Football and the Hall of Fame

Stray thoughts on incidental matters while monitoring the New England Patriots’ inexorable march to yet another Soupeybowl, if you please.

And while denying any team that’s as resourceful as the Patriots its due is small potatoes this much needs to be said about the recent uproarious business in San Diego. If the victory over the Chargers had been a fish, the Patriots would have been required to throw it back. No team in the latter annals of playoff football has been guiltier of beating itself than the Chargers that day.

But then no matter the calling, being a champ is more than a matter of merely having the talent. For more on this metaphysical question you might consult Tom Brady. If they do go all the way, his 49-yard strike to Reche Caldwell setting up the winning kick in the waning moments was the stuff of legend. Brady’s sense of the moment is eerie. He is always better than the sum of his statistics.

v Meanwhile, the prospect of another depressing winter down on Causeway Street deepens. Only in the NBA East -- worst conference in all of sports -- could a team be 12-24 and still be very much a contender for a playoff berth, only four games out of first. How can Danny Ainge survive this latest twist in the ongoing fiasco of his stewardship? Hey, it could be worse. If the Celts were in the southwest Division of the Western Conference they would be 18 games out.

As for the Bruins, without a major upgrade in goal they have no chance, although even with another Terry Sawchuck between the pipes they lack the overall depth and balance to be a postseason factor.

There have been many blunders in recent years but the biggest may have been ownership’s decision to allow talent such as Michael Nylander, Brian Rolston, and Mike Knuble to escape without an ounce of compensation in a bizarre cost-cutting stratagem during the epic labor dispute. It happened on Mike O’Connell’s fairly ruinous watch but it was Owner Jacobs who ordered the release of the three. He deserves all the blame.

Now you know why Chargers Coach Marty Schottenheimer has been characterized as one of the NFL’s least inspired Neanderthals over the years. How did you like his decision to go for the first down early on when he was fourth and 11 while denying his Pro-Bowl place-kicker a quite makeable field goal attempt? When he made that odd decision, the Chargers had much the edge with the Pats back on their heels. Whereupon, the tide turned. Marty has been accused of thinking too much with too little. Now you know why. Unfairly or otherwise the Chargers’ messy meltdown will probably cost him his job.

v Bobby Knight ushered in the new year by becoming the winningest college basketball coach of all time, succeeding the sainted Dean Smith of the University of North Carolina, still dripping in his piety in retirement.

Armchair moralists who pose as sports columnists and pundits for various newspapers and broadcast operations around the Republic were mainly negative in their reaction with too many being derisive. Typical of the latter was Jim Armstrong, a print pontificator out of Denver, who sneered at the accomplishment while branding Knight, “a classic bully.”

Armstrong and all the other armchair, know-it-alls are wrong. Dead wrong! Until one man -- just ‘‘one’’ -- who actually played basketball for Bobby Knight at any time in any place over the last 45 years steps forth and calls Knight ‘‘a classic bully’’ -- I shall continue to insist they are wrong. Knight may be a bombastic, ego-driven, temperamental, intensely complex, benevolent despot who would have been much better off had he accepted anger-management counseling 40 years ago. But he is NOT “a classic bully.”

v Don’t you think if the Chargers had it to do all over again, they would keep Reche Caldwell and waive Eric Parker, the haunted wideout who is still grasping for the fumbled kickoff he butchered in the game’s turning point?

But then the best receiver on the field was Jabar Gaffney who is being compensated at the NFL day-rate plus meal money. A total reject, any NFL team could have had Gaffney in October for the price of a bus ticket. Peeled from the football scrap heap at midseason, he saved the Patriots in San Diego with 10 tough catches. He’s only the latest diamond in the rough plucked from the boneyard by Scott Pioli who has kept the Patriots’ pipeline flowing with talent the last seven years while receiving too little credit.

In the Belichick Era, Pioli and his astute scouting staff have at various moments fortified the wide receiver, secondary, linebacking, and offensive line corps with emergency, on-the-fly, midseason, acquisitions from football’s waiver wire; snaring little known characters like Gaffney out of thin air. When your number one draft pick excels, that’s no big deal. When some sojourner from the Pottsdown Firebirds saves your season that’s quite another matter.

No other NFL team can match their stunning success at rescuing rejects and turning them into productive performers. For a Jabar Gaffney to shine at such a major moment is simply astounding. It just doesn’t happen. Except in Hollywood. Or Foxborough!

v Regarding Baseball’s Hall of Fame vote: The baseball writers were oh so predictable in their works, as usual. The electing of Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn was a no-brainer. Nor was the rejection of Mark McGwire all that creative. Had they also had the sense and sensibility to elect a Goose Gossage -- whose denial last year was downright criminal -- one might have been more impressed. They might also have selected Jim Rice, whose time has clearly come. Or Black Jack Morris, Bert Blyleven, Jim Katt or Tommy John. If they don’t recognize the likes of  Morris to be Hall of Fame worthy than it could not have been baseball they’ve been writing about the last generation or so, but Ping Pong.

The writers, who guard their ballots as if they were passports to Mount Rushmore or tickets to the communion of saints, couldn’t manage any of that. They can only handle the safe choices, the easy picks. So, it’s Ripken and Gwynn. Do we need 545 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America to deliver that verdict?

It has become a joke. The handful of writers who deemed Ripken and Gwynn unworthy should be chastised and the blowhards who submitted blank ballots as some sort of protested should be banned from ever voting again. Indeed, what were they protesting? Ripken breaking Gehrig’s endurance record or Gwynn hitting a mere .338, lifetime? Enough is enough! The process needs to be reformed.

v In this weekend’s AFL title game, the Colts won't willfully and childishly foul their own nest the way the Chargers so gleefully did; not with Peyton Manning -- yearning for redemption -- at the helm. But the coaching match-up of Bill Belichick and Tony Dungy is nonetheless lopsided. Advantage Foxborough. And it’s huge.

Could any other NFC team but the Saints and maybe the Bears have even made the playoffs in the AFC? I don’t see the Cowboys, Giants, or Seahawks beating the Broncos, Jaguars, Bengals or Steelers with real money on the line.

In the end, it will be the Patriots versus the Saints in Soupey XLI, with the post-Katrina team from New Orleans as the overwhelming sentimental favorite across the nation, for whatever that’s worth. It will be interesting to see how Boss Belichick handles all that folderol. At least in Sean Payton, the Saints’ very sharp rookie coach who happens to be a prize protege of Bill Parcells, Belichick will at long last have a worthy foe. Payton is neither a Dungy or a Schottenheimer. We can be thankful for that much.