Monday, December 17, 2007

Character Tests, and Other Myths

I have every intention of writing about many non-sports topics - like the debate we should be having about civil liberties; the real threat to our democracy (hint: it's not the Patriot Act, and it rhymes with Merry Dander); and why celebrities who write children's books piss me off.

But listening to NFL commentary last night and this morning got my dander up about the ridiculous things that announcers say, so I'm writing about sports again. Here are some of my favorites from this NFL weekend.

Character Tests

Former players and coaches are big on certain games as character tests. For example, every Miami Dolphin game recently has been "a character test"; if they won, they pass the test, and if they lost, they failed it.

First, there is the obvious logical problem with this theory as expressed in the following syllogism:

  • If Miami gets blown out at home by the 2-9 Jets, they have no character
  • If Miami beats the Ravens in OT, they do have character
  • If both things happen, um, er, they had no character in November but now they do?

Logical problems aside, my bigger problem with the idea of character is, how do we know why players play hard, and whether or not playing hard has any impact on the outcome of a particular game? Take Jason Taylor. Taylor's a great player, who made amazing plays yesterday in the Dolphins win, including a blocked field goal and a critical sack. Mike Ditka and Mike Golic said this morning that his performance demonstrated his character, and that Miami's win proved they haven't given up. Really?

Maybe Taylor, who has made no secret of his desire to hang with celebrities, had a different motivation. Maybe his agent told him if he's the face of the worst team in NFL history, he won't get invited to movie premieres anymore. Or maybe Taylor has a ton of character, played an amazing game, but it simply wouldn't matter if Stover hits the 44 yarder in OT.

Football games are primarily tests of athletic ability, and while character can be revealed on the field, it's not revealed in the outcome.

They Needed to Win a Close One

Through the first 10 games of the season, the Patriots had 9 blowouts (17 points or more). The only close game was a victory on the road against the defending NFL champs. In the 4 games since, they've had one blowout, 2 nail-biters against teams with losing records (Ravens and Eagles), and allowed the #26 ranked Jets defense to come into their house and shut down Tom Brady (140 yds, 0 TDs, 1 INT).

A clear-eyed person might say, wow, the Pats' dominance has disappeared with the warm weather. But, no, in a corollary to the character test theme, we are told that these close wins are good things, that they are somehow proving they can win games with a rushing attack, and they are proving they can win close games.

Please. Can you imagine Bill Belichick, who knows a thing or two about winning championships, saying to himself in mid-November, "Hmmm...I hope over the next few weeks we really struggle to beat some of the worst teams in the league . That'll prepare us for the playoffs!"

I don't think so. I can, however, imagine him saying to himself, "Hmmm...if we don't play better than we did against the Jets and Ravens, we're going to have trouble with the Colts and Packers."

Defense Wins Championships

If the Patriots do win, maybe it will put to rest the biggest myth of all: that defense wins championships. After all, if the Pats go 19-0, they will do it with a defense that is not the best D in the league, and is certainly not one for the ages. The Patriots dominance this year stems from its historic offense.

But we've been here before. The 99 Rams seemingly scored at will, and had a D that was just good enough to hang on. The '84 Niners, one of the greatest teams of all time, had a 10th rank D, but a #1 O as it went 18-1. The 1978 Cowboys won the Super Bowl despite an 18th ranked defense...maybe their #2 offense played a role?

Shall I go on? The 94 Niners had a #1 offense and a #8 defense. The 98 Broncos had a #2 offense and a #11 defense. The 87 Redskins had a #18 D, but rode their #4 O to another Joe Gibbs title.

The truth, as obvious as it may sound, is that offense and defense wins championships. Nearly every champion is good on both sides of the bowl, but some rely on their defense (Ravens in 00; Giants in 90), and some rely more on their offense (see the list above).

But one thing you can be sure of: you will never hear an announcer say, even if the Patriots beat the Cowboys 56-49 in Super Bowl XLII, that Offense Wins Championships. More likely he'll say they survived "a character test".

1 comment:

cc said...

agility,speed,coolness under pressure...these are traits shown on the field.. character is shown off the field ..and something few pro athletes have these days...