February 12, 2014

Superb Owl Sun Day

  I had every intention of watching the Super Bowl last Sunday, but circumstances intervened: turns out the USA network was showing an episode of Law and Order SVU that I hadn't seen yet.

  Actually, I'm just kidding.  I had no intention of watching the Super Bowl.  I'll usually check in every so often to make sure I'm not missing a good game (I rarely am), but I have no interest in watching it.  It has become a media event manufactured around a sporting event, with the emphasis on "manufactured": and when the sports media is involved, you know it's a pile of shit.  It's not the first media event built around a football game - historically black college and university football games often end up being mostly excuses for killer halftime shows by the marching bands (like the Circle City Classic in Indianapolis that corresponds with the Black Expo) - but it's certainly the most obnoxious.

  But hey.  Forget about the chips and dip.  Forget about football-themed hors d'oeuvres, forget about paying north of 50 bucks for a team jersey that you will only wear once, forget about explaining football to the rube in the office who only watches one football game a year.  The Super Bowl is a de facto piece of crap, and all that surrounds it means that it will only be good in spite of itself.  Which, really, should be a surprise to no one, given the mechanisms which govern its construction.  It's not even worthy of even the most mild form of outrage . . . distaste maybe, but certainly not anything which would require any effort or thought.  Best to say "yeah, load of crap" and move on.

  Which brings us to the game itself.  Now, granted, part of the problem with the game is the two weeks of all-encompassing hype that sets a bar that almost no mere football game will justify, but that's not really the root of the issue.  No, the biggest problem with the Super Bowl is an issue that every professional sport will have to confront once it gets big enough to actually be milked for real cash: as a capitalist venture, the money will always be more important than the game.

  The NFL is falling prey to this in the worst way: every year, the schedule gets stretched out longer and longer.  Games get shuffled around, first to Mondays, then to Saturdays, then to Thursdays, now to both Saturdays and Thursdays along with Mondays.  Part of the appeal of the NFL to the general sports fan is how every game is a war, and most Sundays you will find each team going all out, giving everything they have . . . as opposed to, say, MLB or (especially) the NBA, which include so many games that not only is it unnecessary to go all out every night, it is actually counter-productive to do so.  This is not a new story: every capitalist venture, when it stumbles across something which will put more money in its owner's pockets, will go to the well until it is dry.  The "job creators" squeeze more and more productivity out of their workers to increase profits, while inanely reproducing old successful ideas until they are no longer successful (see the creep of Black Friday into Thanksgiving, along with the steady flattening of sales on Black Friday weekends in spite of the longer hours).  Sports, too, ignores the needs of their workers, and even the quality of their product, when there is money to be made . . . the players, to a man, hate the Thursday games, and there is (at very least) strong anecdotal evidence that the rate of injury is increased by these games as well.  And now, the NFL is trying to lengthen the season, again against the wishes of the players, who fear more injuries as a result.  Even beyond the decrease of the quality of the game due to attrition, the NFL is quickly putting itself in a position where teams are going to have to start sandbagging certain games, much like you see in the NBA, where you have some teams (like the Miami Heat) who don't start playing with any level of intensity until after the all-star break, and other teams (like the San Antonio Spurs) that practically concede a game every few weeks by sitting all their best players in the hopes that it will keep their legs fresh for the playoffs.  The die is already cast: the season is too long, the injuries are mounting, teams are already strategically throwing games (for example, sitting all their starters after they have clinched a playoff position or, conversely, trying out young players when the playoffs are finally out of reach).  The game is still attracting more and more fans through the desire manufacturing functions of its media hype machine, but the quality of the game is already noticeably slipping.  Already the hardcore fan longs for the old days; the day is coming soon when the decline in quality will show up as a decline in numbers.

  All pro sports seasons are already too long: the NBA should open Christmas Day and be done by the end of May at the very latest.  And there should be fewer games per week.  Baseball can afford to play the games as close together as it does given the nature of the game, but the season still needs to be shorter: games getting snowed out at either end of the season should be a freak occurrence, not a given.  Baseball should start on May Day and be done by October 1st.  NASCAR is another long one, but like MLB is a somewhat unique case.  Still, April to the end of October seems reasonable for the senior circuit; and maybe you run a winter racing league from November to March on the Southern tracks . . . you have a more concentrated season for the Sprint Cup, and you can showcase some of the up and comers for the media on the winter tour.  And hockey . . . . don't even get me started on hockey.

  Perhaps some of this is born out of my growing distaste for the game of football, but that turns the problem into a whole chicken/egg thing.  The NFL continues to grow, but the feet of clay is the health of the workers, which in turn affects the quality of the game itself.  The Super Bowl hype, annoying as it may be, is a symptom of a larger problem.

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  I was at work when the game started, so I did get to see a few series run by each offense.  I am a Peyton Manning fan, and I am rooting for him to squeeze in one more Super Bowl before he is done, and this seemed like the best chance.  Very early, however, it became clear that this would not be his day; while many point to signs, starting with the safety on the first play and extending to the Percy Harvin return touchdown return that started the second half, I saw an indicator much more subtle.  Manning, you see, seemed to be holding on to the ball an average of about three seconds longer than he normally does.  That meant 1) that his receivers were being successfully jammed at the line of scrimmage by the Seattle secondary, 2) his patchwork offensive line would have to hold off a pretty decent pass rush for longer than they were capable of doing, which meant 3) they would have to rely on a great game by a very average running back (Knowshon Moreno) to knock the Seattle defense off its mark . . . which, of course, they did not get. Brilliant as Manning is, and as hard as it is to knock him out of his game, once you do, he's done.  There's no Aaron Rodgers-styled roll out to extend the play, there's no Colin Kaepernick/Cam Newton sprint through the gaps to pick up yardage that can't be gained otherwise, there's no Ben Roethlisberger -type refusal to let a play die, there is no Brett Favre/Matthew Stafford gunslinging, no Andrew Luck improvising.  Good as Manning is, and he is clearly one of the greatest ever, he is incapable of forcing his will on anyone.  His game is predicated on the fact that you can't cover all his receivers all the time; and when you let one loose, he will make the play.  He lives on what you give him, and almost everyone gives him something.  The key to beating Manning is simple: you have to hit him before he gets a window open on one of his receivers.  Simple, but not easy . . . which is why Manning has had such a successful career.

  As it turns out, that extra three seconds was all the Seattle front four (they almost never blitz) needed.  Manning had a dreadful game.  Of course, he has to bear a lot of the blame, but the fact remains that if his offensive line played a little better, or if he would have had someone a little better than Moreno in the backfield, the outcome would have been different.

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  Which leads to one of the most dreadful discussions that the hype machine has been regurgitating endlessly since the end of the season: exactly how does this loss affect the legacy of Peyton Manning?

  I think that Manning is, at very least, one of the top five quarterbacks in the history of the game.  The reason is simple: he changed the game.  Or, to be more accurate, he started to change the game, and when the NFL rules committee saw how popular his pinball machine passing game could be, they helped him along with some rule changes to further advance his passing game at the expense of the defense (most of which had to do with contact between defenders and eligible receivers).  Before Manning, pass-first offenses were primarily a novelty (Air Coryell comes to mind), at least until Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, and the West Coast offense arrived in San Francisco.  But even the West Coast, a possession-passing offense with a necessary run component, is not as pass happy as Manning circa 2004, or Manning circa 2013.  And even when the West Coast leaned on aerials as much as the typical Manning offense, it was still a system which the quarterback had to execute.  No quarterback ever took the weight of the offense, from the design to the play calling to the execution, on his own shoulders to the degree that Manning does.  And while it is fashionable to point out Manning's big collapses, I find it remarkable that he is so consistently brilliant, given the task he has drawn for himself.

  It is fashionable to rank Tom Brady above him; but that doesn't take into account that Tom Brady wasn't that Tom Brady until after Manning started throwing the ball everywhere, and Belichick (the greatest coach of this era) was able to adapt the Manning offense to Brady's (very similar) skill set.  It is also fashionable to bring up Favre and Brees, though the criticisms they level against Manning (only one Super Bowl victory) holds here as well.  Of all the quarterbacks I can think of, only Johnny Unitas has a legitimate claim to being as important to the offense as Manning; and even then, I think Manning bore the heavier load.

  And yet, Manning has to answer for a sub-par playoff record.  Which, if you really look at it . . . .

  Wait, before I start: raise your hand if you have ever mouthed and/or actually believe the following truisms about football:  1) football is the ultimate team sport, 2) matchups matter, and 3) defense wins championships.  Got it?  Good.  Keep those hands in the air.

  So, let's start with the last truism first: defense wins championships.  I think, if anything, this past Super Bowl was a stark illustration of that.  Most of the infographics they show on Sportscenter Super Bowl Week blather support this, and I myself am a believer, even before this past reminder.  Perhaps only the Montana/Walsh combo was able to win it all with an offense significantly better than their defense.  With that in consideration, when has Manning ever gone into the playoffs with a defense that was better than average?  Never.  Not once.  So, the logical conclusion would be that Manning's playoff failures were more the responsibility of an Indianapolis front office that could never get him a decent defense.  You can't hold his playoff record against him.  Incidentally, Tom Brady, the cudgel people always beat Manning with, has looked pretty damn mortal in the playoffs lately himself, and again, I think that has to do with the fact that he hasn't been matched with a consistently good defense for several years now.

  As far as matchups, there has always been a certain kind of team that gives Manning fits, from the San Diego Chargers years back to Seattle this year: rough, physical defenses whose primary function is to take away the primary thing the offense wants to do (the Patriots under Belichick do the same, when they have the right personnel).  Again, you take Manning out of his game, he's done.  Seattle had the same success against Drew Brees, who is like Manning in this way.  On the other hand, Andrew Luck had some success against Seattle because, as one of the most adaptable quarterbacks in the league (there isn't one thing he does better than everyone else, but there are so many things he does really well), he could switch up his game if it wasn't working . . . if his receivers get jammed, he can roll out of the pocket to give them more time, if they try to bring more pressure from the outside, he'll tuck the ball in and run with it, etc.  I will not tell you that Luck is a better quarterback than Manning; but, as their teams are currently constituted, I would take Luck over Manning against Seattle every time.

  Which brings us to the first truism: football is the ultimate team sport.  The media is fond of putting the big team matchups in very personal ways, such as Manning v. Brady . . . and no matter how much folks point out that Manning and Brady are never on the field at the same time, no matter how much they point out that it is much more accurate to say Manning v. the Patriots defense and Brady v. the Broncos defense, the hype machine rolls on in its unabated idiocy, because that's what sells the ads.  The commentators drone on about Manning's inferior playoff record, without ever acknowledging that his almost superhuman ability to run an offense got a lot of teams into the playoffs that had no business being there in the first place (unlike, say, Brady, who won his first Superbowl as a game manager standing in for the injured Drew Bledsoe).  Manning has contributed more than any single football player I can think of to his team's ultimate success; it just so happens that he is so good at maxing out his potential every time he steps on the field that his failures clearly demark his ceiling.  Again: you give Manning a window before you hit him, he will make you pay.  If you don't, he's not pulling shit out of his ass Brett Favre-style.  That's who he is, that's who he always was.

  So where does that leave his legacy?  Well, as pointed out above, there are a lot of quarterbacks who can do things Manning can't.  But for every "how the hell did he ever make that throw" that the gunslinger (Favre, for example) completes, there are about ten incompletions, three picks, and an intentional grounding.  There are plenty of times I've seen Manning's game taken away from, but I've never seen him give away a game a la Favre or Tony Romo.  I'm far from being football-obsessive, so this is open to reconsideration on my part, but here's the most compelling case I can make: of all the quarterbacks in the history of the game, perhaps only Johnny Unitas has borne as much of the offense's load as Manning.  Perhaps only Unitas and Joe Montana have presided over changes in the game as radical as that which Manning has precipitated.  Perhaps only Montana, Dan Marino, Brady, and Drew Brees are as deadly and consistently accurate as Manning.  And, as a leader, he is clearly one of the best.

  I see only Unitas and Montana as QBs who have any claim at all to being better than Manning.  I see only Brady, John Elway, and Dan Marino as being his peers.  Someday Aaron Rodgers may be there as well, and one has to see a ridiculous potential for Andrew Luck to be some combination of Favre, Rodgers, and Manning.  Manning's legacy?  Maybe the best ever, certainly no worse than third.

  But hey, I'm biased.  I was well on my way to ignoring football again when I just happened to dial up the Monday night football game back on October 6, 2003, where Manning lit up a legendary Tampa Bay defense (at Tampa Bay!) for 21 points in the final four minutes of regulation to send the game into overtime, and then put together one last drive to take the game.  It remains, to this day, one of the greatest football games I've seen, and I was a Manning fan for life, and a pro football fan for as long as he is still playing.  The greatest ever?  I think so, even if I would allow two others to sneak in front of him.

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  But alas, we've come back full circle, to the hype machine.  One thing we can count on: the vast, overwhelming majority of sports commentary is just plain stupid and misguided.  Stupid, arrogant, and proud in its ignorance. It's not that I brook no disagreements re: Manning's legacy, it's just that they're so stupid in the way they discuss it.  Logic has no place in the sports reporter's arsenal.  But hey, that's no big deal, all you have to do is close the paper, shut down the computer, turn off the TV, right?

  Maybe not: you see, sports is still the most accessible common activity that we can share.  We were urged to participate in sports as youngsters so we could "learn important life lessons".  These "important life lessons" are unfortunately built around the same illogical "common sense" cliches that are currency at all levels of association with sport; and these "life lessons" become the tree that bears poison fruit in so many areas of culture.

  But that's a topic for another day.  I've already gone on far too long.

February 2, 2014

The Fives: My Five Teenage Guitar Heroes

  1. Jimi Hendrix
  2. Jimmy Page
  3. Jeff Beck
  4. Frank Zappa
  5. Ritchie Blackmore
Honorable mention: Robin Trower