Bastards of Young
And then there is the 8-8 of the Ravens. It was their "first nonlosing season" in Baltimore, a typically shabby laurel for the Art Modell Organizationthough, to be fair, nonlosing is better than the Peter Angelos Organization did last year. The Ravens know it's not much of an accomplishment, or at least they knew that a week and a half ago, when their record was 8-7. "Eight-and-eight doesn't sound anything like nine-and-seven," quarterback Tony Banks said then. "Eight-and-eight is average. Nine-and-seven is above average."
Statistically, Banks couldn't have been more correct: This season, 8-8 was not only the mean record, as it has to be, but the median (11 teams above it, 11 below) and the mode (a whopping nine teams hit the mark exactly). Conceptually, though, he was overestimating the value of 9-7. There are some decidedly middling 9-7 teams out therethe Chiefs and Seahawks come to mindand at least one crappy 10-6 one, the Washington [racial slur].
The resulting standings read like a Rorschach blot, open to wishful interpretation. The Art Modell Organization sees proof that new coach Billick! is a success. The Packers see proof that new coach Ray Rhodes is a failure. The league, squinting hard, somehow sees which teams deserve to be wild-card playoff entries and which don't.
This is, depending on who's commenting, generally taken as a sign of competitive parity or endemic lousiness. Either way, it's far from the old arrangement, where everybody knew that two teams from a small pool (49ers, Cowboys, Packers, Giants, [racial slur]) would meet in the NFC championship, and the winner would whip the Broncos or the Bills in the Super Bowl. This year, it wasn't safe to suppose anythingas ABC, which closed out the Monday Night Football season with a, um, 49ers-Falcons showdown, can testify.
The 'Niners and Falcons, penciled in to battle for the NFC West title, both finished with double digits in the loss column. They did not belong on national TV. But what's bad for ABC is not necessarily bad for football. There was a division champion in the NFC West this year. The St. Louis Rams went 13-3tied for the second-best record in footballand outscored the opposition by an average of 32-15. Quarterback Kurt Warner threw 41 touchdown passes, and running back Marshall Faulk ran for 1,300 yards and caught passes for 1,000 more. But because they were the Rams, coming off a 4-12 season, they got left off the Monday- and Sunday-night schedules.
And so as the respectable, old marquee teams sunk into the middle of the pack, the cameras followed them there, into the blur of mediocrity. We saw a bleary-eyed Steve Young wandering the sidelines after four or five concussions too many. We saw Michael Irvin in a neck brace, Terrell Davis on crutches, John Elway in beer commercials. The league appeared to be going down the crapper.
But quietly, a new elite was rising. Now atop the standings: those Cleveland-Los Angeles-St. Louis Rams, the Baltimore-Indianapolis Colts, the Houston-Tennessee Oilers-Titans, the teal-clad expansion Jacksonville Jaguars, the NFC Central champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With the exception of the silver-spoon Jags, these are the NFL's bastard children, the fruit of the league's double-dealing, city-swapping, fan-exploiting, perennially losing dark side. While John Elway and Steve Young were toothily going to Disney World, these are the teams that were going to hell.
What we're in now is the Era of Raffishness. There's an old saw that says a team that plays under a dome has never won a Super Bowl. The fat and prosperous old powers all had open stadiums. Domes were what struggling teams built to attract revenue from other events, or what cities built to lure new teams.
Now, two of the top four playoff seeds are dome teams. This is what happens if you keep building enough domes. The Rams, with home-field advantage in the NFC, can make it all the way through the Super Bowl (in Atlanta's Georgia Dome) without ever leaving climate control. The bug-quick Faulk was made to run on a rug; Warner, an NFL rookie, is a product of the Arena Football Leaguewhich makes sense once you notice how much the St. Louis facility looks like a spiffed-up civic center.
Sure, it's wrong for teams to play indoors on carpet. As far as I'm concerned, they should all play on natural half-frozen mud. They should wear leather helmets too, and play one-platoon football so that the quarterback has to double up on defense and play free safety. But they don't.
So, in the actual NFL we have today, the high-speed, plastic-coated product, why not celebrate the winners? Give me the Colts' Peyton Manning, pinpointing his passes in a windless environment. Show me little Faulk, cutting surefootedly through a gap, whizzing past would-be tacklers at armpit level. These are the football wonders of our age. I don't recall, in my sod-spattered memories, that I've ever seen anything quite like them.
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