Vindication is sweet. I've always felt that subtleties matter, that the "best" player in a game isn't necessarily the one with the gaudiest stats. Best in this context means the player who most enhances his team's chances of winning. I just got through reading an article, "The No-Stats All-Star", that brilliantly explicates this notion. The article is about a basketball player but it's relevant to football, to coaches and players, and to the upcoming draft.
The player in question is Shane Battier of the Houston Rockets, an apparently not-very-talented player whose team inexplicably plays better when he's on the floor, and whose opponents inexplicably play worse. The guys he guards regularly say they had an off night, not because they're trying to save face but because they honestly can't see what he could have done to have caused them to be so ineffective. The things he does, some of which are nicely pinpointed by author Michael Lewis, are amazingly subtle, like causing the other team's best shooter to shoot from places on the floor where he's statistically less effective, like always blocking the shooter's view of the basket at the moment he releases the ball, like leaving his man and blocking out the other team's best rebounder. Although the details of how a guy who's slow, who can't jump, who can't dribble, and who doesn't have much body control can be that effective are fascinating in themselves, they're ultimately not the point. The point is foreshadowed in Lewis' assertion that "There is a tension, peculiar to basketball, between the interests of the team and the interests of the individual. The game continually tempts the people who play it to do things that are not in the interest of the group." The most obvious exemplification of this tension is the superstar who scores 40 points in a losing cause on 30 percent shooting. If less talented but more open teammates had taken some of those shots the team might have scored more points and won the game.
The connection between this basketball article and football can now be made explicit. It's psychology. Basketball might be the sport in which the interests of the individual and the team diverge most drastically, but this divergence is arguably characteristic of team sports in general. Most players undoubtedly feel that the better they do the better the team does. That's often but not always the case. A very few players transcend this mentality. They're willing to look bad in order for the team to look good, and occasionally even make "bad" plays that win games. They're able to do so because they're focussed less on playing well than on the team winning. They're so totally focussed on winning per se irrespective of their own welfare that they instinctively react to opportunities other players miss. These are players that a savvy coach calls "winners". The team of the last decade in which this mentality has been most pervasive, it seems to me, is the New England Patriots.
McDaniels comes from that environment, and I hope that this aspect of Bellichick's ability to build a winning team has rubbed off on him. Recently he's been cutting players who don't fit his program. In his description of the kinds of players he's after, who are tough, smart, and who play well under pressure, do we see a hint of the kinds of winners Bellichick has been so adept at collecting? Conversely, in his cuts has he been jettisoning players who are the antithesis of such winners, who are "losers" regardless of apparent ability? Many of us have felt that the Denver defense has been so bad because the players haven't been effective as a team. Overpursuit and failure to protect the back side on running plays are the most obvious indices of this lack of teamwork, in which players' concern with getting in on the play or making the big hit often work to the team's detriment. Perhaps McDaniels is weeding out these players. I've long been a fan of Foxworth, who has always struck me as a winner. Without a pass rush he, like Bly, gives up completions, but unlike Bly he's an excellent tackler. I wonder if McDaniels would have jettisoned Foxworth if he rather than Bly had been with the team? I wonder if McDaniels will see him as good value and go after him in free agency?
The notion of good value brings up a further point. The article cited above wasn't just about Shane Battier. It was also about a shift in emphasis from statistics that are easy to collect to those that really matter, and to a new breed of executive sensitive to such nuances. Daryl Morey, the Rockets' general manager, is such an executive. As the caption for his picture states, he was "hired by the Houston Rockets as a 33-year-old to look at players in new ways." As he put it, "We couldn’t afford another superstar so we went looking for nonsuperstars that we thought were undervalued," which is to say underpaid. I suspect Brian Xanders is a member of this new breed, and that this is what Bowlen saw in him. I wonder if this is also the sense in which McDaniels and Xanders see eye to eye on player personnel? Although McDaniels' strength is arguably evaluation and Xanders' valuation, I suspect their complementary strengths merge in their estimations of player value.
Turn now to free agency and the draft. Who will they choose? I think their emphasis, where there's a choice, will be on smartness and instinct over raw physical ability, on James Laurinaitis over Rey Maualuga. That might not be the most apt comparison, but I think that wherever there's a choice between two players who are otherwise equal that they'll go with the one who's more cerebral, who's more opportunistic than a big hitter. A team of such players will play above their obvious talent, will win close games, will be "lucky" at critical times, like you know who.