Ben on speed, on speed in sports, beep

Remember growing up and wondering who would win a race between Speedy Gonzales and the Road Runner? It was almost sacrilegious to even think about it. It’s faintly reminiscent of those old Saturday Night Live skits where Chris Farley, Mike Myers and Co. would try to determine whether Da Bears or Da Bulls (Ditka or Jordan) was superior and would be unable to decide because hedging one way would be heresy of the highest degree.

Back to obscure reference No. 1 — leading to the point that speed is a fascinating and integral virtue and those fortunate enough to be endowed with it hold a unique place in the American sports landscape. Like height, natural speed is one of those proverbial traits that cannot be taught but which can be exploited to provide a decided advantage on the playing field.

Speed is what allowed Green Bay cornerback Al Harris to begin celebrating his impending touchdown at the 30-yard-line after intercepting Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in overtime of last weekend’s Wild Card playoff game, even though Hasselbeck seemingly had a good angle with which to make the tackle. “I know the quarterback ain’t going to catch me,” Harris was quoted as saying after the game. So true.

All right, here’s an aside: Hasselbeck had a phenomenal game and a wonderful season, and I’m not sure how. He was pushing mediocre at Boston College, most often settling for “average,” and now he’s a fringe Pro Bowler. What? How does this keep happening with BC quarterbacks? Matt’s brother Tim wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire at the Heights either, but he was quarterbacking Steve Spurrier’s offense with the Redskins (although that game against Dallas with the 0.0 quarterback rating did evoke some sweet memories).

But, back to big brother Matt: I appreciate the confidence and the gutsiness you showed with your little “We want the ball and we’re gonna score” comment after the overtime coin toss, but let’s get realistic here. You’re Matt Hasselbeck. You’re playing a playoff game in Green Bay. There was a time this year when Boston College products were starting at quarterback for three NFL teams — the brothers along with the ageless Doug Flutie in San Diego — and I defy you to give me another college about which that was true this season. Unfortunately, Matt Hasselbeck is not Doug Flutie. Growing up in Chestnut Hill in the shadows of Alumni Stadium, I was imbued with one unassailable notion: Doug Flutie does not lose. At anything. Ever. He who throws the original Hail Mary can make that kind of prediction. Don’t tempt fate like that, Matt. Not against Brett Favre at Lambeau. It’s just silly.

So remember the time my column was about speed? What a time that was. Speaking of time, Bethel Johnson had one of the best ones in the 40 in this year’s NFL Draft class, which is why the Patriots spent a high draft pick on him in April. Sheer speed. He singlehandedly led the Patriots over the Colts in the regular season game of the year by running a kick back for a touchdown on the last play of the first half to extend the Patriots’ lead back to two touchdowns when Indy had closed a 21-0 deficit to 21-14. Then when the Colts tied the game at 31, Johnson returned another kick 67 yards to set up the eventual game winning touchdown.

Saturday night in the arctic confines of Gillette Stadium, Johnson again had his speed on full display — this time as a receiver. Four minutes into the first quarter, Johnson lined up against Tennessee safety Lance Schulters, who found himself in the unenviable Wile E. Coyote role of chasing vainly as the blazing Bethel streaked by him and caught the game’s first touchdown pass. Brady knew a mismatch when he saw it: “I don’t care if you’re Carl Lewis, it’s tough to run with Bethel,” he proclaimed in postgame interviews.

On the topic of the Colts special teams, smarten up. Bethel burned you. You kicked to Dante Hall yesterday and he burned you (memo to special teams coaches: stop kicking to Dante Hall). A repeat performance like that with your kicking game Sunday in Foxboro and it won’t matter what kind of numbers Peyton Manning puts up — and if you think he’s gonna put up the same ungodly numbers he has the last two weeks against a Bill Belichick defense, you’re foolish. Refer to their days in the AFC East of old when Belichick’s Jets and Patriots always owned Manning’s Colts. Belichick is just smarter than everyone, and he knows it. Can’t you see him sitting around during the week counting the minutes until game time when he can reveal his next mastermind plan to the world and have them all gush about his genius once more? Brilliance.

Johnson, incidentally, has become somewhat of a cult figure among a certain New England sect that is fond of proclaiming that they worship at Temple Bethel Johnson. I wonder what it would be like to have a name that fits so neatly and awesomely into cool little catch phrases. Man that would be sweet.

All of which logically brings me to the Yale men’s basketball team. After their auspicious start (3-1 with that inspired loss to UConn as the only blemish), the Elis quickly fell on hard times and a six-game losing streak ensued. Despite shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor as a team, Yale has averaged nearly 20 turnovers per game and has been exceedingly shaky in the face of pressure defense.

Susceptibility to a press will be less of a factor once Ivy League play starts Friday night against Brown, since few Ivy teams boast guards that are as quick as some of those the Elis have faced thus far, but quickness (use as a synonym for speed here) has undoubtedly proven to be the main thorn in Yale’s side. Freshman Casey Hughes might help level the playing field a bit, as coach James Jones has acknowledged that in some Ivy games Hughes will be the most athletic player on the court. In terms of breaking a press, quickness is invaluable whether it be utilized by beating opposing defenders directly off the dribble or by getting open and finding soft spots in the zone that can lead to a couple of quick passes and an easy transition into the frontcourt. Hughes received his most substantial playing time of the season Saturday, and perhaps Jones will turn to the freshman more frequently if he feels other Ivy teams will attempt to emulate the pressure Yale opponents have used so successfully thus far this season.

Kind of funny how a column about speed can be so tangential and indirect, huh? I’ll try harder next time to bring you up to speed quicker.

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