Jon Reed Goes Off On... January 2007
Friday, January, 26 2007
Patiots 2006: Falling out of Grace with the Football Gods
Looking back on NFL playoffs 2006, I wanted to undress the Coors Light ad campaign, the one with the fake retro press conferences - perhaps the worst ad campaign of the 21st century. Each time I see one of those ads, I emerge a little dumber.
But with the shattering conclusion to Patriots 2006, the football gods are on my mind. There are those who say God has nothing to do with sports, and I can sympathize. There's nothing more insulting than the idea that some kind of all-powerful God takes time out from war and famine to monitor football games.
And yet I've been a sports fan all my life, and I can't shake the feeling that some outcomes are pre-ordained. Call it luck, momentum, or call it magic. It's Vlade Divac clearing a rebound as time expires only to have it roll right to "Big Shot" Robert Horry for a series-defining three as time expires. Two years later, it's Robert Horry's Lakers against the Spurs, exact same situation: but this time, Horry's shot goes halfway down the cylinder, thinks better of it, and heaves back up. Instead of tying the series 2-2, this time around the Lakers go down 3-1, and the Lakers dynasty - the one that was sealed by Horry's three point shot against the Kings - ends at the Spurs.
Legacies are altered in a single shot. The team blows up; Shaq heads to Miami where a young dude named D Wade is waiting. No, God doesn't have time for sports, but that doesn't matter, because sports have their own gods. The basketball gods were on Horry's side for a while, but then they weren't. Why they switched sides, nobody knows, but as usual, they switched with decisiveness.
There are no sports gods crueler (or more magical) than the football gods. Reggie Bush knows that now, after invoking their wrath by needlessly taunting Brian Urlacher during Bush's touchdown run. Reggie's Saints were soundly beaten and the football gods were appeased. Some would say that Pats Coach Bill Belichick invoked their wrath by refusing to shake hands with protégé Eric Mangini and later punking a photographer. Others would say that the Pats brought a karmic imbalance on themselves by celebrating on the wrong side of ugly after the Chargers win. But no one really knows when the football gods will respond and why they feel compelled to intervene.
As a long-time Pats fan, on the losing side of one of the great AFC championship games ever played, I'm getting to know those gods once again. My friend's teacher used to call them Mopa D, and Mopa D was very much in play with Indy-New England. Forget that New England was outmatched and flu-ridden. They were still a third down conversion away from a Super Bowl where the Bears would have been the least of the teams they had conquered. When Asante Samuel picked Manning and ran it back for 7 early on, you could almost feel that fourth ring slipping onto Patriot fingers, putting Bill Belichick on the Mount Rushmore of pro football coaches, with only Vince Lombardi next to him. And Tom Brady, already in the team picture of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, would have cropped that photo to include only himself, Joe Montana, and in some people's versions of this photo, John Elway and Johnny U.
But the gods did not smile on that outcome. For most of the first half, it did seem like Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy were destined for that unenviable "could never get over the hump" career category, but something shifted. The Pats got a weird penalty and Indy prevented them from going up 28-3. Suddenly, it was Red Sox down 3-0 to the Yanks all over again. Just as the Sox were better suited coming from behind, so the Colts derived a strange power from their big deficit. The Colts were no longer the favorites; they could now play with nothing-to-lose energy. Manning drove the Colts down the field and they scored a late half field goal; now they were down 21-6. The football gods cracked a smile; I felt a little sick inside.
Some fools talk about this game as a choke job; it was not that. The lead never felt comfortable enough to choke on. 28-3 would have felt comfortable, 28-3 would have been a choke, but 21-6 did not feel right. By the beginning of the second half, the Pats' "who is Eric Alexander?" secondary was well beyond "bend" and headed towards "break." You could feel that exhale as the Pats turned over their fate to a team ready to seize theirs by the throat. And the football gods - the same gods that did their part and more during the Pats' three Super Bowl wins - showed up on a different sideline this time around, as if they suddenly decided that sending two black coaches to the Super Bowl was a pretty swell idea.
Strange occurrences punctuated the appearance of the football gods. When the Pats needed a third down conversion to ice the game, Tom Brady looked to his joined-at-the-hip receiver Troy Brown. Troy picks this time to run the wrong route on a pattern he knows in his sleep; the ball is batted down. Earlier that same drive, the Pats face a key first and 10 and choose this time to have 12 guys in the huddle, the first time I can ever recall them getting that penalty.
First and 10 becomes first and 15, setting up that big third and four play, and the football gods chuckled. Fate was everywhere: Chargers game hero Reche Caldwell drops two game-changing catches after grabbing the key pass the week before. The sports destiny of Manning and Dungy has yet to be determined; the Bears will have something to say on the subject also. But on this day, legacies turned.
Being a fan is an investment that pays big dividends and exacts high costs. Losing is always hard, but not all losses are created equal. This was a mammoth loss a few beers can't annihilate, a loss that will make it hard to appreciate the season as the brilliant over-achieving success that it was. Idiots talk about how this wasn't a great year for Brady, or for Belichick. Wrong on both counts: Brady never did more with less. It was not a great statistical season for him, but the football gods hate statistics. Belichick had an excellent year as coach - his off-the-field conduct and personnel decisions raised a few question marks, but no one around here is calling for his head.
The Deion Branch free agent debacle looms large only because of the proximity of that fourth ring; you only get that close so many times. And the guys were Mt. Rushmore close, and not just to a fourth ring. Had the Patriots won it all this year, Bill Belichick would have had the most audacious Super Bowl run ever, proving that you can surround a great quarterback with spare parts and exiles and coach them right past superior talent. The improbable win over San Diego made it seem like team-of-destiny vindication was coming: all those who believe in team-over-ego were about to see an inspired exhibit of how the modern athlete can still be better than the sum of its millionaire parts.
But San Diego was not a prophetic victory after all - the Pats beat a team with better talent, but inferior discipline and coaching, and perhaps an inferior will to win. As expected, the Colts turned out to be none of those things, and for the first time in New England history, big Bill was outcoached in a big game by Tony Dungy, and the Pats team concept landed with a thud in the face of superior, well-coached talent.
The lesson Pats management should take into the offseason is that "Brady and spare parts" will get you into the post-season but not to the promised land; championships require more talent. But all that is put aside for now as we look back to a classic game, a game where legacies and coaching philosophies were brought to bear and the stakes could not have been higher. The typical viewer might not have been able to say why this game was so compelling, but the through-the-roof ratings prove it was so. And it was on that grand stage that the Pats gave a last gasp and almost pulled it out again.
But the football gods had shifted allegiances, leaving a loss that hurts in a way that people who don't love sports find more than a little absurd. And beyond that hurt is a mystical kind of wonderment, a knowledge that you can try to will an outcome, but destiny is as slippery as a football.
And that's how it is with Mopa D. When the stakes are highest, they slumber to life. A ball squirts into the end zone, someone falls on it, everything changes. You still have to give it your all; you still have to outwit/outplay/outlast, but Peyton Manning, author of a comeback for the ages, had the right idea when Tom Brady got his hands on the ball for one final desperation drive: pray. No, not to God, but to the football gods.
Wednesday, January, 17 2007
(Don't) Celebrate the Times: Stopping the NFL Taunting Epidemic
The New England Patriots are under fire from the grapesour San Diego Chargers for hurting their feelings. At least one Patriot danced on the Chargers logo, mimicking performance-enhanced Shaun Merriman's "Lights Out" dance that he himself uses to mock others. There was also some taunting outside the Chargers locker room that also hurt some feelings. One of many problems with the Chargers' stance: if wannabe "playmaka" Marlon McCree just knocks the ball down on fourth down instead of trying to selfishly and unecessarily "take it to the house," then it's "lights out" for the Pats and Shaun Merriman can dance all he wants. I'm a Pats fan; I can't say I was a fan of the Pats' post-game conduct. However, LT's attempts to defend Shaun Merriman's "honor" confuses me. So let's get this straight: it shows "no class" to mock a dance that is purposely designed to mock the opponent? It's "no class" to celebrate after a big win but it's fine to headbutt your opponent and brag about popping Tom Brady in the mouth? You're angry - but only at the Pats. You're not angry at your team for playing small when you came up huge. You're not mad at your coaches for only giving you seven carries in the second half, when you were killing clock and averaging five yards a carry. No, you're only mad at the Pats - for doing the same stuff your team does all the time. LT can bellyache whenever he wants, he's earned that - it just points to a bigger problem. As good as the NFL can be - and that game was a colossal clash straight from the Roman ampitheater - there are several problems that threaten to make the games unwatcheable. One is the intrusion of tacky corporate branding, a common subject in this weblog. Another is the over-the-topsmanship of blowhard studio hosts. Throw in gutless and uninformed "color" commentary as well, and toss in the FOX NFL robot. But the last set of storm clouds comes from the playing field itself, where the me-love-me-some-me celebration culture is creating a divide between those who like players who strut their peacock feathers and those who love great team ball. This is a league-wide epidemic - even the Patriots have guys who celebrate after plays that may or may not have an impact on the outcome. I wish someone would explain to me how guys can watch game tape later - of games they lost - and watch their dumbshit celebrations after plays that ultimately didn't matter. Perhaps there's an exuberance to today's NFL that we don't want to squelch. But a line in the sand, however difficult to make, is worth considering. The alternative is a constant "one-upmanship" where players celebrate idiotically irrelevant plays and settle for SportsCenter instead of championships. Newsflash to the Chargers: if it's ok to dance on an opponent after you take them down, don't be surprised if someone tries your dance on for size after they beat you.
Tuesday, January, 09 2007
Boise State 2, Common Sense 1, BCS 0.
The Score is now Florida 41, Ohio State 14. There are 4 minutes to go in the game, 4 minutes before the diminishing credibility of the BCS will fit on a postage stamp. The Ohio State-Florida game was supposed to settle the national championship. But all it did was give Boise State something to agitate about. Undefeated Boise State, BCS darlings - why have them play for a championship when they can just settle for going undefeated instead? Great game guys, and remember, you don't get to be a champion, but going undefeated is the next best thing. So who is the national champion? Is Florida better than USC? Is Ohio State better than USC? Would it have been a good idea for Ohio State to play a couple of tournament games instead of waiting six weeks to be rolled and spanked? Yeah, the apologists said, "The BCS worked, because it got us talking. As long as people are talking, that's good." Strange, I thought that getting people to actually watch those yawning bowl games was more important. But we should go easy on the championship game - the Blockbuster Total Access Halftime Show really was awesome. I'm glad that Blockbuster gave me "total access" to halftime, though odd that they would do that by blocking access to the show itself through an enormous logo that meant nothing. The BCS and ESPN and Blockbuster are great partners - monopolistic entities that ride their fat and happy partnerships right into programming mediocrity. We waited six weeks to watch Florida rack up 40 points? Couldn't they have just played Nick Saban and some Alabama high school kids? Can you imagine the kind of money and interest that could have been generated by a real playoff? And it would have had one more advantage: Boise State would not have gone undefeated. I have a friend who is fond of saying, "you are the lowest common denominator in all of your problems." Well, the BCS seems to be the lowest common denominator in most of college football's biggest problems. Settling a championship on the field doesn't seem like a huge intellectual challenge, but evidently it is. Dividing up billions of dollars makes college presidents a little ditzy. Let me help you out guys: two words...March Madness.