Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Benching a Legend

Chelsea are facing an interesting problem right now: captain/club legend/Mr. Chelsea John Terry is playing like utter dung. I've never been Terry's biggest fan. I immediately approach all English stars with the assumption that they are overrated by the English media. (I am rethinking that position with every goal that Wayne Rooney scores, now that he's playing with a proper winger instead of a preening ballhog [admittedly, a preening ballhog who scored 42 goals in a season].) Terry always struck me as a guy who played hard all the time and did flashy things like clearing balls off the line, but his positional sense was not perfect and he wasn't the quickest of central defenders. Rio Ferdinand would have gotten Terry's hype as England's best defender if he didn't have cornrows. Still, I was willing to concede that Terry was a good central defender, that he was a capable organizer of a backline, and that he was rock solid in the air.

This season, however, Terry's form has left him. His well-publicized dalliance with the mother of former best friend Wayne Bridge's child and his resulting shaming (including the loss of the captaincy for England) is clearly weighing on him, as strikers are beating him left and right. The Chelsea backline, which was the only defense in Europe to contain Barcelona during its treble-winning campaign, is now leaking goals left and right. This month, Chelsea bled two goals in a loss to Everton, two in a first leg loss to Inter, and then four over the weekend at home to Manchester City. Terry was directly responsible for conceding goals in each of the games. The Blues, who came into the month as favorites in the Premiership and one of the favorites in the Champions League, have now lost their lead in the former and will need to reverse a 2-1 deficit against Inter in the latter. In short, John Terry is blowing his club's chances at winning the two big trophies at stake.

Carlo Ancelotti's dilemma with Terry is interesting to me because it comes up all the time in sports and it is one of the most difficult to resolve: how does a team deal with a declining icon. Florida State went through a decade of declining results because they struggled with a resolution to Bobby Bowden's tenure. Penn State went through a similar funk in the first half of the aughts with Joe Paterno because Joe got the message and became the Queen of England. Moving from coaches to players, the Red Sox are going through such an issue with Jason Varitek and David Ortiz. The Yankees will go through such an issue with Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter. (Mariano Rivera, I'm convinced, is a cyborg.) The Braves went through it with Smoltz and Glavine and may go through such an issue with Chipper, although he appears to have the self-awareness that Bobby Bowden lacks and will take himself out of the picture if he can no longer perform. The Angels went through it with Garret Anderson. The Chargers just went through an issue with LaDainian Tomlinson. The Packers were going through it with Brett Favre before he arrested his decline in 2007. The Spurs may go through it with Tim Duncan.

For Terry and each of the players I listed (save for Ortiz), the difficulty for their employer is doubled by the fact that they are all homegrown. It's one thing to cast aside a mercenary who came to your team; it's another to bench a player who has never worn another uniform. As sports fans, we want to think that the players care as much about the colors as we do. That comforting thought/delusion is easier with players who come up through the youth team/minor leagues/draft. I have one Braves jersey and John Smoltz's name is on the back. I have three Barca jerseys: Messi, Puyol, and Iniesta, all of whom are products of La Masia.

It's easy to call for the benching of a player whose relationship with the team is purely business. It feels disloyal to do the same for players whom we believe to have some sort of familial connection to the team. It's like banishing a son. With crunch games against Inter and Manchester United coming up in the next month, it will be fascinating to see how Chelsea handles its slumping son.


Anonymous said...

Bobby Pentagonz says -

Grits - Have you been listening to the WSD premium stuff since they came back? The Graham Hunter interview today was fantastic.

Michael said...

Could you tell that I was listening to the Monday podcast before I wrote this post? I'll listen to the Hunter interview tomorrow.