Ray Ratto

Raiders' magic dissipates, but valuable lesson about contending learned

Raiders' magic dissipates, but valuable lesson about contending learned

So the Oakland Raiders are good, but not magical, let alone soaked in destiny. So they can make every game a hard slog for the opponent, but they are not invulnerable. So they can be inefficient, and too sure of themselves, and terribly wasteful when they’re cold.

In other words, they are part of the National Football League – no longer too good to be true.

Their performance against the Chiefs in Kansas City was a pyramid of blown opportunities, opportunities made necessary by a terrible start. A week ago, against a borderline playoff team, they could get away with it. Thursday, on hostile ground, against a team that has lost three of its previous 23 regular season games and has a defense that specializes in standing on your chest until you whistle Yankee Doodle through your navel, they couldn’t.

The result of the 21-13 loss in a game with 12 more points than degrees of temperature is that the Raiders are now the fifth-best team in the American Football Conference rather than the first-best team with four more chances to change that position.

In other words, Thursday’s defeat only provided this much wisdom: The Raiders are a good team vulnerable to other good teams with an iron-plated sense of purpose, stubborn defenses that can apply and maintain a chokehold for hours on end, and offenses that don’t feel compelled to imitate Oakland’s offense by getting into a shootout.

And also this: There is nothing that would necessarily prevent them from beating the Chiefs in case of a third match, even though Kansas City held them to fewer points in two games than they scored in every other game save one. They are still, as the pedants say, “in the argument.”

But they have flaws to be exposed against the right team in the right situation. Kansas City has been that team twice, and New England probably is, but there the list probably stops. Nobody in the AFC North or South seems terribly capable of matching them in neutral conditions, but here’s the other bone spur:

The playoffs are not about neutral conditions.

The Raiders have come a long way in what most people think is a long time, but in fact in terms of team construction, you can throw out everything before 2013, and almost everything before 2015. They are just now getting a full understanding of the hardest part of becoming a Super Bowl contender – the other Super Bowl contenders.

Yes, Kansas City has an indifferent playoff history under Andy Reid, but it is clear that under current conditions the Chiefs are serious players. And while we have no link to how the Raiders would fare against new England, we are pretty sure that they wouldn’t want to play the second weekend of January arse-deep in snow in Foxborough.

The point? Now they get how hard this contender stuff really is. They could not have learned that lesson any other way – not anyone they’ve played yet save Kansas City.

Their next lessons come in Weeks 16 and 17, when they face the frantically desperate Indianapolis Colts in Oakland and then the Broncos in Denver the week after. Desperate teams can be very difficult indeed, especially to teams that are safe and dry and home, playoff-wise.

And then there are the actual playoffs, which if they were played today would have the Raiders traveling to Houston for a very winnable game against the stultifying Texans. The week after, they could be either in Kansas City again or in New England, getting a gut full of visiting field disadvantage.

But as a learning experience, the Raiders may have come out very well indeed. They now know in very real and personal ways the real difference between where they think they should be and where they are, as well as how many ways this can go terribly wrong between now and then.

And also how well it can go, if they learn what the Chiefs taught them again Thursday.

Why Condoleezza Rice to the Browns really isn't all that crazy

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AP

Why Condoleezza Rice to the Browns really isn't all that crazy

The immediate reaction to the Cleveland Browns’ reported interest in interviewing Condoleezza Rice for its head coaching job is, “Well, that’s nuts, so it must be the Browns.”

That would explain why the Browns denied the story within a couple of hours of its appearance via ESPN. Rice herself also downplayed the report.
 
But one of the best tests for an idea always has been, “What’s the idea here, and what’s the harm?” And that’s where the idea stops being all that crazy.
 
If one considers what Rice, the former U.S. Secretary of State, can provide -- ideas, concepts, ways of thinking and problem solving -- the idea is clear. And if one then thinks about the harm -- there is none, except to the old world order.
 
But the dismissive nature of the denial indicates the Browns either weren’t interested in Rice as a coaching candidate or didn’t want the traditionalist backlash. In short, there’s nothing to see here ... except maybe this.
 
Maybe you could think of it as an interview for a different job, a better and more influential job than head coach, a job unlike any other in the sport. Think of it as Consultant Without Portfolio.
 
Owner Jimmy Haslam, who seems to have left the footballing to general manager John Dorsey, is trying to make the Browns less, well, Brown-y, even though he is part of the reason for their Brownsiness, and without a firm idea of how to do it himself is opening the organization to the waft of different ideas. If a Rice interview happens, no matter how you term it, it would be evidence that Haslam and therefore Dorsey are willing to cast a wide search for those ideas.
 
Then the hard part would begin, namely, deciding what ideas are worth considering and to what extent. And there, the Browns’ track record has been almost uniformly poor. You don’t get to be this anti-functional without a series of errors in judgment that seemed like good ideas at the time.
 
Rice has been offered up by the rumor mill for other jobs in her time, including NFL commissioner, which is a phenomenally well-compensated lousy job in that the 32 bosses never can be made happy, no matter what. To be interviewed by the Browns is not much of a stretch.
 
But being interviewed specifically for the head coaching job currently held on an interim basis by Gregg Williams is what made heads snap, because by traditional standards, she has remarkably thin qualifications. As in, she’s never coached football at any level for even a moment.
 
So let’s calm everyone’s fevered brains and just say she might be interviewed by the Browns for a position of influence with the club. And to be honest, the way power is devolving away from the coach and toward the front office in all sports, being the head coach of the Cleveland Browns might in fact be beneath her skill set.
 
So while the headline is “Rice May Interview For Browns Coaching Job,” maybe it’s better that the Browns backed away from the idea before it got real traction. Maybe the headline is “Rice May Be Interviewed For Big-Deal Browns Job.” That way, we don’t have to distract ourselves with the tiresome and diversionary arguments about qualifications and gender roles. Maybe it’s interesting enough that she’s in line for an interview that might help reverse the Browns’ ongoing comedic turn.
 
That beats being the head coach every time.

The biggest problem with what Bill James said about baseball players

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AP

The biggest problem with what Bill James said about baseball players

Bill James, one of the founding fathers of baseball analytics, is not an idiot, despite what he said about Major League Baseball players being replaceable. Technically, after all, he is correct, because all baseball players except those current active have in fact been replaced.
 
But of course, that isn’t what he’s saying at all, and not what he said in a Twitter discussion. Here, indeed, is what he did say:
 
“If the players all retired tomorrow, we would replace them, the game would go on; in three years it would make no difference whatsoever. The players are NOT the game, any more than the beer vendors are.”
 
Now THIS is idiotic, and given that he is a consultant for the Boston Red Sox, who just won the World Series with 25 particularly gifted beer vendors, a source of great embarrassment to his employers (they pay for his consultation time, after all). It was at least embarrassing enough to him that he deleted it later, and has been doing the Twitter perp walk today to clarify, expand and, in some cases, limit his remarks.
 
In short, he replaced his remarks.
 
The Red Sox fled his first bit of typing immediately, of course, given that they have built a team they wish to maintain with people one of their contributing brains regarded, at least in one context, as “replaceable” by commingling them with anyone who can yell, “BEER!” repeatedly while walking up and down stairs.
 
And don’t get me wrong here. Beer vendors are fine and contributing members of society, and part of the entertainment that surrounds baseball. We hail them, their throats, and their arches.
 
But James dismissed them as replaceable, too, even though which is exactly the kind of logic one would expect to hear when collective bargaining negotiations begin, either with the Major League Baseball Players Association or with the concessions unions.
 
The problem, of course, is not that James said something silly/stupid, or that he retreated from it. That happens all the time.
 
It is that baseball is in a particularly fragile state culturally, and the idea that players are interchangeable is diametrically opposed to where the market of professional sports consumption is heading. 
 
In other words, baseball is not in a place to want to get smarmy about its product, even if the smarmer in question is “only a consultant” rather than an employee, a distinction the Red Sox took great care to make in its statement of repudiation of James’ analysis of players’ market value.
 
But even more than that, James’ gift to baseball is analytical, and measuring players and their deeds and making projections from those measurements is what made him worth hearing in a baseball context. All that work flies in the face of a statement that can and has been construed to lump them all into a congealed heap of disposableness.
 
Willie McCovey was by no means replaceable in any context, which is why the Giants held a memorial service for him before thousands at the ballpark Thursday. Mookie Betts is by no means replaceable because the city of Boston feted him and his teammates in a gigantic parade through its streets.
 
And baseball is popular entertainment, and entertainment is built on the basic notion that some people are exceptional at a thing other people wish to enjoy and perhaps even pay for the ability to see or hear. Those exceptional people may be replaceable in the biological sense, but not in any rational cultural sense.
 
Thus, James’ walk-back recognizes both the wasp hive he disturbed and the flaws in his expression. But the original words will linger far longer than his mea culpae, and will be referenced when the fun and games of collective bargaining negotiations begin. In short, he said something which ignored nuance and created an unintended and emotional backlash.
 
In short, not very analytical at all.