Friday, January 30, 2015

Question time

An article on recently got me to thinking ... and it may have the effect of making me a slightly better reporter.

The article was called "The Worst Question in Sports." For those who don't want to go through it all, the worst question is not a question. It's the reporter saying "Talk about ..."

The next time you listen to an extended news conference, see if you'll hear something along those lines. The odds are pretty good that you will.In fact, the odds are almost as good that you can listen to long periods of those news conferences waiting for a question to be asked ... and one doesn't come along.

What's going on here? A number of things.

Sometimes it's just a matter of wording. "Talk about your goal" can be instantly transformed to "What happened on your goal?" It's a pretty simple fix. Bad questions like "How frustrating was it to lose to the Fighting Spiders again? (the answer is always "very") can be changed easily to a slightly good-natured "Are you sick of losing to these guys again?"

It can be a case of different media outlets requiring different answers. When I was in radio, I didn't often care what people said into the microphone ... as long as they took at least 10 seconds to say it. That meant I had to ask about more general material, which could be worked into a story later, or I didn't even bother asking anything - allowing others to do so. When I moved over to newspapers, I had much more specific needs in mind when I was preparing to write a story. 

Often it's simply habit. Conversations with friends, etc. aren't filled with questions; they often are an exchange of informational statements - one after another. Many athletes, especially the pros, know what is expected of them in interviews, and have an answer of some length ready. An interview is a more formal situation, but it's not necessarily adversarial. Exchanging statements can seem to make it a little more friendly.

Finally, and least common, is the story where the reporter is busy trying to impress the interview subject with his knowledge. "You did a nice job of penetrating their defense with quick breakouts from your own zone that didn't allow them to get their best players on the floor." Pause. There's not much room for the subject to go somewhere with an answer. It would be nice to hear the response of "You're right" or "Thank you." But usually the answer is more generic and polite than that. Apparently, some people forget that the smartest guy in the room about a particular subject is the one answering the questions.

I'm willing to admit that in some cases, nerves play a role in all this. Most reporters don't want to ask a really stupid question and embarrass themselves in front of the people they cover and their peers. My tendency is to sometimes ask a question, and then clarify it with background information due to a mild case of nerves over not being clear. ("Can you catch these guys? You're not mathematically out of it but the numbers are daunting now.") Better to turn that around and ask the question last.

After reading the Grantland article and listening to tapes of news conferences lately, I plan to try to do better. Maybe I'll get better answers that way. Hope so.

Later on, someone can say to me, "Talk about your attempt to be more direct in your questioning..."

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Tanks a lot

The Buffalo Sabres are on holiday these days, enjoying a long All-Star break.

Good thing. The people covering team need to figure out new ways to describe losses. Eleven straight regulation defeats will do that.

The latest skid has put "tanking" back on the table as a discussion for discussion. That's when your team more or less gives up on a particular season or two in order to get the best available talent in the draft.

Sometimes, a team picks the correct year to lose. In basketball, the former Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) went first to the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969, and he turned that team into a champion in short order. In hockey, Mario Lemieux needed a few years to get a Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh ... but he got them there. The Penguins, you'll recall, didn't exactly load up with talent the season before the draft in order to avoid the chance of getting him in the draft.

On the other hand, there are no guarantees. The Edmonton Oilers have had a bunch of high draft choices lately. Yet they are still at the bottom of the NHL standings. The Philadelphia 76ers have had some good picks in the NBA draft too, but haven't quite found the combination yet to change their fortunes. They remain awful.

The Sabres had a hot streak in December that got them well out of the basement. But this poor run on losses in 2015 has put them in the basement and renewed the talk of tanking, frustrating players and front office members alike. After all, who wants to be associated with losing in that way?

Let's look at the Sabres situation. How do teams that are in losing streaks react? Usually, they follow a series of steps.

First, they look to the minor leagues for reinforcements. The Sabres have done some of that; most of the best players in Rochester have had at least the proverbial cup of coffee in Buffalo. You could argue, and some have, that there are players like Mark Pysyk who are better than guys in Sabre uniforms. But there is something to be said about giving players time in the minors to grow and mature - particularly defensemen. Others have come up and shown little.

Second, they make trades. Yes, most (all?) of the phone calls to general manager Tim Murray no doubt are about young players. No doubt, they are also one-sided offers. Even so, teams often trade "my fringe player for your fringe player," just to shake things up. That hasn't happened. The Sabres did add some players in that sense last year, but so far it's been quiet. In fairness, it's tough to know what's possible and what's not in such areas.

Third, they fire the coach. Obviously, that hasn't happened here. Ted Nolan signed a three-year contract last summer, I believe, and he still has plenty of good will among members of Sabre Nation. When the team is in 30th place overall, you should save all the good will you can.

Yet, both Nolan and Murray are operating under an odd situation. They were both hired by Pat LaFontaine, who later, um, vacated the premises. That means Nolan wasn't hired by Murray, an unusual situation for a coach and general manager. Since LaFontaine wasn't replaced, no one can be sure what it would take to send Murray or Nolan to the unemployment line. Owner Terry Pegula and team president Ted Black could order such moves, I guess, even though it would be odd for someone to be fired for following the overall blueprint for rebuilding.

Add it up, and the Sabres have been on the quiet side in reacting to the situation this season. Meanwhile, what constitutes a tank anyway? Most non-playoff teams in hockey usually trade their soon-to-be unrestricted free agents for prospects and/or draft choices in order to get better in the future. Clearly, trading Ryan Miller last year meant the Sabres did not have short-term interests in mind. But most agree that the deal probably was the right idea under the circumstances. It's difficult to find good free agents to come to a team at the bottom of the standings; sometimes even overpaying them isn't good enough. So is collecting young players proof of tanking, or do you have to find a cliched "smoking gun" document that says "let's lose as often as possible so we can get Connor McDavid"? Depends on your definition, I guess.

The Sabres can't exactly sell the present to the fan base. But they can sell hope - hope that better times will be coming. It shows the passion of those fans that many are willing to watch the team lose - yes, even root for losses - if it means a superstar in the form of McDavid is coming. That puts them on opposite sides from the current group of players, who obviously have an interest in doing as well as possible.

It's an uncomfortable situation for everyone, and it will test the patience of those involved - from ownership to fans in the 300 level. This is a new situation for all concerned, since the Sabres haven't gone through many long droughts in their history. We're likely to learn a lot about those connected to the team in the coming months.

Be notified of new posts on Twitter @WDX2BB.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Something in common

Great coaching performances in professional sports usually are discovered in hindsight. We have to look back and see what sort of material a coach had at the time in order to gain perspective on what was accomplished.

I think of a couple of specific coaching performances along those lines. In 1996-97, the Buffalo Sabres' leading scorer was Derek Plante, followed by Brian Holzinger. The top goal-scorer was Jason Dawe. Those were three decent NHL players, but they would be the first to tell you that they weren't Crosby or Ovechkin. Ted Nolan won a division title and a playoff series with that lineup.

In 2009, the New York Jets had a rookie quarterback in Mark Sanchez. He threw for 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions ... and the Jets made it to the AFC Championship game under rookie coach Rex Ryan. A year later, Sanchez was a bit better, but not brilliant - 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Not bad, but no one was comparing him with Tom Brady yet ... and at least from a 2015 perspective, they never will. Again, the Jets reached the AFC Championship game.

There obviously were other factors involved in those seasons. For the Sabres, Dominik Hasek was at the peak of his powers, playing at an MVP level. The Jets, meanwhile, had an excellent defense - especially in 2009. That unit played a big role in winning four road playoff games in two years. Few other teams have done that. Nevertheless, the coaches get some credit when things go well, and the blame when they don't.

It appears that Nolan and Ryan will have something else in common in the near future. Ryan is about to take over as coach of the Bills, while Nolan is "back" with the Sabres. That means both will be drawing paychecks authorized by Terry Pegula.

If Pegula wanted to serve notice that "things have changed since I took over the Bills," hiring Ryan is far better, and much louder, than issuing a news release.

For some reason, Ralph Wilson soured on big-name coaches, and paying them big-time salaries, at some point after Chuck Knox left after the 1982 season. It's certainly been a mixed bag since then. The best pick was obviously Marv Levy; Bills' fans probably can come up with their own pick of who their least favorite coach of the past 32 years is. Wilson never would have hired Ryan, and never would have paid him $27.5 million over five years.

Speaking of differences, Ryan has more personality than the last few Bills' coaches combined. How many of those non-Levy Bills' coaches over the years gave the impression that they'd be interesting dinner companions, let alone quotable in a football setting? Ryan gets two checks there as well. He is bound to attract national attention and put the Bills back on the map in that sense for the first time in years.

The hiring answers one major question, but the Bills' short offseason has produced plenty of others. Jim Schwartz has a great reputation locally after one very good season as defensive coordinator here; he and Ryan do have different philosophies (4-3 vs. 3-4, for starters) and it's easy to wonder if they can coexist. The Bills had talked to Bill Polian about a senior adviser's role; Ryan's hiring might change the need for such a position now or its role. If team president Russ Brandon is sticking to business matters, as he said he'd do at the end of the season, then the chain of command around Ralph Wilson Stadium looks, um, unclear.

The biggest unsettled matter, of course, remains the quarterback. EJ Manuel was thrown back into the spotlight by Kyle Orton's retirement. The Bills say they haven't given up on him, but someone else certainly is needed for competition's sake at the position. It might be an overstatement to say, no matter what else happens in any aspect of the job, that Ryan's level of success might be determined by how the quarterback position works out in the next few years. But it wouldn't be a big overstatement.

I'm not going to claim to have any special insight into Ryan's chances for success. My impression from a distance is that for years the Bills' front office members haven't all been rowing in the same direction, making it difficult for any coach to succeed. It sounds as if Doug Marrone tried to change of that, and created some enemies along the way (as well as for some other actions). Now, the Bills' entire organizational culture is in the midst of a huge change. Until we see what emerges from that rebuilding, it's tough to know if anyone can thrive in the new environment. The Sabres have gone in the wrong direction since Pegula took over there, but it's really not fair to judge that situation in such a relatively short period of time.

Plus, it's never easy to determine who the next great coach might be in the National Football League. The Bills, like other NFL teams this offseason, have talked to a variety of successful coordinators in the past couple of weeks in search of someone with the required magic. Some will land head coaching jobs elsewhere. Will one of them be another Bill Belichick, who went from the Giants' defensive guru to a great coach with New England, albeit one with a brief failed stop as a head coach in Cleveland? Will another be more like Buddy Ryan, defensive coordinator of the legendary '85 Bears team and father of Rex? Buddy was unable to duplicate his success with the Bears after becoming a head coach, winning no playoff games in seven seasons.

Before he came to the Jets, Rex Ryan was one of those "hot coordinators" after a good run with the Baltimore Ravens. He's got a reputation for being football smart, and he's certainly bright enough to have learned some things about being a head coach. Ryan was in demand with other teams, if interviews are any indication. In New York, Ryan was popular with the players, and popular with the fans. That gives him something in common with Levy, and something that sets him apart from Marrone. He walks in the front door with something of a head start.

Add it up, and Ryan has a good chance to be a good choice. Which is about all you can ask in such times.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.