Thursday, January 22, 2009

Super Bleh

So the Super Bowl is set. The Arizona Cardinals managed to overcome their own inability to close out a game and the Steelers rolled over a divisional rival they had already beaten twice during the regular season.

The next few weeks fuel my cynicism toward the NFL. I think football is easily the most entertaining sport to watch and it is-- at the risk of sounding cliché— the ultimate team sport. That expression gets used far too often but it’s true. The fact that the Arizona Cardinals were able to string together an impressive run in the middle of the season, upset what appeared to be better teams in the playoffs and arrive at this point is a testament to that what can be accomplished when a team comes together.

Over the next week or so I will voice my displeasure with the hoopla and even threaten to not watch the game. I’ll bitch about the half-time show, the pregame festivities and even whine about the location. I’ll also mock the alleged fans in attendance because I think the Super Bowl is where the NFL turns its back on the everyday fans and embraces the self-absorbed celebrities who come out of the woodwork because of all the attention.

We’ll be subjected to sappy human interest stories, bad sketch comedy acts and pedantic analysis of the basic principals behind each team’s playbook. I’ll try to ignore it but the hype will be everywhere and I’ll be fed up.

This time, it’s really going to get laid on thick and that’s because of the Arizona Cardinals. They will be the underdog. The team nobody loves. This is the first Super Bowl the Cardinals have ever been to and they will be facing the big bad Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the most successful teams in NFL History. The Steelers have five Super Bowl championships to their name and this marks their seventh trip to the NFL’s greatest game. They are the big bad bully on the block.

Worse is the fact that the Cardinals are led by quarterback Kurt Warner who rose to fame in the late 90s with the Rams. His story will be rehashed. We’ll hear about his days bagging groceries and how he married a trailer park harpy. The story of his struggle to rise through the ranks of professional football will be driven home again and you can bet they’ll hammer us with tales of his deep-rooted faith. Warner is a bible thumper of the highest order and you can bet he has a throng of Jesus freaks in the Arizona locker room. They’ll tell us their faith is what has carried them this far.

I want to puke already.

Then we’ll have interesting stories about the Steelers and we’ll hear about what a great town Pittsburgh is and how devoted those fans are. The truth is that Pittsburgh is not a great town. It’s dirty, white-trashy and Steelers fans are spoiled and carry a sickening sense of entitlement. It’s great that their team has been successful for so long but that success has cultivated some of the vilest people on the face of the earth. Steelers fans are frightening. Between the inbreeding, unemployment and chemically-induced mutations the people most likely to root for the Steelers are either a step up or a step down from CHUDs…depending on who you ask.

Granted there are Terrible Towel waiving idiots to be found all around the country but those who do not originate from Western Pennsylvania are simply wieners who hopped on the bandwagon because the Steelers manage to win games.

Jokes aside, Pittsburgh is a dandy sports town and that is driven by the success of the Steelers, a team that owes its success to the Rooney family. Make no mistake, the Rooney family is not hurting for money but when it comes to running an NFL franchise these people put the fans first and it’s an attitude that flows through the entire franchise. The Steelers appear to love Pittsburgh because the Rooney clan loves Pittsburgh.

Arizona is another one of those places where everybody seems to come from somewhere else so loyalty to the Cardinals is dictated by the team’s position in the standings. Now that the Cardinals are in the Super Bowl, they have plenty of fans but the love affair is fleeting. The Cardinals are lucky to be where they are. They played in the weakest division in all of football and stumbled into the post season with only 9 wins. The Chargers did represent the AFC West with 8 wins but at least they could blame their mediocre record on the quality of their competition. And because the AFC is a better conference than the NFC, the Chargers were eliminated before things got too ugly.

It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where the Cardinals come out on top after this game. The Steelers are bringing one of the greatest defenses in NFL history to this party and they have enough firepower on offense to offset any big plays that the Cardinals might sneak in. People will tell you that the Cardinals coaching staff is intimately familiar with Pittsburgh but that’s only helpful if Pittsburgh's coaching staff forgot about the tendencies of their former colleagues. Moreover, the NFL is an incestuous organization. Everybody seems comfortably familiar with everybody else. The Steelers are in a better position to surprise the Cardinals because the Steelers didn’t have to pull out every stop to get to this point. I hope that the Cardinals can score early and keep things somewhat interesting but I fear that this could be one of those 80s Super Bowls where the game ends shortly after it begins.

Aside from all the glitz and glitter, the game could be interesting. The Cardinals have an assortment of weapons and the luxury of being the underdog. They can turn doubt into chips that they can wear on their shoulders and play the game as though they have nothing to lose. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is the favorite. They do have something to lose and if they don’t keep their heads together they stand to lose it big time. Even though all the logic tells us that the Steelers will win, the Cardinals have, by beating Atlanta, Carolina and Philly,proven that there is a reason they play these games out and that’s enough for me. I’ll do my best to avoid the hype but when you scrape away all of that awful, sugary icing there’s still some substance to the Super Bowl.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dungy Deserves Highest Honor

Tony Dungy has decided to retire from coaching and the question being asked is whether or not he belongs in the Professional Football Hall of Fame. I say that he should be inducted without reservation. First ballot. Unanimous.

There are some stat geeks who argue that his numbers aren’t as impressive as other coaches. There are other state geeks who will tell you that his numbers are better. There are people who believe that one Super Bowl win isn’t quite the feather in Dungy’s cap people make it out to be, while a number of people insist that Dungy deserves credit for the Super Bowl Tampa won the year after he was replaced by Jon Gruden. In fact, one of those people is Jon Gruden who, upon winning the Super Bowl in 2003, made a point to thank Tony Dungy for his contributions to that championship team.

Forget about the numbers. Dungy won more games than he lost; he turned two teams around and has a championship ring. The numbers tell us that Tony Dungy was a great head coach. You can split hairs over percentages or you can stop, take a deep breath and review the big picture that is Tony Dungy’s career. Too often we forget that football is not a numbers game. If it was, we could just around the championship to the teams with the most impressive stats year after year. The game is played on the field. Stats never lie, but too often they fail to tell the whole story.

The Professional Football Hall of Fame recognizes career achievements that can’t always be measured by numbers. Dungy was a player before he was a coach and while he isn’t regarded as one of the greatest players to ever play, he did play for a team that won a Super Bowl. After his playing days Dungy went on to become an assistant coach and commanded tremendous respect. He won’t take credit for developing what is often called the Tampa Two defense, but his fingerprints are all over it. On the surface it doesn’t seem much different than the defense he learned as a player under Chuck Noll but Dungy tweaked it to meet the demands of the modern era.

Dungy’s defensive schemes proved to be invaluable with the Indianapolis Colts who spend the vast majority of their salary allotment on the offense. He took a team that finished 6-10 under Jim Mora and posted a 10 wins season in his first year finished with 12 wins or more in each season after. With a limited budget Dungy was able to find the right people to fit into his defense and put their skills to use. The Colts were never considered to be a defensive powerhouse but when you consider what Dungy had to work with and contrast it with what he was able to accomplish the man pulled off a miracle.

Another important thing to remember is that Dungy didn’t advance to the position of head coach as quickly as he should have. So one could argue that he was deprived of four or five years in which he could have won another title or at least compiled more wins. He advanced to the position of defensive coordinator back in 1984 but didn’t become a head coach until 1996. Part of the problem is that Dungy is a pretty mellow guy. He doesn’t yell and scream, he refuses to make idle threats and he doesn’t get too high or too low. He was passed over for several opportunities because a lot of people thought his personality wasn’t dynamic enough to command a franchise.

Of course you can bet race was an issue. Dungy’s success has played no small part in creating opportunities for more black coaches. Art Shell and Dennis Green might have opened the door in the modern era but Tony Dungy took it off its hinges. Not only did he prove that he could win, he proved he could win consistently.

It would be foolhardy to believe that the NFL is colorblind. Black coaches don’t get nearly the same margin of error as their white counterparts nor do black coaches get recycled as readily but the playing field is closer to being level and that’s something Dungy’s success has played a part in. Dungy shouldn’t get special treatment because he’s the first black coach to win a Super Bowl but his contributions to racial equality aren’t without merit.

Even if you remove race from the discussion, Dungy’s influence around the league is as important as any other coach in NFL history with the exception of Paul Brown. Dungy’s defensive philosophies are as creative as Bill Walsh’s approach to offense. Like Walsh, Dungy took something that had been done for years and looked at it differently. Today people are implementing Dungy’s ideas in their own defensive schemes but more importantly, Dungy’s approach to dealing with players has opened a lot of eyes. You can still find authoritarian blowhards around the league but more and more teams are turning to guys with cool heads and inner strength.

That being said, I’m not in love with the guy. In fact, there are a lot of things I really don’t like about Tony Dungy but they have nothing to do with football. People say that he’s a good guy and that we shouldn’t let that affect how we view him when it comes to the Hall of Fame, but I don’t like him. He rubs me the wrong way and I really think the good guy routine is an act. I could be wrong, but that’s how I feel. I respect him purely from a football perspective. When I think about what the man has done throughout his career I don’t know how anybody could make an argument against his eventual induction into the Hall of Fame.