Predicting the unpredictable

Predicting the unpredictable
March 15, 2013, 1:30 pm
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“Predictable” is a label that we all strive to avoid. Whether it’s in romance, comedy or just about any walk of life, being called “predictable” is at best a subtle insult; at worst a direct attack on our worth as human beings. Predictable is boring and irritating. It’s consistent’s ugly cousin. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather be called a jerk, a heathen or a filthy beggar before I’m called predictable. In fact . . .


Didn’t see that coming, did you? Yeah, that’s right. I didn’t think so.

In sports, predictability is a death sentence. Not instantly, but unless you're Mariano Rivera, predictability eventually gets the best of you. It doesn’t matter how dominant your fastball is . . . if you throw it too often, you’re in trouble. It doesn’t matter how devastating your crossover is . . . go to the well too many times, and your pocket shall be picked. Bottom line: When the opposition knows what’s coming, their much more likely to stop it. And with constant advances in technology, predictability, tendencies and other strategic crutches are more exposed than ever. The element of surprise is more valuable than ever. And for the last month, we’ve seen this play out with the Celtics.

For all the yelling and screaming about whether the C’s are better without Rajon Rondo, or more, why they’ve played better without Rondo, the explanation from inside the Boston locker room has been pretty steady.

They’re just less predictable.

“Everyone is taking up the responsibility,” Doc Rivers said last month. “We don't really have one guy -- everybody brings the ball up the floor . . . and then our offense starts on its own. The first pass basically starts the offense. So it doesn't really matter who starts it and we've done pretty well with it so far.”

And it’s true. They have. Without Rondo, the offense no longer revolves around grabbing a rebound, frantically finding No. 9, and then having four guys fade to black while Rondo decides the team’s fate . . . every. single. possession. Instead, it’s about five guys playing together; trusting each other, their instincts and just playing basketball.

As a result, at least for now, losing the player they relied on most has made the Celtics a better team. A more complete team.

Now, let’s hope the Patriots can experience a similar fate.

The similarities between Rajon Rondo and Wes Welker are shaky on the surface. After all, the point guard is the quarterback, not the receiver. Rondo dictates the predictability, while for the last few years, Welker has only been an accessory. But there’s no question that both players are/were the focal points of what the opposition knew the Celtics and Patriots were going to do.

They knew that Rondo would start with the ball on every possession. They knew that, in times of trouble and even in times of not so much trouble, that Welker was Brady’s favorite target. In both cases, there was a singular focus in stopping the Celtics and Patriots. Cut off Rondo. Cut off Welker. Make life a hell of a lot tougher on the two local teams.

Of course, in the Patriots case, it often didn’t matter. While the Celtics predictability resulted in the team annually landing in the bottom half of the league in terms of offensive efficiency, the Patriots offense — regardless of how much Brady loved and relied on Welker — was a juggernaut. In the last three years, they’ve finished first, third and first in points scored. I mean, if you’re predictable and the other team still can’t stop you, then who cares? Why change? If ain’t broke, then yada yada yada.

But then there’s this:

Super Bowl XLII: Giants 17, Patriots 14

2011 Divisional Playoffs: Jets 28, Patriots 21

Super Bowl XLVI: Giants 21, Patriots 17

2013 AFC Championship: Ravens 28, Patriots 13

In the four most biggest, most devastating losses of the last six years, the Patriots offense has been stymied. And while that hasn’t always been a result of the other team shutting down Welker (he had eight catches for 118 yards and a touchdown last year against the Ravens) and hasn’t always been entirely the offense’s fault (if the defense sacks Eli Manning or Asante Samuel makes an interception or David Tyree/Mario Manningham doesn’t make the catch of his life, we’re not even having this conversation), the fact is that in the biggest games, against the best competition and against teams that are most familiar with/have the most time to prepare for the Patriots attack, they’ve been able to stop them. They’ve been able to crack the code.

With Welker gone, it might not be so easy. Because there might not be a code to crack. The defense won’t be able to go into a game thinking: “OK, if we can just stop Welker, Brady will get uncomfortable”; or “If Brady’s in trouble, just keep an eye on Welker, you KNOW that’s where he’s going.” Instead, they won’t know where he’s going, because Brady won’t know where he’s going. He’ll just read, react and play football. And to be honest, that’s when Brady’s at his best. When he’s not throwing to anyone in particular, but more, as the old saying goes, when “his favorite receiver is the open receiver.” When he’s not thinking about whether he trusts a guy before he throws a pass, but instead, just trusts everyone.  When, to borrow words from Doc Rivers, everyone is forced to take up the responsibility, and it’s not just about one guy. When, and in closing . . .


Eh, you probably saw that coming.