Friday, January 20, 2006

The problem with the playoffs

Hello? ... Is anybody here? ...

I've got something I have to get off my chest, even though it lets a lot of the gas out of my bag. Even though it runs contrary to everything we've been told about spectator sports. Even though it will put me on the opposite side of the fence from my man Don Cheadle.

I just can't get into the NFL playoffs.

I love the idea of the playoffs, mind you. "Win or go home." "It all comes down to this." "There's no tomorrow." It all sounds great. And I love poring over playoff data in retrospect: Who made it in? Who got left out? Who was the biggest surprise? Who was the biggest disappointment? But the actual experience of it, the sitting down and the watching of the games ... eh.

I was as surprised and disappointed as anyone to discover that this was the case. God knows I've tried to love the playoffs. I've blocked out whole days on my schedule. I've TiVo'd the games and watched them in the middle of the night to eliminate distractions. I've read the newspapers, watched the preview shows, forced myself to listen to sports radio. All to no avail. The playoffs don't excite me, engage me or enthrall me as much as they enervate me. They bring me less glee than gloom. There are several reasons why.

First among these is the diminution of story lines. Like the rest of America, Down and Distance takes mottos, slogans and catchphrases very seriously -- sees them as only a step below the Holy Gospels, as a matter of fact. And our chief slogan hereabouts is "Football is Theater." Theater is about story lines, and an NFL season is packed with thousands of compelling story lines that overlap, intersect and twist around one another. Take the Steelers-Bengals game in Week 13. Cincinnati's subplots included the team's first serious playoff drive in 15 years, the emergence of Carson Palmer and the antics of Chad Johnson. Steeler subplots included the team having lost two in a row for the first time in more than two years and Ben Roethlisberger's recovery from injury. Subplots unique to the game included the possibility of a changing of the guard in the AFC North and the friendship-cum-rivalry of Palmer and Troy Polamalu. And that's all in one game! Multiply that by 16 games per week (or 14 during the bye period), and then by the 17 weeks of the regular season, and you get enough stories to keep you occupied for months. But as the playoffs start, the number of teams involved is immediately hacked from 32 to 12. That's 20 teams' worth of intrigue, out the window. Every week of the playoffs, more teams drop by the wayside, as do their story lines. The fewer the story lines available, the greater the chance that the ones that are left won't be all that interesting. Remember 2004: Can Manning beat the Patriots this year? We all knew the answer: No. Next question.

The story lines are disappearing, of course, because teams are being eliminated -- finished for the year. There really is no tomorrow, and that's horrible news for a football fan. Some people believe Super Bowl Sunday is the highlight of the NFL season. I couldn't disagree more. For me, the greatest time of the year is the opener, that Thursday night in September when the Super Bowl champ takes the field in a meaningful game for the first time in seven months. There's five months of football and 256 regular season games to be played. Everybody's healthy. Everybody's pumped. Every team has the best shot it will have all year. (Opening Day was one of the few things baseball had traditionally done better than football, but, true to form, Major League Baseball is busy destroying all its traditions in pursuit of another penny on the dollar just as the NFL is fully embracing its own.) So that's another reason I don't love the playoffs: They mean the league will soon go dark. Watching the scouting combine on NFL Network just doesn't do it for me (and yet I still watch).

Some may want to point out that in the postseason, the dregs of the league -- the Texans, the 49ers, the Saints, the Lions -- are no longer clogging up the schedule. Not me. I recoil at that very idea. Watching an awful team trudge bravely down the long, brutal road of the NFL season is one of my favorite things about football. What motivates the great teams? That's obvious: playoff berths, division championships, a shot at the Lombardi Trophy. More interesting is what motivates the pathetic teams. Why does Steve McNair strap it on week after week, knowing that his Titans are in for a pounding? Why is David Carr scrambling to keep the play alive another five seconds when at the end of the game the Texans are still going to be 1-9? That's human drama. And there's no more of it for months. I'm sad about it, OK? Let me cry.

Finally, as the number of teams dwindles, the noise made by fans of the remaining teams escalates. And it's not because they have more to say. People who for the bulk of the regular season watched with detachment -- and, often, disinterest -- suddenly begin speaking of their team in the first person, and with insipid braggadocio: "We went out and kicked a little ass on Sunday." Did you, now? Really brought your A-game, huh? Sports bars in the cities still in contention are suddenly filled with logo gear with the tags still on, worn by people saying things like, "Come on, guy, you can do better than that!" or "Way to go, Number 24!" Few things in sport are as disheartening as the sight of a man who can't name five players on "his" team thumping his chest over their accomplishments (sorry, our accomplishments). Just as the games are supposed to be getting more interesting, the discussion surrounding them gets less so.

If I sound like Scrooge, it's because late January is the saddest time of my year. The game that has sustained me since before the first leaf fell is going into hibernation. There are only three games left. Two are this weekend, and they are the last two that will be staged in stadiums full of fans. Then we wait two weeks for the Super Bowl, played in front of 70,000 shrugging, marginally interested corporate clients. The No. 1 copier salesman in the Mid-Atlantic region? He'll be there. Middle manager of the month from the Pepsi Bottlers Association? He'll be there. Me, I'll be shuttered in my home, counting the minutes till kickoff ... on Sept. 7, 2006.

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