Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Oh, Plaxico!

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, January 29, 2009:

Fans of the New York Giants can only grind their teeth and shut up as they watch the Arizona Cardinals (nine wins, seven losses in the regular season) represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. First, the Giants snuck into the finale last year, so mazel tov to Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, and supporting cast; if the Cinderella slipper fits, wear it. Second, the Giants didn’t deserve to wear the slipper this year because (a) they were returning champs and started their season 11-1 and (b) they shot themselves in the foot — or rather, Plaxico Burress shot himself in the thigh, with an unregistered handgun in a public venue, leaving the Giants to limp home with a 1-4 record in their final five games. 

Coach Tom Coughlin, quarterback Eli Manning, and the rest of the crew said all the right words about concentrating on the players on the field rather than those who took themselves off it. But the absence of their star wide-out proved fatal to their chances, because opponents no longer had to double-cover any Giants receiver and safeties could creep up to assist in defending against the run. Taking Plaxico out meant, in effect, giving defensive opponents an additional player.

I’ll admit to having disliked Plaxico in the years before he gamely led the Giants to the Super Bowl despite an ankle that at any point in the season would have justified his shutting down for the year. Until then he had seemed as pouty and narcissistic as Terrell Owens without his dedication to running crisp routes or blocking. Often Plax would jog through his routes if he was not the primary receiver, or maddeningly he would break off a slant pattern or a post, hanging his quarterback out to dry for a seemingly inexplicable interception.

Because he could make Eli look awful, Plax could also make him look great. He was the Most Important Person on the team, he knew it, and his successful preseason holdout for a contract commensurate with his status proved it. By his self-indulgent and uniquely idiotic exit from the season and almost certainly from the Giants (if not the NFL altogether), the heroconfirmed his feet of clay. But in his absence, while Joe Torre made headlines by blasting Alex Rodriguez in his new book with Tom Verducci, we are left to ponder whether superstardom is good for anything, in any sport.

Is an all-star aggregation the way to go, like those the Yankees have attempted to field in recent years? Or is that like a ten-course meal of all desserts?

Is a no-name team like the 17-0 Miami Dolphins of 1972 the ideal, because no one will stumble over an ego, his own or a teammate’s? Or is that formula for victory too fragile because significant burdens are dispersed among teammates of varying abilities, all of whom must perform to expectation if they are to achieve victory?

It’s easy to go down the middle here and say that a mix of stars and spear carriers is the way to construct a club, that developing a team via the draft and the farm system is the key. In this scenario free agency is useful only when adding a missing ingredient that will provide a middle-of-the-pack team with a championship run. But teams have spent their way to the top, ever since Harry Wright’s Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869, a team of imported salaried players, went undefeated against a nationwide opposition drawn from local ranks.

“Thou shalt not covet” is a commandment that does not apply in sports, especially in New York, where having a fat wallet is supposed to be good for something. Even as the Cardinals line up to play against the Steelers on Sunday, Giant fans are already blogging about throwing money at Arizona’s second star receiver, the evidently disgruntled Anquan Boldin, to replace the perpetually disgruntled Plaxico.

Horrible free-agent signings (Mo Vaughn, Bobby Bonilla, Carl Pavano, Kevin Brown,  ... one could go on) have not daunted the city’s baseball owners from going after the next new star, even if it turns out they have only bought someone else’s former star. In some seasons the Yankees have made a brief show of fiscal responsibility and trust in the youngsters, as when they declined to pursue Johan Santana and gave a chance to the kids from Triple-A. Were they wrong then, and right now, as they bring on board at hefty salaries C.C. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira? Were they right to rely upon Scott Brosius and Chuck Knoblauch and Paul O’Neill in their glory years, and wrong to bring in Alex Rodriguez and then re-up him?

What does having a star do for a franchise? (For obvious reasons we must set aside golf and tennis and other mano a mano sports.) Let’s leave aside the clear benefits of having a gate attraction, building credibility with fans and confirming their faith, the flow of free advertising via slow-news-day coverage — all of that is well understood. But what is the effect on the field? How does it differ in each of the major team sports?

In baseball the starting pitcher, and increasingly the reliever, is disproportionately important in any given game, but he will appear in only a quarter to a half of the scheduled contests, so a star at an everyday position would seem more valuable. Yet modern statistical measures indicate that even the greatest players in the game’s history—Ruth, Williams, Bonds, et al.—might contribute only six to eight wins over the course of a season beyond what an average player might have contributed in their stead. This is enough to make a pennant winner of an otherwise second-place club, but by itself is not likely to be enough. A .500-level club (81-81) would advance, after buying a Ruthian figure like Manny Ramirez as a free agent, to perhaps 88-74. Pick up more stars and you may, like an overzealous weightlifter, get too musclebound to comb your hair.

In basketball, when the Boston Celtics added proven stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to their own Paul Pierce, the betting was that the team would need three basketballs. (Back in the day, when the Knicks added Earl Monroe to Walt Frazier in the backcourt, the requirement was thought to be two balls.) But because none of the three had ever won an NBA title, they sublimated their egos to the team cause and became champions. In this sport a star like Kobe or Lebron will have a profound effect on every game because the opponent must use two players to hound the star, or just write off his 30 points and seek to contain the others. In either case, average players on the Lakers or Cavaliers may look like world-beaters, as journeymen on the Chicago Bulls did during the Jordan era. 

Why in soccer or hockey, games that produce so few goals, is a Beckham or a Gretzky so highly prized? Maybe these sports help to provide an answer as to why in some sports a star seems to provide a better path to victory than a system. Not only does the star have an effect on how open teammates may be, as in basketball, but their own ability to score through sheer individual talent will have a disproportionate effect on the outcome of the game.

Which brings us back to pro football, and Plaxico. In a game that is at every point eleven against eleven (in baseball it is most often one against nine), no one man should make the difference between victory and defeat, not even the quarterback. Each player’s purview of responsibility is interlaced with another’s. In this sport more than any other one ought to be able say “There is no ‘I’ in team” without prompting a snicker. The Miami Dolphins of 1972 — with their “no-name” defense and an offense built around lunch-pail guys like Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, Bob Griese and Paul Warfield (and like the Giants, an adroit offensive line)—remain, despite the challenge by the New England Patriots last season, the best team ever.

Plaxico, you done us wrong. Your disregard for your teammates and your fans will make your return impossible, no matter your contrition. But we need a stud at wide receiver or Giants fans will seek to trade Eli Manning for the man he replaced, Kurt Warner.

This is New York. Let’s get Boldin.

--John Thorn


Post a Comment

<< Home