants in five.

So there you have it: the Tampa Rays, Minnesota Twins, Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants will all win their playoff series. That sets up league championship series of Tampa Bay vs. Minnesota, with the Rays enjoying home-field advantage, and Philadelphia vs. San Francisco, with the Phillies getting home-field advantage. Look for my LCS picks around the middle of next week. Go Big Red! (Just because I picked against them doesn’t mean I won’t root for them)

Keep the Sweet 16!

The NFL 3 days ago presented the NFL Players Association with a formal proposal to expand the season from 16 to 18 games. The battle has been drawn. This a heated subject that, if not resolved amicably, will directly influence the signing of a new collective bargaining agreement by the NFLPA.

There are some very good reasons to “enhance” the schedule, especially for owners and fans. More games for the fans means more money for the owners. It also means more work for stadium employees. And a longer season would extend football into February, widely considered the worst month for sports.

However, there are serious risks in creating more games, enough so that maintaining the current 16-game schedule is the better course of actions.

More Injuries

More than any other sport, football requires that every player on the field work as a team. And with fewer reserves to draw upon (basketball, baseball and hockey all have minor leagues; football has practice squads), any injury can be devastating to a team. An injury to a quarterback is usually season-ending, but even someone as minor as an offensive line injury can derail a team. And football causes so much wear-and-tear that adding two games significantly increases the likelihood of someone going down right before the playoffs, the time when a team can least afford an injury.

The short season compounds all of this. If a baseball player misses a couple of games, it barely matters. If a football player misses two games, that’s 12.5 percent of the season. And when the player does recover, he has to go back to the pros immediately. There is no rehab plan like in baseball. This means that players take longer to come back from injuries to minimize the risk of re-aggravation, and when they do return they tend to hold back a little while they re-insert themselves into such a high level of football. From a fan perspective, the player just looks like he’s not playing hard. Injuries bring down the overall quality of football played on any given day. Why increase the likelihood of an uncontrollable circumstance killing a team’s playoff chances?

Finally, Boston Globe reporter Albert Breer points out that in order to qualify for post-career health care, a player must play three full seasons and four weeks of a fourth. That means adding six games to one’s career, Breer says. Unless the vesting limit decreases, far fewer players will stay in the league long enough to qualify for health care afterward. That’s unacceptable. The NFL cannot continue to throw out the players who mutilated their bodies for the league’s profits and the fan’s entertainment.

The Risk of Concussion

Concussions are football’s dark secret. Basically, a concussion occurs when a person is hit so hard (usually in the head) that the brain slams into the skull. Physiologically, this causes a buildup of the tau protein. On X-rays, tau looks like a fog, or a dark cloud. Build up enough tau and you start to suffer from some or all of the three d’s: dementia, depression, and drug addiction.

The NFL has taken some measures to protect its players from concussion, but until some fundamental characteristics of football change, the chance will always be there. Some have argued that the three-point stance positions players in such a way as to increase the likelihood of concussion. That may be, but it’s unlikely that will ever change. So other steps must be taken to protect players, and one step is to not add extra games.

Some will ask, why shorten a season to avoid something that happens so rarely? The fact is, concussions are so bad that even a couple are devastating.

Some will say that the players don’t care, that they’re willing to sacrifice their future health for present glory. That may be the case, but those players have no idea what they’re exposing themselves to. Ted Johnson won three Super Bowl rings and played in 12 postseason games. Ask him if he’d give back a few of those games, maybe even a ring or two, if it meant he’d currently have a healthy brain. You might be surprised by his answer.

The league has to protect the players, sometimes even from themselves. If two fewer games saves even one player from one concussion, then it’s worth it.

Changing the Value of Divisional Wins

As it stands, 37.5% of NFL games are divisional games: six out of 16 games. The two added games will not be divisional games, because that would give unfair schedule advantages to certain teams in the division (for example: if the Patriots were to get an extra game against the Bills but the Jets had to play the Dolphins a third time per season). And it’s unlikely that the league would change the number of divisional games to nine, because then certain teams would get more home games against divisional opponents, or twelve, because that would place too much importance on how a team performs against just three others. So that means you’re adding two non-divisional games to the schedule. The ratio drops to 6/18, or 33.3 percent.

What do you do with those two games? Do you make them conference games, non-conference games, or one of each? Considering conference wins plays a role in tie-breaking rules, it might not be a good idea to add two games that a team is unlikely to take as seriously until they find themselves in a tight race for a wildcard spot. But if you make them non-conference games, a team is unlikely to take them serious at all, since the only time they’ll see that opponent again is in the Super Bowl.

The current formula is six divisonal games, four games against a division in the same conference, four games against a division in the other conference, and two against teams from a division in the same conference that finished the previous season at the same position within their division as your team did (this is why the Patriots keep playing the Colts, even though they don’t always play every team in the AFC South). The only way to add the games is to add two games from the final category, although maybe they’ll be similarly ranked teams from the opposite division this time. The problem with that is if a team plays poorly in one year then picks it up the following season, they will get two (or now four) easy games. If the reverse happens, a struggling team will suddenly find itself facing former division winners. Adding two games will cause too much carry over from the previous season.

More Scrub Games

If a team clinches a playoff spot in Week 12 or 13 (common), they will usually take the last few games off, resting their starters for the postseason. Now if a team clinches around that time, they might take off up to a third of the season. Do they have the right? Absolutely. But fans hate mailed-in games. They change the channel, or they leave early. Meaningless games mean less money for owners. With extra games you run the risk that teams will spend more of the season resting starters.

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Four compelling reasons explain why the season should stay at 16 games. The risk of injury increases dramatically, which can derail a team’s postseason chances or performance. The expansion will also diminish the number of players who stay in the league long enough to qualify for health care when they’re done. The dangers of concussions are so enormous that players need to be protected in any way possible. The extra games will most likely be non-conference, similarly-ranked opponents, which means teams will essentially start auditioning for next year while playing the current year. And teams that clinch early will have more opportunities to rest players, which is boring for fans and costly for owners.

The answer is clear: keep the schedule as it is. February may remain a slow sports month, but expanding football into it may do more harm than good. The appeal of showing the Super Bowl on Presidents Day Sunday is specious. While the day-off the next day may allow some to stay up late to watch everything, more may use the three-day weekend to go elsewhere. It might result in actually fewer viewers than its current date. To increase Super Bowl viewership (not that you need to), it might be far smarter to lobby for the Monday after to be a national holiday.

“Enhancing” the season will result in long-term negative health consequences for players. Word to the NFL and NFLPA: don’t do it.