Saturday, February 2, 2019

LIII - Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda

    It seems the old adage holds up, the more things change, the more they stay the same. A new post on this blog can only mean one thing: the Super Bowl is upon us once again. Nearly as predictably, this year's game once again features the New England Patriots, facing off this time against the Los Angeles Rams, a near-repeat of Super Bowl XXXVI, also held in Atlanta. I say near as last time out the Rams hailed from St. Louis and they'll be playing in the Mercedes Benz which was built to replace the 25-year-old Georgia dome. Yeah, the fine folks of Georgia only had to pony up $700 million to avoid the fate of St. Louis. As is always the case, there's a bazillion story lines fuelling the media hype, from the seemingly consequential to the game itself such as how the Patriots defense will be able to contain the high-flying Rams offense to the impossibly trivial such as whether Sponge Bob will make a halftime appearance with Maroon 5, a brilliant bit of marketing to distract millenials from the broohaha over Rihanna's refusal to play in protest of the NFL's blackballing of Colin Kaepernick for his, er, protest against the country's enduring racism.

    Yet nothing seems more compelling to me about this match-up than the aforementioned rematch between the teams as Super Bowl LIII will kick off 17 years to the day after the game that kicked off the amazing run that has seen the Patriots establish the most improbable dynasty in sports history. Love em or hate em, and I am firmly in the latter camp, what the Patriots have done in a league that is designed for parity, from the salary cap to the draft system, beggars belief and belies comprehension. Consider:
    • The Patriots have been in half of the Super Bowls since 2001. This will be the Patriots 9th Super Bowl appearance in 18 years
    • The Patriots won their 10th straight AFC East title this year. Only the Atlanta Braves have won more consecutive division titles in major American sports (11).
    • Those 10 titles have put the Patriots in the playoffs 10 consecutive years, an NFL record
    • New England now has won 10-plus games in 16 straight seasons, which ties the San Francisco 49ers' NFL record (1983-98) for the longest such streak. Oh, that's more 10+ win seasons than 14 franchises have in their history
    • This year marked the Patriots 8th straight AFC Championship appearance, no other team has made more than 5 straight (the Raiders)
    • New England has now played in the final four 13 of the last 18 years
    • The Patriots have 113 regular-season wins and 14 postseason wins so far in this decade (2010-present) for 127 total wins to set the record for wins in a decade, besting the Patriots mark of 126 set from 2000 through 2009. They have another year to add to the record.
    • Tom Brady has won more Super Bowls than any quarterback in history
    • Brady will have now played in more Super Bowls (9) than any other franchise (the Steelers, Broncos and Cowboys have each been to eight)
    • Brady has played in more post-season games (40) than 18 franchises and won more playoff games (29) than 27 franchises
    • Brady has 2,576 career passing yards in the Super Bowl. Kurt Warner is 2nd with 1,156
    Need I go on? Didn't think so. The point being, if you're a Patriots fan, there's never been a better time to be alive. Not so much for the rest of us as, in fact, the streak of dominance has been long enough for me to go from disliking the Patriots to hating them to respecting them and finally back round to an outright loathing as watching the Patriots in the Super Bowl is almost as boring as the game's official logo which has become as soulless as the league itself over the past decade. As in all sports at this level, the margin between victory and defeat is razor thin with the merest flap of the proverbial butterfly wing often making the difference. Perhaps that's what make the what if scenarios so tantalizing to contemplate. Just this year's playoffs offered up the double doink in the divisional round while the conference championship games offered up "what if the Chiefs' Dee Ford hadn't lined up offside in the AFCCG?" and "what if the refs had been watching the Rams' Robey-Coleman's pass interference/helmet-to-helmet hit?". This Super Bowl rematch seems a good opportunity to imagine how different the game and the world could have been had the ball bounced a little differently or fate bestowed her graces alternatively.


    Harken back to September 11, 2001. The New England Patriots have an 0-1 record in coach Bill Belichick's second season with the team coming off a lacklustre 5-11 first year. The team's starting quarterback is a strong-armed veteran named Drew Bledsoe who had signed a then record 10-year, $103 million deal the previous March. No one expected much from the the team; a playoff berth would have been happily greeted by the fans of the long suffering franchise which, since its birth as the Boston Patriots in 1960 in the old AFL, had been to only three championship games having competed for and lost the AFL championship after the 1963 season as well as Super Bowls XX and XXXI. About as many people were aware of the name Tom Brady, a quarterback drafted in the sixth round the previous year out of Michigan as werre of one Osama bin Laden, son of a Saudi Arabian millionaire, who had joined the Mujahidden in Pakistan to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 and formed a little-known group call al-Qaeda nine years earlier.

    We all know the disaster that would unfold that day and the calamity that would ensue as the world watched the most powerful nation in the world use the catastrophe to justify laying wasted to an ever-enlarging swathe of the world. Imagine if you will an alternate timeline, what would need to have been different for things to have played out less calamitously? Perhaps something as simple as the 2000 election not only having been won by Al Gore as it was but also awarded to him by the Supreme Court instead of the brother of Florida's governor. Sure, he may have led his nation into war in Afghanistan, maybe even Iraq, but at the very least he wouldn't have pulled the US out of the Kyoto Accord or made the documentary An Inconvenient Truth and become the bogeyman of the climate change denying lunatics thereby adding ammunition to the lies spread by the fossil fuel industry since the 1970s in their mission to muddy the water of science. Who knows, instead of hurtling towards doom, our species may have made inconceivable strides in science and technology to aid humanity rather than simply enslave it.

    If that's a leap to far, how about something simpler. What if NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue had followed President Bush's urging to play the games the weekend following the attacks of September 11th "to show that terrorists can’t alter the way we go about our lives" instead of cancelling them as he did. Maybe then Drew Bledsoe doesn't get hurt in the team's second game of the 2001 season on September 24th, the first after the attacks. He wasn't simply hurt; he was almost killed by a hit by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. Instead of Tom Brady entering the game (one they lost 10-3) and turning the team around leading them to an 11-5 division winning season capped by an improbable, underdog victory against the heavily favored St. Louis Rams, Bledsoe remains quarterback and Brady languishes on the bench. Maybe the Steelers (beaten by the Brady-led Patriots in the AFC Championship) face the Rams, and maybe the greatest show on turf wins their second straight Super Bowl seventeen years ago.



    Yeah, win or lose come Sunday, if he's not remembered as the greatest quarterback of all time, at the very least Tom Brady will go down as the league's most successful, yet even he needed a twist of fate to wind up where he is today. The team's success, as any real fan knows, may not even rest on his right arm though, but instead hidden below the hoodie on the sideline in the mind of the Sith Lord himself: Bill Belichick. Regardless of who wins Sunday, a coaching record will be set; if the Rams win, Sean McVay will become the youngest coach to ever win a Super Bowl, and if the Patriots win, Belichick will become the oldest. For BB it would be just one more to add to a bevy of other records he has, many of those mentioned above also apply to him along with a host of others requiring their own website to enumerate.

    Again, however, one needs but a smidgen of imagination to envision a different world where Belichick never joins the Patriots and the dynasty never happens. This time we have to go back more than another year to early January 2000, the millenium bug has failed to blow up the world, Bill Clinton is still in the Oval Office and another Bill, Parcells, had just unexpectedly stepped down as coach of the New York Jets. If only that bug had caused a few more glitches perhaps we could have avoided the zombie apocalypse that tech over-dependence is hurtling us towards. Supposing Clinton had admitted to inhaling? Then maybe marijuana would no longer be taboo in the NFL especially considering the promising impact of endocannabinoids for traumatic brain injury. Had only Parcells not set in motion the series of events that were to come, perhaps the Patriots would never have ascended to such heights. After an uninspiring 36-44 five-year stint as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Belichick had gone back to the assistant coaching ranks by joining Parcells' staff first with the Pats in 1996 then over to the New York Jets from '97 to '99. It was the move following the '96 season that set the stage for the confusion to come.

    You see, at first the Patriots wouldn't let Bill go, Parcells that is. In fact, when the Jets couldn't get him out of his contract they 'settled' for Belichick, naming him to the first of his short term stints. Unfortunately, this didn't please the New York press as they hectored the team into redoubling their efforts to get Parcells, which they eventually did a week later. However, as part of the negotiations, a clause was worked into both coaches' contracts stipulating that Belichick would become the Jets head coach in the event of Parcells' departure. When this came to pass three years later, Belichick became coach of the Jets. For a day before making this announcement:



    Yes Jets fans, in an alternate timeline, perhaps you are the Patriots. Unsurprisingly, they're a little salty. We'll never know what led Belichick to scribble his resignation on a napkin shortly before the press conference that had been scheduled to announce his signing. Why he chose the Patriots we'll never know; he has claimed in interviews that he was uncomfortable with the Jets ownership situation. The Patriots maintain they sent a fax to the Jets, one the team and Parcells claim they never saw, asking for permission to interview Belichick, who likely saw an escape route and took it. After failing to extricate himself from the contract in court, using the same lawyer that Brady would later use in the Deflategate case, the teams negotiated a settlement that saw the Patriots give the Jets a number one draft pick. History has vindicated the Patriots, but not everyone thought it was a good swap at the time. What if Belichick had coached the Jets for more than a day? Does he create a Jets dynasty or wind up just another coach? Would the Patriots have hired Dom Capers as might have happened had a snowstorm not delayed his interview by a day? As it was, however, BB wound up a Patriot and the rest is history.


    Unquestioningly, things had to fall perfectly into place for a quarterback selected in the sixth round, number 199 overall, to replace the game's first $100 million player. Serendipity might explain his pairing with a coach who probably should have wound up elsewhere, but instead combined to form the most successful quarterback-head coach tandem in NFL history, winning more regular season and post-season games than any other such duo as well as appearing in eight going on nine Super Bowls. Meanwhile, the rest of the league has gone through a coaching carousel of 184 head coaches combined. Nevertheless, it still wouldn't have had a chance to happen had there not been a New England Patriots team for them to join, and the fact there was requires yet one more level of suspension of disbelief and reliance on destiny.

    The NFL has a mixed bag of team owners. There's football's Palpatine, Jerry Jones in Dallas. A publicly-owned non-profit corporation in Green Bay. The nearly impossible to believe how much horribleness can be stuffed into one person owner of the Washington Football Club, Dan Snyder. Shahid Kahn, the embodiment of the once-possible American Dream, starting off as an immigrant washing dishes and living at the YMCA to owning the Jacksonville Jaguars. Of course, there's fuck Dean Spanos. Then there's Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a man who perfectly embodies America today combining the best and the worst the world has to offer in one person, without whom there would likely be no Patriots dynasty as there would not have been a team in New England.

    This time we've gotta go back a little further to 1988. Ronald Reagan is still dragging the Overton Window rightward and the owner of the New England Patriots is one Billy Sullivan. Facing bankruptcy resulting of all things from bankrolling the disastrous Jackson 5 Victory Tour, he's forced to sell the team for the firesale price of $84 million to Victor Kiam (yes Gen-Xers and older, the guy who liked the shaver so much he bought the company). Essential to the story, however, the sale doesn't include the stadium or land around it, which is sold separately to, you guessed it, Robert Kraft. Fast forward through four painful Patriot seasons that saw them amass a 21-43 record including a 1-15 1990 season and Kiam bails, selling to James Orthwein for $110 million prior to the 1992 season. Orthwein came by his wealth the old-fashioned way, he inherited it, being the great grandson of Adolphus Busch, he of Anheuser-Busch fame. Of course this means he had St. Louis roots, a city which had lost its NFL team, the Cardinals, in 1988 to the siren song of the air-conditioner hum of Arizona.

    Under Orthwein's stewardship, the team turned things around: Parcell's was lured out of retirement, Bledsoe was drafted to be the franchise quarterback and the Pat Patriot logo was transformed into the Flying Elvis. Orthwein's crowning achievement though was still to come: moving the team into the newly-built Trans World Dome in his hometown where he would rename the team the St. Louis Stallions. If Robert Kraft hadn't bought Foxboro Stadium, it would have happened, instead, as the team had a stadium lease through the 2002 season, one that Kraft refused a $75 million offer to buy out, they were stuck playing in New England. With neither party happy, weeks of negotiation finally resulted in Kraft buying the franchise for a then-record $172 million and keeping the team in New England. Before you become one of those Kraft-bots espousing the loyalty and wonders of Robert Kraft, maybe you should read this and see how he, with the help of now-NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, held the area hostage for public money when he went on to sign a deal in 1999 to move the team to Hartford, but ultimately used an escape clause days before the deadline.

    Yeah, you might say things have worked out pretty well for Brady, Belichick and Kraft along with their fans, but the rest of us are stuck watching them in the Super Bowl again. If the Patriots are to win, it'll likely owe a lot to an assistant coach, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. His line hasn't allowed Brady to be sacked yet this post-season, that's right, neither the Chargers nor Chiefs got to him (unsurprising, really, considering the Chargers horribly matched zone scheme all game and the Chiefs now unemployed defensive coordinator Bob Sutton). Anyone who saw James White routinely converting 3rd and 4s against the Chiefs knows they can run block as well; in fact, they only had 19 runs for losses all year, fewest in the league, with an o-line ranking 26th in the league salary-wise and no player drafted before the third round. With All-World Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald demanding constant double teams (and still beating them), they'll have their hands full. Donald will make his share of plays, but something tells me for the Rams to win one of the other Rams defensive linemen will have to step up, be it Dante Fowler, Michael Brockers or, most likely, Ndamukong Suh. If they can pressure Brady on more than 40% of his drop backs, the Rams will win.

    Meanwhile the Pats defence won't make the same mistake as the Saints made when they kept dropping seven defenders into coverage against the Rams thereby giving quarterback Jeff Goff too much time to pick them apart. Expect physical press coverage from the Patriots and lots of blitzing, but the Rams o-line ain't so shabby either as the team averaged a league high five yards a carry. Speaking of which, mystery surrounds last years offensive player of the year Todd Gurley's recent lack of play time, but late season scrapyard pick up, human bowling ball CJ Anderson has been a revelation bowling over players on the field as easily as he does pins in the lanes. CJ, and not one of the Rams high-flying receivers, Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks, will set the team's tone and be the difference maker. If he and Gurley outperform the three-headed Patriots running attack of Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead, the Rams win.

    Regardless of whether the Patriots win or lose, I'm sure to spend some of Sunday yelling at the broadcast, be it the game or the commercials. We know we won't get the medical marijuana ad, but I sure hope we don't get that all-too-obvious whitewashing from Verizon celebrating first responders in the wake of the fact that the company intentionally throttled their data while fighting the California wildfires. Maybe we'll get the best men can be Gillette ad to trigger the folks that want to keep politics out of sports but voted for a pumpkin who regularly injects politics into sports to distract them from the fact he's helping his buddies rob the country blind. What's that? Maybe the problem is a multinational conglomerate that records almost $10 billion in annual profit with a CEO to worker pay ratio of 287 to 1 that has been found guilty of price fixing, child labor, forced labor and false advertising is using identity politics to sell over priced razor blades? No, instead of raging over that or the fact that we found out this year that cheerleaders were being flown to Costa Rica, stripped of their passports, and required to pose topless before wealthy fans they'll mash their keyboards over the fact that two of the Rams cheerleaders are guys.

    Regardless of the whether or not we get the next cultural tagline or Tide ad, at least we viewers will be blessed with Tony Romo providing the color commentary in the booth. Unappreciated during his career, he's been universally hailed in his new gig as he brings passion, insight and a knack for predicting plays to the games he calls. His play-by-play sidekick Jim Nantz aptly bestowed on Tony the moniker Romostradamus before he did this during the AFC championship:



    One silver lining about being cursed with yet another Patriots Super Bowl is that they've at least provided fans with good games in the past and this shouldn't be an exception. The Brady hagiography will reach new heights if he manages another win with the motley crew disguised as a wide receiver corps plus Julian Edelman he's got to work with. Ok, plus TE Rob Gronkowski and RB James White. Belichick's acolytes will be given new scripture to sing his praises if he manages to outfox his flavor of the week nemesis Sean McVay. And Robert Kraft, well, he'll be able to get black out drunk to make up for last year's loss to the Eagles. It didn't have to be this way but it is what it is so despite the bad-taste-in-your-mouth feeling of cheering for a Stan Kroenke-owned team, that's what I'll be doing tomorrow as Greg the Leg propels the Rams to a 30-27 victory.

    Thursday, February 1, 2018

    LII - This Time is (In)Different

    Just ten years ago, if I had told you that Vin Diesel would be the highest grossing actor at the box office, the President of the United States would be Donald Trump and running the country by doing something called tweeting while taking a dump and that the NFL would be losing popularity because a few players chose to kneel during the national anthem you would have looked at me as though I'd turned up to a black tie event in a crotchless mankini and a white tie. Our societal obsession with all three of these themes will probably boot the final score of Sunday's Super Bowl LII to page three in favor of the TV ratings which will be used to bash either Kaepernick or Trump depending not on the actual figures but the biased interpretation most will be sure to read.

    Welcome to the Idiocracy, packaged and sold to you as a meritocracy. We may have arrived half a millennium early, but that's not surprising considering capitalism's economic imperative to constantly speed things up. With a little help from identity politics, this past year saw football become an even sharper reflection of society today, but at least we've got a game to watch Sunday as the New England Patriots face the Philadelphia Eagles in Minneapolis. As every year in this space, that means it's time to look back on the year that was in football and by association, America, ever since the Falcons blew a 25 point lead with 17 minutes left in Super Bowl LI before getting to the prediction for LII. Buckle up, this could be a long and windy road!

    It's cliché to say that injuries are part of the game, but it was clear from the get go that this year was, in fact, different. From David Johnson being lost in week one for the season to Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier's gruesome, life altering spinal injury, this year's injury report seemed both longer and more star studded than ever before. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that the league's best running back, the aforementioned Johnson, best quarterback, Aaron Rogers, best wide receiver, Odell Beckham Jr, best offensive lineman, Joe Thomas (and his 10,363-snap streak), and best defensive player, J.J. Watt, all missed most of the year due to injury.

    Add to the list the leading MVP candidate at the time of his injury, Carson Wentz, the league's most exciting rookie QB, DeShaun Watson, Andrew Luck, Sam Bradford, Ryan Tannehill and Carson Palmer and that's just starting QBs. Running backs besides Johnson were of course well represented with the likes of Dalvin Cook and Spencer Ware missing all or most of the season. Beckham was joined by WRs Julian Edelman and Allen Robinson, more offensive lineman than you can shake a stick at shared IR space with Thomas and of course defensive players were also dropping like flies, from Eric Berry to Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman.

    Sadly, at this point it's impossible to avoid the elephant in the room, CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative neurological disease caused by repeated head trauma and only diagnosable with certainty in post-mortem examinations. Ruptured achilles, torn ACLs and broken collarbones heal, but alas, the brain doesn't, and getting it bashed week in, week out is literally killing people performing for our pleasure. Watching Colts tight end Brandon Williams go limp or Travis Kelce concussed are the visible manifestations, but it's more likely the hundreds of sub-concussive hits which aren't replayed from every angle that are the basis for the fact that in a recent study 110 of 111 deceased NFL players' brains exhibited CTE.

    Knowing they've got a PR nightmare on their hands, in much the same way as the tobacco and oil industries created confusion about the links between their products and, well, killing humanity, the NFL's boardroom geniuses reaction has evolved from denial to deceit to damage control. Yet anyone watching how the so-called 'concussion protocol' plays out in practice would have to put paid to any belief that it is in any way effective, along the lines of putting filters on cigarettes or switching to diesel. Tom Savage's return to play after an obvious seizure or Russell Wilson's medical tent evaluation would like a word. What the hell is that stupid looking medical tent anyway? Now we've even learned that concussions, though playing a role, aren't even the root cause of the disease, it's simply about the accumulation of hits to the head.

    Sure, this disease has led some to reconsider allowing their children to play football, but it couldn't have anything to do with the NFL's ratings decline, could it? By happenstance, the other profession most at risk of developing CTE is soldiers. I bring up the coincidence as television revolutionized the way America was sold violence, either war packaged for nightly news reports and eventually as fodder for 24 hour news filler, or football on Sunday afternoon, then Monday, Thursday and Sunday night brain bashing ratings bonanzas. The constant barrage of brutality makes it all but impossible to discern the pro-war propaganda let alone discriminate between GIs and players as their images overlap, veterans of wars and gridiron switch spots as the camera flicks from soldier presenting the colors, to defensive blitzes, from F-16 flyovers, to quarterbacks throwing bombs while Fox, CBS, NBC, ESPN and the NFL network celebrate their role in making it possible for the service men and women sacrificing for our freedumbs overseas to enjoy the game.

    The Cleveland Browns became just the second team to finish 0-16 after the 2008 Detroit Lions. For lovers of schadenfreude, here are the Browns lowlights but consider yourself warned, they're tough to watch. What other team could begin 2017 losing to a Landry Jones led Steelers team and close out the year the same way yet retain Hugh Jackson as coach despite a now 1-31 record. Their #1 draft pick, DE Myles Garrett started out the year hurt and that was the high point, while the low is captured here right after Corey Coleman dropped an easy catch that could've put them in position to beat the Steelers in week 17. They traded out of position to draft Carson Wentz a couple years ago, did the same on DeShaun Watson last year and couldn't even get the fax machine to work to finalize a trade for AJ McCarron at the trade deadline. In Cleveland, all this means it's time for a parade. Well, they do have the #1 and #4 picks next year. They were outscored by 176 points over the course of the season and had the worst turnover differential (-28) since the 2000 Chargers. Does that make DeShone Kizer the new Ryan Leaf?

    The Browns, though exceptional, weren't the only bad team this year. In fact, there was a logjam of awful crowding behind them. The Andrew Luckless Colts were every bit as bad finishing 4-12 and getting their coach fired too. After losing Watson and Watt, the Texans fell off a cliff and finished with the same record. The biggest surprise in the bottom tier was the Denver Broncos as I can't remember a Broncos team ever being as straight up awful as this team was. Joining them at 5-11 were the Jets, Bears and Buccaneers where, respectively, Josh McCown had to play QB because no one else could (and did well enough to get his coach Todd Bowles a two year extension), #2 pick Mitch(ell) Trubisky wasn't the biggest problem, but his lack of targets and a seemingly done John Fox were, and Jameis Winston tried to eat a W instead of, you know, winning. The Odelless Giants were so bad that Eli Manning got benched putting an end to his league leading consecutive starts streak at 210; problem was, it wasn't Eli's fault, they were just horrible, getting coach McAdoo fired before the season even ended.

    Speaking of turning tragedy into melodrama, if we're talking about the 2017 NFL season, we need to talk about the Ezekiel Elliott suspension soap opera. In the attention economy where clicks and eyeballs drive revenue, the NFL, like every other industry, no longer bothers with solving problems, but instead exacerbating, extending and monetizing them. For those living on Mars or with medium-term memory problems, Elliott was suspended prior to the regular season for six games after a year long league investigation into domestic violence allegations from the summer of 2016. His former girlfriend filed a police report but he was never charged with a crime. However, the NFL has its own parallel system of justice ruled over by one man, Roger Goodell, judge, jury and executioner.

    Still feeling the sting of the Ray Rice scandal, Roger was likely eager to show the world the NFL had mended its ways on the domestic violence issue; evidence shmevidence when you've got a ticket to headline news. It's hard to say if they foresaw the fallout, but it did manage to stay in the news cycle a lot longer than just six weeks as what ensued was a legal roller coaster reminiscent of deflategate that saw Elliott suspended and reinstated on alternating days for what seemed like an eternity. In the end, Elliott wound up missing Cowboys' games nine through fourteen. Yep, pink gloves, shoes and towels in October and  a wall mounted trophy in Ezekiel Elliott, the Dallas Cowboys running back who led the league in rushing as a rookie in 2016, to prove how much he and the NFL care, I mean really care, about women.

    Tyreek Hill. Ray McDonald. Josh Brown. Greg Hardy. Joe Mixon. Hypocrisy, thy name is NFL.

    After beginning the season 0-9, the San Francisco 49ers went on the finish 6-10. Prior to this, no team had ever amassed more than three wins after such a horrific start. At one point, it had been over 700 days that they had beaten anyone not called the Rams. Yet they ended the regular season with the longest winning streak in the NFL. Guess, it might've had something to do with the Jimmy Garoppolo, just call him Jimmy GQ, trade. The Dolphins, who brought  in smokin' Jay Cutler to replace the injured Tannehill and the Raiders, who lured Beast Mode out of retirement, finished with the same records but not the same optimism as the Niners. It was a lost season in Washington which will exchange their double franchise tagged QB for Alex Smith next year, and it'll be a cold off-season in Green Bay after half a year without Rodgers; both ended up at 7-9. Ditto for the Bengals whose only achievement was helping the Bills into the playoffs for the first time since 1999 and snapping the longest drought in major professional North American sports. Yes, this is happiness.

    Despite those Bengals somehow bringing Marvin Lewis back again next year the head coaching carousel was in full swing by year's end as Cardinals coach Bruce Arians retired after finishing as the only .500 team. The Raiders' Del Rio, Bears' Fox, the Lions' Caldwell and Colts' Pagano all found pink slips waiting for them to start the new year. I feel worst for Jim Caldwell, fired despite compiling the best record of any Detroit Lions coach in the Super Bowl era and delivering the first back to back winning seasons since 1993-95. Ah, but that playoff winning percentage. The Chargers really moved from San Diego to LA becoming the only team to play 16 road games, seriously, fuck Dean Spanos, but even more surprisingly, Keenan Allen stayed healthy, had a great year and almost dragged his team into the playoffs. The Ravens joined both at 9-7 on the strength of a defense that became just the fifth team in 30 years to post three shutouts in a season.

    Good thing Goodell's contract was up for renewal so something could be done to fix what's ailing the league. Wait. What's that? It's actually in his job description to do stuff that makes him hated to distract attention from the owners? Is that why they voted unanimously in May to authorize the Compensation Committee to enter in to negotiations and offer him an extension of his contract through 2024? Well, one owner changed his mind, shocker, the owner of Elliott's Cowboys, Jerry Jones. Seems he was happy enough to watch Roger, well, roger other teams such as the Patriots during deflategate, but not so much when he was the victim. Despite Jones' ultimately failed coup attempt, his rabble-rousing did manage to wake the public to Goodell's contract demands: $50 million a year, lifetime use of a private jet and lifetime health insurance for his entire family. Well, they signed a deal, but we don't get to find out what's in it as since the NFL lost (or dropped depending how you look at it) its federal tax exemption in 2015, his salary is no longer public. We do know he was paid more than $205 million between 2008 and 2015 and reports peg the new deal at $200 million for five years, so I'm guessing he got the jet and insurance.

    Here's where things get weird, America-specific weird. No, not because people are pissed off, but why they're pissed. It's not that, as the owner's memo revealing the deal stated, it is "fully consistent with 'market' compensation". A market that the public has been convinced has been guided by an invisible hand to inflate the ratio of CEO-to-average worker pay over a 1,000%, from around 20-to-1 in 1950 to over 300-to-1 today. Nor that, thanks to an awful CBA signed by the players union with the league, the best running back of our generation will likely be franchise tagged again, meaning he will "only" be paid the average of the five highest running backs and be left without a multi-year deal, meaning if he gets injured, he'll have no salary guarantee. Nor that Goodell's family will have better lifetime health insurance than not only pretty much every American, but also  former NFL players, who have a slightly higher risk of debilitating injury and related health problems than Roger's wife Jane. No, they're mad as hell because FOX News tell them it "has never been the American way to treat customers like the enemy", and he was in charge while the "NFL burned in flames as American patriots refused to watch games where players protested our sacred symbols". Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself, the Donald and his anger stick will have to wait until after we get through the last two non-playoff teams, the Seahawks and Cowboys.

    It felt as though the Shithawks' window closed a little, but Russell Wilson played lights out most of the year; we also witnessed the end of the CenturyLink mystique as they went 4-4 at home. Here's a crazier stat. Total Seahawks rush attempts inside opponent 10 yard line - Russell Wilson: 3 carries for 3 yards and 2 touchdowns; all other Seahawks: 20 carries, -3 yards, 0 touchdowns, 0 first downs. Including passing and rushing yards, Wilson finished the season accounting for 81.5% of all Seattle yards from scrimmage (bizarrely, second all-time behind Jon Kitna's 2006 season with Detroit at 81.8%). The Cowboys, meanwhile, couldn't get over the Elliott drama, watched Romolessly as Dak regressed, were overly reliant on Sean Lee and Tyron Smith being healthy, which they not always were, and seem to be stuck with Jason Garrett's uselessness cuz he's Jerry's guy despite seemingly never having heard the term 'half-time adjustments'.

    The comeback player of the year wasn't even on the field but in the broadcast booth as Tony Romo took up the mic for CBS this year and won over football fans across the country, even Philadelphia. While the loss of Jon Gruden back to the coaching ranks might sting for a bit, Romo more than made up for it with his enthusiastic, scholastic and prognostic game calling. Sadly, for us Cowboys fans, he had to wait to retire before making it to the Conference Championship. If only Americans (and most of the rest of the world) had someone explain the X's and O's of politics and economics to them the way Tony does football. Instead we've got a media system that thrives on creating a hyper-partisan divide that in fact doesn't exist. Team Red and Blue agree on far more than they don't while doling out identity politics outrage to keep people tuned in and arguing about how the Russians stole the election, who should use what bathroom, the latest attack on Christmas, and who to blame for the government shutdown while the oligarchs syphon away their wealth, the corporations turn the internet into pay-per-view TV, their nation's treasure is used to attack, well most of the world, and, most worrying of all, the nation's life expectancy falls for the second year in a row. Good place to get back to the anger, the instrument of the master of distraction...

    One day in September Drumpf took a dump and decided to tweet about Colin Kaepernick. Ok, not exactly, as first he had to tell folks in Alabama that the sonofabitch should be fired while he was telling them to vote for a child molester because their good Christians!?! You can't make this stuff up. Who knew that people could be worked into a nationalistic fervour by simply reminding them they voted for a reality TV host who got the job because he got rich by inheriting millions, cheating workers, and scamming the bankruptcy system. Remember that Colin explicitly, repeatedly, unequivocally said for the past year that his kneeling was a silent protest of savage police behavior towards Black people. Oh, and he switched to kneeling from sitting after speaking with a navy seal who suggested he should as a sign of respect. Yet, the short-fingered vulgarian managed to blow his identity politics dog whistle to twist his free speech choice into, "If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU'RE FIRED. Find something else to do!"

    Yeah, and so it goes. Fuckface Von Clownstick forgot to mention that had it been a decade ago, chances are it wouldn't even have been an issue as teams generally didn't even come out for the anthem except for special occasions. A cheque from the US government to the NFL changed all that and pumped up the paid patriotism to new levels, and a decade later, Kaepernick, despite being better than most backups and a few starters in the league, was blackballed. Yes, that's what you call it when guys named Taylor Heinicke are playing instead of the GQ citizen of the year. Amidst all the hoopla, leave it to Jerry Jones to look the most ridiculous as he tried to strike a PR-friendly balance by kneeling with his players before the anthem; too bad his frantic search for a cameraman made him look as phony as his intentions. Made for good hot takes though on the TV as commentators vied to be vilest. They needn't have tried as the Texan owner Robert McNair filled the bill when he made it clear the NFL wouldn't allow "inmates running the prison". Thus, a gesture meant as a plea for humanity was turned on its head and instead became a tool of oppression, a reminder of what happens if you step out of line. So it goes.

    Those who managed to kowtow appropriately to their betters had plenty of ups and downs on the field this year. At 39, Drew Brees retook the mark for highest single season completion percentage, after losing it for a year to Sam Bradford, with an astounding 72%. He has now set the record three times as he broke it, broke his own record and then broke it again one year after Bradford broke it. Meanwhile, at 32, Adrian Peterson started the season as Brees' teammate but ended what seemed as it should be his last in Arizona. After 1,078 days, Josh "Flash" Gordon returned to the league, and though he didn't save every one of the Browns fans, he did, um, flash. Terrelle Pryor, who left Gordon's Browns for the Washington club, crashed and burned. DeAndre Hopkins made the catch of the year while it seemed Amari Cooper couldn't make a catch all year (besides one game for some reason!). Rob Gronkowski continued to be the best tight end in the game but also went wacky smashing a defenseless Tra'varius White.

    The pendulum continued to swing towards rookie running backs from wide receivers in 2017 with Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara leading the way. Kamara's numbers were jaw dropping: 728 rushing yards, eight rushing TDs; 81 receptions, 826 receiving yards, five receiving TDs; 347 kickoff return yards, kickoff return TD. Alongside stable mate Mark Ingram, they became the first RB duo to both finish with over 1,500 yards from scrimmage. Hunt wasn't too bad himself: 272 carries, 1,327 yards, eight TDs; 53 receptions, 455 yards, three TDs. Fourth overall pick Leonard Fournette helped carry the Jags into the AFCCG with over 1,000 rushing yards while the eighth pick, Christian McCafferey of the Panthers, had over 1,000 all-purpose yards including 80 catches. Vikings' Dalvin Cook would've finished with gaudy numbers as well had he avoided the injury plague. Finally,  Joe Mixon mixed in with 4 TDs and over 600 yards on the ground on a pretty terrible Bengals team. Mixon also has a pretty potent right hook which he once deplorably unleashed on a woman which sadly brings us back to the NFL and women.

    The tsunami following the Weinstein/#MeToo earthquake washed over the league as well as it was revealed that Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson had paid out hush money to at least four former employees to cover up "workplace misconduct" involving sexual harassment and racial slurs. It took just two days to learn he was putting the team up for sale following yet another trial by media. Don't feel too bad for Jerry though, to create the expansion team in 1993, his investment group paid $206 million; the upcoming sale is expected to fetch upwards of $2.5 billion. Add to this the former makeup artist at the NFL Network filing a lawsuit against the network for a hostile work environment, documenting stomach-turning stories of Marshall Faulk, Heath Evans, Eric Davis, Donovan McNabb, and Warren Sapp, among others, sexually harassing the plaintiff. There was also the head of NFL Media, David Eaton, resigning when Deadspin revealed he'd been seeking out prostitutes and porn stars on Twitter.

    PR-wise, Cam Newton's brain fart in an October press conference was a disaster as it let slip the female equal opportunity mask the NFL had been donning. Asked by Charlotte Observer Panthers beat writer Jourdan Rodrigue a legitimate (definitely better than the majority) question about his receiver's route running, something clicked and he responded, "It's funny to hear a female talk about routes, like...that's funny", accompanied by the oddest contortions and most bizarre facial expression (pictured left). Things apparently only got worse when she confronted him afterwards. Upon losing sponsorship deals such as Danone, he posted a near two minute apology video, but forgot to mention Jourdan Rodrigue, who you know, was belittled for doing her job. Tangentially related, the whackiest story had to be Dolphins' now former offensive line coach Chris Foerster having the bizarre video cri de coeur he recorded for the model who had spurned him leaked by her to the public. Did I mention he was in his office? Doing cocaine? Awkward.

    The league introduced one good rule change but has a glaring need of another. In an attempt to shed their No Fun League image, Goodell wrote in a letter to fans that the NFL wanted to allow players "more room to have fun after they make big plays" and thus was relaxing the rules on touchdown celebrations. While we may not have gotten anything as mesmerizing as the Ickey Shuffle or the Funky Chicken, the Ravens tug-of-war, the Eagles Electric slide as well as their bowling and baseball parodies, the “sack race” by the Chiefs, and the Vikings duck, duck, goose and Winter Olympic curling hat tip in the NFCCG were all good fun.

    The missing change? Easy. What's a catch? Really, I haven't known since the Calvin Johnson non-catch; I was left more confused after the Dez Bryant non-catch; now I've got literally no idea. Jessie James may not have caught that touchdown according to the rule, but in the minds of many, had it not been for the poorly formulated rule, the Steelers would have beaten the Patriots, probably claimed the #1 seed in the AFC and we would possibly be seeing a different Super Bowl this Sunday. More cameras with better resolution isn't going to solve the issue, in fact, it's the technology that's making matters worse. Well, it could maybe help if it can do something about index cards being used to determine first downs

    After all, that's how a sane system should work: identify the problem and formulate a solution. That's why I for one don't blame people for voting for Trumplethinskin. In fact, if I were as convinced as 90% of America that choosing between Coke or Pepsi will somehow effect positive change, there's no way I'd have voted for Shillary. Change, um, trumps status quo. However, the catch is you see, identifying the problem, as picking either Coke or Pepsi is itself the stumbling block as either will kill you in the long run, a Catch-22 if you will:
    • Don't vote for Hillary as she sent State emails with a private server.
    • Vote for Trump so he can put Agit Pai in charge of the FCC to eviscerate net neutrality and pave the way for conglomerates such as Verizon and Comcast to turn the already third world quality American internet into cable TV.
    • Don't vote for Hillary because the Clinton Foundation is simply a front for them to syphon millions into their pockets.
    • Vote for Trump so that he can overhaul the tax system thereby gifting those such as himself trillions which will somehow trickle down to the rest of society just like it did after the Reagan and Dubya tax cuts. Oh, you mean it didn't?
    • Don't vote for Hillary, she's a Goldman Sachs lackey, paid millions for speeches.
    • Vote for Trump so he can waive punishment for convicted banks such as Deutsche Bank whom he personally owes millions.
    • Don't vote for Hillary as she's a warmonger, just look at what she did to Libya.
    • Vote for Trump so he can engage in a little saber-rattling with a nuclear state, send more troops to Afghanistan, threaten Iran and, surprise, surprise, have his Secretary of State, Rex ex-Exxon Tillerson announce the US will be keeping several thousand troops on the ground in Syria until President Bashar al-Assad is overthrown. Shocker, despite his campaign pledge to not play the regime change game, that's exactly what this intimates (insert feigned surprise face here).
    So, tell me, who cares who wins the taste challenge? Despite what seems like half the country living with their hearts in their mouths over fears Agent Orange is in cohoots with the Ruskies and might be mentally deranged, Democrats voted in lockstep with their supposed rivals across the aisle to increase his warrantless domestic surveillance powers. Oh no, Cheeto Benito just called some countries shitholes, guess we better increase the military budget by even more than he asked for, good work team blue! Yes, both of these in just the last week, seems #TheResistance is sure giving it to that bad Super Callous Fragile Racist Sexist NAZI POTUS. After almost 40 years of neoliberal policy, the unrelenting upward swing in inequality is causing cracks to form in more than just the nation's bridges as both the infrastructure and society itself are clearly cracking up. Restoring a Democratic Team Hillary status quo that was doing all the same horrible things but went about it in a more refined way won't solve the problem any more than Trump and the Republicans. Football results are comparatively comforting, especially in the playoffs where you win to stay in or lose and go home.

    Wildcard Round

    Titans-Chiefs
    Seemed like the Saturday appetizer, but turned out to be the main course. Remember the once 5-0 Chiefs? Week one-Patriot-stomping Chiefs when Kareem Hunt fumbled his first NFL carry and then went on to gash New England for 148 yards and a TD on 17 carries plus 98 yards and two TDs on five catches? Early season whispers of Alex Smith for MVP were quashed by a four game losing streak. Well, the game reflected their season as they jumped out to a big lead and blew it, allowing the Titans to score 19 unanswered second half points. The Titans are not a good team but Mariota is the only QB/WR/RB/OL in the league. Double the fantasy points when you pull a Brad Johnson and throw a touchdown pass to yourself. My takeaway was the refs caused too much uncertainty as it seemed like every play had a conference that took away from losing myself in the action.

    Falcons-Rams
    Experience seemed to be the difference as the Rams seemed jittery and Falcons poised. The LA Rams went from #32 in scoring and year ago to #1 simply by hiring a coach named Sean. Ok, and Goff took a giant leap this year and his offensive weapons were lethal; Todd Gurley was good enough to be in the MVP conversation. Plus Aaron Donald anchored Wade Phillips' defense which helped power the Rams turnaround from a 4-12 to an 11-5 team. If they keep improving they just might get some attention in the LA market once they move out of the dump that is the Coliseum into Kroenke's new playground in a couple years on the former site of the Hollywood Park racetrack. They weren't ready for prime time Saturday as special teams sunk them 26-13.

    Bills-Jaguars
    Making their first playoff appearance since '99, the Bills became everyone's favorite underdog but underperformed in crunch time. The offseason talent firesale made it seem as though the Bills were throwing the season reinforced midway through when they started Nathan Peterman, who promptly threw five picks in about 11 minutes, but somehow they scraped in to the dance. Scenes of playoff starved fans waiting for hours in the snow at the Buffalo airport for their team to touch down after securing the wildcard birth were wild, but wildcard Sunday was beyond tame, in fact, quite lame, as Tyrod was not Tygod doing nothing to prove management was wrong not to trust him, while Blake just Bortled his way to the W thanks to a few timely scrambles and an amazing defense; 10-3. Blake ran for more yards than he threw (87)!

    Panthers-Saints
    I was never sold on Newton's health or his team's chances all year, but they both just kept doing enough to win. Sure, Cam's completion rate jumped to over 60% from 52.9% last year, but Devin Funchess and Christian McCaffery alone couldn't drag the offense above mediocrity. Sure the Luke Kuechley defense was among the league's best and did give the Panthers a chance as they kept it close by bottling up the Kamara/Ingram two-headed monster. Too bad they forgot that Drew Brees is a pretty good QB. Was it just me or did Cam Newton seem lackadaisical all game? 31-26. Three of the Panthers six losses this year were to the Saints.

    Divisional Round

    Falcons-Eagles
    You gotta hand it to Atlanta bouncing back from last year's Super Bowl calamity. Unfortunately, new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkasian couldn't seem to figure out how to feed Julio Jones in the endzone and Matt Ryan came back down to Earth after his MVP season, but the young defense continued to improve helping them to a 9-7 season and wildcard win. Without Wentz, the Eagles were the #1 seed underdogs but their stout defense frustrated the Falcons all day as they managed to hold on for a 15-10 win.

    Titans-Patriots
    Did I mention the Titans were an awful playoff team, actually painful to watch most of the time, and we had to watch them twice? I mean, Mariota threw more picks (15) than TDs (13) this year. They got a bit lucky completing the season sweep against AFC South foe Jacksonville in a meaningless week 17 game for them to sneak onto the dance floor. Eric Decker was a bust. DeMarco Murray is done (and didn't dress in the playoffs), which left them to sink or swim with Derrick Henry; he looked like Michael Phelps in the wildcard game but a sunk like a stone against the Pats. The Titans actually had the lead following the one handed opening TD by rookie Corey Davis, but the Pats and Brady, who -yawn- moved on to his 12 conference championship in 18 years, were too much. The Pats defense sacked Mariota eight times. 35-14.

    Jaguars-Steelers
    All the talk surrounded the Steelers taking the Jags lightly and looking past them to the Pats. Why not with the best RB and WR in the league in Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger managing to stay upright for another year. Throw in a pair of game changing rookies, one with the best name and receiving stats, Ju Ju Smith Shuster, and the other helping the defense edge out Sacksonville for the league lead in sacks, T.J. Watt, and, yeah, most people figured they'd avenge the early season blowout loss to the Jaguars after which Big Ben pondered retirement. Yet, if you can't stop Blake Bortles you don't deserve to win and the Steelers didn't. Leonard Fournette bulldozed for three touchdowns in a wild 45-42 win. The over/under was 40.

    Saints-Vikings
    Wow! Sure, the game looked good on paper going in. The Saints had Brees and a rookie class that was the best of the century with Marshon Lattimore and Alvin Kamara highlighting, but all seven draft picks made big contributions as the defense was much improved and the offense adopted a run-first mentality. Four lead changes in the last 3:01 have us all believing in Keenum and his scriptures. Crazy 61-yard Minneapolis Miracle to Stefon Diggs as time expired was a hail-mary-ish, whiff-six. One of the best games I've ever seen. Seriously, this happened on the last play of the game. Or here, try this one. Maybe one more as the expression on Everson Griffen's face is priceless. 29-24.

    Conference Finals

    Conference Championship Sunday is the best Sunday of the year. In ultimate bizarro world, the four starting quarterbacks are Nick Foles, Case Keenum, Tom Brady, and Blake Bortles: one of these things is not like the other. Bring it on.

    Jaguars-Patriots
    John Malkovich put it best. David v Goliath. Bortles v Brady. Sith Lord Bill Belichick, leader of the Evil League of Evil chalice holders, taking on the Jacksonville Jaguars. No contest, right? Wrong. Sacksonville, first in DVOA led by those DBs, Ramsey and Bouye (the league's lowest passer rating (31.6) in coverage among qualified cornerbacks), turned a 3-13 team into a contender. Brady's thumb was the pre-game focus but the first half saw touchdowns by Marcedes Lewis and Leonard Fournette, a concussed Gronk and a 14-10 Jags lead. Lack of faith in Bortles may have lost them the game as they had three time outs, 55 seconds and only 37 yards to get into field goal range at the end of the first half but opted to kneel. Mistake. "Brady is like a villain in a horror film. You don't kill the villain by being conservative. You've got to stand over the villain at the end and put 15 bullets into him just to make sure he doesn't get back up for one last scare." Even at 20-10 heading into the fourth quarter, we all knew TB12 would come back and win it. Fucking Danny Amendola. Pats 24-20.

    Vikings-Eagles
    The two franchises with the most playoff victories (20-16 respectively) without a Super Bowl title faced off in Philadelphia; Keenum v Foles: Warrior. Case Keenum and Adam Thielen came out of nowhere and clicked, helping the Vikings to the #2 seed in the NFC, but it was the defense that made it possible, particularly safety Harrison Smith who was the highest graded player in the history of Pro Football Focus and still didn't get voted into the popularity contest Pro-Bowl. The Vikings opened by driving the ball down the Eagles throat for an early TD and then forcing the Eagles to punt on a three-and-out. Then they remembered that since losing their fourth Super Bowl in 1976 to the Raiders they had lost five NFCCGs and proceeded to roll over and allow Foles & Co to roll to a 38-7 thrashing.

    Football is a violent game, America's a violent country; maybe that's what makes the game so uniquely popular there. Yes, still. Despite the Chicken Little prophecies, football is still far and away America's #1 spectator sport. Faux anger and Twitter storms whirl around the latest outrage in the so-called real world as pundits weigh in with their pet theories on the latest once in a lifetime, black swan event. The sheer volume of information creates a volatile cocktail with the first to publish, hot take imperative of the media industry and our biases which determine which narrative most comforts us by allowing us to maintain our pre-existing beliefs making it impossible to come to any consensus on the cause let alone the solution. This is cognitive dissonance: Trump's election had to be the Russkies, and "people like George Soros and any other number of international financiers whose objective it is to take the United States out and down as a superpower" are using players such as Kaepernick in a plot to turn fans away from football because "[i]t's patriotic, you've got the flag, you've got the anthem, you've got uniformed military personnel, all the things that the left wants to erase from this country."

    The real reasons are both more simple and complex; simple because it's obvious once you filter out the noise, complex because proving causality requires multi-variate analysis. Just as Obomber, a smiling, smooth talking black man, was the perfect candidate for his time as he spoke to enough of those who pined for a saviour to right the ship of state listing at sea thanks to military boondoggles abroad and financial shenanigans at home, the Donald's words resonated with those living surrounded by people dying from deaths of despair. This is what happens when propaganda convinces the masses they live in the greatest nation in the world, symbolized by the flag, national anthem and apple pie, but see that their lives are objectively worse than their parents and coastal elites.

    Slow changes are hard to perceive but their cumulative effects can be lethal. Just as daily, imperceptible weight increases in the march to obesity shorten life spans, the slow, upward swing in inequality does exactly the same society wide. Not convinced? After all correlation doesn't necessarily imply causation, post hoc ergo propter hoc and all that? Well, it holds when comparing between countries AND within countries showing once a society reaches a certain level of development, increasing GDP does nothing for living standards but increasing inequality exacerbates every societal ill, from obesity to murder rates, recycling rates to life expectancy and will likely lead to societal breakdown and ultimately, revolution.

    Until enough people realize that political and economic systems are man-made constructs every bit as much as football where the rules aren't immutable, the only change possible is for the worse thanks in small part to the NFL. Seeing how the NFL was able to hold cities to ransom and then get places such as Las Vegas to give them billions, Jeff Bezos put Amazon's HQ2 up for bidding by cities who stumbled over each other in the race to the bottom to give the world's richest man more than he plans to invest for the reward of being Amazombified. It's become a platitude to say Americans are stupid, but have you seen today's athletes? What's to blame for the uptick in them thanking god and all the praying? Now that's some indoctrination. Seriously WTF? Anti-vaxxers and anthropomorphic climate change deniers have their mirror image in the NFL in hucksters touting magic water which helps in concussion recovery and pseudo-scientific dietary plans to ward off ageing. At least Russell Wilson and Tom Brady have the excuse that they're trying to make a buck, how about wacky flat-Earthism? Yep, NFL stars Sammy Watkins and Darius Slay have joined the "scepticism makes me smart, derp" cult. College 'educated' NFL player, William Hayes, believes in mermaids but not dinosaurs. No wonder millenials are eating Tide pods or that Proctor and Gamble had to hire Rob Gronkowski to tell kids not to eat them.

    The Super Bowl

    If you had asked which two teams I didn't want to make it to the Super Bowl this year, I most likely would've said the Patriots and the Eagles. Never lose (except against the Giants) against never won. How to choose? Looking at the season stats there's not much to separate them: both teams finished with 13-3 records and a +162 point differential; the Pats both scored and allowed one more point than the Eagles. Both teams offensive lines surrendered 38 sacks over the year. The Chiefs opened the season thrashing the Patriots and then beating the Eagles in week 2. Seeing as the Eagles have won the coin toss in both their Super Bowls and of course lost, and the Patriots have lost the toss in their five wins, it really is a coin flip when it comes to picking the winner.


    More minutiae? Eagles owner Jeffery Lurie grew up a Patriots fan and was outbid by Robert Kraft for the team in 1994. An Eagles win Sunday would make LeGarrette Blount and Chris Long the first two players in NFL history to win a Super Bowl one year and then win another one the next year against the team they won with the previous year. If the Patriots win they'll tie the Steelers for most franchise Super Bowl wins (6); if they lose they'll draw even with the Broncos for the most losses (5). Since 2008, when the Saints make the playoffs, the NFC wins, while the AFC wins when they miss. No player has led the NFL in passing yards and won the Super Bowl (0-5 record); Tom Brady at 40 led the NFL with 4,577 passing yards. So the smart money is on the Eagles, right? Until we remember that correlation ain't causation, and nothing's ever happened before it first did, and everything that's happened once did so for the first time.

    Today's Patriots are spoken of in terms of a dynasty, but in fact they're more like a double dynasty. It was just 13 years ago that the Patriots beat the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX to cap their last three out of four year Lombardi run, and this Sunday could be their third in four again (looking at a bird trifecta: Seahawks/Falcons/Eagles) with a ten year gap in between, astoundingly with Brady and Belichick as the constants. All their coordinators left at the end of the first three year run, people predicted their downfall, and this time they're all leaving again. Other parallels in the two runs are even spookier. Twenty-somethings have only known an NFL dominated by the Patriots as their ascendancy began 16 years ago. Five rings, eight AFC Championships since, only missing the semi final game four times since 2001 (what happened between 2008-2010?). TB12 and BB have simply been peerless. Brady is only 279 yards away from 10,000 career post-season passing yards, the next closest is Peyton Manning at 7,339 then Roethlisberger with 5,256. Brady has more playoff wins than 28 NFL franchises, more Super Bowl victories than 4 teams have playoff victories in the Super Bowl era.

    The Eagles lack the same pedigree, only having appeared, and lost, twice, of course 24-21 to the Pats in XXXIX and 27-10 to the Raiders in XV. This team carries none of that baggage though with both Doug Pederson and QB Carson Wentz joining the team in 2016. Most expected, or feared, the Eagles would be better this year, but off an NFC East cellar dwelling 7-9 season in 2016, predictions were in the 9-7, 10-6 range with a shot at the East but more likely a wildcard birth. Yet the only blemishes on their season were a week 2 loss to the red hot Chiefs, week 13 loss to Russell Wilson and a meaningless week 17 loss to the Cowboys. Sure, this is Napoleon Dynamite's Nick Foles' team now, but the results have been the same as with Wentz so far, and his league leading 122.1 QB rating in the playoffs means he's playing more like 2013 Nick Foles than the one who almost quit football last year. Still, remember that Brady playoff stat? 9,721 passing yards in the postseason in his NFL career; Foles has thrown for 9,752 passing yards in the regular season in his NFL career.

    Beyond Brady, the Patriots #1 offense features Gronk, the best tight end in football, who should be recovered from his concussion suffered in the AFCCG. Despite injuries and a suspension he still led the team with 69 reception, and, yeah, he knew that. Other receiving targets are Brandin Cooks, a speedster acquired in a pre-season trade with the Saints, Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola. Cooks seems more in sync with Brady lately, Hogan is finally healthy again and Amendola has been everything they needed to replace Julian Edelman. The running backs have been quietly productive becoming the first backfield with four different 5+ TD scorers in Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee and LI MVP James White. Lewis, an Eagles fifth round pick in 2011, established himself as the bellcow as the season progressed and is possibly the most underrated back in the league. So long as the Patriots offensive line can contain the Eagles front four, the key likely being Shaq Mason slowing down Fletcher Cox, the Pats will put up points.

    Despite Nick Foles gaudy NFCCG stats against the Vikings, the Eagles victory chances depend on the scheme of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and the play of their defense which begins with their front four, or better put, front eight as they rely on rotation to keep them fresh. With $71 million devoted to their offensive and defensive lines, no other team has a bigger investment, and it paid off as the defense was #1 in the league against the run. If Cox, Jernigan, and Graham all play at their best and get pressure without any blitz help it could be a hell of a show as the Eagles will be able to clog up the middle of the field and take away the Patriots' signature dink and dunk torture treatment. Safety Malcolm Jenkins could be MVP or goat as, though the Eagles play a lot more zone than man, he'll have the unenviable task of being most responsible for covering Gronk. Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills at corner will have to avoid being burned by a double move by Cooks or Hogan at some point.

    Zach Ertz is likely runner up to Gronk at TE in the league (ok, Travis Kelce is in the running, too), earning double digit targets five times this year and finishing with 74 receptions and the same number of TDs (8) as his Super Bowl rival. The Eagles didn't shy away from picking up offensive talent before or during the season. They rolled the dice on keeping Nelson Aghalor who had disappointed in his first two years, and picked up free agents Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. The latter still sucks but forces teams to respect the deep threat while Aghalor flashed and Jeffery nearly played up to the high expectations from his days in Chicago. Picking up LeGarrette Blount seemed like a luxury before they lost Darren Sproles (to an ACL tear and a broken arm in the same play), but picking up Jay Ajayi at the trade deadline cemented the team as the #3 rushing offense in the league. Undrafted rookie Corey Clement dazzled mid-season (4 TDs on the ground and 2 receiving) and could be the forgotten X-factor. Fun fact: Every Eagles point in the playoffs has been scored by someone not on the team last year. Of course the offensive line, led by C Jason Kelce and named the best in the league by PFF, played a big part despite losing Jason Peters early in the year.

    The Patriots defense produced a tale of two seasons. Following a 2-2 start, questions abounded, even going so far as pointing fingers at Belichik's philosophy. After a month they were last in the league in total yards surrendered and the worst defense since 2006 according to fivethirtyeight's EPA (Expected Points Added) metric. Predictably, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia turned his unit around (he is a rocket scientist after all) and proceeded to go on a six game run where they allowed the least points per game. Bend don't break describes the Pats D as they finished 29th in yards but fifth in points allowed (and first in points over the season’s final three-quarters). They play mostly man in the secondary where the aggressive approach contrasts with the front-seven's strategy which is more read and react. The team splurged on their defensive backs in the offseason, luring Stephon Gilmore from the Bills and hanging onto Devin McCourty and Malcolm Butler, but still struggled and are susceptible to being burned.

    Those same twenty-somethings who have known nothing beyond Brady/Belichick/Patriot NFL dominance have also only lived in a world of perpetual war (now with troops in 183 countries, hooray!), a soi-disant war on terror. The former may be more mind-boggling as they've done it in a system, from salary caps to the draft, meant to create parity, while the latter is simply a Rube Goldberg machine designed to fan the flames of fear and funnel cash into the black hole of the military industrial complex. Now throw in almost 40 years of inequality boosting neoliberalism and the devastating aftermath of a financial crisis which "forced" central banks to print cash (quantitative easing) for almost a decade to further exacerbate inequality. Follow that up with the onslaught of new technologies delivering an incessant stream of information courtesy of a few oligopolistic corporations whose raison-d'etre is to perpetuate the system which enriches them, and you've got a recipe for incongruity as fantasy and reality collide.

    Mixing metaphors, the cumulative effects on the population, at both the individual and societal level, are akin to those experienced by football players on the field as the chasm between reality and the fairy tale of freedom, prosperity and progress leaves them punch-drunk, exhibiting CTE-like symptoms: cognitive impairment, impulsive behavior, depression, apathy, short-term memory loss, difficulty planning and carrying out tasks, emotional instability, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts and behavior. Instead of the disease's tell-tale Tau proteins forming clumps that slowly spread throughout the brain, clogging neural pathways and killing brain cells, we are witness to fear, anger and resentment metastasizing across the population engendering anomie and fragmenting society into warring camps with opposing world views. Propaganda only works because we all think we're immune to it thus allowing it to wheedle its way into our very being while isolation and desperation leave us susceptible to the soothsayer who will allay our fears thereby enabling a rash of populist/nativist/neo-fascist con-men to capitalize on our weakness from Austria to Hungary, Brexit boosters to the USA, Poland to the Philippines. Et-tu Czechia?

    How can we unpack the indoctrination that goes into the belief system of someone who thinks Colin Kaepernick should be persecuted for his protest as he's not showing respect for those who have sworn to uphold the constitution which guarantees him the right to, um, protest? How can one not see that being forced to stand at attention with a boot on your neck isn't patriotism but tyranny? Besides, what's more primitive than idolatry? Equally deluded are those who refuse to accept the presidency of the man whose election was enabled, nay, caused by, the very policies of the party they support. The Ministry of Truth couldn't convince so many, so easily that it must have been the work of the devious 'other', in this case Putin/Russia, and erase from their memory the records of their own government not only meddling, but bullying, buying, rigging, funding, training, campaigning, assassinating and outright overthrowing governments who don't toe the line. 

    Tell me again how politics has no part in sport. Never watched the Olympics nor remember the boycotts? Don't think Joe Louis, Jessie Owens and Jackie Robinson played a role in advancing civil and human rights in America? Forgot about Mohammed Ali? More likely you think it's ok to use the NFL to promote your politics, like using Alejandro Villanueva and even Pat Tillman's name to boost military enlistment. Of course, cities subsidizing stadiums and thus the bottom line of privately owned franchises is purely apolitical. Vince McMahon, yes, him, sensing an opportunity to capitalize on the anger fomented over a player with the gall to express his opinion, will be rebooting the XFL, yes, that, and went so far as to promise players will stand for the anthem when the league kicks off in 2020. Fun fact alert: Vince's wife Linda is part of Trump's cabinet as head of the Small Business Administration. Problem is he doesn't even know how the game will be delivered, meaning he's every bit as ignorant as Drumpf as to the main reason for football's ratings decline: cord cutting and internet streaming. All network TV ratings were down this year. All of them. NBC dropped 4%. CBS dropped 6%. ABC dropped 11%. Fox dropped 20%. As many people are turning away from football in support of Kap as they are in protest against him, it's just that folks are getting their entertainment outside the cable TV universe. Come Sunday, however, you can bet over 100 million Americans will be tuned in to the Super Bowl.

    Is it time for a pick yet?

    It's dynasty vs. 'dogs. The Eagles need to resist falling under the spell of the Patriots' aura; easier said than done amidst the two week build-up with its relentless media blitz which can rattle the most unflappable veteran. Vegas has the Pats as the deserved 4.5 point favorites, but the Eagles were underdogs against both the Falcons and Vikings and wound up feeding off it. The Madden sim predicted a 24-20 Patriots win, and before you scoff, note its 10 of 14 record and the uncannily accurate simulation in XLIX. Historically, I'd probably lean towards the Eagles against this spread as the Pats have played close Super Bowls; in the Brady years they've won by 3, 3, 3, 4 and 6 and have lost by 3 and 4, most of which were classics (the biggest margin being the only overtime game in SB history). Consequently, it could come down to the kickers, but there's not much to separate Stephen Gostkowski and rookie Jake Elliott; both are Memphis Tigers' alumni where the veteran once mentored the freshman, clearly Gost has the experience but Elliott's got the bigger leg.

    Just as in the US election, seems as though my choice comes down to who to cheer most against: whoever wins, we all lose. The Cowboys fan in me is loath to lose having the ringless also-ran to kick around in the NFC East, and, yes, even I've been forced to find a little place within myself to respect the achievements of BB and Brady. Nevertheless, there's a certain attraction to silencing Steelers fans' six-ring gloating by handing the Pats their sixth and the distinct possibility of watching Philadelphia burn to the ground in celebration. All dynasties, like empires, must eventually come to an end, and a loss, coupled with the more-than-rumoured troubles in the Brady-Belichick-Kraft relationship could just do the trick. With the conspiracies about the refs favoring the Patriots whirling around, perhaps they'll have to play it straight, opening the door to an upset. Here's to hoping we all get to one day play on a level playing field. As is Pats tradition against the NFC East in the Super Bowl, an absurd catch by, um, Corey Clement puts the Eagles in position to win and they do, let's make it 27-24.