Is Chaim Bloom under the most pressure in Boston sports?
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Pressure, in a non-scientific capacity, is defined as “the use of persuasion, influence or intimidation to make someone do something.” Given the history of the city’s teams, not to mention expectations and passion of the respective fanbases, one could say any and everyone associated with Boston sports is under constant pressure to perform. After all, this is the city that vultured the nickname of Titletown (soon to become “Entitled Town”) with the run of playoff appearances and championships this century. Greatness is not just welcome, it’s expected in Boston sports.
But hard times have fallen on The Hub of the (sports) universe. It’s been almost five years - FIVE YEARS - since the last championship in town. And while the team with the best shot to end the title drought is the area’s upstart major league rugby franchise, the New England Freejacks, we are almost a half decade removed from any of the four major sports taking it to the duck boats. The Celtics have come close, very close, several times. The Bruins have too, but they’re still reeling following this season’s inglorious early playoff exit. The Patriots won the most, and have been a shadow of their former selves since someone took their talents to Tampa. And the Red Sox…who knows what the plan is just off Landsdowne Street.
Each of these teams is facing various degrees of pressure to perform, achieve and accomplish now. But which player, which member of the organization is feeling the heat, the heat of a potentially hot seat more than any other on their squad or in their locker room? For the sake of a slow period in professional sports, let’s discuss.
We begin with the Red Sox, now officially at the halfway point of their up-and-down, topsy-turvy, underwhelming yet as-expected 2023 season. A .500 ballclub or thereabouts, their last title came in 2018, a wagon of a team and season that saw then-GM Dave Dombrowski assemble a squad that brought Boston its fourth World Series title this century.
Since then, thanks to a series of bad contract extensions, injuries, dismissals, poor negotiations, lopsided trades, scandals and COVID, they’ve kinda stunk. Sure, there was the unexpected ALCS run of 2021 where the Sox, who qualified for the playoffs on the season’s final day, made it all the way to Game 6 of the ALCS, bumping off the Yankees and Rays along the way. But ask any Sox fan and they’d likely tell you that the time since the 2018 World Series has been a letdown.
Who’s to blame for the woeful performance, a team just a dozen games over .500 over the past five seasons? Some will point to ownership and say John Henry and company have likely tightened purse strings and ordered the trades or non-signings of stars like Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Nathan Eovaldi, Kyle Schwarber and many others.
Those deals have been executed, however, by chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, who might sadly be the closest figure to Public Enemy No. 1 in Boston right now. Whether Bloom is executing the want and will of management to a tee, or trying to terraform the Red Sox into a higher priced version of the Rays from a few years ago, neither is working. Franchise favorites are gone. The current roster is a mishmash of injured veterans, out-of-position tryhards and taxed gamers who can’t hack the rigors of 162 games, let alone in the highly competitive AL.
The “buy or sell” debate will be the new “Tastes Great! / Less Filling!” of New England this summer. It will continue for the next month, but this team turning things around soon is a pipe dream. While some stats might suggest they can still make a Wild Card push…2023 should just be about future development (sigh, again). The wins of this season would be to see the development of core players of the future like Brayan Bello, Masataka Yoshida and Triston Casas, even Tanner Houck if he recovers from his facial fracture surgery following the liner he took in the middle of a great game vs. the Yankees (sadly a true 2023 Red Sox moment if ever).
Their “discount rack” approach to assembling a team around these future stars will likely fall short. You can only ask the Kikés and Pablos and Duvalls and Arroyos to hold up for so long before their own history surfaces. And while Marcelo Mayer, the Double A whiz kid (currently baseball's fifth-rated prospect) will soon inject life into the team, he too will have an undue amount of pressure on him to turn things around and be a savior. He needs time, something I fear Chaim Bloom may not have if his efforts fail and this team has a losing record again.
Next, we make two pit stops at TD Garden. First, let’s address the Celtics, visitors to the Eastern Conference Finals five of the past seven NBA seasons, with one NBA Finals appearance to show for it. That alone is maddening enough (they really are the Philadelphia Eagles of the 2000s of the modern NBA). The Cetics have had more success, generally speaking, than about any NBA team not named the Warriors if you count playoff rounds.
But still no banner, no Larry O’Brien Trophy since 2008. Another Eastern Conference Finals disappointment, again to the Miami Heat, led the front office and president of basketball operations Brad Stevens to shake things up. By trading franchise and fan favorite hustler Marcus Smart, an organizational centerpiece for nine seasons in essence, for forward Kristaps Porzingis and his unique array of offensive skills, the chemistry shakeup many thought this team needed has been triggered. Now second-year coach Joe Mazzulla has what he likely covets, in addition to a competent and veteran coaching bench, in a unique trio of stars that can score the basketball from anywhere in any direction.
An argument can be made that now, with the loudest voice in the locker room in Marcus Smart gone, pressure mounts for Jayson Tatum, THE man on the Celtics, and Jaylen Brown, possibly the best second guy in the NBA (and both All-NBA players in 2022-23), to rise up and win their first championship. They have pressure on them, as does likely starting point guard Derrick White and others in green.
But Tatum and Brown will likely be here in Boston on enormous and lavishly expensive contracts for years to come. And PBO Brad Stevens has done a good job by ownership’s account all over as well. The pressure this season likely will land on the shoulders of second-year coach Mazzulla, who now has a team more offensively capable and dynamic to execute his vision to its fullest. He has the coaches and brainpower to help him develop personally and guide the team. Those coaches, Charles Lee and Sam Cassell especially, are quite capable and potentially in line to take over should he falter.
Mazzulla, for someone who 10 months ago couldn’t have imagined he'd be an NBA coach, let alone someone who’d have been to an Eastern Conference Finals as coach and now returns as NBA favorite all over again? He will be under a surprising amount of pressure in the coming season. Just ask our own Andy Hart, who likens Mazzulla to other sports’ greats in a unique way already. Can he be the reason the team finally reaches its ultimate goal?
Now, the other team in the Garden…no need to further shame the Bruins. We all feel badly, and they know what slipped away, or what bounced away and what was ultimately taken from them. All NHL Awards they took home the other night were appreciated and earned, but had to sting a bit given what they accomplished in the regular season, something no team had ever done before. Especially for first-year coach Jim Montgomery.
Monty inherited a perennial playoff contender from Bruce Cassidy, who went six times in a row but never punched through for the B’s. How cruel and ironic that Cassidy went a seventh straight time to the NHL Playoffs, and this time broke through, just for another team in Vegas (but hey, how about that Cup coming back to the Cape this summer!) With Montgomery’s gentler hand the team soared to the best regular season ever, looking to be the long-term answer. However, the B’s fell out of sorts in the playoffs, falling seismically below expectations as they got out-hustled, out-toughed and outplayed by a game Florida Panthers squad who skated their way to a Stanley Cup Final…and second-place finish thanks to Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights. That’s gotta leave a mark for the best coach of the year.
Now comes the tough part; working with GM Don Sweeney, who already salary dumped one of their better scorers in Taylor Hall, and still has work to do all over the ice to fill out the roster and keep the team competitive. Monty showed he could handle a loaded roster, but he also may have ridden them too hard in the end, not throttling back when they needed to gear up for a Cup run, not some regular-season accolades. The team will return a decent array of players from last season but will no doubt look different. It’s nice to hear the rumor Milan Lucic may return, but David Krejci is likely done. We don’t know if Patrice Bergeron will make one final run for the Cup himself…though he has nothing left to prove, and still can play at a very high level (a sixth Selke Trophy speaks to just that). David Pastrnak is still early in his prime. Charlie McAvoy anchors a sturdy defensive unit. Linus Ullmark just won the Vezina, but could find himself with a value at its highest, between the pipes for someone else next season, giving way to Jeremy Swayman.
Montgomery and his team folded under the pressure and weight of great expectations recently. How Monty handles these changes on the roster as well as bounces back from such a huge disappointment will show if he’s the long-term answer…or maybe an outlier last season who’s not cut out for the black and gold after all.
Finally, to Foxboro…home of your six-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. A .500 team since the QB involved in those six title games that went the right way (among others), left town. The big debate was always, “Was the Patriots success about the coach or the QB?” While we’re not gonna entertain that debate now, a coach or QB debate once again asserts itself; is it Bill Belichick or Mac Jones that is under the most pressure for the Patriots in 2023?
At first the very idea of the legendary mastermind behind the Patriots’ double dynastic run and greatest NFL coach ever being under more pressure than his embattled third-year QB sounds preposterous. But after you take a second look, and look past the banners and rings and accolades…you see a coach who’s got the attention, for the wrong reasons, of his owner, who wants playoffs again, and his fanbase, who are wondering what he’s thinking. Especially after the Matt Patricia offense, which was more offensive than anything.
NBC Sports Boston’s Tom E. Curran, who’s a believer in this team’s talent, sees a squad that might not be tuned in like they should, which could leave Belichick square in the sights of ownership if the team underwhelms yet again. No doubt Belichick is feeling more heat to help the Pats return to something resembling the Patriot Way, which is why trusted lieutenants like Bill O’Brien have been brought into the fold and given much responsibility.
Which leaves us with third-year QB Mac Jones, who’s had one of the more unique careers in the NFL to date. His rookie year was terrific where he became a local sensation, easing the sting of Tom Brady’s departure and subsequent Super Bowl in Tampa, going 10-7, reaching the playoffs (we’ll forget that outcome) and showing strong promise for a healthy future in Foxboro.
Then came the 2022 debacle, for which everyone deserves a red shirt/mulligan/you name it. Jones faltered under the Patricia/Judge plan, and his intense and competitive ways got the best of him. He threw tantrums, went behind the back of the coaches to seek offensive help, clashed with coaches, questioned the scheme and plan…all of which reportedly aggravated his head coach, leading to worsening conditions for all.
Now it’s clean slate season, or so Bill O’Brien proclaims. The roster is better, but not world class (just ask ESPN’s Bill Barnwell about the weapons). Mac is healthy, by all accounts looks better, wants to earn the respect of everyone on the team and in the building and should be poised for a bounceback. Questions linger on offense about the skill positions, and especially the offensive line. Any roster shortcomings won’t be his fault, but his demonstrative and at times immature behavior from last season will be held against him if he fails to reach if not surpass his 2021 level.
The pressure for Jones to perform seems commensurate to that of his coach…but the coach can still lean on his heralded defense for acclaim, even though wins and losses matter most. And wins and losses will largely be influenced by Mac and his game. Belichick has the resumé, while Jones is looking to rebuild enough of one to stay in the league, get a second contract and prove Kirk Herbstreit right. Bill might feel the pressure more than ever, but Mac Jones is under it the most this season. If he plays well then this is all a moot point. If not…Jerod Mayo’s New England Patriots could potentially look a whole lot different in 2024.
There you have it; your Mt. Rushmore of people under pressure for the coming year in Boston sports: Chaim Bloom, Joe Mazzulla, Jim Montgomery and Mac Jones. A GM, two coaches and a QB. Look, nobody has it easy and there are plenty of worthy candidates on each team from owners box to sideline, dugout to box. It’s Boston. Pressure is what this city does, usually accompanied by winning. If the latter element returns, then no worries and we might be singing a different tune and making different more pleasant layoff type plans come next January and June. If not…we might be singing a different tune about pressure, one Billy Joel made famous 40 years ago when there really was no pressure in Boston sports at all.