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.