Monday, January 16, 2017

A Few Thoughts On The NFL Playoffs

While NFL ratings are down this year, and there are some signs that the peak of pro football's popularity may have passed, you'd never know it around here. My own fan demographic, those that follow the Bills, moved past "long-suffering" ages ago, and now tend to compete with one another in "Can you top this?" moments and insights--after all, ineptitude of this magnitude is historic, and we are in a perverse way almost privileged to see it. There is a fairly substantial Bills fan base around here, too; geographically, they are the closest team to Binghamton. But this is still overwhelmingly Giants country, and with that team returning to the playoffs after a five-year absence this year, there did seem to be more-than-usual interest in the NFL season. But in addition to the Bills, there are still small-but-vocal groups of the three teams with the most devoted national followings--the Steelers, Packers,and Cowboys--that were also in the playoffs this year, and there are also enclaves of Patriots and Eagles fans around here, too, along with the usual front-runner types that have discovered their inner Bronco and Seahawk leanings in recent years. So there is a lot of football talk on social media and in general conversation. The Giants were one-and-done this year, and the Cowboys lost yesterday to the Packers, but the Steelers, Patriots, and Packers are three of the four teams left, and so it will likely lead to more interest than usual right up to the Super Bowl.
And of course, I have some thoughts:
1) The Giants' exit was dominated by that fascinating combination of all-world talent and remarkably abrasiveness and sense of entitlement, Odell Beckham, Jr. Beckham caught a lot of flak before the game, when he and a number of his teammates flew to Miami on the Giants' off day and had a blast with celebrities on a party boat. And as much as I don't care for Beckham, I find myself leaning in his direction on this one. What anybody--anybody--does on their days off is their own business. Pro football players are not "normal" employees, either; their job is physically taxing beyond comprehension, the mental pressure is unlike anything anyone in the usual employment world is ever going to face, and their professional life span is measure in years, not decades. Beckham and his friends, by all accounts, were at work when they were supposed to be on Tuesday morning, and although the Giants lost, their performance in the first half of the Packers game puts the lie to the notion that the team was "unprepared" or "unfocused." The Giants thoroughly outplayed the Packers for 25 minutes, but only led 6-0, and that is the reason that the game was lost.
This happens every year in the playoffs, often more than once. You can't march up and down the field against another top-shelf football team, and come away with field goals or turn the ball over. You have to go for the jugular. The Packers-Cowboys game illustrated this perfectly; the Packers did everything right in the first half, led by 18 points at one juncture--and still needed a field goal as time ran out to win. And the inability to put teams away was something that plagued the Giants all year, and Beckham, as much of a lightning rod as he is, is certainly not the reason the Giants did not win. Giant fans don't really want to hear it, but their biggest liability is behind center. Eli Manning, whatever he has been during his career, is not a top-level quarterback anymore. That's not a real knock; he's 36 years old and has had a real good (I'm not going to call it "great"; he's been good enough to be in a position to be very fortunate, and there have been far too many times when Manning has hurt his team to call him "great") career, but the best is in the past, and he's not capable of beating three or four good teams in a row anymore. And the Hail Mary at the end of the first half was a stomach punch; you could just see the air go out of the Giants. Beckham's boat trip has zero to do with the loss. Zero. If you don't like Beckham because his personality is excessively self-absorbed, because of his immaturity, and because he tends to lose focus on the field when the going gets tough, that's legit--but you don't have to make shit up to buttress your feelings. And a sure way for a franchise to lose its way for years at a time is to start blaming their best players for the team's shortcomings. The Giants need a better offensive line, better quarterback, and better running backs to become a true Super Bowl contender. And if you want to look at the receiving corps closely, Victor Cruz is clearly not the same player he was four or five years ago, and they need a better tight end than what they have. Beckham, as much of a dick as he appears to be, is not the problem there, not even close, and wouldn't be if he spent his off-days trolling Bangkok's red-light district.
2) I know Derek Carr, according to the media, is one of the best young quarterbacks in the game, and I guess it was sort of heartwarming to see the Raiders return to the playoffs after a 14-year absence (actually, that's another long-dormant fan base that is starting to become visible again). But am I the only one that saw the Houston-Oakland game and thought, "How the hell did this team win 12 games?" That team on the field was awful, Carr or no Carr. I will make a bet with anyone right now that the Raiders will be fortunate to win as many as they lose next year.
3) I saw the Dolphins play a few times on television this year, and I know that they are better than they showed against the Steelers. It looked to me like they were simply overawed a little by being in the playoffs, and Pittsburgh is better than they are, regular season result notwithstanding. But the game did show off one other thing that is a must for playoff success: the biggest reason that teams lose games, playoff or regular season, is when defensive players in a position to make them miss tackles. When you are playing against some of the best offensive talent in the game, you have to bring them down when you first make contact with them. If you don't, you lose.
4) I have never, ever liked the Detroit Lions, dating back to the early 1970's and my time as a Vikings fan. And this is another team that was very fortunate to be in the post-season this year, and has very little chance to return there this year.
5) Houston is an interesting team. This is about as good as a team can be without an NFL-level quarterback on the roster, and they were as successful as they were this year with the best player in the NFL absent for the last 13 games. It doesn't look like there is a top-quality quarterback available to them in the draft, either. But I'm going to say this: if Tony Romo ends up on this team next year, they are quite possibly Super Bowl material, especially if Watt comes back and plays like Watt.
6) Kansas City is another interesting team. What has happened here is that history is repeating itself. Andy Reid built a perennial contender that couldn't get over the hump in Philadelphia, and this team is playing out to be this decades's version of those teams. And it isn't obvious what the final ingredient needs to be; the team doesn't have an obvious weakness. I guess that you can start to look behind center there, too; Alex Smith isn't horrible, but he isn't going to get any better and he's not top-shelf. I suppose that if circumstances broke right, he might win a championship; after all, Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer have Super Bowl rings. But you can't bet on that.
7) The Seahawks' moment has passed. It was always hard to reconcile their excellence with the idea that Pete Carroll was the architect of a winner; too many of us remember Carroll as the limited coach of the Jets and Patriots. And while I normally shy away from the notion of sports-as-morality-plays--I have grown to HATE this team. The sad part is, the way this team is set up, I was prepared to love them. I played defense when I played football when I was young, and I don't like the way the game has evolved, with all the pass-happy offense and the rules changes and the way that hitting someone hard has been legislated out of the game. This team was built on its defense, and they play it hard and well.
But, God, they are a bunch of assholes. So much so that I've actually gotten to tolerate Richard Sherman as the years pass; for all that he runs his mouth, he backs it up with his play, he plays clean, and when he gets beat, he isn't all about complaining and jackass behavior. But some of the others--wow. Michael Bennett is a borderline psychopath; I will not be in the least surprised if he ends up the next high-profile player in a domestic violence case, and he is by far the most likely candidate to be the next Aaron Hernandez. This is the shithead that started the fight at the end of the Patriots' Super Bowl win, and his outright threatening a reporter with violence in the post-game press conference was revolting. Earl Thomas' bitching about Tom Brady after the loss (to Atlanta, I might add, not New England) was childish and makes one wonder what in the hell actually goes in those people's minds. He's not there anymore, but Marshawn Lynch was an even bigger jackass than those two. This is a team where there were a lot of resentments aimed at their own young, Super Bowl-winning quarterback. Yes, they won one ring and nearly won another. But you can't help feeling that if they were a little more focused on football and less on perceived slights and the attention they didn't get, they would have been a dynasty. That defense had Steel Curtain-potential for multi-year dominance, and only one ring seems so underachieving considering how much talent there was there.
8) Finally, the last of the losers thus far, the Dallas Cowboys. I'm not a Cowboy fan, although I don't have the white-hot hatred that a lot of Giant fans seem to have for them. But I don't see much to hate on this team. They play to the best of their ability, and--gasp--they do what they do with some class. There isn't a lot of woofing going on. There isn't the preening for the cameras. They actually seem likable. It was just two years ago that the Cowboys lost another playoff heartbreaker to the Packers. Two years ago, Dez Bryant was the story, with the catch-or-no-catch and all that, but almost lost in the magnificent game he played that day was the talking and posturing and carrying on after the whistle and the constantly looking for penalties after each ball he didn't catch. Dez Bryant had another great game yesterday--but as the game progressed, I realized something: all that nonsense was absent. Bryant handed the ball to the ref after each catch and went back to the huddle. After the touchdown that brought the Cowboys to within two, he actually waved teammates off to not celebrate, recognizing that the team needed to go for two points, and went back and huddled up. I'm not sure I've ever seen such a transformation in two years' time...I've written about Bryant a few times over the years, about how what a difficult life he has had and how it was unrealistic for fans and others to expect him to act like a mature, reasonable, composed adult from the time he donned a Cowboy uniform. But what I saw yesterday tells me that Bryant, late as it might have come, has matured. Maybe his series of injuries last year and this made him realize that his career could end at any moment; maybe it's just the normal maturation process; maybe he fell in love; maybe it was any of a hundred possible other things, or more likely some combination of all of them.
But whatever it was, I was impressed. And I'm happy for Dez Bryant, in a way that I would not be happy for almost any other player. It could have fell apart for him so easily, and yet he seems to have survived and thrived, and his future still seems to be very bright. And whatever else there is to not like about the man, I think Jerry Jones deserves some credit for sticking with Bryant and allowing him the need and room to grow up. Many other teams would have decided that Bryant was just too much of a headache and sent him packing or drove him to such an unhappy place that his play suffered. That didn't happen, and his transformation is a reminder that ultimately, the game isn't about teams or monoliths or large-scale issues. It's played by human beings, and when human beings triumph, we all do. I still am not a Cowboy fan, but their loss yesterday was with dignity and class, and didn't fill me with animalistic delight like the defeat of the Seahawks did the day before. And on the whole, I would rather feel the way I did yesterday than the way I did Saturday.

No comments: