Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Definitive Super Bowl Primer

As we all know, the game is won or lost long before the kickoff. You can’t afford to get distracted by all the hoopla surrounding the game in the two weeks leading up to it. There will be plenty of time to party after the game is over. The team that is better prepared, better disciplined, better coached and that has the better game plan will win.

But once the ball is kicked off, you can throw out all the notes, the film, and the Xs and Os because it basically comes down to execution. Football is a simple game of blocking and tackling, that is all. Which means neither team can afford to make mental mistakes or have blown assignments. It is all about execution---that is what playoff football is all about, and the team that executes better on that day will win. . If you gotta take it up a notch in the playoffs, you gotta take it up two or three notches in the Super Bowl.

And what it all comes down to, every year, is that defense wins championships. The front four on the defensive line has to get pressure on the QB and hurry him, knock him down, disrupt the offensive rhythm, get into his head, send him a message that they will be in his face all day. You gotta stuff the run and you gotta get to the QB. And on the offensive side of the ball, you gotta make sure you establish the running game. If you can run, that takes the pressure off the QB and opens up the play-action pass, which means the defense can’t just pin their ears back and rush the QB. Plus you can bleed the clock and have the defense sucking wind by the fourth quarter.

Therefore, particularly in big games where both teams are good and evenly matched, the battle is always won in the trenches. The unsung heroes are always in the offensive line. If the O line can give the QB time to look to his second and third reads, it could be a long day for the secondary. But all the offense in the world is no good if you cannot protect the football. As always, turnovers will kill ya. You can’t turn the ball over and expect to win championships. The team with the better turnover ratio will win.

But protecting the ball is not enough to win; you gotta have great special teams play too. The special teams always play a huge role (or an uuuuuge role, if you’re Al Miracles) in determining the outcome of the game. A blocked punt or blocked field goal, or a muffed punt, or pinning the opponent inside their 5-yard line can completely turn the momentum around. Plus, special teams determine the outcome of that most basic of all football ‘game-within-the-game’ chess-matches---the field position battle. In all big games, field position will eventually determine the outcome of the game. Good field position can lead to an easy score and bad field position can lead to an ill-timed turnover.

You gotta remember that both teams have made it to the Super Bowl not by fluke but because they are good, battle tested teams that know how to win. That is why they are playing for the WORLD championship. So in the end it will come down to who wants it more. Who has the desire, the hunger, the stick-to-it-iveness, the refuse-to-lose mentality? Will the X-factors emerge on the biggest stage? Of course, one can never forget the intangibles.

In the end, it comes down to how the superstars and the play-makers play; great players make big plays in huge games on the grandest stage----that’s what playoff football is all about. The team that makes more plays will win. But all that having been said and done, nobody can contest this fact----when time runs out, the team with more points will be the champion.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Cholesterol Confusion

If you listen to your average physician (and/or the gazillion dollar advertising blitz associated with anti-cholesterol drugs) you would probably believe that reducing LDL cholesterol levels (and raising HDL cholesterol levels) results in healthier arteries and therefore in better cardiac health. Some people have questioned this link, especially that of LDL cholesterol with atherosclerosis, for a while. A couple of recent clinical trials have given further cause for skepticism. Here’s a good column (What’s Cholesterol Got to Do With It?) by Gary Taubes in the NY Times that gives some nice background and summarizes the facts.

Note that statins do help to prevent heart disease --- they also happen to reduce LDL cholesterol. The problem arises when one assumes that reducing LDL cholesterol alone can also prevent heart disease.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Two endorsements worth reading

First, Caroline Kennedy’s endorsement of Barack Obama in the New York Times. For those of you who may have a knee-jerk antagonistic response to the name Kennedy, I ask you to forget the source (to the extent possible given the nature of the article), read the words and be honest to your thoughts and emotions. Here’s an excerpt:

Sometimes it takes a while to recognize that someone has a special ability to get us to believe in ourselves, to tie that belief to our highest ideals and imagine that together we can do great things. In those rare moments, when such a person comes along, we need to put aside our plans and reach for what we know is possible.”

Second, a passionate appeal, and well-made case, by my good friend Robb over at Tokatakiya.

An excerpt: : “I don't think it is an exaggeration to say the best thing we can do to win hearts and minds in the War on Terror would be to have Barack Obama as President. We have a singular opportunity for this right now that will pass away in a short time.”

Robb makes several good points, but that one is particularly perceptive. I don’t think most people appreciate how powerfully and how well the election of Barack Obama to the presidency will resonate with the rest of the world---and not just because of his ethnic origins, but in equal measure because of how well he represents himself and the USA.

All that having been said I don’t envy the next administration because they stand to inherit an absolute mess. Even the Republicans don’t want the office this time around---which is why they let patsies like McCain and Giuliani or nutjobs like Huckabee and Romney take the fall ….errrr…become president….should they win.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Tiger’s pursuit of history

As I write this, Tiger Woods is at 20 under par, 10 shots ahead of the next nearest competitor with 7 holes to go in the Buick Invitational (his first tournament of the year). So he has essentially won this tournament now--- his sixth win at this tournament/venue, with the last four coming in a row. This year’s US Open is scheduled to be held at the same course (Torrey Pines South) later this year. Even thought the course will be set up (and play) very differently, it is hard to imagine a more prohibitive favorite than Tiger for that event.

Anyway, this will be Tiger’s 62nd PGA Tour win---the same number of tour wins that the great Arnold Palmer had in his entire career. Tiger has been a pro for only 11 full seasons. Just amazing. But Tiger has far more lofty goals than this, and he is systematically going about achieving them. Barring catastrophic injury, he is going to obliterate every significant record in golf.

He has also recently allowed that the calendar Grand Slam is achievable for him this year, given the venues and the state of his game. Also, in a short interview with David Feherty yesterday, Tiger said that 12-wins-in-a-row (breaking Byron Nelson's amazing record of 11 straight wins, set in 1945) is possible. That the normally circumspect and ‘vanilla-response’ Tiger should publicly entertain such notions is stunning to me---and an indication of how high is confidence must be.

Of course, the defining pursuit of Tiger’s career is Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 professional major championships. In this regard, it is worth revisiting something I wrote on Tokatakiya last August, after Tiger won his 13th professional major. When I wrote this, I clearly thought that this was an ambitious timeline, but achievable for Tiger. It boggles my mind that Tiger may have an even shorter timeline to his goal in mind. Ri-frikkin-diculous. Anyway, here are my thoughts from last August, with some minor edits for clarity.

You heard it here first:

I have a pretty good idea about when Tiger Woods will break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 professional major championships. As of today, Tiger has 13 majors and so he needs five more majors to tie, six more to surpass Jack’s record. Now, here’s the major championship schedule for the next three years:

2008: Masters at Augusta National,

US Open at Torrey Pines South,

British Open at Royal Birkdale,

PGA at Oakland Hills;

2009: Masters at Augusta National,

US Open at Bethpage Black,

British Open at Turnberry,

PGA at Hazeltine;

2010: Masters at Augusta National,

US Open at Pebble Beach,

British Open at St. Andrews Old Course,

PGA at Whistling Straits.

I have put bold emphasis on courses that Tiger performs well on---and he takes the ‘horses for courses’ idea to ridiculous heights as exemplified by his record at some events in his eleven-year career. He has won the WGC event at Firestone six times in its nine-year existence, he has won the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines five times including 3-in-a-row, he won the Bay Hill Invitational four times in a row from 2000-2003, and of course, has won the Masters four times in just eleven tries as a professional. Anyway, so you get the idea---anytime he tees it up he’s the favorite to win, but when he likes a course he is the prohibitive favorite to win.

I’ve highlighted Bethpage Black because the last time the US Open was held there Tiger won it. It is a long and brutal course and only a handful of the top tour players stand a decent chance of winning it and when you eliminate the bulk of the field, you only help Tiger. I’ve highlighted Pebble Beach because it is one of Tiger’s (and Jack’s) favorite golf courses and the last time the US Open was held there Tiger won it by fifteen shots. I’ve highlighted St. Andrews because the last two Opens that have been held there have been won by Tiger in comfortable fashion.

And then there’s the history. Few courses in the world are as steeped in history and mystique as Pebble Beach and, the birthplace of golf, St. Andrews. It is no coincidence that Jack Nicklaus said farewell to the US Open at Pebble and said farewell to the British Open at St. Andrews. Jack is famously quoted to have said “If I had one last round to play, I would likely choose Pebble Beach”. And his bond with St. Andrews is just as close---heck, when he played his last Open at St. Andrews in 2005 the Royal Bank of Scotland issued 5-pound notes with his image on it. You know you’ve done all right when your face shows up on currency; you know you’ve done really well when it shows up on foreign currency!!

Anyways, with Tiger’s keen sense of history I’d think he’d love to tie Jack’s record at Pebble Beach and break it at St. Andrews. And my guess is that Jack, if he had to see his record broken, would deem three places most fitting for that singular honor---Pebble Beach, St. Andrews and Augusta National (more on this in a moment).

So for Tiger to be able to even try the Pebble/St.Andrews scenario, he will need to win four of the next nine majors. To achieve it he’d have to win six of the next eleven majors. Sounds silly, but then again he reeled off seven wins in an eleven major stretch from 1999-2002. His game has been steadily trending toward the fearsome form of 2000. The only reason he hasn’t won more majors in the past couple of years is that his putter let him down. The past two Masters could have been his, but for the fact that he narrowly missed those crucial putts that he normally drains. The performance he put on the last two weeks at Firestone and Southern Hills shows that his putting is back--- and when that happens it is curtains for the field. By the way, Tiger had Lasik surgery in October 1999 before he went on that impressive tear in 2000-2002, and he had Lasik done again the Monday after the Masters this year. I don’t think it is coincidence that he is draining crucial par putts again.

I think he does it. Five of the next nine majors set up very well for him. And he’s no slouch on the other four either. The old refrain “the course does not set up well for Tiger’s game” is just nonsense. Tiger has honed his game into the ultimate Swiss Army knife---it is sharp, sleek, portable and versatile and it will help him carve up any course he wants. More often than not, if he putts well, he wins----it is as simple as that. So while I don’t know much about the two British Open and PGA venues 2008 and 2009, it would be foolish to count him out of those. Also, as a pro he has won 13 of 44 majors he’s played and at that clip he should have 3.5 more majors by the end of 2010. Anyway, I think he wins four majors coming into Pebble Beach in 2010 and then proceeds to do the double he did in 2000---win the US at pebble and the British at St. Andrews for his 18th and 19th professional majors. There’s too much historic symmetry in this scenario for it not to happen.

PS: A couple of twists:

1) Many consider the US Amateur title to be a major (I agree). Taking that view Jack has 20 total majors while Tiger now has 16. So in this scenario, four more majors ties Jack and five more sets a new record. So St. Andrews promises to be site of a historic win for Tiger one way or another.

2) If Tiger manages to win 2 more Masters and 5 more total majors by the end of 2010, there is also the intriguing possibility that Tiger will go into the 2011 Masters with a chance to break Jack’s 6-Masters and 18-pro majors records in the same tournament.

Not quite the history as breaking it at the home of golf, St. Andrews, but not bad either.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Moral Instinct—Steven Pinker

From the New York Times Magazine, Jan 13, 2008.

“When people pondered the dilemmas that required killing someone with their bare hands, several networks in their brains lighted up. One, which included the medial (inward-facing) parts of the frontal lobes, has been implicated in emotions about other people. A second, the dorsolateral (upper and outer-facing) surface of the frontal lobes, has been implicated in ongoing mental computation (including nonmoral reasoning, like deciding whether to get somewhere by plane or train). And a third region, the anterior cingulate cortex (an evolutionarily ancient strip lying at the base of the inner surface of each cerebral hemisphere), registers a conflict between an urge coming from one part of the brain and an advisory coming from another.

But when the people were pondering a hands-off dilemma, like switching the trolley onto the spur with the single worker, the brain reacted differently: only the area involved in rational calculation stood out. Other studies have shown that neurological patients who have blunted emotions because of damage to the frontal lobes become utilitarians: they think it makes perfect sense to throw the fat man off the bridge. Together, the findings corroborate Greene’s theory that our nonutilitarian intuitions come from the victory of an emotional impulse over a cost-benefit analysis.”

Complete article here.

Fascinating stuff.