Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Moving On

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in February 2015

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The other woman, our faithful fall mistress, has disappeared into another cold February night.  Did she even say goodbye?  Leave her number?  Scribble a farewell on a perfume note?

The abrupt exit, after the best of many sultry nights, was typical.  While her reappearance is inevitable, it won’t occur until the coming summer begins to fade and a hint of fall tickles the evening air. 

Locked in the dead of winter, the prospect is a cruelly far-off dream.  The NFL – that “other woman” – won’t return to invigorate its massive and obsessed fan base for months.  For the time being, memories of the season that was will have to do.

Baltimore’s recollections include Ray Rice and a (ahem) deflating defeat to New England.  Washington’s are of a recurring nightmare: an ineffective turnstile at quarterback, an overwhelmed rookie coach and relentless losing. Depressing.

The story is quite different in the Northeast. With the Patriots’ defeat of the Seahawks, QB Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick – with four Super Bowl titles - have earned a place among the NFL’s immortals.  Good for them, ethical excursions aside.  I would have offered Seattle the same had they won.  With their Adderal flirtations and head coach Pete Carroll’s disintegration of USC football, they aren’t choirboys either.  Few are.

My point - transgressions, aside – is that I’ve come to appreciate both Super Bowl teams. Their journeys were different, but they contained a common element: a willingness to move on.

The Rolling Stone’s song Honky Tonk Woman begins with an inconspicuous cowbell, then a drum beat and finally a distinctive guitar riff.  The sinewy Mick Jagger, a man of unique gyrations, slathers the following lines over the funky rhythm:

“I met a gin soaked barroom queen in Memphis,
She tried to take me upstairs for a ride
She had to heave me right across her shoulder
Cause I just can’t seem to drink you off my mind.”

Jagger sings of a man psychologically consumed by a relationship gone awry and requiring physical force to carry on.  The character is at a crossroads between commitment and determination – commendable traits - and stubbornness and blind faith – the folly of those in denial of the truth.  When to remain persistent and when to abort?  It is a thin line - one Seattle and New England have precisely navigated.  

During the 2012 offseason, Seattle inked former Green Bay quarterback Matt Flynn to a lucrative contract but had the nerve to start an unproven third round pick after he out-performed Flynn in the preseason.  Russell Wilson’s pretty good, eh?  In October, the ‘Hawks traded WR Percy Harvin, roughly 18 months after acquiring him for a steep price, to the Jets for pennies on the dollar.  At the time Seattle was 3-3 and Harvin was the most talented receiver on the team.  It seemed to make little sense.

Seattle didn’t lose between mid-November and the Super Bowl.

The Patriots have a long history of divorcing productive veterans; this year Logan Mankins was jettisoned.  Exiting training camp, the Pats dealt the six-time Pro Bowl guard to Tampa Bay for TE Tim Wright.  The early returns were poor.  After four games, New England was 2-2, QB Tom Brady was under constant pressure and the team looked lost. 

New England re-grouped and won 13 of its last 15 games.

There is a tendency in life – one intensified by age - to cling to the familiar.  Change – personal or professional - engenders anxiety.  The unknown incites fear.  The bird in the hand actually becomes more valuable than two in the bush. 

Had Seattle or New England adopted that philosophy, it’s likely neither would have played in last Sunday’s Super Bowl.  Both had the courage to make difficult decisions, to upset the safer status quo and to deal with dubious short-term returns.  They had guts to move on - and are better for it.  

When confronted with an alternative to the functioning norm, consider these Super Bowl combatants.  Are existing circumstances best?  Perhaps.  Or are we mired in the routine, stubbornly affixed to the known…and secretly hoping a gin-soaked barroom dweller will demand a different course?

Opportunity’s Unexpected Knock

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com)

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

“One of the jobs of a coach is ‘Let’s worry about today’…down the road, I think we’re going to be a very good team.”

Ohio State University head football coach Urban Meyer spoke those words during an interview on ESPN Radio’s “Mike and Mike In The Morning” show…on August 20, 2014.  It sounded like a bunch of coach speak, obligatory and desperate dribble offered to placate restless fans and to reassure a roster of young men facing a season in peril.  The thing is, only blind homers or those too young to know any better believe it.  Whether Meyer did or not matters little now; he’s officially a prophet, a football psychic. 

A season-ending shoulder injury to Braxton Miller, Ohio State’s all-everything starting quarterback prompted that August interview with Meyer.  Miller had led the Buckeyes to an Orange Bowl victory the prior season and was considered a serious candidate for the Heisman Trophy in what would be his senior year.  That was until an innocuous pass during non-contact drills shredded his surgically repaired right shoulder.  With four new starters on the offensive line and lacking the prior season’s leading rushing and wide receiver – consequences of graduations – Ohio State seemed particularly ill prepared to absorb the loss of its best player.  But the cosmic allocation of poor fortune never considers its victim’s circumstances.  Ohio State would just have to deal with the unfortunate and likely fatal extraction of Miller from its lineup. 

True to his word (as if he had a choice), Meyer penciled in backup QB J.T. Barrett, a redshirt freshman.  True to the reality of the situation, the Buckeyes struggled early, losing their second game by two touchdowns to a mediocre Virginia Tech team.  Surely that was it.  Season over.  Ah, but back to Meyer’s words: “…down the road I think we’re going to be a good team.”  The loss to Virginia Tech proved to be their last; Miller’s injury, however, wasn’t their last brush with adversity.   

As is well known now, Barrett broke his ankle in the season finale against Michigan, necessitating the introduction of Cardale Jones, the third string quarterback, to the nation in the middle of a potential championship run.  Jones led the Buckeyes to a 59-0 drubbing of Wisconsin the conference championship game, a 42-35 victory over top-ranked Alabama in the national semifinal and a 42-20 defeat of Oregon in the national championship game.

Of course he did.  Of course some unknown kid, buried deep on the depth chart in August and thrust into a stressful, seemingly no-win situation, stepped onto the sport’s biggest stage, played out of his mind and rescued Ohio State’s fairytale ending from misfortune’s zealous clutches.

I’m trying to think of a comp (real estate term) – a comparable player.  I got nothing…all blanks.  In all my years of watching sports I cannot recall anyone being given such an improbable opportunity and seizing it so completely.  Jones started the season with little expectation of seeing a snap.  Instead he took the most important snaps of the season with no advanced warning and after being on ice (i.e. holding a clipboard) for months.  He had no learning curve, no chance to fail or to grow into the role.  It was “here, Cardale, it’s yours.  Good luck.  Everyone’s counting on you…the entire season is on the line.”

Jones stepped in, played with a veteran’s poise and delivered the national championship.  You can’t do that without consistent focus and preparation – and uncommon amounts of both for a 20-something college student who had thrown all of two passes prior to this season.  Talent isn’t enough, not on that stage and not against the teams Jones and the Buckeyes faced. 

The thin line between success and failure – in life and in sports – is often as simple as being prepared to capitalize on opportunities…and Jones is the latest supporting evidence.  In a sports world that’s quick to move on – to the next event, player or season – that is what I’ll remember most about Cardale Jones, the third quarterback who remained ready and able to be his team’s savior and make a prophet out of his coach.

The Consequence Of Ego

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com)

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Where were you on March 28, 1994?  I was enjoying spring break – a now long-gone concept in my much too adult life – with the spirit of Jimmy Buffett at the Southernmost Point of these great (continental) United States.  I was nibbling on sponge cake and watching the sun bake.  The effervescence of boiling shrimp was all around.  While sitting on the porch swing an acoustic guitar strummed in my head and I debated getting a brand new tattoo.  I lamented my busted flip-flop and dressed the cut on my heel delivered courtesy of a stray pop-top.  For the life of me, I couldn’t find that lost shaker of salt.  I was in such a good mood that even though my buddy swore a woman was to blame, I freely admitted it was my own damn fault.  The polygraph test has nothing on a few margaritas, I suppose.

I was in Key West on that long ago March day.  My precise memory isn’t because my trip to the little latitudes was unforgettable or the result of my behavior prompting an encounter with local law enforcement; I know of my whereabouts because, while cruising down Route 1 with warm, rejuvenating south Florida air blowing through my window, the radio man announced that Jimmy Johnson, coach of the Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys, had stepped down.

It was a good day to be a Cowboys hater.  In late March 1994, Dallas was just two months removed from a second consecutive Super Bowl title and was poised to become the greatest dynasty in the history of pro football.  Nothing could stop them – except themselves. 

Despite the team’s success and opportunity to rewrite history, owner Jerry Jones and Johnson couldn’t find a way to co-exist.  Not even Big D was large enough to house their massive egos.  The struggle for power and acclaim forced a divorce that weakened the Cowboys and nudged Johnson from a coaching perch he would never recapture.  It is one of the great “what if’s” in sports history.

George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  The recent split between the San Francisco 49ers and head coach Jim Harbaugh indicates both parties have poor memories.  While not the equivalent of Johnson’s seismic departure from Dallas, the Harbaugh-San Francisco divorce is similar in this telling respect: it had nothing to do with football. 

Entering this past season, Harbaugh had led the 49ers to three straight NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl.  Despite that envious record, the 49ers nearly traded Harbaugh in the offseason, a botched move that ultimately undermined the coach and contributed to a substandard 2014 season (San Francisco finished 8-8).  Harbaugh wasn’t unemployed long; the one-time University of Michigan quarterback signed a lucrative deal to coach the Wolverines.  San Francisco’s search for his replacement is ongoing. 

Elite coaches are rare; NFL teams scramble to find them.  Strong organizations and talented rosters are few; coaches long to work in such environments.  Sustained success in the NFL is maddeningly elusive; it is professional nirvana for those in the football business.  Jimmy Johnson and Dallas had found it; so too had Jim Harbaugh and San Francisco.  All of the above had exactly what they wanted and it wasn’t enough - fascinating commentary on all involved. 

An endeavor comprised of competitive, successful, strong and opinionated human beings is going to be combustible.  Discomfort will be frequent.  It will have untenable moments.  But if the desired outcome is achieved, it is incumbent upon the individuals to accept the personally frustrating aspects – organizational authority, credit for the success or the allocation of pay – for prosperity’s sake.  If self-importance rules, if there is no ability for the human components to yield, to listen and to compromise, you get the Cowboys of March 1994 and, it seems, the 49ers of December 2014. 

Jim Harbaugh may find his utopia at Michigan.  The next 49ers coach might do the only thing Harbaugh didn’t - win a Super Bowl.  History, however, indicates that neither party will be as successful apart as they were together.  The consequence of ego is realized…again.