Monday, 1 February 2021

It was right for elite sport to continue - at least for me

Although most of us expected there would be a second wave (what was there to stop it?) and so further lockdowns as we headed into winter, many folk seem to be finding the winter of restrictions harder than the first lockdown, in those long, light days of spring 2020. I certainly am. The weather was so pleasant first time round that, with walking and gardening, I barely missed seeing live sport on TV. However this time around I've found it a much more important ingredient of some kind of lifestyle. I think the government has been right to allow elite sport, the modern day opium of the masses, to continue, though most of the legwork (and cost) has correctly been borne by the sports themselves. For all the publicity about the odd misbehaving Premier League footballer, elite sports with their bubbles and testing have shown that, with some modest level of risk, it is possible to operate safely. I had some sympathy with Sam Allardyce and especially Steve Bruce, who said premier league football shouldn't continue. After all, a couple of Newcastle players got quite ill with covid, albeit short of hospitalisation. But I didn't agree with them. I could understand Big Sam, at 66, thinking he was at risk but not the players.

There has been some great sport on offer for armchair viewers (I know, there are no other types currently). The pickings were a bit thin this weekend - well they would be for an Everton fan after their disappointing performance against Newcastle, blowing a chance against one of the division's weakest form teams to move to 3 points off second place with a game in hand. As my nephew said "how Everton was that?" But I enjoyed seeing Paul Casey win in Dubai, Casey being one of several Brits in the "good enough to win a major, but haven't/didn't" along with Monty, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood. Casey and Westwood could still just conceivably take a leaf out of Darren Clarke's book and do it when the time seems to have passed, though I think Casey's game is more suited to American courses rather than links and the sheer quantity of strong opposition for the US Open and PGA tournaments is against him. 

The previous weekend offered much more entertainment, at least to me. Mrs H wasn't that impressed on the Sunday when, after I'd been watching the golf in Abu Dhabi on the tablet with the cricket in Sri Lanka on the TV (who says men can't multi-task - and I was on my phone as well!) I soon moved on to the F A Cup and then, in the evening, the American Football.

Tyrell Hatton, who Mrs H affectionately says looks like a garden gnome, was imperious in the golf and is in a sustained run of good form. Let's hope he (and Casey) can maintain it and play as well in the Ryder Cup. England's win in Sri Lanka was their 5th overseas test win in a row, something not achieved for over 100 years. In a series that was tighter than the 2-0 scoreline suggests, England were flaky but there were some outstanding performances, from Joe Root and Jimmy Anderson in particular. Although England won both tests by apparently comfortable margins neither Root nor Sri Lankan spinner Lasith Embuldeniya deserved to be on the losing side in either match.

This made for a morning of very high quality entertainment. Manchester United's cup win against Liverpool, maintaining their good form until it evaporated in the League against Sheffield United, made good viewing as well. But the NFC Conference Championship game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Green Bay Packers stole the show.

Some folk are puzzled by my long standing fondness for the gridiron game. I'm not sure why as the game is almost designed to produce drama. Yes, it's stop start but then cricket is also a series of discrete "plays". Tense finishes are frequent and, rather like football over here, the current generations of coaches and players take much more risk than three decades ago. The fashion in football for short goal kicks and the appetite of players (or rather their coaches) for risk in their own half seems insatiable but it just tends to look amateurish when it doesn't come off. But in American football it has become routine to see adventurous plays called throughout matches and it has made a visually entertaining sport even better to watch.

Routine that is until the number one seeded Green Bay Packers, trailing Tampa Bay 31-23 going into the closing stages lost their bottle and made what I've seen described as "the worst coaching decision ever seen", settling for kicking a field goal, bringing the score to 31-26 but giving the ball back to Tampa Bay's quarterback Tom Brady. That would be like a rugby union team settling for kicking a penalty rather than kicking to the corner and trying to force the try when trailing by 7 points in the closing stages. And that would be the Tom Brady who is arguably the most successful sports person on the planet in the last two decades. Brady just had to keep possession through a series of half a dozen or so plays to get to his tenth Superbowl in 20 seasons. Which, of course, he did. Yes, incredibly he'll have played in half of all the NFL season climaxes in two decades. Trust me this is at least as incredible as it would be for a soccer player to play in half of all the FA Cup finals over the same period.

American Football is perhaps the ultimate sport for statistics, though I can look at cricket stats for longer. Brady's career stats  are outstanding but not unique in the modern game. His career passer average, which is a bit like a cricket batting average for comparing players at different stages in their careers, puts him 7th equal on the all time NFL list. His long and successful career gives him a lot of yards gained passing (the equivalent of the batsman's runs or the bowler's wickets). But another veteran quarterback, Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, edges him off the top of that list. Where Brady is outstanding is his record in the end of season play offs. Brady has now won more than twice as many play off matches than any other quarterback in history: 33 to Joe Montana's 16.  I was fortunate enough to see Montana haul San Francisco over the line in the 1988 season superbowl. (I won the tickets with flights and accommodation. Mrs H got a week in Miami Beach and, at the match, sat next to an American from Chicago who was coaching the sport in England and who was living in the next street to where her dad was born in Birkenhead. We got to see what was regarded at the time as one of the classic Superbowls). Montana was the best of his or most preceeding generations at winning big matches in tight finishes. Brady is in a league of his own.

That's why Brady has six superbowl winner's rings from his 9 appearances to date. Brees may match him for career passing yards but has one ring. Montana won 4 as did Terry Bradshaw back in the 1970s before I started watching the game. That's it. 52 superbowls to date, Brady has won 6 and no other quarterback besides those three has won more than three times.

If Brady had any points left to prove he has already done that this season, playing for a new team under a new head coach. Aged 43, this is Brady's first season with Tampa Bay. He won his superbowl rings in his long career with the New England Patriots all under the same coach, Bill Belichick. In the first of his play off games this year, Brady took his team to meet his all time stats rival Brees and the New Orleans Saints. In a hard fought game Brady's team came out on top 30-20. 

Some say Brady is a hard man to warm to. Well he does have more than $100 million in the bank, is married to Brazilian Gisele Bundchen, since 2001 one of the highest paid supermodels in the world and still has his clean, college graduate looks. Clean partly because of his fanatical meditation, yoga, resistance training and diet regime which involves drinking some 200 oz of water (25 glasses) a day and avoiding most fruits, mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, coffee, white sugar, flour, gluten, dairy, cereal, white rice, potatoes, bread and, not surprisingly fizzy drinks including Gatorade. OK so maybe he can invoke just a little envy and resentment. Not that he's always had it easy. He wasn't highly fancied as a college player and wasn't selected until the sixth round of the 2000 college draft, which means all the teams passed over him at least five times. He was picked in 199th place, with 6 quarterbacks selected ahead of him.

However, after a season as back up quarterback he then held the starting role for the Patriots for 20 seasons, the most for an NFL quarterback with one franchise. Other than missing the entire 2008 season with a knee injury he has remained almost injury free.

When his team went to Green Bay for last week's NFC Conference Championship match many thought it was a game too far for the old stager. For a start, while Brady is used to playing in the cold after his time in Massachusetts, his Tampa team are used to warmer climes than Wisconsin in January. As it turned out, although the Bucs lead from start to finish, Brady didn't actually have that great a match. He threw three touchdown passes but was also intercepted three times, turning over possession. Maybe that's why The Tampa defence (remember that's pronounced Dee-fence and often shortened to just  "D") played a big role in the win.

But Brady's record speaks for itself. Can he go one further and win a seventh Superbowl on 7 February? Again most experts think not. He's up against last season's winners, Kansas City, with their outstanding young quarterback Patrick Mahomes. At 25 Mahomes is currently top of that all time career passer average list I mentioned earlier. On other stats Mahomes also leads Brady, for example pass completion percentage. As you might expect given their ages Mahomes is far more dynamic and Kansas currently run a bewildering array of plays with lots of players in motion to confuse the D. They also have two of the quickest players in a league where there are some genuine sprinters in Tyreek Hill (called "the cheetah" for a reason) and Mecole Hardman, though the latter is very young, very raw and sometimes error prone. Perhaps more significantly the Kansas D also look very dynamic.

But Tampa have some good players of their own, one Superbowl preview I've read giving them the edge at both wide receiver and running back. If it comes down to a tight match it might be decided by a pass to one of the tight ends. Kansas have Travis Kelce, currently the best tight end in the league. Tampa have the veteran Rob Gronkowski, one of the best tight ends to ever play the game. "Gronk" was with Brady at the Patriots for 9 years but, citing impact on his mental health from the pain and injuries suffered through his career, retired in 2018 at the age of 29. After a year out Brady persuaded the Bucs to trade a fourth round draft pick for a seventh round pick and the rights to his old buddy's signature. Gronk had a decent season but had hardly caught a pass in the play offs until, critically, near the death in last week's match.

                                 Gronkowski and Brady after the Bucs Conference Championship win

One of the great things for me about American Football is I have no nerves or expectation when watching. Although I had a fair degree of fondness for the the San Francisco 49ers and the Washington Football Team, then called the Redskins, back in the day I don't really follow a particular team, so I can watch all the games as a neutral. So I won't be rooting for either team next weekend when the match starts at 11.30pm (you can see it live on BBC1 as well as Sky), I'll just be hoping for a close, exciting match. And no, I won't watch all of it live though I used to in the days when we had Superbowl parties. Though maybe I can persuade Mrs H that the two of us should have a Superbowl party this year stay up till 3am....

The bookies odds are against Brady and the Bucs even though, for the first time ever, they are the team that gets to play at home in the stadium long since designated to hold the match. But, if it is a tight finish, it wouldn't be a huge shock if a last minute Brady pass to his old buddy Gronk settled the game, though that would take an outstanding performance by the Tampa D to constrain Mahomes. Either way, I can't wait to see what happens, but Brady's place in history is secure. 

Oh, there are some tasty football fixtures next week as well, notably the match in which Liverpool try to stop Man City turning the Premier League into a procession (so despite being a Blue I'll be shouting for them, as I'd like it to stay competitive). And the rugby Six Nations starts so I'll be keen to see how England and Wales fare. But unless something is done to tilt the balance back towards passing from kicking, especially the monotony of box kicking, I'm not expecting great entertainment. So it's the Superbowl I'm looking forward to most. Just don't text me the result on Monday morning if I'm watching most of the game on catch up!


  1. Cricket has kept me going through lockdown, although where we'd be without You Tube highlights I don't know as it continues to be the national sport that is almost completely confined to pay to view TV. Why no free to air highlights of England's matches in South Africa and Sri Lanka this winter? Sunday afternoons watching the John Player League in the 1970's were great but coverage of cricket has just melted away on free to air TV. So sad and the damage this must have done to the sport by narrowing its audience for money must be huge. So yes You Tube lockdown cricket has kept me sane, well as near to that as I can get.

    1. Agreed, it's a shame there isn't more free to air coverage. You'd have thought the highlights wouldn't be prohibitively expensive. But wait - we'll find out tomorrow if Channel 4 will cover the India-England tests. Looks like they have outbid Sky and it would be the first cricket test series shown live since the 2005 Ashes. Set your alarm for 4am Friday morning! Or like me start watching at breakfast time....

  2. Great news that channel 4 will be showing a test series on free to air telly!
    Superbowl is a good match up, I was rooting for Green Bay (well Aaron Rodgers) in the NFC title game but that coaching decision to kick the FG was very odd. Chiefs for me in the big game, Mahomes is young but already well experienced in big games and should get his team through but both his starting tackles are out and that definitely gives Tampa a chance. If Tampa can get a couple of big D plays and run the ball in offense to limit the time KC have then Brady could get a chance for a game winning drive. And then few would doubt his status as GOAT.
    Worth noting that Brees extra passing yards have often been accumulated when saints have been losing and needing to come back. Brady was so rarely in that position in NE.

  3. Yes indeed chaps free to air cricket on Ch4, well I never......