Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Thoughts and thanks for Leinart
By Bill Simmons
For the first time in four years, I have to supplement the online version of my magazine column with a foreword. This will all be explained in a few paragraphs. But first, a few leftover thoughts from the past few days:
• I planned on a mailbag for today before tragedy intervened: My beloved IBM Thinkpad froze while sending an e-mail on Monday morning. It reminded me of the time Nomar blew out his wrist in the spring of 2001 -- Hall of Fame numbers and consistency for a decent stretch of time (in this case, 2½ years), followed by a potential career-ending injury and only Mike Lansing (in this case, the Sports Gal's laptop) as a backup. And if that wasn't bad enough, her laptop was missing an "L" key because our daughter ripped it off over the weekend, so we had to get THAT fixed as well. Ever try to type without an "L" key? Bad times. Right now I'm using a six-year-old Fujitsu laptop that's slower than all three Molina brothers combined. Just an epic disaster. I can't say enough about it. Try typing about 10 million words over the course of 30 months on one laptop, then immediately switching to a keyboard that's half the size. What a way to start the week. By the way, it took me almost seven hours to write this paragraph.
• Here's what the average e-mail coming from the St. Louis area looked like over the past 72 hours: "Hey, Simmons, let me be the 10,000th person to tell you that YOU SUCK! How do you like Quadruple-A baseball now, you pompous ass! The Cards are rolling through your so-called superior league! How does it feel to eat your words, butt wipe???? YOU SUCK!!!!!!!!!!!!"
So that leaves me with two choices:
A. Retreat and admit that the Cards shoved it in my face.
B. Go down in flames like a shirtless Stephen Jackson egging the crowd on as he left the Palace after the Artest Melee.
I'm going with Choice A. They shoved it in my face. Although I will say this: Even the more rational Cardinals fans -- I even know a couple of them -- freely admitted that (A) this was the worst Cardinal team of the decade, and (B) they couldn't believe that THIS was the team that made it to the World Series. But that's the great thing about baseball: you never know. The Tigers toppled the evil Yankees, finished their Oakland sweep in storybook fashion and looked invincible ... then a solid week passed and completely killed their momentum. Meanwhile, the Cards nearly blew an insurmountable division lead, limped into the playoffs, couldn't finish off a depleted Mets team, managed only one run combined in potential clinchers against John Maine and Oliver Perez ... and they ended up getting the big hit (Molina's homer) and the big pitch (Wainwright's killer deuce to Beltran), and now they have all the momentum.
Did I plan to watch every minute of this series? Not really. But if you're a true sports fan, it's hard not to appreciate a battle between two old-school franchises with such great fans. Maybe it's not that pretty, and maybe it's weird to think that these are the two best teams in baseball, but the crowds made up for everything; these are the kinds of fan bases with families that go four-five generations deep. It's hard not to get swept up in that atmosphere. And the games haven't been bad. We haven't had a nail-biter yet, but Game 2 featured the bizarre Rogers subplot, while Game 3 featured a brilliant performance by Carpenter (although the Tigers helped by swinging at everything) and Zumaya's unexpected collapse in the eighth (which also led to McCarver's funniest moment of the night -- a dramatic pause followed by the revelation, "that was a bad play by Joel Zumaya"). Yes, I'm enjoying the series so far. Even with a mouth full of crow.
• Back to Rogers: Does anyone else believe that he planted that brown stuff on his left hand to deflect attention away from the fact that he fits every possible profile of a steroids/greenies guy? I mean, let's say you just returned from a three-week safari in Africa and I told you, "Yo, there's this veteran pitcher in his early 40s with a storied track record for choking in big games, only now he's working on a 22-inning scoreless streak in October and punctuating each start by screaming after every out and stomping around like a crazy homeless guy trying to clear out a bus stop?" Wouldn't your first thought be, "What's he taking?" Instead, we're worried about some mud on his hand? Somebody make this guy pee in a cup, please.
• The "24" promo last night ... I mean, Fox could have started spitting out $100 bills through my TV and I wouldn't have been as excited.
• That reminds me, we didn't get a breakout promo for a new Fox show this month (although "Justice" feels like it's about to break into an SNL sketch at any time), but after everything's said and done, we'll remember these playoffs for four haunting words: "This is our ... country." We couldn't get away from the song all month in the Chevy ads, and about 109 days after it had become completely intolerable -- seriously, what does Katrina footage have to do with me wanting to buy a Chevy? -- they made us wait over a minute before Game 2's pregame performance, which would have been the most horrifying moment of the playoffs if not for Bob Seger's teeth on HDTV. I made a joke in a previous column about how John Mellencamp was gunning to replace Seger as the sellout rock artist of his generation, but this has taken on a life of its own.
In fact, I even spent a few minutes on his Web site recently hoping to find SOME explanation, even if it was something like, "Guys, I'm sorry, I'm going through a bad divorce, my wife took everything, it was either do these Chevy ads or declare for bankruptcy." But here was his actual take on the song, courtesy this weekend of the Detroit Free-Press, which reported that a message on his Web site said: "I wrote this song to tell a story about some of the challenges our country faces and how our beliefs and ideals can help us meet them, a message of hope and tolerance. It's a song that is all about standing up for the working people who are the backbone of our nation."
Here's how that same message reads on his Web site right now:
"About a year ago, I wrote this song to tell a story about some of the challenges our country faces and how our beliefs and ideals can help us meet them. This partnership with Chevy -- an American company that is creating jobs and supporting our communities -- makes perfect sense for a song that is all about standing up for the working people who are the backbone of our nation."
Hmmmm ... Quote No. 1 sure reads differently than Quote No. 2! But let's assume that he meant everything he said in Quote No. 2, and that he's not just shilling this song to make money and promote his new album that comes out in four months. And let's factor in his outspoken views against the war in Iraq and our own government over the past few years (explained in this open letter). What does any of this have to do with a Chevy Silverado? He can't possibly expect us to believe the "partnership with an American company" angle, right? So was he thinking, "I'm not getting my political message across, maybe I'll do it secretly through a Chevy ad?" Does he have a master plan to use these never-ending ads to increase his visibility, then use that visibility to take more shots at the government? Or am I putting way too much thought into this subject because they won't stop showing the ads and they're beginning to drive me crazy?
I don't know the answer, but one thing's for sure: "From the East Coast to the West Coast, down the Dixie Highway back home ... this is our country ... I'll take the check in cash please, in unmarked $100 bills ... this is our country ... "
• Couple of follow-ups from recent columns:
1. In last week's mailbag, I had the riff about baby names and mentioned that "I'd love to read a book that traces the history and trends of various names." Well, guess what? Somebody created a Web site that does just that:. If you don't spend at least five minutes plugging names into this thing, either you're at work with a boss that keeps circling behind your desk, or you're sitting in your dorm room too stoned to figure it out how it works. It's mildly riveting. Plus, as reader Dave Zaffran points out, "It's fun to take a look at say, 'Adolf,' and see its precipitous drop in the late 1910s.
2. We rushed Friday afternoon's NFL column up as fast as possible and forgot to add records for the Sports Gal and me ... which, of course, led to 90 minutes of e-mailers slamming me for "sneaking" the column up without mentioning the records, like I was thinking, "Wait, I won't add records this week, hopefully my editors won't notice, and hopefully hundreds of thousands of ESPN.com readers won't notice, either." If you sent me one of those e-mails, no offense, but you're an idiot.
3. Now here's something for which you could have rightfully slammed me: In my running diary on Thursday, I made fun of McCarver for calling Endy Chavez "Eric" ... and a few paragraphs later, I called Braden Looper "Brandon." Although my defense is that McCarver inadvertently lowered my IQ as the game dragged on.
4. On the heels of my Week 5 prediction, Joseph Addai is "about two weeks from getting a Chris Berman nickname like Joseph 'Live and Let' Addai, which works perfectly because that song came out in 1974," Kevin from Santa Clara reports, "Berman didn't disappoint on the Week 7 Blitz, giving Addai the EXACT nickname that you predicted he would EXACTLY when you said he would. Then again, not sure how proud you may be of knowing Chris Berman probably better than you know the Sports Gal." I wouldn't say better -- just equally well.
• Speaking of people I know, it's bad enough that our old friend Paul Shirley got waived by the Timberwolves this week, but they waived him and kept Vin Baker, the man who single-handedly set my beloved Celtics back three years. What an outrage! I'd been keeping my fingers crossed for weeks that Shirley would be playing with KG, Ricky Davis, Eddie Griffin, Rashad McCants and some of the other maniacs on that team -- I mean, that's an entire book, right there -- and at the last minute, they waive him for Vin and Tonic? I'm outraged. There hasn't been a missed opportunity this significant since Scarlett Johnanssen didn't get naked for any of the sex scenes in "Match Point."
• Random note: I weaseled my way into an advance launch of the PlayStation 3 in Beverly Hills Tuesday. It doesn't come out until Nov. 17. With that said, trust me on the following three words: buy Sony stock. As they were giving me the virtual tour, I kept laughing and making orgasmic noises, kinda like the way Tommy Heinsohn sounds when Rajon Rondo makes one of his three spectacular plays per game for the Celtics. I thought they were going to throw me out at one point. Also, they list the price in the $500-700 range (depending on what features you get, including stuff like "wireless controllers") but that does NOT include the retainer for the divorce attorney. Which I'm going to need if I get this thing. Good God. The glory days of Intellivision football seem like they happened about 2,500 years ago.
• Hey, take a guess who made the following quote on Monday: "I'm hoping that we can [have a rotation eventually], but I'm not going to form a rotation just because people say you should have a 10-man rotation. I think that's ridiculous. I've always thought that. If you have the type of team that can handle a rotation, then you have a rotation. But if you have guys who are consistent one night and inconsistent the next because you want a rotation and you just play the guy who is inconsistent, does that make any sense? With the young guys, you might have another guy just as good as him sitting on the bench and he's not playing."
That's right, it's our old friend ... Mr. Doc Rivers! You can read more wit and wisdom from Doc in his upcoming book, "They Didn't Fire Me Over The Summer Because They Didn't Want To Pay Two Coaches," which also features forewards from Isiah Thomas and Mo Cheeks.
• All right, time to explain why I had to write an intro for the online version of the current magazine column. Here's the problem: The magazine comes out every two weeks, which means that it's sitting on newsstands, living room tables and magazine racks in doctor's offices for 14 days. That's a long time. So I try to pick timely topics that can age with the issue; I try to look ahead instead of behind; and I try to guess what's about to happen before it happens. They also give me the latest deadline possible (Sunday afternoons, the same day the magazine goes to press) so I can react to anything that might happen close to closing. In the case of this particular column, I wanted to write about Matt Leinart (for reasons you're about to read), and only one thing could screw things up: If he crapped the bed against an 0-6 Raiders team, which seemed impossible. After all, if he handled the Chicago D, Art Shell and the lowly Raiders should be a piece of cake, right?
So what happened? Leinart didn't just crap the bed, he dumped Najeh Davenport's laundry hamper all over it. That's the thing about rookie QBs: Some weeks, they're going to stink the joint out. Happened with both Mannings, happened with Brady, happened to McNabb, happened to everybody. Unfortunately for me, it happened with Leinart the same week that we ran a column about him. So when you're reading it, pretend you're reading it after Monday night's game, pretend that the Raiders game hadn't happened yet, and pretend that I'm not trying to swallow my own tongue right now.
Onto the column ...
Editor's note: This article appears in the Nov. 6 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
I'm still not sure what we should call this particular decade. The Zeros or Zilches hasn't caught on. Neither has Double Zeroes. The Oughts sounds like a German nickname for breasts. I'm leaning toward the Oughties -- it's happy, it's catchy, and I could totally see VH1 running an "I Love the Oughties" show one day. (Just pray I'm not one of the commentators.)
Today I wanted to write about the most underrated sports subplot of the Oughties: that pro teams have officially started to outsmart themselves at draft time. They amass too much information, rely too much on technology, consider too many variables and generally just overthink everything. There never seems to be a VP of Common Sense around when you need one. And honestly, it's giving me a headache.
In the past four years alone, the Pistons passed on Melo, Chris Bosh and D-Wade for Darko; the Texans antagonized their fan base by taking Mario Williams over Reggie Bush; and the Hawks passed on the best young point guard of the decade (Chris Paul) to take a forward they didn't even need who hadn't played much in college (Marvin Williams). In this year's NBA and NFL drafts, two guys who are mortal locks to matter right away (Brandon Roy and Matt Leinart, respectively) went sixth and 10th. And crap like that happens all the time. This is the era of Tremendous Upside Potential. Raw talent means more than real substance. Game films, statistics and win-loss records don't carry as much weight as 40-yard dashes and vertical leaps. Better to drain 30 of 40 uncontested 3-pointers in a private workout than to nail seven of eight in a Final Four game.
And yes, I've written about this before, but I'll keep bitching until somebody gives me a more plausible answer than "Just about everybody is stupid, let it go." The NFL's latest scouting oversight was the one that missed Leinart, whose immediate success in Arizona indisputably proves -- once and for all, without a shadow of a doubt -- that the NFL should overhaul its evaluation process for quarterback prospects. How could a franchise QB slip past three straight teams (Oakland, Buffalo, Detroit) that desperately needed a quarterback simply because they weren't crazy about his arm strength? How could they forget that was the same reason Tom Brady and Matt Hasselbeck slipped to the sixth round and Jake Delhomme went undrafted and Brad Johnson and his .605 winning percentage keeps bouncing around the league, from winning team to winning team? How many times do we need to go through this?
In the past two decades, only one highly regarded QB failed because he couldn't get zip on a football: Steve Walsh, whose right arm was made of fusilli. Every other one stank because he wasn't smart enough or leader enough or couldn't read Ds or choked in big spots or got injured too much or allowed the fans to get into his head or, in Ryan Leaf's case, all of the above. Those qualities can't be measured or predicted in a scouting combine, except maybe with the Wonderlic Test. But we keep trying. And failing.
Let's say, for example, that Johnson and Chad Pennington snuck into next winter's combine wearing shaggy wigs, pretending they were D-II sleepers. What would happen once they went through the various drills? They'd be projected as 27th-round picks. Yeah, it's nice to find a QB with a cannon arm or insane athletic ability, but those natural gifts take you only so far.
You cannot make it in the National Football League (I just channeled my inner Collinsworth) without intangibles that, for whatever reason, teams routinely discount. You need to think on your feet, inspire teammates, develop a thick skin, thrive under pressure and be ready for any possible situation at any possible time. It's the single toughest position to master in any team sport. And only a handful of people can do it well.
Which brings us back to Leinart. If you've come through again and again at the highest college level, if you are smart as hell, are unflappable under pressure and are always the coolest guy on the field, and someone to whom teammates respond, well, there's a better-than-good chance you'll succeed in the NFL. Leinart spearheaded a dominant USC team that transcended college to some degree, emerging as a local celebrity on par with Nick Lachey, Jake Gyllenhaal and various other recognizable young males. Thanks to that constant exposure, he learned how to handle himself in news conferences and on talk shows, how to deal with nosy reporters and feature writers searching for juicy angles, how to avoid trouble at the wrong club or the wrong party. He learned how to live with dozens of people staring at him and badgering him wherever he went. In a roundabout way, his life became a real-life scouting combine. By spending his days and nights evolving into the coolest guy in the room, he also prepared himself to be the coolest guy on an NFL field.
So when Leinart was picking apart a heavily hyped Bears defense on a recent Monday night, I -- unlike the announcers -- wasn't even remotely surprised. In the past 25 years, what rookie quarterback was better prepared for that situation? Consider the variables that went into performing on that particularly thankless stage: It's his second NFL start. He's playing for the Clippers of football -- actually, that's an insult to the Clips at this point -- for a tortured fan base that sits around waiting for something to go wrong. He's got an overmatched offensive coordinator who will be canned within 24 hours. His $30 million running back is already griping about touches (even though he's leading the league in that category). He's missing his No. 1 receiver. He's going against a superb defense that's being compared to the all-time greats. And if that's not enough, he's playing in front of a huge TV audience. Um, where does arm strength come into play here? If you came up with a list of traits a player needs to succeed in this particular situation, arm strength doesn't crack the top 10. The NFL is a mental game more than anything else.
I just don't get it. The Bills passed on Leinart because they already had J.P. Losman, which is like passing on a brand-new BMW because you're all set with your Hyundai. The Raiders passed because they love to throw deep and didn't believe Leinart could reach Randy Moss, so they drafted a safety and signed Aaron Brooks. (Hold on, we have to wait for the Raiders fans who are reading this to stop punching themselves in the head.) The Lions passed because Matt Millen is determined to pass Isiah Thomas as the worst executive in sports history. We all remember Leinart's stunned reaction as he was falling on draft day, but maybe he wasn't thinking, Shoot, I should have come out last year, as much as, What are these teams thinking?
Now he's making everyone pay. Just another horror story from the Oughties. See you in two months when I'm killing the Raptors, Bobcats, Bulls and Hawks for passing on Brandon Roy.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.