Patriots Week 10 Report Card

You rarely want to play the Patriots at all, but you never want to play the Patriots after they’ve lost. One week after a humiliating loss to the Cleveland Browns, the Patriots returned with a vengeance, beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 39-26. Any questions that might have been raised about their status as an elite team in the NFL were answered against another elite team. Everything the Patriots did wrong a week ago- pass rush, turnovers, passing rhythm- they corrected on Sunday. Statement game? I think so. So let’s give this statement a grade.

Quarterback: A+. How can you not give top marks to a quarterback who threw for 350 yards and three touchdowns without an interception? Brady was on target and on fire yesterday, completing almost 70 percent of his passes. And these were accurate passes, too. Receivers were running routes and catching balls at their chests, not over their heads or at their feet. Brady’s first touchdown pass, a 19-yard bullet to Rob Gronkowski, was a perfect pass. The ball went just beyond the defending Steeler’s outstretched hands and right into Gronkowski’s. Brady needed to hit a target less than one square foot in area, and he threw a strike. On his third touchdown pass, a 25-yard pass again to Gronkowski, Brady showed he had touch as well as power. Once Gronkowski juked Troy Polamalu, Brady floated a perfect pass over the safety’s head and into Gronkowski’s awaiting arms. Where last week he was overthrowing his targets, this time Brady was hitting the open man every time. He was also an emotional and energizing leader, cheering, celebrating and shouting when he had to. On his 3-yard touchdown quarterback sneak, Brady spiked the ball with power and authority. Top marks for passing, top marks for leadership, top marks all around.

Running Backs: A-. You wouldn’t think the Patriots had much of a running game, but they actually combined for 100 yards on the ground between BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and Sammy Morris. Green-Ellis also caught four passes for 36 yards, and Woodhead caught 2 for 22 yards. That’s 158 all purpose yards by the running backs. Not so bad, right? Additionally, give the running backs credit for helping to sell the play-action pass, which Brady used frequently. If the running game isn’t there at all, defense won’t bite on play-action. So the running backs did enough to at least make the defense think they were running sometimes, which opened up big passing plays, including a 45-yard reception by Brandon Tate in the third quarter. It might not have been the most effective running game this year, but it certainly didn’t hurt the offense in any way. Tack on Green-Ellis’ decent 4.8 yards per carry and it’s clear that the running game is good enough to complement the passing attack.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: A. Rob Gronkowski: three touchdowns. And they were good touchdowns too: well-run routes that made defenders think he was going one way, only to watch him go the other. A week after a key fumble, Gronkowski held on to all five balls thrown his way. Wes Welker also had a terrific game, catching eight passes for 89 yards, averaging 11.1 yards per catch. Welker also helped convert both a first-and-15 and a third-and-9 situation.With the exception of Welker, every receiver’s reception total was within two of their target total. Brady was on point, and his receivers responded. When the Patriots went play-action, the receivers were there. Good to see them and Brady finally on the same page. Lastly, give Alge Crumpler credit for providing key blocks on several of the Patriots’ big running plays, and also for cleanly fielding an onside kick in the fourth quarter.

Offensive Line: A. No sacks is a surefire way to get a high grade. The line was so protective that the Steelers only managed to hit Brady three times. The line also helped spring the running backs for 100 yards on the ground. The line did exactly what it was expected to, and it did so with only one holding penalty against it (Matt Light, third quarter). Logan Mankins looked far more integrated with the rest of the line, and that’s bad news for defensive linemen and linebackers.

Special Teams: B+. Shayne Graham wasn’t perfect in his first game as a Patriot, missing a point-after in the fourth quarter. But he connected on two field goals and did a competent job on kickoffs. The Steelers started most drives around the 30-yard line. His kicks weren’t the booming touchbacks that Patriots fans are used to (except when he got to kick from the 45-yard line), but they were good enough on a Heinz Field that’s notoriously hard on kickers. Zoltan Mesko had a decent night, averaging 40.2 yards per punt and pinning the Steelers inside the 20 three times. The special teams unit also cleanly fielded two onside kicks, and this time they were not caught off guard. It might not have been a fantastic night for special teams, but they were nowhere near a liability.

Defensive Line: A. The defensive line accounted for two of the Patriots’ five sacks against Ben Roethlisberger: 1.5 by Mike Wright, .5 by Gerard Warren. They also held Rashard Mendenhall, a man who averaged 87.75 yards per game through the first eight games, to just 50 yards (and of those 50, 34 came on one play). Roethlisberger was under constant pressure all night from linemen and linebackers. While sometimes Roethlisberger was able to elude tacklers or clear the pocket, the pressure-laden defense caused numerous broken plays that forced the Steelers to improvise. They sometimes pulled off a positive play anyway, but there’s no way Roethlisberger felt comfortable at any point during that game.

Linebackers: A. Gary Guyton sent a clear message when he swatted away Roethlisberger’s first pass of the game: “we’re coming to get you, Ben.” The linebackers sacked Roethlisberger three times, including 1.5 by Tully Banta-Cain and 1 by Guyton. Banta-Cain’s solo sack was especially pretty, spinning inside his blocker to get to the quarterback. The linebackers brought constant pressure on the pass and were great and preventing big run plays, with the exception of Mendenhall’s 34-yard run. The linebackers also did a decent job containing tight end Heath Miller, although running back Mewelde Moore should not have been able to rack up 79 yards in receptions. Overall, you can’t say the linebackers were anything less than spectacular in their tandem onslaught with the linemen.

Defensive Backs: B+. OK, first the highlight. Patrick Chung tipped a Roethlisberger pass in the air, and James Sanders returned it for a touchdown. Chung also did a great job timing his tackles to break up passing plays, especially in the red zone. However, the Steelers still gained 387 passing yards, and the defensive backs committed way too many penalties, accounting for 54 yards, although 38 came on one questionable pass-interference call against Brandon Meriweather in the third quarter. You also have to take into account that over 240 of the Steelers’ passing yards came in the fourth quarter, where the Patriots held between a two- and three-score lead the entire time. It was classic garbage time, and the Patriots were more than happy to play prevent defense, trade points for clock time and then score on offense (which they did twice). The cornerbacks should have played better, but it wasn’t bad enough to really hurt the team, and for three quarters it was dominant.

Coaching: A. Great game plan coming in for Bill Belichick: pass on offense, bring pressure on defense. The team executed it almost flawlessly. Belichick also showed some very good in-game creativity. It seemed as though the defense frequently guessed wrong on which way a player would run, what routes the receivers would take, and whether a play was a run or a pass. His use of play-action especially seemed to confuse Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. This was a dominating victory by the Patriots, and Belichick gets credit for planning well at the beginning, then scheming up some new plays at halftime to bury the Steelers in the second half.

So there you have it: the lowest grade was a B+. I can’t think of too many parents who’d be mad to see a report card like that. Next week the Patriots continue to run the gauntlet with the Indianapolis Colts coming to town. Peyton Manning is another quarterback adept at making something out of nothing, so it will be interesting to see what new strategies Belichick comes up with. I, for one, can’t wait.

Gronkowski’s 3 TDs Lead Way as Patriots Win Big in Pittsburgh

Generally speaking, opposing teams rarely want to play the New England Patriots. But opposing teams never want to play the Patriots after a loss, when the Patriots are 24-2 since 2003. Unfortunately, that was the exact scenario the Pittsburgh Steelers found themselves in Sunday night at Heinz Field. Add to it Tom Brady’s 4-1 record in Pittsburgh (6-1 overall) and you’d think the Steelers would just throw in their Terrible Towels. By the time the game was over, they probably wished they had. Brady threw for three touchdowns and rushed for one more, and the Patriots defense sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times en route to a 39-26 Patriots victory in Pittsburgh. It was the most points scored by an opponent at Heinz Field since the Patriots scored 41 in the 2004 AFC Championship Game.

Brady’s Back

A week after barely completing 50 percent of his passes, Brady looked like Tom Terrific once again. He completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, throwing for 350 yards. He also ran the ball in from 3 yards out in the waning seconds of the third quarter. After his touchdown sneak, Brady celebrated with an emphatic spike. The move characterized a night in which Brady was clearly fired up, constantly shouting at his teammates, often in adulation, occasionally in criticism. This was not the somber and frustrated Brady that’s been seen in many of the games this season. This was a Brady who wanted to prove that his team belonged at the top of NFL, and wanted to do so by summarily defeating one of the other top teams in the NFL.

Banner Day for Tight Ends

All three of Brady’s touchdown receptions went to Rob Gronkowski, the first time a Patriots rookie had scored three touchdowns in a game. The first touchdown pass was a 19-yard strike thrown perfectly by Brady, whizzing just past the defender’s hands and into Gronkowski’s. It put the Patriots up 7-0 and was the first touchdown allowed this season by the Steelers in the first quarter of a game (let alone on an opening drive).

Gronkowski’s second touchdown pass came on second-and-goal from the 9-yard line, when he lined up as if to block on the right side. Gronkowski then broke off the block and went right, catching the pass and running it in for the score, putting the Patriots up 17-3 with just under 10 minutes left in the third quarter.

Gronkowski’s third touchdown came on third-and-5 from the Steelers 25-yard line. Gronkowski ran up the middle of the field, then fooled Troy Polamalu by changing direction mid-route. Once he slipped behind the Steelers safety, all Brady had to do was toss him a floater. Gronkowski caught it easily, at which point there was no one left to tackle him, and he easily ran it for the 25-yard touchdown, giving the Patriots a 36-18 lead with less than five minutes left in the game.

Gronkowski rebounded nicely after a tough game against the Cleveland Browns last week, catching all five balls thrown to him for 72 yards. But another tight end made his presence known as well. Though Alge Crumpler only had one catch for 4 yards, he made several key blocks that allowed BenJarvus Green-Ellis to average a respectable 4.8 yards per carry. He also cleanly caught Pittsburgh’s final onside kick attempt, killing any hope of a late-game comeback.

Beating Up Ben

The Patriots defense took advantage of key injuries to Pittsburgh’s offensive line early and often. Roethlisberger was sacked five times, 1.5 times each by Mike Wright and Tully Banta-Cain. Banta-Cain’s solo sack was especially pretty, with Banta-Cain spinning inside of his block to get to the Steelers quarterback. Roethlisberger was constantly under pressure from oncoming Patriots. He sometimes eluded tackles, picking up many of his 387 passing yards outside the pocket, but at no point in the game did he enjoy the kind of protection Brady had all night (no sacks, just three quarterback hits at all).

The Patriots onslaught held the Steelers to just 76 yards rushing (12 by Roethlisberger on a broken play). The Steelers managed just a field goal through three quarters, at which point the Patriots defense shifted to a “prevent” defense designed to trade points for clock time. The Steelers scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, two to speedy wide receiver Mike Wallace, but they never cut the lead to single digits, in part because every time the Steelers scored, the Patriots came right back and scored to re-establish the lead.

The Patriots also played very good red zone defense. In the second quarter, the Steelers had third-and-3 from the 4-yard line and had to settle for a field goal. Then in the third quarter, they had first-and-goal from the 8-yard line, and once again had to settle for a field goal attempt four plays later, which was shanked wide right. The Steelers were unable to punch it in from the red zone until the fourth quarter, at which point it was too late. James Sanders’ returned an interception that Patrick Chung had tipped in the air near the Steelers 32-yard line all the way for a touchdown, giving the Patriots a 29-10 lead with 8:32 left in the game.

The Backup Booter

In his first game with Patriots, placekicker Shayne Graham connected on field goals from 31 and 36 yards out, though he missed one point-after attempt. His kickoffs never flew out the back of the endzone like Stephen Gostkowski’s, but their line-drive flight pattern made it difficult for Steelers returners, who averaged 25.1 yards per return. It wasn’t perfect, but it was serviceable.

A Letter to A Bulls Center

Dear Mr. Noah,

For a man who looks like he’s in desperate need of a girlfriend, if only so that someone can finally teach you how to manage your facial hair, are you in any sort of position to call another player “ugly?” Isn’t that like a pot calling a kettle… a pot?

I watched your bit on ESPN 1000 on Wednesday, and I have two words for you: grow up.

Are you serious, dude? Are you really going to sit there and call Kevin Garnett names like an 8-year-old? KG’s mean. KG just picks on the rookies and “the Euros.” KG’s not getting a Christmas card. Did KG also steal your lunch money or kick over your Lego castle? While you’re at it, why don’t you not invite him to your birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s or ban him from your tree-house?

You know why Garnett talks trash? Because it works. It gets players thinking about how much Garnett talks trash instead of thinking about important things, like where to stand to contest the rebound, or whether Garnett is going to post up or go for the 20-footer. You know why Garnett picks on young players? Because they’re not mature enough to take trash-talking in stride. You’re living proof of all this. You’re not playing the Celtics again for almost a month, yet this weighs so heavily on you that all you need is an opening, and then the anti-Garnett floodgates open.

Kevin Garnett was your role model as a kid. Terrific. Truth is, you loved him for his talent. You didn’t know anything about his trash-talking, and that’s because until the birth of Twitter, what was said on the court stayed on the court. Kevin Garnett allegedly called Charlie Villanueva a “cancer patient,” and every ex-NBA athlete came down on Villanueva for Tweeting on-court stuff. Even the greatest players ever said horrible, horrible things on the court. But the rule is: don’t share.

You don’t think he’s a role model anymore? You admitted that you talk trash. Isn’t that because your idol, Kevin Garnett, does it? Or do you do it because, like everyone who plays basketball, you learned at a young age that trash-talking is an inextricable part of basketball culture, from the schoolyard to the NBA? Either way, you can only say that KG is worse that others, not that what KG does is inherently objectionable.

You’re not a little boy anymore, Noah, nor are you at Florida. It’s time you realized: athletes are not now, nor have they ever been, role models. Brett Favre is a pervert. Tiger Woods is a sex-addict. Michael Vick murders dogs. Even Marvin Harrison allegedly shot a gang-banger in North Philadelphia two years ago, then (again allegedly) had his cousin finish the job.

And it’s not a current thing either. Micky Mantle was an alcoholic. Ted Williams was a jerk to fans. Ty Cobb had more hate in his blood than hemoglobin. Worshiping an athlete just sets you up to be disappointed. Kevin Garnett was no different then than he is now, you just idolized him because all you could see was his talent. Now you see the whole package, and you don’t like it? Tough tamales. It’s your own fault for having an unfair expectation. Once you step on the court, you’re not a fan anymore, you’re an opponent.

This is the pros, dude; if you have a means to (legally) throw your opponent off his game, you use it. Sometimes that means playing extra physically (as the Celtics did against the Magic in last year’s playoffs). Sometimes that means switching a defensive match-up to force an unreliable shooter to take the shot. And sometimes that means trash talking. KG wins the player-voted trash-talker of the year award every time, and usually by 90+ percent. If KG can get you to fly off the handle, throw an elbow and get a technical (which the refs today hand out like condoms at a university health center), he’s done his hob. He talks trash. Get over it. Or, if you really want to shut him up, get above it.

The bottom line is, you’re a 25-year-old making just over $3.1 million. Garnett is 9 years older, and he makes six times as much. He’s going to the Hall of Fame, and the fact that he talks trash isn’t going to cost him a single vote in his induction. You don’t like it? You don’t like him? I don’t think he cares. So stop being a whiny little bitch, grow a pair of testicles, and just shut the hell up.

Sincerely,

Matt Goisman, Goose’s Gabs

p.s. I’ll say this again, because it bares repeating: get a freaking haircut! You look like a sleazy Orlando Bloom from “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Five Questions

Let’s switch up the Patriots-analysis format. It’s tough to grade special teams when the place kicker gets injured, and it’s tougher to grade a defense that was victimized by offensive incompetence. So let’s approach this post-game analysis with five questions that Sunday’s loss to the Browns left us with:

1) What’s wrong with Tom Brady? In the four games before Randy Moss was traded, Brady was averaging 227.75 yards per game and 71% accuracy. Since Moss’ trade, his yards per game hasn’t changed (228.75 yards per game now), but his accuracy has plummeted to 58.2%. It just seems to take Brady a lot longer to get in rhythm with his wide receivers than it used to. Brady’s accuracy has been victimized by dropped passes, which is becoming a problem, but just as often it’s Brady’s fault. How many passes have their been in the last few weeks that bounce off outstretched arms or end up at the feet of wide receivers? Brady has a powerful arm, but his accuracy and his touch-passing have always been his calling cards. Now, it seems like he can’t find the spots that he used to. Even passes that are caught often seem to require more athletic plays by the receivers that in the past. It seems like receivers are always diving or leaping or both. Now, sometimes that’s required because that’s the only way a receiver will be open. But on a lot of routes the wide receivers are diving to try and catch the ball, not expecting the ball low and going for the dive. It’s hard to attribute this to Moss’ departure when he was only getting a few passes per game in 2010, but how else do you explain it? Is Brady losing his accuracy, or has the switch to a non-featured-receiver passing game really screwed with his timing? Brady’s receivers need to start catching passes, but they’re most likely running their routes timidly because they’re not sure that Brady’s pass will be where they’re expected to run to. That’s bad news.

2) Should Logan Mankins have started? Yes, Mankins was not responsible for Ahtyba Rubin’s sack (that would be Stephen Neal who got run over), but linebacker Chris Gocong seemed to have a very easy time blitzing from the left side of the line. There were several plays where Gocong penetrated on the left side, ran behind the offensive line, then tackled a running back trying to rush up the right side for a loss. Additionally, the Patriots had a very hard time establishing a side-to-side rushing game, going almost exclusively straight up the middle (which is really not BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ best point of attack). Had Mankins set the edge more successfully, the running game might not have been so pathetic (68 total yards, 1.6 yards per carry by Green-Ellis). Mankins may be a Pro-Bowler, but it seemed strange to start a guy who hadn’t played a down of football in 2010 one week after an offensive line holds the Vikings (featuring quarterback-seeking missile Jared Allen) to zero sacks.

3) How bad was the defense? The Patriots lost the time of possession battle 38:08 to 21:52. That’s almost a 2-1 advantage for the Vikings. Given their extended playtime, is it really so surprising that Peyton Hillis rushed for 184 yards and two touchdowns? The Patriots had held far better running backs (Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice) to far fewer rushing yards, but in both cases you had an offense capable of extended drives. Their longest offensive drive Sunday? 5:01. Compare that with the Browns engineering two drives that ate up more than seven minutes each. That’s nearly a quarter gone on two drives. The Patriots’ pass defense was also better than it had been previously, holding Colt McCoy to just 174 yards and no passing touchdowns. And of McCoy’s 14 completions, several of them mostly had to do with McCoy scrambling and making very impressive throws on the run. The defense over-ran McCoy several times (Tully Banta-Cain, I’m looking at you), but give the rookie credit for making the plays when he had to. Had the Patriots offense managed one or two long drives, this likely would have been a different game.

4) What will happen without Stephen Gostkowski? Wes Welker’s point-after was cute, but there’s no way he’s there long-term solution to Gostkowski’s thigh injury, which NFL Network’s Albert Breer is saying is bad enough that it will sideline him for a couple of weeks. The Patriots will likely go out and sign a journeyman kicker, possibly Shayne Graham or Shaun Suisham, both of whom worked out at Gillette in October, according to ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss. But this is a major blow to what has up until Sunday been the Patriots’ most consistent phase of the game. Gostkowski had made every point-after, not missed a field goal since Week 2, and seemed to be averaging about four touchbacks a game before the game against Minnesota. Hopefully he comes back soon. Thankfully, they still have Zoltan Mesko who, at 39.5 net yards per punt, ranks 10th among punters.

5) Were the Browns right to celebrate as they did? Actually… yes. Cleveland sits in third place in their division. Their record is just 3-5, and they still have the New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers on their schedule. A winning record is a long shot for this team. Additionally, this hasn’t been a great year for Cleveland sports franchises. The Indians barely avoided finishing last in their division. The Cavaliers are just a .500 team right now, not predicted to do much of anything. And over the summer the biggest superstar ever in Cleveland’s history paid ESPN for the right to crap on his home-state for an hour. Couple all of this with Bill Belichick’s ongoing conflict with Eric Mangini, who definitely still sees himself as the student trying to surpass the teacher, and you have what will likely turn out to be the Browns’ biggest win of the season. Why shouldn’t they cheer?

“Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story,” Boston Jewish Film Festival

Two things in American society are transmitted from generation to generation: religion and sports fandom. In Boston, the expression “we’re raising our children Red Sox fans” is as common as “we’re raising our children Catholic.” And there is no sport more deeply rooted in American society and history than baseball. So in “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story,” a film screened Sunday at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline and narrated by Dustin Hoffman, it was only logical that American Jews, originally an immigrant community like many others, would latch onto baseball as a means to integrate with society.

“Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story” is a chronological survey of Jewish baseball players over the last century and a half, beginning with Lipman Pike, the first professional Jewish baseball player, who played midway through the Nineteenth Century.

The film spends the bulk of it’s time on two athletes: Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. Greenberg was a first baseman for the Detroit Tigers in the 30s and 40s. He won two American League MVPs and two World Series rings with the Tigers, and he made national headlines by sitting out a 1934 game that fell on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, despite the Tigers being in the middle of a pennant race. He also came within two home runs of tying Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. He was widely considered to be the first Jewish athletic superstar, and accomplished all of this despite enduring constant anti-Semitic jeering from both opposing fans and players (whom Greenberg was always ready to fight). The film ends his section with an interesting passing of the torch: in 1947, Greenberg played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in what would be his final year. They played the Brooklyn Dodgers on May 15, and up to the plate strolled rookie Jackie Robinson, the first African-American admitted to the MLB. Robinson bunted and sprinted to first, colliding with Greenberg. The two helped each other up, and Greenberg gave Robinson some encouraging words. After the game, Robinson told the New York Times, “Class tells. It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg.”

Sandy Koufax, meanwhile, pitched for the Brooklyn and the Los Angeles Dodgers from the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s. His accomplishments include four no-hitters (one perfect game), seven All-Star selections, four World Series rings (and two World Series MVP awards), and three Cy Young Awards (in which he led the league all three times in ERA, wins and strikeouts). Koufax also made headlines by sitting out the first game of the 1965 World Series to observe Yom Kippur, which makes his winning the series MVP award that year all the more impressive (he pitched a three-hit shut out on two-days’ rest to win the seventh game). Koufax was also instrumental in increasing players’ salary control, holding out with teammate Don Drysdale before the 1965 season to keep the Dodgers from using one pitcher’s low salary to justify keeping the other’s low. This holdout led directly to the increased power of the MLB Players Association, headed by Marvin Miller at the time, also Jewish.

Aside from Greenberg and Koufax, easily the most historically famous Jewish baseball players, there are a number of other stories told. Moe Berg was a journeyman catcher in the 1930s who doubled as an OSS (precursor to the CIA) spy. Al Rosen was the first player unanimously voted the American League MVP in 1953, when he led the league in home runs (43), runs batted in (145), runs (115), slugging percentage (.613), and total bases (367). Ron Blomberg was the first designated hitter ever used, in 1973.

The film does an excellent job of paralleling baseball history with American Jewish history. When New York City began to swell with Jewish immigrants in the 1920s, the New York Giants sought a Jewish athlete to bring in fans. They hired Andy Cohen, and it worked. When America went to war against Adolf Hitler, Greenberg left the MLB and enlisted. And by the time Koufax entered the league, Jews had moved from the over-populated cities and into the suburbs, showing just as much support in Los Angeles as they did back in Brooklyn.

Fittingly enough, the film begins to lose itself when it introduces Bud Selig, current MLB commissioner and former Milwaukee Brewers owner. The film speeds through the Selig era of baseball, with its problems as varied as steroid use and overblown salaries. It mentions former Dodgers outfielder Shawn Green, then ends with a brief list of current Jewish baseball players, most notably Kevin Youkilis, whom Martin Abramowitz, founder of Jewish Major Leaguers, Inc., calls the next great Jewish superstar. After the film, Abramowitz asked the crowd whether history will show Youkilis or Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun to be this decade’s more important Jewish athlete. Given Boston’s Forbes Magazine listing as the best sports town in the country, this seems like an easy question.

“To me, this is the story about how a group that has been on the outside, a group that has been marginalized and treated badly, found its way into the American mainstream through America’s most iconic cultural institution, which is baseball,” said director Peter Miller afterward. “To me, it’s a story about overcoming stereotypes and overcoming bigotry, and having a people who belong here become a part of here.” If Miller’s goal was to show how the Jews’ place in baseball was iconic of their changing place in American society, he succeeds. But a certain Red Sox game would have made a proper bookend to this tale. On August 8, 2005, Youkilis and two former Red Sox, Gabe Kapler and Adam Stern, all took the field at the same time. It was a record for most Jews on the field at one time during the expansion era of baseball, but it went relatively unnoticed (although WEEI did joke about it the next day, saying that the third Jewish player was former-shortstop Edgar Renteria). The reason: no one realized it, because Jews have finally reached a point where they are so integrated with America that it no longer becomes their defining characteristic.

They are Americans, same as everyone else.

Why Randy Won’t Be Handy

At first glance, Randy Moss going to the Titans seems like a good outcome for the wayward wide receiver. Tennessee is 5-3, a half-game out of both the wildcard and the AFC South, with two games left against the Colts. They have a good coach in Jeff Fisher who makes smart decisions on the field and has the respect of his players (unlike, say, Brad Childress). Best of all, Titans quarterback Vince Young has the highest rating in the NFL (103.1). Sounds great, right? Wrong. Moss will not like being on the Titans.

Let’s take a closer look at Young. Yes, he’s the highest-rated quarterback in the league. But that might be as much because he doesn’t throw as it is because he does. Vince Young ranks 30th in the NFL in passing attempts (122). Even if we give him the 87 passes that Kerry Collins made this season, it still doesn’t put him in the top 20. He also ranks 28th in the NFL in total yards (998), and Collins’ passing still doesn’t put him the top 15. Young doesn’t throw very much, and when he does he’s not even that accurate (59.0 completion percentage, good for 23rd among qualified quarterbacks).

But Young won’t hurt Moss as much Chris Johnson, their running back, will. There are three uber-backs in the NFL: Adrian Peterson of the Vikings, Arian Foster of the Texans, and Johnson. Peterson leads the league in rushing yards with 776, but Johnson sits in third, just 51 yards behind with 721. Johnson also has the most rushing touchdowns with eight. Add to that Johnson’s league-leading 178 rushing attempts, and a prety clear picture emerges: Johnson may or may not be the best running back in the league, but he is definitely the most crucial back in the league. No other team relies so heavily on its running back to execute the team’s overall offensive strategy. And having a running back of Johnson’s caliber benefits the defense as well, because rush-heavy drives take more time than passing drives, keeping the opposing offense off the field.

The Titans look like a team that passes just enough to keep opposing defenses honest. If they passed less, teams would stack against the run and Johnson would get crushed on every attempt. He might even get hurt, which would be devastating for the Titans. But if they passed more, Young’s passing inefficiencies would get exposed. So they pass just enough to sew seeds of doubt in opposing coaches’ minds without actually hurting the team.

But even when they pass, this is not the passing strategy of the 2007 Patriots, who just went deep to Moss all season. The best Tennessee wide receiver, Kenny Britt, is tied for 26th in total receiving yards with 434. But Britt has only 24 receptions this season, tying him for 75th in receptions. The Titans don’t have a passing offense designed to target specific receivers. Their most-targeted receiver, Nate Washington, isn’t even in the top 50 in that category, getting thrown to only 45 times (compare that with #1 Terrell Owens, who’s been targeted 86 times). This team’s passing offense is more reminiscent of the early 2000s Patriots, who won three Super Bowls by hitting whoever was open, winning three rings 8 yards at a time.

Moss is not going to be happy with this passing scheme (which doesn’t necessarily work, considering the Titans rank 24th in the league with 187.6 passing yards per game). History shows that if Moss is not engaged early in the game, he loses interest and mentally checks out in the second half. Moss is not going to be getting a lot of passes, because no one on the Titans gets a lot of passes. The team only passes enough so that it can run the ball effectively. And teams are going to continue double-teaming Moss, because the strategy clearly works. It might open up passing underneath, but it prevents Moss from beating the defense deep, and that’s more important. Moss is not going to get a lot of passes, he’s not going to score much, and it will come back to bite him. Between his trade and then getting waived, most likely a mediocre statistical season, and his age (he’ll be 34 before the 2011 season starts), Moss is unlikely to get a big contract in the off-season.

Now, there is the alternate argument to all this. Perhaps the Titans claimed Moss of waivers because they want to balance the offense and beef up the passing game. Less possessions for Johnson will mean longer productivity for him. If they can save him just three carries a game for the rest of the season, they will have effectively played him one game less (he averages 22.5 carries a game). Having a deep threat like Moss will open up the passing game and make the running-threat even more potent. God knows what kind of play-action schemes they could come up with a running back-wide receiver duo as strong as Johnson and Moss.

However, it seems unlikely that the Titans would change a system that has gotten them the third-best record in the AFC. Additionally, Johnson is very young. He’s played just two full seasons, and he just turned 25. You might try to rest a veteran running back with a lot of miles, but Johnson is still a young stud. He has plenty of life left in those legs and, barring injury, shouldn’t show any real decline for maybe five more years. If overusing him now costs a year at the end of his career but brings home a Lombardi trophy, it’s probably worth it.

So it seems that Moss’ plan backfired in the end. He got out of a terrible situation in Minnesota, but he went to a team that is unlikely to take advantage of his still-formidable talents. The Titans rely primarily on their running game and its superstar Chris Johnson. When they pass, Young just goes to whoever is open, and even then he’s less accurate than either Tom Brady or even Brett Favre. If Moss had hoped to go somewhere where he could play for a new contract, Tennessee isn’t it. He won’t get his receptions, he won’t get his touchdowns, and his press-conference (in which he called out Childress for going for it on fourth down, an action that Bill Belichick has done before and always been unilaterally supported by the team, even when it doesn’t work) and subsequent waiving may raise too many red flags for other teams to take a chance on him.

We’ll never know why Moss chose to hold that bizarre press-conference. He might have wanted to try and preserve his legacy in New England since he knew the media would start bashing him as soon as it became clear that the Patriots didn’t need him (he was right). He might have wanted to get kicked off the Vikings and just go somewhere better. It might be some combination of the two, or maybe he honestly didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. Whatever his reasons, he will finish the season regretting the decision. He may never play in the NFL again- a strange end to a strange career by a strange man.

Pierce Tops 20,000 Points as Celtics Top Bucks in Overtime

Paul Pierce has made a career out of driving to the hoop with sufficient herky-jerk motion to draw the foul and get himself to the free-throw lane. He has shot more free throws and made more free throws than anyone else in Celtics history. So it was only fitting that it was at the free-throw line where Paul Pierce put himself in the history books on Wednesday night. With 13 seconds left in overtime, Pierce’s first of two free throws made him only the third player in Celtics history to score 20,000 or more points. Pierce’s 28 points- including 12 in overtime- powered the Celtics past the Milwaukee Bucks, 105-102 in overtime at the TD Garden.

Pierce’s 28 points, brought his career total to 20,005. He ranks third behind John Havlicek (26,395) and Larry Bird (21,791). With four more years under contract with Celtics, and averaging 22.5 points per game, he still has an outside shot to retire with the most points in Celtics history.

The Celtics had been playing poorly up until late in the fourth quarter, getting outscored 47-37 in the second or third quarter, mainly due to little offensive production from their bench. However, down 82-77 with 2:30 left in the fourth quarter, Kevin Garnett dunked a pass from Rajon Rondo and was fouled by Bucks center Andrew Bogut, who finished the night with 21 points and 13 rebounds (six offensive). Elbows flew, as they often do when Garnett is involved, and double-technical fouls were issued to Garnett and Bogut. Garnett sank his free throw, cutting the lead to 82-80 and kick-starting a 13-2 run.

After Garnett made his free throw, Rondo caught a defensive rebound and then found Pierce for the basket and a foul. Pierce made the and-1, giving the Celtics an 83-82 lead, a lead which they would build to as many as six points before the Bucks eventually tied the score again at 91-91. The game went to overtime after Rondo missed a last-second jumper from 19 feet.

The Celtics and Bucks traded points through the first four minutes of overtime, but the Celtics took a 99-95 lead with 1:08 left. This four point lead forced the Bucks to play catch-up for the final minute, fouling the Celtics on every subsequent possession in the hope that they might miss a free throw. However, Pierce sank eight consecutive free throws in overtime as part of his perfect 11-11 shooting from the line, and the Celtics were content to foul the Bucks to prevent them from getting three-point shots. Marquis Daniels deflected the Bucks’ last inbound pass, and the game was over.

Rondo scored 17 points Wednesday night were not spectacular, but his 15 assists were. The ball would come out of his hands so fast that it appeared to be by luck that they found waiting Celtics. But every replay showed his eyes pointed exactly where he wanted the ball to go. Sometimes he would fake a pass, bring it back, then pass it again. Sometimes he would pass while spinning. Sometimes he would pass while in the air. But he always found his target, setting up key play after key play, including 3-pointer by Ray Allen (23 points) as the first quarter expired. He already has 82 assists, most in the first five games of a season in NBA history.

Though the Celtics got little contribution from the bench, the lone exception was Glen Davis, who scored 14 points off and collected four rebounds in 34 minutes off the bench. He continues to contribute on both ends of the court, taking charges on defense while draining shots from 17 feet on offense. He was also perfect at the line, going 4-4, but he fouled out in overtime, forcing Garnett to play center for the final 1:38 after Jermaine O’Neal fouled out as well.

Defensively, the Celtics continued to struggle to rebound, giving many contested shots back to the Bucks. The Celtics gave up 13 offensive rebounds, leading to 16 second-chance points for the Bucks, though the Celtics won the overall rebounds battle 43-42. The only offensive rebounding threat for the Celtics was Rondo, who had three, all of which generated points (including some by Rondo himself). Rondo also had three steals and a blocked shot, though he turned the ball over on the ensuing possession.

The Celtics will now enjoy an off-day before taking on the always-pesky Chicago Bulls. The Bulls will be playing their second game of a back-to-back, so the difference in rest should help Boston out in a game that will likely feature the high-energy, high-speed style of the young Chicago squad.

Bring Back Beltre!

The best Red Sox third baseman of this millennium declined his player option on Wednesday and will become a free agent. Adrian Beltre walked away from a guaranteed $10 million, believing he can get more on the free agent market. Theo Epstein has said publicly that while he wants to bring Beltre back, he also respects the third baseman’s right to exercise free agency, something players “work long and hard to get,” according to comments made on October 3. Beltre has yet to say whether Boston is a place in which he’d like to play again, but if the Red Sox are smart they’ll do everything they can to convince him that it is. And that means paying a lot. Look at the numbers: he’s worth it.

Adrian Beltre was the best offensive third baseman the Red Sox have had in at least 10 years (a 10-year stretch in which the Red Sox went to the playoffs six times and won two World Series, the best such stretch since their four World Series titles from 1912-1918). His batting average (.321) has only been topped twice- Bill Mueller in 2003 (.326) and Mike Lowell in 2007 (.324). Bill Mueller was better in all three of his years at getting on base (.377 average from 2003-2005), but no third baseman since 2001 hit as hard as Beltre did in 2010 (.553 slugging, which measures hitting power) or hit as many doubles (49). Only Lowell in 2007 hit more RBIs (120) than Beltre did in 2010 (102), but NO third baseman since 2001 has hit more home runs (28). In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to Butch Hobson in 1977 to find a Red Sox third baseman who hit more home runs (30). Beltre had pop in his bat and a swing that at times seemed tailor-made for Fenway Park. When he swung the bat he usually fell to his knees, but the ball usually towered over left field.

Defensively, Beltre is slightly weaker, but not significantly. Yes, his 19 errors were the most since Shea Hillenbrand threw the ball away 23 times in 2002. But his fielding percentage compares far more favorably to the other three primary third basemen since 2001 (Hillenbrand, Mueller, Lowell). His fielding percentage of .957 puts him higher than either Mueller (.955 average over three years) or Hillenbrand (.947 from 2001-2002, plus 29 games in 2003), though Lowell was a better-fielding third baseman. He might not be an amazing defensive third baseman, but he is good enough for the offensively driven Red Sox.

Beyond the fact that he was the best third baseman the Red Sox have seen in at least a decade, Beltre should get his money because he was Boston’s biggest offensive contributor in 2010. He led the team in hits (189), doubles, total bases (326) and batting average, and he tied David Ortiz for most RBIs. And his power stats (slugging and OPS) are better than any hitter except Kevin Youkilis, who played in almost one-third less of a season (52 games). He was also the best late-inning hitter of any player other than Youkilis or Victor Martinez, who only played in 120 games.

So, Red Sox: pay him whatever he wants, but bring him back! A quick look at the list of free agent third basemen reveals that there’s not much else out there. Pedro Feliz is getting older, and Miguel Tejada is even older than that. And that’s pretty much it. And there’s nobody good enough on the other side of the infield who can justify moving Youkilis to third, so that’s not an option either. The 2010 season was derailed primarily by injuries, so why not bring back the man who played in all but eight games all season? There’s only one option for the Red Sox: bring back the Dude from Santo Domingo!

Patriots Week 8 Report Card

Another week, another win for those enigmatic Patriots. All of a sudden, they have the best record in the NFL. To top off the win, we all got treated to seeing Myron Pryor finally mess up Brett Favre and his poop-eating grin. Try selling Sensodyne now, Brett! Anyway, there was a great quote from Bill Belichick last week. Basically he said that there are three phases of football: special teams, offense, defense. If you control two of those phases and are competitive in the third, he said, you’ll probably win the game. And that’s what the Patriots are: two-thirds of a great team. Their special teams is excellent, their run defense is solid, as is their pass offense. They are two-thirds (or really a third and two-sixths) of a great team in a league where no one else is better than 60 percent of a great team. Stack the Patriots up against another team, and usually that extra 6.67 percent carries the day. With that in mind, let’s grade these fellows!

Quarterback: B+. 16/27 passing, or 59.3 percent, is below Tom Brady’s season average of 65.3 percent. But that season average is higher than his career average of 63.4 percent. So you have a sub-average game in an above-average season. That makes this a tough performance to rank. The touchdown was nice, and Brady gets credited for sensing pressure, moving out of the pocket without bailing on the play, then finding Brandon Tate after Tate had gotten open. Brady also didn’t turn the ball over, only throwing one dangerous pass all game. It wasn’t the greatest performance Patriots fans have ever seen, but in a game where Brady really only had to complement the stupendous running game, it was enough. Plus, those two sneaks before BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ second touchdown were apparently designed to not score, just keep the ball dead-center and run time off the clock. So Brady gets credited for executing those sneaks successfully, even if success didn’t equal points on those plays. Finally, Brady successfully sold the direct snap to Danny Woodhead enough to let the running back score. So bonus points there. Solid B+.

Running backs: A. BenJarvus Green-Ellis: 112 rushing yards, plus 11 more via the pass, and two touchdowns. Danny Woodhead: 13 yards on the ground, plus 45 more from the air, and a touchdown. Combined: 180 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns. That’s more than you could possibly ask from this still-developing running corps, which responded nicely after last week’s ineffectiveness. The running game was nonexistent in the first half, but as the Vikings defense began to tire, the Patriots stuck with it. By the end, Green-Ellis was breaking off 26-yard rushes and leaping into the end zone. They moved the chains, they devoured the clock, and they scored. What more could you want from them?

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: B. The wide receivers and tight ends only caught for 184 yards between the five who made receptions. The only really dynamic play came from Brandon Tate, who racked up 65 of his 101 total yards on one play. Credit Wes Welker with picking up a key first down on their victory-sealing drive, and give Alge Crumpler props for a couple of very nice blocks that helped spring the running backs. But Brady seemed to have lots of time to pass, yet he couldn’t find anyone most of the time. That’s on the wide receivers and tight ends. They didn’t run bad routes or drop a lot of passes, but they didn’t do a good enough job to get open. Had the Patriots lost, this grade would have plummeted. But since they won, saddle them with a B.

Offensive Line: A. The Vikings have a strong defensive line that was on a cold streak for sacks, so they were hungry. The offensive line took everything the Vikings threw at them, absorbed it, then started to assert their will as the Vikings wore down. That enabled the running backs to get clear, and it opened up the offense in the second half. They also did not allow a sack, something that has been a significant problem for them this season. Dan Connolly also gets special mention for his play on Green-Ellis’ leaping touchdown. Connolly’s play at fullback cleared the way for Green-Ellis to get in. They should be incredibly proud of a successful day against a Vikings defense that features the homicidal Jared Allen.

Special Teams: B. This wasn’t a bad performance from special teams, but it wasn’t great either. Zoltan Mesko was still dropping bombs, averaging 47.4 yards per punt. But his place-kicking compatriot, Stephen Gostkowski, didn’t have as good a day. He was perfect on points-after, but he only kicked one touchback, and that was on a kick that barely got into the end zone. Fans are used to seeing him boot it out the back, and this was a surprisingly weak kicking day from him. He also kicked one ball out of bounds, thought it wound up not hurting the team. Gostkowski didn’t hurt the Patriots- the Vikings only managed 15.5 yards per kickoff return- but he just wasn’t spectacular. Tack on no field goals (not his fault, sure) and Tate’s meager 14.5 yards per kickoff return, and you have a special teams performance that’s just nothing to write home about. Maybe it was the wind.

Defensive Line: A-. Adrian Peterson had a solid day, rushing for 92 yards, catching for 50 more, and scoring a touchdown. But after halftime the defensive line did it’s job, holding Peterson to just 24 yards on the ground. Jermaine Cunningham also turned Peterson back on a fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line, keeping the score tied 7-7 at halftime. Mike Wright also picked up a sack (against Tarvaris Jackson), and Myron Pryor delivered a vicious but completely legal hit on Favre that knocked him out of the game. A little more pressure would’ve been nice (just three quarterback hits between Cunningham and Wright), and it likely would have minimized the damage Favre did against the Patriots secondary. But if you can keep Peterson to just 3.7 yards per carry, you’re doing something right.

Linebackers: B. The Vikings did most of their damage in the middle of the field. The linebackers were strong against the run, but weak against the pass. Peterson caught for 50 yards, and running back Toby Gerhart added 67 more. And most of wide receiver Percy Harvin’s 104 yards came when he was not the responsibility of the cornerbacks. You also have to ding Gary Guton for his helmet-contact penalty that gave the Vikings a first down at the Patriots 6-yard line when they were previously in a second-and-12 from the 13-yard line. It likely would’ve made the difference between a field goal and a touchdown. However, Rob Ninkovich had another solid game, forcing an intentional grounding penalty and making a nice third-quarter open-field tackle to keep the Vikings from converting a third down, forcing them to punt. Brandon Spikes and Jerrod Mayo also had tackles for losses.

Defensive backs: B-. Jonathan Wilhite had an especially poor game. His illegal contact on Favre’s hit turned a fourth down into a first down. Then, after the Vikings scored, he was out-jumped by Harvin for the two-point conversion. Had Wilhite knocked the pass down, he likely would’ve been flagged for pass interference anyway, as he never turned to play the ball. There was also Brandon Meriweather’s pass interference on third down (though some have argued that play may have been intentional, because Meriweather was beat deep). The Patriots secondary remains their single weakest area, and it might yet come back to haunt them when they play against the Colts or Packers. However, Devin McCourty seems to be learning the ropes. He showed great concentration in picking Harvin’s bobbled reception out of the air. And he almost had another interception earlier in the third, perfectly playing a deep ball by Favre. McCourty kept his body between the wide receiver and the ball, played the pass and not the receiver, and almost caught it while diving. It eventually led to a three-and-out, so credit him for great coverage. Now if only the other corners would show similar improvement!

Coaching A-. Another weak start from the Patriots, which is becoming concerning. Against faster-starting teams, the Patriots may yet find themselves down too much at halftime to come back. Then again, there might not be any teams like that this season, so they may keep getting away with it. In any event, Belichick gets credit for sticking with the running game in the second half. He may have seen that the Vikings blitzers were running out of steam, so he knew the running backs would get better results. He also figured out how to shut down Peterson at the line (Peterson has fumbling tendencies, so forcing him to become a receiver is definitely the right strategy) in the second half. The offensive plan was solid, the challenged Peterson touchdown wasn’t a great call but it didn’t hurt them, and the defense continues to play “bend but don’t break” football, a hallmark of the Belichick-era Patriots. They play well with the lead, they chew up clock time, and they win games. Hard to find too much fault with the game plan this week. And the Patriots were not caught unawares like they were on the onside kick last week. So generally high marks, but room for improvement. I think the coach would agree.

Check back next week for Patriots-Browns!