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Bob Ryan

Shaping up as the winter of our content

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / January 1, 2009
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They have given us our wintah back.

We basically slogged through the first decade of the 21st century without a professional wintah sports season, and who needed it? We had baseball from "Pitchers and Catchers" in the middle of February till, usually, well into October, at which point we'd be six weeks into the NFL season and our newfound loves, the Patriots. On a good year they'd carry us till the end of January, which left us with a mere two-week handoff to "Pitchers and Catchers," and off we'd go again.

Aside from the aberrational trip to the Eastern Conference finals by that '02 Celtics "Bombs Away" team, wintah and early spring simply did not exist. The Celtics and Bruins were of interest only to the ultimate diehards. It was all about baseball and football around here, or football and baseball, if you prefer. And we were fine with it.

But now, heh, heh, heh. We own the wintah. The Celtics are the defending champs and they have gotten off to a 28-5 record in defense of said crown. And the Bruins? Wow. We're looking at a team that is one point out of the league lead with 60 points, and has gotten there because it has a league-best plus-55 goal differential, which means they can both score and prevent goals and, oh, yeah, hit the bleep out of people.

Combined home record of our Boys of Wintah: 30-2-1. Hey, New Yawk! How do you like dem apples?

How great are things in Boston in the year 2008? The Patriots are the "worst" team in town.

As always, we shall address the State of the Teams in alphabetical order.

Bruins

Why we all love this year's Bruins: They put the biscuit in the basket.

They have scored five-plus goals 12 times, six-plus goals six times, seven-plus goals four times, and they've even had an eight. A year ago, they scored five or more goals just nine times in a season that saw them enter the playoffs as the only participant with a minus goal differential.

Of course, I'm quite sure the reason Peter Chiarelli and Claude Julien love this team is that it is equally adept at keeping the biscuit out of the basket. It starts, of course, with a determined two-way approach by the forwards, carries through the defense corps anchored by Zdeno Chara, all 6 feet 9 inches of him, and ends with what is - and there can be no argument at the present time - the league's best 1-2 goaltender tandem in Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez.

The Bruins' season eerily matches that of the 2007-08 Celtics, in that it has become a never-ending series of answering challenges. Can they do this? Can they do that? Can they win here? Can they win there? Thus far, all the answers have been in the affirmative.

They would love to add another veteran defenseman, I am sure, but since it's doubtful the Red Wings will let them borrow Nicklas Lidstrom for the playoffs, I guess Mr. Chiarelli will have to look elsewhere. But he's a Harvard guy, so we expect him to think of something.

Celtics

Start with this. The latest version of the Big Three had, at best, a three-year window to get it done and they took care of it in Year 1. So, no matter what transpires this year, no kvetching allowed.

Garnett is a man of frightening intensity. You wonder how he will channel his drive when he's done. Allen is a throwback professional gunslinging jump shooter, the 21st century Sam Jones. Pierce is the most potent individual offensive force in Celtics history. Not Havlicek, not Larry, not Kevin, not anybody who has ever worn a Celtics uniform has had more ways of getting the ball into the basket than Pierce, and I'm making that a nonnegotiable tenet.

The stories this year are the continuing improvement of the young'uns. Rondo's skill improvement is a given. What's equally notable is his demeanor. He's in charge of the offense, period. And again, he turns 23 in February! Perkins, whom I once thought was a killer backup, has evolved into what I call a Useful Big Man. A great player? No. But he is a very physical presence and he has much more offensive skill than people think. (One transition spin move to the hoop against the Jazz would have resulted in, oh, seven separate offensive fouls and a traffic citation two years ago.)

They might survive the Posey thing in the playoffs, but it's no secret they couldn't have won without P.J. Brown last season and won't win this year without the equivalent of P.J. Brown. I'm gonna guess Danny's working on it.

Patriots

I can't recall any local team offseason crisis remotely approaching the difficulty the Patriots have in resolving the Cassel/Brady affair.

We assume they are right on top of Brady's rehab, not that they'd ever tell us anything. But what if February comes and it's still iffy? You let Cassel go and hope No. 12 gets it all back? Meanwhile, is it unthinkable to trade a (supposedly) healthy Brady in a Herschel Walker-type deal? Just asking. For this reason alone, it will be a Patriots offseason like no other.

For what it's worth:

Yds. Pct. Yds./Att. TD/Int.
Brady '01 2,843 63.9 6.88 18/12
Cassel '08 3,693 63.4 7.16 21/11

At the end of the season, Brady won a Super Bowl and became a national hero, of course. Through no fault of his own, Cassel has to go home.

Scott Pioli or no Scott Pioli, the decision will be made by a combination of Bill Belichick and Bob Kraft. Good luck, gentlemen.

I'm not even going into the matter of contract extensions (e.g. Vince Wilfork). You'll hear all about it. No matter what the Brady/Cassel disposition, the team won't make another serious run for the championship without shoring up a defense that has simply not been able to stop good teams when it most matters for three seasons. They need more Jerod Mayos and they need the next Asante Samuel, not to bring up a sore subject.

There are two types of fairly good teams. There are true contenders and there are annoyances, teams that might beat a good team on the right day. Right now, the Patriots are an annoyance.

Red Sox

Did they botch the Mark Teixeira negotiations? People whose opinions I highly respect, such as my colleague Tony Massarotti, say yes. If so, I hate to hear that, because my working philosophy regarding the 21st century Red Sox is "In Theo I Trust."

Of course, we really don't know what's up with John Henry and his personal finances, and how that might impact Red Sox business affairs, do we?

What Sox fan doesn't know the issues? Is Big Papi aging rapidly? Can Lowell recover to drive in 95-100? Who catches? Is Lowrie a long-term answer at short? Can J.D. actually get 600, 550, 500, OK, 450 at-bats (he's had 500 once and his 11-year career average is 363)? Will Beckett report in shape and resemble the '07 ace? Should we be a bit concerned about Papelbon (28 more hits allowed in just 11 more innings this year)? Are we forever fated to watch Dice-K walk the ballpark? Will Ellsbury be the .300/65 SB/125 run guy some of us believed he could be? Are we asking too much of Wake? Is Lester now locked in as a premier lefthanded starter for the next 10 years? What to do with Masterson?

Here's what we do know: Theo Epstein has been right more often than he's been wrong, Terry Francona is the perfect man for the job, the talent supply has not been exhausted, and the Red Sox will win 95. They might need 105, but I'll guarantee you 95.

Oh, and the right side of the infield ain't bad.

Revolution

No tales of woe about how the Revolution didn't close the deal in the MLS Cup this year. They avoided all that by going out quietly to Chicago in the first round.

But it was another solid year for the Revolution, who are very much MLS establishment. The highlight was winning a significant championship, the SuperLiga, beating the Houston Dynamo on penalty kicks in the final. They were as good as anyone in the league through mid-August, when they hit a wall. They chugged into the playoffs minus their top three scorers, and if you want to call that an excuse for losing, I prefer to label it as a reason.

In a world where coaches barely get to know the route from their residence to the stadium, Steve Nicol gives the Revolution a rare sense of stability. He will enter his eighth year here, and it's safe to say the last thing a Revolution follower has to worry about at the start of any given game is the idea that his team will be outcoached.

The biggest bit of offseason news, is, sad to say, distinctly negative. Michael Parkhurst, a superb 24-year-old and the 2007 MLS Defender of the Year, has gone international, signing with Danish side FC Nordsjaelland.

The most welcome news of all would be an announcement that ground has been broken for Greater Boston's much-needed soccer-only stadium. Seven already are in operation in the MLS and an eighth is on the way. Let's hope Nicol gets to coach in ours.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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