Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Can't win with (without) choirboys

I'm not a betting man, but the Giants/Eagles matchup tempted me like few games have. The Eagles admitted after their second meeting that they were able to pressure the Giants much more easily without Plaxico being in the line-up. The Giants had no answer for this, and so the Eagles were able to shut down the Giants running attack.

I see some interesting parallels between Plaxico and Manny Ramirez. In both cases, a very talented minority athlete who was more of an irresponsible goofball rather than some sort of thug was ushered out by a championship-winning organization. And in both cases the teams fell short of the championship game because of it. I believe that with Plaxico, the Giants would have beaten the Eagles (6-2 against them with Plaxico in the line-up) and then thrashed the Cardinals (behind the Giants pass rush).

I was on several high school teams where the coaches were forever clashing with the best athletes. The best athletes often are stupid, ok? Let's not cover over this. Very few individuals are extremely talented athletically AND very smart AND socially/morally responsible. It's just rare that one person has all those skills, which is why the media fawns so much over the David Robinsons of the world.

However, the problem is that after a little success, coaches and managers get arrogant. They think that they can win with character instead of talent, and that their brains can scheme up plans to overcome the diminished talent. They are almost always wrong. Great accomplishments require great talent. It's one thing to jettison the over-rated Shockey; it's another to dump your only truly game-breaking receiver. It's funny now to read the NY or Boston papers around the time that the so-called "trouble-maker" was dumped. What's truly more responsible and ethical; to work with a complicated athlete who for the most part has broken no laws, or to give up on them and dump them? John Thompson had it right when he was saying Georgetown needed more "thugs." A strong program is able to incorporate some individuals who are quirky or a little off and make good use of their skills.

Now, you can't win with thug teams either. Go back and look at the 86 Mets...76 Raiders...95 (Barry Switzer) Cowboys...all of them one-championship wonders that could have instead have been dynasties. I can't help but think that those teams actually needed some good characters as well. For example, there was an interesting article on ESPN.com's Page 2 on how a critically needed Raiders defender was high for the 77 AFC championship game, and how that helped cost the Raiders the game.

Overall, though, the lesson is clear. In any walk of life, you have to be willing to put up with some headaches from your top performers. They must be punished for failings; fines and suspensions may be needed (see Steve Smith in Carolina). But this high-horse moralizing from sports reporters acting like a GM is courageous for getting rid of All-Star talent like Manny or Plaxico for little in return is completely inappropriate.

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