Monday, February 7, 2011

Some morning-after thoughts ...

So what happens when two of the proudest, most traditional National Football League franchises meet in the Super Bowl?

The team with the most long-standing tradition ends up winning. And I'm kind of happy about that.

When I was a kid, the Patriots were an American Football League franchise -- and a bad one at that. So we had to root for other teams if we wanted to experience the exhilaration of winning ... at least in football.

Since all we ever saw up here were New York Giants games on TV, I adopted Y.A. Tittle as my go-to quarterback (soon to be supplanted by Johnny Unitas when I got a little older).

But when it came to teams, and coaches, and legacies, and all the things that make sports so meaningful in the lives of their fans, I was a Green Ban Packers fan. Some of this might have to do with the fact that one of my favorite high school teachers was a big Vince Lombardi guy (he had us convinced that he was personal friends with Vince). That was my freshman year of high school, when The Packers won the Ice Bowl over the Dallas Cowboys and Jerry Kramer threw the celebrated "instant replay" block on Jethro Pugh that allowed Bart Starr to sneak in with the game-winning touchdown (imagine, having a name like Jethro Pugh ... I half expect to hear him singing Aqualung!).

The Steelers were official NFL doormats until 1969, when they hired Chuck Noll, who was the defensive coordinator for the Colts team that the New York Jets upset in 1969 (little known fact; he also interviewed for the Patriots head coaching job that ended up going to Clive Rush; how history might have been different, eh?).

With Noll, the Steelers slowly transformed themselves into an NFL power, with Mean Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Terry Bradshaw (didn't like him then; like him even less now) and Lynn Swann, et al. Ever since, the Steelers have been one of the model franchises in the NFL, despicable as they can be sometimes, and have more Super Bowl victories (6) than any other NFL team.

But the Steelers are Johnny-come-latelies compared to Green Bay, so in this case, historic tradition won out over recent tradition.

And I'm glad for a number of reasons. First, it's tough for me to root for anything good to happen to Ben Roethlisberger. If ever there's a man who needs to have Humble Pie thrown in his face -- Three Stooges style -- it's Big Ben, who -- twice within a calendar year -- was accused of rape and finally suspended for four games for conduct detrimental to the image of the NFL (whatever that is!).

And the idea of seeing him "redeemed" by winning a Super Bowl, as is so often the case in pro sports, was nauseating to ponder.

Second, it's tough not to like this year's Packers. They are living proof of the age-old cliche that injuries are not to be used as excuses, but circumstances to overcome. The Packers had 15 players -- many of them projected starters -- on injured reserve. They lost three of their key players (Charles Woodson, Donald Driver and Sam Shields) during the game, yet absorbed the hit and hung on after going up 21-3. That is something you can truly admire.

You had a sense that the Packers learned an awful lot about themselves in that oh-so-close loss to the Patriots in December, when Rodgers was out with a concussion and their backup quarterback almost pulled off the upset of the year.

Third, how can you root against Aaron Rodgers? Brett Favre's monstrous and monumental ego kept Rodgers on the bench perhaps a year or two longer than he should have been, yet you never heard him complain; never heard of him wanting out. He waited his turn, said all the right things, and performed well when he finally got his chance.

All season long, Rodgers has been mentioned in the same sentence with all the other NFL elite quarterbacks, and all season long my attitude has been "win something before you allow yourself to be Tony Romo'd." Sunday, was clearly his time. You don't get many opportunities to experience your time, and the great ones recognize this and rise to the occasion. Tom Brady's "time" came early in his career and he was smart enough to realize it and respond. Romo's time may have passed, and he's never capitalized. Rarely does your talent transcend your accomplishments. Peyton Manning and Dan Marino were great quarterbacks despite never having won a Super Bowl. But that is rare. Most other quarterbacks need at least one trophy.

It couldn't have been laid out any clearer for Rodgers. His defense was depleted, and his No. 1 go-to receiver was out. The receivers who could play were dropping passes as if the ball was a collection of hot coals. If the Packers were going to win Sunday, Rodgers was going to have to get them there.

He didn't have his best game ever. The Steelers do play defense, and they made it a pretty tough slog for the Packers offensively. They were hoist upon their own petard by coughing up the ball three times (two picks by Worthlesberger ... YES!) and Green Bay scored on all three of them.

That's OK. Like I said, when opportunity knocks, you answer the door and embrace it. When Green Bay had to put together a drive to eat up some clock and keep the Steelers at bay, Rodgers engineered one. True, it only resulted in a field goal.

The Packers, for reasons I really don't understand, went exclusively with the pass, which -- you'd think -- would have made Rodgers a sitting duck. Instead, he never got sacked. And if you factor in the passes that were right in his receivers' hands that were dropped, Rodgers was incredibly accurate.

As Al Davis was so fond of saying, "just win baby." That's all. Win. This isn't theatre (well it is in some cases, but not when it comes to the final score). You don't get extra points for drama. If your team has more points than the other team when the gun goes off, whatever multitude of sins potentially waylaid you along the way are quickly forgotten. Especially in a championship game.

So, you have to give Rodgers his props for rising to the occasion. Because we all know that had the Packers lost, Rodgers would have been in for a boatload of blame.

Finally, and strictly from my perspective, Woodson -- who is a very good player -- finally gets a ring. Woodson, you may recall, was the defensive back who stripped Brady of the ball in that 2002 Snow Bowl in Foxborough ... the play that introduced to all of us who'd never heard it "The Tuck Rule."

Oakland Raiders fans treat the implementation of "The Tuck Rule" as if it's the football equivalent of the Kennedy assassination conspiracy. But while I think it was a terrible call (or, at least, a terrible rule), it isn't as if incompetence has never been an issue in pro sports. This might have been a bit more egregiously incompetent, but there isn't a team out there that hasn't felt as if the officiating crew represented the 12th man on its opponent's side.

But while Raiders fans boo-hoo about how the team got jobbed (which, translated, means they were deprived of experiencing that rush of winning a championship ... which I totally understand as Ed Ambrister is still standing in front of Carlton Fisk today ... and Jorge Orta still hasn't touched first base), what about Woodson?

If the Raiders got jobbed, how do you define what happened to Woodson? He was the hero. He saved the day for the Raiders ... clinched what would have been a heroic victory, on the road, in a freakin blizzard ... the stuff of legends.

Instead, the play is overturned by an NFL rule that seems to me to forever blur the definition of "fumble." Hey, I like the Pats as much as anyone else who grew up in Boston, but if you deny the fact that this single play could easily mean the difference between "dynasty" and "just another one-and-done playoff team," you're delusional. Well, there is the matter of Belichickian skulduggery too ... but we're not talking about that now.

Woodson has never forgotten ... nor would I if it had happened to me ... nor did Ray Hamilton (he of the phantom "roughing the passer" call in 1976) ever forget what happened to him (just thought I'd throw that in to remind Raiders fans that they've benefited from some outrageous calls too).

Woodson was having a whale of a game Sunday until he got hurt. And it would have been terrible had Roethlisberger been able to pick apart a depleted Packer secondary affected by his and Shields' absence, and ended up winning the game. First you lose a chance at a title because of the zebras; and then you break your collarbone and watch a truly detestable quarterback engineer the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.

Only this time the Packers hung on, and Woodson finally gets to experience what it feels like to win this thing.

So, this was the best possible outcome. Big Ben will have to wait a year for true redemption, NFL-style (maybe even longer if there's a lockout), and a group of guys who sucked it up when things got tough and found a way to win despite all their setbacks get to have a parade. For once, the good guys won.


What's left are some random observations ...

I don't generally pay attention to the commercials, but the people I was with Sunday were riveted to them. There wasn't one of them that stacked up to the best from other years, but the ones that stood out were the little kid dressed as Darth Vader in the VW commercial; watching Rosanne Barr get steamrolled; watching the idiot tormenting the little pug dog get blown away; and the guy who sends an e-card to his honey for Valentine's Day and tells her, "I really think your rack is unreal." That one caused a splort ... On the other hand, the guy who licks everyone's fingers after they've eaten Doritos was creepy ... The less said about Christina Aguilera's butchery of the National Anthem the better, except that it really bothers me when people try to put their "personal stamp" on it. It's not about you, Christina and other like you. Sing the damn song straight up, and maybe you'll remember the words ... The Black Eyed Peas were awful. Whether that was just the sound, or I'm becoming my mother and father is subject to debate. But the show was terrible ... a complete waste of time ... There were some regurgitation moments, such as when the camera caught Cameron Diaz feeding popcorn to Alex Rodriguez ... a true "blech!" moment ... I got a lot of email from people celebrating the fact that President Obama's absence from the Super Bowl (he said he was going to go if the Bears had won) was a good thing for our national budget. Yet there were George W. and Laura Bush sitting in Jerry Jones' box, with Condi Rice. You don't suppose there was a detail assigned to them, do you? ... When I watch football, I'm prone to thinking out loud and getting emotional, much to the chagrin of those faced with the prospect of being in the same room with me. But I swear, Troy Aikman miked my house. Every time I made a pronouncement about how the game was going, Aikman followed a minute later by saying the same thing! ... Like just about everyone else who commented on it, I thought Michael Douglas equating the Super Bowl with some of American history's most iconic events was juuuuuust a bit over the top ... And, finally, what's with Sam Elliott's white hair ... and black eyebrows?? I couldn't watch!

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