I've always considered there to be seven categories of pro sports athletic achievement. In ascending order of accomplishment:
-- All-Star/Pro Bowler
-- First Team All-Star/All-Pro
-- League MVP
-- Team Hall/Wall/Ring of Fame
-- Hall of Famer
-- Number Retired
-- Statue Worthy
But watching this past weekend's Patriots-Jets game on CBS, it occurred to me that there's another, higher, more prestigious level of honor in the sports pantheon. Rarer even than being cast in bronze outside a venue for tourists to pose in front of, birds to perch on and winos to pee against. One I'd never really considered before.
It happens in sports, but it's exceptionally rare. It's the status few athletes obtain. When he's regarded as so elite that he becomes a sacred cow, above any kind of criticims. Infallible. Untouchable.
It's a much higher and rarer honor than just some work of taxpayer-financed art. Hell, Boston is lousy with public works projects in honor of Ted Williams. A statue, a street next to Fenway, a tunnel/future site of a major flooding disaster. And even the Greatest Hitter That Ever Lived wasn't immune to criticism. On the contrary, Ted was slandered, libeled, called words you never heard in the Bible. For 20-plus years, critics came after him from all directions like ninjas and blamed him for everything short of Pearl Harbor.
Look at the chaos surrounding the Red Sox right now. The great unwashed peasants of Boston ... and believe me, I consider myself among the least washed and most peasanty ... are in full revolution. And even among the guys with championship rings in that clubhouse full of beers and buckets of the Colonel, no one is being spared. Like Ben Affleck said in “Good Will Hunting,” “You're all suspect.”
But there are ballplayers who are somehow immune to any criticism. Where for some reason media and fans alike will twist themselves into verbal pretzels to ever say a single negative thing about the guy. And the latest pro player to join the ranks of the Uncriticizable is Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis.
To be clear, I like Revis' game. You'd have to be an idiot not to. He's among the best in the league. Personally, I'd take the Packers' Charles Woodson and the Eagles' Nnamdi Asomugha over him, but it's close, and that's not the point of this rant. The point is that it became painfully obvious watching the Jim Nantz-Phil Simms broadcast of Sunday's game that Revis has evolved beyond mere mortal and become one of the Uncriticizables.
In the first half, they wanted to make the case that Revis is a receiver-smothering force of nature who can't be reasoned with, can't be bargained with, and who won't stop, ever, until your pass is incomplete. So, to make the case they showed three clips: Revis playing solid press coverage on Wes Welker, a Patriots run play he wasn't involved with, and a zone coverage play when Revis covered no one, while we heard how crucial he was in all three. They could've showed a shot of him going to the bench and chugging a pint of Gatorade, and Simms would've explained how Welker wasn't open during the timeout.
But it was on the plays when Revis clearly messed up for the world to see that he got the Papal Infallibility Doctrine treatment. He dragged Deion Branch to the ground beyond five yards from the line of scrimmage and got flagged for illegal contact, which gets called twice a game in today's NFL. But Nantz basically accused Branch of acting out the Mr. Spock death scene from “Wrath of Khan.”
On the first play from scrimmage after the half, Simms lectured us about the amazing job Revis was doing “taking Wes Welker out of the game.” Which came as news to Welker or anyone else who was aware he was sitting on three catches for 47 yards to that point. And no sooner had the words come out of Simms' mouth than Welker was running a skinny post past Revis Island and back out into the open ocean for a 73-yard pickup. But once again, Revis is above criticism of any kind, so the blame was laid off on the safety. A kindness that wouldn't have been afforded to say, the Pats' Devin McCourty or Kyle Arrington or even Revis' own teammate Antonio “Octodad” Cromartie.
To be clear, I'm not ripping Darrelle Revis. Like I said, he's a hell of a cover corner. In today's NFL, defensive backs get burnt more often than smelly Occupy Boston dope fiends. It's the nature of the game. And nothing to be ashamed of. I just refuse to watch the emperor get undressed by another elite football player in Welker and say he's fully clothed.
I don't know, maybe it's a New York thing. Because there's been no more sacred a cow in our lifetimes than Derek Jeter. We've witnessed 16 big years of Captain Intangible's career now, and I feel like the next negative thing I hear about him coming out of New York will be the first. I grant you, he's been a part of a lot of championships, and if that's the standard by which you want to judge him, I'm all for it. But he's one of those guys that even when he's wrong, he's right.
Jeter's skills have been diminishing for years. His defense doesn't pass the eyeball test or the Sabermetrics test and he's by any objective standard one of the weakest shortstops in MLB. He's considered the ultimate “team first” guy, but if he really put the club's best interest ahead of his own he would've let Alex Rodriguez move to short years ago. And he's been coasting on his reputation as a clutch player for even longer.
In Game 5 of the American League Division Series, with the Yankees down 3-2 in the eighth, two outs and the runner going, Jeter swung at the first pitch. The base was all but stolen and would've put the tying run in scoring position. But Jeter swung away and lifted a fly ball to the warning track. Notwithstanding that Yankee Stadium is the easiest sea-level hitter's park in the majors and balls fly out of there like they were Pro-V1s. He hit a lazy fly ball with the season on the line. And all we heard out of New York was that Captain Clutch "almost" hit one out. And all the criticism was aimed at poor, hapless, unloved A-Rod for striking out twice. Because when it comes to taking the blame for failure, Jeter is rubber and A-Rod is glue.
I'd have to say the Patron Saint of the Uncriticizable in our lifetimes is Brett Favre. The all time master of Blame Avoidance. It sounds impossible, but Brett Favre's (Reminder: It's always “Brett Favre,” 100 percent of the time. Calling him just “Favre” would be like calling Superman “Man”) rumpswabs in the media managed to find more cliches to explain away his bad decisions than Fav- than BrettFavre made bad decisions. “He was trying to make a play.” “He's so capable of throwing the ball into tight windows, it was open to him.” “He's a Mississippi riverboat gambler.” “He's an old gunslinger.” “He was just having fun out there, sending that Jets massage therapist pictures of his junk.” OK, I might have made up that last one. But life when BrettFavre was playing was what North Korea must feel like. Where Dear Leader can do no wrong, no matter how many gawdawful picks he throws.
To be fair, there are guys who win so much and play at such a high level for so long, they've earned Uncriticizable status. Wayne Gretzky. Michael Jordan. Joe Montana. Albert Pujols. My beef isn't with them at all. It's with the ones who get a reputation for perfection and can't shake it despite all evidence to the contrary.
I suppose the reason I get so frustrated by the existence of these Uncriticizable Ones is that I'm from Boston. And I honestly feel like we don't have those here. That doesn't fly with us. We simply don't play the sacred cow worship game thing here. Believe me, I'm a fanboy, and as shameless a suckup as anyone I know. But even I don't give anyone the "do no wrong" treatment like the guys I've mentioned get.
The closest we come in Boston to a guy who's above criticism is Tom Brady. And even he doesn't get a free pass. Believe me, I wish he did. All this guy has done is be for my money the best Boston athlete of my lifetime. Playing by far the toughest position in sports at a level few have ever played it. Twice the MVP. Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. Two of the top five QB passer ratings in NFL history. Every day I practice the pose I'll use next to his statue so I can make it my Facebook profile picture. But when he had a bad game against Buffalo a few weeks ago, no one was saying he didn't or blaming the refs or saying he didn't throw four picks. Not even Tom Brady, who's his own worst critic.
Not long ago I saw a cousin from out of state who's a casual football fan that I hadn't seen in months. And as is the case with 90 percent of my conversations, we talked about the Patriots. And a minute in the guy asked why Brady threw that interception. “Wait. Which one?” He was referring to the one on the first drive. In the playoff game. Back in January. “Yeah, that one. What happened with that? That was awful.” The one that broke a record streak of 358 consecutive passes without a pick. Unlike other cities, even our most sacred cow can end up on a burger roll.
Next to Brady, the most dominant Boston ballplayer I've ever seen was Pedro Martinez. And he wasn't immune from criticism. All things considered, Tim Thomas had the greatest single season any athlete in this town has ever had. And it wasn't until the Cup was won that he got the credit he deserved. Paul Pierce is the shooting guard on the Celtics' all-time starting five, but he's taken his lumps in the past. You have to look long and hard to find a guy in this town that didn't take crap from somebody.
The closest I can come to as examples of guys who could even be considered above reproach:
-- Over a long career: Bobby Orr, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Ray Bourque, Curtis Martin, Cam Neely and Tedy Bruschi
-- In a shorter sample: Vince Wilfork, Dustin Pedroia
And that's about all I can come up with. Everyone else that's come through here has been regarded as suspect in some way or another. On the field or off. It's not much of a list considering the number of truly great athletes we've seen come through this town. I guess it's just not in our nature to see an athlete and pretend he can do no wrong the way other cities do. We might build a statue of a guy, it doesn't necessarily mean we'll put him on a pedestal.
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