Romanticism, Classicism, and Football

Peyton ManningPeyton Manning 

Note: I owe the underlying idea for this post to a reader contribution to Stampede Blue, an Indianapolis Colts fan website.  I have combed through Stampede Blue’s archives and haven’t been able to locate the original post.  If anyone has seen it, I ask that they let me know and I’ll give proper credit.

Today I confess to a guilty pleasure: I am attracted to professional football. Although I am a sensitive man who dislikes violence, although I avoided football as a boy, although I discouraged my sons from playing football (they played soccer, baseball, and lacrosse instead), and although I am appalled at how the sport turns many players into lifelong cripples, I nevertheless continue to watch.

Or to be more exact, I watch Peyton Manning, quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts. I followed Manning when he was at the University of Tennessee (Tennessee is my home state) and continued to root for him when he joined the pros.

If you know about professional football, you know about a recent controversy involving the Colts. Two weeks ago, after having clinched the top seed in the playoffs, they decided to start resting their starters, including Peyton. Their rationale was that they had a better chance of winning the Super Bowl if they played it safe in what were essentially meaningless games.

Only in one respect the games weren’t meaningless because the Colts at the time were undefeated. They thus had a shot at perfection—at a perfect 16-0 regular season and possibly a 19-0 overall season. No team has ever won 19 games in a season.

Even fans that didn’t care for the Colts wanted to see perfection. Therefore, when the Colts pulled Manning from a game in which they were leading (against the New York Jets) and then went on to lose, heated debates sprang up all over the football world. Were the Colts right in being cautious or should they have taken a shot at history?

People who know much more about football than I do have weighed in on both sides. What intrigues me is how the debate lines up as a romanticism/classicism argument. Romantics live for the moment, celebrate individual glory, and go for the grand gesture. Classics are practical, they subordinate the individual, and they keep their eye on the final trophy. Romantics wanted perfection, classics could live with the Colts’ decision.

The romantics’ credo is famously captured in a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

I burn my candle at both ends
It will not last the night
But ah my foes and oh my friends
It gives a lovely light.

Nothing in their about resting her starters.

Football romantics haven’t entirely been throwing practicality out the window in the debate. After all, they acknowledge that a perfect regular season doesn’t mean much if one loses in the playoffs. Therefore, some argue that playing all out at the end of the season, even in meaningless games, will actually enhance one’s chances to win. One goes into the playoffs with momentum, they say.

But in making this argument, they go up against one of the great minds in the game, which is Colts vice-president Bill Pollian. Pollian, who has stated that he doesn’t believe in momentum, has developed a system that is the envy of the league. He knows how to find players that no one else recognizes as good but that flourish in the Colts system. Even when the Colts lose major players, they have a “next man up” system which keeps them succeeding. Rather than being focused on individuals, they are focused on an overall program.

To be sure, it takes Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, to make the system as successful as it has been. But Manning is also a model “company man” who supported his coach even when he was pulled.

In this he differs from the charismatic and romantic Brett Favre of the Minneapolis Vikings, who insisted on remaining in a game in which he was getting pounded, even though it made pragmatic sense for his coach to preserve his 40-year-old body for future games. In fact, I suspect that Favre and Manning would work as a Rorschach test for America: romantics prefer Favre, classics Manning.

Favre is the gunslinger who plays with his heart on his sleeve, who always looks like he’s having fun, who sometimes makes throws that no one else can make and who other times lets his emotions lead him to dreadful decisions. Manning, by contrast, is the cerebral orchestrator, a cold assassin who is at his best in the final two minutes of a game and who set a record this year for come-from-behind wins in the fourth quarter.

Even in their advertisements, each shows his style. Favre plays the tough man in jean ads. Manning is the ironist in credit card ads, always making fun of himself.

America, despite its pragmatic streak, has always had a romantic heart, which is why, I suspect, the Colts are getting the worst of the public relations battle at the moment. If they do win the Super Bowl, both sides will have more than enough ammunition to keep them occupied well into 2010.

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  • Melissa Murphy

    I absolutely LOVE this post! I went to school in Indiana and had to suffer years of the Colts horrible team. I too have been a fan of Peyton Mannings since he was in Tennesse. So after he graduated, I was thrilled to see he’d be a Colt. It has been an amazing journey watching him come into the NFL and develop into one of the best quarterbacks ever.

    However, I completely disagree with team’s their vice-president. He underestimates the power of momentum in the game of football. He took away Manning’s perfect season. And although Peyton is man enough to say the right things and act the right way, it must still bother him deep inside. I can only hope that he can pull up his team, which is now entering the playoffs on a losing streak, all the way to the top.

  • Robin Bates

    I think that people felt that they’d been stripped of a dream when the Colts decided not to go for a perfect season. And then the Colts sent a further confusing signal by going for individual records in their final game (100 catches each by receivers Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark), which is more of a romantic thing to do (as opposed to “the team comes first, individual accomplishments don’t matter”). It’s as though we’re torn when we watch football–we know it’s a system game and yet what thrills us is a magnificent catch by this player or a hard-hitting stop by that. Our hearts don’t soar at the achievement of a collective. Whether or not he’s right about momentum, the vice-president underestimated how our hearts had become involved with notion of perfection.

    How about this as a consolation, Melissa: Persian (also Navaho) weavers deliberately put a flow in their rugs and tapestries so that they aren’t guilty of challenging the divine with human hubris. Could the Colts choosing not to go for a perfect season be an act of humility? Just wondering.

  • Robin Bates

    One another note: If for nothing else, I like that the vice-president (Bill Polian) quoted Shakespeare’s The Tempest in asking that we Colts fans move on from our disappointment: “What’s past is prologue.” Whatever we thought of the set-up, the real play is about to begin.

  • Toby

    I read an interview with Malcolm Gladwell the other day about teams that maximize the use of their players’ talent. Let’s say you have Sean Kemp or Jason Campbell (some athlete with obvious loads of natural talent) but then you put them in an unstable of confusing professional environment, generally they don’t live up to their potential. Gladwell cited Manning specifically as someone coming into a very well run program that was built on a stable foundation (Manning has had the same offensive coordinator his whole career), so his greatness and the “classical” structure of the team go hand in hand.

  • Robin Bates

    Very interesting. And that being said, Manning strikes me as one who wanted such an organization. By choosing not to come out of the University of Tennessee his junior year, he also chose not to join the New York Jets who, simply by virtue of being in New York, are all about drama. He even said at one point that he was impressed with his younger brother’s ability to handle New York (Eli plays for the New York Giants). Indianapolis, needless to say, is no New York, and the organization has gone out of its way to draft “no drama” athletes: in addition to Manning, there are Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, Joseph Addai, and Edgerrin James (chosen over the more highly celebrated Ricky Williams).

    This classic/romantic distinction is fun to play with regarding other athletes as well: romantics, I supposed, would include Deion Sanders (who can’t stand the Colts), Favre, Ray Lewis, Joe Namath and, in other sports, Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, Michael Jordan, Pele. The classic that immediately comes to mind from baseball is Cal Ripkin.

    You have the distinction in politics as well. “No drama” Obama is aspiring to classic, even though some of his followers want a romantic. He is no Franklin D. Roosevelt in this regard, with his regal cigarette. Or Ronald Reagan, for that matter. Obama gives the impression of just wanting to burrow in and do a good job.

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