Friday, 12 February 2021

The Year of the Goat

It's Chinese New Year today and Mrs H is celebrating. No, she doesn't believe a word of the WTO theory about frozen food imports to China and hasn't relaxed her sanctions against Xi Jingping's regime. (Actually it's a bit broader than that, she's still iffy on Chinese restaurants here). She is celebrating us getting our covid inoculations. When the pleasant RAF dentist who administered our jabs confirmed that it was the Pfizer vaccine we were receiving I said "ah, the one that has a Bill Gates chip in it rather than the one that makes you as uninhibited as a monkey". She gave me a knowing smile and said she could see I was well read, with a scientific mind. 

For the Chinese we are moving from the year of the rat to the year of the ox. Ha, shows how much they know, it's clearly the year of the goat. I hadn't realised that, for the Chinese, goats and sheep are interchangeable. When I was moved to a job at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority's corporate headquarters in the 1980s my old boss cautioned me that CHQ was populated with sheep and goats. What he meant was that there was a mix of technical (scientific, engineering, accounting etc) folk and administrative folk, the latter often fiercely bright Oxbridge graduates with degrees in subjects like Classics, which at the time I didn't even realise was a subject. 

"And you're a goat" he said firmly (i.e. technical, in my case an engineer. He was a Professor of  economics, I'm still not sure which category that falls into). The implication was that sheep and goats don't necessarily mix. I think this was meant to be a cautionary warning that I might not fit in. Indeed when I was invited to meet the latest Jesus entrant I wondered what religion had to do with it until I realised that they meant Jesus College, where they recruited from every year. Whether Oxford or Cambridge I never found out at the time, as it made not one whit of difference to me, a graduate from a redbrick. But it's probably Oxford as two of my former colleagues, a husband and wife team with the surname Preston went there. They now write books individually and also together under the pseudonym Alex Rutherford*.

I recall one of the board members noting with some apparent surprise that I seemed to be a fairly competent planner and administrator - "for an engineer" was left unstated. When he left the Authority he became head of the BBC World Service. Though I wasn't able to contribute much to the discussions on the finer points of etymology which preceeded meetings I had with the company secretary (a Rhodes scholar) and Head of Finance on whether the ageing Harwell Materials Testing Reactors were sustainable (they weren't, I pretty well took the decision to close them) my time there went well so perhaps sheep and goats are interchangeable. 

But not in sport where a GOAT is a GOAT. And this was the year of one particular Greatest Of All Time, Tom Brady.

It was a surprise when the BBC ran a story about the Super Bowl on last Saturday's evening news. A surprise because they ran the story at all, as evidenced by the fact that on Monday evening they didn't cover the result. But also a surprise because they said that, if Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers won, he would be regarded as the greatest quarterback of all time, rather than it cementing that position and making it unlikely his records will be surpassed in many decades, if ever.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers did indeed win their second ever Super Bowl, beating the Kansas City Chiefs 31-9. This means 43 year old Brady, with seven wins, has now won more Super Bowls than any team has. (The Pittsburgh Steelers and his old bunch the New England Patriots have the most wins with six). A slew of other records were broken. They included the fact that Brady was the oldest player to feature in a Super Bowl, let alone win one or be the MVP (Most Valuable Player), while the Bucs head coach Bruce Arians is the oldest winner at 68. 

Although the scoreline was ultimately quite one-sided the result in was doubt until the fourth quarter. I watched the first half live but decided not to risk falling asleep during the half time show and turned in with the Bucs leading 21-6. Waking Mrs H up (I didn't mean to....) she asked how it was going and I said Brady was on track but the Chiefs ability to score quickly made me feel the result was definitely still in doubt. In the end it wasn't at all close and the drama came more from the complete Tampa Bay performance than any uncertainty about the outcome. I had wondered just how the Bucs could hold off the inventiveness of the Kansas offense, which seemed so mobile and dynamic in their Conference Championship match against the Buffalo Bills. It seemed to me that the question was how could Tom Brady outscore his rival quarterback Patrick Mahomes. This was the wrong question, even though Arians thought the Bucs would have to score 40 points to win. 

The Bucs were able to exert huge pressure on Mahomes and one of the lasting impressions of the match was seeing Mahomes scurrying back many times from the line of scrimmage pursued by the Bucs rampaging defence. The fact that the Chiefs were fielding their second choice and third choice in the two key tackle positions, which protect either end of the defensive line, was material. The Bucs were able to brush aside blocks at the defensive line and run at Mahomes almost at will, effectively running blitz defensive plays without having to commit blitz numbers, so retaining plenty of cover in the deep against Mahomes's throws. 

One even began to wonder why the bookies had the Chiefs as such strong pre-match favourites. After all, one Sky pundit had said the Bucs defensive line, linebackers, defensive backs and running backs were all better than the Chiefs and the Bucs offensive line was "way better".   That pretty much only leaves quarterback and wide receivers and, on the day, the Bucs players in those positions returned far better statistics than their opposite numbers because, as usual, the team which provides its quarterback with the best protection wins. And that quarterback gets the MVP.

But Brady still had to earn it and, as I expected, Brady threw a touchdown pass to his old buddy Gronkowski.  Though not, as I expected, late in the game: the surprise was that this was in the first quarter, Brady not having thrown a touchdown pass in the first quarter in nine previous Super Bowl appearances. That catch set another record, taking the pair past the Montana-Rice combination for the record number of post-season play off touchdowns. By the second quarter Brady had fed Gronkowski again. So the quarterback known at college as the "comeback kid" didn't need to stage a comeback this time, his team leading pretty much throughout.

While Brady's achievement will live in the mind, the picture I will see when thinking of this match was of Patrick Mahomes, struggling with an injured toe, being hunted down early in the 4th quarter when there was still a tiny gimmer of hope left for the Chiefs. On two plays in succession Mahomes bravely attempted outrageous passes. The first, when being spun round and yanked to the ground. The second having been tripped and falling, was thrown with his body horizontal and about a foot above the floor. The first pass just overshot a receiver in the corner of the end zone, the second hit the intended receiver, standing on the edge of the end zone, in the face mask. Both passes travelled about 30 yards - just how you throw the football that far in those circumstances I find amazing. 

So Patrick Mahomes didn't lack for spirit even though his team was crushed. Mahomes has been touted as a future quarterback GOAT. Wow, only seven more Super Bowl wins to add to last season's win to surpass Brady now!

The other lasting image for me will be Gronkowski, lumbering 9 yards into the end zone in the first quarter to put Tampa into a lead they never lost. Gronkowski has a credible case to be the GOAT of tight ends but what he showed here was something I demonstrated to my sons while they were still at primary school: that over a short distance a player already sprinting can comfortably beat much quicker players who are jogging. Gronk's sprint didn't look much like a sprint but it was more than fast enough with the space he found.

Last week's sport fix included England's win in the cricket against India, the start of the rugby Six Nations, the Premier League and the F A Cup. In the cricket England capitalised on a good toss to win by batting long and then bowling pretty well with contributions from all the front line bowlers, even if those bowlers were also sometimes patchy. Archer looked at times hostile then friendly. Anderson - with a strong claim as England's GOAT bowler - kept it tight but didn't look like getting wickets until an important and devastating spell on the last morning. Pant got after Leach in the first innings but otherwise he bowled well. I watched Bess bowl a succession of full tosses in one spell but he has a happy knack of taking wickets with poor balls as well as his occasional really good ones. I'm glad to see Moeen Ali back in the side but whether him for Bess is a sound call we'll see. I'd been worried about our ability to bowl India out twice without a definitively world class spinner and we could yet be tested when we have to bowl first. Ali has a lot of test wickets but not much match practice. However, it looks like the main issue will be whether the other batsman can fill the void if Joe Root ever gets out cheaply. And on the subject of GOATs, in just three innings Root has passed Boycott, Pietersen, Gower and Stewart to go from seventh to third on the England all time test match run scorers list. Although he's only two-thirds of the way to Alistair Cook's total he has played proportionally fewer matches and is still young for a cricketer at 30. Some think he has a shot at passing not just Cook as England's GOAT but the all time test batting GOAT, Sachin Tendulkar, who scored 15,921 runs in 200 tests. At 8507 in 100 tests Root is on track. He is the highest scorer still currently playing. Steve Smith is less than 1000 runs behind him from 23 fewer matches. But, as England play more test matches than anyone, my money would be on Root to end up on a higher total, though I wouldn't have said that before the last three test matches.

Not so many GOAT candidates in the rugby, apart perhaps from the Wales lock and most capped ever rugby union international, Alun Wyn Jones. However, unexpectedly the rugby gladdened my heart a little, especially since it involved England losing. But while England were awful, Scotland were awesome. The unfancied Jocks played with invention and spirit, controlling possession and territory. I only had one eye on the second half but whenever I looked the play was in England's half. Many commentators noted the oddity that it took over an hour for England rookie Ollie Lawrence in the centre to get his one touch of the ball before being substituted. It's not clear to me that England can play a more enterprising style with Eddie Jones as coach. Jones improved England's results hugely after taking over but rugby seems to have moved on. Thankfully, given the excruciating nature of most England performances since that exhilarating World Cup semi against New Zealand less than 18 months ago. Blaming England's play on the Saracens players' lack of top class action, as some have, doesn't seem right to me. I suspect the decision making under question for the turgid play is down to Jones not Farrell. But Farrell's chances of English rugby GOAT status seem to be receding fast.

No current GOATs at Everton, though they have continued to do ok, with an entertaining if nerve wracking 3-3 draw at Manchester United followed by a nerve shredding 5-4 FA Cup win over Spurs. Everton's results, apart from the odd lapse like the Newcastle game, are probably running a bit ahead of the performance level, whereas Liverpool seem to have forgotten how to get results. Their 4-1 dismantling by Manchester City was disappointing for me (yes, even as an Everton fan) as it now seems what was shaping up to be a very competitive Premier League has been killed by City's 10 game winning streak. Still I'll console myself with the thought that Everton, three points behind Liverpool with two games in hand, have a real opportunity to finish ahead of their rivals for the first time since 2005. I thought Everton's run of games from Spurs, with Fulham, Man City and, in ten days time, Liverpool in the Premier League would be season defining. That has now been deferred to the sixth round tie against City in five weeks' time. 

But back on Tom Brady. We heard many remarkable things about him in the run up to and during the game. In the match commentary they noted that when Brady signed for Tampa he had the highest game winning percentage in the four American major sports. And Tampa Bay had the lowest winning percentage in those sports. (I'm not sure what time period that was over; I hadn't thought Tampa was quite that much of a basket case; after all they were the the 19th ranked team out of 32 at the end of the previous season). But that's still a monster improvement. Joel Glazer's victory speech was notable (yes, the Glazers owned Tampa Bay Bucs before adding Manchester United to their family business and yes, the owner makes the first speech after a Super Bowl, not the winning coach or MVP) He said that if you want to know how to get somewhere ask a guy who's been there before. 

But that four sports stat isn't the one that gets me most. I'm still trying to get my mind round Brady's consumption of around 25 glasses of water a day (some 5 litres) compared with my 6 or 7 glasses. Of course, I exclude other beverages from that - tea, coffee, fruit juice, alcohol. Whereas Tom just excludes most of those completely. The sacrifices you have to make to be a GOAT.

* "Alex Rutherford" has published a six book historical fiction series Empire of the Moghul. The pen name Rutherford is a nod to their earlier careers, the Nobel Laureate Ernest Rutherford being known as the Father of Nuclear Physics. Diana and Mike have published dozens of books together and individually, with Diana's oeuvre including books on the Yalta conference, the Boxer Rebellion, Scott's south pole attempt and Before The Fallout - From Marie Curie to Hiroshima, which won the Los Angeles Times prize for Science and Technology. I remember Diana being a pretty and quietly spoken lady who was in a very senior position in UKAEA when I left the nuclear industry, while Mike had darker coloured but a very Boris Johnsonesque hairstyle and the untidiest desk you ever saw in your life.

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