He's incredibly gifted, intensely dedicated to improving himself and fanatically devoted to the game. I couldn't mock that, because that's what I'd like from any player who played for a team I supported. The advantages he enjoyed certainly weren't his fault. He didn't build the dome he played in and give himself the comfort of a climate-controlled environment that favored passing or the astroturf that sped up the game and aided his downfield attack. He didn't draft the players surrounding him or create his unbelievable luck in having guaranteed or potential Hall of Fame wide receivers and tight ends to hit in the slot and with deep balls. (The preceding will be the gayest sentence in this piece.)
Even his biggest advantage, the progressive rule changes against defensive bumps, pushing and jockeying for the ball weren't his fault. Sure, he whined on the sideline (amusing), but Indianapolis Colts GM Bill Polian bears the most responsibility for the fact that today almost any defensive back will be called for Defensive Pass Interference (DPI) for doing any of the following near a Colts receiver:
• get pushed, punched or held by the Colts receiver;When people treat Darelle Revis like a visitor from another planet for being a shutdown cornerback, I don't blame Manning. Revis would be phenomenal even in a lenient era. But the blame for his anomalous status falls on Polian and the NFL Competition Committee for wanting big offense during games and treating offensive players like precious flowers. I root for the Patriots — the team these rules were probably intended to hamstring, given the complaints spawned by their treatment of the Rams in the 2002 Super Bowl and their treatment of the Colts in the 2004 playoffs — and even they take advantage of this. Everyone does. Manning would be a fool not to take a cue from every quarterback in the league and try at least two 40-yard bombs per game on the chance that either the receiver catches it or the defender gets victimized by a truly liberal interpretation of DPI.
• move his hands as if to catch the ball, deflect or otherwise defend it;
• be in a space that the Colts receiver has decided to run through;
• use harsh language;
• breathe heavily;
• have his sweat unduly humidify neighboring air.
So I understood all these things and even rationalized them, but they never really felt natural. It was still more satisfying to see Manning lose, in seeing best-laid plans fail, in seeing entropy and random chance assert themselves over man's technicist ambition. Plus, there's the fact that he's always interesting when he loses. You'd think that he'd have adjusted to those big-moment losses, having endured them in college and then in the NFL for six seasons or so; you'd think that winning the Super Bowl after the 2006 season would have just chilled him out — like, "OK, this sucks, but I've been to the top of the mountain. I can't control everything." Instead, winning seemed to make him even more dramatic about the losses, like someone going through torture and humiliation and brutal conditioning to cure themselves of lycanthropy and then, whoops, here it is, a full moon, and it's happening again.
Speaking of torture, the thing that finally turned me around was Drew Brees. The NFL might have mollycoddled Colts receivers as a means of helping arguably the greatest quarterback of his generation finally win the Big One, but at least Peyton Manning never tried to suggest that people suffering indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay were living in relative luxury and weren't mistreated. For last year's Super Bowl, I rooted against the long-suffering New Orleans Saints without a blip of remorse because their star player, the player most responsible for the team's success, remorselessly said this:
I can say this after that experience — the worst thing we can do is shut that baby down, for a lot of reasons... I think there's a big misconception as to how we are treating those prisoners; those detainees over there. They are being treated probably 10 times better than any prisoner in a U.S. prison....They get away with whatever they want, apart from reasonable legal recourse and all that insignificant bullshit.
I mean, they're allowed to call and write letters home, and receive letters and calls. They get five opportunities a day to pray, and they have arrows in the prison pointing towards where Mecca is. And the prison goes dead silent so these guys can have their religious time. They have rooms where they can watch movies and play Nintendo Wii. So I think that just goes ahead and says it right there....
And you just talk to all the guards that are Army and Navy personnel, they'll tell you stories about how these prisoners, they'll be walking the cell blocks as they're keeping an eye on these guys and they'll be throwing the feces and urine in the faces of the guards as they walk by and the guards are not allowed to do anything. They're not allowed to physically retaliate or do anything hardly to try to restrain these guys at all. These guys get away with whatever they want.
I mean, yeah, sure: technically this has nothing to do with football, unless you count the CBS Super Bowl pre-game crew's fawning profile of Brees' pre-game amp-up-the-players chant, which he copied from the Marines he met at Guantanamo. And maybe I was uncharitable to root against a Super Bowl win for New Orleans, given how winning a ballgame would really mean a lot for the city. It would magically stop more white convention-center-crap development in parts of the city that minorities used to live in, eradicate the staggering income inequality, restore the health of people living in mold-covered homes and rebuild a viable industrial center that could sustain a middle class instead of a vacationing and predominantly white upperclass exploiting a servile black underclass. And, while we're doing all this, a win would also make us forget that the first thing Saints owner Tom Benson tried to do after Hurricane Katrina was move the fucking team out of the state.
The whole "winning sports championships is good for a city" rationale was fantastical bullshit long before Saints fans in Louisiana who managed to ride out Katrina with significantly less inconvenience to themselves than to the poorest communities decided that they were owed some "meaningful" restorative victory.*
* — Only one person I've met has ever responded to my dismissal of the "meaningfulness" of the Saints victory with something like a "fuck you," and he was one of the most ridiculous people I've ever encountered. He was a non-native of the city and very safely bourgeois, yet he needed the spiritual fillip seemingly more than anyone else. Funnily enough: not only was he one of those people who describe themselves as "journalists" despite being published primarily on their own websites, he also registered multiple pseudonymous social networking profiles and even another blog so he could regularly write posts and comments about how his website was the best underground culture periodical in New Orleans. I don't think the site even showed up on the first page of a Google search for its own name. I bring this up because you have to be an asshole to think a football game does anything to salve the wounds of socioeconomic destruction. Do you want to seem like this guy? No you don't.
Look at poor Pittsburgh. It's won six championships in 30 years, and in that time I'm certain that the birth rate was at best equal to the emigration rate. Besides frontrunning fans adopting a winning team, that's the reason why you can go into any bar in the country and see someone with a Steelers jersey or hat: everyone leaves Pittsburgh as soon as they possibly can. It's basically America's Ireland but with much better sausages. The city's industrial base has been crumbling for four decades, and while it's a really nice place to visit and a pretty cool place overall, it would be a ghost town without Carnegie Mellon, Pitt and the few financial services companies that seemingly always take up residence in the middle of smaller cities.
So you can understand why I felt reasonable about my lack of maudlin sympathy for the Saints even before the Brees thing, but his comments naturally took it to a whole other level. Brees never outright denied America's history of torture at the base, but his empty whitewash came to the same thing. The discussion wasn't focused on any valid, documented basis for condemning the site, but rather how necessary it was now, how easily dismissed were any critiques of it.
Drew Brees went on a planned and organized tour that was doubtless conducted by a member of military intelligence and doubtless took him nowhere near the areas where, amongst other things, Khalid Sheik Mohammed was waterboarded 183 goddamn times. As a result, he came back to let all the naifs at home know that the Red Cross, Amnesty International, U.S. congressmen and former JAG officers were all wrong about Guantanamo. He listened carefully when the self-interested told him stories that served themselves only, then parroted that information to the nation. At the same time, he implicitly endorsed the indefinite detention of the wrongfully imprisoned, irrespective of whether they were tortured. What a fucking asshole.
Naturally, then, just as I rooted for Peyton Manning without reservation for the very first time, he threw the Super Bowl away on a quick-slant pass that he had attempted once too often. Fifteen or twenty minutes later, Drew Brees hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. Practically the first words out of his mouth were, "God is great," and I'm sure the irony was totally lost on him that not only do internationally broadcast American sporting events transmit constant fanatical invocations of God to the rest of the world, but that in translation he told the same people that he would willingly see imprisoned for the rest of their natural lives, "Allahu akbar."
I hope for Manning's sake he was back in a locker room and not paying attention. Just as it looked like he might cement his legacy as a winner, one error turned the game around irrevocably. It wasn't like the Patriots' loss to the Giants two Super Bowls before. Not only had Tom Brady established a winning legacy with three previous wins, the last-minute loss couldn't be hung on him. He drove his team for a final score, then watched on the sideline as Asante Samuel botched a gift-wrapped interception that would have iced the game, Eli Manning escaped a tackle and the refs didn't blow the play dead, and Samuel botched his coverage on a play resulting in a completely improbable and beautifully crazy catch. Brady did his job, while his shutdown cornerback twice critically failed to do his, and the offensive line failed to repel outstanding defensive pressure. With Manning, the critical turning point was all on him.
While that analysis might be partially true, it's still hardly fair. Manning didn't get out-coached: his coach did. Manning didn't injure safety Bob Sanders or defensive end Dwight Freeney and thus significantly hamper the Colts' defense. And the label of a choker seems uncharitable, since Manning has won an impressive number of games in his career despite often being paired with a terrible defense. Just when it seemed as if he might finally put nasty career judgments aside, he made the worst possible error amid other setbacks and errors beyond his control. It happened against an opponent led by someone who deserved no sympathy. Oddly, at the moment when I had the most sincere motivations for cheering him on, it became abundantly clear that, at least from a moral standpoint, the better man lost.
(Continue on to NFL Week One in review.)