Believe IT or Not

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The Boston Celtics are playing their best basketball since the days of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and (yes, even) Ray Allen. They currently sit second in the Eastern conference, tthree games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, with Kevin Love out with an injury and LeBron James logging more minutes than he should at age 32, and Brad Stevens is going to coach the Eastern Conference All-Stars for the first time in his career. Perhaps most impressive about what they have done is that they are winning games with regularity in spite of their significant lack of health, with the longest tenured current Celtic Avery Bradley and 2016 free agent acquisition Al Horford both missing extended periods due to injury.

The success of the Celtics two and a half years removed from being in the draft lottery themselves (as opposed to living vicariously though the Brooklyn Nets’ miserable season) to being a top-five team in the NBA, despite Danny Ainge’s inability to find suitors in this decade’s version of the Allen and Garnett trades that the fan base so desperately wanted, is a testament to the coaching staff and the smaller moves Ainge has been able to make, but the biggest story for the Celtics has been the NBA’s smallest blossoming superstar.

Isaiah Thomas stands 5’9″, two inches shorter than I am, and my always unrealistic dream of playing on a school basketball team, let alone in the NBA ended around sixth grade when I realized I’d never be tall enough to make up for my inherent lack of skill. Despite a good college career (two time 1st Team All-Pac-10, two time Pac-10 Tournament MVP at Washington), Thomas was overlooked by NBA teams for his height, and he was taken with the 60th and final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings.

What is amazing about players taken in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft is that the ones that make it as stars, make it with a vengeance. Draymond Green fell to the second round, is now the NBA’s best defender, the most polarizing player on the NBA’s best team, and has developed this revisionist history around his draft status where several teams claim they were about to take him even though they all had a chance at him. Manu Ginobili being selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the 57th overall pick in 1999 and forging a Hall of Fame career out of obscurity in Argentina is an even greater component to the mystique and the greatness of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs than lucking into Tim Duncan at #1 in 1997.

In Isaiah’s case, though, the Kings do not get the credit for finding a diamond in the rough of a superstar because they let him go before his full potential was realized–same goes for the Phoenix Suns–but the chip on his shoulder is just as big as Draymond’s. Thanks to another great trade by Danny Ainge (a three team trade with Phoenix and Detroit where the Celtics gave away Marcus Thornton, Tayshaun Prince, and a late 2016 1st round pick, and came away with Gigi Datome, Jonas Jerebko, and IT), Thomas arrived in Boston at the 2015 trade deadline.

The Boston teams are in the midst of an under-six-feet renaissance between Julian Edelman (5’10”), Dion Lewis (5’8″), Malcolm Butler (5’11”), Danny Amendola (5’11”), Dustin Pedroia (5’9″), Mookie Betts (5’9″), Andrew Benintendi (5’10”), Jackie Bradley Jr. (5’10”), Brad Marchand (5’9″), and Torey Krug (5’9″), but Isaiah Thomas is the ultimate example because of the emphasis on height in who plays basketball at the professional level. While the Red Sox and Patriots gain acclaim for taking a chance on shorter outfield prospects and surrounding Tom Brady with a bunch of quick and shifty little guys, the Celtics have turned into a borderline contender built around a little guy in a big guy’s sport. This is almost unprecedented.

My two favorite basketball players who never played for the Celtics are Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. I have written plenty about Duncan over the years, given that he was an active player this time last year, and he and Pop have been the Brady and Belichick of basketball. I wanted to write my ode to AI in September when he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in September, but it was my last college semester, I was working full time, and my buddy Murf’s bachelor party was that same weekend. Life got in the way, but I am here now.

I attended my first Celtics game in 2001, weeks after Rick Pitino skipped town. The Philadelphia 76ers were in town in a year when they eventually reached the Finals and Iverson was the MVP. To this day, I believe he is the best athlete I have ever seen in person (Honorable mentions Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The interesting thing is that Malkin actually stands out more than Crosby in person because of his size.). By my memory, he systematically picked apart a Celtics team that had Pierce and Antoine Walker and was finally showing signs of a competitive pulse at the start of the Jim O’Brien Era almost entirely by himself. It was amazing.

Iverson was officially listed at 6’0″, but even as a kid, I never really believed that number. AI was fearless and played like he was six inches taller than his actual height, making him one of the most intimidating people in the history of the NBA. He played hard and lived hard, and his career ended much more abruptly than many of his contemporaries as a result, but in his heyday, there were few players more compelling for someone flipping through the channels and stopping on a neutral site basketball game.

AI never won a title, and was labeled as a selfish player. Some of that was fair, but also a lot of that was the lack of quality talent that surrounded him in his prime. Unlike other elite point guards of his era like John Stockton, Gary Payton, and Steve Nash, AI never had a Karl Malone, or a Shawn Kemp, or a Dirk Nowitzki, or even an Amar’e Stoudemire to give the ball to. AI had Keith Van Horn and a past-his-prime Dikembe Mutombo. Iverson tried to do everything on offense by himself because that really was the best option in most years. This is the thing that has me worried about IT in Boston, but also not really. Sure, Al Horford is not the elite offensive threat that Karl Malone is. Sure, Kelly Olynyk is the victim of early Dirk comparisons. Sure, Jaylen Brown is an unproven rookie with some trouble finishing at the rim. But the Celtics are still building. Isaiah already does not have to do it all himself, even if he is consistently lighting it up in the fourth quarter, but they are still getting better.

What I really like about Isaiah Thomas the more I have learned about him is his self-awareness. In listening to recent podcasts where his sat down with Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer and Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, he has it all in perspective. He was the last pick in the draft. He was 27 and on his third team by the time he became an All-Star, and he’s just now getting recognized as a legitimate superstar at 28. It’s like an actor or musician who did not achieve success or fame until after he or she learned how to be an adult. In the NBA, we are at the point where we are surprised when someone drafted as a teenager like Kevin Garnett or LeBron James turns into a well-adjusted human being. Isaiah spent his basketball career being doubted, being overlooked, and has proven people wrong at every turn, so now that he’s arrived, he’s not about to let it get to his head.

This week, Thomas broke a 45 year old Celtics franchise record set by the great John Havlicek of 40 consecutive games scoring 20 points or more, with game 41 being Boston’s last-minute loss to the Chicago Bulls the other night. IT is making his way into the history books in the NBA’s most storied franchise, but this story is still in its early stages. 

Julien to Montreal

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A week after getting fired after nearly a decade as head coach of the Boston Bruins, Claude Julien has landed on his feet, being named today as head coach of Boston oldest and most bitter rival, the Montreal Canadiens, replacing Michel Therrien. To summarize, the Bruins still do not seem to have a plan going forward, and they just gave their biggest rival a coaching upgrade, looking like fools in the process. This is where we are right now.

Bruins fans could see this coming from miles away. It had long been speculated that the Bruins had held off on firing Claude in the past to block division rivals like Montreal or the Ottawa Senators from getting him. Julien has been constantly rumored to be a coaching candidate for the Habs, considering he has been their head coach before, and considering he is one of a handful of bilingual NHL head coaches. In 2011, when Randy Cunneyworth was named interim head coach of the Canadiens, the organization apologized and promised the permanent head coach (it ended up being Therrien) would be able to speak French.

This is a good move for Montreal. They are a playoff team that has struggled as of late, and perhaps a coaching change is what they think they need to kick start to put them over the top. As I mentioned last week, the Claude was fired by the Bruins, it was Michel Therrien who got fired by Pittsburgh in 2009 before they won the Stanley Cup under Dan Bylsma. The Canadiens have a great goaltender in Carey Price, and a great defensive defenseman in Shea Weber who seems like Julien’s kind of player in the tradition of Zdeno Chara, and they think this coach combined with these players could be the mix they need to win their first Stanley Cup since 1993 (the last Cup win by any Canadian team). 

For Boston, this is more of what I was talking about last week. The Bruins did not fire Julien sooner because they did not have a better plan and they were afraid to see him coaching a rival. Now, they still do not have a better plan, winning streak that includes a win over Montreal under Bruce Cassidy notwithstanding, and Julien is coaching a rival. While the Bruins are stuck in the middle, Bruins fans are stuck seeing their team’s all time winningest head coach (Julien passed Art Ross, who has an NHL trophy named after him and who named the Boston Bruins, on the franchise win list last season) behind the bench for the Montreal Canadiens of all teams. The thought crossed my mind the other night when the Bruins played the Habs that if the Bruins win, Claude could be Montreal’s new coach, but the reality is just now sinking in, even though I understood this could and probably would happen on an intellectual level for years.

Ultimately, blame for this falls back in Cam Neely and Don Sweeney. They tried to prevent this from happening, and it still happened, and Bruins fans are still stuck with them while Julien is coaching a real contender and Peter Chiarelli is running the loaded with young talent Edmonton Oilers. There have been worse time to be a Bruins fan, but the fact that the people who made the franchise respectable for the first time in decades are gone makes me concerned about how soon things will get better.

Post-Truth, and After-Doc

This was a crazy week in Boston sports, perhaps the craziest since the one when the Bruins lost to Chicago in the Stanley Cup Final, Aaron Hernandez was arrested for murder, and the Celtics traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets, or possibly the weekend in October of that same year that had David Ortiz’ ALCS grand slam against the Detroit Tigers and the “Unicorns! Show ponies! Where’s the beef?!” game against the New Orleans Saints. I am just now getting around to writing about what happened this weekend, but for my article on the Patriots comeback in Super Bowl LI, click here, and for my reaction to the Bruins firing longtime head coach Claude Julien and the current direction of the team, click here.

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Like the Bruins, the Celtics had big news this week that was overshadowed by the Patriots’ fifth Super Bowl win, but unlike the Bruins, the Celtics were not trying to bury it. Earlier in the afternoon on Super Bowl Sunday, Paul Pierce played his last game at TD Garden. That’s just how the schedule worked out, as the Los Angeles Clippers only make one trip to Boston the whole season. It was the only time the former team captain and former head coach Doc Rivers would be in front of the Celtics’ crowd in the 2016-17 season, and the 39 year old Pierce has announced that this is his last NBA season.

While Pierce played his last game as a Celtic in 2013, shortly after I launched this blog, and is now in his third team since leaving Boston, he will always be remembered as a Celtic. Fifteen years, ten All-Star appearances, two trips to the NBA Finals, a title, and a Finals MVP is not a bad legacy. Paul Pierce is not the greatest player of his era, and certainly not the greatest Celtic ever, but he will always be my favorite, as I was too young to enjoy the Larry Bird and Kevin McHale teams, let alone Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, or Dave Cowens.

Maybe an even greater aspect of his legacy, depending on how the next couple of drafts go, is what the Celtics got in return from the Nets when they traded him and KG in the summer of 2013. Brooklyn thought they were building a contender with Pierce, Garnett, Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez, and Deron Williams, but it never got off the ground. The Celtics have already gotten the draft picks that became James Young and Jaylen Brown out of the deal (and Brown has shown true flashes of brilliance at times in his rookie season this year), as well as the ability to swap picks with Brooklyn in 2017 (the Nets are running away the the NBA’s worst record and have yet to record double digit wins) and Brooklyn’s pick in 2018. Pierce only played one season with the Nets, while Garnett was traded to Minnesota in the middle of his second Brooklyn season, and has since retired. Without a doubt, the Celtics won that trade, but just how great a haul that was is still to be determined.

While Pierce did not have a say in getting traded to the Nets (Garnett had a no-trade clause in his contract, while Pierce did not), Doc Rivers was ultimately traded from the Celtics to the Clippers because he did not want to endure another rebuild in Boston. Doc would rather work for a garbage human being of an owner like Donald Sterling (which he did until Sterling was banned from the NBA by Adam Silver in 2014) than have to toil through losing seasons and coach up young talent for a storied organization like the Boston Celtics. On one hand, I do not blame Doc, and the Celtics found a replacement in Brad Stevens who is probably a better coach anyway, and gave Stevens the benefit of adapting to the NBA game without the pressure of needing to win now like fellow college coaches Billy Donovan in Oklahoma City and Fred Hoiberg in Chicago had to, but at the same time, the way Doc left Boston made it harder to root for him in Los Angeles.

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Rivers took over the Clippers in the summer of 2013, the same summer that Dwight Howard spurned the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency, leaving them without a superstar in his prime for the first time since the early 90s after the retirements of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, and the San Antonio Spurs had just lost to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals in such devastating fashion, it was uncertain at that time (before, of course, they came back in 2014 with a vengeance) that they could ever recover. There was a sudden power vacuum in the Western Conference, and the Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder appeared poised to take over. Rivers was eager to coach a roster that had Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, and he, like many people, thought they could be another Big Three for him to coach. Alas, the Golden State Warriors crashed the party in the West, and the Clippers under Rivers still have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs.

Meanwhile, Brad Stevens has the Celtics in a good place. Beyond LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, any of the playoff teams in the East can beat any other team, but the Celtics currently sit second in the conference and fifth in the NBA. Isaiah Thomas has blossomed into an All-Star and someone who might get some MVP attention (though I will be shocked if anyone other than Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, or James Harden wins it this years), and Jae Crowder has turned into a good NBA role player and a much more valuable trade asset than Rajon Rondo, the guy who was traded to acquire Crowder. The Celtics are headed in the right direction, which I cannot say with certainty about the other team that plays at TD Garden, but it is still nice to remember Doc and Pierce for the way the made this franchise respectable again when I was a teenager. The 2008 Celtics will always have a special place in my heart as the first, and so far only championship basketball team that was also my team.

At 39, Pierce is hardly the player he once was, and has been playing significantly diminished minutes this season, but near the end of the game, Celtics fans were chanting, demanding he go back in. Doc Rivers obliged, and Pierce sank a three in the end, though the Celtics still won. TD Garden erupted in cheers. Paul Pierce, The Truth, had his final moment in front of the Garden crowd. It may not have been the right uniform; anything other than Celtics green just did not look right on him, but the fans never stopped loving this guy. After all they had been through together, the ups, the downs, the victories, and the devastating defeats, Paul Pierce was the guy making the big shot at the end. His next great moment in Boston will be when the Celtics inevitably retire his #34 to the Garden rafters, something that was destined to happen as soon as they reached the Finals in 2008. It was a fun ride, and I was glad to see it happen, even if it got overshadowed by the Super Bowl.

Claude Deserved Better

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It finally happened, and in the most predictably Boston Bruins way possible. The Bruins fired head coach Claude Julien this Tuesday, in his tenth year in Boston, during the Patriots’ Super Bowl championship parade. Of course they were going to try and bury the fact that they were firing the coach who led them to their only Stanley Cup championship in the last 40 years on a day when the region was celebrating the greatest comeback in NFL history and a fifth Super Bowl victory that cemented Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as the greatest coach and quarterback in history. Besides illustrating the Bruins’ antiquated public relations strategy that has not at all adapted for the age of social media, it also shows that from a hockey operations standpoint, that they still have no idea what they are doing. Sad.

The thing is, I was not against firing Claude Julien. I thought it was going to happen a year and a half ago when they fired Peter Chiarelli. Claude is a very good coach, but coaching turnover in hockey is higher that the other sports. For some perspective, last week, the St. Louis Blues fired Ken Hitchcock. Having been the head coach in St. Louis since 2011, Hitch was one of the longer tenured head coaches in the NHL, but Claude had been on the hot seat in Boston for years before Hitch even got to St. Louis. Winning the Stanley Cup in 2011 certainly helped Julien, but it felt like the Bruins might have fired him had they lost Game 7 to Tampa in the Conference Final that season.

Even going deep in the playoffs does not buy you much time in the NHL. Michel Therrien took the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008, and got fired midway through the next season, only for Pittsburgh to get back to the Cup Final in 2009 and win it that time. Last season, when the Penguins again fired their coach midseason and won the Cup, it reminded people that teams typically get their act together a little bit when that kind of urgency is placed upon them, but I was not in favor of firing Claude for the sake of firing Claude. It’s one thing to fire your coach and win the Cup when you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. That will not be happening with Zdeno Chara turning 40 next month when he turned into a statue on the ice sometime in the last 18 months. Getting rid of Julien turns the page on an era in Bruins history, a successful era that I have eulogized multiple times at this point when I thought he was going to get canned, but it does not change how flawed the roster is, and I am not convinced the people in charge have a plan to fix it.

Team president Cam Neely and general manager Don Sweeney now have one less person to blame besides themselves for the mess the Bruins are in right now. After missing the playoffs in the spring of 2015, Neely pinned the team’s failings on then-GM Peter Chiarelli, and Chiarelli deserved his share of blame for sure, but it never totally made sense why they kept Claude around when they promoted Sweeney to GM, except for the purpose of self preservation on the part of Neely and Sweeney. Why did they not fire Claude in the spring of 2016, when they missed the playoffs for a second straight year in an eerily similar manner? The only reason I can think of as a cynical Bruins fan is that they still did not have a plan, and they decided to put off firing Claude longer to distract from that fact. It’s behavior like that from the team that has bred institutional cynicism from Bruins fans that inspires signs like this alternative fact laden one I saw on Reddit this week from Thursday’s game against the San Jose Sharks:

I am not sure if this sign, starring White House Press Secretary and Melissa McCarthy character Sean Spicer, says more about the state of America or the state of the Boston Bruins, but either way, I do not feel good about where we are or where we might be going.

Regardless of how they go here, the Bruins are now in the Bruce Cassidy Era, and so far are 2-0, including today’s win over the Vancouver Canucks, and would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Maybe replacing Julien with Cassidy, who was the head coach for the Providence Bruins of the AHL before joining Julien’s NHL staff this season, and previously served as head coach of the pre-Ovechkin Washington Capitals, will provide enough of a spark for the Bruins to get into the playoffs this year, but I do not expect them to do anything once they are there. Changing the coach will not change the fact that Zdeno Chara is a million years old, that Tuukka Rask has played more than he should because the backup goaltending situation is not as good as it traditionally has been (Remember when the Bruins had the tandem of Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask in net for three straight years? That was awesome.), that Patrice Bergeron is not getting any younger, and that Brad Marchand’s goal scoring prime is being wasted on an inferior team that has blown a chance at the playoffs in two straight seasons.

I might not feel as down on the Bruins as I do if the other three teams in Boston were not regarded as “smart teams” in their respective leagues. The Patriots are the smartest team in the NFL, as evidenced by their five Super Bowl wins in an era when that is not supposed to happen, and the Red Sox and Celtics were early to embrace the analytics movements in baseball and basketball. The Bruins? They are trying to win a style of hockey that no longer exists, or they are trying to change with the times, depending on the day and who you ask, but in trying to remain competitive, they are not rebuilding, and I am not convinced they know how even if they are trying to.

A Comeback for the Ages

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I was prepared to write about the New England Patriots’ disappointing seventh trip to the Super Bowl in the Belichick and Brady Era. I was prepared to apologize to Patriots fans for the blog post I wrote about Matt Ryan a few weeks ago, when the not yet crowned MVP was going to face off against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game, and I used this opportunity to take some less than subtle jabs against Boston College football, New England’s most prominent college football program that nobody cares about unless they went there. I was prepared to write about how the Atlanta Falcons not only deserved to win because they played against the Patriots the way the Patriots normally play against everyone else, not making mistakes and making their opponent pay for any mistake they might make, but also because it was the will of the country, as comedians and fans all across social media framed this games as “Trump’s America vs. Black America.” The angle in which I was mentally approaching writing about Super Bowl LI changed more dramatically and more times than any other game I have ever written about including the Bruins thrilling Game 7 comeback against the Maple Leafs in 2013. The second half of this game threw superstition out the window, and it took a few days to fully process what happened.

I watched the game with my dad and my brother, and by the middle of the third quarter, the hope was that they could just make the score respectable, as it was 28-3 with the Patriots slowly driving down the field. This part of the game was not even tense anymore. That’s how far out of it the Patriots seemed to be. We instead turned to the 2017 season, talking about key free agents: Dont’a Hightower, Martellus Bennett, Logan Ryan, and Malcolm Butler topping that list. We talked about the possibility of trading backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, to load up on draft picks for Brady’s final years and focus on coaching up Jacoby Brissett.

I floated out the idea that Bill Simmons mentioned in a column a couple weeks ago about the possibility of Belichick trading Rob Gronkowski before Gronk’s body breaks down for good, and about the Belichick dream scenario of sending Gronk and Jimmy G both to the Cleveland Browns for the 2017 #1, #2, and a boatload of 3rd and 4th round picks. My dad had not heard that theory before, and said throughout the rest of the game and (spoiler alert) trophy presentation that he really hopes they keep Gronk. As someone who has spent money on exactly one athlete’s jersey for himself, and that athlete is Rob Gronkowski, I agreed, but am also well aware of Belichick’s history or trading or cutting star players a year too early rather than a year too late from Drew Bledsoe to Lawyer Milloy to Willie McGinest to Mike Vrablel to Richard Seymour to Randy Moss to Logan Mankins to Vince Wilfork. That strategy, while painful in the short term for sentimental fans like us, is undeniably a key part of why the Patriots have been so consistently competitive this century, so you take the good with the bad.

Next thing we knew, the Patriots were right back in it. Hightower had a key strip sack, the Patriots made up for a missed extra point and a botched onside kick by scoring two more touchdowns and making two straight two-point conversions. The Falcons defense was gassed, and their offense was cold, with the exception of Julio Jones, who was inexplicably only targeted four times in the games, catching it all four times, each time more impressive than the one before. Atlanta’s aggressive offensive strategy, allowing Ryan to get sacked for big losses without eating away enough at the play clock or the game clock certainly played into their demise, but when the narrative becomes solely that the Falcons choked, the level at which the Patriots executed gets lost.

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On Hightower’s strip sack, for instance, he was able to get to Ryan because Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman blew his blocking assignment. On any given play in a football game there are 22 players with an assignment, and success or failure is determined not only by the obvious variables like the quality of the quarterback’s throw or the hand and footwork of the intended receiver, but also the defensive coverage assignments and offensive blocking assignments. In the second half down by a lot, the Patriots were still playing like they thought they could win, and Hightower, who is older than me by a month and has two BCS National Championship rings with Alabama and two Super Bowl rings with New England to show off as he heads into free agency, executed on every play waiting for someone on Atlanta to slip up, and capitalized when Freeman did.

It really was a tale of two halves, because in the first half, the Falcons were the ones taking advantage when the Patriots slipped up. The first quarter ended scoreless, but New England’s offense seemed to be moving the ball better than Atlanta’s, and were marching toward what looked like the first score of the game early in the second quarter when LeGarrette Blount fumbled the football, and the Falcons recovered, and quickly marched the other way to score. It was Atlanta that recorded a pick-six on Brady, and went up 21-3 at the half. The Falcons had adopted the DNA of the Patriots, which made sense considering the presence of longtime Belichick underlings Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli in their front office. This was a new kind of Super Bowl experience for a Patriots fan who has seen his team play in the Super Bowl eight times since first grade. I had seen thrilling victories and devastating defeats, but never a blowout. I was not born yet when the Pats got destroyed by the iconic 1985 Chicago Bears team in Super Bowl XX, and every Patriots Super Bowl since had been at least competitive at the half, regardless of the eventual outcome. I honestly had not even considered the possibility of getting blown out by Atlanta, but could not help but respect the way they were doing it, as I would have been rooting for the Falcons in the Super Bowl against any other AFC team this year.

After trading possessions to start the third quarter, the Falcons scored another TD, making it 28-3, and I Facebook messaged my friend “At least Gaga was good” as if Lady Gaga’s halftime performance would be the only redeeming thing about this Super Bowl. It would be a solid hour before Hightower’s strip sack, and a little longer before it really felt like the Patriots were actually back in it, but that whole time, the Patriots were still executing like they had a chance to win, which is a credit to the players and the coaching staff. Peyton Manning would not have orchestrated a comeback like this, and I can say that with confidence because of the way he folded in 2014 in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks. Moments like this are what have always separated Tom Brady from his peers, and put him alone with Joe Montana in the GOAT discussion. 

By the time the game made it to overtime, there was no way the Patriots would lose. Special teams captain called “heads” for the coin toss, as he always does, but unless Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (who has since been hired as the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers) finally figured out to just feed the ball to Julio Jones like he’s LeBron in crunch time, which he did not do all game, the Patriots would have stopped a cold, suddenly not ready for the moment offense and gotten the ball back and scored. Even if the Falcons managed to stop the Pats on 4th and Goal, they would have had to take the ball out from the one, and the Pats defense would have gotten the ball back and only needed a field goal to win.

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For years, I have been saying that I would love to see a Super Bowl go into overtime, just not in a year when the Patriots are in it for stress management purposes. But when it got to the point that my team was in the first ever overtime Super Bowl, all the stress was gone. They had all the momentum, and they were the team that had been there before. Instead it became a question of who would be the one to make the Super Bowl ending score. It was almost Martellus Bennett, who got interfered with near the goal line on one play and was targeted with a end zone throw that could have been Atlanta’s version of the Malcolm Butler interception at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. Instead it was James White, who did not have a rushing touchdown in the regular season, and who was inactive for the Super Bowl against Seattle two years ago who punched it in, breaking the plane of the end zone just enough to end the game, putting the Patriots ahead in a game they never led.

This game also proved the validity of some of the other football philosophies Bill Belichick & Co. have employed for years. The Falcons had greater elite, high-end talent, while the Patriots place a greater value on depth. While both teams have elite QBs, Matt Ryan has more elite weapons at his disposal in Jones, Freeman, Taylor Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu. Brady has Rob Gronkowski, the greatest player in the history of the tight end position, but did not have him most of the season, including the playoffs, and the Patriots went undefeated without him because Brady makes guys like Julian Edelman (whose insane late-game catch was indefensibly not mentioned until now), Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, and Martellus Bennett. Patriots players are notoriously frustrating to use in fantasy football because you never know, for example, which running back will be getting the bulk of the carries. If LeGarrette Blount struggles early (as he did), then Dion Lewis or James White could have a big game, and game to game, that is tough to predict. The same is true on defense, where Belichick traded Chandler Jones to the Cardinals in the offseason and Jamie Collins to the Browns during the season, and got better. Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia would rather have a deep rotation of guys who can play than a small handful of elite players, who could just as easily get hurt or get tired (the way Atlanta’s defense had to play twice as many snaps as their offense did in the Super Bowl) and not be there for them when they are needed most. It’s frustrating to watch your team consistently trade down at the draft, going for quantity over quality, but it is hard to argue with that method when they are in seven of the last 16 Super Bowls.

Ultimately, coming back from 28-3, and winning the first OT Super Bowl was the perfect way to end the nonsense of the last two years with Deflategate. The thing I am most excited about is that the Patriots were accused of a stupid thing that should not have been a big deal at all, and they reacted by winning two of the last three Super Bowls, the commissioner tried to bury them like he did the New Orleans Saints by fining the team, taking away draft picks, and suspending the greatest player of this generation for twice as many games as he suspended a guy who knocked his fiance unconscious on camera, and the team responded by winning everything anyway. There is nothing better than that. Nothing.

The Curious Case of Matt Ryan

In the post I wrote recapping the weekend’s NFL playoff games, I focused heavily on the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers, incorporated their opponents, the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys, and also felt the need to talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers, as they are the ones who will be coming into Foxboro to play against my Patriots next weekend. I mentioned the Atlanta Falcons, but did not even mention their quarterback, Matt Ryan, by name as I gushed over how good Tom Brady (who had an uncharacteristically bad game) and Aaron Rodgers (who has replaced Donald Trump, at least temporarily, as the protagonist of my nightmares). It was as I was writing that post that I realized how many thoughts I had about Matt Ryan, and how that deserved to be its own post, separate from the weekend that was for Brady and Rodgers.

There are four teams left in the NFL, and all four have quality quarterbacks, but Matt Ryan is not thought of the way the other three are. If Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisburger, and Aaron Rodgers never play in another football game, they are guaranteed to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio one day, and that is definitely not true of Matt Ryan. Ryan has the most to gain of the four by winning next Sunday.

In 2008, the same year that the Packers decided to make a backup QB named Aaron Rodgers their starter and trade away veteran superstar Brett Favre to the New York Jets, the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan out of Boston College with the third overall pick, and gave him an equally unenviable task of being the franchise QB for a team that had lost direction when Michael Vick went to prison, just as Vick was getting out of jail and getting his second chance in Philadelphia. For those who only remember the washed-up journeyman backup version of Vick we saw in recent years, pre-prison Michael Vick was must-watch television, even when the Falcons were bad, and a player so skilled that video game versions of him were borderline unfair to play against. Making Atlanta move on from Vick was no easy task, but Ryan came out of college with a decent amount of hype in his own right.

In his rookie year, Atlanta made the playoffs, but lost in the first round to the eventual NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals. In the years since, Ryan was one of a crop of QBs like Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford, Andy Dalton, and Sam Bradford who were pretty good, but not great, and with the exception of Flacco winning the Super Bowl for the Baltimore Ravens in 2013, experienced minimal playoff success, if any.

Personally, I never really got the hype of Matt Ryan. He had a good career at Boston College, but I often find myself forgetting that he played college football in Boston, and I saw it. His final year at BC was my senior year of high school, the same year the Patriots went undefeated in the regular season. You would think BC would have a bigger fan base than it does, being one of only two big-time college football programs in Massachusetts, but Boston is a pro sports town, and there are so many other colleges in the area, nobody has a major incentive to root for BC unless they went there. Last year, BC played Notre Dame at Fenway Park, and Notre Dame was the home team. Boston College dominated the ACC for much of the 2007 season, but they were very much an afterthought with the Patriots reaching the Super Bowl, the Red Sox winning the World Series, and the Celtics winning their 17th NBA Title in the spring of 2008. The same thing happened a couple years later with current Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. He was one of the most sought after draft prospects in the entire country, but his college career was largely ignored by the local football fans.

Ryan was nicknamed “Matty Ice” while he was at BC, and the nickname never quite fit his game. He never had a moment in his career where he marched the Falcons down the field for a tying or go-ahead score at the end of a playoff game, like Tom Brady did in two of his first three career playoff games, as if to suggest he had ice water rather than blood running through his veins. In his NFL career, he gets called Matty Ice ironically, but that can change if he out-duels Aaron Rodgers on Sunday. Rodgers also has a lot to gain by winning this weekend. He has only made one Super Bowl, and that was six years ago, despite being the most talented quarterback in the NFL during that stretch. But people also recognize what Rodgers has to work with, and how incredible he was the last six weeks of the regular season, not to mention through the first two rounds of the playoffs. If the Packers were to lose, the brilliance of Rodgers against the Giants and Cowboys will not be forgotten, and the loss would be chalked up to being on the road against another talented team with another QB having an MVP-type season.

On the other hand, Matt Ryan has a chance to finally show us that he belongs in the discussion with Brady, Rodgers, and Roethlisburger. Right now, it is not enough that he convincingly won a division that also contains Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and Jameis Winston. Matt Ryan has had good regular seasons before. As long as he has been in the NFL, I have been waiting for him to get it done in January in order to take him seriously. We are almost a decade removed from that (over)hyped Boston College season, and I still have not seen it, but if he proves me wrong, I will admit it. LeBron won me over last summer, and I admitted it. Show me what you got, Matty Ice.

 

The Force Is Strong with Rogue One

Warning: the following post contains spoilers from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, so if you have not seen the movie and care about what happens in it, proceed with caution. I have also placed a warning before the spoiler paragraphs.

The Star Wars franchise is one of the few certainties in life anymore. The Original Trilogy, might not be the greatest films ever made, but they probably matter the most to the greatest number of people. Even with the Prequel Trilogy that George Lucas released to the world from 1999 to 2005, for all their flaws, I still find myself going back to them. The Phantom Menace came out when I was in 3rd grade, Attack of the Clones was in 6th grade, and Revenge of the Sith was in 9th grade, and by the time they came out, I was already so in love with the originals that I wanted more than anything for the prequels to also be good. In my early 20s, I experienced a similar feeling with the fourth season of Community, when NBC fired Dan Harmon and you could really feel a change in tone on the show without its creator in the writers’ room.

The big difference between Star Wars and Community is that while Community needed to bring its creator back to get good again, Star Wars needed its creator to leave in order to move forward. George Lucas built two generations of great childhoods with the Star Wars trilogy, and subsequently ruined them by building another trilogy around the greatest villain in the history of cinema as a whiny kid turned angsty teenager, by showing us that the legendary Jedi Knights of which Obi-Wan Kenobi and Master Yoda were the last, were nothing more than glorified tax collection agents, and by adding unnecessary editing to the old movies we loved so much.

When Lucas sold the rights to the franchise to Disney in 2012, it meant that this beloved intellectual property was going to be worked on by a fresh set of eyes, and by a company that had already injected new life into Marvel Comics with unprecedented success. One of the more overlooked signs that things have been pretty good the last few years is that if someone told me in 2011 that two more Star Wars movies would be made before Barack Obama leaves office, and that they would be the two best Star Wars movies of my lifetime, I would not have believed them, but it happened.

With Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, it was refreshing in its familiarity. J.J. Abrams’ reboot followed the beats of the original 1977 film, and put my mind at ease that the movie series I cared so much about was in good hands. At the same time, the movie I was really looking forward to was Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. This was the first of a few anthology movies, separate from the main Star Wars episodes. There is already a young Han Solo movie in the works, but like the Marvel Cinematic Universe that Disney has built into a formidable empire, in order for more of these movies to get made, the initial ventures need to be successful. The next paragraphs are where the spoiler disclaimers up top come into play.

Rogue One begins in a way different from any Star Wars film to date. Sure, it begins with “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” but there is not opening crawl to follow. This is a Star Wars story, not a Star Wars episode. Already, the difference is felt. The movie focuses on characters we have never met before, and will never meet again, because everybody dies. Every other Star Wars movie before this one had character shields. You knew the Millennium Falcon was going to get through the asteroid field in The Empire Strikes Back because Han, Leia, Chewie, and C-3PO were on board. The ship was going to be fine.

Even the characters we had met before had mostly known fates. Jimmy Smits reprises his role from Revenge of the Sith as Senator Organa of Alderaan, and he leaves the Rebel base on Yavin IV and sends his daughter to retrieve the plans to the Death Star to go back home to Alderaan… and die when that planet is destroyed by the Death Star, as first seen in 1977. Grand Moff Tarkin, played by the likeness of Peter Cushing, who died in 1994 but was reanimated by the magic of computers, dies when the Death Star is destroyed later on in the same movie. Darth Vader dies in Return of the Jedi, but his descendants continue to be the central focus of the Star Wars episodes. The only characters from Rogue One who are still alive at the end of The Force Awakens are Princess Leia (who was also given the Peter Cushing treatment to make Carrie Fisher 19 again), C-3PO, and R2-D2, who appear onscreen for less than a minute combined, and considering the 2016 deaths of Carrie Fisher and Kenny Baker, two of the three may have uncertain futures in the series beyond Episode VIII.

This kind of mortality in a gritty war movie take on the Star Wars universe is a game-changer. Finally, after waiting 17 years since The Phantom Menace, fans finally got the prequel we deserved. It opens the door for different kinds of stories to be told with the backdrop of a universe I have still yet to tire of exploring. Rogue One was not without flaws, and the first hour of the movie was a little messy, but the final battle was legit, and I came away invested in a bunch of one-off characters once their ship was destroyed and it was clear that their rogue mission was a one-way trip. I went in with high expectations, and still got my mind blown. Well done.