Risk-takers rewarded with stick, not carrot

This past Sunday, former Boston Globe columnist, Michael Holley, released “Patriot Reign: Bill Belichick, the Coaches, and the Players who Built a Champion.” Before you stop reading, rest easy because amazingly this column includes no rant on the Patriots. I know — it’s not entirely implausible that I’d find something worth writing about, even in a week when the team had a bye. I resisted — still haven’t figured out how I did it.

Anyhow, in an excerpt from the book, Holley describes the backlash that followed the release of charismatic Patriots safety, Lawyer Milloy. Holley’s point that “pure businessmen will never go over the middle, and pure players will never reduce things to business” got me thinking about contracts, hirings and firings in professional sports. In this world, it’s businessmen versus “players.”

Businessmen make cuts, make quick decisions, and don’t hang around waiting for a magical season to strike their organization. Statistics drive these decisions more than intangibles like dedication and selflessness.

The way professional sports are going right now, the businessmen rule the roost and true players who are willing to “go over the middle” are viewed as heroes when they make it but little more than economic liabilities when they have a below average season. Contract issues arise when owners fail to appreciate the risks true players take.

Take Trent Dilfer for one. He’s been cut from the Buccaneers, the Ravens (right after helping them amass 34 points in their defense-driven Super Bowl victory of 2000) and is currently Matt Hasselbeck’s back up in Seattle. Dilfer’s un-businesslike modesty prompted him to publicly downplay his role in the 2000 victory. Amidst claims that coach Brian Billick was no longer the offensive coordinator he once was in Minnesota, Dilfer responded “Anyone can come up with great scheme opponent when you have Randy Moss and Cris Carter — it’s pretty hard when you have Trent Dilfer as your quarterback.” His penchant for playing hard often gets him injured — broken clavicle with Tampa Bay in 1999 and sprained right MCL as starter for Seattle in 2002 — and certainly have been the reason he’s been so underappreciated over the years.

In 2000, after taking over for quarterback Tony Banks, Dilfer helped turn Baltimore’s season around to snag the Wild Card spot. The defense was the true story of Baltimore’s AFC victory, but Dilfer’s 96-yard touchdown pass to Shannon Sharpe helped secure the win against a Rich Gannon-led Raiders team and their psychotic fans.

After being released by Baltimore, Dilfer commented on the disparity between stats and a player’s actual worth.

“It’s the ultimate paradox in the NFL,” Dilfer said. “Because they say that all that matters is winning, but then when you win, it’s under-appreciated and they want more glamour.”

Athletes aren’t the only ones who can be betrayed for being true players. Coaches deal with this all the time. Look at the rash of NFL coaches who were fired in the past two years for “failing to deliver.” Take a look at current Detroit Lions and fired San Francisco coach, Steve Mariucci. Mariucci is a total “player” — willing to clash with fascist owner, John York, and jeopardize his job to make sure the team was going in the direction he knew it had to go in to succeed. For the record, this is the same guy who took San Francisco to four playoff berths during his six years as coach. Immediately hired by the Lions following his release, Mariucci led the struggling Lions to a 5-11 record (5-3 at home) last season which ain’t bad considering the Lions were 2-14 in 2002. This fall, they are already off to a 2-1 start.

To take a look at what can happen when things go right, more owners should follow the examples of the Patriots (sorry, but really, they’ve done good for themselves). Bob Kraft twice failed and fortunately learned that both backseat coaching brilliant play callers (ahem — The Tuna) as well as hiring coaches who don’t have enough backbone to take charge (cough cough, Pete Carroll) won’t allow a team to function at the highest level. As well, the Patriots of the last three years have been blessed with a team FULL of real players. The Patriots are chock full of talented AND selfless players who know enough to refer to themselves in the FIRST person during interviews.

Want a possible reason the Colts came up short against the Patriots? Both teams have remarkable up-right splitters in Adam Vinatieri and Mike Vanderjagt. Compare the two men’s off-field personas of last year, though, and it’s a whole different story. On the Patriots, you have guy who went a whole season letting people think he was in a slump rather than come off as a whiner by letting the fans and media in on the truth about his back pain. The other, who shares a roster with MVP Peyton freakin’ Manning, prefers to complain about how he’s the only member of his team who’s stepping it up and doing his job — yes Mike, you are doing your job scoring a maximum of three points every time you take the field. Quick, somebody get this guy a Mike’s Hard Lemonade.

To balance out my Boston reference — fine I’ll do it, I’ll talk about how the Yankees of the Paul O’Neil era also embodied these traits — happy? It’s a real tribute to both manager and owner that Torre and Steinbrenner have been able to co-exist in a city the size of New York (come to think of it, with the size of Steinbrenner’s ego, it’s amazing he hasn’t forced the whole island of Manhattan to relocate in order to accommodate him.) The key to the Yankees’ success is that (most of the time) Steinbrenner recognizes the genius and commitment in Torre and in turn, allows him to be a “go across the middle” type of “player,” err manager. The Yankees’ roster of 1997-2000 was full of baseball’s own versions of “Willie McGinist’s and Adam Vinatieri’s.” Full of guys who weren’t talented enough to worry about how an injury would alter their contract requests; guys who were humble enough to lead the real superstars on the team to several World Series Championships.

To bring it back to Dilfer, the quarterback had this to say about his release from the Super Bowl Championship Ravens.

“The difficult part has been not being wanted as much as being underappreciated, as being almost disgraced by a team that you really gave the best year of your life to,” Dilfer said.

Perhaps had Dilfer focused more on making long drives and less on not making mistakes that could cost his TEAM a game — perhaps had he been more of a savvy businessman, he’d still be taking snaps for the team called the Baltimore Ravens that ALMOST won a Super Bowl. Alas, there is no room for businessmen on championship teams because businessmen seek profit while players seek championships and as history has proven, when one side refuses to go across the middle, no one wins.

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