Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Not So Super: Since I bored you to tears with my football predictions back in Nov/Dec, I was a good boy and stopped. But I think the Super Bowl is worth an exception.

I was rooting for the Raiders. The question of whom to root for in a game wherein one feels no particular loyalty to one team or another is a complex one. Some people go through superstitious contortions to come up with a reason: "Tampa Bay is in the same division as my team and no Super Bowl winner in a year with a zero in it that was held west of the Mississippi has ever won their division the following season so I'm rooting for Tampa Bay cause I want them to be hosed next season." Some people go on the basis of who has the cooler uniforms, "That orange color of Tampa Bay is sooo 2001." The most valid reason is, of course, that you've placed a bet (I didn't).

I always like to root for the good guys, so that means I have to rationalize who the good guys are.

In Tampa Bay's favor:
  • I like Chucky. I bet he's a lot of fun in the clubhouse. He also gave the least charismatic QB in the league, Brad Johnson, a chance at success after Dan Snyder sacked him in DC because he's "got no arm". He became an MVP candidate and the top passer in the post-season.
  • I like the Florida Gulf coast. Not that it has anything to do with football, but still.

Against Tampa Bay:
  • Warren Sapp is loud and obnoxious.
  • Keyshawn Johnson is more loud and obnoxious than Warren Sapp.

In Oakland's favor:
  • Some players with a whole lot of class: Gannon, Rice, Rod Woodson.
  • Lots of old guys - not much younger than me in some cases. This counts double, in my book.

Against Oakland:
  • Al Davis - A freak in a sweatsuit.
  • Bill Romanowski - A pharmacologically maintained Neanderthal.

In the end I got behind Oakland because of the classy old guys. That worked out well.

You may have been following the story of the Raiders Pro Bowl center, Barret Robbins, who showed up drunk as a skunk for a team meeting and was subsequently told he was out of the lineup. In a plot twist worthy of Six Feet Under, it turns out that the guy is bipolar (I know I sleep well at night knowing there are 325 pound bipolar individuals roaming freely in society, how 'bout you?) and had gone off his meds. Under the pressure of the upcoming Super Bowl, he cracked and found himself going mental in a bar in Tijuana. Picture this: A 325-pound no-neck in a south-of-the-border dive, alternately buying rounds of Tequila for the house and crying in suicidal despair at the possibility of letting his teammates and family down.

The Raiders team, along with virtually all sports talking heads around the country, have been declaring that, while it was an unfortunate incident, it was not the reason the Raiders lost. Sorry, but it very much was.

If there is any consistent theme in football, it is that the play of the offensive line is ALWAYS underappreciated. This is done even by folks who make a career in football. In the first two seconds of a play, if the offensive line doesn't achieve it's goals - open the right lanes, form a good pocket, pick up a blitz - I'd be willing to be that the odds of a play succeeding drop by about two-thirds. And it is not just a matter of stopping a defender in a strength on strength battle. Defenses have all sort of tricks and shifts and strategies to confuse the o-linemen into missing their blocking assignments. The o-linemen have to work as a unit to adapt to these and pick up the right defenders. (Interestingly, the NFL regularly does some sort of IQ test for all players and it turns out offensive tackles come out on top position-wise.)

After losing four in a row early in the season, the Oakland o-line had been phenomenal. At least as good as the Tampa Bay defense, which has been heralded as one of the best in history. They were responsible for consistently giving Gannon enough time be one of the most accurate passers ever, and, in the few situations where a ground game was called for, the RBs had openings just as if they were the first options.

Generally quarterbacks and running backs understand this. That's why, since offensive linemen don't make the big bucks QBs and RBs do, the QBs and RBs buy extravagant gifts for their linemen. I read this year it was common to buy a $10,000 plasma TV for each of your linemen. Think about that. Linemen are so important to those who play the glory positions that they don't mind dropping round about a hundred grand to keep them happy.

All this was blatantly on display in the Super Bowl. There were instances where the Oakland o-line was out-of-sync or even confused. More than once Tampa Bay rushers went by virtually unimpeded. The result: Gannon sacked 5 times, and when not flat on his back, he was so thoroughly pressured that he coughed up 5 interceptions - so much for Mr. Accurate. If you think the o-line just happened to have a bad day and Barret Robbins had nothing to do with it, it's time to check in for a news update from Reality. Never underestimate the importance of the offensive line.

So, yes, it was Barret Robbins fault. Or it was the fault of his DNA sequence that made him bipolar. Or it was his bad judgment in going off his meds. But, as harsh as it sounds, there is one person to look at when assigning responsibility.

What a story, eh? A man's fatal flaw (bipolar disorder) combines with his fear of failure to bring about the failure he feared. A Greek tragedy in real life.

Poorer quality drama came after the game. Raiders fans, disappointed at their teams defeat, decided the stores and buildings and cars of Oakland were at fault. The intellectual rigor behind this strategy was exemplified by a two-bit rapper, improbably named Hannibal Willis.
"We lost, and that bothers a lot of the young people out here," said Hannibal Willis, a member of the rap group Hazardous Materials. "A lot of them are real Raider friends. I ain't gonna lie -- if we had won, we would have done the same thing, but milder."
But then, why give out your name when you can provide more solid evidence of your own criminality.
About 10 vehicles were set on fire and crowds broke the windows of at least one television news van, police and witnesses said. One group of young men set debris on fire in the middle of a street and then posed for news photographers.
Yes, in future neutral match-ups, this will count heavily against the Raiders, despite all their classy old guys. Time for Weird Al Davis to move the team again.

As a final close to football season, it's appropriate to review predictions by the football intelligentsia over the past few months. No one does that better that Gregg Easterbrook, Tuesday Morning Quarterback. Check out his final column of the season for a review of the prediction carnage.