Friday, November 28, 2008

Asked and answered: Richard Seymour, Patriots defensive lineman

Richard Seymour didn't practice Wednesday or Thursday with a knee injury, but he returned to practice on Friday after pronouncing himself ready to go against the Steelers on Sunday. The Patriots will need him -- the Steelers don't give up many points, and that means it'll be imperative that the Patriots get in the face of Ben Roethlisberger and keep Willie Parker from breaking a 60-yard run for a touchdown.

Seymour had something of a down year last year -- he played in just nine games and finished with a career-low 23 tackles with 1.5 sacks. But he's re-emerged as a playmaker this season, getting into the backfield and sending quarterbacks running. Coaches have credited him with 49 tackles (29 solo), seven sacks and 13 quarterback hurries; he has at least one sacks and one quarterback hit in each of the Patriots' last three games.

Ready to go?
"Absolutely. Hopefully, that's the game plan. This time of year, everybody's banged up and not feeling 100 percent. But you go out and you give it your best shot."

It's a big conference game, after Thanksgiving, almost December. What are you thoughts about this game and how it affects playing in January and February?
"You want to play your best football now; this is the time you want to defend your home turf. This is a big game; Pittsburgh is a really good football team, and they do a lot of things well. We have a lot of respect for them. They play the game the way the game is supposed to be played. It isn't like a team that's going to try to come in and trick you. It's a team that says, 'Hey, this is what we're doing -- can you stop it?' That's a challenge, and the guys on this team, we look forward to challenges and playing in tough, physical football games."

How much of a challenge is it to go against Ben Roethlisberger?
"Roethlisberger does a good job ad-libbing, making plays with his legs. He's a strong, tough guy to bring down in the pocket. He can take a broken play and turn it into a touchdown. It isn't like we can go to sleep -- most plays last three or four seconds, but he can get outside the pocket, and you have to be aware of his abilities."

They've had some injuries with their running backs, but it seems like whoever they throw in there is capable of running the ball.
"Yeah, they have a big, tough, physical offensive line, and they do a good job of moving guys up front. Our front seven is definitely going to be challenged this week, and we feel like we've got a good front seven, so man on man."

How do things change when Willie Parker goes out and Mewelde Moore goes in, or vice versa?
"Parker is a guy that has a lot of speed, and he can take any run and hit a home run with it from any point on the field. But both of them do a good job. The other running back is a lot like Kevin Faulk -- real shifty, catches some balls out of the backfield and does a good job for them."

Is chasing Roethlisberger around early in the game something that can catch up to you late in the game?
"A lot of quarterbacks, you can get to them early in the game and sack them or whatever the case may be. He's a guy that weighs on you at the end of the game. Sometimes you see defensive linemen not able to bring him down; he's able to shrug those guys off. Rarely do you ever see a quarterback with that much strength. He's a big, strong guy in the pocket, so we definitely have to wrap that guy up."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Steelers just keep executing scheme

Bill Belichick has a pretty thick file on the Pittsburgh Steelers, dating all the way back to his days as head coach of the division rival Cleveland Browns from 1991-95. Now, Belichick keeps files on every team the Patriots play, but his Steelers file might be the most valuable because, over the years, it has changed the least.

Offensively and defensively, Pittsburgh has played the same general scheme for at least the last decade and a half, Belichick said during his weekly meeting with the media on Wednesday. Be it Kevin Greene (35 sacks from 1993-95), Jason Gildon (a franchise-best 77 sacks from 1994-2003), Joey Porter (60 sacks from 1999-2006) or now James Harrison (24.5 sacks since 2002, including 12 this season), the names change but the scheme -- and its ruthless effectiveness -- does not.

His notes from 1995 on, for example, the Cincinnati Bengals or Jacksonville Jaguars are beyond useless because coaches and schemes have changed so often. But the scheme Mike Tomlin inherited from Bill Cowher -- and the scheme defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau first instituted from 1992-96 and then brought back in 2004.

But Belichick saw some much that was familiar about the way the Steelers are playing this season that he went back to his notes from the early 1990s. Sure enough, the scheme was pretty much the same.

"Most teams have changed eight times since then," he said. "Just out of curiosity, we were talking about it; (football research director) Ernie (Adams) was there in Cleveland, and we were sitting around and talking about it and saying, 'That was the same way they ran it back then, right?' and we went back into our notes, and it's the same thing."

Belichick has collected quite a file on Pittsburgh since his arrival in New England as well; in his nine seasons with the Patriots, he's now had to game-plan for the Steelers seven times, including twice in 2004. Before that, he had to game-plan for the Steelers four times in three seasons (including two playoff games) as the Patriots' defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells.

And while some tendencies have changed -- the arrival of tight end Heath Miller, for example, gave the Steelers reason to employ more three-receiver formations than four-receiver formations -- much has stayed the same.

Belichick emphasized that Pittsburgh's consistency isn't a bad thing; in fact, it's a good thing. That stands to reason, given that the Steelers rank first in the NFL in rush defense, pass defense, total defense and points allowed per game. Harrison has 12 sacks, but LaMarr Woodley has 10.5. Troy Polamalu has five interceptions. Linebacker James Farrior has 81 tackles -- and the fact that he's the only Steeler among the top 30 in the NFL in tackles says something about the way the entire defense has played.

"Watching them play 11 games this year has a lot more impact on what we do than anything that happened back in the '90s or '02 or '03 or anything else," he said. "But I am saying that it's pretty much the same. Harrison is different than Gildon, and Gildon was different than Kevin Greene, and Kevin Greene was different than Greg Lloyd. But they're all 10-sack-a-year guys -- or more. Whoever those players are, they've been able to maintain a lot of continuity in their system even though the players have changed, in some cases, multiple times through the years."

About all that's changed, really, is the handwriting in which Belichick has taken his notes.

"It was better then," he said with a smile.

But Belichick isn't the only one who has noticed the similarities in scheme for which the Patriots have had to prepare every time they play the Steelers.

"Over the years, it's always been a certain style down in Pittsburgh," said left tackle Matt Light, who was informed Wednesday he would not be suspended for his fourth-quarter fight with the Dolphins' Channing Crowder. "They've always been a physical team. I think back to my rookie year, going there and playing those guys -- it was always about going and playing a very physical team that can move around a lot. They'd hit you at every angle. For us up front, it's just a matter of recognizing what they do, trying to get a hat on a hat. It really comes down to the physical side of it and who can outlast the other guy."

Monday, November 24, 2008

Patriots edge closer to playoff berth

Bill Belichick's team kept its playoff hopes alive with its win on Sunday afternoon; with the Colts and Ravens also winning and improving to 7-4 on the season, it would have been an almost fatal blow had the Patriots lost and fallen to 6-5.

Here's how the AFC standings look right now:

1. Tennessee (10-1 overall, 7-1 in the conference)
2. Pittsburgh (8-3, 7-1)
3. New York Jets (8-3, 6-3)
4. Denver (6-5, 3-5)
5. Indianapolis (7-4, 6-2)
6. Baltimore (7-4, 6-3)
7. New England (7-4, 5-4)
8. Miami (6-5, 5-4)
9. Buffalo (6-5, 4-4)

If three potential wild-card teams are tied in overall record, as the Patriots are with Baltimore and Indianapolis, here's how the tiebreakers work:
1. If one team has defeated both of the other two teams, that team is the top seed of the three. Conversely, if one team has lost to both of the other two teams, that team is the bottom seed. The Colts beat the Ravens in Week 6 and the Patriots in Week 9, so that means they now hold the No. 5 seed.
2. Record in conference games. The Ravens are 6-3; the Patriots are 5-4.

But the Patriots do have a leg up on Miami; with the head-to-head series now a split, the Patriots' better record in AFC East games (3-2 to 2-2) puts them ahead, and while both teams still play against Buffalo on the road, the Dolphins also have to play the Jets at the Meadowlands. And Buffalo is 0-3 in the division, which means they're all but done unless they win out and both the Dolphins and Patriots stumble badly.

Because it is relevant, here's what's left on the schedule for the top four wild-card contenders:
5. Indianapolis: at Cleveland (4-7), vs. Cincinnati (1-9-1), vs. Detroit (0-11), at Jacksonville (4-7), vs. Tennessee (10-1).
(That schedule couldn't be much softer. The Browns are 1-5 at home, the Jaguars are reeling and the Titans won't have anything for which to play in Week 17 now that they're no longer undefeated.)
6. Baltimore: at Cincinnati (1-9-1), vs. Washington (7-4), vs. Pittsburgh (8-3), at Dallas (7-4), vs. Jacksonville (4-7).
(That's a little bit more daunting; Tony Romo is back for the Cowboys, and the Redskins are better than their record indicates given how tough their schedule has been.)
7. New England: vs. Pittsburgh (8-3), at Seattle (2-9), at Oakland (3-8), vs. Arizona (7-4), at Buffalo (6-5).
(West Coast swings are never easy, but New England should beat both Seattle and Oakland, and if Kurt Warner's Arizona Cardinals win at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots don't deserve to go to the playoffs, anyway.)
8. Miami: at St. Louis (2-9), vs. Buffalo at Toronto (6-5), vs. San Francisco (3-8), at Kansas City (1-10), at New York Jets (8-3).
(Cupcake city. That's why it's imperative that the Patriots take care of business against Seattle, Oakland and Arizona -- a loss in even just one of those games might drop them behind the Dolphins.)

Friday, November 21, 2008

A night with James van Reimsdyk

Yes, this normally is a Boston pro sports blog. Tonight, though, I'd like to take you to Matthews Arena at Northeastern University, and I'd like to introduce you to University of New Hampshire forward James van Reimsdyk.

First, we'll set the scene. If you've ever been to Matthews Arena, you'll know it's no such thing. It's not an arena. The TD BankNorth Fleet Whatever Other Belly-Up Corporate Sponsor Garden is an arena. The Whittemore Center at UNH is an arena. Even Conte Forum at Boston College is an arena, though it's an arena built with concrete blocks.

Matthews "Arena" is a barn. It's a classic, old-fashioned hockey barn. It looks like it's constructed entirely of wood; the feeling is that you could burn the place down with one well-placed match. (A quick perusal of the building's biography reveals that that has happened twice -- in 1918 and 1948. Who knew?) It's the Cameron Indoor Stadium of college hockey arenas -- the students are loud and all wear red (except for the one in the green Hartford Whalers jersey in the first row), second deck hangs over the ice, and the acoustics are sensational. Even the press box hangs over the ice; if reporters want to see the three feet of ice in front of the penalty boxes and home-team bench, they have to stand up. And so we stood, the entire game, just like the student section at the north end of the barn.

Oh, and the team is good, too. A perennially underwhelming Northeastern team beat New Hampshire by a 3-2 score on Friday night in as entertaining a college hockey game as you'll ever see. That, of course, brings us to the young Mr. van Reimsdyk.

The Northeastern faithful do not like James van Reimsdyk. This they made clear even when warmups began more than a half-hour before the opening faceoff.

"van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

For the uninitiated: This is a classic college-hockey chant -- but it's almost exclusively reserved for the visiting goaltender. It's almost unheard of for a skater to get the "YOU SUCK!!" treatment except maybe -- maybe -- during player introductions. But all through warmups, there it went.

"van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

There's some backstory. First of all, van Reimsdyk is a phenom. The Philadelphia Flyers made him the No. 2 overall pick in the NHL draft two years ago, and he chose to come to UNH; he's the highest-drafted player ever to play for the Wildcats, and no one in the last 25 years has really come close. He's a playmaker with a nose for the net -- a week ago against Boston College, on a 2-on-2 break, he took on both defenders by himself, slalomed right through them, and then left a pass for teammate Mike Sislo to bury. To put it simply: He's really, really good.

More backstory: I wasn't at this particular game, but apparently van Reimsdyk felt as though the Huskies had targeted him during a home-and-home series between the two teams on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. After the final whistle of the second game, the half that was played at Northeastern, a scuffle broke out, and van Reimsdyk ended up being assessed a postgame cross-checking penalty.

Anyway, that was the situation when the game began.

"van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

The student section wasn't content just to heckle van Reimsdyk every once in a while. Nope. They booed him every time he touched the puck. They booed him every time he took a shot. They booed him every time he checked someone in a white jersey. They booed him when he did just about anything. When he took a wild slapshot from the blue line midway through the first period and then took another whack at the rebound, it almost looked like a desperate attempt to shut up the building.

It didn't work. When he absorbed a check from Northeastern's Steve Silva and then wrestled Silva to the ice, the fans booed louder. (To infuriate them even more, only Silva drew a penalty on the play.)

"van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

But all that was just an appetizer for the second period.

"van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

The fans booed van Reimsdyk as he weaved toward the net for a shot barely a minute after the opening faceoff. He got possession again behind the net, and the fans booed; when a Northeastern defenseman hit him but he retained possession, half the fans booed and half cheered.

And less than a minute later, he found himself wrapped up at center ice with Northeastern's Alex Tuckerman, who had scored the only goal of the game at that point. Referees had to wrestle the two apart to get them to go to the penalty box. The catcalls only grew louder.

"van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

It was van Reimsdyk's way of striking back. If the fans perceived his overtime cross-check as a cheap shot, so too did the Huskies, and they let him know it throughout. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound forward wasn't about to back down, which is why he ended up in a scuffle as often as he launched a shot on goal. And when he and Tuckerman found themselves in a penalty box with a gap in the wall in the back, a gap through which more verbal abuse easily could fly, they let each other have it.

Van Reimsdyk wasn't involved in the next little scuffle, one that was sparked when Drew Muench crushed UNH's Greg Collins from behind, a cross-check that drove the chin of the Wildcats' captain into the ice. By this time, the game felt a little bit like "West Side Story" -- it was only a matter of time before someone got seriously hurt, and there was no way to stop it.

But the matching minor penalties expired just 20 seconds later, and van Reimsdyk came out of the penalty box. Immediately, they let him have it again.

The climactic fight came a few minutes later. Northeastern's Randy Guzior crushed Sislo into the boards, and van Reimsdyk immediately entangled himself with Guzior. He even lost his helmet in the skirmish, which made it easier to see him yelling at his enemies in white.

"It's tough when things start getting out of hand and guys start taking cheap shots at us and we want to stick up for ourselves," he said after the game. "We've got to keep our composure and stay out of the box a little more, but, I mean, it's tough when they're taking runs at you. It's part of the game, and it's part of hockey, and that's what makes it so fun."

The crowd, of course, went nuts.

"van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

While referees sorted out the penalties -- and while van Reimsdyk stood at the UNH bench, his helmet still off -- fans even unleashed another chant at that that's too profane to put in a family-friendly blog. Let's just say it involved a part of human anatomy that van Reimsdyk does not, by definition, possess.

When all was sorted out, van Reimsdyk had himself a two-minute minor for roughing and a 10-minute misconduct. Funny thing: During the entire 10 minutes, which lasted almost until the end of the second period, he stood along the front wall of the penalty box. Not once did he sit down. Guzior, who picked up a matching 10-minute misconduct, sat sprawled on the bench, his legs apart, totally relaxed. Even with teammates coming and going during an increasingly chippy period, van Reimsdyk never sat down. The kid in the red hoodie and white "NU" hat sitting right in that corner, right behind van Reimsdyk, would have been within his rights to ask for a partial refund because a blue jersey with No. 21 on it blocked his view of the game for a full 10 minutes.

Van Reimsdyk's desperation to get back out on the ice couldn't have been more obvious. He didn't get out of the box until there were less than two minutes left in the period, and as soon as he got out, the chant started up again.

"van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

He got his revenge in the third period. Defenseman Joe Charlebois slid a soft shot in front of the net, and van Reimsdyk curled the rebound around the pads of the goaltender to tie the game at 1. The crowd didn't even have time to boo when he got possession of the puck; all they could do was gasp -- and then unleash another torrent of insults.

"van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

Four minutes later, van Reimsdyk unleashed another shot at the net and immediately exchanged shoves with a Northeastern defenseman who had given him a nudge after the pla.

"van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

He would end up scoring once more, poking home the rebound of a Peter LeBlanc shot to cut the Wildcats' deficit from 3-1 to 3-2 in the game's final minute. It wouldn't be enough; despite a gritty effort, UNH would lose its fourth straight and fall seven points behind first-place Northeastern.

"There would have been nothing better than to get a win, especially with (goaltender Brian) Foster hearing it from the fans and me hearing it from the fans," he said. "We need the points in the standings here to get back into the thick of things, so it definitely hurts to lose a game like that."

When the two teams gathered at center ice for the traditional postgame handshake, van Reimsdyk was right at the front of the line. And when the public-address announcer read off the game's "Three Stars," van Reimsdyk was Star No. 2. The crowd, filing en masse out of the building, booed.

And it wasn't even an exceptional night. For a well-known prospect, after all, a night like that is business as usual.

"I felt a couple of extra sticks, but I expect that game in and game out," he said. "It's nothing too different than what I'm used to."

Here, apparently, is what he's used to: "van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

Asked and answered: Vince Wilfork, Patriots nose tackle

The Patriots' locker room normally is a deserted place when the door swings open and the media hordes swarm in. It's hard to blame them; answering endless questions about the Miami Dolphins' "Wildcat" offense has to get pretty tiresome. But reporters still need to ask questions and get some responses to share with their readership or viewers, and it can get pretty difficult finding willing players.

Randy Moss, for example, declined several interview requests this morning; when a Boston Globe reporter asked, "Can you help us out today?" he responded with a flat "Nope!" and then completely ignored another entreaty. When a Boston Herald reporter squatted next to his locker to try to talk about it, to tell him they weren't "trying to be a pain in the ass," Moss said, "I don't like talking to the media. It's not in my contract, so I ain't got to do it. I'll give you crumbs here and there, and that's all I've got to do. If I talk, it's going to be after the game on Sunday, and if I don't talk on Sunday, maybe the next Sunday. If I don't talk then, maybe the next Sunday."

Some, though, are endlessly available. Cornerback Ellis Hobbs is one; fullback Heath Evans is another. Both are friendly and personable and set aside a few minutes whenever quote-desperate reporters need them.

Nose tackle Vince Wilfork is another one who generally treats reporters like human beings and gives thoughtful answers even to inane questions. A group of cameras gathered around him at his locker right at the beginning of the open-locker-room period, and he smiled at the group before walking out of the room. A few minutes later, though, he returned with a wise grin on his face: "Y'all thought I wasn't coming back, didn't you?"

He did come back, though. And here's what Wilfork had to say:

Though this week isn't completely do-or-die, does it have a playoff feel to it?
"Yeah, it does. For one, being a division game, and for two, what they did to us last time we played them. Right now, it's a one-game season for us, so we've got to put all our eggs in this basket, and next week will be the same thing. We'll need everybody. This is a tough football team we're facing. We know that. We're going to get their best, and, hopefully, they'll get ours. This week, we've had some good practices and put some good practices together, and we feel good about this whole thing, going down there.

"Hopefully, we'll walk away with a win, but it's going to take our 'A'-game. Anything other than that, I think we're going to walk away with an 'L'. We're going to do everything in our power to try to play that type of game. But it's a challenge. It's a challenge. This is what you live for. Games in November and December determine where you'll be in February and January. We've got our hands full, but we're looking forward to the challenge."

Are you "Wildcat"-ted out yet?
(laughs) "No. I'm pretty sure they have something else brewing up, and we have to do a good job of making sideline adjustments, whatever they may be. They might not, but having the success they’ve had early in the season with it, they’d be a fool not to try run it."

Do you feel comfortable, after a week's preparation, that you will be able to stop it?
"I feel very confident with what we've done in practice. We've covered a lot of ground. Every week, it seems like somebody's pulling something out of their bag of tricks to throw at us, and (the Dolphins) might have something new. At that time, we'll have to go to the sideline and make adjustments. That's going to be real important. But going forward, we're pretty prepared. We're prepared, and I feel very confident going into this week's game. I think my teammates feel the same way."

What does Chad Pennington bring to his team?
"I'll tell you what: Leadership is one thing. He doesn't turn the ball over. He was like that when he was at the Jets, and this team thrives off that -- and when you have two running backs and they're running the ball so well, sometimes they don't need to throw the ball. He has a high completion rate, and anything that's open or in tight coverage, he'll throw to. We have to be ready, and the guys in the backfield have to cover the receivers and go forward from there. But it's going to be tough getting to him because they're doing such a great job of blocking for him. He can identify blitzers and coverages and identify those quick and get the ball out right away. We're going to have to get to him real early and often in this game."

Is there any different feel in this locker room, seeing as how it's November and you're playing kind of a desperation game, as opposed to past years?
"This locker room is still the same locker room it was last year when we were undefeated and the years before when we were winning championships. It's the same locker room; we just have different faces. We're very confident. We have a group of guys who love what they do. You can't ask for anything better than that. We're so used to winning around here that I think the fans and the media sometimes get lost in that just because we have won quite a bit. We have four losses. It's not the end of the world. Sometimes people look at us, and I don't think people look at us like a football team because of the success we've had.

"We know we'll normally go through ups and downs in a season. We're going through them. But it's not the end of the world. Nobody is telling us our season is over. If they do, I'll tell them something, and it's not nice. We're very confident. We know what's at stake, and it's going to start with a win against a tough division game and move forward from there. The week after that, we'll do the same thing. It's tough, but it's NFL football."

Add trade for Crisp to Epstein's bust list

Theo Epstein has accumulated quite a bit of bulletproof armor over his first few years as Red Sox general manager -- and rightfully so, in many respects. The fan base trusts Epstein almost without question; when you win two World Series titles for a team that had gone 86 years without one, after all, you deserve quite a bit of slack.

But that's not to say that Epstein hasn't made his share of questionable moves. Most of his free-agent moves have worked, but quite a few of his trades have not. In the process, he's given away a few valuable chips for very little return -- not exactly what you want to see, even out of a big-market general manager who can overspend to cover his mistakes.

With Wednesday's trade drawing to a close the Coco Crisp era in Boston, it's worth looking back at some of those major trades and how they've impacted the Red Sox short-term and long-term.

July 31, 2008: Traded OF Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers and P Craig Hansen and OF Brandon Moss to the Pirates in exchange for OF Jason Bay.
Shedding Ramirez was a necessity for the sake of clubhouse harmony, and the well-documented "Manny Being Manny" moments might have tied Epstein's hands a little bit. But with the Red Sox picking up much of Manny's salary, he and Bay were, at best, a wash, and it's hard to understand why the Red Sox (and not the Dodgers) needed to ship a couple of young players to Pittsburgh to complete the deal.

July 31, 2007: Traded P Kason Gabbard, OF David Murphy and OF Engel Beltre to the Rangers for P Eric Gagne.
This one was an out-and-out disaster -- Gabbard and Murphy weren't necessarily spectacular prospects and Beltre played all of this season at Class A, but Gagne had a 6.75 ERA in 18 2/3 innings during the regular season and allowed three earned runs in 4 1/3 innings in the postseason.

For what it's worth, Murphy hit .275 with 15 home runs while playing all three outfield positions for the Rangers last season; he's a left-handed hitter, but other than that, he'd be nice to have around as a fourth outfielder at this point. Gabbard was 2-3 with a 4.82 ERA this season -- it's clear the Red Sox were selling high on the left-hander after seven solid starts in Boston, and you can't take issue with that.

August 31, 2006: Traded P David Wells to the Padres for C George Kottaras.
Kottaras remains a viable candidate to take over for Jason Varitek at some point in the future should the Red Sox not trade for someone like Taylor Teagarden or Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Wells had just turned 39 and was unnecessary on a team that wasn't going to the playoffs. A reasonable trade, even though Kottaras hasn't really panned out.

May 1, 2006: Traded C Josh Bard, P Cla Meredith and cash to the Padres for C Doug Mirabelli.
Mirabelli showed up at Fenway Park with a police escort and unprecedented fanfare for a backup catcher who routinely hits worse than .240. Yes, he can catch Tim Wakefield. So too, as we discovered, can Kevin Cash. And while Meredith hasn't maintained the 1.07 ERA he put up the rest of that season, he still would have been a valuable right-handed arm in the bullpen for the Red Sox this year.

March 20, 2006: Traded P Bronson Arroyo to the Reds for OF Wily Mo Pena.
Arroyo was a nice find as a waiver pickup in 2003; he went 10-9 with a 4.03 ERA in 2004 and 14-10 with a 4.51 ERA in 2005. But with an apparent surplus of pitching on the Red Sox roster, Arroyo was shipped to Cincinnati for the perpetually underwhelming Pena. Arroyo made the All-Star team and (somewhat strangely) received an MVP vote; he then won 15 games with a 4.77 ERA for the Reds a year ago.

Pena, meanwhile, never made contact consistently enough to earn regular playing time, and he eventually was shipped to Washington for fringe major league first baseman Chris Carter. And that surplus in pitching disappeared in a hurry -- Matt Clement never panned out, and Kyle Snyder and Jason Johnson had to make a combined 22 starts for a team that finished in third place. Arroyo isn't exactly a budding staff ace, but the Red Sox still pretty much gave him away.

January 27, 2006: Traded P Guillermo Mota, 3B Andy Marte and C Kelly Shoppach to the Indians for OF Coco Crisp, P David Riske and C Josh Bard.
When evaluating this trade, you have to keep a couple of things in mind:
* Marte was the return (from Atlanta) for the disappointing Edgar Renteria, and while he's been an underwhelming player in Cleveland (.221 batting average this season), he was a big-time prospect during that particular offseason.
* Crisp was coming off a season in which he'd hit .300 with 16 home runs and hit 42 doubles, making him look like a perfect fit for the departed Johnny Damon.
* Shoppach, meanwhile, was about to turn 26 and had spent two full seasons at Triple-A Pawtucket while waiting for his chance in Boston. With Wakefield needing Mirabelli like the rest of us need oxygen, Shoppach was stuck -- he'd had just 15 career at-bats with the Red Sox.
* On the other hand, catchers often take time to develop; Varitek himself didn't play full-time for the Red Sox until 1999, when he was 27 years old. And Mirabelli had been traded for second baseman Mark Loretta in December, so it wasn't as if he was still blocking the way.

With the book closed on the trade, chalk this one in the loss column for Epstein. Riske was gone by June, dealt to the White Sox for relief pitcher Javier Lopez. Bard never figured out how to catch Wakefield and ended up part of the police-escort trade for Mirabelli.

And Crisp, though he played sensational defense and proved to be a class act, never panned out. Epstein even said this week that Fenway Park wasn't a perfect fit for Crisp's swing; long fly balls died on the Fenway Park warning track that would have gone out in other parks. You'd think that would have been something the Red Sox should have known ahead of time. (On top of all that, the Red Sox drafted Jacoby Ellsbury the previous June, and no one expected him to spend very much time in the minor leagues.)

Meanwhile, Kelly Shoppach is exactly the type of player the Red Sox need right now. (He hit .261 with 21 home runs for the Indians this season.) At the time of the trade, Jason Varitek had just had a productive season at the age of 33, but no one expected him to hit 20 home runs every year until he was 38 or 39. Catchers age fast. Shoppach, though he was temporarily buried in Triple-A, was just itching to be Varitek's replacement.

Now, though, the Red Sox probably will trade Clay Buchholz or Michael Bowden to the Texas Rangers for a young catcher. Shoppach could have been that young catcher, and he already was in the system. And if you consider either Buchholz or Bowden one of the casualties of the Crisp trade, it looks even worse for the Red Sox.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Post-Crisp trade: Now what happens?

A breakdown of how today's Coco Crisp-Ramon Ramirez trade affects the Red Sox going forward:

Outfield: Jacoby Ellsbury, clearly, is the starting center fielder next season and for the indefinite future; he'll be asked play 150 games, hit .290 (and OBP .350), hit 30 doubles and 10 home runs, steal 40 or 50 bases and generally be a catalyst out of the leadoff spot in the lineup.

What this does, though, is force the Red Sox to go look harder for an outfielder who can spell Ellsbury and right fielder J.D. Drew, particularly against left-handed pitching.

"We'll cast a wide net," Theo Epstein said today in a conference call, "and we'll certainly look outside the organization. What would make sense for us is a right-handed hitting fourth outfielder who can protect us in center field and play against some left-handed pitching. There are a lot of different options -- we think that player will be easier to find than a good seventh- or eighth-inning guy."

That would seem to exclude internal prospects like Jeff Corsaletti, who hit .312 in 285 at-bats at Double-A Portland this season but who is a left-handed hitter who projects as a corner outfielder, and Jon Van Every, who hit 26 home runs playing center field for Triple-A Pawtucket but who is also left-handed. (Even Brandon Moss, dealt to Pittsburgh as part of the Manny Ramirez-Jason Bay deal, wa sa left-handed hitter.)

"I think we'll go outside the organization," Epstein said. "We have some talented players on the way up, but most of them are left-handed, and I think a right-handed hitter would be the appropriate choice to fill this role."

Among the free-agent names on which to keep an eye:
* Rhode Island native Rocco Baldelli, who would be an absolutely perfect fit if not for the health issues that sidelined him for most of the last two seasons;
* Willie Bloomquist, a 30-year-old utilityman who has hit better than .275 in each of the last two seasons for Seattle;
* Old friend Gabe Kapler, who hit .301 in 229 at-bats this season after spending a year managing in the Red Sox organization -- and he's still just 33 years old;

Bullpen: Ramirez flew way under the radar before today's trade -- "He very quietly had a tremendous amount of success of the last two and a half seasons," Epstein said -- and should fit very nicely with Hideki Okajima and Manny Delcarmen at the back end of the Red Sox bullpen.

His addition will make the Red Sox bullpen not only one of the most talented in the league, but one of the youngest and most cost-effective. It also could make one of those arms expendable, which brings us to the...

Starting rotation: The Red Sox need a fifth starter -- or a fourth starter, really, ahead of Tim Wakefield but behind Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Michael Bowden and Clay Buchholz both could fight for the job in spring training, and there's no ruling out the acquisition of another Paul Byrd type to give the youngsters a little more grooming time in the minor leagues.

But one name to keep in mind is 23-year-old Justin Masterson, who emerged as a shut-down reliever against right-handers in the playoffs but who pitched almost exclusively as a starter at Single-A Lancaster and Double-A Portland over the last two seasons. His numbers as a starter were solid but not spectacular -- he was 12-8 with a 4.33 ERA with Lancaster and Portland in 2007, and he was 1-3 with a 4.23 ERA in eight starts for Portland last season before he started to make the shift to the bullpen.

"It does give us the flexibility to start Masterson if, in our feeling, that's in the best interest of the ballclub," Epstein said. "In that way, Ramirez could potentially replace Masterson in that 'pen. Justin gives us great flexibility. If we him to start, that's what he'll do, and if we need him in the 'pen, that's what he'll do."

To get a reading on how the Red Sox feel about power arms starting or relieving, keep in mind the lengths to which they went to try to get Jonathan Papelbon into the starting rotation. Yes, Papelbon wound up as a closer, but that mostly was because doctors advised the team against a 200-inning workload. Masterson might be different -- he's not as big of a guy as Papelbon, for one thing -- but you have to believe Epstein and his staff would like to see the 23-year-old take a crack at the starting rotation.

Infield: Oh, yes, and there's some money freed up in the budget.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Don't be so quick to crown Matt Cassel

One throw, it appears, has turned it all around.

One throw -- the game-tying touchdown toss, a beauty of a spiral to the front corner of the end zone -- appears to have turned Matt Cassel from doom-and-gloom replacement into someone for whom some fans apparently would trade Tom Brady. He'd had decent games before; he led a game-winning drive against the Rams, and that sparked the first round of Matt Cassel-really-might-be-good talk. And after he threw for 400 yards and led a game-tying drive in the fourth quarter against the Jets, some are ready to declare Cassel-over-Brady the second coming of Brady-over-Bledsoe.

But let's not crown the youngster too quickly. Yes, his game-tying touchdown pass to Randy Moss was spectacular. But before that, he routinely missed open receivers with passes either too far behind or too far in front of them, and he overthrew Moss badly on a deep throw down the sideline that could have rendered his final pass moot.

Let's look at some key Matt Cassel throws against the Jets on Thursday night. Many of his throws were for short gains; we'll leave those out unless they were in particularly big spots.

First quarter
* Third-and-1, midfield: With hands in his face and the pocket collapsing around him, Cassel hit Ben Watson over the middle, a ball good enough for Watson to catch even though officials flagged defensive back and old friend Hank Poteat for pass interference. Nice throw.
* First-and-10, midfield: Cassel got drilled after a play-action fake to BenJarvus Green-Ellis and missed Randy Moss badly. Not a nice throw.
* Third-and-8, midfield: With the coverage heaviest on Moss and Wes Welker, Cassel threw a slant to Jabar Gaffney for 16 yards and a first down. Nice throw.

Second quarter (Jets leading, 10-3)
* Second-and-8, midfield: This wasn't a throw, but Cassel deserves credit for stepping up in the pocket nimbly enough that Shaun Ellis and C.J. Mosley collided in the backfield, and he opted to take a hit from Eric Barton rather than slide shy of the first-down marker.
* Second-and-10, red zone: Cassel threw too high for Moss in the end zone. Darrelle Revis was all over Moss, but the pass likely was deemed uncatchable by the officials. Not a nice throw.
* Third-and-10, red zone: Cassel zipped a pass too far in front of Watson, who was running an out-route in the end zone. The Patriots had to kick a field goal. Not a nice throw.

Second quarter (Jets leading, 17-6)
* First-and-15, own end: Cassel threw a hitch to Welker, who turned and took it for 17 yards.
* Third-and-11, midfield: Moss ran a route toward the sideline, and Cassel led him too much. The Patriots had to punt. Not a nice throw.

Second quarter (Jets leading, 24-6)
* First-and-10, own end: Cassel hit Watson on a similar out-route -- the Jets might have been playing off the receivers a little bit with a big lead, but Cassel had to hit his receiver, and he did it. Nice throw.
* First-and-10, offensive end: After Sam Aiken took a wide receiver screen for 43 yards, he dropped a pass with which Cassel hit him in the hands. Nothing the quarterback can do about that.

Second quarter (Jets leading, 24-6 -- and 1:44 left in the half)
* First-and-10, own end: Cassel hit Jabar Gaffney along the sideline and let him step right of bounds after a gain of 11. Nice throw.
* First-and-10, midfield: Same thing, only for eight yards. Nice throw.
* Second-and-10, offensive end: Cassel hit a sprawling Ben Watson, but the pass only went for nine yards in a big spot, so we can't give him full credit.
* First-and-10, red zone: Cassel's throw for Watson at the goal line was just far enough behind his tight end to give Poteat and Revis a chance to break it up. Not a nice throw.
* Second-and-10, red zone: Kevin Faulk was open, but Cassel's pass toward the sideline was too far behind the halfback for him to reel it in. Not a nice throw.
* Third-and-10, red zone: Gaffney caught a pass in the end zone with Dwight Lowery draped all over him. We'll give it to him. Nice throw.

Third quarter (Jets leading, 24-13)
* Second-and-8, own end: Cassel hit Gaffney along the sideline for 10 yards. Nice throw.
* First-and-10, own end: Cassel hit Welker along the sideline for 13 yards. Nice throw.

Third quarter (Jets leading, 24-13)
* Second-and-10, own end: Cassel went right back to Watson, who fumbled to end the previous drive, for a 14-yard gain. Nice throw.

Third quarter (Jets leading, 24-13)
* First-and-10, own end: Cassel throws behind Watson. Not a nice throw.
* Second-and-10, own end: Cassel hit Gaffney along the sideline -- but, again, a yard short of the first-down marker. It's a push.

Third quarter (Jets leading, 24-13)
* Second-and-2, own end: Cassel escaped from pressure and found Welker all by himself for a 29-yard gain that would have gone for even more had Barton not tripped him up. Nice play overall, but also a nice throw.
* Second-and-2, red zone: Cassel waited, waited and waited, looking for Moss, and when his favorite receiver didn't get open, he threw to a wide-open Watson in the back of the end zone. Nice throw.

Fourth quarter (Jets leading, 24-21)
* First-and-10, own end: Randy Moss had some space, and Cassel overthrew him. Not a nice throw.

Fourth quarter (Jets leading, 31-24, with 3:10 left in the game)
* First-and-10, own end: Cassel threw behind tight end David Thomas and actually hit Lowery in the hands, a throw that could have put the game away had Lowery held on. Not even close to a nice throw. An ugly throw, in fact.
* Third-and-17, own end: After Cassel took a sack, he missed Watson along the sideline. Not a nice throw.

Fourth quarter (Jets leading, 31-24, with barely a minute to go)
* First-and-10, own end: Cassel hits Ben Watson for nine yards. Nice throw.
* Second-and-1, midfield: Cassel finds Watson for 11 yards over the middle. Nice throw.
* Second-and-10, midfield: After a spike, Cassel threw to Welker for 17 yards, again in the middle of the field with the Jets guarding the sidelines. Nice throw.
* Second-and-15, offensive end: Welker again got open in the middle of the field, and Cassel again found him in a big spot -- this time for 14 yards. Nice throw.
* Fourth-and-1, offensive end: The throw of the night. Cassel escaped pressure and threw something of a sidearm pass to a corner of the end zone where only a diving Moss could get it. Touchdown. Tie game. Most importantly, nice throw.

The final verdict: Nice throw, 16. Not a nice throw, 10.
But before the final drive, it was only 11-10, so while Cassel delivered when it mattered most, let's not pretend he's not still a young quarterback with the same inconsistency issues through which he had to work when he first took over for Brady.

Asked and answered: Tedy Bruschi, Patriots linebacker

It was a somber scene in the Patriots' locker room late Thursday night and early Friday morning as a group of players accustomed to winning had to digest a loss that they already knew might cost them the division title -- and maybe even a playoff berth.

Guard Logan Mankins, already in his street clothes and with his trademark Red Sox hat on his head, couldn't get up from the chair next to his locker; he sat there, his hands on his thighs, starting at his locker but not really seeing anything. Linebacker Jerod Mayo, who looks more and more like a perennial Pro Bowl player, waved off interview requests as he limped across the room.

He wasn't the only one. Cornerback Deltha O'Neal declined to receive questions; linebacker Mike Vrabel, who was called for a questionable but costly holding penalty at his own goal line, did the same. When the locker room was open, Vrabel was seated in Larry Izzo's chair, next to Tedy Bruschi, neither saying all that much to each other. They knew the implications of the game.

And after Vrabel got up to go take a shower, Bruschi turned around to speak to the assembled media.

How tough is it to come back like that and then fall short?
“We dug ourselves in a little bit of a hole, and we fought ourselves out of it. But in overtime, I think, defensively, we couldn’t make plays to get off the field. On third down, they made some crucial third-down conversions and they made the kick.”

What does the comeback say about the heart of this team?
“I don’t know how many victories we will take away from this. You can spin it any way you want, but it is still a divisional loss to the Jets. I don’t think we'll find any positives out of this one, just looking at it as a divisional loss and just trying to get ready for our next game.”

How tough was it to play without Ty (Warren) and Adalius (Thomas)?
“That's the way it has been. That's the way it's been out there starting with Tom (Brady) at the beginning of the year. You've got to deal with things. You have to deal with things even as the season rolls and rolls. Guys are going to get hurt. Guys are going to get aches and pains. Whoever is asked to go out there and play has got to get the job done. We don’t look at it as who's not out there. We look at it as: How did the guys play that are out there? That is the way we see things.”

What went through your mind when you saw Randy Moss make that catch to tie the game?
"Phew. Well, obviously, we started going out there for the extra point. Initially, you think, do you go for one or do you go for two? We decided to go for one as a team. And then you go out there for the captains' toss, and you watch the coin. We saw we'd have to be on defense first, and we accepted that challenge, but like I said, a couple of third-down conversions -- that third-and-15, not stopping them on that, that's clearly advantageous to the defense, and not being able to close that out on that third down, that was a huge conversion for them."

How good was Matt Cassel tonight, throwing for 400 yards like he did?
"I didn't know his numbers until you told me right there, but all we've asked of him is to continue to improve, and he's done that. He's shown the league what kind of quarterback he is and that we can win with him. It's, 'Great game, Matt,' and now let's move on. Let's try to get another victory. That's the way he's going to see it, and that's the way we all see it."

How tough was it to see that holding call down at the goal line?
"That was third down, too, right? I didn't see it -- I don't know what happened. Washington crossed my face and ended up in the coverage on the right side of the defense. I didn't see if it was holding or not, but you react to the situation that's given. That was an automatic first down, so we tried to make a couple of tough goal-line stops, but another goal-line penalty inches them a little bit closer. We've been a good team in terms of penalties lately, not giving teams much, but tonight, we had a couple in crucial situations that really put them in good situations."

With 10 days off, what do you guys do now?
"We just went Sunday-Thursday, so that's a quick turnaround, but we'll come in tomorrow and I think we'll finish up with this game. I don't know if we'll watch a little Miami tomorrow; you'd have to ask Coach that. But having a little time to heal up, that's two games in five days or whatever it is, and it's still football. You need to have a little recovery time, and it's nice to have a little bit of a break before our next one."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Thursday night a preview of exciting AFC East race

Tonight’s Patriots-Jets game will have plenty to say about who eventually wins the AFC East, the NFL’s most competitive division this season. The winner had an undisputed claim on first place and the inside track on the playoff berth that comes with it.

Don’t be too quick to crown anyone, though.

There still are six weeks left in the season. All four teams in the division still have a record above .500. And unlike the past several seasons in which the AFC East winner has had things all but wrapped up by the first week or two of December, the division has a chance to come right down to the wire this time around.

It hasn’t been since 2002, in fact, that the division champion was in doubt entering Week 17. That season, both New England and New York finished 9-7 – and in Week 17, the Patriots beat the Dolphins but missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker after the Jets beat, coincidentally, Brett Favre and the Packers.

This season, though, it might happen again – and, as an added bonus, it might get decided on the field. The Jets and Dolphins will meet at Giants Stadium while the Patriots and Bills tangle at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Either or both of those games could determine the division champ. The winner of tonight’s game will have an inside track at a division title, but the resurgent Dolphins have a weak second-half slate and the Bills certainly aren’t far enough back to be counted out.

For contrast, here’s a look at the last five AFC East races and the games that proved most decisive:

2007, Week 1: Patriots 38, Jets 14. This one really didn’t come down to the wire. Ellis Hobbs returned the opening kickoff of the second half for 108 yards and a touchdown, and talk quickly turned more to the Patriots’ chances of going undefeated than any team’s chances of catching them.

2006, Week 14: Bills 31, Jets 13. The Jets earned a split of their season series with New England in Week 10; Jerricho Cotchery caught a 22-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to provide the game’s decisive points. But to capitalize on that win, the Jets still had to finish out their season. The Patriots stumbled in Week 14 as Dolphins running back Sammy Morris rushed for 123 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown. That opened the door. Instead of capitalizing, though, the Jets let the Bills run all over them – Chad Pennington threw two interceptions and was sacked five times in the game that all but clinched the AFC East for the Patriots.

2005, Week 10: Patriots 23, Dolphins 16. No one really challenged the Patriots for first place – Miami won its last six games in a row, but losses in seven of its first 10 games made that winning streak moot. The Dolphins fell to 3-6 after Tom Brady threw a 17-yard pass to Ben Watson in the fourth quarter of a nip-and-tuck game at Dolphins Stadium, and with the Jets at 4-5 and en route to 5-11, the division race was already over.

2004, Week 16: Patriots 23, Jets 7. Things already needed to break the Jets’ way entering this game – the Patriots held a two-game lead with two games to play and held an advantage by virtue of their Week 7 win over the Jets. But the Patriots intercepted two passes and forced a fumble and held the Jets scoreless until the fourth quarter en route to the win that wrapped things up in the AFC East.

2003, Week 7, Patriots 19, Dolphins 13. The Patriots lost twice in their first four games but wouldn’t lose again. The best chance the second-place Dolphins had to gain an edge came with both teams sitting on two losses early in the season – and they nearly pulled it off. But Tom Brady threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to David Givens to tie the game in the third quarter and an 82-yard pass to Troy Brown in overtime to win it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Thomas could be done for the season

There were "20 percent off" signs plastered all over the windows of the Patriots Pro Shop at Gillette Stadium on Monday -- which was fitting, really, because it seems like Bill Belichick is missing at least 20 percent of his roster.

Linebacker Adalius Thomas (broken arm, according to reports) is expected to join Tom Brady (knee), Laurence Maroney (shoulder) and Rodney Harrison (quad) on season-ending injured reserve. It would be a huge blow to a defense that already has had to absorb its share of blows this season.

"We can't do anything about it," defensive lineman Jarvis Green said. "It's a tough loss. Losing Adalius, he's a key to this defense, but we have to move on and get ready for the Jets."

Said linebacker Mike Vrabel, "He's a guy, like a lot of guys, that can play a lot of different positions and play them well. It would be tough. He's a leader and a veteran guy that plays well. We just have to find guys to step up."

Losing Thomas is especially difficult given the age of the linebackers with which he's been playing. First-round pick Jerod Mayo might be the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year at the halfway point, and undrafted free agent Gary Guyton has held his own, but Tedy Bruschi isn't going to play 99 percent of the team's defensive snaps the way Thomas did.

Pierre Woods, whose locker is between Mayo and Guyton, got a chance to join his neighbors on the field on Sunday after Thomas went down. The third-year linebacker, formerly an undrafted free agent himself, played every defensive snap from that point forward and said he felt like he acquitted himself pretty well.

"I'm just try to do my job," he said. "That's all it was. That's why they put me out there -- to do your job, and that's what I did."

Monday, November 10, 2008

MLB to begin unveiling award winners

Major League Baseball will unveil its annual postseason award winners starting at 2 p.m. today with both leagues' Rookie of the Year winners. After that will come the National League Cy Young (Tuesday), both leagues' Manager of the Year (Wednesday), the American League Cy Young (Thursday), the NL Most Valuable Player (Nov. 17) and the AL Most Valuable Player (Nov. 18).

Here's one writer's opinion on how that all should shake out:
AL Rookie of the Year: Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay. Hit 27 home runs and finished the season with an OPS+ (weighed on-base plus slugging, with 100 being average) of 125. By the end of the season, it wasn't really that close.

NL Rookie of the Year: Geovany Soto, Chicago. This one isn't that close, either. Soto hit .285 with 23 home runs and backstopped the Cubs to the best record in the National League.

NL Cy Young: Johan Santana, Mets. Tim Lincecum had a sensational season. There's no question about that. He went 18-5 for a bad San Francisco team, and he led the league in strikeouts per nine innings (10.51), hits allowed per game (7.22) and ERA+, a park-adjusted statistic (167). But Santana had an ERA+ of 166, and his ERA was better than Lincecum's (2.53 to 2.62).

Most importantly, though, Santana did his best work against the National League East rather than against the woeful National League West. (Lincecum was 3-0 with a 0.62 ERA in six starts against the San Diego Padres.) Santana also did his best work when it was most important. The fact that the Mets didn't win the National League East doesn't change the fact that their ace went 4-0 with a 1.83 ERA in September, including a three-hit shutout (on three days' rest) on the second-to-last day of the regular season.

AL Manager of the Year: Joe Maddon, Tampa Bay. Next question.

NL Manager of the Year: Cecil Cooper, Houston. Joe Torre suddenly looked like a better manager when he had Manny Ramirez. Charlie Manuel's team repeated as division champion, but the postseason doesn't count. Ned Yost was fired in Milwaukee. Lou Pinella's Cubs had a great year, but they had an awful lot of talent, too -- their Pythagorean win total (expected wins based on runs scored and runs allowed) was the same as their real win total.

Cooper, on the other hand, oversaw an Astros team that should have gone 77-84 based on its runs scored (4.4 per game) and runs allowed (4.6 per game) average. Instead, the Astros won 86 games and were in contention for a wild-card spot into the final week of the season.

AL Cy Young: Cliff Lee, Cleveland. Lee led the American League in wins, ERA and ERA+, and he finished second in innings pitched, complete games, and walks plus hits per nine innings. Roy Halladay had a sensational season for Toronto and performed brilliantly against Boston (2.56 ERA in five starts) and New York (2.40 ERA in six starts), but there's a far bigger gap between Lee and Halladay than there is between Santana and Lincecum.

Anyone who votes for Francisco Rodriguez should first read this and second have their voting privileges revoked. Rodriguez wasn't the best pitcher in the league. He wasn't even the best closer in the league.

NL Most Valuable Player: Albert Pujols, St. Louis. No, his team didn't make the playoffs. Yes, Ryan Howard drove in a whole bunch of runs. Yes, Manny Ramirez looked good for the Dodgers in August and September. But Pujols is -- and has been for years -- the best player in the National League. He led his league in slugging percentage, on-base plus slugging, adjusted (for park effect)on-base plus slugging, total bases and a host of other stats. It should be Pujols in a landslide.

AL Most Valuable Player: Kevin Youkilis, Boston. Phew. This is the most compelling race in the field, with a field crowded with probably a half-dozen candidates. Dustin Pedroia hit .326 and won a Gold Glove at second base. Joe Mauer hit .328 as a catcher for a Twins team that took the White Sox to a one-game playoff; teammate Justin Morneau played in 163 games this season and drove in 129 runs. Chicago's Carlos Quentin had the base OPS among players on playoff teams. Alex Rodriguez, in case you've forgotten about him, led the American League in slugging percentage and hit .328 with seven home runs in 30 games against the Red Sox and Rays.

But Youkilis did it all for the wild-card Red Sox. He played first base; he played third base. (His Bill James plus-minus defensive stats ranked him among the league leaders at first and just shy of the league leaders at third.) He hit .312 with 29 home runs and 115 runs batted in. He reached base at a .390 clip and had the third-best slugging percentage in the league. In the first three weeks after Ramirez was traded, he hit .388 with seven doubles, six home runs and 18 RBI.

Sometimes we have to have a philosophical discussion about the word "valuable." Kevin Youkilis, this season, defined valuable.

Strong criticism for Hall

Waived cornerback DeAngelo Hall looked like a nice fit for the depleted Patriots, at least based on need and reputation. Sunday's dismantling of the Trent Edwards- and Lee Evans-led Bills passing attack means that need might not be as great as we thought. And Peter King's column this morning has an illuminating item about Hall's reputation:

I think there are a few quarterbacks in the NFC East -- starting with Tony Romo next Sunday -- who will be trying to rake DeAngelo Hall over the coals in the last seven weeks of the season. Hall signed with Washington on Friday, after his bizarre release from the Raiders, who paid Hall $8 million to play all of eight games.

Stats Inc. came up with this illuminating stat about Hall's horrid play so far: He surrendered 40 receptions for 556 yards this year, more receiving yards than any other cornerback allowed through nine weeks. Part of that is because his counterpart, Nnamdi Asomugha, is so good and quarterbacks don't want to throw at his side. But Hall cost the Raiders second- and fifth-round picks last April, and then this big cap hit for eight lousy games. For a guy who made Oakland give up so much, Hall, you'd think, would at least be competent.

Hall has always talked a great game, but this year he proved he can't play one. He should be no more than a third corner behind Shawn Springs and Carlos Rogers when Springs returns from his calf injury. Still, when Hall was on Sirius NFL Radio Friday, he still talked with Deion-like bravado, telling a host who said he'd given up some big plays: "You just made that statement, 'give up big plays.' I don't think I gave up a play over 20 yards this season. I gave up one to Michael Jenkins, a 27-yard touchdown. That's part of the business, the nature of the beast. When you're getting a lot of money, you're expected to make a lot of plays. And there are a lot of plays out there I didn't make and I take responsibility for those."

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Total team effort on defense

Though the offense made it easier with a couple of clock-draining drives, the Patriots put together as complete of a defensive effort as they've delivered all season.

Buffalo quarterback Trent Edwards completed less than 50 percent of his passes and was intercepted twice, and running backs Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson combined for 60 rushing yards on 18 carries (3.3 yards per carry). The Bills' longest passing play went for 15 yards; their longest running play went for eight yards.

Here's a look at some of the individual defensive highlights:
* Ty Warren (seven tackles): Sacked Edwards for a six-yard loss on second-and-5 midway through the third quarter.
* Jerod Mayo (six tackles): Hit Edwards to force an incompletion on the second play of the game, and broke up a pass intended for tight end Robert Royal on the Bills' last meaningful offensive play.
* Tedy Bruschi (five tackles): Didn't have a signature play, but for a linebacker who's supposed to be washed up, he was in on an awful lot of plays.
* Mike Vrabel (five tackles): Got into the backfield on a third-and-goal run by Lynch in the second quarter, stopping the running back in his tracks and bringing him down.
* Vince Wilfork (four tackles): Blew up the run game all afternoon and put a pretty good lick on Edwards on the play right before Deltha O'Neal's interception.
* Ellis Hobbs (three tackles): Intercepted a pass intended for Lee Evans on the second-to-last play of the first quarter.
* Adalius Thomas (three tackles): Delivered a shot to Edwards late in the first quarter, but left with an arm injury in the second.
* Mike Wright (three tackles): Put a nice hit on Edwards to force an incomplete pass in the final two minutes of the first half and had back-to-back tackles on the Bills' first drive of the fourth quarter.
* Richard Seymour (three tackles): Blasted right through the line to sack Edwards for a six-yard loss on the Bills' first drive.
* Pierre Woods (two tackles): Played most of the game at linebacker after Thomas left
* Gary Guyton (one tackle): Got his hand in the way of an Edwards pass for Roscoe Parrish that fell incomplete.
* Deltha O'Neal (one tackle): Capitalized on Edwards' biggest mistake, picking off an underthrown pass for Royal late in the third quarter.

Belichick playing to win the game

The Jets' wide margin of victory likely allowed them to rest a few players that will play big roles in Thursday night's game against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots, who had the game almost in hand but not quite put away until after the two-minute warning, had no such luxury.

But when one reporter asked Bill Belichick if it worried him that he didn't get to rest any of his players in the fourth quarter with a short week ahead, he immediately bristled -- and delivered a moment that was almost Coors Light-commercial worthy.

"We're trying to win the game," he said after taking a moment to stare in disbelief at his questioner. "We're trying to beat the Buffalo Bills. They're a good football team. They're 5-3. We're trying to win the game. We're not trying to rest anybody. They're the Buffalo Bills. They're 5-3. We're playing for first place. You don't rest anybody when you're playing for first place."

He paused for a second.

"Come on."

Isn't this fun?

Highlights from Bill Simmons’ NFL picks column this week:

“I would like President-elect Obama to pass a bill on Jan. 21 that Bernard Pollard's middle name should be said at all times -- like how we would describe an assassin -- to properly convey how he killed the Patriots' 2008 season. I can't get over it. I'm calling him Bernard Karmell Pollard from now on. We would have been 8-0 with that cream-puff schedule, and Brady would have 2,700 yards and 25 TDs at this point. Damn it all. I need therapy.”

And, later:
“My buddy Sal makes a good point: What if the Cowboys had promoted Tony Sparano 18 months ago instead of digging Wade Phillips out of his mausoleum and giving him a whistle? I countered with, ‘What if Bernard Pollard hadn't ended the Patriots' season in eight minutes?’ We changed topics. Quickly.”

Still later:
“NBC kept promoting Sunday night's show as ‘The Rivalry of the Decade,’ and I realized that, yes, that was definitely true. Past tense. I now will put on my Pat Patriot helmet and dive out of a moving car.”

Maybe he’s exaggerating for effect, but I tend to doubt it. Simmons prides himself on being the everyman sports fan, on writing the things that he’d be saying anyway if he was sitting at an average sports bar and not Jimmy Kimmel’s house.

And if that’s the case: Is that really how he looks at this season?

Things might be different out in California, but here in New England, the standings say that the Patriots are 5-3 and tied for first in the AFC East. The schedule says the Patriots have a handful of really, really big games ahead, including road trips to Miami and Buffalo and a home game against Pittsburgh. Even a Dec. 21 home game against Arizona likely will have playoff implications for both teams.

Yes, that Week 14-15 road trip to Seattle and Oakland might be a dud, but those are the only two games left on the schedule that don't affect who plays in January and who goes home.

The season didn't end when Brady went down. In a lot of ways, that's when the fun part began.

That's right: The fun part. If you let go of the fact that this team was never going to go 16-0, you can have a lot of fun watching this Patriots team this season.

Yes, it's fun to watch a team demolish everything in its path the way Tom Brady and Randy Moss and the Patriots did a season ago.

But that’s also what made last season’s Super Bowl so agonizing. With the expectations so high, it was far more devastating to see the Patriots lose than it would have been exciting to see the Patriots win. It was the exact opposite of the first Super Bowl against the Rams – the disappointment had the Patriots lost wouldn’t have been close to the excitement fans felt when the Patriots won.

It’s more fun when there are ups and downs -- the way the rout at San Diego made the Monday night shellacking of Denver that much more satisfying.

It’s more fun when players emerge from nowhere to make big contributions -- the way BenJarvus Green-Ellis has done this season.

It's more fun when you get to watch players grow up before your eyes -- the way Tom Brady did five years ago and the way Matt Cassel is doing now.

It’s more fun when you don’t go into a game knowing if your team is going to win -- the way most Patriots fans are feeling going into today's game against Buffalo.

It’s more fun when, to borrow one of Simmons’ favorite lines, you’re not rooting for the house in blackjack. And it's disappointing to find out that "The Sports Guy" would prefer to root for the house after all.

Asked and answered: Matt Cassel, Patriots quarterback

No one is confusing him with the man he replaced under center, but there's no question that Matt Cassel continues to make progress in relief of Tom Brady for the Patriots. It'll be interesting to see how the Patriots deploy him today -- running backs Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan remain unavailable, but the Bills' pass defense (12th in the NFL) is significantly better than its run defense (26th in the NFL).

Here's a sampling from Cassel's meeting with the media earlier this week:

As a young quarterback yourself, have you appreciated from afar what Buffalo Bills quarterback Trent Edwards has done?
"He's done a great job. He has won a lot of games out there and continues to progress. Even from last year, I think his first playing time was against us, and I thought he did a great job last year. He continues to get better and I have always been impressed with the way Trent has played."

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels talked earlier this week about how you did a good job against the Colts of avoiding pressure and getting rid of the ball. Can you talk about your development in that part of the game?
"That was just part of the game plan. We knew that they had a good rush last week. Part of the game plan was to go out, get the ball out quick, go through the reads and if you didn’t have anything downfield then get the ball to the backs. We were able to do a good job last week. Whatever the game plan calls for that is what we try to accomplish. We were able to execute that well last week.

Any comfort in not having to face Bills defensive end Aaron Schobel this week?
"He's a great player. We have a lot of respect for him around here. He played well against us throughout the years. Unfortunately for him, he has an injury right now. Everybody wishes, for their sake that he is healthy. Nobody likes to see anybody not play due to injury. We have a lot of respect for him.

How good is this Buffalo team?
"They're a very good team. They play well on defense and they run around and give you a lot of different looks. Offensively, they are playing well. They have a lot of great skill players. They have some good running backs. We have our work cut out for us. We have to have a good week of practice and be ready to go come Sunday."

Are you happy with how the offense has progressed since you have become the starting quarterback?
"I'm happy to see that we are having some production on offense. I think that we have a lot of work to do. I do think that we are growing as an offense, and I think the guys are stepping up and making some pretty big plays. We have to continue to do that if we are going to be successful in these next eight games.

How much does it help to have your entire offensive line back (with the return of Nick Kaczur and Stephen Neal)?
"They are doing a great job. They continue to push themselves each and every week. They did a great job last week, and hopefully we can maintain that throughout the rest of the year."

What has been the most surprising thing to you so far this season?
"Surprising? It's hard to say. Every week, there's something new and there is a new challenge that comes about. For me, obviously, from Week One to Week Eight, it is a much different challenge. In Week Two and Three, you are trying to gather yourself, kind of understand what your role and grow into that leadership role. Now, we've defined that aspect, so we're moving forward as an offense and trying to get better each and every week. Every week, there are new challenges. Now that I know what my role is and how to approach it week in and week out, I feel that we can work on other things."

Last week, you guys said the game against the Indianapolis Colts felt like a divisional game because you have faced them so many times. How does it feel now that you are in a real divisional game this week?
"It's a huge game for us. We are fighting for first place. I am sure there will be a great atmosphere there Sunday. We're all looking forward to it and we'll be up for the challenge."

Friday, November 7, 2008

Patriots' pursuit of Hall might be all wet

Patriots coach Bill Belichick was curt in his dismissal of a question about veteran John Lynch a couple of weeks ago. He wasn't quite so curt when a reporter asked him Friday if he'd like to comment about reports that the Patriots might be interested in recently waived cornerback DeAngelo Hall.

"I would love to," he said with a smile, drawing a laugh from the assembled media. "No, I'll just comment on the players we have on our team and leave the other thousands that aren't."

The same reporter asked if Belichick had any kind of relationship with Hall, be it when the cornerback was coming out of Virginia Tech or from any other occasion.

"He was in the Pro Bowl a couple of years ago, but not on (the AFC) team," Belichick said.

His face then slipped into something of a sly grin. At first, it almost looked like a "I know something you don't" expression, but then he dropped this line on the assembled media: "I think we might have been in the pool together."

(Let that mental image settle for a moment. You're welcome.)

Belichick sees special value in special teams

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has a well-deserved reputation for having a dry public persona; he often seems to view meetings with the media the way he views a trip to the dentist. When he has a chance to warm up to a topic, though, the engaging side of his personality begins to emerge.

On Friday morning at Gillette Stadium, Belichick opened his press conference with effusive praise of the Bills' special teams -- kick coverage and kick blocking in particular.

"With Buffalo, they're very, very explosive in that phase," he said. "The more you watch them in the kicking game, the more appreciation I have for what they do in a week-in, week-out basis. It's something that doesn't get a lot of attention..."

Then he smiled at the assembled notebooks and cameras.

"... if anybody is looking to fill up some space."

Some topics on which Belichick touched, the tone of his voice far livelier than it normally is for, say, the 1,000th straight question about the way Matt Cassel progressed:

How the Bills block field goals
"They get them inside with Langston Walker. They get them outside with (Donte) Whitner and (Jabari) Greer or (Ashton) Youboty, whoever their edge guys are. It's not always the same guys. They get them inside with (John) Wendling, who jumps over the line. They haven't blocked eight kicks, but they're close. They're this far away on several of them. They got one last week, two weeks ago, whatever it was, with Walker. It's not one thing. It's not, 'We've got to get this guy.' It's not just one guy. You've got to get a bunch of them."

The Bills' ability to plug in new players on special teams and stay successful
"It doesn't matter who it is, and it's not always the same thing, but there's always production. ... Last year, we were trying to block Sam Aiken. This year, we're trying to block Wendling and (Jon) Corto and (Bryan) Scott and (Blake) Costanzo and those guys. You can go back through the last four or five years and just change the names, but there's still a lot of production. The one constant, of course, has been the kickers. But this year, they lost (Roscoe) Parrish, and we all say, 'Well, this guy's one of the best returners in the league,' and they put (Fred) Jackson back there, and he's averaging 13, 14 yards a return, or whatever it is. Before that, they had Nate Clements, and we all said we were glad to get rid of Nate Clements so we don't have to worry about him anymore, and now it's Parrish. It doesn't really matter -- at least, it doesn't seem like it -- it doesn't really matter who they have doing what. It's pretty good."

Directional kicking
Some teams counter a dangerous kick returner with kicks to a specific side of the field with an eye on cutting down on the options that returner has. It can be especially effective against a player who needs a little bit of open space to break tackles or run away from would-be tacklers. But there are some drawbacks, too -- and that doesn't just include the flag that comes with accidentally kicking the ball out-of-bounds.

"It creates a lot of field somewhere else, so if they bring it all the way across the field, you're defending a lot more space. In other words, if you kick it long enough or you kick it low enough where they can hold you up long enough to get back there, sometimes you don't solve a problem, sometimes you create one."

Directional kicking also has to be executed well to be effective. If the entire team converges on one half of the field and the ball sails into the middle, it could mean an ugly result.

"It's hard to tell all your coverage players to all go to one spot, because you can't always get the ball kicked where you want it. It's hard enough to kick the ball high and long and straight, and now you're talking about trying to hit the corner of the green and carry the bunker and all that. If the ball's not over there and you send everybody over there and the ball ends up down the middle -- or, God forbid, out of bounds on a kickoff... It's hard to place the ball perfectly right where you want it in the punting game, and even on kickoffs. You can sometimes favor a side, but it's not 100 percent that the ball's going to be over there. ... Sooner or later, those teams are going to test you out and try to come back to the big side, the long field, and if the ball's not all the way over there and they have that on, you could be giving up a big one."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Big three-game stretch looms for Patriots

The AFC East title hasn't been in doubt all that often over the past few years; the Patriots have gone into the season as the favorites and done little to give the Bills, Dolphins and Jets any hope of seizing the crown.

Not so this season.

"The competitive level has slowly but surely evened out," Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. "These teams are tired of being the underdogs in the division. You knew it had to happen someday. They all smell the chance for victory, and they're close and in a tight race. We have to understand that and understand that everybody's hungry."

The next three weeks, in fact, might determine just who wins the AFC East title. The Patriots (5-3) host the Bills (5-3), who have lost back-to-back games to the Dolphins and Jets, on Sunday before hosting the Jets (5-3) next week and traveling to Miami (4-4) after that.

But don't bother trying to get the Patriots to lend perspective to the next three weeks. As far as Bill Belichick and his players are concerned, the only game on the schedule is Sunday against Buffalo.

"What's important is this week against Buffalo," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "Everything after that really doesn't matter much. The Bills are thinking the same thing. We haven't played them yet this year. We've played a lot of like opponents, so we've seen them on film a lot, and I'm sure they've seen us on film. But now it's our time to match up on Sunday."

Said fullback Heath Evans, "We can't look past this one, not look at three back-to-back. We're starting with a team that started well and a team that's got a lot of new faces that we haven't seen before. It's going to be a tough challenge for us."

Only center Dan Koppen gave an indication that he even had any idea who the Patriots had on the schedule after Sunday.

"They're all important -- division games are important no matter when you play them in a season," he said. "We've got a big run coming up here, but hopefully we can just hunker down and play some good football and see where it lands."

Monday, November 3, 2008

Neutral site a terrible idea for World Series's Buster Olney, one of the national baseball writers for whom I have the most respect, published an argument in favor of a neutral-site World Series in a warmer climate, an idea sparked by the monsoon that hit Philadelphia last week. Among his points:

If baseball ever takes this step, season-ticket holders initially will create an enormous backlash because they will feel as if something has been stripped from them. As anyone who attends postseason games knows, however, the high cost of the World Series generally outruns the budgets of many who go to regular-season games, anyway. The postseason crowds have a very different feel because a lot of the die-hards are left to watch on television.

With a neutral site, baseball could give season-ticket holders a first option to buy tickets to the World Series. In fact, it could prearrange airfare and hotel packages as part of the event.

It's true that baseball has priced most fans out of the World Series. The best seats go for thousands of dollars and are snapped up by corporate sponsors. But not all corporate sponsors -- and not all people who receive those tickets -- are impassionate about their home teams. In fact, you probably wouldn't go sit at an outdoor stadium in late October if you weren't passionate about your home team.

Olney's argument that postseason crowds are vastly different than regular-season crowds doesn't hold much water unless he's talking about how much better the crowds at Tropicana Field were in the playoffs than they were for the first five months of the regular season.

And his argument about airfare and hotel packages doesn't really hold water, either -- a prearranged package wouldn't make a week in Miami or Honolulu any more affordable. Season-ticket holders who can afford four World Series games at $250 apiece can't necessarily afford a week in Honolulu.

And there's no doubt that Major League Baseball could make the World Series into an incredible event because it could plan and stack up a wide array of options for fans, Super Bowl-style. Say, for example, that the neutral site were to be Phoenix in 2011. The World Series could begin on a Wednesday and go seven games in seven days. That would greater reflect how Major League Baseball is played during the regular season, with no off days and the depth of the rosters and rotations tested.

How passionate would fans in Phoenix have been about a Phillies-Rays World Series? Who would have attended seven games in seven games? Who has that kind of time? Who has that kind of flexibility in their jobs?

Imagine if the World Series had been played in Phoenix this season. Not many downtrodden Phillies fans would have splurged for a week in Arizona back in the spring -- their team has let them too many times. Not many enthusiastic Rays fans would have splurged for a week in Arizona, either -- they both had prior commitments that week already.

Along the way, MLB could arrange for Hall of Famers to attend daily fan-fest functions, panels and autograph-signing sessions and seminars. The general managers could hold their annual meetings during that week, and the GMs could break away from their hotel to hold town-hall-style talks with fans about their teams as their managers are in town. The baseball writers could announce, day by day, the winners of the major awards -- rookies of the year on the first day, managers of the year on the second day, Cy Young winners on the third day and the MVPs on the last day.

We need to go to a neutral site to announce the regular-season award winners? That's a great idea, but couldn't you do that no matter where the World Series was being held? Couldn't you have done that in Tampa Bay and Philadelphia?

Best of all, the games would be played in conditions best suited for the best baseball. Pitchers wouldn't have to worry whether they'd be able to grip their breaking ball (I wonder whether that was a factor in the pivotal double that Pat Burrell hit off J.P. Howell), baserunners wouldn't have to hydroplane into bases, and hitters wouldn't have to blink through raindrops and their own clouds of breath.

Here's another concept: Rainouts. It happens during the regular season. Heck, it happened in 1975. Luis Tiant pitched Games 1, 4 and 6 for the Red Sox, and it's not because his back-to-home-plate windup gave him some kind of extra energy. It's because Game 5 was played on Oct. 16, and Game 6 was delayed until Oct. 21 by rain.

Rainouts happen. It's part of baseball.

One last point: The postseason is something that can bring a city, a state, an entire region together. Nothing is more exciting than having your team in the World Series. Remember the Homer Hankies in Minnesota in 1991? Remember George Bush's first pitch at Yankee Stadium in 2001? Heck, 65,975 people showed up for a Marlins home game in the World Series in 2003. (I know, I didn't believe it, either.)

Philadelphia went ballistic when the Phillies won the World Series this week? Sure, it would have been exciting for those boo-happy baseball fans no matter where their team won a championship. But imagine if there had been no celebration at Citizens Bank Park, if the celebration instead had been at Chase Field in Phoenix or some yet-to-be-constructed stadium in Hawaii. It wouldn't have been the same. It just wouldn't.

Baseball, more than any other sport, brings cities together. It would be a shame to ruin that by shipping the World Series to a neutral site.

Going for two was too much

It's not often that Patriots defeats can be pinned on Bill Belichick.

The veteran coach, winner of three Super Bowls, unquestioned defensive mastermind, director of the most prolific offense in NFL history, rarely does anything to give anyone reason to question his decisions.

Start Tom Brady over Drew Bledsoe? Sure.
Draft Logan Mankins in the first round? Of course.
Trade for perennial malcontent Randy Moss? Why the heck not?

But Belichick, perhaps for the first time in his nine seasons with the Patriots, might be more culpable than anyone after the Patriots' 18-15 loss at Indianapolis. Yes, David Thomas committed the game's decisive penalty. Yes, Jabar Gaffney dropped a huge touchdown pass. But both mistakes might have been mere blips if not for a couple of big mistakes by Belichick.

Belichick squandered two big timeouts in the second half. He wasted the first on a fairly pointless too-many-men-on-the-field challenge when the half was less than four minutes old and the Patriots had the ball at midfield; the cost (a timeout) was far greater than the best-case payoff (first-and-5 at the 50 rather than first-and-10 at the Pats' 45).

But that wasn't the only time Belichick would squander a timeout. He wasted another on a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak that he chose instead to turn into a field goal. He chose to turn an aggressive play into a conservative play. Some are blasting the decision mostly because Matt Cassel converted the sneak, but that's 20-20 hindsight and unfair. Even if Cassel had been stuffed, it was a poor job of clock management. If you want to kick the field goal, kick the field goal. Don't blow your last timeout with more than 11 minutes to go just because you put the wrong unit on the field. Don't put the wrong unit on the field. Belichick is better than that.

And that play only grows more perplexing when you look at the conservative-versus-aggressive decision Belichick made in the third quarter. The Patriots took a 12-7 lead on a BenJarvus Green-Ellis -- love the "Law Firm" nickname, by the way -- touchdown midway through that quarter, and Belichick had a choice of whether to kick or go for two.

Some coaches operate by a cardinal rule: Never go for two before the fourth quarter. It's a conservative way to go, but in a lot of cases, that rule makes sense. Let's look at what might have happened on Sunday:

* If the Patriots had kicked the extra point, they would have led 13-7 rather than 12-7. (Kevin Faulk was stuffed at the goal line; Belichick didn't challenge the play because he'd already burned a timeout on the too-many-men challenge.)
* After the Colts scored on a Peyton Manning touchdown pass, they would have kicked an extra point rather than going for two and would have led by a 14-13 score.
* That means that Stephen Gostkowski's 25-yard field goal would have put the Patriots up by a 16-14 score early in the fourth quarter rather than tying the game at 15.

And if you go up by two points at that point, you force the Colts to play with some urgency. Adam Vinatieri's 52-yarder still would have won the game, true, but it's a different kick if you're playing from behind. He had the luxury of knowing that the game still would be tied if he missed. It's not the same type of kick if you have that sort of safety net. Even Vinatieri, the most clutch kicker in NFL history, operates better with a safety net -- both of his Super Bowl-winning kicks came with the score tied. (I'd be interested to see stats on that throughout his career, but I'm not sure those stats exist.)

You change the tone of the game when you're playing with a lead. In the first three quarters, unless there are extremely extenuating circumstances, it's best to take every point you can get with an eye toward playing with a lead. Belichick chose not to do that; he chose to gamble, and he lost. It was one of several decisions that cost his team the game.

And while there are plenty of moral victories to take out of a game like this, the fact remains that the Patriots -- tied for first in the AFC East -- need as many real victories as they can get.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Anyone else think it was fitting...

... that in a game when a penalty drawn by Dave Thomas ends up costing the Patriots a shot at a tying field goal, the post-game show was sponsored by Wendy's?

Firing up the Hot Stove: Center field

Weren't we just here?

Last season
Coco Crisp: .283 (.344 OBP), 7 HR, 41 RBI
Jacoby Ellsbury: .280 (.336 OBP), 9 HR, 47 RBI

Contract status
Crisp: $5.75 million in 2009, $8 million option (with a $500,000 buyout) for 2009
Ellsbury: Earned $406,000 in 2008, and will not be eligible for salary arbitration

Next season
It's easy to say that keeping Crisp worked out well for the Red Sox this season. The 28-year-old played in 118 games, and while his range in center field dipped (according to the Bill James statistics), he still was a player with whom Terry Francona could feel comfortable playing at any time. He also had one of the biggest at-bats of the season, a 10-pitch battle that culminated in the game-tying hit in the eighth inning of Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Rays.

But did it really work out that well, or could the Red Sox have done better by trading him?

You can't really answer that question without knowing who would be available in a deal for Crisp. He's still just 28, his salary is reasonable, and he proved beyond all doubt that he's a selfless team guy. He's a luxury the Red Sox can afford; there aren't many other teams that could sit on a trading chip of Crisp's value without moving him for pitching. But just because they can afford him doesn't mean they should. Fourth outfielders aren't that difficult to come by, and Ellsbury -- whose plus/minus defensive statistics were better than those of Crisp, ought to be ready to step into an everyday job in center field next spring.

Actually, first, let's look at Ellsbury. His struggles in the playoffs last month are well-chronicled, but take that with the same grain of salt with which you should have taken his 7-for-16 World Series last season. He endured a rough summer -- he hit .245 in June and .247 in July -- but he started strong and finished stronger. He hit lefties better than he hit righties; he hit better at home (.298) but didn't hit all that badly on the road (.264).

He might or might not have a couple of All-Star Games in his future. He might or might not do what Johnny Damon has done in his underrated career. But one of the batters with whom he's most statistically similar (according to through age 24 is Shannon Stewart, and if that's the trajectory onto which he falls, that's not a bad thing. Stewart hit .279 at age 24 but hit .300 or better for the next six straight seasons, and he stole 20 or more bases for the next three straight. His career fizzled quickly, but he was a more-than-serviceable major league outfielder for a long time.

Most believe Ellsbury eventually be better than Crisp. That, not the salary differential, seems to be the reason the Red Sox would prefer to trade Crisp and the reason most teams would prefer to acquire Ellsbury. The Padres probably aren't going to trade Jake Peavy in a deal that centers around Crisp and Clay Buchholz, but they might think hard about a deal that centers around Ellsbury and Buchholz. That's what the Red Sox are going to have to decide: Would they rather trade Crisp for middle-relief help, or would they rather trade Ellsbury as the centerpiece of a deal to get someone like Peavy or Texas catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia?

What they'll do
It seems likely that they'll try again to trade Crisp but again be willing to bring the veteran to spring training, thus eliminating the possibility of making a deal for pennies on the dollar. The Johan Santana discussions a year ago demonstrated how much the Red Sox value their young talent; the emergence of Jon Lester this season demonstrated why that's a good idea. Ellsbury is younger and thus has more upside; Crisp is older and thus is a more proven commodity.

The Red Sox can afford to carry two starting-caliber center fielders on the payroll. Ellsbury has played all three outfield positions; Crisp's reputation is that of one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. But if they could deal Crisp for Sean Marshall of the Cubs or Heath Bell of the Padres, they'd do a lot to strengthen their pitching staff without losing that much from the starting nine.