I picked the Pittsburgh Steelers to go to the Super Bowl last season, and now I know why I was wrong. Coach Bill Cowher is too old-school.
"Everyone wants to be the new people that buck the trend, they want to be trendsetters," he told the Associated Press this week. "It's a great game, [but] we have too many trendsetters."
Cowher was referring to the growing practice of holding training camp at teams' regular practice facilities, rather than packing up the weight machines, the tape and the players and spending a month in a boot-camp atmosphere on some college campus in the sticks. Thirteen teams are staying close to home this year, five more than last year. And two teams, Denver and Tennessee, will actually let their players -- gasp! -- sleep in their own beds.
Cowher's club isn't one of them. "I'm more of an old-school guy," Cowher said. The Steelers are training in Latrobe, Pa., as they've done since the mid-'60s.
Perhaps it's this kind of thinking that's led Cowher's Steelers teams to go 4-7 in season openers, not too impressive for 11 teams that have averaged a 10-6 record. In the first four games of the season, Cowher's Steelers are 24-20, a .545 winning percentage, more than 100 points lower than their .648 winning percentage over the last 12 weeks.
Could it be that it takes the poor Pittsburghers a month to recover from their old-school training camp?
Well, probably not. But if I'm looking for a reason not to bet on a guy, Cowher's comment is a good place to start. To dismiss an idea just because it's new is a pretty good way to get yourself beat, especially in the ever-evolving world of professional football.
The argument for boot-camp style training camps is that they build team chemistry. "As a player," says Titans coach Jeff Fisher, an advocate of the newer approach, "I never understood how, when you loaded the car up with the quilt your grandmother made and the box of cookies and the boom box and the TV and drove three hours to camp and moved into a dormitory and shared a bathroom facility with 12 other players and roomed with another player for a month, how that translated into chemistry."
I'll take that a step further and say that team chemistry is a lot of hogwash in sports. It's something like a superstition. It's a handy explanation when a team performs better or worse than you thought they were going to: Well, they had great/lousy chemistry. It's bunk.
"Let's just start off with the Marine Corps," says Jacob Hautaluoma, a Broncos fan and professor of organizational and social psychology at Colorado State. "It does work. The whole business about initiation rites and severity of initiation, there is evidence that indicates [that it produces positive results]. And one of the anomalous findings about a lot of this stuff is that the worse you make it, the better it seems to be in terms of attraction to a group. So it looks like it works backwards."
Hautaluoma says that's explained by dissonance theory. The human mind has a tendency to want to make sense of things, so when you're trying to figure out why you went through some lousy experience, you make sense of it by saying, "It must be because it was worth it," he says.
Maybe a good idea for Marines who'll have to attack a machine-gun nest, but who needs chemistry on the football field? Run your route, react to the ball, follow your blocking assignment, cover your zone. Even if you can't stand the tailback, you're still going to block for him, because what's best for the team is obviously what's best for you. Even if your motives are selfish, the results are the same.
Brutal, dorm-style training camps, complete with rookie hazing and bed checks, are a lot like those dumb work "retreats" some boss of yours may have subjected you to if you're unlucky. (Hold those letters, psych majors -- I've never had to go to one of those retreats, so I'm not just riffing from bitterness here.) It makes the bosses feel like they're doing something when they've got you out there in the woods singing crappy songs and playing capture the flag. We're team building, they tell themselves. The employees would rather be at home acting like adults, but they put up with it because they have to.
Hautaluoma -- after reminding me that as an organizational psychologist he works on just those sorts of team-building processes -- says that treating the workers the way they want to be treated and treating them like animals that need to be broken "both work, but they work under different circumstances."
"Which is better? The book is a little bit out on it. There are some pluses and minuses," he says. "You've got to figure out what kind of people you have there."
Assuming they work just as hard at their home practice field as they would in the boonies, there's no reason to treat professional football players like children and hustle them off to summer camp, removing them from their lives for a month. Would you work better the rest of the year if you had to do that? I wouldn't. I bet they don't either.
"There is a literature that applies to it," Hautaluoma says, patiently, "but then there's also the other side too. I could easily argue for both points, I honestly could. But I think I would argue that if you really need the discipline, you almost need to put people through something they don't want to have to go through."
"I wouldn't advise every manager in the world to give people hell when they hire them because that's going to make them like the place better," he adds. "I mean, that would be stupid advice. But doggone, it does work under the right kind of conditions."
My first prediction of the 2003 NFL season: The Steelers won't win it all. Never let it be said that I won't go out on a limb.
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Summer reading [PERMALINK]
If training camp news doesn't excite you, there are a couple of great new baseball books that can help get you through the summer doldrums, especially if you're into the game's history.
"Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," by the ESPN baseball columnist, is bathroom reading of the highest caliber, and that's no backhanded compliment in my world. It's the kind of book you can pick up and pass five happy minutes with, or lose a whole afternoon.
Neyer lists, with comments, an all-time lineup for every team, plus a runner-up lineup and various other collections. There's the homegrown team, the Gold Glove team, the iron glove team, the all-rookie team, the traded-away team, the all-bust team, the used-to-be-great team and the all-name team, for every club. And Neyer provides a little sidebar essay focusing on some player or issue for just about every list, plus a longer essay for each team, all in his readable, thought-provoking style.
What would you pay for that? But wait! There's more. An appendix lists every single team's starting lineup, every single year. If you're a baseball junkie, get your reading glasses out. It's tabular material that'll have you mesmerized. Did you know the Reds only had 10 regular shortstops from 1943 to 2002, and four of those only held down the job for one or two years? Name that tune: Ken Hunt, Albie Pearson, Jim Piersall, Jose Cardenal, Vic Davilillo and Jay Johnstone. (Angels center fielders of the '60s.) I could go on.
Full disclosure: I've never met Neyer, but we have exchanged occasional e-mails.
The other good one is "The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign Stealing Have Influenced the Course of America's Pastime" by Paul Dickson, the author of "The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary" and lots of other books, not all of them about baseball. (I interviewed him about his book "Sputnik" in 2001.)
Dickson backs up to the use of signal flags in the Revolutionary War to begin his story of nonverbal communication. It's interesting, but the best parts are the sections about stealing signs, and the complicated ethics involved in the activity. Some forms of stealing the other teams' signs are simply part of the game's give and take, while others -- mostly those involving people and devices outside the field of play -- are frowned upon.
One chapter deals with the 2001 story in the Wall Street Journal that the 1951 New York Giants, authors of the game's most famous pennant-race comeback, had benefited from a complicated sign-stealing scheme that involved someone spying on the catcher with a telescope from the center field clubhouse and then using a buzzer to signal to the dugout about the coming pitch. Dickson makes an interesting point about the story, which had been circulating since the early '60s: As much as it's considered unkosher, there was and is no specific baseball rule against such a system of sign stealing, though it's considered unethical because the home team has a better chance of setting it up. And there's also no conclusive evidence that using it helped the '51 Giants down the stretch as much as their great pitching did.
Oh, and by the way. You know that immortal Cubs double-play combination of Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers, of Tinker to Evers to Chance fame? Dickson reminds us that they didn't speak to each other after 1907. They played together (checking Neyer here) through 1912, winning two pennants and a World Series in those last five years.
Team chemistry, no doubt.
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