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A spark in the dark


During the summer, I read a newspaper reporter's opinion that Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe was actually going to be better because he couldn't be any worse than last year. That's like saying he's going to be better because my Magic 8 Ball told me so. Clearly, in the harmless world of sports, that kind of flimsy logic is acceptable.

So is the premise of the "spark," which seemingly works to some degree, making it slightly more substantial than the Magic 8 Ball. When things go wrong, a team usually feels a natural urgency to immediately correct them. Fans regularly clamor for that. Trying anything is preferred. So teams constantly fire coaches. Coaches constantly juggle lineups. General managers constantly change rosters. Everything seems like an exercise in change for the sake of change, which hopefully creates some kind of Big Bang.

In real life, we're less inclined to do that. The US needed a spark in Iraq, but we returned President Bush to office. The New York State legislature needed a spark to simply function, but we returned most of the incumbents. Many of Rochester's top public corporations have needed sparks for the last three decades, leaders who could get in their executives' faces and raise holy hell like Bill Parcells. But instead, dull corporate characters operate the companies and they inspire... well, evidently, the boards of directors.

Bills coach Mike Mularkey said he turned to running back Willis McGahee for a spark. The idea that a player can be inserted in the starting lineup for the sake of spark is one of sports' most appealing aspects. Often, there is little reason to believe the new player will do any better (than, in McGahee's case, a former Pro Bowl running back such as Travis Henry). But people theorize that a lineup change will generally help everyone, bringing the team some funk-snapping refreshment.

I doubted McGahee, but he has mostly done well. Apparently Henry, a fourth-year running back who's rushed for nearly 1,400 yards and 13 touchdowns each of the last two seasons, isn't as good a fit in the Bills' offense as McGahee. The development surprises me.

McGahee is powerful enough to shed tacklers through a hole. He has speed to reach the edge and turn up field. He is nimble enough to fake defenders out for extra yards. His knee seems fine. I admit, he's fun to watch.

As for Henry, I suspect one of the major reasons he is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry --- down from 4.3 yards per carry the last two years --- is because the Plantar Fasciitis in his left foot is killing him. Generally, the lower an injury on a player's body the more debilitating it is, particularly for a running back. That's why a small injury such as turf toe can be such a problem, as it was for former Bills running back Antowain Smith.

You might think Henry is fine because he's not on the official injury report and he missed just one game this year. Don't be fooled. Plantar Fasciitis takes several months to heal. Henry is likely gutting it out, playing through pain as he usually does. To suggest that he's suddenly washed up at 26 is ludicrous.

We largely rely on sports to provide us with situations where we can arbitrarily react and demand change without sound reasoning. It's the one area in life where we can do so without genuine damage. If Bledsoe stinks, we want rookie J.P. Losman in there for a spark, even though he's never played in the NFL. We guess that he might be the next Montana. If Losman stinks, then we want Bledsoe back, believing that some sideline time will have miraculously cured his game.

The beauty is that there are never any real consequences. It's sad that Travis Henry might never be the featured back again, but it's not going to destroy the earth. Coaches, players, and general managers take one for the team on our behalf. They're certainly well compensated, but they experience public criticism that is the result of frustration and guilt stemming from our timid unwillingness to make changes in real life.

I'm certain things will change now that I've brought this to the public's attention. Besides, my Magic 8 Ball told me so.