Monday, January 18, 2010
The old NFL? Running to victory? Shades of Jimmy Brown.
UPDATE. I'll confess right up front that there's a conservative political bias in everything I'm about to say regarding pure sporting events. So discount away. But I think what I have to say is still meaningful.
Here in Mrs. CP-land, it was a great football weekend, notwithstanding the loss by the Ravens. With the sole exception of the Ravens-Colts outcome, the headline of this week's playoff games was the "Defeat of the Pundits." (Actually, even the Ravens game was a kind of pundit defeat, but I'll postpone that discussion till later.)
All told, four networks were covering these games. Each with an array of former players and coaches who are presented as, and have abundant credentials as, football cognoscenti. The NFL Network. ESPN. CBS Sports. Fox Sports. They all have a panel of experts who know absolutely more than we fans know about everything associated with NFL football -- the technicalities of offense and defense, the experience of being on the field as participants, the realities of the lockerroom versus the media buzz and the Vegas odds. We should trust them, shouldn't we? Believe them? Bow to their wisdom? Of course we should. But we don't. We have our own opinions.
Isn't this analogous at a very deep level to the difference between the progressive and conservative views of who should be making decisions in the United States? The progressives believe that the right combination of experts and education is superior to the ignorant opinions and emotions of the voters, who -- as in the current healthcare bill debate -- can and should be defied in order to do what's best for people who don't know any better. That's why government should grow and control more of our lives, because we're the ones who really can't and shouldn't be trusted.
Conservatives say, on the other hand, experts are never as smart as they think they are, and somehow or other, for whatever irrational reason, individual liberty and actions are more potent and productive in the end than a consensus of know-it-alls. Which is why a handful of experts can't be permitted to run everything based on the notion that they always know better than 300 million of the rest of us.
It's been said before -- we've said it before -- that sports are a microcosm of life itself. If the experts of NFL football were right, three of the four games played this weekend would have turned out differently. New Orleans, having lost its last three regular season games and all its 'momentum,' would have fallen to the offensive pyrotechnics of Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, and the Arizona Cardinals. Any other outcome would be unprecedented in NFL history; no team that has lost its last three games at the end of the season ever won a playoff game.
Dallas would have stomped the Minnesota Vikings, who struggled in itheir final regular season games, ominously repeating the record of Brett Favre's last season performance with the New York Jets. The 40 year old Hall of Fame quarterback may have everything else, but he no longer has the stamina to play a 16-game season without getting tired out and reverting to his career-long bent for interceptions.
And by the way, aren't the Cowboys completely AWESOME? the MOST talent in the NFL, the MOST ambitious owner, the MOST perfect timing in peaking just as the season ended and the playoffs began. Vikings = Roadkill of the Dallas Juggernaut. Did we mention that the Dallas Cowboys are completely AWESOME?
And, oh yeah, the Jets. Lucky win against the Bengals. Decent defense but no offense. Against the best offense in the league. Watch Philip Rivers -- good as Manning -- take them apart. It'll be ugly.
After a morning of watching all the pundits predict the annihilation of the Vikings, with so much emphasis on the ascendancy of "America's Team" (nostalgic much?) as Super Bowl favorite, man by man by man, that even a meticulous observer would have thought the whole Vikings team consisted of Brett Favre and the defense's front four, Mrs. CP congratulated me for my predictions of how the individual experts would predict the winners of the games. (I got all five of the Fox predicters right, man by man by man.) Then she said, "But there's a reason they actually play the games."
She was, as usual, right. Experts don't know shit about real life. The Vikings annihilated "America's Team," just as the momentumless New Orleans Saints had splattered the Arizona Cardinals. And then there were the Jets.
Another of Mrs. CP's phalanx of new teams replacing the Michael Vick Eagles. She likes that Mark Sanchez, just like she likes Flacco and Ryan, and Stafford, and the other baby quarterbacks. (I'm not jealous; I'm still trying to remember who it is that's old enough to remember the 'America's Team' con as well as I do.) Me, I don't care that much about Sanchez, but I'm enjoying two (two!) retro defensive teams that take me back to my own youthful NFL loyalties. (Hey! The Vikings front four. Gash us for ten yards, we'll retaliate with minus fifteen yards. Page Eller, Larsen, and Marshall.) And this Jets defense under Rex Ryan, son of Buddy Ryan. This morning, somebody on ESPN put it in perspective: nobody knows how much focus and determination it takes to play defense like this on every single play in a game, knowing that the offense can't even do that much with the advantages you get for them.
It's old-fashioned is what it is. Watching the Jets play the Chargers (whom I've never really liked, for no particular reason except an archaic prejudice against the airy-fairy, no-hit passing offenses of the old AFL) was like watching an oldtime NFL team do simple murder with a few plays run again and again on offense and a "we'll kill you" attitude on defense. It helps, I admit, that Rex Ryan is the son of the infamous Eagles' Buddy Ryan and his provocative football philosophy; the four things you need to succeed in the NFL are defense, defense, defense, and nothing else.
It adds a certain mystique that Rex Ryan apparently has one of his dad's old drinking buddies stationed up top to assess the viability of challenges, who responded to a clear challenge imperative last week and another this week by missing the play altogether because of a tricky darts shot in the booth. Not that Rex would ever mention such a lapse. He thought his punter's heart arhythmia last week was "funny." Funny, too, how things work out. Those who ignore the actual "foot" aspects of the game of football sometimes prosper. The ad hoc, 40-year-old Jets punter excelled last week, while the Chargers' all-pro, state-of-the-art field goal kicker melted this week when the pressure was really on. Ryan probably doesn't know about either of these developments. He smiles a lot. It's good to be dumb and happy. Like John Madden talking about Thanksgiving drumsticks.
Reminiscent of a time warp. Makes me feel young. Or at least younger. So I'm rooting for the Jets. But I'm also rooting for the Saints. And the Vikings. And the Colts.
Which is a first for me. There's never been a time when I didn't have a real rooting interest for or against in the final four teams bidding for the Super Bowl. From my perspective all the 'villain' teams are out of the tournament. No Patriots. No Steelers. No (consistently overpraised) Chargers. No Giants. No (johnny-come-lately) Cowboys. Wow. No bad guys.
I can live with a Saints championship (they've never won or come close). I could get a faint thrill from a Vikings championship (Purple People Eaters II won't make up for four lost Super Bowls in the 70s when I was an avid fan, but...) The Jets would be a huge and welcome underdog story, even though they're from New York. Hell, they've had to play in 'Giants Stadium,' lo, these many years. All of these would be great American stories of persistence, dedication, hard work, traditional values, and the typically American triumph of an inspired underdog.
And then there are the Colts. Which is a different kind of American story. I said earlier I'd explain why the Colts are also a defiance of the pundits, meaning conventional expert wisdom. Yes, the football experts predicted that the Colts would beat the Ravens. And they did. A win for them, eh?
No. Accepting that notion would also require ignoring a lot of other expert discussion that's been going on for weeks. For example, the Colts screwed up (Conventional Wisdom!) by choosing not to play their first stringers, including Manning, during their last two games. They were somehow culpable for not seeking the undefeated season the experts wanted. They were therefore riding for a fall.
Notice how the "momentum" argument has failed across the board throughout the playoffs, despite the near unanimous endorsement of the experts. I think this is intensely relevant to our current national predicament.
I'm not generally a fan of the 16-game season, but in one respect it's superior to the old 14- and 12-game seasons of the NFL It's more like life. It's too long to permit a single sustained arc of brilliance. Just that much too long. In real life, we never always win. We go through valleys, sometimes the valley of death, before we achieve the ultimate objective. In NFL football, toward the end of the season, it may be appropriate to take a breather, the way a prizefighter may take a round or two off before the championship rounds when he's well ahead on points. This isn't an institutional or cultural decision. It's an individual decision.
You see, in life, the points are never awarded for being undefeated. They're awarded for winning the supreme prize, which in NFL football is the Super Bowl. Yeah, I know Peyton Manning looked grumpy when he got called out of Game 15. Did that doom the Colts? No.
The rest of the team needed the rest. Maybe not Manning. The rules of common sense and experience and good practice and prudence and smart organization apply to everyone but the clear exceptions that are the backbone of American exceptionalism.
America is a story of democratic unity and tremendous shared effort. It is equally a story of individual genius.
That's why the pundits were also wrong about the Ravens-Colts game. They cast their punditry as a matchup of rosters, coaching staffs, strategy, and, yes, momentum. In those terms, one could argue the Ravens won. The vaunted Ravens defense did exactly what it wanted to do and what had suceeded for them during the season. They covered the Colts receivers like blankets. Ray Lewis had a great game. Ed Reed had a great game. There was only one difference. Peyton Manning. Who did exactly what he had to do to win. Throw perfect passes into the tightest possible coverage. And score critical receptions.
All of which is in stark contrast to the pundit debate I admit, guiltily, I listened to before the event on the subject of "Who is the best quarterback in the NFL? Brady or Manning?" This and that, that and this, to and fro, fro and to, but ultimately it has to be Brady because of all those rings. Just a coincidence that Brady has always been surrounded by a Bellichick team that always has the best players at every position. Three Super Bowl rings make you a better quarterback than one.
The experts know, don't they? Which brings me back to my main pundit point. And to a lot of points that won't be popular. There are only two greatest active quarterbacks in the NFL. Stats have nothing to do with it. It's all in the eyes. (And Mark Sanchez may get there eventually, but Flacco won't. Look at the eyes.) Manning and Favre. But most of all Manning. The teams around them come and go, and they will win or lose based on how well their teams rise to the occasion. But the critical issue is and will always be their command of the situation.
It's an American thing. Jerry Jones would never control Peyton Manning or Brett Favre. That's why he has Tony Romo instead. He'll never understand what he is missing. Why he'd be better off with Donovan McNabb. A quarterback who'd rather lose in the good graces of his boss than win because he can do no other. The difference between primo and secundo.
Why the experts are all, always, wrong. And simultaneously, what's so endlessly right about America. We have a unique national talent for producing Peyton Manning.
Which is why we all win no matter who wins the Super Bowl.