As Joe Morgan is to baseball, so Gregg Easterbook is to football.

Thus:

The Minnesota Vikings boomed a punt to Devin Hester of the Chicago Bears, most dangerous punt returner ever, and he repaid the favor by running the ball back 89 yards for a touchdown. As a result, football pundits everywhere are asking, “Why does anyone punt to Devin Hester instead of kicking the ball out of bounds?” Tuesday Morning Quarterback asks: Why do NFL teams ever punt to any returner, rather than deliberately punt out of bounds?

The stratospheric rise of special teams salaries from 2008-2012 can be traced to one amazing man - Devin Hester.(1) I didn’t see the game, so I’ll pay Mr. Easterbrook the Samaritan compliment of presuming that maybe Ron Franklin and Pete Bercich said something about it. Still, that hardly constitutes “pundits everywhere,” and without further citations I have to just roll my eyes.

(2) Because the (miniscule) chance of a punt being run back for a touchdown is offset by the (pretty good) chance that the kicking team will beat the receiving team to the spot of the ball, thereby waddling around it in what I call “mother hen” mode.

(3) Think about it for half of a second, Easterbrook – if this were a dominant strategy, wouldn’t more coaches do it? Easterbrook cites one time Belichick did it, as proof of the Mastermind’s Genius, and concludes it’s the way to go. That’s some crackerjack research, Easterbrook.

Also:

Why is the situation worse than people think? Because the NFL is on the precipice of blowing its status as the country’s favorite sport. The whole NFL enterprise is in jeopardy from that single word: cheating. It’s the most distasteful word in sports. And now the Patriots have brought the word into the NFL.

Think the NFL can’t decline? Fifteen years ago, the National Basketball Association was going up, up, up by every measure and was widely considered the gold-plated can’t-miss “sport of the next century.” Since then, NBA popularity and ratings have plummeted while NBA-based teams have floundered in international competition. At the moment of its maximum success, the NBA became overconfident and arrogant in ways that need not be recounted here. Key point: There was no law of nature that said the NBA had to stay popular, and it did not.

The meteoric decline of NFL popularity from 2008 to 2012 can be traced to one corrupt man - Bill Belichick.Easterbrook’s entire argument can be summed up as, “The NFL could become as unpopular as the NBA is.” Sure, it could. It could also go on to remain as popular as baseball. Nobody can really say it’ll go one way or the other. But Easterbrook doesn’t even defend his Cassandra-like ravings. He just makes a lot of “lo how the mighty are fallen” hand-wringing. He cites no particular connection between what brought the NBA low (the absence of charismatic superstars) and what he fears will ruin the NFL’s popularity (cheating). This is raw fear-mongering.

The Pats’ cheating, as serious as it was, has been pretty thoroughly punished – three-quarters of a million dollars in fines and what will almost certainly be the loss of a first-round draft pick. Does Easterbrook see a decline in viewership? No. Does he see any link between the NBA’s final days and the current NFL season? No. Then why is he panicking? Because he’s a weak old man, is why.

Finally:

Now think what has happened in technical and artistic trends in the 50 years since 1957. Scientific endeavors have made fantastic strides in quality, complexity and significance. Consumer product quality has increased dramatically — new cars are packed with features unknown in 1957 yet are far safer and more reliable, and the cell phone in your pocket and the computer you’re reading this on, to say nothing of the Internet it’s transmitted over, would have been viewed as supernatural by the engineers who built Explorer I. At the same time, the quality of art has plummeted. There hasn’t been a musical of artistic merit to open on Broadway in many moons — right now, it’s all vapid dreck. (In fact, I think the show “Vapid Dreck,” based on a remake of a remake, opens at the Brooks Atkinson soon.) And although good books are still written, what truly great novel has been produced in the past decade or two? Fifty years ago, technical stuff was buckets of bolts and art was splendid; now, the technical stuff is splendid and the art is in poor repair. This tells us something — I just wish I knew what.

It tells me you’re old and stupid.

Why did people even WRITE books after Doctor Zhivago?  Seriously!  There’s nothing more that can be put into print about the human condition.  Just f’ing stop.Here are some “truly great” books of the last twenty years: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time; Middlesex; Empire Falls; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay; Atonement; Disgrace; The Poisonwood Bible; The God of Small Things; The Remains of the Day;; etc, ad nauseam.

And as my man IOZ puts it, in re: Easterbook’s fawning over West Side Story:

Broadway musicals have always been categorically awful with rare moments of greatness. West Side Story was great because Bernstein made it great. Quick, name another musical from 1957 without Googling.

Easterbrook’s writing on any subject, whether sports, art or American culture, is remarkably shallow. It’s the kind of content that would barely merit a rebuttal if you found it on a random blog – like this one! – but is shockingly ignorant from a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly or The New Republic.

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  • You had me until The God of Small Things. Ugh.

    (Also, I kind of have to nitpick that Easterbrook seems to be claiming something much weaker than “kicking out of bounds is a dominant strategy” — “dominant strategy” would require that it be the unique best response to whatever your opponent does, and (for instance) if your opponent decides to stand still and stare at his feet, then your best response would probably be not to punt at all.)

  • Great musicals of the recent past? Do we start or end with “The Producers?” Say what you will about the backers’ avarice and the eventual miscasting of (shudder) Tony Danza, the show in its original incarnation with Lane-Broderick was damned good: clever, catchy, and I would say sufficiently divergent from the source material to stand alone as a unique artistic invention. For that matter, can we include the Broadway production of “Tommy?” The book and lyrics are not the beginning and end of a production; the theatre is about the show itself. Naturally, the foundation of the Who’s seminal album (let’s ignore the film for now) stands above reproach, but the Des McAnuff-helmed theatrical experience stood on its own as art (and hey, Cerveris.) For purely first-run stuff since 1990, how about “Falsettos,” “Side Show,” “Contact,” “The Drowsy Chaperone?” Or “The Light in the Piazza?”. Occasionally, even the pure remakes are great. I’d love to put Easterbrook head-to-head with John Doyle (“Sweeney Todd,” “Company”) and see who comes up with a better version of “West Side Story.” Slavish dedication to the ghosts of merit past only produces stagnation.

    To wit, “West Side Story.” Total ripoff of a Shakespeare plot. Which was itself lifted from a Commedia troupe. Which took the inspiration from classical mythology. Remake of a remake, you vacuous piece of Vapid Dreck.

  • Candid:

    Sure, and if the punt returner pulls out a gun and starts shooting, there’s a completely different response. But I didn’t feel the need to consider that one in the list of available strategies.

  • Sean

    I feel that the whole matter is worth pinning on the goals of the punter:
    1) to boom the ball down the field to prevent solid field position
    2) to hang the ball high so as to allow the special teams to make a tackle or otherwise impede the ball carrier from moving downfield

    The majority of Hester’s scampers come on kicks where he has plenty of room to run and time for at least one solid cutback. Shortening the kick and booting it higher would negate the possibility of a touchdown and reduce the odds of a good solid return.

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