Sunday, January 30, 2005

We've seen this monkey before

If there really is a set amount of Internet space reserved for football commentary, it’d be a shame to find out that Peyton Manning and the New England Patriots left us maxed out.

Everybody repeat after me: “Manning is 0-7 at Foxboro.”
Second verse, same as the first: “Manning is 0-5 against Tom Brady.”
One, two, three, get loose now: “Manning in 2-10 lifetime against New England.

Them’s the facts. And I’m sure Manning reads them on the ceiling tiles in the dark, dark hours of the morning. And I’m sure they give Belichick, Brady and Bruschi a 10-yard head start every time the Patriots and Colts play. All true, true, true. Cut that meat!

But that’s as far as I’m willing to take it. In the week leading up to the AFC Divisional in Foxboro (and, my God, in the weeks after), the air was thick with the assertion that the Patriots -- Brady in particular -- are Manning’s monkey. If Manning is ever -- ever! –- to be one of the NFL’s great quarterbacks ... then that monkey, he must shake it. If Manning is to wear a ring, he must dig it out of the snows of Foxboro.

Oh, pooh.

New England is Manning’s monkey, sure, but not his white whale. There’s a hard way to slay that beast, and this is how the Colts have wound up with the harpoon in their own ass the past two seasons. But there’s also an easy way to kill the whale, shock the monkey or whatever you want to call it. Are you taking notes, Coach Dungy? Splendid. Because here’s the secret: Let someone else beat the Patriots. Hey, Bill Cowher did it it in the regular season. Jim Bates did it. (Who? Exactly.) Cripes, even Steve Spurrier did it. So it can be done. Wait around awhile, and it’ll happen: New England either loses in the playoffs before it has to face Indianapolis, or it doesn't make the playoffs at all. Then, suddenly, it's Manning's year!

But! But! What about destiny? What about Holmes vs. Moriarty? If Manning gets to the Super Bowl without facing New England, he’ll have achieved nothing. Nothing!

1995. Steve Young had finally chased off Montana’s ghost. Silent, at last, was the Greek chorus that had long intoned, “His career is naught without a Super Bowl trophy!” Young had his ring. Yes, he'd beaten it out of Stan Humphries and the Chargers, but, really, the AFC didn’t have anybody else that year. So leave him alone. Young's triumph left the NFL with two Ahabs at quarterback: John Elway, who had pretty much been given up for dead by then, and Brett Favre.

This is the part where we compare Peyton Manning to Brett Favre. So, you know, it might be a good time to lie down. Especially in Wisconsin.

Those who followed the NFL in the mid-1990s remember that of all the story lines available, none was written and rewritten as often as “Brett Favre Can’t Beat the Cowboys.”

In 1992, Favre took over for the injured Don Majkowski, who at the time was, um, saving Green Bay. The next year, the Favre-led Packers made the playoffs for the first time since 1972. (I’m not counting the 1982 NHL playoffs, and neither should you.) Titletown was atingle! We’re Super Bowl-bound, baby!

1993 season: Packers lose to the Cowboys by 10 in the Divisional round.
Wisconsin says: That’s all right! We’ll get em next year!
1994 season: Packers lose to the Cowboys by 26 in the Divisional round.
Wisconsin says: Next year for sure we get past the Divisional round!
1995 season: Packers lose to the Cowboys in the NFC Championsip game.

If only it were just in the playoffs that Favre got killed by Dallas. Favre vs. the Cowboys at the start of his career:
1993: Dallas 36, Green Bay 14 (regular season)
1993: Dallas 27, Green Bay 17 (playoffs)
1994: Dallas 42, Green Bay 31 (regular season)
1994: Dallas 35, Green Bay 9 (playoffs)
1995: Dallas 34, Green Bay 24 (regular season)
1995: Dallas 38, Green Bay 27 (playoffs)
1996: Dallas 21, Green Bay 6 (regular season)

So in 1996, as the Packers headed into the playoffs, the record on the minds of Packer fans was not their club’s NFC-best 13-3. It was their beloved QB’s performance against the boys with the stars on their hats: 0-7 against Dallas, 0-7 against Troy Aikman. If there was any consolation, it was that Favre was also 0-7 in Texas Stadium, because all the games had been played in Irving. This year, Wisconsin said, if the Cowboys were going to beat the Packers again, they'd have to come to Lambeau Field to do it.

And the rest of the story is legend: The Packers buried the 49ers in the Divisional round, 35-14; blew out the surprising Panthers, 30-14, in the NFC Championship; and walked over the Patriots, 35-21, in Super Bowl XXXI. (Hey, at least someone can beat New England in the postseason!)


And here we circle back to our lesson for the Colts. After the 1996 season, Favre and the Packers got past Dallas in the playoffs in the easiest way possible: They didn’t play Dallas in the playoffs. The Cowboys -- winners of the NFC East, defending Super Bowl champions -- lost to Carolina in the Divisional round. Green Bay went on to win the Super Bowl, Favre became a legend, and the Cowboys’ hold over Brett Favre was finally broken. Right?

In 1997, the year after their own championship season, Favre and the Packers would beat Aikman and the Cowboys. This time, Dallas had to come to Green Bay. This time, Green Bay would exact revenge, 45-17. In other news from the 1997 season, the Cowboys finished 6-10 in their last year under Barry Switzer, their first losing season since 1990.

And since then? Favre is now 2-8 lifetime against Dallas. He is now 0-8 in Texas Stadium. The curse has been lifted! He’s headed to the Hall of Fame!

Payton Manning will not stop hearing how his career is defined by his record against the New England Patriots until -– well, until that one day when suddenly it isn’t.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Line dance

It's remarkable that with the amount of gambling going on, so many people are still confused about what a betting line is telling them.

Almost immediately after the Patriots beat the Steelers in the AFC title game, bookmakers set an opening line of Patriots -7 against the Eagles. What this means: If you bet on the Patriots, then at the end of the game, their point total, minus 7 points, has to be greater than the Eagles' point total for you to win. (The Eagles, on the other hand, are +7 against the Pats. You take their final score, add 7, and compare it to the Patriots'.) That's pretty basic stuff. But soon after the line was posted, I heard someone -- a Pats fan, no less -- say, "Can you believe this? The Patriots are 7-point favorites already?" Actually, I could believe that. But that's not necessarily what the betting line is saying. This is what most people don't seem to understand: The purpose of the betting line is not to predict who will win a game. The purpose of the betting line is to make sure that equal numbers of people bet on each team.

On my way home from work tonight, the late shift at ESPN Radio was discussing a poll or survey in which 63% of respondents predicted the Patriots would win Super Bowl XXXIX, and 37% picked the Eagles. A bookmaker doesn't want 63% of his customers betting on one team, because if that team wins, he's going to take a bath. So he needs to shift 13% of the betting public from the Patriots to the Eagles. He does that by manipulating the betting line until the wagers are in balance.

New England has won two of the last three Super Bowls ... but only by a field goal. Bettors might be confident that Tom Brady will do whatever it takes to win. But can they be sure he'll win this one by more than 3 points? Bookmakers believe that enough gamblers have enough doubt about that that they'll put money on the Eagles -- either to win outright or to lose by less than 7 points. If the betting line sets the bar too high for the Patriots -- if too many bettors doubt that New England will win by more than a touchdown -- then the money will tilt toward the Eagles. In response, the bookmakers shift the line again until the bets are back in balance. By Super Sunday, the line could by Patriots -2. Or the Eagles could be -2. Did Brady suddenly get 5 points worse? Did Philly get 9 points better? No. Outside events -- say, T.O.'s busted paw -- can sway the line, but for the most part, it just moves with the market. That's what more people should understand.

Standings still

They will tell you the United States has been "transitioning" to a knowledge-, information- or services-based economy. They may be right. But industry -- bloody, sooty, wondermous industry -- still dominates where it counts: in the NFL standings. You see, traditional football commentary views the league through lenses smudged by conference and division affiliation. Thus, it was declared that in 2004, the AFC soared and the NFC soured. You're free to think so, too. If you want to be ordinary. Fully aware that there's more than one way to skin a pig, Down and Distance throws out the 8-by-4 grid and breaks down the '04 season by way of the most pertinent groupings: Team nicknames.

Old Economy (Steelers, Packers)257.781
Inanimate Objects (Jets)106.625
Birds (Eagles, Falcons, Seahawks, Ravens, Cardinals)4832.600
Historical Figures/Collective (Patriots, Vikings, Buccaneers)2721.563
Non-Specific Fearsome Things (Chargers, Raiders)1715.531
Mammals/Non-Cat (Colts, Broncos, Rams, Bears, Dolphins)3941.488
Cats (Jaguars, Bengals, Panthers, Lions)3034.469
Historical Figures/Individual (Bills, Browns)1319.406
Mythical/Mystical Figures (Saints, Giants, Titans)1929.396
Old West (Texans, Chiefs, Cowboys, Redskins, 49ers)2852.350

Analysis: Regardless of what you might have read in Newsweek, the Old Economy is stronger than ever, as evidenced by the utter dominance of the industrial sector in this '04 regular season. On the other hand, the Old West has completed its long, shameful tumble from the toast of the league (11 titles 1981-95) to its laughingstock. Though only three years old, the Texans are the best of this sorry breed. Meanwhile, injuries in Carolina and erratic play in Jacksonville and Detroit hurt what had been viewed at a promising season for the Cats, as did Cincinnati's frankly unavoidable decision to put the franchise in the hands of its green franchise quarterback. Finally, the Birds might have flown away with the league this year, if not for some curious decisions in Arizona and frustrating up-and-down years from Seattle and Baltimore.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Manifest o' Destiny

If you had to pick one quarterback to build your franchise around, would you take Brady or Manning? Well, who would it be?

Excuse me?

Which is a bigger accomplishment: Steve Young getting to one Super Bowl and winning it ... or Jim Kelly's Bills getting to four straight, even though they lost them all? What's your take?

Take? I ... um ... I don't know?

Which was the biggest waste of a No. 1 draft pick: Carson Palmer or David Carr? Who's the bigger loser?

Waste? Loser? What the hell?

My answer to each of these questions is: I don't know, and I don't care. Am I a coach? No. A scout? No. A player? Ha! I'm a fan. A football fan. A pro football fan, mostly. So how the hell would I know?

I love the game. I love the theater of it, if not always the actors. I love the numbers, though not necessarily the stats. My opinions are just that: opinions, informed only by my personal likes, dislikes and biases. You have your opinions, too. Who's right? Who cares? There's so little of actual consequence at stake in pro football, yet commentary on the game is so shrill. There's enough of that already. I refuse to be part of the problem. I want to be part of the solution. Part? No, I want to be the solution.

So you have this site here. Down and Distance. Pro football at its best.

Manning vs. Brady? I'm more interested in Manning 2005 vs. Favre 1995. Heard all the recent this-and-that about Manning being 0 for his last 8 vs. the Patriots? Consider: Favre was 0 for 7 vs. the Cowboys. Take a wild guess what they said about him.

Young vs. Kelly? To me, the important thing is that both were superstars in the United States Football League, yet neither won a title. Meanwhile, Chuck Fusina won two of the three USFL titles -- and nearly won all three! Chuck who? Exactly.

Welcome to Down and Distance. My name is Paul. Call me Commissioner.

Or, you know, Paul.