The Washington Post

Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

Jan 09, 2017

Washington Post Sports Columnist Tom Boswell answered your questions about the Redskins, Capitals, Nationals, Wizards, the NFL and more.

Past Ask Boswell chats

I was really surprised at your admission a few sessions ago that you often watch baseball games after they have started, I assume via DVR. You, with the timelessness of baseball musings noting that games are too long. While I understand the sentiment to some degree, the very beauty of the game, as you have said before, is the lack of a clock, or time feature. Lord knows we have all sat through boring 10-9 or 1-0 games, but that is what makes it great. Like anything, we all have internal clocks that tell us something is too long or short, but I once sat through a double feature of the Godfather 1 and 2 at the old RKO Keiths (man, I miss those old show palaces!) and regretted that they were not longer. A great game is timeless, as it should be. And I hope you are just zipping through the commercials and not the games! And thanks for your baseball stories helped make me a seamhead for life....Happy New Year!

This is an interesting issue because so many sports -- including four-hour NFL playoff games -- almost BEG you to "record" them (if your provider has that capacity) and start late, then catch up.

For example, I came back from dinner and a movie with my wife and friends on Saturday and watched every play of the two Saturday NFL games -- in 2 1/2 hours for EVERY play. I didn't watch some of the fourth quarter after the game was decided. Then, on Sunday, I went to and watched the 6-to-7 minute condensations of the game which show perhaps 30 percent of the plays in the game -- in  sequence. After that, I watched the isolations on certain players that interested me like every carry of Thomas Rawls 161-yard game for Seattle and Baldwin's 11-catch game. Then I watched post-game interview condensations with Detroit's Jim Caldwell (very impressive guy. Bet he was a factor in Lions win over Skins) and others.

You have to remember that this is my job, not my play. I'm INVESTING time, not just "passing time" enjoying myself. I doubt you want to figure out how to watch all Thomas Rawls carriers or TE Baldwin's catches or listen to Baldwin talk for eight minutes about how somebody, like him, who is 5-11, 190 pounds and not all that fast or quick can, by studying Steve Smith (and listening to him) invent a brainy way to play his position. The last thing I want to waste my time on is listening to TV commentators tell me what I already know (in most cases). I want to find out more. Or watch more total games than I could others wise, or hear more people speak for themselves after games. For example, Odell Beckham was very smart and insightful after the Giants loss -- THEN he went out and beat his head on a wall! But it helps to see how composed and reasonable he was within minutes of, I assume, totally losing it and punching his fist through a wall (according to reports). If you just read "temper tantrum by OBJ" you only get part of the story. If you watch his interview, too, you say, "OMG, he sounds as bright and rational as a college prof one minute, then beats his head on wall in anger (and not for the first time, apparently) a few minutes later. Now THAT is interesting -- and hard for me to figure out. But I'm workin' on it!

If I spend 14 hours watching four playoff games (on my 'days off' if such things exist for sports writers) and also listen to pre and post-game announcer drivel I have no hope of seeing things with my own eyes, ingesting more info than the average fan or bringing any "extra value" to you as a reader. So, the way I watch sports and the way you watch SHOULD NOT be similar at all. I just watch everything I needed to see from a recent Caps win -- in 45 minutes -- this morning. You can see a whole NHL game -- once you figure out where the dead time is -- in 70 minutes. Plus some of the smarter commentary, like Allen May, if it's a sport (like hockey) where they can teach me something (or a lot).        

As for baseball, hen I use FF, I watch every pitch. And I watch replays, if they interest me.

I do not watch commercials or the ~30 seconds between hitters; one click on FF is about 30 seconds, so as soon as one hitter has completed his business, just click once and the next hitter is already getting in the box. I also click through pitching changes and mound visits. And, of course, I click through "replay" -- after I've seen the play once or twice -- because all you care about is whether they change the call or not. 

You can do a 3:00 MLB game complete justice, as an analyst, in 75 minutes. So, I can watch twice as much baseball (or more) in time I would if I watched like a fan.

That's why I still go to games as a fan and pay to sit in the stands. That is a wonderful, differently paced experience. I love that -- for fun. But the reason, or one of them, that you are reading this chat is because I treat my work as work, not as another form of amusement. But it IS fun.

What happens to sports when Everybody -- or 50 percent of everybody -- starts to watch more games the way I do, or something like the way I do, and CUTS OUT the commercials? Does that change the business model of some sports 10 years form now? Some games are so important or of such interest that they are "appointment viewing" in real time. But I bet a lot of Nats/O's fans would discover that, if they start watching 90 minutes into a game _+_and use that 90 minutes for something else that they enjoy or need to do -- that they will catch up EASILY just as the game hits the eighth or ninth inning. And you can watch THAT and agonize with it, in real TIME. 

So we all hope, and I believe, Zim will come back with a great year. HOWEVER, if he does not, what do clubs do on these contracts with insurance coverage? I sometimes hear that clubs get insurance to cover them, is that true? Would Zim's contract be covered by insurance?

That is worth looking into. My guess would be that they do not have it. Very few insurance companies want to touch such hard-to-price policies. If I remember correctly, Berkshire Hathaway has handled some big sports-contract and sports-related insurance policies out of their Super Catastrophe branch (that insures hurricanes/earthquakes) because that unit's boss -- Ajit Jain -- is a math genius (as I think a pretty knowledgeable sports fan.) Short answer: I'll ask. But I doubt that his contract was viewed as so huge that you would need to pay expensive premiums to insure it. The policy adds to the total cost -- and not insignificantly -- to the $100M contract extension.

be in the Hall of Fame?


He wasn't a great enough player. I was a kid when he was at his best, but a baseball-addicted kid. No one in that time thought of him as a HOFer or mentioned him as such. His 61-homer season ISD already in the HOF -- as a display. He had several wonderful seasons, but not enough of them. The HOF should be exclusive. It should be for people who beat the door down, not for those who need to have others knocking on the door for them -- for decades --until the door finally creaks open a crack. 

Any idea why Big Ben was still playing in garbage time? Anyone who has seen Derek Carr not playing for the Raiders should expect that bad things happen to QBs when the game is out of reach. Did Tomlin think that Ben's feelings would be hurt by using the backup for the last few series?

There is a tendency not to want to change the flow or feel of an offense, even when the game is decided, by using a backup QB is a PLAYOFF game. It's like: We're rolling, we're mostly just going to run the ball and eat clock so there's not much danger, and if I put in my back-up guy, who may be rusty and sort of a bum, too, it may mess up the "feel" and confidence that my offense has right now.

That's "on the one hand."

OTOH, if you are going to let a veteran, injury-prone (or certainly frequently injured) QB like Big Ben stay in the game, you are taking a risk that he will use good judgment and not act like a tough guy. Example: In Week 17, the Giants left in Eli Manning the whole game (because they wanted to win and get their offensive game moving after a bad offensive season.) But EVERY time the Skins put pressure on Manning HE SACKED HIMSELF. He DOVE to the ground like a rabbit down his rabbit hole, before anybody could hit him. (And the Giants STILL won the game, even with a QB who'd go down -- because he was smart -- before he was hit.)

So, Tomlin will take the heat if Ben shows poorly in the next game and looks semi-hurt. But a lot of this is on Ben. It's his instinct and habit to fight to stay up -- it's one of his greatest strengths, breaking tackles in the pocket with his brute force and extending plays. But, in a lopsided game, and so late in that game, he has to play smart, not play tough.

So, Tomlin gambled -- and lost -- on Ben staying intact.

But Ben should have known better. That was the one time he should have played like Eli (who always looks like a skinny kid who shouldn't be on the field).

BTW, the killer play that iced the GB win over the Giants was a strip-sack-fumble-and-recovery by Clay Matthews on Eli. Everybody noticed that Matthews "stayed with the play" because he knew the whistle hadn't blown and that he'd (probably) knocked the ball loose before Manning moved his arm forward. So, Matthews looked smart and gung-ho as he ran around the stand-around Giants and blasted the RB out of the way to recover. But who was the one Giant who chased the play and got to the ground around the loose ball just AFTER Matthews? It was Eli. I watched it in slo-mo. His team is already as good as dead. But there are NINE players between him and the ball with is 15 yards away. That doesn't count other players who may be out of the TV picture's frame. He runs -- to the degree Eli can run -- around them all, screaming and pointing to wake up his teammates and then he goes to one knee and claws at the pile to try to steal the ball back from the quickly-assembling beasts -- in a 30-13 game late in the 4Q.     

I'm a LOT more impressed with that expression of "caring" about who wins and how hard you keep fighting than I am by a guy who beats his head against a wall to show his anger at losing  -- long after the game is over.  

Hey, Boz! Based on the performances of Miller (Texans), Bell (Steelers), and Rawls (Seahawks) this past weekend, plus the rise of Elliot in Dallas, has the NFL started to skew back toward being a rushing league? Seems like some teams turned it around this year when they started running the ball more. Makes sense, if NFL defenses have adjusted to stop the pass, in what has been a pass-happy league. Is this a relic of the playoffs (i.e., smart coaching to change things up and put the opposing defenses on their heels), or do you think we're seeing a shift back to rushing this year that will persist into next year?

The NFL has always been a league with constant style changes, innovations, then adjustments to defend against those innovations. Sometimes, the like the old Bears 46 defense in the '80's, the innovation starts on the defensive side.

So, yes, you are correct I think that you'll see defenses start to adjust to the pro-offense and especially pro-passing rules. When they do adapt to the current Touch Football version of football that the NFL so often uses now -- four or five receivers spread out, the check-down passes and bubble screens used as a kind of de facto running game -- then you'll probably see offenses attacking with the running game. 

But is that happening already? At a time when, for example, they are FAR more 1,00-yard receivers than 1,00-yard rushers? When it is still EASIER to pass than run. (Look at what Aaron Rodgers did for 360-yards on Sunday -- OK, he's amazing, but still... -- in zero wind-chill conditions and without his favorite receiver.)

Maybe you have spotted a trend!

But, I'd note, that very few teams have had impressive rushing totals this year. For example, the Skins Robert (Fat Rob) Kelley did not start the first five games of the season and was shut down in two or three of the games that he did start, BUT he still ended up 14th in the NFL in rushing. His "pace," if he'd started all 16 games, would have been about 1,008 yards -- 11th in the league. That shows you two things. 1) Kelley had a pretty good season. 2) Barely getting 1,000 yards only happened for 10 backs this year in a 32-team league.

So, not MANY teams are running the ball a lot. But if those that are succeed, you can be sure they will be copied.

The most interesting runner in the league may be Bell with the Steelers. To a degree I have never seen, he frequently gets the handoff, looks at what's in front of him as his line en block and then completely STOPS behind the line of scrimmage -- his feet always balanced under his shoulders -- to wait for a hole to open. Then he jumps laterally, if necessary and explodes through that hole. Phil Simms (I think he was working the Pitt game) was amazed and said, paraphrase, "Look at this! They should call Bell for Delay Of Game (as he stands still behind the line, apparently doing nothing.)" Simms then said it was such a different style of running, but so amazingly effective, that he wondered if other NFL runners would, or could copy it. Why hit the hole SO FAST -- as fast as you can -- when your 320-to-370-pound lineman hasn't really had a chance yet to exercise his will and power on the mere 250-to-315-pound defensive man in the front seven that he may be blocking. Give the Big Fellas a chance to MAUL 'em for a while! Give 'em a chance to "stay with their blocks" and give a hole a chance to appear! Simms (boy, I hope it was Simms speaking, but whomever it was he had good points) then wondered if "backs who are still in high school" would watch Bell and learn his style.

Once you notice how different Bell is -- he "waits" before choosing a hole and  exploding more than anybody on what seems like almost half of his runs -- it's hard to notice anything else about him.

Just as with Thomas Rawls -- he's sort of unique, too. He looks like those old PacMan games where the icon just banged, bounced, banged, bounced its way forward with this suddenly frenetic unstoppable energy. Not so much speed or (at 215 lbs) power as this choppy stride, always balanced, million jittering moves and explosions. Hard to describe; fun to watch! 

Oh, btw, I mentioned a few weeks ago that I'd chatted with Rob Kelley about his running style and mentioned that his running style reminded me a little of another unknown-out-of-college not-very-big-or-very-fast running back who ran with abandon and fourth effort who was discovered in Washington by Vince Lombardi -- Larry Brown. "What was the name?" said Kelley, who wrote it down. Said maybe he could learn something by watching him. After the Giant game, he told me, "I looked up (YouTubee of) Brown. You're right. I DO kind of run like him." (He didn't mean he was going to be NFL MVP. He just meant in terms of style and making the most of limited combine-type, measurable skills.)    

What are the storylines that we should be following for the Nats other than figuring out the closer?

Closer is THE issue. Filling out the bench, perhaps bringing back Stephen Drew, is a much lower priority.

Remember, LAST year the Nats were actually better at closer going into ST than they are now because they had...hold your breath...Jonathan Papelbon. The question about him, besides whether he would choke any superstars again, was NOT about whether he could be a competent crafty veteran closer in the regular season who could probably save 85-to-90 percent of his save chances and help you win >88 games. The issue was whether he still had the raw stuff, especially the fastball and the swing-and-miss slider to handle TOUGH teams in big close games -- like the Mets within the division or anybody in the post-season. But, the day the Nats reported to camp, he was still JONTHAN DANG PAPELBON, former elite closer with a great temperament for the spot and, probably, enough stuff and presence to fool most of the chumps most of the time.

Right now, the Nats have no proven and healthy closer. Until someone PROVES that they can close, I have a rule of thumb about whether to go into a season TRUSTING that they will be able to do it their first time out of the box. My rule: NEVER trust 'em. No matter how good their stuff or how they "project." Until they have proved they can handle the mental and psychological pressure, don't go into a season with multiple guys, saying blithely, "Oh, we'll figure it out on the fly. One of 'em will earn it."

By the time you "figure out" that Potential Closer A and Closer B are sucking wind, your record may be 15-23 and you are way behind before you find out that Potential Closer C is pretty decent.

This does not look like a "finished bullpen" to me -- not for a 90-plus win team . But I don't know how you fix it. All the free agent closers are gone. So are the prime trade candidates, except Robertson (CWS). And the Nats are no longer loaded with prospects to trade.

Getting Eaton in '17 will help the offense and have five-year benefits. But the important closer piece of the off-season just didn't work out well -- the timing, the fit with FAs and trades didn't click. Will it work out well before Opening Day? I assume the Nats are working on it -- and I don't mean adding the '17 versions of Matt Belise and YPetit to add middle-inning length in the pen.

Could they get lucky and Trienen is Right On Time to take over the job? Or Kelly is healthy and, if not worked too hard, can do some closing?

As currently constructed, this looks like a bullpen that is trying to fake-it-'til-we-make-it to get 100 games into the season, then make a trade at the August 1 deadline to get its REAL closer for October. They did it with Melancon in '16. But it's tough to wade into a season hoping "somebody" very good will be available __or several somebodies__ and you'll get your closer.

So, I think Rizzo is working on this plenty. But it's tough. I don't see any brilliant moves. But Mike often pulls rabbits out of hats.

Let me just say that Rizzo doesn't think small. You can come to him with a BIG multi-piece trade and he'll consider it. And a closer could come out of that, or come after it when the dust settles. I guess I just have that "it's too quiet out there" feeling about the Nats right now. They know their window is open in '17-'18, especially after adding Eaton and getting rid of pitchers who might have been import in '18 and after. You don't do Eaton and then STOP. Or at least that shouldn't be the idea. They should have payroll available after their off-season moves and deletions.   

Will he ever develop into a superstar or has the long grind of meaningless regular NHL season worn him down?

So much talent, but such a tough style-fit for the NHL. The Caps 5-0 win over Columbus -- a big boost, as it stopped their 16-game winning streak -- was built on NHL-playoff-style hockey: throw the puck on the net as much as possible, look for rebounds (Winnick goal) and deflections (fourth goal, Schmidt). In other words, ugly tough hockey more than beautiful creation of perfect highlight plays. We are now in the third season of Trotz and Kuznetsov trying to find the sweet spot between not taking away his gifts but definitely changing his style from the big-sheet, imaginative passing game he loved growing up in Russia. Kuznetsov is willing, but sometimes he sounds like he also has a point beyond which he can't change anymore without diminishing what he knows he can contribute -- sort of an I-gotta-be-me point. Man, I really loved watching him play the first 2/3s of last year. You can't get down on a player that inspired. And he's a good guy. Just keep working on trying to make the transition, like his hero growing up --  Pavel Datsyuk -- did. 

It's interesting to me that the Caps have tried to save some energy with fewer minutes for stars and vets this season and have, at times, played like a team waiting for the playoffs even though they currently have the fourth or fifth best point-percentage in the NHL. So, the logical question is, "Can they flip the switch when they need to?"

They beat the Pens 7-1 early in the season for something of a statement win. And (after losing twice to Columbus in November) they certainly came up big in they 5-0 win over Columbus last Thursday.

I'm still a little concerned that in their three games with Columbus they have taken more penalty minutes (16-10) than the Blue Jackets. Columbus power play has been so good that you wouldn't want that to continue if they met in the playoffs.

At any rate, it's interesting to see the Caps adjusting to a bit less of Ovi and Nick on the ice, a bit more balanced scoring. But they sure depend a lot of Holtby being wonderful -- and never having two bad games back-to-back. He's the one they need to make sure is both fresh and sharp (a hard combo) for the playoffs.

The Wizards have been playing well lately, but this is thanks almost entirely to John Wall and Bradley Beal. The Wizards bench, which Ernie Grunfield spent more than $100 million of Ted's money on this offseason, remains one of the worst of all time. Ernie's decision to give hefty long-term contracts to three nearly useless players (Jason Smith, Andre Nicholson, and Ian Mahimni) has also left the Wizards little flexibility to improve the team moving forward. So, do you think that Ernie's job is on the line even if the Wiz make the playoffs (likely as the 8 seed)? Or will Ted remain satisfied with mediocrity?

That's one point of view. And the symbolism of Mahimni's contract and current injury are enough to make any fan crazy. I still haven't gotten over being gob-struck by the nutty fantasy-world KD2DC idea and how on earth Grunfeld/Leonsis ever sold themselves that bill of good, and then sold it to the fans. Then never even got a meeting with Durant (which is how I would have bet it would work out  -- and said so in this chat long ago), didn't get Horford, etc., then spent just for the sake of spending, it seemed.   

BUT the Wiz are playing much better as the season evolves under Scott Brooks. That's another major "move" that has to be graded. You have to let Brooks teach and see what kind of team you have after the message has time to sink in and impact their game. There are now nights when the bench contributes enough.

But you are correct that this is a team with enough talent to be .500 and play some fun games, but with (to me) no clear vision of the future. In other words, if I had three boxes on my desk for decisions, they would be divided into "Yes," "No" and "Too Tough." The Wizards would just be "Too Tough." for me, anyway.

Unfortunately, Ernie and Ted don't have the Too Tough option as a possibility. I don't think you blow it up. And I don't know how to build it up to something special. Last summer was supposed to be the key juncture. It wasn't. I'd give Brooks a chance to show how much he can improve what he's got. I'd have a lot of patience with him. But when do you change the architect of the whole building. I'd have done it a long time ago. But that's easy to say now -- especially since I don't have a time machine to lend the Wiz to let them go back and play out the last several years a different way. Some teams just get "stuck." I guess it's better to be stuck at .500 with several exciting or "watchable" players than some places you could be.

BUT the wait has been SO long -- no team over .561 since the '70's. That makes .500 look worse than it is because you feel like "this team is ALWAYS .500, except when it is worse, or a lot worst." Everybody in the NBA finds a way to get to 50 wins SOMETIME. Except this team.

I can't remember 4 playoff games in one weekend that were so awful and boring. I ended up flipping over to a lot of golf. I don't know what it is but the NFL product has been dreadful this year.

As I've mentioned, I do think the NFL has a pace-of-play and a ratio-of-action-to-dead-time problem with its core product that it is not facing. And it shows up even more in the playoffs because the games seem to take even longer.

Sometimes it's just that last extra 15 minutes (that's arrived in recent years in regular season) that makes you say, "Dull!!" But when a playoff game isn't close and it's even slower than that -- watch out. It's the sound of various devices being clicked off or switched.

BTW, I really enjoyed the NYG-GB game, even into the 4Q when it got out of hand, because the Giants looked like this was  a game that they should and maybe would win for the first 27 1/2 minutes. The drops by Beckham and Sheppard were big. But the Hail-Aaron was bigger.

BTW, I agree completely with Adam Kilgore's piece that the story/angle about the Giants receivers and "the boat" is actually saving them from harsher scrutiny. Come on, there's no way that partying one night, then going on a yacht in Miami on an off-day Monday the next day is going to impact how you play on the following SUNDAY. Yes, it's bad optics. Yes, you set yourself up for easy criticism. But what I saw was that Beckham had a very bad case of playoff nerves and bad hands as a result. For a fabulous player, he botches too many catches that are well within his ability. Maybe, under pressure, his remarkable quick-twitch skills become just a little too quick. That happens in a lot of sports. The quick player gets one click too quick for his or her own good. So, OBJ will get criticized for The Boat (and the other receivers he apparently invited along who also didn't play too well). But he may escape a word that is used a LOT in NYC -- other on back pages of tabloids when stars come up small. It is "Choke!"

It's a lot easier to say (to yourself), "Okay, I get it. No more 'boats' next time. Don't buy yourself an unnecessary problem." But how do you cure dropping a TD pass and an easy third-down pass. Or, in the back of his mind, is Odell thinking, "Do I have a 'drop' problem in big games? Or a problem in very cold games?" That's harder to get out of your head. (But I bet he will. Basically, I still like him, love to watch him and just hope he gets his temper -- which is a REAL problem -- under control before he hurts himself in some significant way.)

Hey Bos, I've never been to a P-Nats game, but care to join me if Dan Kolko and Jayson Werth win the bobblehead vote? I really enjoy the two of them (collectively and individually) and our collection is (sadly) missing the Werth gnome. If you cant make it, I couuuuld be persuaded to give you mine. Go Nats! Thanks for the chats, they get me though Mondays.

Sounds like you're going to have a great time. That's a good gnome idea.

I'm not a gnome guy. You are or you aren't, I guess!

I got a Herbert Hoover gnome one time, I think, when I went to a game with my wife and friends as a fan. I kept that just for the irony. How can you make Hoover -- ever hear of "Hoovervilles" -- a racing President? Then how can you give him a gnome? I guess ANY reputation can be rehabilitated, given enough decades and the length of the average American memory (now at seven minutes and shrinking).

Can we get a shout-out for JMU beating Youngstown State in the FCS championship game on Saturday in Frisco, Texas? As a somewhat jaded DC sports fan it was great so see such a superb performance by a (relatively) local team in a championship game. And so cool that 15,000 JMU fans were there to enjoy it. (As a side-note the FCS playoff format is perfect and hopefully a template to be copied by the FBS in the future.)

YES, we can. And even better, we can give a link to a JMU story by the best college football writer I've read -- Chuck Culpepper.

Note: I used to love college football for many years. Then the whole college game just seemed to get sleazier every decade -- it was always bad, even in my parents time they said college football players were often hired goons to represent their schools who never cracked a book. But it was like the levels of sleaze, and then the huge gap between who the schools and administrators took for themselves ($$$) and what the players got, just increased. So, college football got much less of my attention in recent times. Chuck is SO good and loves the subject so much that I never miss him and he's got me interested again.

Give me Clemson tonight. Lane Kiffin's career is such an all-purpose symbol of What Is Wrong -- how many ways can you get run out of town in one career -- that I feel like Nick Saban should pay some price for grabbing him as OC for three years and not thinking there would be any cost for associating with him. Now, Saban has to cut ties with the guy, because he is so self-centered/annoying, just days before the national championship game. Even though Alabama's strength (against most teams) is its defense, it still doesn't help to have a different voice calling plays against a team you only beat 45-40 last year for the same prize. A good college football fan said to me the other day that Kiffin might be the only guy to start at the top -- son of coach Monte Kiffin and an NFL head coach at 31 -- then fall, rung by rung, down the coaching ladder and fail everywhere -- until he may finally drop off the bottom of the ladder. And he's done it all by age 41 and with what is apparently a first-rate offensive mind for football.

That's it for this week. Thanks. We'll chat again next Monday at 11. Then I'll take some winter vacation. Feel free to think of that as "pitchers and catchers report" can't be TOO far away. Cheers.

In This Chat
Thomas Boswell
A Washington Post columnist since 1984, Thomas Boswell is known for the many books he has written on baseball, including "How Life Imitates the World Series" and "Why Time Begins on Opening Day."
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