Kind of poetic being that it happened the day after LeBron won the title and all.
It’s impossible to refrain any longer. The people have demanded it. After the past couple of weeks’ results, it’s finally time we address the striking manner in which the NHL and the UEFA Champions League resemble one another. That’s right readers, brace yourselves. I’m totally about to spend an unnecessary amount of words and time comparing hockey and soccer to see what it teaches us! I know, I know. I don’t understand why ESPN hasn’t brought me on yet either.
Before proceeding, it’s quite necessary to give you all a bit of background, because if you’re anything like the rest of America, you have yet to catch a single second of the NHL playoffs and missed the Champions League all together. And who could blame you? Hockey and soccer aren’t exactly separating themselves from the pack in the Nielsen ratings.
For the last half of the decade in the 2000s, the sports of hockey and soccer were largely dominated by what can only be described as offensive-oriented styles of play. For hockey, this was exactly the intention as the league made a conscious effort to change the game in the wake of the infamous lockout that crippled the sport’s popularity. The NHL increased the size of the offensive zone, outlawed tactics that prevented scoring (grabs, interference, etc), among other measures. Basically they were trying to prevent anything and everything the New Jersey Devils stood for in the neutral zone trap era. It largely worked.
In soccer, the sport became that way because of the success of two teams. The first was the Spanish club Barcelona which successfully executed the best “home-grown” talent initiative in the history of sports. They produced world-class players like Iniesta, Xavi, and the incomparable Lionel Messi on their way to numerous championships and trophies. The second team was not surprisingly the Spanish national team which largely looked to capitalize off the success (read: copy) of the domestic club Barcelona, using many of its same players. What characterizes Barca and Spain is that they utilize a possession-heavy style of play. That is to say, they have control of the ball for the majority of the time during their matches. Rather than make one quick attempt at a goal when they gain possession, these teams are content to pass and control the ball for long periods at a time until the defense finally gives them a window to score.
For anyone who romanticizes sports and “the way games were meant to be played,” the last couple of years have been a godsend in these two sports. The games finally seemed to “open up” and let the athletes showcase their extraordinary talents with a puck or with a ball. To witness Lionel Messi in open space is to catch a glimpse of the sort of religous experience David Foster Wallace so famously described when he witnessed Roger Federer back at Wimbledon all those years ago.
Not surprisingly though, teams that lose don’t tend to like to continue losing. When a club wants to change its fate in a sport there are two ways to accomplish it. The first is to try and replicate the success of the team that dominates you and beat them at their own game. This is amazingly difficult as there is simply no way to field a team in soccer that could replicate the chemistry and talent built from the years that the top players at Barcelona have played and trained together. In the long-term, it’s totally possible, but as we all know, top sports franchises don’t tend to have that kind of patience. This is commonly referred to as George Steinbrenner syndrome.
The second method is possible to achieve in the short-term though. The magical cure? Create a style of play that completely counters that of the rival. Furthermore, pursue and sign those players that make that style of play possible. Translated in present day terms for hockey and soccer, adopt a completely defensive-oriented style of play that chokes the life out of opponents.
This is going on as we speak and it’s fascinating to a sports dork like me because it brings about yet another chapter in the most important debate in the history of sports: what’s more important, style or winning? The answer isn’t as simple as you’d think, most especially in soccer where some of the most famous teams in the history of the sport never won anything.
So how did it happen?
In hockey, it’s been more of a slow evolution across the sport to counter the offensive genius of guys like Ovechkin and Crosby rather than having one person we can point to and blame. Former Red Wings and Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman recently described the transformation in a recent article for The Globe and Mail. The essence of his discussion is that this style of play has its roots in the late 70s Maple Leafs teams that were attempting to put a halt to one of the greatest dynasties in the history of hockey in Bowman’s Canadiens teams.
The strategy goes something like this. In hockey the team on offense typically keeps one player (the two defensemen) in each area where the blue line meets the boards on the opposite sides of the ice, known as “points.” Historically the defensive team kept their forwards out to press against these defenders which created a lot of space for the puck to be passed around in the zone. To counter this spacing, the Maple Leafs reacted by pulling those two forwards back and essentially creating a wall around the net, known in the NHL as “covering the house.” In giving up their forwards at the points, the defense concedes the ability to score quick counter-attack points by starting fast breaks though. However, they have the tactical advantage as they’re basically playing hockey 5 on 3 near the net, preventing any offense, and can block almost any shot before it reaches their goaltender. The result, as you’ve probably surmised by now, is a complete lack of scoring.
Soccer is a bit more curious in that we can largely place the blame on one man who seems to have been placed on earth entirely for the purpose of solving the Barcelona problem. His interests also likely include telling children that Santa Clause doesn’t exist and stealing candy from babies. That man is Jose Mourinho, the current manager of Barcelona’s chief rival Real Madrid and who first conceived the strategy to defeat Barca back in 2010 while he manged Inter, a popular club in Italy.
His strategy is simple, really, and it’s probably not fair to credit him entirely for constructing the model that finally ended Barcelona’s reign atop the soccer world as almost every club attempted the same tactics. The idea is that the team is willing to place 10 of its 11 players back on defense to prevent Barcelona from entering the box. The idea is to let them pass the ball all they want, so long as it doesn’t get near the goalie. Like with the “covering the house” strategy, they give up most of their chances at creating a quick counter-attack, but in turn they’re able to block almost every shot attempt. There are two other key ingredients which any supporter would hate to hear but are nonetheless true–get really, really lucky and score the only chance you get. More often than not, this formation will only yield a single scoring chance a game for the side that chooses to adopt the defensive philosophy.
The strategy was made even more famous just this past week by the English club Chelsea which back doored its way into the most unlikely of Champions League titles by perfectly executing this ultra-defensive style. Not only did they manage to defeat Barcelona in the semis, but they also slipped past Bayern Munich in the final, the team that most closely resembles Barcelona with its possession-heavy style of play. It was the most improbable of runs, made all the more dramatic with their win in penalty kicks. As thrilling as it was though, the soccer itself was ugly and lacked for drama. Most fans widely accepted that the match would, in all likelihood, end in a 1-0 result. This nearly occurred, except that Chelsea’s Didier Drogba scored a late equalizer on Chelsea’s only corner of the whole match. Again, one great chance and they made it count.
And thus we come in a roundabout way back to the great philosophical question of sports. Is it more important to have style or to win?
It is no secret that the history of sports is filled with players, teams, managers, and even leagues reacting and countering specific styles of play. Think of how the NCAA banned the dunk, MLB lowered the height of the mound, and the NFL adopted rules to encourage and protect great quarterbacking. Remember the way the fast break goes in and out of style, the way pitching wins championships until it doesn’t, and how you want to control the football with the run unless you have Tom Brady or Eli Manning. One action promotes a reaction and so on and so forth until we come to a point that we even forget how we got their in the first place.
Everyone widely loathes the Spurs championship teams in the Duncan era because they were so seemingly opposed to scoring. Their main foe at the time, the seven-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns are far more beloved by the fans. But at the end of the day, San Antonio has the banners. Banners fly forever. People don’t forget style either though. There are several more examples of this: the 1982 Brazilian World Cup team lost to eventual champions Italy in the quarterfinals even though that Brazilian squad is considered maybe the best ever; the Oakland Athletics have yet to win a World Series utilizing the Moneyball principles while the Yankees continue to win the World Series even though we’ve now lionized Billy Beane; and die-hard basketball fans are far more inclined to remember teams with swagger like the 2007 Golden State Warriors than the eventual champs that year (again, those poor San Antonio Spurs).
Perhaps the approach that needs to be taken has nothing to do with picking a side but realizing that as fans of the game we tend to win either way. In the event that an offensive team dominates an era, we get to see how beautifully a game might be played by human beings. In the event that a sports era turns to the defensive side, we’re often blessed with dynasties and then, eventually, some brilliant player or coach who solves the riddle of the defensive problem in that sport and ushers in another golden era of scoring.
It’s the circle of life in sports, and I love it all. You should too.
In the age of Twitter, it is almost unforgivable that I waited a week to finally address the issue of last week’s Super Bowl in a column. I apologize up front for that. Since the big game though I’ve been throwing a couple of ideas around that I’m going to try to make some sense of in this piece. In my opinion, it was the most fascinating Super Bowl ever from a sports dork/debating/evaluation perspective. The chief issues for this come about as a result of asking any one of the following questions: How were the legacies of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick affected by the outcome? How does Eli Manning rate compared to the other elite quarterbacks in this league? How can an athlete be considered the best ever at his profession but be so utterly out shined by a fellow athlete at that same task (also known as: the Federer/Nadal conundrum)? Who is the better quarterback among the brothers Manning? Is it even worth the time and effort to try to debate all of this in the first place?
The idea for this essay was conceived as the result of reading a series of random pieces in the past couple of weeks. So as to not come across as though I’m stealing their ideas, I’d like to credit those three pieces now and I’ll refer to them at the appropriate stages. The first is Bomani Jones’ Super Bowl column which details the challenging dilemma of attempting to evaluate quarterbacks against one another. The second is Malcolm Gladwell’s review of the Steve Jobs book in the wake of his untimely death which, among many things, contrasts Jobs to Bill Gates. The last is Eric Freeman’s column on the aftermath of the classic Federer/Djokovic Australian Open final this year. It is my suggestion that you read all three of those before proceeding.
The issue I want to examine is trying in some manner to describe greatness as it pertains to athletics. More specifically, being the greatest. To say it is a complex undertaking is a gross understatement and does no justice to the amount of thought various writers and thinkers have done tackling this subject. I have no allusions about how difficult this is and how highly subjective the analysis will be.
True confession: like many other sports dorks the Michael Lewis book Moneyball forever altered how I look at sports. I don’t know how many other readers were led to explore the principles of advanced stats as they applied to other sports, but count me among those who took their bachelor’s in sports dorkdom from Moneyball and went to study for the full PhD by mining the darker corners of the internet for content.
One of my first questions was what organizations were utilizing the same philosophies in the other major sports? I soon learned that the Houston Rockets pretty much pioneered it for the NBA. I learned that European soccer clubs like Arsenal are investing in the use of advanced stats but that it’s increasingly difficult to come up with metrics in a sport like soccer that has infinitely more measurable events taking place in a game than say, baseball. I then learned that Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots were way ahead of the curve for using it in the NFL and suddenly the dominance of that organization over the last decade made sense.
And thus was born one of the more improbable man crushes in the history of sports. Prior to this past season, I cannot tell you how much I loathed the city of Boston and, more specifically, Bill Belichick. I found his press conferences insulting, I believed his success was fraudulent due to Spygate, and I thought the hoodie look was a disgrace to the game. I felt a personal bitterness that resonated as a result of his Patriots so quickly grasping the dynasty title just a few seasons after my beloved John Elway retired with back-to-back Super Bowl wins. I detested anyone who thought of Tom Brady as being in the same sentence with Elway. The more you delve into the Belichick story though, the more it becomes clear that this man is not some short-tempered loser with the ego of a big program college football coach, but rather one of the greatest innovators and thinkers in the history of football.
After some reading I learned the reasoning behind his press conference performances. It wasn’t so much an arrogant display as it was a hilarious and ironic protest of the monotony of sports coverage. I eventually learned the story behind the hoodie, and instantly I saw a man with wit and charm rather than a bad taste in clothing. Combine that with learning about his lifelong friendship with Ernie Adams–a man who can only be described as the football whisperer–and Bill Belichick might be the single most fascinating coach in the history of American professional sports. If you have no idea what I’m talking about in any of those instances, please drop me a line in the comments and I’d be happy to elaborate.
What became increasingly clear though, in my mind, was that Bill Belichick was the greatest football coach ever. When you combine the titles, the prolonged success, the innovation, the draft strategy, the players he’s coached, the embracing of advanced stats, the personality, the knowledge of the game, etc., I don’t think it’s even a contest. Hands down Bill Belichick is the best football coach of all time.
Which is what makes it all the more confounding to me that Tom Coughlin (Tom Coughlin!) has his number when it comes to these Super Bowls. No offense to any Giants fans or members of the Coughlin family, but at face value, Tom Coughlin might be the least interesting coach in the history of football. For one, he’s really old. Two, I can’t get past the way his cheeks turn all kinds of red when a) it gets cold and/or b) the Giants pull off one of their patented “what in the f— were they thinking there” plays. And three, there’s nothing particularly innovative about the New York Giants roster except that they got extremely lucky with Victor Cruz and seem to have a penchant for collecting as many defensive linemen as possible.
And this brings me to my first comparison. In that Malcolm Gladwell piece I mentioned, the author of the book talks about how Steve Jobs used to get infuriated with Bill Gates. It is no secret at this point that Jobs thought of himself as the greatest innovator/inventor of our modern times and took great personal lengths to assure that anything associated with him and his company were “perfect” in his eyes. While coming across on the surface as being completely arrogant, I don’t think anyone outside of the city of Seattle and the walls of the Microsoft office is going to disagree with his view. Jobs was a genius. People were attracted to that genius. As a result Apple, to put it mildly, is a successful business.
Which is what makes it all the more fascinating that he would let Bill Gates get him so worked up. As Gladwell recalled from the book:
In the nineteen-eighties, Jobs reacted the same way [as he did to the release of the Android phone in recent years] when Microsoft came out with Windows. It used the same graphical user interface—icons and mouse—as the Macintosh. Jobs was outraged and summoned Gates from Seattle to Apple’s Silicon Valley headquarters. “They met in Jobs’s conference room, where Gates found himself surrounded by ten Apple employees who were eager to watch their boss assail him,” Isaacson writes. “Jobs didn’t disappoint his troops. ‘You’re ripping us off!’ he shouted. ‘I trusted you, and now you’re stealing from us!’ ”
Gates looked back at Jobs calmly. Everyone knew where the windows and the icons came from. “Well, Steve,” Gates responded. “I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”
Jobs was someone who took other people’s ideas and changed them. But he did not like it when the same thing was done to him. In his mind, what he did was special. Jobs persuaded the head of Pepsi-Cola, John Sculley, to join Apple as C.E.O., in 1983, by asking him, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” When Jobs approached Isaacson to write his biography, Isaacson first thought (“half jokingly”) that Jobs had noticed that his two previous books were on Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, and that he “saw himself as the natural successor in that sequence.” The architecture of Apple software was always closed. Jobs did not want the iPhone and the iPod and the iPad to be opened up and fiddled with, because in his eyes they were perfect. The greatest tweaker of his generation did not care to be tweaked.
What the author is essentially saying is that Jobs found Gates’ success insulting even though they both seemingly committed the same act. Neither of these men originally came up with the ideas that would revolutionize computers, but both saw the potential in Xerox’s original idea. Doing a little more reasearch, one discovers that later on Jobs would vent to others about how Microsoft drove him crazy by intentionally omitting beauty and grace from the process of creating computers. The way Windows could be used on thousands of different computers and laptop styles that were created only for the sake of being created seemed to offend Jobs’ very existance. He took great personal pride in the design of his products.
When I watch Bill Belichick lose to Tom Coughlin, I feel Steve Jobs’ pain described in that story. How dare the Giants go ruin something as beautiful as the New England Patriots as designed by Bill Belichick! They don’t understand the greatness that they are impeding upon! Tom Coughlin should feel lucky to even share the field with the great Belichick! And so forth.
To delve into the Belichick story is to become obssessed with a great man and a great coach. I’m telling you, don’t do it unless you are prepared to fall absolutely head over heels in sports love with the man. The way I feel about him is the way the legions of Apple fans feel about Jobs.
And yet, how do I defend him as the greatest coach of all-time when Tom Coughlin has his number?
One of the better developments in recent years in terms of journalism has been the trend towards what is known as “Long Form” journalism whereby the writer gets thousands of more words than she typically would to report her story. It’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s journalism, only longer. I would argue it’s better as well. It’s inspired a number of websites, among the more famous are Longreads.com and Bill Simmons’ new site Grantland.
It’s unfair to really attribute all of this form’s recent success to one person, but if you put a gun to my head I’d credit its modern popularity to the late David Foster Wallace. Wallace is considered perhaps the greatest novelist of modern times and what further endeared him to his fans was that he wrote several fantastic magazine pieces in addition to the great works of literature he published. For some reason, Wallace made the conscious decision to make his magazine pieces far more readable than the complex issues of his books. But while the magazine pieces might have been relatively more simple (especially when compared to a Wallace novel), they had a uniqueness about them that absolutely grabbed the reader and kept their attention throughout. If you don’t believe me, read his take on travelling aboard a luxury cruise, his reporting from a regional lobster festival, or most importantly, his famous tribute to Roger Federer.
That last piece, I would argue, inspired a whole generation of sports dorks. What Wallace accomplished in that piece redefined the expectations of what could be accomplished in sports writing. I’ll make the claim that it’s partially responsible for the success of sites like Deadspin and Grantland, as well as writers like Bill Simmons, Tommy Craggs, and Will Leitch.
Beyond the exceptional writing, the biggest miracle of the whole piece might be that it has actually turned tennis into a sort of cult sport for sports dorks. You may not know it, but the who’s who of the sports blogosphere follows the tennis majors with religous intent, staying up all hours of the night to not miss the beautiful tennis that Wallace turned them on to so many years ago.
I bring all of that up because what’s peculiar about that unique group of writers/fans is that we (yes, I proudly include myself among these sports dorks) all universally agree that Roger Federer is the greatest tennis player of all time. To watch Federer play is to view firsthand the limitations of man’s body being challenged and redefined. His brilliance and knowledge of the game is unparalleled within the sport and the beauty and grace with which he plays is likewise unrivaled. I’m also willing to admit that we’re all likely biased because of Wallace’s writing on the topic and what can only be described as a sort of contempt for Nadal and the gall with which he challenged something as beautiful as Federer.
The challenge though, as Eric Freeman notes in his piece about this latest Australian Open, is that it is now seemingly impossible to define greatness, or more specifically, who is the “greatest.” We all agree that Roger Federer is the best of all time, but how can he be the best when he couldn’t defeat his chief rival during his prime? And in the most fascinating twist of all, how can Nadal possibly be the best of all time when his reign was so utterly interrupted by Novak Djokovic’s recent brilliance? Djokovic certainly hasn’t sustained his success long enough to enter the greatest of all-time conversation yet, but the way with which he does away with Nadal is shocking to witness just as Nadal’s dominance over Federer came as such a surprise a couple years ago. To make things even more interesting, Djokovic was of course mostly dominated by Federer last year. So just to sum it up, Federer is definitely the best ever except for that he could never defeat Nadal during their primes, while Nadal could have been the best ever except that he can’t defeat Novak Djokovic who just so happens to lose to Federer. Tennis, everybody!
And in that description you pretty much described the entire scenario facing the current slate of elite NFL quarterbacks. Tom Brady was definitely the best of the bunch, but he can’t defeat Eli Manning. Peyton Manning was definitely the better of the brothers, but for some reason he has less Super Bowl rings than baby bro and was completely dominated by Tom Brady during their respective primes. Aaron Rodgers and/or Drew Brees might be playing the Djokovic role because they’re breaking all the passing records, but neither of them has sustained their current success long enough to unseat Brady as the best quarterback of this generation. And thus you enter the confusing circle of trying to define greatness.
Tom Brady has the most rings of any active quarterback (3), but he also has the most Super Bowl losses (2). Peyton Manning has the most MVPs of any player in NFL history (4), but he’s about to be cut by his team and has less Super Bowls than his little brother (1 to Eli’s 2). Aaron Rodgers seems like he’s going to rewrite all the records, except that his backup (Matt Flynn) stepped into his shoes and had the greatest statistical game ever by a Green Bay quarterback leaving many to wonder if his success is due to the system and/or the receivers rather than the QB. Drew Brees just broke the record for passing yards in a season, but he plays in a dome at least half the year and passes the ball more times per game than any player in the history of football. And round and round it goes.
How do you possibly define greatness? I’d still argue that Tom Brady is the best of the bunch. However my buddy and co-founder of the site Eddie would no doubt make a great case that Brady’s legacy is forever impacted (negatively) by his losses to Eli in these Super Bowls. I’d wager to say he’d even be willing to argue that Eli is better than Peyton as well. And how could you not at least hear him out? Eli carried the Giants sad sack of a roster this year and single-handedly led them to the title with the worst rushing attack in the league. He’s probably the best third down QB in the league now and the control he exhibits over drives is remarkable to watch. But again, this was all in a year in which Aaron Rodgers nearly went 16-0 in the regular season and in which Drew Brees rewrote the passing records. Do you define greatness by titles only? By awards and records? By wins? By some super secret formula combining all of those?
Good luck defending any one of those guys.
I’d like to come to a conclusion that somehow none of this actually matters, but that’s impossible. This stuff does matter to sports fans. It fills our thoughts and conversations and one day it will eventually define each of the athletes mentioned in this piece. As long as sports continue to be played professionally in this country, the debate over who is the greatest of all-time will continue.
And it should.
The reason this debate has importance is that sports affect fans, both positively and negatively. Being able to debate things like greatness validates that somehow all the time and effort we devote to sports was somehow worth it. Even better if we experienced that greatness firsthand by being a fan of a particular athlete. As an example, I’m sure most Patriots fans out there would argue that Brady is the greatest QB of all time, but they’d be hard pressed to convince any Broncos fan that he was better than Elway. Just as any Broncos fan could never convince a 49ers fan that Elway was better than Montana. Older Cowboys fans would argue for Staubach. Younger Cowboys fans would point to Aikman.
And in that endless debate over what man is actually the greatest of all, I think the answer reveals itself.
The purpose of greatness is not to define or limit it to a single individual, but rather to continue to experience it for yourself.
Sorry for the misleading headline, they don’t go at it all this time.