Election season, like the Week 9 midpoint of the NFL season, is a time for citizens to decide once and for all whom they most disbelieve in.
It would be wonderful to think that voters and fans are deciding whom to believe in as America heads for the polls and NFL teams head into the second half of the season. It's also wonderful to think that Jimmy Stewart is filibustering for the greater good in some government hall, somewhere. Unfortunately, elections and football seasons too often come down to who you doubt the least, not who you trust the most.
(This may just be the natural pessimism bubbling to the surface after enduring 7,000 political advertisements in one day. Watch the same ads cascade from telecast to telecast on the satellite feed, and it's like the wave of negativity that hits you at the end of every Romeo Crennel press conference. You see so many images of Americans looking downward with that hang-dog look of discouragement and defeat that you would think you were watching a Cam Newton sideline montage of the last two months.)
Week 9 offered tests of faith for many constituencies across the nation:
Do you believe the Texans and Falcons are Super Bowl caliber teams? Or are they just business-as-usual midseason contenders who are bound to disappoint you in the playoffs?
Do you believe the Giants can get the job done? Or are they just riding on their reputations?
Can the Ravens win it all, or are they doomed by their inability to compete in Ohio -- or Pennsylvania, or Texas, or any place five miles beyond Baltimore's Inner Harbor?
Do you believe that the Peyton Manning recovery is strong? Do you still believe in the Bengals, who looked superior in September but lost momentum in October? Both? Neither?
In the fine tradition of the democratic process, Week 9 offered some answers, but they were equivocal. There were few mandates. Victories felt like uneasy compromises. Losses brought disillusionment and second-guessing.
Late Precincts. The Giants embody many of the elements of the modern political candidate. They can point to some obvious recent successes, but how much credit do the 2012 Giants deserve for the achievements of the 2007 and 2011 Giants? And is the 10-win, playoff-hot-streak model truly sustainable?
In the last three weeks, the Giants needed a late-game Victor Cruz touchdown to beat the Redskins, coughed up a 23-0 lead to the Cowboys but came back to win, and gave up two late touchdowns to lose to the Steelers, 24-20. If you are a supporter, you point to the results. If you are a doubter, you fret about the underlying fundamentals. Everyone claims to be right, but no one claims to be satisfied.
The Giants possess the one thing every candidate craves: the benefit of the doubt that comes with a solid track record. They can fall back on the "trust us now, because you trusted us before" message. The Giants have pulled through these recessions in the past. But with so much on the line, and the 49ers, Falcons, Bears and Packers looking like formidable opponents, that message may prove unconvincing.
The Texans had no chance to convince doubters on Sunday. Beating the Bills is like winning a New England state for a Democrat, carrying the Bible Belt for a Republican, or doing whatever it is third-party candidates do on election night (accepting moist-eyed-but-quietly-thankful sympathy from the universe's most understanding spouses, mostly). The Texans' 21-9 win over the Bills was not so much "narrow" as "uncontested."
Similarly, the Falcons could only hurt themselves by playing the Cowboys, because if you beat the Cowboys, you don't win: the Cowboys lose. Sure enough, Tony Romo spent much of Sunday night throwing footballs to Falcons defenders (who dropped them or had picks called back by penalties) or players on the sidelines (who reached to catch them). But the score was tied 6-6 at halftime, and the Cowboys had yet another chance to win in the final drive of a narrow 19-13 Falcons escape. The late Falcons field goal was a cute touch, but it did nothing to sway undecideds.
Early Returns. The Ravens took a 14-0 lead against the Browns, then realized that it was a road game and went into a crab-cake coma, with six straight three-and-out drives in the second and third quarters. The Browns answered with five short field goals, and briefly held a 15-14 lead before Joe Flacco received an IV full of Old Bay seasoning and threw a touchdown pass to Torrey Smith. The Ravens won 25-15 but would have lost to three-quarters of the teams in the NFL, given the same performance.
Peyton Manning had the chance to spread his message of recovery in Ohio, but he nearly bungled it away with two sloppy interceptions, one in the Bengals end zone, one deep in Bengals territory. The Bengals stayed competitive, and indeed held a 20-17 lead, before Peyton reasserted himself with two late touchdown drives.
The Broncos' 31-23 victory was even closer than the score suggests; the game hinged on a 19-yard Andy Dalton pass to A.J. Green deep in Broncos territory that was called back for a holding penalty. Champ Bailey intercepted the next pass, setting up the second of Manning's two late drives. That close call widened the Broncos' lead in the AFC West and all-but buried the Bengals in the AFC North, an example of a tiny miscue that can have sweeping long-range repercussions. The Broncos remain one of the best fourth-quarter teams in the NFL, which is something of a backhanded endorsement of their performances in the other three.
The Bellwether. The ultimate football-as-politics game, of course, was Panthers at Redskins. The Redskins Rule states that if the Redskins lose their final home game before Election Day, the incumbent party loses the White House. It's magic, really: The Redskins lose, and thousands of undecided voters suddenly have a hankering for change. People who don't follow football at all suddenly find their worldviews flip-flopping; a group of hippies ran straight from a Jefferson Airplane concert to their local draft board after Sonny Jurgensen's 7-of-25 passing performance against the Giants in 1968. There are many complex forces at work in the Redskins Rule, including the overlap of the Ronald Reagan and Joe Gibbs eras, but it all boiled down on Sunday to the fate of the free world resting in Cam Newton's hands, which may have been the bee in the Mayans' bonnet when they created their calendar.
The Redskins obligingly wore brown faux-leather helmets for the occasion. Depending on your tastes, the helmets either made Robert Griffin look like Sammy Baugh or like he was wearing a tablet cover on his head. The Redskins then launched into their full-house, pistol-option offense, completing the throwback illusion: If they were going to win this election for anyone, it was going to be Eisenhower.
Soon, the Redskins fell into their predictable 2012 pattern. Griffin looked great. The play-action, option offense moved the ball. Then everything ground to a halt around the 20-yard line, where the Redskins settled for a field goal or failed to convert on fourth down. Cries of "Wait Until 2016" fell briefly silent in Washington, however, as Griffin (who needed rib x-rays after the game; results were unknown at press time) finally got the team into the end zone at the end of a fitful drive to cut the Panthers lead to eight.
It all came down to an onside kick. At precisely the same time, the Bengals kicked a desperate field goal to cut the Broncos lead to seven and attempt their own onside kick. It was time for desperation tactics, the kind American politicians never stoop to (sarcasm).
The simultaneous onside kicks gave fans a choice of competing ideologies. The Redskins took a conservative approach, lining up in a traditional formation and asking rookie kicker Kai Forbath to squib the ball over a swarm of Panthers defenders. The Bengals tried something more progressive, sending their punter and kicker onto the field to perform an elaborate fake-out before kicker Mike Nugent nudged the ball toward the wary Broncos. Finally: real choice!
The Redskins' kick bounced straight into the arms of Steve Smith, about the last man on the Panthers you want to onside kick to. The Bengals feigns had little effect; Nugent's kick was weak and ineffectual, and David Bruton of the Broncos flopped on it. The problems of a seven- to eight-point deficit late in the fourth quarter are almost always too big for any one man, team or strategy to overcome.
If that isn't a metaphor for American politics, nothing is.
The Redskins Rule, for the record, has only failed once: In 2004, George W. Bush defeated John Kerry despite the fact that Brett Favre and the Packers defeated Mark Brunell and the Redskins, 28-14, a few weeks earlier. It is important to point out, for historical purposes, that Bush and Favre were still popular in 2004. Gibbs coached that Redskins team, having replaced Steve Spurrier in 2003. It's a good thing Spurrier was not around to test the Redskins Rule in an election year. We could have wound up with President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho.
These political analogies can be taken too far. The point of being a football fan is to love imperfect teams, just as it is the duty of every citizen to embrace imperfect candidates, platforms, and solutions. It is also important to find optimism and consensus whenever possible. Optimism could be found in the flurry of exciting finishes in Week 9, and in great rookie performances by Andrew Luck, Doug Martin, Russell Wilson, Griffin, and others. Consensus could be found in Nashville, where the Bears took a 28-2 first-quarter lead against the Titans, expanded it to a 35-5 lead, and held on for a 51-20 laugher.
In contentious times, the Titans have given the nation what it needs most: the football version of Walter Mondale.
The Spooky State
Monday is Jerseyween, a holiday created by state governor Chris Christie in response to Hurricane Sandy. The hurricane forced the governor to postpone Halloween so children in some communities can trick or tweet on lighted, passable roads, while police/fire/rescue forces from less-affected counties could help with rescue efforts in storm-ravaged areas instead of making sure little Johnny didn't run into the middle of US-30 in his all-black ninja costume last Wednesday.
Many members of the Sports on Earth team are law-abiding New Jersey residents, so in compliance with the governor's orders, we moved the obligatory "Halloween-themed NFL content" to Jerseyween. So here's a roundup of some of the scariest things that happened during Sunday's games. Stay tuned for our "New Year's Resolution" gags, coming in late February.
SCARY: How good Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill can be.
Kids don't just dress up like superheroes or The Fonz anymore. Many go out trick or treating as if George Romero lived in their basements. There's nothing quite like giving a Kit Kat bar to a 6-year-old in a "Scream" mask with actual pulsating blood effects, or a third-grader with realistic-looking, flaking zombie flesh falling into his pillowcase full of Almond Joys.
Similarly, rookie quarterbacks look very grown up lately, and while Robert Griffin and Russell Wilson have gotten most of the attention, Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill entered Sunday as the most likely rookies to appear in the postseason. The duo dueled until the final moments of a 23-20 Colts victory, and both looked impressive. Luck was 30-of-48 for 433 yards and two touchdowns, breaking the rookie record for passing yards in a game. Tannehill was 22-of-38 for 290 yards and a touchdown. Neither threw an interception.
Luck was the more impressive quarterback on Sunday, and not just because he won, set a new record and faced a better defense. The Colts were 13-of-19 on third downs, with Luck converting first downs on third-and-12, third-and-14, third-and-10, and third-and-11, plus numerous third-and-mediums and another completion that came just inches short on third-and-20. He looked like the ball-distributing, defense-dissecting decision maker scouts expected him to become, but he also looked like he had fast-forwarded through his first two NFL seasons.
Tannehill looked solid early in the game, finding Charles Clay for a touchdown on a crossing route and threading several passes to Brian Hartline against tight coverage. Short, smart passes to Hartline and Davone Bess set up the field goal that tied the game and forced Luck into some late-game heroics. But Tannehill looked like a real rookie on the final drive. He overthrew Daniel Thomas on a short dump-off on second down, then overthrew an open Bess on a corner route on third-and-15. Tannehill used his exceptional athleticism to scramble from the pocket and complete a pass to Thomas across his body on fourth-and-15, but a) Jake Long held a Colts defender and b) the pass would only have netted 14 yards.
Luck and Tannehill are going to grow into real playoff-caliber quarterbacks. If they aren't already.
SCARY: Doug Martin coming straight at you.
The thing about those kids with their Pinhead costumes is that most of them are really nice once you look past the costume. And no nice guy was scarier on Sunday than Doug Martin, who politely gashed the Raiders for 251 rushing yards, the third-highest rushing total for a rookie in NFL history. Martin did most of his damage in the second half, with runs of 45, 67 and 70 yards for touchdowns. After a Carson Palmer interception that ended a late Raiders rally, Martin iced the game with a one-man drive of three rushes for 22 yards and a touchdown.
Adrian Peterson holds the rookie record with 296 rushing yards, with DeMarco Murray second at 253 yards. Martin was actually ahead of Murray, but Greg Schiano called three more Martin rushes instead of kneeling at the end of the game, and Martin lost 15 yards. Schiano really, really needs to stop devoting all of his mental energy to the end-of-game kneel. It is getting into "No Wire Hangers" territory.
With his No. 22 jersey, compact one-cut running style, surprising open-field power, and gentlemanly demeanor, it was easy to tell who Martin dressed up as for Jerseyween: He was a dead ringer for Emmitt Smith.
SCARY: The Panthers with a rushing attack
Lost in the "Everything is Cam's Fault" storyline that has defined the Panthers season is how little production they have been getting from DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, the running back tandem that has been a mainstay of the Panthers offense since the Jake Delhomme days. Williams and Stewart both made contributions on Sunday: Williams tight-roped up the sideline for a 30-yard touchdown, while Stewart had a 17-yard run to set up Williams' score and a 21-yarder to help the Panthers out of second-and-22 deep in their own territory. The pair combined for 88 yards on 16 carries. The Newton option works better when opponents think Newton has actual options.
SCARY: The Lions with a rushing attack
Mikel Leshoure rushed for 70 yards and three touchdowns. Joique Bell - Joique Bell! - added 73 yards and a touchdown. This wasn't garbage-time production in a 31-14 win, unless you count anything done against the Jaguars to be "garbage time" (you really shouldn't; their defense is pretty solid). The Lions rushed 21 times for 69 yards in the first half -- not great, but good enough to give the Lions receivers time to catch their breath and hold the Jaguars to a time of possession of just 7:55 in the first half. Then again, keeping the Jaguars' offense off the field may actually be a counterproductive strategy.
SCARY: The Packers with a sort-of rushing attack.
The Cardinals were hanging with the Packers early in the game, with one Packers drive ending in a missed field goal and another in an interception as Mike McCarthy's team struggled to move downfield without the pretense of a running game. With the score tied 7-7, McCarthy got serious about balancing his offense, calling six straight runs: two to speedy all-purpose player Randall Cobb for 23 yards, four to resurrected 2010 hero James Starks for 19 yards. The runs set up a Packers touchdown, and Starks, Cobb and Alex Green combined for 143 yards on 31 carries. There was some garbage-time piling on in those numbers, but the Packers will take what they can get. And if Starks can return from oblivion, who's next? Edgar Bennett is warming up.
SCARY: Colts cheerleaders in perky WAC-inspired uniforms.
These are not scary at all. They are an inspiring tribute to our nation's troops that should be continued indefinitely. (Heavy sigh.)
SCARY: Presidents in the Stands.
Fans in Ohio no doubt have politics on the brain, what with both parties spending an estimated nine trillion dollars to shatter citizens' belief in democracy itself in that battleground state. Two fans wore Obama and Romney masks in the stands, which is bipartisan enough, but the fellows behind them wore Nixon and Reagan masks. Republicans outnumbered democrats 3-to-1 in that section of the stadium! Of course, there are only so many presidential masks available - good luck finding a Jimmy Carter - so the guys may not have been making so precise a political statement. Teddy Roosevelt might have livened things up, but he was pooped after the Nationals' playoff run. For true party neutrality, the guys should have opted for some Whig wigs.
SCARY: Brian Urlacher's Foot Speed.
Have you ever arrived early for a football game and watched as the police escort the team buses to the stadium? The buses rumble through traffic at an amazingly slow speed, looking powerful but plodding, as police control traffic and pedestrians scramble out of the way of the slow-moving convoy. That's what Urlacher's pick-six touchdown against the Titans looked like.
No Week 9 roundup would be complete without Chuck Pagano's post-game speech to the Colts. Pagano, of course, is on leave of absence from the Colts while he receives treatment for leukemia, but the head coach left the hospital to attend Sunday's game. Here are his words to his team, with no commentary, or editing:
"I mentioned before the game that you guys were living in a vision and you weren't living in circumstances. Because you know where they had us in the beginning. Every last one of them. But you refused to live in circumstances and you decided consciously, as a team, and as a family, to live in a vision. And that's why you bring things home like you brought home today. That's why you're already champions, and well on your way. I got circumstances. You guys understand it. I understand it. It's already beat. It's already beat. My vision that I'm living, see two more daughters getting married, dancing at their weddings, and then hoisting that Lombardi several times and watch that confetti fall on this fucking group right here. Several times, we're going to hoist that baby. I'm dancing at two more weddings. And we're hoisting that trophy together man. Congratulations."
Hurricane Sandy caused devastation in the New York/New Jersey area; as mentioned earlier, it ruined a minor holiday in the process. Don't let it ruin a major one.
New Jersey food banks lost much of their stores, including thousands of turkeys, to flood damage. The Community Food Bank of New Jersey has distributed 100,000 pounds of food per day in storm-ravaged areas. They need more resources now, and they will keep needing them through the end of the month, when many families will still be displaced.
The CFBNJ recommends that you send money, not canned goods, so they can meet precise needs as they happen, instead of just handing out whatever is available. (It is also holding canned food drives specifically in affected counties; New Jersey residents can find that information on their website). Your donation could help a family now, or it could put a turkey on the table of a needy/displaced family at Thanksgiving.
Click here to find out how to donate to the Community Food Bank of New Jersey. The American Red Cross, of course, also needs your help. Don't be a jive turkey gobbler: Help a neighbor in need.