Sunday, 3 February 2019

Will the Masters of their Universe win tonight?

“The ball is round and was meant to go round”. This may well be a very old football saying indeed but I first heard it from George Best, way back in the day. I took it to mean that, in football, your team is never at the top for ever. Bob Paisley’s Liverpool were soon to temporarily suspend the truism, but eventually someone else wins. In football it was a new dynasty, when Alex Ferguson succeeded in knocking Liverpool “off their perch”. But even in these times of near domination there were periods when there was at least a duopoly. Liverpool and Everton in the 80s; Man United and Arsenal in the 90s. Maybe we are moving into a Man City and Liverpool era. But just maybe the huge riches of the Premier League mean we are moving into a more competitive era, when half a dozen or more teams can genuinely compete.

There is, of course, a sport which is set up to a make domination by one or a small number of teams tantamount to impossible: American football. Which ironically doesn’t have a round ball. It would be hard to replicate all of the ways in which this is done in our British sporting structures. But just imagine the bottom ranked of the elite 30 English football teams getting first pick of all the graduates emerging from that year’s under 23 teams. And then first pick in the second round of choices and so on. And having the easiest fixture list in the next season. And having an equal share of the game’s TV and league-wide commercial revenues: sponsorship, licensing etc. (The teams keep "local" revenues: ticket sales and their own commercial income). Surely this would make it impossible to build a dynasty lasting nearly two decades?

Impossible unless you are Bill Belichik and Tom Brady, coach and quarterback of the New England Patriots, who are candidates for the best team sports coach and player partnership of the current era, if not ever. By winning the NFC championship game last Sunday, in combination they have got to 9 of the last 17 NFL Super Bowls, a record unprecedented in that sport. Yes, other teams have had sustained success over a period close to one decade, but not two. In their halcyon days the Pittsburgh Steelers got to 4 Super Bowls in 6 years in the early era after the then rival American Football leagues came together to create their end of season play offs a bit over 50 years ago. And the San Francisco 49ers got to 4 Super Bowls over a 9 year period in the 1980s.

To be fair, quarterbacks Terry Bradshaw of the Steelers and Joe Montana of the 49ers won all four of their Super Bowls. I was fortunate to be at the game where Montana, who I then thought to be peerless, won his third in Miami in 1989.  But no other quarterback has more than 5 career Super Bowl appearances, no other coach more than 6. As American football pundit Michael David Smith says, even if the Patriots lose tonight, "going 5 and 4 (as the Americans put it) in Super Bowls is more impressive than going 4 and 0".

Moreover, Belichik and Brady have won about twice as many matches as any other NFL coach- quarterback combo in history. Given the way their sport works, Belichik is arguably "Ferguson plus, plus, plus" evolving and rebuilding his team for sustained success. And Brady certainly doesn’t lose out in comparison with, say, Messi or Ronaldo. Their achievements in a system stacked to prevent what they have a done is remarkable.

As, of course, is 41 year old Brady’s longevity in an extremely physical sport. I used to think the risk of injury in American Football militated against its attractiveness as a sport, notwithstanding its huge entertainment value to the TV viewer. But now the average rugby three-quarter weighs something like 25% more than when I was a schoolboy the risk of injury in that sport with a similar shaped ball is surely at least as high. American Football has worked hard for many years to limit the risk in a very physically aggressive sport. Rugby is only just starting to think about the risk, let alone get to grips with it.

And, notwithstanding the colossal entertainment value of the Six Nations, which has got off to a cracking start this year, I am usually in the dark about key refereeing decisions most times I watch rugby, whereas, after listening to the NFL officials live, backed up by the TV pundits, I always understand the decision, even though I can’t claim to be an expert on the rules. Last weekend’s win by the Patriots featured yet another piece of nerveless play by Brady at the death as he ‘found a way’ as great sportsmen do at critical junctures. But the game also involved several key decisions reviewed with great clarity and success by the officials. What struck me was how well their video review works at moments of huge controversy. To be fair, rugby's TMO system also works well, whereas soccer’s VAR doesn’t look at the moment as if it will ever work as smoothly. And when the sporting stakes couldn’t be higher, the spirit between the Patriots and Chiefs players, as they took a break from knocking ten bells out of each other while awaiting the decisions, was remarkably warm.

The two Conference Championship games (semi-finals to us Brits) were amongst the most entertaining bits of TV sports coverage I have watched since last year’s Superbowl. High drama, close finishes, huge levels of individual skill. Yes, maybe a poor bit of officiating cost the Saints against the Rams in the final seconds – no video replay available to the Rams under the cricket-like rules – but, for the neutral that only added to the drama. I don’t have the stamina now to watch the Super Bowl live in the early hours so it will be a highlights package for me. But we’ll see if Brady's throws to Gronk (Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski) and Brady to Edelman (Patriots receiver Julian Edelman) bring him a record 6th Super Bowl winners ring. Nothing is certain in sport – after all Brady’s team fell short at the final hurdle last year – but I wouldn’t bet against it.

I've always found it more than odd the way Americans proclaim the winners of their national competitions world champions just because hardly anyone else plays some of their sports. But, whatever, Brady and Belichik are masters of their particular universe and we’re privileged to watch them at work in combination.

P.S. well of course the Patriots won, albeit in the lowest scoring Super Bowl, dominated by the Ds (defense). Brady to Edelman was the most successful combination and Brady has cemented his place in the pantheon of the world's greatest sportsmen. No, that doesn't mean you have to like him, after all he is respected more than liked in his own country, disliked as much as liked in popularity polls. But his stats don't lie

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