June 22, 2017

Standing in the pocket with Journeyman Joe

George Mason economist and Marginal Revolution blogger Tyler Cowen asks what the NBA success of Jeremy Lin means for evaluating talent, and the bigger question of how we make decisions in this chaotic world. Cowen’s The Great Stagnation received much praise in 2011 from David Brooks as Charles Murray gets this year for Coming Apart. Clint Eastwood did his best with the Chrysler Super Bowl commercial to help us believe the motor’s still good. The blown engine of blue collar America can be repaired. The commercial, with its lights and Hollywood effects, made an appeal to the soft sciences, the emotional side of the brain. The hard science brains are telling us those days are gone. They have the answers. They have the ball. They want to play quarterback and make all the decisions. The average Joe is going to get cut from the team in this post-modern world. Journeyman Joe doesn’t think well enough on his feet to compete in the nano technology world. Journeyman Joe was forced to listen to the high school football coach, some third string walk-on at a small Division Two college, harangue him about not doing things the right way. Then it was the foreman and the plant manager.

Now the scientists are offering life lessons to Journeyman Joe, the guy who cheated to get a C in high school biology. Journeyman Joe’s pocket is collapsing, his best receiver has gone down with a torn ligament, and the new coach’s game plan came from studying neuroscience, not game film.

Journeyman Joe misses the old days when the sportswriters were the neighborhood VIPs. He would have been thrilled if his kid studied journalism at the local community college and became a minor league hockey writer. What the hell is neuroscience? Joe asks, emptying a bag of Kars nuts, shaking the nuts in his hand before tossing them down. Wiping crumbs off his pant leg, Joe adjusts the La-Z-Boy and gets ready for the second half. Tom Brady is struggling in this game. His offensive line is banged up, forcing Brady to throw hurried passes that bounce off the turf. There isn’t a wide receiver within five yards of the pass. Free agency has robbed Brady of the old Mr. Reliable at wide out. He’s got to deliver the ball to some journeyman who hasn’t learned the precise route and when to break on a Brady pass. The world has changed, Mr. Tom, Journeyman Joe thinks.

“I think the hardest part about my job, Walter, since you asked, is that people expect me to make things better when I come,” Richard Ford writes in The Sportswriter.

Another commercial break. Journeyman Joe grabs the sports section. He’s always kept the sports page within arm’s length of the La-Z-Boy. The front page is dedicated in big black print to the latest robbery or scandal. The business reporters behave like they’re members of the country club with the Chamber of Commerce types. Journeyman Joe knows their pay. Those guys, making less than a minor league hockey writer, worship the CEOs like they’re Dwight Eisenhower saving the free world. Someone had to beat back the communists, and the minor league hockey writers were out of town half the time.

Third and eight and here comes the blitz. Brady steps in the collapsing pocket and takes a quick look across the middle for an open receiver. He knows they’re coming hard. Someone’s got to be open and Brady wants to punish them for getting greedy with the blitz. Brady cocks his arm and hesitates when the journeyman receiver doesn’t recognize the blitz. The hesitation opens up a line of attack for the speedy outside linebacker drafted in round four for just this kind of play. Brady never sees him.

Journeyman Joe gives up on Brady for this game and reclines in the La-Z-Boy for a Sunday afternoon nap. Both of his knees are hurting him. He couldn’t convince the wife to leave her church friends to winter in Florida. He was the star quarterback in high school. He could run a 4.5 40 which for a quarterback was big time athleticism. His coaches made the most of his talent. He ran the ball more than he threw  because his speed was a safe bet for the coaches. He had a cannon arm, stronger than Brady’s. But that speed made him different. The coaches ran him until he broke. He never could develop the passing skills because coaches relied too much on his speed. Then the coaches played him at middle linebacker, a defensive stopper like that Drew Henson kid who competed with Brady for the starting job at Michigan.

You could have been a star, the minor league hockey writer told Journeyman Joe. You and Drew Henson were better than Brady. And smarter.

Neuroscience research has got it wrong, the minor league hockey writer said. Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide uses Tom Brady as an example of smart decisions. The neuroscience experts believe Tom Brady made it while others failed because of his brain.

The minor league hockey writer argued Brady’s athleticism was the key in limiting the choices he had to make. He was a good enough athlete to get drafted in both baseball and football. But no one was pressuring him to hurry and make a decision like Drew Henson who was a true star in both sports. The coaches weren’t pressuring him to hurry and play when he came to Michigan and then New England. He always played behind excellent offensive lines that gave him more time to decide than smart quarterbacks on other teams. He could run well enough to avoid a sack but not well enough for the coaches to run him so much that he couldn’t focus on his passing skills. The high school quarterbacks who can run and throw have lower odds of playing in the NFL because their coaches don’t care about the kid’s NFL career. They want to win so they run them hard and neglect developing the skills they’ll need later.

Later is your problem, the minor league hockey writer told Journeyman Joe. You have to focus on the later. No one else is going to do it for you. This Will Make You Smart has just been been published. Brilliant thinkers from “the hottest fields” have written essays to improve the thinking of all the Journeyman Joes. Technology and double blind studies will aid Journeyman Joe to make smart decisions when his pocket, and world, collapses.

Richard Ford writes in The Sportswriter:

“‘What you’re telling me then, Frank, and I may have this all bum-fuzzled up. But it seems to me you’re saying this idea-‘ Wade arches his eyebrows and smiles up at me in a beatific way’- leaves out our human element. Am I right?”

“I think I understand, Wade,” Lynette says, nodding. ‘He’s saying athletes and all these sports people are just not too smart.”

They’re just smart enough to know the “truth wears off” in the fourth quarter, the seventh inning, the back nine on Sunday of the US Open, says the minor league hockey writer.

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