Thursday, February 04, 2010

Greatness Determined Here

This Super Bowl week gives me a great opportunity to see Super Bowl History come to life. It is the ultimate football museum on radio row. Whether it be the players from those famous games or artifacts from those moments we all scream for, it is quite obvious that these historic games determine the future perception of these men.

Watching Joe Montana walk the room is absolutely a stop down event no matter how many times you have seen him. Everyone treats him differently than pretty much anyone else that walks through. He is at the top level of this museum.

Amazing, really. As it pertains to the Colts and Saints, they are determining their future. All these athletes have done to get to this point - and it is a lifetime of dedication and hard work - may not matter. Instead, it shall be based on the results and events of Sunday, February 7, 2010.

Think about a guy like Drew Brees career. Success in High School, fame at Purdue, achievements in San Diego, and then the revival of a franchise in New Orleans. But, if he tanks on Sunday, he could be walking around the media center at Super Bowl 57 in a similar way that Dan Fouts and Boomer Esiason do, but not the way Montana and Troy Aikman do.

Because Montana and Aikman represent the victors. They were the Champions of this ultimate game. They had the opportunity and seized the moment. Esiason? He tried, but then Montana took his football immortality away. Fouts? Never even had the chance to play here. Jim Kelly? He had a Super Bowl moment - or 4 - but how was his legacy changed by Scott Norwood? And how did Norwood help cement Bill Parcells as a guy who shouldn't be 2nd guessed?

Funny thing, if you think about it. Eli Manning is in a group that Dan Marino will never be in. And what makes that discussion so odd to me is that Archie Manning must understand this better than anyone. Does he really think that both of his sons are not just a little better than he was - but WAY better than he was? Does Archie really believe that they figured out QB so much more effectively than he did? Archie has tons of class, so I doubt he would ever speak 100% honestly about his feelings, but somewhere deep inside he has to wonder about his legacy - not his family's. And his legacy was based largely on the fact that he never had a chance to be immortal in our football terms. He was on a team that never had a chance.

Did that make him less of a QB? Or Kelly? Or Marino? Or Peyton Manning before 2006? Now we speak of Archie's son as if he belongs on a pedestal right next to Joe Montana if he finds success in Super Bowl 44. And I don't think this is a wrong viewpoint as he has been revealed as an absolute football genius - but, when did we finally realize it? I will tell you. It was realized only when he had a ring to back up what our eyes were telling us.

And that is what I am conflicted about. We all know very well that statistics are the best way to measure a man's individual performance in a team-game climate. We use it to judge one player against another on a routine basis in all of our team sports that we love. And yet, when we need to measure a man's entire life's accomplishments, we use rings and championships which are fully dependent on those who joined that man in his quest for immortality.

Football is the oddest of all of these sports, because unlike basketball where we determine whose team it is based on who the best player is (Celtics - Bird-SF, Bulls - Jordan-SG, Lakers - Shaquille-C). In basketball, regardless of position, the best player gets the credit. But in football we seem to always attach historical significance to a team based on who their QB is. Sometimes there is no difference - their best player is their QB - but other times, it is clear that the QB is simply part of an ensemble cast. And yet, when they win, even if Eli Manning contributes 20% or 25% of his team's load, he is the one who gets to join other QBs who have won the game - even if they contributed 50% of their team's workload.

Consider the case of Kurt Warner. Something I wrote about earlier in the week seemed weird even to me when comparing Kurt Warner to Troy Aikman. How dare somebody do that? Aikman, in many of our minds, is incomparable. He has 3 rings in 4 years. That puts him in a class that has almost no equal. In fact, in the Super Bowl era, only Tom Brady can say the same. Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw cannot even say that. But, what separates Kurt Warner and Troy Aikman in terms of career World Titles? This amazing kick and This amazing catch . If those two historic moments don't occur the way they did, Kurt Warner is in the 3 Lombardi club - And Tom Brady is not.

And the crazy thing about it all? When the kick that Adam Vinatieri made in Super Bowl 36 went through the uprights, neither Tom Brady nor Kurt Warner were standing on the field of play! Both of their careers would always be impacted by that 1 single play. They would be introduced differently at luncheons. They would be more interesting to corporations who were looking for a pitchman. In some ways, almost everything would change - and yet, they did not participate in the play that would either make or break them.

This isn't golf or tennis - where you take all of your own putts. This is a sport that is based on every last member of your roster doing their job. And yet, we reward the victorious QB and sneer at the defeated QB forever. Is it really Drew Bledsoe's fault that his special teams couldn't tackle Desmond Howard? Well, there is a decent chance Bledsoe will not be remembered more than Jim Zorn in 20 years because he lost 1 game in which a kick returner was the Most Valuable Player. Should Eli Manning really be placed above Donovan McNabb in the historical pyramid of greatness? David Tyree makes it so.

I love this sport above all others. I love every portion of football, and I really don't like dealing with another looming off-season where I must settle for other sports that are fine, but not my beloved NFL.

But, I have a hard time understanding this game properly. Why do we ignore circumstances and luck? Why do we not factor in Archie Manning's lot in life when we consider his work? Why is Dan Fouts not considered as good a QB as Doug Williams? How does that make any sense? What separates Ben Roethlisberger from Phil Rivers? Why do we ignore stats when looking at Bart Starr or Aikman? Because. All that matters is victory.

We still don't know how to properly assign credit for those victories, but we do know that a 67% completion percentage only goes so far if you never perform at your best in one of the 43 Super Bowls in our memory banks.

And that is why we cannot wait for Sunday. Some body's legacy will change forever.


Jeff said...

Excellent points, Bob. Similar to what I mentioned on your blog earlier this week. Maybe it's just because Warner is such a likable guy that we don't want his whole career to be deemed a failure because he didn't win multiple Super Bowls.

But, as you are well aware, for some reason we have to define everything in terms of the "best, greatest, worst, etc.." How many times have you heard random sports pundits ranking their list of great quarterbacks lately? The only thing that we can use to compare QB's are numbers. They don't play directly against each other and, like you said, they are largely dependent on other factors to get that ring.

zgeist said...

My suspicion is that American fans don't like the idea that chance or circumstance could play such a decisive role in a contest much less a career. It goes against the grain of the American myth that we define ourselves and are the masters of our own fate.

I also think the Super Bowl age began a level of hype to our sports that it hadn't previously seen. The NFL wanted to play up the idea of the NFL champion being a super team to fight off the challenge from the AFL. That's not to say that the Packers weren't a strong and dominating team in the 60's but it's not like they were wiping the floor with everyone in the NFL every week either. But, when they won the Super Bowl, the NFL wanted to sell the narrative that this was the "Super" team of the "Super" league and over time the narrative stuck.