Monday, November 24, 2008

McNabb Must Produce Now for His Own Good

By Scott Lowe
API Management & Marketing
Brett Favre wanted to play and forced Green Bay's hand. The time had come. When everything went down between Favre and the Packers it wasn't clear as to whether either side really handled the situation correctly, but the end result suited everyone.

Favre got his wish. He's playing and has resurrected the Jets. Aaron Rodgers, while not yet Brett Favre, clearly was ready to play at the NFL level. The best part of the outcome was that everything played out prior to the season, giving both players the opportunity to have successful years.

Two weeks ago when Donovan McNabb made his oft-replayed annual foot-in-the-mouth comment -- this time a befuddling admission that he didn't know NFL games could end in a tie -- I had a feeling in my gut that he just wanted out of Philadelphia. I mean we all know that McNabb is good for at least one head-shaker of a comment every season. But the man who was booed simply for being a No. 1 draft pick, after so many years in the City of Brotherly Hate, had to know that his comment was going to raise the ire of Philadelphia's fantatical following.

More glaring, however, was that the admission just didn't add up. McNabb openly questioned what would happen in the playoffs if a game ended in a tie just a few short years after his team faced an opponent who had won a playoff game the previous week in double OT. I'm just guessing that at some point McNabb watched that game -- either as it unfolded or in the film room during his weekly preparation. Elite athletes have unbelievable memories when it comes to their sport; they just don't forget details like that.

It is my opinion that McNabb actually is smarter than he is made out to be -- that he simply had enough and was throwing in the towel on the season and his career in Philadelphia. He knew how the fans would react and that his teammates most likely were tired of his act. Famours for placing the blame on others to begin with, McNabb had his finger on the pulse of the locker room and knew that he had lost all control of the team. If he played his cards right after those comments it would take one more subpar outing before he would be benched. It would be easier to watch from the sidelines than get booed the rest of the season, and his body could rest up for a potentially huge free-agent contract in Chicago, Detroit or Minnesota next season.

To go out on the field and play when it had become clear that his teammates no longer wanted to go to war for him and knowing that the support of the fans had been waning for weeks could be career suicide -- especially with that big potential free agent deal looming. That's right, one unbelievable comment and one more lousy performance -- against a top-rated defense away from the hostile home crowd -- and the rest of the season could be observed from the safety of the sidelines. Actually, it took only one half of a game for the load to be lifted from McNabb's shoulders. Or did it?

Many people have debated whether Andy Reid handled McNabb's benching the right way -- whether he treated the man who had enabled him to become the league's longest-tenured coach and to enjoy more success at the Eagles' helm than any other Philly coach in history properly. I would argue that McNabb had let his coach, the man who has stood behind him despite injuries, a consistent decline in play and yearly distractions, down in a big way. Reid's decision was a human reaction by someone who felt betrayed. He had been let down by someone who he had gone to bat for time and again, and he reacted as any of us might. How can you blame him?

After the game a stoic McNabb told the media that he didn't know if he would start the next game. There was no emotion one way or the other. No anger. No disgust. No sign of hurt. Of course he says that he wants to be the starter and that he deserves to be the starter -- at least publicly. But does he really mean it? He certainly doesn't act like someone who wants to play. Coaches always say that they want a player to react with anger and emotion when they are benched. If they don't respond that way, chances are that the fire inside that is necessary to be successful has been extinguished.

After the unceremonious benching in Baltimore, McNabb had to think that he was going to get his wish and watch the rest of the season while holding a clipboard safely on the sidelines. Well, Reid has called his bluff by announcing that McNabb will indeed start this week. Perhaps this is a challenge to McNabb to see if he really does want to play. Certainly if he comes out and is terrible again and shows little emotion on or off the field, there will be little doubt that he has given up on the season and his time in Philly. Maybe Reid is thinking that if McNabb truly is looking for a way out of town next year that he will have to come out and attempt to lead the team the best way he knows how. After all, if he doesn't, won't his market value take a hit, and isn't that quite possibly what motivates him at this point?

It seems like all of this would be easier if people just treated each other with respect and confronted issues in person. Unfortunately, we live in a technology-driven world in which it is easier to throw a tantrum via an email, write a nasty blog or send a sarcastic text than to walk into someone's office and have a man-to-man conversation.

In Favre's case, that situation almost got ugly for both sides as the Packers put an unbelievable amount of pressure on their young quarterback and Favre ran the risk of ruining his reputation in Green Bay, looking like a manipulator and playing out his career for a bad team. In the end everything worked out for both sides, and Favre now looks like a genius.

The Eagles are in an unusual sitation as their star quarterback and the most successful coach in team history seem to be playing mind games with one another. It seems as though Reid's latest maneuver puts McNabb in a Catch-22. On the other hand, by not having confronted his situation head-on, McNabb finds himself in a position where he must produce -- not only for his team's future, but for his own as well.

Another lackluster performance followed by an emotionless press conference is going to make people around the league wonder if he has lost some of his skill and his will to play the game. That is not good for business -- on or off the field.

Reid, on the other hand, has nothing to lose. If McNabb plays great and the team wins, he handled the situation perfectly. If McNabb continues his lackluster play, no one can say that the coach didn't give the superstar who had produced so much for him a fair shake.

The sad thing is that by the time everyone is done playing mind games a season might be lost. This situation easily could have been solved weeks ago with a simple face-to-face conversation -- a great lesson from which all of us can learn.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Stop Playing Not to Lose

By Scott Lowe
API Management & Marketing

Virtually every coach I ever played for as a kid talked about playing to win instead of "playing not to lose." College and professional coaches give it lip service every day. So why, why, why do so few college and professional coaches actually practice what they preach?

Maybe it's the money involved and maybe it's the pressure. Or maybe the money and pressure are so intertwined as to be perceived as one in the same. Whater the reason, more games are lost playing "not to lose" than are lost by "playing to win," and many times the coaching staff is the culprit.

The main offenders seem to be college and professional football coaches - apparently the inventers of the universally maligned (at least among football fans) prevent defense that so many have said actually prevents winning. The latest glaring example occurred yesterday in Texas Tech's thrilling, collosal upset of top-ranked Texas, which fell after finally pulling in front by one with 1:39 remaining in the fourth quarter. At that point Texas Tech had blown a 16-point third-quarter lead by sitting back and trying not to surrender the big play.

A logical person might think that Texas would have learned from its opponent's mistake, but upon further review, you couldn't expect a coach to learn something that hundreds of other college and pro coaches have failed to discover through the years. Instead, the Longhorns tried to avoid giving up the big play as well, allowing the Red Raiders to advance all the way to the end zone for the victory in just six plays and 1:38.

Prior to that fateful drive, Texas had held Texas Tech to just three points during the game's previous 20 minutes as opposed to the 29 the Longhors surrendered in the game's opening 37 minutes. Then, all of the sudden, the Red Raiders caught lightning in a bottle and sprinted all the way down the field field for the winning score? No. Apparently Texas Tech played "not to lose" for 20 minutes and found themselves down by a point with 1:39 left. Then Texas decided to play "not to lose" and found itself on the short end of an upset.

This is not an isolated situation. Every week in the NFL there are four or five games in which a team's defense is dominant for three quarters and then the coaches decide to call off the dogs with a 10-point or two-touchdown lead in the final stanza. They are trying to avoid giving up the big play, instead content to allow huge chunks of yards over the middle of the field and lightning-quick 80-yard scoring drives. Inevitably these teams end up losing or watching anxiously as their opponents line up for a potential game-tying field goal or drive deep into the red zone.

Wouldn't it be better to maintain your aggressive game plan and give up an 80-yard bomb that leaves enough time on the clock for you to cruise down the field against your opponent's prevent defense than to die a slower, excruciating death as the other team marches down the field to victory?

If I'm coaching a team that has been dominant for three quarters of a game and I continue with that plan and somehow get beaten in the end, I can stand and face the music knowing that I gave my team the best chance to win - that I didn't hand my opponent the opportunity to steal an undeserved victory. If the team beats me outright, the victory is earned, but if my counterparts come back because I left the door open and gave them hope, to me that's harder to justify.

Coaches are always going to address the media as a computer technician might talk to you or me about a technological malfunction that we have no hope of understanding. They'll discuss playing the percentages and the fact that the other team is a group of professionals that doesn't quit and that none of the reporters ever played the game at that level. Of course, there's no way that these non-athletes would understand.

Having never played or coached the game, I don't pretend to have any concept of the planning and scheming that goes into creating a pro or college football team's game plan. But I have been around sports long enough as an athlete, coach and member of college and professional organizations to understand the human element that is involved.

If my coach develops an attacking, aggressive game plan and we are dominant for three quarters of the game before suddenly shifting our philosophy 180 degrees, two things are going to happen to me as a player. First, I'm going to analyze the conservative nature of the coach's decsion and be so afraid to make a costly mistake that my ability to play with anywhere near the level of tenacity and aggression necessary to make even the most basic of plays will be diminished substantially. And second, if the other team does make the game close, it's going to be very hard for me to return to the same level - emotionally and physically - at which I played before the coach backed off.

Coaches often refer to teams or players who don't have that "killer instinct" to jump on opponents when they are down and squash their hopes of even making the game close. In fact, personnel decisions often are made with character traits such as those in mind. It seems to me, however, that these coaches might want to look in the mirror and analyze the message they send on a weekly basis before judging their players in that manner.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Don't Do It, Bud!

By Scott Lowe
API Management & Marketing

Newsflash ... April and October baseball has been played in terrible weather for years. That is not news to anybody, and while I can't speak from experience I'm just guessing that it wasn't any better back in the days that there were no domes or teams in Florida, Arizona or California.

That begs the following question: Why does Major League Baseball always deflect the issues instad of adressing them?

The unsual 2008 World Series brought a couple major issues to light and gave us yet another glimpse at an issue that MLB always seems to struggle with - how to handle difficult situations without putting its proverbial foot in its mouth.

The first issue that came to light that cannot be fixed is that the major league schedule is just too long. Cutting even eight games off the schedule would increase the chances that the postseason could be completed under at least reasonable weather conditions substantially. However, if you do simple math and consider that one team losing 25,000 fans per game at an average of $20 a ticket (don't we wish!) over an eight-game span would equate to about $4 million per team. Of course, not every team would lose eight dates, but the point is made. Yet, on the other hand, don't forget that the average ticket costs more than $20 and that most teams average more than 25,000 a night. So, with escalating salaries and debt to service from billion-dollar stadium deals, cutting the length of the season is not a viable option.

The bigger issue that surfaced as a result of the first suspended game in World Series history was that in more than 100 years MLB had never thought about the possibility that a postseason game could be impacted by weather after it had become official. Again, horrible weather in October is not a new phenomenon - global warming aside. I spent two miserable nights in 1979 sitting in rain, snow and sleet as the Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates attempted to play Game 1 of that year's Series. The first night it was 40 degrees with rain and sleet, and we waited for several hours before the game was postoned. The following morning we woke up to a dusting of snow and spent nearly four hours that night sitting in conditions as frigid as any January football game I've ever attended.

With that in mind, how is it possible that in more than a century no one had ever considered that a World Series might end because of Mother Nature? That just defies logic. At the end of the day, Bud Selig and MLB did the right thing. No postseason game should ever end with fewer than nine innings having been played, and I'm sure that such a rule already has been created to take effect in 2009. The issue, as usual, was that apparently either Selig made this decision in advance without informing any of the participants or media covering the World Series or lied and made a decision as it became obvious that Game 5 was going to be cut short, choosing to tell the world that he and team officials had agreed to that stipulation during an earlier contest.

No matter, the decision was the right one; it just would have been a shame for one of the managers to change his strategy without knowing the potential impact of such a move. What if Charlie Manuel had brought in closer Brad Lidge during the top of the sixth as the inevitable postponement became imminent? Upon final analysis, Wednesday's "mini-game" was as exciting as anything the sport has seen in recent memory, so everything turned out for the best.

That leads us to the larger issue, which has presented itself in the days following the Game 5 debacle: In response to the PR nightmare that has unfolded, will MLB make yet another ill-advised, knee-jerk, short-sighted decision because its lack planning and organizational skills almost led to an incredibly embarrassing situation?

I hope that others who make a living in baseball or covering baseball and who have a much broader audience than I will take a stand here and speak to the absurdity to the notion of moving the Fall Classic to a neutral, warm-weather or domed site.

Sure, in the first year or two or three the host cities are going to go all out to ensure that the event is sold out and lives up to the standards that have been set by events such as the Super Bowl and BCS Championship Game. And as long as teams with rabid fanbases such as the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs or even the Mets are involved in the Series, it is certain to bring with it an influx of out-of-towners. However, realistically, what happens if we get an Astros-White Sox Fall Classic? Or another Rays-Phllies showdown?

Will seven games sell out under those circumstances? Maybe in the first couple of years, but how about five years down the road? Is someone who lives 3,000 miles away going to pay an outrageous amount of money for a ticket and go through the hassle of booking a flight, a hotel room and a rental car for a Game 7 that might not even happen? Will the average fan even consider spending the money it would cost to travel to such an event? Will ANYONE be willing to take a full week off of work to attend the entire series? I'd have to think that the answer to these scenarios, for the most part, is a resounding, "NO!"

So, by moving the World Series to a neutral site, no only would MLB be taking a team's one shining moment away from the loyal fans who have made the sport a financial success for so many years, but also it would be running the risk of a potentially horrific PR situation in which the sport's ultimate showdown might be played in front of a half-full, no I'd prefer to say half-empty, stadium.

Could you imagine if the Cubs finally came through and won their first title in more than 100 years and there were only a few thousand diehards there to witness it in person? That alone should be enough to convince Mr. Selig to end this debate quickly.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Go With Garza!

By Scott Lowe
API Management & Marketing

Usually I blog about sports PR, marketing, image-building or other similar topics here, but I can't pass up an opportunity to blog about baseball under these unusual circumstances. I did write a book about the aport, afterall, so I should be allowed to write about it here every now and then - especially during the World Series. So, here goes...

Tonight's game between the Rays and Phillies is a three-inning game. Make no mistake. This is not a game entering the bottom of the sixth; it might as well be a 0-0 tie - 3-1/2 innings to see whether the Phillies can win their city's first professional sports title in 25 years or the Rays extend their fairytale season.

With that said, there is no way in the world that either team should begin the game with a reliever on the mound. Well, I'll take that back. The Phillies might want to consider it since they have a two-game edge and really can have all of their guns loaded for games six and seven if they save their starters tonight. And if the relievers come through, they'll really have their guns loaded going into spring training as the champions of the world.

Tampa, on the other hand, has got to approach this as a must-win mini-game. There's no other way to view it. Professional athletes, especially baseball players, are creatures of habit. Over the marathon 162-game schedule they become extremely comfortable in their roles - especially the pitchers - and learn exactly what they need to do to prepare themselves to handle their role effectively.

Relief pitchers sit and wait their turn all game and then are on call from the fifth inning on, ready to jump up and get themselves warm in a matter of minutes so that they can go put out a fire. They don't know for sure until the game unfolds whether they will be used. But, based on the ebb and flow of a given contest, depending on their assigned role, most of them can figure out by the fourth or fifth inning if they will be called into action at some point. From that moment on they begin their mental preparation, followed by the physical act of getting their arms and their bodies ready to peform - maybe for only one pitch or maybe for as long as two or three innings.

For relief pitchers a routine is established to which the mind and body become accustomed. It's when managers remove these players from their comfort zones and place them into unfamiliar circumstances that they tend to fail. If you don't believe me, check and see how many of Mariano Rivera's career blown saves have come when he has been asked to record four or more outs instead of the usual three.

Starters, on the other hand, are used to waiting around all day, studying the opposing lineup, long-tossing and running in the afternoon and then going through a 25-minute routine before the opening pitch. Although tonight's game is only going to last three or 3-1/2 innings, the pregame routine is more in line with what is normal for a starting pitcher. A starter would take the mound fully prepared and mentally focused, while a reliever might be just enough out of sorts to have trouble finding the strike zone and ultimately give away the game.

My choice would be Matt Garza, the MVP of the ALCS. Garza has been filthy throughout the postseason and has not pitched since Saturday. A couple of innings tonight would be like a side session for him. He'd throw that in the bullpen, anyway. I don't think there are many guys who'd be jumping to the front of the line to hit off of his 95 mph fastball and wicked slider tonight in frigid, wet and windy conditions.

Even if Garza throws one inning and gives way to a reliever, at least all parties are going to be placed in situations that they are used to, which in my mind gives them a better chance to succeed. Heck, Garza could throw two easy innings and still pitch either Game 6 or Game 7 for the Rays.

Joe Maddon is a smart guy. I'm sure he has a feel for what his players can and cannot handle. He says he's going with Balfour, so I'll just assume that he knows something I don't. I just go back to the 1986 World Series when John McNamara left some bullets in the Red Sox gun, hoping his team would get to a Game 7. Right now, if there's no Game 7, there's no shot at a world champioship for the Rays. That's why they should approach the next two-plus games as if they are Game 7s and let the chips fall where they may if they do indeed get that far.

If I'm managing - and ther are 5,000 reasons why I'm not - Matt Garza, who already won a Game 7 this year, is on the hill. In my mind that would give me the best opportunity to force a couple more "Game 7s" and give Garza more than one opportunity to impact the remainder of the series.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

One More Thing on the Cowboys and I'm Done (PROMISE!)

By Scott Lowe
API Management & Marketing

Ok. I have to be more creative. I just realized that my last three blogs directly related to the Cowboys - although one of them was a positive endorsement of Troy Aikman's commentating abilities.

Just a couple more thoughts first, however, as Adam "Pacman" Jones goes off to start alcohol rehab today. I sincerely hope that he and others who suffer from similar problems can find the strength and support to overcome their afflictions and become productive members of society. Not just productive athletes, but productive citizens. And I hope that some of these guys start to realize in a hurry how fortunate they are to be where they are earning millions or at a minimum hundreds of thousands of dollars to play a game. And I hope that they realize it can end in a fraction of a second and that they need to surround themselves with the right people who can help them prepare for when that end comes - whether it's in five minutes or in five years.

That's why we started API Management & Marketing ( to provide the brand and image management services these athletes need to be able to capitalize on what they have now and live comfortably as contributing members of society when their careers are finished. We are not sports agents, but we do fill in the gaps for what the agents can't provide and supplement what they do. Our services actually make the agent's job easier. Think about it: if the athlete has a stellar image, performs well on the field, understands PR, gives back to the community and is generally a good person, don't you think he or she is more attractive to corporations looking for people to pitch their goods and services? Absolutely.

So, in the wake of all this, Jerry Jones goes out and signs Roy Williams, a talented player who hasn't accomplished anywhere near what he was expected to accomplish - and a player who has had some issues of his own in Detroit - to a $20 million dollar contract. Jones' statement: "Terrell (Owens) was ecstatic about the signing." Now Jones is making business decisions based on what is going to make a mercurial, unreliable, tempramental superstar happy?

Not a formula for success. It may appease the fans for now, but is just going to make them angrier when the ultimate failure occurs in January.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Jerry's Kids

By Scott Lowe
API Management & Marketing

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Why doesn't Jerry Jones get it?

Two years ago T.O. ripped apart the Dallas Cowboys with his selfishness, mood swings, public outbursts and ultimately his overdose on "vitamins." So the following year what does Sir Jerry do but visit Chico's Bail Bonds and rescue troublemaker Tank Johnson from himself. Disliked everywhere but Dallas, Jones was a hero in Chicago for removing yet another threat to the local community there. The end result: another early playoff exit, a teary-eyed T.O. defending his Q.B. and more questions about the team's character.

The Cowboys had character issues? No way. Who knew? Once known as America's team, the Cowboys became South America's team in the wake of several drug-related incidents during the 90s. These days they are just plain unsavory.

If all that turmoil weren't enough, Jones studied the police blotter this past off-season and decided to take yet another chance on a guy who didn't deserve another second (or tenth) chance. Adam "Pacman" Jones, who had become commissioner Roger Goodell's poster child for the NFL's new more stringent disciplinary policies and who seemingly had not gone a week without showing up in a police report, was welcomed by Jerry Jones to Dallas with open arms and and open checkbook.

Jerry Jones' secondary had been heavily criticized for several years, so this move made all the sense in the world. A superb athlete with no understanding of what it takes to be a productive citizen in one of the most lenient societies in the world would be a perfect fit playing for Jones' dysfunctional family. I guess Jerry Jones figured that if nothing else "Pacman" had to be in shape. After all, he'd been running from the law non-stop for about three years.

"Pacman" Jones said all the right things. He wanted a fresh start and was grateful for the opportunity. He wouldn't mess up again. He'd learned to appreciate what he had been given and was going to make the most of this second (tenth?) opportunity. Out with "Pacman" and in with Adam Jones. A new beginning was all he wanted.

And he got it, along with a pardon from Goodell, who no doubt was convinced to "do the right thing" when Deion Sanders, football's Jesse Jackson, showed up at Cowboys training camp to mentor the new and improved Adam Jones. Neion Deion proclaimed Adam a "good kid" and a "changed man." He figured that out during just one afternoon fishing with him. Who needs $200 an hour shrinks? Clearly that was all Goodell needed to finalize his decision.

So, fast forward to Week 6 of the NFL season. After a 3-0 start and a procolmation from the media that they were the team to beat in the NFC, the Cowboys had dropped two of their last three games and seemed to be on the verge of imploding. T.O. pouted publicly and questioned the play calling and his quarterback's decision-making after a loss to the Redskins. This past Sunday, after a ridiculous loss to the same Cardinal team that allowed Brett Favre to throw six touchdown pasess, Owens flat-out refused to talk to the media and then decided to insult a reporter after being questioned.

That came on the heels of a return appearance by "Pacman," who reportedly slugged it out in a hotel bathroom with a body guard who had been hired as part a security team that was assembled strictly to keep Jones from getting into altercations with others. Tank Johnson was interviewed and gave a ringing endorsement of his teammate by saying that the incident didn't involve the team and didn't impact the team or the league. So, in the World According to Tank, Jones should be allowed to continue playing. Those comments were made in the middle of the week. you think that the chaos and uncertainty surrounding the incident might have played at least a tiny part in your team's loss on Sunday? Well, I guess both Deion and Tank, two fellas with impeccable reputations, can't both be wrong about "Pacman," er, Adam.

Those who have played for the Cowboys during the Jerry Jones regime speak fondly of the man. Michael Irvin, another credible source, credits Jones for his turnaround. Troy Aikman says that Jerry Jones was a father figure to him. Other former players frequent the teams practice facilities and offices, because Jerry Jones encourages them to come back and treats them like kings when they do.

Could it be that Jerry Jones is just too nice of a guy to turn his back on these guys? That he just wants to help these young men get their lives on track? That his pursuit of these "rebels" has nothing to do with winning football games? Or is he so obsessed with winning that he just doesn't care what type of person takes the field representing his organization?

The problem is that championship teams traditionally are filled with people of character who possess the work ethic, commitment to team values and respect for their livelihood that is necessary to stay in peak mental and physical condition and help them overcome the obstacles and setbacks that are part of every season. Talent alone rarely wins championships, but talented players who have little regard for anyone but themselves can cause an implosion.

Dallas, we have a problem - again. The Cowboys will implode in 10, 9, 8, 7, 6 ... or has it already happened? There is some poetic justice here. However you slice him or whatever you want to call him - whether it's "Pacman" or "Adam" - the younger Jones can't cover an NFL receiver consistently right now. So, this may turn out to be a test of whether the elder Jones really is a nice guy who wants to help these troubled young men succeed or if it really is all about the almighty "W."

The disturbing part of all this is that next year the Cowboys will move into a billion-dollar stadium that certainly will celebrate what the franchise has accomplished under Jerry Jones. That move will be accompanied by celebrations of the franchise and the success it has enjoyed with Jerry Jones at the helm. And while fans may be disgusted by the current state of affairs in Dallas and while this year's edition of America's team is fast becoming a public relations disaster, all of those "diehard" Cowboys fans scattered around the country who have never set foot in Dallas will gladly forgive and forget if the Lombardi Trophy is returned to the "Big D" - even if they'll never actually get there to see it.

The rest of the American public and the corporate community won't forget, however, and the possibility that these players will become accepted and productive members of the community after their playing days are done is remote, to say the last. Jerry Jones might think he's doing these guys a favor, but in reality he's nothing more than an enabler who may in fact be crippling them for life.

It's no wonder so many retired NFL players are broke within five years of playing their last game. They spend most of their adult lives in a fantasy world in which no one is held accountable and their quality of life is determined by how well they play a game. It's so important for these players to surround themselves with quality people who will give them sound personal, business and financial advice. Unfortunately, many of them don't realize that until it's too late.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Aikman Moves Up the TV Ranks

I'm the first one to admit that I wasn't a fan of Troy Aikman the football player. Where I grew up, less than a half hour from Washington, D.C., rooting for any member of the hated Cowboys was simply not an option.

I'll also be the first to admit that the day Lavar Arrington sprinted across the Texas Stadium turf and knocked Aikman into La-La Land for the umteenth - and final - time never ranked among my top 1,000 most disappointing moments in sports. And I'll also openly admit that for a long time I couldn't stand to hear Aikman's voice coming through my televeision speakers during an NFL game, particularly a contest involving the Redskins. After all, as someone who experienced the heated Skins-Cowboys rivalry firsthand as a player (an enemy player, no less), Aikman couldn't possibly be objective as a color analyst, could he? He certainly wouldn't give the Redskins a fair shake as far as I was concerned.

Well, I'm also willing to happily admit that Aikman has successfully overcome all of the negative connotations that go along with being a superstar-athlete-turned-broadcaster to become one of the best in the business - at least in my eyes. I'm not sure that I can say the same for Moose Johnston, Keyshawn Johnson, Phil Simms, Chris Collinsworth and some of the others, although I will give them another careful hearing in the near future based on Aikman's emergence.

I've had the pleasure of listening to Aikman as he called the last two Redskins games - last week against the Cowboys and this week vs. the Eagles - and I found him to be articulate, entertaining, affable, insightful and - most important - intelligent and impartial. He handed out more compliments to Jim Zorn, Jason Campbell and Clinton Portis - he actually called Portis one of his favorite players - than you would think possible coming from a former member of Jerry Jones' Cowboy compound. And, on the other hand, he was openly, but not unfairly critical of poor play on the field, poor judgment on the sidelines and the officiating when necessary.

It's hard for me to watch a televised game in any sport without getting angry about the commentating. It's amazing how many former athletes have been handed high-profile television jobs despite the fact that they clearly have difficulty formulating coherent thoughts without a script and rarely say anything insightful. The beauty of having these athletes on the air is that they have been there in the trenches slugging it out and should be able to provide information that 99 percent of the viewing public would never otherwise be able to access.

Unfortunately, the reality is that these athletes are either too ill-prepared on a weekly basis, too inexperienced or too over-coached to provide viewers with any real substance. These former jocks tend to fall into several categores: the flamboyant, flashy former star who is hired because of his reputation and either wants to be controversial or become the next John Madden; the company guy who observes all of the trained commentators and actually overprepares to the point that his real personality never surfaces and everything seems mechanical (this person spends too much time making ridiculous hand gestures and reciting meaningless facts and figures that start to sound like Charlie Brown's teacher after a while); and the nice guy with the good personality who you want to like, but who just never becomes polished (Emmit Smith would fit into this category.)

Most former athletes who try to make the transition strive to become someone they aren't and fail miserably. Or they can't overcome who they are and experience the same results. Aikman has done nothing but be himself, study the game inside and out and throw his inherent biases out the window. He gets technical without being boring; is able to laugh at himself; isn't afraid to call out players, coaches and officials for poor performance or bad jugment when justified; and has let go of his loyalties to Dallas - at least as appropriate when on the air.

In so doing, Aikman has forged an image as a likeable guy. I'm not sure that was the case when he played, since most fans either love or hate members of the Cowboys, and you never got to know who he really was. His personality just never really surfaced, which is why it was somehwat surprising when he decided to pursue a career in broadcasting.

Aikman has learned a lesson that is valualbe to current and former athletes alike: if you work hard at what you do and let your true personality come through, you are going to earn the respect of those around you - on and off the field - and people will gravitate to you. That type of respect and public awareness will lead to opportunities in the community and the business world that never otherwise would have presented themselves.

Although he isn't often mentioned as one of sports' elite color analysts, in my mind Aikman is rapidly moving up that list. In fact, I believe that he should already be near the top. What he has done is build a likeable, professional image that should translate into potentially lucrative opportunities that will allow him to maintain the quality of living to which he has become accustomed. A retired athlete can't ask for more than that.

Monday, September 29, 2008

T.O. Undoes a Year of Image Building

By Scott Lowe
API Management & Marketing

I was never one of the believers.

For the past several weeks I sat back and listened to the chatter about how the Dallas Cowboys were the favorites to win the Super Bowl - or that at the least they were clearly the class of the NFC. I also heard quite a bit about how Terrell Owens had transformed himself and become a good citizen.

This is the same team that relies on a quarterback who seems to have enormous physical tools combined with an extremely fragile psyche and an inability to maintain his concentration in critical situations as well as Owens, one of professional sports' most talented and volatile athletes.

It's amazing how much of a difference a day can make. After a surprising 26-24 loss to the upstart Redskins yesterday, suddenly the Cowboys are being portrayed a team with internal issues and defensive shortcomings. Clearly Dallas still is one of the teams to beat in the NFC. They have big, strong offensive and defensive lines and depth at every offensive skill position. Yes, they have issues on the defensive side of the ball, but what NFL team doesn't have deficiencies at this point? The demise of the Cowboys is as much of a media overreaction as were the sentiments that Owens was a changed man.

I'll admit that over the past year Owens had made strides as a person and a teammate. It appeared as though he was trying to build his image. He hadn't complained about how he was being used, hadn't pointed fingers at teammates or coaches following losses, hadn't been involved in any off-field issues and was generally keeping a low profile off the field while putting up amazing numbers on the field. But, like anyone fighting internal issues, people with a track record tend to fall back into their past behavior patterns when faced with emotionally charged or otherwise stressful situations.

The guy who had torn two teams apart and publicly ripped two quarterbacks who had helped him put up Pro Bowl numbers was a time-bomb waiting to go off. I knew it. I'm just not sure why the "experts" didn't know it. The worst part for Owens was that all of the work he had done to rebuild his tarnished image went out the window with one five-minute press conference.

Following the loss to the Redskins, despite his team's still-impressive 3-1 record and the fact that he had touched the football nine times in the game and that the ball was thrown his way on another 10 occasions, Owens decided to complain about not being used enough. This despite a first half in which he was blanketed by Shawn Springs, a solid cornerback who is not quite the player he used to be, to the point that he appeared to give up on more than one occasion. And despite the fact that he flat-out dropped one ball and didn't go after another pass for fear of getting hit.

Owens was seemingly targeted on almost every offensive play in the third quarter, including a touchdown pass, as the Cowboys rallied from a halftime deficit. But as the Redskins seized control and the time was ticking down, Owens could be seen on the sidelines by himself with a look of disgust on his face. You could just sense that something was burning inside him and that it was not going to end well. He looked like a kid who had dessert taken away.

With the cameras rolling in the locker room Owens decided to question the game plan and express his frustration at not being utilized more even though he was featured more than any other player on his team. Because of a few choice words spoken out of frustration after a difficult loss, suddenly a team that had been penciled into the Super Bowl was thrown into the midst of an unnecessary controversy with the regular season only one-fourth complete.

Owens' comments have been replayed and analyzed by every talking football head in the country over the past 30 hours or so. He has been chastised, questioned and told by former players to "just shut up." One five-minute interview in which he let his emotions and built-up frustration get the best of him has undone more than a year's worth of time and effort spent to improve his image. Since T.O. seems to struggle with this lesson, perhaps other professional athletes can learn from his mistakes. Someone should.

Body Language Comes Through Loud and Clear

By Scott Lowe
API Management & Marketing

Professional athletes, by and large, are some of the most competitive people in the world. They have to be. Without that type of drive, commitment to excellence and desire to achieve success, they would not have ascended to where they are. Competitive or not, with thousands of people in the stadium watching and hundreds of thousands or millions viewing in high def, these guys have to gain a better understanding what their body language says about them.

Football, in particular, is the ultimate team sport. You are truly only as strong as your weakest link. If all 11 players are not in sync on a particular play, the result can be disaster - a loss of yards, a turnover or even an injury. With that being the case, why do so many of the higher-profile athletes show open disgust every time a teammate blows an assignment. If you are a quarterback and ended up on your back at the end of a play, what makes you think that publicly expressing your displeasure with the lineman who missed the block is going to make that player perform better the next time?

Leaders don't shake their heads, raise their palms to the sky, belittle teammates or stare down those who aren't performing to the best of their ability. A leader picks his teammate up, pats him on the back and says, "You're better than that. Let's get them next time." Leaders rally the team instead of beating it down. Leaders don't show negative emotion through their facial expressions or actions. Leaders exude confidence in themselves and their team and never let that confidence waiver publicly. Leaders are attractive to general managers, coaches, businesses and fans.

In the past 48 hours I've watched numerous NFL players excude negative body language on the field. Fans pay big money to watch millionaires run around like little boys, so they have every right to express their displeasure when a player or team's effort is subpar. Personally, I don't like negative or bandwagon fans - many seemed to be at Heinz Field tonight, by the way - any more than I like a professional athlete who is a crybaby or a finger-pointer. Still, those fans work hard all week for the right to express their opinion, and this is a country built upon that very unalienable right. Players, especially players with talent who play in traditional leadership positions, have the same right, but they need to be more guarded about when and where they express that displeasure. There is a time and a place for everything. The time is not during the game and the place is not in direct view of thousands or millions of people.

Ben Roethlisberger certainly was being hung out to dry earlier tonight against the Baltimore Ravens. He had no time to throw and was taking a beating for the second straight week. Still, his head-shaking at teammates on the field and coaches on the sidelines, smiling when he threw an interception as if that could never happen to a player of his caliber and general look of disgust in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage wasn't helping the situation. Despite the intense pressure from the Ravens, for the second week in a row Roethlisberger was taking too long to set up, was completely immobile in the pocket and was not making quick reads. And, on top of that, he wasn't adapting. He wasn't dumping the ball off, calling appropriate audibles or trying to get rid of the ball more quickly.

So, while his teammates weren't doing their jobs, Big Ben - as the leader of the offense - certainly was doing more to hurt the situation in terms of his reaction and performance than he was to help it. In Roethlisberger's defense, he often plays hurt and does hang in the pocket despite absorbing punishing blows. If he can combine those leadership qualities with a little better on-field demeanor, who knows how could he might become.

Another example of bad body language came courtesy of Donovan McNabb. McNabb never has been considered a great passer. But, at times he has been a great quarterback because of his athletic ability and knack for moving around long enough to give his teammates time to get open or to run for a big game. Over the years McNabb has taken his team to multiple NFC championship games and one Super Bowl. He has been a great player, but has he been a great leader? A great teammate?

McNabb has cost his team many games over the years because of poor decisions and careless interceptions. Yet, more times than not, when he makes a mistake he gives the impression that the receiver ran the wrong route or otherwise crossed him up. He did it again last night when rookie receiver Desean Jackson was bumped off course while running a pattern. McNabb threw the ball to where Jackson should have been - even though it was pretty clear that he had been re-routed, so to speak - and the result was an ugly interception. McNabb threw his hands in the air as if to say, "Where were you going?" And then he hung his head before realizing that he better try to keep the defensive player from returning the pick for a touchdown.

Jackson is a rookie. McNabb is a veteran. He is a veteran who has had his share of ups and downs. The Eagles haven't had a playmaker with Jackson's ability on the outside for a long, long time. McNabb should make this kid his best friend and nurture the relationship for the good of the team. He should be a mentor. A well-placed pat on the back or arm around the shoulder and some fatherly advice would be better for the young player, the team and McNabb's image. Donovan McNabb is a good guy with a lot of talent who has won a lot of football games. He's never been able to understand why he's not liked better in Philly. Maybe he should start studying the game film for different reasons.

If you are an average talent who works hard, is a team player and gives 100 percent every time out, you can become a crowd favorite. If you are a player with great talent who does the same you can become an icon. If you are an enormous talent who is perceived as selfish, you may spend an entire productive career bouncing from team to team wondering why you are underappreciated by your teammates, the media, the fans and the business community.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Richt, Coaches Should Take Responsibility for Team Performance

By Scott Lowe
API Management & Marketing

What is it with coaches - specifically big-time college football and basketball coaches - that makes them think they are smarter than everyone else?

Don't they realize that other than the loyal students and alums who blindly support their programs they often come off as arrogant and ignorant when interviewed during and after important games? Why is every question asked by a reporter who "never played the game at this level" a stupid question? (Believe me, there are more than enough stupid questions that get asked, but sometimes those questions can actually be a lot easier to deal with than the more informed and challenging variety.)

The latest example came tonight during Alabama's throttling of Georgia between the hedges in Athens. Nick Saban's Crimson Tide program still has a ways to go and many difficult SEC battles to fight before it can officially be considered a true national contender. There are just too many young, inexperienced players filling gaps for 'Bama to be taken seriously - yet. But there's no question that from a football-intellect standpoint Saban prepares as well or better than any other coach in the country. He had his team as ready to play mentally, physically and emotionally as any I've seen this year.

Georgia coach Mark Richt, who leads one of the nation's most talented programs, came up short in the preparation chess match. His team clearly didn't take Alabama seriously and came out flat en route to a 31-0 halftime deficit at home. Richt's team had no answers for the fired-up Tide, which seemed to have read the Bulldog play book cover to cover. As much as Alabama bewildered Richt and his troops during the first half, the Georgia coach proved incapable of handling some soft-ball questions from ESPN's Holly Rowe going into the locker room before halftime.

Richt had every reason to be upset with his team and disappointed by their performance going into the intermission. But, as a coach, when your team isn't ready to play a huge conference game on national TV, you have to take some responsibility for that performance.

Big-time college and professional coaches need to understand that it's diffcult times like this - when nothing is going right and they find themselves on the short end of an old-fashioned butt-kicking - that they can earn points in the public opinion forum. We live in a country where no one takes accountability. People in positions of authority often accept credit for successes and blame others for failures. The majority of Americans aren't in positions of authority, so they have become accustomed to this type of behavior and extremely cynical toward those who hold the power. It is refreshing for most of us to see a coach under pressure on a national stage stand up and say, "We weren't ready to play and didn't perform at a level that is acceptable, but it's my team and I have to take responsibility for that. We are going to do everything we can in the second half to get back in this game and make our fans proud."

That type of response earns immediate respect among players, fans and the general public. It's what a leader says. The coach has every right to admonish his team in the locker room, to question their effort and commitment and to send a message to the players that they are accountable for their performance on the field. What happens in the family stays in the family. This approach is acceptable and applauded when it gets results. But more important, when paired with the behavior described above in which the coach publicly takes responsibility, it elicits respect from team members, media members, students, alumni and the population at large. The coach is viewed as a leader, a person of character and "somebody I'd like to go to war with."

Unfortunately, and Richt is a prime example, many coaches at the collegiate level prefer to act like they are the smartest person in the room at all times - especially when it comes to the media. Probably sensing that Richt was on edge after his team's listless first-half performance, Rowe asked safe, but reasonable questions about his quarterback's uneven play, his team's body language and how Richt would help his squad regain it's confidence heading into the second half. Richt's response was to act like those were the dumbest questions he'd ever heard, telling Rowe that he wasn't in charge of his quarterback's body language and asking her if she was analyzing it. Then, when she told him that she was referring to his defense (he hadn't even listened to the question), he got irritated and told her, "We just need to get after their ass," before turning from her and running off the field.

Rowe could have come out and said that his team stunk in the first half and asked him how it was possible that they weren't ready to play in such an important matchup. But, understanding the emotion involved and the dire situation the coach was in, she chose to lob a few beach balls up there for him to pummel. Instead of being thankful for the easy questions and taking accountability, he came off looking like a sore loser and a baby. His use of the word "ass," while not inappropriate in a locker room, also portrayed him as someone who doesn't understand that when you lead a nationally recognized athletic program, everything that you do or say can impact positively or negatively on how you are perceived.

In the grand scheme of things, from a business and personal perspective, this is just one of many football games that Mark Richt will coach. He may not always coach a team that is so talented. He may not always be in a situation where his program is recognized as one of the nation's elite and his job is secure. There might be a time when he is trying to find work and win back some of the respect he and his program currently enjoy. When that day comes, if he had handled this situation in front of the nation in a more appropriate manner, he would have made a positive impression on someone in a position to give him another opportunity to prove himself. But if I'm an athletic director, after witnessing Richt's performance on the field and in front of the camera, I'd probably say to myself, "That guy doesn't coach my football team."

Candid interviews that are full of insight and humor and expose someone's personality can be great for a coach's reputation, but temper tantrums in front of the nation that belittle others don't do much for people these days. Mark Richt may be a good guy who let his competitiveness get the best of him. But maybe, just maybe, he's a poor leader who isn't suited to mold young men. I can't make that judgment based on this one situation, but that seed has been planted in my mind...and I'm sure that I'm not the only one.

All-Pro Image - Management and Marketing is a sports management and marketing firm that specializes in assisting athletes and coaches with image building, brand building and marketing. API also runs its own branded events and is contracted to manage events for other entities. API has been hired to run the inaugural BIG EAST/Big Ten Baseball Challenge February 20-22, 2009 in St. Petersburg/Clearwater, FL. For more information please contact Scott Lowe at